Maryland baseball on the upswing

New coach, facilities lead off a new era

April 12, 2011|By Eric Meany, The Baltimore Sun

COLLEGE PARK — — There are many new sights and sounds to be experienced at Bob "Turtle" Smith Stadium this season, but it was a smell that caught the attention of second-year Maryland baseball coach Erik Bakich.

"It smells like a ballpark," he said.

The source of the appealing aroma was the Third Base Grill, a newly opened seating area and concession stand down the left-field line that is one of many improvements recently made to the university's baseball facilities in an effort to inject life into what has traditionally been a dormant program.

The Terrapins' most recent Atlantic Coast Conference championship was in 1971, the same year the team made its last appearance in the NCAA tournament. In the ensuing 39 full seasons, they have posted a winning record just 12 times; they last finished over .500 within their conference in 1981.

When Bakich was hired in 2009 after spending seven years as an assistant at Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference, he identified a number of changes that he believed were needed for the Terps to compete consistently on a national level.

"It was a significant laundry list of necessities, and I don't mean luxuries," Bakich said of his initial assessment of the state of the program. "I mean food, shelter, clothing — the necessities of ACC and Division I baseball that just weren't being met."

Since then, the short-term projects that made up the first phase of improvements Bakich identified have been completed. These included an indoor practice facility, renovations to the locker room, a new artificial turf infield, a dedicated student seating section, the Third Base Grill and new signage throughout the stadium. Future projects, such as installing an artificial turf outfield and replacing the outfield fence, remain in the planning stages pending additional fundraising.

Bakich had the Terps' conference championship years of 1965, 1970 and 1971 painted on the outfield wall to remind players and fans that Maryland baseball has not always been mired at the bottom of the standings.

"It doesn't matter that there's been 40 years of mediocrity," he said. "We put the championships up on the wall right there so people can see it's not something that's never been done, it just hasn't been done in a while."

The stadium improvements, aimed at bolstering anemic attendance at home games, already seem to have had some effect. Attendance figures for home games through the end of March are up nearly 70 percent over a comparable portion of last year's schedule. Even with that improvement, there is still room for growth, as an average crowd of under 400 leaves plenty of good seats available in a stadium with a listed capacity of 2,500.

Bernie Walter, who totaled the most wins in Maryland high school baseball history during his time coaching Arundel and now the director of baseball operations for the Terps, says the change in atmosphere around the team is already noticeable.

"I think there's a new culture as far as enthusiasm is concerned," Walter said. "There's a lot of buzz around the alumni and even on the campus with faculty. We're doing things here that the big programs do and the University of Maryland baseball program has never done."

One of the things Maryland is now doing is pushing to lock up local talent by recruiting heavily in the state. Bakich points to Walter's connections through his years of coaching and as president of the Maryland High School Coaches Association as having made a big difference in reconnecting the Terps with local high school talent.

Maryland's 2010 recruiting class, ranked 25th in the nation by Baseball America, included Kyle Convissar and Alex Ramsay of Severna Park as well as Ben Brewster from Park. Current high school seniors K.J. Hockaday of John Carroll, Shane Campbell of Kenwood and Bobby Ruse of C. Milton Wright have committed to play for the Terps next season.

"It's imperative that we get the best players in the state of Maryland that are ACC-caliber players," Bakich said. "There's just no excuse for not doing that."

Catonsville's Adam Kolarek, a pitcher in the New York Mets' minor league system who played at Maryland last year, pointed to the indoor practice space as a key addition in putting Maryland in a position to be competitive. The 5,000-square-foot facility features four batting cages, three dirt pitching mounds, retractable netting and a turf floor.

"Having that stuff available to you any time of the day or night is invaluable," Kolarek said. "And it's little things like that that other schools in the ACC have that, now that it's available in Maryland, the possibilities are endless."

Said Bakich: "In college baseball, the two cornerstones of every program are recruiting and development. You've got to recruit the best players and then you've got to make them better. And you're not going to get the best players if the best players can't see that they're going to develop in your program."

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