Monday, September 26, 2011

Farewell, Albert Pujols?

Posted By on Mon, Sep 26, 2011 at 9:27 AM

Depending on a few factors — among them the National League wild-card race and various powers of negotiation — Wednesday could be the most significant send-off for the St. Louis Cardinals since Stan Musial took his final swing (a base hit, of course) on September 29, 1963. If the Cardinals’ season ends in Houston (meaning St. Louis falls short of Atlanta for a playoff berth), we may have seen the great Albert Pujols in a Cardinal uniform for the last time.

A free agent at season’s end, Pujols and his agent Dan Lozano are sure to field bids from interested teams that don’t play their home games at Busch Stadium. Having put up numbers over 11 seasons that no player in the history of the game can match, Pujols should land a new contract somewhere between $180 million and $250 million, depending on the length and average annual value of the deal. Complicating things somewhat will be the negotiations for another premium slugger, Milwaukee first baseman Prince Fielder. A leading candidate for this year’s National League MVP, Fielder is represented by agent Scott Boras, renowned for waiting as long as necessary to land the highest package for his clients. If Boras and Lozano choose to play a nine-figure game of stare-down, the Cardinals, Brewers, and any other interested franchises could be wondering where Pujols and Fielder will be playing on New Year’s Day.

What if Pujols leaves St. Louis? He’ll depart with a world-championship ring, three MVP trophies, fourth in franchise history in hits, and second (behind only Stan the Man) in home runs and RBIs. Wherever he chooses to continue his career, it’s hard to imagine the Pujols plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame bearing anything other than a St. Louis Cardinal hat. Hard to imagine any Cardinal ever wearing the number 5 again.

That said, if Pujols leaves St. Louis before (or right after) his 32nd birthday in January, it will be the most traumatic divorce in 120 years of Cardinal history. Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby was traded to the New York Giants after helping the Cardinals win their first World Series in 1926, but he yielded another future Hall of Famer, Frankie Frisch. Steve Carlton to the Phillies for Rick Wise is the worst trade in Cardinal history, but Carlton earned his Hall of Fame votes after the transaction. Established Cardinal greats have generally finished their careers in the shadow of the Arch: Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith. If Pujols leaves, his membership jacket in the franchise’s club of legends will come in a different shade of red.

But I don’t think he’ll leave. It may be the most naïve supposition of my sportswriting career, but I believe Albert Pujols will stay in St. Louis out of sentiment. Hear me out on this.

When the Cardinals visited AutoZone Park in April 2009 for a pair of exhibition games before Opening Day, Pujols had on the shelf in his locker a framed photo of his kids. (He and his wife, Deidre, have four children.) This was a two-day stop in Memphis for the Cardinals, in transit from Florida to St. Louis. It would have been easy for Pujols to leave such a talisman in his bag, or at least in his hotel room. But there the frame was, prominently displayed, inscribed with “Number One Dad.”

Beyond his devotion as a father, Pujols has made caring for children with Down syndrome a life mission. His oldest daughter, Isabella, lives with the ailment. The Pujols Family Foundation was established in 2005 and the Albert Pujols Wellness Center for Adults with Down Syndrome opened in 2009 in Chesterfield, Missouri.

What does all this mean when it comes to perhaps the biggest free agent in baseball history? It’s a matter of family roots, not just for the pending free agent, but for the family he cherishes — along with God — above anything else in his life. (Remember, God told Reggie White to play football in Green Bay. I’m sticking with family sentiment here.) Will Albert Pujols uproot all his family has established in and around St. Louis for an extra $30 million? An extra $40 million? What’s the price on a family’s roots in a town where no one named Pujols will ever have to buy a meal?

Again, this may be hopelessly naïve. Most athletes go where the cash piles highest. Shortly before signing an extension with the Cardinals last week, Lance Berkman was beautifully honest in telling reporters “It’s always about the money.” Maybe Albert Pujols spends the second half of his career in a Cubs uniform, or out west with the Angels. If the New York Yankees decide they want Pujols in pinstripes, they’ll find a way to shop Mark Teixera.

