The older I get, the more cynical I become when it comes to the Olympic Games. Too much flag-waving. Over-enhanced drama. And money, money, money. (I’d like a dollar for every Coca-Cola commercial you see over the next two weeks.) But then the Opening Ceremonies are televised, a parade of athletes — most of them anonymous — enters a single stadium, and I’m hooked once more.
With memories of seven Summer Games dancing in my head, the least I can do is provide some tips on how best to enjoy the London Olympics. And how to properly measure Olympic achievement.
• Forget the medal count. Standings at the Olympics are meaningless. Google a ranking of countries by population and you’ll see a reasonable forecast for the final medal count, topped by the United States, China, and Russia (in some order). The Cold War is over, friends. Watching your favorite swimmer beat a chemically enhanced East German . . . that was 1984. And Russians these days share a common enemy with the U.S.: a knocked-to-its-knees economy. Cheer your favorite athletes, but allow yourself to be surprised by rooting for that incomparable Chinese gymnast, or the Italian cyclist with a name that rolls off your tongue.
• There are two kinds of Olympic heroes, and only two. The first we’ll call the Scripted One. These are typically a runner or swimmer we all know will win multiple medals (most of them gold) before the Olympic torch is lit. Carl Lewis in ’84, Michael Phelps four years ago. This year’s U.S. team is surprisingly low on Scripted Ones (though Phelps is back, four medals shy of 20 for his career). Gymnastics is the summer version of figure skating, and surely one of the young ladies flipping, leaping, and bouncing her way to gold will be selling a major soft drink by September. (Best bets: Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas.)
The other kind of hero is the Sweet Surprise. Think Mary Lou Retton in ’84 (yes, a gymnast) or wrestler Rulon Gardner in 2000 (for my money, the greatest Olympic upset since the 1980 U.S. hockey team). If it’s not the gymnastics team that provides this personality, look for an undersized boxer or a distance runner who comes from behind on the final lap. They’ll be the athletes making cross-country tours this fall.
• Tolerate judges. I happen to prefer sports where you can keep score at home. I like a point total, or a clock. I love Olympic weightlifting, believe it or not. A lifter can either clean-and-jerk that barbell — twice his own weight — or he cannot. Weightlifting is dramatic, quick, and excruciating to watch. (And any sport with “clean-and-jerk” and “snatch” a part of its lingo deserves more attention.)
Olympic gymnastics is immensely popular. So is diving. Watch these sports for the personality sagas, but I defy you to measure the difference between a gold-medalist on the balance beam and the silver-medalist. As for jumping from a platform 10 meters above a pool and entering the water without a splash ... every diver deserves a medal for not being dragged out of the pool with a hook.
• “Major sports” are secondary at the Olympics. Tennis has Wimbledon. (This year, Olympic tennis will actually be played on the hallowed grounds.) Soccer has the World Cup. Basketball has the Miami Heat. Truth be told, when Kobe Bryant receives his gold medal in London, it will likely be packed with his socks for the trip home. Hats off to Kobe for joining the NBA p.r. tour, but he measures himself by the games he plays in June, not August.
With the number of events available over this fortnight, you can comfortably ignore these “majors” and find yourself with memories that may, in fact, stand out four years from now. I’ll be checking for coverage of water polo (requiring the athleticism of basketball, with the possibility of drowning). And I love old-fashioned, indoor volleyball. As Yogi Berra might say, it’s the best spectator sport that nobody watches.
New University of Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen thinks the Tigers should play Ole Miss in football. Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner thinks playing Ole Miss on the hardwood is a bad idea.
I disagree with both of them.
The longtime Tiger-Rebel football series will be renewed (after four dormant years) in 2014. As part of its second season in the Big East Conference — and presumably the third under coach Justin Fuente — Memphis will travel to Oxford in search of its 11th win in 60 games against Ole Miss. The following year, of course, the Tigers should draw a crowd of at least 40,000 to the Liberty Bowl to see a rematch — as many of them pulling for the visitors as for the home team.
Why this madness? Why this decades-long pursuit of some degree of validity for the Memphis football program, with a less than 20 percent chance of beating one of the SEC’s weak sisters? (Think it’s ugly when Ole Miss is on the schedule? Memphis is 2-25 against all SEC competition since beating Peyton Manning and Tennessee in 1996, a game that was supposed to change everything for the Tiger program.) All for a boost in ticket sales? For a nod to “regional rivalry?” The Tigers have lost nine of their last 11 games against the Rebels. This is to rivalry as a hammer is to a nail.
There’s one person I know grateful to have an SEC-free schedule for Memphis (a first since 1948): Justin Fuente. When I recently asked him about the conspicuous absence, he said the following: “This program isn’t ready to play [the SEC] yet. I don’t mind playing them, but right now ... we’re building this program.” If you’re looking for reasons to support the rookie coach, cut and paste that line on your desktop. Some perspective is required, especially for fans (and U of M officials) that have known Memphis-Ole Miss so long they’ve grown numb to the damage serial losing does to a program. To recruiting. To morale. Perhaps by 2014, Memphis will be “ready” to face SEC opposition. But I think I’ve seen this movie before.
Then there’s basketball, and Pastner’s aversion to playing Tennessee or Ole Miss. (Bowen announced last week the Tigers and Rebels will renew their hoops series as well.) The Tiger coach — approaching his fourth season — apparently feels these SEC programs gain a recruiting advantage by playing Memphis. Not when they lose to Memphis, Coach. (Memphis is 27-12 against Ole Miss.) The Tiger basketball program is as different from the football program as a poached egg is from barbecue ribs. The Tiger basketball brand is as powerful and as wide reaching as any in the SEC, save mighty Kentucky. (And please, please, Mr. Bowen: Schedule the Wildcats for a visit to FedExForum.) To reject games against the likes of Ole Miss (or Tennessee) is to make a concession the Memphis program need not make. Only one of these teams will suit up three McDonald’s All-Americans this winter.
The basketball schedule will get more complicated, of course, when Memphis enters the Big East (for the 2013-14 campaign). Nonconference foes won’t require the same pedigree (for RPI purposes) as they did when the Tigers were running roughshod over Conference USA. And the argument could be made that facing a Big Ten team or ACC team would be as good for the U of M as inviting an SEC foe to town. But I would urge the Tigers’ rising star of a coach not to publicly shun such battles. If the goal is truly a national championship, are we to consider the recruiting efforts of Ole Miss and Tennessee a major barrier? If they want to play, beat them. Easy math.
Meanwhile, I’ll toss a prayer to the basketball gods for that Kentucky invitation. John Calipari isn’t getting any younger.
