Monday, September 14, 2015

Joaquin Andujar and Moses Malone: Gone Too Soon

Posted By on Mon, Sep 14, 2015 at 9:25 AM

Joaquin Andujar died last week, and a slice of my childhood died with him. Andujar was a very good — not great — pitcher for 12 major-league seasons, most notably five with the St. Louis Cardinals. He won Games 3 and 7 of the 1982 World Series to help St. Louis to its first championship in 15 years. (My mom and I watched Andujar help the Cardinals clinch the National League pennant in Game 3 of that year’s National League Championship Series in Atlanta.) He won 20 games for the Cardinals in both 1984 and 1985, becoming only the second Cardinal pitcher (after Bob Gibson) to win 20 games and a Gold Glove in the same season.

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.

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Memphis Redbirds 2015: Memorable Season or Not?

Posted By on Mon, Aug 24, 2015 at 9:55 AM

Every year as September approaches, I find myself considering how the soon-ending Memphis Redbirds season will be remembered. The inaugural campaign of 1998 had Vince Coleman, J.D. Drew, and visions of a new downtown ballpark. There were the championships seasons of 2000 and 2009, of course, Albert Pujols and David Freese becoming heroes in Memphis before St. Louis knew their names. Just two years ago, Oscar Taveras, Michael Wacha, and Kolten Wong made AutoZone Park prospect central. So how will the 2015 season stand out in the history books?

Jeremy Hazelbaker
  • Jeremy Hazelbaker

• The easiest name to remember will be Jeremy Hazelbaker’s, and not just for the way it makes your tongue dance when you say it. The 28-year-old outfielder was released by the Dodgers organization on May 1st, having hit .245 in 14 games for Double-A Tulsa. The Cardinals signed him two weeks later and assigned him to Double-A Springfield, where he found his stroke and hit .308 in 40 games before earning a promotion to Memphis. With the Redbirds, Hazelbaker has hit .303 (through Sunday) and driven in 35 runs in just 44 games while manning rightfield on a nightly basis. He plays the game hard, does little things on the bases right (there actually are no “little things” in baseball), and seems to be knocking on the door of his major-league debut. Let’s hope the Dodgers get to see it.

• Forty-five players. The Redbirds have suited up 45 baseball players in five months, a profound ripple effect of injuries shelving the likes of Jon Jay, Matt Adams, and Adam Wainwright in St. Louis (and Matt Holliday, and Randal Grichuk, etc.). This has to have made first-year manager Mike Shildt’s job especially challenging. Is Tommy Pham available to play centerfield tonight ... or filling a vacancy up I-55? Where can Tyler Lyons fit into the rotation? Wait ... he’s in St. Louis making a spot start. The roster turnover in Memphis makes it especially hard for fans to connect with the players they’re cheering. Had Holliday and Jay stayed healthy, for instance, Stephen Piscotty would still be starring at AutoZone Park. The Redbirds may have just two players with 100 hits this season (Dean Anna and Rafael Ortega) after seeing five such players in 2013 and 2014.

• Despite the roster fluctuation, the Redbirds recovered from a rotten start (14-23 on May 17th) and remained in contention for a playoff spot until a six-game losing streak this month derailed the pennant chase. They reeled off a pair of eight-game winning streaks despite not having any real thunder in the middle of the batting order. (The club’s leading RBI total — currently 51 by Xavier Scruggs — will be its lowest in nine years.) Solid starting pitching from Nick Greenwood, Tim Cooney, and, when he was here, Tyler Lyons kept Memphis competitive against teams with stronger attacks. (Cooney’s mid-summer appendectomy was a serious blow.) Had Marco Gonzales been healthy (he’s started 10 games for the Redbirds), the gap between Memphis and first-place Round Rock might be considerably less.

• On a personal level, the 2015 season marked the end of my daughters’ childhoods at AutoZone Park. The closing of the leftfield bluff and the playground adjacent to that bluff erased the physical remnants of at least two Memphians’ earliest memories of Redbirds baseball. And I’m not sure the ballpark is improved by the alterations. The two mini-bluffs around each foul pole are better than the often-empty seats they replaced, but they aren’t as open as the former big bluff, and not quite as safe, with foul balls — line-drive foul balls — finding their way to these landing zones regularly. The stadium’s footprint needed to be reduced. Here’s hoping young families can still make as many memories there as mine did.

• The empty seats at AutoZone Park had to be a shock to the system to the franchise’s new owners. The Cardinals have won so steadily since the turn of the century, and draw 3.5 million fans to Busch Stadium as though it’s a civic obligation to attend baseball games in downtown St. Louis. Alas, with four home games left on the schedule, the Redbirds are dead last in the Pacific Coast League in average attendance (4,050). And this is a significant drop from the figure a year ago: 5,693 (ninth in the PCL). The model for business at Third and Union clearly needs some adjusting. Concession prices are steep for minor-league action. Having heard rumors of a $5 beer in the stadium (standard price: $8), I spent half an hour at a game in late July asking vendors where I could find such a deal. No one knew. If a fan can’t get much more than popcorn for $5, that fan may reconsider bringing a group to see a game at dinner time. Entire sections of empty seats on a Tuesday night can scream louder than fireworks on Saturday night.

• The Cardinals would not own baseball’s best record (78-45 through Sunday) were it not for contributions — large and small — from Piscotty, Lyons, Cooney, Pham, and Greg Garcia, all players who have appeared more at AutoZone Park this summer than Busch Stadium. Ultimately, this is the measuring stick for any minor-league season, particularly at the Triple-A level. Did the team help the parent club succeed? If St. Louis returns to the World Series, the 2015 Memphis Redbirds season will indeed be especially memorable.

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Monday, August 17, 2015

MLB's Dog Days Delights

Posted By on Mon, Aug 17, 2015 at 9:39 AM


I happen to love what some call “the dog days of summer.” These are primarily August days, of course, with temperatures approaching scald factor in some parts of the world, school back in session(!) or the first day approaching like a heavy-breathing predator. But this is also the last month for baseball to occupy the sports world’s center stage before football steals at least four nights of the week. So here are some random baseball thoughts to make your dog days heel.

No franchise is more serious about winning the 2015 World Series than the Toronto Blue Jays. Having acquired a perennial MVP candidate (shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, when he’s healthy) and a Cy Young Award winner (David Price) before the nonwaiver trade deadline, the Jays intend to end baseball’s longest current playoff drought. (Toronto hasn’t played a postseason game since winning the 1993 World Series.) They’ve had not one, but two 11-game winning streaks since Memorial Day (before the two big trades). The Blue Jays now have a pair of horses at the top of their rotation (Price and Mark Buehrle), each with World Series experience. They lead the American League in runs scored (622) by a healthy margin, with thumpers like Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion reminding the world the American League East has a few stars not wearing Yankee or Red Sox colors. Having dropped two of three to the Yankees over the weekend, Toronto trails New York by a half-game, setting up a nice race for the AL East title, one I think the Blue Jays will win.