But I’m not buying it. The Cardinals need to stretch payroll as far as they can to retain this century’s Musial. I’m convinced when Pujols makes his decision, it will be in front of a picture frame and not a calculator.

Monday, September 19, 2011

College Football's Future: Super-sized Playoff

Posted By on Mon, Sep 19, 2011 at 8:51 AM

The year is 2020 . . . so whatever you think of this column, don’t question its vision. Major College Football (MCF) has broken away from the NCAA, an administrative body that now calls women’s soccer its flagship sport. (College hoops has been absorbed by the NBA, and no one can take baseball with aluminum bats seriously anymore, not after pitchers were forced to wear helmets.) And women’s soccer — scoff if you dare — is finally attracting the viewers it deserved before the U.S. team won back-to-back World Cups in 2015 and 2019. So you go, NCAA.

But back to Major College Football. This fall will mark the first outright playoff to determine a national champion. Three television networks have paid $4.5 billion for the rights to televise the three rounds (seven games) of playoff football, the money to be split among all 80 MCF teams. For the 40 teams currently relegated to the Bowl Subdivision (B.S.), they will share revenue with the 72 non-playoff MCF teams once profits are cleared from the 15 surviving bowl games (now treated as festivals building up to the MCF playoffs).

The inaugural MCF quarterfinals look epic. Let’s review the match-ups:

• From the Pac 20, we have perennial power (and Nike-backed) Oregon from the West Division facing off with Oklahoma from the East Division in one quarterfinal. Like each of the four MCF conferences, the Pac 20 established two 10-team divisions, with the winners of each division earning a berth in the MCF quarterfinals. Oklahoma edged Colorado and old Big 12 rival Missouri by virtue of its 8-1 divisional record. (Teams from separate divisions within a conference cannot face each other until the playoffs.)

• From the Big 20, we have Texas (having returned to prominence since the infamous TV-network scandal of 2011) facing Michigan (having returned to prominence after deciding to schedule all games at the Big House under the lights). Notre Dame, still bitter after being placed in the North Division with Michigan and Ohio State, stumbled to an 8-4 finish after coach Mike Golic all but guaranteed a playoff berth.

• From the Mighty East, we have a resurgent Boston College team squaring off with Virginia Tech, former ACC rivals that have finally emerged from more than a decade in the shadows of a basketball conference. (You can now find the likes of Duke and North Carolina near the bottom of the SEC East. But the SEC basketball tournament is pure gold!) Pitt and Louisville tested the Hokies in late regular-season action, while the Eagles ran off three straight wins over Maryland, Rutgers, and Virginia to win the Atlantic Division.

• Finally, from the SEC, we’ll see Alabama (now with four statues of Nick Saban outside Bryant-Denny-Saban Stadium) face Florida State. The Seminoles emerged as the best of the three Sunshine State teams battling for SEC East supremacy, Florida and Miami getting knocked off late in the season by Georgia Tech and Tennessee, respectively. The Crimson Tide enters the playoffs as the only unbeaten team (though they needed overtime to edge lowly Baylor).

As excited as fans are to see eight MCF teams battle for a single trophy (a football helmet made entirely of diamonds), the euphoria can’t compare with that on campuses of eight B.S. schools across the country. The most controversial by-law of the newly formed MCF will relegate the last-place team from each of the eight MCF divisions to second-tier conferences like the Sun Belt and Conference USA. (When relegated, a team must play at least three seasons of B.S. football before returning to MCF.) So say goodbye to the Big 20 for now, Indiana. And Memphis Tiger fans . . . hello SEC.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Beyond Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Mon, Sep 12, 2011 at 9:06 AM

A few thoughts from one of the most over-stuffed sports weekends of the year:

Back away from the ledge, Memphis Tiger football fans. There are more important things than winning football games. Or being competitive in football games. Saturday’s unsettling 44-point loss to Arkansas State seems to have established rock bottom for second-year coach Larry Porter’s program. Three particularly ugly numbers jumped out at me. First, the Tigers only gained 82 yards on the ground after rushing for 164 in the opener against Mississippi State. Secondly, the U of M offensive line allowed five sacks (after allowing but two against the Bulldogs). And on the defensive side of the ball, the Tigers allowed more than 600 yards against a team from the Sun Belt Conference.

