Frank Cruz was sitting in his office overlooking the first base line at Dedeaux Field, squeezing a weathered, beaten up baseball in his right hand.
“I’m quietly optimistic,” the Trojans’ second-year coach said of his team’s upcoming season, which begins Friday at home against Jacksonville University.
He also knows he has every reason not to be.
USC’s once-proud baseball program, which boasts an NCAA-best 12 national championships, has fallen on hard times in recent years. Since 2006, the team has posted a combined 138-145 mark. Its last winning season came in 2005 — a year in which it made the NCAA Super Regionals under then-coach Mike Gillespie.
In short, it has been exceptionally average.
“We should be a team that gets into regionals year in and year out,” Cruz said. “When you’re not in a regional, it should be the abnormal year.”
But missing the postseason altogether has become increasingly normal for USC. Its last winning season was seven years ago. The Chad Kreuter era proved to be rather tumultuous and short-lived.
But things are supposed to be different now.
You can tell Cruz wants to buck the trend and to turn things around. He cares about USC baseball in a way that only older generations of fans and alumni can understand. He remembers the wins. He remembers when the program, under Rod Dedeaux, won eight NCAA titles in the 1970s and five in a row from 1970 to 1975.
He was an assistant for the Trojans from 1993-1996, when they compiled 169 wins and earned a trip to the College World Series in 1995.
So naturally, he wants to see USC revert to its winning ways.
“What we’re trying to do is obviously convince these guys that … they can win and they can compete,” Cruz said. “I’m just trying to get them to understand the significance of being on this campus.”
Though football has long been the school’s most widely recognized sport, baseball has been just as decorated. Cruz understands that.
But reversing recent results is a steep challenge in today’s culture, considering private schools like USC are at a serious disadvantage. Currently, Division I college baseball programs are allotted 11.7 scholarships to be distributed in any way they wish.
Though there isn’t exact information as to how USC is splitting up its scholarships, considering this season’s opening day roster holds 39 players, it’s reasonable to assume that many players are paying a considerable amount of money in tuition.
It certainly isn’t chump change. Tuition at USC annually costs around $42,000. By comparison, nearby schools, such as UCLA and Cal State Fullerton cost about $14,000 and $7,000, respectively, for in-state residents.
Four private schools — Miami, Pepperdine, Rice and USC — in the last 20 years have won the College World Series.
It’s a formidable challenge.
But it also hasn’t helped that under Kreuter, a significant portion of the Trojans’ recruiting classes opted to sign with major league teams as opposed to enrolling in school. That, more than anything, has hampered the program.
“You got to recruit guys that are going to come to school, not recruit guys that are going to sign,” Cruz said. “That’s what has, in my opinion, ultimately been the Achilles’ heel at USC.”
And that starts by recruiting players who are academically oriented, according to Cruz. Recruit players who might not be selected in rounds one or two of the annual MLB draft. Recruit players whose parents went to college.
Even last year, the Trojans missed out on two of their top signees in third baseman Travis Harrison and shortstop Christian Lopez, who inked deals with professional clubs worth $1.1 million and $800,000, respectively.
But for now at least, Cruz will have to make do with a roster mixed with fifth-year seniors and inexperienced underclassmen. It’s a roster that is hardly perfect, but it’s a group that appears as if it can compete in a rugged Pac-12.
It has pitching. Friday starter senior Andrew Triggs, who was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the 21st round, returns to school one year after posting a 3.67 ERA in more than 90 innings, as does 6-foot-8 fellow senior and Saturday starter Ben Mount.
There isn’t a ton of power and offensive prowess outside senior right fielder Alex Sherrod, who posted a team-leading slugging percentage of .486 a season ago.
But it’s disciplined and smart. It’s not everything but it’s something.
“You’ve got to win,” Cruz said. “That’s all there is to it. You got to win. This place has everything you need to be successful: great facility, great resources.”
Will the Trojans win in 2012? Nobody really knows.
But at the very least, it’s almost springtime, when they say hope rises, just like the sap in the trees.
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