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.
Lots of people enjoy driving fast cars, but very few get to make a living at it. What’s the secret to your success?
Driving cars is something I’ve loved for as long as I can possibly remember, even before I could drive. I was consumed with cars. The first Top Fuel dragster I can remember was at Lakeland Dragway. I saw “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in a match race [in the mid-Seventies]. When I saw that . . . that’s what I wanted to do. The speed. The sounds. How excited people got.
The chances of me ever getting to this level was like winning the lottery. My parents didn’t have money. I grew up in a small grocery store, one my grandfather started. But driving a Top Fuel car was my dream. My parents did everything they possibly could do, but there was a catch: as long as I didn’t do it on the streets. They did all they could do to get me to the racetrack.
You’ve reached 333 mph in 1,000 feet. What does that feel like? Is it possible to describe?
It is, by far, the ultimate roller-coaster ride. I don’t think it’s the speed you feel so much as the acceleration. There’s nothing quicker on the planet. We’re talking 4.5 G’s when you step on the throttle. You become really strong when you’re strapped into one of those cars. Fight or flight kicks in. It’s your brain taking care of your butt. Your brain takes over and slows things down. The more you do it, obviously, the better you become.
You’ve won six championships in a sport that separates winners and losers by fractions of a second. What are the skills you’ve developed that distinguish you from your competitors?
This far into my career, it’s just being a veteran. Knowing what the car’s about to do. The most important thing in winning championships is “want-to.” My mama has always said I had the “want-to.” I was going to do this, no matter what. I was fortunate, in the right place at the right time.
Was there a breakthrough moment when you knew you could make a career out of drag racing?
That happened when I became friends with a young man named Peter Lehman, and he bought into my dream. He ended up buying some equipment and we went Top Fuel racing together. That was the start of all the championships. The first year we raced full time in Top Fuel (2000) we finished second in points. The following year was the first of six straight championships.
What’s the most important element to a car when it comes to winning a drag race? What do you and your team focus most upon?
The most important part of a race team is the people. No matter how good your crew chief is, no matter the parts and pieces you have . . . if the people assembling them aren’t 100-percent in tune, you have no chance. [A nine-member team supports Millican, with specialists for, among other areas, cylinder heads, tires, and the clutch.] These are full-time, dedicated racecar people.
You're a small guy (140 pounds), is that an advantage?
Absolutely. I actually get lighter when we’re traveling nonstop. By rule, the car has a weight minimum of 2,325 lbs. after a run. You can weigh as much as you want above that. We don’t have to buy exotic [lighter] materials to make sure the car meets minimum weight. And if we’re underweight, we can put parts in strategic places that make the car work better.
You must have suffered some mishaps. How has safety in drag racing evolved?
There are thousands and thousands of drivers who make runs at over 100 mph, which is crazy-fast on the highway, and you shouldn’t be doing. In general, yes, bad things happen and people get hurt. But if you look at the amount of people who do it and the amount who get hurt, drag racing is very safe. The sanctioning bodies require certain safety aspects. At my level, these rules are at their highest. Every year, the cars are actually sonic tested to check thickness of the tubing. And they’re safety-inspected every weekend. General things like seat belts (and these aren’t ordinary seat belts). We wear a super thick fire suit. I wear two pairs of flame-retardant socks. The interior of the car is built around me; it molds around my body. The cars are continually evolving.
You and your wife lost a son, Dalton, in a single-person motorcycle accident. Tell us about the BRAKES program, which will honor Dalton’s memory this weekend. [A driving school for teens, BRAKES stands for Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe.]
BRAKES was started by a driver named Doug Herbert, a fierce rival of mine. [Check out Doug Herbert-Clay Millican on YouTube.] He lost two sons in a car accident. I got over being mad at him at that point. I was already helping with the BRAKES program. I’ve visited a lot of local schools, starting with Munford High School, where I graduated. The response has been really good.
It’s for teens age 15 to 19, and it’s free. Ninety percent of all teenage drivers are going to have an accident. UNC-Charlotte has done a study on students who have been through the BRAKES program, and they are 64-percent less likely to have an accident. It’s incredible. Kids are put in real-world situations, with professional drivers. What happens when a car hydroplanes? What should you do? It’s going to happen at some point. [144 students will attend BRAKES classes this weekend at Memphis International Raceway. For information, go to putonthebrakes.org.]
Any career-building tips for aspiring young drivers?
Going back to what Mama says: If you want it bad enough, you can make it happen. I worked at the Kroger food warehouse on Airways for 11 years, racing locally every weekend. But I had the “want-to” bad enough that I made a career that’s almost 20 years now. Treat every single person you meet as if they may be the person that gives you the opportunity to become a professional racer. That’s what happened to me.
