The last time Ron Fraser brought a baseball team to Barcelona, his best players were Joop Geurts, Herman Beidschat and Hannie Urbanus. Hannie, you may or may not recall, was the Babe Ruth of the Netherlands, the year was 1960, and the 24-year-old Fraser was the coach of the Royal Dutch National Baseball Club. In Barcelona that summer, the Dutch won the European championship, and Fraser became something of a national hero.
Cut to 1992, and the 56-year-old Fraser is once again taking a baseball team to Barcelona. This time it's Team USA, and at stake is the first gold medal for baseball in the Olympics. Adding irony to the scenario, baseball's first hurrah is also Fraser's last hurrah, because the longtime University of Miami coach is calling it quits, or at least says he is, after this mission. A career that pretty much began in Barcelona will end in Barcelona, but then, that's the way baseball works, circling the bases, home to home. "It'll be a little weird going back," says Fraser. "My wife says I should expect Rod Serling to meet me at the airport."
Fraser is sitting in the coaches' room at Team USA headquarters in Millington, Tenn., just north of Memphis, where he is honing and polishing a team that will try to beat Cuba, Japan and Taiwan, its main competition in Barcelona.
"Before we won the European championship in 1960," he says, "the Dutch press was on my ass, accusing me of being a taskmaster and tyrant. But after we won, they were after me to become the head trainer for the Olympic track and field team. I didn't know anything other than baseball, and besides I was anxious to get home. I'm at the summer home of the prime minister of the Netherlands, and he asks me what it would take to keep me there as baseball coach. Well, I came up with what I thought was a fantasy: $19,000 a year, which was a lot of money in those days, and a few months in the States. And the prime minister says O.K. Believe me, I never made that mistake again in negotiations."
July 21, 1992
After coaching Holland to another European championship, in 1962, Fraser came back to the U.S. and appeared on What's My Line?, a very popular quiz show at the time, as the Dutch national baseball coach. Fraser, a former pitcher for Nutley (N.J.) High, Murray State, Florida State and the U.S. Army, stumped the panel, throwing the old heater past Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf and Arlene Francis. "Kilgallen was tough," says Fraser. "Her questions started getting into sports."
Actually, the quiz show Fraser should have been on was To Tell the Truth, the one in which host Bud Collyer would ask of the three guests, "Will the real [Ron Fraser] please stand up?" Over the years Fraser has developed three very distinct personae. There's Fraser the Baseball Ambassador, a man who has coached the game in Holland, Belgium, Germany and various points in Asia and Latin America. There's Fraser the Baseball Promoter, a man who built the hugely successful program at Miami thanks in part to beautiful batgirls (the Sugarcanes), $5,000-a-plate dinners and open-heart-surgery giveaways. Last and certainly not least is Fraser the Baseball Coach, a man who won 1,271 games in his 30 years with the Hurricanes, putting him second on the alltime list of college coaches behind USC's Rod Dedeaux (1,332).
Watching What's My Line? that night in 1962 was Henry King Stanford, the president of the University of Miami, and he was so impressed with Fraser that he asked him to come down to run what was a pretty mediocre program. And a big comedown it was: Miami offered him $2,200 a year. "I remember getting my first look at the baseball field in Coral Gables," says Fraser. "I parked my beat-up old Volkswagen out by the centerfield fence, walked from centerfield, all excited, to home plate. I turned, looked around and said to myself, I've got some work to do."
Among the things Fraser had to do were painting and carpentry work and bagging peanuts for the concession stands. He put evaporated milk on old baseballs to make them look new, a trick that sometimes soured in the heat. The Sugarcanes, introduced in 1968, were a much better idea because not only did they bring people into the park, they also were persuasive in getting the fans to give back foul balls. Among Fraser's later promotions was an income tax night (fans with 1040 forms got free advice from CPAs stationed in the stands), a drawing for free open-heart surgery, and the $5,000-a-plate dinner in 1977 that included 11 courses and truffles flown in from France. All of the above helped turn Mark Light Stadium, Miami's home field, into a major league showplace.
