PORT CHARLOTTE — Rays outfield prospect Mikie Mahtook plays the game with the exuberance of an 11-year-old, diving and sliding, soaking in every out as if it were his last.
"He plays baseball like a football player," LSU coach Paul Mainieri says, "100 miles an hour with his hair on fire all the time."
Turns out, Mahtook, 22, plays like his dad. Michael Mahtook, a former LSU linebacker, died of heart disease when Mikie was 4. To honor him, Mahtook wears his father's No. 54 and writes it on his baseball cleats.
"I think about him every day," said Mahtook, selected in the first round in 2011 (31st overall). "That number is our family lucky number. It's on me at all times. I feel like whenever I need him, he's there for me."
Mahtook's mother, Mary Ann, 47, says she sees a lot of her late husband in her son — the way he smiles, the way he eats, the way he twirls his black hair.
"I'm like, 'Oh my, that's your daddy,' " Mary Ann said. "It's amazing the genetics."
The Rays believe Mahtook has unique maturity and mental makeup, which — along with his five-tool skill set — could help him move quickly through the minor league system. He's starting at high-Class A Charlotte and will play for the Future Rays today in an exhibition against the big-league club at Tropicana Field.
Mahtook derived perspective from losing his father far too soon, and strength from his mother, who battled — and beat — breast cancer two years ago. Along with his twin 19-year-old sisters, Catherine and Christina, he calls his family the "Fantastic Four."
But the fifth member, their father, is never forgotten.
"It puts things in perspective for you," Mahtook said. "Some people almost put the wrong idea about baseball, they put so much pressure on themselves to live and die by every game, every pitch. To me, it's just a game. Hey, baseball is baseball, but when you're off of baseball, you have this other life and you can't take anything for granted."
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They called Michael Mahtook a "Gentle Giant," a fun-loving, unpretentious soul who packed some punch on the field for the Tigers in the early 1980s. He'd tell Mary Ann how much he looked forward to coaching Mikie in soccer and T-ball. He'd take Mikie to their favorite pizza place, push him on the swing set and teach him how to dive into the pool.
Then, just like that, he was gone. The elder Mahtook, fit and just 32 years old, was playing tennis with his brother Robbie, another former LSU player, when he collapsed on the court. Michael had cardiomyopathy, a disease that enlarged his heart.
"He was in perfect health — there were no signs," Mary Ann said. "That night, we were all meeting at the house to swim and cook and grill. Crazy."
Mahtook didn't get to know his father the way he wanted to, but his large family makes sure to give him a complete picture.
"We kept his memory alive in stories," Mary Ann said. "I think now, looking back, it was the healthiest thing to do. I never was afraid to say 'death' and 'Your dad is a guardian angel and he's in heaven.' He's still a big part of their lives."
Mahtook appeared as if he would follow in his father's footsteps, as football was his first love. He was an all-state quarterback for St. Thomas More High in Lafayette, La., and had offers from colleges to play both sports.
"He could have played football at LSU if he wanted," Mainieri said.
But Mahtook stuck with baseball and became one of the best, and most beloved, players in program history. He entered the Tigers lineup for good midway through his freshman year, when he became the only player to rip a homer over the stadium's scoreboard. And, in the College World Series, Mahtook came up with the winning hit to beat Texas. Having gone 0-for-3 with three "horrible" at-bats, he calmed down and summoned his dad for help.
"I'll give him some of the credit for that one," Mahtook said, smiling.
Mainieri said Mahtook seemed to make at least one diving catch a game, with his infectious intensity and passion endearing him to the crowd, which gave him "by far" the loudest ovations.
"He was like a cult hero in Baton Rouge," Mainieri said. "I think every girl from age 14 to 40 was in love with Mikie."
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In Mahtook's sophomore year, his favorite girl, his mother, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Mary Ann waited for the weekend's last series of the season to be over before telling Mikie, not wanting to distract him. "He was devastated," Mary Ann said.
The cancer was caught early, and she had successful surgery while Mahtook was competing in the NCAA regionals. He wanted to come home to be with her during chemotherapy, but she insisted he go to the Cape Cod League as planned and chase his dream to try out for the national team. They had a big family in Lafayette for support, including the twins, who are LSU sophomores, sorority sisters and dancers. "We're like one person," Catherine joked. Catherine said Mahtook would send their mom "pep talks" via Skype to get her "out of her funk."
Mary Ann is cancer-free now, and she ran a half marathon with Catherine and Christina in January (in 2 hours, 33 minutes). Mahtook never doubted her.
"She had a peace, like a calming to her, she felt like it was going to be okay," Mahtook said. "I just knew she was going to beat it."
Said Mainieri; "His mother, on a scale of 1-to-10, she's an 11, courageous."
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Nearly 60 family and friends gathered at Mahtook's house on draft night.
The Rays coveted him, with executive VP Andrew Friedman saying he had very few weaknesses. Mahtook, a 6-foot-1, 192-pound All-American, covers ground in the outfield, steals bases and hit .344 at LSU.
"We value guys who do everything — and he does everything," Friedman said.
When Mahtook's name popped up on the television screen, the screaming began. "It was something I won't ever forget, that's for sure," Mahtook said.
Though Mahtook signed late and didn't play last summer, he impressed in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .338.
"That," Friedman said, "was really impressive."
Before he arrived for spring training, Mahtook threw out the ceremonial pitch for LSU's home opener in Baton Rouge. Mary Ann then completed the same feat March 28, on breast cancer awareness night. Mary Ann had matching pink T-shirts made for her and her twins to wear, with "Hit Cancer out of the Park" on the back. Mahtook had to miss it, but Mary Ann said their "guardian angel" was there in spirit.
"He always is."