Monday, November 24, 2014

Frank's Thanks 2014

Posted By on Mon, Nov 24, 2014 at 8:37 AM

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It’s a week for counting blessings. I’ve got my share, to say the least, including some from the world of sports. Here are a few that stand out this year. (And Happy Thanksgiving.)

• I’m thankful for Justin Fuente. This line is getting longer and longer.

• I’m thankful for new life for professional tennis at The Racquet Club: The Memphis Open.

• I’m thankful for the glimpses I got of Oscar Taveras. I’ll tell my grandchildren about seeing him play at AutoZone Park (and one game last August at Busch Stadium in St. Louis).

• I’m thankful for Mike Conley in the fourth quarter.

• I’m thankful for FESJC director Phil Cannon. And the best golf tournament Tiger Woods has never played.

• I’m thankful for the unexpected (Mississippi State number one?!) and the unlikely (Ole Miss over Alabama?!).

• I’m thankful for #wigsnatch.

• I’m thankful for sunsets at AutoZone Park. Find a place beyond rightfield and gaze over the Peabody.

• I’m thankful for a Tiger sweep of Louisville, reigning national champs at the time.

• I’m thankful for Joe Jackson’s block of Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski. King for a day.

• I’m thankful for the NFL’s “No More” campaign. Overdue.

• I’m thankful for Wolo and Bash on Sports 56 (and that other blue-eyed Frank’s rendition of “Come Fly With Me”).

• I’m thankful for linebackers named Tank. Two sacks (one a safety), a forced fumble, and an interception . . . in the same game.

• I’m thankful for the Grizzlies’ annual Martin Luther King Day game. Sports can contextualize larger dreams.

• I’m thankful for Kevin Lipe’s infusion of humor in his Grizzlies analysis. It’s basketball, people.

• I’m thankful for those who will infuse humor as the Tiger basketball season unfolds. (I’ll try.)

• I’m thankful for Penny Hardaway’s continued presence and impact on his hometown.

• I’m thankful for a volleyball court and soccer field at Tom Lee Park.

• I’m thankful for the ever-growing Green Line, and bike lanes(!). Memphis is getting healthier.

• I’m thankful for the MLB Network. I somehow reached adulthood without it.

• I’m thankful for a wife who can play catch with me. With a baseball. And gloves.

• I’m thankful for Vince Carter in a Memphis Grizzlies uniform.

• I’m thankful for talented college point guards. They’re out there.

• I’m thankful for New Year’s Day bowl games we can all watch together: the Cotton, Rose, and Sugar (with winners of the latter two playing for the national championship).

• I’m thankful for Steve Selby, especially when the Redbirds are out of town.

• I’m thankful for Marc Gasol in the high post.

• I’m thankful for the idea of the NBA Finals at FedExForum. Idea now . . . .

• I’m thankful for Jamie Griffin’s coverage of high school sports on Local 24 and at MemphisFlyer.com. Often the best stories, certainly the most local.

• I’m thankful for two daughters who recognize that sports fuel the mind as well as the body. They’re my favorite athletes.

• I’m thankful for each and every reader. (And those readers keeping me sharp.)

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Bluff City Bliss

Posted By on Mon, Nov 10, 2014 at 9:19 AM

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It’s impossible to say which victory — each the sixth for a team with “Memphis” across its jersey — felt better. Within a few minutes last Friday night, the Memphis Tigers (football team!) beat Temple on the final play of the game and the Memphis Grizzlies beat Oklahoma City to improve their record to 6-0. The Twitterverse was bursting with relieved exultation, the modern-day equivalent of a bar crowd collectively screaming in joy as the big win is secured for posterity. (Sorry, two big wins.)

First, the Tigers. Six wins in nine games? This is a program that recently won but five games in three years (2009-11). Third-year coach Justin Fuente has taken a team hopelessly overmatched by every measurable in college football — talent, strength, recruiting, facilities, you name it — and led it to the top of the American Athletic Conference, where the Tigers are currently tied with Cincinnati, East Carolina, and UCF. They battled into the fourth quarter earlier this season with two Top-20 teams, and have now won a pair of road wins in NFL stadiums. They’ve beaten the Bearcats. ECU and UCF still have to play each other. Remaining on the Memphis schedule: Tulane (3-6), USF (3-6), and Connecticut (2-7). The Tigers (6-3) have a very real chance at just their fifth eight-win season in 50 years and a conference championship. The next time a college athletic director mentions a “three-year plan” for rebuilding a program, the model will be Justin Fuente.

And the Grizzlies. This is a franchise that had never been so much as 3-0, even during its six-year gestation period in Vancouver. This season’s home opener was the first such game the Grizzlies have won since moving to Memphis in 2001. Built around a core four (sorry Yankees) of Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Tony Allen, the Grizzlies have reached the playoffs four straight years and have chalked up 50-win seasons the last two. They are, by every definition, among the NBA elite, a club that doesn’t currently include the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, or New York Knicks. Nonetheless, the Grizzlies are peripheral figures on the national-media stage. Last Friday’s win is the team’s only scheduled national-television appearance of the season. All they can do, really, is grind. Win games. Start a season with six straight victories and build upon the ride.

How will Memphis (the city) handle all this success, and the growing expectations spawned by winning streaks? This is a town known around the world for singing the blues. What kind of music will be heard on Beale Street when the Tigers take the field for a bowl game this winter? There won’t be anything dark or gloomy if the Grizzlies approach 60 wins next April. So long an underdog, how will Memphis (the city) wear a favorite’s hat? (The Tigers will be favored in each of their final three regular-season games.)

In describing his attraction to a certain kind of music, B.B. King said, “The blues was bleeding the same blood as me.” You get the sense Memphis sports fans are bleeding the same blood as their Tigers (football team!) and Grizzlies these days. When Temple tied the Tigers with just under three minutes to play last Friday night, it felt like just enough time remained for a game-winning drive. When Courtney Lee let fly a long jumper at the buzzer Saturday night — a seventh Grizzly win following its arc — every Memphis fan watching thought the ball would fall cleanly through the net. When it fell awry, the disappointment had nothing to do with the slump-shouldered “same old.” We expect the Grizzlies to win, dammit. Every game.

Memphis will always have its problems, its bruises, its grit. But a glowing era — golden? — is upon us with the teams we cheer. Let it bleed.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The NBA — and Mike Conley — Gets Ready to Grind

Posted By on Tue, Oct 28, 2014 at 11:49 AM

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Mike Conley started 46 games as a rookie with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2007-08, the same season a guy named Derrick Rose played point guard for the Memphis Tigers. Since the 2008-09 season, the Bluff City’s favorite college basketball team has featured Tyreke Evans, Willie Kemp, Joe Jackson, Antonio Barton, and Joe Jackson (again) at point guard, with varying degrees of success. Over the same six-year period, the Bluff City’s favorite NBA team has featured Mike Conley at point guard, the one and only. The Griz have played 476 regular-season games over the last six years and Conley has started 436 of them. He is, let it be said, a civic institution at the tender age of 27.

