By Scott Ball (This article appeared in the Spring 2014 Cal Sports Quarterly)
Perseverance and loyalty.
No better words in the dictionary can describe the college baseball career of Cal senior first baseman Devon Rodriguez.
During his time in Berkeley, the Golden Bears’ slugger from Newhall has experienced the exhilaration of producing what many consider the greatest clutch hit in the history of Cal baseball. He also suffered a series of injuries that not only could have ended his baseball career, but included one that was potentially life threatening.
Through it all, the love of his team and the Cal program has brought Rodriguez back for his senior season in 2014.
“I finally feel normal,” Rodriguez said. “I know people were going to be doubting me entering this season after coming off injuries the past two years. That’s where it’s been fun. Having the opportunity to prove people wrong and have some fun out there. I’m finally healthy and feeling good.”
It has been more than two years since Rodriguez has felt completely healthy and good. To understand the Cal slugger’s odyssey that has put him where he stands now, a step back in time is in order.
First, the good times for Rodriguez. On June 5, 2011, in Houston, the Bears were playing Baylor in the NCAA Regional
championship game at Rice’s Reckling Park. Baylor had opened up a 7-1 lead going into the bottom of the sixth inning, but Cal came back with two runs in the bottom of the frame, and Rodriquez smacked a two-run homer in the eighth inning to set the score at 7-5. Baylor padded its lead with a run in the top of the ninth inning for an 8-5 advantage, but the Golden Bears were not finished, especially with all they had gone through during the 2011 campaign.
Cal scored two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to get within, 8-7, but was down to its final out with Rodriguez at the plate. Facing a two-strike count, he lined a shot into right field, scoring Austin Booker and Tony Renda with the winning run, causing pandemonium (with KALX announcer Danny Freisinger’s frantic call later being aired on ESPN) and sending the Bears to their first-ever Super Regional and an eventual berth in the 2011 College World Series.
This was all amidst the backdrop of the announcement the previous fall that Cal baseball would be dropped at the end of the campaign due to athletic department budget cuts, thus making Rodriguez’s hit that much more poignant. The issue of the program’s demise has since been thoroughly resolved through impressive fundraising spearheaded by the Cal Baseball Foundation.
“So much emotion came into that final at-bat in Houston,” said Rodriguez. “It wasn’t just for me; it was for all the donors and people who had supported us.”
Rodriguez was part of a strong returning nucleus in 2012 that had head coach David Esquer optimistic his program could make a return trip to Omaha. But on a rainy day of practice before the start of the season, Rodriguez made a diving attempt at a ball and came down hard on the ground. He suffered a knee injury that originally was supposed to keep him out of action 4-6 weeks. However during his rehabilitation, he developed a blood clot and got into just four games before being forced to shut down for the year.
“It was one of the most serious things I’ve ever dealt with,” Rodriguez said. “I had heard of blood clots but I didn’t really know the significance of them. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t get hit by anything. That kind of put everything in perspective. Now, I don’t really take it for granted. Every day that goes by I try to live to the fullest.”
Rodriguez recovered and was playing as well as he had in his entire career that next fall, according to Esquer. But during the Bears’ final scrimmage before the spring, Rodriguez hurt his shoulder sliding back into first base as a ball was thrown in behind him from the outfield.
“I knew as soon as it happened something was wrong,” Rodriguez said. “I couldn’t even get up off the ground.”
Rodriguez probably should have had surgery, but that would have put him out again for an extended period of time. He had enough of sitting out and decided that his team needed him too badly, electing to play the entire season through the pain.
“He played on one arm essentially because of his loyalty to the team,” Esquer said. “You’d see him swing and miss, and he would wince in pain. He’d have to go days without taking batting practice just to make sure he could make it to the weekend and play in the game. At the end of the year, I just said thank you.”
Despite his physical limitations in 2013, Rodriguez was still productive. He batted .277, was ninth in the Pac-12 with seven home runs and had 40 RBI. But everyone watching knew he wasn’t himself.
“At any point in time, Devon could have had surgery and taken himself out for the season,” said Esquer. “He just wouldn’t do that.”
During those rough days in 2012 and 2013, Rodriguez always had something that would help motivate him.
“I would just go on YouTube and watch my hit against Baylor,” said the Cal first baseman. “Those rough days you have coming back from surgery, those days where you’re wondering if you’re ever going to get back to your old self, those are the kind of days you go look at that video and it kind of serves as motivation. I kept telling myself, ‘Let’s keep pushing through it so once I get healthy, I can get another situation like that and hopefully come through again.’
“I remember the Baylor game like it was yesterday,” Rodriguez continued. “I can walk through that whole inning and everything I was thinking from the start of the inning to when I got on the on-deck circle to when I was up to bat. I remember the pitches he threw me, the count, everything.
“It’s just awesome to know I was able to be a part of something so special - just that whole year from the team coming back after getting cut. I felt like I had the whole year on my back the entire at-bat. It’s just how special that team was, that season. It brings back all the good memories that I have with all the guys.”
Now in 2014, Rodriguez shares his Houston Regional, Super Regional and College World Series memories with teammates Kyle Porter, Vince Bruno, Michael Theofanopoulos and Derek Campbell – all members of the 2011 squad – with hopes of again returning to the postseason and making all his trials and tribulations worth it. He would also like to share that championship feeling with all of his current teammates.
“I just want to get us back to the top,” said Rodriguez. “Whatever it takes, I am going to do all I can to get us there.”