AutoZone Park and the Steroids Era



AutoZone Park is the Mark McGwire of minor-league baseball stadiums.

Like the former St. Louis Cardinal slugger, the park is gigantic and juiced.

This week the national media rediscovered a story that has been around for more than a year about the likely future of the ballpark and the Memphis Redbirds. My colleague Frank Murtaugh interviewed John Pontius a year ago. Frank also wrote this story about the park's financial plight before other local and national media jumped on it.

McGwire was juiced on steroids when he hit 70 home runs in 1998, setting the all-time single-season record, and when he appeared in Memphis with the Cardinals at the opening of AutoZone Park in 2000. The ballpark was juiced on hype and an unsustainable financing plan.

AutoZone Park has more than 14,000 seats plus a left-field berm and right-field picnic area and cost $80 million. It was a thrilling sight to see when more than 15,000 people came out to see the Cardinals and McGwire open the stadium with an exhibition game in 2000, just as it was thrilling to watch McGwire break Roger Maris's home run record and match Sammy Sosa home run for home run during the 1998 season.

By the same token, it was sad to see the crowds decline to a couple thousand or so, and McGwire descend into disgrace.

Thirteen years later, AutoZone Park is still a beautiful sight but too big and expensive by half. There are 44 luxury suites, many of them rarely used, whose leases expire after next year. Meanwhile, newer minor-league parks have no suites. The math on $80 million simply doesn't work.

McGwire was a very good ballplayer who juiced to become a muscle-bound behemoth and a great home run hitter. The ballpark failed its bondholders. McGwire failed his fans, and fell well short of the number of votes needed to get into the Hall of Fame again this year.

A no-juice major-league hitter does very well to hit 35 home runs year in and year out. A no-juice minor-league baseball stadium does very well to draw 7,000 fans per game year in and year out. Double those numbers and something's not going to add up.

The Memphis Redbirds open the 2013 season tonight with a double-header and, Murtaugh says, a line-up of future stars.

AutoZone Park was a case of Memphis thinking big but not being able to meet expectations; FedExForum was a case of Memphis thinking big and rising to expectations. Some of the credit for the latter must go to the former. The optimism was contagious, and spread to an ownership group and pursuit team determined to build a major-league stadium and attract a major-league team and a city and region willing to support it.

AutoZone Park was part of a development package that included the apartments to the east, the downtown elementary school, and the renovation of the William Moore office building. It replaced a blighted empty building, a porno theater, a mule barn, and parking lots on the corner across from The Peabody, downtown's most enduring commercial landmark. Sooner or later, the city will make a deal to buy the ballpark for a fraction of what it cost, as it should.

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