This is my favorite column of the year, a chance for me to fill that mocking space on my screen with the sports-related subjects I’m most grateful to have in my club car on this train called life.
Gratitude. Give it a chance.
• I’m grateful for Year Seven of the Memphis Grizzlies’ “core four.” I wish we could come up with a more distinctive tag for our “fab four”: Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Tony Allen, and Zach Randolph. They’ve earned that much, sticking together in one of the NBA’s smallest markets in an age when as many as five years with a franchise — for a single player, let alone a quartet — is considered lengthy. For some perspective, the Lakers’ great foursome of the Eighties — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Michael Cooper — played exactly seven seasons together. More recently in San Antonio, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Bruce Bowen broke up the band after seven years. Four years with one super-teammate (Dwyane Wade) was enough for LeBron James, and they won a pair of titles together. We won’t see another foursome like this at FedExForum.
• I’m grateful for Georgia Tech hiring Josh Pastner . . . and Memphis hiring Tubby Smith. Exhale. Last winter was excruciatingly uncomfortable for anyone in proximity to Pastner and the multiplying empty seats on game nights at FEF. And that contract(!) that made it all but impossible for the U of M to dismiss him. Thankfully, these kinds of divorces seem to unfold as they should. A good man is in a happier place. And a good program can aim to be great again under the wise watch of a man aiming to take a sixth program to the NCAA tournament.
• I’m grateful for an early look at Alex Reyes. The big righty appears to be on his way to stardom with the St. Louis Cardinals. It was nice to watch a few Reyes outings at AutoZone Park, the latest Redbirds coming attraction.
• I’m grateful for George Lapides and Phil Cannon and all they gave the Memphis sports community. Like days of the week, a sports community — its teams, its fans, its sponsors, its venues, its media personalities — has a “feel.” George and Phil brought a warmth — and distinct passion — to sports in Memphis. They live on in every one of us who attends a ball game now and then.
• I’m grateful for Mike Norvell’s energy and confidence. He’s the first Memphis Tiger football coach in generations to face an imposing task in filling his predecessor’s shoes. He has graciously saluted Justin Fuente’s achievements in building the program . . . while emphasizing it’s not where he and his staff want it be. Not yet. His prematurely gray hair gives Norvell the appearance of a man beyond his 35 years. So does his attention to detail and single-minded focus in making Memphis a premium program. It’s the hardest sports job in town.
• I’m grateful for my daughters’ continued commitment to team sports. One will play her senior high school softball season as an All-Metro outfielder, while the other played her first varsity soccer season as merely a freshman. They are bright, skilled, beautiful young ladies. And they know well the values that make a good teammate. Such is necessary in the wide world that awaits them.
• I’m grateful to be following in the footsteps — literally, and rapidly — of my 5K-running wife. Her commitment to not just running, but competing, is a healthy rebuke of any middle-age ceiling on athleticism. I’m especially grateful for her waiting for me at the finish line, one race after another.
• I’m grateful for you. And every one of the Flyer readers who give us a platform to share news, views, and analysis of the people and events that make Memphis such an extraordinary town. I appreciate your counterpoints, value your applause, and listen to your criticism. You give my job redeeming value.
Happy Thanksgiving to all.
I miss Phil Cannon. The longtime director of the FedEx St. Jude Classic died last Wednesday after a courageous two-year battle with lung cancer. I last saw Phil and his lovely wife at the Liberty Bowl before the Temple game on October 6th. However sick he may have felt, he didn’t show it. Never did. Like every other time I crossed Phil’s path, he brightened my mood. I wish I’d taken more time to visit with him that evening.
Consider the impact Phil made on this entire region over his four decades in support of our annual PGA event. (Memphis was “big league” long before the Grizzlies arrived.) The city’s two most powerful, wide-reaching brands — FedEx and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital — are in the very title of the golf tournament. There was a four-year period (2007-2010) when FedEx was not the title sponsor, and those were rough years for Phil and his staff. But he lured the Fortune 500 titan back into the mix, all the while coordinating an army of volunteers that numbered upwards of 1,800, the faces and voices (“Hush y’all!”) that make the FESJC so distinctly ours. Phil could impact a boardroom packed with CEOs the same way he could an assembled group of groundskeepers, scoreboard operators, and concession vendors.
Phil was the primary source for the first feature I wrote for Memphis magazine, a broad look at the FESJC in June 1994. He treated me like I was reporting for Esquire. Twenty-one years later, I sat down with him to absorb some wisdom for Inside Memphis Business. Among the nuggets he shared: “If you’re going to need 150 carts on Wednesday but only 100 on Friday, go ahead and get the 150.” Perfectly Phil Cannon. Whether it’s transportation, catering, or restrooms, err on the side of making your customers comfortable.
The world can’t replace the Phil Cannons among us. But the kindness, decency, professionalism, humor, and courage that Phil personified live on mightily among those of us who called him a friend. And that’s a slice of immortality.
• Cancer is a monster that takes many hideous forms. Phil Cannon was in my thoughts when my family and I approached the starting line at Saturday’s Race for the Cure downtown. If there’s a more uplifting event in Memphis, I’ve yet to attend it. The annual 5K serves as a coming-out party — that’s what it is, a party — to celebrate the women (and men) we’ve lost to breast cancer, and the thousands around the world beating the insidious disease every day.
If breast cancer hasn’t impacted you personally, it surely has indirectly. (My mom and sister are breast cancer survivors.) I start the Race for the Cure each year with a lump in my throat, reading the tags runners and walkers wear to salute a loved one they’ve lost, or one currently fighting for her life. And the route makes the event so distinctly Memphis: Start in front of the Peabody, then along the river, down South Main, around the National Civil Rights Museum and FedExForum, back along Beale Street, with a finish at AutoZone Park. Whether you’re burning your lungs over the final mile, or walking hand-in-hand with a family member, you can actually feel compassion winning (to say nothing of the extensive research saving lives every day). If you were there Saturday, thank you. If not, consider marking your calendar for next October.
