Among a collection of players from St. Mary's, Stanford, San Francisco and San Jose State, two young men looked very out of place.
Sitting in the front row of the Arrillaga Sports Center in Palo Alto, Calif., were California lefty Justin Jones and second baseman Tony Renda. Jones, with his long hair and early-spring sprouts of facial fuzz, is a sinewy 6-foot-2, 188 pounds of guitar-playing, catcher-hugging love. Renda is 5-foot-8 (in cleats, on concrete, if you like him), 173 pounds of competitive fire. But, as Jones is apt to remind everyone, he's still short.
Other than Cardinal hurler Mark Appel, they are the only two preseason All-Americans here.
[Read BearTerritory's PREMIUM feature on Jones HERE]
This week, Renda earned his third preseason All-America honor, this time from Baseball America. He is the conference's reigning Player of the Year. Despite a career average of .351, after a recent scrimmage, facing off against Jones, he muttered, "I still have to learn to hit."
His late father, Frank, would be proud.
"My dad, for me, in baseball, was a lot of motivation. He knew how to get me going in a way that, he didn't know the mechanics of the game, but he knew how to win," Renda says. "He knew how to get the most out of me. So, it's tough to replace that, and it really can't be replaced, but it's one of those things where you know he's with you. You know he's there. You know he's watching. I know he's cussing me out when I go 0-for-4."
As for the latest preseason honor, Frank is likely looking down on his son, saying, "It's only preseason. You still have to earn it." The team is unranked by Baseball America. After finishing fifth in the College World Series in 2011, the Bears were tabbed No. 8 in the final rankings. This year, Renda is ranked the No. 91 draft prospect by the venerable publication. That's nothing new for Renda. He's always been the runt. He's always been too small and too slow. He's never been good enough. Even with a brand new College World Series ring on his finger, he wants more, because that's what Frank would want.
"That's all that matters. I might be No. 91 now, but at the end, wherever I'm at now, I'll take it, but I'll make someone very happy no matter where I'll go," says Renda. "I'll race them to the top. Put us up against each other, I'll race them there."
Frank Renda passed away from lung cancer on July 18, 2010, just over two months before the Cal baseball team was cut as a program. Renda was one of the leaders of that team, which defied the odds and reached Omaha for the first time since 1992. That team -- that group of misfits -- was a family, in more ways than one, for Renda.
10 days before the cancellation news, Renda and his family participated in the Jog for Jill, an event organized by the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation in memory of former Cal coxswain Jill Costello.
"My family, after my dad passed, we had a Team Frank. It was just my family and family friends and some supporters, kind of a small group," says Renda. "I wasn't expecting anybody from the team to go to it. I didn't ask them to. I didn't expect it. Right before the jog, they all showed up, made my mom cry. It was amazing. It's a great team, a great group of guys. I wouldn't trade them for anybody. I love them all. Most of them are back, and they're all my best friends."
Now, in 2012, the Bears are looking to go back to Omaha. Without starting pitchers Erik Johnson, Dixon Anderson and Kevin Miller, Cal will have to depend on a starting weekend trio of Jones, Freshman All-American Kyle Porter and All-Pac-10 closer Matt Flemer, as well as a potent offense.
The Bears return Renda, two-time All-Pac-10 catcher Chadd Krist, powerful third baseman Mitch Delfino, first baseman Devon Rodriguez, a host of outfielders with starting experience and sophomore shortstop Derek Campbell in place of drafted Marcus Semien. Campbell played second in place of Renda after the scrappy infielder popped a quadriceps muscle coming around third in Houston, on his way to scoring the winning run in the Houston Regional.
"Arnie (Tony Arnerich) was at third base coach, and he was running with me, just yelling at me: 'Run faster! Faster!'" says Renda. "I was looking up the line, and the guy came up throwing, it was just, keep running. The catcher was up on the plate, and he exposed the back half, otherwise, I never slide headfirst into home, because it's dangerous and not good. I was able to get to the outside of it. It was absolutely crazy."
On Friday, Cal opens the 2012 drive for Omaha against Pacific in the first of a three-game home-away-home set.
"I think we look good. We obviously need to make improvements. In the fall, our defense was kind of shaky at points, and it has gotten a lot better," says Renda. "Derek looks a lot better at shortstop. He's playing under the ball. He's doing a lot better, so that's really good to see, because we're kind of relying on him to go in for Marcus, who made -- what, 10 errors last year? -- which is ridiculous.
"This year, we're down in the staff. Everybody knows it. We're down in the middle relief area, but starting pitching is great. Beyond those three, we're a little bit thin, so we've got to pick it up with defense. I think that's kind of been the understanding of the team: If we're going to be competitive, we've got to be really good at defense. It's just a matter of fact."
The Bears are fathoms-deep in the infield, with true freshman Chris Paul likely to see a lot of time wherever he can find it. Paul can play every position on the diamond, save for catcher, and will prove to be a bat to watch.
"Chris Paul is very good. He's good. He's really good," says Renda. "He can pick it. He's very good. He's going to be a very good player, and I wouldn't be surprised if he got some time in, this year. My freshman year, when I was playing third base, I would play third base for the first eight innings, and Eskie (head coach David Esquer) would always pull me in the ninth and put in a defensive replacement, just so I wouldn't [mess] it up. So, he put in someone who was better at defense, because I wasn't that good playing third. I wasn't very good. I'm not a third baseman, and I wasn't very good at that. I wouldn't be surprised if Chris Paul kind of falls into that role -- goes in as a defensive replacement -- and maybe gets a spot start every once in a while."
While the Bears were preparing for a final season in the sun just one year ago, this season, things are different. There's a new public address announcer, to bring a Minor League feel to Evans Diamond. The Athletic Department is selling season tickets for the first time. The first annual First Pitch Dinner brought over 400 program supporters together to raise money for scholarships and team operations. Replica jerseys are being sold at the park. Cal even has new on-field caps from NIKE. The team is even getting new home white jerseys - described by Porter as "old school," with 'Bears,' scrawled across the chest and thick piping around the neck and down the legs. But, the Bears will have to wait for those. They're back-ordered.
"We're getting new everything, but it's all back-ordered, though, because no one thought we'd be around," says Renda. "They ordered our shit so late. We might get it by the end of the season. It'll show up in Omaha for us."
Getting back to TD Ameritrade Park will be a challenge. In the past 10 years, Pac-10 teams made 12 appearances in Omaha.
"It's very tough. It's the top eight teams in the nation. Top eight. Not only to get there, but to win a game there, that's saying something," says Renda. "You've got a good team if you win a game in Omaha. You're playing the best teams in the nation, and then you finish fifth, come out ranked eighth. That didn't make sense to me, but whatever."
As for this year's non-ranking? It's hard not to hear Frank when Renda opens his mouth.
"It's whatever. We don't get credit for what we do very often, but that's nothing new. It's nothing new," Renda says. "When the season comes around, we'll win some games and see where we're at. Preseason doesn't mean anything."