Among the hundreds of Memphis sporting events I’ve attended, one of the most memorable took place on January 19, 2009, at FedExForum. The Grizzlies hosted the Detroit Pistons in the franchise’s seventh-annual Martin Luther King Day game. Julius Erving was honored before the tip-off, so there was basketball majesty in the building. But the day lives on in my memory more for its place in time than for anything that happened on the hardwood.
The event took place the day before Barack Obama was inaugurated as America’s 44th president. Erving got some big cheers, as did second-year point guard Mike Conley. But the loudest applause that afternoon came during a video tribute, not to Dr. King, but to the man who would become this country’s first black president. It was extraordinary to absorb. A basketball game scheduled to honor this country’s patron saint of civil rights — a few short blocks from where he died — merely hours before a black man would take the highest office in the land.
There was togetherness that day at FedExForum, and not the typical, cheer-the-home-team synchronicity. As at every Grizzlies game, the crowd was majority white. And that crowd seemed to recognize a larger togetherness, one that stretched, well, from sea to shining sea. We all cheered the moment in time, the moment in American history.
I thought of that day Sunday night when the Grizzlies hosted Chicago in this year’s MLK Day game. ESPN had moved the game up a day, into a prime-time slot, a move that backfired when an NFL playoff game was pushed back into the same broadcast window. Eight years have been good to the Grizzlies, though, with six straight playoff appearances and players who now feel as much like family as numbers on a roster: Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Tony Allen. And Conley, owner of the fattest player contract in NBA history.
But what will Inauguration Day this year bring? There was no video presence for Donald Trump during Sunday’s game. And any sense of togetherness — “from sea to shining sea” — seems as distant as Vince Carter’s prime. The Grizzlies lost a close one to the Bulls, just as they fell to the Pistons eight years ago. But the result didn’t matter on January 19, 2009. None of us cared as we left the building. There was larger inspiration to be found.
Today? Every Grizzlies win serves a purpose needed more than ever, that of distraction. Of joy, if for just that night. If we can’t find togetherness as a country — perhaps that’s too ambitious — let’s at least find it with a team we cheer. And hope for better days ahead.
• Wednesday should be a good day for Memphis baseball fans with long memories. In his tenth year of eligibility, Tim Raines is all but certain to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The offensive catalyst for some fine Montreal Expos teams in the 1980s, Raines is fifth in baseball history with 808 stolen bases. He also starred in 1979 for the Memphis Chicks (Montreal’s Double-A affiliate at the time), batting .290 and stealing 59 bases for a team that made the Southern League playoffs. Raines would become the first former Memphis player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame since Gary Carter in 2003.
• Two years ago in this space, I made the case that Tom Brady is the first one-man dynasty in the history of American team sports (January 26, 2015). This Sunday, Brady and his New England Patriots will play in their sixth consecutive AFC Championship. It will be the 11th AFC title game for Brady in his 16 seasons as the Patriots’ starting quarterback. (His 11th in 15 seasons if we exclude the 2008 campaign, most of which Brady missed with a knee injury.)
This level and length of contention for NFL championships can be matched by only one other franchise. Over the course of 17 seasons (1966-82), the Dallas Cowboys played for the NFL or NFC Championship 12 times. During that period, four quarterbacks started those games: Don Meredith, Craig Morton, Roger Staubach, and Danny White. That lengthy era of success led to the Cowboys being tagged “America’s Team” by NFL Films. What does that make Tom Brady today?
Let’s make 2017 the right kind of year. A few suggested goals for local sports figures:
• Dedric Lawson — Ten assists (or blocks) in a game. In the long, rich history of Memphis Tiger basketball, exactly two players have achieved a triple double: Penny Hardaway (twice) and Antonio Anderson. The Tigers’ sophomore star has already come within three assists of the feat (on December 13th) and on another occasion, within two blocked shots (on December 10th). The points and rebounds will come in metronomic regularity. If Lawson can achieve the right kind of outburst in passing or blocking the basketball, he’ll turn an exclusive Memphis duo into a trio.
• Zach Randolph — Win the NBA’s Sixth Man Award. Z-Bo graciously accepted his new role — off the Memphis Grizzlies’ bench — when new coach David Fizdale announced a significant rotation adjustment in the preseason. Why not turn the new supporting role into a major award? Through Monday, Randolph has averaged 13.3 points and 7.7 rebounds. When he missed seven games after his mother’s death in late November, the Griz went 4-3, each of the wins by less than five points, each of the losses by at least nine. The 35-year-old remains integral to the Grizzlies’ big-picture ambitions. A trophy presentation at FedExForum during the playoffs would be a career highlight.
• Anthony Miller — Make first-team All-America. After catching 95 passes for 1,434 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2016 — all new Memphis records — the Tigers’ junior wide receiver didn’t so much as make first team all-conference. In the American Athletic Conference. It’s unlikely Miller would be taken in the first two rounds of this year’s NFL draft. So why not rejoin forces with quarterback Riley Ferguson, do to the Tiger pass-catching record book what DeAngelo Williams did to the rushing charts, and gain some overdue accolades?
• Stubby Clapp — Make Redbird fans stop talking about backflips. When a fan favorite returns, the honeymoon becomes saturated with memories of a player’s achievements during his initial tenure. For the new Redbirds manager, this means countless photos and video clips of a second baseman going heels up as he takes the field. Assuming his first managerial gig above the Class A level, Clapp will be focusing more on replicating the achievements of his 2000 Redbirds team, a club that won the Pacific Coast League championship in AutoZone Park’s inaugural season. Winning baseball games — to say nothing of developing prospects — has little to do with pregame acrobatics. It will be fun to see a man called Stubby take baseball seriously (he always has) and assume a leadership role in the St. Louis farm system.
• Tubby Smith — Make it six for six. Smith would become the first man to coach six teams to the NCAA tournament if he can guide Memphis to the Big Dance. Why not this year? The Tigers have three wins over teams from Power Five conferences (two more than they had, combined, the last two seasons), but must earn tournament consideration in league play. The guess here is that January and February will be the veteran coach’s wheelhouse, when player roles come into focus and the rhythm of a two-games-per-week campaign toward the postseason feels rather familiar. Who knows if Dedric Lawson will be back for a third college season? His coach should make the most of a prime asset.
