Monday, August 20, 2018

Stubby's Stretch Run

Posted By on Mon, Aug 20, 2018 at 9:48 AM

Daniel Poncedeleon tossed a one-hitter for the Memphis Redbirds on July 15th at Omaha, a gem that earned the 26-year-old righty his ninth win of the season. The last pitch he threw in that game was likely the final one he'll toss for the defending Pacific Coast League champions this season.

Two days later, Austin Gomber tossed five shutout innings at AutoZone Park to earn his seventh win of the season in a Redbirds victory over Iowa. Like Poncedeleon, Gomber can now be found in St. Louis, a member of the Cardinals' starting rotation.

On July 25th in Salt Lake City, 13-game winner Dakota Hudson had his start abbreviated after only one inning, Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp delivering a baseball to the mound in the bottom of the second inning with a note that Hudson had received his call from the parent club. He's now hurling out of the Cardinals' revamped bullpen.
Stubby Clapp
  • Stubby Clapp

Three pitchers representing 29 wins and 272 innings pitched for the 2018 Redbirds are no longer a part of Clapp's arsenal as the club battles toward a division title and a chance to defend its PCL championship. And the roster churn has been felt in the batting order, too. Outfielder Tyler O'Neill and third-baseman Patrick Wisdom combined to hit 40 home runs in less than five months for Memphis but are now with St. Louis, each part of a recent eight-game winning streak that has the Cardinals back in contention for a postseason berth in the National League. Centerfielder and leadoff man Oscar Mercado is now wearing the uniform of the Columbus Clippers, traded to the Cleveland system on July 31st.

With the exception of the still-curious trade of Mercado, the recent Redbirds attrition is merely the effect of a Triple-A franchise doing precisely what it exists to do: fuel the big-league club. But at what cost to the on-field product at AutoZone Park? A culture change was bound to happen with the firing of Cardinal manager Mike Matheny (on July 14th), but Clapp now finds himself essentially managing a new team, with two weeks to gel for (hopefully) two playoff series.

"I think we're about the same number of different players as last year [62]," says Clapp. "But last year, it was steady, for a longer period, and then the changes happened. This year, the changes have been since day one. It feels like a lot more this year. You could see it coming." Injuries to three stalwarts in the Cardinals' rotation — Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, and Carlos Martinez — made the luxuries of Hudson, Gomber, and Poncedeleon in Memphis more than St. Louis could afford.

"We put together a master plan," explains Clapp, "and then we put together a Plan B and a Plan C. That's just the way it is. It's what we're designed for. It's trying to find the right opportunities for guys either to get their work in, if they're down from the big leagues, or find the right area of the rotation for a new guy, or we might use this new guy out of the bullpen." Clapp emphasizes the value of veterans like catcher Carson Kelly, shortstop Wilfredo Tovar, and reliever Edward Mujica in maintaining a clubhouse atmosphere conducive to winning as new faces get accustomed to new lockers.

Despite stumbling through August with an 8-10 record (through Sunday), the Redbirds have a nine-game lead in their division of the PCL with 14 games to play. "We've been blessed," notes Clapp, "in that we did a good enough job at the beginning of the season to open a sizable lead. So we can do [the experimenting] without stressing over it. The worst-case scenario is that we lose a Triple-A baseball game. And that's the way I have to look at it. We want to win while we're here. But in the end, it's making sure these guys develop so they win [in St. Louis]. That's the key."

Clapp's name was mentioned as a candidate for the Cardinals' managerial job upon Matheny's ouster, and having won steadily over two seasons in Memphis — the Redbirds have a .625 winning percentage under Clapp — he'll be discussed among other major-league franchises this winter. And yes, Clapp would like to receive the call he's relayed to so many players over the last two summers. "In the grand scheme of things, obviously I want to be in the big leagues," says the 45-year-old Canadian once known primarily for his backflips in taking the field. "But that's not up to me. What is up to me: how we prepare these guys down here. Take it day by day. God will put me where I need to be. I try to get better every day, whether it's managing the game or relationships with players."

For now, Clapp manages a club hoping to hold off the Nashville Sounds, recent winners of 15 straight games, but still nine back of Memphis. The Redbirds must play 10 of their final 14 games on the road and face the Sounds in eight games that could decide a playoff berth. "We need to get our starting pitchers more comfortable," says Clapp. "When they start to do their thing, we'll reap some new rewards. Sometimes they're trying to do too much and not just be themselves. Some guys get hyped up and, for whatever reason, lose command."

This year's playoff schedule ensures the series clincher will be in Memphis for both the opening round and the final series. Clapp enjoyed one of those at AutoZone Park, 18 years ago. And he'd love another. But as he puts it, the Redbirds must take it day by day. "You gotta clinch first," he says with a smile. "I'm not about getting too far ahead of myself. I don't like being disappointed."

Monday, August 6, 2018

Can Redbirds Weather Cardinals' Transition Storm?

Posted By on Mon, Aug 6, 2018 at 8:41 AM

In May 2013, Sports Illustrated published an issue with five St. Louis Cardinals — all starting pitchers — on the cover. Above the iconic magazine's logo was a simple banner: "The Cardinal Way." The Cardinals were on their way to a second National League pennant in three years and the third of five straight playoff appearances. The story summarized the franchise's distinctive ability to build strong teams through drafting well, developing smartly, and executing fundamental baseball to the highest standard on the major-league level.

Cut to the present, and "the Cardinal Way" has become a brand of baseball from which those with a weak stomach must turn away. The Cardinals — winners of more Gold Gloves than any other National League franchise — have committed the most errors in the Senior Circuit. They are near the bottom of the NL in stolen bases, doubles, and triples, the kind of acts on a baseball field that energize a crowd, that demoralize (and more often than not, beat) an opponent. They have a quartet of pitchers on the disabled list — Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, and Alex Reyes — that would make one of the sport's finest rotations if healthy and taking the mound four out of five games.
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At last week's trade deadline, St. Louis parted ways with two of the system's best athletes, both centerfielders. After receiving MVP votes after the 2017 season, Tommy Pham was sent to Tampa Bay for three minor-league prospects. A few hours later, Oscar Mercado was shipped to Cleveland for two low-minors prospects. Mercado had been the Memphis Redbirds' spark plug for four months, leading the Pacific Coast League in steals (31) while topping the first-place Redbirds in hits (109) and runs (73). Mercado seemed to personify what the current Cardinal roster is desperately missing: a player with speed who makes contact at the plate and plays strong defense at a premium position. He'll now present that skill set in the Indians' system.