Ted Simmons is finally in a baseball hall of fame. My family was among the crowd of 44,000 last Saturday night at Busch Stadium in St. Louis when the Cardinals saluted the 2015 induction class for the franchise’s hall of fame. The four new inductees: Bob Forsch, Curt Flood, George Kissell (each inducted posthumously), and the finest catcher of the 1970s not named Johnny Bench.

Simmons will never generate the Cooperstown debate that Pete Rose does, or Barry Bonds, or Roger Clemens. But the fact that Simmons didn’t receive enough votes in 1994 (3.7 percent) to even appear on the ballot a second time may be the most egregious oversight by Hall voters in the modern era. This is a man who retired (after the 1988 season) with more hits than any catcher in history. More than Bench, more than Berra, more than Dickey or Cochrane. And he can’t get into the national Hall of Fame without a ticket. The reception Simmons received at Busch Stadium was, as you’d expect, passionate and appreciative. He’s a hall of famer, whether or not a population of baseball writers knows it.

When Ichiro Suzuki singled in the top of the first inning Saturday night in St. Louis, the crowd at Busch Stadium gave the future Hall of Famer a partial standing ovation, one long enough for Ichiro to doff his helmet in appreciation. For those with memories of a certain Cincinnati Red legend in 1985, this is familiar, and to be expected after a player’s 4,192nd hit ... one more than the great Ty Cobb had at the end of his career. Trouble is, the line drive to rightfield was merely Ichiro’s 2,914th hit, if you’re counting those he’s accumulated in the major leagues. The Japanese great also had 1,278 hits in Nippon Professional Baseball before crossing the Pacific to join the Mariners in 2001.

I love the influence Asian players have had on the big leagues this century, but let’s not go so far as to confuse achievements on diamonds half a world away with accomplishments on MLB fields. To suggest Sadaharu Oh (868 homers in NPB) belongs above Hank Aaron or Babe Ruth on the home run chart would be lunacy. Based on the acknowledgment Saturday night, Ichiro (with another hit in the same game) is now only 63 behind baseball’s “hit king,” Pete Rose. Should Ichiro come back next season and get those 63 hits, it would be interesting to see how MLB handled the milestone. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but still shy of 3,000 big-league hits.

The age of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper is upon us, and it would be healthy for baseball to see Trout’s Angels and Harper’s Nationals make the playoffs, even better for L.A. and/or Washington to make a run to the Fall Classic. Trout won last year’s AL MVP, of course, at the ripe old age of 23. Harper seems a virtual lock to win this year’s NL MVP, and he turns 23 in mid-October. As I write, the Angels are three-and-a-half games back of Houston in the AL West, but in position for one of the league’s two wild-car berths. Washington’s climb to postseason play will be steeper, as the Nats are four-and-a-half back of the Mets in the NL East, and even further back in the wild-card chase. The sport needs familiar stars playing in its biggest games. Two outfielders — each in red hats but on opposite coasts — are primed to headline.

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Monday, August 10, 2015

An Elvis Dedication for Marc Gasol (and Others)

Posted By on Mon, Aug 10, 2015 at 11:27 AM


I like to contribute to Elvis Week each summer by dedicating a few of the King’s hits to local sports personalities. These are carefully considered, and dedicated with all heart, some grit, and a little grind.

To Marc Gasol, “If I Can Dream”: Sure, $110 million helps one dream a little. But Gasol — first-team All-NBA center — is not still a Memphis Grizzly if he didn’t dream big, and dream about an NBA championship parade on Beale Street. His free agency was blessedly, pleasantly brief, with not so much as a blown kiss toward another suitor. He clearly feels a commitment from owner Robert Pera, from point guard Mike Conley, and from a fan base that adores every big stride he takes at FedExForum. “Got to be birds flying higher in a sky more blue.” If Gasol can dream of a better land, well, so can errbody else.

To Jacob Wilson, “Can’t Help Falling In Love”: There have been other University of Memphis alumni to suit up for the Redbirds. Mark Little played for the 2000 Pacific Coast League champs and Scott McGregor pitched at AutoZone Park just last year. But this Bartlett native has made a quick impact on the St. Louis Cardinal system, just three years after being named Conference USA’s Player of the Year. He took over third base for Memphis in May and is fourth on the team in homers (10) and RBIs (41). Wilson also leads the club in promotional jersey giveaways. He’s as Memphis as Graceland and will be ours until the Cardinals call him north.

To Justin Fuente, “Tiger Man”: This song can be nonsensical. Something about getting up on a mountain and calling a black cat. “I am the king of the jungle / They call me Tiger Man.” Whatever its actual message, let it be said there is one king of the Tiger kingdom these days, and it’s fourth-year football coach Justin Fuente. As recently as 2011, Memphis led conversations about the worst college program in the country. Since the Tigers’ win in the Miami Beach Bowl last December, they’ve been a Top-25 team. That’s the stuff of fiction. “If you cross my path / You take your own life in your hands.” Sing it, Coach.

To Josh Pastner, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”: So long Pookie Powell. All the best, Nick King. Austin Nichols ... you leaving, too? The Memphis Tiger basketball program — meaning, really, its head coach — has endured a mass exodus of players expected to carry a team back to the NCAA tournament after a winter of discontent (18-14). The offseason has been less about who’s arriving (say, McDonald’s All-American Dedric Lawson) than about the kind of friction that leads to a pair of native Memphians (King and Nichols) deciding the U of M is not for them. Fame can be a lonely place. So can the head coach’s seat in the Tiger basketball offices.

To the 2014 Memphis Tiger football team, “Promised Land”: In 2011 (Larry Porter’s last season as head coach), the Tigers won two of 12 games and were outscored by an average of 35-16. Last fall (Justin Fuente’s third season as head coach), the Tigers went 10-3 and outscored their opponents by an average of 36-16. That, friends, is a turn-around . . . and a Top-25 finish is one way of defining “the promised land” for a long-suffering program. This tune was written by Chuck Berry, then given new life by Elvis on an album released in 1975. Which means the Tigers had more wins last season than in any since the King himself belted out this tune.

Happy Elvis Week everybody.

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Monday, August 3, 2015

Q & A: Memphis Redbirds Manager Mike Shildt

Posted By on Mon, Aug 3, 2015 at 10:01 AM

Mike Shildt has been part of the St. Louis Cardinals organization since 2004, the last seven years as a manager. He won championships at rookie-league Johnson City (2010 and 2011), then with Double-A Springfield in 2012 (a team that featured current Cardinals Kolten Wong, Carlos Martinez, and Seth Maness). In his first season with Memphis, Shildt has the Redbirds in contention for another playoff spot.

Redbirds manager Mike Shildt.
  • Redbirds manager Mike Shildt.

What have you found new or different in managing at the Triple-A level?

There’s a learning curve anytime you do something new, at a different level. This has been a step up in play, more experienced players, travel, just a different dynamic. I’ve got a staff that’s been great. They’re not just experienced, but they’re good at what they do. [Hitting coach] Mark Budaska is experienced with the game. I run things off him; we try and be as proactive as possible. And Bryan Eversgerd, our pitching coach, has been here three years. They’ve steered me in the right direction. Beyond that, it’s a good group of guys, a good clubhouse.

