This week’s Memphis Open marks 40 years of professional tennis at the Racquet Club of Memphis. With thoughts of the late, great Casey Kasem, here’s a countdown of the top 40 players to visit our annual stop on the ATP Tour.
40) Vijay Amritraj — Won the 1976 Memphis Tennis Classic, a precursor to the U.S. National Indoor Championship, which arrived at the Racquet Club the next year.
39) Luke Jensen — Ranked 419th(!) in the world, the doubles specialist upset Andre Agassi in the 1996 tournament.
38) Marcelo Rios — The top seed in 1998, Chile’s favorite son lost to Mark Philippoussis in the semifinals.
37) Yannick Noah — The 1983 French Open champ reached the final of the ’85 U.S. National Indoor, where he lost to Stefan Edberg.
36) Eliot Teltscher — Reached the quarterfinals four straight years in Memphis (1982-85), but never got beyond the semifinals (1984 and ’85).
35) Gustavo Kuerten — Known as Guga by his adoring fans, the Brazilian upset Agassi in a 1997 three-set thriller. Four months later, he won the first of his three French Open titles.
34) Joachim Johansson — Won the 2004 championship in Memphis, one of only three career ATP titles for the unseeded Swede.
33) Kenneth Carlsen — Like Johansson before him, the Danish lefty won the 2005 title at the Racquet Club despite not being seeded. One of only three ATP titles for him, too.
32) John Isner — The towering American entered the 2012 Regions Morgan Keegan as the top seed but fell to unseeded Jurgen Melzer in the quarterfinals.
31) Steve Darcis — The Belgian beat Robin Soderling for the 2008 Memphis championship, one of only two ATP titles to his credit.
30) Jurgen Melzer — Ranked 38th in the world, the Austrian upset Canada’s Milos Raonic for the 2012 championship. At age 30, he was the oldest Memphis champ in 21 years.
29) Marin Cilic — The top seed in 2013, Cilic fell to then-unknown Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals. A year later, Cilic gained some revenge (and then some) by beating Nishikori for the U.S. Open championship.
28) Milos Raonic — Reached consecutive finals at the Racquet Club, but lost to Andy Roddick in 2011 and Jurgen Melzer in 2012.
27) Magnus Larsson — This Swede only reached one Grand Slam semifinal (the 1994 French Open), but beat Byron Black for the 2000 Memphis championship.
26) Johan Kriek — The South African upset John McEnroe for the 1982 championship and reached the final again seven years later when he lost to Brad Gilbert.
25) Sam Querrey — The 8th seed beat John Isner for the 2010 singles championship then teamed with Isner to win the doubles title.
24) Mats Wilander — The winner of seven Grand Slam titles made two appearances in Memphis but failed to reach the semis both times.
23) Todd Woodbridge — Reached the 1997 final, where he lost to Michael Chang. With partner Mark Woodforde, won a record four doubles titles at the Racquet Club (1992, ’93, ’98, ’99).
22) Vitas Gerulaitis — Two years after winning the Australian Open, Gerulaitis reached the Memphis semifinals in 1979 where he lost in three sets to Jimmy Connors. Reached the quarterfinals here in 1982.
21) Guillermo Vilas — The big Argentinian reached the quarterfinals of the 1977 U.S. National Indoor, the same year he won both the French Open and U.S. Open.
20) Taylor Dent — Upset Andy Roddick in the final to win the 2003 Memphis championship, one of his four career ATP titles.
19) Gene Mayer — Beat Yannick Noah in the semis and Roscoe Tanner in the final to win the 1981 championship, one of his 14 career ATP titles. Lost in the 1982 semifinals to John McEnroe.
18) MaliVai Washington — The only black player to win a Memphis title, Washington beat Michael Chang and Jimmy Connors on his way to the 1992 crown. Reached the final at Wimbledon four years later.
17) Brad Gilbert — Known today for his work as a TV analyst, Gilbert won 20 ATP titles and was crowned champion twice in Memphis (1986 and ’89). Upset Stefan Edberg for his first championship here.
16) Michael Stich — The unseeded German beat Wally Masur to win the 1990 championship at the Racquet Club. The next year, he beat countryman Boris Becker for the Wimbledon title.
15) Mark Philippoussis — The Aussie won 11 career titles, two of them in Memphis (1998 and 2001). Reached the semis as the 10th seed in 1996.
14) Todd Martin — Reached the final in Memphis three straight years and won the 1994 and ’95 championships, two of his eight career titles.
13) Ivan Lendl — The eight-time Grand Slam champ only appeared in Memphis twice, but beat Michael Stich for the 1991 title.
12) Tommy Haas — One of three men to win three Memphis titles (1999, 2006, ’07). Playing for Germany, won a silver medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
11) Arthur Ashe — The groundbreaking legend reached the Memphis final in 1979 where he lost in three sets to Jimmy Connors.
10) Kei Nishikori — The first player to win three consecutive titles at the Racquet Club (2013-15).
9) Andre Agassi — Two months shy of his 18th birthday, Agassi won the Memphis title in 1988. In five other appearances at the Racquet Club, he never reached the final.
8) Jim Courier — In six Memphis appearances, the four-time Grand Slam champ reached two finals and won the title in 1993.
7) Michael Chang — Appeared in Memphis 16 consecutive years (1988-2003), winning the 1997 championship and reaching the final in ’98.
6) Bjorn Borg — The five-time Wimbledon champion won the first official Memphis title at the 1977 U.S. National Indoor (a few months before winning his second title at the All-England Club).
5) John McEnroe — In the most star-studded final in Racquet Club history, beat Jimmy Connors (7-6, 7-6) for the 1980 Memphis title. In three other Bluff City appearances, reached one more final (a loss in ’82 to Kriek).
4) Stefan Edberg — Raised the trophy in Memphis the same two years he won the Australian Open (1985 and ’87). The six-time Grand Slam champion lost to Brad Gilbert in the 1986 final.
3) Pete Sampras — Won 14 Grand Slam titles and appeared in Memphis six times, beating Todd Martin for the 1996 championship.
2) Andy Roddick — Appeared in 12 consecutive Memphis tournaments (2001-12), the top seed for nine straight years (2003-011). Won three titles (2002, ’09, ’11).
