Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Cavaliers baseball: Playing in the lap of luxury

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- His top-ranked baseball team had just beaten Virginia Tech for the second straight day as he opened the door to the clubhouse and led me inside Saturday evening.

We walked past a couple of players stretching beside the three climate-controlled, full-length, indoor batting cages. He pointed out the clay indoor pitching mound, so useful on those bitter fall and spring days.

Virginia coach Brian O'Connor then opened the door to the dressing room and stepped inside.

"We had one shot to do it, you know?" he said. "You want to do it right."

My jawed dropped as I looked around.

"Yeah," I said. "You did it right."

UVa players dressed quietly beside large, wooden lockers. A flat-screen television was mounted on the wall. Plush furniture rested in the middle of the room. Around the corner was a kitchen, a new video room, a spacious training facility. They just finished the floor on a 2,500-square-foot weight room, too. Soon, the Cavaliers won't even have to leave Davenport Field to get in their postgame workout and have a meal.

"Guys ever come down here on non-game days just to hang out?" I asked.

"Every day," O'Connor said. "This is like their home."

I don't blame them. I would never leave this place.

The stadium itself is mesmerizing. Davenport Field is a gorgeous ballpark that puts most minor league structures to shame. UVa keeps adding more seats, and the fans keep filling them to watch their No. 1 team win ballgames. There's a lengthy waiting list for the six luxury suites. Today's series finale against the Hokies already is sold out, which will allow UVa to set yet another school record for series attendance.

But it's not until you come in here, beneath the stands, that you really see the commitment. The $4 million that was poured into this facility last offseason -- with a decent chunk of that contributed by Nationals star and UVa alum Ryan Zimmerman -- is almost entirely shielded from public eye, but the players say the upgrades have been invaluable.

"It's kind of got it all," said UVa reliever Tyler Wilson, who fired two scoreless innings Saturday. "We've got to thank our donors and everybody who contributed to that, because it's really taken our program to a whole different level."

It was the kind of thing you're starting to see everywhere for high-level college basketball and football teams. But for baseball? Almost never, shy of the major leagues. The Salem Red Sox have a premium baseball facility; even they would kill to have this.

"They treat us awesome here," said second baseman Phil Gosselin, who had three hits and two RBIs on Saturday. "It's definitely a little glimpse of pro ball, I guess. I haven't been there yet, but it's definitely a little glimpse into all the luxuries they get.

"You've just got to make sure you don't get into a lull because of it. You've still got to stay on top of things even though you're kind of pampered sometimes. That's the only thing that sometimes you've got to be worried about."

That doesn't seem to be a problem. After their 2009 run to the College World Series, the Cavaliers remain scrappy and fundamentally sound. On Saturday, they won with strong pitching from starter Robert Morey and clutch, two-out hitting. It clinched their fifth ACC series win in six chances this year; their fourth against a ranked team.

The Hokies will never compete with these facilities, but that doesn't mean they're doing the wrong things when it comes to baseball. They're moving in the right direction their own way, through the outstanding recruiting efforts of Tech coach Pete Hughes and his staff. Both games up here have been competitive. On Saturday, Tech's No. 3 starter, Mathew Price, was throwing 97 mph in the first inning and 95 in the sixth. Today's starter, Jesse Hahn, is a probable first-round draft pick this summer. So is cleanup hitter Austin Wates.

UVa will send its own share of stars to the pros this June. But as I walked out of this place Saturday and took one last look around, I had to wonder why any of them would ever want to go.

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