Injuries in teams sports are like pages ripped from a book you haven’t yet finished. The more significant the player, the more pages are shredded. The later in the season a player goes down, the closer to the book’s end you discover the missing pages. It’s maddening, disappointing, vexing . . . as many negative descriptors as you choose. Bottom line: When players are sidelined by injury, the story we read — the one that enters the history books — is altered permanently.
Maybe the Memphis Grizzlies, Cleveland Cavaliers, or St. Louis Cardinals (or a combination involving one of the NBA teams) wins a championship in 2015. More than likely, though, these three teams will fall short of the goal every pro team lists above all others. Fan bases for each franchise will find significant pages missing from this year’s metaphorical book.
The Grizzlies seemed to be peaking at precisely the right time after a lackluster conclusion to their regular season. On their way to a 3-0 lead against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Griz had the 67-win Golden State Warriors in their sights for a second-round battle that would test the entire concept of “grit and grind” basketball. Then C.J. McCollum’s elbow met Mike Conley’s face. The Memphis point guard left Game 3 in the third quarter and underwent surgery to repair facial fractures last Monday.
The Griz finished off the Blazers in five games to land that slot opposite Golden State in the bracket. With Conley in street clothes (swelling still visible on his face), Memphis traveled to Oakland and took a beating in Game 1 of it series with the Warriors Sunday afternoon. It’s hard to imagine one player — not named Jordan or Bird — erasing the Grizzlies’ 15-point margin of defeat, but the story would have read differently. It would have been the story as intended.
The Grizzlies aren’t alone. With Kevin Love sidelined by a shoulder injury, the Cleveland Cavaliers will find what amounts to a chapter missing from their 2014-15 book. And turning to baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals will tear out every fifth page this season with ace Adam Wainwright shelved by a torn Achilles’ tendon. Maybe LeBron James is enough for the Cavs to reach the NBA Finals anyway. And the Cardinals have a precedent for winning the World Series without Wainwright (2011). Missing pages don’t necessarily mean a book ends sadly.
Here’s hoping Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger concocts a scheme to steal a win when Game 2 is played Tuesday night. (Anyone seen Jordan Adams recently?) His team’s fate rests on how those missing pages are replaced.
• In evaluating the eight remaining teams in the NBA playoffs, remember the Superstar Rule. Since 1980, every champion except the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons has featured a player with multiple first-team All-NBA selections on his resume. Only three teams vying for this year’s title qualify: the Cavaliers (James), the Clippers (Chris Paul), and the Rockets (Dwight Howard). The Warriors’ Steph Curry has multiple first-team selections in his future, but this year’s will be his first.
• With San Antonio and Dallas eliminated, the Western Conference will be represented in the Finals by a team that hasn’t been that far in at least 20 years, if ever. (Houston won the 1995 title.) This is healthy for a sport dominated in June by a precious few brands.
The last fight that really mattered happened in Memphis, Tennessee. Well, the last boxing match that mattered happened here, at the Pyramid, on June 8, 2002, when Lennox Lewis defended his heavyweight title with an 8th-round knockout of the newly face-tattooed Mike Tyson. That fight serves as a decent allegory for the sport of boxing itself. Like Tyson, boxing once stood larger, stronger, even louder than any rival in the land.
Particularly during the first half of the twentieth century, all eyes turned to the ring — or ears to the radio — when Fight Night arrived. Cassius Clay took world interest even higher upon his arrival in the 1960s and, as Muhammad Ali, became the most famous human being on the planet in the 1970s. But Ali met his end against Larry Holmes, and Tyson met the canvas under that pointed roof 13 years ago. The heavyweight division — and boxing in general — has been blurry, at best, ever since. (Quickly: Which Klitschko brother has held the crown longer?)
But boxing’s back, at least for one night, this Saturday in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The two men generally considered the best boxers of this century — Floyd Mayweather (47-0) and Manny Pacquiao (57-5-2) — will (finally) get into a ring together and settle the bar-stool debate. They’ll officially fight for the WBC welterweight belt (the actual belt is valued at $1 million and features the faces of both principals), but at stake is so much more. After the two men have cashed their eight- or nine-figure checks (estimates say the fight could gross as much as $400 million, thanks in part to a pay-per-view fee of at least $89), a long-asked question will resurface: Is boxing still relevant?
There was a time — since Ali retired — when a Super Fight was as attention-grabbing as the Super Bowl, much bigger than the NBA Finals or any other annual sporting event. Four legendary boxers, none of them heavyweights, spent the 1980s beating each other silly every year or so. It started in 1980 when Olympic hero Sugar Ray Leonard fought Roberto Duran for the first time (Duran won a decision in Montreal). A year later, Leonard knocked out Tommy Hearns in an epic bout and was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, surely the last time a fighter will receive that honor. Marvin Hagler was the fourth member of this menacing band, beating Duran (in 1983) and Hearns (their 1985 fight was among the most violent three rounds in history) before losing a controversial decision to Leonard in 1987.
I didn’t see a single one of those fights live. And that was part of the magic. Each event was so big — and so distant from my family’s living room — that imagination and anticipation became part of the package. And my parents weren’t going to spring for the pay-per-view, so there was a forbidden quality to each confrontation. (I’d wait for HBO to air the replay a week later.) You picked a fighter to support, your friends picked a fighter, you debated the merits and frailties of each. On Fight Night, you were sure your guy would win. (I still can’t believe Leonard beat Hagler, and when I watch the film, I’m not sure he did.)
Mayweather-Pacquiao feels like a Super Fight, and it has since they announced the bout in February. Ten thousands fans have spent $10 each to attend this Friday’s weigh-in. (Proceeds will go to charity.) Gate receipts alone are estimated to be more than $70 million. Pacquiao’s following, needless to say, grows more passionate the further you get from Las Vegas, making the bout truly international in scale. (If you don’t like politicians, this may be the bout for you. Pacquiao is a member of the Philippine House of Representatives.) Mayweather says he’ll wear a mouthguard made partially with diamonds and gold, valued at $25,000. A mouthguard! When (if?) Pacquiao lands a shot to Mayweather’s jaw, will we see sparkles?
I will watch this fight live. First-round knockout or split decision, it will be the only event that matters Saturday night. (My pick: Mayweather wins a unanimous decision.) Whether anyone will care about the result come Sunday morning ... that remains to be seen.
Every baseball fan loves Crash Davis. The career minor-leaguer — most famous for his season with flame-throwing Nuke LaLoosh and the Durham Bulls — may be fictitious, but he’s a one-man allegory for any athlete who plays entirely for the love of the game. No seven-figure contract, no sports-drink endorsements, no celebrity wife on the arm.
If a 30-something bush-leaguer is an American folk hero, what are we to make of the player who, still in his early 20s, plays his way from Class A to the major leagues (“The Show”) . . . in one season? Even LaLoosh had to pack his bags but once — for his big-league promotion — after finding the strike zone. In Marco Gonzales and Sam Tuivailala, the Memphis Redbirds currently feature a pair of pitchers who performed at four levels in 2014: Class A Palm Beach, Double-A Springfield, Triple-A Memphis, and with the St. Louis Cardinals in the Show. They’ll each play big roles in any success the 2015 Redbirds have on the field, if they’re not pitching at Busch Stadium in another pennant race for the Cardinals.
