An open letter to the Memphis City Council:
Talking baseball in December can be challenging. No standings to check. No game schedules to plan around. No line for a cold drink or barbecue nachos at AutoZone Park. The Hot Stove League isn’t what it once was, blockbuster trades having been supplanted by free agents leaving one team for another to be paid salaries that would make Gordon Gekko blush.
But baseball season is coming. Pitchers and catchers report to spring training less than two months after Christmas. Temperatures will rise, grass will get greener, and prospects will don new uniforms on their journey to fulfillment of an American boy’s dream. And we’ll see many of those prospects at AutoZone Park, players like Michael Wacha (last April a Memphis Redbird, last October the National League Championship Series MVP), Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong, and Oscar Taveras. The faces of Memphis baseball will be back, on their way to becoming faces of the St. Louis Cardinals, the second-most powerful brand in all of Major League Baseball if you combine regional popularity with longevity and championships.
Baseball will be back, indeed, unless you muck it up.
Built at a cost of more than $70 million, AutoZone Park was drenched in red ink from Opening Day of its inaugural season almost 14 years ago. No business model before or since could erase this kind of debt by selling tickets to Triple-A baseball games. The debt is not going away (at least not conventionally, with an infusion of cash). It didn’t for the Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation, and it will not for the current bondholder, Fundamental Advisors. Until the current arrangement is washed clean — much of that debt swallowed by one party or another — AutoZone Park will never be a profitable venture. To evaluate mayor AC Wharton’s proposal for the City of Memphis to purchase the ballpark under such criteria — How can the city make money? — is a swing and a miss at a pitch two feet outside the strike zone.
When you reconvene Tuesday, and when you finally vote on the matter on January 7th (per the mayor’s wishes), instead of trembling over the numerous worst-case scenarios — an obligation of city councils, to be sure — consider the best-case scenarios already on the table. Hands are extended, ready to shake.
• The St. Louis Cardinals want their top minor-league affiliate to play at Third and Union. They want to pay the City of Memphis for a team to play at AutoZone Park. Take this for granted at your peril. You think ticket sales and sponsorships have dragged since the Grizzlies’ arrival in 2001 and the economic collapse of 2008? Gaze into your crystal balls and imagine sales and sponsorship for the Triple-A (Double-A?) affiliate of the San Diego Padres or Minnesota Twins playing in downtown Memphis.
• The Cardinals want to be part of Memphis baseball for a long time. And yes, a 17-year commitment is a long time in the world of professional baseball. Why are the Cardinals so attached to AutoZone Park? Spacious clubhouses may have something to do with it, but the Cardinals are attached to the ballpark because Memphis is Cardinal Country. It’s a marriage formed over the airwaves of KMOX radio throughout the 20th century, boys and girls in Central Gardens listening to Stan Musial hit five home runs in a double-header at some distant ballpark. Even the best of marriages require work and attention to detail. These cross-generational details are in your hands.
• Baseball must be played at AutoZone Park. This is no conference center or multipurpose arena. It’s a baseball stadium. The choices — however the costs are broken down and revenues shared — are but two scenarios: the business of baseball proceeds in Memphis, or it shuts down. And without baseball, that tract of land at Third and Union some of you deem unworthy of $20 million will be worth a tiny fraction of that figure. I’m guessing the cost of demolishing the stadium — to try something else on the property — would cost somewhere between $5 million and $10 million. And what could rise from the destruction of such a civic asset?
Those are the words I’ll leave you with: civic asset. AutoZone Park — with the St. Louis Cardinals nesting there — is a civic asset that makes Memphis a better city than we would be without it.
Make sure baseball comes back to Memphis. And happy holidays.