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Thursday, Apr 17th

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AutoZone Park / Memphis Redbirds

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If anyone needs a model for a successful urban minor-league stadium, they need look no farther than AutoZone Park, home of the Memphis Redbirds. AutoZone is renowned in minor-league baseball circles as being one of the best ballparks in use, and nothing during a recent visit dissuades us of that notion.

FAST FACTS

Year Built: 2000
Capacity: 14,320
Dimensions: 319L, 360LC, 400C, 373RC, 322R
Website: memphisredbirds.com
Phone: 901/721-6000
Parent: St. Louis Cardinals
League: Pacific Coast League (AAA)
Ticket Prices: Club, $20; Lower Dugout, $18; Dugout, $15; Field Box, $12; Outfield Box, $10; Pavilion Box, $8; Lawn Seating, $5
Parking: There are a slew of parking ramps within walking distance of the park, as well as a limited number of street parking spots.
Address/Directions: 200 Union Av., Memphis. The main entrance to the ballpark is at the corner of Third Street and Union Avenue in downtown Memphis, kitty-corner from the Peabody Hotel. Both Third Street and Union Avenue run all the way through downtown Memphis. If you're on I-40, take exit 1A or 1C and take them to Union Avenue; if you're on I-55, take exit 12B and follow Riverside Drive to Union Avenue.

AutoZone Park is located in the heart of downtown Memphis and has been attracting large crowds since it opened in 2000. The team and the stadium are unique in that they are owned by a nonprofit organization, Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation, which is a rarity in minor-league circles and even more rare at the Class AAA level. Because the stadium is owned by a nonprofit, the $46-million construction cost came largely from the private sector.

If anyone needs a model for a successful urban minor-league stadium, they need look no farther than AutoZone Park, home of the Memphis Redbirds. AutoZone is renowned in minor-league baseball circles as being one of the best ballparks in use, and nothing during a recent visit dissuades us of that notion.

AutoZone Park is located in the heart of downtown Memphis and has been attracting large crowds since it opened in 2000. The team and the stadium are unique in that they are owned by a nonprofit organization, Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation, which is a rarity in minor-league circles and even more rare at the Class AAA level. Because the stadium is owned by a nonprofit, the $46-million construction cost came largely from the private sector.

There are three seating levels to the stadium: a main seating area, a club level with 1,600 seats, and 700 suite seats in 48 luxury suites; in addition, there are two open-air party decks and a picnic deck to accommodate groups. A concourse rings the entire playing area. Looney Ricks Kiss Architects of Memphis was the lead architectural firm, with Kansas City-based HOK Sport working as a consultant. It was designed in a decidedly retro style, which integrates the ballpark pretty well into the downtown Memphis area; the historic Peabody is a nice backdrop for many seats in the ballpark. So what AutoZone Park great for fans? First off, the open concourse rings the entire stadium, so you can walk around the entire ballpark and not miss any of the action. Concourses are becoming somewhat of a cliche in new and renovated ballparks, but they sure are vital these days: as minor-league teams attract more families to the ballpark, fans aren't expected to spend all nine innings glued to their seats.

Secondly, despite the large footprint of the ballpark, the spaces are divided up in such a way that the size of the stadium doesn't become overwhelming. A grassy berm in left field and picnic areas down both the left- and right-field lines give you a chance to view the game from a slightly different perspective, as do three balconies. Even the back rows of the main grandstand aren't far away from the playing field.

I spent a good chunk of the game wandering through the stands and seeing the view from the various parts of the ballpark. Though there was a crowd of 9,000 at the ballpark, it didn't seem crowded (except for before the game; we arrived early and were waiting outside the gates with many other folks). Since there are so many things to do at the park, a good share of the crowd is usually heading off to do something or another during the course of the game. If I'm a player, I'm not sure I like this -- the stands are full only at the start of the game -- but as a fan with children, I know these distractions can ultimately stretch out a kid's attention span to the full nine innings and beyond, and for that I am thankful.

Still, there are some things that can be done to improve AutoZone Park. If anything, the park tends to veer toward the generic: while the location is distinctly urban and the Peabody Hotel makes a nice backdrop, it really could be situated in the downtown of any larger American city. During my visit, there was no live music at the park (although Redbirds officials did confirm that there's live music at the ballpark on weekends): in a town where there's such a rich musical heritage, there's no reason to have some sort of live music at the ballpark every night of the week. And in a city where BBQ rules, there's no pit at the ballpark. Sure, they bring in pulled pork shoulder from Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous (which will be covered in the next section), but that's not the same as having a real pit on the premises.