The 23-year-old Gonzales came so close to earning a spot in the Cardinals’ starting rotation that he actually started for St. Louis (against Memphis) in the April 3rd exhibition game at AutoZone Park. (He allowed one run on three hits in 5 ⅔ innings against his current teammates.) Selected with the 19th pick in the 2013 draft, Gonzales befuddled hitters at Palm Beach last season (1.43 ERA in 37.2 innings) before doing the same at Springfield (2.33, 38.2). The lefty actually bypassed Triple A and made his major-league debut for St. Louis in his home state of Colorado on June 25th. Over the second half of the season, Gonzales earned four wins in Memphis and four more with the Cardinals to earn the franchise’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year award.
The final slot in the Cardinal rotation came down to a competition between Gonzales and another former Redbird, Carlos Martinez. For now, at least, Martinez is the fifth man in St. Louis, while Gonzales fills the role of Memphis ace. “There’s no frustration on my end at all,” says Gonzales. “I’m content with the competition I gave. It’s all part of the development; there’s time I need to spend here still. I’ll do whatever the organization tells me to do.”
Gonzales knows consistency is the ticket to the big leagues for a starting pitcher. “Learning from each and every outing,” he emphasizes. “Turning the page, making each start fresh, to get better. The mental preparation has a lot to do with that. [Big-league] hitters will pick you apart. Everybody’s locked in at all times. They’ll find weaknesses easily. You learn to pitch to your strengths.”
Reflecting on his rapid climb through the Cardinal system, Gonzales embraces his learn-on-the-fly season of 2014. “I had fun with it,” he says. “It was always exciting, thrilling to be at a new level and getting to know a new team. The competition just kept getting better. Jumping levels, the process [of learning] speeds up. I learned a lot.”
Drafted by the Cardinals as a shortstop in 2010, Tuivailala moved to the mound in 2012 when it became clear his arm had more long-term value than his bat. Able to tease 100 mph on the radar gun, Tuivailala emerged last season as a force out of the bullpen, primarily with Palm Beach (37.1 innings) and Springfield (21). Overall, he struck out 97 hitters in 60 innings, for a nine-inning rate (14.6) that would make Nolan Ryan blush. He appeared in two games with Memphis and made his MLB debut with the Cardinals on September 9th in Cincinnati.
“Now that I’m here [in Memphis], you gotta bring your A game every day,” says Tuivailala, a native of San Mateo, California. “The ability guys have at this level is no different from up there [in the majors]. [Major leaguers] can just repeat it consistently.”
As for his multi-stop tour last season, Tuivailala chuckles when asked about the itinerary. “I definitely didn’t expect the season to go fast like that. But I had a lot of fun, learning how to pitch to guys. I’ll get a better season out of myself — and learn more — this year.”
Tuivailala pitched in high school (in addition to playing the infield), but didn’t know he had a high-90s fastball in his right shoulder until his third season as a professional. He spent a lot of time during spring training this year with Cardinal closer Trevor Rosenthal, whose high-90s fastball helped him earn 45 saves with St. Louis last season. “We’d bounce things off each other,” says Tuivailala, “the grips, how to approach hitters. And what you do when things don’t go as planned. It’s the mental side of how to approach guys.” The new Memphis closer has added a changeup to his fastball-curveball repertoire, with hopes of another promotion, perhaps one that sticks next time. Like his buddy Marco Gonzales, Tuivailala will have his bags already packed.
There has been some unease — if not outright panic — in these parts over the bumpy road the Memphis Grizzlies have recently traveled on their way to the NBA playoffs. Once comfortably atop the Southwest Division, the Griz have limped (in some cases literally) to a 10-9 record since March 7th, not the kind of mark that inspires fear in playoff opponents. But is it really time to shelve the Growl Towels?
While a lengthy winning streak entering the post-season might make a fan base feel better, such a streak is not necessarily a key ingredient in winning a championship. Among the last 10 teams to raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy, five finished their season (defined here as the last 20 games) no better than 12-8. Remember this: The first two rounds of the NBA playoffs are less about who’s hot as they are about matchups. The 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks won 67 games (a total unmatched since). They faced a Golden State team that snuck into the playoffs with a record of 42-40. But confronted with a small-ball lineup masterfully coordinated by coach Don Nelson, Dirk Nowitzki (MVP that season) and friends were bounced in six games. (Those Mavs won 15 of their last 20 games.) Ask the 1993-94 Sonics (63-19) how hot they felt after finishing the regular season 17-3 and losing in the first round to the 42-40 Denver Nuggets. Matchups matter.
There’s a ridiculous number of scenarios for the Western Conference playoffs. (Four teams have 26 losses as I write this column.) The Griz could face any of five different teams. They could have home-court advantage through the first two rounds . . . or they could open the playoffs on the road. No one wants to face the San Antonio Spurs (owners of an 11-game winning streak). Beyond that, the Grizzlies — and their fans — should worry less about how “hot” they feel and more about getting Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and Marc Gasol as close to complete health as possible when that first postseason contest — wherever it’s held — tips off.
• My family took a trip to St. Louis last Saturday, not to see the Cardinals (home opener today), but to check out the Blues. My daughters’ first live NHL game featured the Central Division champions and the Minnesota Wild in front of more than 19,000 fans packed inside the Scottrade Center, a few short blocks west of Busch Stadium. And it was the loudest we’ve heard an arena in some time.
No sport gains more between the television and stadium experiences than hockey. To begin with, an NHL rink is more than three times the size of a basketball court. On TV, a viewer never sees more than a third of the playing surface. And television cameras rarely show the in-action substitutions (they’re called line changes) that give hockey the steadiest flow of any team sport this side of soccer. Furthermore, there is nothing like seeing the home team score a goal in hockey (it’s far more frequent than soccer, by the way). There’s a suddenness to the moment that other sports can’t approximate, with the possible exception of a home run in baseball. There’s simply too much scoring in basketball, and most touchdowns in football happen after lengthy drives. A goal in hockey is a glorious lightning strike, and yields a crowd-standing eruption that makes your backbone vibrate. We experienced four of these eruptions Saturday afternoon, as the Blues finished their regular season with a 4-2 win. (They’ll now face Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs.)
If you’ve never experienced live hockey, make time to see the RiverKings in Southaven. But let that be an appetizer. (The Landers Center doesn’t hold 19,000 fans.) Nashville and St. Louis have two of the best teams in the Western Conference, each chasing the coolest trophy in sports (the Stanley Cup). Consider it merely a novelty sport for Canadians and you’re cheating yourself out of one of the greatest legal highs we have left. Hockey is all heart.
The St. Louis Cardinals played a total of eight exhibition games at AutoZone Park over the stadium’s first decade, starting with the game that opened the park on April 1, 2000. (Fernando Vina delivered the first hit, Eli Marrero the first home run.) The Redbirds’ parent club returned in 2002, then played two games on visits in 2004, 2007 (one of them the inaugural Civil Rights Game), and 2009. Including the 2009 campaign, though, six full seasons have passed since the Cardinals have taken the field at Third and Union, thanks to a rainstorm that cancelled the game scheduled to be played late last March.
