I was rooting hard against the Grizzlies last Saturday. But to no avail. Packed in a club-level suite with the White Station Middle School softball team (their shortstop and leadoff batter is my favorite player), I watched Fresno erase a five-run Redbirds lead with six runs in the sixth inning, spurred by a pair of RBIs from Fresno Grizzlies first baseman Brett Pill. (Looking for an early season baseball stat to share with friends? Through Saturday’s game, Pill had driven in 47 runs in 32 games for Fresno. Can’t be long before he’s wearing a San Francisco Giants jersey.) Oddly enough, by game’s end, there seemed to be as many fans at AutoZone Park with “Grizzlies” on their shirt as “Redbirds.”
That Fresno rally happened merely minutes after another bunch of Grizzlies won a game you may have heard about, four blocks away from the ballpark at Third and Union. In Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal series with Oklahoma City, the Grizzlies (Memphis variety) held Thunder All-Star Kevin Durant to merely 25 points to take a two-games-to-one lead. The few adults in that suite at AutoZone Park were staring at the TV dangling from the ceiling as Marc Gasol buried a pair of clutch, tie-breaking free throws in the game’s final minute to send more than 18,000 fans at FedExForum home happy. Or send them to AutoZone Park happy.
Saturday was one of those nights that remind Memphians just how far the sports scene has come since the turn of the century. As recently as 1997, the best a local sports fan could do in this town come May would be a Double-A baseball game at Tim McCarver Stadium, unless some upstart circus league like the XFL was opening gates at the Liberty Bowl. Now? You can start a Saturday outing watching one of four NBA playoff series unfold at a world-class arena on Beale Street, then stroll 10 minutes north to catch a few at-bats from the top hitting prospect in baseball. (Redbirds outfielder Oscar Taveras may have had his mind on hoops Saturday, as he had one hit in five at bats with three strikeouts.) The literal overflow of an NBA audience at a baseball stadium was as inspiring as the David Freese highlights shown on AutoZone Park’s video board as part of the club’s “Two Outs-Two Strikes-No Problem” promotion.
After the baseball game, a 6-5 Grizzlies win, the Spartan softball team pulled out cell phones to record the fireworks show. All the color and explosive volume of the display seemed especially fitting for a spring night in downtown Memphis. I found myself wondering if these kids — all born after the Redbirds arrived in 1998 — had any idea how brilliant the show actually was.
• In line at the Redbirds team store Saturday night, I watched a boy walk up to the register with a 2012 team set of baseball cards. Visible through the plastic on top of the set was a card of Shelby Miller. And I wondered if the boy had a clue as to the new value of that baseball card. On May 10, 2012, Miller was a 3-2 pitcher with Memphis, struggling to find the stuff that had him ranked among baseball’s best young hurlers. On May 10, 2013 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis — the night before the boy took his card home from AutoZone Park — Miller essentially threw a perfect game one batter late. After giving up a single to Colorado’s Eric Young to open the game, Miller retired the next 27 Rockies in order, striking out 13 (a Cardinal rookie record) and not allowing so much as a walk. The win improved Miller’s record to 5-2 and lowered his ERA to 1.58. Much more of this and the name Bob Gibson will enter conversations. Enjoy those cards, kid. One of them might help pay for college someday.
There’s a long-held belief among NBA followers that a team cannot win a championship without a bankable, Grade-A superstar. In a league that thrives on the marketability of individual stars (sometimes at the expense of successful teams), can a club reach the mountaintop without a face selling sneakers in Times Square? Can a team built on the grit of collective effort and the grind of defensive play wear the crown?
Before we go any further, let’s define an NBA superstar with as close to an objective method as possible. For this discussion, a “superstar” is a player who has earned first-team All-NBA honors at least twice. There were 11 such NBA players active in the 2012-13 season: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade. Seven of these 11 players have indeed won championships. (The four who haven’t: Durant, Howard, Nash, and Paul.)
Since the Los Angeles Lakers won the 1980 championship — led by a precocious rookie point guard named Magic Johnson — 33 teams have raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy and 32 of them have featured at least one superstar. If you adhere to these odds, it stands to reason a superstar is a prerequisite for a title. Which means only four of the eight teams still alive in the 2013 playoffs have legitimate hope for a mid-June ring-fitting: Miami (with James and Wade), San Antonio (with Duncan), Oklahoma City (with Durant), and New York (with a past-his-prime Kidd).
But then we have the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, the one team that broke this apparent rule of superstardom. (Cue up Jim Carrey to Lauren Holly in Dumb and Dumber: “So you’re saying I have a chance!!”) Those Pistons featured a second-year forward by the name of Tayshaun Prince. Their starting lineup included four more “good-but-not-greats”: Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, and Ben Wallace (a four-time Defensive Player of the Year). They may not have been Madison Avenue’s favorite team, but they won a championship by stifling opponents with defense (ranking second in the league in both points allowed per game and per 100 possessions). Perhaps best of all, the 2003-04 Pistons beat a team in the Finals (the Lakers) that featured no fewer than four superstars: Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton. If you’re counting the chances of a title for this year’s Memphis Grizzlies, thank the basketball gods for the 2004 Pistons.
Why is a superstar so essential to an NBA team’s championship hopes? Easy answer: It’s a five-man game. The best hitter in baseball gets no more than one-ninth of his team’s at-bats. Tom Brady has won a lot of football games, but requires at least a competent New England Patriot defense to reach the Super Bowl. The face of the National Hockey League — Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby — averaged 21 minutes on the ice this season, essentially one third of a 60-minute game. But if the Miami Heat so choose, James can play all 48 minutes and touch the ball on every possession. An NBA superstar can make the impact he chooses to make . . . not merely the impact his game allows him to make.
Which brings us to the 2012-13 Memphis Grizzlies, safely into the second round of the playoffs but now confronting a team with that superstar component still unseen in Beale Street Blue. How will this collision of opposites play out?
Case 1 — Among basketball’s modern metrics is the plus-minus rating, a figure that represents the scoring margin between a player’s team and its opponent when that player is on the court. (Many hockey fans consider the NHL’s plus-minus leader every bit as valuable as the league’s top goal scorer.) Here are superstar Chris Paul’s plus-minus figures over the last four games of the Clippers’ series with Memphis: -19, -21, -6, -10. The Grizzlies won all four of those games, of course. The team without a superstar was, on average, 14 points better than the team with the headliner.
Case 2 — Ah, then there’s the opening game between the Griz and Thunder. If ever a playoff game has been won by a single player, you saw it Sunday. Remove Kevin Durant’s stat line and Oklahoma City shot 37 percent and grabbed a total of 28 rebounds. But their superstar made 13 of 26 shots from the field, pulled down 15 boards, and scored 35 points, including the last four. Durant was merely +2 for the game. The Thunder’s plus-minus stars were Kevin Martin and Derek Fisher (each +14). The will and supreme talents of one player were enough to outshine a Grizzlies team good enough to lead by nine points after three quarters. The smartest Memphis strategy may be to squeeze the impact of Martin, Fisher, and the rest of OKC’s supporting cast, knowing Durant will do what superstars do.
