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My latest and therefore greatest ballpark road trip began on June 15th in Birmingham, home of the Barons (Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox). The Barons play at Regions Field, a beautiful and imposing downtown facility that opened in 2013. I visited the ballpark during that inaugural campaign, and one of the biggest differences between then and now – perhaps _the _biggest difference – is the extent to which the skyline behind the ballpark has filled in with new buildings (many of them residential).
Here, for example, is one of the photos I took in 2013:
And here is one I took last Thursday:
As I was searching for the above photo, I found an MiLB.com article I wrote about Regions Field in 2013. Here’s a choice snippet from that piece, regarding the construction of the ballpark as an impetus for downtown development:
[I]t quickly became apparent that there is much to be revitalized. I felt trapped within a maze of detour signs and dead-end roads, and no parking lots were apparent amidst this dusty, pockmarked and altogether unwelcoming landscape. … I eventually found a parking lot located about a fifth of a mile from the stadium -- how had I missed it? -- and from my car to Regions Field, the sights included weed-strewn vacant lots, decaying factories and the surreal sight of a team bus parked beside an abandoned house.
This description no longer applies, to put it mildly. While there are debates to be had about new ballparks, how they are funded and how beneficial they are to their communities, it is apparent that Regions Field has had an impact.
Before heading to Regions Field, I visited one of the newer additions to the area: The Negro Southern League Museum (NSLM), the rear of which is just steps away from Regions Field’s left-field concourse.
The Negro Southern League, influential and wide-reaching, operated from 1920-51. The NSLM explores the circuit’s history and impact, with an emphasis on the Birmingham Black Barons as well as the city’s highly competitive industrial league teams.
It is small but well curated and thoughtfully presented, and I really enjoyed speaking with museum director Frank Adams, Jr. about how it came together as well as his plans for the future. (It should go without saying, but, yes, an article is forthcoming.)
Satchel Paige was an Alabama native, and he pitched for the Birmingham Black Barons (among many, many other teams). One of the coolest things at the Negro Southern League Museum is a display that allows you to choose one of his idiosyncratic offerings -- the Midnight Rider and the Hesitation Pitch among them -- and then stand at home plate as (an actor playing) Paige delivers the pitch in question via lights on the floor that illuminate the path of the ball.
Rickwood Field is a constant presence at the Negro Southern League Museum, and how could it not be? The Black Barons played there, chief among them a 17-year-old Willie Mays in 1948. Rickwood Field opened in 1910 and hosted the Barons through the 1986 season; it is now recognized as “the oldest ballpark in America” and, considering that designation, is in remarkably good shape. An organization called Friends of Rickwood deserves much of the credit for that, having worked for decades to preserve it.
Rickwood Field is open to the public, so I had no choice but to stop by on Friday morning before heading to Montgomery.
This is the view from the cozy subterranean first-base dugout…
…and this is me, feeling contemplative while sitting in said dugout (or at least as contemplative as one can be while taking a selfie for social media and newsletter purposes).
Finally, here’s the Rickwood Field scoreboard. I wonder who won that game between Little Rock and Atlanta?
From 1996-2019 the Barons returned to their old home for the Rickwood Classic, in which they and their opponent donned period uniforms for a nostalgia-drenched Southern League matinee. I attended in 2010, when the ballpark was celebrating its centennial and Harmon Killebrew was the guest of honor.
The Barons’ Rickwood Classic concept is now being taken to a whole new level: On Tuesday, Major League Baseball announced that Rickwood Field will be the location of a 2024 Major League game featuring the St. Louis Cardinals and Willie Mays’ San Francisco Giants, as well as a Minor League game between the Barons and the Montgomery Biscuits. This, of course, is amazing news, as it will expose Rickwood Field and its charms and historical importance to a massive audience, while also resulting in myriad upgrades that will ensure its viability for a long time to come.
The most famous baseball player to have called Birmingham home did not play at Rickwood Field, nor did he play at Regions Field. The Barons competed at suburban Hoover Metropolitan Stadium from 1987-2012, and in 1994 they featured none other than Michael Jordan. You’ve probably heard about this.
Jordan is recognized at Regions Field via a large banner hanging in the concourse.
The Barons’ broadcaster during that memorable 1994 season was Curt Bloom, and 29 years later he’s still with the team. I enjoyed talking to Curt -- a self-effacing yet enthusiastic individual -- about that season and, of course, much more (once again, stay tuned for an article.)
As for the remainder of my evening at Regions Field, it was a pleasant and nicely-paced Thirsty Thursday. “The vibes,” as the kids would say, “were good.”
While I did not have a Designated Eater in Birmingham, I did purchase a Magic City Dog for an individual who wishes to remain anonymous. The Magic City Dog is a smoked sausage from local Dreamland BBQ, topped with coleslaw, spicy mustard and barbecue sauce. “It’s delicious,” the anonymous individual told me.
The Barons lost to the visiting Tennessee Smokies, which was bad news for Birmingham boosters but good news for Smokies broadcaster Mick Gillispie. I spent an inning on the air with him before the evening was through.
And when the evening was through, I went back outside and once again found myself struck by the Regions Field exterior. It’s gleaming. It’s grandiose. And, like so many things, it’s better at night.
This missive appears to have gone long, and I still have so much to share. I really wish someone would cut me off before I go any fur-
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.