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VOL. 8 | NO. 15 | Saturday, April 4, 2015

Polishing the Diamond

After $6.5 million makeover, AutoZone Park’s good times about to get better

By Don Wade

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Paul Brehm is a baseball fan and the co-owner of a trucking company. On any given night, he personally represents one click through the AutoZone Park turnstile, if you want to think in those terms, but he has the capacity to increase that number several times over.

When AutoZone Park opened back in 2000, Brehm’s company, TLC Express, had several Memphis Redbirds season tickets. AutoZone Park was the place to be in those days, and it was just good business sense to be a 72-game-per-season stakeholder. Besides, baseball always has been Brehm’s favorite sport.

But a funny, or not-so-funny and all too common, thing happened as the years went by. Brehm, now 61, found himself going to fewer and fewer games. At some point, he let the company season tickets go.

“I really don’t know why we did, to be honest with you,” he said, and then seemed to explain why they stepped back: “The company didn’t tend to use them.”

But a couple of years ago, Brehm came back. He bought five tickets for personal use, and the trucking company has another four.

All this before the St. Louis Cardinals purchased the Redbirds, the city bought AutoZone Park and it was known that the ballpark would be undergoing significant renovation. The original deal between the Cardinals and the city called for $4.5 million in improvements, and the Cardinals have since added another $2 million to that total.

Brehm planned to be in the house for the Friday, April 3, exhibition game against the Cardinals, provided the weather cooperated.

Also worth noting: Brehm has Grizzlies season tickets and regularly attends University of Memphis basketball and football games. He’s living proof that the local minor-league baseball team doesn’t have to find itself in the bleacher seats of fans’ sports hierarchy.

Yet there is no denying that the $80.5 million project that was AutoZone Park also represents unsustainable excess – both in the ill-conceived bond financing and in the superfluity of seats and suites. After all, one of the Cardinals’ chief strategies in enhancing the park is to shrink it.

Fifteen years after it opened, everyone agrees the original vision was simply too much.

A changing game

In 2014, the Redbirds reported the lowest attendance in the park’s history: 381,429 for 67 regular-season openings. That’s not even half of what the Redbirds drew in the early years of the ballpark.

Branch Rickey III has been president of the Pacific Coast League since 1998 and is the grandson of Branch Rickey Sr., who signed and brought Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

He says of AutoZone Park: “It was the most ambitious (minor-league ballpark) in terms of size, cost, and cost overruns.”

The Nashville Sounds, also a PCL team, this month will open their new stadium, First Tennessee Park. It’ll be nice, but less than grandiose.

“It’s not built on that kind of scale,” Rickey said. “We’ve learned a lot in the interim period. It’s a niche that our ballparks belong in.”

That’s also true on the marketing side and is uppermost in the minds of the Cardinals as well as Redbirds general manager Craig Unger, who last year was plucked from the front office in St. Louis to run things in Memphis.

On a warm day as the University of Memphis and the University of Arkansas baseball teams went through batting practice before AutoZone Park’s “soft opening,” Unger sat at one of the new season-ticket four-top tables on the club level behind home plate – cost: $12,500 for the season – and explained the objective:

Transform AutoZone Park into the city’s “biggest and best sports bar.”

Fans will get a complete multimedia experience at AutoZone Park with the addition of this new 14-by-140-foot HD LED video wall in left field and two new 3-by-150-foot HD LED ribbon boards along the first and third base façades within the seating bowl.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The new Home Plate Club on the second level will be accessible to anyone with a club-level ticket, while the new all-inclusive club down the right-field line on the second level is a nightly ticket priced at $55. On the lower level, there will be a new bar in left field and a barbecue shack in right field.

Overall, suites have been reduced from 49 to 29 – some can be rented on a nightly basis – and a previous total capacity of 14,000 to 15,000 has come down to 10,000, with chair-back seating being reduced to 8,404.

“Craig Unger and I visited several venues, including Charlotte and Durham, to see what the trends were,” said Dan Good, Cardinals vice president of business development. “Like with the berms (in left and right field), we wanted to bring the picnic family experience closer in, so it feels more intimate.”

One other trend: better connections with younger fans. The wall in left field has a new 14-by-140-foot LED video board that, while a venue of opportunity for advertisers, also will increase the amount of information for fans – both about the game on the field in front of them and games taking place elsewhere.

The clubs provide even more options, with 16 televisions in the Home Plate Club and 12 in the all-inclusive club, plus two pool tables. The clubs’ windows are retractable, thus creating “an indoor-outdoor feel,” Unger said.

“We don’t want to close off the game and close off AutoZone Park to the rest of the world,” he said. “It’s watching The Masters. It’s watching the NBA Playoffs, watching hockey, Cardinals games, Braves games. You can come down here and can still watch the finals of ‘American Idol,’ if that’s what you want to do.”

Old is new again

Unger knows it will take time for word to spread that AutoZone Park is a venue that now caters to socializing.

And there’s a bit of irony here, too. While minor-league baseball will implement new rules to speed the pace of play, the Cardinals/Redbirds are looking to take advantage of the game played without a clock.

Good said there is certainly a long-term view of growing the Cardinals brand in Memphis, and in the future expect that Cardinals tickets will be sold at AutoZone Park and perhaps Redbirds tickets might even be sold at Busch Stadium.

The view from a nearly complete luxury suite at AutoZone Park. The park is debuting many improvements this season, including 29 new suites.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“But in the near term,” Good said, “we want to get people in Memphis excited about checking out the changes at the ballpark.”

The tie between the big-league club and the Redbirds always has been strong, dating back to when the Redbirds first came to Memphis and played at a dilapidated Tim McCarver Stadium at the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

But the connection is now more intentional, all the way down to the material used when the playing surface at AutoZone Park was finally replaced after 15 years.

“Oh, man, some of those real hot day games were really rough,” said Redbirds infielder Greg Garcia. “You’d get some pretty crazy hops – stuff I hadn’t seen since high school. But it’s no one’s fault. The grounds crew did the best it could making it (better) for us.”

Said Unger: “We spent a lot of time with Bill Findley in St. Louis, who’s the head groundskeeper there and been down here several times and consulted on the re-design of this field. This is the same warning track material used in St. Louis. The clay for the infield, the way we groom it … we’ve created consistency so now when they go from here to St. Louis there’s no difference in the way the dirt plays, in the way the warning track feels. We all know baseball players are creatures of habit. This is their office.”

And in recent years, that office took on a lot of water. Drainage issues have been addressed and the belief is that rainouts will be fewer and farther between.

AutoZone Park, after all these years, can still be a prime summer playground for Memphians.

“This is a great ballpark. The bones of it were great,” Unger said. “But if you saw a picture from the very first Cardinals exhibition game to where the stadium was on the last day of last year, the only thing that had changed was the video board in right field. Everything else looked exactly the same.”

And so a new baseball season – and a new day as well – begins at AutoZone Park.

“That stadium should bring in a lot of people,” Garcia said. “I know there’s Cardinals fans here. Just being Downtown, the atmosphere – it’s a beautiful park to come watch a game.”

Brehm couldn’t agree more, even before seeing the upgrades for himself.

“I would encourage other people to come to a game,” he said. “They don’t know what they’re missing.”

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