STARKVILLE — Jake Gautreau felt the pain from his toes to his torso. His body ached. Forget swinging a bat. Tying his shoes was hard enough.
“It felt like every bone in my body was broken,” Gautreau, Mississippi State’s hitting coach and recruiting coordinator, said of the variation of arthritis he’d developed.
Gautreau has heard the cliche for years: baseball has a way of telling you when it’s time to move on.
A once-slick fielding infielder armed with a potent bat, he belted 58 home runs in three years at Tulane and captained the Green Wave to its first-ever College World Series appearance in 2001. Amid the march to Omaha, the San Diego Padres made him the 14th pick in the MLB draft.
Talent was never a question. His body became one. A decade-long bout with ulcerative colitis contributed to his arthritis.
He battled through the pain. But a man can only fight for so long. Time, baseball’s grim reaper, always wins, after all.
At 29 years old, the former first-rounder retired from professional baseball without so much as a cup of coffee at the MLB level. Now, however, he channels his experiences into helping his players manage the torment of lofty expectations and professional aspirations.
“Whether or not you like it,” Gautreau said of retirement, “you kind of understand it.”
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Standing just behind the home dugout at Dudy Noble Field, Gautreau slips a pair of Polaroid sunglasses off his eyes and lays them to rest on the brim of his maroon ball cap. Along the wall, sons Liam (8) and Weston (5) meet him for a pregame chat. Giving his boys a quick hug, Gautreau looks 15 rows up in section 110 where his wife, Erin, sends him a right-handed wave.
Erin has always had a front-row seat for Jake’s career.
A former volleyball player at Tulane, she met Jake through mutual friends at the Bruff Commons Dining Room their freshman year. Making plans to meet up that night, Erin, Jake and their friends congregated at The Boot Bar & Grill — a popular joint for undergrads with questionable forms of identification. The group didn’t leave until daylight.
Dating from the end of their sophomore year on, the couple spent 2003 and 2004 apart as Erin took a job with a consulting firm in New York City while Jake played for the Padres’ double-A affiliate in Mobile, Alabama. After working out a plan that allowed her to work remotely, Erin moved to Austin, Texas, where Jake was spending his offseasons. They were married four years later.
“She’s my rock,” Jake said. “Because, poor thing, she has literally been through every single thing with me from the very beginning.”
Gautreau signed with the Padres for $1.875 million, but an ongoing contract negotiation forced him to arrive at short-season single-A ball in Eugene, Oregon, two weeks late. He’d planned to spend his first game of the 2001 season in the dugout. Manager Jeff Gardner, instead, asked if he could play that night. Gautreau agreed. As he swung in the batting cages, his new teammates gathered for a look at the new guy.
“That moment I remember taking swings, and I didn’t feel like myself,” he said. “I felt like I was trying too hard. My swing didn’t feel great. I was kind of pressing a little bit, and I remember thinking, ‘I’ve never felt this way in my life. What is going on?'”
Gautreau’s stress levels ebbed and flowed as he toiled in the minors. His head became a prison. Batting practice was a Sisyphean torment. The ulcerative colitis that had been dormant throughout his life flared up.
In layman’s terms, Gautreau explained, the inside of one’s intestine and colon is supposed to be smooth. Ulcerative colitis, though, is like taking a cheese grater to those smooth surfaces, causing inflammation and other bowel issues.
While trying to balance the intrinsic pressure of his draft position, Gautreau worked with doctors on varying drug cocktails to combat his illness. He tried everything from pills and self-injections to three-hour IV infusions similar to chemotherapy. A sanctioned steroid treatment helped in spurts, but long-term side effects made it a quick fix rather than a solution.
Melanoma had formed on his throwing arm in 2007 further complicated matters, though doctors were able to contain it and eventually cut it out.
Then came the arthritis brought on by the ulcerative colitis.
“It was another one of those scary moments where it’s like, ‘Wait, what if you don’t get better?’ ” Erin said solemnly.
Living together in an apartment in Port Charlotte, Florida, where Jake had earned an invite to 2009 spring training with the Tampa Bay Rays, he and Erin had just one car with them at the time — a white Ford F-150 they’d nicknamed “White Lightning.”
Each morning, Erin rose early to drive Jake to the ballpark, returned home to work her consulting job, then headed back to the stadium to pick him up in the afternoon.
Shortly into camp, Erin received a call from Jake minutes after she’d dropped him at the park. It was cut day. Jake was a casualty.
“We both kind of knew it was his last shot at playing,” Erin said, choking up before launching into her words. “It was heartbreaking.”