I present this somewhat twisted contrast between pro and college point guards in Memphis only to accentuate one of the few faces that will feel truly familiar in the upcoming NBA season. For we hoop fans are about to witness a season as fresh and different as any in recent memory. Consider the following:

• The Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and New York Knicks each missed the playoffs last season. Never before in the league’s 68-year history had all three of these bluebloods been home for the games that matter. The Lakers and Knicks each lost talented big men (Pau Gasol and Tyson Chandler, respectively), and the Celtics can best be described as rebuilding.

• You may have heard LeBron James is a Cleveland Cavalier (again). He’s now running alongside former Timberwolves All-Star Kevin Love. And maybe the best young point guard in the NBA (Kyrie Irving). Funny how the travels of the game’s best player redefines what constitutes a “Big Three.”

• Two players with Memphis on their resume — Pau Gasol and Mr. Rose — are teammates in Chicago. If Rose — the 2010-11 MVP, remember — can stay healthy a full season, and if Gasol is invigorated by the move east, the Bulls may prove to be one of the few clubs capable of testing mighty Cleveland, especially with Indiana’s All-Star, Paul George, sidelined for the season after breaking his leg competing for the U.S. team at the FIBA World Cup.

• The league’s reigning MVP, Kevin Durant, will miss the first month of the season after foot surgery, taking Oklahoma City down a few notches, perhaps just enough to impact seeding in the ever-strong Western Conference come playoff time.

• There are only five NBA franchises coming off consecutive 50-win seasons. Three of them have recently reached the Finals (Miami, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City). The other two are the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies, each the other’s worst nightmare, a challenger capable of eliminating title hopes before the conference finals. Whether or not the national media has noticed, the Memphis Grizzlies have joined the NBA’s elite, built around a roster — and a familiar point guard — that would delight fans in Boston, New York, or L.A.

There is one NBA presence that hasn’t changed all that much. The championship again resides in San Antonio, home to the league’s only cyborg. (Trust me, Tim Duncan will be winning championships when he’s “age” 65.) The Spurs will visit FedExForum on December 5th and December 30th, the two best early-season samplers for what kind of contender the 2014-15 Grizzlies might be. Is there room for development among the Memphis “Big Three” (Conley, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol). Will the arrival of a future Hall of Famer (Vince Carter) improve the Grizzlies’ perimeter game as much as it will an already-tight locker room? And what might some young blood — forward Jarnell Stokes or guard Jordan Adams — add to the mix? (I for one, love the idea of Stokes learning the pro game under Randolph’s wing.)

Come Wednesday night, it’s basketball season in Memphis, Tennessee. Seems familiar. And right.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Oscar Taveras (1992-2014)

Posted By on Mon, Oct 27, 2014 at 9:19 AM

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They are emotional lightning strikes, as painful for their permanence as for their initial shock. Now and then, we’re reminded — in the most dreadful manner possible — that our sports heroes are all too human. When Oscar Taveras died with his girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, in a car crash Sunday in his native Dominican Republic, the world not only lost a 22-year-old man still in what should be the dawn of his life. The world also lost the prettiest swing to grace ballparks in the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system since Albert Pujols’s meteoric rise at the turn of the century. The ache of this tragedy is intensified because Taveras’s face had become the face of the future for an already proud baseball franchise. Oscar Taveras had not yet become what is . . . he was still what might be. And now, no more. Ever.

Taveras was not the perfect baseball player, as some breathless scouting reports would have us believe when he first arrived in Memphis to play for the Redbirds in April 2013. If a ball player is measured by the fabled “five tools” — abilities to hit, hit with power, run, field, and throw — Taveras had mastered but one. He was a hitter. But what a pure, effortless hitter he seemed to be, his lefthanded stroke delivering the meat of his bat to the heart of a baseball, one at-bat after another. “Squaring the ball” it’s called. And it remains the single hardest skill to master in all of sports. (Consider the irony: There’s nothing remotely square about a baseball or a baseball bat.)

Memphis fans were merely teased by Taveras’s talent in 2013, the outfielder limited to 46 games by an ankle injury that lingered and only worsened when he attempted a mid-summer comeback. Entering the 2014 season, Taveras was forced to compete for a roster spot with St. Louis, let alone a regular place in the batting order, the Cardinals’ outfield cluttered with more accomplished players like Jon Jay, Allen Craig, Shane Robinson, and the newly acquired Peter Bourjos. Assigned to Memphis again to start the season, Taveras hit .318 in 62 games before finally being promoted to St. Louis where he made his major-league debut at Busch Stadium on May 31st.

In his second at-bat, Taveras unleashed that mighty brushstroke of a swing and homered off the San Francisco Giants’ Yusmeiro Petit, just before the skies opened up with rain, as if Mother Nature was brought to tears by the confluence of potential and present. The run was all the Cardinals needed in a 2-0 win.

The rest of the season was a struggle, really, as Taveras battled through more regular plate appearances, even after the trade of Craig to Boston in late July. In 80 games, he hit .239, about 100  points lower than those same breathless scouts would have forecast for the kid originally signed by the Cardinals five months after his 16th birthday. But then in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series on October 12th at Busch Stadium, Taveras delivered again, drilling a pinch-hit homer off the Giants’ Jean Machi in the seventh inning that tied the game for St. Louis. His former Memphis teammate Kolten Wong followed two innings later with a walk-off homer of his own. Imagine how Cardinal fans would have cheered that night had they known Taveras had two weeks to live.

I didn’t get to visit formally with Oscar Taveras during his time at AutoZone Park, his English being just a bit better than my Spanish. But I’ll not forget the way Oscar bound out of the Redbirds’ dugout last March on media day, ready to have his picture taken, and shake hands with the reporters and photographers he hoped to, very soon, leave behind on his rise to stardom in The Show. He smiled brightly, and walked with a bounce, not the kind of stride that suggested he favored a lingering ankle injury. That’s the Oscar Taveras I’ll keep in my memory bank, a young baseball player ready for the next game, and all that life had to give him.

Monday, October 20, 2014

National Baseball Day

Posted By on Mon, Oct 20, 2014 at 8:47 AM

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My 5-year-old nephew, Tyler, is a lucky boy, blessed on two fronts this time of year. First of all, he loves baseball. Has his own glove and favorite player (Robinson Cano). Just as important, he lives in Seattle, firmly in the Pacific Time Zone. As the World Series unfolds this week, Tyler will be able to watch just about every inning. His 8:30 bedtime may need to be stretched slightly if a game is tight, but with the TV on at dinnertime, he should enjoy the moments that make every Fall Classic memorable.

