* Forget Sunday’s game. Win by a little or lose by a lot, the much-anticipated annual opening with Houston Nutt’s Rebels has no bearing whatsoever on the C-USA race. The game will do wonders for clarifying strengths (or exposing weaknesses), as Ole Miss will be the most talented team Memphis faces this fall. It’s a hard concept for longtime Tiger supporters to grasp, but in the scheme of this program’s development, the Marshall game (September 26th) is more important than the Ole Miss affair.
* Hold serve at home. Let’s presume Conference USA’s East Division won’t be won with more than two losses in the league. The Tigers have their work cut out for them, with the top three teams from the West Division (UTEP, Houston, and Tulsa) added to their schedule in place of the West’s bottom feeders (SMU, Rice, and Tulane). And Memphis has to travel to Houston and Tulsa in late November to finish its regular season. The Tigers simply have to win their four league home games (Marshall, UTEP, East Carolina, UAB). The Tuesday-night showdown (on October 27th) with the Pirates could be the game of the year. Having lost three straight to ECU, the Tigers will face a team — on national television — with four defensive players on the preseason all-CUSA team. A division title could hang in the balance.
* Split on the road. November will be a month from hell for the Tigers. It starts with a visit to Knoxville on the 7th, then is followed by a home tilt against UAB, a trip to Houston, then a trip to Tulsa (the day after Thanksgiving). The 2009 season won’t so much wind down as heat up, and if the U of M isn’t healthy and in contention for a bowl appearance (at least), the season will get ugly well before your turkey is out of the oven. The goal should be to win two of the four road games against C-USA competition. And the most likely victims may be the first two: Central Florida (October 3rd) and Southern Miss (October 17th).
* Get experienced, fast. The offensive line has one returning starter (Dominik Riley). The secondary is packed with athletes competing for four spots (five for the frequent nickel packages). But is there a game-changer among these units? (D.A. Griffin is a preseason all-conference selection, but as a kick returner.) The Tigers’ media guide lists 16 defensive backs on the team’s depth chart. Exactly two of them — Deante’ Lamar and Alton Starr — are seniors. If a team can’t protect the quarterback or defend the pass, scoreboards start smoking. Watch these units and you’ll know early on how far the 2009 Tigers will go.
* Lean on the running game. Few Tiger teams have had the one-two threat at tailback that this year’s squad will have. Curtis Steele (1,223 yards last season) and Wisconsin transfer Lance Smith should eat up chunks of yardage if the offensive line develops under assistant coach Rick Mallory. And the best way to protect a team’s weakness — I’m looking at you, secondary — is to keep it off the field. With a senior quarterback and a pair of senior wideouts playing big roles this fall, the tendency at times will be to sling the pigskin downfield and see what happens. The smarter, big-picture approach for the 2009 Tigers will be to let the threat of Carlos Singleton (or Duke Calhoun) supplement the rushing of Steele and Smith. Check your stat box at game’s end. If Memphis runs more than it passes, you’re likely to be celebrating a victory.
It may well be Allen Craig.
One class (Spanish) shy of a degree from Cal-Berkeley, Craig isn’t your boilerplate minor-league prospect. He was drafted in the eighth round of the 2006 draft and entered this season ranked 26th in the St. Louis system by Baseball America.
Craig’s numbers reflect a metronomic rise up the Cardinals’ farm chain, with each of his three full seasons played at a higher level than the year before. In 2007 at Class A Palm Beach, Craig hit .312 with 21 home runs and 77 RBIs. The next year at Double-A Springfield, the numbers were .304, 22, and 85. Through Sunday this season for the Redbirds, Craig is hitting .314 with 22 homers and 67 RBIs. With the team’s roster volatility, Craig is a chief reason the Redbirds remain in contention for their first playoff berth in nine years.
What’s Craig’s secret to adjusting, one level after another? “I wouldn’t say it’s been a smooth transition,” he says, “because I struggled early on. Every year you move up, there’s something different, and you have to change . . . sometimes things you already changed the year before.”
