After calling J.O. Christian Field home for the last 51 years, UConn baseball will finally say farewell to the field this season, with the new stadium across the street expected to be ready for next year.
Given the long history of the field, it’s an emotional good-bye for the program. Just tell that to UConn’s players and coaches.
“As fond memories as I have of the place, and those won’t go anywhere, the field needs to go,” head coach Jim Penders said after Wednesday’s victory over Boston College. “We’re very much ready for the next chapter. Hopefully we’re playing a lot of meaningful games here in 2019, and then it’ll be ready to rest in peace.”
The Huskies are one of the few remaining teams in New England who still play on a natural-grass field. In the last couple of decades, athletics departments have moved almost exclusively to artificial turf fields in colder regions. Grass fields are often simply unplayable during the brutal Connecticut winters in February, March and April.
“As a baseball purist, I hate the idea of playing on plastic grass, but as a coach in the Northeast, it’s a necessity,” Penders said. “It’s the only way to play a real baseball season here.”
In addition to the playing surface itself, the facilities have understandably fallen well behind in their half-decade of use. There are no lights, making night games impossible. On afternoon games, when daylight ends, so must the game. Fan seating is limited to spread-out bleachers, the dugouts are outdated and, surrounded by mud and rock, it looks no more impressive than a run-down high school field.
The new field—or better yet, ‘stadium’—will feature lighting, improved fan seating (with seatbacks), a much more attractive design and, most importantly, a turf field.
“With the stadium, one thing it’s definitely going to bring is fanfare,” catcher Paul Gozzo said on Wednesday. “We had a good showing yesterday and today, but I think more people are gonna want to come to the games with a stadium atmosphere. I’m excited for it.”
Because of the weather, UConn and most other northern schools typically build a road-heavy schedule in the early season, taking shelter down south until New England thaws.
Last season, the Huskies played the first 21 games of the season on the road after the first two home openers were postponed. This season, UConn started the exact same way, playing 21 games away and going 13-8 in that span, before making its home debut on Tuesday.
With wins over Hartford and BC this week, the Huskies have opened the final season at J.O. Christian Field with a 2-0 record. In fact, the poor field conditions often give UConn a unique advantage.
“This is the worst surface we play on all year, and that’s an advantage for us,” Penders said after Tuesday’s dominant win over Hartford. “When other teams come in, they don’t like playing here even more than we don’t like playing here. So I suppose we’ll miss that next year, but good riddance, I can deal with that.”
The players also recognize that advantage, and while the field was never home sweet home, some players have chosen to look at the bright side of J.O. Christian Field. When asked if the new stadium played a role in his decision to come to UConn, redshirt freshman Caleb Wurster admitted he wasn’t even informed of the plans.
“No, I had no clue we were getting a new stadium,” Wurster, who pitched two stellar innings against BC on Wednesday, said. “I was fine with the JOC, but I’m looking forward to the new stadium. It’s bittersweet; the JOC is home, teams hate coming here, so to lose that is a little disappointing, but you can’t complain when you’re getting a new stadium.”
For head coach Jim Penders, he’s been waiting for this farewell season for a long time.
“My first meeting on [the new field] was in 2003, so it’s been a long time coming,” Penders said. “Seeing those trees being cleared, it’s real now… We’re going to have a beautiful new ballpark a year from now, and I can’t wait.”
Andrew Morrison is the associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. He tweets at @asmor24