California's Marcus Semien (15) is greeted by teammate Chadd Krist… (George Nikitin / Associated…)
Reporting from Berkeley
On that bleak day in September, the day when university officials handed the California baseball team a death sentence, it just so happened the players were scheduled to practice.
They arrived at the ballpark to learn their storied program — more than a century old — had fallen victim to state budget cuts and would be disbanded at season's end.
"I was really angry," sophomore pitcher Justin Jones said. "I was upset, disappointed in the university and kind of ashamed, all at the same time."
Coach David Esquer told his guys that he would help them transfer to other schools. He made it clear they could take the day off to deal with the news.
To his surprise, they laced up their cleats, put on their mitts and began tossing the ball around. Pretty soon, these young men — many of them still teenagers, their futures abruptly scattered to the breeze — were joking and laughing.
"Once we got on the field, we put everything else aside," Jones said. "That was one of the best practices we've ever had."
Esquer recalled glancing at his assistants and saying: "We have a special team here."
A team that could turn calamity into a Cinderella story.
'Roller coaster ride'
Eight teams begin play in the 2011 College World Series this weekend and the Golden Bears will be among them. Their quest for an improbable national championship begins with a game against top-seeded Virginia on Sunday.
So much has changed in the last nine months.
Not only has Cal returned to Omaha for the first time in nearly two decades, it has won an even bigger victory, earning reinstatement with help from rabid supporters who raised millions of dollars.
"Unbelievable," said Austin Booker, a senior outfielder. "It's been a huge roller coaster ride."
As soon as the university announced its athletic department cuts last September, the alumni sprang into action. They understood the administration would not accept a short-term fix — their campaign needed to raise $25 million, enough to support baseball and four other endangered sports for the next seven to 10 years.
"I don't know if it was naivete or passion, or both, but I knew we were going to succeed," said Doug Nickle, a former pitcher who helped lead the effort. "It didn't matter what the numbers were."
In those early days, only three players decided to transfer immediately. As star infielder Tony Renda put it: "It weeded out the people who did not want to be here."
The remaining players contacted teams throughout the country — Renda and Jones committed to Oregon — but vowed to remain with Cal for what looked to be its final season.
That left the Golden Bears with a veteran roster and strong pitching, enough talent to rank in the preseason top 25. The ballpark became a sanctuary, Renda said, "a place where you can forget about things, a place to be yourself and have fun and play a game."
Not that everything went perfectly.
Cal suffered early losses to opponents such as Oklahoma and Connecticut and hit losing streaks during the Pacific 10 Conference schedule, getting swept by Arizona State and Stanford.
Still, Esquer marveled at a team that could ignore the ax hanging over its head. The same could be said for his staff.
Facing imminent unemployment, the coaches vowed to put the players' welfare first. Assistant Dan Hubbs took a wish list of schools from each athlete and began making calls, telling coaches, "I've got someone you should look at." Esquer dealt with upperclassmen who faced a trickier decision — they could transfer for one or two seasons of baseball elsewhere or quit the game to finish their studies at Cal.
"People ask me what it was like," the coach said. "If you can imagine running your program, saving your program and dismantling your program, all at the same time, it was all day, every day."
Before anyone gets the wrong idea, Esquer adds, this effort wasn't entirely noble. If he and his staff could hold the program together for six more months, it might look good on their resumes.
Away from campus, the team's supporters worked just as hard. A relatively small number of big donors — including alum and former Dodgers star Jeff Kent — contributed millions of dollars, but there were hundreds of others giving $5 or $10. Even Stanford alumni, those enemies from across the bay, sent money.
"Think about it," Nickle said. "There's no more rivalry if there's no more Cal."
Wherever the Golden Bears played, opposing fans leaned over the railing to wish them well. After a three-game series at Oregon State, a couple with season tickets near the visiting dugout handed Esquer a check.
"I like what you're doing," the man said. "Good luck."
By February, the campaign had secured more than $12 million in pledges. Then came a setback — university officials decided to reinstate rugby, women's lacrosse and women's gymnastics, but not baseball.
"We were shocked, to say the least," Nickle recalled.