Monday, April 16, 2018

Memphis Redbirds Still Soaring

Posted By on Mon, Apr 16, 2018 at 9:20 AM

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The beginning of every baseball season brings new first impressions at AutoZone Park.

Most apparent: The Memphis Redbirds again have a talented team. Even with centerfielder Harrison Bader (promoted by the St. Louis Cardinals) and first-baseman Luke Voit (oblique injury) out of the lineup, the Redbirds have won nine of their first 11 games, the best start in franchise history. (Last year’s club was merely 6-5 after 11 games.)

Three more takeaways from the season’s first home stand:

• It took 17 years — since the franchise’s first Pacific Coast League title — but AutoZone Park finally has a permanent display saluting the championship teams that have played in the ballpark.

Prominently displayed below the press box are the years 2000, 2009, and 2017, forever binding the franchise’s past success to its current progress.

Even better, all the Cardinals’ retired numbers — from Dean to Gibson, from Musial to Brock — are also there for the gazing, along with two distinct tributes to Memphis baseball. Stubby Clapp’s number 10 — originally retired in 2007, only to be taken down a few years later when the Cardinals retired the same number for Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa — is there (next to a second 10 for LaRussa).

You’ll also see a microphone honoring player-turned-broadcaster (and native Memphian) Charlie Lea, right next to the same image saluting the great Jack Buck. These are merely cosmetic improvements, sure. But it feels like the stadium’s spirit is finally complete.

• The Redbirds won a total of 97 games last season and hoisted a championship pennant despite suiting up a total of 62 players over the course of the season. Those 62 players answered to one manager, so it stands to reason Stubby Clapp had a unifying influence.

During last Wednesday’s matinee against Omaha, fans paying close attention got a glimpse at what makes Clapp’s relationships with his players productive.

Memphis had taken an early 3-0 lead, but the Storm Chasers plated two runs and had a runner on second base with two outs in the top of the fifth inning, with Redbird starter Dakota Hudson approaching 100 pitches for the game.

Clapp strolled to the mound, typically an indication that a relief pitcher is on the way. Surrounded by the Redbirds’ infielders and catcher, Clapp looked up at his 6-foot, 5-inch hurler, had a brief conversation, then turned around and walked back to the dugout. Hudson retired the next batter and the Redbirds’ bullpen shut down Omaha the rest of the way for the win.

By leaving Hudson in the game — with the lead in jeopardy — Clapp gave his pitcher a chance to earn a victory (five innings being required for a starter to get the W). The gain (his young pitcher’s trust) was worth more than the risk (a loss in early April).

There will come a time — many, actually — when Clapp will indeed have to remove a starting pitcher with a game in the balance. But when he shows an understanding for what’s at stake for the player, that player better understands the team’s collective priority.

• Gimmickry with baseball uniforms — right up to the major leagues — is getting out of hand. (Camouflage fits a baseball diamond like batting gloves do a battlefield.) But I kinda like the Redbirds’ “throwback Thursdays” promotion.

The team will wear Memphis Chicks uniforms for Thursday home games, a nod to the brand that represented Memphis professional baseball for much of the 20th century. (The Chicks last played here in 1997, the year before the Redbirds franchise arrived from Louisville.)

But there’s a big-picture oddity to the approach, one clearly aimed at older fans with memories of Bo Jackson and Tim Raines, if not Luis Aparicio. Those older fans can no longer listen to the Redbirds on the radio, at least not as they typically have while tinkering in the garage, driving in their car, or grilling in the back yard.

Broadcasts are now entirely digital. You can listen to Steve Selby’s call on your computer (memphisredbirds.com) or via the TuneIn app on your smartphone. This may be the way of the new century.

For all their recent success on the field, though, the Redbirds continue to battle for relevance in a city that cheers loudest for a basketball coach on Opening Night. (Penny Hardaway threw out the ceremonial first pitch last Tuesday.) Making it harder to access the team — particularly for the “grizzled vets” among their market — appears to be a risk the Redbirds are willing to take in 2018.

• The best story of the young season — and there’s not a close second — is Daniel
Daniel Poncedeleon
  • Daniel Poncedeleon
 Poncedeleon.

The 26-year-old righty tossed five shutout innings in his first start of the season at Round Rock, then struck out 12 Iowa Cubs in just five innings last Saturday in a Redbirds win at AutoZone Park.

All this less than a year after Poncedeleon lost his 2017 season — and quite nearly his life — after a line drive fractured his skull in a game at Iowa last May.

The California native would be a great sports story had he merely been able to take the mound again. But to make the impact he’s already made for a team with high aspirations after such a traumatic injury makes Poncedeleon a great human story. Easiest man in baseball to cheer this season.

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Monday, April 9, 2018

2018 Redbirds Preview: Encore Season?

Posted By on Mon, Apr 9, 2018 at 10:13 AM

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A star player, long retired, returns to lead a new generation, applying a touch that results in a historic season and ultimately a championship.

If Penny Hardaway’s first season as University of Memphis basketball coach goes anything like Stubby Clapp’s return to Memphis last year as manager of the Redbirds, the Bluff City may actually implode. In his first season in the skipper’s office, Clapp led the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate to the most wins (91) any Memphis baseball team had posted since 1948. The Redbirds reeled off a franchise-record 11-game winning streak early in the 2017 campaign and posted a statistically impossible record of 13-0 in extra-inning games. Your turn, Penny!

A few storylines as the Redbirds’ 21st season in Memphis gets underway:

Forget about an encore.
The Redbirds won their first four games of the season in Round Rock, and scored 40 runs in doing so. But look at those silly numbers above. The 2017 Redbirds won or split 27 consecutive series, for crying out loud. It’s not happening again. But here’s the good news: The Redbirds could shave 10 wins — and merely split their extra-inning results — and still win their division of the Pacific Coast League. Furthermore, no Redbird team has successfully defended a championship, so there’s much to gain with another pennant chase.
Stubby Clapp hopes his 'Birds get off to another flying start.
  • Stubby Clapp hopes his 'Birds get off to another flying start.

The boys are back. 
Carson Kelly (catcher), Patrick Wisdom (third base), Luke Voit (first base), Harrison Bader (centerfield), and Wilfredo Tovar (shortstop) played significant roles in last year’s championship, and they’re all back. Outfielder Tyler O’Neill hit a combined 31 home runs last season between Tacoma and Memphis. Judging by his button-popping physique and four home runs in the team’s first four games, he’ll hit another 31 this year.