A lot has happened in the Cardinal system over the last six years:
• Only two current Cardinals were with the club for that 2009 exhibition. Catcher Yadier Molina and pitcher Adam Wainwright — both former Redbirds — were best remembered at the time for their embrace after clinching the 2006 World Series championship for St. Louis. Molina had won his first Gold Glove in 2008 (he’s won six more since) and Wainwright was coming off a 19-8 season in which he finished third in the Cy Young Award voting (and won his first Gold Glove). You can now find Wainwright in second place on the Cardinals’ all-time strikeout chart (behind Hall of Famer Bob Gibson) and eighth on the team’s win list with 119. Molina is the only Cardinal since 1950 to play in four World Series.
• This will be the first Cardinal exhibition game since 2000 without one Albert Pujols. The man who homered to win the 2000 Pacific Coast League championship for Memphis came back and delivered home runs in 2004, 2007 (helping the Cards win the Civil Rights Game), and 2009. Pujols, of course, is entering his fourth season with the Los Angeles Angels. You can still find the red seat marking his famous homer on the rightfield bluff at AutoZone Park, just inside the foul pole.
• David Freese, Allen Craig, and Jon Jay were all Memphis Redbirds in 2009 and would play big roles in leading the Redbirds to their second PCL championship. Two years later, they were central figures in bringing the Cardinals their 11th world championship. Jay delivered a key single in the 10th-inning rally that kept St. Louis alive in Game 6. Craig hit three home runs (and caught the final out) against Texas. And Freese, of course, hit the most famous triple in Cardinals history, followed it with a home run to win Game 6, and earned MVP honors for the Fall Classic. This trio helped the Cardinals win another National League pennant in 2013, but only Jay remains with the team. Freese is a teammate of Pujols’s with the Angels and the Cardinals traded Craig to Boston last summer.
• The Cardinals have developed three everyday players — via Memphis — since the Cardinals last played here. They make up three-fourths of the St. Louis infield: first-baseman Matt Adams, second-baseman Kolten Wong, and third-baseman Matt Carpenter. Carpenter hit .300 in 2011, his only season with Memphis and two seasons later became the first player since Pete Rose to lead the major leagues in runs, hits, and doubles in the same season. Adams led the 2012 Redbirds with 18 home runs in just 67 games (he hit .329 before being promoted to St. Louis) and has slammed 32 long ones over the last two years with the Cardinals. Wong hit .303 and stole 20 bases for the 2013 Redbirds before taking over second base in St. Louis last season. He delivered a walk-off home run in Game 2 of last year’s NLCS, the Cardinals’ only win against San Francisco.
• Four of the Cardinals’ five-man starting rotation toed the rubber at AutoZone Park with the Redbirds, three of them since 2009. Wainwright should make his fourth Opening Day start when the Cardinals face the Chicago Cubs next Sunday. Following him in the St. Louis rotation will be Lance Lynn (13 wins and 141 strikeouts to lead the PCL in 2010), Michael Wacha, and the winner of a competition between Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales.
Friday night should be a special renewal of what is now an 18-year baseball partnership between Memphis and St. Louis. Here’s hoping the Cardinals don’t take six years before coming back.
My sister was born on March 29, 1974, in Atlanta, Georgia, precisely ten days before Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home-run record in the same city. I’ve felt a kinship — of time and place — with Hammerin’ Hank for more than 40 years now, as I’m among a very few Americans who had a more significant spring in 1974 than Aaron. A baseball record is one thing, an only sibling quite another.
On a trip to the Gulf Coast last week, my family paid a visit to the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum in Mobile, Alabama.
On a Thursday morning bright with sunshine, the four of us entered the walls originally built by Aaron’s father, Herbert, in 1942. Herbert paid a total of $106 for two plots of land on which the home was built, and Aaron’s mother, Estella, lived in the house for 65 years, until the year before her death in 2008. (Herbert died 10 years earlier.) In 2008, the structure — twice expanded from its original 600 square feet by Mr. Aaron — was lifted onto a flatbed and moved to a spot adjacent to Hank Aaron Stadium, now home to the Mobile BayBears (Double-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks), giving all new meaning to the words “Mobile home.” And it’s a shrine of the first order.
Each room is identified for its use during Aaron’s childhood (Aaron was born in 1934). But only the kitchen looks as it did during its most famous occupant’s youth. The other rooms showcase photos, documents, awards, and equipment belonging to one of the most significant figures — let alone, athletes — of the last century. You’ll see a jersey and cap worn in 1973, during Aaron’s 40-homer campaign that took him to the brink of history. Gleaming within its glass case is a full-size silver hammer, crafted and presented to Aaron upon becoming the first baseball player to accumulate 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. It looks like something a superhero might wield in a new Marvel Studios film, but instead symbolizes the superhuman achievements of a mere mortal.
Gawking at one display after another, I wondered if Aaron’s long baseball career and otherworldly statistics have ironically diminished his standing in America’s civil rights movement. There can be only one Jackie Robinson. (Aaron broke into the big leagues in 1954, seven years after Robinson.) But when Aaron’s Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta before the 1966 season, Aaron took center stage — as a black man — in a record chase that would make much of white America scream in protest, and in the backyard of Martin Luther King himself. If you’ve read anything about Aaron’s pursuit of 715 home runs, you know he received hundreds (thousands?) of racist letters, threats of violence toward Aaron himself and his family should he get too close to Ruth’s hallowed mark. (When her son broke the record, Estella claimed she ran onto the field to hug him more as protection from a bullet than for a congratulatory embrace.)
We don’t often read, though, of the countless white children who considered Aaron a hero, perhaps their first black hero, though his skin color was as relevant to his heroics as that cursive (small-case) letter “a” on his Braves cap. I was one of those kids, too young to fully appreciate what — or who — I was seeing as a 4-year-old at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, but old enough to remember the association between Hank Aaron and home run. I admired Aaron’s impact on the world long before I followed my daughters into his former living room last week. The goose bumps in that living room were 40 years in the making.
Mobile, Alabama, is the birthplace of five members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, more than any other city except New York and Los Angeles. Plaques for each of the five can be found on the grounds of Hank Aaron Stadium. (In addition to Aaron, Satchel Paige, Billy Williams, Willie McCovey, and Ozzie Smith each drew his first breath in Mobile.) This is hallowed baseball ground, and merely a six-hour drive from Memphis. I love few things more than my little sister, and one of the things I love about her is her connection — at 10 days old — to a great date (April 8, 1974) and a great man in American history.
I highly recommend reading Howard Bryant’s definitive biography of Aaron (The Last Hero), published in 2010.
Bless the month of March. With spring training in full swing, a writer can devote a column to baseball without it being merely wishful thinking. March is a month of optimism for every fan base, and one for questions. Lots of questions. Here are five that will need answering within the St. Louis Cardinals system.
• Is Michael Wacha healthy?
If one question could be a tipping point for the Cardinals’ 2015 season, this may be it. An unusual shoulder injury — a stress tear — limited Wacha to 19 starts last season. The MVP of the 2013 National League Championship Series was not the same pitcher when he allowed the pennant-winning home run to San Francisco’s Travis Ishikawa in Game 5 of last October’s NLCS. If Wacha is closer to his 2013 self this season, the Cardinals could have the best trio of starting pitchers (Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn) between Los Angeles and Washington D.C. If Wacha’s injury compromises his considerable talents, the domino effect will be profound, and felt here in Memphis with the Redbirds.
