SANTA CLARA, Calif. — An eternity ago, Cal second baseman Tony Renda stood stone-faced, steps away from the auburn dirt of Evans Diamond. His team, 118 years of history be damned, would disappear in a few months, a victim of plummeting state budgets. Reporters and cameramen ringed around him, waiting.
We’re going to Omaha, he told them.
They were nice words but, back in September, still just words. Cal was ranked somewhere just inside or just outside the top 25, depending on who you asked. It hadn’t reached the College World Series since 1992, had never advanced past regionals since the field expanded to 64.
These were things you said because, faced with overwhelming odds, you needed something to hang on to. A final stand in the face of erasure, a vindictive bite back at an administration the Bears felt had betrayed them. Who except the 40 men inside the clubhouse truly believed this could happen?
But on Sunday night, it did. And this time, the Bears weren’t alone.
Sometime in the fourth inning, an hour before the Cal dugout emptied in a fury of flailing limbs and flying caps, the stands came alive. Hands clapped together, voices rang out in unison.
Cal-i-for-nia! Cal-i-for-nia! Cal-i-for-nia!
This was a sellout crowd like the Bears had never seen, its 1,431 members suddenly moving and shouting as one. There are no lights in Evans Diamond, so it couldn’t host any postseason contests. No matter — the blue and gold faithful had made sure Santa Clara’s Schott Stadium felt like more than home.
They were a thunderous cadence, slamming mercilessly against the heart of poor Dallas Baptist. What chance did the visitors have in the face of something like this?
The Patriots were an underdog in their own right, a tiny no-name school tucked thousands of miles from the Bay. They, too, had hopes and dreams too wild to believe, the sole Division I sport on campus slowly capturing the public imagination. For a while, they played the role of David — knocking down Goliaths in TCU and Oklahoma.
They were a feel-good story for families and friends, a good number of whom flew out to Santa Clara.
But Dallas Baptist hasn’t had to come back from the dead, and perhaps that has made the difference. As a little as a month ago, Cal looked like they would sputter to the end, just as it has all too often in recent history.
After months of pulling comebacks out of a bottomless back pocket, the Bears stumbled. They went 6-7 to end Pac-10 play and 12-13 since reinstatement. They lost their regional opener to Baylor, and one more loss would have ended the season.
That loss never came. The Bears battled their way to four straight wins, fighting back from deficit after deficit. And now Cal, the Pac-10’s sixth-place squad, is the conference’s only remaining representative.
The money poured in to save the team, but something beyond words has turned it around. The Bears are in the midst of a dream, one that will end in Omaha soon for better or worse. They won’t sneak up on anyone there, and maybe the magic fades away.
A few minutes after the last Dallas Baptist batter flew out, the Bears clustered near home plate and chanted out at the crowd, eager for a response.
They still believe.
Now, so does everyone else.
Jack Wang covers baseball.