Monday, January 25, 2021

The Hammer's Time

Posted By on Mon, Jan 25, 2021 at 8:12 AM

My family lived in Atlanta in the early Seventies. These were my preschool years, so memories are blurry at best. But it was an extraordinary time in an extraordinary place, largely because of the great Henry Aaron. I've been fighting back tears since last Friday when we learned the Hammer had died at the age of 86.

My parents were pursuing doctoral degrees at Emory University, and I was an only child when we arrived in Atlanta late in the summer of 1972. Mine was a St. Louis Cardinals family — Dad born and raised in Memphis — but Atlanta had become a big-league town in 1966 (when the Braves moved from Milwaukee), and we found time for outings to Braves games during the summers of 1973 and ’74. Which means 4-year-old me sat in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when the great Henry Aaron took the field for the home team. I was more interested in the Braves' mascot (and his dances after a home run) than the players actually hitting the baseball, but it's safe to say I witnessed one or two of Aaron's 755 career home runs, a record for the sport that stood for more than 30 years.

Aaron's most famous home run, of course, was his 715th, hit against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Atlanta on April 8, 1974, to break Babe Ruth's career record. It was the second-biggest highlight of that year for me, as my sister, Liz, was born 10 days earlier. (I do remember leaving my nursery school early, to meet the new arrival.) I've seen Aaron's famous shot hundreds of times, and every time it makes me think of my only sibling. That's a gift Hank Aaron provided my family without knowing we even existed. Such is the work of legends.

If you need a number to associate with Aaron, make it 6,856, his record for career total bases, and one we can safely say will never be broken. (Stan Musial is second on the chart, but more than 700 total bases — two outstanding seasons — behind Aaron.) Aaron's career began in the Negro Leagues, even after the major leagues had integrated, so he represents a human bridge to a time when a celebration of baseball's best meant only partial recognition. He endured hate and racism as he "chased" the record of a revered white icon. (Quote marks because Aaron never targeted Ruth's mark. He was simply so good that the record became part of his story.) Hank Aaron remained dignified, strong, perceptive, and somehow, gentle through it all. He was a titan of a human being, one who just happened to be very good at baseball.

• The only man to hit more than 755 home runs — Barry Bonds — may be voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame four days after Aaron's passing. If Bonds again falls short in his ninth year of eligibility, it's because there are enough voters (more than 25 percent) still uncomfortable about honoring a man deeply connected with performance-enhancing drugs. And if Bonds joins Aaron in the Hall of Fame? There are records, and there are the men who break them. There is a standard established by the Baseball Hall of Fame, and a standard established by the life of Henry Aaron. Those paying close enough attention recognize a dramatic distinction. Rest in peace, Hammer.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Of Dreams and Ja

Posted By on Tue, Jan 19, 2021 at 10:00 AM

The Memphis Grizzlies' annual Martin Luther King Day game is the most important sporting event in this city. It provides Memphis — and not just our beloved NBA franchise — a national platform, one from which the powerful and inspiring work of the National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM) is on full display. It's the rare sporting event that feels bigger. Because it is.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Ja Morant

And this year's game felt especially right, even with FedExForum empty of fans, even with pandemic conditions still heavy worldwide, even with our nation's capital becoming, yes, a fortress for the upcoming inauguration of our 46th president. In the game's closing seconds, a dynamic Black player (Ja Morant) found a sharp-shooting white teammate (Grayson Allen) who buried a game-winning three-pointer to beat one of the league's best young teams. If you looked west shortly before Allen's game-winner, you saw the new year's most beautiful sunset, a lovely metaphor for the Grizzlies' comeback victory against, of course, the Phoenix Suns. It felt . . . just right.

The TNT studio hosts were especially sentimental, Kenny Smith being one of this year's three NCRM Sports Legacy Honorees. A two-time NBA champion (as a Houston Rocket), Smith and his more-provocative colleague — Hall of Famer Charles Barkley — were effusive in their gratitude for the platform the NBA has provided them, as Black men, to speak about topics more important than James Harden taking his talents to Brooklyn. Best of all, Smith, Barkley, and friends see what is rising in Memphis (on the hardwood): Morant, one of the league's top two or three players under the age of 25, and Jaren Jackson Jr. — a future All-Star himself — soon to return from knee surgery. The Grizzlies keep Memphis proud, one year to the next, but particularly on MLK Day. I'm choosing to see their win this week as an omen for a year we all rise, as Memphians and as human beings.

• Memphis Tiger coach Penny Hardaway is a past recipient of the NCRM Sports Legacy Award. That was an especially happy day at FedExForum, a packed crowd — it was 2018 — saluting a past hero, one already rumored to be returning to the college program where he played a generation ago. Hardaway is surely calling on days like that right now, as his current Tiger team tries to find its way through a season already damaged by COVID-19 (three January games postponed) and the Tulsa Golden Hurricane (two losses after the Tigers led at halftime). Now 6-5, the Tigers face four games in eight days before the calendar turns to February. And a coach with top-five aspirations for his program now must wonder if 20 wins are within reach, let alone an NCAA tournament bid. Hardaway was philosophical last week during a virtual press conference, identifying the same cloud the rest of us do these days when things turn sour: "We're trying to play through a pandemic. It's not the worst thing. We have to be mindful, continue to be safe. You just have to work through the rigors of what's happening."

• I've written in this space about Tom Brady being the first one-man dynasty in the history of American team sports. The 43-year-old quarterback has now proven that a New England Patriots uniform wasn't required for this "dynasty" to happen, having led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the NFC Championship in his first season with the franchise. The game will be Brady's 14th(!) conference title game. Perspective? You've heard of Joe Montana, John Elway, and Dan Marino. That trio played in 16 conference championships combined.

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Monday, January 11, 2021

Games and Goons

Posted By on Mon, Jan 11, 2021 at 9:53 AM

  • Jj Gouin/Dreamstime
Sports have been hard to properly cheer for almost a year now. Our favorite teams and athletes are finding ways to compete, to create memories for us, despite a pandemic in which almost two million people worldwide have now died. We saw Major League Baseball squeeze a season into two months, baseballs clearing fences but into empty seats, players crossing the plate after a home run to cheers only from their teammates. The country is revved up these days — like every January — for the NFL playoffs, but we still see virtually empty stadiums as twenty-first century gladiators do what we love them to do: clash and crash.

But after January 6th? Good lord, does "clash and crash" now mean, yes, insurrection at our nation's Capitol? How does sports fill its "distraction" role when we're choosing to distract from what could be the dissolution of democracy? A Grizzlies game is always welcome this time of year, even if background to the evening chores, or muted for the sake of dinner conversation. But after January 6th? Are we really going to fret over two missing stars — and the Grizzlies really miss Ja and Jaren — while the legislative branch of our government is discussing the level of madness in the executive branch?