1) Jimmy Connors — Reached at least the semifinals in eight of his ten Memphis appearances, winning a record four titles at the Racquet Club (1978, ’79, ’83, and ’84). The event’s top seed six times.
What do you get when you combine the most overhyped sporting event on the planet with its golden anniversary? As the countdown to Super Bowl 50 begins, we’re about to find out. Get ready for “Fifty Best” lists, from heroes and goats, to coaches and commercials. Here are merely five angles — and a prediction — to kick off your two-week journey to the actual kickoff.
What a career sunset for Peyton Manning. Instead of tabulating the latest figures in his career records for passing yards (71,940) and touchdowns (539), Manning will start his fourth Super Bowl just two months shy of his 40th birthday. It feels appropriate, a man in the conversation for the best quarterback in history playing in the Super Bowl’s 50th showcase. Among the six other quarterbacks to start at least four Super Bowls, five won at least two championships. (Jim Kelly lost all four of his starts with Buffalo.) A win over Carolina would make Manning 2-2 in the big game and would equal the grand finale of his current boss, John Elway, 17 years ago. Presuming, of course, this will be Manning’s final game.
Opposing Manning will be the favorite for this year’s MVP award, Panther quarterback Cam Newton. Remarkably, Newton will be just the third Heisman Trophy winner to start behind center in the Super Bowl. (Roger Staubach started four Super Bowls for Dallas and Jim Plunkett two for the Raiders.) The contrast between the two quarterbacks couldn’t be greater. In addition to passing for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns this season, Newton rushed for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns. In 17 years as an NFL quarterback, Manning has rushed for a total of 667 yards.
Carolina is just the third team to reach the Super Bowl after a 15-1 regular season. The 1984 San Francisco 49ers and 1985 Chicago Bears won blowouts to raise the Lombardi Trophy. Three 15-1 teams since then didn’t even reach the Super Bowl (the 1998 Vikings, 2004 Steelers, and ’11 Packers). Carolina had the advantage of playing in the weak NFC South — a division they won in 2014 with a 7-8-1 record — but 18 total wins in a season would put this club among the all-time elite.
The NFL playoffs are getting more predictable. For the fourth time in seven years, the AFC’s and NFC’s top seeds are meeting in the Super Bowl. Before New Orleans faced Indianapolis after the 2009 season, 15 years had passed between such a matchup. There have been a total of 11 such clashes in the Super Bowl, with the NFC winning eight.
The only historical stat you’ll really need: The NFC is 8-4 in Super Bowls played the year of a U.S. presidential election. (We’re counting the pre-merger Packers — winner of Super Bowl II in 1968 — among NFC teams.) The NFC representative has won six of the last seven such Super Bowls. But here’s a catch: In three of the four election-year Super Bowls won by the AFC team, a Republican won the White House.
My pick? My heart tells me the Peyton Manning Story ends with confetti, the Lombardi Trophy, and one last pizza (or insurance) commercial. But I saw what the Carolina defense — led by All-Pros Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman — did to a previously explosive Arizona offense. Newton’s versatility will be valuable against Denver’s top-ranked defense, and I think just enough to earn the Panthers their first championship.
Carolina 20, Denver 13
I’ve interviewed my share of professional baseball players over the last 15 years (most of them Memphis Redbirds). The most consistent answer I’ve heard to any regular question has been the favorite player of these men growing up: Ken Griffey Jr. Infielders, outfielders, pitchers, it doesn’t matter. Almost invariably, they made their own way on baseball diamonds with Junior — or the Kid, as he was affectionately known — as their model.
And journalists loved Griffey just as much. Last week, Junior was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame with the highest percentage of the total vote — 99.3 percent — in the history of the institution. (Tom Seaver had held the record for 23 years.) Three voters were apparently napping in the press box as Griffey hit 630 home runs and won 10 Gold Gloves over a 22-year career, primarily with the Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds. Griffey, sadly, is just the fourth first-ballot Hall of Famer never to have played in a World Series game. (The others: Ernie Banks, Rod Carew, and Frank Thomas.) Which only proves how cruel baseball can be, for no player — including Banks — combined supreme talent with a child-like love for playing the game like Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey is just the second man younger than me to enter the Hall of Fame (after 2015 inductee Pedro Martinez). As an 18-year-old outfielder in 1988, Griffey played 17 games with the Double-A Vermont Mariners, who played their home games at Centennial Field in Burlington. The previous year, I played my last high school game — a Vermont state championship — in the same stadium, the same outfield. So I can claim one (and precisely one) baseball memory in common with Junior Griffey, the planet’s greatest player of my generation.
Here’s where Griffey’s story gets bittersweet, and reflects the generational pull of our national pastime. The Kid is a middle-aged man. His Hall of Fame induction will serve as that mile-marker baseball fans use for players of “yesteryear,” the greats who had their day and have stepped aside for a current crop of sluggers, speed-demons, and flame-throwers. For me personally, his induction is a reminder of one boy’s dream not quite realized. (I’ll give up on being a big-league player the day I draw my last breath. I have my glove at the ready; just need a phone call.) And a reminder that no matter how skilled we might be on a baseball diamond, no matter how much we love our time on the base paths or in the outfield, there comes a time for plaques, speeches, and gentle applause. Can the Kid actually have gray hair? Impossible.
The annual Cardinals Caravan rolls into Memphis this Friday (doors open at AutoZone Park at 5:30). Among the headliners appearing will be a current St. Louis Cardinal All-Star (Michael Wacha) and one who appears to have an All-Star Game or two in his future (Stephen Piscotty). Also appearing will be a pair of former Cardinals — a different generation — who are best remembered in these parts for their exploits with the Memphis Redbirds. Stubby Clapp (now 42) will be here, and I’m guessing for the right price he just might try a backflip. Bo Hart (now 39 and living in Memphis) will also be here, the man who succeeded Clapp at second base for the Redbirds in 2003. Upon being promoted by the Cardinals that summer, Hart picked up 18 hits in his first 35 at-bats, a debut unmatched by any other player in major-league history (including Junior Griffey). Hart played a total of 88 games in the big leagues, but he lived the dream, particularly for two weeks.
