Back away from the ledge, Grizzlies fans. I’m here to tap the reset button on the 2012 playoffs.
Two weeks ago, radio host Brett Norsworthy asked me — live, on the air — if I thought the Memphis Grizzlies could reach the NBA Finals. I’m expected to have a stance or opinion when thrown a question by Stats (or his partner, Dave Woloshin), but with this query lobbed my way ... I paused. Longer than is comfortable on live radio. I eventually offered a tongue-stumbler, along the lines of, “I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but ...”
No more waffling. Why can’t these Grizzlies reach the NBA Finals? No stumbling here at my keyboard. I believe Memphis can win the Western Conference championship. However crushing Sunday night’s Game 1 loss may feel this morning, it was Game 1. In the first round. Here are five points in the Grizzlies’ favor:
• Trending Upward
Finishing the regular season on a roll matters in the NBA. Last year’s champs — the Dallas Mavericks — won their last four games, a convincing righting of a ship that was listing to the tune of four straight losses in early April. Memphis won its last six games this season, and needed every victory to secure the franchise’s first home-court advantage in a playoff series. Among the six teams the Grizzlies beat, only one (Orlando) will compete in the playoffs, and the Magic is without its best player (All-NBA center Dwight Howard). But so what? Winning is infectious. The core of this team’s roster (even Rudy Gay in a coat and tie) enjoyed a big taste of the playoff pie last spring. They’re surely excited at the chance for another run, but in no way timid before the brighter lights. And if they needed the proverbial postseason wake-up call, consider it delivered in the fourth quarter of Game 1.
• Thievery Doesn’t Slump
The Grizzlies have three of the top 15 steals leaders in the NBA in Mike Conley (136), Tony Allen (104), and Rudy Gay (95). The NBA playoffs are as much about disrupting an opponent’s attack as they are about executing with the ball in your hands. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin give the Los Angeles Clippers a star swagger that the Grizzlies can’t claim, but you have to believe Paul and Griffin aren’t dancing at the prospect of finding their shots under the kind of duress the Grizzlies will provide. (For the duration of this column, we’ll ignore that now-infamous fourth quarter.)
• Role Players Elevated
The extended absence of stars have but one silver lining: Reserves build new credentials. There’s no way Marreese Speights starts 54 games and averages 22.4 minutes for Memphis had former All-Star Zach Randolph not been sidelined for 38 games this winter. In the first round, the Grizzlies are tasked with slowing down the rim-rattling Griffin, and it will take a committee of defenders, including Randolph ... and Speights. It’s not so much if an NBA team is fully healthy, but when they are. If Randolph can approach his level of play from last year’s postseason run (and he wasn’t close Sunday night), Speights will mean unforeseen depth, especially on the defensive end.
• Home Court Grind
I like the intangible contrast of Memphis fans vs. Los Angeles fans. These are two franchises with very few notches on their playoff bedposts. Fans in the Staples Center (for at least Games 3 and 4) will include a few celebrities interested in being different (from the Laker crowd). Fans in FedExForum will (still) be interested in seeing their team prove they belong among the highest ranks of the world’s greatest basketball league. And I believe such an edge can rub off on players.
• Winnable West
It wouldn’t be fair to call the Western Conference weak. Not with the likes of San Antonio (10 wins to finish the regular season), Oklahoma City (three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant), and the Lakers (Kobe, again, and an energized Andrew Bynum) in the mix. But do any of those teams look unbeatable? (Granted, Memphis was 2-9 against the trio this season.) Should the Grizzlies get by the Clippers, they’ll likely face San Antonio in a rematch the Spurs would relish. But I still like Memphis youth against the aging top seed. Then, presumably, the Thunder or Lakers in the conference finals. Too much speculation with but one playoff game in the books. But to answer Brett Norsworthy’s question two weeks late (with a question of my own): Why not?
And let’s remember, ye of little faith: Just as it’s hard to blow a 27-point lead in a playoff game, it’s hard to build a 27-point lead in a playoff game. I’d like to think the real Grizzlies were playing over the first three quarters of Game 1.
• Memphis Tiger football fans will have the rare chance to pump a fist Thursday night, when Dontari Poe should be taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Isn’t it remarkable that the dreadful team around him could hide such a talent? (Consider a first-round pick in the NBA draft. No matter how poorly his team might play, there’s no way fans wouldn’t see the shine on his star.) I assure you, casual fans at the Liberty Bowl last fall — those loyal enough to attend — didn’t have their binoculars locked on the home team’s big defensive tackle, number 74. And honestly, you couldn’t blame them. In three seasons as a Tiger, Poe managed five sacks. His defense last season gave up an average of 192 rushing yards and 299 passing yards, neither the kind of figure you expect if a future NFL star is dominating the line of scrimmage.
