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Former Olympic and University of Miami baseball coach Ron Fraser died Sunday morning.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. — 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.
“No one did it better,” said Texas’ Augie Garrido, the NCAA Division I coaching-wins leader.
But Fraser’s 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, which was installed in 15 minutes the day before, 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.
When the play was called, Kasprzak remembers exactly what was going through his head: “What if this doesn’t work?”
“I’m not sure if every coach would have allowed their teams to attempt something like that,” Kasprzak said Sunday in a telephone interview. “He was always the showman type. Doing something like that on a stage as big as the College World Series was something that maybe only he would have attempted. That worked right into his personality and his approach to the game and putting on a good show.”
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.”
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