An open letter to the Memphis City Council:
Talking baseball in December can be challenging. No standings to check. No game schedules to plan around. No line for a cold drink or barbecue nachos at AutoZone Park. The Hot Stove League isn’t what it once was, blockbuster trades having been supplanted by free agents leaving one team for another to be paid salaries that would make Gordon Gekko blush.
But baseball season is coming. Pitchers and catchers report to spring training less than two months after Christmas. Temperatures will rise, grass will get greener, and prospects will don new uniforms on their journey to fulfillment of an American boy’s dream. And we’ll see many of those prospects at AutoZone Park, players like Michael Wacha (last April a Memphis Redbird, last October the National League Championship Series MVP), Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong, and Oscar Taveras. The faces of Memphis baseball will be back, on their way to becoming faces of the St. Louis Cardinals, the second-most powerful brand in all of Major League Baseball if you combine regional popularity with longevity and championships.
Baseball will be back, indeed, unless you muck it up.
Built at a cost of more than $70 million, AutoZone Park was drenched in red ink from Opening Day of its inaugural season almost 14 years ago. No business model before or since could erase this kind of debt by selling tickets to Triple-A baseball games. The debt is not going away (at least not conventionally, with an infusion of cash). It didn’t for the Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation, and it will not for the current bondholder, Fundamental Advisors. Until the current arrangement is washed clean — much of that debt swallowed by one party or another — AutoZone Park will never be a profitable venture. To evaluate mayor AC Wharton’s proposal for the City of Memphis to purchase the ballpark under such criteria — How can the city make money? — is a swing and a miss at a pitch two feet outside the strike zone.
When you reconvene Tuesday, and when you finally vote on the matter on January 7th (per the mayor’s wishes), instead of trembling over the numerous worst-case scenarios — an obligation of city councils, to be sure — consider the best-case scenarios already on the table. Hands are extended, ready to shake.
• The St. Louis Cardinals want their top minor-league affiliate to play at Third and Union. They want to pay the City of Memphis for a team to play at AutoZone Park. Take this for granted at your peril. You think ticket sales and sponsorships have dragged since the Grizzlies’ arrival in 2001 and the economic collapse of 2008? Gaze into your crystal balls and imagine sales and sponsorship for the Triple-A (Double-A?) affiliate of the San Diego Padres or Minnesota Twins playing in downtown Memphis.
• The Cardinals want to be part of Memphis baseball for a long time. And yes, a 17-year commitment is a long time in the world of professional baseball. Why are the Cardinals so attached to AutoZone Park? Spacious clubhouses may have something to do with it, but the Cardinals are attached to the ballpark because Memphis is Cardinal Country. It’s a marriage formed over the airwaves of KMOX radio throughout the 20th century, boys and girls in Central Gardens listening to Stan Musial hit five home runs in a double-header at some distant ballpark. Even the best of marriages require work and attention to detail. These cross-generational details are in your hands.
• Baseball must be played at AutoZone Park. This is no conference center or multipurpose arena. It’s a baseball stadium. The choices — however the costs are broken down and revenues shared — are but two scenarios: the business of baseball proceeds in Memphis, or it shuts down. And without baseball, that tract of land at Third and Union some of you deem unworthy of $20 million will be worth a tiny fraction of that figure. I’m guessing the cost of demolishing the stadium — to try something else on the property — would cost somewhere between $5 million and $10 million. And what could rise from the destruction of such a civic asset?
Those are the words I’ll leave you with: civic asset. AutoZone Park — with the St. Louis Cardinals nesting there — is a civic asset that makes Memphis a better city than we would be without it.
Make sure baseball comes back to Memphis. And happy holidays.
Where Were You When ... ?
The greatest sports moments are a collision of the unlikely (performance) and the enormous (stage). Kirk Gibson’s one-legged home run isn’t immortal if it doesn’t win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. Christian Laettner’s catch/dribble/shoot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA tournament isn’t legendary if it doesn’t advance Duke to the Final Four with a chance to defend a national title.
People not yet born in the great state of Alabama will be talking 100 years from now about Auburn’s Chris Davis and his 109-yard return of a missed field goal(!) to beat Alabama. The conversation will inspire Tiger fans and enrage Tide fans as long as Bo Jackson and Bear Bryant matter in the Yellowhammer State. It was epic. It was dramatic. It was explosive. It changed the way one of college football’s greatest rivalries will forever be remembered.
Unlikely? Name the last return of a missed field goal you remember. (I had to read of Devin Hester’s return for the Chicago Bears a few years back to remember it.) The play doesn’t take place without an official review to add a fraction of a second to the game clock, among the most subjective decisions in a sport loaded with subjective judgments. The play doesn’t take place without the hubris of Alabama coach Nick Saban. Even casual fans recognize the Tide kicker — his name doesn’t matter, one year to the next — as the team’s lone Achilles heel. When you’re reeling off three national championships in four years, how often is a kicker needed for a significant field goal? And 57 yards? C’mon, Nick. Put the ball in quarterback A.J. McCarron’s hands at the 25 (as overtime would have), and see if Auburn can answer.
And the stage? The Iron Bowl is more important to Alabamans than any postseason bowl game not played for a national championship. Marriages divide for a day (at least) when these schools meet on the gridiron. And for the first time since the SEC began holding a championship game in 1992, the Iron Bowl decided the western division’s representative.
Davis’s jaunt erased Alabama’s chances at an undefeated season and a third straight national championship. It vaulted an Auburn team given up for dead last fall into the conversation for this year’s BCS title game. (They’ll first have to handle Missouri for the SEC championship next Saturday.) It was a play that locked memories into “where-were-you-when” mode for generations to come.
The closest Memphis football fans have come to this kind of euphoria is Kevin Cobb’s “elbow-down” kickoff return for 95 yards against Tennessee in 1996. But that Play of the Year (according to ESPN) merely set up a later game-winning touchdown.
Sunday night in Orlando, the Memphis basketball team experienced one of the required elements (unlikelihood) in its upset of 5th-ranked Oklahoma State, a team that looked unbeatable less than two weeks earlier. But a basketball game at Disney World, in early December? Not the stage for legendary reflection.
I was at Huey’s in east Memphis when Chris Davis carved his name into college football history. Sharing a post-Thanksgiving meal with family and friends, I experienced the Iron Bowl’s climactic play without sound, the din of other families, other friends prevailing over any commentary from Vern Lundquist and Gary Danielson. (This proved disorienting when that precious second was added to the game clock and I saw a kick being returned in what I initially thought was overtime.) But then there were the cheers. And gasps. A few screams as Davis entered the end zone. The shocked looks at my table mirrored that of Saban as he began the long stroll to shake Auburn coach Gus Malzahn’s hand. It was a Sports Moment. Everyone in that restaurant felt like we were there, on the Plains. And we’ll remember the Moment as though we were.
It’s a week to give thanks, so herewith my annual list of sport-related blessings.
• I’m thankful for Tom Hornsey on fourth down. Yeah, I’m a big fan of the punter. The one record in the Memphis Tiger book that will never be broken? Career punting yards. Through last Saturday’s game, Hornsey is up to 12,337.
