VOL. 10 | NO. 14 | Saturday, April 1, 2017
Sustaining the Rally
By Don Wade
Innings come to an end, games come to an end, and seasons come to an end. Yet the Memphis Redbirds are forever playing against their best selves – those grand and glorious days when AutoZone Park was new and the Triple-A baseball team competed in the highest-level pro sports league in town.
Back then, when the ballpark opened in 2000, people knew what you meant when you said “Third and Union.” That was the place Downtown where a gorgeous ballpark had risen from nothing, really from worse than nothing. Formerly, it had been the site of an adult bookstore mere steps away from the elegant Peabody Hotel.
Then up sprang the best ballpark that minor league baseball had ever seen. Fans flocked toward the fun and attendance reached crazy levels – peaking in the second season at 887,976 and outdrawing MLB’s Montreal Expos by a preposterous 268,525.
Today, that stretch of Third Street is known as B.B. King Boulevard. But it’s not just the address that has changed. The whole game has changed.
Last season, the first under new team owner Peter Freund, the Redbirds took a modest but encouraging step forward in attendance by drawing 324,581. Believe it or not, that represented a 16.5 percent improvement from 2015 and moved them one spot from their last-place finish in attendance in the 16-team Pacific Coast League.
“Overall, really pleased,” Freund said of the attendance jump in his first year. “Reconciling our attendance with the first several years at AutoZone Park is impossible. It’s not that realistic for us to shoot for.”
Redbirds president and general manager Craig Unger goes even further.
“We know the history of those comparisons to those days and they are somewhat unfair,” said Unger. “The sports landscape has changed. The city has changed. And entertainment has changed.”
First-year Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp remembers the good old days well. He played here, captured fans’ hearts here as back-flipped his way out to second base at the start of games and then proceeded to dirty his uniform and, as Unger has said more than once since the St. Louis Cardinals hired Clapp to manage its top farm team, channeled grit-and-grind before the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies made it a mantra.
“The place was rocking,” Clapp said.
And he’s not just talking about playoff games or weekend night postgame fireworks games. Even a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon at AutoZone Park had buzz, electricity.
“Especially for guys in their first or second year in Triple-A, this was as close to the big leagues as you were gonna see,” said Clapp, who did get a cup of coffee with the Cardinals. “It brought energy and motivated us.”
Those teams returned the favor. They won. And they had personality. From Clapp to flamboyant third baseman Lou Lucca to future Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols, there were memorable players and good times that echoed beyond the loudest crack of the bat.
Fans crooned “Lo-o-o-o-o-o” when Lucca batted or made a great backhanded play behind the third base bag and “Don’t Feed the Lucca” T-shirts became something of a niche craze.
Gaylen Pitts, who still works for the Cardinals in player development, was the manager of those teams.
“Boots (Day), my hitting coach, he liked to go to Flying Saucer,” Pitts said. “Everybody knew us when we walked down the street. They’d say, `Hey, I’ll be out there tonight.’
“Good newspaper coverage, good TV coverage. Everything was just a little bit more big-league. The new wore off, I guess you’d say. You weren’t the only big game in town.”
Which might be all the more reason for the Redbirds to cultivate player personalities. Unger notes that a couple of seasons ago, then-Redbird Xavier Scruggs took over the team’s Instagram account. There could be more things like that going forward, but baseball’s characters tend to emerge naturally.
“You gotta let guys be themselves within the parameters of an organization’s rules,” Clapp said, speaking to today’s balancing act in an increasingly suits-driven, analytics-driven game. “But you don’t want to try and make everybody robots.”
At the outset, at least, it will be Clapp himself who can best bridge yesterday to today.
“Stubby’s just a barrel of energy,” Freund said. “He’s said he’ll do the community side, school visits, anything we need. To a have a manager willing to be a teammate on the business side and not just the player development side, that’s a huge bonus for us.”
Freund, of course, isn’t just the Redbirds’ owner. He owns a small piece of the New York Yankees and his group, Trinity Baseball Holdings, has other minor league teams, including the Charleston RiverDogs – a Class A affiliate of the Yankees in South Carolina.
So last year the RiverDogs got a makeover that included an alternate pinstriped “Holy City” jersey to be worn on Sundays and which pays tribute to Charleston’s nickname: The Holy City. Freund was seeking “connectivity,” the same element the Redbirds are pursuing here and what inspired the rebranding that was rolled out this past off-season.
