Saturday, October 29, 2011

The World Champion Memphis Redbirds!

Posted By on Sat, Oct 29, 2011 at 9:12 AM

The tag “wild card” has never fit better. The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals were 10 games behind the Atlanta Braves for the National League’s fourth and final playoff berth with five weeks to play in the regular season. Having caught the Braves (with a 22-9 finish) on the last day of the season, the Cardinals then beat the mighty Philadelphia Phillies — a team for which exactly one Cardinal pitcher would crack the starting rotation — in the opening round of the playoffs.

Next came the Milwaukee Brewers, a team that finished six games ahead of the Cardinals in their own division. Then finally the World Series. Down to their last strike — in two different innings — the Cardinals prevailed in Game 6, and then won their 11th world championship Friday night in the first Game 7 the Fall Classic had seen in nine years. Wild. Cards. Indeed.

When Allen Craig caught the final out to clinch the championship, there were no fewer than seven former Memphis Redbirds on the field at Busch Stadium. And mark this down: St. Louis doesn’t win this championship without the contribution of players who just two seasons ago helped Memphis to its second Pacific Coast League crown.

Craig was the Cardinals’ minor-league player of the year in 2009 for the Redbirds when he hit .322 with 26 homers and 83 RBIs. Playing a reserve role for the Cardinals, Craig delivered the game-winning pinch hit in Game 1 of the Series, then homered in the next three Cardinal wins (Games 3, 6, and 7). Matt Holliday will be pressed for playing time in 2012.

The remarkable, all-but-impossible comeback victory in Game 6 doesn’t happen without key hits from Dan Descalso and Jon Jay, teammates of Craig at Third and Union two summers ago.

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Then there’s David Freese. In 2008, Freese hit 26 home runs and drove in 91 for Memphis, his first season in the Cardinal system after being acquired in a trade that sent St. Louis icon Jim Edmonds to San Diego. After injuries sapped most of his 2009 campaign, Freese delivered home runs that won a pair of PCL playoff games for Memphis, both by the score of 1-0. Now two years later, he has cemented his name alongside those of Dizzy Dean, Enos Slaughter, Bob Gibson, and Willie McGee, Cardinal heroes who delivered world championships to Freese’s hometown. A home run to win Game 6 two innings after delivering a two-out, two-run, game-tying triple in the 9th inning? An over-the-top Hollywood script comes to life. Freese-framed for posterity.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that these Cardinals won the World Series without a single pitch being thrown all season from their injured ace, Adam Wainwright (yet another former Redbird). That just doesn’t happen. The void was filled this month, of course, by Wainwright’s predecessor at the top of the Cardinal rotation, Chris Carpenter. If his efforts in the decisive game against Philadelphia (3-hit shutout) weren’t enough to someday retire his number 29, the six innings he threw on short rest in Game 7 of the Series Friday night surely were.

Even with Sunday’s parade down Market Street in St. Louis being organized, speculation will begin about Albert Pujols’ free agency, and whether or not the greatest of these world champions will be in uniform next spring to defend his title. Considering the way his 11th season as a Cardinal finished, Pujols would have to see dollar signs in his cereal bowl to leave. But that’s for another day, behind a closed door in a meeting room, far from the dream state created by a team that would not die for each other or its legion of fans.

Memphis fans should embrace the familiarity with the 2011 Cardinals. As wild as the ride became over the last two months, the trip for many of these world champions started a season or two earlier, with a solitary cardinal on their jerseys.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Cardinals-Rangers: The Makings of a Classic World Series

Posted By on Mon, Oct 24, 2011 at 9:12 AM

For the first time in eight years, the World Series comes down to a best-of-three. A few thoughts and observations on the Cardinals-Rangers battle:

• If there’s been a better defensive play by a pitcher in World Series play than the diving catch-and-putout by Cardinal ace Chris Carpenter in the first inning of Game 1, it happened before 1979, when I started paying attention. Not known for his athleticism, Carpenter made a dive — to catch an errant throw from Cardinal first-baseman Albert Pujols — that would impress Ozzie Smith, then narrowly avoided catastrophe when Texan runner Elvis Andrus brought his foot (and 200 pounds) down inches away from Carpenter’s pitching hand, curled near his body atop the first-base bag.