The disarray in St. Louis has dramatically impacted the team Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp has at his disposal for the stretch run of the PCL season. A five-man rotation of Memphis pitchers — Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber, John Grant, Daniel Poncedeleon, and Dakota Hudson — is now almost half the arsenal of arms called upon by interim Cardinal manager Mike Shildt. Slugger Tyler O'Neill (26 home runs for Memphis this season) is now platooning (with Harrison Bader) in centerfield for the Cardinals. St. Louis traded another Memphis slugger, Luke Voit, to the New York Yankees less than a month after Voit hit for the cycle in a game at Iowa.

For their first five games after the trade deadline, the Redbirds sent the following five men to the mound: Chris Ellis (his 10th start at the Triple-A level), Jake Woodford (6th), Austin Warner (2nd), Kevin Herget (27th!), and Connor Jones (2nd). Memphis somehow won three of the five games, and with no O'Neill, Mercado, or Voit in sight.

The Redbirds will get a chance to defend their PCL championship. Through Sunday's action, they hold a 13.5-game lead in their division. The question: How much magic potion does Clapp have left in whatever bottle he hides in the bowels of AutoZone Park? The 2017 Redbirds raised a pennant despite 62 players arriving and departing the Memphis clubhouse. Consider this year two of the parent club trying to re-establish footing in a National League that seems to be leaving "the Cardinal Way" well behind. The guess here is that Clapp will be in a major-league clubhouse himself next spring, either as a coach or in the manager's office. Can he deliver another trophy to the Cardinal system with the scraps left over by St. Louis management?

Sustained success in the daily grind of a baseball season is challenging with a club's best players healthy and available. When you have to check the spelling of a player's name on the back of his uniform? Good luck.

Monday, July 23, 2018

2018 Redbirds: Making Memories

Posted By on Mon, Jul 23, 2018 at 10:21 AM

Nothing secures a team's place in our collective memory like a championship.

The 2017 Memphis Redbirds won 91 regular-season games (a franchise record), then six more in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) playoffs to earn the club's third PCL title. That team set a high bar for the years ahead, particularly for the team that immediately follows them in the history books.

The 2018 Redbirds have answered the challenge. Through 101 games, their record (64-37) is but two games off the pace of the 2017 champs (66-35). Whether or not they raise another trophy in September, this year's team has made marks that will stand the test of reflection many years down the road.

We pay attention to sports, after all, for the memories they create. Let's count a few the 2018 Redbirds have made (or are making).

• The highest two-year win total — regular-season only — in Redbirds history is 159 (accumulated in both 2009-10 and 2010-11). After Sunday's win over Colorado Springs, the Redbirds have won 155 games since Opening Day 2017. So the team could theoretically break this mark with the entire month of August left to play.
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• First-baseman Luke Voit became just the second Redbird to hit for the cycle . . . and he needed two months to do it. Voit tripled and singled in a game at Iowa on June 30th before the game was suspended by a thunderstorm. The slugger got a good night's sleep, ate breakfast, then doubled and homered after the game was resumed on Sunday, July 1st.

• On May 9, 2017, Redbird pitcher Daniel Poncedeleon took a line drive to his head and suffered cranial damage so severe he wasn't sure if he'd be able to live normally again, let alone throw a baseball by professional hitters. On July 11, 2018, Poncedeleon struck out the side in his lone inning of work for the PCL in the Triple-A All-Star Game. Four days later, Poncedeleon became just the fifth Redbird to hurl a one-hitter in a shutout of the Omaha Storm Chasers. He's scheduled to make his major-league debut Monday night for the Cardinals in Cincinnati.

No Redbird has ever won the PCL's Pitcher of the Year award, but Dakota Hudson is the favorite with a little over a month left in the season. The former Mississippi State Bulldog leads the PCL with 13 wins, ranks third with an ERA of 2.36, and became the fifth Redbird pitcher to start the Triple-A All-Star Game (and first since 2005). Two more wins will make Hudson the first Redbird to earn 15 victories in a season.

• Through Sunday, Memphis centerfielder Oscar Mercado leads the PCL with 29 stolen bases. His next theft will make him only the fourth Redbird to steal 30 bases in a season and he has a chance to break Chad Meyers's franchise record of 43 (2002). Mercado is also second in the PCL in runs scored (67) with the franchise record of 92 (Scott Seabol in 2004) in sight.

• Outfielder Tyler O'Neill drilled three home runs to help the Redbirds beat Colorado Springs Sunday, his fifth multi-homer game of the season. He's now tied atop the PCL with 23 home runs for the season. O'Neill needs 13 dingers over the Redbirds' remaining 39 games to match Kevin Witt's club record (set in 2004).  

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Monday, July 16, 2018

St. Louis Cardinals in Crisis; Matheny Fired

Posted By on Mon, Jul 16, 2018 at 9:23 AM

As the Memphis Redbirds roll toward a second straight appearance in the Pacific Coast League playoffs, their parent club in St. Louis is undergoing a transition the proud franchise hasn't experienced since the internet was a public curiosity. After a dispiriting loss to the Cincinnati Reds Saturday night at Busch Stadium, the club announced the dismissal of manager Mike Matheny, the first Cardinal skipper fired since Hall of Fame-bound Joe Torre in 1995.

St. Louis is facing a third straight season outside the postseason party, a drought last witnessed in what is best remembered as the McGwire Era (1997-99). Matheny became the first big-league manager to reach the postseason his first four seasons at the helm (2012-15) and won the National League pennant in 2013. But the recent decline in both wins and competent play — they go together — was too much for the Cardinal brass to wait even one more game and dismiss Matheny during the All-Star break. The three-day respite is a good time for self-evaluation — on a team scale — so here are three thoughts on the current mirror-gazing at Busch Stadium.
Mike Shildt
  • Mike Shildt

• The Cardinals are still looking for The Guy.

The Man played his last game in 1963, and there will not be a “next Stan Musial.” But the ongoing lack of a slugger in the middle of the St. Louis lineup is becoming somewhat historic. Not since 2012 has a Cardinal driven in 100 runs (Matt Holliday was The Guy that season) and this year’s leader, through Sunday, is Jose Martinez with 56 (68 games remain on the Cardinal schedule). The big acquisition last winter was outfielder Marcell Ozuna, who slashed .312/.376/.548 for Miami last season but has disappointed as a Cardinal to this point with a line of .268/.309/.385.

