Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Five Tips for New Grizzlies Coach David Fizdale

Posted By on Tue, May 31, 2016 at 8:42 AM

David Fizdale
  • David Fizdale

David Fizdale will be formally introduced today as the eighth coach in Memphis Grizzlies history. Should he serve the full four years of his new contract, Fizdale will oversee a significant stretch in this franchise’s history. A few tips — suggestions, maybe — for the rookie boss man.

 • This is a one-team town, and proud of it. The Grizzlies are no longer an “expansion franchise.” The novelty of the Grizzlies’ arrival is now 15 years old. It’s over. The Grizzlies are Memphis and Memphis is the Grizzlies, with no other big-league franchise to help balance the headlines if things go sour at FedExForum. How you act and what you say will lead discussions — public and private — at least 82 mornings every season. Your words — and intentions — will be dissected more than those of our rookie mayor. This doesn’t mean you should take the job too seriously, Coach Fiz. But be sure and take it seriously enough.  

• Grit-and-Grind is proven. Three NBA franchises have made the playoffs the last six seasons. Just three. Atlanta (one of those seasons gets an asterisk, as the Hawks had a losing record), San Antonio (you’ve heard of the Spurs), and Memphis. Only the Spurs and Oklahoma City can match the Grizzlies’ streak of six consecutive winning seasons. This is one helluva first gig for an NBA coach. Appreciate it.

 • This ain’t Miami. I’ve never taken my talents to South Beach, but I can’t imagine a city more different in style and impression from Memphis, Tennessee. Forget white collar or blue collar . . . Memphis could be America’s only no-collar town. A T-shirt town, maybe a tank-top town. Pulled pork with a microbrew on a patio with a river view; that’s about as flashy as Memphis gets. We’re more about small bars with live bands that could fill larger halls but choose to play Memphis . . . because it’s Memphis.

Those small bars — Alex’s, the P & H, Max's, you name it — all have the Grizzlies on throughout the winter. The team is part of this city’s functionality, the way we look at ourselves. And yes, the way we sell ourselves to the rest of the country. Find your favorite gathering place (or places), Coach Fizdale. You’ll feel at home without the neon.

 • Friends come and go. This will be the most challenging component of your new job, at least as measured on a macro scale. If you’re here four years, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen — both franchise icons and part of the current six-year playoff run — will likely be elsewhere when it comes time for a contract renewal. How this roster transition is managed will go a long way in determining if a postseason streak continues. Mike Conley’s pending free agency will be the first domino, and a big one. Marc Gasol’s injured right foot is a size-20 variable. We hear you get along with everyone, Coach. How you say goodbye will be as important to your job status here as how you say hello.

 • Identify opportunities when they appear. The Grizzlies won’t be the only franchise in transition the next few years. That San Antonio triumvirate is finally nearing the finish line. Kevin Durant has a big decision to make, one that could reshape the Western Conference, if not the entire NBA. Utah appears to be rising, Dallas falling. You and general manager Chris Wallace are tasked with seeing the big picture better than any of us media types, better than the season-ticket holders, better than the barflies in the Z-Bo jerseys. The NBA is, has been, and will always be about match-ups. Find the match-ups that make the Grizzlies a championship contender, and settle for nothing else. You’ve already mentioned a parade down Beale Street. This makes you, already, one of us.

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Monday, May 23, 2016

Redbirds Report Increased Attendance at AZP

Posted By on Mon, May 23, 2016 at 9:31 AM

Alex Reyes - MLB.COM
  • MLB.com
  • Alex Reyes

It is the ever-present riddle of minor-league baseball: Does winning matter? I’ve sat in AutoZone Park for a Pacific Coast League playoff game — featuring a Redbirds team that obviously did its share of winning — with fewer than 3,000 fans in the stadium. On the other hand, I’ve been in the same ballpark on a Saturday night — fireworks! — in June, the team well out of contention, and more than 10,000 fans in attendance.

