Interview with Coach David Esquer, Cal Men’s Baseball

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California magazine: Did you see this cut coming?

David Esquer: There were warnings that there could be cuts, but we all saw the chancellor’s committee report and their recommendations were to not cut sports and to try to make it work. That being said, I know Sandy Barbour said a number of times that those were just recommendations and that everything was still on the table, but we never saw any specific warnings. No one from development or the athletic department ever came and said, “Hey, you better insulate yourself from any trouble, maybe get committees going or try to rally the troops.” It was always kind of vague as far as whether anything would be done. And then suddenly something was done. It would have been better had there been a real warning, even if it was blunt, like, ‘You’ve got until this date or you’re gone.’ Then at least you’d have something to work toward. Now, obviously, once they’ve made the cuts it’s more complicated. You know baseball doesn’t return unless lacrosse and gymnastics return; it’s all or nothing—at least, that’s what we’ve been led to believe.

CM: How realistic do you think that is? Are you still holding out hope for reinstatement?

DE: There’s hope because there’s a lot of passion and a lot of energy out there. It’s not focused energy yet. For now, it’s more like, ‘Hey will you be there for us when we call you?’ In the meantime, we’re suddenly in charge of saving a program, running a program, and preparing to dismantle a program. And it’s much more difficult than I ever could have anticipated. Just running a program is difficult enough.

CM: I would imagine it’s going to be tough for the players to keep their heads in the game this season.

DE: Well, it magnifies everything. It magnifies how well they think they need to play to be attractive to another school next year. It magnifies how down they are when they’re not playing well, because they feel like they could be ruining their opportunities. It magnifies the plight of players who aren’t playing full time. Where before they might have felt like they were building a résumé of performances that could take one or two years to develop, now they don’t have that luxury. The players have been put through a whole gamut of emotions. Some of the freshman who have been here six weeks are like, ‘I can’t come here next year, and, now what do I do? I’m on scholarship here, and what if I can’t get the same level of scholarship at the next school? You know, like, ‘We came to the school that my parents could afford.’ And I’m sure there are others who also feel like, ‘Hey I’m at one of the top universities in the whole country and it was affordable for my family. What if I have to go to another school that’s not as prestigious and not as affordable?’

CM: Are they coming to you for advice?

DE: Absolutely. We made a philosophical decision when we were told that the program was being cut, that any time we would have spent recruiting we now need to devote to taking care of our players. And we’re fortunate that we have a great group of kids. Last year I felt like we had my hardest working team ever. For two of the last three years we’ve been to the NCAA tournament and to be quite honest, we’ll be really disappointed, whether this is our last season or not, if we don’t make it again this year.

CM: Has baseball been cut at any universities you consider peers?

DE: No. It’s unprecedented. The Pac-10 is, in terms of how many national championships it has, the strongest conference in the history of the NCAA. So, if you take away one of the competitors in the strongest conference in a given sport, boy, you’re making a statement. And unfortunately, I think it’s bad for the whole landscape of college baseball. You know, when other athletic departments are looking at making tough choices of their own, you’d hate to have them say, ‘Well, if Cal, in the Pac-10, can do this, then who’s going to blame us?’

CM: Was the lack of attendance at Cal baseball games part of what made you vulnerable?

DE: It was. In the past, when the Haas Pavilion was built they cut out half the stadium with the promise of putting it back, and then it was never put back. We’ve had opportunities to work on putting lights at the field, but those efforts have been thwarted, and I’m not blaming Title IX, but it was the reason given for not allowing us to upgrade our facility, because without the same kinds of upgrades to the softball facility, we were told that there would be a lawsuit against the University. And nothing against softball, but they’re still here, and the baseball program’s going away.