Now, if Tyler lived in Memphis? Or, worse, in the Eastern Time Zone? He’d be in bed long before the seventh-inning stretch. Any late-game heroics would have to be reported to him the next day, video recordings of history that, for a 5-year-old, may as well have happened in 1988. World Series games, you see start after 8 p.m. on the east coast, after 7 p.m. here in the Central Time Zone. A child’s game — on its biggest, brightest stage — will be played almost entirely for the viewing pleasure of adults. Car-buying, beer-drinking adults.

This must change. And the solution is National Baseball Day. (Longtime readers, bless you for sticking with me on this.) Here’s how it would work:

On the day Game 1 of the World Series is played (Tuesday this year), America enjoys a national holiday. All government offices and schools closed. This actually solves two problems before the first pitch is thrown: (1) we’d have a holiday between Labor Day and Thanksgiving that would feel distinctly American and (2) we’d finally have a holiday created in honor of a sport, recreation, playing. No one plays like Americans. How do we not have a holiday — and not on a Sunday in February — that allows an extra day of playing?

The game would begin at 3 p.m. Eastern, allowing every child from Myrtle Beach to Venice Beach to see every pitch, hit, stolen base, and putout 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 Mr. October. 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. Catch a movie you haven’t had time to see. (Better, open that thick book you were given last Christmas.) The idea is to relish a day of leisure, courtesy of our national pastime. Just remember baseball got you there.

FOX will generate upwards of $200 million in ad revenue, depending on how long the World Series goes. And FOX executives would tell you these are 200 million reasons a matinee Series game is not worthwhile. This is the same shallow, boxed-in thinking that’s allowed pay channels like HBO to take over much of the television-viewing market. If a daytime World Series game is played, might there not be fresh eyes on every commercial, a broader demographic to reach (if but for a day)? I think the folks at Budweiser are smart enough to craft their ads beyond the 25-55 male set. (Have you seen the one where the Clydesdale reunites with its trainer?)

Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith has recently campaigned informally for a holiday to coincide with baseball’s Opening Day. The Wizard has the right idea, if the wrong time of year. I barely made it home from school in time to see his game-winning home run in the 1985 NLCS (“Go crazy, folks!”). That happened to be a day game. Kids on the west coast were sitting in chemistry class or the school cafeteria. And that’s criminal.

Baseball’s new commissioner, Rob Manfred, takes over on January 25, 2015. He should draft a letter to Congress on January 26th, advocating National Baseball Day.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Sounds of Soccer in Seattle

Posted By on Mon, Oct 13, 2014 at 10:03 AM

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The field-level sign said, “Welcome to Green Hell.” Last Friday night, I joined more than 55,000 people at CenturyLink Field, home of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. And a soccer match broke out!

Facing the rival Vancouver Whitecaps for something called the Cascadia Cup, the Seattle Sounders took the field after two national anthems, fireworks, and the opening drumbeats from a section of diehards who call themselves the Emerald City Supporters. The drumming would continue, uninterrupted, for 90 minutes of play and throughout halftime, drowned out only by periodic chants of SEATTLE from one side of the stadium and SOUNDERS from ours.

Sports have never been more international. Soccer fans in Memphis can watch action from the English Premier League every Saturday morning, as live as the NFL action broadcast overseas the next day. But the passion (and intensity) of a fan base remains quite local and reflects the population, tastes, and culture of the city and region a team calls home. College football fans in California are now aware Ole Miss has a special team this season. But if they haven’t spent a couple of hours in the Grove, those fans are in the metaphorical cheap seats when it comes to measuring the Rebels’ impact on this part of the world.

How has soccer developed such a profound following in the Pacific Northwest? To begin with, the Sounders have existed since 1974, a minor-league franchise until joining Major League Soccer in 2009. Seattle is a young city, affluent and diverse . . . a marketing trifecta for a sport that sells its “culture” as much as any star player or championship history. I made the mistake of suggesting those 55,000 fans must have missed the NFL train, or had been caught on the emotional rebound when the NBA’s Sonics left for Oklahoma City. My brother-in-law — who has lived there 14 years now — said MLS is targeting the fan who only watches soccer. There were surely some Seahawk fans in that cacophonous crowd, maybe a Mariner fan or two. But on this night, they were fully engaged in a game much of the United States still considers an exotic distraction until the World Cup is played every four years.

With a few distinct exceptions, MLS players are not getting wealthy like their brethren in MLB. The 19 teams have a salary cap this season of $3.1 million, enough to buy the Mariners a reserve second-baseman. Each team is allowed to “designate” a player or two, though, who doesn’t count against the cap. (Some call this the Beckham Rule.) Sounders forward Clint Dempsey — a star for the U.S. men’s team in Brazil last summer — will take home more than $6 million this season, enough to keep him out of an EPL jersey. He may be the face of the Sounders franchise, but I’m not convinced Dempsey sells a single ticket by himself. Seattle soccer fans are attracted to the Seattle soccer experience.

The game I saw was tight, the only goal scored by Vancouver’s Kekuta Manneh in the last minute before halftime. With the win, the Whitecaps retain the Cascadia Cup, awarded to the top team among Seattle, Vancouver, and the Portland Timbers. (Think Egg Bowl, Mississippi football fans, with three rivals in the mix.) My only regret is not hearing the roar that massive crowd would have delivered for a goal by the home team. (Seattle leads MLS with 19 wins and is a contender for the league championship.)

Two days after my descent (ascent?) into “Green Hell,” CenturyLink hosted more than 65,000 fans (in similar blue-and-green colors) for the Seahawks game with the Dallas Cowboys. (Dallas won its fifth straight game, and first in Seattle in ten years.) The NFL’s defending champs are visible all over the city, the team’s iconic 12th Man flags flying from atop skyscrapers and construction cranes. The closer we get to January’s playoffs, the more the Emerald City may feel like a football town. But listen for the drum beats. And don’t tell a Sounders fan.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Magnolia Steel: Mississippi Wins Over the Football World

Posted By on Mon, Oct 6, 2014 at 9:24 AM

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The day Mid-South football changed began in Starkville, before noon, when the Mississippi State Bulldogs began what would become a 48-21 drubbing of 6th-ranked Texas A & M, securing — at the very least — recognition as the SEC’s best team in maroon and white. Then came the Ole Miss Rebels’ upset of third-ranked Alabama in Oxford, two late touchdowns redefining the words Hotty Toddy for those in attendance — including one Katy Perry — and a national-TV audience. Finally, from somewhat afar, we saw the 2014 Memphis Tigers make the Cincinnati Bearcats look like, well, the Memphis Tigers of 2010. Paxton Lynch and friends declared — from an NFL stadium, it should be noted — the American Athletic Conference championship does not, in fact, belong in southern Ohio.

