The news was shocking, stunning and Chico State head baseball coach Dave Taylor was left speechless. The passing two weeks ago of former Wildcat outfielder Christian Franco sent the Wildcat baseball program reeling, just as they were about to open up conference play in San Diego.
As I approached Taylor in the dugout for our customary pregame interview I could see the lightness in his step, the sorrow in his shoulders. “It’s a tough day Bac, tough day.” His voice cracking as he told me how he heard the devastating news. Franco, who was a successful business man in San Diego, had died overnight after hitting a guard-rail on a highway. The accident scene was violent with car parts strewn all over the road. Franco was thrown from the car. Other vehicles were involved in the accident scene, but it was Franco who perished.
As I finished my pregame chat with Taylor I asked him about Franco, his voice trailed off, it cracked, for Coach T the words just weren’t there. He told me how much the program would miss the guy who was affectionately called “Nutz.” It was the toughest of interviews as we prepared for this child’s game.
As the Chico State Wildcats were packing up their gear after a 9-1 loss to San Diego on that Friday night a wonderful scene was taking place near the Wildcats dugout. Former Wildcats Jesus Moreno, David Arroyo, Carlos Fletes, Steve Gotawala, and former trainer Ernesto Vega were in conversation with Taylor. I approached the group. I was greeted with hugs all around. The sadness was palpable. Taylor and the boys were talking about Franco and the plans his former mates’ were putting in motion for Franco and his loved ones.
At that moment, I realized ONCE AGAIN, how special it is to be part of this Wildcat family. A good friend, a teammate was gone and now his buddies, his mates, his comrades were going to be there for Franco. There would be time to reminisce, instead this was time to comfort and console. These former teammates of Franco’s would spend the next several weeks organizing taco feeds in his memory, raising money for his loved ones and lending a shoulder to cry on for Christian’s family. The Chico State Way was on full display. During these very moments, Franco’s former teammates were “taking the dose” for their fallen friend.
Taylor said it best the day after the accident, “once you enter the Chico State program you are in it for life.” The Chico State baseball brotherhood is a life-long deal. This tightest of fraternities considers themselves brothers. They never deviate from this theme. Whether you played in the 60’s, were stand-out player in the late 80’s, a red-shirt in 1991 (me), a National Champion in 97, a back-up infielder in 2008, you are part of the family. Once a Cat Always a Cat.
There is a core group of players and friends that really leads this Chico State brotherhood and its the core group of the 1999 national championship team. To this day they remain the closest of friends. I am not just talking about 4-to-5 guys being close. We are talking about 20 former players from the same team being best of friends 15 years after the fact. The bonds that were forged by this group has grown throughout the years. In fact Wildcat baseball alums from different generations are now welcomed into the circle making it one of the closest knit groups I have ever experienced.
Whenever the Wildcats travel to southern California there is ALWAYS a former Wildcat in the stands. Most of the time there is more than one, they come to the games together. They wear their Chico State gear, hanging behind the back-stop cheering on their brethren. These alums know, every single season the Wildcat baseball team represents them. That script on the front of the uniforms “Cats” is cherished. Sometimes new players in the program don’t understand the responsibility that comes with being a Chico State Wildcat baseball player. They are not only playing for themselves and their current mates, they are playing for every guy who has worn that uniform, tugged on that cap and been part of this program. Being a Chico State Wildcat baseball player has always been bigger than the individual, this is best exemplified by the always supportive alums.
Personally I have never played ball with any of these guys. I was a simple red-shirt in the program in 1991. But, with every trip to southern California, every dinner, every meet and greet, every outing I am made to feel part of the group. THIS is the Chico State way. I enter my 17th year of broadcasting Chico State baseball. I have seen almost every game that most of these guys have played in the Wildcat uniform. When they experienced joy, I translated this to the Wildcat listeners. When they suffered disappointment and loss I felt that as well. My descriptions allowing the fan base a small peek into the emotional pull of each win or loss. I am totally appreciative for being part of this Wildcat family. Whether I considered myself part of it or not didn’t matter to the group. THEY consider me part of it and for that I am honored.
This week the Chico State Wildcat family buried their teammate, Christian Franco. He was an outfielder on the 1999-2000 teams. But, to this close-knit group he wasn’t just a teammate. He was a friend, a brother, and part of the greatest fraternity of them all.
Once a Cat Always a Cat