I’ll start this column with a comparison, one I don’t take lightly in making from Memphis, Tennessee. Dale Earnhardt was the Elvis Presley of NASCAR. Richard Petty, of course, is known far and wide as “The King,” but the fact is, Petty has lived too long (78 years) to achieve the brand of legend Elvis did in dying so young (42). But the Intimidator? Earnhardt died in the most dramatic fashion in American sports history: a wreck on the final lap of NASCAR’s Super Bowl, the 2001 Daytona 500. He was two months shy of his 50th birthday when pulled from the wreckage of his iconic number-3 Chevy. There will be no pictures of an old Dale Earnhardt. He was Elvis in a fire suit. And he died racing.
Jay Busbee has written the definitive book on Earnhardt’s life, racing career, and death. Earnhardt Nation goes even further, as it blends the rise of Earnhardt’s son (Dale Jr.) as NASCAR’S most popular driver with the growth of a sport that continues to tease calamity as new heroes chase checkered flags and the seven-figure paychecks that come with them.
It’s a brilliant book, really, as you don’t need to be a gear-head to fully appreciate Earnhardt’s place in American pop-culture history. Busbee provides context for the Earnhardt family’s place in racing history, with patriarch Ralph actually fueling the proverbial engine his son and grandson would rev to heights unseen by many athletes in more mainstream sports. (Busbee studied journalism at the University of Memphis and has written for Memphis magazine. He now calls Atlanta home.)
He was driving on instinct, balls, and will.
Books about auto racing — more specifically NASCAR — don’t fill shelves the way baseball, boxing, or golf literature does. Which makes Busbee’s tome so important, even educational. Now and then a sports book resets the standard for its genre. Think The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn (about the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers) or John Feinstein’s A Season on the Brink (Bobby Knight and the 1985-86 Indiana Hoosiers). Likewise, Earnhardt Nation brings to life a phenomenon appreciated even more in hindsight — in death — than it was as Earnhardt was piling up Winston Cup championships a quarter-century ago.
Racing, a sport that combined grit and daredevil grace with a chance to make a few bucks and pose with some pretty women in Victory Lane, stood at the center of the South’s rebirth.
The Earnhardt family was and is quintessentially Southern. Not unlike Elvis Presley’s. Its fan base would color an entire map of the United States, but the density of its devotion — particularly to the Number 3 car — would be heaviest here in the American South. Blue-collar. Rural. Largely white. It’s a fan base powerful enough to once attract the sponsor of all sponsors — Budweiser — to Junior’s team, and without a single season championship to the driver’s credit. All he needed was that name (its own brand), a heavy right foot, and that country smile for stand-up posters.
The All-Star race freed Earnhardt to unleash the last bits of bastard in himself. If his rival drivers failed to catch him, hell, it was their fault for not trying hard enough.
No driver has caught Dale Earnhardt, not even his extraordinarily popular son. He’s passed into the realm of legends, and his story will be told long after the automotive industry is again transformed. (Among the tragic ripples of Earnhardt’s premature death is never having a quote from the Intimidator about the concept of driverless cars.) Like Elvis, Earnhardt was a flawed human being, and by a few measures. But what he did well, he did better than anyone else. And with a style that makes for great reading.
A few weeks ago, I stopped my colleague Kevin Lipe in a hallway of our office building. And I asked him to — without pausing — name the Memphis Grizzlies’ current eight-man rotation. He grinned (slightly), looked to the floor in concentration, and proceeded to recite the following: “Ray McCallum, Tony Allen, Matt Barnes, JaMychal Green, Ryan Hollins, Lance Stephenson, Xavier Munford, Jarell Martin.” You’d think Kevin has a blog on the subject, maybe a podcast.
Injuries are never an excuse in professional sports. Until they are. Despite suiting up a team that required a program, literally, to identify over the final two months of the 2015-16 season, the Grizzlies extended the franchise’s streak of playoff appearances to six. Furthermore, Memphis is one of only three NBA teams to enjoy winning seasons the last six years. (The others — San Antonio and Oklahoma City — have a combined half-dozen future Hall of Famers.)
The team’s All-NBA center, Marc Gasol, played his last game on February 10th. Mike Conley — among the NBA’s top ten point guards — played his final game on March 6th. Even the man tasked with supplementing the overworked Conley’s role — Mario Chalmers — went down with a season-ending malady (March 9th). After Conley’s injury, the Grizzlies (counting the playoffs) won five games and lost 19. Twelve of the losses were by margins greater than 10 points. These were not the grit-and-grind Griz an entire region has embraced as a cross-culture bond. These weren’t even the lovable losers we accepted as our own way back in 2001. (Where was Jason Williams? Where was Nick Anderson, for crying out loud?) Ask an artist to paint a landscape without the colors green or blue. Ask a novelist to complete her book without the letters “a” or “t.” These were our Grizzlies, 2016 postseason edition.
Injuries can change the fate of a franchises (and an entire league). Hall of Fame-bound David Robinson hurt his knee early in the 1996-97 season and his San Antonio Spurs face-planted to a record of 20-62, bad enough to earn them the draft-lottery ball that turned into Tim Duncan. (A franchise then known as the Vancouver Grizzlies lost six more games than the Spurs and landed the immortal Antonio Daniels with the fourth pick.) The Spurs have won five championships and at least 50 games every full season since. Perhaps the Grizzlies’ true misfortune this past season was not losing Gasol (and/or Conley) early enough. There will be no lottery savior for the Grizzlies, not that a Tim Duncan exists in this year’s draft pool.
This offseason will be the most agonizing in years for Griz Nation. Conley’s tender Achilles heel will surely lower his price tag on the free-agent market. With his longtime partner in crime, Gasol, facing a steep climb back just to wear a Grizzlies uniform — let alone contend for All-NBA honors — is Memphis the best place for Conley’s professional future? Zach Randolph and Tony Allen — the other members of “Mount Grizzmore” — are another year older. Are we closer to Matt Barnes being the face of this franchise? Will Kevin Durant even glance at FedExForum as he considers his future workplace? Too many questions — and too heavy — to answer this soon after the lights were turned off (for good) Sunday.
