By BERNIE WILSONSAN DIEGO (AP) â¿¿ The University of San Diego finally has a sweet little ballpark to match its national reputation, even if construction workers have to hammer, saw and paint right up until the first pitch Friday night. Fowler Park more than rivals Tony Gwynn Stadium, the jewel nestled onto San Diego State's campus a few miles to the east. "It's like going to Disneyland," said Rich Hill, who is entering his 15th season as coach and has led the Toreros to five West Coast Conference titles and seven NCAA regional appearances. "I mean, the attention to detail throughout the structure, it's crazy. I've never seen anything like this." The ballpark cost $13.8 million, the bulk of which was donated by Ron Fowler, the executive chairman of the San Diego Padres, and his wife, Alexis. Fowler, who's made a fortune from his beer distributorships, also is chairman of USD's board of trustees and has a daughter who graduated from the university. Fowler Park opens under the lights Friday night with the first of a three-game series against SDSU, which is coached by Gwynn. The nationally ranked Toreros are led by third baseman Kris Bryant and right-hander Michael Wagner, both juniors. It was built in just more than nine months on the site of Cunningham Stadium, which was embarrassingly basic for such a good program. Tucked into a natural bowl-like setting, it had no lights, simple dugouts and metal bleachers that stretched 34 rows uphill, with no handrails. "Let's just say the playing field itself was the best part of it," Fowler said. "It was, I would say, not much better than a high school field." Cunningham Stadium was built over the years by John Cunningham, who coached for 35 years before making way for Hill. The playing surface at Fowler Park will be known as Cunningham Field.
Hill feels he now has the best college ballpark on the West Coast, maybe in the country, one that's suitable for hosting NCAA regionals and super regionals. That's a good thing, because when USD hosted the first NCAA regional ever played in San Diego, in 2007, it was at Tony Gwynn Stadium because USD's field was so sub-par."That was great, but it was very awkward," said USD athletic director Ky Snyder, who played football at San Diego State. "It was awkward for us, it was awkward for them. That was kind of a stimulus to get this going." Fowler Park's perfectly groomed green grass and dark blue outfield fence stand out against the 16th century Spanish Renaissance architecture of the exterior structure, which fits the theme of rest of the hilltop Catholic university's campus. The "wow" factor extends even to two prominent alums, Brian Matusz of the Baltimore Orioles and A.J. Griffin of the Oakland A's. They recently got a look at the Fowler Park's big-league caliber dugouts and the carpeted, oval-shaped home clubhouse â¿¿ which has four flatscreen TVs on the walls â¿¿ and an adjoining players' lounge, study area and soft-toss cage. "I've had Brian Matusz and A.J. Griffin saying, 'It's better than Yankee Stadium in there,' and Yankee Stadium was just built like a couple of years ago," Hill said. "They were saying, 'It's better than Camden Yards. It's better than any spring training complex that we go to.' " There are 1,700 permanent chair-back seats. Capacity can be increased to 3,000 with temporary seating, including on the Torero Deck, a 4,000-square-foot area above the home clubhouse. Hill said the ballpark will be good for fans, too. "This is Friday night baseball, man, Saturday night baseball," he said above the clatter of workers finishing the ballpark earlier this week. "These guys want to come to a ballpark. This is our national pastime on a college campus in Southern California. We have this Taj Mahal that these people can come to and enjoy college baseball played the right way. It's awesome."
Donating a big chunk of cash was a natural for Fowler, a civic leader and philanthropist who heads the group that bought the Padres last summer."I've always loved the sport, and I think Rich Hill is probably one of the most quality people you can meet in college sports," said Fowler, who played high school baseball in Minnesota before tearing up his left knee. "He has high energy, passion and is a great role model for his players. I chair the board at USD, and I think you put your money where your mouth is." The new ballpark will help both in recruiting players and keeping them on campus a bit longer. "I think it's going to keep guys from the pro thing a little bit better," Hill said. "I think it will add to our depth. I think we'll be able to really recruit the highest quality guy, not only on the West Coast but nationally." Despite playing in a sun-splashed city that produces a ton of prep talent, neither USD nor SDSU have ever reached a super regional, the last step before the College World Series. "Our goal is to get to Omaha," Snyder said. "This was built with the intent of hosting the regionals and hopefully then the super regionals. Teams that host the regionals and super regionals have a far better chance of getting to the College World Series than those that don't." Hill, who played with Gwynn, Bobby Meacham and Mark Williamson on the 1981 SDSU team that reached the NCAA regionals, agrees. "You've got to earn it. No excuses," Hill said. "Let's go. Let's not build a fence around what we think we can accomplish in this thing and go for it." One final detail that Hill likes about Fowler Park is that workers reinforced his office walls to support his surfboard and paddleboard. "It's all San Diego, man. It's all San Diego," Hill said.