But every now and then, the decisions made by Cardinal general manager John Mozeliak and manager Tony LaRussa directly impact the Redbirds in a positive way. As the 2010 season shapes into form, it appears those decisions up I-55 may keep the local club in a playoff hunt well into summer.
LaRussa has historically preferred a veteran presence on his bench. Players like Willie McGee, Eric Davis, Shawon Dunston, Marlon Anderson, Orlando Palmeiro, and Scott Spiezio have played significant supporting roles for the Cardinals under LaRussa. The Hall-of-Fame-bound skipper isn’t one to lock into a single lineup, making players who can handle multiple positions — with loads of experience — particularly valuable.
On Opening Day, St. Louis counted Joe Mather, Allen Craig, and Nick Stavinoha among its reserves. The trio entered this season with a combined 122 games of big-league experience. An injury to shortstop Brendan Ryan necessitated the promotion in late April of Tyler Greene from Memphis (48 games in the majors). Another injury in St. Louis — to Felipe Lopez — led to the April 26th big-league debut of outfielder Jon Jay.
Cut to June 4th, though, when Jay was optioned back to Memphis and four of these rising stars are still rising, in theory, at the Triple-A level. (Stavinoha remains in St. Louis as a primary pinch-hitter.) The Cardinals brought back infielder Aaron Miles (a utility player for the 2006 world champs) and signed outfielder Randy Winn (released after hitting .213 in 29 games for the Yankees this season) to fortify their bench. Winn (age 36) and Miles (33) fit the LaRussa mold for seasoned backups, even if they postpone the big-league careers of the franchise’s top prospects.
The silver lining, of course, is the level of play here in Memphis. With all four teams in the American-North division separated by a single game, one hot slugger (or hurler) can make a difference. After struggling to find his stroke in St. Louis, Craig is hitting .297 for Memphis and has driven in 41 runs in just 46 games through Sunday. Add Mather (.316), Greene (.294), and Jay (.315) to the mix and Memphis manager Chris Maloney can fill out almost half his lineup card with players one Tony LaRussa away from being major leaguers.
And it’s not just the Redbirds’ offense benefiting from the parent club’s taste for veterans. With the signing last week of 35-year-old pitcher Jeff Suppan (another member of the Cardinals 2006 championship squad), Adam Ottavino was optioned back to Memphis, where he rejoined P.J. Walters. Neither Ottavino nor Walters distinguished himself in brief stints in the Cardinal rotation, but they’ll comprise 40 percent of a Redbird rotation that aims for a rarity in Triple-A: consistent starting pitching. The emergence of Brandon Dickson (seven wins and a 2.93 ERA through Sunday) has supplemented the performances of Lance Lynn and Evan MacLane, giving Maloney a reliable starter every night.
Big picture, the Cardinal brass will happily exchange any Triple-A success for another post-season appearance. And even with the return of so many prospects, the Redbirds’ influence on the 2010 Cardinals will be felt as long as Colby Rasmus, David Freese, and Jaime Garcia continue to help win games. (To say nothing of Pujols, Molina, and Adam Wainwright.) Ironically, though, the Cardinal influence in Memphis could mean another postseason opportunity for the local club. With both teams’ interests in mind, here’s hoping all those veteran comfort blankets in St. Louis play their roles as envisioned. In the meantime, enjoy the big-league talent you can see at Third and Union.
With school out and homework mercifully behind, my daughters and I have taken up a new activity: Card Talk. Each night, I take out my album with 40 years of St. Louis Cardinal baseball cards, and provide a lesson — no more than five minutes, mind you — on my family’s team of choice. Sofia (11) and Elena (7) have taken to the mini-lecture like the good students they are. A question here or there, some curiosity about styles — Bake McBride wore his hair a little differently than Ray Lankford — and what seems to be a burgeoning interest in a subject they know consumes their father on more summer nights than it should.
