Birmingham, Ala., can currently lay claim to a unique distinction, one that is perhaps unprecedented in the annals of baseball history. As the home of both Rickwood Field and Regions Field, the city is in possession of both the oldest and newest ballparks in all of professional baseball.
On the historic end of this ballpark continuum is 103-year-old Rickwood. The ballpark, modeled after Forbes Field, first threw open its doors during the Taft administration and still hosts a full slate of high school and college games as well as the Rickwood Classic. For this annual contest, the Double-A Birmingham Barons return to their former home -- they played there from 1910-1986 -- for an afternoon of old-time baseball. This year's iteration of the Rickwood Classic takes place Wednesday; the team will wear the uniforms of the 1948 Negro League Black Barons, with Ferguson Jenkins on hand as the guest of honor.
But as for the Barons' current home of Regions Field? That's a whole other story. It is less than three miles from Rickwood to Regions, but this short trip bridges the gap between an antiquated industrial past and a still-evolving post-industrial present. Regions Field marks the Barons' return to Birmingham proper after a quarter-century exile in the southern suburb of Hoover, where they played in the similarly-named (but not-at-all similar feeling) Regions Park.
Regions Field was funded largely via an increase in Birmingham's lodging tax and ended up costing approximately $64 million ($42 million in construction costs, the rest for land acquisition). Like many stadiums that have come before -- Durham, Toledo, and Bowling Green being a few of many examples -- it is viewed by the city as an integral piece in a large scale downtown revitalization effort.
As I made that short drive eastward from Rickwood to Regions on a recent afternoon, it 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. Locals may very well have laughed at my inability to secure a spot, but as an out-of-towner I had no idea what I was doing. (Soon I was hit with the feeling that I'd be doomed to spend my evening in some sort of Minor League Twilight Zone, driving within an inescapable circle, the stadium visible all the while.) 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.
But after I walked beneath a faded white bridge, a freight train rumbling overhead, the tone changed considerably. Straight ahead was the towering brick and steel façade of Regions Field, while to my left laid the vast grassy expanse of Railroad Park. The 19-acre park opened in 2010 and features walking trails, playgrounds, gardens and a lake. It was a hubbub of activity -- yoga, sunbathing, Frisbee, jogging -- that set the tone beautifully for Regions Field itself. Just 10 minutes before, I had felt irritated and pessimistic regarding my surroundings, but as I walked toward the stadium -- BIRMINGHAM spelled out in huge letters along the exterior of the first-base side -- it was with a sense of excitement.
Regions Park, designed by the architectural firm HKS, has the amenities one would expect from any new ballpark. There is a 360 degree concourse with abundant concessions (though, unfortunately for pork lovers, a planned Dreamland BBQ stand beyond the outfield berm seating area has not yet materialized on my visit but is opening during the current homestand), spacious kids area, a vivid HD videoboard, a large indoor bar and restaurant for group events and upper level suites that cater to the corporate crowd. Such things are par for the new stadium course these days, and Regions Field does not skimp on the details.
Once inside, I spoke with Barons general manager Jonathan Nelson, who noted that Regions Field is imbued with nods to Birmingham's past. The home plate seating bowl is patterned after Rickwood Field's while the first base concourse is modeled after the steel warehouses that were once so prevalent in the region.
"What ignited all of this is Railroad Park, and it's so important for us to be so close to that," said Nelson. "And there is so much more to come, as this area develops into an entertainment destination. I've been with the team for 20 years, and never have I seen this level of enthusiasm. People are really excited about the Barons being back in Birmingham."
The team's league-leading attendance figures are proof of this sentiment, and on the night (and following afternoon) that I was at Regions Field, the crowds were robust. But true success is measured in years, not weeks. The impressive one-two combo of Regions Field and Railroad Park, in conjunction with smaller entertainment entities such as Good People Brewing Company (located across the street from the stadium), should serve as catalysts for transformation. If so, then Birmingham's current "oldest and newest" stadium boast will transform into something less distinct but far more meaningful. It will simply be a city with two great ballparks, both integral to its character, that together span the gap between centuries.