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Arkansas’ Baum Stadium celebrated its 20th anniversary last month, a milestone that surprised many around the game. Baum still feels too new to be 20 years old, and even after two decades it remains one of the crown jewels of college baseball.
Since it opened in 1996, Baum has seen some changes—its seating capacity has grown, as has the number of suites, and the playing surface was changed from artificial turf to grass. Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said those modifications have helped the stadium feel fresh even after two decades.
“If we hadn’t done anything to the stadium, it would probably look 20 years old,” Van Horn said. “But to me, it has a Camden Yards type feel because its old school, but it’s got that look that I don’t think will ever go out of style.”
The comparison to Camden Yards is apt. Much as Baltimore’s park sparked the building boom of retro parks in the major leagues, Baum quickly became the model stadium in the college ranks. As the college game has grown in the last two decades and schools around the country have built new stadiums or undertaken significant renovations, Baum’s influence has spread.
Ryan Sickman, the director of sports for Gensler, a design and architectural firm, has been heavily involved in projects at many college baseball stadiums, including the construction of South Carolina’s Founders Park and Coastal Carolina’s Springs Brooks Stadium.
Sickman said Baum showed what was possible for a college baseball stadium.
“It was first of its kind in size and scale,” Sickman said. “The Hog Pen in left field is truly unique. To experience it is something you won’t experience anywhere else.”
Baum has also been critical to the success of Arkansas’ program, Van Horn said. At just under 3 million people, Arkansas is the least populous state in the Southeastern Conference and its high school ranks do not produce an abundance of high-level baseball players. Because of that, Van Horn said the Razorbacks have to have something significant to attract elite players to Fayetteville.
For the last 20 years, that something has been Baum. During the stadium’s life, Arkansas has won the SEC twice, reached the College World Series four times and gone 466-190 at home.
One of Baum’s biggest recruits is Van Horn himself. When longtime Arkansas coach Norm DeBriyn retired after the 2002 season, he wanted Van Horn, a former Razorback, to replace him. Van Horn, however, was coming off back-to-back College World Series appearances at Nebraska, which had just opened a new stadium itself.
As strong as the draw to return to his alma mater was, Van Horn said he likely wouldn’t have gone back to Arkansas had it not been for Baum.
“For me to leave such a good job like Nebraska to come back here, we needed to have something to recruit to,” Van Horn said. “Baum Stadium obviously was a new ballpark and opened the door a little bit to attract athletes from out of state. To compete in the SEC and find Division I type players we have to go all over the country. We’re not fortunate enough to have a big metropolitan area, a big city population like a lot of these schools do, so we had to have something special for (recruits) to see.”
When Van Horn was talking to then-Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles about taking the job, he said he asked for three upgrades to the stadium. He wanted the seats to be extended all the way down the foul line, more suites to be built and for grass to replace the artificial turf surface.
The renovations were not inexpensive and the need for expanded seating was not readily apparent, as Arkansas wasn’t filling the stadium to capacity. But after Van Horn led the Razorbacks to the 2004 College World Series, demand exploded and Arkansas has regularly ranked near the top of the country in attendance over the last decade. Baum now has 34 suites, all of which are sold out. The waiting list is lengthy, and there are designs to add even more suites in the future.
As Arkansas plans for the future of Baum, other schools have followed its lead with their own investment in facilities. In the SEC alone, Vanderbilt and Missouri opened stadiums in 2002 (though Missouri was then a member of the Big 12 Conference), Louisiana State and South Carolina followed with new stadiums in 2009 and Alabama opened the rebuilt Sewell-Thomas Stadium this spring. Nearly every other stadium in the conference has seen a significant renovation in that time.
The trend has not been limited to the SEC, however. Schools across the country, from Coastal Carolina to Illinois-Chicago to Oregon to West Virginia have constructed new stadiums in recent years, as college baseball’s profile has grown.
“I think the investment that athletic departments are making with facilities and all the coaches and head coaches salaries and the way teams travel tells me and a lot of other coaches across the country that baseball is at an all-time high,” Van Horn said. “When you have a nice ballpark, fans like the experience. New ballparks bring new fans.”
As new stadiums go up and existing stadiums are renovated, one thing becoming more common is the creation of more open spaces for fans to experience the game in a communal environment.
“That diversifying of seating offerings is the next trend,” Sickman said. “That’s where everything’s going. Less and less built seats and more experiential zones where fans can gather and turn around to talk to someone and then talk to someone else.”
Ray Tanner, now South Carolina’s athletic director, was the Gamecocks coach when Founders Park (then Carolina Stadium) was built. He was closely involved in the project and went to the construction site nearly every day during construction. He said he admired Baum, Camden Yards and Rosenblatt Stadium, and influences from all three parks can be found at Founders Park.
South Carolina has continued to improve Founders Park since it opened, work that will continue this year when a player’s lounge and new media center will be built. Tanner said he also wants to upgrade the stadium’s video board.
But the first addition Tanner approved for the ballpark after becoming athletic director in 2012 wasn’t something for the players or coaches. Instead, it was the installation of a playground down the right field line.
For Tanner, providing a complete experience for fans is essential.
“I think it’s important that we understand this is not minor league baseball, this is not professional baseball, where you have an event and a game breaks out,” Tanner said. “College baseball is about the game. But I also think that it’s important that you touch all the constituents that care to be at your ballpark. Whether it’s the eight-year-old that wants to go up on the playground, but mom and dad can kind of keep an eye on them but also get a glimpse of the field. Or restrooms, to make sure there’s enough restrooms to accommodate everyone. And concessions.
“It’s important that you don’t miss anything. You’ve got fans that hang onto every pitch and then you’ve got fans that appreciate the atmosphere of an athletic event.”
Tanner’s attention to the details of facilities was somewhat rare for a coach in any sport, but it was passed down from some of the sport’s legendary coaches. He spent two summers on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team staff with longtime Louisiana State coach Skip Bertman, who worked as an assistant at Miami for Ron Fraser, perhaps the game’s greatest showman.
From Bertman, Tanner picked up some of Fraser’s secrets to building a fan base. While the stadiums of the generation sparked by Baum’s construction 20 years ago are grander than anything college baseball has seen before, those basic principles remain the same.
“I always remember (Bertman) said, ‘When you play in late February, the coffee has to be hot. The restrooms have to be clean. Do you have good food in the concession stand?’ And all those things make a difference,” Tanner said. “You have to be able to touch people in ways that are important to them to get them to embrace your program.”