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Official Review by Lloyd Brown, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The Southeastern Conference has long been recognized as one of the most competitive athletic conferences in the country. Its teams have won numerous national titles in football, basketball and baseball. In order to maintain this level of performance, it is important to recruit the best players on the field. Equally important to the recruit is the facility surrounding the field. This is especially true in SEC baseball, where the 2015 Stadium Journey rankings of college baseball experiences ranked member schools' ballparks at #1 (South Carolina’s Founders Park), #2 (Alex Box Stadium at LSU), #3 (Dudy Noble Stadium at Mississippi State), #7 (Baum Field at the University of Arkansas), #12 (Foley Field at the University of Georgia), #14 (Hawkins Field at Vanderbilt University) and #19 (Olsen Field at Texas A&M University). It is no coincidence that four of these teams played in 2015’s College World Series in Omaha.
Interestingly, the University of Alabama’s Sewell-Thomas Baseball Stadium did not rank highly in these ratings. The stadium, nicknamed “The Joe” by locals for brevity’s sake (one of the honorees for the naming of the stadium first name was Joe) has had a storied history, but had fallen behind its rivals in stadium quality. “The Joe” originally opened in 1948, was totally rebuilt in 1978, and has had numerous upgrades since.
In 2013, the University decided to undertake a $42 million renovation of “The Joe.” Though technically a renovation, it is essentially a brand new stadium, as very little remains of the old facility. The purposes of the rebuild were to 1) improve the competitive balance of the team, 2) better accommodate the needs of the players, coaches, staff, media and fans, and 3) provide an enhanced fan experience through new amenities and better align the field to provide better sightlines of the action. Construction got underway at the end of the 2014 season and the Tide spent its entire 2015 season playing home games at Hoover’s Metropolitan Stadium, some 40 miles away.
Construction is now complete, and it certainly has been worth the wait.
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".
The concession stands have been expanded in both size and number to better serve the fans. You can definitely find something you'll like on the new menu. Among the items that are specific to Sewell-Thomas Stadium are the Big Al Burger with fries ($9), the Dreamland BBQ Nacho ($9) and Bud's Best cookies ($3). Prices for the typical baseball offerings are hot dogs ($5), nachos grande ($5), foot-long corn dogs ($6), a large popcorn ($6), jumbo pretzels ($5) and candy, popcorn and Cracker Jack (all $4 items). Beverage selections include Coca-Cola products ($5) and bottled water ($4).
Upon entering "the new Joe," you will immediately notice all the thought that went into the planning of the renovations. Let's start with the seating - the seating capacity has been increased to 7,000 (4,500 individual stadium seats, plus 2,500 berm or standing-room only spaces). The seating no longer includes uncomfortable aluminum benches, as they have been replaced with green chairback stadium seats. As you sit down, you will notice that all seats along the first and third base lines have been reconfigured and are angled towards home plate. The seats also provide more comfort, as their width has been increased from 22 to 24 inches. The "new Joe" also provides more seating options, as there are more than 500 premium seats available behind home plate. These seats are padded, and have restricted access to a stadium sports bar. 12 new luxury suites have been added with air conditioning and both indoor and outdoor seating possible. Additional seating options include new terraced berms behind the right field wall and a "student-only" berm along the right field terrace. Among the perks of sitting on the berms is the ability to look down into the bullpen. There are two patio areas set aside for large groups adjacent to each of the foul poles. A children's playground is just behind the left field wall. The game staff and ushers are quite helpful in assisting fans with finding their way around the new facility.
There are also some on field improvements to note. The entire field has new grass, new dirt on the infield and a new surface on the warning track. The bullpens have been moved from foul territory to behind the outfield walls, which has more of the field playable. The dimensions of the field are now 320 feet to right, 325 feet to left, 395 feet to straightaway center and 365 feet to the power alleys. The Tide baseball program has also installed a new Jumbotron behind the left-center field wall, which is capable of showing replays, videos and other announcements, in addition to the basic game statistics.
Having a street address on Paul W. Bryant Drive is probably a giveaway that Sewell-Thomas Stadium is located within the athletic complex of the University of Alabama. Its immediate neighbors are Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Coleman Coliseum and the Paul W. Bryant Museum. This means there are limited restaurants and hotels in the immediate vicinity of the "new Joe." One restaurant that is an exception to this rule is Rama Jama's. Don't let the exterior fool you - it looks like a converted gas station (which it is). However, inside, you will find a broad menu with some tasty entrees. A second popular hangout which is a little further out is Buffalo Phil's, which specializes in wings, but also carries salads, burgers and a wide selection of craft beers. And finally, any trip to Tuscaloosa would not be complete without a visit to the original Dreamland BBQ
There are several hotels within a two-mile radius of the field. These include the Hilton Garden Inn, the Courtyard Marriott, Candlewood Suites and Microtel of Tuscaloosa. Nightly rates range from $76-$140 a night.