The pitching at Triple-A is a craftier version of what a player sees at lower levels. Keeping up with the head games has been among Craig’s primary challenges. “They throw a lot more off-speed pitches up here, and you have to be ready for that,” he says. “They have better stuff, and they’re smarter. There are a lot of veteran pitchers who have played in the big leagues. They’re not just going to give you a 3-1 fastball.”
Craig spent the majority of his professional career at third base before arriving in Memphis, where Wallace arrived early this season and recent playing time has been eaten up by David Freese and the rehabbing Troy Glaus. Craig has started more than 40 games at first base and leftfield, adjusting to new positions without allowing any disorientation to impact his production at the plate.
“I finished my senior year in college at shortstop,” says Craig, “and I played a lot of leftfield my junior year. I feel comfortable playing third, first, or left. I don’t really have a preference; whatever gets me to the big leagues. One of my goals this year was to show that I could play the outfield, that they could be comfortable putting me out there.”
If a player can hit, clubs will find a position for him. Craig knows this, and he continues to fine-tune his approach in the batter’s box. “I widened my stance,” he explains, “and I’ve tried to be shorter to the ball, a little quicker. Not trying to do too much, or hit it too far.” He has a bat-waving trigger mechanism that is a mild version of Gary Sheffield’s stance. “I started that in college,” he says, “reminding myself to use my hands as much as my body. I’m not trying to hit home runs. They usually come when you least expect it.”
Third base will be a question mark this winter for the Cardinals. Glaus’s contract expires, as does that of DeRosa, either of whom would be considerably more expensive than Freese, should his ankle woes be behind him. (With re-signing Matt Holliday a priority, bargain-hunting at other positions will be a task for Cardinal general manager John Mozeliak.) If past performance is a clue, though, and steady hitting a prerequisite for a player’s last, biggest promotion, Allen Craig may find himself in the conversation next spring. Needless to say, he’ll have his outfielder’s glove nearby.
College basketball historians can now count exactly one program to have twice vacated an appearance in the Final Four: the University of Memphis. Those same historians have just as easy a task counting the number of coaches to have presided over twice-vacated programs: John Calipari. The fact that each party’s first, well, “vacation” took place before they joined forces in 2000 only makes the inevitability of this week’s news that much more eerie. Somewhere, Dana Kirk and Marcus Camby must be shaking their heads. Smiling? Let’s hope not.
There’s a parallel between the emotions Tiger Nation must now reconcile and those unleashed over the steroid era in Major League Baseball. When performances we cheered so passionately are erased in the record book (or in baseball’s case, public opinion), how do those cheers echo in our memory banks? When events that brought so many together toward the same happy goal are proved to be fraudulent, what do we do with the laugh lines that still crease our cheeks from those epic moments? In the case of Tiger basketball, the asterisks are now quite real, and there’s no explanation — “it was an over-the-counter supplement” — to purchase enough doubt to matter.
Karma can be cruel. With less than two years of hindsight, we now see the game-tying, buzzer-beating trey drained by Kansas’ Mario Chalmers as a salve for college basketball history. Had that shot been a few inches left or right, the University of Memphis would now be the only program in college basketball history to vacate a national championship. At least this week’s sorrow and regret seem to dovetail with the community’s collective grief in the aftermath of the Jayhawks’ unlikely win on April 7, 2008.
Most damaging to fans who relish achievement in the context of history — count me as one — is the loss of the record-breaking 38 wins, a standard that would likely have stood for a few decades, or until the NCAA expanded its regular season. And if you want to find two of the bloodiest victims in this rules-breaking massacre, look no further than the just-graduated pair of Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier. Integral members of the Final Four team, Anderson and Dozier finished their careers with an NCAA-record 137 wins. The record book now leaves them with 99.
