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.
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.