Hard-core Kentucky baseball fans might have gotten a glimpse of the team’s gleaming new Kentucky Proud Park during fall exhibitions, but most of the faithful probably waited for spring baseball to check it out.
Opening day in the Bluegrass has arrived.
Kentucky (3-3) hosts Eastern Kentucky (6-2) for Kentucky Proud Park’s very first official game at 4 p.m. Tuesday, and the venue on Alumni Drive in Lexington promises a different experience for both the players and fans. Construction on the $49 million stadium began in March 2017.
“We’re still learning the ballpark,” UK Coach Nick Mingione said this month at his team’s media day. “We’ve done wind studies and everything else. We’ve had our scrimmages. To me it’s going to play more of a doubles ballpark as opposed to The Cliff (Cliff Hagan Stadium, UK’s former home) where it maybe played a little bit more home runs.”
Kentucky comes into the game looking to improve off a sweep and a 19-4 Sunday shellacking by No. 3 Texas Tech in Lubbock. UK swept Austin Peay in Clarksville, Tenn., the previous weekend.
And the Cats have some bright spots, most notably senior outfielder Ryan Shinn, who’s hitting a robust .476 after six games, including five doubles, a homer, seven runs scored and four RBI. Junior Jaren Shelby, the third Shelby brother to play for the Cats, is hitting .360 with a homer and eight RBI.
Offensively, the Cats have impressed, scoring more than seven runs per game. But on the mound, UK has struggled to keep batters off the bases, allowing 33 walks and 58 hits in 51 innings with a 7.41 team ERA. They’ll need a good effort Tuesday against an Eastern Kentucky team that scored 27 runs Sunday against Maryland-Eastern Shore.
Kentucky Proud Park’s field dimensions are a little more spacious than Cliff Hagan Stadium with the most notable differences in left- and right-center field — 365 feet (Cliff) to 375 (KPP) feet in left-center and 350 feet (Cliff) to 365 feet (KPP) in right-center. Center field is 400 feet instead of 390. While the left-field fence is 5 feet closer at 335, the right-field fence down the line is 10 feet back at 320.
The other major difference besides the giant video board over the right-center-field fence? The playing surface is all synthetic turf, with the exception of the dirt pitching mound. The change from natural grass to turf follows the latest trend in college baseball to increase everyday playability and reduce upkeep costs.
For the fans, the park’s permanent seating is for 2,500, plus terrace areas where they can stand or rent a chair for $3. Chairs from home are not allowed. There are also grass berms on either side to put down a blanket and let the kids roam.
“We had a scrimmage … and there was a group of kids jumping up and down, rolling down the hill, and I tapped over to one of the coaches, and I go ‘guys, look right there. That’s exactly what I envisioned,” Mingione said.
All but the Dugout Chairbacks sections and the Terrace and Berm ticket levels have been sold out for the season, but there’s still plenty of room to enjoy the game. Those tickets are $8 each for adults and $5 for youth and seniors. Any reserved seat not occupied by a ticket-holder after the third inning is up for grabs, too, according to UK policy.
There are activities for kids and families after each weekend game on the schedule. Kids can run the bases every Friday, have a catch in the outfield each Saturday and get player autographs each Sunday.
Fans who struggled to find parking at The Cliff should have a little better time of it at the new park with first-come, first-serve lots opening four hours before each game, including the lots next to the soccer and softball complex and the Blue and Green Kroger Field lots. Shuttles will run from the Blue and Green lots beginning two hours before first pitch and for one hour after the game.
As for concessions, traditional ballpark fare will be sold, but Athenian Grill and House of ‘Cue will also be offering their own signature items.
Special pregame ceremonies will begin on the field at 3:45 p.m. Tuesday with ceremonial first pitches from UK President Eli Capilouto, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and former UK head coach Keith Madison, among others.
Tuesday’s game opens a 12-game home stand for the Wildcats and a stretch where 20 of the club’s next 23 games will be at Kentucky Proud Park.
Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky
What: Inaugural game at UK’s new Kentucky Proud Park
When: 4 p.m.
Online video broadcast: SEC Network Plus
Radio: 98.5 FM