The news came down in mid-May, about two months after sports around the country were put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, and Miami Marlins utility man Jon Berti wasn’t sure how to react.
Bowling Green university, Berti’s alma mater, was cutting its baseball program as part of an effort to slash $2 million from the athletic department’s budget. Dropping baseball would have saved about $500,000 annually, the school said at the time.
It was unexpected, Berti said, considering the athletic department was told a few days earlier that all sports would be safe.
“As alumni, we were a little frustrated just because we just wanted an opportunity,” Berti said Monday. “If they were to come to us and say ‘hey, as an alumni, if you can’t produce, you know, X amount of dollars in this amount of time unfortunately with the times, we’re gonna have to cut the program.’ We would have completely understood that but at least we would have felt like we had a chance.”
It turns out they still had that chance.
Not even three weeks later, Berti along with a host of other Bowling Green baseball alumni and program supporters raised $1.5 million to be used toward the program for the next three years.
“BGSU is grateful for its alumni and friends who have stepped up during this difficult time to ensure their alma mater is positioned to thrive on the other side of the current COVID-19 crisis,” the school said in a statement June 2. “We are inspired by the efforts of our baseball alumni, and we look forward to continuing to cultivate and reinvigorate all BGSU alumni.”
“I’m glad that BGSU baseball is back,” Bowling Green athletic director Bob Moosbrugger, an alumnus of the baseball program himself, told reporters a day later in a virtual press conference. “However, the work continues. I knew it had to happen quickly. I was concerned whether or not it would become reality.”
It became reality due to the quick reaction of Berti and other Bowling Green alums. Moosbrugger said more than 200 people pledged money to be earmarked to the baseball program’s return. Berti said the group ranged from MLB players like himself to doctors and “people who are successful in other areas of life that were able to come together and pool a lot of money together in a short period of time.”
“That was awesome to see,” Berti said, “because you never know, even if you’re able to put that money together if the university’s gonna allow it, but the university was was really good about it and they really didn’t want the baseball program to die.”
It’s a nice gesture from an up-and-comer like Berti, who hopes to continue making his mark in MLB after a strong first season with the Marlins.
Berti, who spent eight years toiling in the minors before getting his first true opportunity at the MLB level, hit .273 last season with 14 doubles and 24 RBI and stole a team-best 17 bases despite only playing in 73 games. He’s one of the fastest players in MLB, with an average sprint speed (the fastest one-second interval of a competitive run) of 29.8 feet per second that ranked as the eighth-best in the league last year among those with 50 competitive runs. A rate of 30 feet per second is considered “elite” by Statcast.
“It’s not only speed,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “He knows how to use it. He’s a guy that goes. There are a lot of guys out there that can run but don’t want to steal bases. Bert is a guy that can run and is aggressive and not afraid to go.”
The Marlins plan to once again utilize Berti, a natural shortstop, all over the field in 2020. Last year, he played shortstop, second base, third base and all three outfield spots.
“He’s a steady part of our lineup,” Mattingly said, “maybe not seven days a week or every game, but a big percentage of games that he’s if he’s doing his thing by getting on base, causing a little havoc and showing us that he’s going to help us in all areas.”
The truncated training camp ahead of the team’s July 24 season opener can present a challenge for players like Berti, who need time at multiple positions, but he’s maneuvering through it.
He’s managing his workload by mapping out plans with Mattingly, infield coach Trey Hillman and outfield coach Billy Hatcher to ensure he gets reps but is also not heightening his risk for injury by getting back into a full routine too quickly.
“Pick an infield spot one day and then the next day pick an outfield spot and just work on that for the time being until we’re comfortable with where our legs are at and stuff like that,” Berti said. “Not to overdo it too soon and then from there we can get kind of back into the normal routine and kind of work.”