Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Baseball 2000

The national pastime is a far cry from what it used to be -- and far more expensive.

By Bill E. Burk

MAY 29, 2000:  Gone are the days of driving to the ballpark, parking, getting a grandstand seat and maybe a bag of peanuts -- all for $6. Today, dropping in on a Memphis Redbirds game, we popped a fiver on the parking lot attendant four blocks away; spent $30 for dinner across the street at Gordon Biersch; then joined the family-heavy stream of pedestrians making their way to the park.

Out $35 for two, even before seeing the Redbirds' new home downtown.

The minute we stepped under Nostalgia Man into AutoZone Park, I knew this was going to be a professional baseball experience like none I had in old Russwood Park as a child, or later at Tim McCarver Stadium as a sportswriter.

Before taking a second step, here was the vendor, ice box slung over his shoulder, greeting us with, "Ice cold beer. Get your ice cold beer here."

Stepping around him, we were fallen upon by all sorts of critters -- a red Jiffy Lube oil drop, two University of Memphis Tiger mascots, a girl with a basketball goal hanging over her breasts, a Twenties-era blue-clad cop, and Wiley Coyote, calling attention to KIX-106.

Zigzagging around and between this menagerie, we finally made it to the pavilion and, for a moment, thought we were at the food court at Oak Court Mall.

Concession stands everywhere! Ice cream. Chili. Snow cones. Pretzels. Peanuts ($3 a bag). Hot dogs ($2). Nachos ($3). Bottled water ($2.50). Beer ($4 for a 20-ouncer, but if you are a serious drinker, $5 for 28 ounces).

After we settled into our $15 seats, it was time to do what I love best at a professional baseball game: match my wits on each pitch against the pitcher/catcher and batter. Curve? Fastball? Change up? And on what count do you throw which pitch? Check the signals of the third-base coach to see what you might pick up, wondering if your eye is sharper than the opposing team's coaches'.

Forget that, Jack. It was the bottom of the third before the folks standing between me and home plate sat down. They stood gawking wide-eyed at the new stadium, with its grass so immaculately manicured you would have been forgiven for mistaking it for Joe Birch's coiffure. Some looked at the skyboxes, seeing what class of people could afford those. Others at the electronic scoreboard. Some standing in groups chewing the fat. Ball game? What ball game?

And the endless line of kids, darting here, darting there, never sitting in their seats, and oh my God, when Rockey, the Redbirds' mascot, showed his skinny legs, crowds gathered around him. Autographs. Pictures taken with Rockey. Between innings the Redbirds had a dude popping up here and there, asking questions of fans, their faces flashing on the scoreboard while they proved they didn't know the difference between a bunt and Batman.

In the middle innings, things began to settle down. People looked at the scoreboard and saw the Redbirds were winning 2-0. How did that happen? It was their first inkling that the game had been going on. Then, Mark Little drove one out of the park and the two jumbo women in front of me stood to cheer, which is all right, but hey, the guy had crossed home plate, the score was now 4-0, and the count was 3-2 on the next batter. Wouldn't you think it was time to sit down?

By the time Dave Ramsey's organ blasted out the tune "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," in the home half of the seventh inning, the crowd of more than 10,000 began to leave AutoZone Park. The opening-day crowd spent an average of $20 per man, woman and child at the concession stands. That's $1,000 for each 50 fans in the park. Are my figures correct? Tonight, with that average, the concessions pulled in $200,000.

And that drove home the fact that today's experience of a day at the park is not about baseball at all. It's about chili dogs, nachos, peanuts, and excuse me, sir, but what are Cracker Jacks?

My mind flashed back to a game in Timmy Mac Stadium when I was the color man on the broadcast team and had former major-leaguer Danny Napoleon in the booth with me to fill the dull moments. It was the last day of the season. The outcome of the game didn't mean a thing in the standings. The pennants had been won by then. In a laugher, many times pitchers play the outfield, shortstops catch, and catchers pitch. Who cares?

"Why do we even play a game like this when it has no meaning?" I asked Napoleon.

And he shot right back, "You just don't understand professional baseball. It's not about balls and strikes, singles, stolen bases, and home runs. It's about the concession stands. Baseball makes its money at the concession stands."

And as I took one last look around AutoZone Park, Napoleon's point was well-taken. Oh, there are still a few purists who go to the game to match wits with the strategy on the field. Keep scorecards. But they are outnumbered by the thousands who stand and gawk, drink beer, stand in groups and chat about anything but baseball, while the kids go hunting for Rockey.

Yes, the nation's pastime is a far cry from what it used to be.

I'll bet you a 28-ouncer on that.


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