The Cardinals’ only selection for Tuesday’s All-Star Game — and every franchise is granted at least one — was playing in Japan a year ago. This says as much about the milquetoast Cardinal batting order as it does about Miles Mikolas and his 2.79 ERA. (Catcher Yadier Molina was added to the National League roster to replace the injured Buster Posey.) Matt Carpenter has been a franchise linchpin, for good or ill, and recovered nicely from a dreadful start by hitting .313 and drilling eight home runs in June. But he’s not The Guy. His finest season (2013) came in a complementary role when he set the table for Holliday, Molina, Carlos Beltran, and Allen Craig in helping St. Louis win the National League pennant.

Tommy Pham’s breakout 2017 season now looks like a spike in performance and not the launch of a career trend. A 20-steals/20-homer star a year ago, Pham is hitting .243 and strikes one out of every four plate appearances. Not The Guy.

• An abundance of pitching is always good.

If St. Louis is to find The Guy, it will likely require departing with one of the best young arms in the National League (or, for now, the Pacific Coast League). Jack Flaherty stepped into the injured Adam Wainwright’s rotation slot and has two 13-strikeout games to his credit as a rookie. Reliever Jordan Hicks — 21 years old and having skipped Triple-A seasoning — has tested the limit of radar technology with his 105-mph fastball. Here on the farm, Dakota Hudson has dominated the PCL with 12 wins and a 2.42 ERA, good enough to earn the 23-year-old Tennessean a start in last week’s Triple-A All-Star Game.

With Michael Wacha ailing (again) and Luke Weaver struggling for consistency, the Cardinals can ill afford dealing a young arm whimsically. But president of baseball operations John Mozeliak — as he stares deeply into that mirror — must do some smart math in the weeks and months ahead. How much value does a pitching surplus bring if a hitting deficit leaves St. Louis on the wrong side of 3-2 and 2-1 scores?

• The NL Central is a two-team race . . . and neither team wears red.
Among all the self-evaluation, this has to be the hardest for Cardinal management to accept. For the better part of two decades, discussion of World Series contenders in the National League Central began with a scouting report of the Cardinals. The club's answer, at least through the end of this season, is interim manager Mike Shildt. "Shilty" is a baseball professor who won three championships (two at Class A, one at Double A) before managing the Memphis Redbirds for two seasons (2015-16). There's some irony to the title Shildt was given upon his promotion to St. Louis for the 2017 season: quality control coach. The Cardinals' quality standards need some controlling, to say the very least.

In covering Shildt for his two seasons in Memphis, I found two distinct character traits not found in every professional baseball clubhouse. Shildt has virtually no ego, at least not the kind that impacts decision-making in a dugout. He won't be surprised by in-game scenarios, which means he won't panic. And Shildt is grateful. A protege of the great George Kissell (father of "The Cardinal Way"), Shildt did not play professionally, so has found his way to the major leagues along a distinctive path, one where credentials had to be earned without the benefit of any past achievement on the field. He appreciates making a living in baseball, and particularly with the St. Louis Cardinals.

In this unusual time of crisis at Busch Stadium, gratitude and appreciation may prove to be guiding principles. There are teams to chase in the National League Central.

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Monday, July 2, 2018

The Capital Gazette and Ripples of Hope

Posted By on Mon, Jul 2, 2018 at 8:59 AM

I spent the last week of June on the North Carolina coast with my family, a welcome break from the deadlines and commitments of a career in journalism. But I’m never far away from this column, even with an ocean breeze distracting my senses. So when away, I brainstorm ideas with the hope of landing one that might be of interest to you. If not the kind of sports column that changes you, at least one to help distract in the right way.

Then on June 28th — my Thursday at the beach — five journalists at the Capital Gazette in Maryland died by gunfire in their offices, slain by a person unable to process anger but all too able to purchase a firearm. The horror felt intensely personal. These were my people, doing what my colleagues and I do every day. They shared my interests, my curiosity, my priorities. Informing the world — now and then, enlightening the world — was their call to duty. Never should such a career require an escape plan for an “active shooter” attack.
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But here’s the important catch, one “my people” would surely emphasize if they could: These were our people, all of us. There can be no more “us,” no more “them” if we — that universal pronoun — are to coexist. I know this because Bobby Kennedy told us so.

Much of my week in Carolina unfolded through the pages of Ripples of Hope, Kerry Kennedy’s superb collection of interviews and speeches by people of impact who found a spark of inspiration from RFK (the author's father) that grew into what might be seen as a collective flame. This may be the only book in which Bono and Van Jones share eloquent salutes to the same human being, the same spark. It's a flame that can fuel progress — it must, really — if only we’ll find a way to finally, as RFK put it, “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world.”

It’s inspiring, to say the least, to consider the relevance of RFK’s vision today, now a half-century since his assassination. It’s also maddening, the realization that so much remains to be done to approximate the world RFK hoped could be achieved, one in which the deprived can count on the fortunate to improve their chances for a happy, healthy life. I finished his daughter’s salute the day after five innocent people died from gunfire. In a news room. There is so much savageness left to tame.

The photo above was a wedding gift to my dad (also named Frank) in December 1967. Dad had a friend who worked on Capitol Hill, close enough to Senator Kennedy for such a gift to be possible. It hangs in my study now, and steers my thoughts in the right direction when frustrations — or sorrows — mount. I wonder what Bobby Kennedy did with the rest of his day after signing this picture. I know he made an impact, took a step toward his definition of progress.

One particular RFK quotation squeezed my heart in the aftermath of the Capital Gazette murders. I hope it finds life as a reborn ripple of hope.

There are people in every time and every land who want to stop history in its tracks. They fear the future, mistrust the present, and invoke the security of the comfortable past which, in fact, never existed.

Let's find a comfortable future, however challenging it may be. Help someone in need. Listen to someone who disagrees with you. And put the guns down.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Baseball's Bruises

Posted By on Mon, Jun 18, 2018 at 10:37 AM

If you’ve read this column with any regularity over the last 16 weeks, let alone 16 years, you know I have an affection for baseball. The planet seems to spin more smoothly when there are box scores to check in the morning and a game (or dozen) to check out in the evening.