• Mike Conley — Establish the Grizzlies’ 700 club. The Grizzlies somehow won six straight games with their $30-million point guard sidelined by broken bones in his back. Don’t be fooled. Memphis needs Conley like Conley needs a healthy back. He’s 39 games from becoming the first Grizzly to play in 700 regular-season games. If he reaches the milestone this season, count on Memphis extending its playoff streak to seven years. And count one more reason no future Memphis player will wear the number 11.
Continuing my countdown of the 10 most memorable sporting events I attended in 2016.
5) Tigers 62, UAB 55 (December 10) — Let’s hope this renewal of a longtime regional rivalry becomes a permanent part of the U of M schedule. Gene Bartow, remember, founded the Blazer program. (The teams hadn’t played since Memphis left Conference USA after the 2012-13 season.) The Tigers fell behind by nine points early in the second half, but rallied behind the dominant play of sophomore forward Dedric Lawson. With 24 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 blocks, Lawson came within two rejections of the program’s fourth triple-double and just one from tying the Tiger single-game record. It was Lawson’s seventh double-double in nine games, and 24th of his career. His next would tie him for 10th in Memphis history.
4) Cardinals 11, Mariners 6 (June 26) — You might say I followed Tommy Pham from Memphis to Seattle. Having injured himself playing for St. Louis on Opening Day, Pham had recently been promoted to the big club after a stint with the Redbirds. During a visit with my sister’s family, we made our way to Safeco Field on one of those sunny Sundays the Pacific Northwest does so well. Matt Carpenter homered in the top of the sixth to give the Cardinals a 6-3 lead, but the Mariners tied things up in the bottom of the inning. Over the next three innings, though, the Cardinals hit five solo homers to secure the win. Tommy Pham hit two of them.
3) Redbirds 7, Nashville 6 (August 25) — This was Grizzlies Night at AutoZone Park. Rookie Wade Baldwin threw out the first pitch, and the Redbirds wore jerseys that reflected the color and style of their NBA brethren. (The blue cardinals on the bat were disorienting if not unsettling.) Rehabbing slugger Matt Adams clubbed a two-run homer in the first inning to give last-place Memphis a lead over the first-place Sounds, but Nashville took a 6-5 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Centerfielder Harrison Bader led off the inning with a home run to tie the game. Five batters later, Jose Martinez came to the plate with runners at first and second and two outs. He slapped a hard grounder up the middle that was snagged by the Nashville second baseman. But the throw to first was late and bounced off Martinez’s heel, allowing Breyvic Valera to score from second for the victory. A mob scene ensued around Martinez in short rightfield. The standings don’t matter in walk-off celebrations.
2) Tigers 48, Houston 44 (November 25th) — Mike Norvell’s first regular-season as Tiger coach ended with a holiday showdown at the Liberty Bowl against 18th ranked Houston. The Tigers scored on their second snap of the game, a 67-yard connection from Riley Ferguson to Phil Mayhue. By halftime, the underdogs were up 34-17. Houston scored the first 20 points of the second half, though, forcing Memphis to come back — twice — in the game’s final five minutes. Ferguson hit Anthony Miller on a 35-yard strike to regain the lead for the U of M (41-37) with 3:49 to play. But Cougar quarterback Greg Ward led a 75-yard drive to put Houston back on top with 1:29 on the clock. A deep pass to Mayhue and a pass-interference call set up the Tigers’ game-winner: a 10-yard slant by Miller, hit in stride by Ferguson with 19 seconds left. The victory gave Memphis three straight seasons with at least eight wins for the first time since 1961-63.
1) Grizzlies 128, Lakers 119 (February 24) — A man with five NBA titles and more career points than anyone not named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Karl Malone took the floor one last time at FedExForum. In many respects, Kobe Bryant was Public Enemy Number One over the Grizzlies’ first 15 years in Memphis. No player scored more points against the Griz than did Bryant, and the 18-time All-Star holds the single-game scoring record at FEF (60 points on March 22, 2007). But on this night, Kobe was king and the Bluff City his court. With less than five minutes to play and the outcome decided, Bryant entered the contest one last time. This was atypical of a man as fiercely competitive as any athlete of his generation. It was entirely for Memphis fans. One last goodbye. The Black Mamba getting sentimental on us. Who would have thought?
A countdown of the 10 most memorable sporting events I attended this year.
10) Redbirds 4, Iowa 3 (June 19) — It’s easy to sulk when you’ve been demoted. After a season-and-a-half as the St. Louis Cardinals’ primary centerfielder, Randal Grichuk found himself in the starting lineup at AutoZone Park on Father’s Day. That’s what a .206 batting average in mid-June will do to you. Instead of pouting, though, Grichuk began his climb back to The Show. He drilled a three-run homer onto the leftfield bluff in the third inning, then made a diving catch to end an Iowa threat in the eighth and preserve the Redbirds’ one-run lead. Grichuk soon returned to St. Louis and finished the season with 24 homers and 68 RBIs for the Cardinals.
9) USF 49, Tigers 42 (November 12) — The result wasn’t pleasant, particularly an overlooked pass-interference call in the end zone that would have set up the tying score for Memphis in the final minute. But what a show. The Tigers chewed up 608 yards of offense, 153 of them through the air to junior wideout Anthony Miller, who broke Isaac Bruce’s 23-year-old record for receiving yards in a season (he finished the regular season with 1,283). But this was a night for college-football greatness as displayed by USF quarterback Quinton Flowers: 263 yards passing with two touchdowns and 210 yards rushing (and three more scores). The Tigers fought back from an early 14-point deficit and there were four lead changes in the third quarter alone. Great football game, sadly off the radar of the “Power Five” chatter hounds.
