Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Ja's World

Posted By on Tue, Jan 21, 2020 at 9:59 AM

You could win an NBA championship without a superstar in uniform, but it's not the recommended approach. Over the last 40 years — since the dawn of the Magic/Bird Era — exactly one team has raised the Larry O'Brien Trophy without a certifiable, Grade-A superstar on the roster. (Definition: a player who has earned first-team All-NBA honors at least twice.) Ironically, the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons beat a team in the NBA Finals — the L.A. Lakers — that featured four such players in its starting lineup.
Ja Morant - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Ja Morant

The Memphis Grizzlies will not win the NBA championship this year. But 43 games into the Ja Morant Era, an NBA title seems less of a stretch than it has since the 2013 Western Conference finals (a sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs). The 20-year-old Morant is well on his way to Rookie of the Year recognition, but his ceiling for stardom goes beyond the numbers he's posted to date (17.9 points and 7.0 assists per game). There's an eye test for basketball superstardom. Whether it's Morant schooling a former MVP (James Harden), dunking with the nearest defender crotch-level, or draining three-pointers with a Curry-esque stroke, the 20-year-old guard has Memphis in playoff contention at least a year ahead of schedule.

Morant averaged 19.3 points over the Grizzlies' recent seven-game winning streak. But then on Martin Luther King Day he seemed to disappear in a loss to New Orleans. The stat sheet says he had 16 points and nine assists, a fine night for mortal NBA guards. But the Griz were down 19 by halftime. That's the catch (for now) with Morant: superstars don't disappear against the Pelicans on national TV.

It's outlandish to discuss Morant among first-team All-NBA candidates, right? With Harden, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, and another wunderkind — Dallas's Luka Doncic — in the mix, such an honor will come hard-earned. But in 2021? Perhaps 2022? In the 25 years since the Grizzlies debuted in Vancouver, only one player has earned first-team honors, and Marc Gasol did so only once (2015). A half-season is but a blip in the NBA career of a superstar, but Ja Morant appears to be fitting himself for a cape.

• A suggestion for the NBA's schedule-makers: Why not find a way for the Atlanta Hawks to visit Memphis for the Martin Luther King Day game in the near future? It would seem to add extra meaning to an already powerful event on the NBA calendar. The Grizzlies have hosted New Orleans the last two years and four of the last seven. Bring some variety to the game. Inviting the team that represents Dr. King's hometown would be a poignant start.

• Look for Isaac Bruce to finally be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame when the modern-era class is announced on February 1st. The former Memphis Tiger is a finalist for the fourth time (no more than five modern-era finalists are inducted each year). A member of the inaugural class of the Memphis Sports Hall of Fame, Bruce ranks fifth in NFL history with 15,208 receiving yards. The four men ahead of him are either already in the Hall of Fame (Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss) or still active (Larry Fitzgerald).

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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Our Titans!(?)

Posted By on Tue, Jan 14, 2020 at 12:54 PM

Here we go, Titans, here we go! Right? Well … not so fast.

An NFL team representing Tennessee — the state in which Memphis has long lived — is one win away from playing in the Super Bowl. So naturally, those of us in the Bluff City will find a Derrick Henry jersey or at least some shade of blue when the Titans face the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday for the AFC championship. Or will we? The Titans call Nashville home, of course, however they choose to present "Tennessee" on team merchandise. Nashville and Memphis share a home in much the same way Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier once (actually three times) shared a boxing ring. So might red be the color of choice this Sunday, support leaning toward a team — the Kansas City Chiefs — a half-century removed from its last Super Bowl appearance?
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Herewith, a case for Memphians to root against the Titans this weekend … and a case for full support of "Tennessee's team."

Titans down!
If you're old enough to remember the 1997 Tennessee Oilers, you're as likely to wear a Patrick Mahomes jersey this weekend and pull for the Chiefs as you are to don Titans gear. Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams departed Texas for Tennessee after the 1996 season when taxpayers wouldn't fund a new stadium for the franchise he founded in 1960, longtime tenants of the Astrodome. Trouble was, it would take a couple of years for Nashville to build that swanky new coliseum. So Adams convinced Memphis mayor Willie Herenton (among others) to let his team play two seasons in the Liberty Bowl. Memphis would pay for dinner but let someone else take its date home.

Those ’97 Oilers went 8-8 and featured a pair of rising stars in quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George. But Memphis saw through the artificial wooing of Adams and didn't even take a seat for that dinner. Tennessee drew the smallest crowds in the NFL that season, selling an average of 28,028 tickets for its eight home games. (The next-lowest total was the Atlanta Falcons: 46,928.) The most popular sports brand in America got a collective "who gives a s*^t" from Memphis. If "Tennessee's team" wasn't ours playing at the Mid-South Fairgrounds, you think they're our team today? This is Cowboys country, Saints country. Hell, this is Falcons and Steelers country before Titans territory. The most famous player in Titans franchise history is Earl Campbell, and he never carried a football in the state of Tennessee.

Titan up!
An informal survey of Memphians among my Twitter community yielded a lot of support for the Titans ("they're not the Nashville Titans"), with skeptics interrupting (often with a mention of Adams, who died in 2013). There's something to be said for regional support of a pro franchise. Six states claim the New England Patriots as their own, and those are merely the geographically connected. (Wouldn't matter if they were the "Boston Patriots." Maine loves the Red Sox. Vermont adores the Bruins.) The fact is, the Titans are the closest NFL team to Memphis (and this would be the case were we on the west side of the Mississippi River and called Arkansas home). Someone can wake up in Midtown on a Sunday morning, be seated for a noon kickoff in Nissan Stadium, and be home in time for 60 Minutes. (Yes, this person would need radar protection, but it could be done.)

The Titans have never won the Super Bowl. They are one of eight franchises that have played since the dawn of the Super Bowl era (1966) without winning a championship. These are underdogs, and what's more Memphis than that? The team's logo features the three stars representing each region of the Volunteer State, and symbolism matters, especially in sports. Finally, we need a team to pull for on Super Sunday. The nachos taste better, the commercials are funnier, and the halftime show goes by quicker. I'll leave the final word to one of my Twitter pals, a man who understands the NFL landscape in 2020 better than most. Says Chuck Rogers (@ourpoppy), "Any team that beats the Patriots is worthy of my support."

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Thursday, January 2, 2020

Frank's Faves (Part II)

Posted By on Thu, Jan 2, 2020 at 10:21 AM

The five most memorable sporting events I attended in 2019.