Someone had to play centerfield for the San Francisco Giants after Willie Mays. (It was Garry Maddox in 1973.) Someone had to take over third base for the Philadelphia Phillies after Mike Schmidt retired. (It was Charlie Hayes in 1989.) Soon enough, someone will have to squat behind home plate at Busch Stadium in St. Louis and assume the position occupied by Yadier Molina since Opening Day of the 2005 season. When that day arrives, the heir to the Cardinal catcher’s throne may well be Carson Kelly, currently donning the tools of ignorance for the Memphis Redbirds.
Kelly’s credentials behind the plate were established — and then some — last year when he earned a minor-league Gold Glove for his work behind the plate with Class A Palm Beach. These fielding honors (only nine of them, one for each position on the diamond) are awarded to players across all levels of the minor leagues, meaning Kelly was considered the finest-fielding backstop among those from rookie ball to Triple A. Making the honor all the more remarkable, 2015 was only Kelly’s second season as a fulltime catcher.
The 2012 draftee starred primarily as a third baseman at Westview High School in Portland, Oregon. He also played some shortstop and first base, even pitched a little. But after the 2013 season — Kelly’s first full year as a pro — Cardinal management approached him about shifting to what many consider the hardest position in team sports.
“Someone saw [catching] in me,” says Kelly. “I couldn’t find it. It was tough at the beginning, both on my body and the mental side. It was a project, in a sense. I had 51-percent of the vote, and [my coaches] had 49. My dad caught in high school and college, and was also a quarterback. It’s in my genes, the leadership and taking charge. I’m all about opportunities, taking it by the horns, and going after it.”
Hitting a baseball may be the hardest act in sports, but Kelly says he devotes at least 75 percent of his work to the defensive elements of his game. This may be the second great business decision of his young career, as the quickest way to the big leagues is excelling behind the plate. Few teams, if any, expect big offensive numbers from their catcher. But a backstop who is in control — who takes charge — of a pitching staff can make a significant impact.
“Early on, it was about having to squat three hours every night,” says Kelly, in evaluating his “project” to date. “Once I figured out how to take care of my body — the nutrition aspect of it — then it’s the mental side. Especially here in Triple-A. Every pitch, the pitch after that. Who they have coming up to hit. You’re looking over spray charts, video, where they hit in certain counts. I look at my brain as my toolbox. You take all this information and put it in the toolbox. That’s what they do in the big leagues; it’s all from your neck up.”
Alex Reyes — promoted to St. Louis last week — has pitched to Kelly for three teams over three seasons now and would love to become the Adam Wainwright to Kelly’s Yadier Molina. (Wainwright and Molina recently established a new Cardinal record for career starts by a battery.) “Carson’s made so many adjustments since he started [catching],” says Reyes. “He holds himself accountable, and he’ll hold me accountable too if he feels there’s something I need to do. That’s huge. If a catcher can’t handle a staff, he won’t have his job for too long. The way he’s worked so hard in the offseason . . . and his hitting is coming along. It’s always been fun throwing to him, the way he receives it.”
Kelly is quick to credit Cardinal manager Mike Matheny (a Gold Glove catcher during his playing days) and Molina for his rapid growth behind a catcher’s mask. He says Molina can identify the smallest details — tucking the thumb of your throwing hand to protect against foul balls for instance — that add up to a long career in shin guards and a chest protector. “I’ve gone to three big-league camps,” says Kelly, “and Yadi has always brought everything he can to help me. When he was younger, what helped him? He gets his work done, but he does a lot of teaching.”
Kelly made his Triple-A debut with the Redbirds on July 14th (his 22nd birthday) after hitting .287 in 64 games for Double-A Springfield. Through Sunday, he’s batted .293 in 21 games for Memphis. “Hitting will come,” he says. “You have to believe in yourself. I’m starting to balance the two, but keeping my defense where it needs to be.”
As his first season at the Triple-A level nears the end, Kelly recognizes how significantly close he’s come to his ultimate goal. “The pitchers have more command, a plan,” he says. “Everybody in the clubhouse has a plan, and a way they go about it. Some guys have big-league time. They know what they need to do to get back to the big leagues. The way they plan and process every bit of information . . . that’s rubbing off on me. I’m trying to get there. What do I need to do?”
As grand a spectacle as they’ve become — with more than six gajillion hours of television coverage! — there remains something quaint about the Summer Olympics. First of all, there’s the seasonal qualifier: the “summer games.” Life would be happier for everyone if we played more summer games. There would surely be less strife if we cared more about our time in the pool — or on the beach, with a volleyball! — than we did the politics of the day, to say nothing of the latest outbreak of disease or violence. Competition can be intense, for sure, but the Olympics are ultimately just two weeks of human beings playing.