Back to measuring karma, you have to believe Calipari’s departure for Kentucky last April — shocking at the time — would be especially necessary now for these two soiled parties to move on. Kentucky boosters have what they paid for: the highest-paid, most media-friendly recruiter of talent in the land. They also have, by the NCAA’s take, an outlaw. (Calipari will certainly distance himself from the “decisions” Derrick Rose and his entourage made before enrolling at the U of M, just as he distanced himself from Camby’s dealings with an agent during the 1995-96 UMass season. But if a coach is given every credit for his program’s successes, he must absorb the lead when misdeeds place his program in front of a firing squad.)
The Tiger program is now in the hands of a 32-year-old rookie coach who was not even here in 2007-08. If Josh Pastner felt fresh when he was announced as Calipari’s successor four months ago, he’s a cloudless spring morning after a thundershower now. Pastner’s Tigers will not win 30 games next season. They won’t win the Conference USA championship. It’s unlikely they’ll reach the NCAA tournament. But let’s take the view human beings should with anything new: the 2009-10 Tigers will be clean.
There’s a great line Pastner should consider in the months ahead. It might do Tiger basketball fans some good, too. “Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.” The man who uttered this wisdom? John Wooden.
The first decade of the 21st century — at least in the realm of sports — was unlike any other Memphis has seen (or likely will see). Over the next five months, I’ll be counting down the five most significant Memphis athletes of “the Oughts.” Starting today, with number five.
Like every legend, Stubby Clapp grows with memory. And like every folk hero, his charms seem not all that distant with reflection. How a native of Windsor, Ontario, grew into the back flipping, clenched-fist, sideburned heart of a championship Memphis baseball team is among the best tales in several decades of Bluff City sports history.
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Clapp arrived in Memphis during the Redbirds’ 1999 season, the last at Tim McCarver Stadium in the Fairgrounds. As if his name weren’t enough to grab the attention of fans, Clapp would take the field with a cartwheel-back-flip combo, a tribute to one of his own baseball heroes, Ozzie Smith. Splitting time between the outfield and second base (where he’d settle in ensuing years), Clapp hit .260 that season and found the old stadium’s short fences to his liking, hitting a career-high 14 home runs.
A year later, as AutoZone Park opened its doors downtown, Clapp led the Redbirds in hits (138) and runs (89) as the team marched to the Pacific Coast League championship. A 20-year-old kid just called up from Class A — Albert Pujols — won the clincher with a home run just inside AZP’s rightfield foul pole. “That was a Cinderella year,” Clapp reflects from his new stomping grounds in east Tennessee. “Brand-new stadium, and to go ahead and win it that year ... it was a lot of fun. Little do you know when you’re in the middle of it what kind of accomplishment it is. Now that you get to look back — and they haven’t won anything since — you realize it was pretty special.”
Clapp reached the majors in 2001, but played only 23 games for the St. Louis Cardinals (he hit .200). Since his last game as a Redbird in 2002, Clapp has seen crowds that would put AutoZone Park’s largest to shame. He represented Canada in the Summer Olympics at Athens (in 2004) and Beijing (2008). “That was unbelievable,” says Clapp, “and I was really able to absorb it the second time around. I thought Athens was the greatest thing ever, but then Beijing came and outdid Athens. You’re in Beijing, China, and you see a section of Canadian people going crazy for you. It makes you feel overwhelmed.”
Now married with a pair of sons — Cooper (5) and Cannan (2) — Clapp has settled in Savannah, Tennessee. (“Cooper is officially Stubby IV,” notes Clapp. “It’s on his birth certificate.”) He is now the hitting coach for the Greeneville (TN) Astros, a Class-A affiliate of the Houston Astros in the Appalachian League. He’s come to take pride in cultivating the most challenging skill of any teacher, the ability to customize instruction for an individual student (or hitter).
“I’m teaching everything I was taught,” says Clapp, “and everything I learn from my peers. Everybody wants to take the magic pill for hitting, and there’s no such thing. I emphasize good quality work, not necessarily quantity. It’s a marathon, not a sprint in most cases. These kids have no idea that they have a minimum of six years ahead of them to fulfill their first contract. I take pride in being able to teach a wide variety of athletes mentally. Every kid is an individual, and has individual strengths and weaknesses. You can’t play baseball as a robot. If there was one perfect way to play the game, we’d all be doing it and making a million dollars.”
