Monday, July 26, 2010

True Sports Confessions

Posted By on Mon, Jul 26, 2010 at 9:33 AM

Opinions are to sportswriters as feathers are to a peacock. Some we keep to ourselves. (One of my top-five favorite athletes of all time is a hockey player.) Some we share openly. (If you don't know my baseball team of choice, you're new to this eight-year-old column. Welcome.) I's time for me to confess a few opinions, to display some feathers, you might say. * I don't care if Brett Favre plays another football game. And I haven't cared for two years, since he last took off a Packer helmet. A report on Favre comes on the tube ... click. A report on Favre in the paper ... next page. It's called over-saturation.

* I abhor the designated hitter; this is no secret. But there are two things in baseball today I like even less. The major leagues should not be in Florida. It's spring-training country, and the crowds the Marlins and Rays draw -- I use the word loosely -- would fit in stadiums where teams train each March. On top of the misplaced franchises, Tampa Bay -- in the Sunshine State, remember -- has the last permanently covered stadium in the big leagues. I hate this. Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford deserve better.

* I've been in lots of locker rooms and on lots of sidelines. But only twice have I overstepped my credential to seek out a post-game handshake. In both cases, it was after the last home game of a Memphis Tiger football player: Danny Wimprine in 2004 and DeAngelo Williams in 2005.

* The most awkward element of interviewing an athlete is when it becomes clear the athlete didn't watch his sport at all as a child. Particularly since I've become a father, I find it kind of sad when a young person discovers a talent for playing a game ... but honestly doesn't really like it. Happens more often than you'd think.

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* I like listening to Dick Vitale do college basketball games. Okay, it's on the record. (My dream team would be Gus Johnson on play-by-play, with Vitale on color. Johnson: "Jackson through the lane, kicks it out to Barton on the wing. He shoots ... PURE!" Vitale: "No fair! No fair, Gus!! Too many diaper dandies on the floor at the same time! Too many, Gus!!")

* My primary rooting interest in golf is to see Jack Nicklaus hold on to his record for major championships (18). I cheer this way for my dad, may he rest in peace.

* I've long known the secret to Shaquille O'Neal's struggles with free-throw-shooting. (Why haven't I shared it earlier? He's never asked.) However Shaq has adjusted his grip or shot over the years, he's always leaned forward upon his release. This reduces the arc he's able to give a shot, which reduces the "softness" of the ball upon hitting the rim. The best free-throw shooters finish perfectly straight, or even lean back slightly.

* Among my life's missions is to see Hollywood do a major film on the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, the Gashouse Gang of Ducky Medwick, Pepper Martin, and Dizzy Dean. Why it hasn't been done over the last 30 years is anyone's guess. (I've written Matt Damon's production company. Seriously, I have.)

* The single most troubling sports-related news of the last 12 months -- and I'm not sure what would be second -- was Chris Henry's autopsy report that indicated the 26-year-old football player had degenerative brain damage BEFORE he died in an accident last winter. If you have a child playing football, this story must keep you up at night. (Among the reasons I count my blessings for my two daughters. Though check back with me when the dating begins.)

* Josh Pastner will win a national championship. Only question is whether or not it will be as coach of the Memphis Tigers.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Robert Plant and the Fame Game

Posted By on Mon, Jul 19, 2010 at 12:12 PM

I guess I'm in the same boat as this theatre, really. They'll paint me gold again in three years.

— Robert Plant at the Orpheum Theatre, July 12th

I’ve thought a lot about the nature of celebrity this month. From the global phenomenon that is soccer’s World Cup, to LeBron James’s "Decision" (forever to be capitalized by sportswriters), to last week’s major league All-Star Game, the sports world has managed to out-do its over-hyped self in a matter of a few short weeks. Add Serena Williams at Wimbledon and Tiger Woods at the British Open to the mix, and we have the kind of month that might see the equator wrapped in a red carpet. If you’re not a star, you must certainly be in proximity to one.

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In advance of the opening show of his latest world tour, Robert Plant was honored by The Orpheum last week with a Sidewalk Star. The former front man of Led Zeppelin is the kind of star who could power his own galaxy. Gracious and appreciative in accepting the award from Orpheum president Pat Halloran, Plant accommodated a small media contingent by answering a few questions and seemed, if anything, somewhat bored when the questions were centered on his days with the first (some would argue still greatest) hard-rock band on the planet. Those old enough to remember the Seventies and the impact Led Zeppelin made before downloading and file-sharing became a part of the music lexicon had to be wondering what had become of the Golden God?

And that’s where I find a distinction between the continued star power of Robert Plant as compared with the likes of David Villa, LeBron James, or Albert Pujols, however mind-blowing those athletes are at times. With the Internet allowing 24-hour access to the most mundane “news” item, modern stars — particularly athletes with their legion of followers and fantasy owners — are with us in a way no star could be as recently as 30 years ago. My 11-year-old daughter has seen Pujols play more often than my father saw his hero — Stan Musial — over the entire course of Musial’s 22-year career. Pujols has performed live for Sofia (in an actual ballpark), on a computer screen, and television. She knows him well enough to recognize differences in the way he shaves.

But somehow a celebrity as large — metaphorically — as Robert Plant, coming from the generation he does, is above the reach of every website, smart phone, or satellite feed. This has much to do with Plant’s prime having unfolded just before the dawn of the Information Age. (Though the suggestion of Plant’s prime having been almost 40 years ago would have drawn an icy stare at that press conference. I kept my mouth shut.) There will never again be a band like Led Zeppelin, because there can never be the kind of mystery and global disconnect that made the band so, well, god-like to those first listening to “Dazed and Confused” or “Whole Lotta Love.” A band with equal talent and star power today would be saturated before they could even conceptualize a third album, thrown behind the latest Justin Bieber in the queue of pop-culture consciousness.