Most of last weekend, I utilized the last-channel button on my remote, bouncing between football and CNN's updates on the status of President Donald J. Trump. Where was he? How would he choose to communicate with Twitter having silenced him? Would he lower the White House's flag to half staff in honor of fallen Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick? Would he face removal via the Constitution's 25th Amendment? Would he face a second impeachment? Who is Taylor Heinicke and what the hell is he doing competing with Tom Brady?

It's a mad world, somewhat literally, here in the early stages of America's 2021. The growing divide between those of us who adhere to science and facts and those (many) who choose to ignore them resulted in this country's first outright coup attempt, one orchestrated and encouraged by the American president. Right there in public, though behind a pane of bulletproof glass. In a time when we are not allowed to gather in stadiums or arenas to cheer our favorite football and basketball teams, thousands gathered — not many in protective masks, you may have noticed — to destroy. The contact tracing from January 6th's attack is going to reach a lot of morgues, I'm afraid. Insurrection in the time of coronavirus is a social cocktail mixed by Lucifer himself.

The Founding Fathers — Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, you know the names — are popular among so-called "patriots," the type who will chant "Hang Mike Pence!" as they breach Capitol security. It's almost quaint now to consider that sedition — conduct in opposition to government authority — was once a hanging offense. Had the American Revolution failed, it's often noted by historians, Washington, Jefferson, and friends would likely have ended up dangling from a rope in front of British officers. Here, almost 250 years later, there will be no hanging of those responsible for January 6th. The question remains if there will be any consequences for the man most responsible for the seditious act.

I share all these thoughts because fear and anxiety (for Democracy, an experiment I've come to love) has reduced my rooting interest (for the teams I love) to its lowest level of my lifetime. Will the St. Louis Cardinals find a bat to improve their anemic offense in 2021? (If they don't, no glass will be broken.) Might the Memphis Tigers find their way to some version of an NCAA tournament come March? (If they don't, no gas will be sprayed.) No, I find myself merely rooting for peace — and significantly, a return to health — for my fellow man, both here in America and abroad. I also hope to see the day when, yes, the Cardinals' run production is my most significant concern. At least for that day. It would be a new time for our planet, and quite welcome for all of us who occupy it.

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Monday, October 19, 2020

Pandemic Baseball Day?

Posted By on Mon, Oct 19, 2020 at 8:34 AM

Be careful what you wish for in a sports column.

For the better part of two decades, I've written in this space about the need for National Baseball Day, a holiday to recognize and celebrate this country's longtime national pastime. The day would coincide each year with Game 1 of the World Series, Americans from coast to coast would be allowed to stay home with family and friends and — should they choose — watch the Fall Classic together, with the first pitch at 3 p.m. Eastern time, early enough for the youngest baseball fans to see the final out. How is it that a country so devoted to sports and leisure doesn't have a day on the calendar to formally salute the rewards of recreation? National Baseball Day would check that box nicely.
  • Jj Gouin/Dreamstime

So, here we are in 2020, and more people will be at home for Game 1 of the World Series — by choice or by pink slip — than in any other year of our lifetimes. A pandemic has slammed doors shut both on business and recreation, those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from our dens and living rooms doing so, while those unable to earn a salary without gathering crowds and cheering audiences . . . endure the best they're able.

As for the World Series, all games will be played at a neutral site (a "bubble" in pandemic terms), Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. Major League Baseball and the state of Texas will allow small "pods" of fans to scatter safe distances within the ballpark. So, yes, there will be some cheering when the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers take the field Tuesday for the 116th World Series. (Alas, the game is still scheduled to maximize ad revenue. So, first pitch will be in prime time.) In a year with so much on hold, can baseball's showcase lift a nation's spirits?

For anyone with a modicum of affection for baseball history, 2020 has been an absolute kick in the teeth. Al Kaline — for many, the face of the Detroit Tigers franchise — died in April. Tom Seaver — for everyone, the face of the New York Mets franchise — died in August. The two greatest World Series heroes in St. Louis Cardinals history — Lou Brock and Bob Gibson — died within four weeks of each other, just as this year's postseason arrived. Earlier this month, Whitey Ford died, the most decorated pitcher in New York Yankees history. Three days later, Joe Morgan passed away. Playing for the fabled Big Red Machine of the 1970s (a team that feature Johnny Bench and Pete Rose), Morgan was named MVP after each of Cincinnati's championship seasons. All of these men were Hall of Famers, all of them World Series heroes from a time that seems further away in 2020 than it did 12 months ago. A packed Busch Stadium cheering Gibson's 17th strikeout to close Game 1 of the 1968 Series? That's an image from a dimension we can't seem to reach, one we now wonder if we'll ever see again.

The 2020 baseball season was abbreviated, of course. Reduced from 162 games to 60, the campaign was more of a sprint than baseball fans are used to, and 16 teams — six more than has been customary — made the playoff field, an attempt to make sure a rightful champion doesn't get erased because of the sliced schedule (and yes, more televised playoff games to pad the sagging bank accounts of MLB owners). But the games have indeed been a happy distraction, particularly in the climate of a national election taking place in the most divisive America many of us have seen. The bitter debate over a Supreme Court nominee not your thing? Tune in to see former Memphis Redbird Randy Arozarena slug cowhide for the Rays. Worn out by a U.S. president downplaying a virus that's killed almost a quarter-million Americans? You gotta see the exuberance Dodger outfielder Mookie Betts brings to the diamond. British writer Charles Kingsley said it best: "All we really need is something to be enthusiastic about."

My enthusiasm for National Baseball Day is unabated. The sport needs new life, younger life, and it's getting it on the field in the form of Acuna, Washington's Juan Soto, and San Diego's Fernando Tatis Jr. But young fans? Casual fans? They're diminishing, turning to more modern distractions (many requiring screens and an internet connection). But we can find baseball again, when we find our new normal. Sitting in a ballpark — under sunshine — is my happy place. I've missed it in 2020. Which means I'll appreciate it in ways I haven't since I was a child, the next time I stare at grass the way God meant it to grow. For now, let's enjoy a Texas World Series with no teams from Texas. (Hey, the Houston Astros are done. So, the year ain't all bad.) Cracker Jack tastes good on a couch, too.

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Monday, September 14, 2020

Tigers Tested, Sweet Lou, and the NBA

Posted By on Mon, Sep 14, 2020 at 8:13 AM

The coronavirus, college football, and math. You can choose two, but you can't have all three.

The average reproductive number for coronavirus infection — the number of people a person carrying the virus infects — is between 2 and 3. Some carriers of the virus won't infect anyone they encounter, but some will infect more than 10. It's the nastiest "bug" in recent human history, precisely because it's so easy to share but so hard to detect.

Take this math and apply it to a college football game. Two programs on a field, each with a minimum of 100 people sharing a sideline. The idea of one of those teams playing as many as eight games this fall and keeping that reproductive number at zero is really bad math. It's ludicrous. The Memphis Tigers and the program's followers learned this after but one game, their season-opening beating of Arkansas State. With multiple members of the program testing positive for COVID-19 (as announced last Friday), the Tigers' next game — scheduled for this Friday against Houston at the Liberty Bowl — has been postponed. At least.

