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April 7, 2013Click here for a PDF of Sewell-Thomas Stadium and some fan friendly renovations.
TUSCALOOSA | At Alex Box Stadium in Baton Rouge, there is chicken and sausage jambalaya to savor. At Carolina Stadium in Columbia, S.C., you can walk around the entire park while watching the game. At Baum Stadium in Fayetteville there are 34 luxury suites, with plans to add more to fulfill the demand of a swelling wait list.At Sewell-Thomas Stadium in Tuscaloosa the concession stand was out of food last Thursday night, fans can't see down the right-field line and you have your pick of almost any seat in the park. At Plainsman Park in Auburn the green monster in left field looms large. At Swayze Field in Oxford, Miss., a raucous, packed-out outfield student section knows the names of opponents' parents and girlfriends. No such character exists at Sewell-Thomas Stadium, unless you count parking problems and a disjointed, mostly empty, grandstand and bleachers that massacre sight lines. In the grand scheme of things, Sewell-Thomas Stadium is an adequate baseball stadium, but for a university that prides itself on having first-class facilities and amenities, the University of Alabama has fallen woefully behind its conference brethren in baseball. There are no luxury suites at The Joe, as the stadium is known, nor any vendors selling soft drinks, water or peanuts in the stands. Fans must exit the stadium, missing the game action, to get to the concession areas. Until recently, there was nothing in the stadium to honor former championship teams. There is nothing recognizing former standout players. If baseball plays at the same time as a basketball game or a gymnastics meet or a graduation commencement, which happens quite often, good luck finding a parking spot. Alabama's glaring baseball stadium problem is simple: it is not fan-friendly. Which might explain why so few fans show up to support a team near the top of the Southeastern Conference standings. The Tuscaloosa News asked former SEC baseball players to rank the league stadiums, excluding newcomers Missouri and Texas A&M: Alabama ranked 11th, ahead of only Kentucky. New Alabama Athletics Director Bill Battle has been on the job only a few weeks, and has already delivered on his vow to conduct a "listening tour." He was spotted making his way around the stadium and talking with fans during Alabama's 9-1 win over Southeastern Louisiana last Tuesday night. He acknowledged there are problems to be addressed. "Having a baseball facility that is competitive with our peers is a priority for us," Battle told The Tuscaloosa News. What direction the facility may go, where it may be located and a time frame for completion are all under review, Battle said. "We will consider all options, but I don't want to speculate on a specific direction at this time," he said. "I can assure you that the options we are considering will allow us to have a facility that is on par with our peers. "I don't want to speculate on a timetable. However, we know that the longer the process takes, the more competitive the marketplace becomes." So how did the program with the most wins in SEC history come to have a stadium voted next to last? It came about from an accumulation of bad renovations, missteps and inattention. Thomas Stadium, named for former UA coach Frank Thomas, opened three years after World War II on March 26, 1948. It was renamed Sewell-Thomas Stadium in 1978 to honor former player and coach Joe Sewell, a former New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians standout. It has since undergone overhauls, the major ones in 1996 and 2001. It was then that the stadium went awry. When the grandstand was extended and cemented in 2001, it jetted toward the field at such an angle that a portion of right field became obstructed to the home plate umpire - not to mention disrupting the view of paying fans. Only patrons sitting in left field can see a ball hit down the right-field line. A new locker room and players lounge were the major improvements in 2010, but it was akin to slapping a Band-Aid on a knife wound as far as keeping up with the SEC facility arms race. Take for instance Carolina Stadium, a $35 million gem that opened in 2009, complete with suite and club-level premium seating, 6,400 chair-back seats and a wide concourse that runs completely around the stadium. Or look at Arkansas or LSU, Alabama's SEC Western Division foes, and their sparkling ballparks. "The Joe is extremely outdated," said former UA player Taylor Dugas, Alabama's career hits leader. "When you look at the top stadiums in the conference, in the nation, LSU, South Carolina, Arkansas: those stadiums are very fan-friendly. "The problem is everything is outdated. There is no indoor facility. Those other stadiums are just more fan-friendly. It's easier to attract fans to come to the games. The stadium makes it more of an event. Alabama can be that way. The main thing is creating an atmosphere that people want to