In my personal Field of Dreams, Ken Griffey Jr. would be in the lineup. So would Stubby Clapp and Bo Hart. I’d be the guy merely asking one of them to play catch a few minutes. Baseball is indeed timeless. There will be new heroes to compare with those your parents cheered, just as your folks compared their heroes with those of your grandparents. But relish the moments provided by those of your own generation, particularly a Hall of Fame induction. Baseball may be timeless, but alas, we are not.
2016 will be a year of change in Memphis sports. Just as 2015 was, and 2014 the year before. If there’s a single, unifying reason any of us turn to sports on a daily basis, it’s the mystery of what’s to come. The changes happening — often in dramatic fashion — between serial tweets and highlights. A basketball game (or football game, or tennis match . . .) has long been the best reality show on television. The only thing consistent with sports prognosticators (including yours truly) is how much we get wrong. Change is coming.
The Memphis Open is under new ownership (again). Kei Nishikori can’t possibly win a fourth straight title at the Racquet Club, can he? The FedEx St. Jude Classic has a new tournament director. Stephen Piscotty will open the next baseball season in the St. Louis Cardinals’ outfield, not that of the Memphis Redbirds. A year ago today, Austin Nichols and Nick King seemed like both the present and future of Memphis Tiger basketball. A year ago, we all wondered what more Justin Fuente and Paxton Lynch could give us. And few people on this side of the Mississippi River knew the name Mike Norvell. Change is coming.
The most significant change we’ll see this year on the local sports landscape? I’m convinced it will be with the roster of the Memphis Grizzlies, and I don’t mean the kind of change that yields Brandan Wright or subtracts Kosta Koufos. This is the year we could see the Beatles break up.
The Grizzlies’ version of the Fab Four — Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen — is playing its sixth season as a band, aiming for a sixth playoff appearance, and roughly six millionth smile generated in the Mid-South. Particularly in the modern NBA, such a run is epochal. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili have set a standard for teammates by playing 14 seasons together (and winning four championships) in San Antonio. But who is their Ringo Starr? Bruce Bowen? Kawhi Leonard? (It’s actually their coach, Gregg Popovich.)
One of the greatest foursomes in NBA history was the one that took the Boston Celtics to four straight Finals in the 1980s. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Dennis Johnson played seven seasons together, merely one more than the current Griz quartet have enjoyed. But that was an era when stars like Parish and McHale, let alone superstars like Bird, ignored the siren calls of free agency. It didn’t hurt, of course, to be contending for the Larry O’Brien Trophy every spring.
Allen turns 34 this month and has one more season ($5.5 million) on his contract with Memphis. Randolph turns 35 in July and likewise has one more year ($10.3 million) under contract with the Grizzlies. The franchise’s career games leader, Conley, will be a free agent. Since Gasol re-signed with Memphis last summer, the presumption has been his point guard will follow suit in the summer of ’16. Perhaps he will, and perhaps the Grindfather and Z-Bo will come back for one more tour in 2016-17.
But be prepared for change. On January 1, 2015, the Grizzlies were 23-8 and heading toward what looked like the franchise’s first division title. Today, Memphis is 18-17, sixth overall in a weaker Western Conference. It’s a team that should reach the postseason, but is it a team that appears able to win a series? To win two and return to the conference finals?
Sentiment can be deadly, both in reality TV and sports. Teams that get old together inevitably lose together. In their last season as a band, that famed Celtics foursome blew a 2-0 lead and lost their first-round series (then a best-of-five) with New York in the 1990 playoffs.
Change is coming in 2016. How it impacts this city’s only big-league franchise remains to be seen. Let’s keep watching.
Frank Murtaugh continues the count-down of his Top 10 Most Memorable Memphis Sports Moments of 2015:
5) Navy 45, Tigers 20 (November 7) — Forget the result. This game, ironically, is the snapshot that will stick with me from the Justin Fuente Era in Memphis. The undefeated (8-0) Tigers and the 6-1 Midshipmen met on the gridiron (somehow for the very first time). And 55,000 fans packed the Liberty Bowl without an SEC team in sight. I’ve long held the Liberty Bowl is too big a stadium for the Memphis program. A crowd of 40,000 should not feel like a third of the stadium is empty. But when you pack 55,000 into the old saddle, it feels like big-time college football. Dreams of a New Years’ Six Bowl for the Tigers died on this night. But something else came alive.
4) Dallas 103, Grizzlies 95 (January 19) — The Martin Luther King Day game has become, in my opinion, the top annual event on the Memphis sports calendar. Saluting former athletes for making a difference beyond the box score makes for a poignant event, and one held merely blocks from the National Civil Rights Museum. This was the first chance I had to take my entire family to the game, allowing me the chance to try and explain the significance of Earl Monroe and his connection to one of the NBA’s most memorable teams. (Happily, my daughters were both familiar with another of the Sports Legacy Award honorees: Jason Collins.) This may have been the best matchup in the history of the event, the Griz entering the game with a record of 29-11 and the Mavericks at 28-13. Memphis fell behind by nine after the first quarter, clawed back to finally take the lead with just over four minutes to play, but fell when Dirk Nowitzki hit three field goals over the game’s final two minutes. The real winner, as it is every year on MLK Day, was the city of Memphis.
3) Redbirds 9, Sounds 4 (June 24) — I used some vacation time, took the afternoon off, and enjoyed this Wednesday-afternoon tilt with one of my daughters. Memphis fell behind, 2-0, in the top of the first, but Stephen Piscotty homered on the first pitch he saw in the bottom of the first, making the 109-degree heat index feel like hitters’ fuel. Bartlett native Jacob Wilson later added a double and Tommy Pham a triple as the Redbirds’ offense took starting pitcher Zach Petrick off the hook. Less than a month later, Piscotty made his debut with the St. Louis Cardinals, taking over leftfield from the injured Matt Holliday. Pham also played a key role in the Cards’ 100-win season that earned the franchise a third straight National League Central title. But on this sweltering afternoon at AutoZone Park, the Cardinals’ future was still the Memphis present.
