21st of Apr | Story

Going back to Birmingham


HOOVER, Alabama | The Barons, who have been symbolic with Birmingham baseball since 1885, are retuning to the heart of the city.

Pulling a page from playbooks in Montgomery, Memphis and Fort Wayne, the Barons are moving to a downtown stadium next year. For the last 25 years, the team has played at Regions Park in Hoover, Alabama. Stadium Trace Parkway, tree-lined and curvy, leads fans to a massive parking lot and a 10,800-seat stadium. But these days it’s too big and too far.

“For years, we had a lot of great teams, great players, very well supported – continue to be a well supported team – but also over the years, this sort of became a little more distant from the other communities,” says general manager Jonathan Nelson. “Where we are, technically southwest of the city of Birmingham, it’s not really convenient for a lot of fans across the metro area.”

"We want to be something new, vibrant, refreshing, something people find very attractive." - Jonathan Nelson

Nelson has been with the Barons for 19 seasons. He was there for The Michael Jordan Era. He’s seen the team win two Southern League championships. A new stadium trumps all that.

“It was the most exciting thing I ever heard in regards to being with the Barons because I knew this would be something so new, so fresh, so great for the community, and obviously for our organization as well,” he says.

About three years ago, officials from a local company called Corporate Realty Development approached the Barons’ ownership group about brining the team back to the city. Now an estimated $65 million stadium is being built and is expected to be complete for the 2013 season.

The new ballpark will have about 8,500 seats and, hoping to attract the business crowd, it will have more suites.

“For years, I’ve always been told by businesses, ‘You know we don’t want to come down there because it’s just too far away,’” Nelson says. “We’ve gone back to those same folks and now they’re buying season tickets, and they’re receptive and supportive and looking forward to us moving back downtown.”

The stadium is situated on a four-block site across from Railroad Park, 19 acres of green space. The first-base concourse is being designed after an industrial steel mill warehouse, which is a common look in the downtown landscape. The roofline is similar to Rickwood Field, the oldest baseball stadium in the country and the Barons’ home until they moved to Hoover. Other features include a wraparound concourse, a smaller seating bowl, a club lounge and an ice cream shop that can be accessed from inside and outside the park.

“This is a whole new ballgame,” Nelson says. “We went to Memphis last year, and what you find with a lot of different urban ballparks is it’s part of the community. It’s not just open from 6 to 11 for ballgames. It’s a central part of the community.”

Nelson expects about 70 percent of the 1,500 season-ticket holders to purchase the package next season, and he expects that number will be supplemented by new purchases because of the move.

He’s already working on promotions for next year and his staff doesn’t expect much of an off-season.

“We don’t want to recreate the wheel going downtown, but at the same time we want to be something new, vibrant, refreshing, something people find very attractive,” he says. “We owe it to our season-ticket holders, sponsors, to this community, to really dial it up a notch.”

Time for minor league trivia. One of the bigger names to ever play for the Barons was Michael Jordan, who batted .202 with three home runs, 51 RBI and 30 steals for Birmingham in 1994. What future World Series champion managed the team that season? (And, a bonus, what other two-sport athlete led the Southern League that season with 87 RBI?)

The Birmingham Barons were shut out at home in a pitchers’ duel that went to the Mississippi Braves with a 1-0 win. Barons starting pitcher Jose Quintana had a strong outing, striking out seven over seven innings and allowing one earned run and five hits. But Braves starter Zeke Spruill was somehow even better. He allowed no runs, three hits and struck out seven in seven innings. The relief pitchers for both teams held their opponents hitless.

So what happens to a stadium once its team moves out? Well, Regions Park won’t sit empty. The Southeastern Conference has hosted its baseball tournament at the stadium for more than a decade. The venue is also used for other sporting events like football and volleyball. Oddly enough, the stadium has an RV park with spaces available to rent year-round. Apparently it’s convenient for tailgaters.

Want the answer(s)? Terry Francona managed the 1994 Barons — his third season as a manager in the minors and, at 65-74, his first losing record. And the league RBI leader that season? That would be Chris Weinke, who went on to win the 2000 Heisman Trophy after quarterbacking Florida State to the national championship game.

And in random statistical news, the game started on time (just the second time this season in our first 16 games), the first pitch was a strike, the first batter grounded out to third and a talented young woman sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1 minute, 37.3 seconds. Also, we didn't eat any hot dogs, but we did nullify all our previous weight loss by eating ice cream on a brownie. Covered with crushed Butterfingers. And chocolate sauce.

Carolyn@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @CarolynLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason 


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