The Summer Games, in particular, tend to leave us Americans with a star for the Wheaties boxes and soft-drink endorsements. Going back almost half a century, we’ve had Mark Spitz (1972), Bruce Jenner (as she was known in 1976), Mary Lou Retton and Carl Lewis (1984), the first and only true Dream Team (Magic, Michael, and Larry wearing the same uniform in 1992), Michael Johnson (1996), and Michael Phelps (2008). Now and then an “international” (to Americans) star grabs a seat at the table, as Jamaica’s Usain Bolt did four years ago in London (and will again this Sunday in Rio). The Olympics can also become a stage for infamy, from the horrific terrorist attack on the Israeli wrestling team in Munich 44 years ago to cheats like Ben Johnson (1988) and Marion Jones (2000). There will be scores of gold medalists over this fortnight in Brazil, but one or two names will become familiar for posterity.
Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky are the leading contenders for “Olympic darling.” Not even five feet tall, Biles will be a contender in all four women’s gymnastics events and Ledecky is the world-record holder in all three distance freestyle swims (400, 800, and 1,500 meters). Only at the Olympics — every four years — can two teenage girls seize the spotlight with the ferocity Biles and Ledecky will as they display talents developed through quadrennials (multiple) of training.
The Olympics also bring the obscure to the mainstream. When else might we turn away from Netflix long enough for some live judo? Did you know there are Olympics archers among us? Athletes who use bows and arrows with no deer in sight. They’ll be competing for gold in Rio. (One step further, there will be rifle competition at the Olympics. Tasteful in this day and age? I’ll leave that to you.) Men and women will ride horses, steer kayaks, bounce on trampolines (yes, trampolines!), and race bicycles, these two weeks being each athlete’s “one shining moment” in ways no college basketball player could imagine.
We’ll brush up on our geography as the Rio Games unfold. Can you point to Uzbekistan on a map? It’s the home of Oksana Chusovitina, a gymnast who happens to be 41 years old and will compete in her seventh(!) Olympics. Chusovitina was doing backflips at the ’92 Games in Barcelona, five years before Biles was born.
There are sports that don’t belong in the Olympics. Soccer has its World Cup and golf has four majors that pay winners seven-figure checks. Think Jordan Spieth would trade his Green Jacket for a gold medal? No chance. But these are the Summer Games. So we’ll cheer soccer players and golfers, too.
We’ve all done our share of running, even if it’s chasing an ice cream truck or fleeing a neighbor’s flesh-seeking canine. And whether at the beach or the hotel swimming pool, most of us have done versions of the breaststroke, if only to keep from drowning. With the exception of the high-flying (and sometimes leg-breaking) gymnasts, summer Olympians are typically competing within a familiar realm. As long as there are garages (for table tennis) and backyards (for badminton), each of us can claim to be an Olympian in training. And this, ultimately, is the magic of the Summer Games. We are the Olympics.
For various reasons, the 2016 season will be memorable for the Memphis Redbirds’ Alex Reyes. The 21-year-old pitcher (he turns 22 on August 29th) entered the season as the 7th-ranked prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America. The ranking was a tease for the season’s first seven weeks, though, as Reyes served a 50-game suspension for a positive marijuana test following his 2015 season (split between Class A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield). Even with his delayed Triple-A debut — a May 22nd outing at AutoZone Park in which Reyes struck out eight Fresno Grizzlies in four innings — the big righty was chosen to start for the World team in the annual Futures Game (an event that preceded the All-Star Game in San Diego). Tickling 100 mph on the radar gun with his fastball, Reyes struck out four and didn’t allow a run in an inning-and-two-thirds.
“That was my first chance to really show everyone my stuff,” says Reyes. “It was a fun experience, being on a big-league field. My father was in the stands. It was great, getting a small taste of what I feel the big leagues will be like. Being in the clubhouse with Moises Alou, having a one-on-one conversation . . . that was awesome. The first thing he told us was he wants to win. It was an all-star game, but it means something to a lot of people.”
In 12 starts for Memphis, Reyes is 2-2 with eight no-decisions. He has 79 strikeouts in only 55 innings, but with an ERA (5.07) that won’t make anyone forget Bob Gibson. As with most rising prospects at the Triple-A level, consistency and efficiency are qualities Reyes aims to strengthen before he takes up permanent residency in the St. Louis Cardinals’ rotation.
“I feel like I’m getting better,” says Reyes. “But [the Pacific Coast League] is a way different league than Double A. Guys here are a lot more experienced. You have some veteran hitters. A lot of guys have been in the big leagues. The results haven’t been there, but it’s been fun so far.”