Standing 20 feet from Plant as he highlighted the reasons he’s come to love Memphis and this region for its influence on his — and so many others’ — music, I had a hard time connecting the man’s professorial tone with the same vocal chords that made screaming an art form. (Plant, on his own fame: “Is it really such a big deal to be a great singer, or is there something else about all this? It's to keep changing, and stimulate yourself, no matter what you do, or whom you do it with.”) Which is to say, I had a hard time connecting the star to the human being standing in front of me. Stars of Plant’s magnitude — legends — never die. But humans all do. However many digital images, highlights, or songs celebrities leave behind — and these can now be counted in the millions — what is the lasting memory a person-as-celebrity wants to leave?

Unless you’re a celebrity, it’s an impossible question to answer. The best you can hope for, likely, is to be painted gold now and then.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Redbird, Redbird, On the Wall

Posted By on Mon, Jul 12, 2010 at 11:08 AM

All-Stars are in the air this week, a good time to reflect on some of the best players we’ve seen here in Memphis. The time has come for a Wall of Fame at AutoZone Park. With the Redbirds playing their 13th season in Memphis, enough baseball history has been made for a display to honor the former Redbirds who have made an impact in the major leagues. As for where the honorees will be displayed, the wall currently occupying images of John Elway, Mario Cuomo, and Kurt Russell — at the entry to the suite levels — would be perfect. (Okay, Michael Jordan “also played.” We get it. Now let’s turn our attention back to baseball players.)

Here are profiles of the inaugural class for the Redbirds Wall of Fame. (A note on criteria: A player must have played for the Redbirds on his rise through the minor leagues, as opposed to reviving a career, like John Mabry or Ryan Ludwick.)

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Albert Pujols (played for Memphis in 2000) — Hit home run that won 2000 PCL championship for Redbirds. Three-time National League MVP. One of two players to have nine consecutive seasons with a .300 batting average, 30 home runs, and 100 RBIs. (The other is Lou Gehrig.)

J.D. Drew (1998-99) — Turns out he’s not the second coming of Mickey Mantle. Nonetheless, an everyday outfielder for 12 years now, with three different teams. More than 200 career homers. Member of 2007 world champion Red Sox and MVP of 2008 All-Star Game.

Placido Polanco (1998-99) — Not many saw this career coming when Polanco hit .278 over two seasons with the Redbirds. Part of the deal with Philadelphia that brought Scott Rolen to St. Louis, Polanco has made that trade one of at least equal value. Hit .331 in 2005, a season in which he was traded from Philly to Detroit. MVP of 2006 ALCS for the Tigers, then hit .341 in 2007. A two-time Gold Glove winner at second base, Polanco will surpass 2,000 hits before his career’s over.

Adam Kennedy (1998-99) — Remarkably, two members of the 1999 Redbirds won MVP honors in the ALCS. Kennedy hit three homers for the Angels in their series-clinching victory in 2002. Never an All-Star, Kennedy merely built a career as a steady, everyday second-sacker. We’ll forgive him that second stint in St. Louis.

Dan Haren (2003-04) — There was Carlton-for-Wise, then Haren-for-Mulder. Worst Cardinal trade in at least 20 years. After appearing in the 2004 World Series for the Cardinals, Haren was sent to Oakland for Mark Mulder, whose career ended with a shoulder injury. Haren has won at least 14 games in each of the last five seasons. A three-time All-Star (now with Arizona), he has twice struck out 200 hitters in a season.

Adam Wainwright (2004-05) — Wainwright would belong on the Redbirds Wall of Fame just for his strikeout of Carlos Baerga to win the 2006 National League pennant for St. Louis. But that emergency work as a closer was merely prelude to the command he’s taken of the Cardinal rotation. Since the start of the 2007 season, Wainwright has gone 57-28. Were it not for a blown save in what would have been his 20th win of the 2009 season, he likely has a Cy Young Award in his trophy case. Gold Glove winner last year.

Yadier Molina (2004) — Among the finest defensive catchers in the game (two-time Gold Glove winner), Molina’s arm has thwarted would-be base-stealers at a nearly 50-percent clip over his six seasons behind the plate for St. Louis. Hit late-inning home run that helped beat the Mets for the 2006 pennant. Hit .304 in 2008, then .293 in 2009 when he played in his first All-Star Game.

Rick Ankiel (1999, 2007) — Won 11 games as a flame-throwing rookie lefty in 2000, only to lose his ability to throw strikes during an infamous meltdown in the playoffs against Atlanta. Worked his way back to the big leagues — again through Memphis — by becoming a hard-hitting centerfielder. Hit 47 home runs for the Cardinals from 2007 to 2009. Will always be a disappointment to those who saw him as the next Koufax, but one of the most compelling baseball stories . . . ever.

Two players to watch over the next few seasons: Colby Rasmus and Skip Schumaker. And if Jaime Garcia and David Freese prove their rookie campaigns aren’t a fluke, this wall may get crowded very soon.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Trip to "The Ted"

Posted on Tue, Jul 6, 2010 at 7:16 AM

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I’ve felt a kinship, however distant, to Ted Turner since the media titan delivered the keynote address at my college graduation 19 years ago. But until last weekend, I had yet to visit Turner Field, home of Ted’s Atlanta Braves since 1997 (the year after it was the centerpiece of the 1996 Summer Olympics). Two tilts with the Florida Marlins were my first Brave games in Atlanta since I saw St. Louis clinch the National League championship in 1982. Some observations:

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