This serves as the third post in my third season of a series called “Down on the Farm” that chronicles visits to various minor league parks throughout the 2013 campaign. (All prior editions can be accessed here.)
Memphis sits fewer than 300 miles down the Mississippi from St. Louis and might as well be its baseball sister city. Since the legendary Memphis Chicks (1901-1997) ceased existence and the parent club moved Triple-A operations west from Louisville 15 years ago, the Redbirds have been the highest affiliate in the Cardinals system.
After playing their first two seasons at Tim McCarver Stadium, the team moved downtown to majestic AutoZone Park, where it began its 16th campaign in the Pacific Coast League last month. Original construction of the yard cost more than $80 million, by far the highest in minor league history.
Unlike nearly every professional sports franchise, the Redbirds are owned by a non-profit foundation, which sparks a sense of community involvement. This situation is similar to the Green Bay Packers, though the future of such an arrangement with the city of Memphis seems a tad uncertain.
I attended a night game at AutoZone Park four seasons ago with my wife, but on a sparkling recent Tuesday afternoon, I enjoyed learning and photographing more on this visit. For one example, the trendy, luxury apartments ubiquitous in most major cities now stand beyond the outfield walls with views into the stadium. They were non-existent in 2009.
The setting adds to the overall appeal, situated amongst hotels and restaurants in Tennessee’s largest city. With three decks, 48 luxury suites and a capacity nearing 15,000, the park is still neatly tucked into downtown. In addition, the Redbirds’ and Memphis Grizzlies’ business offices reside in the Toyota Center, which towers behind the yard.
AutoZone Park is very fan-friendly, with a large courtyard upon entry that hosts concerts and other events throughout the year. The neo-traditional design, adorned in red brick, is based partially on my favorite ballpark, Camden Yards in Baltimore.
Every seat has chair backs and drink holders, and more importantly, there are myriad shaded sections for warm days like May 14 was. Numerous spots offer views of the historic buildings and the pristine 127-foot scoreboard in right field above the picnic pavilion. Like many newer facilities, an open concourse allows fans to never lose sight of the action.
As PCL stadiums tend to be, this is a good hitters’ park, with dimensions of 319 feet to left, 400 to straight-away center, 322 to right, and only 360-373 to the power alleys. A unique addition to AutoZone is the Fan Radio booth where fans can privately announce three innings and receive a tape of their broadcast.
Though we luckily visited on “Two”-sdays with two-for-one specials, tickets are as expensive as any in the Minors, with seats other than deep down the baselines or atop the left field bluff (where nearly 2,000 can sit) running $16 and up. Parking, which is notoriously scarce in downtown Memphis, especially on a weekday afternoon, is at least $5.
Memphis still sits in the top five in PCL attendance, drawing nearly 7,000 per contest. We joined 8,100 others for a businessperson’s special, clearly aided by thousands of schoolchildren on field trips. That aspect made it difficult to judge fan interest and involvement, especially as most had departed by time the Redbirds hung on late to defeat the Fresno Grizzlies.
Chosen Minor League Ballpark of the Year in 2009, AutoZone is a good enough facility to be used for various baseball and non-baseball functions. Memphis University plays there multiple times each season, the St. Louis Cardinals have played the Redbirds in past exhibitions, and MLB’s annual “Civil Rights Game” was held here in March 2007. Concerts, weddings, banquets are held inside the Club Level or outside on the party decks or concourse.
On the field, the Redbirds, who finished 26 games back of division champ Omaha last season, currently sit atop the standings. Memphis claimed PCL titles in 2000 and 2009, with many players from the latter team (Allen Craig, David Freese and Jon Jay in particular) now starring at Busch Stadium.