• I’m thankful for George Lapides. The face (and certainly voice) of Memphis sports media.
• I’m thankful for having witnessed four Michael Wacha starts at AutoZone Park. (Including a three-generation treat — with my mom and one of my daughters — for his debut on April 7th.) From Triple-A rookie to NLCS MVP in six months.
• I’m thankful for Penny Hardaway. If he’s not careful, his post-NBA philanthropy is going to make Memphians forget his playing days. (And the man was All-NBA. Twice.)
• I’m thankful for the 2013 NBA Western Conference finals. Never has a Memphis team felt more nationally relevant. (As for things I can do without, let’s start with teams that wear black.)
• I’m thankful for Memphis-Louisville on the hardwood twice this winter. And hopeful that Tom Bowen, Josh Pastner, and their Cardinal counterparts recognize the significance.
• I’m thankful for stories like that of D.J. Stephens. They make a sportswriter’s job easy.
• I’m thankful for David Freese memories. Remember, he was a postseason hero in Memphis two years before his Game 6 heroics during the 2011 World Series. He homered to win two different games, 1-0, on the Redbirds’ way to the 2009 Pacific Coast League title.
• I’m thankful for the tried-and-true University of Memphis football fans. You know who you are if you happen to read this list. (There are fewer than 20,000 of you.) The wait will be worth it.
• I’m thankful for Marc Gasol at the high post. And counting the days (if impatiently) till we see him there again.
• I’m thankful for Wolo and Bash.
• I’m thankful for SEC football. My goodness. You think the Pope takes Sunday seriously? He hasn’t seen Tuscaloosa (or Baton Rouge, or Gainesville, or Auburn, or even Knoxville in tough times) on fall Saturdays.
• I’m thankful for two daughters who have come to love soccer and softball. Team sports shape us in ways no classroom or job ever will.
• Along those lines, I’m thankful for a week last June with a three-sport teammate of mine. Wives (one each) and daughters (two each). Never saw it coming. Bliss.
• I’m thankful for the 11th hole at TPC Southwind. Every course should have an “island” green. I remain awestruck when the pros land a ball on that dry patch.
• I’m thankful for the Musial Sign and Pujols Seat at AutoZone Park.
• I’m thankful for Jacob Karam. Memphis will take pride in Karam years from now, and his football career will be incidental.
• I’m thankful for Josh Pastner’s positive energy. The man has a serious challenge on his hands, one that will impact his career path. He’s got to find a way to beat a strong opponent. I know there are cynics who’d prefer a grouchy coach who goes to the Final Four. Not me. I’ll take the coach with a positive outlook who goes to the Final Four. And I think Memphis can have both.
• I’m thankful for weekday matinees at AutoZone Park. Best drag on business under the sun.
• I’m thankful for the chance I had last spring to coach my 10-year-old daughter’s softball team. Undefeated seasons are special at any level. I’ll never forget the 2013 Ladybugs.
• I’m thankful for the Flyer’s loyal readership. We don’t make it a quarter century (in February 2014) without you.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
Local baseball fans were aflutter last Friday with the announcement by the St. Louis Cardinals that the major-league club had agreed to purchase their longtime Triple-A affiliate, the Memphis Redbirds. As stated in a release by the Cardinals:
“In an effort to rescue their financially troubled Triple-A affiliate, the St. Louis Cardinals will acquire the Memphis Redbirds. The club’s home ballpark, AutoZone Park, will be acquired by the City of Memphis.”
Hold on, though, said Memphis mayor A C Wharton later that same day. When it comes to the city’s purchase of AutoZone Park, it appears a deal has yet be struck. Said Wharton, as quoted by Daniel Connolly in The Commercial Appeal:
“I do not have a contract. I do not have an agreement or even a draft of agreement to review. . . . What we have, I guess, is sort of a clash of business cultures in which the private sector is moving at a pace that is not exactly in sync with what I, serving in the public entity, have to honor . . . .”
And so the drama continues, a story of “business cultures” now more than 15 years old, since Dean and Kristi Jernigan first secured the $72 million in bonds to build “the finest baseball stadium below the major-league level.” That glorious ballpark at Third and Union remains very much a standard to be matched by other minor-league operations. But with more than $20 million of debt giving its brick exterior an extra shade of red, the stadium’s value as an asset — not to baseball fans, really, but the city of Memphis — remains vague at best.
The fact is, AutoZone Park was a feat of financial wizardry on the part of the Jernigans. Consider that no other minor-league ballpark had cost as much as $50 million to complete. (Victory Field — home to the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians — opened in 1996 and cost all of $20 million.) Its 44 luxury suites — on two levels — are 44 more than can be found in many, if not most, minor-league parks across the country.
The stadium is the realization of a dream-like vision, but with an economic foundation no more healthy than a heaping dish of barbecue nachos. It’s one thing to own and operate the baseball team that plays in the stadium (the Cardinals seem ready and willing to play this role). It’s quite another to turn the facility itself into a source of measurable profit, particularly if the new owner is a city government weighted with declining population and stagnant, if not shrinking, business development. At the very least, the city cannot afford to lose money on AutoZone Park. Thus, Mayor Wharton’s pregnant pause last Friday.
The Redbirds are hosting an invitation-only event Tuesday evening, one where Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt and general manager John Mozeliak are expected to appear. You have to presume John Pontius and Ray Pohlman — the faces of the nonprofit Redbirds Foundation — will be there too. It will be a gathering of “players” with deep interest in making the business of Redbirds baseball a long-term success story.
Keep your eye on those 44 suites. The park’s most distinguishing luxury features were signed to 15-year leases before the park opened in 2000, meaning they are up for grabs after the 2014 season. The Memphis economy was quite different at the turn of the century. (To begin with, there were no Memphis Grizzlies and no FedExForum with its own luxury suites.) For that matter, the global economy was quite different at the turn of the century. Those suites have each brought in an average of $40,000 per season, a revenue stream north of $1.5 million. How many will be renewed, and at what price?
AutoZone Park isn’t going anywhere. The Cardinals are flush with the finest minor-league system in baseball, with Memphis the final training ground for rising stars like Michael Wacha. The big righty pitched his first Triple-A game in downtown Memphis last April, then was named National League Championship Series MVP in October. The ultimate dream for AutoZone Park, it turns out, is creating revenue streams as strong and steady as the flow of talent on its way to Busch Stadium.
I love college sports. I love teams of young athletes a community comes to know as “our kids” for a few years before they (hopefully) graduate and move on to the world of jobs, utility bills, and mortgage payments. The world of grown-ups.
But I’m also drawn to professional sports, and for something college teams — by the very structure of the enterprise — cannot provide: familiarity. My favorite pro athlete of all time, Ozzie Smith, first wore a St. Louis Cardinal uniform when I was in 7th grade, living in Southern California. By the time the Wizard retired in 1996, I had spent high school in Vermont, college in Boston, moved to Memphis, and married the girl of my dreams. Most of those 15 years, through all my transition and growth, there was a poster of Ozzie Smith where I lived. He and the Cardinals were heroes, sure. But they were also extended family. They were familiar.