Instead of pondering inclusion in a BCS league, the Memphis football community needs to establish that the program belongs in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A). This Saturday should clarify that debate, as Austin Peay — members of the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision — visit the Liberty Bowl. Lose to the Governors, and we’ll redefine rock bottom. But again, there are more important things.

• By sweeping Atlanta over the weekend, the St. Louis Cardinals have their first five-game winning streak of the 2011 season. With 16 games to play, the Cards are tantalizingly close (4.5 games) to the Braves in the race for the National League wild card. Alas, only six of the Cardinals’ remaining games will be at Busch Stadium and four will be played on the road against the mighty Phillies. If the Cardinals were to go 12-4 the rest of the way, the Braves would have to finish 6-9 for St. Louis to reach the playoffs.

If this is the last month we see Albert Pujols in a Cardinal uniform, what a ride it’s been. He’s 11 RBIs and just a few points on his batting average from an unprecedented 11th straight season hitting .300 with 30 homers and 100 runs driven in. But his 2011 season will be remembered for one more number: double plays. Sunday against the Braves, Pujols tied a 38-year-old Cardinal record (held by Ted Simmons) by hitting into his 29th double play. He’s likely to break Miguel Tejada’s National League record (32 in 2008 with Houston) and could challenge the major league record held by Hall of Famer Jim Rice (36 with Boston in 1984). Even when he struggles, Pujols seems to keep good company.


• I love watching Roger Federer play tennis. Especially as his legendary game begins to gradually fade. Too often, the greatest athletes hit a wall late in their careers, beyond which the images get ugly (Willie Mays, Joe Namath, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan in a Wizards uniform, to name four). With Federer, he remains so good that only two men on the planet — Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — can consistently beat him. But these days, they consistently beat him. (This is the first year since 2002 that Federer has not won at least one major title.) In Saturday’s semifinal at the U.S. Open, Federer won the first two sets against the top-ranked Djokovic. As recently as two years ago, that would be lights out. (Federer lost in the Wimbledon quarterfinals this year after taking the first two sets from Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.) After Djokovic evened the match at two sets, Federer battled his way to a pair of match points. Lights out, right? Instead, the gradual fade continues. Something tells me Federer won’t let the fade last long.

• It’s time the U.S. Open men’s championship gets moved — permanently — to prime time on Monday night. The NCAA men’s basketball Final Four has proven this to be a pretty decent formula. For the third straight year, the most important tennis match of the year in North America will start while most of us working stiffs are still on the clock. Why isn’t this under the lights, in prime time?

The event — typically played on Sunday afternoon — has long struggled with early-season NFL action. And Monday Night Football isn’t going anywhere. But to play this match during rush hour on the east coast is like holding Oscar night on a Wednesday.

• Tiger football fans looking for a salve until basketball season starts need to make their way to the Mike Rose Soccer Complex and see the Tiger women’s soccer team. I was there last Friday and saw Memphis whip Ole Miss, 3-0, to improve their record to 6-0, the best start in the program’s history. (They’re now 7-0 after beating Charlotte Sunday.) The Tigers’ next five games are on the road, but they return home on Friday, October 7th for the first of four straight home games. Memphis has won four straight Conference USA championships and is ranked firmly in the nation’s Top 20. And consider this: with six goals against Charlotte, they outscored the Tiger football team last weekend.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Memphis Redbirds Wrap-up