If there’s been a better day for college football in this region, it happened long before any of the students currently attending Mississippi State, Ole Miss, or Memphis were born. This is a section of the country used to glancing slightly east and south for a view of college football’s governing powers, places like Baton Rouge, Tuscaloosa, Auburn, and Athens, Georgia. Hell, not so long ago, Knoxville and Gainesville commanded prime-time slots — at least the Saturday-afternoon CBS game — throughout the fall. We’ve reached a point where Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Memphis(!) would welcome Tennessee or Florida on their schedules.

The Rebels — behind quarterback Bo Wallace — are undefeated for the first time since John F. Kennedy occupied the White House. (JFK’s memories of Ole Miss would contrast dramatically with this week’s euphoria, no?) The Bulldogs feature a quarterback in Dak Prescott — three touchdowns on the ground, two through the air against the Aggies — who could make Tim Tebow the SEC’s second-best player to wear number 15 this century. And closest to home, the Memphis Tigers stare at seven more games on their schedule and they’ll be favored to win at least five. The U of M played Saturday without its top two running backs and merely turned “athlete” (his position in the team’s media guide) Sam Craft into Reggie Bush, the sophomore rushing for 173 yards against the Bearcats.

There is bound to be a mild population surge in the Magnolia State around the Fourth of July next year. For now, there are two questions to ponder. We know girls can be named Bo (Derek), but what about Dak? And would the state of Mississippi survive an Egg Bowl between undefeated teams?

Ms. Perry performed at FedExForum Sunday night, a few local football fans — and new friends from Oxford? — surely among the screaming teens and tweens. It was the perfect send-off for a weekend this region will never forget, a Mid-South roar to be echoed for generations.

• Baseball’s playoffs are setting up a World Series unlike any we’ve seen in quite some time. The Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles haven’t been to the Fall Classic since the days of AstroTurf and four playoff teams. It’s nice to see the rise of two once-proud franchises in the void left by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. This year’s ALCS will be only the fifth this century not to feature the Yanks or Bosox.

Unless Washington can sweep three straight from San Francisco, the National League pennant will go to the Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers, or St. Louis Cardinals, franchises that have combined for 56 pennants and 24 world championships. The most traditional of National League powers against brands made famous by George Brett, Brooks Robinson, and Cal Ripken. Good stuff.

Monday, September 29, 2014

St. Louis Cardinals Return to Postseason Play

Posted By on Mon, Sep 29, 2014 at 9:48 AM

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The 21st century has been mighty good to the St. Louis Cardinals. Since 2000 arrived, the Cardinals have made the playoffs 11 times (second only to the New York Yankees, who have reached the postseason 12 times in the same period). Over the last 15 seasons, St. Louis has crossed the finish line with a losing record but once (in 2007). Four National League championships and two World Series victories have been added to the franchise record book since the millennium’s arrival.

But how will the 2014 Cardinals fit among the franchise’s flag-waving predecessors? This year’s club is but a blurry reflection of the 2013 National League champions. Consider the infield: first-baseman Matt Adams, second-baseman Kolten Wong, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, and third-baseman Matt Carpenter. None of these players manned the same position on an everyday basis a year ago. And offensive production has been inconsistent at best. Two-hundred and sixty pounds of Adams has yielded the Cardinals three more home runs (15) than 185 pounds of Wong. For the first time since 1968, St. Louis sends a team to the postseason without a player scoring or driving in 100 runs.

In many respects, the numbers don’t add up for a division champion. The Cardinals finished last in the National League with 105 home runs, and next to last with only 57 stolen bases (one more than San Francisco). In the most vital category of all — runs scored — St. Louis scored fewer (619) than any of the National League’s other four playoff teams. No power. No speed. No problem?

St. Louis pitched its way to October baseball. The Cardinal staff combined for 23 shutouts, four more than any other team in the National League and the most for the franchise since 1968, the pitching-dominated season that led to lowering the mound to regain some advantage for hitters. The Cardinal bullpen led the league in saves with 55 (45 of them by Trevor Rosenthal), a figure all the more impressive when you consider St. Louis went 32-23 in one-run games. The Cards never won more than six games in a row, but they never lost more than four straight. This despite lengthy stays on the disabled list for starting pitcher Michael Wacha (last year’s postseason hero) and catcher Yadier Molina, the franchise’s backbone.

Waiting for the Cardinals in a division series that starts Friday are the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team St. Louis vanquished in last year’s National League Championship Series. If there’s a team that can top the Cardinals’ one-two pitching punch of Adam Wainwright (20-9, 2.38 ERA) and Lance Lynn (15-10, 2.74) it’s the Dodgers with Cy Young Award perennial Clayton Kershaw (21-3, 1.77) and Zack Greinke (17-8, 2.71). The Dodgers’ rotation also features former Memphis Redbird Dan Haren (13-11, 4.02), while the Cardinals have three men vying for two more spots in the rotation: Wacha, John Lackey, and Shelby Miller. Keep this in mind: In a five-game series, a team’s Game 3 starter can swing the series (and be the difference for the Cardinals between facing Kershaw once or twice).

The Dodgers took three of four from the Cardinals in L.A. in late June, outscoring St. Louis 17-4. Then the Cardinals won two of three between the two teams at Busch Stadium right after the All-Star break (beating Greinke and Haren). The Dodgers will have home-field advantage this time, meaning Game 5 would be pitched by Kershaw at Dodger Stadium, a scenario no Cardinal fan would embrace. (Don’t think Kershaw has forgotten his meltdown in Game 6 of last year’s NLCS at Busch. The best pitcher in baseball is motivated.)

When they take the field for Game 2 Saturday night, the Cardinals will be playing their 50th playoff game since 2011. The team and setting will feel familiar even if there’s no such thing as a “fall chill” in L.A. air. But any return to the World Series for St. Louis will require new heroics from a new face or two. Postseason butterflies never get old.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Make a Fist!

Strong women are the antidote to endemic male violence of the Ray Rice sort.

Posted By on Mon, Sep 22, 2014 at 8:44 AM

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When each of my daughters reached second grade, I taught them how to make a fist. And deliver a punch. Thumb curled on the outside, wrist firm, knuckles forward. Drive with your shoulder. They’d seen plenty of Spider-Man cartoons and read their share of Wonder Woman comic books. They knew what a punch was. But they needed to know how to deliver one. I let each of them treat my open right palm like the Green Goblin’s snarling face. The sting felt good.

