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: the Birmingham Barons, the Mobile BayBears, and the 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 an 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, I started working on booking 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 our trip.

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 sights.

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

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 are a few 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, “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 in bottles and cans plus brews from Fairhope Brewing, Ghost Train Brewing, Back Forty Beer, and Goat Island Brewing were 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 country 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 moved 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 before 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 on a chalkboard shortly right as fans enter 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 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 many Minor League stadiums only kids are allowed onto the field to run the bases after certain games.  As part of being a “living museum,” fans are allowed onto the field to play catch, run the bases, 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.

My night with the Birmingham Barons – May 2, 2014

After playing in the suburbs for 25 years, the Birmingham Barons moved back to downtown Birmingham in 2013 when Regions Field opened.  I didn’t get to visit Regions Field during its inaugural season, but I put it high on the priority list for 2014.  It was also much easier to accomplish now that I live just an hour away.  A few days ago, I made the trek to Birmingham for my first visit.

The most unique aspect of the stadium is the steel facade that spells out “BIRMINGHAM.”  I walked past this as I approached the stadium, and made sure to get a picture.

The signature signage at Regions Field.

The stadium has three entrances, but the primary entrance is at the corner of 1st Avenue South and 14th Street South by the Serra Kia Auto Plaza.

Main gate at the Serra Kia Auto Plaza.

After getting a pair of seats behind home plate an hour before the game, my friend and I decided to walk around and check out the food options.  While we were checking out the concession stands, we came across something neither of us expected to see.  With the Aaron’s 499 running at Talladega Superspeedway just 50 miles away, the Barons celebrated with NASCAR Night.  The team had NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison throw out the honorary first pitch, and had his 1988 race car on display.

Bobby Allison’s car that he drove to victory lane at the 1988 Daytona 500.

After getting a photo of the race car, we continued touring concession stands.  I didn’t take photos of each stand, but I found two unique stands.  The first we ran across was a food truck.  MELT: A Grilled Cheese Truck has a title that says it all, but what it doesn’t say it that it offers a special take on the classic grilled cheese sandwich.  One example is the Flyin’ Hawaiian, which has smoked ham, Cajun grilled pineapple, and Monterey Jack cheese on a pretzel roll.

The food truck craze is growing nationally, and some Minor League teams have organized special nights around local food trucks.  However, the South has been very slow to catch onto the food truck craze, so I was shocked to see this inside the gates at the stadium.

MELT: A Grilled Cheese Truck was setup beyond right field next to the batting cages.

The food truck contrasts nicely with the next stand, something Southerners know and debate about a lot: barbecue.  There’s probably a master’s thesis about the spelling of said food item, too.  Without stirring up a debate about how to spell it or what kind of sauce to use, there is one name that is most often associated with barbecue in Alabama: Dreamland.

In addition to BBQ nachos, fans can get a half rack of ribs or a sandwich at this stand.  The BBQ nachos are a signature item, but I opted not to get them because I ate them in 2012 when I visited Regions Park during the Barons’ last season in Hoover (you can read about that visit here).

Dreamland Bar-B-Que originated in nearby Tuscaloosa, and has spread throughout the Southeast.

Continuing to walk around the outfield, I came across the Brobdingnagian video board.  Just how big is the video board?  So big, I couldn’t fit it all into the shot I took.

The appropriate American idiom to describe the Barons’ scoreboard is “big ass scoreboard.”

Not far from the video board is the Bright House Family Fun Park, where I found a giant inflatable bounce house in the form of the team’s primary mascot: Babe Ruff.

An inflatable bounce house is only part of the Bright House Family Fun Park, which has a variety of games for kids.

After walking around the stadium, my friend and I settled into our seats behind home plate to watch the start of the game.

Birmingham Barons right-handed pitcher Myles Jaye delivers the first pitch to Mobile BayBears center fielder Mike Freeman.

After watching the first three innings, my friend and I went to find food.  My friend had initially committed to getting the Dreamland BBQ nachos, but kept waffling on his decision as we walked around the stadium before the game started.  He thought about getting something at MELT, and then the Magic City Dog, and then Steel City Burger, and finally settled on getting a Chicago Dog at Piper’s Pub & Grill.

I opted for the Magic City Dog after reading about it last year.  Plus I generally try to get an encased meat when I visit a ballpark.  I’m not a picky eater, and really just want to try a signature food item.  However, hot dogs and baseball have been synonymous for decades.

The Magic City Dog, which is a sliced sausage with BBQ sauce, cole slaw, and spiced mustard.

If I hadn’t gotten the Magic City Dog I would have ordered the Steel City Burger.  The description says it is 1/3 lb. all-beef patty on a bed of grilled onions and topped with pepper jack cheese, bacon, a fried egg and Sriracha mayonnaise and served on a Ciabatta roll.

I did watch some of the game beyond the first pitch, so I have this photo from the first base line.

Birmingham Barons starting pitcher Myles Jaye on the mound.

Based upon my photos so far it may look like the stadium lacks a second deck and luxury suites, which is not the case.  So while I took this next photo primarily to capture the action, it shows off other facets of the ballpark.

More game action with a view of the luxury suites on the third base side.

And in case you didn’t get a clear view of the video board before, I made sure to take photo focused on it.  It certainly is a large video board.

The elephantine scoreboard in left field.

The team’s web site says that steel and brick are used to evoke the city’s industrial heritage, which you can see when you take a look back and view the entire third base seating area and its berm.

A view of the third base line from the right field foul pole.

My friend camped out in right field at the end of the game because we wanted a good seat to watch the post-game fireworks.  However, it was tied 1-1 at the end of the 9th inning.  We hung around until the 13th and decided to finally head out with the contest still knotted, and seemingly no end in sight as the pitcher’s duel continued into the extra innings.  Ultimately, the game went 17 innings and lasted 5 hours and 25 minutes.  It fell one inning short of tying the longest game in franchise history, but took the record for the longest game time in team annals.

I hate leaving a game early, but the temperatures were dropping and I was constantly yawning at 11 p.m. when we departed.  Sadly watching fireworks was as likely to happen as my photo with the team mascot: nonexistent.

Despite missing out on fireworks and my mascot photo, the ballpark experience was great.  There’s a wide variety of food items (signature and standard), beers, and entertainment options.  The area around the stadium is still undergoing redevelopment, but Railroad Park provides a great option for families and Good People Brewing Company, right across from the stadium provides an adult option.

Regions Field reminds me a lot of ONEOK Field in Tulsa.  Both are located in gentrifying areas.  Both brought baseball back to downtown.  Both are the envy of teams in their league.  Both are a great place to watch a game.

Final: Mobile 5, Birmingham 3 (17 innings)
Box Score