Arizona Wildcats coach Andy Lopez, sunglasses on, surveyed his new baseball home Wednesday afternoon, looking out at the sprinklers watering the sun-drenched grass.
“This is a great setting for us,” he would say later. “This could be a really exciting time for our program.”
Yes, the grass really is greener at Hi Corbett Field.
Arizona officials — including athletic director Greg Byrne and director of event operations Matt Brown — gave the media a tour of venerable Hi Corbett on Wednesday, even as workers painted the clubhouse and otherwise readied the facility for Feb. 17 opener against North Dakota State.
There is still plenty of work to do, and the Wildcats might not be able to move in when the team is allowed to start individual drills on Jan. 12, but things are coming together as Byrne and Lopez hoped when Arizona reached a deal with the city to lease the park that held minor-league baseball and major-league spring training for decades.
“In the weight room in the morning, I will see some of our guys on the baseball team and I will say, ‘Have you been out there? Are you excited about it?’” Byrne said.
“And it’s like a kid in a candy store. They are thrilled with the space. They are thrilled with just how different it makes them compared to a lot of their peers at other places. That’s exciting to see.”
The Wildcats will have lots of space everywhere, including storage and an equipment room, which weren’t available at Jerry Kindall Field at Frank Sancet Stadium — their on-campus home since 1967.
Lopez will have a double-suite office. The assistants will have offices with windows, instead of being crammed in cement boxes in McKale Center. There is a roomy conference room. There will be an academic center.
And there will be plenty of space in the outfield.
The original plan was to move in the fences at spacious Hi Corbett Field, but there wasn’t enough time to implement that change after negotiations with the city and the stadium’s former tenant, the Tucson Toros, went into late November.
Toros owner Jay Zucker settled with the city for $300,000, ending his fight over eviction.
The Hi Corbett dimensions are about the same down the lines as Sancet Stadium (which is 360 feet), but the alleys are huge — 410 in left-center and 405 in right center. The big field, combined with the bat restrictions imposed by the NCAA last season, is sad news for Arizona’s sluggers but great news for the pitching staff.
“With the new bats and dimensions of Hi Corbett, 3-and-1 counts should be a very safe count to throw a strike,” Lopez said.
“That will be my first speech to the pitching staff on Jan. 1. Throw a strike, get a fly ball and we’ll get out of the inning. If we walk a guy, I may just walk out to the mound on the spot and take someone out of the game.”
There will be some advertising on the outfield wall, and Arizona will be importing its scoreboard from its old stadium. UA is also bringing over plaques honoring legendary coaches Sancet and Kindall, which will be placed on the facade of the main entrance.
Arizona will have access to a separate practice field. Lopez said he can split up the squad on some days or use the auxiliary field during rainy weather to avoid chewing up the stadium turf.
Full-team practices begin Feb. 1.
“The biggest thing is getting guys out here day in and day out,” Lopez said. “It’s important we get out here and just make his our home. It’s exciting.”
For fans, it’s also exciting, presumably, that beer will be sold through the fifth inning.
“We think it’s an opportunity for something else for our fans to enjoy while they’re here,” Byrne said. “At the same time, we expect them to be responsible in the use of that, too.”
Lopez talked about the positive effect the facility — which should be one of the best on the West Coast — should have on recruiting.
“Those 18 year olds, they really like the trinkets,” Lopez said. “Man, they do. They really like the trinkets. You can get their attention a little bit. This is going to help get those guys.”
The other main benefit is that Hi Corbett will make Arizona a more attractive site to host postseason games. With a team that is ranked No. 20 nationally in the preseason by Collegiate Baseball, home NCAA tournament games seem like a possibility in 2012.
“That would be great for the first year,” Byrne said, before adding with a smile, “No pressure on Andy.”
Byrne said he has plenty of ideas of what to do with the space occupied by Sancet Stadium — none that he is sharing right now — but nothing is likely to be done for at least a year, he said. “We feel confident going in here (to Hi Corbett) — that’s why we made the decision — but we want to see how it goes out here and make sure this is the right decision for us,” he said.
Arizona baseball Select-a-Seat event
Where: Hi Corbett Field (located on Randolph Way, between Broadway and 22nd)
What: Exclusive opportunity (9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.) for season ticket holders and Wildcat Club members at the Diamond, Platinum and Gold giving levels to pick their reserved seats for the 2012 season. Sales and stadium tour to purchase season tickets by general public begins at 11 a.m.
Andy Lopez and Greg Byrne will be at the event, along with some UA players. It’s a free and open event to the public from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. There will be some interactive games for kids and music as well.