Busch Stadium in St. Louis has never looked more like AutoZone Park in Memphis. It's not so much the facade, the concourse, or the downtown setting. Rather, it's the players in uniform for the Cardinals, a team surprising experts coast to coast by playing themselves into contention for a wild-card playoff berth, if not the National League's Central Division title. And in a time of crisis (read: Albert Pujols on the disabled list), Memphis Redbird alumni will play a critical role in determining how long St. Louis remains in contention.
Over the next month, we're very likely to see a Cardinal lineup that consists of the following: Braden Looper at pitcher, Yadier Molina at catcher (or Bryan Anderson, should Molina end up on the DL, too, after being hurt in a collision at home plate Sunday), Chris Duncan at first base, Adam Kennedy at second, Brendan Ryan at shortstop, Troy Glaus at third, Ryan Ludwick in leftfield, Rick Ankiel in centerfield, and Skip Schumaker in rightfield. With the sole exception of Glaus, every one of those players spent significant time refining their craft at Third and Union in downtown Memphis. Add a few pitchers to the mix -- rookie Chris Perez, Randy Flores, and the just-recalled Anthony Reyes, to name three -- and there will be few Cardinal victories that don't come via the bats and arms of players we've cheered here in the Bluff City.
What can we make of all this familiarity up I-55? For one thing, it's a degree of vindication for the much-criticized Cardinal minor-league system. Having gone 114-174 over 2006 and 2007, the Redbirds have been unsightly, so much so that local ownership has stubbornly refused to sign the paperwork that will extend the affiliation with St. Louis beyond 2008. But the cupboard hasn't been entirely bare, not when players like Schumaker and Ryan -- hardly marquee names during their days in Memphis -- are now helping to win games in the big leagues. (Ryan may prove to be Kennedy's ticket out of town, actually. In the second year of a three-year contract, Kennedy's production has nose-dived from the level he displayed over seven years with the Angels, with whom he was the ALCS MVP in 2002. If the hyper-kinetic Ryan can find a steady approach to playing the Tony LaRussa Way, he'll be an everyday middle-infielder in 2009.)=
For most of this decade, the Cardinals rode a wave of imports to the kind of perennial success normally reserved for teams with larger payrolls. Edgar Renteria, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Jason Isringhausen, Mike Matheny, and Chris Carpenter were all critical components to the franchise earning five division titles, two pennants, and a world championship. And they all cut their minor-league teeth for other franchises. But with the departure of longtime general manager Walt Jocketty (now in charge at Cincinnati), the Cardinals appear focused on planting seeds for homegrown stars who can help win now and provide economic flexibility for the occasional free-agent splash. Looking at the current Memphis roster, Colby Rasmus (the organization's top-ranked prospect), Joe Mather (back from two weeks in the big leagues), and Mike Parisi (back in the Redbird rotation after a stint with St. Louis) are just three players all but guaranteed to have two cardinals on their uniform a year from now.
The Cardinals showed considerable character last weekend, rebounding from a 20-2 drubbing by Philadelphia Friday night to win the next two games and take the series from the Phillies. The big blow in Saturday's win was a two-run homer by Kennedy (alas, his first of the season). On Sunday, Reyes earned the win in relief when Ankiel scored with two outs in the 10th inning on a ball hit by Duncan. The location was St. Louis and the packed stadium was colored the red of Cardinal Nation. But the faces and flavor of both wins were distinctly Memphis.
I've come to believe the most challenging element in surviving the passing of a loved one is lost conversation. Physical presence is invaluable, of course, but we are foremost a species of communication. And it's the lost chats -- long or brief, in the same room or across a phone line -- that make the absence of someone we love so acute, so permanent.
As Father's Day approaches -- the third since I lost my dad - my mind has wandered in scattered directions, imagining the conversations Dad and I would enjoy these days, so many of them attached to the world of sports.
Dad and I would discuss the glorious irony of the Stanford St. Jude Classic somehow rising above the biggest name in the world of golf. How somehow, year after year, the PGA's visit to Southwind manages to present Memphis -- Dad's hometown -- in a shining light of class, dignity, and southern grace. Dad would scoff at how much the world's top-ranked player is missing, whether he knows it or not.
Dad and I would discuss Big Brown and the nature of a "sure thing" in horse racing. Dad would remind me that guaranteeing a Triple Crown champion before the Belmont is run is why sportswriters don't cover Wall Street.
Dad and I would discuss the vexing sport of baseball, still the hardest team game to forecast. His beloved St. Louis Cardinals say goodbye to three All-Stars -- Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, and David Eckstein -- and replace them with the likes of Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumaker, and Cesar Izturis . . . and improve. A team that the experts assured us would be in its division cellar without Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder to pitch are contenders in June with Todd Wellemeyer and Kyle Lohse fortifying the rotation.
Dad and I would discuss -- and laugh about -- the Rick Ankiel Story. No Hollywood producer would accept the script. Flame-throwing lefty loses his capacity to hit the catcher's mitt, only to return six(!) years later as a slugging outfielder. One who makes the catch of the year at Busch Stadium on June 1st. (And Dad would remind me of another southpaw prospect of days gone by, one who happily turned his attention to hitting, too. Name of Musial.)
Dad and I would discuss the first NBA Finals since 1994 without Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, or Tim Duncan. And while the Lakers and Celtics make for high theater, I can hear Dad paraphrasing Lloyd Bentsen: "Kobe and KG, you're not Magic and Bird."