2) Tigers 53, Cincinnati 46 (September 24) — This Thursday-night affair took more than four hours to play . . . but felt like 90 minutes, max. The two teams combined for 1,322 yards of offense (most of them — 752 — by the loser), 12 touchdowns, and 11 lead changes. Cincinnati scored nine times (four field goals) and Memphis eight (one field goal), with the same team scoring consecutively but once (two Bearcat field goals in the second quarter). Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch passed for 412 yards, a career high (until the Tulsa game a month later). Not until Tiger linebacker Leonard Pegues picked off a wobbly Hayden Moore pass with 10 seconds left on the clock did the U of M secure the win. This was the third time in four games Memphis scored at least 50 points in a football game (with two more to come).
1) Tigers 37, Ole Miss 24 (October 17) — The Rebels were visiting the Liberty Bowl for the first time in five years and had beaten mighty Alabama a month earlier. But here’s the thing: The vast majority of the 60,000 fans in the Liberty Bowl . . . were wearing blue. This game certainly represented the apotheosis of the Justin Fuente Era in Memphis. The question should be whether or not it’s the apotheosis of University of Memphis football, period. After falling behind 14 points just six minutes into the game (“Here we go again . . .”), the Tigers simply dominated the 13th-ranked team in the country. Over the next 30 minutes of playing time, Memphis outscored Ole Miss 31-0, quarterback Paxton Lynch throwing three touchdown passes on his way to a 384-yard game. Two field goals by All-American kicker Jake Elliott provided separation in the fourth quarter. The victory improved Memphis to 6-0 for the first time in 54 years and extended the Tigers’ program-record winning streak to 13 games.
This week (and next): the ten most memorable local sporting events I attended this year.
10) FESJC second round (June 12) — I like to walk the Southwind course before the weekend cut, when you can see a wide range of rising (and falling) PGA talent, young unknowns (Harris English in 2013) on their way to fat Sunday paychecks and players with major titles in their rearview, galleries shrinking as birthdays come and go. I followed former Masters champ Mike Weir for a few holes in the morning, his “gallery” small enough for each of us to hear conversations between the player and his caddie. In the afternoon, I set up camp near the third tee and awaited the arrival of the day’s star trio: Graeme McDowell, Retief Goosen, and Phil Mickelson. (Each man has at least one major title to his credit.) I managed to stay with the mass of humanity following this group for two holes. It’s said but not often seen so vividly: stars sell tickets. Phil Mickelson is a star.
9) Tigers 75, Connecticut 72 (February 19) — For the second straight season, the Tigers beat the defending national champions ... twice. In the first of two wins over the Huskies, three Tigers — Austin Nichols, Kedren Johnson, and Markel Crawford — each played 38 minutes, combining for 51 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, and seven blocks (all of the rejections by Nichols). UConn star Ryan Boatright was held to seven points in 32 minutes and Memphis earned the victory despite being dominated on the glass (41 rebounds for the Huskies against their 27). This was the Kedren Johnson (21 points, six assists) many saw during his days with Vanderbilt. Such sightings, alas, were too few last winter.
8) Kei Nishikori wins Memphis Open (February 15) — Until Nishikori handled South Africa’s Kevin Anderson (6-4, 6-4), no player had won three consecutive championships at the Racquet Club of Memphis. Nishikori earned his eighth ATP title the hard way, dropping the opening set in his three matches prior to the final. The Japanese baseliner became just the fourth player to win three Memphis titles for a career, let alone consecutively. And he’s the first to proudly raise the tournament’s new trophy: a guitar.
7) Oklahoma 84, Tigers 78 (November 17) — Despite hosting this contest, Memphis was supposed to be little more than a welcome mat for the 8th-ranked Sooners. The nationally televised affair was filling a slot on ESPN’s round-the-clock menu, an introduction for Oklahoma’s preseason All-America, Buddy Hield. Instead, the Tigers took punches and landed a few of their own for the entire 40 minutes, taking the lead with just over 90 seconds to play. Hield scored 30 points, but Memphis freshman Dedric Lawson scored 22 and grabbed 15 rebounds (10 on the offensive end) to steal some spotlight. Had a three-pointer here or a few free throws there found the net for the U of M, we would have seen the Tigers’ biggest upset in quite some time. Instead, we got to know a team with far more promise than any doormat.
6) Colts 35, Titans 33 (September 27) — This is as local as the NFL gets. My first trip to Nissan Stadium in Nashville coincided with rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota’s home debut. The 2014 Heisman Trophy winner out-dueled Indianapolis star Andrew Luck (another Pac 12 product) for three quarters, tossing a pair of touchdown passes to give Tennessee a 27-14 lead after 45 minutes of play. Trouble is, NFL games are 60 minutes. Luck threw two touchdown passes midway through the fourth and Frank Gore dashed six yards for what proved to be the game-clincher with 2:51 left on the clock. I enjoyed the game with a friend I’ve known more than 40 years, which made the result all but incidental.
Check back next week for the Top 5.
An 8-year-old boy has heroes. I happened to be 8 years old in 1977 when Star Wars entered our galaxy and changed pop culture in ways no one unfamiliar with a Wookiee could have previously imagined. My heroes in 1977 were not atypical for the times: Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. St. Louis Cardinals catcher Ted Simmons. Spider-Man. Paul Stanley of KISS. (The Starchild offered everything the Bee Gees did not. I signed up for the KISS Army long before my parents would have authorized.)
I’d like to think I was no more or less impressionable than my third-grade classmates that year in Knoxville, Tennessee. But I knew a hero when I first met Han Solo. And Luke Skywalker. And Princess Leia. And yes, R2-D2.
Fast forward (many years, but in a galaxy nearby) to this Friday when The Force Awakens hits local screens and the seventh chapter of the Star Wars saga becomes the most talked-about movie event of the year (decade?). I’ll be able to take my own daughters (ages 13 and 16) to see Han and Chewie on the big screen, their views of heroes shaped quite differently from the way I shaped mine 38 years ago. (Can Leia or Rey compete with Katniss Everdeen?) It will make for a cross-generational experience unlike many films can provide a person of my generation.
By the time The Empire Strikes Back was released (in 1980), my family had moved from Knoxville to Southern California. We lived in Vermont when the world was introduced to Ewoks in Return of the Jedi (1983). Staubach had long retired by the completion of this initial trilogy, Simmons was a Milwaukee Brewer, and KISS had removed their makeup. I entered high school with my Star Wars action figures confined to a drawer in the back of a closet. There were times it seemed a monthly Spidey comic was my only escape worthy of hero status.
