Rickwood Field game a historic night for MLB, but will it return to schedule?

Gerald Watkins is a retired banker who heads the Friends of Rickwood group that maintains the ballpark through its use with high schools, colleges and showcase eventsCary Norton for The Washington Post via Getty Images

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Gerald Watkins looked out at an empty Rickwood Field and smiled. The man responsible for pitching America’s oldest ballpark to MLB officials three years ago had been working long hours for weeks in the run-up to the game, and though the game had ended only an hour earlier, he was able to offer an assessment for how it had all gone.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, it was a 20,” he said.

In 2021, Watkins had cold-called MLB to suggest it come to Birmingham. (After some fruitless internet searching, he ultimately found the right connection.) He has spent the past three years shepherding the 114-year-old ballpark through the process of becoming ready for the Show.

“I didn’t spend anytime watching the game,” he said — hey, Gerald, the Cardinals won a fun one, 6-5 — “I ran around troubleshooting and there was nothing to troubleshoot.”

Having such a successful night naturally spurred talk of if and when MLB will return to Rickwood. Watkins, a retired banker who heads the Friends of Rickwood group that maintains the ballpark through its use with high schools, colleges and showcase events, said he spent part of Thursday night planting a new seed with MLB executives. “I pitched the idea, let’s do it again next year and call it the Willie Mays Classic. I said you can even say it was your idea.”

MLB Chief Operations and Strategy Officer Chris Marinak, speaking shortly after the final out, noted that the next year’s schedule is usually released in mid-summer and that such special event games will be a part of the calendar. He wouldn’t specify where they will be, however. “You want a great venue, a great fan experience, and a great storyline. We really lucked out with all of those things,” said Marinak.

Any location would have to check some other essential boxes. “What were the elements that make [a place] authentic? What tells a great story about what baseball means to the country? How can you recreate those commonalities?”

Cities are lining up to be chosen to host future MLB games, but none are public. Alaska has never hosted an MLB game. Neither have Oregon and Tennessee, two states that figure to be a prominent bidders in MLB’s next round of expansion, whenever that takes place.

Still, after the magic of the Field of Dreams Game in Iowa in 2021 and ’22 and the emotional significance of a game held at the home of the Negro Leagues that honored Willie Mays the week he died, it’s clear the standard has been set very high.

Watkins certainly felt that way, even as he called the chances that Rickwood will host a game again “very likely.” “Nothing will ever match what we did tonight.”

Watkins called the chances that Rickwood will host a game again “very likely”Russell Kilgore Jr./MLB Photos via Getty Images

 

First appeared on www.sportsbusinessjournal.com

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