• Will Marco Gonzales be a Cardinal or Redbird?
The most significant domino in play among Cardinal pitchers is the 23-year-old lefty from Colorado by way of Gonzaga. Everyone from Cardinal managing partner Bill DeWitt to that fan in red you passed last Sunday in the grocery aisle wants Carlos Martinez to win the fifth slot in the St. Louis rotation. And Martinez (now 23) desperately wants the ball every fifth day. Alas, he threw all of 89 innings last season and started only seven games. What kind of load can Martinez be expected to handle? Veteran Jaime Garcia — he of the annual arm trouble — is back in the mix and is being paid like a starting pitcher ($9.25 million this season). Gonzales will likely land in middle relief for the Cardinals, or at the front of the Memphis rotation.
• Who will be the new faces to know at Third and Union?
The Redbirds will have a veteran backbone in 2015, with Xavier Scruggs (1B), Stephen Piscotty (OF), and Tim Cooney (P) expected back from the 2014 playoff team. But there’s always turnover in the minor leagues. Mike Mayers (an Ole Miss alum) will compete for a spot in the Redbirds’ starting rotation. Flame-throwing reliever Sam Tuivailala may become a 9th-inning star for Memphis. And a pair of veteran infielders — Dean Anna and Ty Kelly — will be making their debuts in the St. Louis system, each on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster.
• Is Jacob Wilson coming home?
This 24-year-old infielder has had AutoZone Park on his horizon since being selected by the Cardinals in the 10th round of the 2012 draft. The graduate of Bartlett High School starred at the University of Memphis where he led Conference USA with 17 home runs in 2012 and was named C-USA’s Player of the Year. Wilson split time at Class-A Palm Beach and Class-AA Springfield last year, his season shortened to 66 games by a knee injury. The Cardinals had Wilson play some first base in the Arizona Fall League, expanding his value in the system, second base in St. Louis appearing to be in the firm possession of Kolten Wong. Look for Wilson to start the season in Springfield, but also expect a Memphis professional debut for the former Tiger at some point in 2015.
• What can we expect from new Redbirds manager Mike Shildt?
Like Pop Warner before him, Shildt is a Cardinal soldier, with more than a decade in the system, the last six years as a manager. And championships seem to follow him. He won a pair of Appalachian League titles with Johnson City (2010 and 2011), then a Texas League flag with Springfield in 2012. (That Springfield team featured Wong, Martinez, and the late Oscar Taveras.) Shildt emphasizes the “process-driven” ways of the Cardinal farm system, with less emphasis on game-to-game wins than on developing winning players, ready to perform at Busch Stadium. During a brief media session last month, Shildt came across as a professional still enthused by the chores of teaching baseball played the right way. Will he win games in Memphis? As always, that will depend on the players the parent club deals him. But there’s no reason to believe Mike Shildt will lose games in the dugout. He has the jewelry to prove it.
It’s becoming more and more evident that the Kentucky Wildcats will enter next month’s NCAA tournament with a chance to complete college basketball’s first undefeated season in 39 years. John Calipari’s bluegrass all-star team needs to win four more regular-season games (toughest test will be this Saturday when Arkansas visits Lexington) and three in the SEC tournament to have a chance at becoming the sport’s first 40-0 team. Not since the Indiana Hoosiers went 32-0 in 1975-76 has a Division I program finished a season spotless.
I can’t decide if this is good or bad for college basketball. Let’s consider the opposing views.
The single healthiest booster for college hoops is a true Cinderella team. Not a 12-seed beating a 5-seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but an underdog clawing its way to the Final Four and cutting down the nets. But these have gone the way of the Dodo bird. Only three teams have won the Big Dance with as many as 10 losses, and all had their shining moment more than a quarter-century ago: North Carolina State (1983), Villanova (1985), and Kansas (1988).
Minus a Cinderella, the sport craves a super team. Only seven have won the national championship without a loss: San Francisco (1956), North Carolina (1957), four UCLA squads (1964, ’67, ’72, ’73), and those Hoosiers of ’76. Duke’s back-to-back titlists of 1991 and ’92 belong in this category, among the last teams to feature four-year players (Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley) with All-America credentials. Since then? The closest we’ve seen to a super team was the Florida group led by Joakim Noah and Al Horford that went back-to-back in 2006 and ’07. (Is that team especially memorable? Jury’s out if you ask me.)
An undefeated Kentucky team, centered by Willie Cauley-Stein and the Harrison brothers, would be a memorable bunch, and would cement Calipari as the preeminent coach of college basketball’s modern era, where “one-and-done” is the calling card for annual Final Four contention. And there’s that magic number: 40. Forty wins in a single season of college basketball? Regardless of the competition, that’s a galactic number.
There’s nothing worse in sports than predictability. And a John Calipari-coached Kentucky team winning basketball games is as predictable as a rooster’s crow. This is Warren Buffett picking a profitable stock, Taylor Swift topping the charts with a new release. The Wildcats’ dominance is getting uncomfortably close to . . . Connecticut women’s basketball. The quickest click of my TV remote is upon the discovery of a Huskies women’s game. They are so vastly superior to the competition it’s no longer interesting.
The second-best team in the SEC isn’t Arkansas. It’s Kentucky’s bench. Both units looked out of sorts last week in Knoxville, and the Wildcats won by 18 points. Having escaped a pair of overtime games last month (against Ole Miss and Texas A & M), Kentucky has won nine of its last 12 games by at least 11 points. Flash back to Calipari’s last four seasons in Memphis when the Tigers lorded over Conference USA, playing a different brand of basketball than its relatively pathetic competition. Today’s SEC is no different, just with more football fans passing time indoors until spring practice.
Can the Wildcats win 13 more games? I’m leaning toward yes. Perhaps Virginia, Gonzaga, or Wisconsin can catch Kentucky after Cauley-Stein had a bad night of sleep, or when Calipari wants to prove to the world that his third unit could win it all. If the Cats go down, it will be a large-scale upset. If they win it all, the sport’s timeline has a new permanent marker. Either way, lots of people will be watching. And I suppose that’s good — healthy even — for college basketball.
“When this job opportunity came up, I knew nothing about Memphis. Nada.”
Erin Mazurek — the new general manager of the Memphis Open — may well personify a renaissance for professional tennis in Memphis. Hired last fall by the Unites States Tennis Association to oversee the newly named Memphis Open, Mazurek arrived in Memphis with more knowledge of a two-line pass than a crosscourt backhand. She spent five years, you see, as director of private event sales for the Detroit Red Wings, among the most powerful brands in the National Hockey League. Her task with the Red Wings was maximizing that powerful brand name for revenue-generating events when the hockey team was not playing at Joe Louis Arena. She wasn’t selling hockey players. She was instead creating a buzz-worthy atmosphere, an environment where people wanted (and maybe needed) to be seen.
The Racquet Club of Memphis and its longtime tournament are in desperate need of a buzz booster.
There was a time when a person holding Mazurek’s job merely had to announce the players coming to Memphis and lines would form for tickets. Bjorn Borg won the first championship in 1977. Jimmy Connors won four titles between 1978 and 1984. Other Memphis champions: John McEnroe (1980), Stefan Edberg (1985 and 1987), Andre Agassi (1988), Ivan Lendl (1991), Pete Sampras (1996). All seven of those tennis legends finished at least one year atop the world rankings.