The only trouble with being the P.T. Barnum of college baseball is that people have tended to overlook the fact that Fraser is also the Whitey Herzog of college baseball. In 1974 Fraser took the Hurricanes to the first of their 12 trips to the College World Series, two of which they won (1982 and '85). He has an eye for talent—144 'Canes have gone to the pros—and good rapport with his players. "He's a great guy," says Charles Johnson, a Hurricane catcher who's now playing for Team USA. "He keeps you loose, but he keeps your mind in the game, too."
Fraser, who observed the interview of Johnson, later asks, "Did he tell you about my home run?" Told no, Fraser hunts down Johnson.
"You didn't tell him about my homer?"
"Oh, Coach, I forgot. I'm sorry."
"Well, it was during BP earlier this year. Some people think I was standing on the mound when I hit it."
"Coach was standing at the plate."
"The wind was blowing in."
"The wind was really blowing in. And the balls were old balls."
"No, Charles, no need to embellish. They were new balls."
"Coach [Mike] Ferguson was throwing BP. He throws hard."
"He does. Anyway, I hit it over the palm trees in left."
"Crushed it, way over the palm trees."
"Thank you, Charles, for confirming my story."
"You're welcome, Coach."
Fraser has the daunting task of readying Team USA, the youngest of the Olympic baseball squads. "I had to laugh last winter when the U.S. hockey coach was complaining he only had six months to build his team," he says. "I've got five weeks. If we win, it'll be a miracle—bigger than Jesus giving sight to the blind man but smaller than Moses parting the Red Sea."
But according to Cris Carpenter, the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who was on Fraser's 1987 Pan Am team, "If any coach can bring the U.S. a gold medal, Ron Fraser can. He establishes personal relationships with every player. He could manage in the majors right now. He's the epitome of a great manager."
The first U.S. squad ever to win a world championship was the 1973 U.S. national team coached by Fraser. Back then he loaded up on lefthanded hitters, figuring no other country would have lefthanded pitching, and he was right. In '87 he chose a Pan Am Games team based on speed and pitching, figuring it would have the best chance against the much better Cuban team; he was again right, as Team USA won its first game with the Cubans in Indianapolis before losing to them in the gold medal game 13-9.
"The thing he did that summer was convince us we could beat Cuba," recalls Carpenter. "And Coach was always thinking. One time he told our centerfielder to drop his white wristband in shallow center. His plan was to fool one of the Cuban hitters, Victor Mesa, into thinking a fake pickoff throw at second base had gone through. We never got a chance to use it, but that gives you some idea of his gamesmanship."
Gamesmanship is one of the reasons the Cubans fear Fraser as a coach. What's more, he knows them well. "This is what will happen when Cuba arrives for a game," says Fraser. "The players will saunter in from rightfield like they arc going on a picnic, laughing and pretending this is no big deal. They won't even take batting practice. Of course, they will have taken BP somewhere else that morning, but they want their opponents to think they don't even need it. And once the game starts, they'll try to intimidate you, step on the base runner's foot, things like that. We'll just have to intimidate right back."
Another factor working in Team USA's favor is Millington, as patriotic a town as you could hope to find in the U.S. Right there beyond the centerfield fence is the tallest flagpole in the state. Just down the street is the Memphis Naval Air Station, where the welcoming banquet for the team was held. The entertainment was the Craigmont High Concert Choir and Dance Team, all decked out in stars and stripes, singing an Americana medley. Then that old crowd-pleaser Fraser told the audience, "We may not be the finest team in Barcelona, but we will be the fiercest team. I'm not going to guarantee you the gold. But I am going to guarantee that we will do everything we can to make you proud of us."
The Millington audience rose as one, much as the fans at Mark Light Stadium did at Fraser's last regular-season game, on May 17. When the game was over, 6,000 people came onto the field, lined up along the base paths and formed a corridor from second base to centerfield. Fraser first circled the bases, home to home, talking and shaking hands. Then he walked out to second and down the red-carpeted corridor of well-wishers to the centerfield fence he had walked through 30 years before. And waiting for him on the other side was not a beat-up old Volkswagen but, on loan for the occasion, a shiny Rolls-Royce.
He touched 'em all in Miami. Wouldn't it be nice if Ron Fraser did the same in Barcelona?