California loves its warm weather, clear waters, laid back lifestyle and maybe, above all else, its baseball.
At the start of the 2015 Major League Baseball season, there were twice as many California-born MLB players than athletes hailing from any other state in the nation. Almost as soon as they walk, kids are handed their first baseball glove and are sent out into the sun to fall in love with “America’s pastime.”
Perhaps it’s the influence of storied MLB franchises like the Los Angeles Angels, the San Francisco Giants, or the Los Angeles Dodgers. Perhaps it’s the easygoing culture of California aligning perfectly with the relaxed game that is baseball. Maybe it’s that California’s weather is conducive to year-round play. Some might say it’s a combination of all three that makes California the nation’s hotbed of baseball.
“There are a lot of good professional teams out there,” said junior first baseman Patrick McColl, a native of Los Altos, Calif. “It's kind of a year round thing, kids start playing travel ball when they’re really young. It’s obviously warm enough to do so.”
Other players agreed, citing the conducive nature of the state’s environment.
“I think it's just a big part of the weather which just influences the culture of baseball in California,” said Los Gatos native and sophomore pitcher Hunter Bigge.
Weekends are filled with travel team baseball tournaments; parents drive their kids hours away just to attend practices during the week, satisfying their hunger for the game.
“Baseball was all I did,” Bigge said. “Before I got to high school, I’d play baseball every weekend. It always something I bonded with my friends over.”
The love and passion for baseball manifests in commitment and competition. Every Californian will say the atmosphere simply breeds talent.
“The baseball in California is extremely competitive,” said Moraga native and junior outfielder Ben Skinner. “There’s a lot of talent within that region. It's really a hotbed of talent.”
Moraga, Calif., is a two-day and 3,087 mile journey to Cambridge. Los Altos boasts a 3,130 mile trip and at 3,133 miles away Los Gatos is even further. Combine that with resort weather, top notch competition, and the “Cali” lifestyle, and you would not expect to find more than a few Californians on the Harvard baseball team. Before only a few years ago, the assumption match the state of the roster.
“When I came in my recruiting class, there was actually no one on the team before from California,” McColl said.
Now, the team is lined from top to bottom with Californians, 11 in fact. More than a third of the team calls California their home, while Yale and Princeton both claim only two players from the Golden State.
The Crimson has built this this new-look baseball team on the grounds of ambitious recruiting, a newfound chemistry, and the adoption of new playing styles.
Many of these kids did not have any plans of coming to Harvard, but they were given an offer they could not refuse: give up the warm weather of their home and gain the opportunity to continue playing competitive baseball coupled with an elite level education.
“Ivy Leagues weren’t even in the question,” Bigge said. “[They] were always kind of in the back of my mind. One of the coaches flew out to watch me play junior year, and they offered me a couple days later. I came to the realization that if Harvard offers you on the spot, you kind of have to take it. If baseball doesn't work out, nobody can take a Harvard degree away from you.”
The Crimson’s recent ability to venture across the country and create a presence in camps and showcases has made it a more coveted name in the baseball world on the West Coast.
“They saw me at a few different events…[first] in Stockton,” Skinner said. “Then they saw me again at Stanford Camp, and after that, I received my offer from Harvard, and I accepted that pretty quickly. I was extremely thankful and excited for that.”
Extending these offers to a new area has created a chain reaction in commitments. It started with five California players in the current junior class, followed by five more in the subsequent year. Now, even though California is on the other side of the country, the state’s players can now see a piece of home in Harvard.
“My roommate right now, we’re from the same town,” Bigge said. “We played travel ball together when we were 10 years old. It was nice having that hometown connection.”
Others have even used their connections at home for recruitment.
“I actually played on the same travel ball team as Hunter Bigge,” Skinner said. “ I knew him beforehand. He texted me before he made the decision to come to Harvard. I told him that I loved it and i’d be stoked to have him.”
However, simply having a few familiar faces was not enough to complete the transition to this side of the country. California has easy access to baseball facilities. Warm weather comes with batting cages in backyards and baseball fields that are always open for play.
Now they come to Harvard. Preseason practices take place on the football field, under a covered bubble to protect from frigid northeastern temperatures. The first couple months of the season are not even played in the Northeast. This season, the Crimson played its first 18 games on the road, no further north than South Carolina, while its home field was draped in snow.
“Once we got into the season it was definitely a big adjustment,” McColl said. “My first Ivy League game…it was about 35 degrees and it started sleeting. I was like, what did I get myself into? In the end, it turned out alright.”
The weather isn't the the only thing that requires adjustment. There is definitely a culture shock that comes with the transition to the Boston area. The city offers a fast paced atmosphere different from the chill California culture.
“It's definitely different coming from California,” said McColl, speaking on the change in atmosphere. “It's more slow paced out there [in California]. I think Boston in general is a different city. Part of the reason I wanted to come here was because I thought Boston was really cool when I came and visited.”
Nonetheless, the players have made this transition together, forming a bond over their California roots. Harvard has become their home away from home with so many players from the native area. Their common beginnings have built team chemistry that extends far past O’Donnell field. California players have become friends and even roommates.
“It made it a little bit easier,” McColl said. “I room with two other guys that are from California. We hang out when we’re at home now. It’s definitely a cool thing to have.”
Together, the players feel they offer not only a unique personality and background, but also a different brand of baseball. The Californian’s feel they bring the “West Coast” side of baseball to the team, which perfectly complements the East Coast style of play the team has benefited from in the past.
“The classic West Coast, East Coast difference,” Bigge said. “Georgia, Florida baseball is hit the ball as far as you can, and throw the ball as hard as you can. California is a lot more structured around hitting your spots on the mound, getting your bunts down, paying more attention to the skilled aspect of the game and doing the little things well. I’d agree there’s a lot of skill there.”
What Harvard has built is truly unique. The team is now full of talented players that hail from across the continent. Each brings their ability, personality, and piece of friendship that are all essential to the teams’ success.
With 11 Golden State natives on the roster, this chain of Californians may not end soon. Especially not with the current players taking on a larger role in the western recruiting.
“Kids from California are worried about coming out to the northeast to play baseball,” McColl said. “Know that it's not gonna be too much of a worry. It’s been a great experience overall.”