Polished Diamonds

Five new athletic facilities are helping to make today's top baseball and softball teams shine.

By Jim Catalano

Jim Catalano is an Associate Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 13.6, October/November 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1306/diamonds.htm

If you build it, he will come.

So rings the famous line from the movie, "Field of Dreams,"in which farmer Ray Kinsella builds his dream baseball diamond out of an Iowa cornfield in hopes of attracting long-gone legend Shoeless Joe Jackson.

In the real world, colleges and universities have more practical, yet no less lofty goals when building a new baseball or softball facility. Not only do they want to attract more fans, but they also want to recruit better players and host postseason games. A new ballpark will offer up-to-date amenities for the players, coaches, fans, and media, bringing a new level of expectation to the program.

In the following article, we'll take a look at some of the new baseball and softball facilities that have been built in the past couple of years. Architects of those facilities will discuss each institutions' goals, design challenges they faced, and the solutions they found.

Brigham Young University
For years, the Brigham Young University baseball program had been hindered by an outdated facility that Head Coach Vance Law called an "upgraded high school field" with a chain-link fence. "When you try to recruit players who also see facilities at schools in Texas, Arizona, and California, it's tough to compete,"Law said last year. "A lot of them even played in high school facilities that were better than what we had here."

But two years ago, BYU's athletic administration announced plans for a new facility, one that would not only carry the baseball team into the 21st century, but also provide a comparable home for the Cougars' softball program, which would be making its NCAA Division I debut. Designed by VCBO Architects in Salt Lake City, the distinctive back-to-back complex called Miller Park offers two separate fields named for husband-and-wife donors--Larry H. Miller Field for baseball, Gail Miller Field for softball--joined by a structure that enables the sharing of rest rooms, concessions, and athletic training facilities.

The new complex utilizes the playing area from the old baseball field, which meant that construction had to be completed between the fall and spring seasons. "It was a very tight schedule to work with, combined with tough winter conditions,"says Brent Tippets, Partner at VCBO Architects.

The final design includes two horseshoe-shaped grandstands backed against each other, facing opposite directions. However, they aren't symmetrical and there's a 12-foot difference in grade between them, which posed another challenge--the roofs for each field's stands were at different heights.

"We needed to create a roof structure that made sense," Tippets says. "We looked at several options, but the traditional metal roof didn't look right or function right with the combined structure and the different grades."

The solution lay in what is perhaps the most unusual component of Miller Park: a tent-like tensile fabric roof structure similar to that used at the new Denver International Airport. "It changed the whole image of the facility in a positive way," Tippets says. "Functionally, it worked very well for tying together the two fields, because it was able to accommodate the different grades. And there's some significance behind the roof's shape because Mount Timpanogos is sitting behind it, which provides a very tall, beautiful, mountain backdrop that is snow-covered several months of the year. The roof is reflective of that."

The roof also gives Miller Park a futuristic touch. "We were excited about it, because by nature baseball stadiums are traditional facilities," Tippets says. "But this is a very modern facility in the sports realm, especially for softball and baseball. We think it worked out very successfully."

Both Law and Head Softball Coach Mary Kay Amicone were involved with the design of the new complex, according to Tippets. "There were things they wanted," Tippets says. "The collegiate world plays baseball and softball very early in the year, which in Utah is very difficult, so we ended up adding an indoor batting tunnel that can be used in inclement weather. That came out of conversations with the coaches."

Some amenities and components, such as coaches' offices, concession stands, and wheelchair seating, are duplicated on each side of the complex. Others, such as a memorabilia mezzanine, an elevator, an umpire room, a hosting facility, an equipment room, a training room, and indoor batting cages, serve both teams. And the press box changes function depending on which team is playing.

"The press box is divided into two spaces," Tippets says. "During a game, one half functions as a press box, while the other half can accommodate receptions or other events. The furniture and layout of each half is identical for both uses, so it's easy to switch back and forth depending on which team is playing. And it's very rare that the softball and baseball teams both have games at the same time."

Each field seats 2,100 fans. Other amenities include lights, fixed seating, a visiting team locker room, and Cougar clubhouses for both softball and baseball.

"One fun thing we did design-wise was make the home locker room floor plans in the shape of home plate, with the lockers along the five-sided wall," Tippets says. "And there's actually a home plate in each locker room that plays off that theme."

In the first season at Miller Park, baseball attendance skyrocketed to an average of 1,337 fans at home with a season-record total of 17,378 spectators, while the softball team drew good crowds as well. Buoyed by strong home field records, both the baseball and softball teams qualified for the NCAA tournament after finishing with winning records and capturing their conference crowns.

University of Alabama
Football may be king at the University of Alabama, but the Crimson Tide's new softball stadium is turning heads as well. The $2.2-million facility is on a major road on the eastern side of the campus, which means it's the first thing many visitors see.

