Before the St. Louis Cardinals’ exhibition game at AutoZone Park last Thursday, a reporter asked outfielder Dexter Fowler — a Chicago Cub this time a year ago — what should be expected from his new team this season. And the 31-year-old veteran answered precisely the way at least half the players in Major League Baseball should this time of year. There is no date for optimism like Opening Day.
A year ago in this space, I wrote about a transformation in Cardinal culture, that from hunted to hunters. The Chicago Cubs had beaten St. Louis handily in a 2015 division series (after the Cards had won 100 games and the National League Central title). It had become abundantly clear that the young, talented North Siders were the team to beat, at least in the NL Central. They proved, of course, to be the best team in all of baseball, winning the franchise’s first World Series in 108 years. Outside a few fans in Boston and Los Angeles (those that cheer the Dodgers), the Cubs are expected to repeat this season, even without Mr. Fowler manning centerfield.
But there are 162 games to play before the postseason, the longest, most grueling regular season in sports. And the Cardinals opened the campaign Sunday night with a thrilling victory over the champs, Randal Grichuk delivering a walk-off single after Chicago had tied the game with a three-run homer by Willson Contreras in the top of the ninth inning.
A few signs that suggest the Cardinals can make the mighty Cubs sweat this season:
• Fowler scored the Cardinals’ first run of the season, on a sacrifice fly after going from first to third on a single. That’s a speed-generated run, something that seemed all but extinct at Busch Stadium in 2016. The man who drove Fowler in was Matt Carpenter, the team’s former leadoff hitter, whose bat fits better in the run-producing third spot in the batting order. Along with improving the team’s outfield on two fronts (his own place in center and sliding Grichuk to left), Fowler’s impact on the Cardinal offense is already positive, and with a ripple effect.
• Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina signed a contract extension (three years, $60 million) just as the unofficial deadline for such a signing — Sunday’s game — arrived. This eliminates the cloud of pending free agency — and endless discussion/deliberation — that would have otherwise been a subtext to anything the Cardinals achieve on the field this season. The extension will keep Molina (34) behind the plate for St. Louis through the 2020 season, securing the face of the franchise, a player who contributes to the team’s pitching success every bit as much as the official pitching coach (Derek Lilliquist).
(Molina’s new contract could make trade bait of 22-year-old Carson Kelly. The top catching prospect in baseball will start the season behind the plate for the Memphis Redbirds, but it’s hard to envision him waiting four years to assume everyday duties for a big-league team.)
• The stars who won last year’s World Series for the Cubs are back, save one: Aroldis Chapman. St. Louis last scored on Chapman before Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty could shave. In Sunday’s opener, Chicago manager Joe Maddon trusted Mike Montgomery with the ninth inning of a tie game. Montgomery allowed two hits, two walks and retired only two batters. If former Royal Wade Davis overcomes recent arm trouble, he could approximate Chapman’s role of last fall. If not, the Cubs have an Achilles heel, and in an area that shows up in the standings.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals will have a say in whether or not the Cubs return to the World Series. Can the Cardinals — now hunters after so many years as the hunted — surprise the baseball gods and declaw their mighty rivals? Keep your eyes on Dexter Fowler over the next six months. If he’s smiling like he was last Thursday at AutoZone Park, they just might.
The Memphis Redbirds’ 20th season begins (unofficially) this Thursday, when the St. Louis Cardinals visit for an exhibition game at AutoZone Park. (Memphis opens the regular season April 6th at New Orleans. The home opener is Tuesday, April 11th.)
In celebration of two decades of Redbirds baseball, here are 20 historical facts to flavor your next conversation at AutoZone Park.
• The first batter in Memphis Redbirds history was none other than Vince Coleman on April 7, 1998. The outfielder who won six stolen-base titles with the Cardinals in the 1980s played just 20 games for Memphis (and stole eight bases) before retiring for good.
• Three Redbird pitchers have gone on to homer in their first at-bat in the major leagues (with the Cardinals): Gene Stechschulte (2001), Adam Wainwright (2006), and Mark Worrell (2008).
• In 2000, during a brief stint with the Cardinals, Redbirds catcher Keith McDonald became just the second player to homer in each of his first two big-league at bats. (The first was Bob Nieman with the St. Louis Browns in 1951.)
• Albert Pujols hit the most famous home run in Redbirds history, one that clinched the 2000 Pacific Coast League championship for Memphis on September 15, 2000. Pujols played a total of 14 games for Memphis and enters the 2017 season (with the L.A. Angels) nine homers shy of 600 for his career.
• Five former Redbirds have been named MVP of a League Championship Series: Adam Kennedy (Angels, 2002), Pujols (Cardinals, 2004), Placido Polanco (Tigers, 2006), David Freese (Cardinals, 2011), and Michael Wacha (Cardinals, 2013).
• No Redbird pitcher has thrown a no-hitter. Four have tossed one-hitters: Clint Sodowsky (1999), Britt Reames (2000), Anthony Reyes (2005), and Tim Cooney (2014).
• Adam Kennedy owns the longest hitting streak in Redbirds history: 20 games in 1999.
• Rick Ankiel has the Ruthian distinction of having led the Redbirds in strikeouts (as a pitcher) one season (1999) and home runs (as a hitter) another (2007).
• One former Redbird has earned more than 150 big-league wins: Dan Haren (153). The Cardinals’ longtime ace, Wainwright, enters the 2017 season with 134.
• Five Redbirds have won the PCL ERA title: Brady Raggio (1998), Clint Weibl (2000), Jason Ryan (2003), Kevin Jarvis (2005), and Mitchell Boggs (2008). But no Redbird has won a PCL batting title.
• Five members of the Redbirds’ 2009 PCL championship team also played for the 2011 World Series champs in St. Louis: David Freese, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Fernando Salas, and Jaime Garcia.
• A former Redbird has appeared in every MLB All-Star Game since 2003.
• Two former Redbirds have compiled more than 2,000 hits in the major leagues: Pujols and Polanco.
