5) Memphis 1, Sacramento 0 (July 26) -- A one-hitter and a game-winning hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. In terms of fan engagement -- you know, the crowd at AutoZone Park actually paying attention to the action on the field, as opposed to nurturing cellphone relationships -- this was the highlight of the 2007 Redbirds season. Starting pitcher Chris Narveson pitched five and two-thirds hitless innings against the first-place Sacramento River Cats, and was relieved more than capably by Matt Ginter and Troy Cate. With two outs in the ninth, Memphis drew three consecutive walks before Nick Stavinoha ripped a hit into the rightfield corner for a walk-off victory. For a night, at least, the standings didn't matter.
4) Jazz 104, Grizzlies 88 (February 28) -- In the closest parallel to Jack and Joe Buck my family is likely to realize, 7-year-old Sofia Murtaugh was part of a media contingent during a pregame press conference on Kids' Night at FedExForum. Her question for Grizzlies coach Tony Barone: "Which NBA player is the toughest to defend?" (Barone's answer: Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki.) Suited up in a mini-Grizz outfit for the pregame introductions and a dunk contest following the third quarter, young Murtaugh saw the home team jump out to a 20-4 lead, only to witness the Northwest Division-leading Jazz chip away and end the Grizzlies' two-game home winning streak. Pau Gasol's 28 points and 13 rebounds weren't enough to offset Utah's Carlos Boozer (24 points and 16 boards) and Deron Williams (14 points, 10 assists). The loss kept Memphis tied with Boston in the Greg Oden Sweepstakes, with an NBA-worst 15 victories on the season. Ms. Murtaugh was tucked snuggly in bed by the time Barone opened his postgame session.
3) Memphis 25, UAB 9 (November 17) -- In terms of probability -- or lack thereof -- this was the Game of the Year. The Tiger football team had been handled by the likes of Arkansas State, Middle Tennessee, UCF, and East Carolina (giving up 56 points to each of the latter two). They had lost a member of the team -- reserve defensive lineman Taylor Bradford -- in an on-campus murder not even two months earlier. They had not beaten the Blazers since 1999, and that was with DeAngelo Williams carrying the ball four of those years. Yet there in the end zone at game's end, hoisting the bronzed rack of ribs that has come to symbolize the "Battle for the Bones," was Tiger backup quarterback Will Hudgens. With Joseph Doss rushing for 168 yards, Duke Calhoun catching four passes for another 159, and Martin Hankins passing for 298 yards, the U of M earned bowl eligibility for the fourth time in five seasons. With a win over SMU the following week, Memphis finished with a conference record of 6-2, its best in 12 years of C-USA play.
2) Memphis 71, Houston 59 (March 10) -- For the second straight year, John Calipari's Tigers finished off a sweep of Conference USA's regular season and tournament championships with a win at FedExForum. (And for the second straight year, the victory gave the Tigers 30 wins for the season, on their way to a 33-4 finish.) The Tigers essentially had the Cougars beaten by halftime, up by 11 with a capacity crowd roaring for the national-television audience. Chris Douglas-Roberts scored 17 points on his way to earning tourney MVP honors. Fellow sophomore Antonio Anderson matched CDR's point total and dished out five assists. This marked the fifth time in Tiger basketball history that Memphis won both conference titles in the same year.
1) Dallas 35, St. Louis 7 (September 30) -- In the fine tradition of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, a friend and I packed up the horseless carriage and headed west, our destination Texas Stadium. Lifelong Cowboy fans, Johnny G and I counted the RV dealerships and cotton fields over our 450-mile journey, all for a chance to cast our shadows under that famous hole in the roof where Someone Else is rumored to keep watch over His favorite football team. We saw the Cowboys rack up 502 yards (their most in a non-overtime game since 1998) and improve to 4-0 for the first time in more than a decade. Tom Landry statue aside, the highlight was seeing Dallas quarterback Tony Romo retrieve a shotgun-snap over his head, turn upfield, and dodge at least three Ram tacklers to gain a first down. How 'bout them Cowboys, indeed.
It's time for my annual look at the 10 sporting events I attended this year that brought the biggest smiles.
10) UCF 2, Memphis 1 (October 28) -- Final score aside, this was a terrific double-overtime affair between the top two women's soccer teams in Conference USA. It happened to be the only loss the Tigers suffered at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex all season. Furthermore, it was a preview of the C-USA tournament championship, which was won by Memphis two weeks later. The U of M made its first appearance in the NCAA tournament, losing its opening-round game to finish the season at 17-4-1. It's a safe bet that coach Brooks Monaghan's team will appear on this list again next year.
