OMAHA — Tony Renda’s eyes flicked back and forth across the field as reporter after reporter asked him about the incredible journey the Cal baseball team has endured on the road to Omaha. He acknowledged their fight to save the program, their battle against elimination in Houston and every other hardship the Bears have borne over the past 10 months.
But his eyes, constantly focused on the green grass of Evans Diamond, told where his heart really was.
The drama makes for great stories and TV spots, but for Renda and for the Bears the most important thing is, and always has been, simply playing baseball.
“We were all focused on one goal. That was getting to Omaha,” Renda said. “Now we’re focused on another goal, which is winning Omaha.”
Nine months after being cut, two months after being reinstated and a week after sweeping Dallas Baptist to reach its first College World Series since 1992, Cal will take the field at TD Ameritrade Park Sunday at 1 p.m. CT. There, the Bears will face No. 1 overall seed Virginia.
“I think Omaha likes underdogs,” Renda said. “I’d say we’re underdogs.”
They certainly are. The Cavaliers come into the contest with a record of 54-10; the Bears are 37-21, the only squad in the CWS with fewer than 40 wins. Virginia boasts the No. 2 pick in the MLB Draft, lefty Danny Hultzen, whose numbers are downright scary — a 1.49 ERA, 12-3 record and 151 strikeouts in 108 2/3 innings. Cal’s ace, lefty Justin Jones, was scratched in favor of righty Erik Johnson due to a tight bicep.
If there’s anything the Bears are good at, though, it’s battling through adversity.
“I’m actually glad,” senior outfielder Austin Booker said. “I always like playing the best competition.”
There is, of course, more to Omaha than just what happens on the field. Although those are the clips that will exist forever on highlight reels, all the moments in between are what the Bears will remember for the rest of their lives.
Cal left Berkeley before dawn on Wednesday morning to give the team a few extra days to soak up those moments. Since arriving, the Bears have signed autographs for fans, walked the streets and shopped at the dozens of merchandise tents set up around the stadium and even met a local little league team that had adopted Cal as its own.
“Someone asked me today how my day’s been, and I said, ‘Any day you wake up in Omaha it’s a great day,’” coach David Esquer said.
“We all deserve it for everything we’ve been through and for how hard we’ve worked,” Renda added.
Months ago, when the team was cut, several players resolutely stated that they would be spending Father’s Day in Nebraska. Along the way, they stumbled; they finished sixth in the Pac-10; they lost their first game of the regionals and faced elimination day after day.
But tomorrow, they will take the field under the hot, electric Omaha skies, as one of eight teams remaining in the entire nation.
“I had a dream that we didn’t make it. I woke up and I was sweating and stuff. It scared me,” Jones said. “I woke up and I realized, ‘Wait. We’re going to Omaha.’ This is real.
“I haven’t lost my smile since.”
Katie Dowd covers baseball.