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VOL. 129 | NO. 75 | Thursday, April 17, 2014

AutoZone Park Field to Get Makeover at Season’s End

By Don Wade

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This season the Memphis Redbirds are celebrating their 15th year playing at AutoZone Park and the stadium at Third and Union is still a head-turner, even after all these years.

A downpour that made the field unplayable kept fans from seeing the St. Louis Cardinals play the Memphis Redbirds to start the season. 

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

But the playing surface is also celebrating its 15th season and hasn’t been a beauty for a while now.

“In all honesty, this field has been subpar the three years I’ve been here,” Redbirds manager Pop Warner said. “So it’s not really any different, other than having a harsh winter and being spotty.”

But there was a difference on March 28 because the St. Louis Cardinals were here for a scheduled exhibition game for the first time since 2009. Heavy rain came in and the game was canceled. Coincidentally, the Cardinals’ purchase of the Redbirds also was finalized on March 28.

The Cardinals did take batting practice on the field that day, but Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said after the game was rained out – and there was much standing water on the warning track – that he was worried about the field’s condition.

“I was gonna be really concerned,” Matheny said. “To put our guys on a field that to start with was in pretty rough shape, that’s a bad recipe to get to opening day.”

Fans have noticed the playing field’s condition, too, tweeting and texting pictures.

“Cosmetically, it doesn’t look the best,” Redbirds general manager Ben Weiss said at the end of the team’s first homestand of the season, when yet another game was rained out. “We’re well-aware of that. I can tell you as each day passes the field does improve. I’m no groundskeeper, but as the temperatures warm up and the Bermuda grass takes over the ryegrass, for a lack of a better term, we’ll start to see a better surface.”

In January, the Memphis City Council approved the city’s $19.5 million purchase of the ballpark, and another $4.5 million toward improvements of it. The deal also included the Cardinals leasing the ballpark from the city on a 17-year term, for $300,000 a year. And the Cardinals will provide the bulk of money for improvements to the park.

Because the deal was completed so late, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said on the front end that significant renovations to the ballpark would not happen until sometime after the 2014 season.

“Yes we will redo the entire field this off-season,” he confirmed in an email Tuesday, April 15.

Several Redbirds players said they have not felt unsafe on the field or even experienced problems with footing.

“The ball plays a little bit slower,” right fielder Stephen Piscotty said. “You’ve got to take different routes in the outfield now. That’s the only difference that I notice.”

Utility man Jermaine Curtis said the infield had some trouble spots, but he had not slipped.

“Different hops,” he said. “There’s some divots in there. It can be a little frustrating. Third base is a little tough. Shortstop. Around the rim of the infield it’s a little hoppy, a little different from last year.”

Said Weiss: “Our crew has been working just as hard as they ever have. Same groundskeeper that’s been here since the inception of the ballpark. He was the assistant guy (then), Ed Collins. From that perspective, everything’s the same. It’s a 15-year-old surface that has seen a lot of great baseball played on it.”

And rare is the minor-league field that doesn’t have some imperfections.

“I mean, there are some lips, but you go to other places and there are some lips, too,” Warner said. “It definitely is in need of some TLC, that’s for sure. But as far as being a hazard, I don’t think so. We wouldn’t put our guys out there if I thought it was a hazard to them.”

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