8) Tigers 67, Temple 65 (January 13) — “Blood and guts” are reliable metaphors for sportswriters. On this night at FedExForum, though, they were all too vivid in the person of Tiger point guard Ricky Tarrant Jr. In the frantic final seconds of a tie game, Tarrant took an inbounds pass from Shaq Goodwin and collided with Temple’s Daniel Dingle, absorbing a blow to his mouth with 1.5 seconds left on the clock. Dingle was charged with a foul, but there was some question about whether or not a bloodied Tarrant — an 88-percent shooter from the foul line — could attempt the decisive shots. In the words of Memphis coach Josh Pastner, “Ricky took a big gulp, drank all of his blood, licked his lips. And he shot the free throws.” Tarrant made both. Blood. Guts.
7) Grizzlies 108, Bulls 92 (April 5) — With old friends Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose in villain garb — and Marc Gasol watching from a luxury suite, crutches in hand — the Griz ended a six-game losing streak and clinched a sixth straight winning season, all the while clinging to a spot in the NBA playoffs. Vince Carter shaved 10 years and scored 17 points in 24 minutes to help the cause while Mike Conley’s replacement at point guard, Jordan Farmar, added 15 points and four assists. But it was an old warhorse who carried Memphis this night. Zach Randolph scored 27 points (one shy of his season high) and pulled down 10 rebounds. Bryce Cotton made his FedExForum debut, the 28th player to take the floor for the Grizzlies in a season that will be remembered more for myriad injuries than any wins or losses on the court.
6) Redbirds 8, Fresno 1 (May 22) — Prospects were hard to come by last season at AutoZone Park, but on this bright, sunny Sunday afternoon, a future Cardinal star was born. Alex Reyes, 21, took the hill for Memphis, having just completed a 50-game suspension for marijuana use. He wobbled at times over four innings (85 pitches, three walks), but struck out eight and didn’t allow a run while teasing 100 mph on the radar gun. (Reyes joined the Cardinals in August and put up a 1.57 ERA over his first 46 big-league innings.) First-baseman Jonathan Rodriguez starred at the plate for the Redbirds, drilling a home run and driving in four.
Check back next week for the Top Five.
It will be easy to say goodbye to 2016. From the political (Brexit) to the unspeakable (mass murder in Orlando), it has been a year in which our differences — our divisions — have been displayed in dramatic, all too often violent conflicts around the globe. Bloodshed continues in Iraq and Syria, North Korea seems ready to burst with its maniacal leadership (and nuclear weaponry), and here stateside, we Americans elected a president half the population considers unfit to run a reputable business, let alone lead the free world. Perhaps most threatening of all, 2016 is the year fake news — Oxymoron of the Century — became a thing. Trust has become the most valuable human commodity this side of love.
But the year in sports. My goodness, the year we’ve had in sports.
Had the Cleveland Cavaliers merely won their first NBA championship, 2016 would have had a star on the timeline of American sports history. But what is waiting 46 years for an NBA crown when the Chicago Cubs had to wait 108 years to reach the top of the baseball mountain? Had either of these teams erased a 3-1 deficit in their best-of-seven championship series, the event would have further cemented this year as significant. Both did.
The Cavs and Cubs somehow made footnotes of sports moments that otherwise would be leading annual reviews like this one. Villanova beat North Carolina for college basketball’s national championship on a buzzer-beating three-pointer, the kind of shot taken — and usually missed — on thousands of playgrounds and driveways . . . but in real life, with the cameras on and millions watching?
The Rio Olympics gave us Usain Bolt (again) and Michael Phelps (again). But the Games also introduced the world to Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky, proving (again) that on the sports world’s biggest stage, gender is merely a classification of greatness. In a world of more-apparent divisions, we could use an annual dose of Olympic togetherness. Deep breaths, everyone, as we await the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
No city has needed the distraction of sports more than Memphis. More Memphis lives have been taken violently this year than in any other year on record. We’re left to hope we’ve reached rock bottom in the bloody statistical category of homicide. And we turn to men in helmets and shorts to help us through.
This was the year Memphis became home to the highest paid player in the NBA. (Read that sentence again for emphasis, and know it’s quite temporary.) And when Mike Conley went down with broken bones in his back, the Memphis Grizzlies reeled off six straight wins — the sixth over mighty Golden State at FedExForum — to redefine the term “backbreaker” for good.
This was the year both flagship programs at the University of Memphis welcomed new coaches (a transition year unlike any since 1986). Mike Norvell has kept the pedal down for the football program, his team averaging a shade under 40 points per game despite Paxton Lynch now wearing a Denver Broncos uniform. And Tubby Smith has brought an almost regal feel to the Tiger basketball program, his lengthy record of success a welcome salve to a fan-base grown frustrated by, yes, divisions in the program.
We shed some tears as sports fans in 2016. Said goodbye to Muhammad Ali, then Gordie Howe, then Arnold Palmer. (Had but one of these legends died, the year would merit a black arm band.) The losses seemed to parallel those in the world of music: David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen. It’s as though the year thirsted on pain.
Sunnier days are surely ahead. The Tiger football team will play its bowl game next week in Boca Raton, for crying out loud. Come December 31st, I’ll raise a drink to the year just passed, as I always do. But it will be a hard one. And I’ll chase it with an extra dose of firewater. I’ll then thank the heavens for, at the very least, giving us games to play.
As “Group of Five” football program, the University of Memphis stands little chance of playing in one of the prestigious New Year’s Six bowl games. Exactly one of 12 slots is guaranteed for a “Group” team, the best among five conferences (those not classified as “Power Five”). With that the case, it’s hard to envision the Tigers landing a better postseason ticket than the Boca Raton Bowl, where they’ll play Conference USA champion Western Kentucky on December 20th.
To begin with, there’s the destination. South Florida in December is good for the mind, body, and spirit. The Tiger players, coaching staff, administrators, and fans should relish a few days on the east coast of the Sunshine State. (Let’s go ahead and say it: This beats Birmingham, five days before Christmas.)
