It’s becoming more and more evident that the Kentucky Wildcats will enter next month’s NCAA tournament with a chance to complete college basketball’s first undefeated season in 39 years. John Calipari’s bluegrass all-star team needs to win four more regular-season games (toughest test will be this Saturday when Arkansas visits Lexington) and three in the SEC tournament to have a chance at becoming the sport’s first 40-0 team. Not since the Indiana Hoosiers went 32-0 in 1975-76 has a Division I program finished a season spotless.
I can’t decide if this is good or bad for college basketball. Let’s consider the opposing views.
The single healthiest booster for college hoops is a true Cinderella team. Not a 12-seed beating a 5-seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but an underdog clawing its way to the Final Four and cutting down the nets. But these have gone the way of the Dodo bird. Only three teams have won the Big Dance with as many as 10 losses, and all had their shining moment more than a quarter-century ago: North Carolina State (1983), Villanova (1985), and Kansas (1988).
Minus a Cinderella, the sport craves a super team. Only seven have won the national championship without a loss: San Francisco (1956), North Carolina (1957), four UCLA squads (1964, ’67, ’72, ’73), and those Hoosiers of ’76. Duke’s back-to-back titlists of 1991 and ’92 belong in this category, among the last teams to feature four-year players (Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley) with All-America credentials. Since then? The closest we’ve seen to a super team was the Florida group led by Joakim Noah and Al Horford that went back-to-back in 2006 and ’07. (Is that team especially memorable? Jury’s out if you ask me.)
An undefeated Kentucky team, centered by Willie Cauley-Stein and the Harrison brothers, would be a memorable bunch, and would cement Calipari as the preeminent coach of college basketball’s modern era, where “one-and-done” is the calling card for annual Final Four contention. And there’s that magic number: 40. Forty wins in a single season of college basketball? Regardless of the competition, that’s a galactic number.
There’s nothing worse in sports than predictability. And a John Calipari-coached Kentucky team winning basketball games is as predictable as a rooster’s crow. This is Warren Buffett picking a profitable stock, Taylor Swift topping the charts with a new release. The Wildcats’ dominance is getting uncomfortably close to . . . Connecticut women’s basketball. The quickest click of my TV remote is upon the discovery of a Huskies women’s game. They are so vastly superior to the competition it’s no longer interesting.
The second-best team in the SEC isn’t Arkansas. It’s Kentucky’s bench. Both units looked out of sorts last week in Knoxville, and the Wildcats won by 18 points. Having escaped a pair of overtime games last month (against Ole Miss and Texas A & M), Kentucky has won nine of its last 12 games by at least 11 points. Flash back to Calipari’s last four seasons in Memphis when the Tigers lorded over Conference USA, playing a different brand of basketball than its relatively pathetic competition. Today’s SEC is no different, just with more football fans passing time indoors until spring practice.
Can the Wildcats win 13 more games? I’m leaning toward yes. Perhaps Virginia, Gonzaga, or Wisconsin can catch Kentucky after Cauley-Stein had a bad night of sleep, or when Calipari wants to prove to the world that his third unit could win it all. If the Cats go down, it will be a large-scale upset. If they win it all, the sport’s timeline has a new permanent marker. Either way, lots of people will be watching. And I suppose that’s good — healthy even — for college basketball.
“When this job opportunity came up, I knew nothing about Memphis. Nada.”
Erin Mazurek — the new general manager of the Memphis Open — may well personify a renaissance for professional tennis in Memphis. Hired last fall by the Unites States Tennis Association to oversee the newly named Memphis Open, Mazurek arrived in Memphis with more knowledge of a two-line pass than a crosscourt backhand. She spent five years, you see, as director of private event sales for the Detroit Red Wings, among the most powerful brands in the National Hockey League. Her task with the Red Wings was maximizing that powerful brand name for revenue-generating events when the hockey team was not playing at Joe Louis Arena. She wasn’t selling hockey players. She was instead creating a buzz-worthy atmosphere, an environment where people wanted (and maybe needed) to be seen.
The Racquet Club of Memphis and its longtime tournament are in desperate need of a buzz booster.
