Cal shows resiliency on and off the field
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Cal coach David Esquer began the team's road trip in April with a clever little ruse. He called a scouting report meeting and gathered his players together to supposedly size up their next opponent.
Instead, Esquer announced that Cal baseball had been saved. Improbably, the program escaped the chopping block of the school's cost-cutters only months after having been given the death sentence. The Bad News Bears finally got good news for a change and let out a collective roar.
"I started tearing up a little bit," closer Matt Flemer said. "You could tell there was a weight off our shoulders."
Millions of dollars away from the team's reinstatement, alumni, family members and fans raised more than $9 million in a matter of weeks to ensure the program's self-sustainability. As it turned out, Cal would lead a furious comeback between the lines as well.
One strike away from elimination in the Houston Regional, the Bears staged a ninth-inning rally against Baylor last week to earn a super regional berth. Now they're off to the College World Series for the first time in 19 years, taking with them to Omaha a resiliency and togetherness that is inspiring the Cal community and beyond.
"When people can see the camaraderie and affection you have for each other, anything is possible," Esquer said. "They're having an experience that's going to affect the rest of their lives."
The players found their sense of purpose after the stunning Sept. 28 announcement by chancellor Robert Birgeneau that baseball would be among the programs the school planned to eliminate. Birgeneau said institutional financial support to the athletic department needed to be slashed because of the economic downturn and lack of funding from the state.
The Cal baseball program, even with its legacy of producing major leaguers and two national championships since its inception in 1892, was going to be history at season's end.
"I was awestruck," outfielder Chad Bunting said. "Cutting a baseball program from a Pac-10 school. At the same time, it was typical of an open-minded place trying to find a way to save money. They thought they could get rid of us, and it wasn't a big deal. Our job was to prove them wrong."
The players were free to pursue transfers, and Esquer told them they could each take a day or two of personal time away from the game to weigh their options if they wanted. The team instead decided to show up at a 1:15 p.m. workout that same day.
"It hit me right over the head right away when I saw here they are getting some very difficult news but they're not going to back away one inch from their commitment," Esquer said.
"We [the coaches] looked at each other and said, 'We got a different team here.'"
In February, before the start of the season, the school administration delivered another gut punch and announced an insufficient amount of funds had been raised by supporters for baseball to be saved. The school wanted to see nearly $10 million raised for baseball to survive. While frustrations mounted, only three players left the team. The rest decided to stick it out, play for one another and worry about their futures later.
Tony Renda, a 5-foot-8 second baseman, hit .330 with 38 RBIs and nine stolen bases before being named Pac-10 Player of the Year. Erik Johnson (7-4, 2.91 ERA) developed into the staff ace. Flemer, whose parents helped start up savecalbaseball.com to seek donations, said upperclassmen opened up the doors to their apartments in case young players just wanted to talk.
"There's not a single person on this team I wouldn't stand up for or stand next to," Renda said. "I love them like my brothers. This whole year has brought us closer together. That's a huge reason [why we're] where we are today."
Things then began falling right for the Bears. In April, shortly after Esquer filled them in on the news, the school announced that fundraising efforts, led by Cal baseball alum Stu Gordon, were successful. Save Cal Baseball had done its part. "I'm forever grateful they came through for us," Renda said.
The Bears paid back their alumni by showing they could come through in the clutch. Needing a fourth straight win over three days in the Houston Regional, they went into the ninth inning against Baylor trailing, 8-5. Devon Rodriguez ultimately capped off a four-run inning with a two-strike, two-run single that sent the Bears streaming out of the dugout and into a frenzy.
Cal (37-21) swept aside Dallas Baptist in the super regional and will open play in the College World Series against Virginia on Sunday. The Bears head to Omaha with a confidence they built up long before learning this wouldn't be the program's final season.
In a video released on YouTube known as the Cal Baseball Reinstatement Rap, three freshmen, who had joined the team only to find that it was on the brink of folding, sang a somber tune as an ode to their teammates. It included this defiant refrain: "We'll take the Pac-10, then to Omaha, watch us take it."
Diamond Leung covers college sports for ESPN.com He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.