Armed with every physical tool — starting with that three-figure fastball — Reyes is focusing on the subtleties of attacking hitters, and perhaps the most important tool in the box: his brain. “It’s not necessarily just throwing strikes,” he says. “It’s being able to throw down in the zone, being able to come up, go in. It’s being able to execute pitches whenever you want to, or when you really need them. Doing that on a more consistent basis . . . this is the level where that actually starts.”
“Alex has electric stuff,” says Redbirds catcher Carson Kelly, who first caught Reyes in 2014 at Class-A Peoria and won a minor-league Gold Glove last season. “Plus fastball. Plus curveball. He has the God-given ability, and now he’s putting the mindset and preparation into effect, which is the next step in getting to the big leagues. It’s fun being part of his development.”
The Cardinals’ current five-man rotation has been steady, if not stellar, this season. Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake, and Jaime Garcia combined for every start until a pair of doubleheaders this month forced some juggling (including the promotion of Mike Mayers for a start on July 24th). With Lance Lynn presumably returning next season — he’s recovering from Tommy John surgery — St. Louis could have as many as six veteran starters blocking Reyes’s entry in the rotation. (The club has an option on Garcia’s contract.) Which means Reyes could follow the example of Martinez and begin his major-league career in the Cardinal bullpen.
“At the end of the day, I’d love to be a starter,” says Reyes. “But that’s a decision [the Cardinals] will make, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to give our team a chance to win. If they feel [bullpen work] is necessary to help the team win, I’m willing to do so.”
Reyes publicly apologized for his positive drug test and coped with his suspension the only way a pitcher can. He pitched. “It was tough when you see the rosters come out and players leave,” he says. “Mike Matheny took me into his office and told me how to handle the situation, to hold my head up. I was pitching every five days [in simulated games], up to 100 pitches.” With his extended work in Florida, Reyes figures he has close to 90 innings pitched this season, a number monitored as carefully in baseball circles as stock trends on Wall Street. He was removed after just three innings (and 57 pitches) in his most recent start — Tuesday at AutoZone Park — in case the Cardinals need him this weekend. (A pair of recent doubleheaders has thrown off the Cardinals’ rotation.)
Reyes credits Randy Niemann — his pitching coach at Class-A Palm Beach — with a philosophy he intends to incorporate on his climb up the Cardinal ladder. “One of the most important things he asked me was, ‘What did you do before you signed [with the Cardinals]?’ It opened my eyes. When you get signed, you want to change stuff, because you’re competing at a higher level. But at the end of the day, what they liked in you is what they saw. So why not go back to that and harness it? Pitch the way you feel comfortable, and better yourself that way.”
It may be only July, but I can’t recall a calendar year with as many significant losses (measured a few ways) in the world of sports. In one month alone — a span of 26 days in June, to be precise — the world lost Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, and Pat Summitt, each the face of his or her sport for multiple generations, transformative figures whose impact somehow exceeded their achievements in the arena of competition. Come December, these three will lead reviews of “those we lost” and not just in sports media.
But there are two other endings in sports, both traumatic in their own way to athletes and their fans. One is retirement, often called “the first death” for a person accustomed to the cheering of thousands as part of a workday. The second is the departure of a longtime franchise icon for another city and uniform, the shedding of one fan base — accompanied by emotional outbursts from one extreme to another — for a new band of loyalists ready to, as Jerry Seinfeld would have hit, cheer “the laundry” that much more.
Come November, five certifiable NBA superstars — each with at least one MVP trophy, either for the regular season or NBA Finals — will not be wearing the uniforms we grew to see as an extra layer of skin over the last decade.
• Laker legend Kobe Bryant retired in April, having completed the first 20-year career spent entirely with a single franchise in NBA history.
• Five years after earning MVP honors at the age of 22 with his hometown Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose was traded to the New York Knicks, the NBA’s island for misfit toys.
• After 13 years and three NBA titles with the Miami Heat, Dwyane Wade signed a two-year deal to essentially replace Rose as the face of the franchise in Chicago.
• In the biggest free agent exodus since LeBron James departed Cleveland for Miami, Kevin Durant waved goodbye to Oklahoma City — his professional home for eight years — and joined the Splash Brothers in Golden State, forming the greatest shooting trio in NBA history. How many shots Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are prepared to give up for Durant will be a swing factor in the latest super-team’s championship aspirations.
• Finally — and this felt most final among the NBA endings — Tim Duncan announced his retirement after 19 seasons and five championships with the San Antonio Spurs. No player in basketball history is more the perpetual Face of the Franchise than Duncan. The Celtics had Russell and Bird, the Lakers West, Kareem, Magic, and Kobe. Even Michael Jordan spent two seasons in a Washington Wizards uniform. A century from now, Tim Duncan’s will be the name NBA fans identify with the Spurs. His absence next season will be glaring, even if San Antonio wins a sixth title.
