Florida Ballpark, the Gators' beautiful new baseball stadium, built with fans in mind | David Whitley

David Whitley
Gainesville Sun
Florida Athletic Director Scott Stricklin stands in the upper deck area of the Gators' new baseball home on the Gainesville campus, Florida Ballpark.

Florida's new baseball stadium opens Friday. Here's a sneak peek at what's on the menu.

A game against Miami ... 4,000 chairback seats ... fried key lime pie with fresh raspberry sauce ... and as a special treat, a heaping helping of shade.

SHADE!

Sorry to get carried away, but I was channeling generations of sunburned UF baseball fans brought up at McKethan Stadium.

They witnessed some fine baseball the past 33 years. The only drawback was they often watched while wiping sweat out of their squinting eyes.

They could have blamed their discomfort on the Earth for spinning toward the east. Or they could have blamed whoever decided to build McKethan Stadium facing toward the Southeast and exposing the stands to unrelenting sunshine.

Whatever the cause, the place often turned into a 5,500-seat sauna. As powerful as the University Athletic Association became, not even Jeremy Foley could persuade God to make the sun start rising in the west and setting in the east.

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Since there was no moving heaven, UF decided to move earth. The end result is called Florida Ballpark at Alfred A. McKethan Field.

And if you think that's a mouthful, wait until you try the slow-smoked pulled pork melt with guava cream cheese and provolone.

That's one of the new food options that will be available. As tasty as they are, fans might have trouble eating Friday because their mouths will be agape.

"We started from scratch and built something really nice," UF Athletic Director Scott Stricklin said.

You walk in and enter a panoramic concourse that wraps around the infield. The seats are a lot closer to the field than at the old ballpark. And fans can plop down in lightly-cushioned blue seats, lean back and not worry about falling into the lap of the person sitting behind them.

"No bleachers," Stricklin proudly proclaimed.

The club-level upper deck has more seats, skyboxes and the press box. Instead of seats down the foul lines, there are grass berms where fans can kick back and watch the game.

Those free-flowing areas go all the way around behind the center field scoreboard, where fans can gather in a beer/food garden.

Tucked beyond the right field berm is the team's practice infield. Kids will be allowed to play there during games, and their parents can still watch the action on large-screen TVs.

Florida baseball players warm up before an inter-squad scrimmage at the new Florida Ballpark.

The overall design allows fans to mill around, meet, greet, eat and do a lot more than keep a box score.

"Baseball is such a social sport," Stricklin said, "and McKethan didn't allow for the social aspect of it."

Stricklin came from Mississippi State, where baseball is a near-religion. UF was entering Phase 2 of its facilities overhaul in 2016, and the plan called for the old McKethan to be refurbished.

The new football training emporium was also in the plans, and there really wasn't enough room to do both facilities justice. Associate AD Chip Howard suggested building the baseball stadium in the citrus groves owned by the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

The women's softball, soccer and lacrosse stadiums had already gone up at that southwest part of campus. The UAA relocated the citrus trees, and $65 million later the top-ranked Gators have a stadium to match.

Fans will have it made in the shade at the new Florida Ballpark at the University of Florida campus.

Most fans will never see what's below the grandstands. Let's just say that between the locker room, dining area, training rooms, wall-to-ceiling trophy cases, meeting rooms and offices, coach Kevin O'Sullivan should have no trouble impressing recruits.

Planners tried to think of everything, like the palm trees down the left field line. They are there to provide a nice backdrop when TV shows a ground-level view of the pitcher's mound.

"We wanted this to feel very Florida," Stricklin said.

What they didn't want was for it to feel like its predecessor. The Gators won 911 games at McKethan Stadium and brought home a national championship in 2017.

The old ballyard deserves a place in fans' hearts. But it was one of only three SEC stadiums that didn't have a roof over the grandstands, or at least one big enough to keep most fans from frying on sunny days.

You can still catch some rays at the new place, but it's no mistake that the stands face eastward. When the first pitch is thrown about 3 p.m., the sun will already be behind the grandstands.

Whitley

That's assuming Friday will have sun. The forecast is iffy, then there are the usual COVID-19 concerns. The new place can hold 10,000 fans, but only 2,000 or so will be allowed in.

If not for that, "I think people would be hanging off the light poles," Stricklin said.

The pandemic will eventually recede, and blue skies will return even quicker. Then Florida baseball will really enter a new era.

The performers have always excelled. Now the audience will have it made in the shade.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com.

How to watch UF baseball season debut

Who: No. 21 Miami vs. No. 1 Florida

When: 3 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: Florida Ballpark at Alfred A. McKethan Field

Radio: 98.1-FM, AM-850

Tickets: All three games of the Miami series are sold out.

Did you know? The Gators have won 15 of their last 18 games against Miami, including last year’s sweep of the then-No. 1 Hurricanes in Coral Gables. Florida’s overall record against Miami under coach Kevin O’Sullivan is 34-13.