Southern notes: Rickwood ready for return

Classic making comeback following renovations to historic park

The Barons' four-season affiliation with the Yankees in the 1950s will be remembered this year at Rickwood Field. (John Shandrick)

By Guy Curtright / Special to MiLB.com | May 17, 2018 10:00 AM

Nostalgia is rightfully the focus of the Rickwood Classic, which celebrates Birmingham's rich baseball heritage. Sometimes the game itself is so good, though, that it can't be relegated to second billing.

That was certainly the case in 2011, the 16th year of the throwback event at Rickwood Field, which opened in 1910.

The Birmingham Barons forced extra innings against the Chattanooga Lookouts with a two-out run in the ninth inning and won, 4-3, in the 11th on Justin Greene's homer, touching off a wild home plate celebration that wouldn't have been the norm for most decades when Rickwood was the regular home of the Barons and the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues.

"I've called all the Rickwood Classics and it's the game that stands out," said longtime Barons radio broadcaster Curt Bloom, who is being inducted to the Southern League Hall of Fame this year. "It would be hard to top that."

The Barons and Lookouts will play again at Rickwood Field on May 30 in the 22nd renewal of the game, which unfortunately can no longer be labeled as an annual event.

Structural issues at the ballpark, which predates Boston's Fenway Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field, caused last year's Rickwood Classic to be canceled because of safety concerns and put future games in doubt.

The City of Birmingham, however, funded $1 million in structural repairs for the 10,000-seat grandstand, bringing historic Rickwood Field and the Classic back to life.

"More work will need to be done in a few years, but everything is a go for now, which we are very excited about," said Clarence Watkins, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Rickwood. "This game and this ballpark mean so much. We had to keep it going."

The Barons abandoned a decaying Rickwood Field after the 1988 season for a new ballpark in suburban Hoover, but the Friends of Rickwood began a successful drive to preserve the ballpark, and the dream of an annual Southern League game there was realized in 1996.

Each year, a past season or theme is celebrated and a special guest or two is part of the festivities.

The Barons' four-season affiliation with the New York Yankees in the 1950s will be remembered this year, and former Yankees shortstop Bucky Dent, who played at Rickwood in the 1970s as an opposing Minor Leaguer, is the link to the past.

Baseball celebrities who have previously appeared include Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew, Gaylord Perry, Rollie Fingers and Ferguson Jenkins.

The Barons will wear throwback uniforms, which sometimes have caused early crumbles in the past.

"You hear a few complaints about the flannel being too hot," Bloom said. "But when the players get off the bus and see the ballpark, it is all smiles. They see just how historic this is."

The Barons moved back downtown to new Regions Field in 2013, making the link between Birmingham baseball past and present even stronger.

"We are so excited to return to Rickwood Field for this iconic game," Barons president and general manager Jonathan Nelson said. "Fans travel from all over the nation for the Rickwood Classic, which is a testament to the City of Birmingham's preservation of this historic ballpark."

More than 145,000 fans have attended the game through the years, with the inaugural Classic in 1996 drawing an overflow crowd of 10,324.

General admission tickets for this year's game are $10 and can be purchased at Barons.com. Gates open at 11 a.m. CT and festivities begin at noon before the 12:30 p.m. scheduled first pitch.

With Barons outfielder Eloy Jimenez ranked No. 3 among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects, a future Major League star may be on the field.

Many greats have played at Rickwood Field in its long history, including Alabama native son Willie Mays with the Black Barons.

"Rickwood Field is so full of ghosts, it can be intimidating. It was for me as a broadcaster," Bloom said. "It's a shame that the game couldn't be played last year, but thankfully, it was just a timeout."

In brief

Putting up zeros again: Biloxi right-hander Thomas Jankins bounced back from his only rough outing of the season with seven scoreless innings in a 1-0 win over Pensacola on May 12, improving to 6-1 while lowering his ERA to 3.01. The 2016 13th-round pick out of Quinnipiac University allowed five hits and two walks, striking out eight. Jankins, 22, gave up seven runs over 3 1/3 innings against Montgomery on May 7 but didn't allow a run in half of his other six starts, twice going seven innings. His latest win was the ninth in a row at home for Biloxi, which leads the South Division.

Generals lose their way: The Jackson Generals, who began the season with a 15-2 record, followed a nine-game winning streak in April with a seven-game losing streak in May, falling out of first place in the North Division. Chattanooga took over the top spot with a five-game home sweep of Jackson on May 7-11. The Generals had won the first three games of a home series with the Lookouts in April to cap their winning streak. Jackson ended its skid with a 5-4 home victory over Mississippi on Mother's Day.

Trying to get back on track: Biloxi third baseman Lucas Erceg hasn't been the same hitter since taking a pitch off the batting helmet on April 23. The Brewers' No. 4 prospect missed only two days, but he was hitless in his next three games and his average went from .319 to .217 in the first 18 contests after the beaning, thanks to a 1-for-24 skid. Erceg, 22, was a 2016 second-round pick out of Menlo College and got off to a blazing start in his first taste of Double-A. The left-handed hitter had his average at .362 after a four-hit game with a homer and four RBIs on April 20.

Going through rough times: Mobile infielder Hutton Moyer was placed on the seven-day disabled list May 13 after a stretch that saw the switch-hitter strike out 21 times in nine games. The 25-year-old son of longtime Major League pitcher Jamie Moyer fanned four times in one game and three times in three of the others. The slump dropped Moyers' batting average to .205 after an impressive start in which the Angels' 2016 seventh-round pick out of Pepperdine University hit .295 with five homers and 15 RBIs in his first 12 games.

Guy Curtright is a contributor to MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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