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.
I didn’t see a single pitch over baseball’s opening weekend. Didn’t witness a solitary putt — or double eagle — over the final three rounds of a memorable Masters. And I missed the Grizzlies’ big win over the reigning NBA champs Saturday night. Those who have known me for, say, 15 minutes might assume I came down with a dreadful virus and spent the weekend comatose in a hospital without televisions. How else to explain a blind spot on one of the year’s biggest sports weekends? Happily, I spent the three days in quite the opposite of a stupor. Matter of fact, my family and I dove headlong into the center of the universe and have returned with stories to tell. For Easter weekend, we called New York City home.
There are elements to a major sporting event on a perfectly average day in Manhattan. Starting with the crowds. Stroll along 5th Avenue on Friday afternoon and you’ll be dodging foot traffic as though the Final Four and Super Bowl had just been held across the street from each other. The beauty and magic of Manhattan, of course, is that millions of people can occupy a space of 24 square miles and manage to get from one block to another without street fights breaking out. You learn to side step. You learn to stop abruptly for the pedestrian in front of you who needs a picture of the sign at Tiffany’s. You learn to tolerate bumping, jostling, even pushing. We learned a lesson in missing a train on the subway (at Chambers Street). A New York subway car, we learned, will fit as many people as are able cram, push, and jostle their way in ... before the doors close. We made the next train, but not before my 9-year-old daughter nearly screamed at the possibility of her dad being cut off by those closing doors. I’ll never complain about a “crowd” at FedExForum again.
Like a sporting event, Manhattan has its share of icons. Fans shell out big bucks to say they’ve seen Kobe Bryant in uniform or Peyton Manning throw a touchdown pass. Likewise, millions fly countless miles to say they’ve been inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral or endured the lines to the top of the Empire State Building. Why? Because there is only one Kobe Bryant, and only one Empire State Building. (Which begs a question: Would Kobe’s ego fit inside the Empire State Building?) Visitors to Manhattan discover iconography by accident: the oversized, "floating" Apple logo outside the computer giant's NYC headquarters or a bronze Charles Schwab logo longer than a taxi cab. The corporate names we grow to love or loathe ... they live and breathe in New York City.
And the state of sports in the Big Apple? It really begins and ends in Yankee blue. There’s a shop devoted solely to New York Yankee gear and memorabilia at Times Square. (The only Mets hat I saw in three days was on a pedestrian in Harlem, not far from Alexander Hamilton's restored home.) The Giants and Knicks have a presence, but building custodians wear Yankee jackets, street vendors wear Yankee caps. Tim Tebow may be a Jet now, but the only green I saw in Manhattan were the shrubs (in the shape of an Easter bunny) at Rockefeller Center. And Linsanity? We discovered a small basketball court in Little Italy, with kids working on their dribbling skills. One child was wearing a Knicks jersey: that of number 7, Carmelo Anthony. Where have you gone, Jeremy?
I may have missed a weekend of sports, but I took in some heroics of the first order. Having grown up reading Spider-Man comics, I made the current Broadway hit, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the primary hook for taking my daughters on their first journey to the Great White Way. They’re each old enough to appreciate the web-slinger, and each wise enough to see the kid Spidey brings out in their dad. So we sat in the balcony of the Foxwoods Theater Saturday night (easily within range of the Green Goblin’s pumpkin bombs), cheering the good guy in his rigorous pursuit of happiness (and true love) and booing (if silently) the bad guy and his efforts to stall a victory for hope and decency. No score was kept and no trophy was awarded. But the crowd that spilled into Times Square after the curtain dropped had smiles equal to any you’ll find at Yankee Stadium.
Now, time to YouTube that Bubba Watson shot.
The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series (for the first time) in 1926, a seven-game thriller over the mighty New York Yankees. With celebration still in the air the following winter, the Cardinals parted company with a player and manager destined for the Hall of Fame. Baseball has been played in St. Louis for 85 years since that tumultuous transition. And the Cardinals have won 10 more championships.
If the turnover after the 1926 Series reads as familiar to Cardinal fans, it should be. After winning their 11th championship last October (another seven-game thriller), the Cardinals lost manager Tony LaRussa (to retirement) and iconic first baseman Albert Pujols (to the Los Angeles Angels via free agency). The biggest difference between this offseason and that of 1926-27, of course, is that the manager and player lost 85 years ago were the same man: Rogers Hornsby. (Hornsby was traded to the New York Giants for another future Hall of Fame second baseman, Frankie Frisch.)
When you add the departure of pitching coach Dave Duncan (who stepped down to support his wife in her battle with cancer) to the story line, you have what must be called the most significant on-field transition in the 120-year history of the National League’s most successful franchise. And if you think Duncan won’t be missed on the field, remember Kent Bottenfield won 18 games under his tutelage. Garrett Stephenson won 16 and Todd Wellemeyer 13. Duncan has been to pitchers what Gunther Gebel-Williams was to tigers.
