The last quarter century of results posted by the St. Louis Cardinals Triple-A franchise, currently the Memphis Redbirds of the Pacific Coast League, offer an interesting contrast.
On one hand, the highs were the highest, as none of the other Cardinals franchises have won as many league championships as the Triple-A club, yet none of the clubs at the top six levels have delivered a poorer cumulative won-loss record, either.
Cardinals system records – New Orleans/Springfield (IL)/Louisville/Memphis
|Last ten years (1999-2008)||Level||Mark||Record||Year||Club|
|Most league championships||club||one||5-way tie: Mem/TN/PB/QC/Batavia|
|Last 25 years (1984-2008)||Level||Mark||Record||Year||Club|
|Worst cumulative record||club||0.481||1722-1860||1984-2008||Memphis/Louisville (Triple-A)|
|Most league championships||club||four||84,85,95,00||Memphis/Louisville (Triple-A)|
Though the recent years in Memphis have been lean in terms of victories, results have actually been very consistent over time. It is interesting to note that the team’s .481 winning percentage is identical whether you review the last ten years or the most recent 25 years.
Following are the year-by-year details of the Cardinals Triple-A teams since 1977, with 25-year and 10-year subsets as well as by-league totals for the Pacific Coast League and American Association.
|Record all clubs||77-08||0.489||2214||2318||9|
|25 year all clubs||84-08||0.481||1722||1860||6|
|10 year all clubs||99-08||0.481||687||740||1|
|AA record (partial)||77-97||0.491||1453||1508|
|Springfield (IL)||1981||0.485||66||70||2||L1||Tommy Thompson|
|Springfield (IL)||1980||0.551||75||61||1||WC||Hal Lanier|
|Springfield (IL)||1979||0.537||73||63||2||Hal Lanier|
|Springfield (IL)||1978||0.515||70||66||3||Jimy Williams|
|New Orleans||1977||0.419||57||79||4||Lance Nichols|
WC = won championship
WCL = won league title, but lost in Triple-A World Series to International League champion
LC = lost in the finals
L1 = lost in first playoff round
As long-time owner A. Ray Smith ended his club’s and the Cardinals’ long-standing relationship with Tulsa, leaving the city and the Oilers behind for the 1977 season, the report begins.
That season, the short-lived New Orleans Pelicans entered the American Association, playing in the cavernous 62,000 seat Superdome. One of their infielders was a minor league veteran in his final season as a player and first as a coach. Tony La Russa batted .188 in 50 games.
Dane Iorg found the club’s new home in Springfield, Illinois to his liking in 1978 as the future major leaguer lead the AA with a .371 batting average. Hal Lanier’s 1980 club, led by Alan Olmstead’s 2.77 ERA, took the league championship.
Smith was sued by Springfield officials when he reneged on a deal to remain there after the locals had invested in stadium renovations.
Loved in Louisville (1982-1997)
The Redbirds arrived in Louisville, Kentucky in 1982. Packing fans into 33,000 seat Cardinal Stadium regularly, the club broke a 36-year-old minor league record by 200,000 in drawing a total of 868,418 fans.
The next season, Louisville became the first minor club ever to draw over 1,000,000 fans, outdrawing three MLB teams in the process. Jim Fregosi’s squad had the best record in the league but lost in the first round of the playoffs.
In the 1984 regular season, the Redbirds tied for fourth, but won a tie breaker game and eight more to capture Louisville’s first Cardinals-affiliated crown. Speedster Vince Coleman led the American Association with 97 runs scored. MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn canceled the Triple-A World Series due to concerns over its planned locale – Las Vegas.
1985 brought another first-place finish and a second consecutive championship for Louisville. Todd Worrell paced the league with 128 strikeouts. Smith sold the team to a local group after the 1986 season following 26 years of ownership.
The current bench coach for the big league Cardinals, Joe Pettini, presided over a short burst of playoff baseball after a seven-year absence. Though the 1994 Redbirds lost in the first round, next season’s club took the American Association flag. Both clubs finished the regular season in fourth place, but came on when it counted most.
In 1994, 22-year-old Alan Benes won 17 games while 1995 AA saves leader Cory Bailey logged 25.
1997 became the final season of the American Association and the end of the Cardinals’ run in Louisville as well. Gaylen Pitts, who had previously managed the club in 1990, was back in 1997 and remained through 2002. His six-year consecutive run is tied for the longest in the system at any level since at least 1981 with Steve Turco of Johnson City (1994-1999).
Walking in Memphis (1998-present)
The new Memphis club, owned by a not-for-profit foundation, aligned with the Cardinals for their dual debuts in the Pacific Coast League in 1998. In the third of three consecutive winning seasons in their new city, the Redbirds took their only PCL championship to date, but fell in the Triple-A World Series.
Those 2000 champs celebrated in their new $80 million, AutoZone Park in downtown Memphis, considered then and now to be one of the finest minor league facilities. That season, Bud Smith took the PCL ERA title at 2.17 with teammate Britt Reames (2.28) placing third.
In the eight seasons since, the Redbirds have posted just two winning campaigns, but things are looking up. 2008’s 75-67 (.528) set the high water mark during that period.
Even with spotty team records, Memphis continued to feature strong individual performances by future major leaguers. In 2004, Dan Haren was tops in the PCL with 150 strikeouts and Adam Wainwright led the league in innings pitched (182) the following season.
The Memphis franchise was recently ranked by Forbes as the second most valuable in all of the minor leagues at $26.1 million, yet the club is carrying a heavy debt due to the construction costs of AutoZone Park.
Last fall, the Cardinals and Redbirds announced a letter of intent for the big league club to purchase the Memphis team. Ultimately, the organization called the deal off due to the complexity of the transaction and the weakened economy though the team remains for sale.