"Most softball stadiums don't have that kind of prominence--this one does," says Fred Krenson, Vice President and Director of the Sports Group at Rosser International in Atlanta, Ga., which designed the project.

And visitors--both passers-by and prospective student-athletes--will definitely notice the stadium's most eye-catching feature: a winged-shaped canopy roof over the concourse and seating bowl. "One of the school's primary goals was to develop a facility that would be a recruiting tool," Krenson says. "This roof structure is really different from many of the softball facilities at other schools--many of the ones out west don't have a roof at all."

The roof cantilevers 35 feet over the seats so that no columns interrupt the spectators' view of the field. In addition, it provides shade for the entire seating area during late-spring games, even though it only covers half the seats.

The new stadium also has another unique component--private boxes. "The athletic administration was a little ambivalent about adding them, and so was the softball team," Krenson says. "They didn't know if they could sell private boxes to a softball stadium. But they have. In fact, Head Coach Patrick Murphy said the sale of those boxes paid the annual operating costs for his team. They don't think of them as a money maker, but it helps the bottom line. So you if can add a feature like that without spending extra money, it's a real positive."

The stadium has 477 chairback seats, 1,100 bleacher back seats, two ticket booths, and a large concession stand sitting directly behind the press box. The press box includes home and visitor radio booths, a television booth, a booth for the sound system, and a media room large enough to hold press conferences during tournaments. A separate outbuilding houses the home locker room, coaches' offices, and a visiting team meeting room. A batting tunnel is underneath the grandstand, along with an athletic training room.

The architects also included a berm along both sidelines for overflow space. "That's useful for a college softball program, which tends to have a lot of youth involvement," Krenson says. "It provides an area for little kids to run around during the game when they get too restless to stay seated. That comes in handy for ticket sales to the public, and it helps foster the university-community relationship by making it easier for families with kids to attend games."

The new stadium signals a definite commitment toward women's sports by Alabama. "Collegiate softball has a chance to be popular to a point where it might bring in revenue," Krenson says. "But as long as a facility looks like someone pulled up a bunch of bleachers around the field, it doesn't feel like we're trying to get spectators.

"With this facility," he continues, "it feels like we're trying to attract spectators and field a contending team, and recruits will sense that when they come in to visit. Even though there are only 1,600 seats, the roof and seating arrangement give off an atmosphere that says this is a big-time facility."

University of Missouri
With several other schools in the Big 12 constructing new baseball facilities, athletic administrators at the University of Missouri felt it was time to update theirs, as well. The only problem was that the school wanted a bigger stadium to fit into the same space as its predecessor.

"There's a parking lot and road to the south, a track facility to the west, and then the field itself," says Christopher Davis, Project Manager for Peckham & Wright Architects, in Columbia, Mo. "So there was only so much area that we could fit this into--and the school wanted something much bigger than what was there before."

The solution was a dual-elevation grandstand, with two levels devoted to different types of seating. "There's a step-down section toward the field with separate chairback seats," Davis says. "And then we had regular bench seating go up from there. But to get more seating in a narrower space, we had to make that section a bit steeper."

Missouri Head Coach Tim Jamieson also had a request. "He wanted a backstop without columns so spectators' views wouldn't be impeded," Davis says. "So we set up a cable system that went back to the press box and to two posts at the dugouts, and then stretched the net between them."

The new Taylor Baseball Stadium at Simmons Field includes a 1,500-square-foot press box that houses game management functions, press and broadcast booths, and an alumni meeting room. An elevator provides access to the press box, the intermediate level aisle of the stadium, and a viewing area for people in wheelchairs. The stadium also features two new sunken concrete dugouts, a team room facility, an umpires' room, restrooms, and concession and merchandising facilities.

PWA Architects also devoted much attention to the overall stadium site. "Our firm emphasizes the site design of new facilities," Davis says, "because any time you have an outdoor venue there are always spaces the public congregates toward. So we tried to do more than just a have a grandstand and outbuildings. We added plazas, walking areas, and landscaping to give it a unified theme."

The $2.1-million price tag included everything for Taylor Stadium. "The project was budget driven, so we were very mindful of the appropriate level of detail for the facility," Davis says. "There's not too much extravagance, but for what we're doing at this level, it's a really nice facility."

Rice University
They say everything's bigger in Texas, and that's the case at Reckling Park, the new home of the Rice University baseball team. The $7-million stadium features spacious amenities: the locker rooms, coaching offices, workout room, concession areas, and dugouts are among the largest in the country. The press box is also large, with four radio booths, a television booth, and room for more than 30 working writers. In addition, the media area includes a large interview room, a hospitality area, and a large workroom for game officials.

