When the final out is tallied in the Labor Day game between the Redbirds and Nashville Sounds, Memphis will have put a complete decade into the Triple-A record books. As this 10th summer of Redbirds baseball winds down, the time seems right for a year-by-year reflection on names and memories that should stand the test of time (perhaps with a gentle reminder now and then). We'll look at 1998 through 2002 this week, with the more recent half-decade on the board next week.
1998 -- Who better to lead off a game that married Memphis to the Cardinals than Vince Coleman himself? Attempting a comeback at age 36, the former base-stealing demon singled and scored the game's only run in front of 8,637 fans at Tim McCarver Stadium. (The AstroTurf infield, if not the crowd size, must have felt familiar to Coleman's legs.) Unable to land a promotion, Coleman retired after 20 games, but those Redbirds -- with future big-leaguers like J.D. Drew, Adam Kennedy, Placido Polanco, Braden Looper, and Joe McEwing -- went on to a record of 74-70. Brady Raggio -- where have you gone? -- led the PCL in ERA.
1999 -- The Summer of Ankiel, Part I. Between stints at Double-A Arkansas and Memphis, the Next Sandy Koufax went 13-3 with 194 strikeouts in 138 innings pitched on his way to being named Minor League Player of the Year by Baseball America. Not quite a month after his May 21st promotion to Memphis, Ankiel struck out 14 Iowa Cubs at McCarver. Not many curveballs are visible from the third-base box seats, but Ankiel's made your jaw drop. This is going to be hard to explain to my grandchildren (see the 2007 remarks, next week).
2000 -- The first game ever played at AutoZone Park would be the seminal highlight of the 2000 season . . . were it not for the last game played that year. On April 1st, the grand ballpark's ribbon-cutting was followed by an exhibition game between the Redbirds and St. Louis Cardinals (with one Mark McGwire in uniform, though unable to play because of a back ailment). The minor-leaguers came out on top, 10-6, in front of 15,000 red-clad fans. The Cards' Eli Marrero (a former Redbird) hit the stadium's first home run.
It was the final home run of 2000, though, that now has a seat in the rightfield stands painted red in its honor. Wearing number 6 and playing in only his 12th Triple-A game, Albert Pujols hit a 13th-inning home run just inside the rightfield foul pole to win the Pacific Coast League championship (three games to one) over the Salt Lake Buzz. Big-league glory was a few months away for El Hombre, but for those of us there on September 15th, 2000, the birth of a legend won't soon be forgotten.
2001 -- This was the first sub-.500 Memphis Redbird team, and they were pretty lousy. The names Luis Saturria, Bill Ortega, and Dave Zancanaro aren't often mentioned at Third and Union before the third beer is drained. But Bud Smith was fun to watch. The slight lefty couldn't approximate Ankiel's dominance on the hill, but he was good enough to start the Triple-A All-Star Game, and later hurled a no-hitter . . . for St. Louis. Traded the next season to Philadelphia in the Scott Rolen deal, Smith hasn't seen the big leagues since.
2002 -- The season opened with an indecisive 3-3 tie in an exhibition game against the Cardinals, and it ended with a perfectly mediocre record of 71-71. First baseman Ivan Cruz led the entire minor leagues in home runs with 35, and Chad Meyers topped the PCL with 43 stolen bases. (Only one Redbird has stolen as many as 20 in the five years since.) Let's not forget the late Mike Coolbaugh's contribution either. Playing third base every day, Coolbaugh slammed 29 home runs.
Check in next week for 2003-2007.