Memphis Redbirds history began with a flashback. The first man to step into the batter’s box for the home team on April 16, 1998, at Tim McCarver Stadium was speedster Vince Coleman. While the game marked the return of Triple-A baseball to Memphis, this was no minor-league player. The 36-year-old outfielder had starred for the St. Louis Cardinals — the Redbirds’ parent club — in the 1980s and was hoping a Memphis audition would earn him a return ticket to Busch Stadium.
Coleman singled, stole second base (of course), and scored what proved to be the only run in a Memphis win over Colorado Springs. Alas, he would play only 19 more games for the Redbirds, preferring retirement when it became clear he wasn’t in the Cardinals’ plans. (As the story is told, Coleman got off the team flight at the Phoenix airport and simply walked away for good.)
Fast forward to 2017 as the Memphis Redbirds open their 20th season, their 18th at what’s long been described as “the finest stadium below the major leagues,” AutoZone Park. Hundreds of batters have stepped to the plate since Vince Coleman, many of them playing at the highest level their skills would allow. A few have gone on to stardom with the Cardinals or other major-league teams: Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, and David Freese to name just four. The ballpark at B.B. King and Union Avenue has seen packed houses (887,976 fans bought tickets during the 2001 season) and nights when empty green seats far outnumbered the small gathering of supporters (merely 278,579 tickets were sold in 2015).
On one hand, the Redbirds can be said to have sparked a renaissance both in the development of downtown Memphis and in the Bluff City sports culture. Would an arena on Beale Street now currently house an NBA franchise had AutoZone Park not been a success? Local insiders who were involved in the Grizzlies move from Vancouver in 2001 will tell you no, adding that the team ownership group had been blown away by what the Redbirds had done with that ballpark.
On the other hand, the Redbirds now have played nearly two decades in a stadium that over-reached in terms of both physical size and hefty pricetag. Built at a cost of $80 million, the stadium more than doubled the previous record for the price of minor-league ballparks. Original leases on the stadium’s 47 luxury suites — an astounding number for a minor-league facility — expired after the 2014 season, and many remained vacant through 2016.
But you can now find a pair of gathering venues on the club level, two grass-seating areas, “four-top” tables that bring food and drink with the price of a ticket, and a video board that dwarfs the stadium’s original scoreboard. Plans are in place as well for an urban garden. In other words, the Redbirds have grown. With all the stumbles, transformations (check out the new music-themed uniform design), and celebrations (two Pacific Coast League championships) that one might expect of a baseball franchise’s first two decades.
You could say Allie Prescott is the original Memphis Redbird. Two years before Vince Coleman stepped to the plate for Memphis, Prescott — a pitching star during his college days at the University of Memphis — answered a call to the bullpen from longtime friend Dean Jernigan. The Storage USA founder had lured a Triple-A franchise to Memphis (thanks to Major League Baseball expanding by two teams) and needed a baseball man to run the business. Prescott was, at the time, director of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA), but he had served four years (1979-82) as general manager of the Double-A Memphis Chicks. His task: sell a Triple-A team and a stadium with luxury suites to a community that had seen neither.
“It was fortuitous that the Cardinals’ player-development contract [with Louisville] was expiring [after the 1997 season],” says Prescott, today a senior vice president at Waddell & Associates. “Dean and I went to St. Louis and sat down with the ownership group and [general manager] Walt Jocketty, and told them how passionate Memphis was about the Cardinals. This would be a perfect fit.”
Prescott credits Jernigan entirely with the decision to build the new stadium downtown. Two decades later, the ballpark seems to fit like a jewel in its crown, but in the late Nineties, many felt eastern Shelby County made more sense. “We were convinced a ballpark would flourish out east,” says Prescott. “The population was growing and Triple-A baseball would be a big hit. But New Orleans had built a Triple-A park in [suburban] Metairie, and ten years after it was built, nothing had happened around the stadium. So Dean started acquiring some property around the [downtown] location. Third and Union was the right place for it.”
Prescott managed to sell 15-year leases for all 47 of those suites, half of them before brick met mortar on the new ballpark. “It was a leap of faith,” he says today. “Triple-A baseball, affiliation with the St. Louis Cardinals, and the greatest stadium that’s ever been built below the major leagues. This was our major leagues. The NFL drives had failed. There was no conversation about the NBA yet. And we were eliminating blight on a major corner of downtown.” A local architecture firm, Looney Ricks Kiss, collaborated with HOK, a prominent national design firm that specializes in sports facilities, to bring a modern field of dreams to life.
