Simpson exemplifies Mays' spirit on and off field at Rickwood

June 19th, 2024

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- was on his way back toward the field when he heard the news. The Double-A Montgomery center fielder tweaked his calf while trying to make a play in the bottom of the seventh inning and had exited the game with the team trainer. Simpson was en route to the dugout to rejoin his teammates when he heard, like so many others, that all-time legend Willie Mays had died at 93.

But unlike most everyone else, the Rays' No. 10 prospect received the news at Rickwood Field -- the place that Alabama native Mays called home during his 1948 season with the Birmingham Black Barons -- while Simpson wore a Montgomery Gray Sox uniform honoring the Negro Leagues and Negro Leaguers like the Hall of Fame Giants outfielder.

“He was definitely here in spirit throughout the whole game,” Simpson said of Mays. “But everybody gave thanks, and then everybody was appreciative of him and all the greats that came before me.”

Playing in front of 7,866 at the oldest professional ballpark in the country, Simpson’s Montgomery defeated Birmingham, 6-5, in the MiLB at Rickwood Field game.

If there was a player who embodied Mays’ spirit Tuesday night, it was Simpson, who has his own Birmingham ties having spent two years at UAB in college.

Having finished the night 3-for-4, the 23-year-old leads full-season Minor Leaguers with a .375 average. Mays won a batting title in 1954 after hitting .345. Simpson also swiped three bags in the victory, giving him 51 on the season and 13 more than any other Minor Leaguer in 2024. Mays led the Majors in steals on three occasions and topped the National League in the category four times on his way to Cooperstown.

More from MLB Pipeline:
Top 100 prospects | Stats | Video | Podcast | Complete coverage

The hitting ability and top-level speed were just 40 percent of what made Mays the ultimate five-tool player and 24-time All-Star, but Simpson wanted to show them off from the jump in this game. He singled as Montgomery’s leadoff hitter in the first inning and then stole second and third within the next three pitches. He scored on a knock by Bob Seymour to give the Biscuits the lead, and they never relinquished it.

That went exactly according to plan, per Simpson.

“I was sleeping on that last night, and I was dreaming about that and visualizing that today,” he said. “When I got that first hit, I knew I was going to take off no matter what, and I was going to take third.”

The son of two Atlanta-area educators, the history of the Rickwood game was never going to be lost on Simpson.

“I shared with him early on that once upon a time there was a Negro League that was separate from MLB,” said his father, Dr. Ralph Simpson. “They played at the same caliber, the same level, the same talent, but they didn’t get the recognition. Now, that recognition – for people like him – is being highlighted. It’s being appreciated.”

On the other side, Birmingham wore Black Barons uniforms serving as callbacks to that 1948 Mays club that reached the Negro League World Series before falling to the Homestead Grays in five games. They were uniforms that felt heavier as the news spread throughout the dugout of the loss of one of the game's giants.

“It definitely hits you a little bit,” Birmingham manager Sergio Santos said. “I think it gives you feedback on what an honor it is not only to wear the jersey but to participate in a game like today. Obviously, baseball is big, but life and death is something bigger. Willie Mays, what a legacy we’re all trying to fulfill and play the game the way he played.”

Trailing going into the bottom of the seventh, 5-2, the Barons tacked on a pair of runs with on a sacrifice fly by Brooks Baldwin and a single by Edgar Quero. In between that frame and the eighth, Mays’ death was announced to the Rickwood crowd, immediately followed by a standing ovation in every section.

Chants of “Let’s go Barons!” from many of those same fans picked up steam in the ninth when the home team threatened to give Birmingham a bit more magic.

Singles by Jason Matthews, Terrell Tatum and Baldwin loaded the bases with one out for Quero. MLB Pipeline's No. 94 overall prospect struck a 102.6 mph single to left – his final knock on a 5-for-5 night -- that plated Matthews but was hit too hard to score Tatum. After a mound visit, Montgomery left-hander Antonio Jimenez got Tim Elko to bounce into a 4-6-3 game-ending double play.

It was a close ballgame, one meant to be celebratory and historic that became surreal and heartbreaking in the final innings. But it was a ballgame all the same, played like so many have over the many decades of Birmingham baseball, in Willie’s yard.

“I had to take a couple laps around the field just to see the atmosphere, feel the energy, just to be in the presence of all those greats that came before me,” Simpson said pregame. “It’s a great feeling. We’d be doing a disservice to do anything but compete.”