The beginning of every baseball season brings new first impressions at AutoZone Park.
Most apparent: The Memphis Redbirds again have a talented team. Even with centerfielder Harrison Bader (promoted by the St. Louis Cardinals) and first-baseman Luke Voit (oblique injury) out of the lineup, the Redbirds have won nine of their first 11 games, the best start in franchise history. (Last year’s club was merely 6-5 after 11 games.)
Three more takeaways from the season’s first home stand:
• It took 17 years — since the franchise’s first Pacific Coast League title — but AutoZone Park finally has a permanent display saluting the championship teams that have played in the ballpark.
Prominently displayed below the press box are the years 2000, 2009, and 2017, forever binding the franchise’s past success to its current progress.
Even better, all the Cardinals’ retired numbers — from Dean to Gibson, from Musial to Brock — are also there for the gazing, along with two distinct tributes to Memphis baseball. Stubby Clapp’s number 10 — originally retired in 2007, only to be taken down a few years later when the Cardinals retired the same number for Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa — is there (next to a second 10 for LaRussa).
You’ll also see a microphone honoring player-turned-broadcaster (and native Memphian) Charlie Lea, right next to the same image saluting the great Jack Buck. These are merely cosmetic improvements, sure. But it feels like the stadium’s spirit is finally complete.
• The Redbirds won a total of 97 games last season and hoisted a championship pennant despite suiting up a total of 62 players over the course of the season. Those 62 players answered to one manager, so it stands to reason Stubby Clapp had a unifying influence.
During last Wednesday’s matinee against Omaha, fans paying close attention got a glimpse at what makes Clapp’s relationships with his players productive.
Memphis had taken an early 3-0 lead, but the Storm Chasers plated two runs and had a runner on second base with two outs in the top of the fifth inning, with Redbird starter Dakota Hudson approaching 100 pitches for the game.
Clapp strolled to the mound, typically an indication that a relief pitcher is on the way. Surrounded by the Redbirds’ infielders and catcher, Clapp looked up at his 6-foot, 5-inch hurler, had a brief conversation, then turned around and walked back to the dugout. Hudson retired the next batter and the Redbirds’ bullpen shut down Omaha the rest of the way for the win.
By leaving Hudson in the game — with the lead in jeopardy — Clapp gave his pitcher a chance to earn a victory (five innings being required for a starter to get the W). The gain (his young pitcher’s trust) was worth more than the risk (a loss in early April).
There will come a time — many, actually — when Clapp will indeed have to remove a starting pitcher with a game in the balance. But when he shows an understanding for what’s at stake for the player, that player better understands the team’s collective priority.
• Gimmickry with baseball uniforms — right up to the major leagues — is getting out of hand. (Camouflage fits a baseball diamond like batting gloves do a battlefield.) But I kinda like the Redbirds’ “throwback Thursdays” promotion.
The team will wear Memphis Chicks uniforms for Thursday home games, a nod to the brand that represented Memphis professional baseball for much of the 20th century. (The Chicks last played here in 1997, the year before the Redbirds franchise arrived from Louisville.)
But there’s a big-picture oddity to the approach, one clearly aimed at older fans with memories of Bo Jackson and Tim Raines, if not Luis Aparicio. Those older fans can no longer listen to the Redbirds on the radio, at least not as they typically have while tinkering in the garage, driving in their car, or grilling in the back yard.
Broadcasts are now entirely digital. You can listen to Steve Selby’s call on your computer (memphisredbirds.com) or via the TuneIn app on your smartphone. This may be the way of the new century.
For all their recent success on the field, though, the Redbirds continue to battle for relevance in a city that cheers loudest for a basketball coach on Opening Night. (Penny Hardaway threw out the ceremonial first pitch last Tuesday.) Making it harder to access the team — particularly for the “grizzled vets” among their market — appears to be a risk the Redbirds are willing to take in 2018.
• The best story of the young season — and there’s not a close second — is Daniel
The 26-year-old righty tossed five shutout innings in his first start of the season at Round Rock, then struck out 12 Iowa Cubs in just five innings last Saturday in a Redbirds win at AutoZone Park.
All this less than a year after Poncedeleon lost his 2017 season — and quite nearly his life — after a line drive fractured his skull in a game at Iowa last May.
The California native would be a great sports story had he merely been able to take the mound again. But to make the impact he’s already made for a team with high aspirations after such a traumatic injury makes Poncedeleon a great human story. Easiest man in baseball to cheer this season.