A crack of the bat hasn’t been heard at Santa Ana Star Field since early March but there’s finally a little noise around the University of New Mexico’s baseball stadium these days.
With the Lobos’ 2020 season canceled because of coronavirus restrictions, long-planned ballpark construction is off to an early start. Crews have begun work on bleacher expansion that will increase seating capacity from 1,000 to roughly 4,000 fans. The project is scheduled to be completed by late August.
It’s part of a multi-phase facility improvement that UNM baseball coach Ray Birmingham has been spearheading for years. It has included the additions of stadium lights, scoreboard, bathrooms, the current bleacher and pressbox areas and the $2.4 million R.D. and Joan Dale Hubbard Clubhouse, which was completed in 2016.
The upgrades have been funded through a combination of state appropriations and private donations. The current $800,000 project is being funded by state money approved during the 2019 legislative session. It includes 200 stadium seats, which will be installed in the current seating area behind home plate, outfield fencing and a new speaker system. The outfield fencing was replaced prior to the 2020 season.
“I’m happy to see things happening again,” Birmingham said. “I want to see a great field for Lobo baseball and this is another big step.”
UNM associate athletic director Ed Manzanares, who is managing the project, said increased seating will allow UNM to host postseason college baseball and make Santa Ana Star Field a more fitting prep state-tournament site.
“It’s exciting to see our ballpark turning into a big-time college baseball field,” Manzanares said. “(Birmingham) has always wanted to host an NCAA Regional and he’s worked his tail off to make this happen. It’ll be great for high school tournament games, too.”
The current phase of improvements were set to begin after the 2020 season but game cancellations allowed crews to start roughly a month ahead of schedule, Manzanares said. UNM is also set to replace the ballpark’s infield turf this summer. That project is expected to be done by early fall.
Additional phases remain on Birmingham’s wish list. He hopes to add an upgraded pressbox, but that addition will require an elevator to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A new pressbox alone would cost roughly $468,000 with elevator costs running the price tag close to $1 million. Birmingham also hopes to install shading for the bleacher areas at some point.
“Those are the next two phases,” Birmingham said, “and we still have fundraising to do to make them happen. Hopefully things will start getting back to normal soon and people can start planning, but getting new bleachers installed is big for us right now.”
The new bleachers will include entry ramps along the stadium’s third-base line, Birmingham said.
UNM’s home ballpark has largely been transformed since the Lobos began using it as their full-time home midway through the 2013 season. Prior to that, UNM practiced at Lobo Field and played home games at Isotopes Park but scheduling conflicts between the Lobos and Isotopes made that arrangement difficult and prompted Birmingham to begin upgrading the school’s on-campus stadium.