Opening Night at AutoZone Park is among my favorite annual events, sports or otherwise. It’s a birthday party, of course. But one where age is actually irrelevant. The stadium feels fresh, new, and alive with the sights, sounds, and smells we associate with baseball. And, especially at the minor-league level, the team feels fresh and new as well. New names and numbers to learn, new faces to attach to positions on the field. Here are a few impressions from my 15th Redbirds birthday party.
• Whether or not the marketing staff had a say, sending Shelby Miller to the mound for the lid-lifter was a nice touch. The Cardinals’ top-ranked prospect — and among the top 10 in all of baseball, according to Baseball America — Miller brings a rare star quality for a Triple-A player. Prize hurlers are often rushed to the major leagues before they’ve toured an entire minor-league circuit. With the St. Louis Cardinals enjoying depth in their starting rotation (recent Redbird star Lance Lynn is currently filling in for the disabled Chris Carpenter), Miller will get some much-needed seasoning in Memphis before heading up the river. Only 21 years old and with a mid-nineties fastball, Miller has the highest ceiling for a Cardinals pitching prospect since Rick Ankiel was overwhelming hitters at Tim McCarver Stadium 13 years ago. Pay attention to the schedule, and count every fifth game for Miller’s appearances. He’ll be worth the extra planning. (Over two games and eight innings, Miller has given up eight runs, so there’s room for growth.)
• The Redbirds have had their share of power-hitting first basemen over the years. Ivan Cruz, Kevin Witt, and Josh Phelps come to mind. But these players have typically been of the “4-A” variety, not quite equipped with the tools to stick in the big leagues. Now along comes Matt Adams. The 6’3”, 230-pound slugger was named the Texas League Player of the Year last season when he hit .300 with 32 homers and 101 RBIs for Double-A Springfield. And he’s only 23 years old.
Adams will be an interesting prospect to follow, as the first-base position — for the first time in almost a decade — isn’t blocked by Albert Pujols in St. Louis. Lance Berkman (36 years old) will man the position this season, though he’s already been sidelined with a calf injury. Allen Craig (rehabbing from offseason knee surgery) may take hold of the position on a long-term basis. But Adams will be in the conversation, especially if he produces the power numbers he has early in his pro career. (Through Sunday, Adams leads Memphis with 3 home runs and 7 RBIs.)
• New Memphis manager Pop Warner has a season before him unlike any he’ll ever experience again. Having managed at Double-A Springfield the last five seasons, the former Redbird player (a PCL All-Star in 1998) was essentially promoted a level with many of the players who formed the core of his team a year ago. Miller and three-fourths of the starting infield Friday night (Adams, shortstop Ryan Jackson, and third-baseman Zack Cox) all played for Warner at Springfield in 2011. Familiarity is a rare commodity in Triple-A baseball. We’ll see if the intangible makes a positive difference in the standings for Memphis.
• Even with Miller on the mound, the star on Opening Night was clearly the new, gargantuan video board above right-centerfield. The high-def screen essentially serves as a bonus bank of lights for night games, providing the kind of close-ups for mound visits (or the kiss cam) not often seen away from your den couch. (Honestly, it’s hard to imagine such a screen not being a distraction to the batter. One more testament to the focus these athletes bring their craft.)
A minor complaint about the video presentation: A team’s batting order includes uniform numbers, but not the position of each player. Fans like to know the position of a player who just drove in six runs to beat the home team (as Oklahoma City rightfielder Fernando Martinez did Friday night).
• Really classy move by the Redbirds to honor the late Charlie Lea by “retiring” a microphone. Few athletes have respresented Memphis as well — and for as long — as Lea, who died suddenly last November. His name now appears permanently in the stadium, beneath the broadcast booth.