With the Cardinals keeping only four reserve position players on their roster, there will be an express shuttle between AutoZone Park and Busch Stadium. (Bader has already flown north to fill in for the injured Jedd Gyorko, currently on the 10-day disabled list.) But that shuttle will also deliver big-league-ready players to Memphis. When I asked Clapp last week about new faces that caught his eye during spring training, he paused and said, “We only have three.” (Max Schrock was acquired in the trade that sent Stephen Piscotty to Oakland and he’ll take over at second base.) A “veteran” Triple-A team means a team of players hungry for the next promotion. Under the right leadership — Clapp was named Minor League Manager of the Year by Baseball America last year — the 2018 Redbirds will aim to capitalize on the culture of winning established in 2017.

A pair of aces.
Two young flame-throwers — Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson — should front the Redbirds’ pitching rotation. Flaherty went 7-2 with Memphis last season and posted a 2.74 ERA. Filling in on for the injured Adam Wainwright, Flaherty struck out nine Milwaukee Brewers in five innings for St. Louis last week then fanned 11 in Round Rock Sunday in his first start for Memphis. Hudson went 9-4 with a 2.53 ERA at Double-A Springfield last year before a July promotion to Memphis. (He won a pair of playoff games for the Redbirds.) As of now, 21-year-old Jordan Hicks and his 101-mph fastball are in the Cardinals’ bullpen. But when the Cards’ newly signed closer, Greg Holland, is ready for game action, Hicks may join Flaherty and Hudson in the Memphis rotation. The Houston native had not pitched above Class A before making the St. Louis roster last month.

The USL is coming!
We learned a hard truth last season at AutoZone Park: A popular manager and exceptional team don’t necessarily sell tickets. The Redbirds finished 13th in the 16-team PCL in attendance, averaging 5,073 tickets sold for their 69 home dates. The upcoming season may well be the team’s last in a baseball-only stadium, as the Bluff City’s new United Soccer League franchise will open play — coinciding with baseball season — in 2019. Championships have proven easier to attain at AutoZone Park than profitability, so significant adjustments — including what we see in the stadium — continue. But in a facility built for baseball, Memphis has a baseball team built to win. Should make for a good match in the months ahead.

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Monday, March 26, 2018

St. Louis Cardinals 2018 Season Preview

Posted By on Mon, Mar 26, 2018 at 9:19 AM

The 2018 St. Louis Cardinals open their season Thursday with a matinee in New York against the Mets. (Quick side note: When I’m finally running things, no baseball game will be played until the Final Four is behind us.) Rarely is a new “era” officially recognized, but you get the feeling this storied franchise is turning a corner of sorts. Consider this oddity: The Cardinals have made the playoffs 12 times since the turn of the century, yet their next October hero may well be a postseason rookie. St. Louis is in danger of missing the playoffs a third straight season for the first time since Bill Clinton was president (1997-99). Marcell Ozuna, Paul DeJong, Luke Weaver, and Alex Reyes have never suited up for a meaningful October baseball game. If the Cardinals are to again contend for a National League pennant, all four of these players will need to make positive headlines.
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Three questions to ponder as the Cardinals’ 127th season takes flight:

• Can Marcell Ozuna be The Guy in the Cardinals’ batting order?
It’s been seven full seasons since a Cardinal bashed 30 homers and drove in 100 runs (Albert Pujols in 2010). That’s a long time — with two World Series appearances it should be noted — for a franchise to go without a muscle man in the middle of the lineup. Ozuna may have been the consolation prize in the Cardinals’ pursuit of free agent Giancarlo Stanton, but the 27-year-old leftfielder is a premium Plan B. He won both a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger with Miami last season, hitting 37 home runs with 124 RBIs. Ozuna has hit three home runs in 19 spring-training games and posted a slugging percentage of .642. The two-time All-Star will sell a lot of jerseys in St. Louis if he can match his 2017 numbers (and perhaps reduce his 144 strikeouts). Ozuna is two seasons from free agency, so motivation won’t be an issue whether or not he takes an immediate liking to the Gateway City. The Cardinals of recent vintage have been built around the Oscar-equivalent of supporting actors. This guy is a leading man.

• Is the Cardinals’ rotation a matter of “if” or “when”?
If Adam Wainwright can come off the disabled list (hamstring) and shave a few years off his curveball, he may be among the best number-two starters in the National League. If Carlos Martinez makes the natural progression a 26-year-old ace should, he’ll contend for the Cy Young Award. If Michael Wacha finds a slice of the magic that made him a postseason phenom as a rookie in 2013, he’ll give the Cardinals a trio better than most in franchise history. If Alex Reyes returns from Tommy John surgery and displays the arsenal that made him baseball’s top pitching prospect in 2016, he will either solidify the rotation or make a fearsome closer for the time being.

If Luke Weaver shows the promise he did after his promotion from Memphis last year (7-2 over 10 starts), the Cardinals will have a talented and affordable arm to replace the departed (and generally durable) Lance Lynn. If Miles Mikolas approximates the 2.18 ERA he posted over two seasons with the Giants — the Yomiuri Giants — he might steal a headline from another import from Japan you may have heard of. (Mikolas is not expected to play the role of slugger when he’s not pitching, as is the case with the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani.) Now, replace all of those “ifs” with “when” and Cardinal fans can purchase their 2018 playoff tickets today.

• Where is the edge in the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry?
I’m not one to advocate bench-clearing brawls, but here I’m going to promote one before the 2018 season even begins. St. Louis has been looking up to the Chicago Cubs for going on three seasons now, ever since the North Siders plucked the Cards’ feathers in the 2015 playoffs (the Cardinals’ last postseason appearance). The Cardinals went 5-14 against the Cubs last season after losing “only” 10 of 19 in 2016. While St. Louis added Mikolas to the roster last winter, the Cubs landed perhaps the best pitcher on the market in Yu Darvish. (Darvish will fill the slot vacated by former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, now a Philadelphia Phillie.) The Cubs are the superior franchise now, and every player on their roster knows it.

Among the qualities the Cardinals lost when Tony LaRussa retired after the 2011 World Series is an emotional edge. Mike Matheny, to his credit, is made of emotional granite. (And physical toughness. As a Brewer, the man once took a fastball to the jaw and didn’t fall down.) But Matheny’s club has played the National League nice guys for going on seven years now. “The Cardinal Way” is one thing when the team is playing in late October, and quite another when staring up at the Cubs in the standings.

The Cards and Cubs will face either for the first time this season in a series at Wrigley Field, April 16-18. But you might circle late July on your calendar, when the clubs collide for seven games in 11 days (July 19-29). By then we’ll have a sense of whether or not the Cardinals are a threat to the Cubs’ rule over the NL Central. And a seven-game crunch over such a short period breeds contempt even in teams that don’t have a history of discord like these two. Here’s hoping no baseball meets a batter’s jaw. But an overflow of tension on a sultry summer night in Chicago or St. Louis? One of these two franchises could use such a jolt.





