Monday, July 11, 2016

Redbirds, Cardinals, and MLB All-Star Musings

Posted By on Mon, Jul 11, 2016 at 11:59 AM

The St. Louis Cardinals' Aledmyz Diaz
  • The St. Louis Cardinals' Aledmyz Diaz

Tuesday night’s All-Star Game marks baseball’s midseason point, a four-day break (for players not in All-Star uniforms) during which we sharpen focus toward what might be, what could be, and what will be come October.

• There’s a reasonable chance the 2016 season will end with a Great Lakes Series. If it does, an armada of fans could turn Lake Michigan and/or Lake Erie into a scene from some twisted, pinstriped version of Game of Thrones. The Chicago Cubs, most fans know, haven’t won a World Series since 1908 and haven’t even reached the Fall Classic since 1945. Then you have the Cleveland Indians, a franchise that hasn’t won the Series since 1948. Combined, that’s 176 Octobers of “wait till next year” for fan bases that now find themselves atop MLB’s two Central divisions. Until July hit, the Cubs appeared on their way to 110 wins. The Indians recently reeled off a 14-game winning streak behind stars — Francisco Lindor, Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber — most fans wouldn’t recognize in street clothes. (Each will be in San Diego for the All-Star Game.)

There are other teams that will have a say in how this script unfolds. Remember, it’s been eight years since the San Francisco Giants — owners of the most wins (57) at the break — did not win the World Series in an even year. But for the Cubs and Indians to be standard-bearers at the All-Star break is healthy for the sport.

• A year after a record six former Memphis Redbirds suited up for the All-Star Game, there will be only one such player — St. Louis Cardinal shortstop Aledmys Diaz — in San Diego. (Matt Carpenter was named to the team shortly before straining his oblique muscle and going on the disabled list.) Diaz is hitting .315 with 13 home runs and 48 RBIs for St. Louis and is a candidate for National League Rookie of the Year. This will be the first MLB All-Star Game since 2006 without multiple former Redbirds in uniform.

• The Triple-A All-Star Game will be played Wednesday night in Charlotte. Relief pitcher Ryan Sherriff (3-0, 2.20 ERA) will be the lone Memphis representative at the event. A factoid Sherriff would do well to ignore: Only two Redbirds (Dan Haren and Michael Wacha) have played in the Triple-A All-Star Game and then later appeared in the Midsummer Classic. What to make of this oddity? Well, it’s really not that odd. Young players talented enough to eventually become Major League All-Stars don’t typically play at the Triple-A level long enough to capture an All-Star nod. Look for Cardinal rightfielder Stephen Piscotty — a 2014 Triple-A All-Star – to join Haren and Wacha in this exclusive club someday soon.

• On the subject of the Redbirds, Memphis may be the only team in the Pacific Coast League not glad the All-Star break is here. The Redbirds enter the hiatus having won five straight games and 21 of their last 31 to climb above .500 (45-44) and within three games of first place in their division of the PCL (behind Nashville). They’ll resume play with the first of eight road games Thursday, a trip that will take them to Albuquerque and El Paso. Which means the Redbirds could be a first-place club by the time they return to AutoZone Park on July 22nd.

• There’s a statistical oddity involving the Cardinals I like to share this time of year. It’s been 42 years now since a Cardinal player has homered in the All-Star Game, the longest such drought for any franchise in the major leagues. Who connected in a St. Louis uniform at the 1974 game in Pittsburgh? Outfielder Reggie Smith, who entered the game for Pete Rose in the sixth inning. Considering Diaz is unlikely to get more than a single at-bat Tuesday night, look for this “curse” to live on another year, at least.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Pat Summitt: 1952-2016

Posted By on Tue, Jun 28, 2016 at 9:59 AM

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My wife was an all-state soccer player in Vermont. One of my daughters was recently named to the “Best of Preps” All-Metro softball team. My other daughter completed middle school in May having won no fewer than six county championships (three in soccer, three in softball). For two generations, this has seemed like the natural order of things for female athletes. When Pat Summitt coached her first basketball game at the University of Tennessee in 1974, it wasn’t natural, and there was no order.

Summitt died early Tuesday at the age of 64 after a painfully brief battle with Alzheimer’s disease (diagnosed in 2011). Arguably the most significant woman in college sports history, Summitt won more game (1,098) than any Division I coach, male or female. She led the Lady Vols to eight national championships, including a 1997-98 season in which Tennessee went 39-0. Summitt was named Sportswoman of the Year by Sports Illustrated in 2011 and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama the next year. Perhaps most impressive of all, over Summitt’s 38 years as Tennessee’s coach, every player who stayed with her program four years left UT with a degree.