Can an NBA title be won without a superstar? There are four teams left to show us the way.
FedExForum will host an elimination game Friday night. It’s up to the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers — playing Game 5 of their opening-round series Tuesday night in L.A. — to determine which team is teetering near the cliff of offseason blues. While the Grizzlies may have gained momentum by holding serve last week — tying the series at two games apiece — they’d do well to treat Tuesday night’s game with the kind of urgency normally reserved for a Game 7. I’d recommend an urgency just this side of desperation. Win and the Grindhouse may actually grow teeth Friday night. Chris Paul hasn’t seen hostile like he would at Third and Beale with his team’s season on the line. Lose and the Grindhouse will rock but only until the first, inevitable Clipper run. The Grizzlies want the reward of a Game 6 victory to be a second-round series, not a return to the Staples Center.
A few quick thoughts on the Grizzlies’ postseason to date:
• Much is made of the Clippers’ superior bench, and rightly so. There’s not a better quartet of guards in the NBA than Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Jamal Crawford, and Eric Bledsoe. Unspoken, though, in all the plaudits for L.A.’s pine brothers is the Grizzlies’ recipe for nullifying the advantage with their own starters’ play. And how. In Game 3, the Grizzlies’ starters outscored the Clippers’ starting five, 64-47 (and won the game by 12 points). Then Saturday in Game 4, the Griz starting five more than doubled the point total of their counterparts, 88-40. Give credit to a team’s bench when they outscore the starters, sure, but not when the result is a 21-point beat-down.
The Grizzlies have never had a playoff game with the trio of Zach Randolph (24 points, 9 rebounds), Marc Gasol (24 points, 13 rebounds), and Mike Conley (15 points, 13 assists) putting up the silly numbers they did last Saturday. If these totals are even approximated in Los Angeles, Memphis will come home with a 3-2 lead. And it won’t matter in the slightest how the Clipper bench performs.
• Familiarity and contempt. You know how this works. You probably feel the emotional cocktail every time Chris Paul has a conversation with an official. (In what other sport is a player allowed to put his arm around a game official and have a discussion?) But this year’s Griz-Clip series is compelling for how different the rosters actually are from those in last year’s seven-game tilt. Five Clippers who played at least 10 minutes in Game 4 this year did not play in Game 7 a year ago: Chauncey Billups, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, and Ronny Turiaf. The same can be said of two Grizzlies: Tayshaun Prince and Darrell Arthur. (A third, Jerryd Bayless, was limited to 9:26 on the floor by the rather brilliant play of Conley.) The faces of the two franchises remain the same (Paul and Blake Griffin on one side, the Z-Bo/Gasol/Conley troika on the other). But this series is a rematch only on the surface.
• Hats off to Gasol for winning the Defensive Player of the Year award. There’s no such thing as a Memphis voting bloc when it comes to these trophies, so it feels especially gratifying to see one of the local team’s grinders get such national recognition. And check out this factoid, Griz Nation: Going back to the 2001-02 season, Memphis is the only NBA franchise that has featured a Rookie of the Year (Pau Gasol, 2002), Coach of the Year (Hubie Brown, 2004), Sixth Man Award (Mike Miller, 2006) and Defensive Player of the Year. Not a bad trophy case for a dozen years in downtown Memphis.
• Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” I’m not going to guarantee that the winner of the Grizzlies-Clippers series is going to the NBA Finals. But I’ll say this: The Oklahoma City Thunder will not go to the Finals without Russell Westbrook. A new opportunity has presented itself with the season-ending injury to the Thunder’s All-NBA guard. So we get back to that sense of urgency (desperation?) for a Grizzlies team seeking a lengthy stay in these playoffs. Overalls would seem to go well with grit and grind, don’t you think?
October 2001 was going to be a special month for my family. A longtime friend — a high school classmate — was getting married in Vermont. Autumn in the Green Mountain State, of course, is a time when the colors of those mountains transform from green to a spectrum of shades that would drop Monet’s jaw. My wife and I found ourselves counting down the weeks to our trip, the chance to catch up with old friends and show off our 2-year-old daughter.
Then 19 lunatics turned four passenger planes into weapons of mass destruction, changing the world for good. On the morning of September 11 — merely a month before Doug’s wedding — two of those planes took off from Logan Airport in Boston, the very place we’d be landing on our trip north. It was only a few days before passenger flights were again in the air, but it would be a long time before anyone buckled their seat on an airplane without a fear they didn’t know on September 10th. My wife and I had a conversation near the end of September in which she said she simply didn’t want to expose her child to that kind of danger. And I listened to her case. For the first time as parents, we were scared.
With a week, now, to process the murderous attack at the Boston Marathon, I’m no closer to understanding the act than I was (or am) the slaughter of 9-11 twelve years ago. A part of me is scared, particularly the father in me. Alas, one emotion I didn’t feel last Monday was shock. As stunning as the news was, as graphic as the scene on Boylston Street may have been, the horror entered my thought pattern much easier than did the 9-11 attacks. Just as every act of terror has since the first plane hit the World Trade Center. That, friends, is what scares me the most: the all-too-common quality of modern carnage.
How do we “process” atrocities like 9-11, Newtown, or the Boston Marathon attack? (There really is no formula, no process, thus the quote marks.) How do we explain to our children and steer them toward adulthood with the eagerness and optimism that should trump fear and apprehension? I don’t have the answer, and I won’t anytime soon. But I do have the image (at least in my mind). It’s that crowd — that tremendous crowd of decent, happy, energetic, thriving human beings — lining the marathon route in Beantown last week. It’s an overstuffed crowd of basketball fans in a football stadium in Atlanta, cheering the best college basketball championship of the century. It’s a crowd of excited Grizzlies fans packing FedExForum for a playoff game . . . and the eagerness and optimism accompanying every ticket-holder to his or her seat.
With apologies to the agoraphobic — it’s a legitimate ailment, and one I find myself wrestling on, say, a New York City subway — gathering is to the human soul as water is to the human body. Whether it’s church on Sunday, lunch on Monday, or a 50,000-seat stadium for the next big game, we participate together because our favorite moments gain value as we share them with family and friends (including the “friends” we may not know . . . those wearing the same Grit & Grind t-shirt we’ve worn out).
Sadly, monsters among us recognize our urge to gather. Part of their cowardice is the attempt to do as much damage with as little effort as possible. The result, as we too often see, is quite literally blood in the streets.
One of the victims who died last Monday was Krystle Campbell, a 29-year-old restaurant manager from Medford, Massachusetts, the town where my alma mater — Tufts University — has sat on a drumlin for more than 150 years. I didn’t know Krystle, but I sure know her world, just as so many of us know Boston, or know friends in or near Boston. They don’t call it the Hub for nothing. For me, reading about Krystle Campbell has been the hardest part of “processing” this tragedy. And hers is the face I see when I resolve to make sure her killers’ objective is not achieved. (Sean Collier, the police officer killed last Thursday by the bombing suspects, was from Somerville, a town adjacent to Medford.)
