For the first time in my memory, Cal has captured the attention of the college baseball world. That has happened because two parallel stories have converged into a perfect storm of improbable joy. One part of the story is a baseball team, practicing and playing games, taking classes and living the lives of college students just like thousands of others. The other part of the story is a little more complicated. It combines economics and education policy, hurt feelings and fund-raising. When they both began back in 2010, neither story seemed destined for a happy ending.
Losing to Oral Roberts, particularly by allowing three runs in the last two innings in a one run loss, hurt. It was another year of playoff disappointment for the Bears. But both the team and fans could look forward optimistically to 2011. True, replacing departing first baseman Mark Canha and shortstop Brian Guinn wouldn’t be easy. But freshman Devon Rodriguez had looked pretty good with occasional playing time and would take on a starter’s role next year. Tony Renda was named a freshman all American, and six Bears that hit .300 on the year would be back. Most importantly, nearly the entire pitching staff would be returning, including a talented trio of starting pitchers in Justin Jones, Erik Johnson and Dixon Anderson. Nobody was predicting a juggernaut that should win a deep and difficult Pac-10 conference, but this was arguably the most talented team head coach Dave Esquer had ever had. If things fell just right . . .
But as the 2010 season ended and Cal baseball’s small group of dedicated fans looked forward to the promise of 2011, ominous news piled up. A significant portion of Cal’s faculty objected to discretionary money going towards intercollegiate athletics when academic programs faced meaningful budget cuts. The faculty held a non-binding vote in favor of reducing the athletic budget. Athletic Director Sandy Barbour acknowledged that changes would likely be necessary. A committee was formed to explore options and come up with a plan that would be agreeable to all parties.
Perhaps we all should have seen it coming – the rumblings were there. But the announcement on Tuesday, September 28th, was still a seismic shock to the Cal community. Baseball, lacrosse, men’s and women’s gymnastics. Gone. Rugby, reclassified as a club sport.
How could baseball be cut? This was a program with more than 100 years of history, with national championships, hall of fame caliber players and more than a few current major leaguers. And emotionally, it just felt wrong. Baseball, after all, is America’s pastime, one of the few sports in an athletic department that can be visible without winning perennial national titles.
Still, if Cal fans were being honest with themselves, there were some realities to face. We hadn’t done a great job of supporting the team – attendance had been low at Evans Diamond for some time. Some sports, like crew and swimming, have had high profile donors and large endowments to support their success, a luxury not afforded to baseball. Since the beloved Bob Milano retired in 1999, baseball simply hadn’t achieved on the field the way so many other sports at Cal had. Cal baseball had been expensive and unsuccessful, and that was a lethal combination when an athletic department was forced to make painfully deep cuts.
Outrage was immediate, particularly because of the proposed reclassification of rugby, Cal’s most successful varsity sport. There were gatherings, marches, protests, fliers, flurries of e-mails and phone calls, newspaper editorials and message board hand-wringing. To many who supported Cal athletics, Chancellor Birgeneau and Athletic Director Sandy Barbour became villains over night (unfairly in my mind, but that’s a debate for another day). Cal alum and beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle John Crumpacker called announcement day ‘Black Tuesday,’ which certainly captured how most fans felt.
When the dust settled, it left a group of players in a cruel sort of limbo. Continue to play for the university you picked, for the teammates and coaching staff that you know? Transfer to another school to pursue your baseball dreams? More pessimistic fans probably thought that even if the program was somehow saved, the team would be decimated anyway, so wounded with transfers and decommitments that it would have no hope of being competitive. And yet the response from the players was nearly unanimous. They were going stay in Berkeley and commit themselves to practicing and improving in the face of elimination.
Meanwhile, after digesting the announced cuts, friends, family and alumni of every impacted sport gathered together and refused to give up. ‘Save Cal Sports’ was quickly created, with the stated goal of reinstating every single program. Donors could give donations in support of all five sports, or specifically send their money towards one program. Money poured in. In some ways I believe that Cal’s administration was taken aback at the donation rate. The foundation began working directly with administrators, working on dates and targets that needed to be reached. A deadline was set to raise the money to save all five sports.
As the baseball team prepared for the season that deadline came. But baseball supporters were stunned when it was announced that rugby, lacrosse and women’s gymnastics would be saved but that baseball and men’s gymnastics were still cut. Many felt betrayed by Cal administrators, because they had been led to believe that ether all or none of the five sports would be retained. Nearly five months of tireless work had resulted in failure.
Or had it? Baseball supporters had raised approximately 2 million dollars, less than the 6 million pledged to rugby. Supporters were told that 10 million was needed to ensure baseball could continue for more than a few years without the threat of the budget axe hanging over its head. But how could what was now ‘Save Cal Baseball’ raise another 8 million in such a short period of time?
