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Official Review by Bob Waldrop, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The SEC, in typical grandiose style, proclaims itself to play “The Best College Baseball in the Country”. That proclamation can certainly be debated, but what cannot be challenged is the fact that the SEC Baseball Tournament is the biggest in terms of teams, duration and attendance. Since 1998, the tournament has been staged at Hoover’s Metropolitan Stadium – which, until this year, also served as home to the Birmingham Barons Double-A franchise.
Prior to Texas A&M and Missouri joining the conference this season, the tournament was the typical eight-team, double-elimination format, which took five days to complete, assuming no weather delays. With a 14-team conference, the field has now expanded to 12 teams, and been extended to six days. The new format can be somewhat confusing to the average fan.
Day one starts at 9:30 am and features four games among the eight lowest-seeded teams in a single-elimination format, meaning four teams will be going home after one game, which is fairly unprecedented in a college baseball tournament. Tossing out the four losing teams leaves eight clubs to continue the double-elimination format – sort of. Days two and three also feature four games beginning at 9:30 and usually concluding around 11pm, giving fans more than a full day of action. By day four, the field has been whittled to six teams and features elimination games, with the winners advancing to face the two remaining undefeated teams in the semi-finals the following afternoon. Day five features two semi-final games, though the tournament reverts back to single-elimination format, meaning the only benefit afforded the two remaining undefeated is an extra day of rest. Day six finally brings the winner-take-all championship game. Confused? I’m sure you aren’t alone, but in the SEC, bigger and longer translates to more revenue, so don’t look for this to change anytime soon.
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There are a large variety of food options available, mostly the standard ballpark fare with a few upgrades - but be warned - bring some money.
The following combo meals are offered which include the main item, chips or fries and a 24oz. drink. Prices listed are combo price/main item purchased separately. hot dog or chicken fingers ($8/$4); barbecue chicken/pork sandwich or hamburger ($9/$5); cheeseburger or grilled chicken sandwich ($9.50/$5.50); turkey wrap ($10.50/$6.50). Barbecue nachos are offered at $8 and if you want to share - or are really hungry - you can get a full rack of barbecue ribs for $23 (half-rack offered for $14). If you're feeling especially thrifty, I would suggest a bag of popcorn for $1.50.
Given the food prices, the drinks are surprisingly in-line with other similar events (all are Coke products). Fountain drinks are $2.50 (24-ounce) and $3.00 (32-ounce). For an extra 75 cents, I'd suggest upgrading the 32-ounce soda to include an SEC tournament souvenir cup. Bottled drinks are $3 for a 20-ounce bottle, and Dasani water is $2.50. One oddity - the souvenir cup was $4.50 at some stands, so it pays to shop around!
There are ample concession stands and kiosks around the park, with the majority accepting both debit and credit cards.
Nothing rivals the atmosphere surrounding an SEC football game, especially once conference season kicks in. SEC baseball, particularly in the tournament, draws thousands of enthusiastic fans for just about every game. As with most tournaments (baseball or basketball), as the stakes get higher, the crowds tend to grow and become more vocal.
The location in Hoover is relatively central to most schools in the conference, although fans in Gainesville, Fayetteville, Columbia (both of them) and College Station may not agree. In reality, with the conference now expanding further north and west, there is nowhere that is convenient to every school. Alabama and Auburn are traditionally excellent draws, as one would expect, and a matchup between those two schools in the tournament has always been the SEC's dream. Traditional powers LSU and Mississippi State always bring fans by the thousands, especially on the weekends. South Carolina (three straight College World Series appearances, including titles in 2010 and 2011) and Vanderbilt are among the teams enjoying newfound success in recent years that bring large crowds .
Adding to the atmosphere are the hundreds of RVs that set up shop in the parking lot adjacent to the stadium. It doesn't exactly rival the numbers or tailgating experience of a football game, but my guess is you'd be hard-pressed to find as much of an RV presence at any other conference baseball tournament.
Hoover, Alabama's fifth-largest city, is located approximately ten miles south of downtown Birmingham. The city sprawls over approximately 50 square miles, and includes areas in both Jefferson and Shelby counties. The Met itself is located in a residential area that also includes Hoover High School, as well as several professional office complexes, churches and upscale houses. The road leading to the facility is lined by large trees and manicured common areas, and casts a visually pleasing appearance as you approach the ballpark. Given its location, there is nothing within walking distance of the stadium in terms of dining, hotels or attractions.
