When Ron Fraser has grown old, the grandchildren of the Miami Hurricanes baseball coach will have a big problem. They won't be able to figure out which of his jillion stories they want the rascal to tell.
Scott Fitzgerald said personality is a succession of successful gestures. Fraser, whose underdog Hurricanes won the College World Series here Saturday, has lived a succession of successful anecdotes.
Should Fraser tell those grandkids about his youth? How he was the seventh child of a poor New Jersey prizefighter? How three of his brothers and sisters died in infancy and his dad died when he was 8? How he wore linoleum in the soles of his old shoes and wore socks for mittens in winter?
Should he tell them how he migrated to Florida, got a pro baseball offer from the Washington Senators, went to Florida State on scholarship and roomed with Dick Howser? How he made money by selling sandwiches to sororities with one paper-thin slice of baloney? "The butcher would say, 'Can't slice it thinner than that.' I'd say, 'You can always get it thinner.' I'm still selling baloney, but now the slices are thicker."
Should this former coach of the Netherlands national team tell how he took over a Miami program so bad it once canceled a season because it ran out of baseballs? Fraser went from coach of the Dutch to coach in dutch. Now, 20 seasons and 758 victories later, Fraser has, in the words of assistant Skip Bertman, "Done for college baseball what Arnold Palmer did for golf . . . He's popularized and promoted a sport that was . . . in the shadows."
Perhaps Fraser should tell about those early Miami years when the wooden dugouts burned down, when he taped the balls, nailed the bats and bagged the popcorn. He even whitened old balls by rubbing them in dry milk--that is, until the day one turned sour in the Florida sun and an Ohio State pitcher stopped the game to yell, "Hey, this ball stinks."
Maybe he should recount his glory years as he surpassed even old Joe Engel and Bill Veeck as a jubilant baseball huckster.
Who else but Fraser would schedule a parachutist to drop in with the opening day ball, then, when the fellow missed the park by two miles, tell an usher, "When he finally shows up, make him pay to get in." Who else would hold a $5,000-a-plate gourmet dinner between second and third, complete with pheasant, truffles and a harpist on the mound? Who else would give away diamonds and cars, then top it by crumpling 10,000 one-dollar bills on the infield--hoping the wind wouldn't blow? Or have Bathing Suit Night: women in bikinis get in free, men with binoculars pay double.
Finally, perhaps he should tell how, having learned to grab attention, draw 160,000 fans a season and raise $350,000 annually, he also learned how to build first-rate teams. His clubs, constructed on pitching, defense and smarts, reached the college series six times, including the last five years. From '79 to '81, Miami was ranked second, first and first in the nation.
None of these adventures, however, is the favorite story of this common man who loves an honest con. Fraser didn't have the thing he wanted most--a national title. Actually, he had a growing reputation for bringing the favorite to Omaha, then never even reaching the finals.
Fraser was a grand promoter, an amusing fellow; heck, he was even the director of his own bank. Except for being conked with an occasional chunk of ice or rotten orange when he took his teams to rival schools, Fraser just about had it all. When George Steinbrenner asks if you want a front-office job with the Yankees, as happened in '79, and you tell him thanks, but you'll take a raincheck, things are working out fairly well.
Now, however, after eight days in Omaha, Fraser finally gets to tell the whopper that's always eluded him. It goes thus:
"Never in my wildest dream did I think we'd win the world series this year. We lost 14 players off last year's team--six seniors, seven juniors and one freshman. Then, six (freshman) recruits signed with big-league clubs. We were decimated."
Fraser says he told his team, "I don't think we can compete for the title this season . . . We just make too many mistakes."
As Bertman, the team's associate head coach and technical baseball wizard, puts it, "We lost five in a row at one stage this season. One more and we'd have lost more games in a row than we'd ever lost in a whole season."
When Miami arrived here with a 49-18 record and a three-man pitching staff, its chances were dismissed. It didn't matter that Miami had cheerleaders (the Sugarcanes) and nautical flags waving in the grandstands (Hurricane warnings). Little did No. 1-ranked Texas and No. 2-ranked Wichita State suspect Miami had secret weapons.
"I like Miami's chances, though it's hard to say why," said Maine Coach John Winkin. "They've got four kids--(shortstop) Bill Wrona, (second baseman) Mitch Seoane, (reliever) Dan Smith and (DH-pitcher) Sam Sorce--who don't have great talent, but who have guts. Everytime Fraser needs something, it seems like one of them does it."
Miami also had third baseman Phil Lane (25 homers), first baseman Steve Lusby (.383), Expo-drafted catcher Nelson Santovenia and starter Mike Kasprzak (14-4). But, mostly, Fraser says, "we had two things our other, better teams of the past didn't have--more heart and better bats."
On Saturday night, right-hander Kasprzak beat Wichita State for the second time in the series, 9-3.
After the final out, Miami players swarmed over each other at the base of the mound in a prearranged brawl. "Santovenia and I room together and we're always getting in fights," said Smith, grinning, "so, we decided that if I got the last out, we'd have another one."
As for Fraser, he settled for an understatement worthy of a man who contemplated selling ads on his team's bases; he hated to see white space going to waste. "The greatest thrill of my life," said Fraser, who once had a ticket collector sit in a wheel chair because, he reasoned, "Who's gonna try to beat the guy out of a buck?"
Cynics may say that Miami finally won because, for the first time since '54, no powerhouse from California or Arizona was in the final four. Or, maybe Miami won because people from South Florida are immune to the kind of clouds of carnivorous mosquitoes that infest Rosenblatt Stadium here.
More likely, Fraser had the right phrase for his team's performance. Early in the tournament, Miami shocked Wichita State with a now-famous phantom pickoff play that's been entertaining millions on TV ever since. Fraser named his nefarious play--in which a dozen Miami players pretend there's been a wild throw, when, in fact, the ball has never left the pitcher's hand--"The Grand Illusion."
On Saturday night, undermanned Miami may have completed the grandest illusion that Omaha and the College World Series have ever seen.