Little did I know when I moved to Atlanta in 2008 that a retro baseball oasis was just two hours away in Birmingham, Alabama. On June 2nd, 2010, the Birmingham Barons and Tennessee Smokies matched up for a game at Rickwood Field to honor its 100th year of having professional baseball played at the stadium. This stadium is the oldest professional stadium, older than both Fenway Park and Wrigley Field with a similar rich history. Far away from manufactured crowd noise, sausage races and peanut butter jelly time, 9,400 fans took a mid-week afternoon to take in a baseball game.
Walking through the parking lot, my Connecticut license plate was a badge of honor shared by many other out of state cars that day. Truly, people came from all over for this game and once inside the gate, it was incredibly obvious as to why this was. A retro-styled game program was available at the gate, there were hundreds of people in the concourse trying to garner refreshments from the 95 degree heat from the lone concession stand behind home plate and people with cameras were walking around, taking pictures of the memories of years past.
For me, I was taking in what it is like to be at a stadium again with people that were there for baseball and the love of the sport. The love of baseball was something all 9,400 people had in common this afternoon in June and as such it was so easy to strike up conversation. The usher that I asked where my seat was told me that it was on the other side of the stadium, but to instead sit in his section right behind home plate because it was prime real estate for real baseball fans. Then we launched into a conversation about how he used to play on this field and now has coached his sons to championship games at Rickwood. There were a group of three female retirees’ standing in line waiting for Harmon Killebrew’s autograph that drove hours just to meet the legendary Twins player, all of whom were so interested to hear my story. Or the many people that were responsible for putting on this event (the Friends of Rickwood) that were thrilled to talk about their stadium.
The game itself was the star of the show, as intended by the Friends of Rickwood. Rather than the modern day family entertainment that comes at ballparks designed to keep all members of a family engaged and entertained, the main course at this game was baseball with a side of history. In the ballpark’s 100th season, both teams turned back the clock to 1910 with uniforms from that year. Instead of the party music played between innings of today’s ballparks, Rickwood had a jazz band play between innings or if they needed a break, old swing music that could have very well have been played from a phonograph. “Take Me Out to The Ballgame” during the 7th inning stretch was perhaps more sonorous with a crowd of 9,400 people than the 53,000 that were at Braves Opening Day this spring.
Walking out the gate at the end of the day, it did not matter to me who won the game; it was the baseball experience of a lifetime. It brought me back to my first time at Fenway Park in 1998; nothing but an organist and baseball taking me through my very first MLB game, effectively starting the obsession that has guided my career and many life altering choices. Rickwood rejuvenated my inner baseball fan, because for these four hours, I was not paying attention to OBP, OPS, WHIP, VORP – I was paying attention to baseball and it still is as beautiful as I remember.