• Only five Triple-A franchises have been affiliated with their parent club longer than Memphis and the St. Louis Cardinals: Omaha (Royals), Pawtucket (Red Sox), Iowa (Cubs), Toledo (Tigers), and Tacoma (Mariners).
• Before the Redbirds’ arrival, the longest affiliation Memphis professional baseball had with one MLB franchise was 11 years (1984-94) with the Kansas City Royals.
• He only played in 147 big-league games, but Nick Stavinoha dominates the Redbirds career-record book. The slugger ranks first in franchise history in games played (479), hits (531), home runs (74), RBIs (316), and runs (260).
• Stubby Clapp’s uniform number (10) is the only one to be retired by the Redbirds. It was painted on the bullpen wall at AutoZone Park in 2007. The number was removed, though, in 2012 when the St. Louis Cardinals retired the same number in honor of longtime manager Tony LaRussa. The Cardinals’ policy calls for a honored number to be retired throughout the farm system . . . for the same individual. (Clapp will, in fact, be wearing number 10 as manager of the 2017 Redbirds. You could say his number has been unretired twice.)
• Redbird first-baseman Larry Sutton hit the first home run in AutoZone Park history on April 14, 2000. (The Cardinals’ Eli Marrero and Mike Matheny homered in the inaugural exhibition game on April 1, 2000.)
• Three Redbirds have led the PCL in home runs: Ivan Cruz (2002), Kevin Witt (2004), and Brock Peterson (2013).
• Redbird outfielder John Rodriguez hit four grand slams in less than a month (June 15 to July 9) in 2005.
Perspective can be challenging when it comes to basketball in Memphis, Tennessee. That talented team at East High School aside, you’d think soul-crushing roundballs were falling from the sky these days, at least from FedExForum to the Larry Finch Center on the University of Memphis campus.
The Memphis Tigers lost six of their last eight games, the last two by 41 and 30 points, to finish the season 19-13 and shut out of postseason play a third straight year. The honeymoon for Hall of Fame-bound coach Tubby Smith ended around Valentine’s Day. Can he recruit? Can he manage a game? Can he fill empty seats at FedExForum?
A recent five-game losing streak had followers of the Memphis Grizzlies questioning everything from rotation dysfunction to Chandler Parsons’ social life. When Parsons’ on-court struggles came to an end with the announcement last week he requires knee surgery, the loss of a starter seemed like a blessing. Related or not, the Grizzlies now find themselves on a four-game winning streak, the latest a takedown of the mighty San Antonio Spurs Saturday night. Exhale.
However trying this winter has been in our fair city, this week should prove palliative, and considerably so. Three other cities may be hosting regional finals in the NCAA tournament, but make no mistake: Memphis will be playing in the center ring.
Headed to FedExForum for games this Friday are three of the top eight teams in the country (according to the AP rankings): 8th-ranked UCLA (31-4), 6th-ranked North Carolina (29-7, the region’s top seed), and 5th-ranked Kentucky (31-5, coached by one John Vincent Calipari). The Ringo Starr of the South’s foursome is Butler (25-8), a team that has been to the championship game twice this very decade. With Memphis transfer Avery Woodson a key member of the Bulldogs’ rotation, this is the closest the Tigers have gotten to the Sweet 16 since 2009 (when, yes, Calipari called FedExForum his home arena).
But pull back for the broad perspective of this weekend’s three games. North Carolina is seeking its 20th trip to the Final Four and sixth national championship. UCLA is aiming for a 19th Final Four appearance and 12th crown. Calipari’s Wildcats are clawing their way toward an 18th Final Four slot (fifth under Calipari) and hope to raise their ninth championship banner at Rupp Arena in Lexington. If college basketball teams were Avengers, Memphis will host Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor this weekend.
Phoenix hosts the actual Final Four next weekend and won’t come close to the historical weight under FedExForum’s roof come Friday. A confluence of this magnitude is extraordinarily rare. We saw a similar gathering at the 2008 Final Four (remember that one, Memphis fans?), when UCLA, North Carolina, and Kansas were all there. You have to go back to 2005 to find a regional (hosted that year by Austin, Texas) that approximates what we’ll have in Memphis this week. Duke, Kentucky, and Michigan State played that weekend in Texas. The Spartans have been championship contenders for most of Tom Izzo’s tenure in East Lansing, but they’d be in the Falcon category on our team of Avengers.
On top of all the history, we have Calipari’s return to Memphis. (Has it really been eight years?) Do Memphians celebrate the Kentucky coach for the remarkable heights his Tigers reached under his watch for nine years? Or do Memphis basketball fans curse Calipari for setting a standard that cannot be matched, whatever the expectations or hopes? Even when you subtract his 38 wins from the 2007-08 Final Four season (those vacated for the Derrick Rose test-taking affair), Calipari is one of two Memphis coaches to win 200 games here. He would not be Kentucky’s coach were it not for the success he enjoyed in the Bluff City.
Enjoy this week of basketball, Memphis. Cheer and jeer like it matters (because it does). UCLA’s Lonzo Ball will be a top-three pick in this year’s NBA draft and he may play his final college game at FedExForum (as Blake Griffin did in the 2009 South Regional). Malik Monk (Kentucky) and Justin Jackson (North Carolina) will soon be wearing pro uniforms, too. So relish this chance sighting. And go ahead and let the rest of the country know where Hoop City can be found this Friday.
It took me 34 years, but I have proof that Bear Bryant was, in fact, mortal. At least as much proof as I can have without getting grisly and breaking a few laws. During a brief visit to Birmingham last weekend, I paid a visit to Elmwood Cemetery and, on a gray, rainy Saturday afternoon, found the resting place of college football’s greatest legend, certainly as measured in the state of Alabama.
