A Minor League Baseball road trip through Alabama

People who enjoy baseball, and especially Minor League Baseball, regularly plan their summer vacations around visiting ballparks.  These trips are often based around individual goals, whether it’s to visit new states or new ballparks or to watch top prospects or even the most ambitious goal of seeing all 159 active, affiliated Minor League baseball stadiums.

With good timing, visiting all of the Minor League ballparks in Alabama can be done in a matter of four days.  I undertook this adventure earlier this summer with my wife Katie.

THE BASICS
Currently, Alabama has three Minor League Baseball teams: Birmingham Barons, Mobile BayBears, and Montgomery Biscuits.  From north-to-south, the drive from Birmingham to Mobile is about four hours (266 miles).  The drive between Mobile and Montgomery is about two-and-a-half hours (172 miles), and the drive from Montgomery to Birmingham is about one-and-a-half hours (90 miles).  So for any baseball fan, this is a really easy drive whether you start in Alabama or begin your trip in a neighboring state.

THE PLANNING
Planning this trip is a bit more difficult because a few years ago the Southern League, the Double-A league all three Alabama teams play in, switched from the traditional structure of three-game series to five-game series.  So when one of the Alabama teams hosts another team from the state it can be difficult to visit all three ballparks in quick succession.  Everybody has their own method for organizing schedules to create travel plans.  I am a BIG fan of putting everything into an Excel spreadsheet so I can look at what teams are at home side-by-side.

A spreadsheet showing home games for the three Minor League teams in Alabama for the end of May.

I was fortunate that my goal of seeing all three teams play at home came together over Memorial Day weekend.  Once the dates were settled, then I started working on planning hotels in each of the cities and what other sights my wife Katie and I could see along the way.

PLAY BALL!
As we lived in Tuscaloosa when planning the trip, we headed south to Mobile and worked our way north to see each of the teams.  Due to the Southern League having an off-day on Monday, May 28 (Memorial Day), we were unable to see all three teams on consecutive nights.  However, if schedules align it is quite feasible.  So instead of trying to cram three ballparks into consecutive nights, we added a few extras days to spend in Mobile, Gulf Shores and Montgomery.

GAME ONE: MOBILE BAYBEARS
We visited two breweries (Fairhope Brewing Co. and Serda Brewing Co.) and checked into our hotel in downtown Mobile before heading to Hank Aaron Stadium west of downtown near the junction of Interstate 10 and Interstate 65.  I had previously attended a Mobile BayBears game in 2015, but this was Katie’s first visit to the stadium.

The entrance to Hank Aaron Stadium, home of the Mobile BayBears.

The stadium is located on reclaimed marsh land and is surrounded by a variety of shopping plazas, so there are plenty of parking spots at the ballpark that opened in 1997.  The stadium is named after Mobile-native and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, but a plaque outside the park honors all of the city’s native sons who have been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  The plaque notes that Satchel Paige (Class of 1971, Willie McCovey (Class of 1986), Billy Williams (Class of 1987), and Ozzie Smith (Class of 2002) are also enshrined at Cooperstown alongside Aaron (Class of 1982).

After walking under the gate that proclaim “Hank Aaron Stadium,” fans are immediately greeted with a dose of the team’s history.

The gate to Hank Aaron Stadium.

Many fans may overlook the BayBears Hall of Fame because it is on the left-hand side of the entrance to the ballpark, but it is worth checking out in addition to the banners highlighting former players who have achieved notable levels of success in Major League Baseball.

The stadium has a unique design because the luxury suites are not elevated, as they are at most ballparks.  Instead, the luxury boxes are on the field level and infield seating for the general public is elevated about 20-feet above the field.  So the view for spectators is quite different from what fans experience at other baseball games.  With luxury suites underneath the general seating area, concession stands face the luxury suites.

A view of a concession stand at the Mobile BayBears stadium.

Each concession stand carries the same items, so fans don’t have to go in search of specialty items available at only one stand (as can be the case at some Minor League stadiums).  Fans will find all the typical ballpark items at the concession stands ranging from sunflower seeds and peanuts to hot dogs and hamburgers.  The most unique items with local connections are a foot-long Conecuh sausage and Conecuh jambalaya.  As I had ordered the Conecuh sausage on my previous visit, I opted for the jambalaya.

A view of the jambalaya at Hank Aaron Stadium.

The best sight lines in the stadium are in Sections 106 or 107, which are immediately behind home plate in the seating bowl above the luxury suites.  My seats down the first base line were enjoyable, but the view of home plate was cut off by the luxury suites.  So my recommendation for buying seats would be to find something in either 106 or 107, assuming you actually want to watch the game action.

A view of game action from the first base line.