So, no, the business of Memphis Redbirds baseball does not require the team to win for profitability. (The only guarantee of profitability in the minor leagues would be seventy Saturday games, all of them followed by fireworks.) With almost two months of the 2016 season now in the books, Redbirds attendance is up, by one measure 23 percent. The team sold an average of 3,631 tickets through the first 20 games of 2015 and through 20 openings this season, it was 4,487. (This year’s figure ranked 12th in the 16-team Pacific Coast League. A year ago, Memphis was last with an average of 4,037.)

Better yet, on April 23rd (a Saturday, with fireworks of course) the Redbirds enjoyed their first sellout (10,171) since the dramatic stadium renovations prior to the 2015 season. Three Saturdays later, ticket sales hit 9,038, a figure the team never reached a year ago. Then 9,756 last Saturday. (In 2015, the Redbirds didn’t sell as many as 8,000 tickets to a game until July 3rd and never topped 9,000.) The increased attendance figures are also passing the eye test. Concession lines were uncomfortably long at times during each of those big Saturday nights. It’s one thing to sell tickets. The Redbirds have to get those ticket-buyers into the stadium and in line for hot dogs.

What about the baseball these larger crowds are seeing? Through Sunday, the Redbirds were 17-23, five games behind first-place Round Rock in their division of the PCL. Memphis is dead last in the PCL in runs scored (158 through Sunday), but pitching has kept the Redbirds in games (3.99 ERA, third in the PCL). If the AutoZone Park box office continues to hum this summer, on-field improvement would be merely a bonus.

• Redbird fans — at least those who track prospects — have been spoiled by recent Memphis rosters. Stephen Piscotty spent three months last year in the Redbirds outfield. In 2014, Randal Grichuk hit 25 homers for Memphis before earning a late-season promotion to St. Louis. Kolten Wong starred at second base for the 2013 Redbirds while Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez combined to win 10 games for Memphis. Matt Adams led the 2012 Redbirds with 18 home runs and Matt Carpenter hit .300 for the 2011 team. You can find all seven of these players currently filling prominent roles for the Cardinals.

But good luck identifying the next player to make the leap from AutoZone Park to Busch Stadium. Infielder Greg Garcia has already made an impact with the Cardinals — he had six hits in 10 at-bats off the bench in April — but lost his spot in St. Louis with the emergence of Aledmys Diaz, an early candidate for National League Rookie of the Year. When shortstop Jhonny Peralta returns from hand surgery, Garcia’s return to the big leagues will get that much steeper. Outfielder Tommy Pham is (again) rehabbing after an early season oblique strain, but Jeremy Hazelbaker has played the role of fourth outfielder quite well (seven home runs) for the Cardinals.

As for players like Dean Anna, Charlie Tilson, Anthony Garcia, or Mike Ohlman, there would have to be significant turnover in St. Louis for them to be considered big-league options. Among pitchers, only closer Sam Tuivailala and his radar-breaking fastball appear ready for prime time. Dean Kiekhefer made his major-league debut earlier this month when Seth Maness was placed on the disabled list. He’ll find innings hard to come by in a Cardinal bullpen packed with Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, and Seung-hwan Oh.

The biggest name on the Redbirds’ roster is 21-year-old hurler Alex Reyes, just back from a 50-game suspension for marijuana use. Reyes is the seventh-ranked prospect in all of baseball (according to Baseball America), and the only Cardinal farmhand in the top 100. He struck out eight Fresno Grizzlies in four innings Sunday, while not allowing a run and teasing 100 mph on the radar gun. A few more outings like that — along with continued face-plants in the St. Louis rotation — and Reyes could find a promotion slip in his locker.

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Monday, May 16, 2016

Kirsten Sass, Champion Triathlete Readies for Memphis in May Triathlon

Posted By on Mon, May 16, 2016 at 9:35 AM

Kirsten Sass knows triathlons. The 37-year-old mother of two will compete in this Sunday’s Memphis in May Triathlon as the defending women’s champion, having completed the Millington course — a 1.5-kilometer swim, 40K bike ride, and 10K run — in 2:02:18 a year ago. The victory was her sixth in the event since finishing last in her age group in 1999 (the first time she competed). In 2009, Sass completed the triathlon while four-months pregnant with her first child. She was twice named Women’s Triathlete of the Year by USA Triathlon (2013 and 2015).

