CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — CHAD HOLBROOK can tell you how far college baseball has advanced since his playing days at North Carolina. All he had to do was look around the Boshamer Stadium premises Thursday afternoon.
Holbrook played for the Tar Heels from 1990 through 1993. The indoor batting cages at the time were located beneath the grandstands in what was widely known to the players and coaches as the dirt pit.
“Coaches would run us, and after they’d run us it was so dusty, I remember, we’d spit dirt up and it would come through our noses,” Holbrook said of the cages. “I’d blow my nose about two hours later and dirt would come out.”
Conditions were equally sordid throughout the college game. Holbrook also recalled that during his freshman year of 1990, UNC played the NCAA Northeast Regional on a football field in Waterbury, Conn.
Times have changed.
Two NCAA Super Regionals will be played this weekend within 30 miles of each other in recently renovated stadiums. Every game has been sold out, and ESPN cameras will allow the nation to see every pitch.
Of course, few college ballparks are the match of USC’s Carolina Stadium, a $35.6 million edifice that stacks up with minor-league stadiums across the country. With 6,400 permanent seats, Carolina Stadium often fills to capacity.
UNC’s renovated park has many of the same amenities as Carolina Stadium, from luxurious clubhouses to skyboxes. The $26.1 million in renovations to Boshamer Stadium were paid for through a fund-raising effort and it re-opened for the 2009 season with a capacity that increased from 2,500 to 4,100.
Just down I-40 through the Research Triangle Park, N.C. State is hosting a Super Regional against Rice. Ten years ago, N.C. State’s Doak Field was renovated to the tune of $6 million and now holds 2,200 chair-back seats.
That is a far cry from the days when Holbrook and UNC coach Mike Fox played the game. Fox played for the Tar Heels from 1976 to 1978. That 1978 club reached the College World Series.
Not many supporters of the UNC athletics program — or any other, for that matter — paid much attention to the games. Fox recalled a lone reporter from The Chapel Hill newspaper dropping by practice to inquire about the trip to Omaha.
This weekend, UNC will issue about 150 media credentials, including 20 or so for ESPN and its crew. ESPN has adopted the college game and is greatly responsible for its exponential growth.
“College baseball has grown with the help of ESPN and the national spotlight,” Holbrook said at the pre-Super Regional news conference attended by some 20 members of the media. “We’ve been on national TV 23 or 24 times this year. The growth of our sport is at an all-time high. I never thought I would see this day.”
Neither Holbrook nor Fox believed there would be a high demand for tickets to postseason competition, either.
Fox said there have been 6,000 requests for the 3,000 tickets initially made available for this weekend’s games. One personal request he received for tickets came from Fox’s financial advisor. The man sent along a photo of himself with his son at an NCAA tournament game early in Fox’s coaching career. Only about 250 fans appeared to be watching the game in the Boshamer Stadium stands.
“I think he was trying to tell me, ‘I was one of those people way back when, can you help me out now?’ “” said Fox, who managed to find a couple of extra tickets. The two will be squeezed into Boshamer Stadium to watch two of the most successful programs in college baseball over the past decade.
Actually, both programs have been among the nation’s elite as far back as the 1970s. The difference today is the unprecedented national exposure both programs receive compared to operating in virtual anonymity years ago.
As a young reporter in Durham in the early 1980s, I was welcomed with open arms by area college baseball coaches when I showed up to cover their teams at the conclusion of men’s basketball season.
Back then, the ACC tournament was played on home fields of member schools. The few media covering the event kept their scorecards while seated in the stands at the old Durham Athletic Park or at Boshamer Stadium.
So desperate was the league for fans, coolers were allowed into the parks. Students — when the legal drinking age was 18 — hauled their coolers packed with beer into the stands. The crowds often were hardly large in number, but certainly were high in rowdiness.
Today, the only alcoholic beverages allowed in the stadium will be served high above the field to boosters of the program in their luxury boxes. Times have, indeed, changed.