But the opponent and timing of the game could make this a significant event in the continued development of coach Mike Norvell’s program. The Tigers and Hilltoppers will have the football world to themselves, the game kicking off on a Tuesday night and relatively early (7 p.m. on the east coast). And while the rest of the country may not initially be revved by a Memphis-Western Kentucky showdown, football fans enjoy scoring, and the Boca Raton Bowl should have between 80 and 100 points on the board before the night is over. Western Kentucky has scored at least 44 points in 10 of its 13 games and ranks second in the country in scoring with 45.1 points per game. The Tiger offense has been potent itself, averaging 39.5 points, good for 17th in the nation. Only the Peach Bowl (a national semifinal between Alabama and Washington) will have two teams as highly ranked in scoring this season.
A “Group of Five” program has to be seen to attract recruits. And it has to put points on the board. The 2016 Boca Raton Bowl offers Memphis much more than a sun-splashed vacation.
• There are too many empty seats at FedExForum for Tiger basketball. Tubby Time is here, but the new coach has yet to see 10,000 fans in his new home arena (one that will hold more than 17,000). Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen simply has to secure regular appearances from non-conference rivals. And this Saturday’s matinee against UAB should be considered a small step in that direction.
Gene Bartow created the UAB basketball program. On the gridiron, the Tigers and Blazers once competed in “The Battle for the Bones,” the prize a massive bronze rack of ribs. For more than 20 years (1991-2013), the teams played at least twice a season on the hardwood as conference rivals. It will be good to see UAB back at FedExForum.
Let’s bring Louisville back. And Arkansas. And Tennessee. Along with UAB, Memphis should aim to host two of these four programs every season. This simply has to happen. It’s a matter of relevance in a city that’s come to be foremost a Grizzlies town. Savannah State, McNeese State, and Jackson State will not move the attendance needle, no matter the strength of the Tiger roster or the popularity of the Tiger coach.
• The Memphis Redbirds made some late-fall news with a pair of announcements last week. The franchise is welcoming back perhaps the most popular player in team history, Stubby Clapp. After 14 years away (most recently as hitting coach with Double-A New Hampshire in the Toronto Blue Jays system), Clapp will be the Redbirds new manager in 2017, succeeding Mike Shildt (who took a bench job with the St. Louis Cardinals). Clapp spent four seasons (1999-2002) as a player with Memphis and was an integral member of the 2000 Pacific Coast League champions. He endeared himself to fans with his scrappy play and backflips as he took the field to start each home game. (The backflips were in tribute to one of Clapp’s favorite players, Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith.) Modern folk heroes are hard to come by. AutoZone Park and manager Stubby Clapp should be a nice fit.
The Redbirds also announced that team president Craig Unger has joined the team’s ownership group, led by Peter Freund. The significance? A former executive with the St. Louis Cardinals, Unger and his family have been in Memphis three years now. He and his wife are raising three daughters here. The Redbirds can now be said to have local ownership. (Freund lives in New York and Montana.) Unger presided over a significant renovation to AutoZone Park and has embraced the challenge of attracting — and keeping — new fans for minor-league baseball. (Attendance last summer was 17 percent higher than the previous season.) Any concerns about a disconnect between ownership and management at AutoZone Park should be reduced significantly with Unger’s new stake in the franchise.
This is my favorite column of the year, a chance for me to fill that mocking space on my screen with the sports-related subjects I’m most grateful to have in my club car on this train called life.
Gratitude. Give it a chance.
• I’m grateful for Year Seven of the Memphis Grizzlies’ “core four.” I wish we could come up with a more distinctive tag for our “fab four”: Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Tony Allen, and Zach Randolph. They’ve earned that much, sticking together in one of the NBA’s smallest markets in an age when as many as five years with a franchise — for a single player, let alone a quartet — is considered lengthy. For some perspective, the Lakers’ great foursome of the Eighties — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Michael Cooper — played exactly seven seasons together. More recently in San Antonio, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Bruce Bowen broke up the band after seven years. Four years with one super-teammate (Dwyane Wade) was enough for LeBron James, and they won a pair of titles together. We won’t see another foursome like this at FedExForum.
• I’m grateful for Georgia Tech hiring Josh Pastner . . . and Memphis hiring Tubby Smith. Exhale. Last winter was excruciatingly uncomfortable for anyone in proximity to Pastner and the multiplying empty seats on game nights at FEF. And that contract(!) that made it all but impossible for the U of M to dismiss him. Thankfully, these kinds of divorces seem to unfold as they should. A good man is in a happier place. And a good program can aim to be great again under the wise watch of a man aiming to take a sixth program to the NCAA tournament.
• I’m grateful for an early look at Alex Reyes. The big righty appears to be on his way to stardom with the St. Louis Cardinals. It was nice to watch a few Reyes outings at AutoZone Park, the latest Redbirds coming attraction.
• I’m grateful for George Lapides and Phil Cannon and all they gave the Memphis sports community. Like days of the week, a sports community — its teams, its fans, its sponsors, its venues, its media personalities — has a “feel.” George and Phil brought a warmth — and distinct passion — to sports in Memphis. They live on in every one of us who attends a ball game now and then.
• I’m grateful for Mike Norvell’s energy and confidence. He’s the first Memphis Tiger football coach in generations to face an imposing task in filling his predecessor’s shoes. He has graciously saluted Justin Fuente’s achievements in building the program . . . while emphasizing it’s not where he and his staff want it be. Not yet. His prematurely gray hair gives Norvell the appearance of a man beyond his 35 years. So does his attention to detail and single-minded focus in making Memphis a premium program. It’s the hardest sports job in town.
• I’m grateful for my daughters’ continued commitment to team sports. One will play her senior high school softball season as an All-Metro outfielder, while the other played her first varsity soccer season as merely a freshman. They are bright, skilled, beautiful young ladies. And they know well the values that make a good teammate. Such is necessary in the wide world that awaits them.
• I’m grateful to be following in the footsteps — literally, and rapidly — of my 5K-running wife. Her commitment to not just running, but competing, is a healthy rebuke of any middle-age ceiling on athleticism. I’m especially grateful for her waiting for me at the finish line, one race after another.
