Sunday, July 6, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: 'Coastal Memphis'

Posted By on Sun, Jul 6, 2008 at 4:00 AM

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.

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