Back to the fall of 2001. My family took our flight to Boston. We made it to Doug’s wedding, and have memories of that weekend we’ll carry with us the rest of our lives. There wasn’t a person at Doug’s reception not hurting from the recent attacks on an innocence America can never know again. But gathering for that life-changing event filled every one of us with, yes, eagerness and optimism for the future.
So plan on attending the next sporting event on your calendar. And the bigger the crowd, the better. I’m already brainstorming ways I can be in Boston for Patriots’ Day in the near future. I may not run the marathon, but it’s been too long since I’ve sat in the bleachers at Fenway Park. With a crowd. With my friends.
Deep in the bowels of AutoZone Park — below ground level, where “authorized personnel only” can be found — there sits a batting cage, adjacent to the Memphis Redbirds’ clubhouse. Painted on the wall next to the cage are 14 yellow pennants, each with the year a Memphis professional baseball team won a league championship. This is the one and only place a fan — if “authorized” — will see acknowledgment of the 2000 and 2009 Pacific Coast League championships won by the team that now calls the stadium home.
I’m a baseball fan. But the fan in me lives inside a baseball historian. No sport lends itself better to historical reflection than a game we can legitimately say our great-grandfathers enjoyed as much as we do today. The Redbirds franchise, suffice it to say, could improve its efforts at history lessons for Memphis baseball fans. Memphis Red Sox and Chicks t-shirts in the gift shop are nice, but there can be more.
The red “Pujols seat” in rightfield, while needing a paint job, is a great touch. (This is where a ball struck by Albert Pujols landed to earn Memphis the 2000 PCL title.) And the image of the St. Louis Cardinals’ legend of legends, Stan Musial, now adorning the rightfield wall is a huge step in the right direction. Even with just 15 years of Redbirds history, though, there’s so much more. Consider this a one-stop refresher on Redbirds history, a chronicle of the players and achievements that link yesterday’s stars with those we’ve yet to see.
• No fewer than five former Redbirds homered in their first major-league at-bat with the Cardinals (and three of them were pitchers). In 2000, Keith McDonald became just the second player to homer in his first two big-league at-bats. The others who came out swinging for the long ball: Chris Richard (2000) and pitchers Gene Stechschulte (2001), Adam Wainwright (2006), and Mark Worrell (2008).
• You probably know Pujols is the only former Redbird to earn league MVP honors (he’s done so three times). But did you know Pujols is but one of four former ’Birds to be named MVP of a League Championship Series? Adam Kennedy (2002 ALCS), Placido Polanco (2006 ALCS), and David Freese (2011 NLCS) are the others.
• Two pitchers hurled no-hitters for the Cardinals during the same season they played for Memphis: Jose Jimenez (1999) and Bud Smith (2001).
• Four Redbird pitchers have started the Triple-A All-Star Game: Larry Luebbers (1999), Bud Smith (2001), Dan Haren (2004), and Chris Gissell (2005). Three years after he started for the PCL, Haren started the major-league All-Star Game as a representative of the Oakland A’s.
• Former Redbird J.D. Drew homered and earned MVP honors in the 2008 major-league All-Star Game (as a member of the Boston Red Sox).
• No Memphis Redbird has won a PCL batting title, but the franchise can claim five ERA titles: Brady Raggio (1998), Clint Weibl (2000), Jason Ryan (2003), Kevin Jarvis (2005), and Mitchell Boggs (2008).
• Find me another franchise (at any level) that can say the same player led it one year in strikeouts (1999) and another in home runs (2007). Take a bow, Babe Ruth. And Rick Ankiel.
• Remember in Field of Dreams, how Moonlight Graham (a Memphis Turtle in 1906) just wanted one at-bat, and to wink at the pitcher like he knew what was coming? After being called up by the Cardinals in 2003, Bo Hart spent the better part of two weeks winking at big-league pitchers. Hart picked up 18 hits in his first 35 at-bats.
April 15th is a date sacred to baseball historians as it marks the anniversary of Jackie Robinson first taking the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. It’s a good week to remember that history matters at your local ballpark, too. (Let’s not forget that the Civil Rights Game was born at Third and Union.) Here’s hoping those in charge of AutoZone Park find new ways to embrace the past as they plot the stadium’s future.
"The better question . . . is whether I have taken good enough advantage of the hours I have had in my life not playing golf." — Frank Deford
In reading Frank Deford’s wonderful 2012 memoir (Over Time), I discovered a second similarity I share with the gold standard for modern sportswriting. In addition to us both being Frank III, neither Deford nor I partake of that most common of sporting endeavors for men beyond their team-sport primes: golf. This being Masters week, the time seems right for some self-reflection on why, exactly, a grand old game popular beyond measure worldwide has not found its way into my activity schedule. I’ll be glued to the set Sunday afternoon, but with one more day of dust collecting on my own clubs.
I’ve actually had a few memorable days on the links — in part for the small selection size — so I’ll share three:
• Near the end of my senior year in high school, our class spent a day at a resort on Lake Morey, near the Vermont/New Hampshire border. Fueled by fire water hidden in each of our bags, four of us toured the Lake Morey course as best we could. I remember that time mostly for a complete void of worries. Final exams taken, college entry secured. Think I’m going to fret over that hook off the ninth tee?
• Four years later, having decided to return south after nine years in New England, I spent my last full day in Vermont playing golf with my dad. Dad was a member at the small club in my hometown of Northfield. No fire water in my bag this time and my swing was as disjointed as the company was pleasant. It didn’t matter, of course. The longer-than-necessary walk did.
• In 2009, six high school friends and I gathered in Myrtle Beach to collectively celebrate our 40th birthdays. To prepare for the trip, I retrieved my clubs from the attic and spent a few days shaking the rust off my swing. Until my back locked up with spasms, and for the better part of a week. I recovered just enough to be a designated putter in my foursome, which included one of my classmates’ dad (that’s me on the far right of the picture). I learned the skill of how and when to wave down a beer truck, and took the message (from my body) loud and clear. Playing golf has its rewards, tangible and otherwise. Practicing golf causes injury.
Having grown up playing team sports (I played three in high school), golf has always seemed lonely to me. I know this perception is absurd. The best stories are told and the most lucrative business deals are struck on the golf course. Better yet, many golfers actively choose this brand of loneliness, to play a round and escape all the worries that gather after that last week in high school. My dad was also a fly fisherman. (Didn’t inherit that gene either.) The quiet, contemplative qualities fishermen adore can be found on fairways and greens, too.
But I guess I’ve never stopped missing my teammates, and the sense that every win (or even loss) was ours. A couple of strikeouts meant nothing if our team prevailed in a baseball game. And putting up double figures on the scoreboard means less than nothing if our basketball team didn’t win. I’ve never approached that sense of communal achievement with a golf club in my hand.
Another element that has kept me from becoming a regular on the golf course: the choices. All the damn choices. Which club? Fade? Lay up? Over the water? Left of the bunker? Sports, for me, have always been about instinctive thought. There is a purity to decision-making when you see a curve ball that may or may not break into the strike zone. Exhausted in the fourth quarter, there is no decision whatsoever to that free throw you’ve been granted: just make it. I’m now paid to make decisions, large and small, to help a magazine reach mail boxes every month. I don’t want the labor of such mental exercise in my leisure time.
