I was rooting hard against the Grizzlies last Saturday. But to no avail. Packed in a club-level suite with the White Station Middle School softball team (their shortstop and leadoff batter is my favorite player), I watched Fresno erase a five-run Redbirds lead with six runs in the sixth inning, spurred by a pair of RBIs from Fresno Grizzlies first baseman Brett Pill. (Looking for an early season baseball stat to share with friends? Through Saturday’s game, Pill had driven in 47 runs in 32 games for Fresno. Can’t be long before he’s wearing a San Francisco Giants jersey.) Oddly enough, by game’s end, there seemed to be as many fans at AutoZone Park with “Grizzlies” on their shirt as “Redbirds.”
That Fresno rally happened merely minutes after another bunch of Grizzlies won a game you may have heard about, four blocks away from the ballpark at Third and Union. In Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal series with Oklahoma City, the Grizzlies (Memphis variety) held Thunder All-Star Kevin Durant to merely 25 points to take a two-games-to-one lead. The few adults in that suite at AutoZone Park were staring at the TV dangling from the ceiling as Marc Gasol buried a pair of clutch, tie-breaking free throws in the game’s final minute to send more than 18,000 fans at FedExForum home happy. Or send them to AutoZone Park happy.
Saturday was one of those nights that remind Memphians just how far the sports scene has come since the turn of the century. As recently as 1997, the best a local sports fan could do in this town come May would be a Double-A baseball game at Tim McCarver Stadium, unless some upstart circus league like the XFL was opening gates at the Liberty Bowl. Now? You can start a Saturday outing watching one of four NBA playoff series unfold at a world-class arena on Beale Street, then stroll 10 minutes north to catch a few at-bats from the top hitting prospect in baseball. (Redbirds outfielder Oscar Taveras may have had his mind on hoops Saturday, as he had one hit in five at bats with three strikeouts.) The literal overflow of an NBA audience at a baseball stadium was as inspiring as the David Freese highlights shown on AutoZone Park’s video board as part of the club’s “Two Outs-Two Strikes-No Problem” promotion.
After the baseball game, a 6-5 Grizzlies win, the Spartan softball team pulled out cell phones to record the fireworks show. All the color and explosive volume of the display seemed especially fitting for a spring night in downtown Memphis. I found myself wondering if these kids — all born after the Redbirds arrived in 1998 — had any idea how brilliant the show actually was.
• In line at the Redbirds team store Saturday night, I watched a boy walk up to the register with a 2012 team set of baseball cards. Visible through the plastic on top of the set was a card of Shelby Miller. And I wondered if the boy had a clue as to the new value of that baseball card. On May 10, 2012, Miller was a 3-2 pitcher with Memphis, struggling to find the stuff that had him ranked among baseball’s best young hurlers. On May 10, 2013 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis — the night before the boy took his card home from AutoZone Park — Miller essentially threw a perfect game one batter late. After giving up a single to Colorado’s Eric Young to open the game, Miller retired the next 27 Rockies in order, striking out 13 (a Cardinal rookie record) and not allowing so much as a walk. The win improved Miller’s record to 5-2 and lowered his ERA to 1.58. Much more of this and the name Bob Gibson will enter conversations. Enjoy those cards, kid. One of them might help pay for college someday.