McGrath: New Husky Ballpark could be jewel of Pac-12 stadiums

March 21, 2014 

Washington Huskies designated hitter Branden Berry still can hear the chiding he took from opponents mocking his team’s dilapidated baseball park.

“A high school buddy of mine — he’s a pitcher at Arizona State — told me, ‘Man, you’ve got like wooden bleachers, dude? Our high school facility was better,’ ” Berry recalled Thursday. “I said, ‘I know, I know, but just wait. We’re gonna get that new stadium.

“And here it is.”

Berry glanced at the field turf glimmering in the sun and broke into a smile. Thanks to some serendipitous scheduling, spring’s first day had fallen on the eve of the debut of the new Husky Ballpark, a $15 million gem on the shore of Union Bay.

Two years since the start of a fundraising campaign to generate $5 million in gift revenues — the other $10 million was borrowed, to be paid back by the UW athletic department and private donations — the difference between the old and new ballparks is startling.

The old place offered a stunning backdrop beyond the outfield fence along with, well, a stunning backdrop beyond the outfield fence.

“It was pretty bad,” Huskies pitching ace Jeff Brigham said. “We didn’t have indoor plumbing. We had wooden benches for stands. It was kind of just put together and thrown out there like a high school setup. The setting was nice — the setting was beautiful — but the facility itself wasn’t Pac-12 caliber.”

Brigham’s updated description of the facility?

“Top of the line,” said the redshirt junior from Federal Way. “I haven’t seen anything like it.”

Husky Ballpark’s metamorphosis from flop house to penthouse began with the 2012 construction of the adjacent Wayne Gittinger Baseball Team Building, which included such 21st-century novelties as offices for the coaches and an actual locker room for the players.

“It used to be 35 dudes in a stinky, tiny, messy little room in Hec Ed. We were in it for the fall and winter of my freshman year,” said Berry, a redshirt sophomore from San Diego. “We’d carry all our gear to and from the baseball field, and share a community shower with the soccer team and the golf team.”

Upon the completion of the baseball team building, the next order of business was to provide the players with an opportunity to practice during the late-winter monsoon season. (According to confidential documents I’ve obtained from the National Weather Service, it rained eight days last week.)

During inclement weather, the Huskies’ baseball team used to squeeze in some work at the Dempsey Center, the football team’s indoor practice building. Now they’ve got round-the-clock access to a performance center, an essential component of the ballpark construction project.

“It allows our guys to get their work in regardless of day, hour or the schedule around us,” coach Lindsay Meggs said. “There is nothing now that keeps us from developing our players. That’s a great thing to have.”

Among the high-tech perks at the performance center is a video machine simulating the delivery of the opposing pitcher.

“It’s like there’s this big ball of energy going on right now,” Berry said. “Every day we come back and find something new. It’s really exciting to come to the park and ask, ‘What did they do today?’ ”

As for the 2,400-seat park, it resembles a sort of miniature Cheney Stadium. There’s a main-level concourse and a second-floor concourse with a press box, radio and TV booths, and a club suite for season-ticket holders. (A warm room and a cold beer — there are worse ways to watch college baseball games in March.)

Fans without access to the club suites haven’t been forgotten. There’s a new video board, a bern along the left-field line, permanent concession stands and authentic restrooms with faucets and pipes and all those other first-world luxuries.

“It’s kind of a surreal feeling,” Meggs said. “This thing went from ideas in your head, to the bidding process, to rendering, to the hard copies of the rendering. It takes your breath away. Usually when something like this happens — with a new home or whatever — something doesn’t come out right. Something, somewhere comes up short. Here they nailed it. Everything we were hoping for came out great.”

The Huskies’ excitement about their ballpark and training complex is reflected by their 13-5-1 record. Last weekend, they won two of three at Arizona State, sustaining a 10-1 roll that began Feb. 28 in Tacoma.

The distinction of swinging a bat for the first time at the new Husky Ballpark will belong to the Arizona Wildcats, who begin a three-game series at 6 p.m. Friday.

“We’re hoping we can keep our guys focused through the weekend,” Meggs said, “and on the task at hand against a very good team.”

Berry suspects Washington won’t be the only team challenged to keep its focus.

“Before we played in Tacoma,” Berry said, “we came in and took a look at our new place, and we all kind of had to pick up our jaws because they’d fallen on the ground. Anyone who walks in here who’s been here before — especially our opponents — they’re gonna be in for a shock.”

The potential of the $15 million stadium project finding the visitors in shock had Berry smiling once more, with feeling.

“Maybe,” he said, “we can use that to score a couple runs in the first inning.”

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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