All this said, I love golf. I love the drama of Sunday at a major. (“Drama” is an overused sportswriter’s term, but it absolutely applies four Sundays a year.) I love how seriously golfers — from Rory McIlroy to my high-school buddies — take their swings, and how the suggestion that said swing could use some help is akin to calling a woman ugly to her face. And I love golf because my dad loved golf. I love the peace Dad found on rare occasions when every ball he struck flew straight.
Considering the number of baseball games I enjoy every year — at the park, on TV or radio — I’d have a hard time convincing the leisure gods (to say nothing of my wife) that three-to-six (more?) hours a week on the golf course would comfortably fit my schedule as a husband, father, and wage-earner. So for now, I’m counting those days and nights at the ballpark as time well spent while not playing golf. At least until one of my daughters picks up a club. But next time ... no practice swings.
The Memphis Redbirds — Triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals — open the 2013 baseball season Thursday night at AutoZone Park when they host the Oklahoma City RedHawks. I spoke with Cardinals Director of Minor League Operations John Vuch about the extraordinary growth of a system considered among baseball’s weakest not that long ago.
As recently as 2010, the Cardinals’ farm system was ranked 29th (out of 30 teams) by Baseball America. Last year it was ranked 10th, and now it’s the top-ranked system in baseball. How do you explain such improvement?
It’s the farm system getting the ranking, but it’s a combination of our managers, coaches, and instructors . . . and our amateur-scouting department getting us good players. And our international department finding guys like Oscar Taveras and Carlos Martinez. It’s an organizational effort, a combination of all aspects of baseball operations.
There was somewhat of a philosophical change, in terms of taking our lead from the major league staff, and developing continuity, doing the same things in St. Louis, Memphis, Springfield, and all the way down to our Gulf Coast League teams and our Dominican academy. Players go from level to level, and they know what to expect. No surprises. That’s helped a lot.
Do the Cardinals have a general philosophy for scouting and drafting players?
We put out a player-development manual for the first time in 2011. The major-league staff sat down with our minor-league coaches and put everything down in writing, how they wanted things done. It was teaching the teachers, you might say.
Are there certain traits or characteristics you and your scouts have come to look for in a prospect that distinguishes a future big-leaguer?
The one thing we’ve tried to increase our efforts on is high-character guys. We call it “good make-up.” Talent is the biggest thing, of course. There are a lot of good guys out there today driving trucks. We had some players [not long ago] who had talent, but they got to St. Louis and didn’t really fit in the clubhouse. We look more at the personality and work ethic. The primary focus is still the ability to hit or pitch. But tiebreakers could go to someone with a little less talent, but with good make-up. What kind of teammate that player will be is very important to us.
Is there a current Cardinal who personifies a high-character player?
In recent years, Jon Jay and Allen Craig fit that profile. They weren’t necessarily highly touted, or top-100 prospects. But they were always productive players. Guys have been raving about [pitcher] Michael Wacha, not just his stuff, but the way he carries himself, his demeanor. He should fit right in.
What’s a harder skill to measure for future success: pitching or hitting?
They’re both difficult. For a young player, the hardest thing to project is what kind of power a hitter is going to have. Strength comes later, as guys mature. With pitching, you can put up a radar gun and measure velocity, but what kind of command does he have? Can he develop a breaking pitch?
Physical maturity is one thing, and amateur players are often using metal bats, so you have to factor in that transition [to wooden bats].
Tell us about Oscar Taveras. He’s been compared with Vladimir Guerrero, even Roberto Clemente.
I hesitate to make comparisons. But Oscar’s a tremendous hitter. Even before the 2012 season, his [swing] was so advanced. We’d all like to take credit for his hitting ability, but it was a lot of natural ability and work on his part. Our coaches didn’t have to do a lot of instructing from the offensive side, but his defense and base-running . . . that had kind of lagged behind. He took it to heart and really worked hard last season. Our goal is to make him a complete player for St. Louis. He’s fun to watch. Loves to play the game.
He doesn’t get cheated at the plate. He swings hard, but he doesn’t swing at everything that comes his way. He’s getting more selective, the closer he gets to the big leagues. He loves to be aggressive, but he’s not going to chase a lot of balls. He uses the whole field; he’s not a dead-pull hitter. That’s a trait that usually takes a long time to master.
St. Louis has four pitchers (Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Martinez, and Wacha) among the top 100 prospects in baseball. Is this a farm director’s nirvana?
A few years ago, [former Cardinals pitching coach] Dave Duncan wanted us to develop more power pitchers. So we talked to our amateur scouting department and our pitching instructors. It’s one thing to have power arms, though. Dunc’s philosophy has always been quality strikes, down in the zone. It’s not so much what type of delivery a pitcher uses, as long as he gets results. We have five pitchers who could be headed to Memphis that can hit 95 mph in the zone. That’s Triple-A. And there are guys with power arms behind them.
For a market like St. Louis, there’s a premium on developing talent (as opposed to shopping the free-agent market). Does that put more pressure on the scouting department?
We feel a responsibility. If there’s a need at the major-league level, we’re not doing our job if there’s not an alternative at the minor-league level. Now, they may not choose to go that route. A couple of years ago, we needed a shortstop and we traded for Rafael Furcal. We don’t have the television revenue of some larger markets, so with free agency we have to be more selective. That’s why it’s important to have a farm system that can produce inexpensive talent for the big-league team.
It appears seven of the nine Cardinal starters on Opening Day will have come through the farm system. You must take some special pride in that.
The entire baseball operations department should be proud of that. It’s definitely not an individual thing. But it’s fun to be a part of it.
Do the facilities at AutoZone Park — generally considered the best stadium in the minor leagues — contribute to player development, or is it merely cosmetic enhancement?
There are times we go out and sign minor-league free agents, and the chance to play in a park like you have in Memphis is a big selling point. From the players’ perspective, they can get their work in and not worry about inferior facilities. We’re very happy to be there, and appreciative that our guys get to play in that environment.
Among college basketball’s national champions this century, the 2010-11 Connecticut Huskies will always stand out for me. And it has little to do with what Kemba Walker and friends did over three weeks of the NCAA tournament. That team belongs among the remarkable for what it did in the Big East tournament, winning five games in five days. Again, for emphasis: UConn won five games in five days to win the Big East’s automatic berth in the Big Dance. (Having entered the Big East tourney with a record of 21-9, the Huskies were not a lock for a bid. You can almost hear John Houseman chiming in: “They earned it.”) The Huskies needed overtime to beat Syracuse in the Big East semifinals. Few teams have labored quite so much on their way to “One Shining Moment.”
Which brings us to this week’s Conference USA tournament in Tulsa. The Memphis Tigers find themselves in an impossible place, really. Having won all 16 of their regular-season league games, the U of M is supposed to win three more — in three days — to lock up an automatic berth for the NCAAs. Should they fall short, the Tigers will expose themselves to criticism near and far ... most importantly in the tournament selection room this Sunday.