"Whenever they get 11 Hall-of-Famers, you call and ask me who had the better Dream Team.” — Michael Jordan (July 12, 2012)
I love the cross-country verbal feud that surfaced last week between a pair of basketball legends. When current star (and 2012 Olympian) Kobe Bryant suggested this year’s “Dream Team” could handle the original version of 20 years ago, a retired legend — and to many, the greatest player ever to don sneakers — argued quite publicly to the contrary. Always wondered what Kobe vs. MJ might look like? This may be the closest we’ll ever get.
This kind of debate is manna from a sports historian’s heaven. It goes beyond scores, stats, or standings. It goes beyond a number of championship rings (Jordan has six and Kobe five, in case you insist on keeping score). It goes beyond jersey sales and contract figures, endorsements and special appearances. (Kobe has never starred alongside Bugs Bunny.) This kind of cross-generational feud is about that most basic sports ingredient ... competition. Rivalry. Bryant stands by his current cohorts in red, white, and blue. Jordan stands up for his bunch (Magic, Larry, Charles, etc.) from another era, perhaps, but as alive today for most basketball fans as they were in embarrassing international competition in Barcelona.
If modern sports fans have a shared weakness, it’s living too much in the moment. Worse, they tend to live for what’s to come at the expense of what has been achieved. Let’s check NBA jersey sales next December. I’m willing to bet David Robinson’s gold medal (he played for the 1992 Dream Team) that Hornet rookie Anthony Davis will sell more jerseys than living legend Tim Duncan. A 15-year veteran with four championships and two MVP trophies, Duncan signed a three-year contract extension with his Spurs last week and got less national attention for doing so than various players being “amnestied” (waived) by clubs in cost-saving decisions. Many call Davis the next Tim Duncan ... while we still have the actual Duncan to watch, admire, and emulate.
How would the 1973 Memphis State Tigers fare against Keith Lee’s 1985 crew? (If UCLA couldn’t bottle up Larry Finch, I can’t see Andre Turner or Baskerville Holmes pulling the trick.) Could the Whiteyball Cardinals of 1982 handle Tony LaRussa’s Wild Cards of 2011? If only we could see Nick Saban’s 2011 Alabama squad confront Bear Bryant’s fabled 1965 champs. Pull up a seat and we’ll debate who’d win these contests, and, while we’re at it, try and concoct a time machine that would allow such a treat.
I didn’t forget the quotation marks in my reference to the ’92 Dream Team. The only mistake that squad (and its coach, Chuck Daly) made was not copyrighting — once and forever — the catchy name it adopted in making basketball history. When the Olympic team (including Memphian Penny Hardaway) four years later was called “Dream Team III,” the moniker was ruined. (The team that competed in the 1994 world championship, believe it or not, was called “Dream Team II.”) Now 20 years later, anointing the latest band of NBA All-Stars a “Dream Team” is patently offensive. There was, is, and will always be only one Dream Team, whether or not they’d win a game against another band of ballers.
When I look at the roster of the 2012 U.S. Olympic basketball team, I count four players who, if they stay healthy and perform at their current level at least 10 years (one already has) are certain Hall of Famers: Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul. Three others are possibilities, though with much still to accomplish for Hall status: Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, and Deron Williams. As for the other five (Tyson Chandler, Russell Westbrook, Andre Iguodala, James Harden, and Anthony Davis himself), you tell me. A great team, but hardly dreamy.
When pondering how Jordan and company might handle today’s Olympians, you’d do well to remember the apocryphal tale of Ty Cobb at the middle of the twentieth century. A man who competed against Cobb decades earlier was asked how the great Tiger hitter would do against modern pitchers. According to legend, the man replied, “I think Cobb would hit about .330. Of course, he’s 64 years old.”
The baseball season reaches its symbolic midpoint Tuesday night when Kansas City hosts the national pastime’s 83rd All-Star Game. Kauffman Stadium will be home to no fewer than 70(!) of the game’s finest players. (So fine that Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and Ichiro Suzuki will be home watching like you and me.)
What if we were to name an All-Star team (based on this year’s body of work) comprised of only former Memphis Redbirds? As you’ll see, we’d get mixed results. (All stats are through Sunday’s action.)
CATCHER — Yadier Molina (St. Louis Cardinals) For some time now, Molina has been the finest defensive catcher in the game. But the four-time Gold Glover has developed into a middle-of-the-order run producer for rookie manager Mike Matheny. He’s already on the cusp of surpassing his career high of 14 home runs (13 through Sunday) and has driven in 45 while hitting a cool .304.
FIRST BASE — Albert Pujols (Los Angeles Angels) Following the worst start to any of his 12 seasons (not a single long ball in April), Pujols will miss his second straight Midsummer Classic. But he’s started to swing the bat like the Machine Cardinal fans knew and loved. His current batting average (.268) and OPS (.795) would be, far and away, the worst of his career. But still good enough to make this team.
SECOND BASE — Daniel Descalso (St. Louis Cardinals) He’s a better hitter than his .223 average would suggest. And he’s the best fielder among the three second-sackers Matheny has utilized this season (the others are Skip Schumaker and Tyler Greene). There was a time not long ago when the Phillies’ Placido Polanco would have this spot locked down, but Polanco is now exclusively a third baseman.
THIRD BASE — David Freese (St. Louis Cardinals) The hero of last year’s postseason has managed to stay healthy and productive through the first half of 2012. Freese enters the break hitting .294 with 13 homers and 51 RBIs. He’s one of three players on this list (along with the two pitchers) actually playing in Tuesday night’s event, having been voted in as the final National League selection by fans.
SHORTSTOP — Brendan Ryan (Seattle Mariners) For whatever reason, the Cardinals/Redbirds have been unable to develop big-league talent at the infield’s most challenging position. Track the list of shortstops at AutoZone Park and you’ll see names like Jason Bowers, John Nelson, and yes, Tyler Greene. Ryan is a slick fielder and will make plays most men don’t. His glove is the only reason Ryan stays in the Seattle lineup with an average well south of the Mendoza Line (.187).
LEFTFIELD — Allen Craig (St. Louis Cardinals) Since a national audience last saw Craig catching the final out of the 2011 World Series at this position, we’ll place him here for now. He’s been limited to 46 games due to a pair of injuries, but he’s nonetheless hit 13 home runs and driven in 44. Calls to mind the 2010 season, when he drove in 81 runs for Memphis in 83 games.
CENTERFIELD — Colby Rasmus (Toronto Blue Jays) The petulant phenom has apparently found a comfort zone north of the border. Playing in baseball’s toughest division, Rasmus has hit .259 with 17 home runs and 53 RBIs. A five-tool specimen as a Cardinal prospect, Rasmus could yet make the trade that sent him to Toronto a painful memory for Cardinal fans. (Though St. Louis doesn’t reach the 2011 playoffs without Edwin Jackson, the pitching rental Rasmus brought the Cards.)