But now Poe stands to gain a seven-figure contract when he’s picked anywhere from 12th to 20th (based on the mock drafts I’ve seen). Here’s hoping Poe finds a good fit and begins a lengthy pro career Thursday night. An historical note: Memphis has only produced five first-round picks, and only two of them were taken earlier than 20th (Keith Simpson was the ninth pick in 1978 and Derrick Burroughs was the 14th in 1985).
• I watched the end of the Red Sox-Yankees game on Fenway Park’s centennial last Friday from a tiny pub in my hometown of Northfield, Vermont. The old yard was treated right, though the price I paid for bleacher tickets in the late Eighties would likely get you a bag of (unsalted) peanuts today. The retro, numberless uniforms were cool. And the appearance of Red Sox heroes, from Yaz to Pedro, was nice to see.
But here’s a fundamental difference between the romanticized “Red Sox Nation” and the following enjoyed by this region’s favorite franchise, the St. Louis Cardinals. On every occasion the Cardinals have to celebrate — including Opening Day earlier this month — the greatest living collection of Hall of Famers appears at Busch Stadium in their bright-red sport jackets: Whitey Herzog, Bruce Sutter, Ozzie Smith, Red Schoendienst, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and the greatest Cardinal of them all, Stan Musial. If one of these legends has missed an Opening Day, All-Star Game, or World Series at Busch, I’m unaware.
Yet for Fenway Park’s centennial, Wade Boggs wasn’t among the guests. (He was hosting a charity golf tournament in Florida.) A first-ballot Hall of Famer who won five batting titles for Boston, Boggs had better things to do on a day Tim Wakefield made sure he was on hand for the pregame ceremony. And this points out the magic of Cardinal Nation: You get the sense the players — past and present — love the fans as much as the fans love them. The biggest moments aren’t to be missed.
• My trips to New England always boost my love of hockey, and this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs will see a pair of not-far-from-Memphis teams battling among the Western Conference semifinalists. The Nashville Predators are back in the second round after falling to Vancouver in the same round a year ago. And the St. Louis Blues won their first series in 10 years to advance to a second-round battle with the L.A. Kings. Take my word for it: no sport gains more when seen live (in the arena) than hockey. Should you have the chance and the means to head east (or north) for a Stanley Cup playoff game, do it.
Opening Night at AutoZone Park is among my favorite annual events, sports or otherwise. It’s a birthday party, of course. But one where age is actually irrelevant. The stadium feels fresh, new, and alive with the sights, sounds, and smells we associate with baseball. And, especially at the minor-league level, the team feels fresh and new as well. New names and numbers to learn, new faces to attach to positions on the field. Here are a few impressions from my 15th Redbirds birthday party.
• Whether or not the marketing staff had a say, sending Shelby Miller to the mound for the lid-lifter was a nice touch. The Cardinals’ top-ranked prospect — and among the top 10 in all of baseball, according to Baseball America — Miller brings a rare star quality for a Triple-A player. Prize hurlers are often rushed to the major leagues before they’ve toured an entire minor-league circuit. With the St. Louis Cardinals enjoying depth in their starting rotation (recent Redbird star Lance Lynn is currently filling in for the disabled Chris Carpenter), Miller will get some much-needed seasoning in Memphis before heading up the river. Only 21 years old and with a mid-nineties fastball, Miller has the highest ceiling for a Cardinals pitching prospect since Rick Ankiel was overwhelming hitters at Tim McCarver Stadium 13 years ago. Pay attention to the schedule, and count every fifth game for Miller’s appearances. He’ll be worth the extra planning. (Over two games and eight innings, Miller has given up eight runs, so there’s room for growth.)
• The Redbirds have had their share of power-hitting first basemen over the years. Ivan Cruz, Kevin Witt, and Josh Phelps come to mind. But these players have typically been of the “4-A” variety, not quite equipped with the tools to stick in the big leagues. Now along comes Matt Adams. The 6’3”, 230-pound slugger was named the Texas League Player of the Year last season when he hit .300 with 32 homers and 101 RBIs for Double-A Springfield. And he’s only 23 years old.