At the end of every season, the Grizzlies hang an official team picture in a hallway leading to the practice court at FedExForum. The picture features coaches, the training staff, and typically 12 to 15 players in uniform. How (and when) could that picture be taken for the 2015-16 season? It would feature roughly half the contributors to this distinct (if painful) campaign. The Grizzlies’ 12th most-active player — Ryan Hollins — played all of 32 games (412 minutes). But he belongs in the picture, right? However the photo is framed, apply a bandage to one corner. For posterity.
A few observations from the first weekend of Redbirds baseball:
• The current Redbirds roster is not packed with prospects, at least not according to the folks at Baseball America who compile such rankings. Among players in the St. Louis Cardinals system, reliever Sam Tuivailala is the highest-ranked Redbird (11th), followed by outfielders Charlie Tilson (13th) and Anthony Garcia (21st). All this means is there will be no entitlements for the players you see in white at AutoZone Park. None of them is expected to impact the big-league club in the near future, which gives every last one of them an edge with which to play. Tilson, Garcia, Memphis native Jacob Wilson, shortstop Alex Mejia, infielder Patrick Wisdom . . . these are all minor-league players in the purest form. Looking to catch the right eye (in the Cardinal system or elsewhere).
Catcher Mike Ohlman crushed a pinch-hit homer to help the Redbirds beat Colorado Springs Saturday night. You don’t know Ohlman unless you’re a card-carrying seamhead, but he belted 12 home runs and drove in 69 runs last season at Double-A Springfield. He’s one level shy of the major leagues and knows it. Motivated baseball players, it should be noted, are fun to watch.
• The Redbirds’ new principal owner, Peter Freund, would seem to have two distinct factors in his favor when it comes to the business of baseball at AutoZone Park. First, he comes to the table already an owner in the world of minor-league baseball (Class-A franchises in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and Charleston, South Carolina). There will be no surprises for Freund in game-day presentation, revenue streams, sponsorship deals, etc. This being a Triple-A operation — and in a stadium the size of AZP — the volume will be new. And creative ideas are needed to bridge the gap between an acclaimed stadium and the Pacific Coast League’s smallest attendance figure (from 2015). But Freund is no rookie in rightfield.
And Freund is young (39). When I asked him about his favorite New York Yankees growing up, I assumed they’d be Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson. Turns out his favorites were Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield, “the teams [of the Eighties] that didn’t win,” as he put it.
It’s unlikely Freund will make “old-school” mistakes in selling Redbirds baseball. Fans will no longer line up simply because baseball is the national pastime (it isn’t any more, at least so say millions of NFL fans). Entertainment at the ballpark today must be delivered in different packages than it was as recently as 2000, when AutoZone Park opened. Freund understands that, and he emphasized the local community — and local businesses — during his press conference last week. The Redbirds may be the Cardinals’ top affiliate but they are, in fact, a Memphis team. This must be sold better.
• Redbirds president Craig Unger has witnessed considerable transformation since taking his post two years ago this month. The ballpark he calls an office underwent significant renovation before the 2015 season and now his boss — for the first time in years — does not wear a St. Louis Cardinals hat (at least not outside Memphis). Unger has the confidence of both new owner Peter Freund and Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak; each made that clear during last week’s press conference. But what must Unger do to fill more seats at AutoZone Park?
During an informal conversation last week, Unger emphasized two things: group sales and “STEs” (season-ticket equivalents). There’s no better way to fill a section (or suite) at the ballpark than with a large group attending together. It’s a point of emphasis for the Redbirds’ sales team, and not just for weekend games. Games on Mondays through Wednesdays have been moved up a half-hour, to 6:35, while schools remain in session. Say what you will about the charms of the ballpark’s downtown location, but it means a drive of at least 20 minutes for most people attending. The aim is to get fans (especially young ones) to the stadium earlier and home by bedtime.
As for season-ticket sales, try convincing a die-hard baseball fan to attend 72 games in five months. The Redbirds are trying smaller, 18-game packages (with flexibility for which games a ticket-holder can attend), hoping to sell four of these (a “season-ticket equivalent”) for every full season ticket that goes unsold. Unger emphasizes the balance that must be found between accommodating those fans keeping score meticulously and those more interested in a cold one outside, the crack of the bat little more than a soundtrack for socializing. Find enough of each and you come much closer to filling a 10,000-seat stadium. (With the Grizzlies playing the mighty Golden State Warriors at the same time five blocks south, the Redbirds sold 6,415 tickets to last Saturday’s game, a figure more than 50 percent higher than the team averaged last season.)
• In their first win of the season last Friday in Atlanta, the Cardinals set a major-league record by hitting three pinch-hit home runs. All three players who went deep — Jeremy Hazelbaker, Aledmys Diaz, and Greg Garcia — wore the uniform of the Memphis Redbirds in 2015. (Hazelbaker and Diaz would be with Memphis now were it not for injuries to the Cardinals’ Tommy Pham and Ruben Tejada.) The record-breaking night is the latest example of seeing Cardinal history at AutoZone Park, just before it actually happens.
No American team sport is as exclusive as college basketball. Say what you will about the “wildly unpredictable” NCAA tournament, no champion is as easy to forecast as the survivor of March Madness. (I love the now-copyrighted title for this event. Forget the fact that the nets at the Final Four are actually cut down in April.) If it’s not Kentucky this year, it’s certainly Duke. Or North Carolina. Or for those years when an old-school power doesn’t achieve dominant status ... it’s Connecticut.
At the beginning of every college hoops season, more than 300 teams are technically eligible to win the NCAA men’s basketball championship, three times the number in contention for the FBS football title. With such a field, you’d figure entry in the record book as champion would be once-in-a-generation at best, once-in-a-lifetime for most programs. Instead, “One Shining Moment” has become a soundtrack familiar only to those with the right jacket, proper door code, and a retina scan that proves blue-blood status. Over the course of two decades, three percent of the college-basketball universe has won a national title. For longer odds of winning a championship, you’d have to be a member — or fan — of the Chicago Cubs. (I know. This is the year.)