I’ve held off writing about the Ray Rice affair (and the Adrian Peterson affair, for that matter), hoping to deliver some thoughts with emotion removed from my delivery. I’ve been married to the same woman for 20 years. I’m the father of two daughters. My only sibling is a woman. 

Seeing what Rice did to his then-fiancee in an elevator last February made nerves fire that I don’t often access. Janay Palmer being dragged from that elevator by Rice — the coward clueless how to handle his now-public atrocity — elicited thoughts I don’t often allow to dance in my brain. But those nerves continue to fire, and those thoughts dance randomly, especially when I look at my wife and daughters and consider the three most valuable elements of my life.

First, the disheartening reality of domestic abuse: it’s near us all. An abused woman lives a short drive from your home, whether you know her or not, whether you know she’s abused or not. Violence is pervasive, in one form or another. Has been since the first troglodyte wielded the first club. For the majority of human beings who refrain from lashing out with a fist, knife, or gun, this is a grim, cynical view. Domestic violence can be stopped. It’s our responsibility to make sure it’s stopped. And now.

But the contributing factors to domestic violence are simply too numerous and, frankly, too scattered for any movement — no matter how publicly driven — to completely eradicate the pain and agony caused. When there is no more poverty, violence will end. When there are no more unwanted children, violence will end. When there is no more religious discord, violence will end. This is like catching every leaf that falls from that massive maple tree in your front yard, each leaf with a blood-drawing razor’s edge. No, domestic violence can’t be eradicated.

We can shine light, though, on the atrocity. And this is where, irony of ironies, we have the NFL to thank. I’ll venture to guess that the security camera that caught Rice delivering his infamous left hook captured at least one more violent act on that very same Atlantic City elevator last February. And a few more since. How many of those were picked up by TMZ, though, and shared for the world to see? 

Had Rice been a contractor from Hoboken accompanying his girlfriend for a casino date, would sports columnists near and far be considering — and writing about — the severity of domestic violence in our world today? The NFL, for good or ill, is a looking-glass for modern American culture. 

Those who represent the NFL “Shield” become highly glorified lab rats, capable of lifting spirits on a visit to a children’s hospital, and capable of the same dark breakdowns that fracture families in our own neighborhoods.

Neither of my daughters has delivered a punch to date. My hope is that they never will. Honestly, if they find themselves in a situation where that first punch is required, I’ll have larger concerns as their father. (Knowing modern gun culture for what it is, I’d be the last person to recommend a woman striking her abuser until it’s her last chance for survival.) But having a sense of their own strength, their own toughness, is a component of my daughters’ character I consider important for the days I’m not around. 

Women of strength, one at a time, are the antidote to domestic violence. These women know how to make a fist, and they will know when it’s time to leave.

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Defeats: Glorious and Not So Much ...

For Tiger football, it was a rewarding loss; for the Redbirds, it was business as usual.

Posted By on Mon, Sep 8, 2014 at 10:59 AM

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It had to be the most rewarding loss in at least two decades of Memphis Tiger football. And it will be talked (and written) about for the next two weeks with language you won’t hear (or see) in many recaps of a defeated team. Justin Fuente’s Tigers did, indeed, fall to UCLA last Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, 42-35. But if you envisioned this Memphis team trading punches with a top-15 program from the Pac 12, you haven’t been to the Liberty Bowl in a long, long time.

The fact that the game was played so late locally, and with such limited TV coverage, gave it a modern word-of-mouth quality. Twitter seemed to red-line with astonished (#gotigersgo) reactions, eyes and minds opening 140 characters at a time. Whether you were packed into a bar with a feed of the game on a flat screen or listening to Jarvis Greer hyperventilate next to Dave Woloshin on the radio broadcast, you experienced the football version of that first Rocky Balboa-Apollo Creed affair. By the fourth quarter, when the Tigers tied things at 35 on an interception return, I honestly expected Greer to scream into his microphone, “Cut me, Mick!”

When’s the last time a Memphis football team benefited from a huge penalty call? The Bruins had a touchdown taken off the board in the fourth quarter on a personal foul penalty. That kind of break doesn’t happen to the football Tigers. Well, that kind of break didn’t happen to the football Tigers. And that’s the catch: There’s a past-tense quality to misery in this program.

The best part of the next two weeks — as the Tigers prepare to host their nemesis from Middle Tennessee — will be how dissatisfied the Memphis players and coaches act. They lost. UCLA may or may not reach college football’s first playoff in January, but the Bruins were good enough to edge the Tigers, and the goal around here is to no longer be “edged.” By anyone. There won’t be 70,000 fans at the Liberty Bowl when the Tigers return to action on September 20th, but every fan there will look at the team in blue differently after the events of September 6th in Pasadena. For the time being, Memphis football fans can be forgiven if they relish a defeat.

• Does winning matter in minor-league baseball?

This question has been debated for years, often over a $7.00 beer and heaping basket of nachos. So let’s end the debate, once and for all. Performance on the field — wins and losses — means squat when it comes to drawing crowds in the minors. Just take a look at this year’s Pacific Coast League playoffs.

Despite winning 79 games (third-most in franchise history), the Memphis Redbirds finished ninth in the 16-team PCL with an attendance average (tickets sold) of 5,693. (Note: AutoZone Park lost five dates this season to inclement weather.) And the Redbirds’ figure is tops among the four teams in the PCL playoffs. Omaha averaged 5,628, Reno 5,270, and Las Vegas finished dead last in the league with an average of 4,640. Then you have the Albuquerque Isotopes, third-worst team in the PCL with a record of 62-80. The Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate averaged 8,066 tickets sold, third-most in the league. That beer must be extra cold in New Mexico.

Need a broader view of attendance, relative to the Redbirds’ on-field success? Check out total attendance for two seasons since the economic collapse of 2008. In 2009, Memphis finished 77-67 and won its second PCL championship. Attendance that season was 474,764. Three years later, the team was dreadful (57-87), but sold 493,706 tickets.

And how does the parent club, the St. Louis Cardinals, feel about things? Pitcher Tyler Lyons won six straight starts for the Redbirds during the team’s playoff push this season. Instead of starting a game for Memphis in the PCL playoffs, Lyons has sat in the Cardinal bullpen — part of the club’s September roster expansion — and pitched a total of one inning this month.

The day after Game 1 of the Redbirds’ series with Omaha last week (a Memphis loss), the Cardinals recalled first-baseman Xavier Scruggs, the team’s steadiest bat over that two-month drive to the postseason. (Scruggs started that night for St. Louis in a win at Milwaukee.) As Omaha was eliminating the Redbirds last Saturday night at AutoZone Park, a total of 46 Memphis home runs — hit by Scruggs and outfielder Randal Grichuk — sat on the Cardinal bench in Milwaukee. If major-league clubs don’t care about winning games in the minors, should you?

