Keith Madison had a dream.
Kentucky’s baseball coach from 1979 to 2003, his program needed a new on-campus stadium and he knew just the place to put it.
“When I coached here, I dreamed of the day we’d be on the corner of Limestone and Alumni, or somewhere over in that area,” he said recently. “Then they put a senior citizens home there and I’m going, ‘Man, the senior citizens want peace and quiet. Move THEM where we are and move us over there.”
It may not have happened while he was on the job, but Madison’s dream is finally coming true. Just a couple of deep fly balls from that intersection, UK’s new ballpark is rising from the earth, on Alumni Drive, next to the soccer stadium and across from the football practice facility.
It’s the reason thousands of UK baseball fans—and dozens of former players—poured through the gates at venerable Cliff Hagan Stadium during the last weekend of the regular season, to get one last look at the old facility before they usher in the new one. Madison, naturally, will miss it.
“I love this place,” he said, sitting in the first-base dugout, from which he coached the Wildcats to 737 victories.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that we’re getting a new place. It’s exciting. But I love the fact that every brick, every light standard, everything that’s in this place, I helped raise the money for it. It’s a special place.”
The man who stepped in when Madison retired paid a final visit as well. John Cohen now is the Athletics Director at Mississippi State, but during his stay at Kentucky, he coached the Wildcats to their only SEC baseball championship. He knows the value of a shiny new ballpark—especially when it comes to recruiting.
When he was here, recruits, he said, would stop in Lexington but then move deeper into the SEC, where sparkling facilities would turn their heads. Cohen toured the construction site in Lexington with several of Madison’s former players from the ‘80s.
“One of them said to me, most of the facilities we played in did not have a bathroom in the dugout,” Cohen said. “And now, Kentucky is building a $50 million facility.
“Think about those two things side-by-side: No bathroom in the dugout, and building a $50 million, state-of-the-art (stadium), every bell and whistle you can imagine.”
One of the former players on that tour was former All-America centerfielder Chris Estep, who anchored the outfield on Madison’s 1988 team that finished one victory from the College World Series.
“(Cliff Hagan Stadium) has been upgraded since then so we think, ‘Oh wow, this is really awesome,’ ” Estep said. “But where they’re going is phenomenal -- for the school, for the kids coming in. We’re really excited for everyone.”
There’s a lot to be excited about. The new digs will include a seating capacity of up to 7,000 fans; a 360-degree concourse; the 8th largest video board in the country and a team clubhouse whose trappings are still a secret. They’ll be unveiled to the players in mid-August, the weekend before classes begin.
“From the outset, the vision with this project was, we didn’t have to be the biggest stadium,” said Kevin Saal, the assistant athletics director tasked with overseeing the project. “What we wanted to be was the most “wow” from a fan-friendly standpoint, but also from a student-athlete amenities standpoint.”
Saal said one of the effects of the reunion weekend at The Cliff was the return of so many past players—a goal of second-year head coach Nick Mingione, who wants to re-connect with as many former Wildcats as possible. Saal calls it the “activation of our alumni.”
“We desire for this place to be a home for Kentucky baseball,” he said.
And that’s all well and good for Estep, the ex-centerfielder. He’ll check out the new place. But all the bells and whistles, bricks and mortar, steel and concrete they can truck in can never erase his fondest memory of Cliff Hagan Stadium. And it has little to do with baseball.
“Believe it or not, it wasn’t anything that happened on the field,” he said. “I met my wife here and I got my first kiss in that parking lot. So they can tear this place down, but they’ve gotta make sure they keep that parking lot.