There are times I wonder what the British make of sports coverage in America. New York tabloids have nothing on the rags you can pick up in London. But with the exception of the Wimbledon fortnight each summer, the English tend to focus their bold type on royalty. Who is Will dating? Has Harry been drinking? Did you see Fergie's dress?!
Here stateside, though, tabloid journalism -- well, at least a division of tabloid journalism -- revolves around professional athletes. The New York Daily News has treated Alex Rodriguez's romantic life with the same alarmed -- shocked! -- sensationalism Princess Diana endured right up to her sudden and horrific death. And those are savvy editors at the Daily News, for they recognize that New Yorkers thirst for Madonna-related rumors connected to their beloved Yankees far more than they do actual information on how those Yankees are playing these days.
Which brings me to the national American tabloid sports drama of the year: Brett Favre's retirement deliberation. You know the basics:
Having struggled in 2005 and 2006 (47 interceptions, 38 touchdown passes), Favre seemed to shave a decade off his aging process last fall, throwing 28 touchdown passes and only 15 picks in leading his Green Bay Packers back to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
At age 38, Favre was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. A first-ballot Hall of Famer had he retired five years ago, Favre's legend grew exponentially with his rediscovered joy of playing a game that cripples many and exhausts most (both physically and mentally).
Late last winter, in the most tearful and public retirement ever seen near "the frozen tundra," Favre stepped down. His standard explanation was that his body could still play in the National Football League, but his mind had simply grown tired of the preparation needed to excel.
Amid speculation over an "unretirement" that began the moment his tears had been dabbed, Favre has now indicated a desire to play a 17th season. And with Green Bay ready to hand the play-calling duties to Aaron Rodgers, Favre and the Pack are at odds in what until a few weeks ago was the most harmonious partnership since Fred and Ginger. Tabloid headlines, here we come.
I have a cocktail of reactions to the Favre story, not so much directly related to Mr. Packer, as they are well-worn observations on the comic/tragic elements to a great athlete stepping down.
First of all, it will be sad for football fans, sadder for Packer fans, and saddest of all for Brett Favre if he ends up wearing a Tampa Bay Buccaneer helmet, or a New York Jet helmet, even for a single season. This would be Namath in a Rams uniform, Unitas as a Charger. Favre in anything other than that iconic Packer helmet would be Joe Louis as a casino greeter in Vegas. Legends don't die, but they can diminish.
On the other hand, Favre is a commodity, and he knows this. For my money, I'd take a 38-year-old Favre over at least half of the 30 men who will start for NFL teams when the 2008 season opens. In Favre's mind, he'll never have the earning power he does as an NFL quarterback, so why not extend that market value as long as possible?
Finally, I say "in Favre's mind," because he is singular in that he built his legend in a place where "legend" is this side of hyperbole. For as long as the name Lombardi defines coaching in or around Wisconsin, so Favre will be the name and face of playing football the right way. If Favre can overcome this middle-age itch to suit up again, he'll never have to buy a meal in the Badger state. He can sell his name -- that commodity, remember -- to any business establishment from Sheboygan to LaCrosse, and simply count the checks in his mail.
Athletes play hard. They die hard. But nothing is harder for the greatest of players than to admit they can't quite play as they once did. (Take a look at Greg Maddux the next time he takes the mound for San Diego and you'll know what I mean.) Indecision wrapped up in lost youth are twin devils on a human being's shoulders. Perhaps this is why the tabloids -- and all their readers -- love the Favre story so much. Has he ever seemed more like one of us?
With baseball season's second half now officially underway, a few observations from last week's All-Star festivities:
The Texas Rangers' Josh Hamilton is the best individual story the sport has enjoyed in at least a decade (if not since the dawn of the mythical Steroid Era in the late Eighties). A former can't-miss prospect in Tampa Bay's system, Hamilton fell into drug addiction, leaving him out of baseball, and very nearly out of his marriage. Now clean, Hamilton is well on his way to the American League's MVP trophy, pacing the junior circuit in RBIs by a large margin.
