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VOL. 132 | NO. 80 | Friday, April 21, 2017

Revamped Redbirds Off to Flying Start, but Clapp Still Waiting for a Call

By Don Wade

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At first, new Memphis Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp wasn’t all that comfortable in his own office. When the Redbirds played the St. Louis Cardinals in an exhibition game at AutoZone Park just before the big league season started, Clapp saw his desk as almost a foreign object.

Early attendance figures in the 2017 Memphis Redbirds season show improvement from the previous year, and with a new look and logo, the team store has been “very busy.” 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“I can’t even refer to it as my desk. That’s Chief’s desk,” he said, referring to Gaylen Pitts, his manager almost 20 years ago with the Redbirds.

When the Triple-A Redbirds started the home portion of their Pacific Coast League season several days later, Pitts returned to Memphis and “Chief” and Stubby teamed up for a pregame first pitch. Consider it a baton handoff to a new era.

“It was a very positive first homestand,” said Redbirds president and general manager Craig Unger.

New majority owner Peter B. Freund and Unger have talked a lot about making incremental steps up the PCL’s attendance ladder. In 2015, the Redbirds were last out of 16 teams and averaged 4,037 per game. They improved one place last season – the first under Freund’s watch – and averaged 4,704 per game.

Through seven openings this season, the Redbirds ranked 11th in average attendance at 4,821 per game. But beyond the improving numbers is a sense that the Redbirds are back on the local sports radar.

“There is a different vibe around the clubhouse and the stadium,” said third baseman Patrick Wisdom, who also played here last season. “I think the new logo’s helped. Kind of revamped things. Stubby coming back, a Memphis legend.”

Said Unger: “The biggest feedback we’ve heard is the love of the new brand and the uniforms. Our team store’s been very busy. We wore the powder blue dirty bird jerseys (Sunday). That created a little bit of buzz as well.”

When the Cardinals decided to hire Clapp as manager, Freund and Unger saw it as a gift on the marketing side of things. Already this season, Stubby has shown up on social media streams enjoying some pregame crawfish with fans.

Suffice to say, the Redbirds have had more than a couple of managers who never would have gone for that.

“I like to have fun,” Clapp said. “That’s basically what it comes down to. We play this game because it’s fun. I’m not gonna stop being me. Just because I’m a manager doesn’t mean I’m a different guy. Hopefully, that translates into the players, they be themselves, have fun, play hard every day.”

On the field, the Redbirds won four of five on the season-opening road trip and then won their first two games at AZP before hitting a four-game slide. But they competed.

“He brings a ton of energy,” Wisdom said of Clapp, “and it’s a lot of fun to play for him.”

That energy was also evident recently when Clapp stopped by Unger’s office. Before leaving, he placed a couple of calls to season ticket holders from 2016.

“I was trying to get them to buy their tickets back,” Clapp said. “They hadn’t renewed yet and I wanted to know why. One lady said her boss was out and she couldn’t make a decision yet. One guy put me on hold and I gave him my actual cell number. He never did call me back so I feel cheated.”

The Redbirds didn’t cheat fans on the last day of the homestand. They played extra innings – free baseball – and won on a walk-off hit by Tommy Pham in the 11th inning. It was also a Monday and the first of several Education Days at the ballpark and the fans in the stands, who pursued every foul ball with vigor, skewed younger.

The Redbirds even ran some videos on the scoreboard to teach the youngsters about the game.

“A feature ran about arm angles and release speeds and how math and science really come into play with baseball,” Unger said, adding that they need to connect now with tomorrow’s potential season ticket holders. “It’s critical for what we do. Kids who like baseball will help drive the purchases and drive the parents to want to go to the game.

“The parents will have a great experience when they come here, but if the kids aren’t interested, the parents’ experience won’t be as good. But if they’re engaged in the game, that makes that family experience so much better.”

And the Redbirds’ future.

“We have to develop the next generation of ballplayers,” Unger said, “and the next generation of fans.”

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