In 2013, the Birmingham Barons will be returning to Birmingham.
The venerable Southern League franchise has played outside of city limits since 1987, operating out of Regions Park in Hoover, Ala. But 2012 will be the team's 25th and final season in that facility, as on Thursday ground was broken on a new stadium in downtown Birmingham.
But though the location is changing, the name remains (almost) the same. The Barons are continuing their partnership with Regions Financial, and as such the new ballpark will be called "Regions Field." Scheduled to open in time for Opening Day 2013, it is situated in Birmingham's Southside neighborhood and adjacent to Railroad Park, a 19-acre public park that kick-started the downtown development project of which the Barons will now play a key role.
"[The ballpark] is by no means the final piece, but it is certainly part of the plan to revitalize downtown Birmingham as an entertainment destination," Barons general manager Jonathan Nelson said. "Not only to visitors but for local folks from all over the metropolitan area."
The stadium has an estimated $64-million price tag, a figure that includes the costs of both construction and land acquisition, and will be funded largely by a 3.5-percent increase in Birmingham's lodging tax. It was designed by HKS architectural firm, with views from the first-base side highlighting the city skyline and those on the third-base side featuring the crests of nearby Red Mountain.
Birmingham is rich in baseball history, having fielded its first professional team in 1885. Reflecting the city's industrial heritage, this team was first known as the "Coal Barons" and played at a ballpark with the inglorious name of "Slag Pile." Various architectural elements within Regions Field will pay tribute to this past, such as an archway over the first-base concourse paying homage to the industrial steel warehouses that were once so prevalent in the area.
Regions Field will also pay homage to Rickwood Field, the Barons home from 1910-86 (the team still plays one game a year at the ballpark, a contest dubbed "The Rickwood Classic"). Nelson notes that Regions Field will include overt nods to Rickwood's classic design (it was itself modeled after Philadelphia's Shibe Park and Pittsburgh's Forbes Field), and plans are in the works to open a museum on the premises paying tribute to Birmingham's Negro League history. The Birmingham Black Barons spent four decades at Rickwood, fielding the likes of Satchel Paige and teenage sensation Willie Mays.
"[Regions Field is] a place where people from all walks will be able to gather to enjoy the best of Birmingham," Birmingham mayor William Bell said at the groundbreaking. "We are excited about the baseball park and Negro League museum that gives both our residents and visitors another world-class venue."
The groundbreaking represented an important step in getting the word out about the Barons' new direction, a process that will continue throughout the year.
"There may be some folks in Hoover who aren't too excited about this, but at the same time this will be the first time that Barons baseball is in a centrally located area. I think that everyone sees the big picture," Nelson said. "While it may not be easy for us to pick up and move, we're all very excited."