SERIES AT A GLANCE
No. 9 California Golden Bears (29-15) vs. Campbell Fighting Camels (28-20)
Polls: Cal is No. 23 in Baseball America, No. 29 in NCBWA, No. 25 in USA Today, No. 9 in Collegiate Baseball
RPI: Cal is No. 43, Campbell is No. 92
All games broadcast live online at GoCamels.com
Friday, 3 p.m. at Campbell (Buies Creek, NC): RHP, Soph., Daulton Jefferies (5-2, 1.89 ERA) vs. RHP Heath Bowers (7-4, 3.08)
Saturday, Game 1, 11:00 a.m. at Campbell (Buies Creek, NC): RHP, Jr., Ryan Mason (5-2, 3.34) vs. RHP Nick Thayer (5-4, 2.94)
Saturday, Game 2, at Campbell (Buies Creek, NC): LHP, Fr., Matt Ladrech (6-4, 2.63) vs. RHP Grant Yost (3-4, 4.71)
BERKELEY -- The problem with having covered California baseball for eight seasons, across three different media outlets, is that it makes distilling what’s happened in the past four seasons – four years that, in my mind, are all instantly accessible, writ in the shorthand of a baseball beat writer – down to their core.
The story of Cal baseball from Sept. 28, 2010 to now -- a story that will, some day, fill the pages of a book -- is nothing less than a resurrection. The one word – if there can be one – to describe what’s happened since, is this: Promise.
Head coach David Esquer said to me, in one of our hours-long talks in his office during that summer and fall of 2011, that it would take three years for his program to get back to where it was before the University saw fit to cut it.
That first post-College World Series season, 2012, was decent enough, but an injured Devon Rodriguez and thinned pitching depth proved to be obstacles too large to overcome in a quest for the playoffs, despite a 29-25 overall record.
2013 was worse, as more of the 2011 squad graduated or left via the MLB Draft, and Rodriguez once again fell injured, playing the majority of the season with a bum shoulder, as the Bears went 23-31 and 10-20 in Pac-12 play, the worst season in Esquer’s tenure.
But, late in 2013, the lights turned on. For the first time ever, Evans Diamond hosted night games, starting on March 28, 2013 against USC. Though Cal only had the lights for a third of a season, attendance began to soar. In 2014, the buzz in the stands reached ever higher, as Cal won three road conference series in a row to finish the season, against the white-hot Trojans, Regional-bound Oregon and Super Regional-bound Stanford, falling perhaps one series win short of reaching the playoffs. The Bears finished 26-27, but against one of the toughest schedules in the nation. They were close, just like they were after squeaking into the playoffs in 2010.
"I knew it was going to take patience." – Cal HC David Esquer
“We were in a situation where we were hurt a little bit by the program cut, and we knew that it could have some effects and some immediate effects,” Esquer says. “Our depth was hurt, and our talent was hurt. The first year, we had a winning year, and we had a playoff team, but Devon Rodriguez got hurt, and we had nobody ready to take his place. Louie Lechich transferred to San Diego, and he was the player who probably would have taken over for Devon, and we didn’t have a blue chip freshman waiting in the wings to be that guy, either.
“To be honest, I was a little fearful, because I knew I was impatient, but I also knew we had the risk that a lot of donors and supporters, I’m sure they didn’t want to see any shrapnel or mal-effects I didn’t want to have to show them, either, but I knew it was going to take patience, and it’s whether they were going to be able to have that patience.”
So, just on schedule – just as Esquer promised – here we are, four years later, and this is a team that, like the 2011 squad, is primed for a big postseason run, with a 29-15 overall record – tied for the best 44-game start under Esquer – and a 15-8 Pac-12 record, good enough for third in the conference – mere percentage points behind second-place Arizona State, who limped out of Berkeley with its first series loss of the season on Sunday.
This team is not one that is fueled by the screw you attitude that permeated that 2011 squad. This bunch may not have that magic. But they’ve got something.