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Monday, February 26, 2018

Hey NCAA, Vacate This!

Posted By on Mon, Feb 26, 2018 at 9:39 AM

History can be revised, to some degree, by intelligent and thorough historians. But history cannot be erased, no matter how much the NCAA believes it can. Last week, the national governing body for American college sports decided Louisville must vacate its national basketball championship — won right before our eyes in 2013 — as part of its punishment for a slew of violations under former coach Rick Pitino. The history books, according to the NCAA, will now read “vacated” between Kentucky’s title in 2012 and Connecticut’s in 2014.
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This is absurd, of course. No more or less absurd than USC’s vacated football championship in 2004, but just as absurd. Games played on a field (or court) can be erased only when that device made famous in the Men In Black movies is actually invented for the elimination of memories on a mass human scale. If you find it hard to forget Louisville’s Kevin Ware shattering his lower leg during that 2013 NCAA tournament, imagine the NCAA now trying to tell us it didn’t happen, that the Cardinals’ tournament run that season is now . . . vacated.

This kind of penalty is salt to the wound for followers of the Memphis basketball program, whose 2008 Final Four banner is currently in an undisclosed closet. The Tigers were forced to take that banner down when the Derrick Rose test-taking scandal came to light (in 2009), though the 1985 Final Four banner — for a run also vacated by the NCAA — hangs proudly from the rafters at FedExForum.

Cheaters must be punished and yes, there is cheating in college sports. But the sad and unfair truth is that athletes must often pay for misdeeds that occurred before they arrived on campus. Erasing history just can’t be done. Would the NCAA return any proceeds from games Louisville played five years ago? Would it reimburse Memphis fans who paid hard-earned money to watch the scandalous Rose in the winter of 2007-08? The answers are no and hell no.

Punish programs clearly in violation of NCAA rules and regs. But leave history — and its banners — alone. We saw what happened.

• I find the strategy of tanking in professional sports repugnant. By now you know the concept: compile losses now with the hope of acquiring high draft picks — and actually competing — later. Baseball’s two most recent champions perfected this craft. The Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros fielded historically poor teams for multiple seasons before building rosters around draft jewels like Kris Bryant (Cubs) and Carlos Correa (Astros) and winning the World Series.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver was right to fine Mavericks owner Mark Cuban last week for publicly acknowledging that losing is in his team’s best interests this season. If a franchise is going to openly concede games — in an industry built on a foundation of competition — it had better slash the cost of tickets and sponsorships. And no child should have to pay for a ticket to see his or her home team suit up a roster shy of its best.

As long as the NBA has a lottery system for its draft — no matter how it’s weighted — there will be incentives to accumulate losses. So here’s a novel idea: order the draft by the number of tickets sold by teams that miss the playoffs. Reward struggling franchises that retain the support of their fan base. The more home tickets sold in a down year, the higher that team will pick in the next draft. Fans are smart, and their money is as honest as Mark Cuban. Losing on purpose can’t be sold.

• The only silver lining to Tiger point guard Jeremiah Martin’s season-ending injury is that it may secure a league scoring title for the Memphis junior. How special would a conference scoring title be for Martin? Larry Finch never led his league (the Missouri Valley Conference) in scoring. Neither did Lorenzen Wright, Rodney Carney, Chris Douglas-Roberts, or Joe Jackson. Over the last 50 years, only four Tigers have led their league in scoring: Keith Lee (Metro, 1984-85), Elliot Perry (Metro, 1990-91), Penny Hardaway (Great Midwest, 1992-93), and Will Barton (Conference USA, 2011-12). Martin finished his season with an average of 18.9 points per game. Second among American Athletic Conference players is SMU’s Shake Milton (also injured) at 18.0.

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Monday, February 19, 2018

The 1980s "Grizzlies"

Posted By on Mon, Feb 19, 2018 at 9:15 AM

As tough as the 2017-18 season has been for the Memphis Grizzlies — far more of a transitional campaign than most expected — I feel like I’ve seen this movie before. And I’ll be holding off on the popcorn until it becomes clear the ending isn’t as gut-wrenching as the original.

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A brief back story: As a 14-year-old Vermonter in 1983, I adopted the Dallas Mavericks. When they drafted my college hero, Tennessee’s Dale Ellis, I felt like I had an NBA team I could call my own. My family had moved to Southern California in 1979 (the year Magic Johnson arrived), but the mighty L.A. Lakers didn’t find my heart. Neither did Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics upon our arrival in New England. (A bandwagon basketball fan I will never be called.) But the Mavericks had a fun, young team, led by a pair of sharpshooters, small forward Mark Aguirre and shooting guard Rolando Blackman.

Dallas made the playoffs for the first time in 1984, only the franchise’s fourth season in the league. When they drafted Derek Harper (with Ellis in 1983) and Sam Perkins (in 1984), they had a close equivalent to the Grizzlies’ recent “core four” (Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen). The Mavericks made the playoffs five straight seasons (and six of seven), culminating with a trip to the Western Conference finals in 1988 where they took Magic and the defending-champion Lakers to a seventh game before bowing. The addition of skilled big man Roy Tarpley (in 1986) seemed to be the final piece in a championship-building puzzle for the young franchise.
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Then the 1990s happened. Tarpley succumbed to chemical addictions, eventually earning a ban from NBA commissioner David Stern. Aguirre was traded to Detroit in 1989, just in time to earn a pair of rings with the Pistons. Perkins left (for the Lakers!) as a free agent after the 1989-90 season. Meanwhile, Blackman and Harper — at one point among the NBA’s best backcourts — grew old together in Maverick uniforms. The Mavs went 22-60 in their final season together (1991-92), then, with Blackman shipped to New York, fell off the NBA map, winning 11 and 13 games the following two seasons. That’s 24-140 over two winters. The Dirk Nowitzki era was a long time coming.

Cut to 2018 and the Grizzlies are heading toward a final record that will be uncomfortably close to 22-60. After having reached the playoffs seven straight years, including a trip to the Western Conference finals (in 2013). Two of their core four are no longer here, Randolph now a Sacramento King, Allen traded from his new club (New Orleans) to Chicago earlier this month, only to be released by the Bulls. Gasol and Conley remain (as did Blackman and Harper), still the most valuable members of the Memphis roster, still hoping to serve as the franchise engine for another deep playoff run.

The trade-then-don’t drama that unfolded around Tyreke Evans earlier this month was a bad look for a front office now tasked with instilling confidence in a nervous fan base. Are the Grizzlies better with Evans on the roster this season? Without a doubt. Will the Grizzlies be better with Evans on the roster in 2018-19 or 2019-20? I don’t know the answer to that question. And what has me worried: I don’t think general manager Chris Wallace and the Grizzlies brass know the answer either.