I’ve always valued the perspective of players. You gotta know when to push, when to pull, when to punt. I’m ultimately responsible for messaging and for accountability, playing the game right. You have to be a little more assertive at a lower level. I’ve got a good relationship with our club. It’s an easy group to trust. They prepare hard and work hard.

Is there less teaching than was required at Double-A . . . or still a learning curve?

There’s less fundamental teaching. Here, it’s about opportunity and experience and playing. There’s still an understanding we can grow and learn. We take our cue from the big-league staff [in St. Louis]. And that staff is always looking for continual improvement. There’s always dialogue going on. It’s a great culture. When the big-league club has it, and players get to experience it and know what it’s about, it makes it easier to foster that environment here.

Players [at this level] know what they need [to work on]. The thing I personally use as a barometer for whether a guy can continue to move up the ladder is if he owns what he’s doing to compete at that level. That’s the goal. When a player is self-sufficient, gets the most out of his ability, and — when things don’t go right — has an anchor to use as a reference point, he’s owning his game. To me, that’s a championship player. There are so many distractions in this game to potentially pull you away from your anchor. It’s a game of habits, repeating good habits. Learning consistent mental habits. Bryan Eversgerd says “Who you are is what you do when you’re at your most uncomfortable.”

There’s been a lot of roster fluctuation this season, which isn’t that unusual. But how do you adapt from one week (or game) to the next?

There’s movement at every level, but there’s more here. The group that’s [been to St. Louis and back] has not needed a lot of coaxing, or refocusing. I give credit to our big-league staff. They do a good job of having a candid conversation with a player about what they did well, and why they’re going back [to Memphis]. [Cardinal manager] Mike Matheny is a tremendous communicator. It’s a good staff and clubhouse. When players go up, they’re welcomed and acclimated. And when they come down, there’s clarity about what’s needed moving forward.

Describe the influence of the parent club. Cardinal legend Willie McGee was here last week. There seems to be full engagement between St. Louis and Memphis.

Willie is such a good guy, such a humble guy. We had a couple of sessions with him. Players don’t want to know how much you know until they know how much you care. With Willie, it’s not about the guy who won the World Series, won a couple of batting titles, or won an MVP. He genuinely wants to be here for the guys, and that comes across. When he speaks, they listen.

People feel an obligation to help others wearing the birds on the bat, the tradition of it all. Move it forward in a classy and dignified manner. You sit across from [Hall of Famer] Red Schoendienst during breakfast at spring training. We were working on bunting during spring training a couple of years ago. And Red told us how Ty Cobb told him that if you’re ever in a slump, go bunt. To work on strike-zone discipline and tracking [the ball]. That’s unbelievable. These are generational icons in our sport.

This year’s club got off to a rough start (13-22 on May 15th), but has played steady, winning baseball since (44-30 through Sunday). What helped this team find its groove?

It was a combination of things, guys getting settled in. The competitive balance at this level is very thin. We’d done some things really well, but we hadn’t pieced it together yet. That stretch early in the season, the record didn’t look good, but I felt pretty good about the direction guys were going individually. Just little things.

What interests me about player development is the evaluation at the end of the night versus the scoreboard. We all want to win the game. But if we’ve been stressing something to a certain player, and it clicks for the guy — his breaking ball is better, he gets a read on a ball in the dirt, he has a better approach with his swing — you feel pretty good about that. We may have lost the game, 4-2. As individually we started getting more consistent, then collectively we became more consistent as a club. It’s a process, and there’s some intent behind it.

Are there players who have pleasantly surprised you this season, either with their performance on the field or their work between games?

If you have a vision for what a player can become — without putting a ceiling on him — then I don’t think you’re surprised. I’ve been pleased with the development of the guys. I could give you the name of any player on our roster.

What do you see in Jeremy Hazelbaker, who seems to like Triple-A pitching after arriving in early July?

He’s been a really nice addition to our club. He’s got a skill set [beyond the impressive hitting numbers]. He’s got a nice stroke, and some power. What’s impressed me most about him is how consistently hard he plays the game. He gets after it. He won a game for us, effectively, just by beating a throw to second base on a ground ball. A good, hard-nosed player. And he’s a good outfielder. He can run, takes good routes [on fly balls], throws to the right base.

You’ve been with the Cardinal organization for 12 years now. Where do you see your path leading? Managing (in the majors?), or in other roles?

When I got done playing — and I wasn’t very good — I told myself I wanted to go as far as I can. I was comfortable running the race. I tell kids when they arrive at rookie ball, just run the race. Be all in. I knew I loved the game. And I knew I was smarter than talented, though that was a low bar. I wanted to see how far I could go and contribute. By the grace of God, I got a call from John Mozeliak [with the Cardinals] with a scouting opportunity. If I look at just trying to get better and grow every day, the end result will be the end result.

One thing I’ve learned from Mr. Kissell [late, great Cardinal instructor George Kissell] is that you have to care more about a player’s career than your own. There’s a human component to it. You want to give yourself opportunities and challenge yourself. But my overriding thoughts are devoted to making our organization and players better. I enjoy managing. Would I like the challenge of managing at a higher level? Absolutely. But I also don’t want to leave this organization unless that opportunity is presented. The Cardinals have been good to me.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Next Card Up: Redbirds Becoming Cardinals

Posted By on Mon, Jul 27, 2015 at 9:27 AM

Tommy Pham - @TPHAMLV
  • @TPhamLV
  • Tommy Pham

The Memphis Redbirds have contributed mightily to an extraordinary 2015 season (thus far) for the St. Louis Cardinals. From a single plate appearance by Dean Anna to game-changing heroics by the likes of Tommy Pham and Greg Garcia, no fewer than 15 players have made the trip north on I-55 and impacted the team that calls Busch Stadium home. But the Cardinals’ season is extraordinary not so much for their current record — 63-35, the best in all of baseball — but for posting that record despite the accumulated casualties that have necessitated an open-flowing Memphis-St. Louis pipeline.

A quick review of the Cardinal infirmary:

• Ace Adam Wainwright tore an Achilles heel in his fourth start of the season, leaving behind a 1.44 ERA and a gaping void at the front of the St. Louis rotation. • Two everyday players from 2014 — first baseman Matt Adams and centerfielder Jon Jay — have endured lengthy stays on the disabled list, Adams permanently (this season) with a torn quad muscle. • The team’s most dependable power threat, All-Star Matt Holliday, came off the disabled list just over a week ago having missed more than 30 games with a quad injury of his own. • A pair of new acquisitions to strengthen the bullpen — Jordan Walden and Matt Belisle — have been sidelined with arm ailments. Irony. • Oft-injured starter Jaime Garcia surprised an entire fan base by making his way back to the starting rotation and posting a 1.69 ERA over seven starts in Wainwright’s spot. Garcia injured his hamstring on June 24th, though, and hasn’t pitched since. (He’s expected to return to the rotation this week.)

The minor leagues, it’s often emphasized, are about development, and that includes the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate here in Memphis. A player’s value at Third and Union is measured first by how he might impact the parent club. But this summer has been less about developing players for that final leap to The Show than playing musical chairs (in Memphis) when they become newly vacant (in St. Louis).