Adams will be an interesting prospect to follow, as the first-base position — for the first time in almost a decade — isn’t blocked by Albert Pujols in St. Louis. Lance Berkman (36 years old) will man the position this season, though he’s already been sidelined with a calf injury. Allen Craig (rehabbing from offseason knee surgery) may take hold of the position on a long-term basis. But Adams will be in the conversation, especially if he produces the power numbers he has early in his pro career. (Through Sunday, Adams leads Memphis with 3 home runs and 7 RBIs.)
• New Memphis manager Pop Warner has a season before him unlike any he’ll ever experience again. Having managed at Double-A Springfield the last five seasons, the former Redbird player (a PCL All-Star in 1998) was essentially promoted a level with many of the players who formed the core of his team a year ago. Miller and three-fourths of the starting infield Friday night (Adams, shortstop Ryan Jackson, and third-baseman Zack Cox) all played for Warner at Springfield in 2011. Familiarity is a rare commodity in Triple-A baseball. We’ll see if the intangible makes a positive difference in the standings for Memphis.
• Even with Miller on the mound, the star on Opening Night was clearly the new, gargantuan video board above right-centerfield. The high-def screen essentially serves as a bonus bank of lights for night games, providing the kind of close-ups for mound visits (or the kiss cam) not often seen away from your den couch. (Honestly, it’s hard to imagine such a screen not being a distraction to the batter. One more testament to the focus these athletes bring their craft.)
A minor complaint about the video presentation: A team’s batting order includes uniform numbers, but not the position of each player. Fans like to know the position of a player who just drove in six runs to beat the home team (as Oklahoma City rightfielder Fernando Martinez did Friday night).
• Really classy move by the Redbirds to honor the late Charlie Lea by “retiring” a microphone. Few athletes have respresented Memphis as well — and for as long — as Lea, who died suddenly last November. His name now appears permanently in the stadium, beneath the broadcast booth.
I didn’t see a single pitch over baseball’s opening weekend. Didn’t witness a solitary putt — or double eagle — over the final three rounds of a memorable Masters. And I missed the Grizzlies’ big win over the reigning NBA champs Saturday night. Those who have known me for, say, 15 minutes might assume I came down with a dreadful virus and spent the weekend comatose in a hospital without televisions. How else to explain a blind spot on one of the year’s biggest sports weekends? Happily, I spent the three days in quite the opposite of a stupor. Matter of fact, my family and I dove headlong into the center of the universe and have returned with stories to tell. For Easter weekend, we called New York City home.
There are elements to a major sporting event on a perfectly average day in Manhattan. Starting with the crowds. Stroll along 5th Avenue on Friday afternoon and you’ll be dodging foot traffic as though the Final Four and Super Bowl had just been held across the street from each other. The beauty and magic of Manhattan, of course, is that millions of people can occupy a space of 24 square miles and manage to get from one block to another without street fights breaking out. You learn to side step. You learn to stop abruptly for the pedestrian in front of you who needs a picture of the sign at Tiffany’s. You learn to tolerate bumping, jostling, even pushing. We learned a lesson in missing a train on the subway (at Chambers Street). A New York subway car, we learned, will fit as many people as are able cram, push, and jostle their way in ... before the doors close. We made the next train, but not before my 9-year-old daughter nearly screamed at the possibility of her dad being cut off by those closing doors. I’ll never complain about a “crowd” at FedExForum again.
Like a sporting event, Manhattan has its share of icons. Fans shell out big bucks to say they’ve seen Kobe Bryant in uniform or Peyton Manning throw a touchdown pass. Likewise, millions fly countless miles to say they’ve been inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral or endured the lines to the top of the Empire State Building. Why? Because there is only one Kobe Bryant, and only one Empire State Building. (Which begs a question: Would Kobe’s ego fit inside the Empire State Building?) Visitors to Manhattan discover iconography by accident: the oversized, "floating" Apple logo outside the computer giant's NYC headquarters or a bronze Charles Schwab logo longer than a taxi cab. The corporate names we grow to love or loathe ... they live and breathe in New York City.
And the state of sports in the Big Apple? It really begins and ends in Yankee blue. There’s a shop devoted solely to New York Yankee gear and memorabilia at Times Square. (The only Mets hat I saw in three days was on a pedestrian in Harlem, not far from Alexander Hamilton's restored home.) The Giants and Knicks have a presence, but building custodians wear Yankee jackets, street vendors wear Yankee caps. Tim Tebow may be a Jet now, but the only green I saw in Manhattan were the shrubs (in the shape of an Easter bunny) at Rockefeller Center. And Linsanity? We discovered a small basketball court in Little Italy, with kids working on their dribbling skills. One child was wearing a Knicks jersey: that of number 7, Carmelo Anthony. Where have you gone, Jeremy?
