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Cal Baseball 2011: From Elimination To Omaha, Part One

Hats off to you, Cal baseball!
Hats off to you, Cal baseball!

Note: After Cal defeated Dallas Baptist to advance to the College World Series, I was asked by David Fucillo of SB Nation Bay Area to write a feature on Cal baseball's 2011 season - the story of their elimination, regular season and post-season run.  It was designed in part to be an introduction for those who hadn't been following the team all year, unlike many CGB readers.  We didn't link to it in part because we've been saving it as a season review post.

With the season now over we can now look back at the entire story.  I've made a few changes to my original article - mostly updates of events that occurred after the first draft ran.  Any additions are in italics.  This post was particularly satisfying to write because it gave me a chance to look back on everything that has happened in the last year.  It's hard to believe that we went from this, to this, and then unbelievably, to this.  I hope you enjoy looking back as much as I did.

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.

Note: I was surprised, upon going back to read my reactions to the initial news, at how my writing seemed to assume that there was no hope to save each program.  But one part of the article did make me smile:

Each team will have one more shot at glory together, and I can only hope that players, coaches and the Cal community rally around their final seasons of competition.  How great would it be if lacrosse ended with a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title, or if baseball made a stirring run to Omaha for the College World Series?

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 (Is he still 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.

*Since the original feature was published, the Chronicle ran this article that gave a glimpse into the turmoil that evidently surrounded alumni support of Cal baseball. Rumors about serious anger on the part of Milano towards Coach Esquer had floated around in the past, but never in the mainstream media. It's clear that the financial opposition organized to presumably oust Esquer was horribly misguided and likely played a major role in pushing baseball towards the chopping block. It leads me to wonder just how much this level of opposition impacted Esquer's ability to field a competitive team.  Was that a factor?  I have no idea.

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.

*I'm still bothered at the quality of reporting on the initial story, which led many to believe that Cal cut rugby in addition to the other four sports. I still see comments every so often from people asking if rugby was 'saved' from elimination.  But at least it helped galvanize outrage, even if it was outrage against something that wasn't happening.

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.*

*For some insight on one of the three players who didn't remain in Berkeley, read this excellent article from the Mercury News on now-UCLA pitcher Eric Jaffe.

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?