Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau
She had watched hundreds – no, thousands – of baseball games at this place with her husband coaching on the field or sitting at her side.
So it was understandable that Dr. Mildred Brazell was pretty emotional Friday evening for the “grand reopening” of Brazell Field at GCU Ballpark. Fewer than four months earlier, the funeral procession bearing the casket of her spouse of 72 years had slowly passed the corner of campus they so dearly called home, and now she was back for the first game since then.
“I’m not sure I can talk – I’ll start crying,” she said.
But then she was able to hold back her tears and talk about the legacy of Dr. Dave Brazell, the man who built and then caressed this plot of land with his bare hands and put Grand Canyon baseball on the map. Through his 50 years as a coach, teacher and administrator, her 38 years as a teacher and all the years after that of attending games together, this was their life.
“We’re just so proud of all the beautiful buildings and of what they’ve done to the stadium,” said Mildred, who was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch but handed the ball to her son Don Brazell instead. "It’s such an honor that they do this. I really appreciate it.”
The “reopener,” to celebrate the addition of new seating to a venue that compares favorably to the Arizona spring training homes of 15 major league teams, drew a record crowd of 4,562, more than 500 above capacity and nearly a thousand more than the largest previous turnout at the second-year stadium – all this despite a cloudy, chilly evening and with Antelope Gymnasium packed for the men's volleyball match next door. It also drew a long list of current and former major league players, led by former GCU star Tim Salmon, and featured U.S. Sen. Martha McSally singing "God Bless America."
The only thing better than GCU’s 9-1 victory over Wichita State was the atmosphere, an area where the University has become nationally recognized the last few years. That reputation has been built in basketball, and the goal is to extend that special feeling to soccer and baseball.
“This atmosphere is as good as it gets in Division I,” Mike Vaught, Vice President of Athletics, said as he looked at the scene.
It took a lot of hard work – and a lot of meetings, often two a week – to create it. Taylor Griffin, Director of In-Game Entertainment and Fan Experience, said he lost track of the number of times organizers convened to bat around ideas that would make the baseball experience just as special as basketball in the Arena despite the sports’ obvious differences.
“Our goal is to be consistent with the kinds of things we do for programming,” Griffin said. “Obviously, it’s difficult to do with different types of venues. For example, there’s more you can do in the Arena than outside.
“It’s just a matter of us being creative and trying to do what we can do to make the experience just as enjoyable but to have a different feel at the same time.”
Watching Griffin work a game, communicating almost constantly via walkie-talkie with on-field personnel, is a study of a man in constant motion. Every time an inning had the potential of being over soon, he was making sure everyone on the field was prepared for the next promo.
“Cue sheets are the bane of my existence,” he said, “but they’re necessary.”
The promos, many of them themed to GCU, reflected the creativity of all those meetings. They included:
- “Steal” second base: Starting from deep center field, the contestant has 30 seconds to run to second base and back.
- Fill in the missing song lyric: On this night, the contestant dutifully sang the rest of the song, not just one word.
- GCBC build-a-drink
- GCU trivia
- Spin around the bat: A longtime ballpark favorite where contestants twirl ’round and ’round a bat and then try to run to the finish line despite their dizziness.
And, of course, kids got to run around the bases after the game. The free admission all season long is yet another example of the efforts to create, in Griffin’s words, a “family-friendly, fun-and-relaxing atmosphere.”
Just as in basketball, the Havocs have an important role in creating that atmosphere at GCU Ballpark. But, like Griffin, GCU’s nationally recognized student cheer section adjusts for the pace of baseball.
The Co-Presidents of the Havocs, Shelby Langston and Jake Bradshaw, talked before the game about how the differences between basketball and baseball affect their planning.
They still dropped their huge banner over the Havocs section before the game, but as for the rest of it, “I think we’ll see how it goes this season,” Langston said. “Every sport can take the time to develop and see where it’s headed.”
Said Bradshaw, “Obviously, basketball is like a party the whole time. Baseball is a little bit more relaxed, so it’s kind of fun, the vision we’ve got between traditional baseball and a little bit of Havoc elements in there. A little more Havoc than in traditional baseball, but it’s still a little more laid back.”
Well, not that laid back – these are the Havocs, after all. During the game, they could be heard chanting "left, right, left, right" as Wichita State hitters trudged back to the dugout after striking out.
“Baseball is a heckler’s sport, and you know the Havocs like to heckle a little bit. We keep it clean, but it’s fun to heckle,” he said.
Food also is a key part of the ballpark experience, of course, and that means one thing.
“What’s synonymous with baseball? Hot dogs,” said Kody Linsacum, GCU’s Concessions Manager.
All those planning meetings linked into an idea that will be exclusive to GCU Ballpark – a new wiener style will be introduced in every month of the season:
- February: Bases Loaded Dog – Hot dog with pepper jack mac and cheese, bacon bits and jalapenos
- March: Deli Dog – Bratwurst on pretzel bun with chopped pastrami, sauerkraut and spicy brown mustard
- April: Foul Ball Dog – Hot dog topped by barbecued chicken with coleslaw and pickles.
A GCU Today investigation – aka, a taste test – revealed that the new dogs figure to fetch a lot of customers. Those baseball delicacies are in addition to two treats introduced last year: the World Famous Thunder Nachos (purple corn tortilla chips, homemade chicken chili, salsa verde, pico de gallo, olives, regular cheese, nacho cheese and guacamole) and the purple churros.
Linsacum also emphasized affordability, even with all those toppings -- $5 for a hot dog, $6 for the nachos – and said the concession stands are focused on fast service: “We want people to watch the game and enjoy themselves, not stand around at concessions.”
Mildred Brazell certainly enjoys herself at the games. “I try to come out if I can get a ride. I love baseball,” she said.
Then she sat down and watched another game. It’s not quite the same without her beloved husband, but she’s carrying on the Brazell tradition at GCU – the tears are no match for the joy of baseball.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].