READ OUR PREMIUM PREVIEW OF CAL-USC
It’s Monday evening on the west side of the California campus. The sun is just flickering at the horizon, throwing its last beams of daylight onto the clouds over the Golden Gate Bridge. The only sounds emanate from an open door on the first floor of Haas Pavilion. Grunts, rock music and barks filter through the twilight air. Around 80-year old Evans Diamond, the constant hum and rumble of construction is quiet. The front-loaders and backhoes are silent. Standing guard around the stands are eight shiny new steel sentinels, with crowns bristling with bulbs.
Fifth-year senior Logan Scott stands on a landing outside the Haas weight room, hands on his hips, out of breath, hair matted, shaking his head.
A rotating cast of ballplayers finds various excuses make their way onto that same exterior landing. Some bring medicine balls. Others come empty-handed. Most are young -- like true freshmen Mitchell Kranson, Max Dutto, Jordan Talbot and Grant Diede. For them, the lights are certainly a welcome sight, but one which they were expecting. They’d never known a program that had seen promises made and broken, the candles of hope lit and just as quickly snuffed. Scott has been to the mountaintop. He’s been to Omaha. He’s pitched under the brightest of lights. He’s seen the program extinguished and then rekindled. All he can do is smile and shake his head, his eyes reflecting the glow of the still-unlighted lamps.
“She cleans up pretty nice, doesn’t she?” he grins.
One of the perks of this business of sports writing -- aside from the buckets of free press box popcorn (a mixed blessing if ever there was one, for anyone who’s spent halftime trying to extricate a rogue kernel from between the molars) -- is that we are left in stadiums long after the fans have left.
The cleaning crews and seagulls fly in on silent wings to scour the stands for trash and half-eaten hot dogs. The night mists roll in to leave a chill in the bones and a fine spray of dew upon every surface.
There is no louder quiet in the world than when you walk out onto a field, be it a gridiron, a pitch or a diamond, and stand at midfield, on the 50-yard line or on the pitcher’s mound. You are surrounded by nothing, and by everything. The world still hums along, dimly dinning in the background, at a distance measured by years, rather than miles.
Half of the lights are turned off, to safe power, of course. What was once a brightly-illuminated stage is littered with phantoms and ghostly shapes, and under the last few beams, a single person becomes a prism, a faceted gem that scatters one’s very soul, and lays bare every accomplishment, every regret, every dream and every thought.
You look down, standing in the middle of that field, and arrayed around you are spokes of shadow, each one a different density, some lighter, some darker, some inky, some barely there at all, but every single one of them you.
On Thursday night, against former pitching coach Dan Hubbs and his USC Trojans, the California baseball program will play its first ever home game under the lights, and the shadows, the ghosts, the phantoms, the lives, the memories, the triumphs, the failures, the eternities writ in clay and leather, will array themselves across 80-year old Evans Diamond, bathed for the first time ever in those same, glowing night mists.
“I think it’s fitting,” said Bears head coach David Esquer. “It’s poetic justice. Someone who’s important to me and my career as a coach, and I couldn’t have had a better assistant coach than Dan Hubbs. To see him as a head coach now, and being able to have them at our first night game, he knows exactly what he means to us. He was there from Day One with me, and he knows what it takes to get some progress with our program and how long it’s taken, so I think he’ll appreciate the moment of having our first night game.”
When Esquer came back to campus from the team’s road trip to Los Angeles, he had to touch the light poles, just to make sure they were real, that they didn’t evaporate like a dream in the first moments after waking.
“I did touch one or two of ‘em,” Esquer smiled. “What a sight.”
From every walk-on to every single one of the 50 Major Leaguers who have played their college ball on that field, this has been a forbidden dream, a fantasy steeped in the impossible.
Exactly two and a half years ago -- to the day -- there was nothing but darkness, fear, uncertainty and resentment. 912 days ago, Evans Diamond had no future. The then-118-year old baseball program was set to play its final season ever, and there weren’t even any lights to turn out.
On that day, Sept. 28, 2010, when Cal baseball was cut by the school, former infielder Brett Munster said: "Just a few examples of over 100 years of tradition that died today with the cutting of the Cal baseball program. One: It was Cal baseball that gave Cal the tradition of The Axe. Two: Cal won the very first ever College World Series. Three: Cal is tied for the most players currently in the MLB by any college."
