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June 7, 2011

The Long Hard Road

Check out this Pop Up Photo feature from Monday night's dramatic 9-8 win .

The game of baseball has a plan for all of us. For some it's pain and heartache. For others it's exultation and fame. For every bean ball, there's a home run. For every error, a spectacular diving play. Ever fickle, never predictable, the game leaves its mark on every boy and girl who has ever laced up spikes.

It is redemption and disappointment, sorrow and elation. It is our game. And we are forever in its grasp. It's an addiction and a cure, lifting us to the heights of madness and the depths of self-doubt. There is nothing like it out there. It teaches us patience, rewarding study and planning, and it gives us moments that will shape our lives long after we hang up our dusty old mitts.

It is our salvation. It teaches us never to quit -- never to lay down and die -- because there's always one more at-bat, one more pitch, one more lifetime in a quarter of a second, one more moment that stretches on forever, always one more hero waiting, patiently, with bat in hand.

Save Cal Baseball is a dream. It's a fairy tale. It's not supposed to happen, and you wouldn't believe it if it did. Well, folks, it's time to remember Santa Claus, Hannukah Harry and the Tooth Fairy, heck, let's throw in the Easter Bunny, because "supposed to" and "what's expected" just took a break, and they won't be back for a while. Even after Devon Rodriguez's bases-loaded, two-out, two-strike, two-run single in the bottom of the ninth erased years of playoff frustration on Monday night, this story isn't even close to over. Now, officially, BearTerritory is replacing "You Gotta Believe" with its 21st Century equivalent: #rallycapeson.



On Sept. 28, California Athletic Director Sandy Barbour and Chancellor Robert Birgeneau announced a "painful decision." The University of California, one of the charter members of what will shortly become the Pac-12 Conference, was eliminating baseball.

After 118 years, the Stanford Axe, two Major League MVPs, two College World Series titles. Gone. Done. Erased.

That day, the Bears did all that they could, all that they knew. They took the field.

"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 that day. "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."

Those few, those sad, lonely few, this band of brothers numbering 39, took refuge in their temple, their cathedral of grass and clay, their security blanket of cowhide and wool. Somewhere, on some cornfield in the sky, Clint Evans wept, but, next to him, Andy Smith turned and winked. "We do not want men who will lie down bravely to die," the legendary coach once said, "but men who will fight valiantly to live."

Out of the darkness and uncertainty, a spring day dawned in the midst of Autumn. It was a sick joke. How can this happen, on a day like today?

With the golden sun and the almost painful blue of the Berkeley sky came a message, shouted from all corners of the country: We're with you.

Slowly but surely, program alums Sam Petke and Doug Nickle drummed up support. They started the Save Cal Baseball Foundation, and, along with former National League MVP Jeff Kent, gave a face to the lengthy financial struggles of the team. There were sound bites aplenty, hope mixed with a tinge of vitriol and betrayal. There was passion and fire, action and drive. This was personal. This hurt. This was wrong.

As the story got out, money began to trickle in. There were conflicting reports about just how much had been raised, and neither side was willing to concede which were true. Through it all, the Bears kept playing, kept practicing, keeping their minds between the two chalk lines. This couldn't be about them anymore, but it was, and it always would be, no matter how much the coaching staff tried to insulate them.

"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."

With an uncertain future and a feeling of abandonment, no one would have blamed any of the players for transferring. At the semester break, three players left. Just three. But on February 12, the bruised and battered, punch-drunk program took another hook to the jaw.

"You'll recall that our criteria for all five sports was $25 million for use over the next 7-10 years and a plan for permanent self-sufficiency," said Vice Chancellor Frank Yeary, as the school reinstated three of the five programs cut in September: rugby, women's gymnastics and women's lacrosse. "The total amount of money raised was between $12-$13 million. Of that, the men's and women's gymnastics program raised just under $1 million. If we applied the same criteria that rugby is looking at, that number would have been more than four times that. Likewise, baseball raised between $1.5-$2.5 million and really would have had to raise something close to $10 million for them to have met the criteria."