The Boston Red Sox will soon be searching for a new designated hitter, David Ortiz having announced his retirement after already accomplishing the unthinkable by winning three World Series in a Bosox jersey. At last week’s All-Star Game, the American League dugout emptied for players to hug Ortiz individually as he was removed for a pinch runner. Baseball gets endings better than most sports, perhaps because the institution has been around so very long, and seen so many departures.
Shortly after the All-Star Game rosters were announced, I tweeted my view that the game would be diminished without St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina in uniform. (Molina had been named to the team the previous seven years.) A few of my followers — Cardinal fans, most of them — liked the sentiment. One expressed dismay, though, pointing out Molina’s pedestrian numbers (.259 batting average, two home runs). He didn’t deserve to be an All-Star.
That critic was right, of course, as we measure sports season to season. There are (at least) three National League catchers with better numbers this season than the eight-time Gold Glove winner behind the plate in St. Louis. There are shinier stars with more popular “brands” than the 34-year-old backbone of two world championship teams, Molina’s best days likely behind him.
But that wasn’t the point I aimed to make. Molina is to the Cardinals as Ortiz has been to the Red Sox, as Wade was to the Heat and (to some degree) what Duncan was to the Spurs. Furthermore, like Bryant, Duncan, and Durant, Molina has enriched his sport by his level of play over an extended period of time. But that time is approaching its end. And it’s an ending I, for one, will not greet with enthusiasm.
All good things must come to an end? 2016 may already have its epitaph.
Tuesday night’s All-Star Game marks baseball’s midseason point, a four-day break (for players not in All-Star uniforms) during which we sharpen focus toward what might be, what could be, and what will be come October.
• There’s a reasonable chance the 2016 season will end with a Great Lakes Series. If it does, an armada of fans could turn Lake Michigan and/or Lake Erie into a scene from some twisted, pinstriped version of Game of Thrones. The Chicago Cubs, most fans know, haven’t won a World Series since 1908 and haven’t even reached the Fall Classic since 1945. Then you have the Cleveland Indians, a franchise that hasn’t won the Series since 1948. Combined, that’s 176 Octobers of “wait till next year” for fan bases that now find themselves atop MLB’s two Central divisions. Until July hit, the Cubs appeared on their way to 110 wins. The Indians recently reeled off a 14-game winning streak behind stars — Francisco Lindor, Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber — most fans wouldn’t recognize in street clothes. (Each will be in San Diego for the All-Star Game.)
There are other teams that will have a say in how this script unfolds. Remember, it’s been eight years since the San Francisco Giants — owners of the most wins (57) at the break — did not win the World Series in an even year. But for the Cubs and Indians to be standard-bearers at the All-Star break is healthy for the sport.
• A year after a record six former Memphis Redbirds suited up for the All-Star Game, there will be only one such player — St. Louis Cardinal shortstop Aledmys Diaz — in San Diego. (Matt Carpenter was named to the team shortly before straining his oblique muscle and going on the disabled list.) Diaz is hitting .315 with 13 home runs and 48 RBIs for St. Louis and is a candidate for National League Rookie of the Year. This will be the first MLB All-Star Game since 2006 without multiple former Redbirds in uniform.
• The Triple-A All-Star Game will be played Wednesday night in Charlotte. Relief pitcher Ryan Sherriff (3-0, 2.20 ERA) will be the lone Memphis representative at the event. A factoid Sherriff would do well to ignore: Only two Redbirds (Dan Haren and Michael Wacha) have played in the Triple-A All-Star Game and then later appeared in the Midsummer Classic. What to make of this oddity? Well, it’s really not that odd. Young players talented enough to eventually become Major League All-Stars don’t typically play at the Triple-A level long enough to capture an All-Star nod. Look for Cardinal rightfielder Stephen Piscotty — a 2014 Triple-A All-Star – to join Haren and Wacha in this exclusive club someday soon.
• On the subject of the Redbirds, Memphis may be the only team in the Pacific Coast League not glad the All-Star break is here. The Redbirds enter the hiatus having won five straight games and 21 of their last 31 to climb above .500 (45-44) and within three games of first place in their division of the PCL (behind Nashville). They’ll resume play with the first of eight road games Thursday, a trip that will take them to Albuquerque and El Paso. Which means the Redbirds could be a first-place club by the time they return to AutoZone Park on July 22nd.
• There’s a statistical oddity involving the Cardinals I like to share this time of year. It’s been 42 years now since a Cardinal player has homered in the All-Star Game, the longest such drought for any franchise in the major leagues. Who connected in a St. Louis uniform at the 1974 game in Pittsburgh? Outfielder Reggie Smith, who entered the game for Pete Rose in the sixth inning. Considering Diaz is unlikely to get more than a single at-bat Tuesday night, look for this “curse” to live on another year, at least.