I get weary, at times, with Josh Pastner’s mantra (at least one of them): “Winning is hard.” But let me go on the record as saying winning three basketball games in three days ... is hard. Players accustomed to taking the floor twice a week — with at least two days off between games — are asked to rev their engines with every rotation of the earth. It’s a challenge of the first order, whether you call the ACC or C-USA home. If the Tigers lose this week in Tulsa, they’ll deserve criticism. If they win the tournament championship for a third straight season, give them their due.
• The way I see it, there are five contenders for the 2013 NBA championship, each of these teams with more than twice as many wins as losses: Miami, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, the L.A. Clippers, and your Memphis Grizzlies. The trouble for those teams without LeBron James on their roster is that they all belong to the Western Conference, meaning they’ll likely have to beat two of the other super teams to raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
The returns on the Grizzlies’ trade of Rudy Gay (on January 31st) are entirely positive: a 13-4 record since the deal, including an eight-game winning streak. But the Grizzlies have yet to play their three most threatening conference brethren since the trade. (Let’s not count the loss to Oklahoma City on the day of the trade, when Tayshaun Prince didn’t suit up for Memphis.) With Gay, the Griz were 2-4 against the Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers. This Wednesday in Los Angeles, we’ll get a glimpse at what kind of gap (if any) exists between the Grizzlies and another Western power. Then Memphis will have one more game against each of the power trio before the regular season comes to a close on April 17th. The verdict on the Gay/Prince trade will come when the playoffs arrive. But we should get our first hint this week.
• With St. Louis shortstop Rafael Furcal shut down for the near future (his throwing elbow will be surgically repaired), the Cardinals will likely field seven former Memphis Redbirds when they open the 2013 season at Arizona on April 1st. Only outfielders Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran will have found their way to St. Louis without some time spent at AutoZone Park. The most attention may well be on Furcal’s replacement at short, Pete Kozma. A hero of last season’s Cardinal playoff run, Kozma actually spent most of the 2012 campaign at second base for Memphis, where he hit only .232 but led the team with 63 RBIs. (Kozma leap-frogged the Redbirds’ regular shortstop, Ryan Jackson, when he was promoted to St. Louis last September.)
If he starts on Opening Day, Kozma will be only the second former Redbird (after Brendan Ryan in 2010) to open the season at the position made sacred (for Cardinal fans) by Ozzie Smith. The 2013 Cardinals should have enough offensively to hide any drop-off from Furcal to Kozma. But St. Louis will be trusting Kozma to handle arguably the game’s most challenging position, with only journeyman Ronny Cedeno in reserve.
I’m a casual tennis fan. By this I mean there are five weeks every year when I pay close attention to professional tennis results: the second week of each Grand Slam event and the week — here we are — when The Racquet Club of Memphis hosts the U.S. National Indoor. I fell in love with tennis in the early Eighties when Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and Jimmy Connors were beating each other up from the lawns of Wimbledon to the concrete jungle of New York City. I fell in love with Memphis the first time I visited my grandmother (before Borg’s first Wimbledon championship). The two have made a natural connection in my heart since I made Memphis my home 22 years ago.
Casual fans, though, are having a difficult time these days connecting the Memphis tournament to the faces of tennis. Since Wimbledon in 2003, 39 Grand Slam events have been played and 34 of them have been won by the most dominating trio the sport has seen since the open era began in 1968: Roger Federer (17 Grand Slam titles), Rafael Nadal (11), and Novak Djokovic (6). Troubling for the Memphis tournament — and casual fans like me — is the fact that no member of this triumvirate has ever played a match at The Racquet Club. For an event that counts Borg, McEnroe, Connors, Pete Sampras, and Andre Agassi among its past champions, this is a dramatic fall across eras of the sport.
Why haven’t the Big Three made a Memphis appearance? The answer starts with the staggering amount of money players earn today on the ATP tour. Nadal had an injury-plagued year in 2012, merely winning a single Grand Slam event (the French Open for the seventh time). For his struggles, Nadal earned a cool $4.8 million. The top player in the world — Djokovic — took $12.8 million to the bank last year. This week’s Memphis champion will get a check for $291,800. Which means it takes at least $291,801 for a European tennis legend to cross the Atlantic in February.
As recently as 1996, the Racquet Club hosted the top two players in the world, and three of the top five. A significant difference then: all three men — Sampras, Agassi, and Michael Chang — were American. No ocean hopping was required to be part of the February fun in Memphis. This week, and for the second straight year, not a single top-10 player will slam a forehand across a Racquet Club net. (Twelfth-ranked Marin Cilic of Croatia is the top seed.)
The stars’ continued absence is felt. Don’t doubt that tournament director Peter Lebedevs would find a Peabody suite (minimum) for one of the Big Three if he chose to play here. And the tournament faces new challenges. For the first time since 2000, Andy Roddick won’t be here. The top seed in Memphis a record nine times and the last American to win a Grand Slam (2003 U.S. Open), Roddick retired at the end of the 2012 season. Perhaps more troubling for the tournament’s bean counters, the event will be without a title sponsor for the first time in more than two decades. As for the women’s event — played here since 2002 and won recently by Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova — this will be the last year the ladies share a week with the men at The Racquet Club.
All this whining about what’s missing, though, is merely to frame what remains worth loving: professional tennis at The Racquet Club of Memphis. The venue offers the best view of this beautiful game you’ll find on the planet, certainly better than any of the oversized stadiums that host Grand Slam finals. Better yet, the event is one of the biggest annual fund-raisers for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. If you’ve seen a trophy presentation at the end of this special week, you know the latest Memphis champion will merely reflect the glow of a St. Jude patient smiling ear to ear. It’s a priceless moment, one no tennis star — however rich and famous — can outshine.
Sports are cyclical, if nothing else. The reign of Federer/Nadal/Djokovic will expire someday, and tennis will gain new stars, new “faces” of the sport. Perhaps even an American star (or two) who sees an annual visit to Memphis and its cozy tournament venue as the reward it is. Until that day, consider every Racquet Club ace or backhand winner a shot for St. Jude. And world class.
When MLB.com released its rankings of baseball’s top 100 prospects last week, you could just about hear the fireworks at AutoZone Park. Six players on the list are in the St. Louis Cardinals’ system, including the third-ranked player (outfielder Oscar Taveras) and no fewer than four pitchers who could find their way into the Cardinal rotation by 2015. Overall, the Cardinal system is atop Baseball America’s rankings for the first time since the publication first released their list in 1985. (The St. Louis system was dead last in the rankings as recently as 2005. You can bet Cardinal farm director John Vuch has earned a raise.)
What does this mean for Memphis baseball fans in 2013? Here’s a look at the Cards’ Big Six prospects, and the likelihood of seeing each at Third and Union.
• Oscar Taveras (outfielder, age 20, #3 in MLB.com rankings) — He’s the Cardinals’ most exciting hitting prospect since, well, Colby Rasmus in 2009. Taveras was the Texas League Player of the Year in 2012, when he hit .321 with 23 homers and 94 RBIs for Double-A Springfield. Taveras’s combination of power (.572 slugging percentage) and precision (only 56 strikeouts in 477 at-bats) would make Rasmus envious. Taveras is so young, it’s hard to imagine what his ceiling might be with continued progress up the ladder. He’ll play rightfield everyday for Memphis (if not center) unless there’s a calamity in the Cardinal outfield. But with Carlos Beltran under contract for only one more season with St. Louis, this will be your first and last summer to enjoy the Redbirds’ Big O.