On February 18, the annual Bay Area College Baseball Media Day might as well have been backed by a pipe organ playing a dirge that could drive a glee club into a spiraling collective depression. The air was positively funereal, as what was supposed to be a celebration of the national pastime, was haunted by the walking ghost of one of the country's most venerable programs.

Cardinal skipper Mark Marquess -- who has seen his fair share of heated rivalry games with Cal -- all but scolded the Berkeley administration.

"It's sad. It's sad that a program of that magnitude, that they will no longer sponsor baseball. It's a real shame," Marquess said. "It's a slap in the face to our game of college baseball."

Quietly, as the teams prepared to kick off what was to be the Bears' final season, a series of meetings took place. Former Cal pitcher and successful attorney Stu Gordon met with Birgeneau. There had to be a way to save this. There just had to be a way. This old Bear would not quit, and he would not let his program die.

Just as Gordon led the effort off the field, it was sophomore Tony Renda, the scrappy, 5-foot-7-in-spikes-on-concrete-if-you-like-him second baseman, who led the charge on the diamond. With eyes that would make Mr. Freeze shiver and a chin that could cut diamonds framing all-too-youthful features, Renda was no-nonsense. Just get things done. If he can play through allegations of performance enhancement and the death of his father, and still come out the other side a Freshman All-American with a spotless drug test record and an iron will forged in the heart of some volcano on some planet that no longer exists, then this team wouldn't have a choice but to follow his lead.

"This team is extremely easy to lead," Renda said. "I feel guilty even calling myself a leader. It's a team filled with a lot of great guys, hard workers and just fun-to-be-around people. I don't have to do much to get them on board with anything. It's not really vocal or trying to do anything to get these guys to do more because they already do it. It's more just like running between drills, like, 'We just hit BP, and now we've got to go bunt, so let's jog to the bunting stations instead of walking.' It's stuff like that: leading by example. It's the same reason why you won Mr. Hustle awards as a kid."

As Cal opened the season, the Bears turned into veritable superheroes. Instead of rally caps, they donned rally capes. Those jerseys, buttoned at the top and left to hang over the shoulders, would power the Bears and true freshman Andrew Knapp to a walk-off win as part of a doubleheader sweep in the opening series. And Cal just kept winning.

They chugged into Conway, SC, and swept all three games in the Caravelle Resort's Tournament, blasting Coastal Carolina 17-0, edging North Carolina State 4-0 on Knapp's first collegiate homer and a gutsy performance from starter Erik Johnson. They finished off Kansas State behind seven innings from sophomore lefty Justin Jones, who, along with Renda, was being courted by Oregon, already picking at the carcass of the Cal program.

Senior right-handed pitcher Kevin Miller returned to his freshman form, hearkening back to is 44.0 scoreless innings in is first season by becoming one of the best pitchers in the country and doing it all, from spot starts to midweek nods to clutch relief appearances.

After stumbling in the University of San Diego Tournament, Cal came right back and swept the inaugural Cal Baseball Classic at AT&T Park in San Francisco, downing nationally-ranked Rice in a 15-inning marathon thanks to a walk-off bunt from another true freshman -- Derek Campbell. These Bears would not quit. These Bears would not die. Rally capes on.

Cal swept Ohio State and then Wasington State to open Pac-10 play, following that up with a 15-strikeout performance from Miller in a midweek tilt against San Francisco at Benedetti Diamond.

When USC came to town with vaunted slugger Ricky Oropesa, Cal and sophomore first baseman Devon Rodriguez slugged their way to a 2-of-3 series win.

The Bears were the talk of the nation, ranked No. 13 in Baseball America. Going into a scouting meeting in a Tucson hotel before a huge series against national power Arizona, Cal expected nothing more than a strategy session. What they got was the news they'd been waiting for. Reinstatement. With one out and a man on second, the Bears had just doubled in the tying run.

"When Coach told us we had a scouting report, we were a little confused," said junior All-Pac-10 catcher Chadd Krist. "We hadn't done it on the past two road trips. We went in, he dropped the news on us, and it was just a big weight off of our shoulders, a big sigh of relief, that our program's finally getting reinstated. We no longer have to worry about our futures, because our futures are with the University of California and with Cal baseball. Now, we can just really focus on what we're doing on the field: keep winning and keep playing hard."