Lefties Tim Cooney and Tyler Lyons have combined to start 12 games in Wainwright’s stead (that is, when Garcia hasn’t). When not called to duty in St. Louis, Cooney has helped Memphis with a record of 6-4 and a 2.74 ERA, a season after setting a franchise record with 14 wins. He earned his first big-league win (over the Braves) last Friday, then was promptly demoted to Memphis when the Cardinals acquired reliever Steve Cishek in a trade with Miami.

Merely three years after being converted from shortstop to pitcher, Sam Tuivailala earned a Pacific Coast League All-Star nod with 12 saves and a 1.78 ERA. He missed the exhibition game, though, when the Cardinals promoted him in early July to relieve their ragged relief corps. He’s pitched in 10 games and helped bridge innings from the Cardinal starters to Trevor Rosenthal (or Kevin Siegrist) in the ninth.

The outfield injuries in St. Louis afforded the 27-year-old Pham his first extended stay with the Cardinals. Having hit .321 in Memphis after returning from, yes, a stay on the disabled list, Pham scored the only two Cardinal runs in a July 4th win over San Diego, then drove in all three St. Louis runs the next day in another victory over the Padres. He returned to the Redbirds last week when Stephen Piscotty (11 homers and 41 RBIs in Memphis) was promoted in the team’s latest attempt to fill the power void left by Adams.

What’s to come from all this roster shuffling? The Cardinals hope to find full strength — or a close approximation — by the time the postseason arrives, perhaps with reinforcements gained on or before this Friday’s non-waiver trade deadline. In Memphis, the Redbirds remain in contention for a playoff slot, four games behind Round Rock in their division of the PCL. As the Cardinals get healthier, so will the Redbirds’ playoff chances. Marco Gonzales, remember, hasn’t pitched for Memphis in more than two months. On his way back (he toes the rubber Monday night at AutoZone Park), Gonzales could end up helping a pair of pennant races on either side of the Mississippi River.

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Monday, July 20, 2015

Perspective From Pluto

Posted By on Mon, Jul 20, 2015 at 9:38 AM

News is delivered with the frequency (and often fury) of a hailstorm these days. I confess to a growing addiction to my Twitter feed. What has happened to change my world since I last checked ... 20 minutes ago? As a sportswriter, the addiction can numb the brain. Innings are played, trades made (or discussed!), free agents signed, and all this during what amounts to the sports world’s slow season of summer. Two weeks ago, I chose to tune things out long enough to visit with family members who’d driven across the country and would spend one full day with my family in Memphis. My penalty for disengaging a few hours: the Twitter-driven explosion of reaction to Austin Nichols leaving the University of Memphis basketball program. #WTH?

But then the photos of Pluto began to arrive. Early last week, images shot 3.7 billion miles from Earth by the New Horizons spacecraft began to fill the Internet. The tiny “dwarf planet” named for the Greek god of the underworld (the Disney character came later, people) became the latest topic of awe for astronomy nerds, students of natural science, and even a few sportswriters. Honestly, I found the standard snark and viral memes out of place this time. Human beings managed to send a device to the very edge of our galaxy, a device that can be controlled — from more than three billion miles away — and take pictures to send us, like that friend who finally checked off the Great Wall of China on his bucket list. “Check out Pluto’s heart! Wish you were here!”

The images stopped me in my news-gathering tracks. You had to relish the coincidence of the photos reaching human eyes during the week of baseball’s All-Star Game, the quietest sports week of the year in the United States. With images of mountain ranges — what?! — on Pluto, I found myself reconsidering the label “all-star.” Pluto may have recently been demoted from planet status by the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson, but if it’s not a Milky Way “all-star,” then Pete Rose can’t draw a crowd in Cincinnati.


Then last Thursday, of course, news returned to what we consider normal in 2015 when we learned of the latest rampage by a gun-toting madman, this time across our own state in Chattanooga. My heart heavy for the latest victims, I couldn’t help but wonder about the perspective from Pluto on this kind of behavior. Imagine how tiny our planet is relative to those 3.7 billion miles separating us from NASA’s photo-gathering craft. Yet random slaughter continues to dance across news cycles, however brief we now define them. It would seem there are other rocks in our solar system that could use a large heart shape.

At least we have sports, daily distractions with a dose, now and then, of the inspirational. Dodger pitcher Zack Greinke has apparently decided not to allow a run the rest of the season. Barely able to take a legal drink, Jordan Spieth is making the bitterly cruel game of golf look easy. Unless she takes the wrong cab to Arthur Ashe Stadium in September, Serena Williams should complete the first calendar Grand Slam tennis has seen in 27 years. And to think we have a Triple Crown winner grazing somewhere in Kentucky today. They’re all jaw-dropping achievers. And much needed in a world where hate and bullets steal too many headlines. You’ll have to forgive me, though, if some time passes before I describe another athlete, however brilliant, as “other-worldly.” They may be hard to see, Pluto, but we have big hearts here on Earth, too.

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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Austin Nichols/Marc Gasol: It's All About Relationships

Posted By on Thu, Jul 9, 2015 at 12:01 PM

  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Austin Nichols

This week has been a lesson in relationships for Memphians, at least for those of us who pay attention to basketball. (And there are a few in the Mid-South who do.) On Monday, All-NBA center Marc Gasol — an unrestricted free agent — officially announced he would stay with the Memphis Grizzlies, signing a five-year contract extension that will pay him around $110 million. The sound of angels singing could be heard from the Mississippi River halfway to Jackson, Tennessee.

The next day, though, all-conference forward Austin Nichols announced that he would be leaving the University of Memphis, forsaking at least one, probably two seasons of All-America candidacy in blue and gray. You could feel the tremors emanating from the Finch Center several miles away, at least to the Nichols family home in Collierville.

  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Marc Gasol

Gasol’s return is a special, human tribute to the Grizzlies franchise and also the larger Memphis community, one the native Spaniard has come to know well since he wore a Lausanne Collegiate School uniform while his big brother, Pau, starred with the Griz. Let’s be a bit clinical and acknowledge the 110 million reasons Marc has to stay in Memphis . . . but the fact is, he appears to love Memphis, particularly the likes of Mike Conley and the teammates he feels have helped create an annual title contender. Gasol is good enough to play for other contenders. And there are other contenders who can pay the former Defensive Player of the Year more millions than he or his children will ever be able to spend. But Marc Gasol, let it be said, has become a Memphian. He met with one (and only one) franchise during his brief free agency. Where else would a Memphian play?

Then we have the saga of Austin Nichols, the Briarcrest product around whom Tiger coach Josh Pastner built a roster, the shot-blocking face and leader — captain! — of a team hoping to prove last season was an 18-14 anomaly, a single down year in what has been one of college basketball’s most successful institutions this century. Despite swirling rumors since late March, Nichols appeared to be all-in as a Tiger, even after the spring departures of teammates Pookie Powell and Nick King. But something clearly changed the 20-year-old’s mind over the last three months. A player who would make preseason All-America lists is willing to stay on the sidelines a year to get away from the Memphis program he joined two years ago, a match he considered — 24 months ago — a dream come true.

