The National Football League took a step in the right direction with the Pro Bowl this season, moving it up two weeks, to the Sunday before the Super Bowl. This is historically a dead weekend for football fans who are frothing at the mouth for their favorite sport. In prior years, when the game was played a week after the Super Bowl — in Honolulu — most American sports fans had already turned their attention to the NBA All-Star Game or the Daytona 500. The venue won’t be as attractive (Sunday’s game will be played in Miami, site of the Super Bowl) and the game will miss players selected from the Colts and Saints (for obvious reasons). But it’s a step closer to making the NFL’s all-star game a legitimate highlight on the sports calendar.
We’re not there yet, though.
To begin with, every year players opt out of the Pro Bowl for reasons that vary from twisted knees to twisted emotions. Two of the three AFC quarterbacks (Tom Brady and Philip Rivers) have said "Thanks, but no thanks" to this year's event. And the third (Peyton Manning) won't play since his Colts are AFC champs, with a pretty big game the following week. So the AFC will be down to its fourth-string quarterback. What began as a 43-man roster for the NFC has swollen closer to 50 with “injury replacements” for players unable (or unwilling) to suit up. You have to wonder about the value of a Pro Bowl nod, when players are so quick to avoid the game, and so easily make replacements (without any fan or coach voting to determine the newly decorated substitute).
You can hardly blame NFL stars (weary from five months of collisions and joint pain) for being reluctant to don helmet and pads for an exhibition game after their season has ended. The free trip to Hawaii was a nice hook, but with that now gone, why would an aging star like Brady risk exposing a knee or shoulder to one ill-fated tackle?
I’ve got a solution: flag football.
Instead of donning helmet and pads, why not have the NFL’s biggest stars play a game the way you and I would in our backyard or the nearest rec field? Each player could wear the T-shirt of the team he represents, with “uniform shorts” that would sell like hotcakes at nfl.com. (The flags they wear could be auctioned off for charity after the game. This is a concept, folks.)
Among the reasons the NBA has grown into the brand it has is how naked the players are. When Kevin Garnett lets out a post-dunk scream as though his right foot was amputated when he landed, every fan — and television viewer — sees it. This element could be brought to football for one afternoon. Sure, the players would be holding some terror back, would scale down the intimidation-meter. But wouldn’t it be fun to see the grimace Ryan Clady sports as he tries to keep DeMarcus Ware from Vince Young’s flag? Or what about the goofy facial contortions Chris Johnson displays as he weaves between “tacklers” on a 40-yard jaunt? For one afternoon, the NFL would look like the Kennedy home movies.
Baseball’s All-Star Game has meaning because of its history (and how peeved every National League player is that they can’t win the thing any more). The NBA was made for All-Star festivities, a personality-driven sport that thrives when it can remove the inconvenience of defense from its end-to-end formula for entertainment. And I, for one, love the NHL’s All-Star Game, when you can see more goals in three periods than you will in three weeks of following your favorite team.
But the NFL’s All-Star Game? It just seems contrived. Players will use multiple Pro Bowl selections in contract negotiations ... then not show up to play the game. So take the pads off, remember what it was like to play football when you were 10, and give America what it wants: Football stars unmasked.
The acquisitions of Holliday and Mark DeRosa last summer cost the Cardinals three of their top five prospects: third-baseman Brett Wallace and relief pitchers Chris Perez and Jess Todd. DeRosa is already gone, having signed a free-agent deal with the San Francisco Giants (making the losses of Perez and Todd especially painful when you factor in the struggles of Ryan Franklin and Kyle McClellan at the end of the 2009 season). Among the leading candidates to replace DeRosa at third for St. Louis will be David Freese, a key member of the Memphis Redbirds’ 2009 Pacific Coast League champions (and a midwinter distraction, having been arrested for driving under the influence in December).
The development of centerfielder Colby Rasmus (still just 23, Rasmus hit .251 with 16 homers as a rookie last summer) will be critical to supporting the Pujols/Holliday tandem in the middle of the Cardinal order. And then what? In Baseball America’s most recent ranking of farm systems, the Cardinals plummeted to 29th (ahead of only the Houston Astros), and that’s after being ranked eighth at the dawn of the 2009 season.
The Cardinals’ top prospects as of today:
1) Shelby Miller (RHP) — The 19th pick in last June’s draft, Miller likely won’t see Triple A until 2011 at the earliest.
2) Jaime Garcia (LHP) — Garcia returned from surgery late last season and was instrumental in the Redbirds’ undefeated push through the PCL playoffs (12 innings, no earned runs). He’ll be a candidate for the Cardinals’ starting rotation this spring.
3) Lance Lynn (RHP) — The big righty (6’5”, 250) was a Texas League All-Star last season, going 11-4 with a 2.92 ERA for Double-A Springfield. Like Garcia, he’ll be considered for any opening in the St. Louis rotation, but will likely be pitching every fifth day for Memphis.
4) Daryl Jones (OF) — Hit .279 in 80 games for Springfield last season. Hit .326 and stole 18 bases in Class A in 2008. Hard to envision him getting much playing time as a Cardinal with Holliday, Rasmus, and Ryan Ludwick on the roster.