Look at the last 20 champions. It’s actually a list of just 11 programs, as UConn (4), Kentucky (3), Duke (3), North Carolina (2), and Florida (2) have won multiple titles since 1996. If you’re looking for an outlier — think Marquette in 1977 — you won’t find one, with the possible exception (if ironic) of Florida, the only team in this period to win back-to-back titles (in 2006 and ’07). The Gators rose to greatness under coach Billy Donovan and won championships behind future NBA stars Joakim Noah and Al Horford. But aside from a return to the Final Four in 2014, Florida hasn’t achieved that retina-scan status and with Donovan now in the NBA, the Gators may soon be just another SEC program.
From 1988 through 2012 — a 25-year period — no Final Four was played without one of the following programs in the mix: North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, and/or UCLA. The streak ended in 2013, but there was Louisville (blue blood) and the next year, UConn. Relatively new to their blue-blood status, the Huskies won a fourth championship since 1999. Kentucky returned to the Final Four in 2014 (and ’15), Duke won the title last year, and now this weekend we get to see North Carolina, appearing in its record 19th Final Four (but first since 2009!).
Our only chance for a legitimate championship surprise will be the winner of the Oklahoma-Villanova semifinal. Don’t let Syracuse — a 10 seed! — fool you. Jim Boeheim’s squad is a blue-blood in orange clothing, appearing in a fifth Final Four under a coach who served a nine-game suspension to start the season (for a decade of impropriety under his watch).
The Wildcats are descendants of the 1985 team that upset mighty Georgetown (after beating Memphis State in the national semifinals) and the Sooners — get this — have never won a national championship in basketball. There will be no bigger star in Houston than Oklahoma’s All-America guard Buddy Hield. The senior Bahamian has averaged 29.2 points in the Sooners’ four-game tournament run and dropped 37 on Oregon in the West Regional final. (Hield opened the season by scoring 30 points at FedExForum in a win over Memphis.}
Here’s hoping this year’s Final Four becomes a Buddy movie, something different from anything we’ve seen before. It’s surely nice to occupy that three-percent luxury loft in college basketball’s tower of success. But there’s a lot to see — and cheer — in that other 97 percent.
Just two years ago, the St. Louis Cardinals made Memphis officially “Cardinal Country” by purchasing the franchise’s Triple-A affiliate. In a deal announced Monday and expected to be finalized in early April, the Cardinals have just as suddenly sold a majority share in the Memphis Redbirds. The new owner, Peter Freund (pronounced “froind”), is president of Trinity Packaging Corporation and calls New York home. Freund owns a pair of Class-A franchises (Williamsport in the New York-Penn League and Charleston in the South Atlantic League) and — gasp! — a minority interest in the New York Yankees.
Redbirds president and general manager Craig Unger is still calling the shots at AutoZone Park and will be for the foreseeable future. I asked Craig for some early impressions of the Redbirds’ sale and new ownership.
Were you surprised by the deal? Was there general surprise among your staff?
Anytime there’s a sale, there’s an element of surprise. Peter came in and was very excited about the opportunity here in Memphis, and excited by what the Cardinals had been able to do over the last two seasons. He sees a real opportunity to get involved in a great city, and great sports city. It’s exciting for us to see his enthusiasm for the Memphis Redbirds.
Had you met Mr. Freund before he approached the Cardinals?
I did not meet him until this process was in order. I’m familiar with the two other teams he has ownership in, what they do. I had talked to their GMs on completely unrelated items. One of their group reached out today to say welcome to the family and “This will be great for you guys.”
We look at this as bringing the heart and soul of the Redbirds back to Memphis. There were a lot of shared resources that we had with St. Louis. Some of the business operation was coming out of St. Louis. This is an opportunity for us to bring everything back. It will be a small business being run out of Memphis, out of AutoZone Park. It will be an opportunity for us to further connect with the local business community and fans. Peter’s excited to come here and meet the fans, sponsors, media.
Looking at things from the Cardinals’ standpoint, it almost looks like a house-flip, it happened so quickly. Considering the sagging attendance last season and ballpark renovations (which cost more than $6 million), did the Cardinals make a profit?
The financial details are between Peter and [Cardinals owner] Bill DeWitt. The Cardinals came in to stabilize a situation that was in desperate need of stabilization. There was a great deal of risk of the former bondholders just giving up on the stadium. There needed to be some upgrades, from the playing surface to upstairs.
This investment by Peter is a real strategic partnership. The Cardinals’ big animal is St. Louis. That’s where they have to focus. Having someone come in with a track record in minor-league baseball, being engaged with what’s going on at this facility . . . that is where this became very attractive. The Cardinals could retain interest in the organization and that was important to them. It was important to Peter.
How will the sale impact stadium operations? Your staff?
After this deal is closed, everything will operated centrally, here at AutoZone Park. There are some accounting functions that have been run out of St. Louis, human resources, IT services. These are all things we’ll bring in-house. There will probably be some staffing up as we unbundle some shared resources. We’ll have to build infrastructure and personnel to support a fully functional baseball team and all that goes with it.
What about the fan experience? Will the sale impact what a fan sees at AutoZone Park, as early as April?
I don’t think there will be anything right away that they can put their finger on. The fan experience is something we look at constantly. It’s centric to what Peter’s objectives are: improving the fan experience. He has ideas from two other minor-league teams to bring in and build upon. I think what you’ll see is a longer-term commitment to having more fun at the ballpark.
We want to increase the fun but not lose the connection to baseball. You have to serve both sides: the fans here to have nachos and hot dogs, and those who are keeping score and really in tune with the players, even those for visiting teams. You have to service both sides.
What would you say to a longtime Cardinal fan who’s skeptical about a man with a partial ownership in the New York Yankees owning the Memphis Redbirds?
