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The Roanoke Times (Virginia)



BLACKSBURG - Extreme Makeover: Ballpark Edition is almost done.

And it's a big hit with Virginia Tech baseball fans.

English Field has been given a facelift this season, thanks to an $18 million renovation. The entrance, grandstand and press box tower are all new, and premium seats have been added.

"Big-time improvement - it looks more like a minor league field than a high school field," Giles County resident Marty Farrier said while watching last Friday's game from the grandstand.

"It's a lot nicer than it was before," Blacksburg resident Mike Boyd said. "It's almost like a minor league park now. I'm very impressed with what they've done."

The ballpark has been in use all season, although the grandstand has continued to evolve. The official grand opening ceremony took place last Saturday night, when 3,420 fans showed up to watch the Hokies play Louisville - the third-biggest crowd in the ballpark's history.

"We're really proud of it," athletic director Whit Babcock said of the ballpark as he watched Saturday night's game. "It's a great community place to come out to. We believe it can be a baseball town."

Tech, which has not had a winning season since 2013, hopes the renovation of the 29-year-old park will lure recruits as well as fans.

"It ... shows a commitment on our part that we want to be good in baseball and compete at the top of the ACC," Babcock said. "This gives us a fighting chance."

As part of the project, the bottom floor of the Hokies' adjacent indoor hitting facility was turned from storage space into a home locker room, a team meeting room and a trainer's room.

"That's probably the bigger sizzle than the stadium," senior associate athletic director Tom Gabbard said.

For the fans, though, the new ballpark is the main attraction.

The grandstand has 1,135 chair-back seats, up from about 1,000 seats in the old grandstand. The portion of the grandstand behind home plate was moved 15 feet closer to the field.

The grandstand seats are bigger, and have cup holders. There is more leg room as well.

"This is wonderful. The seats are comfortable. There's lots of room," Blacksburg resident Kay Dorch said as she sat in the grandstand. "I kind of miss [the old park], but this is much more special."

Fans can sit in the grandstand for free at nonconference home games. But Tech is charging admission to ACC games this season for the first time. An adult season ticket for the 15 ACC home games cost $90, while adult single-game tickets cost $10. Tech sold 524 season tickets.

Some fans opted for premium seats.

There are 20 hospitality tables located among three levels along the first-base line. Each table has four chairs. All the tables have been sold, at a price of $1,000 apiece. Those customers also have access to a hospitality area inside the press box tower.

Tom and Carolyn Foxworth of Radford split the cost of a table with John Clary of Radford.

"We like being able to sit at a table and comfortably watch a game," Tom Foxworth said. "You don't have to climb over people getting in and out of the seats."

"The people that work here, they do everything they can to make us comfortable," Carolyn Foxworth said. "When it was cold, they would get us hot chocolate."

Babcock said Tech plans to add 20 more tables in the next few years.

The ballpark has an even pricier option.

The press box tower does not only include a press box, replay booth, and radio and TV booths but also four luxury suites. All the suites have been sold, at a price of $12,500 apiece.

The inside of each suite includes two TV sets, a sink, a couch, tables and chairs. The front of each suite also has 16 outdoor seats.

Ronnie and Faye Marcum of Blacksburg split the cost of a suite with another couple.

"I enjoy being in the suites and having all of our friends and family here," Faye Marcum said. "It's got ... everything we need."

"The facility we have now compares with anything in the ACC," Ronnie Marcum said of the ballpark. "It's going to be one of the best things we've invested in athletically in a long time. I'm tickled to death with it."

The ballpark still has amphitheater-style terrace seating along the left-field line.

A $500,000 video board was added last week.

There are two concession stands in the grandstand, along with a merchandise store and four bathrooms. There is also a concessions area behind the first-base line for vendors.

Virginia Tech is selling beer at baseball games this season for the first time.

"A lot of schools are loosening up on that," Babcock said. "This was our first dip into it."

The entrance to the ballpark includes an archway and Hokie Stone. Landscaping in front of the ballpark must still be finished.

"Once you come here, if you like baseball a little bit, you'll come back," Gabbard said. "If you're coming off 460, what a nice statement [that] ... we build nice facilities."

Two years ago, Tech announced the plan to refurbish English Field. It also announced at that time that to help pay for the project, Richmond-based Union Bank & Trust would pay Tech $3.5 million over a 10-year period for the naming rights to the facility. The ballpark was renamed English Field at Union Park.

Debt service will pay for the rest of the project.

"It wasn't that big of a stretch for us," Babcock said. "We used some financing for this and [the renovation of] Rector Field House; it would be tough with two $18 million projects to raise it all.

"Jim Weaver [Tech's late athletic director] was so good financially, he didn't have a lot of debt. ... So we even used some of the money that fell off our debt service and rolled it into this."

First-year coach John Szefc said Tech got a recruiting boost simply from the drawings of the new ballpark.

"I don't think you can really put a price on it as far as what it's already done for us as far as recruiting in our '18, '19 '20 classes," he said.

CannonDesign was the architect of the project, while Whiting-Turner Contracting is handling the construction.

Tech had hoped to have the renovation done by the Feb. 27 home opener. But there were construction delays, including weather-related delays. Some of the grandstand seats were ready for the second home game on March 9. Work was still being done on the grandstand last week.

Construction is ongoing along the right-field line, where terrace seating and a picnic area will be added. Tech plans to sell tickets for the picnic area to groups.

Tech entered Wednesday averaging 813 fans at home this year. Once the right-field area is finished, the ballpark will hold about 4,200 fans, up from the previous capacity of about 3,800 fans.

"It ... shows a commitment on our part that we want to be good in baseball," athletic director Whit Babcock said.

Some of the features of the renovated English Field at Union Park.

•New grandstand with 1,135 chair-back seats, as well as two concession stands, four bathrooms, and a merchandise store.

•New entrance (with ticket booth).

•Four luxury suites ($12,500 apiece).

•New press box tower (including suites, press box, radio and TV booths, bathrooms and a hospitality area)

•20 hospitality tables ($1,000 apiece).

•New video board.

•Home locker room added in the adjacent indoor hitting facility.

•New turf for the infield and warning track.

•Picnic area and right-field terrace seating still to come.

Last Saturday night's grand opening drew the third-largest crowd in English Field history.

1. March 18, 2008: 5,311 fans for exhibition against N.Y. Yankees (featuring temporary bleachers)

2. May 31, 2013: 3,566 fans for NCAA regional against UConn (featuring temporary bleachers)

3. Saturday: 3,420 fans for grand opening against Louisville

4. March, 20, 2013: 3,389 fans for Florida State game

5. April 26, 2013: 3,142 fans for UVa game

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April 19, 2018


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