A few observations from the first weekend of Redbirds baseball:
• The current Redbirds roster is not packed with prospects, at least not according to the folks at Baseball America who compile such rankings. Among players in the St. Louis Cardinals system, reliever Sam Tuivailala is the highest-ranked Redbird (11th), followed by outfielders Charlie Tilson (13th) and Anthony Garcia (21st). All this means is there will be no entitlements for the players you see in white at AutoZone Park. None of them is expected to impact the big-league club in the near future, which gives every last one of them an edge with which to play. Tilson, Garcia, Memphis native Jacob Wilson, shortstop Alex Mejia, infielder Patrick Wisdom . . . these are all minor-league players in the purest form. Looking to catch the right eye (in the Cardinal system or elsewhere).
Catcher Mike Ohlman crushed a pinch-hit homer to help the Redbirds beat Colorado Springs Saturday night. You don’t know Ohlman unless you’re a card-carrying seamhead, but he belted 12 home runs and drove in 69 runs last season at Double-A Springfield. He’s one level shy of the major leagues and knows it. Motivated baseball players, it should be noted, are fun to watch.
• The Redbirds’ new principal owner, Peter Freund, would seem to have two distinct factors in his favor when it comes to the business of baseball at AutoZone Park. First, he comes to the table already an owner in the world of minor-league baseball (Class-A franchises in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and Charleston, South Carolina). There will be no surprises for Freund in game-day presentation, revenue streams, sponsorship deals, etc. This being a Triple-A operation — and in a stadium the size of AZP — the volume will be new. And creative ideas are needed to bridge the gap between an acclaimed stadium and the Pacific Coast League’s smallest attendance figure (from 2015). But Freund is no rookie in rightfield.
And Freund is young (39). When I asked him about his favorite New York Yankees growing up, I assumed they’d be Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson. Turns out his favorites were Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield, “the teams [of the Eighties] that didn’t win,” as he put it.
It’s unlikely Freund will make “old-school” mistakes in selling Redbirds baseball. Fans will no longer line up simply because baseball is the national pastime (it isn’t any more, at least so say millions of NFL fans). Entertainment at the ballpark today must be delivered in different packages than it was as recently as 2000, when AutoZone Park opened. Freund understands that, and he emphasized the local community — and local businesses — during his press conference last week. The Redbirds may be the Cardinals’ top affiliate but they are, in fact, a Memphis team. This must be sold better.
• Redbirds president Craig Unger has witnessed considerable transformation since taking his post two years ago this month. The ballpark he calls an office underwent significant renovation before the 2015 season and now his boss — for the first time in years — does not wear a St. Louis Cardinals hat (at least not outside Memphis). Unger has the confidence of both new owner Peter Freund and Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak; each made that clear during last week’s press conference. But what must Unger do to fill more seats at AutoZone Park?
During an informal conversation last week, Unger emphasized two things: group sales and “STEs” (season-ticket equivalents). There’s no better way to fill a section (or suite) at the ballpark than with a large group attending together. It’s a point of emphasis for the Redbirds’ sales team, and not just for weekend games. Games on Mondays through Wednesdays have been moved up a half-hour, to 6:35, while schools remain in session. Say what you will about the charms of the ballpark’s downtown location, but it means a drive of at least 20 minutes for most people attending. The aim is to get fans (especially young ones) to the stadium earlier and home by bedtime.
As for season-ticket sales, try convincing a die-hard baseball fan to attend 72 games in five months. The Redbirds are trying smaller, 18-game packages (with flexibility for which games a ticket-holder can attend), hoping to sell four of these (a “season-ticket equivalent”) for every full season ticket that goes unsold. Unger emphasizes the balance that must be found between accommodating those fans keeping score meticulously and those more interested in a cold one outside, the crack of the bat little more than a soundtrack for socializing. Find enough of each and you come much closer to filling a 10,000-seat stadium. (With the Grizzlies playing the mighty Golden State Warriors at the same time five blocks south, the Redbirds sold 6,415 tickets to last Saturday’s game, a figure more than 50 percent higher than the team averaged last season.)
• In their first win of the season last Friday in Atlanta, the Cardinals set a major-league record by hitting three pinch-hit home runs. All three players who went deep — Jeremy Hazelbaker, Aledmys Diaz, and Greg Garcia — wore the uniform of the Memphis Redbirds in 2015. (Hazelbaker and Diaz would be with Memphis now were it not for injuries to the Cardinals’ Tommy Pham and Ruben Tejada.) The record-breaking night is the latest example of seeing Cardinal history at AutoZone Park, just before it actually happens.