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John Baker: Nearly lost, Cal baseball reaches College World Series

Florida Marlins catcher John Baker(notes) is writing an open-ended series of posts for The Stew about his comeback from Tommy John surgery, but we also encourage him to go off-topic.

Baker attended the University of California, played baseball for the Golden Bears, and was a freshman in 2000 during Dave Esquer's first season as head coach. Baker watched, with great interest, the Bears make the field at the College World Series in Omaha after having their program eliminated by the university — only to be saved by donors — all in a matter of nine months.

Despite being knocked out by Virginia, Cal's magical season has Baker feeling proud, and nostalgic, about his college baseball team.

Cal won the first College World Series in 1947 — a mere 55 years after the birth of the program. Yeah, that's right: They were playing baseball in Berkeley before toothpaste was even invented. In fact, Cal was playing baseball as James Naismith was creating basketball by using peach baskets. The 118-year history of the program is full of major league success stories. From Jackie Jensen of the Red Sox six decades ago to Brennan Boesch(notes) of the Tigers today, Cal baseball has consistently put players in the big leagues. Beyond the sport, Cal baseball alums have continued to illustrious and productive careers in fields too numerous and varied to count.

I was a walk-on at Cal. I had the intention of heading to UCLA to study political science before law school, but one phone call changed my mind. Dave Esquer believed I could hit at the Division-I level, even though I batted seventh in high school. I had some ability and loved the game, but coach Esquer inspired a newfound confidence in me. If a successful college coach (and before that, a player) believed in me, I should believe in myself.

After professing faith in my hitting ability, he asked if I had ever caught. I hadn't, but he responded: "You will." He realized that, with a little fine-tuning, I could be a contributing player on a D-1 team in the Pac-10.

Without Dave Esquer I would have never played in the big leagues. Playing for him shaped my career, and one story sticks out more than any other:

John Baker: Nearly lost, Cal baseball reaches College World SeriesDuring my sophomore year, I split time with two other catchers at the beginning of the season. It was a competition to be the starter, and we all had an equal amount of playing time. By the time conference season started, I had won the job because I had played the best. I don't know how many other baseball programs are run like meritocracies, but this one was.

Guys who performed got playing time. We never thought about scholarship promises or nepotism, legacies or outside scouting reports. We thought only about winning so we could go to the College World Series. Like lots of other programs, we shouted "Omaha!" together at the end of every practice, conditioning session, weight-training session, or game. Rosenblatt Stadium was where we wanted so desperately to go.

In 2001, we hadn't won a conference series against rival Stanford — using "rival" loosely — since 1993. But after taking the opening game, we came back to Evans Diamond for the second of a three-game set. Jason Dennis pitched a brilliant shutout, and we topped the Cardinal 4-0. For the first time in eight seasons, our team took a series from Stanford, a perennial national power.

In the first two games I went a combined 0 for 8. It definitely wasn't one of my best performances, but it didn't matter at all to me, because as the team gathered down the right-field line, I was having an epiphany. While it is fantastic to experience individual success, it is even better to accomplish something as a team.

The series win over Stanford nearly guaranteed us a spot at NCAA regionals, and in my view signaled the true arrival of Dave Esquer as a head coach.

John Baker: Nearly lost, Cal baseball reaches College World SeriesAnd, because of how I had been coached at Cal, I truly cared more about the win than my stats. It was the best day/accolade/achievement of my college career. Winning that series was better than winning the conference batting title the next year, or being named first-team all-league. It was better than getting drafted by the majors, and it stirs the same sort of emotions from when I got called up to the big leagues. I have Dave Esquer to thank for that.

Cal players aren't concerned with their numbers, or if the scorekeeper gave them a hit or an error on the previous play. They look only at the bottom line, the final score. I know, because I played for Dave Esquer, the reigning National College Baseball Coach of the Year, and he wouldn't have it any other way.

Barely nine months ago, the university eliminated the baseball program, along with four other intercollegiate sports. The news came as a shock to the entire alumni community, and it sparked an immediate and powerful fundraising response to save baseball, rugby and women's lacrosse, along with men's and women's gymnastics.

All of the sports were saved. Thanks specifically to the efforts of Stu Gordon, Doug Nickle, Sam Petke, Dan McInerny and countless other alumni, enough money was procured through pledges and donations, and baseball was saved.

And coach Esquer's continued leadership ensures the save won't be wasted.

Follow John Baker on Twitter — @manbearwolf — and follow Big League Stew all season for his inside look at what it's really like to be a baseball player rehabilitating from a serious elbow injury.

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Previous posts by John Baker:

June 17Goin' back to CaliMay 29 — On Buster Posey • May 27Bracing for recovery • May 13 — Waiting (and waiting) for Tommy John • May 3 — Big league dream disrupted

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