It looks like neutral-site games to decide state baseball championships in the Georgia High School Association are here to stay.
Last season, the GHSA played its eight best-of-3 championship series at two different locations – Grayson Stadium in Savannah and State Mutual Stadium in Rome.
This year, the state has decided to increase the number of venues to four to host the state finals across its eight classifications, adding Foley Field at the University of Georgia in Athens and Luther Williams Field in Macon to the mix.
Much like in football, where some still prefer schools to host the title games in a home stadium versus having them at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, people are divided on the state’s call to hold the baseball finals at neutral venues versus home ballparks.
“I wasn’t on board at first,” said Jeff Davis coach Paul Glass, who led the Yellow Jackets to the Class 2A state crown last May with a sweep of Elbert County at Grayson Stadium.”We played Bacon County for the state championship in Alma in 2004 and people were hanging out of trees and sitting in buckets on bucket trucks. I thought we might lose that kind of atmosphere.
“But last year, the stadium wasn’t too big, the crowd was loud, the atmosphere was good. Our kids loved it. I think Georgia high school got it right.”
Lee County coach Brandon Brock isn’t so sure. His team lost last year to Pope in the Class 6A final played a State Mutual Stadium in Rome.
“Overall, I don’t like it,” he said. “I think it takes away the economic impact for the local schools. I’m sure a lot of schools can’t host it, but fortunately we are one that can. I am glad they expanded to four venues, though. Geographically, obviously there needs to be four venues. Last year, we were going to travel four-plus hours to either site.”
The GHSA isn’t apologizing for making the move to neutral sites last year. First off, it keeps one team from having that built-in home advantage. But also, many schools aren’t set up to accommodate a championship series based on state requirements for hosting a championship series. Thus, it takes away that potential problem from the start.
“A lot of the campus facilities might seat 500 people, said Ernie Yarbrough, an associate director with the GHSA. “The bigger neutral facilities have more room, people aren’t sitting on top of each other or standing on top of school buses to watch. Plus, there are more restrooms and concessions. While schools like to host, it’s really a job for a lot of them to do so.”
The state did realize, though, that last year’s first go-round with this concept wasn’t without its problems and has tweaked some things in hopes of addressing these issues for this year.
Graduations and weather issues impacted the games last spring, forcing the GHSA to make several changes to the schedule. That is one of the biggest reasons the state has decided to have four host venues this season.
“Having four classifications at each site last year really put a damper on the schedule,” Yarbrough said. “By spreading them out and having four venues in different geographic locations across the state, the weather might impact one location and not the other three.
“Also, last year schools from South Georgia did travel to Rome and North Georgia schools went to Savannah. Spreading out the games will hopefully make travel easier on the schools, and with two classes at each site and two games a day, we can play the games later and hopefully everyone can get out of town and go watch their teams play.”
All finals series are scheduled for Monday, May 21 through Wednesday, May 23. The GHSA hopes moving the games away from the weekend will lessen the chances for conflicts with graduations.
Last year, Grayson Stadium hosted the Class A Private, 2A, 3A and 5A series while State Mutual Stadium held the Class A Public, 4A, 6A and 7A finals.
“We had 3,000-plus both days in Savannah,” Yarbrough said of last year’s attendance. “The weather hurt us in Rome as did not knowing how the 6A semifinals were going to turn out, but the first day we had close to 3,500 people there. No high school stadium would hold that.”
Yarbrough said the state will determine where each classification will play this year after the second round of the state tournaments.
He also added that the GHSA plans to make sure the payouts to each school involved are more evenly distributed. Last spring, those playing in Savannah took home more money than those going to Rome, largely because the cost for the facility use was higher.
Grayson Stadium was originally built in 1926 and has been the home of several minor league teams. Legends of the game such as Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb have all played there.
The stadium is currently the home of the Savannah Bananas of the Coastal Plains League. It’s seating capacity is 4,000, according to the Bananas’ web site.
“I liked the stadium atmosphere,” Glass said. “The grandstands funneled all the noise toward the field. I remember we had to really yell at the kids a few times about what we wanted them to do. It was like what you might get at a football game, not so much a baseball game.”
State Mutual Stadium has been the home of the Rome Braves of the South Atlantic League since it opened in 2003. It seats 5,105 and its field dimensions are similar to Turner Field, the previous home of the Atlanta Braves.
“The stadium was awesome, absolutely,” Brock noted.
Foley Field, home of the Georgia Bulldogs, underwent a $12 million renovation in 2015. The on-campus facility seats 2,780.
Luther Williams Field in Macon is currently getting a face-lift with work scheduled to be completed soon. The historic ballpark which previously was the home of the Macon Braves will now be the home of the Macon Bacon of the Coastal Plains League.
“We met this week with the folks at UGA, and they are excited to have us,” Yarbrough said. “Macon is excited to have us, too.”
The GHSA wants the championship experience to be a memorable one for all involved for all the right reasons.
“We want to provide a great experience for these kids, something they’ll never forget,” Yarbrough said. “Plus, we want it to be a great experience for the fans as well.”