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Now in his fourth year at MSU, Gautreau has received ample acclaim. The recruiting classes he’s overseen ranked fifth, sixth, and seventh, according to D1 Baseball. The same publication also named him the National Assistant Coach of the Year in 2019.
That Gautreau has thrived in recruiting shocks few from his past.
Dropping a 13-inning first game of the 2001 Super Regional against LSU in New Orleans, former Tulane coach Rick Jones stepped into the dugout to collect his thoughts before addressing the team. Gautreau patted him on the back and delivered a message, “I got ’em.”
In the locker room, Gautreau spoke. Jones watched from the side. Tulane won the next two games en route to the program’s first-ever College World Series berth.
“You have some players you’re closer to than others and some that you’re not close to as close to afterwards,” Jones said. “But there are some — and there are very few — but there’s some that you consider family, and (Gautreau) was that.”
Shortly after Jake left the Rays, he and Erin drove from Florida to Texas when Jones called. Tulane had an open volunteer assistant role. It was Gautreau’s if he wanted it, but Jones needed an answer by morning. Gautreau took the offer.
He spent his first year on staff coaching and finishing his degree. Jones promoted Gautreau to a full-time assistant and recruiting coordinator after the season. Following Jones’ retirement due to health concerns in 2014, Gautreau was named interim head coach. He interviewed for the full-time gig, but was passed over.
After spending two-plus years working as a certified player rep in Texas for MLB super-agent Scott Boras, Gautreau returned to coaching by way of his former Tulane teammate, Andy Cannizaro, who’d been named the head coach at MSU in November 2016.
Serving as Cannizaro’s recruiting coordinator and assistant hitting coach, The teammates’ reunion was short-lived. Cannizaro resigned three games into the 2018 campaign amid revelations of an extramarital affair with a football staffer.
Gautreau stayed on under interim head coach Gary Henderson, helping the Bulldogs to an unprecedented College World Series run and later became the only holdover on Chris Lemonis’ first staff in Starkville.
“When you’ve coached at a place like Tulane and, of course, gone through all the things he went through there as the interim head coach and then going through the things he went through with Andy’s situation,” current TCU head coach and former Tulane assistant Jim Schlossnagle said, “he’s more than prepared not just to be a head coach in Division I baseball but an elite head coach.”
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During batting practices at Dudy Noble, Gautreau is always posted near the cage. He wraps his arms together tightly against his chest, periodically using the right arm that helped him to a nine-year minor league career to give direction.
At 41 years old, Gautreau’s playing days are long behind him, but he still finds himself relating to players. It’s part of what made him a successful agent while working with Boras. In coaching, though, he carries a different kind of weight.
Following a COVID-19-shortened 2020 campaign, the MLB draft shrunk from its usual 40 rounds to five. In a normal year, juniors Tanner Allen, Josh Hatcher and Rowdey Jordan would’ve been off playing pro ball by this time. Instead they’re back in Starkville.
“You come to school and you play and you expect to get drafted after your junior year, and then it kind of gets taken away from you,” Jordan explained during MSU’s Feb. 3 media day. “Plans change, but at the end of the day it is what it is. There ain’t no changing it.”
Gautreau feels their pain. Hell, baseball has always caused him pain in one fashion or another. This, though, is a different, more endearing pain.
He feels responsible for the Allens, Hatchers and Jordans of the world. It’s why he helps advise eligible Bulldogs through the draft process. As a recruiting coordinator it’s his job to build relationships with kids. When his players hurt, he hurts too.
“The number one piece for me is making sure they understand that I have been through exactly what they’re going through,” Gautreau said. “And a lot of times, my experiences were extremely challenging, tough times.”
Friday, MSU will play its first weekend series at Dudy Noble Field since COVID-19 ended the 2020 campaign. In the opposite dugout will be Tulane, Gautreau’s alma mater and the place his coaching career began.
There’s a semblance of peace the further Gautreau ages from a pro career filled with labels he fought madly to overcome. He hasn’t had a flare-up of his ulcerative colitis since 2010, and the melanoma is also an afterthought.
Gautreau says he and his family are comfortable in Starkville, though he’s not oblivious to his standing in college baseball circles. Someday soon, whether next offseason or five from now, he’ll helm his own program. Today, though, Gautreau is helping players fight off their own versions of the haunting cliche he spent decades battling himself.
“I mean, yeah, it’s a bummer he never made it,” Erin said. “But I don’t think he holds onto that at all. When kids that he’s coached or even players that were formerly here that he’s met and made relationships with, he’s truly happy for them and is excited for them when they get to live that dream.”