Legends, they tell us, never die. But men do. And Paul W. Bryant did on January 26, 1983, four weeks after coaching his final game, a Crimson Tide win over Illinois in the 1982 Liberty Bowl in Memphis. He took to his grave the most wins in the history of his sport at the time (323) and six national championships as coach of his alma mater. But Bryant’s numbers are but dressing to his legend, one built on the kind of toughness a man displays in wrestling a bear at age 13 or incorporating methods just this side of institutional abuse in building a team. (Read The Junction Boys, the story of a 10-day summer camp conducted by Bryant his first year as coach at Texas A & M.)
To be clear, I’m no fan of the Crimson Tide and will never sport a houndstooth hat in honor of a football coach, living or dead. But Bear Bryant’s legend is that big. So I paid my respects.
I was born in Knoxville, the son of University of Tennessee alumni. (My dad was a junior halfback at Central High School here in Memphis in 1958 when Bryant took over in Tuscaloosa.) The third Saturday in October was rarely pleasant in Big Orange country during Bryant’s tenure at Alabama. His teams went 17-6-2 against the Vols, enjoying one 11-game winning streak (1971-81) during which they allowed UT as many as 20 points just once.
Cry me a river, say fans in Oxford, Baton Rouge, and Auburn. The Bear dominated throughout the SEC, helped integrate the conference, and did it all with a cigarette and stiff drink nearby. If we could wake the dead for one quote and one quote only, I’d like to ask Bear Bryant what he thinks of Twitter.
Birmingham’s Elmwood Cemetery is enormous: more than 400 acres with more than 120,000 human beings interred. There is but one gravestone for Bear Bryant, though, and it attracts so many pilgrims that red stripes (crimson stripes!) have been painted along the narrow roads leading to Block 30.
Even upon locating Block 30, I needed some direction to find the Bear’s resting place. The man coordinating a grave-digging crew kindly directed me: “He’s over there, across from that tree in a triangle.” (This was an awkward inquiry, a person much more recently deceased than the Bear being laid to rest as I pursued a personal mission. But it was taken with grace — he’d answered this question before — and note the present tense in the directions I received. Bear Bryant was the coach at Alabama . . . but he is still “over there,” near a tree in an Alabama graveyard.)
Near a large marker with the family names Bryant and Folmar, I finally found Bryant’s marker. And that’s all it can be called: a marker. No larger than two feet by one foot, the granite stone is inscribed, “Paul William Bryant, Sr. / Sept. 11, 1913 / Jan. 26, 1983.” It is almost precisely the size and style of my father’s marker in Jackson, Tennessee. By this measure, the Bear and my dad are equals. Dad would chuckle at the notion and point out that he was, in fact, a better fisherman than the coaching legend. Bryant’s stone had several coins on it, and a single red flower. Never forgotten, to say the least.
Each of us can become a legend, if only to one other family member, friend, or beneficiary. It’s the numbers we reach — and how we reach them — that make a legend grow, and Bear Bryant’s is beyond measure. (Schools in Alabama were let out on the day of his death, a Wednesday.) I’ll relish my journey to the Bear’s resting place for the irony of that tiny headstone representing a man so tremendous in the memories of so many. Measure a man not by the size of his tombstone, but by the endurance of his impact. For some, there’s no cemetery large enough.
Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred is up in arms over the speed of his game. The commish wants to move things along, spur action, eliminate delays, make silent moments loud with the cheering of sellout crowds. The MLB players union has been reluctant to adopt most of the changes — a clock for pitchers, to name one — so Manfred finds himself grinding his teeth, awaiting the authority to unilaterally impose new rules for the 2018 season. (The two parties managed to agree on pitchless intentional walks. Starting this season, a batter can be sent to first base merely with a signal from the opposing manager. No more staring at four wide ones. Former Cardinal and Met Keith Hernandez would at times lean on his bat as though it were a cane during an intentional walk. Other than losing the chance for such an image, this is a good modification.)
While we start processing the idea of a clock factoring in a game long known as timeless, here are a few creative suggestions for making baseball a quicker experience, one the modern attention span might better fancy.
• Three balls for a walk and two strikes, you’re out! If intentional walks are so mind-numbing, why are we drawn to five- or six-pitch at-bats? Step into the box and be ready to swing. And no third chances if you can’t handle a pitch in the strike zone. If reality television has taught us anything, it’s that drama is tight, abrupt, and in your face. (Foul balls will no longer keep a batter alive, either. Put the ball in play — no more than two swings — or take a seat.)
• Seventy-foot bases. We want more offense, more scoring, right? Let’s get more hitters on base. And around those bases quicker. For safety’s sake, we can’t move the pitcher’s mound closer to home plate, so it will now sit virtually on top of second base. So be it. About the only way we’ll be bothered with double plays will be grounders back to the pitcher. The ol’ 1-3 DP.
• Two-out innings for teams with a lead. Why does a team leading on the scoreboard get three outs when it bats, just like the team trying to make a comeback? We want excitement, tight scores, and yes, comebacks. A team protecting its lead better hit early (in an inning) and often. And let’s see if a team ever bunts with a lead. Won’t happen. That’s sissy stuff.
• One-pitch warm-ups for relief pitchers. That flame-throwing righty has been tossing in the bullpen for 15 minutes. Upon entering the game, he needs to “get familiar” with the mound? This isn’t a first date. One pitch to your catcher, and game on.
• No more mound visits . . . ever. We have technology that will allow pitchers to wear an earpiece, one connected remotely to his catcher and the pitching coach. Let those two get in the hurler’s head (literally) all they want: strategize, energize, discuss appropriate wedding gifts, whatever. But no man will ever again walk to a pitcher’s mound merely to have a conversation.
• Seventh-inning wave. Stretching? What sport is so boring it requires its fans to stretch before the game is over? No more “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Moving forward, ballparks will play the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out” after the top of the seventh inning and fans will do the wave. Then back to baseball, hopefully a two-out inning for the home team.
More than three hours is required to complete an NFL game and there are about 25 minutes of what can be called action on the field (including one-yard runs and incomplete passes). An NBA game takes 150 minutes to play but look at the clock: 12 minutes times four quarters (plus halftime) equals 48 minutes. By my count, that’s more than 100 minutes of waiting for the next dribble, shot, or pass.