And after a tough loss to the Wildcats that night, the Bears split a doubleheader, and then went on to sweep Washington in Seattle before edging UC Davis at home, 4-1.

Then came out number two. A 17-inning, 6-4 gut-punching loss to Arizona State on April 21. And with that, the Bears started what had become a tradition over the past four years: the annual swoon.

The offense labored, wheezed, chugged and choked, as Cal went on to lose 5-0 and 6-0 to the Sun Devils. A debacle at Sunken Diamond saw Esquer so infuriated with the anemic production that, late in the eventual 9-5 loss, he pulled all of his starters, as even the dependable Miller went cold, getting blasted for seven runs on 11 hits in 5.1 innings.

The Bears came back and took two of three from the Ducks, who had so coveted their best pieces, coming away with their fourth and fifth walk-off wins thanks to Michael "Walkoffanopoulos" Theofanopoulos's solo blast on April 29 -- his second homer of the season after depositing a drive over the right field fence in Palo Alto just four days earlier -- and senior left fielder and Cal legacy Austin Booker, who gave Cal a 5-4 win on May 1 with an RBI single in the ninth.

No, there was not one ounce of quit in these Bears, and no longer the stench of death. The power of the rally cape was in full force. But after close series losses to Oregon State and UCLA on the road, Cal came home for a rain-drenched series against Stanford, hosting the biggest crowds of an already record-breaking season for attendance. But, in front of the band and a sell-out crowd, they fell flat, again, losing 3-2 and 4-2 before a 7-1 game was called off due to rain, mercifully allowing Cal to limp into Selection Monday.

The Bears and Esquer looked to once again be headed for an early exit in the playoffs in the first game of the Houston Regional, as Johnson - who had just out-dueled the eventual No. 1-overall MLB Draft pick Gerrit Cole in Los Angeles, faltered in the oppressive Texas humidity. Cal fell behind, 6-0 after just three innings.

But somewhere in there, the weight of 119 years and a now 1-7 playoff record in their past four appearances, the Bears remembered how to have fun. Those rally capes weren't just good-luck baseball superstition hocus pocus. The story of this baseball team, a bunch of misfits, knuckleheads, goofballs, brothers and guys who are just plain too dumb to know when they've been beaten, is a dream. And they weren't about to let it end. Not like this. It couldn't.

So, eight months after the very weather mocked them, shining a bright sun on a darkened program, fate, it would seem, didn't forget its sense of irony on the plane flight out to Texas. The skies darkened. Lightning flashed. Thunder split the plains, and all that jazz. Seriously, you couldn't make this stuff up.

Slowly but surely, these Bears forgot how to quit. They forgot how to die. They remembered how to hit. They remembered the rally capes. They remembered that, for 119 years, thousands of young men before them had gone out and played, simply played, a boy's game and a man's indulgence. In the top of the seventh against No. 2-seed Baylor, right fielder Chad Bunting -- who missed over 20 games with a torn ligament in his wrist -- delivered with an RBI groundout to drive in junior shortstop Marcus Semien.

As the thunder built in the distance on the hot Friday afternoon, te Cal offensive orchestra swelled, bringing in every instrument slowly, one-by-one. In the eighth, Booker slugged a one-out double, followed by a single to left from Renda. Krist -- the durable, triple-tough backstop who had caught all but 10 innings and started every single one of the Bears' games behind the dish, taking shot after shot after shot, foul ball after foul ball after foul ball and still managed to hit over .300 and earn his second All-Pac-10 honor - stuck out his granite chin under newly-bleached hair and stroked a single through the left side to knock in Booker. Semien then drove a single to right, scoring Renda. Rodriguez followed several batters later with an RBI single through the left side, as Bunting was cut down by a strong throw at the plate.

Though the Bears fell that day, 6-4, something was coming. Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a lightning storm! It's a rain delay! It's an act of God! No, it's the rally cape!

