June 9, 2011

A look inside the locker room and minds of the Berkeley Nine

BERKELEY -- in 1957, California catcher Charles Thompson and his Golden Bears won the program's second College World Series, 10 years after Cal defeated George H.W. Bush's Yale team to capture the inaugural CWS title in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1947.

Thompson was named an All-American, the program's ninth since 1947. All of that, though, paled in comparison to what he saw on Monday in Houston. Thompson was in attendance to cheer on his alma mater, and told this year's squad that what they did that night brought more emotion to those old bones than even his team's national title run.

On Wednesday, lefty starter Justin Jones, along with a handful of others, assembled at the open window of the Evans Diamond press box to stare at the photos of the program's All-Americans, trying to pick out Johnson, as, in the background, Omaha 94.1 FM blared over the speakers, as it has several times throughout this magical season.

"It's hard to put into words, it really is," says Jones. "It was one of the best nights of my life. Just to be a part of that, it's like something, it's storybook, it's a fantasy, it's everything you can imagine. Everything went right, and the energy level in the dugout, I've never seen anything like that in my life."

Neither had Thompson. As sophomore second baseman Tony Renda crossed the plate, having strained his quadriceps muscle coming around third base, the dugout went thermonuclear. Renda was buried beneath teammates, his helmeted noggin pounded bill-first into the dirt by his brothers-in-arms.

"I saw the guy field the ball, make the throw, and I just remember Mitch Delfino on the other side of home plate just telling me, 'Get down! Get down!'" Renda recalls. "I dove in, and I wasn't moving from there, either. I was just laying on home plate. It was probably Mitch and [Paul] Toboni who pinned me. It was awesome. It was awesome."

Renda, the reserved, hard-nosed scrapper who has been one of the many heart-and-soul players on this team -- really, you can't choose just one -- went just as wild as the rest of the goofballs when the finally got into the clubhouse.

"Unreal. Unreal," he breathes, just shaking his head. "It was awesome. We were going nuts in the locker room afterwards. It was pretty cool. It was really cool."

Last summer, Renda lost his father Frank to cancer. Frank was the guiding light for the feisty, unshakable emotional leader of this magical bunch. He molded his youngest son into a grinder, an adamantine competitor with a no-nonsense-if-you-know-what's-good-for-you ice-cold glare and blood that would make polar bears shiver, coursing through his veins.

Every time Renda gnashes out a tough at-bat with that cocky come-and-get-some swing, every hard slide he takes, every bad-hop grounder off the chest, Frank is there. He's in every callous on his son's hands. Batting gloves? Who needs 'em. Even when the Bears were leading 8-0 against Baylor on Sunday night in the penultimate game of the Houston Regional, Renda sold out on a hard grounder up the middle. It was an uncatchable ball, and it meant nothing, but Tony still dove, burying his mug in the hard clay. Somewhere, Frank smiled. And, when Tony swept his hand across home plate late Monday night, Frank was there, again, sitting on his son's shoulder, not letting him give in to the stabbing pain in his leg.

"I think about him constantly, when I'm playing the game," says Renda. "I knew he was with us there. I miss the guy like crazy. I wish he was here to experience it with me, but I know he's looking down, seeing it all happen, sitting on my shoulder, absolutely."

Baseball runs in Tony's veins, which run like the red stitching on a baseball, up and down his taut, bridge-cable forearms. Even with that gimpy quad, he still took a few cuts on Wednesday, as the pitching staff took some impromptu infield. On his first swing, trying to hit a grounder to senior Kevin Miller at third, he laced a liner over Miller's head and into shallow left.

"Guess I can't help but hit something," he smirks, as the pitchers give him grief.

As he watches batting practice from a folding chair, letting his weary legs rest for once in his life, his roommate Chadd Krist gives him some more ribbing, flashing his fingers to count the number of base hits he's gotten in this round and that. Renda just smiles.

"I'd have gotten that one," he says quietly, as Krist shoots a low liner up the middle.

Asked if the whole team was going to grow playoff beards, Krist laughs. Can the baby-faced Renda even grow facial hair yet?

"I shaved already because I was getting grimy, because I can't really grow it because it gets all patchy," Krist starts. "I figured I got the bleached hair, so that's good enough, but I don't think Tony can shave yet. He's kind of got a little bit of peach fuzz."

Krist lets loose with a big laugh, and he and the rest of the team have indeed had plenty at Renda's expense, but in the end, it all comes out of love.

"Everyone's all over him," Krist chuckles. "But, I'll tell you what, you can say whatever you want about him, but the guy hits the ball like he's 6-5, so it doesn't really matter."