There was a time when a person holding Mazurek’s job merely had to announce the players coming to Memphis and lines would form for tickets. Bjorn Borg won the first championship in 1977. Jimmy Connors won four titles between 1978 and 1984. Other Memphis champions: John McEnroe (1980), Stefan Edberg (1985 and 1987), Andre Agassi (1988), Ivan Lendl (1991), Pete Sampras (1996). All seven of those tennis legends finished at least one year atop the world rankings.
But since the turn of the century — the dawn of the Roger Federer Era, you might say — fields at the Racquet Club have been decidedly less buzz-worthy. Andy Roddick — the tournament’s top seed every year from 2003 to 2011 — was an annual draw, a rare American ranked in the top 10, and won three championship here (2002, 2009, and 2011). Other recent champs, though, were names you didn’t see or hear during the second week of coverage at Wimbledon: Joachim Johansson, Kenneth Carlsen, Steve Darcis, Jurgen Melzer. While Federer and fellow stars Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray played most of their tennis overseas, the Racquet Club was left to sell what amounted to ATP leftovers. The tournament’s fortunes seemed to bottom out in 2013 when it was played without a title sponsor (the U.S. National Indoor) for the first time in more than two decades.
If you listen to Mazurek, though, pro tennis in Memphis is on the verge of a bounce-back much like the fuzzy spheres fans will follow this week. “I think [the previous owners] lost some of the pulse on the community,” she says. “This tournament has to be sold from the grassroots up. It’s as much a community event as it is a professional sports-and-entertainment function. You have to remember there are people at the core, relationships.
“We need more pre-match entertainment,” emphasizes Mazurek. “More sizzle to the show. Let’s face it: There are people who go to a Grizzlies game and barely pay attention to what’s happening on the court. I’m that person who loves the atmosphere, the music, the promotions, the branding. If we’re doing our job right, this will be a festival for tennis fans and casual fans.”
An early sign of better days ahead was the announcement last month that ServiceMaster has signed on as the tournament’s presenting sponsor (not the same as a title sponsor, but significant). Japan’s Kei Nishikori — the world’s fifth-ranked player and a finalist at last year’s U.S. Open — is back to defend his title. America’s top-ranked player, John Isner (No. 18) and South Africa’s Kevin Anderson (No. 15) will each be contending for his first Memphis title. Federer’s absence, like Nadal’s, has become a fact of life for the Memphis tournament, and so be it. Let’s give the new blood at the Racquet Club a chance to wow us. World-class tennis comes in many shapes and sizes. This week, its home is Memphis, Tennessee.
Four distinct members of a team, each with his own passionate fan base . . . but better as a unit than they’d ever be as solo acts. Together, they pack arenas and bring fans to their feet screaming in exultant joy. They are Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen, the Grizzlies’ longtime fab four.
But read that intro again. Could the same not be said for rock-and-roll Hall of Famers KISS? As a card-carrying member of the KISS Army since well before any of the Grizzlies’ fab four were born, I’ve had this column brewing since the first pyrotechnic introduction of the Grindfather at FedExForum. Line up these two bands and it’s not hard to connect the dots.
The Catman (originally Peter Criss, currently Eric Singer) — Marc Gasol The backbone, the heartbeat, the pulse of his team. A position that requires a proper combination of muscle and touch, rhythm always paramount. I like to picture Gasol in his younger, shaggier days with the Grizzlies when I see him wearing the whiskered face-paint made famous by Criss. Gasol rose from obscurity (overshadowed by the older brother for whom he was traded) to become the first Memphis player elected to start in the All-Star Game. Just as Criss carried the vocals for “Beth,” the ballad that ironically carried his speaker-blowing band to the top of the charts in 1976.
The Spaceman (originally Ace Frehley, currently Tommy Thayer) — Tony Allen This is the easiest pairing of the four. Whether you picture Allen kicking Chris Paul in the head or pummeling teammate O.J. Mayo on an airplane, the Frehley classic “Shock Me” would make for a nice soundtrack. Muscle-flexing, arms pumping during timeouts (as the rest of his team listens to instructions). Full-body gyrations upon the ball being awarded to Memphis after a turnover. Not to mention nightly assignments to lock down the opponent’s top scoring threat. If any Grizzly ever spontaneously bursts into smoke (as Ace’s guitar did for hundreds of concerts), it will be Tony Allen. His tenure in Memphis has been a “Rocket Ride,” to say the least.