Can’t you just hear a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan in 1958 — a half-century since his team won the World Series — whining? “You know, the Cubs will win the World Series the day a woman is president of the United States.” Here we are. Unless the Cleveland Indians (enduring their own championship drought of 67 years) can upset their Great Lakes rival, the Cubs will win the World Series within two weeks of a woman — presumably — being elected to the highest office in the country. And here’s the kicker: Hillary Clinton is a Cubs fan.
Planets are aligning, and in baseball’s favor. Which makes the time perfect for National Baseball Day. If anyone can get this done, it’s surely the first president since Teddy Roosevelt to enter the White House during a Chicago Cub reign.
The stretch between Labor Day and Thanksgiving — three long months — screams for a national holiday. A real holiday, with schools and businesses (most of them, anyway) closed, a national pause from the daily grind as days shorten and temperatures drop. Not only would National Baseball Day nicely interrupt this drought, but America would also finally have a holiday celebrating what this country does best: spectator sports.
Here’s how it would work. On the day Game 1 of the World Series is played — typically a Tuesday — Americans stay home in honor of this nation’s original pastime. No one plays like Americans. Entire industries are devoted to recreation. Finally, National Baseball Day would allow us to celebrate these healthy instincts.
The game would begin at 3 p.m. Eastern, allowing every child from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, to see every pitch, hit, stolen base, and strikeout if he or she so chooses. Using modern technology, families split across time zones could fire up their computers or smart phones and share in the exploits of the latest World Series hero. Families and friends would have some extra bonding time built around a baseball game. Imagine that.
Not a baseball fan? This holiday is for you, too. No viewing required. Enjoy a picnic with your family (if you live in a warm region). Or catch a movie you haven’t had time to see. Better yet, open that thick book you’ve been meaning to read, but “never have the time.” The idea is to relish a day of leisure, courtesy of baseball.
The TV fat cats will be the hardest to budge. (The last daytime World Series game was played in 1987, and it was indoors, under the roof of the abominable Metrodome.) Fox will cash in this week (particularly with the Cubs in the mix), commercial rates estimated at half a million dollars.
Why mess with such a golden goose? Well, why not consider the possibilities — revenue-wise — if a Series game is broadcast as the centerpiece of a national holiday? With entire families viewing, not simply that 25-45 male demographic considered most attractive. Seems the Super Bowl broadcast has found its way to profitability, with kickoff in the late afternoon on a Sunday. Why must World Series games end after midnight in New York City?
Cubs fans — and Indians fans — understand patience better than most. We’ve waited long enough for National Baseball Day.
The season’s most popular TV series concludes Wednesday night when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump complete their trilogy of cringe-inducing debates, somehow related to the U.S. presidency. What if the sports world turned to televised debates — above and outside the realm of bloviating analysts — to further connect with fans? Here are six pairs I’d like to see stalking one another on stage.
• Tubby Smith vs. John Calipari — Each man won a national championship at Kentucky. One has extensive knowledge when it comes to rescuing the University of Memphis basketball program, while the other is tasked with precisely that responsibility (starting next month). No coach stirred emotions to extremes in this town like Calipari. And no Memphis coach has arrived with the credentials Smith brings, stirring many of those same emotions before he’s made his first substitution at FedExForum. Both outspoken, humorous, and telegenic, this would be ratings gold.
• Roger Goodell vs. Tom Brady — His business clinging to the notion that it isn’t ruining the lives of its workforce, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell chose to make an example of the league’s biggest star by suspending Patriot quarterback Tom Brady for illegally — by NFL rules — deflating footballs prior to a playoff game following the 2014 season. This is the equivalent of banning a UFC fighter for wearing a mouthpiece of the wrong color. Brady wins Super Bowls without a chip on his shoulder. So for the fan bases of 31 NFL teams . . . thanks, Rog.
• Hubie Brown vs. Lionel Hollins — Brown was the uncle you wanted to sit next to at Thanksgiving dinner. Hollins was the cousin who politely brought a bottle of wine, then excused himself into the next room to watch football while the rest of the family dined. They are the faces of two glorious periods in Memphis Grizzlies history, and about all they share is their success here in the Bluff City. It would be fun to ask Uncle Hubie why, of all places, he chose Memphis to interrupt his retirement as a coach. And to ask cousin Lionel: Why so grouchy?
• Terry Francona vs. Joe Maddon — Francona will never again buy a meal in Boston (maybe all of New England), having managed the Red Sox to the 2004 World Series championship, a title that ended a Ruthian drought of 86 years in the Hub. Francona is now six wins away (through Sunday) from another “eat free” city, his Cleveland Indians aiming to end a 68-year drought and join the NBA’s Cavaliers as kings of Ohio. The Francona angle would be singular, were it not for Maddon leading his Chicago Cubs toward the white light of a championship that would end 108 years(!) of Billy Goat talk in the Windy City. These two are witty, smart and don’t take each other too seriously. Trump devotees would turn away in disgust.
• Kevin Durant vs. Russell Westbrook — We haven’t seen an NBA divorce like this since Shaquille O’Neal ceded authority to Kobe Bryant in L.A. after the 2003-04 season. (When LeBron James took his talents to South Beach in 2010 he left behind Mo Williams.) As teammates for eight seasons, this pair somehow put Oklahoma City on the map of NBA elites. Having only reached the Finals once (a loss to Miami in 2012), Durant chose to follow the gold west and see if Steph Curry can deliver the Larry O’Brien Trophy Westbrook could not. Can’t you hear Westbrook invoking the Donald every time Durant tried to explain his decision? “Wrong!”
• Pete Rose vs. Barry Bonds — Baseball’s all-time hits leader squaring off against the sport’s all-time home-run leader, neither a member of the Hall of Fame. Somehow, if we’re trying to match the Clinton-Trump pair of not-so-lovable losers forced upon an angry electorate, Rose-Bonds seems like the perfect match. Who was the better player? That matters less than another question: Who hurt the game more?