Dad and I would discuss the beauty of hockey, relative to NBA basketball. (Dad came to love hockey late in his life, as his employer -- Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont -- won a pair of Division III national championships.) In watching the Stanley Cup finals, a viewer could see six minutes of continuous action between Pittsburgh and Detroit, however difficult it may be to follow the puck. In watching pro basketball, we're fortunate if we see sixty seconds of continuous action. Dad would agree, the most boring moment in all of spectator sports is an NBA player shooting a free throw.
Dad and I would discuss the upcoming Olympic Summer Games in Beijing, and we'd emphasize to one another how very little the medal counts will mean, how the stars in the swimming pool, on the track, or in the gymnastics arena will be merely players on a stage the world desperately needs to see stabilized. An economics professor, Dad would point out how the Chinese will shape the twenty-first century every bit as much -- perhaps more -- than we Americans. He'd hope, as I do, that the Olympics provide a launching pad to greatness for the globe's most volatile super power.
Dad and I would discuss, of course, the joy of watching our children play games. And he'd insist I tape the softball games, tee-ball games, gymnastic shows, and horseback events his granddaughters are so enjoying these days. I'd tell him that he'll get the chance to see them himself, perhaps on his next trip south. And he'd remind me that every moment counts, that we mustn't plan too much for tomorrow as today unfolds.
So sons and daughters, have a conversation with your dad this Sunday. Fathers, do the same with your children. It certainly doesn't have to center on sports (aim higher, but use sports as a happy cushion if needed). The chat may seem fleeting, may even distract you from the day's events. But you'll find that the right kind of conversation will last a lifetime. Even a little longer.
When Joe Louis was running roughshod over boxing's heavyweight division in the 1930s and '40s, the collection of pretenders to his throne came to be known as the Bum of the Month Club. Fight fans couldn't turn away from the Brown Bomber's signature greatness, but reality held that each of his matches were merely formulaic coronations of a boxer performing at a standard otherwise unreachable by mere humans.
Over the last decade, professional golf has been merely a nine-iron away from Bum of the Month status, as Tiger Woods has so thoroughly dominated, particularly on the grand stages of the major championships. But hope remains for golf fans in a way boxing loyalists six decades ago might only have imagined. And much of that hope arrives in Memphis this weekend.
As the PGA Tour descends on TPC Southwind for the 2008 Stanford St. Jude Championship, Woods is once again absent (this time allowing his left knee to continue healing from recent arthroscopic surgery). With Phil Mickelson also scarce, the two most famous names on the Tour will miss the final tune-up before the U.S. Open is played next week in San Diego. But let's get back to hope.
Among the world's greatest golfers who will tee it up at Southwind are three-time major winner Vijay Singh, two-time U.S. Open champ Retief Goosen, 1997 British Open champion Justin Leonard, reigning British Open champ Padraig Harrington, and reigning Masters champion Trevor Immelman. Add to this list local favorites like John Daly and Shaun Micheel, along with two-time Memphis champ David Toms and you have a field of golf talent that should soothe any worries of the Tiger-centric broadcast team from CBS. As for those of us who tune in to sport less for celebrity and more for competition at its highest level, this is precisely the kind of field we crave.
That said, the PGA needs a player -- whether one of those named above or someone we don't even recognize with his bag -- to rise up. Mickelson has proved to be a mere distraction as Woods' chief rival. (Along with Singh and Ernie Els, Mickelson's three majors are the closest any current player can claim to the 13 Tiger has won.) But where is the player with the clubs to compete with Woods consistently Thursday through Saturday and, well, the balls to compete with Woods on Sunday? The good news is that there are lots of candidates -- and with each of them, hope -- out there.
Since 2001, no fewer than 16 players have won a major for the first time. (Woods has won eight of his majors over the same period.) Again, out of the last 29 major champions, more than half have been first-time winners. But when you read the list of names -- David Duval, Goosen, Toms, Rich Beem, Mike Weir, Jim Furyk, Ben Curtis, Micheel, Mickelson, Todd Hamilton, Michael Campbell, Geoff Ogilvy, Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera, Harrington, and Immelman -- only two of them (Goosen and Mickelson) have won a second major title. Golf has long brandished a particular player as the Greatest Never to Win a Major. (The current wearer of the PGA's dunce cap -- Sergio Garcia -- will be playing at Southwind this week.) But we may need to come up with an equally backhanded moniker: One-Title Wonders.
You'll see five Wonders compete for the SSJC's first seersucker jacket (a new local twist on the green variety presented each April in Augusta, Georgia): Micheel, Toms, Harrington, Beem, and Immelman. This would be a good quintet to follow, if you're considering competition for Woods as he approaches Jack Nicklaus' once-out-of-reach record of 18 major championships. (And if you're the betting type, go with Toms. After winning the Memphis event in 2003 and 2004, Toms finished second in '05, 10th in '06, and third last year.)
Golf is an extraordinarily popular sport, in large part because it allows us "bums" to carry our bag on a crisp weekend morning, hacking our way around 18 holes, pretending we have a shot in our bag that would make the likes of Woods at least blink. But the element that keeps us chasing our slices and hooks is the most critical variable of all before we take a swing. It's also critical to the game at its highest level being the glorious addiction it can be. It's called hope.