Cal baseball comes back from extinction to the cusp of CWS
Last Sept., Cal baseball was cut and told it needed to raise $10 million to survive
Former Bears pitcher Stu Gordon became white knight, raised most of money
Now Cal is having a dream season and hosts Super Regional this weekend
Certainly. On Monday night in Houston, the University of California baseball team was facing playoff elimination, down three runs to Baylor in the bottom of the ninth.
But Cal has faced longer odds. Preposterous odds.
For most of the past year, Cal baseball faced elimination. Not from the College World Series but from existence.
At one point, the program was told it had six weeks to raise $10 million. Odds don't get much lengthier than that.
"It's so much money," said catcher Chadd Krist, shaking his head. "I mean, 10 million dollars?"
Ten million dollars can make a three-run deficit seem like nothing.
Krist and his teammates rallied that night in Houston, scoring four times in the ninth to win, 9-8. The victory catapulted the Bears into the CWS Super Regional, the furthest the Bears have gone in postseason play since 1992. Cal will host Dallas Baptist this weekend at Santa Clara University.
There have to be easier ways to hone mental toughness. But the players and coach Dave Esquer are convinced that the team's eight-month battle for survival translated directly to its never-say-die attitude late in games.
"We've continually been presented with adversity and we've overcome it," Krist said. "It shows how tightly knit we are.
"It's definitely been a bonding time for us. It was us against the world, us against the university. We've been fighting to prove that we belong."
Last September, the university's athletic department announced it was dropping five varsity sports: baseball, women's lacrosse, men's and women's gymnastics and rugby, which would be demoted to club status.
The outcry was immediate and prolonged. Cal had fielded a baseball team since 1892. Rugby was the most successful sports program in school history. And there were strong concerns about the Title IX repercussions of dropping two women's sports. In February, the athletic department reinstated women's lacrosse, women's gymnastics and rugby. But baseball and men's gymnastics were still given the death sentence.
Accusations and recriminations flew back and forth. The university looked bumbling. The baseball community was angry.
And then Stu Gordon stepped in.
"All hope was lost," he said "But I asked for a meeting with the chancellor. "
A San Francisco attorney who pitched for Cal from 1958 to 1962, Gordon had long been a supporter of the program. Now, given a second chance to save the program, he had to do more than just raise $10 million. He had to smooth ruffled feathers, soothe hard feelings, play the politician.
"I was asked to keep everything positive," Gordon said. "Everyone had their perceptions of who was right or wrong. Communication was not very good on anyone's part. I had to crack through a lot of negativity."
He formed a committee. He gave everyone specific assignments. And, most importantly, he pledged $550,000 of his own money to save the program.
The alumni started to contribute. Jeff Kent, who had been frustrated by poor communication and concerned that his contributions were not being used as he intended, came back on board with a $105,000 donation. Other major league players followed suit. Baseball agent Scott Boras pitched in $50,000. San Francisco Giants president and Cal alumnus Larry Baer was involved in the effort.
Meanwhile, the team was playing baseball. Good baseball. The players didn't try to shut out the noise surrounding their program. Instead they used it as fuel.
"We all had an extra chip on our shoulder," said sophomore Devon Rodriguez, who had the game-winning hit against Baylor. "We were playing for each other."
The team honed the art of comebacks, with five walk-off hits during the season.
But they were also still in limbo. Three players transferred at the winter break. Others were in the odd position of being recruited by other schools while wearing the Cal blue and gold. They would play for Cal on the weekend and leave for a Monday recruiting visit.
"I had to let them go, because what if it wasn't reinstated?" Esquer said. "We made a conscious effort to keep them focused. We told them that 20 years from now you'll remember this team and your teammates. This is as tough a time as you could come across as an athlete.
"I think the easiest part was coming on the field to play. This was kind of their sanctuary."
Gordon had some nerve-racking times. He rounded up more than 40 donors. But at the last minute the most significant donor backed off the largest pledge by $1.5 million. Gordon was scrambling to make up the difference. Finally, in early April, the university agreed to reinstate the program with the $9 million that had been raised. Gordon will keep raising funds: his goal is to create a $20 million endowment that will keep the program going in perpetuity.
When the news came that the team would be reinstated, there was relief and joy. And a sense that the job wasn't finished.
"I'm just so proud of our team, how resilient we are, how resilient our alumni are," said Rodriguez. "We have so much confidence in each other when we play."
The Bears lost their first playoff game to Baylor on June 3 and faced elimination. They fell into a 4-0 hole to Alcorn State but rallied to win 10-6. On Sunday, they beat host Rice and then Baylor to set up Monday night's elimination game.
When the players looked up in the stands on Monday they saw Cal alumnus Allen Craig who is in his second year playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, who were in town to play the Astros. Craig brought along several of his teammates including Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina. When Krist threw out a runner, Molina gave a fist pump. When Pac-10 Player of the Year Tony Renda made a diving play, he looked up and saw Pujols cheering for him.
"I just saw him hit a walk off home run that morning on ESPN and here he is cheering for our team," Renda said.
Back in San Francisco, Gordon was following along with the play by play on his Blackberry, group emailing the other donors.
"I was so excited," Gordon said. "I take a lot of pride in what we've done."
Gordon won't be at the Super Regional. He is leaving on a long-planned trip for Italy. He already canceled a trip to Africa in March because of his fundraising involvement. His wife wasn't about to agree to canceling another trip, so he'll be tracking the Bears' progress on his Blackberry.
The Bears know their season has been storybook. And they know the appropriate ending should come in Omaha.
Their resiliency may get them there.
"We have a degree of toughness that not everyone has," Esquer said. "We're not just going to go away. We're not just going to lay down.
"Don't give us up for dead, because we're not done."