What’s a sports column without strong feelings now and then?
• No athlete should have to stand for the American National Anthem (or any anthem played before a sporting event). Such freedom of expression is part of this country’s foundation. That said, when an athlete chooses to make a point by ignoring this custom, he or she has earned questions, criticism, and from some corners, ridicule. Those reactions, of course, are part of a protester’s intention, for what they reveal about the larger population. Care must be taken in choosing when and how to protest a custom like standing for the anthem, the objective being (presumably) positive change and not merely back-and-forth among sports columnists and such. Once you’ve taken a knee during the anthem, what do you want to happen — what must you see? — before you stand again?
That said, we’ve arrived at a moment — thanks in part to Colin Kaepernick — where we should be able to intelligently discuss when and how “The Star-Spangled Banner” should be played. I’m of a mind the song should be played at significant events, but not necessarily every last pro (or college) baseball, basketball, and football game. The World Series, Super Bowl, NBA Finals, Final Four, college bowl games ... these are events of a scale that merit a standing acknowledgment of our country’s freedoms, best symbolized by our flag and our national anthem. When the anthem is played on a Wednesday night in August at a Double-A baseball stadium with 600 people in the stands, is that saluting our country or making the anthem the equivalent of turning the lights on?
• College football needs to reduce its regular season to 10 games. If you were tracking AAC scores on the night of September 24th, you followed Houston’s 64-3 thrashing of Texas State, UCF’s 53-14 mauling of FIU, and the Memphis Tigers’ 77-3 destruction of a team once known as the Bowling Green Falcons. Every September, such scores are posted around each weekend’s thrillers — and yes, there are early-season thrillers between teams of similar collective talent.
But if we’re going to take seriously the health hazards of football, 77-3 “contests” must be eliminated. They are no longer interesting in the second quarter, yet large young men are forced to collide with one another for two more hours.
Let’s start with the elimination of games between FBS and FCS programs. (Sorry North Dakota State. Keep winning those national titles.) Every team will play eight conference games (no more), and thus have two non-conference tilts to schedule for cross-regional affairs like USC-Notre Dame or intrastate (non-conference) rivalries like Florida-Florida State. And that will be enough. Heck, with 10 regular season games (two bye weeks for every program), perhaps we can give some thought to an eight-team playoff.
• Athletes’ use of a name’s suffix on their uniforms has gotten out of hand. You’ve seen “Griffin III” on Cleveland Browns quarterback Robert Griffin III’s jersey. Or “Beckham Jr.” above the number 13 on Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s back. Someone named Carl Edwards Jr. pitches out of the bullpen for the Chicago Cubs. On the back of his jersey: “Edwards Jr.”
These are all misrepresentations. The Browns quarterback is Robert Griffin III (not “Griffin III”). The Cubs pitcher is Carl Edwards Jr. A suffix is applied to a person’s name when he (typically a boy) shares the given name of his father. Technically, every human being who shares a surname with his (or her) father is “Surname Jr.” So almost every jersey in professional sports could have “Jr.” or “III” applied ... incorrectly.
The two most famous Juniors in baseball history — Ken Griffey and Cal Ripken — did not wear “Jr.” on their jerseys. And Junior Griffey was briefly a TEAMMATE of his father’s. If they didn’t add the superfluous suffix, no athlete should. I share this particular strong feeling as Frank Murtaugh III. I’m grateful for having been named for my paternal grandfather and my dad. But I’d be slighting my long-departed great-grandfather to suggest I’m merely “Murtaugh III.”
The baseball world will need some time to recover from the loss of Jose Fernandez. In a sport played on a diamond, Fernandez — killed in a boating accident early Sunday with two others — was a distinct jewel. He won 12 games and posted a 2.19 ERA in 2013 when he was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year. After missing much of the 2014 and 2015 seasons recovering from elbow surgery, Fernandez regained full command of his fearsome arsenal this year. His final season as the Miami Marlins’ ace will go into the books in bold face: 16-8 record, 2.86 ERA, and a franchise-record 253 strikeouts. ,p.In identifying the faces of baseball’s future, few were as prominent as Fernandez’. Mike Trout. Bryce Harper. Maybe Kris Bryant. Now that image will only bring sorrow, and the heavy wonder of what might have been.
Baseball has endured an inordinate number of tragedies like this over my lifetime. Angels outfielder Lyman Bostock was shot to death in 1978. The next year, Yankees catcher Thurman Munson — seemingly bound for the Hall of Fame — died in a small plane crash. Indians pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews died in a boat crash during spring training in 1993. Alcohol-related car accidents claimed the lives of Cardinal reliever Josh Hancock (2007), Angel pitcher Nick Adenhart (2009), and Cardinal outfielder — and former Memphis Redbird — Oscar Taveras (2014). Taveras and Fernandez were born within six weeks of each other in 1992. Baseball has been tragically cheated out of dozens of Fernandez-Taveras confrontations. What value do we put on the moments that never happen? (Cardinal pitcher Darryl Kile died at age 33 of a heart attack in a Chicago hotel room in 2002. It may have been “natural causes,” but it was just as sudden, just as shocking.)
Professional athletes who die young gain a form of immortality. How many people were murdered in 1978 but don’t get mentioned in a column of any kind 38 years later? The number of automobile fatalities remains staggeringly high, each one ruinous to connected families and friends. And there are boating accidents like the one that took Jose Fernandez. Is there a lesson to be taken about when, where, and how to go boating? When it’s safe to be behind the wheel of a car? I suppose this should be part of the deceased’s legacy. But the hole in the heart of baseball’s vast community is too deep, and the new absence too profound for any immediate shift in value structure.
