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

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

Gerald Watkins is a retired banker who heads the group Friends of Rickwood, which maintains the football field through its use in high schools, colleges and showcase events.Cary Norton for The Washington Post via Getty Images

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Gerald Watkins looked at an empty Rickwood Field and smiled. The man responsible for introducing America’s oldest ballpark to MLB officials three years ago worked long hours weeks before the game, and even though the game had ended just an hour earlier, he was able to give an assessment of how it all went down .

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

In 2021, Watkins cold-called MLB to suggest coming to Birmingham. (After some fruitless internet searching, he finally found the right connection.) He’s spent the past three years shepherding the 114-year-old stadium through the process of becoming Show-ready.

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

Such a successful night naturally prompted talk of if and when MLB would return to Rickwood. Watkins, a retired banker who heads the group Friends of Rickwood, which maintains the stadium by using it for high schools, colleges and showcase events, said he spent part of Thursday night planting a new generation with MLB executives. “We pitched the idea, let’s do it again next year and call it the Willie Mays Classic. I said you could even say it was your idea.”

MLB Chief Operations and Strategy Officer Chris Marinak, speaking shortly after the finals, noted that the next year’s schedule is usually released in mid-summer and that such special games will be part of the calendar. However, he did not specify where they would be. “You want a great venue, a great fan experience and a great story. I’ve been lucky with all of these things,” Marinak said.

Any location should also tick other essential boxes. “What were the elements that make (a place) authentic? What does a great story tell 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 will Oregon and Tennessee, two states that figure to be prominent bidders in the next round of MLB expansion, whenever it happens.

Still, after the magic of the Field of Dreams game in Iowa in 2021 and 2022 and the emotional significance of a game played at the home of the Negro Leagues honoring Willie Mays the week he died, it’s clear the standard has been very much set. high.

Watkins certainly felt that way, even as he called the chances of Rickwood hosting a game again “highly likely.” “Nothing will compare to what we did tonight.”