• I’m grateful for you. And every one of the Flyer readers who give us a platform to share news, views, and analysis of the people and events that make Memphis such an extraordinary town. I appreciate your counterpoints, value your applause, and listen to your criticism. You give my job redeeming value.
Happy Thanksgiving to all.
I miss Phil Cannon. The longtime director of the FedEx St. Jude Classic died last Wednesday after a courageous two-year battle with lung cancer. I last saw Phil and his lovely wife at the Liberty Bowl before the Temple game on October 6th. However sick he may have felt, he didn’t show it. Never did. Like every other time I crossed Phil’s path, he brightened my mood. I wish I’d taken more time to visit with him that evening.
Consider the impact Phil made on this entire region over his four decades in support of our annual PGA event. (Memphis was “big league” long before the Grizzlies arrived.) The city’s two most powerful, wide-reaching brands — FedEx and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital — are in the very title of the golf tournament. There was a four-year period (2007-2010) when FedEx was not the title sponsor, and those were rough years for Phil and his staff. But he lured the Fortune 500 titan back into the mix, all the while coordinating an army of volunteers that numbered upwards of 1,800, the faces and voices (“Hush y’all!”) that make the FESJC so distinctly ours. Phil could impact a boardroom packed with CEOs the same way he could an assembled group of groundskeepers, scoreboard operators, and concession vendors.
Phil was the primary source for the first feature I wrote for Memphis magazine, a broad look at the FESJC in June 1994. He treated me like I was reporting for Esquire. Twenty-one years later, I sat down with him to absorb some wisdom for Inside Memphis Business. Among the nuggets he shared: “If you’re going to need 150 carts on Wednesday but only 100 on Friday, go ahead and get the 150.” Perfectly Phil Cannon. Whether it’s transportation, catering, or restrooms, err on the side of making your customers comfortable.
The world can’t replace the Phil Cannons among us. But the kindness, decency, professionalism, humor, and courage that Phil personified live on mightily among those of us who called him a friend. And that’s a slice of immortality.
• Cancer is a monster that takes many hideous forms. Phil Cannon was in my thoughts when my family and I approached the starting line at Saturday’s Race for the Cure downtown. If there’s a more uplifting event in Memphis, I’ve yet to attend it. The annual 5K serves as a coming-out party — that’s what it is, a party — to celebrate the women (and men) we’ve lost to breast cancer, and the thousands around the world beating the insidious disease every day.
If breast cancer hasn’t impacted you personally, it surely has indirectly. (My mom and sister are breast cancer survivors.) I start the Race for the Cure each year with a lump in my throat, reading the tags runners and walkers wear to salute a loved one they’ve lost, or one currently fighting for her life. And the route makes the event so distinctly Memphis: Start in front of the Peabody, then along the river, down South Main, around the National Civil Rights Museum and FedExForum, back along Beale Street, with a finish at AutoZone Park. Whether you’re burning your lungs over the final mile, or walking hand-in-hand with a family member, you can actually feel compassion winning (to say nothing of the extensive research saving lives every day). If you were there Saturday, thank you. If not, consider marking your calendar for next October.
Can’t you just hear a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan in 1958 — a half-century since his team won the World Series — whining? “You know, the Cubs will win the World Series the day a woman is president of the United States.” Here we are. Unless the Cleveland Indians (enduring their own championship drought of 67 years) can upset their Great Lakes rival, the Cubs will win the World Series within two weeks of a woman — presumably — being elected to the highest office in the country. And here’s the kicker: Hillary Clinton is a Cubs fan.
Planets are aligning, and in baseball’s favor. Which makes the time perfect for National Baseball Day. If anyone can get this done, it’s surely the first president since Teddy Roosevelt to enter the White House during a Chicago Cub reign.
The stretch between Labor Day and Thanksgiving — three long months — screams for a national holiday. A real holiday, with schools and businesses (most of them, anyway) closed, a national pause from the daily grind as days shorten and temperatures drop. Not only would National Baseball Day nicely interrupt this drought, but America would also finally have a holiday celebrating what this country does best: spectator sports.
Here’s how it would work. On the day Game 1 of the World Series is played — typically a Tuesday — Americans stay home in honor of this nation’s original pastime. No one plays like Americans. Entire industries are devoted to recreation. Finally, National Baseball Day would allow us to celebrate these healthy instincts.
The game would begin at 3 p.m. Eastern, allowing every child from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, to see every pitch, hit, stolen base, and strikeout if he or she so chooses. Using modern technology, families split across time zones could fire up their computers or smart phones and share in the exploits of the latest World Series hero. Families and friends would have some extra bonding time built around a baseball game. Imagine that.
Not a baseball fan? This holiday is for you, too. No viewing required. Enjoy a picnic with your family (if you live in a warm region). Or catch a movie you haven’t had time to see. Better yet, open that thick book you’ve been meaning to read, but “never have the time.” The idea is to relish a day of leisure, courtesy of baseball.
The TV fat cats will be the hardest to budge. (The last daytime World Series game was played in 1987, and it was indoors, under the roof of the abominable Metrodome.) Fox will cash in this week (particularly with the Cubs in the mix), commercial rates estimated at half a million dollars.
Why mess with such a golden goose? Well, why not consider the possibilities — revenue-wise — if a Series game is broadcast as the centerpiece of a national holiday? With entire families viewing, not simply that 25-45 male demographic considered most attractive. Seems the Super Bowl broadcast has found its way to profitability, with kickoff in the late afternoon on a Sunday. Why must World Series games end after midnight in New York City?
Cubs fans — and Indians fans — understand patience better than most. We’ve waited long enough for National Baseball Day.
The season’s most popular TV series concludes Wednesday night when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump complete their trilogy of cringe-inducing debates, somehow related to the U.S. presidency. What if the sports world turned to televised debates — above and outside the realm of bloviating analysts — to further connect with fans? Here are six pairs I’d like to see stalking one another on stage.