The achievements and tenures of Pujols (11 years in St. Louis), LaRussa and Duncan (16 years each) make them virtually impossible to replace, short-term. Mike Matheny has taken over managerial duties, Derek Lilliquist will coach pitchers, and veteran Lance Berkman will take over at first base. Berkman may be a Cardinal for life after his heroics in Game 6 of last year’s World Series, but he’ll never be described as Pujolsian.
So what to expect as St. Louis attempts to repeat (something this decorated franchise has never done)? The absence of Pujols from the third spot in the batting order will seem, for a while, like removing one of the two birds from the Cardinals’ jerseys. He’s among the few baseball players who shape the way a team’s fans cheer. Seeing a player not wearing the number 5 on his back stepping to the plate as the third batter in the bottom of the first inning at Busch Stadium will be jarring for a while. And the first time a St. Louis pitcher is replaced by a manager not wearing the number 10 . . . well, welcome to a new era, Cardinal fans.
There are additions worth noting. Adam Wainwright returns to anchor the starting rotation after a season lost to Tommy John surgery. A winner of 39 games over the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Wainwright will actually fill the void left by Chris Carpenter (sidelined with a nerve condition in his neck) as the season opens. Six-time All-Star Carlos Beltran signed as a free agent and hopes to replace some of the lost Pujols pop in the batting order. Once a Gold Glove centerfielder, Beltran will spend as much time in right field (as Allen Craig recovers from knee surgery) as he will in center for St. Louis.
Recent health concerns will chase six key Cardinals into their title defense: Carpenter, Wainwright, Craig, Beltran, third-baseman David Freese, and shortstop Rafael Furcal. The rise of the club’s farm system should provide depth the team didn’t enjoy just three or four years ago. (One of the top hitters in Memphis last season, Matt Carpenter, will be on the Cardinal bench for Opening Day.) If significant playing time isn’t compromised by ailments, the Cardinals should vie with Cincinnati for leadership of the National League Central, one of baseball’s weakest divisions. (In addition to losing Pujols, the division subtracted Prince Fielder, who signed with Detroit.)
Fans of all 30 major-league teams have much to cheer on Opening Day: a clean slate, optimism, the aroma of hot dogs roasting. Fans of the world champions will find a team easy to cheer, even with cosmetic — and structural — change unlike any the franchise has seen before.
The Cardinals open their 2012 season Wednesday at the new ballpark of the Miami Marlins.
Basketball Hall of Famer Earl “The Pearl” Monroe was in Memphis recently to promote Diabetes Restaurant Month, a program that is challenging restaurants in 18 cities to create diabetes-friendly menu items that are also healthy for the heart. (Monroe was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1998.) He took time to answer a few questions on his new endeavor and the NBA, past and present.
Tell us about your family’s experience with diabetes. You’ve obviously lived a physically active life and were not diagnosed until age 54.
My father actually died from complications of diabetes. I did live a physically active lifestyle, but in my pro-basketball days I also spent a lot of time eating meals on the road, so I know how hard it is to maintain a healthy diet when eating out. It’s even harder when you have type 2 diabetes. Since then I learned how to take small steps toward a healthier lifestyle — including eating right and exercising — and I want to help show people with type 2 diabetes that they can enjoy delicious meals at their favorite restaurants and stay healthy by making smart choices.
Were there symptoms you were suffering before your own diagnosis?
Before I was diagnosed, I was thirsty all the time, hungry even after eating, and experienced frequent urination, so I knew something wasn’t right. Symptoms of type 2 diabetes vary from person to person but can include unexplained weight loss, fatigue, blurred vision, headaches, and tingling or numbness in hands or feet.
What were the most significant adjustments (or sacrifices) you had to make upon being diagnosed?
Since teaming up with Merck, I’ve focused on my own eating habits, which has helped to lower my blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol. And I’ve even lost weight. This is important because my doctor told me that people with diabetes have twice the risk of developing heart disease than people who do not have diabetes.
I began by making small changes in my food choices and exercise habits to get healthy. It can be as simple as eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and checking food labels for high amounts of sodium and saturated fat. Most importantly, make sure you talk with your doctor about changing your diet and starting an exercise program, and about treatment options that are right for you.
Share some of the benefits you’ve realized from adjusting your lifestyle. Did you discover new food favorites? New ways to exercise?
I have started to enjoy a better way of life with my eating habits and now have more energy to do the things that I enjoy. MerckDiabetes.com is a great resource with tips on physical activity and healthy restaurant choices, my favorite diabetes-friendly and heart-healthy recipes, and information on the basics of diabetes management: blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol control, which can help reduce risk for heart disease.
Is there a psychological component to living with diabetes? It’s a condition that would seem to consume some with worry.
At first I was worried about my diagnosis with diabetes, but once I talked with my doctor, I found that I could live with diabetes and still enjoy life by taking small steps toward a healthier lifestyle.
You know something about starring as a point guard for the New York Knicks. What’s your take on the Jeremy Lin phenomenon?
Jeremy Lin has proven to be a pretty good ball player. Maybe not what we thought at the beginning, but he is active, smart, and is learning game-by-game. He’ll turn out to be a pretty good point guard for the Knicks.
