There are many men like Ron Fraser and yet he was one of a kind. Many who love baseball and spend a lifetime in the sport without the public eye focused on what they do. They either oversee a little corner of the baseball world making an outsized impact year after year, or they toil in anonymity in the role of scout or something akin to that.
Fraser, who died the other day at 79, was the king of Miami for a time because he was the coach of the University of Miami baseball team. He built the team, built the program, built the stadium, did wonders for the visibility of college baseball. Only hardly a baseball fan beyond the borders of his city knew who he was because he didn’t work in the majors.
Unlike college football and college basketball, college baseball, while exposed to the masses more than ever now through television, remains a second tier sport to the average fan preoccupied with the fortunes of the Cubs, the Red Sox or the Yankees. But if you’ve ever lived in a place where college baseball is the biggest thing around you have a better appreciation for the caliber of the game.
About 35 years ago when I lived in Tallahassee, Florida, I covered Florida State baseball for a couple of years. Over those years the Seminoles were coached by Woody Woodward and Dick Howser, both former major leaguers. The very first story I wrote about the team was the drafting of catcher Terry Kennedy, on his way to a solid big-league career.
As a byproduct I made a trip to Miami and met the irrepressible Ron Fraser and watched his Hurricanes play in a little stadium that was groomed Busch Gardens gorgeous. Soon enough minor league stadiums would pop up all over the land that were built with such care and flair, but at the time Miami’s home field was sharper looking than Class A or even AA stadiums in many places. A tip of the hat to Fraser.
Fraser spent a good portion of his adult life promoting college baseball, and not incidentally winning at college baseball. His Miami teams won two NCAA crowns and between 1963 and 1992 posted a record of 1,271-438-9. He never had a losing record in 30 years as head coach, even though it took 10 years on the job before he could offer scholarships. His teams reached the College World Series 12 times.
After he retired from college coaching, Fraser stayed in baseball coaching numerous USA amateur teams and he always promoted the sport. Before he turned pro at 18 with the Seattle Mariners organization, hometown star Alex Rodriguez nearly played for Miami. A few years ago Rodriguez donated $3.9 million to the program he never played for and got his name put on the field’s scoreboard. He was just following in the footsteps of Ted Williams and Stan Musial, whom Fraser had invited to town to publicize his team (though they didn’t leave millions behind).
In some ways Fraser was a mix of Casey Stengel running the team, and Bill Veeck running the big-picture program. Not only did he spearhead the televising of the College World Series, Fraser was never too bashful to shun any gimmick that might put fans in the seats to watch his team play. He long ago said his reputation would be summed up as being a guy “doing crazy things out there.”
How crazy? Holding bikini night at the park, for one. Playing the master of ceremonies, Fraser also held fund-raising events like a nine-course dinner–on the infield.
In college baseball, Miami is regarded as one of the staple programs, the powerhouses, the haves. But Fraser started when the program was underfunded and he had to fend off the threat of the administration folding it for lack of money. A donation of $3.9 million? Jeez, Fraser was happy to get donations of 39 cents.
Near the end of his life whenever he had free time Fraser still gravitated to Miami baseball. He’d go to games, sit in the stands, and if he chose to he could survey the field, the players, and reflect, “I made all this.”