Rickwood Classic: Minor League Baseball at Its Best

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After seeing the Birmingham Barons play the Jacksonville Suns in the annual Rickwood Classic Thursday, I'm convinced I've reached the pinnacle of farm league baseball experiences.

I'm a big minor league baseball fan, so I'm fortunate to travel on assignment often to North Carolina, which boasts a healthy batch of teams and ballparks.  And I've lived in Birmingham almost 10 years, so I've seen more than a few Barons games out at their home field, Regions Park.  But nothing touches the authenticity of Rickwood Field, the oldest ballpark in America.  The game counted in the Southern League race (Suns won 4-2), and each team wore throwback uniforms.  Even the umps went vintage, with bowties and the clipped-brim hats you only see on Norman Rockwell paintings.

Assistant Travel Editor Taylor Bruce and I snagged some media credentials just so we could get a little more behind-the-scenes. 

Here are some of my impressions: 

Sittin' With Sap

 Sapsigning

One of the most special aspects of the annual game is how it honors the Birmingham Black Barons, the Negro League team that played on this field from 1920 to 1960.  (Notable Birmingham players include Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Lorenzo "Piper" Davis, and famous country singer Charley Pride.)

"Sap" Ivory (real name James, but no one calls him that) was signing autographs when I met him.  He played first base for the team from 1958-1960 and joined a long list of Negro League players known best by their nicknames.

(James "Cool Papa" Bell, Leroy "Toots" Ferrell, Harold "Bee Bop" Gordon, and Harry "Suitcase" Simpson, just to list a few)

I asked him how he came by Sap.  "I was raised up not too far from here," he said.  "It was during the War, and the men would talk about Pearl Harbor. A lot of airplanes came over my house when I was a kid, and I would yell 'There goes the Saps!'  I thought that's what they were calling them."

He still hasn't shaken it.  In fact, they call his son Lil' Sap.

No Clapping in the Press Box

I'm a travel writer; not a sports writer.  So as I settled into a slot in the press box, I felt like a lad at Thanksgiving who had graduated too early from the kiddie table.  I faced my insecurity head-on, though, flipped open my laptop, and started clacking away like a pro.  Of course, no one knew I was typing nonsensical letter groupings and sentence fragments.

(Cribbed straight from my notes: "spxox Low roof green fence 399")

I was totally Fonzey-cool, until the bottom of the first when the Barons' Javier Castillo cranked a two-run shot WAY over the left field wall.  The fans were going nuts, high-fiving in the stands below.  Moms were kissing babies.  Kids jumping up and down spilling their sodas.  And there I was in the box, clapping away and yelling a Ric Flair-style "Whoo!"

It was the only sound in the room.

Apparently, I had forgotten that there's a certain objective integrity among sports journalists.  Sure, everybody's a fan and has favorites, but when you're covering a game, you're really covering a game.  Reporting all sides.  Not hollerin' like you ain't been there before. 

Running the Bases

After the last out, all the fans–especially the kids–were invited to jump onto the field.  Some played catch with their friends or their parents.  And a lot of kids lined up at home plate, flying as fast as they could until they had touched all the bags.

 Runningbases

Even the advertising is retro…

Outfield Advertisements

Vintage signs from ads past–remember Burma Shave?–line the outfield fence and strengthen Rickwood Field's ambience.

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