Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
The Fresno State Bulldogs traveled to Sacramento on May 16, a mediocre baseball team playing out the string. They had dropped 12 of their first 20 games, lost their best pitcher to a torn rotator cuff, never been ranked in the coaches' poll and were entering the final series of the season with a modest record of 31-25. They promptly lost the first two games at Sacramento State. "We were way down," Fresno State coach Mike Batesole said. "But we grabbed onto each other and we never let go."
They were away from home for 35 of the next 41 days. They played 22 consecutive games on the road. They played six elimination games -- and they won all six. By the time their pilgrimage ended, five weeks later at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, they had won one of the most unlikely national championships in the history of college sports. Fresno State made the Tampa Bay Rays look like preseason favorites.
The Bulldogs had to win the WAC tournament just to make an NCAA regional as a No. 4 seed, the lowest given. After winning the regional in Long Beach, they went home to practice, but vandals had driven cars across their outfield, making it unplayable. So they shipped off to Arizona State early and won the super-regional there. They were headed to the College World Series, the equivalent of a No. 13 seed at the basketball Final Four.
The Bulldogs flew to Omaha, but a tornado warning made it impossible to land, so they touched down in Lincoln and took a bus. Their best remaining starter, Clayton Allison, was suffering from shoulder tendonitis. Their best power hitter, Tommy Mendonca, could barely grip a bat because he had two dislocated fingers. Another one of their best hitters, Steve Detwiler, could not take batting practice because he had a torn ligament in his thumb. "Fingers," Mendonca told reporters in Omaha. "Who needs 'em?"
In Game 1 of the championship series against Georgia, Fresno State used a starting pitcher with an ERA of 6.75, followed by relievers with ERAs of 6.95, 6.75 and 7.54, before losing a 7-6 thriller. In Game 2, a 19-10 win with their backs to the wall, they used a starting pitcher who was working on two days' rest, followed him with a reliever who had pitched three times in a week, then used a reliever who had not pitched in a month. "I honestly didn't think they would be able to piece together a pitching staff," Georgia third baseman Ryan Peisel told reporters.
College baseball is traditionally dominated by bluebloods -- LSU, Texas, Arizona State, etc. Fresno State constantly has to recruit against Pac-10 powers with bigger budgets and richer traditions. But the Wonderdogs, as they are forever known in the San Joaquin Valley, followed the hard road all the way to the top. They became the lowest-seeded team to win a national championship in college baseball and the first men's team to win a national championship for Fresno State. Proving that fingers really are overrated, Mendonca was voted Outstanding Player of the College World Series and Detwiler hit two homers and a double in the final game, driving in all six Fresno State runs in a 6-1 win.
At last, the Bulldogs could go home, models of perseverance and Sportsmen of the Year.