Tulane baseball is safe at home again

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Brett Martel
Associated Press / April 13, 2008

NEW ORLEANS - The crack of a baseball against the wood siding of a shotgun house has restored a sense of normalcy in an old neighborhood around Tulane University.

Residents in the historic "Uptown" area watched Tulane's new 5,000-seat baseball park rise from the muck of a disaster zone while they rebuilt their own homes and lives.

"It's beautiful," said Mike Lanaux, who lives behind the left field wall and watches games with his wife, Lindsay, from the roof of their garage, evoking images of Wrigley Field.

"It gives you the sense that things are getting back to normal. It's nice to see a few thousand kids in the stands, cheering. At night, everything is just illuminated by the amount of light those light standards throw into the neighborhood."

The stadium lights are hardly the most defining characteristic of Greer Field at Turchin Stadium, which opened for this college baseball season - a year behind schedule because of delays stemming from Hurricane Katrina.

Lanaux speaks with the perspective of someone who returned to a neighborhood that was eerily dark for weeks after the August 2005 storm.

He lived alone, without electricity, in the upstairs of his handsome, stucco home on Audubon Boulevard, one of the more elegant streets in town. Flooding had ruined nearly everything on the first floor. His wife temporarily moved their children to Houston to get them back in school.

"It was weird, the first month after the hurricane, when I'd drive from here to work in pitch black," he said.

Only trace evidence of disaster remains in Lanaux's well-heeled neighborhood, which is easily seen from the stands as a backdrop of massive live oak canopies, palm trees, arched windows and burnt orange terra-cotta ridge lines on expansive rooftops.

The $10.5 million ballpark is a new architectural landmark wedged into an edge of campus where Super Bowls and Sugar Bowls were once held at the old Tulane football stadium.

With dark-green bucket seats and a red brick design on walls behind home plate and between two levels of the infield stands, it combines a nostalgic look with modern amenities such as private suites and an open-air club patio for boosters.

Along the right-field foul line, a steep pavilion - where students sit and heckle opposing players - towers over a narrow street separating campus from a stretch of old one- and two-story wood-frame homes that sometimes take knocks from foul balls hit high enough to clear the suites.

Tulane head baseball coach Rick Jones, now in his 15th season with the Green Wave, said neighbors never complain, nor do they return any balls.

They cherish the return of baseball, he said.

"Around here you talk to people who say they grew up selling Cokes in the old Tulane Stadium during the Super Bowl and they're Tulane fans from birth," he said.

Because the new park was built on the same spot as the old, smaller Turchin Stadium, which held about 3,500, the new stands had to be built on a steeper incline, so even fans in the top row have the impression of being on top of the action.

"It feels almost like you're in an amphitheater when you're on the field," Jones said.

Tulane's baseball team held together after the storm in large part because Texas Tech hosted it for the fall 2005 semester, setting players up with classes, housing and practice facilities.

Because much of Tulane's campus did not flood, it reopened the next semester and the baseball team spent the past two seasons playing home games at Zephyr Field, a minor league park in the suburbs that currently hosts the New York Mets' Triple A affiliate. Many students and neighborhood residents were unwilling or unable to make the 20-minute drive each way regularly, and games were played before lots of empty seats.

Julia Otis has been attending games for years and lived within walking distance of the on-campus ballpark before relocating after the flood. She drives now, but still takes heart in seeing nearby residents flock to games from rebuilt homes.

"It's a little piece of regular activity. A lot of the fans here have been coming for so long, they walk over here, ride their bikes or they're five minutes away," Otis said.

"There's always someone sitting out there on the roof," she added, glancing at Lanaux's place.

Players are delighted because they no longer bus to practice or home games and because the new synthetic turf field drains well, so typical spring showers cause only minimal delays.

The crowds are more lively as well.

"Our student section was pretty much nonexistent the last two years," outfielder Warren McFadden said. "This adds a little life to the campus. People get excited about games. They can just walk right down the street."

Senior outfielder Grayden Griener, who was part of Tulane's last College World Series team in 2005, struggled to think of a comparable college baseball venue.

"As far as the fans being on top of you and the noise level, it's more electric than any place I've ever been in, and I've played in a lot of good places."

Jones suspected it would help him recruit and hasn't been disappointed. He received commitments from the first 11 recruits who visited after the new stadium was built.

"This is something I've been waiting for for 15 years, and now that it's here I have to pinch myself once in a while, because after the storm, all bets were off," Jones said. "The university didn't have to do this and everyone would have understood, including me. There's no manual to go by when you're dealing with the nation's largest natural disaster."

Like others across the city, Tulane took the approach of combining needed repairs with improvements, and many at the university contend that the entire campus looks better than ever.

Certainly, the new ballpark, which will host the Conference USA tournament May 21-25, helps.

"Like it was rising from the ashes, it was amazing to watch it be built. It's pretty awesome," said Rick Lacey, who graduated from Tulane in 1971 and is a regular at games. "To a certain degree, a facility like this is kind of showing the way. I hope so anyway."

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