Last fall, the California athletic department announced it was cutting four sports — including baseball — and demoting another to club status to reduce the subsidy it received from the university by roughly $4 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year.
But on Sunday, when Cal’s baseball team (37-21) faces Virginia (54-10) in the teams’ College World Series opener, the Golden Bears will take the field safe in the knowledge that this season won’t be the last for the 119-year-old program. Cal baseball alums led a colossal fundraising effort over the past nine months that yielded $10 million in donations.
“I think it’s great for college baseball that they are playing in the College World Series,” Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor said. “I think it sends a message across the country to administrators that are ever considering at all dropping a baseball program.”
The Berkeley-based school announced in April that Cal baseball would continue as one of the athletic department’s varsity sports, but for this year’s players, that didn’t completely atone for the insult they felt they were dealt last September.
Junior Dixon Anderson, a right-handed pitcher selected by the Washington Nationals in the ninth round of last week’s major league draft, said he and his teammates had heard rumors around the start of school last fall that their team might be on the chopping block. But for the most part, Anderson said, the Bears did not think that their team actually might be cut.
After all, the baseball team had reached the College World Series five times (though not since 1992) and had won two national titles (though the most recent one was in 1957). Aside from that, the program had produced several major league players, most notably 2000 National League MVP Jeff Kent. It was obvious, to the players at least, that the program meant a lot to the university.
But then they met with Athletic Director Sandy Barbour, who informed them that budget cuts mandated the athletic department eliminate four programs: baseball, men’s and women’s gymnastics, and women’s lacrosse. Plus, the men’s rugby program was to lose its varsity status and become a club team.
Anderson, who grew up 10 miles from Berkeley, said he and a few teammates tried to understand why the baseball program had been chosen for eradication.
“We talked it through,” Anderson said. “How can this make sense fiscally? What is the reason that cutting baseball or these other four sports are necessary for this university to continue to function? And I think the biggest issue we ran into was the fact that the university was investing so much money elsewhere athletically at the time.
“And for cutting four teams to save what seemed like an insignificant amount of money compared to what was being spent elsewhere just never really resonated, never really fit and was a source of a lot of the confusion that we felt.”
In lieu of any other coping mechanism, the players devoted themselves even further to their craft. Senior left fielder Austin Booker (Robinson High) said the team’s “whole motivation was to do the best we can and try to prove the people who thought cutting us would be fine, prove them wrong.”
While the players worked on the field, the team’s alumni and fans worked to raise money in an attempt to sustain the program. By April, they had met their goal, but Booker said the team’s inspiration remained the same.
“We still had that in the back of our minds, that we were cut,” Booker said. “And so we wanted to continue to use that.”
Four times this season, the Bears entered the bottom of the ninth trailing their opponent only to come away victorious. Two other times, the score had been tied entering the final frame before Cal tallied the winning run.
In the bottom of the ninth on June 6 — with two outs, two strikes and his team trailing by one against Baylor in the final game of a NCAA tournament regional series — Cal first baseman Devon Rodriguez singled home two runs to push the Bears into the super regional round.
Guided by a pitching staff that ranks No. 11 in the nation in ERA (2.84), Cal prepares to take on Virginia, the tournament’s top overall seed, in the CWS. The Bears have grown accustomed to defying odds on and off the field and believe they’re well prepared for the moment.
“I think the reason why we were able to have so many come-from-behind victories this year is because we have that never-give-in attitude,” Booker said. “And so we didn’t feel the pressure in that Baylor game that a lot of teams feel about having to come through in that situation.
“We felt comfortable, kind of, because we’d done it so many times. We knew that if we were in striking distance, that they won’t be able to stop us.”