Baseball 'guru' pitches for gold Miami's Fraser showed colleges how to play the game--and win

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Let's see, there was the $5,000-a-plate dinner to pay off the stadium debt. The kelly-green gloves on St. Patrick's Day. The giveaways that included everything from car batteries to open-heart surgery.

It's only fitting that the man who made college baseball such a production is staging a two-act retirement. Ron Fraser always had a sense of theater. Oh yes, he always could coach a little, too.

First came the farewell tour during his 30th and final season at Miami, which ended with the Hurricanes falling two victories short of their third national championship last month. Now comes his grand finale as coach of the U.S. Olympic team, which plays Korea in an exhibition today at Oriole Park.

Baseball will be a medal sport for the first time in Barcelona, Spain, and the "Wizard of College Baseball" was the logical choice to lead Team USA. Heck, he's been dreaming of this moment since his first experience in international baseball in 1958.

Of course, there's a story.

With Fraser, there's always a story.

Let's see, Fraser was in the military, and his Army team was playing a game against the German national team. For some reason, the Germans couldn't field a full squad that day. Fraser and a few others switched sides.

Naturally, the Germans loved Fraser. Naturally, they asked permission to have him coach their national team. Naturally, a colonel with his own selfish interests at heart turned them down.

"We were in the thick of a race," Fraser explains. "It was big-time. Lots of betting."

A general finally intervened, and in the name of international goodwill, Fraser got the job. The colonel, of course, still demanded he coach the Army team. Fraser wound up flying back and forth by helicopter each day.

That was the start.

The Germans tied for second in the European championships, and before you knew it, the Dutch were requesting his services through former baseball commissioner Ford Frick and then-Vice President Richard Nixon.

Fraser, 56, got that job, too, and led Holland to European titles in 1960 and '62. Soon after, he landed at Miami for $2,200 per year, inheriting a program that once disbanded in mid-season, a program that was far from the national power it is today.

Money was so tight, Fraser would nail bats together, and rub down scuffed balls with evaporated milk so they looked new and white. Nice idea, but in the Florida heat and humidity, the average Miami home game stunk like a rotten dairy product.

Today the Hurricanes play on artificial turf at Mark Light Stadium, the first modern college facility, capacity 5,000. The concession stands feature everything from Greek gyros to Cuban pork sandwiches. The Ron Fraser Building hovers over the first base dugout, complete with a luxury box overlooking the field.

"Ron has done more for college baseball than anybody who's ever lived," said LSU coach Skip Bertman, an assistant under Fraser from 1975 to 1983. "He did what Arnold Palmer did for golf, Muhammad Ali did for boxing. He showed college athletic directors that baseball could be profitable."

How did it all happen?

To make a few long stories short. . . .

The parachutist

In the mid-1960s, Fraser wanted to charge admission to Miami games for the first time. He had to give the fans something extra, so he recruited a parachutist to be part of the show.

This was long before he conceived his popular "Bikini Day" promotion, where fans with beach attire were admitted free, but those with binoculars paid double.

And it was long before he became known as such a skilled fund raiser, Miami enlisted him to lead a $50 million drive to upgrade its library and arts-and-sciences program.

The parachutist is a black mark.

The parachutist still makes him burn.

"He asked where I wanted him to land," Fraser recalls. "I said, 'On the field. "He said, 'No, exactly where?' I said, 'Right on second base.'

"He asked what the school colors were. I said, 'Green and orange.' He said, 'OK, I'll have flares on my boots.' He was going to tear off his jumpsuit, have a uniform on underneath."

Too bad he missed the stadium by more than five miles.

"The plane went overhead, and the PA guy said, 'Well, he's just making a practice run.' The people were screaming, 'Hey Fraser, we want our money back.' I told the umpire to start the ballgame.

"He showed up in the fourth inning. I only had one gate open. A friend of mine -- a former fighter in a wheelchair -- was collecting tickets. No one was going to give him trouble, right?

"He came wheeling over. He said, 'Ron, this guy wants to come and see you, he's the parachutist.' I said, 'I don't want to see him. If he comes in, charge him a buck.' "

That was the first price of admission.

Fraser upped the ante considerably to pay off the stadium debt in 1977.

The $5,000-a-plate dinner

Four hours, 11 courses, 32 settings.

"It was supposed to be 32, but it was 31," Fraser says. "This guy's wife went out and bought a gown for $2,500 and a fur coat. The guy got ticked. They had a big argument. He wouldn't take her."

The place was the Mark Light Stadium infield. The motivation was the debt resulting from the park's 3,000-seat expansion. The event was covered not by sportswriters, but food critics from gourmet magazines around the world.

Fraser, who grew up poor in Nutley, N.J., rounded up all the rich people he could find. At the time, the dinner was believed to be among the most expensive in history. But chic. Utterly chic.

Among the menu items:

Turtle soup with curry.

Mango champagne sherbet.

Pheasant with peeled grapes.

Petits fours with nougats.

The chefs were French and German.

"They fought all the time," Fraser recalls.

The reporters wore tuxedos.

"It was," he says, "a helluva night."

Yet, something still was missing.

The TV push

For all Fraser's work, college baseball still lacked a national following. By 1981, he was growing eager to play the West Coast teams, the USCs and the Arizonas. As usual, he didn't have the budget.

Enter ESPN.

Actually, enter Fraser, through the doors of ESPN's offices in Bristol, Conn.

"I stayed up there four-five days, badgering the hell out of them," he says. "I gave out Miami T-shirts and Miami caps to all the secretaries. I went through the whole group and ended up with the president."

Fraser would have been happy if ESPN televised any one of three games between Miami and USC on a delayed basis. The cable network wound up doing all three games live, and has been expanding its coverage of college baseball since.

The entire time, Fraser kept Miami near the top of the national rankings, winning the College World Series in 1982 and '85, compiling nearly 1,300 victories, sending 139 players to pro ball, 14 to the major leagues.

"His Barnum and Bailey approach is easier to write about, but he's a very underrated coach," LSU's Bertman says. "He can bring a team back from a loss or down from a win better than anybody I've ever seen.

"He can speak to a wayward freshman, or he can speak to the president of the United States. He's an excellent motivator, excellent at projecting talent. He can tell who's hot and who's not. He juggles his lineups. And he plays aggressive. He loves to run."

The Orioles' Gregg Olson and Rochester's Jim Poole, members of Fraser's 1987 Pan Am Games team speak of him almost reverentially. The team finished second to Cuba in Havana, where Fidel Castro barged into its dugout after Fraser refused to allow the players to visit his private box.

Olson says Fraser had such a keen eye for detail he'd notice if a T-shirt was too tight. He still marvels at how Fraser assembled sharp-minded assistants "almost like a football coach." Poole still marvels at his pre-game talks.

"You'd come out of there ready to run through walls," Poole says. "It was unbelievable. I don't know if it was subject matter, or how he came across. But you just came out so fired up. He always made you believe you could win."

Team USA again will be an underdog to Cuba in Barcelona, but Fraser will think of something. He led the United States to the 1973 world amateur championship by using a team of entirely left-handed hitters. On the field or off, he always finds a gimmick.

There is talk now that he will accept a front-office job with the Florida Marlins after Barcelona. But if the Olympics are indeed his final act, leave it to Ron Fraser to put on a show.

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