5) Tigers 47, Tulane 17 (October 19) — Some stars are born, some are raised, and some actually explode into the limelight. Kenneth Gainwell — merely a redshirt freshman — imposed himself on a helpless Green Wave defense in this battle of AAC West rivals (both 5-1 entering the contest). Gainwell became the first FBS player in 22 years to rush for 100 yards (104) and catch passes for 200 (203) in the same game. (He’s the first Tiger to top 100 in both categories.) It was the fifth straight game for the aptly named Gainwell with 100 yards rushing. With a nod to Gainwell (and zero turnovers), Tiger coach Mike Norvell acknowledged his team’s offensive performance as being close to perfect for one night.
Brady White - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Brady White

4) Redbirds 14, Iowa 2 (August 18) — Just like J.D. Drew (in 1998) and Oscar Taveras (in 2013), Dylan Carlson arrived in Memphis as a can’t-miss slugger, bound soon for the St. Louis Cardinals’ outfield. I caught my first glimpse of the then 20-year-old prospect in a Sunday matinee at AutoZone Park. And he lived up to the hype, homering in the first inning and adding a triple in a blowout win over the first-place Iowa Cubs. Another prize outfielder in the Cardinal system — Harrison Bader — homered twice, suggesting a return to the groove that landed Bader the everyday centerfield job in St. Louis in 2018. The Redbirds completed a four-game sweep of the Cubs.

3) Tigers 102, Tulane 76 (February 20) — It’s hard to score 40 points (a point per minute) in a college basketball game. In almost a century of Tiger basketball entering the 2018-19 season, only seven players had achieved the feat, and none twice. Senior guard Jeremiah Martin pulled it off twice in the month of February. Less than three weeks after scoring 41 (in a single half) at USF, Martin dropped 43 on an overmatched Green Wave team at FedExForum. A player who averaged but 2.7 points as a freshman scored the most points by a Tiger since Larry Finch established the program record with 48 on January 20, 1973. (Martin’s 43 are the fourth-most in Tiger history.) Oh, and the pride of Mitchell High School also became just the 10th Tiger to dish out 400 career assists.

2) Tigers 54, SMU 48 (November 2) — ESPN’s College GameDay made Memphis the center of the college football universe for the first time, but that was merely a breakfast-and-beer party on Beale Street. The game that followed was, simply put, the biggest victory in Tiger football history. In front of a sellout crowd (59,506) at the Liberty Bowl and a prime-time national audience via ABC, the 24th-ranked Tigers upset the 15th-ranked SMU Mustangs to seize first place in the AAC’s West Division. Senior wideout Antonio Gibson scored touchdowns on a 50-yard pass reception, a 97-yard kickoff return (to open the second half), and a 78-yard run on his way to setting a new Memphis record with 386 all-purpose yards. This was as good as it’s ever been for Tiger football, and the entire country knew it.

1) AAC Championship: Tigers 29, Cincinnati 24 (December 7) — This was the third "biggest football game in Memphis history" in five weeks at the Liberty Bowl. And in what proved to be Mike Norvell's final game in an extraordinary four-year stretch as Memphis coach, the Tigers won in scintillating fashion. They fell behind four times. And they came back to take the lead four times, ultimately on a six-yard screen pass from Brady White to the game's MVP, Antonio Gibson. The 2019 Tigers were a team that wouldn't be denied. For their efforts, this lone victory checked off three "never before" boxes in the Tiger record book: 12 wins, a championship-game victory, and a berth in the prestigious Cotton Bowl.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Frank's Faves (Part I)

Posted By on Mon, Dec 23, 2019 at 8:00 AM

A countdown of the ten most memorable sporting events I attended in 2019.

10) Redbirds 4, Omaha 0 (August 24) — No team in the Pacific Coast League played better baseball over the last six weeks of the season than the Memphis Redbirds. In winning 30 of 39 games, a team that had been 21 games under .500 in mid-July climbed into playoff contention. On this Saturday night, 22-year-old lefty Genesis Cabrera showed the kind of stuff that fuel big-league aces. Over seven innings, Cabrera allowed but one hit and struck out 12 Storm Chasers. Most astounding, though: Cabrera struck out nine consecutive Omaha batters, tying a Pacific Coast League record. Edmundo Sosa hit a two-run homer in the first inning for all the runs Cabrera and the Redbirds would need.
James Wiseman - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • James Wiseman

9) Nashville SC 2, 901 FC 0 (July 17) — Any contest between Memphis and Nashville is worth some rooting interest. On this Wednesday night at AutoZone Park — smack in the middle of baseball season — soccer was the fuel for discord between these Tennessee “sister cites” (yeah, right). Brandon Allen found the back of the net in the game’s eighth minute to give 901 FC the lead . . . only to have the goal disallowed (due to an offside call). Jimmy Ockford scored for Nashville just before halftime and Daniel Rios shortly after the break to give the bad guys the win. Even Penny Hardaway — the pregame celebrity guitar-smasher — couldn’t save the Bluff City on this hot summer night.

8) Redbirds 5, El Paso 3 (August 3) — Baseball can distract us in the best way, and on the hardest of days. This game was played merely hours after a shooter open fired in an El Paso Wal-Mart, killing 22 people. (And less than a week after two people were killed at a Wal-Mart in Southaven.) I attended the game with my older daughter, her last night with us before returning to New England to complete her summer job and resume college life. So it was special, even with hearts heavy. Suiting up for Memphis behind the plate was Cardinal great Yadier Molina (on a rehab assignment). Molina got the Redbirds on the board with a squeeze bunt in the fourth inning and John Nogowski broke a 3-3 tie with a two-run homer in the eighth to give Memphis the win. Genesis Cabrera pitched seven innings and struck out nine, a sign of hope, perhaps, for the Cardinals’ pitching future.

7) Golden State 118, Grizzlies 103 (March 27) — When a Memphis Grizzly scores his 11,734th point someday, this game will have less meaning. Until then, I like having been in FedExForum when Mike Conley became the franchise’s alltime leading scorer. This also served as a farewell, of sorts, to the Warriors’ dynasty, with Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, and Draymond Green all in the starting lineup. Durant hit 12 of 13 from the field for 28 points and Curry drained six three-pointers on his way to 28 himself. As for Conley, the last player to wear number 11 for the Grizzlies scored 22 points and handed out eight assists. Hard to imagine he’ll find the love in Utah he’ll know forever here in Memphis.