The Demon (Gene Simmons) — Zach Randolph Line the Grizzlies up on the baseline and ask for a volunteer to regurgitate blood and, later in the show, spit lighter fluid over a burning torch (thus, “breathing fire”). After Allen is excluded (imagine the consequences of a flame in his hands), there’s only one man for such showmanship. Just as Gene’s bat-wing makeup has become the definitive “face” of KISS, so Randolph embodies the Grizzlies’ most successful, enduring run as NBA championship contenders. The only way I see the ferocity of Randolph’s image growing is for him to add knee-high boots with scales and seven-inch fangs as platforms. Z-Bo’s soundtrack would open with “I Love it Loud” and close with “God of Thunder.”
The Starchild (Paul Stanley) — Mike Conley Their surnames are similar, and each is the youngest member of his band. (Paul is the youngest of the original four KISS members.) Every group needs a front man, and the Grizzlies’ longtime point guard has been front and center for his team since starting 46 games as a 20-year-old rookie in the 2007-08 season. No one has sung more KISS tunes than Stanley and no one has played in more Grizzly games than Conley. When Conley drains a three-pointer and brings that “okay” sign to his face, I like to picture his right eye within a black star. Conley’s signature KISS song? As the franchise’s career leader in steals, it has to be “I Stole Your Love.”
Grit and grind all night. And party every day..
Consider this column a pause (respite?) in your ongoing search for clues in Deflategate. I’m here to actually write about football (the sport), and the man so many consider guilty of gaining an extra squeeze on the pigskin.
When Tom Brady takes the opening snap for his New England Patriots, he’ll become the first quarterback to play in six Super Bowls. Should the Patriots beat Seattle, Brady will be the third quarterback (after Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana) to raise the Vince Lombardi trophy four times. But the Brady phenomenon — even under a cloud of scandal — is bigger than his record-breaking numbers. We are witnessing, folks, the first one-man dynasty in the history of American team sports.
The New York Yankee dynasties (yes, plural) blended across generations, with teams led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig passing the torch to those led by Joe DiMaggio and later Mickey Mantle. Derek Jeter was famously part of a “core four” (along with Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte) that won the franchise’s most recent five championships.
Tom Brady had Adam Vinatieri. The kicker who helped deliver the Patriots first two championships with late field goals may well make the Hall of Fame someday, but he’s been an Indianapolis Colt for nine years now.
Bill Russell’s Celtics had a supporting cast that included Hall of Famers like Bob Cousy, K.C. Jones, Tom Sanders, and John Havlicek. Larry Bird’s run would not have happened without Hall of Famers Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish.
Tom Brady had Richard Seymour. The defensive tackle was named first-team All-Pro after the Patriots’ second and third Super Bowls, but has now been retired two years and played for Oakland when New England last reached the big game (after the 2011 season).
Magic Johnson’s Lakers were just as much Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers. Hall of Famer James Worthy helped them win three NBA titles. Even Michael Jordan had a Hall of Fame wingman in Scottie Pippen on his way to six titles with Chicago.
Tom Brady had Randy Moss. If his miserable demeanor is put aside, Moss will make the Hall of Fame. But the wideout played in but one Super Bowl (after the 2007 season) with the Pats.
And NFL dynasties? When you think of the 1960s Packers, do you think first of Bart Starr or Ray Nitschke? The Steelers of the 1970s had Hall of Famers at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver (two), but are remembered for a defense that included Hall of Famers Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, and Mel Blount. The 49ers of the 1980s had three first-ballot Hall of Famers in Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Ronnie Lott. And the Cowboys of the 1990s had “the triplets”: Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin, each now with a bust at Canton.
Tom Brady had Wes Welker, a primary receiving target for two Super Bowl teams, and nowhere to be found on Brady’s other four.
It’s astounding to consider, really. The Patriots’ current All-Pro tight end, Rob Gronkowski, may gain Hall of Fame credentials, but only with about eight more seasons like the one he just enjoyed. The way he’s playing — and winning — Tom Brady may still be throwing the ball to Gronk eight years from now.
