Monday, January 28, 2013

The Harbaugh Bowl

Posted By on Mon, Jan 28, 2013 at 9:48 AM

Super Bowl Bros

College football fans remember the “Bowden Bowl,” the annual meeting (from 1999 to 2007) between coach Bobby Bowden’s Florida State Seminoles and his son, Tommy’s Clemson Tigers. Those meetings brought a nice family touch to an ACC game that wouldn’t be all that interesting beyond the southeastern United States.

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For more than a decade now, we’ve watched Serena Williams and her sister, Venus, absolutely dominate professional tennis, with a total of 22 Grand Slam singles titles since 1999. Richard Williams and Oracene Price have watched their daughters play each other in eight Grand Slam finals, Serena winning six of them. (Venus has only lost one Grand Slam final to a person with different parents.) When they play together, the Williams sisters are quite unbeatable, 13-0 in Grand Slam finals.

With apologies to the Bowden and Williams families, though, we’ve never seen what we will this Sunday, when coach John Harbaugh leads the Baltimore Ravens against brother Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. Even for a one-day sports spectacle built on inflated story lines, I don’t think it’s possible to overhype two men sprung from the same womb competing for the Lombardi Trophy. Consider there have been 92 coaching “slots” in Super Bowl history, and no two brothers have coached any pair of games, let alone the same one. It’s the stuff that will make dinner conversation for generations of Harbaugh siblings . . . the day two limbs on the family tree somehow met and held the attention of an entire country for three hours.

As a brother myself, and the father of two daughters, these are two thoughts I’ve had dancing in my head since the Harbaugh boys each won a conference championship on January 20th:

• No matter who sings the national anthem, no matter how Beyonce looks (or sounds), no matter who wins the big game Sunday, the most poignant moment of Super Bowl XLVII will be the postgame handshake between coaches. (For those who saw Jim’s confrontation with Lions coach Jim Schwartz after a 2011 game, you know the man makes the most of this always-brief ritual.) For the first time ever (yes, ever) the Super Bowl-winning coach will have legitimate sympathy for the losing coach. And likewise, the losing coach will have more than a little joy for his conqueror. Life’s short, with only one Super Bowl a year and 32 franchises desperate to play in the game. There’s no guarantee either Harbaugh boy will be back to the big stage. How’d you like to look your brother in the eye and tell him, “Good battle. Next one’s yours.”

• I’ve come to see the two weeks between the conference championships and the Super Bowl as punishment for all us football fans who pay too much attention to oversized men knocking each other down every Sunday. For 13 full days, we hear and see every possible story angle dissected, broadcast, and often rewound for our gridiron edification.

If this is hard on fans, imagine the strain it puts on the coaches. No matter what they might say, there is a lot of time to think between football games. And what do you think John and Jim Harbaugh are thinking about (right now)? They’re thinking, “What a glorious curse: My brother is in the way of my ultimate dream fulfilled.”

And finally my thoughts turn to Jack and Jackie Harbaugh. One of their sons will raise the Lombardi Trophy Sunday ... and one will lose. Whether they’re watching from a Wisconsin living room or a Superdome suite, Ma and Pa Harbaugh will experience a form of joy laced with heartache unlike any two parents ever have before. How exactly does one process such emotion?

Years ago, my wife asked me how I’d handle a Wimbledon final played between the Murtaugh sisters. I smiled at the thought, but only briefly. My answer: “I’d hug the loser first.”

Sunday, January 20, 2013

NBA's MLK Game Puts Memphis in the Real "Big Leagues"

Posted By on Sun, Jan 20, 2013 at 8:05 PM

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Way back in 2001, when the Vancouver Grizzlies’ move to Memphis was confirmed, the most common thought and expression, from Harbor Town to Collierville and from Millington to Olive Branch, was “We’re finally big league!” After dalliances with the ABA, WFL, USFL, CFL and, lest we forget, the XFL, Memphis would finally be part of a league whose initials — NBA! — could stand alone nationwide, worldwide even. (Bridging eras, the new team’s nickname was actually the informal calling card of the Memphis Southmen, this city’s entry in the World Football League during the 1970s.) Memphis would appear in standings that folks in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, and New York actually cared about.

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I’ve got mixed feelings about the “big-league” label. Memphis has been big-league in ventures outside the sports arena for decades. Consider St. Jude and the war against childhood cancer. A few rock-and-roll Hall of Famers sharpened their games in Memphis before becoming household names. And how about distribution before and after FedEx? The Bluff City has long had big-league credentials, just minus those standings in the sports section.

But there’s one day each year that makes me feel decidedly Big League (caps required). It’s the annual Martin Luther King Day game at FedExForum. First played in 2003 (the Grizzlies lost to Portland at The Pyramid), the game serves as a national salute to a surpassing human being, from the city where he was tragically struck down in 1968. (For anyone who might feel the location of such a game is inappropriate, remember James Earl Ray was a drifter from Illinois. He was less a Memphian than Juan Carlos Navarro.) The game is televised nationally, during the day when kids can enjoy the contest from start to finish.