Never mind those sports, though. Baseball season is almost here. And it’s been here since long before horseless carriages became the rage. It’s about time we fix it.
The ATP World Tour returns to the Racquet Club of Memphis this week, the 41st consecutive year of professional tennis in the Bluff City. It is the third Memphis Open under the watch of Erin Mazurek.
You’ve got two tournaments under your belt. What have you learned about tennis fans in Memphis, and the community in general?
It’s been a learning experience. I didn’t really understand the state the tournament was in when I got here. It needed a lot of love. For this community, that means a lot of personal conversations and one-on-one meetings. Personal invitations to bring people back, whether it is businesses, box-seat holders, or sponsors. This market is different from the last market I worked in [Detroit]. It’s a lot more personal down here. The community is very tight-knit. You must have a compelling business case or branding case to get the partnership.
You’ve recently added live music to the Racquet Club food court, and the championship trophy is an actual guitar. Has the connection between tennis and Memphis music added to fan engagement?
You’ve got to have a strong brand that fits with your marketplace. This tournament, with all its great history, has had so many different names and partners. But nothing resounded as Memphis. But now with the guitar pick logo, the Gibson Guitar trophy . . . now the pieces fit in a puzzle that makes sense. We stand out on the tour now. These guys are playing in cities all over the world. Your tournament stop has to stand out and scream your local points of pride. [Among performers this week will be Blind Mississippi Morris on Tuesday and John Paul Keith on Saturday, each from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m.]
The music connection has recently been embraced by the Memphis Redbirds in their own rebranding.
All of our sports properties have to complement one another. This is too small a town to consider yourself a competitor. We have to partner and cross-promote. There’s definitely a partnership mentality.
The Memphis Open is one of only 10 ATP events in North America. What kinds of challenges do you and your staff face in keeping pro tennis on the radar of a market with a variety of entertainment options?
We have to drive home the message that we’re one of ten. Memphians are really proud of our town, our region, our giving, our hospitals. We have something that so many other cities have either lost or never had. One of ten cities where you can go to see professional tennis live. It’s a point of pride. We have a bit of a problem in that it’s been around so long that it’s become taken for granted [by some]. When you have four decades of history, people get a little spoiled, thinking it will always be the case. We need to change that mentality.
We’ll have a new champion this year, with four-time champ Kei Nishikori not in the field. Who should fans expect to see raising that big guitar on Sunday?
I’m never bold enough to call a champion before the tournament. But it will be good for us to see a new champion crowned. There are a lot of guys who will have a shot. If we’re lucky, we’ll see another young-gun American get his feet under him here. We have three of America’s “next-gen” stars: [2016 finalist] Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, and Frances Tiafoe. I hope to see some good results out of them.
Do you have a favorite player in the field? Any style of play you enjoy watching?
Dustin Brown is fun to watch. He’s from Germany, but has Jamaican roots. He has dreadlocks that fly when he hits the ball. He has a crazy style, kind of chip-and-charge. He has wins against Rafael Nadal. And Reilly Opelka is nearly seven feet tall.
There’s no top-10 player in the field. What do you tell people who ask about the absence of some of the sport’s biggest names?
You can get on a plane and fly to New York to see them or fly to California. Or you can get in your car, drive 30 minutes, pay half the price for a ticket, and see players who would give those guys a tough match any day. We have players like Ivo Karlovic and John Isner who have been in the top ten; they’re just not sitting there right now. We’re the last indoor tournament in America. Comfort, convenience, and guaranteed matches.
Is the business community responding to the tournament’s new look and feel? Any closer to landing a title sponsor for the event?
That’s an ever-present thought, and a challenge we’re working on. We’ve had some great conversations around it. There’s still a need; we just haven’t quite found the right partner. Always in the works.
The connection to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital remains strong. Tell us about the Ball Kids program.
This has shifted our efforts for St. Jude into something a little more meaningful. The ball kids are doing peer-to-peer fund-raising. The top fund-raiser gets to go to New York City, all expenses paid, for an exhibition match at Madison Square Garden in March. Last year we raised over $40,000. FedEx stepped up to sponsor the ball kids. They know it’s the right reason and for the right cause.
And St. Jude is not our only charity. We benefit Tennis Memphis, the city-run nonprofit courts in town. And we have a new program with Blue Cross Blue Shield, helping Shelby County Schools students, bringing them out for field trips. We’re giving 500 kids their very own racket. We give a parking lot to the Boy Scouts to raise money for their summer camp.
Share something a sports fan will see or experience at the Memphis Open that can’t be found anywhere else.
Their most intimate sports-viewing experience. Unless you’re a courtside ticket holder [at a basketball game], you’ll never get this close to sports or professional athletes. People will come up to me and say how surprised and impressed they were after coming for the first time. I love hearing that. Give it a try, for something unique to do in February. You’re going to be delighted.
Let’s play a game of association. In historical terms, who is the face of the Atlanta Falcons franchise?
Gotta be a quick and easy answer.
New York Jets: Joe Namath. Miami Dolphins: Dan Marino. Detroit Lions: Barry Sanders.
Some answers stir debate. Chicago Bears: Walter Payton or Dick Butkus? San Francisco 49ers: Jerry Rice or Joe Montana? Buffalo Bills: O.J. Simpson or Jim Kelly?
Now back to the original question: Who is the face of the Atlanta Falcons?
This Sunday in Houston, a franchise born the same season we first had a Super Bowl (1966) will play in the big game for just the second time. The most memorable Falcon moment from Super Bowl XXXIII actually happened the night before kickoff: safety Eugene Robinson’s arrest for soliciting prostitution. Denver demolished Atlanta, 34-19.