My wife was an all-state soccer player in Vermont. One of my daughters was recently named to the “Best of Preps” All-Metro softball team. My other daughter completed middle school in May having won no fewer than six county championships (three in soccer, three in softball). For two generations, this has seemed like the natural order of things for female athletes. When Pat Summitt coached her first basketball game at the University of Tennessee in 1974, it wasn’t natural, and there was no order.
Summitt died early Tuesday at the age of 64 after a painfully brief battle with Alzheimer’s disease (diagnosed in 2011). Arguably the most significant woman in college sports history, Summitt won more game (1,098) than any Division I coach, male or female. She led the Lady Vols to eight national championships, including a 1997-98 season in which Tennessee went 39-0. Summitt was named Sportswoman of the Year by Sports Illustrated in 2011 and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama the next year. Perhaps most impressive of all, over Summitt’s 38 years as Tennessee’s coach, every player who stayed with her program four years left UT with a degree.
My parents met at the University of Tennessee in the early 1960s and I was born in Knoxville (even before Summitt won her first game). I’ve got orange in my blood. While my parents were both only children, I’ve long considered a certain coach “Aunt Pat.” And 18 years ago, I came one appendectomy away from finally meeting her.
In late-April 1998, shortly after completing that undefeated season, Summitt came to Memphis on a book tour, promoting Reach for the Summitt, a motivational guide for achievement written by a farm girl from Clarksville, Tennessee, who could motivate with merely a few seconds of The Glare. So piercing, so physical, Summitt’s blue eyes delivered messages to her players that needed no supplemental verbiage. (I often wondered how a heavyweight champion would handle Coach Summitt in a pre-match stare down. Actually, I know who’d blink.) I made plans to get in line at what was then called Davis-Kidd Booksellers and finally shake the hand of Aunt Pat.
It wasn’t meant to be. Stabbing pain the morning of Coach Summitt’s visit led me to Methodist University Hospital where I ended up on a surgeon’s table right about the time the author began greeting her fans in east Memphis. When I awoke, though, my wife — that all-state soccer player, remember — had a signed copy of Summitt’s book waiting in my room. “To Frank and Sharon, Pat Summitt.” She had made it to the book signing and back to the hospital in time to greet her appendix-free husband with a gift for the ages. I like to envision Summitt giving Sharon The Glare when she learned of my wife’s double-duty that day.
My first daughter arrived in 1999. Among Sofia’s first major sporting events — before her first birthday — was a 2000 NCAA tournament game at the Pyramid, a Lady Vols win over Virginia. (Tennessee fell short that March in its attempt to win four straight NCAA titles.) That was the closest Sofia came to meeting Pat Summitt. The best we can do now is a pilgrimage to the larger-than-life-sized statue now standing on the UT campus, a trip we’ll make soon.
Every Lady Vols media guide includes “Coach Summitt’s Definite Dozen,” instructions not just for being a championship-caliber basketball player, but a human being capable of making an impact on others. Among them:
• Develop and demonstrate loyalty.
• Discipline yourself so no one else has to.
• Make hard work your passion.
• Put the team before yourself.
• Change is a must.
• Handle success like you handle failure.
Not long after I became a father, I wrote Aunt Pat a letter, emphasizing how I intended to incorporate many of her standards in raising my own daughter (soon enough, two daughters). She replied with the signed photo you see here (two national championships still in her future). My daughters didn’t turn into basketball players, and they’ll never feel The Glare personally. But rest assured, Pat Summitt has influenced them. They’re athletes, you see. Young women practicing daily perhaps the most valuable of Summitt’s “Definite Dozen”: Be a competitor.
From his days as a reporter with the Press-Scimitar, to a stint as general manager of the Memphis Chicks (when Bo Jackson made the team national news), to his pioneering efforts on local sports-talk radio, Lapides sat at the head of the table when discussion turned to sports. He was an unabashed fan of the St. Louis Cardinals (sound familiar?) but didn’t hesitate to throw verbal punches when his favorite franchise — or any other — strayed beyond the boundaries of good performance (or behavior).
He often came across as grouchy on the air, and his digressions in support of sponsors took brand loyalty to a previously unreached extreme. (George was as savvy a businessman as he was a journalist.) But George Lapides, to his core, was devoted to Memphis and any cause that could benefit this city.
