May 4, 2001
By Wes Durham
When Tech’s final home game is played this spring, be it in the regular season or possible NCAA regional, it will bring down the curtain on what Jacket fans now know as Russ Chandler Stadium. It’s not going away, but before the first pitch of the 2002 season is thrown, they are going to give her a major facelift.
In the renovation and reconstruction of the ballpark, designs call for the field to be turned a little and there is a chance that Tech might move over to the third base dugout. All that considered you have to think that an era of Tech baseball will come to an end this spring as well.
It’s been a good run for RCS, when you remember that all the Jackets had prior to its construction was two cinder block dugouts, a set of wooden bleachers supported by railroad ties, and a two-story building where they sold Cokes and kept the score.
Since I have only been broadcasting Tech baseball on radio and television since the spring of 1996, I’m certainly not qualified to speak beyond those six years, so I enlisted some help from others to help capture the essence of what Tech baseball has been like since the grandstand was constructed as the 1985 season began.
Calling someone the best player ever in the history of a stadium can be pretty subjective, but I think a strong case can be made for former Tech catcher Jason Varitek. It’s important to remember that it’s based on what he did as a collegian. Despite his success at the professional level, Varitek was one of the rare college players who stayed through his senior season and continued to be the best player at that level.
Former Tech player and now longtime Jacket broadcaster Randy Carroll agrees with Varitek, but also offers some criteria.
“There is no question that Varitek is the best, but it’s real hard to gauge a 3-year player against a 4-year player. Also, when you think about Varitek, at some point you have to consider Doug Creek (who won a Tech record 41 games), whose contribution was measured differently.”
“I remember before his freshmen season started, we were watching players hit in the cage under the stadium off a pitching machine,” recalls Tech graduate Pat Hickok (’70). “Most of the guys were really struggling to make anything happen against the machine, but then Varitek got in there and started ripping balls around the cage from both sides of the plate. He was a ‘man’ when he showed up as rookie.”
While Varitek might carry the majority opinion as the best player at Russ Chandler Stadium some consideration would have to be given to current Jacket Mark Teixeira. At the same time, you might want to put Riccardo Ingram, Nomar Garciaparra in the group as well.
The best answer probably comes from current head coach Danny Hall, who spent one season with Varitek and recruited Teixeira to campus.
“They are the best five-tool guys I have coached. Both are athletes and mentally dedicated to what their doing. They both switch-hit and there are comparisons to them not only as great players, but as great people,” Hall said.
“Nomar was easily the most athletic,” Hall continued. “He could beat you with his arm, legs, glove and bat.”
Who is the best opposing player ever to play at “The Rusty C”?
The debate could last for days on this one. Tech’s sports information director Mike Stamus came to Atlanta in 1984 and was in charge of baseball until the spring of 2000, when current assistant Chris Capo took over. Stamus, better known around the park as “Moose,” votes for Auburn’s Bo Jackson, along with Carolina’s B.J. Surhoff and Walt Weiss. Hickok also thinks that Jackson was the best opposing player in the park.
Coach Hall arrived in the winter of 1994, so he missed Jackson with Auburn, but he quickly points out that FSU’s J.D. Drew and Clemson pitcher Billy Koch are the two best he has seen since coming to campus.
Carroll reminded me that it’s not the stars who captured your attention as much as guys who played hard every time you saw them.
“Clemson had a catcher named Bert Heffernan (’85-’88), who was their leadoff hitter. He played his tail off in every game. N.C. State had a center fielder named Brian Bark, who would come in and close games. You remember when those kind of players were in the ballpark.”
When Tech hosted an NCAA regional in 1987, one could safely say that was the best collection of talent ever in the ballpark. The Jackets featured Riccardo Ingram and Jim Poole. Michigan had future big-leaguer Jim Abbott. Dartmouth represented the Ivy League with Mike Remlinger pitching. Fordham was in town as well with Pete Harnisch, and rival Georgia, with future major league pitchers Derek Lilliquist and Cris Carpenter.
