The idea of playing in a stadium that cost $40 million to build would have been impossible to conceive when Karl Benson played baseball at Boise State.
A member of the Broncos in the 1973-74 seasons and an assistant coach the two years after that, Benson recalls playing on a field as spartan as they come, right in the middle of campus.
“I lived in Morrison Hall, and I could literally walk out the back door and be at practice,” Benson said.
Soon after Benson left, the program did as well – baseball was dropped as a varsity sport in 1980. That final season, the team played at Borah High because what is now Taco Bell Arena was being built on part of the old baseball diamond. The Appleton Tennis Center now sits where most of the field did.
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Decades later, baseball is on its way back. The Boise State athletic department made a major change Tuesday when it announced that it will drop the wrestling program and begin the process to reinstate baseball. It was met with derision by wrestling supporters, and a current wrestler launched a GoFundMe page that has raised more than $1,000.
But the move has plenty of support.
“It’s a really hard decision when you have to drop a sport,” said Benson, now the commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference. “But I also believe there isn’t any reason that Boise State shouldn’t have a baseball program and that they can’t be successful.”
When the program was dropped 37 years ago, then-athletic director Lyle Smith cited the end of Big Sky Conference baseball and a lack of interest as factors. “If something has got to go and there’s no particular interest in it, that seemed like the place to cut,” Smith was quoted as saying in 1994 in the book “The Broncos.”
Two former Boise Junior College players made it to the major leagues: Pat House and Larry Jackson. House appeared in 24 games as a relief pitcher for the Houston Astros and Jackson played in 14 seasons for the Cardinals, Cubs and Phillies, making five All-Star games. Smith, the legendary BSU football coach, spent 17 springs coaching baseball, too.
Boise State has played club baseball since, and adding it as a varsity sport was only a pipe dream until recently. President Bob Kustra spoke about it in June 2015 on the day Curt Apsey was hired as athletic director, calling it a “pet project.”
“It’s a challenge, but I think there’s a culture here in Boise that really loves baseball,” Kustra said. “That probably isn’t something that we’ve really tapped into before. I think it’s out there.”
Requests for further comment from Apsey by the Statesman have been denied, while Kustra is in Moscow at the State Board of Education meeting and also has not been made available.
Kustra has noted that the nearest Division I college baseball teams are in Utah. Players from the Treasure Valley have signed with Washington, Gonzaga, Utah, Oregon State and Illinois-Chicago in recent years.
“I think it’s great we have such a solid baseball program across the Valley,” Kustra said. “And yet if someone wants to go on and play Division I ball, they have to go someplace else.”
The only Mountain West-sponsored sport that Boise State does not offer is baseball. The conference has seven teams: Nevada, UNLV, San Jose State, Fresno State, San Diego State, New Mexico and Air Force.
Mountain View High baseball coach Matt Rasmussen said that with a stadium plan coming together for the Boise Hawks and likely BSU, the chance to play in a solid conference “makes a lot of sense.” Playing in the 5A SIC, he said, there is plenty of college-level talent, but there are “not a ton of options around here.”
“It’s a huge impact for people in the baseball world for that very reason, and I think the community will rally around it,” Rasmussen said. “There’s a lot of good baseball being played around here, but it’s a football town. Now kids can aspire to not just play Division I, but do it locally. Add the (Boise) Hawks (and) you’ve got six months or so of some high-level baseball people can see in Boise.”
Those players also won’t be playing on what Benson said “was really just that, a field.” It remains to be seen where the Broncos would play, but the proposed downtown stadium seems the dream destination. As far as just when the team will play its first game, “there is no timeline, but we are committed to moving ahead as quickly as possible,” according to Boise State.
Kustra said previously that there normally is a five-year plan in getting a team off the ground.
“It would be foolish to say it’s a slam dunk, but the window is open, they know it exists,” said Jeff Eiseman, owner of the Boise Hawks, an affiliate of the Colorado Rockies. “We’ve let it be known, we’d certainly welcome that.”
Eiseman said Boise State’s involvement in the project “isn’t make or break for us,” but certainly would help. He said he has met with groups that share minor league stadiums with college teams at Oregon and Penn State. It is to be determined whether the school could help financially on the front end, be a fellow lease holder or pay to rent the facilities. Eiseman said that if the team is ready to play before a new stadium is done — the current goal is 2020 — it could use Memorial Stadium, the Hawks’ current home.
“It could be a great opportunity for the two entities to join together and raise the market,” Eiseman said. “Playing at a new venue like the one we plan to have would be a heck of a recruiting tool, too.”
The addition of baseball won’t come cheap, as the average budget of a Mountain West team is more than $1 million. That would double the cost of what Boise State spent on its men’s sports that weren’t football or basketball in 2015-16 – about $1.2 million. Benson said there are pockets of places that have strong college baseball attendance, but most of the attention is on the postseason. He was on the field as the Western Athletic Conference commissioner when Rice (2003) and Fresno State (2008) won the College World Series.
“You’re seeing some tremendous investments, and a Mountain West school can certainly be a contender,” Benson said. “... I told Dr. Kustra last time I saw him if they bring it back, they can bring me on as an assistant after I’m retired. It’ll be great to see it come back.”