Diamond Disease

John R. Carter

John Anderson rocks back and forth in a chair at his Gibson-Nagurski Complex office as the head coach of Minnesota’s baseball team, probably aging faster than most men in their mid-40s.

His program ñ considered one of the nation’s elite in the 1950s and 60s ñ is engulfed in so many uncertainties, it could be mistaken for the Twins.

Anderson, the Gophers skipper on the diamond for 20 years, feels like the CEO of a corporation off the field.

Rightfully so. Unlike the Twins, Minnesota’s problems go well beyond contracts and contraction.

Issues concerning the University’s baseball facilities, competitiveness on a national level and job opportunities with other schools made the coach’s last six months very interesting.

“This has been the most hectic and challenging offseason I can remember in recent past,” Anderson said, sitting a short distance away from one of his 11 Big Ten championship trophies (five regular season titles and six conference tournament championships).

With little publicity ñ and even less support ñ compared to his Major League counterpart, Anderson continues to fight for a team that played its first game in 1876, boasts 39-straight winning seasons through 2001, and celebrated one more national championship than the Twins.

“I’m very concerned about where we are right now,” Anderson said. “I feel like I’m back where I was when I started 20 years ago.”

Playing ball

Looking to improve Minnesota’s baseball program, Anderson began lobbying for a new stadium several years ago. But plans and support for a new facility have danced around like a knuckleball and moved even slower.

Thirty-year-old Siebert Field is the oldest sports venue on campus. After the University was forced to remove 1,900 bleacher seats over the summer for safety reasons, the stadium has a capacity of just 600, smallest in the Big Ten.

“It’s not in very good shape,” Anderson said. “The playing surface is wonderful, but the amenities, appearance, location, access ñ it’s an eyesore. And it’s not comparable to the top programs in the country.”

Anderson’s vision for a new ballpark is in the hands of Devine deFlon Yaeger, an architectural firm headed by Don Eyberg.

Eyberg and his associates have spent the past two months conducting a preplanning study to determine many aspects of a new park, such as location, size and cost. Eyberg expects the study to be completed sometime in January.

The most conceivable plan calls for a 3,000-seat venue to be built witin a park located at 5th and Oak Streets, north of Mariucci Arena.

The park surrounding the stadium would function as a recreation area, with tennis and volleyball courts, and rollerblading paths among the possible amenities.

“It’s an urban campus and there aren’t too many green spaces around there other than the mall,” Eyberg said. “The baseball park is just one part, it’s really much bigger.”

Once several ideas are completed, they will be presented to University President Mark Yudof and Vice President Tonya Moten Brown. From there, the Board of Regents will weigh in and a decision about which plan to endorse will be made.

“This is the University’s program,” Anderson said. “They are going to be forced to decide what type of program they want. If they want one that can compete nationally, we need a new facility.”

Even if approval for a new ballpark came in the next few months, Anderson said planning, fundraising and construction would make it four-plus years before a new facility opens.

Dome sweet home?

Since 1985, Minnesota has played home games at the Metrodome from mid-February through March.

The Metrodome offers the Gophers the unique opportunity to host home games when there is snow on the ground ñ something other Big Ten teams can’t match.

Due to the reduced capacity of Siebert Field, Anderson said he’s considered moving all games ñ from February to May ñ to the Metrodome.

Dennis Alfton, Director of Operations for the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which runs the Metrodome, said he’s discussed the matter with Anderson.

Although the start of the Twins season in early April would clutter the Metrodome’s schedule, the idea might work.

“As long as they could fit their Big Ten schedule around the Twins, it could work,” Alfton said. “It could be sorted out and I’m sure the Twins would accommodate the University.”

The question then becomes: How long will the Metrodome be a baseball facility the Gophers can use, either from February to March, or all season?

With the Twins future in jeopardy, the multi-purpose Metrodome might become a football-only facility.

The Gophers rely on the luxury of playing in the Metrodome, and losing the stadium would negatively impact the program. If the stadium wasn’t around, Minnesota would have to play its first month and a half ñ approximately 20-25 games ñ on the road.

Alfton said all plans to renovate the Metrodome would make it a football-only facility, leaving the Gophers out in the cold.

Northern exposed

In recent years the playing field for college baseball has become extremely uneven; Southern schools dominate their Northern foes.

The Sunbelt region of the United States, which consists of 14 states, has 123 collegiate baseball teams. The other 36 states and Washington, D.C., have 157 teams.

Since 1990, 93 percent of the teams in the eight-team College World Series have been from the Sun Belt.

The competitive structure of collegiate baseball has caused Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany to push for several changes.

Among them: A new uniform starting date in mid-March as opposed to February, like it is now.

Also proposed are regional qualifiers where Northern schools face off against each other ñ not Southern schools ñ on the road to the College World Series.

Scott Chipman, Associate Director of Communication for the Big Ten said the conference plans are still in beginning stages, with no formal proposal planned for the NCAA yet.

“We want to see what changes can be made to make baseball the all-American game it was in the mid-60’s,” Chipman said.

Anderson said the Big Ten’s ideas have opened peoples eyes.

“People are starting to realize it’s really an issue,” Anderson said. “It’s getting closer to the point that we’re either going to change and get a more level playing field. Or we’re going to break away and find our own league to play in.”

Anderson’s future

For several years Anderson has worked with a “rolling” contract ñ the same kind both men’s athletics director Tom Moe and women’s athletics director Chris Voelz operate under.

Anderson said Moe recently asked him to sign a new deal. Anderson declined.

“I’m not going to sign a long-term contract and then bail out on it if I don’t like the direction of the program,” Anderson said.

Instead, if Minnesota doesn’t get what it needs to become a national power, Anderson won’t rule out leaving the Gophers.

Over the summer he pursued the coaching vacancy at Georgia. The Bulldogs, winner of an NCAA title in 1990, play in the 3,291-seat Foley Field and compete in one of America’s premiere baseball conferences.

Although Anderson wasn’t offered the job, he was fully prepared to leave his alma mater.

“Under the right terms I would have taken it,” Anderson said. “It was a unique opportunity.”

But for now, Anderson continues his battle for the Gophers ñ a fight that could get much worse.

A new report released Monday by the University states budgetary problems might force the University to end some sports teams.

While it’s too early to even speculate if Gophers baseball is on the ropes, Anderson is sticking his nose into the mix on behalf of his program.

If Minnesota baseball was cut, Anderson’s program wouldn’t be back where it was when he took over in 1982. But rather how it was in 1875.

Non-existent.