So pandemic football comes down to the frequency of COVID tests within each program, and how those tests are reported. Were Tiger players and staff infected with the virus during their game against the Red Wolves (six days before the positives were announced)? Arkansas State played its game at Kansas State last Saturday, but several players on the depth chart were sidelined. And there was plenty of finger-pointing — toward the A-State program — over social media throughout the weekend. It stands to reason, if I understand contact tracing, that if one team had infected players during a football game, the opposing roster would be compromised (as potential carriers) a week later. It's ugly math if you're a football fan. And no game on your favorite schedule should be written in ink.

• For the third time in eight seasons, the St. Louis Cardinals are wearing a patch commemorating the life of a legendary player, one whose statue stands in front of Busch Stadium. The greatest Cardinal of them all, Stan Musial, died in 2013. Five years later, Red Schoendienst joined his former roommate in that great clubhouse in the sky. Then on September 6th, Lou Brock passed away at age 81. It seems especially cruel that a man whose number 20 has been retired by the Cardinals for more than 40 years was taken from us in the already-plenty-dreadful year 2020.

Brock's 3,000th hit (in August 1979) is my earliest distinct memory of the Cardinals. I got the chance to meet Mr. Brock twice — once at Tim McCarver Stadium and once at AutoZone Park — and both times he treated me like I was the first fan he'd ever met. Like fellow Hall of Famers Musial and Schoendienst, Brock was somehow better at being a human being than he was at playing baseball. He also happens to have been one of the most competitive men to ever set foot on a diamond. (Brock is the only player Sandy Koufax acknowledges having hit with a pitch on purpose. Brock was that disruptive upon reaching base.) The world needs more Lou Brocks. I'm grateful we had him as long as we did.

• Nine months into the most unpredictable year of our lives, it's nice have the NBA playoffs nearing completion. When it comes to the NBA Finals, what you expect is typically what you get. Since the turn of the century, only three teams seeded lower than third have reached the Finals. And all three — the 2006 Mavericks, the 2010 Celtics, and the 2018 Cavaliers — lost the championship series. The fifth-seeded Miami Heat could become the fourth "surprise" entry if Jimmy Butler and friends can knock off the third-seeded Boston Celtics. More than likely, the de facto Finals will be played in the Western Conference, where we could see a "Battle for L.A." (unless the Denver Nuggets crash the party): both the Lakers' LeBron James and Clippers' Kawhi Leonard are aiming to lead a third franchise to a title. The NBA doesn't exactly welcome Cinderella to its dance, but a clash of familiar champions — even in new uniforms — might be just the right vitamin for a 2020 sports fan.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Pandemic Football: To Play or Not to Play?

Posted By on Tue, Aug 18, 2020 at 9:00 AM

What does the American Athletic Conference know about pandemic football that the Big Ten doesn't? Or to rephrase for a more worrisome question, what does the Big Ten know about the coronavirus and football that the AAC doesn't?

As spectator sports reawaken — with major restrictions — under the current pandemic conditions, two "Power 5" college football conferences announced last week that they will not be fielding football teams this fall. In addition to the Big Ten —  no Michigan! no Ohio State! no Rutgers! — the Pac 12 will keep its helmets and shoulder pads in closets at least until the spring when, maybe, we'll have more clarity on how mankind emerges from this health crisis. Two "Group of Five" leagues — the Mid-American Conference and the Mountain West Conference — have also cancelled play this fall. But as of now, the Memphis Tigers and ten football-playing AAC brethren are preparing to clash on the gridiron next month. What are we to make of the differing approaches to the same contagion?
  • Larry Kuzniewski

When I ponder what football in 2020 might look like, it's not the empty stands (a given) that captures my mind's eye. It's the sidelines. During an FBS college football game, more than 100 people — players, staff, trainers — stand along each sideline, typically over a 60-yard strip (between the 20-yard lines). It's the precise opposite of social distancing. It's social packing. Will every player and coach on every sideline this fall wear a protective mask? How will trainers safely address a twisted knee or turned ankle? When a player is unable to leave the field under his own power, how many people can safely attend to his care and transportation?

These are superfluous questions, of course, when it comes to football. On every snap in every game — more than 100 times per game — at least five and often as many as 11 players on one team each collide with a player on the other. It's the kind of human behavior a catchy virus dreams about. Can such a sport be played while, at the same time, keeping that catchy virus outside the stadium?

Here's the word that will most come into play in the weeks and months ahead, especially if football teams do, in fact, kick off near Labor Day: myocarditis. The condition's quick definition (via Wikipedia): "inflammation of the heart muscle, also known as inflammatory cardiomyopathy." Links have been established between COVID-19 infection and myocarditis, and specifically in the bodies of athletes. A sport already afflicted with criticism for the damage it does to the human brain is now measuring if it can be played without damaging another rather vital organ in the human body. Were I a 20-year-old athlete, my sense of immortality might supersede concerns about my gray matter. But damage to my heart? I suppose football can be played after one gets one's "bell rung" a few times. If the heart isn't operating properly, a lot more than football will be lost.

The coronavirus is a worldwide villain (thus use of the word pandemic). It knows no region, certainly no conference affiliation. Which makes a look at the football conferences ready to play this fall somewhat troubling: they all include schools in the southern United States. Do the powers-that-be running the SEC, ACC, Big 12, AAC, Sun Belt, and Conference USA have a handle on controlling the coronavirus that the leagues up north and out west haven't discovered? We all love (or hate) the correlation between the South and football, how you can't live with (or in) one without loving (or adopting) the other. But at what cost during a pandemic?

In late July, I asked Memphis quarterback Brady White — a California native and a PhD. candidate, mind you — if he was prepared for an interruption or cancellation of his final season as a Tiger. "What we're doing now is different from everything we've done in the past," he said. "We recognize that, and we accept it. We know the possibilities, but we're preparing for a full season. We're preparing to be playing September 5th at the Liberty Bowl. You'd rather over-prepare and be ready to play than sit on your hands and then you're behind the eight ball [when games are played]. I love the way we're doing it. The biggest thing for football players in general is getting your mindset to 'go' mode."

We'll know soon enough if the AAC and other southern football conferences choose the "go" mode for 2020. As college students gather on campuses where masks are required everywhere except dorm rooms, college football players will — or won't — take the field with even more at risk than their knees and thinking caps. Those deciding when (or if) to take such a risk must get this right, as there won't be a second chance.

