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03/29/08 10:53 PM EST
Change of venues possible for CRG
Memphis a great host, but MLB may explore its options
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Memphis, we hardly knew thee.
After a pair of superlative years as host to the first two Civil Rights Games, there's no guarantee it will be back for a third, a high-ranking Major League Baseball official said on Sunday during the course of the Mets' 3-2 victory over the White Sox at AutoZone Park.
"This is always going to be a year-by-year decision," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, the MLB executive vice president who has been the guiding force behind the event. "We don't make any commitments beyond a year. Memphis certainly has a particular appeal because of the National Civil Rights Museum. But there are other cities that have the same appeal."
Three of those cities, Solomon said, are Kansas City, Atlanta and Arlington, Texas, which appeal to baseball on a number of levels. For instance, Atlanta was the home of Rev. Martin Luther King and the place of his pulpit and burial. Kansas City hosts the Negro League Baseball Museum and was the home of the Monarchs, one of that league's most famous franchises.
But even more so, they are all Major League cities, which gives MLB a chance to take this game from a slot as the final Spring Training exhibition to the Opening Night of the regular season, a concept which is certainly part of the thought process, Solomon said.
In the Civil Right Game's early stages, AutoZone Park, a 14,384-seat downtown Triple-A facility, has been an apt place to grow the game. But things change.
"A regular-season game would almost necessarily mean that it would have to be played in a Major League stadium," Solomon said. "If we did do that, it would definitely dictate where we'd end up playing. So I don't know about that yet. We're embryonic right now, but you know the way babies are, they grow up real fast."
Solomon said that he's had intense interest from these other cities to host the game, but this year it seemed right to return to Memphis, considering the fact that the 40th anniversary of King's assassination on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel is this coming Friday.
Activists here are commemorating the tragic event with a march through downtown. King came to Memphis in 1968 to support striking garbage workers. The Civil Rights Museum, which hosted a lively panel discussion on Friday, was built in 1991 as an extension to the hotel where King died. The room where he stayed remains furnished just the way it was that day and a white wreath hangs from the balcony railing in front of it.
All four teams that have competed in the game -- the Cardinals and Indians last year and the Mets and White Sox this year -- were awestruck when they toured the museum.
"It's been a great experience -- very enlightening and very educational," said Mets manager Willie Randolph, whose team toured the museum upon its arrival from Florida on Friday evening. "Just to share that with my players and watch them react to what they saw is something I'll never forget. It was very moving and very much a bonding experience, too."
Ozzie Guillen, the White Sox mercurial manager, evidently had a similar reaction when his team toured the museum on Saturday hours before the game.
"This was awesome, a great experience. Another big thing in my career in baseball," Guillen said. "I've learned a lot in the last 12 hours here that I never thought I would learn. I think it's a big deal for us, for Major League Baseball, for the players. I don't know when we'll come back and play this game again, because it'll be a long time before the White Sox have another turn. I just hope I'm still managing this ballclub then."
Despite all this, though, there's the reality. Attendance on a chilly late afternoon when, like last year, rain canceled much of the pregame activities, was 7,717 -- 5,098 less than last year's showing of 12,815, which included many Redbird fans who took the four-hour drive south from St. Louis for the game.
The Beacon Awards banquet, last year a sold-out luncheon, was a Friday night dinner that played to a half-filled room, in part because Memphis was defeating Michigan State in a televised NCAA tournament men's basketball game at the same hour.
For those reasons alone, Solomon may be open to discussion about changing venues.
"You've got to be open to discussion," he said. "You've got to be open to hear other suggestions, other slants on ways to carry this issue out, tweaking the overall initiative. We've done some very novel things. Right now, I'm very happy with the city of Memphis. I'm hopeful we'll start talking soon to see how we're going to do this in the future."