When the Memphis Grizzlies open the 2013-14 season Wednesday night in San Antonio, Mike Conley will play in his 439th regular-season game for the home team. Marc Gasol will suit up for his 378th. Even better, neither player has appeared in the uniform of another NBA team. Conley and Gasol have become as Memphis as dry rub and rhinestone jumpsuits. (Even Zach Randolph — who played for three other franchises — feels like family, having played in 260 games as a Grizzly.) Contrast this with the great Larry Finch — an institution whose statue remains overdue — who played in just 84 games as a Memphis State Tiger (freshmen were not eligible to play in Finch’s day). Penny Hardaway played in only 66 games for his hometown program. Antonio Anderson holds the Tiger record for games played with 150, less than the equivalent of two full NBA seasons.
Successful pro franchises — and the Memphis Grizzlies have entered this category — lean on the familiar. Pick an NBA dynasty, and you’ll have a face or two that appear without prompting: Russell and Havlicek’s Celtics, Magic and Kareem’s Lakers, Jordan’s Bulls, Duncan’s Spurs. Even with free agency, impatient owners, and fickle fan bases, NBA teams that allow their stars to cohere into a unit — one cause, one goal, one message — are the teams that play into June and end their seasons under a shower of confetti.
The 2013-14 Grizzlies have their share of new faces, starting with rookie head coach Dave Joerger. Fans will need a program for the details of Jamaal Franklin’s college career, or how exactly Kosta Koufos and Nick Calathes came to don Beale Street Blue. Such is the nature of sports: along with the familiar must be a few fresh ingredients for growth. And with the 32-year-old Randolph earning eight figures, there’s some question about whether his familiar face will be around for the Grizzlies’ next playoff run.
Tony Allen will be here though. Having signed a four-year contract extension, the Grindfather — more than any other, the face of the team’s three-year climb to relevancy — will stand alongside Conley and Gasol in a few more team pictures, further cementing his attachment to Memphis (209 games and counting). Barring injury, Conley will become the first player in franchise history to wear a Memphis jersey for 500 games. And Gasol will do what he’s now been recognized for doing: grinding his way to stardom, whether on the block or in the high post.
It will be a fun NBA season in Memphis. New challenges ahead (Dwight Howard in Houston!), and new moments to give the Grindhouse its glow. But we’ll also have some familiar men playing leading roles along the journey. Mike, Marc, Tony, and Z-Bo — our NBA franchise’s Familiar Four — make the Grizzlies more Memphis every time they take the floor.
Judging by the U.S. government’s recent 16-day practice run, we must surely be a step closer to a shutdown that would actually do the American people some good. If it’s late October, you know where I’m going with this: National Baseball Day. One day on the calendar when we gather as families, friends, teams, or rivals and enjoy what remains the finest sporting event in North America. Remember R.P. McMurphy’s impassioned plea to Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “But it’s the World Series!” That’s my plea for an entire country.
The last time natural shadows could have been seen during the World Series was Game 6 between the St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins in 1987, a contest that started at 4 p.m. eastern, but under the roof of the abominable Metrodome. That cruel coincidence gave birth to an era of baseball’s signature event being decided long after the boys and girls who make it popular are put to bed. The solution is a holiday centered on this country’s national pastime. (For NFL fans now smirking, 74.8 million people bought tickets to MLB games in 2012, compared with 16.5 million that saw NFL games — in a stadium — in 2011. The sheer number of games makes baseball a seven-month American cultural phenomenon.)
Americans love sports. And we love holidays. How is it that no holiday has been created to honor recreation, the nurturing of our bodies that today especially should be among our highest priorities? A holiday where not just government offices and national parks lock their doors, but schools too. Furthermore, how is it that American workers haven’t found an excuse to break from the office between Labor Day and Thanksgiving? National Baseball Day is the answer.
The new holiday would fall on a Wednesday, coinciding with Game 1 of the World Series. The baseball game would begin at 3:00 Eastern, allowing every child from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, to watch every last pitch before bedtime if he or she so chooses.
And choice is an important part of National Baseball Day. There are Americans who’d rather stare at C-Span (where, to them, more action takes place) than endure nine innings of baseball. For this fall holiday, instead of the mundane, schedule a picnic at a nearby park with your family, or visit an art gallery (if open). Go see a movie you otherwise wouldn’t, or start a book — that thick one — you’ve been meaning to read. However you choose to invest the leisure time, just remember it was baseball that got you there.
TV rights-holders will do all they can to prevent National Baseball Day from happening. The networks worship at the altar of prime-time ad revenue. But the allegiance can be blind. Consider the expanded demographic a national telecast — on a holiday, remember — would reach. Think there might not be a few advertisers who would reconsider a World Series spot if they knew entire families would be watching? (Remember any Super Bowl commercials?) The game would be talked about at least the next two days at work, and those sponsored messages would be part of the discussion.
I’ve already written Congress on this matter. Do the same, if the concept strikes your fancy. The aim is a good one: Let millions of children see the final out of a World Series game live. Memories will be made. Best of all, they’ll be memories made — through our national bond of baseball — alongside those you hold dearest. So let’s shut down . . . and play ball.
The St. Louis Cardinals are playing in their 12th National League Championship Series, more than any other team. (The Los Angeles Dodgers are appearing in their 10th. Somehow the two franchises have only met for the National League pennant once before.) The NLCS and I were both born in 1969, so consider this a fully authorized countdown of nine (actually ten) unforgettable Cardinal moments.
9) 2006, Game 2
It’s easy to forget what prohibitive favorites the New York Mets were in this series. They had won 97 games (to the Cardinals’ 83). Their lineup was centered around sluggers David Wright, Carlos Delgado, and Cardinal-killer Carlos Beltran. Having won Game 1, New York aimed to put a stranglehold on the series at Shea Stadium and led 6-4 after six innings. But St. Louis scratched back with two runs in the seventh, setting up So Taguchi’s heroics in the ninth. Playing in his first major-league postseason (after relearning the craft of baseball as a Memphis Redbird), Taguchi yanked a Billy Wagner pitch over the leftfield wall. And a series turned.
8) 2011, Game 2
The Cardinals (wild cards) were again the underdog, facing the division-champion Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. The Brewers had slugged their way to a 9-6 win in Game 1, and St. Louis was staring at a series in which they’d have to out-flex Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and friends. They did so in Game 2, Albert Pujols delivering a home run and three doubles, and David Freese his second homer in as many days (on his way to MVP honors) in a 12-3 victory. Two weeks later, the entire baseball world knew the name David Freese for good.
7) 1987, Game 7 If the Cardinals have seen a less-likely NLCS hero than So Taguchi, it may have been their “secret weapon” (for his multiple positions) of the late Eighties, Jose Oquendo. This series with the San Francisco Giants was heated, emotional. Jeffrey “One Flap Down” Leonard would earn MVP honors despite his team losing the series. Will Clark and Ozzie Smith developed a loathing for one another that would last another decade. So when Oquendo drilled a three-run homer off Atlee Hammaker to give the Cards a 4-0 second-inning lead, Busch Stadium roared with a rare dose of fury.
