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September 28, 2011

Gorcey's Strong Suit: One Year Later

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BERKELEY -- 365 days. $10 million. 38 wins. 605 base hits. 2,129 at-bats. 333 runs. Six walk-off wins. One of them bigger than the others. 10 Major Leaguers. Seven draftees, two coming back. Five all-conference players. One Pac-10 Player of the Year. One Freshman All-American. One year since the University of California decided to eliminate five sports from the varsity slate, including baseball. One year ago, today.

Walt Whitman once said, "I see great things in baseball. It's our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us."

Exactly one year ago, today, baseball dusted itself off and reminded us why that is.

For those who think the story of Cal baseball is over, think again. There's a reason I've only started writing Chapter One.

"If you have the program that I was looking for, which was one where the players would have relationships as close as brothers, and our coaches would connect with those players, and work to get them better and provide an environment that was based on serving them, and pushing them to be good players, and they could see that, if they could see that our focus was in pushing them, that you would have the program that you've always dreamed of," says national college baseball coach of the year David Esquer, as he sits in his office, wearing his game pants.

That's how the man comes to work, because he never knows when he'll have to toss some batting practice on the side, or help clean out the cages. The man is a baseball junkie. He can't get enough. And now, his team can't get enough of that winning feeling.

Outside, an appropriately blue and gold sunset washes over Evans Diamond. Every now and then, you hear the faint ping of someone taking late night batting practice in the cages. On the speakers, for once, blissfully clear and clean, is Sky Full of Lighters. Not quite as toe-tappingly, ear-wormingly catchy as Eric Walbridge and Ryan Sandler's Reinstatement Rap, but no less appropriate.

It was just that -- a sky full of lighters, an outfield pavilion full of luminaries like Stu Gordon, Ann Flemer, Paul Flemer, Mike Knapp, the Petke and Sproul families -- that lit up the horizon for this program brighter than even the opening fireworks at TDAmeritrade Park in Omaha, brighter than those same pyrotechnics that greeted the first team to enter the new stadium's first opening ceremonies: the Golden Bears.

One year ago, I wrote what amounted to a eulogy for the Cal baseball program. At least, that's what I thought it was.

I had yet to get to know how intense a stare Tony Renda can issue. I had no clue how leftily off-beat Justin Jones -- long hair, guitar, stuffed rattlesnake and all -- could possibly be. There was nothing to tell me how catcher Chadd Krist was tougher than Wolverine, how rough-and-tumble super-clutch first baseman Devon Rodriguez was, how inscrutable Derek Campbell's hair style choices were, how fiercely loyal all of them are, or how Party Rock Anthem and Adam Duritz's Omaha could replace There Used to be a Ballpark Right Here.

That was before Rally Capes and bleached hair and corn rows and Mohawks and sleeping in the locker room. That was before Matt Flemer's playoff beard and the big-game moxie of Kyle Porter. That was before the fairy tale, before six walk-off hits, before gut punches and salvation, before dirty uniforms and torn pants, before the 2011 college baseball season.

"We didn't have to have a jumbotron, or chair back seats, or 3,000 people at every game. We didn't have to have that to get to the World Series. We proved that. What we had to have was a purpose to play for," says Esquer. "We had to have, hey, even if it was someone that we were going to show, and play for that purpose, and our guys needed to be as close as brothers to really play for each other. When you have that, you have the program that you want. When you have that, you have a program that Chadd Krist and Matt Flemer don't blink to come back to, or Mark Canha takes 10 days to accept a $300,000 bonus, because he knew that last year's team was a team worth coming back to."

One year later, and all five programs -- rugby, men's and women's gymnastics, women's lacrosse and baseball -- have been reinstated. One year later, and there is a sense of new life about the baseball program, which brought in several of the state's most highly-touted prospects in Chris Paul and Robb Woodcock and is bringing in even more studs in next year's class.