You joined a good Knicks team in 1971, then led them to a championship two years later. What do you recall about your early days as a fan favorite at Madison Square Garden? As an opponent of the Knicks [during Monroe’s days with the Baltimore Bullets], I remember that the fans were always cheering! As a member of the Knicks, it was even more heartfelt. New York has a way of endearing their athletes, and I felt special there.
Who are the players you enjoy watching most today?
LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Chris Paul.
Are there any players who remind you of Earl the Pearl in his prime?
No, because when I came to the league, we showed people things that they hadn’t seen before. Now today, we’ve seen most everything that players are going to do.
Do you get the chance to watch the Memphis Grizzlies at all? If so, what do you think of Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, and friends?
Last year, the Grizzlies were a good, young, up-and-coming team. Now that they had a setback with Zach Randolph out and the frontcourt depleted, it seems to have hurt the team over the long haul this season.
Memphis Flyer: It’s been a big off-season for the world champions. How do you feel about the departure of Albert Pujols for Los Angeles?
Pontius: From a business standpoint, it’s not good to tie up that much of your revenue stream in one player. Life’s too fragile; things happen. I’m thrilled that it worked out the way it did. It’s good for Memphis. The Cardinals can use their resources to build depth in the organization, which is good for the Triple-A club particularly. Someone told me the biggest winner in this is Stan Musial. His legacy is preserved.
There was a recent report in the daily paper that suggested AutoZone Park might be sold to the city of Memphis. How close is this to happening?
The article in the paper was premature. While there have certainly been discussions about the outcome of the Redbirds and AutoZone Park, there’s far from any kind of business transaction that’s been agreed to. We’ve kept the city informed for six or seven years about the financial distress that, in the early days, was in front of us. There’s always been a desire — both from the foundation’s standpoint and the city’s — to make sure we concluded the final chapter of the Redbirds’ financial story that gave it new, positive, long-term life for the city. That’s what we’ve been working on for a few years. We’re closer to a conclusion, a recapitalization, a sale, or something that repositions the Redbirds for a prosperous future in Memphis. But it’s premature to speculate on which of those options will come about, and when.
What are the virtues the city might bring as a buyer (or manager) of the ballpark?
The city’s only potential role would be to own the ballpark and lease it to the tenant, which would be the Triple-A ball club that survives. At this stage, that could be done in a very credit-worthy transaction, one that doesn’t put the city at great risk financially. That’s all that’s ever been explored.
It doesn’t have to happen that way. A potential buyer could desire to own the team and the ballpark. The benefit to the city is having more control over the future of the ballpark. If that can be accomplished without taking on undue risk, it might be worth thinking about.
I’m a former city official, and have a little insight into how the city works. The last thing you want is an aging ballpark with an owner who doesn’t care for it.
It sounds like there are two types of a potential sale to be considered: one that packages the ballpark and baseball franchise together, another whereby they’d be sold separately.
There are two primary assets of the Redbirds Foundation. They could be sold separately or together, and it really depends on the buyer. Would a franchise owner want to own the ballpark too, or be a tenant in the ballpark? We’re deep in the throes of understanding the options, but we’re not [at a point of sale] yet.
Is there a dollar figure that’s been discussed?
No. But I have a sense of what it would take to satisfy our creditors [Fundamental Advisors in New York].
Have offers been made?
There have been a lot of people who have expressed interest, most of whom are waiting for us to be ready to consummate a transaction. There are multiple parties involved, because we owe our creditors more money than we could possibly yield from the sale of our assets. It’s not just the foundation deciding to sell. The lenders need to accept a discounted payoff. Everybody is friendly and talking with each other. I’m highly optimistic of a positive conclusion for the Redbirds.
A house that has been on the market for more than a few months will often have its price reduced to finally attract a buyer. Has there been price fluctuation with AutoZone Park?
We had an up year last year. It was a conscious effort to rebuild the franchise value, through improved operations and improvements in the ballpark. We did that and we were successful. One of the reasons we’ve taken our time and operated under this arrangement with our lenders is so we’d have the opportunity to improve the ballpark’s value before we put it on the market.
The Global Spectrum management team is entering its third full season. What’s their status for the future?
We’ve had a great relationship with them, both with the people they’ve brought on board locally and with the senior management in Philadelphia.
Is it safe to say Global Spectrum will be back in 2013?
I’d expect they would, unless we sell to an owner that has its own management company.
What do you expect for 2012? Attendance last year (493,528) was seven percent higher than the season before.
We expect another up year, in ticket sales and attendance. And also with sponsorships and advertising. We expect to do well with group events. We have a new scoreboard being installed that will be a game-changer. It will change the fan experience. It’s the largest and nicest scoreboard in minor-league baseball, close to a $2 million expense.
One of the top prospects in baseball — Shelby Miller — is expected to pitch for the Redbirds this season. Will he boost attendance on nights he takes the mound?
It’s always more fun to win and have prospects you can follow to the majors. Most importantly, it’s about having a good experience at the ballpark. We’d like to win on all accounts.
