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VOL. 128 | NO. 229 | Friday, November 22, 2013
Don Wade

Don Wade

Don’t Take Ballpark, Team for Granted

By Don Wade

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Way back in the 1990s, when Downtown Memphis was The Peabody hotel and a bus station and not much more, Memphis Redbirds founder Dean Jernigan went on a tour of major-league ballparks.

He visited several, including Baltimore’s Camden Yards (opened in 1989), Cleveland’s Jacobs Field (opened in 1994 and now Progressive Field), and Atlanta’s Turner Field (opened in 1996 and set for demolition in 2017).

AutoZone Park at Third and Union opened in 2000 and was modeled, in part, after Turner Field. “The Ted” is a ballpark – and to be fair, a location in Downtown Atlanta – that the Braves believe has outlived its usefulness. Or at least that’s the public stance the team took when suburban Cobb County pledged to help build a fancy new stadium.

My point: nothing is forever, not even in the timeless game.

In Memphis, we are on the cusp of change for the Redbirds and AutoZone Park. To go deep into the details, read this week’s Memphis News cover story on the subject. But the abridged version is this: The parent St. Louis Cardinals are on the verge of buying their Triple-A affiliate Redbirds, provided the city takes over ownership of the ballpark. The city would then lease the park to the Cardinals, probably on a 17-year term, and theoretically everyone lives happily ever after.

Of course, the City Council has to sign off on the deal and if you’ve lived here more than 10 minutes then you understand anything is possible at a council meeting, including a barbecue nachos food fight. But let’s take the positive approach, at least in the near-term, and say the deal sails on through.

What then? Or more precisely, is there anything you, as a local citizen, should do?

Glad you asked. It’s not my place to tell you how to spend your money, but there will come a time when the rank-and-file members of our community will have to click the turnstiles at AutoZone Park more often. If not, there will come a reckoning day.

How can that be, especially when the Cardinals plan to play a role in revitalizing AutoZone Park with some new outdoor restaurant-style seating schemes and possibly a cool hand-operated scoreboard behind the bluff in left field?

Again, glad you asked. The Cardinals have moved forward with this plan because they believe, all things being equal, this is the best place for their Triple-A team. Right now. And for local baseball fans, having the Cardinals’ affiliate here is the obvious first choice.

But allow me, for a second, to go all conspiracy theory and turn one of those berms into a grassy knoll. Let’s say the lease term is 17 years. Let’s say whatever buyout figure that is part of the contract – Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. promises he’ll read it and “we’ll make sure that’s covered” – is significant, but not prohibitive.

Attendance at AutoZone Park stays flat, or improves at such a slight rate that over time the Cardinals begin to wonder if they can do better. Also consider this: In 2013, the Cardinals were second in major-league attendance, drawing just under 3.4 million, averaging 41,602 fans per game, or 94.6 percent of Busch Stadium’s capacity.

Memphis might be “Cardinal Country,” but it’s only a tiny piece of it. The Cardinals draw from all of flyover land; the demand for Cardinal baseball is greater than the supply.

I asked Cardinals chairman and CEO Bill DeWitt Jr. point-blank about the possibility of one day locating their Triple-A team in a new ballpark in suburban St. Louis, where a pitcher or a shortstop could be summoned to Busch Stadium on 45 minutes’ notice.

“Some teams have done it, but it just hasn’t appealed to us so far,” he said, and I believe him.

Of course if you had told me the wrecking ball had Turner Field’s name on it, I’d have laughed.

Now might be a good time to quit taking AutoZone Park and the Redbirds for granted.

Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.

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