Facing elimination against No. 4-seed Alcorn State, Cal rattled off 10 hits and downed the Braves 10-6. Krist went 3-for-5, Renda 2-for-5. Krist slugged his 24th double of the season, Bunting his third and sophomore Darrel Matthews his fifth. After Miller lasted just 1.2 innings, giving up six its and four runs, Jones came in and all he did was strike out 10 hitters over 6.1 innings of relief. No, these Bears weren't about to quit, they weren't about to lay down and they certainly weren't ready to die just yet, winning only the second playoff game in Esquer's tenure.

"We'll be following not just our regional, but every regional," Jones said. "Whoever we play, we'll be ready. We didn't come here to lose and we're going to put everything out on the field."

Rally capes securely fastened, it was time for the Bears to get their Clark Kent on.

On June 5, fiery closer Matt Flemer, who's parents Paul and Ann were some of the instrumental leaders in the Save Cal Baseball movement -- I mean, what else can we call it at this point? -- came on and shut the door on the Owls, as Cal didn't need 15 innings this time to oust the Regional host and No. 1-seed.

After falling behind 3-2 to Rice, Matthews singled up the middle in the bottom of the seventh. After e was bunted over by sophomore Vince Bruno, Booker singled hard to left center, tying the game at 3-3.

Righty reliever Logan Scott allowed two of the first three hitters to reach, and then gave way to Flemer. The emotional fireballer walked third baseman Shane Hoelscher, then fanned shortstop Derek Hamilton and induced a weak grounder to Renda from Keenan Cook, pumping his fist as he sprinted into the Cal dugout.

Flemer then had to wait two hours and 43 minutes as lightning flashed in the skies around Houston. That same creativity, spunk and chutzpah that spawned the now-famed rally cape produced games of dugout bowling and cornhole, even bouts of two-on-two basketball, using baseballs and a ball bucket for an improvised game. On the other side of the field, the Owls sat and waited.

"During the delay you couldn't even tell we were playing a baseball game," Flemer said. "We were dancing around, having fun, and playing bowling games in front of our dugout. We were loose. When we're loose we play better."

All season, Cal's motto had been 'Next Bear Up.' Just get that next guy to the dish, and magic can happen. Well, that, and, apparently, dance like no one's watching. As the goofiness loosened the tension in the Bears dugout, something snapped.

"We've been fighting ourselves a little bit toward the end of the year," Esquer said. "But somewhere around the tenth hour, we found our team. We really did. We found a bit of a rhythm and I'm so proud of our guys on how they did that.

"It makes you a little emotional when you get to see that team just playing as selfless as you've ever seen your team play. Guys really pulling for each other."

The Bears looked for all the world like a team of destiny when two hits and three Rice errors in the bottom of the eighth spelled the end for the No. 8 team in the land, and a 6-3 win for Cal.

Two time zones away, the crowd at Sunken Diamond, upon hearing the news, stood up and cheered. That's right: a Stanford Cardinal crowd cheered a California win.

But all that meant was that the Bears had to defeat Baylor not once, but twice, starting well after 9 PM that same night. Thanks to a remarkable, career-high 6.2 innings and a career-high nine strikeouts in just his third career start from true freshman lefty Kyle Porter, beat Baylor the Bears did.

Bunting slugged his fifth and sixth home runs of the season to drive in four runs as Cal pulled away from a six-inning pitcher's duel to tally an 8-0 win.

Then came Monday. Rally capes on. Another delay. More rain. As Allen Craig and his St. Louis Cardinals teammates flew into Houston for a series with the Astros, I got a text. "We got a crew going to the game."

What he failed to mention was that the "crew" included National League MVP Albert Pujols and just about half of the Cardinals roster, all out to support Cal baseball. And that's not even where it gets surreal.

On that hot Houston night, with Craig, Pujols, Barbour and half the St. Louis roster in the stands, the Bears were done. Finito. Kaput. Finished. In the ground. Buried. Someone find the Undertaker and Paul Bearer, and that creepy urn they have.