After the Mavericks’ roaring Eighties, the Nineties were absolutely atrocious. The team’s win totals from 1992-93 through the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season: 11, 13, 36, 26, 24, 20, 19. The team returned to the playoffs in 2001 (Nowitzki’s third season), and won at least 50 games 11 years in a row, upsetting Miami for the 2011 championship. The historical lesson: successful eras — lengthy ones — can sandwich dry spells.

Here’s hoping the Memphis Grizzlies keep their current dry spell limited to a winter or two of discontent. But fair warning. Franchise turns are hard to accomplish in the NBA. Front-office clarity on what’s to happen after the turn is a must.


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Monday, February 5, 2018

We Are PyeongChang

Posted By on Mon, Feb 5, 2018 at 11:11 AM

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The Winter Olympics are quaint. Cozy even. I say this having enjoyed every Winter Games since Sarajevo (1984) indoors, thermostat set at or near 70 degrees. The Winter Olympics are made up almost entirely of events that I have never so much as attempted. Sledding down Vermont hillsides — even on “blades” designed like skis — doesn’t qualify me to speak with authority on the luge. As for alpine skiing, merely staying upright became an Olympian feat for me, so what Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin will do the next two weeks in PyeongChang, South Korea, is, like Nicklaus’s golf swing: a game with which I’m not familiar.

We need these PyeongChang Games, and especially considering North Korea and South Korea will compete as a unified team of athletes. Even if this is some kind of scripted drama Kim Jong-un is waving in the face of western interests — “As Donald divides, we unite!” — the symbolism of conflicting nations coming together for two weeks of sports is . . . well, it’s quaint. Perhaps we, as a planet, can share a warm international hug amid the snow and ice.

The Summer Olympics are held in places we all know, at least from coffee-table books and travel brochures: Los Angeles, London, Athens, Barcelona, Rio. (And yes, Atlanta qualifies as an international destination.) The Winter Olympics are held in places — sometimes villages — we couldn’t locate on a map before the Opening Ceremonies: Albertville, Lillehammer, Torino, Sochi. (I lived in Torino for a year as a young boy. No gold medal won there in 2006 impressed the natives like the most recent Juventus win on the pitch.) Salt Lake City has but one major-league team, named after the great music of New Orleans and with no championship banner hanging from its arena. But the Winter Games found Salt Lake (in 2002) and they were a fun — quaint — two weeks, welcome so shortly after the horror of September 11, 2001.

Rare are the Winter Olympic heroes who have staying power in the American sports consciousness. (March Madness is almost here!) Dorothy Hamill, Eric Heiden, and Scott Hamilton took their skills on ice to national prominence, but none of them had a movie made about their lives, as Tonya Harding has for her villainous role at the 1994 Games in Norway. And that’s part of the magic of the Winter Olympics: There’s so little actual drama that when things do go sideways, Hollywood demands the rights.

Only at the Winter Olympics do we discover “curling” and “skeleton” are athletic events yielding gold, silver, and bronze. (Skeleton is a form of bobsled, just minus the protective ice-chariot. Thus the name, I suppose.) The idea of firing a weapon with your lungs and legs on fire may seem like a stretch until every four years men and women compete for a total of 11 gold medals in biathlon. Don’t look for an American on the podium in this competition. This is considerably ironic when you compare the number of guns in this country with the favorite in the biathlon relay, Norway.

There will never again be an Olympic team like the 1980 U.S. hockey club that beat the mighty Soviets. (For the first time since 1994, the NHL is not sending players to compete in the Games.) But over the course of two weeks just south of the DMZ in South Korea, there will be moments and memories. Perhaps Vonn’s last Olympics will carry headlines, or perhaps it will be Chloe Kim’s first (she’s a snowboarder with a smile that makes her helmet a crime). PyeongChang will enter our living rooms this week with an introduction to a region beyond the reach of many. The Winter Olympics will — again — enter our hearts, however foreign short-track speed-skating may seem. And that’s perfectly quaint.

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Monday, January 29, 2018

The Brady Bowl

Posted By on Mon, Jan 29, 2018 at 9:54 AM

BEN HERSHEY, UNSPLASH
  • Ben Hershey, Unsplash
“If the Super Bowl is the ultimate game, how come there is another one next year?”
— Dallas Cowboys running back Duane Thomas (1972)


Five quick angles to make this Sunday’s football game not seem like the rerun you think it is.

• In terms of reliability, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady trails the sun, seven seas, and Betty White. And by some distance. Since Brady entered the NFL in 2000, a whopping 10 Super Bowls have been played without him. Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson quarterbacked teams to the Lombardi Trophy and a franchise younger than Brady — the Carolina Panthers — played for the championship in Super Bowl 50. Should he win three Super Bowls in four years for a second time, we’ll always wonder . . . why not four in a row, at least once?

• Much has been made locally about two former University of Memphis kickers facing one another in Super Bowl LII. Philadelphia Eagle rookie Jake Elliott broke most of the Tiger records established (between 2002 and 2005) by New England Patriot veteran Stephen Gostkowski. How unlikely is this toe tangle? Gostkowski came to the U of M initially as a pitcher for the baseball team. Elliott was a tennis star in high school. It can be said these Tiger alumni will be on American sport’s biggest stage but playing their alternative sports.

• This still-young century has been an era for drought-ending championships. The Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, Kansas City Royals, and Houston Astros have all won World Series that ended droughts of at least 30 years. LeBron James brought Cleveland its first major championship of any kind in a half-century. Among the 32 NFL franchises, only two — the Lions and Cardinals — have played longer without claiming a title than the Eagles, who last were crowned kings when Chuck Bednarik tormented quarterbacks in 1960.

Tom Brady, of course, is the chief reason Philadelphia hasn’t won a championship in 57 years, having led the Patriots to victory over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX after the 2004 season. Brady has won Super Bowls over two franchises that have never won championships (Carolina and Atlanta). He pays no attention to drought sentiment, having suffered his own 10-year dry spell between wins in Super Bowl XXXIX and Super Bowl XLIX. That World War II veteran the Eagles saluted during the NFC Championship? He can wait until Brady’s finished.

• Sunday’s game will be the seventh rematch in Super Bowl history. (We have to count Steelers-Cowboys twice, as the franchises have played each other in three Super Bowls.) This will be the second-longest stretch between meetings — 13 years —among those rematches. (Pittsburgh and Dallas waited 17 years between Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XXX.) Somehow, Tom Brady remains the quarterback for the Patriots, 13 years after Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb seemed to run out of gas in the fourth quarter. McNabb was 28 years old in Super Bowl XXXIX. Brady, we all know, is now 40 years old. He’s closing the distance on Betty White, if not the sun.