But since the turn of the century — the dawn of the Roger Federer Era, you might say — fields at the Racquet Club have been decidedly less buzz-worthy. Andy Roddick — the tournament’s top seed every year from 2003 to 2011 — was an annual draw, a rare American ranked in the top 10, and won three championship here (2002, 2009, and 2011). Other recent champs, though, were names you didn’t see or hear during the second week of coverage at Wimbledon: Joachim Johansson, Kenneth Carlsen, Steve Darcis, Jurgen Melzer. While Federer and fellow stars Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray played most of their tennis overseas, the Racquet Club was left to sell what amounted to ATP leftovers. The tournament’s fortunes seemed to bottom out in 2013 when it was played without a title sponsor (the U.S. National Indoor) for the first time in more than two decades.
If you listen to Mazurek, though, pro tennis in Memphis is on the verge of a bounce-back much like the fuzzy spheres fans will follow this week. “I think [the previous owners] lost some of the pulse on the community,” she says. “This tournament has to be sold from the grassroots up. It’s as much a community event as it is a professional sports-and-entertainment function. You have to remember there are people at the core, relationships.
“We need more pre-match entertainment,” emphasizes Mazurek. “More sizzle to the show. Let’s face it: There are people who go to a Grizzlies game and barely pay attention to what’s happening on the court. I’m that person who loves the atmosphere, the music, the promotions, the branding. If we’re doing our job right, this will be a festival for tennis fans and casual fans.”
An early sign of better days ahead was the announcement last month that ServiceMaster has signed on as the tournament’s presenting sponsor (not the same as a title sponsor, but significant). Japan’s Kei Nishikori — the world’s fifth-ranked player and a finalist at last year’s U.S. Open — is back to defend his title. America’s top-ranked player, John Isner (No. 18) and South Africa’s Kevin Anderson (No. 15) will each be contending for his first Memphis title. Federer’s absence, like Nadal’s, has become a fact of life for the Memphis tournament, and so be it. Let’s give the new blood at the Racquet Club a chance to wow us. World-class tennis comes in many shapes and sizes. This week, its home is Memphis, Tennessee.
Four distinct members of a team, each with his own passionate fan base . . . but better as a unit than they’d ever be as solo acts. Together, they pack arenas and bring fans to their feet screaming in exultant joy. They are Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen, the Grizzlies’ longtime fab four.
But read that intro again. Could the same not be said for rock-and-roll Hall of Famers KISS? As a card-carrying member of the KISS Army since well before any of the Grizzlies’ fab four were born, I’ve had this column brewing since the first pyrotechnic introduction of the Grindfather at FedExForum. Line up these two bands and it’s not hard to connect the dots.
The Catman (originally Peter Criss, currently Eric Singer) — Marc Gasol The backbone, the heartbeat, the pulse of his team. A position that requires a proper combination of muscle and touch, rhythm always paramount. I like to picture Gasol in his younger, shaggier days with the Grizzlies when I see him wearing the whiskered face-paint made famous by Criss. Gasol rose from obscurity (overshadowed by the older brother for whom he was traded) to become the first Memphis player elected to start in the All-Star Game. Just as Criss carried the vocals for “Beth,” the ballad that ironically carried his speaker-blowing band to the top of the charts in 1976.
The Spaceman (originally Ace Frehley, currently Tommy Thayer) — Tony Allen This is the easiest pairing of the four. Whether you picture Allen kicking Chris Paul in the head or pummeling teammate O.J. Mayo on an airplane, the Frehley classic “Shock Me” would make for a nice soundtrack. Muscle-flexing, arms pumping during timeouts (as the rest of his team listens to instructions). Full-body gyrations upon the ball being awarded to Memphis after a turnover. Not to mention nightly assignments to lock down the opponent’s top scoring threat. If any Grizzly ever spontaneously bursts into smoke (as Ace’s guitar did for hundreds of concerts), it will be Tony Allen. His tenure in Memphis has been a “Rocket Ride,” to say the least.
The Demon (Gene Simmons) — Zach Randolph Line the Grizzlies up on the baseline and ask for a volunteer to regurgitate blood and, later in the show, spit lighter fluid over a burning torch (thus, “breathing fire”). After Allen is excluded (imagine the consequences of a flame in his hands), there’s only one man for such showmanship. Just as Gene’s bat-wing makeup has become the definitive “face” of KISS, so Randolph embodies the Grizzlies’ most successful, enduring run as NBA championship contenders. The only way I see the ferocity of Randolph’s image growing is for him to add knee-high boots with scales and seven-inch fangs as platforms. Z-Bo’s soundtrack would open with “I Love it Loud” and close with “God of Thunder.”
The Starchild (Paul Stanley) — Mike Conley Their surnames are similar, and each is the youngest member of his band. (Paul is the youngest of the original four KISS members.) Every group needs a front man, and the Grizzlies’ longtime point guard has been front and center for his team since starting 46 games as a 20-year-old rookie in the 2007-08 season. No one has sung more KISS tunes than Stanley and no one has played in more Grizzly games than Conley. When Conley drains a three-pointer and brings that “okay” sign to his face, I like to picture his right eye within a black star. Conley’s signature KISS song? As the franchise’s career leader in steals, it has to be “I Stole Your Love.”
Grit and grind all night. And party every day..
Consider this column a pause (respite?) in your ongoing search for clues in Deflategate. I’m here to actually write about football (the sport), and the man so many consider guilty of gaining an extra squeeze on the pigskin.
When Tom Brady takes the opening snap for his New England Patriots, he’ll become the first quarterback to play in six Super Bowls. Should the Patriots beat Seattle, Brady will be the third quarterback (after Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana) to raise the Vince Lombardi trophy four times. But the Brady phenomenon — even under a cloud of scandal — is bigger than his record-breaking numbers. We are witnessing, folks, the first one-man dynasty in the history of American team sports.
The New York Yankee dynasties (yes, plural) blended across generations, with teams led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig passing the torch to those led by Joe DiMaggio and later Mickey Mantle. Derek Jeter was famously part of a “core four” (along with Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte) that won the franchise’s most recent five championships.
Tom Brady had Adam Vinatieri. The kicker who helped deliver the Patriots first two championships with late field goals may well make the Hall of Fame someday, but he’s been an Indianapolis Colt for nine years now.
Bill Russell’s Celtics had a supporting cast that included Hall of Famers like Bob Cousy, K.C. Jones, Tom Sanders, and John Havlicek. Larry Bird’s run would not have happened without Hall of Famers Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish.
Tom Brady had Richard Seymour. The defensive tackle was named first-team All-Pro after the Patriots’ second and third Super Bowls, but has now been retired two years and played for Oakland when New England last reached the big game (after the 2011 season).
Magic Johnson’s Lakers were just as much Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers. Hall of Famer James Worthy helped them win three NBA titles. Even Michael Jordan had a Hall of Fame wingman in Scottie Pippen on his way to six titles with Chicago.
Tom Brady had Randy Moss. If his miserable demeanor is put aside, Moss will make the Hall of Fame. But the wideout played in but one Super Bowl (after the 2007 season) with the Pats.