But what they still don't have is a stadium -- the very thing it takes to turn a short run of success into a dynasty. They have a diamond, but a patch of grass -- as charming and as comfortable and as nostalgic as it may be -- is still just a patch of grass. No lights. No seat backs. No permanent amenities. A team that went to Purgatory came back from their storybook journey halfway across the country and found the same ballpark waiting for them. But, they didn't find apathy. They found a warm embrace. They came home to find that the replica jerseys with College World Series patches had sold out online. They found their home was still there, as ramshackle as it may be.

Yes, the program was saved. Yes, a swanky dinner held by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau in his own house was held to honor the coaches and the donors and all those who had helped assure that the program had a future. All those things are regenerative, healing and empowering, at the very least, and should be celebrated. As athletic director Sandy Barbour said, after the Bears dispatched Dallas Baptist in Game Two of the Santa Clara Super Regional, "I've never been so happy to have been so wrong."

But, the scoreboard still doesn't work all the time. The sound system wiring is exposed to the elements. Sure, that spot out beyond the right field wall is fine for taking a leak during practice, but it wouldn't qualify for a "half bath" even by Berkeley housing standards.

Permanent restrooms or no, once again, the Bears will have to get all their work done on the road.

And that's just fine with them.

"We kind of built our team to do two things: one, to beat and compete with any Friday night starter anywhere, and two, to win on the road," says Esquer. "We'd have to win on the road. If we're going to get to our ultimate destination, we're not playing here at Evans Diamond, so a lot of how we talk about preparing in practice is, we need to be good on the road. We need to be tough enough to be good on the road. We need to be vocal enough to be good on the road."

Esquer will take his boys into some of the most challenging parks they've gone in recent years. Cal will open up with a home-away-home weekend set against local stalwart Pacific. Then, the Bears head down south to battle Long Beach State, and then out to face off against Nebraska in Lincoln. The Pac-12 schedule won't get any easier, with a three-game set against Oregon State at home, a trio of contests in Tempe against Arizona State and perhaps the jewel of the schedule: a four-game set in Austin against fellow College World Series participant, Texas.

"We play a four-game series. Doubleheader on Saturday," Esquer says matter-of-factly. "We try to play to that RPI and play the schedule that will position us to be a playoff team, based on our strength of schedule."

All through last season, this wasn't a team that ever said 'woe is me,' wasn't a group that ever surrendered, wasn't a group that gave up. They were the underdogs, from the first pitch to the last out. If there was a challenge, they wanted to face it. It's a team of scrappers and grinders, and this next year will be all about doing it again. No lights? No problem. Play until you get to a stadium that has them. No future for the program? Play yourselves back onto campus. After that fateful day last year, the team cohered around a single idea, one that Esquer had been trying to hammer into his clubs for years. Last season, he had the right coaches, he had the right players and they all had the right moment.

"The fact that their response was, 'I'll show you,' and they crystallized that response, I'm telling you what, that's a big reason for why they were able to do what they did," says Esquer. "They didn't crawl in a corner and say, 'If you don't want us, how can we perform?' Well, of course we can't win. Our own department doesn't want us. They didn't go there. It's been a while. It's been a slow culture change that that's where our players go now."

Young men like Renda, who has always been too short, too small -- the runt -- and assistant coach Tony Arnerich -- the lantern-jawed former catcher -- provided a spark of fearlessness. They carried a chip on their shoulders. That chip was big enough for Renda to earn the Pac-10 Player of the Year Award. In the 119 years of Cal baseball, only two other players had ever been accorded a conference player of the year honors.

"Well, he's mature beyond his years," says Esquer. "He's not afraid of anything or anyone. That's kind of the personality that our team needed. We needed to be mature beyond our years, and we needed not be afraid of anyone."

And now, this team, this bunch of mismatched pieces, these off-the-wall brothers who are just too dumb to know when they've been beaten, will be tasked with doing it again.

They're alive again. They're practicing again. They're pushing like never before, because now, they've had a taste.

