Cal baseball's senior starter Ryan Mason plays by his own rules, but he's emerged as a leader for the No. 8 Bears

Ryan Mason is all over the map. He's a wild-eyed unbroken horse on the mound, a vociferous teammate on the bench. He returns for his senior season as one of the unquestioned leaders on a team that's ranked the highest it's been in nearly two decades.

California sophomore reliever Erik Martinez is on the NCBWA Stopper of the Year Watch List. Junior righty Daulton Jefferies is on the Golden Spikes Award Watch List, and is the No. 24 overall prospect in this year’s MLB Draft. The Golden Bears – ranked in the top 10 in three of the six preseason polls, as high as No. 8 – return all but two of their starters and bullpen arms from last season, including the entire starting rotation. They're No. 12 in the USA TODAY/ESPN Preseason Top 25, No. 10 in the NCBWA preseason poll, No. 8 in Baseball America and Perfect Game, No. 9 in D1Baseball.com's preseason rankings and No. 13 in the Collegiate Baseball poll.

But, while Jefferies has piled up the preseason plaudits, and while Martinez is ready to step in for closer Dylan Nelson, it’s the elder statesman of the group – the lone senior starting pitcher, Ryan Mason – who’s set to lead the way, and he’ll be doing so from the cabin of his very own crazy train.

It’s fitting that, as the Bears enter the season ranked the highest they’ve been since 1997 in the preseason – and with the best postseason prospects since the 2011 team that served to pull the program back from certain demise – Cal is led by an eccentric, erratic oddball hurler with at least three minds of his own. That 2011 team’s heart was the stoic Tony Renda, but it got its soul – and rockin’ guitar solos – from daffy southpaw Justin Jones.

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1616086-cal-baseball-fall-... When I first met Mason, in the fall of 2012, he was a freshman pitcher charting an intrasquad game in the press box during fall ball.

When we spoke following his commitment, he seemed for all the world to be a normal, well-balanced young man.

In the press box, at just 18, he pulled back the mask and held court. He talked about having a Swiss fashion model girlfriend, he crowed about his disdain for social media (no twitter, not even a Facebook account, because "those are for idiots"), his hot Portuguese blood, and how he would absolutely physically crush anyone who stood in his way.

Every bit of 6-foot-6, with a swarthy complexion, wild blue eyes and wilder hair, he could stare a hole right through you. He was as terrifying as he was entrancing, as curious as he was capricious, as verbose as he was oppositional.

I said, “If you’re going to be this crazy, you need to be really good.”

His response? Matter-of-factly: “I am.”

“He’s one of my favorite players,” says Cal head coach David Esquer, whose team embarks on its 2016 season on Friday against Duke. “Some of the personal talks that we’ve had over the years are some of my favorite moments, coaching, and whether it’s talking about life or the team, he’s opinionated, and that’s what I love about assistant coaches. You get a really opinionated guy, who’s always right, and that guy’s a great assistant coach. Mike Neu and Dan Hubbs were very similar in that. I always teased both of them: They’re not always right, but they’re always sure. Whatever they say, they believe, and Ryan Mason is the same way. He does give you a little bit of a temperature of the team, and he has an opinion of it, and I appreciate that.”

•••••

“My favorite story of Ryan when he was 10 years old, on Majors in Little League,” says Allison Mason, Ryan’s mother. “My husband was the coach, and was running out of options in this very important game. So, he takes Ryan and puts him the mound, from center field. He moved him to pitcher, with the bases loaded and no outs.  My 10-year-old -- who was playing with 11- and 12-year-olds -- was on the mound, threw one pitch and got a triple play and we got out of the inning and we won the game. He catches the comebacker, throws to third, then runs over to second. They get that out at third, and they got the out at second, and they're out of the inning.

“I'm driving home with him, him sitting in the passenger seat, and I look over and say, ‘What was that?’ He says, ‘What, Mom?’ and I said, ‘The triple play to get out of the inning,’ and he just smiled. Their backs were against the wall, and he knew, at 10-years old, what needed to happen.”

Mason pegs his swagger as coming at an earlier age: “I’ve had that since I was six, in Nuggets.”

•••••

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1607740-fall-ball-jefferie... As for that Swiss girlfriend, Celine (also a downhill ski racer), Mason met her in Incline Village, Lake Tahoe, at the Hyatt Hotel. It’s a story of typically Masonic bravado.

“Celine and her sister Sofia -- two beautiful, beautiful girls -- were laying out and Ryan and his wing man went up to them and ask if they wanted to play volleyball on the beach,” Allison says. “I have never ever seen Ryan work so hard at trying to track her down in San Francisco before she flew back to Switzerland. He forgot to get her last name and her phone number! He found her in San Francisco and they ended up going back up there to take the girls out to lunch with his wing man -- these two country kids from Auburn in the big city going to take these beautiful girls to lunch at the Equinox.”

Burgers? $30 each. Parking? $90. A love connection? Priceless. At Christmas, he visits her, and sends pictures back to his mother. Just a country boy from Auburn, who named his 140-pound one-year old Alaskan malamute after his girlfriend’s sister. Because that’s what Ryan Mason does.