The one future Hall of Famer Brady has had at his side since his first Super Bowl, of course, is his coach. Come Sunday, Bill Belichick will become the first man to coach the same franchise in six Super Bowls. Did Belichick make Brady, or is it the other way around? At the very most, the New England Patriot dynasty of the last 15 years has been a two-man job. Particularly for a sport where 22 men take the field for every play, it’s a phenomenon we’re unlikely to see again.
Has Brady bent rules in his rise to such rarefied air in American sports history? Perhaps. Belichick has already been disciplined for cheating in the eyes of the NFL. Each will likely carry a stench — to one degree or another — to Canton for his enshrinement weekend. Such is life for this century’s most distinctive sports dynasty.
• I have family in Seattle. And I have family in New England. So I’ve decided I will cheer every positive play this Sunday, regardless of which team makes it. Then I will sympathize with the losing side more than I celebrate with the winning bunch. The defending champs taking on the sport’s most-recent dynasty offers no underdog to support. (This is only the third Super Bowl in the last 20 years to feature each conference’s top seed.)
But I’ll make a pick. The Patriots will dominate storylines this week, and they would have without deflated footballs entering the picture. This will suit the oft-overlooked Seahawks just fine. Even nursing injuries to key members (Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman), the Seattle defense is among the four or five best of the Super Bowl era. I don’t see this year’s Patriot offense being any stronger than last year’s Denver Broncos unit. And superior NFL defenses tend to rise up on Super Sunday.
Seahawks 27, Patriots 13.
Fifteen years of age may seem young for a facelift. But not if you’re a ballpark. Under new joint ownership (the City of Memphis and St. Louis Cardinals, parent club of the local Triple-A affiliate), AutoZone Park is undergoing its most dramatic renovations since opening for the 2000 season. The home of the Memphis Redbirds is now also the home of Craig Unger, named the franchise’s general manager last April (when the Cardinals’ purchase cleared). A native of Waterloo, Illinois (across the Mississippi River from St. Louis), Unger has combined a Cardinal touch — he worked for the team for five years — with an appreciation for a distinctly Memphis landmark to steer the stadium’s architectural revival.
What were your first impressions of Memphis last spring?
It’s been great. My wife and I love it here. You can get everywhere quickly, great food, great people. The similarity [with St. Louis] I’ve noticed is the downtown resurgence. The new restaurants popping up on Main Street, the new businesses on South Main, new apartments and condos. I saw this in St. Louis ten years ago. In both cities, the urban center is becoming the hub again.
And what about your first impressions of AutoZone Park?
What a great facility. It’s big, but what a great facility. The one thing I hear from other minor-league officials is that they’re trying to create space, to find new ways of creating space for groups. That’s one problem we don’t have. This footprint is a good kind of big. We have a lot of room to do a lot of things, a lot to work with. Minor-league ballparks aren’t built like this anymore.
Do you see similarities with the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis (which opened in 2006)?
The brick and the exposed steel. They were both built to fit into the architecture of the area that surrounds them. This is a classic ballpark. The open concourse. The indoor space on the second floor. Baseball’s a great social sport. People are up, walking around. At a football game, you sit and you go to the bathroom at halftime. Here, fans are going to check out views from different parts of the ballpark. The changes we’re making are, in part, to create destination points for fans. It’s a social, food, and family experience.
Summarize the renovations. What needed to be improved?
Over 15 years, we all re-do a bathroom or kitchen in our house. We looked at the space we have, and discussed how to improve the fan experience. How do we take this facility and energize it?
It’s hard, because there are a lot of things. All in, it will cost a little over $6.5 million, $4.5 million from the city as part of the [Cardinals’] lease agreement and $2 million from the Cardinals. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right.
Do you have to clear renovations with the city?
There is an approval process [in our agreement]. They don’t want us to structurally compromise the facility. They’ve put a great deal of trust in us. The changes we’re making will enhance the facility, and make it better in the long run. [The Cardinals] have 16 years left on our lease (with two five-year options). We’re taking a very long-term view. It would be easy to say we need immediate gratification. But we’re aiming for long-term growth and opportunity. Group ticket sales, season-ticket sales, and using the facility for other [non-baseball] events.
What’s an example of the new fan experience?
On the second level, we’ve removed four suites from behind home plate and are creating a true club, with an open view of the field, and on the other side, a view of the Peabody. Natural light will flow. Fans will be able to experience the ballpark even while being inside. It will be great for weddings, business meetings, Christmas parties. Anybody with tickets to the club level will have access to this space. We’ll integrate the club into the game-day experience.
