Monday, April 25, 2011

Rudy Gay's Injury: Fortuitous in the Long Run?

Posted By on Mon, Apr 25, 2011 at 8:22 AM

Sports covers are dangerous in the world of monthly magazines. When the staff of Memphis magazine (the Flyer’s sister publication) decided late last fall to put the Grizzlies’ Rudy Gay on the cover of our January issue, we did so with fingers crossed and wood properly knocked. The nature of magazine production requires stories to be written — and photographs taken — weeks before the finished product lands on newsstands and in subscribers’ mailboxes. With injuries and, worse, trades part of the ever-turning news cycle in professional sports, that smiling face on the cover of a magazine could well be grimacing in rehab or wearing a different uniform by the time a reader smiles back.

Our January issue was safely on newsstands when the Grizzlies — often behind Gay’s heroics — enjoyed the franchise’s finest month in six years. After losing in Utah on New Year’s Day, Memphis won five of its next six games, including upsets of the playoff-bound Lakers, Thunder, and Mavericks. Gay hit a buzzer-beating game-winner in Toronto on January 24th that became a YouTube sensation, and by month’s end the Grizzlies had put up a record of 11-6. (March 2004 and January 2005 are the only months the Grizzlies have won more games.) The cover choice had proved to be a perfect fit.

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The Grizzlies won five of their first seven games in February, and playoff talk intensified, along with All-Star debate for both Gay and Zach Randolph. Then February 15th hit. Gay went down — grimacing — with a separated shoulder in another Memphis win at Philadelphia. The announcement, a few days later, that he would miss the rest of the season seemed to dampen any hopes of this squad reaching new heights.

You know the rest: Tony Allen’s continued emergence as the team’s spiritual and defensive force. Fan favorite Shane Battier’s return in a trade that also cleared the roster of Hasheem Thabeet. Randolph’s All-Star snub merely adding motivation to his drive for a big contract extension. Nine wins over 11 games in late March and early April that locked up the team’s first playoff berth in five years. All with Rudy Gay in a suit and sling.

Based on what we’ve seen over the last two weeks, the six-month regular season was merely prelude for this Grizzlies team. In winning two of their first three games against the mighty San Antonio Spurs, the Grizzlies enter Monday night’s Game 4 at FedExForum with hopes of seizing control of this first-round series. The worst-case scenario would have the Grizzlies back in Memphis for a Game 6 this Friday with a chance to force a winner-take-all battle to advance into the second round. Considering other worst-case scenarios in the franchise’s history, this one’s rather palatable. However the current series unfolds, however deep the Grizzlies reach in the franchise’s most successful postseason in 16 years, Memphis fans will be left to wonder what might have been had Gay remained healthy. The easy (and natural) thought bubble would have Memphis that much stronger with Gay’s late-game track record in its arsenal. Number crunchers have shown the team was better defensively with Gay on the floor. But what if Gay’s injury is more of a big-picture development for the Grizzlies, a painful bump on a road toward something even better than the current scrap with the Western Conference’s top seed?

Had Gay remained healthy, almost 40 minutes of playing time per game would never have happened for the likes of Battier, Sam Young, and O.J. Mayo, three players who have each played roles in pushing the Grizzlies beyond expectations. Would Battier have taken that epic three-pointer in the final minute of Game 1 at San Antonio? Would he have even been on the floor? What Memphis lost in star quality the moment Gay hurt his shoulder it has gained in depth ... in “grit and grind” as Allen would tell us.

Easter is behind us and the Memphis Grizzlies have basketball to play. That sentence hasn’t been written much over the last decade. I look at that cover of Memphis magazine now, almost three months of developing stories since it was taken off newsstands. While the cover boy may not be able to lift that 30-pound dumbbell with the ease he did for the photo shoot, one element is as current today as it was last winter. Rudy Gay is smiling.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Solving the NFL's Labor Problems

Posted By on Mon, Apr 18, 2011 at 9:25 AM

As the NFL labor dispute drags on, we hear and read plenty about the needs of the owners and the wants of the players. Well, I’m here to negotiate for the NFL’s third party: the fans. Here are a few suggestions I’d make at the bargaining table.

* There’s been endless debate over preseason games. Are four too many? Should the regular season be extended from 16 games to 18 (with the elimination of two preseason contests)? The players’ union is very much against two more games that count. Players point out the irony of extending a season in a sport where the number of collisions — and concussions — has been the chief health concern of late.

