If you're tired of paying big bucks for big-league baseball, you might want to sample a treasure closer to home: the Cal baseball team.

For $5 or less, you can experience semi-professional ball games from January through May at the refurbished Evans Diamond on campus. And the players don't chew tobacco or grab their crotches (much).

"These guys still love the game," says coach Bob Milano of his players. "They're not playing for the almighty dollar. You see the same great plays and mistakes you see at Candlestick or the Coliseum, and you're much closer to the action."

Watching the earnest young men practice on the exquisitely manicured diamond as the afternoon sun goes down takes you back to simpler, sweeter, greener times. Individuals are hardly recognizable under firmly pulled-down caps; teamwork is what's important.

Out of 273 Division I baseball teams in the country, Cal started out the season ranked 25th - with top players injured and 18 freshmen. At press time, the team had slipped out of the rankings, with an overall record of 17-26. An interesting twist to the team this year: debuts by two sets of identical twins.

Milano is only the ninth coach in the long history of Cal baseball, which dates back to 1892. Cal won the first College World Series (NCAA national championship) in 1947, defeating former President George Bush's Yale team, 8-7.

Now in his 20th season as head coach, Milano has led the team to NCAA post-season play six times, qualifying for the College World Series three times. This year the team is in rebuilding mode.

Milano came to Berkeley as a student in 1958 intending to be a dentist, but chemistry proved too much for him. Probably his biggest recruiting obstacle today are Cal's high academic standards. Another is the growing tendency of star high school players to go straight to the majors. The team shares 11.7 scholarships; no one gets a free ride. About 75 percent of Cal's baseball players graduate.

Sophomore Brian Oliver, Cal's first freshman All-American in baseball, was recruited by almost 50 schools and drafted by the Dodgers. He chose Cal because of Milano and the coaching staff and the opportunity to major in architecture. But he's got his eye on the majors - as virtually every Division 1 player does. He'll be eligible for the draft after junior year.

Kevin Maas, now with the Milwaukee Braves, and Jeff Kent, recently traded to the Giants, are just two of 72 Milano-era players who have been drafted by major league teams. Six were drafted last year. Milano even recruited Barry Bonds, but lost him to Arizona State.

Most of the Cal team started swinging a bat at age three or four, encouraged by a father or grandfather. Now many of them pass on their love of the game to kids at summer baseball camps.

Milano got turned on to baseball by two uncles who played for the Yankees. He was a catcher on the 1960 and '61 Cal teams coached by the legendary George Wolfman, then stayed on for two years to assist Wolfman.

Next came 10 years coaching and teaching at Burlingame High School before returning to Cal as assistant to super-athlete Jackie Jensen. Milano took over as head coach in 1978.

This summer he will be head coach of the USA Baseball Team - 25 of the best amateur players in the country and traditionally the spawning ground for the Olympic squad.

He'll lead the USA team at the Intercontinental Cup, Aug. 1-10, in Barcelona's Olympic Stadium against Australia,Cuba, France, Italy, Japan, Korea,Nicaragua, and Spain.

Whether he will coach the 2000 Olympic team is uncertain because pros will be allowed to play that year for the first time. Perhaps Milano will get to coach Bonds after all.

For more information, visit the Cal athletics web site at www.calbears.fansonly.com/

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