“We’ve got great leadership,” says Esquer. “We’ve got some kids that sincerely want to bring the program back to where we were, going to Omaha. Your program shouldn’t hit a brick wall, and not be a playoff contender or in the conversation. They want to get us back. We’ve got some great attitudes on our team, we’ve got some great leadership.
“When we went to Washington, we took three injured players, who had no chance of playing. They were as important to us winning to those games as any player on the field. Devin Pearson, Nick Halamandaris, and Robbie Tenerowicz, they came on a trip without a chance to play, and, emotionally, they were there for their teammates, and that spoke volumes to me of where we were as a program.”
No, this bunch doesn’t have the 5-foot-8 Superman with a flinty gaze, Tony Renda, but they do have a 6-foot, 170-pound sophomore ace who’s got the face of a 12-year old and the fastball command of a perennial all-star, in Daulton Jefferies.
They don’t have an ornery, granite-jawed iron man behind the plate, like steely-eyed Chadd Krist, but they do have a freshman switch hitter who is more than willing to call out a veteran Stanford Cardinal for showing up his pitcher, in Brett Cumberland.
"We’ve got kids that sincerely want to bring the program back to where we were, going to Omaha." – Cal HC David Esquer
They don’t have the three-ring circus in the dugout led by Dixon Anderson and Matt Flemer. No, this bunch expects to win. They’re all business. No, there aren’t any rally capes this time around – though there are rally mustaches. There is no eccentric lefty like Justin Jones.
They don’t have powerful, smooth-fielding veteran Marcus Semien at shortstop. They do have true freshman Preston GrandPre, who, before the season started, was a big question mark. Was he ready? Was his slight frame able to take the pounding of a full, 56-game season? Well, he’s hitting .278, with 22 RBIs, and has played – and started – all 44 games, thanks to "a million ground balls" taken with student coach and former shortstop Mike Reuvekamp.
They may not have Esquer’s trusted, long and lanky right arm of 12 years in Dan Hubbs; he’s now the head coach at No. 13 USC, who, coincidentally, will be coming to visit the No. 9 Bears a week from Friday. No, now, Esquer has a little spark plug for a pitching coach, who turned a too-small, too-short, not-enough body into a big league career: Mike Neu.
There aren’t many 5-foot-9 players in the majors, and there are even fewer that pitch in The Show, like Neu did for two seasons of a six-season pro career. Getting to the Major Leagues requires talent. When you’re 5-foot-9, it takes a lot more. It takes guts.
That’s what Esquer saw when he sought out Neu to replace Hubbs.
“Obviously, replacing Dan was no easy task, but Mike’s name had come up a number of times, as someone who was in the area, and an outstanding coach, with the ability to be a great recruiter,” says Esquer. “It really was, he was my almost one-and-only choice. It was just whether he wanted it or not. We were fortunate enough to get him, and the fruits of that labor, he’s put some pretty good groups together. It was a little rough at first, because he got a late start, and just the shrapnel of the events made it difficult to recruit.”
"I don’t care what you do, as long as you compete with everything you’ve got." – Cal pitching coach Mike Neu
The biggest reason of all, though, was Neu’s tenacity and gumption.
“Players love him, he’s got a great rapport, he’s got a good eye and he’s a good recruiter,” says former Cal pitching coach and current Miami Marlins scout John Hughes.
“I don’t care what you do,” says Neu, “as long as you compete with everything you’ve got.”
That’s how Neu recruits. He competes, and he doesn’t care what anyone says. He finds the guys he wants, the kinds of competitors he needs.
Neu, though, had never recruited on the Pac-12 level. As he says, he was learning as he was going, and riffing on what he’d seen work to get to the College World Series. He didn’t have a defined type that he wanted to go after, but he knew it when he saw it.
