The 10th season of baseball at AutoZone Park arrives four weeks from Friday (April 3rd), when the Redbirds host the first of two exhibition games with the St. Louis Cardinals. Perfect time for a late-winter hot-stove chat with Redbirds president Dave Chase.
MEMPHIS FLYER: After extending the affiliation between the Redbirds and St. Louis Cardinals, the parent club showed some interest in purchasing the Redbirds. What were the dynamics of those discussions, and why did the Cardinals choose to leave the table?
DAVE CHASE: The Cardinals spent a significant part of last summer and fall kicking the tires down here. They made a strong commitment by extending our player development contract for four years; they recognize Memphis as an important market to sell Cardinals tickets. Of course, the economy went south, and we were unable to provide them with projections they were comfortable with going forward. Around Christmas, they notified us that they were no longer interested in buying the team, at least not as the marketplace stands now.
MF: Are the team and the ballpark part of the same package for a potential buyer?
DC: The ballpark comes with a tremendous burden of debt, and no one is going to want to take that on. The ownership of the ballpark right now is in the [nonprofit] Redbirds Foundation, and that complicated the deal, there's no doubt about it. We need to separate the team and the stadium at some point, somehow, to make the economics work.
MF: Are the Redbirds, in fact, for sale?
DC: We need to consider selling the team, and that's part of the ongoing mission. Who knows? If the economy turns the Cardinals could come back, or a local group could step forward, or someone else willing to make a commitment to the city of Memphis.
MF: Is the operation of the ballpark and team here in Memphis safe?
DC: The Pacific Coast League wants to play in Memphis, a lot of the long-term contracts in place require Triple-A baseball [here]. In reality, if you make the right combination of decisions in ownership, it strengthens baseball's position in Memphis. It doesn't weaken it.
MF: What kind of impact has the economy had on operations at AutoZone Park?
<>DC: It's frightening, on some levels. These are unprecedented economic times. Baseball in general is concerned. Teams in the PCL are experiencing downturns in ticket sales anywhere from 15 to 25 percent, and we're on the higher end on that scale now. With our 10- and 30-game plans, we've actually seen a modest increase in sales. Our corporate sales are down about 12 percent. But we're seeing this across the universe of baseball. It's not because people don't like us or appreciate AutoZone Park. It's just that we're easy to cut. They're having to make difficult decisions. A lot of people are just playing the waiting game, but now that March is here, the time for waiting is almost over.
It would have helped us tremendously if the Cardinals had been more active in the offseason. When they get headlines, it helps us. It would help us if the daily newspaper would run the traditional spring-training pictures of pitchers and catchers working out. We have two Cardinal exhibition games [April 3rd and 4th] that should help us prime the pump.
MF: The season once again opens under a cloud of steroids, with the Alex Rodriguez revelations. Is attendance at AutoZone Park affected by news at the big-league level?
DC: I don't think it directly impacts us. I believe in the power of the industry of baseball in a huge way. This kind of news puts the game in a negative light, in general. Fortunately, most fans don't equate those big-league guys with us [in the minor leagues]. It resonates deeper in baseball, because we care about the game so much. You can't tell me the steroid problem in football is any better. It's probably much worse. We take our [baseball] heroes seriously. We put A-Rod on a pedestal we probably shouldn't put human beings on. I just finished reading Joe Torre's book, and you quickly learn that A-Rod's not among the brightest guys on the planet. There are probably 200 stories in spring training that would better advance the game of baseball.
MF: Let's talk about this year's Redbirds roster. Who are some players Memphis fans should be excited to see this season?
DC: It's too early in spring training to get much from the Cardinals, but I hope we get David Freese back for part of the season, but it looks like he may start the season at third base in St. Louis. Colby Rasmus will be on a similar ride. We didn't get to see the real Colby Rasmus last year [due to injuries]. I think Brett Wallace will start the year here, especially if Freese stays in St. Louis a while. He's not much on the glove side, but that was the same rap we heard on Albert Pujols. We need a few more of those kind of guys! Wallace made a pretty big impact at Class A last year, and that's the same jump Freese made last season. Wallace was here as part of the Cardinal Caravan and he handled himself well.
The Cardinals have the most questions on their pitching staff. That will have a ripple effect on us. Trying to speculate on whether Mitchell Boggs or Mike Parisi will be back here is anyone's guess.
MF: The Cardinals' farm system has moved steadily up the Baseball America rankings into the top 10. This must help your marketing team.
DC: It's hard to sell. The primary market is family entertainment. The comings and goings of the players doesn't matter a lot, but after a player reaches the big leagues, people say, "I saw him when . . ."
MF: Do you end up selling Redbirds alumni more than you do active players?
DC: To some degree you do, because that's the proven track record. If rising stars get here and do anything, they're not here for very long. Traditionally, the Cardinals have traded those players away. But they seem to be starting to build on home-grown products. In the long run, I think that's a better message for us to sell. It just takes time.
MF: Anything new planned for the ballpark this season?
DC: The ballpark still looks new, and we've done nothing to short-change that. We've done a lot of painting. We're playing around with the concessions menu a bit. We are going to add a Redbirds Ripper Dog. It's a deep-fried hot dog, but it's fried in such a way that the case rips open. We figure, if it's deep-fried, it's got to have a chance.
MF: The Civil Rights Game - your brainchild - has moved to Cincinnati. What are your reflections on this event now?
DC: I've wrestled with it. It remains a sore point, on many levels. But I've taken some solace in recent weeks, because the Reds have been calling about challenges in putting on the Civil Rights Game. So I'm not removed from it; I've let them know I'll do whatever I can to help them with it. At the end of the day, the game wasn't about me, and it really wasn't about Memphis. It was about baseball. If I can further that development, then I'm willing to do that. Something that was born here in Memphis is now a sought-after property of major-league baseball teams. And the grapevine tells me there were several that wanted it.