Kirsten Sass with husband, Jeff, (as Elvis).
  • Kirsten Sass with husband, Jeff, (as Elvis).

Having completed more than 100 triathlons, Sass has more than a little insight about the endeavor. The McKenzie, Tennessee, native shared some thoughts on what invigorates a modern triathlete.

What’s your favorite element of a triathlon?

My passion is the bike. My dad got me running when I was little, but there’s something about the bike that I really love. When it comes to bike, I’m where I want to be.

How about the most challenging?

Swimming is my challenge point, the [leg where] I feel I have the most improvement to make. I’m still working on that. The most painful part is the mental aspect, even more than the physical. Being able to push through those barriers. You can actually go faster if you can get through that mind block. It’s the fourth aspect of a triathlon. When you train for individual parts [of a race], you know what you’re capable of doing. But there’s something during a race, when your mind is constantly telling you to slow down, or it’s hurting. To a certain extent, you have to know when that’s true and when it’s just your mind telling you that . . . that you can push through and reach your true potential. A lot of us limit ourselves because we back off when we have the potential to do more.

At what stage of a triathlon do you find yourself “in a zone,” that place endurance athletes fight to achieve?

You can get into a flow state, where you know you’re where you need to be for that point in the race. It’s like a sweet spot, where you’re pushing yourself to your capability but not over that red line. You let your mind shut down, your body take over, and go with it. Sometimes you can go a whole race like that. Other times you start the swim and you’re in the flow, something happens, and you fall out of it. Gotta find that spot again. It can be in and out.

What’s your diet during training?

I try to eat as fresh and natural as possible. I don’t eat a lot of meat anymore. I limit my grains; I don’t eat any pasta. Basically my only carbs other than vegetables is white rice occasionally. I’m lucky that I have a husband who loves to cook, and he cooks that way. That makes it easier. [Kirsten’s husband, Jeff, also makes a decent Elvis impersonator, as pictured here.]

[On race day], I use a product called UCAN, a super-starch. It helps me avoid blood-sugar spikes and bonking. I get up, have a couple of boiled eggs, a little bit of rice, a banana with almond butter, and I drink a UCAN with protein in it. Even in a marathon, I don’t have to eat anything after that. Now, recovery is paramount afterwards. I’ll have a salad with boiled eggs and another UCAN after I finish.

How much sleep do you get?

As much as I can. I get teased. I have two little kids, and the earlier I can get them to bed, the better. Ideally I’m in bed by 8:00 or 9:00 and usually I’m up by 4:00 or 5:00 to train before getting the kids to school.

Tell us about the Millington course. What’s the most challenging stretch?

I love that course. The most challenging stretch is the run; it can be pretty hot. You’ll know if you pushed it too hard on the bike. The best part of that course is the finish-line stretch, running across that levee. It’s pretty cool.

Do you have a favorite memory from the Memphis in May triathlon?

I went to the University of Western Ontario, and that’s where I first got into triathlons. For years and years, I had a group of friends who would come down from Canada for the race. Those are my best memories. The first thing we’d set up was our transition area for after the race. We’d set up our blankets and chairs so we could enjoy the food and music. The guys would have Elvis chop competitions; see who could grow the biggest chops.

Your kids (Alyssabella is now 6, Sebastian 4) are nearing an age when they can begin endurance sports. Will they be triathletes?

They love to swim. They love to ride their bikes. And they love to run. But right now, they have no interest in racing, not even a fun-run for kids. I’m okay with that. They’re active, and that’s the main thing. If they come into it one day, that would be great. They’re playing soccer now.

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Monday, May 9, 2016

Preferred Playoffs: Hockey

Posted By on Mon, May 9, 2016 at 10:01 AM

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“Funny thing about all this is . . . I turned to [FoxSports] Midwest to watch the Cardinals game but the Blues were on and s*#t got REAL.”
— New hockey fan (and Twitter sensation) Tony X

The Memphis Grizzlies’ season ended earlier than we’d like. The NBA playoffs carry on, of course, with LeBron James’s inevitable march to the Finals. (Which uniform he’s currently wearing doesn’t matter.) The only real hardwood drama centers on Steph Curry’s knee injury and how damaging it will prove to be in Golden State’s efforts to win a second straight championship. I’ve been less than enthused.

