LITTLE ROCK — Perceived as a sanctuary from the cold, Arkansas’ indoor baseball/track facility is much more.
Gently, Razorback baseball coach Dave Van Horn set me straight during a phone conversation. Expected to be completed in May, the facility will be an everyday complex with an infield mostly green and brown with an accent of white and strategic netting that will enable the Razorbacks to practice most everything except tracking fly balls.
Efficiency will be a daily byproduct of the 52,000 square foot building.
Currently, a Razorback baseball practice includes players who are idle because there is no room for almost 40 athletes to participate simultaneously. With the new facility, a group could be in Baum Stadium — a fly ball from the new space — working on defensive bunt coverage and pick off plays while another group is at the stadium with outfielders aiming at the cutoff man. If batting practice is the emphasis, sessions could be simultaneous.
"It will be a lot more efficient, not nearly as much standing around which drives me crazy," Van Horn said.
The effect, he said, will be to trim a three hour-plus practice to two hours or less. "It keeps guys a little fresher," he said. "It’s not about certain hours every week, it’s about getting the work in."
On the indoor infield, the brown base paths, home plate area and pitcher’s mound will melt into green "grass" that is tighter and faster than the blades in Razorback Stadium. With white foul lines, there will be no argument whether a bunt — vital in Arkansas’ offense — is fair or foul. Even the bases will be identical to the ones in Baum.
"It will have the look of real infield and the play of a real infield," Van Horn said.
On order are machines that shoot out ground balls.
To create a mental picture, start with an open space 240 feet by 200 feet inside a building with a minimum height of 30 feet angling to a peak of 45 feet or so. Then, attach a netting over the infield, drooping sort of like a circus tent. If the shortstop is playing two steps onto the outfield grass, the net will be right behind him. Pop-ups will not hit the roof.
"Outfielders won’t be able to run and catch balls," Van Horn said. Other than that, he said, "we can do it all."
I wondered out loud if anybody could tell if a well-hit ball, captured by the netting, would have been a home run.
"It’s like golf, you don’t need to look when you catch one," Van Horn said.
The track team will share the facility with two areas separate from the infield, netted for throwing implements that weigh 16 and 35 pounds. When the first drawing was submitted, location of a weight room was an issue. The room will be at the rear of the NCAA-worthy indoor track, which adjoins the new construction — left to the track, right to the infield through the main entrance.
"We needed to get the baseball and track part right," Van Horn said. Right includes netting for four batting cages in what would be left field and a small four-lane track for sprint work.
"Somebody can walk in there and see themselves getting better," he said.
He’s caught some friendly flak about the timing of the construction from players who will leave after this year, but those who are going pro will be among the army of athletes who take advantage of the complex when they return to work out.
Already, the facility has had an impact on recruiting. The top 10 class Van Horn signed in November includes the No. 1 player in Arkansas, Iowa and Minnesota, and many of the athletes read the new building as a big commitment to baseball. Plus, the availability short-circuits SEC schools farther South that cite the cold in Fayetteville.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.