By MIKE GEGENHEIMER
Written for the LSWA
Roger Cador stood before a group of students at Istrouma High School a few weeks ago and started doing what he does best.
He regaled them with stories from his 33-year career as one of the most significant voices in baseball, from college to the Major Leagues. And there are certainly a lot of stories to pick from.
By the time he retired from Southern University in 2017, Cador finished with a career record of 913-597-1. He had earned 14 Southwestern Athletic Conference championships, a dozen 30-win seasons, 11 NCAA regional appearances, and three regional wins. He had coached 10 All-Americans and 62 players drafted by MLB teams.
Cador was known around the country as the first coach to ever lead a historically black college program to a win in the NCAA regionals. And he remains the only black college coach to produce a Golden Spikes Award winner for the best amateur baseball player in the United States—Rickie Weeks in 2003.
The resume’ paved his path to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. Cador will join 10 other 2019 inductees entering the Hall Saturday, June 8 at the Natchitoches Events Center in sold-out ceremonies carried live on Cox Sports Television. The Class of 2019 will be feted June 6-8 during the Induction Celebration, with details and participation opportunities available at LaSportsHall.com or by calling 318-238-4255.
In the past two years since his retirement, Cador traveled the world, living out the exact life he had planned when he stepped down. Some trips were for pleasure. Others were to give talks to a new generation of young baseball players. Honestly, he saw little difference in the two.
But his message that day at Istrouma wasn’t one that touted his own accomplishments. Cador wanted to give the students the bigger picture about what it means to be successful and how to overcome what can feel like insurmountable odds.
Even in his coaching days, Cador always imagined himself more as a coach of life than of baseball.
He isn’t about to change that now.
“Here are young people in a disadvantaged situation but very in tune with what’s going on around them,” Cador said. “They asked questions, and they want to be successful. To me, that’s what it’s all about. It’s not where you’re from; it’s where you’re trying to get.”
Cador learned that lesson for himself the day he walked into Southern as the new baseball coach in August 1984.
And it’s impossible to understand what Cador accomplished at Southern without talking about the grocery basket.
The grocery basket is a symbol of the struggles the man from New Roads faced at the start of his career — as well as what he overcame.
When Cador was promoted from an assistant coach, the entirety of the program fit into an old grocery basket kept in a closet at Pete Goldsby Field, an off-campus stadium near downtown Baton Rouge that served as the Jaguars’ home in those early days.
The once-proud Jaguars had fallen on hard times. They were left with just a few dirty uniforms and some old practice balls, all kept in that basket.
There was virtually no equipment, no facilities, a minimal budget, and little incentive to fix any of it.
Only a few years removed from his playing days, Cador didn’t know where to begin, so he called friends from around baseball, looking for donations.
One of his first calls was to a young hitting coach with the San Francisco Giants by the name of Dusty Baker, a friend from his playing days.
Cador asked whether Baker could convince the Giants to donate spare equipment. Without hesitation, Baker jumped at the chance to help his former teammate, telling him to meet the team on a road swing through Atlanta.
Baker not only convinced the Giants to donate equipment, he got the Braves to do the same. In a day, Southern needed UPS to ship all of its equipment back to Baton Rouge.
“It’s his genuineness,” Baker said. “The fact that he cares so much about the game, his players, the school of Southern University, and you want to help somebody that has that deep, genuine concern for what they’re doing. He’s touched many, many lives.”
Legendary LSU coach Skip Bertman arrived in Baton Rouge the summer before Cador took over at Southern. From the moment they met, the future pillars of Louisiana baseball bonded.
Entering Cador’s first year as Southern’s coach, Bertman invited him to his annual season-opening news conference. It was there they announced the annual Mayor’s Cup, a three-game series between the schools.
LSU usually came out on top, but Cador always made the game more interesting.
Cador said his fondest memory of their friendship was how committed both were to community service and to helping the Baton Rouge community.
One of the most significant aspects of Southern’s program during those early days, Bertman recalled, was how much Cador achieved despite so few resources. The most notable example: Cador’s makeshift batting cages.
Cador pushed Southern to set up nets and batting cages beneath the Harding Boulevard overpass into campus, affectionately known as “The Hump.” The remnants of those batting cages, long since abandoned, can still be seen behind the visitors’ dugout.
