Birmingham, It's Classic

ico_orbitzBirmingham: Plan Trip | Hotel | Flight | Bassmaster Classic

Birmingham was founded virtually as a foundry, a city born of fire and pig iron, at an intersection of rail lines and geology that provided it the access and raw materials to make it the steel capital of the South.

Named for England's industrial powerhouse, Birmingham built itself on the back of soot-smeared labor, then was baptized in the explosive civil rights movement, forever a city burning.

Alabama's largest city — nearly a million souls, or a quarter of the state's residents, live in its environs — now carries the appellation "The Diverse City" on the Web site of its tourism and visitors bureau. Though it wasn't long ago the city felt the passion of this famous line: "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here."

Much has settled since Martin Luther King Jr. penned that line in "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in 1963.

But if there's any doubt as to the city's fiery origins and trials, a sports fan need look only at the titles of the teams it supports: the University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers, the minor league baseball Birmingham Barons (originally the Coal Barons), the arena football Alabama Steeldogs — not to mention the defunct Vulcans, Fire and Thunderbolts.

But we're here to talk fishing as much as anything, as angling fans will descend on the city Feb. 23-25 for the Birmingham return of the Bassmaster Classic (Web site), with the title of bass boss at stake.

A winner's purse of $500,000 will be pursued by 50 competitors at nearby Lay Lake (Web site) in this grandest fishing championship of them all. Eighteen of the Classic's anglers fished in the world championship event either in 1996 or 2002 when it was staged here. Expect them to know their way around.

And to help you get to know your way around the, click on the ESPNOutdoors.com Bassmaster Classic visitor guide (Web site) to from lodging information and venue maps to competitor profiles and details on the Classic ESPN Outdoors Expo.

Dare we say it, but, outside of angling, options abound for fans of "other" sport disciplines, in addition to attractions for nature lovers and anyone who can appreciate the city's legacy of physical labors.

You want hoops? We got you covered.

UAB hosts Marshall at its Bartow Arena (1530 3rd Ave. S., Web site) on Feb. 24. (Buy tickets.)

Down the road after 57 miles to the southwest is Tuscaloosa, home to the Crimson Tide of Alabama, owners of eight NCAA football championships and which boasts a mens' basketball team ranked 19th in the ESPN/USA Today Poll.

You may have heard of the Tide's little ol' rivalry with Auburn, and it so happens the opponents square off Feb. 24 on the hardwood of Coleman Coliseum (1201 Coliseum Circle, Web site). Not surprisingly, the game appears to be sold out, so pick up tickets at StubHub!

Meanwhile, the Tide women host Mississippi on Feb. 22 at Coleman Coliseum. (Buy tickets.)

Even in February, the Birmingham area boasts two stadiums worth a pilgrimage.

Hoover Metropolitan Stadium (100 Ben Chapman Dr., Hoover) is home to the Barons, the White Sox' AA-affiliate team for whom Michael Jordan played outfield during his first NBA sabbatical, in 1994.

Years ago, the Barons called Rickwood Field (1137 Second Ave. W., Web site) home, and such greats as Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige and Dizzy Dean graced its diamond. Now, you can talk a walking tour through the oldest baseball park in the world, which built in 1910, two years before Fenway Park.

"If you're a baseball person, it will blow your mind," said Tom Cosby, the chief marketing officer at the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce and one of a group of enthusiasts raising money to restore Rickwood to its 1948 condition.

He admits that his colleagues find his affection for the old stadium borderline eccentric.

"It's an acquired taste," he said. "It just reeks history."

Take a more contemporary historical tour at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame (2150 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd. N., Web site). No surprise, the place is stocked with gridiron heroes, from Joe Namath and Bobby Bowden to Bo Jackson and John Heisman.

But Alabama-born legends such as Hank Aaron, Joe Louis, Charles Barkley, Carl Lewis also populate the Hall.

If the spirit moves you, pay respects to Bear Bryant, who rests not five miles away in Elmwood Cemetery (600 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.).

American Paralympians train at the Lakeshore Foundation (4000 Ridgeway Drive, Web site) and on Feb. 24, the facility is holding an open clinic for kids with physical disabilities to participate in sports. Visitors are welcome to tour the facilities, which provided the setting of the wheelchair rugby documentery "Murderball."

The weather certainly may be decent enough to entice a visitor out of doors, after all the average high temperature for February is nearly 57 degrees, according to the Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Late February is about when golfers begin flocking to Alabama to partake in the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail (Web site).

The constellation of public courses dots the state; Birmingham boasts the 54-hole Oxmoor Valley (100 Sunbelt Parkway, Web site), built on former U.S. Steel mining land, and Ross Bridge (4000 Grand Ave., Web site).

The city also boasts the country's second-largest urban nature preserve in the 1,000-acre, eminently hiker-friendly Ruffner Mountain Nature Center (1214 81st St. S., Web site).

You also will discover the world's largest cast-iron statue, a 56-foot-tall rendering of the Roman god of the forge, Vulcan, overlooking Birmingham from atop a 124-foot pedestal at Vulcan Park (1701 Valley View Drive, Web site). The behemoth beckons, and at his park visitors learn about the minerals required to make iron; coal, iron ore and limestone surround Birmingham, making it uniquely suited as an iron town.

At the 115-year-old Sloss Furnaces (20 32nd St. North, Web site) visitors tour what must be the only National Historic Landmark ever to have produced 400 tons of pig iron a day, in the 1920s.

If speed is more your speed (and you're at least 19 years old), throw some greenbacks on the greyhounds at Birmingham Race Course (1000 John Rogers Drive, Web site).

Or check out what is quite possibly the largest collection of classic motorcycles in the world, at Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum (6030 Barber Motorsports Parkway, Web site). The 144,000-square-foot museum has some 500 scramblers on display at any time, with several at least a century old and many featured in the recent Art of the Motorcycle exhibition that traveled museums around the country.

Culturally, the city has an obvious trademark stop in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (520 16th St. North, Web site), a "Smithsonian quality" museum, according to Cosby, on the civil rights movement in this country and human rights struggles around the world.

Too heavy? Birmingham's music scene has reered two "American Idol" winners and one runner-up, so you know you can get your fill of lighter fare. Two musical hotspots are WorkPlay (500 23rd St. South, Web site) and Bottle Tree (3719 3rd Ave. South, Web site), which is hosting perky Athens, Ga., indie rockers Of Montreal on Feb. 23.

Visitors of a drinking persuasion would be remiss to skip a trip to the Garage Café (2304 10 Terrace South), which GQ magazine a few years ago named to the No. 2 slot in its Top Ten Bars Worth Flying For worldwide.

Among the top dining spots in a town with a burgeoning restaurant reputation is Highlands Bar & Grill (2011 11th Ave. South, Web site), dubbed the fifth-best restaurant in the country by Gourmet magazine back in 2001.

And if for some reason Lay Lake disappoints, the Alabama Ballet and Alabama Symphony Orchestra will that weekend offer four performances of "Swan Lake" at Samford University's Wright Center (800 Lakeshore Drive).

Tchaikovsky's reeds or Tsukiyama's reels, take your choice. It's a city of diversity, you know.