HUNTINGTON — There’s simply nothing like October baseball to get the excitement going.
However, to be successful in October, a team must have at least one heavy hitter and a solid staff at its disposal.
As it turns out, Marshall University has just that on its fundraising team for the “Herd Rises” campaign, a $22 million project centered on building an on-campus baseball facility.
On Oct. 24, Cincinnati Reds legend and Baseball Hall of Fame member Johnny Bench is stepping up to the plate while former Marshall and Major League Baseball pitchers Rick Reed and Jeff Montgomery are making their pitch to help raise funds as part of that campaign.
Bench will start his evening riding in a car with Reed and Montgomery in Marshall’s Homecoming parade at 6:30 p.m. before hosting “An Evening with Johnny Bench” at the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center, which is presented at 8 p.m. that evening by the Marshall Artists Series.
Reed and Montgomery had different perspectives on Bench’s involvement, but both spoke about what it does for the campaign’s success.
“On a personal level, he’s my childhood idol,” Reed said of Bench’s involvement. “Heck, I wanted to be a catcher. But him coming just tells me that Marshall University is serious about getting this done and that they are going to do everything they can to get it done.”
Montgomery stuck to the business and logistical side of trying to get the facility built — an aspect that has troubled Marshall in past attempts.
“Once you get to this stage, it’s very important to have high-profile individuals involved, and not just former players, but everybody who can be a part of making it happen,” Montgomery said. “Obviously, there is a lot of work to be done with regards to the financing, but the biggest hurdles have been overcome now.”
Bench’s involvement is also critical because of his involvement with the Cincinnati Reds, whom are one of the hometown favorites in the Tri-State. The Reds Caravan consistently makes Huntington one of its stops on its annual tour, as well.
Marshall University secured the property for the baseball stadium with major assistance from the city of Huntington, who helped acquire the property from Flint Pigments Group, located at 5th Avenue and 24th Street, in February.
The first $500,000 to buy the property came from Huntington’s 2017 winnings in the America’s Best Communities competition while another $250,000 came from the Huntington Municipal Development Authority.
While that was a major hurdle needed to get the ball rolling on the project, it is not the only need.
Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick said the fundraising project is an aggressive one as the university looks to open its new ballpark in March 2021 — in time for the 2021 baseball season.
Reed and Montgomery each said that when they first heard of the plans, they were skeptical because of the number of times that they had heard similar pitches before.
However, this one differed because the city was behind the university in its efforts, which is a major piece of seeing this through.
“When I first heard of it, I was a little cautious, but as I looked forward over the last year-plus, it has been exciting to see that not just the university, but the city is behind it and that it is going to happen,” Montgomery said.
“There’s no longer a moving target on where the facility is going to be. At this stage, the importance of getting not only support from the Marshall community, but the entire area to support is crucial because it’s going to do a lot of good for people in the area in regards to baseball. It’s going to be something the community can be proud of.”
Reed, who also coached the Herd for one year, said that there is not a single aspect of baseball that this new facility won’t help — from a players’ standpoint to a fan’s and even a citizen’s aspect.
“To have their own stadium within walking distance, it’s a no-brainer,” Reed said. “Huntington deserves this. Now, there is a place for them to call home. Players will want to go to the ballpark early to get work in and to just hang out with teammates. It all starts in the clubhouse and when you don’t have one, it’s hard to get it started.
“And for fans, fans and former players couldn’t plan a trip for Marshall baseball because you’d plan to come back to Huntington but they’d play in Charleston or Beckley. You aren’t going to do that. Now, the alumni and fans can schedule trips centered around the program. It’s just huge.”
Reed said that he remembers catching rides to St. Cloud Commons for practice when he was a player, and being promised that a field was being built even then. That was in 1984-85.
Montgomery even predates Reed, starring for the Herd from 1981-83. Both played for head coach Jack Cook.
Cook said at the February land purchase announcement that he had been promised a new facility when he became coach in 1967.
For more than 50 years, a Marshall baseball stadium has been a pipe dream around Huntington.
With Marshall taking over the property from the city at the beginning of October, work is now starting to prepare the site for construction of the facility as fundraising continues.
For Marshall baseball alumni, that weekend may morph from ‘Homecoming’ to ‘Home-is-Coming’ as they look to the future with a state-of-the-art facility on the horizon.
“I’m just glad that they finally stepped up and made this happen,” Reed said. “Hell, I’m too excited about it. I can’t wait to drive down Third Avenue or Fifth Avenue and see the lights on and say, ‘Hey, there’s a ballgame. Let’s go!’”