Monday, June 29, 2009

When a Bad Weekend’s Good

If the cosmos suddenly allowed us 27 hours in a day, I’d give my extra three hours to baseball ...

Posted By on Mon, Jun 29, 2009 at 9:00 AM

If the cosmos suddenly allowed us 27 hours in a day, I’d give my extra three hours to baseball. At the stadium when possible and when not, via literature or the MLB Network. Even with merely 24-hour cycles, I managed to attend four games in four days last week, which only has me dreaming more about that cosmic bonus time.

-- June 25: Omaha at Memphis, AutoZone Park. What a difference six days make in the life of a pitcher. On June 19th, pitching for the Royals in Kansas City, Kyle Davies gave up seven earned runs in less than three innings in taking a loss against the St. Louis Cardinals. On this night, though, facing the Cards’ top farm team, Davies was brilliant: eight innings, three hits, no runs. These Royals had 11 hits before Memphis picked up its first (in the fifth inning). Kila Ka’aihue got things started for Omaha with a home run in the second inning. (I had to write that sentence just to frazzle my spell check.) Memphis never got a runner to third base in the 7-0 loss.

But here’s what caught my eye in this lopsided affair. Playing centerfield for the Royals was Tim Raines Jr. I just spent several weeks putting together a story on the 1979 Memphis Chicks, a team that starred the original Tim Raines. The birthday of this chip off the old Rock? August 31, 1979. Turns out Papa Raines was a little distracted in the ’79 Southern League playoffs (where the Chicks’ season ended with a loss to Nashville).

-- June 26: Minnesota at St. Louis, Busch Stadium. It was downhill for the home crowd Friday night after Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith threw out the first pitch. Someone named Glen Perkins looked like Sandy Koufax in a Twins uniform, holding St. Louis to four hits and a single run over seven innings. Eight former Memphis Redbirds took the field for the Cardinals, but the one player with no experience at AutoZone Park — third-baseman Joe Thurston – made an error that let in a critical run in the first inning. Albert Pujols came up in the ninth representing the tying run, but was struck out by Minnesota closer Joe Nathan.

Hats off to the contingent of Twins fans who made the trip south for an interleague weekend. There were enough hostiles in the crowd of 44,000 to make an audible roar when Rick Ankiel struck out to end the visitors’ 3-1 victory.

-- June 27: Minnesota at St. Louis, Busch Stadium. Pujols hit a two-run homer in the first, and another in the third, accounting for enough to beat the Twins in a Saturday matinee that saw temperatures approach 100 degrees, without a breeze. (The only other Cardinal run scored when Tyler Greene took a pitch off the helmet with the bases loaded.) For the second straight day, St. Louis cut down a runner at the plate, and for the second straight day it was Yadier Molina’s skill at blocking the plate that stood out. If there’s been a tougher Cardinal player over the last 20 years, I haven’t seen him.

This was a game won by the St. Louis bullpen, after starter Todd Wellemeyer walked four batters in less than three innings and coughed up the early 2-0 lead Pujols provided. The winning pitcher was Josh Kinney, who had been pitching out of the Memphis bullpen earlier this month. (Kinney is one of only four pitchers remaining from the Cardinals’ championship club of 2006.) Jason Motte and Ryan Franklin — another pair of pitchers with Memphis experience — handled the eighth and ninth inning, respectively, in the 5-3 Cardinal win.

-- June 28: Minnesota at St. Louis, Busch Stadium. The big news Sunday was the Cardinals’ newest cleanup hitter: Mark DeRosa. Long rumored to be destined for St. Louis, DeRosa was acquired in a Saturday trade with Cleveland that sent former Redbird Chris Perez (a relief pitcher) to the Indians. The fact that DeRosa — a multi-position role player with a career high of 21 home runs a year ago (as a Cub) — debuted as Pujols’ protection says much about the Cardinals’ offensive woes as the All-Star break approaches.

Much like Friday night, the Twins had all the runs they needed in the first inning on a 3-run homer from Justin Morneau. Another lefty — this time Francisco Liriano, who entered the game with a record of 3-8 — stifled the St. Louis hitters and the Minnesota fans left the Mound City smiling with a 6-2 win over a team somehow still tied for the National League Central Division lead.