• I’ll preemptively duck (twice) as I write this, but among this country’s four major team sports (excluding MLS soccer), the Super Bowl is the easiest championship to win. If you can ignore the ruined knees and damaged brain cells, of course. The NFL regular season is merely four months, two-thirds the length of Major League Baseball’s. The top two seeds in each conference can win the Super Bowl by winning just three playoff games, and after a week off to prepare for the first.

Baseball’s opening playoff round — a wild-card game, followed by a best-of-five series — is a trap door. If your ace loses Game 1, he may not pitch another inning. In the NBA (as predictable as it’s become), the champion must win 16 games in two months. Same for the winner of hockey’s Stanley Cup, as brutal a sport, in many ways, as football . . . minus the week off between games.

So take heart, NFL fans outside New England. Your team will, in fact, win a Super Bowl. You may just need to wait until Tom Brady is LII years old.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The NFL's Final Four — Destined for Upset City?

Posted By on Tue, Jan 16, 2018 at 12:42 PM

The greatest two-man dynasty in the history of American team sports rolls on. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his quarterback, Tom Brady, will compete in their seventh straight AFC Championship this Sunday in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Only one other NFL team has played in as many as three conference championships over this period (the San Francisco 49ers). Belichick and Brady — say the names like Smith and Wesson — will be accompanied by 52 men dressed in Patriot uniforms, but they really don’t matter. Not a single one of them was in that uniform when Belichick and Brady won their first title after the 2001 season. This is Year 17 of a dynasty unlike any we’ll see again.
Tom Brady New England Patriots - JERRY COLI | DREAMSTIME.COM
  • Jerry Coli | Dreamstime.com
  • Tom Brady New England Patriots

Magic Johnson had what could be called a championship era with the Los Angeles Lakers. He won five championships over a nine-year period, but with two coaches and Hall of Famers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy at his side. During those same 1980s, Wayne Gretzky won four championships with the Edmonton Oilers, but with Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and Grant Fuhr playing supporting roles. Heck, Edmonton won the Stanley Cup two years after Gretzky left for L.A.

In football history, nothing comes close to what Belichick and Brady are doing. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ dominance in the 1970s had a peak that lasted seven years (1974-80) and claimed four Super Bowls. One Dallas Cowboys dynasty (1992-95) began 14 years after another one (1970-78) ended, less time than Belichick and Brady have spent making the rest of the NFL their orchestra.

No former teammate of Brady’s has yet been elected to the Hall of Fame for his achievements in New England. Randy Moss is on his way to Canton, but his years with Minnesota trump those he had on the receiving end of Brady’s passes. This is the Belichick and Brady show. Love ’em or loathe ’em, it should be appreciated for its singularity in the American sports storybook.

• If the Patriots play in their eighth Super Bowl under Belichick and Brady, they’ll do so against a trophy-starved franchise. The Philadelphia Eagles lost the only two Super Bowls they’ve appeared in while the Minnesota Vikings lost all four of theirs. (The Vikings technically have an NFL championship. They won the last title — in 1969 — before the league merged with the AFL, but they lost Super Bowl IV to Kansas City.)

A lot of good football has been played in the Gopher State since the Vikings last appeared in the Super Bowl after the 1976 season. The ’98 Vikings went 15-1 — one of only seven teams to win that many games in a regular season — but lost the NFC Championship in overtime to Atlanta.

Thirteen NFL franchises have never won the Super Bowl and three of them are playing in the league’s semifinals this weekend. And should the Vikings win in Philly, Minnesota will play the first home game in Super Bowl history.

• The last three Super Bowls have featured the top seeds from each conference. If that trend holds, a University of Memphis alum will make every field-goal attempt in Super Bowl LII. Stephen Gostkowski has led the NFL in scoring five times in his 12-year career with the Patriots, a feat matched only by Hall of Famer Don Hutson. The Eagles’ rookie kicker, Jake Elliott, broke all of Gostkowski’s records at the U of M. Elliott connected on 26 of 31 field-goal attempts this season and scored 117 points.

• Only two Super Bowls have been won among the six franchises the NFL has added since 1976. Tampa Bay raised the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the 2002 season and Seattle did so after the 2013 campaign. (The Baltimore Ravens, remember, are actually the relocated Cleveland Browns. Technically speaking, the current Browns’ atrocity is an expansion franchise.) Jacksonville put up 45 points at Pittsburgh — against the NFL’s fifth-ranked defense — last weekend. The Jaguars had the second-ranked defense in the league this season (behind only Minnesota’s). Belichick and Brady’s defense was ranked 29th (out of 32 teams) this season.

I’m calling upset this weekend. Jacksonville vs. Minnesota in Super Bowl LII.


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Monday, December 25, 2017

Frank's Faves 2017 — Part 2

Posted By on Mon, Dec 25, 2017 at 6:00 AM

Continuing my countdown of the 10 most memorable sporting events I attended in 2017.

* 2017 Liberty Bowl: Memphis vs. Iowa State (December 30) — I’ve written this countdown annually for 14 years now, but this is the first time an event yet to happen — Scrooge would love this — has made the top five. Unless the creek rises or planes stop flying south (I’ll be in Vermont for Christmas), I’ll be in the Liberty Bowl press box next Saturday for the biggest bowl game in University of Memphis history, a home-field send-off for the record-shattering duo of Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller. The weather, crowd, and outcome may impact where exactly it finishes on this list (thus the asterisks), but it’s going to be unforgettable.
Memphis erased the Navy curse - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Memphis erased the Navy curse
4*) Tigers 30, Navy 27 (October 14) — On a hot (nearly 90 degrees) fall Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, Memphis removed an outsized monkey from its back by containing — barely — the Midshipmen and their surgical triple-option offense. (When does a triple-option become a double option? When it completes precisely one pass, as did Navy quarterback Zach Abey in this game.) The lead changed hands five times after Navy kicked a field goal following a Tiger miscue on the opening kickoff. Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson threw three touchdown passes (two to Anthony Miller) and freshman kicker Riley Patterson delivered three field goals. Sophomore Austin Hall shifted to safety and picked off two of Abey’s seven passes to help secure the win and a ranking of 25 for the Tigers in the next AP poll.

