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September 29, 2010

There Used to be a Ballpark Right Here

BERKELEY -- In my nine-plus months as the publisher of this site, I've kept my opinions largely to myself. This is not the forum for a cub reporter (as highly as I may regard myself) to vent his feelings. You guys don't pay for that. But for today, if only for today, I cannot remain silent. For just the next few minutes, I ask you to indulge me, just this once.

For three years while a Berkeley undergrad, I covered the Cal baseball team. During that time, I met some of the most extraordinary individuals, saw some of the most incredible moments I have ever seen in my 24 years as a baseball fan and made several dear, dear friends. The deep blue stone that sits atop my class ring is not emblazoned with my fraternity crest; it is inlaid with the block C-the logo of that same baseball team.

I would not be the man I am today, the reporter I am today or the writer I am today were it not for my three years with the Cal baseball team.

I would not be here, writing these words, were it not for Charlie Cutler's game-winning single against Stanford on a Friday night.

I would not be such an eternal optimist were it not for seeing Tyson Ross strike out 16 Oral Roberts hitters in just six innings of work.

I would not be here fighting back tears were it not for Josh Satin's game-winning, walk-off home run against UCLA, on the last day of the season, the last home game of his career, with his four grandparents in the stands (a shot I called right before it happened, for the record).

Were it not for coach David Esquer giving bullpen catcher Ben Liepman an at-bat in his last game at Evans Diamond showing me how beautiful, how poignant this game-and all collegiate sports-can be, I would not have this job.

Former middle infielder Brett Munster wrote to remind me-and all of us-of what Cal baseball has given to the University.

"Just a few examples of over 100 years of tradition that died today with the cutting of the Cal baseball program," Munster wrote via facebook. "One: It was Cal baseball that gave Cal the tradition of The Axe. Two: Cal won the very first ever College World Series. Three: Cal is tied for the most players currently in the MLB by any college."

St. Louis Cardinals rookie and 2006 Cal alum Allen Craig was getting ready to play the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium when he first heard about the news.

"Coach Jon Zuber texted me-our old hitting coach-and I was sitting in my locker, and I got this text that said 'Cal baseball's been cut from Cal Athletics.' My heart dropped into my stomach," Craig said. "It was just out of left field. Then, right after that, I got a text from you, confirming it, and I was just like, 'Oh, man, this is real.' I was upset, immediately. It's such a bad thing to hear.

"I called Stephen Carlson right away, and David Nicholson and Mike Padgett and Josh, and then I got a text from (Florida Marlins catcher) John Baker; it was pretty hectic there for an hour or so, getting texts and calls just trying to pass on the message. There was just a lot of shock. It was so unexpected, because Cal has always been competitive in baseball. We've produced so many good players, and we've been competitive for so long. It's just really out of left field."

There's 118 years of history behind this program. But there's also the present: a group of 38 young men with nowhere to go.

"They're angry," said Esquer, about the mood of his team when he broke the news. "They feel a little betrayed, and scared. Some of them are scared, quite frankly. They don't know what their future holds. I know the university is going to back them, academically, if they decided they didn't want to play anymore and just go to school, but many of them, they do want to play. Our first priority is to make them feel like they're going to be OK, because they're worried and their scared."

While rugby-another sport that suffered a figurative axe, in being reduced from varsity to "varsity club"-will soldier on, as it always has, the same cannot be said for a team that is very literally a cornerstone of this campus (refer to the photo showing North Hall, South Hall and the baseball diamond as the only landmarks on campus).

"Somebody must have really screwed up for this to happen," Craig said. "I get that Cal baseball hasn't been a national contender, and I get that a lot of people don't go to the games, and I get that we have a lot of varsity sports, but I feel like baseball should be one of the protected sports, no matter what. Someone really messed up. I just don't understand how a Pac-10 school, a huge school that does great in pretty much every sport has to cut the baseball team. I can understand at some smaller schools where there's no TV revenue or football and they have to cut sports, but Cal is a huge school on the West Coast, and you're telling me they're going to cut baseball?"

