Correction: The original version of this article contained an error. After freshman years that exceeded expectations, after summers filled with accolades and recognition, Berg and Watson return to Westwood as sophomores.
Watching David Berg and Grant Watson walk off the storied field at Omaha, Neb. last June, no one would have guessed they came into UCLA with no guarantees, no scholarships and no expectations.
However, as a pair of recruited walk-ons for UCLA, the freshman pitchers proved that it doesn’t take a scholarship to have a major effect on a team, to break records, to win awards, to make it all the way to the College World Series.
The first stop on their journey to Omaha was Westwood, but the paths they each took to get there were different ““ in Berg’s case, it was a highly unusual one.
Berg, a middle reliever, went unrecruited during his senior season at Bishop Amat High School. He was headed to Cal Lutheran, an NAIA school, on an academic scholarship. He said that when he talked to the Kingsmen’s baseball coach, he was told he might get a chance to try out for the team.
But when his high school squad won the CIF Championship at the end of his senior year, he became a hot commodity for Division I programs. Several schools came calling his name ““ one of which was UCLA.
The chance to walk on for the Bruins, to play at Jackie Robinson Stadium ““ Berg said it was worth giving up the scholarship offers. He made the choice to come to Westwood as a walk-on and finished up the necessary paperwork just a week before his orientation at UCLA.
“Winning the CIF and just getting those calls was exciting, but especially finding out one was UCLA, where you have not just the education but the program and the history,” Berg said.
Although Grant Watson was not a late recruit like Berg, he also came to Westwood as a walk-on.
While he had scholarship offers from other schools, a chance to play for the Bruins was one, he said, that was impossible to pass up.
Watson took on the role of the Bruins’ midweek starter for games in which UCLA would play a non-conference Southern California opponent.
While these games might not have been against members of the Pac-12, they were certainly competitive, as there is a bevy of talent on the diamonds of Southern California, from Fullerton to Long Beach to Westwood. These games made a big difference for UCLA, notching up a win for the Bruins every week.
The Bruins went 11-0 in 2012 midweek matchups, due much in part to the contributions of their freshman starter. Accustoming himself to college baseball was easier when he was put in the position of Tuesday night pitcher.
“(In high school) you play school days so it was kind of familiar,” Watson said. “It was a mix of getting used to it and finding what I had.”
Both Berg and Watson showed an ability to take hold of every chance that came their way. They came to UCLA the year after the Bruins lost Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, two prolific starters who went first and third overall in the 2011 MLB draft.
The team needed pitchers, making the timing all the more perfect for Berg and Watson.
“We lacked depth on the mound, and we needed guys to step up. … Those guys took advantage of the timing and what they were given,” said coach John Savage.
Berg came into almost every game in 2012 simply because he was ready, willing and, most importantly, able to deliver every night, as both he and Savage noted at the end of last season.
In fact, he finished the season not only with the school and Pac-12 record for appearances in a season, he also ended up at No. 2 on the NCAA’s all-time list, coming into games 50 times in relief.
There’s been a strong history at UCLA of walk-ons in the baseball program, and that is due in part to the nature of the sport.
Baseball isn’t a sport that relies on flashiness or young, unbridled talent. It stands as a game that rewards hard work, as indicated by the dust and rough grass that makes up a diamond rather than smoothly waxed gym floors.
“It’s baseball ““ you never know what you have until you have it,” Savage said. “You can’t gauge the makeup of a player until you coach them.”
The prestige of the program is not the only thing that draws walk-ons. The opportunity to get an education at such a well-known academic and athletic institution is just another draw for potential walk-ons to pay the cost of tuition.
“They wanted to be a part of a winning program, and they certainly wanted to get an education at UCLA,” Savage said. “That was certainly a major factor, and the combination is attractive to these guys.”
There’s a common misconception that players who walk on have more to prove to their coaches and teammates. However, for these two Bruins, that was anything but the case.
In fact, some have a far more important person to prove their worth to.
When young players get to college sports they often feel that they have to earn their spot not just in the eyes of their coaches and teammates, but in their own as well. This was the case for Watson, who came in with no expectations.
“Teammates support you no matter what. … I felt like I had more to prove to myself,” Watson said.
Berg and Watson were key in the Bruins’ trip to Omaha, the cumulation of their season-long workhorse efforts. Though it’s not quite the popular tourist destination, it’s where every college baseball player dreams of ending up for the College World Series.
But for Berg, even dreaming about playing in the NCAA was a stretch.
“Too go to Omaha, I can’t even say it was a dream, because I didn’t think I would be in that position. I didn’t think I would be at a D-1 school,” Berg said.
Although UCLA left Omaha without a title, accolades kept coming for the freshmen.
Both were named freshman All-Americans. And Berg, who never even expected to be decked out in blue and gold, was called upon to represent the red, white and blue on the collegiate Team USA.
“That was unbelievable. We got back from Omaha disappointed, and I wanted to get away from baseball, it was crushing. … All of a sudden I got that call. It was a quick turnaround, flipping the switch on and getting ready to go,” Berg said of his summer, which allowed him to travel all over the world..
Savage made it clear that the speed at which Berg reached Team USA was astounding, another indication of how historic his year was.
“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of USA players who were freshman walk-ons. That’s rare. … You’ll see walk-ons in their sophomore summers sometimes, but to do it for one year and be part of the USA team is an unbelievable year,” Savage said.
So now, after freshman years that exceeded expectations, after summers filled with accolades and recognition, Berg and Watson return to Westwood as sophomores.
When the new freshman walk-ons come to Westwood this year, Berg knows exactly what advice he will give them.
“You’ve worked hard, but you’re going to have to work harder,” he said.
“Because to get something you’ve never had, you’re going to have to do something you’ve never done.”