School's out, Memorial Day has come and gone, and the NBA playoffs are within a couple weeks of mercifully crowning a champion. All of which means baseball season has officially arrived. With the first-place(!) Memphis Redbirds hosting 17 games in June, AutoZone Park will heat up right along with our local weather forecasts.
But considering the ballpark's attendance has dropped six straight seasons, the time seems right for a few fan-friendly adjustments. Here are seven tweaks that might help.
A shower on the boardwalk. Don't get carried away; this remains G-rated entertainment. I'm merely suggesting one of those upright, chain-operated shower-heads that will dump a couple of gallons of cool heat relief on fans who need more than a mist blower. This was popular for a time in the leftfield bleachers at Tim McCarver Stadium. To keep things civil, the Redbirds could charge a dollar per dousing.
Autograph Sunday. There are more kids at AutoZone Park for Sunday matinees than for any other day of the week. So why not have two starting pitchers -- not scheduled for action or bullpen work that day -- sign autographs in the plaza for a couple of innings? Rockey's a champ, and he's there game-in and game-out. But if the Redbirds want to create summertime heroes, an autograph from a ballplayer goes a long way.
Free beer on your birthday. Better have a legitimate driver's license with you for this one. And be responsible, for Pete's sake. But if you're lucky enough to celebrate your birthday when the Redbirds are home, you surely deserve a draft or two on the house. And this is a winner for the AZP concessions, too, as no one celebrates a birthday alone.
Foul-ball lottery. Among the biggest cheers at AZP are when a foul ball lands on the roof then S-L-O-W-L-Y rolls back down and drops into a throng of fans desperate to land a free souvenir. So let's take this up a notch. Mark one baseball before each game with a unique logo or number. If a fan catches this ball (either foul or beyond the outfield fence), he or she gets a choice between season tickets for next season or the equivalent value in the team store. (Calculate the odds for this and you'll recognize there won't be many "winners" over the course of a season. But this is the magic of a lottery. Just a single winner can spawn euphoria . . . and LOTS of talk.)
Suite for a day. There are 44 luxury suites at AutoZone Park, and they each provide their own distinct atmosphere for taking in a baseball game. They tend to be occupied by the employees and friends of particular businesses that have ponied up a bundle of cash to essentially own a room at the ballpark. Why not use this lavish experience as a recruiting tool for future business titans? Each suite holder should pick a Sunday game during June or July and donate use of the suite to a summer camp of their choice (there are any number of these in the Memphis area). The hard part is then left to the camp counselors: who are the lucky youngsters who get a taste of the suite life?
Home Run Hero. The Redbirds pick one inning -- announced before the game starts -- and if a Redbird homers in that inning, all fans get a coupon for a free soft drink at a future game. The key to longevity for any sports operation is repeat customers. A few homers in the right frames might go a long way toward that end.
Player introductions that count. Thanks to AZP's p.a. system, we all know Josh Phelps enjoys "Sweet Home Alabama" when he steps to the plate. But how far can a theme song go in a relationship? Why not have the p.a. announcer share some background info -- approved by the player of course -- when a batter steps into the box? (And if the audio is too distracting, this can be done on the scoreboard.) What's Colby Rasmus' birthday? Where is Joe Mather from? What's Jarrett Hoffpauir's favorite movie? When fans become engaged with the players, they'll be a lot more interested in seeing them succeed.
It must be vexing to fans of the Memphis Grizzlies to see three players who were part of the Griz rotation as recently as the 2004-05 season within arm's reach of the NBA's version of the Final Four. Wearing colors decidedly different from Beale Street Blue, this trio is making highlights for ESPN, earning talking points from TNT's Charles Barkley, and considering ring size among their most important variables these days. Here's a look at three familiar faces . . . each featuring smiles that are the envy of the current Grizzlies roster.
PAU GASOL (Lakers) -- On the subject of faces, that of the Memphis franchise changed when the Grizzlies' all-time leading scorer and lone All-Star was traded to the Lakers on February 1st. (Somehow, I don't think the headliner Memphis received in return -- Kwame Brown -- will make the team's 25th-anniversary squad in 2026.) After having been proclaimed as the centerpiece of the Grizzlies' rebuilding plans by new general manager Chris Wallace last fall, Gasol found himself wearing purple and gold alongside MVP-to-be Kobe Bryant before Valentine's Day. Complementing the rest of Bryant's supporting cast -- Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, and Luke Walton to name three -- Gasol instantly became the topic of "worst trade in NBA history" debate by those familiar (and some unfamiliar) with the divergent paths taken by two franchises at opposite ends of the NBA Q-ratings. In averaging 18.9 points and 8.8 rebounds over 39 games in Hollywood, Gasol helped the Lakers to the Western Conference's top seed. He's averaged 20.3 points -- and a whopping 41.2 minutes -- over the Lakers' first 10 playoff games (through Sunday). Gasol's six playoff wins this year are a half-dozen more than he had in six full seasons as a Grizzly.
