Regardless of how the next five months unfold, you can say this about the 2007 Memphis Redbirds: they scored more runs in their first inning than the world champion St. Louis Cardinals did in their first 27.
A day after the parent club was summarily swept by the New York Mets to open their title defense, Memphis took the field for a Thursday-night opener at AutoZonePark against the Oklahoma RedHawks. Having started the 2006 campaign with nine straight losses, this was the closest our Triple-A franchise has been to .500 in some time. A sparse crowd -- ticket sales of 8,088, compared with a Friday-night opener a year ago that sold 12,217 seats -- came out for introductions to a team they wouldn't recognize from last August. "We were hit on three levels tonight," acknowledged team president Dave Chase. "It's cold [gametime temperature of 50 degrees], it's a holiday weekend, and for most fans, Opening Day was the Cardinals."
Chase was speaking, of course, of the previous weekend, when more than 27,000 fans gathered for a pair of games involving the world champs, including the inaugural Civil Rights Game on March 31st. So while the first "official" crowd of the season may have been short of expectations, Chase complained with a broad smile, for the exhibition weekend could hardly have gone better. (Chase confirmed that the Civil Rights Game is to be played in Memphis again next year, though the Cardinals will not be participants. The aim is to have two of the original 16 franchises -- one from each major
league -- face one another on a rotating basis.)
Based on the opening contest, this year's Redbird club is bound for a
considerably better season than the 58-86 nightmare of 2006. To begin with, it's a seasoned, but still young lineup. (Average age of Thursday's batting order, including DH Ryan Ludwick: 27.) And there was no sign of Junior Spivey, Brian Daubach, or Timo Perez at Third and Union, players whose best days on the field are well behind them. Instead, there were legitimate prospects on the left side of the infield (shortstop Brendan Ryan and third-baseman Travis Hanson) and in rightfield (Nick Stavinoha).
There was even drama on Opening Night, and it involved the team's headliner, pitching-phenom-turned-centerfielder Rick Ankiel. Having seen a 4-3 lead turn into a 5-4 deficit in the ninth inning, Memphis put runners at first and third with a man out for Ankiel, who proceeded to ground out to first base. (Hanson struck out to end the game.) Had the mercurial star/enigma connected for a game-winning drive, a fading legend might regain some weight. For an outfielder, though, there's always tomorrow.
The next three tomorrows, it turns out, were bright -- however brisk -- for the home team. Playing in temperatures more common in the Eastern League this time of year, Memphis took the next three games from Oklahoma, giving up a total of three runs over the last 27 innings of the series. If Mike Smith, Chris Narveson, and Matt Ginter pitch the way they did against the RedHawks, Redbird fans can ponder postseason possibilities for the first time in seven years. Just as promising was the defensive play over the opening weekend. In Sunday's matinee, Ryan and second-baseman Edgar Gonzalez each turned in sparkling plays behind Ginter. Your middle infield will win (or lose) five to ten games a season. This year's pair looks to be a dramatic improvement over John Nelson (now a reserve for the Redbirds) and Spivey. If Ankiel can make the spacious centerfield at AutoZone Park his territory, opposing teams may find their innings shorter than they were a year ago.
Concerns? Primary among these is the health of St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter. Battling a swollen elbow (an MRI is scheduled this week), Carpenter will miss at least two starts for the Cardinals. The domino effect will cost the Redbirds Blake Hawksworth (their opening-night starter), and could impact what appears to be a solid Memphis starting rotation for weeks, if not the entire season.
Parent-club troubles aside, the Redbirds finished their first weekend as division leaders, two games up on Iowa, Omaha, and Nashville. Merely 140 games left to verify the promise of four chilly days in April.