The Redbirds’ final two seasons at Tim McCarver Stadium (at the Mid-South Fairgrounds) were memorable in their own right. Having drawn 113,183 fans to see the Chicks during their lame-duck 1997 season (before the franchise moved east to Jackson, Tennessee), the ballpark drew 395,592 to see the likes of Coleman and J.D. Drew — the franchise’s first star prospect — in 1998. And in 1999, a single player — like Allie Prescott, a pitcher, but a lefty — made nights at “Timmy Mac” extraordinary.
“I never got to sit next to Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax,” reflects Prescott, “but Rick Ankiel was special.” The 20-year-old flame-thrower struck out 119 hitters in 88 innings for the Redbirds and earned Minor League Player of the Year honors from Baseball America. Afflicted with anxiety, which he now admits led to his drinking before his starts, Ankiel lost the ability to throw strikes in the 2000 postseason for St. Louis. Reinventing himself as an outfielder, he hit 32 home runs for the 2007 Redbirds before being promoted once more to the big-league club.
The Redbirds’ inaugural season at AutoZone Park opened on April Fool’s Day in 2000 with an exhibition game between Memphis and the Cardinals. An estimated 15,000 fans packed into the stadium to see back-flipping second baseman Stubby Clapp take on Mark McGwire’s club. (The since-tarnished home run king was unable to play with a back injury.) The “baby birds” won that game and continued to fly throughout the season, winning the Pacific Coast League championship on a walk-off home run by a relatively unknown outfielder named Albert Pujols. Since circling the bases that September night 17 years ago, Pujols has won a pair of World Series with the Cardinals, three MVP trophies, and enters the 2017 season with 591 career home runs. A single red seat remains on AutoZone Park’s rightfield bluff where that championship baseball landed.
Prescott left the club after the 2001 season to start a consulting firm, Dean and Kristi Jernigan moved to London in 2002, and in 2003 Dave Chase began a seven-year run as team president, one that saw a steady decline in the franchise’s business model. The debt obligation — three annual payments of $1.7 million each — steadily eroded the Redbirds’ bottom line, turning what shortly before was a civic celebration into a cost-cutting game of musical chairs.
The Redbirds have embraced Memphis music heritage with their new uniform design, while retaining a connection to the parent St. Louis Cardinals.
“The vision the Jernigans had was mind-blowing,” says Chase, now living in New York State and the president of Chase Baseball Consultants. “All of us had ideas about limiting the capacity to create more demand for tickets, and Dean vetoed all of those things. Minor League Baseball created that, to some degree, because they established a 10,000-seat minimum for Triple-A stadiums.”
The arrival of the NBA’s Grizzlies in 2001 changed the Memphis sports landscape dramatically, and particularly had an adverse impact upon the Redbirds’ business. “On Day One [of the Grizzlies’ arrival],” says Chase, “the Redbirds lost over $1 million from sponsors that left minor-league baseball to go to the NBA.” When the likes of Kroger and Wendy’s are no longer financial partners, revenue streams don’t just slow down. They dry up.
The Memphis media moved right along with the sponsors lining up to support the Griz. “All of a sudden, we weren’t a sports story,” says Chase. “People wanted to cover the NBA. I understand that, but we never regained traction.”
The financial crisis hit rock bottom in March 2009 when the Redbirds missed their bond payment for the first time. (The year did have an upside, as Memphis won its second PCL championship.) In 2010, Fundamental Advisors, a private equity firm based in New York, bought $58 million in debt on the stadium for less than 50 cents on the dollar. The franchise continued to tread water and cut costs under Global Spectrum, a facilities management firm based in Philadelphia. By the 2012 season, total attendance had dropped to 493,706, actually a high figure when you consider how dreadful the team was on the field (57-87).
To the rescue, it seemed, came the parent St. Louis Cardinals. In a deal announced after the 2013 season, the Cardinals agreed to buy their Triple-A franchise from Fundamental Advisors at a significant discount on the original amount of the bonds. As part of the deal, the City of Memphis would take ownership of AutoZone Park, and the business of Redbirds baseball would begin anew.
The Cardinals ownership stake lasted two seasons. Before Opening Day in 2016, Peter Freund purchased the Redbirds from the big-league club. The president of Trinity Baseball Holdings and a minority owner of the New York Yankees, Freund also owns the Charleston RiverDogs and the Williamsport Crosscutters, both Class-A franchises.
