BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — David Esquer walks a few steps outside his campus office right into the construction zone that is Evans Diamond.
There on Thursday, the lights will come on for California's first night game in the program's 121-year history. The coach proudly points to the place where a snazzy new scoreboard — complete with a modern video board that resembles those at Pac-12 powers Stanford and UCLA — soon will hang in left-center at his home ballpark in Berkeley. The old scoreboard has a tendency to flicker off and on.
"We're still a little bit of a construction zone, they still have work to do," Esquer said Wednesday, before his team's first practice under the lights later that night. "But we didn't think we'd be here a couple years ago, for sure."
Esquer never could have envisioned such progress for his team two springs ago, when supporters came through with the money to save a sport that had been set for elimination by the Cal administration in a cost-cutting move.
So, first pitch Thursday will be a moment to celebrate for a college baseball program that avoided being cut thanks to the tireless fundraising work. Donors made this latest project happen, too, putting their names on a promissory note in the loan. Both the university and Cal's baseball foundation took out $1 million loans for the lights, and the baseball team plans to pay back the money with revenue from what it hopes are higher ticket sales and advertising.
Esquer has a long list on his desk of all the thank-you notes he needs to write. Cal baseball has been around since 1892, and never played a night game at home.
"It's a game-changer for our program," Esquer said. "I think we've plugged up a little bit of a competitive disadvantage to our program. Figuratively, it's a big statement. Out there, you show that Cal baseball is not just in survive mode, but we're in thrive mode. We're trying to thrive as a program and move forward and advance ourselves. We're not just trying to hang on by a thread."
Under the lights for the first time, Cal will put its 7-0 home record on the line in its Pac-12 opener against Southern California at Evans Diamond, which was built in 1933.
The first couple of night games will be powered by generators, and there's cleanup to do. But Esquer is grinning ear to ear. In fact, when Cal's bus pulled in after Tuesday's game at San Francisco, the lights were on for a test run.
"The field was glowing," Esquer said.
Not only will the lights allow more people among the working crowd to attend games, the thought is that even kids playing Little League on weekends will have the option of catching a Cal contest later in the day. A typical weekday game at Cal has been 2 p.m., and now Esquer's program will experiment with both 7 p.m. — that's Thursday's start — and 6 p.m. times to determine what works best. The Bears will likely play the remainder of their Friday and Saturday games at night, along with Tuesdays when possible.
"We haven't been very fan friendly as far as the young kids who have their own sports to play, whether it's Little League baseball or soccer," Esquer said. "We think it's going to make a difference in us being more available to the community, more accessible to the locals. My vision is to have a little bit of atmosphere and energy in the evenings for families coming out to the park."