RIGHTFIELD — Rick Ankiel (Washington Nationals) Consider this an honorary selection. Another former phenom (remember his pitching days at Tim McCarver Stadium?), Ankiel turns 33 next week, which means he’s stuck around 12 years after his infamous mound meltdown in the 2000 playoffs for St. Louis. Which should also mean he can join a different club of “might-have-beens” than the one headed by Steve Blass. Through Sunday, he has 269 career strikeouts (as a pitcher) and 233 RBIs.
STARTING PITCHER — Lance Lynn (St. Louis Cardinals) Where might St. Louis be without Lynn this season? Chris Carpenter shelved for the season. Adam Wainwright finding his way back after Tommy John surgery. And Jaime Garcia relegated to the disabled list with shoulder pain. All Lynn has done is pitch 103 innings, win 11 games, and pace the Cardinals with 105 strikeouts. Durability will be the question for Lynn as the dog days approach. Here’s hoping he gets to take the mound in Kansas City.
RELIEF PITCHER — Chris Perez (Cleveland Indians) The worst trade St. Louis has made this century was the deal that sent Dan Haren to Oakland for Mark Mulder. But as this shaggy closer continues to rack up saves for the Indians (36 in 2011, 24 this season), the swap of Perez for Mark DeRosa will enter the debate. DeRosa spent three forgettable months with the Cardinals, wrestling with one injury after another. Perez appears to have a decade of closing games in his future. Starting with Tuesday night’s game in the nation’s spotlight.
If you look at the front page of your paper (or the home page of your favorite news site), it’s easy to come away with the feeling America has never been more divided. We can’t agree on the federal government’s role in managing the economy. We can’t agree on what makes an immigrant legal (and when). We can’t agree on the nature of health care, and whether or not it should be an obligation. Then you have the age-old scream-generators: abortion, gun control, campaign financing.
Ain’t it great to be an American?
As Independence Day nears, though, I’m reminded of the last and best unifier we Americans enjoy year-round. It’s sports. The games our children play, the teams we cheer (or boo), the activities that keep us (well, some of us) healthy.
There’s irony to the unifying quality of American sports, of course. Seat a Grizzlies fan next to a Clippers fan on a flight from Memphis to L.A. and see how “unified” they feel after three hours. But that’s precisely the magic of sports. Two people from two different parts of the world, likely with entirely different lifestyles and daily priorities, who live and breathe over the same series of basketball games. Sports matter.
I’ve seen cars in the FedExForum parking garage with Obama bumper stickers parked next to cars with Palin stickers. For all I know, there’s a red-clad fan sitting next to a blue-clad fan, bound together for 41 games of die-hard cheering ... until election night. (Which makes me wonder: Does Mitt Romney have a favorite team? If President Obama wears his White Sox jersey to a debate, what does Romney wear?)
College football fans in these parts might question the unifying quality of their sport of choice, especially when morons are poisoning trees in the interest of waving their favorite team’s flag. But these idiots are like plane crashes: they steal headlines from the thousands upon thousands of flights that take off and land without incident.
I attended the 2006 induction ceremony at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Took my seat — on a scalding-hot bleacher — right next to a woman in a Troy Aikman jersey (the former Cowboy quarterback was among the inductees). We exchanged pleasantries and the woman introduced me to her husband — the guy sitting on her other side — wearing a Washington Redskins jersey. I’ve spent the better part of six years trying to do the math on that slice of matrimony, wondering how fall can be endured with an NFL Hatfield and McCoy under the same roof. There’s a bonding metaphor somewhere, and it has as much to do with sports bringing fans together as it does love bringing couples together.
My dad grew up in Memphis, a Cardinal fan, and a supporter of Jimmy Carter. For more than twenty years, he lived next-door to a Red Sox fan in New England, a man with photos of Ronald Reagan and one George Bush or another on his office wall. My dad and his neighbor were devoted golf partners. His neighbor — his dear friend — eulogized my father at his memorial service in 2005. These two had reason to shun each other as misguided political enemies. But that would have further spoiled countless walks from tee to green. Sports matter — and they unify.
If you mix and match the colors of the current champions in the NFL (New York Giants), NBA (Miami Heat), and Major League Baseball (St. Louis Cardinals), you get a nice blend of red, white, and blue. Coincidental for sure. But at a time when so many news items divide us, in a year when we’ll have to choose blue or red come November, it’s nice to consider the role sports play in making America a single, unified nation. The Olympic Games open in London later this month, with enough flag-waving to mist the eyes of the most steely of patriots. It’s a degree of jingoism we should let be. For it’s less about policy-making or borders than racing in a pool or on a track. A kind of conflict we can embrace as one.
Have a safe and happy Fourth.
You gotta hand it to college football’s powers-that-be. It only took two decades (three? four?) of public clamoring for a playoff system for conference commissioners, NCAA suits, and bowl officials to concede that, hey, deciding our champion on the field of play with elimination games (emphasis on the plural) is worth a shot.
It appears that we’ll have a three-game (semifinals and final) playoff to decide college football’s best team after the 2014 season. (Why must we wait three seasons for this? Major League Baseball can institute a new playoff round in less than a year, but we have to “plan” college football’s playoffs over the course of two years?) Four teams will be selected to compete for the sport’s crown, the criteria for selection — and, not incidentally, who exactly will be selecting the teams — still undetermined. Here are some quick thoughts on the new landscape:
• The four-team playoff is a huge step in the right direction — but only a step. Just as there has always been debate over the two teams selected to play for the Bowl Championship Series title (since the 1998 season), there will be debate over which four teams qualify as national semifinalists. Quickly: How many teams finished last season (after the bowl season) with no more than two losses?
The answer is 13. Thirteen teams with a case for being included in any playoff that included at least one team with two defeats. There’s no end, of course, to debating inclusion in a playoff selection process. (Every March, basketball programs feel cheated when left out of a 68-team field.) But if the new playoff format included eight teams, we’d be more likely to include all teams that have earned a legitimate shot at the throne.
• There’s been some back and forth on whether a conference championship should be required for inclusion in the four-team playoff field. I say absolutely. This is another shortcoming of only four teams in the mix. With eight, you’d see all six power-conference champions (yes, including the football-diminished Big East), plus two at-large teams. But with the field as tight as it will be in 2014, how could the NCAA allow a second-place SEC team in and exclude, say, the champion of the Pac 12 or ACC? The entire reason for creating this new system is to further legitimize the national champion with performance on the field. If a team falls to second place in its league . . . tough beans. (Miami-Boston would have been a better NBA Finals this year than Heat-Thunder, but the Celtics happen to live in the Eastern Conference with Miami. Tough beans.)