There will also be four sections of seats removed and replaced with 39 “four-top” tables, directly in front of the club. Those will be sold on a season-long basis. They’re fixed into the floor, four seats per table. You’ll have a pregame buffet, in-seat service. That’s what I’m most excited about actually.
The ballpark originally had 45 suites, more than any other minor-league stadium by a long shot. Their leases expired after the 2014 season. There will now be 29?
We’re still in the process or renewing suite-holders. We’re renovating every suite, regardless of whether or not it’s been renewed yet. Under the old deal, suite owners were responsible for any changes or enhancements to their suite. We’re taking that on. They will be dramatically different. Every suite is getting a facelift. Interest has been great. Negotiations are ongoing. We’re looking at five-, seven-, and ten-year deals.
Will the renovations increase attendance, boost revenue, or just better accommodate smaller crowds on weeknights?
Enhancing the fan experience is the number-one thing. The changes we’re making, everyone will be able to see. You’ll notice the difference. When you create a great experience, you’ll sell more tickets. That’s how we succeed. We have to provide value to our fans. Why should they go to AutoZone Park instead of someplace else? We are not raising ticket prices. So come on down.
Does winning baseball games matter? The Redbirds played in the postseason last year in front of a lot of empty seats.
People are going to watch the product on the field. I think winning is less important than the fan experience. They want to have a good time. We have to keep in mind our role on the baseball side of things: we’re about player development. There’s no [young] player out there who says, man, I want to be a Triple-A baseball player. You watch the future stars here. And not just our players. The next superstars are going to play here. It’s one area we can’t control, the product on the field. But our farm system is in great shape. In the end, we want our players to leave, to go to St. Louis. It means they’ve succeeded, and fans here have seen the players that will help the Cardinals win their next World Series.
What will be new to the game-day presentation?
We’re installing a video board on the leftfield wall, 14 feet tall by 140 feet wide. And we’re adding LED ribbon boards — three feet by 150 feet — along first and third base. They’ll replace the backlit signs along the façade. It’s ad space. And it’s a multimedia experience for fans. Last year, you couldn’t find information about the pitcher. What’s his pitch count? These video boards will provide a lot more information. What’s going on here, in St. Louis, at the Grizzlies game, you name it.
[The bluff beyond leftfield will be removed and replaced by two grass-seating areas, a berm near the leftfield corner and another one down the rightfield line. More than 3,000 fixed seats have also been removed, reducing the stadium’s total to 8,404.]
You’re the face of the new Cardinals ownership. What’s changing operationally for the Redbirds, in respect to the parent club?
I’ve worked with [Cardinals managing partner] Bill DeWitt and others with the Cardinals on all these renovations. This was a major investment by the Cardinals. We have shared resources, like legal support out of St. Louis. Accounting and HR run through St. Louis. Our field renovation will utilize the expertise in St. Louis, where they’ve replaced the field several times. Among our goals — here and in Springfield, Missouri [where the Cardinals’ Double-A team plays] — is to standardize the playing surfaces. The detail we’re putting into the field enhancements should help players excel and get to the major leagues.
Our season-ticket holders will have premium access to Cardinal presales, promotions, and different ticket options [in St. Louis]. We brought down stadium-operations people from St. Louis to share ideas on how we operate. It’s a great relationship.
Will the branding of the ballpark — as a Cardinals stadium — intensify?
You’ll see some things over the coming years, but we don’t want to become too Cardinal-centric. We want the identity to be the Memphis Redbirds. This is a great brand here. We don’t want AutoZone Park to be a mini-Busch Stadium. We want it to have its own feel and identity, and done a way that’s right for Memphis. Minor-league baseball has such a long and rich history here. We’re sensitive to that.
What are your thoughts on the 2015 Redbirds (and Cardinals, for that matter)?
I’ve been so consumed with the construction project, that I don’t know a whole lot. But I’m excited. A great thing about being a baseball fan: when the season starts, everybody has a chance. I really like the Cardinals’ chances though. The competition in the National League Central is going to be fun. The Cubs being upgraded will renew that rivalry. The Pirates have shown the last couple of years what they can be. And the Brewers were in first place most of last season. It’s gonna be fun.