But, because the baseball team has 38 players on its roster, it is one of the largest men's teams (not including the largely-individual swimming and track programs) on campus. If you're going to get rid of any women's team, baseball has to be looked at. It's a fact of life.

"These were all very painful decisions," said a struggling Barbour, fighting back tears. "As I said to the students, earlier today, deciding which programs was the most difficult part of the plan. Baseball, in particular-and, again, we've got 29 programs that have all done wonderful things for this University. It came down to having to look at difficult aspects, and, I would say, for baseball, it was our highest net-cost to the University for our men's programs, there are a large number of male participation opportunities and they utilize significant support services. I would say that those are our three salient factors."

But the other factors involved-competition and tradition-were not addressed, two categories in which Cal baseball is nigh insuperable.

"It's really a crime. It's really about these kids who put all this time into the program the last couple of years, and the program is really starting to turn, getting to a regional, and going to a regional a decent amount," Satin said. "We've gone to a regional two of the last three years. I feel for Esquie and those guys, because they put their heart and soul into this program, and now they're just tearing it apart."

I covered this team in the good times-a triumphant return to the postseason in 2008 after so many close calls-and the bad-the tragic suicide death of Cyrus Allizadeh and the hazing scandal that erupted in 2007. But after all of that, this was-and always will be-my team. Sorry, Dodgers.

"Even though there were some negative times, every one of us came out of it a better person," Satin said. "That's what the program is. There was so much that it taught me about life, and losing people, like losing Cyrus; it taught me about disappointments in life and making bad decisions and living with the consequences. There was just so much that brought us together, and I'll never forget all those times that I had there."

Though men's rugby was also "cut," to maintain Title IX compliance-the sport is self-sustaining thanks to generous donations and endowments-it will remain on campus in a somewhat-diminished capacity.

Baseball, however, is done. This will be the team's final season for who-knows how long.

"I've dreamed of coaching teams like this team," Esquer said. "We've got the personalities and the work ethic that we've been looking for all our careers, and we're going to fight like hell to make sure we can coach this team. We need each other. Our players need to have their teammates on the team to have the best year possible."

For just one more season in the sun, that golden block C will shimmer proudly. It will shine with so much more than just the hope and rejuvenation that spring-and the religion of baseball-brings to so many. It stands as the essence of so much more than the team, the state or the school. It stands for tradition, history, and hundreds upon hundreds of young men who have pulled on that uniform, and who have been changed forever by it. It stands for a legacy that will, until the sport returns, remain woefully incomplete.

"You know I'm not one to hold back," says Satin. "I got a few texts from guys that were in the program when I was there, and I thought it was wrong. Someone had to be messing with me. I thought I misread it. So, I texted Coach (Dan) Hubbs, and he said, 'Yeah, man.' I was just like, I don't get it. How is that possible? It's just sad. I don't know how the school could be doing that badly that they had to cut baseball, which is one of the top three collegiate sports. I was just wondering what other sports they could have cut besides baseball. I mean, maybe we hadn't won much, but Cal baseball has done so much for so many people, as evidenced by how many guys we have playing pro ball, in the big leagues. I know I owe everything in my career to Cal baseball. I wouldn't be where I am right now if it wasn't for the program, for Esquie, for Coach Hubbs and Zuber and all those guys that were there.

"Eskie always told me, and told the whole team, that this program will do more for you than you will for it, and it's true, and it sucks that other guys, and the guys that are there right now aren't going to get to experience that like I did. Those were the best years of my life, even if some were up and some were down, that was the best time of my life."

There used to be a ballpark, where the field was warm and green

As I strode to Evans Diamond on Tuesday afternoon, I was greeted with the same sound as I heard from my eighth-floor dorm room in Priestly Hall during my freshman year: the ping of a metal bat. I knew back then that baseball was in the air, even with the fingers of mist curling around the Campanile in the autumn chill.

Back then, even in the dark October morning, those sounds meant hope. Today, those pings sounded more like the echoes of tears.

