Batter up: Cal club baseball heads to NCBA World Series

Nolan Thomas/Courtesy

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On a baseball diamond three miles uphill from the UC Berkeley campus, senior Ian Paratore peers out from underneath his blue and gold baseball cap. He adjusts his grip on his baseball bat. Friday afternoons mean batting practice on Caldecott Field, the home of Oakland’s Little League tournaments. Still, tykes or no tykes, a baseball field is a baseball field. When the Little Leaguers have left, the Golden Bears quickly take their positions around the perimeter and play ball.

The pitcher, junior Alex Neuhaus, tosses a fast ball. The ball whizzes past Paratore before ricocheting off the back portion of the batting cage.

“Ball one,” someone calls from the dugout.

Neuhaus throws a changeup. Paratore lunges forward, taking a wide swing. The bat connects with the ball with a satisfying thud. All eyes turn skyward as the ball cuts through the air and past the outfield.

“Mammo!” Neuhaus bellows, the Berkeley expression for home run echoing throughout the dugout.

“Ss’kuah!” Paratore characteristically shouts back. He takes a slow victory lap, soaking in his homerun with every step. For a group of college athletes practicing on a Little League baseball field, the team has come a long way.

Next week, Cal Club Baseball heads to the National Club Baseball Association World Series for the first time in history.

“Right now, we’re ranked sixth in the nation,”  says current senior shortstop and former club president Brett Friedman, grinning. “Not bad for only five years, huh?”

Caldecott Field

Caldecott Field, home of Cal Club Baseball

The contenders

The word “underdog” is often repeated by players when asked about their team’s journey. After all, Cal club baseball is still relatively new. Following a temporary shutdown by the Cal Recreational Sports Office, the team was completely refounded for the 2008-09 season by 2010 Cal president Will Smelko. Since then, the team has encountered numerous obstacles, from sourcing an appropriate practice field to player enrollment.

“Recruiting new team members (was) extremely difficult, since barely anyone left on campus (knew) that a club baseball team existed,” Will Smelko recalls of the team in its initial years. Times have not changed much. He writes that “the team recruits now mainly by word of mouth: Current players reaching out to friends, roommates, and friends of friends.”

Asking about financing raises its own chorus of shrugs. Club baseball majorly differs from varsity baseball in its source of revenue — or lack thereof. Club baseball gets little backing from the school and no funds from the ASUC. Most expenses, including the flight to Tampa, Fla., to participate in the World Series come right out of the players’ pockets.

Brett Friedman clarifies, “We are a member of Cal Sports Clubs. They give us some sponsorship. But, what gives us most funding is player dues and financial donations from families and friends.”

But amid this array of challenges, Cal’s club baseball team has proven itself against naysayers.

“Since I’ve played here for four years, I’ve gotten to see the program rise to become a national powerhouse,” Friedman says, smiling ear to ear. “Now we are the best [team] on the West Coast.”

Students first

With one notable exception, no player on the team was recruited to play baseball in college. What unifies teammates is a dual passion for academics and baseball.

“Everyone is a student first and a club baseball athlete second,” says senior Patrick Cook, who is the current club president and an outfielder. “On longer road trips, some school time is sacrificed. It’s a sacrifice that everyone equally shares and equally accepts.”

The task of incorporating competitive sports into a schedule designed for academic success can be challenging. For Neuhaus, the team’s catcher and notable exception, ambitions to join the health field led him to play club instead of varsity. “I want to become a dentist,” Neuhaus explains. “Doing the pre-med requirements and (varsity) baseball was not possible (given) the hours of the day.”

Alex Neuhaus (in front) and Ian Paratore (behind)

Alex Neuhaus (in front) and Ian Paratore (behind)

Friedman, a Haas business major, turned down college baseball recruiters to study at UC Berkeley. For Neuhaus, Friedman and Cook, coupling the academic grind with club baseball has been well worth every second. Paratore sums up why, saying that “this is a team that can fight.”

No “I” in “teamwork”

On this team, egos are small. No one claims individual credit for “best player” or “reason why team is going to World Series.” Success has been a group effort. The team’s coach, Nate Oliver, has played a major role in molding this outlook. Oliver, former Major League Baseball player for the Dodgers, Giants, Yankees and Cubs (and winner of the 1963 World Series with the Dodgers) knows a thing or two about getting the team to work together. “Sit steady in the boat,” Oliver constantly advises. For players, this mantra is a call for cool-headedness and an ingredient for the team’s success. Cook describes the team’s winning game play as “competitive, relaxed and fun,” invoking the spirit of baseball.

Ian Paratore (left) and Coach Nate Oliver (right)

Ian Paratore (left) and Coach Nate Oliver (right)

Jason Wipaki, a junior and future team president as well as leadoff batter, offers choice words about the team’s World Series objective, saying that “our ultimate goal is to win that trophy, period.” Emphasizing his point, he adds, “We want to swag out on the national stage.”

Entering their biggest game of the year, the motley group of personalities has benefited from tactical organization to maximize the team’s strengths. According to Ryan Luchinni, a senior and former club president as well as this year’s first baseman, another reason why this team is winning is its “consistency and organization.” Unlike in the past, this year’s mix of seasoned players, veteran coach and “smooth operational logistics” have made the Cal club baseball team regular winners.

The future

The team still faces one major obstacle in getting to the World Series. Cal club baseball is student-run and has never financed a World Series trip. So they have teamed up with Berkeley alumni Andrea Lo and Brittany Murlas in creating a website to help pay for the travel expenses for the game, which will be many players’ final hurrah. Of the 15 players heading to the World Series, five will mark the World Series game as their last. All the seniors are graduating into a world where, for the first time in their lives, baseball will be only a spectator sport.

Looking back, Cook talks about memories wistfully. “I’m definitely going to miss being on a team,” he says. “I’m going to miss the competitive nature of baseball. Most importantly, I’ll miss the faces of those who I have played with for so long.”

For other players, the future also holds promise. A win at the World Series, according to Paratore, “would be the grand finale. To finish on that high note would solidify a career for me.”

Cal Club Baseball Team, poised for the NCBA World Series

Cal Club Baseball Team, poised for the NCBA World Series

For Friedman, Cal club baseball has become a rite of passage. He remarks that “this game has taught me so much about life, about teamwork, about living on an even keel, about not getting too excited when you do well and not getting too upset when things don’t go your way.”

For co-founder Will Smelko, the team’s success in advancing to the World Series is a development he could not be more excited about. “To make this dream a reality for so many Cal student-athletes is remarkable,” he says, “and I couldn’t be prouder to be associated with this group. Go Bears!”

Image sources: Nolan Thomas and Brett Friedman, courtesy.

Contact Alex Mabanta at [email protected]