As injuries have mounted to members of the St. Louis Cardinals -- most significantly to starting outfielders Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick (victim of that hammy) -- key contributors here in Memphis have found themselves with tickets up I-55, leaving the Redbirds to compete in the Pacific Coast League with all too many players just cutting their teeth at Class Double-A Springfield.
On the last day of the Redbirds' season-opening home stand (April 16th), Memphis fielded a starting lineup packed with home-grown, highly touted position players: Bryan Anderson, Nick Stavinoha, Jarrett Hoffpauir, Allen Craig, Tyler Greene, Jon Jay, Shane Robinson, and Joe Mather. A month later -- for a Sunday matinee on May 17th -- half of those prospects took the field (Anderson, Hoffpauir, Craig, and Jay). Stavinoha, Greene, and Robinson were with St. Louis, while Mather was rehabbing an injured wrist that contributed to a dreadful (.129) start at the plate. (When the Cardinals fielded an outfield of Stavinoha, Robinson, and Colby Rasmus on May 17th, it marked the first all-rookie starting outfield for the Cardinals since 1996.)
As for the bona fides of the replacement players in Memphis, consider Javier Brito (first base) was playing in Double A before Seattle released him and he signed a free-agent deal with the Cardinals. (It should be noted Brito won the 2007 Southern League batting title playing for Mobile.) Donovan Solano (shortstop), and Mark Shorey (outfield) weren’t even included in the Redbirds’ 2009 media guide. A degree of normalcy returned when Ankiel and Chris Carpenter were activated last week, sending Robinson and Greene back to Memphis.
On the bright side, Redbird fans have gotten an earlier-than-expected glimpse of third-baseman Brett Wallace, the Cardinals' top pick in last June's draft and the second-ranked prospect in their system (behind only Rasmus). The 22-year-old Arizona State product was born to hit. He batted over .400 twice as a Sun Devil, hit .337 over 54 games split between Class A and Double-A last year, and has hit .353 over his first eight games at the Triple-A level.
The question for Wallace is where he'll play in the big leagues (first base not being an option, with Albert Pujols manning the spot at Busch Stadium). Built with the thick lower body of a third-baseman, Wallace must refine his glove work before he mans the hot corner in The Show. (His throwing error led to the only run Reno scored in Wallace's second game at AutoZone Park, a 1-0 Reno victory.) The longer the Cardinals' third-base situation remains in doubt -- Troy Glaus remains disabled while Brian Barden and Joe Thurston have struggled in May -- the more tantalizing Wallace's bat will be.
Despite all the player movement, the Redbirds had managed a record of 22-19 through Sunday, compared with a mark of 26-24 at the same time a year ago. Memphis has been among the weakest hitting teams in the PCL (.242), but has been carried by a pitching staff that leads the loop in ERA (3.61). Starters Blake Hawksworth, Clayton Mortensen, and Evan MacLane have taken command at the top of the rotation, while Jess Todd and Josh Kinney (a member of the Cards' World Series-winning club of 2006) have solidified the bullpen. The recent return of Mitchell Boggs from a stint with the Cardinals will only add to the depth of pitching coach Blaise Ilsley’s staff.
Injuries are as much a part of a baseball season as the seventh-inning stretch. How they impact the 2009 Cardinals -- and by ripple effect, the 2009 Memphis Redbirds -- will be compelling drama in the months to come.
Whether your take is outrage or apathy, though, a deep breath would be valuable as the 2009 baseball season nears its third month. The game is not dying, by any stretch. And there is reason to believe -- when (or if?) the nation's economy rebounds -- that Major League Baseball can make its second century an improvement on its first.
* Despite gross disparities in team payrolls, baseball has a competitive balance that should be the envy of the top-heavy NFL or NBA. The team with the lowest payroll in the sport (Florida, $36 million) started the season 11-1. The team with the highest payroll (Yankees, $201 million) has hovered around .500 and suffered an embarrassment of empty seats in its grand new stadium. (I know, that economy thing.) Longtime also-rans like Toronto and Kansas City have shown signs of competing for the first time in more than a decade, the Royals featuring the best pitching story of the season in Zack Greinke (age 25).
