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AutoZone Park, Memphis

BASEBALLPARKS.COM's Best New Minor League Park for 2000

Some incredible new parks opened in the Minors in 2000 -- and fans reacted overwhelmingly!  The all-time Class AA and Class A attendance records fell at the new stadiums in Round Rock, TX and Dayton, OH.  Team owners grinned from ear to ear over the size of the crowds at the new parks in Chattanooga, Sacramento, Louisville and Sevier County (new home of the Tennessee Smokies).

But our choice as the best new ballpark in the Minors for 2000 is AutoZone Park in downtown Memphis.  The new home of the Memphis Redbirds is a sight to behold -- and the more you check out its features, design and attention to detail, the more impressed you are.

The project was years in the making ... and, in fact, the city's inability to get it done chased one franchise out of town, as the AA Memphis Chicks moved east to Jackson, TN and became the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx in 1998 when the team's owner became impatient with all of the delays.  However, new ownership was able to establish a Class AAA franchise in Memphis, and in so doing the team became the largest not-for-profit organization in baseball today -- and the largest in the country both to operate a sports team and own its home facility.  This means that surplus money from the franchise does not go to the owners in the form of "profits."  Instead, it flows to such charitable organizations as Returning Baseball to the Inner City (RBI) and Sports Teams Returning In the Public Education System (STRIPES).

So the franchise itself is pretty special, one deserving of special recognition.  And wasn't it fitting that the Redbirds rewarded their fans and host city with a pennant as Pacific Coast League champions for 2000!?

In no particular order, here are some of the features of AutoZone Park (often abbreviated "AZP") that make it so impressive:

  • The entryway -- Spectators entering this stadium pass through an entryway and plaza that are probably the nicest in the Minors.  Once inside the main gate (see photo), a wonderful plaza with beautifully colored tiles must be traversed to get into the seating bowl.  But why hurry?  Take your time and look at the intricate detail in the tile, and note how its overall shape is that of a baseball diamond.  Take a picture of the life-size figures of pitcher, batter and catcher, with the latter two camped within a gazebo with a huge batting helmet as its roof.  And perhaps the best feature of the entry plaza?  Each "base" at the corners of the diamond has speakers underneath which play sounds of a real baseball game.  Wow!

  • The BackStop Baseball Emporium -- This mouthful-of-a-phrase is the name of the team's souvenir store (see photo below), which is the best I've seen in the Minors, and rivals most I've seen at Major League stadiums.  The 5,000-square-foot shop is located at the edge of the entry plaza, and its decor and selection are truly impressive.

 

  • Setting -- Located right downtown, just three blocks from the Mississippi River, AutoZone Park is close to the nightlife of Memphis.  In fact, it's a block from the Rendezvous Restaurant and is across the street from the world-famous Peabody Hotel.  And if you sit down the right-field line, you can look at the skyline of the city and behind that, the sunset.  Another aspect of the "setting" is the way the exterior of the facility blends so well with the surrounding urban environment.  This is just one of many reasons why the architectural firm of Looney Ricks Kiss of Memphis deserves so much credit for their outstanding stadium design.

  • Overhangs -- Baseball parks that lack any kind of roof or overhang have, to me, an unfinished look.  Areas behind first, third and home at AZP do indeed have overhangs, which are appealing.  I would have preferred that these overhangs run continuously from one end of the grandstand to the other (in the photo above, note that there are "breaks" in the roof behind the dugouts), but I understand that this would have obstructed the view of the field from the team's offices in the building behind the third-base stands.

  • 360-degree concourse -- In addition to overhangs, I also love parks where you can walk all the way behind the outfield -- and you can at AutoZone.  And while taking a stroll back there, take note of the incredible landscaping in center field (and note the great views, too).

  • Diversions -- Baseball purists can argue whether ballparks should be full of playgrounds and entertainment distractions . . . but they seem to be necessities these days.  AZP does it right, though, as the "boardwalk" area down the third-base line includes a number of baseball-related carnival games.  And, yes, there is indeed a kids' playground just beyond the boardwalk area.

  • The fans -- Both rabid and loyal, the fans of Memphis came out in huge numbers (over 912,000, including the post-season) to support the team in 2000.

  • The Club Level -- I've been fortunate to visit the Club Levels of a number of Major League parks, and few are any nicer than this level of AutoZone Park.

  • Scoreboards -- The massive, 13-story-tall scoreboard behind right field includes a 23-by-30-foot high-resolution video board, reportedly the largest in the Minors.  This is one high-tech system, as the graphics, replays and games played on this screen are fantastic.  Also, the left-field wall features another scoreboard to give pitch velocities and updates on the Redbird's parent, the Cardinals.  As an aside, there are also 300 (!) television sets scattered around the park so that fans won't miss the action -- even if they're shopping in the souvenir store.

  • Organ -- In this age of computer sound bytes being blared out of ballpark PA speakers (and if you want the world's worst example of this, visit the baseball stadium at Walt Disney World in Orlando), I often wonder where all the organs have gone.  Well, AZP has one, located in the press box, and its sounds are a welcome feature of this park.

  • Lighting -- Perhaps the brightest lighting in the Minors -- and three times as bright as the team's old stadium.  One motivation for this, I was told, was because Memphis wants to host baseball events that would be televised around the country -- and if you've ever watched Minor League All Star Games on, say, ESPN or ESPN 2, then you've probably noticed that the games looked a little dark.   By the way, the 2003 AAA All Star Game will indeed be played at AutoZone Park.

  • Price -- It's true that no corners were cut in designing and building this park.  All of these features, though, do not come cheaply.  The total project carried a price-tag of over $80 million, making this by far the most expensive Minor League stadium ever.  But before you decry the amount of public money going to ballparks these days, keep in mind that the team raised $72 million of the money, and only $8.5 million came from the government.

So there you have it.  In a year with a number of incredible new Minor League parks, the best is this shining facility in Memphis.

And special thanks to the Redbird's Media Relations Manager, Jason Jones, for taking me on such a thorough tour of this impressive facility.