OMAHA, Neb. -- Cal pitcher Matt Flemer is leaving a ticket for his uncle Thursday when the Bears play Virginia in the College World Series.
Flemer has done that for almost every Cal game since May 22 -- the day after his uncle, Barry Fitzgerald, died.
"He's watching," Flemer said Wednesday. "He's definitely a good angel to have while we're going through this ride.
"This is a trip my uncle would have been on. It hits you every now and then, like when you're about to go to sleep or see something that reminds you of him. But he's here, he's watching, and he gets in for free with that ticket."
A month ago, Cal was playing a weekend series at UCLA. Flemer's parents were there. His mom, Ann, got word that her brother had been rushed to a hospital near his San Mateo home. A blood clot had traveled to his heart. An artery was blocked. Barry Fitzgerald died. He was 58.
The Fitzgeralds and the Flemers are a close-knit bunch. Barry Fitzgerald met his wife of 27 years, Ellen, at the Flemers' wedding. The Fitzgeralds had two children -- Brian, 24, and Evan, 23. Brian is here. He made the trip in his father's place, in his father's honor.
"My mom said, 'If you want to go, your dad would have gone, so you can go if you want,' " Brian said, adding: "I also had to come because Matt's like a little brother to me."
Upon his uncle's death, Matt stayed with the team rather than accompany his parents back to the Bay Area. He had
But in losing his uncle, Matt gained a deeper sense about his Cal teammates.
"I knew it the whole time, but that day showed me how much of a family and brotherhood we have on this team," Flemer said. "I couldn't even tell you how many hugs or text messages I got from all these guys.
"It was hard to play that day and really focus. But being out there with everybody helped me realize everything was going to be all right."
Flemer decided before that May 22 game at UCLA to honor his uncle's memory by leaving a ticket. It has become a ritual strongly endorsed by his mother, who told her oldest son: "You've just got to keep doing it, because that's what's making a difference."
Flemer didn't have a ticket to leave Sunday for the CWS opener. Cal lost 4-1 to Virginia, and Flemer gave up a seventh-inning single that broke a scoreless tie.
Consequently, Barry Fitzgerald's name made it onto the ticket list Tuesday, and Cal won an elimination game with Flemer pitching three scoreless innings against Texas A&M. Uncle Barry will be on the list again Thursday.
"He came to any game he could," Flemer said. "He just enjoyed being out there and always supporting us. He really enjoyed seeing everybody play. He knew all these guys in here, whether by name or by meeting them or introducing himself to them."
Fitzgerald was a lifelong Bay Area resident. He worked as a credit manager for a San Jose firm, and his late father, Robert, was a Belmont mayor and councilman. At Cal games, he sometimes would take pictures and send them to the family of players.
"Barry's very special in that he's the most generous person I've ever come to know, just with his time, his sense of humor, really a selfless person," said Ann Flemer, a leading voice for players' families in the successful bid to save Cal's program from the budget ax. "I find a lot of Barry in Matt, actually -- good sense of humor, very open, gregarious type of person."
Ann won't be at Thursday's game. She was scheduled to fly home Wednesday to watch another son, Kevin, in another game. But she told Matt she will return to Omaha for Cal's championship victory.
Sunday, when Cal took the field for its first CWS since 1992, Matt made sure to high-five, shake hands or hug every -- yes, every -- teammate in the dugout.
"He's been so vocal and as much a team leader as I've ever had," Cal coach David Esquer said. "He's enthusiastic, he's vocal, and he engages his teammates. It's not just about him. He brings everyone into the circle."
Flemer's workload Tuesday might shelve him Thursday. He hopes to be available but promised it will be "special" to see Dixon Anderson start for Cal.
Whenever this "ride" ends, Flemer must decide on whether to return for his senior season or sign with the Kansas City Royals, who drafted him in the 19th round. A $60,000 signing bonus is tempting. So is another season with a reborn Cal program that got threatened with extinction in September and was reinstated in April.
"I'll sit down with my family and talk about it," Flemer said.
He might want to leave a seat open at that family meeting -- for Uncle Barry.