"To see our team crystallize that response, to be quite honest, it was four or five years ago, in my first team meeting, I printed out four pieces of paper, taped them onto the lockers and each one of them said, 'I will show you,'" says Esquer. "I said, this is where you go when somebody doubts you. This is where you go when somebody says you can't do it. This is where you go when somebody doesn't believe in you. This is where you go when someone says you're not good enough. This is where you go first. This is where the athlete that matters, goes."

As soon as Rodriguez and the Bears got back to offseason conditioning, he fired off a tweet that says just about all one needs to say about the mindset of this bunch: "#Grind starts today. First lift. Road back to Omaha. #BEASTMODE."

"We can't lose it. It's too precious to lose, and you can't get comfortable, you can't believe that, hey, we've climbed a mountain and now, we just have to go on cruise control," says Esquer. "We can't do that. One of the challenges is, we've got to stay up there. We've got to get better. We've got to better ourselves. It may take more effort to get the same amount of results, but we've been there, and we've felt it, and we know what it's like and you know how precious it is, and hopefully, it's one of those things like it was so good, and felt so good, that you'll put any amount of effort into figuring out how to get there again."

Despite losing starting shortstop Marcus Semien, ace pitcher Erik Johnson, weekend starter Dixon Anderson, outfielder Austin Booker and team MVP in righty pitcher Kevin Miller to the draft, the Bears still have that edge.

"They have to be there, and I've told them that," says Esquer. "I've said, 'You know, to be quite honest, guys, a year ago, your motivation was easy. It was easy. You were mad at the Chancellor, you were mad at the athletic department, you were mad at the athletic director; that's who you were trying to show. We're back. And if you can't find a way to show someone, or show something and provide your own motivation, you're going to be back to too soft, probably an excuse maker, probably a blamer, on why things aren't going right."

As Esquer speaks, in the locker room just outside his door, there are whoops and hollers. And that's just before an athletic department social media awareness seminar.

While some familiar faces are gone, almost all of the key emotional leaders -- Krist, Flemer, Renda and others -- return. Jones, who has stayed off his left arm all summer after a Herculean effort in Houston during Cal's remarkable run tweaked his biceps, will take the bump as the Friday starter, hugs and all.

Senior righty Flemer -- who was the ultimate mensch after the Bears clinched a World Series bid in Santa Clara, leaving the dog pile to embrace Barbour and bring her into the folds of blue and gold exuberance -- chose to come back to this team rather than signing as a 19th-round draft pick by the Kansas City Royals, and the former All-Pac-10 closer will be starting on Saturdays.

Porter -- the Freshman All-American, herky-jerky lefty with his arsenal of loops and blips and twists -- will replace the drafted Anderson on Sundays.

Two-time All-Pac-10 backstop Krist will return, splitting time with sophomore stud Andrew Knapp, who will spell Krist to designated hitter when the 13th-round pick of the Chicago White Sox needs a bit of a rest. Whenever Knapp isn't pulling on the shin guards, he'll put his high school defensive back roots to use in the outfield.

"Knapp will have an outfielder's glove in the fall and take some reps in the outfield," says Esquer, who will now have more bats in his lineup than he knows what to do with.

Though sophomore Louie Lechich decided to leave the team and transfer to the University of San Diego, there will be plenty of talent to rotate through the outfield and designated hitter slots. All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention Vince Bruno will be back for his junior season, the lightning-quick Darrel Matthews returns as a sophomore and slugging Chad Bunting will keep his strong arm in right. Campbell -- who hit .389 (7-for-18) with three RBI and three runs in the playoffs -- will take over for Semien.

Powerful Mitch Delfino will return at third. Renda will be back at second. All-Regional postseason hero Rodriguez -- one of the top prospects this summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League -- will man first. That's to say nothing for incoming freshman Paul, who will press for time in the lineup just like Knapp did last season. The offense will be fathoms-deep, and the pitching staff, under new coach Mike Neu -- a former College World Series-winning closer for Miami - will be full of young arms. Porter, though, has said that Neu is teaching those young arms things they never knew before. Flemer has been tremendously excited about the prospect of working with someone who has been to the mountaintop.

