Birmingham embraces past while focusing on the future
In today's age, the minor league teams drawing the most fans are typically those with the newest ballparks.
That's not the case with the Birmingham Barons. Sure, Regions Park is newer than the stadium they left, but that can be said of every ballpark in America. After all, Rickwood Field is the oldest standing ballpark in the country.
Despite the fact that Regions Park is now the second-oldest in the Double-A Southern League, the Barons are consistently one of the circuit's top draws. This year, the Barons finished second in the league with a 74-63 record and sold 302,979 tickets, second-most in the league. But it doesn't even take a winning record to keep the turnstiles spinning. In 2006 and 2007, the Barons finsished eighth and ninth, respectively, but still drew the third-most fans in the league.
"For us, we have identified what may be the needs and what people in this community desire and that's really clean, affordable, safe, family entertainment and that's what we provide," said Birmingham general manager Jonathan Nelson, whose club will host the SL all-star game in 2009. "We've identified what this community is about, what it values and what its needs are and we're doing our best to fill the needs and be the option for people to come out and enjoy Barons baseball games. My former boss here, Bill Hardekopf, once said we're in the memory-making business, and we take that to heart. We want to create a positive memory for everybody that comes out here, especially children."
They accomplish that mission with a commitment to tradition and by providing good, old-fashioned customer service. That's more difficult than it sounds, Southern League president Don Mincher said. It's also one of the reasons the Birmingham Barons are the Double-A recipients of the 2008 Freitas Award.
"It used to be that the first person you see at the ballpark is someone that isn't happy with their job," Mincher said. "Nowadays, the first person you see is a parking attendant that is happy to be there and is helpful, answering any questions the customer might have. Then, the next person you see will be the person that sells you your ticket and they always have a smile on their face and they're always there to help. These things are easy to do in April. The successful club keeps it going through the entire year in July and August. No matter how good your ballclub is, no matter how far ahead or behind they are in the standings, you'll always see employees with a smile on their face. Birmingham does that really well"
Like a smile, keeping the ballpark clean is another small thing that can go a long way.
"The one thing you want to do in minor league baseball is to keep the Mamas happy," Mincher said. "If Mama walks in that ballpark and the bathroom is dirty, Mama isn't coming back. Birmingham does that really well. Daddy's going to come and bring the kids no matter what, but it's important to keep the females happy to keep the entire family coming out to the ballpark."
Like many minor league teams, the Barons offer Belly-Buster Mondays, hot dogs for a quarter on Tuesdays, Thirsty Thursdays and postgame fireworks on Friday nights. They have promotional giveaways, visiting mascots and between-inning entertainment.
"What we try to do, like most minor league teams, is make it a very fun and unique environment and experience for everybody that comes out," Nelson said. "We have different promotions on different days of the week and make it fun for all fans—not just families—but fans of all ages."
Their biggest promotion of the year is an annual voyage back in time.
Rickwood Field was built in 1910 and the Barons played there until 1988, when they moved to Regions Park. Rickwood was preserved and is now a city park, giving the team an opportunity to pay homage to the good ol' days. For the past 13 years, the Barons have gone back to Rickwood for a midseason turn-back-the-clock game called the Rickwood Classic.
"We're the only minor league team that turns back the clock and actually goes back to its former minor league stadium," Nelson said. "It's a pretty special event and to be able to re-live some of the memories and give fans the chance to go back to the park they grew up going to, while at the same time having the newer bells and whistles at Regions Park, is a great combination. People fly in from all over the country because it's baseball how it used to be, in its purest sense, with the hand-operated scoreboard, the PA system and a live ragtime band playing behind home plate. It really allows us to differentiate ourselves from a lot of teams and we're extremely fortunate to be able to blend the past with the present."