Longtime UM baseball coach Ron Fraser dies

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) — Ron Fraser coached the national teams from two
different countries, is a member of 10 different Halls of Fame, won two
NCAA baseball championships and never had a losing record in a 30-year
career with the Miami Hurricanes.

He’ll be remembered for so many other reasons.

The longtime Miami coach — dubbed “the
wizard of college baseball” — died Sunday morning after fighting
Alzheimer’s disease for many years, family spokesman Tony Segreto said.
University officials said Fraser was 79, though a statement issued by
his family did not divulge his age or other private matters, including a
cause of death.

“The impact he had on our university, on
college baseball and on the game itself worldwide is immeasurable,”
acting Miami athletic director Blake James said.

Fraser’s legacy will be, as he once
said, his penchant for “doing crazy things out there.” He raffled car
batteries, hosted bikini nights, threw nine-course gourmet dinners on
the Hurricanes’ infield, even is credited for helping bring batgirls
into the college game. If any idea to drum up interest or money for his
program came his way, Fraser wanted to make it happen.

But his finest moment may have come at the College World Series in 1982.

A few Hurricanes stuck fingers in their
ears, the signal for the hidden-ball trick, known to this day as “The
Grand Illusion.” Miami was leading 4-3 in the sixth inning of a winner’s
bracket game in Omaha, Neb., and Wichita State’s Phil Stephenson was on
first base. With his team down by a run, Stephenson was going to try to
steal; everyone in the stadium knew this, especially since he already
had swiped 86 bases that season.

So the play was called. Skip Bertman,
Fraser’s associate coach at the time who went on to become a great at
LSU, gave the signal. Mike Kasprzak was the Miami pitcher, and made a
few throws over to first to get Stephenson’s attention.

Then came the moment. Kasprzak made
another “throw” to first, one where Hurricanes’ first baseman Steve
Lusby dove for the supposedly errant ball and, as the story goes, swore
to further sell his displeasure. Several Hurricanes started chasing the
“ball” along the right-field line, and others in the dugout pointed up
the line excitedly, getting in on the act.

And what an act it was.

“He would teach the bat girls to
scramble as if they were getting out of the way of it,” Florida State
coach Mike Martin said Sunday. “They were sitting on a chair. He also
had the bullpen and had a guy call it, `There’s the ball! Get out of the
way!’ It was theatrics at its best.”

Sure was. Kasprzak tossed the ball —
he had it the whole time — to second base, a stunned Stephenson was
tagged out trying to advance, Miami won the game and went on to capture
the national championship.

“We’ve had better teams,” Fraser said in the din of that championship celebration. “But never one with this much heart.”

Fraser took Miami to another national
title in 1985, and wound up leading the Hurricanes to the College World
Series 12 times over his 30 years at the school. He retired in 1992 with
1,271 wins.

But his biggest victories came through his promotion of the college game.

“I was more interested in getting the
people in the stands,” Fraser once said, “because I knew we’d never be
really successful unless we made money.”

Fraser also played a key role in
getting baseball on national television. And now, the College World
Series — the entire NCAA tournament, really — is a mainstay on TV, as
are hundreds of regular-season games annually.

“Coach Fraser is the most influential
person in my career and the man who put college baseball on the map,”
current Miami coach Jim Morris said last year. “He is like a father to
me.”

Ronald George Fraser was born and
raised in New Jersey, then attended Florida State, where he’s a member
of the Seminoles’ Hall of Fame.

His induction there really had very little to do with his athletic achievements in Tallahassee.

“Florida State University is proud to
honor a former athlete who more recently has become a distinguished
opponent,” read the text of his induction into that Hall of Fame in
1981. “A brilliant promoter and coach, he has advanced collegiate
baseball at the University of Miami, across Florida and across the
nation.”

That’s how well thought of Fraser was: The Seminoles put an arch rival in their Hall of Fame.

“Heck, he used to wash the baseballs in
milk because he didn’t have enough money to buy the dozen or so
baseballs he needed,” Martin said. “So, he’d wash them in milk and use
it as a cleaner. … He was a character. And, he really was a guy who
shared his knowledge with younger coaches.

“I’m going to miss him. He was a good man.”

After a stint leading the Dutch
national team, Fraser took over at Miami in 1963 with a $2,200 salary, a
converted shower for an office and a cow pasture for a field. He got
the school’s attention in most unconventional way — which seemed
fitting for him. University officials said Sunday that Miami first
noticed Fraser by his appearances on the television game show, “What’s
My Line?”

“He was the person who put college
baseball on the map — not only in the crowds and the entertainment we
see today, but in the competitiveness of the game itself,” Miami trustee
Paul DiMare said. “It was all him.”

College baseball was not a revenue generating sport, even for successful programs, so Fraser got creative.

Giveaways, parachutists, whatever he
could think of, it all was part of Fraser’s plan to entice more people
to come see his team.

“My whole thing was to entertain the
people. People said it was the winning, but I was trying to entertain
the people so they would come back,” Fraser said around the time his
coaching career ended. “I did a lot of crazy things and it worked.”

Attendance at Miami grew over a
seven-year span from 33,000 a season to 90,000. And in 1981, the
Hurricanes set a record with 163,261 fans — over 3,200 per game.
Attendance dipped below 100,000 only once for the remainder of Fraser’s
tenure.

After eight straight winning seasons to
start off his tenure at Miami, the Hurricanes finally broke through
with the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1971. In 1982, the
Hurricanes swept through five games in Omaha, clinching the school’s
first national title with a 9-3 win over Wichita State.

Three seasons later, the Hurricanes won
their second championship, beating Texas twice in three days for the
1985 crown. That team finished with a school record 64 wins.

And to think — Fraser’s run at Miami almost didn’t get started.

With the athletic department in dire
straits in the early 1970s, the school elected to cut one program.
Football was lousy, basketball was worse and baseball — though far more
successful than the others — didn’t make money.

“We were going to have to let one of them go,” Fraser said.

He fully expected baseball to be the
program that got cut. So in a last-ditch effort, Fraser called in some
favors. Baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial (who died at 92 on Saturday,
one day before Fraser), major league broadcaster Joe Garagiola and other
notables showed up at a beach benefit banquet that impressed the
school. In 1972, the university dropped basketball instead of baseball.

Fraser made the move pay off, finally leading Miami to its first College World Series appearance in 1974.

“Coach Fraser had a tremendous impact
on the baseball program at the University of Miami at a pivotal time in
our history,” Miami President Donna Shalala said. “His love of the sport
and the program can still be felt, years after this legendary tenure at
`The U.'”

Fraser is a former NCAA coach of the
year and coached numerous U.S. national teams — including the 1992
Olympic team, and went on to work with many community and charity
organizations in his retirement.

Miami officials said he had three children and five grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

“On the field and off, Ron Fraser
showed how one man can make a difference,” James said. “The University
of Miami, South Florida and college baseball are all better because of
him.”