* Looking at the big picture -- or at least, a decade-long picture -- a World Series championship has never been more within reach for every franchise. Over the nine completed seasons this decade, 14 teams have played in the World Series, with only three appearing more than once, and only the Boston Red Sox winning two titles. Half of the 16-team National League have raised pennants since 2000, and that group doesn't include a pair of 2009 favorites: the Chicago Cubs and Manny's Los Angeles Dodgers.
* A group of stars has emerged since that infamous testimony on steroids four years ago, young enough to have been raised in a baseball culture where doping means a scarlet letter. Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria (23), San Francisco's Tim Lincecum (24), Milwaukee's Ryan Braun (25), and Cincinnati's Jay Bruce (22) will lead a generation of new talent that would have to be considerably dim to make the same mistakes its predecessors made in soiling baseball's image. (Cynics will argue this generation will merely find a new way to cut corners, but I'm not among them.)
* Ticket prices aside, the culture of attending a baseball game has never been more fan friendly. Virtually every team in the majors has a stadium less than 20 years old, and two that don't -- the Red Sox and Cubs -- play in the most romantically popular ballparks in America. Back to the economy: Market demand has its way of controlling the cost of tickets, be it to a Broadway show or a Yankee game (those premium seats at the new Yankee Stadium are already cheaper than they were on Opening Day). My guess is that the year 2020 will arrive with clearer vision from the MLB powers-that-be regarding the cost effectiveness of paying the likes of Manny Ramirez $20 million a season. One of the most valuable lessons of this recession has been that cost-control is as important as revenue generation in keeping a business alive.
I've come to look at the outing of steroid users as baseball's version of weeding the garden. Now and then, an intruder needs to be pulled out by his roots, so the flowers and vegetables that make the garden so beautiful can flourish. And it's wise to remember the words made famous by everyone from Abe Lincoln to your own mother: This too shall pass.
L.A. LAKERS -- Pau Gasol. He remains the Grizzlies' all-time leading scorer (8,966 points) and rebounder (4,096), and the only All-Star in franchise history. But now he serves as Kobe Bryant’s chief supporting player, having averaged 18.9 points and 9.6 rebounds for the Western Conference's top seed. With younger brother Marc now starting at center for the Griz, Pau may end up the second-most popular Gasol in the Mid-South.
HOUSTON -- Shane Battier. The 30-year-old Battier was a teammate of Pau Gasol's for the first five seasons the Grizzlies played in Memphis, including all three playoff campaigns. While many Memphis fans saw a future mayor in high-tops, team president Jerry West saw a trade piece that brought the Grizzlies Rudy Gay on draft day in 2006. An on-the-court leader since his college days at Duke, Battier was named second-team All-Defense last week.
ATLANTA -- Josh Smith. Okay, this one's a reach. Last August, the Grizzlies signed Smith to an offer sheet, only to see it quickly matched by the Hawks. The big forward averaged 15.6 points and 7.2 rebounds for the first Hawk team to advance to the playoffs' second round in a decade.
DENVER -- Dahntay Jones. Acquired in a draft-day trade with Boston in 2003, Jones started only 36 of 221 games for the Grizzlies over his four seasons in Memphis. But he started 71 games for the Northwest Division champs this season and takes the floor alongside the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups as the Nuggets aim for their very first finals appearance.
BOSTON -- Kendrick Perkins. Remember that draft-day trade that landed Dahntay Jones for the Grizzlies in 2003? Part of the package sent to Boston included the draft rights to Perkins (who had been heavily recruited by John Calipari for the University of Memphis). Still only 24 years old, Perkins has started 250 games as a Celtic, including their run to the 2008 NBA championship. He averaged 8.5 points and 8.1 rebounds this season.