•••••

Mason was born in the wrong century. He’d be perfectly at home flailing a battle axe around his head, arcing through his enemies’ jugulars on some snowy battlefield of antiquity, screaming at the top of his lungs. But, as much of a Viking as he may seem, he’s not much for mead or ale, as it were. He says he hardly drinks. He’s plenty sociable on his own, he says, proudly.

“No, he has been so disciplined in that area; it's shocking to me, because it's not what his older brother did when he had the college experience at Sonoma State,” Allison said. “Ryan is the polar opposite of that.”

He’s confident enough without the assist from liquid courage.

“To tell you the truth I don't know where all that came from,” Allison says. “He is really a good kid very disciplined. He understands what he can and cannot do and he sticks to it. He's always been that way, and he didn't learn that from me. Maybe his father -- Bob is pretty disciplined, himself.”

•••••

Mason has always loved driving. As soon as he could, he drove flatbed delivery trucks for Auburn Hardwoods – a company his family runs, at which his father, Bob, is the manager, his mother, Allison, is the credit manager, and his older brother, Jeff, is an outside sales rep. The business has been in the family for 22 years.

“I had to get money. In our family, nothing’s given; it’s earned,” Mason says. “It was just something, I like driving. I drive my car 150 miles to 200 miles a week, and I’m still in college. I go back to Auburn once a week to get some work done on my arm, and I come back. I just love driving. It came easy to me.”

So, yes, Cal’s Saturday starter is a truck driver from the boondocks. Cue the dueling banjoes.

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1550790-cal-gets-walk-off-... Mason has never said anything publicly about it, but he also drives home to see his father, who suffers from prostate cancer, and a heart condition, to boot. As flamboyant as he is, with the Fumanchu and faux hawk he’s sported, the fist pumping after a big out, the glove pounding and the squawking from the bench, there’s another Ryan Mason most don’t see: The dutiful son, the family man.

Mason has driven the hour and a half back home at 4 a.m. to be with his parents at the hospital, and then driven back to Berkeley at 9 a.m., just to get to class on time.

“He just does it,” his mother says. “He is a very strong kid. It’s so tough on Ryan when I have to tell him things. He loves his dad so much. It’s hard, but we can’t keep things from him. He would be furious at us.”

“His father and Ryan are cut from the same cloth,” Allison continues. “They are the same person. Bob has overcome huge obstacles in life, and is as headstrong as his son. They both drive me crazy -- thank God for wine!”

How similar are the two? On Feb. 5, Bob Mason had a surgical procedure, spent the night in the hospital, and was back to work on Monday, much to the doctors' chagrin.

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1550801-notes-mason-durabl... Ryan, last season, told pitching coach Mike Neu that he could throw three or four innings, or could even start, in the Regional finale against Texas A&M. He’d just thrown eight innings and 100 pitches two nights earlier, in a 2-1, 14-inning win.

“I talked to Mike, and I said, ‘Mike, I’ve got three or four in me. I might even have a start in me.’ He says, ‘Mase, we have an entire map,’ and he did, he had a whole plan of, inning-by-inning, ‘and if there’s someone in here who’s going to throw an extra inning, it’s not going to be you,’” Mason recalls. “I tried to talk him into it. He was having no part of it. There’s battles that you win, and I’ve won a few, and there’s a lot of battles that you lose, and I’ve lost a lot of them. That was one I lost. I wasn’t going to win that one, no matter what. Mike knew it, I knew it.”

Neu said no. So did Allison.

“We had a huge fight at dinner the night that he pitched against Texas A&M,” she says. “He told me that he was going to be ready to go again on Monday if they needed him, and I said, ‘Ryan you can't do that.’ He said, ‘Mom be quiet. I'm going to do whatever it takes.’”

He still threw one inning, allowing two hits, but nothing else.

The morning after the 3-1, season-ending loss to the Aggies, Mason was hot. He was mad. He was furious. He was fuming. He was ready to leave Cal in his rearview mirror. Then he flew home. Then, he saw more than 1,200 names fly by his computer screen over three days of the Major League Draft. His was not among them.

•••••

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1544904-cal-baseball-neu-l... It is his upbringing in Auburn – nestled 36 miles northwest of Sacramento, between the North Fork and Middle Fork of the American River – that defines Ryan Mason.

“Where I grew up, it wasn’t always about things that were given to you,” Mason says. “It’s things that are earned. You earn your reputation, you earn your way through live, in Auburn, and the community is really tightknit, and we know each other, we love each other, and we help each other.”

That’s how Mason is with his infield. In his three years, he’s posted an 18-7 record with a 3.23 ERA in 237.0 innings, striking out 116 and walking 57. He’s thrown two complete games, and has never missed a start. He hasn’t allowed a home run in over a season. He throws anywhere between 82 and 89 with his fastball (at will), from varying arm angles, with sink. His repertoire is just as unique as he is. He throws four different kinds of fastballs, and they all feel like bowling balls when they hit the bat. 

