VOL. 9 | NO. 16 | Saturday, April 16, 2016
By Don Wade
To best understand another man’s baseball passion, you must first understand his baseball pain. So if you hope to truly understand Peter B. Freund, new majority owner of the Memphis Redbirds, you must travel back to his youth.
Freund, who just turned 40, grew up a Yankees fan. You can hate him for that if you wish, but this affliction was passed on by this father, John Freund, and young Peter grew up going to Yankee Stadium with his dad. So he came by this allegiance honestly, as the saying goes.
In fact, father and son were at the most recent Yankees Opening Day on April 5, when it was 36 degrees and the Yankees lost, 5-3, to the Houston Astros. Peter Freund has a minority stake in the Yankees, that’s true, but he would have been there anyway. Tradition and all that.
As for Freund’s deep baseball heartache, that dates to his take-your-glove-to-the-ballpark childhood. The 1986 season, when Peter would have been a wide-eyed 10-year-old, is a good case study in his anguish. The Yankees boasted two future Hall of Famer outfielders in Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson. Don Mattingly played first base that season and nearly won a second straight American League MVP Award while batting .352.
The Yankees were good enough to win 90 games, but finished second in the American League East Division behind the archrival Boston Red Sox – yes, that was the year of the Bill Buckner tragedy in the World Series – and the only Yankees pitcher to win more than nine games was Dennis Rasmussen and, no, you’re not supposed to have heard of him.
“My entire childhood, all my friends were Mets fans,” Freund said recently at AutoZone Park, where he intends to be at least once during every homestand this season. “Because they had the ’86 Series, the David Cones, the Dwight Goodens, the Darryl Strawberrys. We had nothing. It took me until college until I saw a winning team that I could remember.
“My father used to say me, ‘Every year we would win. I don’t know what happened.’”
Of course since 1996, the Yankees have won five World Series and two other American League pennants. So Freund, who also is principal owner of the Williamsport (Penn.) Crosscutters, a Philadelphia Phillies Class A affiliate, and co-owner of the Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs, a Yankees Class A affiliate, has had a lot of good times.
Freund says his father, who is now 84, had to get used to the idea that his son had invested in a Phillies farm team. It was tougher still to accept his son had purchased the Cardinals’ Triple-A club.
“It’s funny, the Pawtucket Red Sox (Triple-A) changed hands a couple of years ago,” Freund said. “And I said to my dad, ‘You know, it’s a great affiliate, it’s close. …
“And he said, ‘You can’t, you just can’t.’ So we do have limits in the Freund family.”
Still Cardinals Country
“Finalizing this deal represents a positive move toward stability of professional baseball in Memphis.”
Those were the words of St. Louis Cardinals chairman and CEO William DeWitt two years ago when the major league club’s purchase of the Redbirds was complete.
Since the Cardinals took over, AutoZone Park has undergone significant renovations and all operations and branding has had a strong St. Louis flavor.
Now, on the business side, the focus shifts back to the home team. The majority sale of the Redbirds to Freund closed in early April.
“This will open up some new doors for us to have conversations with people,” said Redbirds president and general manager Craig Unger. “Different conversations, local conversations.”
As the sale was closing, the Cardinals and Redbirds also extended their player development contract through the 2020 season. The Redbirds have been the Cardinals’ Triple-A club since 1998, or before AutoZone Park opened in 2000.
“It’s gonna be a process,” Unger said of the transition on the business side. “On a lot of things, we were sharing resources. Over the next six to eight months, we slowly unbundle those things from St. Louis to move IT down here, to move payroll and accounting, all those types of things.”
Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak says Freund approached DeWitt in January about purchasing a controlling interest in the Redbirds and it didn’t take long to realize this was a good fit.
“You’re gonna see a different brand-building than you might have just under the Cardinals,” Mozeliak said. “But for us, we’re still gonna have baseball here and we’re still gonna have Cardinal baseball here. That’s a positive for everyone.”
Former Redbirds have gone on to star with the Cardinals, including current players Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright. Even role players brought up from Memphis have had a serious impact on championship Cardinals seasons.
“Whether we own the team or not, we manage the coaching staff and players,” Mozeliak said. “We take a lot of pride in making sure that pipeline is flowing.”
Attendance, however, not only has failed to flourish in recent years but has become a cause for concern.
Last season, despite the ballpark enhancements, the Redbirds finished last in the 16-team Pacific Coast League in terms of attendance, drawing 278,579 for 69 openings – or a league-low average of 4,037 per game and less than half of the 9,338 that league-leading Sacramento averaged.
And Sacramento, like Memphis, is home to an NBA team. So there goes that excuse.
“We are not a city that should be in the bottom of the Pacific Coast League in attendance,” said Freund, who is president of both Trinity Packaging Corp. and Trinity Baseball Holdings. “It’s ridiculous. This should be top three, top four … certainly in the middle of the pack the next couple of years and then we’ll make our way up.”
Pitcher Deck McGuire, a minor-league veteran who got the start for the Redbirds on opening night, doesn’t really understand why AutoZone Park hasn’t been more popular.
“The scenery is pretty awesome,” he said. “You don’t get to play downtown a lot in this league. It’s a beautiful facility, the field’s immaculate, and it’s a really cool place to play.”
Thinking outside the batter’s box
Gabe Sinicropi is vice president of marketing for Freund’s Williamsport Crosscutters and he says straight out: “Quite frankly, minor league baseball teams can’t survive on the hardcore baseball fan.”
The Redbirds, in one way or another, have acknowledged this for years. But change is now coming to AutoZone Park. The question is, how dramatic will that change be?