But we have an alternative: the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Among the seven teams still in contention for the greatest trophy in sports are two — the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators — that play a short drive from Memphis. If you need a rooting interest, adopt one of these regional franchises and tune in. (Full disclosure: I’m a long-suffering Blues fan.) You’ll find countless elements of playoff hockey that the NBA can merely approximate. Here are a few.

• The game-flow of hockey is longer, steadier, and more energizing than any team sport this side of soccer. A typical NBA game takes 150 minutes to play, with precisely 48 minutes of action. That’s 32-percent of your viewing time. (Ten men in uniform standing still is not action. Free throws have never entertained me.) In the same viewing time, you see 60 minutes of hockey, and the action percentage (40 percent) is skewed by the fact that hockey has two intermissions. You can actually choose which “halftime” is preferable for a beverage run. The clock doesn’t stop in hockey for substitutions (there’s art to a line change). Fouls — they’re called penalties — result in a man-advantage for one team, increasing the likelihood of a goal being scored. No men standing still, not even the goalies.

• For baseball fans, hockey has sticks. For football fans, hockey has helmets, shoulder pads, and hits. Lots of bone-rattling hits. And any player who takes a dive (read this, Manu Ginobili) will only be hit harder the next time he’s on the ice.

• For a fan with rooting interest, sudden-death overtime hockey is the impatient anticipation of agony. Basketball can only achieve this with a shot to win at the buzzer. That precise moment exists for as long as two hockey teams play overtime. Last Thursday, the Predators needed 51 minutes of overtime — almost an entire second game — to beat San Jose and even their series at two games apiece. When agony is averted, the high of an overtime victory is as pure as any in sports.

• With the Chicago Blackhawks (three recent championships) and L.A. Kings (two) out of the mix, the Stanley Cup will be raised next month by a team that feels fresh. No NHL team has played longer (49 years) without ever winning the Cup than St. Louis. Nashville and San Jose have never so much as reached the final series. Among teams still alive, Pittsburgh is the most recent champ, and few players remain from the Penguins’ 2009 victory parade. If Curry’s knee recovers, the Warriors will win the NBA title. If they don’t, the Spurs will. If the Spurs don’t, LeBron will. Yawn.

• The Stanley Cup is to the Larry O’Brien Trophy as a Ferrari is to a Honda sedan. It’s three feet tall and weighs 34 pounds. Best of all, the name of every player from every championship team is engraved on bands that wrap around the trophy. (When the bands cover the Cup entirely, the oldest is removed and placed on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.) A fourth-line winger for last year’s champs is engraved in precisely the same size and font as the letters that spell “Gordie Howe” and “Wayne Gretzky.” The Stanley Cup is somehow both gloriously elite and democratic at the same time. It’s marched — in gloved hands, over a red carpet — to center ice before being presented to the captain of each year’s champion. It’s then skated around the ice by every last member of the team. Backup goalies are superstars for 30 seconds.

Make time for some playoff hockey. And let me know when we have an elimination game in the NBA Finals.

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Monday, May 2, 2016

"Earnhardt Nation" — The Intimidator Lives

Posted By on Mon, May 2, 2016 at 9:21 AM

Dale Earnhardt would have put a bumper to the devil if need be. - from Earnhardt Nation (Harper) by Jay Busbee
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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.

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Monday, April 25, 2016

2016 Grizzlies: Broken and (Finally) Beaten

Posted By on Mon, Apr 25, 2016 at 9:19 AM

LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

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.

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Monday, April 11, 2016

2016 Memphis Redbirds: First Impressions

Posted By on Mon, Apr 11, 2016 at 10:29 AM

Sam Tuivailala
  • Sam Tuivailala

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.

