No One Did More For College Game Than Fraser
CHICAGO—Other coaches won more games. Others won more College World Series. But no coach ever meant as much to college baseball as Ron Fraser.
Fraser died Jan. 20 at age 79 from complications from Alzheimer's disease. Though he hadn't coached a game in 20 years, The Wizard of College Baseball's legacy still can be felt today.
When Miami hired Fraser to coach its baseball team in 1963, he had a $2,200 salary, no athletic scholarships, a converted shower for an office, a cow pasture for a field and a mandate not to spend any money. He had to get a second job, running athletic programs at the nearby Coral Gables youth center, just to earn a living wage. Miami didn't pay him a full-time salary until 1972, and he had to fight to stop the university from dropping baseball the next year.
Undaunted, Fraser built the model baseball program. He raised money himself and generated interest with such stunts as college baseball's first batgirls and having his team wear green gloves on St. Patrick's Day. He met Miami businessman George Light, who became the principal donor in the building of Mark Light Field (in memory of his son, who died of muscular dystrophy), which opened in 1973 as college baseball's first modern facility.
By 1977, Mark Light Field had become Mark Light Stadium, replete with an electronic scoreboard and concrete bleachers. Fraser paid off the stadium debt by hosting a $5,000-a-plate dinner on the infield, with international chefs preparing an 11-course meal amid ice carvings, goldfish ponds and strolling violinists. He gave away Mercedes convertibles and free open-heart surgery, and creating the Miami Maniac, the first famous college baseball mascot.
Building A Blueprint
Fraser not only created a thriving program, but he also showed athletic directors and other coaches that college baseball could generate revenue rather than be a sinkhole for cash. Several schools followed his lead.
Louisiana State's baseball program was an afterthought until it hired Skip Bertman as head coach in 1984. Bertman won five national championships in 18 seasons with the Tigers, as the program went from not charging admission to annually leading NCAA Division I in paid attendance. He says that success wouldn't have been possible had he not spent eight years as an assistant to Fraser.
"I brought a Miami blueprint to Baton Rouge," Bertman says. "None of us were ever going to get baseball where we wanted to be without making some money for our school. That's what changed it for everybody.
"Ron did it through promotions. He made University of Miami baseball a happening. It was a great place to be. He was drawing four or five thousand a game, which was unheard of 30 years ago. Today the SEC is averaging that and LSU is well over 10 thousand. That's all due to Ron. He showed athletic directors that money could be made from this sport."
Trying to catch up to Bertman and Mississippi State's Ron Polk, other Southeastern Conference teams built new stadiums and invested more heavily in their baseball programs. The same happened in other conferences across the nation. Today college baseball has more quality programs and is more competitive than ever, thanks to Fraser paving a path for others to follow.
The biggest catalyst for college baseball's increase in popularity over the years was ESPN's broadcasts of the College World Series. That was Fraser, too.
When ESPN went on the air in September 1979, it had an obvious need for programming, but rebuffed Fraser's attempts to sell the merits of college baseball over the phone. So he traveled to ESPN's headquarters in Bristol, Conn., where he spent three days oozing charm and handing out Hurricanes souvenirs until he gained an audience with vice president Scotty Connal. Fraser sold Connal on the merits of the CWS, which has been one of the network's signature events since ESPN started broadcasting it in 1980.
"Ron did what Muhammad Ali did for boxing. Ron did what Arnold Palmer did for golf," Bertman says. "Ron had a vision and he promoted it and he made it work."
Fraser's promotional genius overshadowed his coaching ability. Even his most famous moment as a coach exuded showmanship.
Miami was clinging to a one-run lead in the sixth inning of a game against Wichita State when record-setting basestealer Phil Stephenson reached first base for the Shockers. Pitcher Mike Kasprzak got Stephenson to dive back to the bag on a pickoff play, then threw a strike before taking his foot off the rubber and making another pickoff attempt.
Miami fielders dashed toward the right-field bullpen, where Hurricanes relievers and batgirls scrambled out of the way. When Stephenson broke for second base, Kasprzak took the ball from his glove—where it had been the whole time—and threw him out to snuff the rally. Three decades later, The Grand Illusion still ranks as perhaps the most famous play in college baseball history.
But Fraser was about more than gimmicks. The Hurricanes went on to win the national championship in 1982, and again three years later. When he retired after the 1992 season, his 1,271 victories (against just 438 defeats) ranked second all-time behind only Southern California's Rod Dedeaux' 1,332.
"Ron knew much more about baseball than people give him credit for," Bertman says. "His strength was in reading people. He could tell who could play and who couldn't. He was a tremendous motivator."
Fraser coached the Netherlands to the 1960 European championship. He won a gold medal with Team USA at the 1973 World Championships and silvers at the 1971 and 1987 Pan American Games. He retired after guiding the United States to a fourth-place finish at the 1992 Olympics, when baseball debuted as a full-medal sport.
If there were a Mount Rushmore of college baseball coaches, he would be up there with Dedeaux, Bertman and Augie Garrido. No one ever will match the impact Fraser had on the college game.