• Shelby Miller (pitcher, 22, #25) — After a dreadful start at the Triple-A level, Miller pitched well enough over the last two months of the Redbirds’ 2012 season to earn a spot on the Cardinals’ postseason roster. Despite his struggles last summer in Memphis, Miller set a franchise record with 160 strikeouts, then struck out 16 in 13 2/3 innings for the Cardinals. Miller may relish taking a backseat to Taveras on the prospect caravan, as he’ll be battling the three hurlers below (not to mention Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly) for consideration from the Cardinals. Look for Miller to start the season in the Redbirds rotation but with a reasonable chance for promotion (even for middle relief) around the All-Star break.
• Carlos Martinez (pitcher, 21, #33) — Martinez split time last year between Class A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield. At the higher level, he put up a 2.90 ERA over 71 innings and held opponents to a .237 batting average. (Batters hit .260 off Miller a year ago.) His small frame (6’0”, 165 pounds) begs for time in the weight room, as he’s already been sidelined with shoulder tenderness. Best thing that could happen to Martinez and the Redbirds would be to spend an entire season together.
• Trevor Rosenthal (pitcher, 22, #43) — Longtime Cardinal followers were adjusting their jaws last October as Rosenthal introduced himself to the nation by striking out 15 in 8 2/3 combined playoff innings — without allowing a run — against Washington and San Francisco. The Missouri native essentially skipped Triple-A (only three games for Memphis) after going 8-6 with a 2.78 ERA at Springfield. As good as he looked out of the bullpen for St. Louis, he may get a chance to start a few games with the Redbirds before a midseason promotion. Based on what we saw last fall, Rosenthal could excel in either role.
• Kolten Wong (second base, 22, #79) — Second base has been a position of volatility for the Cardinals since Fernando Vina went down with a hamstring injury during the 2003 season. (Remember Bo Hart’s summer of glory?) Tony Womack, Mark Grudzielanek, Adam Kennedy, Aaron Miles, and Skip Schumaker have spent time at the position, with Daniel Descalso now there to keep the spot warm until Wong’s arrival. The Hawaii native hit .287 for Springfield in 2012, stealing 21 bases and providing solid, if unspectacular, defense. Don’t be surprised if Wong leads the 2013 Redbirds in plate appearances.
• Michael Wacha (pitcher, 21, #83) — Few Cardinal pitchers in recent years have been able to look Adam Wainwright directly in the eye, but the 6’6” Wacha would come close. The question is whether or not Wacha can be the kind of workhorse Waino has become. Wacha was the 19th pick in last summer’s draft after starring in college at Texas A & M. He pitched a total of 11 games last summer (four of them at Springfield) but struck out 40 hitters in 21 innings. His pro resume may be thin, but Wacha is actually older than Martinez. Don’t be surprised if he finds his way to AutoZone Park after a month or two of Double-A seasoning.
The Redbirds open the 2013 season on April 4th at AutoZone Park against the Oklahoma City RedHawks. Mark Harrell, Springfield Cardinals
College football fans remember the “Bowden Bowl,” the annual meeting (from 1999 to 2007) between coach Bobby Bowden’s Florida State Seminoles and his son, Tommy’s Clemson Tigers. Those meetings brought a nice family touch to an ACC game that wouldn’t be all that interesting beyond the southeastern United States.
For more than a decade now, we’ve watched Serena Williams and her sister, Venus, absolutely dominate professional tennis, with a total of 22 Grand Slam singles titles since 1999. Richard Williams and Oracene Price have watched their daughters play each other in eight Grand Slam finals, Serena winning six of them. (Venus has only lost one Grand Slam final to a person with different parents.) When they play together, the Williams sisters are quite unbeatable, 13-0 in Grand Slam finals.
With apologies to the Bowden and Williams families, though, we’ve never seen what we will this Sunday, when coach John Harbaugh leads the Baltimore Ravens against brother Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. Even for a one-day sports spectacle built on inflated story lines, I don’t think it’s possible to overhype two men sprung from the same womb competing for the Lombardi Trophy. Consider there have been 92 coaching “slots” in Super Bowl history, and no two brothers have coached any pair of games, let alone the same one. It’s the stuff that will make dinner conversation for generations of Harbaugh siblings . . . the day two limbs on the family tree somehow met and held the attention of an entire country for three hours.
As a brother myself, and the father of two daughters, these are two thoughts I’ve had dancing in my head since the Harbaugh boys each won a conference championship on January 20th:
• No matter who sings the national anthem, no matter how Beyonce looks (or sounds), no matter who wins the big game Sunday, the most poignant moment of Super Bowl XLVII will be the postgame handshake between coaches. (For those who saw Jim’s confrontation with Lions coach Jim Schwartz after a 2011 game, you know the man makes the most of this always-brief ritual.) For the first time ever (yes, ever) the Super Bowl-winning coach will have legitimate sympathy for the losing coach. And likewise, the losing coach will have more than a little joy for his conqueror. Life’s short, with only one Super Bowl a year and 32 franchises desperate to play in the game. There’s no guarantee either Harbaugh boy will be back to the big stage. How’d you like to look your brother in the eye and tell him, “Good battle. Next one’s yours.”
• I’ve come to see the two weeks between the conference championships and the Super Bowl as punishment for all us football fans who pay too much attention to oversized men knocking each other down every Sunday. For 13 full days, we hear and see every possible story angle dissected, broadcast, and often rewound for our gridiron edification.
If this is hard on fans, imagine the strain it puts on the coaches. No matter what they might say, there is a lot of time to think between football games. And what do you think John and Jim Harbaugh are thinking about (right now)? They’re thinking, “What a glorious curse: My brother is in the way of my ultimate dream fulfilled.”
And finally my thoughts turn to Jack and Jackie Harbaugh. One of their sons will raise the Lombardi Trophy Sunday ... and one will lose. Whether they’re watching from a Wisconsin living room or a Superdome suite, Ma and Pa Harbaugh will experience a form of joy laced with heartache unlike any two parents ever have before. How exactly does one process such emotion?
Years ago, my wife asked me how I’d handle a Wimbledon final played between the Murtaugh sisters. I smiled at the thought, but only briefly. My answer: “I’d hug the loser first.”
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” — Martin Luther King Jr.
Way back in 2001, when the Vancouver Grizzlies’ move to Memphis was confirmed, the most common thought and expression, from Harbor Town to Collierville and from Millington to Olive Branch, was “We’re finally big league!” After dalliances with the ABA, WFL, USFL, CFL and, lest we forget, the XFL, Memphis would finally be part of a league whose initials — NBA! — could stand alone nationwide, worldwide even. (Bridging eras, the new team’s nickname was actually the informal calling card of the Memphis Southmen, this city’s entry in the World Football League during the 1970s.) Memphis would appear in standings that folks in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, and New York actually cared about.