6) Tigers 97, South Carolina State 64 (November 5) — Forget the 12-game suspension and all the controversy. This was opening night for the most anticipated class of basketball players — particularly one James Wiseman — in at least a decade for the U of M. And Wiseman played like a legend in the making: 28 points (11 of 14 from the field), 11 rebounds, and three blocks in 22 minutes . . . without any evidence of a unicorn horn. The public announcement three days later that Wiseman would be ineligible (the whole season?) stole some thunder from his stunning debut. It’s left to those of us who were there to recount a college superstar’s impact, however brief it turns out to be.

Check back next week for the top five.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Memphis Athlete of the Decade

Posted By on Mon, Dec 16, 2019 at 9:08 AM

There was a time, not long ago, when naming a Memphis “Athlete of the Decade” was a one-stop shop. Pick the best Memphis State basketball player, and you had your man. In the 1970s it was Larry Finch. The 1980s had Keith Lee. Penny Hardaway dominated the 1990s, first as a Tiger All-American then later as an NBA All-Star and Olympic gold medalist.

It’s not so easy anymore. The Memphis sports landscape has gained new “scenery” since the turn of the century — including our own NBA franchise, and not just an AAA baseball team, but a soccer team, too, calling AutoZone Park home. The Memphis “AOD” for the century’s first decade was indeed a Memphis Tiger, but he wore a football helmet and shoulder pads — DeAngelo Williams setting rushing (and scoring) records on the gridiron that may never be broken.
Marc Gasol - LARR KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larr Kuzniewski
  • Marc Gasol

In choosing this decade’s finest Memphis athlete, though, we find ourselves in a barstool debate involving four beloved stars who — together — made the Grizzlies indeed our NBA team. First, the runners-up:

• The Griz revolution began when Mike Conley was drafted by Memphis with the fourth pick in the 2007 NBA draft. Considered undersized by some at the time, Conley played a gigantic role in 12 years as a point guard with more heart than his frame would seem to contain. He helped the Grizzlies beat the mighty Golden State Warriors twice in the 2015 playoffs after breaking his face in the previous round. It’ll be a while before his franchise records for games (788) and points (11,733) are broken.

Zach Randolph arrived in 2009 with a checkered past, a reputation for causing as many problems off the court as he might solve on it. In eight seasons with the Grizzlies, “Z-Bo” became pure Memphis. A two-time All-Star, Randolph was the first Grizzly to earn All-NBA recognition (third-team in 2011).

• Was there “Grit-and-Grind” before Tony Allen? It may have existed in some metaphysical form, but Mr. “First-Team All-Defense” spelled it out for Memphis and the NBA community at large. He played seven seasons with the Grizzlies and it’s no coincidence the team reached the playoffs all seven.

Marc Gasol is the Memphis Athlete of the Decade. Acquired in a 2008 trade that sent his older brother, Pau, to the Los Angeles Lakers, Gasol transformed himself from a pudgy “little brother” stretching a uniform during his high school days at Lausanne to the 2013 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. (When Gasol jumped for the opening tip at the 2015 All-Star Game — he’s the only Grizzly to start in the event — he did so against Pau.) More than any of his “Fab Four” mates, Gasol embodied the city he represented for almost 11 full seasons, a player who found greatness more with effort and resolve than natural-born gifts.

In 2015, Gasol became the first Grizzly to earn first-team All-NBA honors and also graced the cover of Memphis magazine in December as Memphian of the Year. He described for writer Kevin Lipe a distinctive synergy he felt with the city: “If you give all you have, Memphis will take care of you. The fans will appreciate that. They don’t get blinded by the flashes and the drama and what not. They appreciate hard work, and dedication, and that’s what they want. They want you to be fighting. That’s what they like. So I respect that.”

A fractured right foot cost Gasol much of the 2015-16 regular season and the entire postseason, all but eliminating any chances the Grizzlies had of closing the gap on Golden State in the Western Conference. But he returned the following season, averaged a career-high 19.5 points and played in his third All-Star Game. And by that most workmanlike of basketball statistics — rebounds — Gasol is tops in Grizzlies history (5,942).

Ironically, the Memphis Athlete of the Decade finishes the 2010s in the uniform of the Toronto Raptors. The Grizzlies dealt the 34-year-old center north of the border last February in a move that signaled transition for one franchise while completing what would become a championship roster for another. Gasol’s greatest professional dream may have been realized in Canada, but the man remains forever Memphian, right down to his championship hardware. Engraved on the lavish ring he now owns as an NBA champion: “GRIT&GRIND.”

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Monday, October 21, 2019

National Baseball Day

Posted By on Mon, Oct 21, 2019 at 9:33 AM

Maybe a World Series in our nation's capital will make the difference. Maybe when the Washington Nationals host the Houston Astros in Game 3 of this year's Fall Classic — scheduled for this Friday night — enough power brokers will be in attendance to see what those familiar with this column have known for years: America needs National Baseball Day. Sure, the World Series steals a few headlines from football in late October. But it can do more for our country. As for fans turning their attention to the NBA before baseball's champion is crowned . . . they're a lost cause on this mission. For the believers out there, though, those who remember moments on the diamond when natural shadows were cast, read on.
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Here's how National Baseball Day would work. On the day Game 1 of the World Series is played — typically a Tuesday — Americans would get to stay home in honor of the sport that gave us Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and a craving for Cracker Jack. No one plays like we do in the United States. National Baseball Day would bridge the holiday gap between Labor Day and Thanksgiving while celebrating an act of recreation.

The game would start at 3 p.m. Eastern, allowing every child from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, to see every pitch, hit, stolen base, and replay review (ugh) if he or she so chooses. Families split across time zones could connect via smart phone and share in the exploits of the latest October hero. Extra bonding time for friends and families around a baseball game. Imagine that.

If you’re not a baseball fan, stop the eye roll. This holiday is for you, too. Take a hike (literally). Grab your rod and reel. See a movie you’ve been meaning to see, and with the right person. Have a picnic lunch. Enjoy a day of leisure, courtesy of the game of baseball.

Television will resist this movement, of course. Those at Fox or TBS or whoever happens to hold the rights to the Fall Classic will rope themselves to the mast of prime-time ad rates. Instead, they might consider another sporting event that does rather well as a stand-alone happening, begun before prime time, with most families together at home: the Super Bowl. Savvy ad execs will recognize their audience for National Baseball Day.

