Fred Evander waited at the gate at the airport for coach Andy Lopez and the Pepperdine baseball team. He was 11. It was 1992.
The Waves were arriving for the College World Series in Omaha, and the boy who had become their biggest fan — and a bit of an inspiration — was waiting at Eppley Airfield.
“Hey, guys!” Lopez shouted as he spotted the boy. “This is Fred!”
Players and coaches converged on Fred. Someone planted a Pepperdine hat on his head. He got to ride on the team bus to the hotel.
According to a newspaper story from 20 years ago, an assistant coach told Fred: “Yours was the first face we wanted to see when we got to Omaha.”
Twenty years. It’s been 20 years since Lopez steered that Pepperdine team to a national title, and he’s trying to lead the Arizona Wildcats to one this season. UA begins play in the College World Series on Friday night against Florida State.
“I never once walked away, saying, ‘This is easy,’” Lopez said about winning the championship. “You’re really thankful when you get to that position. If you’re fortunate enough to win it, you’re very thankful.”
Twenty years. It’s been 20 years since Fred Evander was that baseball-obsessed boy who managed to befriend an entire team and make a memory for a lifetime.
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Back in 1992, Fred was a kid from Ralston, Neb., just outside of Omaha, who faithfully followed the hometown Creighton Bluejays and read Baseball America for fun.
A year earlier, Creighton had traveled to USC for an NCAA regional, defeating Pepperdine along the way to earn a berth in the College World Series. Fred was paying attention.
“And then I was reading Baseball America, the college preview issue, I guess. It said that Pepperdine had almost all their players coming back, and I thought they had a good team,” Evander told TucsonCitizen.com this week.
“So, I wrote them a letter and said, ‘I think you guys are going to come to the College World Series. … I’ll say I loved baseball growing up. It seemed like a no-brainer to me to send a letter.”
Lopez smiled at the memory of it this week, recalling that Fred had sent a photo of himself standing in front of Rosenblatt Stadium, the former home of the College World Series, predicting to the coach that Pepperdine was going to win it all.
Lopez wrote back.
“Sure thing, Fred. When we get there, you make sure you come see us.”
The team sent back an autographed copy of the media guide, and Fred kept sending other encouraging letters. The team posted one of his letters on the door to its locker room.
And, sure enough, there was Fred when the team arrived in Omaha.
Lopez and the Waves adopted him for the rest of their stay. They invited him to team dinners, although Fred had his own baseball obligations to tend to — Little League. As Pepperdine won its first two games, shutting out Wichita State and Texas, Fred created a “scoreless inning meter” and took it to Rosenblatt, updating it as the streak reached into the 20s.
Eventually, Pepperdine navigated its way to the championship game, defeating Cal State Fullerton 3-2 in the final. The Waves, anchored by All-American closer Steve Montgomery, held the Titans to four singles.
If you check out some photos from the on-field celebration, you’ll see an 11-year-old boy right there with the team, wearing a Pepperdine hat and an oversized National Champions T-shirt.
He even got to hold the championship trophy.
“That was pretty incredible,” Evander said.
“I went down right at the end of the game, and they invited me on the field, but security saw me and kicked me back off the field. They were like, ‘What are you doing on the field?’ Then somebody saw me again, and I got to go down for good.
“That was pretty cool.”
Even cooler was what came next.
Lopez took Fred to the postgame press conference, sitting the boy right next to him.
“That was completely crazy,” Evander said. “I remember at the postgame press conference basically sharing a chair with Steve Montgomery.”
Someone in the media wanted to know how he was, what he was doing there.
Just Andy Lopez making a new friend.
“What a neat thing,” Lopez said this week. “Unbelievable. And not just a neat thing for him, but also for me.”
* * *
Evander, a government worker in Washington State, almost reconnected with Lopez when the Cats played the Washington Huskies in Seattle this season, but Evander said he couldn’t make it.
“We’ve stayed in communication off and on,” Lopez said.
Evander’s passion for college baseball has waned over the years, but he keeps tabs on Lopez and still appreciates everything the coach did for him 20 years ago.
“I mean, talk about how nice Coach Lopez was to me at the time,” Evander said.
“Coach Lopez was so gracious to an 11-year-old, which is one of the reasons why it is a good story and why I’m willing to talk about it 20 years later. I’m happy to give his baseball program any support I can.”
Some things haven’t changed in 20 years.