228-Game Losing Streak Is Now Over

Editor/Collegiate Baseball
© 2013 Collegiate Baseball
(From March 8, 2013 edition)

PASADENA, Calif. — Possibly the greatest losing streak in NCAA baseball history was put to rest several weeks ago when California Institute of Technology knocked off Pacifica, 9-7 in the Beavers’ second game of the year.

Caltech had not won a game against an NCAA team for 228 games which stretched over 10 years. The last time the Beavers won a contest was against Cal. St. Monterey Bay, 5-4 on Jan. 15, 2003. The NCAA statistics’ department is not aware of a longer losing streak in NCAA baseball history.

Caltech has one more gigantic hurdle to clear. The team has not won a Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference baseball game in 24 years — a span of 463 games — heading into the 2013 season. The last conference win was against Whittier College in 1988.

Collegiate Baseball felt a more in-depth look at Caltech’s baseball program was in order because of the uniqueness of it and the massive obstacles players and coaches face. Caltech, 1-7 this season, is an NCAA Division III institution that only allows the elite of all scholars across the world to enroll.

The school is an absolute Mecca for scientific milestones, including the discovery of anti-matter, the nature of chemical bonds, the foundations of molecular biology, the birth of modern earthquake science, left brain/right brain discovery and the principles of modern aviation and jet flight. The total number of students at Caltech is usually around 3,000, and the school’s faculty and alumni have received wide recognition for achievements in science and engineering, including 32 Nobel Prizes.

The school is so prestigious that typically there are 3,500 applications for a few hundred open spots. Close to half of applicants score 800 on their math SAT scores (the highest score possible). And the admission’s staff at Caltech doesn’t automatically rubber stamp these kids. Usually more than half won’t get in. The median grade point average of high school kids who have been allowed to enroll at Caltech and play on the baseball team is 3.9, according to former Head Coach John D’Auria who retired at the end of last season after 30 years with the program. In a typical year, the baseball team will have anywhere from 14-16 players.

Current Head Coach Matthew Mark, in his first season with the Beavers after being hired last summer, previously served as the pitching coach for Allegheny College (PA). His entire 2013 squad is comprised of only 13 players. Two of his players never played high school varsity baseball. And one of those individuals had never even played the game of baseball prior to this season.

“I started with 11 kids in the fall and now have 13 now,” said Mark. “I am able to have a lot of 1-on-1 time with the kids. I think it has made me a better coach because it has allowed me to break down the skills precisely to these kids.

“The biggest thing is that it has allowed me to be incredibly imaginative on how to create situations that are game like for them. These kids are great at drills. But I want them to freestyle and learn the game through each other and through competition. It has opened my eyes in working with 13 guys and how you rotate them around to get their work in.

“One of my players never played baseball before by the name of Thomas Kwok. He is probably the fastest kid on our team. So we utilize him as an outfielder and play him a little deeper. He is an amazing kid. He asks questions all the time. He does nothing but get better. I also have another player who never played varsity high school baseball by the name of Will Dooris. I believe he hadn’t even played baseball since his sophomore or junior year in high school. He is a junior at Caltech now and previously played basketball for a year and ran track for a year at our school. Now we have him on the baseball team.”

At times over the years, the baseball program has utilized women to play baseball. During the 2002-2003 seasons, Kristen Zortman played for Caltech.

“She was a fabulous athlete who probably was tougher than most of the guys on the team,” said D’Auria. “Kristen later went on to throw the javelin on the track team and did extremely well. Today, she is an engineer.”

Last season, a lady by the name of Kayla McCue played for the Beavers. Her grandfather played baseball and ran track in Cuba. D’Auria said that Caltech’s philosophy is to overload their undergraduates with much more than they would ever have at another institution.

“They may be getting 150 percent of the material. If the kids retain 30 percent, they are way ahead of other schools. They have homework sessions that are unbelievable marathons. I had kids finish homework at 11 in the morning after being up all night long. Then the kids, absolutely exhausted, fall asleep and don’t wake up until after dinner and miss practice. If you go to any of the eight undergraduate houses, you will find half of them with the lights on and kids awake all night long every day of the week.”

Study Marathons
Mark was amazed at the study habits of his players as well.

“Caltech is an extremely difficult academic school,” said Mark. “But at the same time, it is very rewarding. Our baseball players have nights where they do project sets and stay up through the night out of necessity. I want my players to figure out how to organize and structure their days and nights so they get proper rest. These kids are becoming adults and need to learn how to organize their time.

“During the spring, we have practice from 4-6 p.m. And on weekends, it is 10 a.m.-1 p.m when we don’t play games. That helps them plan their schedule. Every one of the 13 players we have is dedicated. They don’t come late. And they stay after practice to improve themselves.”

But the intense academic workload is always there for his players.

