Memphis Redbirds 2011: First Impressions

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A common complaint about minor league baseball: With all the promotions, demotions, trades, and cuts, it’s impossible to get to know the players you’re cheering, particularly one season to the next. Such is not the case (or shouldn’t be) this season for the Memphis Redbirds.

Six of the eight position players who took the field for the Redbirds on Opening Night last Thursday played at least 20 games for Memphis in a 2010 season that saw the Redbirds reach the Pacific Coast League playoffs for a second straight year. Nick Stavinoha, Shane Robinson, Mark Hamilton, and Bryan Anderson are in at least their third season with the Redbirds, and Adron Chambers and Donovan Solano each made an impact on last year’s postseason drive. The starting pitcher last Thursday was P.J. Walters, the franchise’s alltime wins leader (25) and one of four hurlers in the Memphis rotation who have won at least 10 games in a Redbird uniform (along with Lance Lynn, Brandon Dickson, and Adam Ottavino).

Manager Chris Maloney is another familiar face, now in his fifth season as the Redbirds’ skipper. With ten wins, Maloney will become just the fifth manager in the city’s professional baseball history with 300 victories.

More observations from the Redbirds’ opening weekend:

* The 15 runs scored on Opening Night were the most in a Memphis lid-lifter since the Redbirds pounded Iowa, 14-3, in the 2000 inaugural season at AutoZone Park. The 8-7 Memphis loss was the first opening game in which each team scored at least seven runs since the Chicks lost to Birmingham, 11-8, in 1960. All the offense — Memphis and Oklahoma City combined for 28 hits — was ironic when you consider the Redhawks’ starter (Jordan Lyles) is the top prospect in the Houston Astros’ farm system.

* The Redbirds don’t appear to have much power in their lineup beyond Stavinoha and first baseman Mark Hamilton. Memphis took three of four from Oklahoma City over the weekend without a single home run. (One player to watch is reserve outfielder Andrew Brown, who hit 22 homers in 361 at bats for Double-A Springfield last year.) But they could make up for a lack of long-ball with speed (an element the parent St. Louis Cardinals are desperately missing). In Chambers and Robinson, Memphis has two centerfielders in the outfield (Robinson made three stellar plays in left Thursday night). Newcomers Pete Kozma (shortstop) and Matt Carpenter (third base) won’t clog the bases either. Jon Jay led the 2010 Redbirds with merely 13 stolen bases. That figure should be doubled this summer.

* The picnic terrace beyond right field is a great addition to the ballpark. Redbirds general manager Ben Weiss describes it as a “destination point,” and he’s right on. There were scores of fans in an area that was typically pure green (the color of the empty seats) in years past. The area provides the finest view of the downtown skyline, the definitive jigsaw-puzzle image of AutoZone Park. (The tables are smartly placed perpendicular to the playing field, so no fan concentrating on his barbecue nachos will be drilled in the back of the head by Hamilton’s next home run.)

It’s a small touch, but an important one for Cardinal fans.

Last season, a fan strolling along the boardwalk down the leftfield line could stop and gaze at a giant screen featuring the image of Tino Martinez, a man who last played for St. Louis in 2003. New banners are now in place, one honoring the great Stubby Clapp (the only Redbird to have his uniform number retired), another former Redbird and current (injured) Cardinal ace, Adam Wainwright, and a third with the Redbirds celebrating their 2009 PCL title. The Redbirds have done a poor job of marketing their history of success stories (individual and team), but this screen is a step in the right direction.

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