Last week, we had a lesson on Ted Simmons, the great Cardinal catcher of the Seventies who was given the shaft by Hall of Fame voters when he became eligible in 1994. (Here’s hoping the Veterans Committee is paying attention when Simmons’ name resurfaces.) We also discussed the 2003 Cardinals, a team that somehow interrupted what would have been seven straight playoff seasons despite fielding four Gold Glove winners. The player or team we discuss is random, inspired as much by my mood as by the current team’s performance. It’s not exactly bedtime reading, but it’s time well spent. Five minutes can go a long way.
When my dad died five years ago, I lost the one person on the planet who could talk Cardinal baseball with me in a manner as casual as weather-related small talk, or as serious as a financial investment. Having grown up at his father’s side, listening to the exploits of his hero Stan Musial over the airwaves, Dad knew the subject mattered a little more in our family. My grandfather — Frank Murtaugh Sr. — died when I was only two years old. He was introduced to me in discussions about the Cardinals. Dad could identify recent Redbirds who would have gained my grandfather’s favor: Tommy Herr, John Tudor, and Lankford were three. Conversely, Dad had difficulty accepting those who didn’t know “the Cardinal way” of playing the game: Garry Templeton, Todd Zeile, and Tino Martinez come to mind.
With the Redbirds in town and Cardinal games on cable television, chatting about St. Louis baseball in Memphis is hardly uncommon. Add Facebook and Twitter to the mix, and there’s a virtual Cardinal Nation with more opinions, memories, and anecdotes than three generations of any one family could claim. But there’s the distinction: it’s not family.
Sofia still asks about Yadier Molina’s health, three years after she saw the Cardinal catcher taken off the field on a stretcher after a home-plate collision at Busch Stadium. Playing her first season of softball, Elena relishes the chances she gets to play shortstop for her team, in part because Dad’s hero, Ozzie Smith, played there, but primarily because her big sister does, too. There are Cardinal links, but within the tighter, more permanent bonds we know as a family.
Every Father’s Day, I write to my Dad in a small journal, reminding him that his family is healthy and happy, that his wife of 38 years is stronger today than she was in 2005, just lonelier. In emphasizing how much I miss him, I also update him on the Cardinals. He may have a better view of Busch Stadium than any television camera can provide, but I know my perspective on the team’s chances at a pennant would be of some value. (If Matt Holliday doesn’t hit 20 home runs, the 2010 Cardinals will belong in a conversation with that 2003 bunch.)
So the Card Talk will continue with my daughters, until they’re either more expert than I, or the cruel necessities of life (homework, chores, boys) interrupt the dialogue. I urge my fellow dads to find five minutes a day to discuss a “non-essential” with their children, something that is important only because it helps connect generations, past and present. The lessons learned can be as priceless as your first baseball card.
Starting this Friday, South Africa will host the most-watched team sporting event on the planet. A precious-few national teams (32 to be exact) will compete for soccer’s ultimate quadrennial prize. Americans who pay attention will get to know the names Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney, Kaka, and Thierry Henry. But if America’s best player, Clint Dempsey, were to walk down Beale Street this Friday night — with his uniform on — he’d be virtually unrecognized. Such is life playing “the beautiful game” in a country that swoons only for home run hitters, high-flying hoops, and hot quarterbacks. This month — and every four years — the U.S. soccer team is Rocky Balboa.
For a country that didn’t qualify for World Cup play between 1950 and 1990, just being at the party is a big deal. (The U.S. squad is ranked 14th in the world by FIFA, the sport’s governing body.) Since finishing third at the 1930 event, America’s best showing was at the 2002 World Cup — hosted jointly by South Korea and Japan — when the Yanks reached the quarterfinals. Playing in a group that includes England, Algeria, and Slovenia, the U.S. has a decent chance at surviving into the “knockout” round of 16. This is a team that beat the world’s top-ranked squad from Spain just last summer. But no win is a given. Apollo Creed in Rocky’s golden robe.
