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Southern notes: Getting Rickwood ready

Birmingham groundskeeper delights in role in annual Classic
Yermin Mercedes waits on deck during Birmingham's 9-4 loss to Montgomery in the Rickwood Classic. (Michael Wade/Birmingham Barons)
May 30, 2019

Preparing a baseball field for a game is nothing new to Birmingham Barons groundskeeper Zach Van Voorhees. He's been in the business for more than a decade.But Rickwood Field in Birmingham is a different story. It takes a special approach to strike the perfect balance between modern day and old

Preparing a baseball field for a game is nothing new to Birmingham Barons groundskeeper Zach Van Voorhees. He's been in the business for more than a decade.
But Rickwood Field in Birmingham is a different story. It takes a special approach to strike the perfect balance between modern day and old school ahead of the Rickwood Classic, which was played Wednesday afternoon.

The Barons lost, 9-4, to the Montgomery Biscuits in a Southern League showdown celebrating the first-ever game played on the historic field in August 1910 between the Birmingham Coal Barons and the Montgomery Climbers.
"You want the field safe and playable, but you still try to keep the nostalgic feel of what Rickwood Field is," said Van Voorhees, the 2018 Southern League Groundskeeper of the Year.
Rickwood Field was designed in the early 20th century to be the finest Minor League ballpark ever in one of the nation's fastest growing cities at the time. Some of the sport's biggest legends played there, including Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Rogers Hornsby, Satchel Paige and "Shoeless" Joe Jackson.
Current Barons lefty Bernardo Flores a baseball history buff, reflected on being a part of the 23rd installment of the Rickwood Classic on a warm May afternoon in central Alabama.
"To be part of that game, to be part of something special there, it's incredible. No words can really describe what it's like," Flores said. "To me, it's a hallowed ground. There is a lot of mystique and aura about it. History just comes alive when you are at that place. It takes you back in time."

Barons players pose on the dugout before the game. (Michael Wade/Birmingham Barons)
Van Voorhees played a part in making sure the field transported the players and the 7,015 fans in attendance back in time.
A former high school baseball player from eastern North Carolina, Van Voorhees said he and his crew go out to Rickwood about a week before the game to allow for enough time to get everything ready, keeping in mind that he still has Regions Field -- the Barons' regular home -- to take care of. He checks to make sure the mound is at the correct height, that the bases are the right distance from each other and that home plate and the batter's box are squared away.
"Basically, what we try to tackle is making sure the mound is squared up with the plate, that it's the proper distance from the plate and get the slope of the mound close to what it should be," said Van Voorhees, who's in his third year with the Barons. "You also want to make sure the bases are the right distance and in line with the foul pole and the plate. We're also walking the field to make sure there are no divots or holes. The grass kind of is what it is -- it's not really something we can fix overnight. We never want to go over there too early, but you also don't want to go last-minute and put yourself in a bind."
Van Voorhees learned about groundskeeping while helping his high school baseball coach on their home field on weekends and went on to get a turf grass degree from North Carolina State. He said he and his crew spend a day preparing Rickwood Field a week or so out, then arrive early in the morning on game day to look things over one more time.
"We walk the entire field and do our normal game prep, painting the foul lines, get the boxes painted, get the mound and box cleaned off, but still try to keep the nostalgic feel," Van Voorhees said. "The infield is all hand-dragged."

Managers Morgan Ensberg, Omar Vizquel exchange lineups. (Michael Wade/Birmingham Barons)
Van Voorhees said he and his crew could spend even more time getting Rickwood Field ready, but that would take away from what the game is supposed to be about.
"We could spend a week there getting it absolutely pristine, getting it to Minor or Major League standards, but one, we don't have the time because we have work on our own field to do, but we're also trying to keep it nostalgic. Things weren't perfect back in the day. They just played ball out there," he explained.
Flores didn't pitch Wednesday but enjoyed watching the action unfold in a game that will always hold a special place for him.

"It's an incredible feeling that you just don't ever forget," he said. "The field and the game are made to be authentic, as if you're really playing back in that period, and it really does feel that way."
Van Voorhees said the hard work that goes into preparing Rickwood Field is definitely worth it. And since there isn't much to be done during the game or even after it, he and his crew take time to enjoy the moment that comes with one of the Minors' more special events. Like Flores, he easily gets caught up in the history
"I played baseball and have loved the game all my life," Van Voorhees said. "I know about the history of this field, and it's neat to be a part of that history in a small way. I've put in my 2 cents to be a part of it. A lot of work goes into getting the field ready. We're sweating like crazy out there. But as a baseball person, it's worth it."

In brief

Dominant effort: Jackson RHP Sam Lewis was efficient over six innings in Wednesday's doubleheader against Chattanooga, throwing 69 pitches and retiring 16 consecutive batters. He recorded a season-high seven strikeouts, helping the Generals post their eighth shutout of the season.
No doubting Thomas: Biloxi won its fifth straight game Tuesday night, topping Tennessee, 7-1. Dillon Thomas helped lead the way, hitting a two-run double in the first inning to extend his hitting streak to nine games. Thomas is having his most productive season since 2017, when the Rockies' 2011 fourth-round pick reached Triple-A with Albuquerque.

Brian Lester is a contributor to