6) 2006, Game 7
Yadier Molina was known solely for his skills as a catcher in 2006. He’d hit .216 with six homers in 461 plate appearances that season. But with the pennant on the line in an excruciatingly tight (1-1) game at Shea Stadium, Molina rose to the occasion in the ninth inning and drilled a two-run home run off Aaron Heilman. (This after the Mets’ Endy Chavez had pulled a Scott Rolen dinger back into play three innings earlier.) In the bottom of the inning, rookie closer Adam Wainwright struck out Carlos Beltran with the winning runs on base to clinch the pennant.
5) 1985, Game 6
Leading 5-4 at home, the Dodgers were three outs away from forcing Game 7. Dodger closer Tom Niedenfuer struck out Cesar Cedeno, but then allowed a single to Willie McGee and walked Ozzie Smith. Tommy Herr grounded out, leaving Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda with a decision: pitch to the Cardinals’ only real home-run threat (Jack Clark), or face Any Van Slyke. The Dodgers pitched to Clark, and Jack the Ripper deposited Niedenfuer’s first delivery in the leftfield bleachers. Remarkably, it was the second biggest home run of that NLCS.
4) 2004, Games 6 and 7
These two memories blur into one, as the same Cardinal hero is central. Facing elimination at home in Game 6, the Cardinals battled Houston into extra innings. With one out and a man on in the 12th, Jim Edmonds — one for five with a pair of strikeouts to that point — crushed a Dan Miceli pitch into the right-centerfield stands, flexing both arms before he made it out of the batter’s box. The Cardinals had life, and their first walk-off homer in the NLCS in 19 years. In Game 7, with Houston leading 1-0 in the second inning and two men on, Edmonds made a diving catch in left-center to rob Astro catcher Brad Ausmus of at least one RBI. The Cardinals clawed their way back against Roger Clemens to win their first pennant in 17 years.
3) 2005, Game 5
Albert Pujols won a pair of World Series and three MVP awards, but the home run he hit in a series his Cardinals would lose will forever play in the minds of St. Louis baseball fans. With two outs in the top of the ninth in Houston — the Cards trailing three games to one and 4-2 on the scoreboard — David Eckstein singled and Jim Edmonds drew a walk, bringing up Pujols for a confrontation with Astros closer Brad Lidge. After swinging and missing Lidge’s first pitch, the Cardinal slugger launched the next one into the stratosphere (well, were it not for Minute Made Park’s roof). Watching the replay isn’t complete without seeing Astro pitcher Andy Pettitte utter, “Oh my god” as the rocket soared.
2) 1985, Game 5
Every Cardinal fan knows where he or she was at the time. I was at a high school soccer practice, preparing for my own playoff game. I’d rely on replays to capture the moment. And it’s a replay I’ve seen more than any other. The setting: series tied at two games, score tied at two, bottom of the ninth at Busch Stadium. Jack Buck’s most famous call: “Smith corks one down the line ... it may go ... Go crazy folks! Go crazy! The Cardinals have won the game, by a score of 3-2, on a home run by the Wizard!” Ozzie Smith hasn’t paid for a dinner in St. Louis since.
1) 1982, Game 3
The month before, I had moved from Southern California to central Vermont. Couldn’t have felt further from Cardinal Country. But thanks to a family connection in Atlanta — my mom’s Uncle J.C. — I landed a pair of tickets to the three NLCS games scheduled to be played in the Braves’ ballpark. The Cardinals only needed one (having won the first two games in St. Louis when the NLCS was still a best-of-five). Willie McGee homered and tripled. Hall of Fame-bound Bruce Sutter retired the last seven Braves. And a 13-year-old boy flew home with a smile that’s lasted 31 years. n
I love the NFL in October. Aside from cash flow and Peyton Manning’s quarterback rating, these aren’t the best of times for the National Football League. One report after another continues to link America’s most popular sport with brain damage to its workforce. In August, the league settled a lawsuit with thousands of former players accusing their former employer of complicity in lingering ailments resulting from serial concussions. The fact that the cost of the settlement — $765 million — is considered chump change by NFL standards only speaks to the breadth of pro football’s influence in this country. So what if CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) has become as familiar in football lingo as PAT? Crack a cold one and kick off!
But the NFL gets it right in October. For years now, football players, coaches, and officials(!) have joined the rest of the country for Breast Cancer Awareness Month by wearing pink wherever their bodies and uniforms will allow. From marquee quarterbacks to blood-spitting offensive guards, players take the field in pink shoes, pink gloves, and pink wristbands. They wear pink towels. Coaches have pink ribbons on their league-issued game shirts. Somehow, the sight of fearsome Dallas Cowboys lineman DeMarcus Ware rushing a passer with pink gloves on his hands brings the battle against breast cancer into focus. Football is a tough game, as every case of CTE makes tragically clear. But the game has nothing on chemotherapy, and never will.
My mom is a breast-cancer survivor. She was diagnosed late in 2011, then spent most of 2012 undergoing chemo treatments (I joined her in New England for two of them). I’ve seen football players walk off the field with broken and twisted limbs. I’ve seen football players walk off the field after excruciating last-minute losses and after 40-point eviscerations. But I’ve never seen a tougher person than my mom walking through the hallways of a hospital after five hours of injecting poison into her body. It’s one thing to spend three hours against a football team you can’t handle. Try introducing the chemical equivalent of that opposition into your bloodstream for eight months.
So here’s to the NFL taking a healthy PR turn this month. It’s a lot harder for moms, wives, and sisters to tear a sport apart for the damage it’s doing when its players are so clearly on board in a fight that can and must be won.
I’ll be joining my mom to help celebrate her 70th birthday next week. And I may just wear a pink wristband.
More NFL thoughts:
• Mark this down: a 6-10 team will someday qualify for the NFL playoffs. And it may be this year. The Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys stand atop the four-team NFC East with records of 2-3. Neither is a good football team. The best chance both clubs have of reaching seven wins is playing each other and the other two weaklings in their own division (the Washington Redskins and the 0-5 New York Giants). But because the NFL is built upon eight four-team divisions — with division champs all qualifying for the playoffs — one of these softies will host(!) a football game in January.
Four-team divisions are absurdly small. They reduce the sample size, if you will, for measuring any single team’s strength. Each conference should be divided into two eight-team divisions. Then a division title would have meaning ... and actually earn a team an opening-week bye in the playoffs. The next four teams — regardless of division — would qualify for the playoffs based on won-lost record, and not an accident of geographic division. Scheduling would be more challenging. So what? When we see a 6-10 playoff team, you’ll be screaming for challenge.
• The Year of Peyton Manning continued to unfold Sunday, when Denver’s 37-year-old quarterback threw another four touchdown passes in a 51-48 shootout win over Dallas. Having led the Broncos to a 5-0 start, Manning leads the NFL with 1,884 passing yards, a ridiculous 20 touchdown passes (one interception), and a passer rating of 136.4. (For perspective, Manning’s career high for a season is a rating of 121.1. Tom Brady’s is 117.2.) Hall of Fame quarterbacks Terry Bradshaw, Jim Kelly, and Troy Aikman had all retired by their 37th birthday, while the older of the passing Manning brothers appears to be the best signal-caller on the planet today. The question is not so much “Can Peyton win another Super Bowl?” It’s “How many Super Bowls can Peyton win?”