Today, the sky was a brilliant, mockingly-cheerful blue. The grass on the field was the greenest green that nature can muster. And on the field, the team practiced.

"The team, I give them a lot of credit. We gave them the option of whether they could stay home and give themselves some time to digest it, or come out and work, and do what we do, do what we love doing, which is playing baseball and going to school here at Cal. To a man, they said, 'Let's practice,'" Esquer said. "They're really invested in each other, and they understand that we have a chance to have a hell of a ballclub here. We've got some really talented ballplayers, so it feels good, because I think we really worked hard to put this team together, and we really want to coach this team. We don't want to see anybody leave and jump the ship at this point."

Just last night, Esquer gave Satin-who finished the season with the Double-A Binghamton Mets-a phone call. Satin hit .316 for the Single-A St. Lucie Mets with five home runs and 35 RBI, and, following a call-up to Binghamton, hit .308 with seven homers and 39 RBI.

"You know what's crazy, he called me (Monday) and we had a great conversation about life and about what I'm doing right now, and how I did so good last season, and everything, and he never said one thing (about this)," Satin said. "This was last night, 8:00 at night, and he didn't know! He had no idea! He was happy as ever, going on, calling me on his way home, wanting to chat it up on his way home. It's just a shame. Just a shame. I'd do anything for that program. As soon as I started making some money, it would have gone back to the program. That's just the way I was, that's what the program is to me. And now, it's all for naught."

Satin was devastated, like many of his former teammates, when he found out today what would become of the team, a team he gave his heart, soul, mind and body to for the better part of six years.

"Right now, I'm in a pretty good spot to make the big leagues, and I would trade all of that to start over at Cal and do it all again," said Satin. "It was the best time of my life. Where I am now, I'd trade it all to start over and be with the guys again."

Asked what would happen to historic Evans Diamond, Athletic Director Sandy Barbour did not know. After the 2011 season, it will become the providence of weeds and overgrown grass, blurred baselines and matted turf. Where once graceful outfielders galloped, and infielders left their signatures in the dirt with every dive, there will now be only ghosts, faint wisps of memory, swirling in the dust.

"That has not, to date, been discussed," said a muted Barbour, visibly shaken by having to cut five sports from her athletic program. "That was not part of the analysis. It was about the sport itself. We have a year left to play baseball at Evans Diamond, and over time, I am sure that we'll have discussions, as a campus, as to what's the best use of that in the future. There has not been discussion of whether these sports could return. This was a package of solutions that the pieces all have to fit together. If you pull a piece out, it doesn't necessarily work. In terms of a reinstatement path, there is none."

Where the people played their crazy game with a joy I'd never seen

When I first met now-Oakland Athletics prospect Tyson Ross, he was a 6-foot-5, barely-200-pound lanky kid with a wide grin, filled with braces. I watched him mature into a 6-foot-6, 220-pound strikeout machine, who made the Opening Day roster for his hometown A's. He never lost that smile, even after losing a game in which he struck out 16 batters and allowed only one run. On Tuesday, though, that smile had dimmed.

"I'd heard of them potentially cutting the program, but that just seemed like it would be in the far, far distant future," Ross said. "The fact that it happened this soon, I just wish that all of us would have had a couple years in the bigs and had that first big contract and been able to give back enough to save it."

Ross grew up in Berkeley. His mother went to Cal. She used to bring cupcakes to the park for the team to eat after games. His little brother wanted to play for the same team, for the same school. Now, that hope has evaporated like spilled Gatorade on the warning track.

"It's where I grew up, pretty much," Ross says of Evans Diamond. "I had three good years there, and all the friendships that I still have today. Big games, seeing walk-off homers and guys having great games out there, I don't know any specific memories, just all those memories from that time, I just wish that that thing could be enjoyed by other people, but, it being gone now, it's just not a reality."

Even after a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Craig-recently called up to the St. Louis Cardinals for his third stint with the team this year-made it a point to call me and speak about what a difference the program made in his life.