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Monday, April 4, 2016

2016 St. Louis Cardinals Preview

Posted By on Mon, Apr 4, 2016 at 9:31 AM

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The St. Louis Cardinals are unaccustomed to playing the role of hunters. Having won the last three National League Central titles and no fewer than 100 games last season (despite ace Adam Wainwright and slugger Matt Holliday missing significant time with injuries), the Cardinals enter the 2016 campaign in the shadow of the Chicago Cubs. Having signed a pair of significant free-agent cogs from last year’s Cardinal roster — outfielder Jason Heyward and pitcher John Lackey — the South Siders are the trendy pick to win the World Series and end the most famous dry spell (now 107 years) in American sports. Centered around two of baseball’s strongest young hitters (Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant), the Cubs are flexing under Joe Maddon, who was named 2015 National League Manager of the Year despite his team finishing third in the Central Division.

These longtime rivals met in the postseason for the first time last October and the Cardinals were eliminated in a division series at Wrigley Field, as disheartening a finish to a season as any in four years under manager Mike Matheny. St. Louis looked injured, old, and tired, particularly in contrast to the youthful vigor that fueled Chicago’s run to the NLCS. Was that series a tipping point in what has been a one-sided “rivalry” for generations? The next six months — and 19 games played between the two teams — will clarify just how far the Cubs have risen and if, in fact, a glorious era of Cardinal baseball has entered its sunset years.

Even without Wainwright (who missed virtually the entire season with an Achilles rupture), the 2015 Cardinal pitching staff posted the lowest team ERA (2.94) since the 1988 New York Mets. And in a season of conditional qualifiers, the biggest “if” facing the 2016 Cardinals hovers above their starting rotation. Michael Wacha has an ace’s repertoire but wore down last season, posting a 4.01 ERA in the second half after making the All-Star team with a 2.93 mark in the first. Carlos Martinez enters his second season as a member of the rotation after being shut down before last season’s playoffs with shoulder tenderness. Jaime Garcia’s health has been a coin flip for most of his six seasons with St. Louis. With Lance Lynn shelved by Tommy John surgery, this leaves the newly acquired Mike Leake as perhaps the steadiest arm in the mix. (Leake made at least 30 starts each of the last five seasons with Cincinnati and San Francisco.) If — that word – these five pitchers stay healthy, St. Louis will have the best National League rotation west of New York, enough to keep the Cubs within arm’s length.

A healthy Matt Holliday (another “if”!) would boost a Cardinal offense that finished last season 11th in the National League in runs scored. (The Cardinals became the third team in major-league history to win 100 games while averaging fewer than four runs per game.) Holliday’s return should offset the loss — for at least three months — of shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who drove in 71 runs last year but injured his left thumb during spring training and required surgery. (St. Louis signed former Met Ruben Tejada — a career .255 hitter — to man the position, though he’s started the season on the disabled list.) With Holliday (now 36) and Yadier Molina (33) climbing toward middle age, the heart of the Cardinal lineup may soon shift to a pair of recent Memphis Redbirds: outfielders Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty. Each is capable of more than 20 home runs and upwards of 90 RBIs.

If you’re looking for a swing factor — beyond the starting pitchers’ health — for the 2016 Cardinals, you might focus on the bench. Gone are the likes of Pete Kozma, Peter Bourjos, and Tony Cruz, members of a punchless group of reserves last season. New to the roster are infielder Jedd Gyorko (49 homers in three seasons with San Diego), catcher Brayan Pena (a .260 career hitter), and another former Memphis outfielder, Tommy Pham (.327 in 48 games with Memphis last year).

Last season was a rarity, one in which both the Cardinals and Cubs contended for the National League pennant. Count on 2016 being an encore of sorts.

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Monday, March 28, 2016

Final Four-gettable?

Posted By on Mon, Mar 28, 2016 at 9:11 AM

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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.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Craig Unger on the Latest Sale of the Memphis Redbirds

Posted By on Tue, Mar 8, 2016 at 2:09 PM

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.

Memphis Redbirds GM Craig Unger
  • Memphis Redbirds GM Craig Unger

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.

