Call it unbelievable, unfathomable, incredible, bizarre. Call it what you will, but it happened.
The California Institute of Technology finally won a baseball game.
What’s the big deal? The win snapped a 228-game losing streak.
How long does it take to lose 228 games? Try 10 years. Caltech’s last win came at the expense of still-red-faced Cal State Monterey Bay, 5-4, on Feb.15, 2003.
Need perspective? Some members of Caltech’s team were in the middle of fourth grade the last time the Beavers won. Saddam Hussein was still in power. The Red Sox had their own little streak going: 84 years without winning the World Series. And Nick Saban hadn’t won any national championships.
But living with the streak might not have been as difficult as you might imagine. You kind of get numb to losing.
“After one or two losing seasons, it doesn’t get as bad,” senior catcher Brian Penserini told ESPN.com.
Caltech opened its season on Groundhog Day in expected fashion. The Beavers amassed just four hits against Aaron Soto in losing to Pacifica, 5-0.
But then freshman Daniel Chou took the mound for the second game of the doubleheader. Gocaltech.com describes Chou as “the only true first-year (player) on the team. (He) will play centerfield and serve as one of the primary starting pitchers.
“An all-league selection at Wissahickon High School outside of Philadelphia, PA, he brings a wealth of baseball knowledge to the team.”
Clearly, a little baseball knowledge couldn’t hurt this bunch. And versatility is vital as well, when your roster includes only 13 players.
Chou breezed through the first inning of his first college start. He then watched in awe from the bench as the Beavers scored three runs with two outs in the bottom of the first, stunning the crowd numbered at 87.
Buoyed by his three-run cushion, and unburdened by a losing streak he hadn’t been a part of, Chou didn’t allow a hit until the fifth inning.
But then he allowed six, and with the help of two Caltech errors, Pacifica erupted for seven runs. The inning became a microcosm of Caltech baseball — which is exactly what new coach Matthew Mark didn’t want to see.
“We are going to be a hard-working team,” Mark said in the 2013 Baseball Outlook at gocaltech.com. “Regardless of the situation — a game, practice, conditioning — this team is going to be fundamentally sound in every aspect possible.”
Prior to taking the Caltech job, Mark served as pitching coach at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania for three years. Before that, he was the baseball coach at Indian Creek School in Wintersville, Ohio.
Working across the country, Mark had no idea what he was wading into at Caltech. When he arrived in Pasadena, Mark began reviewing the Beavers’ baseball history. He only made it back five seasons.
“That was enough that I had to know,” he told ESPN.com. “I knew how much it meant. You look at the seniors’ faces, and you could tell.”
So Mark knew how much it meant when the first four Beaver batters reached base in the sixth inning. Derek Kearney singled home Albie Lavin with the go-ahead run, and Mason Freeman drove home Kearney with an insurance run.
But no one celebrated. Not with this team’s history. Caltech still had three outs to get. Chou got one, but runners reached first and second. Mark went out to the mound.
“He said he wanted the ball,” Mark told the Pasadena Star News. “He said that we had talked so much about winning.”
The batter topped one right back to Chou, who threw to second to start the streak-ending double play.
Suddenly, Mark was being quoted from coast to coast.
“It was almost as if they had been there before,” he told the USA Today.
“There was a good sense of composure,” he told the New York Times.
He had time for more reflection with the Star News: “We talked all week about ways to win. They amazed me. It’s my second game as the head coach, and I got my first win out of the way early.
“I’ve spent most of (Saturday night) answering emails, texts, phone calls from an outpouring of community and alumni.”
What’s amazing is how the Caltech community got so excited over an athletic victory. This is one of our nation’s foremost academic institutions. Home of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, home to 31 Nobel Laureates, seven Crafoord Laureates, six Kavli Prize recipients, and 57 National Medal of Science recipients. The list is endless.
If you visited Caltech.edu today, and you saw a homepage featuring articles on Dianne Newman, the Molecular Geomicrobiologist; Ken Libbrecht on How to Become a Snowflake Physicist; Visualizing Biological Networks in 4D; NuSTar Catches Black Holes in Galaxy Web; and a Research Update: Atomic Motions Help Determine Temperatures Inside The Earth.
And right there, prominently displayed in the midst of all these scholarly articles, is a photo of a small scoreboard that says “CALTECH 9, GUEST 7” which serves as the gateway to the article, “Caltech Baseball Team Snaps 228-game Losing Skid.”
Even at Caltech, this was a big win.
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His column appears each Thursday.