Baseball 'guru' pitches for gold Miami's Fraser showed colleges how to play the game--and win

July 11, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Staff Writer

CORAL GABLES. FLA. — CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Let's see, there was the $5,000-a-plate dinner to pay off the stadium debt. The kelly-green gloves on St. Patrick's Day. The giveaways that included everything from car batteries to open-heart surgery.

It's only fitting that the man who made college baseball such a production is staging a two-act retirement. Ron Fraser always had a sense of theater. Oh yes, he always could coach a little, too.

First came the farewell tour during his 30th and final season at Miami, which ended with the Hurricanes falling two victories short of their third national championship last month. Now comes his grand finale as coach of the U.S. Olympic team, which plays Korea in an exhibition today at Oriole Park.

Baseball will be a medal sport for the first time in Barcelona, Spain, and the "Wizard of College Baseball" was the logical choice to lead Team USA. Heck, he's been dreaming of this moment since his first experience in international baseball in 1958.

Of course, there's a story.

With Fraser, there's always a story.

Let's see, Fraser was in the military, and his Army team was playing a game against the German national team. For some reason, the Germans couldn't field a full squad that day. Fraser and a few others switched sides.

Naturally, the Germans loved Fraser. Naturally, they asked permission to have him coach their national team. Naturally, a colonel with his own selfish interests at heart turned them down.

"We were in the thick of a race," Fraser explains. "It was big-time. Lots of betting."

A general finally intervened, and in the name of international goodwill, Fraser got the job. The colonel, of course, still demanded he coach the Army team. Fraser wound up flying back and forth by helicopter each day.

That was the start.

The Germans tied for second in the European championships, and before you knew it, the Dutch were requesting his services through former baseball commissioner Ford Frick and then-Vice President Richard Nixon.

Fraser, 56, got that job, too, and led Holland to European titles in 1960 and '62. Soon after, he landed at Miami for $2,200 per year, inheriting a program that once disbanded in mid-season, a program that was far from the national power it is today.

Money was so tight, Fraser would nail bats together, and rub down scuffed balls with evaporated milk so they looked new and white. Nice idea, but in the Florida heat and humidity, the average Miami home game stunk like a rotten dairy product.

Today the Hurricanes play on artificial turf at Mark Light Stadium, the first modern college facility, capacity 5,000. The concession stands feature everything from Greek gyros to Cuban pork sandwiches. The Ron Fraser Building hovers over the first base dugout, complete with a luxury box overlooking the field.

"Ron has done more for college baseball than anybody who's ever lived," said LSU coach Skip Bertman, an assistant under Fraser from 1975 to 1983. "He did what Arnold Palmer did for golf, Muhammad Ali did for boxing. He showed college athletic directors that baseball could be profitable."

How did it all happen?

To make a few long stories short. . . .

The parachutist

In the mid-1960s, Fraser wanted to charge admission to Miami games for the first time. He had to give the fans something extra, so he recruited a parachutist to be part of the show.

This was long before he conceived his popular "Bikini Day" promotion, where fans with beach attire were admitted free, but those with binoculars paid double.

And it was long before he became known as such a skilled fund raiser, Miami enlisted him to lead a $50 million drive to upgrade its library and arts-and-sciences program.

The parachutist is a black mark.

The parachutist still makes him burn.

"He asked where I wanted him to land," Fraser recalls. "I said, 'On the field. "He said, 'No, exactly where?' I said, 'Right on second base.'

"He asked what the school colors were. I said, 'Green and orange.' He said, 'OK, I'll have flares on my boots.' He was going to tear off his jumpsuit, have a uniform on underneath."

Too bad he missed the stadium by more than five miles.

"The plane went overhead, and the PA guy said, 'Well, he's just making a practice run.' The people were screaming, 'Hey Fraser, we want our money back.' I told the umpire to start the ballgame.

"He showed up in the fourth inning. I only had one gate open. A friend of mine -- a former fighter in a wheelchair -- was collecting tickets. No one was going to give him trouble, right?

"He came wheeling over. He said, 'Ron, this guy wants to come and see you, he's the parachutist.' I said, 'I don't want to see him. If he comes in, charge him a buck.' "

That was the first price of admission.

Fraser upped the ante considerably to pay off the stadium debt in 1977.

The $5,000-a-plate dinner

Four hours, 11 courses, 32 settings.

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