Baseball will move on. The Marlins will surely retire Fernandez’s number 16 and stories of his sizzling fastball will keep his memory alive. In a few short months, a baby girl will be born and someday relish the stories of her father’s challenging defection from Cuba, his rise to fame and prominence as a major-league pitcher, and the boyish glee he took in playing a game most of us must leave behind as boys. But she’ll also feel the hole, the absence. The prayers we say today — and the pain that will linger beyond the baseball season — are for that little girl, and a dad taken too soon.
• My favorite image from last week’s Triple-A National Championship at AutoZone park came during the seventh-inning stretch when a large group of children from Richland Elementary School led the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in right field. Most of those kids were at least threatening their bedtimes on a school night, and publicly. But they did so on a professional baseball field, future big-league stars merely a glance or shout away. It was glorious. I didn’t care if I ever got back.
Tuesday-night baseball is a tough sell. Seats are available for tomorrow night’s showdown at AutoZone Park between the El Paso Chihuahuas (champions of the Pacific Coast League) and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (International League champs). Just as a manager would fill out a lineup card, here is a batting order of nine reasons the 2016 Triple-A National Championship is worth your while.
1 — This is, in fact, a national championship. Thirty cities have Triple-A teams, from Tacoma to Pawtucket, with every time zone represented. Ten of these cities are also home to teams in one of the country’s four major leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL): Nashville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Buffalo, Charlotte, Columbus, Indianapolis, and of course, Memphis. (Gwinnett is a suburb of Atlanta and Las Vegas is “major league” by standards well beyond the playing field.) It may not be baseball’s highest level, but Triple-A baseball is closer to the big leagues than NCAA basketball is to the NBA.
2 — One game, winner take all. Professional sports is drowning in playoff series. More money can be made in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series than in a single showdown for the championship hardware. There’s a refreshing component to Tuesday night’s tilt. Each team having survived a pair of series just to get to Memphis, they will now have to play the best nine innings of a season that has stretched almost six months. Desperation may not be seen Tuesday night, but urgency will surely be in play.
3 — Ferris Bueller would want you to go. Many Shelby County Schools start at the absurdly early time of 7:15 a.m. (Don’t get me started. There are health repercussions that SCS continues to ignore for what amounts to busing convenience.) Families with young children will be inclined to stay home. Don’t do it. Go to the game. Give your kids a unique midweek September memory. And if they’re a bit late to school Wednesday morning, consider any penalty a badge of honor. And tell them Ferris Bueller’s story.
4 — Pete Kozma is coming home. The 28-year-old shortstop played 360 games for the Memphis Redbirds (seventh in franchise history) and another 275 for the St. Louis Cardinals. He was the hero of the Cardinals’ epic Game 5 Division Series win at Washington in 2012 and the team’s regular shortstop when St. Louis won the 2013 National League pennant. This season for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (affiliate of the New York Yankees), Kozma hit .209 in 130 games (the reason a 28-year-old shortstop is playing in Triple A). If there’s a player who deserves a big moment Tuesday night at AutoZone Park, it’s Kozma.
5 — September nights in the Mid-South are precious. The Redbirds have long fought the battle of too much rain (April and May) followed by too much heat (June, July, August). This time of year, humidity is down, temps dip into the low 70s after sunset, and that cold drink you’re holding no longer sweats in your hand. Why not make a ballpark your back porch for one night?
6 — You have the chance to cheer a team called the Chihuahuas. Don’t let such an occasion pass. The San Diego Padres’ top affiliate features both the 2016 PCL MVP (outfielder Hunter Renfroe) and Rookie of the Year (second baseman Carlos Asuaje). Renfroe — who played his college ball at Mississippi State — earned his trophy by hitting .306 with 30 home runs and 105 RBIs.
7 — The game will be televised nationally (NBC Sports Network). Catch a foul ball Tuesday night, present the right dance move, and you just might go viral.
8 — On a minor-league scale, we may be seeing a super team in the RailRiders. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre went 91-52 in the regular season, six games better than its closest competition in the IL. No PCL team won more than 83 games. (El Paso went 73-70.) Baseball played well is a thing of beauty, regardless of the level.
9 — Don’t take AutoZone Park for granted. Attendance seems to be climbing for Redbirds baseball, but it remains near the bottom of the Pacific Coast League standings for ticket sales. Frankly, it’s embarrassing to see the Nashville Sounds (affiliate of the Oakland A’s) outdraw Memphis by more than 2,000 tickets per game. Baseball is a business at AutoZone Park. We will get what we support, what we pay for. Tuesday night should be considered a day for the Memphis baseball community to say “Thank you” . . . or “We don’t care.”
• It would be hard to script a better feel-good weekend to conclude the season at AutoZone Park. On Friday — the day after a walk-off victory — the Redbirds greeted the 10 millionth fan to enter the gates at Third (now B.B. King) and Union. (The prizes presented this lucky family would fill a small warehouse.) Better yet, former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, visited the ballpark as part of a promotion for Habitat for Humanity. Then Saturday, the stadium drew its largest crowd of the season with announced attendance of 11,041.
• The Redbirds have suited up 56 players this season, matching a record set in 2002. But it isn’t so much the men who have played at AutoZone Park this summer who have written the season’s story. It’s more a tale of those who did not. Last March, the Redbirds’ middle-infield appeared to be Aledmys Diaz (shortstop) and Greg Garcia (second base). But when St. Louis Cardinal shortstop Jhonny Peralta broke his left thumb late in spring training, Diaz found himself with a promotion and proceeded to hit .312 for the Cards until he had his own digit damaged by an inside pitch in late July. When incumbent second-baseman Kolten Wong struggled in St. Louis, Garcia was called to help spur the offense and has since become an integral — and versatile — member of the Cardinal bench. Outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker would have been a middle-of-the-order presence in the Memphis lineup, but Tommy Pham went down with an injury on Opening Day. Since making his big-league debut, Hazelbaker has drilled 11 home runs for St. Louis, including four as a pinch-hitter.
