Monday, July 27, 2009

The Cardinals' Midseason Makeover

Posted By on Mon, Jul 27, 2009 at 7:39 AM

The St. Louis Cardinals used the first four months of the 2009 season to discover some characteristics about their club. They learned the team is capable of enduring injuries to key players, as Chris Carpenter, Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel, Kyle Lohse, and Troy Glaus spent significant time on the disabled list. (Glaus has yet to play this year.) They learned — or better put, were reminded — that the team is centered around the planet’s best player in Albert Pujols. And they learned that, even in a mediocre National League Central Division, the team did not have adequate offensive support for Pujols to consider themselves World Series contenders. Worse, the team’s management was gaining a reputation for excess sentiment and timidity when it comes to improving the club.

All that changed with two transactions last week. In the first, St. Louis send Chris Duncan — a key contributor for the 2006 world champions and the son of Cardinal pitching coach Dave Duncan — to Boston for shortstop Julio Lugo (who had just been demoted to the minors by the Red Sox). After hitting 44 home runs in his first 226 big-league games, Duncan struggled with injuries in 2008 and slumped mightily this season (five home runs in 304 plate appearances), which called into question Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa’s ability to judge Duncan’s value independent of the player’s relationship to his longtime pitching coach and friend. In dealing Duncan — a natural first-baseman forced into the St. Louis outfield by the presence of Pujols — to a new home, Cardinal general manager John Mozeliak did both his roster and Duncan a favor. Chris Duncan deserves to be measured solely on his merits as a player, and he certainly will be now in the Boston system with its media crucible.

Then last Friday, Mozeliak shed the kid gloves by trading highly acclaimed prospect — and Memphis Redbird third-baseman — Brett Wallace to Oakland for Matt Holliday. A former National League batting champion during his days in Colorado, Holliday will instantly provide the cleanup support for Pujols that the Cardinals were unable to muster with Duncan or Ryan Ludwick in the slot. (Consider Pujols’ numbers without the likes of Holliday hitting behind him: .325 batting average, 34 home runs, 91 RBIs.) Combined with the late-June acquisition of Mark DeRosa from Cleveland, St. Louis is investing around $6 million over the next two months in players who can each walk as free agents at season’s end. And it should be noted the DeRosa deal cost the Cardinals Jess Todd, their 2008 minor-league pitcher of the year, and the Redbirds’ sole Pacific Coast League All-Star this season.

With the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers under-performing, a post-season berth is there for the taking, so Mozeliak should be applauded for some risk-taking. Say what you will about the future potential of prospects like Wallace and Todd, teams play to win now, this season, and while the stars like Pujols are in their prime. The Holliday trade will be a good one if St. Louis reaches the 2009 playoffs. It will be a great trade if the Cardinals convince Holliday to to sign an extension and serve essentially the same role in the decade ahead that Jim Edmonds did for seven years: Ed McMahon to Pujols’ Johnny Carson. Pujols is signed through 2010, with a club option for 2011. A “hometown discount” may keep him in a Cardinal uniform, but only if the franchise shows a commitment to contending on an annual basis. Exhibit A of such commitment: the acquisition of Matt Holliday.

Having lost two of three in Philadelphia last weekend, St. Louis fell behind the Cubs in the NL Central standings. The fabled dog days of August are ahead for several clubs that still consider themselves candidates to unseat the defending champion Phillies. The season’s six-month daily grind doesn’t allow many chances for experiments with a team’s roster. Credit the Cardinal brass (perhaps with breath held) for identifying blemishes and taking action to – at least temporarily — cover them.

Monday, July 13, 2009

All-Star Notes

Posted By on Mon, Jul 13, 2009 at 9:16 AM

I’m off to St. Louis Tuesday for baseball’s 80th All-Star Game. As I was doing my homework, it became clear this was research I need to share.

* This will be the fifth All-Star Game in St. Louis. The National League beat the American League in 1940, 4-0, with the Boston Braves’ Max West hitting a three-run homer. In 1948, the AL beat the NL, 5-2, despite a long one from Stan Musial in the ballpark he called home. The AL beat the NL in 1958, 6-5, with each team scoring three runs in its half of the ninth inning. (This was the year Cincinnati fans stuffed the ballot box and elected seven Reds to the game. Commissioner Ford Frick interceded and sat two of them, and fan voting didn’t resume until 1970.) In 1966, brand new Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis hosted the game and the NL won a 10-inning pitchers’ duel, 2-1. Temperatures reached 105 degrees before the Dodgers’ Maury Wills delivered the game-winning hit.

Stan Musial: Alltime All-Star Game homers leader
  • Stan Musial: Alltime All-Star Game homers leader

* Barack Obama will become the fourth sitting U.S. president to throw out the first pitch at an All-Star Game. John Kennedy did so in 1962 in Washington, Richard Nixon in 1970 (Cincinnati) and Gerald Ford in 1976 (Philadelphia). Begs the question: where has the First Fan been for 33 years?

* The National League has not won since 1996 and the 12-year drought is the longest suffered by either league since the game was first played in 1933. (The 2002 contest, it should be remembered, ended in a tie when the teams ran out of pitchers.) The NL won 19 of 20 games between 1963 and 1982 and holds an overall edge, 40-37-2. (Two games were played each season from 1959 to 1962.) Over the 79 games, the AL has outscored the NL, 335 to 333.