“I’m going off of what I felt would be successful, and what I felt like I had seen win at the college level, win the College World Series, win in the Major Leagues and the minor leagues, and the guys that are just successful. In my mind, I have a pretty good idea of what that is, but you’re still taking so many risks,” Neu says. “The guys that recruit, probably for every sport, I mean, it’s hard, because I know a lot of people think you miss on guys, and you do miss on guys sometimes. You’re not going to get them all right, and we’re only bringing in maybe four scholarship pitchers and four scholarship position players per year, if that.”
The margin for error, in baseball, is slim, with just 11.7 scholarships available at any one time. After the Bears were reinstated as a program, Esquer, Hubbs and Tony Arnerich snagged what they still could that late in the game. Starting first baseman Chris Paul was one of the first to come into the fold, but he had a career batting average of .236 prior to 2015. So far this season, he’s hit .321, starting 43 of 44 games, slugging a team-best .541 with 8 home runs and 33 RBIs – both good for second on the team, and among the Pac-12 leaders.
Lefty Chris Muse-Fisher had a sparkling 1.93 ERA as a true freshman, but threw just 18.1 innings with an 8.84 ERA as a sophomore, and 10.0 innings with an 8.10 ERA as a junior.
Righty Michael Jordan threw 2.0 innings before departing the program.
Keaton Siomkin has proven to be a solid middle-innings arm, but he missed all of last season and the majority of this season with Tommy John surgery.
“Your spectrum is small, and there’s so many guys,” says Neu. “That’s why I try to really go off what I feel like is going to be successful for us, and have to pass on good players. You just have to pass on good players, and I know we’ve taken heat for that, for Northern California guys that I feel like I don’t like, for whatever reason, or I don’t think they would be a good fit here. Maybe some coaches or alumni or local guys may feel like that’s, ‘Why are you passing on that guy?’”
Neu, though, doesn’t listen to critics. He knows what he wants. He knows what will work. And so far, this season, it’s working. But that doesn’t mean what works now will work next year. So, Neu keeps evolving as a recruiter.
“Everybody thinks they know everything. They may be right. They may be right sometimes, but I just try to go on what I know, and what I’ve seen and what I feel like will be successful here, and when you do that, you’re going to pass on some good players -- and we’ve passed on some good players -- because maybe I don’t feel like they have the tools to be successful here, mentally or physically,” says Neu. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to be right 100 percent of the time, but we do have a pretty good team right now. We have a good group of young guys. It has been successful up to this point, and I want to keep getting better. I never want to feel like I have arrived, or I have figured anything out, because I think, as soon as that happens, you’re really slipping, and you’re going to let it pass you by.
"I never want to feel like I have arrived, or I have figured anything out, because, I think, as soon as that happens, you’re really slipping, and you’re going to let it pass you by." – Cal pitching coach Mike Neu
“We [as a coaching staff] have to get better, and that’s why I’m really excited about our next year’s class. We feel like our next year’s class is going to be really, really good, and maybe as good as any of the classes we’ve had.”
Neu’s first commit was a late member of the 2012 class, a big, bold righty by the name of Ryan Mason, who’s won 17 games over the past three seasons.
“I didn’t really need a pitch, at the time; I’d just decommitted from St. Mary’s,” Mason recalls. “I didn’t have any other offers. Mike was just a good, solid guy, who told it to me straight, gave me the honest truth: ‘This is the best conference to play baseball in, and, judging by your other commitment, you would have been selling yourself short.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty true. Makes sense.’”
Mason’s personality has the subtlety of a Jackson Pollock painting, and all the nuance of a shotgun blast. I told him once that his disposition – that of former Atlanta Braves closer John Rocker, minus the virulent racism and homophobia, with an added spice of having driven big rigs and 15-foot flat beds, hauling lumber on drives as long as eight hours in his youth – only works if he’s good. “I know,” he said, as he charted pitches during his first fall at Cal. The other pitchers, taking radar gun readings and keeping score of an intrasquad game, all shook their heads.
