Winn embraces 'every bit of emotion' in Rickwood Field victory

June 21st, 2024

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- One of ’s first memories of playing baseball in Texas years ago was when he played for his stepfather, Earl Luckett, and the team was not only named the Negro Leagues Legends, but the jerseys were adorned with the names of different iconic, trailblazing baseball players.

Mays. Robinson. Bell. Gibson. Paige. And Luckett’s all-time favorite player, Hank Aaron.

Not only would Luckett have the players wear different named jerseys every week, but the 10-year-old youngsters would have to write researched reports on those players before the game to be able to play.

Now 22 years old, but well beyond his years in terms of maturity, knowledge of the game and comfort with who he is as a player, Winn showed up to historic Rickwood Field on Thursday fully aware of the significance of an MLB game being played at the longtime home of the Negro Leagues. Several times throughout the night, Winn -- one of two Black Cardinals players to appear in the game -- had to fight through tears and soaring emotions, especially when he thought about standing in the same spots as Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson and others did decades earlier.

Afterward, when the Cardinals' 6-5 defeat of the Giants was complete, and Winn locked eyes with Luckett, the two of them shared an emotion-charged embrace.

“In a lot of ways,” Winn said after doubling off the wall in the third inning and scoring twice, “being here and playing here feels like a full-circle moment for me.

“I haven’t really been nervous for a game, but I was trying to calm myself down. Getting to shortstop, I was taking deep breaths because it was an emotional night. I tried to keep my emotions down, but I saw my stepfather at the end, and he was shedding tears and he almost made me cry. I wanted to embrace every bit of emotion because it was a great night.”

Perhaps it was only fitting that on a night when MLB traveled to historic Rickwood Field to pay tribute to the Negro Leagues that Winn scored the first run and Alabama product Brendan Donovan smashed the first homer, added a double and drove in three runs.

Donovan, who graduated from high school in Enterprise, Ala., and later starred collegiately at South Alabama, launched a long two-run home run in the first for a 3-0 lead. Later, Donovan drilled another ball off the wall in right for a double. Donovan is hopeful that MLB will continue to play yearly games at Rickwood Field to honor players who only had the Negro Leagues to continue their careers.

“I can’t imagine the amount of courage those guys had,” Donovan said. “History is something we should celebrate, and for us to be a part of this and play a game here, it’s very special for Major League Baseball and this state.”

Rickwood Field, America’s oldest ballpark at 114 years old, saw its first integrated game on April 1, 1954. That day, Cardinals first baseman Tom Alston was the first Black hitter in an integrated game at the field, and Cardinals icons Stan Musial and Red Schoendienst homered, with Musial’s clout traveling an estimated 484 feet, per the plaque on the outfield wall. It was also where Rev. Bill Greason -- the oldest living former Cardinals player at 99 years old -- pitched in the final Negro Leagues World Series at Rickwood Field in 1948.

To close out a one-run lead on such a grand stage, the Cardinals turned to rookie pitcher Adam Kloffenstein, who was making his Major League debut, for the eighth inning. As he trotted to the mound from the bullpen, Kloffenstein told Winn to get ready for “a bunch of ground balls” with three right-handers up. True to his word, Kloffenstein retired the side in order as his father, John, and mother, Renee, watched through tears.

“I cried when he first walked on the field before the game just because he was about to be in a Major League game and he had worked so hard,” Renee said. “Then when he came out [of the bullpen], I was bawling. Then when I saw him after the game, I lost it again. It’s been a very emotional, but wonderful day.”

Winn and Luckett could certainly understand those emotions. Winn said late Thursday he would leave Rickwood Field with a lifetime of memories -- ones he will share with the next generation someday the same way his stepfather did with him years ago with the Negro League Legends youth team.

“I grew up learning all about the legends who played here, and someday I’ll be able to tell my grandkids about [playing at Rickwood Field],” he said. “This is super important for me, for this team and for baseball and I’m honored to be a part of it.”