The bad news about this OK-ARK-MO-TN trip, accommodation-wise, was that the team hotels were more expensive than I had been used to. But the good news (and stop me if you’ve heard this one before) was that many of them were walking distance to the stadium. And oh what a lovely perk this is — to step out of the Sleep Inn, strut a few blocks along South Main, take a left on Monroe and then — bam! — Memphis Redbirds baseball!
When I arrived there was, unfortunately, no entry between the legs.
But access was quickly gained nonetheless, and one of the first orders of business was to conduct a couple of player interviews with the trusty Flipcam.
Some of the players were taking cuts in a subterranean indoor location, alongside a mural that celebrates each season in which a Memphis professional baseball entity won a championship (the first flag, from that disease-plagued year of 1893, was earned by a team called the “Fever Germs.” Take note, Tim Hagerty!)
Other players were getting their work in, in the great outdoors. Eugenio Velez stood out in this regard, fielding ground balls on his knees in foul territory along third base. (Here’s hoping Velez makes it back to the Majors soon, so that he may enjoy a run of success comparable to last year’s futility!)
While down on the field, I got my first glimpse of what is, oh, I don’t know: THE BIGGEST VIDEOBOARD IN MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL.
60′ x 60′!
I’m jumping ahead in the narrative a bit, but this is funny: Prior to the start of the season the Redbirds’ ace video production team concocted the following fake-out graphic for the new videoboard. It expertly re-creates the look of the old board.
On Opening Day, the Redbirds fooled fans and media alike by displaying the above graphic when the gates opened. After enduring an hour of disappointed and/or critical remarks (“What about that big new board you guys said what you were getting?”), they finally switched over to the “real” thing.
But I digress. I hung out in the dugout as batting practice wrapped up…
interviewing third baseman Zack Cox (in his first game back after going on the DL with a concussion) and then highly-touted pitcher Shelby Miller. But first, I had to wait for Miller to get off the phone, as he was speaking with a writer from the esteemed Cardinals blog Redbird Rants.
Miller is struggling quite mightily with Memphis, and I appreciated that he was willing to talk about it in an honest and relatively unguarded manner. He was a good interview (it’s linked to above, if you’re into that sort of thing).
As for whether I’m a good interview — who knows? But after speaking with Miller I went upstairs and chatted with Redbirds broadcaster Steve Selby for his pre-game show. It was a loose conversation, and the main thing I remember is Selby talking about mascot Rockey’s huge calves and me responding that I always pay attention to mascot body part size.
And speaking of large organs, I was happy to see this beauty up in the press box:
(It unfortunately went unplayed on the Tuesday night I was in attendance, but still…)
Downstairs, upstairs, then downstairs again. This time my descent was because I had been tapped to throw a ceremonial first pitch, my second of the season (after Fort Myers). While waiting for my moment to shine, I met the aforementioned Rockey.
And, my God, look at those calves. Steve Selby was right!
I took the mound to wild, rapturous applause, and fired off an 85 mile-per-hour strike.
Or maybe it was indifferent applause and a 45 mile-per-hour lob that nearly went over the catcher’s head? I can’t remember.
The National Anthem was sang by this young woman, whose voice sounded far more mature than her years.
At one point during the anthem, I looked up at the (massive) videoboard and was dismayed to see myself in the shot (standing right behind the singer). I tried to move out of the way, but of course moved even more into the center of the shot. Being on a videoboard is disorienting! If I had to do it over again I would, but there are no second chances in life.
There are, however, seconds on the stadium clock.
Dinnertime, in other words! Out on the concourse, the biggest line was for the Redbirds’ world-famous BBQ Nachos.
Seriously — these things outsell even the hot dogs (or so I’ve been told). It’s chips, cheese, pork, and then sauce and dry rub provided by famous downtown BBQ joint Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous.
This excellent creation was just one of many I was able to sample, for at this point in the evening I received an extensive food tour from Ovations concessions general manager Mike Brulatour.
We started with the BBQ Bacon Hot Dog — topped with a vinegar and mustard-based slaw, Rendezvous BBQ sauce and dry rub and, of course, a nice hunk of bacon:
And while I did not sample the aptly-named Big Dog, it sure lived up to its name:
The cheese and sausage plate is a common Memphis menu item, and the team offers their own version: polish sausage, cheese, peppers, and pickles:
I would have liked it better had there been less sauce and a little bit more separation of the items (the cheese was buried beneath the meat), but this is nonetheless a wonderful array of foodstuffs and something I’d LOVE to see more of at ballparks nationwide. Just sayin’ is all.
The “sleeper” item on the menu (and Brulatour’s favorite) is “Chicken on a Stick.” It’s a kabob of sorts, featuring chicken, potato, pickle and onion. I’d highly recommend it:
One of the sausages on offer was the red-hued Circle B, cut in half and grilled. I had a sample, sans bun, and it was really, really good. The woman working the concession stand was incredulous that I had never heard of Circle B — “It’s everywhere!” she exclaimed.
But that’s par for the course when it comes to regional food. I’m from the Philadelphia area, where a sign like this wouldn’t be necessary:
But Parker’s wasn’t serving, so I settled for a good old-fashioned Icee. Man, it had been a while!
But, listen: do as I say, not as I do. And what I say is, “Eat healthy!”
But in the absence of eating healthy, at least I get plenty of ballpark exercise. Brulatour and I ended up walking a lap around the stadium, and I took pictures along the way.
The visiting and home bullpens are separated by some pretty impressive center field foliage.
Out beyond left-center field, there’s a bit of a carnival atmosphere, as well as a impressively steep berm seating area.
The Brula-Tour continued on, this time with a visit to the suite level.
I wanted to get a closer picture of that (officially licensed!) Elvis the Redbird painting behind the bar. But as soon as the bartender saw me, he was like, “C’mon now, what you have to do is pose in front of the picture with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.”
What a great bartender!
While the picture didn’t come out all that clearly, there’s something about it that I really like.
And how’s this for a sweet suite, decorated in the style of a funky BBQ joint:
But there wasn’t much time to explore, because as is so often the case I had an obligation.
I was a pulled pork sandwich in the nightly rib race, going up against arch-nemeses Rib and Seasoning:
The gladiators enter the arena:
Despite the fact that the sandwich had the most range of movement, I got out to a slow start and finished in last place. It was embarrassing.
A considerably less taxing job was to follow — operating the largest videoboard in Minor League Baseball!
I did so under the able tutelage of marketing manager Erin O’Donnell, who explained things in a manner simple enough for an idiot (me) to understand. My notes are a bit garbled, however. They read: “Toggling btw viz ab and live shots…sponsor logos…Rockey cartoon overlay large and small…leave live shot when step in batter’s box — nothing may be moving in game.”
If you can make sense of that, let me know! All I know is that with a click of a mouse I made this happen:
Feeling giddy from this display of scoreboard power, I spent the rest of the evening trying to emulate Rockey’s cocksure strut. Things I saw on my wanderings included the team store…
and, outside of that, an outdoor display in which pitcher-turned-Redbirds broadcaster Charlie Lea (who passed away last year) delivers to notable Memphis native Tim McCarver.
And let’s not forget the specially marked “Albert Pujols seat” in right-center field, which commemorates his walk-off home run in the 13th inning of game four of the 2000 PCL Championship Series. It was all downhill for him from there.
And, hey, what do you know? The Redbirds won the game!
It was a result that was, truly, worth flipping out about.
And where else to end the night but here, between a pair of truly formidable calves.