The Memphis Redbirds are revealing more than they know about their internal problems. They're trying to keep a lid on the premature ending of the 2009 season for Returning Baseball to the Inner-city (RBI) by not letting their most credible Memphis baseball insider talk about it.
That's really no surprise. The fact is, RBI was never just about the feel-good story of kids and baseball. RBI was the cornerstone of the tax-free bonds that originally financed the $72 million AutoZone Park. No other city in the country had such an arrangement between sports and charity.
At one time, the Redbirds foundation was spending more on two high-level salaries than it was on RBI baseball. After an audit in 2001, the Redbirds agreed to pay the Internal Revenue Service $1.6 million to preserve their tax-exempt financing.
What do bonds have to do with poor kids and baseball? Good question. It was a convoluted fit from the get-go, and the financing scheme unraveled this year with plunging attendance and the bondholders demanding a change in management of the organization. Founder Dean Jernigan and Blues City Baseball are out, and Global Spectrum is in.
Reggie Williams is vice president of community relations for the Redbirds. When I called him Thursday, he confirmed that he was told by Dave Chase, president of baseball operations, not to speak about RBI calling off the season-ending championship games that were scheduled for this week.
In other words, a feel-good sports story about RBI is fine, but a business story that reveals some unpleasant facts about minor-league baseball and finance is not. Unfortunately, that is SO corporate and SO Memphis Redbirds.
Highly personable, Williams seemed like a perfect spokesman for RBI. He graduated from Southside High School in Memphis and played professional baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was assistant principal at Ridgeway High School and principal at Ridgeway Middle School. He is, in other words, highly capable of conducting an interview about RBI or anything else.
RBI faced long odds under any circumstances. Baseball is a game of long stretches of inaction with shorts bursts of intense action. Simply put, it's boring to a lot of kids who stand around in the heat while the pitcher struggles to throw a strike. In this age of sports specialization, baseball players cluster at county and private schools with predominantly white enrollment. Memphis City Schools teams that play powerhouses like Germantown or Houston or Bolton are routinely "slaughter-ruled" by scores like 18-0 after three innings.
I was immersed in this world for about 15 years as a coach and parent of a son who, to my knowledge, was the last and only MCS graduate to play baseball in the Southeastern Conference in at least 20 years.
Americans self-segregate when it comes to sports and some other things. Baseball is a case in point. Redbirds games fail to draw large numbers of black fans. RBI is a commendable attempt to introduce the game to a younger generation that prefers basketball and football. It will continue to struggle. It was not a good idea to make it the foundation of a financing plan. There is no point in hiding from the facts, as the Redbirds seem to be doing.