The Huskies are one month away from unveiling their $19-million, 2,400-seat jewel along Lake Washington. They believe the long-awaited jewel with its player performance building can propel them into hosting during the NCAA tournament -- perhaps all the way to the College World Series.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – Brian Wolfe stands looking out the picture windows on the second floor of the sparkling Wayne Gittinger Baseball Team Building, the one that didn’t exist when he arrived at Washington four years ago.
He looked out across the right-field foul line at the workers and their screeching, concrete saws that are putting the final touches on the stunning rebuild of Husky Ballpark. The senior infielder-outfielder simply shakes his head and smiles.
A dream of Huskies for decades – one conceived in the last couple years by the designer of Safeco Field -- is finally, spectacularly a reality.
“For years and years, in every recruiting class, it was, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re going to get one built.’” Wolfe, a native of nearby Snohomish, Wash., says on the eve of Washington’s 2014 baseball season opener. “And it was always like, ‘Yeah, OK, sweet.’”
Wolfe imitates the deadpan tone and the shrug a half a century of Dawg baseballers had done in response to the same promise. It’s what he had done when Lindsay Meggs told him of plans for this stadium, in 2009 when Wolfe was in the new coach’s first UW recruiting class.
Wolfe looks now at what $19 million -- $4 million of it raised by Husky baseball -- has bought on the shore of Lake Washington. He sees under the sharp, clean diagonals of the new grandstand roof the Home Plate Club suites, which have a view of Mount Rainier beyond the outfield. Below those, he can spot where there will be permanent seating for 2,406 in the infield area. A concourse and concession areas, with restrooms and a team store is taking shape. He is already practicing each day amid the construction workers on the shiny, new FieldTurf that now covers on the entire playing surface (except for a real-dirt pitchers’ mound), all the way to the outfield walls. Those walls will be padded purple and display a collage of subdued action photos of Tim Lincecum and other legends of UW baseball’s 114 years, like Dodger Stadium has for its big-league team in Los Angeles.
Wolfe turns to his right and marvels at the 8,000-square-foot Team Performance Center just off the new stadium’s right-field corner. That is where the Huskies will take ground balls and indoor batting practice against an opposing pitcher depicted with differing arm angles and pitches on a state-of-the-art, $30,000 video software program.
All this, compared to the previous field. A field, that’s essentially all it was. It had nothing but four bases, a mound, home plate, a scoreboard, outfield fences, all wooden bleachers supported by skinny metal poles. Heck, its “amenities” essentially began and ended at port-a-potties.
Washington’s facilities have transformed from a recruiting liability to among the most sparkling jewels in college baseball.
Wolfe shakes his head again.
“To see where we’ve come in five years,” the veteran Husky says, “it’s nuts.”
Passing by the new Husky Ballpark on the outside right now, one cannot yet appreciate what Washington will unveil in its new place on Friday, March 21 against Arizona. But even that exterior -- all mud and concrete-mixer trucks and chain-link fences right now – is better on its way to best.
In one month, that perimeter will include a permanent entrance with purple signage trimmed in gold to match that of renovated Husky Stadium down the street. It will include a new Husky Authentic team store. It will have a grass berm down the left-field line, from which students and families can watch games and enjoy the lakeside views just as fans do now next door during games at Husky Soccer Stadium.
And the inside; it will revitalize the program. The interior is so remarkable that Meggs believes it can get Washington to become a host of an NCAA tournament regional, which it’s never done.
The coach and steward of this remarkable rebuild thinks new Husky Ballpark can eventually help get Washington into the College World Series for the first time.
“This is such a long time coming,” said Meggs, who is entering his fifth season with a 99-122 record since arriving for the 2010 season as a Missouri Valley Conference coach of the year from Indiana State. “When you talk about postseason play, think about getting to go to a super regional and the College World Series, the results speak for themselves about being the host for a regional.
“This stadium gives us a legitimate chance to host a regional.”
Of course, how these Huskies – far healthier and experienced now after an injury-wrecked 2013 – ultimately play in this new stadium will determine whether they can show off their shiny palace in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies debuted Friday in San Marcos, Texas, against Air Force with a starting lineup entirely made up of upperclassmen – with the exception of speedy sophomore center fielder Braden Bishop, whom Wolfe marvels “could have gone anywhere” but chose Washington to ride this momentum from the new stadium into Pac-12 contention and annual appearances NCAA tournaments. Hamstrung by the previous facilities, the weather, and the perception of them, the Huskies haven’t been to an NCAA tournament since 2004.
And this team feels that obligation.
“We feel the responsibility,” Meggs said. “We feel proud to represent all the players and all the coaches who preceded us here.
“In the 25 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve been to all the top stadiums – at LSU, in the Southeastern Conference. This makes the statement for us that we want to finish in the top third of our conference and have a legitimate chance to host a regional. We are grateful for (Director of Athletics) Scott Woodward and the staff here at Washington who wanted to step up and make this a reality.
“We’ve gone from the bottom third of any BCS conference school in college baseball to the top third in terms of facilities,” Meggs said. “We’re fired up.”
The stadium’s imminent completion – which, including the suites, the press box and the 4½-foot-tall berm will result in a capacity of 2,600 – is actually the second of a three-phase project that got a huge boost when UW Athletics began realizing $18 million in annual revenue from the Pac-12’s new national television contracts.
The first phase was the opening in February 2012 of the Gittinger Team Building, home of the new locker room, training room, academic room and coaches offices. The locker room has “DESTINATION: OMAHA” (annual site of the College World Series) painted over the lockers and is alone a massive upgrade over the team’s former dressing areas: one decades ago far to the north, past UW’s golf driving range near the Baskin Robbins ice-cream shop on Sand Point Way; and the more recent locker room attached to the Graves annex and Alaska Airlines Arena, also far more than a home-run shot away from its field.
The second phase of this project is the grandstands and fixtures of the new stadium. There are 16 sections of seats with seat-back chairs. There are also two sections of bench general-admission seating beyond first base down the line and another general-admission section beyond third base down the opposite line. General-admission In addition to the suites upstairs next to the new press box, there are 106 seats directly behind home plate that will have seat-side hosting service.
The Huskies will play their first five home games at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma while new Husky Ballpark gets finished. After that, season-ticket prices for 20 home games range from $380 for the new Home Plate Club suites, with a bar area and windows patrons can open and close, to just $40 for the Husky Gold Card, which gets you general-admission bench seating down each foul line.
Single-game tickets go on sale Feb. 21. Club seats are $30 per Pac-12 game and $20 per non-conference games. Reserved seats in the infield are $15 for conference games and $10 for non-conference ones. The general-admission seats are $8 and $6, or $5 and $4 for youth and seniors.
The final phase of this project to revitalize Husky baseball has arrived concurrently and early, the player development building to the immediate south of the team building. It has five tunnels of batting cages with walls that can roll back to create an indoor space for fielding ground balls and line drives.
“We couldn’t ask for a more phenomenal space,” Meggs said of that practice building.
And the Huskies couldn’t have asked for a more phenomenal facility to jump start a new era of UW baseball.
When teased that he was about to go down as the man who finally got this stadium built, after decades of promises and increasingly dire need, Meggs smiled.
“Let’s make me go down as the guy who got it done,” he said, “and the guy who got us to the College World Series.”