This will remain the Cardinals’ affiliate. Having the Cardinals’ ownership here is important. Peter is very much in tune with that. He understands how important the Cardinals are in this market. And that’s why a continuing [minority] ownership for the Cardinals was critical for this.
This week’s Memphis Open marks 40 years of professional tennis at the Racquet Club of Memphis. With thoughts of the late, great Casey Kasem, here’s a countdown of the top 40 players to visit our annual stop on the ATP Tour.
40) Vijay Amritraj — Won the 1976 Memphis Tennis Classic, a precursor to the U.S. National Indoor Championship, which arrived at the Racquet Club the next year.
39) Luke Jensen — Ranked 419th(!) in the world, the doubles specialist upset Andre Agassi in the 1996 tournament.
38) Marcelo Rios — The top seed in 1998, Chile’s favorite son lost to Mark Philippoussis in the semifinals.
37) Yannick Noah — The 1983 French Open champ reached the final of the ’85 U.S. National Indoor, where he lost to Stefan Edberg.
36) Eliot Teltscher — Reached the quarterfinals four straight years in Memphis (1982-85), but never got beyond the semifinals (1984 and ’85).
35) Gustavo Kuerten — Known as Guga by his adoring fans, the Brazilian upset Agassi in a 1997 three-set thriller. Four months later, he won the first of his three French Open titles.
34) Joachim Johansson — Won the 2004 championship in Memphis, one of only three career ATP titles for the unseeded Swede.
33) Kenneth Carlsen — Like Johansson before him, the Danish lefty won the 2005 title at the Racquet Club despite not being seeded. One of only three ATP titles for him, too.
32) John Isner — The towering American entered the 2012 Regions Morgan Keegan as the top seed but fell to unseeded Jurgen Melzer in the quarterfinals.
31) Steve Darcis — The Belgian beat Robin Soderling for the 2008 Memphis championship, one of only two ATP titles to his credit.
30) Jurgen Melzer — Ranked 38th in the world, the Austrian upset Canada’s Milos Raonic for the 2012 championship. At age 30, he was the oldest Memphis champ in 21 years.
29) Marin Cilic — The top seed in 2013, Cilic fell to then-unknown Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals. A year later, Cilic gained some revenge (and then some) by beating Nishikori for the U.S. Open championship.
28) Milos Raonic — Reached consecutive finals at the Racquet Club, but lost to Andy Roddick in 2011 and Jurgen Melzer in 2012.
27) Magnus Larsson — This Swede only reached one Grand Slam semifinal (the 1994 French Open), but beat Byron Black for the 2000 Memphis championship.
26) Johan Kriek — The South African upset John McEnroe for the 1982 championship and reached the final again seven years later when he lost to Brad Gilbert.
25) Sam Querrey — The 8th seed beat John Isner for the 2010 singles championship then teamed with Isner to win the doubles title.
24) Mats Wilander — The winner of seven Grand Slam titles made two appearances in Memphis but failed to reach the semis both times.
23) Todd Woodbridge — Reached the 1997 final, where he lost to Michael Chang. With partner Mark Woodforde, won a record four doubles titles at the Racquet Club (1992, ’93, ’98, ’99).
22) Vitas Gerulaitis — Two years after winning the Australian Open, Gerulaitis reached the Memphis semifinals in 1979 where he lost in three sets to Jimmy Connors. Reached the quarterfinals here in 1982.
21) Guillermo Vilas — The big Argentinian reached the quarterfinals of the 1977 U.S. National Indoor, the same year he won both the French Open and U.S. Open.
20) Taylor Dent — Upset Andy Roddick in the final to win the 2003 Memphis championship, one of his four career ATP titles.
19) Gene Mayer — Beat Yannick Noah in the semis and Roscoe Tanner in the final to win the 1981 championship, one of his 14 career ATP titles. Lost in the 1982 semifinals to John McEnroe.
18) MaliVai Washington — The only black player to win a Memphis title, Washington beat Michael Chang and Jimmy Connors on his way to the 1992 crown. Reached the final at Wimbledon four years later.
17) Brad Gilbert — Known today for his work as a TV analyst, Gilbert won 20 ATP titles and was crowned champion twice in Memphis (1986 and ’89). Upset Stefan Edberg for his first championship here.
16) Michael Stich — The unseeded German beat Wally Masur to win the 1990 championship at the Racquet Club. The next year, he beat countryman Boris Becker for the Wimbledon title.
15) Mark Philippoussis — The Aussie won 11 career titles, two of them in Memphis (1998 and 2001). Reached the semis as the 10th seed in 1996.
14) Todd Martin — Reached the final in Memphis three straight years and won the 1994 and ’95 championships, two of his eight career titles.
13) Ivan Lendl — The eight-time Grand Slam champ only appeared in Memphis twice, but beat Michael Stich for the 1991 title.
12) Tommy Haas — One of three men to win three Memphis titles (1999, 2006, ’07). Playing for Germany, won a silver medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
11) Arthur Ashe — The groundbreaking legend reached the Memphis final in 1979 where he lost in three sets to Jimmy Connors.
10) Kei Nishikori — The first player to win three consecutive titles at the Racquet Club (2013-15).
9) Andre Agassi — Two months shy of his 18th birthday, Agassi won the Memphis title in 1988. In five other appearances at the Racquet Club, he never reached the final.
8) Jim Courier — In six Memphis appearances, the four-time Grand Slam champ reached two finals and won the title in 1993.
7) Michael Chang — Appeared in Memphis 16 consecutive years (1988-2003), winning the 1997 championship and reaching the final in ’98.
6) Bjorn Borg — The five-time Wimbledon champion won the first official Memphis title at the 1977 U.S. National Indoor (a few months before winning his second title at the All-England Club).
5) John McEnroe — In the most star-studded final in Racquet Club history, beat Jimmy Connors (7-6, 7-6) for the 1980 Memphis title. In three other Bluff City appearances, reached one more final (a loss in ’82 to Kriek).
