photograph BY Allison Rhoades / Memphis Redbirds
So Memphis now owns AutoZone Park, the St. Louis Cardinals own the Redbirds, and Memphis and St. Louis are married, albeit with, yes, some fine print that looks suspiciously like a pre-nupt arrangement.
How do we make it work and boost attendance? The hidebound traditionalists who revere the past, George Will and Bill James, and the sanctity of the game should take a few cues from American Idol and the Food Network. In two words: We/they need to get funkier.
All of this will be greeted by a chorus of “but we can’t do that” because of vendor contracts, player rebellion, agent rebellion, strictures from the major leagues, and prudishness. But here goes:
◗ Enough with the goofy mascot races, organ music, screaming scoreboard, drink coupons, and on-field fan events geared to 6-year-olds. You want more paying customers? Grow up. The parents and kids won’t mind a bit if baseball goes from G to PG.
◗ Sell more beer by making it cheaper. It doesn’t have to be 25 cents, but the occasional $2 beer night, with ties to Ghost River and other local brews, would interest the crowd that now haunts Boscos and Wiseacre Brewery and the downtown restaurants. Drunks on the road? Well, AutoZone Park is already the site of an annual brewfest that is one of the few successful nonbaseball events at the stadium. And Beale Street somehow manages.
◗ Free salted peanuts on weeknights. And $1 a bag on weekends, or $2 for a bowl of boiled peanuts. Why convenience stores have discovered this beer-lover’s delicacy and AutoZone Park has not is a mystery. Turn the concourse into a true food court, with something healthier, tastier, and more original than hot dogs, nachos, and junk. Calling all food trucks!
◗ Jazzier promotions. Home run contests with players and amateur ballplayers, wannabes, and has-beens coming out of the stands to take their cuts.
◗ It’s entertainment. Like that old show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the points don’t matter. The game is incidental to the experience.
◗ Chopped! Introduce some reward and punishment. The biggest problem with Class AAA baseball is that the games, all 140 of them, are essentially meaningless. But they wouldn’t be if each year baseball’s muckity-mucks promoted the best two minor-league teams to the majors and demoted the worst two major-league teams, players, managers, and general managers included. Announcer: “Let’s see whose team is on the chopping block! (Pause for suspense.) Sorry, Houston Astros, but given your pitiful 51-111 record in 2013, you’ve been chopped. And Miami Marlins, losers of 100 games, you’re on your way to Triple-A!”
◗ Bring back territorial picks, once a staple of pro sports, whereby teams got first dibs on local talent, so that, say, the pitching Pomeranz brothers from Collierville or studs at the University of Memphis, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State went to the Cardinals. As it is, even casual baseball fans have a hard time naming a single player on the Redbirds roster. ◗ Make all games seven-innings long, followed by a home run derby and a long-toss competition. Let the players showcase their skills instead of hiding them on the bench or in the bullpen.
Face it, despite this recent deal, this latest political compromise is a business venture that is probably not going to make money or break even. The Memphis Redbirds Foundation couldn’t make it work; Fundamental Advisers couldn’t make it work. So don’t expect city ownership to make it work a whole lot better.
The payoff is in the big picture — the presence of minor-league baseball’s best-ever stadium (AutoZone Park has won that designation perennially from Baseball America magazine) in the heart of downtown Memphis, which has spurred surrounding development, making a huge improvement over the porno theater, parking lots, and mule barn that were there 20 years ago. For this community, AutoZone Park is a very, very visible invisible asset.
And let’s not take this latest crisis so seriously. It was creepy if not shameful to see local people marching to City Hall to support the right of a New York financial firm to make 6 percent on its investment in minor-league baseball in the city where sanitation workers and Martin Luther King Jr. once marched for another dime an hour. Baseball’s a game. Let’s make it fun.