If you’re selective about the trips you make to AutoZone Park to cheer on the Memphis Redbirds, you’d be wise to visit Third and Union this week. The biggest star you’re likely to see this summer will be appearing through Friday’s game against the Round Rock Express. Sadly for the last-place Redbirds, the star stands but two feet tall, weighs about 30 pounds, and has no arms or legs.
There’s an ironic twist to the 2011 World Series trophy being displayed this week by the Redbirds. The parent St. Louis Cardinals — the club that earned the trophy, after all — has been so decimated by injuries this spring that what’s left of the Triple-A outfit appears to be a larger, better-paid version of the Bad News Bears. Through Sunday, the Redbirds sport a record of 17-33. Not quite two months into the season, Memphis has had two nine-game losing streaks, a five-game losing streak, and has lost 17 of 21 since May 6th. Twelve-and-a-half games behind first-place Omaha in their division of the Pacific Coast League, the Redbirds are virtually eliminated from playoff contention before Game 1 of the NBA Finals has been played. That, friends, is a short summer.
Bumps, breaks, and bruises to the likes of Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Lance Berkman, and Matt Carpenter have done enough damage to the Cardinals, who last weekend fell out of first place for the first time this season. But the impact has been felt directly in the Memphis batting order, where the absences of three everyday players — first baseman Matt Adams and outfielders Adron Chambers and Shane Robinson — has first-year manager Pop Warner doing essentially what he did the five previous seasons: direct a Double-A team. And the veterans St. Louis has brought in for damage control are unrecognizable. (Three players in Warner’s lineup Sunday night have played fewer than ten games for Memphis.)
The Redbirds’ most recent loss is middle-reliever Chuckie Fick. The major-league debut of a 26-year-old career minor-leaguer is worthy of a salute. But Fick’s promotion has less to do with his overpowering PCL hitters than it does with the struggles of Cardinal reliever Fernando Salas (a 6.32 ERA this season after leading St. Louis with 24 saves in 2011). The demoted Salas will at least get to revisit the trophy he helped win last October.
And what about the Cardinals’ top prospect, Shelby Miller? The Cardinals’ 2011 Minor League Pitcher of the Year has been underwhelming over his first ten Triple-A starts: 4-3 record, 4.38 ERA, 55 strikeouts and 20 walks in 49 innings. Opposing hitters are batting .308 against a young man forecast to pitch in the Cardinals’ rotation in 2013.
It’s hard to lose 100 games in the minor leagues. The five-month season includes a total of 144 contests. At their current pace, the 2012 Redbirds would finish 49-95. (The most losses in franchise history were the 88 suffered in 2007, another season following a Cardinals’ world championship.)
The Memphis offense will get a boost when Craig and Jay soon rejoin the Cardinals. Perhaps Miller will find his groove and prove to be the antidote to losing streaks this team desperately needs. In the meantime, head to the ballpark this week, while the shine of a World Series trophy is still bright. By the time it returns for one more photo op (August 24-26), the team on the field may not be worth watching.
It’s the most elusive feat in two very different sports. In horse racing, a thoroughbred must win the three most significant events on American soil over the course of five short, grueling weeks. In baseball, a hitter must lead his league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in over the longest, most grueling season in American team sports.
Each feat, of course, is called the Triple Crown. And I, for one, am desperate to see the achievement.
It’s been 34 years since Affirmed won the 1978 Belmont Stakes to become thoroughbred racing’s 11th Triple Crown champion. The drought is the longest since Sir Barton became the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in 1919. (The longest horse-racing fans had waited before was 25 years, between Citation in 1948 and the legendary Secretariat in 1973.) As impossible as the challenge may seem, it hasn’t always been this way. Four horses won the Triple Crown over an eight-year stretch in the 1940s and three pulled the trick over a six-year period in the 1970s. (A fourth Triple Crown in the Seventies was all but certain until Spectacular Bid famously stepped on a needle before the 1979 Belmont.)
Can I’ll Have Another make the pantheon of Triple Crown champions a dandy dozen on June 9th in New York? Does the chestnut beauty have what 11 horses since 1978 have not: that one extra slice of spirit, will, muscle, heart, determination? Needless to say, the Belmont (at a mile-and-a-half) is the toughest of the Triple Crown races to win, and that’s without the pressure of carving your name in marble for eternity. I’ll Have Another may not feel the weight of 34 years on his considerable shoulders, but you can bet his trainer (Doug O’Neill) and jockey (Mario Gutierrez) will be trembling when the gates open at the Belmont. Between 1997 and 2004, six horses won the Derby and the Preakness, including perceived titans (Charismatic and War Emblem) and darling long shots (Funny Cide and Smarty Jones). But not one of them finished ahead of the pack at the Belmont.
