Back in 1998, Memphians were excited about the return of Triple-A baseball and the arrival of the St. Louis Cardinals, as the organization had shifted its top minor league affiliation from its long-time home in Louisville.
Housed in old Tim McCarver Stadium, which featured an artificial turf infield and grass outfield, the initial edition of the Memphis Redbirds played competitive baseball. The club finished just three games out of first place in its division in the Pacific Coast League, at 74-70. It was a major turnaround from 1997, when manager Gaylen Pitts’ final Louisville club had limped home at 27 games under .500.
Those first Memphis Redbirds featured a very notable in-uniform crew, many of whom are still active in the game today and have crafted a wide cross-section of experiences.
At the top was skipper Pitts, who at 68 years of age still serves as a special player development assistant with the Cardinals to this day. The former Major League infielder was originally drafted by the club and spent much of his playing career in the organization. He then managed for over 30 years, primarily in the Cardinals system. That includes Memphis’ 2000 title winner, fueled by late-season arrival Albert Pujols, and celebrated in their then-new palace, AutoZone Park.
The 1998 team leader in at-bats with 411 and RBI with 66 was Chip Hale. The former Twins and Dodgers second baseman concluded his professional playing career with the Redbirds that season before coaching and managing in the minors and coaching in the bigs. In October, the 50-year-old reached the pinnacle of his profession when he was introduced as the new skipper of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Pitts’ pitching coach was Marty Mason, who was later the bullpen coach in St. Louis for 11 seasons, ending with his 2010 dismissal. After a stop in the Cubs organization, Mason is preparing for a third season as the pitching coach for the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate in Rochester.
The 1998 club’s busiest reliever, appearing in 49 games, was Bryan Eversgerd. “Gerdy” had already reached the Majors and was on the downside of his playing career. After two more years with Memphis, the left-hander moved to coaching in 2001. In 2015, Eversgerd is slated to spend his third season back with the Redbirds as their pitching coach.
Outfielder Wayne Kirby, then 34, was trying to work his way back to the bigs after having appeared in parts of the seven prior seasons with Cleveland and the Dodgers. In June, 58 games into his Memphis stint, Kirby was dealt to the Mets. After coaching in the Rangers system, he moved to Baltimore, where he has worked the last four seasons as Buck Showalter’s first base coach.
A beloved Cardinal (and Redbird) was “Super” Joe McEwing. After the utilityman and former 28th-round draft pick moved up to Memphis from Double-A mid-season, he received the call in September 1998 to join St. Louis. Following his nine seasons in the Majors, McEwing moved into coaching. A popular candidate for recent MLB managerial openings, he is heading into his fourth season as the Chicago White Sox’ third-base coach.
One of the initial Redbirds who never reached the majors is utilityman Ron “Pop” Warner, who was in his eighth of nine years as a player in the Cardinals system in 1998. Retiring from play after the 1999 season, Warner has coached and managed in the organization ever since, including leading the Redbirds the last three seasons. The 46-year-old is slated to be a roving infield instructor in 2015.
Few may remember that at 36 years of age, speedster Vince Coleman played his final 20 games as a professional with these 1998 Triple-A Redbirds before announcing his retirement that May. Last season, Coleman worked with Houston’s Quad Cities club on baserunning and outfield play and has moved to the White Sox for 2015 as a baserunning coach, advisor and consultant.
Another player who concluded his playing career with these Redbirds was another former Major Leaguer, 36-year-old catcher Danny Sheaffer. He became a minor league catching instructor for the Cardinals organization before taking Memphis’ managerial reigns, which he held from June 2003 through the 2005 season. The last two seasons, Sheaffer managed the Princeton Rays in the Appalachian League and will be back for 2015.
Among 1998 Redbirds players on their way up were a trio of 22-year-olds with big futures ahead, second basemen Adam Kennedy and Placido Polanco plus outfielder J.D. Drew. Overall, 31 former or future Major Leaguers performed for the 1998 Memphis Redbirds.
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Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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