Hall of Fame Stadium a diamond in the rough

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The first time Alabama coach Patrick Murphy brought a team to the Women's College World Series, in 2000, he was amazed to learn that there were no locker rooms or showers for players at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

Teams changed at their hotels before getting on the bus, as if it were an under-12 tournament instead of a premier NCAA event. After games, players gathered under a big tent beyond the outfield fence cooled by huge electric fans. Anyone needing to use the restroom had to settle for a portable toilet.

Every year, the NCAA asks coaches to fill out tournament reviews. The first six times Alabama qualified under Murphy, he asked for the same thing: a comfortable place for his players to change and prepare for games.

This year, he finally got his wish. The $2 million ASA Field House beyond left-center field, with four spacious "team rooms" and modern restrooms, is a big hit.

More bare-bones than opulent, it is a large space divided into quadrants, and opponents are assigned rooms that are kitty-corner rather than adjacent to avoid the temptation of eavesdropping. Each room is carpeted and air-conditioned, with space for trainers to work on players and a television to monitor games in progress.

There still aren't showers -- "They weren't cost-effective," said Sharon Cessna, the NCAA's director of championships -- but the facility is a huge upgrade.

"They did a great job," Murphy said. "And they need to do more."

That might be coming. Designs have been completed for a proposed $15 million stadium renovation that would include team rooms behind the dugouts, a small second deck to increase seating capacity from about 8,000 to 12,000, an expanded press box and media facilities, plus other amenities.

Twice since 2000, Oklahoma City voters have passed bond issues to fund stadium projects. The first increased grandstand capacity from 2,000 to 5,000 and added two practice fields. (Cessna remembers the days when teams shared one practice field, separated by a rope running from the backstop to center field.) Temporary bleachers in the outfield bumped up seating to 8,000.

Half of the $4 million raised from the last bond issue, in 2007, went toward the field house. The remaining $2 million will be put toward the new project, according to Tim Brassfield, the executive director of the All Sports Association, which operates the tournament along with the NCAA and the Oklahoma City-based Amateur Softball Association of America.

That leaves $13 million to raise, from private donors or perhaps another bond issue. Murphy suggested a $2 surcharge on tickets, but Brassfield has other ideas.

"I'm confident we'll be able to raise it," Brassfield said. "I don't know if it's going to come from 10 partners or five partners."

Brassfield said he already has several interested parties, which he declined to identify. Stadium naming rights could be part of the package, he said.

The NCAA moved the WCWS from Sunnyvale, Calif., to ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in 1990. It has remained there every year since except for 1996, when it drew sparse crowds at the Olympic softball venue in Columbus, Ga. Today, it operates under a renewable two-year contract; the latest expires after next season.

Cessna said the NCAA would make a long-term commitment if the city went through with the renovations, similar to its stance with Omaha and the baseball College World Series. In 2009, once Omaha agreed to build a $128 million facility to replace venerable Rosenblatt Stadium, the NCAA signed a 25-year extension to keep the tournament there through 2035.

The fan support for the WCWS certainly warrants a long extension. Through Monday's championship Game 1, this year's tournament is averaging a record 7,664 fans per session, partly thanks to the early presence of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The previous record of 6,951 was set last year. With a fair crowd Tuesday night for Game 2, total attendance should surpass 68,000, which would break the record of 62,562 set last year.

"We'd love to stay here," Cessna said. "Oklahoma City has been very good to us. And it's an intimate facility. When you ask people who watch [the WCWS] on television and then finally come here, they say, 'Wow. I didn't realize you're sitting right on the field.' It's what makes it such a great place."

Plan B, Cessna said, would be renovating an old minor league baseball stadium somewhere else. But Brassfield doubts it will come to that.

"They've been a great partner," he said of the NCAA. "We have a responsibility to hold up our end of the deal and do what we need to do. And we will."

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