• Can the bowls survive? Easy answer (with one qualifier): If they continue to make money, yes. There’s been some griping that the new playoff will somehow diminish the bowl season. Diminish the bowl season from what? As of now, we have a month of games played by more than 60(!) teams all over the country, on random dates, often in front of half-empty stadiums. Revenue for bowl games has long been more about title sponsors and television than ticket sales or traveling fans. Here in Memphis, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl is an institution on our sports calendar, a weeklong pigskin party of the first resort. Had there been a four-team playoff last winter, I’m convinced the players, coaches, and fans at Cincinnati and Vanderbilt would have still relished the chance to play in that Bluff City bash. Perhaps the playoff will weed out some of the second-tier bowl games (the Beef ‘O’Brady’s Bowl? the BBVA Compass Bowl?), in which case the new format will have killed two birds with the same football.
• When will the Memphis Tigers land a playoff spot? Be patient, Tiger fans. Be very, very patient. Much will have to happen before our local program is anywhere near the top four teams in the country. As the U of M enters the Big East, though, the Tigers are actually on the radar. And if (I say when) the new playoff is expanded to (at least) eight teams, the chances of Justin Fuente’s boys rising to the top of a “power” league and capturing a treasured playoff berth are that much greater.
Just consider how good it feels to ponder the thought of a playoff berth for college football’s national championship. It took way too long, but those dreams — for millions of football fans — are a significant step closer to reality.
• Not since 1994 has a golfer with a Memphis championship on his resume won a major title (Nick Price at that year’s PGA Championship). With Dustin Johnson having claimed the 2012 FedEx St. Jude Classic, this drought will end soon. Just shy of his 28th birthday, Johnson is the biggest rising star to win in Memphis in at least two decades. He’s been on the short list of Now Generation stars since his 8th-place finish at the 2010 U.S. Open. (He tied for second at the British Open last year.) Seeing Johnson edge a field of contenders that included reigning U.S. Open champ Rory McIlroy made Sunday’s final round one of the most memorable in the 55-year history of pro golf in Memphis.
• On the subject of former Memphis champions winning majors, it was nice to see Maria Sharapova (2010 champ at The Racquet Club) complete a career Grand Slam by winning the French Open. On my list of most-distinctive physical attributes among athletes — one that includes Rollie Fingers' mustache and Karl Malone’s biceps — Sharapova’s legs are near the top. If she weren’t a tennis player, she’d win the Olympic high jump.
As for the men, there are no more adjectives to fit the brand of tennis Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic play across the net from one another. (Consider Nadal's career plight. Having endured a rivalry with Roger Federer that included eight Grand Slam finals — six won by the Spaniard — Nadal has now done battle with Djokovic in the last four Grand Slam finals. It’s like Muhammad Ali following up Joe Frazier with Mike Tyson.) These two titans of their sport exchanged 44 shots in a single rally (during the opening game of the fourth set). Next time you’re playing with your favorite partner, try keeping the ball in play for 44 shots. Then imagine each of those shots an attempted winner. Breathtaking.
• I was disappointed (yet again) that we don’t have a Triple Crown to celebrate. But I was thoroughly impressed by the decision of I'll Have Another's handlers to remove the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champ from the Belmont Stakes. The amount of money dangling before owner J. Paul Reddam is hard to imagine, and would have been impossible to count had his horse become history’s 12th Triple Crown winner. But that dollar figure would have been swallowed by the agony of seeing I'll Have Another pull up lame in the most grueling event in horse racing. What could have been? We may be left to wonder. In the meantime, Reddam can count plenty of cash with I'll Have Another's stud fees.
• We have the NBA Finals most fans wanted: LeBron James and his Heat against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Top two vote getters in this year's MVP balloting for all the marbles. I can't imagine a greater contrast between communities: the city that gave us Crockett and Tubbs against the city that gave us ... dust bowls? Two cities that didn't have teams when Magic and Bird were in their prime. Maybe the next two weeks will validate the dreamy construction of the Heat roster. But I like the Thunder in six, with Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka performing the role Dallas’s Tyson Chandler did last year.
• This year’s Stanley Cup Final is missing the NBA’s star power (as it usually does). Even with teams from greater New York and Los Angeles, there’s not much to draw a casual fan. Until you watch. Entering Game 4 on June 6th, the New Jersey Devils were but supporting players for the 8th-seeded Kings’ romp to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. But then New Jersey’s 40-year-old goaltender, Martin Brodeur, played like the three-time champion he is, holding L.A. to a single goal in each of the next two games. The Kings will have a chance to skate the Cup at the Staples Center Monday night, while the Devils will have a chance to force a Game 7 back in Soprano country. It’s gripping stuff, fairly standard for June.
Justin Leonard is one of only five golfers to have won multiple championships in Memphis (he was victorious in 2005 and 2008). The Texas native — who turns 40 five days after the final round of this week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic — won the 1997 British Open and drained a 45-foot putt to clinch the 1999 Ryder Cup for the U.S. team.
Memphis is one of two places you’ve won twice. Safe to assume you’ve come to like the Southwind course?
When they transitioned the course to Bermuda grass a few years ago, it really changed the event. It went from being a golf course where you felt like you had to make seven or eight birdies per round to a much more difficult course, because of the firmness and speed of the greens. And it’s a fun layout to play, with some risk-reward opportunities. I don’t think it favors a particular kind of player.
Do you have a favorite hole?
I try not to pick favorites. A lot of how the course plays depends on the wind. The fifth hole can be very difficult when it’s into the wind. Eight and nine are challenging. Twelve is a very tight hole. And, of course, you have a lot of drama between 17 and 18, with water up the side of the last hole.
Any specific memories of your wins here that stand out today?
They were two very different wins. In 2005, I had a huge lead and played okay on Sunday, but David Toms shot a great round and made it interesting. My second win there, I hung in there all week, then played a good round on Sunday and was surprised myself to get into a playoff with Robert Allenby and Trevor Immelman. I was able to make a nice putt on the second playoff hole.
As the story is told, your wife had to convince you to play here before your first win in 2005. Can you share the details?
She’s done that a couple of times, looking at my record. She knew I had done well there [three top-ten finishes] and said, “Let’s go back.” A lot of times, no matter how much you love the golf course, it’s hard to make it work. We obviously had a great week [in 2005].
The tournament has been a longtime supporter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. How has St. Jude impacted you since you first played here in 1994?
