warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Forced Hibernation Raises Questions For Cal Bears Baseball

Michael Green |
December 28, 2010 | 1:12 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Cal plays Oregon at Evans Diamond. (Creative Commons)
Cal plays Oregon at Evans Diamond. (Creative Commons)
The sound of cracking bats and popping mitts at UC Berkeley’s Evans Diamond has become as customary in October as falling leaves and early sunsets. But when the Golden Bears opened fall practice on Oct. 1, they were faced with the unprecedented possibility that this could be the final year in which the echoes of a new baseball season are heard.

Baseball has been a presence on the Berkeley campus since 1892. The first college World Series was won by the Golden Bears in 1947. But on Sept. 28, UC Berkeley announced that America’s pastime would be cut following the 2011 season. 

"Making sports cuts was the best available option,” said athletic director Sandy Barbour in a statement. “The impact of this decision is far reaching. I am deeply saddened by the impact this decision will have.”

Baseball was one of five sports affected by the university’s decision. Men’s and women’s gymnastics and lacrosse were also eliminated. Meanwhile, Cal rugby – the most successful team in school history - was demoted to a newly created “varsity club” status and will no longer be part of the intercollegiate athletics program.

Of the sports that were cut, however, baseball appears to have raised the most eyebrows.

The team is coming off its second NCAA regional berth in three seasons and was ranked as high as 15th last year. UC Berkeley also boasted nine active players in Major League Baseball – more than any other university in the nation – at one point during the 2010 season, according to baseball sports information director Scott Ball.

“It certainly is unprecedented,” said baseball coach David Esquer. “It happens nowhere in which the sport is traditionally amongst the nation’s elite.”

The Golden Bears are part of the Pac-10 Conference, which has won more championships than any other conference in college baseball. And the Cal baseball team has accounted for two of those championships.

But with the University of California system facing dramatic budget cuts, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau determined that the campus could no longer afford to devote what has amounted to upwards of $12 million per year of institutional support toward athletics, according to a Nov. 29 statement released by the athletic department.

“Once that determination was made by the chancellor, there were only two options to bring costs down,” said UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof. “The first was to slash every team across the board… and, in effect, confine every team in our program to mediocrity. The other option was to reduce the scope of the program and reduce the number of teams. The decision was made to go with the latter route.”

By reducing the athletics program from 29 to 24 teams, the department expects to lower its budget by about $4 million, according to Mogulof. Those involved with the decision believe the changes will help decrease institutional support of athletics to $5 million annually by 2014. 

But some professors on campus see the recent athletic cuts as inadequate and misguided.

“One should ask why intercollegiate athletics eliminated teams [like rugby] which claim to break even, rather than present a plan to rein in spending because the intercollegiate athletics program leads a life of luxury,” said Brian Barsky, a UC Berkeley computer science professor who has conducted extensive research on the finances of intercollegiate athletics.

Barsky contends that financial issues within the athletics program extend far beyond the number of teams the university supports. According to data gathered by Barsky, varsity sports cost the Berkeley campus $13.7 million during the 2008-09 academic year.

“I can sympathize with eliminated teams feeling like scapegoats when one examines the culture of excesses in Intercollegiate Collegiate spending habits,” Barsky said.

Varsity sports have cost the campus an average of about $10 million annually since the 2003-04 academic year, according to financial records from intercollegiate athletics and the NCAA.

“Intercollegiate athletics has a bloated $30 million payroll, which includes coaches earning well into the millions and a director who is paid more than the chancellor,” Barsky said.

But university officials say they are taking the necessary steps toward combating a school-wide deficit that was reported to be over $150 million in the last fiscal year, according to Mogulof.

After the full allocation of revenues and expenses, baseball cost UC Berkeley a net total of $1.23 million for the 2010 fiscal year, making it the third-most expensive sport to operate behind women’s basketball and volleyball, Mogulof said. Mogulof added that there was not an option to cut women’s basketball or volleyball from the sports program due to NCAA requirements.

Cal Athletics has reduced annual expenses by $2.4 million after eliminating 21 non-coaching positions, according to the Nov. 29 release. The removal of baseball, along with the other sports included in the cuts, also creates savings through the reduction of athletic scholarships.

The university estimates that scholarships account for more than $10 million in annual operating costs. UC Berkeley, however, will still honor all current scholarships offered to athletes from the teams that were cut, Mogulof said.

Because of Title IX gender equity requirements, the number of players on the Cal baseball team was also a factor in deciding to cut the program, according to Mogulof.

Title IX stipulates that the university must either: show a history of expansion opportunities for the underrepresented sex, provide athletic participation opportunities that are proportional to student enrollment or show that the competitive interests of the underrepresented sex are being met.

Before the teams were cut, UC Berkeley had primarily complied with the third prong of Title IX. The decision to eliminate two women’s sports, however, put the university in a position where they could only comply with the proportionality component of the legislation.

Overall, the cuts took away varsity status from 118 male athletes (38 in baseball) and 45 female athletes. The changes brought the ratio of male to female athletes within an acceptable ratio for Title IX rules, Mogulof said.  

“It started with money, but it certainly didn’t end there because we had no choice but to remain compliant with federal law in terms of gender equity,” Mogulof said.

