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New tradition begins: Wildcats open with a win at Hi Corbett Field

The sun setting behind the right-field wall at Hi Corbett? Not a bad way to start the season.

Peanuts! Cracker Jack! Beer!

Plenty of memories come back while walking through Hi Corbett Field more than a hour before first pitch. The Cleveland Indians. Colorado Rockies. The Tucson Toros.

If you are of a certain age, perhaps you saw DiMaggio, Mays, Mantle and Williams play here in this historic patch of central Tucson.

Friday night was the beginning of the latest chapter.

The Arizona Wildcats baseball team has freshened up the old stadium (opened in 1927) and branded it as its own — with “A” logos, splashes of cardinal and navy, plaques in the concourse honoring past legends, signs on the outfield wall honoring the school’s three national championship teams.

“I’m continuing to hear stories about people’s history with Hi Corbett — where they sat as a kid, remembering certain games, remembering certain players who played here,” said Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne, who mingled through the crowd before the game.

“You can tell, there is a real natural affinity between baseball and Hi Corbett and our community.”

And it never hurts to win.

The Wildcats beat the Bison 3-1 in front of 3,997 fans — about 1,800 more than at any home game last season — with junior ace Kurt Heyer pitching seven innings and left fielder Johnny Field knocking out four hits.

“The statement I made to our guys yesterday at the end of practice and today before the ballgame was, ‘Hey, this is a great night for the fans and the community, and hopefully they have a great time,’” said coach Andy Lopez.

“‘But you guys aren’t the fans and you’re not the alumni. You’re the current players and you need to go out and play good baseball.’ And I thought we did.”

But there was no hiding the fact that it was a special night — and everyone knew it. Heyer said he was so amped up that he did something he has never done before. He threw up before the game.

“I had a huge adrenaline rush before this game because I was like, wow, we’re going to have 4,000 fans coming in and they’re going to be watching every pitch. Dude, I’m going to feel like I’m at Yankee Stadium or something,” Heyer said.

“It was awesome.”

Heyer’s first pitch at 6:16 p.m. was a fastball — strike one. He quickly got into trouble, though, as the Bison loaded the bases with one out with a single, double and a walk. Heyer wriggled free with a strikeout and a fly ball.

Arizona’s first hit in the new Hi Corbett was a leadoff single by Joey Rickard. Rickard scored the first run on a single by Robert Refsnyder. With the help of a triple by Field, Arizona scored three runs in the first.

“We put something together in the first inning, which was nice,” Lopez said. “We needed it, obviously.”

Heyer allowed five hits, striking out seven and walking two. Normally able to filter out the crowd, he said he had to take a frequent peeks Friday night.

“I would look at the scoreboard and then turn around and would be like, ‘Whoa.’ I would look up in the stands and the Zona Zoo was full and the left side was going crazy. It was nice,” he said.

“We really needed this fan support tonight to get this one done.”

Heyer wasn’t the only one with opening-night jitters.

The public address system went out twice during Arizona player introductions, and then went out again about halfway through the national anthem. Cool moment: With singer Tora Woloshin silenced, the crowd chimed in and finished the anthem in unison.

Byrne said there will be a list “a mile long” of things he and his staff address Monday morning, including too-long concession lines (although that’s not the worst problem to have).

Those growing pains are to be expected in the move back to a place in which the Wildcats often called home many years ago.

Arizona played a lot of baseball at Hi Corbett, especially before the on-campus facility that would become Jerry Kindall Field at Frank Sancet Stadium was built in 1967. UA added lights to that stadium during the 1975 season, which is believed to be the last time the Cats played a college game at Hi Corbett.

Arizona honored its past before the game. More than 100 baseball alums arched behind the pitchers’ mound as former coach Jerry Kindall and Hank Sancet, the grandson of coach Frank Sancet, threw out the first pitch. Kindall tossed to his longtime assistant coach, Jim Wing.

“It’s great to see,” Byrne said of the alumni turnout.

“Any time you talk about changing the facility, there is a lot of emotion that comes with it,” he added, referring to the reluctance of some to move from baseball’s on-campus home. “And that was the case with some of our alumni. But we continually talked about why this makes sense for us, why we wanted to take a risk with this.

“Some were on both sides of the fence, but there are about 110 alumni here and it shows that the most important part is Arizona baseball.”

The challenge now is to turn curious fans into full-time customers.

“There is a lot of tradition at this field,” Heyer said. “Hopefully, we can keep that going.”

Related: Going to his left: All-star SS Alex Mejia switches sides of the plate

Saturday’s promotion — First Pitch at 4 p.m.
Two-time World Champion manager and 1980 Golden Spikes Award winner Terry Francona headline a Major League Baseball All-Star autograph session before the game starting at 3:15 p.m. Other past and present professionals that will be on hand to sign autographs will be Brian Anderson, George Arias, Jordan Brown, Jason Donald, Shelley Duncan, Gil Heredia, Jack Howell, Nick Hundley, Brad Mills and Ed Vosberg. Additionally, members of the1962 Arizona baseball team will be introduced on the field before the start of the game to honor their 50-year reunion. Francona will throw out the first pitch.

The view from the press box for the first pitch from Hi Corbett.

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