In most Minor League ballparks, the thought of nachos outselling hot dogs would be patently absurd. It sounds like some sort of alternate reality scenario, taking place in a world in which the Cubs have 27 world championships and Howard the Duck
is the highest-grossing movie of all-time.
But that's just the situation at AutoZone Park, the home of the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds. Barbecue nachos are the team's signature concession item, one so popular that it does indeed outsell the iconic hot dog. The barbecue nachos can be traced back to the team's days at old Tim McCarver Park (where they were known as "Pig Nachos"), and they were re-christened with their current name when the team moved to AutoZone Park in 2000. From there, an enthusiastic cult following soon blossomed into full-on mainstream adoration.
They are a relatively simple concoction -- consisting of tortilla chips topped with pulled pork, nacho cheese, barbecue sauce and dry rub -- but the details are crucial. The latter two ingredients are supplied by Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous, a downtown Memphis barbecue institution located just a few minutes walk from the ballpark, and it's the dry rub in particular that gives the nachos a memorable kick.
When I visited AutoZone Park last week, Ovations concessions general manager Mike Brulatour placed an order of the nachos in front of me, pointed out the copious amounts of dry rub sprinkled on top, and asked, "Do you like Old Bay Seasoning? Well, this is better."
Better is in the eye of the beholder, and I am still pondering whether the Rendezvous rub is indeed superior to Maryland's No. 1 seafood enhancer. The two are certainly comparable (Rendezvous has more of a kick to it), and there's no doubt that the Redbirds have hit upon the right recipe. Brulatour notes with pride that the Redbirds sparked a trend throughout Memphis, with established barbecue joints throughout the area copying the team.
"We were the first place that had barbecue nachos," he said. "And now, almost every restaurant has them on the menu."
Though food may be the first order of business for many Memphis fans, there are also those whose top priority is seeing the future of the St. Louis Cardinals organization in an intimate environment. And this season, there is no greater prospect on the Redbirds' roster than 21-year-old right-hander Shelby Miller.
The Cardinals' first-round Draft pick in 2009, Miller possesses the sort of innate talent that had led to smooth sailing in his professional baseball career. He was named the Cardinals' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in each of the past two seasons and, in 2011, compiled a stellar 2.77 ERA while pitching in the usually challenging environs of the Double-A Texas League.
And then came Memphis.
Miller is currently sporting an unsightly 6.00 ERA, opponents are batting .306 against him, and he is averaging fewer than five innings per start. Most unsettlingly, he has surrendered 15 home runs over 66 innings pitched (for perspective, he entered the season having yielded 13 home runs over 247 career innings).
I requested an interview with Miller the day after his dispiriting start against the Nashville Sounds on June 11 (he took the loss, allowing six runs over four innings), and considering the circumstances I would have understood if he declined or, at the very least, kept himself at a safe remove. Instead, he sat down in the home dugout and spoke candidly about his struggles in a largely unprompted and refreshingly unguarded manner.
"There has been a lot of adversity for me this year. I think it's travel stuff, waking up at four o'clock, and you might have a start that day," he said. "The hitters are better; the parks play different -- they play weird. You can't really make excuses for it. A lot of people will say it's a fair league, but it's tough to pitch here, that's for sure. It's the biggest jump for me so far."
Nonetheless, Miller is doing his best to find silver linings amidst the clouds.
"[A positive attitude] is something I'm working on, actually, because I haven't really dealt with adversity and having to deal with bad numbers," Miller said. "Through my Minor League career, I've done really well. The story of my life right now is I'm giving up big innings, and it's due to home runs. Once I finally cut that out and eliminate the long ball -- just bear down in the fourth and fifth or whenever that long inning presents itself -- it's gonna be a way better season then it's been looking like so far."