There are a lot of reasons to attend a Minor League Baseball game, and attending a game at Hank Aaron Stadium offers a particularly unique reason.

A view of the Hank Aaron Childhood Home & Museum on the grounds of the Mobile BayBears stadium.

In 2010, the City of Mobile relocated the childhood home of Hall of Famer Hank Aaron to the ballpark’s site and restored it as a museum (read more here).  Visiting Aaron’s childhood home and museum should be on the must-see list for any baseball fan.  The museum is open to visitors Monday through Friday on non-gamedays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Admission costs $5 for adults, and $12 for children under 12 years-old.  However, the museum is open during ALL games and admission is free.

Final: Biloxi 3, Mobile 11
Box Score

GAME TWO: MONTGOMERY BISCUITS
After seeing some sights in Mobile, Katie and I headed to Montgomery for the second game of our road trip.  Due to the Southern League’s schedule, we would not get to watch a baseball game until Tuesday evening.  So we enjoyed a couple of days in town seeing some of the city’s historic sights, and some of its newer sights.

Montgomery had a long history of supporting Minor League teams before the Biscuits arrived in 2004, but the last affiliated team to call the city home, the Southern League’s Montgomery Rebels, left in 1980.  So a downtown ballpark built that incorporated part of an old train shed was welcomed by the community.

An overview of the former train shed and entrance to Riverwalk Stadium.

The downtown location of Riverwalk Stadium means there is limited parking, but it is great if you’re visiting from out-of-town.  Depending where you stay in downtown, walking to the ballpark takes between five and ten minutes.  If you aren’t staying in downtown there is parking on streets around the stadium, but there is are dedicated surface parking lots explicitly for the stadium.

When Katie and I arrived the team’s mascot, Big Mo, was just inside the gate greeting fans.  So we quickly stopped to get our photo with him.

My wife Katie and I with Montgomery Biscuits mascot Big Mo.

Big Mo may look like an aardvark or anteater or some other real or imagined animal, but he is NONE of these.  The Biscuits call him simply, “A Biscuit Lovin’ Beast.”

Regarding biscuits there is NEVER a problem finding them at the park because there is a portable concession stand right behind home plate that sells biscuits, of course!

A concession stand selling solely biscuits, of course!

Maybe if for some unbelievable reason a fan doesn’t like eating biscuits, but instead wants to wear some biscuit paraphernalia then the team store is the place to go.

A view of special Greenbow Biscuits gear available at the Montgomery Biscuits team store.

On the night I visited, I found some special “Greenbow Biscuits” gear for sale.  The team did a special promotion and renamed themselves the “Greenbow Biscuits” in honor of the fictional hometown of Forrest Gump.  However, I was more impressed by the biscuit-shaped “hat” you could purchase that was on display next to the Greenbow Biscuits jerseys.  Naturally, there is a LOT of other team gear available in the store, too.

Like most Minor League baseball stadiums built since 2000, visitors to Riverwalk Stadium enter on the main level and walk down to the seating bowl.  The concourse wraps around the ballpark, so Katie and I explored a bit before settling in to watch some of the game.  The concession stands offer a variety of food options from the common ballpark fare like hot dogs and chicken tenders to the more unique like chicken wings (a special on Tuesday nights) and, of course, biscuits.

We didn’t get food on our first trip around the ballpark, but did find a great selection of craft beers.  Down the right field line there is a bar with a large entertainment stage.  The Club Car Bar is a full-service bar that offers liquor drinks and wine in addition to beer.  There are over a dozen beers on draft in addition to several in cans and bottles.  There is a solid representation of Alabama craft beers as well with brews from Fairhope Brewing, Ghost Train Brewing, Back Forty Beer, and Goat Island Brewing on draft when we visited.

A portable stand by home plate also had a solid selection of craft beers with offerings from Alabama breweries like Back Forty, Fairhope, Folklore Brewing, Ghost Train, and Goat Island.  Seeing these selections shows how much the craft beer industry has grown in Alabama over the past five years, as beer drinkers can support local breweries at the ballpark.

After picking up a beer at the Club Car Bar, Katie and I took our seats behind home plate and settled in to watch some of the game.

A view of the field at Riverwalk Stadium from behind home plate.

The design of the stadium is conducive to great sight lines everywhere, but it is particularly fun watching the trains pass by left field wall.  The luxury suites are elevated above the seating bowl with six built into the old train shed and the remainder in a newer structure down the third base line.

Like my previous visit to Riverwalk Stadium in 2012 (read it here), it was a great time at the park.  The stadium is beautiful with a great downtown location that makes it easily accessible to local fans and visitors alike.  The promotions are unique, and fun.  The food and beverage choices are diverse, and most importantly reflect location connections and options.