As soon as Neu offered, Mason immediately committed on Nov. 8, 2011, becoming the fifth member of a recruiting class that included “El Gaucho” Mitchell Kranson, infielder Max Dutto, reserve outfielder Grant Diede and pitcher Cal Becker, who washed out during the summer before his freshman year.
“They offered late, and I had no idea they were even interested until three weeks ago,” Mason said at the time, when speaking to BearTerritory three weeks after his commitment.
Mason is not 5-foot-9. Not by a long shot. The 6-foot-7 righty came in with flowing brown hair, a scraggly bristle brush of facial hair and wild eyes. He’s since cut his hair, and added a walrus-y thicket of a mustache. The wild eyes aren’t going anywhere, nor is the fire behind them. Neu attenuates, “He’s got a bit of an edge to him.”
"I liked his toughness. I liked his ability to compete." – Cal pitching coach Mike Neu
Mason will actually argue with Neu when Neu comes out to pull him from a game. All Neu can do is shake his head and laugh. There are donkeys more acquiescent than Mason, but not many more than Neu.
“Mason, I think, was the first guy, when I first got here,” says Neu. “He was a class ahead, but we were late. We were still recruiting that class, so I think he was the first guy, and the first thing that I noticed with him, is not only with him being a quality pitcher, but I really liked his demeanor. I liked his toughness. I liked his ability to compete, in the time that I saw him, and that’s just a big key for me, knowing what it takes to be successful at the higher levels as a pitcher. You can see that demeanor when he’s on the mound. I can see it, at least, and just see what he’s made of a little bit.”
Neu always wanted to come to Cal. As a pitcher at Napa (Calif.) Vintage, Neu dreamed of playing for Bob Milano at Evans Diamond.
Every time Neu sees the longtime Bears head coach, he ribs the old skipper for not offering him a scholarship out of Sacramento City College. Milano takes it in stride, because now, Neu is where he always wanted to be.
“I’ve known him since he was in high school,” Milano says. “That was a good hire. I liked him at DVC, too.”
Instead of coming to Cal out of Sac City, Neu went to Miami, and wound up as the closer for the Hurricanes, getting the final out of the 1999 College World Series.
“I felt like I was beating a lot of guys that were going to high level schools or getting drafted. I felt like I was beating those guys, so I definitely had a chip on my shoulder, knowing that I was being overlooked as an undersized right-handed pitcher,” Neu says. “Every time I moved up to the next level, I got overlooked more and more and more by pro scouts, college scouts, whatever.
"I had to be better than everybody else." – Cal pitching coach Mike Neu
“I used that to my advantage, knowing that I had to be better than everybody else, not just a little bit better; I had to be a lot better, and I had to really compete every time out. I think that helped me, and that helped me become very successful as a pitcher, but it also helped me really understand how to coach, because I had to be better in every aspect of the game, and I had to be really mentally on, every time I pitched, especially in the big situations. If you don’t pitch good in the biggest spots, then you’re really not doing your job, if you’re playing for a championship team.”
Recalling the 2011 season, Renda said that, as that group of Bears prepared to enter TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha for the first time, leading the procession of teams during the Opening Ceremonies, that they looked up, at Vanderbilt, at Texas A&M, at Texas, at Florida, at South Carolina – all towered over the Cal players. “But,” reliever Joey Donofrio said, “we belonged.”
That same attitude is what’s driven Neu, first to the big stage in Coral Gables, Fla., where he earned his closer spot in his first fall with the team, after being a starter all his life, then to Omaha, then to becoming the head coach at Diablo Valley College, and now, to Evans Diamond, where he’d always wanted to end up.
“I think we’ve created a good culture, a tough, competitive culture,” says Neu. “It doesn’t mean you’re going to have success every weekend, and I don’t know, we have a lot of year to go, and we’re going to play some good teams, but we do know that these guys are going to compete every time they take the field, and when they do that, then you feel more confident, because you know that you’re going to get everything that they have.”