You know there are things about our program that when you’re recruiting you keep to yourself. But now that we’re cut, it has been liberating to have the athletic department and supervisors admit that they weren’t committing to the baseball program in a way that would allow it to perform to the standards of the University. And yet, you know, I’ll defend our level of performance, in that no one else was asked to achieve—no one in the SEC or the ACC or the Big 12 or Conference USA or the Pac-10—no one else has been asked to accomplish what we have with a substandard facility and no lights. As a matter of fact, in any of those five conferences, only two schools lack lighting and that’s Boston College and Cal. And, only one school has half a stadium: Cal. Even with all that, we’re still the greatest university in the country to recruit to; people want to go here, the education is second to none. We sell them on the fact that we’re teachers as well, and we want to coach them to fulfill their dreams in athletics and beyond. Are we doing the best job? No, because I think we’d have won the title or gone to the College World Series if we were. But I think as far as teaching the kids a work ethic and improving their skills and then giving them opportunities beyond college baseball, I think we’ve done that.

CM: So in retrospect do you feel like you should have made more noise about what you needed in terms of facilities?

DE: Well, you walk a fine line between making excuses and giving facts. And so I try to give them facts. We know that the athletic department believes that facilities are important. That’s why we renovate basketball locker rooms and why we build high performance centers. I mean, I know my job, and there’s a checklist of what you need to be successful.

CM: So what would be at the top of that list?

DE: The number one thing would have been lights, because it affects our actual performance, how we compete at night. Right now the only time we play under that condition is on the road. When we play away games, we’re not only playing at a foreign park, we’re playing under unfamiliar conditions. And I also think lights would have generated more interest in our program. I think we could have tapped into the student body attendance a little bit more. I think we could have gotten more families in the local area. I think it would even have helped our kids in the classroom to have more varied choices in their majors and not get locked into classes that met before one or two o’clock.

CM: I’ve heard some critics say that baseball is just too hard on players academically because the travel demands are so great. I’ve also heard people grumble that college has really just become a farm league for the majors, with the best players getting drafted as juniors.

DE: Well, we’ve never had a kid ineligible to play baseball in any of my years. You don’t major in eligibility here; every single kid who has come here for four years has finished. Now, those juniors are a different lot. But I would say that if we’ve had 30 juniors sign, we’ve probably had 16–17 come back and graduate—just over half. … Are we a farm league? Well, I guess you’d have to say we are in the sense that our baseball program has more Major League Baseball players this year than any other college baseball program in America.

CM: You’ve talked about the players, but you and your assistants also have to think about what to do next.

DE: Yeah, you know, this sounds a little too noble, but I really do believe this: I think our coaches are worried about us last. You know, the best résumé for us is to have the year we’re capable of and to coach these kids well. That’s going to help us more than anything else right now. But, you know, it’s going to be tough. It’s hard for me to think about a kid like Tony Renda or Justin Jones or Devin Rodriguez, … it’s hard for me to think of other people coaching them next year. You know, I don’t want someone else to coach Devin Rodriguez next year. I don’t want someone else to coach Andrew Knapp next year. I don’t want someone else coaching Trevor Hildenberger and Justin Jones. I don’t want that. We brought them here so that we could be around them and develop them. It’s a cliché but they’re a part of our family.

CM: Is there any resentment toward the faculty senate vote that sort of got this ball rolling?

DE: I don’t think so. You have to acknowledge the economic reality. Sandy has said there’s no easy way to do this, and there isn’t. And there’s no easy way to take it either. I told our team, ‘We stand for something, and if what they’re telling us is that we stand for the very last team in the history of California baseball, we can give them one hell of a team.’ And I really do believe that. We can give them one hell of a team this year.

I also believe that at some point—hopefully sooner rather than later—baseball will be back here. The fact remains, Cal’s a great school that people want to go to and I really believe that any sport at Cal can be successful. Anything they put their mind to doing well, they can. And Sandy’s reasoning is that she felt the University was on a path to mediocrity across the board….

CM: And do you buy that?

DE: Um, good question. I know that the philosophy in our athletic department for years has been, ‘We do more with less.’ That’s been the rallying cry: ‘We should be proud because we do more with less.’ I’m OK with that. I really am. You know, and I’ve never gone in there and said, ‘Hey Sandy, if you build a new stadium, I’ll be a good coach,’ or ‘If you fix my locker room, I’ll be a good coach.’ But I think there’s a line between doing more with less and trying to do more without. And I think that’s where you gotta make some decisions.

From the Winter 2010 Inside Out issue of California.
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