"There's so much," he said. "I was there for four years, so I had a lot of memories. I would just say the whole experience of just going there as a freshman, not knowing what to expect, not knowing anybody, from the coaches to any of the players, really. Then, you look back, after four years, and all those people are your closest friends that you'll have forever. In just a matter of four years, the experiences that you have, going to class and going to the baseball field and practicing for so long, every day, competing against the best teams in the country, that's what I'll remember.

"I was in Chicago, playing against the Cubs, and Xavier Nady was on the other team, and it was just cool to be on the field, knowing that another Cal Bear was on the field with me. I didn't get a chance to talk to him, or anything, but just having that fraternity, that camaraderie of all the guys that you played with and you're playing against now. You have the Cal Bear legacy, and it sucks to think that there's not going to be any more big leaguers coming through Cal, or any guys getting to chase their dreams of being a professional baseball player by going to Cal. For the guys that don't get the chance to play professional baseball, they won't get the chance to play Pac-10 baseball."

And in there air, there was such a wonder, from the hot dogs to the beer. Yes, there used to be a ballpark, right here.

I never had a beer while covering a game at Evans. There were no adult beverages to be had at the old yard. But I did put away my fair share of hot dogs. On Sundays, they used to bring out a moon bounce for the kids. There was always country music blaring on the speakers, and the baritone of the PA announcer welcoming people to another day of Cal baseball.

"I was hanging out with (Jeff) Kobernus today, and I've talked to a bunch of guys on the phone, and everyone's had the same reaction: just disbelief," Ross said. "Cal baseball's been just a huge part of my life. My mom went to Cal, so that was the reason that I went there. I remember being nine, 10 years old and going to the Cal baseball summer camps. That place, it was home for me, really. Going there during the summer and watching baseball, and then getting to college and playing there, getting to play baseball every day. It's part of me."

Fathers brought their sons, teaching them the game with a scorebook in hand, as young men unfettered by contracts and unconcerned with fame and fortune plied their trade with their home state emblazoned on their chests.

"No other major national program can take a bunch of local kids, have them mesh together and do what that team's done," Ross said. "No other big-time program."

And the people watched in wonder, how they laughed and how they cheered. And there used to be a ballpark, right here.

Whenever you hear that rich, fleshy, leathery pop or that razor sharp, pillow soft wooden crack, whenever you smell the scent of fresh-cut grass mingled with the musk of New Jersey clay, you remember it: that horsehide globe with scuff-mark maria-the thread of life in red stitching. It is the tie that binds so many former Cal baseball players not only to one another, but to their school.

"I made so many friends for life while I was there," Satin said. "From the time I was a freshman to the time I was a senior, that's probably 60 different guys that I've played with, and I probably still talk to 20 of them in some way or another. It's disappointing, because, I'll always be a Cal Bears fan, and I'll always love the Bears, but it's like, this kind of pours some salt in there because this is what I was. I mean, I'll always root for the football team and the basketball team, but it kind of makes me feel like I have nothing to come back to."

"It just hurts to think about it," Craig said. "We put so much effort into playing for our University on the baseball field. That was such a huge part of our lives, and I know a lot of us thought it was a mainstay in our lives, that we'd always be able to go back to the Alumni Game, and go to the Cal Banquet and see the guys that are on the team currently, maybe catch a game here or there, check the box scores and see how they're doing. But, to know that what you did with your teammates-that experience-is not going to be passed on, that's the saddest part. No matter what I'm doing or what Josh is doing, or the guys that were on my team, whatever they're doing in the future, there's not going to be a Cal baseball team that we can look back on and follow. That was a part of my life that could never be taken away, and now it kind of is. It's kind of like the Fountain of Youth, being able to look back at the guys, and knowing that they're having a great time, enjoying what people call the best time of their life."

I used to say that there is nothing more beautiful to me than an empty baseball field. No matter where you find it-be it in a grand coliseum of glass and concrete or a sandlot in the middle of that part of town you don't go into at night-the same ghosts are always there, in their knee-high stockings and billowing-like-clouds-on-a-windy-day jerseys.

But at the end of this baseball season, that will be Evans Diamond. Cold. Lonely. Empty. But, it will live on in the memories of those who made their fondest memories there.

