Cal baseball looking for storybook ending at CWS

Cal baseball looking for storybook ending at CWS
June 15, 2011, 8:16 pm
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June 15, 2011

COLLEGE PAGE

BERKELEY (APCSN) -- This season has already included the biggest save in California baseball history. Now the Golden Bears are hoping to cap it with one of their biggest wins.

A season that started with the Cal baseball program on the chopping block because of budget problems is concluding at the College World Series in what can only be described as a storybook ending.

"It's been a roller coaster ride," catcher Chadd Krist said. "We were cut, we weren't cut, we weren't playing very well and lost some of our focus and energy. We were kind of a bubble team for the playoffs but we made it. We deserved to make it and now we're going to the College World Series. It's been a unique ride but it's been special."

It's been an emotional year for the Golden Bears (37-21), who found out in September just before the start of fall practice that the program would be eliminated after the school year as part of a cost-cutting move by cash-strapped Cal.

REWIND: Cal tops Dallas Baptist, headed to World Series

Then hopes for reinstatement spurred by private fundraising were dashed just over a week before the season when the school announced that the men's rugby, women's lacrosse and women's gymnastics programs would be saved, but baseball and men's gymnastics would be eliminated after the year.

But the program's supporters never stopped working, raising more than 9 million to persuade Chancellor Robert Birgeneau to announce in April that the program would avoid the chopping block.

The players did the rest. They made it to the NCAA tournament, staged a dramatic rally to beat Baylor to win a regional, then swept Dallas Baptist in the super regional to earn the program's first trip to the College World Series since 1992.

The Bears open play Sunday against top-seeded Virginia, looking for their third title overall and first since 1957.

"They weren't going to take no for an answer in terms of competing and we weren't going to take no for an answer in terms of reinstatement," said former Cal and major league pitcher Doug Nickle, who was heavily involved in the group Save Cal Baseball. "To see both reached was almost surreal. The pure joy was like a release."

The players celebrated the super regional victory with a dog pile on the infield, expressing as much joy as they had disappointment and anger just a few months earlier.

But the Cal team is now bigger than the 36 players and four coaches on the roster. More than 1,000 supporters including former major leaguers like Jeff Kent, parents and former Cal players donated money to the cause and are an integral part of the program.

"They're the reason we are still here," Pac-10 player of the year Tony Renda said. "I'm forever grateful for them pledging all their money to save us. ... We have our team on the field, but they're on our team too. They're Cal baseball like we are. They mean a lot to us."

There are quite a few people on the Cal bandwagon these days, from the season-ticket holders at Oregon State who gave coach David Esquer a check to help the program, to the boosters at rival Stanford who helped raise money to the legions of fans who have attached themselves to this feel-good story.

And then there are the former Cal players in the majors, who contributed money to the cause and are now admirers of the current Bears.

"They've had a 50-pound weight on their backs all season with the cards they were dealt," Oakland Athletics outfielder Conor Jackson said. "This is definitely a movie script. I hope the people who were involved in making that decision have their heads between their legs now."

The trip to the World Series has been a difficult one. Three players transferred after the bad news in the fall, but the core of the team stayed together for one last run behind a strong pitching staff led by Erik Johnson, Justin Jones and Kyle Porter.

Jones left Game 1 against Dallas Baptiste when he felt tightness in his throwing biceps while warming up for the seventh inning.

While preparing for the season, the Bears also had to prepare for their futures. Assistant coach Dan Hubbs asked every player with eligibility remaining for a list of three schools they'd like to transfer to in case the reinstatement bid failed and called the coaches at those schools on the players' behalf.

"If you can imagine running your program, saving your program and dismantling your program all at the same time, it's all day, every day," Esquer said. "There's not one piece of that that doesn't stop. It was difficult, but my assistant coaches played a big role in doing all those things at once."

The Bears started the season off well, using the anger over their slated elimination to fuel a 19-7 start. Then came the good news in April that the program had been saved, but Cal stumbled down the stretch, going 12-13 the rest of the regular season before getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Bears lost the first game of their regional to Baylor before following it up with victories over Alcorn State and No. 8 seed Rice to set up a rematch with Baylor. Cal won the first game 8-0 and then overcame a 7-1 deficit in the finale, scoring four runs in the bottom of the ninth to win 9-8 on Devon Rodriguez's two-run single.

That was followed by the two straight wins last weekend over Dallas Baptist that sent the Bears to Omaha.

"We feel like there's no obstacle that can get in our way," outfielder Austin Booker said. "We have the opportunity to beat any team we play against because of the way we battle and the way we keep fighting. No matter the situation we feel like we can go out and win."