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Major Sports Figures Linked to Negro Leagues Tribute at Historic Rickwood Field in Birmingham

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By Joseph Goodman | jgoodman@al.com

This is an opinion column.

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The latest development around MLB’s game at Rickwood Field is that major sports figures are expected to help the city celebrate its historic event.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Colorado football coach Deion Sanders and home run king Barry Bonds, the godson of Willie Mays, are some of the names being attached to the three-day party of baseball and Birmingham, according to Friends of Rickwood president Gerald Watkins. More A-listers will be added to the list as the date approaches. From the sound of it, MLB’s celebration of the Negro Leagues and Black baseball around Juneteenth is getting so big that even celebrities might have trouble finding a ticket to the game.

The San Francisco Giants are playing the St. Louis Cardinals at Birmingham’s Rickwood Field on Thursday, June 20. The game is being called MLB at Rickwood Field: A tribute to the Negro Leagues. From an event standpoint, I’m told that Major League Baseball is treating it like the MLB All-Star Game. The Rickwood Classic featuring the Birmingham Barons will be at Rickwood on Tuesday, June 18. On June 19, a celebrity softball game featuring stars like Mahomes, Coach Prime and Bonds will be hosted by MLB. It’s all build-up for the game between the Giants and the Cardinals.

The Giants will wear San Francisco Sea Lions uniforms and the Cardinals will wear St. Louis Stars unis. The Sea Lions played in the West Coast Negro Baseball League in 1946. The Stars played in the Negro National League from 1920 to 1931. The Birmingham Black Barons, Willie Mays’ team, will be incorporated throughout the multi-day event. The Black Barons operated from 1920 to 1960 and played in the Negro National League, Negro Southern League and, finally, the Negro American League.

MLB is expecting MLB at Rickwood Field to be a major television event. I’m told that the projected TV ratings are higher than any other regular-season game and most of the playoffs. The Negro Leagues deserves that spotlight, and I couldn’t be more excited for the city to host such a groundbreaking endeavor for Major League Baseball.

The Black Barons’ old home is getting a massive upgrade for the game. The playing surface, dugouts and outfield wall at Rickwood are currently under construction. Two feet of dirt was removed from the entire field to build a MLB-grade baseball diamond. Dugouts have been extended by 70 feet. The city’s price tag, I’m told, is up to $6 million due to cost overruns.

It’s all worth it and then some. MLB at Rickwood will be the biggest sporting event in Birmingham since Olympic soccer sold out Legion Field in 1996. The importance of the game will far exceed the Olympics, though, and could have a long-term impact for the city similar to the Iron Bowl and Magic City Classic.

Birmingham might never have another major league baseball team, but it could host a game for Major League Baseball annually if the city and its advocates continue working together in support of MLB at Rickwood Field. MLB isn’t making any promises, but has indicated to those close to the project that if the stadium and field are maintained throughout the year that MLB at Rickwood could become a new tradition for the game of baseball.

Good news, the city and its friends are getting things right and momentum is building around a touchstone event for Major League Baseball that promotes Birmingham, the history of the Negro Leagues and, hopefully, a renaissance of Black baseball in America. It only makes sense to play the game every year. Rickwood is the oldest professional ballpark in the country and Birmingham is the celebrated epicenter of the Civil Rights movement.

People say that Birmingham was never a major league pro town. That’s not true. Birmingham was a major league pro town thanks to the Birmingham Black Barons. The city’s history of Black baseball is rich and inspiring and has an important story to tell. With the right vision, this new partnership between Rickwood and Major League Baseball has the potential to permanently elevate Birmingham’s status and unlock new growth.

I’m told that things are developing quickly around the game and changing daily. Tickets are going to be based on a lottery, but it’s unclear how many of the 8,500 seats are actually going to be available to the public. My guess is not many. MLB at Rickwood is going to be a star-studded event for Birmingham like the city has never seen.

Everyone in the city or anyone who cares about the future of Birmingham needs to understand what’s at stake here and what this moment means. Simply put, this is a once in forever opportunity for Birmingham to impress MLB so thoroughly that the officials who are taking a chance on the city want to come back every year.

The city cannot afford to mess this up like it did the last time MLB tried to create a footprint in town. We all remember bitterly what happened between the city council and MLB when MLB officials wanted to build a training center for children at George Ward Park. The city council ruined the deal when it caved to a misinformed voter coalition led by out-of-loop frisbee golfers.

If it sounds insanely awful and ridiculous that’s because it was. Most of those frisbee-golf freeloaders didn’t even live in the city either.

MLB at Rickwood is turning into a signature moment of celebration for Black history on a national scale. It’s time for Birmingham to deliver a massive win, shake off its inferiority complex, squash the small-town politics and become a major league town once again.

SOUND OFF

Got a question about MLB at Rickwood, college football, basketball or sports in general? Want to get something off your chest? Send Joe a question about what’s on your mind for his Friday mailbag. Ask him anything.

Joseph Goodman is the lead sports columnist for the Alabama Media Group, and author of the signature book about Nick Saban’s reign at Alabama, “We Want Bama”. It’s a love story about wild times, togetherness and rum.