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Memphis Redbirds are Playoff-Bound

Posted By on Tue, Sep 2, 2014 at 9:10 AM

ALLISON RHOADES/MEMPHIS REDBIRDS
  • Allison Rhoades/Memphis Redbirds

The Memphis Redbirds are back in the Pacific Coast League playoffs. For the first time since 2010, the Redbirds will compete for one of two league championships at the Triple-A level (the other being the International League’s). As you were grilling burgers on the Fourth of July, you didn’t exactly see postseason baseball coming to AutoZone Park two months later. But thanks to some stellar starting pitching and the thunderous bat of a sometimes-overlooked slugger, the Redbirds will indeed host the Omaha Storm Chasers this Friday in Game 3 of the PCL’s American Conference championship. If momentum can be carried over from the regular season, Memphis has a more than decent chance of earning the franchise’s third PCL title.

How significant has the Redbirds’ two-month surge been? Consider the team was lagging in fourth (last) place in their division on July 2nd, with a record of 38-46 after being shut out by the Nashville Sounds. Starting the next day in New Orleans, Memphis won five straight and eight of ten games. Having won seven games through the end of June, starting pitcher Tim Cooney won seven more games to break the franchise record for victories in a season. Another lefty, Tyler Lyons, won six consecutive starts. Marco Gonzales and Zach Petrick added to the fun, providing the Redbirds with one of the most consistent starting rotations in Triple-A baseball. Supported by an offense that found its groove right after super-prospect Oscar Taveras was promoted to St. Louis (July 1st), Redbird pitching posted a 41-18 record to finish the season with 79 wins, third most in franchise history.

The face of that hitting groove has been first-baseman Xavier Scruggs. The 26-year-old slugger was hitting .248 on July 2nd, almost precisely his career average (.249) over the first six seasons of his pro career. But with an August for the ages (.345, 8 homers, 28 RBIs), Scruggs managed to steal some headlines from more talked-about Cardinal prospects like Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty.

“The season’s been a learning process,” says Scruggs. “I had to make a lot of adjustments, to figure out what pitchers were trying to do to me, and have a plan. I had to take a step back. Physically, I had to make my swing shorter, started taking what a pitcher gives me, even if it’s just a base hit to the right side.” Like every aspiring big-leaguer, Scruggs aims to be a more consistent hitter as he ponders the offseason and his future in the game. (Scruggs is not on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster so will not be going to St. Louis this month to help in the parent club’s pennant race.)

Scruggs is reluctant to accept accolades without mentioning the impact of his teammates. In particular, he describes how important outfielder Tommy Pham has been to the playoff push. With his playing time boosted upon the promotion of Taveras, Pham finished the season hitting .324 with 20 stolen bases. “Tommy has worked hard all season,” says Scruggs, “even when he wasn’t playing. As soon as he jumped in, he was able to be a spark plug. He’s been huge for us. It’s one of the reasons we took off.”

And how do you explain three months of sub-.500 baseball, followed by a two-month storming of the PCL gates? “The team just started gelling,” says Scruggs. “All the personalities came together, and everyone started feeling their role. Pitching came together and hitting came together at the same time. Earlier in the season, there’d be good pitching one day, but no hitting. For some reason, it took our team that long [to gel]. I can’t put a finger on exactly why, but I’m just glad we ended up doing it.”

Scruggs is one of eight current Redbirds who played for the 2012 Springfield Cardinals, a team that won the Texas League (Double-A) championship. He sees similarities in the 2014 Redbirds, and beyond the familiar faces of teammates like Eric Fornataro, Audry Perez, and Jermaine Curtis. “Guys want to finish strong,” says Scruggs. “Guys are trying to finish strong individually and collectively. When we started to play better, you got the sense guys wanted to get here earlier, stay later. We were having more fun in the clubhouse. Everybody in that clubhouse is a huge team guy. There are no big egos on this team. It’s fun to be around.”

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Monday, August 18, 2014

The Shameless Cynicism of the NFL's Preseason Games

Posted By on Mon, Aug 18, 2014 at 9:34 AM

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I was a 10-year-old Dallas Cowboys fan on August 18, 1979, enjoying a late-summer weekend at my grandparents’ home in Cleveland, Tennessee. My heroes were Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett, and I spent much of this sweltering Saturday looking forward to the prime-time telecast of a preseason game between the Houston Oilers (featuring second-year sensation Earl Campbell) and the Cowboys at Texas Stadium. With no bedtime — summer, Saturday, grandparents’ house ... trifecta — I’d be able to watch the entire game and relish my favorite players’ exploits as they prepared for a return to the Super Bowl.

Midway through the second quarter Staubach and Dorsett disappeared to the sideline. For the rest of the game. I would later come to appreciate Danny White — the punter who replaced Staubach at quarterback, on this night and the next season — but not on August 18, 1979. I turned the game off at halftime, and haven’t watched a preseason NFL game since.

The NFL is a brand unlike any other in America, and this isn’t exclusive to the world of sports. In what other enterprise would paying customers line up to experience an imitation of the actual product? Theatergoers would be appalled if an understudy replaced Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Johnson in All the Way on Broadway. How are the appetites of NFL fans filled by watching players they don’t know wear uniforms they won’t be wearing a month later?

If you browse Stub Hub for tickets to the Tennessee Titans-Minnesota Vikings preseason game in Nashville on August 28th, you’ll find a seat as low as $8.00 ... or you can pay more than $500 for a premium spot at LP Field to watch a game that doesn’t count. A game played by men risking serious injury for a job they are not likely to occupy two weeks later. I find this abominable.

Brain injury has become an openly discussed topic (finally!) in football circles at every level of the sport. Yet the NFL has its 32 teams play at least four games every August, stacking up millions of dollars before they even introduce their own Bryan Cranstons to fans. Worse, the NFL charges the same ticket prices they would for a Packers-Bears game in November. It’s stealing, and it needs to end.

The first step toward a solution is limiting preseason games to two weeks. An NFL roster can be built through training camp without a contest between men in different uniforms. College programs do it. Heck, high school programs do it. The next step: charge no one more than $10 to enter a preseason game. And not more than $5 for anyone under the age of 12. Back in 1979, I would have paid $5 of my allowance savings (and my mom or dad would have paid $10) to see Roger Staubach take the field in an NFL stadium. Even for just one quarter. I would not have paid a dime more, though. And I would have left with my dad in the second quarter for an ice-cream shop, letting the mysterious men in the silver helmets enjoy their scrimmage.