I may have missed a weekend of sports, but I took in some heroics of the first order. Having grown up reading Spider-Man comics, I made the current Broadway hit, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the primary hook for taking my daughters on their first journey to the Great White Way. They’re each old enough to appreciate the web-slinger, and each wise enough to see the kid Spidey brings out in their dad. So we sat in the balcony of the Foxwoods Theater Saturday night (easily within range of the Green Goblin’s pumpkin bombs), cheering the good guy in his rigorous pursuit of happiness (and true love) and booing (if silently) the bad guy and his efforts to stall a victory for hope and decency. No score was kept and no trophy was awarded. But the crowd that spilled into Times Square after the curtain dropped had smiles equal to any you’ll find at Yankee Stadium.
Now, time to YouTube that Bubba Watson shot.
The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series (for the first time) in 1926, a seven-game thriller over the mighty New York Yankees. With celebration still in the air the following winter, the Cardinals parted company with a player and manager destined for the Hall of Fame. Baseball has been played in St. Louis for 85 years since that tumultuous transition. And the Cardinals have won 10 more championships.
If the turnover after the 1926 Series reads as familiar to Cardinal fans, it should be. After winning their 11th championship last October (another seven-game thriller), the Cardinals lost manager Tony LaRussa (to retirement) and iconic first baseman Albert Pujols (to the Los Angeles Angels via free agency). The biggest difference between this offseason and that of 1926-27, of course, is that the manager and player lost 85 years ago were the same man: Rogers Hornsby. (Hornsby was traded to the New York Giants for another future Hall of Fame second baseman, Frankie Frisch.)
When you add the departure of pitching coach Dave Duncan (who stepped down to support his wife in her battle with cancer) to the story line, you have what must be called the most significant on-field transition in the 120-year history of the National League’s most successful franchise. And if you think Duncan won’t be missed on the field, remember Kent Bottenfield won 18 games under his tutelage. Garrett Stephenson won 16 and Todd Wellemeyer 13. Duncan has been to pitchers what Gunther Gebel-Williams was to tigers.
The achievements and tenures of Pujols (11 years in St. Louis), LaRussa and Duncan (16 years each) make them virtually impossible to replace, short-term. Mike Matheny has taken over managerial duties, Derek Lilliquist will coach pitchers, and veteran Lance Berkman will take over at first base. Berkman may be a Cardinal for life after his heroics in Game 6 of last year’s World Series, but he’ll never be described as Pujolsian.
So what to expect as St. Louis attempts to repeat (something this decorated franchise has never done)? The absence of Pujols from the third spot in the batting order will seem, for a while, like removing one of the two birds from the Cardinals’ jerseys. He’s among the few baseball players who shape the way a team’s fans cheer. Seeing a player not wearing the number 5 on his back stepping to the plate as the third batter in the bottom of the first inning at Busch Stadium will be jarring for a while. And the first time a St. Louis pitcher is replaced by a manager not wearing the number 10 . . . well, welcome to a new era, Cardinal fans.
There are additions worth noting. Adam Wainwright returns to anchor the starting rotation after a season lost to Tommy John surgery. A winner of 39 games over the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Wainwright will actually fill the void left by Chris Carpenter (sidelined with a nerve condition in his neck) as the season opens. Six-time All-Star Carlos Beltran signed as a free agent and hopes to replace some of the lost Pujols pop in the batting order. Once a Gold Glove centerfielder, Beltran will spend as much time in right field (as Allen Craig recovers from knee surgery) as he will in center for St. Louis.
Recent health concerns will chase six key Cardinals into their title defense: Carpenter, Wainwright, Craig, Beltran, third-baseman David Freese, and shortstop Rafael Furcal. The rise of the club’s farm system should provide depth the team didn’t enjoy just three or four years ago. (One of the top hitters in Memphis last season, Matt Carpenter, will be on the Cardinal bench for Opening Day.) If significant playing time isn’t compromised by ailments, the Cardinals should vie with Cincinnati for leadership of the National League Central, one of baseball’s weakest divisions. (In addition to losing Pujols, the division subtracted Prince Fielder, who signed with Detroit.)
Fans of all 30 major-league teams have much to cheer on Opening Day: a clean slate, optimism, the aroma of hot dogs roasting. Fans of the world champions will find a team easy to cheer, even with cosmetic — and structural — change unlike any the franchise has seen before.
The Cardinals open their 2012 season Wednesday at the new ballpark of the Miami Marlins.