My parents met at the University of Tennessee in the early 1960s and I was born in Knoxville (even before Summitt won her first game). I’ve got orange in my blood. While my parents were both only children, I’ve long considered a certain coach “Aunt Pat.” And 18 years ago, I came one appendectomy away from finally meeting her.

In late-April 1998, shortly after completing that undefeated season, Summitt came to Memphis on a book tour, promoting Reach for the Summitt, a motivational guide for achievement written by a farm girl from Clarksville, Tennessee, who could motivate with merely a few seconds of The Glare. So piercing, so physical, Summitt’s blue eyes delivered messages to her players that needed no supplemental verbiage. (I often wondered how a heavyweight champion would handle Coach Summitt in a pre-match stare down. Actually, I know who’d blink.) I made plans to get in line at what was then called Davis-Kidd Booksellers and finally shake the hand of Aunt Pat.

It wasn’t meant to be. Stabbing pain the morning of Coach Summitt’s visit led me to Methodist University Hospital where I ended up on a surgeon’s table right about the time the author began greeting her fans in east Memphis. When I awoke, though, my wife — that all-state soccer player, remember — had a signed copy of Summitt’s book waiting in my room. “To Frank and Sharon, Pat Summitt.” She had made it to the book signing and back to the hospital in time to greet her appendix-free husband with a gift for the ages. I like to envision Summitt giving Sharon The Glare when she learned of my wife’s double-duty that day.

My first daughter arrived in 1999. Among Sofia’s first major sporting events — before her first birthday — was a 2000 NCAA tournament game at the Pyramid, a Lady Vols win over Virginia. (Tennessee fell short that March in its attempt to win four straight NCAA titles.) That was the closest Sofia came to meeting Pat Summitt. The best we can do now is a pilgrimage to the larger-than-life-sized statue now standing on the UT campus, a trip we’ll make soon.

Every Lady Vols media guide includes “Coach Summitt’s Definite Dozen,” instructions not just for being a championship-caliber basketball player, but a human being capable of making an impact on others. Among them:

• Develop and demonstrate loyalty.

• Discipline yourself so no one else has to.

• Make hard work your passion.

• Put the team before yourself.

• Change is a must.

• Handle success like you handle failure.

Not long after I became a father, I wrote Aunt Pat a letter, emphasizing how I intended to incorporate many of her standards in raising my own daughter (soon enough, two daughters). She replied with the signed photo you see here (two national championships still in her future). My daughters didn’t turn into basketball players, and they’ll never feel The Glare personally. But rest assured, Pat Summitt has influenced them. They’re athletes, you see. Young women practicing daily perhaps the most valuable of Summitt’s “Definite Dozen”: Be a competitor.

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Friday, June 17, 2016

RIP George Lapides

Posted By on Fri, Jun 17, 2016 at 9:54 AM

George Lapides - SPORTS56
  • Sports56
  • George Lapides
Memphis is a different place today. And for those of us who pay attention to sports, it will be different the rest of our lives. With the passing of George Lapides, the Bluff City has lost the closest thing to a sport-media institution it has known. And with the Internet Age upon us, no sports journalist — current or future — will carry the weight Lapides did for a half-century in this town.

From his days as a reporter with the Press-Scimitar, to a stint as general manager of the Memphis Chicks (when Bo Jackson made the team national news), to his pioneering efforts on local sports-talk radio, Lapides sat at the head of the table when discussion turned to sports. He was an unabashed fan of the St. Louis Cardinals (sound familiar?) but didn’t hesitate to throw verbal punches when his favorite franchise — or any other — strayed beyond the boundaries of good performance (or behavior).

He often came across as grouchy on the air, and his digressions in support of sponsors took brand loyalty to a previously unreached extreme. (George was as savvy a businessman as he was a journalist.) But George Lapides, to his core, was devoted to Memphis and any cause that could benefit this city.

The last conversation George and I shared was during a media event at AutoZone Park in 2015. I liked to ask him stories about the Cardinals, knowing he was one of the few people on the planet who might share a tale I hadn’t already heard. George mentioned the time he was in a big-league clubhouse at spring training (not the Cardinals’ facility) when he asked a familiar player if he’d get an autograph from a Hall-of-Fame bound teammate for a loyal reader of the Press-Scimitar. (The loyal “reader” was actually blind and would call the Press-Scimitar sports department the morning after her favorite player had a game to ask how he’d done the night before.) The future Hall of Famer refused, and made a racially insensitive comment about Memphis. That player — at that moment — was crossed off George Lapides’s friends list, and rightfully so. (The story not being mine, I’m not comfortable sharing the name of the baseball star.) George loved sports and particularly baseball. But not as much as he loved Memphis.