As the temperatures rise, though, I find myself hot under the collar over various issues related to cowhide, lumber, and the seventh-inning stretch. None of these are deal-breakers for my relationship with the greatest game we know. But each of them are threats to the game’s place atop life’s mountain of pleasures. Even Marilyn Monroe had make-up pros on set. Let’s touch up a few of baseball's blemishes, starting now.
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• Hitting against The Shift.
It’s time we start capitalizing this infernal tactic where teams place three infielders on the right side of second base against hitters apparently unable to hit to the opposite field. Stars who hit from the left side — the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo is a prime example — stare at a virtually empty infield from third base to second, but continue to swing away. The belief, of course, is that you beat The Shift by hitting over The Shift.

Horse hockey. Why didn’t wise managers like Connie Mack, Casey Stengel, or Earl Weaver employ The Shift when they were winning championships on the way to the Hall of Fame? Because opposing hitters would attack a defense’s weakness . . . which includes a vacated position. I’ve seen the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter ground out to short rightfield (when he’s not striking out) against The Shift enough to know percentages are no longer close to even when measuring defense-to-offense advantage. So what is a sport — desperate for action that doesn’t require the baseball clearing a fence — to do?

Bunt. Learn to push-bunt, Matt. You too, Anthony. Drop a few bunts down the third-base line with the third-baseman occupying shortstop space and you’ll find The Shift dying a slow death. Some team — some system — will start teaching what is now slandered as “small ball.” That team will win a lot of games, and with hitters less expensive than those stubbornly swinging against The Shift. A player who can both bunt and slam? He will be your next generation’s superstar.

• The eight-man bullpen. If you’re an American League club, playing virtually every game with the designated hitter, keep all the relief pitchers you like. If you belong to the National League, though, this over-stuffing of arms must come to an end. We’ve reached a point where a starting pitcher has essentially done his job (and then some!) if he lasts six innings. At the slightest sign of trouble — 80 pitches! tying run on deck! — managers begin what they consider a game of chess with their relievers, calling upon as many as seven — seven — pitchers to finish a nine-inning game. (One sad reliever is relegated to extra-inning duty, should a game be extended.)

An eight-man bullpen leaves a club with merely four reserves for the infield, outfield, and catcher (one of these four being, of course, a backup catcher). Which creates scenarios all too often where a manager has plenty of arms at his disposal, but not the right man to pinch hit or improve his team defensively. An eight-man bullpen may feel like a modern security blanket, but it’s slowing the game down, allowing minor-league pitchers on major-league mounds, and reducing the opportunity for “small ball” reserves (that qualifier again) to make a difference with a game on the line. MLB needs to establish a limit of 12 pitchers for a big-league roster.

• Mike Trout on the West Coast. In the name of Mickey Mantle, we must forsake the land of Mickey Mouse and get the Angels’ centerfielder on a team in the central or eastern time zone. Far too many fans — particularly young ones — are missing the sport’s greatest talent because he plays more than 100 of his games after they’ve gone to bed.

I’m old school when it comes to player-team loyalty, and I love the idea of a star like Trout playing his first and last games in the same uniform. But he’s simply too good for the West Coast. The two-time MVP turns 27 in August and has several jaw-dropping seasons ahead. MLB needs to find a way for him to play those seasons where more of us can see him live. (The Yankees and Red Sox, let it be known, are excluded from potential landing spots. I’m for improving the game, not making the filthy rich even filthier.)

• Cellar-dwellers deciding playoff races. There are some very good teams in the big leagues this year: the Yanks and Bosox, of course, but also the Mariners, Brewers, Braves (yes, they’re back), and the world champion Astros. There are also a few dreadful teams: the Reds, Marlins, Orioles, and Royals come to mind first. Teams that happen to be in the same division with baseball’s version of a “tanker” are able to fatten their records with 19 games against those teams. Meanwhile, teams in other divisions must push and pull against actual big-league competition.

I’m not sure how to fix this without dramatically altering the way a schedule is played. The case could be made that bottom-feeders should be removed from the slate of contending teams . . . a form of relegation familiar to international soccer fans. And I’m talking midseason relegation. If the Reds can’t compete with the Cubs or Brewers, send them to play Triple-A teams until their record improves. And replace them on the slate of big-league teams with a record-based redrawing of the schedule after the All-Star break. Among baseball’s flaws, severe competitive imbalance is the most dangerous, long-term.

Now back to the action. The next bunt-single you see, stand and applaud.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Redbirds Roll as Roster Revolves

Posted By on Tue, Jun 12, 2018 at 2:55 PM

Roster churn is a way of life in Triple-A baseball.

The 2017 Memphis Redbirds won a franchise-record 91 games and the Pacific Coast League (PCL) championship despite suiting up 62 players over the course of the five-month season. (The active-roster limit in Triple-A is 25 players, just like the major leagues.)

That said, the 2018 Redbirds have become essentially an extension of the St. Louis Cardinals’ maligned bullpen. Still three weeks shy of the big-league season’s midpoint, nine pitchers have taken the mound for both Memphis and St. Louis this year. Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp and pitching coach Dernier Orozco spend a portion of their pregame routine evaluating that night’s bullpen options, starting with who, exactly, is in that bullpen for the next nine innings.
Stubby Clapp and Oscar Mercado
  • Stubby Clapp and Oscar Mercado

“A lot of it is scripted,” says Clapp, “depending on who we’ve used the last couple of days. What’s the situation if things blow up on us? Going through that before the game paints a picture for us. [Roster fluctuation] is what this level is about. I understand this now more than I ever did as a player. Sometimes you wish you could have something more consistent, but that’s not the nature of the beast here. I take what I get, and we go play.”

Even with the bullpen carousel, the Redbirds find themselves leading their division of the PCL with a record (38-26) almost identical to the same stage last season (39-25). Holdovers like third-baseman Patrick Wisdom, shortstop Wilfredo Tovar, and infielder Alex Mejia have helped retain the culture of winning, even as the club has fallen a notch in the hitting department. (The Redbirds batted .278 as a team in 2017 but this year are hitting .265 through Sunday.)

“Different characters, different egos, different personalities to handle,” says Clapp when asked about any adjustments he’s found himself making in his second year managing at this level. “Last year we had a lot of young, hungry guys, who could smell their opportunity. This year, we have those young and hungry guys back with experience, and we have to handle that dynamic: When am I gonna get my call?”