Fact is, the first NCAA tournament game the Tigers win under Pastner will be — far and away — the biggest victory of his young coaching career. To date, Memphis is 6-12 under Pastner against teams from the traditional power conferences (ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, and Big East). As all of Tiger Nation tingles with joy over the move to the venerable Big East in 2013, Pastner’s program needs to establish that it can, in fact, beat teams not named Rice, East Carolina, or Tulane.
This Friday in Columbus, Ohio, the Tigers will face Saint Louis in the second round of the Big Dance. (The four games played Tuesday, narrowing the field from 68 to 64, are considered the first round.) Memphis enters the tournament as the West region’s eighth seed. With expectations of at least a sixth or seventh seed — Pastner campaigned for a five after winning the Conference USA tournament — the Tigers will carry a considerable chip on their collective shoulders. What will it take for the U of M to capture its first NCAA tournament win since 2009? Are two wins — and a return to the Sweet 16 — within the realm of possibility? Here are four key factors that will need to go the Tigers’ way.
• Will Barton . . . national star.
Barton has been the player this season that Tiger fans hoped they’d see upon his arrival with the 2010 recruiting class that now shapes the Memphis team. Playing with the body of an NBA shooting guard (a light one), Barton somehow led the U of M in rebounding (8.1 per game in the regular season) and has accumulated 11 double-doubles (points/rebounds), the most since the much larger Chris Massie had 16 in 2002-03. His glowing numbers aside, the older of the Tigers’ two Barton brothers has made this his team. He’s an emotive presence for a team with too many stern faces (including that of his coach). Will Barton is having fun playing basketball this season. The more fun he has, the more likely his team is to advance.
• Feed the (hungry) big man.
• Do what you do best . . . only better.
The Tigers finished the regular season ranked 5th in the country in field-goal percentage (49.5 percent) and 17th in field-goal percentage defense (38.8 percent). On the surface there are no better standards for measuring a basketball team’s overall strength: putting the ball in the basket offensively and preventing opponents from doing the same. The rankings were achieved, though, largely against C-USA competition. (Playing in the Big Ten — top to bottom the best conference in the country this season — Michigan State limited its opponents to 37.6 percent.) Can the Tigers maintain their shooting touch on the brightest stage, against the toughest defenses? Regardless of how the Tigers shoot the ball, their defense shouldn’t slump. With the return of Adonis Thomas from injury and the re-emergence of Wesley Witherspoon, Memphis can put the clamps on most opponents, both inside and on the perimeter. Nothing wrong with winning ugly in the NCAA tournament.
• Surprise support.
It may come from Witherspoon, the departing senior. Or maybe it will be Antonio Barton. It could be Ferrakohn Hall on the defensive end. D.J. Stephens may be the guy. (Stephens leads the nation in applause-per-minute-played.) Supporting actors seize the spotlight during March Madness every bit as often as Hollywood’s favorite scene-stealers. Remember Roburt Sallie’s 35 points against Cal State Northridge in 2009? How about Mingo Johnson pouring in 32 in the near-upset of defending champion Arkansas in 1995? For these Tigers to reach the tournament’s second weekend, someone besides Will Barton, Black, or Joe Jackson (now a two-time C-USA tournament MVP) will have to shock a Memphis opponent with an unexpected performance.
Over 23 games played since Christmas, the Memphis Tigers have lost only three, by a total of six points. Since Pastner ripped the names off their jerseys after a loss to UTEP, they’ve reeled off seven straight wins by an average of more than 22 points. Are there really 28 teams in the country better, as the eight seed suggests? “When we play our game, we feel like we can beat anybody,” says Will Barton. “When we play defense, rebound, and do the little things, it’s pretty hard to beat us.”
Adds Pastner, “We got better from our first year to the second year, from our second year to the third year, and from the beginning of this season to now. It’s a credit to the young men in the locker room and the assistant coaches. That’s our job, and the players’ responsibility. It comes down to the defensive end; that’s the whole thing. It’s about team basketball. It’s about energy. Not about any individual.”
The trick in basketball, of course, is how beautiful team play looks when each individual fulfills his role. Stars shine. Defenders stop. Reserves bring support when (or if) needed. The 2011-12 Tigers have found their chemistry, as it were. To survive the biggest tournament in college sports, it’s now merely a matter of application.
Over the last two weeks of the regular season — since Memphis coach Josh Pastner ripped the names off his players’ jerseys in the name of solidarity — the Tigers have played better than they have in any such stretch under the third-year coach. The U of M blew out three of the other four teams with realistic hopes of winning this week’s tournament: Marshall (by 20 on the road), UCF (by 29 at home), and Tulsa (by 12 on the road). Only Southern Miss — victors over Memphis on February 1st — escaped the Tigers’ recent tear. Barring an upset on either side of the bracket, the Golden Eagles and Tigers will face each other in Saturday morning’s championship game.
