Shortly before they took the field to participate in the ceremonial first pitch at Kentucky Proud Park on Tuesday afternoon, Keith Madison and Mitch Barnhart shared a few minutes near the Wildcats’ dugout.
“We were talking about how sometimes it’s better to wait and get it right,” Madison said. “And, boy, they got it right with this ballpark. It’s really nice.”
Madison, the head coach of the Cats from 1979 to 2003, and Barnhart, the UK athletics director since 2002, had both long dreamed of the day when Kentucky’s baseball program would move from Cliff Hagan Stadium into a new home.
It finally came to fruition Tuesday, when the Cats played their first official game — a 7-3 victory over Eastern Kentucky — in the $49 million Kentucky Proud Park.
Barnhart said it was a “surreal” feeling to wake up knowing it would finally be the day for the Cats to start a new era in their new digs along Alumni Drive. He said he spent the day thinking about the program’s players and coaches — past and present — and the UK fans who will get to enjoy this stadium for years to come. He also singled out Madison, a fervent supporter of Kentucky baseball in the 15-plus years since his departure as the team’s coach.
“I’m not sure he ever dreamed this day would actually occur,” Barnhart said. “I’m so thankful for him, too.”
Madison beamed on the field before the game.
“I thought it would happen one day, but, I’ll be honest with you, it’s nicer than I even dreamed it would be,” he said. “I told Nick Mingione — when he took me in the locker room — ‘I couldn’t even dream this nice, because it is spectacular.’”
Mingione, the Wildcats’ coach since 2017, sat on top of the bench and leaned against the back wall of the Cats’ new home dugout after Tuesday’s victory and talked to his players about “the emotions” that went along with occasion. A few minutes later, he thanked all of the UK officials that have pushed for a new ballpark over the past several years.
“It was emotional,” he said. “There are so many people, when you think about our ballpark and you think about the time and the effort and the years — this has been a long time coming.”
The first hit in the new park came from the opposition, when EKU’s Ryland Kerr knocked the very first pitch of the game — from UK starter Grant Macciocchi — through the left side for a single. Macciocchi retired the next 14 batters and gave up just three hits and one run in 5⅔ innings to earn the first victory in Kentucky Proud Park.
UK’s Dalton Reed doubled in the second inning for the first hit by a Wildcat, and he scored later in the inning for the park’s first run. UK’s T.J. Collett delivered the stadium’s first homer with a two-run shot to left field in the fifth.
“It’s an honor — something that I’ll remember the rest of my life,” he said.
Later in that inning, former Tates Creek star Jaren Shelby stole home, one of his five stolen bases for the day. The Cats (4-3) scored three more runs in the sixth to take a 7-1 lead and effectively put the Colonels (6-3) away for good.
Between innings, former UK players appeared on the video board to deliver pre-recorded messages to the announced crowd of 4,074 fans.
Before the game, Barnhart smiled when asked what he’d been hearing from those former Cats who had seen the stadium before its grand opening. “‘Where was this when I was here?’ No, they’re thrilled. They’re excited for their program, and it means a lot to them. The one thing that hopefully we’ll find a way to continue to capture is being respectful and thankful for what they gave us. We have a lot of memories here.”
But Tuesday was more about the future than the past — a new chapter in UK’s baseball history. That’s what was on Barnhart’s mind on opening day of Kentucky Proud Park.
“One of my first thoughts when I woke up this morning was, ‘Boy, it will be really cool when we can have a regional here. And put something out there and have 7,000 people here — really crank it up and have some fun.’”
Northern Kentucky at Kentucky
When: 4 p.m.
Online video broadcast: SEC Network Plus
Radio: 98.5 FM