Standing in front of a soccer goal post and running baseball practice with fog looming overhead on a gray afternoon, Steve Domecus shouts the scenario: “Ninth inning! Tie game! No outs!”
The University of San Francisco baseball team plays out the situation, right-hander Joey Steele working from a portable pitching mound. Soon, the Dons walk five minutes back to Memorial Gym — yes, a college basketball arena — and head upstairs to take batting practice in a pair of blow-up cages set up right next to the bleachers. Think bouncy house, baseball-style. Music blares. The displaced Dons go about their makeshift hitting session, a couple of tees out, too.
Outside, their regular ballpark of Benedetti Diamond is undergoing a major facelift that includes snazzy new dugouts, a synthetic playing surface, the relocation of home plate to the former left-field corner and the addition of grass berms and movable stands. It’s the first of three planned facilities projects on campus.
“It’s a very funny sentence to say telling people, ‘We’re a baseball team hitting tennis balls on a soccer field,’” outfielder Blake Valley said. “I think our team’s grown from it. You look at challenges that a team faces and we had already seen a lot before season even started.”
For now, just call them the “VagaDons,” a nickname catching on around campus as the Dons deal with an ever-changing, challenging nomadic lifestyle while awaiting their stadium.
Construction is behind schedule. USF was forced to move home games this week and next to Santa Clara and Cal. USF coach Nino Giarratano knows how fortunate he is to have such strong relationships with the close-knit Bay Area college coaches to take advantage of opponents’ ballparks when they are vacant and the schedule allows.
One day last week, the Dons initially planned to practice at nearby San Francisco State but wound up on the soccer field.
“The challenge continues,” said Giarratano, in his 18th year at USF.
No complaining around here. Not that Giarratano would have any of it, even after a 2-11 start that began with seven straight losses.
The Dons use half the soccer field most Wednesdays, one day the players need to be in class before the busy baseball weekend and regular out-of-town travel.
“What do you think of the practice field?” shortstop Nico Giarratano said with a smile, then carried on with his infield practice alongside first baseman Manny Ramirez Jr., son of the former slugger.
The blowup cages are used three times a week, taking 15 minutes to inflate and another 10 to take down.
“It’s really been a challenge to try to get the team prepared to play,” Nino Giarratano said. “I guess my 20 some years of college coaching has kind of put me in a position where I can do this. If this was early in my career, I’m not so sure I could get them ready. Just mix and match, you try to do the right things, try to get them to the right places. The kids have been wonderful, great resiliency. We’re excited to have a new facility but it’s hard sometimes not to have a place to practice.”
Stanford baseball found itself in a similar predicament during the recent renovations at Sunken Diamond on campus, and 40th-year coach Mark Marquess appreciated Santa Clara and Cal sharing fields on several occasions last fall.
“I tease him that the video we got from those practices was well worth the trade,” coach David Esquer, whose Cal team is ranked as high as No. 9 in some polls this week, joked of his words to friend and Pac-12 rival Marquess. “He’s done so much for me.”
Some days, the USF team drives across San Francisco Bay to Laney College in downtown Oakland. That trek means a 2 p.m. departure, perhaps an hour-long drive with traffic, practice, and often with dinner and studying on the road given a typical 10 p.m. return to the Hilltop campus. Other times, it’s College of Marin to the North in Marin County or Skyline College and College of San Mateo to the South.
And, with Nino Giarratano at the wheel of the van as his son helps navigate after his father’s December corrective eye surgery, the players always sing aloud to local rock band Train’s “Save Me San Francisco” as their final song to get ready.
“It’s been hard,” said Nico Giarratano, who prepares his meals for the week and often packs slow-cooker chicken for dinner. “It’s somewhere new, wherever we can get practice in. It’ll make us better. Sandwiches for dinner, it’s not ideal, but it’s food and it’s more than what others have.