BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: Several U.Va. ballgames in the 1990s, and an NCAA regional tournament game on June 5, 2010: U.Va. 13, Ole Miss 7.
It's hard to believe it today, but a decade or so ago, the University of Virginia baseball program was facing extinction. Because of Title IX requirements that women's athletic programs get equal funding, the U.Va. athletic program had to make a decision on what men's program to cut, and baseball seemed like an obvious choice. Because of the decrepit facility in which they played -- bare temporary bleachers with zero amenities -- the U.Va. baseball team could not attract either either fans or quality opponents. The University had already made huge investments -- funded mainly through private donations -- to build Klöckner Stadium (men's and women' s soccer, 1992), expand Scott Stadium (football, 1998-2000), and was preparing to build a replacement for University Hall (basketball). The latter was finally built in 2006 and became known as "John Paul Jones Arena."
Thanks to a $500,000 contribution in 1998, the artificial field surface (a used football "rug") was replaced with grass, a small but significant step forward. After further donations were made, a massive $5 million reconstruction project began in June 2001, and the finishing touches were made early in 2002. The new stadium was built of concrete, brick, and steel, and most of the original 2,000 seats (including benches in the grandstand) were covered by a large roof. There was a plush clubhouse for the home team, a large concourse area for concessions, cushioned seats behind home plate, a large air-conditioned press box, as well as six "skybox" suites with 16 seats each. (Some of those were not finished until after 2002.) The supporting trusses extend about ten feet beyond the front edge of the roof in the curved portion of the grandstand, permitting the backstop net to be hung vertically. In April 2002 the stadium was officially renamed in honor of Ted Davenport, who was a U.Va. baseball player in the 1950s and devoted his career to raising scholarship money for U.Va. student athletes.
One of the nicest features of the rebuilt stadium is the grass berm along the third base side. The sidewalk on top provides an easy way for arriving fans to reach the elevated concourse level without having to climb any steps. (On the first base side, where the upscale patrons enter, there is a staircase and an elevator.) The semi-shaded grassy slope is a comfortable place for fans to sit when no seats are available. There is room for at least 500 people out there, presumably included in the stadium capacity figures. The U.Va. bullpen is located just a few feet away from the dugout, and is in effect carved into the side of that berm, surrounded by brick retaining walls. One especially daunting feature of Davenport Field is the "Blue Monster" backdrop in center field; only a few players have ever hit a home run over it. One of the few drawbacks is that the dugouts are at ground level.
As the success of the Virginia baseball team has surged to new levels over the past decade, expansions became necessary at Davenport Field. In May 2004, 364 temporary bleacher seats were installed on the first base side, raising the capacity to 2,430. Prior to the 2006 season, the left field fence was moved 17 feet closer to the diamond, making room for 324 new bleacher seats that were added in April 2007. The right field fence was moved in by the same amount one year later, restoring symmetry to the outfield dimensions, but the "377" distance markers in the power alleys were moved toward center field. The current distance to the "true" power alleys is more like 363 feet. Another big change in 2007 was that a new scoreboard with a video screen was installed in right center field. The left field bleachers were later expanded, but it's unclear exactly when this took place. Other subsequent changes included an expanded concourse on the third base side, with several dining tables, and a platform for wheelchair-bound fans near the left field corner. In early April 2010, the bleachers along the first base side were expanded, with room for 679 additional fans, and in May, a new bleacher section with room for 606 fans was added in right field. Combined, those two additions raised the total seating capacity at Davenport Field to 4,825.
It's a bit of a stretch to make any comparisons with major league ballparks, but there are several striking similarities between Davenport Field and old Comiskey Park in Chicago: the distances to the foul poles used to be exactly 352 feet, and were later reduced to 335 feet. (At Comiskey, they were then increased to 347 feet.) In both cases, the outfield is symmetrical, with a similarly configured foul territory and curved grandstand. Likewise, the infield had artificial turf for at least a while in both cases.
In 2004, Brian O'Connor became the team's coach, and he laid the groundwork for a veritable "golden age" of baseball in Charlottesville. Davenport Field hosted the first round (regional) NCAA tournament in 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2010. In order to satisfy NCAA requirements for tournament games, a new clubhouse was built for the visiting team in 2010, along with other new facilities under the grandstand. In 2009, the U.Va. Cavaliers made it to the College World Series in Omaha for the first time in team history. They started off the 2010 season ranked #1 in the nation in most polls, but failed to advance past the second ("super regionals") round. In 2011 and 2014 they advanced to the CWS again, and in the latter case made it all the way to the third and final game of the championship series, which they lost (to Vanderbilt) by a score of 3-2. All in all, not bad performances for a program that was on the brink of being eliminated in the late 1990s!
First and foremost among former U.Va. baseball players is Ryan Zimmerman, who was drafted by the Washington Nationals in June 2005 and was called up in September of the same year. He served as the team's third baseman from 2006 until 2014. Other former Cavalier baseball players who have made it to the major leagues include Javier Lopez (P, Giants), Mark Reynolds (1B, Brewers), Michael Schwimer (P, Blue Jays), and Danny Hultzen (P, Mariners).
On a personal note, I used to work (as a graduate student) right next door to Davenport Field, at the U.Va. Miller Center of Public Affairs. It's just possible that hearing the bats crushing the balls late in the afternoon during the spring months played a part in rekindling my old passion for baseball.