4) Stefan Edberg — Raised the trophy in Memphis the same two years he won the Australian Open (1985 and ’87). The six-time Grand Slam champion lost to Brad Gilbert in the 1986 final.
3) Pete Sampras — Won 14 Grand Slam titles and appeared in Memphis six times, beating Todd Martin for the 1996 championship.
2) Andy Roddick — Appeared in 12 consecutive Memphis tournaments (2001-12), the top seed for nine straight years (2003-011). Won three titles (2002, ’09, ’11).
1) Jimmy Connors — Reached at least the semifinals in eight of his ten Memphis appearances, winning a record four titles at the Racquet Club (1978, ’79, ’83, and ’84). The event’s top seed six times.
What do you get when you combine the most overhyped sporting event on the planet with its golden anniversary? As the countdown to Super Bowl 50 begins, we’re about to find out. Get ready for “Fifty Best” lists, from heroes and goats, to coaches and commercials. Here are merely five angles — and a prediction — to kick off your two-week journey to the actual kickoff.
What a career sunset for Peyton Manning. Instead of tabulating the latest figures in his career records for passing yards (71,940) and touchdowns (539), Manning will start his fourth Super Bowl just two months shy of his 40th birthday. It feels appropriate, a man in the conversation for the best quarterback in history playing in the Super Bowl’s 50th showcase. Among the six other quarterbacks to start at least four Super Bowls, five won at least two championships. (Jim Kelly lost all four of his starts with Buffalo.) A win over Carolina would make Manning 2-2 in the big game and would equal the grand finale of his current boss, John Elway, 17 years ago. Presuming, of course, this will be Manning’s final game.
Opposing Manning will be the favorite for this year’s MVP award, Panther quarterback Cam Newton. Remarkably, Newton will be just the third Heisman Trophy winner to start behind center in the Super Bowl. (Roger Staubach started four Super Bowls for Dallas and Jim Plunkett two for the Raiders.) The contrast between the two quarterbacks couldn’t be greater. In addition to passing for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns this season, Newton rushed for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns. In 17 years as an NFL quarterback, Manning has rushed for a total of 667 yards.
Carolina is just the third team to reach the Super Bowl after a 15-1 regular season. The 1984 San Francisco 49ers and 1985 Chicago Bears won blowouts to raise the Lombardi Trophy. Three 15-1 teams since then didn’t even reach the Super Bowl (the 1998 Vikings, 2004 Steelers, and ’11 Packers). Carolina had the advantage of playing in the weak NFC South — a division they won in 2014 with a 7-8-1 record — but 18 total wins in a season would put this club among the all-time elite.
The NFL playoffs are getting more predictable. For the fourth time in seven years, the AFC’s and NFC’s top seeds are meeting in the Super Bowl. Before New Orleans faced Indianapolis after the 2009 season, 15 years had passed between such a matchup. There have been a total of 11 such clashes in the Super Bowl, with the NFC winning eight.
The only historical stat you’ll really need: The NFC is 8-4 in Super Bowls played the year of a U.S. presidential election. (We’re counting the pre-merger Packers — winner of Super Bowl II in 1968 — among NFC teams.) The NFC representative has won six of the last seven such Super Bowls. But here’s a catch: In three of the four election-year Super Bowls won by the AFC team, a Republican won the White House.
My pick? My heart tells me the Peyton Manning Story ends with confetti, the Lombardi Trophy, and one last pizza (or insurance) commercial. But I saw what the Carolina defense — led by All-Pros Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman — did to a previously explosive Arizona offense. Newton’s versatility will be valuable against Denver’s top-ranked defense, and I think just enough to earn the Panthers their first championship.
Carolina 20, Denver 13
I’ve interviewed my share of professional baseball players over the last 15 years (most of them Memphis Redbirds). The most consistent answer I’ve heard to any regular question has been the favorite player of these men growing up: Ken Griffey Jr. Infielders, outfielders, pitchers, it doesn’t matter. Almost invariably, they made their own way on baseball diamonds with Junior — or the Kid, as he was affectionately known — as their model.
And journalists loved Griffey just as much. Last week, Junior was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame with the highest percentage of the total vote — 99.3 percent — in the history of the institution. (Tom Seaver had held the record for 23 years.) Three voters were apparently napping in the press box as Griffey hit 630 home runs and won 10 Gold Gloves over a 22-year career, primarily with the Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds. Griffey, sadly, is just the fourth first-ballot Hall of Famer never to have played in a World Series game. (The others: Ernie Banks, Rod Carew, and Frank Thomas.) Which only proves how cruel baseball can be, for no player — including Banks — combined supreme talent with a child-like love for playing the game like Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey is just the second man younger than me to enter the Hall of Fame (after 2015 inductee Pedro Martinez). As an 18-year-old outfielder in 1988, Griffey played 17 games with the Double-A Vermont Mariners, who played their home games at Centennial Field in Burlington. The previous year, I played my last high school game — a Vermont state championship — in the same stadium, the same outfield. So I can claim one (and precisely one) baseball memory in common with Junior Griffey, the planet’s greatest player of my generation.
Here’s where Griffey’s story gets bittersweet, and reflects the generational pull of our national pastime. The Kid is a middle-aged man. His Hall of Fame induction will serve as that mile-marker baseball fans use for players of “yesteryear,” the greats who had their day and have stepped aside for a current crop of sluggers, speed-demons, and flame-throwers. For me personally, his induction is a reminder of one boy’s dream not quite realized. (I’ll give up on being a big-league player the day I draw my last breath. I have my glove at the ready; just need a phone call.) And a reminder that no matter how skilled we might be on a baseball diamond, no matter how much we love our time on the base paths or in the outfield, there comes a time for plaques, speeches, and gentle applause. Can the Kid actually have gray hair? Impossible.