Better yet, since 2006 the Grizzlies and National Civil Rights Museum have partnered in saluting former athletes who have made a difference beyond the sports arena. Want to feel big-league? Check out the list of men (no women yet) who have received the Sports Legacy Award: Bill Russell, David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Lanier, Julius Erving, Dave Bing, Oscar Robertson, Alonzo Mourning, Willis Reed, Lenny Wilkens, George Gervin, Clyde Drexler, Elgin Baylor, and Patrick Ewing. Those are merely the former NBA greats. Three players on every alltime top-10 list (Abdul-Jabbar, Robertson, and Russell) and 25-percent of the 1992 Dream Team (Robinson, Drexler, Ewing).

Mannie Jackson was honored (with Russell) in 2006. You’ve heard of the Harlem Globetrotters? Jackson owns the franchise.

Willie Mays was honored in 2011. If not the greatest baseball player in history, he’s among the top three.

Jim Brown is a 2013 honoree (along with Baylor and Ewing). If not the greatest football player in history, he’s among the top three.

It’s wonderful that so many decidedly big-league legends have been accorded adulation here in Memphis, and adulation for making an impact on lives. Mutombo battles hunger and poverty in Africa. Brown battles gang violence. Mourning battles kidney disease, an ailment he knows all too well himself. These heroes have used their achievements as athletes to enhance the difference they can make in the larger community. Think Dr. King would be proud? (Let’s remember the Grizzlies Charitable Foundation earned the franchise Sport Team of the Year for 2012, an international honor awarded over finalists from the U.K. and Australia. And, ahem, the Boston Celtics.)

It would be nice if the Grizzlies could beat a tough Indiana Pacers team Monday afternoon. (Memphis is 5-5 on MLK Day.) But whether you’re watching at the arena or from your living room, take a deep breath of pride and raise your shoulders, Memphians. Our big-league team will deliver on Martin Luther King Day. Victory assured.

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

RIP Stan Musial (1920-2013)

The greatest Cardinal of them all passes at 92.

Posted By on Sat, Jan 19, 2013 at 10:14 PM

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Stan Musial (1920-2013)

Among the countless charms of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the engraved nicknames on the plaques of honored members are the most endearing. After all, these are the names we fans came to know our baseball heroes by, so much so that a plaque honoring Willie Mays would be incomplete without “Say Hey Kid” engraved for perpetuity. “Iron Man,” “Mr. October,” and “The Wizard” are as much a part of baseball history as Ripken, Jackson, and Smith. The finest nickname to be found on a plaque at the Cooperstown shrine, though, belongs to Stanley Frank Musial: “The Man.”

The greatest St. Louis Cardinal there has been or ever will be, Musial died at his home in St. Louis Saturday. He was 92.

My dad shook hands with a young Elvis Presley (in the basement of Katz Drug Store, September 1956), a story I heard a few times at the dinner table. But it was Dad’s reflections of an encounter with Stan Musial — at Russwood Park, on April 9, 1953 — that made him smile like a boy every time he shared the tale. Since Dad’s no longer with us, I’m telling it one more time.

The St. Louis Cardinals were playing an exhibition game against the Memphis Chicks that day, the Cards on their way north from spring training. Musial left the game after a few innings (St. Louis drubbed the home team, 12-5). During a break between innings, an 11-year-old Frank Murtaugh Jr. left his seat in the bleachers to get a hot dog or go to the restroom . . . this detail was lost over the years. The clubhouse was a short walk — underneath the bleachers — from the dugout at Russwood, and Dad happened to take his stroll just as Musial was on his way to the showers. As my father told the story, Stan the Man tapped him on the head, smiled, and asked, “How ya doin’ kid?” Who knows if those exact words were spoken. If my dad heard them, they were incidental to the colossal moment.

When Dad returned to his seat and told my grandfather about his meeting with the Man, Granddad grabbed his hand and escorted him back to the very spot, hoping to catch lightning twice within minutes. Alas, my grandfather never got to meet his hero.

And that’s what Musial’s passing represents to thousands (if not millions) of baseball fans: the loss (in mortal terms) of a hero. A contemporary of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, Musial never attained their celebrity, not playing a thousand miles from the country’s media center in the northeast. He merely hit the baseball better than any other man, save four or five who belong in the debate (Williams, DiMaggio, Cobb, Hornsby, maybe Wagner).

