Bitter ending won’t spoil a season for the ages

Eugene W. Lau/File

Since defeating Dallas Baptist to advance to the College World Series, the Cal baseball team has been joking that someone should make a movie out of their storybook season. If Hollywood ever does, they’ll probably write a different ending — one that doesn’t involve the Bears being sent home after an 8-1 trouncing by Virginia.

As magical a season as it was, in the moments after the Bears limped to a conclusion, the loss cast a funereal pallor over the team. The locker room was silent, the tears gathering in tired eyes.

“We’re disappointed,” catcher Chadd Krist said heavily.

With each day that’s gone by since, the sting has lessened. And, as weeks and months pass, the Bears will be able to look back and realize what they accomplished in 2011:

A captivating, breathtaking miracle.

The season began with a cut. On September 28, the university abruptly announced that baseball was one of five teams that would be dropped from the athletics slate, effective immediately following the 2010-11 season. Thirty-odd young men were suddenly homeless as their futures flickered in the blink of an eye.

That day, the coaches told their players that practice would be optional, but every man showed.

“We’ve got a real special group,” coach David Esquer said then. “I think they’ve committed to seeing this through.”

The cast of characters was movie-ready. For inspiration there was Tony Renda, the team’s steel-tough pro prospect at second base who lost his father to lung cancer the summer before. For grit there was Chad Bunting, who languished in anonymity as a bullpen catcher for two years before working his way into the starting lineup as an outfielder. And for comic relief there was freshman infielder Derek Campbell, who cut his hair into a bleached blonde mullet and groomed an image as a musical star.

Armed with potential, the Bears opened the 2011 season with a bang — two wins over Utah, the second on a walk-off single by freshman Andrew Knapp.

“We wanted to come out and make a statement,” Knapp said after the game. “And we definitely did that.”

More statements followed.

Cal started off the campaign on a 19-6 tear, including a 15-inning victory over No. 18 Rice that symbolized the determination the young squad wore on its sleeve. As they dominated the competition, the Bears’ pitching climbed the national rankings. Senior Kevin Miller sported a 0.48 ERA in late March, while Justin Jones and Erik Johnson were a powerful 1-2 weekend punch. Out of the pen, Matt Flemer struck out 41 in 30 appearances.

At the plate, Renda batted .348 in conference play and won Pac-10 Player of the Year honors. Krist led the conference with 27 doubles. New faces, like community college transfer Vince Bruno and lightly-played senior Austin Booker, had breakout years. Production, for the first time in years, came from the bottom as well as the top of the lineup.

Then, on April 8, salvation came down: Cal baseball would be reinstated. But that happy reprieve didn’t translate to the field. Perhaps with their do-or-die urgency gone, the Bears lost a spark. They finished the season 12-13 and lost six of their last seven conference games. Off the heels of being swept by Stanford, Cal barely punched a ticket to the postseason.

But that second chance was all they needed.

The rest you already know. The Bears lost on their first day in Houston and never lost there again. They handled Dallas Baptist in the Super Regionals and celebrated long into the night. And then they went to Omaha.

Under humid skies, Cal eliminated Texas A&M and lost to No. 1 Virginia twice. They were out-matched by nearly every team at the CWS but, even while losing 8-1 in their last game of the season, the Bears’ dugout was never silent. To the last out, they cheered.

“You know what?” Esquer said. “I couldn’t have asked for more.”

With so many key pieces of the team returning next year, the loss in Omaha could be a starting, rather than an ending, point. Next season, they’ll be frontrunners, conference favorites. People will see them coming. But success, no matter how sweet, will never match what they accomplished this year — when they were hopeless underdogs fighting for something greater than a game.

“They’ve learned a lot of lessons about perseverance and strength,” Esquer said. “… I think it’s been a year that has really taught them, as well as myself, a whole lot about human spirit.”

Katie Dowd covers baseball.