Cal baseball to play first ever night game

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) David Esquer walks a few steps outside his campus office right into the construction zone that is Evans Diamond.

There on Thursday, the lights will come on for California's first night game in the program's 121-year history. The coach proudly points to the place where a snazzy new scoreboard complete with a modern video board that resembles those at Pac-12 powers Stanford and UCLA soon will hang in left-center at his home ballpark in Berkeley. The old scoreboard has a tendency to flicker off and on.

"We're still a little bit of a construction zone, they still have work to do," Esquer said Wednesday, before his team's first practice under the lights later that night. "But we didn't think we'd be here a couple years ago, for sure."

Esquer never could have envisioned such progress for his team two springs ago, when supporters came through with the money to save a sport that had been set for elimination by the Cal administration in a cost-cutting move.

So, first pitch Thursday will be a moment to celebrate for a college baseball program that avoided being cut thanks to the tireless fundraising work. Donors made this latest project happen, too, putting their names on a promissory note in the loan. Both the university and Cal's baseball foundation took out $1 million loans for the lights, and the baseball team plans to pay back the money with revenue from what it hopes are higher ticket sales and advertising.

Esquer has a long list on his desk of all the thank-you notes he needs to write. Cal baseball has been around since 1892, and never played a night game at home.

"It's a game-changer for our program," Esquer said. "I think we've plugged up a little bit of a competitive disadvantage to our program. Figuratively, it's a big statement. Out there, you show that Cal baseball is not just in survive mode, but we're in thrive mode. We're trying to thrive as a program and move forward and advance ourselves. We're not just trying to hang on by a thread."

Under the lights for the first time, Cal will put its 7-0 home record on the line in its Pac-12 opener against Southern California at Evans Diamond, which was built in 1933.

The first couple of night games will be powered by generators, and there's cleanup to do. But Esquer is grinning ear to ear. In fact, when Cal's bus pulled in after Tuesday's game at San Francisco, the lights were on for a test run.

"The field was glowing," Esquer said.

Not only will the lights allow more people among the working crowd to attend games, the thought is that even kids playing Little League on weekends will have the option of catching a Cal contest later in the day. A typical weekday game at Cal has been 2 p.m., and now Esquer's program will experiment with both 7 p.m. that's Thursday's start and 6 p.m. times to determine what works best. The Bears will likely play the remainder of their Friday and Saturday games at night, along with Tuesdays when possible.

"We haven't been very fan friendly as far as the young kids who have their own sports to play, whether it's Little League baseball or soccer," Esquer said. "We think it's going to make a difference in us being more available to the community, more accessible to the locals. My vision is to have a little bit of atmosphere and energy in the evenings for families coming out to the park."

In addition, Esquer expects the lights to be a nice recruiting tool, and offer his student-athletes more options in their class schedules and choices in major without the practice limits based on playing only during daylight hours. Another plus is playing under lights eliminates the problem of pesky shadows late in the day.

"It's something we've always wanted and now it's a reality for us," top hitter and first baseman Devon Rodriguez said. "It's awesome for our program. The four years I've been here, it's been a roller coaster ride. From almost getting cut to getting lights, it's surreal. We've always been behind the ball in terms of facilities, but we were still up there with the best. It was time we got lights and showed we're up there and we're moving in the right direction."

The student population, off on spring break this week, might stop by between nighttime activities with the lights shining.

Former Cal player and Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin even got in on the efforts for the new lights by speaking about the benefits in a video that went out to donors.

"The one thing this field is really missing is lights, and there are a lot of ramifications to that. It's a highly competitive league, probably the best in all of college baseball. It needs to be up to par with some of these other schools," Melvin said. "There's a different dynamic to night baseball. Day baseball is great but if you're watching professional baseball now, most everything's done at night. It gives everybody the chance to come out, you're going to get bigger crowds at night for the most part, a little bit more electricity to the games, and I think very important to Cal baseball."

Cal did host a night game in the NCAA Super Regionals, but it was played at Santa Clara.

In April 2011, Esquer and the Bears learned the sport would survive nearly two months after the university reinstated three other teams that were slated for elimination.

A massive fundraising effort by alumni, former players, parents of current players and other team supporters initially raised approximately $9 million to present to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, short of the $10 million goal but enough for Cal's administration to gain confidence the program was safe enough to be saved.

The team continues to raise funds on an annual basis, and will do so to pay off the lights.

"It's not a luxury item for us," Esquer said. "We feel it's a necessity."