come to. You have to get students and fans to the games. There is nothing at Sewell-Thomas Stadium that is inviting." State-of-the-art stadiums and facilities matter to prospective student-athletes, and in other sports Alabama has been at the forefront of the facilities era. That's why UA recently scrapped what was already one of the best weight rooms in the country, constructed less than 10 years ago, in favor of a $9 million, 37,000-square foot facility that opened in March. In its most recent recruiting class, the Alabama baseball coaching staff had all but sewn up two front-line power pitchers before they were lured away after seeing facilities at other SEC schools. Jonah Patten, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound right-hander with a 90 mph fastball, opted for Arkansas, and Will Crowe, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound right-hander with a 92 mph fastball, chose South Carolina. "I don't think there is any question that when it comes down to recruiting, one of the first things they want to see is the venue they're going to play in and what goes with it," Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said. "I think also just from a competitive standpoint, who you're going up against when it comes to getting players, the facilities that you're up against certainly impacts recruiting. We could certainly get in the mix and have some opportunities with some out-of-state kids. We feel like we do a really good job of building relationships with players out there. I think any advantage you have with the facilities or relationships always are going to work in your favor." And it doesn't just affect baseball. The top-rated quarterback in the country for the 2012 class lived 45 minutes away in Hueytown. Jameis Winston, a football and baseball standout, seriously considered Alabama. On multiple visits to Tuscaloosa, he voiced displeasure with the existing baseball facilities and inquired about new ones, concerned the program wasn't given the attention he desired. The five-star athlete signed with Florida State to play both sports. Renovations have been promised several times over the years, but always in the future, always in another four or five years. "I've been told they were coming probably for at least the past 10 years," said Rick Pendley, the vice president of the Alabama Grand Slammers booster club. "We've heard it all before. We've heard the term, 'Five-year Plan.' I think it's just a lack of support and interest from the athletic department. That's my opinion. "I've been all around the conference, and I don't know if I would rank anyone lower than Alabama." Plans that have been made for upgrades have gone as far as commissioning a rendering of an upgraded Sewell-Thomas Stadium a few years ago, but the proposal was never presented to UA's board of trustees. But even those renderings, now outdated, may be scrapped for other plans. One project, however, is already underway in right field. The $3.26 million Sarah Patterson Champions Plaza, which will honor UA championships in sports other than football, will also provide multi-level tiered grass seating. During his tenure as director of athletics, the late Mal Moore said options were available, including building a new stadium - with the most logical location being adjacent to the Rhoads Stadium softball complex on Campus Drive. He also said he preferred to keep the stadium in its current location. Officials have attempted to address the problem, allocating nearly $1.7 million over the past six years on different projects, including dugouts, the indoor hitting cage, artificial turf apron, player lounge, locker room and scoreboard. A major renovation would not be as simple as backing up tractors and pouring concrete. The money must come from somewhere. The athletic department can't hand every program a blank check. That is where the baseball program might learn a thing or two from its softball counterpart. UA softball coach Patrick Murphy began by building a diehard fan base. Then he raised his own funds. And even with one of the best facilities in the country, including an indoor facility, upgraded locker room, etc., the softball program continues to raise its own funds for future improvements. In 2012, softball received private contributions of $146,929. Baseball's donations totaled a dismal $15,658. Gaspard said fundraising plans have been discussed and will go forward once a project has been approved. He said he appreciates the administration's support, as well as its candor. "I think it's been gaining momentum the last couple of years," Gaspard said. "The administration has been supportive of us. I've felt all along that when the timing is right administratively for it to happen, it will. Obviously we're hoping it happens soon, but we're supportive and appreciative for all the administrations efforts and all they do for our program." Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229. Click here for a PDF of Sewell-Thomas Stadium and some fan friendly renovations.