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3*) Redbirds 3, Sounds 2 (August 16) — Sometimes it’s not so much the game you attend, but who accompanies you. I raised my firstborn daughter, Sofia, at AutoZone Park. She attended her first game at the downtown jewel a few weeks before her first birthday. I have pictures of Sofia romping on the left field bluff in a Redbirds cap and a diaper. I have a treasured photo of her at age 3, timidly posing with her mom and Stubby Clapp near the end of his final season as a player (2002) with the Redbirds. Sofia’s grown up now. She spent two summers (2015 and 2016) as the franchise’s first regular bat girl. This was one of the last games we’d attend while living under the same roof. Stephen Piscotty and Patrick Wisdom homered to support seven shutout innings by Jack Flaherty and the Redbirds — managed by Clapp — reached 40 games over .500 (82-42). When Memphis won the Pacific Coast League championship the next month, Sofia was finding her way as a freshman at Wesleyan University. Where they call themselves the Cardinals.

2*) Tigers 48, UCLA 45 (September 16) — After their first two games were directly impacted by hurricanes (one of them cancelled, then moved back three weeks), the Memphis Tigers took the field at the Liberty Bowl under a sunny sky and temperatures hot enough to make even their opponents from SoCal breathe heavier than they’d like. Kickoff was at 11 a.m. (that’s 9 a.m. Pacific Time), a slot preferable to the schedule-makers at ABC, which televised the game nationally. UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen — an All-America candidate — played well, passing for 463 yards and four touchdowns. But Tiger quarterback Riley Ferguson played better, connecting on six touchdown passes in a game that featured six lead changes. And Anthony Miller. The Tigers’ senior wide receiver became a star beyond the Mid-South on this day with 185 yards and two touchdowns through the air. At season’s end the AP named Miller first-team All-America.

1*) Redbirds 2, Chihuahuas 0 (September 14) — Game 2 of the Pacific Coast League championship series was played under bright sunshine — imagine that! — on a Thursday afternoon at AutoZone Park. And the teams played like something was at stake. Memphis starter Kevin Herget — nowhere near a top-prospects list in the Cardinal system — struck out 15 El Paso hitters in eight innings, but the Redbirds couldn’t crack Chihuahua starter Bryan Rodriguez either. The game went to extra innings scoreless. With two outs in the 11th, following a single by Aledmys Diaz, Redbird outfielder Adolis Garcia — having split the 2017 season between Double-A Springfield and Memphis — launched a home run onto the leftfield bluff (shades of Albert Pujols and the 2000 PCL championship). The win improved the Redbirds to an astounding 13-0 in extra-inning games. Three days later in El Paso, they clinched the franchise’s third PCL title.


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Monday, December 18, 2017

Frank's Faves 2017 — Part 1

Posted By on Mon, Dec 18, 2017 at 9:35 AM

This week (and next): A countdown of the 10 most memorable sporting events I attended in 2017.
Mike Conley will be good again someday, right? Right? - JOE MURPHY (NBAE/GETTY IMAGES)
  • Joe Murphy (NBAE/Getty Images)
  • Mike Conley will be good again someday, right? Right?

10) Grizzlies 110, Pacers 97 (March 29) — Things seemed so simple then. Familiar. Mike Conley played like the All-Star he’s long been, spurring the Griz to a 14-point lead by the end of the first quarter on his way to a 36-point night. Tony Allen started, played 33 minutes and helped partially shackle Pacer star Paul George (22 points). Zach Randolph came off the bench and scored 17 points in 24 minutes. Marc Gasol missed the game with a minor injury, but 40-year-old Vince Carter stepped in and scored 21, draining four of six shots from three-point range. The win clinched a .500 record for the Grizzlies and moved them a step closer to securing a seventh straight playoff berth. And David Fizdale seemed like a rising star among NBA coaches. The Grizzlies have delivered many nights like this one at FedExForum. They will again.

9) Tigers 83, Mercer 81 (December 2) — If a good basketball game is played in front of more empty seats than full, does it count as a good game? Played right after the Tigers’ exhilarating AAC football championship game in Orlando, the contest drew fewer than 5,000 fans to FedExForum. (Probably fewer than 3,000. I didn’t actually do a head count.) The Tigers fell behind, trailing by nine at halftime and by eight with six minutes to play. But freshman Jamal Johnson drilled a three-pointer with less than 30 seconds on the clock to force the first overtime, and the Tigers hit 16 of 18 free throws in the two overtime sessions to snag a precious win in what is sure to be a trying season for Tubby Smith and friends.

8) Cardinals 9, Redbirds 3 (March 30) — I’ve yet to take my mother-in-law to St. Louis for a Cardinals game, but she can now say the Cardinals came to Memphis to play for her. Three generations of my family enjoyed this chilly opening to the 2017 Redbirds season, the seventh time the Cardinals have stopped for an exhibition game at AutoZone Park on their way from Florida to Missouri. Four Cardinals — Jedd Gyorko, Aledmys Diaz, Jhonny Peralta, and Yadier Molina — homered to delight every mother-in-law in attendance. Less than four months later, Molina — a Memphis catcher way back in 2004 — homered in the major-league All-Star Game, the first Cardinal to do so in 43 years.
Riley Ferguson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Riley Ferguson

7) Tigers 66, SMU 45 (November 18) — The 18th-ranked Tigers actually trailed in this  game, 10-0. Effects of their bye week, apparently. They proceeded to score nine touchdowns (a program-record-tying seven on the ground) to manhandle the Mustangs and clinch the American Athletic Conference’s West Division championship. Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson tossed two touchdown passes and ran for three more. Anthony Miller had, for him, a ho-hum game: eight catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns. Patrick Taylor ran for 112 yards and a pair of scores, but was merely the Tigers’ second-best running back. Sophomore Darrell Henderson scored on runs of 52 yards and 70 yards on his way to 147 (on just 10 carries). With the win, the 9-1 Tigers jumped to 17th in the AP rankings.

6) North Carolina 75, Kentucky 73 (March 26) — When the 6th-ranked Tar Heels and 5th-ranked Wildcats met in the NCAA tournament’s South Regional final at FedExForum, it wasn’t merely John Calipari’s heroically awkward return to the building he made famous in college hoops circles. This game qualified as a run-through for the upcoming NBA draft. Four of the top 15 picks-to-be took the floor: De’Aaron Fox (5th), Malik Monk (11th), and Bam Adebayo (14th) for Kentucky and Justin Jackson (15th) for North Carolina. (For good measure, another Tar Heel was taken by the Lakers with the 28th pick: Tony Bradley.) And the game lived up to expectations. Five Wildcats scored at least 10 points and a three-pointer by Monk with seven seconds left on the clock appeared to force overtime. But sophomore forward Luke Maye — not NBA-bound, alas — drained a 17-footer from the left wing with less than half a second to play to give Carolina the win and yet another trip to the Final Four (the program’s 20th). Just as they did in 2009, the Tar Heels followed their Memphis net-cutting by winning the national championship.

