BY MATT LaWELL
MEMPHIS, Tennessee | Construction had dragged on for weeks, longer than Erin O’Donnell wanted, and longer than a lot of folks in the Memphis Redbirds front office wanted. The team had invested much of the offseason and more than $2 million in a new video board, the largest in the minor leagues, and now, with the season closer every day, there was still a chance it would remain dark on opening day. “That,” O’Donnell says, “was a little stressful.”
A veteran of a half dozen seasons in the minors and a marketing manager tasked with the big and small details of the new board, O’Donnell worked more offseason hours than ever. She started in December when she and Adam Goldberg, the Redbirds director of marketing, traveled to the offices of scoreboard giant Daktronics out in South Dakota to finalize the board specifics, continued through the winter months, then finished during those preseason last days in March and April. She watched dozens of workers, hired by Daktronics, piece together the boards and cords and steel a hundred feet high.
Finally, not long after clocks ticked past midnight on April 13, right around 19 hours before the first pitch of the season, the switch flipped. Up in the press box, O’Donnell and a handful of Daktronics employees watched the technological birth of something beautiful. From quiet black to vibrant light, like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy Gale steps out of her twister-ripped home into a sea of Technicolor and munchkins.
“Once they turned it on, it was perfect. There were no tweaks or adjustments to make.” — Memphis Redbirds marketing manager Erin O'Donnell
“Once they turned it on,” O’Donnell says, “it was perfect. There were no tweaks or adjustments to make.”
The Redbirds unveiled the board — 60 feet tall, 60 feet wide, 940 square feet larger than any other video board in the minors — to the public that night during an 11-3 loss to the Oklahoma City RedHawks. They flashed new player graphics, new advertisements, new everything.
Over the next couple months, O’Donnell and the rest of her team continued to develop new ways to play with the best toy in a park full of them. Tommy Sexton, a game day employee in his third season punching in statistical information for the team, has found the new Daktronics software allows for more statistics on the board. Emily Williams, a marketing assistant just out of college who handles all the music that pipes out around the board, can build and adjust her playlists with little more than a finger swipe. On any game night, she can toggle between Lady Gaga, Carly Rae Jepsen, Wiz Khalifa, Haddaway, whoever, in an instant.
There are some flaws, of course. Early during the season, the board kept reverting to player graphics, no matter how many times O’Donnell clicked her mouse to some other option. After an inning or two, she spotted the problem. A fly, all of maybe a dozen milligrams, had landed on the touchscreen. “I don’t use the touchscreen,” O’Donnell says. “I’m afraid to touch it. I use the mouse.”
This is the second board the Redbirds have used during their 13 seasons in Memphis. The first lasted a dozen years. How long will this one last? How long will it be the largest in the minors? How long will it keep fans engaged game after game? For now, none of that matters. Sexton just wants to hook up his PlayStation 3 and play from the control room. Williams wants to blast more music. O’Donnell wants everything to work every night.
“It’s coming along,” she says. “We’re trying to do it, little by little.”
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Time for minor league trivia. Before the Redbirds played their first game in Memphis in 2000, the last minor league team to call the city home was the Chicks, who played in the Southern League from 1978 to 1997. Around the middle of that run, during the summer of 1986, what Chick became the only minor league baseball player to appear by himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated? (Keep reading for the answer.)
New Orleans right-hander Tom Koehler carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning of a dominant 7-0 win over the Redbirds. Koehler allowed only a sharp single to center by right fielder Jamie Romak with two outs in the inning, then left an inning later with 10 strikeouts, three walks and that one hit in his line over 7 2-3 innings. The Zephyrs tagged Memphis right-hander Shelby Miller for seven runs, five earned, by the end of the fifth inning and never trailed.
The game started 2 hours, 32 minutes late because of rain — even though no rain fell after the gates opened two hours before the scheduled first pitch. A flash storm poured rain on the field for about 20 minutes late during the afternoon, three hours before that scheduled first pitch. Because the storm appeared on no weather forecasts and in no radar, though, the Redbirds staff had no reason to be near the field to pull tarp. A group of four dragged the tarp across most of the infield before the weight of the water stopped it short of the first baseline and soaked the most important part of the field. The grounds crew worked on the baseline for more than five hours before the managers and umpires agreed it was playable.
A couple in a tuxedo and a wedding dress shuffled down the steps to two seats near first base around 8:30 p.m., sat for a handful of pitches and smiled for what appeared to be some wedding photos. They ran in and out — much like that undetected afternoon storm — before anybody in their section or the sections around them could ask any questions. Wedding photos at a game. Only in the minors?
Want the answer? Bo Jackson appeared on the cover of the most iconic sports magazine less than two months into his professional career. One of the more electrifying athletes of the 1980s, Jackson batted .277 with nine homers, 25 RBI, 30 runs and a staggering 81 strikeouts over 53 games for the Chicks that season before the Royals called him up to Kansas City. He played eight seasons in the Majors and four in the NFL.
And in random statistical news, the game started one minute late after that long delay, the first pitch was a strike and the first batter flied out to center. A woman sang the national anthem in a crisp 1 minute, 19 seconds. For dinner, we ate burgers and hot dogs at the picnic dinner buffet up in the press box. We did eat some vegetables, too. And maybe some cookies.
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