Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sacramento State Hornets 5 at Texas Longhorns 3 (NCAA Baseball) - February 16, 2013

For baseball fans, February may be the happiest month of the year. Is there any phrase more eagerly awaited than "pitchers and catchers reported to spring training"? Even then, exhibition games are still a few weeks away, and the regular season a further month after that. Fortunately, baseball fans in the southern US have another outlet that starts with meaningful games in mid-February: college ball.

The 2013 NCAA baseball season began on Friday with games throughout the land. One of the reasons I took the trip at this time was to visit a few college ballparks as I find the game to be somewhat more relaxed than minor league ball. Today was the first of four such visits on the trip as the Texas Longhorns hosted the Sacramento State Hornets in the second game of their weekend series. After spending the morning at Austin's beautiful State Capitol, I walked the mile or so over to the UT campus to watch the two teams do battle.

UFCU Disch-Falk Field

Located on the southeast quadrant of the campus, the University Federal Credit Union Disch-Falk Field has the wordiest name of any stadium I have been to. Thankfully, the abbreviation UFCU is usually applied.

It was opened in 1975 and named for two Longhorn coaches, Billy Disch and Bibb Falk, who might be more famous for replacing Joe Jackson in right field after the 1919 Black Sox scandal. The UFCU sponsorship began in 2006, and the stadium was renovated between then and 2008, including the installation of FieldTurf and a new facade. Note the championship banners along one wall of the stadium; Texas baseball has done very well over the years.

The Longhorns have a great fan base, averaging over 6,300 in 2012, good for 5th in the nation. Such strong support requires the ballpark to be built more like a AA stadium than a typical college ballpark.

Parking is $5 and there are a couple of lots right by the ballpark, but it looked tough to get out after the game. I avoided this by leaving my car in the Capitol Visitors garage. I wouldn't recommend this approach though, as the walk is a bit far and you have to cross over I-35 with its on and off ramps to MLK Boulevard. There are sidewalks and pedestrian crossing lights the whole way, but it might be easier to just park closer to campus.

Tickets are $12 for reserved seats which are all those above the small walkway. Those below didn't seem to be available at the box office. General admission is $7 which limits you to the concrete steps down the left field line (below), although I never saw an usher checking tickets. Still, with 90% of seats filled on an average night, it isn't worth getting kicked out of a seat to save $5.

Most of the seating bowl is covered by a large roof, which is critical during the hot Texas afternoons. The sun generally moves behind home plate and shadows extend out from home plate to the mound and beyond as the game progresses (assuming it is an afternoon game of course). One interesting fact is that the left field line runs almost due north and the right field line runs almost due east.

Food options here are superb for college ball. Best bets are the stands on the left field patio, including BBQ sandwiches for $6 and street tacos for $4. I had a sliced turkey BBQ sandwich which was quite good. Prices for soda are a bit high ($4.50 for a bottle) and of course, no alcohol is served at college ballgames.

The inside concourse is wide and has a few items of note, including posters of past stars and plaques commemorating past coaches, such as Disch (above). Below the press box are retired numbers, including that of Roger Clemens who pitched here in 1982-83.

There's a typical scoreboard behind left field and an excellent video board behind right field that shows replays and has batting lineups and updated stats. Fences are 340 down left field, 325 down right, 375 to the alleys and 400 to center.

Fans here are serious and knowledgeable. I was about the only person without some sort of Longhorn paraphernalia on, and I was also the only person who did not know the words to "The Eyes of Texas" which is sung before and after the game with the players, who stand in front of their dugout making the Longhorn sign as do the fans.

Overall, this ballpark is better than many minor league facilities. I couldn't find much fault with anything and must say that if you are a baseball fan, a trip to Austin is a must.

The Game

Texas is ranked 26th in the coaches poll, but of course, this means nothing without a single game having been played. The Longhorns won 6-5 in the opener and sent junior Nathan Thornhill to the mound to face Brennan Leitao (below), a sophomore who led the team with 7 wins last season. The weather was perfect on this today, with a cloudless sky and temperatures around 18C as the game started.

Naturally, Texas was favoured and they got off to a quick start when top prospect Mark Payton (below) singled home Taylor Stell who had walked and stolen second.

The Hornets tied it in the 2nd when Rhys Hoskins (below) was hit by a pitch. After a sacrifice and a pop out, Chris Lewis bounced one back up the middle. Longhorn shortstop C.J. Hinojosa made a great stab but tried to nab Lewis at first and threw wild, allowing Hoskins to score an unearned run.

Sac State added 3 more in the third, highlighted by Hoskins RBI double, the only extra-base hit on the afternoon for either team. From there, Leitao was excellent, giving up another run in the fifth but finishing 7 strong innings yielding just 6 singles and a walk.

The Hornets tacked on a final run when reigning WAC player of the year Andrew Ayers singled home Nathan Lukes in the 7th, and their bullpen was solid with Sutter McLoughlin throwing 1.2 innings for the save as Sacramento State won 5-3.

The game took just 2:22, incredibly fast for college ball, with many batters swinging at first pitches and making quick outs. Not a memorable affair but a welcome return to baseball for me.


Despite plenty of netting, foul balls still enter the seating area. There was a family behind me with a little girl and one foul ball was hit in our direction. I yelled "Heads Up!" but they weren't paying much attention. The ball hit several seats to our left and a few rows back and then bounced straight towards us, missing the little girl's head by just a few inches. I don't think anyone realized how close it was, but no harm done. The ball remained under a seat and I pointed to it so the little girl would have a souvenir, but she first tried to throw it back on the field before handing it to me. I resisted the urge to keep it, handing it back to her mother for safekeeping. The moral is to always pay attention though, baseballs take strange paths when entering the seats.

Hoskins made a great catch on a popup in foul territory, fallling over the wall. It actually made SportsCenter's top plays of the day, coming in at #4 on the early edition.

Next Up

I'm driving to Houston tomorrow and will watch the Rice Owls hosting the Stanford Cardinal in afternoon baseball. Both teams are ranked and it is the highlight series of the opening weekend. The NBA All-Star game is tomorrow night ji Houston, but tickets are outrageously overpriced and I am a bit tired of basketball after seeing so many games earlier this week. I might still head over to check out the atmosphere, but I won't be paying to get in the building.



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