Saluki Athletics celebrated the grand opening of the Southern Illinois University baseball team’s new home ballpark with the dedication of Richard “Itchy” Jones Stadium Thursday afternoon. The new stadium is the result of a $4.2 million renovation project at the site of Abe Martin Field, which has been the Salukis’ home since 1964. The field at the new stadium will remain named after Abe Martin.
The ceremony also included a ribbon cutting to mark the official renaming of the clubhouse as the Dan Callahan Clubhouse to honor the late Saluki coach who led the team for 16 seasons.
Jones was on hand to speak at the occasion. The winningest baseball coach in SIU history compiled a 738-345-5 record in 21 years as the Salukis’ head coach. Jones was a two-time national coach of the year and took SIU to 10 NCAA Tournaments and three College World Series.
“It’s a privilege to know that my name, for a number of years, will stand next to Glenn “Abe” Martin, who was my baseball coach and gave me an opportunity to come to Southern Illinois University to play ball and get an education,” Jones said, “and to know that my name will appear with Dan Callahan, a great friend, a great person, who unfortunately had to leave us too soon. I had great respect for him, for what he did for our baseball program and everything he did.”
Also speaking at the ceremony were SIU Chancellor Dr. Rita Cheng, SIU President Dr. Glenn Poshard, Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Mario Moccia, Head Baseball Coach Ken Henderson, Saluki Baseball student-athlete Todd Eaton, Saluki Baseball alumni Tom Caulfield and Bill Lyons, and Alexa Callahan, daughter of Dan Callahan.
“We are here to celebrate another milestone for our university,” Cheng said. “We have yet another venue to showcase the talents of our student athletes and coaches. This project, together with the improvements to our athletic facilities, represents an investment in our students, our university and in our region.”
Jones was a major factor in helping to raise the funds for the new facility. In 2011, he helped to form a committee along with many baseball alumni to begin the fundraising effort. The cost of construction was funded largely by private gifts, and more than $500,000 was pledged by Saluki Baseball alumni, which helped get the project off the ground.
“The impetus for the construction of this entire baseball complex started with the players of both coaches,” Poshard said. “They wanted to give back in honor of the two coaches who taught them to do the right thing. That is the last and greatest tribute that could ever be bestowed upon these two iconic coaches.”
Moccia, who has overseen the construction and renovation of many athletic facilities on the SIU campus, spoke of the early efforts to improve the baseball facility and the excitement of seeing it come to fruition.
“Today is a historic day and one that is long overdue,” Moccia said. “It’s very gratifying that we not only have a state-of-the-art baseball stadium and clubhouse, but that they will be named after two Saluki greats, our beloved Dan Callahan and Itchy Jones.”
Henderson spoke of the major boost the new facility has been to recruiting. He also talked about the new playing surface and stadium lights, which will allow the team to practice on the field more often. The facility features a newly installed artificial playing surface that sits atop a new drainage system, which will allow for the field to be playable almost immediately following any rain.
“From a coaching standpoint, it’s perfect,” Henderson said. “This turf is as good as it gets. We play night games during our conference season, but we could never practice under the lights. This allows us to prepare, and the results will ultimately show up on the field.”
Eaton, who is a fourth-year senior on the Saluki pitching staff, recalled some of the issues with the old field such as standing water in the outfield, cramped dugouts and pulling tarp. He expressed his excitement to play on the new field and the gratitude from him and his teammates for everyone who helped to make the stadium a reality.
“I cannot begin to describe how excited our team is to play here at the ‘Itch’,” Eaton said. “The Hill has always provided us with a great atmosphere. With the completion of Itchy Jones Stadium, we can now continue and progress the strong Saluki winning tradition.”
Caulfield, who played for Jones from 1979 to 1983, discussed the connection between the former Saluki players and coaches who still remain tight following their playing days along with the lessons he learned from Jones.
“As a former player, it gives me so much pride,” Caulfield said. “For all the former players, it’s so great to see this happen. I support this program because it did so much for me and for so many people. Coach Jones taught me a lot of things about how to succeed in life. I got to know Coach Callahan, even though I didn’t play for him, and the common theme is do what’s right.”
Lyons played for Jones from 1977 to 1980 and went on to play two years for the St. Louis Cardinals. He talked about beginning the initiative with the alumni after seeing what the Saluki Way project brought for other programs and facilities on campus.
“Our alumni base was very supportive, and the financial support of the former players was overwhelming,” Lyons said. “We greatly appreciate the efforts of the university administration, the athletic department and the Carbondale community to contact and identify donors to fund this project.”
Alexa Callahan recalled growing up, spending time with her father and his team at Abe Martin Field and the fitting honor of having the clubhouse named after him.
“My dad’s passion for Saluki baseball radiates through all of us,” Callahan said. “My family and I had some of our greatest memories at this field, and now that the clubhouse has the Callahan name on it, we will always remain a part of the Saluki baseball family.”
The event was emceed by Saluki Hall of Fame broadcaster Mike Reis who has been broadcasting Saluki Baseball since his days as a student. The new press box at the stadium is named in honor of the 1978 SIU graduate.
Jones concluded the event by throwing out the first pitch at the stadium bearing his name. He will throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Friday’s inaugural game. SIU will host the University of Illinois at 3 p.m.