(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — Move over Rupp Arena and Kroger Field, there’s a new University of Kentucky sports venue in town, and it’s playing second fiddle to no one. On Tuesday, UK Baseball officially christened their brand-new home—Kentucky Proud Park—before 4,074 wide-eyed, Big Blue patrons looking to make history on an unseasonably mild and sunny February afternoon.
For the record, Kentucky (4-3) defeated Eastern Kentucky 7-3 behind the debut start of Grant Macciocchi. The junior right-hander from West Chester Township, Ohio pitched 5.2 masterful innings, giving up one run, three hits, walking one, and striking out six. Junior designated hitter T.J. Collett’s two-run home run over the left-centerfield fence broke open the game in the fifth inning, as the Wildcats marched into the history books with their signature first homefield win.
But the real star of the show was the ballpark itself, adorned with enough opulent amenities to make Disneyland blush. If the goal of building this $49 million palace was to keep up with the Joneses, then Mitch Barnhart and company have certainly hit a homerun.
Nestled on a hilltop along Alumni Drive, the ballpark screams elegance from the get go—its sleek and contemporary design like a sports-themed UFO preparing for liftoff. Unlike its predecessor, The Cliff, the grounds around the new stadium are easily accessible. Parking is ample and convenient, and tailgating is highly encouraged. Throw in a shuttle or two running to and from the front gates, general admission tickets at three dollars a pop, and some well-designed promotional giveaways—and you’ve got all the ingredients necessary for a bona fide, fan-friendly jamboree.
Once inside the stadium grounds, the first thing that strikes you is how spacious the ballpark appears. It’s vast…it’s open…it’s sprawling—like the Grand Canyon opening into a baseball field of dreams. This state-of-the-art facility has permanent seating for 2500 with enough auxiliary space to easily double its capacity. Visually appealing, geometric stone terraces—reminiscent of the Incan ruins on Machu Picchu—cascade vertically from both the left and right field lines. Rent a chair, splash on some sunscreen, and spend the next three hours soaking up vitamin D away from the worries of the real world. Grass berms sloped at an ergonomic thirty-five-degree angle line the outfield corners, providing the perfect blanketed respite for game viewing under puffy white clouds.
The 360-degree concourse, as the name implies, allows fans to view the action from every conceivable angle. Do yourself a favor and take a quick stroll around the circumference. There’s a ton of green space off the left field line and behind the massive electronic scoreboard in center—perfect for either a catered tailgate tent or for the kiddies to run wild. Be sure to tarry awhile at The Hook, the right field bullpen area, dedicated to the loving memory of former UK player Jonathan Hooker. Anyone with a trace of humanity will shed a tear or two reading the plaque commemorating the life of the athlete taken away from us far too early in the crash of Comair Flight 5191.
Getting hungry yet? Concessions at the ballpark won’t disappoint. Even before walking past the box office gates, I smelled the intoxicating aromas of the grilled meats wafting from the ovens of the Athenian Grill. If a lamb gyro doesn’t float your boat, you can also opt for a plate of loaded barbeque nachos from the House-of- ‘CUE. A traditional hot dog will set you back three dollars, a souvenir soda will cost you five. If you’re still hungry for souvenirs, pick up some t-shirts at the mobile kiosk. Or spend your remaining spare change on a green screen generated family photo.
If you’re like “Money” Michael Bennett, take the stairs or the elevator up to the second story terrace level. There you’ll find the luxury boxes complete with all the expected high donor amenities. Relax with a beverage of your choice on the outdoor patio, watching the sun set over the rolling green hills of your Old Kentucky Home, to the peaceful strains of a Jimmy Buffett ballad.
The adjoining press box area was contemporary and modern, but a bit more cramped than I expected. The view was fantastic though—a perfectly designed baseball diamond set against the backdrop of the now sprawling labyrinth of the UK athletic complex. Flashing my media credential, I was hoping for a food voucher—but all I got was a welcoming smile and an overflow seat in the media workroom.
Back downstairs, the behind the scenes player areas are rumored to be some of the best in the business, with spaciously designed locker rooms, lounges, and training areas comparable to luxuries at the Taj Mahal. Evidently no expense was spared in this arms race to entice recruits.
Keith Madison, the iconic coach of the Wildcats from 1979 to 2003 summed it up best after throwing out one of the ceremonial first pitches earlier in the afternoon. “We were talking about how sometimes it’s better to wait and get it right,” he said. “And, boy, they got it right with this ballpark. It’s really nice.”
I agree, Coach. All that’s missing is my food voucher.
Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Media Group and Sports View America. If you enjoy his writing, be sure to follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.