Monday, August 22, 2011

John Pontius Talks Memphis Redbirds Baseball

Posted By on Mon, Aug 22, 2011 at 9:23 AM

John Pontius is a baseball fan. If you’re a regular at AutoZone Park, you’ll likely see the president of Pittco Management sitting right behind the Redbirds’ dugout, along the third-base line. More than a fan, Pontius also happens to be treasurer for the Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation, owners and operators of the downtown ballpark. (Sitting next to Pontius more often than not is Ray Pohlman, president of the Redbirds Foundation.) As the 2011 Redbirds season winds down — during a still-sagging economy — we visited with Pontius about the state of things at Third and Union.

John Pontius
  • John Pontius

In general terms, how is business at AutoZone Park?

It’s been a very good year for the Redbirds. From a financial and operating standpoint, we’re better managed than we were. That’s enabled us to do a better job at everything we do.

What’s made the difference under the Global Spectrum management team (now completing its second full season)?

The biggest difference is that we’ve been able to come out from under some significant financial distress. We spent most of our time [before Global Spectrum’s arrival] trying to deal with financial matters and not operating issues. We weren’t paying our bills on time, so we were fielding lots of phone calls, having to explain why we weren’t meeting our obligations.

Since we first entered a forbearance agreement with the bond-holders and through this period with new management, and the sale of the bonds to a new bond-holder [Fundamental Advisors, based in New York], it’s just gotten steadily better. We meet all our new obligations on a current basis. Our vendors and lenders have all been informed as to where they stand with us. We seem to have satisfied everyone that it’s in all of our best interests that we play baseball and continue to operate the Redbirds in the high-quality manner that was originally envisioned. The fans are happy, as evidenced by the last two years of increased attendance. After lofty beginnings, we basically had 10 years of decreasing attendance. The last two years, we’ve seen an increase. [Global Spectrum will return for the 2012 season.]

On the subject of attendance, the figures are up from recent years, but still considerably lower than the ballpark’s first few seasons. Is the turnstile count where it should be?

Those first years were lofty numbers, unprecedented in minor-league baseball. But our lowest years were lower than they need to be for this quality of franchise in this town. We have quite a ways to go up from those lowest levels. We’ve made some reinvestments in the ballpark, and it’s paid off in increased group sales. Minor-league baseball lives and dies around the group-sales effort. It’s an event, and [AutoZone Park] is an event location. We have so many different venues within the same ballpark. It’s a pleasant setting. And the baseball is high-quality. The difference-maker is group sales.

What has Global Spectrum done to boost group sales?

It’s mostly just time and attention to the right things. Rather than spending our time and attention dealing with a disgruntled vendor, we’re focusing on serving our customer, and finding new customers. This is still an activity that has to be sold. You can’t just open the doors and they will come. People need to be reminded that this is a value proposition.

There is now a single bond-holder (Fundamental Advisors) as opposed to multiple. How has that changed the business climate?

The change in ownership of the bonds has helped us in two ways. First, it’s much easier to deal with one party than multiple parties. Secondly, the current owner of the bonds is approaching the Redbirds operationally. They are interested in understanding what we can do to improve our position, and allowing us the freedom to operate that we didn’t have when we were operating under the most significant financial distress.

They’re realistic about what needs to be done to maximize the value of the franchise. I don’t think they or I know what the ultimate value will be and how that will relate to our indebtedness to them. We agree that we’re doing the right things to maximize the value. That’s exactly what’s good for Memphis, and what the fans in Memphis want. We’re seeing some payback in the actions we’ve taken.

Does the bond-holder, based in New York, have eyes and ears in Memphis?

They’re our lender; not owners and operators. So they behave very much like a lender. They’re hands on in monitoring their investment, but not managing.

Has the environment for a potential sale improved over the last two years?

Ultimately, the franchise needs to be in the hands of a long-term owner, one that’s able to recapitalize the team, settle the obligations to our bond-holder and vendors, and move on to the next era. The sole reason Ray Pohlman and I stay involved — and the rest of the foundation board — is to see this have a soft landing for Memphis. To see that AutoZone Park stays around for a long time.

Have you been approached by a potential buyer?

We get a number of inquiries, but [the franchise and stadium] haven’t been for sale. It was important to right the ship first, so that we can sell from a position of strength.

Turning to baseball, recent Redbirds — Fernando Salas, Jon Jay, and Daniel Descalso to name three — have played significant roles for the Cardinals this season. Do you get the impression local fans follow former Redbirds after their promotion to the big leagues?

