Finding nice things to say about Vanderbilt's baseball facilities over the years has been difficult. If someone had asked what the Vanderbilt baseball experience was like, the only things I could come up with would be along the lines of ‘well you are right on top of the action' or ‘spending a spring day in the sun is always great'. Certainly not ringing endorsements of quality for the baseball program.
Fortunately, the hard fundraising work of Coach Roy Mewbourne and the generous giving of donors (including the field's namesake Charlie Hawkins) now allows me to give a much better answer to that question, quality. Quality is the first thought I found running through my head walking down Jess Neely drive toward the ticket window and the gleaming new stadium. Those who have not been able to see the site transform from the old McGuigan Field, would be shocked to see the tall brick and iron accented exterior of the stadium, housing the glass pressbox and an observation deck.
I arrived shortly before game time on a gloriously sunny February day of 63 degrees, and made my way to the ticket window where I purchased a ticket in section F, row 8. There were plenty of ticket takers and ushers on hand to assist, as the crowd entered beneath the pressbox. Finding my place amongst the hunter green chairbacked seats was easy enough, and despite arriving only a few minutes before the game and a quite respectable mid-week, afternoon crowd of more than 700, I found myself just 8 rows behind homeplate. The view is tremendous, and though the area is still very much a construction zone, I was struck by how clean and prepared the concourses and stadium appeared.
Quality was the thought once again as the starting lineups and national anthem commenced. The sound system is easily the most clear and crisp of any Vanderbilt sports venue. As Jeff Little warmed up I took a look around as was amazed by the fact that though Hawkins Field is tucked between Vanderbilt Stadium, Memorial Gymnasium, and Jess Neely Drive, you do not realize it once inside the stadium. The stadium has its own feel, and no longer seems secondary to the larger facilities on its borders.
As the game began, the late afternoon sun and the pressbox combined to create a shadow over home plate, which extended beyond the mound by four o'clock. The shadow hovering between the plate and mound seemed to affect batters the first trip through each batting order, as the pitchers held the upper hand in the early going. However, opening day jitters could be just as much to blame.
As the game was settling into a comfortable pace, I was settling into the different sections of the stadium. My first move was to walk around the concourse behind the Vanderbilt dugout. The concourse leads to a large concreted area just behind third base on the left field line. It appears to be a perfect area to place tents for large group gatherings, as well as future seating expansion. It offers a great view of the field and a relaxed atmosphere for mingling, as many fans had already discovered. The baseball aficionado can also easily observe relief pitchers working in the bullpen from this vantage point. This appears to have already turned into a favorite spot for the fans.
Next I wanted to get the third base line view from the stands, and Section I appeared to be the right spot. Hawkins Field has just over 1,500 seats, so it would seem that there would not be a bad seat in the house. That thought is correct. Even from the very top corner of Section I, it seemed as if I was right on top of the action. The only complaint I have is a small blind spot obscuring the middle portion of the left field line.
Moving around to the opposite side, Section A (running alongside Jess Neely Drive), I ascended to the top, row 12. The seating area is symmetrical, and the view is the same, as is the blind spot down the right field line. The official stadium dedication is not until the April 27th match-up with Mississippi State, and this side is the reason why. There is still a considerable amount of construction ongoing with the matching event/expansion area along the right field line. Eventually, it appears that it will match the space on the Vanderbilt side.
By the time my game of musical chairs had ended, the game started to get interesting. Tennessee Tech had taken a 2-0 lead entering the bottom of the fourth, as Vanderbilt had failed to capitalize on earlier scoring threats The quality of the play was starting to take precedence over examining the new digs, as a crisp balance of offense, pitching, and fielding was emerging. Vanderbilt was rotating pitchers in a pre-planned strategy to ease the starters into the season, and scored three runs in the middle innings.
Vanderbilt carried a 3-2 lead into the top of the ninth, when TTU took the lead with two runs in the top half. Hawkins Field was giving us a thriller on opening day, as Vanderbilt had three outs to christen the stadium with a win. Impressive freshman shortstop Tony Mansolino, batting third in the order, started with a grounder to third. With one down, the prospects for a late rally grew dimmer. Then things started happening. Clean up hitter Sean Luellwitz rips a single to center, and John Kaye takes one for the team. With two men on base and just one out, the enthusiastic crowd was ready to burst. Sophomore Cesar Nicolas, who had previously doubled and struck out twice, approached the plate to the encouragement of the home dugout. Just moments later a hanging curveball was driven out of the park capping a thrilling finish to an exciting day.
The quality of the facility and play made my first impression of Hawkins Field an enjoyable one, and it is obvious that it has been making quite an impression on the recruiting trail. Hopefully Hawkins will be a harbinger for heroes and Herculean efforts for years to come. It certainly is off to a good start.
Fan Quotes & Notes
"This is the first game I've been to in years. It's really nice. The last time I came to a game they didn't even have lights up here. I read about it in the paper, and I think I'll be back sometime this spring."
-- Joe Grasse, Donelson
"It's a nice little stadium, just a lot nicer than I thought it would be. Hopefully getting a new place like this will translate over to wins down on that field."
-- Chase Edwards, Nashville
"I follow [Tennessee] Tech around when they play close by, and this is for sure the best college field I have been to. I'd like to have something like this at Tech, that's for sure."
-- E.J. Birdwell, Cookeville
- A Commodore registered the first hit in Hawkins Field history as John Kaye, the twelfth batter of the game, smacked a double down the first base line in the bottom of the second.
- With only 27 players on the roster, Vanderbilt baseball players represent 15 different states.
- Around a dozen football players attended the opening wearing their new, black training shirts featuring the word "TEAM" in large white letters.
- The opening day victory moved Coach Roy Mewbourne within one win of 900 for his career.