Four days, four baseball games, and three losses by the home team. To borrow the fisherman’s mantra, a bad weekend at the ballpark beats a good weekend anywhere else.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Point Taken

Posted By on Mon, Jun 22, 2009 at 9:01 AM

Since 1992, seven pure point guards have been named first-team All-NBA: Mark Price, John Stockton, Tim Hardaway, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, and Chris Paul. Combined, these seven players — most destined for the Hall of Fame — have won exactly one championship. And Payton won his ring as a backup to Jason Williams for the 2006 Miami Heat, a team that turned the ball over to Dwyane Wade for every meaningful possession. The point to all this, as it were, is a recent historical trend that indicates the greatest playmakers don’t necessarily make for championship-caliber NBA teams. And this, Memphis fans, should be a consideration when the Grizzlies decide what to do with the second selection in Thursday’s draft.
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According to almost every scouting report, Spanish phenom Ricky Rubio — an electrifying point guard — is the second-most talented player available, behind only former Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin. Presuming the Los Angeles Clippers select Griffin with the first pick, conventional wisdom would have the Grizzlies taking Rubio. But how much will the Griz gain with Rubio on the roster? And will the hurdles to signing Rubio — including a massive buyout required by his Spanish club — make such a selection a gamble Memphis owner Michael Heisley cannot win?

Rubio is destined for NBA stardom. Only 18 years old, he’s drawn comparisons to Hall of Famer Pete Maravich, and has already played a significant role for a silver-medal-winning Spanish Olympic team. He’s the kind of player who, importantly in these times, can sell tickets by himself. With flash and dash, you might say, comes cash. Whether or not a teen-ager is ready to run a team in the world’s most prestigious league, the mere discussion of such ensures the player will be running an NBA team within three years, when Rubio will still barely be able to drink legally.

There have been hints, though, that Rubio — or perhaps better put, Rubio’s “people” — aren’t so enamored with the thought of him playing in Memphis. The kid certainly followed Pau Gasol’s six-plus years as a Grizzly ... and has seen how much Gasol’s stock rose once he left Memphis. The last thing a young Grizzlies team needs (and much less its ownership) is a contract impasse that leaves Rubio in Europe next season, a number-two pick worth no more to the 2009-10 Grizzlies than the that that pick was handed by NBA commissioner David Stern on draft night.

Considering Rubio strictly in basketball terms, it should be remembered Memphis has its own young point guard in Mike Conley, himself the fourth pick in the 2007 draft. Only 21, Conley would be entering his senior season at Ohio State had he elected to stay in college. Conley played in all 82 games last season (starting 61), averaged 10.9 points, 4.3 assists, and had a healthy 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. Those are hardly the kind of numbers that suggest Conley should be back-burnered for a replacement, or shopped to make room for the next rising star at the point.

If not Rubio, where do the Grizzlies turn? However unlikely it may be that the Clippers would pass on Griffin — the one potential franchise-changer in this draft — I’d call them if I were Memphis general manager Chris Wallace. Would the second pick and, say, Rudy Gay, be enough for the Clippers to send the top selection (Griffin) to Memphis? If such a longshot doesn’t hit, the Grizzlies need to turn to size and strength, the core elements to NBA success the current roster is lacking. Former UConn star Hasheem Thabeet will never be the next Hakeem Olajuwon, but perhaps he can be the next Dikembe Motombo, a post presence who can impact games from the defensive end on a nightly basis.

If the Griz brass isn’t sold on Thabeet, what might the second selection bring in a trade? There’s bound to be a franchise out there with marketing campaigns ready and awaiting the precocious Rubio, and perhaps in a market Rubio will be more eager to make his next home. A “franchise point guard” is an enticing target for a team struggling both in the standings and at the gate. But not since Magic Johnson — who joined a club, you’ll remember, already armed with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — has such a point guard fulfilled his promise with the ultimate payoff.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Let’s Play Catch

The eternal verities of "catch with Dad"

Posted By on Mon, Jun 15, 2009 at 8:58 AM

Earlier this month, my 10-year-old daughter expressed frustration at the abrupt end to her softball season. Her final scheduled game was rained out ... having already been postponed by Mother Nature a few weeks earlier. “You know,” I told her, “softball season can be whenever we choose, as long as we have a ball, a bat, and our gloves.”

“But it can’t be softball season,” she replied, “without playing catch with your dad.”

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This was probably the closest I’ll come to that final scene in Field of Dreams, the one celluloid moment when grown men are authorized to choke up. Heartfelt sentiment aside, though, the scene says a lot about the way sports connect dads (and moms) with their children. With Father’s Day this Sunday, what better time to let a ball — or a bike, racket, or jogging trail — help us parents play the most important game of life?

The best way for a dad to connect with his child (and this includes grown “children”) is to talk with them. Gifts, gestures, notes, sign language ... they all work to some degree, but not like the simple act of sitting down for a chat. Without an agenda. Without direction, even. Just a chat.

But when the words are hard to come by, or when moods may be divergent, you’d be amazed what two mitts and a baseball can do. Playing catch forces two people to share focus (unless you want a black eye), to take turns, to pause, and to, yes, look at one another. Whether it’s from a distance of 20 feet or 100 feet, the tossing of a ball between two people is an intimate act, and in such a way only a parent (and later, a son or daughter) can fully appreciate. The very fact that playing catch requires two people lends itself to communication, to outreach. Go shoot baskets if you want an hour of solitude. You can even play 18 holes by yourself. Try playing catch with yourself, though, and you’ll look like a Labrador retriever.

