Southern notes: Keeping Rickwood ticking

Historic park to undergo repairs in effort to revive Classic for '18

Rickwood Field, which opened in 1910, predates Boston's Fenway Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field. (John Shandrick)

By Guy Curtright / Special to MiLB.com | June 15, 2017 10:00 AM ET

The Birmingham Barons have been an unprecedented success at the turnstiles since moving back inside the city limits in 2013, leading the Southern League in attendance each year.

The fans' favorite game and the Barons' most anticipated event isn't held downtown at sparkling new Regions Field, however. Instead, it takes place a few miles west at a baseball relic that was headed for the wrecking ball 25 years ago.

Rickwood Field, which opened in 1910, predates Boston's Fenway Park by two years and Chicago's Wrigley Field by four. That's why it's considered such a treasure and why the Rickwood Classic has been such a popular event since it began in 1996.

"The game connects so many generations," Barons general manager Jonathan Nelson said. "That's what makes it so special. We can't wait to get back there."

A 22nd Rickwood Classic hopefully will be played next season, but it no longer can be called an annual event.

This year's game, scheduled for May 31, had to be canceled when a regular check of the ballpark this spring found safety concerns caused primarily by water damage.

"Like anything more than 100 years old, the ballpark needs special attention and constant care," said David Brewer, director of the Friends of Rickwood. "Safety is the foremost concern."

The City of Birmingham, which owns the ballpark, is continuing inspections, and it will be determined in the next few months what work needs to be done.

"It was very unfortunate that the Rickwood Classic couldn't be played this year, but I'm certainly optimistic for next year," Nelson said. "We should know by the end of the summer."

The nonprofit Friends of Rickwood, which helped save the historic stadium with a fundraising effort after the Barons moved to suburban Hoover in 1987, also is hopeful the ballpark will reopen in 2018.

"I'm confident in the commitment of City Hall to the ballpark and do what is needed to get it reopened," Brewer said. "Rickwood Field means a lot to the people of Birmingham and baseball fans from all over."

According to Birmingham Mayor William Bell, the city is committing as much as $500,000 in bond money for emergency repairs, which is expected to include mainly structural shoring and repairs.

"Rickwood Field is a significant part of the history of Birmingham and of baseball," Bell said in a statement. "We are thankful that we found the problem areas and can work to get them repaired and restored for the next generation of baseball fans."

Even though it had been announced in early April that the Rickwood Classic had been canceled, several dozen fans from out of town showed up on May 31.

"They were definitely disappointed, especially since we couldn't even let them inside to take pictures," Brewer said.

The visitors, though, could attend the game between the Barons and Chattanooga Lookouts that night, a throwback event that had teams wearing period uniforms like they always do for the Rickwood Classic.

The midweek crowd was slightly less than half the record 10,324 that attended the first Rickwood Classic in 1996, but it was still part of another impressive season at the gate for the Barons.

With one series left in the first half, the Barons were averaging a league-best 6,469 per date and -- despite two rainouts -- on pace to challenge the 444,639 they drew in 2015.

Also within potential reach is the Southern League record of 467,867 set by the Barons at Hoover in 1994 when Michael Jordan was the attraction in his one Minor League season.

"We continue to try to raise the bar, not just in attendance but the fan experience," Nelson said.

The cancellation of the 2017 Rickwood Classic was a financial hit for the Friends of Rickwood, which operates the ballpark.

"We annually have 175 events here, including games and tours," Brewer said. "But the Classic is our main fundraiser every year."

The nonprofit opened a GoFundMe page to help with the shortfall, and other donations are coming in.

"We've seen an uptick in individual contributions," Brewer said. "A lot of people care a great deal about preserving this ballpark. It's where Willie Mays first played with the Black Barons and where many other Hall of Famers played for or against the Barons. It's a special place."

In brief

Pitching duel: Neither Pensacola's Tyler Mahle nor Mississippi's Mike Soroka disappointed in their pitching matchup June 10. But neither got a victory, despite scoreless outings, as the pair remained tied for the Southern League lead with seven wins. Mississippi scored all its runs in the ninth inning off SL saves leader Jimmy Herget for a 4-2 victory at Pensacola. Mahle, who struck out nine and gave up five hits in six innings, is 7-2 with a 1.54 ERA. Soroka, who gave up four hits and walked none in seven innings, is 7-3 with a 2.45 ERA. Soroka, 19, is No. 66 among MLB.com's Top 100 prospects and ranks No. 4 for Atlanta. Mahle, 22, in Cincinnati's No. 8 prospect.

Seafood feud: With Pensacola in first place by four games in the South Division going into the final series of the first half, it looked like the Blue Wahoos were aboerut to enjoy a bushel of fresh oysters, courtesy of the Biloxi Shuckers. The Gulf Coast rivals made a bet, with Pensacola agreeing to send 10 pounds of wahoo Biloxi's way if the Shuckers finished first. "As everyone knows, there is nothing better than sitting back and enjoying some oysters on Pensacola Beach," Blue Wahoos president Jonathan Griffith said. "Our front office looks forward to enjoying this gift soon." Pensacola has led or shared the lead in the division for all but six days. The Blue Wahoos, who had tied a team record by winning seven straight series, captured each half last season as well as the second half in 2015.

Rough stretch: Hard-throwing Birmingham right-hander Michael Kopech, who had been dominating Southern League hitters, struggled with his control in his two most recent starts. MLB.com's No. 11 overall prospect allowed five runs in a loss at Tennessee on June 5, then lasted 3 1/3 innings in a no-decision at home on June 11, walking nine over 8 2/3 innings in the two games. Despite the rough stretch, Kopech, 21, was 4-3 with a 2.90 ERA and 83 strikeouts over 62 innings in 12 starts. Opponents were batting .168, but the No. 2 White Sox prospect had issued 40 walks.

Streak snapped: Chattanooga handed Montgomery's Mike Franco his first loss after a 5-0 start, beating the right-hander, 5-4, on June 11. He hadn't gone fewer than five innings or surrendered more than three runs in his previous 11 starts before allowing six hits and five runs in 4 1/3 innings against the Lookouts. Franco, 25, saw his ERA rise from 2.39 to 2.70 in the loss. He was a 2014 seventh-round draft choice by the Rays out of Florida International University.

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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