You wonder why kids aren't wearing Mookie Betts jerseys (outside Boston) or collecting Alex Bregman baseball cards (outside Houston)? It might have something to do with their recent World Series heroics happening after the kids were in bed. One of the most famous moments of the great Derek Jeter's career was a World Series home run he hit after midnight in New York City. Among baseball's eternal charms is its everyday quality, 162 games played by each team over six months. But its showcase — its primary sales tool for the next generation — must be the World Series.

National Baseball Day is the first answer to baseball's woes. You say a holiday requires an act of Congress? Then this is the year you can make a difference. Email your congressman and attach this column. Remind them that what they saw at Nationals Park would have been that much better if an entire country was watching (and those in attendance, squinting) together. Better yet, ask your kids (or grandkids) to write their congressman. It's more than a sport we're saving. It's a country.

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Monday, October 14, 2019

Beantown Blues Brothers

Posted By on Mon, Oct 14, 2019 at 10:11 AM

"There is no friend like an old friend, who has shared our morning days." — Oliver Wendell Holmes

On June 12, 2019, at TD Garden in Boston, the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup for the first time in the franchise's 52-year history. That day sits in an exclusive happy place of memories, behind the likes of my wedding day and the births of my two daughters, but very close to the first World Series the St. Louis Cardinals won in my lifetime (1982). A team that sat in last place among all 31 NHL teams in early January skated away with the greatest trophy in sports last June in Boston (the day after my silver wedding anniversary).
FRANK MURTAUGH
  • Frank Murtaugh

Last Saturday night — precisely four months after the Blues raised the Cup — I sat in TD Garden with four of my dearest friends, high school classmates collectively celebrating the year we each complete 50 laps around the sun. I did not wear my Blues gear. (I have a wife and children. This was Bruins country. It was preservation of life.) But the Blue Note on my heart swelled in that arena, particularly among some of the few people on the planet who knew of my devotion to the Blues in junior high.

Sports set the agenda — and provided the background music — for my three-day escapade in Beantown, a total of eight classmates (currently residents of five states and Guam) gathering to check receding hairlines, tolerance for cheap whiskey, and the ability to keep a straight face when someone shares a chapter from the glory days. We bowled a series, and then some, Thursday night under big screens featuring the latest New England Patriots conquest. (If there's an American sports figure who commands a city the way Penny Hardaway does Memphis, it's Tom Brady in Boston. You can't escape the number 12 jerseys, especially in a bowling alley on game night.) We played pool across the street from Fenway Park on Friday, alas the home of the 2018 World Series champs busy only with bulldozers this year, resodding underway after a disappointing season for the Bosox. Then Saturday, I managed to get the Memphis-Temple football game on one of the screens at the Bell in Hand Tavern (Boston's oldest bar) while we ate lunch, my buddies mystified at the notion of a Memphis football team anywhere near the Top 25.

We squeezed our way into Sullivan's Tap — Boston's "longest bar" and recent winner of "Best Bruin Bar" according to Boston magazine — a couple hours before face-off Saturday night. Watched my beloved Cardinals continue to be baffled by Washington pitchers in the NLCS. I begged my old friend from Guam to approach a patron in a Bruins jersey and ask if Boston won the Stanley Cup last season, but to no avail.

The Bruins looked great in shutting out the New Jersey Devils. I suppose it helped the collective mood for our postgame at Sullivan's, but I can't imagine even a blowout loss by the home team interfering with our laughter that night.

Early Sunday morning — very early — we caught an Uber back to our hotel near the USS Constitution at the Charlestown Navy Yard. Our proselytizing driver, Daniel, took the opportunity to share more than his direction through Boston streets. Waving his copy of the Bible in his right hand while gripping the steering wheel with his left — as gospel music seeped from the van's stereo — Daniel stressed, "This is my guide."

Perhaps the five of us in that van needed some direction in that moment, as we each stared hopefully toward a sixth decade of life. But I'm not sure we haven't had our own guides — each other — on the way to this special, somewhat sports-related weekend together. There was a time we competed together, as passionately as the Bruins and Devils did at TD Garden, only on a smaller playing field. Since those "morning days," we've become husbands and fathers, said goodbye to moms and dads, and somehow retained the ability to laugh together at the madness, as though we were 17 again. And again. It's as though we earned our biggest win together long after we stopped keeping score. Teammates in the purest form.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Baseball at Its (Almost) Best

Posted By on Mon, Sep 9, 2019 at 9:19 AM

If you've ever attended a Memphis Redbirds game at AutoZone Park, there's a book I urge you to read, and particularly if you saw a game on a Tuesday night in August, with maybe 400 other fans in the stadium. Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball is John Feinstein's account of a season (2012) in the lives of men who make a living playing (or managing, or umpiring) baseball . . . but barely.

With Frank Deford no longer with us, Feinstein may be the best sportswriter anywhere near a press box today. (Two other Feinstein books that set a standard beyond reach by most writers: A Season on the Brink and A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour.) His exploration of baseball in Triple A — one phone call shy of the major leagues — is an extraordinary account of how to manage disappointment, to live with a dream teasing you for years, if not decades.

2018 Triple-A National Champions - COURTESY MEMPHIS REDBIRDS
  • Courtesy Memphis Redbirds
  • 2018 Triple-A National Champions
This version of professional baseball will be on stage for a national TV audience next Tuesday (September 17th) when the Triple-A National Championship returns to AutoZone Park. It's an annual winner-take-all contest, now with a four-year connection to Memphis.

In 2016, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (top farm club for the New York Yankees) beat the El Paso Chihuahuas, 3-1, in front of 9,471 fans at AutoZone Park. (Yes, the "attendance" was tickets sold. But I was there. It was a good crowd for one with virtually no rooting interest.) Then, in both 2017 and 2018, the Memphis Redbirds (champions of the Pacific Coast League) played the Durham Bulls (International League champs) for the Triple-A title. The Redbirds lost two years ago in a game played at PNC Field (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's home park), then won last year at Huntington Park in Columbus, Ohio.

This year, the Round Rock Express (Houston Astros) and Sacramento River Cats (San Francisco Giants) are squaring off for the PCL championship, while Durham (Tampa Bay Rays) and the Columbus Clippers (Cleveland Indians) battle for International League honors. The winners will meet at AutoZone.

It's funny — well, actually heartbreaking — how talented Triple-A baseball players are and how little fanfare (or salary) they receive. Don't take it from me. Consider these words from David Bell in Feinstein's book. At the time, Bell was managing the Louisville Bats, Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. (Bell is now the Reds' manager.)