Dad and I saw Musial together at Ozzie Smith’s Hall of Fame induction in 2002. Musial delighted the crowd by playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on his harmonica. Then in 2004, at Game 3 of the World Series in St. Louis, Dad and I watched Musial throw out the first pitch (to none other than Bob Gibson). These were enriching moments, surely shared by thousands of fathers and sons in each crowd. They were the kind of moments Musial created most of his life.

Stan the Man played for three world champions with the Cardinals and was named MVP three times. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility (in 1969, the year Frank Murtaugh Jr. became a father). He collected exactly 1,815 hits on the road and 1,815 hits at home, his total of 3,630 trailing only those of Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, and Hank Aaron. Visit BaseballReference.com and look at the Hall of Fame Monitor, a statistic that weighs a player’s achievements collectively and measures his chances for election to the Hall of Fame. Stanley Frank Musial is number-one in baseball history.

When my daughter Sofia was assigned a book report in third grade, she chose to read a biography of Musial. She wrote a fine piece on her grandfather’s hero and actually sent a copy to Musial, courtesy of the Cardinals. About a month later, an envelope arrived in the mail from Stan the Man, Inc. Inside were two autographed postcards from Musial. The fact that my dad didn’t live to hear this story squeezes my heart to this day. He would laugh and cry, out loud.

The famous statue of Musial in front of Busch Stadium says, “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.” What we came to learn over the 92 years Musial blessed this earth is that he may well have been a perfect human being. Whatever protocols may exist in heaven, I know my dad’s jockeying for a long-awaited reunion.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Baseball Hall of Fame on Steroids?

Posted By on Mon, Jan 7, 2013 at 8:48 AM

The Baseball Hall of Fame on Steroids?

Karma can be delicious when served on a sports dish. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro played a combined 8,171 regular-season games over the course of their long and celebrated careers. The number of World Series games they combined for? Seven. (All of them by Bonds, four of them losses.)

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This Wednesday’s announcement of the 2013 class of inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame will stir more debate, discussion, and dissent than any such topic not centered on Pete Rose. Do players — like Bonds, Sosa, Palmeiro, and Roger Clemens — associated with baseball’s steroid era get a pass for the game’s highest individual honor if their career achievements are so grand the cheating can be viewed as incidental? (Which begs the question, is any cheating incidental?) How exactly do the Hall voters — members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) — distinguish between allegations (in the cases of Bonds, Clemens, and Sosa) and cases where a player was actually caught in the act (Palmeiro)? Most complicated of all, can voters be certain candidates for the Hall with less metaphorical smoke near their cases (Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell) never juiced?

It’s an impossible shell game, really. And I continue to deliberate over a uniform policy the Hall (and BBWAA) should adopt for stars that inflated their achievements with chemical boosters. I’ll say this: As long as Rose is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame and O.J. Simpson remains in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, ambiguity over what qualifies a former athlete for recognition will be the uncomfortable but necessary norm. (Side note: Whether or not Simpson killed two people, he’s a documented abuser of women. In my mind, a worse human being than any career steroid hound.)

There’s a component to the Hall of Fame those most passionately against the inclusion of steroid cheats must consider: The Hall is a repository of baseball history (really, nothing more) and should include the game’s entire history, however dark one era may seem in reflection. There are Hall of Famers whose numbers benefited from rosters watered down by World War II service. (And Hall of Famers like Ted Williams whose numbers would be that much greater had they not served overseas.) Needless to say, Cy Young would not have won 511 games had he not pitched for 22 years during the game’s “Dead Ball” era. And that’s the point: baseball eras come and go. They all have heroes and villains. And they all have — or should have — Hall of Famers.

So yes, I’d consider the ’Roid Rogues for Hall of Fame induction. Three of them — Bonds, Clemens, and Palmeiro (one of only four players with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs) — absolutely belong on a bronze plaque. But I’d have two qualifiers for my vote if I were selecting players to be displayed at the most famous sports museum in America:

• No election in the first year of eligibility. Some would say there’s no difference between a first-ballot Hall of Famer (like Ernie Banks) and a player who has to wait decades to get in (like the late Ron Santo). Those people aren’t paying attention. First-ballot selection is for the players you only need one name for: Ruth, Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Musial, Ripken. Their plaques should feature a distinguishing star. No player with serious steroid “smoke” near his name gets a vote on the first ballot.

• Plaques for players under a cloud of suspicion should say as much. A child gazing at Barry Bonds’ image 50 years from now might read the following: “Seven-time MVP, 14-time All-Star. Most career home runs (762) and walks (2,558) at time of retirement. Hit at least 30 home runs and stole at least 30 bases in five different seasons. Eight Gold Gloves. Spike in power numbers after age 35 called into question as part of game’s steroid era.”

