By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
It is becoming a common occurrence for Grand Canyon University sports fans to walk into a new athletics venue on campus and ooh and aah about its look, feel and amenities. After all, five have opened in the last 18 months – two in the last week.
But the official opening of Brazell Field at GCU Ballpark on Friday night produced the strongest reaction yet.
Like GCU Arena, the predecessor to the new homes for soccer, beach volleyball, tennis, softball and now baseball, this has all the trappings of a transformative facility that will become known near and far. A heartbreaking 3-2 loss to TCU, the No. 7 team in the country, couldn’t quiet the notion that there will be many more moments of ecstasy than agony here.
Alumni from the early days of Grand Canyon baseball in the 1950s could scarcely believe that they were standing in the same place they called “the dust bowl.” When the field first was constructed, it was composed entirely of dirt – no grass anywhere. The only greenery on it was the stickers on its edges and the weeds in the outfield.
“It just blows your mind,” said Pete Gorraiz, proudly wearing his white, old-style jersey with “ANTELOPES” on the front and his name and number on the back. “This is unbelievable to see something like this. It’s just great.”
Said his former teammate, Fred Hawkins, “To think in ’56 when I graduated from here … I’d never have believed this would come.”
Players from the 1980s and ’90s, an era that included four NAIA championships, were equally stunned by its appearance.
The program’s most notable alumnus, Tim Salmon, was visiting campus for the first time in two years. His reaction as he got his first glimpse of the stadium’s various features was priceless.
“Holy cow!” the former major league star said as he walked under the grandstand and made his way to the press box for a television interview. “Golly, look at these batting cages. It’s definitely a new era. The practice field, even.”
And that was before he walked up the stairs and saw the huge new grandstand enveloping the classic field, which was preserved through the nine-month construction process.
“I’m so impressed,” he said later, after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch and sitting in the TV booth for an inning. “It’s just exciting. When I came here and played, I thought it was pretty amazing. We thought it was a gorgeous stadium back then – it was the nicest structure on campus.
“I don’t think you could ever imagine something like this outside of the big leagues. It’s probably better than some spring training sites because it’s newer. In so many ways, I’m just so proud as an alumni to see our campus growing and flourishing.”
Two prominent players of more recent GCU vintage, Garrison Schwartz and Paul Panaccione, took time away from their spring training preparations to see the opener.
Schwartz will be heading to the Atlanta Braves’ minor league camp in Orlando, Fla., in a few days, and Panaccione is ready to do the same at the Washington Nationals’ camp in West Palm Beach, Fla. They likened GCU Ballpark to those well-maintained spring training facilities – but said it’s a whole lot better than many minor league parks.
“I haven’t seen a college baseball facility like this,” Schwartz said. “You see them when you go down into the SEC or Big 12, but this is modern and brand new. You can’t beat it, and you’re in Arizona with Arizona weather. I seriously can’t think of a better place to play for these guys.”
“It will bring these guys more exposure, too,” Panaccione said. “It’s bringing teams like TCU here – they wouldn’t have done that last year and the years before. The talent level of the team is getting better every year. We can compete with these guys (TCU).”
Even the TCU players noticed how special the new facility is. GCU shortstop Marc Mumper told of how they’d get out to second base during the game and say to him, “Man, this is a hidden gem. This is a cool place.”
And what was it like for GCU players performing in front of a record crowd of 3,749?
“Words don’t describe it,” Mumper said. “It was electric. Having the student body out here, lots of alumni, guys from the ’50s, guys who are in pro ball – it’s a real experience, something a lot of us will remember forever.”
The fans undoubtedly will, too, for several reasons. For one thing, admission is free. That’s a nice break for a family looking for a fun, inexpensive outing. There’s a kid zone and berm seating down the right-field line and plenty of concessions – even purple nachos. And, if they want, aspiring players can stand right behind the batting cages as collegians take their hacks.
“Hopefully the fans enjoyed themselves,” GCU coach Andy Stankiewicz said, putting aside for a moment Friday night’s bitter loss. “You want to build a program where teams come in here and see that it’s a great place to play, full house, great playing surface. There are a lot of positives to build on here.”
The postgame fireworks show had ended, and the GCU players likewise were putting aside their disappointment as they joined Stankiewicz in dutifully signing autographs, as promised, for fans at tables set up in front of their dugout.
There will be more visitors like TCU, more big games, more big moments. This season’s home schedule includes Washington State (coming up Tuesday night), Arizona, Penn State, Kansas and New Mexico, and the Lopes are favored to win the Western Athletic Conference – a feat that, if achieved, would earn them their first trip to the NCAA tournament.
“This community, it’s always been that the two big dogs were ASU and U of A,” Salmon said. “Now you’ve got Grand Canyon right there with them.”
From dust bowl to field of dreams. There’s nothing common about it at all.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.