"I have so many memories there," Satin said. "My first big memory is from my first year playing. We weren't supposed to be anything, and we battled our asses off all year. We went down to Arizona and they were a top-five team, and we went to their place and took two out of three and we were supposed to be going to a regional. Even though we didn't end up making it, that plane ride home was one of the best times of my life. The joy and the energy that we had going in that plane ride was unbelievable."

A memory that sticks out in the minds of many, of course, was Satin's career-ending walk-off home run on the final day of the regular season in 2008, a 10th-inning solo blast to lift the Bears over UCLA.

"Then, my last year there, obviously, we had a lot of success-as did I-and finally, my last game at home," Satin remembers. "That home run, that was probably my best personal memory ever, because we were fighting for a playoff spot, we had a great season and that game put us over the edge to where we were a lock. That going, and it was my last game at home after all those years of playing there, all the ups and downs that I had, it was just a great way to end it.

"It's going to be tough to go, whenever I visit Berkeley-unfortunately, that'll probably be less often-I don't know if that field is still going to be there or not. But, every time I go back to that place, I'll just remember that day, and the next day seeing our name come up in the regional, and years of hard work that finally paid off."

Now the children try to find it, and they can't believe their eyes, 'cause the old team just ain't playing, and the new team hardly tries.

"Quite frankly, we've got a good club this year," says Esquer. "We could challenge for the conference title. If what we stand for is the last team in Cal history, we could have a pretty good one. That's what we're going to stand for, as a club, and hopefully, make them look bad by having a great year."

There used to be nothing more poetic, more haunting than an empty baseball field. I used to be able to spend hours upon hours, idly sitting in the stands cracking sunflower seeds with my back right molars, watching, listening. I looked at the infield dirt. No matter how many times you rake it or water it, it still bears the traces and tracks of spikes, the faint shadows of double plays, the hesitation of countless double-clutches, the elegantly curved lines of rundowns and tags, the gouges of hard slides and the tender kisses of soft grounders. Each toe drag leaves some indelible imprint in the clay, each headfirst dive leaves a divot, a shadow, an echo.

And now, that's all that Evans Diamond will be: an echo-those first moments when you wake where you can still hold on to the fragile strings of a wonderful dream.

"I'm, I'm in just shock, really," Ross said. "It's just really upsetting, to know that the program is going to be cut, and they had such a great, great family atmosphere there, and that's going to be gone for future ballplayers. They're just not going to have that option. It's devastating."

A program that has produced 55 professional players in the last 11 years and at one point this season had nine players on major league rosters, just like that, is erased.

"Everybody feels the same way, regardless of whether they had a great experience at Cal or an OK one," Craig said. "Everyone's pissed off that it was kind of taken from us. It's just weird, because, even though we're not a part of that team, we definitely feel the pain. I guess that's how you're supposed to feel when you put your heart and soul into something for four years."

Ghosts and phantoms will now be starting at every position, warming up in the bullpen and taking cuts in the batting cages, just erected not a few short years ago.

"We have that great new batting cage that was built four years ago, and that's just going to waste," Satin said. "The program's made some unbelievable strides the last three years, and now, it's over."

Voices, carried by the summer breeze will now float past ears as faintly as the scents and aromas tease the nostrils. All that is left is a flood of memory that goes beyond any single fan's experience. Just as it is our game, so too, is it our memory. It is a religion, a calling, a faith and a companion. As much as we breathe life into it, so does it breathe life into us. That memory is what drives the game of baseball, in all of its wonderfully infinite possibilities, countless permutations. To lose this sport is to lose a part of ourselves, the part of us that never wanted to come in after a game of catch, even when it got dark-the part of us that skinned our knees sliding into second or laid down that perfect bunt up the third base line.

"People in our clubhouse were astonished," Craig said. "Cal is on the map. People know Cal. They were like, 'They cut the baseball team? How does that happen?' They were just shocked. It just shouldn't happen. That's like USC getting rid of their baseball team.