I’ve called Memphis home for 22 years now, so I’ve seen my share of University of Memphis athletes, from lithe (volleyball players at Elma Roane Fieldhouse) to large (football players at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium). Among the hundreds of student-athletes I’ve seen play live, exactly three seemed to be playing a game unfamiliar to their teammates and opponents — a level above you might say. The first was Penny Hardaway, the All-America basketball player who electrified fans at The Pyramid from 1991 to 1993. The second was DeAngelo Williams, the All-America tailback who became the fourth Division I college football player to rush for 6,000 yards during his days as a Tiger (2002-05).
My third stop-what-you’re-doing-and-watch Tiger athlete can still be seen (four more home games) at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex. She’s the remarkable Christabel Oduro.
First, the numbers. Having scored 39 career goals, Oduro is four shy of Kylie Hayes’s Tiger record of 43. Oduro’s 100 career points has her within two of Hayes’s record (a soccer player earns two points for a goal, one for an assist). She scored 16 goals as a sophomore for the best team Memphis has yet put together, a club that went 22-1-1 and didn’t lose until the second round of the NCAA tournament. Oduro was named Conference USA’s Offensive Player of the Year in both 2011 and 2012, the Memphis program’s last two seasons in the league before moving this year to the American Athletic Conference. And the best Oduro numbers of all? The Tigers are 54-17-5 since she first took the field for the U of M. Her ink in the Memphis record book is quite permanent.
But the numbers merely suggest the impression Oduro makes on the soccer pitch. “She’s made a tremendous impact on this program,” says Tiger coach Brooks Monaghan. “She’s a player with special traits, extremely athletic and quick. Christabel has grown not only as a player, but also as a person. She’s a game-changer. At any time, she can score. She can create changes on her own. Her ability to beat players one-on-one, and her finishing has improved over time. We like her to play wide, to isolate herself. She’s realized that playing her position the right way creates more opportunities.”
Oduro has played college soccer a long way from home, having grown up in Brampton, Ontario (west of Toronto). She was a four-sport athlete in high school, also playing basketball (point guard), volleyball, and running cross-country at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School. But don’t think soccer — or any of the other high school sports — were at the top of her childhood list. “I didn’t actually like soccer, initially,” she says with a smile. “Thought it was kind of lame. I wanted to play hockey, like all the little kids in Canada. But my parents said it was way too expensive. My older brother played soccer, so they put me in a program [at age 7]. I was terrible. The next year, I moved to outdoor soccer and something clicked. I loved the game.”
Oduro has had a scorer’s finishing touch as long as she can remember, but recognized in high school that she had to move to the U.S. if she wanted to take significant strides as a player. As for her decision to come to Memphis, it came down to her recruiter and a style of play. “I wanted a scholarship,” she notes, “to get school paid for. Coach [Monaghan] recruited me late, but the style of play really got me. It was possession-based, fun to watch. I thought it was a team I could possibly make better by the time I leave. At the end of the day, that’s what I want to be known for.”
Known casually as “Dro” by teammates and friends, Oduro’s stamp on the Memphis soccer program is evident without a score sheet. “She wears her emotions on her sleeve,” says Monaghan, “which can sometimes get you in trouble. She’s the first to challenge a referee. But she’s gotten better with that. Our players feed off her emotion. She’s a winner, extremely competitive. And you need those kind of players on a team.”
Her time in Memphis has flown by, almost as quickly as an Oduro shot from the top of the box. “It’s been a whirlwind,” she says. “I came in, unsure about things, nervous, wanting the seniors to like me. And now ... I’m a senior, and I know how the freshmen feel. It can be hard coming in.”
In reflecting on the goals she’s scored, Oduro is fond of one this year against Alabama, where she split a defender’s legs with the ball before hitting the net. But her favorite memory is a larger picture, that of the 2011 season (her sophomore year), where all seemed right with her soccer world. “That was a great group of girls,” she says. “Every game, we came out like, ‘We’re gonna win this.’ If we were down, we fought back. If you have all 11 starters on the same page, you’ll have the synergy for success.”
As for the future, Oduro feels like an NCAA tournament run remains on her path. And she hopes to play in the new National Women’s Soccer League (the 8-team circuit that began play last spring). And then there’s the 2015 Women’s World Cup, to be played in, yes, Canada. Oduro is among a pool of players vying for roster spots on the Canadian national team. “I don’t consider myself a member of the team [yet],” she says. “I get called to camps. But that is my goal.”
Rare is the baseball player who has starred for the University of Memphis then suited up as a pro at AutoZone Park. Outfielder Mark Little helped the Memphis Redbirds to a Pacific Coast League championship in the ballpark’s inaugural 2000 season. This year, Scott McGregor won six games and pitched more than 100 innings for the Redbirds, five years after throwing his last pitch in town as a Tiger.
The next member of this exclusive club of Bluff City talent could well be infielder Jacob Wilson, the 2012 Conference USA Player of the Year as a Tiger, now a member of the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system who finished third in the organization with 82 RBIs in 2013. Wilson spent the bulk of his first full pro season with Peoria in the Class-A Midwest League, hitting .264 with 15 home runs and 72 RBIs. He struggled over 32 games with advanced-A Palm Beach (.179 batting average) but was assigned to the Arizona Fall League for further development by a parent club that clearly sees promise. (Major league teams can send no more than two players below the Double-A level.)
In adjusting to professional baseball, Wilson had no problem going from an aluminum to wooden bat, as he’d played in summer leagues that use lumber during his college days. As for the pitching he saw this summer, there were some new wrinkles. “In college,” says Wilson, “you see everybody’s best guy on Friday night. At this level, every night you’re seeing a Friday-night guy. College is the best high-school players, and pro ball is the best college players. Once I got promoted to Palm Beach, everyone threw cutters. No one threw a flat fastball. There was a lot more bad contact. Most of the batting averages are down. From what I’ve been told, it’s the biggest jump hitters have to make: from low-A to high-A. You won’t see better stuff from high-A to Double-A. But pitchers can locate their pitches where they want to.” Wilson mentions keeping his bat through the strike zone longer — in contact position — as a chief adjustment he needs to make.
A third baseman in college, Wilson made the transition that current Cardinal Matt Carpenter has mastered on the big-league level, converting to second base without compromising the impact he makes with bat in hand. “I had never played second,” says Wilson. “Just third and short. The biggest challenge was learning the footwork around the bag for turning a double-play. Now I’m extremely comfortable at second. I was invited to early camp before spring training, so I got a lot more detailed work in with instructors. More one-on-one stuff.” The Cardinals felt Wilson’s size (5’11” and 180 lbs.) didn’t fit the profile of a corner infielder, and that his productive bat could be an asset as a second baseman. “I just asked them to teach me how to play it,” says Wilson, “and I’ll play it every day.”
