As the Redbirds wrap up their first decade in Memphis, we pick up where we left off a week ago, with a season-by-season reflection on baseball memories that should last many decades to come.
2003 -- On July 16, 2003, Memphis got to show off AutoZone Park to a national television audience, as the Redbirds hosted the Triple-A All-Star Game. Among the players that represented either the Pacific Coast League or International League that Wednesday night were Chone Figgins, Garrett Atkins, Rich Harden, Johnny Estrada, Chase Utley, Aaron Miles, and Victor Martinez, all names you'll see today in major-league box scores. As for the home team, Jason Ryan led the PCL in ERA and first-baseman John Gall was named the Cardinals' minor-league player of the year (.312 with 16 homers and 73 RBIs). Memphis was never in playoff contention, though, finishing 64-79.
2004 -- The Redbirds enjoyed their first winning season (barely, 73-71) since the 2000 championship year. Pitcher Dan Haren won 11 games, led the PCL with 150 strikeouts and started for the PCL in the Triple-A All-Star Game. (Just three years later, he'd start for the American League in the major-league version.) Kevin Witt led the PCL with 36 homers and set a Redbirds record with 107 RBIs. Supported by Scott Seabol (31 long balls) and Gall (22), Memphis established a franchise record for home runs (174) that still stands. A young catcher named Yadier Molina hit .302 in 37 games before being promoted to St. Louis. Memphis led all of minor-league baseball in ticket sales with an average of 10,437.
2005 -- Chris Gissell became the fourth Redbird pitcher in seven years to start the Triple-A All-Star Game. Gissell was part of the finest starting rotation Memphis has seen in years, one that included Kevin Jarvis (11 wins and a league-leading ERA of 3.38), Bill Pulsipher, and a pair of top Cardinal prospects (Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright). With the Cardinals hit by the injury bug, Memphis sent several players to the parent club, starting with outfielder John Rodriguez, who hit 17 home runs (including four grand slams) and drove in 47 in only 34 games.
2006 -- Simply put, this was the worst team in Memphis Redbirds history. Beyond the 58-86 record, the team lacked pop (John Nelson paced the club with 21 homers), speed (Junior Spivey was tops with 13 stolen bases), and pitching (Chris Narveson's eight wins were a team high). Having hit seven home runs in 52 games as a Redbird, Chris Duncan earned a promotion to St. Louis, where he hit 22 more in 90 games as a Cardinal. Reyes won six of seven as a Redbird, then was the star for St. Louis in Game 1 of the World Series, retiring 17 consecutive Detroit Tigers.
2007 -- Two positions, two stadiums, and eight years of separation. It's safe to say Memphis has never had a baseball star quite like Rick Ankiel. Having starred as a pitcher in 1999 at Tim McCarver Stadium, Ankiel made a glorious return to Class Triple-A - and Memphis -- as a power-hitting centerfielder. Conjuring more comparisons with Babe Ruth and Stan Musial than any baseball mortal deserves, Ankiel hit 32 home runs to lead the Pacific Coast League before his August 9th promotion to St. Louis. Still only 28, Ankiel has shown power to the opposite field, and with better strike-zone commandment (he struck out 90 times as a Redbirds, compared with 25 walks), could become an everyday player for a St. Louis Cardinal club thirsty for youth, power, and outfielders. Ankiel has been a lonely bright spot for the 20007 Redbirds, as Memphis will finish last in its division of the PCL for the first time since 2003.