Did you play baseball as a kid?
I did, through high school. I was the utility guy. I was never good enough to play one position, but never bad enough that I couldn’t play any position. I went to the ballpark with a bag full of gloves: catcher’s mitt, first-baseman’s mitt, outfielder’s glove. I knew my career was nearing its end when I couldn’t stay in one position long enough to really make an impact. But I played on a traveling team — the Waterloo A’s — before traveling teams really existed. I bet we played 100 games every summer.
Who was your favorite player?
Probably Ozzie Smith. [Hall of Fame manager] Whitey Herzog was a real close friend of my grandfather. They fished together every day. They played baseball together as kids.
The Redbirds will host an exhibition game with the Cardinals on April 3rd, by which time all renovations should be complete. The stadium’s lone red chair — the “Pujols Seat” — will remain, a solitary fixture in the new rightfield berm.
A few quick thoughts and observations to ring in 2015 . . .
• August has long been known as “the dog days” of baseball season, too late for teams to feel fresh, but too early for any playoff buzz. In basketball terms, January is the most doggish of months. NBA teams seem to be in full flight, yet the season hasn’t reached its midpoint. College teams start conference play, but remain a month away from true jockeying for NCAA tournament seeds.
Last Saturday felt like new-year trauma if you call yourself a Memphis basketball fan. First the Tigers were outscored 17-4 over the last five minutes of their (home) game with Tulane (not exactly an American Athletic Conference titan). Then the Grizzlies took the floor in Denver and got walloped by 29 points. Playing their second road game in as many days without Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies’ loss felt like an anomaly, but the fearsome Western Conference puts a premium on accumulating wins. Here’s hoping Z-Bo’s balky knee heals (completely) soon.
As for the Tigers, one can hope Nick King was the difference against the Green Wave. The Tigers’ top reserve sat out a second game with an ankle injury, a primary reason Tulane’s bench outscored the Tiger bench 18-9. But those last five minutes were troubling to witness. No Memphis player was able to rise to the occasion in the team’s first close game of the season. Who will make the big shot (or shots) for this team? The dog days are here and Tiger fans still don’t know.
• This has not been a season of happy headlines for the National Football League. But however ugly the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson stories are, they’ve been nice distractions from what remains a terribly flawed playoff format, one based on the premise that geography and winning a four-team division are proper variables in punching tickets to the postseason. The Philadelphia Eagles finished the 2014 campaign with a record of 10-6 and can now be found on golf courses nationwide, fine-tuning their iron games. Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers finished 7-8-1 (having lost to the Eagles in November, 45-21) and are two wins from the Super Bowl.
The Panthers “won” the NFC South, of course, a division sagging with other losers: New Orleans, Atlanta, and Tampa Bay. The Eagles were cursed by having to play in the NFC East, where they finished behind Dallas, a team that plays west of St. Louis, a team you can find in the NFC West. It’s as clear as a Roger Goodell press conference.
A commissioner with an interest in making the NFL better for its fans — imagine that — would divide each conference into two eight-team divisions. The division champions would earn first-round byes, and you’d eliminate (or at least greatly reduce) the chances of a losing team entering the playoffs while a winner stays home. Get it done, Rog.
• It’s hard to imagine college football’s first playoff semifinals going any better. The New Year’s Day doubleheader had the feel of my favorite football day of the year: the NFL’s conference-championship Sunday. Back-to-back games that mean . . . everything. Worst game for a team to lose, one win shy of playing for a title. And the settings were perfect, the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl as natural to open a year as a hangover-curing mimosa. My only gripe: The 8:30 (eastern time) kickoff for the Sugar Bowl. With the game ending well after midnight, a lot of kids missed the rare sight of Alabama coach Nick Saban walking off the field a loser. My pick for the title game next Monday: Oregon 41, Ohio State 30.
• The Baseball Hall of Fame will gain at least two power arms Tuesday when Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez should be elected in their first year of eligibility. The two combined to win eight Cy Young Awards and were key components when the 2001 Diamondbacks and 2004 Red Sox, respectively, won the World Series. It will be interesting to see if former Brave great John Smoltz gets enough votes (a player needs 75 percent of the total votes cast for election). Smoltz will get his plaque, but I’m not sure it will happen on his first ballot. Former Astro Craig Biggio fell just shy of election last year and will likely join Johnson and Martinez in Cooperstown this summer. I don’t expect the sport’s alleged steroid villains — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, and the like — will need any help drafting an induction speech.