• Tubby Smith vs. John Calipari — Each man won a national championship at Kentucky. One has extensive knowledge when it comes to rescuing the University of Memphis basketball program, while the other is tasked with precisely that responsibility (starting next month). No coach stirred emotions to extremes in this town like Calipari. And no Memphis coach has arrived with the credentials Smith brings, stirring many of those same emotions before he’s made his first substitution at FedExForum. Both outspoken, humorous, and telegenic, this would be ratings gold.
• Roger Goodell vs. Tom Brady — His business clinging to the notion that it isn’t ruining the lives of its workforce, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell chose to make an example of the league’s biggest star by suspending Patriot quarterback Tom Brady for illegally — by NFL rules — deflating footballs prior to a playoff game following the 2014 season. This is the equivalent of banning a UFC fighter for wearing a mouthpiece of the wrong color. Brady wins Super Bowls without a chip on his shoulder. So for the fan bases of 31 NFL teams . . . thanks, Rog.
• Hubie Brown vs. Lionel Hollins — Brown was the uncle you wanted to sit next to at Thanksgiving dinner. Hollins was the cousin who politely brought a bottle of wine, then excused himself into the next room to watch football while the rest of the family dined. They are the faces of two glorious periods in Memphis Grizzlies history, and about all they share is their success here in the Bluff City. It would be fun to ask Uncle Hubie why, of all places, he chose Memphis to interrupt his retirement as a coach. And to ask cousin Lionel: Why so grouchy?
• Terry Francona vs. Joe Maddon — Francona will never again buy a meal in Boston (maybe all of New England), having managed the Red Sox to the 2004 World Series championship, a title that ended a Ruthian drought of 86 years in the Hub. Francona is now six wins away (through Sunday) from another “eat free” city, his Cleveland Indians aiming to end a 68-year drought and join the NBA’s Cavaliers as kings of Ohio. The Francona angle would be singular, were it not for Maddon leading his Chicago Cubs toward the white light of a championship that would end 108 years(!) of Billy Goat talk in the Windy City. These two are witty, smart and don’t take each other too seriously. Trump devotees would turn away in disgust.
• Kevin Durant vs. Russell Westbrook — We haven’t seen an NBA divorce like this since Shaquille O’Neal ceded authority to Kobe Bryant in L.A. after the 2003-04 season. (When LeBron James took his talents to South Beach in 2010 he left behind Mo Williams.) As teammates for eight seasons, this pair somehow put Oklahoma City on the map of NBA elites. Having only reached the Finals once (a loss to Miami in 2012), Durant chose to follow the gold west and see if Steph Curry can deliver the Larry O’Brien Trophy Westbrook could not. Can’t you hear Westbrook invoking the Donald every time Durant tried to explain his decision? “Wrong!”
• Pete Rose vs. Barry Bonds — Baseball’s all-time hits leader squaring off against the sport’s all-time home-run leader, neither a member of the Hall of Fame. Somehow, if we’re trying to match the Clinton-Trump pair of not-so-lovable losers forced upon an angry electorate, Rose-Bonds seems like the perfect match. Who was the better player? That matters less than another question: Who hurt the game more?
What’s a sports column without strong feelings now and then?
• No athlete should have to stand for the American National Anthem (or any anthem played before a sporting event). Such freedom of expression is part of this country’s foundation. That said, when an athlete chooses to make a point by ignoring this custom, he or she has earned questions, criticism, and from some corners, ridicule. Those reactions, of course, are part of a protester’s intention, for what they reveal about the larger population. Care must be taken in choosing when and how to protest a custom like standing for the anthem, the objective being (presumably) positive change and not merely back-and-forth among sports columnists and such. Once you’ve taken a knee during the anthem, what do you want to happen — what must you see? — before you stand again?
That said, we’ve arrived at a moment — thanks in part to Colin Kaepernick — where we should be able to intelligently discuss when and how “The Star-Spangled Banner” should be played. I’m of a mind the song should be played at significant events, but not necessarily every last pro (or college) baseball, basketball, and football game. The World Series, Super Bowl, NBA Finals, Final Four, college bowl games ... these are events of a scale that merit a standing acknowledgment of our country’s freedoms, best symbolized by our flag and our national anthem. When the anthem is played on a Wednesday night in August at a Double-A baseball stadium with 600 people in the stands, is that saluting our country or making the anthem the equivalent of turning the lights on?
• College football needs to reduce its regular season to 10 games. If you were tracking AAC scores on the night of September 24th, you followed Houston’s 64-3 thrashing of Texas State, UCF’s 53-14 mauling of FIU, and the Memphis Tigers’ 77-3 destruction of a team once known as the Bowling Green Falcons. Every September, such scores are posted around each weekend’s thrillers — and yes, there are early-season thrillers between teams of similar collective talent.
But if we’re going to take seriously the health hazards of football, 77-3 “contests” must be eliminated. They are no longer interesting in the second quarter, yet large young men are forced to collide with one another for two more hours.
Let’s start with the elimination of games between FBS and FCS programs. (Sorry North Dakota State. Keep winning those national titles.) Every team will play eight conference games (no more), and thus have two non-conference tilts to schedule for cross-regional affairs like USC-Notre Dame or intrastate (non-conference) rivalries like Florida-Florida State. And that will be enough. Heck, with 10 regular season games (two bye weeks for every program), perhaps we can give some thought to an eight-team playoff.
• Athletes’ use of a name’s suffix on their uniforms has gotten out of hand. You’ve seen “Griffin III” on Cleveland Browns quarterback Robert Griffin III’s jersey. Or “Beckham Jr.” above the number 13 on Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s back. Someone named Carl Edwards Jr. pitches out of the bullpen for the Chicago Cubs. On the back of his jersey: “Edwards Jr.”
These are all misrepresentations. The Browns quarterback is Robert Griffin III (not “Griffin III”). The Cubs pitcher is Carl Edwards Jr. A suffix is applied to a person’s name when he (typically a boy) shares the given name of his father. Technically, every human being who shares a surname with his (or her) father is “Surname Jr.” So almost every jersey in professional sports could have “Jr.” or “III” applied ... incorrectly.