Crimson Tide fans are known to be among the most fervent in the NCAA. They form a sea of red during the games at the "new Joe." The words "Roll Tide" can range from a Tuscaloosa version of "hello" to a blood-curdling scream during a rally. They are also not afraid to let the umpires know if they disagree with a call. That being said, Alabama fans are very knowledgeable about the game and are very friendly to visitors. Having been to both a Tide baseball game and a football game at Bryant-Denny Stadium, I would have to say the baseball fans are not quite as over the top as the football fans.
Another important element to the fan experience is the turnout of the opposition fans. Because every conference game is a "rivalry" game, the visiting fans arrive in large numbers. Due to Tuscaloosa's proximity to I-20, I-65 and I-59, it is easy to reach the Alabama campus from SEC outposts in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi in less than four hours' driving time.
One of the major areas of improvement in the "new Joe" is accessibility. The old park had a very narrow central entryway behind home plate, which often resulted in gridlock. A broad entry plaza has now been constructed, and several more gates are available to pass through. Two other new entry points have been added to the stadium. One is located in the center field area, which is located right off the Coliseum parking lot, the main parking area for the venue. This also allows quicker access to seats along the outer areas along the baselines. Students are required to enter through their own specific gate. All of this has increased the flow in and out of the stadium dramatically. Fans can even watch parts of the game from behind the left field walls, providing a very unique field-level view.
Once inside the stadium, you will notice the concourse is at street level, which helps those with mobility issues. The concourse runs 360 degrees around the field and is much wider than in the old stadium. The concourse is enclosed, protecting you from the elements; however, there are frequent digital boards located throughout the concourses, so you will not miss any of the action. There are numerous concession stands and restrooms along the concourse, so you should not encounter any long lines. The concourse is also home to the team store, as well as the future University of Alabama Baseball Hall of Fame.
Alabama uses a two-tiered pricing system, which gives you a financial break on weekday games over weekend (Friday-Sunday) games. Weekday games are priced at $8 for infield or outfield reserved seats. Weekend prices are $12 for infield reserved tickets and $10 for outfield reserved tickets. The premium seats behind home plate and the luxury suites are sold out, and there is a long wait list from the season ticket holders. Parking is free in the lots surrounding the stadium. I would suggest the Coleman Coliseum lot, as it is the closest to the baseball field.
Concessions, as a whole, are reasonably priced. Hotels near the university can be found in the vicinity of $100 a night, unless there is a major event going on at the school. A visit to the Bear Bryant Museum is a "must-do" if you are a first time visitor, and the admission is a very modest $2. All of this, plus the quality of baseball you see in the SEC, adds up to a very good ROI.
Alabama's storied athletic program adds lots of extras for any visitor to Tuscaloosa:
The Paul W. "Bear" Bryant Museum is literally right across the street from "the Joe." It is well worth the time to stop by and check out this salute to one of America's greatest coaching legends. It is open from 9-4 on a daily basis. Admission is $2.
The new press box at Sewell-Thomas Stadium has been named the Mel Allen Press Box. Allen was an Alabama alumnus, who went on to have a Hall of Fame career as a baseball broadcaster. He is now enshrined in Cooperstown for his work.
Because there are a large number of potential major league players competing in the SEC, the "new Joe" has included a specific area for major league scouts behind home plate. It is located at field level, so that scouts can evaluate such specific elements as a player's eye movement when fielding, how they swing the bat, and their temperament.
Thanks to the state-of-the-art lighting system installed at Sewell-Thomas Stadium, fans attending night games are treated to a between-innings light show with the stadium lights going on and off in beat with the selected song of the night.
The last extra is dedicated to the people of Tuscaloosa and their resilience. In 2011 a series of tornadoes scored a direct hit on Tuscaloosa, severely damaging a neighborhood just blocks from Sewell-Thomas Stadium. The athletes from all of the University of Alabama teams were among the first people to respond to the disaster and help in any way they could. Though there is still a ways to go to bring the neighborhood back to "normal," the efforts of various Tuscaloosa civic organizations, area churches, student organizations and Habitat for Humanity have gone a long way toward restoring the areas affected by the storm.
Member Review by BamaBob on Jun 05, 2013
When someone mentions the University of Alabama, your first thoughts likely drift to the machine that is Alabama football – and rightfully so, given the unparalleled tradition the program has enjoyed over the years. Although it will never reach the level and passion of the football program, Bama baseball enjoys a storied tradition, owning 14 regular season and seven SEC tournament championships, 23 NCAA appearances and five trips to Omaha for the College World Series. The past few years have seen diminishing success in terms of titles, however, with their last SEC regular season championship in ’06, tournament title in ’03 and trip to Omaha after the ’99 season.
Known as “The Joe”, Sewell-Thomas Stadium has been the home for Alabama baseball for over 60 seasons.
Member Review by UAShayne on May 28, 2016
Great new venue.
1000 Paul W. Bryant Dr
Tuscaloosa, AL 35401
1149 University Blvd
Tuscaloosa, AL 35401
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