Looking back on 2000, Clapp relishes the memories, but chooses not to overemphasize them, especially when the topic turns to his most famous former teammate. When asked about first impressions of young Pujols, Clapp merely offers “professional hitter. He went about his business quietly, and we just tried to make him feel as comfortable as possible.
“I don’t talk very much about my past,” adds Clapp. “There’s just so much here for my kids’ future. My time is done. I enjoyed it thoroughly. If someone told me I could go back tomorrow and do it again, I would. But I really try to focus on my sons’ future, and the 12 or 13 ‘sons’ I have here in Greeneville.”
And when was the last time Clapp did a back flip on a baseball field? “I think it was during an Olympic qualifier in Taiwan,” he admits, somewhat reluctantly. “We tied the game in the ninth, and I came across home plate. Purely out of emotion, and not thought. Emotions got the best of me.”
To date, Clapp is second only to John Gall in career games (425) and hits (418) as a Memphis Redbird. He’s the only former player to have his uniform number (10) retired.
More than fireworks were launched at AutoZone Park on July 4th. In edging the Round Rock Express, 3-2 in 11 innings, the Memphis Redbirds began a four-game winning streak and the best month the team has seen in years. Entering that night’s game, the Redbirds had a record of 37-43 and were eight games behind the Nashville Sounds in their division of the Pacific Coast League. Since then (through Sunday), the team has gone 24-11. A five-game winning streak pushed the Redbirds into first place on August 3rd, the latest they’ve occupied the top spot in a season since 2002. A victory over Colorado Springs Sunday again leapfrogged the ’Birds ahead of Nashville.
With four weeks remaining on the schedule, there are a few elements that will decide if Memphis baseball fans see their first playoff action since the championship 2000 season.
* STARTING STOPPERS. It’s the first, last, and most obvious ingredient for any playoff baseball team: strong starting pitching. P.J. Walters recently struck out 27 batters over two starts. After starting the season 0-9, Adam Ottavino has won five of his last six decisions. Mitchell Boggs has pitched well enough to earn an early-August start for the Cardinals in St. Louis. These three hurlers — along with Evan MacLane and Oneli Perez — will have to put up consistent zeroes for the Redbirds to remain in contention.
* ROSTER STABILITY. The return of Nick Stavinoha from St. Louis has added considerable pop to the middle of the Redbird lineup. Mark Hamilton — a Texas League All-Star earlier this year for Double-A Springfield — brings lefthanded power that was dealt a blow when Brett Wallace was sent to Oakland in the Matt Holliday trade. Shortstop Tyler Greene may be the most talented two-way player Memphis suits up these days . . . when he’s not in St. Louis. (If Brendan Ryan and Julio Lugo stay healthy with the Cardinals, Greene should remain in Memphis until big-league rosters expand in September.) Injuries in St. Louis that require the services of Boggs or Walters will hinder the Redbirds’ playoff hopes. If the group that took the club to first place earlier this month stays together, they stand a decent chance of running off another winning streak of five or more games.
* CLOSING HAMMER. The trade of Wallace made most of the headlines last month, but for the 2009 Redbirds, the bigger hit came when relief pitcher Jess Todd was taken by Cleveland as the player to be named in the deal that sent Mark DeRosa to St. Louis. Todd was leading the PCL with 24 saves when the trade was finalized. Now, Redbird manager Chris Maloney is forced to essentially try out possible closers. Charlie Manning? Royce Ring? Pete Parise? Ian Ostlund? Matt Scherer? One of these pitchers will have to take command of the ninth inning for the Redbirds to play deep into September.