Then there’s the pitching. The Cardinals’ top prospect, Alex Reyes, sat out the season’s first seven weeks, having been suspended for testing positive for marijuana. He made only 14 starts for the Redbirds before being called up to help the Cardinal bullpen. The system’s second-ranked starting pitcher, Luke Weaver, made a solitary start for Memphis (August 8th) before being promoted to St. Louis after Michael Wacha went to the disabled list with a shoulder injury. It’s a form of fantasy baseball, but imagine this Redbirds team with Reyes and Weaver making 40 percent of the starts. It’s highly unlikely they’d be 11 games under .500 and in the cellar of their division had such a scenario met with reality.
• The Redbirds are again near the bottom of the PCL in attendance, having sold 324,581 tickets for the season, an average of 4,704 per game (ahead of only Colorado Springs). The numbers don’t jibe with a stadium annually ranked among the finest in minor-league baseball, and in a city that has shown a passion for sports, from the high school level to the NBA. What are the factors that weigh on the AZP turnstile count?
This season’s schedule was odd. From April 15th to July 3rd, Memphis had but one home stand longer than four games. That’s a lot of starting and stopping when it comes to stadium operations, sales efforts, and building any momentum when it comes to engaging fans with the product on the field. As mentioned above, the team’s top stars this season were two pitchers who started a total of 15 games, only seven of them at home. And concession prices remain steep, as much as $8 for a beer or hamburger. Fireworks on Saturday night continue to attract larger crowds. Theme nights — from Star Wars to Christmas in July — add some color to the concourse. And the right promotion will draw crowds: More than 9,000 attended a pair of games where Yadier Molina jerseys and Adam Wainwright bobbleheads were distributed. But Tuesday night in May? Wednesday night in August? These are the white whales of minor-league baseball.
The Redbirds hit the 9,000 mark seven times this season after never hosting such a crowd in 2015, and total attendance was up more than 15 percent this season. So growth is evident. Can it be sustained?
• Next year will bring the 20th season of Redbirds baseball in Memphis. The anniversary would be a nice occasion for the club to start celebrating its history, and in a manner that would remind local baseball fans — for posterity’s sake — how glorious the team’s history has been at times. The Pujols Seat stands regally on the rightfield bluff, where Albert’s championship-winning home run landed way back in September 2000. Beyond that, there is nothing visual that would tell a casual fan that baseball was played at AutoZone Park the day before he or she walked through the gates.
Up in St. Louis, the parent Cardinals fly 11 flags representing each of the franchise’s World Series championships. The 11 years are painted as pennants above the home team’s dugout. Here in Memphis, you can find acknowledgment of the Redbirds’ two PCL championships (2000 and 2009) on a wall next to the batting cage, below the main concourse, and only with a credential for access.
The franchise’s lone retired number — Stubby Clapp’s 10 — was unceremoniously erased from the bullpen wall when the Cardinals retired the same number to honor Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa. Five former Redbirds have been honored as MVP of a League Championship Series: Adam Kennedy, Pujols, Placido Polanco, David Freese, and Michael Wacha. There’s no indication any of these stars once played in a Redbirds uniform. Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina have started more games as the Cardinal battery than any two men in the storied franchise’s history. They also played together in Memphis in 2004, as thousands who lined up for those promotional items well know. It’s time casual baseball fans are reminded about two decades of Redbirds history. Who knows? They might become more than casual fans.
Lots of people enjoy driving fast cars, but very few get to make a living at it. What’s the secret to your success?
Driving cars is something I’ve loved for as long as I can possibly remember, even before I could drive. I was consumed with cars. The first Top Fuel dragster I can remember was at Lakeland Dragway. I saw “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in a match race [in the mid-Seventies]. When I saw that . . . that’s what I wanted to do. The speed. The sounds. How excited people got.
The chances of me ever getting to this level was like winning the lottery. My parents didn’t have money. I grew up in a small grocery store, one my grandfather started. But driving a Top Fuel car was my dream. My parents did everything they possibly could do, but there was a catch: as long as I didn’t do it on the streets. They did all they could do to get me to the racetrack.
You’ve reached 333 mph in 1,000 feet. What does that feel like? Is it possible to describe?
It is, by far, the ultimate roller-coaster ride. I don’t think it’s the speed you feel so much as the acceleration. There’s nothing quicker on the planet. We’re talking 4.5 G’s when you step on the throttle. You become really strong when you’re strapped into one of those cars. Fight or flight kicks in. It’s your brain taking care of your butt. Your brain takes over and slows things down. The more you do it, obviously, the better you become.
You’ve won six championships in a sport that separates winners and losers by fractions of a second. What are the skills you’ve developed that distinguish you from your competitors?
This far into my career, it’s just being a veteran. Knowing what the car’s about to do. The most important thing in winning championships is “want-to.” My mama has always said I had the “want-to.” I was going to do this, no matter what. I was fortunate, in the right place at the right time.
Was there a breakthrough moment when you knew you could make a career out of drag racing?
That happened when I became friends with a young man named Peter Lehman, and he bought into my dream. He ended up buying some equipment and we went Top Fuel racing together. That was the start of all the championships. The first year we raced full time in Top Fuel (2000) we finished second in points. The following year was the first of six straight championships.
What’s the most important element to a car when it comes to winning a drag race? What do you and your team focus most upon?
The most important part of a race team is the people. No matter how good your crew chief is, no matter the parts and pieces you have . . . if the people assembling them aren’t 100-percent in tune, you have no chance. [A nine-member team supports Millican, with specialists for, among other areas, cylinder heads, tires, and the clutch.] These are full-time, dedicated racecar people.
You're a small guy (140 pounds), is that an advantage?
Absolutely. I actually get lighter when we’re traveling nonstop. By rule, the car has a weight minimum of 2,325 lbs. after a run. You can weigh as much as you want above that. We don’t have to buy exotic [lighter] materials to make sure the car meets minimum weight. And if we’re underweight, we can put parts in strategic places that make the car work better.