The annual Cardinals Caravan rolls into Memphis this Friday (doors open at AutoZone Park at 5:30). Among the headliners appearing will be a current St. Louis Cardinal All-Star (Michael Wacha) and one who appears to have an All-Star Game or two in his future (Stephen Piscotty). Also appearing will be a pair of former Cardinals — a different generation — who are best remembered in these parts for their exploits with the Memphis Redbirds. Stubby Clapp (now 42) will be here, and I’m guessing for the right price he just might try a backflip. Bo Hart (now 39 and living in Memphis) will also be here, the man who succeeded Clapp at second base for the Redbirds in 2003. Upon being promoted by the Cardinals that summer, Hart picked up 18 hits in his first 35 at-bats, a debut unmatched by any other player in major-league history (including Junior Griffey). Hart played a total of 88 games in the big leagues, but he lived the dream, particularly for two weeks.
In my personal Field of Dreams, Ken Griffey Jr. would be in the lineup. So would Stubby Clapp and Bo Hart. I’d be the guy merely asking one of them to play catch a few minutes. Baseball is indeed timeless. There will be new heroes to compare with those your parents cheered, just as your folks compared their heroes with those of your grandparents. But relish the moments provided by those of your own generation, particularly a Hall of Fame induction. Baseball may be timeless, but alas, we are not.
2016 will be a year of change in Memphis sports. Just as 2015 was, and 2014 the year before. If there’s a single, unifying reason any of us turn to sports on a daily basis, it’s the mystery of what’s to come. The changes happening — often in dramatic fashion — between serial tweets and highlights. A basketball game (or football game, or tennis match . . .) has long been the best reality show on television. The only thing consistent with sports prognosticators (including yours truly) is how much we get wrong. Change is coming.
The Memphis Open is under new ownership (again). Kei Nishikori can’t possibly win a fourth straight title at the Racquet Club, can he? The FedEx St. Jude Classic has a new tournament director. Stephen Piscotty will open the next baseball season in the St. Louis Cardinals’ outfield, not that of the Memphis Redbirds. A year ago today, Austin Nichols and Nick King seemed like both the present and future of Memphis Tiger basketball. A year ago, we all wondered what more Justin Fuente and Paxton Lynch could give us. And few people on this side of the Mississippi River knew the name Mike Norvell. Change is coming.
The most significant change we’ll see this year on the local sports landscape? I’m convinced it will be with the roster of the Memphis Grizzlies, and I don’t mean the kind of change that yields Brandan Wright or subtracts Kosta Koufos. This is the year we could see the Beatles break up.
The Grizzlies’ version of the Fab Four — Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen — is playing its sixth season as a band, aiming for a sixth playoff appearance, and roughly six millionth smile generated in the Mid-South. Particularly in the modern NBA, such a run is epochal. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili have set a standard for teammates by playing 14 seasons together (and winning four championships) in San Antonio. But who is their Ringo Starr? Bruce Bowen? Kawhi Leonard? (It’s actually their coach, Gregg Popovich.)
One of the greatest foursomes in NBA history was the one that took the Boston Celtics to four straight Finals in the 1980s. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Dennis Johnson played seven seasons together, merely one more than the current Griz quartet have enjoyed. But that was an era when stars like Parish and McHale, let alone superstars like Bird, ignored the siren calls of free agency. It didn’t hurt, of course, to be contending for the Larry O’Brien Trophy every spring.
Allen turns 34 this month and has one more season ($5.5 million) on his contract with Memphis. Randolph turns 35 in July and likewise has one more year ($10.3 million) under contract with the Grizzlies. The franchise’s career games leader, Conley, will be a free agent. Since Gasol re-signed with Memphis last summer, the presumption has been his point guard will follow suit in the summer of ’16. Perhaps he will, and perhaps the Grindfather and Z-Bo will come back for one more tour in 2016-17.
But be prepared for change. On January 1, 2015, the Grizzlies were 23-8 and heading toward what looked like the franchise’s first division title. Today, Memphis is 18-17, sixth overall in a weaker Western Conference. It’s a team that should reach the postseason, but is it a team that appears able to win a series? To win two and return to the conference finals?
Sentiment can be deadly, both in reality TV and sports. Teams that get old together inevitably lose together. In their last season as a band, that famed Celtics foursome blew a 2-0 lead and lost their first-round series (then a best-of-five) with New York in the 1990 playoffs.
Change is coming in 2016. How it impacts this city’s only big-league franchise remains to be seen. Let’s keep watching.
Frank Murtaugh continues the count-down of his Top 10 Most Memorable Memphis Sports Moments of 2015:
5) Navy 45, Tigers 20 (November 7) — Forget the result. This game, ironically, is the snapshot that will stick with me from the Justin Fuente Era in Memphis. The undefeated (8-0) Tigers and the 6-1 Midshipmen met on the gridiron (somehow for the very first time). And 55,000 fans packed the Liberty Bowl without an SEC team in sight. I’ve long held the Liberty Bowl is too big a stadium for the Memphis program. A crowd of 40,000 should not feel like a third of the stadium is empty. But when you pack 55,000 into the old saddle, it feels like big-time college football. Dreams of a New Years’ Six Bowl for the Tigers died on this night. But something else came alive.
4) Dallas 103, Grizzlies 95 (January 19) — The Martin Luther King Day game has become, in my opinion, the top annual event on the Memphis sports calendar. Saluting former athletes for making a difference beyond the box score makes for a poignant event, and one held merely blocks from the National Civil Rights Museum. This was the first chance I had to take my entire family to the game, allowing me the chance to try and explain the significance of Earl Monroe and his connection to one of the NBA’s most memorable teams. (Happily, my daughters were both familiar with another of the Sports Legacy Award honorees: Jason Collins.) This may have been the best matchup in the history of the event, the Griz entering the game with a record of 29-11 and the Mavericks at 28-13. Memphis fell behind by nine after the first quarter, clawed back to finally take the lead with just over four minutes to play, but fell when Dirk Nowitzki hit three field goals over the game’s final two minutes. The real winner, as it is every year on MLK Day, was the city of Memphis.