"The difference between most major leaguers and guys at this level isn't physical; it's mental or emotional. Every guy in our clubhouse has the physical ability to play at the major league level. But some don't have the confidence; some don't have the attitude or work ethic.

"Most of the year is about grinding. It's about being 0 for 4 and finding a way to get a hit in that fifth at-bat. It's about taking an extra base when you can to help the team or moving a runner or making a play on defense. ... You can be in the worst slump of your life and there's still a way to help the team. ... If you compete when it's hard to compete ... that's when you become a real baseball player."

No one wants to be in a Triple-A clubhouse. Players who have tasted the major leagues resent the return to "the bushes" as the minors were once called. Rising prospects, once they reach Triple-A and can taste big-league fame and fortune, are even more impatient. The irony to this, of course, for any of us who played baseball in Little League or high school (as I did): a Triple-A stadium is a glorious shrine. And the game at this level is superb. (Wondering about the difference between Triple-A baseball and Double-A? Watch a double-play turned. Middle infielders in Triple-A are ready for The Show when it comes to their glove work.) The sad truth: home runs and walk-off wins aren't shared all over social media when they happen in El Paso or Omaha, no matter the muscle or drama involved.

Redbirds president Craig Unger is among those who relish life "where nobody knows your name." And he's especially pleased to have next week's event back on his diamond. "It’s quite an honor to be the first repeat host of this game in its current format," says Unger. "This is a great sports town, and people in Memphis love their baseball. We’re excited to once again showcase our great city on national television, and we’re looking forward to crowning a national champion right here in Downtown Memphis.”

Whether or not the players' names are known next week at AutoZone Park, Memphis baseball fans will see the game played at its very highest level shy of a major-league stadium. And no one will feel that distance more than those in uniform. They deserve to be celebrated, even for just one night.

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Monday, August 19, 2019

Redbirds Rewind: Five Highlights from a Mostly Meh Season

Posted By on Mon, Aug 19, 2019 at 9:12 AM

Despite what we've seen in recent years with the Memphis Redbirds, not every baseball season ends with champagne showers. But every baseball season is, in fact, memorable. As the Redbirds close out their home schedule this week, here are five components of the 2019 season that will stand out in the history books.
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Long-ball Lane
 — During a brief April stint with the Cardinals, Lane Thomas became the seventh former Memphis player to homer in his first big-league at-bat. Then on July 27th, he became the eighth Redbird to hit three home runs in a game (in a Memphis win at Oklahoma City). Back in St. Louis on August 11th, Thomas drilled a seventh-inning grand slam to complete a Cardinal comeback against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The irony is that Thomas isn't projected to be a power hitter, but rather a multi-tool asset, be it as an everyday outfielder (as he was in Memphis) or off the bench (his current role with the Cardinals).

Raking Randy — Cardinal fans spent much of the summer clamoring for the promotion of Randy Arozarena, the Cuban outfielder who earned the franchise's Minor League Player of the Month award for both June and July. And for good reason. He hit .309 over 28 games with Double-A Springfield, then raked to the tune of .368 in 57 games for Memphis. (Arozarena's OPS with Memphis was 1.004. That's very good.) He hit for the cycle on July 26th in Oklahoma City, only the third Redbird to accomplish the feat. And on August 14th in Kansas City, he finally made his big-league debut. He picked up two hits in a Cardinal win.

Everyday Edman — You don't see Tommy Edman on top-prospect rankings. If you crossed his path in street clothes, you wouldn't pause, let alone gawk. Infielders under six feet tall don't steal a lot of camera time these days from slugging outfielders or flame-throwing hurlers. But the Cardinals needed a spark in early June and called upon Edman (a hero of the Redbirds' run to the Triple-A national championship last fall). For more than two months now, the switch-hitting Edman has been a regular in the Cardinal lineup, playing second base, third base, and even some outfield. He may not "profile" as a major-league weapon, but Edman has clearly impressed St. Louis manager Mike Shildt. There are times a team needs players who will not lose games with mistakes. Edman fits that role.

Jake and Junior — Jake Woodford started the Triple-A All-Star Game for the Pacific Coast League and should be in the mix for what will likely be two vacancies in the Cardinals' starting rotation next season. Junior Fernandez came out of the bullpen to post an ERA of 1.54 at Class A, 1.55 at Double-A, and 1.31 in 15 games for Memphis before receiving a third promotion to St. Louis. With Jordan Hicks recovering from elbow surgery and Carlos Martinez yearning to start again, Fernandez could be closing games for the Cardinals as early as next April.

Dylan's Debut — It's not if, but when. Still just 20 years old, Dylan Carlson is bound for the Cardinals' outfield. He's climbed various rankings this season to a consensus of number-two in the St. Louis system. Carlson slugged .518 and hit 21 homers for Double-A Springfield before making his Triple-A debut on August 15th at AutoZone Park. (He doubled and scored a run in a Memphis win.) At 6'2" and 205 pounds, he's the player who might stop you in your tracks even in street clothes. And he's a switch-hitter. Take a good look at Carlson while you can, Memphis. He won't be here long.

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Monday, August 12, 2019

August Angst: Sport's Cruelest Month

Posted By on Mon, Aug 12, 2019 at 10:25 AM

What if we woke up one morning and there were no sports? No scores to check. No standings to evaluate. No breakdown of an MVP race or worldwide ranking. This irrational fear creeps into my subconscious every August, a month without friends when it comes to sports.

When the PGA Championship moved to May this year, August lost its only signature sporting event, the lone story line that attracted attention across the country. The move leaves our calendar's eighth month in a sort of solitary confinement, locked in a room no one is particularly interested in exploring. We could not have May without the Kentucky Derby. "March" and "Madness" are now a brand name. Wimbledon makes July taste like strawberries and cream. And October baseball is now often the only baseball much of the country follows. The Daytona 500 in February, the Masters in April. You get the idea. But August?
DREAMSTIME
  • Dreamstime

There are two qualifiers to this month's dearth of headline sports. Soccer is being played, far and wide . . . because soccer is always being played far and wide. 901 FC has five games this month (though only last Saturday's match against North Carolina at AutoZone Park). And there's baseball. Every day, there's baseball. But the sport's "dog days" got so named for a reason. Once big-league clubs have played 100 games, we know the six or seven that might win the World Series. For the other teams — wild-card races be damned — the last two months of the season are a slog, and attractive only to the die-hards who know no better than to keep track of batting races, record pursuits, and such. Soccer and baseball results in August are to that room of solitary confinement as tally marks are to the prisoner who sits inside. They help the month move along, but that's all.