Born and raised in Memphis, Wilson grew up cheering for the team his dad adored, the Atlanta Braves. But he says the Cardinal franchise caught his eye midway through high school — winning the 2006 World Series didn’t hurt — and since being drafted, Wilson’s quickly developed an affection for a philosophy that’s come to be called “the Cardinal Way.”
“The Cardinals pride themselves on building top talent throughout their system,” notes Wilson, “but at the same time building the best character players they can. They want their players being great locker-room guys, great team guys. So that everyone else will look at them as role models.”
Early in spring training last February, Wilson and a few other young players were working out at the Cardinal complex in Jupiter, Florida, when a pair of uniformed coaches walked onto the field. From a distance, they looked vaguely familiar to Wilson. Upon reaching the group of players, the two men were introduced . . . as Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee.
“They volunteered their time to come out and work personally with us, one-on-one,” says Wilson. “I worked for two hours on infield with Ozzie Smith. Willie told us, ‘I’m going to be in the dugout with you guys. At any time, if you have any question about anything baseball related, come over and we’ll talk about it. I’ll tell you how I feel about it, we’ll see how you feel about it, and we’ll find a medium to work with.’ He helped us with base-running, reading pitches, all kinds of stuff.”
Wilson reports back to Jupiter this week before heading to Arizona, where he intends to focus on expanding his range as a second baseman and developing consistency at the plate, the most challenging element for a hitter at any level. Looking to the future, does Wilson envision the day he steps to the plate at AutoZone Park — in his hometown — wearing a Memphis Redbirds uniform? “That would be awesome,” he says, “to play in front of family and friends. I cannot wait for that day. I hope I get that opportunity, knowing my family wouldn’t have to drive seven hours to watch me play. They could just hop on the road and be there.”
Photo courtesy milb.com
You could see the proverbial spit flying last week, couldn’t you? With the release of a five part series by Sports Illustrated on the misdeeds of the Oklahoma State football program. Money to players! Academic fraud! Sex!! Interested parties from coast to coast weighed in on a) just how ugly major college sports indeed have become or b) just how clearly SI had identified the sun as rising in the east. Shame on the seedy boosters, coaches, and players taking advantage of dying amateurism in college football. And the message is clear: shame on all of us who watch, cheer, and pay to be part of these scandalous operations.
I’ve got a few opinions on the topic, to say the least, having covered University of Memphis football and basketball for more than a decade now. My feelings run from one extreme to the other, a journalist’s objectivity often compromised by the passion that leads so many sports fans — and former athletes — to the field of sports journalism.
College football and college basketball are tarnished by corruption (sun sets in west). The very best players in either money-making sport attract the attention of “supporters” who recognize the chance to share in the profit-turning exploits of the next Reggie Bush or Derrick Rose. And the likes of Bush and Rose enroll as “student-athletes” in college with no more interest in a freshman-lit lecture than that of the booster president who picked them up at the airport. How can any of us be party to this dirty game of talent bartering?
It’s a matter of perspective. Bush and Rose remain exceptions, a select minority if you will. So do the Oklahoma State players mentioned in SI’s reporting. Call this naïve if you like. To deny that most college football players remain within the blurred boundaries of NCAA regulations is not just cynical ... it’s blind.
There are currently 123 FBS football programs, each with a scholarship limit of 85 players. That gives us 10,455 young men playing the highest level of “amateur” football in America. How many of these players attract the kind of scandalous recruiting highlighted at Oklahoma State? For simplicity’s sake, let’s say every All-America — first, second, or third team — gets a few grand, maybe a car, before choosing his team colors. That would be 75 players each year: .007 percent of all FBS programs. Seven out of 1,000.
Seven players gaming a system out of every 1,000 is too many. One out of a thousand is too many. But let’s not tear down the walls of college sports for thousands of legitimate student-athletes because of the seedy baggage a tiny minority bring to campus every fall. Since 2000, scores of Memphis Tiger football players have suited up and exactly 13 of them have played as many as five years in the NFL. Every Tiger player who left campus with a degree — his studies paid for with a football scholarship — has better career prospects today than he would have minus that degree. Somewhere in that equation is a profoundly positive element to college football.
There’s only one way to fix this mess: establish a partnership between the NFL and college football (and between the NBA and college hoops). Replace the NCAA with the two professional leagues that are already utilizing major college programs as farm teams. Allow the NFL to draft players fresh out of high school. If the player is good enough to play on Sundays at age 18, let him. If he’s not ready, he can be assigned to a college program ... where he’ll major in football (paid by the team that drafted him), and have the option to take classes should he be wise enough to consider the tiny chance he’ll be playing football professionally at age 30. Which college programs are assigned to which NFL teams? How about a rotating system, one where a pro team would have, say, four programs in its “farm system” for a five-year period.
An open partnership with the NFL won’t fill an 85-man college roster. There would still be room for college programs to recruit legitimate student-athletes, those ready and able to play football on the college level, but with no illusions about their market value in the sport. Yes, you’ll have players being paid on the same field with scholarship amateurs. So be it. Market economics. What you’ll have, finally, is honesty in college sports. Players talented enough to earn money at their game can do so openly. And others — the vast majority — can play the game they love while capturing the greatest asset for a stable adult life: a college education.
On a weekend saturated with football — 44,000 fans at the Liberty Bowl, home wins for every Mid-South SEC team, and 11 Manning touchdown passes — the St. Louis Cardinals won their biggest series of the season, sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium to leapfrog the Bucs and climb back into first place in the three-team dogfight that is the National League Central Division. A few observations as the last three weeks of baseball’s regular season unfold:
• The playoff chase in the National League is thoroughly uninteresting — we’ve known the five teams that will qualify since the first week in August — until you look at the NL Central standings, where two games in the loss column separate the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cincinnati Reds. (The Reds are eight games up on the next team in the wild-card standings, the Washington Nationals.)
This isn’t exactly what Bud Selig had in mind when he added a second wild-card for the 2012 season — 10 teams planning for the 2014 season on Labor Day. But the three-team race for the Central Division crown is compelling, as no team wants any part of the win-or-go-home wild-card game (a game won last year by the Cardinals in Atlanta). The team that survives these last three weeks will have the luxury of actually establishing a pitching rotation for a five game series ... and without spending its ace on the wild-card affair. The team with the most to gain by winning the division? Pittsburgh. Francisco Liriano has had the kind of season that can dominate a five-game series (if he’s needed for two starts). After Liriano, the quality of the Pirates’ rotation drops precipitously.
• The Cardinals essentially held serve on their recent 13-game stretch against the Pirates and Reds (going 7-6), and it’s no secret as to how they’ve righted a ship that looked to be listing last week in Cincinnati. Last Friday, Joe Kelly started on the mound for St. Louis and held the Pirates to a single run in six innings. Adam Wainwright followed Saturday with seven shutout innings (after looking dreadful in his last two starts against the Reds), then rookie Michael Wacha (5-3 for Memphis this season) hurled seven shutout innings Sunday. With Lance Lynn spiraling downward (five losses since his last win on August 4th) and rookie Shelby Miller struggling for consistency, the trio that baffled Pittsburgh may prove to be keys to any Cardinal postseason presence.