The affiliation with the St. Louis Cardinals is very important in Memphis. Memphis is a Cardinal town. The people who come to AutoZone Park enjoy knowing this is a farm team of a major-league team that they feel a connection with. I don’t think how those players do when they move on to the Cardinals has a lot to do with how we do on a game-by-game basis here in Memphis.

It’s probably a bigger deal to the Cardinals than it is to the Redbirds. That segment of Redbird fans that most fervently follow baseball are more likely to go to St. Louis because they know the players than they would if we were not a Cardinal affiliate. The Cardinals value the relationship with Memphis significantly.

The Cardinals’ top prospect — pitcher Shelby Miller — will likely play in Memphis next season. Can star power sell tickets in the minor leagues?

It can. From time to time, there’s a star that’s a significant draw. When Bo Jackson was here [as a Memphis Chick], and when Michael Jordan passed through town [as a Birmingham Baron]. Rick Ankiel was a draw. But the larger segment of our fan base remembers Rockey more than they do a star player.

Do you have a favorite Redbird over the years?

I was a Lou Lucca fan. [Lucca played third base for the 2000 Pacific Coast League champions.] He was quite a good fielder, and I enjoy pitching and defense more than I do hitting. He’d be my favorite player.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Cardinals Can't Win 'Til 2021

Posted By on Mon, Aug 15, 2011 at 9:04 AM

This is not a column St. Louis Cardinal fans will enjoy. The topic is a historical trend that dates back more than 75 years. There’s a degree of, as my dad would have described it, “phenomenology” to the trend. But it’s a trend without a doubt. And if the trend continues, Cardinal Nation needs to be very patient in awaiting its favorite franchise’s 11th world championship.

The Gas House Gang
  • The Gas House Gang

Not since the legendary Gas House Gang won the World Series in 1934, you see, have the Cardinals won a World Series in an odd-numbered decade. Making matters worse, not since Dizzy, Ducky, and Pepper beat Detroit 77 years ago have the Cardinals even reached a World Series in an odd-numbered decade. Considering St. Louis has played in 12 World Series over this considerable span of baseball history — and won seven of the franchise’s ten world championships — the trend is an oddity that makes odd decades (like the current one) especially uncomfortable. How can such alternating decades of glory be explained? Let’s first take a look at the record.

After winning three pennants and two world championships during the Great Depression, St. Louis dominated the Forties — the dawn of Stan Musial’s career — with four pennants and three world championships. But the Cardinals would not reach the World Series between 1946 and 1964, a 17-year drought during which Musial won five of his seven batting titles and broke nearly every National League hitting record in the book. Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst starred with the Cardinals for seven seasons during the Fifties, Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter for four. But the club’s best finish over the decade was second-place (behind the Milwaukee Braves) in 1957. After winning 90 games seven times in the Forties, the Cardinals’ top mark in the Fifties was 87 wins (also in 1957).

Musial retired after the 1963 season, but the emergence of Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ken Boyer, and Memphian Tim McCarver ushered in a decade of champagne showers for the Cardinals. They won three pennants and two world championships in the Sixties, topping the 90-win plateau four times.

Despite having Brock and Ted Simmons for almost the entire decade of the Seventies — and Gibson anchoring the pitching for half the decade — St. Louis never finished first, even in the new two-division format the National League adopted in 1969. Brock established new records for stolen bases in a season and career, Joe Torre and Keith Hernandez earned MVP honors, and Gibson and Bob Forsch each threw no-hitters. But the Cards never won more than the 90 games they did in 1971. (A shortcut explanation to this specific drought is the trade of Steve Carlton to Philadelphia after the 1971 season. Worst deal in franchise history.)

Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog arrived in 1980, Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith two years later, and with Hall of Fame closer Bruce Sutter trusted with late leads, the Cardinals sprinted their way to a world championship in 1982, the first of three appearances in the World Series during the Eighties. Strangely, the Cardinals had as many losing seasons in the Eighties (4) as they did during the Seventies. But when they won, they won big.

Herzog resigned in 1990 and was replaced by Hall of Fame-bound Joe Torre. Trouble is, Torre starting earning his Cooperstown credentials after being fired by St. Louis midway through the 1995 season. Ozzie’s career wound down and “future stars” like Todd Zeile and Bernard Gilkey never distinguished themselves under Torre’s guidance. Tony LaRussa’s arrival in 1996 re-energized the club and earned a division crown, but the Cardinals flamed out after leading Atlanta three games to one in the NLCS. The last three years of the Nineties were the Mark McGwire Era in St. Louis . . . two of them losing seasons.

