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 rightfield 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 we 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 not.
"They just police the games, and why should we pay the expense just to follow the rules," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1968. "Besides, we can't win national championships if we just play on Saturdays."
It was five years before the Bulls played a game outside Florida, a full decade before Yankees owner George Steinbrenner donated lights to allow for night games. It was renamed in 1977 for James "Red" McEwen, a former Hillsborough County state attorney and civic leader. Prior to his death in 1976, McEwen, brother of former Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen, had worked extensively to establish and promote USF.
"It was just the beginning," Steve Bledsoe, 61, an infielder in 1967 who works for the State Attorney's Office in Jacksonville, said of the field.
Phillies ace and Hall of Famer Robin Roberts, who died last week, coached the Bulls there for nine seasons from 1977-85. The Florida State League's Tampa Yankees 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 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 up to 4,000 capacity for tournaments.
As they bid farewell to Red McEwen Field — the school has invited all former players back for Saturday's game — the new stadium is a source of excitement, with the hopes that better facilities can help the Bulls in recruiting, elevating a program that hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament 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 Big East), limited by injuries and inconsistency all season, is fifth in the league with six games left. Prado is optimistic a strong finish can build momentum heading into the Big East tournament, May 26-30 at Clearwater's Bright House Field.
"I'm just hoping we can do something to get them started and see if we can make a little run," he said.
Times staff writer Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected]