California's announcement that it will cut its 108-year-old baseball program at the end of the 2011 season shocked the college baseball world Tuesday, but nobody was blindsided more than Golden Bears coach David Esquer.
Esquer said he had no inkling his program was in jeopardy until he got official word at 9:30 Tuesday morning.
"It's shocking—that's the perfect word for it. It is shocking," Esquer said Tuesday evening. "Obviously Cal baseball has been around for over 100 years, and the beauty of the University of California is they're a passionate, loyal alumni group, whether they're football, basketball or baseball. That's a trademark of the alumni here, they love their school and are passionate about their alma mater. So there's a lot of disbelief. It's a big statement—it's a Pac-10 school that decided not to have baseball. That's saying something. We think we're the strongest conference in America as far as baseball, and our track record with national championships would probably prove that."
Esquer said his players were stunned when the coaches broke the news to them Tuesday.
"Various emotions. Some are angry, obviously, and disbelief, and there's some fear and a little bit of panic out of some," he said. "It's difficult to hear, and when it deals with their futures, it's kind of hard to hear. We've got a lot of kids committed to play on this team. I told them, if this is the last baseball team in Cal baseball history, we have the opportunity to give them one hell of a team. We have five returning key pitchers, including upperclassmen, and seven of our nine field players are returning. We are all excited to get back to work.
"We've been ascending, we've been to the playoffs two of the last three years. We believe if we can't say after this year that we have been to the playoffs three out of the last four years, we're doing something wrong, because this team is capable of doing that."
Indeed, Cal's program has been on the rise, despite a substandard ballpark that does not even have lights. The Golden Bears have consistently recruited quality talent and have produced quality professional players. Esquer pointed out that eight Cal alumni were on major league Opening Day rosters, and a ninth, Brennan Boesch, reached the big leagues shortly thereafter. The Bears also boast a 100 percent graduation rate for seniors who did not leave early for the draft, and Esquer said more than half of the 30 juniors who have signed have already come back and finished their degrees.
"The mechanics of the job we were strong at: The kids graduated, the kids that went on to play pro baseball did well," he said. "We weren't struggling, we weren't floundering as a program. We maybe needed a little extra to get us over the hump as far as facilities upgrades, but we weren't able to get there.
"We're proud of the fact we've done more with less than anybody else. If you'd have stuck me in the ACC or SEC and given me the worst facilities and don't give me lights, and if I could get that program to the NCAA tournament two of the last three years, I think we'd be considered a pretty strong program. That's a tribute to my staff and the type of kids we have here and their ability to not get caught up in material things."
There has been some speculation that perhaps some of Cal baseball's notable alumni could make financial commitments that could spare the program, but Esquer said the administration told him that is not a realistic possibility.
"It's more complicated than baseball getting enough money to fund itself," he said. "I've got to believe part of it is bringing back an accompanying sport as well, if they bring back a male sport. And will they be able to hire the staff to handle another sport? While baseball may pay for itself, it won't be able to pay to run another program."
So the coaches and players will try to send the program out with a bang in 2011, and Esquer and his staff will do everything they can to help place players in other programs for 2011. They will be able to transfer at the end of the spring without having to sit out a year, and many of them will be hot commodities. UPDATE: There was plenty of confusion at Cal and at NCAA headquarters about whether players would be required to sit out the 2011 season if they transferred at the midyear point, but NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn wrote in an e-mail this afternoon that they players who transfer this winter would not be eligible in the spring of 2011. They can apply for waivers, however.
"We're committed to (placing players elsewhere)—that's my biggest and my first concern, that the kids feel like they'll be all right," Esquer said. "Quite frankly for the seniors, juniors and sophomores, i feel confident they can rest assured that they'll be fine. We've got a heck of a class of sophomores that anybody in the country will want, from Justin Jones to Tony Renda to Mitch Delfino to Devin Rodriguez and others—anybody's going to want them. I think the freshmen are a little more worried and scared, they haven't established themselves and aren't sure where they stand on the landscape. They're a little more panicked than the rest."
The decision to cut baseball and four other sports is particularly jarring in light of Cal's ongoing $321 million football stadium renovation project, which began in January. The project was approved by the UC Board of Regents last July but does not include any public funds. It is funded by the athletic department's gross revenues and the Endowment Seat Program.
"Obviously, you think a little bit at a time when you make that type of investment, then you go out and start cutting sports—you can't help but think a little bit," Esquer said. "It shocked me so much you don't really know how to react."
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