By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It was Sunday last, a West Virginia sweep of Kansas State in the works when a foul ball was hit down the left field line, the left-fielder crossing into foul territory only to run out of room, the ball bouncing beyond the chain link fence.
Suddenly, the sunshine that had bathed the afternoon was gone. In its place, snow fell softly through the chilled air.
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose”
Nat “King” Cole’s voice sang “The Christmas Song,” for it was Christmas again, if only for the moment as the rosy-cheeked kids, most of them wearing a baseball t-shirt and a glove on their hand, took off after the ball, the one who finally held it in his bare hand, looking at it closely, slamming it into his mitt, he wore a smile wider than if he’d received a Christmas bicycle.
All of a sudden you felt something tugging at your heart, the realization that West Virginia was playing its next-to-last weekend in Hawley Field, that on the coming weekend, with Texas as the opponent, we would all say goodbye to Hawley Field.
Fade out “The Christmas Song,” cue Sinatra … the sounds of Joe Raposo’s “There Used to be a Ballpark Right Here” began to fill the mind.
And there used to be a ballpark
Where the field was warm and green
And the people played their crazy game
With a joy I’d never seen.
And the air was such a wonder
From the hot dogs and the beer,
Yes, there used a ballpark, right here.
And so it went, the first verse and you began to feel just what Hawley Field was all about.
“The field was warm and green” and “the air was such a wonder from the hot dogs and the beer.”
Certainly no hot dog tastes better than a ballpark hot dog and the beer … well, if you can forget what you paid for it, it has to go with a baseball game.
It appears, in a year or two, Hawley Field will be a parking lot and we will be graced in Morgantown with a new, $21-million baseball field to house the Mountaineers and a minor league team.
It will be state-of-the-art, far more comfortable than those awful bleachers at Hawley Field, far more high tech than Hawley Field.
It will have everything you can ask.
Let us face it, Hawley Field is not Yankee Stadium.
Baseball actually started at West Virginia in 1892 and did not experience a losing season until 1920.
The next year the most legendary of WVU athletes took over as coach, Ira Errett Rodgers, beginning a run where he would coach 22 years, and after Charles Hockenberry coached one season, Steve Harrick would coach 20 years, Dale Ramsburg for 27 years and Greg Van Zant for 18 years.
From 1921 to 2012, WVU had employed but four coaches — save for Hockenberry’s one-year stint.
Harrick led the program to its first NCAA Tournament in 1955, Ramsburg becoming the winningest coach in the school’s history when he took over in 1968, but his introduction to the job was humbling, for WVU was building its new Coliseum on the site of his stadium.
His first three years, WVU’s John Antonik wrote in a wonderful piece on Hawley Field this week, the team played at St. Francis’ High School’s Father Flynn Field, which at least gave them a prayer at victory.
That was temporary, though, and a new field was needed but the athletic department wasn’t in any position to put much money into it. This would not be a $21 million state-of-the-art stadium, more like a chain link fence surrounding something not far removed from a cow pasture.
No dugout, no grandstands.
Sinatra was not singing about Hawley Field with his second verse:
And there used to be rock candy
And a great big Fourth of july
With fireworks exploding
All across the summer sky
And the people watched in wonder
How they’d laugh and how they’d cheer
And there used to be a ballpark, right here.
In those days there weren’t any of them watching in wonder, sometimes 15 to 20 people at a game.
The field was in a low spot and West Virginia being what it is, it would be cold and it would be rainy. In fact, as Antonik pointed out, someone once asked Ramsburg what he would like to have most — a hard-throwing lefthander, a power-hitting corner outfielder, a soft-handed shortstop or a fleet center fielder.
His answer? “Sunshine.”
There were no locker rooms, Ramsburg storing the team’s equipment in his own car and mowing the field with his own lawn mower.
And that’s what they called the good old days.
But, you know, somehow it meant more, and as the program grew and Ramsburg won his 433 games, it grew into a ballpark, the kind where the kids began to come out to again, the ballpark that has been revived over these past two years under coach Randy Mazey.
What you see now is people, 600 up to 1,500 of them, many of them kids, young kids with their mom or with their dad or with their Little League team.
It is different than the football crowds and different than the basketball crowds. There isn’t a student section, no cheerleaders, yet they have their own fun, standing and singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch.
Or you see them back there away from the chain link fence, playing catch, father and son. It is a piece of Americana, just as are the peanut shells that are left for the cleanup crew when the game is over.
This weekend is the last and the games are important, WVU on a hot streak, winning six straight, standing even at 7-7 in the Big 12, pushing to make the NCAAs, and the opponent is Texas, a giant in college baseball circles.
Three games, and then it’s over.
The new ballpark will take over, which brings us to the last chorus of Sinatra’s song:
Now the children try to find it
And they can’t believe their eyes
‘cause the old team just isn’t playing
And the new team hardly tries
And the sky has got so cloudy
When it used to be so clear
And the summer went so quickly this year.
Yes, there used to be a ballpark, right here.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel