When Autozone Park opened in 2000, it was to Memphians, the best thing since Elvis Presley cut his first record album in 1954.
It gave rebirth to what was then known as a dying part of Downtown, which hadn’t seen baseball played in the central business district since 1960, when Russwood Park burned to the ground and the Chicks played at old Hodges Field, located east of Pauline and Jefferson.
That team, managed by Gaylen Pitts, who had led the Redbirds to near-playoff appearances in his first two years at the helm in Memphis, including the 1998 season in which the Redbirds was in the hunt for the playoffs until the final week of the season.
After near-misses in the first couple of years for the ‘Birds, it seemed that finally, in 2000 with the new ballpark and rising stars, the Redbirds could finally break through.
On that team, there were players like Darrell Whitmore (yes, that same guy who killed the dreams of a 13 year-old in 1998), Ernie Young, Lou Lucca (Looou), Stubby Clapp, Keith McDonald, and Bud Smith.
For some reason, it seemed that every home game I went to during that season, was a guaranteed win.
My best moment from that season happened to be when my youngest brother and I went up to the press box when the Redbirds faced New Orleans and meet my boyhood idol, Whitehaven graduate John Guinozzo, who has been the official scorer for Memphis baseball for almost 40 years.
As I remember, my youngest brother was wondering about free food, and the lasting moment from that trip to the booth was us eating free jambalya.
The last piece of the puzzle to the Redbirds’ magical run, came in the form of a guy by the name of Jose Alberto Pujols, who started the season in Single A, won the MVP in the Midwest League, played for the Potomac Cannons, and then finally the Triple-A Redbirds.
While no one here in Memphis ever thought Pujols would become the start he would become, he singlehandledly on a warm September night etched his name along the greats who got their starts here in the Bluff City and began his legendary career with a game-winning home run to give the Redbirds their first PCL championship and the 13th in the city’s baseball history.
Although 2000 ended on a thud in the Triple-A World Series when the Redbirds were defeated by Indianapolis, the fun of that season and the memories are still etched in my baseball memory.
Hopefully this weekend, as the Redbirds face the Oklahoma City Redhawks, another playoff berth can give this city something to look forward to.