Day 7 of the 2018 Baseball Trip started at the Comfort Suites in Marshall, Texas. Our target this day was Memphis Tennessee, to take in a Memphis Redbirds game at AutoZone Park. A rainout the night before meant we would be treated to a doubleheader, with the first game starting at 500 pm.
1. Little Rock
About half way through the drive, we stopped for lunch in Little Rock Arkansas. Neither my brother or I have ever been to Arkansas, and Little Rock seemed like a fine town in which to sample life there. Parking near the Arkansas River, we walked around Little Rock for a while before looking for a place to eat.
We settled on Gus’s World Famous Chicken, located on President Bill Clinton Avenue. Arriving about lunch time, there was a crowd, but it didn’t require us to wait. After picking up our orders, we sat in the back of the seating area. Not long after we sat down, one of the waitstaff came around with an aluminum bowl filled with French fries. Apparently, at Gus’s, you can have your French fries topped off as often as needed!
Everybody at Gus’s was courteous and kind. Being from the Northeast, we have become accustomed to people always being in a rush, barely taking the time to notice what is going on around them. Our brief stay in Little Rock reminded us that there are places where people take life as it comes, all with smiles on their faces.
After lunch, we wandered along the Arkansas River, following the trails in a nearby park. Being a school and work day, there were relatively few people in the park, allowing us an opportunity to investigate the area with few distractions. After about an hour of walking, it was time to hit the road again. We left Little Rock with a very positive impression of the place. The Arkansas Travelers play in nearby North Little Rock, so it is possible we may return here in the future.
As we neared the Arkansas/Tennessee border, we encountered rain, the first rain we’d seen on the trip since Biloxi, Mississippi. Knowing that the game the night before in Memphis was postponed due to rain, I was becoming increasingly concerned that the same could happen tonight. Because of our tight travel schedule, we would have to skip the games in Memphis if there was a rainout.
Luckily for us, the rain was in the process of ending when we reached our hotel in West Memphis, Arkansas. The rain slowed us down reaching the hotel, so we only had time to drop off our bags and head to the ballpark in order to catch the beginning of the first game of the doubleheader.
2. AutoZone Park, Memphis, Tennessee
Weaving our way through downtown Memphis, we came upon AutoZone Park, home of the Memphis Redbirds. Arriving before most people left work, finding parking was simple. Walking from the parking lot to the stadium, it was clear we were in an older section of Memphis, based on the architecture.
We were greeted at the entrance of AutoZone Park by an old fashioned sign announcing the game time (which was actually incorrect). From the start, we were impressed by the ambiance of the urban ballpark, and we had just reached the entrance!
Per our custom, we toured the inside of the ballpark before settling into our seats. As we were walking around taking pictures, it was obvious we were in a classic ballpark. Unlike many ballparks we have visited, we were able to access just about the entire outfield via the concrete walkway.
Completing a lap around the inside of the ballpark, we headed for the team store. My attempt to purchase an International League ball was thwarted, as the item was not yet fitted with a UPC code. Without the code, it could not be scanned or purchased . Assuring me that the ball would be available later, the store manager suggested I come back for a ball.
After leaving the team store, we went to the concession stand for dinner. Of course, I indulged in hot dogs, which were greasy but good. The concession stand offered a wide variety of food and drink, but we did not partake in the offerings. With food securely in hand, we went in search of our seats.
Our seats were located a few rows behind the Redbirds dugout, giving a spectacular view of this beautiful stadium. While waiting for the action to began, I spent the time admiring the view of downtown Memphis. Almost immediately this ballpark became one of my favorites, and we’d only been there less than 45 minutes. All of my favorite ballparks (both MLB and MiLB) have an urban backdrop. While I’m not sure why, the urban aspect to the backdrop seems to give the ballpark more character.
Due primarily to the early start to the doubleheader (first pitch for the first game was scheduled for 500 pm), there were very few people in the park. The Redbirds’ opponent for the doubleheader was the Round Rock Express, the Triple A affiliate of the Houston Astros. As is customary for minor league double headers, each game would consist of seven inning games.
The first pitch for game one occurred at 504 pm in front of a nearly empty stadium. On the mound for the Redbirds was Daniel Ponce de Leon, who was promoted to parent club (St Louis Cardinals) not long after this game. de Leon was roughed up this night by the Express, allowing six runs and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings.
The Redbirds’ offense was as ineffective as their starting pitcher, managing just one run on three hits. With the game well in hand, my attention turned to the beautiful stadium as evening rapidly approached. After the final out of the first game, there was a 35 minute intermission during which we walked around the concourse.
Not wanting to bother the staff at the team store, I decided to forego trying to buy the International League ball. It still wasn’t available, so I left. However, my brother was insistent, and the manager provide a ball for us at no charge.
For game two of the doubleheader, the Memphis team came out wearing Chicks uniforms (the name of the team from years ago). The Redbirds were the Chicks for many years before becoming the Cardinals’ Triple A affiliate. Game two started at about 745 pm, when the ballpark had is maximum crowd.
The Chicks featured an opener in game two, with Sam Tuivailala taking the hill for the first inning. Austin Bibens-Dirkx started for the Express (who would be promoted to the Rangers shortly after this start). Unlike the first game, pitching dominated. Bibens-Dirkx threw a complete game in a losing effort, despite giving up two runs in six innings.
The low scoring affair afforded a quick pace, with game two clocking in under two and one-half hours. As typical happens during night games, the crowd thinned out before the game ended about 915 pm. The rainout the night before allowed us to spend more time at this beautiful ballpark than originally expected, taking in its ambience and charm. AutoZone Park was named the best minor league ballpark in 2015, and based on what we’ve seen here, it was well-deserved.
Living a distance from Memphis, I’m not sure when I’ll return here again. If I do, I’ll make sure it’s when the Redbirds are home, as this ballpark is worth it.