My mom has long advised me that no matter how miserable a given day might be, we simply must find something positive before resting head to pillow. With that spirit in mind -- and with the last homestand of the season underway at AutoZone Park -- I present six reasons to love the 2006 Redbirds.
John Gall. We've likely seen the last of Gall in a Memphis uniform. On July 17, Gall accepted a fat contract offer from Japan and was granted his release by the St. Louis Cardinals. Whatever big-league aspirations a player has, at some point he has to consider making the most of a livelihood with a very brief shelf-life. Gall was the Cardinals' minor-league player of the year in 2003 (when he hit .312 with 16 homer for the Redbirds) and represented Memphis in the 2004 Triple-A All-Star Game. But if Gall were a basketball player, he'd be called a "tweener." Too small and not enough power to play first base, not athletic enough to be an everyday outfielder. Just a solid hitter, packed with character and a degree from Stanford to boot. Redbirds president Dave Chase told me Gall was one of a very few players to actually stop by his office to bid farewell. Something tells me Memphis will miss John Gall more than Gall will miss Memphis.
The isolation of Junior Spivey. At the other end of the character scale is Junior Spivey. Signed last winter to a seven-figure contract by St. Louis, Spivey was expected to be the Cardinals' regular second-baseman in 2006. But from the first day of spring training, the former Diamondback has been a disappointment. And worse, Spivey has worn his own displeasure like a sponsor's tag on his sleeve. So how does Spivey make my list of positives? At least his pouting was contained in a Triple-A clubhouse, as opposed to the damage it may have caused in St. Louis. Good riddance, Junior.
Valentine's Day in July. The Redbirds played an epic 16-inning game against the Colorado Springs Sky Sox on Sunday, July 30th. Memphis fell behind in the top of the 16th, only to have Mike Rose and Bo Hart hit back-to-back homers in the bottom of the inning to win the game. How does a Rose/Hart affair get even more romantic for local baseball fans? More than five hours earlier, the national anthem was sung by Hart's wife, Lydia. All together: awwwwwwwww.
Take me out to the crowd. It appears the Redbirds' average attendance will dip below 10,000 for the first time since AutoZone Park opened in 2000. Nonetheless, Memphis has sold more tickets than any Triple-A franchise except the Sacramento River Cats. With nine home dates remaining, the Redbirds' average of 9,664 was just shy of Sacramento's 10,175, but still higher than the top draw in the International League (Louisville at 9,098). For skeptics who want to point to the empty seats on a Tuesday night at Union and Third, consider these numbers, and the highest average attendance figure in the history of Tim McCarver Stadium (the Redbirds' second year there, 1999): 5,596.
Reyes of Hope. Prospects have been a rarity at AutoZone Park the last two seasons, but Anthony Reyes may prove to be a diamond in the rough. His numbers in St. Louis (4-6, 4.73 ERA through Sunday) aren't what they were in Memphis this season (4-1, 3.04 before his return last week), but the kid happened to hurl a one-hitter at the world champion White Sox (alas, he lost the game on a Jim Thome home run). With the Cardinals' starting rotation coming apart at the seams, Reyes should play an enormous role over the next few seasons, either as a member of that rotation or part of a dramatic trade.
Alan Benes. Considering the amount of time he's spent in Memphis -- Benes is the franchise leader in strikeouts and second in victories -- it's easy to forget that the younger of the Benes brothers once pitched for a National League pennant. (Alas, he lost a duel with Greg Maddux, 3-1, in Game 6 of the 1996 National League Championship Series.) At age 34, Benes has seen his last significant time in the big leagues. But he's still got that competitive fire, and hats off to Benes for making a living as long as he can doing something millions of boys and girls can only dream of. It seems perfectly appropriate that Benes was the winning pitcher in that "Valentine's" game July 30th.
Joining Calipari for various parties and festivities were (among many) Franco Harris, Curtis Martin, Manny Sanguillen, Rocky Bleier and other stars of the Pittsburgh sports firmament. Go to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Web site for more dish.