• Pirate centerfielder Andrew McCutchen (.322 batting average, 19 homers, 27 stolen bases) would likely get my MVP vote if the season ended today. And Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina (.320, 39 doubles, defensive presence extraordinaire) is as valuable to his team’s cause as any other player in the game. But Cardinal second baseman Matt Carpenter should get some votes. Just two years after manning third base for the Memphis Redbirds, Carpenter has taken hold of a premium defensive position in St. Louis, made himself one of the best leadoff batters in the game (.386 OBP with a league-leading 112 runs and 174 hits), and is two doubles away from reaching a plateau — 50 — that only four Cardinals have reached. Those four players are either in the Hall of Fame (Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, and Ducky Medwick) or on their way (Albert Pujols).
• In his win Saturday night, Wainwright moved past Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean into second place on the Cardinals’ all-time strikeout list. That’s the good news for the 32-year-old righty, now with 1,103 strikeouts on his baseball card. The bad news for Waino? He remains 2,014 punch-outs behind the Cardinal record holder, Hall of Famer Bob Gibson.
• Among the contending teams in the Central, the Cardinals have the most favorable remaining schedule, with 12 home games (out of 19) and none against the Pirates and Reds, while Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will play each other six more times before the season concludes (September 20-22 in Pittsburgh and September 27-29 in Cincinnati). Looking for a spoiler? Milwaukee will square off with the Cardinals six times, starting Tuesday night at Busch Stadium.
For the first time in 11 years of writing this column, I’m incorporating the sports world’s most distinct qualifier — an asterisk — in the title. Sporting a less-than-impressive record of 65-71 through Sunday, the Memphis Redbirds will conclude their 2013 season on Labor Day, having played their final 13 games away from AutoZone Park. Yet the team finds itself merely two games back of Omaha (with eight games to play) in the race for a Pacific Coast League playoff berth. Consider this column a wrap-up . . . unless it’s not.
On one hand, the 2013 season has been the most disappointing since the franchise arrived in Memphis in 1998. On the other, it will be among the most memorable. The reason for each view, it turns out, is essentially the same.
First, the disappointment. The top farm club in a system ranked number-one by Baseball America will likely finish the season under .500 for a second straight year. Having suited up four of the top 100 prospects in the minor leagues, the Redbirds never truly took flight, never winning five straight games (and winning four in a row only three times). Playing in the Pacific Coast League’s weakest division, Memphis found itself in first place as late as July 27th, but with a losing record at the time (52-56). The Redbirds returned home on August 16th for a five game series against the team — Omaha — two games in front of them in the standings, then proceeded to lose the first three games of the series. (They won the last two.) The Storm Chasers may end up with a losing record themselves . . . and a division championship. Wins and losses aside, the underlying story throughout the five-month season was the ankle injury that limited outfielder Oscar Taveras — minor league baseball’s third-ranked prospect entering the season — to 46 games, and only 20 at AutoZone Park.
But the season’s had its rewards, especially for local St. Louis Cardinal fans looking for previews of coming attractions. If you picked your outing carefully, you could have seen seven starts by Michael Wacha, the big righty from Texas A & M now pitching out of the Cardinals’ bullpen. Wacha’s line for the season: 5-3 record, 2.65 ERA, and 73 strikeouts in 85 innings. Ranked even higher than Wacha (#76) by Baseball America, Carlos Martinez (#38) made eight starts at AutoZone Park, flashing signs of being the “Baby Pedro” [Martinez] many have started calling him. The soon-to-be 22-year-old Martinez is a raw talent. In his last start at AutoZone Park, he held Omaha to one hit over the first four innings, then failed to get an out in the fifth before being removed by manager Pop Warner, the Storm Chasers scoring runs via walk, hit-by-pitch, and even a balk.
Appearing more regularly for the ’Birds was second-baseman Kolten Wong (#84 in B.A.’s ranking), a player bound for everyday duty at second base in the big leagues. Wong hit .303 for Memphis and became the seventh player in franchise history to hit 10 home runs and steal 20 bases. He’s now complicating Cardinal manager Mike Matheny’s life, taking playing time from stalwart third-baseman and World Series hero David Freese. (When Wong starts for St. Louis, Matt Carpenter generally moves from second to third base, the position he played for the Redbirds in 2011.)
In terms of the players we saw on the field in 2013, the season was a bold reminder that Triple-A baseball exists to serve the parent club. No fewer than eight pitchers made their debuts with the Cardinals this season: Wacha, Martinez, Seth Maness, John Gast, Tyler Lyons, Kevin Siegrist, Keith Butler, and Michael Blazek. When you add Trevor Rosenthal to this list — Rosenthal essentially skipped Triple A by making the Cardinal roster out of spring training — you have what amounts to an entire pitching staff that would have made the team in Memphis that much more competitive, had they not been pitching so much in big-league stadiums. Imagine a Redbird rotation of Wacha, Martinez, Maness, Gast, and Lyons all season long. (Gast set a franchise record with 32 straight scoreless innings to start the season, but has been sidelined since May with a back injury.) Scott McGregor (5.08 ERA), Nick Additon (4.10), and Boone Whiting (4.42) at times appeared to be punching above their weight class. The 2013 Redbirds, bottom line, suffered for the needs of the Cardinals.
• If we’re naming a Redbirds player of the year, it has to be first-baseman Brock Peterson. As recently as 2012 an independent-league reclamation project, Peterson leads the PCL with 24 home runs and has driven in 82 runs. He also had the most heart-warming moment of the season at Busch Stadium, drawing a standing ovation from a packed house for an RBI ground-out in his big-league debut. One Crash Davis who finally made The Show.
• The Redbirds sold a total of 498,362 tickets this season, their average of 7,223 per game ranking fifth in the PCL (behind Sacramento, Round Rock, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake). The ticket total was higher than 2012 (493,706), but still considerably lower than the last pre-recession season of 2008 (569,172).
• As speculation continues about a potential purchase of the Redbirds franchise by the Cardinals, keep your eye on AutoZone Park’s luxury suites (all 44 of them). The suites were originally leased — to local power players like AutoZone, FedEx, and First Tennessee — for 15 years, which means they expire after the 2014 season. With each suite bringing in upwards of $40,000 a year, one of the Redbirds’ largest revenue streams is essentially up for negotiation. You can count on some renovations (flat-screen TVs?) before any renewals are signed. The percentage of those suite renewals — or supplementary income from suite rentals — will determine much about the short- and long-term health of the Memphis Triple-A franchise.
• Let college athletes sell their autographs. Academic integrity has to be retained if football and basketball teams are to continue to represent institutions of higher learning. (How exactly we define “academic integrity” is another debate, for another column.) But an athlete accepting payment for signing his (or her) name is in no way compromising a university’s mission. Nor is it taking advantage of other student-athletes. This is an elementary economics lesson: value (of a cheeseburger, a car, or an autograph) is determined by the demand of a free market. If someone will fork over $100 for Johnny Manziel to sign his name, Johnny Football should be allowed to pocket that cash. (The autograph will almost certainly be sold for triple that amount. Hop on eBay and scan the Manziel-signed items going for more than $1,000.)