I have four wonderful kids. And I realize how special St. Jude is, for the treatment they offer and the research they do. So many kids are treated there that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford health care. My kids are healthy, so I haven’t been through the experience that a lot of the kids and parents have who have visited St. Jude. But I certainly realize the impact they have. Having been able to spend a little time meeting some of the families, and when you tie that in to an event, and realize the impact you’re making, it makes it very difficult not to go back. I missed not being there last year.
The tournament seems to have a unique harmony between its title sponsor and St. Jude. Do you see these kind of connections elsewhere on the PGA Tour?
When I think of Memphis, I think of St. Jude and FedEx. Those two organizations are synonymous with Memphis, Tennessee. FedEx took a huge step in sponsoring the FedEx Cup. What a huge commitment, financially and from a marketing standpoint. I’m so happy to see them come back and realize how important that tournament is to the area, not that they ever lost sight of that. For them to step up says some incredible things about the company and their support of the PGA Tour. They’re doing everything they can to support the hospital and the event.
The FESJC seems to have a nice spot on the Tour calendar, coming a week before the U.S. Open. How important is it for you to be playing well entering the U.S. Open?
I’ve got to qualify for the U.S. Open, but if I’m able to qualify, the best preparation I can have is to play well the week before. Being in Memphis, playing at Southwind — a course I like — is very important. But Memphis is bigger than a warm-up event. The best thing I can do to prepare is to play well in Memphis. That’s my main goal.
Eleven of the last 12 majors have been won by players who had never taken one before. Is this healthy for the sport, the parity?
It’s healthy. Look at the season that Luke Donald is putting together, and his consistency the last couple of years. Look at Rory McIlroy and all he’s done. Lee Westwood seems to play great every week. Phil [Mickelson] wins a tournament and seems to get into contention every week. Then you have guys like Ricky Fowler and Keegan Bradley stepping up and winning golf tournaments.
For a long time, it seemed like everybody was focused on just five or six players, and I think that did a lot of players injustice. To have so many great players from all over the world playing well speaks volumes about the PGA Tour and the depth. That can be nothing but good for the game. It’s good to have a dominant figure occasionally, but I think dominance, at times, gets old. Tiger’s dominance was extraordinary, and he may return to that kind of dominance again. But as a player, it’s more interesting when you have a whole handful of guys who are the favorites, as opposed to one player against the field.
If you’re selective about the trips you make to AutoZone Park to cheer on the Memphis Redbirds, you’d be wise to visit Third and Union this week. The biggest star you’re likely to see this summer will be appearing through Friday’s game against the Round Rock Express. Sadly for the last-place Redbirds, the star stands but two feet tall, weighs about 30 pounds, and has no arms or legs.
There’s an ironic twist to the 2011 World Series trophy being displayed this week by the Redbirds. The parent St. Louis Cardinals — the club that earned the trophy, after all — has been so decimated by injuries this spring that what’s left of the Triple-A outfit appears to be a larger, better-paid version of the Bad News Bears. Through Sunday, the Redbirds sport a record of 17-33. Not quite two months into the season, Memphis has had two nine-game losing streaks, a five-game losing streak, and has lost 17 of 21 since May 6th. Twelve-and-a-half games behind first-place Omaha in their division of the Pacific Coast League, the Redbirds are virtually eliminated from playoff contention before Game 1 of the NBA Finals has been played. That, friends, is a short summer.
Bumps, breaks, and bruises to the likes of Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Lance Berkman, and Matt Carpenter have done enough damage to the Cardinals, who last weekend fell out of first place for the first time this season. But the impact has been felt directly in the Memphis batting order, where the absences of three everyday players — first baseman Matt Adams and outfielders Adron Chambers and Shane Robinson — has first-year manager Pop Warner doing essentially what he did the five previous seasons: direct a Double-A team. And the veterans St. Louis has brought in for damage control are unrecognizable. (Three players in Warner’s lineup Sunday night have played fewer than ten games for Memphis.)
The Redbirds’ most recent loss is middle-reliever Chuckie Fick. The major-league debut of a 26-year-old career minor-leaguer is worthy of a salute. But Fick’s promotion has less to do with his overpowering PCL hitters than it does with the struggles of Cardinal reliever Fernando Salas (a 6.32 ERA this season after leading St. Louis with 24 saves in 2011). The demoted Salas will at least get to revisit the trophy he helped win last October.
And what about the Cardinals’ top prospect, Shelby Miller? The Cardinals’ 2011 Minor League Pitcher of the Year has been underwhelming over his first ten Triple-A starts: 4-3 record, 4.38 ERA, 55 strikeouts and 20 walks in 49 innings. Opposing hitters are batting .308 against a young man forecast to pitch in the Cardinals’ rotation in 2013.
It’s hard to lose 100 games in the minor leagues. The five-month season includes a total of 144 contests. At their current pace, the 2012 Redbirds would finish 49-95. (The most losses in franchise history were the 88 suffered in 2007, another season following a Cardinals’ world championship.)
The Memphis offense will get a boost when Craig and Jay soon rejoin the Cardinals. Perhaps Miller will find his groove and prove to be the antidote to losing streaks this team desperately needs. In the meantime, head to the ballpark this week, while the shine of a World Series trophy is still bright. By the time it returns for one more photo op (August 24-26), the team on the field may not be worth watching.
It’s the most elusive feat in two very different sports. In horse racing, a thoroughbred must win the three most significant events on American soil over the course of five short, grueling weeks. In baseball, a hitter must lead his league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in over the longest, most grueling season in American team sports.
Each feat, of course, is called the Triple Crown. And I, for one, am desperate to see the achievement.
It’s been 34 years since Affirmed won the 1978 Belmont Stakes to become thoroughbred racing’s 11th Triple Crown champion. The drought is the longest since Sir Barton became the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in 1919. (The longest horse-racing fans had waited before was 25 years, between Citation in 1948 and the legendary Secretariat in 1973.) As impossible as the challenge may seem, it hasn’t always been this way. Four horses won the Triple Crown over an eight-year stretch in the 1940s and three pulled the trick over a six-year period in the 1970s. (A fourth Triple Crown in the Seventies was all but certain until Spectacular Bid famously stepped on a needle before the 1979 Belmont.)
Can I’ll Have Another make the pantheon of Triple Crown champions a dandy dozen on June 9th in New York? Does the chestnut beauty have what 11 horses since 1978 have not: that one extra slice of spirit, will, muscle, heart, determination? Needless to say, the Belmont (at a mile-and-a-half) is the toughest of the Triple Crown races to win, and that’s without the pressure of carving your name in marble for eternity. I’ll Have Another may not feel the weight of 34 years on his considerable shoulders, but you can bet his trainer (Doug O’Neill) and jockey (Mario Gutierrez) will be trembling when the gates open at the Belmont. Between 1997 and 2004, six horses won the Derby and the Preakness, including perceived titans (Charismatic and War Emblem) and darling long shots (Funny Cide and Smarty Jones). But not one of them finished ahead of the pack at the Belmont.