I’ve got mixed feelings about the “big-league” label. Memphis has been big-league in ventures outside the sports arena for decades. Consider St. Jude and the war against childhood cancer. A few rock-and-roll Hall of Famers sharpened their games in Memphis before becoming household names. And how about distribution before and after FedEx? The Bluff City has long had big-league credentials, just minus those standings in the sports section.
But there’s one day each year that makes me feel decidedly Big League (caps required). It’s the annual Martin Luther King Day game at FedExForum. First played in 2003 (the Grizzlies lost to Portland at The Pyramid), the game serves as a national salute to a surpassing human being, from the city where he was tragically struck down in 1968. (For anyone who might feel the location of such a game is inappropriate, remember James Earl Ray was a drifter from Illinois. He was less a Memphian than Juan Carlos Navarro.) The game is televised nationally, during the day when kids can enjoy the contest from start to finish.
Better yet, since 2006 the Grizzlies and National Civil Rights Museum have partnered in saluting former athletes who have made a difference beyond the sports arena. Want to feel big-league? Check out the list of men (no women yet) who have received the Sports Legacy Award: Bill Russell, David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Lanier, Julius Erving, Dave Bing, Oscar Robertson, Alonzo Mourning, Willis Reed, Lenny Wilkens, George Gervin, Clyde Drexler, Elgin Baylor, and Patrick Ewing. Those are merely the former NBA greats. Three players on every alltime top-10 list (Abdul-Jabbar, Robertson, and Russell) and 25-percent of the 1992 Dream Team (Robinson, Drexler, Ewing).
Mannie Jackson was honored (with Russell) in 2006. You’ve heard of the Harlem Globetrotters? Jackson owns the franchise.
Willie Mays was honored in 2011. If not the greatest baseball player in history, he’s among the top three.
Jim Brown is a 2013 honoree (along with Baylor and Ewing). If not the greatest football player in history, he’s among the top three.
It’s wonderful that so many decidedly big-league legends have been accorded adulation here in Memphis, and adulation for making an impact on lives. Mutombo battles hunger and poverty in Africa. Brown battles gang violence. Mourning battles kidney disease, an ailment he knows all too well himself. These heroes have used their achievements as athletes to enhance the difference they can make in the larger community. Think Dr. King would be proud? (Let’s remember the Grizzlies Charitable Foundation earned the franchise Sport Team of the Year for 2012, an international honor awarded over finalists from the U.K. and Australia. And, ahem, the Boston Celtics.)
It would be nice if the Grizzlies could beat a tough Indiana Pacers team Monday afternoon. (Memphis is 5-5 on MLK Day.) But whether you’re watching at the arena or from your living room, take a deep breath of pride and raise your shoulders, Memphians. Our big-league team will deliver on Martin Luther King Day. Victory assured.
Among the countless charms of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the engraved nicknames on the plaques of honored members are the most endearing. After all, these are the names we fans came to know our baseball heroes by, so much so that a plaque honoring Willie Mays would be incomplete without “Say Hey Kid” engraved for perpetuity. “Iron Man,” “Mr. October,” and “The Wizard” are as much a part of baseball history as Ripken, Jackson, and Smith. The finest nickname to be found on a plaque at the Cooperstown shrine, though, belongs to Stanley Frank Musial: “The Man.”
The greatest St. Louis Cardinal there has been or ever will be, Musial died at his home in St. Louis Saturday. He was 92.
My dad shook hands with a young Elvis Presley (in the basement of Katz Drug Store, September 1956), a story I heard a few times at the dinner table. But it was Dad’s reflections of an encounter with Stan Musial — at Russwood Park, on April 9, 1953 — that made him smile like a boy every time he shared the tale. Since Dad’s no longer with us, I’m telling it one more time.
The St. Louis Cardinals were playing an exhibition game against the Memphis Chicks that day, the Cards on their way north from spring training. Musial left the game after a few innings (St. Louis drubbed the home team, 12-5). During a break between innings, an 11-year-old Frank Murtaugh Jr. left his seat in the bleachers to get a hot dog or go to the restroom . . . this detail was lost over the years. The clubhouse was a short walk — underneath the bleachers — from the dugout at Russwood, and Dad happened to take his stroll just as Musial was on his way to the showers. As my father told the story, Stan the Man tapped him on the head, smiled, and asked, “How ya doin’ kid?” Who knows if those exact words were spoken. If my dad heard them, they were incidental to the colossal moment.
When Dad returned to his seat and told my grandfather about his meeting with the Man, Granddad grabbed his hand and escorted him back to the very spot, hoping to catch lightning twice within minutes. Alas, my grandfather never got to meet his hero.
And that’s what Musial’s passing represents to thousands (if not millions) of baseball fans: the loss (in mortal terms) of a hero. A contemporary of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, Musial never attained their celebrity, not playing a thousand miles from the country’s media center in the northeast. He merely hit the baseball better than any other man, save four or five who belong in the debate (Williams, DiMaggio, Cobb, Hornsby, maybe Wagner).
Dad and I saw Musial together at Ozzie Smith’s Hall of Fame induction in 2002. Musial delighted the crowd by playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on his harmonica. Then in 2004, at Game 3 of the World Series in St. Louis, Dad and I watched Musial throw out the first pitch (to none other than Bob Gibson). These were enriching moments, surely shared by thousands of fathers and sons in each crowd. They were the kind of moments Musial created most of his life.
Stan the Man played for three world champions with the Cardinals and was named MVP three times. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility (in 1969, the year Frank Murtaugh Jr. became a father). He collected exactly 1,815 hits on the road and 1,815 hits at home, his total of 3,630 trailing only those of Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, and Hank Aaron. Visit BaseballReference.com and look at the Hall of Fame Monitor, a statistic that weighs a player’s achievements collectively and measures his chances for election to the Hall of Fame. Stanley Frank Musial is number-one in baseball history.
When my daughter Sofia was assigned a book report in third grade, she chose to read a biography of Musial. She wrote a fine piece on her grandfather’s hero and actually sent a copy to Musial, courtesy of the Cardinals. About a month later, an envelope arrived in the mail from Stan the Man, Inc. Inside were two autographed postcards from Musial. The fact that my dad didn’t live to hear this story squeezes my heart to this day. He would laugh and cry, out loud.
The famous statue of Musial in front of Busch Stadium says, “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.” What we came to learn over the 92 years Musial blessed this earth is that he may well have been a perfect human being. Whatever protocols may exist in heaven, I know my dad’s jockeying for a long-awaited reunion.
Karma can be delicious when served on a sports dish. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro played a combined 8,171 regular-season games over the course of their long and celebrated careers. The number of World Series games they combined for? Seven. (All of them by Bonds, four of them losses.)
This Wednesday’s announcement of the 2013 class of inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame will stir more debate, discussion, and dissent than any such topic not centered on Pete Rose. Do players — like Bonds, Sosa, Palmeiro, and Roger Clemens — associated with baseball’s steroid era get a pass for the game’s highest individual honor if their career achievements are so grand the cheating can be viewed as incidental? (Which begs the question, is any cheating incidental?) How exactly do the Hall voters — members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) — distinguish between allegations (in the cases of Bonds, Clemens, and Sosa) and cases where a player was actually caught in the act (Palmeiro)? Most complicated of all, can voters be certain candidates for the Hall with less metaphorical smoke near their cases (Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell) never juiced?