The Memphis-Nichols divorce is simply the other end of the relationship spectrum from the Memphis-Gasol marriage. And these relationships, remember, are intensely personal. No matter how close we media types like to think (or say) we are to a team of athletes and their coaching staff, few relationships outside actual family are as interwoven — and complicated — as those on a basketball team. The rosters are small, the coaching staff smaller (certainly relative to football). If there is the slightest animosity between two personalities, a locker room can divide. When one of those personalities is the head coach? The fracture can be quick, emotional, and permanent. That appears to be the case with Josh Pastner and Austin Nichols.

Can Pastner — and in the larger picture, the U of M basketball program — recover from this mess? Not in time for the 2015-16 season. If you’re going to hold anything against Nichols, it should be the timing of his decision more than the choice to leave itself. Whatever scraps may be left among college basketball transfers (the NCAA has free agents, too), they won’t replace 13 points, six rebounds, and three blocks per game. Worse, they won’t mollify a fan base that has come to consider Pastner a fine recruiter who cannot retain the talent he brings to Memphis. Tarik Black leaving after three seasons (having earned his degree) was one thing. Nick King leaving after two injury-riddled, disappointing seasons was another. Austin Nichols is precisely equivalent to Marc Gasol choosing to leave the Grizzlies. With one parting handshake (or other hand signal), a team is diminished.

There is no winner in the Tiger divorce. Nichols appears to be indecisive, minus the leadership skills Pastner trusted him to display next winter. And the coach, as noted earlier, appears to get in his own way when it comes to building a strong, steady program, let alone a Final Four contender.

For now, Memphis basketball fans should open their arms and return the embrace Marc Gasol offered so openly on Monday. Some relationships come and go. Others come to define a franchise and the community it represents.

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Monday, July 6, 2015

Put Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame ... with an Asterisk

Posted By on Mon, Jul 6, 2015 at 9:36 AM


For more than a quarter-century now, Pete Rose has been a one-man barstool debate. Does the man with the most hits in baseball history deserve a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame despite partaking in serial gambling in the late 1980s as manager of the Cincinnati Reds? It’s a divisive subject, and has only grown more complicated with the recent news (first reported by ESPN) that Rose actually placed bets as a player late in his career with the Reds. (Rose was baseball’s last player/manager, serving both roles with Cincinnati from 1984 through the 1986 season.)

The famous Dowd Report originally led to Rose’s ban from the game — and with it, consideration for the Hall of Fame — in 1989. Baseball’s commissioner at the time — A. Bartlett Giamatti — dropped dead of a heart attack eight days after Rose signed an agreement accepting the lifetime ban. (Don’t connect the two events. Giamatti smoked like a chimney.) Rose got very little sympathy from Giamatti’s successors in the commissioner’s office, first Fay Vincent then, for the longest time, Bud Selig. MLB’s new sheriff, Rob Manfred, is allowing Rose to participate at next week’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati, though the recent allegations will make any Rose appearance positively cringe-inducing for those of us who care about the game. And for those who still care about Peter Edward Rose.

There are really two debates to the ongoing Rose saga. The first, and most direct component of his lifetime suspension is the exclusion of Rose from any job affiliated with Major League Baseball: manager, coach, front-office executive, pitch man, etc. The second component, of course, is the one most debated on that barstool: exclusion from consideration for the Hall of Fame. (And let’s get over the “consideration” part. With 4,256 hits, three World Series rings, and the sport’s greatest nickname of all-time — Charlie Hustle — Rose would be a lock for induction on his baseball merits alone.)

Maybe it’s time we start considering the two components separately. Gambling is baseball’s unpardonable sin, going back (at least) to the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919, when eight Chicago White Sox players — including the great Shoeless Joe Jackson — were found guilty of throwing the World Series. Signs are posted in every clubhouse, warning team personnel against betting on a Major League Baseball game. And Rose is not the first legend to feel the gravity of this offense. There was a time Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays — the Mick and the Say Hey Kid! — were pariahs merely for their associations with casinos, and this was after their playing days. If Rose bet on his Reds, particularly as a player, he should not be allowed to work for an MLB team in any capacity.

Then there’s the matter of the Hall of Fame. It’s important that induction in the Cooperstown shrine is reserved for baseball’s absolute elite, that such selection is taken very seriously (thus the five-year waiting period after players retire before they can be added to the ballot). But I’ve come to believe we shouldn’t take the Baseball Hall of Fame quite as seriously as we have in the matter of Pete Rose. It’s a baseball museum, a bricks-and-mortar history lesson on the American pastime. It is not passage to sainthood for the enshrined. For such a facility to exist without acknowledging Pete Rose’s extraordinary career cheats the lessons it was built to provide.

So give Pete Rose his Hall of Fame plaque. Make sure the plaque includes language describing his lifetime ban. Maybe Rose is denied an induction speech if the Hall of Fame (most importantly, its living members) feels further punishment is necessary. Do this while the man is alive. In the final analysis, Pete Rose has been very bad to himself. I’m of a mind that Rose, as a player, was historically good for the game.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Memphis Redbirds Wall of Fame

Posted By on Mon, Jun 29, 2015 at 9:00 AM


The St. Louis Cardinals do history well. Their marketing slogan this season is “Tradition Meets Today.” With no fewer than nine statues of Cardinal greats just outside Busch Stadium — two for the greatest Cardinal of all, Stan Musial — a blindfolded fan might literally bump into a bronzed Hall of Famer on his way into the ballpark. Once inside the stadium (blindfold removed), that fan can count the retired uniform numbers of Cardinal heroes in two different locations. The team’s 11 world championships? There are 11 flags flying high above the rightfield stands, and 11 pennants painted atop the Cardinals’ dugout with every championship year from 1926 to 2011.

Here in Memphis at AutoZone Park, the Cardinals could teach local fans a history lesson or two. And now that the parent franchise has an ownership stake, it’s time to crack the books.

Deep in the bowels of the 15-year-old stadium, next to a batting cage, Memphis baseball championships are painted on the wall. This is the only place you’ll see any indication the franchise has two Pacific Coast League titles (2000 and 2009) to its credit. The red Pujols Seat remains — now a solitary chair — on the rightfield bluff, just inside the foul pole where Albert Pujols’s championship-winning home run landed on September 15, 2000. (The chair needs a small plaque for those oblivious to the most famous hit in franchise history.) As for the heroics of other former Redbirds, good luck.

Baseball history fades entirely at Third and Union, some of the fading intentional. Stubby Clapp’s number (10) was retired in 2007, but the back-flipping face of the 2000 PCL champs had his name removed from the bullpen wall last winter, the Cardinals asserting the number had been retired for Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa, negating the same honor — for the same uniform number — elsewhere in the farm system.

There have been too many good players — popular players — to wear a Memphis Redbirds uniform for the stadium to remain devoid of any form of tribute. My proposal: A wall of fame — presented where any ticketed fan can see it — with a photo or plaque saluting former Redbird heroes. Borrowing from the Cardinals’ own Hall of Fame, a new member of this wall of fame would be announced near the start of each season. And Memphis baseball tradition would, finally, meet today at AutoZone Park.

