Inside USD

Time to ‘Play Ball!’ at Fowler Park

Thursday, February 14, 2013

“Play Ball!”

These familiar, adrenaline-raising words that signal the start of a baseball game will return Friday to the University of San Diego campus. It’s the beginning of Toreros’ Coach Rich Hill’s 15th season, but when his players take the field for the first time in 2013 — opposing cross-town rival San Diego State University — hearing those two words will be cherished more than usual.

Friday night’s game marks the opening of USD’s $13.8 million Fowler Park and Cunningham Field, a first-class ballpark that was built in less than nine months.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, it’s second to none,” Hill said. “I think it’s the best college baseball stadium, certainly on the West Coast. … It’s like going to Disneyland. The attention to detail throughout this structure is incredible.”

Fowler Park — named in honor of San Diego Padres co-owner and USD Board of Trustees Chairperson Ron Fowler and his wife, Alexis, who generously gave the lead gift — is a dream come true for a baseball program that started in 1958. Cunningham Field is a tip of the cap to John Cunningham, who coached USD baseball from 1964-98.

The stadium, whose architect is Populous, has 1,700 seats — and holds up to 3,000 fans with temporary seating for hosting NCAA Regional and Super Regional postseason events — a state-of-the-art, complete clubhouse for the players and coaches, a new stadium lighting and scoreboard, new playing field and synthetic turf, two luxury suites, indoor/outdoor seating, press box, restrooms, concessions, ticket office, a children’s playing area equipped with a mini-baseball field and family picnic space.

General contractor Turner Construction Company utilized a sustainable site design, local and recycled materials, low-flow plumbing fixtures and more. Fowler Park has Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification and it is the second LEED-certified structure on campus — the Student Life Pavilion, which opened in August 2009, is Gold certified — thus continuing the university’s dedication to sustainability.

Everyone who worked to make Fowler Park a reality matched the dedication.

“I love that the alumni, the administration, the Fowler family and others have given their blood, sweat and tears for this,” Hill said. “It’s an emotional experience when you think about all the people who put the work in to make it happen. (Executive Director of Athletics) Ky Snyder’s dogged determination. Ron Fowler’s great commitment to young people. Alumni who’ve done so much for this program in the 15 years I’ve been here and to where it is now. We thank them all.”

Snyder led a big gathering of local media members for a tour of Fowler Park earlier this week. A beaming smile rarely left his face.

“What I think is really great about ballparks is that they each have their own signature pieces that make them very unique and really cool,” he said.

The baseball program didn’t have its first on-campus stadium until a few years into Cunningham’s tenure. Cunningham, who will throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Saturday’s game with USD alumni and former players watching on, worked hard to get the resources to build USD’s first on-campus stadium. But he’s certainly on board with what’s happening now.

“You look out there and it’s a wow! It’s an absolute wow!” Cunningham said.

Fowler Park’s uniqueness is literally everywhere because of how much it has changed in such a short time.

“It’s such a stark contrast from what used to be here with the aluminum bleachers and limited individual seats,” said Josh Lawrence, associate director of athletics for facilities and operations. “It’s been an amazing experience to be involved with this venture, facilities-wise, for our student-athletes and coaches. It takes them to the next level and gives them the support and resources they need to compete at this level.”

Some unique items:

• The high, welcoming grand entry arch is detailed in 16th century Spanish Renaissance architecture, providing continuity for a decision made initially by university co-founder Mother Rosalie Hill in 1949.

• The seats behind home plate are closer than any found at any major-league ballpark.

• The Torero Deck, at more than 4,000 square feet, sits atop the Torero Clubhouse along the third-base line. The deck features a turf surface for children to run on, as well as a great location for events with a beautiful view toward Mission Bay.

• The team’s clubhouse includes coaches offices, training room and a spacious 35-player locker room with placards above each player’s locker space with their jersey number, name and hometown. Outside the locker room is a beautiful mural that includes the words, “the road to Omaha … starts here.”

Omaha, the host city for the College World Series, is, indeed, a next-level goal. Hill believes Fowler Park provides additional muscle in USD’s already formidable player recruiting and retaining efforts. The facility can only help Hill, who has directed USD to five West Coast Conference championships and seven NCAA Regional appearances. The Toreros have not yet reached a super regional, which is the final step to earn a coveted spot in Omaha.

Fowler Park’s stadium lighting and its new seating capacity help. The lights and seat expansion were must-haves in the ballpark’s design plans, Snyder said. Hosting a regional or super regional on campus could be a game-changer. Others recognize what USD’s baseball program is capable of doing. The team is the WCC title favorite, it plays another solid nonconference schedule and preseason individual and team accolades, including national rankings, are rolling in again.

Fowler Park will be a San Diego happening all weekend. Tickets for all three games are sold out. Friday and Saturday’s games, starting at 7 p.m. and 6 p.m., respectively, will be televised by Fox Sports San Diego, including a one-hour pre-game show at 6 p.m. Friday. ESPN 1700 AM radio will broadcast all three games. Fowler will throw out the ceremonial first pitch Friday after a ribbon-cutting ceremony, a field blessing by Monsignor Daniel J. Dillabough and speeches from Snyder, Fowler and USD President Mary E. Lyons.

After that?

“Play Ball!”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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