It was the Sunday before Memorial Day, 1992, and the top-ranked University of Miami was one defeat from elimination in the NCAA baseball tournament — which also would have been Ron Fraser’s final game in his 30-year reign as the Hurricanes’ head coach.
Fraser, known as “The Wizard of College Baseball,’’ delivered a pep talk to rally his downtrodden Canes after they blew a 3-0 lead to North Carolina State and were tied 4-4 in the eighth inning.
“What the hell are you guys doing to me?’’ Fraser pleaded. “Remember, if we lose this game, it’s over and I don’t get paid anymore! I want to play more because tomorrow’s a holiday, and I get paid time-and-a-half!’’
The Canes rallied to victory, and the beloved Fraser would eventually go to his 12th and final College World Series in Omaha, Neb., before retiring that summer.
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Sunday, more than 20 years after his emotional exit from Mark Light Stadium and the UM baseball program, Fraser died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
He was 79.
“It is with profound sorrow we announce the passing of Ron Fraser — husband, father, grandfather, uncle and coach,’’ said the statement released by the Fraser family. “He was surrounded by his family after a valiant and courageous battle with Alzheimer’s. Arrangements are pending.’’
Fraser amassed a 1,271-438-9 record at UM from 1963 through ’92, at the time behind only the late Southern Cal’s Rod Dedeaux (1,332-571-11).
He transformed UM baseball from an afterthought to a national power and local draw, catering to fans of all ages, creating a fun, wacky atmosphere and producing the program’s first two College World Series titles — in 1982 and 1985.
Longtime Canes coach Jim Morris has carried the torch for two more titles in 1999 and 2001. Miami currently has qualified for the NCAA tournament a record 40 consecutive years.
“I was an assistant for him, and he was the most influential person on my coaching career,’’ Morris, about to begin his 20th season as UM coach, said Sunday. “He was a role model for a lot of coaches. To me, he put college baseball on the map. He was the first guy to do everything, just a marketing genius, won national championships and was a great guy. The total package.
“Ron Fraser represented college baseball like no one has ever represented college baseball.’’
And this, from Jay Rokeach, entering his 45th year as public address announcer for UM baseball after being hired by Fraser in 1969:
“The South Florida community, the University of Miami and the college baseball world has lost one of its best assets. There will only be one ‘Wizard’ of college baseball, and he will always be remembered as a great innovator, motivator and one of the greatest coaches in the history of baseball."
Immediately after his UM retirement, Fraser coached the 1992 U.S. Olympic baseball team in Barcelona.
The son of a fireman who moonlighted as a boxer to earn extra money for the family, Fraser grew up poor in Nutley, N.J., where his first baseball mitt came from a firehouse charity drive.
Named “Outstanding Athlete’’ his senior year at Nutley High, Fraser attended Murray State in Kentucky, then transferred to Florida State, where he was a pitcher and eventual graduate assistant coach. He earned his bachelor’s degree in physical education from FSU in 1960.
Fraser began coaching at UM for a $2,200 salary when he was 25, the nation’s youngest college baseball coach. He took a cow pasture for a field and eventually helped raise the money for Mark Light Stadium — today known as Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field.
Fraser became almost as well-known for his fundraising and marketing genius as for winning games. He inspired creative promotions that he often described as “good, clean G-rated family entertainment.’’ Among his promotions: Tax Night (bring your 1040 form and get in free), Bathing Suit Day (wear your bathing suit and get in free), double admission for fans with binoculars, and General Hospital Night — free, nontransferable open-heart surgery (with a five-year window) for the winner.
In 1977, Fraser helped organize a $5,000-a-plate dinner on the infield of Mark Light Stadium.
He was known to dip old baseballs in milk to make them appear fresher and bagged popcorn and peanuts for the concessionaires.
Dozens of children would line up around the UM dugout before games so that Fraser could sign their caps or gloves or shirts. He never turned anyone away.
“Whenever you are asked for an autograph, sign it,’’ Fraser once told his players. “There will come a time when nobody will want your autograph.’’
In late 1999, Fraser told The Miami Herald about the key to UM’s fan following, which still fills the stands.
“We drew great crowds for UM baseball in the ’70s and ’80s, and it’s because we offered G-rated family entertainment. It was a place to take your children.
“We had clowns and toy giveaways. We ran promotions specifically targeted for women — giving away facials and dresses and trips. We had good food, so families could come and eat dinner at the park before the game.
“But everything in sports now is big time, big money, big sponsors. That family feel that we had is rare in today’s sports, even at the college level, and I don’t know if we can ever get it back.’’
Fraser’s accolades are lengthy. Among them: U.S. Pan American Games coach (silver medal) and International Baseball Federation Coach of the Year in 1987; and NCAA Coach of the Decade for the 1980s. He is in several Halls of Fame, including the first class of the College Baseball Hall of Fame (2006) in Lubbock, Texas.
“It means so much to my father,’’ said Elizabeth Fraser Kraut, one of his three daughters, when they learned of the honor in the spring of 2006. “He’s over the moon about the whole prospect.’’
He also was involved in several community charities, chairing committees for Easter Seals and Make-A-Wish Foundation, and serving on the board of the Leukemia Society.
When he retired from baseball at age 55, Fraser had virtually no critics — at least publicly.
“To me, personally, he was like a father figure,’’ said current UM Sports Hall of Fame executive director John Routh, brought by Fraser to UM from South Carolina to become baseball’s fuzzy, orange-haired Miami Maniac mascot. Fraser eventually introduced Routh to former Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga, who took Fraser’s advice and made Routh the first “Billy the Marlin’’ mascot.
“He just had this command of people, and you’d go to battle for him,’’ Routh said. “Everybody loved him and he was always there for all of us — any former player, any former staff member. He’d do what was right not just for him, but for you.’’
Another close friend, current UM director of alumni programs Rick Remmert, was hired in 1980 by Fraser to head baseball promotions and marketing. The two stayed close for the rest of Fraser’s life.
“Ron is the most significant person in college baseball history,’’ Remmert said. “His vision paved the way and his program showed the way, both on and off the field.
“As good a coach and promoter as he was, he was even better as a friend.
“What a man he was, what a loss this is.’’
Added Nick Belmonte, entering his 26th year broadcasting college baseball for networks such as ESPN, Sun Sports and Fox South: “I feel gratitude every time I go on the air and understand that it was Coach Fraser that got networks interested in broadcasting college baseball.
“Yes it’s a sad day for college baseball, losing the man that made it mainstream due to his vision. I salute the Wizard, may he rest in peace.’’
Fraser coached his final game at Mark Light on Monday, May 25, 1992 — a 5-1 victory over Notre Dame that propelled the Hurricanes to the College World Series. He jogged out from the dugout in the eighth inning, receiving a standing ovation that lasted more than a minute. Nearly 5,000 fans came to see him, with about 500 more watching through the chain-link outfield fence.
“If you come away understanding nothing else about Monday night,’’ Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard wrote that night, “please understand this: Mark Light Stadium will not be the same without Ron Fraser.’’
Fraser is survived by his wife of 24 years, Karen; daughters Cynthia Fraser Beahn of Davie, Lynda Fraser Poorman of Weston and Elizabeth Fraser Kraut of Weston; and grandchildren Kyle and Amanda Gonzales, Michael Fraser Poorman and Andrew and Brett Kraut.