As summer stretches toward fall, a few items to ponder . . .
Just how big is this Saturday's Black-and-Blue Game between the University of Memphis and Southern Miss? Well, let's see. The Tigers are 2-0 for the first time in 27 years (they haven't been 3-0 since 1973). First conference game of the year, against C-USA's perennial pace-setter. First road game of the year, where college football boys become men. Memphis has dropped eight of their last nine against the Golden Eagles, and haven't won in Hattiesburg since 1984. With a win, the Tigers would enjoy a bye week with the most momentum, the biggest buzz this program has seen since Tricky Dick was in office. And with Arkansas State and UAB on the horizon, the U of M just might enter their October 11th game at Mississippi State undefeated. Ole Miss was the biggest game on the Tigers' schedule . . . until this Saturday.
What a schizophrenic season our Redbirds just completed. A 44-28 record at home, including a 13-game winning streak and a 31-9 finish. On the road? Better turn away. The Redbirds wound up 20-51 outside the comforts of AutoZone Park. (We all love the 'Zone, fellas, but this is a little shaky.) Had Memphis merely been a .500 club on the road, the Redbirds would have won 80 games and been right in the thick of things in the PCL's East Division. The sad truth about the long, daily grind of a professional baseball season is that a short stretch can invigorate (or destroy) a season. When the Redbirds lost 21 out of 23 between April 15 and May 9, the possibility of playoff baseball fell out of the equation. Remove that sorry month from the books and Memphis was four games over .500.
Kudos to Redbirds pitcher Jason Ryan, who managed the rare trick of leading his league in both innings pitched (190) and ERA (2.70). The All-Star righty became Memphis©ö third ERA champion in six years, followingBrady Raggio in 1998 (3.07) and Clint Weibl in 2000 (2.83). Ryan's record (8-6) was deceptively mediocre, as the Redbirds were shut out four times when he took the mound. He had no fewer than 14 no-decisions. While we're at it, hats off to Steve Stemle as well. With the PCL's 6th-best ERA (3.46), Stemle deserved better than his 6-11 record.
A pair of names to look forward to as we look ahead to the 2004 Redbirds season: Yadier Molina and Bucky Jacobsen. Molina is a slick-fielding catcher, almost certain to be Mike Matheny's eventual successor in St. Louis. He hit .275 this year for Double-A Tennessee, with 2 home runs and 51 RBIs. Jacobsen will give John Gall some competition for his first base job next year, having hit .298, with 31 home runs (which led the Southern League) and 84 RBIs for the Smokies.
You'll have to pardon my cold-hearted refusal to be part of the latest coronation of Barry Bonds. The greatest baseball player of my lifetime (perhaps any lifetime) has been given an enormous amount of credit-- and apparently clinched an unprecedented sixth MVP award-- for the compassion he's shown in dealing with the death of his father (and former baseball star), Bobby. The fact is, Bonds is behaving exactly as a human being should upon the death of a parent. He's missed work. He's reflected. And when able to work, he's done his job. The very normal way Bonds has handled this difficult time contrasts dramatically with the very abnormal way he has treated human beings over the course of his 18-year career. Thus the misplaced adulation. Had Bonds conducted himself with more compassion during his father's life, he would have honored Bobby's legacy more completely, and his tears in recent weeks wouldn't seem nearly so heroic.
In the wake of last week's debacle at Wrigley Field-- where the Cardinals dropped four of five to the Cubs-- any griping about a thin pitching staff by St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa (or GM Walt Jocketty) should fall on deaf ears here in Memphis. Knowing they had to pitch a minimum of 45 innings in four days (turned out to be 51), St. Louis could have called up Ryan to eat some of those innings. Instead, the lone arm they promote is Josh Pearce, who was ignored in the Wednesday afternoon implosion that saw the Cards blow a 6-0, sixth-inning lead. You want to sympathize with LaRussa and co. But what does a guy like Ryan have to do?
You think Larry Bird has been scratched from Isiah Thomas's Christmas list? First, Larry Legend makes the most famous NBA heist since 'Havlicek stole the ball!' to rob Thomas's Pistons of a shot at the 1987 Finals. Then just last month, Bird swoops into town as the new boss of the Indiana Pacers-- the team Thomas coached to the playoffs each of the last three years-- and fires his fellow Hall of Famer. Ahhhh . . . nice to see rivalry doesn't die when the sneakers are traded in for wing tips.