We’ll need an inaugural class, of course, so here are the five Redbirds that would receive my vote. Let’s establish a minimum of 100 games played with the team for position players, and either 50 games or 10 wins for pitchers. Apologies to the likes of Pujols and Yadier Molina. Great Cardinals, to say the least, but Redbirds all too briefly.

Rick Ankiel — His two stints as a Redbird were Ruthian. As a 20-year-old flame-thrower in 1999, the lefty won seven games and struck out 119 hitters in 88 innings pitched. He was the last Memphis baseball star at Tim McCarver Stadium. Eight (long) years later, having lost his ability to throw a baseball over the plate, Ankiel returned to Memphis as a centerfielder and led the Redbirds with 32 home runs and 89 RBIs in just 102 games. There will never be another like him, for good or ill.

Stubby Clapp — His backflips (a tribute to Cardinal great Ozzie Smith) are memorable, but Clapp was the heart and backbone of that 2000 championship team, leading the club in runs, hits, and dirty uniforms. He remains third in franchise history in games played (425) and hits (418). Stubby was the Gashouse Gang by way of Canada.

Skip Schumaker — He’s the only player to appear in 200 games as a Redbird and 500 games as a Cardinal. Never a star, he merely played solid baseball, in the outfield and at the plate, then at second base for a team that won the World Series. In trying to define the fabled “Cardinal Way,” Schumaker would be good source material.

Nick Stavinoha — The Redbirds’ career leader in games (479), hits (531), home runs (74), runs (531), and RBIs (316). Stavinoha was a slugger without a position, but not quite enough slugger to find his way to an American League team where the DH lives and breathes. He played in 72 games for the 2009 PCL champs, but was with the parent club when Memphis reeled off six straight playoff wins.

Adam Wainwright — Waino was a .500 pitcher (14-14) over two seasons with Memphis, though he led the PCL with 182 innings pitched in 2005. Since then, though, he’s won 121 games with the Cardinals and climbed to second on the franchise strikeout list behind Hall of Famer Bob Gibson. As a rookie out of the bullpen, Wainwright was integral to the Cards’ 2006 World Series win.

History matters in baseball. It should be given life at AutoZone Park

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Cardinal Hacking Scandal: A New “Way”?

Posted By on Wed, Jun 17, 2015 at 1:24 PM


You can’t buy love. And you cannot buy a reputation. Not with more than a century of success and one of the largest fan bases in Major League Baseball. On the field, the 2015 St. Louis Cardinals are having a typically superb season, currently sporting the best record in the sport (43-21). But then Tuesday, the New York Times broke a story that the Cardinals’ front office is being investigated for hacking into the Houston Astros’ computer system, a database that includes scouting reports, personnel evaluations, value analytics, and trade possibilities. In other words, the Cardinals are accused of tapping into a competitor’s brainpower.

This would be corporate espionage, of course, a federal crime. And it would be — far and away — the most damaging bruise on the reputation of a franchise that, since its inception in 1892, has been the preeminent operation in the National League, and second only to the New York Yankees in all of baseball. But 11 world championships and more than a dozen Hall of Famers become footnotes if your brand — those famed birds on the bat — becomes synonymous with cheating.

The stupidity of the act, as alleged, cannot be overstated, and shatters some stereotypes on the smarts of IT wizards capable of unlocking computer networks across miles (or oceans). This kind of hack — executed by hacks, themselves, apparently — leaves a trail like bloody footprints on a sidewalk. With the target a former Cardinals employee (Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow), you have to wonder what took the FBI so long to locate the now-infamous house in Jupiter, Florida, the Cardinals’ spring-training home where the breach was perpetrated.

Why would the Cardinals target Luhnow? Why would one of baseball’s best teams seek information from, until this season, one of baseball’s worst? As scouting director, Luhnow changed the way the Cardinals scout, draft, and develop players (the fabled “Cardinal Way”). He was in the front office, first under general manager Walt Jocketty, then under current Cardinal GM John Mozeliak as St. Louis built the most respected minor-league system in baseball. Luhnow’s tussles with Jocketty are well known, and perhaps he left some enemies behind at Busch Stadium when he took the Astros job. Whether the computer hack was intended to embarrass Luhnow or actually garner valuable tips on burgeoning baseball talent doesn’t really matter. One business broke into the brainpower safe of another.

Who knows the penalties the Cardinals will face — from the federal government, let alone the MLB commissioner’s office — if the allegations prove true. It will boil down to the same components of every scandal since Watergate: Who knew about the act, and who authorized it? At the very least, draft picks should be taken from the Cardinals and given to the Astros. Poetic justice, considering an expert on scouting is the human link between the two parties.

Be wary of the argument that this scandal is worse than the New England Patriots’ “Deflategate” or “Spygate.” It’s a lazy argument and suggests one form of cheating is more palatable than another. Is corporate espionage “worse” than rampant steroid abuse? You might as well compare the value of a field goal to that of a sacrifice bunt. Cheating is akin to pregnancy. You are of the condition or you are not. If Cardinal employees raided another business for information, the organization — at least by association — is guilty of a crime. Where this places them in the standings of modern-day cheats is a sideshow debate.

The love affair between “Cardinal Nation” and its favorite franchise will go on. My guess is that attendance at Busch Stadium may actually grow slightly (it can’t grow much with every game virtually sold out) as fans circle the wagons amid this massive controversy. As for the reputation of the franchise proudly represented by Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, and Ozzie Smith . . . time will tell. The Cardinal Way may become redefined, not so much for how a team is built and performs on the field, but how a franchise confronts, handles, and survives the largest crisis it has ever faced.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Memphis Redbirds' Dan Johnson: A Long Odyssey

Posted By on Mon, Jun 15, 2015 at 10:45 AM

Dan Johnson - ROGER COTTON
  • Roger Cotton
  • Dan Johnson

The Memphis Redbirds were stumbling along with a record of 8-15 on May 4th when their parent club in St. Louis signed Dan Johnson. The transaction didn’t make headlines, not even here in Memphis. Johnson had been released by the Cincinnati Reds two weeks earlier after playing nine games with Louisville, the Reds’ Triple-A affiliate in the International League.

Two days later, Johnson slammed a 3-run, walk-off homer at AutoZone Park to give Memphis a 6-5 win over Colorado Springs. It was Johnson’s first home run in a Redbirds uniform . . . and the 240th of his lengthy minor-league career. (Only Toledo’s Mike Hessman has hit more among active players.) Since the 35-year-old slugger’s arrival, Memphis has turned its season around, going 26-15 and climbing back into contention in its division of the Pacific Coast League.

Johnson is Crash Davis — of Bull Durham fame — come to life. He played his first professional game (with Vancouver in the Oakland A’s system) in 2001 and his first game at the Triple-A level (with Sacramento) in 2003. Unlike Kevin Costner’s character, though, Johnson has had some time in The Show, appearing in 431 games with five major-league teams. He hit the most famous home run in Tampa Bay Rays history, a ninth-inning shot in the last game of the 2011 season that tied the score and allowed the Rays to later clinch a playoff berth. But Johnson’s big-league achievements have been interspersed with stints in the bushes. He’s one of two men in baseball history to be named MVP of both the Pacific Coast League (with Sacramento in the River Cats’ 2004 championship season) and the International League (with, you guessed it, the Durham Bulls in 2010).

