Updated June 8, 2012
By Nicole Dimtsios
The Arizona Wildcats baseball program had always had a solid definition of where home was.
But in March 2010, when Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne was exploring ways to stimulate the baseball program and reconnect with the community, his focus became where the program would play home games and how to increase attendance.
Byrne received a suggestion to check out Hi Corbett Field, a spring training facility in the heart of Tucson, Ariz.
“I drove by one day and saw this great facility sitting there empty,” Byrne said. “It made a lot of sense for us from a competition standpoint and recruiting standpoint.”
It had become obvious that the Wildcats were having problems bringing fans to Jerry Kindall Field at Frank Sancet Stadium in recent years.
“We were preseason No. 1 and there would be 700-800 people in the stands all year,” Arizona head coach Andy Lopez said.
Hi Corbett had hosted spring training games since 1947 and had been the home of the Colorado Rockies since 1993. But since all Major League Baseball teams recently decided to leave Tucson in favor of staying in the Phoenix metropolitan area, the stadium was ripe for the taking.
Byrne put the plan in action to move Wildcats baseball off campus, something he said has been one of the keys to the program’s success this season. While the decision was controversial at first, over the course of the season the move to Hi Corbett has proved to increase the city of Tucson’s support for the program.
“We have a lot of parking, it’s centrally located and it has restrooms and seating areas that are very fan friendly,” Byrne said. “That was an improvement from what we were doing before.”
The transition wasn’t one that everyone was in favor of or even embraced at the beginning. Even Lopez had trepidation about moving the program off campus and leaving all the memories at Sancet Stadium.
“My initial thought was, ‘Wow, that’s going to be kind of a shock,’” Lopez said. “It was a very strong program, a very traditional program.”
The Wildcats had been at Sancet Stadium since 1967 and had much success, with a record of 820-343-3 in more than 1,100 games. The field was home to legendary players and coaches, and three national championships.
But the change was something Arizona needed from a spatial and financial situation, as evidenced by poor attendance and outdated conveniences.
“You’re trying to upgrade facilities but you don’t have the finances to do it,” Lopez said. “I understood the tradition and emotion, but I had to step aside for a moment. We don’t share this facility with anyone. It’s ours. It’s branded U of A. The clubhouse has nothing but U of A in it. It was kind of too good to pass up.”
And Arizona is already seeing the benefits through facility upgrades, attendance and recognition from the NCAA.
The team officially moved into Hi Corbett on Martin Luther King Day 2012. The facility provided players with a new clubhouse, weight room, computer lab and kitchen. As a result of the upgraded amenities, Arizona upped its average attendance from 1,000 fans per game to about 2,500, according to Byrne. In addition to the increase in ticket and concession sales, the fan base has also reenergized the program.
“I point to three or four games where I really believed the home crowd was the 10th man for us,” Lopez said. “The size of the crowd, the whole environment is just a completely different feeling.”
The Wildcats got used to the size of the crowd at home and used that as an advantage when playing in bigger series during conference games this season. Arizona didn’t lose a conference series on the road this season.
“It was a different world for us,” Lopez said. “Because of the crowds we played at home, when we went on the road, it was a little easier to adjust.”
But the biggest surprise has been something the Wildcats had been struggling with for almost a decade: securing home field advantage in the postseason.
“We’ve been in the Regional seven of the last nine years, we’ve been a No. 1 seed three years, and all those one situations took place on the road, and it’s a challenging situation,” Lopez said.
Arizona hosted its first Regional since 1992 last weekend and will host its first Super Regional in its history when they take on St. John’s Red Storm in a best of three series this weekend.
“It means a lot to our university and our athletic program,” Byrne said. “It’s a tribute to our university baseball program coaches and players and our fans to be able to host.”
The Wildcats already moved past Missouri and Louisville, and with a series win this weekend, would punch their ticket to Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series for the first time since 2004.
Moving stadiums wasn’t always in the plans for Byrne, Lopez and the Wildcats, but the decision to follow up on a suggestion to find a new home base has turned out to be the best choice for the fans, players and the program.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” Lopez said. “It’s a neat thing when you have 5,000 people and you have the U-of-A chant going. That’s kind of a nice feeling.”