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Monday, August 3, 2020

Live Sports: Pandemic Therapy

Posted By on Mon, Aug 3, 2020 at 8:58 AM

I went to bed angry Sunday night for the first time in months. Truly pissed off. Having waited more than four months to see my hockey team of choice — the Stanley Cup-champion St. Louis Blues — play a meaningful game, I watched them lose their opening playoff tilt by the narrowest margin possible in a timed contest. The Colorado Avalanche scored the game winner with a tenth of a second on the clock, and it took almost 10 minutes of video review to confirm that tenth of a second existed. Infuriating, that ice hockey game played in August.

And damn, did the anger feel good.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Ja Morant

For the first time since the novel coronavirus changed our planet — at least that part occupied by the United States — in mid-March, we have a packed sports calendar. The NBA has resumed its season with 22 teams each playing eight "seeding games" in Orlando, a one-city "bubble" designed and operated to contain that insidious virus and still provide televised basketball at its highest level.

Likewise, the NHL has opened its postseason with two bubble cities, both north of our border: Edmonton and Toronto. If you like sticks and pucks, you can turn on the NBC Sports network today — a Monday in August – and watch live playoff hockey for more than 12 hours, a total of six games to be played (starting with the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes at 11 a.m. central). This is a new, if disorienting, form of bliss.

Major League Baseball is trying, too. Instead of localized, condensed play within one or two bubbles, MLB is trying to coordinate 30 mobile bubbles — one for each team — and present a 60-game regular season followed by an expanded postseason. And it's not working entirely, not if you ask the Miami Marlins or St. Louis Cardinals. The two National League franchises have each been locked down after virus outbreaks, quarantined in hotels while rapid testing measures just how many players or staff in traveling parties of more than 50 carry the contagion. And let me tell you, the only thing worse than no pandemic baseball is pandemic baseball with your favorite team not allowed to play. It's waking up on Christmas morning with gifts under the tree . . . for everyone but you.

It still feels good. For more than 100 days, sports fans have pined for the "welcome distraction" of games and scores to track. Well, guess what? Some of that distraction isn't welcome in normal circumstances: a blown lead, a narrow loss, a game-changing call that goes against your team. It purely stinks. And it lingers. In all the right ways.

The Memphis Grizzlies lost their first two of eight seeding games as they cling to the final (eighth) playoff spot in the Western Conference. They lost to a pair of teams — Portland and San Antonio — below them in the standings, teams unlikely to catch Memphis for a postseason berth . . . unless the Griz allow them. Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are as electric as any young tandem in the league, and they both had moments over the weekend, Jackson burying a late-game three-pointer against the Spurs that forced overtime . . . until it didn't (thanks to a buzzer-beating foul that led to game-winning free throws for the bad guys). What if we've waited all this time to see our Grizzlies, and the "show" becomes a bubbled-season collapse into the draft lottery? (Memphis plays New Orleans Monday, then will face five playoff teams. Should the Grizzlies make the postseason, they will have earned it.)

More than 1,000 Americans are dying each day from COVID-19. The U.S. president, here in August, is calling into question the very lifeblood of democracy: our voting system. Children and teachers from coast to coast are wondering if they'll become the lab rats for a "return to normal" no one feels comfortable defining. Times are still really, really tough. But we have sports again, at least a version. Justin Thomas is now a Memphian for life, his win in the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational highlighting the beautiful TPC Southwind — and countless tributes to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital — for a national TV audience, including the thousands of Memphis fans forced to watch from their living rooms. It felt good, and it felt right, watching Thomas barely hold off defending champ Brooks Koepka.

And even when sports don't feel right — when the game-winning goal is scored by a villain — it still feels good. Let's stay healthy, and let's play on.

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Monday, July 27, 2020

WGC Returns to Memphis

Posted By on Mon, Jul 27, 2020 at 11:19 AM

TPC Southwind won't be packed with galleries of fans this week, as it typically has been for decades when the PGA Tour comes to town. But make no mistake. With the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in town for the second year, Memphis will be the center of the golf universe for four days. The field will include the top eight players in the World Golf Rankings (at the top of the list, Jon Rahm) and 70 others competing for a total purse of $10.5 million and a bounty of 550 FedEx Cup points for the winner.
Defending champion Brooks Koepka. - PGA TOUR
  • Defending champion Brooks Koepka.

Defending champion Brooks Koepka and three other players answered some questions in advance of the most unusual PGA event Memphis has ever hosted.

There's irony in the absence of fans in golf, as silence is expected on each shot. Is it a different kind of silence, though, with no gallery?

Brooks Koepka: I'll tell you what, it's very weird. You're used to so many people following your group and cheering, and even when you hit a bad shot, the little gasp they do, you're used to that. It's a weird feeling. Sometimes when you hit one offline, you can see the crowd kind of scurry over there so you know where it is and it just now becomes a little bit tougher. I've had to do it a few times, but you're searching for a ball over there; that three minutes comes up rather quick. You don't have as many people searching for it. It is weird when you make a birdie and there's no applause, no cheer, no anything. It's kind of an eerie feeling, but at the same time, I'm just happy to be back playing.

Tommy Fleetwood: For me, I've always kind of pictured the atmosphere with crowds and everything, whether it be winning a major or winning a Tour event or anything like that. I always think about what that feeling's going to be, the reaction and interaction with the crowds. I think at times you've seen the emotion from players — which has been just the same — but there's no doubt about it, there's going to be less noise, less ebbs and flows momentum‑wise without the crowd living and breathing it with you. So maybe that does play a big part. Probably be silly to say that it doesn't, but we'll see.

Tony Finau: It's really strange. I thrive on that energy, having them out here. I don't mind the distraction of fans. That dynamic is amazing for our game. I miss that energy.

Rafa Cabrera-Bello: You miss the crowds, obviously. We want silence, but only for the moment before we hit. The rest of the time, we don't mind [the crowd noise] at all. We wish they were here.

Those watching the WGC on television will welcome any live sports in ways they haven't before. Do you feel like the PGA Tour is providing a form of stress-relief by playing during the pandemic?

Cabrera-Bello: I have no doubt it's been good. We have the opportunity to be one of the first sports back out there, as close to normal as it can possibly be. If there are fans who might not otherwise be watching, it will be good to grow the game.

Much of the season's rhythm was lost with the cancellation of the Masters and U.S. Open. Does this put that much more of a premium on a tournament like the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational?

Finau: Every tournament seems to be extremely important. No matter whether you're playing for Ryder Cup points, FedEx Cup points, world-ranking points. They're all extremely important because of how condensed the season has been. You look at every week as a major week.

Cabrera-Bello: We may play fewer majors this year, so that would give more importance to the World Golf Championships, but they'll always be a step down from the majors, unfortunately, for me.

Professional golf in Memphis has long been tied to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Have you been able to visit the hospital . . . and does this connection distinguish the upcoming tournament on your own playing schedule?

Finau: It's a great tournament. The work they do for St. Jude is amazing. I've been down to visit that hospital. It's pretty cool. Gives you a sense of humility, seeing how grateful those kids are just to have life. I'm looking forward to competing there.