How to explain the Tigers’ peaking at the right time? To begin with, the team’s star is playing a starring role. Will Barton led C-USA in scoring (the first Tiger to do so), became the first Tiger to score 30 points in more than two years against Tulsa last Saturday, and became just the ninth Memphis player to reach 1,000 career points in his first two seasons. Furthermore, two players with mercurial college careers — senior Wesley Witherspoon and sophomore Joe Jackson — are contributing at both ends of the floor. Add the inside presence of Tarik Black and the possible return of two injured rotation players (Antonio Barton and Adonis Thomas), and it’s hard to envision a Tiger loss on their home floor.
Here are eight more tournament angles to chew on:
• If you like crunching numbers, this tournament is the Tigers’ to lose. Memphis led C-USA in field-goal percentage (49.5 percent) and field-goal-percentage defense (38.8). The other team that may be considered for an NCAA tournament berth even if it falls shy of the championship — Southern Miss — finished the season 12th (last) and 10th respectively, in those two categories.
The Tigers are tops in the league in blocked shots (5.7 per game) and tied for first in steals (8.0). One category where Southern Miss is superior: offensive rebounds. The Golden Eagles average 13.8 while the Tigers pull down just 9.6.
• This is the eighth time Memphis has hosted the C-USA tournament. The Tigers hosted the 1996 and 2000 tourneys at The Pyramid (splitting a total of four games and never reaching the finals). Memphis then hosted the tournament five years in a row (from 2005 to 2009) and reached the finals all five times. After losing to Louisville in 2005 (still the greatest basketball game I’ve seen live), the Tigers won the trophy the next four years. Overall, Memphis is 15-1 at FedExForum in C-USA tournament play.
• The Tigers are 5-1 in C-USA championship games. The only team they’ve faced for the title twice is Tulsa (2008 and 2009). Their other wins have come over UAB (2006), Houston (2007), and UTEP (in El Paso last year).
• Over their four-year championship run (2006-09), the Tigers won all 12 of their games by at least 10 points and five of them by more than 20.
• Among the five Tigers to earn C-USA tournament MVP honors, three of them were freshmen: Shawne Williams (2006), Tyreke Evans (2009), and Joe Jackson (2011). Chris Douglas-Roberts took the prize as a sophomore in 2007 and Antonio Anderson was honored as a junior in 2008.
• Among C-USA’s current 12 teams, only three have never faced Memphis in the tournament: UCF, Rice, and SMU. The Tigers’ most frequent foe has been Houston. Memphis is 3-2 against the Cougars and beat them for the 2007 championship.
• The Tigers’ three top scoring performances in the C-USA tournament all came in years Memphis did not win the title. Cedric Henderson scored 26 in a win over DePaul in the Tigers’ very first C-USA tourney game (in 1996) then Lorenzen Wright scored 27 in a loss to Marquette the next day. John Grice holds the Tiger mark with 29 points in a loss to Louisville in 2003. In last year’s run to the championship, Joe Jackson topped the Tigers in the scoring column with 24 points in their semifinal win over East Carolina.
• The Tigers are aiming for their 10th conference-tournament championship. In addition to their five C-USA titles, the Tigers won the Metro tournament in 1982, ’84, ’85, and ’87.
Cheering for American men’s tennis these days is not unlike cheering for the Chicago Cubs. Or the Cleveland Browns. Attach yourself emotionally to a player at your peril, for however much he may tease with talent and promise, he’ll likely remain on the outskirts of contention when the sport’s biggest prizes are awarded.
I happen to be a fan of tennis in general. Where a player happened to be born and raised is less important to me than how he handles being down a set in a major championship. My happiest memories of tennis during my childhood are the collisions between Sweden’s Bjorn Borg and America’s brat prince, John McEnroe. (I rooted for Borg, but have grown to love McEnroe.) If I were asked to name the most graceful athlete of my lifetime, it would come down to hockey great Wayne Gretzky or tennis legend Roger Federer, he of Switzerland. I relished Federer’s 2009 Wimbledon final against American Andy Roddick precisely because I was rooting for both players.
Which brings me to the current state of American men’s tennis and its impact on this week’s Regions Morgan Keegan Championships at The Racquet Club of Memphis. The only American player currently in the world’s Top 10 is 8th-ranked Mardy Fish. Fish will not be playing in Memphis, which means that for only the third time in 36 years, nary a top-10 player will be in the field for what remains a jewel on the Bluff City sports calendar. Defending champion Roddick — a three-time winner here and by now an honorary Memphian — returns, but has fallen to a world-ranking of 17. (In 1999, the top seed was 12th-ranked Todd Martin. In 2000, it was 16th-ranked Mark Philippoussis of Australia.)
Top-10 talent wasn’t always so hard to find, not in Memphis, and certainly not among U.S. players. As recently as 1995, four of the year-end top 10 were Yanks (Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, and Jim Courier). In 1989, no fewer than six Americans were among the top 10 players in the world. Heck, there was an eight-year stretch (1976-83) during which at least four Americans were in the top 10 every year.