The Falcons have played more than half a century of football, yet have precisely one former player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who can be identified indisputably as a Falcon. Defensive end Claude Humphrey played 11 years with Atlanta (1968-78) and was a two-time All-Pro pass rusher. Humphrey didn’t gain enshrinement in the Hall of Fame until 2014, 33 years after he played his final game (with the Philadelphia Eagles). If you identified Claude Humphrey as the face of the Falcons franchise, you do your football homework better than Phil Simms, Troy Aikman, or any other analyst you see this time of year.
The truth, of course, is that the Falcons’ current quarterback, Matt Ryan, is fast becoming the answer to this barstool question. And Ryan will lock up the tag if he’s named MVP for the 2016 season, as many expect he will be. In leading the top-scoring team in the NFL, the 31-year-old Ryan passed for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions. Making Ryan’s Super Bowl debut even juicier, of course, is his counterpart with the New England Patriots.
Tom Brady, it can be carved in stone, is the easiest, most definitive “face of the franchise” for any of the NFL’s 32 teams. The two-time MVP is Ryan’s chief competition for this year’s honor, having passed for 3,554 yards with 28 touchdowns and but two interceptions despite missing the Pats’ first four games while serving his suspension for “Deflategate.” (If you don’t know, look it up. It’s now a miserably distracting part of NFL history. No more on it here.)
Brady will start his seventh Super Bowl, as many as Joe Montana and Troy Aikman did combined. He aims to become the first signal-caller with five Super Bowl rings (Montana and Terry Bradshaw have four each). He’s as Boston as Beacon Hill, as New England as maple syrup. Fact is, if we had to name a “face of the Super Bowl,” Tom Brady would be the guy.
I lived three years of my early childhood in Atlanta. (My sister was born there, ten days before Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record.) I lived nine years in New England, my college days in Boston during a time Steve Grogan was remembered as the quarterbacking standard and Sundays had entertainment options besides football. (Faneuil Hall anyone?) Those days are long gone; so say the Patriots’ trophy case and the color of my whiskers. I’ll be torn come kickoff Sunday, but will likely lean toward the team still trying — after half a century — to make a face for itself in the gallery of pro football history.
The most points scored by a Super Bowl loser are 31 (Dallas in Super Bowl XIII and San Francisco in Super Bowl XLVII). That could change Sunday. The Falcons scored more points (540) than any of the 50 Super Bowl winners. The Patriots finished third in the league in scoring (27.6 points per game). The trouble for Atlanta is the Patriot defense. Not packed with stars — Devin McCourty? Dont’a Hightower? — New England allowed the fewest points in the NFL (15.6 per game). There will be some irony when Brady becomes the first quarterback to win five Super Bowls . . . and has his defense to thank.
Patriots 35, Falcons 27
Among the hundreds of Memphis sporting events I’ve attended, one of the most memorable took place on January 19, 2009, at FedExForum. The Grizzlies hosted the Detroit Pistons in the franchise’s seventh-annual Martin Luther King Day game. Julius Erving was honored before the tip-off, so there was basketball majesty in the building. But the day lives on in my memory more for its place in time than for anything that happened on the hardwood.
The event took place the day before Barack Obama was inaugurated as America’s 44th president. Erving got some big cheers, as did second-year point guard Mike Conley. But the loudest applause that afternoon came during a video tribute, not to Dr. King, but to the man who would become this country’s first black president. It was extraordinary to absorb. A basketball game scheduled to honor this country’s patron saint of civil rights — a few short blocks from where he died — merely hours before a black man would take the highest office in the land.
There was togetherness that day at FedExForum, and not the typical, cheer-the-home-team synchronicity. As at every Grizzlies game, the crowd was majority white. And that crowd seemed to recognize a larger togetherness, one that stretched, well, from sea to shining sea. We all cheered the moment in time, the moment in American history.
I thought of that day Sunday night when the Grizzlies hosted Chicago in this year’s MLK Day game. ESPN had moved the game up a day, into a prime-time slot, a move that backfired when an NFL playoff game was pushed back into the same broadcast window. Eight years have been good to the Grizzlies, though, with six straight playoff appearances and players who now feel as much like family as numbers on a roster: Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Tony Allen. And Conley, owner of the fattest player contract in NBA history.
But what will Inauguration Day this year bring? There was no video presence for Donald Trump during Sunday’s game. And any sense of togetherness — “from sea to shining sea” — seems as distant as Vince Carter’s prime. The Grizzlies lost a close one to the Bulls, just as they fell to the Pistons eight years ago. But the result didn’t matter on January 19, 2009. None of us cared as we left the building. There was larger inspiration to be found.
Today? Every Grizzlies win serves a purpose needed more than ever, that of distraction. Of joy, if for just that night. If we can’t find togetherness as a country — perhaps that’s too ambitious — let’s at least find it with a team we cheer. And hope for better days ahead.
• Wednesday should be a good day for Memphis baseball fans with long memories. In his tenth year of eligibility, Tim Raines is all but certain to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The offensive catalyst for some fine Montreal Expos teams in the 1980s, Raines is fifth in baseball history with 808 stolen bases. He also starred in 1979 for the Memphis Chicks (Montreal’s Double-A affiliate at the time), batting .290 and stealing 59 bases for a team that made the Southern League playoffs. Raines would become the first former Memphis player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame since Gary Carter in 2003.
• Two years ago in this space, I made the case that Tom Brady is the first one-man dynasty in the history of American team sports (January 26, 2015). This Sunday, Brady and his New England Patriots will play in their sixth consecutive AFC Championship. It will be the 11th AFC title game for Brady in his 16 seasons as the Patriots’ starting quarterback. (His 11th in 15 seasons if we exclude the 2008 campaign, most of which Brady missed with a knee injury.)
This level and length of contention for NFL championships can be matched by only one other franchise. Over the course of 17 seasons (1966-82), the Dallas Cowboys played for the NFL or NFC Championship 12 times. During that period, four quarterbacks started those games: Don Meredith, Craig Morton, Roger Staubach, and Danny White. That lengthy era of success led to the Cowboys being tagged “America’s Team” by NFL Films. What does that make Tom Brady today?
