By Lee Davis
Three years ago, some people didn’t think moving the Birmingham Barons baseball franchise back to the downtown Birmingham area was such a good idea.
They admitted that the new stadium would be nice and might draw people to the games for a short time. But the skeptics contended that eventually the threat of crime and the relative inconvenience of parking would take its toll, and Regions Field would be the latest entry on a long list of disappointments for the city.
The skeptics could not have been more wrong.
As the Barons open their third season at Regions Park April 9, the franchise has never been stronger. And team General Manager Jonathan Nelson, a Vestavia Hills resident, has never been more optimistic.
“It was an amazing first two years,” Nelson said a few days before the 2015 season opener. “In 2013, the brand-new ballpark gave people another reason to come downtown again – and we capped it off by winning the Southern League championship. Then last year, we didn’t have a great year on the field, but we still drew 437,000 fans. And we raise the bar each year.”
Nelson said he believes there have been multiple factors in the Barons and Region Field’s stunning success in those inaugural seasons.
“We were part of the trend that was drawing people back to the downtown area,” he said. “With Railroad Park and the new entertainment district with the hotels, downtown was on the upswing. On top of that, people could get excited about a brand new state-of-the-art ballpark in the middle of it all.”
The perceived issues of crime and lack of parking space were also effectively addressed, Nelson said.
“We had great cooperation from the Birmingham Police Department to establish a quiet but extensive presence on game nights,” he said. “And we addressed parking by coming up with a great plan. The use of shuttles and other ways to provide easy parking access have been positives.”
That sense of excitement and momentum should carry over in 2015, Nelson said.
“People will be impressed by the new construction that is going on within a four-to-six block radius of the ballpark, which includes the Negro Southern League Museum,” he said. “What people are seeing is a revitalized area with new things popping up everywhere.”
And of course, Nelson – ever mindful of the competition for the entertainment dollar – promises more of the same inside the confines of Regions Field.
“Each year our goal is to offer great, affordable family fun,” he said. “We understand that people are not as emotionally connected if the Barons win or lose on a particular night as they are with Alabama, Auburn or UAB, so we want to provide a good time to everyone who comes out to the ballpark regardless of the outcome of the game.”
Popular promotions that will be offered again are Fifty-cent Hot Dog Night, Thirsty Thursday and weekend fireworks displays. New attractions such as an appearance by Whiplash the Cowboy Monkey — a live monkey who performs rodeo tricks – are also on the schedule.
And then there’s always the baseball game. The Barons are continuing their long relationship with their major league affiliate, the Chicago White Sox, which brought talents such as Bo Jackson, Michael Jordan and Robin Ventura to Birmingham.
Terry Francona, who managed the Barons from 1993-95, went on to manage the Boston Red Sox to two World Series championships.
“We have a proud tradition for baseball in Birmingham, and we are doing our best to continue it,” Nelson said.
He added that one of the most enjoyable things about the Barons’ colorful history is the diversity of its fan base.
“It’s so great to see the older fans who followed the team during the Rickwood Field days and the younger ones who were part of the great 25 years that we had at the Hoover Met,” he said. “Now, we are seeing them come together with the new fans to enjoy the experience of Regions Field.”
Nelson, a Fairhope native and University of Montevallo graduate, could be rightly accused of having baseball in his blood, as he has worked in the sport for nearly 25 years.
Nelson’s career with the Barons began in 1993 with an internship that developed into a full-time position in group sales. After a four-year stint in Birmingham, he joined the front office of the Detroit Tigers, where he worked selling season ticket packages.
Nelson came back to Birmingham as the Barons’ assistant general manager in 1998, a position he held until moving up to general manager in 2005. He has high praise for Don, Stan and Jeff Logan, the team owners.
“The Logans are great people to work with,” he said. “They are greatly committed not only to the Barons but to the Birmingham community at large.”
Nelson and his wife, Christy, and their two children are deeply rooted in the community with no plans to leave in the foreseeable future, he said.
“You don’t want to ever say never, because there’s no way to know what opportunities might arise,” he said. “But my family and I are very happy here. We have great fans, great owners and the nicest ballpark you’ll find anywhere. There’s nowhere else I’d want to be right now.”
Jonathan Nelson can’t guarantee local baseball fans another Southern League title, but he can promise them an old-fashioned good time at the ballpark. And on a beautiful night in late spring or early summer, who could ask for anything more?