Just six short months after snagging Mason, Neu had his next leadoff man in Aaron Knapp, the younger brother of Andrew Knapp, and the younger son of former Cal catcher Mike Knapp. Aaron – who also played safety for Granite Bay (Calif.) during their state title run in 2012 – was the catalyst Neu and the Bears needed at the top of the lineup. Any good baseball team has to be strong up the middle, and now, with a starting pitcher, a center fielder who could fly and the slick-fielding Tenerowicz already in the barn for the 2013 class, Cal was well on its way.
Two months after landing Mason, the top prospect on Neu’s board for the next recruiting class committed to Stanford. He wasn’t very big, but he was a two-way player – an athlete -- something Neu prizes.
That recruit was Atwater (Calif.) Buhach Colony shortstop/right-handed pitcher Daulton Jefferies. It was Neu’s first recruiting setback. Until it wasn’t.
“When he committed to Stanford,” says Neu, “I said, ‘Daulton, congratulations. If anything changes, and I’m sure it won’t, just call me right away,’ and I didn’t anticipate anything changing. Why? He was the No. 1 recruit on our board, and he was going to Stanford. We felt like it’s a done deal. We’re going to be playing against him for three years, and he’s got a chance to be great.”
In July, the Cardinal said ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ and Jefferies was left afloat.
It took him a matter of hours to pick up the phone and call Neu.
“He’s the ultimate competitor. Very athletic, right up my alley,” says Neu. “That’s what I’m recruiting: Athletic competitors, and he was right up my alley. When they told him they weren’t going to be able to get him in, or whatever the case was, he emailed me, immediately, and we set up a trip the next week. We offered him, and shortly after, he committed, and we were really excited about that, because he was the No. 1 recruit on our board at that time, as a two-way guy.”
Despite missing four weeks due to biceps tendonitis, Jefferies leads all Pac-12 starting pitchers with a 1.89 ERA. He’s got a 5-2 record, has thrown 52.1 innings in nine appearances and is averaging 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings.
Jefferies’ commitment was part of a flurry of trigger pulling – a veritable 21-gun salute for Neu and his recruiting efforts – but there was one in particular that stood out – and continues to stand out, with a .282 average, a .500 slugging percentage, 7 home runs and 29 RBIs as a true freshman this season.
“One of the reasons why I picked Cal was so that I could pitch against Stanford." – Soph. RHP Daulton Jefferies
On Sept. 10, 2012 – eight days after Jefferies (then a junior) went from Cardinal to Golden Bear – Neu struck gold with Turlock (Calif.) sophomore Brett Cumberland -- a top-100 player in his class.
Cumberland – a switch-hitting backstop with a big arm – would prove that much more important, when then-junior San Jose (Calif.) Willow Glen backstop John Riley -- who committed two days later – wound up taking the professional route with the San Francisco Giants.
The big-bat, barrel-chested Riley eschewed his commitment to the Bears – who desperately needed a catcher following the graduation and drafting of Krist – when the Giants gave him second-round money in the 31st round of the MLB Draft.
“We had a big class in ’13. We had a lot of guys. We had to recruit a lot of guys, and we were just able to go after a pretty high number of guys, and it was a good class in California, and we still lost a couple, like Riley,” says Neu.
Now Neu had his center fielder, his second baseman, his starting pitcher and his catcher of the future, in back-to-back classes. He’d already gotten Mason – the “edgy” hurler who could take the mound right away and grind without much backup, who didn’t so much have a lot of loose screws as an utter lack of tight ones – and now, he had youth that could be allowed to develop.
“It was huge,” Esquer said of Cumberland’s commitment. “Obviously, we have been very fortunate. It’s something that Dan Hubbs had really done for us, and that’s that we had not really been bitten by the draft in about six years. The closest recruit we had to being drafted was Justin Jones, and we can’t even really imagine what it would be like to be the USC’s and the UCLA’s of the world, who have two or three guys who sign. If you look at our history, if Justin Jones signs a professional contract, our history is way different than it turned out.