“Roger has never complained one bit and has been a great representative of Southern University,” Bertman said. “He didn’t have everything that I had or the coach at LSU now has, in terms of another pitching machine or a FungoMan and those extra goodies that coaches have in the Southeastern Conference. Whenever he asked for something, it was always for the players. He never asked for himself.”
It’s hard to nail down Cador’s greatest achievement at Southern. The most famous came in 1987, when Southern became the first Historically Black University/College to win a game in an NCAA regional, upsetting No. 2 Cal State Fullerton, 1-0, in New Orleans.
Less than a year later, funding was almost immediately approved for the construction of Lee-Hines Field, the on-campus stadium at Southern.
The achievement that stuck out most to Cador wasn’t his own. He cited the campaign to make Rickie Weeks the 2003 Golden Spikes Award winner a two-year process, starting when Weeks won his first NCAA batting title in 2002 as a sophomore.
In his junior season, Weeks — who later spent 14 years in professional baseball — again won the batting title, posting a .479 average and 16 home runs. His career batting average of .465 remains the highest in NCAA history.
Cador called in every favor he had saved up over his career and put on the famous charm he’s known for. (As he put it, his people skills and public relations abilities were always his strongest attributes.)
When Weeks’ name was finally announced as the nation’s best amateur baseball player, it was as much Cador’s victory.
“A lot of times, when you go out in the community or just around Southern’s campus and he’s able to talk to people, they can believe in him because that’s what he does,” Weeks said. “He’s not just saying anything and then all of a sudden goes off and does something different. The biggest thing for him is being able to have that persona where he’s the man. He’s the man because they believe in what he does.”
Cador’s friends are eager to praise him. That’s partially because he’s charismatic, but also because he has never been the type to say no when a friend needs a favor.
Cador worked extensively as an ambassador for baseball, helping Major League Baseball with its diversity task force in an effort to bring baseball back to inner-city communities.
He has raised money for just about every cause in Baton Rouge, from the American Heart Association to local youth teams. Every year, when Southern hosts its fundraiser banquet, Cador makes sure to invite the softball team, so its players receive attention for their hard work.
“He’s never let what he does for a living become who he is,” longtime UL-Lafayette coach Tony Robichaux said. “We have to be so careful in sports that sports can define us. … The thing I respect about Roger is, he’s never let the game define him. It’s the way he’s lived his life. It’s his personality.”
If you ask Cador about his legacy, he’ll tell you about two things.
The first is how he has influenced the sport by helping former players and coaches climb the ranks of organized baseball. Cador takes immense pride in the people he helped put in positions of authority throughout the sport.
Former players like Marco Paddy, Arnold Brathwaite, Jerry Flowers, Don Thomas, and many others dot the landscape of MLB front offices and scouting departments.
The other aspect of Cador’s legacy: he did it all his way.
Cador never shied from who he was, as a coach or a person. Almost to a fault, he stayed the same throughout the past three decades.
In many ways, he said, he credits his family for that strength. His son, Jonathan, has been a grounding force in the past few years and will be by his side when he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame in June.
Before his wife, Donna Fairfax Cador, died in 2010, she wouldn’t allow her husband to decorate their house with any of his baseball memorabilia. It’s part of the reason he keeps so much of it now.
Her reasoning was that their home should be a place away from baseball, somewhere Cador didn’t have to think about his latest problem.
He also needed to remember who he was outside of baseball. To this day, he has not forgotten.
“That’s the one thing I want to commend Southern for — all the people and the administration and athletic directors who have worked at Southern — for letting me do it my own way,” Cador said. “I’ve been able to do a lot of good things by doing it my way, and I never once embarrassed the university.”
The irony of his wife’s ban on baseball at home is that he never would’ve had a coaching career if it hadn’t been for her.
For two months in 1984, Southern tried to persuade Cador to take the coaching job, but he refused. It wasn’t until the university president convinced Donna that he should take the position did Roger finally accept.
“He convinced her and she told me when I came home that I had to take the baseball job, because I had a fair man who wanted to treat me with dignity to be the baseball coach and that he’d be fair to me,” Cador said. “The next day, I accepted the job on Aug. 3 — and on Aug. 4, 1984, she and I got in my car, and we went to Atlanta to meet Dusty Baker.”