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Official Review by Drew Cieszynski, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
In less than ten years, the University of California Irvine has come back from the dead, achieved a #1 national ranking, and played in the school’s first College World Series.
When you attend a UC Irvine game and experience the buzz of the crowd, it’s hard to believe that the baseball program was ceased in 1992 due to state budget cuts.
The program was resurrected in 2002 when Cicerone Field at Anteater Ballpark opened its doors. The field itself was named for the school’s Chancellor from 1998 through 2005, a period that brought Irvine’s baseball team back to prominence.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
As I walked through the entrance to the ballpark, I was a bit skeptical of the cuisine that would be on hand due to the size of the ballpark. My thoughts were quickly disproved as within just three stands an extensive offering was provided.
The main entrees include tacos (2 for $5), burrito ($6), quesadilla ($4 for cheese and $6 with meats), BBQ tri-tip sandwich ($7.50), hamburger/cheeseburger ($6.50), footlong hot dog ($6), boca burger ($6), chicken sandwich ($6.50), Philly cheesesteak ($6.50), Italian sausage ($6), chicken Caesar salad ($6), chicken fingers with fries ($6), or a bratwurst ($6).
Side options include Kettle corn (three sizes $3, $5, and $7), nachos ($3 with cheese only or $6 loaded), churro ($2), soft pretzel ($3), onion rings ($3.50), sweet potato fries ($4), french fries ($3.50), yogurt parfait ($5), fresh fruit cup ($5), and peanuts ($4).
Dessert options include funnel cake ($6 with powdered sugar only or $7 with apple cinnamon, strawberries, chocolate, or a caramel), and finally fried oreos or twinkies ($3).
While fans are not accustomed to alcohol being served on many campuses, Irvine is one that does allow it. The options include imported beer ($7), domestic beer ($6), and wine (red or white $6).
Other beverage options include 20 oz soda ($3.50), Gatorade ($3.50), coffee ($3), hot chocolate ($3), smoothies ($4), bottled water ($2.50).
While I was very pleased with the menu and could not ask more for a facility of this size, I did have a thought. With such a unique school nickname, I'd love to see some sort of snack or dessert with an ant theme to it to immerse the younger fans in the Anteater culture.
Between the chairback seating and the grassy berm, the ballpark was mostly full prior to the first pitch and the early spring buzz was in the air. The action started off with the PA announcer naming each player as he ran onto the field with a local youth player.
Unfortunately, I was rather disappointed with the sound system at the stadium. It was certainly aged and produced a muffled sound when the play by play announcer spoke throughout the game. It was otherwise okay when music was played between innings and the familiar "Law and Order" sound upon each member of the opposing team striking out.
Probably the best part of the game was the animated support that the UCI players gave one another. They seemed to be hanging on every pitch and at-bat and had a rather substantial reaction to every play. They were so loud in support of one another that the crowd seemed unnecessary.
Unfortunately, the mascot Peter the Anteater did not seem to be in attendance for this game.
Irvine is one of the cleanest and safest communities in Orange County, and not far away are the communities of Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, and Santa Ana which receive 35 million visitors annually.
One of the most visited outdoor malls in the nation, the Irvine Spectrum is nearby. Here, fans can find known establishments such as Edwards Theaters, Target, Yardhouse, California Pizza Kitchen, Dave & Busters, Wahoo's Fish Tacos, and Red Robin.
One of the places closer to campus is the Steelhead Brewing Company. Here you'll find some unique microbrews along with a menu featuring burgers, pizza, pasta, and wings. People seem to like their Root Beer above all else, which apparently took the establishment two years to develop.
The Anthill Pub and Grill is cleverly named for the college. The selection here is great with beer offering such as Dogfish Head and Arrogant Bastard. While they've got your typical pub food items, the claim to fame is the "Stoner Fries." These are part of a "secret menu" and are essentially asada fries with salsa, guacamole, and jalapenos.
Ray's Pizza is probably the best pizza joint in the area. Offering New York style pizza, this place offers a rather simple menu on eight sandwiches, lasagna, rigatoni. Hey, stick with what you're good at, huh?
Other popular local spots include Le Diplomate Café, Gen Grill, Golden Spoon, Britta's Café, and the Veggie Grill. Some of the more common chains such as In-N-Out Burger, Jack-In-The-Box, and KFC are also in the area.
