One unexpected pleasure of moving to Oklahoma has been my four-day road trip through the Southeast. I spent Sunday night in Harrisburg, Penn. — home of such teams as the Stampede of the Southern Indoor Football League.
Then I spent a night in Knoxville, Tennessee, home of both the Volunteers and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
And while some people would arrive in Memphis and fall back on the city’s incredible musical history, I chose to spend my evening at AutoZone Park watching the Redbirds, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cardinals.
Easy access to my red Wesleyan Cardinals sweatshirt in an otherwise jam-packed car had nothing to do with it. I swear.
One of the reasons Bostonians are so angry all the time could very well be the presence of a major league baseball team. People take pro ball so seriously all the time, and revving one’s body up to Fenway Park-required levels over and over again just leads to long-term psychological damage.
Minor league baseball offers a lower-stress alternative to the drunken yahoos of Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field. These fans seem far more capable of remembering that sports, after all, are just supposed to entertain, and only masochists (Boston knows all about those, don’t we?) enjoy feeling miserable and warn out all the time.
So the sparse crowd at AutoZone Park treats both the mistakes and successes of the Redbirds and Nashville Sounds (there should be more teams named after basic senses) with a bit better spirit. More laughs, fewer curses, and very little fear that, should the next guy strike out, the world will come to a sudden and fiery end.
The Redbirds staff shares this more relaxed approach to everything. The vendors walk among the seats selling beer, soda, water, crackerjacks, condoms, whatever, all from one pouch. The
cardinal redbird mascot not only dances and high-fives the kids, he actually talks to the crowd, breaking a critical fourth wall.
Sports fans have no problem accepting a giant anthropomorphic animal. But a giant anthropomorphic animal who can talk? What is this, a cartoon?
This refreshing spin on “America’s pastime” plays itself out most clearly in the music. When a Redbirds player draws a walk, the stadium actually plays “Walking in Memphis.”
I honestly thought jokes like that — simultaneously charming and cheap, hilarious and groan-inducing — ended with movies like Airplane!
Meanwhile, conferences on the mound cause “A Little Less Conversation” by Memphis’ own Elvis to blast from the speakers. And outs by the visiting team draw out the wrong-answer sound from The Price is Right and “Game Over” music from Super Mario Bros.
With everyone else rejecting the super-intensity so prevalent just one level up in baseball, the players get in on the fun. AutoZone Park does a standard “Kiss Cam” during one of its breaks, and at the end of it they put two Sounds players sitting in their dugout on the stadium’s giant screen.
The two players laugh, and one actually leans towards the other slightly before the camera moves on. Most athletes reject even the slightest hint of homoeroticism in their profession, but these guys seem above all that.
The game itself is good, not great. Memphis starter Nick Additon strikes out 11 in seven innings, and his team scores two runs on a bases-loaded balk (how often does that happen?) and a bases-loaded single.
Memphis beats Nashville, 2-0. The series should be called the I-40 Feud.
While there’s this huge drop-off between pro baseball and Triple-A, the differences in interest between the various minor league levels are miniscule. People seem to treat Triple-A and Low Single-A with the same lack of obsession and neuroses.
It’s not that people don’t care about minor league baseball. That’s the wrong sentiment. They just find a way to make baseball something that can make them happy without ever making them sad.
And that, my friends, is commendable.