The plethora of stateside champions decorated the Memphis field one year after another. Over the course of the tournament’s first 20 years (1977-96), the top seed every year except one (Michael Stich in 1992) finished at least one year of his career atop the world rankings. This group of eight champions actually included a pair of Swedes (Borg and Stefan Edberg) who marked the Memphis event down for their schedules. In 1996, four of the top seven players in the world — Sampras, Agassi, Chang, and Sweden’s Thomas Enqvist — gave what was then called the Kroger St. Jude the feel of a Grand Slam tournament. (It was the only championship Sampras won here in six appearances.)
So why the dearth of top-10 talent this week? Blame goes primarily to the titanic trio currently towering over the tennis landscape. Since 2004, the top year-end ranking has belonged to either Federer, Rafael Nadal of Spain, or Serbia’s Novak Djokovic. The next time any of these players compete in Memphis will be the first. Fish deserves some blame. As the fourth seed a year ago, Fish reached the semifinals before losing to Milos Raonic. Now in the top 10, he chose to stay overseas after last month’s Australian Open. Fish would be a fan favorite here.
So let’s thank the tennis gods for Roddick, whose only shortcoming has been sharing the prime of his career with Federer and Nadal. (Roddick’s lone Grand Slam title came at the 2003 U.S. Open, the same year he finished number-one in the world.) Supermodel Brooklyn Decker’s hubby finished in the top-10 every year from 2002 to 2010 (a streak longer than McEnroe was able to achieve.) The only other Americans to scratch the top 10 over the last six years are James Blake (twice) and Fish (once). Making his 12th straight appearance at The Racquet Club, Roddick will try to match Jimmy Connors’ record of four Memphis championships.
We’ll see world-class tennis this week in Memphis. Top seed John Isner (now ranked 14th in the world) teamed with Fish earlier this month to help the U.S. Davis Cup team upset Switzerland. (Isner defeated Federer.) Maybe Donald Young (22 years old and ranked 40th) is the rising American star that will finally make waves at a Grand Slam. My healthiest advice would be to enjoy the supreme tennis independent of world context. While the 10 highest-ranked players may occupy themselves elsewhere, Memphis tennis fans deserve better than the Cleveland Browns. And they’ll see it at The Racquet Club.
I grew up dreaming of getting a 3,000th hit as a big-league baseball player. Because milestones matter. With that dream long expired, I’ll settle for a 500th sports column. Offered a weekly slot on the still-developing Flyer website by my colleague Jackson Baker, I posted the inaugural “From My Seat” on March 14, 2002 (it was a Thursday). My two cents on the proposed mega-fight at the Pyramid between Mike Tyson and heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. (I was dubious about the benefits to the city.) Over the nearly ten years since, I’ve taken Jackson’s valuable advice to heart. When I asked the finest politics writer in these parts the key to writing a weekly column, he offered a concise three words: “Fill the space.”
The blogosphere was still emerging from its embryonic stage in 2002. The Flyer had already established an online presence under the guidance of former editor Dennis Freeland. (My first post actually hit computer screens in October 2000, a plea for concussed Dallas Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman to retire. The future Hall of Famer obviously paid attention.) The rules for content seemed to be stretched, if there were any rules at all. (Thus a Memphis writer could post a column about an NFL quarterback in Texas.) But in terms of measuring rules and restrictions, the new online “pages” were without limit. No more space limitations to consider if a news item — or ball game — inspired. And deadlines weren’t what they were when a press crew awaited plates for applying ink to paper. A new sense of self-motivation was required to create and post content on the same day of the week, one after another.
The pre-“Seat” columns I posted under Dennis were easy. He was a sportswriter, of course, one of the finest this city will ever see. He and I liked chewing on prospects for Tiger football and basketball, possibilities of an NBA team actually arriving in Memphis, and chances that a baseball stadium could change the way an entire downtown community is viewed.
We lost Dennis on January 6, 2002. He succumbed to a monstrous brain tumor that attacked without mercy (but never took a sliver of my friend’s strength of spirit or dignity). So the very nature of sports coverage in the Flyer was a mystery, at best, two months later. I welcomed the opportunity Jackson threw my way, knowing I’d be approaching the weekly gig without my customary sounding board. It felt daunting.
I’ve learned, of course, a lesson Dennis would have clarified for me had we discussed the transition: readers are the only sounding board a writer ever needs. Not to say I don’t value the direction of current editor Bruce VanWyngarden or colleagues like Baker and John Branston, but a web column — and the comments it generates — will steer a writer’s thoughts in ways few printed letters to the editor do. For good or ill, anonymous usernames — handles — have taken the gloves off this burgeoning two-way street of journalistic discourse. It keeps a writer sharp.
“From My Seat” has afforded me opportunities I wouldn’t have explored in the space restrictions of a print-only world. I’ve interviewed fighters (Rampage Jackson and Andre Ward come to mind), driven a stock car, forecast the Kentucky Derby, and hobnobbed with Bob Costas on the field at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Needless to say, I’ve seen Redbirds baseball and Tiger basketball from angles I wouldn’t have considered in 2001. And the Flyer’s sports “pages” have only grown. Chris Herrington writes one of the best NBA blogs in the country (“Beyond the Arc”). Three years ago, I started a blog on University of Memphis sports (“Tiger Blue”). If “Seat” is ever empty on Monday morning, it’s because that week’s column fits more snugly under the “Tiger Blue” banner. Two weeks ago, Branston started his own sports-themed blog: “A Fan’s Notes.” Aside from a presidential election year, you’re unlikely to find more opinions on a wider array of topics than you will in the arena of sports.
