With a young, talented roster and a rising-star, second-year head coach calling the shots, the future looks exceedingly bright for the University of Kentucky baseball team. But the Wildcats' regular-season home finale was largely about celebrating the program's past with moments that involved fans, former coaches, opposing coaches and even the namesake of the team's home for the last half century.
UK faced Mississippi State in the final game of a three-game series at Cliff Hagan Stadium on Sunday and the matchup carried much more significance than your average home baseball finale. Barring an invitation to host an NCAA Tournament Regional, a crowd of 4,096 witnessed the last game ever played at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
The Wildcats celebrated their history throughout the 50th and final season at the quaint stadium just off Cooper Drive affectionately nicknamed "The Cliff," but the nostalgia reached its peak during the weekend series against the Bulldogs.
Before Friday's 9-6 come-from-behind win, UK spotlighted its five seniors. On Saturday, the 1988 team that finished one win shy of the College World Series was honored as several former players along with Coach Keith Madison took the field ahead of a 4-1 UK win.
On Sunday, a combined 48 years of UK baseball coaching experience was represented during the last ceremonial first pitch at The Cliff. Madison, former head coach Dick Parsons, current coach Nick Mingione and Steve Horne, son of former coach Jordan Horne, were part of a group that threw out pitches to current UK players.
The opposition even got in on the celebration. Mississippi State interim head coach Gary Henderson, who was UK's coach for eight years before Mingione took over last season, along with the school's athletics director, John Cohen, who led the Cats from 2004-08, also tossed out first pitches.
Henderson, who partnered with UK pitcher Justin Lewis for his throw, said it "was great to be back."
"I'd just like to state publicly that Justin Lewis caught a strike," Henderson said. "It was great, (I was) glad to be a part of it."
The final member of the group was Cliff Hagan himself, the former UK athletics director and basketball legend who won a national championship with Adolph Rupp's 1951 team and for whom the stadium was named when it opened in 1969.
The crowd was on its feet as the seven men fired the final first pitches in Cliff Hagan Stadium history.
"That was a really cool moment to see all those guys and to be down there with them," Mingione said. "For those guys and everything they've done for this place it was kinda neat."
The fans' enthusiasm remained intact despite a rough day on the field for the Cats. UK was unable to complete a sweep of the Bulldogs. Mississippi State jumped out to a 9-0 lead on its way to an 18-8 win. But few fans bailed early. Every UK run was met with a rousing ovation, especially Brayden Combs' pinch-hit home run for his first career hit as a Wildcat.
After the game, fans were invited onto the field to throw ceremonial "last pitches" from the mound. They were given special baseballs to commemorate their final moments at The Cliff.
Lawrenceburg resident Jan Hatfield and her husband, Luke, are season ticketholders who "make it to every game we can." They came to Sunday's game along with their daughter, Jeanna Slusher, and son-in-law, Steven Slusher, and their four grandchildren.
Tyler Slusher, 8; Nixon Slusher, 5; Avery Hatfield, 6; and Hudson Hatfield, 7, all threw out final pitches and took home baseballs.
"They were so excited. All these guys are their heroes and the team is so special because they make time for the little kids," Jan Hatfield said. "The team just means so much to us because of how they treat the kids, from the players to the coaches."
UK catcher Troy Squires spent a long time speaking to fans and signing autographs after the game. The fifth-year senior said it hadn't quite sunk in that he might have played his last home game as a Cat.
"It's kind of weird right now," Squires said. "This whole weekend was so special to a lot of guys. This has been a home to so many of us. But I think we'll eventually look back and cherish all of the good memories we had on this field but right now it's not hit me yet. This place has a special place in a lot of people's hearts."
Later this summer UK will move into its new $49 million facility off of Alumni Drive near Kroger Field. But on Sunday, the Wildcats were all about honoring the history of their home for the last 50 years. Not even a loss could ruin the celebration of The Cliff's curtain call.