Leggy dancing girls, wearing outsize vinyl baseballs on their heads, did a high-kick routine at second base. Mel Allen's still sturdy voice, brought out of semiretirement, welcomed Ted Williams and broadcast the game. Williams was brought in from center field on a motorized facsimile of a baseball glove to bat out the first ball. He batted out five of them, every one a line drive to right. A sellout crowd roared and stomped its 8,792 feet. Ron Fraser smiled. Just another day in the life of college baseball's most unusual coach.
The occasion was no more earthshaking than last week's opening round (South Regional) of the NCAA baseball tournament at the University of Miami. For Miami's Fraser, however, it was an opportunity to make another mountain out of a molehill. Evidence of his ability to capitalize on such chances in the past was all around. The girls kicked their heels on a $350,000 Tartan surface that Fraser had promoted onto the premises. Among colleges, only the University of Texas has a similar field. Williams' curly hair was illuminated by thousands of quartz bulbs, and the glorious successes of the Miami team glittered from a new electronic scoreboard. The $100,000 lighting system and scoreboard were coaxed from a single donor named (sure enough) George Light. The fans whooped it up in what is usually referred to in Miami as the "showcase million-dollar stadium," Mark Light Field (after George's son). Fraser christened the place last February by throwing a $5,000-a-plate black-tie dinner, honoring (besides himself) his various financial angels.
In the history of college sport, it is safe to assume no one else ever held a $5,000-a-plate dinner. Certainly not on an infield rug. With violinists strolling. And goldfish swimming in free-form pools. And truffles flown in from the Black Forest to go with the pheasant and peeled grapes. And seven varieties of high-priced spirits (including the brandy in the charlotte russe) to neutralize an unseasonable cold snap.
One would think that the Miami team would be at the vortex of all this tangible adulation. The Hurricanes, with a 41-11 record, were ranked No. 1 in the nation going into last week's tournament. Miami had little trouble with Morehead State or Ole Miss, but No. 14-rated Clemson was much tougher, beating the Hurricanes in two of three games and spoiling their hopes of going to the College World Series. Never mind all that. Appearances lie. The story at Miami, as it has been for some time now, is Fraser, and it is nothing if not inspirational.
May 29, 1977
At 41, Fraser has been coach of the Hurricanes since 1963, the year George Mira was finishing his Miami career as an All-America quarterback. One afternoon shortly after his arrival, Fraser heard a mitt popping behind a decaying wooden dugout and went around to find the source. It was Mira, having an impromptu catch with a friend. Unexposed to intercollege sports for three years while directing the national baseball program in Holland, Fraser did not know Mira. "You pitch baseball?" he asked. Mira said he had, in high school. "You throw harder than anybody I've got. Say, how would you...?"
A newsman standing nearby took in the episode and, in the late editions, revealed Fraser's hopes for making Mira a baseball star. The next day, Andy Gustafson, then Miami's football coach and athletic director, summoned Fraser to his office and gave him a list of football players "free to play baseball, too." Mira's name was not on it. Fraser says he "got the message."
In essence, the message was that life at the bottom was grim. Fraser's salary was $2,200 a year. To achieve poverty level, he moonlighted as athletic director of the Coral Gables Youth Center, a position that allowed him not only to eat but also to "borrow" equipment for his sparsely outfitted Miami team. He says he was "too dumb to recognize a lost cause." The school gave him five tuition-only scholarships, which, by careful dicing, he parceled out among 21 players. When he asked for recruiting money, he was told to "do the best you can." He wrote a lot of letters.
He wrote them from a concrete cell-like cubicle that opened into the locker room. A solitary light hung down. One day while cleaning up his "office," Fraser found a discarded blueberry-brandy bottle. Hall of Famer Jimmy Foxx had coached Miami for a while when he was down on his luck. The sight of Miami's team did not necessarily drive Foxx to drink, but he was not loath to take a bottle to the bench on game days. Fraser's immediate predecessor, Whitie Campbell, "just upped and left, without a word."
Fortunately for Miami, Fraser was not unacquainted with hard times. The son of a Nutley, N.J. prizefighter who died young, he was raised on "cornstarch pudding and Brooklyn street fights" and spent many of his "happy younger days" in the Bonnie Brae summer camp for boys. "They shaved my head for lice and let me play, and I didn't know it was supposed to be terrible," he says. "One of my teachers told me it was a miracle I didn't wind up in jail."
Instead, Fraser wound up at Florida State with a partial scholarship to pitch baseball. He made ends meet by changing the bottles in the campus Coke machines and by selling homemade sandwiches in the sorority houses. "I'd cut the bologna so thin you could see through it," he recalls. "Then I'd put the sandwiches in boxes and leave them at the houses just before the 11 p.m. curfew, with signs saying 25¢ APIECE and IF YOU STEAL FROM ME, YOU STEAL FROM GOD."
Fraser pitched well at FSU, but an arm injury he incurred in the service put an end to his professional ambitions. After coaching the Dutch team to the European championship, he came back to the States with an offer to become the statistician for "a new major league team, the Mets. I called Danny Litwhiler, my old coach at FSU. He said, 'Heck, you don't want to do that. The Mets will never last. Besides, they're owned by a woman.' "
Litwhiler advised Fraser to get into college coaching, "on the ground floor if need be." Joe McDonald took the Mets' job. McDonald is now their general manager. Fraser went to the ground floor at Miami.