Final: Jackson 6, Montgomery 3
Box Score

GAME THREE: BIRMINGHAM BARONS
If you ask baseball fans what’s the oldest stadium in America many of them are likely to say either Fenway Park in Boston or Wrigley Field in Chicago, and both answers would be wrong.  The oldest professional ballpark in the United States is Rickwood Field in the West End neighborhood of Birmingham, Ala.  It opened in 1910, two years before Fenway and four years before Wrigley.

Despite being the old professional baseball stadium in America, Rickwood Field hasn’t hosted a regular tenant since 1987 when the Birmingham Barons relocated to suburban Hoover.  However, since 1996 the Barons and Friends of Rickwood have hosted a throwback game at the stadium.  The game usually takes places during the Barons’ first homestand in late May or early June immediately after Memorial Day weekend.  I previously attended the 20th Rickwood Classic in 2015, but Katie badly wanted to attend the game so it was incorporated into our road trip plans.

Really ambitious baseball fans can attend a Barons’ game at Regions Field, which opened in 2013, in downtown Birmingham, and attend the Rickwood Classic on consecutive days.  Usually the Barons’ schedule has them hosting a game at Regions Field the day and after the Rickwood Classic, so it is possible to see all four Minor League ballparks in Alabama within a relatively short time frame.

Stories say that Rick Woodward, who owned the Birmingham Coal Barons in the early 1900s, used Philadelphia’s Shibe Park and Pittsburgh’s Forbes Fields as the models for his new ballpark.

My wife Katie and I in front of Rickwood Field.

Attending the Rickwood Classic is really like attending a game from another era.  The starting lineups are written in chalk on a board shortly after entering the park.

The lineup for the 2018 Rickwood Classic between the visiting Chattanooga Lookouts and host Birmingham Barons.

Beyond the chalk-written lineups, the game lacks many of the elements of a modern Minor League game.  There are no promotional contests between innings and no walk-up music for batters or music between innings.  The only music is played by a live band behind home plate that plays music fitting each year’s theme.  The 2018 Classic celebrated the “Fabulous Fifties” when the Barons were affiliated with the New York Yankees (1953-56).

The game usually starts at 12:30 p.m. with gates opening at eleven o’clock, so visitors are provided ample time to wander around the ballpark and bask in its history.  It is been painstakingly restored, including the manually-operated scoreboard in left field and the advertisements on the outfield walls that feature vintage-style ads of current companies and one dedicated to Woodward Iron Co. paid for by descendants of Rick Woodward.

After exploring the park, Katie and I settled into our general admission seats near home plate under the roof that was added to the ballpark in the 1920s.

A view of Rickwood Field during the 2018 Rickwood Classic.

One possible short-coming of attending the Rickwood Classic is the lack of unique food items at the game.  The most “unique” items available would be the Polish or Italian sausage available at a tent outside the seating bowl where a grill cooks up a variety of encased meats.  That’s not to say the food is bad because it is quite delicious, but fans will not find as many options at the Rickwood Classic as they would attending a Barons’ game at Regions Field.  One modern convenience is that fans can regularly find personal-sized pizza from Papa John’s at the park.  Beer choices are limited to either Miller Lite or Yuengling, so sadly none of Birmingham’s delicious craft beers are available at the game either.

None of these limitations should affect the enjoyment of the game because the purpose of attending the Rickwood Classic is to bask in the essence of “old timey” baseball before technology became integrated into our enjoyment of the contest.  Watching a baseball game in America’s oldest professional ballpark is about watching the sport in virtually its purest form.

Perhaps the greatest aspect of attending the Rickwood Classic is that fans are allowed onto the field after the game.  At most Minor League stadiums only kids are allowed onto the field to run the bases after certain games, or if people of all ages are allowed onto the field it is only on rare occasions.  As part of being a “living museum,” fans are allowed onto the field to play catch, run the bases, take home some of the infield dirt, or just lay down in the grass and reflect on the history that has occurred at the ballpark.

Final: Chattanooga 1, Birmingham 7
Box Score

WRAP-UP
So after an extended weekend, Katie and I got to see all three of Alabama’s Minor League Baseball teams play at home.  It took us five days to see all three teams, but the additional days provided us the opportunity to see and experience a bit more in each city.  Whether you’re from Alabama or visiting from out-of-state there is a lot to see and do in each city, even if you’ve been to the cities before there is something to explore in each downtown area.  There are several craft breweries and award-winning restaurants in Mobile, Montgomery, and Birmingham, along with a bevy of historic sights and contemporary museums to keep baseball fans of all ages engaged on a road trip to see Alabama’s Minor League teams.