PROMOTING A PASTIME
[Part One of a three-part, midseason look at the Redbirds and their parent club, the St. Louis Cardinals.]
With apologies to the likes of Dave Chase, Charlie Lea, and Tom Stocker, youd be hard-pressed to find a higher authority on Memphis baseball than one John Guinozzo. If youre not familiar with Guinozzo directly, youve made his acquaintance if youve attended so much as a single professional baseball game in Memphis since 1971. For 33 years, now, Guinozzo has been an official scorer, deciding which players made an error and when for the Blues (1971-76), the Chicks (1978-97), and, since 1998, the Redbirds. If those credentials dont do it for you, Guinozzo is the author of The Memphis Baseball Encyclopedia.
There are stat geeks, and then theres John Guinozzo.
I bring up J.J. (as his friends call him) because he recently described for me the recipe for success in minor league baseball in terms so brilliantly simple I find myself compelled to share. There are three keys to success in the bushes, according to Guinozzo: (1) good weather, (2) good promotions, and (3) a good team. (Forgive him for being spoiled by his press box perch the last five seasons, but he forgot a fourth variable: a good stadium.) Only one of these elements can be fully controlled by the local baseball brass, and thats promotions. As Year Seven of the Memphis Redbirds era unfolds, theres still work to be done in this area.
Strangely, bobbleheads remain a popular item at the ballpark (Tom Stocker and Steve Selby?). And fans continue to stand, cheer, and plead for a sponsor-branded t-shirt to be fired their way from one of the promotion teams air guns. This is all well and good, but this type of bait is short-sighted, in that the thrill it provides passes as quickly as the break between innings in which its presented. How about promoting the backbone of the operation at Third and Union, the reason bobbleheads are sculpted and a promotion team exists? Remember the baseball.
AutoZone Park has a state-of-the-art video screen on its scoreboard, the very best minor-league baseball has to offer. Thanks to rigid Pacific Coast League guidelines, fans are already denied a replay of any play remotely close. And how is the board used between innings? Largely as an oversized Gameboy, with cartoonish contests to spur cheering (and pitch a sponsor, of course). The Hot Dog Derby. The Batting Helmet Shuffle. The Slot-Car Race. Again, these are momentary sensory stimulants, aimed primarily at those deemed to be less than stimulated by the action on the field.
With at least 16 inning breaks during every game, why not utilize this extravagant video display to show . . . baseball highlights. And we dont have to neglect sponsors in this transition. Presenting, the Acme Enterprises Great Moment In Cardinals History. Think fans wouldnt enjoy seeing Enos Slaughters mad dash, Stan Musials 3,000th hit, Bob Gibsons 17 World Series strikeouts, Lou Brocks 105th stolen base, Ozzie Smiths Go Crazy, Folks! home run, Mark McGwires 62nd home run? Im betting youll hear every bit the volume in cheers for one of these moments as you do when the relish manages to edge the mustard and ketchup in the wiener race. (And if youre shopping at home, theres a one-stop video purchase for Cardinal fans who might enjoy their baseball history: A Century of Success.
Check it out.)
As for more permanent baseball imagery, there are solutions here, too. (The Redbirds did exactly the right thing in painting The Pujols Seat red, denoting for all fans the spot where the most famous home run ever hit at the ballpark landed.) Along the concourse, fans pass by ad posters, with notes on Cardinal (and Memphis baseball) history along the bottom of the display. The Redbirds have this backwards. They need to present blown-up photos of past Redbird heroes, with a sponsors logo and tag tastefully presented at the top or bottom. (Oddly, some of these photos do hang at AutoZone Park, only theyre hidden in stairwells up to the press and club levels.) The number of Redbirds worthy of celebration in less than seven years in Memphis is astonishing, and each is an inspiring reason -- particularly for kids -- to come back for the next game. Two Redbird pitchers (Larry Luebbers and Bud Smith) have started the Triple-A All-Star Game. Rick Ankiel was named 1999 Minor League Player of the Year. Ivan Cruz led all of the minors in home runs in 2002. Keith McDonald became only the second player in history to hit home runs in his first two major league at bats (between long stretches in Memphis). Bud Smith threw a no-hitter for the Cardinals the year of his promotion (2001). Even a player who left the organization is worthy of a banner: Adam Kennedy (a Redbird in 1998 and Ô99) was MVP of the American League Championship Series in 2002. And while honoring former Redbirds and their successes on the diamond, why not go ahead and retire Stubby Clapps number 10?
At the very least, the Redbirds brass needs to recall its shining moment, the championship won in the glorious inaugural season at AutoZone Park. While the paint from the Pujols Seat is still fresh, decorate the facade under the press box with 2000 PCL Champions. If you visit Pringles Park in Jackson, youll see the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx have already done this for their 2000 Southern League champs. Let this be the only time AutoZone Park follows a Double-A example.
Selling a product in part attached to the heat of a Memphis summer is a challenge for the savviest of promoters. And its a challenge the Redbirds, in several respects, have mastered. But you can be too close to the trees sometimes, to appreciate the beauty of the forest. Remember the baseball. Sell the baseball, and theyll keep coming