But Star Wars never left, we know. Thirteen days after my first daughter was born in 1999, The Phantom Menace hit screens and viewers of my generation had to connect the dots between a mop-topped, pod-racing child ... and the Darth Vader he was destined to become. Attack of the Clones followed in 2002, as did my second daughter (four months later). KISS was back in makeup, Spider-Man reached the big screen (also in 2002), and Albert Pujols did things for the Cardinals unseen since the days of Stan Musial. Heroes were alive and well.
In 2005, the final prequel was released (mercifully, say many in hindsight). In Revenge of the Sith, we saw the final descent (not quite death) of Luke Skywalker’s father, his black mask as familiar a symbol of evil as any Hollywood image before or since. That same year, my own father died. If there’s a life event that kills heroes in the heart of a man, it’s his father’s death, the most intimate collision with mortality a human being will experience. I’ve been reluctant to identify anyone — real or fantasy — as my “hero” since my dad’s passing.
But I’ll be in line this weekend. And like everyone else my age (and millions younger), I’ll anticipate the first appearance (the return!) of Luke and Leia. I’ll relish the comedic (and loving) interplay between Solo and Chewbacca, the best Hollywood tandem since Butch and Sundance. And I’m looking forward to meeting the new soldiers: Finn, Rey, Poe, Kylo Ren. (And yes, BB-8 is adorable.) The world is so much scarier today (at least for me) than it was in 1977. I’m grateful there’s still room for Star Wars. And still room for heroes.
I have so much to be thankful for; not quite enough room on the Internet. But I can start with a column on blessings from the world of sports.
• I’m grateful for the annual Martin Luther King Day game at FedExForum. It’s astonishing to me that this game isn’t televised nationally on ABC (or at least ESPN). A basketball game that celebrates tolerance and decency in mankind? We need more of these. Glad this one belongs to Memphis.
• I’m grateful for Phil Cannon and his extraordinary courage and grace in the face of cancer. One year after another, the FedEx St. Jude Classic sets a standard for professionalism and hospitality beyond the reach of your average PGA event. That’s Phil’s legacy.
• I’m grateful for “The Mask Game.”
• I’m grateful for American Pharoah. Truth be told, I’d given up on seeing a Triple Crown winner. The abundance of thoroughbred breeding and trainers bypassing the first two races to prep for the Belmont seemed to preclude such a three-year-old lightning strike. So glad I was wrong.
• I’m grateful for the impossible debate over which of the Grizzlies’ “core four” will have his number retired first. (It will be Zach Randolph.)
• I’m grateful for Justin Fuente and his “1-0” plan. It’s worked more often than not.
• I’m grateful for a visit to AutoZone Park by St. Louis Cardinals hero Willie McGee. Influence across baseball generations is a beautiful thing to see.
• I’m grateful for a man named Jeremy Hazelbaker. And his considerable talents on a baseball field.
• I’m grateful for memories of the leftfield bluff at AutoZone Park. The Redbirds have done so many things right since arriving here 17 years ago, but shutting off that bluff (after shaving it down) was a strikeout. My daughters grew up on that grassy slope (and its neighboring playground), as countless other Mid-South children did. In my mind, it was the best park (within a park) in the city. Last seen with a pickup truck and a target for winning said truck.
• I’m grateful for Josh Pastner’s optimism. We live in a cynical, sobering world. Find positive energy where, when, and however you can.
• I’m grateful for Jake Elliott on fourth down.
• I’m grateful for an NBA Finals with the cities of Oakland and Cleveland represented. It will happen, Memphis.
• I’m grateful for the Memphis Open and the survival of professional tennis at the Racquet Club. There are far more NBA and NFL teams in America than ATP events, making a week in February distinctly “big-league” for local tennis fans. Now, if we could just talk Roger Federer into a visit . . .
• I’m grateful for reaching a place where a three-game losing streak by the Memphis Tigers (football team!) seems painful.
• I’m grateful for the White Station Middle School soccer program. Over the last six years, I’ve seen two little girls grow into young ladies (and young leaders) under the guidance of coach Tom Pickering. A soccer field was merely the setting.
• I’m grateful for the time I got to spend this year with members of the 1984-85 Memphis State basketball team. Unforgettable group.
• I’m grateful for Paxton Lynch’s mobility. And his arm strength. And his field vision. So are NFL scouts.
• I’m grateful for the hope Dedric Lawson has restored for Memphis Tiger basketball. An extraordinary, precocious talent. May his drive to improve and develop match his drives to the rim.
• I’m grateful for the local Race for the Cure, and its new home downtown at AutoZone Park. We’re winning the fight against breast cancer, but many more miles to run.
• I’m grateful for the Flyer’s loyal readers and advertisers, who are welcome at our family table every year, one after another.
Happy Thanksgiving everybody.
I’ve written this column before, at least a version of it. And I’ll surely write it again. Whether it’s Boston in 2013, Paris in 2015, or [to be determined] in 2016, sporting events are in the crosshairs of terrorists. ISIS and its murderous ilk are targeting a way of life — a way of thinking, really — and seek the most carnage and the most attention they can acquire on a single calendar date. The easiest means to such a barbarous end: Kill as many people as possible with a single blow (or coordinated blows, as occurred last Friday in France).
Nothing says freedom like the way free people choose to spend their free time. And millions upon millions of free people the world over choose to spend their free time together at sporting events. Or theatres. Or concert halls. Or restaurants. This is the soft underbelly of western civilization in the eyes of mass murderers. And as long as a way of life — a way of thinking — remains the mortal enemy, there will be carnage where people gather to share free time.
Every time I attend a Tiger basketball game at FedExForum, I’m “wanded.” (What a terribly misnamed device, as if there’s any magic in a tool that determines if a human being is packing heat.) And I go through the media entrance. (Save the jokes on journalists and terror.) This is a price. It’s a price we pay for the Munich Olympics of 1972, the Atlanta Games of 1996, the 2013 Boston Marathon. Metal detectors and such are the closest we can come to a magic force field, one that protects innocent — free — spectators from the type of killer who cares not about their name, background, family, or religion ... only that they’re free to gather with a crowd. An easy, unknowing target.