The five most memorable sporting events I attended in 2014.
5) Tigers 60, Gonzaga 54 (February 8) — It was a birthday block party Joe Jackson — and every witness at FedExForum — will never forget. With his Tigers trailing Gonzaga by 11 and 13:45 left to play, the 6’1” point guard rose (and rose . . .) and blocked a dunk attempt by 7’1” Zag center Przemek Karnowski. An arena roared, and the Tigers outscored Gonzaga 29-12 the rest of the way. Jackson played in four NCAA tournaments for the Tigers, won three Conference USA tournaments, and finished his career seventh on the school’s all-time scoring chart. For many, though, the single play he left for posterity is a jaw-dropping blocked shot. (Jackson blocked 19 shots in his college career.)
4) Redbirds 2, Nashville 1 (July 7) — Monday night in the minor leagues. If you’re desperate to catch a foul ball at a professional game, this is the one to attend. After packing the house twice — a total of more than 20,000 fans — over the holiday weekend, the Redbirds welcomed empty seats back to AutoZone Park for the opening game of a four-game series with division-rival Nashville. The Sounds held first place in the Pacific Coast League’s American Southern Division, the Redbirds last . . . but only four-and-a-half games back of their intrastate rival. The Milwaukee Brewers’ top prospect, Jimmy Nelson, held Memphis scoreless for seven innings, and the Redbirds trailed, 1-0, entering the bottom of the ninth. Xavier Scruggs led off with a single and came around to score the tying run on an infield hit by Jermaine Curtis. Two batters later, Curtis scored on a sharply hit ball to short by Luis Mateo and the Redbirds had a five-game winning streak for the first time in almost two years . . . walk-off variety. Fewer than 1,000 people were in the park as Mateo was mobbed by his teammates at first base. I was glad to be one of them.
3) Tigers 72, Louisville 66 (March 1) — Memphis hadn’t swept its arch rival since the 1996-97 season, Larry Finch’s last as head coach. The Tigers were playing less than 48 hours after losing at Houston. And this was 7th-ranked Louisville, for crying out loud, the defending national champions. When Cardinal forward Montrezl Harrell slammed home an offensive rebound with 4:44 to play in the game, the Tigers trailed by eight points (65-57). They outscored Louisville the rest of the way, 15-1. Tiger senior Geron Johnson converted a steal into the tying points, Chris Crawford drained a dagger three (his fourth of the game), and the home team hit four of six free throws to pull away. Rick Pitino’s program is now part of the ACC, so it will be a while (if ever) before these two again face each other multiple times in the same season. A win — and sweep — to relish, well beyond 2014.
2) Grizzlies 98, Oklahoma City 95 (April 24) — This was Tony Allen in full Grindfather form, the match — off the Memphis bench — for the powder keg that is FedExForum on a playoff night. Allen scored 10 points in just 11 minutes in the first half while helping keep MVP-to-be Kevin Durant under control (12 points in the first half). And after 40 minutes of play, the Grizzlies appeared to be unequivocally the superior team. But over the game’s last eight minutes, Oklahoma City outscored the home team, 21-4, to force overtime. All four of the game-saving points were Allen’s. And so, you might say, were four scored by Thunder guard Russell Westbrook on a three-pointer (plus free throw) converted after an Allen foul. Mike Conley drained a three-pointer and converted a Durant turnover into a layup midway through the overtime session to give the Grizzlies just enough for a 2-1 series lead. Dating back to the 2011 postseason, this was the fifth game (among 15) between these opponents to require overtime.
1) Tigers 41, UConn 10 (November 29) — This game made for a Thanksgiving weekend local football fans will never forget. Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch opened up a tight game by throwing three touchdown passes in the third quarter to help the Tigers secure their sixth straight victory (the program’s longest winning streak in 45 years) and a share of the American Athletic Conference championship (the program’s first league crown in 43 years). With the dreadful (2-8) Huskies playing a long way from home, there was no doubt who’d win this game during warm-ups. Nonetheless, to walk the Liberty Bowl field after the game, under falling confetti as coach Justin Fuente accepted the AAC trophy, was to live in the surreal. Three years after finishing 2-10 and ridiculed as the worst college football program in the country, the Memphis Tigers were champions.