Some thought the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s victory over the Soviet Union in 1980 would spawn generations of American-born puck-slapping superstars. Never happened. And soccer is unlikely to take hold among big-spending, sports-loving spectators in America as long as the Yankees are playing baseball and the Steelers are playing football. But mark this down: If the U.S. ever completes its Rocky Balboa turn and wins the World Cup, that fabled hockey team will own the second biggest upset in American sports history.
• I spent a year as a boy in Turin, Italy, and owned stickers of Juventus stars like Dino Zoff and Claudio Gentile before I had my first baseball cards of Lou Brock or Ted Simmons. Five years after my family returned to the States, Zoff and Gentile played integral roles in leading Italy — the Azzurri — to its third World Cup title, and first in more than 40 years. The biggest soccer tournament in the world, somehow, felt familiar to a 13-year-old American boy who otherwise couldn’t get enough baseball.
I later played in a state championship soccer match as a junior in high school (we were soundly whipped). My wife was an All-State player at the same high school in Vermont, and she won a championship in her last match. Today, each of my daughters plays soccer (my 7-year-old in both the fall and spring). The game has, somewhat accidentally, become our family sport. It’s a language all four of us can speak. And the World Cup will be an event each one of us can relate to, if only from the profound distance of the amateur game we’ve each known. Speaking a shared language with the rest of the world — even if it’s just soccer, even if only for a month — is redeeming.
Only twice, though, have I been nervous during an interview. I mean palm-sweating, knee-trembling nervous. Both of these were over the phone. The first time was a chat with rock star Gene Simmons in April 2000. That was simply the boy in me hearing the “God of Thunder” instead of an enterprising musician and businessman. The second nerve-tickling interview came on December 5, 2002. It was with John Wooden.
Five months shy of his 100th birthday, Wooden died in Los Angeles on Friday. The coach of 10 national champions -- over a 12-year period, mind you -- at UCLA, Wooden embodied class, grace, and perspective in a sports world that tends to lose its grip on all three. It wasn’t for more than 15 minutes, but Coach Wooden -- no, Mr. Wooden -- gave me a small slice of his life. For that, I’ll be grateful the rest of my days.
I was putting together a story on the 1973 Memphis State Tigers for Memphis magazine. That fabled team -- led by Larry Finch, they reached the NCAA championship game before falling to mighty UCLA -- was on the verge of its 30th anniversary, and I was searching for perspective from the significant players and coaches who made Memphis sports history.
A media-relations rep at UCLA surprised me by giving me Mr. Wooden’s home phone number. I knew this kind of drill: place the call, leave a message on a machine, and cross your fingers that the subject returns the call. No need to call twice.
I dialed the number . . . and the greatest coach college basketball has ever known picked up the phone. My voice cracking, I asked Mr. Wooden if he had time to discuss the 1973 championship game, and his response was concise, on target, and rather funny: “If you have questions, I’d be happy to answer them.”
Thankfully, Mr. Wooden filled any silence with intelligent reflection. He fondly recalled Tiger coach Gene Bartow and Larry Finch (“an outstanding player”). He expressed regret about the recent stroke Finch had suffered, a development that had to be difficult for a man 41 years older than Finch to accept. The quote I like the most: “If [my team] executed to their own level of competency, we’d do all right. Now, the other team might be better and do the same thing, but that’s all right. That’s the message I tried to get across.” Such could be in the first chapter of Lessons on Life.
Exactly a month after my interview with Mr. Wooden, I interviewed Bill Walton, the UCLA star who scored a record 44 points in that championship game against Memphis State. (Palms not as sweaty this time.) And Walton absolutely gushed affection for his college coach.
“In the locker room before every game,” said Walton, “we’d be just raging, ready to explode. Coach Wooden would come in -- we’d be doing our pushups, slap-fights, playing pepper with the ball -- a caged tiger with that rolled-up program. He’d look at us and say, ‘Men, I’ve done my job. The rest is up to you. When that ball goes up, don’t look over at the sideline, because when that game is played, I can’t do anything.’