I’ll finish column number 500 with a pair of thanks. First, to our late friend, Dennis Freeland. You’re often in mind, Dennis, when I start tapping my keyboard. The lost conversations over the last decade make me ache at times, but somehow inspire the next column. And then thanks to those of you who take a few minutes to sit with me each week. Sports may be journalism’s toy department, but damn ... it’s fun to play.
Motte met his future wife, Caitlin, during the summer of 2008 when he saved nine games and struck out 110 hitters in 67 innings as a Memphis Redbird. They chose to make their home in Memphis, a decision made easier by the proximity to St. Louis, where Motte will soon be playing his fourth season. This winter, Motte has trained with coach Daron Schoenrock’s Memphis Tigers (two members of the team played at St. Benedict at Auburndale, where Caitlin teaches). He heads to Jupiter, Florida, for spring training later this month and will go with fond memories of an unlikely championship.
The Cardinals trailed the Atlanta Braves by 10 1/2 games for the National League’s final playoff spot in late August. They trailed Philadelphia, two games to one, in a best-of-five division series, and then lost their first game to Milwaukee in the National League Championship Series. Then, of course, they fell behind Texas, three games to two, in the Fall Classic. St. Louis was down to its final strike in Game 6 . . . twice.
“We were down so big,” Motte reflects. “We decided that we were going to play the game hard, give it everything we have. If we won the ball game that day, that’s good. But if we lost, it wasn’t going to be for lack of effort. I still get chills talking about it. While you’re doing it, you don’t really think about it. You’re just out there playing the game. If one out of a hundred things didn’t go the right way, from August 25th on, we’re not sitting here talking about us winning the World Series. There was a game in September when Adron Chambers was called up [from Memphis] and he had a big triple. Little things like that.”
Motte, 29, has a special appreciation for the comeback nature of last year’s Cardinals, as he gave up what could well have been a Series-winning home run to the Texas Rangers’ Josh Hamilton in the 10th inning of Game 6. “I had someone ask me what I would have done if Lance Berkman hadn’t tied the game again [in the bottom of the 10th],” says Motte. “Well, I would have packed my stuff up and gone home. What would you want me to do? Go jump off the arch?”
Wound rather tight, Motte found himself oddly calm when he took the mound in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7, three outs away from every baseball player’s dream. “There was adrenaline, and I was excited,” he says. “But I wasn’t going to try and do more than I was capable of doing. I couldn’t get a double play with nobody on. I just wanted to make every pitch count. That was our attitude as a team. ”
The Cardinals, of course, have managed to make as much news during the offseason as they did in winning the World Series. Hall of Fame-bound manager Tony LaRussa announced his retirement three days after the Series victory (his third as a manager, second in St. Louis). Hall of Fame-bound first baseman Albert Pujols defected to the Los Angeles Angels (where he’ll earn $240 million over the next decade). And new manager Mike Matheny learned last month that venerable pitching coach Dave Duncan is stepping down to help his wife in her battle with cancer. Derek Lilliquist takes over as the Cardinals’ new pitching coach.
“With Albert, it’s just part of the game,” says Motte. “He got a good deal. You can’t say he’s not worth that money. But we’ve got some good additions, and Berkman’s back. [Rafael] Furcal is back. With Tony being gone . . . he’d been doing it 33 years. If you’re going to go out, go out on top like he did.
“[Mike Matheny] is a great dude. He knows the game of baseball; he’s qualified for the job. Lilliquist has been around Duncan, so I think the philosophy is going to be about the same. He’s not gonna come in and tell us to stand on our head and pitch. We throw when we’re asked to throw. I pitched in the third inning once last year, and I pitched in the 12th.”
Pujols’ departure will leave a void not only on the field, but in a clubhouse, one that developed the character of a championship team before any champagne was sprayed last fall. “We’ve got a good group of guys back,” says Motte. “The people we had last year — off the field — were special. We have Berkman back, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Yadi. Everyone got really close; you got a chance to see the way things should be. The front office gets those kind of guys, good players but also good people. I think we’ll be just fine in the clubhouse.”
Last month, the Cardinals and Motte agreed on a one-year contract that will pay the pitcher $1.95 million in 2012, more than quadrupling his salary from the championship season. Despite a championship ring, a raise, and the seismic turnover in personnel, Jason Motte approaches the upcoming season precisely as baseball players are trained: a new start. “Our goal is the same,” he says. “To win the World Series. When we step out to play the Miami Marlins on Opening Day [April 4], everybody starts at zero. Last year was great, but once the season starts, it’s all about getting better.”
