By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Good-bye, Memorial Gymnasium.
Hello, John Paul Jones Arena.
That switch, like the Cavaliers’ 2009 trip to the College World Series, speaks to how far UVa baseball has come in recent years.
Step Up to the Plate is the program’s signature fundraiser, and for its first seven years, the event was held at Mem Gym, where UVa players, coaches and fans heard such keynote speakers as Terry Francona, Tony LaRussa, Ryne Sandberg and Cal Ripken Jr.
Friday night, the festivities will take place at JPJ.
“We had really outgrown Mem Gym, although it was a great venue for it,” Cavaliers coac Brian O’Connor said Thursday. “It served its purpose, but we got to a point where, in order to fit everybody, the tables had to be so crunched together. We were just limited by space.
“In JPJ, the tables won’t be on top of each other. People will be more comfortable in the room, and I just think with the state-of-the-art audio-visual [capabilities in the arena], it’s going to add a lot to the event.”
The venue isn’t the only thing new this year. With floor seats sold out, general-admission tickets are being offered for the first time. The cost is $20 for adults and $10 for ages 12 and under.
Fans with these tickets will be let in JPJ at 7 p.m. They’ll be able to catch O’Connor’s remarks and those of the main speaker, Dave Winfield, and a limited menu of food and drinks will be on sale at a concession stand.
Floor seats for adults cost $70 apiece, and youth tickets were $35.
“Once we got to a sold-out situation, the idea was brought forth to really provide anyone and everyone an opportunity to come and enjoy the evening,” said O’Connor, who’s in his seventh year at UVa, where his record is 265-104-1.
“To listen to a Hall of Fame speaker of the magnitude of Dave Winfield is an opportunity very few people have. We wanted as many people as possible to have the opportunity to support our program and enjoy the evening.”
Virginia baseball never has been healthier. The Wahoos have made six straight appearances in the NCAA tournament, and they’re coming off a season in they advanced to Omaha, Neb., for the first time in school history. UVa is the ACC’s defending champion and figures to start the season ranked in the top 5 nationally.
Winfield, who played for six major-league teams, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001, his first year of eligibility. He’s now an executive vice president/senior advisor with the San Diego Padres, as well as an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight show.
At the University of Minnesota, Winfield starred in baseball and basketball. He led the Golden Gophers to the College World Series in 1973 and was named the tournament’s MVP for his pitching exploits.
The crowd at Step Up to the Plate is expected to include about 75 former UVa players, O’Connor said. That would be a record for an event whose popularity keeps growing.
“I just think there are so many people that have gone every year,” O’Connor said, “and it’s something that everybody really looks forward to, because it’s such a fun night for everyone.”
Tickets may be purchased by calling (800) 542-8821 until 3 p.m. Friday. They’ll be sold at JPJ’s main entrance starting at 6 p.m. Friday.