The huge ring that Craig Unger wears on his finger just doesn’t tell the story of the St. Louis Cardinals’ 2011 World Series triumph, although that’s the story Unger is in the business of trying to help replicate.
Unger, introduced by the Cardinals at AutoZone Park a few days ago as the Memphis Redbirds’ new general manager, was working as an account executive in the Cardinals’ front office when former Redbird, and now former Cardinal, David Freese became a World Series hero.
But being a part of a World Series championship, working for a big-league ballclub, and now sitting in the GM’s chair for the Triple-A Redbirds, began long ago – with a little boy playing baseball on a team coached by his dad and on a field near the family’s home in Waterloo, Ill., about a half-hour from St. Louis.
The Memphis Redbirds' new general manager, Craig Unger, brings to his position with the club a deep connection to the St. Louis Cardinals, which recently bought the minor league team.
(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
The plot thickens, however, upon learning that Unger’s grandfather played high school baseball against Whitey Herzog, the beloved Cardinals manager who took the team to three World Series – winning one – in the 1980s.
Whitey and Unger’s grandfather, Bill Schmidt, remained close friends. Close enough to regularly fish together and for Craig and his younger brother Brian, who would go on to pitch in Division 1 at the University of Hawaii, to make regular trips to Busch Stadium to hang out with Whitey, get autographs from players such as Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee, and take a little batting practice.
“We grew up around the stadium and the Cardinals,” Unger, 36, said.
So naturally Craig kept playing baseball and believing, like all boys do, that the game would offer as much future as past. In high school, Unger carried multiple gloves to the field, never knowing if he would be pitching, catching, playing in left field or at first, second or third base.
“You think, wow, I’m good enough I could play all of these, but it was I wasn’t good enough to play any one of them all the time,” he said with a laugh.
So Unger figured out his baseball future was off the field. He graduated from Webster University with a degree in communications and worked nine years for KTRS Radio in St. Louis before joining the Cardinals in 2008. That was a proud moment for his grandfather, who had been at all his games.
“He was quick to criticize and quick to compliment when you did something good, but he wanted you to get better.”
Then came the day his grandfather first saw his World Series ring.
“He cried,” Unger said, noting that his grandfather passed away last November. “I went over to his house and he looked at it and he was speechless. He teared up, couldn’t believe it. For him, that was an emotional moment. Someone in the family got a World Series ring.”
But let it be noted that Grandpa was in favor of this move; coming to Memphis and helping the Cardinals, as new owners, revitalize the Redbirds and AutoZone Park.
Unger has been making trips to Memphis for months, getting the lay of the land, taking in a couple of Grizzlies games, and now as he walks around the ballpark hearing from fans what they do and don’t like.
St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak has said any significant changes to the ballpark, such as taking out seats down the foul lines and replacing them with berms, won’t happen before the 2015 season.
“We’re gonna reduce seats, but not a crazy amount,” Unger said. “In minor- league baseball when you draw seven or eight thousand on a night, that’s a good crowd. The problem here is the building can look half-empty.”
Unger knows the game, appreciates Cardinals history in particular, but he won’t call himself a “purist.” The reason: Entertainment matters. He’s about building a fan experience that, while still having baseball as the “centerpiece,” does not hinge on the Redbirds winning a game or a championship. The current roster is stocked with prospects, including outfielders Oscar Taveras, Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk, but there will be times when it isn’t.
His days in radio taught him about sales and programming and he says there is a new opportunity for those things to come together for the Redbirds now that the Cardinals own the team.
“That’s part of the synergy of this deal,” he said. “That we are able to tap into the fan base in St. Louis in a way they hadn’t been able to do. Better access to the (Cardinal) radio broadcast, getting on the TV broadcast, video board exposure in St. Louis. Things that will draw the interest down to Memphis. It’s a beautiful ballpark, maybe you can snag an autograph. It’s a lot easier to get an autograph here than in the midst of 45,000 people in St. Louis.
“But we don’t want to lose the Redbirds identity,” Unger continued. “We don’t want to make what we’re doing here too Cardinal-centric. Memphis is different, different than St. Louis and the Redbirds are different than the Cardinals. We have to make sure we are not making it a mini-St. Louis.”
That said, the reason Craig Unger is here is obvious. As obvious as the giant ring on his finger that made Grandpa cry.