I’m sure there is a college baseball team somewhere in the United States that needed a new home more than the Jacksonville State Gamecocks. But who? And where? Certainly not here in Alabama. Let’s make this simple, then. It’s about time Gamecock baseball has a park commensurate with its history, winning tradition and importance to the university.
Welcome to Rudy Abbott Field at Jim Case Stadium.
The park hosted its first official game Friday against North Alabama. (JSU played its fall exhibitions there in 2018.) I went Saturday for the first game of a doubleheader. It was overcast, misty and cold, the kind of day meant for coffee and a good book, but it was February, so stop complaining. Fog shrouded the mountain tops to the west. And yet, the day showcased the park’s potential and provided a hint of JSU baseball when the weather improves and the Gamecocks again become a must-see in northeast Alabama.
Case Stadium — named after longtime coach Jim Case, now in his 18th season — seats 1,000, has a large scoreboard in right-center, a Mississippi State-styled outfield fan area — “Cocky Korner” — in right and chair-back seats. Seven VIP suites line the first-base line. There’s a new press box, a new clubhouse and team lounge, and new coaches offices. The playing surface is artificial turf. (I’m a traditionalist, but I get it. Rainouts are fewer; players don’t have to drag the infield or wrangle the tarp; today’s turf isn’t grass, but it isn’t 1980s turf, either.) Parking is ample. The concourse is covered and includes standing areas for fans to eat and drink and not miss a pitch. And the vistas beyond the outfield fences are quite nice — trees, campus, mountains. Alabama, Auburn and Georgia will play here later this spring.
Here’s a view.
And here’s another.
Now, a little honesty. But first, name your favorite baseball park. Wrigley? Fenway? Camden Yards? Dodger Stadium? What about in college? Dudy Noble? Alex Box? Well, Case Stadium, as impressive as it is, isn’t that, but that’s not the point.
When I first came to Alabama, JSU baseball ranked as one of America’s great Division II programs but played at Alumni Field, which essentially was an open plain on a hill across the street from the university’s library. The Gamecocks won back-to-back national championships in 1990 and 1991. It sent players to the Major Leagues. JSU’s football and basketball teams were also D-II powers, but its baseball team had few peers.
Today, Alumni Field is home to the school’s softball team. It’s been revamped, improved and transformed into a fine Ohio Valley Conference facility. But when the baseball team used it, it was nothing more than a middling high-school park whose press box draped over first base and featured embarrassingly short left-field dimensions. JSU won a lot of games there, nonetheless.
In 1995, just as the university was moving its athletics department to the NCAA’s Division I, the Gamecocks relocated west to a spot near Pete Mathews Coliseum. (You can see the light towers of Alumni Field in the distance, still.) The improvement was immediate. The field was better. The fan experience was better. But JSU couldn’t keep up with the arms race that had enveloped college baseball, particularly in the Deep South. Surrounded by Southeastern Conference teams that were building stadiums worthy of Minor League Baseball, JSU built a new park that still featured high-school metal bleachers, and not much else.
And then, nothing happened.
Well, that’s not true. JSU enlarged its football stadium in a project that also included new dorms. JSU remodeled Mathews Coliseum for its basketball and volleyball teams. It helped the softball team remake Alumni Field. And the baseball team? Its park, named Abbott Field after its Alabama Sports Hall of Fame coach, Rudy Abbott, wasn’t shown the requisite amount of love.
The first time I covered a game at Abbott Field, there was no press box. It was 32 degrees. I remember. I sat at a table behind home plate, shivering. At least I got paid. And I have to admit this, too. As much as I love baseball, I stopped going to JSU games because I couldn’t stand Abbott Field. Over time, high schools here in northeast Alabama built more comfortable and fan-friendly baseball parks than the one JSU was stuck with.
Two years ago, university administrators, its Board of Trustees and a handful of influential donors ended this frustration. Bless them. Construction began in the spring of 2017 on a remodeling of Abbott Field that would totally remake the team’s on-campus facility. Essentially, JSU blew up its baseball park and built a new one in the same spot. Private donors Bob Kennamer and Earlon McWhorter were key to the park’s completion and urged the university to name it after Case.
Despite the February weather, this glee over the opening of Case Stadium is sincere. After decades of playing — and persevering — on substandard fields and a high school-level park, the Gamecocks now have a home worthy of their history and their potential.
Plus, I can again enjoy going to JSU games. My glee over that is just as sincere.