You must have suffered some mishaps. How has safety in drag racing evolved?
There are thousands and thousands of drivers who make runs at over 100 mph, which is crazy-fast on the highway, and you shouldn’t be doing. In general, yes, bad things happen and people get hurt. But if you look at the amount of people who do it and the amount who get hurt, drag racing is very safe. The sanctioning bodies require certain safety aspects. At my level, these rules are at their highest. Every year, the cars are actually sonic tested to check thickness of the tubing. And they’re safety-inspected every weekend. General things like seat belts (and these aren’t ordinary seat belts). We wear a super thick fire suit. I wear two pairs of flame-retardant socks. The interior of the car is built around me; it molds around my body. The cars are continually evolving.
You and your wife lost a son, Dalton, in a single-person motorcycle accident. Tell us about the BRAKES program, which will honor Dalton’s memory this weekend. [A driving school for teens, BRAKES stands for Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe.]
BRAKES was started by a driver named Doug Herbert, a fierce rival of mine. [Check out Doug Herbert-Clay Millican on YouTube.] He lost two sons in a car accident. I got over being mad at him at that point. I was already helping with the BRAKES program. I’ve visited a lot of local schools, starting with Munford High School, where I graduated. The response has been really good.
It’s for teens age 15 to 19, and it’s free. Ninety percent of all teenage drivers are going to have an accident. UNC-Charlotte has done a study on students who have been through the BRAKES program, and they are 64-percent less likely to have an accident. It’s incredible. Kids are put in real-world situations, with professional drivers. What happens when a car hydroplanes? What should you do? It’s going to happen at some point. [144 students will attend BRAKES classes this weekend at Memphis International Raceway. For information, go to putonthebrakes.org.]
Any career-building tips for aspiring young drivers?
Going back to what Mama says: If you want it bad enough, you can make it happen. I worked at the Kroger food warehouse on Airways for 11 years, racing locally every weekend. But I had the “want-to” bad enough that I made a career that’s almost 20 years now. Treat every single person you meet as if they may be the person that gives you the opportunity to become a professional racer. That’s what happened to me.
Someone had to play centerfield for the San Francisco Giants after Willie Mays. (It was Garry Maddox in 1973.) Someone had to take over third base for the Philadelphia Phillies after Mike Schmidt retired. (It was Charlie Hayes in 1989.) Soon enough, someone will have to squat behind home plate at Busch Stadium in St. Louis and assume the position occupied by Yadier Molina since Opening Day of the 2005 season. When that day arrives, the heir to the Cardinal catcher’s throne may well be Carson Kelly, currently donning the tools of ignorance for the Memphis Redbirds.
Kelly’s credentials behind the plate were established — and then some — last year when he earned a minor-league Gold Glove for his work behind the plate with Class A Palm Beach. These fielding honors (only nine of them, one for each position on the diamond) are awarded to players across all levels of the minor leagues, meaning Kelly was considered the finest-fielding backstop among those from rookie ball to Triple A. Making the honor all the more remarkable, 2015 was only Kelly’s second season as a fulltime catcher.
The 2012 draftee starred primarily as a third baseman at Westview High School in Portland, Oregon. He also played some shortstop and first base, even pitched a little. But after the 2013 season — Kelly’s first full year as a pro — Cardinal management approached him about shifting to what many consider the hardest position in team sports.
“Someone saw [catching] in me,” says Kelly. “I couldn’t find it. It was tough at the beginning, both on my body and the mental side. It was a project, in a sense. I had 51-percent of the vote, and [my coaches] had 49. My dad caught in high school and college, and was also a quarterback. It’s in my genes, the leadership and taking charge. I’m all about opportunities, taking it by the horns, and going after it.”
Hitting a baseball may be the hardest act in sports, but Kelly says he devotes at least 75 percent of his work to the defensive elements of his game. This may be the second great business decision of his young career, as the quickest way to the big leagues is excelling behind the plate. Few teams, if any, expect big offensive numbers from their catcher. But a backstop who is in control — who takes charge — of a pitching staff can make a significant impact.
“Early on, it was about having to squat three hours every night,” says Kelly, in evaluating his “project” to date. “Once I figured out how to take care of my body — the nutrition aspect of it — then it’s the mental side. Especially here in Triple-A. Every pitch, the pitch after that. Who they have coming up to hit. You’re looking over spray charts, video, where they hit in certain counts. I look at my brain as my toolbox. You take all this information and put it in the toolbox. That’s what they do in the big leagues; it’s all from your neck up.”
Alex Reyes — promoted to St. Louis last week — has pitched to Kelly for three teams over three seasons now and would love to become the Adam Wainwright to Kelly’s Yadier Molina. (Wainwright and Molina recently established a new Cardinal record for career starts by a battery.) “Carson’s made so many adjustments since he started [catching],” says Reyes. “He holds himself accountable, and he’ll hold me accountable too if he feels there’s something I need to do. That’s huge. If a catcher can’t handle a staff, he won’t have his job for too long. The way he’s worked so hard in the offseason . . . and his hitting is coming along. It’s always been fun throwing to him, the way he receives it.”
Kelly is quick to credit Cardinal manager Mike Matheny (a Gold Glove catcher during his playing days) and Molina for his rapid growth behind a catcher’s mask. He says Molina can identify the smallest details — tucking the thumb of your throwing hand to protect against foul balls for instance — that add up to a long career in shin guards and a chest protector. “I’ve gone to three big-league camps,” says Kelly, “and Yadi has always brought everything he can to help me. When he was younger, what helped him? He gets his work done, but he does a lot of teaching.”
Kelly made his Triple-A debut with the Redbirds on July 14th (his 22nd birthday) after hitting .287 in 64 games for Double-A Springfield. Through Sunday, he’s batted .293 in 21 games for Memphis. “Hitting will come,” he says. “You have to believe in yourself. I’m starting to balance the two, but keeping my defense where it needs to be.”