We’ve lived this way for the better part of four decades. A film on a terrorist attack at the Super Bowl (Black Sunday) was released in 1977, for crying out loud. I’ve long considered an NFL stadium the most obvious venue for an actual attack, whether it’s the Super Bowl or any of 31 venues on a random weekend in November. As the upcoming film, Concussion, proclaims, the National Football League “owns a day of the week.” So many people, so much attention (and on television!), so much freedom.
But this is the trick: We must continue to gather. We must continue to fill our free hours with the places, people, teams, and events that give us joy. We must continue to run marathons, attend rock shows, try that new Thai restaurant getting rave reviews. These are the most human moments of our lives, for they are not required but rather sought. And those who attend these events with us help make them the moments we’ll remember when we return to the chores of life. “Take me out to the ball game, take me out with the crowd.”
Remember that baseball game played in Baltimore last April with no fans in the stands? With the city tense over the death of a black man in police custody, Major League Baseball chose to play a scheduled game without so much as bothering to “wand” a single fan entering the stadium. That game between the Orioles and White Sox became the most ludicrous excuse for a “sporting event” in American history. For it’s the people — the fans — who make such an event, not the teams on the field.
I hurt for the lives lost last week in Paris. And I dread writing this column again, as I certainly will. But the only way I know to contribute in the “war on terrorism,” is to encourage the continued act of freedom that is attending sporting events. It may take generations, and it may be after we decide football itself is barbarous, but I’m convinced tolerance, compassion, and progress will prevail. And human beings will be gathering in large crowds to see it just so.
Things have become topsy-turvy if you wave the blue and gray of the University of Memphis these days. The Tiger football team is 8-1 and ranked 25th in the country, yet there’s some disappointment in the air. The basketball team, on the other hand, is perceived to be at its lowest point in more than a decade, yet actually looked competent and capable in its lone exhibition game. (We’ve learned that such a performance is not to be taken for granted.)
With both teams in the spotlight come Saturday, where and how does a U of M fan find normalcy?
There was a time — all of three years ago — when a 25-point beatdown of the home team at the Liberty Bowl wouldn’t cause a ripple, let alone a stir. But when a team rides a 15-game winning streak to an 8-0 record and enters the conversation about the College Football Playoff (seriously?!), getting run off the field by Navy’s triple-option — in front of more than 55,000 human beings — doesn’t sit well. After the loss Saturday night, Memphis coach Justin Fuente (still, presumably, among the hottest young coaches in the country) emphasized a “burning desire to not feel this way again” as the prime motivating factor for his team the rest of the way.
Can you picture Larry Porter, or Tommy West for that matter, expressing disappointment and such a “burning desire” after losing his first game ... in November? Of course you can’t. Not since 1938 had a Memphis football team reached Halloween with an unblemished record. Which made the dismantling at the hands of Keenan Reynolds and friends so jarring. Navy is now 7-1 and ranked 22nd in the AP poll. So the Tigers are in the midst of a three-game tour of the Top 25 with next week’s foe (Houston, 9-0) at 16 and the following week’s (Temple, 8-1) at 21. The American Athletic Conference, friends, has as many teams in the Top 25 as the SEC. Topsy-turvy.
And Josh Pastner’s basketball squad? They handled this year’s Division 2 offering, LeMoyne-Owen, last Friday night at FedExForum, making the season an immediate improvement on the campaign that began last year with a loss to CBU. There were no more than 5,000 fans in the building (attendance wasn’t announced), and skeptics will emphasize that, hey, this was a Division 2 opponent. The Magicians’ point guard (Desmond Black) is listed generously at 5’8” and scored 11 points while handing out 10 assists.
But the Tigers looked good. Better yet, three players new to the program played significant roles in the win. Point guard Ricky Tarrant scored a team-high 22 points and appeared to be in command of the offensive flow. And the Lawson brothers acted like they’ve chosen to replace departed transfers Austin Nichols and Nick King on their own. Dedric had 10 points and nine rebounds in 20 minutes, K.J. 13 points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes. These three new arrivals won’t match those numbers every game, but a fan base has to consider the program better than it did before the trio’s dress rehearsal last week.
The Tigers tip off the 2015-16 regular season Saturday night when old rival Southern Miss visits FedExForum. Opening night for Tiger hoops has historically been one of the three or four most significant annual sporting events on the Memphis calendar. Trouble is, many fans who might otherwise be in a seat at FedExForum will be home (or in Houston) watching the Tiger football team (kickoff against the Cougars will be at 6 p.m.). Forsaking basketball for football in mid-November. In Memphis. Topsy-turvy.
• Former Tiger great DeAngelo Williams will play a central role in any playoff drive the injury-ravaged Pittsburgh Steelers are able to mount. Filling in for the injured Le’Veon Bell, Williams ran for 170 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Steelers’ narrow win over Oakland last Sunday. And he’ll be needed that much more now that Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sidelined by a foot injury. Now 32 and playing his 10th NFL season, Williams appears to have found a magic fountain near the Steel City’s famed three rivers. The last time he gained as many as 170 yards in a game? Carolina’s 2012 season finale.
A sports column is no place to get political. This being campaign season, though, allow me to dip a toe in the vote-gathering waters. My support, you see, is up for grabs. I won’t plant a Donald Trump sign. (He lost me when he killed the USFL. Haven’t listened to him since.) And Hillary Clinton needs to improve those “likability” numbers (at least in my living room) to earn my vote. But there is a way a presidential candidate — any candidate but Trump, really — could pull me in. Just add National Baseball Day to the platform.
The stretch between Labor Day and Thanksgiving — three long months — screams for a national holiday. A real holiday, with schools and businesses (most of them, anyway) closed, a national pause from the daily grind as days shorten and temperatures drop. Not only would National Baseball Day nicely interrupt this drought, but America would also finally have a holiday celebrating what this country does best: spectator sports.
Here’s how it would work. On the day Game 1 of the World Series is played — typically a Tuesday — Americans stay home in honor of this nation’s original pastime. No one plays like Americans. Entire industries are devoted to recreation. Finally, National Baseball Day would allow us to celebrate these healthy instincts.
