Alabama’s New Facility A Source Of Pride
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — People remember firsts. First kiss, first house, and for us, a first trip to Omaha for the College World Series.
Baseball fans love stadiums. Ask almost any college baseball fan about Rosenblatt and you’ll get all kinds of responses. Ballparks are the places we go to escape life for a few hours, step on peanut hulls, and come up with not so clever jokes about the umpires and the opposing teams.
Alabama opened the $42.5 million renovated Sewell-Thomas Stadium (“The Joe”) last weekend against All-American righthander Mike Shawaryn and Maryland. To say it was renovated, however, does not tell the full story.
The endeavor was discussed for years before it finally got legs, stumbled a few times, and eventually became reality. For folks like Crimson Tide head coach Mitch Gaspard, opening night was the culmination of years of frustration, hope, and finally pride.
“As you started seeing it come together, you had to pinch yourself a little bit,” Gaspard said on opening night. “Honestly, tonight I probably put more pressure on myself than any other night because you wanted it to be such a good night. I am really pleased it worked out the way it did. There are not a whole lot of words to describe it. I have been involved in this program for 16 years and have seen the good years and lean years. Regardless, the future of the program is going to take major steps forward.”
“It was everything we thought it would be.”
Joe Junior (aka The New Joe)
Before undergoing an endeavor like this one, every detail must be researched. As a result, extensive research of other collegiate and Minor League ballparks was conducted with the new stadium planned with some of the most desirable attributes of each. Ballpark influences from facilities at Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina, Ole Miss, and the new minor league park in Birmingham were included.
Alabama also allowed its individual experts to aid in the design. The training staff had input into the training room. The media relations staff helped design the media room and press box. The coaching staff was involved with the playing surface, the locker rooms, and the indoor hitting facility.
Following the 2014 season, the stadium was razed except for the cement seating area behind home plate. As it was rebuilt, the seats along the baseline were rotated 19 degrees to focus all fans toward home plate. The former stadium had obstructions that blocked view of the outfield corners. That was alleviated as the playing surface was rotated to allow full field visibility from any seat.
The new park has loads of amenities. Twelve suites were added along the upper concourse. Each contain 12 seats with eight stadium chairs outside and four bar stools inside. Each suite has a retractable window, a lounge area with a kitchenette, a flat screen TV, catering options, a parking pass, and access to a club area.
Two club seating areas, the Home Plate Club and .525 Club were added as premium seating options. The Home Plate club includes tickets in the first four rows behind the plate. There is access to a climate controlled hospitality area and complimentary food and non-alcoholic beverages with the option to purchase alcoholic beverages. The .525 club – named for David Magadan’s SEC record 1982 batting average – is similar except it is on the first base side and it’s climate controlled area has a view of the field.
Inside the clubhouse there is a team lounge, a meeting room, locker rooms, nutrition and training rooms, an equipment room, and a media interview room. The hitting facility has four separate wells for hitting and pitching drills. The well netting can also be contracted to allow infield practice. The facility also has video equipment to allow the review of at bats during games.
The park also has LED stadium lighting which is growing trend in Major League ballparks. The lights improve visibility with custom optics designed to direct the light on the field and not into the players’ or spectators’ eyes. The individual bulbs can be controlled which allowed between inning light shows.
The stadium also has netting extending down the lines – a nice feature in these smart phone-centric times. There is a playground beyond the left field wall that is fully enclosed with netting to protect the little ones.
One of the few stadium additions during the past few seasons was a right field berm area. Mostly occupied by students, often times it seemed there were as many fans in the berm area as there was in the grandstand.
As the new stadium was designed, the right field terrace area remained in the plans. Now a students-only sanctuary, this is still a sought after location during games. On opening night, students were lined up as early as 3 P.M. before the 6:30 P.M. start. They started letting students in at 4:30 and fans were still filing in well after first pitch.
These amenities will stack up with any in the country and change their facility from a recruiting liability into a sparkling selling point. Gaspard is hopeful the gains are about more than recruiting.