“We just have to be able to be certain of who really has a sincere interest in school. Losing Riley, to be quite honest, who knows? We could have been a playoff team last year, if we had that type of talent in our program. But, Cumberland was already coming, and his ability to hit the ground running has been huge for us.”
Following the commitment of Jefferies and just before Cumberland, Moraga (Calif.) Campolindo, having already seen now-starting second baseman Tenerowicz kick off the 2013 class, chipped in with two more, in Denis Karas and lefty starting pitcher Matt Ladrech. That 2014 signing class would come to define this campaign.
Aside from Cumberland – who’s started all but four games this season behind the plate -- Ladrech has taken hold of the Sunday starter role since the second week of the season, going 6-4 with a 2.63 ERA.
“[Cumberland’s] his ability to hit the ground running has been huge for us." – Cal HC David Esquer
When Jefferies went down, Jeff Bain -- who committed on Aug. 29, 2013, flipping from UC Irvine -- stepped into the breech, and, despite having never started a college game before he was called upon to face then-No. 8 Oregon on March 13.
Bain went 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA in 23.1 innings of work during Jefferies' absence, and is one of three true freshman pitchers to make a significant impact this season.
Just over two weeks after Bain pulled the trigger – a year after Jefferies made his pledge -- so did righty Erik Martinez, who’s been an ace reliever this season, with Keaton Siomkin only being activated this weekend, missing the majority of the season recovering from Tommy John. Martinez leads the entire staff with a 1.69 ERA in 17 relief appearances, allowing a .191 batting average in 26.2 innings of work.
The freshmen, Neu says, are pitching like juniors, when they still had perhaps the luxury to ease into their roles, unlike Mason and Jefferies, who were thrown into the fire immediately because of need, and the fact that the pitchers on staff were largely alike – fastball, curveball, change up, with velocity topping out at the mid-to-high 80s.
“That was just a product of where we were at,” Neu says. “Not being able to recruit for two years, the biggest hole you’re going to see is in the arms, especially when you’re playing in our conference, and you’re going against UCLA and Oregon and Oregon State, who are recruiting premium arms, nationwide, and can really just overwhelm you with that. That was probably the biggest thing I noticed: We’ve got to get stronger on the mound, if we want to compete in this conference.”
And get stronger, they did, with Jefferies, Bain, Martinez and Ladrech, as well as lanky sophomore righty Alex Schick, who’s exceled in the set-up role this season, going 2-1 with a 3.62 ERA in 21 appearances.
There’s one name missing from the grocery list outlined above -- he final member of the 2013 signing class, and arguably the best of the bunch, save for Jefferies: Lucas Erceg. Like Bain, there weren’t many schools on Erceg, to the point where he was still available during the late signing period.
“He was a little borderline academically,” says Neu. “We had to make sure we were able to get him in, but we were recruiting him the whole time. We knew who he was, and we knew what he had been doing, and we felt like he could be a really, really good guy for us.”
Playing for Westmond (Calif.) Campbell, Erceg was a bit hidden. That was fine for Neu, who wants – nay, needs – to lock down Northern California in the recruiting game. When the Bears have been at their best, it’s been with players from their own backyard.
“Our key is get the Northern California guys." – Cal pitching coach Mike Neu
“Our key is get the Northern California guys, and I think Cal has had the most or one of the most Major Leaguers and pro players in the country, and I think that’s our sweet spot – the Bay Area, Northern California – it’s such a great area for professional players, historically, and big league guys,” says Neu. “I think getting those athletes and the future pro guys is a good deal for us. I think just trying to figure out who those guys are, and getting the arms -- really getting the arms – because those guys keep you in every game, is key. We can match up with some other teams with our arms, and we weren’t able to do that for a couple years.”
At first blush, Erceg was one of those arms. He was a two-way player: A big left-handed bat, and a right-handed pitcher with a low-90s fastball, a sharp slider and a knuckleball. So, why weren’t more teams on him?