From the perspective of several current Golden Bears baseball players, however, the decision was less than equitable.

“There’s a lot of nervous people,” said junior pitcher Matt Flemer, who went to his first Cal baseball game as a 2-year-old and grew up a 15-minute drive from campus in El Cerrito. “They kind of set their future here at Cal for the next four years and it got taken away from them really quick.”

Most of the incoming freshmen players had only been on campus for a month and had just begun classes when they received the news, Flemer said.

Sophomore infielder Brett Bishop has already transferred to Fresno City College, while freshman pitcher Eric Jaffe switched schools to UCLA. The rest of the roster, however, is still intact for the upcoming season.  

“I think there’s more of a desire to play, not just for the guys and the team and the coaches, but it’s more to just prove the athletic department wrong,” Flemer said.

The news was delivered to Flemer and the rest of his teammates – along with the four other varsity squads involved - on the same day it was announced to the public. Nobody was met with on an individual basis and many players are still waiting for further explanation as to why their sport was chosen to be cut, Flemer said.

“Nobody was told individually that you better fundraise or you better get a group together or you better insulate yourself,” Esquer said. “It was, you know, kind of in the face. On a Tuesday morning: ‘Hey after this year you will no longer be part of the athletics department.’”

But, while baseball was earmarked as a budget casualty, the one team at UC Berkeley that receives the most university funding remained unscathed.

The Cal football program reported about $19.1 million in total operating expenditures for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009, according the Intercollegiate Athletic Department’s statement of revenues and expenditures. That number accounts for more than 25 percent of the athletic department’s total operating expenditures for that period.

The same report showed that coaches’ compensation for football amounts to about $5.2 million, which was more than the sum of coaches’ salaries from all other men’s sports at the university combined. Additionally, head football coach Jeff Tedford – who earned approximately $2.3 million for the 2010 season – is the highest paid state employee in California. 

“The football team enjoys certain exclusive privileges like staying in a luxury hotel in Berkeley the night before its home games and flying in chartered jets to away games,” Barsky said.

Barsky noted a well-publicized case during the 2009 season in which the football team hired a bus to allegedly save expenses while traveling for an away game at UCLA only to fly back to Berkeley.

“A lot of that is going to be addressed in seasons to come,” said Mogulof when asked about the football expenditures. “As part of this plan, the department is committed to take a close look at a whole wide range of expenses and the way in which teams operate.”

Despite its high expenditures, the football program produced approximately $7 million in net revenue for the athletics department, according to Mogulof. The total operating revenue for football listed in the June 30 fiscal report amounted to about $27.8 million, which more than doubles the combined revenue total of all other male sports.

“In a situation where the campus and the program are dealing with an ongoing crisis and an ongoing situation of financial challenges, the last thing you want to do is to undercut the ability of a program like football to produce revenue that is sorely needed by the rest of the program,” Mogulof said. 

Some members of the baseball team, however, believe that the university did not give their squad a fair opportunity to demonstrate its potential for generating revenue. Baseball was mentioned as one of six major sports that Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott wanted to push for future media and event packages, according to Esquer.

“When the commissioner states that you’re one of the top six sports as far as media is concerned and as far as moving forward…you don’t feel like you would be one of the ones that would be on the chopping block,” Esquer said.

As of Nov. 17, supporters of Cal baseball have responded to the decision by raising almost $5 million to remove the team from the chopping block, according to the Cal Baseball Foundation. The group aims to raise $12.5 million toward reinstating all five intercollegiate programs by Jan. 1, 2012.

Cal baseball alums like former All-Star second baseman Jeff Kent and current major league infielder Geoff Blum have spoken publicly to voice their support of the initiative. Even a group composed primarily of former baseball and rugby players from rival school Stanford University has stepped forward to raise over $7,000 for the cause.

With continued support, the Cal Baseball Foundation hopes to present a sustainable financial plan for the next four years to Chancellor Birgeneau. The proposal must bring back all five programs that were cut so that Cal Athletics can remain in line with Title IX requirements.

While the administration has yet to give any of the teams a firm number for how much money needs to be raised, the Cal Baseball Foundation has a goal of presenting a strategic business plan for achieving long-term financial sustainability by Jan. 1, 2013, according to its web site.

“We’re working with the athletic department and the university to solve a problem,” said Esquer. “If there is a financial problem then give us those numbers and we will work on solving that problem so that baseball can exist, along with gymnastics, rugby and lacrosse.”

In order to bring back all five programs, contributions need to guarantee at least enough revenue to permanently cover the $4 million gap in funding that was bridged by the initial team cuts. Campus administration and department leadership have already gone on record saying they do not believe it is realistic to expect that Cal Athletics will be able to raise the funding required to bring back the impacted teams, according the Nov. 29 statement.

But coaches, players and fans alike are still holding out hope that 2010 will not be the last time they gather on Evans Diamond in October to enjoy fall practice.

“I’ve enjoyed being here my whole life,” said Flemer while reflecting on the possibility of not playing baseball at UC Berkeley beyond the upcoming season. “I mean, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The fact that it may be taken from us, all the stuff that we’ve been working on for the last three years, you know, it kind of hurts. But at the same time it makes you want to do it more.”



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.