I’m hurting especially for George’s family. Upon being hired by Memphis magazine in May 1992, my first supervisor was George’s son, David. The younger Lapides was on his way to grad school in Texas at the end of the summer, and I was hired to replace him as assistant to the publisher. I was nervous, hopeful (but unsure) that I could begin a career in journalism. David Lapides made me feel at home, helped me sharpen my focus, and pointed me in a direction I’ve followed to this day. He and his family have been in Calgary for years and we haven’t communicated much over the last two decades. But he’s a friend and I know what it’s like to lose your father. Please have David and the rest of the Lapides family in your thoughts.

One of my daughters recently finished an outstanding three years as a middle-school softball player. There were tears at the season-ending party, but Elena’s coach offered some wisdom, attributed to Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” Memphis will long be smiling because George Lapides happened. May he rest in peace.

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Monday, June 13, 2016

The St. Louis Cardinals' Memphis Mafia

Posted By on Mon, Jun 13, 2016 at 9:18 AM

Thanks to a playoff format that grants two wild-card entries in each league, the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals are clinging to life as contenders in the National League. Trailing the Chicago Cubs by nine games, the Cardinals stand little chance of winning a fourth straight NL Central championship. But through Sunday’s games, St. Louis is tied with the Mets atop “the fourth division,” the wild-card race.

Five recent Memphis Redbirds will have a lot to say about whether or not St. Louis reaches the postseason a sixth year in a row. Here’s a breakdown of what we’ve seen from this quintet . . . and what we might expect as summer heats up.

Stephen Piscotty — Jason Heyward is a very good rightfielder. He won a Gold Glove and helped the Cardinals win 100 games last season before signing a fat free-agent contract with the Chicago Cubs. Judging by the standings today, Heyward is a wise man. But judging by the numbers Heyward has produced compared with those of Piscotty, the Cardinals have upgraded rightfield and at a little over two percent(!) of the salary Chicago is paying Heyward this year ($21.6 million). Through Sunday, Heyward is hitting .240, with 4 home runs and 22 RBIs for the North Siders. Piscotty’s figures: 308, 7, and 35. Piscotty has a cannon for an arm with range to match Heyward’s. The Stanford alum should be batting third (or fourth) in St. Louis for years to come.

Aledmys Diaz
  • Aledmys Diaz

Aledmys Diaz — Shortstop has been a developmental blind spot for the Cardinals’ system. Brendan Ryan, Tyler Greene, and Pete Kozma made their way to St. Louis via Memphis, but found themselves overmatched by big-league pitching. Imports like David Eckstein and Jhonny Peralta have manned the position since Edgar Renteria departed after the 2004 season. But when Peralta was shelved by a thumb injury in spring training, the 25-year-old Diaz found himself on the big-league roster. (We caught but a glimpse of the Cuban import last year in Memphis, where he hit .380 in 14 games.) Through Sunday, Diaz has hit .315, drilled 8 homers, and driven in 32 runs. Even more impressive, he’s forced a shift of three-quarters of the Cardinals’ 2015 infield. Just off the disabled list, Peralta is now at third base, Matt Carpenter has moved from third to second, and Kolten Wong — hitting .222 in limited play — is back in Memphis, hoping to rediscover his swing. Diaz will be in the discussion for National League Rookie of the Year.

Carlos Martinez — With comparisons to another famous Martinez — Pedro — this Dominican flame-thrower made the All-Star team (in 2015) before his 24th birthday. But after going 10-3 with a 2.52 ERA over the season’s first half, he ran out of gas, splitting eight decisions with a 3.73 ERA over the second half before being shut down for the postseason with shoulder fatigue. He’s been inconsistent this season, but leads the St. Louis rotation with seven wins and a 3.46 ERA. The Cardinals’ starting pitching has been the team’s most disappointing unit this season. If Martinez continues to grow toward ace status, other — weaker — areas of the rotation will be easier to address.

Michael Wacha — It’s hardly reached a Rick Ankiel-level of alarm (yet), but the drop in effectiveness for the golden boy of the 2013 postseason should be a major concern for Cardinal general manager John Mozeliak. Like Martinez, Wacha was an All-Star in 2015 when he led the Cardinals with 17 wins and posted a 3.38 ERA in 181 innings. But after starting this season 2-0, Wacha has lost six straight decisions and recently gave up 21 earned runs over four starts. (He was sharp in a no-decision at Pittsburgh last Friday, allowing two earned runs in seven innings.) Wacha claims his arm feels fine. He turns 25 next month and is an extraordinary asset for the Cardinals as he won’t reach free agency until 2020. But Wacha simply has to find the groove that earned him MVP honors in the 2013 National League Championship Series. Otherwise, middle-relief awaits.