Ron Washington
  • Ron Washington

• “Courage” is an overused word when describing the feats of pro athletes, but Ranger second-baseman Ian Kinsler displayed a surplus in the ninth inning of Game 2. With his team down a run, three outs from a two-game deficit, and in clear view of Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina (a right-handed batter was at the plate), Kinsler took off for second base. Remember, Kinsler had been gunned down by Molina in Game 1. This time, Kinsler beat Molina’s throw by the length of his ring finger. Two batters later, he scored the tying-run on a sacrifice fly. Somewhere, Whitey Herzog — the maestro of “small ball” — had to be smiling, even if it hurt.

• After two days of reading and hearing his leadership called into question, Albert Pujols put St. Louis on his back in Game 3, becoming only the third player to hit three home runs in a World Series game (and only the second to deliver five hits). You have to wonder if Pujols was fueled by the national criticism over his leaving the Cardinal clubhouse before speaking with the media after Game 2. Unlikely. He was brought back to earth by Ranger hurler Derek Holland in Game 4. The word “Pujolsian” will soon make its way into the baseball lexicon, much as “Ruthian” did in the 1920s. When it does, Saturday’s game in Texas will be the point of reference.

• Baseball remains the most unpredictable game on the planet. A day after the Cardinals knock the ball around like the 1927 Yankees, a pitcher who sported an 8.59 ERA in the ALCS shuts them down, giving up only two hits (to the same batter) over 8 1/3 innings. Holland’s outing must have Texas manager Ron Washington regretting the decision to send Matt Harrison to the hill for Game 3. If the Series goes the distance, Harrison would be on schedule to pitch Game 7 Thursday night, unless Washington chooses to send Holland to the mound on short rest. The nightmare scenario for St. Louis is a rainout that postpones a Game 7 to Friday, in which case Holland could return on full rest.

• Among the recent Memphis Redbirds to play a part in the Series — Allen Craig, David Freese, Jon Jay — the best story may be Lance Lynn. The 24-year-old righty started 12 games for Memphis this season, going 7-3 before earning his first promotion to the big club. Having recovered from an oblique injury, Lynn narrowly made the Cardinals’ postseason roster. But in Game 3 Saturday night, with the game taking on the look of slow-pitch softball, Lynn managed to get seven outs while giving up only one run. If the Series goes to a decisive seventh game, Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa should consider starting Lynn over the struggling Kyle Lohse. It’s just a matter of time before Lynn is starting in the St. Louis rotation. Why not now?

• Watching Ron Washington’s exuberance in the dugout when the Rangers rally is infectious. He manages the game the way I would, the way my baseball-loving friends would, the way, yes, a child would. With joy. He won’t win as many games as Tony LaRussa or as many championships as Joe Torre, but no manager, I’m convinced, will have more fun on baseball’s biggest stage than Ron Washington. He’s healthy for a game that needs an infusion of emotion now and then.

• Dirk Nowitzki of the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks threw out the first pitch before Game 3 in Arlington. In case you were wondering, the last time the same metropolitan area could claim both the NBA and World Series champion was 2002, when the Los Angeles Lakers won their third straight crown and the Anaheim Angels won their first Fall Classic.

Monday, October 17, 2011

National Baseball Day: The Campaign Continues!

Posted By on Mon, Oct 17, 2011 at 10:45 AM

I’ve enjoyed baseball’s postseason, as I have for more than 30 years now. Detroit’s upset of the Yankees (any Yankee defeat in October is an upset), the Rangers’ sustained offensive outburst, and the St. Louis Cardinals reaching the World Series without a solitary pitch being thrown by their ace, Adam Wainwright. (This doesn’t happen, folks.) But I haven’t been able to enjoy most of the games like I would if my two daughters (ages 12 and 9) were able to see the final out with me. With games often ending past 11 p.m., I’ve begun a custom of leaving notes with results under my daughters’ cereal bowls for the following morning. The custom will continue when the World Series opens Wednesday night. The greatest sporting event on the planet reduced to a milk-stained note from Dad.

The last time natural shadows could have been seen during the World Series was Game 6 between the St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins in 1987, a contest that started at 4 p.m., but under the roof of the abominable Metrodome. That cruel coincidence gave birth to an era of baseball’s signature event being decided long after the boys and girls who make it popular are put to bed. The solution is National Baseball Day.

Americans love sports. And we love holidays. How is it that no holiday — one where schools and government offices close — has been created to honor recreation, the nurturing of our bodies that today especially should be among our highest priorities? Furthermore, how is it that American workers haven’t found an excuse to break from the office between Labor Day and Thanksgiving? National Baseball Day is the answer.

