December 10, 2004

Diamond a Great Gift

Dec. 10, 2004

By Mark Purdy
San Jose Mercury News

In this season of giving, Steve Schott knows how to throw a strike down the middle.

``It's just a good way to thank the university,'' said the A's co-owner.

As he says these words, Schott is standing in mud.

Specifically, he is standing in mud that within months will become a new baseball field for his alma mater, Santa Clara University.

Even more specifically, he is standing in mud that his $4 million donation will be transforming into a facility to rival any college ballpark in Northern California.

Merry Christmas, Broncos batsmen.

Happy New Year, too. And while we're at it, a Joyous Labor Day, a Happy Fourth of July, and an Extremely Delirious Arbor Day.

That's how Santa Clara baseball coach Mark O'Brien feels, for sure.

``This,'' O'Brien said, ``is the equivalent of hitting the lottery.''

He is walking through the mud, also, giving a tour of the construction site to a visitor.

``I come by here three times a day just to check out how things are going,'' O'Brien said. ``I don't think Mr. Schott has any idea of the impact he's having on our kids. This is all that our players talk about, 24/7. He's made their dream come true.''

Yes, every now and then, one of those allegedly greedy and despicable sports owners does something to warm the cockles of cynics' hearts.

Of course, as Schott will discover, the $4 million gesture will buy him no slack from his most Grinch-like critics. Some will wonder why he didn't put it toward buying a decent outfielder for his team. Others will ask why he didn't use it as a down payment on an A's ballpark in downtown San Jose. Still others will say he should have donated it to some other cause.

Memo to all of these people: Wake up and smell the egg nog. Chill out. At this time of year, especially, can't we all simply appreciate a gift that will keep on giving to hundreds of future college baseball players and fans? Not to mention high school and amateur league players?

Plus, as O'Brien can tell you, there wasn't a line of people waiting outside his office to fund a much-needed new facility for Santa Clara. Since 1962, the baseball team has shared Buck Shaw Stadium with the Broncos' soccer and defunct football teams.

The arrangement has been awkward, to say the least. The dirt baseball infield has been covered over with turf every autumn, then ripped back up in late winter. The locker rooms have been in a separate building.

Schott, who attended Santa Clara on a baseball scholarship and earned a 1960 diploma, was well aware of the situation. He put out word that he might help out with a new ballpark if the university found a suitable spot to build one.

Things began to coagulate when some property across The Alameda from the Leavey Center became available. University president Rev. Paul Locatelli began discussing the project with Schott. They shook hands on the deal last summer.

``I owe the university a lot,'' Schott said. ``And I believe you've got to pay it back sometime. I think every athlete who earns a scholarship should think that way. If every athlete did, a lot of these universities wouldn't have the budgetary problems they have today.''

As he and O'Brien stroll the ground where the new covered and lighted batting cages will stand, you can tell Schott is envisioning what it will be like. The stadium will have large home and visiting clubhouses, 500 chair-back seats, a thousand bleacher seats, a sun canopy over the infield sections and an outfield lawn area where students (and non-students) can sit and watch on a sunny day.

As a bonus, Steve Schott Stadium is even located in Steve Schott's Old 'Hood. He grew up just blocks away from the campus. He has vague memories of ``exploring'' the canneries that once occupied the stadium site. He rode his bike to elementary school and took a bus to Bellarmine College Prep. His late father, Ed, taught at the university. His 94-year-old mother, Mary, still lives nearby.

Thus, although strong-armed young Steve was recruited by Oregon and Stanford, there was never much doubt where he would pitch in college. His Broncos teams played at Washington Park, a charming but rickety city-owned facility a few blocks west of the campus. He remembers a group of students known as ``The Rodents'' who would heckle opposing players and dump the occasional snow cone onto the diamond.

The athletic department says records from those years can't be found, but a Santa Clara yearbook mentions a few victories by Schott. The Broncos in those days consistently challenged Stanford, Cal and USC for West Coast supremacy.

Schott would like that to happen again. He chuckles upon hearing that there is talk of ``The Rodents'' returning to the new ballpark to try to indoctrinate a new generation. The first game in the new place is scheduled for Feb. 15 against Sacramento State, though that is subject to weather-related construction issues. Schott, standing in the mud, can't wait.

``I hope a lot of young players will have a lot of fun here,'' Schott said, ``and get a lot of victories, too.''