Monday, April 27, 2009

From My Seat: Of Moments and Memories

When sports heroes pass on, true fans treasure their gifts.

Posted By on Mon, Apr 27, 2009 at 9:14 AM

Sports fans across the country -- particularly baseball fans -- were struck with heavy hearts by the recent passing of Harry Kalas and Mark Fidrych (both men died on April 13th). Neither man was an active athlete, a player in the arena. Neither had won or lost a game in more than a quarter century. But the grief since their death has been substantial, in some respects outweighing the impact Kalas (a broadcaster) or Fidrych (a pitcher washed up before his 30th birthday) had on a playing field. As I've considered my own heavy heart, I've come to see Kalas and Fidrych for the way they embodied two of the fundamental elements in our devotion to sports: the moment and the memories.

My dad and I were in Cooperstown, New York, on July 28, 2002, when Kalas was inducted into the broadcasters' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. As Kalas delivered his speech in the most recognized voice that dais had heard in years, Dad and I chuckled in anticipation of another description of another slow-motion Joe Montana touchdown pass. The longtime narrator for HBO's "Inside the NFL," Kalas' deep, smooth cadence became the soundtrack for football fans well beyond the Philadelphia region Kalas called home. (To me, Kalas was a far more valuable pitchman for the soup commercials he narrated than Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. Consider that: a voice to make you crave soup. That's hard to top.)

I have a brother-in-law raised on Kalas' description of Philadelphia Phillies games, from his childhood in the City of Brotherly Love right up to his days as a husband and father in Seattle (thanks to Internet broadcasts). Sean has done his share of cheering for the likes of Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Ryan Howard, and Jimmy Rollins, but he’d likely tell you there was only one Phillie he considered part of the family, and that was "Harry the K." Kalas's energy behind another one hit “outta here!’ by "Michael Jack Schmidt" was audible joy to Phillies fans, and when seasons went sour, Kalas' voice was the familiar, comforting sound that made nine innings bearable. To lose such a connection is to lose one’s bearings. The moments become different -- and will be remembered differently -- when we switch narrators.

As for Mark Fidrych, has there ever been a one-year wonder like him? As a rookie with the Detroit Tigers in 1976, "The Bird" mesmerized American League hitters -- and an entire country, really -- by winning 19 games for a Detroit Tigers team that finished 74-87. Floppy curls dangling from beneath his hat, Fidrych seemed to talk as much to the baseball he hurled with such precision -- and sometimes, to the pitching rubber -- as he did any teammate. He started the All-Star Game that year, won a nationally televised game in Yankee Stadium ... and won exactly 10 more games before a broken-down arm ended his career at age 25. Fidrych lived the simple life over the next three decades, then died in an accident -- while working on his truck -- that is as tragic for its randomness as the Bird's career was grand for its single summer of heights. Fidrych remains a hero for those memories, now 33 years old. And his passing hurts in that it's a reminder a human being provided the thrills, which certainly seemed immortal at the time.

Here in Memphis, we know about the loss of a voice, be it former Memphis Tiger football announcer Paul Hartlage or the Grizzlies' Don Poier. (How did Poier make those first two Grizzlies' seasons -- teams so dreadful -- seem so fun?) We also know of the sudden loss of our own one-year wonder, at least those of us who remember the 29 home runs Mike Coolbaugh hit for the 2002 Redbirds. Coolbaugh was killed by an errant line drive as he coached first base for the Tulsa Drillers in 2007.

Sports are too often about now(!). What has your team -- your favorite player -- done for you lately? If not, they're about what is to come. Who will win the next Super Bowl? Where will LeBron play in 2010? The losses of Harry Kalas and Mark Fidrych should remind those of us who cheer that each moment matters, and that the memories -- while not immortal in the human sense -- will outlive those who bless us by making them.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Farm Fresh Talent

This year's Memphis Redbirds feature lots of hot propects -- not retreads.

Posted By on Sun, Apr 19, 2009 at 9:10 AM

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For most of the Memphis Redbirds' 11-year history, the team has relied on "Four-A" players to put a competitive team on the field. These are the minor-league free agents -- usually in their late twenties, if not early thirties -- who haven't been able to get both feet inside the big-league door, but remain talented enough to make a difference in Triple-A. Some of these 'Birds have been forgettable (Chris Widger, Colin Porter, Todd Dunwoody), while others have starred at AutoZone Park (Ivan Cruz, Kevin Witt, Josh Phelps).

Minor-league free agents, though, are plug-ins for farm systems lacking the prospects able to climb the ladder from rookie ball to the majors. All those homers drilled by Cruz, Witt, and Phelps were fun to cheer, but they were razor cuts at the credibility of the St. Louis Cardinals' farm system.

The 2009 Redbirds appear to be a different story. On April 16th, in their last game of the season's opening home stand, all nine Memphis starters were drafted by the Cardinals, eight of them as recently as 2004. If this wasn't a first in Redbirds history, no one in the AutoZone Park press box could remember a precedent.

"You don't have to go back that far to see a team where the Cardinals didn't draft any of the players on the field," said team president Dave Chase. For that Thursday matinee, Memphis fielded four players from the 2006 draft (pitcher Adam Ottavino, third-baseman Allen Craig, outfielders Shane Robinson and Jon Jay), three from 2005 (shortstop Tyler Greene, first-baseman Nick Stavinoha, and catcher Bryan Anderson), a 2004 draftee (second-baseman Jarrett Hoffpauir), and the old man of the bunch, 2001 draftee Joe Mather. (The 26-year-old Mather played in 54 games for St. Louis last season and will likely return once he finds his hitting stroke. He started the season 2-for-21.)

