Debut of UConn's new baseball home put on hold for a year

Jim Penders made a point to walk around the new but not yet open UConn baseball facility on Monday.

It was an emotional stroll at Elliot Ballpark, the state-of-the-art 1,500 seat stadium.

With the remainder of the spring season being canceled that same day, it was important for Penders to spend time there, so the veteran UConn baseball coach reached out to Evan Feinglass, associate director of athletics/facilities management and planning, who joined him.

Slightly less than two weeks before what was supposed to be UConn's first game in the new park, Penders and Feinglass soaked in the surroundings.

"It is gorgeous," Penders said. "I just had to walk it. ... didn't know when I'd be able to get back. Evan was good enough to take time out of his day and take me around, taking pictures for Doug and Sheila (Elliot) and video.

"We'll certainly be swallowing hard on March 29 when we were supposed to play there."

Doug and Sheila Elliot, two UConn graduates, were the driving force behind UConn's new stadium. A former player, Doug is a passionate, long-time member of the UConn baseball family. He was a founding member of the Dugout Club, the program's support group, in 1991. His son also suited up for the Huskies.

Penders immediately thought of the generous, dedicated couple when athletic director David Benedict informed him of the difficult news on Monday.

"I've reached out to them," Penders said. "They're such good people. They're more worried about our guys' health and them getting home okay, and are they in touch with their families, and it's important to social distance.

"Doug was worried about my cough in a post-game interview last week. That's just the kind of person that he is. He's texting me, 'Are you okay? You've got to take care of your health. Are your lungs okay?'

"So, I'm thinking of him and he's thinking of us."

They will all be thinking about a much-anticipated celebration and dedication put on hold when Sunday, March 29 rolls around. Seton Hall, a future Big East foe when UConn returns to its old conference neighborhood next season, was scheduled to be the opponent for the early afternoon game.

Now the Huskies will have to wait to christen Elliot Ballpark, located across the street from the program's long-time on-campus home J.O. Christian Field.

"I've been pretty public in saying I'm trying not to be emotional about it until we're actually in the thing," Penders said, "because I'll believe it when I see it. We've been waiting so long anyway. ... Our first meeting on that facility happened in 2003; we've waited 17 years. We can wait 18."

The UConn baseball team has checked out their new stadium and walked the artificial turf. But the Huskies hadn't held an official practice there.

There's a strong possibility that an exhibition game will be the first event in Elliot Ballpark, according to Penders who's in his 17th season as a head coach and served as an assistant before that.

Penders and Benedict already have discussed doing something that involves the UConn baseball family. Former coach Andy Baylock suggested an alumni game.

"It's got to be UConn baseball folks if we do any kind of function," Penders said. "We'll figure all those things out. That's definitely a possibility, something along those lines. I would want our current team there in a perfect world. If that means it has to wait until the fall, so be it.

"... We're very much looking forward to calling that our home. That's what it was about for the get-go, coming home. Having one place to call our home instead of four or five different facilities on campus. Just one spot.

"Some ways, it's better that it's not going to happen until the building is done, too. There is a performance center. We're going to be able to open it all at once, potentially, not piecemeal it. I'm trying to look for a silver lining."

Unfortunately, it's hard to find a silver lining for the UConn seniors that will never get a chance to play an official game at Elliot Ballpark. They're heartbroken about their careers abruptly ending.

Penders had some tough and emotional conversations with his seniors on Monday.

The NCAA is considering allowing seniors in all spring sports another year of eligibility. Details still need to be ironed out.

Eventually, UConn baseball's veterans will explore their options, but emotions are too raw right now. Penders and his coaching staff will be there to support and help them.

A promising season has been wiped out, too.

The Huskies already had some impressive wins, including taking two out of three in a series against top-ranked Michigan in late February. They won their last five games before the season was suspended indefinitely and then canceled. They finished 8-5 and were scheduled to begin their final American Athletic Conference season on Friday at Cincinnati.

"I think it had the makings of being a really special, special group," Penders said. "There was a lot to look forward to. And it was just starting to germinate. It was just really starting to pop up. You'll never know."

"These kids give everything they've got every day and that's what makes it so difficult to have it end prematurely. It should happen on a field, or even in an auditorium watching the (NCAA) selection show. I don't know if that would be better. It's painful, nonetheless. It would be more natural. This is just really weird. Surreal."

g.keefe@theday.com

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