9) Memphis 102, UT-Martin 71 (November 5) -- "A rare fall bloom." The Memphis Tiger basketball program's marketing metaphor for the arrival of freshman star Derrick Rose was too easy. And quite perfect. Witnessing Rose for the first time -- playing at a speed unfamiliar to most mortals -- was akin to sighting a comet, particularly with the knowledge that a year later he'll be wearing an NBA uniform. Better look now. Rose scored 17 points in his college debut, but had a game-high of "oohs," "ahhs," and bursts of audible disbelief from the crowd of 16,555 at FedExForum. The play I'll remember was Rose's second field goal, early in the first half, when he scorched along the baseline and elevated for a reverse layup. Somehow, the 19-year-old rookie seemed to move through the air faster than the other nine men on the court. (Is that possible?) Point guards aren't supposed to look so comfortable in the paint, among giants. One of John Calipari's challenges will be making sure Rose's teammates don't join the ranks of his admiring spectators.
8) Memphis 4, Omaha 2 (April 21) -- "I grew up a hockey player, and graduated a baseball player." On Stubby Clapp Night at AutoZone Park, the Redbirds retired the number worn between 1999 and 2002 by one backflipping second-sacker, Richard Clapp III. Made all the more appropriate during the franchise's 10th season in Memphis, a spotlight on the bullpen wall beyond centerfield illuminated Stubby's number 10 for posterity, just before a fireworks display and right after the Redbirds ended a four-game losing streak by beating the Royals. Tagg Bozied and Rico Washington connected for back-to-back homers to lead the Redbirds, and Mike Sillman was the winning pitcher despite only throwing a single pitch (one that induced a double play to end the fifth inning). The biggest cheers on this night, though, were saved for Stubby, who managed one more backflip -- in blue jeans, this time -- on his way to the microphone for his postgame speech.
7) Tucson 3, Memphis 2 (May 30) -- While the result was all too common for the 2007 Redbirds, it would be hard to match this Wednesday-afternoon "businessperson's special" at AutoZone Park. With the city schools closed for the summer, each of my two daughters joined me for the kind of ballpark outing normally reserved for summer Sundays. While there's little to remember from the pitcher's duel itself (Redbirds closer Brian Falkenborg lost the game on a wild pitch), our pregame family stroll through the team store was one for the scrapbooks, quite literally. For there, shining atop a table -- roped off for crowd control, folks -- was the 2006 World Series trophy. A pair of photo ops where my daughters' gleam was somehow matched by the hardware, and my smile was that of a boy at least a quarter-century younger. I can share the pictures with you.
6) St. Louis 5, Cleveland 1 (March 31) -- The inaugural Civil Rights Game at AutoZone Park was the right game at the right time in the right place. The brainchild of Redbirds president Dave Chase, the game -- presented under the Major League Baseball umbrella -- allowed two tradition-rich teams to play an exhibition in honor of the pioneers who integrated baseball and made it a game reflective of American (and now world) society. The Cardinals (a franchise that gave us labor legend Curt Flood) and the Indians (a franchise that broke the American League's color barrier with Larry Doby) played in uniforms styled in the tradition of the Negro Leagues. Better yet, Vera Clemente (Roberto's widow), Spike Lee, and the late Buck O'Neil were honored before the game with the first Beacon Awards. Throw in an Albert Pujols home run for the reigning world champs and the afternoon was quite perfect.
Check in next week for my top five.
The matchup for the second annual Civil Rights Game is well nigh perfect. The New York Mets and Chicago White Sox both have minority managers who happened to be fine infielders during their playing days. New York's Willie Randolph has had his team in contention each of the last two seasons, and Ozzie Guillen led Chicago to the 2005 world championship. Beyond the two managers, each club happens to have a minority general manager -- Omar Minaya with the Mets and Kenny Williams with the Sox.
In historic terms, the franchises fit nicely in Memphis, as each was once the parent affiliate of the Bluff City's minor-league outfit. My father (born in 1942) grew up associating the Chicks with the White Sox. Luis Aparicio played in Memphis before enjoying a Hall of Fame career on Chicago's South Side. Another White Sox Hall of Famer -- Luke Appling -- managed the Chicks to the Southern Association playoffs in 1952 and 1953.
As for the Mets, they were affiliated with the Double-A Memphis Blues from 1968 to 1973, a period when the Amazin's won the 1969 World Series and the 1973 National League pennant. Presuming the game will be televised nationally, having a New York team in the mix will do wonders for selling the message of the Civil Rights Game, not to mention the beauty of AutoZone Park. Lots of televisions in the five boroughs.
Among the charms of the Civil Rights Game are the three Beacon Awards. Last March the honorees were the late Buck O'Neil (Beacon of Life), Vera Clemente (Beacon of Hope), and Spike Lee (Beacon of Change). Far be it from me to handpick the 2008 honorees, but I'll take just enough cyberspace to nominate Bill White. A Gold Glove first-baseman for the 1964 world champion St. Louis Cardinals, White went on to become the first African-American league president when he oversaw the National League from 1989 to 1994. He'd be yet another nice fit in what is, after all, Cardinal Country.