Regrettably, we won’t get the chance to see one of horse racing’s greatest rivalries culminate, as Bodemeister — runner-up to I’ll Have Another at both this year’s Derby and Preakness — is being held out of the Belmont. (Trainer Bob Baffert claims his horse needs the rest.) Perhaps this is a break in I’ll Have Another’s — and history’s — favor. But I also wonder if I’ll Have Another needs the pace-setting Bodemeister as the great Affirmed needed Alydar (runner-up in all three races in 1978). ***
If we can’t have a four-legged Triple Crown champion in 2012, might we find one in the national pastime? Baseball’s crownless drought is actually longer than horse racing’s. Not since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski led the American League with 44 home runs, 121 RBIs, and a .326 batting average in 1967 has a hitter achieved the greatest single-season achievement in the sport. (And it hasn’t happened in the National League since the Cardinals’ Joe Medwick pulled it off ... in 1937.) Here’s a partial list of sluggers you may know who did not win a Triple Crown: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, Albert Pujols. Only 12 players have been fitted for the Crown (with Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams each achieving the feat twice).
Which brings us to the current season as enjoyed by Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton. Through Sunday, Hamilton leads the American League with 18 home runs, 47 RBIs and a jaw-dropping .389 batting average. And it’s that last figure that gives Crown watchers real hope.
Homers and RBIs go together like hot dogs and mustard. Since 1968, 23 players have led the National League in both departments. In the American League, 18 hitters have accumulated the necessary totals for two-thirds of the Crown. But all 41 times, these players came up short for that pesky batting title.
Hamilton, of course, has already won a batting championship (.359 in 2010). His current lead over Chicago’s Paul Konerko is 22 points, with Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter a distant third (.347). This could be The Year.
A team will win the NBA championship next month. And I guarantee you a team will do the same thing in 2013. A golfer will have the weekend of his life in a few short weeks and be crowned U.S. Open champion. This will repeat itself in 2013. But a Triple Crown? I’ll take one in either of its grand forms. It’s the kind of sports story that can define a generation. And, I’m convinced, it will be worth the wait.
The late Bart Giamatti — commissioner of Major League Baseball at the end of his life — described his favorite game as being “designed to break your heart.” Giamatti was a wise man, and he was right about baseball. But doesn’t the same hard truth wrap itself around all professional team sports? Forced to say goodbye to the 2011-12 Memphis Grizzlies, aren’t we victims to precisely the kind of heartbreak Giamatti described in poetic form?
There are 30 NBA franchises. If the only pure form of joy is winning a championship, then the fan bases for 29 teams must endure the offseason with at least a degree of disappointment, if not utter heartbreak. Every year. (Let’s add the fan bases of NFL and MLB teams to the mix, and you have 89 of 92 legions of towel-wavers forced to dry the tears of also-rans one year after another.) There’s a cold permanence to a season-ending loss, even though we know our favorite team will suit up again, share our optimism of a new season, and fight toward the same challenge we had to concede most recently. But the offseason, as it begins, feels like the first day of school.
Had you suggested through the din at FedExForum during Game 1 of the Grizzlies’ series with the Los Angeles Clippers — Memphis up by more than 20 in the fourth quarter — that L.A. would win the series despite the Grizzlies taking a game in California, you would have learned the taste of a brand-new “Believe Memphis” growl towel. Looking back over the last two weeks, this is the heartbreaking element of the games Memphis fans will be reviewing (teeth grinding) over the next six months. There were so many chances for the Grizzlies to seize control of the franchise’s first series with home-court advantage.
Even with the collapse late in Game 1, Rudy Gay had a shot to win the opener and cure a bad-loss hangover before it could even take hold. Had but one errant shot in Game 3 found its mark, the difference would have been a Memphis win and a 2-1 series lead. Any game that requires an overtime period could go either way, but Game 4 went to the Clippers. That close to a four-game sweep, and today’s column being a forecast of a Grizzlies-Spurs rematch.
The NBA belongs to its superstars. The formula has long been securing a star worthy of an ad campaign, adding a big-name sidekick, and making sure the supporting cast gets out of the way as the trophy is being shined. Which makes the Grizzlies’ loss to Chris Paul, sidekick Blake Griffin, and the Clips so much more disheartening. Because we know the superstar formula doesn’t always hold. It didn’t last spring when the Grizzlies took down four-time champion Tim Duncan and San Antonio. It didn’t in last year’s Finals, when Dallas upset LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and a Miami team that seemed to take the formula to its ugliest, most expensive extreme. Match up the Grizzlies’ starting five with the Clippers’ starting five and the edge belongs to Memphis. Still. But it was the Clippers who somehow took control of the final quarter of Game 7 ... with their superstars combining to score two points. Ouch.
Just as teams evolve, so do fan bases. Memphis NBA fans didn’t know the thrill of a playoff series win until last year, the franchise’s 10th here in the Bluff City. And honestly, Memphis fans didn’t know real playoff disappointment until Sunday afternoon, when Mother’s Day got all too gloomy because of a basketball game. The faces we’ve made familiar over two playoff runs now — Tony, Z-Bo, Rudy, Marc, and Mike — will hardly fade from our consciousness. But they won’t be smiling, screaming, gritting, or grinding for a summer suddenly too long.
Late Sunday afternoon, my family took a walk around our neighborhood. It was entirely pleasant, my wife the center of our attention (a championship mom). We rounded a corner and I heard a basketball being dribbled at the end of a driveway. A boy — looked to be about 10 years old — was shooting on his own, his shadow longer than his actual height as the sun managed to split a few clouds. He was wearing a number 9 Tony Allen jersey. Enough to make you believe.
On Sunday in Houston, the St. Louis Cardinals ended their first three-game losing streak of the season with an 8-1 bashing of the Astros. Two recent Memphis Redbirds — Allen Craig and Tyler Greene — drove in seven of the eight Cardinal runs. So it seems like a nice time to check in on a few other Redbirds alumni making news these days in The Show.
• Perhaps the biggest baseball news Sunday was something that had already happened 445 times . . . but not in the regular season since September of last year. Albert Pujols hit his first home run as a Los Angeles Angel, ending the longest homer drought of his career (28 games and 111 at bats this season; 33 and 139 going back to his final regular-season days as a Cardinal). For the Angels, who signed Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million free-agent contract during the offseason, this is ugly math. The most accomplished hitter of this century is now earning $148,148 per game. His home run and RBI totals (1 and 7) are lower than those of his teammate, Mark Trumbo (4 and 12), despite Pujols having 45 more at bats. Trumbo is being paid $3,086 per game.