Under the leadership of Freund and Craig Unger — a former member of the Cardinals’ front office and the Redbirds’ president since 2014 — AutoZone Park has been dramatically renovated. Instead of a single large grassy seating area beyond leftfield, there are a pair of smaller “bluffs” near each foul pole, eliminating thousands of seats that were unoccupied for most games. The stadium’s second level now has two bars (the Home Plate Club and the Redbird Club) and two open-air party decks. The third level includes executive offices and, soon, a patio garden that will literally help feed the community. There are now “only” 29 suites in the stadium and seating capacity has been reduced to 8,404.
“We came in at a very interesting time,” says Unger, reflecting on his first three years at the helm. “We were at the end — we hoped — of what were some bleak years. We knew it would be a long-term project. We found that when we showed the love of wanting to do more, and be more, and bring this stadium to a new period of glory, people responded. There’s still a love for baseball and a love for this facility. Really, it’s a love for what downtown Memphis has become over the past 20 years. The brand equity the Redbirds have here was huge.”
Even with rising prospects like Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk (now starting oufielders in St. Louis) on the field, attendance bottomed out at 278,579 for the 2015 season before increasing 17 percent in 2016. Tuesdays in April will always be a tough sell in minor-league baseball, but Unger and his staff are exploring ways to make the big nights — Saturday-night fireworks and such — bigger, while building on possibilities, even when the team is on a road trip.
“The biggest challenge is being patient in our long-term goals,” says Unger. “We have a rolling five-year plan. There are adjustments we make along the way. How are we getting there? How do we capitalize off the summer months? We have great indoor space. How do we make the most out of 12 months?”
Whether or not the Redbirds are in town, AutoZone Park will have new life on a 4,000-square-foot patio that to date has seen very little. A vegetable garden will be unveiled this spring on the west side of the stadium’s third level. The Redbirds’ grounds crew will monitor, manage, and cultivate fresh vegetables, to be donated to local communities in need. “We’re working with Miracle-Gro on an urban garden,” explains Unger. “It will be an educational space. It’s an opportunity for us to activate an area that has never been used. We’ll have brochures about what we’re growing. Even in the concrete jungle of downtown Memphis, we can connect with the community by providing food.”
In January, the Redbirds unveiled the most dramatic uniform and logo changes in franchise history. Gone are the birds on the bat made so familiar by the parent club in St. Louis. Jerseys will now feature letters and numbers that suggest the lights of Beale Street. The “M” on hats and jerseys now includes a pair of music notes (not unlike the logo of the Memphis Blues in the 1970s). “We needed something that speaks to Memphis,” says Unger. “Something true to the Redbirds brand, but connects better with the city, ties into Beale Street. There was a conversation — not very long — about the Redbirds name. We knew what it meant to the community. While this is Cardinals country, we have a lot of people who are fans of other [teams]. For a Braves, Cubs, or Rangers fan, those birds on the bat meant Cardinals. Now, it’s Memphis first.” In March, the Redbirds announced the return of Rendezvous barbecue — distinctly Memphis — to the ballpark.
Quite the opposite of rebranding, the Redbirds have brought back Stubby Clapp to manage the team. A modern folk hero during his playing days in Memphis (1999-2002), Clapp spent the last 14 years making various stops as a player and coach, most recently with the Toronto Blue Jays’ Double-A affiliate in New Hampshire. Clapp — back in Memphis — may be the rare minor-league manager who actually boosts attendance. “He understands the connection required between a team and its community for success,” says Unger. “He lived it when he was here. He understands what baseball meant to this community 20 years ago, and what it can be for the future.”
The Redbirds haven’t forgotten that baseball is a child’s game. Throughout the front-office turmoil, the franchise has maintained its outreach program, RBI (Returning Baseball to the Inner-city). More than 1,000 kids in 12 local communities receive coaching and equipment each summer, courtesy of a baseball franchise determined to breathe new life into what was once considered the national pastime.
“It was Dean’s idea,” says Prescott, “to operate a franchise — for the first time ever — as a not-for-profit. Dean and I grew up in public schools, playing baseball. Dean at Messick High school, me at Kingsbury. Baseball was a great learning experience; it helped mold us into who we are. It was sad to see that baseball had been eliminated from public schools at the middle-school level. Dean wanted to pour the profits back into the community and in a way that might bring baseball back.”
Only five Triple-A franchises have been affiliated with their big-league club longer than the Memphis Redbirds and St. Louis. Two decades is a lengthy marriage on a baseball diamond. The marriage has endured its share of conflicts, financial woes, and all-too-lonely nights. Former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti eloquently described baseball as a game “designed to break your heart.” But for the Redbirds — from Allie Prescott to Craig Unger, from Albert Pujols to Stubby Clapp — a two-decade foundation has been established, one with considerable hope for the days ahead. More from that famous Giamatti passage: “You count on [baseball], rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive.”