TAMPA — In a year that will radically change the look of USF's athletic district, the first new venues to debut for Bulls fans will come this week, as years of planning and nine months of busy construction give way to the grand opening of baseball and softball stadiums.
The long-awaited upgrade will be a boon to both teams and a draw for fans, with 1,500-plus seatbacks on the baseball stadium, built on the site of 43-year-old Red McEwen Field, and 700 more in the softball stadium adjacent to the south. Both can accommodate larger crowds with extensive berm seating and hospitality pavilions around the stadium.
"These are first-class facilities, as unique as any you'll find in the country," said athletic director Doug Woolard, who can see the baseball park from his office, as well as a new soccer stadium that will debut this fall.
The baseball stadium, part of a $34 million package of facility upgrades, is something even former players are excited about — Addison Maruszak, the Bulls' shortstop from 2006 to 2008, had his engagement announcement pictures taken on the new field this week. Both coaches were closely involved in the planning and design of their new homes.
"It's really a perfect college ballpark," said baseball coach Lelo Prado, who has eagerly awaited a new stadium since taking the USF job in 2007.
Both fields are complete, with official permitting reviews scheduled for today. Executive associate athletic director Bill McGillis said the stadiums are a work in progress, with final touches being added over the next three or four weeks. Berm seating might be restricted because of new sod, and temporary scoreboards will be used initially.
Before long, both stadiums will use large video scoreboards in the outfield — baseball's is 25 by 50 feet, while softball's measures 13 by 25 — allowing for better graphics with each at-bat, advertising and promotions between innings and eventually video replay. "The scoreboard's going to be the wow factor," Prado said.
The outfield wall for Ken Eriksen's new softball stadium is unique in its incorporating the maximum and minimum dimensions the NCAA allows for its softball fields. In straightaway center, the wall is 230 feet, the deepest allowed by the NCAA, and that distance is softened by a 6-foot wall; in the corners, it takes just 190 feet to leave the park, but that challenge is extended with a 10-foot wall.
"We wanted to bring the triple back into the game," said Eriksen, whose players hit 10 triples last season in the old park, six more than opponents. The Bulls have five triples in their first 10 games while playing in Clearwater, including two by freshman phenom Kourtney Salvarola.
Best of both parks
It's rare that baseball and softball will play at home simultaneously — perhaps five times in a given season — but when they do, there's an open walkway between the two stadiums, overlooking both fields between the first-base side in baseball and third base for softball. It's named the "Donaldson Deck" for USF supporters Bob and Lynn Donaldson, and in planning the parks, the architects studied whether a foul ball from one field could reach the other — it's more likely that a well-hit foul baseball could reach the softball field.
"It's absolutely beautiful — they've done a great job," said Bob Donaldson, who got a tour of the facilities last week. "It's really something to behold."
Woolard is careful to point out that all costs will be covered by the athletic department, through initial donations and debt service paid from the athletic department's annual budget. Because of the economy and state of the construction industry, Woolard estimates that USF saved 15 percent to 25 percent in costs on the new facilities. And by building the baseball and softball stadiums as a single entity with a shared entrance, the Bulls were able to build a concrete stadium with all seatbacks, as opposed to early models with metal bleachers.
A path to the mound
One nod to Red McEwen Field is a clay path from home plate to the mound, something Prado added his first season when he couldn't get grass to grow properly in front of the mound. Often called a "keyhole" for the shape it creates with the mound, the feature used to be a regular aspect of major-league parks, a retro nod still seen at Detroit's Comerica Park and Arizona's Chase Field.