Renda was named the Pac-10 Player of the Year before this weekend's hysterics, and lived up to the billing by getting a hit in every game of the Regional, going 8-for-24 (.333) with six runs, three RBI and a double. Renda leads the team in batting average (.335), hits (82), runs (37), RBI (41), total bases (109) and stolen bases (9-for-11) , and is slugging .445 with an on-base percentage of .370. When Renda and Krist's lease on their apartment ran out, the two decided that there was only one place to go.

"Me and Tony slept in the locker room the night before we left," says Krist. "Our lease was up, so we didn't really have anywhere to sleep. We were kind of nomads, roaming Berkeley, so we were like, 'Might as well sleep in the locker room.' We and Jonesy have been sleeping in there the last few nights, since we got back, sleeping there [Tuesday] night, and we're going to sleep there [Wednesday] night, just right on the couch. You figure, you don't have anywhere to live, you don't have a bed, so if you're going to sleep on a couch, you might as well be in the locker room. You've got a big old TV, recorded shows, so we just post up and watch TV."

If there's anyone on this team who bleeds blue and gold -- if, in fact, he can even bleed at all -- it's Renda, so it was only fitting that he was the one who helped touch off the fateful ninth inning on Monday night.

"On Friday, when we lost, I came up with two guys on, down two, and I was trying to park the ball," says Renda. "I was trying to hit a bomb. I ended up flying out to left on a pitch that I should have driven. I was just telling myself, when I went up, there were two guys on again [on Monday], and I was just telling myself, 'Don't try to hit a bomb. Just singles. Line drives. Just hit it hard somewhere.' I ended up hitting my first hard-hit ball into the four hole all year and it came at the right spot.

"I was just telling myself, 'Don't do too much.' I don't even remember who was on base or whatever, but whoever started the rally was incredible with that missed double play. Once that happened, I knew we had them pretty nervous, pinned down a little bit. We were going to pull this one out."

Rewind to Friday night. Down 6-0 to the same Baylor team in the opening game of the Regional, something sparked. The engine turned over. The light went on.

Cal struck for a run in the top of the seventh, then three more in the top of the eighth. The offense that had slept through the last two weeks of the season began to stir.

"We started to pick it up towards the end, and we kind of found our stride there," says Renda, who singled to left in the top of the eighth and scored the first run on a single by junior shortstop Marcus Semien. "We found what we were missing at the end of this year, and it's the right time to find it."

What were they missing? Just like most things in the game of baseball, which is defined as much by that which is tantalizingly just out of the reach of language as the cold numbers and statistics, Renda just couldn't put his finger on it.

"It's hard to explain," he says. "It's just one of those things where, it's not there, and then, all of the sudden, you're like, oh, it's here. It. It's It. It's not one thing in particular. It's just It. We had It."

The Bears stormed back to defeat Alcorn State 10-6, and then Rice 6-3 amidst a two-hour, 43-minute lightning delay, otherwise known as an Act of God on your insurance forms.

"There was nobody in their dugout," says Renda, who played two-on-two basketball with baseballs and a ball bucket, cornhole and Dixie cup bowling with his teammates. "They were all in the visitor's locker room, just hanging out. I don't even know what they were doing. I think that turned it. That's the type of team we are: we have fun playing the game. We have a good time doing what we do, and it just gave us a moment to step back and realize where we're at, and kind of put the game aside and have a good time with each other. We came out doing the same thing in the eighth inning against Rice and it all came together."

That come-from-behind win set the stage for the final two games against Baylor. Thanks to 6.2 innings and nine strikeouts from true freshman Kyle Porter, Frank Renda had the chance to look down and see his son's toughness -- his toughness -- rub off on those gold jerseys like so much dirt.

After Renda's scorcher through the right side on Monday night, Krist worked a four-pitch walk. Semien -- who was 4-for-4 on the day -- fanned against Baylor's Logan Verrett.

"I was seeing it well, and I knew this pitcher had good stuff," Semien says. "I knew he was going to attack, and didn't really have a choice but to attack. I missed the first fastball, fouled it back, and then he threw some good sliders to me and I tried to stay alive and didn't get the job done, but on that walk back to the dugout, I told Devon, pick me up, and he did."

Sophomore first baseman Devon Rodriguez then did just that, driving a 1-2 slider into shallow right, bringing senior Austin Booker around to score. As Renda rounded third, coach Tony Arnerich kept pace with him, sprinting down the line as Renda sprawled headfirst into the dirt and around catcher Josh Ludy to touch off the biggest celebration in Cal baseball history.

"Oh, it was, the ball went through the infield, and a couple expletives came from my mouth, 'You've got to be kidding me!' and then it seemed like it was slow-motion, as the ball came towards home plate, and I was just watching Tony slide across home plate," says head coach David Esquer. "You just don't believe it until you actually see the 'safe' call. You don't know what's going to happen. I did jump around, and was kind of out of my head, for sure.

