Mike Yastrzemski

Giants felt like they “went back in time” in Rickwood Field game

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- When you swing a baseball bat as hard as you can for a living, there is never a good time to feel your oblique tighten up. But as he walked down the left field line with trainer Dave Groeschner and headed for a pop-up clubhouse, Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski's face showed a deeper kind of disappointment than is usual after an injury. 

Yastrzemski never wants to leave a field, but he especially did not want to leave this field. He was the third generation of his family to jog onto the outfield grass at Rickwood Field, joining his father and grandfather. This was a special night for a player who has had many of them as he has toured a league his grandfather once dominated, but it was cut short in the fourth inning. 

After a late comeback attempt fell short and San Francisco lost 6-5 to the St. Louis Cardinals, Yastrzemski described it as an atmosphere that he just really wanted to be part of for nine innings.

"The buzz was different, the aura was different," Yastrzemski said. "It felt like we went back in time and were playing 70 years ago. It was so fun. I just wish I could have gotten to stay out there for the rest of the game."

Even with the injury, he still was able to make a memory that he'll always cherish. Yastrzemski has talked to Reverend Bill Greason about his experiences and charitable work via Zoom in the past, but he wanted to meet the 99-year-old, who played with Willie Mays with the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948. Before Greason threw out the ceremonial first pitch, Yastrzemski went over and shook his hand. He said it was important to find the opportunity to say thank you and tell Greason what an honor it was to meet him. 

"For going to Iwo Jima, for (his) relationship with Willie, for having the courage to do what he did here and go play in the big leagues for four games," Yastrzemski said. "There is a lot that is entwined in his story and I encourage everybody to look it up and really dive into his life, because it's special."

Greason was one of dozens of living Negro League players who took the field before the game in a moving ceremony. The Giants and Cardinals walked them onto the grass, some being pushed in wheelchairs. The ceremony brought tears to the eyes of many of the 8,000 fans in attendance and gave an early reminder that this was far more than just a regular season baseball game. 

Heliot Ramos, who provided most of the Giants' offense with a three-run homer, said it was a "privilege" and "an honor" to play center field at Rickwood Field. Manager Bob Melvin compared the scene to a playoff game. 

"It's a one-of-a-kind type of place to play," Melvin said. "You look around and can feel what transpired here a long time ago with the players that played on the field. You just don't get to experience this in the middle of the season much. Like Heliot said, it would have been nice to win the game, but it was a pretty cool experience."

The loss was the third in four games on this road trip and the 40th of the season for a team that is four games under .500. The Giants packed up quickly on Thursday night, capping a whirlwind stretch. They arrived late Wednesday night after three games in Chicago and spent just over 24 hours in Birmingham. 

The overwhelming sense from people on both teams was that this wasn't enough. Players wished they could have had a day off before the series, and executives talked about how Major League Baseball needs to return. It would make all the sense in the world to have a Willie Mays Classic, a chance for the game to return to Rickwood Field on occasion and remember all that Mays and so many others had to overcome. 

For three days, MLB celebrated Mays, who passed away Tuesday. He got a long standing ovation before Thursday's game and chants of "Willie! Willie!" broke out as first pitch approached. There is not much that can take the breath away for men who are used to playing in front of 30,000 fans every night, but this game qualified. 

"It was just a feeling of constant humility being here," Yastrzemski. "It was being grateful. There was no one moment that made me feel that more than others, it was just the entire day, the ceremony, getting to meet all the old players, getting to meet Reverend Greason, getting to step out on that field. 

"All of it was special. Hopefully we'll be able to do more games here and really kind of make this a fun thing and a fun tradition."

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