Originally projected to play centerfield in Memphis, Harrison Bader received a promotion to St. Louis before Opening Day when Cardinal infielder Jedd Gyorko landed on the disabled list. That merely opened a slot for 23-year-old Oscar Mercado, a midseason candidate for the team’s player of the year. In his first season at Triple-A, Mercado has hit .311, and leads the team with 44 runs and 13 stolen bases.

“He had to learn the league a little bit,” says Clapp. "Pitchers aren’t just going to give in to you. He’s learning the catchers, when he can run, when he can’t run. And he’s not forcing opportunities. He’s already got a mature presence about him in the clubhouse.”

Second-baseman Max Schrock — acquired in the December trade that sent Stephen Piscotty to Oakland — has been another seamless addition to the winning ways at AutoZone Park.

“Schrockie wants to put a good foot forward, this being his first year in the organization,” says Clapp. “He’s quiet, goes about his business . . . just plays. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss what he does.”

The 2017 PCL Manager of the Year deflects any notion that his presence has helped keep the Redbirds aloft. Clapp emphasizes a philosophy that’s as simple as it is profound for a team of players one phone call from their childhood dreams: “Make sure everybody gets enough playing time, and that they know they’re part of the big-league equation.”

When the Redbirds lost eight of eleven games in May, cracks of tension may have formed in a clubhouse so accustomed to winning. But Clapp didn’t allow it.

“Last year was not the norm,” he emphasizes. “This is more of a normal season. Keep your heads up and keep rolling. They did.”

Monday, June 4, 2018

Q & A: FESJC Tournament Director Darrell Smith

Posted By on Mon, Jun 4, 2018 at 9:42 AM

Memphis Flyer: This is your third year as tournament director. What have you learned since taking the position?

Darell Smith:
I’ve been around the event for quite some time, and to [my predecessor] Phil Cannon’s credit, I’d been given a lot of exposure to the operation. What I love most is the excitement leading into tournament week, and all the things we have to do. It’s a long list, but that excitement is something I thoroughly enjoy. There are a lot of moving parts: players, customers, volunteers, staff. Everyone is pulling in the same direction to put on the best show we possibly can come tournament week.

The player relationships have been fun. This time of year, we’re talking about sponsor exemptions. Those are some tough conversations, but rewarding conversations at the same time. I’m a relationship person and we have relationships with people all across the country, a lot of good, young players. You’re making some pretty big decisions for some young men who may have a career in professional golf. I wish I could give an exemption to everyone who writes us with a request to play.
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MF:
It really is a relationship business, more so than many other sports.

DS: There are things players have done for us or [St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital] that influence our decisions. At the end of the day, we’re trying to raise funds and awareness for St. Jude.

MF: The big news this year is actually 2019 and the tournament’s transition to a World Golf Championship event, one of just four on the planet (also Mexico City, Shanghai, and Austin, Texas). Summarize how this unfolded.

DS: We have a title sponsor [FedEx Corp.] that believes in professional golf at an extremely high level: what it does for their business, how it impacts their business. Being attached to this event since 1986 and the FedEx Cup since 2007, they see the value of the PGA Tour brand. We knew there was an opportunity to enhance our event, and with FedEx’s support, we were able to make that happen.

What it means for this event and this city, I probably can’t put into words until you see it in 2019. The World Golf Championship puts our event on a whole new platform. It will be called the World Golf Championship-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. The field will take on a whole new look. The event we’re replacing — in Akron, Ohio — had 49 of the top 50 players in the world. That excites me and excites our team. I know it excites Memphis and the surrounding communities.

MF: How will planning — and running — the tournament change when it’s moved from June to August?

DS: The amount of hospitality we have on site will increase. Our “build,” as we call it, will be larger. We’ll probably start the build about when we do now [the week of the Masters in April]; it’ll just be larger. Tents, flooring, all that. At the end of the day, it’s still a golf tournament, which we’ve been producing for 61 years now. There could be some small tweeks to the TPC Southwind golf course, and we’ll get to those as soon as we can after this year’s tournament.

MF: Before 2019, we have the 2018 FedEx St. Jude Classic. Share your elevator pitch for this year’s event.

DS: We’re welcoming back two-time defending champion Daniel Berger. We’re happy that we’ll have Phil Mickelson, who will be playing his sixth straight year here. They’ve set the bar for us. There’s so much to do, and more than just golf. We’re debuting some new hospitality venues on our corporate side.

MF:
What’s “Fireworks on the Fairway”?

DS: That’ll be Friday night [after the second round]. Our friends at Southern Security Federal Credit Union came on board as presenting sponsor. It’s really just to keep the party going after play. We’ll finish play around 6:45 p.m., then we encourage everyone to come out to Southwind. Beginning at 5 p.m., admission is free. Parking is just $10 [in Lot C]. If you have to work on Friday, we feel sorry for you, but you can go home, pick up the kids, and come out to have a great time. We’ll have live music and around 9 p.m., we’ll shoot some fireworks. Bring a chair or blanket. This is part of our continued evolution: doing things outside the world of golf. We want this to be the largest community event it can possibly be.

MF: You mentioned community. How many volunteers are on board this year?

DS: Eighteen-hundred volunteers. It’s the fabric of the PGA Tour. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to produce this every year. The majority are from the Mid-South, but we have a committee leader who lives in Columbus, Ohio. This tournament is far bigger than one player, one vendor. It really connects. People know about St. Jude, and they’re committed to the event.

MF: Are you able to watch much golf during tournament week? And are there certain players you make time to follow?

DS: I’m a golf fan. I always try and keep my eye on the leader board. I’m always interested in sponsor exemptions, seeing how those individuals play. We’re offering them that spot, and we like to see them play well. I don’t really have a rooting interest, but I love our past champions, love that they come back and devote time to us. We like Brooks Koepka playing our event last year, then going to the U.S. Open and winning. Playing our event may have had no impact on him winning the Open, but inside our walls, we think it does.

MF:
Did you have a favorite golfer growing up?

DS: I grew up watching Tiger Woods. He got me interested in golf. I started working in the game of golf when I was 14. I got a job as a cart boy in Bartlett, and I’ve worked in the game [for 21 years now]. Watching Tiger and his dominance, that’s what I remember.

MF: Putting you on the spot: Who will wear the winner's seersucker jacket this weekend?