This week I present the first half of my annual countdown of the most memorable sporting events I attended in 2014. It was a fun year, and a challenge to pick just ten.
10) Oklahoma State 73, Tigers 55 (December 13) — Forget the score and outcome of the game. For that matter, forget the sport that was being played. Basketball was incidental, it turned out, on this late Saturday afternoon at FedExForum. At halftime, the 2014 American Athletic Conference champions — the U of M football team — was introduced to the crowd of 14,000 (an audience smaller than those at the Liberty Bowl last season, not a given in this town). Coach Justin Fuente spoke to the crowd through a microphone and included the words “our first” when introducing his champs. Fuente’s brief address left you with the feeling there are more good times ahead — perhaps great — for U of M football.
9) Florida 62, Dayton 52 (March 29) — Anytime FedExForum hosts a regional final in the NCAA tournament, my blood pumps a little quicker. But with a chance to see a team that calls itself the Flyers reach the Final Four? (There were shirts in the arena that said “Flyer Nation.” Honest.) Scottie Wilbekin (23 points) and the top-seeded Gators proved to be too much for Dayton (the South region’s 11th seed), ending a three-year losing streak in the Elite Eight for Florida. The Gators went on to lose in the national semifinals. And Dayton? They returned to Ohio, still owners of the best nickname in college sports.
8) Redbirds 4, New Orleans 3 (August 7) — Defense wins championships. We hear this (whether or not we believe it) every football season, every basketball season. It’s not such a catch phrase for baseball. (Substitute the word “pitching” for defense.) On this night, the Redbirds flashed leather of the big-league variety. The bases loaded with Zephyrs in the top of the seventh inning (and Memphis leading 4-2), New Orleans catcher Rob Brantly drilled a ball deep into the right-centerfield gap. But Redbird rightfielder Stephen Piscotty ran it down, catching the ball across his body in full extension to save at least one run. (The catch ultimately secured Redbird pitcher Tim Cooney’s 11th win of the season.) Pete Kozma put on a clinic at shortstop, throwing out eight Zephyrs, even after bobbling one ground ball. And the game ended when Memphis first baseman Xavier Scruggs dove to snag a ball down the line. You’d see none of these highlights in the box score. Which is among the reasons baseball is the best sport on the planet.
7) Grizzlies 106, Dallas 105 (April 16) — You won’t see two NBA teams play a better 82nd game. With a 50th win and seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs on the line for both teams, the Grizzlies won their fifth straight game, and 14th straight at FedExForum. It didn’t come easily. Dallas led at halftime. There were 15 lead changes. Dirk Nowitzki, having recently entered the NBA’s all-time scoring top 10, scored 30 points, the last three coming in overtime to give the Mavs a three-point lead with just over a minute to play. But after a Tony Allen putback and a defensive stop, Grizzly point guard Mike Conley drew a foul with 1.1 seconds left on the clock. He buried both charity shots to give Memphis a one-point lead. The game wasn’t decided, though, until the final shot of the regular season’s final game. As the buzzer sounded in overtime, Monta Ellis missed a 20-foot jumper and streamers fell to the FedExForum floor.
6) Tigers 36, Middle Tennessee 17 (September 20) — There should have been a linebacker named Tank on Vince Lombardi’s Packers. Or maybe with Dick Butkus and the Monsters of the Midway. No, Tank Jakes is merely a University of Memphis linebacker who played like Butkus on this night in front of 46,000 fans at the Liberty Bowl. Midway through the first quarter, he sacked Blue Raider quarterback Austin Grammer in the end zone for a safety (the first of two sacks for Jakes). Early in the fourth quarter, he drilled a Middle ball carrier and forced a fumble that was returned 59 yards for a touchdown by Tiger cornerback Bobby McCain. Not done yet, Jakes intercepted a Grammer pass on the Raiders’ next possession. This was the best game — at least statistically — by a Memphis defensive player in at least a generation or two. Let’s call the stat line (forced fumble, safety, interception) what we should: The Tank Trifecta.
Check back next Monday for my top five. And happy holidays.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.