Tuscaloosa, Alabama is affectionately named ‘Titletown’ by many of its residents. While several of the University of Alabama’s athletic teams have brought home many SEC and National Championships, everyone knows football is king. In fact, it’s no accident that the University of Alabama’s enrollment has soared to over 37,000 students, an increase of nearly 50% since Nick Saban arrived in Fall 2007. Unfortunately, while the football program rose to power, a few of the University’s other sports facilities lagged far behind the rest of the SEC. Baseball was no exception.
Before Sewell-Thomas Stadium (‘The Joe’ for short) underwent renovations after the 2014 season, it was in desperate need of modernization, and former SEC players voted it at the bottom of SEC baseball facilities. Over the past decade, rival schools such as Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt made significant improvements to their baseball facilities while Alabama made a few minor patches, such as a new scoreboard in 2007 and new team rooms in 2010.
As ‘The Joe’ fell behind the competition, Bama fans packed the University’s successful softball and gymnastics programs’ arenas instead. Attendance dipped from an average of 6,216 fans in 2000 to 4,162 in 2005 despite successful teams on the field that brought home SEC tournament championships in 2002 and 2003. Even though fan attendance was still consistently in the top 20 of college baseball, it was clear fans were losing interest in attending the outdated stadium. Attendance continued to drop and reached an average of 3,262 fans in 2013, nearly half of what it was a decade earlier.
Sewell-Thomas Stadium was adequate in the landscape of college baseball, but it was a disadvantage for head coach Mitch Gaspard on the fierce SEC recruiting trail. The outfield bleachers made it impossible for most fans to see the foul lines deep in the outfield. There were no luxury suites, no vendors in the stands, and the concession stands sometimes ran out of food. There was almost no character to the stadium. Not anything to commemorate any legends or teams of one of college baseball’s more storied programs. Heck, there wasn’t even a concourse level to put any banners or plaques.
Perhaps the biggest knock on ‘The Joe’ to Bama fans was when 5-star quarterback Jameis Winston from nearby Hueytown, Alabama committed to Florida State in 2012. Bama almost always locks up nearby talent, especially in the Saban era. Bama was high on Winston’s list and took several official visits to Tuscaloosa, but voiced displeasure in the baseball facilities and concern over the administration’s apathy for future renovations. He eventually committed to Florida State for both baseball and football and won a Heisman Trophy and National Championship while posting two solid seasons as a two-way player for the Seminoles on the diamond.
Maybe the loss in football propelled Alabama’s athletic department to take action on its baseball facilities. In 2013, the $3.26 million Sarah Patterson Champions Plaza opened in the right field section of the stadium. The plaza honored championship teams in non-football sports at the University and included a grass seating area for baseball. Around the same time, Alabama announced a massive $42.6 million overhaul to The Joe.
Gone are the days of outdated facilities for the Crimson Tide. The new Sewell-Thomas Stadium now features a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility down the third base line, a full concourse level with a team store and an Alabama Baseball Hall of Fame, outfield bullpens, a new scoreboard, a 2,000 square foot outfield playground and family area, 500 club seats, a spacious new press box, 12 luxury suites, an MLB scouting area behind home plate, and a larger parking lot for enhanced tailgating. Alabama essentially built a new stadium without entirely tearing down the old one. There are no more bleacher seats as the seating area solely consists of 4,500 chair back seats. There’s also room for a few thousand general admission fans in the grass berm areas in right and left field as well as the right field terrace area.
The University allowed an open tour of the stadium on January 23. Below is a summary of my tour.
- All of the foul territory is FieldTurf while all of fair territory is clay and natural grass. They did a nice job blending the two (this is the same layout as it was pre-renovation, but the old turf looked more like a carpet).
- Traditionalist baseball fans will not like the 20-25 foot tall netting that encompasses the chair back seating area (even past the dugouts), but there is little risk for fans being injured by foul balls.
- The new chair back seats are very nice and seats behind home plate are padded. Major League quality.
- The sight lines for fans sitting by home plate are fixed. You can see clearly down both foul lines.
- The concourse area is fantastic and there are now several gates for easy entry to the stadium. There is even a new ticket booth near center field for fans entering from the outfield parking lot after tailgating.
- Alabama’s dugout will now be down the third base line because that is where the indoor practice facility is located. Both dugouts look like they were completely redone.
- The brick and marble outside of the stadium matches the campus architecture. It looks like a high-level minor league stadium from the outside and the inside does not disappoint.
Sewell-Thomas Stadium is now a destination for fans across the SEC and should receive rave reviews. While you’re there, stop by the right field terrace, where the self-named ‘Right Field Ragers’ student section resides (the only section of an athletic facility where alcohol is allowed). As you can imagine, students come in droves and offer a nice home field advantage near the opponent’s right fielder and bullpen.
Alabama opens the 2016 season and their new stadium on February 19 at 6:30 PM CST against Maryland, a worthy foe for a new stadium. Last year, the Terrapins advanced to the Super Regional Final against eventual champion Virginia. Their ace, All-American Mike Shawaryn, is a must watch talent who ranks #34 on MLB.com’s 2016 Prospect Watch List.
The opening weekend series continues on February 20 and 21 at 3:30 PM and 12 PM. All games will air on SECN+, which is available on the Watch ESPN app and online.