Let’s make 2017 the right kind of year. A few suggested goals for local sports figures:
• Dedric Lawson — Ten assists (or blocks) in a game. In the long, rich history of Memphis Tiger basketball, exactly two players have achieved a triple double: Penny Hardaway (twice) and Antonio Anderson. The Tigers’ sophomore star has already come within three assists of the feat (on December 13th) and on another occasion, within two blocked shots (on December 10th). The points and rebounds will come in metronomic regularity. If Lawson can achieve the right kind of outburst in passing or blocking the basketball, he’ll turn an exclusive Memphis duo into a trio.
• Zach Randolph — Win the NBA’s Sixth Man Award. Z-Bo graciously accepted his new role — off the Memphis Grizzlies’ bench — when new coach David Fizdale announced a significant rotation adjustment in the preseason. Why not turn the new supporting role into a major award? Through Monday, Randolph has averaged 13.3 points and 7.7 rebounds. When he missed seven games after his mother’s death in late November, the Griz went 4-3, each of the wins by less than five points, each of the losses by at least nine. The 35-year-old remains integral to the Grizzlies’ big-picture ambitions. A trophy presentation at FedExForum during the playoffs would be a career highlight.
• Anthony Miller — Make first-team All-America. After catching 95 passes for 1,434 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2016 — all new Memphis records — the Tigers’ junior wide receiver didn’t so much as make first team all-conference. In the American Athletic Conference. It’s unlikely Miller would be taken in the first two rounds of this year’s NFL draft. So why not rejoin forces with quarterback Riley Ferguson, do to the Tiger pass-catching record book what DeAngelo Williams did to the rushing charts, and gain some overdue accolades?
• Stubby Clapp — Make Redbird fans stop talking about backflips. When a fan favorite returns, the honeymoon becomes saturated with memories of a player’s achievements during his initial tenure. For the new Redbirds manager, this means countless photos and video clips of a second baseman going heels up as he takes the field. Assuming his first managerial gig above the Class A level, Clapp will be focusing more on replicating the achievements of his 2000 Redbirds team, a club that won the Pacific Coast League championship in AutoZone Park’s inaugural season. Winning baseball games — to say nothing of developing prospects — has little to do with pregame acrobatics. It will be fun to see a man called Stubby take baseball seriously (he always has) and assume a leadership role in the St. Louis farm system.
• Tubby Smith — Make it six for six. Smith would become the first man to coach six teams to the NCAA tournament if he can guide Memphis to the Big Dance. Why not this year? The Tigers have three wins over teams from Power Five conferences (two more than they had, combined, the last two seasons), but must earn tournament consideration in league play. The guess here is that January and February will be the veteran coach’s wheelhouse, when player roles come into focus and the rhythm of a two-games-per-week campaign toward the postseason feels rather familiar. Who knows if Dedric Lawson will be back for a third college season? His coach should make the most of a prime asset.
• Mike Conley — Establish the Grizzlies’ 700 club. The Grizzlies somehow won six straight games with their $30-million point guard sidelined by broken bones in his back. Don’t be fooled. Memphis needs Conley like Conley needs a healthy back. He’s 39 games from becoming the first Grizzly to play in 700 regular-season games. If he reaches the milestone this season, count on Memphis extending its playoff streak to seven years. And count one more reason no future Memphis player will wear the number 11.
Continuing my countdown of the 10 most memorable sporting events I attended in 2016.
5) Tigers 62, UAB 55 (December 10) — Let’s hope this renewal of a longtime regional rivalry becomes a permanent part of the U of M schedule. Gene Bartow, remember, founded the Blazer program. (The teams hadn’t played since Memphis left Conference USA after the 2012-13 season.) The Tigers fell behind by nine points early in the second half, but rallied behind the dominant play of sophomore forward Dedric Lawson. With 24 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 blocks, Lawson came within two rejections of the program’s fourth triple-double and just one from tying the Tiger single-game record. It was Lawson’s seventh double-double in nine games, and 24th of his career. His next would tie him for 10th in Memphis history.
4) Cardinals 11, Mariners 6 (June 26) — You might say I followed Tommy Pham from Memphis to Seattle. Having injured himself playing for St. Louis on Opening Day, Pham had recently been promoted to the big club after a stint with the Redbirds. During a visit with my sister’s family, we made our way to Safeco Field on one of those sunny Sundays the Pacific Northwest does so well. Matt Carpenter homered in the top of the sixth to give the Cardinals a 6-3 lead, but the Mariners tied things up in the bottom of the inning. Over the next three innings, though, the Cardinals hit five solo homers to secure the win. Tommy Pham hit two of them.
3) Redbirds 7, Nashville 6 (August 25) — This was Grizzlies Night at AutoZone Park. Rookie Wade Baldwin threw out the first pitch, and the Redbirds wore jerseys that reflected the color and style of their NBA brethren. (The blue cardinals on the bat were disorienting if not unsettling.) Rehabbing slugger Matt Adams clubbed a two-run homer in the first inning to give last-place Memphis a lead over the first-place Sounds, but Nashville took a 6-5 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Centerfielder Harrison Bader led off the inning with a home run to tie the game. Five batters later, Jose Martinez came to the plate with runners at first and second and two outs. He slapped a hard grounder up the middle that was snagged by the Nashville second baseman. But the throw to first was late and bounced off Martinez’s heel, allowing Breyvic Valera to score from second for the victory. A mob scene ensued around Martinez in short rightfield. The standings don’t matter in walk-off celebrations.