And NFL dynasties? When you think of the 1960s Packers, do you think first of Bart Starr or Ray Nitschke? The Steelers of the 1970s had Hall of Famers at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver (two), but are remembered for a defense that included Hall of Famers Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, and Mel Blount. The 49ers of the 1980s had three first-ballot Hall of Famers in Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Ronnie Lott. And the Cowboys of the 1990s had “the triplets”: Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin, each now with a bust at Canton.
Tom Brady had Wes Welker, a primary receiving target for two Super Bowl teams, and nowhere to be found on Brady’s other four.
It’s astounding to consider, really. The Patriots’ current All-Pro tight end, Rob Gronkowski, may gain Hall of Fame credentials, but only with about eight more seasons like the one he just enjoyed. The way he’s playing — and winning — Tom Brady may still be throwing the ball to Gronk eight years from now.
The one future Hall of Famer Brady has had at his side since his first Super Bowl, of course, is his coach. Come Sunday, Bill Belichick will become the first man to coach the same franchise in six Super Bowls. Did Belichick make Brady, or is it the other way around? At the very most, the New England Patriot dynasty of the last 15 years has been a two-man job. Particularly for a sport where 22 men take the field for every play, it’s a phenomenon we’re unlikely to see again.
Has Brady bent rules in his rise to such rarefied air in American sports history? Perhaps. Belichick has already been disciplined for cheating in the eyes of the NFL. Each will likely carry a stench — to one degree or another — to Canton for his enshrinement weekend. Such is life for this century’s most distinctive sports dynasty.
• I have family in Seattle. And I have family in New England. So I’ve decided I will cheer every positive play this Sunday, regardless of which team makes it. Then I will sympathize with the losing side more than I celebrate with the winning bunch. The defending champs taking on the sport’s most-recent dynasty offers no underdog to support. (This is only the third Super Bowl in the last 20 years to feature each conference’s top seed.)
But I’ll make a pick. The Patriots will dominate storylines this week, and they would have without deflated footballs entering the picture. This will suit the oft-overlooked Seahawks just fine. Even nursing injuries to key members (Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman), the Seattle defense is among the four or five best of the Super Bowl era. I don’t see this year’s Patriot offense being any stronger than last year’s Denver Broncos unit. And superior NFL defenses tend to rise up on Super Sunday.
Seahawks 27, Patriots 13.
Fifteen years of age may seem young for a facelift. But not if you’re a ballpark. Under new joint ownership (the City of Memphis and St. Louis Cardinals, parent club of the local Triple-A affiliate), AutoZone Park is undergoing its most dramatic renovations since opening for the 2000 season. The home of the Memphis Redbirds is now also the home of Craig Unger, named the franchise’s general manager last April (when the Cardinals’ purchase cleared). A native of Waterloo, Illinois (across the Mississippi River from St. Louis), Unger has combined a Cardinal touch — he worked for the team for five years — with an appreciation for a distinctly Memphis landmark to steer the stadium’s architectural revival.
What were your first impressions of Memphis last spring?
It’s been great. My wife and I love it here. You can get everywhere quickly, great food, great people. The similarity [with St. Louis] I’ve noticed is the downtown resurgence. The new restaurants popping up on Main Street, the new businesses on South Main, new apartments and condos. I saw this in St. Louis ten years ago. In both cities, the urban center is becoming the hub again.
And what about your first impressions of AutoZone Park?
What a great facility. It’s big, but what a great facility. The one thing I hear from other minor-league officials is that they’re trying to create space, to find new ways of creating space for groups. That’s one problem we don’t have. This footprint is a good kind of big. We have a lot of room to do a lot of things, a lot to work with. Minor-league ballparks aren’t built like this anymore.
Do you see similarities with the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis (which opened in 2006)?
The brick and the exposed steel. They were both built to fit into the architecture of the area that surrounds them. This is a classic ballpark. The open concourse. The indoor space on the second floor. Baseball’s a great social sport. People are up, walking around. At a football game, you sit and you go to the bathroom at halftime. Here, fans are going to check out views from different parts of the ballpark. The changes we’re making are, in part, to create destination points for fans. It’s a social, food, and family experience.
Summarize the renovations. What needed to be improved?
Over 15 years, we all re-do a bathroom or kitchen in our house. We looked at the space we have, and discussed how to improve the fan experience. How do we take this facility and energize it?
It’s hard, because there are a lot of things. All in, it will cost a little over $6.5 million, $4.5 million from the city as part of the [Cardinals’] lease agreement and $2 million from the Cardinals. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right.
Do you have to clear renovations with the city?
There is an approval process [in our agreement]. They don’t want us to structurally compromise the facility. They’ve put a great deal of trust in us. The changes we’re making will enhance the facility, and make it better in the long run. [The Cardinals] have 16 years left on our lease (with two five-year options). We’re taking a very long-term view. It would be easy to say we need immediate gratification. But we’re aiming for long-term growth and opportunity. Group ticket sales, season-ticket sales, and using the facility for other [non-baseball] events.
What’s an example of the new fan experience?
On the second level, we’ve removed four suites from behind home plate and are creating a true club, with an open view of the field, and on the other side, a view of the Peabody. Natural light will flow. Fans will be able to experience the ballpark even while being inside. It will be great for weddings, business meetings, Christmas parties. Anybody with tickets to the club level will have access to this space. We’ll integrate the club into the game-day experience.
There will also be four sections of seats removed and replaced with 39 “four-top” tables, directly in front of the club. Those will be sold on a season-long basis. They’re fixed into the floor, four seats per table. You’ll have a pregame buffet, in-seat service. That’s what I’m most excited about actually.
The ballpark originally had 45 suites, more than any other minor-league stadium by a long shot. Their leases expired after the 2014 season. There will now be 29?
We’re still in the process or renewing suite-holders. We’re renovating every suite, regardless of whether or not it’s been renewed yet. Under the old deal, suite owners were responsible for any changes or enhancements to their suite. We’re taking that on. They will be dramatically different. Every suite is getting a facelift. Interest has been great. Negotiations are ongoing. We’re looking at five-, seven-, and ten-year deals.
Will the renovations increase attendance, boost revenue, or just better accommodate smaller crowds on weeknights?
Enhancing the fan experience is the number-one thing. The changes we’re making, everyone will be able to see. You’ll notice the difference. When you create a great experience, you’ll sell more tickets. That’s how we succeed. We have to provide value to our fans. Why should they go to AutoZone Park instead of someplace else? We are not raising ticket prices. So come on down.
Does winning baseball games matter? The Redbirds played in the postseason last year in front of a lot of empty seats.
People are going to watch the product on the field. I think winning is less important than the fan experience. They want to have a good time. We have to keep in mind our role on the baseball side of things: we’re about player development. There’s no [young] player out there who says, man, I want to be a Triple-A baseball player. You watch the future stars here. And not just our players. The next superstars are going to play here. It’s one area we can’t control, the product on the field. But our farm system is in great shape. In the end, we want our players to leave, to go to St. Louis. It means they’ve succeeded, and fans here have seen the players that will help the Cardinals win their next World Series.
What will be new to the game-day presentation?
We’re installing a video board on the leftfield wall, 14 feet tall by 140 feet wide. And we’re adding LED ribbon boards — three feet by 150 feet — along first and third base. They’ll replace the backlit signs along the façade. It’s ad space. And it’s a multimedia experience for fans. Last year, you couldn’t find information about the pitcher. What’s his pitch count? These video boards will provide a lot more information. What’s going on here, in St. Louis, at the Grizzlies game, you name it.
