Baseball Field Inefficiencies a Headache for UWM Team
For now, the program will wait and see.
By Ken Ryan
Mothers pooling to supply lunch for the next day’s doubleheader. Players and coaches providing maintenance work to prepare the playing field. An old wooden press box void of internet access or a phone line.
If you think such a situation is saved for Johnny’s Little League team, consider again.
Despite its status as Wisconsin’s lone Division One College Baseball program, the UWM Panthers call a glorified high school diamond home. Named after Milwaukee’s Home Run King Hank Aaron, the Panthers make the bothersome three mile drive off-campus to Henry Aaron Field on Glendale Ave. for their home games at a facility aptly described as less than ideal.
“We do the best we can to make the most out of a tough situation,” says UWM head coach Scott Doffek, who had just finished raking the infield dirt before speaking.
As many baseball parks do, this field does have its own certain set of charm. On the field at least, the Panthers haven’t suffered as of late. UWM went 14-1 at home in 2009 and is off to a hot start at “The Hank” this year.
“Players take a lot of pride in this field and it shows up on the scoreboard,” says UWM Baseball Information Director Chris Zills. “But at the end of the day, the situation is far from perfect.”
With more than 400 games played at the facility each year (Milwaukee School of Engineering, Shorewood High School and the American Legion League also use the field), the playing surface takes a beating. The club has to replace the infield sod on an annual basis in a climate where grass struggles to grow naturally in March, April and May anyway.
Other shortcomings include three old rotting wooden bleacher sections for spectators that circle home plate as well the lack of a concession stand.
Recent upgrades completed by the UWM program have at least made the facility Division One tolerable, additions that include brick dugouts, ivy on the outfield wall and a new scoreboard – replacing one that officials say was 40 percent reliable.
Having served the program as both a player and now as an operations intern, Ricky Babcock knows all too about the red tape that entangles the club from getting the complete facilities facelift it desires.
“Only since George Koonce was hired as Athletic Director (in 2009) has there at least been some progress in the discussion to upgrade facilities,” he says. “Until anything actually happens though, it’s definitely a ‘take lemons and make lemonade’ type of situation.”
Babcock mentioned that two years ago he and Doffek constructed a plan for a new facility that could be a cash cow for an athletic department that is slumping financially. Along with being able to charge for admission – something UWM cannot presently do – a new stadium could provide additional revenues by way of renting out the field, concession stands during games, along with youth and coaching camps.
“Over time, the field essentially would pay for itself,” he notes.
Babcock says the program will wait and see where baseball fits into Koonce’s vision for the master plan for athletic department. He mentions that the program has a strong ally in Koonce, certainly a departure from the Bud Haidet administration criticized for being short-sighted in regards to what could be a banner program for the athletics
However, the university’s shortage of available land will make construction of an on-campus facility next to impossible.
For now, the program will continue to dig in their cleats and work with what they’ve got. Though the field is on Milwaukee County property, the facility receives minimal treatment from county officials.
“Last May, a wind storm knocked down the American Flagpole behind center field and it still hasn’t been replaced,” Babcock says, a reminder that government moves painfully slow in many facets.
Plus, Zills adds the park has been victimized by theft as the team’s audio system was stolen a year ago. The club is borrowing the soccer program’s set-up to compensate.
From a perspective of looking at the baseball team’s long-term competitive viability, a new facility may be necessary as bigger name schools such as Penn State, Michigan and Indiana invade Wisconsin, plucking away top recruits in a state that is surprisingly stable in talent level despite its wintry climate.
Whereas many of those schools use their facility as a major recruiting coup, UWM has to settle on selling itself in other areas.
“Programs like Arkansas (where UWM played in March) can show off their facility complete with a grounds crew that maintains the field before and after a game,” says Babcock. “Here, unfortunately, we can’t sell a recruit on our facility.”