In 1997, the times were a-changin' when it came to Memphis baseball. The Flyer ran a piece in the January 30th issue regarding a proposed new baseball stadium. At the time, the city's baseball team was the Memphis Chicks — short for the Chickasaws — before they left after the season for Jackson, Tennessee.
Former Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout had jumped on board with the stadium's proposed downtown location but with some reservations.
"I personally feel that you probably would get more attendance in a suburban ball field," Rout told the Flyer in 1997.
Dave Woloshin, a former talk radio host for 600 WREC-AM, had been talking about the issue of whether or not to keep the proposed stadium downtown. (He now works at Sports 56 WHBQ.)
"I've been absolutely amazed at the support for downtown," Woloshin said in the story. "I've gone on the air saying it's the biggest mistake they could make."
Construction began on the AutoZone Park project in 1998 to the tune of $80 million, mostly paid in bonds, in order to house the new Memphis Redbirds minor-league baseball team. The stadium was built to major league standards with luxury suites and more than 14,000 seats.
The first year AutoZone Park opened, more than 800,000 fans walked through the gates into the downtown stadium. Attendance remained high until 2007 — when the economic recession began to take hold — and a steady decline left the Redbirds with only 462,041 fans going to games in 2010. For the next three years, the minor league team would see a small, but steady, rise in attendance. Last season, the team saw 498,362 fans.
"We've got to keep in mind that we've got a guy in the form of Dean Jernigan, who brought to the table something no one else brought, a Triple-A franchise, and come to the table with a creative idea that no one else had in the nation [making the new Chicks team a nonprofit]," Rout said in 1997. "And he said that he's got most of the funding."
Jernigan, who was one of the major forces behind the development of AutoZone Park and the Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation, parted with the Memphis Redbirds in 2009 when the foundation missed a bond payment.
The organization owned both the Redbirds and AutoZone Park until recently, when the St. Louis Cardinals began the process of purchasing the minor league team in November 2013. That deal finally closed last week. The City of Memphis purchased the park in January for $24 million. Before the Memphis City Council voted to approve the city's $24 million purchase of the park, hundreds gathered at a rally in January at AutoZone Park to show their support for the city takeover.
Now, the Redbirds will move forward with a newfound attachment to the Cardinals and the city, staying put in its mainstay downtown location.