Cal's baseball players didn't have an extra $10 million lying around, so they had to come up with an alternative to repay the donors who helped save the program from elimination.
The Bears are giving their supporters an improbable, storybook season worthy of a bidding war between major motion picture studios.
When alumni, family members and countless others combined to pony up the nearly $10 million necessary to get Cal baseball permanently reinstated after it was dropped because of budgetary reasons, they were just happy the program would continue. But in a case of impeccable timing, the Bears have put together one of the most memorable seasons in the program's 118-year history, one that continues this weekend in the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
It's Cal's first trip to the World Series in 19 years, a berth made possible only after the Bears scored four runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the final of the Houston Regional during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Cal then swept Dallas Baptist University in an NCAA Super Regional last weekend, a series played in front of sellout crowds in Santa Clara.
"It's just a miracle what's happened," former Cal pitcher and major donor Stu Gordon said by phone during a vacation in Positano, Italy. "I think they appreciate everything we've done for them in raising the funds to get baseball reinstated. And we appreciate everything they've done. We've done our part to save them, but they've done their part to just make it a glorious season for us."
Gordon, who pitched for the Bears during the early 1960s and is now a San Francisco attorney, spearheaded the fundraising effort that commenced when it was announced in September that baseball was one of five Cal sports being eliminated to save money. Gordon contributed $550,000 and played a big part in reaching the target total that Chancellor Robert Birgeneau required for reinstatement.
Baseball was one of five programs targeted to save millions of dollars in athletic department subsidies.
Birgeneau provisionally reinstated the program when fundraising reached $9 million in April, allowing recruits to sign with Cal. School officials announced Friday that the program had been formally reinstated because the number now is at $9.7 million, and it's only a matter of time before it gets to $10 million.
Gordon had his European vacation planned a year ago, but that hasn't stopped him from getting pitch-by-pitch phone updates from his son, Tom, during the postseason.
"Obviously, if it would have been just a ho-hum season, it wouldn't have given us the same uplifting feelings that we've had," Gordon said. "It really gives us great redemption and a huge reward for all of our efforts."
Many of Cal's donors and supporters were on hand at Santa Clara to watch the Bears clinch the World Series berth.
After Cal's players were done with their on-field celebration, they went over to the stands and joined supporters in a "Go Bears" chant.
"It's just been fantastic," said Doug Nickle, another former Cal pitcher who helped the "Save Cal Baseball" fundraising efforts. "In terms of thanks for our effort, there could be no greater reward. In terms of the spectacular nature of this story, that's already taking place. What they've achieved so far is just amazing."
For many of the program's donors, the team's run to the College World Series is a form of vindication. Supporters thought the program held too much value to be dropped, and the Bears' inspiring run to Omaha is an example of that.
"I think what the current team is doing has really put a stamp on this whole process," said former Cal All-American outfielder Matt Luke, who played on the Bears' last World Series team, in 1992, before a three-year major league career. "It's saying, 'This was not a good decision, and we're better than that.' For the current team to be accomplishing what they are doing right now in the same year is a pretty awesome thing."
Players' parents played a substantial role in resuscitating the program, seeking out donors in their communities and working with former players to organize fundraising. Within a week of the announcement that the program was being dropped, parents were holding a meeting at Evans Diamond in Berkeley with former players to formulate a game plan for reinstatement.
"The kids decided it was important to show what they could do as a team and to prove a point about reinstatement," said Ann Flemer, a Cal alumna who played a major role in the parents' effort and whose son, Matt, is the Bears' closer. "It's extremely gratifying because this is such a difficult thing to accomplish even if you don't have these distractions."
Cal's players have made a point to continually thank and show their appreciation for parents, donors and supporters when they're around the program. Players had started making plans to transfer to other schools before reinstatement.
"They are the reason we are still here," Pacific-10 Player of the Year Tony Renda said. "I'm forever grateful for them pledging all their money to save us. They're on my mind. We have our team on the field, but they're on our team, too. They're Cal baseball like we are."
"We're not a team of 35 guys. They are part of our team," pitcher Justin Jones said.