If you’ve visited this site more than a few times you know I have a thing for sports history, sports milestones, and personal history vis-à-vis sports milestones.
#OTD is my favorite hashtag, and I’m always looking for a cool sports nugget.
So when I glanced at the calendar and eyed April 14, today’s column was an easy choice. On this date in 1981 the new Birmingham Barons made their Rickwood Field debut a successful one, edging the Jacksonville Suns, 6-5, thanks to a pair of Mike Laga home runs.
The franchise formally known as the Montgomery Rebels moved to Birmingham after 16 seasons in Alabama’s state capital (the original Barons played from 1892-1901 and there was another incarnation before the latest), and the rechristening was a banner day for me.
It was the first minor league baseball game I’d ever attended, and as one of 9,185 fans taking in the Southern League clash, I was part of Rickwood’s largest crowd since 1950.
Built in 1910, the facility was already ancient by then but it still seemed perfect to me. The design, the colors … everything about it felt like the way I thought baseball should feel. It was actually my third trip to Rickwood (I had played a youth football game there in 1971, and in 1975 went to an exhibition game between the Oakland A’s and old Birmingham A’s that was canceled when lightning knocked out a bank of lights) but the first time I’d spent an entire evening as a spectator.
And while my previous relationship with baseball had been mostly casual, being part of a near-capacity crowd and seeing great young players up close was a game-changer for me.
With Birmingham’s two World Football League teams now long gone and the Birmingham Bulls hockey franchise folding in February of 1981, this was my new pro sports focus in the Magic City.
That season I got to meet the team owner – the late, great Art Clarkson – who used to call me up years later during my stint at the Birmingham Post-Herald just to talk about the WFL (he had worked for the Southern California Sun and Memphis Southmen). I also literally ran into Ted Giannoulas (aka The San Diego Chicken, The Famous Chicken and The Chicken) while making a beer run. I shook his hand after the collision and he made it back to the field with his feathers barely ruffled.
During the 1983 season – a year the Barons won 91 contests and claimed the Southern League championship – I attended at least one game during every home stand. Looking back, I think it’s safe to say I’d never been a bigger baseball fan that I was that year, and it was all because of my town’s minor league club.
I have no idea how many Barons games I’ve been to since their return, but I’m guessing I’ve probably watched them play more times than any other Birmingham-based pro sports franchise combined.
I followed them when they moved out of Rickwood and into the fancy new Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in 1988, even though driving to games was much less enjoyable because of the traffic snarls heading into and out of the Birmingham suburb.
The venue had healthy crowds in 1994 when Michael Jordan temporarily traded in his status as a basketball legend for that of a baseball rookie, but the team had a losing record and Jordan batted .202, so it was an unsatisfying year from a results standpoint.
The Barons’ new home at Regions Field opened in 2013, seven years after I’d moved away from Birmingham. I finally got to see the Barons again in 2019 on a trip back home, immediately falling in love with the gorgeous digs and realizing how much I missed rooting for the home team in person.
When I started cheering for the Barons they were affiliates of the Detroit Tigers, and that lasted from 1981 to 1985. Since then, they’ve served as an AA pipeline to the Chicago White Sox.
Those are two clubs I’ve never cheered for (I favor the New York Yankees in the American League and Chicago Cubs in the National), but still have an interest in former Barons.
I guess I always will.
And once I get back to Birmingham – something I hope happens sooner than later – a springtime trip to Regions Field will be a priority. After 40 years, I have a lot invested in the club.