Regrettably, we won’t get the chance to see one of horse racing’s greatest rivalries culminate, as Bodemeister — runner-up to I’ll Have Another at both this year’s Derby and Preakness — is being held out of the Belmont. (Trainer Bob Baffert claims his horse needs the rest.) Perhaps this is a break in I’ll Have Another’s — and history’s — favor. But I also wonder if I’ll Have Another needs the pace-setting Bodemeister as the great Affirmed needed Alydar (runner-up in all three races in 1978). ***
If we can’t have a four-legged Triple Crown champion in 2012, might we find one in the national pastime? Baseball’s crownless drought is actually longer than horse racing’s. Not since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski led the American League with 44 home runs, 121 RBIs, and a .326 batting average in 1967 has a hitter achieved the greatest single-season achievement in the sport. (And it hasn’t happened in the National League since the Cardinals’ Joe Medwick pulled it off ... in 1937.) Here’s a partial list of sluggers you may know who did not win a Triple Crown: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, Albert Pujols. Only 12 players have been fitted for the Crown (with Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams each achieving the feat twice).
Which brings us to the current season as enjoyed by Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton. Through Sunday, Hamilton leads the American League with 18 home runs, 47 RBIs and a jaw-dropping .389 batting average. And it’s that last figure that gives Crown watchers real hope.
Homers and RBIs go together like hot dogs and mustard. Since 1968, 23 players have led the National League in both departments. In the American League, 18 hitters have accumulated the necessary totals for two-thirds of the Crown. But all 41 times, these players came up short for that pesky batting title.
Hamilton, of course, has already won a batting championship (.359 in 2010). His current lead over Chicago’s Paul Konerko is 22 points, with Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter a distant third (.347). This could be The Year.
A team will win the NBA championship next month. And I guarantee you a team will do the same thing in 2013. A golfer will have the weekend of his life in a few short weeks and be crowned U.S. Open champion. This will repeat itself in 2013. But a Triple Crown? I’ll take one in either of its grand forms. It’s the kind of sports story that can define a generation. And, I’m convinced, it will be worth the wait.
The late Bart Giamatti — commissioner of Major League Baseball at the end of his life — described his favorite game as being “designed to break your heart.” Giamatti was a wise man, and he was right about baseball. But doesn’t the same hard truth wrap itself around all professional team sports? Forced to say goodbye to the 2011-12 Memphis Grizzlies, aren’t we victims to precisely the kind of heartbreak Giamatti described in poetic form?
There are 30 NBA franchises. If the only pure form of joy is winning a championship, then the fan bases for 29 teams must endure the offseason with at least a degree of disappointment, if not utter heartbreak. Every year. (Let’s add the fan bases of NFL and MLB teams to the mix, and you have 89 of 92 legions of towel-wavers forced to dry the tears of also-rans one year after another.) There’s a cold permanence to a season-ending loss, even though we know our favorite team will suit up again, share our optimism of a new season, and fight toward the same challenge we had to concede most recently. But the offseason, as it begins, feels like the first day of school.
Had you suggested through the din at FedExForum during Game 1 of the Grizzlies’ series with the Los Angeles Clippers — Memphis up by more than 20 in the fourth quarter — that L.A. would win the series despite the Grizzlies taking a game in California, you would have learned the taste of a brand-new “Believe Memphis” growl towel. Looking back over the last two weeks, this is the heartbreaking element of the games Memphis fans will be reviewing (teeth grinding) over the next six months. There were so many chances for the Grizzlies to seize control of the franchise’s first series with home-court advantage.
Even with the collapse late in Game 1, Rudy Gay had a shot to win the opener and cure a bad-loss hangover before it could even take hold. Had but one errant shot in Game 3 found its mark, the difference would have been a Memphis win and a 2-1 series lead. Any game that requires an overtime period could go either way, but Game 4 went to the Clippers. That close to a four-game sweep, and today’s column being a forecast of a Grizzlies-Spurs rematch.
The NBA belongs to its superstars. The formula has long been securing a star worthy of an ad campaign, adding a big-name sidekick, and making sure the supporting cast gets out of the way as the trophy is being shined. Which makes the Grizzlies’ loss to Chris Paul, sidekick Blake Griffin, and the Clips so much more disheartening. Because we know the superstar formula doesn’t always hold. It didn’t last spring when the Grizzlies took down four-time champion Tim Duncan and San Antonio. It didn’t in last year’s Finals, when Dallas upset LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and a Miami team that seemed to take the formula to its ugliest, most expensive extreme. Match up the Grizzlies’ starting five with the Clippers’ starting five and the edge belongs to Memphis. Still. But it was the Clippers who somehow took control of the final quarter of Game 7 ... with their superstars combining to score two points. Ouch.