The first decade of the 21st century may be second only to the 1940s for sustained Cardinal success. St. Louis won six division titles, made seven playoff appearances, won two National League pennants and the club’s 10th world championship in what will surely be remembered a century from now as The Albert Pujols Decade. In even decades, you see, the Cardinals win. In odd decades, not so much.

Which brings us to 2011, the second year of this century’s first odd decade. LaRussa is in charge for the 16th consecutive season, the longest tenure for a manager in 120 years of Cardinal baseball. Pujols is still just 31 years old, but playing in the final year of a contract, his status for the decade ahead very much in question. Outfielder Matt Holliday is a star in his prime. Presuming Adam Wainwright fully recovers from elbow surgery, the Cardinals have an ace to lean on for most, if not all, of the remaining decade. If catcher Yadier Molina can stay healthy and young pitching prospects Jaime Garcia and Shelby Miller meet their expectations, St. Louis would seem to have the nucleus of a contender for the near future. If Pujols can be retained, they’ll be a factor in the NL Central on an annual basis.

But can a trend that includes three empty decades — all of them odd-numbered — be broken? Is it over-reaching to make a connection between Holliday and Slaughter, between Garcia and Simmons? Surely it is. It must be. For the sake of hope among Cardinal fans, it has to be.

Monday, August 8, 2011

August: Sports Fans' Month of Hope

Posted By on Mon, Aug 8, 2011 at 9:22 AM

In baseball terms, these are “the dog days.” The All-Star break behind us, the country’s hottest temperatures baking outfields from Dodger Stadium to Fenway Park, with close to 50 games yet to play. However hot, though, however “doggish” the days may be, I’ve come to find August may be the single most optimistic month on a sports fan’s calendar.

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Let’s stick with baseball, first. By my count 14 teams (out of 30) have legitimate shots at reaching the postseason. So virtually half the stadiums in Major League Baseball are welcoming fans with possibility and hope — the legs of optimism — on their minds. Unless you’re the third-place team in either of the eastern divisions, chances are a five- or six-game winning streak will vault your team into a playoff slot. Say what you will about three divisions per league and a wild-card team, but the expanded playoffs have boosted August’s “optimeter” exponentially.

Then there’s football. With the NFL’s lockout mercifully over, 32 teams are sweating through lighter, less-frequent workouts, each of them undefeated. Each of them convinced this could be a Super Bowl year. And why doubt any of them? Over the last ten seasons, ten different teams have represented the NFC in the Super Bowl (and former dynasty franchises in San Francisco and Dallas haven’t been among those ten). The challenge these days is naming five NFL teams that have no chance of reaching the Super Bowl. (Here’s an attempt: Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Oakland, Detroit. But the Browns are climbing.)

If optimism is the way of things in the NFL, consider the college-football landscape, with an extra dose of youth and rah-rah thrown into the mix. Might the Memphis Tigers shock the country by opening the season — on a Thursday night — with an upset of an SEC team? Could happen. Can Tennessee, in Derek Dooley’s second year at the helm, return to relevance in the SEC East? In August, the answer is hell yeah. Save your skepticism for September.

• On the subject of the NFL lockout, and the new collective bargaining agreement that has players in training camp, one new rule floored me. Teams are now allowed no more than 14 padded practices in the regular season. I must be misinterpreting this. (Please clarify for me if you can.) Teams playing 16 games of tackle football are allowed only 14 practices in full pads all season? Isn’t this akin to asking baseball teams to practice without gloves? If my math is correct, teams must pick at least two weeks to prepare for their next opponent without ever donning pads. (This information should be part of a team’s injury report so the gambling public has a fair shake for teams coming off “padless week.”) I’m all for protecting football players and reducing the number of head shots. But this is still football. We’re going to see tackling technique go down the toilet if players aren’t allowed to actually . . . practice.

• The Redbirds have two more homestands and are (barely) clinging to contention for a third-straight division title. Local baseball fans would do well to cheer a little extra for Nick Stavinoha as he steps to the plate over the season’s last few games. Wrapping up his fifth season as a Redbird, the 29-year-old slugger has climbed to the top of the franchise record book for career games (454 through Sunday), hits (500), home runs (68), and RBIs (292). Stavinoha played in 147 games for St. Louis over three seasons, but never found a position — even as pinch-hitter — to stick with the Cardinals. Amid an injury-plagued season this year, the Cardinals have never promoted Stavinoha. (He was removed from the club’s 40-man roster before Opening Day.) Like Stubby Clapp and John Gall before him, Stavinoha has become a local version of Crash Davis, the iconic character from Bull Durham who crushed minor-league pitching, but never found the calling he cherished in The Show. He’ll likely move on at season’s end. Here’s hoping he finds that calling (DH?) with a new franchise.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Colby Rasmus: A Phenom Flames Out

Posted By on Mon, Aug 1, 2011 at 9:21 AM

Todd Zeile, J.D. Drew, and Colby Rasmus.

