Greg Hansen: UA baseball in real need of upgrade in facilities

2011-05-27T00:00:00Z 2011-05-27T06:47:42Z Greg Hansen: UA baseball in real need of upgrade in facilitiesBy Greg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 27, 2011 12:00 am  • 

In a few days, Andy Lopez will complete his 10th regular season as Arizona's baseball coach. This news stops him in midsentence.

"My God, 10 years," he says. "I feel like it's been four or five."

The evidence suggests that Lopez has been good, always a tough out, but not Jerry Kindall and not yet ready for sainthood.

Lopez has won 349 games. In the previous 10 seasons, the Wildcats won 285.

Lopez has coached in 28 NCAA tournament games; in the previous decade the UA's total was nine.

This does not satisfy Lopez, who has yet to win a Pac-10 title and has not been back to college baseball's holy land, Omaha, Neb., since the 2004 College World Series.

"I go home grumpy a lot," he says.

Arizona has been unable to escape the Pac-10 middle class - Lopez calls this year's league race "a bloody mess" - and join Stanford and ASU in the conference's command center. Do you realize that in the last 20 years, the Stanford/ASU bloc has played host to 28 NCAA regionals and super regionals, and that Arizona hasn't been powerful enough (or rich enough) to successfully bid for an NCAA regional since 1992?

Ten years. In some ways it seems like 20. In some ways it seems as if Arizona baseball is frozen in 1992.

As Lopez takes stock of his first decade as Arizona's baseball coach, I look around Kindall/Sancet Stadium and see the same place I saw in 1983 when UA baseball was almost as big as McKale Center basketball.

Not much has changed at the old ballpark except the name on the marquee, a paint job on the outfield wall and the oft-unused grass berms down each foul line. The press box now has air conditioning and a few more seats, and the dugouts are a few feet larger, but the reality is that UA baseball is playing in a ballpark not much different from the one occupied by Terry Francona, who is now 52 years old.

"I remember talking to (Oregon State coach) Pat Casey here in 2004, and he was saying that he was in his 10th year, and all he wanted to do was go to the regionals once," Lopez remembers. "He was looking at our team, a World Series team - we had that look, you could see it - and he was admiring us."

Casey and the Beavers have since been spending money to build a better baseball plant. They have been in the NCAA regionals five times in six years, twice winning national championships. It is now Lopez and the Wildcats who admire the Beavers.

College baseball now begins in late February, not January. Arizona's long-time ally, it's winter and spring climate, has been diminished. Geography counts, but not as much as showing recruits how much fun it is at your yard.

Who has the most cool scoreboard? Whose crowd is loud? It's not Kindall/Sancet. Not even close.

The UA is woefully lacking in ballpark amenities. It's difficult to imagine any other elite-type college baseball team without an on-site clubhouse. The UA uses the same locker rooms that J.T. Snow and Trevor Hoffman frequented in 1989. Both are now in their 40s.

"Oregon and Oregon State have the two best facilities in Pac-10 baseball," says Lopez, who is careful not to play the woe-is-me card. "I'm responsible for the product here, and some years I've been disappointed in the product I put out."

Only once this season, against the Sun Devils, have the Wildcats drawn 2,000 fans. Compare that to the season average of 2,576 at raucous Hillenbrand Stadium, which plays to almost 100 percent capacity across campus.

Short of reducing baseball to seven-inning games, softball remains a more appealing spectator's game.

The options are limited. UA director of athletics Greg Byrne told me recently "we're going to have to decide if we should play baseball someplace else."

"I'd do it in a heartbeat; I'd help them move the batting cages over there," Lopez says of Hi Corbett Field. "Not to rub any of the alums wrong - I love the tradition of this field - but there comes a point in time maybe you say you have to try something different."

Imagine the Wildcats at Hi Corbett Field, perhaps, with Friday night crowds of 3,000, maybe more. It would be a new way to watch a Pac-12 weekend opener.

Renting Hi Corbett Field wouldn't be cheap. And who knows if beer sales - which would be the key financial generator - would be tolerated by the administration. There is precedent: Oregon has a beer garden at off-campus PK Park.

There's also the possibility that college baseball at Hi Corbett Field wouldn't be any more successful for the Wildcats than it has been for the oft-tepid and modest crowds watching spring training and minor-league games there. One difference: an Arizona baseball game actually has meaning in the standings.

Meanwhile, Lopez's 10th Arizona season still has intriguing possibilities.

If the Wildcats can sweep last place Washington this weekend at Kindall/Sancet, they would enter the NCAA tournament with their best Pac-10 record since 2007, and more regular-season victories than any of the 10 Arizona clubs that immediately preceded Lopez.

In the postseason, they'll have to play on some other team's home turf again, but at Arizona in 2011 that's not a punishment, it's life.

Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or ghansen@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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