Memphis in Motion
“And now for something completely different…” - ‘Monte Python’s Flying Circus’
The Reds, The Grays, The Browns, The Giants/Lambs, The Fever Germs, The Egyptians, The Turtles, The Blues, The Red Sox, and The Chicks. Archie “Moonlight” Graham, Buck O’Neil, Charley Pride, Verdell Mathis, Gary Carter, Tim McCarver, Tim Raines, Felipe Alou, Luis Aparicio, Terry Francona.
What do all of these have in common? The first is a list of former professional baseball teams with home field advantage in Memphis. The second a very short list of baseball legends and one country music star who played baseball in Memphis at one time or another for those teams. Yes, Charley Pride pitched for the Negro American League Memphis Red Sox, who also claimed Kansas City Monarch legend Buck O’Neil for a year. Yes, there really was a Moonlight Graham ‘Field of Dreams’ fans. He made an appearance for the New York Giants but never got to bat, just like in the movie. But before he went on to be Chisholm Minnesota’s school doctor, he returned to the minor leagues, playing part of the 1906 season for the Memphis Egyptians. The Memphis Red Sox owners - the Martin brothers - also owned Martin Stadium, a rarity for a Negro League team. There was a minor league and for one year a Negro League team named the Memphis Blues. The Reds started it all in the 1870’s and The Chickasaws (Chicks) had players on the field who are current and future members of the Baseball Hall of Fame - including Tim Raines, a 2017 inductee.
But that’s all history. What about now? There is one professional baseball team here. The Memphis Redbirds are at the top of the St Louis Cardinals minor league affiliates, playing AAA baseball in the Pacific Coast League. Their home field is AutoZone Park in the heart of downtown Memphis. Personal note here - one of the reasons I moved to Memphis was to see live baseball, though I had to check to see if they played against my Major League team’s AAA affiliate before signing on as a fan. The Redbirds got their start in 1998, their ballpark in 2000. In that time, the team has won two PCL Championships. AutoZone Park hosted the 2016 AAA National Championship Game between the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (Yankees) and El Paso Chihuahuas (Padres). Top starters on the mound include Luke Weaver (6-1, 2.33 ERA), Luke Flaherty (5-2, 2.10 ERA), and Arturo Reyes (5-2, 3.21 ERA). Top Cardinal prospects include catcher Carson Kelly (.290 BA), outfielder Harrison Bader (.300 BA), and shortstop Paul Dejong, who was called up to St Louis in late May. Two weeks ago I watched Randal Grichuk, who is temporarily assigned to Memphis by the Cardinals, gun down a runner at home with a perfect strike to Kelly from left field. This is an exciting team with a great recent past and future. They also happen to be at the top of PCL’s American Southern Division (as of June 18 42-27, 5.5 games ahead of rival Sounds of Tennessee’s “other” music city). With all of this great Memphis baseball history and a great team playing their hearts out on an amazing field, it’s baffling why official attendance at home games ranges from less than a third to a half of AutoZone’s 10,000 seat capacity.
Here’s my pitch! Come out because you love baseball, that game of strategy, grace, and incredible skill. Watching a power hitter lay down a perfect bunt to advance a runner into scoring position is high art displaying all three. Come out for the stress relief, so you can watch a manager make those tough decisions about pitching matchups and an outfielder take a perfect route to a fly ball, forgetting about your tough week at work as you are absorbed into someone else’s hard work. Come out for the thrill of that deep ball you know isn’t going to be caught or that runner who is going to be caught stealing - or maybe not. Come out to see the look on your children’s faces as they take in the great view of the park or yell “Hey batter, batter…” for the first time. Come out to smell the grass or take in a dark sky broken up by the biggest display board in the minor leagues and the lights that keep us from having to miss work at a daytime job to watch a game. Come out for the burgers, the BBQ nachos or that baseball classic hot dog. Come out for the antics of the hat shuffle, the dizzy crutch race, musical chairs, “show us your dance moves,” the chicken dance, air guitar, to hear a children’s choir sing our national anthem, or to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” like you just don’t care.
Come out to watch the crowd participate in all of the above or hear the excitement in those kids’ voices, or just to people watch. Come out for the promotions - all you can eat nights, beach towel giveaways, replica jerseys or t-shirts for the early birds. Come out with a group of friends and get a package deal.
Come out because the Redbirds honor those of us carrying a military ID with a half-price ticket. Come out because there’s no better way to spend a Friday night than dinner at one of the great restaurants downtown, watching the Redbirds take down an opponent, then checking out the best musicians in the world at any of the music venues within walking distance - or short one dollar trolley rides - of the ballpark. Did you think I wasn’t going to talk about music in this article?
Come out because you might just get to meet Lonnie “Showboat” Harris, that home plate stealing outfielder for the Memphis Red Sox and super fan of the Redbirds, who before he talks baseball will tell your kids to study hard because he spent more time as a teacher in Memphis than a ballplayer - but then he’ll tell you a great story of his exploits in the real grit and grind of 1950’s Negro League baseball.
Come out because while we appreciate history and legends, let’s remember great stories are yet to be written and legends are being created. Come out to see the Memphis Redbirds in motion.