It’s an impossible shell game, really. And I continue to deliberate over a uniform policy the Hall (and BBWAA) should adopt for stars that inflated their achievements with chemical boosters. I’ll say this: As long as Rose is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame and O.J. Simpson remains in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, ambiguity over what qualifies a former athlete for recognition will be the uncomfortable but necessary norm. (Side note: Whether or not Simpson killed two people, he’s a documented abuser of women. In my mind, a worse human being than any career steroid hound.)
There’s a component to the Hall of Fame those most passionately against the inclusion of steroid cheats must consider: The Hall is a repository of baseball history (really, nothing more) and should include the game’s entire history, however dark one era may seem in reflection. There are Hall of Famers whose numbers benefited from rosters watered down by World War II service. (And Hall of Famers like Ted Williams whose numbers would be that much greater had they not served overseas.) Needless to say, Cy Young would not have won 511 games had he not pitched for 22 years during the game’s “Dead Ball” era. And that’s the point: baseball eras come and go. They all have heroes and villains. And they all have — or should have — Hall of Famers.
So yes, I’d consider the ’Roid Rogues for Hall of Fame induction. Three of them — Bonds, Clemens, and Palmeiro (one of only four players with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs) — absolutely belong on a bronze plaque. But I’d have two qualifiers for my vote if I were selecting players to be displayed at the most famous sports museum in America:
• No election in the first year of eligibility. Some would say there’s no difference between a first-ballot Hall of Famer (like Ernie Banks) and a player who has to wait decades to get in (like the late Ron Santo). Those people aren’t paying attention. First-ballot selection is for the players you only need one name for: Ruth, Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Musial, Ripken. Their plaques should feature a distinguishing star. No player with serious steroid “smoke” near his name gets a vote on the first ballot.
• Plaques for players under a cloud of suspicion should say as much. A child gazing at Barry Bonds’ image 50 years from now might read the following: “Seven-time MVP, 14-time All-Star. Most career home runs (762) and walks (2,558) at time of retirement. Hit at least 30 home runs and stole at least 30 bases in five different seasons. Eight Gold Gloves. Spike in power numbers after age 35 called into question as part of game’s steroid era.”
Make Bonds (and Clemens, and Palmeiro, and Sosa) wait at least a year, to further consider the legitimacy of their astonishing statistics. For now, vote for Craig Biggio (3,000 hits, all in an Astros uniform) and Jack Morris (most wins in 1980s and a member of championship teams in Detroit, Minnesota, and Toronto). Every year needs a Hall of Fame class, clean or otherwise. As long as Pete Rose remains on the outside looking in, spare me the morality wall. It’s a history museum. A wonderful, inspiring history museum. But nothing more.
I’ve got my new year’s resolutions, and you’ve certainly got yours. But what about the resolutions of sports figures that will impact the games Memphians cheer in 2013? I’d like to imagine a few.
I, Robert Pera, resolve to ignore the trading deadline. My first winter as an NBA owner, and my — our! — Memphis Grizzlies appear to be on the short list of legitimate title contenders. Not only is the team playing well (wins over the Heat, Thunder, and Knicks before Thanksgiving!), but they seem to have firmly established a culture of energy in the Mid-South. A Grizzly vibe.
Jason Levien will be a difference-maker, I’m convinced. And adding John Hollinger to the staff sure caught some attention, didn’t it? The Grizzlies’ front office trending on Twitter?! Yep, this team is mine ... no, ours! Soon enough, our prints will be all over the on-court product. I’m not paying John Hollinger to merely gaze at his ratings system. But for this season, I’d like to give coach Lionel Hollins and his team a chance. The core of this roster made a playoff run two years ago without Rudy Gay. They did so last year with Zach Randolph hobbled. Which leaves the fundamental question: How far can this team go if healthy? We’re gonna find out. (Come draft day in June, the team is mine. Ours!)
I, Josh Pastner, resolve to take an early shower. Hard to please, this Tiger Nation. (Though they’re well coached.) There seems to be a growing perception that I’m soft on my team; I suppose an 0-11 record against ranked teams does that to a guy. (Ask Pierre Niles if I’m a soft coach. Or Wesley Witherspoon. Heck, ask Tarik Black.) No one wants to win a championship — national championship, that is — more than me. And that includes my players. But that doesn’t mean my players have grown deaf to the message. Does it? Come on, do I need to guzzle coffee and include expletives with my sideline tantrums to fully engage a group of athletes?
We have loads of talent. We have hometown kids, players Tiger Nation wants desperately to succeed. So why the slumped shoulders? Why the vitriol on talk shows and chat rooms? Heck, I’ve had enough of it. I’m coaching for my players, and they’re playing for me. Band of brothers, you know. (You’ve seen that movie, right? TV series, whatever.) I’ll pick the game (it will be at home), but I’m getting my rear end booted from a game during conference play. If this team (and season) needs a jolt, it can come from something other than caffeine. This will be the first (and hopefully last) secret I’ll keep from my players. But we’re fighting onward, criticism be ... you know.
I, John Mozeliak, resolve to let Oscar Taveras and Memphis get acquainted. Since I was named general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2008, we’ve managed to take our farm system from the depths of Baseball America’s rankings to near the top. All the while remaining a contender (and winning that remarkable World Series two years ago). Next month, we’ll head to Jupiter, Florida, with as much starting pitching depth as we’ve had in decades. And with one of the finest young hitting prospects on the planet.
Oscar Taveras won the Texas League batting title last year (.321) on his way to being named the loop’s Player of the Year. The kid’s slugging percentage was .572, and he turns 21 in June. With Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, and Carlos Beltran returning, our outfield is full (if healthy) for 2013. So we have the luxury, should we choose, to let Taveras take more than a few Triple-A hacks before adding a second bird to his jersey. The last time Memphis had this kind of hitting talent for a full season? In a word, never. (J.D. Drew was a midseason acquisition in 1998, Albert Pujols a postseason call-up two years later.) Enjoy the barbecue nachos, Oscar. We’ll see you — full-time — in April 2014.
I, Justin Fuente, resolve to ignore the noise. Man, what a first season. Open with a loss to UT-Martin and finish with a blowout win over Southern Miss. Toss that into your crystal ball for 2013 and shake it. Two months of hearing “same old Tigers” ... followed by a three-game winning streak where we scored points at will. Wish the season had been 16 games.
The only bad part of a season-ending winning streak, though, is the tease. A tease is kindling to the fires of expectation. When we enter the Big East this fall — the watered-down version, if you listen to the experts — we should be competitive. Break-even, if not in contention for a conference title. Come on, now. This program is still aiming for a full allotment of scholarship players. Our starting quarterback creates more “wow” moments on the piano than he does in the pocket. (But he’s a winner, dammit. We’re sticking with him.) I have an idea for where this program can go. And I’m willing to take risks to get there. (Check my record on fourth-down attempts.) As for all the chatter our taste of success has created? That’s what headphones were made for.