Greg Hansen: Hi Corbett talk has UA alums up in arms

2011-08-06T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: Hi Corbett talk has UA alums up in armsGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 06, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Kevin Elder is an elite pitching prospect from suburban Chicago's Westminster Christian High School, a place where he struck out a whopping 111 batters in 58 innings this spring.

He has narrowed his college choices to Clemson, Oregon and Arizona, and Tuesday jumped in the family car with his mom and dad, Bob and Anna Elder, and drove to Tucson.

Near the conclusion of the family's unofficial visit with UA baseball coach Andy Lopez, the Elders asked if they could tour the Wildcats' McKale Center clubhouse and locker room.

Talk about bad timing. The UA baseball team shares its clubhouse/shower space with the Wildcat swimming teams; at that time the men's swimmers were getting dressed. Anna Elder waited in the hallway while her son got a not-so-impressive picture of what baseball facilities are at Arizona.

That's part of the reason Lopez and UA director of athletics Greg Byrne would like to move Arizona's baseball plant entirely to Hi Corbett Field. In Pac-12 baseball, only the Cal Bears have a facility that ranks below the UA's.

This likely move to Hi Corbett does not sit well with all of those in the extended UA baseball family.

Many lettermen, including Erik Mattern, Zack Pringle, James Johnson and John Powers, via email, referred to the possible move from Kindall/Sancet Stadium as "dirty," "naïve and shortsighted," and one of "sadness."

Pringle told me "it's a shame. … (Kindall/Sancet) is sacred ground."

In a sensitive and sometimes emotional meeting with Byrne and baseball alumni last week, legendary coach Jerry Kindall, winner of NCAA championships in 1976, 1980 and 1986, told Byrne that he hoped the Wildcats could remain at the on-campus ballpark.

"I told Greg that I think the ballpark belongs on campus," Kindall said Thursday. "To me, college baseball is just that: It's a place on the campus. There's no rancor here, but of course I'm emotional about it, and Greg understands."

Rarely, perhaps never, has the UA baseball family been so divided in its esteemed 107-year history.

For the first time in his administration here, Byrne has met resistance. To shift the Wildcats to Hi Corbett, a move of 2.3 miles, would be to abandon the holy place where Kindall, Lopez and Jerry Stitt coached the Wildcats to 20 NCAA appearances. It is the field upon which Terry Francona became the 1980 NCAA Player of the Year, and the site at which future major-league stars J.T. Snow, Trevor Hoffman, Scott Erickson and Joe Magrane, among many others, came of age.

Architects have told Byrne it would cost $15 million to $20 million to renovate Kindall/Sancet and make it competitive with other Pac-12 ballparks. "We lost $750,000 on baseball this year," said Byrne. "That's not expenses; that's our net loss." He believes that a shift to Hi Corbett would immediately cut the loss to $500,000 and "re-engage the community."

"In the big picture of college baseball, we have become followers," he said. "We're way behind."

There is almost no student presence at Kindall/Sancet. Attendance has been in decline or static for 25 years.

The move seems overdue and business-savvy, yet Lopez said he has received "four or five emails from ex-players accusing me of trying to destroy our tradition."

The divide has another side: Tucson businessman Joe Estes, a key pitcher on the '86 national championship team, believes a move to Hi Corbett is necessary. He said "it burns me up that many of those opposed don't go to games or support the program financially."

More Estes: "We would have better concessions, better restrooms and it would be a better fan experience at Hi Corbett. The ability to sell beer (sales would be cut off after five innings) would put more people in the seats. Using major-league facilities and allowing the players to dress and interact in a big-league clubhouse would ignite recruiting. The big risk is staying at Sancet and not doing anything."

The city would require Arizona to sign a five-year lease for $250,000 per year. It would be renewable, at the UA's option, after five seasons. The Wildcats would be given exclusive use of all facilities, including one of the annex fields beyond the right-field wall. It would keep all revenues from tickets, concessions and ballpark signage.

In addition, Byrne said he is committed to making about $5 million of renovations to Hi Corbett, and honoring Kindall and ex-coach Frank Sancet with UA branding.

"From a business point, it's a no-brainer," he says. "But it would sure make a lot more sense to go into this with everyone united."

Lopez invited all 22 high school recruits who have made unofficial visits to Tucson this summer to tour Hi Corbett independently.

"Every single kid I asked said playing at Hi Corbett would be a positive influence," he said. "Why? Because it shows we are committed to doing this first class. To 18- and 19-year-old kids, the prospect of playing in a big-league facility turns their heads. I don't want to offend anyone, especially Coach Kindall. I'd love it if someone came forward with a $15 million check to renovate Sancet/Kindall. But that's not going to happen."

Arizona has not played host to an NCAA regional since 1992, an awkward absence given the program's history. Lopez has taken seven of his 10 UA teams to postseason play. All were road games. Former athletic director Jim Livengood declined to bid for postseason play because of the lack of fan support.

Byrne is expected to make a decision early next week. Getting Kindall's blessing would change the dynamics of this inevitable transaction.

"I'm not going to picket, I'm not going to mobilize," Kindall said. "I'm going to support the program no matter what."

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