A SPECIAL BAND OF 'BIRDS
I had more fun -- by a longshot -- watching the 2004 Memphis Redbirds than I did any team since the 2000 Pacific Coast League champions. Despite what you may ascertain from the RedbirdsÕ promotional efforts, for me itÕs still about the players I see at Third and Union. And this was a special group, an almost-perfect Triple-A amalgamation of hot prospects, big-league veterans aiming to get back to The Show, and longtime minor-league grinders just wanting a sniff at the big time. ItÕs a team I wonÕt forget, made up of a few players deserving of one more tip of the cap.
-- Two St. Louis Cardinal starters -- Matt Morris and Woody Williams -- can be free agents at seasonÕs end, and the likelihood is that only one will return. And the reason wore number 55 in Memphis this summer. Haren dominated PCL batters, becoming the third Redbird in six years to start the Triple-A All-Star Game. Despite spending most of August with the parent club (where he won a pair of spot starts), Haren won 11 games and led the PCL with 150 strikeouts. The 6Õ5" righty even showed some pop at the plate, hitting four home runs. HeÕll be 25 when the 2005 season opens . . . and a member of the CardinalsÕ starting rotation.
-- Mike Matheny is a special catcher, having won two gold gloves and established a major league record with 252 consecutive errorless games. But his days are numbered behind the dish in St. Louis. MolinaÕs Triple-A seasoning was interrupted by his promotion June 3rd (when Matheny had to go on the disabled list), and he never returned to Memphis. He has every bit the arm Matheny does, appears to be more comfortable at the plate (he hit .302 with the Redbirds), and has been learning how to handle pitchers from the very best at Busch Stadium.
-- Quickly: who is the RedbirdsÕ alltime home run leader? Yep, this is your man. With 31 dingers this season (on top of the 16 he hit in 2003), Seabol passed Keith McDonald for the top spot in the ÔBirds record book. He played a terrific third base (and second, when called upon), and managed to be a leader for this squad despite his mind being primarily with his twin sons, born nine weeks premature in July. HereÕs hoping the 29-year-old Seabol gets to add to his one big-league at bat . . . and soon.
-- What a monster season. The former Blue Jay, Padre, and Tiger established new Redbird records with 36 home runs (which led the PCL) and 107 RBIs. He and Seabol gave the Redbirds two players with 30 home runs for the first time in team history. WittÕs August may have been the greatest individual month in Redbirds history when he hit 14 home runs and drove in 40.
-- If the Cardinals arenÕt going to give this soon-to-be 28-year-old a spot on their bench, there has to be a big-league club that will. After his overnight success in 2003, Hart had but a cup of coffee in St. Louis this season. He continued to sparkle for Memphis, though, hitting .297 and playing as solid a second base as youÕll see in Triple-A. HeÕll never play every day in the majors, but heÕd be a valuable asset off the bench, adept at both middle infield spots and ALWAYS hustling. On August 22, Hart joined a select few in Memphis baseball history to pick up five hits in a single game.
-- With Larry Walker now in the fold, and a guy named Pujols occupying first base in St. Louis, GallÕs future is elsewhere. HeÕs a clunky outfielder who needs to find a home at first base (or, ech, DH) . . . but he can flat-out hit. One of two Redbird All-Stars this season, Gall hit a pair of home runs on the night (June 21) Memphis set a franchise record with seven homers in a single game.
and John Mabry
-- Either of these longtime big leaguers could have snubbed the Cardinals when asked to take a Triple-A assignment. Neither did, and now both have a shot at their first World Series ring. As the second Redbird batter of the season on April 8, Mabry drilled a ball over the 400-fight sign in centerfield at AutoZone Park. Seemed like something special was on the way.
I can go on and on with this bunch: Al Reyes
(a PCL-leading 23 saves), Colin Porter
, Chris Prieto
(28 stolen bases), Steve Stemle
(now second alltime with 19 career wins for the Redbirds), Alan Benes
, Mike Mahoney
(how about that game-winning hit August 24 when the Redbirds rallied to score four runs with two outs in the ninth?). Hats off to a baseball team that gave all it could, and cross your fingers, Memphis, that the 2005 squad can approximate its standard.