What could be done to improve August on the sports calendar? First of all, we must eliminate preseason NFL games. These are a multimillion-dollar scam on the American public, dressing up amateur football players in professional uniforms for five weeks of tryouts, each franchise selling these as two more "home games" on the schedule. They are fraudulent yet yield the same violent injuries we see in regular-season games, only to young men who won't be able to afford care and attention when they're released shortly after the calamity.

Instead of preseason "games," let's move the NFL's all-star showcase — the Pro Bowl — forward, to the last Sunday in August. And there will be no injuries, for this exhibition game — "tackles" having long been merely suggested — will transition to flag-football. Let the stars of the previous season play a game for fans — and themselves — that is entirely about fun and joy, with the extraordinary athleticism of Patrick Mahomes, J.J. Watt, and Julio Jones still on display, just minus the helmet and shoulder pads. This would be an extraordinary kickoff to the football season, and the kind of attention-grabber August desperately needs.

For the time being, I find myself staring at August 31st, circled on my office wall calendar. The Memphis Tigers will take the field that day to open the 2019 college football season against Ole Miss. Sneaky, this 2019 version of August, allowing its tail to wrap itself around the biggest game we'll see this fall (er, summer) at the Liberty Bowl. Soon enough, September (the U.S. Open tennis tournament!) will be here. Until then, enjoy those soccer results and baseball scores. No tally marks required.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Clipped Wings?

Posted By on Mon, Aug 5, 2019 at 10:43 AM

The St. Louis Cardinals essentially stood pat at baseball's trade deadline. This means what you saw in July in St. Louis — and to some degree, in Memphis — is what you'll see in October should the Cards be able to catch the Chicago Cubs, win the National League Central Division, and end a three-year postseason drought. When the Cardinal brass chose not to make a significant deal on July 31st, they did so from a first-place perch in the NL Central. Trouble is, St. Louis has been bunched with the Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers (and at times, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds) all season in what can best be described as baseball's Mecca of mediocrity. So how will the season's final two months play out?
Yadier Molina - COURTESY MEMPHIS REDBIRDS
  • Courtesy Memphis Redbirds
  • Yadier Molina

Last week at AutoZone Park, Memphis fans were able to cheer fully half of last season's Cardinal everyday lineup: third-baseman Matt Carpenter, outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Harrison Bader, and veritable catching legend, Yadier Molina. Due either to injury rehab (Ozuna and Molina), hitting struggles (Bader), or both (Carpenter), players required for any hopes of a championship in St. Louis were battling the Albuquerque Isotopes and El Paso Chihuahuas. A Memphis team well out of the hunt for a playoff berth suddenly found itself with unprecedented big-league star power. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Triple-A club won 12 of 16 games through Sunday, its longest sustained winning stretch of the season.

Will the Cardinals find a roster capable of competing with the Cubs or, deep breaths, the Los Angeles Dodgers in a playoff series? As with every baseball team that's ever won a championship, it boils down to pitching. As of now, St. Louis has an inadequate starting rotation. Michael Wacha was among the primary names discussed as trade bait before the deadline came and went. Adam Wainwright has been 2009 Waino at Busch Stadium and very much 2019 Waino when he pitches on the road. Rookie Dakota Hudson leads the club with 10 wins, but has been uneven at best. Jack Flaherty has pitched like an ace of late, but it took him 13 starts before earning his most recent win (over the Cubs last week).

Who can Memphis send north to help from the mound? Lefty Genesis Cabrera looked strong last Saturday, striking out nine in seven innings against El Paso. Is the 22-year-old ready to eat innings in the cauldron of a September pennant chase? That's hard to envision. Jake Woodford started the Triple-A All-Star Game last month but allowed a combined 14 earned runs in his last two starts. The sad truth for St. Louis is that the club's best starting pitcher may be the man now closing games for the team (Carlos Martinez).

Carpenter returned to the Cardinals Sunday and re-assumed his spot as the club's leadoff hitter and third-baseman. (This led to Cardinal manager Mike Shildt starting former Redbird Tommy Edman — a career infielder — in rightfield.) Ozuna is also back, hoping the bat that delivered 20 home runs over the season's first three months will resume thumping as Labor Day approaches. And Molina will soon take over behind the plate for the Cardinals, forcing Shildt to get creative in finding at-bats for Matt Wieters, the veteran backup who helped St. Louis climb into first place in Molina's absence.

The Redbirds have one, lengthy (11 games) home stand remaining on their schedule. AutoZone Park will not host playoff baseball this season. What remains to be seen is whether or not the Cards' top farm club might provide a difference-maker for the parent club. Those two minor-league player-of-the-month awards for outfielder Randy Arozarena — to date not on the Cardinals' 40-man roster — can take up only so much space on a wall. He wants to play in the major leagues. With a .381 batting average through 47 games with Memphis, perhaps it's time he should.

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Monday, July 29, 2019

Brooks Koepka: Memphian

Posted By on Mon, Jul 29, 2019 at 10:58 AM

There's an odd sensation to being a Memphis sports fan while away from Memphis. I spent last week on the North Carolina coast, a gathering of family scheduled before the dates of the first World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational were made public. Which means I had to follow, from afar, the greatest gathering of golfers the Bluff City has ever seen.
Brooks Koepka takes the trophy in Memphis. - CBS SPORTS
  • CBS Sports
  • Brooks Koepka takes the trophy in Memphis.
And what an extraordinary event it turned out to be. In pulling away from the world's third-ranked player (Rory McIlroy), Brooks Koepka — the world's top-ranked player, and rising — won his first WGC event, took home $1.7 million, and made a new fan for every dollar earned, it seemed, by all the glowing things he had to say about Memphis, the Southwind course, and especially, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. The greatest golfer in the world relished winning in Memphis.

Emphasis on that last sentence, as the lead-up to this first WGC in Memphis seemed to be dominated by one of the three top-50 players who chose not to make the trip. As one top-10 player after another — Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm — booked a flight to Memphis, social media throbbed with the question, "Will Tiger be here?"

After missing the cut at the British Open — and with health concerns, again — Tiger Woods chose to skip Memphis, again. The finest golfer of the century has yet to play a competitive hole at TPC Southwind, and you know what? It's Tiger's loss. I got called for BS when I suggested at the commitment deadline that Woods needs the Memphis tournament more than we need him, but I was precisely right. Tournament director Darrell Smith and his staff have put on a world-class event for years, and in support of the fight against childhood cancer. For crying out loud, anyone who chooses not to be part of such a weekend is missing more than a paycheck.

