MDN: Redbirds Revitalization: Fun at the Old Ballpark and the Winning is Easy
Bottom of the seventh inning and another night at AutoZone Park is unfolding the way so many have this season. The Memphis Redbirds have a nice lead. Their starting pitcher has been putting up zeros and the team has been banging out timely hits and playing crisp defense.
A good crowd has gathered. Adults on the left field berm relax on blankets, cold beverages in hand, chatting and laughing as the just-finished workweek fades away. Children on the berm run from one patch of green grass to another, playing their own impromptu games, only occasionally casting an eye toward the one on the giant field beside them.
On a steamy night in late July, it feels like it once did here many years ago: Like for three hours, this is the best place in town to be.
Over in right field below the elevated visiting bullpen, young members of the grounds crew – perhaps in an unconscious nod to Memphis as Hoops City – have a two-on-two game going. With concrete for a floor, they dribble and shoot at a goal attached to a wooden backboard affixed to the side of the stands. Their part in this nightly theater won’t start in earnest until the Redbirds get six more outs.
As expected, the Redbirds get those outs without incident. This magical summer at AutoZone Park, where the winning is easy, just keeps rolling, rolling, rolling…
Making History … and Marketing
The wave may crest at a historic height. Since the Redbirds came to Memphis in 1998, their highest win total was 83 games in 2000 – the year AutoZone Park opened, Albert Pujols provided a late-season glimpse of his future greatness, and the team was crowned Pacific Coast League champions.
Through 100 games this season, the Redbirds were 65-35 and owners of the best record in Triple-A. No, they won’t match the 104-win total of the most dominant Memphis Chickasaws teams from the 1920s, but they are on pace to shatter the Redbirds’ all-time victory total.
“I wish I could take credit for that part,” said Redbirds majority owner Peter B. Freund, who purchased the team before the 2016 season, adding to his other minor league stakes through Trinity Baseball Holdings. “Thirty games over .500 – it’s really been fun. This is one reason I did it – and I don’t think this is gonna jinx things at this point – to bring playoff baseball to Memphis.”
This team seems immune to jinxes and curses. Also to being harmed even when many of the top players – from shortstop Paul DeJong to top catching prospect Carson Kelly and, most recently, Bader – are pulled up to St. Louis to fortify the struggling Cardinals.
Meantime, fans have returned in encouraging numbers. Through 46 openings, the Redbirds were averaging 5,355 per game – a 13.8 percent increase over the 4,704 they averaged for all of 2016.
Kids still want their picture taken with mascot Rockey the Redbird, but the Memphis-centric rebranding the team did before the season started extended even to him: He’s a tougher-looking bird than he once was. For this team, he should be.
Still, the reality of minor league baseball is that the business side cannot be dependent on what happens on the field. The 2000 season is a great example. Pujols might have been the face of the local franchise the next summer, but never returned after making the Cardinals out of spring training.
Manager Stubby Clapp, hired by the Cardinals before this season, was once a main attraction here for his gritty play at second base, his backflips before each home game, and a charisma that was infectious.
“Stubby Clapp has energized everything,” said Glenda Bowie, a season ticket holder since 2001. “I liked him as a player and I love of him even better as a coach.”
The Redbirds have embraced him as a marketing tool as well. So this year’s Stubby bobblehead was a little different: The knees also bobbled.
“Taking advantage of Stubby’s popularity and his signature, what he’s really known for,” said Mike Voutsinas, senior director of corporate sales and marketing.
The Redbirds have not been shy with their promotions. The theme on this particular Friday is Harry Potter. You can’t expect your players to pitch, hit and field wearing Gryffindor scarves, but what you can do is use Photoshop to wrap the scarves around their necks when their pictures appear on the huge video board.
The team is winning like crazy, yes, but on the marketing side you can’t take things too seriously. So throughout the season, theme-night jerseys have put players in some costumes worth a double-take. Naturally, there were throwback Chicks jerseys and No. 42 jerseys to honor Jackie Robinson. Redbirds third baseman Patrick Wisdom gave both of those a thumbs-up.
But they also have worn Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band jerseys to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the iconic Beatles album and green elf jerseys for Christmas in July.
The saving grace for players? Money raised from the post-game auctions of the jerseys has topped $30,000 so far this season and goes to support the local RBI program – Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. The jerseys have been all over Twitter, and the Icee Chugging Challenge and other promotions have gone viral.
Writing the Ending
This season began with an exhibition game at AutoZone Park against the Cardinals. Brian Edmonds and his family came out and had a great time. Edmonds, who is vice president of St. Clair Foods in Memphis, decided to sign up for a suite.
It’s worked well for doing business – “a really relaxed atmosphere,” he said – but it’s been a good way to reward employees and to have family time, too. Everyone seems to be connecting in their own way.
“I was a gymnast,” said Haley Edmonds, Brian’s wife. “So I loved Stubby. He was my guy.”
Davis, their 10-year-old son, is for the moment more interested in checkers on the floor with friends but will give the game a look when the crowd gets loud. Seaton, their 6-year-old daughter, isn’t here this particular night but she had her favorite player, too.
While the Edmonds’ infant son, Parker Judson Edmonds, snoozes in a bassinet, Brian explains that he wanted to decorate the suite in a way that honored the city’s baseball past. And so there is a framed 1949 picture of the Negro League’s Memphis Red Sox at Russwood Park, various game programs and tickets from yesteryear, and a collage of some of the city’s oldest teams, including the 1907 Memphis Turtles.
And so it is true again as the Redbirds soar toward historic heights.
“I’m happy for the city, happy for the organization,” Clapp said. “It’s important to me for this place to succeed.”
Craig Unger, the Redbirds’ president and general manager, usually spends a lot of time talking about almost everything but the actual baseball. But now?
“Now when we look at the next six weeks, it becomes about the baseball,” he said.
Which is the best scenario possible.
Fun on the berm – or in the suite – cold beverages on hot nights, and barbecue nachos and many victories. It makes for a nice story of Redbirds redemption, but it’s also enough to make a man a little greedy.
“I want to win a championship,” Freund said. “I want a parade down Beale Street, if the city will throw us one.”