FANS FIRST (BUT DON'T FORGET THE GAME) Earlier this month, our favorite daily newspaper ran a column arguing that, despite sporting the Pacific Coast League’s worst record, our Redbirds are a winning team. They’re winning -- according to team president Dave Chase (a baseball lifer, no less) -- because the turnstiles keep turning. As long as there are beer lines and hot barbecue nachos, the argument goes, AutoZone Park remains home to a winner. As quoted in the column, Chase says, “We’re not marketing to baseball fans.” This may be true to some degree. But I’ve got some ideas on improving AutoZone Park -- for the fans, mind you -- and every one of these changes is tied to the seed that blossomed into our jewel of a stadium: not chicken platters, not air-conditioned concourses, but the game of baseball.
  • Celebrate the alumni. In but five years, there have been too many achievements by former Redbirds in the big leagues to be left ignored here in Memphis. Bud Smith threw a no-hitter. Albert Pujols had perhaps the finest rookie season in the history of the game. Three former ‘Birds hit home runs in their first big-league at-bats (one in his first two!). Adam Kennedy was named MVP of last year’s American League Championship Series. Whether it’s with plaques, posters, or pennants, the Redbirds need to pay tribute to these players and their feats in the major leagues. This is the fruit of minor-league labor witnessed right here in Memphis. Promote it, even if next to the nacho stand.
  • Change the socks. This is a simple one, but MUST be done. St. Louis Cardinals director of player development Bruce Manno has mandated that players wear their pants the old-fashioned way, stirrups high. Fine. But in the good name of George Hendrick, get rid of the atrocious horizontal stripes that make our players’ calves look like our children’s lollipops. Enforce a dress code if you must, but don’t embarrass professional ballplayers.
  • Retire number 10. Stubby Clapp owns the Redbirds record book. He’s the club’s all time leader in games, hits, RBIs, runs, doubles, and triples. More significantly, he’ll remain atop the record book until another player so endears himself to this team and its fans that, despite the player’s shortcomings, the parent club can’t let him go . . . for four years. AutoZone Park will never be the same without chants of “Stubby!” interrupting the scoreboard’s latest sponsor cartoon. Retire his number and plaster it on the outfield wall, right under that unforgettable name.
  • Paint the seat red. Or white, it doesn’t matter. Take a cue from the Pittsburgh Pirates, who painted the upper-deck seats in Three Rivers Stadium where Willie Stargell hit a few of his mammoth shots. If Larry Sutton had hit the 13th-inning home run that won the 2000 PCL championship and capped AutoZone Park’s inaugural season, it would be worth a footnote in the media guide. But the fact that this title-winning, minor-league Mazeroski was delivered by Albert Pujols -- this generation’s Frank Robinson? -- demands acknowledgment. So paint the seat -- just inside the rightfield foul pole -- where Pujols’ ball landed. “September 15, 2000. Memphis 4, Salt Lake 3.” Imagine the conversation piece such a seat would make. Heck, I’ll even allow a sponsor.
  • Post the standings. Believe it or not, Mr. Chase, there are baseball fans at AutoZone Park who care about the team’s fortunes, and who are interested in developments throughout the 16-team PCL. Why restrict the league standings -- the most fundamental statistical information there is -- to those who purchase a scorecard? (What happened to the old sandwich-board at Tim McCarver Stadium?) Provide baseball fans with context and they become knowledgeable fans. And knowledgeable baseball fans -- still hungry for a hot dog or three -- tend to return more frequently. I love the concessions at AutoZone Park, love the breezy concourse, the leftfield bluff, Rockey, and the boardwalk. But if there was a soccer game played on that immaculate lawn, you’d have to phone me with the final score. Whether or not the Redbirds are winning, that shrine at Third and Union is a stadium for baseball. Celebrate it.
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