Last Friday night was my 11th Opening Day at AutoZone Park. (And my 10-year-old daughter’s first. Her night was made when she appeared on the scoreboard video screen before the first pitch.) I can’t remember the concourse being as crammed with fans as it was for this lid-lifter, though the announced crowd of 10,717 was at least 3,000 fewer than the new management would like for a weekend night perfect for baseball. The fact that the new Yuengling-sponsored concession stand was out of Yuengling by the fifth inning is testament to the crowd’s thirst for baseball, or at least for the comforts our national pastime brings.
A few more observations:
• The arrival of Rockey the Redbird in a helicopter was a great touch, and hopefully a new annual rite. A friend and I agreed later that the only display that might top the chopper would be if the city’s finest mascot parachuted into centerfield. (I’m not convinced those oversized feathers actually allow Rockey to fly.)
• Returning members of the 2009 Pacific Coast League champions had their own pregame introduction and a quick photo-op. When a pennant was raised up the flagpole just below the Stars and Stripes, I’ll admit to some goose bumps. I’d sure love to see, though, a permanent display of some kind honoring both the 2009 champs and those from the 2000 team that christened the new ballpark with champagne.
• The Cardinals’ farm system has gotten young. And this doesn’t necessarily bode well for the 2010 season in Memphis. Among the top 10 prospects in the St. Louis system (according to Baseball America), exactly two were wearing Memphis uniforms last weekend: pitcher Lance Lynn (#3) and infielder Daniel Descalso (#9). And it may say something about the strength of the Cardinals’ farm that their 11th-ranked prospect — Friday night’s starting pitcher, Adam Ottavino — walked six batters in five innings.
With the likes of Allen Craig, Joe Mather, and Jaime Garcia wearing two birds on their chests in St. Louis, the Redbirds will be counting on outfielder Jon Jay (ranked 13th), shortstop Tyler Greene (14th), and outfielder Tyler Henley (18th) to keep the team competitive in a division where Nashville is off to a 8-3 start.
• Get used to on-the-field entertainment. For the first time in the ballpark’s history, fans witnessed the much-talked-about, never-quite-understood “Dizzy Bat” race. And some kind of beanbag-tossing contest, with oversized plastic mats the target. A harsh reminder, perhaps, that the Redbirds remain a minor-league operation. One that must entertain however and whenever it can, including the “quiet time” between innings.
• Best intro music, hands down: outfielder Mark Shorey (Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”). Here’s hoping Shorey hits well enough to stay in the lineup every day.
• Signage on the outfield wall is new. FedEx has a prominent spot, and seems right for a Memphis ball team. But a waste management company? If the Redbirds begin to struggle on the field, just wait for the jokes and juxtaposition.
• The Redbirds play 16 of their first 24 games on the road. This can be seen in one of two ways: an unfortunate handicap for the defending champs as they gather form for a new season or the chance for a group of players to develop cohesion and an early sense of singular purpose that defines a contender. If you enjoyed Sunday afternoon at the ballpark, as my family did, sit tight. The next Sunday matinee will be May 16th.
• The two biggest stars from the Redbirds’ early days (1998 and 1999) at Tim McCarver Stadium were J.D. Drew and Rick Ankiel (the pitching version). On April 9th in Kansas City, the Royals beat the Red Sox, 4-3, in a relatively meaningless game for any Memphis fan. In that game, though, two players hit their first home runs of the season: Boston’s J.D. Drew and Kansas City’s Rick Ankiel. How many would have forecast such 11 years ago?