The 2016 Memphis Redbirds concluded their home schedule with Sunday’s loss to the Nashville Sounds. They have eight road games to play (four in Oklahoma City, four at Round Rock), but won’t reach the Pacific Coast League playoffs for a second year in a row. A few thoughts as we near the end of the Redbirds’ 19th season in Memphis.
• It would be hard to script a better feel-good weekend to conclude the season at AutoZone Park. On Friday — the day after a walk-off victory — the Redbirds greeted the 10 millionth fan to enter the gates at Third (now B.B. King) and Union. (The prizes presented this lucky family would fill a small warehouse.) Better yet, former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, visited the ballpark as part of a promotion for Habitat for Humanity. Then Saturday, the stadium drew its largest crowd of the season with announced attendance of 11,041.
• The Redbirds have suited up 56 players this season, matching a record set in 2002. But it isn’t so much the men who have played at AutoZone Park this summer who have written the season’s story. It’s more a tale of those who did not. Last March, the Redbirds’ middle-infield appeared to be Aledmys Diaz (shortstop) and Greg Garcia (second base). But when St. Louis Cardinal shortstop Jhonny Peralta broke his left thumb late in spring training, Diaz found himself with a promotion and proceeded to hit .312 for the Cards until he had his own digit damaged by an inside pitch in late July. When incumbent second-baseman Kolten Wong struggled in St. Louis, Garcia was called to help spur the offense and has since become an integral — and versatile — member of the Cardinal bench. Outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker would have been a middle-of-the-order presence in the Memphis lineup, but Tommy Pham went down with an injury on Opening Day. Since making his big-league debut, Hazelbaker has drilled 11 home runs for St. Louis, including four as a pinch-hitter.
Then there’s the pitching. The Cardinals’ top prospect, Alex Reyes, sat out the season’s first seven weeks, having been suspended for testing positive for marijuana. He made only 14 starts for the Redbirds before being called up to help the Cardinal bullpen. The system’s second-ranked starting pitcher, Luke Weaver, made a solitary start for Memphis (August 8th) before being promoted to St. Louis after Michael Wacha went to the disabled list with a shoulder injury. It’s a form of fantasy baseball, but imagine this Redbirds team with Reyes and Weaver making 40 percent of the starts. It’s highly unlikely they’d be 11 games under .500 and in the cellar of their division had such a scenario met with reality.
• The Redbirds are again near the bottom of the PCL in attendance, having sold 324,581 tickets for the season, an average of 4,704 per game (ahead of only Colorado Springs). The numbers don’t jibe with a stadium annually ranked among the finest in minor-league baseball, and in a city that has shown a passion for sports, from the high school level to the NBA. What are the factors that weigh on the AZP turnstile count?
This season’s schedule was odd. From April 15th to July 3rd, Memphis had but one home stand longer than four games. That’s a lot of starting and stopping when it comes to stadium operations, sales efforts, and building any momentum when it comes to engaging fans with the product on the field. As mentioned above, the team’s top stars this season were two pitchers who started a total of 15 games, only seven of them at home. And concession prices remain steep, as much as $8 for a beer or hamburger. Fireworks on Saturday night continue to attract larger crowds. Theme nights — from Star Wars to Christmas in July — add some color to the concourse. And the right promotion will draw crowds: More than 9,000 attended a pair of games where Yadier Molina jerseys and Adam Wainwright bobbleheads were distributed. But Tuesday night in May? Wednesday night in August? These are the white whales of minor-league baseball.
The Redbirds hit the 9,000 mark seven times this season after never hosting such a crowd in 2015, and total attendance was up more than 15 percent this season. So growth is evident. Can it be sustained?
• Next year will bring the 20th season of Redbirds baseball in Memphis. The anniversary would be a nice occasion for the club to start celebrating its history, and in a manner that would remind local baseball fans — for posterity’s sake — how glorious the team’s history has been at times. The Pujols Seat stands regally on the rightfield bluff, where Albert’s championship-winning home run landed way back in September 2000. Beyond that, there is nothing visual that would tell a casual fan that baseball was played at AutoZone Park the day before he or she walked through the gates.
Up in St. Louis, the parent Cardinals fly 11 flags representing each of the franchise’s World Series championships. The 11 years are painted as pennants above the home team’s dugout. Here in Memphis, you can find acknowledgment of the Redbirds’ two PCL championships (2000 and 2009) on a wall next to the batting cage, below the main concourse, and only with a credential for access.
The franchise’s lone retired number — Stubby Clapp’s 10 — was unceremoniously erased from the bullpen wall when the Cardinals retired the same number to honor Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa. Five former Redbirds have been honored as MVP of a League Championship Series: Adam Kennedy, Pujols, Placido Polanco, David Freese, and Michael Wacha. There’s no indication any of these stars once played in a Redbirds uniform. Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina have started more games as the Cardinal battery than any two men in the storied franchise’s history. They also played together in Memphis in 2004, as thousands who lined up for those promotional items well know. It’s time casual baseball fans are reminded about two decades of Redbirds history. Who knows? They might become more than casual fans.