Jan. 29, 2015
First Day in Hoover | Hitting Facility Grand Opening
This is the third inning of my blog “9 Innings”, which will be featured on RollTide.com. My purpose in writing this is to allow fans an inside look into the Alabama baseball program. When I thought of putting this blog out, I wanted to be sure that each installment would cover a wide range of topics, giving fans an inside look at things that only people close to the program can personally provide. I feel responsible for making sure that people involved with the program, past and present, are well-represented as we move forward together and continue to grow that Alabama baseball tradition.
I hope that everyone had a great holiday season and a safe trip back to campus. Now that we’ve returned and the weather is starting to warm up, it’s time to kick off the 2015 Alabama baseball season. We’re just three weeks away from first pitch at “The Met” and I couldn’t be more excited to get rolling. It has seemed like forever since we last played a game and I know the team is ready for some live action.
As you were heading down Bryant Drive on your way back into town, I’ll bet many of you noticed a new structure next to all the construction that’s going on at Sewell-Thomas Stadium. That newly finished building is our state-of-the-art hitting facility that was just completed as of January 13. On the afternoon of the 14th, we officially opened the facility and myself, along with Coach Bill Battle and the current Alabama baseball team, welcomed back many of our great alumni and donors. The project was years in the making, and it dates all the way back to 2006 when plans to renovate “The Joe” were first drawn up. Now that it is complete, we couldn’t be more thrilled to move in there and start utilizing it.
On that Wednesday, many of our alumni came back and were there to support us during the opening ceremonies. Guys from the most recent era, such as Spencer Turnbull and Wade Wass, all the way back to some our all-time greats like Ben Short, G.W. Keller and Scott McClanahan were all in attendance. It was great to see Cecil “Hootie” Ingram there as well, he’s meant a lot to this program and its storied past. All the former players and staff helped to make the day a truly special one. It was awesome to get so much history and talent in one area at one time, and we truly appreciated reliving many great Alabama moments with those players.
I would really like to thank Dr. Jeff Laubenthal, a former player at Alabama and a member of the steering committee that helped get this built. Without Dr. Laubenthal’s help and dedication to this program, I’m not sure we would be where we are at today. In recognition of his support, Dr. Laubenthal took the ceremonial first swing inside the hitting facility, cracking a laser off the tee that may have never landed had we been outdoors. We followed the hitting up with a first pitch inside the facility, coming by way of former major leaguer and Tide great Lance Cormier, who played here form 1999-2002. Cormier threw a strike to Wass to a round of applause. Dr. Laubenthal’s solid liner and Lance’s strike right down the middle to kick off the festivities was a perfect summation of the entire day.
After the hitting and pitching events, Dr. Laubenthal gave a moving speech to the crowd, and more specifically our players, about what Alabama baseball meant to him and what it should mean to those guys going forward. He really hit home on the fact that we as members of this Alabama baseball family are truly lucky to be where we are, with the facilities and resources that we have, and to never take any of it for granted. The number one thing Dr. Laubenthal stressed was taking pride in The University of Alabama and to represent it in a way that former and future players would be proud of. The hard work and dedication that everyone put into getting this facility up is what Alabama baseball really embodies what this team and program are all about.
This Season in Hoover
Although we have a new gift here in Tuscaloosa, our team is preparing to begin our season in Hoover at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. Last Saturday, we took our first official trip up there for practice, and it went great. Prior to practice, I went with a few of the guys to personally deliver season ticket packages to our fans. Kyle Overstreet, Georgie Salem, Will Haynie and Geoffrey Bramblett all joined me for the event, and we got to spend some quality time talking with our season ticket holders in Hoover. Those people have been dedicated to the Alabama baseball program for a while now, and we really wanted to thank them for all their support, even in this transition year.
The rest of our guys packed up in Tuscaloosa and made their way here on the bus for our 1 p.m. scrimmage. Walking through the stadium and into our locker room at the Met was awesome. The great people with the City of Hoover and at the stadium made sure to make it feel like home for us. At the entrance to our locker room was signage resembling what we would typically see inside Sewell-Thomas. Inside, the major-league-size locker room was plastered with Alabama graphics and nametags. James Young and Michael Pepper did a commendable job of getting everything ready for us, and it really felt like we were at home in The Joe. The entire practice and first weekend went off without a hitch inside the stadium or during travel.
The scrimmages themselves showed us that we’re on the right path, but we have some work to do. There were a lot of positives to take away from the weekend, especially on the hitting side of things. We made some solid contact and showed what we can do, even inside a much larger park than what this team is accustomed to. With our pitchers, I saw some noteworthy things from those guys that make me feel good with where we are. Although their time on the mound was significantly shortened, the players who tossed both days were hitting their spots and working their pitches well across the zone. It was good to see us continuing to progress, but we know that there is a lot left to do before the season starts.
