After decades of forced Friday matinees and missed chances of hosting postseason games, lighting capacity was finally added to Evans Diamond in 2013. For the first time in its history, Cal was able to play games in the dark — ”Pac-12 After Dark” special, if you will.
But those new additions could do nothing to help light up this dark and gloomy 2020. Instead, the lifeless field serves as a reminder of the lost spring season and the unpredictable path back for Cal baseball.
Separated from their teammates and stripped of any information about their upcoming season, the Bears have been in limbo during this strange baseball-less fall. Without the ability to practice as a team, nor guidance about when they might be able to, the Bears have turned to personal workouts and team Zoom calls, the new normal for Cal sports programs that don’t play in Memorial Stadium or Haas Pavilion.
That has left the handful of players still located in Berkeley to find off-campus facilities to prepare for a season with no start date. And for the majority of the team members back at home, the separation from the rest of their teammates has added to the difficulties of playing baseball during a pandemic.
“It’s just been basically everyone trying to find places where they can get their work in,” standout utilityman Grant Holman said. “I’m grateful to have the opportunity to go to a facility close to my house and get all the work in I need to do because I know a lot of guys probably don’t have the luxury.’”
Yet, despite the numerous setbacks and lingering disappointment about the unfinished spring season, the team members remain steadfast in their dedication to physically prepare themselves, no matter their physical distance from the UC Berkeley campus.
“I think it’s just making sure that you are doing all the work you need to do off campus to be ready when we do come back,” Holman said.
Still, the team’s separation has presented its fair share of problems, such as how to integrate the new crop of players into the program, many of whom still haven’t met the team in person. The upperclassmen have attempted to offset this lack of in-person interaction by reaching out to the freshmen virtually and making them feel welcome.
“In our meetings and in our group chats, we just make sure to let them know that if they have any questions or need anything to reach out to us,” Holman said. “We want them to be as comfortable as they possibly can. That was a big thing that I appreciated as a freshman, was feeling comfortable and like I belonged where I was.”
Cal’s season still very much lies at the mercy of school, local and state authorities, no matter how prepared the team is to return to Evans Diamond. Like other Cal sports, the baseball program must wait for the school and the city’s health departments to approve any in-person practices or activities.
“We are just basing everything we do off what Berkeley Public Health says and kind of just trusting them to keep us safe, but also put us in a position where we can hopefully go out and have a season,” Holman said.
There still lies hope for a 2021 season, though, both within the Cal program and across the college baseball world. A handful of conferences, including the powerhouse Atlantic Coast Conference, have released preliminary scheduling guidelines, featuring a limited number of midweek games and four-game weekend series, which are still quite common in a normal season. Some have opted to abstain from nonconference matchups to avoid traveling long distances and dealing with other conference’s COVID-19 prevention protocols.
The Pac-12 has yet to make an announcement on a 2021 baseball schedule, though the conference is supposed to meet sometime in early January to discuss possible scenarios. Despite the fiasco that was the Pac-12’s football season, the conference may have a better chance to successfully oversee a baseball season given the recent approval of a COVID-19 vaccine and the distanced nature of baseball games and practices.
Playing baseball in this pandemic isn’t a hopeless endeavor; in fact, many leagues have successfully hosted truncated seasons. Despite having run into a fair share of problems, the MLB and numerous other collegiate summer leagues have managed to conduct workable seasons. And if anyone can attest to that, it would be Holman, who played in the San Diego League (SDL), a collegiate summer league, just a few months ago.
Not only did Holman find a place to fine-tune his skills during the offseason — he absolutely shined in the summer league. The 6’6” ace posted 15 strikeouts in eight innings pitched, allowing zero hits in 24 at-bats en route to an All-League First Team selection. With some help from his above-average fastball, which tops 96 miles per hour, the performance was good enough for Holman to be named by Division 1 Baseball as one of the top summer breakout prospects.
All the while, the deadly pandemic was in the midst of its summer surge. And, despite being one of the first sports leagues to resume in the United States, the league was prepared to return in a safe fashion, mandating temperature and symptom checks and creating markers so that players could socially distance themselves in the bleachers during games. The hardest part for players may not have been adhering to the protocols, however, but overcoming the desire to play through illness.
“It was an interesting dynamic to play during a pandemic,” Holman said. “If you weren’t feeling well, you obviously didn’t go to the field, which is different from what has happened in the past, where you want to be the hardworking guy. So sometimes, you’d feel under the weather, and it would be ‘No I’m fine, I’ll still go.’ In these times, if you don’t feel well, you stay home because it’s about protecting other people and making sure their families stay safe.”
All in all, the Bears represented themselves well at the SDL, combining to hit .312 (81-260) with seven homers and 52 RBI over the course of a combined 87 games among the seven Cal representatives. The group featured proven hitters in Holman, infielder Hance Smith, catcher Ethan Cloyd, and outfielder Garret Nielsen alongside incoming freshmen Brian McClellin and Paulshawn Pasqualotto.
The strides the Bears’ younger players made in the offseason should bode well for the team in 2021. The 2020 squad was young and relatively inexperienced, often showing in its inconsistent play during its sluggish start. Cal’s talent is clearly present, though, and the team has a real chance to contend in the Pac-12 if it lives up to its full potential.
“I think our lineup is gonna be really good, we have some veteran bats returning that are gonna make an impact for us,” Holman said. “And I think our pitching is as deep as it’s been since I’ve been at Cal.”
For now, that newfound depth will have to wait. But the Bears can see the lights at Evans Diamond at the end of this long, dark tunnel, and they’ll be ready to flash their talent when the time finally comes.
Noah Parker covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].