Cabrera-Bello: It's amazing. It's one of the best courses we play all year, FedEx has its headquarters there [in Memphis], and what they do to help the kids [at St. Jude]. When you can manage to save a kid's life, there's nothing better in the world than that. As a recent father, I can only imagine what parents go through when they have a sick kid. All the support — and not just financial, but moral — for St. Jude is truly unbelievable.

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Monday, July 20, 2020

Baseball’s Back! (Right?)

Posted By on Mon, Jul 20, 2020 at 9:42 AM

As Major League Baseball opens the first made-for-TV season in the sport's history, 30 clubs will be measured by four components: pitching, hitting, fielding, and what might best be described as bubble management. The defending-champion Washington Nationals return the best one-two pitching punch in the game: Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. They have one of the most exciting young sluggers in the game in Juan Soto. They lost a slick-fielding third baseman when Anthony Rendon departed for the Los Angeles Angels. But here's the question that may decide the champs' 2020 fate: How antisocial are the Nats?
  • Taka Yanagimoto / St. Louis Cardinals
  • Mike Shildt

This is where we are in the age of coronavirus. A baseball team's starting rotation will only be as strong as the five men in that group are at self-isolation. An urge to stray outside a team's "bubble" — whether at home or on the road — could prove catastrophic when "quarantine" and "contact-tracing" become part of the box scores we check in the morning. There's never been required teamwork quite like this. How smoothly your favorite team's shortstop and second baseman turn the pivot may be less important than how quickly your outfielders don their masks upon leaving the ballpark.

AutoZone Park will remain dormant, as the St. Louis Cardinals' minor-league training camp will be housed in Springfield, Missouri (home of the franchise's Double-A club). But several former Memphis Redbirds — including skipper Mike Shildt, the 2019 National League Manager of the Year — will help determine if the upcoming 60-game season will be memorable for reasons beyond its brevity. Here are seven to watch.

Yadier Molina — The 38-year-old catcher's remarkable streak of 15 consecutive seasons with more than 100 games behind the plate will come to an end, but Molina has a pair of significant milestones within reach. He needs 37 hits to reach 2,000 for his career, a number that should all but punch a Hall of Fame ticket for the nine-time Gold Glove winner. And when he plays his 17th game this season, he'll become only the third man — after Stan Musial and Lou Brock — to play 2,000 games for the Cardinals.

Adam Wainwright — Like Molina, Wainwright — who turns 39 in August — is climbing some significant charts in the record book. With two wins, Wainwright would move past Bob Forsch (163) for third place on the Cardinals' career chart. Should he start six games with Molina behind the plate, the two will climb into sixth all-time for games played as battery mates. (Six more would give them 271, the most in a half-century.)

Jack Flaherty — In a regular season squeezed down to two months, pitching will be more of a premium than ever, and Flaherty enters the season as the Cardinals' unquestioned ace. Still only 24 years old, Flaherty is coming off a season in which he struck out 231 hitters, the most by a Cardinal since Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in 1970. A team simply cannot endure a losing streak in the abbreviated campaign, and Flaherty would appear to be the antidote for such.

Tommy Edman — The 25-year-old Edman can be classified as a throwback player, a utility man — remember that tag? — who can play six positions, bat at the top or bottom of the batting order, and bring speed to both the base paths and the field. Look for Edman to play every day, but check the lineup for exactly where.

Paul DeJong — If you asked me to identify a player most likely to be a Cardinal in the year 2030, I'd go with DeJong (who turns 27 next month). After less than two months in Memphis, DeJong took over at shortstop for the Cardinals in 2017 and has slugged 74 home runs in the three seasons since (30 last year). He's emerged as a strong fielder and was the Cardinals' lone representative in the 2019 All-Star Game. If he can cut down on the strikeouts (149 last season), DeJong has several more All-Star trips in his future.

Matt Carpenter — The designated hitter has arrived in the National League, and Carpenter could be the man to make it a position of impact for St. Louis. Having bounced from second base to third and over to first since 2012, Carpenter has been a hitter without a position to call his own. Having lost 89 RBIs when Marcell Ozuna departed for Atlanta, the Cardinals desperately need the 34-year-old Carpenter to find his All-Star form at the plate. After drilling 36 homers and finishing ninth in MVP voting after the 2018 season, Carpenter slumped to a slash line of .226/.334/.392 (with 15 homers) in 2019.

Carlos Martinez — The team's ace as a starter merely three years ago, Martinez took over closer duty last season when Jordan Hicks went down for Tommy John surgery. While he'd like to start again, Martinez would bring a degree of ninth-inning certainty to a team that will, presumably, play a lot of low-scoring games.

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Monday, July 6, 2020

The Ghosting of Memphis Sports (Part 3)

Posted By on Mon, Jul 6, 2020 at 11:35 AM

“Just as every restaurant, company, and organization across the country has had to change the way they operate to keep their customers safe, we’re having to do the same thing. . . . You can be assured, we’ll manage it appropriately.”
— University of Memphis Athletic Director Laird Veatch (June 11th)

Picture the Liberty Bowl packed with 59,000 fans for the home team's epic win over SMU last November, ESPN’s cameras broadcasting that sold-out football frenzy for the entire country to enjoy. Picture it now, because you won’t see it again — a football stadium packed to capacity — anytime soon. The University of Memphis has already disclosed the likelihood of limited seating — perhaps only season-ticket holders — if football games are played this fall. The aim, of course, is to practice a form of social distancing in an environment built for the precise opposite.
  • Sean Locke Photography/

No human being on the planet had knowledgeable experience with a pandemic before the current crisis hit. The global shutdown has stretched the thinking capacity of the world’s smartest scientists, to say nothing of what it’s done mentally to the rest of us. So what can be expected of leaders like Veatch in the realm of sports, where just about every instinct — starting with the gathering of people to, you know, watch — feels counterintuitive?

For longtime followers of the Tiger football program, the jokes write themselves:

“Social distance? Did you attend a game during the Larry Porter years?”

“Masks at a football game? Have you eaten French fries at the Liberty Bowl?”

The Tigers have played more than 50 years in a stadium about 20,000 seats too large. Until they started winning conference championships, that is. That oversized bowl may turn into a blessing if pandemic conditions persist. Arkansas State and UT-Martin — to name two opponents Memphis is scheduled to host this year — are unlikely to draw a crowd much larger than 30,000. Smallish groups (10 people? 20?) may be asked to sit together, and visits to the restroom, as uncomfortable as it sounds, will likely be regimented and monitored. (Even a crowd as small as 10,000 would make, say, “two visitors at a time” all but impossible in a public restroom.)