The preseason polls are out, and the Alabama team and individual players are in the rankings. As a team, we were ranked as the 20th-best team according to D1Baseball.com, and numerous other outlets have us sitting at or around there. Individually, Perfect Game USA has recognized some of the standout athletes that we have on this team. Each year, PG creates a list of the top players from each class, and those rankings have the Crimson Tide included throughout. Our highest ranked player is Taylor Guilbeau, who starts the preseason as the No. 3 overall senior. Alabama has two juniors on the list including newcomer Will Carter (75) and shortstop Mikey White (29). I’m really proud of Mikey for also earning preseason third team All-American honors from PG; he deserves the recognition for all his hard work these past two seasons. Two pitchers and two fielders make up the sophomore list for us, with Nick Eicholtz and Thomas Burrows coming in at 51 and 68, respectively, for the pitchers, while Casey Hughston (63) and Will Haynie (87) round out the list as fielders. Finally, Andrew DiPiazza is a big, strong righty in his first season at the Capstone who comes in at 44th on the list of freshmen. All these guys are just parts of the team, and if we can mesh well then there’s a good chance we can continue our streak of making it to the NCAA Tournament.
This roster is really shaping up. The preparation going into this season has been good, dating all the way back to fall practice up to today. I am encouraged by how well our guys have adjusted to this new setup of going back and forth between Tuscaloosa and Hoover. I think it will help their concentration throughout the season with them having to maintain their intensity each day as the environment and facilities continue to change. The construction at Sewell-Thomas provides another element of distraction for the team to work through, and I believe they’ve done a fantastic job of staying focused on the task at hand. I’m really encouraged by this collection of guys, this new environment and everything we will experience going forward. I want you – the fans – to join us in welcoming this new season at The Met. The athletic support staff and the administration at UA have dedicated numerous hours to ensure that everyone gets to enjoy some great baseball inside a great facility each and every night.
As part of our effort to entrench ourselves in the Hoover community, we have planned numerous opportunities for fans to come interact with our players. This Friday, January 30, we will be sending a few of the guys to local elementary schools. Georgie Salem, Jake Hubbard and White will all visit and speak at the elementary schools that they attended growing up. It will be great for them to get back to their old stomping grounds and, hopefully, inspire some of those kids. I know, in talking with all of them, that they are eager to go back and see their former school, and they are looking forward to interacting with the kids and teachers at the schools. It means a lot to be able to go back home, especially when you may be a bit out of your comfort zone as a player. I see this opportunity as a way to help them to connect with the people they are most familiar with, and I think that will be special to them.
On Saturday, some of our players will be heading to the Oak Mountain Youth Baseball tryouts at Heardmont Park to mingle with the kids, sign autographs and encourage them as they fight to make the team. Hopefully, talking with these kids can inspire the children to continue to try hard in baseball and, maybe one day, join us here at Alabama. The tryout process is something every player goes through on any level of baseball, and I think it’s good to encourage those kids early on, so I see this as a way to connect our players with the younger generation.
The following weekend, Alabama baseball will be hosting its fan day on Saturday, February 7. We’ll kick off the day with a youth clinic, where our players will provide instructional tips to the kids in attendance. Following the clinic, my staff and I will take fans around the Hoover Met and show them what the new stadium looks like while describing the opportunities this new stadium presents. I want the fans to get and up-close look at our facilities and what we will be working with this season. I believe they deserve to see how well the Hoover staff has accommodated us, and I want those fans to be just as much a part of this experience as anyone else.
After the tour, our players will sign autographs for the fans, while the Grandslammers will also host their annual barbeque up in the ballroom. Each season, the Grandslammers – our main support group – treats players and fans to a lunch that they personally cook to celebrate the start of the baseball season. These people work tirelessly to ensure that our guys are treated right and that Alabama baseball is supported as much as our players deserve. The assistance and promotion they provide and the loyalty to this program that they show means a lot to me and the alumni of the Alabama baseball program.
We’ll conclude that final Saturday in Hoover scrimmaging with first pitch scheduled for around 3 p.m. Fans are encouraged to join us for the intrasquad game and take a close look at the 2015 squad. I think fans will like what they see, and I want everyone to look into ways to join us this season. Anyone wanting to buy tickets for the season at The Met can go through our ticket office inside Coleman Coliseum or our website, RollTide.com.
Also, those in attendance on both Saturdays can take part in our “select-a-seat” promotion, where fans choose which seats they like and then can purchase those areas as part of a season ticket package. We’d love for our fans to come out and buy season tickets, but if you can only attend a few games this season we’ll be more than happy. The more faces the better, because we want to get The Met rocking this season and turn it into a place that other teams fear coming to play. We want to have the Alabama advantage when opposing squads come in here each weekend.
In closing, I want to stress to everyone that this is not just a transition year, it’s a transformation year. We are moving forward into a new era of Alabama baseball, and I want fans to get on board. I promise that our guys will put on a great performance each night, and that they are dedicated to this program, this season and ensuring a winning product. Thank you to everyone for your support thus far, and thank you in advance to those who will come out and support us this weekend and season. You fans are what keeps this team going. Roll Tide!