What a mess the 2008 St. Louis Cardinals appear to have. (And it's still 2007, right?) Former All-Star Scott Rolen has apparently made it known he won't share a dugout with Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa (who just signed a two-year contract extension). With three years and more than $30 million still owed Rolen on his current contract, the Cardinals find themselves in a position where they have to move a disgruntled star coming off his third major surgery over the last five years. Any takers?
If I were new St. Louis G.M. John Mozeliak, I'd hold the pouting Rolen to his contract obligations, at least long enough for him to prove what kind of post-surgery player he'll be. At the least, this would remove one variable from an unfavorable bargaining equation. And come the 2008 All-Star break, teams will emerge with postseason aspirations that will be more willing to discuss prospects in a deal for the seven-time Gold Glover.
Though it may turn your stomach, imagine yourself a lifelong Minnesota Twins fan. In Johan Santana, you have the finest pitcher of the decade, one on the fast track to Cooperstown. A pitcher of Santana's ilk is the most challenging piece to place on a championship chess board. And he turns 29 in March, just entering his prime.
Happy days, right? Nope. The two-time Cy Young winner is too expensive. So a call goes out to the only two clubs that can afford this kind of asset: the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Cultivate that farm system all you like, Twinkies, but the prize crop will be harvested ultimately in the northeast. (Other clubs have recently been thrown into the mix, but this is merely bargaining strategy on Minnesota's part. Should hike Santana's asking price for the Yanks or Bosox.)
It's hardly news that the greenback shapes major-league rosters far more than actual personnel needs or fan loyalty might, but this kind of team-hopping makes a mockery of baseball's class system. Until the sport devises a salary cap -- in one form or another -- the haves will distance themselves from the have-nots. And Twin fans still have garbage bags in their outfield.
Until November 26th, their only link was a shared name and sport of choice. Sadly, though, Taylor Bradford of the Memphis Tigers and Sean Taylor of the Washington Redskins will now forever be linked for having been shot and killed during the 2007 football season. Which is actually a troubling connection, in my eyes. Why do murder victims need to be elite athletes for us to pay attention to gun violence in this country? And if the connection is going to be made, what might the sports world do to help the problem?
Here's a radical idea. (If young men being shot and killed before their 30th birthday doesn't merit a few radical thoughts, I'm not sure what does.) Instead of a league (or college conference) "mourning" with a victim's family and fans by dutifully playing the next scheduled games -- the show must go on, we're told -- why not blackout the games league wide for a day, and capture the attention of a nation all too willing to find the next news item after another young person has been killed by gunfire?
This will never happen, of course. Too much money to lose. (And don't doubt for an instant the variable team owners and athletic directors consider first when making this kind of decision.) But just consider the impact it might have, if thousands -- millions? -- of sports fans were forced to take pause and consider the epidemic of gun violence in our country. To weigh the importance of the Big Game, relative to a human life. To not simply see another athlete fill the role of the fallen victim, with a black patch on his uniform to pay "tribute."
The real tribute men like Taylor Bradford and Sean Taylor deserve is more attention given to the plague gun violence has become. If their higher profiles might help remove a few guns from the hands of people with no business carrying them, they'd have a bigger win than any they ever experienced on the gridiron.
Junior safety Brandon Patterson has been an integral part of the 2007 Memphis Tiger football team, now headed for the New Orleans Bowl on December 21st. Patterson is second only to Jake Kasser in tackles and has three interceptions to his credit. But last week he became a different kind of star. Patterson was named a second-team Academic All-America by ESPN the Magazine. According to U of M athletic media-relations director Jennifer Rodrigues, Patterson is the first Tiger to earn such an honor in 15 years. A native of Germantown, Patterson holds a 3.7 GPA and is working toward a master's degree in business administration. He's worthy of applause.
Those in favor of a playoff system for the highest level of college football are going to have a field day over the next month. When both the number-one (Missouri) and number-two (West Virginia) teams in the country lost last Saturday, the floodgates opened for at least eight teams that could claim as much right to a "national-championship game" berth as the other seven. The only undefeated team in the country -- Hawaii -- is ranked 10th by the AP poll, not even among the eight teams I see as worthy of a shot (though not what amounts to a two-round bye in a playoff system) at the national championship. LSU and Ohio State will face each other for the BCS title. But convince me they've had better seasons than Oklahoma (the Big 12 champ and twice conquerors of Missouri), Georgia (10-2, hottest team in the SEC, including the Bayou Bengals), Kansas (one loss, compared with LSU's two), Southern Cal (10-2, Pac 10 champs), Missouri (two losses to Oklahoma are no worse a blemish than LSU's one loss to Kentucky), or West Virginia (their loss to Pitt was the biggest fluke in a season of flukes).
All we need to fix this mess is a three-week playoff, with the eight teams above playing quarterfinals and semifinals at traditional bowl sites, then the BCS championship game for a winner-take-all. Here's hoping the Rainbow Warriors put a whuppin' on Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and LSU beats Ohio State. Tell an undefeated team another club is champion with two losses, because I couldn't.