I played catch with my dad, but not enough. By the time I reached junior high school, I had teammates. And teammates interrupt the sports bond between father and son. It’s a welcome interruption for the son who is gradually approaching manhood, and for the father who wants nothing less from his progeny. But it’s an interruption nonetheless. It’s why Ray Kinsella yearns so to have one more catch with the ghost of his father. Ball to mitt is a beautiful sound, and a feeling unlike any other. But compared with father to son, parent to child?

I play catch with Sofia as much as I can. She already has teammates, and I enjoy seeing my daughter — and her teammates — adjust to errant throws just as they’ll have to adjust to the vicissitudes of life (and without a glove to protect them). When we do play catch together, my throws get stronger each season, as Sofia’s skill with her mitt improves. Three years ago, I released each toss with a seized breath, hoping the ball didn’t strike the face I’d battle armies to protect. Today, I more casually and confidently hurl the ball her way. And I pay closer attention when she throws it back, needing to protect my own mug, lines and all.

Sofia’s little sister is 6 years old, and a lefty. The last time we played catch, I had to remind her to put her mitt on her right hand. Once it was on, though, she smiled at me with the comfortable recognition of a glove fitting the way it should. She’s got a good arm, and soon enough she’ll be tossing with her big sister, and then her own teammates. And, I’m convinced, Elena will make the connections so many kids have made, over so many generations. I’ve got a lot of lessons left to teach my children, but I hope they’ll remember this one for every Father’s Day to come. It’s always baseball season when you play catch with Dad.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Q & A: Phil Cannon on the St. Jude Classic

Posted By on Mon, Jun 8, 2009 at 9:30 AM

When driver meets ball this Thursday at Southwind for the St. Jude Classic, it will mark the 52nd straight year the PGA has made Memphis home for a week. Phil Cannon has been tournament director since the 2000 event. He paused last week just long enough to answer a few questions.

How did you and other tournament officials approach the aftermath of the Stanford Financial crisis?

From a legal standpoint, it was a period of uncertainty. We were kept in the dark for 30 days or so. We heard bits and pieces of news through various media sources, some insider information that led us to believe that we’d be able to conduct the tournament. We weren’t sure about title sponsorship, what the name would be, what the logo would be.

Toward the end of March, we were informed by the PGA Tour that the tournament would be operated as the St. Jude Classic. They turned us loose to swing into action, and to implement the plan we developed over that 30-day dark period. We had our vendors lined up for various signage opportunities. We developed a logo and marketing plan. We intentionally designed a logo that would roughly replicate the dimensions and shape of our former logo, so it would fit our signage. We intentionally went with a one-color logo to simplify printing. It’s been an unusual 90 days for sure.

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With the tournament benefiting St. Jude and Phil Mickelson’s wife battling cancer, Lefty will be a great story the moment he tees off on Thursday. (This will be Mickelson’s second Memphis appearance, and first since 2001.)

I’ve seen it for 20 years now -- St. Jude miracles every year. We’ve become firm believers in the power of that brand. It’s been amazing to watch it take shape. We can empathize with what Phil’s going through, and at the same time be very encouraged that the prognosis [for his wife] could be positive.

In terms of the PGA calendar, is the St. Jude Classic where it needs to be, a week before the U.S. Open?

This has historically been a prime date on the PGA Tour’s schedule. One anomaly that’s popped up recently is that U.S. Open qualifying is on the Monday of our tournament week. Out of 156 players in our field, 108 of them are engaged in a 36-hole Bataan Death March on Monday of tournament week, and 70 of those are qualifying outside of Memphis. The number of withdrawals early in the week is a source of concern. It takes its toll on the players.

Local fans will be seeing a talented group of international players: Retief Goosen, Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia, Jose Maria Olazabal. How much do they add to the tournament?

They add a mark of distinction. We’ve got five of the top 11 players in the world, and there aren’t too many tournaments that can say that. If you look at the top 10 now, it’s dominated by foreign players. It’s indicative of the state of golf in the world now, and we’re the beneficiaries.

There are also going to be some local favorites: Shaun Micheel, David Gossett, Loren Roberts, and big John Daly. Based on what you’ve seen over the years, who’s the most popular native son?

John Daly has international appeal, and is arguably one of the top three draws in golf. He’ll be making his 2009 U.S. debut at our event. But from a purely personal standpoint, having Loren Roberts set the alltime mark for playing in Memphis -- this will be his 25th year; Lou Graham played 24 -- he’s become such a supporter and friend. There’s no better friend of this tournament than Loren Roberts. This could very easily be his swan song. He’d be welcome back anytime he wants to play, but I think he’ll probably be focusing on the Champions Tour in his twilight years.