Here’s the thing: We have to try. Carefully and intelligently, but we have to try to play games again. Major League Baseball is scheduled to return later this month, a 60-game season of regional play that will, hopefully, be followed by a postseason and World Series in October. (It will be a cruel tease for fans of the Memphis Redbirds, as minor-league teams will not be stocked with players this year.) The World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational has been rescheduled for July 30-August 2 at TPC Southwind. Golf is among the few sports made for a pandemic, where the view on television can be a better experience than hiking a course with a gallery of fellow fans. If the players and tournament officials can be properly monitored and cared for, the WGC could be an unforgettable — and singular — highlight of the Memphis sports summer.

There’s a reason beyond cheering and championships to find our way back to spectator sports. Games we play move dollars we spend. “If things play out as we’re currently projecting, it will be a seven-figure impact — to the negative — for the [athletic] department,” says Veatch in describing the financial hit the U of M will take in a reduced-seating world for football and men’s basketball. “We’re trying to get our heads around how to manage that appropriately.”

The absence of sports — locally and worldwide — has been traumatic, but hardly tragic. Not when the COVID-19 death toll worldwide has climbed above half a million. Not when the United States has become the global test case for how not to manage a killer contagion. No, the absence of sports has been merely a painful casualty of a global crisis.
More patience required. More determination. We’ll remember 2020 as the year we learned it’s not so much our right to cheer our favorite teams, but a privilege.

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Monday, June 29, 2020

The Ghosting of Memphis Sports (Part 2)

Posted By on Mon, Jun 29, 2020 at 9:16 AM

“I coach and mentor young people who are hurting, angry, and expressing themselves in the only way they know how. They want justice, fairness, and to be treated as human beings. Some are looking to me for answers and I do not take that lightly.”
— University of Memphis basketball coach Penny Hardaway (June 8th)

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death — the 46-year-old choked under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25th — two images were paired and shared all over social media. One showed that ruthless officer, kneeling on Floyd’s neck, while the other showed former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, kneeling (in 2016) to protest the mistreatment of African Americans in the United States. Both images stirred outrage by segments of the American population. (Kaepernick has not thrown a pass in the NFL since 2016.) But only one of them showed a man dying.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Penny Hardaway

Sports may have felt absent — lost, even — before Floyd’s murder. As thousands of Americans took to the streets to protest police brutality, though, a new layer of emptiness became part of the shutdown: Sports didn’t seem to matter. For the first time in almost three months, legitimate American crowds were seen on live television, most people wearing masks, an acknowledgment that human proximity in the time of a pandemic brings danger, no matter how worthy the cause for gathering. There was no cheering in these open-air arenas, though, and the chants had little to do with winning a game or championship. Instead, there were chants for justice, for the end of racist-driven brutality, for African Americans to enjoy the most fundamental, basic freedom of all: to breathe.

The Black Lives Matter movement — amplified in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder — somehow made the silent game nights in Memphis less of a void. Had there been a Redbirds home stand the week of June 1st, would Memphians have enjoyed their barbecue nachos while images on the stadium’s flat screens showed protesters being sprayed outside the White House, the American president clearing a path for a photo op? That colorized smoke Memphians have come to love before and during a 901 FC match looks all too similar to the chemicals that dispersed Americans merely exercising their right to assemble. Sports are distraction, sure, but they can distract only so much.

The social anguish brought statues back into the headlines, particularly those of long-dead “heroes” of the Confederacy. In Richmond, Virginia, city leaders announced plans to remove the bronze replica of the most revered of all Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee. (Tennessee legislators, alas, stubbornly refuse to closet a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the state’s capitol building.) These statues matter. Their removal matters, a more-than-symbolic statement about an era of hatred and racism that must never again be celebrated. That noose — rope-pull? — in NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace's Talladega garage may have been there for months. Maybe hate wasn't behind the image. But NASCAR's reaction — that glorious march of drivers and pit crews in unison behind Wallace's car on race day — was a vivid reminder of how far we've yet to travel for racial justice.

Here in Memphis, we no longer see statues of Forrest or Jefferson Davis in downtown parks. Better yet, we’ll soon see a statue go up, one of Larry Finch, the Memphis Tiger basketball legend who shined so brightly in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination here in 1968. The city will gain a memorial to an African-American sports figure doing what athletes do best: bringing communities together. How far might the symbolism — for brotherhood and tolerance — stretch in the year 2020 and beyond? Minus the games we’re used to cheering, Finch’s statue will be an outsized reason for applause, especially in the context of a world trembling with unrest. Larry Finch made Memphis better, and we can be better still. Let him remain a standard.

A pandemic erased sports from the Memphis landscape, but only temporarily. A concurrent movement gave sports a perspective Memphians — and an entire country — desperately needed. Perspective we must hope long outlives the pandemic.

Next week: How do spectator sports mix with socially distant culture? We're about to find out.

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Monday, June 22, 2020

The Ghosting of Memphis Sports (Part 1)

Posted By on Mon, Jun 22, 2020 at 10:05 AM

It felt almost perfect, in that “too-good-to-be-true” territory the most passionate fans have grown to fear. On November 5th, 2019 at FedExForum, the Memphis Tigers opened the most anticipated basketball season in over a decade with a drubbing of the South Carolina State Bulldogs. James Wiseman — the crown jewel in coach Penny Hardaway’s top-ranked recruiting class — scored 28 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in merely 22 minutes on the court.

But Wiseman’s squad wasn’t the only Top-20 team in town. Three days earlier, with ESPN’s College GameDay crew placing the Tiger football program on the brightest stage it had ever seen — has Beale Street ever been so packed? the Liberty Bowl so truly blue? — Memphis upset SMU thanks to a record-setting night by Antonio Gibson (386 all-purpose yards!).
Precious Achiuwa, AAC Player of the Year - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Precious Achiuwa, AAC Player of the Year

The Memphis Grizzlies appeared to have the NBA’s most dynamic rookie when Ja Morant put up 30 points and nine assists in his third game. And it wasn’t just what we saw unfolding as Thanksgiving approached; the horizon appeared glowing. Tim Howard — the Tim Howard, the most recognizable living American soccer star — would take an active ownership role with 901 FC, the local USL Championship outfit. And it appeared one of baseball’s top prospects — St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson — was on his way to AutoZone Park for some fine-tuning with the Triple-A Redbirds.

But there’s a reason fans fear “almost perfect.” Before his second game, Wiseman learned he’d been declared ineligible by the NCAA for having received moving expenses from his future college coach (Hardaway) in 2017. He played two more games as the university appealed the decision, but upon finally accepting the suspension, Wiseman would never wear blue and gray again.

The Tiger football team won the program’s first American Athletic Conference championship — right here at the Liberty Bowl — on December 7th, only to see beloved coach Mike Norvell depart for Florida State the next day. (Ryan Silverfield enjoyed a head-coaching debut unlike any other, leading the Tigers against Penn State in the Cotton Bowl.)

Then it all stopped. All of it. The Tigers and Grizzlies played a winter of basketball, Morant running away in the Rookie of the Year race and the Tigers’ second-best freshman (Precious Achiuwa) earning AAC Player of the Year honors. But Grizzly playoff prospects and a chance for the 21-10 Tigers to reach the NCAA’s “Big Dance” via the AAC tournament hit the invisible wall — less forgiving than brick-and-mortar — we’ll remember as the coronavirus pandemic.

