Kentucky unveils a tangible symbol of the rebranding of its suddenly can-do baseball program during this weekend’s series with Georgia.
The wall in right field, previously big, blue and blank, has come alive. From a distance, the message is clear, with the words in block letters “WE ARE UK.” Viewed up close Thursday, it becomes apparent that inside each letter are lists of names.
Every UK baseball letterman since 1903. Every season-ticket holder since 2006. In all, about 4,000 names.
When asked about the message covering the expanse of the wall, UK first-year coach Nick Mingione said it was a thank-you note writ large: 20 feet tall by 56 1/2 feet wide.
“Just a little way for us to thank our season-ticket holders, our players, our former players,” Mingione said. “I hope it reminds our players it’s more about not just baseball. We represent not only a great university, but a great place.”
First baseman Evan White said Mingione includes the words “We are UK” in tweets and text messages.
“It’s really cool that everyone who has been a part of this program is up there,” White said.
It does something to young men when they get to do something that no one has ever done before. Like, man, I really believe it, like, equips them for life. They can always tell their kids (to think big). That’s powerful.
Nick Mingione, UK baseball coach
It seems fitting for Cliff Hagan Stadium to include a nod to history. This season’s Wildcats, currently ranked fifth in the USA Today coaches poll, have repeatedly made history or accomplished the highly unusual. This includes the first triple play in program history (against Louisville on April 18), the Cats’ first 4-0 start in Southeastern Conference road games since 1949, the largest margin of victory in an SEC game (19-1 at South Carolina on April 28) and the end of losing streaks against South Carolina (11 games) and Ole Miss (eight games).
“It’s definitely special to be part of,” White said of the trail-blazing Kentucky has done this baseball season, “and we hope to put our names in the history book one day.”
Mingione welcomed his players’ desire to make history.
“This group of young men want to do things that have never been done before,” he said, “so it’s like they want to help set and make history. I love the fact that’s the way they are, and they’re wired that way. …
“It does something to young men when they get to do something that no one has ever done before. Like, man, I really believe it, like, equips them for life. They can always tell their kids (to think big). That’s powerful.”
Kentucky, 31-14 overall and 14-7 in the SEC, has the league’s highest Ratings Percentage Index (No. 3) and strength of schedule (No. 8). The Wildcats have a one-game lead in the SEC Eastern Division and are tied with Mississippi State and Auburn for the league’s best record.
More than once this season, a UK player has mentioned that this success hasn’t led to respect nationally.
Of preseason expectations, White said, “I would say they kind of thought we would just have a rebuilding year. A new coaching staff. A lot of guys who haven’t played a ton previously.
“Going into it, we knew we had some guys with SEC experience, and we were going to be able to build off that.”
Mingione said he was convinced long ago that his first Kentucky team could be special. Even four straight losses to start the season — albeit by a total of five runs, suggesting competitive spirit — didn’t dim his optimism.
Mingione kept talking about doing special things. This led him to interpret Kentucky’s success as validation rather than moving from the hunter to the hunted.
“I don’t know so much a target on our back,” he said. “It’s more like, hey, we told you. You can do this. You guys are special. Like you guys can do this. Like we’re going to do this.”
Omaha was mentioned Thursday. The inference, of course, was an advancement to the College World Series.
But, first, there’s another bit of history Kentucky would like to make. UK is in position to host an NCAA Tournament regional for only the second time in program history. The first came in 2006. Heady stuff for a program that hadn’t had a winning SEC record since 2012, and only one since 2008.
“Just because we are ranked fourth or whatever it is now, we’re not done,” White said. “We haven’t won anything yet. We don’t have an SEC ring on our finger. We don’t have that national championship ring on our finger. Nothing like that. Until we have that, we’re not going to be satisfied.”
Georgia at Kentucky
6:30 p.m. (SEC Network Plus)