Let's pause a moment to relish the international impact of last weekend's tournament. At the end of the first found last Thursday, seven countries were represented among the top 12 players. Koepka and McIlroy were not among them. And it kept getting better. At the end of play Friday, five players were within three shots of the leader, England's Matthew Fitzpatrick, but Koepka still wasn't among them. With a 64 in Saturday's third round, Koepka climbed into second place, behind McIlroy who shot an 8-under-par 62. So two of the world's top three players walked Southwind's 18 holes Sunday, the planet's golf axis tilting here in Memphis. You had to wonder if Woods was watching, wherever he happened to be nursing what ails him.

I got home in time to see the final few holes on TV, to see St. Jude patients greeting the leaders as they finished a tournament the players will remember as much as us fans (even those of us getting updates during a cross-state drive home). There are days that feel like sunshine at the beach, no matter how land-locked we might be at the time. I left the Atlantic coast Saturday, only to find the sunniest moment of my vacation right here in our back yard.

• It's been a slog of a season for the Memphis Redbirds, but two outfielders made some history last week. On Friday night in Oklahoma City, Randy Arozarena became only the third Redbird to hit for the cycle in a Memphis win over the Dodgers. All three cycles have come away from AutoZone Park, Mark Little accomplishing the feat at Colorado Springs in 2000 and Luke Voit pulling it off last year at Iowa. Then on Saturday night, Lane Thomas became only the eighth Redbird to hit three home runs in a game. It's an achievement he can discuss in detail with teammate Adolis Garcia, who knocked three baseballs over the wall last year in a game at Salt Lake.

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Monday, July 15, 2019

The NBA's Supermen

Posted By on Mon, Jul 15, 2019 at 10:24 AM

Quentin Tarantino likes Superman. A lot. There's a scene in his 2004 film, Kill Bill, Vol. 2, in which Bill (played by David Carradine) explains to Beatrix (Uma Thurman) the singular trait that makes Superman superior to all other costumed heroes. As Bill tells it, Batman wakes up every morning as Bruce Wayne. Spider-Man eats his breakfast as Peter Parker. Only Superman starts his day as the hero he truly is, forced to "costume" himself as a mere mortal, one of us all-too-frail humans, Clark Kent.
Kawhi Leonard in his new Superman outfit.
  • Kawhi Leonard in his new Superman outfit.

It occurred to me earlier this month that Tarantino must love the NBA. That's because the greatest basketball league on the planet has become a collection of supermen, players who shape the costumes, er, uniforms they wear far more than the teams — represented by those uniforms — shape them. Kawhi Leonard may have won the 2019 NBA championship without the Toronto Raptors (and their jersey on his back). There is no way the Raptors win the 2019 NBA championship without Leonard. Kawhi Leonard, in NBA terms, is a superman. And NBA championships are the reserve, almost exclusively, of basketball supermen.

Think about the NFL and its resident dynasty. Aside from Tom Brady (granted, a Thor in shoulder pads), those who don the helmet of the New England Patriots are interchangeable, yet the franchise has won three Super Bowls this decade after winning three the previous. They are Batman, and it doesn't matter who's wearing the utility belt. And baseball? Name three players who played for all three San Francisco Giant championship teams this decade. (Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey are gimmes.) That franchise was a slick-fielding, pitching-strong Spider-Man. Check out Into the Spider-Verse if you think it matters who is wearing the web-shooters.

There was a time when NBA players became stars by making their team — one team, mind you — a dynasty. Think Bill Russell with the Boston Celtics, Magic Johnson with the Los Angeles Lakers, or Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls (twice). Those days predate flip phones, for crying out loud. In today's NBA, the superstars — supermen – decide where (and for whom) they'd like to win a championship. LeBron James couldn't get it done in Cleveland, so he took off for Miami (two titles). Kevin Durant won an MVP in Oklahoma City that he sweetly dedicated to his mother. But Mom couldn't help win a championship, so off to Oakland flew Durant, where he won two titles with Steph Curry and the Warriors. Cast off by San Antonio, despite credentials as a Finals MVP, Leonard won the same hardware in what would prove to be his only season in a Raptors uniform. You see, Kawhi Leonard wakes up as Kawhi Leonard ... every day.

At the end of each season, 15 players earn All-NBA recognition (five first-team, five second-team, and five third-team). No fewer than six of those players in 2019 changed teams earlier this month. Leonard is now an L.A. Clipper, along with former Thunder forward Paul George. Durant has taken his torn Achilles tendon to Brooklyn, where he'll join Kyrie Irving, making the Nets early (very early) favorites to win the Eastern Conference title in 2021. Kemba Walker departed Charlotte to replace Irving in Boston. And talk about Superman: Russell Westbrook — a man who has averaged a triple-double for three straight seasons — has joined forces with 2018 MVP James Harden in Houston. We might as well add new Laker Anthony Davis — not All-NBA this year, but three times a first-teamer — to this collection of supermen changing the color of their capes.

Is this Superman effect good for the NBA? That's in the eye of the beholder. An informal poll of my Twitter pals suggested a Grizzlies championship with a one-and-gone superstar (like Leonard in Toronto) is significantly preferable to a team of merely very good teammates leading a lengthy run of playoff appearances without a title. Basketball has become a player's league to the point that the jerseys they wear are merely incidental. Don't be offended if you see Clipper jerseys in FedExForum when L.A.'s "other team" visits next winter. No, those are Kawhi Leonard jerseys

Perhaps Ja Morant will become an NBA superman. Maybe Jaren Jackson Jr. can leap a building in a single bound. When or if they bring a championship to Memphis, the color of their jersey will matter to those of us who call the Grizzlies our team. They alone know what it's like to wake up every day as Ja Morant and Triple-J. Until they bring that parade to Beale Street, though, consider them Clark Kents, blending — however uncomfortably — among the rest of professional basketball's mortal talents.