The game would begin at 3 p.m. Eastern, allowing every child from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, to see every pitch, hit, stolen base, and strikeout if he or she so chooses. Using modern technology, families split across time zones could fire up their computers or smart phones and share in the exploits of the latest World Series hero. Families and friends would have some extra bonding time built around a baseball game. Imagine that.
Not a baseball fan? This holiday is for you, too. No viewing required. Enjoy a picnic with your family (if you live in a warm region). Or catch a movie you haven’t had time to see. Better yet, open that thick book you’ve been meaning to read, but “never have the time.” The idea is to relish a day of leisure, courtesy of baseball.
The TV fat cats will be the hardest to budge. (The last daytime World Series game was played in 1987, and it was indoors, under the roof of the abominable Metrodome.) Upwards of $200 million in ad revenue will go into the FOX coffers, depending on how long the Series goes. Why mess with such a golden goose? Well, why not consider the possibilities — revenue-wise — if a Series game is broadcast as the centerpiece of a national holiday? With entire families viewing, not simply that 25-45 male demographic considered most precious. Seems the Super Bowl broadcast has found its way to profitability, with kickoff in the late afternoon on a Sunday. Why must World Series games end after midnight in New York City?
My daughters are now old enough (16 and 13) to stay up past bedtime to see a World Series game completed. But their interest is based largely on stories I’ve shared from years their little bodies needed sleep more than the pageantry of the seventh-inning stretch. (I woke up one of my daughters when David Freese delivered his epic game-tying triple for the Cardinals in the 2011 Fall Classic. Bless her heart, she didn’t remember being awoken the next morning.) Keep reading the stories of how baseball is dying, how kids are losing interest in a game that’s “too slow” for the modern attention span. Then check the start times for the sport’s most important, compelling, talked-about games. These are related.
The time has come, ye presidential hopefuls, for National Baseball Day. Consider my vote a free agent, ready to sign.
The 2015 St. Louis Cardinals defy logic. National League Central Division champions (again) the Cardinals will enter the postseason this week as baseball’s first 100-game winner since the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies. And they’ll do so having endured a season of injuries that — on paper — would seem to compromise the chances of a wild-card chase, let alone that magical three-figure win total. A quick summary (well, as quick as I can make such a list):
• Three men expected to play every day — first-baseman Matt Adams, leftfielder Matt Holliday, and centerfielder Jon Jay — each missed more than half the season. All three returned to the active roster in September and will be expected to perform in the playoffs for St. Louis to advance.
• The team’s longtime ace, Adam Wainwright, tore his left Achilles heel in his fourth start of the season on April 25th. Initially considered lost for at least nine months, Wainwright returned last week as a highly paid supplement to the Cardinal bullpen. (You’ll remember the last season Wainwright missed — 2011 — ended in a Cardinals’ world championship. The last season he spent in the St. Louis bullpen — 2006 — also ended with a parade.)
• Jay’s replacement in centerfield — Randal Grichuk — played like a Rookie of the Year contender until straining ligaments in his throwing elbow in August and sitting out a month.
• All-Star catcher Yadier Molina injured his hand applying a game-saving tag to the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo on September 20th. His condition for the playoffs (his ninth postseason with St. Louis) remains in question.
• Holliday’s replacement in leftfield — Stephen Piscotty — hit .305 and drove in 39 runs (better than Holliday in each category) since his promotion from Memphis in July. But Piscotty crashed horrifically with centerfielder Peter Bourjos in Pittsburgh on September 28th, suffering “only” a concussion despite being carted off the field.
• Carlos Martinez — winner of 14 games and the team’s strikeout leader with 184 — will miss the postseason with shoulder tightness, likely the result of his 2014 innings load (89) doubling this season.
Then you have relief pitchers Jordan Walden and Matt Belisle. Acquired last winter, the two combined to pitch 44 innings. Hard to know what the Cardinals missed here.
When you consider the tragic death (in a car accident) of outfielder Oscar Taveras last October, the torn tendons and bruised bones of 2015 are little more than distractions. St. Louis will seek its 20th National League pennant with a roster devoid of a 100-RBI man, no one with 30 home runs, nary a 20-game winner on the pitching staff. It’s a 100-win team that could sweep the Pirates or Cubs on its way to a fifth straight National League Championship Series ... or just as easily be swept aside by Pittsburgh (winners of 98 games) or Chicago (97). Since September 1st, St. Louis is merely 15-16. And consider this: The last three Cardinal teams to win 100 games (in 1985, 2004, and 2005) did not win the World Series.
If strength in adversity, though, is a quality of champions, these Cardinals are fully armed. If you spent any time at AutoZone Park this past summer, the Cardinals’ pennant race should look familiar. Piscotty, Tommy Pham, and Greg Garcia spent most of their season in Memphis uniforms before delivering clutch hits down the stretch. No Wainwright? No Martinez? Last Wednesday in Pittsburgh, Tyler Lyons (9-5 with the Redbirds this season) took the mound and shut down the Pirates to clinch the Cardinals’ division title. It’s been one “next-man-up” moment after another for six months in St. Louis. One more such month and Busch Stadium will have a 12th flag to fly.
• Last Thursday, along with more than 45,000 fans (almost all of them wearing blue), I watched from the Liberty Bowl press box as the Memphis Tigers won a game that may prove to be the most significant in the program’s history. Surely you know the details by now: Memphis 53, Cincinnati 46. Eleven lead changes, 12 touchdowns, more than 1,300 yards of combined offense from the teams picked to win their divisions of the American Athletic Conference. All in front of a national TV audience thanks to 12 ESPN cameras.
The most significant win in Tiger history? If the University of Memphis aspires to be a member in one of college football’s Power Five leagues, it must develop a national impression as a “football school.” Define this however you will, it’s a far cry from any impression the U of M has made on the country . . . until Thursday night. The Tigers are 4-0 and have won a school-record 11 consecutive games. Should they beat USF this Friday (and they’ll be favored), they’ll host mighty Ole Miss on October 17th in what could be a battle of undefeated Mid-South teams, each eyeing a New Year’s Six bowl game. It just keeps getting better under fourth-year coach Justin Fuente (now 21-20 on the Tiger sideline). Memphis a football school? We’re getting there.
