On Tuesday, UConn baseball played its final home opener at J.O. Christian Field, home for the last 51 years. Numerous Huskies greats — from head coach Jim Penders himself to George Springer and Matt Barnes to Tim Cate and Mason Feole — took the same field nestled on the fringe of UConn’s sprawling campus.
And Penders can’t wait until it’s gone.
“No,” the coach interrupted before he was even finished being asked if the final home opener at the park was a bittersweet day. “I’ve got fond memories here. I came here as a little kid but the memories aren’t going to go away. The field needs to.”
It’s true. The Huskies play at little more than a glorified high school field, with no permanent facilities, lights and four sets of bleachers. The dugouts are basically concrete boxes.
But when it comes down to it, baseball is played between the lines. At least UConn is playing on a good field, right? Wrong.
“This is the worst surface we play on all year, that’s an advantage to us,” Penders said. “When other teams come in they don’t like playing here even more than we don’t like playing here. That’s an advantage to us. I supposed we’re going to miss that next year but good riddance, I’ll deal with that.”
While most baseball purists won’t like it — Penders included himself in that — UConn needs a turf baseball field. Nearly every major program in New England has a turf field: University of Hartford, CCSU, Boston College, Northeastern, Yale. There’s just no way to play in the northeast in March and early April without it.
“We’re turfing everything. We’re turfing the stands, turfing the press box, turfing the dugouts, we’re going to turf everything,” Penders joked. “As a coach in the northeast, the utility of it is unmatched. ... It’s the only way to play a baseball season here now is to have that stuff.”
With the Huskies’ current situation, the weather completely dictates if the team can play outside. If there’s a snowstorm a week prior to a game, they need to wait for not only the snow to melt but for the field to dry as well to use it.
Once they get the turf field, it can be plowed almost immediately after snow and won’t need to wait for it to dry out. That will not only reduce the number of games postponed or cancelled but also give UConn more practice time outside on a real field. Currently, the team either has to practice on a makeshift field inside the Shenkman Training Center, on Sherman Family Complex or at the Tolland Star Hill Bubble.
The fact that UConn produces top talent like George Springer or Matt Barnes with such lackluster facilities is a tip of the cap to Penders and his staff. They can’t compete with southern schools that have top-notch facilities like Louisville or Coastal Carolina off the field but the Huskies still manage to compete with those schools on it.
“The thing you have to do to recruit, period, is win ball games,” redshirt sophomore catcher Paul Gozzo said. “You gain the respect of everyone around you if you win baseball games and in this program, we win baseball games. We beat Louisville, who have the premier facilities. When we get the new facility, we’re going to be a team that wins with a really good facility. It’s all about winning and developing that respect and developing the maturity and attitude to win games. The coaches instill a good culture for that.”
As Gozzo mentioned, the new stadium is on the horizon. Construction has already begun on the 1,500-seat ballpark (2,000 capacity with standing-room only) across the street behind Freitas Ice Forum, set to open ahead of the 2020 season. For Penders, it is a 15-year process in the making that is finally becoming a reality.
“My first meeting on it was in November of 2003,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming and seeing those trees being cleared, it’s real now. Now it’s real. They’re moving dirt, they’re chopping down trees, we’re going to have a beautiful new ballpark a year from now and I can’t wait.”
But until that new stadium opens and the current ballpark becomes a practice field, the team wants to make sure they send out their longtime home the right way.
“Hopefully we’re playing a lot of meaningful games here in 2019 and then it’ll be ready to rest in peace,” Penders said.