Pitt player Corey Baker pulls a mat over home plate while preparing Trees Field for the weekend series vs. South Florida, the Panthers' final games at Trees Field.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pitt's baseball team has a saying: "Live by the wall and die by the wall."
It's a reference to the short dimensions at Trees Field, where the left-field fence sits 280 feet from home plate.
Over the years, countless pop flies have become home runs, and good pitchers have left the mound needing a psychiatric therapy session rather than a physical one.
The dimensions are one of the many oddities at Trees Field. The infield is Astroturf while the outfield is natural grass. Because the field is used by Pitt's other sports teams and the marching band, there are huge divots in the outfield, which inevitably lead to bad-hop doubles and triples.
As for the amenities for the fans? Well, there is exactly one set of bleacher seats from Three Rivers Stadium behind home plate and little else.
So, when opposing coaches and players saw Pitt's home field for the first time over the years, their reactions were worth noting. Pitt coach Joe Jordano has kept track of the comments in his 13 seasons as Pitt's head coach.
"We've heard it all," Jordano said. "Everything from 'I've never seen anything like this' to 'You've got to be kidding me,' " Jordano said.
The final three games at Pitt's unconventional home field will take place today, Friday and Saturday against the South Florida Bulls. The Panthers are looking forward to moving across the street on Pitt's upper campus to a new state-of-the-art field in the Petersen Sports Complex next season, but the old relic behind Trees Hall that has served as the team's home field since 1970 holds a soft spot in their hearts.
"It's like the quirky old house you lived in," Jordano said. "There's a lot of great memories there. It's home. Even when you build a new home or move out, you always leave a piece of yourself there."
"It's a lot different from other fields," junior outfielder John Schultz said. "Other teams complain about it. Other players don't like playing on it, but it's been a home-field advantage for us for years."
The Panthers know how to play the bad bounces in the outfield, created by the soccer cleat divots, and they are used to the fast track of the artificial surface infield. But Schultz said the biggest home-field edge comes when opposing pitchers take the mound and look over their shoulder at left field.
"It gets in their heads," Schultz said. "They have to deal with that. They think they have to make the perfect pitch, and our hitters take advantage. You see it every year. A few guys are dominating the league, then they come to our place and give up 10 runs or something."
While Trees Field presents a unique home-field advantage, Jordano is looking forward to playing in a modern facility next season. He will not have to share the new field with the soccer teams or the band, and the new baseball-only field will be well-maintained. But most important, the new facility will help the Panthers take the next step to becoming more competitive in the Big East.
Jordano already has begun to recruit a different caliber player, and he expects that trend to continue once the new field serves as Pitt's new home.
"We signed arguably the most-talented group of players we ever have in the fall," Jordano said. "That not only was based on our history and reputation, but they saw the construction happening. It's a great indicator that our program is going to another level. In fact, several of the guys we signed would not have even been in the conversation if we didn't have the new field."
Before the new field is christened, the Panthers would like to send the old one out in style. They head into the final series of the season against South Florida one game behind first-place Connecticut. That means the final game at Trees Field Saturday could be for the Big East championship.
Pitt, which finished 11th in the 12-team Big East in 2008 and was seventh last year, has won only one Big East regular-season championship (1994) in the past 25 years.
Another title celebrated at Trees Field would be a storybook ending for Pitt's peculiar ballyard.
"It would mean a lot for us to do that," Schultz said. "It's fitting that we'll be at Trees for the last time and the championship could be on the line. This season has been unbelievable.
"It's a reflection of the hard work everyone has put in, especially the guys who have been around a while.
"For us to turn it around the way we have is really rewarding."