As with the Charleston rebranding, Freund turned to Studio Simon to lead the redesigning of the Redbirds’ logo, caps and uniforms. The result: a new primary logo, which features neon sign-styled fonts and Rockey Redbird peering out from the top. The jersey offerings include a powder blue alternate jersey that has Rockey as a left-handed pitcher peering in to an unseen catcher waiting for the sign. The Redbirds also brought back the musical note ‘M’; it had been featured on the uniforms of the Memphis Blues, a Mets affiliate in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“In the end, these are regional sports teams,” Freund said. “We wanted somebody to able to look at it and say, `Hey, that’s authentic, that’s Memphis.’”
Freund met with St. Louis General Manager John Mozeliak and members of the Cardinals ownership group this spring in Florida. He says that what happens with the Redbirds and the ballpark is, at some level, “a collaborative effort,” adding, “It was important to them that we remained the Redbirds and kept the Cardinals’ colors.”
So the relationship with the Cardinals remains solid. The teams were scheduled to play an exhibition game at AutoZone Park, which is how AZP debuted 17 years ago, on Thursday, March 30.
But Freund and Unger also continue to work to make the Memphis Redbirds’ brand the star, the Cardinals affiliation a critical supporting player. A new team store to be located inside the park’s entrance just past where tickets are scanned, but with street access from Union Avenue, will perhaps further this delineation.
Rendezvous is also returning to the ballpark this season. The removal of Rendezvous not only upset fans, but stole some Memphis flavor beyond the taste of the beloved barbecue nachos.
Meantime, the team store will have 34 different styles of Redbirds hats, more than 100 different products in total.
“There may be some Cardinals things in there from time to time as well,” Unger said, almost as an aside. “We expect with the rebrand for merchandise sales to go up. We’re creating a better connection with the city and the fans, a brand that’s not `Cardinals Junior.’”
OPTIMISM SPRINGS ETERNAL
Like every other team, the Redbirds will open the 2017 season with a clean slate. The beginning of a new baseball season always carries great hope, an unspoken truth that the starting point is brushing off whatever went wrong last year like so much dirt from your pants after a slide into second base.
As much as Clapp loves the memories of the days he played here when the ballpark was the place to be on a summer evening, he can’t and won’t live in the past. His job is to ready players for St. Louis. He wants fans to enter AutoZone Park with anticipation and exit it knowing that the home team gave a full effort.
“Play the game the right way – hustling on and off the field, playing 27 outs,” Clapp said. “And you never say die.”
In some respects, Freund and Unger have the same approach on the business side. They’re even getting their hands dirty with the new Miracle-Gro Rooftop Garden on the 3rd floor landing at the ballpark, which overlooks the plaza inside the front gates. Among the goals: community health, education and environmental sustainability.
It’s also believed to be the first rooftop garden in minor league baseball and Freund likes the idea that basil and oregano grown in the garden end up on pizza sold at the concession stands.
“We’ve got this jewel (in the ballpark) that we’re not utilizing the best way we can,” Freund said.
Of course, the end game for measuring the Redbirds’ success will come back to the number of fans that fill the seats. Not in comparison to the first few seasons of the ballpark, but in comparison to the longstanding decline the franchise suffered and in comparison to like cities in Triple-A.
The Nashville Sounds have a nice new ballpark and drew just over 600,000 fans in 2016, the park’s second season; that’s a lot more than what the Redbirds drew, but also significantly less than Memphis attendance in 2001 when nearly 900,000 fans passed through AZP’s turnstiles.
Getting youth back into the game is ultimately part of the equation as well. Freund points out the team hosted an RBI (Reviving Baseball Inner Cities) event this winter.
“We have to start with kids, the community,” he said.
Unger says the uptick in attendance in 2016 was largely tied to group sales and beefing up staff. And that’s all well and good – progress is progress – but he and Freund agree they are chasing something deeper, more sustainable.
To that end, they continue to tweak the promotions. Yes, there will be bobbleheads and Cardinals alumni returning. But expect to see to other celebrities pass through, more theme nights, and an ongoing relationship with the Grizzlies and an accompanying theme night of some kind. And yes, much fireworks.
The idea, of course, is to come up with the stuff that makes the rounds on social media and inspires people to make that spontaneous decision a few hours before first pitch to come out to the ballpark. As Unger says, “Our world is not of selling a lot of tickets in advance.”
Freund is heartened by the changes in Memphis and Downtown in particular. He points to ServiceMaster moving Downtown, the growth of the South Main Historic Arts District and an emerging riverfront as reasons for optimism.
“That will play a major role in our attendance figures moving forward,” he said, adding that he knows they will be on their way when fans start to double-down – when one trip to the intersection of B.B. King Boulevard and Union turns into two, and two turns into four.
“The goal is steady growth, meaningful growth,” Freund said. “Real growth is organic, people that will come back to the ballpark.”