CARBONDALE - As construction continues on Southern Illinois University's new track facility, baseball supporters wonder if the same type of equipment will ever make it over to Ancient Abe.
Abe Martin Field, the oldest baseball park in the Missouri Valley Conference, was once considered one of the finest fields in the Midwest.
Built in 1964, it now lags behind stadiums like the ones Bradley, Missouri State, Wichita State and Creighton call home. To try to renovate the facility, and keep up recruiting with its conference rivals, donors and athletic officials have come up with a plan to restore Abe Martin Field to the tune of $4.9 million.
The project's plans include a new grandstand bowl, new press box, lights, security fencing and a new synthetic turf. If it's not completed all at once, SIU Athletic Director Mario Moccia said he would have a tough decision to make.
"I would like lights. The baseball program would like the field, and the alumni and the baseball alums would like the stadium, so, you've got three distinct things," he said. "But, at the same time, we can only build what we can afford, so, we'll worry about that when we get there. What I would like to see, and what our goal is, hasn't changed, and that's do all three of those things. And the second we start thinking we can't do all three, is the second you start planning to fail."
As of today, SIU athletics does not have a date where fundraising will stop. But, a brochure being presented to potential donors suggests January 2013 as a time to evaluate it. There is no parking spot to chase, so to speak, by donating the most money, or any chance to win the best seat in the 2,000-capacity house. Potential donors are being asked to honor the program's legacy and history, which includes 14 NCAA tournament appearances and 12 players that reached the major leagues.
Much of the original facility still stands today. Abe Martin Field's bleachers were said to be taken from historic Sportsman's Park in St. Louis after it was demolished in 1966. The only major additions to the facility were a new clubhouse that opened in 1988, the installation of Bermuda grass to the outfield in 2000, an outdoor batting cage that was completed that same year and recent renovations to the team's locker room.
SIU coach Ken Henderson, a 21-year member of the staff that was just named head coach earlier this month, said the program needs the improvements to compete in the MVC.
"You can't imagine just how much it impacts our program. It already has," Henderson said. "You show the kids the pictures. Even showing them the football and men's basketball programs, showing them ‘This is what we've done with their facilities.' We've gotta get it done. To take the next step, to take that next big step, we've gotta have that facility."
On Twitter: @Todd_Hefferman