In the pen, Stephen Pistoresi will be the elder statesman of the group, along with change-up artist and closer nominee Logan Scott. Of course, on the bench will be Michael "Walkoffanopoulos" Theofanopoulos and Pistoresi's Gentle Giant, Jacob Wark.

Woodcock and another big man with a big change of pace -- freshman Michael Jordan -- will also push for time on the mound.

All of those youngsters all came in for the same reason -- the reason Anderson pushed through a fractured foot to pitch his team to the playoffs, the reason both Krist and Flemer returned. True freshman Paul, perhaps, said it best: "They've been there, and I could be a part of that next year. It's just a great program that I'm really looking forward to, and am really excited to be a part of next year."

As for Esquer, the man who practically lives in his uniform, it's now all about the next pitch, the next at-bat, the next lineup card, the next man up. That's how it was for Cal last year, and that's how it is now.

"You know, it's kind of the tale of two sides of the ball. The offensive players will give us what they give us and not really have to give us a whole lot until a year from now," Esquer said of his incoming freshmen: Brenden Farney, Paul, Keaton Siomkin and Brian Celsi. "On the pitching side, we're going to need a lot more comers in the program, whether it be freshmen or kids who have been on the sidelines a little bit the last couple years. We're going to need some step-up from them, to go along with the four guys who pitched some innings last year: Jones and Porter and Flemer and Scott, a little bit of [Joey] Donofrio, but he's got to step up and play a bigger role for us to make a move. Then, there's a combination of freshmen and program players like [Trevor] Hildenberger and [Ryan] Sandler and [Michael] Lowden and [Matt] Evanoff coming back from injury and whether it's the freshmen Michael Jordan or Woodcock, we're going to need a couple places out of those guys. The more the merrier."

Previously, Esquer has said that Paul would not be pressed into service on the hill, but as fall ball begins, the 6-foot-2, 185-pounder out of Aliso Viejo, Calif., will in fact see some time there. In high school, Paul compiled a 14-5 career record with a 1.76 ERA, so he's no stranger to hurling.

"We're going to throw him out there a little bit and see what we've got," says Esquer. "We've got no reason not to. Obviously, the loss of Lou Lechich, that's a big spot. That's a top-five pitcher for us and now that's a spot we have to fill, and that's unfortunate and that probably hurt us. Theofanopoulos has got to play a bigger role on the mound, as well."

Even former back-up quarterback Ryan Wertenberger is getting into the mix.

An All-PCL selection in baseball out of Mission Viejo (Calif.) Laguna Hills in 2008, Wertenberger went 5-3 with a 3.64 ERA in 34.2 innings of work with 29 strikeouts and 14 walks in his senior season.

"He's out there for the fall, for sure. We're going to get him for the whole fall," says Esquer. "Good arm, obviously not a lot of experience, but probably the most you'd expect, if he's going to make it, is to be a one-inning or a one-time-through-the-lineup type guy. We don't know yet. On the sidelines, he has arm strength, but no disrespect to the game, because the game's harder than just picking it up after three years and being good at it, so you worry about that, but he's such a great kid that our players love him and it's good to have him around."

This is a program that, without any bells and whistles -- and, really, without any of the basics of a high-profile Division I program -- has seen 10 of its alumni play Major League Baseball this season: Josh Satin (New York Mets), David Cooper (Toronto Blue Jays), Tyson Ross (Oakland A's), Brandon Morrow (Toronto Blue Jays), Conor Jackson (Oakland A's/Boston Red Sox), Geoff Blum (Arizona Diamondbacks), Xavier Nady (Arizona Diamondbacks), Allen Craig (St. Louis Cardinals), Brennan Boesch (Detroit Tigers) and John Baker (Florida Marlins).