The two most famous Juniors in baseball history — Ken Griffey and Cal Ripken — did not wear “Jr.” on their jerseys. And Junior Griffey was briefly a TEAMMATE of his father’s. If they didn’t add the superfluous suffix, no athlete should. I share this particular strong feeling as Frank Murtaugh III. I’m grateful for having been named for my paternal grandfather and my dad. But I’d be slighting my long-departed great-grandfather to suggest I’m merely “Murtaugh III.”
The baseball world will need some time to recover from the loss of Jose Fernandez. In a sport played on a diamond, Fernandez — killed in a boating accident early Sunday with two others — was a distinct jewel. He won 12 games and posted a 2.19 ERA in 2013 when he was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year. After missing much of the 2014 and 2015 seasons recovering from elbow surgery, Fernandez regained full command of his fearsome arsenal this year. His final season as the Miami Marlins’ ace will go into the books in bold face: 16-8 record, 2.86 ERA, and a franchise-record 253 strikeouts. ,p.In identifying the faces of baseball’s future, few were as prominent as Fernandez’. Mike Trout. Bryce Harper. Maybe Kris Bryant. Now that image will only bring sorrow, and the heavy wonder of what might have been.
Baseball has endured an inordinate number of tragedies like this over my lifetime. Angels outfielder Lyman Bostock was shot to death in 1978. The next year, Yankees catcher Thurman Munson — seemingly bound for the Hall of Fame — died in a small plane crash. Indians pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews died in a boat crash during spring training in 1993. Alcohol-related car accidents claimed the lives of Cardinal reliever Josh Hancock (2007), Angel pitcher Nick Adenhart (2009), and Cardinal outfielder — and former Memphis Redbird — Oscar Taveras (2014). Taveras and Fernandez were born within six weeks of each other in 1992. Baseball has been tragically cheated out of dozens of Fernandez-Taveras confrontations. What value do we put on the moments that never happen? (Cardinal pitcher Darryl Kile died at age 33 of a heart attack in a Chicago hotel room in 2002. It may have been “natural causes,” but it was just as sudden, just as shocking.)
Professional athletes who die young gain a form of immortality. How many people were murdered in 1978 but don’t get mentioned in a column of any kind 38 years later? The number of automobile fatalities remains staggeringly high, each one ruinous to connected families and friends. And there are boating accidents like the one that took Jose Fernandez. Is there a lesson to be taken about when, where, and how to go boating? When it’s safe to be behind the wheel of a car? I suppose this should be part of the deceased’s legacy. But the hole in the heart of baseball’s vast community is too deep, and the new absence too profound for any immediate shift in value structure.
Baseball will move on. The Marlins will surely retire Fernandez’s number 16 and stories of his sizzling fastball will keep his memory alive. In a few short months, a baby girl will be born and someday relish the stories of her father’s challenging defection from Cuba, his rise to fame and prominence as a major-league pitcher, and the boyish glee he took in playing a game most of us must leave behind as boys. But she’ll also feel the hole, the absence. The prayers we say today — and the pain that will linger beyond the baseball season — are for that little girl, and a dad taken too soon.
• My favorite image from last week’s Triple-A National Championship at AutoZone park came during the seventh-inning stretch when a large group of children from Richland Elementary School led the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in right field. Most of those kids were at least threatening their bedtimes on a school night, and publicly. But they did so on a professional baseball field, future big-league stars merely a glance or shout away. It was glorious. I didn’t care if I ever got back.
Tuesday-night baseball is a tough sell. Seats are available for tomorrow night’s showdown at AutoZone Park between the El Paso Chihuahuas (champions of the Pacific Coast League) and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (International League champs). Just as a manager would fill out a lineup card, here is a batting order of nine reasons the 2016 Triple-A National Championship is worth your while.
1 — This is, in fact, a national championship. Thirty cities have Triple-A teams, from Tacoma to Pawtucket, with every time zone represented. Ten of these cities are also home to teams in one of the country’s four major leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL): Nashville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Buffalo, Charlotte, Columbus, Indianapolis, and of course, Memphis. (Gwinnett is a suburb of Atlanta and Las Vegas is “major league” by standards well beyond the playing field.) It may not be baseball’s highest level, but Triple-A baseball is closer to the big leagues than NCAA basketball is to the NBA.
2 — One game, winner take all. Professional sports is drowning in playoff series. More money can be made in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series than in a single showdown for the championship hardware. There’s a refreshing component to Tuesday night’s tilt. Each team having survived a pair of series just to get to Memphis, they will now have to play the best nine innings of a season that has stretched almost six months. Desperation may not be seen Tuesday night, but urgency will surely be in play.
3 — Ferris Bueller would want you to go. Many Shelby County Schools start at the absurdly early time of 7:15 a.m. (Don’t get me started. There are health repercussions that SCS continues to ignore for what amounts to busing convenience.) Families with young children will be inclined to stay home. Don’t do it. Go to the game. Give your kids a unique midweek September memory. And if they’re a bit late to school Wednesday morning, consider any penalty a badge of honor. And tell them Ferris Bueller’s story.
4 — Pete Kozma is coming home. The 28-year-old shortstop played 360 games for the Memphis Redbirds (seventh in franchise history) and another 275 for the St. Louis Cardinals. He was the hero of the Cardinals’ epic Game 5 Division Series win at Washington in 2012 and the team’s regular shortstop when St. Louis won the 2013 National League pennant. This season for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (affiliate of the New York Yankees), Kozma hit .209 in 130 games (the reason a 28-year-old shortstop is playing in Triple A). If there’s a player who deserves a big moment Tuesday night at AutoZone Park, it’s Kozma.
5 — September nights in the Mid-South are precious. The Redbirds have long fought the battle of too much rain (April and May) followed by too much heat (June, July, August). This time of year, humidity is down, temps dip into the low 70s after sunset, and that cold drink you’re holding no longer sweats in your hand. Why not make a ballpark your back porch for one night?
