An oversized rendering of the new $5 million baseball facility on the Homewood campus hangs proudly in Bob Babb's office.
When completed, the facility will include an all-weather turf playing surface, new home and visitor dugouts, and a 290-seat grandstand behind home plate with a modern press box. In addition, a plaza will be created with restrooms, concessions, and storage areas. Other features include new home and away bullpen areas, batting cages, and backstop and outfield fencing. In short, a new era for Johns Hopkins baseball beckons.
Babb, now in his 35th year as head coach of the Blue Jays, had clung to hopes that his team would play opening day on the new field, which sits at the corner of University Parkway and North Charles Street and will be named Babb Field at Stromberg Stadium.
The baseball gods felt differently.
Permitting and weather delays have forced the team to get creative with its practice routine and schedule as it sets forth on a 2014 season that Babb hopes, home field or not, could lead to a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
The Blue Jays' schedule has them playing their first nine games, which include three double-headers, at the Yankee Stadium–replica field in the Ripken Baseball Complex in Aberdeen, Md. Following the opening "home" stand, they travel to Florida in March for a slate of nine games in Fort Myers against mostly northern teams looking to escape chilly weather.
After the Florida trip, Babb says, is where it gets tricky. The Blue Jays are looking to play some home games at Towson University and UMBC, when those schools' teams are away. They could also play more games in Aberdeen, providing there are no conflicts with other squads looking to use the facility.
"I can tell you, it's not going to be too much fun or convenient for our kids," Babb says. "For home games, [players] are used to walking to the field not long after their classes have ended. But now we'll have to bus the players to home games. Time-wise, it's going to be a tough thing for our guys to deal with."
Current plans are for the field to be completed in time for the Centennial Conference playoffs, which start in early May.
The Blue Jays not only don't have a field to play home games on, they don't have a dedicated baseball diamond to practice on.
To make do, the team will take full advantage of its indoor facilities, which include batting cages. The Jays also plan to build mounds on the lower field behind the O'Connor Recreation Center to allow pitchers to practice. The team might also use fields at other local universities when availability and time allow.
"[Practicing] will certainly be a challenge. We have a good deal to overcome," Babb says.
Still, Babb likes his team's chances and looks forward to playing the talent at his disposal.
Last year, Johns Hopkins went 37-10 and advanced to the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional Tournament. This squad, Babb says, could be even better.
The team returns its top four starting pitchers, all of whom had ERAs below 2.60, and a relief corps that was one of the best in Division III. Babb says the team also recruited some top-notch pitching talent who could see time as the season progresses.
"This could be the best pitching staff I've ever had," says Babb, who has captured 12 Centennial Conference titles, appeared in the NCAA Tournament 18 times, and advanced to the College World Series three times. "We bring back some great pitchers who I think have improved, if that's even possible seeing how well they pitched last year. I never had this quality depth of pitching, and there's no reason to believe this team can't go pretty far this year."
The team did lose several starting position players, including power-hitting first baseman Jeff Lynch, who led the team in batting average and RBIs. However, Babb thinks his new infield and outfield replacements are a talented bunch that will manufacture runs in different ways.
"We might use our speed more this year; we'll have to see. Scoring runs will be the question, but even if we don't score as much as we'd like, we should still be successful since our pitching is so good."
At some point in the season, Babb will notch his 1,000th win, as he currently stands at 990. Speaking of the landmark, Babb says the number doesn't mean much to him. "It means that I've been here a long time [laughs]. It's a nice milestone, obviously, but it's not the end. I expect to be here 10 more years, so it's just another steppingstone."
Ten more years, with most of them played on a field that bears his name. He can't wait, he says, to start hosting games at the new baseball facility, whenever that day comes.
"The field will be phenomenal when it's finished, and just great for our fans," he says. "It's a shame that day will come later than anticipated, and I hope it doesn't derail what could be a magical season for us."