With this bleak backdrop, the season finally began on February 20th. And despite so much uncertainty, Cal raced to a 19-6 start that saw them earn a ranking as high as #13 in the nation. The Bears were delivering on their promise behind a pitching staff that was dominating opposing batters and an offense that had a knack for delivering in the clutch.
Cal fans who made the drive to San Francisco to watch the Bears take on #18 Rice at AT&T Park probably felt that something special was happening. The Bears fell behind 6-1 after five innings, then scored four runs over the last three innings to tie the game before finally winning in the 15th inning with Tony Renda scoring the final run. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was a performance that typified the Bears at their best.
Meanwhile, Save Cal Baseball was busy pulling off a miracle. I still don’t know how they did it, but led by former baseball player Stu Gordon, pledges went from ~2 million dollars to ~9 million dollars between early February and late April. But it was still short of the 10 million target set by the administration. Would it be enough?
The Bears were in Arizona, preparing for an important road series against a ranked Pac-10 foe. Coach Esquer received the news over the phone and then gathered his team for a meeting to deliver the news: Salvation. Administrators had been successfully convinced that despite not reaching the 10 million target, enough money had been raised to keep the program running for the long term. Later, the players would admit that they had already begun planning for their future. Tony Renda and Justin Jones admitted they were preparing to transfer to Oregon to continue their promising careers. The exodus had been prevented.
Cal still had the meat of their regular season schedule to face, and it didn’t go nearly as well as the first two months of the season. After sweeping a woeful Washington team, the Bears finished Pac-10 play on a 4-10 conference streak that saw them fall out of the national rankings. Some players felt that they had lost their edge upon learning that baseball would not be cut. It’s also true that in those 14 games Cal faced four ranked, playoff bound teams. Whatever the reason, optimism was in short supply when it was announced that Cal was heading to Houston to take on Rice, Baylor and Alcorn St. to open their NCAA playoffs.
That lack of optimism seemed well founded when Cal lost to Baylor 6-4 in game 1. Then the Bears fell behind 4-0 to Alcorn St., and it looked like they would be swept out of the playoffs without a win once again. Perhaps the season wouldn’t be a disappointment – the Bears did make the playoffs, and the program would continue to exist – but it seemed too soon for a team that reached such heights in April.
And then, out of nowhere, Cal rediscovered their first-half-of-the-season mojo. Cal’s struggling lineup exploded for 10 runs to come back against Alcorn St. After falling behind they again came back to eliminate Rice, 6-3. With most of the pitching staff having been used in the three prior games, Coach Esquer turned to freshman Kyle Porter to start just his third game of the year. He responded with 6 2/3 of brilliant, shut out pitching and Cal’s lineup exploded for 8 runs. The Bears were one win away from a stirring regional championship.
And then it all fell apart. Baylor exploded for 6 runs in the 4th inning and Cal’s season looked like it was over. Even when Cal scored two runs in the 6th and two more in the 8th Baylor still held an 8-5 lead. To make matters worse, Baylor had brought in ace Logan Verrett, who had already shut down Cal in Baylor’s earlier win.
So if you believe that fate, or destiny, or karma, or any other kind of higher power influences sporting events, what happened next can only be described as some sort of divine providence mixed with grit, talent and some amazing clutch hitting. The details have been discussed many times over the last 10 days. Three hits, one hit by pitch, one walk, one horribly botched run-down and one unbelievable error combined in one of the most amazing 9th inning comebacks you’ll ever see.
Compared to the events in Houston, Cal’s two game sweep of fellow upstart Dallas Baptist to advance to the College World Series was downright boring. It seemed that, in surviving the regional round, Cal rediscovered their talent and confidence from earlier in the season. It was on full display as the Bears dominated the Patriots in front of more than 1,000 joyful Cal fans in Santa Clara.
Cal will be the underdog once again in Omaha. It’s a packed field this year at the College World Series. Every other team entered the playoffs ranked in the top 10. The odds of winning are decidedly low. But are they lower than the odds of raising 9 million dollars in little more than half a year? Are they lower than the odds of scoring 4 runs in the bottom of the 9th, or the odds of getting a base hit with two outs after falling behind in the count 0-2?
But the real victory is that, no matter if Cal plays two games in Omaha or eight, they will play again next year. This season wasn’t just a victory for the baseball team – it was a victory for the Cal community. Bear backers were faced with the loss of four sports, and rather than accepting it, they fought back. A statement was made: these programs are an important, worthwhile part of our university, something worth saving. And they backed up that statement with time and money, and they won. Every single sport was saved.
For that reason I’ll be cheering that much louder when the Bears take the field on Sunday against Virginia. They may not feel comfortable with the label, but the Bears are more than a baseball team. They represent every sport that was almost cut, a reminder of what we would have lost. Go Bears!