Next week: The Top Five

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Monday, December 11, 2017

1997-2017: Twenty Years of Memphis Sports

Posted By on Mon, Dec 11, 2017 at 10:07 AM

December is a month for reflection. Particularly when it comes to sports. Players of the Year. Coaches of the Year. Teams of the Year. Everywhere you turn, a top-10 list. (Be patient, loyal readers. You’ll get one next week.) If we look back at 12 months of Memphis sports, it’s been a year of considerable highs (a PCL championship for the Redbirds, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl for the Tiger football team) and considerable lows (farewell Tony Allen and Zach Randolph, thousands of empty seats for Tiger basketball games at FedExForum).

But why stop at 12 months? Why not a larger perspective, a lengthier sample size, as it were, for the state of Bluff City sports? Let’s go back to this precise month 20 years ago — December 1997 — and draw a few comparisons.

• In December 1997, the Memphis Tiger football team had just completed its third straight losing season under coach Rip Scherer. The mammoth upset of Tennessee 13 months earlier had proven to be a merely a magical moment and not a reset button on the program’s growth from regional also-ran. Scherer was (and is) a decent and honorable man, but his teams had trouble scoring 70 points in a month, something the 2017 Tigers did in a single game. Twice. Memphis hadn’t played in a bowl game in a quarter century back in ’97. This year’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl will be the biggest postseason game in the program’s history and mark the fourth consecutive year Memphis has gone bowling in December.
TIC PRICE
  • Tic Price

• In December 1997, Tic Price was leading the Tiger basketball program. But toward what? The first-year coach managed to get Memphis to the 1998 NIT but was chased out of town a year later under a cloud of scandal, having been involved romantically with a Memphis student. Don’t tell me we’ve reached the lowest point in Tiger history when no one wants to see the Tigers play Samford in an NBA arena. I was here in 1999.

• In December 1997, the Tennessee Oilers — that’s what they called themselves for two years — were wrapping up their lone season in the Liberty Bowl, unable to fill the stadium even at the epic height of NFL popularity. Bud Adams was using Memphis as a rest area for his franchise, on its way to Nashville after nearly 40 years in Houston. Having been spurned for an expansion franchise five years earlier, Memphis resented its “home” team, so much that the Oilers chose to play at Vanderbilt in 1998 instead of, as originally planned, a second season in the Liberty Bowl. Memphis had been big league for exactly four months. Sort of.

• In December 1997, Dean Jernigan had announced that the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate was moving to Memphis, to play in the most palatial stadium ever built for a minor-league team. But what did we know then about AutoZone Park? Or the joys of Triple-A baseball? No brick had been placed; no Redbird hitter had entered a batter’s box. Since then? Memphis has helped feed the most successful franchise in the National League, the Cardinals winning four National League pennants and a pair of world championships since 1998. Along the way, the Redbirds have won three Pacific Coast League titles themselves, including a 91-win season here in 2017.

• In December 1997, the Grizzlies were playing their third NBA season. In Vancouver, British Columbia. Shareef Abdur-Rahim was the face of the franchise. There weren’t even rumors of an NBA franchise calling Memphis (and the Pyramid) home. Today? We complain about losing streaks and the possibility — now likelihood — that our NBA team may have its playoff streak end at seven years. Two players (Allen and Randolph) will have their numbers retired in the near future and two more (Marc Gasol and Mike Conley) are destined for the same recognition.

The last 20 years have been the best such period in Memphis sports history, a pair of decades impossible to top between now and 2037. But let’s give it a try. There are seats to fill at FedExForum and an NBA championship parade to attend.

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Stubby Clapp Named Minor League Manager of the Year by Baseball America

Posted By on Thu, Nov 30, 2017 at 11:00 AM

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Baseball America
has named Memphis Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp its 2017 Minor League Manager of the Year. Once a favorite among Redbird fans for his backflips and gritty play at second base, the 44-year-old Clapp returned to Memphis last spring for his first stint as a Triple-A manager. Despite significant roster fluctuation between the Redbirds and parent St. Louis Cardinals, Clapp led Memphis to 91 wins (the most by any Bluff City team since 1948) and the franchise’s third Pacific Coast League championship, beating El Paso in a five-game championship series.

During their title march, the Redbirds set a franchise record with an 11-game winning streak, won or split 27 consecutive series, and built an astounding record of 13-0 in extra-inning games. Clapp earned accolades as the PCL’s Manager of the Year in September, shortly after the end of the regular season. He’s the first Memphis manager to earn either of these honors.

“I’m honored and humbly accept the award in respect to all the other managers,” says Clapp, who lives with his family in Savannah, Tennessee. “Because I know the hard work that goes into their days. It’s not an easy gig.”

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Monday, November 20, 2017

Frank's Memphis Sports Thanksgiving

Posted By on Mon, Nov 20, 2017 at 12:05 PM

My annual column of gratitude for the little extras — in the world of sports — that enrich my life.

• I’m grateful for eight years with Zach Randolph and seven years with Tony Allen . . . and these two personalities sharing a locker room at FedExForum for a seven-year playoff run. Winning may be everything, but doing so with character, exuberance, zaniness, and style is the stuff of Hollywood. No movie will ever be made about the Memphis Grizzlies’ “Grindfather” years. But we don’t need one, do we? We lived it.

• I’m grateful for Tony Pollard returning kickoffs.
Tony Pollard - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tony Pollard

• I’m grateful for a top-20 football program at the University of Memphis. And the chance to see the Tigers play for the American Athletic Conference championship (December 2nd).

• I’m grateful for Anthony Miller on a post pattern. And at the sideline. And in the corner of the end zone. And on a slant.

• I’m grateful Tennessee didn’t see Riley Ferguson the way Memphis did.

• I’m grateful for a college football world that considers the Memphis coach a hot commodity.

• I’m grateful for Stubby Clapp and a championship season for the Memphis Redbirds that was worthy of a backflip. The most wins (91) for a Memphis team in 69 years and a 13-0 record in extra innings. Remarkable baseball team.

• I’m grateful for Phil Mickelson on the weekend at Southwind.

• I’m grateful for Tyreke Evans off the bench.

• I’m grateful for the Mid-South Coliseum, while it’s still standing.

• I’m grateful for the lack of Lawson family drama in the U of M basketball program.

• I’m grateful for the vivid appreciation of past Tiger basketball greats at the palatial new practice facility, particularly salutes to Larry Finch, Keith Lee, Elliot Perry, and Penny Hardaway. Now, for that Finch statue . . .

• I’m grateful for a banner at the Liberty Bowl honoring the six Tigers to have their jerseys retired. It was a long time coming.