Just as teams evolve, so do fan bases. Memphis NBA fans didn’t know the thrill of a playoff series win until last year, the franchise’s 10th here in the Bluff City. And honestly, Memphis fans didn’t know real playoff disappointment until Sunday afternoon, when Mother’s Day got all too gloomy because of a basketball game. The faces we’ve made familiar over two playoff runs now — Tony, Z-Bo, Rudy, Marc, and Mike — will hardly fade from our consciousness. But they won’t be smiling, screaming, gritting, or grinding for a summer suddenly too long.
Late Sunday afternoon, my family took a walk around our neighborhood. It was entirely pleasant, my wife the center of our attention (a championship mom). We rounded a corner and I heard a basketball being dribbled at the end of a driveway. A boy — looked to be about 10 years old — was shooting on his own, his shadow longer than his actual height as the sun managed to split a few clouds. He was wearing a number 9 Tony Allen jersey. Enough to make you believe.
On Sunday in Houston, the St. Louis Cardinals ended their first three-game losing streak of the season with an 8-1 bashing of the Astros. Two recent Memphis Redbirds — Allen Craig and Tyler Greene — drove in seven of the eight Cardinal runs. So it seems like a nice time to check in on a few other Redbirds alumni making news these days in The Show.
• Perhaps the biggest baseball news Sunday was something that had already happened 445 times . . . but not in the regular season since September of last year. Albert Pujols hit his first home run as a Los Angeles Angel, ending the longest homer drought of his career (28 games and 111 at bats this season; 33 and 139 going back to his final regular-season days as a Cardinal). For the Angels, who signed Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million free-agent contract during the offseason, this is ugly math. The most accomplished hitter of this century is now earning $148,148 per game. His home run and RBI totals (1 and 7) are lower than those of his teammate, Mark Trumbo (4 and 12), despite Pujols having 45 more at bats. Trumbo is being paid $3,086 per game.
Is The Pujols Slump merely a news-making adjustment period for the future Hall of Famer? Or is it a flashing red light for Angel (and Pujols) fans that a 32-year-old slugger is at the beginning of the downside of his career? In baseball, even 28 games is a tiny sample size. The guess here is that Pujols will go on seven or eight tears this season and have his stat line packed with the usual fat numbers. But I’ll say this as simply as I can: Hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports . . . when all distractions are removed. Add the distractions of a huge contract and the move from an iconic (world champion) team, and hitting a baseball for Albert Pujols becomes a proving ground. Proof that he’s worth the contract, and proof that he can hit anywhere, for anyone, anytime. The Pujols story will be fun to follow, even if his Angels remain in the American League West cellar.
• With eight more hits, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Placido Polanco will become just the second former Redbird to pick up 2,000 in the big leagues. (The first was the big guy discussed above.) Polanco played in 99 games for the Redbirds during their two-season stint at Tim McCarver Stadium (1998-99) and hit .279. If anyone tells you they saw 2,000 hits in Polanco’s future back then, they either confused him with J.D. Drew (1,437 career hits and currently without a contract) or spent too much time in the old stadium’s beer garden.
Polanco has played in two All-Star Games and won Gold Gloves at both second base and third base. He has a higher career batting average (.300) than the player St. Louis traded him to Philadelphia for (Scott Rolen, .281). Polanco will never get into the Hall of Fame without a ticket, but he’s been to the postseason with all three franchises for whom he’s played (St. Louis, Detroit, Philadelphia). He’s been a winner, and the kind of baseball player longtime Redbird fans can feel privileged for having seen on his rise to the majors.
• Adam Wainwright won Sunday’s game for the Cardinals, the righty’s finest trip to the mound since returning this season from Tommy John surgery. The win was the 68th of Wainwright’s career against only 38 losses. (Waino was 14-14 for Memphis in 2004 and 2005.) Should Wainwright reach the 100-win mark, he’ll be the second former Redbird to do so. Through Sunday, the Angels’ Dan Haren had a career mark of 108-86. A three-time All-Star, Haren has won at least 15 games for three different teams: Oakland, Arizona, and the Angels. He’s the only former Redbird pitcher to start the major-league All-Star Game (2007) and is 22 strikeouts shy of 1,500 for his career. Haren was the ace for the 2004 Memphis team, when he went 11-4 and led the Pacific Coast League with 150 strikeouts. (And the player St. Louis acquired in dealing Haren to the A’s? Mark Mulder hasn’t thrown a pitch in the big leagues since 2008. Ouch.)