The secret to sustained happiness when traveling so many miles — over so many years — on the baseball map? According to Johnson, it’s as simple as being a good teammate.

“I enjoy being around the guys,” he says, “and helping out. If you get the label of being a bad clubhouse guy, or selfish . . . teams don’t want that around. It wears on other players. When I first got to Triple-A, it was unheard of for a young guy to be at that level. You respected the veterans. I learned from the vets in front of me, and listened to what they had to say.”

Johnson’s felt the sting of being traded or demoted, but each time has dusted off any bitterness, packed his gear, and headed for the next franchise and next challenge. “You can’t feel sorry for yourself,” he says. “I got traded from a good situation in Houston [last spring] to Cincinnati. From the beginning, it didn’t seem right, and it never was right. But if it didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to play for the Cardinals. Things happen for a reason.”

Johnson won’t accept credit for the Redbirds’ improved play since his arrival. (Despite not appearing with the Redbirds in April, Johnson is second on the team with 28 RBIs.) “It wasn’t that the talent wasn’t here,” says Johnson. “We just needed to put it together; change the mindset a little bit. This game is very humbling. If you stay down, you’re never going to win. You go out there and know that you can win, instead of just hoping.”

The Cardinals’ system is the eighth in which Johnson has played, and he recognized a different culture within days of his arrival in Memphis. “It’s been awesome,” he says. “The way you go about your business here, the way everybody’s pulling for everyone else. It’s not something you see often. The guys here are rooting for the players with the big-league club. In a lot of organizations it’s, ‘I hope that guy stinks, or that guy’s hurt.’ There’s no negativity here. The value this organization brings, and the tradition in St. Louis is amazing. The way they teach things, the thought process.”

Johnson’s entire family — his wife and four children — have joined him for a summer in Memphis, one he hopes takes a detour through St. Louis. He’s seen much of the baseball world (including the 2009 season in Japan), but has yet to land the sport’s most prized possession. “There’s nothing like the playoffs in the big leagues,” says Johnson. “There’s no better feeling as a baseball player. I don’t have a [championship] ring, and I’d love to get one. I’d love to play till I’m 100. Until I can’t compete, I’m going to go out there and try to get a job and make a difference.”

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Monday, June 8, 2015

Q&A With Ben Crane, Defending Champion of Fedex St. Jude

Posted By on Mon, Jun 8, 2015 at 8:58 AM

Ben Crane will tee off this Thursday as the defending champion at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. The Portland, Oregon, native — and new resident of the Volunteer State — earned his fifth victory on the PGA Tour at Southwind last year, leading after all four rounds (and requiring 30 holes on Sunday to win the rain-soaked tournament).

Defending FedEx St. Jude champion, Ben Crane
  • Defending FedEx St. Jude champion, Ben Crane

What stands out in your memory from your win last year?

It’s amazing how crazy this game is. You can be feeling like your game is a long ways off, then everything can turn. Remembering the week, it was incredibly special. I love St. Jude, and I’ve always been amazed by FedEx. Going to St. Jude every year is incredible. We moved to Tennessee — to Nashville — right after the tournament last year. It’s cool to have won in our adopted home state.

What kind of adjustments are necessary for all the weather delays you had last year?

I was working a lot on my mental game. We started and stopped a lot. I knew we’d be playing a lot of golf on Sunday. I did a lot of praying, imagery work, trying to get my mind ready for a marathon. Holding the lead from beginning to end, you know you’re the hunted. We knew we had a lead going into the last few holes, so I was able to play conservatively and not take as many risks. Southwind is a tough golf course.

It was an incredible feeling, carrying that much emotional load. I hardly slept on Saturday night, I was so excited and nervous about the final round. My wife gave me an incredible pep talk [over the phone] late Saturday night. She told me, ‘You’ve encouraged so many of your friends, you’ve kept a good attitude through struggles. Now I think it’s your turn to go out and win.’ It lifted my spirits. I walked out into the kitchen at the house we were staying — at 5:00 Sunday morning — and our friends were cooking breakfast, everyone standing there, half asleep. And I yelled, ‘Glory to God, what a day!’ Perspective shifted. I was just excited about the opportunity [to win].

At what point in a tournament do you evaluate your chances of winning? After a certain round . . . or not until the back-9 on Sunday?

I had a four-shot lead when I went to bed Saturday night, so it was definitely on my mind. I knew if I played well, it would be tough for someone to catch me. My goal was to play my game, take as few risks as possible. Once you get on the course, you feel better. But away from the course, you know how cool it is to win a tournament on the PGA Tour. It’s hard to shake.

Among the holes on the TPC Southwind course, is there one you find especially challenging? A hole you like to attack?

The course has a lot of tough holes. Since the switch to Bermuda greens, the course is one of the best on the PGA Tour. You can’t hit the ball in the rough and score. If you put the ball in the fairway consistently, you know you’ll have the chance to attack some of the pins.

The par-3 at Number 4, when that pin is in the front, and the water is on the left, it’s a really tough hole to par. The fifth hole is an incredibly tough hole. If you play that hole one-over for the tournament, that’s pretty good. Number 9 is a critical hole, Number 11 as well. Then Number 18. But there’s no easy birdie.

What element of your game do you feel is the strongest these days, and what are you working to improve?

I’ve been working on my health. [Crane has suffered recent back and hip ailments.] I’m starting to feel really excited about the strides I’ve made. I’ve been working on my ball-striking, but it doesn’t seem to really move the meter one way or the other. It’s really been my chipping and putting; that’s where I’ve been putting my most focus. When I putt well — as I did last year in Memphis — I can have a good tournament. I gained four strokes on the field the first couple of days.

Who was your favorite golfer growing up?

It varied at different points of my childhood, but I certainly loved watching Greg Norman. I loved the way he worked on his fitness. I was a big fan of Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Bobby Jones. But the guys I watched . . . Nick Faldo and Greg Norman. When I hit my teenage years and Tiger Woods started winning [amateur tournaments], that was inspiring as well.

Has the golf landscape shifted since Tiger’s struggles began? Is it a new world for you and the rest of the PGA Tour?

It’s interesting the way golf has evolved over the last six months to two years. What Tiger Woods has done in this sport is second to none. But no one expected Jordan Spieth to dominate tournaments the way he has. Is he the next Tiger Woods? So far, yes.

The overall game is so different from when I joined the Tour 14 years ago. These are athletes. The Tiger effect is just starting to show itself. These kids grew up watching Tiger when he was the coolest person in all of sports, after Michael Jordan left basketball. Athletes who could play any sport growing up [chose golf]. We’re pulling from a larger pool of athletes. And it shows in the scoring. There can be ten guys within three shots of the lead. Scores are more bunched than they’ve ever been because there are more good players.

Monday, June 1, 2015

A-Rod and LeBron: Opposite Sides of the Superstar Coin

Posted By on Mon, Jun 1, 2015 at 9:17 AM


The LeBron James story gains heft with every new chapter. Five years ago, the best player in the NBA left his own backyard of Cleveland to help form a super team in Miami. He and the Heat reached four Finals and won a pair of championships.