“It was about raising the energy level of Alabama baseball and this stadium is a big part of that,” Gaspard said. “When you look up in the fourth or fifth inning and see the place packed out, feel the energy, that is what it is all about. The thing the stadium does is bring interest from the fan base. You have all of the amenities there for you. In turn, the energy affects your players.”
One of the first items fans will notice about the new park are the dimensions. The fences were moved in and the walls were raised. The old dimensions were 325 feet down each line, 365 feet in the alleys, and 400 to center. The wall was eight feet high. The new dimensions are quite a bit different as they are now 320 feet down the lines, 360 feet to the alleys, and 390 feet to center. There is a 12 feet high fence in both right and center and an eight feet high wall in right.
In the Maryland series, Alabama hit one home run on Friday and another on Sunday. Maryland hit three home runs Saturday, all in the same inning. So, how much different will this stadium play compared to the prior dimensions?
“I think when it warms up, it is going to play a little small,” Gaspard said. “When we put the dimensions in two years ago, that was before the new ball. With the way that things worked out, we couldn’t move them back at this point so we stayed at 320, 360, 390. It may be something in the future we look at but ‘hey, everybody likes the home run’. I think your pitching will adjust to it.
“Through the course of playing all fall and spring, have we hit more homers? Yeah. But I don’t think it will be what you will consider a band box. You still have to get into it to get it out.”
Alabama is hoping to take advantage of the smaller dimensions to aid power production. The Crimson Tide hit 15 home runs in SEC games last season which was 12th in the SEC. However, they played their home games in the cavernous Hoover Met. This season’s home games will be much more hitter friendly.
“When you can hit homers in (batting practice) it builds confidence,” Gaspard explained. “When you crush balls and they land in the warning track, it takes confidence away.”
All Hail King Football
For a long time, the new stadium discussion seemed like a cruel prank. Several times stadium upgrades were discussed as “The Joe” fell behind it’s SEC peers. Each time, just as Charlie Brown approached the ball it was yanked away.
Former Alabama coach Jim Wells had a lot of success on the field, but he was often frustrated by administration’s inability to get the stadium deal done. As Gaspard succeeded Wells, he faced similar conditions. The facility hurt the team in recruiting. The wins didn’t come as often and neither did the fans.
So why didn’t the stadium get built earlier? Why not 10 years ago or five years ago? And why not five years from now?
Often the blame for the baseball facility neglect centered on football. With most schools, the football program funds much of the other sports. At Alabama, where Paul Bryant’s name is as prevalent as a certain Lynyrd Skynard song, this is even more of a case.
As the years passed, and Dennis Franchione, Mike Price, and Mike Shula all left the football program in vastly different ways, not much changed with the baseball facility. Football still had needs, and those came first. Baseball was in line with all of the other sports for whatever funds were remaining. And it didn’t get much.
Then Nick Saban arrived. He had a new list of needs and a plan to get them addressed. The difference came that Saban’s investment paid off. Football got what it needed to be successful. Baseball still waited in the wings — just as before. But this time it was different as Alabama won on the gridiron with three national titles in four seasons. Then the SEC Network revenue started pouring in as well and the athletic department was flourishing.
Suddenly, football’s dire needs were addressed and they moved on to the smaller needs. Then, they moved on from needs to wants and whittled that list as well. Meanwhile, to the delight of other programs that had seen their improvements delayed for years, there were some additional funds to distribute.
Coleman Coliseum, home of the Alabama basketball programs, was updated as part of former coach Anthony Grant’s contract. Baseball was long overdue and it was finally time. The stadium turned from a source of frustration to one of pride.
Ironically, the same program that prohibited the baseball stadium upgrades for many years was now a primary reason the upgrades finally materialized.
And boy, did they get it right.
Sitting in the new stadium, a familiar place for many of us, was a bit surreal. You knew where you were. Coleman Coliseum sits out behind right field. The law school is in the distance to left. Cars speed by Bryant Drive behind you. Yet, in this familiar place, here sits a new stadium making this is one of life’s rare occasions where you can feel nostalgic while also experiencing something new.