There have been plenty of memorable games. But most every conversation always came back to the 1985 ACC Tournament played on campus in mid-April. Tech came into the event as the #4 seed and a sophomore named K.G. White hit a bomb against Clemson to help the Jackets win the crown. Tech beat Clemson twice in the tourney, while a young man from outside Macon named Kevin Brown recorded two wins for Tech as well.
“We would have never been able to host the ACC Tournament without Russ Chandler Stadium,” said former Tech and current Miami head coach Jim Morris. “The generosity of Russ Chandler and the leadership of Homer Rice helped us get the ball park, and then Homer’s desire to have the event in Atlanta helped convince the ACC to do it.”
“It was one of the first times where playing in the stadium gave us an advantage and the crowd was just awesome,” Hickok said.
“The ’85 ACC title was the culmination of so many things for Tech baseball. Scott Jordan and Keith Fleming were the leaders and it was the first of four straight,” Carroll noted.
On April 24, 1998, Tech welcomed top-ranked Miami to Atlanta for a three-game series. It marked the return of Morris. His Hurricanes were riding a huge 23-game win streak on the way to the national championship. In the first game on a Friday night, Tech exploded on Miami, winning by a 22-7 score. The Jackets got a pitching effort from Chuck Crowder in the victory.
“I wasn’t as tough being on the other side that night and I wore a track from the dugout to the pitchers mound. That was the only loss Alex Santos had all year, and he was the winner in the title game of the College World Series,” Morris said.
It’s worth noting that in the first game, the ‘Canes Aubrey Huff hit one of the longest home runs in Russ Chandler Stadium history. The left-handed batter hammered a ball that landed over the right field wall onto Fowler St., and then bounced up into a party between the FIJI fraternity and ZTA sorority houses. I remember my broadcast partner Randy Carroll saying on radio that night, “that ball has broken up a keg party,”
Of the unofficial poll I took, it’s almost a given that Clemson’s John Jay hit what most consider the longest home run in the park’s history. In the ’85 season, Jay’s blast for the Tigers went out in center and over the football pavilion and landed next to the wooden door that leads out to Fowler St. from the Rose Bowl practice fields. I don’t think it’s ever been measured, but it’s a fair poke.
Morris still thinks that FSU’s Terry Kennedy has the longest shot at RCS, when his ball landed on the roof of a fraternity house on the other side of Fowler St. Carroll says that former Jacket Chris Morgan could have had the longest shot ever, but his homer banged around in the light tower in right field while still on its climb up and out of the park.
One thing that is still up for debate is how Russ Chandler Stadium became known as “the Rusty C,” In a recent conversation Stamus had with former baseball marketing director Pat Sonnett, Sonnett says that Hall may have coined the phrase.
“I don’t know,” Hall said. “Maybe so, but I usually say it when we see a bad hop through the infield.”
That brings us to another part of this story. The Georgia red clay infield and Bermuda grass will be redesigned in the new stadium. A new playing surface and seats at field level, but still maintaining some of the charm of college baseball in downtown Atlanta, where people can come and easily enjoy the game.
It’s just part of the new era of Russ Chandler Stadium in the 2002 season. Our broadcast booths will be a little bigger, which is nice. There will be a full screen behind home plate so people up at the top of the grandstand don’t have to be on alert every time a foul ball whistles up in the seats. A new scoreboard is on order and on the whole, the facility will be quite a boost to athletics and the campus in general.
While the flexibility of the new place will be welcomed, will it have the feel of the old place? Eventually it will be just as warm and cozy. Because of its amenities, the transition to the new stadium might be easier than most.
“I have grown my roots in this ball park with Tech. The familiarity is something I’ll miss, but it will be nice to have one of the better facilities in the college game next season,” Hall said.
“I’ll miss the intimacy of the park. You sit and look down on the field. The seats, surface and dimensions will all change with the new place. The most intriguing part of the new stadium is the curiosity of what it will look like once its finished,” Carroll said.
So let’s raise a glass to this model of “The Rusty C”. We have driven it a lot of miles since 1985 and now we are ready to see the new 2002 model next spring. Cheers!