• I’m grateful to live in a world where the Kansas City Royals, Chicago Cubs, and Houston Astros can win the World Series.

• I’m grateful for 94 years (so far) of Red Schoendienst.

• I’m grateful for Wilfredo Tovar and Breyvic Valera. If you know who they are, you love them as much as I do.

• I’m grateful for the sports journalists who have helped spread the word about my novel, Trey’s Company: Greg Gaston, Eli Savoie, Don Wade, and Dave Woloshin. It’s almost as hard to sell a book as it is to write one.

• I’m grateful for this region’s 5K scene. Every weekend you’ll find a race in one pocket of the community or another, each raising money for a worthy cause. These have given me a chance to get a bit healthier while watching my wife kick ass and take names (well beyond her age group).

• I’m grateful that NFL stars aren’t immune to punishment for domestic abuse.

• I’m grateful for the NBA returning the Grizzlies’ MLK Day game to, you know, MLK Day. The 2018 event should be especially memorable as the city salutes Dr. King across a half-century.

• I’m grateful for four decades of professional tennis at The Racquet Club of Memphis. Connors, McEnroe, Borg, Sampras, Agassi, Lendl, Roddick. The sport of tennis has changed, more international than any this side of soccer. But it grew through a little club on Sanderlin in Memphis, Tennessee.

• I’m grateful for the 2017 White Station High School softball team, the first in Spartan history to advance to the state sectionals (“Sweet 16”). For one magical spring a senior Murtaugh (centerfielder Sofia) and freshman Murtaugh (pitcher Elena) shared a dugout, along with the ups and downs — there were more ups — of a group cause. The older I get, the more seasons will fade in my memory. But I’ll never forget this one.

Monday, October 23, 2017

National Baseball Day

Posted By on Mon, Oct 23, 2017 at 8:52 AM

baseball.jpg
“As long as the grass is that luscious green, as long as the uniforms inspire young jaws to sag, and as long as the taste of Cracker Jack and the sound of ball on bat remain the same, baseball will be the delightful diversion to workaday life it was meant to be.”

On September 14th — a Thursday — I spent most of the afternoon watching two baseball teams play for a championship at AutoZone Park. It was a bright, cloudless day, still technically summer, but minus the stifling heat and humidity the season can bring this region of the world between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Game 2 of the Pacific Coast League championship series had been pushed back a day by lingering effects of Hurricane Irma. Since Thursday was “getaway day” for the two teams — the Memphis Redbirds and El Paso Chihuahuas — the game started at noon to accommodate an evening trip to Texas (where the Redbirds would win the title three days later).

It was bliss. For a middle-aged kid still devoted to America’s original pastime, this was as close to National Baseball Day as we’ve come. Sunshine, championship baseball, and a break from work. (In my case, the break absorbed most of the afternoon, and my boss joined me for the late innings, as every boss should for such an event.) When Adolis Garcia crushed an 11th-inning home run for a 1-0, walk-off win for the home team, it was confirmed: the baseball gods were watching.

National Baseball Day will come. It’s taken longer than I’d like, but so did my taste for red wine and Norman Mailer. Some rewards are better appreciated with a long buildup.

Here’s how the holiday would work, in case you’ve missed this column the past 15 years. 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 the Seventh Inning Stretch. 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 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.

The opening quote of this column? I wrote that for Memphis magazine’s October 2003 issue, when my daughters were ages 4 and 1. One is now a freshman in college, the other a sophomore (pitcher!) in high school. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the last daytime World Series game (one ironically played in Minnesota’s abominable Metrodome). Let’s not allow another generation of children to grow up before they can enjoy the magic of National Baseball Day.

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Monday, October 16, 2017

NBA 2017-18: We’ve Been Here Before

Posted By on Mon, Oct 16, 2017 at 9:20 AM


Predictability is poison in the sports world. And despite a few significant offseason transactions, the NBA has become a 30-team barrel of arsenic. LeBron James has played in the NBA Finals seven years in a row. This will become an eight-year streak next June unless King James suffers a calamitous injury. (James has played 14 years and only once missed more than eight games in a season.) The Golden State Warriors have reached the NBA Finals three years in a row and feature two former MVPs still shy of their 30th birthdays. They’ll be the team in the way of LeBron and his current band of merry men, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Mike Conley - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Conley

There have been precisely two NBA champions this century that, in historical terms, were surprises. The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons beat an L.A. Laker “super team” that featured Karl Malone and Gary Payton in addition to Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. And the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks upset James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and a few other Miami Heat, before that more-recent “super team” had fully formed. Sure, it can be said the Cavs upset the 73-win Warriors in the 2016 Finals, but they did so with LeBron James, so come on.

This isn’t new, of course. We likely would have seen eight straight Chicago Bull championships in the 1990s had Michael Jordan not wanted to prove he could hit a curve ball. We knew Magic Johnson’s Lakers or Larry Bird’s Celtics would win the title in the 1980s, but that was a fun coin to flip every spring. You have to go back four decades, to the 1970s, to find an NBA that was truly anyone’s guess. Eight different franchises raised the trophy in the disco decade. Raise a glass to healthy living if you remember the 1974-75 Warriors or the 1977-78 Washington Bullets.

There are fan bases today that are certain their team can crack the Finals code this season. Oklahoma City has filled Durant’s one-year void with a pair of perennial All-Stars: Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. If reigning MVP Russell Westbrook again averages a triple-double — did that really happen? — he’ll do so with more assists and fewer points. Last year’s assist leader — Houston’s James Harden — will now share a backcourt with former Clipper Chris Paul, a man who has led the league in assists four times himself. Will this dynamic duo vault the Rockets into the Warriors’ stratosphere, or will Paul and Harden just keep passing the ball to each other one night after the next?

One predictable component of the modern NBA has actually played right here in Memphis. The Grizzlies are one of only three franchises to make the playoffs each of the last seven seasons (along with the San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks). If the Griz are to make it eight in a row, it will be without two players whose jerseys are now bound for the FedExForum rafters. With Zach Randolph in Sacramento and Tony Allen in New Orleans, the local franchise will be, in many ways, discovering itself for the first time in almost a decade.

With Anthony, George, and Jimmy Butler (now a Minnesota Timberwolf) having fled the Eastern Conference, the Western Conference playoff race has never been more top-heavy. If you consider Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Minnesota locks for the postseason, the west has ten teams each playing 82 games to secure three dance tickets to the playoffs. This will boil down to which teams can win the most games when not being knocked around by the conference’s “big five.”

Mike Conley still wears Beale Street Blue. So does Marc Gasol. Few NBA teams have as talented a tandem atop the roster. However familiar — however predictable — it may seem at times, the NBA season is here. In Memphis, that means one thing: grind time.

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