If some of the good folk in Memphis seem a tad suspicious, well,
who can blame them? This is a city that is to professional sports
what Susan Lucci was to the Emmy. Let's give Memphis an NFL team!
Great! Let's not. Let's give Memphis the NBA! Great! Yeah--as if.
You name the league (ABA, Arena football, CFL, USFL), and the
promised team has either never arrived, arrived and quickly
failed, or arrived and then left town faster than a Graceland
tour bus. "We've all been teased and tormented so many times that
people look at what's happening and wonder, What's the catch?"
says Jason Jones, a native of the city and the media relations
manager of the Memphis Redbirds. "That's the amazing thing:
Finally, there is no catch."
Memphis, of all places, is home to something of a pro sports
revolution. In this golden age of Rich White Men in Suits Taking
Your Money, the Redbirds, the St. Louis Cardinals' Triple A farm
team, are the first not-for-profit franchise. That means Dean and
Kristi Jernigan, Memphis residents who founded the club as part
of the Pacific Coast League expansion three years ago, will never
make a buck off the Redbirds. Instead, 100% of the profits go to
the Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation, which funnels the money
to two area charities promoting youth baseball. This season, RBI
(Returning Baseball to the Inner City) and STRIPES (Sports Teams
Returning in Public Education Systems) will split at least
Too good to be true? Apparently not.
In early 1997 Dean Jernigan, CEO of Storage USA, the nation's
second-largest self-storage company, presented the PCL and the
Memphis city fathers with his vision: Expansion club, new $80.5
million downtown stadium, community involvement, emphasis on
minority hiring. That May the Memphis city council approved $8.5
million in public funds for the new park. The rest of the
financing came from $72 million in public bonds, which will be
paid off over the next 12 to 15 years. Another $4.325 million
came from the sale of stadium naming rights (purchased by
AutoZone, an auto parts chain).
In their first two years the Redbirds played in dilapidated Tim
McCarver Stadium, which was built in the 1960s for high school
and American Legion games, and drew an average of 5,530 fans. Now
they play in state-of-the-art AutoZone Park, a 14,300-seat
facility that is a key component in downtown Memphis's sudden
revitalization. (A multimillion dollar apartment complex, Echelon
at The Ballpark, is being constructed beyond centerfield.)
AutoZone Park is something of a Mini-Me version of the Orioles'
Camden Yards (both were designed by HOK Sport), featuring the
brick exterior, steel beams and classic stylings. The team sold
out its April 1 debut, an exhibition against the parent club, and
after 40 home dates was second in the minors with an average
attendance of 11,036.
The Redbirds promised that 25% of construction contracts for
AutoZone Park would be awarded to minority contractors. They
exceeded that figure. The Redbirds insisted that Memphis middle
schools, none of which had baseball or softball teams three years
ago, add those sports. Thanks to the Redbirds Baseball
Foundation, which pays for the coaches, umpires and equipment, 36
of 38 schools now field teams in both.
"If salary wasn't a factor, I'd love to spend my career playing
here," says second baseman Stubby Clapp of the Redbirds, who were
47-30 through Sunday. "McCarver Stadium was O.K., but nobody got
excited. Now we're in a major league setting. This place looks
like the majors, smells like the majors. I've never been to the
majors, but if this is what it's like.... "
COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY Rockey has helped pull in five-figure crowds at AutoZone Park.