March 10, 2009
Location: 935 Fowler Street, Atlanta, GA 30332
By Jack Wilkinson
On the Flats, on the corner of 8th and Fowler, where they once paved paradise and put up a parking lot, that mistake was rectified Tuesday. Rectified in spades, and shades of Camden Yards, Wrigley and Fenway.
“It made me feel,” Whitney Haller said, “like it was the World Series.”
On a hillock that was once a playing field at old O’Keefe High, later a Georgia Tech intramural and club sports field, and which most recently served as prime parking for Tech basketball games, that lot is going, going, gone. In its place stands a brand-new, fast-pitch palace that’s already softball paradise.
“A wonderful facility,” gushed Dr. Gary Schuster, Tech’s interim president, as he commenced the ribbon-cutting ceremony to open Shirley Clements Mewborn Field.
“Wow! What a facility!” marveled Duke Mewborn, whose late wife Shirley, a trailblazing Tech female student in the early 1950’s is who the stadium is named after.
“Shirley would be so proud,” Duke told the crowd of his wife, who died in 2003. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he said, gesturing at the stands. And his voice cracked with emotion.
“I think this park epitomizes a family atmosphere, and a lot of what Georgia Tech is about,” said Theresa Wenzel, Tech’s associate athletics director/senior women’s administrator. “A certain sense of elegance and sophistication.” She paused. She smiled. “If you can define a softball field like that.”
You can, and you should. At least with this softball field. Sharon Perkins put it all — the gem of a ballpark, the opening, the setting, her 100th victory at Tech…and then her 101st — succinctly, and perfectly.
“It was neat,” said the Jackets’ third-year head coach, whose team swept a doubleheader from Tennessee-Martin: 2-1 in the opener on Kristen Adkins’ two-run home run — her first career homer –, then 7-5 in the late-afternoon nightcap in which Adkins pitched five innings and got the win while also going 3-for-3 with three RBI.
“That’s kinda cool,” Adkins said of her notoriety as the first Jacket to homer in the new park. She was an unlikely milestone maker, considering the sophomore was hitting just .115 before Tuesday. “I’m a fan of this field to say the least,” said Adkins, who played third base in the opener. “We love it here, everything about it.”
Everyone loves everything. The stadium — capacity 1,500 — itself. The setting, nestled on the campus in the shadow of the O’Keefe building. The skyline of downtown Atlanta: the Bank of America towering high above and beyond center field; the shiny new glass towers of Midtown rising behind the Jackets’ third-base home dugout. The large and enthusiastic crowd included members of the Tech band (three tubas strong), and many athletes from several other sports who just dropped in to see what condition this new ballpark was in.
That condition? Perfect, like Opening Day itself. First pitch: 1:55 p.m. Game-time temperature: 82 degrees, with winds blowing from right field to left (indeed, all four homers Tuesday were hit to left field). Five-year forecast: Bright beyond belief.
Some dimensions: It’s 190 feet (the minimum NCAA distance) down the lines, 220 to straightaway center, and millions of miles from yesteryear. From nowhere, which is essentially where the Jackets used to play: in a misbegotten playing field on 14th St., back behind a local TV station. Which was not exactly what Whitney Haller signed on for when she graduated from Harrison High and chose to come to Tech.
She remembered the promises, the assurances from the previous coaching staff that Tech would have its own on-campus facility. “The promises soon turned into chances of `Next year, next year,'” Haller told the crowd, speaking on behalf of her teammates in the pre-game ceremony. “The promises have now become a reality — and what a reality.
“It is only fitting that a field this grand is dedicated to a woman that’s equally as incredible,” said Haller, a three-time All-ACC first baseman who was recently awarded an ACC post-graduate scholarship. “Thank you, Shirley, for paving the way for women at Tech. Thank you, administration, for this amazing facility. And thank you, fans, for your constant support.”
The very best ballparks are always downtown parks. Think Wrigley. Think Fenway. Think Camden Yards. Now, when you think of Mewborn Field, think Camden — but instead of the warehouse building beyond Baltimore’s right field wall, picture O’Keefe beyond the home run-friendly left field wall at Tech. No batter has shattered a window in O’Keefe. Not yet, anyway.
“The pot’s still open for the first window that’s gonna get broken out there,” said Jason McFadden, the project manager for Barton Malow Company, which built Mewborn Field. He smiled. You would, too, if you’d built this ballpark and had such a care-free debut.
“It’s good. The sound system seems to be well-received,” McFadden said. “The other team was awed when they walked in. I was here at 10 o’clock the other night, and I fired up the lights to get some pictures. If I’m the visiting team, I’m gonna be looking at the Midtown skyline a lot from the dugout.”
Times change, don’t they? “It was about a little over a year ago that you could’ve parked a car where I’m standing,” Tech athletic director Dan Radakovich told the crowd during the opening ceremonies, standing just in from of the pitching rubber. From the start, Tech wanted to build an on-campus ballpark, to enhance campus life and softball’s winning percentage.