Posted By on Tue, Sep 6, 2011 at 8:10 AM

For the first time in three years, the Memphis Redbirds will not be participants in the Pacific Coast League playoffs. Despite playing their best baseball in August — including a 16-6 stretch from August 7-28 — Memphis finished 2.5 games behind Omaha in the American Conference’s Northern Division. But try this stat on for size: Having finished with a record of 77-66, the Redbirds enjoyed their fourth straight winning season under manager Chris Maloney, a sustained trend unmatched in Memphis since the Chicks reeled off eight straight winning campaigns from 1950 to 1957. Whatever the economic or attendance woes may be (and attendance was actually up this season compared with last year), we’re enjoying a golden era of Triple-A baseball in Memphis.

I have two primary thoughts when I consider the last four seasons, during each of which the Redbirds won at least 75 games:

• Chris Maloney is a terrific manager and deserves a shot in the big leagues, at least as a bench coach. The last two seasons, Memphis needed to get hot precisely when it’s hardest to do so: in the stifling humidity of August. A year ago, the Redbirds managed to catch Iowa on the last day of the season and make the playoffs by virtue of a tiebreaker. This season, another team — the Storm Chasers — managed to play just as well when the Redbirds finally found their groove. (During that 16-6 stretch, Memphis only picked up two games in the standings.) A manager can easily inspire in April, when a season’s young and hope is abundant. But motivating a team in the dog days of summer? Exceptional. With 367 career wins now, Maloney is second only to Doc Prothro among Memphis managers.

• The winning trend also reflects the St. Louis Cardinals’ growing emphasis on player development. (Remember, it was this shift in philosophy that led to general manager Walt Jocketty’s ouster after the 2007 season, the year before the Redbirds’ streak began.) Look at the Cardinals’ current roster, and you’ll see seven players who were recently part of winning baseball at AutoZone Park: David Freese, Jon Jay, Daniel Descalso, Allen Craig, Jason Motte, Lance Lynn, and Jaime Garcia. Others, like Mark Hamilton and Tony Cruz, have delivered big hits in St. Louis while shuffling up and down I-55. Whether or not an emphasis on player development can lead to world championships remains to be seen. (For all the hype of the “moneyball” practiced by the Oakland A’s, they haven’t seen the Fall Classic in 21 years.) But for now, the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate is benefiting tremendously from the emphasis.

Some other season-ending notes on the Redbirds:

• Late in the season, an anonymous teammate taped up the number 25 on the bullpen wall, next to the franchise’s only retired number (Stubby Clapp’s 10). The gesture was a tribute to Nick Stavinoha, the 29-year-old outfielder/first baseman who played his fifth season as a Redbird this year. (If you want a face of the recent winning ways, it’s either Maloney’s or Stavinoha’s.) Stavinoha finished the season with a new Redbird record for RBIs in a season (109) and stands atop the franchise’s career list in games (479), hits (531), home runs (74), and RBIs (316). Perhaps some thought should be given to that taped number.

• Victor Marte broke Gene Stechschulte’s 11-year-old record for saves in a season with his 31, a figure that led the PCL. It’s an ironic achievement, considering the instability in the Cardinal bullpen all year. Marte will turn 31 in November, so you have to wonder if the Cardinals have any plans that might include him on the big-league roster.

• Two players you can expect to see fighting for a spot with the parent club next March: third-baseman Matt Carpenter and outfielder Adron Chambers. Carpenter almost made the big-league roster last spring, then hit .300 with 12 homers and 70 RBIs for Memphis. Chambers would bring something sorely lacking for years in St. Louis: speed. The centerfielder (who turns 25 next month) stole 22 bases and hit .277 in his first season at the Triple-A level. Chambers needs to improve his on-base percentage (.368) and cut down on his strikeouts (90), but seems to have the skills of a future big-league leadoff hitter.


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