Gophers thrilled to be out at home

Baseball coach John Anderson's long campaign for a new university ballpark appears about to pay off.

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Siebert Field, long in decline, will host its final baseball game Tuesday night. A new ballpark for the Gophers is on the way.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Former Gophers ballplayers recall the little things when asked what made Siebert Field such a special place.

Terry Steinbach, a third baseman in college, has fond memories of the huge, black batting eye in center field. Mark Merila, a second baseman, was always amazed at how well-groomed the field was.

The last game in the 41-year history of Siebert Field is scheduled for 6:35 p.m. Tuesday. The Gophers will face the University of St. Thomas in the 756th game there -- but the only one this season in the past-its-prime ballpark.

Two of the program's best-known alumni -- Steinbach and Paul Molitor -- former coach George Thomas and Marilyn Siebert, the daughter of the late Dick Siebert, will throw out the first pitch. Siebert coached the Gophers from 1948 to ' 78.

Next month, if everything goes as Gophers coach John Anderson hopes, the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents will approve at its June meeting the first phase of construction for a new Siebert Field. Groundbreaking ceremonies will be held June 11, and the ballpark will be ready for the 2013 season.

It's long past time for a new ballpark, supporters of the U's baseball program contend. The Gophers play almost all their games at the Metrodome now, but the long-range future of the Dome is murky, dependent on the twists and turns of the Vikings' stadium situation. Anderson has helped raise $7.5 million for the new ballpark -- enough for the first phase, but only half the money needed for the project that he envisions.

"Home plate will be almost where the mound is," Anderson said, describing the new Siebert Field. "When we get done with our facility, there still will be six or seven facilities in the Big Ten better than ours [after the] first phase. ... But it will be better than what we've got. It is going to be a functional, 21st century stadium."

The current version is not. The bleachers along the third-base sidelines were deemed unsafe eight years ago, and those along the first base line met the same fate a couple of years ago. Both have been removed. Even the field, which still looks picture perfect, is deceiving. "It looks good until you get on it and start playing," said Anderson, lamenting the sinking spots in the infield. "It needs to be scraped off and redone."

The field at the new ballpark will be sunk on purpose, 4 feet below ground level, and will have artificial turf.

From the early 1990s, there has been talk of building a baseball facility, Anderson said, so the university didn't invest much money in the existing ballpark. "It is like your home," he said. "If you don't do regular maintenance on it, it is going to fall apart."

Close to his heart

The man touched most by the fate of Siebert Field -- built for an estimated $175,000 and originally named Bierman Field -- is Anderson. He arrived at the U as a player in 1974, stayed in the program as an assistant and, in 1982, became the head coach.

NCAA regionals were held at Siebert Field in 1974, 1977 and 2000, as well as six Big Ten tournaments, the last one in 2004. In 1977, Molitor's junior season, the Gophers were 26-0 at home, including 3-0 in the regional in front of overflow crowds of more than 3,000.

"People were standing on the field in foul territory," Anderson said.

The Gophers have a .764 all-time winning percentage at Siebert Field, and Anderson's team -- 26-20 this season -- still uses it for practices. But since 2007, the number of games they have played there has steadily dropped, from 18 to 12 to seven to two, total, since 2010, counting Tuesday's finale.

"I have spent thousands and thousands and thousands of hours here," said Anderson, who recently signed a contract extension through 2016. "[But] it has been hard to come out here the last five years. It has been depressing for me. No. 1 because it has Dick Siebert's name on it. I think everyone knows my admiration and my feelings for Dick. The place had to be perfect, the playing surface had to be perfect or it wasn't acceptable [for Siebert]. And to see the place gradually deteriorate and fall apart with his name on it. There are some days I felt responsible for that and I felt terrible."

So Anderson has been at the forefront of fundraising for a new field. The Pohlad Foundation pledged $2 million to the new field in 2010.

"It's been a grind," said Molitor, honorary chairperson of the campaign. "Thankfully for the Pohlads, [owners of the Twins] -- without their lead gift, it probably would have never fell into place."

It's what Anderson wants, even if has to start small, with permanent seats for 1,200 the first season, a plain scoreboard and probably no lights.

"It is not going to be fancy," he said. "We hope we can add some fancy down the road."

Last farewell

Baseball alumni have been invited to return for Tuesday's game to take swings during an early batting practice, to be part of a group photo at home plate and to rekindle memories.

Steinbach and his two brothers played for the Gophers in the early 1980s. "I remember coming from New Ulm, a small town," said Steinbach, "and being in a place with a great history with [players such as] Paul Molitor and Dave Winfield. It was a potential stepping stone to a possible career."

He had 165 RBI in three college seasons. Steinbach went on to be a major league catcher for 14 years, primarily with the Oakland A's, but also with the Twins. Merila, a scout for the San Diego Padres, was the Big Ten player of the year in 1994. Siebert Field, Merila said, had the best infield in the Big Ten by far. He called it immaculate.

Kerry Ligtenberg, a Gopher in 1993 and '94, liked being able to walk from his home to practice or games at Siebert Field. The dimensions -- 330 feet down the lines, but only 380 to center field -- are another story. The new ballpark will be slightly bigger.

"We had good crowds," said Ligtenberg, who pitched for four teams in the majors. "My only complaint was the tons of home runs hit there. That was not as much fun for me. It was a hitters' park."

Twins pitcher Glen Perkins played for the Gophers in 2003 and '04. "Those were still the two best years of my baseball life," the lefthanded reliever said. "It seemed [after high school] like the greatest thing ever to play in a stadium like that. It was nice. It went downhill fast after I left. I'm excited for the next chapter."

Staff writer Joe Christensen contributed to this article.

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