Cal Bears make baseball comeback

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The ending hasn't been written yet, but how can it not already qualify as happily ever after?

The Cal baseball team that was literally left for dead nine months ago, deemed "eliminated" by drastic budget cuts, is headed to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.

Not only are the Bears no longer "eliminated" -- resurrected by a massive fundraising effort -- but they are still playing. And by the end of the day on Monday, when the NCAA super regionals wrap, only seven other teams in the country will be able to claim the same.

The Bears clinched the program's first CWS berth since 1992 Sunday night, 45 miles from campus in Santa Clara in front of a standing-room-only crowd.

A line drive to second baseman Derek Campbell sealed a 6-2 win over upstart Dallas Baptist and set off the requisite dogpile near the pitcher's mound.

But when the Bears were done with their celebration, they got up, turned and walked together to the area in front of their dugout, applauding en masse for the crowd that has supported them in 10 million different ways.

Coach Dave Esquer looked at the box score. Omaha. Right there on paper.

His mind immediately drifted back to that day in September, when the team had been informed the program had been cut. It was scheduled to begin its informal workouts that day. Esquer made it optional, telling the players that if they needed time to absorb the news and talk to their families they didn't have to show.

They all showed.

"To watch our kids, on that Saturday, go out and play baseball like nothing was happening, doing what they were meant to do, and behind the scenes they were trying to deal with all the pressures about what to do with their lives. ..." Esquer said. "And to be here today, I could not be prouder. To be what we've been through and come out the other side. They will never forget this for the rest of their lives."

The embrace of this Cal team has been long and heartfelt.

Young boys holding baseball gloves stood outside Stephen Schott Stadium before the game asked if anybody had extra tickets. Tailgate parties sprung up in the parking lot of the tech company across the street from Santa Clara University's cozy baseball stadium. Fans filled every crevice of the 1,450-seat facility and stood along the concrete walls when there was nowhere else to sit.

The Bears are something to see, and largely because so many people are so happy they still get to see 'em.

"I think there's joy, joy that comes from relief," said former Cal player Doug Nickle, who helped to spearhead the fundraising effort that got Cal baseball reinstated on April 8, smack in the middle the season that still isn't over.

Nickle and fellow Cal baseball alum, Stu Gordon, led the effort that raised $10 million to save the program. "Now people have permission to be excited about the future," Nickle said.

The future almost wasn't.

Last September, the state of the University of California's crippling budget crisis landed on the doorstep of the Cal athletic department.

The university announced that four sports (baseball, men's and women's gymnastics and women's lacrosse) were going to be eliminated and another (the national power men's rugby team) would be demoted to club status.

"It was the most difficult day in my professional life," athletic director Sandy Barbour said. "Nothing else comes even close."

Barbour admitted she didn't believe enough money could be raised to rescue the programs.

"I've never been so happy to be wrong," Barbour said.

The university made its announcement in the fall to give its student-athletes enough time to make decisions about their athletic future. It turns out, it also gave them enough time to be saved.

Baseball has been in existence on the Berkeley campus since 1892, a program that has produced major leaguers Lance Blankenship, Jeff Kent, Bob Melvin and Darren Lewis. Baseball was not going to go away quietly.

Efforts began immediately in the Cal athletics community to raise enough money to have the program reinstated. But with Title IX considerations weighing heavy, it would not merely be a matter of reinstating baseball, but the other sports as well.

And as is the case so often in life, it was not a straight line.

Initial efforts to raise the money resulted in a February announcement that two of the eliminated sports -- women's lacrosse and women's gymnastics -- would be reinstated. Rugby would return to varsity status. But baseball was still out in the cold. There was anger and bitterness, and in the Cal dugout, discouragement.

Baseball's supporters had, in essence, six weeks to raise $10 million.

In the end, they got it done.

They got it done with support from likely places -- Cal alums, former Cal players -- and a few unlikely places, like kids who cleaned out their piggy banks and boosters of the Stanford baseball program, the Bears' hated rivals across the bay.

"There's no rivalry if there's no Cal," Nickle said. "I don't think Stanford has any problem if Cal loses, but I think they had a problem if Cal didn't exist."

In the midst of it all, Esquer and his team kept their heads down and put together the program's best season in nearly two decades.

"We definitely played for each other," said pitcher Erik Johnson, who came out with the win Sunday. "When we heard about the program being cut, it made it stronger. It made us a tighter bunch. We kind of set all the other things aside."

There was a point, as winter turned to spring, in which Esquer prepared his players for the season and helped with their plans to play someplace else next year. Players made recruiting visits to other schools during the season. In the end, only three players transferred.

Now the Bears are the Cinderella story of college baseball, offering the most gratifying kind of payback for the people who rallied to their aid.

"The only reason that we are out here is because of the people who backed us," sophomore Tony Renda said. "People put their hard-earned money behind us and supported us. We are all very grateful that they came through in the clutch."