DS: I’m gonna go with Brooks Koepka. He’s played us religiously over the last several years. He’s back from injury and is playing awesome. We’d love to see him, as reigning U.S. Open champion, play well. He’s said this golf course sets up perfectly for him. He’s my pick for the 2018 FESJC champion.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

I'm Keith Hernandez, Too

Posted By on Tue, May 29, 2018 at 11:59 AM

“The wall isn’t smooth. Its façade is brick, with mortar inset between the brick. So if I throw the ball against the wall, it might hit a corner of the brick or an indentation within the brick itself and not come straight back. It is unpredictable, just like a live batter.”
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Keith Hernandez played a version of wall ball as a boy in the early Sixties. If there’s no one else around with a glove or bat, young baseball players improvise with a rubber ball and a solid wall (preferably brick for the reasons Hernandez describes above). I played wall ball, too. There was a significant difference, though, between my version and the one described by Hernandez. When I played in my grandmother’s backyard in the early Eighties, you see, I pretended to be Keith Hernandez.

****

Baseball books are my comfort food. If a novel or presidential biography (I love both) serves as escape, a book about baseball — for me — is a further departure from the drills and details of the day. But I’m Keith Hernandez (released earlier this month by Little, Brown and Company) was something new. Something as close to personal as I’ll likely ever read on a published page under another author’s name. The book is a terrific biography, worth reading for any baseball fan regardless of team (or player) of choice. But it was something deeper for me.

I learned to love baseball at my dad’s side. He grew up in Memphis, the son of a man who fell in love with the St. Louis Cardinals when Dizzy Dean was baffling hitters (and the English language) and Ducky Medwick was dodging bottles in decisive World Series games. Dad shared stories of his own heroes: Harry Brecheen, Red Schoendienst, and especially the great Stan Musial. He emphasized the remarkable talents of Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, though I was too young to fully understand, let alone follow, their exploits.

But there was Keith Hernandez. And Ted Simmons. And Garry Templeton. These were my Cardinals, my heroes, a trio of late-Seventies stars whose numbers in the box score each morning sent my day in one direction (three hits for Tempy!) or another (hitless night for Simba). Hernandez emerged from relative anonymity to superstar in 1979, becoming the first infielder to win a Gold Glove and batting title in the same season on his way to National League MVP honors. I was 10 years old and wanted to become Hernandez someday.

As we learn in I’m Keith Hernandez, the Cardinal (and later New York Met) star had his own childhood heroes, some of them San Francisco Giants (he grew up in the Bay Area) but others St. Louis Cardinals. Hernandez’s dad, John, had been a teammate (briefly) of Musial’s during the latter’s 1945 service in the Navy. When Hernandez wasn’t playing “wall ball” as a child, he was learning the game on teams coached by his father, watching film (when it was actual film) of his batting stroke for areas to improve.

It’s the need — and burning desire — to improve that shapes Hernandez’s memoir, and it’s the component that will engage any reader who once had difficulty hitting an inside fastball or felt anxiety over securing a position on the diamond. We learn that it wasn’t until after Hernandez received that MVP trophy that he truly felt he belonged in the major leagues, that he’d come as close as he could to mastering the hardest skill in sports. You won’t find recollections of the 1982 World Series championship Hernandez won with St. Louis (or the 1986 title he captured as a Met). If ever a memoir has focused on the proverbial journey to stardom, it’s the one with Hernandez staring at us from under a Mets helmet on the cover. (Hey, you gotta sell books in the Big Apple.)

Between tales of his rise as a player, Hernandez includes views of today’s game that might not be familiar to fans who don’t hear his color commentary as a Mets television analyst. He’s decidedly old-school, even as he acknowledges the impact of analytics and computer-generated scouting reports in building a modern baseball team. “It’s a lot of information to sift through in a very sterile, static learning environment,” writes Hernandez. “And despite all the headphones and video games in today’s youth culture, we are all still social creatures.”

Hernandez’s wall-ball skills took him further than mine took me. (Among baseball’s fabled five tools, I had two, and outfielders who can run and catch don’t play beyond high school.) But boys tend to join the ride of their baseball heroes, and I felt very much a part of Hernandez’s glory days as a Cardinal. Revisiting those days in the pages of his illuminating and heartfelt memoir was a joy along the lines of a cleanly struck baseball into the right-centerfield gap.

Monday, May 21, 2018

NBA Draft Doldrums

Posted By on Mon, May 21, 2018 at 9:07 AM

Luka Doncic - WORLD NEWS INSIDER
  • World News Insider
  • Luka Doncic
Live long enough and you’ll see your share of game-changing NBA drafts. A quick personal brainstorm brings to mind the four drafts from 1982 to 1985, when James Worthy, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Patrick Ewing (the first lottery!) were chosen by teams they’d lead to the NBA Finals. When the Orlando Magic won the chance to draft Shaquille O’Neal in the 1992 draft, it altered the next year’s game-changing draft when the same franchise again chose first (Chris Webber) but traded its top pick for Golden State’s third (Anfernee Hardaway). The 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs tanked long before it was a thing (with star center David Robinson sidelined by injury), landed the top pick in the lottery, and secured themselves the greatest cyborg to ever play basketball in Tim Duncan. Five championships ensued.

Four of the first five picks in the 2003 draft — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade — are bound for the Hall of Fame. (The second pick that year was once a Memphis Grizzly! Alas, those were Darko days.) Cleveland landed a championship-caliber point guard in 2011 (Kyrie Irving), a year after James took his talents to South Beach. New Orleans grabbed Anthony Davis in 2012, the finest big man in the game today and a future champion (mark it down).

All of this leaves me underwhelmed by last week’s big event, the draft lottery “won” by the Phoenix Suns. Despite being represented by Elliot Perry — as gracious and classy a good-luck charm as this city can claim — our Grizzlies ended up fourth in the draft, despite the franchise’s best tanking efforts having resulted in the second-worst record in the league in 2017-18. According to the consensus view, this means no Deandre Ayton and no Luka Doncic. The Grizzlies will likely be able to choose among a pair of one-and-done college forwards, Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson. (Oklahoma sharpshooter Trae Young will tantalize, the Memphis franchise long devoid of a consistent three-point threat.)

