What a glorious time of year to be a sports fan. Conference play has begun for most college football teams, the NFL is bursting with new story lines, and baseball has a two-week chase for playoff spots unlike any the sport has ever seen. For this week, let’s focus on the pennant races.
• MLB commissioner Bud Selig is a genius. In some bizarro world (where the likes of Don King and Bobby Riggs have hall passes), Selig is a genius. Seventeen years after adding baseball’s first wild-card playoff teams — to the chagrin of millions of the game’s purists — Selig seems to have solved the problem. By adding a second wild card in each league.
Through Sunday’s games, no fewer than ten teams in the National League are either currently in playoff position, or within five games of the second wild card. Two of these teams — Philadelphia and Arizona — have losing records. (The two wild card teams will play a single game for what amounts to a spot in the league semifinals.) In the American League, eight teams can call themselves playoff contenders with two weeks to play in the regular season. That’s 18 teams (out of a total of 30) playing with hope today. Baseball fans, this Bud’s for you.
• Name three Oakland Athletics for me. (I’d be impressed with two.) The swingin’ A’s are 22 games over .500 with a team that makes the Miami Dolphins’ fabled “No-Name Defense” look star-studded. This club has the second-lowest payroll in the sport ($55.4 million), a figure dwarfed by division rivals Texas ($120.5 million) and the Los Angeles Angels ($154.5 million). The club made famous recently by Moneyball fields a lineup with only three players who have accumulated 100 hits this season (one of them Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes). The dreadful Colorado Rockies have five players with 100 hits, for crying out loud.
Oakland has a starting rotation of pitchers all shy of their 30th birthday (since 39-year-old Bartolo Colon was suspended for violating MLB’s drug policy). Ever heard of Tommy Milone? What about Jarrod Parker? Can these kids compete with the mighty Yankees or Rangers? Let’s hope we get to see. And thanks to that second wild card, we just might.
• I’ve chewed on the Washington Nationals’ decision to lock down their ace, Stephen Strasburg, for the rest of the season. And I can’t reach a point where I agree with the call. (For the uninitiated, the Nats set a ceiling of 160 innings pitched for their expensive young hurler, who underwent Tommy John surgery more than a year ago.) Whatever weight you put on protecting a commodity, for securing future earnings, at some point — in baseball, in sports — you have to compete for NOW. Tomorrow’s not guaranteed . . . choose your favorite such cliché. Cal Ripken Jr. won the World Series with his Baltimore Orioles in 1983. He played 18 more seasons and never got back to the Fall Classic.
If the Nationals are knocked out before the World Series (or in the Series itself), fans and, importantly, National players will forever wonder what might have been had their ace been allowed to pitch on rotation through the end of the season, as every other contender’s ace was. And let’s imagine the Nationals winning the World Series without Strasburg. Think that won’t be considered when the man reaches free agency for the first time? “The World Series ring I wasn’t allowed to earn.” That could get ugly.
• In hitting his 30th home run last week, the Angels’ Albert Pujols became just the fourth player with 12 consecutive 30-homer seasons. The others? Jimmie Foxx, Barry Bonds (13), and Alex Rodriguez (13). I never thought Pujols would have a quiet season, but the MVP campaign of his rookie teammate, Mike Trout, has allowed it.
This is a story of three generations, two sports, and one stadium. It’s a family tale, really, in sports clothing.
My father — Frank Murtaugh Jr. — was a halfback at Central High School in the late 1950s. He was hardly a star. Dad’s quarterback was the late Russ Vollmer, who went on to fame with some fine Memphis State teams in the early Sixties. But Dad played for some good teams at Crump Stadium under coach Ruffner Murray. The Warriors went 7-4 his junior season (1958), beating rival Tech (56-0) and Little Rock Central (28-0). Central lost to a Christian Brothers team led by Tim McCarver, 7-0, in its season finale (the Blind Bowl). As a senior, Dad was part of four consecutive shutout victories in a 6-3-1 season. Upon graduating, Dad crossed the state to attend the University of Tennessee, where he’d meet the woman he’d marry seven years later. (I arrived in 1969.)
Fast-forward five decades to last Thursday. On that afternoon, Crump Stadium hosted a middle-school soccer game between White Station and Bellevue. Sofia Murtaugh — my daughter — starts at left midfield for the Spartans. After losses to Hutchison in a pair of friendlies to open the season, White Station righted its ship with a 7-0 win. My favorite midfielder scored a pair of goals in the victory. (And on her sister’s birthday, no less.)
Middle-school soccer and high school football occupy very different strata in the Mid-South sports universe, but they’re quite connected now in my world. And this has everything to do with Crump Stadium.
Before the Liberty Bowl opened in 1965, Crump was home to the biggest football games in Memphis, one fall after another. The Memphis State Tigers called it home from 1937 to 1964, watching the concrete stands on the south side of the stadium rise 10 years after they moved into the place (thanks to the WPA). Ole Miss played there. Tennessee played there. Alabama played there, for Pete’s sake. But my dad and his high school teammates were the primary tenants. There’s something lovely there, major college programs borrowing a stadium where the boys learn the game. Something the producers of Friday Night Lights would enjoy.
In 2006, the concrete stands at Crump were demolished and the stadium was transformed into what you see today: aluminum bleachers and artificial turf. Turf with soccer lines imposing upon the gridiron. The transformation is symbolic, of course. Once the Liberty Bowl was built, the local university didn’t need “little old” Crump Stadium. (An argument could be made that a stadium seating no more than 40,000 fans is precisely what the U of M needs today.) Memphis City Schools utilizes a field at the Fairgrounds for various local teams, making Crump secondary even when it comes to the high school game.
But that plot of land is still there. The iron gates with “E.H. Crump Stadium” are still there. And countless memories, however distant, are still there.
I obviously didn’t get to see my dad play at Crump. And Dad didn’t live to see the young soccer star his granddaughter is becoming. But they now have a connection — if only in the heart of a son and father — that draws them closer. My own athletic glory days took place in Southern California (for one year) and Vermont, making the Murtaugh connection at Crump Stadium that much less likely, and a nice completion of a cross-generational sports circle.
Since moving to Memphis from New England 21 years ago, I’ve often been asked two questions: 1) Why Memphis? and 2) Why do I pay so much attention to sports? Last Thursday at Crump Stadium, with no more than 100 people in the stands, I had the answers to both.