Brothers in Baseball
Part Three in a three-part, midseason look at the Memphis Redbirds and their parent club, the St. Louis Cardinals. To See Part One, click here, or go to http://www.memphisflyer.com/content.asp?ID=2958&onthefly=1; to see Part Two, click here, or go to http://www.memphisflyer.com/content.asp?ID=2963&onthefly=1)
Among the many decisions Dean and Kristi Jernigan made during their pursuit of Triple-A baseball (way) back in 1997, their wooing of an affiliation with the St. Louis Cardinals belongs in the brilliant category. Since the middle of the 20th century, when St. Louis represented the western- and southern-most franchise in Major League Baseball, the Mid-South has been Cardinal Country. And the renewed kinship between Memphis baseball and the Cardinals (the Chicks were an affiliate in 1960) was a critical move in the sequence of events that brought AutoZone Park to the corner of Union and Third.
When the first Redbird to bat in Memphis -- at Tim McCarver Stadium on April 16, 1998 -- was none other than Vince Coleman, the connection seemed as much poetic as it did logical. Memphis fans would now see the rise (and return) of players on their way to helping St. Louis win yet another National League pennant.
Or would they? In scanning the current roster in St. Louis, youll find exactly four players who have had significant time as a Memphis Redbird: Albert Pujols (and he deserves an asterisk, having hit the most significant home run in Redbirds history, but having played fewer than 20 games for Memphis), So Taguchi, John Mabry, and Yadier Molina. Due largely to a management strategy that favors veterans -- often expensive veterans -- over youth, the Cardinals have found recent success by utilizing their Redbird assets more as trade bait than as roster additions. Braden Looper, Adam Kennedy, Chris Richard, Mark Nussbeck, Bud Smith, and Placido Polanco are among the names Memphis fans will recognize . . . but now will find in colors other than Cardinal red. These players have brought the likes of Edgar Renteria, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen to Busch Stadium, so to say the Redbirds havent impacted play in St. Louis would be off-base; its merely impact with a degree or two of separation.
Over the last seven years, there have been former Redbirds who have seized the spotlight up the river and under the Arch. Joe McEwing -- remember Little Mac? -- had a 25-game hitting streak during his rookie season of 1999. The confounding Rick Ankiel set a Cardinal rookie strikeout record and was runner-up in voting for 2000 National League Rookie of the Year. And J.D. Drew certainly had his moments over his five-year stint as a Cardinal. (My favorite Drew memory? The game in Houston where he robbed one Astro of a home run by leaping above the rightfield wall, then threw another out at the plate . . . in the same inning.) Chris Richard and relief pitcher Gene Stechschulte(!) joined Keith McDonald as former Memphis players to homer in their first at bats with two birds on their chest.
If the relationship between Memphis baseball and its big brother in St. Louis is to be fully appreciated, fans have to recall the little things they wouldnt see were it not the harmony between Cardinal management and their counterparts here in the Bluff City. Since AutoZone Park opened in 2000, there have been four exhibition games between the Redbirds and Cardinals. The home team had suited up against the Cards only four other times over the previous 90 years!
From Bob Gibson to Bob Forsch, from Jack Clark to Mark McGwire, the Redbirds have helped bring to Memphis the players -- and former players -- whose baseball cards remain treasures to local fans young, old, and (like me) in between. As an aspiring writer trying to figure out my calling in central Vermont -- all the while pulling for my heroes at Busch Stadium -- how could I have envisioned sitting in a Memphis press box and sharing a conversation with Red Schoendienst? The answer is, I couldnt. Not until Dean and Kristi Jernigan started dreaming and had the good sense to include the St. Louis Cardinals in the dream.
The 2004 Cardinals have surprised all the prognosticators who said the NL Central would be a two-team race between the Cubs and Astros. And so what if the new additions that have made such a difference -- Reggie Sanders, Tony Womack, Chris Carpenter -- didnt cut their teeth at AutoZone Park? If this is the year the Cardinals return to the World Series -- its been 17 years, folks -- the euphoria will reach and surround Memphis much like the mighty, muddy water the Mound City sends our way every day of the year. If the best partnerships are built on trust, why not a baseball partnership -- between cities -- built on faith?