While watching a Redbirds game has been a popular pastime for many families in Memphis, Craig Unger is hoping to foster a new generation of fans. Unger is passionate about baseball and AutoZone Park, where he’s worked for the past year as the general manager. The St. Louis Cardinals purchased the Class AAA affiliate Memphis Redbirds in March 2014 and inked a long-term lease with the city of Memphis to run AutoZone Park. The franchise is determined to gin up excitement once again for the city’s minor league ball club and Unger is leading the charge.
A native of Waterloo, Illinois, Craig Unger and his wife, Pam, have never been far from the action in St. Louis. Unger’s interest in journalism and marketing took them to the Gateway City after college, where Craig excelled as a news broadcaster, eventually rising from the announcer’s booth to the general manager’s office. Later, when the Cardinals purchased the station, Unger’s career shifted to corporate sales and marketing for the ball club. Several years later, he was moved to Memphis to start a new chapter in his career.
It’s Memphis’ proximity to St. Louis that made this purchase so desirable. If a Cardinal player gets injured in the morning, a Redbirds player can step into the dugout at Busch Stadium by late afternoon. “The role of the minor league is to help prepare players for the big leagues and Memphis has long played a role in developing players for the Cardinals and other teams,” says Unger, noting only 5 percent of ballplayers will actually go on to have a major league career. “People know players names when they get to St. Louis. It’s harder to make them household names now.”
And yet, at age 37, this father of three is in an enviable position. AutoZone Park was ranked as one of the top minor league ballparks in the country by Baseball America, second only to Charlotte’s BB&T Ballpark, which opened last year. Since he heads a small organization (just 25 full-time employees), Unger is very hands-on. He oversaw the club’s $6.5 million renovation, pulling 3,000 seats from the stadium (it now seats closer to 10,000 fans), re-sodding the ball field (the grass was original), and eliminating 18 of 45 suites to create office space and two indoor club rooms where fans can enjoy the game in air-conditioned comfort while sharing a beer.
A year into the job, Unger is familiar with the issues faced by his staff. When they’re slammed, it’s not unusual for him to lend a hand, whether it’s taking tickets or spinning cotton candy. What he doesn’t know much about is the team itself. “If something happens, I’m often the last person to find out.”
So if the girls want to see their dad during baseball season (mid-April to September), it often means going to the park. “We come down and try to steal a few moments with him,” says Pam. “Sometimes we’ll come and watch the guys practice.”
So what makes their marriage work? Striving for balance, along with a clear division of labor. Craig’s exactness and attention to detail makes him well-suited to hustling the girls out the door to school in the morning. Pam is more relaxed, willing to go-with-the flow but also structured. “Everyone thrives with routine and organization, it keeps the chaos down to a minimum.”
When they head to the park, Emma (11) enjoys planning their meals, Ellen (9) likes learning the mechanics of the game, and Eden (5) dashes out to play the carnival games on the boardwalk. While the bluff is no longer open, grassy areas at left and right field provide a similar experience by putting you closer to the game (just watch out for foul balls). Unger says many of the changes the club has made have been with the fan experience in mind.
“We’re a little Disney World here, people come to escape for nine innings. We spend a lot of time looking at that — from the minute fans walk through the gates until they leave because we have to meet their expectations,” he says.
The family has adjusted comfortably to life in the Mid-South. They bought a home in Germantown and appreciate the more relaxed pace a smaller city brings. Pam teaches special education at Houston High, but during the summer months, “the girls and I enjoy girly things, like salon days at home, swimming, or having a scavenger hunt to explore the city.” Her spontaneity is balanced, too. “I also make sure the girls have a schedule so they can get their school work done.”
Craig and Pam’s Family Favorites
Attractions: Children’s Museum, Memphis Zoo, downtownRestaurant: FlightWeekend trip: St. LouisFamily traditions: Finding a local place on Friday nights & trying something new What makes Memphis special: We love how it’s so local, with lots of entrepreneurs. While we miss our family, the people here have been very welcoming.