Giant Leaps for the Home Teams

Arrangements with pro and semi-pro venues, including the National Tennis Center and Icahn Stadium, have transported University teams from bleak sandlots to fields of dreams.

The Armory Track and Field Center
City College's baseball team used to play its home games on a field in East River Park. And at the College of Staten Island. And out at SUNY Farmingdale on Long Island. And sometimes even in New Jersey. "Any place we could find a field," says coach Dave Yorke.

Don't even ask about practice fields. The college's baseball team was like virtually all the outdoor athletic teams at the University's urban campuses: a team of nomads. Some would travel for hours to play on a decent field, only to be kicked off -- by a high school team.

But that's all changed in the last couple of years. Both City College and Baruch College now play all their home baseball games in an actual stadium, albeit a small one: MCU Park on Coney Island, the former Keyspan Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Mets' minor-league team whose schedule doesn't begin until after the college season ends. The seaside stadium, with all the amenities of a modern minor-league ballpark, not the least of which is the finely groomed field itself, is also the site of the CUNY Athletic Conference championship tournament.

MCU Park (formerly Keyspan Park) home of Brooklyn Cyclones
The arrangement that has put the University's wandering baseball teams in the dugouts of a first-rate ballpark is part of a sweeping upgrade in facilities for the University's outdoor athletic teams in recent years. Baseball, softball, soccer, tennis and track and field teams, primarily those at the colleges in congested Manhattan, no longer have to do without -- or with whatever their coaches could scrounge up.

"The first time we came here, the players were like, 'Oh my God, this is where we're playing!' " Yorke said before a game in this spring's tournament at MCU Park, as Baruch and the College of Staten Island played a first-round game and a Baruch batter's picture flashed on the left field JumboTron. "It's why we got some of the better players we have now. You get a different reaction when you tell them you play here, rather than here, there and everywhere else." It made all the difference in one of those magical moments of sports: This year's conference championship tournament, CCNY vs. John Jay, last inning, tie score.

Raymie Fernandez, City's all-star catcher, slams a gamewinning grand slam. On one of those fields of nightmares with no outfield fence, the ball would have just kept rolling as in a Little League game.

But at MCU Park, the drama was major-league. Fernandez's clout cleared the left field wall and he broke into a home run trot that ended with delirium at home plate -- and in the stands. "It was pretty cool," said Fernandez, a childhood education major whose 3.46 GPA made him a CUNYAC scholar-athlete finalist. "We used to play on horrible fields that nobody took care of and a lot of times nobody came out to watch the games."

It's an experience shared by many athletes and coaches. "They had to fend for themselves and they were scrambling for everything," says Zak Ivkovic, the executive director of the Athletic Conference. Ivkovic knows from personal experience. He played soccer at Hunter in the 1980s and recalled that the team would jog up to 125th Street, cross the bridge and practice on Wards Island. Teams would often settle upon "a patch of grass somewhere and get chased off constantly because they didn't have a permit ... the public high schools had priority for the best fields."

Metropolitan Oval, Maspeth
Not much changed over the next two decades. While some teams soldiered on, often traveling hours to bleak fields for love of the game, a few colleges were forced to disband programs altogether. One bright exception was tennis and the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens which became home court a decade ago for Baruch, Hunter and John Jay Colleges as well as the site for CUNYAC men's and women's championships.

In the years since he became head of the conference in 2004, Ivkovic began investigating better venues for softball and track as well as baseball and soccer. He engaged the presidents of the colleges most affected, and together they went to Allan Dobrin, executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer, a Queens College graduate and amateur boxer in his youth. Dobrin and his deputy for management services, Burton Sacks, initiated discussions with the proprietors of major facilities around the city -- including MCU Park, the Randall's Island Sports Foundation fields and its centerpiece, Icahn Stadium, and the Armory Track and Field Center.

"Manhattan is very limited, so we looked at Randall's Island, Roosevelt Island, the Armory," said Dobrin. "We came up with a lot of options and leveraged the power of the integrated university. We said, 'We'll bring you five schools,' and worked out very nice reduced rates."

"They opened a lot of doors," Ivkovic says of Dobron and Sacks. For instance, MCU -- New York's Municipal Credit Union -- became a sponsor of CUNY baseball, while the stadium that now bears its name was made available by the Mets for $600 a game, a very reasonable rate considering the costs of maintaining the field and operating the stadium. MCU's president, Kam Wong, is a Baruch graduate. "Baruch had no home field, CCNY no home field, John Jay no home field," Ivkovic said. "Now Baruch and CCNY play all their home games here. John Jay has been playing on an American Legion field for years but they're looking into playing their season games at MCU."

National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows
While Baruch's baseball team has gone on to greener pastures at MCU Park, its softball team has made a home at East River Park. Meanwhile, the complex of fields recently renovated by the Randall's Island Sports Foundation has become the new home for CCNY's soccer teams, and for baseball practices, and Hunter's soccer and softball teams. Icahn Stadium, which has hosted national and international track events, is now the site of the CUNYAC outdoor track championships each May.

The indoor championships are held in February at the Armory, which is also now a training facility available to all the colleges with track and field teams.

Another major site on the new CUNYAC map is the Metropolitan Oval in Maspeth, Queens, a four-acre complex of soccer fields that opened in 1925 and is considered the oldest soccer facility in continuous use in the United States. Some of the world's greatest soccer stars have played at the Met Oval (or just "the Oval," as it has been commonly known to generations of recreational players), and now Baruch and John Jay's soccer teams -- nomads no more -- play their entire home schedules there. The Oval is also the site of the CUNYAC community college tournament in October. Medgar Evers and City Tech, meanwhile, are now playing their home soccer games at Aviator Sports and Events Center.

The upgrade in facilities has done more than improve conditions for current athletes. "It helps recruitment, it helps retention and increases the visibility of the conference," Ivkovic says. "It costs about $15,000 per school to use MCU, the National Tennis Center and the Met Oval and solve all your problems. You can talk to people around the country and they say, 'You play at the National Tennis Center?'"

"That's a small investment for what we're getting," agrees Dan Palumbo, athletic director and head baseball coach at John Jay College. "We're the only city athletic conference in the United States, and over the last few years we've made this conference a viable place for kids to come. What we're giving the kids is credibility."