The new holiday would fall on a Wednesday, coinciding with Game 1 of the World Series. Government offices closed, schools closed. The New York Stock Exchange, especially, could use another day off. The baseball game would begin at 3:00 Eastern, allowing every child from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, to watch every last pitch before bedtime if he or she so chooses.

And choice is an important part of National Baseball Day. There are Americans who’d rather schedule a colonoscopy than endure nine innings of baseball. For this holiday, instead of a doctor’s appointment, schedule a picnic at a nearby park with your family, or a visit to a museum (if open) that you’ve been meaning to make. Go see a movie you otherwise wouldn’t, or start a book — that thick one — you’ve been meaning to read. However you choose to invest the leisure time, just remember it was baseball that got you there.

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It will be a challenge to make National Baseball Day a reality, and television decision-makers will do all they can to prevent the holiday from happening. Television networks worship at the altar of prime-time ad revenue. But the allegiance can be blind. Consider the expanded demographic a national telecast — on a holiday, remember — would reach. Think there might not be a few advertisers who would reconsider a World Series spot if they knew entire families would be watching? (Have you seen any Super Bowl commercials?) The game would be talked about at least the next two days at work, and those sponsored messages would be part of the discussion.

I’ve already written Congress on this matter. Do the same, if the concept strikes your fancy. The aim is a good one: to see the final out of a World Series game live with my children. Let them eat their cereal with memories instead of notes.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The NBA Lockout: Millions Here, Millions There

Posted By on Mon, Oct 10, 2011 at 8:50 AM

Here’s hoping that, within hours of you reading this column, the NBA’s owners and players come to an agreement on how best to split their immense fortunes ... in time to salvage a full 82-game regular season. Among the league’s 30 franchises, none has more of an interest in building upon the conclusion of last season than the Memphis Grizzlies. To rain on the parade of last spring’s remarkable and unexpected playoff run over a few percentage points in a league-wide revenue split would be shameful. If played as scheduled, opening night at FedExForum — November 5th against Charlotte — would be the kind of welcome-back party this city has never seen before.

I’m not going to pretend to understand the financial landscape of the NBA beyond the broadest of brush strokes. The league claims 22 of the 30 franchises lost $300 million over the 2010-11 season ... and yet franchises balance their books differently. Is the mortgage on a parking garage an asset? A liability? When and where exactly does a franchise measure profitability? When revenue exceeds expenses for a season? Or when measured against the lifetime of player contracts? Not the kind of math fans want to study.

But I can recognize a fat contract when I see one. And the NBA is overloaded with contracts far exceeding the value of the players cashing the fat checks. Let’s look at one example, a comparison of two longtime teammates.

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Kobe Bryant is one of the two most famous active basketball players on the planet. (Derrick Rose may be the reigning MVP and Dirk Nowitzki may be a reigning champion, but the league’s biggest stars remain Bryant and LeBron James.) Last season Bryant played in 82 games for a total of 2,779 minutes. He’s scheduled to earn $25,244,493 when and if the 2011-12 season. Based on last year’s mileage on the court, Bryant is to earn $9,084 per minute played.

Now, let’s look at the contract for Luke Walton, like Bryant a Los Angeles Laker (and currently an assistant coach for Josh Pastner with the Memphis Tigers). Walton played in 54 games for the Lakers last season with a total of 484 minutes on the floor. A valuable reserve for two championship teams, Walton is just that: a reserve. He’s scheduled to earn $5,680,000 for the 2011-12 season, or $11,735 per minute played last season.

Whatever accounting skills you have, however you define break-even, this is lousy math. As a player who sells tickets merely by showing up, Bryant is a rare entertainment force. The argument could be made he earns every penny of his contract. The argument could actually be made that he’s underpaid. Take Bryant off the Lakers and try selling season tickets with Pau Gasol as the face of the franchise.

But Luke Walton? (I hate to pick on the guy. Best I can tell, he’s a class act with a passion, like his father, for playing basketball the right way.) The argument could be made that Walton (1.7 points and 1.2 rebounds per game last season) is an interchangeable part. If the Lakers replaced him with another former University of Arizona player, Houston’s Chase Budinger (9.8 and 3.6), would L.A. drop precipitously in the standings? No chance. Budinger is scheduled to earn $884,000 this season.

The NBA’s greatest source of revenue is, of course its players, the stars (and supporting casts) we cheer throughout the winter. Its greatest expense is also those players, most of them with salaries that would make Bill Russell blush. Here’s hoping the league — those writing the checks and those cashing them — figure out a way to work in harmony. Those of us enduring a recession that won’t seem to end need our well-paid heroes to cheer.

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