Chase credits the revolution in the Cardinals' system to the franchise's vice president of scouting and player development, Jeff Luhnow. It was Luhnow's promotion -- and the authority for shaping the Cards' farm system that came with it -- that led to a philosophical fracture in the Cardinals' front office, one that ultimately had longtime general manager Walt Jocketty packing his bags. A farm system that was ranked dead last among the 30 major-league franchises in 2005 has risen to number eight in the same rankings by Baseball America.

It should be noted the 14 years Jocketty served as GM in St. Louis were hugely successful, with seven playoff appearances, two National League pennants, and the 2006 world championship. Jocketty was responsible for the acquisition of veteran stars like Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Chris Carpenter, and David Eckstein, key components of the team's World Series winner, but expensive parts as well. Cardinal ownership (led by chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.) chose to embrace a new approach, with emphasis on player development and -- importantly in these economic times -- cost control. Last year, the Cardinals had a team payroll of $99 million (11th in the big leagues). This year, it's down to $77 million (17th). With a roster built around homegrown talent -- Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, Skip Schumaker, Rick Ankiel, Chris Duncan, Colby Rasmus -- St. Louis finished the first two weeks of the season tied atop the National League Central with the Chicago Cubs (payroll: $134 million).

Back down on the farm, the Redbirds won six of their first 10 games, all played against either the Oklahoma City Redhawks (part of the top-ranked farm system in baseball, that of the Texas Rangers) or the New Orleans Zephyrs (top club in the second-ranked system, that of the Florida Marlins).

In addition to being unusually young, the Redbirds have displayed an element sorely lacking in Memphis over the years: speed. Twice last Thursday, Jay scored from first base on an extra-base hit (one of them into the leftfield corner). Brian Barton came off the bench and stole a base, leading to an insurance run in the sixth inning of the Redbirds' 7-4 victory. Just how fast all the prospects make it to St. Louis remains to be determined, but for the first time in quite a while, the St. Louis Cardinals are tending their garden. In modern baseball, it pays to eat locally.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Pastner is Present

There's a more than decent chance that you know the new Memphis Tiger basketball coach better than I do.

Posted By on Mon, Apr 13, 2009 at 9:39 AM

I met Josh Pastner at the Finch Center in late February, our introduction coming between interviews with Tiger players and Pastner's former, more famous boss. The conversation went like most do between new acquaintances, with emphasis on the weather. Having come to the Tiger program after a long stint at the University of Arizona, Pastner tried to define "dry heat" for me. And he told me how much he preferred winters in Arizona to the chill we were then experiencing in Memphis. "But I don’t mind now," he added, "because we’re winning."

Tiger Nation won't mind Pastner’s youth (he's 31), his inexperience (the Memphis post will be his first head-coaching gig), or his desert roots ... as long as the Tiger program is winning. I, for one, like the hiring, and for three reasons:

1) It feels fresh. There's nothing worse for a fan base than recycled coaches. And hiring the likes of Leonard Hamilton, Scott Drew, Mike Anderson, or Tim Floyd would have been precisely that. U of M athletic director R.C. Johnson would be investing in past performance by a coach in a setting entirely different from the one that coach would find in Memphis (and there's no other setting like this one in the country).

It took nine years, but Tiger fans have forgotten that when John Calipari was hired, he had lost his coaching legs, cast aside by the NBA’s New Jersey Nets and four years removed from his grand success at Massachusetts. He was a recycled coach. A recycled coach, mind you, exceptionally prepared to make the Memphis program part of the Calipari brand. This is a brand -- with national identity -- that young Pastner now must try to extend and make his own. But his slate his clean (barring any developments in the recruiting allegations from his days as an assistant to Lute Olson at Arizona). Pastner has the chance to establish his coaching credentials entirely in Memphis. And that feels fresh.

2) There's a sense of continuity. He may have spent but one season at Calipari's side, but one season as an apprentice to a Naismith Coach of the Year is better than a dozen alongside a second-tier basketball mind. And let's remember that Pastner was hired by Calipari in large part for his skills and energy as a recruiter.

The kid is in over his head, particularly if he's held to the standard Calipari left behind. A record of 137-14 over the last four years is the stuff of fiction at the Division I level. But Pastner was eyewitness to the management of a program at its greatest heights, so he's unlikely to overlook details that mattered in reaching those heights. If the link to Calipari retains a prized recruit or two, Tiger Nation should consider it a bonus. But Pastner should not be judged by the stars he retains for the next season or two. Which brings me to the third element I like about his hiring.

3) Pastner can be long term. Feelings were damaged when Calipari bolted for Kentucky, but the truth is the move just took longer than Calipari anticipated (making the breakup all the more painful for his former partner). Had Kentucky called in, say, 2002, do you doubt he would have gone then? Or 2006? Timing is everything, and John Calipari received everything he asked for in Memphis except the chair once occupied by Adolph Rupp.

I don’t get the impression Pastner will treat his new gig like a stepping stone. (Along the same lines, there is a danger if the Tiger fan base -- or worse, the U of M administration -- considers Pastner merely a stopgap until a "wow" coach makes himself available.) Using the year under Calipari as his foundation, Pastner can build a house in Memphis all his own. If he pays attention to detail -- and, importantly, asks the right questions -- that baby face can become the face of the Tiger program rather quickly. Calipari, after all, was but 29 when UMass hired him in 1988. The first lesson for Josh Pastner: if the New Jersey Nets call, don't answer.

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