Make Bonds (and Clemens, and Palmeiro, and Sosa) wait at least a year, to further consider the legitimacy of their astonishing statistics. For now, vote for Craig Biggio (3,000 hits, all in an Astros uniform) and Jack Morris (most wins in 1980s and a member of championship teams in Detroit, Minnesota, and Toronto). Every year needs a Hall of Fame class, clean or otherwise. As long as Pete Rose remains on the outside looking in, spare me the morality wall. It’s a history museum. A wonderful, inspiring history museum. But nothing more.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Frank Murtaugh's 2013 Fantasy Resolutions

Four Resolutions That Matter (for a Memphis Sports Fan)

Posted By on Tue, Jan 1, 2013 at 11:28 AM

I’ve got my new year’s resolutions, and you’ve certainly got yours. But what about the resolutions of sports figures that will impact the games Memphians cheer in 2013? I’d like to imagine a few.

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I, Robert Pera, resolve to ignore the trading deadline. My first winter as an NBA owner, and my — our! — Memphis Grizzlies appear to be on the short list of legitimate title contenders. Not only is the team playing well (wins over the Heat, Thunder, and Knicks before Thanksgiving!), but they seem to have firmly established a culture of energy in the Mid-South. A Grizzly vibe.

Jason Levien will be a difference-maker, I’m convinced. And adding John Hollinger to the staff sure caught some attention, didn’t it? The Grizzlies’ front office trending on Twitter?! Yep, this team is mine ... no, ours! Soon enough, our prints will be all over the on-court product. I’m not paying John Hollinger to merely gaze at his ratings system. But for this season, I’d like to give coach Lionel Hollins and his team a chance. The core of this roster made a playoff run two years ago without Rudy Gay. They did so last year with Zach Randolph hobbled. Which leaves the fundamental question: How far can this team go if healthy? We’re gonna find out. (Come draft day in June, the team is mine. Ours!)

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I, Josh Pastner, resolve to take an early shower. Hard to please, this Tiger Nation. (Though they’re well coached.) There seems to be a growing perception that I’m soft on my team; I suppose an 0-11 record against ranked teams does that to a guy. (Ask Pierre Niles if I’m a soft coach. Or Wesley Witherspoon. Heck, ask Tarik Black.) No one wants to win a championship — national championship, that is — more than me. And that includes my players. But that doesn’t mean my players have grown deaf to the message. Does it? Come on, do I need to guzzle coffee and include expletives with my sideline tantrums to fully engage a group of athletes?

We have loads of talent. We have hometown kids, players Tiger Nation wants desperately to succeed. So why the slumped shoulders? Why the vitriol on talk shows and chat rooms? Heck, I’ve had enough of it. I’m coaching for my players, and they’re playing for me. Band of brothers, you know. (You’ve seen that movie, right? TV series, whatever.) I’ll pick the game (it will be at home), but I’m getting my rear end booted from a game during conference play. If this team (and season) needs a jolt, it can come from something other than caffeine. This will be the first (and hopefully last) secret I’ll keep from my players. But we’re fighting onward, criticism be ... you know.

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I, John Mozeliak, resolve to let Oscar Taveras and Memphis get acquainted. Since I was named general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in 2008, we’ve managed to take our farm system from the depths of Baseball America’s rankings to near the top. All the while remaining a contender (and winning that remarkable World Series two years ago). Next month, we’ll head to Jupiter, Florida, with as much starting pitching depth as we’ve had in decades. And with one of the finest young hitting prospects on the planet.

Oscar Taveras won the Texas League batting title last year (.321) on his way to being named the loop’s Player of the Year. The kid’s slugging percentage was .572, and he turns 21 in June. With Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, and Carlos Beltran returning, our outfield is full (if healthy) for 2013. So we have the luxury, should we choose, to let Taveras take more than a few Triple-A hacks before adding a second bird to his jersey. The last time Memphis had this kind of hitting talent for a full season? In a word, never. (J.D. Drew was a midseason acquisition in 1998, Albert Pujols a postseason call-up two years later.) Enjoy the barbecue nachos, Oscar. We’ll see you — full-time — in April 2014.

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I, Justin Fuente, resolve to ignore the noise. Man, what a first season. Open with a loss to UT-Martin and finish with a blowout win over Southern Miss. Toss that into your crystal ball for 2013 and shake it. Two months of hearing “same old Tigers” ... followed by a three-game winning streak where we scored points at will. Wish the season had been 16 games.

The only bad part of a season-ending winning streak, though, is the tease. A tease is kindling to the fires of expectation. When we enter the Big East this fall — the watered-down version, if you listen to the experts — we should be competitive. Break-even, if not in contention for a conference title. Come on, now. This program is still aiming for a full allotment of scholarship players. Our starting quarterback creates more “wow” moments on the piano than he does in the pocket. (But he’s a winner, dammit. We’re sticking with him.) I have an idea for where this program can go. And I’m willing to take risks to get there. (Check my record on fourth-down attempts.) As for all the chatter our taste of success has created? That’s what headphones were made for.

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