Photograph by Allison Rhoades
I love dissecting Super Bowl angles as the first Sunday in February approaches. Here are a few to enhance your viewing pleasure when the Patriots and Giants get it on.
(A note before we begin. I find it tiring when I read Super Bowl stories in which Roman numerals are in every third line. Quick: Who was the hero of Super Bowl XXIII? If I asked you who was the hero after the 1988 season, you’re much more likely to remember Joe Montana’s game-winning drive. When I make a reference to a specific Super Bowl, it will be the season for which that Super Bowl determined the champion. Green Bay beat Kansas City in the first Super Bowl after the 1966 season. Super Bowl XLVI will decide the champion for the 2011 season. And so on.)
• Not only will this Sunday’s game be a rematch of the epic Super Bowl four years ago (where are you, David Tyree?), but it will be only the third time franchises with at least five Super Bowl appearances have met. Dallas beat Pittsburgh in 1995 and Green Bay beat the Steelers last year. The Patriots’ seven Super Bowl appearances are now third among NFL teams, behind only the Cowboys and Steelers (eight each).
• Over the course of the first 13 Super Bowls, six of the games featured a pair of starting quarterbacks bound for the Hall of Fame (Dawson/Starr, Staubach/Griese, Griese/Tarkenton, Bradshaw/Tarkenton, and Bradshaw/Staubach twice). Over the last 32 Super Bowls, only four can claim such a match-up (Montana/Marino, Montana/Elway, and Aikman/Kelly twice). This will change, of course, as players not yet eligible for the Hall are enshrined (two examples: Elway/Favre in 1997 and Peyton Manning/Brees in 2009).
Tom Brady has been a first-ballot Hall of Famer for a few years now. And if Eli Manning wins a second Lombardi Trophy, he’ll have Canton in his sights. (The only quarterback to win two Super Bowls and not gain Hall induction when eligible is the Raiders’ Jim Plunkett.) Making things extra juicy, this is only the third quarterback rematch in Super Bowl history (Terry Bradshaw beat Roger Staubach twice and Troy Aikman did the same to Jim Kelly). But it’s the first rematch between quarterbacks who have each been named Super Bowl MVP. (Bradshaw earned the honor in 1978 when he beat Staubach — MVP in ’71 — in their rematch.)
• Brady will join John Elway as the only quarterbacks to start five Super Bowls. And should he win, he’ll be just the third to earn four rings (after Bradshaw and Montana). So he’s in the conversation about “greatest quarterback of all time.” For all his championships, Bradshaw doesn’t earn much love in this debate, having won his titles for teams remembered largely for the defense they played.
Thankfully, football historians don’t call upon career stats when debating the greatest signal-callers. (Vinny Testaverde passed for more yardage and touchdowns than did Montana.) Before we narrow the debate of greatest QB to Montana and Brady, though, I’d ask you to remember some great football was played before the first Super Bowl. And two legends deserve a mention here. Johnny Unitas won four championships for his Baltimore Colts and Otto Graham won an astounding seven titles for the Cleveland Browns in the Forties and Fifties (the first four in the All-America Football Conference, an early competitor to the NFL). If you asked me to rank these titans, I’d go with (1) Unitas, (2) Montana, (3) Brady, (4) Graham.
• The Giants are the third team to finish the regular season 9-7 and reach the Super Bowl (after the 1979 Rams and 2008 Cardinals). But they’re the first to do so having been 7-7 at one point. Which means New York has essentially won five straight elimination games on its way to Indianapolis.
• This factoid may interest only me, but worth sharing. The AFC is 4-10 in Super Bowls played under a roof. Two of those four wins, though, belong to New England (2001 and 2003).
• He’s as crusty as they come, and dresses like a 7th-grader, but Bill Belichick has established credentials almost beyond compare in the Super Bowl era. Should he win a fourth Lombardi Trophy, he’ll stand alongside Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll as the only two coaches to do so. But Noll accumulated his rings over the course of merely six seasons, loaded with Hall of Famers — Bradshaw, Harris, Greene, Stallworth, Lambert, Ham, Blount, Swann, Webster — who played for all four teams. That dynasty essentially repeated three times, with a short interruption.
If Belichick wins Sunday, his four championships will have come over 11 seasons, with Brady the only linchpin throughout. An entire NFL roster will have been turned over (around a brilliant quarterback) under the same coach, with championship results. And were it not for that helmet-catch by Tyree four years ago, Belichick might have a fifth ring and an undefeated season on his resume. He stands to join a category of one.
• The pick: For me it comes down to the weapons at the disposal of the star quarterbacks. I’m convinced New England’s record-setting tight end, Rob Gronkowski, will be a shadow of himself as he nurses a severely damaged ankle. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez are valuable targets for Brady, but they’ll be easier marks for the Giant defense with Gronkowski diminished.
In addition to having the superior defense (end Jason Pierre-Paul is my dark horse for MVP), the Giants’ offensive weapons are healthy and peaking. Running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. Wideouts Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and Mario Manningham. Eli Manning likes this stage. With that many weapons, you can’t bet against him. GIANTS 34, PATRIOTS 20