As his first season at the Triple-A level nears the end, Kelly recognizes how significantly close he’s come to his ultimate goal. “The pitchers have more command, a plan,” he says. “Everybody in the clubhouse has a plan, and a way they go about it. Some guys have big-league time. They know what they need to do to get back to the big leagues. The way they plan and process every bit of information . . . that’s rubbing off on me. I’m trying to get there. What do I need to do?”
As grand a spectacle as they’ve become — with more than six gajillion hours of television coverage! — there remains something quaint about the Summer Olympics. First of all, there’s the seasonal qualifier: the “summer games.” Life would be happier for everyone if we played more summer games. There would surely be less strife if we cared more about our time in the pool — or on the beach, with a volleyball! — than we did the politics of the day, to say nothing of the latest outbreak of disease or violence. Competition can be intense, for sure, but the Olympics are ultimately just two weeks of human beings playing.
The Summer Games, in particular, tend to leave us Americans with a star for the Wheaties boxes and soft-drink endorsements. Going back almost half a century, we’ve had Mark Spitz (1972), Bruce Jenner (as she was known in 1976), Mary Lou Retton and Carl Lewis (1984), the first and only true Dream Team (Magic, Michael, and Larry wearing the same uniform in 1992), Michael Johnson (1996), and Michael Phelps (2008). Now and then an “international” (to Americans) star grabs a seat at the table, as Jamaica’s Usain Bolt did four years ago in London (and will again this Sunday in Rio). The Olympics can also become a stage for infamy, from the horrific terrorist attack on the Israeli wrestling team in Munich 44 years ago to cheats like Ben Johnson (1988) and Marion Jones (2000). There will be scores of gold medalists over this fortnight in Brazil, but one or two names will become familiar for posterity.
Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky are the leading contenders for “Olympic darling.” Not even five feet tall, Biles will be a contender in all four women’s gymnastics events and Ledecky is the world-record holder in all three distance freestyle swims (400, 800, and 1,500 meters). Only at the Olympics — every four years — can two teenage girls seize the spotlight with the ferocity Biles and Ledecky will as they display talents developed through quadrennials (multiple) of training.
The Olympics also bring the obscure to the mainstream. When else might we turn away from Netflix long enough for some live judo? Did you know there are Olympics archers among us? Athletes who use bows and arrows with no deer in sight. They’ll be competing for gold in Rio. (One step further, there will be rifle competition at the Olympics. Tasteful in this day and age? I’ll leave that to you.) Men and women will ride horses, steer kayaks, bounce on trampolines (yes, trampolines!), and race bicycles, these two weeks being each athlete’s “one shining moment” in ways no college basketball player could imagine.
We’ll brush up on our geography as the Rio Games unfold. Can you point to Uzbekistan on a map? It’s the home of Oksana Chusovitina, a gymnast who happens to be 41 years old and will compete in her seventh(!) Olympics. Chusovitina was doing backflips at the ’92 Games in Barcelona, five years before Biles was born.
There are sports that don’t belong in the Olympics. Soccer has its World Cup and golf has four majors that pay winners seven-figure checks. Think Jordan Spieth would trade his Green Jacket for a gold medal? No chance. But these are the Summer Games. So we’ll cheer soccer players and golfers, too.
We’ve all done our share of running, even if it’s chasing an ice cream truck or fleeing a neighbor’s flesh-seeking canine. And whether at the beach or the hotel swimming pool, most of us have done versions of the breaststroke, if only to keep from drowning. With the exception of the high-flying (and sometimes leg-breaking) gymnasts, summer Olympians are typically competing within a familiar realm. As long as there are garages (for table tennis) and backyards (for badminton), each of us can claim to be an Olympian in training. And this, ultimately, is the magic of the Summer Games. We are the Olympics.
For various reasons, the 2016 season will be memorable for the Memphis Redbirds’ Alex Reyes. The 21-year-old pitcher (he turns 22 on August 29th) entered the season as the 7th-ranked prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America. The ranking was a tease for the season’s first seven weeks, though, as Reyes served a 50-game suspension for a positive marijuana test following his 2015 season (split between Class A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield). Even with his delayed Triple-A debut — a May 22nd outing at AutoZone Park in which Reyes struck out eight Fresno Grizzlies in four innings — the big righty was chosen to start for the World team in the annual Futures Game (an event that preceded the All-Star Game in San Diego). Tickling 100 mph on the radar gun with his fastball, Reyes struck out four and didn’t allow a run in an inning-and-two-thirds.
“That was my first chance to really show everyone my stuff,” says Reyes. “It was a fun experience, being on a big-league field. My father was in the stands. It was great, getting a small taste of what I feel the big leagues will be like. Being in the clubhouse with Moises Alou, having a one-on-one conversation . . . that was awesome. The first thing he told us was he wants to win. It was an all-star game, but it means something to a lot of people.”
In 12 starts for Memphis, Reyes is 2-2 with eight no-decisions. He has 79 strikeouts in only 55 innings, but with an ERA (5.07) that won’t make anyone forget Bob Gibson. As with most rising prospects at the Triple-A level, consistency and efficiency are qualities Reyes aims to strengthen before he takes up permanent residency in the St. Louis Cardinals’ rotation.
“I feel like I’m getting better,” says Reyes. “But [the Pacific Coast League] is a way different league than Double A. Guys here are a lot more experienced. You have some veteran hitters. A lot of guys have been in the big leagues. The results haven’t been there, but it’s been fun so far.”
Armed with every physical tool — starting with that three-figure fastball — Reyes is focusing on the subtleties of attacking hitters, and perhaps the most important tool in the box: his brain. “It’s not necessarily just throwing strikes,” he says. “It’s being able to throw down in the zone, being able to come up, go in. It’s being able to execute pitches whenever you want to, or when you really need them. Doing that on a more consistent basis . . . this is the level where that actually starts.”