Then came last Monday's Home Run Derby. In a "house" made famous by the most famous home-run hitter of them all, Hamilton hit 28(!) over the wall in the first round of baseball's version of the NBA's slam-dunk contest. You have to believe it was the kind of exhibition -- literally -- in which the athlete is proclaiming, "Look at me, ma. I can do it!" (The format of the Derby must be changed, though. Why even declare a "winner"? To suggest Justin Morneau won anything that night -- other than perhaps a gawking contest during Hamilton's display -- is to diminish the spectacle.)
The Memphis Redbirds were well represented, with four All-Stars having suited up in the Bluff City: Boston's J.D. Drew, Arizona's Dan Haren, and Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick of the St. Louis Cardinals. From the standpoint of Cardinal Nation, seeing Drew in a Red Sox uniform isn't all that troublesome (his trade to Atlanta after the 2003 season brought the Cardinals Adam Wainwright), but the sight of Haren in a D'backs lid? Coming merely days after Mark Mulder -- the lefty for whom Haren was traded before the 2005 campaign -- walked off a big-league mound (arm in tatters) for perhaps the last time, Haren appears to be the worst trade decision St. Louis has made since Steve Carlton was sent to Philadelphia for Rick Wise almost 40 years ago.
Drew became the third member of the 1999 Memphis Redbirds to earn MVP honors on a big-league stage. Adam Kennedy was MVP of the 2002 American League Championship Series. Placido Polanco earned the same award in 2006. And now Drew has the 2008 All-Star Game MVP hardware for his trophy case.
The Florida Marlins' Dan Uggla -- a former star at the University of Memphis -- took his share of heat from the local and national media after a positively dreadful showing in the All-Star Game. The second baseman hit into a double play, struck out three times, and made three errors in his All-Star debut (Uggla was selected in 2006, but didn't play). For the critics who made fun of everything from Uggla's name to his swing, I'd offer this: a bad day in baseball's All-Star Game beats a good day anywhere -- anywhere -- else.
The most uncomfortable man in America at midnight last Tuesday was baseball commissioner Bud Selig. With the game moving into extra innings, anyone still awake had flashbacks to the fiasco of 2002 when Selig declared the game a tie once each club had run out of pitchers. I have two thoughts on eliminating such discomfort for future All-Star Games:
1) If the game is tied after nine innings, why not decide the outcome with a meaningful Home Run Derby? Each manager selects five players, who get a single swing each (from the opposing league's batting-practice pitcher). Most dingers wins.
2) For this to be made a reality, MLB must do away with the game deciding home-field advantage for the World Series. A ludicrous notion to begin with, the concept has made a mockery of the American and National League's historical equality. (The last NL team to host Game 1 of the Fall Classic was Arizona seven years ago.)
I've read reports suggesting the Cardinals are now considering Colby Rasmus among their trade assets as the team searches for a dose of offensive support (the Pirates' Jason Bay tops their list of pursuits, apparently). Such a move would be counter to the franchise's relatively new mission of developing talent (read: saving money) while merely filling gaps with affordable free agents and trades.
Rasmus is just shy of his 22nd birthday. He offers power, speed, and defensive strength at a premium position (centerfield). If I were in St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak's shoes, I'd deal Rasmus solely for a young, power-hitting middle infielder. And Hanley Ramirez appears to be in a Florida uniform for good.
Few positions in Major League Baseball have been as consistently productive over the last 30 years as centerfield for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Throughout the 1980s, Willie McGee patrolled the largest (quite plastic) pasture at old Busch Stadium, gaining World Series fame, the 1985 National League MVP, and three Gold Gloves in the process. During the 1990s, Ray Lankford was among the most underrated players in the game, five times hitting 20 homers and stealing 20 bases in a season, and becoming only the third Cardinal to hit 200 home runs. For the first eight years of the current decade, Jim Edmonds was the star, winning as many games with leather (six Gold Gloves) as with his bat (241 home runs) for a Cardinal team that won two pennants and the 2006 World Series.