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Monday, July 8, 2019

The Memphis Redbirds: Shooting Stars

Posted By on Mon, Jul 8, 2019 at 9:02 AM

Jake Woodford is rising. The 22-year-old Memphis Redbirds pitcher will pull off a rare trifecta when he takes the mound for the Pacific Coast League in Wednesday's Triple-A All-Star Game in El Paso. It will be Woodford's third All-Star Game in four seasons, across all three primary levels of minor-league baseball. Woodford first earned All-Star recognition with the Class-A Peoria Chiefs (Midwest League) in 2016. He represented Double-A Springfield in last year's Texas League All-Star Game.
Jake Woodford - COURTESY MEMPHIS REDBIRDS
  • Courtesy Memphis Redbirds
  • Jake Woodford

Woodford is the second Memphis pitcher in as many years to start for the PCL in the Triple-A extravaganza, following Dakota Hudson (who went on to be named the 2018 PCL Pitcher of the Year). Considering Hudson can now be found in the St. Louis Cardinals' starting rotation, it's not a leap of imagination to see Woodford soon starting a game or two at Busch Stadium.

• The Redbirds have had no fewer than six pitchers start the Triple-A All-Star Game, but the honor seems to bring mixed blessings. Dan Haren started the 2004 game and went on to a fine big-league career, earning 153 wins for eight teams over 13 seasons. As for Larry Luebbers (1999), Bud Smith (2001), and Chris Gissell (2005) . . . not so much. Smith tossed a no-hitter for the Cardinals a few short weeks after his Triple-A All-Star appearance, but threw his last major-league pitch in 2002, still shy of his 23rd birthday.

• If the minor leagues are about developing big-league stars, the Memphis Redbirds have met the mission, and then some. With Cardinal shortstop Paul DeJong — a Redbird for 48 games in 2017 — playing in this year's All-Star Game, a former Memphis player has appeared in every Midsummer Classic since 2003. The most All-Star appearances by a former Redbird? Albert Pujols has been honored ten times and Yadier Molina nine. J.D. Drew — a Redbird in 1998 and ’99 — earned MVP honors at the 2008 event (as a member of the Boston Red Sox).

• I'm asked periodically about my "all-time Redbirds team." Now with more than two decades in the books, such an all-star team actually carries some weight. Here's my starting nine (based solely on players' performances with Memphis):

FIRST BASE: John Gall (2003-06)
SECOND BASE: Stubby Clapp (1999-2002)
THIRD BASE: Patrick Wisdom (2016-18)
SHORTSTOP: Wilfredo Tovar (2017-18)
LEFTFIELD: Allen Craig (2009-10)
CENTERFIELD: Adron Chambers (2010-13)
RIGHTFIELD: Nick Stavinoha (2007-11)
CATCHER: Bryan Anderson (2008-12)
PITCHER: P.J. Walters (2008-11)

• Some All-Star aid appears on the way for both the struggling Redbirds and Cardinals. Outfielder Dylan Carlson represented Double-A Springfield last month in the Texas League All-Star Game. And Carlson was one of two St. Louis prospects to play in last weekend's All-Star Futures Game in Cleveland. The other was third-baseman Nolan Gorman, barely 19 years old and already a top-50 minor-league prospect. Currently slugging for Class-A Palm Beach, Gorman is unlikely to make his Memphis debut this season, but could well be measuring the distance of the outfield wall at AutoZone Park this time next season.

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Monday, June 24, 2019

Forza Calcio!

Posted By on Mon, Jun 24, 2019 at 9:22 AM

I was in a European soccer riot when I was eight years old.

Okay, this warrants an explanation. My family spent a memorable academic year (1976-77) in Torino, Italy, as my dad pursued his Ph.D. in economics. (He was studying people and policies in the country under Cavour, Italy's first prime minister.) I was in 2nd grade at the time and fell in love with the city's renowned soccer club, Juventus. I Bianconeri ("the Black and Whites") were to Italian calcio what the New York Yankees are to American baseball. No Italian club has won more Serie A championships (35), and no Italian club sports as distinctive colors as the vertical stripes — yes, black and white — on Juve's home kits. Before I came to cheer the likes of Lou Brock and Ted Simmons of the St. Louis Cardinals, I had posters of Roberto Bettega and Dino Zoff on my bedroom wall.
img_1145.jpg

In the spring of ’77, Juventus beat Spain's Athletic Bilbao to win the UEFA Cup for the first time. Now known as the UEFA Europa League, this is a competition between qualifying clubs across Europe. It's not the Champions League and nowhere near the World Cup, but four decades ago, let me tell you, it was a big deal, a title that made Bettega, Zoff, and friends kings of the pitch in Europe.

When Juventus clinched the championship in Spain, the streets of Torino — well before nightfall — went wild in celebration, chants of Forza Juve! filling the increasingly smoky air. The air was smoky, as my blurred memory recalls, because of small fires, not all of them celebratory. Torino, you see, has not one, but two major soccer franchises. If Juventus is the Yankees to northwest Italy, Torino F.C. is the Mets. And fans of Torino that May evening back in 1977 were not thrilled about the UEFA Cup coming to town. Not only were trash cans set aflame, there were Juventus flags burning on the sidewalk, some ripped from the hands of Juve fans riding along in trolley cars. It was scary for a boy of my age. And it was exciting. These were "Met" fans attacking a "Yankee" parade . . . but fueled purely by Italian blood. The culture's reputation for passion — passione — is well-earned.

Images of that street riot have danced in my head of late for two reasons. The first: My 16-year-old daughter is in Europe this week, competing and touring with her own soccer club (Memphis FC). She'll be exploring Brussels for much of the trip, but crossing into France for a couple of World Cup games, a live look at the greatest female soccer players on the planet. There won't be any rioting (fingers crossed), and I doubt she'll witness a rivalry along the lines of Juventus-Torino. But Elena will be immersed in a form of international sports culture only soccer — calcio! — can deliver.
The Bluff City Mafia - COURTESY MEMPHIS 901 FC
  • Courtesy Memphis 901 FC
  • The Bluff City Mafia

My Juventus memories are also triggered by this town's very own soccer club, 901 FC. Memphis is struggling in its first season in the USL Championship, having won but two of 14 matches (with five draws). But don't tell the Bluff City Mafia, the band of fans who arrive at AutoZone Park on game night with multi-colored (and quite safe) smoke bombs and enough drums to wake Kong himself. Soccer culture has arrived in the Bluff City and it's a culture that connects us globally in ways that the NBA hopes to someday. (When there's a riot between a city's rival basketball clubs in, say, Munich, let me know.) A few home wins will help 901 FC among casual fans. But the club's mere existence has transformed Memphis sports culture, and for that I'm grateful.

My daughter is likely playing soccer in Europe as you read this column. And I still have Roberto Bettega on my wall at home. It is indeed a soccer world we call home. Glad we Memphians now have a permanent address.

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