At least Memphis basketball fans saw something. Both of AutoZone Park’s tenants — the Redbirds and 901 FC — remained dormant as March turned to April, then April to May and June. An operation that relies almost entirely on the ticket-buying public found itself an oversized shell — all that brick-and-mortar — unable to entertain, to create the warm-weather buzz Bluff City fans had come to crave...and take for granted.

The announcement in June that the Southern Heritage Classic would not be played this year seemed especially cruel. The football game between Jackson State and Tennessee State — a September clash at the Liberty Bowl since 1990 — represented not just African-American sports, but African-American enterprise, culture, and outreach, its accompanying parade through Orange Mound among this city’s most distinctive gatherings...and impossible during a pandemic.

That almost-perfect feeling disappeared in such devastating fashion, and with losses that compounded just as positive rates among COVID-19 testing fluctuated uncomfortably high. Instead of micro-analyzing Hardaway’s third recruiting class, many of us were counting masks among those we saw in public. Who is taking safety guidelines seriously, and who has simply had enough of pandemic protocol? Can a community live without sports? Certainly. Is it the kind of life we’ll have to identify as that fabled “new normal?" Having witnessed the Belmont Stakes run with nary a fan in the stands, we can only hope not.

Next week: As spring turned to summer, sports remained dormant, but crowds again gathered, and for a much bigger cause.

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Monday, June 1, 2020

A New "Feel" for Sports

Posted By on Mon, Jun 1, 2020 at 8:40 AM

There was once a discussion on Seinfeld in which it was agreed Tuesday is the one day that doesn't have a "feel," a distinctive place in the human psyche as a week unfolds. Having turned the calendar on April and May without baseball, I'd argue an entire season — spring, we call it — has less of a feel than it once did, a pandemic having temporarily erased the daily pulse of our national pastime. (If you can't tell, I miss baseball like I imagine an amputee misses a leg.) That missing "feel" for spring includes no Masters, no Kentucky Derby, no NBA playoffs, no NHL playoffs. Spring in the year 2020 isn't just numb . . . it's blank.

But baseball will return. Perhaps in a few short weeks. So will other sports. Having endured close to three months without scores or standings to check, I have more questions than answers about the day we again have something to cheer. Here are a few.

• When can we again "join the crowd"? There will surely be a "phase" of spectator sports in which no spectators are allowed, probably the most disorienting component in this return to normalcy. Baseballs will land in empty bleachers, a walk-off home run generating no more noise than the home team itself can deliver. TV microphones will likely pick up teammates' chatter on a basketball court, from screen calls to trash talk. If you haven't watched the NBA on a 10-second delay, get ready.

• Will asterisks fall like rain?
The teams that play in the NBA Finals get a four-month off-season. If professional basketball resumes in July, every team that takes the court will have had close to that same four-month break. To suggest the team that emerges from whatever playoff tournament the league creates is the "2019-20 NBA champion" is an absurdity. Players who would have missed the regularly scheduled playoffs (in May and June) with injuries could well be fit and bouncy for the made-for-TV summer session. And a World Series champion crowned after an 82-game regular season? Yes, friends, there will be asterisks. Fat ones.

• What form will football take? Two enormous enterprises — television and college campuses — desperately need football back this fall. No sport sells commercials like a live football broadcast, and no sport fuels a college athletic department (if not an entire college budget) like the one we watch on fall Saturdays. But let's be honest: There's no sport on the planet less "socially distant" than football. An FBS roster includes 85 scholarship players. If quarantine is still part of the fight against the spread of infection, even two or three football players testing positive — considering the number of teammates they've, literally, contacted — could be catastrophic. Unless asymptomatic football players are to be ignored as potential carriers. Which could have dreadful, life-threatening consequences. Much can happen in the three months before football season arrives. Here's hoping a rapid-testing mechanism and/or a vaccine are summer arrivals.

• Is there any pandemic benefit for a sports fan? Precaution will certainly mean the cancellation of the most fraudulent enterprise in American sports: preseason NFL games. These have long been snake-oil contests, sold to football fans in August for the same prices a November or December game costs, featuring players desperate to wear an NFL uniform, but unlikely to actually make your fantasy team come fall. (Players don't make NFL rosters by performing in preseason games. They do so based on their draft position and contract terms.) The NFL announced plans for a 17-game regular season (one more than has been played since 1978) with a reduction of one preseason game per team. Perhaps the pandemic will force a larger reconsideration of snake-oil "professional" football.

• If we can't go to the games, are the games worth playing? Emphatically, yes. If leagues can come up with smart, science-based protocols for playing games that count, then play ball. Television will be a lifeline for fans, but even the games we don't see — consider the thousands you don't see in a normal, pre-COVID year — will be worth the news and stories they generate. Humanity needs news and stories built for distraction more than we have since World War II. How did LeBron stay in shape during the shutdown? Can a Stanley Cup Final be played when it's 90 degrees outside the arena? If Tim Anderson bats .400 this season, will the headless Ted Williams roll over in his grave?

We need to feel sports again. So much healing remains, and that goes for the entire world. Turns out the games matter most because they don't matter all that much.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Professor Baseball

Posted By on Mon, May 18, 2020 at 8:33 AM

For 12 years now, Curt Hart has had the best teaching gig in town. He's taught "Baseball in America" at the University of Memphis, a course on the greatest sport known to man, and particularly its significance in American history. He took a seventh-inning stretch during preparation for his summer course (it's free and online) to answer a few questions.

What was the original inspiration for the course and how did you convince the U of M that you're the man to teach it?
The original course began in the spring of 2008. It was at the urging of former dean Dr. Dan Lattimore that I develop a class on baseball, including its myths and history. Dr. Lattimore recognized my experience in radio and association with Major League Baseball to utilize this in the classroom setting. Plus, while in radio I covered Baltimore Orioles baseball for years, and numerous Baseball Hall of Fame inductions in Cooperstown, New York. I should note that former Los Angeles Dodger Reggie Williams will be alongside me in this free online course: "Baseball — For the Love of the Game." Reggie and I will be doing five live classes in this as well. (Reggie is a minor league coach with the Cincinnati Reds.)
Curt Hart
  • Curt Hart

When the pandemic hit, we were without baseball from spring training to the regular season. It was University of Memphis president Dr. David Rudd, department dean Dr. Richard Irwin, and associate dean Dr. Joanne Gikas who made the suggestion that since we are without baseball, how about a free online course to help create interest in the game. We will discuss the development of the game from its early stages, the formation of the National and American Leagues, the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal, integration, steroids, the Baseball Hall of Fame, expansion, gambling, and sign-stealing.