“I don’t know. He was a little hidden, as far as playing in Campbell for Westmont. I don’t know why he wasn’t more highly-recruited. He did not make the Area Code team. He was just a little bit under-the-radar, for whatever reason,” says Neu. “I had seen him play for a long time, and I kind of knew what he was capable of doing, or, I thought I did. He was probably the highest guy on our priority list, at the time.”
He was also high on the list for San Jose State, and then-assistant Brad Sanfilipo. The current Bears hitting coach was with the Spartans at the time of Erceg’s recruitment, moving up to that position after being the volunteer assistant for Cal’s College World Series team in 2011.
“I told him to go to Cal, unless he didn’t get in, then come to San Jose State,” says Sanfilipo, who smiles like the cat who ate the canary as soon as Neu starts talking about Erceg. “I was like, ‘Go to Cal. If you get into Cal, go to Cal. Those are my friends. Go to Cal.’”
This year, in six appearances out of the bullpen, Erceg has a 3.18 ERA with one save, is eighth in the Pac-12 with a .522 slugging percentage, second with nine home runs, fourth in total bases (93) and has a .309 batting average. He’s been a force in the middle of the lineup, and while his fielding percentage is .918, he’s made plenty of plays at third base that Bears third basemen of years past would not have been able to make. He’s taken home Pac-12 and Collegiate Baseball Player of the Week honors on March 23 for his torrid series against Washington, when he slugged two game-winning homers and went 6-for-13 with two doubles, three home runs, six RBIs and 17 total bases.
With the addition of Erceg, that 2013 class – with Jefferies, Knapp and Tenerowicz – was arguably the best recruiting class Esquer had assembled, even better than the class that included Major League talents Josh Satin (Cincinnati Reds), Brennan Boesch (also with the Reds) and Brandon Morrow (San Diego Padres).
“I do, I absolutely do, and quite frankly, if you looked at the kids that we were bringing in, in 2011, we were set up to have some longevity, as far as our success. We’d been to the playoffs three out of four years, and we still had Renda, Krist, Rodriguez – we still had them for another year. We could have backed them up with a solid class, and we were set up to be good for quite a while. They had to overcome some obstacles. We had to clear a mess of our own making, and it took a while.”
Part of clearing the mess – the shrapnel -- of the program being cut, and then resurrected, was literally clearing up rubble. There were some in the donor community who wanted to bank the money raised during the drive to save the program. There were others who wanted to spend some of that capital to improve Evans Diamond, and that meant the long-anticipated lights, and a new, state-of-the-art video scoreboard.
“I didn’t see the different divisions,” says Solly Fulp, Cal’s Chief Operating Officer and Deputy Director of Athletics. “I know that there were rumblings about that, but getting the lights was a must-have, and the video board. It enhances the game environment. That came from the simple premise that I have boys who play Little League Baseball at the same time that Cal was playing their games. You’re not going to have a sustainable program, if you’re playing at two o’clock on a Tuesday. You’re not going to develop a fan base if the 12-year olds that love baseball are playing at the same time that Cal is, during the day.”
“The atmosphere of our game days, it turned on as the lights turned on." – Cal HC David Esquer
During the 2011 run to Omaha, Cal saw 11,001 fans go through the turnstiles at Evans Diamond (458 fans per home date). In 2012, Cal's total home attendance was 12,511, and the average for 25 home games was 500.
Then, the lights turned on.
“We got it done in eight months,” Fulp says of the light project. “It is a $2.3 million project. We secured a loan from the University for a million, with a business plan in enhanced ticket sales and donor support to pay it off, and we had a million dollars step-up from the donors.”
Those three donors were Stu Gordon (whose name graces the scoreboard), Tom Hornady and Dave Amoroso.