Is The Pujols Slump merely a news-making adjustment period for the future Hall of Famer? Or is it a flashing red light for Angel (and Pujols) fans that a 32-year-old slugger is at the beginning of the downside of his career? In baseball, even 28 games is a tiny sample size. The guess here is that Pujols will go on seven or eight tears this season and have his stat line packed with the usual fat numbers. But I’ll say this as simply as I can: Hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports . . . when all distractions are removed. Add the distractions of a huge contract and the move from an iconic (world champion) team, and hitting a baseball for Albert Pujols becomes a proving ground. Proof that he’s worth the contract, and proof that he can hit anywhere, for anyone, anytime. The Pujols story will be fun to follow, even if his Angels remain in the American League West cellar.
• With eight more hits, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Placido Polanco will become just the second former Redbird to pick up 2,000 in the big leagues. (The first was the big guy discussed above.) Polanco played in 99 games for the Redbirds during their two-season stint at Tim McCarver Stadium (1998-99) and hit .279. If anyone tells you they saw 2,000 hits in Polanco’s future back then, they either confused him with J.D. Drew (1,437 career hits and currently without a contract) or spent too much time in the old stadium’s beer garden.
Polanco has played in two All-Star Games and won Gold Gloves at both second base and third base. He has a higher career batting average (.300) than the player St. Louis traded him to Philadelphia for (Scott Rolen, .281). Polanco will never get into the Hall of Fame without a ticket, but he’s been to the postseason with all three franchises for whom he’s played (St. Louis, Detroit, Philadelphia). He’s been a winner, and the kind of baseball player longtime Redbird fans can feel privileged for having seen on his rise to the majors.
• Adam Wainwright won Sunday’s game for the Cardinals, the righty’s finest trip to the mound since returning this season from Tommy John surgery. The win was the 68th of Wainwright’s career against only 38 losses. (Waino was 14-14 for Memphis in 2004 and 2005.) Should Wainwright reach the 100-win mark, he’ll be the second former Redbird to do so. Through Sunday, the Angels’ Dan Haren had a career mark of 108-86. A three-time All-Star, Haren has won at least 15 games for three different teams: Oakland, Arizona, and the Angels. He’s the only former Redbird pitcher to start the major-league All-Star Game (2007) and is 22 strikeouts shy of 1,500 for his career. Haren was the ace for the 2004 Memphis team, when he went 11-4 and led the Pacific Coast League with 150 strikeouts. (And the player St. Louis acquired in dealing Haren to the A’s? Mark Mulder hasn’t thrown a pitch in the big leagues since 2008. Ouch.)
Back away from the ledge, Grizzlies fans. I’m here to tap the reset button on the 2012 playoffs.
Two weeks ago, radio host Brett Norsworthy asked me — live, on the air — if I thought the Memphis Grizzlies could reach the NBA Finals. I’m expected to have a stance or opinion when thrown a question by Stats (or his partner, Dave Woloshin), but with this query lobbed my way ... I paused. Longer than is comfortable on live radio. I eventually offered a tongue-stumbler, along the lines of, “I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but ...”
No more waffling. Why can’t these Grizzlies reach the NBA Finals? No stumbling here at my keyboard. I believe Memphis can win the Western Conference championship. However crushing Sunday night’s Game 1 loss may feel this morning, it was Game 1. In the first round. Here are five points in the Grizzlies’ favor:
• Trending Upward
Finishing the regular season on a roll matters in the NBA. Last year’s champs — the Dallas Mavericks — won their last four games, a convincing righting of a ship that was listing to the tune of four straight losses in early April. Memphis won its last six games this season, and needed every victory to secure the franchise’s first home-court advantage in a playoff series. Among the six teams the Grizzlies beat, only one (Orlando) will compete in the playoffs, and the Magic is without its best player (All-NBA center Dwight Howard). But so what? Winning is infectious. The core of this team’s roster (even Rudy Gay in a coat and tie) enjoyed a big taste of the playoff pie last spring. They’re surely excited at the chance for another run, but in no way timid before the brighter lights. And if they needed the proverbial postseason wake-up call, consider it delivered in the fourth quarter of Game 1.
• Thievery Doesn’t Slump
The Grizzlies have three of the top 15 steals leaders in the NBA in Mike Conley (136), Tony Allen (104), and Rudy Gay (95). The NBA playoffs are as much about disrupting an opponent’s attack as they are about executing with the ball in your hands. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin give the Los Angeles Clippers a star swagger that the Grizzlies can’t claim, but you have to believe Paul and Griffin aren’t dancing at the prospect of finding their shots under the kind of duress the Grizzlies will provide. (For the duration of this column, we’ll ignore that now-infamous fourth quarter.)
• Role Players Elevated
The extended absence of stars have but one silver lining: Reserves build new credentials. There’s no way Marreese Speights starts 54 games and averages 22.4 minutes for Memphis had former All-Star Zach Randolph not been sidelined for 38 games this winter. In the first round, the Grizzlies are tasked with slowing down the rim-rattling Griffin, and it will take a committee of defenders, including Randolph ... and Speights. It’s not so much if an NBA team is fully healthy, but when they are. If Randolph can approach his level of play from last year’s postseason run (and he wasn’t close Sunday night), Speights will mean unforeseen depth, especially on the defensive end.
• Home Court Grind
I like the intangible contrast of Memphis fans vs. Los Angeles fans. These are two franchises with very few notches on their playoff bedposts. Fans in the Staples Center (for at least Games 3 and 4) will include a few celebrities interested in being different (from the Laker crowd). Fans in FedExForum will (still) be interested in seeing their team prove they belong among the highest ranks of the world’s greatest basketball league. And I believe such an edge can rub off on players.
• Winnable West
It wouldn’t be fair to call the Western Conference weak. Not with the likes of San Antonio (10 wins to finish the regular season), Oklahoma City (three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant), and the Lakers (Kobe, again, and an energized Andrew Bynum) in the mix. But do any of those teams look unbeatable? (Granted, Memphis was 2-9 against the trio this season.) Should the Grizzlies get by the Clippers, they’ll likely face San Antonio in a rematch the Spurs would relish. But I still like Memphis youth against the aging top seed. Then, presumably, the Thunder or Lakers in the conference finals. Too much speculation with but one playoff game in the books. But to answer Brett Norsworthy’s question two weeks late (with a question of my own): Why not?
And let’s remember, ye of little faith: Just as it’s hard to blow a 27-point lead in a playoff game, it’s hard to build a 27-point lead in a playoff game. I’d like to think the real Grizzlies were playing over the first three quarters of Game 1.