“Alex has electric stuff,” says Redbirds catcher Carson Kelly, who first caught Reyes in 2014 at Class-A Peoria and won a minor-league Gold Glove last season. “Plus fastball. Plus curveball. He has the God-given ability, and now he’s putting the mindset and preparation into effect, which is the next step in getting to the big leagues. It’s fun being part of his development.”
The Cardinals’ current five-man rotation has been steady, if not stellar, this season. Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Mike Leake, and Jaime Garcia combined for every start until a pair of doubleheaders this month forced some juggling (including the promotion of Mike Mayers for a start on July 24th). With Lance Lynn presumably returning next season — he’s recovering from Tommy John surgery — St. Louis could have as many as six veteran starters blocking Reyes’s entry in the rotation. (The club has an option on Garcia’s contract.) Which means Reyes could follow the example of Martinez and begin his major-league career in the Cardinal bullpen.
“At the end of the day, I’d love to be a starter,” says Reyes. “But that’s a decision [the Cardinals] will make, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to give our team a chance to win. If they feel [bullpen work] is necessary to help the team win, I’m willing to do so.”
Reyes publicly apologized for his positive drug test and coped with his suspension the only way a pitcher can. He pitched. “It was tough when you see the rosters come out and players leave,” he says. “Mike Matheny took me into his office and told me how to handle the situation, to hold my head up. I was pitching every five days [in simulated games], up to 100 pitches.” With his extended work in Florida, Reyes figures he has close to 90 innings pitched this season, a number monitored as carefully in baseball circles as stock trends on Wall Street. He was removed after just three innings (and 57 pitches) in his most recent start — Tuesday at AutoZone Park — in case the Cardinals need him this weekend. (A pair of recent doubleheaders has thrown off the Cardinals’ rotation.)
Reyes credits Randy Niemann — his pitching coach at Class-A Palm Beach — with a philosophy he intends to incorporate on his climb up the Cardinal ladder. “One of the most important things he asked me was, ‘What did you do before you signed [with the Cardinals]?’ It opened my eyes. When you get signed, you want to change stuff, because you’re competing at a higher level. But at the end of the day, what they liked in you is what they saw. So why not go back to that and harness it? Pitch the way you feel comfortable, and better yourself that way.”
It may be only July, but I can’t recall a calendar year with as many significant losses (measured a few ways) in the world of sports. In one month alone — a span of 26 days in June, to be precise — the world lost Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, and Pat Summitt, each the face of his or her sport for multiple generations, transformative figures whose impact somehow exceeded their achievements in the arena of competition. Come December, these three will lead reviews of “those we lost” and not just in sports media.
But there are two other endings in sports, both traumatic in their own way to athletes and their fans. One is retirement, often called “the first death” for a person accustomed to the cheering of thousands as part of a workday. The second is the departure of a longtime franchise icon for another city and uniform, the shedding of one fan base — accompanied by emotional outbursts from one extreme to another — for a new band of loyalists ready to, as Jerry Seinfeld would have hit, cheer “the laundry” that much more.
Come November, five certifiable NBA superstars — each with at least one MVP trophy, either for the regular season or NBA Finals — will not be wearing the uniforms we grew to see as an extra layer of skin over the last decade.
• Laker legend Kobe Bryant retired in April, having completed the first 20-year career spent entirely with a single franchise in NBA history.
• Five years after earning MVP honors at the age of 22 with his hometown Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose was traded to the New York Knicks, the NBA’s island for misfit toys.
• After 13 years and three NBA titles with the Miami Heat, Dwyane Wade signed a two-year deal to essentially replace Rose as the face of the franchise in Chicago.
• In the biggest free agent exodus since LeBron James departed Cleveland for Miami, Kevin Durant waved goodbye to Oklahoma City — his professional home for eight years — and joined the Splash Brothers in Golden State, forming the greatest shooting trio in NBA history. How many shots Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are prepared to give up for Durant will be a swing factor in the latest super-team’s championship aspirations.
• Finally — and this felt most final among the NBA endings — Tim Duncan announced his retirement after 19 seasons and five championships with the San Antonio Spurs. No player in basketball history is more the perpetual Face of the Franchise than Duncan. The Celtics had Russell and Bird, the Lakers West, Kareem, Magic, and Kobe. Even Michael Jordan spent two seasons in a Washington Wizards uniform. A century from now, Tim Duncan’s will be the name NBA fans identify with the Spurs. His absence next season will be glaring, even if San Antonio wins a sixth title.
The Boston Red Sox will soon be searching for a new designated hitter, David Ortiz having announced his retirement after already accomplishing the unthinkable by winning three World Series in a Bosox jersey. At last week’s All-Star Game, the American League dugout emptied for players to hug Ortiz individually as he was removed for a pinch runner. Baseball gets endings better than most sports, perhaps because the institution has been around so very long, and seen so many departures.
Shortly after the All-Star Game rosters were announced, I tweeted my view that the game would be diminished without St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina in uniform. (Molina had been named to the team the previous seven years.) A few of my followers — Cardinal fans, most of them — liked the sentiment. One expressed dismay, though, pointing out Molina’s pedestrian numbers (.259 batting average, two home runs). He didn’t deserve to be an All-Star.
That critic was right, of course, as we measure sports season to season. There are (at least) three National League catchers with better numbers this season than the eight-time Gold Glove winner behind the plate in St. Louis. There are shinier stars with more popular “brands” than the 34-year-old backbone of two world championship teams, Molina’s best days likely behind him.
But that wasn’t the point I aimed to make. Molina is to the Cardinals as Ortiz has been to the Red Sox, as Wade was to the Heat and (to some degree) what Duncan was to the Spurs. Furthermore, like Bryant, Duncan, and Durant, Molina has enriched his sport by his level of play over an extended period of time. But that time is approaching its end. And it’s an ending I, for one, will not greet with enthusiasm.
All good things must come to an end? 2016 may already have its epitaph.