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SWAYZE: A baseball stadium looks at 30

There are few venues as synonymous with the teams they house as Oxford-University Stadium is with Ole Miss baseball. The two go hand in hand and on a sunny spring Saturday afternoon filled to the brim and then some with rabid fans it almost seems as if it is the 10th player on Swayze Field.

It is a relationship that has cultivated over time and on Tuesday will celebrate its 30th year of being home to the Rebels. Built in the late 1980s and opening in time for the 1989 season, the project was a labor of love shared jointly by Ole Miss and the city of Oxford. Construction of the stadium, which cost $3.75 million, was completed in October of 1988 while the finishing touches were finished throughout its inaugural season.

Prior to where O-U Stadium calls home now, the Rebels played in what is now called ‘Old Swayze,’ a baseball field that was located where The Pavilion now stands. The old stadium has its fair share of history, from hosting the first Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament to being home to four Ole Miss teams that reached the College World Series four times. Old bleachers that needed boards replaced prior to the beginning of each season and a lack of necessary amenities that most ballparks had at that time caused a need to look towards the future and a new stadium.

“Some people referred to it as a dump. Some people referred to it as a high school stadium and it just was what it was,” Jeff Roberson said of the previous stadium. “There were a lot of similar stadiums to Old Swayze in the SEC until probably the 80s or 70s, but it was arguably the worst. I think it was the only one, at least in most of the conference, without lights.”

Roberson covered Ole Miss baseball for several publications, including The Oxford Eagle for much of their time in the new stadium.

With an understanding of a need for a new baseball stadium by the university and city, plans began to be put in place on how to fund such an undertaking. In 1986 Oxford proposed a two percent tax on restaurant’s gross sales of food and alcohol within the Oxford city limits. A year later the tax was voted in and took effect with $200,000 of the collected tax money be put towards construction of Ole Miss’ new baseball stadium.

In the 30 years since O-U Stadium was constructed where the former Oxford and University High Schools were located, it has also seen its fair share of makeovers. Where people used to improvise their seating arrangements on the outfield hill has turned into a renovated seating area in both left and right field.

“We’ve watched not only the physical change but the atmosphere change,” Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco said. “There are people that remember cutting the backs off the chair and sitting (in the outfield). It’s kind of like a football stadium where people would tailgate out there. …It’s gradually grown over the years.”

Bianco is entering his 19th season at the helm of the Rebels and has been around for nearly two-thirds of the stadium’s existence. A lot of the changes and renovations that have been made, including an $18 million project prior to the 2009 season, have been due to not only the program’s success but also to Bianco’s willingness to oversee every aspect of the program from on the field to the fan experience.

Ahead of this season the school completed a $19 million project that included a new performance center built outside of the first base side of the stadium. Features of the new center include a new locker room, weight room, training room, players lounge, team meeting room and indoor/outdoor hitting cages. There is also a rooftop viewing area for fans to take in the game.

“We had to expand (before 2009) because we outgrew the old stadium,” Bianco said. “The stadium had just under 3,000 seats. We had sold it all out for four straight seasons and (former Ole Miss athletics director) Pete (Boone) knew that if we were going to host regionals, and it’s hard for season ticket sales to go any higher if they have to be on a hill, we had to do something.”

The newest expansion allowed Ole Miss to set a new season ticket sales record with 7,101 seats sold for the 2019 season.

Another aspect of O-U Stadium and what has become part of its charm is the right field student section. For opening weekends, much like this weekend, the right field will be filled with students in their ‘Grove chair’ holding their favorite beverage of choice in a red solo cup, waiting to throw it in the air to celebrate a home run. It has become one of the most-talked about student sections in all of college sports, let alone college baseball.

“It’s the best. Not even close,” Bianco said of the student section. “We’re going to have 4,000 students, not fans, students on Friday. When you say you have 3 or 4,000 students every Friday night, Saturday afternoon for conference weekends, most people would like to just have that many fans. There are 20 programs in the country that do that (number) with fans. We’re doing it with students. It’s quite remarkable.”