3) Redbirds 9, Sounds 4 (June 24) — I used some vacation time, took the afternoon off, and enjoyed this Wednesday-afternoon tilt with one of my daughters. Memphis fell behind, 2-0, in the top of the first, but Stephen Piscotty homered on the first pitch he saw in the bottom of the first, making the 109-degree heat index feel like hitters’ fuel. Bartlett native Jacob Wilson later added a double and Tommy Pham a triple as the Redbirds’ offense took starting pitcher Zach Petrick off the hook. Less than a month later, Piscotty made his debut with the St. Louis Cardinals, taking over leftfield from the injured Matt Holliday. Pham also played a key role in the Cards’ 100-win season that earned the franchise a third straight National League Central title. But on this sweltering afternoon at AutoZone Park, the Cardinals’ future was still the Memphis present.
2) Tigers 53, Cincinnati 46 (September 24) — This Thursday-night affair took more than four hours to play . . . but felt like 90 minutes, max. The two teams combined for 1,322 yards of offense (most of them — 752 — by the loser), 12 touchdowns, and 11 lead changes. Cincinnati scored nine times (four field goals) and Memphis eight (one field goal), with the same team scoring consecutively but once (two Bearcat field goals in the second quarter). Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch passed for 412 yards, a career high (until the Tulsa game a month later). Not until Tiger linebacker Leonard Pegues picked off a wobbly Hayden Moore pass with 10 seconds left on the clock did the U of M secure the win. This was the third time in four games Memphis scored at least 50 points in a football game (with two more to come).
1) Tigers 37, Ole Miss 24 (October 17) — The Rebels were visiting the Liberty Bowl for the first time in five years and had beaten mighty Alabama a month earlier. But here’s the thing: The vast majority of the 60,000 fans in the Liberty Bowl . . . were wearing blue. This game certainly represented the apotheosis of the Justin Fuente Era in Memphis. The question should be whether or not it’s the apotheosis of University of Memphis football, period. After falling behind 14 points just six minutes into the game (“Here we go again . . .”), the Tigers simply dominated the 13th-ranked team in the country. Over the next 30 minutes of playing time, Memphis outscored Ole Miss 31-0, quarterback Paxton Lynch throwing three touchdown passes on his way to a 384-yard game. Two field goals by All-American kicker Jake Elliott provided separation in the fourth quarter. The victory improved Memphis to 6-0 for the first time in 54 years and extended the Tigers’ program-record winning streak to 13 games.
This week (and next): the ten most memorable local sporting events I attended this year.
10) FESJC second round (June 12) — I like to walk the Southwind course before the weekend cut, when you can see a wide range of rising (and falling) PGA talent, young unknowns (Harris English in 2013) on their way to fat Sunday paychecks and players with major titles in their rearview, galleries shrinking as birthdays come and go. I followed former Masters champ Mike Weir for a few holes in the morning, his “gallery” small enough for each of us to hear conversations between the player and his caddie. In the afternoon, I set up camp near the third tee and awaited the arrival of the day’s star trio: Graeme McDowell, Retief Goosen, and Phil Mickelson. (Each man has at least one major title to his credit.) I managed to stay with the mass of humanity following this group for two holes. It’s said but not often seen so vividly: stars sell tickets. Phil Mickelson is a star.
9) Tigers 75, Connecticut 72 (February 19) — For the second straight season, the Tigers beat the defending national champions ... twice. In the first of two wins over the Huskies, three Tigers — Austin Nichols, Kedren Johnson, and Markel Crawford — each played 38 minutes, combining for 51 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, and seven blocks (all of the rejections by Nichols). UConn star Ryan Boatright was held to seven points in 32 minutes and Memphis earned the victory despite being dominated on the glass (41 rebounds for the Huskies against their 27). This was the Kedren Johnson (21 points, six assists) many saw during his days with Vanderbilt. Such sightings, alas, were too few last winter.
8) Kei Nishikori wins Memphis Open (February 15) — Until Nishikori handled South Africa’s Kevin Anderson (6-4, 6-4), no player had won three consecutive championships at the Racquet Club of Memphis. Nishikori earned his eighth ATP title the hard way, dropping the opening set in his three matches prior to the final. The Japanese baseliner became just the fourth player to win three Memphis titles for a career, let alone consecutively. And he’s the first to proudly raise the tournament’s new trophy: a guitar.
7) Oklahoma 84, Tigers 78 (November 17) — Despite hosting this contest, Memphis was supposed to be little more than a welcome mat for the 8th-ranked Sooners. The nationally televised affair was filling a slot on ESPN’s round-the-clock menu, an introduction for Oklahoma’s preseason All-America, Buddy Hield. Instead, the Tigers took punches and landed a few of their own for the entire 40 minutes, taking the lead with just over 90 seconds to play. Hield scored 30 points, but Memphis freshman Dedric Lawson scored 22 and grabbed 15 rebounds (10 on the offensive end) to steal some spotlight. Had a three-pointer here or a few free throws there found the net for the U of M, we would have seen the Tigers’ biggest upset in quite some time. Instead, we got to know a team with far more promise than any doormat.
6) Colts 35, Titans 33 (September 27) — This is as local as the NFL gets. My first trip to Nissan Stadium in Nashville coincided with rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota’s home debut. The 2014 Heisman Trophy winner out-dueled Indianapolis star Andrew Luck (another Pac 12 product) for three quarters, tossing a pair of touchdown passes to give Tennessee a 27-14 lead after 45 minutes of play. Trouble is, NFL games are 60 minutes. Luck threw two touchdown passes midway through the fourth and Frank Gore dashed six yards for what proved to be the game-clincher with 2:51 left on the clock. I enjoyed the game with a friend I’ve known more than 40 years, which made the result all but incidental.
Check back next week for the Top 5.
An 8-year-old boy has heroes. I happened to be 8 years old in 1977 when Star Wars entered our galaxy and changed pop culture in ways no one unfamiliar with a Wookiee could have previously imagined. My heroes in 1977 were not atypical for the times: Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. St. Louis Cardinals catcher Ted Simmons. Spider-Man. Paul Stanley of KISS. (The Starchild offered everything the Bee Gees did not. I signed up for the KISS Army long before my parents would have authorized.)