• Friday night, I went to the Fairgrounds to take in the White Station-Bartlett game. (Disclosure: My daughter is a junior outfielder for the Spartan softball team. I had rooting interest.) There’s a corny charm about high school football under the lights, even in a city the size of Memphis. Fans (read: families) of one team sit on one side of the field, fans of the opponent occupying bleachers on the other side. Cheerleaders do their thing in front of the student section, right next to the school band, every member counting the minutes till halftime and their turn in the spotlight. The p.a. announcer takes time to inform the crowd a car in the parking lot has its lights on.
As for the football, it’s charmingly small. Many linemen barely clear 200 pounds. The kicking games are a shallow imitation of what you see in college stadiums. (Every punt is in danger of being blocked, and a 35-yard field-goal attempt is a stretch.) There are no names on the back of uniforms. (“Number 9 for the Panthers is shifty once he gets through the line of scrimmage.”) A week after scoring six touchdowns, Spartan star receiver Dillon Mitchell didn’t play, apparently nursing a minor injury suffered in practice. (Another charm: No one seemed to know exactly why the star player was sidelined.) White Station won, 17-0, to improve to 4-2 on the season. As the crowd left around 9:30 (12-minute quarters are glorious), the win seemed to mean everything. Come Saturday, life’s distractions would return.
• I grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan, and did not attend a single “Tennessee Oilers” game during the one-season layover (1997) the NFL had in Memphis. My interest in the Tennessee Titans over the years has been that of a native and resident of the state, and little more. Sunday’s tilt with Indianapolis at Nissan Stadium in Nashville was my first NFL game since a trip to Dallas in 2007. (This completed a bucket-list achievement of sorts for me, as this is the first calendar year I’ve attended games in the NBA, NHL, MLB, and NFL.) And the experience left me with two distinct impressions.
First of all, the women. If the crowd — more than 65,000 — wasn’t half female, at least 40 percent of the fans at Nissan stadium were missing a Y chromosome. (One of them was new Nashville mayor Megan Barry, sworn in just two days earlier.) For a sport overstuffed with testosterone and traumatic injuries, there is a tremendous segment of “the fairer sex” passionately devoted to the enterprise. Sitting right next to me was a woman at least 50 years old . . . and her mother. Not a man in the mix. I find this compelling because of all we here about dads and particularly moms unwilling to subject their sons to football’s violence. If so, these moms seem perfectly willing to cheer on someone else’s son.
Then there were the video boards. Behind each end zone at Nissan Stadium is what amounts to a television that runs the entire width of the field. The screens are so big, and the images so clear, that it felt at times like the watch party of the century . . . just with 22 men down on the field occupying themselves with something or other. Football, we know, is made for television. Even at NFL stadiums on Sunday.
The game? It was memorable. Making his home debut, Tennessee’s rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota led the Titans to 27 unanswered points after the Colts took an early 14-0 lead. But the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner tossed a fourth-quarter interception that allowed Andrew Luck and friends to retake the lead. Mariota led another comeback, but rookie fullback Jalston Fowler was stuffed on a two-point conversion attempt with 47 seconds left, giving Indianapolis a 35-33 win.
I’m told there was something called a Blood Moon Sunday night. It must have been in the shape of a football.
But Andujar is best remembered — by baseball fans of a certain age or interest level — for the character he played as “One Tough Dominican,” a nickname he gave himself, and one of the best self-applied tags in the sport’s history. Andujar would point his finger — in the form of a pistol — at a hitter after striking him out. He was as emotive on the mound as Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor was on the gridiron. Andujar played angry. And at times, a little crazy. A switch-hitter (at least, he claimed), Andujar would bat right-handed against righties and vice versa, with no consistency. He famously said the game of baseball could be summarized with one word: “Youneverknow.”
Andujar’s final act with the Cardinals is likely the picture most casual fans had in their minds last Tuesday when his death — at age 62 from complications caused by diabetes — was announced. Called on by Cardinal manager Whitey Herzog to pitch in relief during Game 7 of the 1985 World Series, Andujar personified his team’s — and a fan base’s — meltdown in the aftermath of an umpire’s blown call that impacted the previous game. With that very umpire (Don Denkinger) behind the plate, Andujar was a lit fuse, and shortly after taking the hill, charged the plate, ready to fight Denkinger and any Kansas City Royal interested in joining the fray. It was ugly, and Herzog should be blamed, to this day, every bit as much as Andujar. Fiercely devoted to his manager, Andujar would not go quietly. Herzog knew this. The pitcher was traded to Oakland less than two months later and won a total of 17 games over his last three seasons.
Andujar’s passing reminds me how precious the memories of our favorite teams become, and how those memories keep the teams alive in our hearts long after the athletes who made them have moved on. Andujar’s catcher in 1982, Darrell Porter, died in 2002. His partner in the Cardinals’ starting rotation, Bob Forsch, died shortly after throwing out a first pitch at the 2011 World Series in St. Louis. These losses grow heavy on a fan’s heart. Not just sorrow for the loss of life, but for the further distance from memories cherished — and still very much alive — in a fan’s heart.
• Long before LeBron James joined Dwyane Wade in South Beach for a championship quest, Moses Malone left Houston for Philadelphia to join Dr. J and create one of the NBA’s most memorable one-season champions. The great Malone — among my Rushmore of NBA centers, along with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — died Sunday in Virginia at the age of 60. (The cause of death has yet to be determined.) When he left Houston for Philly in 1982, Malone was already a two-time MVP and the 76ers had reached the Finals three times with the legendary Julius Erving, only to fall short each time.
In 1983, they won 65 games and went 12-1 in the playoffs, sweeping the Lakers in the Finals (the very team that had beaten the Sixers in 1980 and ’82), and very nearly fulfilling Malone’s famous prediction of three straight Philly sweeps (“Fo, fo, fo.”). I’m not sure any major American team championship can be connected more directly to a single human being than that ’83 NBA title and Moses Malone. The finest compliment I can pay a current Memphis Grizzly is to say there are times Zach Randolph reminds me of Moses Malone. May the Chairman of the Boards rest in peace.