FROM MY SEAT: Eye-Opening Day 

Notes from a weekend well spent at AutoZone Park.

  • It's hard to imagine a better script for Saturday's inaugural Civil Rights Game, right down to Mother Nature turning off the waterworks thirty minutes before game time. (The late, great Buck O'Neil -- one of three Beacon Award honorees, along with Vera Clemente and Spike Lee -- must have had something to do with this.) There were goosebump moments galore. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend delivering a baseball to Benjamin Hooks for the ceremonial first pitch?

    You've got to be kidding me. With African American luminaries like Lou Brock, Dave Winfield, Joe Morgan, and Frank Robinson watching this exchange, a lump in the throat was all but assured. The civil rights movement has, indeed, brought us to a better place. And if Martin Luther King, Jackie Robinson, and Roberto Clemente couldn't be in attendance Saturday, having the names Hooks and Kennedy carrying the torch more than sufficed.

    The details -- as coordinated by Major League Baseball and the host Memphis Redbirds -- meant everything to this glorified exhibition game. The bunting had an off-white, aged look that gave historical weight to the added color. The video tributes to black ballplayers who have "paved the way" -- men like the Robinsons, Bob Gibson, Bill White, and Curt Flood -- were on point and touching in their brevity. And the uniforms worn by the world champion St. Louis Cardinals and Cleveland Indians -- classically simple to reflect the style of the Negro Leagues -- allowed a fan to daydream, and consider a time when the beauty of a ballplayer was underneath the jersey, and had nothing to do with marketing taste.

  • As for the script, the play on the field hardly disappointed. The last time Cardinal fans saw starting pitcher Adam Wainwright -- one of five former Memphis players in the starting lineup for St. Louis -- he was striking out Brandon Inge to clinch the Cards' 10th world championship. He pitched five solid innings against Cleveland and gave every indication a starringrole -- as a starting pitcher -- awaits. There was brilliant defense, a bare-handed assist by Cardinal third-baseman Scott Rolen among the finest. And the feature attraction -- Albert Pujols himself -- delivered a line-drive home run that appeared to move the leftfield bluff back about, oh, three feet.

    My favorite moment on the field, though, was the diving catch in centerfield made by So Taguchi -- another former Redbird -- to end the fifth inning. Think about it. An exhibition game the day before Opening Day. A soggy field. His team up by four runs. And Taguchi lays out to make a catch that brings the crowd to its feet. On a day to honor various minorities who have helped shape the national pastime, a backup outfielder from Japan reminded all in attendance what puts the big-league in a big-leaguer.

  • Before Friday's game between the Cardinals and Redbirds, I asked Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst -- a world champion as a Cardinal player in 1946 and manager in 1967 -- about the nature of defending a championship. "A lot of concentration is needed," said Schoendienst, "because there are so many distractions. When you're world champion, there's always someone congratulating you, or asking if you can do this or that. It's hard to repeat, no matter what. A lot of clubs, and only one winner. In 1967, we had good players and they played together well. Then in '68, they just kept going." Those Cardinals returned to the World Series, but lost to Detroit in seven games.
  • I asked Cardinal TV analyst Al Hrabosky about the unique circumstances that brought the entire Cardinal bench back from 2006. The Mad Hungarian had an interesting reply. "Not everyone can play for [Cardinal manager] Tony LaRussa," said Hrabosky. "Those who are here have bought into his system. They want to be here." It was, of course, one of those reserves -- catcher Gary Bennett -- who drilled the eighth-inning grand slam onto a packed leftfield bluff that gave St. Louis a 6-2 win Friday night.

    Perhaps the best development of all was the word from baseball commissioner Bud Selig that the Civil Rights Game is all but sure to be back in Memphis next year, and beyond. A shining tribute to American heroes, the game of baseball, and not least, the city of Memphis

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