Out of town visitors should be sure to check out the Orange County Great Park. This self-sustaining park's main attraction is the Great Park Balloon. This free ride takes fans 400 feet into the air in a tethered helium balloon, providing breathtaking views of the surrounding areas.
While the northern part of Orange County boasts teams such as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Fullerton Flyers (formerly Orange County Flyers), and even the reputable program of CSU-Fullerton, the southern part relies on the Anteaters to provide their sporting excitement.
The fans certainly did not disappoint. While I thought the day of the week, the time of day, and weather would all work against the crowd on this day, the fans seem to fill out the ballpark rather nicely.
While there were some fans who were disengaged by watching from the parking garage, there were a few in particular who were making their presence felt behind home plate. One long haired gentleman wearing a black leather UC Irvine vest (see photos) would really get the fans around him going. After each player was announced, he would yell, "Ladies and Gentleman... (a blurb and the player's name)." This was followed by fans chanting the players name and clapping. This had to make the players feel extremely at home.
Another fan behind home plate had a clever Anteater hat (see photos) while others simply showed their support by clapping along to the bullhorn and organ recordings coming from the pressbox.
Another notable highlight from the fans included the "Rip 'Em Eaters" hand sign which included lifting the pointer and pinky finger and making a "snout" with the middle, ring, and thumb.
While fans may get hung up by the 5 or the 405, Irvine is usually rather simple to navigate and the area surrounding the campus is usually free of substantial traffic. The stadium is also easily accessible from the 73 (toll road) and 55.
The parking structure is found on Mesa Road and offers parking for 1,300 vehicles. Spots are $10.00 each per day or event. Unfortunately there are few alternatives in the nearby area, so most fans succumb to this fee.
With so many tourist destinations in the surrounding areas, plenty of hotels are nearby for anyone traveling to see the game. Even better, the John Wayne Airport (also known as Orange County Airport) is just three miles away, so you don't have to go far if you are flying in.
The restrooms are just inside the main entrance and seemed an appropriate size for the venue. Fans could hope for something more centrally located, but with such a small venue size, it is never a far walk.
Having visited all MLB stadiums and many minor league venues, I probably entered with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, but left feeling very whole with the value of the experience.
Seats in the main grandstand with chairbacks go for $12. While they were the most expensive, this would be my recommendation for adults. Quality chairback seating and (aside from the net) completely unobstructed views provide a great experience. General admission seating on the "anthill" down the first base line is $10 for adults and $5 for children. This is the better option for families with children. While I wasn't thrilled with the view from here, the children certainly loved the space to run around.
I felt the concession prices were very reasonable, but the parking seemed a bit inflated. Ultimately I am easily more on the positive side of the investment.
I start my extras off with the cleverly named "anthill," or grassy berm where fans sit for general admission. Sure, many smaller stadiums have berms for inexpensive seating, but how many cleverly incorporate the school nickname?
Orange County airport is nearby and 99% of the American public is annoyed by airports near their homes; Orange County residents are especially frustrated by the noise the planes flying overhead cause. Due to the noise abatement laws, fans at Anteater Ballpark can witness airplanes ascend nearly straight up upon takeoff from the runway.
While the game I attended was not on the clearest of days (and there are very few unclear days in Irvine), the stadium sits just above the beautiful Newport Beach Bay Back, an ecological preserve. Opposite the back bay, fans are treated to great views of the Santa Ana Mountains.
Beyond the third base dugout is the Newkirk Pavilion. Constructed in 2007, it has been a welcome addition to Anteater Ballpark with its player lounge, locker rooms, and training facility. There is also a suite known as the Anteater Room, which provides unmatched views to donors and group events.
In front of the nearby Bren Events Center, fans can get their photo taken with the giant anteater statue/shrine. While the anteater appears to be to scale, it is perched atop a three foot block that brings it up to torso level for most adults. The plaque below it tells of how the school received its nickname and why it make the "Zot Zot Zot" sound.
The 1,500 acre campus is covered with over 11,000 trees, making it rather green year round. I did take particular notice of the Euctalyptus tree beyond the right field fence, something fans will not find in many ballparks.
Just like the basketball program, the Anteaters baseball provides a value all fans can enjoy. The program's achievements in just over ten years should be applauded and local fans can certainly look forward to a prosperous future.
Follow Drew's Travels through Southern California on Twitter @Big10Drew.
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4175 Campus Drive
Irvine, CA 92612
4213 Campus Dr
Irvine, CA 92612
4199 Campus Dr # D
Irvine, CA 92612
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