• Just when you think a professional athlete has established a new standard for thick-headedness — like, say, shooting himself in the leg in public — a story breaks like the one about Gilbert Arenas showing off guns in the Washington Wizards’ locker room. And then making light of it as a “joke” when the act is called into question. (Best part of all this? Arenas plays for a team that was known as the Washington Bullets until 1997, when owner Abe Pollin renamed the team in the wake of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination.)
NBA commissioner David Stern suspended Arenas indefinitely, a classic case of making an example out of a transgression, but one that needed to be made. The right to bear arms is sacred to millions of Americans, but where those arms are carried matters greatly. (See the ongoing debate over Tennessee’s new law allowing firearms in bars.) Seems like an NBA arena should be among the first places crossed off the list of “appropriate for handguns.”
In the NBA, “I got your back” is heard a lot more than “I’m sorry,” which makes the words spoken by Wizards captain Antawn Jamison to a crowd at the Verizon Center in Washington last Friday night rather astounding. Here they are:
"On behalf of my teammates, this coaching staff, we know it's been a trying week. One thing my teammates and I take very seriously is that being a positive role model ... something we don't take lightly. And there's been a picture that's been shown of us taking this event very lightly. This is a serious situation; it's something we take to heart. We never meant to make light of the situation. And we're going to do everything in our power, as long as I'm your captain and all these guys right here are my teammates, to make this one of the most respectable organizations in the league.
"In order to make that happen, we need you guys to continue to support us. This thing here is very embarrassing for my teammates and the coaching staff, but we're going to do everything possible to make this one of the toughest places to play in, to make this an exciting place, but most importantly, a place where you can bring your kids, your families, your buddy, to come and have a good time."
• A sponsor for the St. Jude Classic. No golf tournament this side of Augusta, Georgia, can survive without the financial foundation of a title sponsor. The good folks at Southwind executed last year’s event — the 52nd consecutive year of PGA golf in Memphis — without a hitch in the aftermath of Stanford Financial’s meltdown. But the tournament (as a business enterprise) will not be sustainable without a new partner. This is an uncomfortable transition period for the PGA Tour, with its dominant personality on the sidelines for an “indefinite leave.” But considering Tiger Woods has never played in Memphis, a potential sponsor would be dealing with — at worst — the status quo locally. Golf fans all over the Mid-South will exhale when a deal is done.
• An All-Star berth for a Grizzly ... any Grizzly. Rudy Gay would be the easiest choice. O.J. Mayo has an All-Star Game in his future, too. And the way he’s played of late, Zach Randolph should earn consideration for a trip to Cowboys Stadium in February. Nine years of Memphis Grizzlies basketball and one All-Star (Pau Gasol in 2006). Let’s make it two.
• Big 10 ... Big Dozen. Here’s hoping the Big 10 adds a twelfth school, and soon. And let’s hope it’s a current member of the Big East (Rutgers?). Such a move would all but assure a Big East search for new blood. With former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese consulting at the side of Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, introductions should be made smooth and easy. The U of M has to join a BCS conference. Let’s not allow this chance to disappear.
• Profitability at AutoZone Park. Rarely will you see a sports franchise turn over as quickly and dramatically as the Memphis Redbirds did during what would be a championship season in 2009. The general manager, the sales director, and the director of community relations were all ousted by the team’s board of directors in what amounts to a radical attempt at regaining solvency. Baseball at Third and Union is priceless ... but only until the Redbirds’ start measuring black and red ink. Here’s hoping the new management team fills the prescription for profits. Perhaps new ownership will follow.
• An NCAA berth for the Tigers. As I write, this is a long shot. The Tigers simply haven’t beaten a team that will catch the tournament-selectors’ eye. That can change, though, with a title run in Conference USA play. Unless Memphis upsets 5th-ranked Syracuse this week, Memphis can’t afford more than three losses in league play.
• Good health for Maria Sharapova (at least through February). The presence of Sharapova — among the planet’s most famous female athletes — would give The Racquet Club of Memphis a dose of international buzz unlike any it’s seen in over a decade. (Sharapova played here in 2004, but it was four months before she won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon.) A run to the finals of the Cellular South Cup by this Russian star would give a week of Memphis tennis a share of the worldwide spotlight.
• A ticket-seller for Larry Porter. The Tigers’ new football coach has his hands full in trying to fill the Liberty Bowl. A 2-10 team lost its top running back, top two receivers, and two of its top three quarterbacks. (I’m not convinced the brittle Tyler Bass — returning to compete for the quarterback job — can be The Guy.) Porter’s arrival will sell some tickets, but come October, the Tigers will need a difference-maker with the ball in his hands.
• A playoff spot for the Grizzlies. Why not? With a record of 16-16, Memphis has one more loss than Oklahoma City and Utah, the teams currently tied for the eighth and final postseason ticket in the Western Conference. And the Griz have two games left to play against both the Thunder and Jazz. Why not?