St. Louis Cardinals slugger Allen Craig said: "I was there for four years, so I had a lot of memories. I would just say the whole experience of just going there as a freshman, not knowing what to expect, not knowing anybody, from the coaches to any of the players, really. Then, you look back, after four years, and all those people are your closest friends that you'll have forever. In just a matter of four years, the experiences that you have, going to class and going to the baseball field and practicing for so long, every day, competing against the best teams in the country, that's what I'll remember.
New York Mets prospect Josh Satin said: “Eskie always told me, and told the whole team, that this program will do more for you than you will for it, and it's true ... Those were the best years of my life, even if some were up and some were down, that was the best time of my life."
Then-Oakland Athletics pitcher and current San Diego Padres hurler Tyson Ross, who was born in Berkeley, whose mother went to Cal, said: "It's where I grew up, pretty much. I had three good years there, and all the friendships that I still have today. Big games, seeing walk-off homers and guys having great games out there, I don't know any specific memories, just all those memories from that time.
"No other major national program can take a bunch of local kids, have them mesh together and do what that team's done. No other big-time program."
It was a place so much more than dirt and grass, so much more than the uncertainty swirling around it. Now, there is now quite literally the light of hope. There is life.
The first sparks came with a walk-off win the first weekend of the 2011 season, when Andrew Knapp -- then just a freshman -- with his black SAVE CAL BASEBALL wristband, drove in the winning run against Utah with a two-out pinch-hit single in the bottom of the ninth.
With each victory over a ranked team, with each diving stop and scorching single from Tony Renda, with each home run off the bat of Marcus Semien, with each hug from Justin Jones, each inning of stellar relief from Kyle Porter, each rally cap and each rally cape, more kindling was added to the flame. Dixon Anderson pitching the entire season on a broken foot, Erik Johnson out-dueling Gerritt Cole on the road at Jackie Robinson Stadium, a 15-inning marathon against Rice ending with a walk-off bunt -- each threw a log on the fire. Three of the six last-at-bat wins came off the bats of freshmen, and, as the saying goes, Freshmen, more wood.
The greatest moments of the past two seasons for this program have come under the lights, whether it was the improbable ninth-inning comeback against Baylor in the 2011 Houston Regional, the 2011 Super Regional clincher at Santa Clara’s Stephen Schott Stadium, the opening ceremonies of the 2011 College World Series in which the Bears were the first team introduced, to last Friday’s 5-1 win over No. 11 UCLA, to the miracle 2011 season during which donors raised more than $10 million to save the program, Cal has shone brightest when the night has been darkest.
This season, the Bears are 7-0 at home, with four walk-off wins. This is no longer a program on the brink. While senior Devon Rodriguez is hitting a team-leading .359 with three home runs and 21 RBI, and the now-junior Knapp is hitting .337 with a league-leading nine runners gunned out from behind the dish, a new generation has forced its way to the forefront.
Freshman righty Ryan Mason -- thanks to his stellar outing last week against the Bruins -- is charging hard at the freshman win record of 10 with a 4-0 mark already, with a 2.31 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 23.1 innings, and will start on Thursday. Fellow true freshman Devin Pearson is hitting a scorching .328 with six doubles and a .414 on-base percentage. Freshman Nick Halamandaris -- an eighth-round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners -- got his first college hit after sitting out the first few weeks of the season with a broken thumb, and it was a rocket home run against the Bruins on Saturday. There is a future now, for a program, which so lately had none.
“We’re going to do something for the people who made it possible,” Esquer said. “We’re going to have something planned. Just the event itself is going to be a big deal.”
Cal has been on the road for nine straight games, and now, the Bears finally come home, and -- Wouldn’t you know it? -- Berkeley has left the lights on for them.
“It’s not only a literal sign of progress, but it’s a figurative sign of progress, as well,” Esquer said. “I think it’s a statement out there, that our program is making steps to thrive, and not just survive. There’s a big difference there. We’re doing things that are positive, moving forward that will affect our game play and our competitive balance. That’s a huge step for us.”
The diamond will sparkle, and yet, it, too, is a prism. The lights will cast both shadow and illumination upon its timeless geometry, showing not only the legacy of four conference players of the year, 41 All-Americans, two national titles, 94 all-conference selections, the lessons learned from the elimination and resurrection of 2011 and 64 postseason games -- all but three played on fields other than Evans Diamond, and none since 1957 -- but the lives changed because of the program, the lifelong friendships established between its chalk lines, the quiet moments of reflection, the skinned knees, broken bones, heartbreaks and hard tags, the story of a program -- with players, coaches, parents and alumni behind it -- that was too stubborn to fade quietly into dim memory and, finally, the potential to host playoff baseball, with a home crowd behind it.
Fiat Lux, indeed.