A year ago at this time, the Memphis Redbirds were in the midst of a season so bad they were already almost 20 games out of first place. It was, as infielder Ryan Jackson recalled, a “grind.”
This season, the Redbirds have played much better. But they also have been waiting for those cherished few weeks when they are the only game in town. The Grizzlies captured the city’s imagination with a “Grit and Grind” playoff run that stretched to the Western Conference Finals. Then the postseason ended and the Grizzlies dominated the headlines with the Lionel Hollins Saga.
And, as always happens for a week in June, attention fell on the popular FedEx St. Jude Golf Classic, which this year featured a spirited charge from Phil Mickelson on the last day.
Brock Peterson of the Memphis Redbirds looks to tag out Robbie Grossman of the Oklahoma City Redhawks at AutoZone Park. Now that the Grizzlies' season is over, the Redbirds are hoping for bigger crowds.
(Daily News/Lance Murphey)
Only now are the Redbirds starting to spread their wings.
“The spotlight’s on us,” Redbirds general manager Ben Weiss said less than 24 hours after the Grizzlies announced they would not be renewing coach Lionel Hollins’ contract. “The golf tournament is finished, the Grizzlies are finished, high school football is a couple months out, the SEC football craze is still a couple of months out.
“It’s all us right now, us vs. the weather.”
Mother Nature seemed to sense it was game on because on the afternoon Weiss said this, temperatures were pushing into the mid-90s. Just another challenge among many for a minor league baseball team trying to get its slice of the local entertainment pie.
“The Grizzlies are a positive and a negative for us,” said marketing manager Erin O’Donnell. “Obviously, we’d rather have those people (at Grizzlies games) at the ballpark, but getting people Downtown only benefits us. We still really did well on those nights.”
Said Weiss: “The Grizzlies effect, to be honest, probably has a bigger effect on our sponsorship business than our ticket business.”
Like the Grizzlies, the Redbirds this season have an improved product. Outfielder Oscar Taveras is one of the top five prospects in all of baseball and second baseman Kolten Wong is one of the top five prospects in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Triple-A teams such as the Redbirds can sometimes be nothing more than weigh stations for failed veterans and prospects that have turned into suspects.
But players such as Taveras, Wong and pitcher Michael Wacha, who started the season in Memphis and is now in the rotation for the Cardinals, have a chance to be St. Louis mainstays. They remind Weiss of 2009 when current Cardinal fixtures David Freese, Allen Craig and Jon Jay all played for the Redbirds.
“Very similar,” Weiss said. “And we’re trying to stress that.”
Through 64 games this season the Redbirds were just 32-32, yet were in first place in the Pacific Coast League’s American Northern Division with a 2.5 game lead. Wong was batting .319 and Taveras .311. The latter, especially, is projected as an offensive player and grabbed Memphis manager Pop Warner’s attention with an amazing at-bat earlier this season.
“He hit a changeup that probably would have bounced in the dirt (had he not swung) for a home run,” Warner said.
Wong, Warner said, has been most impressive with the glove: “Highlight reel plays.”
This collection of players is certainly better than last year’s, but even good players can be made to look bad when they’re part of a team that’s losing almost every day.
“Anytime you’re losing a lot of games nobody’s happy,” infielder Ryan Jackson said. “Tensions start to flare. It’s just a better environment now. Everybody reaps the benefits of winning.”
Weiss says the improved environment reaches into the front office and back down onto the field long before game time.
“Attitudes are a little brighter and tarp pulls are a little easier at 6 a.m. with a winning team,” he said.
Now, for a short time, the Redbirds mostly have the sports stage to themselves. And 13 years after AutoZone Park opened at Third and Union, that stage is still the best the minor leagues have to offer.
“There are a lot of nice parks out there now, but there’s not a close second to AutoZone Park,” said long-time Redbirds broadcaster Steve Selby. “It’s a major-league experience. When you’re winning there’s more atmosphere, and when you’re winning fans tend to remember that and might come back another time or two.”