This was supposed to be a big year for the University of Florida baseball program, with a send-off for Alfred A. McKethan Stadium and a grand opening for a new ballpark. But like most things in 2020, a wrench was thrown into those plans. Now, Florida Ballpark at Alfred A. McKethan Field is ready for play.
The University of Florida has been working to improve its athletic facilities as part of a three-phase Facilities Master Plan. The first phase involved building an indoor practice facility (Gary Condron Family Indoor Practice Facility), the Otis Hawkins Center at Farrior Hall, and renovating the Exactech Arena at Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
Phase Two of the master plan included renovations to Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium for the softball program and the new $65 million Florida Ballpark at Alfred A. McKethan Field for the baseball program. The original plan was to renovate the existing ballpark. As the project grew in scope and size, a larger building site on campus was located and acquired.
“We only have a certain amount of space on campus. We were looking at how to utilize that space,” said Bill Smith, the Assistant Athletics Director of Facilities for the University of Florida. “Over time, we saw it wasn’t oriented in the best position because of the sun. Our stadium is a bit older. It wasn’t really laid out well originally when they did it about 25 years ago. It’s not conducive to spend the money because it wasn’t going to be the best for our fans and athletes. All of those factors made us look at a new ballpark and we decided on a new piece of property.”
The old McKethan ballpark was in the heart of campus and wasn’t going to be a good fit for a new ballpark due to the size of the site. However, the perfect plot of land ended up being on the other side of the university.
“They looked at a piece of land the university owned that used to be a research farm. It belonged to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences,” said Jason Michael Ford, Senior Associate with Populous. “The athletic department acquired the land from IFAS. It really kind of fits on the south part of campus.”
Designing A New Classic
The University of Florida looked at several bids before selecting Populous for the ballpark design. Populous also did renovations for the softball facility.
In designing the new ballpark, the goal was to create a beautiful facility that fit in with the university’s overall campus design.
“A lot of campuses have a specific look or type of architecture. Our campus has more of a collegiate gothic look. [Athletic Director] Scott Stricklin decided he wanted it to make sure like it wasn’t veering too far from what campus looked like,” Smith said. “You see a lot of different ballparks and you might not recognize them or where they are. We wanted a ballpark that matched the fabric of campus and when fans saw the exterior, they knew it was the University of Florida.”
The first request in the new design? Shade. Shade. Shade.
“The former ballpark had a southeast orientation. That means fans had sun on them the entire game and games in May, June, and July got really hot,” Ford said. “We flipped the orientation of the field to a more traditional design. The advantage with this orientation is you can use the ballpark building for shade. There is a second level and there is a canopy on the roof there as well.”
Seating options were also important.
“At the former ballpark, you had standing-room areas and bleacher seats and everything was kind of the same offering,” Ford said. “As we do with lots of other ballparks, we wanted to give them opportunities for different seating types. There is a student section, a family area, traditional chairback seats, and club-level seats on the B level.”
All in all, Florida Ballpark features 4,000 permanent chairback seats, but the total capacity swells to 7,000 when you include the multiple premium seating options (including 700-plus fans in club seating) and grass berms. The ballpark is also designed to be expandable up to a 10,000 capacity.
Another design feature is a 360-degree concourse, meaning fans don’t have to abandon a view of the action when leaving their seats.
“Anywhere in this ballpark, you’re going to get a great view of the game,” Ford said. “Having that 360-degree concourse is really important because baseball is a sport where people are continually getting up, getting something to eat, use the bathroom, and buy merchandise. It’s important once you leave your seat that you are still part of the action.”
And while there will be great views throughout the ballpark, Ford said perhaps one of the best ones will be from the second level.
“From the club level, you can still see the football stadium. The ballpark is no longer in the shadows of the football stadium, but you can see it and know where you’re at.”
In addition to new fan-friendly areas, there are upgrades for the student-athletes as well.
“We added a few things that were different from the old facility. We have indoor pitching tunnels. The locker room is larger, the player lounge is larger, and the technology is a lot better,” Smith said. “We also have a smaller turf practice field. That will help the team do a lot of infield work without tearing up the main field. Everything we added was a huge upgrade in size and technology.”
Also designed for student-athletes: a private nutrition area, video and team meeting rooms, indoor pitching and batting cages, and enhanced training and rehabilitation areas.
Construction During Covid-19
Construction on the project broke ground in February 2019 and lasted about 18 months. The main prep work, overseen by Brasfield & Gorrie, didn’t take too long because of the layout of the new ballpark site.
“Construction was able to start right away,” Ford said. “The field level was essentially already at grade. We had to remove some smaller trees and things like that, but we didn’t have a lot of site clearing that needed to take place.”
Construction went along smoothly with no delays and then the pandemic hit. However, it didn’t impact the project’s timeline at all.
“Fortunately, at that point, most of the construction had been completed. There weren’t a lot of people still on site,” Ford said. “The only place we saw any impact was a handful of suppliers. For example, the shade canopies were in a warehouse in Georgia. The subcontractor was out of Texas and said that due to COVID-19, they weren’t going to drive from Texas to Georgia. We just went with a different tarp and fabric material. However, this only impacted the last three months of the project so we were substantially complete.”
While the project could have been wrapped up in May, Ford said they held tight to their June completion date to make sure everything was perfect.
Looking to the Future
With the ballpark ready to be unveiled, it also meant the old McKethan stadium had to say goodbye. Unfortunately, the 2020 NCAA baseball season was cut short, and the program wasn’t able to wish it a fond farewell.
“Obviously the season got stopped early on,” Smith said. “However, our goal was to have our last game in McKethan with a big sendoff and then play postsesaon in the new stadium.”
The University of Florida baseball team has started doing light practice and workouts in the new facility but even they haven’t seen everything yet.
“There are certain areas the team hasn’t see yet but they have been in the facility and everyone really loves it,” Smith said. “We are waiting for the entire team to be back for classes before they unveil the locker rooms and the training rooms.”
The grand opening of Florida Ballpark at Alfred A. McKethan Field will probably be Opening Day of the upcoming season, and Smith says fans will be surprised at the sheer size of it.
“Everything feels so much larger and it is larger. I think the new site is on about 14 acres versus the nine acres that the old stadium was on. When you come in [the new ballpark], you’re in the bowl and can see the field. It’s more open and accessible. The size and layout will definitely be a wow factor.”
And for Ford, it’s going to be a world-class facility that will showcase a world-class program.
“The Florida baseball program has made numerous trips to Omaha and won multiple SEC championships. I think players and fans alike just really want to see if what we envisioned becomes reality,” he said. “Hopefully this is going to generate a lot of interest and fans will be able to experience the ballpark and experience one of the best baseball programs in the country.”
Overhead photos courtesy Brasfield & Gorrie; outfield photo courtesy Populous; bowl shot courtesy University of Florida via Twitter.
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