“He was the master of poise, composure,” Walton continued. “His game-time demeanor was that of a church parson. Practice was a totally different story. Up and down the sideline, pushing guys, challenging them, demanding that we do it faster and better, to the point we were doing it perfectly every time.
“We always thought it was about the winning. We didn’t understand what he was talking about. . . . We thought this guy was the squarest stiff in the world. It wasn’t until we started losing that all the lessons he was teaching came home. . . . He never really talked about basketball; there was no strategy, no plays. He was a teacher, and basketball happened to be his medium.”
John Wooden stressed what he called “the four laws of learning”: explanation, demonstration, correction, and repetition. Here’s hoping the lesson he personified over nearly a century of life will continue to be taught.
Three reasons the Boston Celtics meeting the L.A. Lakers for the NBA championship is simply perfect:
This is the Yankees and Dodgers in the World Series. The Cowboys and Steelers in the Super Bowl. No greater rivalry in basketball history. It's Russell and Havlicek against West and Baylor. Bird and McHale against Magic and Kareem. East-coast-grit vs. west-coast-glam. Red's cigar (may he rest in peace) vs. Jack's shades. Producers at ABC are licking their chops in anticipation of the television ratings, fingers crossed for a seven-game series.
With apologies to LeBron James (named MVP the last two seasons), the best player on the planet will be front and center on basketball's biggest stage for a third straight season. If you saw the last few daggers Kobe Bryant buried against Phoenix in the Western Conference finals, you begin to understand how the combination of supreme skill mixed with the will of a paid assassin can result in a fairly decent basketball player. Bryant's personality is as pleasant as psiatica, but when he's on the court, you can't take your eyes off him. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are overshadowed by this guy. Consider that.
3) A Standard
Winning an NBA title is hard. Fourteen of 30 teams have yet to do it. But the recipe isn't complicated. Lock up a superstar, surround him with at least one near-superstar, then mix veterans with two or three young "energy" players and make room for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. The post-Shaq Lakers were flailing until they acquired Pau Gasol to run with Kobe. Pierce was a lost soul in Boston until KG was acquired. Teams knocking on the door -- Cleveland, Orlando, Phoenix, Utah, Denver -- have a model to follow. For the next two weeks, that championship formula will be on display as it should this time of year.
And three reasons the Celtics meeting the Lakers for the NBA championship is simply the pits:
The Celtics and Lakers have combined for 32 NBA championships. The rest of the league has combined for 30. These two franchises have played for the title 11 times. I'm having flashbacks to high school, where three out of four years it was green and purple (or purple and green) come June. It's like watching a Tom Cruise movie on opening weekend. Great hair, great smile, cool shades. But haven't we seen this before?
There are some fine NBA players who have yet to get a whiff of the NBA Finals. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Kevin Durant. Some young (Derrick Rose), some not so young (Steve Nash). But here's Bryant again, playing in his seventh Finals. That's one more than Michael Jordan and two more than Larry Bird. It would be one thing if the guy was worth rooting for. But he's not, and we'll leave it at that.
3) A Distant Standard
If you're a Memphis Grizzlies fan, never has a championship seemed further away. It was one thing when expansion franchises like Miami, Dallas, and Orlando were reaching the Finals. But if this were European soccer, Memphis would play in a separate classification than the Celtics and Lakers. A complementary "almost-superstar"? The Grizzlies have to lure their first superstar. A combination of veteran support with young energy players? The Grizzlies have mastered the young part, if not the energy or support. Blame ownership, management, the current roster, whomever. Fact is, the gap between contenders and also-rans is greater in the NBA than it is in the NFL or Major League Baseball (even with MLB's complete disregard for salary disparity between clubs). Watching the Celtics battle the Lakers -- again-- for the NBA crown only rubs it in.