But here’s the thing: If Memphis is to be disappointed with its position in the draft, it presupposes Ayton and Doncic will be annual All-NBA talents. And I just don’t see it happening. The NBA is a different league today than it was as recently as 2010, when the three All-NBA centers — Dwight Howard (first), Amar’e Stoudemire (second), and Andrew Bogut (third) — were comfortable posting up, backs to the basket, waiting to be “fed” by a point guard or wing. Perhaps Ayton will run the floor like a small forward and defend like a stretch-four. But that’s quite a bet to make with Golden State and Houston dominating the Western Conference playing a style that forgoes a traditional center.

And Doncic? I’ll believe a European wing is an NBA star when I see a European wing star in the NBA. Scanning the list of All-NBA teams over the last decade, exactly one such player catches the eye: Slovenia’s Goran Dragic was a third-team honoree in 2014 with Phoenix. Perhaps Doncic will climb such heights with Sacramento or Atlanta (the Suns will take Ayton, right?). But that must be the standard — All-NBA status — for a player chosen among the top three in the draft. It’s not automatic.

All this is to say I look toward the 2018-19 Grizzlies season with more curiosity about Mike Conley’s return (and health) than I do the franchise’s choice in next month’s draft. Bagley and Jackson appear to be the kind of players that can land a rotation spot in their first NBA game. But neither appears to be the game-changer much of the country lost its breath over in analyzing last week’s lottery. Let’s agree on this: The NBA draft lottery is a party worth attending only when no other will have us.


  

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Monday, May 14, 2018

Carson the Cardinal (For Now)

Posted By on Mon, May 14, 2018 at 9:29 AM

Carson Kelly
  • Carson Kelly

Carson Kelly is a major-league catcher. We can say this in the present tense, as Kelly is currently receiving pitches for the St. Louis Cardinals, the team’s longtime backstop — one Yadier Molina — having suffered an injury no man wants to suffer when he took a 100-mph foul tip to the groin in a game against the Chicago Cubs on May 5th. (Molina had emergency surgery after the game and is projected to be sidelined four weeks.)

The I-55 pipeline between Memphis and St. Louis has long been frenetic, a two-way street traveled by current-and-future Cardinals hoping to maximize their time in the Gateway City and minimize any return trips to the Bluff City. Ask pitchers John Brebbia and Mike Mayers about this and they could probably map every rest area and billboard over the 280-mile trip. But no player currently personifies this final leap in the Cardinals’ farm system more than the 23-year-old Kelly. Yes, he’s a big-league catcher, for now. But yes, he’ll be back in Memphis this summer. For how long, it will depend largely on the health of his acclaimed mentor behind the plate.

There are major-league teams — probably as many as a dozen — for whom Kelly would be catching every day right now. (You can count on Kelly’s name surfacing in trade rumors as the summer unfolds, particularly if the Cardinals continue to struggle collectively at the plate.) His position is one that requires defensive talent to reach the majors, with merely competence as a batter enough to survive. Kelly was awarded a Gold Glove as the finest defensive catcher in all of minor-league baseball in 2015. In limited duty upon being promoted by the Cardinals last July, Kelly gunned down five of 11 would-be base-stealers. At the plate, he hit .283 in 68 games for Memphis but struggled for the Cardinals, batting .174 in 69 at-bats. (Since his promotion last week, Kelly has one hit in 16 at-bats.)

The fact that Kelly makes a living donning “the tools of ignorance” is splendidly ironic, considering he recently earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Oregon State. And it’s that “muscle” between Kelly’s ears that could make the eventual transition to full-time duty in St. Louis more seamless than it would be for most men following Molina. For it’s Molina’s game management — and particularly his handling of pitchers — that has long been considered the skill that makes him a future Hall of Famer. The eight-time Gold Glover turns 36 in July and has a contract that will keep him in St. Louis at least through the 2020 season. As Kelly plots his course for permanent status in the majors — with the Cardinals or another team — Molina’s proximity is considered a unique benefit.

“I’ve been getting to spend more time with Yadi,” said Kelly in April, shortly before the Redbirds opened their season. “Especially in spring training, then last year a good chunk of time [with the Cardinals]. All the studying of reports, formulating a game plan. It’s a little bit different up there. The small things he does, what he picks up on. We’d watch video together. Those little things . . . they’re priceless and they’ll help me down the road.”

Kelly has hit .234 in 21 games for Memphis this year. When I asked him about his hitting stroke in April, Kelly emphasized baseball’s elusive C-word: “Everything is about consistency in this game. It’s the small little details. There’s always something to work on.” Over the parts of three seasons with Memphis, Kelly has thrown out 22 of 86 base thieves. He remains the third-ranked player in the St. Louis farm system (behind pitchers Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty) and 55th in all of minor-league baseball according to Baseball America.

In addition to Molina, Kelly has the luxury of a manager in St. Louis who caught more than 1,000 big-league games and won four Gold Gloves himself. “Mike Matheny has been so gracious to me, helping me through my process,” notes Kelly. “Everybody’s been great to me, but it seems like Mike goes that little extra mile. It’s pretty awesome.”

He plays the most demanding position in sports, but with tools few others can claim. Whether he establishes traction with the Cardinals or here in Memphis, Carson Kelly appears to be playing for long-term gains. Something his economics professors would appreciate.

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Monday, May 7, 2018

J.B., Penny, and Redbirds Alumni

Posted By on Mon, May 7, 2018 at 10:12 AM

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I’m glad the Memphis Grizzlies named J.B. Bickerstaff — officially — their head coach last week. Compassion isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a factor in hiring a person to lead a professional sports franchise, but Bickerstaff has earned this chance, particularly having coached 63 games last season with the requirement, in roundball terms, that he dribble with one hand only. Exactly zero of those games included Mike Conley at point guard (to say nothing of departed icons Tony Allen or Zach Randolph). The 39-year-old son of a longtime NBA coach (Bernie), Bickerstaff has paid his dues with more than 10 years as an assistant and was unable to earn the Houston Rockets’ trust over the course of 71 games (and a playoff appearance) in 2015-16. The least the man deserves is an 82-game season, a healthy roster (Conley and Chandler Parsons are crossing all fingers and toes), and the mission to win every game he can. Throw in a top-five pick in this June’s draft, and Bickerstaff may look back at his first winter calling the shots at FedExForum as one of those disguised blessings that shapes a career.