6 — You have the chance to cheer a team called the Chihuahuas. Don’t let such an occasion pass. The San Diego Padres’ top affiliate features both the 2016 PCL MVP (outfielder Hunter Renfroe) and Rookie of the Year (second baseman Carlos Asuaje). Renfroe — who played his college ball at Mississippi State — earned his trophy by hitting .306 with 30 home runs and 105 RBIs.
7 — The game will be televised nationally (NBC Sports Network). Catch a foul ball Tuesday night, present the right dance move, and you just might go viral.
8 — On a minor-league scale, we may be seeing a super team in the RailRiders. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre went 91-52 in the regular season, six games better than its closest competition in the IL. No PCL team won more than 83 games. (El Paso went 73-70.) Baseball played well is a thing of beauty, regardless of the level.
9 — Don’t take AutoZone Park for granted. Attendance seems to be climbing for Redbirds baseball, but it remains near the bottom of the Pacific Coast League standings for ticket sales. Frankly, it’s embarrassing to see the Nashville Sounds (affiliate of the Oakland A’s) outdraw Memphis by more than 2,000 tickets per game. Baseball is a business at AutoZone Park. We will get what we support, what we pay for. Tuesday night should be considered a day for the Memphis baseball community to say “Thank you” . . . or “We don’t care.”
• It would be hard to script a better feel-good weekend to conclude the season at AutoZone Park. On Friday — the day after a walk-off victory — the Redbirds greeted the 10 millionth fan to enter the gates at Third (now B.B. King) and Union. (The prizes presented this lucky family would fill a small warehouse.) Better yet, former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, visited the ballpark as part of a promotion for Habitat for Humanity. Then Saturday, the stadium drew its largest crowd of the season with announced attendance of 11,041.
• The Redbirds have suited up 56 players this season, matching a record set in 2002. But it isn’t so much the men who have played at AutoZone Park this summer who have written the season’s story. It’s more a tale of those who did not. Last March, the Redbirds’ middle-infield appeared to be Aledmys Diaz (shortstop) and Greg Garcia (second base). But when St. Louis Cardinal shortstop Jhonny Peralta broke his left thumb late in spring training, Diaz found himself with a promotion and proceeded to hit .312 for the Cards until he had his own digit damaged by an inside pitch in late July. When incumbent second-baseman Kolten Wong struggled in St. Louis, Garcia was called to help spur the offense and has since become an integral — and versatile — member of the Cardinal bench. Outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker would have been a middle-of-the-order presence in the Memphis lineup, but Tommy Pham went down with an injury on Opening Day. Since making his big-league debut, Hazelbaker has drilled 11 home runs for St. Louis, including four as a pinch-hitter.
Then there’s the pitching. The Cardinals’ top prospect, Alex Reyes, sat out the season’s first seven weeks, having been suspended for testing positive for marijuana. He made only 14 starts for the Redbirds before being called up to help the Cardinal bullpen. The system’s second-ranked starting pitcher, Luke Weaver, made a solitary start for Memphis (August 8th) before being promoted to St. Louis after Michael Wacha went to the disabled list with a shoulder injury. It’s a form of fantasy baseball, but imagine this Redbirds team with Reyes and Weaver making 40 percent of the starts. It’s highly unlikely they’d be 11 games under .500 and in the cellar of their division had such a scenario met with reality.
• The Redbirds are again near the bottom of the PCL in attendance, having sold 324,581 tickets for the season, an average of 4,704 per game (ahead of only Colorado Springs). The numbers don’t jibe with a stadium annually ranked among the finest in minor-league baseball, and in a city that has shown a passion for sports, from the high school level to the NBA. What are the factors that weigh on the AZP turnstile count?
This season’s schedule was odd. From April 15th to July 3rd, Memphis had but one home stand longer than four games. That’s a lot of starting and stopping when it comes to stadium operations, sales efforts, and building any momentum when it comes to engaging fans with the product on the field. As mentioned above, the team’s top stars this season were two pitchers who started a total of 15 games, only seven of them at home. And concession prices remain steep, as much as $8 for a beer or hamburger. Fireworks on Saturday night continue to attract larger crowds. Theme nights — from Star Wars to Christmas in July — add some color to the concourse. And the right promotion will draw crowds: More than 9,000 attended a pair of games where Yadier Molina jerseys and Adam Wainwright bobbleheads were distributed. But Tuesday night in May? Wednesday night in August? These are the white whales of minor-league baseball.
The Redbirds hit the 9,000 mark seven times this season after never hosting such a crowd in 2015, and total attendance was up more than 15 percent this season. So growth is evident. Can it be sustained?
• Next year will bring the 20th season of Redbirds baseball in Memphis. The anniversary would be a nice occasion for the club to start celebrating its history, and in a manner that would remind local baseball fans — for posterity’s sake — how glorious the team’s history has been at times. The Pujols Seat stands regally on the rightfield bluff, where Albert’s championship-winning home run landed way back in September 2000. Beyond that, there is nothing visual that would tell a casual fan that baseball was played at AutoZone Park the day before he or she walked through the gates.
Up in St. Louis, the parent Cardinals fly 11 flags representing each of the franchise’s World Series championships. The 11 years are painted as pennants above the home team’s dugout. Here in Memphis, you can find acknowledgment of the Redbirds’ two PCL championships (2000 and 2009) on a wall next to the batting cage, below the main concourse, and only with a credential for access.
The franchise’s lone retired number — Stubby Clapp’s 10 — was unceremoniously erased from the bullpen wall when the Cardinals retired the same number to honor Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa. Five former Redbirds have been honored as MVP of a League Championship Series: Adam Kennedy, Pujols, Placido Polanco, David Freese, and Michael Wacha. There’s no indication any of these stars once played in a Redbirds uniform. Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina have started more games as the Cardinal battery than any two men in the storied franchise’s history. They also played together in Memphis in 2004, as thousands who lined up for those promotional items well know. It’s time casual baseball fans are reminded about two decades of Redbirds history. Who knows? They might become more than casual fans.