Esquer had already worn a path into the turf both inside and outside of the dugout as he paced back and forth throughout the game. Junior closer Matt Flemer and the other upperclassmen began to even tally the number of trips their skipper took.

"I was telling people, I think better when I'm moving," Esquer smiles. "Flemer and some guys were counting how many times I would pace up and down the dugout during the game. I think it kept them loose just to watch me."

But as the throw came in, Esquer went off his well-worn rails.

"I had started to move towards home plate. I had made my way to the far end of the dugout at the start of the pitch, and the ball got hit into right, and I remember starting to move towards the plate, knowing we were at least tied," Esquer says. "I was waiting to make sure I could have a little bit of an angle in case I needed to argue. When the ball came in, it was a ball that moved so slow towards home plate, and when he slid, and I saw the ball actually not be caught, I think that's when I finally allowed myself to relax."

And with that relaxation came pure pandemonium. Esquer, the buttoned-up skipper, was sent into a frenzy.

"That was just, I mean, talk about not feeling the ground," said junior closer Matt Flemer. "It was just something unbelievable. Everybody felt like they were floating, just going around, hugging everybody. Just seeing Coach Esquer jump around like he was a five-year-old kid that just got his first toy, and he's pacing back and forth the whole game. Back and forth in the dugout. To see all the weight off his shoulders, and to know that we did it, that we came back, it's just everything balled up into one. All the stuff that we've gone through, not just getting cut and getting reinstated, but the slumps that we'd gone through, finishing the regular season the way we did, we wanted to prove something: that that was a fluke. Just being able to show that to everybody, it's going to be a nice feel-good story."

As Krist's iPod blared Party Rock Anthem, the Bears just plain lost their minds, inhibitions and any sense that none of them could dance a single step (credit to Paul Toboni for the link and the superior camera work).

"It didn't even matter what song it was at that point," Flemer says. "We just heard everybody jumping around and that's no better way to finish it."

Jerseys were flunk in the air, shirts were off, pants half-zipped, as pure, unadulterated joy and elation coursed through every fiber of carpet and every plank of wood. On facebook a day later, former catcher Eddie Hsieh commented, "You got 30 white guys who can't dance … and Austin Booker."

"That's about right," laughs Jones. "Booker's always dancing and I have no rhythm at all, and, clearly, all the other guys on the team don't have rhythm. I was running around the locker room, screaming, so that's about all I was doing. We provoked Buskie [David Buscovich] to get up and start dancing. He competed with Booker, but Booker's still [the best]. We still got Booker."

Little Booker just smiles and chuckles to himself on Wednesday, sitting on the bench, prying off his spikes as a newly-drafted Oakland Athletic.

"It was mayhem," he squeaks through his mouthful of pearly whites. "It was just everyone screaming whatever they could think of off the top of their heads, taking their jerseys and spinning them in the air, it was so much fun. It was wild. It was one of the wildest things I've seen in a while."

Not a single player -- including two-way stud Louie Lechich, who tossed 3.2 innings of gutsy relief in the win - knew quite what to do with themselves, wildly gyrating under what we can only assume to be the mistaken belief that they were good dancers.
"I don't know. I blacked out. It was nuts. I was screaming," says Jones. "My voice, I don't have much of a voice anymore. I've never screamed like that in my life. I think my competitive side, just from that, has jumped two notches. We were jumping around to the music, dancing, singing. I don't know what the song was. I don't listen to their music, but it was Party Rocking or something, I don't know. I have no clue. It was nuts, that's about all I can say."

Booker, who has been on teams which had fallen short of lofty expectations, just kept dancing.

"We have that fight in us," he says. "We have that never-give-up fight, and as you can tell with all the games that we played out there, we had to come back at some point. We have that never-give-in attitude and we keep fighting until the game's over. That ninth inning, that was one of the craziest, I don't know. It was 8-5, thinking that we've got to put a lot of work in there, then we get that one ball [through the infield], we get a runner on, Chad [Bunting] gets on Darrel gets that ball that we thought was going to be a routine double play, and the guy boots it. That just gave us life. I think we saw them start tightening up and it just opened up the doors for us, and we just took advantage of it. It was just an amazing feeling."

Whether that fight is in the Little Booker That Could, the lantern-jawed armored tank that is Chadd Krist, the five bleach-blond heads (a trend which is spreading, according to the now-peroxided Krist), the two-tone Mohawks of Bunting and freshman Derek Campbell, the quirky love-fest that is Jones' pre-game gauntlet of man-hugs, the hiss-hiss-boom of the team's pre-game huddle or Frank Renda's iron will from up above, this team has already proven that it has that elusive It. Now, on Saturday at 5 PM at Stephen Schott Stadium, the Bears will see if they can keep on rolling, just like that Houston thunder.

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