CARBONDALE — With one arm firmly grasping the past, the SIU baseball program took a gigantic step into the future Tuesday afternoon, breaking ground on Richard “Itchy” Jones Stadium.
The new facility which will feature a full-turf field, lights, permanent seating, a new press box and new bathroom facilities is scheduled to be completed by Feb. 28. The groundbreaking ceremonies were in front of the twisted metal of bleachers that were torn down Monday.
“It seems only fitting the new stadium be named after our hall of fame coach Itchy Jones who was the architect of so many College World Series teams and so many tremendous teams in general,” said SIU athletic director Mario Moccia. “But, it’s important to remember that baseball at Itchy Jones Stadium will always be played on Abe Martin Field. One of the first things we did when this concept first came out is I called Abe’s two sons, Ken and Russ, and they gave their whole-hearted support to naming this facility after Itchy Jones.”
Abe Martin Field had been home to the Saluki baseball program since 1965. The Salukis played 1,111 games at the old facility.
The existing clubhouse, which now bears Jones’ name, will be incorporated into the new facility. It will be renamed for Dan Callahan. Callahan, who was SIU’s coach for 16 seasons, died in 2010.
“Having a stadium named after me is the greatest athletic honor I’ve ever received,” Jones said. “I say that because our players took a great part in it. That’s always important, you always wonder about that. Did they respect things? Did they respect the program? I think they did. I appreciate it very much.”
In addition to having a Hall of Fame coaching career, Jones played baseball and basketball at SIU. He had a 738-345-5 record at SIU with 10 NCAA and three College World Series appearances.
A Herrin native, Jones left SIU to coach the University of Illinois for 15 years.
He was instrumental in the fund-raising efforts to build the new stadium. Jones and his former players raised $1.86 million. The university will provide a matching loan to complete the project.
“We brought our players together at a reunion and the players all got together and decided you know this school was great to us,” Jones said. “It gave us an opportunity to play baseball. It gave us an opportunity to get our education and go out and make a living. It’s time we do something for this university and this baseball program. They backed it 100 percent. They got on each other to give.”
Moccia said 100 of the 225 donors are former SIU baseball players.
Ken Henderson, current baseball coach, was probably the happiest man at the groundbreaking ceremony. Henderson said he would miss nothing about the old facility.
“It’s not that I don’t have an appreciation for the history of the program,” he said. “I do. It’s very important to me. We embrace it. We use it. We talk to recruits about it, but a bulldozer can’t take away that history.
“I can think of no better way to tie in the history of this program and the great tradition with the future than to walk into a stadium every day that bears the name of Itch Jones. Itch, nobody did any more to build the history and tradition of this program than you did. There’s never been a more deserving honor than to name the stadium after you.”
SIU play-by-play announcer Mike Reis served as master of ceremonies. Chancellor Rita Cheng and current Saluki baseball player Donny Duchinsky also spoke.