IN MY OPINION

Greg Cote: Former UM baseball coach Ron Fraser was a legend on, off the field

 

gcote@MiamiHerald.com

The snapshots of Ron Fraser we have in our minds, the ones on public display, are the ones you would expect. Him in a Miami Hurricanes baseball uniform, doing what he did for a living: The winning coach. Or maybe him orchestrating a $5,000-a-plate fundraising dinner on the diamond: The master promoter.

Those weren’t the photos Karen Fraser was sorting through Monday at the Weston home she and Ron shared for most of their 24 years of marriage. She was looking at a more accurate picture of the man she knew and loved.

She saw the frozen images of a kind man teaching his grandkids to fish in the mountains of North Carolina, or laughing with them in a golf cart. She was seeing a family man first, one far removed from the ballpark and game that made him famous. She was seeing a man whose greatest victories were never recorded in a boxscore.

Fraser passed away Sunday at age 79, in the arms of family, after a long decline in the grip of Alzheimer’s. His career as UM baseball coach was epic — 30 winning seasons in 30 years from 1963 to 1992, including two national championships.

So it is understandable that the tributes seen and heard since his death have been about that, but that isn’t enough. Not to those who knew him best.

“We have appreciated everything said about him, but it’s all been ‘the coach, the coach, the coach,’ and there was so much more,” Karen said Monday afternoon. “He was the kindest person. He helped so many people and touched so many lives. Coming from nothing made him such a compassionate man.”

Karen recalled how the two of them would be shopping at the grocery store at times, and Ron would notice an elderly woman who seemed lonely or somehow down — a person who could use some kindness. He would approach the stranger gently.

“He’d say, ‘Excuse me, but I just wanted to tell you — you have the most beautiful eyes!’ And you should have seen the transformation. It made their day!” Karen said, smiling. “He had a heart as big as the world. That to me is worth more than a gold medal in the Olympics.”

Better memories

Fraser had not been himself a long while when the end came peacefully Sunday at home, with Karen, three daughters and five grandchildren beside him and loving him until the end, after privately enduring a disease that can be as rough on family members as it is on the person at the center of the suffering.

I have seen what Alzheimer’s can do too closely, in my own circle of loved ones. It is why Karen and I shared conversations the past few years that would challenge both of us to not dissolve in tears. I also know from that experience that after the initial ache of loss comes relief.

And then something like a small miracle happens.

The person you knew before the thief Alzheimer’s did its work — that person returns to you by degrees as the mind works to heal. The full person you loved slowly returns again in the memory. The laughter is recalled. The smile. The best days.

Ron Fraser’s life was so big and well-led it should never be about how it ended.

Fraser mattered. He was the world to his family and to his extended family: Us. He made a difference here, at UM, on our sports landscape, in our larger community.

We don’t control which memories stick with us, and sometimes they are small ones, but there they are, out of nowhere, floating to the surface when one hears that someone has died.

Ron and I were in the lobby of a hotel in Omaha, Neb., on an afternoon in June 1985. His Miami Hurricanes would play a College World Series game later that night (I covered UM full-time then) and as we chatted it came up that the late start meant I might not even be able to make my deadline with the story, let alone have time to speak to Ron after the game ended.

“Hey!” he said, after not much pause. “I got an idea!”

(He almost always did.)

Lending a hand

Then Fraser said something I have not heard any coach at any level ever say, before or since. And he wasn’t joking.

“Let me give you your postgame quote now,” he volunteered, as if that made all the sense in the world. “That way you get it in the paper.”

Fraser offered to give me a winning quote and a losing quote, asking only in return, “Just don’t mix ’em up!”

I explained that my doing that would be a breach of journalism ethics, but thanked him just the same.

So why does that little snippet and snapshot stick with me almost 30 years later? Because that was Ron Fraser doing what none did better: Selling. Promoting. Growing. To loved ones he was the wonderful family man. But he came to the rest of our attention because he would do anything he could — everything he could — for Hurricanes baseball, right down to an inventive way of trying to make sure fans back home weren’t cheated by a late start or an early deadline.

He was UM’s Don Shula, the constant, the imprimatur not only of winning, but of doing things right. Of making us proud.

Fraser arrived on campus in 1963, a young coach light of résumé. Another man might have stayed awhile, done nothing special, quietly disappeared, been forgotten.

What this man did was save Canes baseball from imminently being disbanded and grow it into a national locomotive.

He coached those 30 consecutive winning seasons, left Omaha with CWS national championships in 1982 and 1985 and retired having won more games than all but one man in the history of the sport.

The winning would be plenty for another man.

For this man it was only the start.

Fraser became “The Wizard of College Baseball.” He waved the wand of his ingenuity and reinvented the sport.

He talked it onto ESPN for the first time.

Master builder

He introduced batgirls, a mascot, theme nights, between-innings promotions — he created a fun, family atmosphere “by doing crazy things out there,” he said once. The combination of relentless winning and a festive ambience filled that little ballpark and made it feel like home.

Oh, and that little ballpark? He grew it from a cow pasture with nothing but an idea, determination and an acumen for fundraising that bordered on genius.

His $5,000-a-plate nine-course gourmet meal served on the diamond made national news. Suddenly, folks across the country who couldn’t name a college baseball coach to save their life had heard of Ron Fraser and of Hurricanes baseball.

“He put college baseball on the map,” current UM coach Jim Morris says so simply and accurately.

Fraser would go on to coach the U.S. Olympic baseball team and be inducted into 10 halls of fame. Not too bad for the son of a fireman who grew up without a lot of money in Nutley, N.J.

Fraser’s loved ones surrounded him Sunday as he passed gently from this life to his earned place as a Canes and South Florida legend, a family man in the arms of family to the end.

The rest of us were with him, too, though, upon hearing the news. Those were any of us who had shared his company, marveled at his accomplishments, or maybe just enjoyed an evening of Hurricanes baseball without ever stopping to figure out why being there was so much fun.

Nights at that ballpark almost had a magical feel.

The Wizard made it so.

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