Double play baseball in Knoxville makes sense

UT baseball coach Tony Vitello (Andrew Ferguson/UT Athletics)

While SEC Media Days for football are right around the corner in July, our thoughts are always with baseball – and specifically the national pastime in Knoxville.

Tony Vitello, the energetic and dynamic coach of the Vols, has elevated Tennessee baseball to a national spotlight. Sellouts were common at Lindsey Nelson Stadium throughout 2022, and an overhaul of the full facility is on the drawing board with details and renderings HERE.

Meanwhile, in Knoxville, early work is getting underway on the new multi-use stadium site for the movement of water and sewer infrastructure to prepare for the $80.1 million project. As the city pointed out in this News Sentinel story, some of the infrastructure surrounding the stadium site is at least 100 years old, so it’s ready for replacement, especially to handle the thousands of people who will journey to the area for concerts, festivals, soccer and, of course, Minor League Baseball starting in 2025.

The intent of the stadium from the beginning was to be a multi-use venue for other teams, along with performers, bands, community festivals, retreats, special events and holiday parties. One Knoxville SC made its soccer debut in 2022 – and placed first and entered the playoffs in its first year – and will play at the new stadium when it opens. One of the other teams that could take the field could be the Tennessee Volunteers for a special collegiate tournament.

The tournaments are held before NCAA teams get into conference schedules, and the venues often are at off-campus sites. Last March, the Vols played in the Shriners Children’s College Classic at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas, in a field that also included Baylor, LSU, Oklahoma, Texas and UCLA.

“I would love to help host one of those tournaments,” Vitello said last spring. “With the new Smokies Park downtown and Lindsey Nelson Stadium, you could have two tremendous venues in a great city, fairly warm weather. I mean, for February or March, no matter where you go, it’s a little bit of a flip of the coin, but warm enough weather to attract teams to something like that, and have a championship or a final. I think for a lot of reasons, that would be an awesome event.”

A minor league season in Double-A starts in April – teams are still in spring training in Florida or Arizona in March – so a college tournament would not interfere with the Smokies schedule.

The new stadium has a projected completion date of mid-2024 but moving a baseball team mid-season to a new park isn’t practical. The Tennessee Smokies, now playing in Kodak, will become the Knoxville Smokies and intend to open play for the 2025 season.

In the meantime, don’t miss the team this summer and the next two seasons just over the Knox County line. Top prospects are routed through Double-A, and Christopher Morel started the 2022 season in Kodak.

Morel is now in Chicago and not only hit his first Major League career home run on May 17, he did it in his first-ever at-bat for the Cubs. The ball exited Wrigley Field completely and in Morel’s excitement, he had to backpedal and touch first base.

In staying with the Vols theme, the Smokies also will host UT Night on Aug. 27. The players will wear special orange jerseys that will be auctioned as a fundraiser for The Pat Summitt Foundation, and the first 1,000 fans will get a Hendon Hooker bobblehead. Under the new NCAA name, image and likeness (NIL) rules for college athletes, Hooker can be on a bobblehead while still playing at Tennessee.

The post-game fireworks will have a Vol theme, so that has to mean “Rocky Top” booming into the night sky.

A year ago, Vitello was the featured bobblehead at Smokies Stadium. He also threw out the first pitch, posed for photos and signed hundreds of autographs.

Magic happens at the ballpark at every level. Don’t miss it.