Tuesday, May 27, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: A Better Ballpark

Posted By on Tue, May 27, 2008 at 4:00 AM

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.

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