Numerous options for lodging and dining can be found by heading back to Highway 150 (aka John Hawkins Parkway) and going either left or right. About two miles away on the right, you'll find the Patton Creek shopping complex, which features numerous restaurants to satisfy any craving, as well as a 15-screen movie complex, complete with an IMAX theater. Directly across the street sits the Riverchase Galleria Mall, with options for any power-shopper.
If you're coming for the weekend and are an avid golfer, Hoover has you covered in spades. There are numerous area public courses, but two of the best are part of the world-famous Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail and are located within 15 minutes of the Hoover Met. Check out the Entertainment Tab for information on Ross Bridge Resort and Oxmoor Valley. The city of Hoover also maintains a great website for visitors - just click the Visitors link for a variety of entertainment, dining and lodging options.
Fans are the lifeblood of any event, and since its move to Hoover, the SEC tournament has enjoyed an incredibly successful following. With the expansion to 12 teams for 2013, the official attendance posted by the SEC office was 134,496 over the six days. It is easy to cast a skeptical eye on figures posted by conference offices, but an eyeball test on most of the sessions does reveal that fans show up in excellent numbers, and are certainly vocal, with spontaneous cheers erupting at any given moment (Vanderbilt fans are particularly rowdy with the "Black"/"Gold" chant echoing around the stadium several times during a Commodore game).
The scheduling changes made to accommodate a 12-team field leads one to wonder if bigger may not always equate to better. The one-and-done format of opening day could keep some fans away until they know their team will advance to stay a couple of more days. Many fans may not want to invest in travel and hotel expenses for one game. The 9:30 am starts on Days 1-3 also prevent many local fans from attending the early sessions, particularly given those games are now played on work days (Tuesday through Thursday). The dream matchup in past years has been Alabama vs. Auburn, and that game took place in 2013, but it was the lowest-attended (just over 7,000 according to the SEC office) in memory, partly because it was played at noon on the first day of the tournament.
Also, with 17 games contested over a six-day period, weather delays could wreak havoc on the tournament, particularly if they occurred during the first three days, when four games are played each day. Although blessed with beautiful weather and zero delays in 2013, that is something the SEC office will encounter at some point in the future.
The Hoover Met is bordered by neighborhoods, schools and the Cahaba River, meaning there is exactly one way in (and out) of the stadium via Stadium Trace Parkway. For well-attended games, such as the semi-finals or final, this can lead to traffic concerns. Although The Met has over 4,000 parking spaces, it may be a good idea to take advantage of the free shuttles that run from Hoover High School directly to the front gate. From Stadium Trace Parkway, turn left on Learning Lane until it dead-ends into Hoover High School and follow the prominently located signs that direct you to the shuttles.
The Hoover Met is best accessed from Exit 10 off of I-459. If you're heading North, exit onto Highway 150 and turn right. If driving south, exit onto Highway 150 and turn left under the interstate. The second traffic light on Highway 150 (John Hawkins Parkway) is Stadium Trace Parkway. Travel 2.5 miles and the stadium will be on your left - you literally can't miss it. Hoover Police will direct you into the appropriate parking lot if you choose not to park at Hoover High School.
The SEC breaks each day up into two-game sessions, with a general admission ticket priced at $14. Reserved seating for the two-game session is $20. Kids 3-13 are $8 & $10, respectively, and children three and under are free. There are some packages that can be purchased through each school's website, but the best option to purchase is either online or via walk-up. On the days where four games are played, the stadium is cleared between sessions, and you have to go out and come back into the park. I did not see any "all day" passes offered at the window I visited.
Surprisingly, parking for the event is free, both on-site and at the satellite parking facility at Hoover High School. If you can avoid spending the high prices for the food offerings, you can make it an enjoyable and affordable outing.
The SEC knows how to run an event, and the conference baseball tournament is no exception. There are plenty of people on hand to handle just about any issue that arises. There are trivia questions between innings to keep fans entertained, and several times during the games, fans can vote via text messages on whom they consider to be the "All-Time" best in several categories.
The large play areas behind both the left and right field stands are one of the better features of both the stadium and the tournament. Here, kids can play pick-up baseball games and parents can play catch between innings or between games.
The Legends Pavilion offers fans a chance to interact with several of the conference's numerous outstanding players from years past in an intimate setting.
If you are a true college baseball fan, you owe it to yourself to spend a few days at the SEC Baseball Tournament. The venue, quality of play, sheer number of games and fan attendance and excitement make it the sport's premier conference tournament, and one which any fan of the college game can't help but enjoy.
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