Dr Dreadful’s Letter from America: It Sure Ain’t the Boat Race

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Dr Dreadful's Letter from America

At around 9 p.m. this past Wednesday, on a baseball field in Omaha, Nebraska, a young right fielder named Steve Detwiler took a catch that made sporting history. His team, the Fresno State Bulldogs, had just beaten the University of Georgia to win the College World Series – the national championship of university baseball.

Fresno State Bulldogs win College World Series

The Bulldogs’ amazing run to the title – winning their local league, then regional and super-regional championships, brushing aside the challenges of national powerhouse schools Arizona State, Rice and North Carolina before defeating 8th-ranked Georgia in the championship series – has rightly been called a Cinderella story. The team from a modest university in rural California was rated 89th in the country going into the tournament, and ended up as the lowest-ranked school ever to win a national college championship in any sport.

Fans pack Beiden Field to welcome home the Fresno State Bulldogs baseball team after their fairytale College World Series triumph. In the foreground, the next generation of football players try to concentrate on their training session - perhaps dreaming of one day emulating the achievement of their sporting brothers.

Fresno State Bulldogs welcome home

To put their achievement into perspective, it is as if the current world number 89 tennis player, Galina Voskoboeva (yes, that’s right… who?) were to win the women’s singles at Wimbledon, or as if Notts County – the team that finished 89th in English senior football last season – were to lift the FA Cup. As implausible as both those scenarios seem, they go some way to explaining why jaws have been dropping across America and why Fresno is suddenly on the map for more than bad air and being the birthplace of Sam Peckinpah.

The popularity of college sports in the United States is hard for outsiders to fathom. In Britain, the only college sporting event that gets any national attention is, bizarrely, the University Boat Race – in a sport which otherwise inspires total apathy among the general public except when the likes of Redgrave and Pinsent are performing their Olympic heroics. The only reason the Boat Race is watched at all is probably because it takes place on the Thames: back when the river was London’s main artery of commerce, the race would have brought the entire city grinding temporarily to a halt so that there was nothing else to do but watch it.

British universities do play other organised sports, of course, but they tend to be strictly low-key affairs. Stop a passer-by in the streets of Loughborough, for example, and ask him how his local university’s rugby team is doing, and he will probably give you a blank stare. A game between the Uniteds of Oxford and Cambridge, even though both teams are now languishing in the Conference – the fifth tier of English football – will draw a much bigger crowd than a match between their university counterparts.

College teams have occasionally had some measure of success competing against the professionals rather than each other: Oxford University reached the FA Cup Final a couple of times in the 1880s, and more recently an outfit named Team Bath – comprised of students from the university in that city – has actually outstripped the achievements of the local professional club.

But those are rare exceptions. Professional sports in Europe do not look to universities to recruit, preferring to nurture young talent under the auspices of their own youth development programs. The situation in the United States is radically different. Surprisingly perhaps for such a materialistic culture, the concept of professional sports took a long time to catch on. Sport was seen as a gentlemanly pursuit, and prior to the Second World War, although there were professional leagues, being paid to play was regarded as sleazy, if not downright dishonorable. For most ‘athletes’ (as they are generically called here) who wanted to play at the highest level, college therefore offered the best opportunities.

As they tended to be the largest organisations in their communities, the universities were beacons not only of academia but also of athletics, and often became the focus of a city’s identity. In the absence of any press attention for the despised professionals, people followed the fortunes of their collegiate teams and identified closely with them. Fans were as passionate as any Manchester United or Real Madrid supporter. Some colleges became world-famous in large part because of their athletics programs: Notre Dame’s football team – ‘The Fighting Irish’ – is perhaps the best-known example. Even in today’s world of the multi-billion dollar NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and other sporting circuses this tradition has endured – particularly with football and basketball, which professionalised much later than baseball and ice hockey and are followed as keenly as the pros, often even drawing larger TV audiences for the big end-of-season matches.

The relationship between a community and its college athletes is especially intense in towns like Fresno, which does not have a major league team. Home football games at Bulldog Stadium regularly draw capacity crowds of 45,000 – one-tenth of the city’s population. The university’s new 15,000-seat indoor arena, the Save Mart Center, is always packed for both men’s and women’s basketball. And although baseball receives somewhat less attention – especially now that Fresno has a minor league professional club with a brand new stadium downtown – the excitement and anticipation that rippled through the town as the ‘Diamond Dogs’ disposed of opponent after superior opponent was palpable. What had been unthinkable only a few weeks ago suddenly seemed like more than a dream.

Still, the town braced itself for disappointment. Fresno State’s first and only national championship in any sport had been ten years before, in women’s softball. That team had gone on to make up the bulk of the American gold medal-winning squad at the Sydney Olympics. Since then, nothing. The football and basketball teams often promised much but failed to deliver, beset by scandals involving cheating, unethical coaching practices, sexual harassment and payment for playing (college sports are still strictly amateur). The baseball program had avoided being tainted by most of this but even so, the team was so lowly-ranked that they surely could not go on causing upsets.

But they could.

As thousands of well-wishers lined the streets around the university and filed into the baseball stadium the next day to welcome them home, the reality and magnitude of the Bulldogs’ achievement was still sinking in – for the players as well as the townsfolk. Though they clearly enjoyed soaking up the adulation as they rolled slowly past the cheering masses of red-shirted fans atop two borrowed city fire trucks, they also seemed genuinely touched by their reception, not to mention a little bewildered. Some of the players had already been drafted by major league clubs before the team’s victory, and several more now most assuredly will be offered pro contracts. Only a very small number of them will go on to a successful career in baseball, but for all 25 members of the squad, life will never be the same.

In one sense these are regular college men, showing up to classes and sitting in rows just like any other student. The majority of them are not due to complete their degrees for a year or more. But their phones are undoubtedly ringing off the hook already, and for some the pressure to forego the rest of their education and sign a pro contract will be relentless. Already they are household names.

For an outsider – even a semi-outsider like me – it’s hard to grasp. I know which boat crossed the finish line at Chiswick Bridge first this spring, but I could not name a single member of the victorious Oxford eight or their cox – and neither, I suspect, could 99% of people. Matthew Pinsent rowed in the event three times, but it was his Olympic exploits which brought him fame. For the general public, the Boat Race is a straight shootout: the only thing of importance is which crew won. But a tickertape parade through the streets of Oxford? Probably not.

It doesn’t take much to feel the lift this national championship has wrought over the town. Fresno is something of a national joke – a kind of Californian Croydon – struggling as it does with its remote and ugly location, high unemployment, poverty and rampant pollution. Everywhere you go you see the university’s red and blue colors in store windows, in front yards and on the local buses. People have been queueing around the block outside the Bulldog Shop to buy commemorative T-shirts, flags, bumper stickers and other merchandise. Young people are going online to say that the College World Series triumph has made them proud for the first time to be a Fresno State student. A city starved of success – sporting or otherwise – can finally say it is the best in something. And at least for a short time, until the fall and yet another football season of promise and disappointment brings us back to reality, perhaps that will prove to be an even greater achievement for Steve Detwiler and his teammates than any victory on the baseball diamond.

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