Bulldogs’ title run sparks memories
It’s past the point of breaking news, but I’ve got to pay homage to the Fresno State baseball team pulling off the improbable.
I just wish my grandpa were still here to witness the feat.
See, Grandpa was an ardent supporter of Fresno State baseball, which, against all odds, captured its first national title Wednesday with a 6-1 win over Georgia in Game 3 of the College World Series finals.
I’ll spare the minute details, but it was an impressive run. The non-seeded Bulldogs knocked off No. 3 national seed Arizona State in the super regionals, then defeated No. 6 Rice and No. 2 North Carolina twice to advance to the finals. After losing the first game of the best-of-three series against Georgia, the No. 8 national seed, Fresno State stormed back to win the final two.
The image of Grandpa basking in the moment is vivid in my mind ” his genuine burst of laughter, the shake of his head in disbelief, the truest of smiles smeared across his face. He would have enjoyed it thoroughly.
A member of the baseball program’s Dugout Club, Grandpa for years bought a season ticket plus one directly behind home plate at Beiden Field. I often made the trip from the mountains to the Valley to fill in that extra seat.
The Bulldogs were perennial contenders in the Western Athletic Conference, with a long-standing tradition of success. Although they last reached the College World Series in 1991, they regularly earned top-25 national rankings thereafter and were among the top teams in the country in attendance.
Games were fun, the level of competition top-tier.
Fresno State often opened its season against Stanford, which never was an easy task. It hosted epic battles with Rice, which then was still a member of the WAC, and scheduled tough home contests against the big boys of college baseball ” UCLA, USC, Long Beach State, etc.
One particular series against Rice ” must have been 1996, maybe ’97 ” stands out among my experiences.
It was a contentious series, with at least one bench-clearing incident. Rice was good. Its best player, slugger Lance Berkman of the Houston Astros, dominated college baseball that year. Rice’s other star was Bubba Crosby, who most recently played for the Seattle Mariners.
They are the main characters of this story. The other is Sugar Bear, a boisterous, beer-guzzling and beer-bellied man who may be the best Fresno State fan who ever lived. A heckler to the fullest, Sugar Bear drew a large group of college-aged cronies with his gritty charm and chant-leading talent.
In the second or third game of the series ” after Fresno State ace Jeff Weaver won Game 1 ” Crosby hit a home run, then stomped emphatically on home plate as he scored. Sugar Bear took exception, and he voiced it. In response, Crosby turned toward the lively section of fans and grabbed his cup. Sugar Bear found no humor in the gesture, and again, to the fullest of his vocal capacity, he let Crosby know about it.
Later in the game, Berkman blasted a monster home run that, seemingly still on the rise, sailed past the light post three-quarters of the way from the top. The crowd buzzing, Sugar Bear stood up and led a standing ovation.
I’ll never forget the events.
And I’ll never grow tired of watching Fresno State baseball, seeing kids from high schools against which I once competed. The local ties remain as strong as ever ” always will with the amount of talent in the Valley.
Those ties were on display in Wednesday’s deciding game.
As I learned today, Fresno State starter Justin Wilson of Buchanan High School struck out my cousin, Karlan ” who will enter his freshman season at Fresno Pacific College in the fall ” in his first varsity at-bat. Despite the pitching clinic Wilson put on Wednesday, my guess is that my hard-hitting shortstop cousin will not be overmatched if the two face off again.
Grandpa would have gotten a kick out of the comparison.
Sylas Wright is the sports editor at the Sierra Sun. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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