North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

May 29, 2013

Regions Field: They built it... but will you come?

Birmingham Barons work to overcome security jitters at new home

By Robert Carter
North Jefferson News

BIRMINGHAM — In the baseball movie “Field of Dreams,” the character played by Kevin Costner hears a voice saying, “If you build it, he will come.”

If Birmingham Barons owner Don Logan and his sons heard such a voice, they aren’t saying. But they did build a field of dreams, right in the middle of downtown. Now the question is: Will they — the fans — come?

So far in the inaugural season of Regions Field, they have come, in great numbers. The naysayers who worried about issues such as security, especially after a teenager was killed at adjacent Railroad Park days before opening night, have so far been wrong.

After a quarter century in the suburbs at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium (known in recent years as Regions Park), and decades prior at historic-but-run down Rickwood Field, Logan moved his team into the shiny new facility on April 10, before a capacity crowd — the first sellout for the Barons since Michael Jordan tried his hand at baseball.

The race to get the new park finished in time was pretty much won, though the sound of jackhammers during pre-game festivities could still be heard as workers toiled to apply the finishing touches.

Since then, most of the remainder of the work has been completed, including a new ticket gate on Third Avenue South and a Dreamland Barbecue Shack and a center field bar that opened this week.

Though the Hoover Met was spacious yet bland, it was also tucked away safely in a suburb. Not so with Regions field, which is nestled in an area that still has its share of abandoned parking garages and other closed buildings, and which has a reputation for crime even after Railroad Park opened.

It’s a reputation that Barons general manager Jonathan Nelson knows the team has to overcome.

“We feel we’ve addressed a great parking plan, and we’ve connected with the Birmingham Police Department as well,” Nelson said. “We have a great security plan inside and outside the stadium. There are mounted police at all our lots... There’s plenty of parking opportunities down here, and we haven’t heard of anyone with reservations going to and from their cars.”

The security perception has been the biggest obstacle the Barons have faced, Nelson said. “Hopefully, that perception will erode as time goes on.”

The new ballpark is much closer to north Jefferson and south Blount counties, which means the Barons will be doing more to attract fans from there. In fact, the first paying customer on opening night was a woman  from Gardendale.

“Being centrally located to the metro area is part of the more positive feedback we’ve gotten,” Nelson said. “Previously, folks from that area said they’d just come once or twice a year because it’s not convenient. We’ve joined the Cham­ber of Commerce there in Gardendale, and plan on being a bigger presence there."

Regions Field is smaller and more intimate than the park it replaces, but contains many more amenities. For instance, a walking concourse goes all the way around the ball field, with grassy berms past the outfield fence and down the left field line. Play areas for children are improved over those at Hoover with rubberized flooring, as opposed to the old tree bark nuggets.

A dining patio for groups can be found in the outfield.

Seating down the first base line wraps around to a small section just beyond the right field foul pole. It’s an arrangement that is reminiscent of Rickwood Field’s layout, but with a huge difference — that section at Rickwood was used for black fans in the days of segregation, an unthinkable prospect today.

“People have just been blown away by what we have here,” Nelson said. “But we are also continuously learning what we need to fine tune.”

With four homestands and 20 home games under their belt as of Monday, the reception of the new field has been enthusiastic. Attendance is way up compared to the last season at Hoover — 5,650 per game this year, as compared to just over 3,000 at this point in 2012.