Jay Johnson stood in front of the big, new building about an hour before the first official Arizona baseball practice of 2018. He was asked for his thoughts on the Terry Francona Hitting Center, which is open for business beyond the right-field wall at Hi Corbett Field.
“It speaks for itself,” the third-year UA coach said.
Indeed, the sounds emanating from the facility — the ping, ping, ping of metal bats repeatedly striking baseballs — could be heard outside its doors Friday.
And that’s the whole idea. Yes, the Terry Francona Hitting Center will help with recruiting. So will the refurbished home clubhouse. But more than anything, those upgrades will improve the experience for the current players.
“If a place is nice, they want to be here,” Johnson said. “Our whole program is built around (the players) wanting to get to the field as much as they can.”
When a reporter suggested the remodeled locker room was so nice that players wouldn’t want to leave it, Johnson responded: “That was the point. Money, well invested, always goes back to the players.
“The more connected they can be to their development, the more success they’re going to have with it. Having these two things at the same time … I’m very grateful.”
Francona, the former UA standout and current manager of the Cleveland Indians, donated $1 million to help the facility bearing his name get built. He will participate in a private ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday afternoon after the UA alumni game, which starts at 10 a.m. Francona will manage one of the squads; Chip Hale will coach the other.
The Terry Francona Hitting Center is 125 feet long and 75 feet wide. It features four hitting lanes and a bunting area with two stations. The netting system is retractable, so the full team could work out inside in case of inclement weather.
The building also features three turf mounds, giving pitchers a chance to prepare for the occasional away game on an all-turf field.
“It’s multipurpose,” senior reliever Robby Medel said. “Pitching on turf is a little different. So the turf mounds are definitely going to help out.”
Medel saw Francona at McKale Center on Thursday night, exchanged daps with the Wildcats’ benefactor and thanked him for his enduring contribution to the program.
“It’s going to be here forever,” Medel said. “It’s a staple of Arizona baseball now.”
The clubhouse features new lockers with padded seats and ample storage space, as well as multiple flat-screen TVs.
“I showed up on Sunday, walked into the locker room and was in awe of how beautiful it was,” said JJ Matijevic, who played on Johnson’s first two teams and recently returned to Tucson to prepare for spring training.
“And then they had a little meeting, and I went to the hitting facility. I couldn’t leave. It was so nice. I think I was in there for two hours.”
Johnson played and coached in San Diego while Trevor Hoffman was piling up save after save for the Padres.
This week, the former UA standout became the first Wildcat to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Johnson considers Hoffman a role model for all current Arizona players.
Hoffman followed an unusual path to greatness. He played infield at Arizona before becoming a pitcher in the minor leagues.
“What I take from that is never give up,” Medel said. “He got in the Hall of Fame not playing the position he played growing up.
“No matter how old you are (or) how many people tell you no, just keep on chasing your dreams. Maybe one day you’ll be a Hall of Famer. Who knows?
Johnson on Kindall
As a youth, Johnson would watch baseball instructional videos — including one made by former UA coach Jerry Kindall.
As the Wildcats’ skipper, Johnson got to know the university’s all-time winningest coach. Kindall died Dec. 24 at age 82.
“He’s an elite human being,” Johnson said. “The reason being the coach at Arizona is a big deal to me is because of who Jerry Kindall was and what he accomplished here. He laid the foundation for this to be the University of Arizona baseball program. To have any type of connection to him is an honor.”
Johnson said Kindall’s funeral service was “probably the most uplifting” one he’s ever attended “because you got to see how many people he’s impacted.”
The Wildcats will wear a No. 9 patch on their jerseys and will have a “JK” sticker on their helmets to honor Kindall this season.
Outside the rankings
Although Arizona was the only Pac-12 team to make the NCAA Tournament each of the past two seasons, the Wildcats aren’t getting much love in the preseason polls.
Arizona did not make the top 25s released this month by Baseball America, D1Baseball.com and USA Today (coaches poll). Is that a source of motivation for the team?
“It is and it isn’t,” Medel said. “It isn’t because the season hasn’t even started. They don’t know who (freshman pitcher) Jonathan Guardado is. They don’t know who (freshman first baseman) Tate Soderstrom is.
“It’s motivation because people are doubting us. But give it a couple weeks. It’ll change.”
When the Pac-12 coaches picked Arizona to finish ninth in the league in 2016, the Wildcats used that snub to their advantage. They advanced to the finals of the College World Series.
But don’t expect Johnson to bring it up in team meetings.
“We’re not going to validate ourselves on where we’re ranked or our record,” he said. “We’re going to validate it with how we play and how we improve.
“There might be a motivational thing in there. But we can’t (just) roll it out. We can’t get away from what it takes to be successful, because it takes what it takes.”
- Matijevic and two of his former UA teammates, Bobby Dalbec and Jared Oliva, took BP before practice.
- Arizona has added transfer Matthew Dyer, who played for Oregon last year. The 6-foot-4-inch utility player from Glendale Mountain Ridge must sit out this season.