"10 guys in the big leagues," Esquer smiles. "That's a heck of a lot of players out of one program, coming at any one time, and we've got more on the way. Between [Brett] Jackson and [Matt] Gorgen -- when he was healthy he was right on the brink -- and [Jeff] Kobernus and Blake Smith and guys like that are on the horizon, for sure. We have 10, and we've got more coming, and it's a lot. I always tell people that that needs to be noted, that it can be done here. You can chase that dream, and also, we can make that dream happen on the college front, too."

Both Canha (Marlins) and Semien (Chicago White Sox) reached high-A this season, while hard-nosed Charlie Cutler hit .333 with a .398 on-base percentage, 34 RBI, five homers, three triples and eight doubles for Double-A Springfield in the Cardinals' organization.

Cutler - Esquer says - would be "in heaven" playing with this current bunch. Satin, who graces the wall in Esquer's office across from the skipper's desk, changed his body and his swing to come back for his fifth year in 2008, and had some of the spirit that this bunch possesses.

"One of my proudest big leaguers, if not the proudest big leaguer, a guy who came back for a fifth year and he really, for some, they feel like that's a death sentence, to come back for a fifth or more, and yet, he waited and made his way through the minor league system," Esquer says of Satin. "He is who he is; he's hit at every level. He can just hit. He was willing to throw himself back on our team and try to make a run at the playoffs and give us what he could and then give it his best shot, and I don't think I've ever been prouder of one of my former players making it to the big leagues than him."

That big league resume is one of the first things Esquer talks about with recruits, and one of the many reasons why this team could very well be as good -- if not better -- than last year's improbable crew.

"We so believe that guys get better here, and whoever you are, we'll get you better while you're here and we'll advance your skill and we'll get you ready for that next level, just as a by-product of the hard work that we do and the way we train," says Esquer. "We believe in it, and a testament to it is that guys from our program are making it to the big leagues, and I think Major League Baseball has taken note that the guys that come out of our program are prepared to grind it at that next level, and make their way through, and I'm proud of that.

"Semien was in high-A and made it through the whole summer, so that's good, and those guys, they're going to be a product of what this team -- you know, you play in big games, that just becomes part of you and where you feel comfortable at. I'll be honest, I look for both of those guys [Semien and Johnson] to make a pretty good run at making it to the big leagues, themselves, for sure."

Yes, it's a year later. The Save Cal Baseball Foundation is working with the University to establish an endowment to perpetually fund this team and to improve facilities. But, the long-dormant plans for an improved Evans Diamond still sit under a glass table in the baseball office, unrealized. They're there. They exist. And there are those willing to fight for them.

The true financial ceiling of this program is still off somewhere, in the distance. But, Esquer, ever the baseball man, uncomfortable in the spotlight, a man of simple tastes who eats whatever his wife Lynn puts on the table, a man bashful when he should be glad-handing, will leave all of that to those who know better.

"One thing, which I deal with on a daily basis, is that we've got some incredibly talented and hard-working people working behind the scenes to secure this program forever," he says. "I've been at meeting after meeting where I am humbled at the professional talent that sits at a table, trying to work on securing this baseball program. I'm talking about professionals in finance, and business professionals and lawyers, and the best of the best, and they're sitting at a table trying to figure out how this program can secure itself forever, and spending business hours, not just extra time in the weekends. They're spending time out of their business day, helping this program get ready to secure itself forever. Where we are from where we were a year ago, is we have the most incredible people behind the scenes, working to keep this program going, and making sure that nothing like that ever happens again. I think the people who are supporters of our program, knowing the people who are working on their behalf, couldn't feel any better about the talent that's there."

The least he can do is make their job easy. And that means one thing, to both Esquer, his coaches and his players: Win. Win as a team, win as brothers, win as a family, win as Bears, and keep proving everyone wrong every single day, from the first pitch to the last out.

"We need to have as much fun as we possibly can," he says with a smile. "You need to enjoy being out here with your brothers, and you need to let it all hang out, let your hair down and really enjoy it, and not care what people think about how much you're enjoying it right now."

It is their first anniversary, after all.



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