[The bluff beyond leftfield will be removed and replaced by two grass-seating areas, a berm near the leftfield corner and another one down the rightfield line. More than 3,000 fixed seats have also been removed, reducing the stadium’s total to 8,404.]
You’re the face of the new Cardinals ownership. What’s changing operationally for the Redbirds, in respect to the parent club?
I’ve worked with [Cardinals managing partner] Bill DeWitt and others with the Cardinals on all these renovations. This was a major investment by the Cardinals. We have shared resources, like legal support out of St. Louis. Accounting and HR run through St. Louis. Our field renovation will utilize the expertise in St. Louis, where they’ve replaced the field several times. Among our goals — here and in Springfield, Missouri [where the Cardinals’ Double-A team plays] — is to standardize the playing surfaces. The detail we’re putting into the field enhancements should help players excel and get to the major leagues.
Our season-ticket holders will have premium access to Cardinal presales, promotions, and different ticket options [in St. Louis]. We brought down stadium-operations people from St. Louis to share ideas on how we operate. It’s a great relationship.
Will the branding of the ballpark — as a Cardinals stadium — intensify?
You’ll see some things over the coming years, but we don’t want to become too Cardinal-centric. We want the identity to be the Memphis Redbirds. This is a great brand here. We don’t want AutoZone Park to be a mini-Busch Stadium. We want it to have its own feel and identity, and done a way that’s right for Memphis. Minor-league baseball has such a long and rich history here. We’re sensitive to that.
What are your thoughts on the 2015 Redbirds (and Cardinals, for that matter)?
I’ve been so consumed with the construction project, that I don’t know a whole lot. But I’m excited. A great thing about being a baseball fan: when the season starts, everybody has a chance. I really like the Cardinals’ chances though. The competition in the National League Central is going to be fun. The Cubs being upgraded will renew that rivalry. The Pirates have shown the last couple of years what they can be. And the Brewers were in first place most of last season. It’s gonna be fun.
Did you play baseball as a kid?
I did, through high school. I was the utility guy. I was never good enough to play one position, but never bad enough that I couldn’t play any position. I went to the ballpark with a bag full of gloves: catcher’s mitt, first-baseman’s mitt, outfielder’s glove. I knew my career was nearing its end when I couldn’t stay in one position long enough to really make an impact. But I played on a traveling team — the Waterloo A’s — before traveling teams really existed. I bet we played 100 games every summer.
Who was your favorite player?
Probably Ozzie Smith. [Hall of Fame manager] Whitey Herzog was a real close friend of my grandfather. They fished together every day. They played baseball together as kids.
The Redbirds will host an exhibition game with the Cardinals on April 3rd, by which time all renovations should be complete. The stadium’s lone red chair — the “Pujols Seat” — will remain, a solitary fixture in the new rightfield berm.
A few quick thoughts and observations to ring in 2015 . . .
• August has long been known as “the dog days” of baseball season, too late for teams to feel fresh, but too early for any playoff buzz. In basketball terms, January is the most doggish of months. NBA teams seem to be in full flight, yet the season hasn’t reached its midpoint. College teams start conference play, but remain a month away from true jockeying for NCAA tournament seeds.
Last Saturday felt like new-year trauma if you call yourself a Memphis basketball fan. First the Tigers were outscored 17-4 over the last five minutes of their (home) game with Tulane (not exactly an American Athletic Conference titan). Then the Grizzlies took the floor in Denver and got walloped by 29 points. Playing their second road game in as many days without Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies’ loss felt like an anomaly, but the fearsome Western Conference puts a premium on accumulating wins. Here’s hoping Z-Bo’s balky knee heals (completely) soon.
As for the Tigers, one can hope Nick King was the difference against the Green Wave. The Tigers’ top reserve sat out a second game with an ankle injury, a primary reason Tulane’s bench outscored the Tiger bench 18-9. But those last five minutes were troubling to witness. No Memphis player was able to rise to the occasion in the team’s first close game of the season. Who will make the big shot (or shots) for this team? The dog days are here and Tiger fans still don’t know.
• This has not been a season of happy headlines for the National Football League. But however ugly the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson stories are, they’ve been nice distractions from what remains a terribly flawed playoff format, one based on the premise that geography and winning a four-team division are proper variables in punching tickets to the postseason. The Philadelphia Eagles finished the 2014 campaign with a record of 10-6 and can now be found on golf courses nationwide, fine-tuning their iron games. Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers finished 7-8-1 (having lost to the Eagles in November, 45-21) and are two wins from the Super Bowl.
The Panthers “won” the NFC South, of course, a division sagging with other losers: New Orleans, Atlanta, and Tampa Bay. The Eagles were cursed by having to play in the NFC East, where they finished behind Dallas, a team that plays west of St. Louis, a team you can find in the NFC West. It’s as clear as a Roger Goodell press conference.
A commissioner with an interest in making the NFL better for its fans — imagine that — would divide each conference into two eight-team divisions. The division champions would earn first-round byes, and you’d eliminate (or at least greatly reduce) the chances of a losing team entering the playoffs while a winner stays home. Get it done, Rog.
• It’s hard to imagine college football’s first playoff semifinals going any better. The New Year’s Day doubleheader had the feel of my favorite football day of the year: the NFL’s conference-championship Sunday. Back-to-back games that mean . . . everything. Worst game for a team to lose, one win shy of playing for a title. And the settings were perfect, the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl as natural to open a year as a hangover-curing mimosa. My only gripe: The 8:30 (eastern time) kickoff for the Sugar Bowl. With the game ending well after midnight, a lot of kids missed the rare sight of Alabama coach Nick Saban walking off the field a loser. My pick for the title game next Monday: Oregon 41, Ohio State 30.
• The Baseball Hall of Fame will gain at least two power arms Tuesday when Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez should be elected in their first year of eligibility. The two combined to win eight Cy Young Awards and were key components when the 2001 Diamondbacks and 2004 Red Sox, respectively, won the World Series. It will be interesting to see if former Brave great John Smoltz gets enough votes (a player needs 75 percent of the total votes cast for election). Smoltz will get his plaque, but I’m not sure it will happen on his first ballot. Former Astro Craig Biggio fell just shy of election last year and will likely join Johnson and Martinez in Cooperstown this summer. I don’t expect the sport’s alleged steroid villains — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, and the like — will need any help drafting an induction speech.
The five most memorable sporting events I attended in 2014.
5) Tigers 60, Gonzaga 54 (February 8) — It was a birthday block party Joe Jackson — and every witness at FedExForum — will never forget. With his Tigers trailing Gonzaga by 11 and 13:45 left to play, the 6’1” point guard rose (and rose . . .) and blocked a dunk attempt by 7’1” Zag center Przemek Karnowski. An arena roared, and the Tigers outscored Gonzaga 29-12 the rest of the way. Jackson played in four NCAA tournaments for the Tigers, won three Conference USA tournaments, and finished his career seventh on the school’s all-time scoring chart. For many, though, the single play he left for posterity is a jaw-dropping blocked shot. (Jackson blocked 19 shots in his college career.)
