When California chancellor Robert Birgeneau shocked the college baseball world on Sept. 28 by announcing the school would cut baseball and four other sports after the 2011 season, he left little hope for saving the program.
That day, Cal coach David Esquer said the school’s administration told him saving the program was not a realistic possibility, even if supporters raised the money to pay for it. At least one of the problems was that Title IX would dictate that the women’s gymnastics and lacrosse programs would have to be saved also.
But that answer was unacceptable to many alumni and parents, who quickly organized the Cal Baseball Foundation and started a Website (savecalbaseball.com) aimed at preserving the 108-year-old program.
Doug Nickle pitched at Cal in the mid-1990s and reached the big leagues with the Phillies and Padres. Now he works in the wine industry, but that hasn’t stopped him from taking on a central role in the fight to save Cal baseball—which has become a full-time job in its own right.
“There was a cavalcade of people who were obviously shocked and angered by the decision,” Nickle said. “But in any situation like this, my feeling is you’ve got to get the facts first. So pretty soon a number of us were able to gain an audience with (athletics director) Sandy Barbour, to let her know we were going to get this reversed, we just needed to know what numbers we had to hit. A little over a week and a half later I was able to get in and meet with the chancellor as well, because ultimately he’s the one that makes the decision.”
It became apparent that the best way to save the baseball program was to combine efforts with the other four sports on the chopping block—rugby, men’s and women’s gymnastics and women’s lacrosse. The tradition-rich rugby program, in particular, had significant fundraising capacity.
The problem was, and is, that nobody knows exactly how much money has to be raised.
“We’re still waiting for a clear definition—have this money by this date and we’re in,” Esquer said. “We haven’t received that, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of really spirited people going forward.”
The university says it cut the five programs in order to save about $4 million a year. According to Nickle, the administration said it would take between $80 million and $120 million to fully endow all five programs so they could operate without any university support. And Esquer said Birgeneau initially mandated that the programs must be fully endowed or cut altogether.
“Those are the ridiculous numbers,” Nickle said. “That just seems like you’re picking numbers out of a hat if the range is $80 million to $120 million—those are huge numbers, and that’s a huge range. So it doesn’t make sense to look at it in terms of an endowment yet because we’ve got to tighten up our numbers at the university level.”
Birgeneau has since backed off his initial stance, but he told Nickle that it wasn’t enough just to raise money. The school has to develop a plan to make the programs economically sustainable.
So the Cal Baseball Foundation set out to secure $12.5 million in pledges—$10 million by Jan. 1 and another $2.5 million by 2012—to pay to operate all five programs for the next four years. During that period, each program would complete a plan to achieve long-term stability. Nickle said it will be important for the programs to run more efficiently and explore commercial income and corporate sponsorships—areas that have been largely untapped by the athletics program.
“We’ve kind of approached it in terms of starting a new company, whose mission statement is to save all five of these sports, get them reinstated and have an economic plan that will run them into perpetuity,” Nickle said. “I don’t think the chancellor thought we could do it. I think he thought it was too tall a task, and we were just going to go away after difficult efforts trying to raise this money. But I told him, ‘Unless we hear differently, we’re going to come to you with $10 million by Jan. 1, and we’ll have a viable business model to run these programs in a sustainable fashion.’ “
The foundation reached out to Cal’s major league alumni, including Jeff Kent, Lance Blankenship and Darren Lewis, and notable alumni in other fields, including some who did not play sports at Cal. Nickle said the baseball program alone raised more than $5.2 million in pledges through its Website, and this week the total fundraising effort for all five sports topped its goal of $10 million in pledges.
Nickle and his group will meet with Birgeneau next week to present their plan. If all goes well, they hope the chancellor will commit soon to reversing his decision to cut the programs.
‘Nowhere’s Like Berkeley’
In the meantime, Cal’s players are in an awkward spot. The players and coaches have bonded together and become “fiercely committed to each other,” in Esquer’s words. At the same time, the underclassmen who want to continue their baseball careers after 2011 must look out for their own futures, in case the efforts to save Cal’s program fail.
“We were put into an extremely tough situation,” said sophomore outfielder Tony Renda, one of the team’s top underclassmen. “On a lot of teams, guys would put their heads down and pout about it and feel bad for themselves, go, ‘Poor us,’ and not work as hard because—’Who cares? There’s not going to be a team next year.’ But not a single person now on the team has done that. If anything, the guys are working harder. We have a lot of extra motivation on the team. Part if it is to go, ‘Screw you, we deserve to be here, and even if you guys don’t think we do, we’re going to prove it to you.’ “
It’s an unusual dynamic. Players are forced to funnel their feelings of betrayal by their own university into resolve to compete for that same university. And in light of Cal’s ongoing $321 million football stadium renovation project, the decision to cut five programs to save $4 million a year is particularly galling to the baseball team.
“How does it make us feel? I don’t think I could explain it in ways you could print,” Renda said. “I don’t know, it’s pretty unbelievable. It’s poor management of money and funds. Honestly I don’t think it should have ever gotten to this point. Before they started making decisions to cut programs from kids trying to make it, they should have gone to alumni and the programs themselves to try to figure it out. I don’t think the administration was thinking about the kids, which is what their main focus should be. That’s how I feel about it. It’s pretty ridiculous.”
Two players have already announced they will transfer after the fall semester. Backup infielder Brett Bishop will go to Fresno (Calif.) CC, and heralded freshman righthander Eric Jaffe will transfer to UCLA, where he’ll try to get a waiver from the NCAA to gain his eligibility for 2011. Players who leave when and if the program is cut in 2011 would not have to sit out a year like other players who transfer from one Division I school to another, but Jaffe decided not to wait.
“We’re disappointed with that because we thought he could give us three big outs late in the game at this early stage in his career, and maybe work into more,” Esquer said of Jaffe. “He’s just a physically gifted and talented player. We’re not happy with that, but that’s the kind of shrapnel you get when the barn explodes.”
Star sophomore lefthander Justin Jones isn’t going anywhere until after the spring, but reports have surfaced that he will transfer to Oregon next summer. Renda said he has made a visit to Eugene to meet with the Ducks, and he is planning another to Southern California.
“It’s kind of an awkward situation,” Renda said. “You’re talking to coaches that you’re going to try to beat into the ground this year, so it’s awkward. I personally would like to stay in the Pac-10, but I would like better to not have to go anywhere else but here. Nowhere’s like Berkeley. People say Eugene is a lot like Berkeley, but it’s not. I don’t think those people have ever been to Berkeley.
“More than anything, I don’t want to have to split from these guys, from the team. The work ethic, the people we have, the personalities, you just can’t really beat it. I don’t want to have to change. We’re all optimistic that (the program) will get saved, but you can’t bank on it being saved, you can only hope it does. But personally, I’m 100 percent into the team this year, and as long as there is a program at Cal, I will be here. A lot of people on the team feel the same as me.”