That field, that simple pasture of grass and dirt, carries the signature of each player who has left his mark on her. The cut-off men and their relays, the pumping pistons of the outfield stallions, their long, muscular arms catapulting that cowhide towards a base, the leaping catches, the desperate dives, the cozy smack of a lazy fly ball falling dutifully into the pocket of an awaiting mitt-they all leave their marks. And those are all that will remain.

"There are so many schools around the country that have invested in their baseball teams because it's baseball-people love baseball," Craig said. "It sounds like the athletic department just underestimated the game of baseball, and didn't trust that people would come if they put some money into it. Maybe it's not that simple, but at the end of the day, Cal baseball is gone. One of the three major sports is gone."

And the sky has got so cloudy, when it used to be so clear, and the summer went so quickly, this year.

Yes, there used to be a ballclub, right here. It was as integral to so many lives as that sacred geometry is to the game itself.

There are times when a journalist has to make a decision on how to cover a particular event. I could have gone with the demotion of rugby to the newly-classified "varsity club" status. I could have gone with the fact that the men's gymnastics team is losing 98 years of its history, as well. But baseball, that beautiful, poetic, democratic game, is still the American pastime.

"There are a lot of Bay Area guys on our team right now," Craig said. "Obviously, Big Mac (Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire, the longtime Oakland A's slugger), he played against Cal (at USC). Our assistant hitting coach, he played at Stanford, but his brother played at Cal. Randy Wynn is a Bay Area guy. Aaron Miles was signed to go to Cal, but then signed a professional contract. They were all in shock that Cal cut their baseball team, because Cal is such a mainstay in the Bay Area, and in California. They kept saying, 'How could they not find a way to keep Cal baseball?'"

As many who subscribe to this site well know, I grew up with baseball. I learned it from my grandfather and my uncle. I played for 11 years. I gave a pair of knees, a lower back and a shoulder to this game. But that pales in comparison to what the young men-the 40 or so of them every year, who want nothing more than to wear CALIFORNIA across their chests, etched in blue and gold on a white jersey so bright, it hurts to look at it under the spring sunshine-have given. For them, it's as if their time on that field never even happened. It's as if a part of them never existed.

"It sucks that I'm not even going to have anything to come back to, to root for and to follow," Satin said. "I was hoping, one day, when I make the big leagues and get some cash, that I would support it. It's sad that I'll never get to do that."

No matter how you slice it, this was a dark day for Cal sports. 27 team national championships just went out the window. Over 300 years of Bears tradition has vanished into thin air. There are no winners here. Only lockers to be cleaned out, jerseys to be folded and pieces to pick up.

And what of those who had to make this decision? What of Barbour and Birgeneau? When Barbour was asked the inevitable, "Why baseball? Why rugby? Why gymnastics and lacrosse?" she fought back tears. This is not an easy decision. It never is.

But this is baseball. The sport of "wait 'till next year" and the annual bloom of even the most irrational of hopes known as Spring Training. When we lose baseball, we lose a part of ourselves. It goes beyond the cleats and the block C and the jerseys and the bats and the field and the bases and the rivalries. It goes to our very soul, to the very fabric of America.

"It's crazy how you don't realize how important this program is to people," Satin said. "The outrage that I've gotten from guys from back in my first year, from 2004, to guys my last year, in 2008, these guys are texting me and calling me and just outraged, asking, 'What can we do?' And I don't know. It just shows how much this program has meant to everyone. Brett Jackson is calling me saying, 'Hey, we have some money, let's get it going! Let's get (Xavier) Nady on the phone, let's get these other guys on the phone, let's save it.' But we can't. We have no control. There's nothing we can do."

An empty field tells the stories of the game. It is the stat sheets of history, it is the box scores in today's morning paper, and it is what may yet come to pass-what records have yet to be set, and broken just as quickly. People come and go, money gets spent, friends pass away, but baseball is always there, waiting for you to come back home. And for all who got to go along for the ride over the past 118 years of Cal baseball, we can only hope that, one day, baseball itself can come back home. Until then, we'll be waiting.

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