“It was important for us to have a softball facility in the same ballpark as our baseball stadium,” Radakovich said of Russ Chandler Stadium, where Tech’s baseball team pounded Mercer late Tuesday afternoon. “Title IX dictated it. Common sense dictated it.” Shirley Mewborn made it all possible. “She’d have been so proud of this,” Duke said of his late wife, who’d have turned 75 next week. They were married for 46 years. “She was big on sports. And to have this in her honor? Oh, unbelievable. And how first-class it is.”
Like the lady herself. “When Shirley was here, Tech only had five women,” Mewborn said. After attending Western Carolina Teachers College as a freshman, Shirley Clements’ scholarship was for one year. According to her husband, “She came back to Atlanta and had a cousin here who told her, “‘Hey, Tech is accepting women.'”
Despite having to take some freshman-level courses as a sophomore, Clements graduated from Tech in three years with a B.S. in electrical engineering.
“In high school, she was an avid basketball player,” Mewborn said of his late wife, who grew up in Rochelle, Ga., about 30 miles east of Cordele. “But tennis was her hobby. Fishing and tennis. Shirley loved fishing, too. She went to Alaska with me two times. She always caught the biggest fish.”
They met, of course, where many Tech undergraduates spend most of their time: In the library. “I was working in the library, and Shirley needed some spending money,” said Mewborn, who entered Tech in 1952. “So she was working in the library, too.”
They wooed and wed, graduated and went to work. Shirley was very successful in the outside world, the business world. She was also incredibly generous to her alma mater, having previously endowed an athletic scholarship.
And now this. “Fantastic,” Duke said, looking out over the diamond. “And the view of it. Look at that view.” He gazed toward downtown, under a sky of blue, criss-crossed by white contrails from airplanes high above.
“To me, there’s nothing more magical than going to a football game at Grant Field,” Mewborn said. “The view is fantastic, especially at night. And now you can see it here.”
The skyline of Atlanta. The breathtaking backdrop for Georgia Tech women’s softball, 56 years after Shirley Clements first matriculated at Tech.
“Oh, it’s awesome,” said Cris Perkins, whose wife won her first two softball games in her palatial new home Tuesday. “We’ve been at most of the [top] softball stadiums, and this is right up there. It’s kinda weird, though, being yours.”
Arizona first set the standard. Fresno State sunk a ton of money into its softball facility. The SEC schools jumped on-board, big-time. So did the Big 12. “Baylor has a nice one,” Cris Perkins said. “Alabama has a nice one.
“Hate to say it, but Georgia has a real nice one,” he said of Sharon’s previous employer, where she was an assistant coach before coming to Tech. “But I don’t think anyone has it all, like this: The stadium, the indoor [batting cage and pitching} facility [just down the left field line]. And the skyline view. I always thought the prettiest one was Auburn. This is kinda the same. Except at Auburn, you don’t have the skyline view. Here…” He paused. He smiled. He waved his hand across the skyline, from Midtown to downtown.
“I think this day is as big as the day Sharon was hired,” Cris Perkins said. “That day, she was over the moon. This day…” And he smiled again.
On Saturday, March 28, Florida State comes to town for a doubleheader and that’s when Tech will have a truly grand opening celebration. The lights will go on for the first time on Friday, April 10, when N.C. State visits for a twi-night double-header. Until then, the most pressing matter will be this: With Shirley Clements Mewborn Field such a long name and mouthful of a handle, what about a nickname? Like the Ted, as Turner Field was quickly christened after opening in 1997. Or the Jake, for Cleveland’s Jacobs Field. So…the Shirl? Not exactly. The Mew, as Mike Huff, the Tech graduate assistant, called it on the air for ramblinwreck.com listeners during Tuesday’s twinbill? Not bad. Not bad at all.
Whitney Haller has another idea. “I’m so glad my senior year will be here,” she said. “I would’ve been so upset if I hadn’t gotten to play on this field.”
Which field? “We’ll probably just call it the Shirley,” Haller said. Yes. “The Shirley.”
Somewhere, Shirley Clements Mewborn is smiling. Joni Mitchell, too. Paradise, found anew.
Fast Facts About Shirley Clements Mewborn Field
Officially Dedicated: March 10, 2009
First Game: Georgia Tech defeated UT Martin 2-1
First Batter: Tech pitcher Tiffany Johnson struck out UTM’s Jenny Bain
First Hit: Jenny Bain, UT Martin (top of the fourthinning)
First Georgia Tech Hit: JenYee (bottom of the fourth inning)
First Home Run: Jenny Bain, UT Martin (top of the fourthinning)
First Georgia Tech Home Run: Kristen Adkins (bottom of the fifth inning)
First Winning Pitcher: Tiffany Johnson, Georgia Tech
Dimensions: 190 feet down the lines, 220 to dead centerCapacity: 1,500 (586 chair-backs)
Cost: $4.99 Million
Drainage: The rain that falls on the grounds will bechanneled into a 42,000-gallon underground cistern beyond rightfield. If full, the cistern can keep the field watered for two orthree weeks without rain.
Lighting System: Musco Sports Lighting System
Admission: Free in 2009
Parking: Free parking is available on a first-come, firstserved basis in the Alexander Memorial Colisum lot across fromMewborn Field on 8th Street