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Bulls bid long-awaited farewell to the Red

Larussa TAMPA -- Before the Big East, before even the NCAA, before football and basketball came to USF's campus, there was a dusty baseball field with a chain-link fence the Bulls called home.

"That first time, we felt like we were walking into Yankee Stadium," said Marvin Sherzer, ace right-hander for the Bulls from 1966-69, who remembers USF wearing blue pinstripes, before the current days of green and gold.

For the past 43 years, it has been the home of USF baseball, the last 33 as Red McEwen Field, but this weekend, the Bulls will play their final series at the Red, hosting Connecticut as a farewell before a new stadium is constructed just down the right-field line.

"It's something that we've needed to do for a long, long time," USF coach Lelo Prado said. "You've got to have it if you're going to make a run at things. You're sad to see something go, but I'm glad it's going to happen."

In truth, baseball was never king on USF's campus. In 1967, when the Bulls moved into the stadium, soccer and swimming were the big sports. Players proudly remember modest crowds in the single set of bleachers that sat behind home plate.

"If we got 50 fans, we were fortunate," said John Jolinski, 63, a centerfielder who now lives in Orlando. "We got the girlfriends and parents that cheered for you, but he didn't get many spectators. The grass was crabgrass, the wind was really bad, but the camaraderie was great. You were playing for the enjoyment of the game."

USF's attitude toward intercollegiate athletics was much more adversarial then -- the university did not allow games during the week, and road trips were capped at 48 hours. USF was not a member of the NCAA, and the school's president, John Stuart Allen, explained why they didn't need that affiliation.

"They just police the games, and why should be pay the expense just to follow the rules," he told the Times in 1968. "Besides, we can't win national championships if we just play on Saturdays."

It would be five years before the Bulls played a game outside the state of Florida, a full decade before Yankees owner George Steinbrenner donated lights to allow for night games. It was renamed in 1977 for McEwen, the former Hillsborough County state attorney who worked to promote USF in Tampa.

"It was just the beginning," said Steve Bledsoe, 61, an infielder in '67 who now works for the state attorney's office in Jacksonville.

Phillies ace and Hall of Famer Robin Roberts coached the Bulls there for nine seasons from 1977-85, and the Florida State League's Tampa Yankees even called the Red home in 1994-95 while Steinbrenner Field was being built, with Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera among those who played there.

The stadium has seen all kinds of modest upgrades in its 43 years -- more stands, a press box, concessions -- but nothing like what the Bulls will have next spring, with a stadium estimated at $8-million, with 2,000 seatbacks and the potential to hold as many as 4,000 fans for tournaments.

As they bid farewell to Red McEwen Field -- the school has invited all former players back for this weekend's three-game series -- the new stadium itself is a source of excitement around USF baseball, with the hopes that better facilities can help the Bulls recruit better athletes and elevate a program that hasn't been to the NCAAs since 2002.

"We don't need the biggest in the state. We just need a nice one," said Prado, who saw the impact of a new stadium as coach at Louisville in 2005. "I know our guys are excited."

USF (22-27, 13-8 in Big East), limited by injuries and inconsistency all season, is fifth in the league standings with six games to play. Prado is facing two of the Big East's top teams but is optimistic a strong finish can build momentum heading into the Big East tournament, which will be at Clearwater's Bright House Field from May 26-30.

"I'm just hoping we can do something to get them started and see if we can make a little run," Prado said.

(Photo courtesy of USF, showing White Sox manager and USF alum Tony La Russa with former Bulls coach and Hall of Famer Robin Roberts)

[Last modified: Friday, July 16, 2010 11:24am]

    

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