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.