The last conversation George and I shared was during a media event at AutoZone Park in 2015. I liked to ask him stories about the Cardinals, knowing he was one of the few people on the planet who might share a tale I hadn’t already heard. George mentioned the time he was in a big-league clubhouse at spring training (not the Cardinals’ facility) when he asked a familiar player if he’d get an autograph from a Hall-of-Fame bound teammate for a loyal reader of the Press-Scimitar. (The loyal “reader” was actually blind and would call the Press-Scimitar sports department the morning after her favorite player had a game to ask how he’d done the night before.) The future Hall of Famer refused, and made a racially insensitive comment about Memphis. That player — at that moment — was crossed off George Lapides’s friends list, and rightfully so. (The story not being mine, I’m not comfortable sharing the name of the baseball star.) George loved sports and particularly baseball. But not as much as he loved Memphis.
I’m hurting especially for George’s family. Upon being hired by Memphis magazine in May 1992, my first supervisor was George’s son, David. The younger Lapides was on his way to grad school in Texas at the end of the summer, and I was hired to replace him as assistant to the publisher. I was nervous, hopeful (but unsure) that I could begin a career in journalism. David Lapides made me feel at home, helped me sharpen my focus, and pointed me in a direction I’ve followed to this day. He and his family have been in Calgary for years and we haven’t communicated much over the last two decades. But he’s a friend and I know what it’s like to lose your father. Please have David and the rest of the Lapides family in your thoughts.
One of my daughters recently finished an outstanding three years as a middle-school softball player. There were tears at the season-ending party, but Elena’s coach offered some wisdom, attributed to Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” Memphis will long be smiling because George Lapides happened. May he rest in peace.
Thanks to a playoff format that grants two wild-card entries in each league, the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals are clinging to life as contenders in the National League. Trailing the Chicago Cubs by nine games, the Cardinals stand little chance of winning a fourth straight NL Central championship. But through Sunday’s games, St. Louis is tied with the Mets atop “the fourth division,” the wild-card race.
Five recent Memphis Redbirds will have a lot to say about whether or not St. Louis reaches the postseason a sixth year in a row. Here’s a breakdown of what we’ve seen from this quintet . . . and what we might expect as summer heats up.
• Stephen Piscotty — Jason Heyward is a very good rightfielder. He won a Gold Glove and helped the Cardinals win 100 games last season before signing a fat free-agent contract with the Chicago Cubs. Judging by the standings today, Heyward is a wise man. But judging by the numbers Heyward has produced compared with those of Piscotty, the Cardinals have upgraded rightfield and at a little over two percent(!) of the salary Chicago is paying Heyward this year ($21.6 million). Through Sunday, Heyward is hitting .240, with 4 home runs and 22 RBIs for the North Siders. Piscotty’s figures: 308, 7, and 35. Piscotty has a cannon for an arm with range to match Heyward’s. The Stanford alum should be batting third (or fourth) in St. Louis for years to come.
• Aledmys Diaz — Shortstop has been a developmental blind spot for the Cardinals’ system. Brendan Ryan, Tyler Greene, and Pete Kozma made their way to St. Louis via Memphis, but found themselves overmatched by big-league pitching. Imports like David Eckstein and Jhonny Peralta have manned the position since Edgar Renteria departed after the 2004 season. But when Peralta was shelved by a thumb injury in spring training, the 25-year-old Diaz found himself on the big-league roster. (We caught but a glimpse of the Cuban import last year in Memphis, where he hit .380 in 14 games.) Through Sunday, Diaz has hit .315, drilled 8 homers, and driven in 32 runs. Even more impressive, he’s forced a shift of three-quarters of the Cardinals’ 2015 infield. Just off the disabled list, Peralta is now at third base, Matt Carpenter has moved from third to second, and Kolten Wong — hitting .222 in limited play — is back in Memphis, hoping to rediscover his swing. Diaz will be in the discussion for National League Rookie of the Year.
• Carlos Martinez — With comparisons to another famous Martinez — Pedro — this Dominican flame-thrower made the All-Star team (in 2015) before his 24th birthday. But after going 10-3 with a 2.52 ERA over the season’s first half, he ran out of gas, splitting eight decisions with a 3.73 ERA over the second half before being shut down for the postseason with shoulder fatigue. He’s been inconsistent this season, but leads the St. Louis rotation with seven wins and a 3.46 ERA. The Cardinals’ starting pitching has been the team’s most disappointing unit this season. If Martinez continues to grow toward ace status, other — weaker — areas of the rotation will be easier to address.
• Michael Wacha — It’s hardly reached a Rick Ankiel-level of alarm (yet), but the drop in effectiveness for the golden boy of the 2013 postseason should be a major concern for Cardinal general manager John Mozeliak. Like Martinez, Wacha was an All-Star in 2015 when he led the Cardinals with 17 wins and posted a 3.38 ERA in 181 innings. But after starting this season 2-0, Wacha has lost six straight decisions and recently gave up 21 earned runs over four starts. (He was sharp in a no-decision at Pittsburgh last Friday, allowing two earned runs in seven innings.) Wacha claims his arm feels fine. He turns 25 next month and is an extraordinary asset for the Cardinals as he won’t reach free agency until 2020. But Wacha simply has to find the groove that earned him MVP honors in the 2013 National League Championship Series. Otherwise, middle-relief awaits.