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Monday, February 29, 2016

Leap of Faith: Memphis-Style

Posted By on Mon, Feb 29, 2016 at 9:17 AM

The next time I can post a column on February 29th will be 208 weeks from now, so I’m making the most of this chance. Come 2020, Tokyo will be aiming to improve on the Summer Games of Rio (the Zika virus a distant memory). Each of the local sports tales below could well be written by the time Hillary Clinton — or Donald Trump, or Bernie Sanders — begins a re-election campaign. I’ll let you attach the year for each.

• For the first time in University of Memphis football history, the Tigers will play for a conference championship. With their 37-27 win over Oklahoma State at the Liberty Bowl, the Tigers clinched the Big 12’s Eastern Division crown and will face Baylor in a game that could land the winner in the College Football Playoff. Brady Davis became the first Memphis quarterback to surpass 4,000 yards in a season as he tossed four touchdown passes in a game that saw Memphis accumulate 584 yards of offense against the Cowboys. U of M coach Mike Norvell expressed pride in his team’s 10-2 regular season, but emphasized the work that remains. “Our first goal in spring camp every year,” he stressed, “is to win the Big 12. As good as this feels, we haven’t done that yet. But we’re relatively healthy after a long regular season and we intend to be at our best next week in Dallas.”
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• For the first time since the Final Four season of 2007-08, the Memphis Tigers will enter conference play undefeated. With a 79-71 victory over Arkansas in front of 17,487 at FedExForum, the Tigers improved to 12-0. Judging by the perspiration on the brow of Tiger coach Penny Hardaway after the game, the vibe of this team’s early-season run has approximated the playing days of at least one former Tiger great.

“I guess when you’re coaching,” said Hardaway, “you soak up the energy and excitement of your players. I’ve never felt younger. Chandler Lawson and D.J. Jeffries are special players and I love being their coach. I just wish I could be their teammate for one game.” Lawson led Memphis with 22 points and 9 rebounds while Jeffries added 16 points, hitting six of nine shots from the field.

The Tigers will enjoy a week off before opening Big 12 play on December 30th at Iowa State. They return to FedExForum on January 4th when third-ranked Kansas comes to town.

• The fans streamed out of FedExForum onto Beale Street, confetti stuck to their sweaty cheeks, the “Finally Memphis!” growl towels turning the June night a distinct shade of gold. It had actually happened. With their 114-103 win over Chicago in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, the Memphis Grizzlies were champions of the basketball universe. That crazy notion that Kevin Durant would take his talents to the Bluff City can now be viewed as the savvy decision of a Hall of Fame-bound superstar who recognized championship-caliber teammates in Marc Gasol and (finally an All-Star) Mike Conley. Durant’s 38 points in the Game 6 win clinched the Finals MVP trophy and put to rest — permanently — any lingering doubts about his big-game capability.

In the jubilant postgame locker room, there was but one question from a reporter that caused Durant’s cheek-splitting smile to flatten: Did the Grizzlies simply win a title that would have been Cleveland’s had LeBron James not been injured in the Eastern Conference finals? “You know,” answered Durant, tilting his head in quasi-aggravation, “the ’94 Rockets loved seeing Michael Jordan on a baseball field. But no one’s taking away their championship. And no one’s taking this away from us. Ever.” The NBA-champion Memphis Grizzlies. It’s now in the book. Forever.



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Monday, February 8, 2016

A Memphis Tennis Top 40

Posted By on Mon, Feb 8, 2016 at 9:01 AM

Jimmy Connors - MEMPHIS OPEN
  • Memphis Open
  • Jimmy Connors

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.

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Monday, January 25, 2016

Super Bowl 50: Get Ready for “Fifty Fest”

Posted By on Mon, Jan 25, 2016 at 10:00 AM

Cam Newton and Peyton Manning - ZIMBIO
  • Zimbio
  • Cam Newton and Peyton Manning

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

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Monday, January 11, 2016

Junior's Generation: Ken Griffey Jr. In the HOF

Posted By on Mon, Jan 11, 2016 at 9:07 AM

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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.

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Monday, January 4, 2016

Memphis Sports 2016: Change is Coming

Posted By on Mon, Jan 4, 2016 at 9:05 AM

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.

ZBo: Will he stay? - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • ZBo: Will he stay?

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.

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