• Memphis Tiger football fans will have the rare chance to pump a fist Thursday night, when Dontari Poe should be taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Isn’t it remarkable that the dreadful team around him could hide such a talent? (Consider a first-round pick in the NBA draft. No matter how poorly his team might play, there’s no way fans wouldn’t see the shine on his star.) I assure you, casual fans at the Liberty Bowl last fall — those loyal enough to attend — didn’t have their binoculars locked on the home team’s big defensive tackle, number 74. And honestly, you couldn’t blame them. In three seasons as a Tiger, Poe managed five sacks. His defense last season gave up an average of 192 rushing yards and 299 passing yards, neither the kind of figure you expect if a future NFL star is dominating the line of scrimmage.
But now Poe stands to gain a seven-figure contract when he’s picked anywhere from 12th to 20th (based on the mock drafts I’ve seen). Here’s hoping Poe finds a good fit and begins a lengthy pro career Thursday night. An historical note: Memphis has only produced five first-round picks, and only two of them were taken earlier than 20th (Keith Simpson was the ninth pick in 1978 and Derrick Burroughs was the 14th in 1985).
• I watched the end of the Red Sox-Yankees game on Fenway Park’s centennial last Friday from a tiny pub in my hometown of Northfield, Vermont. The old yard was treated right, though the price I paid for bleacher tickets in the late Eighties would likely get you a bag of (unsalted) peanuts today. The retro, numberless uniforms were cool. And the appearance of Red Sox heroes, from Yaz to Pedro, was nice to see.
But here’s a fundamental difference between the romanticized “Red Sox Nation” and the following enjoyed by this region’s favorite franchise, the St. Louis Cardinals. On every occasion the Cardinals have to celebrate — including Opening Day earlier this month — the greatest living collection of Hall of Famers appears at Busch Stadium in their bright-red sport jackets: Whitey Herzog, Bruce Sutter, Ozzie Smith, Red Schoendienst, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and the greatest Cardinal of them all, Stan Musial. If one of these legends has missed an Opening Day, All-Star Game, or World Series at Busch, I’m unaware.
Yet for Fenway Park’s centennial, Wade Boggs wasn’t among the guests. (He was hosting a charity golf tournament in Florida.) A first-ballot Hall of Famer who won five batting titles for Boston, Boggs had better things to do on a day Tim Wakefield made sure he was on hand for the pregame ceremony. And this points out the magic of Cardinal Nation: You get the sense the players — past and present — love the fans as much as the fans love them. The biggest moments aren’t to be missed.
• My trips to New England always boost my love of hockey, and this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs will see a pair of not-far-from-Memphis teams battling among the Western Conference semifinalists. The Nashville Predators are back in the second round after falling to Vancouver in the same round a year ago. And the St. Louis Blues won their first series in 10 years to advance to a second-round battle with the L.A. Kings. Take my word for it: no sport gains more when seen live (in the arena) than hockey. Should you have the chance and the means to head east (or north) for a Stanley Cup playoff game, do it.
Opening Night at AutoZone Park is among my favorite annual events, sports or otherwise. It’s a birthday party, of course. But one where age is actually irrelevant. The stadium feels fresh, new, and alive with the sights, sounds, and smells we associate with baseball. And, especially at the minor-league level, the team feels fresh and new as well. New names and numbers to learn, new faces to attach to positions on the field. Here are a few impressions from my 15th Redbirds birthday party.
• Whether or not the marketing staff had a say, sending Shelby Miller to the mound for the lid-lifter was a nice touch. The Cardinals’ top-ranked prospect — and among the top 10 in all of baseball, according to Baseball America — Miller brings a rare star quality for a Triple-A player. Prize hurlers are often rushed to the major leagues before they’ve toured an entire minor-league circuit. With the St. Louis Cardinals enjoying depth in their starting rotation (recent Redbird star Lance Lynn is currently filling in for the disabled Chris Carpenter), Miller will get some much-needed seasoning in Memphis before heading up the river. Only 21 years old and with a mid-nineties fastball, Miller has the highest ceiling for a Cardinals pitching prospect since Rick Ankiel was overwhelming hitters at Tim McCarver Stadium 13 years ago. Pay attention to the schedule, and count every fifth game for Miller’s appearances. He’ll be worth the extra planning. (Over two games and eight innings, Miller has given up eight runs, so there’s room for growth.)
• The Redbirds have had their share of power-hitting first basemen over the years. Ivan Cruz, Kevin Witt, and Josh Phelps come to mind. But these players have typically been of the “4-A” variety, not quite equipped with the tools to stick in the big leagues. Now along comes Matt Adams. The 6’3”, 230-pound slugger was named the Texas League Player of the Year last season when he hit .300 with 32 homers and 101 RBIs for Double-A Springfield. And he’s only 23 years old.
Adams will be an interesting prospect to follow, as the first-base position — for the first time in almost a decade — isn’t blocked by Albert Pujols in St. Louis. Lance Berkman (36 years old) will man the position this season, though he’s already been sidelined with a calf injury. Allen Craig (rehabbing from offseason knee surgery) may take hold of the position on a long-term basis. But Adams will be in the conversation, especially if he produces the power numbers he has early in his pro career. (Through Sunday, Adams leads Memphis with 3 home runs and 7 RBIs.)
• New Memphis manager Pop Warner has a season before him unlike any he’ll ever experience again. Having managed at Double-A Springfield the last five seasons, the former Redbird player (a PCL All-Star in 1998) was essentially promoted a level with many of the players who formed the core of his team a year ago. Miller and three-fourths of the starting infield Friday night (Adams, shortstop Ryan Jackson, and third-baseman Zack Cox) all played for Warner at Springfield in 2011. Familiarity is a rare commodity in Triple-A baseball. We’ll see if the intangible makes a positive difference in the standings for Memphis.
• Even with Miller on the mound, the star on Opening Night was clearly the new, gargantuan video board above right-centerfield. The high-def screen essentially serves as a bonus bank of lights for night games, providing the kind of close-ups for mound visits (or the kiss cam) not often seen away from your den couch. (Honestly, it’s hard to imagine such a screen not being a distraction to the batter. One more testament to the focus these athletes bring their craft.)
A minor complaint about the video presentation: A team’s batting order includes uniform numbers, but not the position of each player. Fans like to know the position of a player who just drove in six runs to beat the home team (as Oklahoma City rightfielder Fernando Martinez did Friday night).
• Really classy move by the Redbirds to honor the late Charlie Lea by “retiring” a microphone. Few athletes have respresented Memphis as well — and for as long — as Lea, who died suddenly last November. His name now appears permanently in the stadium, beneath the broadcast booth.