Craig and his teammates left in the seventh, afraid they were jinxing the old alma mater as the Bears squandered a 1-0 lead and went down 7-1 after a horrific fourth inning from Johnson and Scott.

What followed was a comeback that defies the inexplicable, spits in the face of impossible, kicks no-way-in-heck to the curb and looks at the ending of The Natural and says, "Yeah, we can top that."

There were no exploding lights at Houston's Reckling Park, but there might as well have been.

Down 7-1, in the bottom of the sixth -- the same inning in which the Bears scored seven runs less than 24 hours before -- some life crept into the Cal dugout, somewhere between the sweat-stained undershirts and the Gatorade cooler. Someone was sitting on a four-leaf clover. Someone's mom sent along a horseshoe in a gear bag. Aw, who am I kidding? It was the hair.

Renda led off with a scorching double to left center. The now-toe-headed Krist smoked a single to the hole between short and third, beating the throw from Landis Ware by a mile. Semien singled to left field, RBI. Rodriguez reached on a fielder's choice, and Krist moved to third. Sophomore third baseman Mitch Delfino -- who just one week prior had played through a bout of pneumonia -- delivered a sacrifice fly to center, bringing Krist home.

The Bears added two more in the eighth, and Baylor came back with one in the ninth, now leading 8-5, but, rally capes on yet again, Cal turned from Clark Kent into Superman, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man, The Flash and Captain America all rolled into one.

Devon "Roy Freaking Hobbs" Rodriguez, the 19-year-old sophomore who, for a year and a half, has had his first name spelled wrong, came up with a two-run bomb to right to bring Cal to within two in the bottom of the eighth, and he wasn't done yet.

After Miller -- who I've known since he was a freshman eating Jeanie Ross's cupcakes after games -- gave up a hard-luck run in the top of the ninth thanks to two errors on the same play from the normally sure-handed Semien, that was it. Game Over. It had to be. No way. Not a chance. They couldn't do it. Not again. Rally cape time. These Bears would just not quit. And they sure weren't about to die.

A Bunting leadoff single, a whiffed grounder by Matthews past the second baseman and an RBI fielder's choice from Theofanopoulos got one run in. All of the sudden, I got that same feeling I got in 2008, when Josh Satin stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 10th inning on Senior Day against UCLA, with all four of his grandparents in the stands: Wouldn't it be cool if …

A tweet from Cal alum John Baker of the Florida Marlins: "#teamofdestiny." A tweet from Michael Silver: "#Believe." No way. I've been burned too many times. I'm a Dodgers fan and a Cal alum, for God's sake. I know the other shoe will drop just like I know that I could use my former in-laws' matzoh balls as deadly weapons.

Then Austin Booker reaches base, and Renda does the same, here comes Mr. Krist with a chance to win the game. Krist works a four-pitch walk. Bases loaded for Semien, who was 4-for-4 on the day. Trying to come up big once again, Semien over-extended himself and swung at bad pitches, fanning on a 2-2 slider in the dirt. Cue the music from Field of Dreams.

I'll let my good friend Danny Freisinger do all the talking.

So, here we are, eight months, 35 wins a few thousand words later. In case you're counting, three of the Bears' four wins in this Regional have been -- you guessed it -- of the come-from-behind variety. In case you're counting, in one weekend, Esquer went from 1-6 in playoff appearances to 5-7. In case you're counting, this will be the first time ever that the Bears are headed to a Super Regional since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams.

That, folks, adds up to a whole lot of history. And maybe, just maybe, this game, this beautiful, infuriating, complex, endlessly permutable, goosepimpling, leaping and screaming, heart-rendingly captivating game, can give these Bears at least two more chances to pull on those rally capes, and, just like Stu Gordon, Sam Petke, Doug Nickle, Paul and Ann Flemer, Mike Knapp, Joni Krist, John Hughes, Bob Milano, Jeff Kent, Scott Ball, Tony Arnerich, Brad Sanfilippo, Dan Hubbs and the countless others who have given their time, their hearts, their money, their will, their strength and their spirit, they will not lay down bravely to die, but fight valiantly to live, all the way to Omaha.


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