“Building the foundation and a future Cal fan base, I think, everyone agreed upon, no matter what camp you were in,” Fulp says. “Enhancing the game day environment, we had donors that were, with the support of Vice Chancellor [John] Wilton, that saw the value in creating this ‘If you build it, they will come’ atmosphere, if that makes any sense.”
And, come, they have.
In 2013, with the addition of lights and the video board in the latter third of the season, the Bears’ total home attendance jumped to 18,135, with an average of 725 fans for 25 home games. In 2014, Cal's total home attendance was 20,941 and the average for 25 home games was 837.
This year, the average attendance has dipped to 787, but because of the lights, Cal has been able to add home dates, with 27 so far, and three more on the docket, bringing the home attendance total to a record-breaking 21,258 with one more series to go.
“You’ve seen it. The atmosphere of our game days, it turned on as the lights turned on,” says Esquer. “It was like a power switch. Once the lights came on, our game day experience changed. The fans have been great, they’ve been great this year.”
Not only can schoolchildren now come to games, but so can recruits, and the 2015 class is expected to be even better than the previous two. This class is once again headlined by a late addition, at least in the world of baseball recruiting. Most players tend to commit at some point during their junior year. Canadian righty Mike Soroka committed in the fall of his senior year, after visiting Cal for a night intrasquad game in November.
“I will tell you, [Neu] has got a lot of high school players out there, watching games now,” Fulp says. “It’s kind of the same premise as the Little League. You’ve got a lot of high schoolers out there, that I’ve noticed, over the last couple years, coming out and watching games, as well. We’ve been able to create meaningful engagement at all levels.”
Erceg, once upon a time, was one of those players, visiting with Neu after a night game at Evans Diamond, just like Soroka, who’s velocity has now inched into the mid-90s, as his stuff and his body matures. He could very well be the fourth mound ace in four years that Neu has signed.
“It’s interesting. We had that Canadian pitcher (Mike Soroka) come the other day, and he was in my office, and Mike brought him in,” Fulp says. “Still, at the end of the day, the recruiting piece in the conversation, and Dave does a really good job with this, it’s about getting your degree from the No. 1 public university in the world. I think most coaches that do it right really focus in on that, and then, build on everything else. Having a brand new video board, having lights, shows a quantifiable commitment to Cal baseball. It’s not going anywhere for a while, and that’s important, especially after what we went through in 2011.”
Part of making sure that baseball doesn’t go anywhere – aside from capital improvements – is the establishment of a permanent endowment.
“There’s a term endowment of $7 million, and it really, to have a permanent endowment, we have to raise $20 million, which, we’re launching that, right now,” says Fulp, who adds that none of the money earmarked for that endowment was used to fund the lights and scoreboard. As for other streams of future revenue?
“I think it’s going to involve a lot of people stepping up,” Fulp says. “It’s going to involve a field naming rights agreement. It’s going to involve innovative things that we’ve done, similar to reforecasting the stadium financing piece, beyond just ESP sales and rights. You’ve got Kabam Field. We’re going to have to do similar things to that. We’re going to have to look for a naming rights partner, and we’re going to have to get the donor community to step up. It can’t be a pilgrimage to get there. It’s going to be something that is going to have to happen soon. Everyone wants a return on their investment. It’s important to show progress on the field, and it’s important to show progress in the classroom. It’s important to show progress with the fan atmosphere. I think we’re doing all. I think coach Esquer is doing an unbelievable job with what he’s done over the past few years.”
Four years ago, David Esquer made a promise. In three years, the Bears would be back to the brink. In four, they’d be a playoff contender. There are nine games left in the 2015 season, and not only has Cal clinched a winning record, not only have the Bears put themselves into the top half of the conference, but they are projected as a No. 2 regional seed. The First Pitch Banquet is sold out, every year. The alumni are more involved than ever, both on the field – pros coming back for the alumni game and pro day every year -- and off.
“I know I was impatient, the fans were impatient, the donors are impatient, but that’s exactly what it was going to have to take,” Esquer says, “a little patience.”