ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia's baseball program will never have a palatial home like some of its SEC competitors as long as Foley Field occupies its landlocked position.
But once the university completes renovations to several areas of the ballpark -- the UGA Athletic Association's board of directors recently approved paying for the first stages of the project -- Georgia will no longer be home to what critics describe as one of the league's least appealing baseball facilities."In this area here, we're never going to be able to build what they've done at South Carolina," Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said of the $35 million, 8,200-seat stadium the Gamecocks debuted in 2009. "There's just no room. I think we had maybe fallen behind in some areas that should be taken care of as far as enhancements, renovations of that nature -- sound system, things that are important to people that are at the game -- that encourage people to come to the game. Those are just some things that we knew that we had to improve on."
The $10 million facelift McGarity proposed last month at the board of directors meeting will address the minutiae McGarity referred to, but it will also modernize the 46-year-old facility -- which was renovated in 1990 -- in numerous ways.
Aside from simply providing necessary updates, it will address areas that had become eyesores like the unkempt "Kudzu Hill" area beyond the right-field fence and the dying trees that line the left-field fence and make them more visually appealing.
"I think the university in general has prided itself in aesthetics, the way a facility looks," McGarity said. "When you're sitting in the press box and you're looking in right field and you see that it's a mess, and you look to the left of the scoreboard and it's a mess -- not a mess with trash, but it just hasn't been attended to -- and then you look in left field and you see trees that are dying, that's not a very pleasant experience. And that ballpark is a beautiful setting … so that to me was very important, the look."
A few of the changes will be evident to Bulldogs fans by the time baseball season starts next spring.
The board also approved $1.35 million to begin initial renovations to Foley Field and to select an architect, engineering team and construction team that will take the initial concepts McGarity showed the board and develop them into construction plans, complete with cost estimates. That appropriation will also pay for a new canopy of new trees that will run from the left-field foul pole to the batter's eye in center field.
The big-picture facility changes are still in the distant future, and McGarity hesitates to place a timetable on when to expect a completed project. Selecting contractors and gaining the board's funding approval will take time. Plus he told the board members he wants to raise at least $5 million of the necessary funds before bringing the full renovation project request before them at a future meeting.
"If we're thinking before the 2014 season, I don't know if that's realistic or not," McGarity said. "I don't want to put a timetable on it because then if we miss it, then we're behind. It's really too early to know exactly what the timetable will be."
There are several elements to the larger renovation project, starting with a facelift for the stadium's main entrance and fan plaza at the corners of Pinecrest Drive and East Rutherford Street. The concept McGarity proposed to the board would open pedestrian flow into the main plaza and calls for a renovated façade, ticket booth and entry gates.
Just inside the gates, McGarity envisions a wider concourse with new restrooms and concessions areas, as well as improved entryways into the seating bowl. Above there will be an expanded press box -- complete with an elevator that connects that it to each level of the park -- that will bring the stadium into Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.
There will also be improvements to the dugouts, Georgia's locker room and team lounge, training room and batting cages. The plan also calls for an upgraded sound system, a retaining wall at the exposed slope of "Kudzu Hill" and an improved storm water system.
Once completed, the new Foley Field will be a revamped facility that might not be as large as a venue like South Carolina's, but will have many of the same amenities as the newer ballparks.
An inviting stadium is a key element in attracting fans to the game, and it might just help the on-field product, as well. By bringing its stadium quality up to the same level as that of its competition, Georgia would show a commitment to its baseball program and trot out a shiny new facility where prospects can envision themselves playing.
"I trust Greg and his staff that they know what's out there around the league and they're doing everything they can to make good quality adjustments to our stadium, which they've already done a good job of that," Georgia baseball coach David Perno said. "I know they'll continue to do that."