JAMES POSEY (Celtics) -- A lock-down defender with Memphis, Posey was popular with the Griz, won games with late-shot dramatics, and was a fiery, emotional presence during the Grizzlies' emergence from playoff afterthoughts to postseason contenders. Posey averaged 13.7 points in 2003-04 for Memphis, the magical season when coach Hubie Brown led the Griz to 50 wins and the franchise's first playoff appearance. (Posey was second only to Gasol among Memphis scorers in that spring's playoff loss to San Antonio.) His production -- and minutes -- dropped the following season, though, and Posey was packaged in a deal that acquired Eddie Jones from the Miami Heat in August 2005. He went on to play a supporting role to Dwyane Wade in the Heat's upset of Dallas in the 2006 NBA Finals. He signed as a free agent with Boston last August, but was off the radar of a national media swooning over the Celtics' acquisitions of All-Stars Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Posey's averaged 7.8 points and 23.8 minutes for Boston in this year's playoffs, after helping the Celtics to 66 regular-season wins, tops in the NBA.
BONZI WELLS (Hornets) -- I attended a speech by Grizzlies president Jerry West at The Racquet Club in December 2003, the day after he acquired Wells in a trade with the Portland Trail Blazers. Wells already had a reputation for being locker-room baggage, and the esteemed West asked his audience to give Wells a chance in Memphis, that a player of his talents merely needed a change of scenery for his necessary maturing. We should ask Mike Fratello -- Wells' coach with the Griz and now an analyst for TNT -- about the chances Wells was given. He averaged 12.3 points off the bench for the Grizzlies over 59 games that first season, then 11.8 in the playoffs against the Spurs. But by the end of the 2004-05 campaign, Wells was in Fratello's dog house (he played a total of 25 minutes in the four-game playoff sweep by Phoenix). The Grizzlies dealt him to Sacramento for Bobby Jackson in August 2005. Wells lasted but one season as a King and parts of two as a Houston Rocket before New Orleans acquired him last February. He's a bit player for the Hornets, averaging less than 20 minutes per game for a team dominated by Chris Paul, David West, Tyson Chandler, and Peja Stojakovic. Like Gasol, Wells finds his team tied at two games apiece in the Western Conference semifinals. Should they both emerge and meet in the Western finals, you have to wonder about the Memphis reflections they'd share in pregame warmups. "Any word on The Pyramid, Pau?"
The most sickening sight in sports is that of a thoroughbred racehorse lying injured on the track. The collapse and death of Eight Belles at Churchill Downs -- merely seconds after the filly finished second to Big Brown in Saturday's Kentucky Derby -- will again challenge us to distinguish between what we define as sport and what animal-rights activists consider abuse. With the painful memory of 2006 Derby champion Barbaro -- injured at the 2006 Preakness, euthanized in January 2007 -- still fresh in the minds of those who follow the Sport of Kings, the loss of Eight Belles seems that much harder to accept.
The most reasonable complaint I've read argues that after centuries of breeding these glorious creatures, thoroughbreds have simply grown too large and powerful for the brittle legs that carry them. At what point does the risk of mortal injury deflate -- perhaps negate -- the rush of seeing descendants of Secretariat and Affirmed in full flight?
The memory I'll carry with me from the 2008 Kentucky Derby will be my daughter's utter heartbreak. Not quite 9 years old but already a horse lover of the highest order, Sofia will be mourning for some time now . . . over an animal she got to know for two minutes of her life. The most beautiful sight in sports is that of a thoroughbred racehorse doing what it was born to do, racing to the limits of its very design for a glory that we humans seize the moment it crosses the finish line. I'll keep watching and relishing that beauty. But pardon me as I hold my breath the next time.
Rest in peace, Eight Belles. Heaven's pasture is always green.
If you measure success in the NBA by games won -- how else? -- the four most successful coaches over the last three years are Avery Johnson (178 wins), Gregg Popovich (177), Flip Saunders (176), and Mike D'Antoni (170). So it's considerably ironic that half of that foursome may soon be unemployed, Johnson having been fired by Dallas last week and D'Antoni apparently on the outs in Phoenix.
Where Johnson and D'Antoni "failed" is in not winning a championship for franchises loaded with future Hall of Famers like Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, and Shaquille O'Neal. But consider the job security here in Memphis had Marc Iavaroni won 51 games last season (as the Mavericks did) or 55 (as the Suns did). The relative standards, one NBA franchise to the next, are among the cold, heartless truths to life in "The League." I'd venture to say Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Woodson earned at least another year on the bench merely by winning three games against mighty Boston in the first round (after losing more games than he won in the regular season). There are times, it would seem, an NBA coach's worst enemy is extraordinary success. Minus the ring, that success will merely buy you a plane ticket out of town.
All of which means the return of Iavaroni to coach the Grizzlies a second season was precisely the right decision by owner Michael Heisley. Having never called the shots before the 2007-08 season, Iavaroni was a rookie in the literal sense, without a frame of reference to measure his strengths or weaknesses. All that changes next season. And if Iavaroni can't close the gap between a team with consecutive 22-60 records and the Western Conference's playoff regulars, he won't be able to say he wasn't given the chance.
Much was made of the extraordinary strength of the Western Conference this season, with -- for the first time in history -- eight 50-win teams entering the playoff fray. So it was somewhat surprising to see only one of the four opening-round series (Utah vs. Houston) go as many as six games.
With the playoffs currently lasting a full two months, it seems a return to the best-of-five opening-round format should be a consideration. Every team that won its opening round series (including the Eastern Conference) would have won had the best-of-five format been in place. Of course, this "less is more" approach would be for NBA fans. And it's all about the mighty dollar when you see that playoff logo on NBA courts. The more games, the more revenue. End of debate.