Is this the best ballpark in Triple-A? One of them, anyway. Isotopes Park, the home of the Albuquerque Isotopes (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League) certainly gives AutoZone Park a run for its money, but in a total different way: AutoZone Park is very much about the urban experience, while Isotopes Park is framed by the mountains and has the feel of a rural setting. And I've not seen Raley Field, the home of the Sacramento River Cats (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League), which is often spoken of as being at the same level as AutoZone Park. Let's just say I'd hate to choose between the two and leave it at that: AutoZone Park is definitely worth a visit to anyone who cares about minor-league ballparks.

CONCESSIONS
Redbirds officials won't like me saying this, but in a town full of great BBQ joints, don't spend your time filling up at the park.

Now, having said that, AutoZone Park does offer some of the best concessions I've run across in the minors, so feel free to nibble and nosh. Start with the BBQ nachos, combining nacho chips with pulled pork shoulder from Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous; if nachos don't do it for you, order a BBQ sandwich instead. The Delta Dog -- which is basically a corn dog -- passed my wife's corn-dog test: she is a aficionado who swears to the superiority of corn dogs over Pronto Pups.

Otherwise, the standard ballpark offerings can be found at AutoZone Park: hot dogs, pizza, sausage, brats, soft-serve ice cream, etc. On tap is nothing special: Miller Lite, Icehouse, Killian's Red, Coors, Michelob Gold, Fosters, Sam Adams and Heineken.

WHERE TO STAY
There are several hotels within two blocks of AutoZone Park.

The most notable is the Peabody Memphis Hotel (149 Union Av.), kitty-corner from the stadium's main entrance. The Peabody Memphis dates back to 1869 and was immediately lauded as one of the most luxurious hotels in the South. It's in the midst of a multimillion renovation designed to bring it back to its former glory. Even if you're not staying at the Peabody, drop by the hotel anyway: its Italianate Renaissance Revival lobby is still a sight to be seen, and if you time it right you can see the five famous Peabody Ducks entering (11 a.m.) or leaving (5 p.m.) the lobby's ornate fountain via a red carpet. Across the street from both the ballpark and the Peabody is the Radisson Hotel Memphis (185 Union Av.), while the Hampton Inn Suites Memphis (175 Peabody Place) is located in Peabody Place, the shopping mall/entertainment center adjacent to the Peabody. Other hotels within a mile of AutoZone Park include the Comfort Inn Downtown (100 N. Front St.), the Madison (79 Madison Av.), the Wyndham Garden Hotel (300 N. 2nd St.), the Holiday Inn Select (160 Union Av.), the Best Western Benchmark (164 Union Av.), the Howard Johnson Memphis (22 N 3rd St.), the Sleep Inn (40 N. Front St.), the Springhill Suites (21 N. Main St.) and the Marriott Memphis (250 N. Main St.).  

FOR THE KIDS
If you bring your kids to the ballpark, you'll want to get there early so they can enjoy all the offerings from the Redbirds.

The plaza at the main entrance of the ballpark features several statues of ballplayers, and the younger kids seem to love running around them and playing with other kids in the vicinity. For slightly older kids there is the Boardwalk, where there are several baseball-related games, including the Knuckleball Knockdown, a batting cage, a speed gun for pitchers, and a few non-baseball-related games, including a basketball shootaround and a watergun race. More adventurous kids can scale the heights of the 24-foot climbing wall, while the younger kids can enjoy the only ride at the park, the Rockey Hopper.

If this isn't enough, you can turn your kids loose at the P.D. Parrot Playhouse Perch, located in the left-field grassy seating area. The Perch features observation towers, a miniature baseball diamond, slides and dugout seating.

And, of course, you can always take your kid for a walk during the game, thanks to the concourse that rings the ballpark.

BEFORE/AFTER THE GAME
If you don't seek out some BBQ in Memphis, you're a fool. If there's one thing Memphis is known for, it's Memphis-style pork BBQ. You can't throw a dead pig anywhere in Memphis without hitting some sort of rib joint.