Apparently hearing a call home — and showing some maturity by forgetting the rather violent reaction in Ohio to his awkward and nationally broadcast departure — James chose the free agent route last summer so he could again play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He rejoined a franchise that, in his absence, had won 19, 21, 24, and 33 games, not so much as sniffing a playoff berth. The Cavs had an All-Star point guard in Kyrie Irving and persuaded three-time All-Star Kevin Love to join the fun, but no one has called the 2014-15 Cavaliers a super team.

These Cavs, of course, will play for the NBA championship, starting this Thursday night in Oakland, California. And it’s entirely the LeBron Factor. Love separated his shoulder in Cleveland’s first-round playoff series with Boston. The Cavs proceeded to sweep the Celtics. Irving missed the second and third games of the Eastern Conference finals — against an Atlanta team that won 60 games and earned the conference’s top seed — and it simply did not matter. Cleveland swept the Hawks like leftovers from a public jersey burning.

So LeBron James is the first player outside the Celtics dynasty of the 1960s to reach the NBA Finals five straight years. This will be the first time, though, he’ll face the league’s reigning MVP (Golden State’s Steph Curry), which could mean James is motivated to prove something. That’s a horrifying thought if you wear Warrior colors.

During Michael Jordan’s prime, it was understood that the MVP was awarded to other players now and then — Charles Barkley in 1993, Karl Malone in 1997 — to keep things interesting, as there was no doubt who the planet’s best player was, one season after another. (There was a time, remember, when the world’s greatest basketball player swung a bat as a Birmingham Baron at Tim McCarver Stadium.) I thought the conversation about history’s greatest player ended when Jordan drained that buzzer-beater to win his sixth championship in 1998.

LeBron James is 30 years old. There’s a conversation.

• Did you see last week that Alex Rodriguez — designated hitter with the New York Yankees — broke Lou Gehrig’s American League record for runs batted in? Surely you did. A player with the most famous team in America broke the career record in a Triple Crown category of a player as famous for the disease that killed him as for his supreme brilliance on a baseball diamond.

You didn’t make a journal entry? Didn’t scream into the Twitterverse with awe and admiration? Neither did I.

Remarkably and ironically, Alex Rodriguez — New York Yankee! — is an invisible player. He’s donning those hallowed pinstripes for a team contending in the American League East. He’s adding to career statistics — in a sport that speaks the statistics language better than any other — that will leave him near the top of several major categories (not least of them, career home runs, where he now trails only three men). But no one cares. And no one is counting the numbers any more.

Rodriguez, of course, is the most famous abuser of performance enhancing drugs in baseball. Unlike Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Mark McGwire, A-Rod chooses to continue playing (and cashing enormous pay checks) despite being exposed as a cheat. Twice. Despite spending the entire 2014 baseball season suspended by the commissioner’s office for that very cheating.

I wouldn’t have wasted column space on the man were it not for how extraordinarily invisible he’s become. A New York Yankee in cheat’s clothing. Meanwhile, the spirit and lasting legacy of Lou Gehrig endures, more “visible” 74 years after the Iron Horse’s death than the impact of a current record-breaking DH.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Memphis Redbirds' Revival

Posted By on Tue, May 26, 2015 at 11:17 AM


Eight-game winning streaks can transform a baseball season. Just ask the Memphis Redbirds. After losing the first game of a double-header to Omaha at AutoZone Park on May 17th, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate found itself slogging along with a record of 14-23, last in the Pacific Coast League in batting average, runs scored, and (perhaps most deflating) attendance. But starting that very Sunday — with a 4-1 win over the Storm Chasers in the second game of the double-header — the Redbirds have been rolling, earning their eighth consecutive win at Fresno Monday night. Memphis is still a game shy of .500 (22-23) and trails Round Rock by six-and-a-half games in its division of the PCL. If Memorial Day is the first mile marker for measuring a baseball team’s strengths, the 2015 Redbirds have gained plenty over the last week.

What went wrong over the season’s first six weeks? There are plenty of new faces in uniform for the Redbirds, as there is every season in the minor leagues. (Welcome home, Jacob Wilson.) But the team also features veterans who contributed significantly for a division champion in 2014: pitchers Tim Cooney and Zach Petrick, rightfielder Stephen Piscotty, middle-infielder Greg Garcia, and first-baseman Xavier Scruggs.

Based on their numbers a year ago, Piscotty (the Cardinals’ third-ranked prospect) and Scruggs should be this team’s run-producers. Scruggs drove in 87 runs in 2014, his first season facing Triple-A pitching, and had a slash line of .286/.370/.494 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage). This year, the X-Man has 21 RBIs in 39 games, his averages having dropped to .219/.369/.477. A year ago, Piscotty drove in 69 runs with a slash line of .288/.355/.406. This season: 20 RBIs and .235/.343/.451. The Cardinals have tasked Piscotty with developing his power stroke (note the increase in slugging percentage) and the Stanford alum is already more than halfway to his 2014 home run total (9) with 6. If Piscotty and Scruggs find consistent strokes as the temperature rises, the Redbirds could threaten the Express at the top of the American Southern Division.

A pair of veteran acquisitions — Ty Kelly (.197 batting average) and Dean Anna (.233) — hasn’t made anyone forget Kolten Wong or Randal Grichuk. Seeking an offensive boost, the Redbirds released 31-year-old Scott Moore on May 18th to make room for Jacob Wilson, the former Bartlett High School and University of Memphis star who, with Ed Easley of Olive Branch, has added meaning to the “home” team at AutoZone Park. Wilson homered in his first Triple-A game and has hit .238 over his first seven games with Memphis. Most importantly, the Redbirds’ starting pitching has stabilized during the winning streak, with Petrick, Tyler Lyons, and Nick Greenwood following Cooney in the rotation. (Top prospect Marco Gonzales is again on the disabled list with shoulder discomfort.)

As for the sagging attendance, the weeknight numbers should improve now that schools have closed for the summer. And Memphis is the only PCL city also home to an NBA team that reached the second round of the playoffs. Perhaps enough Grizzly fans will need a warm-weather sports fix to help the franchise escape the PCL’s attendance cellar. In the meantime, general manager Craig Unger and the new Cardinal brass at Third and Union face the challenge of filling empty suites (even with a reduction in number after the massive club-level renovation, some suites remain unoccupied) and convincing casual fans that minor-league baseball is premium entertainment.

• Conventional wisdom says players don’t sell tickets to minor-league baseball games. But there’s a slugger currently wearing a Redbirds uniform you might consider seeing before he hangs up his long-worn spikes. Dan Johnson — signed by Memphis on May 4th — played his first professional game in 2001, and his first Triple-A game (for Sacramento) in 2003. Over his 15 pro seasons, the 35-year-old Johnson has appeared in 431 big-league games with five teams. But he’s closing in on his 1,300th minor-league game. Remarkably, Johnson has been MVP of both Triple-A leagues (the PCL in 2004 and the International League in 2010). He’s hit 241 home runs in the bushes (182 at the Triple-A level). Johnson is Crash Davis minus the chest protector and Annie Savoy. Find time to visit Third and Union, buy a cold drink (however expensive), and give this baseball player a hand for playing the game he loves.

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