ORLANDO -- Jeremy Richardson. Oh, you remember Richardson. The Delta State product played three games for the Grizzlies early in the 2007-08 season (grabbed a rebound and dished out an assist). These days, Richardson is riding the pine for the Magic, having played 12 games and averaged 3.1 points.
CLEVELAND -- Lorenzen Wright. His season (and perhaps career) ended with a broken thumb on April 15th, but it should be noted Wright has played more NBA games (778) than any other former Memphis Tiger. (Wright starred at the U of M from 1994 to '96.) Wright also spent five seasons with the Grizzlies and is fourth on the team's career rebounding chart.
DALLAS -- Shawne Williams. Hard to believe, but had he remained at the University of Memphis, Williams would have been part of the recent senior class that included Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier. (Williams was Conference USA's Freshman of the Year in 2006.) After two seasons in Indiana, Williams spent all but 15 games of the 2008-09 season on the injured list for the Mavericks.
Among the countless associations I'll make with Sofia's first 10 years is that they coincided directly with the greatest sports decade the city of Memphis has ever seen. Wearing a ballcap and diaper, Sofia pranced barefoot around the bluff at AutoZone Park, about 100 feet from Albert Pujols as he patrolled left field for Memphis in the 2000 Pacific Coast League playoffs. She's since seen El Hombre homer at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, and I think she's beginning to understand that a once-in-a-lifetime baseball player can come along just as that lifetime is starting.
Sofia was just shy of her first birthday when John Calipari was introduced as the new University of Memphis basketball coach -- to much debate at the time. She was old enough to appreciate the Tigers' three consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight (as many as the program had seen in 80 years before Calipari's arrival). And she was old enough to recognize the fan's cocktail of pride and heartbreak when the Tigers collapsed at the end of the 2008 championship game.
On the subject of the Memphis Tigers and once-in-a-lifetime players, Sofia was but 3 when DeAngelo Williams first carried a football at the Liberty Bowl. In her eyes -- still -- football is a game where large men pile upon one another, gradually moving from one end of a field to another. But she also heard enough stories about many of the 6,000 yards Williams accumulated over his four years in college to understand that a different kind of football player was here, if only for a short visit.
Just shy of her 8th birthday, Sofia suited up as mini-Grizz and accompanied our NBA team's mascot for a night of cheerleading and flag-waving at FedExForum. On the day she was born, such a confluence would have seemed as unlikely as an 8-year-old manning a space shuttle. But as she turns 10, the Grizzlies are the central player in the Memphis sports universe. With attendance woes you'd expect in a sagging economy and a team desperately needing that marquee name that separates NBA contenders from also-rans, the Grizzlies -- still shy of their 10th Memphis birthday -- will be aiming to grow in much the same way Sofia will in the decade ahead.
In the arena herself, Sofia has already gained traction. (It started with an unassisted double-play on the tee-ball field.) She earned her first blue ribbon in a horse show before her 7th birthday. She was a better swimmer at age 4 than I am at 40. She can make the throw from third to first on a softball field. And she thankfully received her mom's genes on the soccer pitch. (Mrs. Murtaugh was all-state in high school and played for a pair of Vermont state champions.) Best of all, she appears to have received my genes when it comes to the sheer joy of being part of a team and part of a competition, the latter forcing her to find the best in herself, win or lose.
Sofia Murtaugh has known -- and will know -- cheering on her birthday. Her 1st and 7th coincided with the first Saturday in May, when the Kentucky Derby is run. My hope is that the day will come when she can don her favorite hat and be at Churchill Downs to wash down some birthday cake with a mint julep. The scene would be appropriate, you see, in that all the cheering would echo the first 10 years of her life. I thought I knew what it meant to be a fan before May 6, 1999, but I’ve since discovered the greatest victory a man can achieve. She's been a winner, every day since.