Keep the four preseason games, I say, but cap ticket prices for these exhibitions at $10. That’s right: a single Alexander Hamilton should get you into these glorified scrimmages between unsigned free agents and low-round draft picks. An August game between the Tennessee Titans and San Diego Charges is no more an NFL game than a November showdown between the University of Alabama and Auburn. At least the Tide-Tiger game counts in the SEC standings.

Better yet, all kids under the age of 16 get into preseason games free. Charge $8.50 for a beer and $30 for a parking spot at these meaningless tryouts-in-uniform. But don’t insult NFL fans by gouging us on ticket prices for games that mean nothing.

* The NFL experience is as much about television as it is game day at the stadium. And there are some egregious slights that take place in our living rooms on fall Sundays. We’ll start with two.

Case 1: The post-kickoff commercial break. Your team has just scored a touchdown, the blood’s pumping through the point-after, and the network breaks for commercials. This is understandable with a change of possession. But after returning to the game and showing us the kickoff — which all too often flies though the end zone for a touchback — the network breaks for commercials again. This is abuse by sponsorship and must be eliminated.

Case 2: The quasi-informed sideline reporter. From Pam Oliver to Tony Siracusa, sideline reporters are tasked with bringing viewers information the analysts in the broadcast booth cannot. But all too often, they merely update us on injuries, or hold a microphone for a coach leaving the field at halftime to stress the importance of not turning the ball over.

Why not have each team designate two players — a starter on offense and another on defense — as “media captains.” These players are required (once a quarter) to enter a designated area of the sideline and grant a short interview on how the game is unfolding. The next time the Titans’ Chris Johnson is closing in on 200 yards rushing, let’s hear from a member of the opposing defense about what the heck might be done to stop him. That sideline reporting would be worth listening to.

* Eliminate “Hype Week” before the Super Bowl. The Sunday after the conference championships is a lost weekend for NFL fans. No action. Only fuel for the hyperactive prognosticators to tell us what will happen (between commercials, of course) in the Biggest Game Ever. Why do teams get two weeks to prepare for the Super Bowl when part of the NFL DNA is preparing for battle over six days?

Here’s the solution. Extend the regular season to 16 games over 18 weeks, which would allow each team two bye weeks over the grueling four-month regular season. This would push games back a week, add another slate of games — more TV revenue! — and give every NFL player a second week for extra healing instead of only the two conference champions. I can’t see any loser here, except maybe those hyperactive prognosticators.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Memphis Redbirds 2011: First Impressions

Posted By on Mon, Apr 11, 2011 at 9:32 AM

A common complaint about minor league baseball: With all the promotions, demotions, trades, and cuts, it’s impossible to get to know the players you’re cheering, particularly one season to the next. Such is not the case (or shouldn’t be) this season for the Memphis Redbirds.

Six of the eight position players who took the field for the Redbirds on Opening Night last Thursday played at least 20 games for Memphis in a 2010 season that saw the Redbirds reach the Pacific Coast League playoffs for a second straight year. Nick Stavinoha, Shane Robinson, Mark Hamilton, and Bryan Anderson are in at least their third season with the Redbirds, and Adron Chambers and Donovan Solano each made an impact on last year’s postseason drive. The starting pitcher last Thursday was P.J. Walters, the franchise’s alltime wins leader (25) and one of four hurlers in the Memphis rotation who have won at least 10 games in a Redbird uniform (along with Lance Lynn, Brandon Dickson, and Adam Ottavino).

Manager Chris Maloney is another familiar face, now in his fifth season as the Redbirds’ skipper. With ten wins, Maloney will become just the fifth manager in the city’s professional baseball history with 300 victories.

More observations from the Redbirds’ opening weekend:

* The 15 runs scored on Opening Night were the most in a Memphis lid-lifter since the Redbirds pounded Iowa, 14-3, in the 2000 inaugural season at AutoZone Park. The 8-7 Memphis loss was the first opening game in which each team scored at least seven runs since the Chicks lost to Birmingham, 11-8, in 1960. All the offense — Memphis and Oklahoma City combined for 28 hits — was ironic when you consider the Redhawks’ starter (Jordan Lyles) is the top prospect in the Houston Astros’ farm system.

* The Redbirds don’t appear to have much power in their lineup beyond Stavinoha and first baseman Mark Hamilton. Memphis took three of four from Oklahoma City over the weekend without a single home run. (One player to watch is reserve outfielder Andrew Brown, who hit 22 homers in 361 at bats for Double-A Springfield last year.) But they could make up for a lack of long-ball with speed (an element the parent St. Louis Cardinals are desperately missing). In Chambers and Robinson, Memphis has two centerfielders in the outfield (Robinson made three stellar plays in left Thursday night). Newcomers Pete Kozma (shortstop) and Matt Carpenter (third base) won’t clog the bases either. Jon Jay led the 2010 Redbirds with merely 13 stolen bases. That figure should be doubled this summer.

