Ready to Play Ball

New Penn State baseball coach Robbie Wine spoke at length about his team at the Bryce Jordan Center's Founders Lounge Thursday. A quarter of a mile away, just across Porter Road, preliminary work had already begun on the new multi-million dollar ballpark the Nittany Lions will share with a Class A minor-league baseball franchise.

Robbie Wine Audio (WMV)

Yet while Wine discussed Penn State's new attitude, new players and even new uniforms in a short speech to the PSU Dugout Club, there was no mention of the new 6,000-seat stadium project, which will be financed by a combination of funds and equity from the state, the university and the Class AA Altoona Curve's ownership group.

“Right now, we're worried about today, and being able to get [infielder] Mike Milliron to turn on a fastball and [right-hander] Sean Stidfole to be able to throw a breaking ball for a strike,” Wine said in a one-on-one interview after the event. “It sounds weird, but that's just the way I am. I stay focused. I trust the people around me.”

That's because as much of a positive impact as the stadium figures to have on his program, the Lions are at least two seasons away from playing ball there. In the next two months, the state is expected to approve the final financing package for the project. By May, the university hopes to have final design plans to the College Township planning and zoning boards.

Penn State athletic director Tim Curley expects an official groundbreaking sometime this spring and completion of construction within a year, which will allow the professional franchise to play a short-league season beginning in late June of 2006. The State College-based team, which will be owned by the same group that owns the Curve, will compete in the New York-Penn League. The major-league affiliate has yet to be lined up.

Since Penn State's season runs from mid-February (the Lions open at UNC-Charlotte Feb. 19 this season) through the end of May, Wine won't field a team in the new facility until 2007.

So it wasn't as if he was avoiding talk of the park Thursday, but that he had more pressing issues at hand. Chief among them is improving the fortunes of a team which went 28-29 overall and 17-15 (sixth-place) in the Big Ten last season, losing 10 of its final 12 games. Fresh off a seven-year run as an assistant at Big 12 power Oklahoma State, he knows how important top facilities are to building a program

“For a community like State College, it's a perfect fit,” Wine said. “It helps the community, it helps business and it gets those words 'Penn State' out there in the summer months. That's important. Kids read all these publications and they're on the Internet. For them to pull up a web site and see a new stadium and what's going on here, that helps.”

“It'll be a really important facility not only for Penn State, but for the entire community,” said Curley, who noted that the current work being done involves rerouting underground pipes that are in the way of the major construction. “Everyone knows our current baseball facility is not up to Big Ten standards and not up to any kind of national standards.”

The PSU baseball program hasn't exactly been up to any national standards in recent years, either, with only one NCAA tournament appearance since 1976. Which is why Wine, the 42-year-old son of former Philadelphia Phillie Bobby Wine, is going to let Curley and the rest of the athletic department focus on the new stadium while he zeroes in on improving the college program that will play there.

It began with the securing of a strong six-man recruiting class, including prospects from Hawaii, California, Florida and Oklahoma. Prominent on that list is Wine's son, Cory, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound first-baseman who is finishing up his high school career in Stillwater and is rated among the nation's top-100 prep prospects.

It continued with an intense winter workout schedule that initially left certain players unable to finish conditioning drills. Now, they say they are in terrific shape. But the Lions have only been able to practice indoors to date, at Holuba Hall and the school's multi-sport facility.

“We're ready to go,” Milliron said. “We're all excited to go outside and play against UNC-Charlotte.”

Depending on the weather, the team could begin practicing outdoors as soon as next week. While Penn State, like most Northern schools, will play a long string of games (13) before its home-opener (March 23 vs. Bucknell), Wine is not backing away from high expectations.

He made not-so-subtle references to the NCAA tournament and even the College World Series Thursday.

Such goals, it seems, are appropriate for a program with a world-class facility. Even if that facility is, for the moment, but a speck on the horizon.

“I don't want to put guys in positions they aren't ready for,” Wine said. “But I want people to know we have the talent to go places.”


Fight On State Top Stories