From humble beginnings, he progressed steadily toward a humble future. He taped balls and nailed broken bats, and in his concrete dungeon, he bagged popcorn and peanuts for sale during games. No task or trick was beneath him. He scrubbed old baseballs with Pet milk, a renewing process he had learned in Holland. When dry, the balls turned a lustrous white. Sometimes they turned in other ways. On an exceptionally hot Miami day, an Ohio State pitcher put a ball to his nose and called time. The Ohio State coach came out and sniffed, too. Then he yelled to Fraser, "What the hell's going on?" The milk, Fraser tried to explain, had soured in the heat.
But in time Fraser began to turn some heads, not because he kept winning—he has never had a losing team—but because he was always up to something. He painted the bases orange, green and white—the school colors. He scrounged unfinished stools and painted them green and put 15—count 'em, 15—bat girls in short shorts and sunback blouses on the stools. The girls sashayed after foul balls and discarded bats, showing off their tans. "We got our first national publicity," Fraser beams, "and a fringe benefit. When the bat boys used to chase the fouls, the fans always kept the balls. They said, 'To hell with you guys.' When the girls came around, they said, 'Here, honey.' "
He lured fans with Bat Days, not giving away the full-size models but 16-inch miniatures he got gratis from manufacturers. In "return for some press," MacGregor supplied the team with green gloves. A color photograph appeared in the Miami Herald, and Charlie Finley called, wanting to know where Fraser got the gloves. He lined up a parachutist—"a kid, not a pro; we couldn't afford a pro"—to float down in a Miami uniform on an opening day. The chutist got caught in a tricky crosswind and landed near U.S. 1. "He'll have to pay his way in," said Fraser glumly.
His players took to calling him "Puff," only partly because he had a heavy cigarette habit. His well-orchestrated cons and shameless media pandering raised more than a few eyebrows in the school's academic circles, not to mention the noises from his fellow coaches. "Pure jealousy," says Miami News columnist John Crittenden, a longtime admirer. "Fraser is so far removed from anything they can imagine. He's just in another room, that's all."
Today even Fraser's peers have come to appreciate him. Robin Roberts, now coaching at the University of South Florida, says he would like to see Fraser quit Miami "and help the rest of us build programs." But Dr. Henry King Stanford, the Miami president, won't let Fraser go. He keeps raising his salary and calling him things like "a 190-pound ball of dynamic, intelligent innovation." Stanford, who thought "baseball was organized procrastination, until I met Ron Fraser," sits on the bench at home games, wearing a U.M. cap and applauding eagerly.
Sitting on the bench is no big deal at Miami. People drop by all the time, usually to chat with Fraser, who never turns a deaf ear. "He doesn't even know most of them," says Assistant Coach Skip Bert-man, "but he's always looking for new friends. I finally had to get him to coach third base, because every time I looked to get a sign he'd be talking to somebody. Last year at Florida State somebody threw a chunk of ice that knocked him cold. He was lying on the bench, woozy, when a kid came up for an autograph. Ron got up and told the kid how nice it was to see him, and when the kid left, he swooned again. He had to be hospitalized."
Fraser now feeds his family (wife Lee and three daughters) on a $24,000 salary he augments with a slick baseball yearbook that friends help him produce, and Ron Fraser's Sports Camp that friends help him run. He drives a new Buick, replaced every six months by a friendly dealer. His office is still in the same spot, but is paneled and glistens with stylish bric-a-brac and trophies (including his Coach of the Year award for 1974). A door has been kicked through to the outside, allowing him to have a secretary as well as the full-time assistant. The program is now budgeted at $154,000 a year, guaranteeing the team an adequate number of new balls—or an unlimited supply of Pet milk.
Fraser recently turned down a $42,000 front-office job with a major league team. He says he first wants to win a national championship at Miami. His teams, playing at a .720 clip, have won 40 games or more for the past five years. They play in season and out, making winter trips to Latin America as guests of countries there. Fraser does not have to write supplicating letters anymore. Talented, ambitious players call him. Rick Montoni, Miami's best hitter this season (.415), paid his way from Naugatuck, Conn. to get a shot. "If you want football, it's Notre Dame. If you want baseball, it's Miami," says Pitcher Steve Lerner, who had his pick of colleges east of the Mississippi. Both Montoni and Lerner are hot pro prospects.
The current Miami team is not typical of Fraser's, however. Instead of "scratching and clawing" for runs in Fraser's scratching, clawing image, the Hurricanes set school batting (.315) and home-run (40) records and consistently scored in double figures. Montoni has hit five grand slams. Freshman First Baseman Jim Maler became the team's all-time home-run champion with 11.
The irony is inescapable. Maler is also a starting outside linebacker on the Miami football team. On a day when he was to compete in a spring scrimmage, Maler played baseball instead. Fraser did not gloat. In fact, he said it spoiled "a great chance to get some good press. I was going to shuffle Maler back and forth in a carpeted van, with a stereo blaring and bat girls feeding him snacks."
One afternoon when the football team was practicing on the baseball team's rug, Dr. Stanford asked Fraser to propose a way to help promote football out of its recent slump at Miami. Fraser said, "Offhand, Dr. Stanford, it's hard to say. But I think I'd be tempted to put a booth near the main gates at the Orange Bowl. If the ticket buyers didn't like the game, they could go for a refund. Boy, it would make every paper in the country. With pictures."
Fraser thinks his idea "might have been a little frightening" because he never got a response to it. But he wishes he had gone further.
"The secret," he says, "would be to have a guy in the booth who didn't work too fast. And once the cameras were gone, you'd close the window."