* SILENCE THE SOUNDS. Memphis has four more games with the Nashville Sounds, the team that has led its division for most of the season. (All four games will be at Greer Stadium in Nashville, August 31st, and September 1-3.) In baseball math, that is a potential eight-game swing in the standings. To date, the Redbirds are 4-8 against the Sounds but, ominously, have lost all four games in Nashville. The key, of course, is getting to the season’s final week in a position where this series matters. Which brings us to the final, critical factor for what remains of the 2009 season.
* LUCK. There’s no ducking this element in a pennant race. On August 2nd, the Redbirds beat Omaha when Jarrett Hoffpauir scored from first base in the bottom of the ninth ... after being picked off. (Royals pitcher Victor Marte threw the ball into centerfield after stepping off the rubber, and Hoffpauir never stopped running.) Just two nights later, the Redbirds fell to the Royals, 6-4, with two innings ending on a Redbird runner being thrown out at the plate. A bases-loaded line drive off the bat of Allen Craig resulted in a double-play instead of the tying and go-ahead runs. Inches here or there, a broken stride, a foul tip. These have ripple effects that will make or break a contender.
Three major Southern cities. Three acts of gun violence. Three victims: all African-American men under the age of 40. Reviewed as statistics, they hardly cause one to pause in skimming a paper or web site for news. Perhaps a shake of the head, pursed lips, and a thought bubble: “Not again.”
Only when the names of the victims are read do they capture attention. On July 4th in Nashville, former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair was shot and killed as he slept by a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair. On July 20th in Memphis, former Tiger and Grizzly basketball star Antonio Burks was shot during a backyard robbery of a dice game. Burks is recovering, but remains hospitalized. Then, on July 25th in Atlanta, former welterweight boxing champ Vernon Forrest was shot and killed near a gas station after a robbery attempt gone awry. (Forrest actually chased his assailant and fired the first shot before being slain from behind.) Forrest’s 11-year-old godson witnessed his murder.
With the wounds of these stories still fresh — literally in Burks’ case, metaphorically with the others — the sports world seems to have turned to the ongoing saga of Michael Vick as its “crime and punishment” story of the day. Conditionally reinstated to play in the NFL by commissioner Roger Goodell, Vick is aiming to return to the playing field after serving two years in prison for running a dog-fighting ring from his Virginia home. The story is going to stir intense debate between hard-line animal-rights advocates who feel barbarism like Vick displayed doesn’t fade (not even with a spell behind bars) and those who feel the quarterback has paid his penalty, served his time, and should receive that most American of gifts: a second chance.
I happen to fall on the side of second chances. And I hope Vick takes the field sometime this fall, and finds a way to use the spotlight of an NFL star to help shine a light on the rights and wrongs of animal care across the country. Who better to focus attention on the myriad abuses of dogs and other four-legged friends of ours than a man who has been in the middle of a bloody ring, as it were, and now sees forgiveness as his own salvation?
But however the Vick story turns out, it’s borderline trite if you consider the violence costing the lives of other members of his professional sports fraternity, not to mention the countless human beings who indeed earn merely a shake of the head when their names appear in the obituaries. If only last month’s events were unusual. If only we could fall on the old crutch, “Bad things happen in threes.” But last November, New York Giants star Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg with a gun he was carrying illegally. Precisely the day before, Washington Redskin star Sean Taylor died from a gunshot wound after a break-in of his Miami home. On New Year’s Day, 2007, Denver Bronco Darrent Williams was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. A review becomes sadly and tragically tiresome.
The mere suggestion of new restrictions on gun possession — like this column — will mobilize members and advocates of the National Rifle Association. And the vitriolic feedback is further proof that the message is either not clear enough, or not getting through. Members of the NRA — those well-versed in how to use a firearm, how to care for a firearm, and how to secure a firearm — are precisely the kind of people who should be carrying guns. My guess is the three people who fired the shots that hit McNair, Burks, and Forrest are not members of the NRA. And that screams for more attention, not just from the government, but from the NRA itself, whose interests are (presumably) in the safe possession and use of guns.
The Michael Vick story is compelling, but it will come and go. How long before we read of the next professional athlete on the wrong end of a gun? And when will we do something more than merely shake our heads?