2) Tigers 48, Houston 44 (November 25th) — Mike Norvell’s first regular-season as Tiger coach ended with a holiday showdown at the Liberty Bowl against 18th ranked Houston. The Tigers scored on their second snap of the game, a 67-yard connection from Riley Ferguson to Phil Mayhue. By halftime, the underdogs were up 34-17. Houston scored the first 20 points of the second half, though, forcing Memphis to come back — twice — in the game’s final five minutes. Ferguson hit Anthony Miller on a 35-yard strike to regain the lead for the U of M (41-37) with 3:49 to play. But Cougar quarterback Greg Ward led a 75-yard drive to put Houston back on top with 1:29 on the clock. A deep pass to Mayhue and a pass-interference call set up the Tigers’ game-winner: a 10-yard slant by Miller, hit in stride by Ferguson with 19 seconds left. The victory gave Memphis three straight seasons with at least eight wins for the first time since 1961-63.
1) Grizzlies 128, Lakers 119 (February 24) — A man with five NBA titles and more career points than anyone not named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Karl Malone took the floor one last time at FedExForum. In many respects, Kobe Bryant was Public Enemy Number One over the Grizzlies’ first 15 years in Memphis. No player scored more points against the Griz than did Bryant, and the 18-time All-Star holds the single-game scoring record at FEF (60 points on March 22, 2007). But on this night, Kobe was king and the Bluff City his court. With less than five minutes to play and the outcome decided, Bryant entered the contest one last time. This was atypical of a man as fiercely competitive as any athlete of his generation. It was entirely for Memphis fans. One last goodbye. The Black Mamba getting sentimental on us. Who would have thought?
A countdown of the 10 most memorable sporting events I attended this year.
10) Redbirds 4, Iowa 3 (June 19) — It’s easy to sulk when you’ve been demoted. After a season-and-a-half as the St. Louis Cardinals’ primary centerfielder, Randal Grichuk found himself in the starting lineup at AutoZone Park on Father’s Day. That’s what a .206 batting average in mid-June will do to you. Instead of pouting, though, Grichuk began his climb back to The Show. He drilled a three-run homer onto the leftfield bluff in the third inning, then made a diving catch to end an Iowa threat in the eighth and preserve the Redbirds’ one-run lead. Grichuk soon returned to St. Louis and finished the season with 24 homers and 68 RBIs for the Cardinals.
9) USF 49, Tigers 42 (November 12) — The result wasn’t pleasant, particularly an overlooked pass-interference call in the end zone that would have set up the tying score for Memphis in the final minute. But what a show. The Tigers chewed up 608 yards of offense, 153 of them through the air to junior wideout Anthony Miller, who broke Isaac Bruce’s 23-year-old record for receiving yards in a season (he finished the regular season with 1,283). But this was a night for college-football greatness as displayed by USF quarterback Quinton Flowers: 263 yards passing with two touchdowns and 210 yards rushing (and three more scores). The Tigers fought back from an early 14-point deficit and there were four lead changes in the third quarter alone. Great football game, sadly off the radar of the “Power Five” chatter hounds.
8) Tigers 67, Temple 65 (January 13) — “Blood and guts” are reliable metaphors for sportswriters. On this night at FedExForum, though, they were all too vivid in the person of Tiger point guard Ricky Tarrant Jr. In the frantic final seconds of a tie game, Tarrant took an inbounds pass from Shaq Goodwin and collided with Temple’s Daniel Dingle, absorbing a blow to his mouth with 1.5 seconds left on the clock. Dingle was charged with a foul, but there was some question about whether or not a bloodied Tarrant — an 88-percent shooter from the foul line — could attempt the decisive shots. In the words of Memphis coach Josh Pastner, “Ricky took a big gulp, drank all of his blood, licked his lips. And he shot the free throws.” Tarrant made both. Blood. Guts.
7) Grizzlies 108, Bulls 92 (April 5) — With old friends Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose in villain garb — and Marc Gasol watching from a luxury suite, crutches in hand — the Griz ended a six-game losing streak and clinched a sixth straight winning season, all the while clinging to a spot in the NBA playoffs. Vince Carter shaved 10 years and scored 17 points in 24 minutes to help the cause while Mike Conley’s replacement at point guard, Jordan Farmar, added 15 points and four assists. But it was an old warhorse who carried Memphis this night. Zach Randolph scored 27 points (one shy of his season high) and pulled down 10 rebounds. Bryce Cotton made his FedExForum debut, the 28th player to take the floor for the Grizzlies in a season that will be remembered more for myriad injuries than any wins or losses on the court.
6) Redbirds 8, Fresno 1 (May 22) — Prospects were hard to come by last season at AutoZone Park, but on this bright, sunny Sunday afternoon, a future Cardinal star was born. Alex Reyes, 21, took the hill for Memphis, having just completed a 50-game suspension for marijuana use. He wobbled at times over four innings (85 pitches, three walks), but struck out eight and didn’t allow a run while teasing 100 mph on the radar gun. (Reyes joined the Cardinals in August and put up a 1.57 ERA over his first 46 big-league innings.) First-baseman Jonathan Rodriguez starred at the plate for the Redbirds, drilling a home run and driving in four.
Check back next week for the Top Five.
It will be easy to say goodbye to 2016. From the political (Brexit) to the unspeakable (mass murder in Orlando), it has been a year in which our differences — our divisions — have been displayed in dramatic, all too often violent conflicts around the globe. Bloodshed continues in Iraq and Syria, North Korea seems ready to burst with its maniacal leadership (and nuclear weaponry), and here stateside, we Americans elected a president half the population considers unfit to run a reputable business, let alone lead the free world. Perhaps most threatening of all, 2016 is the year fake news — Oxymoron of the Century — became a thing. Trust has become the most valuable human commodity this side of love.
But the year in sports. My goodness, the year we’ve had in sports.
Had the Cleveland Cavaliers merely won their first NBA championship, 2016 would have had a star on the timeline of American sports history. But what is waiting 46 years for an NBA crown when the Chicago Cubs had to wait 108 years to reach the top of the baseball mountain? Had either of these teams erased a 3-1 deficit in their best-of-seven championship series, the event would have further cemented this year as significant. Both did.
The Cavs and Cubs somehow made footnotes of sports moments that otherwise would be leading annual reviews like this one. Villanova beat North Carolina for college basketball’s national championship on a buzzer-beating three-pointer, the kind of shot taken — and usually missed — on thousands of playgrounds and driveways . . . but in real life, with the cameras on and millions watching?