* The picnic terrace beyond right field is a great addition to the ballpark. Redbirds general manager Ben Weiss describes it as a “destination point,” and he’s right on. There were scores of fans in an area that was typically pure green (the color of the empty seats) in years past. The area provides the finest view of the downtown skyline, the definitive jigsaw-puzzle image of AutoZone Park. (The tables are smartly placed perpendicular to the playing field, so no fan concentrating on his barbecue nachos will be drilled in the back of the head by Hamilton’s next home run.)

It’s a small touch, but an important one for Cardinal fans.

Last season, a fan strolling along the boardwalk down the leftfield line could stop and gaze at a giant screen featuring the image of Tino Martinez, a man who last played for St. Louis in 2003. New banners are now in place, one honoring the great Stubby Clapp (the only Redbird to have his uniform number retired), another former Redbird and current (injured) Cardinal ace, Adam Wainwright, and a third with the Redbirds celebrating their 2009 PCL title. The Redbirds have done a poor job of marketing their history of success stories (individual and team), but this screen is a step in the right direction.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Happy Jack: Nicklaus and the Masters

Posted By on Mon, Apr 4, 2011 at 9:13 AM

"The decibel level when Jack Nicklaus makes an eagle just shakes the trees." -- Ben Crenshaw

This week's Masters marks the 25th anniversary of the most significant victory in the history of golf's preeminent event. The 1986 Masters -- the 50th at Augusta National Golf Club -- was won by the great Jack Nicklaus, of course. A new book, One for the Ages (Chicago Review Press), provides an account of a golf tournament that somehow made the finest player in golf history even more legendary.

Author Tom Clavin divides the book into sections named for the dates of each round, starting with April 10, 1986. But this is merely a formula for building toward a climax no golfer, golf fan, or golf pundit could have anticipated.

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Upon his arrival at Augusta in 1986, Nicklaus -- 46 years old at the time -- already owned a record 17 major titles as a pro, including five Green Jackets as Masters champ. But he hadn't won at Augusta in 11 years, and hadn't won a major of any kind since the 1980 PGA Championship when, at age 40, he was already considered on the down side of his prime. In addition to American pros like Ben Crenshaw, Fuzzy Zoeller, and Fred Couples, an influx of foreign talent -- including recent Masters champions Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer -- made the Masters field a veritable gauntlet for any golfer, let alone one whose best days were apparently a decade behind him.

One for the Ages takes the Masters (as institution) as seriously as it takes the Nicklaus legend, providing an historical frame for the brainchild of Bobby Jones, and detailing the relationship between player and golf course that proved so mutually beneficial to the Golden Bear and the only golf major to be played annually at the same club. Clavin contrasts the Masters with golf's other three majors, each of them older, but each played on a rotation of renowned courses. The result is what amounts to a personality profile of Augusta National, 18 holes that come to life around golf's greatest names, 18 holes that seem to especially embrace Jack Nicklaus. Says Gary Player (a three-time Masters champion), as quoted by Clavin: "When I think of Augusta, I think of great beauty. I've always said if they have a golf course like this in heaven, I hope I'm the golf pro there one day."

Nicklaus hardly dominated the 1986 Masters, at least not until late in Sunday's final round. Bill Kratzert and Ken Green set the pace on Thursday, with the Golden Bear six strokes off the lead. Nicklaus trailed Seve Ballesteros by six strokes after the second round, then found himself four shots behind Greg Norman after three. (Nick Price's 63 stole the show on Saturday, overshadowing any TV coverage for the lurking Bear.) The drama on Sunday -- Nicklaus trailed by six strokes with 10 holes to play -- makes the last quarter of Clavin’s book impossible to put down.

Nicklaus's first Masters championship (in 1963) came 11 years after Sam Snead won his second. His last Masters title (23 years later) came 11 years before Tiger Woods won his first. With four Green Jackets in between, Jack Nicklaus is as much a part of this event as the Hogan Bridge or Amen Corner. At one point, Clavin describes his subject as "a ghost of Masters past come back to life." One for the Ages brings to life a course, a man, and a tournament that, for a special weekend 25 years ago, was more masterful than ever.

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