Leggy dancing girls, wearing outsize vinyl baseballs on their heads, did a high-kick routine at second base. Mel Allen's still sturdy voice, brought out of semiretirement, welcomed Ted Williams and broadcast the game. Williams was brought in from center field on a motorized facsimile of a baseball glove to bat out the first ball. He batted out five of them, every one a line drive to right. A sellout crowd roared and stomped its 8,792 feet. Ron Fraser smiled. Just another day in the life of college baseball's most unusual coach.
The occasion was no more earthshaking than last week's opening round (South Regional) of the NCAA baseball tournament at the University of Miami. For Miami's Fraser, however, it was an opportunity to make another mountain out of a molehill. Evidence of his ability to capitalize on such chances in the past was all around. The girls kicked their heels on a $350,000 Tartan surface that Fraser had promoted onto the premises. Among colleges, only the University of Texas has a similar field. Williams' curly hair was illuminated by thousands of quartz bulbs, and the glorious successes of the Miami team glittered from a new electronic scoreboard. The $100,000 lighting system and scoreboard were coaxed from a single donor named (sure enough) George Light. The fans whooped it up in what is usually referred to in Miami as the "showcase million-dollar stadium," Mark Light Field (after George's son). Fraser christened the place last February by throwing a $5,000-a-plate black-tie dinner, honoring (besides himself) his various financial angels.
In the history of college sport, it is safe to assume no one else ever held a $5,000-a-plate dinner. Certainly not on an infield rug. With violinists strolling. And goldfish swimming in free-form pools. And truffles flown in from the Black Forest to go with the pheasant and peeled grapes. And seven varieties of high-priced spirits (including the brandy in the charlotte russe) to neutralize an unseasonable cold snap.
One would think that the Miami team would be at the vortex of all this tangible adulation. The Hurricanes, with a 41-11 record, were ranked No. 1 in the nation going into last week's tournament. Miami had little trouble with Morehead State or Ole Miss, but No. 14-rated Clemson was much tougher, beating the Hurricanes in two of three games and spoiling their hopes of going to the College World Series. Never mind all that. Appearances lie. The story at Miami, as it has been for some time now, is Fraser, and it is nothing if not inspirational.
At 41, Fraser has been coach of the Hurricanes since 1963, the year George Mira was finishing his Miami career as an All-America quarterback. One afternoon shortly after his arrival, Fraser heard a mitt popping behind a decaying wooden dugout and went around to find the source. It was Mira, having an impromptu catch with a friend. Unexposed to intercollege sports for three years while directing the national baseball program in Holland, Fraser did not know Mira. "You pitch baseball?" he asked. Mira said he had, in high school. "You throw harder than anybody I've got. Say, how would you...?"
A newsman standing nearby took in the episode and, in the late editions, revealed Fraser's hopes for making Mira a baseball star. The next day, Andy Gustafson, then Miami's football coach and athletic director, summoned Fraser to his office and gave him a list of football players "free to play baseball, too." Mira's name was not on it. Fraser says he "got the message."
In essence, the message was that life at the bottom was grim. Fraser's salary was $2,200 a year. To achieve poverty level, he moonlighted as athletic director of the Coral Gables Youth Center, a position that allowed him not only to eat but also to "borrow" equipment for his sparsely outfitted Miami team. He says he was "too dumb to recognize a lost cause." The school gave him five tuition-only scholarships, which, by careful dicing, he parceled out among 21 players. When he asked for recruiting money, he was told to "do the best you can." He wrote a lot of letters.
He wrote them from a concrete cell-like cubicle that opened into the locker room. A solitary light hung down. One day while cleaning up his "office," Fraser found a discarded blueberry-brandy bottle. Hall of Famer Jimmy Foxx had coached Miami for a while when he was down on his luck. The sight of Miami's team did not necessarily drive Foxx to drink, but he was not loath to take a bottle to the bench on game days. Fraser's immediate predecessor, Whitie Campbell, "just upped and left, without a word."
Fortunately for Miami, Fraser was not unacquainted with hard times. The son of a Nutley, N.J. prizefighter who died young, he was raised on "cornstarch pudding and Brooklyn street fights" and spent many of his "happy younger days" in the Bonnie Brae summer camp for boys. "They shaved my head for lice and let me play, and I didn't know it was supposed to be terrible," he says. "One of my teachers told me it was a miracle I didn't wind up in jail."
Instead, Fraser wound up at Florida State with a partial scholarship to pitch baseball. He made ends meet by changing the bottles in the campus Coke machines and by selling homemade sandwiches in the sorority houses. "I'd cut the bologna so thin you could see through it," he recalls. "Then I'd put the sandwiches in boxes and leave them at the houses just before the 11 p.m. curfew, with signs saying 25� APIECE and IF YOU STEAL FROM ME, YOU STEAL FROM GOD."