Two important details on this business opportunity for college athletes. First, it should be open to every athlete. If a backup tailback for the Memphis Tigers wants to make an autograph appearance at Wolfchase Galleria, he should be allowed to do so. How much can he charge? How many fans will get in line? Up to the free market, folks.
And secondly, when a student-athlete signs for pay, the college he represents should get a percentage (I’d argue 15 percent would be fair). If Johnny Manziel performed his heroics for Sewanee or Rhodes College, he wouldn’t be able to charge what he can as The Man at Texas A & M. Yes, the name on the front of the jersey still counts for something in measuring star power . . . and the value of an autograph.
• Oscar Taveras’s ankle injury baffles. The St. Louis Cardinals announced last Thursday that their prize prospect will have surgery to repair a high ankle sprain, a procedure that will end the outfielder’s 2013 season. Obviously more than your average twist, this injury happened as Taveras roamed centerfield at AutoZone Park on May 12th. He returned to action on June 8th, only to be sidelined again for good two weeks later. Minor-league baseball’s third-ranked prospect was limited to 46 games for Memphis this season (only 20 of them at Third and Union).
I’m no orthopedist, though I’ve sprained my ankles a number of times and dealt with recovery times of varying duration. Here’s where I’m confused about Taveras’s trauma: If surgery is required to correct the malady, why was the decision to cut not made for three months? Once swelling and inflammation is reduced (typically no more than a week after the initial injury), wouldn’t modern technology reveal the severity? Again, I’m no doctor, and I haven’t had access to Taveras’s trainers. But it seems like three months of a baseball player’s development was sacrificed for false hope.
• Tiger will never catch the Golden Bear. For five full years now, Tiger Woods has been four major victories shy of Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18. Still just 37, the most famous golfer on the planet will surely win another major championship, maybe two. But he’s not going to win four more.
Woods will fall short of his ultimate career goal not because another Hall of Famer (Phil Mickelson) or rising star (Rory McIlroy) stockpiles trophies that would otherwise be his. Woods will fall short because Jason Dufner is out there. And Adam Scott. And Justin Rose. And Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson . . . and on and on. Since Woods won his last major (the 2008 U.S. Open), no fewer than 15 golfers have won their first major title. A sport that used to be exclusive to the elite is now the Game of Everyman. A generation of young golfers who learned the game with Woods dominating weekend telecasts is now competing against the legend on the PGA Tour. (The first crack in the wall of the golf establishment came at the hands of Arnold Palmer’s “army” in the 1950s. The movie Caddyshack — released in 1980 — and Woods himself applied the TNT.) With every year that goes by minus a Tiger major, we’re learning it’s hard to be The Man in a sport for every man.
• No new hardware for the Cardinals’ trophy case. Not that long ago (June?), three Cardinals could have made a case for the National League’s three major individual awards. What a difference a lengthy slump makes. Contributing to that slump, of course, was catcher Yadier Molina’s two-week stay on the disabled list, dropping him down the list of MVP candidates (now headed by Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen, if you ask me). Shelby Miller has won but two of his last six starts and has fallen behind a pair of Dodgers — phenom Yasiel Puig and pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu — in the Rookie of the Year race. And speaking of races, let’s consider the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw a pair of star thoroughbreds from 40 years ago. In handicapping this year’s Cy Young winner, Kershaw (he of the 1.80 ERA) is Secretariat to Wainwright’s Sham.
With Elvis Week upon us, here are a few dedications to sports personalities who could use a touch of the King.
To Dave Joerger — “Promised Land”
“Tell the folks back home this is the promised land calling / And the poor boy is on the line.” Okay, Joerger is hardly a poor boy. But he’s paid his dues, first winning titles in basketball’s minor leagues, more recently for six years as an assistant coach with the Grizzlies. So to finally earn the big seat with an NBA team has to be especially rewarding to Joerger, even if there are local fans not all that pleased with his predecessor’s departure. Joerger’s challenge, of course, is to take his team to the promised land (read: an NBA title).
To Jacob Karam — “The Wonder of You”
Call me sentimental, but a quarterback who can play piano for cancer-stricken children and, with a smile on his face, sing along? I don’t know if Karam will keep his football job this fall, or if he’ll play in a bowl game with the Memphis Tigers. But he has my permission to — several years from now — request a date from my daughter.
To Johnny Manziel — “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”
Whether it’s an alarm clock or his drink limit, it seems there are a few details Johnny Football has forgotten to remember (or remembered to forget?) during his first offseason as a Heisman Trophy winner. If the recent investigation into his autograph signing goes sour — and proves Manziel profited from the scribble — his one season on the field for Texas A & M will be memorable, in part, for what we’d like to forget.
To Oscar Taveras — “I Feel So Bad”
“Like a ballgame on a rainy day.” He was supposed to be that rare minor-league baseball talent who could sell tickets himself, a prodigious hitting talent endlessly compared with Vladimir Guerrero. But after suffering an ankle sprain in centerfield on May 12th, Oscar Taveras may as well have been a good rumor in these parts. As of today, Taveras has appeared in but 46 games for the Memphis Redbirds, and only 20 at AutoZone Park. There could be an ironic twist (pardon the pun) to Oscar’s tale: with all his time missed this season, Taveras could end up playing Triple-A baseball in 2014. At AutoZone Park.
To Mike Miller — “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”
Mutual affection burst from the lobby of FedExForum last month when the newly signed Miller was re-introduced to adoring Memphis Grizzlies fans who remember his days with the team from 2002 to 2008. Winner of the Sixth Man Award with Memphis in 2006, Miller returns with a pair of shiny championship rings, courtesy of some talented friends in Miami. If his bothersome back holds up, the 33-year-old Miller will fill an important need — perimeter shooter — for a club that considers itself a missing piece or two away from the NBA Finals.
To Manu Ginobili — “[You’re the] Devil in Disguise”
You could see the horns, right? You saw the horns?
To Lionel Hollins — “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
Man coaches NBA team to franchise-record 56 wins. Same man leads team to conference finals for first time in franchise history. And the next season? Man is unemployed. The annual coaching carousel — professional version — finally finished spinning this summer, with Lionel Hollins still looking to board. Rigid with his new bosses and all-too-honest publicly, Hollins endeared himself to thousands of Grizzly fans, but not to the man who now matters most at FedExForum: CEO Jason Levien. Hollins will coach again. That carousel warms up around December with the first five-game losing streak a team suffers.
To Alex Rodriguez — “[Now and Then There’s] A Fool Such as I”
You had to see this one coming.
To Josh Pastner — “Stuck On You”
The Golden Boy turns 36 next month and will blow out his candles with glee, having signed a contract extension that will pay him $2.6 million a year to coach the Memphis Tigers at least through the 2017-18 season. Pastner’s won 106 games over his four years as a head basketball coach and hasn’t yet swayed from the good-guy pitch he delivered upon being introduced as John Calipari’s successor in 2009. Consider Memphis hooked.