Cal and Stanford: A Modern Rivalry

“No offense, but I don’t like Stanford.” — Tony Renda, Cal Star Second Baseman

The rivalry is under assault in sports these days. Because of high-profile incidents in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, law enforcement has a reason to try and suppress the vitriol inherent in some storied rivalries. The state of the modern game changes things too — free agency means fans are reduced to rooting for laundry, and interleague baseball means that a team is just as likely to see one team as any other.

But college is different, right? Maybe not.

Go to a Big Game at Stanford Stadium, and the volume is louder than your average seasonal game. When Stanford travels north to Memorial Stadium, the home team gets an attendance boost. The rivalry has its volume, velocity, history and share of sayings. It even boasts the occasional violence that has plagued the Major League versions. Ask Cal star Tony Renda, and the energy in his eyes seems appropriate for a major college rivalry. To be fair, the dude is intense even in his calmer moments, but there is a seriousness that comes through when he discusses his south-bay Pac-12 partner.

The state of the modern rivalry seems healthy.

As it did so many years ago when I was a freshman at the school. Big Game was presented as a major moment in my first year at the school, and the football players asked us to celebrate on the field if they won. After a tense second half that saw the Cardinal’s 21-0 halftime lead shrink to a mere point, we were primed for a celebration. The next morning, an East Bay newspaper chose to make this picture, of my friends and I storming the field, their front page image:

After we managed to finally break through the gates, the full force of our rivalry hit us. Literally. Frozen fruit hurled — we assumed — by Cal students rained down on the field. A friend of mine got stitches for a frozen pineapple to the face. The melee was impressive.

Over the course of the next four years, things simmered for me personally. My father, who moved to San Francisco as an 18-year-old in 1968 with one bag and a Harley to his name, admitted that he wanted me to go to Berkeley first. A summer girlfriend at the University opened my eyes up to that wonderful college town on the top of Telegraph. Friends left for grad school on the other side of the bay.

It was that familiarity that maybe changed things most of all. I found myself rooting for Cal in the NCAA tournament. Last year, when their baseball team — just two years removed from being a program in peril of elimination — made a run to within two wins of the championship series in Omaha, I did a few silent fist pumps for the team. Here was a local California team from the same conference of my alma mater, after all.

That local connection has changed the rivalry at the player level too. Listen to Mark Appel, Stanford’s Friday Night Starter and possible #1 pick in the draft this year, talk about watching the Golden Bears at the College World Series:

“We obviously think we are better — I’m just kidding. It’s going to be a great series this year. As hard as it was to watch them in the world series, it was still fun to watch them. They are a scrappy team, they play really well and they had a nice run to get there.” — Mark Appel, Stanford ace

Hardly the stuff of frozen produce projectiles. At the end of the interview, Appel mentioned that he was friends with guys on the Cal team. “They’re local” was a refrain from both sides. Renda played with Stephen Piscotty, the pre-season All-American, on all-star teams and scout teams. He shares a hitting coach with Kenny Diekroeger, the Menlo Park shortstop for the Stanford team. Then there are the summer leagues for those with high draft stock.

The stars have been playing together their whole lives. If things go right, they may play on the same team again in the future. While the college game does not boast quite the same fluidity of the pro game, there is still a sense that these things are ephemeral — at least when it comes to the athletes themselves.

The fans still show the same vehemence from time to time, even if they haven’t hit the ‘high note’ from the 100th big game recently. The players still want to beat each other, even if they shake hands afterwards and expect to play on the same team on the Cape next summer. But now there’s a touch of class around the whole thing.

As Appel and I finished up, he caught eyes with someone across the room. Tony Renda made his way over, looked the tall ace in the eye, and wished him well in the coming season. Appel smiled, waived at cal ace lefty Justin Jones behind Renda, and without a hint of sarcasm, told the two to “keep dominating.”

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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The stars have been playing together their whole lives.

Travel/elite/select teams have changed everything.

Guys play 60-80 games with these guys as teammates. They aren’t going to be bitter enemies in college.

We see the same thing at the high school level. Schools that used to be bitter rivals, in close proximity, batting for conference titles now feature players that play against each other for a 30-game season and play together on a travel team for 65-games. They get along with players on other teams sometimes better than they do players on their HS teams.