NEWS

Mr. Guenther's Neighborhood: Arms race in Big Ten baseball not just on pitcher's mound

John Supinie

The arms race in Big Ten Conference baseball, like elsewhere in Division I, isn't limited to the pitching mound.

More than half of the Big Ten baseball programs already built new facilities, renovated old homes or have proposals to do so.

Meanwhile, Illinois already installed FieldTurf, becoming the only school in the conference with an artificial surface in baseball, but the school's plans to upgrade Illinois Field by sharing the stadium with a minor league franchise haven't yet moved past preliminary discussions. The earliest movement now appears to be 2010.

"It's still out there, but I think 2009 would be a stretch at this point,'' said Illinois associate athletic director Dana Brenner. "(A potential owner) is thinking big picture and looking at other stuff that's slowing down the baseball side.''

Illinois would benefit by improvements to the stadium and revenue generated from a minor-league franchise. Preliminary plans, annoucned in September, called for expansion of seating from 1,500 to roughly 3,500 with 14 luxury suites, an outdoor pavillion for large groups, another clubhouse for the professional team and a picnic area.

Other improvements would include a video replay board in an upgraded scoreboard. Prospective owners may spend $10 million on the facilities, a major boost to a stadium that once was in the top three in the Big Ten, Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said.

With stadium renovations and construction in the Big Ten, "we're dropping into the lower half to the bottom with our stadium,'' Hartleb said. "This would elevate us back toward the top.''

But Illinois may look for other investors after potential owners -- apparently the Reinsdorf family that owns the White Sox and Bulls -- looked at other investment opportunities in the Champaign area.

"You have to make sure the deal is right for both parties,'' said Frontier League commissioner Bill Lee. "It has to be good for the owner and good for the university. If not the university, then good for another site in town.''

If Illinois is involved, "the baseball has to be here (on campus),'' Brenner said. For the Frontier League to add a team, another franchise must also join because the league can't have an odd number of teams and open dates.

Penn State built Medlar Field by sharing the facility with the State College Spikes, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate in the Class A short-season team in the New York-Penn League. The stadium seats 5,406 and features 20 luxury boxes. College seasons end before most minor leagues begin.

While the stadium upgrade from a minor league franchise is on hold, Illinois already installed artificial turf that allows for more practice and play despite cool, wet weather in the spring. The only dirt is on the pitching mound, and the surface drains 7.5 inches of water per hour.

Illinois can practice on the field even when snow is on the ground, because there is no worry about mud.

"It might not be for a long time, but it would be enough to see the ball in the air and mentally to get guys outside,'' Hartleb said. "When we go south to start the season, it won't be the first time outside.''

The turf will not only push Illinois' development but also help in recruiting.

"If I was looking at a program that has (artificial) turf and a nice field and one that is grass, I want to play on turf,'' said Illini second baseman Joe Bonadonna. "I would imagine every baseball team (in the Midwest) is going to have to have it.''

Ohio Sate already has Bill Davis Stadium, a 4,450-seat facility that also looks like a minor-league park.

Other Big Ten schools also upgraded baseball stadiums or have plans in the works. Michigan just spent $9 million to improve baseball and softball facilities. Indiana and Purdue plan to build new baseball parks. Michigan State has plans in the works to build a new baseball and softball complex and Minnesota will renovate its baseball stadium.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.