If I were to given my choice of any sporting event I could watch in person, without hesitation I would opt for the College World Series.
The young amateur players are more fundamentally sound than major leaguers and Omaha’s ambiance offers up a slice of Americana that has all but faded away. Absent are the whining multimillionaires who can’t field, pitch or hit—at least not at a level consistent with their incomes.
This week and next, the CWS holds its championship games with the University of California Bears making a surprise appearance in the final eight. Cal beat Texas A&M 7-3 on Wednesday to improve to 1-1 in the final, double-elimination portion of the tournament.
Only a few months ago, the chances of Cal even fielding a team were slim. Last September, the university announced that baseball would be one of four varsity sports dropped from the 2011-2012 season because of budget constraints. Other sports eliminated were men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s rugby and women’s lacrosse. The university projected that the cuts would save $4 million including the salaries of 13 full time coaches.
But within a week of the announcement, parents, alumni and former players held a meeting at Berkeley’s Evans Diamond to develop a reinstatement strategy. What evolved was a $10 million fund raising effort, much of it through an Internet website foundation, that kept the Bears on the field.
The team rewarded the alumni with one of its most memorable seasons in the program’s 118-year history. Cal qualified for its first trip to the CWS in 19 years after the Bears scored four runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the final of the Houston Regional. Then, Cal swept Dallas Baptist University in the Super Regional during a series in Santa Clara played in front of sellout crowds made up of hundreds of the original donors.
Cal’s players made sure the organizers know how appreciative they are. Although many had tentative plans to transfer to another university, once the money came rolling in they concentrated on baseball.
Pac-10 Player of the Year and sophomore second baseman Tony Renda said: “They are the reason we are still here. I’m forever grateful for them pledging all their money to save us. They’re on my mind. We have our team on the field, but they’re on our team, too. They’re Cal baseball like we are.”
The alumni may have unwittingly created a template for other college baseball teams to liberate themselves from the clutches of their university athletic departments. Before launching its fund raising efforts, the alumni consulted with the San Francisco Giants and other successful NCAA teams to learn what would lure more paying fans to Bears’ games.
Some of the solutions like installing lights for night games and operating in a mode of constantly cold calling for donations were obvious. Cal also copied Texas A&M, another CWS finalist, and allowed local restaurants to sell food before games in exchange for a fee.
The Bears talked the Giants into hosting a three-day baseball classic at AT & T Park that included games against Rice University, Long Beach State and Louisiana-Lafayette.
If the CWS grows much bigger, I’ll have to set my sights on a Cape Cod League game where they’re still using wooden bats.