David White: Baseball Wonder Dogs keep dreams alive, pressure on

Special to The BeeFebruary 8, 2014 

A city celebrated with Fresno State baseball players including (from left) Nick Hom, Steve Susdorf, Tommy Mendonca, Erik Wetzel, and Steve Detwiler following the team's 2008 College World Series title run. The Bulldogs haven't come close to duplicating that in the seasons since, but the feat still reminds fans that it's OK to dream big.

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Alan Ahmady and Tommy Mendonca are back in school, finishing their degrees. Danny Grubb and Gavin Hedstrom are back at home, selling real estate. Clayton Allison is a firefighter in the Tule River Fire Department and Steve Detwiler is getting into coaching.

Fresno State baseball's Wonder Dogs of 2008 have all grown up to become blue-collar Working Dogs in 2013, getting married, having kids and getting 9-to-5 jobs like the rest of us.

Only, they'll never be just like the rest of us. They'll always be the greatest baseball team in Fresno State history, the 2008 College World Series champions who swept a city off its cleats.

They are everything Fresno State fans ever wanted in a team -- and what they've demanded from every team since, even as the 2008 Bulldogs -- honored this week with induction onto the baseball program's Wall of Fame -- have long got on with their lives.

"A lot of us are moving into new stages of life," said Steve Susdorf, one of the few still trying to fulfill his big league dreams. "The one thing that remains constant is what we did while we were here. It was really a special time."

Everyone knows the glass-slippered story. Fresno State lost 12 of its first 20 games, went on to become the lowest-seeded team to reach the World Series, and won six elimination playoff games to win it all.

On the surface, they were nothing special. That's what made them so special. They were a bunch of future salesmen and entry-level coaches and career students who showed you could win a World Series without world-class facilities and trainer's tables and five-tool ratings.

They showed anyone could hoist a trophy, giving hope to this year's Fresno State team, which went 23-33 last season. But, they also showed that ... anyone could hoist a trophy, making the past five Fresno State seasons so hard to gulp for those thirsty for more of 2008.

The 2008 team set a standard, one that is all but impossible to maintain. Reminders of that standard are everywhere to be found at Beiden Field, and there is no escaping or circumventing them.

Hit a flyball to left field, and there's a national championship reminder just under the scoreboard. Get called into manager Mike Batesole's office, and there's a World Series poster framed and signed by the entire 2008 team.

A book commemorating the World Series run sits on the table next to Batesole's desk. Now, the team's Wall of Fame plaque will rest in a glass case along the concourse behind home plate.

Batesole refuses to define his success by rings and titles. He falls back on GPAs and graduation rates, and pumps his chest that players from the 2008 team are successful today as husbands and fathers and businessmen if not so much in professional baseball.

And he's right to say that stuff is a "billion times more important" than World Series rings, but it's not like they have to be mutually exclusive. If the 2008 run proved anything, it's that you really can have it both ways.

You can build men, and you can build trophy cabinets. Fresno State has been to three NCAA regionals in the past five years, but no further. This year's team is as good as any to relive the dream of 2008, with a pitching staff finally back in place to make the postseason a place worth visiting again.

Batesole says winning another World Series is on the list of things to do, absolutely, but it doesn't crack the top five. And, that's fine. But someone has to win the thing, and if we learned anything from the 2008 Bulldogs, it's that the Bulldogs are as good a program as any to win it all.

After all, if that College World Series banner was just another flag, then why the big 2008 reunion and Wall of Fame ceremony?

"The lifelong relationships still would have been made," Susdorf said. "Winning the World Series just makes it that much more special."

The columnist can be reached at bydw@sbcglobal.net or @bydavidwhite on Twitter.

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