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 Red-birds 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 $250,000.
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 I 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 Red-birds, 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...."