Every year as September approaches, I find myself considering how the soon-ending Memphis Redbirds season will be remembered. The inaugural campaign of 1998 had Vince Coleman, J.D. Drew, and visions of a new downtown ballpark. There were the championships seasons of 2000 and 2009, of course, Albert Pujols and David Freese becoming heroes in Memphis before St. Louis knew their names. Just two years ago, Oscar Taveras, Michael Wacha, and Kolten Wong made AutoZone Park prospect central. So how will the 2015 season stand out in the history books?
• The easiest name to remember will be Jeremy Hazelbaker’s, and not just for the way it makes your tongue dance when you say it. The 28-year-old outfielder was released by the Dodgers organization on May 1st, having hit .245 in 14 games for Double-A Tulsa. The Cardinals signed him two weeks later and assigned him to Double-A Springfield, where he found his stroke and hit .308 in 40 games before earning a promotion to Memphis. With the Redbirds, Hazelbaker has hit .303 (through Sunday) and driven in 35 runs in just 44 games while manning rightfield on a nightly basis. He plays the game hard, does little things on the bases right (there actually are no “little things” in baseball), and seems to be knocking on the door of his major-league debut. Let’s hope the Dodgers get to see it.
• Forty-five players. The Redbirds have suited up 45 baseball players in five months, a profound ripple effect of injuries shelving the likes of Jon Jay, Matt Adams, and Adam Wainwright in St. Louis (and Matt Holliday, and Randal Grichuk, etc.). This has to have made first-year manager Mike Shildt’s job especially challenging. Is Tommy Pham available to play centerfield tonight ... or filling a vacancy up I-55? Where can Tyler Lyons fit into the rotation? Wait ... he’s in St. Louis making a spot start. The roster turnover in Memphis makes it especially hard for fans to connect with the players they’re cheering. Had Holliday and Jay stayed healthy, for instance, Stephen Piscotty would still be starring at AutoZone Park. The Redbirds may have just two players with 100 hits this season (Dean Anna and Rafael Ortega) after seeing five such players in 2013 and 2014.
• Despite the roster fluctuation, the Redbirds recovered from a rotten start (14-23 on May 17th) and remained in contention for a playoff spot until a six-game losing streak this month derailed the pennant chase. They reeled off a pair of eight-game winning streaks despite not having any real thunder in the middle of the batting order. (The club’s leading RBI total — currently 51 by Xavier Scruggs — will be its lowest in nine years.) Solid starting pitching from Nick Greenwood, Tim Cooney, and, when he was here, Tyler Lyons kept Memphis competitive against teams with stronger attacks. (Cooney’s mid-summer appendectomy was a serious blow.) Had Marco Gonzales been healthy (he’s started 10 games for the Redbirds), the gap between Memphis and first-place Round Rock might be considerably less.
• On a personal level, the 2015 season marked the end of my daughters’ childhoods at AutoZone Park. The closing of the leftfield bluff and the playground adjacent to that bluff erased the physical remnants of at least two Memphians’ earliest memories of Redbirds baseball. And I’m not sure the ballpark is improved by the alterations. The two mini-bluffs around each foul pole are better than the often-empty seats they replaced, but they aren’t as open as the former big bluff, and not quite as safe, with foul balls — line-drive foul balls — finding their way to these landing zones regularly. The stadium’s footprint needed to be reduced. Here’s hoping young families can still make as many memories there as mine did.
• The empty seats at AutoZone Park had to be a shock to the system to the franchise’s new owners. The Cardinals have won so steadily since the turn of the century, and draw 3.5 million fans to Busch Stadium as though it’s a civic obligation to attend baseball games in downtown St. Louis. Alas, with four home games left on the schedule, the Redbirds are dead last in the Pacific Coast League in average attendance (4,050). And this is a significant drop from the figure a year ago: 5,693 (ninth in the PCL). The model for business at Third and Union clearly needs some adjusting. Concession prices are steep for minor-league action. Having heard rumors of a $5 beer in the stadium (standard price: $8), I spent half an hour at a game in late July asking vendors where I could find such a deal. No one knew. If a fan can’t get much more than popcorn for $5, that fan may reconsider bringing a group to see a game at dinner time. Entire sections of empty seats on a Tuesday night can scream louder than fireworks on Saturday night.
• The Cardinals would not own baseball’s best record (78-45 through Sunday) were it not for contributions — large and small — from Piscotty, Lyons, Cooney, Pham, and Greg Garcia, all players who have appeared more at AutoZone Park this summer than Busch Stadium. Ultimately, this is the measuring stick for any minor-league season, particularly at the Triple-A level. Did the team help the parent club succeed? If St. Louis returns to the World Series, the 2015 Memphis Redbirds season will indeed be especially memorable.