BBQ in Memphis comes in three forms, and each has its own set of advocates. There are wet ribs, where BBQ sauce is basted on the ribs before and after they are cooked and smoked. There are dry-rub ribs, where a spicy rub is applied to the ribs before they're smoked. And then there are Memphis-style sandwiches, where pulled or chopped pork shoulders are topped with a sweet coleslaw. As a casual tourist, you won't need to come down on any side -- all three forms are great. One of the most renowned rib joints in Memphis is Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous Room (52 South Second St. [the General Washburn Alley]; 901/523-2746), located a half-block away from AutoZone Park down a narrow alley next to a parking ramp. The Rendezvous was started by Greek immigrant Charlie Vergos in 1948 and is still run by his kids. The Rendezvous is fairly unique in Memphis in that the ribs are grilled over charcoal, not smoked, and only when they're fully cooked is the rub applied.

Then there are Corky's (5259 Poplar Av.; 901/685-9744), Neely's (670 Jefferson Av.; 901/521-9798; 5700 Mt. Moriah Road Ext.; 901/795-4177) and Interstate Bar-B-Que Restaurant (2265 S. Third St.; 901/775-2304), usually mentioned as the leading BBQ joints in the city. If you're leaving Memphis and not yet had your fill of BBQ, Corky's and the Interstate have branches at the Memphis airport. With airlines scaling back on in-flight meals, you can bet the smell of BBQ will fill your outbound flight.

Insiders who love pork sandwiches will point you toward the Big S Grill (1179 Dunnavant; 901/775-9127) and Payne's (1762 Lamar Av.; 901/272-1523). The Big "S" features pork shoulders smoked in an oil drum, with the sandwich a mix of pink meat and the charred exterior, topped with a dollop of coleslaw. It's located in Soulsville USA, where a number of soul and rock legends have lived and recorded -- Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Booker T. & the MGs, Sam & Dave, Al Green, the Staple Singers, and the late, great Johnny Ace. Soulsville USA was also the home of Stax Records and Hi Records, two labels are define American soul music. At Payne's, your sandwich is made fresh, cut directly from a pork shoulder taken directly from the smoker.

If pork isn't your thing, try the smoked Cornish game hens at the downtown Cozy Corner (745 N. Parkway; 901-527-9158) or the bar-b-que spaghetti at the Interstate.

My personal favorite, though, is the Germantown Commissary (2290 S. Germantown Rd.; 901/754-5540). It's out of the way -- Germantown is east of Memphis -- and while Germantown is now a swank suburb of Memphis, the Commissary has not been updated for many, many years. It's a small place that looks like an old country store, but the place rocks: even on a Monday night there was a line out the door waiting to order takeout. The pulled-pork sandwich is to die for (it's served with beans, slaw, and a deviled egg), while the smoked ribs are great as well.

Speaking of Stax Records and Hi Records: Memphis is the home of American soul music and a center for both rock music and the blues. Sun Records, the germinal record label that gave the world Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty and Jerry Lee Lewis. The original Sun Studio is not far away from the ballpark (it's at 706 Union Av.; 901/521-0664), and tours run every half hour.

But the major musical tour in Memphis is Graceland (3734 Elvis Presley Blvd.; 901/332-3322, 800/238-2000), Elvis Presley's Memphis home and burial ground. Tours run daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. for most of the year. At Graceland you can see the King's living room, music room, his parents' bedroom, the dining room, kitchen, TV room, pool room, and “jungle” den in the main house, and, behind the house, Elvis’s racquetball building and his original business office. You'll also see the trophy building, which contains Elvis's collection of gold records and awards, career mementos, stage costumes, jewelry, photographs, and more. If you don't want to spring for a tour (it's fairly spendy), call and see when the Meditation Garden is open for free (usually mornings); the garden contains the gravesites of Elvis and his parents.

For live music -- both literally and figuratively -- there's Beale Street, located near the ballpark in downtown Memphis. Beale Street has been somewhat gentrified over the years (anyplace with a Hard Rock Cafe is gentrified by definition), so put some care into where you listen to music. B.B. King’s, Rum Boogie, Blues City Cafe, and New Daisy all have reputations for presenting the authentic blues, but perhaps the most authentic venue is the Center for Southern Folklore, where groups like the Daddy Mack Blues Band keep the blues alive.