• Add “college basketball in August” to the list of enterprises more legitimate than preseason NFL games. Those of us unable to make the jaunt to Ottawa will have a hard time measuring the strengths and weaknesses of the 2014-15 Memphis Tigers, but that’s beside the point. For a team that will start its season with zero experience in the backcourt, the four-game exhibition series north of the border is a perfectly timed litmus test for coach Josh Pastner and his staff. On a team that will count sophomore forward Austin Nichols as a seasoned veteran, any game against a team in another uniform — even if that team is called the Gee-Gees — is an important step in its on-court maturation process. I dare say the exhibition series is a savvy veteran move by the 36-year-old Pastner.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Elvis Sings the Memphis Grizzlies

Posted By on Mon, Aug 11, 2014 at 9:42 AM

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I take my Elvis Week song dedications very seriously. No throwaways here, and you get one of the King’s tunes attached to your name only by earning it. The old-fashioned way, as the saying goes. This year’s dedications are distinctly Beale Street Blue, which, if you think about it, would have made a great Elvis song.

To Zach Randolph: “Teddy Bear” — You gotta admit Z-Bo has some teddy-bear qualities to him, particularly when he’s handing out turkeys on Thanksgiving or rescuing injured dogs. The ever-present headband on game day lends itself to the image, as does Randolph’s megawatt smile. Now, when he’s slinging 250 pounds inside for another put-back, or jogging upcourt alongside the likes of Steven Adams, Z-Bo’s claws come out and the teddy bear becomes decidedly, well, grizzly.

To Mike Conley: “The Wonder of You” — “You’re always there to lend a hand / In everything I do.” No one has played in more games as a Grizzly than the undersized (that’s what I thought) point guard from Ohio State. He’s been the pulse of four playoff teams now but has yet to get an All-Star nod. He won’t stuff a stat sheet (career scoring average: 13.1), but will be on the court for the decisive moment, one fourth quarter (or overtime) after another. These athletes tend to carry the same wondrous tag: winner.

To Tony Allen: “Blue Suede Shoes” — I like envisioning the Grindfather’s reaction if an opponent chose to knock him down, or step on his face. (Ask Chris Paul.) Allen has become as Memphis as dry rub, as distinctly Bluff City as Beale Street. Somewhere there exists a marketing campaign with Allen walking down Beale, a half-chewed rib in hand . . . and blue suede shoes on his feet. “Now go, cat, go.”

To Marc Gasol: “A Big Hunk O’ Love” — Big and hunk. That’s Gasol, his game, his impact on the Grizzlies franchise over the last six seasons. Memphis sagged (10-13 record) six weeks last winter as Gasol nursed an injury, then surged (33-13) over the season’s final three months to secure a fourth straight playoff berth. Gasol’s contract status will be the most talked-about variable next season, and could be the tipping point for this group of Grizzlies as title contenders. If Griz owner Robert Pera shows Gasol the same love the team’s fan base has, Big Marc should be around a long time.

To Dave Joerger: “Stuck on You” — That spring tango with the Minnesota Timberwolves made for an uncomfortable 24 hours, but the young coach came to his senses and returned to his current home, signing a contract extension that should stabilize what appeared to be a rapidly spinning operation when CEO Jason Levien was abruptly dismissed in May. And why shouldn’t Joerger be stuck on Memphis? Handed a roster dripping with playoff experience, he guided a second-half surge during his rookie season as a head coach to reach 50 wins, the benchmark for NBA contenders. “Squeeze you tighter than a grizzly bear . . . .”

To Robert Pera: “Big Boss Man” — For two seasons, there was an Oz quality to the Grizzlies’ principal owner (“don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain”). Levien seemed to have the wheel of the franchise, steering by his own compass, evaluating players (and coaches) with his own value structure. No more. In firing Levien and bringing Chris Wallace back as general manager, Pera asserted his position as the man in the corner office. Ideas are welcome. Creativity is encouraged. But no freelancing on the company dime.

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Monday, August 4, 2014

Allen Craig and Vince Carter: Comings and Goings

Posted By on Mon, Aug 4, 2014 at 9:48 AM

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For a game played so often in sunshine, baseball can be as cold as a killer’s stare. Two years after delivering one of the three or four greatest moments in St. Louis Cardinals history, David Freese was property of the Los Angeles Angels. In 2013, Allen Craig led the Cardinals in RBIs and scored the winning run in Game 3 of the World Series. Last Thursday, Craig was shipped to the very team that beat St. Louis in the Fall Classic (for a pitcher who helped the Red Sox to the championship). A cold business indeed.

Smart baseball trades, of course, are never about what’s happened . . . but what might happen next. A career .306 hitter entering the season, Craig had endured a four-month slump this year and left St. Louis batting .237. His departure gives super-prospect Oscar Taveras the rightfield job in St. Louis, a commitment Cardinal general manager John Mozeliak was willing to make to, yes, what might happen. (Taveras drove in the winning run Sunday in a big Cardinal victory over first-place Milwaukee. He’s hitting .217 after 35 games with St. Louis.)

With the arrival of John Lackey, the deal solidifies a Cardinal starting rotation that, merely four months ago, was considered the strength of the team. Injuries to Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha forced Mozeliak’s hand to some degree, but with a pitcher (Joe Kelly) joining Craig on the plane to Boston, the trade should be viewed as an attempted upgrade, not merely the filling of a void.

Raise a glass to Craig, Memphis baseball fans. Recall him driving in 81 runs in merely 83 games as a Redbird in 2010. And remember he’s one of only five players to help the Redbirds win the 2009 Pacific Coast League championship and then play for the Cardinals in the unforgettable 2011 World Series. (The others: David Freese, Jon Jay, Jaime Garcia, and Fernando Salas.) Craig and Pujols are the only two Cardinals to hit three home runs in a single Fall Classic. Warm memories of a talented player and class act.

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• I follow two NBA teams year-round: the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks. For whatever reason, there haven’t been many players to make an impact with both franchises. (Two fan bases are trying to forget O.J. Mayo.) That changes with the arrival in Memphis — after three seasons in Dallas — of future Hall of Famer Vince Carter.

I was skeptical three years ago, when the Mavs acquired Carter (then 34 years old), convinced the once-high-flying rim-rattler who put the Toronto Raptors on the map had reached the sunset stage of his long career. He’d played in 10 All-Star Games, but not since 2007 when he averaged 25.2 points with New Jersey. Over the next three seasons, though, Carter displayed one of the finest style transitions of any star in NBA history.

Carter played for three distinctly different teams in Dallas, and proved to be an asset for each. In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Mavericks were defending their NBA title, but minus a significant cog in departed center Tyson Chandler. Carter started 40 games for Dallas, shot 36 percent from three-point range, and finished fourth on the team in minutes played.

