In a happy reversal, Cal baseball called safe

In a comeback for the ages, the Cal baseball team scored what might be the most significant victory in its 118-year history Friday: the right to continue to represent the university in intercollegiate competition.

For those scoring at home, call that a win-win.

Cal baseball

Chadd Krist (27) congratulates Tony Renda (14) at a recent Cal Bears baseball game. ( photos)

Berkeley officials announced last September that due to the campus’s ongoing budget woes, four sports — baseball, men’s gymnastics, women’s gymnastics and women’s lacrosse — would be eliminated, while rugby would be reassigned as a club team. In February, the campus reported that separate fundraising efforts had ensured the continued intercollegiate status of rugby, women’s gymnastics and women’s lacrosse.

The fate of the Golden Bears baseball team, however, remained in doubt until Friday, a day after former Bears pitcher Stu Gordon presented Chancellor Robert Birgeneau with philanthropic pledges totaling $9 million. Although that figure is $1 million shy of the target Birgeneau had set to ensure the program’s survival, the chancellor expressed “absolute confidence” in Gordon’s ability to raise the rest.

Now an attorney, Gordon took over the fundraising efforts about six weeks ago, and described himself as “ecstatic” in the wake of the announcement. He and the chancellor praised each other’s leadership —  and both attributed the save to alumni, former players, parents of current players and other team supporters who stepped up with private contributions.

Gordon, who pitched for the Bears in the late 1950s and early ’60s, said that “well over 1,000 people” had contributed to the effort, with the majority of donations coming in amounts ranging from $25 to $1,000. He estimated that about 40 donors contributed at least $50,000 apiece — including Jeff Kent, a former major leaguer and Cal Bear, who gave $100,000.

Cal outfielder Vince Bruno at bat

Cal outfielder Vince Bruno at bat.

Birgeneau also expressed his appreciation for the outpouring of support. “The baseball team’s preservation is yet another example of how our alumni are stepping up to support their alma mater during a time of unprecedented financial challenges,” he said. And he praised the players themselves, declaring that “their passion, poise and never-say-die attitude have been a constant source of inspiration for all of us.”

With some $1 million still to be raised, donors and campus administrators have agreed that the team’s formal reinstatement will be announced once the $10 million target is met. Supporters are also working closely with the university to develop a strategic plan to raise significant additional annual resources, beginning with the 2011-12 season. That plan is expected to focus on improved game-day revenues, as well as additional annual gift and special event revenue.

Under the plan, long-term support for the baseball team would be generated by a $20 million endowment fund, seeded with about $5 million of the money already raised. Privately managed at first, the fund could eventually be taken over by the campus — a hope expressed by both Gordon and Vice Chancellor Frank Yeary.

Meanwhile, Cal baseball is safe at home for the foreseeable future.

“This is a good day for the Cal Athletics family,” said Athletic Director Sandy Barbour. She promised to continue supporting fundraising activities on behalf of men’s gymnastics, which have generated nearly half of the $4 million required to meet the team’s net expenses over the next seven to 10 years.

Head baseball coach David Esquer called it “truly an exciting day for Cal baseball,” adding that he was “especially happy for our players who have endured a difficult six months of uncertainty. They have shown an absolute resolve to focus on their season, and have demonstrated a tremendous amount of character throughout this process.

“Our supporters stuck with us and wouldn’t take no for an answer,” he said.

Esquer delivered the news to his team in a hotel room this morning in Tucson, where the players expected to get a scouting report on Arizona, their next opponent.

“There was definitely an ecstatic feeling throughout the whole room,” said Andrew Knapp, a catcher from Granite Bay, Calif. Knapp, a freshman and third-generation Berkeley student, said he’d been “devastated” when the team was cut, but thrilled to be able to continue the family tradition.

“Cal’s been my dream school since I can remember,” he said.

“We have something special here at Cal,” agreed Chadd Krist, a junior from Petaluma, explaining why all but three players remained at Cal during what Esquer called “a very trying time” for the team. Krist, also a catcher, described the team’s reaction to the news as “a big sigh of relief.”

Infielder Tony Renda, a sophomore from Hillsborough, said the experience had taught him something about adversity. “You can run from it, or you can face it and make the best of it,” he said.

“Our focus was winning, and it still is,” he added. “The alumni never gave up on this.”

Read the press release: Baseball program will continue at UC Berkeley