"One of the school's goals was to build a facility that would make it easier for the NCAA selection committee to chose Rice as a host for regional and super regional tournament games," says Guy Jackson, managing partner at Jackson & Ryan Architects, in Houston, and a former Rice baseball player himself. "It's a tremendous advantage to play at home in those rounds, so if Rice can provide a superior facility for press and visiting teams, it's more likely to be chosen. In fact, we did host a regional round this spring."

Constructed on the site of Cameron Field, which was demolished after the 1999 season, Reckling Park provides a state-of-the-art facility for one of NCAA Division I's perennial powers. More than 3,100 chairback seats offer comfort for spectators, and the outfield bleachers bring seating capacity over 5,000. The design posed a couple of challenges, however.

"We had to build something that was equal in architectural quality to the rest of the campus buildings, which were extraordinarily uniform and of high quality, dating as far back as 1912," Jackson says. "That mandated an integrity in materials and style far in excess of what is normally associated with a collegiate baseball field.

"But we also had to do it in a cost-effective way," Jackson continues. "We achieved that by using design elements such as patterned brick, arches, and vaulted concourses to tie the stadium to the rest of the campus."

Another innovative angle to the park's design was the construction technique used for the grandstand. "Typically, you see precast concrete shapes used to form the tiers to which the seats are attached," Jackson says. "When researching what had been done at other stadiums in the region, we found some problems with using precast concrete. First was its cost, but more important, it wasn't able to keep water from getting below the stands, where there are locker rooms, offices, etc. So we invented a technique using economical precast concrete hollow-core plank with a concrete topping to ensure a continuous, watertight surface that stops the leakage--and it also saved money."

University of Nebraska
A joint effort among the University of Nebraska, the city of Lincoln, and the minor-league baseball team Lincoln Saltdogs culminated in the new Haymarket Park this summer. An adjoining softball facility is scheduled to be completed this fall.

Nebraska's longtime baseball home, Buck Beltzer Field, was known for its artificial turf infield and grass outfield. "Our old facility was not very good," says John Ingram, the university's Director of Athletic Facilities. "The outfield was shared with the football team, which would practice on it. Then the baseball team played on it with no recovery time, so it wasn't a good situation for either football or baseball. We also had a portable fence we took up and down every baseball season."

The softball facility wasn't much better, nestled behind an academic building and surrounded by campus recreational fields. "The team's offices and locker rooms weren't very close to the field, which caused logistical difficulties," Ingram says. "Plus, it had old metal bleachers, so it just wasn't a fan-friendly environment."

Needless to say, Haymarket Park is a major step forward for both programs. The $32-million complex strives to provide state-of-the-art amenities to student-athletes and coaches, while offering the ultimate viewing experience for fans. "One of the primary concepts driving this whole facility was to create a 'park within a park,' which means the fans are able to view the action from anywhere in the park," says Pat Phelan, principal and project manager at the DLR Group, in Omaha, which designed the project.

"There's an open concourse," he explains, "from which fans who are waiting in line for concessions or restrooms can see the field. There's also a pedestrian path and a bermed seating area around the outfield, so you can literally walk around the perimeter of the diamond while viewing the action, but you're still within the confines of stadium."

The new softball stadium is connected by a pedestrian promenade to the baseball park. Like its baseball counterpart, the softball stadium will feature open concourse areas and berm seating down both foul lines.

The baseball field and softball field have their own press boxes, grandstands and locker rooms, but they're able to share parking, the visitor clubhouse, laundry, and maintenance facilities. The baseball field seats 4,500 while the softball stands hold 750.

Another innovative feature of Haymarket Park is its SubAir System, which can heat and cool both of the fields to maximize grass growth. "It uses the field drainage system as a means of conducting air into the turf to warm the root zone so the grass greens up earlier in the spring," Phelan explains. "That was key because the University baseball and softball seasons start in February/March, so being able to have actively growing turf in February is vital.

"The system also allows us to cool the field in the summer, when it gets very hot in Nebraska," continues Phelan. "The system will not be functional until this fall, but it should prolong the spring and fall seasons."

One of the most challenging aspects of the projects was trying to balance the needs of three separate entities. "Having two public entities and one private entity trying to achieve a common goal is a challenge, but a lot of people were willing to work through the process," Phelan says. "The college teams were focused on amenities for the athletes because recruiting is so crucial, while the minor-league team was focused mainly on the fans. It took a lot of wherewithal to see this thing through.

"It's kind of unique in that the facility is built on city property, the city owns the stadium, the minor league team is the primary leasing tenant, and the university is a subtenant to them," Phelan continues. "All three entities helped to fund the project."

Haymarket Park is a half-mile off the Nebraska campus, across Interstate 180 and next to Memorial Stadium. "The football stadium offers a nice backdrop," Ingram says, "and the whole complex provides a nice extension of our athletic facilities."