While Rick Ankiel has performed capably in centerfield this season, 21-year-old Colby Rasmus -- the marquee name on the current Memphis Redbirds roster -- appears to be next in the chain of hard-hitting fly-catchers for the Cardinals. A muscle strain has forced Rasmus to the disabled list (and out of what would have been his second straight All-Star Futures Game), but the Alabama native has gained some traction after a slow adjustment to Triple-A pitching. After hitting only .210 in April (and .218 in May), Rasmus batted .333 in June with a stellar on-base percentage of .441. With a silky swing from the left side of the plate, conventional wisdom is that Rasmus merely needs to see pitching before he starts turning it inside out.
Among the adjustments Rasmus has had to make for Triple-A, he notes the professionalism of the clubhouse as the chief difference from Double-A. "It's more like a job here," he says. "It's harder to just have fun. There are older guys who've been around, with lots of experience. It was hard for me to [adjust]. But I've gotten used to it; you just go about your business."
Rasmus credits veteran catcher Mark Johnson for setting a major-league example, even with a minor-league franchise. (Johnson has been playing professionally since 1994 and has 322 big-league games on his resume.) "Anything he says, most of us young guys listen," says Rasmus. "How to carry yourself on the field. He doesn't talk a whole lot, but it's how he plays, how he works."
Rasmus didn't exactly grow up a baseball fan. "Every time we went to a game, even a big-league game [in Atlanta]," notes Rasmus, "I wanted to play." He confesses to being not all that familiar with his centerfield predecessors in St. Louis, though he admires Edmonds. "I liked Ken Griffey Jr. And I was a pitcher when I was younger, so I liked Randy Johnson, too." Rasmus' father played in the minor leagues and remains a valuable guide for a young player aiming even higher. ("Dad asked me if I wanted to make the big leagues. When I said yes, he said it ain't gonna be easy.")
As for when exactly he'll get a second cardinal on his jersey, Rasmus feels like he's already behind schedule. "I felt like I was ready in spring training," he says. "If I had gone to St. Louis, I think I would have been fine. But it didn't work out. When I struggled up here, I started pressing some. Early on, I was hitting the ball hard, but right at guys."
Gaining a grasp for what a Triple-A pitcher is throwing -- and importantly, when -- is a priority for Rasmus, however much time he has remaining in Memphis. "Pitchers up here are smart," he says. "They don't just throw you fastballs inside; they come after you.
There's no guarantee that a franchise's top-ranked prospect is going to make an impact for the parent club. Rick Ankiel (the Cards' top farmhand in 1998 and 2000) has worked out, though the pitcher-turned-outfielder's rise couldn't have been forecast by the most astute of scouts. But for every J.D. Drew (1999), there have been "can't miss kids" like Bud Smith (2001), Jimmy Journell (2002), and Blake Hawksworth (the Cardinals' top-ranked prospect in 2004, Hawksworth is 2-6 with an ERA over 6.00 for the Redbirds this year). For what it's worth, Rasmus pays no attention to the tag.
"That's no big deal," says Rasmus. "I just play. At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what Baseball America says. It's what you do between the lines."
I just returned from the North Carolina coast, my first two-week vacation in 14 years. (The last time I took such a hiatus, it should be noted, half the trip was spent planning a wedding.) During my week at Oak Island (just north of Myrtle Beach and the South Carolina border) and another at Corolla (pronounced kuh-RAH-luh, at the northern tip of the Outer Banks), I learned once again that you can take a sportswriter away from Memphis, but - even with limited Internet access - you can't take Bluff City balls and games away from a traveling scribe.
