OMAHA, Neb. — Before Sunday’s game, while the rest of his team warmed up, Cal pitcher Justin Jones perched alone on a bucket of baseballs.
Though a strained bicep would keep him out of the Bears’ first College World Series game since 1992, Jones was not resting. Instead, he worked slowly and carefully, rubbing pine tar on the handles of his teammate’s bats, checking every inch of the grip as he went along.
It is a job that few, if any, pitchers have ever done for their teammates. Jones wasn’t doing it for a group of men who happened to be wearing the same garishly colored jerseys as him, though. He was doing it for his brothers. And that kind of bond? Well, you’d climb mountains, swim seas and rally to beat Baylor for your brothers.
So Cal lost, 4-1, to No. 1 Virginia on Sunday. So the Bears now have one loss separating them from elimination. They have accomplished far greater things in the last month than win baseball games and defy expectations. What happens on the field in Omaha matters far less than what has already transpired.
There is a reason that every college baseball fan in the nation knows Cal’s story, why the opposition is honored to play them. The Bears, in fighting for more than just wins, have come to define what we love about sports:
It takes more than talent to do what Cal has done in the past few weeks. It takes an injured pitcher prepping his hitters’ bats, a designated hitter who lost his father to cancer less than a year ago, a no-name, walk-on bullpen catcher who clawed his way into the starting lineup at right field.
Against the best team they’ve seen all year — one that thoroughly out-matched them in statistics and big name talent — the Bears threw themselves into every play, from batting practice to the final out. The Nebraska heat was exhausting, but their eyes never dimmed.
The highlights will show how Virginia scored its four runs. It won’t show the Cal dugout gathering together for high fives and hugs even after small victories, or the warning track dirt Chad Bunting wore on his cheeks as a token of a catch he couldn’t make, even though he wanted to with his whole soul.
Those were the moments that took your breath away.
If games were just numbers on a page, we’d always be left feeling empty. Wins and losses would be black and white, dead and meaningless. In matching Virginia frame-for-frame for six shutout innings — the longest scoreless affair in the College World Series since 1987 — the Bears proved that even in defeat, still there is greatness.
With every out, Cal’s very existence became more real and more tremendous. The Bears spent a year pushing a boulder up a mountain that seemed to have no summit, their heart and love sustaining them until Omaha was no longer just a word.
In these hard times, so fraught with wrenching uncertainty, Cal has affirmed that there is no 11th hour if you believe in a 12th.
The Bears need no wins to validate themselves. They are now the first team to christen TD Ameritrade Park with a powerful story and, as the years slip by, their legacy will live and give life to those cool cement walls.
They’re more than a baseball team now.
They are what hope looks like.