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April 6, 2013

HURT: Battle faces choices with baseball upgrades

The year was 1981 and the Alabama Crimson Tide had a very good baseball team, even though it wasn't reflected in the postseason results.

The place was Baton Rouge, La. The LSU Tigers, coached by Jack Lamabe, a sort of Cajun-spiced Buttermaker from "The Bad News Bears," weren't very good.

As the Saturday night game of a weekend Southeastern Conference series approached, UA assistant coach Roger Smith hobnobbed with the media covering UA (one reporter) and confided "you are going to see a no-hitter tonight." Alabama had hard-throwing right-hander Bryan Kelly (who went on to make the major leagues with Detroit) on the mound.

When Kelly and his 95 mph fastball were right, he was tough to hit under good circumstances. And in those days, Alex Box Stadium was far from the best of circumstances. The outfield lights looked to be leftovers from a parish high school's football field. They were so dim that the legions of bugs they lured from the local marshes often lost interest and dive-bombed the grandstand lights as well.

Smith's prediction didn't miss by much. Kelly struck out 14 Tigers in a shutout win, but two LSU ground balls found their way through the infield and it was a two-hitter, not a no-hitter. The hits likely came as the occasional freight train chugging by in left field provided some extra illumination.

But times have changed. Lamabe left and LSU made a big-time commitment to baseball. Only a smattering of fans would even recognize the site of old Alex Box Stadium as the same place where a glittering baseball palace now stands.

Skip Bertman revitalized the LSU baseball program and as it grew, its stadium grew, too. Building a new baseball facility didn't make LSU baseball great, just as it didn't automatically transform South Carolina or Arkansas simply through brick-and-mortar osmosis.

But Alabama has had good baseball teams since then - some of them very good. To be fair, its home stadium has been upgraded since then, too - upgraded, but not keeping up with the best facilities in the SEC, not as a total facility.

There are a lot of questions to be asked about Sewell-Thomas Stadium or, in the dream world of some UA baseball supporters, a yet-to-be-named new facility. Nothing is easier than spending someone else's millions and, although Alabama does have healthy athletic department revenues, college sports is expensive and Bill Battle, Dr. Judy Bonner and their bosses on the UA Board of Trustees have to have good fiscal sense.

Still, perhaps Battle could take in an SEC road trip or sneak in a visit to South Carolina's $35 million gem of a stadium (although UA does not play there this year) and get an idea of the atmosphere Alabama faces on the road - and the hurdles its recruiters face when players come on official visits, fresh from visiting Columbia or Fayetteville or Starkville.

Hopefully, he will sit behind home plate at one of those places and see that the best seat in the house should actually have a view of the entire playing field. A ball hit into the right-field corner at Sewell-Thomas might as well be in Cambodia as far as the spectators can tell.

Battle will have facilities decisions to make in his tenure - stand still in the SEC and you fall behind - and they won't all involve baseball.

The track and swimming programs, also perched on that valuable real estate bounded by Hackberry Lane and Bryant Drive, also need upgrades, perhaps in the newly developing parts of campus. But Battle needs to look at competing facilities with a keen eye, and begin to build his own legacy by building.

Insiders: Recruiting news and notes

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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