Monday, December 10, 2007

FROM MY SEAT: Warming by the Hot Stove

We may be two weeks from Christmas, but baseball is never far from my mind.

Posted By on Mon, Dec 10, 2007 at 4:00 AM

• 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.

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