Under normal conditions you get as many as 40 students in the classroom for the course. Do they walk into the room baseball fans, or are these students new to the sport and simply curious?
It’s a wide range of students who enroll for the class. These range from very little knowledge, to some facts about a certain team, all the way to the avid fan. Some fans include those who live and die by a particular team to those who have a great dislike for another club.

Do you teach with a chronological format, starting in "the deadball era," or is the structure more random?
The overall course covers the game transitioning from rounds, base and ball, to Town Ball (the most popular), to baseball and the nine-inning game of today. Debunking the Abner Doubleday myth is discussed early in the course. The formation of both leagues must be included, along with Alexander Cartwright turning a square onto a diamond and marking off 90 feet and assigning nine positions. Historian Henry Chadwick then comes onto the scene, who brings us the box score we use to this day. However, following the Deadball Era, Babe Ruth emerges and changes the game. Naturally, much more follows Ruth’s contribution.

Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, I imagine, are regulars in your lecture lineup. Who else plays a prominent role over the course of a semester?
Alexander Cartwright and Henry Chadwick, both of whom are recognized as co-fathers of the game. Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Branch Rickey, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Happy Chandler, Rube Foster, Satchel Paige, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Bud Selig, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Pete Rose.

Your background is in broadcasting. Do the likes of Mel Allen, Vin Scully, and Jack Buck come up in class?
We discuss when baseball first hit the airwaves with KDKA in 1921. Much talk is devoted to how certain owners “bucked” baseball going to radio for fear of losing fans. However, it reality increased the fan base and created much more loyalty. Great voices such as Bob Prince, Harry Caray, Marty Brenneman and more are included.

The "baseball is boring" crowd seems to be growing, especially among younger generations. How do you combat such sacrilege?
Fans who say this aren’t paying attention to the game, especially if they’re in the ballpark. These fans aren’t paying attention to the manager, the first- or third-base coaches, action in the bullpen and the dugout. And, they’re certainly not watching all the sign language being passed from one position to the next.

Who was your favorite team growing up? Favorite player? And have they changed over the years?
Growing up near Louisville, Kentucky, my favorite team was the St. Louis Cardinals. It was a long trek then to St. Louis. So the family and friends would head up I-70 to Cincinnati to catch the Cardinals in games against the Reds. These were at old Crosley Field and later Riverfront Stadium.

There were a few players that I followed. Two were Stan Musial and Curt Flood with St. Louis. I witnessed some great hitting and fielding through the years with those two. Another was Mickey Mantle; didn’t care much for the Yankees, but I enjoyed listening to his hitting prowess on the radio. On August 13, 1995, as I was driving to the radio station in Pennsylvania to prep for my sports talk show, a news report aired that Mantle had passed away. I pulled off to the side of the road and cried like a baby. It hit me hard that “The Mick” was gone. Just six years earlier I had a one-on-one interview with Mantle.

Share a central lesson of "Baseball in America" that can help us in these uncertain times.
Baseball has been the sport through the decades that binds us. It links us like family and keeps us close. For the true baseball fan, we breathe it, sleep it, and eat it. We hold this player or a team close to us. It’s a special love and devotion to the game that keeps us going. Even if our team loses a close game, we can look to tomorrow and say “We can play another nine innings and get a win.”

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Monday, May 4, 2020

Dancing Days

Posted By on Mon, May 4, 2020 at 9:15 AM

The pandemic has turned the lights off when it comes to live sports, but we're not entirely lacking sports drama. Not with The Last Dance, ESPN's 10-part series on the six-time NBA champion Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. (Six episodes have aired to date, with two more this Sunday, and the final two on May 17th.) It's fascinating journalism, and really only set in the world of sports. ESPN was able to give the Ken Burns treatment to a basketball franchise because of one transcendent human presence: Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Soak up all 10 hours, but you'll be left with zero ambiguity when it comes to the most famous man of an otherwise ho-hum decade. And I find the reflection significant on two levels.
  • Noren Trotman/NBA

First of all, how many athletes would you give 10 hours of your life's attention in documentary format? My short list: Muhammad Ali, Ted Williams, Bill Russell, Julius Erving, and Wayne Gretzky. I reached out to my Twitter pals and received the following submissions: Serena Williams, Jack Nicklaus, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Pete Rose, Tiger Woods. This kind of star power, in Jordan terms, is rarefied air. But quite honestly, those of us a certain age have read and heard the stories of Ruth, Robinson, and Ali, told well and told poorly. If John Goodman can play you in a movie, you take a backseat to Michael Jordan.

Rose and Woods are as infamous as they are famous (though both extraordinarily accomplished athletes, to say the least). Jordan, somehow, remains atop Olympus, even with his own shortcomings: that bizarre early-retirement-to-pro-baseball chapter, the gambling, the grudges. Similar to Erving, Jordan personifies cool when he walks in a room … but he won five more titles than did Doctor J. Back when posters were an actual thing, no one leaped from more walls than Michael Jordan. (I happen to own the finest Jordan poster ever printed, which I'm sharing with you here.) ESPN has reminded us that we have an actual living legend, one with juicy opinions on the likes of Isiah Thomas.

The second fascinating element of this mega-series is the temporal component. Jordan's magnificence shone brightest before the Internet. He is the last sports great to do his thing before Twitter and Instagram could micro-analyze every achievement (or transgression) before sunrise the next morning. It took a book being written — printed pages! distribution! — for us to learn details about Jordan's one-punch fight with teammate Steve Kerr during a Bulls practice. I'm not convinced LeBron James can ever achieve Jordan's Olympian perch for the simple fact that his docu-drama has already been told, one tweet, gif, or meme at a time. (We had footage of James getting off a plane after learning of Kobe Bryant's death before many of us learned of Bryant's death.)

I've been in close proximity to my share of celebrities, and exactly three have given me goose bumps: Robert Plant, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Michael Jordan. I didn't see Jordan play in person until he came to Memphis to play the Grizzlies in 2001 … in a Washington Wizards uniform. And that's precisely the magnitude of Jordan: He could have walked onto the floor at the Pyramid in Baryshnikov's tights or Plant's bell-bottoms and he would have raised goose bumps. A legend among us. I'm grateful for the folks at ESPN reminding their younger audience that a standard was set for basketball greatness in the last decade of the twentieth century. I'm not sure it's a standard that can be matched in this century or any century to come.

• The football revolution at the University of Memphis continues. When Antonio Gibson was chosen by the Washington Redskins with the 66th pick in this year's NFL draft, it marked the third straight year a former Tiger's name was called in the first three rounds. (Darrell Henderson was taken by the Los Angeles Rams in the third round last year, and Anthony Miller went to the Chicago Bears in the second round in 2018.) You have to go back more than 30 years to find a similar stretch (1985-87) for the Tiger program. All the more impressive, these are "skill position" players, the kind who make highlights on Sunday wrap-up shows. Win on Saturdays and a region will respect your college program. Help teams win on Sunday and the entire football-watching country will salute.

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