Caltech win is one for the record book

PASADENA, Calif. -- Oh boy, here we go again.

Trouble was brewing for the Caltech baseball team and another loss started bullying its way onto the scene. It seemed as inevitable, as practically preordained, as the 228 straight that had come before it. The losses showed up like drab little marching soldiers, one by one.

This was a cool Saturday afternoon and the Beavers had already lost the first game of their season-opening doubleheader to Pacifica, 5-0. That's kind of boilerplate stuff for these guys. The last time the Beavers had actually won a game, back in 2003, some of the current players were in fourth grade, and, as senior catcher Brian Penserini says, "After one or two losing seasons, it doesn't get as bad."
How could it? When you go 0-33 every year, what are you going to do, throw your glove and kick over a cooler every time? Gloves and coolers are expensive these days.

So, when another loss started creeping up on these guys last Saturday, it was about as understandable as a coyote prowling outside a chicken coop.

Down by two, Pacifica got the first two men on base in the seventh, and final, inning. Some of the Caltech seniors couldn't help thinking back to a game against Occidental a couple of years before, when they trailed by one run in the last inning, loaded the bases and somebody struck out.

There had been near misses before, though -- quite frankly -- not many. Last year, the bad-news Beavers got shut out seven times and gave up 10 or more runs in 15 straight games at one point. They won two games, but one was against the UC Santa Cruz club team. The other was against an alumni team. Neither counted.

Then, something surprising -- borderline miraculous -- happened Saturday. The batter topped one back to pitcher Daniel Chou, who calmly threw to second for one and the relay throw beat the runner to first. The threat was crippled, the dragon slain, the Beavers won the game.

The Beavers won the game!

The last time anyone said that, in reference to Caltech's Division III baseball team, it was Feb. 15, 2003.

Let the good times roll. Under new coach Matthew Mark, the Beavers have a chance -- and they insist on calling it that -- of snapping another streak when they travel to take on the Whittier College Poets on Friday. Caltech has lost 463 straight Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Association games, going back to 1988.

Then again, why dwell on the chore ahead when the present moment is so sweet?

When Mark agreed to trek all the way from Pennsylvania to accept the job (call him crazy), he started going back through the Beavers' recent seasons. He couldn't bring himself to go back more than five years. What would it prove?

"That was enough that I had to know," Mark said. "I knew how much it meant. You look at the seniors' faces and you could tell."

If you're really athletic, you might go to USC. If you're really smart and really athletic, you might go to Stanford or Duke. If you're really smart -- in a techie kind of way -- and maybe not so athletic, you might go to Caltech. The baseball team has only 13 guys and the average GPA is 3.45. Because of the course loads carried by the players, they can commit just two hours a day during the week to baseball.

Can you fault a catcher for muffing a ball in the dirt when he just got out of a partial differential equations class? Is a freshman pitcher being asked to learn linear algebra and molecular biology really expected to throw his curveball for strikes? If you're a shortstop taking fluid dynamics, how fluid is your footwork expected to be?

"You've got to budget your time well," says third baseman Albie Lavin.

There are also some problematic numbers. Caltech has just 978 undergraduate students, about one-fifth as many as its East Coast counterpart, MIT.

Wait, there's more. Caltech, like USC, Ohio State and Penn State, is on NCAA probation, believe it or not. The Beavers self-reported after violating one of the NCAA's myriad rules, this one stating that student-athletes have to take a full course load to be eligible.

Caltech students aren't officially taking a full course load until the end of the third week of every term. They are allowed to shop the tough classes before finalizing their curricula and many student-athletes chose academic prudence over rigid adherence to NCAA rules.

The baseball team had to vacate its 0-112 record during the period it "cheated."

Mark, who used to be the pitching coach at Allegheny College, is trying -- against a trainload of momentum -- to shift the emphasis from excuses to wins. What's amazing is he got a victory in his first game day on the job. When his team scrimmages, he makes the losers do extra running.

"Sometimes, you're going to have to dive and wear a ball instead of fielding it clean, but it's going to keep a guy on second base," Mark said. "It's those types of little things that I think are starting to show their face a little bit."

Penserini went out with a few of his teammates for pizza and beer after Saturday's game. It had to feel good, at last, to show their faces around campus.