Monday, August 4, 2014

Allen Craig and Vince Carter: Comings and Goings

Posted By on Mon, Aug 4, 2014 at 9:48 AM

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For a game played so often in sunshine, baseball can be as cold as a killer’s stare. Two years after delivering one of the three or four greatest moments in St. Louis Cardinals history, David Freese was property of the Los Angeles Angels. In 2013, Allen Craig led the Cardinals in RBIs and scored the winning run in Game 3 of the World Series. Last Thursday, Craig was shipped to the very team that beat St. Louis in the Fall Classic (for a pitcher who helped the Red Sox to the championship). A cold business indeed.

Smart baseball trades, of course, are never about what’s happened . . . but what might happen next. A career .306 hitter entering the season, Craig had endured a four-month slump this year and left St. Louis batting .237. His departure gives super-prospect Oscar Taveras the rightfield job in St. Louis, a commitment Cardinal general manager John Mozeliak was willing to make to, yes, what might happen. (Taveras drove in the winning run Sunday in a big Cardinal victory over first-place Milwaukee. He’s hitting .217 after 35 games with St. Louis.)

With the arrival of John Lackey, the deal solidifies a Cardinal starting rotation that, merely four months ago, was considered the strength of the team. Injuries to Jaime Garcia and Michael Wacha forced Mozeliak’s hand to some degree, but with a pitcher (Joe Kelly) joining Craig on the plane to Boston, the trade should be viewed as an attempted upgrade, not merely the filling of a void.

Raise a glass to Craig, Memphis baseball fans. Recall him driving in 81 runs in merely 83 games as a Redbird in 2010. And remember he’s one of only five players to help the Redbirds win the 2009 Pacific Coast League championship and then play for the Cardinals in the unforgettable 2011 World Series. (The others: David Freese, Jon Jay, Jaime Garcia, and Fernando Salas.) Craig and Pujols are the only two Cardinals to hit three home runs in a single Fall Classic. Warm memories of a talented player and class act.

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• I follow two NBA teams year-round: the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks. For whatever reason, there haven’t been many players to make an impact with both franchises. (Two fan bases are trying to forget O.J. Mayo.) That changes with the arrival in Memphis — after three seasons in Dallas — of future Hall of Famer Vince Carter.

I was skeptical three years ago, when the Mavs acquired Carter (then 34 years old), convinced the once-high-flying rim-rattler who put the Toronto Raptors on the map had reached the sunset stage of his long career. He’d played in 10 All-Star Games, but not since 2007 when he averaged 25.2 points with New Jersey. Over the next three seasons, though, Carter displayed one of the finest style transitions of any star in NBA history.

Carter played for three distinctly different teams in Dallas, and proved to be an asset for each. In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Mavericks were defending their NBA title, but minus a significant cog in departed center Tyson Chandler. Carter started 40 games for Dallas, shot 36 percent from three-point range, and finished fourth on the team in minutes played.

The next season, the Mavericks’ roster was filled with players on one-year contracts (like Mayo, Chris Kaman, and Darren Collison), an ugly transition season after the team’s failed attempt to sign All-Star point guard Deron Williams. Carter came off the bench but finished third on the team with 2,093 minutes played and shot 41 percent from long range, topping the team with 162 three-pointers. Those Mavs scratched their way to a .500 record.

And then last season, with Dirk Nowitzki healthy again and Monta Ellis added to the backcourt, Dallas improved to 49-33 and took the eventual NBA champs to seven games in the first round of the playoffs (thanks in part to a game-winning, buzzer-beating trey from Carter in Game 3). Carter shot 39 percent from downtown and played just under 2,000 minutes. Again.

You don’t hear the description all that much in NBA circles, but Vince Carter has become a veteran “glue guy.” Adding him to a Grizzlies roster that includes professionals (purely defined) like Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and (yes) Zach Randolph would seem to only solidify that fabled intangible, “chemistry.” Better yet, Carter — even at 37 — adds athleticism and a shooting touch from the wing Memphis has desperately needed over the last few playoff seasons. He’s a rare pro athlete: comfortable in a reserve (though significant) role after building his career on magazine covers and dorm-room posters. There’s no lunacy in bringing Vinsanity to Memphis.


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