Deep in the bowels of AutoZone Park — below ground level, where “authorized personnel only” can be found — there sits a batting cage, adjacent to the Memphis Redbirds’ clubhouse. Painted on the wall next to the cage are 14 yellow pennants, each with the year a Memphis professional baseball team won a league championship. This is the one and only place a fan — if “authorized” — will see acknowledgment of the 2000 and 2009 Pacific Coast League championships won by the team that now calls the stadium home.
I’m a baseball fan. But the fan in me lives inside a baseball historian. No sport lends itself better to historical reflection than a game we can legitimately say our great-grandfathers enjoyed as much as we do today. The Redbirds franchise, suffice it to say, could improve its efforts at history lessons for Memphis baseball fans. Memphis Red Sox and Chicks t-shirts in the gift shop are nice, but there can be more.
The red “Pujols seat” in rightfield, while needing a paint job, is a great touch. (This is where a ball struck by Albert Pujols landed to earn Memphis the 2000 PCL title.) And the image of the St. Louis Cardinals’ legend of legends, Stan Musial, now adorning the rightfield wall is a huge step in the right direction. Even with just 15 years of Redbirds history, though, there’s so much more. Consider this a one-stop refresher on Redbirds history, a chronicle of the players and achievements that link yesterday’s stars with those we’ve yet to see.
• No fewer than five former Redbirds homered in their first major-league at-bat with the Cardinals (and three of them were pitchers). In 2000, Keith McDonald became just the second player to homer in his first two big-league at-bats. The others who came out swinging for the long ball: Chris Richard (2000) and pitchers Gene Stechschulte (2001), Adam Wainwright (2006), and Mark Worrell (2008).
• You probably know Pujols is the only former Redbird to earn league MVP honors (he’s done so three times). But did you know Pujols is but one of four former ’Birds to be named MVP of a League Championship Series? Adam Kennedy (2002 ALCS), Placido Polanco (2006 ALCS), and David Freese (2011 NLCS) are the others.
• Two pitchers hurled no-hitters for the Cardinals during the same season they played for Memphis: Jose Jimenez (1999) and Bud Smith (2001).
• Four Redbird pitchers have started the Triple-A All-Star Game: Larry Luebbers (1999), Bud Smith (2001), Dan Haren (2004), and Chris Gissell (2005). Three years after he started for the PCL, Haren started the major-league All-Star Game as a representative of the Oakland A’s.
• Former Redbird J.D. Drew homered and earned MVP honors in the 2008 major-league All-Star Game (as a member of the Boston Red Sox).
• No Memphis Redbird has won a PCL batting title, but the franchise can claim five ERA titles: Brady Raggio (1998), Clint Weibl (2000), Jason Ryan (2003), Kevin Jarvis (2005), and Mitchell Boggs (2008).
• Find me another franchise (at any level) that can say the same player led it one year in strikeouts (1999) and another in home runs (2007). Take a bow, Babe Ruth. And Rick Ankiel.
• Remember in Field of Dreams, how Moonlight Graham (a Memphis Turtle in 1906) just wanted one at-bat, and to wink at the pitcher like he knew what was coming? After being called up by the Cardinals in 2003, Bo Hart spent the better part of two weeks winking at big-league pitchers. Hart picked up 18 hits in his first 35 at-bats.
April 15th is a date sacred to baseball historians as it marks the anniversary of Jackie Robinson first taking the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. It’s a good week to remember that history matters at your local ballpark, too. (Let’s not forget that the Civil Rights Game was born at Third and Union.) Here’s hoping those in charge of AutoZone Park find new ways to embrace the past as they plot the stadium’s future.