At the hallowed grounds of Wrigley Field for a high school all-star game last summer, North Carolina coach Mike Fox took in his surroundings. He studied the brick wall behind home plate, the protective netting, even the dugout railing. Easily overlooked by casual fans, those little details are important when you're building a new stadium or working on a massive ballpark renovation project, as Fox was for North Carolina's totally rebuilt Boshamer Stadium.
"I gather a lot of information," Fox said. "Our foul poles are just like the ones at Tropicana Field. We looked at blue seats like they have at Yankee Stadium, and we looked at green seats like they have in a lot of minor league parks. We Googled everything."
There was plenty of trial-and-error, from measuring seat widths to hanging full-size drawings of various locker designs on the walls.
At South Carolina, coach Ray Tanner even tested prospective dugout railings.
"You don't just build a dugout," Tanner explained. "You've got to be able to see from the seats, you've got to be able to lean on the rails, so the height of the rails matters. I know the contractor better than I know my relatives. We made models and forms and tested them, where you would stand and lean on the dugout, so you wouldn't have any flaws. Some dugouts are too deep, some are too shallow. You've got to have bat racks in the right spots, phones to the bullpen. We tried not to miss any details whatsoever."
Louisiana State coach Paul Mainieri had much less input in the design of the new Alex Box Stadium, as he was told that plans were already complete when he was hired in 2006. Even so, his fingerprints will be all over the new facility, especially in the small details.
"The contractors over there are so tired of me being around," Mainieri said. "The other day, I woke up at 2:30 in the morning, and I couldn't go back to sleep, so I went to the living room and wrote down 11 things that were on my mind about the facility. You might say those little things aren't that important, things like how we're painting the dugout, or where we're putting the sound system in the locker room, or the equipment room, make it a half-door instead of a full door, so players can just stop at the door—make it like a concession stand almost. But I live in a very practical world. You don't think in terms of frills, you think what's the most efficient way to get your work done?"
For detail-oriented coaches, stadium projects are a labor of love. Countless choices, big and small, must be made before a sparkling new facility becomes a reality. When it comes to allocating resources, there's always a balancing act between improving the player experience and making the park more fan-friendly. Greg Garlock, a project designer with the DLR Group architecture firm, has been involved with stadiums ranging from Arkansas' Baum Stadium (considered the gold standard by many college baseball fans, players and coaches) to recent projects like Texas' Disch-Falk Field renovation, Oregon's P.K. Park and the new Alex Box. He's met with plenty of coaches over the years and has a good sense for what's important to them.
"I think from the coaches' standpoint, they want their player facilities to be the best they can be," Garlock said. "I think a lot of their hopes is that players spend time in the lounge, have areas to hang out and plug their laptops in so they can study and build camaraderie. That is really in my experience their No. 1 goal. They're going to spend a lot of time in those facilities, they want their players to want to be there. Also, they want their players to have the opportunity to train properly. They want the fans to have a good time, but those things are well down their list of priorities. Their focus is to make their players better and win games."
Winning, of course, is what college baseball's building boom is all about.
"It's an arms race facility-wise," Tanner said. "You've got to provide the best of the best from a fan standpoint and a recruiting standpoint."
But spending eight figures on a ballpark project—as Texas, Tulane and Michigan did last year and LSU, South Carolina, Mississippi, North Carolina, Miami and Oregon are doing this year—is a demonstration of incredible commitment from a university. In return, a baseball program must do more than just win.
"If you're only putting 35 people in the stands, or 350 people, the administration's not going to go for that," Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. "They won't build a new stadium just so you can recruit better. You have to sell the seats. The people who are able to sell the tickets, the administrations realize we'll be able to generate more revenue."
Winning and generating revenue go hand-in-hand, and it's a great sign for college baseball that winning programs have the means to construct palatial new ballparks. But to really go inside college baseball's building boom, it's important to remember that these new cathedrals are carefully and lovingly planned down to the tiniest detail by coaches, administrators, architects and contractors.
Click here for a look at nine new (or significantly renovated) stadiums that opened last year or will open in 2009. Alongside each photo, a coach or designer will tell you about the decision-making process behind his park's particular features. As you'll see, the finished product for each of these coaches was well worth all the hours of Googling protective netting and foul poles.
"It's a dream come true for all of us to be able to build this thing," Fox said. "It's been a cool ride."