• It’s hard to imagine a wider disparity between what I’ll call the “buzz rating” of the Memphis Grizzlies’ head coach and that of the new Memphis Tigers’ coach. On a scale to 100, I’d put Bickerstaff’s number somewhere in the 40s. He’s recognizable among regular followers of the Grizzlies (and there are indeed many of them in this town). But Bickerstaff could walk into Huey’s and find a table without much ado.

Penny Hardaway eating at Huey’s? He’d never get the toothpick out of his burger. The Tiger icon is the most talked-about, photographed, and cheered human being in Memphis right now. And his college record is 0-0. This isn’t so much about one coach being better than another. It’s not even about relative popularity. (Though the last Memphian as popular as Penny Hardaway died at Graceland 41 years ago.) The disparity speaks to the difference an NBA coach can make in a league dominated by its superstar players and the difference a college coach can make on a landscape dominated by superstar coaches. Next winter will be fun as both these “rookies” establish credentials for the near and long-term future of their beloved teams.

• Last Friday in Seattle, Albert Pujols became the 32nd player in baseball history to reach the 3,000-hit plateau. In the age of WAR and OPS, any achievement involving “counting stats” is somewhat diminished, but we should appreciate Pujols’s climb up the national pastime’s Olympus. He’s only the fourth player to count more than 600 home runs among his 3,000 hits (following Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Alex Rodriguez). Pujols may have played only 14 games as a Memphis Redbird (in 2000), but he has a permanent place — and red seat — in Bluff City baseball history for the walk-off home run he hit at AutoZone Park on Sept. 15, 2000, to give Memphis its first Pacific Coast League championship.

There’s already discussion about whether Pujols’s Hall of Fame plaque will feature a St. Louis Cardinals hat or that of his current team, the Los Angeles Angels. When Pujols wins a pair of World Series and three MVP awards with the Angels, this will be worthy of debate. There is one player in the history of the sport who can claim ten consecutive seasons with a .300 batting average, 30 home runs, and 100 RBIs. All ten of those seasons (2001-10) happened with Albert Pujols wearing a Cardinals uniform.

• It was a big weekend for another man who enjoyed a brief moment in the sun as a Memphis Redbird. Vince Coleman led the National League in stolen bases six straight seasons (1985-90) as a St. Louis Cardinal, then attempted a comeback in 1998, signing a minor-league contract with the Cards. He was the first Memphis Redbird to step into a batter’s box (on April 9, 1998). Coleman left the Redbirds after 20 games — and eight stolen bases — when it became clear a big-league promotion wasn’t imminent. Last Friday, Coleman was elected to the Cardinals Hall of Fame. He’ll be inducted along with a star from the 1940s (Harry Brecheen) and another from the 1990s (Ray Lankford) on August 18th.

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Monday, April 30, 2018

How to Enjoy the Griz-less NBA Playoffs

Posted By on Mon, Apr 30, 2018 at 10:58 AM

UNSPLASH
  • Unsplash
What’s a grit-and-grinder to do during the NBA playoffs without any Beale Street Blue? For the first time in eight years, Memphis basketball fans have been forced to watch the NBA’s best determine a champion without the Grizzlies in the mix. Fret not. Below are five ways to spark your rooting interest (or the precise opposite).

• Bad Guys Lose, Too
The Grizzlies have reached the playoffs 10 times and have been eliminated by a total of six franchises: the Spurs, Suns, Mavericks, Thunder, Clippers, and Warriors. Among this sinister six, only the Warriors are left for Griz fans to stomach as things get real in May. Find vicarious thrill, Memphis fans, in knowing the Spurs fan base — one that has cheered the elimination of the Grizzlies four times — has as much chance at a 2018 championship as those of us married to a 22-60 club. And let’s be honest: Any NBA postseason without the Clippers is better than one with L.A.’s second sons.

• Real Rivalry Renewed
Expansion and relocation have diluted NBA rivalries, but aside from Celtics-Lakers, there’s none better than Boston-Philly, a pair of original franchises now meeting in the Eastern Conference semifinals. In 1967, the 76ers ended the longest run of championships in the history of American pro sports when they beat the Boston Celtics to prevent a ninth consecutive championship for Bill Russell and friends. (The Celtics recovered and won the title the next two years.) The Celts and Sixers met in the Eastern finals four times over a six-year period (1980-85) when Larry Bird and Julius Erving were the two best forwards on the planet. The latest confrontation will miss Celtic stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, but feature two of the most dynamic young stars in the sport: Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. And those Grizzlies fans who got on board this winter’s tank ride can consider Philly the poster franchise for such big-picture tactics. Between the 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons, the Sixers won 19, 18, and 10 games for the right to grab their prize tandem.

• LeBron
We’ve reached the stage of LeBron James’s brilliant career where it’s impossible to turn away from his exploits. (Think Michael Jordan over the course of his second three-peat with the Bulls, now 20 years ago.) James’s Cavaliers are really the second playoff team that will feel the impact of Irving’s absence, the star guard having forced the trade that sent him from Cleveland to Boston last summer. Kevin Love has been a reasonable running mate, but these Cavs feel more like the faceless bunch James put on his back and carried to the Finals in 2007. Among the four teams left in the Eastern Conference, the three-time defending champs are actually the underdogs. For James to reach an eighth straight Finals, he’ll have to lead upsets — no home court advantage — over top-seeded Toronto and the winner of the Boston-Philly series. And if he does, that sculpture of James on the NBA’s Rushmore will gain a layer around the jaw line.

• The Villainy!
The Houston Rockets — owners of the NBA’s best record this season (65-17) — have the best backcourt in the game: Chris Paul and the league’s scoring champ, James Harden. They are also about as unlikable a duo as you’ll find. Paul, let’s be real, is a Clipper in Rockets clothing, best appreciated with a Tony Allen sneaker near his kisser. Harden’s greatest skill with the ball is drawing fouls. He shot 727 free throws in 72 games this season, almost 100 more than the second-most prolific foul “victim.” It’s like cheering the playground whiner (you remember him). The Rockets are the most likely team to topple the Warriors in the Western Conference. They’re also perhaps the only team fans would prefer Golden State backhand into the offseason.

• Oh, Canada
No Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup in 25 years. With that the case, the Toronto Raptors aim to flip the North American sports script and take the Larry O’Brien Trophy north of the border. If you can’t find another team worth your support through May and June, the Eastern Conference’s top seed will do. And hey, four-time All-Star Kyle Lowry was once a Grizzly.

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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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