4) Redbirds 2, Nashville 1 (July 7) — Monday night in the minor leagues. If you’re desperate to catch a foul ball at a professional game, this is the one to attend. After packing the house twice — a total of more than 20,000 fans — over the holiday weekend, the Redbirds welcomed empty seats back to AutoZone Park for the opening game of a four-game series with division-rival Nashville. The Sounds held first place in the Pacific Coast League’s American Southern Division, the Redbirds last . . . but only four-and-a-half games back of their intrastate rival. The Milwaukee Brewers’ top prospect, Jimmy Nelson, held Memphis scoreless for seven innings, and the Redbirds trailed, 1-0, entering the bottom of the ninth. Xavier Scruggs led off with a single and came around to score the tying run on an infield hit by Jermaine Curtis. Two batters later, Curtis scored on a sharply hit ball to short by Luis Mateo and the Redbirds had a five-game winning streak for the first time in almost two years . . . walk-off variety. Fewer than 1,000 people were in the park as Mateo was mobbed by his teammates at first base. I was glad to be one of them.
3) Tigers 72, Louisville 66 (March 1) — Memphis hadn’t swept its arch rival since the 1996-97 season, Larry Finch’s last as head coach. The Tigers were playing less than 48 hours after losing at Houston. And this was 7th-ranked Louisville, for crying out loud, the defending national champions. When Cardinal forward Montrezl Harrell slammed home an offensive rebound with 4:44 to play in the game, the Tigers trailed by eight points (65-57). They outscored Louisville the rest of the way, 15-1. Tiger senior Geron Johnson converted a steal into the tying points, Chris Crawford drained a dagger three (his fourth of the game), and the home team hit four of six free throws to pull away. Rick Pitino’s program is now part of the ACC, so it will be a while (if ever) before these two again face each other multiple times in the same season. A win — and sweep — to relish, well beyond 2014.
2) Grizzlies 98, Oklahoma City 95 (April 24) — This was Tony Allen in full Grindfather form, the match — off the Memphis bench — for the powder keg that is FedExForum on a playoff night. Allen scored 10 points in just 11 minutes in the first half while helping keep MVP-to-be Kevin Durant under control (12 points in the first half). And after 40 minutes of play, the Grizzlies appeared to be unequivocally the superior team. But over the game’s last eight minutes, Oklahoma City outscored the home team, 21-4, to force overtime. All four of the game-saving points were Allen’s. And so, you might say, were four scored by Thunder guard Russell Westbrook on a three-pointer (plus free throw) converted after an Allen foul. Mike Conley drained a three-pointer and converted a Durant turnover into a layup midway through the overtime session to give the Grizzlies just enough for a 2-1 series lead. Dating back to the 2011 postseason, this was the fifth game (among 15) between these opponents to require overtime.
1) Tigers 41, UConn 10 (November 29) — This game made for a Thanksgiving weekend local football fans will never forget. Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch opened up a tight game by throwing three touchdown passes in the third quarter to help the Tigers secure their sixth straight victory (the program’s longest winning streak in 45 years) and a share of the American Athletic Conference championship (the program’s first league crown in 43 years). With the dreadful (2-8) Huskies playing a long way from home, there was no doubt who’d win this game during warm-ups. Nonetheless, to walk the Liberty Bowl field after the game, under falling confetti as coach Justin Fuente accepted the AAC trophy, was to live in the surreal. Three years after finishing 2-10 and ridiculed as the worst college football program in the country, the Memphis Tigers were champions.
This week I present the first half of my annual countdown of the most memorable sporting events I attended in 2014. It was a fun year, and a challenge to pick just ten.
10) Oklahoma State 73, Tigers 55 (December 13) — Forget the score and outcome of the game. For that matter, forget the sport that was being played. Basketball was incidental, it turned out, on this late Saturday afternoon at FedExForum. At halftime, the 2014 American Athletic Conference champions — the U of M football team — was introduced to the crowd of 14,000 (an audience smaller than those at the Liberty Bowl last season, not a given in this town). Coach Justin Fuente spoke to the crowd through a microphone and included the words “our first” when introducing his champs. Fuente’s brief address left you with the feeling there are more good times ahead — perhaps great — for U of M football.
9) Florida 62, Dayton 52 (March 29) — Anytime FedExForum hosts a regional final in the NCAA tournament, my blood pumps a little quicker. But with a chance to see a team that calls itself the Flyers reach the Final Four? (There were shirts in the arena that said “Flyer Nation.” Honest.) Scottie Wilbekin (23 points) and the top-seeded Gators proved to be too much for Dayton (the South region’s 11th seed), ending a three-year losing streak in the Elite Eight for Florida. The Gators went on to lose in the national semifinals. And Dayton? They returned to Ohio, still owners of the best nickname in college sports.
8) Redbirds 4, New Orleans 3 (August 7) — Defense wins championships. We hear this (whether or not we believe it) every football season, every basketball season. It’s not such a catch phrase for baseball. (Substitute the word “pitching” for defense.) On this night, the Redbirds flashed leather of the big-league variety. The bases loaded with Zephyrs in the top of the seventh inning (and Memphis leading 4-2), New Orleans catcher Rob Brantly drilled a ball deep into the right-centerfield gap. But Redbird rightfielder Stephen Piscotty ran it down, catching the ball across his body in full extension to save at least one run. (The catch ultimately secured Redbird pitcher Tim Cooney’s 11th win of the season.) Pete Kozma put on a clinic at shortstop, throwing out eight Zephyrs, even after bobbling one ground ball. And the game ended when Memphis first baseman Xavier Scruggs dove to snag a ball down the line. You’d see none of these highlights in the box score. Which is among the reasons baseball is the best sport on the planet.
7) Grizzlies 106, Dallas 105 (April 16) — You won’t see two NBA teams play a better 82nd game. With a 50th win and seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs on the line for both teams, the Grizzlies won their fifth straight game, and 14th straight at FedExForum. It didn’t come easily. Dallas led at halftime. There were 15 lead changes. Dirk Nowitzki, having recently entered the NBA’s all-time scoring top 10, scored 30 points, the last three coming in overtime to give the Mavs a three-point lead with just over a minute to play. But after a Tony Allen putback and a defensive stop, Grizzly point guard Mike Conley drew a foul with 1.1 seconds left on the clock. He buried both charity shots to give Memphis a one-point lead. The game wasn’t decided, though, until the final shot of the regular season’s final game. As the buzzer sounded in overtime, Monta Ellis missed a 20-foot jumper and streamers fell to the FedExForum floor.
6) Tigers 36, Middle Tennessee 17 (September 20) — There should have been a linebacker named Tank on Vince Lombardi’s Packers. Or maybe with Dick Butkus and the Monsters of the Midway. No, Tank Jakes is merely a University of Memphis linebacker who played like Butkus on this night in front of 46,000 fans at the Liberty Bowl. Midway through the first quarter, he sacked Blue Raider quarterback Austin Grammer in the end zone for a safety (the first of two sacks for Jakes). Early in the fourth quarter, he drilled a Middle ball carrier and forced a fumble that was returned 59 yards for a touchdown by Tiger cornerback Bobby McCain. Not done yet, Jakes intercepted a Grammer pass on the Raiders’ next possession. This was the best game — at least statistically — by a Memphis defensive player in at least a generation or two. Let’s call the stat line (forced fumble, safety, interception) what we should: The Tank Trifecta.
Check back next Monday for my top five. And happy holidays.