• Randal Grichuk — He’s scaled the centerfield wall to rob home runs from opponents. He’s delivered a walk-off home run (against the Cubs on May 23rd). He even wears number 15, magnifying comparisons with Jim Edmonds, a previous Cardinal centerfielder and a member of the franchise’s Hall of Fame. But the 24-year-old Grichuk remains a work in progress. After contributing a slash line of .276/.329/.548 in 2015, Grichuk has dropped to .210/.281/.400 this season. He had more strikeouts (110) than hits (89) a year ago, and the ratio hasn’t shifted (53 and 42 this year). Grichuk brings the proverbial “five tools” to the ballpark, but the sixth (and most important) “tool” — consistency — remains elusive.
Scott Stallings will be an underdog at this week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic. His gallery, let’s just say, would lose a rumble with Phil Mickelson’s. But the 31-year-old pro from Worcester, Massachusetts, is, in many ways, the embodiment of life on the PGA Tour. Traveling from one tournament to the next, aiming to, first, make the cut for weekend play, and then climb the leaderboard where the paychecks get fatter and the headlines larger. Stallings has three Tour wins to his credit (the last at the 2014 Farmers Insurance Open). This will be his sixth straight appearance at the FESJC, where he shot four sub-70 rounds in 2013 and finished in a tie for second behind Harris English. (Stallings missed the cut last year.) The Tennessee Tech alum — Stallings now lives in Knoxville — has earned $594,797 this season and ranks 112th in the FedExCup standings.
You have an interesting origin story for a golfer. You played team sports as a kid, then you saw a light of sorts. Share that story.
When Tiger Woods won the Masters in 1997 [when I was 12], I quit everything else. I stuck just to golf. Golf struck my interest and I decided it was something I wanted to pursue as a career. It appealed to me as something different, and very exciting.
At what point did you realize you might be able to make a living on the PGA Tour?
I still struggle with that sometimes today. When I was a junior in college I was an All-American at a small school that had some success. I decided I wanted to give it a go and see if I could compete at the next level.
What’s a strength of your game these days, and where are you focusing on improvement?
My short game’s been coming around a lot. I’ve been working hard. I’ve always hit the ball pretty well [off the tee], but my short game has let me down in pressure situations. I’ve tried to make it a point of contention every day when I practice, to get to the point where it’s a strength, an asset that keeps me in tournaments. I’d like it to become the most important part of my game, instead of just something that’s there in case I needed it.
How’s the putter?
I’ve been working on [putting] for three or four months. We’re getting to the point of the season where I feel like I play my best, when it gets hot. We’re playing in areas of the country where I feel really comfortable, especially coming up to Memphis, my home state. The hotter the weather, the better I play.
What have you come to enjoy about the FESJC?
Growing up, I played some junior events at TPC Southwind and thought it would be cool to be a part of this as a pro. I watched it in college. The charitable aspect with St. Jude, especially being a father of two now . . . well, you obviously hope your kids never have to be in a facility like that. But it’s nice to know that if it was necessary, they’d have a place to go. The tournament does a heckuva job in supporting [the hospital]. For anyone with kids [on the Tour], it’s a no-brainer to play [in Memphis]. My dad’s from west Tennessee, so I get to play in front of friends and family. I love the area and I love the golf course.
Is there a specific hole at TPC Southwind you find most challenging?
I think the golf course is underrated. If you play well, you’ll be rewarded. If you play badly, it’s gonna show. There are not a lot of tricks to the course. It will show who’s playing the best.
Looking back at your three Tour victories, is there a consistent thread to your performances? Something you’d like to bottle?
Not really, because I’ve won three different ways. I’ve won from behind, won from in front, and won in a playoff. All I want to do is be in position [to win] coming down the stretch to 18.
You’ve taught golf to wounded Army veterans. That must have been especially inspiring.
My father-in-law is a Marine, and my brother-in-law is an Army vet and spent 18 months in Iraq. They were fortunate to not have any major injuries to deal with, but they’ve been around enough guys to see how war can affect people, not just physically, but mentally as well. The game of golf can be an outlet for the guys, provide some comfort to a situation. We wouldn’t be where we are without them. They teach us way more than we teach them.
What’s the most important swing tip you’ve been given?
I don’t know if it’s a swing tip; it’s more of a mentality. The moment you let other people affect how you do things is the moment you’ve lost it. You need to consistently learn every day and pick up tips, but you need to own your game and know how you play. Know what you do when you play well. Don’t try to model your game after certain individuals. You have to play the way you’re most comfortable.