I’d like to think I was no more or less impressionable than my third-grade classmates that year in Knoxville, Tennessee. But I knew a hero when I first met Han Solo. And Luke Skywalker. And Princess Leia. And yes, R2-D2.
Fast forward (many years, but in a galaxy nearby) to this Friday when The Force Awakens hits local screens and the seventh chapter of the Star Wars saga becomes the most talked-about movie event of the year (decade?). I’ll be able to take my own daughters (ages 13 and 16) to see Han and Chewie on the big screen, their views of heroes shaped quite differently from the way I shaped mine 38 years ago. (Can Leia or Rey compete with Katniss Everdeen?) It will make for a cross-generational experience unlike many films can provide a person of my generation.
By the time The Empire Strikes Back was released (in 1980), my family had moved from Knoxville to Southern California. We lived in Vermont when the world was introduced to Ewoks in Return of the Jedi (1983). Staubach had long retired by the completion of this initial trilogy, Simmons was a Milwaukee Brewer, and KISS had removed their makeup. I entered high school with my Star Wars action figures confined to a drawer in the back of a closet. There were times it seemed a monthly Spidey comic was my only escape worthy of hero status.
But Star Wars never left, we know. Thirteen days after my first daughter was born in 1999, The Phantom Menace hit screens and viewers of my generation had to connect the dots between a mop-topped, pod-racing child ... and the Darth Vader he was destined to become. Attack of the Clones followed in 2002, as did my second daughter (four months later). KISS was back in makeup, Spider-Man reached the big screen (also in 2002), and Albert Pujols did things for the Cardinals unseen since the days of Stan Musial. Heroes were alive and well.
In 2005, the final prequel was released (mercifully, say many in hindsight). In Revenge of the Sith, we saw the final descent (not quite death) of Luke Skywalker’s father, his black mask as familiar a symbol of evil as any Hollywood image before or since. That same year, my own father died. If there’s a life event that kills heroes in the heart of a man, it’s his father’s death, the most intimate collision with mortality a human being will experience. I’ve been reluctant to identify anyone — real or fantasy — as my “hero” since my dad’s passing.
But I’ll be in line this weekend. And like everyone else my age (and millions younger), I’ll anticipate the first appearance (the return!) of Luke and Leia. I’ll relish the comedic (and loving) interplay between Solo and Chewbacca, the best Hollywood tandem since Butch and Sundance. And I’m looking forward to meeting the new soldiers: Finn, Rey, Poe, Kylo Ren. (And yes, BB-8 is adorable.) The world is so much scarier today (at least for me) than it was in 1977. I’m grateful there’s still room for Star Wars. And still room for heroes.
I have so much to be thankful for; not quite enough room on the Internet. But I can start with a column on blessings from the world of sports.
• I’m grateful for the annual Martin Luther King Day game at FedExForum. It’s astonishing to me that this game isn’t televised nationally on ABC (or at least ESPN). A basketball game that celebrates tolerance and decency in mankind? We need more of these. Glad this one belongs to Memphis.
• I’m grateful for Phil Cannon and his extraordinary courage and grace in the face of cancer. One year after another, the FedEx St. Jude Classic sets a standard for professionalism and hospitality beyond the reach of your average PGA event. That’s Phil’s legacy.
• I’m grateful for “The Mask Game.”
• I’m grateful for American Pharoah. Truth be told, I’d given up on seeing a Triple Crown winner. The abundance of thoroughbred breeding and trainers bypassing the first two races to prep for the Belmont seemed to preclude such a three-year-old lightning strike. So glad I was wrong.
• I’m grateful for the impossible debate over which of the Grizzlies’ “core four” will have his number retired first. (It will be Zach Randolph.)
• I’m grateful for Justin Fuente and his “1-0” plan. It’s worked more often than not.
• I’m grateful for a visit to AutoZone Park by St. Louis Cardinals hero Willie McGee. Influence across baseball generations is a beautiful thing to see.
• I’m grateful for a man named Jeremy Hazelbaker. And his considerable talents on a baseball field.
• I’m grateful for memories of the leftfield bluff at AutoZone Park. The Redbirds have done so many things right since arriving here 17 years ago, but shutting off that bluff (after shaving it down) was a strikeout. My daughters grew up on that grassy slope (and its neighboring playground), as countless other Mid-South children did. In my mind, it was the best park (within a park) in the city. Last seen with a pickup truck and a target for winning said truck.
• I’m grateful for Josh Pastner’s optimism. We live in a cynical, sobering world. Find positive energy where, when, and however you can.
• I’m grateful for Jake Elliott on fourth down.
• I’m grateful for an NBA Finals with the cities of Oakland and Cleveland represented. It will happen, Memphis.
• I’m grateful for the Memphis Open and the survival of professional tennis at the Racquet Club. There are far more NBA and NFL teams in America than ATP events, making a week in February distinctly “big-league” for local tennis fans. Now, if we could just talk Roger Federer into a visit . . .
• I’m grateful for reaching a place where a three-game losing streak by the Memphis Tigers (football team!) seems painful.
• I’m grateful for the White Station Middle School soccer program. Over the last six years, I’ve seen two little girls grow into young ladies (and young leaders) under the guidance of coach Tom Pickering. A soccer field was merely the setting.
• I’m grateful for the time I got to spend this year with members of the 1984-85 Memphis State basketball team. Unforgettable group.
• I’m grateful for Paxton Lynch’s mobility. And his arm strength. And his field vision. So are NFL scouts.
• I’m grateful for the hope Dedric Lawson has restored for Memphis Tiger basketball. An extraordinary, precocious talent. May his drive to improve and develop match his drives to the rim.
• I’m grateful for the local Race for the Cure, and its new home downtown at AutoZone Park. We’re winning the fight against breast cancer, but many more miles to run.
• I’m grateful for the Flyer’s loyal readers and advertisers, who are welcome at our family table every year, one after another.
Happy Thanksgiving everybody.