BIRMINGHAM — The focus is on conference play at this point in the season, but the baseball teams from Birmingham-Southern and UAB will take a few hours at Rickwood Field to step back in time on Tuesday afternoon.
For the second consecutive season, the Panthers and Blazers will play each other in the Rickwood College Classic at the oldest professional baseball park in the United States. First pitch is scheduled for 1 p.m.
“It’s pretty awesome, honestly, just thinking about all the people who have come through here and played here,” UAB catcher Henry Hunter said late last week during a media availability at Rickwood Field. “The history of this place shows the beauty of baseball, really, and that baseball has been around for so, so long. There are so many unbelievable players that have come through here. To be able to continue that tradition and playing against Birmingham-Southern is pretty awesome.”
UAB beat Birmingham-Southern, 10-4, in last season’s Rickwood College Classic. However, the final result is probably not the most important part of this game.
“I think it’s just more fun than anything,” said Birmingham-Southern head coach Jan Weisberg, whose team opened play in the Southern Athletic Association Tournament last weekend by sweeping Oglethorpe University. “We came and had an intrasquad game here in 2021 before we went to the NCAA (Division III) Regionals. First time for a lot of our guys to be here. They loved it. It’s obviously right in our backyard, being about four blocks away. I think, for us, it’s interesting because the regular season is done. We’ll be right in the middle of our playoffs. I think it will be a nice little break to just be able to enjoy a day of baseball at a great venue.”
UAB head coach Casey Dunn got an early taste of playing at Rickwood Field.
“I played out here once a year in high school,” said Dunn, who played for his father, Sammy, at Vestavia Hills High. “The coach at Ramsay, at the time, was one of my dad’s buddies. Every year we’d play Ramsay out here in high school. I loved it when I came out here and played. My dad grew up coming to games out here. When he was younger, he lived in the area. He talked about all the old-timers he’d watch play in Rickwood. It was a big deal.”
Dunn, who is in his third season at UAB after a successful 16 years at Samford, took his first UAB team on a Rickwood visit. The host was Gerald Watkins, who serves as the chairman and executive director of the Friends of Rickwood,
“Gerald has been on me a while to come play,” Dunn said. “We had an off day, kind of looking for something to do. We brought them over, after about 30 minutes of showing them around and letting them hear the history of Rickwood, they were like, ‘Coach, why don’t we play here?’ Of course, Gerald just smiled and said, ‘See Coach, we got to do it.’ I was fortunate that Coach Weisberg and Southern was willing to do it with us, to get two local schools who aren’t far away to come over here and enjoy a day at a historic ballpark and hopefully proved good entertainment for the fans.”
UAB infielder Mayes White has never played at Rickwood Field but did get a unique perspective of the park while taking part in a documentary film about the Negro League baseball.
“We dressed up as the old Negro League players,” said White, who played in high school at Tuscaloosa Academy and Pike Road. “We had the (old) gloves, the cleats, the bats and we were playing ball out here, just like we were one of them. It was really fun.”
White said he’s looking forward to taking another step at Rickwood Field on Tuesday.
“It means a lot to me,” said White, a first-year transfer from Florida State. “As an African-American baseball player, you don’t get the opportunities like this, to play in a stadium where they all played before. I’m very fortunate and blessed.”
Perhaps the only thing that the players, at least the catchers, don’t look forward to is the backstop that is 92 feet behind home plate. It’s pretty much two extra bases if a ball gets past the catcher. Legend has it that Bo Jackson, while in high school, scored from first base on a passed ball at Rickwood Field.
“I can tell you the least favorite part is the backstop,” said Birmingham-Southern catcher Jack Fleming. “You won’t see bigger backstops these days. I had (a passed ball) my junior year when we were intrasquading. It was a controlled scrimmage. The ball went back there, we kind of called it dead. If that ball gets back there, that’s two bags. Fortunately, last year against UAB, I did a good job of keeping ball in front of me.”
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