Fifty years. That’s a very long time.
It’s also how long Cliff Hagan Stadium has been the home of Kentucky Baseball.
Sorry; “was” the home of Kentucky Baseball.
Most sporting events are all about the actual contest. This game....not so much. This was more about saying goodbye to something that has been a mainstay to fans of the baseball team. It had a celebratory feel from the moment I walked into the venue.
It was about celebrating the past, as former Kentucky Wildcats managers John Cohen, Gary Henderson, and Keith Madison were joined by the son of former manager Tuffy Horne, stadium namesake Cliff Hagan, and current manager Nick Mingione to throw out the ceremonial first pitch
Unfortunately, that feel lasted all of about two outs, as UK was rocked early and often thanks to bad pitching and worse defense. However, a fair amount of people stayed through the final out, because they knew they were seeing the end of an era.
To many of those who stayed, Cliff Hagan was not just a sporting venue. It was a place where families spent their weekends every spring and early summer, with children learning the game from their parents and building memories that would last a lifetime.
It was where you witnessed foul balls land on top of the metal roof covering the grandstand—and wonder whose car it may have hit when they cleared it. Home runs were a concern too; if you parked in the lots beyond right field, you were reminded to park facing away, lest your windshield pay the price for a deep shot.
It was a place where people hung out and tailgated in the parking lots until first pitch, and sometimes beyond that. In fact, UK installed a party deck in 2007 to let people watch the game there, instead of on the asphalt.
Most importantly, it was a place where you could be with fellow Kentucky fans and have fun. Friendships were made and strengthened. Relationships were built that lasted long after the final game was played every season. The love of the game was fostered and grown sitting on those hard, metal bleachers—and later, some in hard plastic seats.
How do I know all this? Well, because for four years, I witnessed it first-hand.
My four years at Kentucky coincided with the debut of the “new” Shively Field Cliff Hagan Stadium in 2002, when the ballpark was renovated with new seats, brick facades, and a new scoreboard.
I came to campus early to take summer classes, and caught the end of the regular season that year. I mean, when it’s summer and you’re eighteen years old, there’s not a whole lot to do. Getting to watch baseball for free? Only having to walk a few minutes to see it? Well, sign me up!
I made some of my first college friends at those games, and saw faces I would continue to recognize for years to come. Taking summer classes each year I was there, I spent many an afternoon and evening in May taking in the sound of the baseball ringing off the metal bats, the smell of popcorn and hot dogs in the air, and the feel of the sticky heat that we get in this area when spring turns to summer, occasionally accompanied by a very welcome breeze.
I was even here in 2006 when Kentucky hosted their first regional in school history. I remember watching former big-leaguer Jeff Samardzija pitch, and lose, against the Ball State in an epic sixteen-inning game, and being thankful that Kentucky would not have to face him the next day. I remember how irked I was when UK fell to College of Charleston in the final game, knowing it would be the final game I would see as a student, and knowing we were so close to our first Super Regional ever.
After I moved to Louisville, I was not able to make as many games as I would have liked, but I always kept tabs from afar, even before the games had the availability we all enjoy today. However, I came back to see some players like AJ Reed, Collin Cowgill, and James Paxton wear the blue and white before they made their names in the big leagues.
I was sadly not able to be here last year for the most memorable night in the history of the place, when the Wildcats overcame a severe thunderstorm, and a very long night, to advance to their first Super Regional ever when they defeated NC State 10-5, kicking off an epic dog-pile and kicking off a raucous celebration.
All of that rolled through my mind on Sunday afternoon, as I watched the game from above the stands behind home plate. It was perfect weather for a baseball game, even with the heat in the low nineties.
While the product on the field was far from perfect, I was able to take enjoyment in seeing so many familiar sights and realizing that I would be able to say “I was there” when the final pitch was thrown.
Hopefully, it was not the final time we will see the Wildcats play baseball there. That was the sentiment echoed by Mingione after the game. “It’s my job to make sure this is not the last game we’re going to play on our field,” he stressed, discussing the impressive resume the team has, hopeful that it will help Kentucky gain the opportunity to host a regional after the SEC Tournament.
“If it is, man, then we’re closing down a beautiful place.”
Yes, it is beautiful. Here is hoping we get to enjoy a few more games of “Cliff Magic.”
Either way, on behalf of the Big Blue Nation, thanks to The Cliff for some wonderful memories.