The next season, the Mavericks’ roster was filled with players on one-year contracts (like Mayo, Chris Kaman, and Darren Collison), an ugly transition season after the team’s failed attempt to sign All-Star point guard Deron Williams. Carter came off the bench but finished third on the team with 2,093 minutes played and shot 41 percent from long range, topping the team with 162 three-pointers. Those Mavs scratched their way to a .500 record.

And then last season, with Dirk Nowitzki healthy again and Monta Ellis added to the backcourt, Dallas improved to 49-33 and took the eventual NBA champs to seven games in the first round of the playoffs (thanks in part to a game-winning, buzzer-beating trey from Carter in Game 3). Carter shot 39 percent from downtown and played just under 2,000 minutes. Again.

You don’t hear the description all that much in NBA circles, but Vince Carter has become a veteran “glue guy.” Adding him to a Grizzlies roster that includes professionals (purely defined) like Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and (yes) Zach Randolph would seem to only solidify that fabled intangible, “chemistry.” Better yet, Carter — even at 37 — adds athleticism and a shooting touch from the wing Memphis has desperately needed over the last few playoff seasons. He’s a rare pro athlete: comfortable in a reserve (though significant) role after building his career on magazine covers and dorm-room posters. There’s no lunacy in bringing Vinsanity to Memphis.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Top 10 Former Memphis Redbirds' Big-League Seasons

Posted By on Mon, Jul 28, 2014 at 9:40 AM

Albert Pujols as a Memphis Redbird
  • Albert Pujols as a Memphis Redbird

Entering this week’s action, St. Louis Cardinal first-baseman Matt Adams is second in the National League with a batting average of .316 (a distant second, as Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki is hitting .340). Only one former Memphis Redbird has won a batting title: Albert Pujols with an average of .359 in 2003. This had me considering the best major-league seasons by former Redbird players, which led to the list below, one man’s top ten.

[An important qualifier: For the sake of variety, I’ve limited players to no more than two appearances on this countdown. We’ll call this The Pujols Rule.]

10) J.D. Drew (2004) — The Redbirds’ first real star, Drew made his big-league debut late in the 1998 season in the considerable shadow of Mark McGwire. He was a five-tool golden boy, on his way to comparisons with Mickey Mantle. As it turned out, this was the best Drew had. After arriving in Atlanta in a trade that sent Adam Wainwright to St. Louis, Drew hit .305 with 31 homers and 93 RBIs. He scored 118 runs and finished 6th in the MVP voting. The Braves, alas, fell in the divisional round to Houston while St. Louis won its first pennant in 17 years.

9) Rick Ankiel (2000/2008) — Ankiel’s story is unique and earns him special placement on this countdown. The club of players to win 10 games in an MLB season and hit at least 50 home runs for his career includes two men: Babe Ruth and Ankiel. The Florida native was first a pitching prodigy in Memphis (1999), then slugged 32 homers as the Redbirds’ centerfielder (2007). His 194 strikeouts for the Cardinals in 2000 broke the franchise rookie record held by Dizzy Dean. Eight years later, he returned to hit 25 homers and drive in 71 runs as the Cardinals’ everyday centerfielder. A generation of baseball fans still wonders what might have been had he not suffered that stomach-turning meltdown on the mound in the 2000 playoffs at Busch Stadium.

8) Jason Motte (2012) — Memphis fans were first introduced to Motte when he played behind the plate for the Redbirds in 2004. (Motte saw another young catcher on his way to St. Louis by the name of Molina. So he moved to the mound.) In 2011, Motte took over closing duties in September from Fernando Salas and ended up throwing the final pitch in the Cardinals’ World Series victory. A year later, he tied for the National League lead with 42 saves, only the fourth Cardinal to save 40 games in a season.

7) Dan Haren (2009) — Pitching for a dreadful Arizona Diamondback team (70-92), Haren finished fifth in the Cy Young vote, winning 14 games with a 3.14 ERA and 223 strikeouts, the most ever by a former Redbird. He pitched in his third straight All-Star Game and made Cardinal fans ache even more over the 2004 trade that sent him to Oakland for, yes, Mark Mulder.

6) Allen Craig (2013) — Craig led the National League champs in RBIs (97) despite missing most of September with an ankle injury. But it was his batting average with runners in scoring position (.454) that got him on this list. Since the statistic was first charted in 1974, only two players have hit better with ducks on the pond than Craig did last year: Hall of Famers George Brett (.469 in 1980) and Tony Gwynn (.459 in 1997).

5) Adam Wainwright (2010) — Waino has finished second in the Cy Young voting twice, and third another time (when he and teammate Chris Carpenter supposedly split the Cardinal-supporting vote). This was his first All-Star season, though, when Wainwright struck out a career-high 213, posted a career-best ERA (2.42) and won 20 games for the first time. He put up these numbers for an under-performing Cardinal team that failed to reach the playoffs. St. Louis winning the World Series the next year while Waino recovered from Tommy John surgery may be the greatest irony in franchise history.

4) Matt Carpenter (2013) — Check out the club of players to lead major-league baseball in hits, runs, and doubles in the same season: Nap Lajoie (1901), Ty Cobb (1911), Pete Rose (1976) . . . and Matt Carpenter last season. Carpenter put together this dream season in his first year as an everyday player while manning a position (second base) he never had as a professional. The catch for the Cardinals’ current third-baseman, of course, will be living up to the standard the rest of his career.

3) Yadier Molina (2013) — Yadi won his sixth consecutive Gold Glove, solidifying his place alongside Johnny Bench and Ivan Rodriguez among history’s greatest defensive backstops. But Molina also won his first Silver Slugger, hitting .319 and setting a Cardinal record for catchers with 44 doubles. The offensive booster landed Molina third in MVP voting. He also became the first Cardinal since Stan Musial and Marty Marion to play in four World Series.

2) Albert Pujols (2003) — Still playing more leftfield than first base (remember Tino Martinez in St. Louis?), Pujols won the Cardinals’ first batting title in 18 years while leading the National League in runs (137), hits (212), doubles (51), and total bases (394), all figures that remain career highs to this day. He finished second in the MVP voting to Barry Bonds, who hit 45 homers, drove in 90 runs . . . and walked 148 times.

1) Albert Pujols (2006) — It’s a testament to Pujols’ greatness — and the inadequacies of MVP voting — that Albert’s two finest seasons came in years he was runner-up for the sport’s most prestigious individual award. Just looking at his triple-crown stats, Pujols was better in ’06 (.331, 49 home runs, 137 RBIs) than he was in his MVP seasons of 2008 (.357, 37, 116) or 2009 (.327, 47, 135). He also won his first Gold Glove at first base this season, not to mention his first World Series championship. Ryan Howard can keep the MVP.

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