“I had a starter recently who arrived at a game and looked absolutely exhausted and beat. I found out that he didn’t finish one of his homework sets that was due in an hour. I immediately sent him home. Even though the kids work on trying to organize their time, there will be days when this is difficult.

“And I question whether kids get enough sleep. But when they arrive on the baseball field, I preach that this is an escape. They can forget problems they are facing. I want them to enjoy the game of baseball while they are here.”

With poor sleep habits comes poor nutrition. Mark is trying to change that as well.

“Our associate AD and another administrator are both certified nutritionists,” said Mark. “I think I have changed my meals between doubleheaders every time thanks to their advice. I try to control what is going into my players’ bodies especially prior to games.

“Before we leave on a bus for a road trip, I talk to them about what they should be eating the evening before the trip as well as breakfasts and lunches. It’s a process. I guarantee you that they are still eating bad stuff. But I don’t see them drinking pop or sugary drinks. Instead, they drink a lot of water. Hopefully they are learning a lot of good information about nutrition.”

On NCAA Probation

It may be hard to believe, but Caltech was publicly reprimanded by the NCAA in mid-July and given three years of probation, a post-season ban, and recruiting limitations after 12 sports used 30 players that were not technically eligible to play over the last few years.

The student-athletes, which included a few baseball players, were ineligible in large part because of Caltech’s unique academic policy that allows students to “shop” for courses during a three-week period at the beginning of each quarter before finalizing their class schedules.

During this brief period of time, students were not technically students in those classes. So many of the students were not considered full-time students and were ineligible if their teams were playing at the time. Caltech self reported the findings after Betsy Mitchell discovered the violations shortly after she was named Caltech’s athletics director last summer.

Bill Plaschke of The Los Angeles Times wrote a column about this ridiculous punishment by the NCAA last summer.

“You know what stinks? This Pasadena brain boutique is essentially being punished because its classes are so difficult,” said Plaschke. “One of the country’s losingest athletic programs has chosen to vacate wins it doesn’t have, shut down the recruiting it doesn’t do and be ineligible for championships it never wins.

“It’s hard to blame them (students). When deciding between, ‘Markov Chains, Discrete Stochastic Processes and Applications’ and ‘Computational Fluid Dynamics,’ shouldn’t one be allowed to sleep on it? One wrong choice could send your term spinning into a maze of all-nighters,” added Plaschke.

Mark said he found out about the NCAA violations the night after he flew back to Pennsylvania after interviewing for the head coaching position at Caltech last summer.

“It definitely is a hurdle to overcome. As a result, our baseball team couldn’t have an alumni game this season. I can’t go out and recruit players until July 11, 2013. The only exception is if I work a prospect camp where another school pays me to come out and work with kids. I will be doing that early on next summer. We can play in NCAA post-season play in 2014, but not this season if we qualify. The sanctions against baseball are pretty much done after this season.”

Recruiting Problems
Mark said that at Allegheny College, he had upwards of 4,000-6,000 names in a database which he could tap into for potential baseball recruits.

“Those kids might have a general interest or serious interest in the program,” said Mark. “I might have seen kids over the summer or worked at a camp with them. I brought that philosophy here to Caltech, although the list must be scaled down considerably because of the high academics here. When I am allowed to recruit after July 11, I will get out and spread the word about Caltech baseball in a grass roots effort.

“I will let admissions narrow my choices down. I want kids who have played with winning programs and kids who want to make a change and be a part of turning the program around here.

“I realize Caltech is incredibly difficult to get into. But this school is incredibly prestigious to attend and interests so many kids. It draws in people from areas I have never even heard of. I can still watch videos that are sent to me and call different sources for potential players. I know there are always kids out there who want to get recruited.”

Mark was asked if he taps into the database of students Caltech has to see if any athletes are available.

“When I first started last summer, I e-mailed anyone who showed interest in the program. As soon as I got anything back from them, I would call them on a weekly schedule. Working events like the Stanford and Harvard camp and different various academic showcases where I can generate some more numbers will help. And I can contact those kids. That’s the big thing. Just showing my face out there will help. Breaking the streak has helped, and we have had some amazing press off that. No doubt about it.”

Caltech has the unique distinction of playing on a baseball field that is over a 2-story parking garage.

During the 2005 and 2006 seasons, the Beavers were without their home field to make way for a parking garage which covered more than half of the field. The dimensions are approximately the size of a soccer field dropped in right field with one of the goals along the first base line and the other in centerfield.

The top of the garage was built to be 18 inches below the eventual soil level when the field was re-made with drainage, irrigation, soil and new turf which matched the height of the rest of the playing surface. Despite all the hurdles for coaches and players, the game of baseball still enriches their lives.

“Baseball is not a recreation class. My guys put in a ton of extra effort when they aren’t busy with problem sets. They give me 100 percent at practices. I feel that people think baseball at Caltech is taken lightly. And that is not the case.”