The last time Ron Fraser brought a baseball team to Barcelona, his best players were Joop Geurts, Herman Beidschat and Hannie Urbanus. Hannie, you may or may not recall, was the Babe Ruth of the Netherlands, the year was 1960, and the 24-year-old Fraser was the coach of the Royal Dutch National Baseball Club. In Barcelona that summer, the Dutch won the European championship, and Fraser became something of a national hero.
Cut to 1992, and the 56-year-old Fraser is once again taking a baseball team to Barcelona. This time it's Team USA, and at stake is the first gold medal for baseball in the Olympics. Adding irony to the scenario, baseball's first hurrah is also Fraser's last hurrah, because the longtime University of Miami coach is calling it quits, or at least says he is, after this mission. A career that pretty much began in Barcelona will end in Barcelona, but then, that's the way baseball works, circling the bases, home to home. "It'll be a little weird going back," says Fraser. "My wife says I should expect Rod Serling to meet me at the airport."
Fraser is sitting in the coaches' room at Team USA headquarters in Millington, Tenn., just north of Memphis, where he is honing and polishing a team that will try to beat Cuba, Japan and Taiwan, its main competition in Barcelona.
"Before we won the European championship in 1960," he says, "the Dutch press was on my ass, accusing me of being a taskmaster and tyrant. But after we won, they were after me to become the head trainer for the Olympic track and field team. I didn't know anything other than baseball, and besides I was anxious to get home. I'm at the summer home of the prime minister of the Netherlands, and he asks me what it would take to keep me there as baseball coach. Well, I came up with what I thought was a fantasy: $19,000 a year, which was a lot of money in those days, and a few months in the States. And the prime minister says O.K. Believe me, I never made that mistake again in negotiations."
After coaching Holland to another European championship, in 1962, Fraser came back to the U.S. and appeared on What's My Line?, a very popular quiz show at the time, as the Dutch national baseball coach. Fraser, a former pitcher for Nutley ( N.J.) High, Murray State, Florida State and the U.S. Army, stumped the panel, throwing the old heater past Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf and Arlene Francis. "Kilgallen was tough," says Fraser. "Her questions started getting into sports."
Actually, the quiz show Fraser should have been on was To Tell the Truth, the one in which host Bud Collyer would ask of the three guests, "Will the real [ Ron Fraser] please stand up?" Over the years Fraser has developed three very distinct personae. There's Fraser the Baseball Ambassador, a man who has coached the game in Holland, Belgium, Germany and various points in Asia and Latin America. There's Fraser the Baseball Promoter, a man who built the hugely successful program at Miami thanks in part to beautiful batgirls (the Sugarcanes), $5,000-a-plate dinners and open-heart-surgery giveaways. Last and certainly not least is Fraser the Baseball Coach, a man who won 1,271 games in his 30 years with the Hurricanes, putting him second on the alltime list of college coaches behind USC's Rod Dedeaux (1,332).
Watching What's My Line? that night in 1962 was Henry King Stanford, the president of the University of Miami, and he was so impressed with Fraser that he asked him to come down to run what was a pretty mediocre program. And a big comedown it was: Miami offered him $2,200 a year. "I remember getting my first look at the baseball field in Coral Gables," says Fraser. "I parked my beat-up old Volkswagen out by the centerfield fence, walked from centerfield, all excited, to home plate. I turned, looked around and said to myself, I've got some work to do."
Among the things Fraser had to do were painting and carpentry work and bagging peanuts for the concession stands. He put evaporated milk on old baseballs to make them look new, a trick that sometimes soured in the heat. The Sugarcanes, introduced in 1968, were a much better idea because not only did they bring people into the park, they also were persuasive in getting the fans to give back foul balls. Among Fraser's later promotions was an income tax night (fans with 1040 forms got free advice from CPAs stationed in the stands), a drawing for free open-heart surgery, and the $5,000-a-plate dinner in 1977 that included 11 courses and truffles flown in from France. All of the above helped turn Mark Light Stadium, Miami's home field, into a major league showplace.
The only trouble with being the P.T. Barnum of college baseball is that people have tended to overlook the fact that Fraser is also the Whitey Herzog of college baseball. In 1974 Fraser took the Hurricanes to the first of their 12 trips to the College World Series, two of which they won (1982 and '85). He has an eye for talent—144 'Canes have gone to the pros—and good rapport with his players. "He's a great guy," says Charles Johnson, a Hurricane catcher who's now playing for Team USA. "He keeps you loose, but he keeps your mind in the game, too."
Fraser, who observed the interview of Johnson, later asks, "Did he tell you about my home run?" Told no, Fraser hunts down Johnson.