As dusk settled over Hull Road Feb. 19, a diamond shined behind an outfield wall.
Fans scattered around the Gators’ new ballpark. Some lounged in the royal blue chairback seats. Others lolled on brightly colored towels along the grassy berms that bordered the outfield.
The air was brisk, the kind of cold that turned the skin pebbly and brought the occasional chill. The smell of brisket and nachos wafted through the air.
The videoboard loomed over the right-center gap as the world could finally witness its colors contrast against the darkening sky.
For the first time in almost a year, there was college baseball in Gainesville.
The top-ranked Gators vanquished the Miami Hurricanes that night, but UF stars like Jud Fabian and Tommy Mace played second fiddle to the amphitheater they performed in.
Athletic director Scott Stricklin and the University Athletic Association first announced the new Florida Ballpark would be constructed in March 2018. It was slated to open before the 2020 season but was delayed a year that December.
With a $65 million budget, the university spared no expense as it built a new playground for Gator players and fans alike.
With new facilities and technology, it’s no question that Gator baseball players got an upgrade with the move. However, Florida Ballpark is a refurbishment for the viewing experience as well.
A white awning shades all the seats in the new park, which now all have backs to them. The old bleacher seating from Alfred A. McKethan stadium, the Gators former home since 1988, is now only a memory. There’s also Dizney Grove, a stretch of grass beyond the outfield adorned with pairs of bright-orange and deep-blue lawn chairs.
The pride of the new stadium, however, is the 360-degree concourse. Fans can take a lap around the entirety of the stadium and never lose sight of the action due to the open walls, grass berms and outfield fencing.
Whether along a baseline, directly behind home plate or standing past center field, no one is in danger of missing a pitch.
Florida fans, new and old, flocked to the stadium opening night, desperate to see the result of a heavily anticipated and emphasized project.
As they lounged in the extra space ensured through social distancing, excitement in the air was as palpable as electricity. There always is on opening night, but there was an extra dimension this time around — as if the air were a little bit purer on the southwest side of campus.
While not everyone in attendance had the same Gator baseball background, many sung praises about the new park.
Chase Anschultz, a 21-year-old UF journalism senior, grew up in Hawthrone, about a half-hour drive from Gainesville, and regularly watched the Gators play on the diamond.
The new stadium improved the viewing experience beyond what McKethan Stadium offered. Anschutlz lauded the 360-degree concourse and said wandering around and still seeing the field was impossible before.
Longstanding Florida fans John Hotaling, 73, and Alan Klyap, 57, echoed Anschultz’s sentiment and embraced the modern ballpark. No matter where a fan finds themselves, they can get a picturesque, unobstructed view.
“It’s a fantastic view wherever you can sit,” Klyap said.
Klyap and Hotaling owe a lot of memories to McKethan. It was where they forged their friendship. As season ticket holders of more than 10 years, the duo sat next to each other at games. Their casual conversations became a dear friendship and they still watch Gator games together today.
“We really enjoy the game and like talking about it while it’s going on,” Hotaling said.
McKethan will always hold forlorn nostalgia for the pair. Those days along Stadium Road, including Austin Langworthy’s walk-off home run against Auburn, will never be forgotten.
“It’s always memories of knowing people that have been at the games,” Klyap said. “I always think of us being together.”
It didn’t take long for them to find adoration for Florida Ballpark, however. The pair are ready to find new seats and share more of those memories together.
“It’s nice to be back and be with friends more than anything,” Klyap said.
Even new Florida fans felt an overwhelming reverence for the stadium.
Mark Lee, a 54-year-old long-time Georgia Bulldog football supporter, said he began to attend Florida baseball games in 2020 because the stadium was close to his doctor.
He got hooked. After witnessing just six games a year ago, he bought season tickets and plans to keep them for as long as he can.
Lee, a lifelong baseball fanatic, said he felt overwhelmed when he first saw the stadium and said it was one of his favorite ballparks he has ever seen in person.
“It’s what I thought it would be,” Lee said. “State of the art.”
As the Gators claimed an opening night victory and the outfield floodlights flickered and turned off, Lee’s words echoed across the entire facility.
State of the art.
Contact Ryan Haley at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley
Ryan Haley is a second-year journalism major with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida. He grew up playing a bunch of different sports before settling on golf, following Rory McIlroy and all Philadelphia sports teams. He also loves all things fiction, reading, watching shows and movies and talking about whatever current story or character is in his head.