May 14, 2013
By Scott Gierman
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Last Thursday marked a critical milestone in the history of the Saluki Baseball program when the SIU Board of Trustees approved a full renovation of Abe Martin Field.
Construction will begin in June, and when the facility re-opens next spring as Richard "Itch" Jones Stadium, along with the renamed Dan Callahan clubhouse, the hopes and dreams of so many people associated with the baseball program will finally be fulfilled.
With a new playing surface and lights, plus a new grandstand, concourse and press box, the facility will undergo a complete transformation.
Richard "Itch" Jones Stadium
The project will cost approximately $4 million and will be funded by private donations that have come from more than 100 Saluki baseball alumni, plus many more supporters of the program. Each dollar raised will be matched by the University.
This weekend's series against conference-leading Illinois State will be the final games played at the current Abe Martin Field, a facility which has existed relatively unchanged during the past half century.
When Abe Martin Field was built in 1964, it was among the best college baseball facilities in the Midwest.
Long-time Saluki radio voice Mike Reis recalls his first experience calling a game as an SIU student at Abe Martin Field.
"The first game I remember broadcasting was in 1976 against Oklahoma," Reis said. "It was windy as hell, and that was the time before Abe Martin Field had a press box. It had cafeteria tables at the top of the bleachers behind home plate."
"Still, I can't recall anyone who had a nicer park in the Missouri Valley Conference in 1976 than SIU had," Reis continued. "Southern likely had the best facility in the Midwest."
A press box was added in 1986 and was built by Coach Jones himself in less than one week so that the Salukis could host the MVC Tournament.
"Itch got together with his friends in Herrin," Reis explained. "They built it on the ground at Abe Martin Field. Then they all picked it up and walked up the bleachers with the press box, and then put it on top of the platform, nailed it to the platform and voila. There's a press box. Believe it or not, it was one of the better press boxes in the league. That kind of tells you about the facilities at that time.
"It was one of the more hilarious parades I've ever seen, up the bleachers at Abe Martin Field carrying a press box, and Itch Jones wearing hammers on his belt to get to the top with nails in his mouth to nail down a press box for his championship team."
By the time current head coach Ken Henderson joined the Saluki coaching staff for the 1991 season, Abe Martin field was comparable to the other facilities in the Missouri Valley Conference. Since then, however, every team in the league has upgraded its baseball facility.
"There weren't the big facilities that you have now in college baseball," Henderson said of his first few years in Carbondale. "In our league, Wichita State was the only big-time facility. Everybody else had very mediocre facilities. It was okay when I got here, but we've been bypassed."
The new facility will also incorporate The Hill down the right field line, which Henderson believes is key to re-establishing the big-event atmosphere at the park.
"I have a great respect for the history and the tradition of the program," Henderson said. "That means a lot to me. I remember when The Hill was packed and the atmosphere was big-time. Our fans support us very well right now, but we have to get the students back and let them get a feel for what The Hill was like."
Hundreds of fans would routinely fill The Hill for home games. Their loud support of the Salukis and proximity to the visiting bullpen provided a huge home-field advantage. Henderson said that is what sticks out most in his mind from the first games he coached in Carbondale.
"I sat in the dugout and couldn't believe the atmosphere on The Hill, how many people there were and how rowdy they were," Henderson said. "I'll never forget that, and I couldn't believe how much fun those students were having."
When it comes time to say goodbye, Reis, who has likely witnessed more games at Abe Martin Field than anyone else, said there aren't any physical keepsakes that he would like to take with him.
"Much like McAndrew Stadium, the memories and the people are what you remember most," Reis said. "The rest of it, I'm glad it's gone. I'll still have the memories of Abe. Many of my favorite memories have come at Abe, both as a student and as a broadcaster. I'll have those no matter what."