In Williamsport, they have had a pet jersey night where fans sent in their favorite pet photos and the photos were the theme for the jersey.
“That was Pete’s idea,” Sinicropi said.
Look up the Crosscutters’ staff on their website, and you will find that one Rhashan West-Bey is “director of smiles.”
“A special needs employee,” Sinicropi said. “Been with the team for years, the most popular person at the ballpark. About 10 years ago or so, we did a bobblehead of him.”
And it was so beloved that when Freund bought the team he insisted they do an encore bobblehead.
Meanwhile, Mike Veeck retains the title of president emeritus with Freund’s Charleston RiverDogs. Veeck’s bloodlines in the game go back to his grandfather, a sports writer who became president of the Chicago Cubs. But it’s his father, Baseball Hall of Famer Bill Veeck, whom most fans remember.
Bill Veeck, besides signing the first black player in American League history, Larry Doby Jr., also was a master promoter. When he owned the St. Louis Browns, he famously – or perhaps infamously – sent 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel to home plate as a pinch hitter. His almost nonexistent strike zone earned him a walk on four pitches and earned Veeck chastisement from American League president Will Harridge, who said the stunt made a “mockery” of the game.
“I try not to break the rules but merely to test their elasticity,” Bill Veeck said in response.
A generation later, the Veecks oversaw “Disco Demolition Night” at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. After fans stormed the field, the White Sox had to forfeit the game.
Since then Mike Veeck, who has been involved in the ownership and running of many professional teams, has staged a number of memorable promotions across the vast minor league landscape, including: locking fans out of the ballpark for five innings to set a record for lowest official attendance (0), having mimes perform instant replays, Tonya Harding Mini Bat Night, and using dogs and pigs to deliver baseballs to the home plate umpire.
Back in 1993, Veeck co-founded the independent St. Paul Saints with actor/comedian Bill Murray. They were but a few miles from where MLB’s Minnesota Twins play. The Saints were supposed to fail. Instead, they became so popular they now play in a new $63 million ballpark. It hasn’t spoiled anything.
Each year there’s a contest for fans to name the baseball-delivering pig. Past winners include Hamlet, Kevin Bacon and the Notorious P.I.G.
Freund stops short of endorsing the Veeck family’s most controversial promotions (a midget pinch-hitting and a disco demolition-turned riot): “I’m not quite there. But a dog named Elvis who brings the ball out to the mound every night? That seems reasonable to me.”
Veeck says he will be visiting Memphis this summer to check out Freund’s Redbirds. He also believes that Freund has a great opportunity – despite the attendance woes.
“It’s a music town, you’ve got the Civil Rights Museum, Graceland, and people know about Memphis nationally,” Veeck told The Daily News. “That’s a huge advantage to build on.
“I’ve lusted after that club myself a few times.”
Of pinstripes and birds on the bat
So really, why would Peter Freund, diehard Yankees fans who already has a minority interest in the big-league club and owns two other minor league teams, want to buy into a Cardinals affiliate that finished last in the PCL in attendance?
According to Sinicropi, the marketing VP with the Crosscutters, Freund bought a 70 percent stake in the Redbirds and was taken with both Memphis and the ballpark: “Great city, great venue. And buying a Triple-A team isn’t an opportunity that comes along too often.
“One thing about Pete, what you see is what you get. He’s not a hidden agenda kind of guy.”
Veeck echoes that sentiment.
“He’s got a trait that people will admire and that is he knows what he doesn’t know,” Veeck said.
In fact, just as the sale was becoming official he was learning the ways of Triple-A as the Cardinals, because of injuries, called up the Redbirds’ projected opening night starting shortstop: Aledmys Diaz.
Freund to Mozeliak: “Wait, we already lost our shortstop?”
The Cardinals’ GM to the new Redbirds owner: “You didn’t lose him. You have to change your mindset. We needed him and he’s our player.”
Freund to Mozeliak again: “No, no, no, you can’t steal him!”
Ultimately, he understood. It’s just an adjustment, one he’s still making.
But he also grasps the opportunity before him on the business side.
“We call it the reset button,” Freund said. “And no fault of the Cardinals, they should streamline. They’ve got Palm Beach and Springfield (Class A and Double-A teams they still own). It makes good sense what they did. But I want to operate this like a small business in Tennessee and make a go of it.”
And so perhaps that will mean a dog named Elvis delivering baseballs and, well, if he and Mike Veeck ever get to brainstorming during – or, ahem, after – a game, no telling what promotional ideas come out of that.
After all, the Veeck way always has been to put “fun” first at the ballpark and it’s a word Freund easily drops into conversation. Last season, the Redbirds gave fans a little taste with their Grizzlies-themed jersey night when Tony Allen threw out the first pitch.
“Who did we play? Did we win or lose? Who knows,” Unger said. “Everybody talks about what a great night it was.”
Freund likes the idea of that partnership – “we should be friends,” he said of their relationship with the Grizzlies – and he is genuinely excited to come to AutoZone Park this summer, where the baseball-loving part of him will root for winning on a grand scale while the business side knows better.
Once the kids go back to school, the attendance declines, and it costs money to keep a half-empty ballpark open in September – not to mention the cost of buying championship rings if that’s how it goes.
But he has no double-mindedness about the big-league level because he remembers the lean years – the Wayne Tolleson-everyday-shortstop years – as much, or more, than the championship years.
So if it’s Yankees vs. Cardinals in the World Series?
“We root hard for the Yankees to win in four games and blow them out every night,” Freund said, refusing to pretend about the allegiances of his heart. “But we root for the Cardinals all the way up to that point. And by the way, we would root for the Redbirds over the Scranton RailRiders – that’s a guarantee.”