* On Sunday, June 22nd, I touched base with a familiar outfielder, though instead of AutoZone Park, Nick Stavinoha was in Tony LaRussa's lineup as the St. Louis Cardinals tried to sweep the world champion Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Having been called up to add some pop during interleague play - when National League teams can use a DH in American League parks - Stavinoha blooped his first major-league hit into rightfield. Alas, another recent Memphis Redbird (relief pitcher Chris Perez) later walked in the tying and go-ahead runs in what would be an extra-inning Bosox victory. I was in the surf, by the way, after Perez' bout of wildness. Beats shouting at the TV.
* On Thursday, June 26th, I sat with my family and some old beach-combing friends as the NBA draft got started above an appetizer of oysters on the half shell, with a random Corona to help count down each team's "on the clock" drama. And what a night for Memphis basketball fans. Derrick Rose, of course, continued the biggest one-year star turn in the city's history, becoming the first player drafted (by his hometown Chicago Bulls) and less than three months after taking the U of M Tigers to the Final Four. (Even Carmelo Anthony had to wait "on the clock" in 2003.) The two other Memphis draftees were surprises, first Joey Dorsey for going as high as he did (drafted 33rd by Portland, Dorsey was traded to Houston and will cut his NBA teeth on Yao Ming's elbows), then Chris Douglas-Roberts plummeting all the way to 40th, where he was finally taken by John Calipari's former employer, the New Jersey Nets. CDR's falling stock said much about the state of college basketball today, as he'd been a first-team All-America as a junior for Memphis. Either that, or he was carried by the best supporting cast since Sinatra was closing clubs in Vegas.
As for the local outfit actually doing some drafting of its own, the Memphis Grizzlies gave local headline-writers a dream team - for one night, as it turned out - by adding Kevin Love (with the fifth selection) to a club already starring Rudy Gay. Twenty-four hours later, though, it was O.J. Mayo - the third selection, by Minnesota - heading to FedEx Forum, where he'll aim to be this city's one-and-done collegian-turned-franchise-savior. With Mayo and Gay on the wings and a healthy Mike Conley at the point, Memphis will gain in athleticism what it may have lost in professionalism (and familiarity) by trading veteran Mike Miller (along with a lost Love) to the Wolves.
* Driving up the coast on June 28th, we stopped in Washington, North Carolina, long enough to enjoy lunch at the Mecca Grill, across the downtown street from the former residence of Cecil B. DeMille. And I couldn't have felt further from Memphis - no 'cue on the menu at the Mecca - until I walked to the back of the restaurant to discover signs welcoming me to "Pirates Country!" No disrespect to East Carolina University - a tough match on the gridiron for Tommy West's Tigers, if no match for Calipari's basketball bunch - but I didn't think there was room between various ACC hot pockets (Heels, Pack, and Devils, oh my), to consider a "country" for any other NCAA outfit. Needless to say, I'll see purple-and-gold in an entirely new Conference USA light. And wonder what kind of football fan DeMille might have been.
* When I left Memphis (all the way back on June 20th), Mark Mulder had just been beaten around like an unruly yard dog in a rehab assignment at AutoZone Park. On ESPN's Monday Night Baseball ten days later, he recorded the last three outs for the Cardinals in a home victory over the New York Mets. He wasn't as sharp two nights later, blowing his first save opportunity of the year, but perhaps he's a touch of insurance for a Cardinal rotation that has relied on the names Pineiro, Wellemeyer, and Lohse more than any expert would have forecast . . . however many empty Coronas might lie at his side.
It's barely a month till Tiger football opens camp. Less than two months to go in the Pacific Coast League season (with the Redbirds actually in contention for a playoff spot). And roster moves will be plentiful in the NBA, so the Grizzlies have time to build around their new nucleus of Gay/Mayo/Conley. While it's gonna be tough reintroducing myself to deadlines after two weeks in (or near) the Atlantic, the local sports scene should go right on filling my down time. With the sound of waves still crashing comfortably in my memories.