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When I learned last Wednesday that the St. Louis Cardinals had traded Rasmus to Toronto, I immediately thought of Zeile and Drew. Together, these players now form a trinity of Cardinal Phenoms Gone Bad. Before we evaluate the departure of Rasmus (the Cardinals’ top pick in the 2005 draft), let’s examine the other members of this troika.

Originally a catcher, Zeile arrived in St. Louis in 1990 as the next Johnny Bench. It took exactly one season for Cardinal manager Joe Torre to see Zeile’s deficiencies behind the plate and move him to third base. Over five full seasons in St. Louis, Zeile peaked in 1993 when he hit .277 with 17 home runs and 103 RBIs. With a glove at the hot corner, Zeile made no one forget Mike Schmidt (33 errors in that ’93 season). Midway through the 1995 season, just as the Cardinals fired Torre, Zeile was traded to the Chicago Cubs for journeyman hurler Mike Morgan. Counting the Cubs, Zeile played for 10 teams over the next nine years. Over his 16-year career, Zeile’s average season was a .265 batting average, 19 home runs and 83 RBIs. Solid figures, but not those of a phenom.

If Zeile was to be the next Bench, J.D. Drew arrived in Memphis in 1998 as the next Mickey Mantle. (By the time he suited up for the Cardinals, he even wore number 7.) With five-tool skills but the passion of a toll-booth operator, Drew spent five years with the Cardinals, in the considerable shadows of Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, and Albert Pujols. His top season came in 2001 when he hit .323 with 27 homers and 73 RBIs in an injury-shortened campaign. Drew’s lasting legacy in St. Louis will be as the chip that brought Adam Wainwright to the Cardinals in a deal with Atlanta before the 2004 season (when the Cardinals won 105 games and reached the World Series without him). Still active with Boston at age 35, Drew has a World Series ring (with the 2007 Red Sox) and was MVP of the only All-Star Game in which he’s played (2008). But his average season — .278, 25 homers, 82 RBIs — is closer to Zeile than Mantle.

Which brings us to Rasmus, for five years the top prospect in the Cardinals’ system (the last three as the team’s everyday centerfielder). Last week’s trade had more to do with a growing rift between Rasmus and Cardinal management than it did with the talent Rasmus exhibits (if inconsistently) on the field. Struggling at the plate and with a proclivity to strike out, Rasmus chose the guidance of his father (a former minor-league player) over that of McGwire (now the Cardinal batting coach) and St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa. Worse, he never seemed to engage with his teammates, going public last season with a trade request. His rapid decline calls to mind a comment he made during an interview we had in 2008, Rasmus’ lone season in Memphis: “It’s more like a job here. It’s harder to just have fun. There are older guys who’ve been around, with lots of experience. It was hard for me to adjust.”

There are times in the career of any professional when he or she has to grow up. It appears Colby Rasmus will do his growing up — for now, at least — north of the border. • The big winner in the trade that brought starting pitcher Edwin Jackson and three others to St. Louis could well be a player not involved in the deal: Allen Craig. Having lost several weeks of the season to a knee injury, Craig is currently rehabbing with the Redbirds and will return to the Cardinal rotation of outfielders when fully healed. Craig has hit at every level of professional baseball (including .336 in 40 games for the Cards this year). He belongs in rightfield or leftfield. With Jon Jay now occupying center for St. Louis and Matt Holliday entrenched in left, rightfield could become vacant in 2012 if the Cardinals — should they retain free agent Albert Pujols — cannot afford to keep Lance Berkman. Craig could prove to be a productive (and inexpensive) solution.

• Included in the deal that sent Rasmus to Toronto was pitcher P.J. Walters, one of the most courageous baseball players Memphis fans will ever cheer. In February 2010 Walters’ wife, Brittney gave birth to a daughter, Annabelle. Born prematurely, Annabelle fought for almost two months before dying on April 3, 2010 (five days before the Redbirds opened their season). Walters went on to win eight games and help Memphis to a second-straight division title. He leaves Memphis as the franchise’s career wins leader with 32. If you’ve ever considered rooting for a Blue Jay, make Walters the guy.

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