Randal Grichuk — He’s scaled the centerfield wall to rob home runs from opponents. He’s delivered a walk-off home run (against the Cubs on May 23rd). He even wears number 15, magnifying comparisons with Jim Edmonds, a previous Cardinal centerfielder and a member of the franchise’s Hall of Fame. But the 24-year-old Grichuk remains a work in progress. After contributing a slash line of .276/.329/.548 in 2015, Grichuk has dropped to .210/.281/.400 this season. He had more strikeouts (110) than hits (89) a year ago, and the ratio hasn’t shifted (53 and 42 this year). Grichuk brings the proverbial “five tools” to the ballpark, but the sixth (and most important) “tool” — consistency — remains elusive.

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Monday, June 6, 2016

Q&A with Scott Stallings: FESJC, Winning, and Life on the Tour

Posted By on Mon, Jun 6, 2016 at 9:45 AM

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Scott Stallings will be an underdog at this week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic. His gallery, let’s just say, would lose a rumble with Phil Mickelson’s. But the 31-year-old pro from Worcester, Massachusetts, is, in many ways, the embodiment of life on the PGA Tour. Traveling from one tournament to the next, aiming to, first, make the cut for weekend play, and then climb the leaderboard where the paychecks get fatter and the headlines larger. Stallings has three Tour wins to his credit (the last at the 2014 Farmers Insurance Open). This will be his sixth straight appearance at the FESJC, where he shot four sub-70 rounds in 2013 and finished in a tie for second behind Harris English. (Stallings missed the cut last year.) The Tennessee Tech alum — Stallings now lives in Knoxville — has earned $594,797 this season and ranks 112th in the FedExCup standings.

You have an interesting origin story for a golfer. You played team sports as a kid, then you saw a light of sorts. Share that story.

When Tiger Woods won the Masters in 1997 [when I was 12], I quit everything else. I stuck just to golf. Golf struck my interest and I decided it was something I wanted to pursue as a career. It appealed to me as something different, and very exciting.

At what point did you realize you might be able to make a living on the PGA Tour?

I still struggle with that sometimes today. When I was a junior in college I was an All-American at a small school that had some success. I decided I wanted to give it a go and see if I could compete at the next level.

What’s a strength of your game these days, and where are you focusing on improvement?

My short game’s been coming around a lot. I’ve been working hard. I’ve always hit the ball pretty well [off the tee], but my short game has let me down in pressure situations. I’ve tried to make it a point of contention every day when I practice, to get to the point where it’s a strength, an asset that keeps me in tournaments. I’d like it to become the most important part of my game, instead of just something that’s there in case I needed it.

How’s the putter?

I’ve been working on [putting] for three or four months. We’re getting to the point of the season where I feel like I play my best, when it gets hot. We’re playing in areas of the country where I feel really comfortable, especially coming up to Memphis, my home state. The hotter the weather, the better I play.

What have you come to enjoy about the FESJC?

Growing up, I played some junior events at TPC Southwind and thought it would be cool to be a part of this as a pro. I watched it in college. The charitable aspect with St. Jude, especially being a father of two now . . . well, you obviously hope your kids never have to be in a facility like that. But it’s nice to know that if it was necessary, they’d have a place to go. The tournament does a heckuva job in supporting [the hospital]. For anyone with kids [on the Tour], it’s a no-brainer to play [in Memphis]. My dad’s from west Tennessee, so I get to play in front of friends and family. I love the area and I love the golf course.

Is there a specific hole at TPC Southwind you find most challenging?

I think the golf course is underrated. If you play well, you’ll be rewarded. If you play badly, it’s gonna show. There are not a lot of tricks to the course. It will show who’s playing the best.

Looking back at your three Tour victories, is there a consistent thread to your performances? Something you’d like to bottle?

Not really, because I’ve won three different ways. I’ve won from behind, won from in front, and won in a playoff. All I want to do is be in position [to win] coming down the stretch to 18.

You’ve taught golf to wounded Army veterans. That must have been especially inspiring.

My father-in-law is a Marine, and my brother-in-law is an Army vet and spent 18 months in Iraq. They were fortunate to not have any major injuries to deal with, but they’ve been around enough guys to see how war can affect people, not just physically, but mentally as well. The game of golf can be an outlet for the guys, provide some comfort to a situation. We wouldn’t be where we are without them. They teach us way more than we teach them.

What’s the most important swing tip you’ve been given?

I don’t know if it’s a swing tip; it’s more of a mentality. The moment you let other people affect how you do things is the moment you’ve lost it. You need to consistently learn every day and pick up tips, but you need to own your game and know how you play. Know what you do when you play well. Don’t try to model your game after certain individuals. You have to play the way you’re most comfortable.

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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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