Who are the lesser-known golfers fans should keep an eye on this year?

Chad Campbell has had an injury, and is a great player. J.B. Holmes has been at the forefront of his game lately. Will MacKenzie married a local girl he met here a few years ago. He’s got game.

Your web site actually offers tips on how to politely get a player’s autograph. Is this kind of exchange ever problematic?

Autograph hounds are one of our bigger spectator concerns. We’ve had players get poked in the hand or arm with sharp pencils. We’ve tried to keep it organized, but it’s organized chaos, at best. I personally would love to see all the tournaments have more of an Augusta National outlook, where a person is politely asked to leave the grounds if he asks for an autograph past a certain point.

Since 1970, the Memphis tournament has raised and donated over $21 million to St. Jude. Are the players aware of the significance?

We’ve had firsthand knowledge of dozens of success stories, and we’ve received secondhand knowledge of thousands more. We’ve watched the cure rate [for certain cancers] go from less than 10 percent to greater than 90 percent. We’ve been blessed with optimism and hope.

This is your 10th year as tournament director. Does anything still catch you by surprise?

There are so many things, to this day, that occur and I find out only after the fact. Several years ago, I learned that we’d been giving out fruit to players at the turn [after the ninth hole]. Some volunteer group had taken it upon themselves to put grapes in a cup, slice oranges, and have bananas ready for players at the turn. When I asked how long we’d been doing it, they said three or four years!

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Memphis/Calipari/Rose Brouhaha: Was It Inevitable?

During his one year in Memphis, Derrick Rose was renowned for his sweet tooth as much as he was his otherworldly skills on the basketball court.

Posted By on Mon, Jun 1, 2009 at 9:16 AM

As speculation grows about Rose's possibly having cheated on his SAT before arriving in Memphis -- speculation fueled by an NCAA investigation made public last week -- the thrills of recent Memphis Tiger basketball history are beginning to look like a junk-food binge on the part of Tiger Nation. As good as it may have tasted going down, it looks like an emergency trip to the bathroom may be imminent.

As dramatic as the news may be -- centered as it is around the Tigers' star of stars from a 38-win team that came a free throw short of a national title -- those surprised at the development have consumed more Kool-Aid than they should. Because this boils down to a central debate in modern college basketball: Can a young man who plays a single season of college basketball as merely a bridge to the NBA be considered a student-athlete?

While the likes of Dajuan Wagner, Shawne Williams, Tyreke Evans, and Rose are not cheating the University of Memphis by the letter of the law when they enroll for what amounts to a warm-up act for their pro careers, they are certainly cheating the spirit of the institution of higher learning they represent. Such manipulation has essentially been mandated by the NBA, with its recent adoption of an age requirement for potential draftees. But it remains the responsibility of individual basketball programs -- and above them, individual colleges -- to decide whether or not to play gamesmanship with the definition of "student-athlete."

However deep your rooting interest may be in Tiger basketball, could you have doubted corners were cut to accommodate the one-year wonders who played such an integral role in John Calipari's Tiger reign? Fair or unfair, Evans didn't lose any sleep last winter writing papers or researching a presentation. The system being played must be accepted or rejected on your own terms. But to be surprised at a cut corner finally catching up with a player and the program? A high school friend -- from Vermont, well beyond Tiger Country as we know it -- wrote me last week and described the NCAA's investigation of a former Calipari program as "inevitable." And it's the word I keep returning to as I reflect on the profound -- beyond credulity? -- rise of Memphis basketball over the last nine years. * What I do find befuddling is the timeline of events. And this goes beyond the four-month gap between the time the university was notified of the NCAA's concerns and the information going public. The SAT in question had to have been taken no later than the spring or summer of 2007. So a year and a half goes by before the NCAA calls into question that test? Remember the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin: "Three men may keep a secret, if two of them are dead."

It has the stench of a cover-up, one where information was withheld just long enough for the two figures closest to the flame -- Derrick Rose and John Calipari -- to have Memphis comfortably in their rearview. As for Franklin's rule, you have to assume this was more than a two-man game between Rose and his test-taking proxy. With the number of handlers Rose has had since he was in middle school -- primarily his older brothers -- this little secret was dancing in the heads of grown men who knew better. * In the October 2000 issue of MEMPHIS magazine -- a few weeks before Calipari coached his first game in Memphis -- the late, great Memphis Flyer editor Dennis Freeland wrote the following: "Calipari has brought his game to Memphis, a town that knows a little about charisma. It also knows about con artists, having seen its share of both. That's the Calipari conundrum: Is he smooth or is he slick? And, if he wins enough basketball games, will it even matter?"

You decide.

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