Major League Baseball
Willie Mays anecdotes, Negro Leagues' legacy: Rickwood Field roundtable
Major League Baseball

Willie Mays anecdotes, Negro Leagues' legacy: Rickwood Field roundtable

Updated Jun. 20, 2024 2:22 p.m. ET

Major League Baseball is technically making its debut at Alabama's Rickwood Field this week. But the best of the best began playing there before almost anywhere else.

America's oldest professional ballpark was once home to Willie Mays and Satchel Paige but also host to Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. On Thursday, the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, two of the most storied franchises in the sport and current National League wild-card hopefuls, will play in MLB's first regular-season game at the beloved Birmingham ballpark (7:15 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app).

Accordingly, FOX Sports MLB experts Deesha Thosar and Rowan Kavner tackle these topics and more in a special roundtable.

1. Where do you rank the Giants and Cardinals among the extended pack of NL wild-card candidates? With more than a 70-game sample size, which of these clubs do you believe has the higher ceiling for 2024?


Kavner: Both have as good a chance to sneak into a wild-card spot as any team from that cluster, but I'm not sure the uptick in starting pitching the Cardinals have experienced lately will hold up over the long term. Ultimately, it needs to be their offense that carries them forward, and we just haven't seen their lineup sustain much of anything yet. Only five teams have scored fewer runs this year. Getting Willson Contreras back will certainly help, but now it looks like Nolan Arenado might end up on the shelf. Every step forward seems to include a couple of steps back. 

The Giants have their own share of offensive issues, but I think their ceiling is higher. Heliot Ramos has been a revelation this year, they'll get LaMonte Wade Jr. back soon, and the rotation could see a plethora of help in the second half from Blake Snell, Kyle Harrison, Alex Cobb and Robbie Ray. While the Giants, Padres and Diamondbacks are each hovering around .500, I'd expect at least one of the NL West teams behind the Dodgers to end up with a wild-card spot.

Thosar: Right now, the Cardinals seem like they're more capable of a legitimate October run than the Giants, who have been suffering from injury hits. The latest IL victim was rookie southpaw Kyle Harrison, and within the context of San Francisco already being without Blake Snell, Robbie Ray, and Alex Cobb, Harrison now missing time with an ankle injury is a big deal. Logan Webb and Jordan Hicks have done a great job holding the rotation down in the midst of the injury chaos, but the pressure continues to be on the Giants' offense to increase run support. 

The Cardinals, meanwhile, are tied with the Phillies for the best record in the National League since May 12. With Willson Contreras on the mend, making quick advancements in his rehab from a fractured arm, there is hope yet for St. Louis to continue its good momentum and keep climbing up the standings. Lars Nootbaar and Tommy Edman are expected to be back in the lineup by the the All-Star break. If the Cardinals are healthy, they will be buyers at the trade deadline, so I think their ceiling is higher.

2. What position player and pitcher do you predict having the biggest impact, good or bad, on each team's postseason push?

Thosar: For the Cardinals, I'm expecting Contreras' return to make the biggest impact among position players. On the pitching side, it looks like Lance Lynn is turning into a liability for St. Louis with his latest meltdown against the Marlins. Shield your eyes: Lynn has a 5.08 ERA in his past nine starts, including a 7.90 ERA in his last three outings. 

The Giants should finally be stabilized when Robbie Ray makes his season debut, a return to the mound that the industry has been excited about since he was traded to San Francisco back in January. On the position-player side, I'm waiting for Jorge Soler to wake up and start crushing some more home runs. His grand slam Wednesday was an excellent sign, so I'm still expecting him to make the biggest positive impact for the Giants' offense.

Kavner: For the Cardinals, I think it's Paul Goldschmidt and Sonny Gray. Goldschmidt has shown flashes of figuring things out after the worst start to a season in his career, and he has a respectable .782 OPS over his past 30 games, but we're nearing the halfway point of the season and he remains a below league-average hitter with a .360 slugging percentage that ranks outside the top 100 on the year. I'm not sure St. Louis can get into the dance at that rate. The Cardinals also need Gray healthy to give them an ace atop a staff that to this point has performed admirably.

For the Giants, I'd go with two of their newest additions, Jorge Soler and Blake Snell. The start of the season has not gone the way either would have hoped. Prior to Soler's home run last weekend against the Angels, he hadn't homered at Oracle Park since April. His hard-hit and barrel rates are way down on the year, but he's starting to turn things around in June. 

The Giants don't have a lot of players with his offensive ceiling in their lineup. On the mound, the Giants rank 20th in starters' ERA, which isn't what they envisioned when they added Snell to a rotation with Logan Webb. It's especially surprising considering how good Jordan Hicks has been this year. But after a nightmarish start to the season for Snell, he still has a chance to turn things around if he can get healthy for the second half.

3. With MLB making a more concerted effort to honor the Negro Leagues' legacy in recent years, what is something you've learned through that process or look forward to diving into in the near future?

Kavner: We know the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, who, after MLB made the decision to incorporate Negro League statistics into the major-league record books, is now the all-time leader in batting average, slugging and OPS, but it's also great that the names of some of the more unheralded talents — the guys who aren't among the 37 Negro Leagues legends in the Hall of Fame — get brought to the forefront. 

In looking at some of the greatest single-season performances, Charlie "Chino" Smith's name continually comes to light for his unbelievable 1929 campaign with the New York Lincoln Giants, when he slashed .451/.551/.870 for an absurd 1.421 OPS. He now ranks second in batting average and fourth in both slugging and OPS in a single season. In digging a little deeper, it's been interesting to see how dazzled other Negro Leagues legends were by Smith, who might have become more of a household name had he not passed away at the age of 30. I can't say it was someone I really knew about previously, but that's what makes MLB elevating the Negro Leagues to major-league status so important.

Thosar: The Negro Leagues were more important to their communities than even going to church for some, as people would leave Sunday sermons early just to make it to the ballpark in time to grab seats. Baseball in the Negro Leagues was just as important as life itself; it was an essential need. The importance of a sport like that doesn't just go away, it lives in people's hearts through generations. So I'm looking forward to the new and old fans that will return to watching and loving baseball this week, while MLB is at Rickwood Field in Birmingham.

BONUS: What is your favorite factoid or anecdote involving the late great Willie Mays?

Thosar: There are so many to choose from, but one of my favorites is when he was running to home plate and, in the process of his hard slide, he broke the opposing catcher's leg — not once, but twice. When Mays was asked about that incident years later, he said, obviously, the catcher was in the way — twice. And he would break that leg again if it came in his way. It's a perfect reminder of how hard Mays played the game, and nothing would stop him from playing baseball his way, which in the end was deemed by almost everyone who watched him play, the best way, anyway.

Kavner: Besides the fact that anyone who watched him play seemed to come away from the experience knowing they had just watched the best player they had ever seen, I think it's so cool to hear the stories about how he used to play stickball with kids in Harlem before heading over to his games at the Polo Grounds. More than any statistic can, I think that gesture speaks to his charismatic personality, the childlike joy we all seek to keep with us, and why so many people feel a connection to him. He personified everything we love about the game of baseball.

Rowan Kavner is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the L.A. Dodgers, LA Clippers and Dallas Cowboys. An LSU grad, Rowan was born in California, grew up in Texas, then moved back to the West Coast in 2014. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

[Want great stories delivered right to your inbox? Create or log in to your FOX Sports account, follow leagues, teams and players to receive a personalized newsletter daily.]

FOLLOW Follow your favorites to personalize your FOX Sports experience
Major League Baseball

Get more from Major League Baseball Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more