“I’m really only as good as my defense,” Mason says. “The way I pitch, I don’t punch a lot of guys out, so if I’m getting ground balls that day, and they’re picking me up, they let me get away with some mistakes, by picking me up on some plays."

Mason has always been a free spirit, very independent. But, something changed in him this past offseason. In years past, he’s intentionally tried to get Esquer’s goat, while in his press box perch during intrasquads. Now, he’s the one preemptively telling his teammates to stop goofing around before his head coach gets wind of it.

"I’m allowed to have some freedom out there, and coach Esquer allows us to be loose, but there’s that fine line that if we cross the threshold goofing around now, on the field, we’re going to hear it from him," he says.

There’s something different about Mason, now. He’ll still throw until his arm falls off, but there’s something more, now.

“There was some disappointment in the draft not working out for him, but he still could have signed free agent, and been on with it, but I really feel like the strength of our program has been in the willingness of our senior players to come back,” Esquer said. “They like it here. They like the coaches. They like their teammates, and they’ll get better, and also have a great team experience. That’s the core of our program, like Devin Pearson, who said, ‘If it’s not the top 10 rounds, I’m coming back to Cal.’”

•••••

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1551375-regional-postmorte... When asked about what brought him back to Berkeley, Mason just says he had unfinished business. But, there’s more. Something deeper.

“Not being drafted set him back,” Allison says. “He took inventory. He also called scouts and asked what he needed to do to improve, or to get himself better for the next level. I found that to be so mature, and so did the scouts he spoke with. They were impressed by that. They also said the players often just let it go and move on. Ryan isn’t that type.”

Then, came news that Neu would be leaving to become the head coach at Pacific. That same day, Mason texted this reporter. He wanted it known that he would be coming back. On the day that the pitching staff lost its leader, he stepped up.

“The biggest difference in me, from last year, is that, this year […],” he pauses, carefully searching for just the right words. “I guess, the change is that now, I’m the sole leader of the pitching staff. It was Dylan Nelson and myself last year, and this year, it’s myself and Daulton helps out, and we have some big names that help out, but I’m one year older, one year wiser. Now that I’m a senior, I have to set the tone for the younger guys. We have to – I have to – tell them what it’s like to be in a game, because they don’t understand it yet. They haven’t had that feeling yet. Really, last year, I could focus more on myself, and how to pitch and help the team win. Now, I need to help the team win by pitching, and by helping them understand what it takes to win a game.”

Esquer tends to gravitate more towards the quieter, more soft-spoken leaders on his teams to serve as his conduit to the locker room – the Tony Renda’s and the Chadd Krist’s and Josh Satin’s of the world – but Mason is different. Mason is loud, brash, at times grating and at all times brutally, unfailingly honest. He’s incisive, but blunt. He’s not a fan of bull. He’s not a company man, by any stretch.

“Coach and I have a great relationship,” Mason says. “We haven’t seen eye-to-eye on everything, but we have a mutual respect. When I say that I don’t think something’s right, he will listen, and when he says, ‘I know this is going to work,’ I will respect that, every time. It’s important to have that. We’ve had a great relationship for going on four years now, and coach Esquer has meant the world to me. Without him, my career would not be here, and I would not be who I am.”

If Mason is anything, it’s gleefully contrarian, but there is a limit. Beneath the great debater is someone who bows gracefully to reason.

“From birth, he has been a strong-willed child, always. He has always been competitive and very headstrong, but fair in his thinking and judgment,” Allison says. “I would always win in an argument or a disagreement when I finally would strike a chord with him that was fair. Then, he would agree to do something that he didn't want to do.”

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1600263-fall-ball-freshmen... But, that doesn’t mean they don’t argue.

“Always. Always,” Mason says of his disagreements with his manager, with a toothy grin (see: gleefully contrarian). “We’ll have our talks in the office. They’re 100-percent confidential, though. Whatever I say to him, he will not let it out, and whatever he says to me, I will not let it out. Those are the talks where he can get a better feel for our team, and we can work on it and build a better program, because he knows exactly what’s going on.”

Looking back on that argument with Neu, Mason now realizes how important that one conversation was to Cal’s chances this season.

“I really could have gone more. Mike was worried about the wellbeing of my arm, which I completely commend him,” he says. “I understand and I agree, now, but at the time, I didn’t.”

Again, a year older, a year wiser Mason says: “Yeah, it was probably better. This year might have been in jeopardy, because I’d have a torn labrum or something.”

As Esquer looked across the field that night last June, he had a realization.

“When we were playing in the Regional at Texas A&M, which was really a proud moment of mine, to see our program come back to national prominence after battling through some issues that we had, based on the cut of the program and having to deal with a couple recruiting classes that we lost out on, as I stood, before the final game, I remember looking out at the field,” Esquer said. “Going through each one of our players, across the diamond, and as I realized that we had a chance to return eight or nine players from last year’s team, where my confidence was held was the fact that I felt that each one of those players, I felt, could be better players.”

Including Mason, both on and off the mound.


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