The Rio Olympics gave us Usain Bolt (again) and Michael Phelps (again). But the Games also introduced the world to Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky, proving (again) that on the sports world’s biggest stage, gender is merely a classification of greatness. In a world of more-apparent divisions, we could use an annual dose of Olympic togetherness. Deep breaths, everyone, as we await the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
No city has needed the distraction of sports more than Memphis. More Memphis lives have been taken violently this year than in any other year on record. We’re left to hope we’ve reached rock bottom in the bloody statistical category of homicide. And we turn to men in helmets and shorts to help us through.
This was the year Memphis became home to the highest paid player in the NBA. (Read that sentence again for emphasis, and know it’s quite temporary.) And when Mike Conley went down with broken bones in his back, the Memphis Grizzlies reeled off six straight wins — the sixth over mighty Golden State at FedExForum — to redefine the term “backbreaker” for good.
This was the year both flagship programs at the University of Memphis welcomed new coaches (a transition year unlike any since 1986). Mike Norvell has kept the pedal down for the football program, his team averaging a shade under 40 points per game despite Paxton Lynch now wearing a Denver Broncos uniform. And Tubby Smith has brought an almost regal feel to the Tiger basketball program, his lengthy record of success a welcome salve to a fan-base grown frustrated by, yes, divisions in the program.
We shed some tears as sports fans in 2016. Said goodbye to Muhammad Ali, then Gordie Howe, then Arnold Palmer. (Had but one of these legends died, the year would merit a black arm band.) The losses seemed to parallel those in the world of music: David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen. It’s as though the year thirsted on pain.
Sunnier days are surely ahead. The Tiger football team will play its bowl game next week in Boca Raton, for crying out loud. Come December 31st, I’ll raise a drink to the year just passed, as I always do. But it will be a hard one. And I’ll chase it with an extra dose of firewater. I’ll then thank the heavens for, at the very least, giving us games to play.
As “Group of Five” football program, the University of Memphis stands little chance of playing in one of the prestigious New Year’s Six bowl games. Exactly one of 12 slots is guaranteed for a “Group” team, the best among five conferences (those not classified as “Power Five”). With that the case, it’s hard to envision the Tigers landing a better postseason ticket than the Boca Raton Bowl, where they’ll play Conference USA champion Western Kentucky on December 20th.
To begin with, there’s the destination. South Florida in December is good for the mind, body, and spirit. The Tiger players, coaching staff, administrators, and fans should relish a few days on the east coast of the Sunshine State. (Let’s go ahead and say it: This beats Birmingham, five days before Christmas.)
But the opponent and timing of the game could make this a significant event in the continued development of coach Mike Norvell’s program. The Tigers and Hilltoppers will have the football world to themselves, the game kicking off on a Tuesday night and relatively early (7 p.m. on the east coast). And while the rest of the country may not initially be revved by a Memphis-Western Kentucky showdown, football fans enjoy scoring, and the Boca Raton Bowl should have between 80 and 100 points on the board before the night is over. Western Kentucky has scored at least 44 points in 10 of its 13 games and ranks second in the country in scoring with 45.1 points per game. The Tiger offense has been potent itself, averaging 39.5 points, good for 17th in the nation. Only the Peach Bowl (a national semifinal between Alabama and Washington) will have two teams as highly ranked in scoring this season.
A “Group of Five” program has to be seen to attract recruits. And it has to put points on the board. The 2016 Boca Raton Bowl offers Memphis much more than a sun-splashed vacation.
• There are too many empty seats at FedExForum for Tiger basketball. Tubby Time is here, but the new coach has yet to see 10,000 fans in his new home arena (one that will hold more than 17,000). Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen simply has to secure regular appearances from non-conference rivals. And this Saturday’s matinee against UAB should be considered a small step in that direction.
Gene Bartow created the UAB basketball program. On the gridiron, the Tigers and Blazers once competed in “The Battle for the Bones,” the prize a massive bronze rack of ribs. For more than 20 years (1991-2013), the teams played at least twice a season on the hardwood as conference rivals. It will be good to see UAB back at FedExForum.
Let’s bring Louisville back. And Arkansas. And Tennessee. Along with UAB, Memphis should aim to host two of these four programs every season. This simply has to happen. It’s a matter of relevance in a city that’s come to be foremost a Grizzlies town. Savannah State, McNeese State, and Jackson State will not move the attendance needle, no matter the strength of the Tiger roster or the popularity of the Tiger coach.
• The Memphis Redbirds made some late-fall news with a pair of announcements last week. The franchise is welcoming back perhaps the most popular player in team history, Stubby Clapp. After 14 years away (most recently as hitting coach with Double-A New Hampshire in the Toronto Blue Jays system), Clapp will be the Redbirds new manager in 2017, succeeding Mike Shildt (who took a bench job with the St. Louis Cardinals). Clapp spent four seasons (1999-2002) as a player with Memphis and was an integral member of the 2000 Pacific Coast League champions. He endeared himself to fans with his scrappy play and backflips as he took the field to start each home game. (The backflips were in tribute to one of Clapp’s favorite players, Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith.) Modern folk heroes are hard to come by. AutoZone Park and manager Stubby Clapp should be a nice fit.
The Redbirds also announced that team president Craig Unger has joined the team’s ownership group, led by Peter Freund. The significance? A former executive with the St. Louis Cardinals, Unger and his family have been in Memphis three years now. He and his wife are raising three daughters here. The Redbirds can now be said to have local ownership. (Freund lives in New York and Montana.) Unger presided over a significant renovation to AutoZone Park and has embraced the challenge of attracting — and keeping — new fans for minor-league baseball. (Attendance last summer was 17 percent higher than the previous season.) Any concerns about a disconnect between ownership and management at AutoZone Park should be reduced significantly with Unger’s new stake in the franchise.