* The All-Star rosters have never been bigger: 33 players per team. The eight starting position players are elected by fans, eight more position players and eight pitchers are selected by players themselves, then eight players (five of them pitchers) are chosen by the managers. One final All-Star is selected by fans after the 32-player team is announced.

* The 16 starting position players this year include six players who earned Rookie of the Year honors, but only two former MVPs: the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols and the Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki.

* The National League’s pitching staff has a distinctly Memphis flavor. San Francisco’s Matt Cain starred at Houston High in Germantown. (Injured in his last start, though, Cain will be unable to pitch Tuesday night.) Arizona’s Dan Haren led the Pacific Coast League in strikeouts as a Redbird in 2004. And the Cardinals’ Ryan Franklin — making his All-Star debut at age 36 — was part of two no-hitters for the 1997 Memphis Chicks. (Franklin combined with two other pitchers in one game, then hurled a seven-inning no-no a week later.)

* Chase Utley, starting at second base for the National League for the fourth straight year, played in the 2003 Triple-A All-Star Game at AutoZone Park.

* Partly because of the two-games-per-season era, the record for games played as an All-Star will likely never be broken. The record holders — each with 24 games — are Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Stan Musial. Mays has the most hits (23) and Musial the most home runs (6).

* The last Cardinal to homer in the Midsummer Classic was Reggie Smith in 1974. Only one other franchise has gone as long without seeing an All-Star homer as St. Louis. No Milwaukee Brewer has ever homered in the All-Star Game.

* This will be the first All-Star Game since 1995 not to feature either Alex Rodriguez or Manny Ramirez. Somehow seems refreshing, particularly with 27 first-time All-Stars.

* Only two players have been named All-Star MVP after playing for the losing team: Brooks Robinson (1966, in St. Louis) and Carl Yastrzemski (1970).

* In 1942 and 1943, a pair of brothers — pitcher Mort Cooper and catcher Walker Cooper, both of the St. Louis Cardinals — were the NL’s starting battery.

* There has been only one grand slam hit in an All-Star Game. California’s Fred Lynn did so for the AL in 1983.

* The last All-Star MVP to reach the World Series the same year was the Yankees’ Derek Jeter in 2000.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Playing With Clay

Posted By on Mon, Jul 6, 2009 at 8:59 AM

With the significant exception of the Williams sisters, the last two decades have not been all that good to American women tennis players. Aside from the combined 18 Grand Slam titles won by Serena and Venus, only two other American-born players have been crowned champion at a major event since 1987: Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport (and neither of them since 2002). It just so happens that Capriati and Davenport were champs in Memphis before they conquered the biggest stages of their sport.

On July 19th at The Racquet Club of Memphis, the 2009 USTA Girls' 18 National Clay Court Championships will open, with almost 200 American players aiming to someday break the recent seal of world dominance by the Williams sisters and eastern European players. This is an event that's been held in Memphis every year since 1990 (it was won by Davenport in '91), and eight years before that as the national hard-court championships (Capriati won the title in 1989 at age 13). The Williams sisters,alas, never competed in the event.

Tournament director Peter Lebedevs has a couple of thoughts on why more American women haven't made the leap to Grand Slam success. "The education component is less emphasized in European countries," says Lebedevs. "They're working them more as an athlete. They do more training. Also, in Europe, a train ride can take you from France to Italy, and each country has a whole bunch of tournaments, with each country's best players to compete against. Here in the U.S., the country is so spread out, you've got to travel so far to compete against the best. The U.S. is trying to identify the best athletes at an early age, and give them more opportunities at regional training centers."

Less than a forecast of future Wimbledon finals, the Clay Court Championships are a unique audition for American college coaches. Memphis has the advantage of a central location, and with the event in July, college coaches have travel time on their hands they normally don't. Lebedevs estimates more than 70 NCAA programs will be represented at the workshop held the day before the tournament begins.

"Kids get to meet coaches, set up visits, learn about schools, and the coaches get to show off their schools," explains Lebedevs. "Vanderbilt always comes in and takes the front, center table. And they're always Top 20. Once the event starts, they're not allowed to talk to the players ... NCAA rules. So they meet them before our event." Lebedevs estimates that around 100 players signed scholarships a year ago, and those who don't are usually just too young to do so. Last year, Germantown's Allison Hodges caught the eye of coaches from Central Florida, a school she hadn't considered until playing in the Clay Court Championships.

Players as young as 13 or 14 (there is no under-age limit) qualify from 17 sections across the United States. Players ranked among the nation's top 20 by the USTA qualify automatically. They'll be competing over an eight-day period, and on courts at The Racquet Club, the Memphis Country Club, and the University Club. While groundstrokes and serve technique are important factors, Lebedevs says college coaches tend to look for attitude as much as pure talent.

"College tennis is kind of like professional baseball," says Lebedevs. "You play a lot of matches, and you've got to bring it every day, so coaches are looking for kids who stay tough. They want to see kids who fall into the consolation draw and have to play two matches on the same day, in 100-degree heat."

Among the favorites at this year's event will be Catherine Harrison of Germantown and a pair of Floridians well accustomed to playing on clay: Danielle Collins (a quarterfinalist a year ago) and Mary Clayton. On the subject of these three favorites, Lebedevs notes a rising-star quality that will draw some national spotlight toward Memphis. "They're 14 or 15, and they're playing here," he says, "They're pretty darn good. They're the ones who stand out."


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