EVANSTON -- In the midst of the multimillion dollar lakeside facility being built on Lake Michigan and the recently announced renovations to Welsh-Ryan Arena, there's another major addition to Northwestern athletics that hasn't gotten nearly as much buzz as the other aspects of the master athletics plan.
Bordered by Isabella Street and Ashland Avenue and straddling the Evanston-Wilmette border, Rocky and Berenice Miller Park looks like a regular college baseball stadium, one resembling many of those belonging to other Big Ten programs. The same couldn't be said about the previous incarnation of the stadium, even the one from one or two years ago.
Completed this March for the 2016 Northwestern baseball season, the new and improved Miller Park was the culmination of years of work by the Northwestern athletic department and a whole bunch of donors. They had the unenviable task of turning a downtrodden, woefully inadequate park into one that — along with the hiring of Spencer Allen— would hopefully turn Northwestern baseball from also-ran to legitimate conference contender.
"Six or seven years ago, we created a facilities master plan," said Travis Goff, Northwestern's Deputy Athletic Director for Development. "We assessed every athletic facility and did an in-depth analysis of facility needs." In that analysis, the lakefront facility took immediate precedent, with an eventual baseball stadium being put to the back-burner.
That changed, according to Goff, when, three years later, Richard and Roxy Pepper stepped forward to pledge $5 million for what would become the new Rocky and Berenice Miller Park, to be named after Roxy Pepper's parents. Eventually, other donors entered the fray to provide matching funds.
"The Peppers' initial pledge set us down a two-year fundraising drive," Goff said. "We focused on people in the Northwestern community with baseball connections. Still, it took a lot of digging deep to have the project come to fruition. Without the Peppers, though, this ballpark doesn't exist."
Most of the construction of the stadium was done by Pepper Construction, a company founded by Richard Pepper's father, Stanley, and now controlled by Dave Pepper, Richard and Roxy's son. In addition to kickstarting the stadium effort and having a hand in the actual construction, the Peppers also helped bring Northwestern baseball alumni into the project and entice additional donors to contribute.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi, Blue Jays starting pitcher J.A. Happ and former MLB All-Star Mark Loretta — all former Northwestern baseball players — were involved in the efforts, as were other former Wildcats, according to Goff. Also, in order to gain a better idea of how to make Rocky and Berenice Miller Park competitive with other Big Ten and college stadiums around the country, members of the athletic department — including athletic director Jim Phillips — visited over 60 schools nationwide.
Prior to the 2014-15 baseball season, new turf and dugouts were installed at what was then called just Rocky Miller Park. This past year came the addition of the Mogentale Family Player's Lounge, Hayden Family Locker Room, Stevens Plaza (named after longtime coach Paul Stevens) and a revamped press box.
But, per Brian Baptiste, Northwestern's deputy director of athletics for operations and administration, the stadium project faced many roadblocks, funding aside. Baptiste, who dealt mostly with Pepper Construction and its role in the new ballpark, said that the usually tough Chicago weather took the project a bit off-schedule. Stevens Plaza was only completely finished a few hours before the Wildcats' March 30th game against Chicago State, the first in the renovated stadium.
"There's always complexities and unknowns," Baptiste said. "We really tried to stay on task to make sure we accomplished everything needed to showcase the facility to the best of our ability... If it's snowing and the temperature is below a certain level, there's things you can't do from a construction aspect."
While the Wildcats struggled to a 15-39 overall record in Rocky and Berenice Miller Park's first season, Baptiste says feedback from Northwestern players/coaches, opposing teams and other visitors has been "really positive."
The 2015-16 campaign was also Spencer Allen's first in Evanston, as he was hired by Northwestern away from Illinois, where he served as hitting coach for the prior season. After 19 home games, he says he and his coaching staff have gotten to known the park, and its characteristics, well such as the wind patterns off Lake Michigan that lead to a "power alley" effect in left field
"I know Mr. Pepper and I know he takes great pride in what he does," Allen said. "We couldn't be happier [with the stadium] and once we start to play here more, we'll play better."
It's too early to say just how quickly the Northwestern baseball program will experience the positive externalities of a new stadium that is finally up to par with those of other Big Ten teams. Undoubtedly, recruiting will be a bit easier for Allen and his staff, as it will for most of Northwestern's programs that have benefited from recent facility upgrades.
Now, baseball-specific facilities are a positive for Northwestern baseball in recruiting, as opposed to the likely negative they were before. But, that's only part of the problem for Spencer Allen. He needs to convince high schoolers (and transfers) to spend their college careers at a program that hasn't made the Big Ten Tournament since 2010. Rocky and Berenice Miller Park helps with that, but it can't do the job alone.