Monday, August 14, 2017

The Sports World When Elvis Died

Posted By on Mon, Aug 14, 2017 at 9:29 AM

It’s safe to say the world changed on August 16, 1977, when Elvis Presley died at his Graceland mansion. But how much? How different is the world — and Memphis — today from that sad, late-summer day 40 years ago? I’ll leave the economy and geopolitics to other columnists. But the world of sports? Let’s take a look.

• 1977 was a dark year for professional baseball in Memphis, the last summer the Bluff City had no team to cheer. The Triple-A Memphis Blues had gone bankrupt after three seasons, former Detroit Tiger star Denny McLain proving not as capable in the front office as he’d been on the pitching mound. To the rescue came Avron Fogelman, the local real estate titan and baseball enthusiast. Baseball returned to Memphis in 1978 when the Double-A Chicks (affiliated with the Montreal Expos) joined the newly expanded Southern League. (The St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate spent precisely one season — 1977 — in New Orleans. It was a transition year between Tulsa and Springfield, Illinois.)

Up in the majors, a pair of American League expansion franchises — the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays — were playing their first season, but it was a pair of bluebloods on their way to the World Series. The Los Angeles Dodgers (led by the likes of Steve Garvey and Don Sutton) were running away with the National League West and the New York Yankees (with Reggie Jackson playing his first season in pinstripes) chased down Boston and Baltimore to win the AL East. The Yanks beat L.A. in the Fall Classic, Mr. October hitting three home runs in the clincher.

• Two months before Elvis died, Al Geiberger made golf history at Colonial Country Club by shooting the first 59 in PGA history. He didn’t break 70 in his other three rounds, but Geiberger’s epic Friday earned him the winner’s check at the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic. (Gary Player finished tied for second and Lee Trevino tied for ninth.) Jack Nicklaus only had 14 major titles in August 1977. The Golden Bear would win four more.

• Coach Wayne Yates commanded Memphis State basketball in 1977. The Tigers lost to Alabama in the NIT in March ’77 then missed out on postseason play the next year, posting a 19-9 record in 1977-78. Dexter Reed led the 1976-77 squad with 17.0 points per game. (The Tigers split their two 1977 meetings with Louisville.)

• The NBA grew from 18 franchises to 22 for the 1976-77 season with the addition of four ABA survivors: San Antonio, Denver, Indiana, and the New York Nets. (The Nuggets won their division.) Portland won a memorable championship behind Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas, beating Philadelphia in a six-game championship series. A talented kid already known as “Magic” Johnson led Everett High School in Lansing, Michigan, to a state championship.

• Fall camp was underway for the 1977 Memphis State football team when the news from Graceland broke. The Tigers had enjoyed four consecutive winning seasons and were on their way to a fifth (6-5) under third-year coach Richard Williamson. The ’77 Tigers lost to Ole Miss and Tennessee, but beat Mississippi State at the Liberty Bowl. Future NFL receiver Earnest Gray starred for the Tigers that fall.

• The NFL had 28 teams in 1977, among them the Baltimore Colts, St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Oilers, and San Diego Chargers. The Oakland Raiders won the last Super Bowl Elvis (presumably) watched, beating Minnesota in Super Bowl XI (in January 1977). Five Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacks were among the league’s ’77 passing leaders: Bob Griese, Roger Staubach, Kenny Stabler, Fran Tarkenton, and Terry Bradshaw. Archie Manning suffered his seventh straight losing season in the huddle for the New Orleans Saints. Tom Brady, it should be noted, was born 13 days before Elvis died. Legends come and legends go.

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Monday, August 7, 2017

Cardinal Congestion

Posted By on Mon, Aug 7, 2017 at 9:09 AM

The St. Louis Cardinals are like the Los Angeles freeway system: clogged in multiple directions and seemingly going nowhere. But all that sunshine!

Team president John Mozeliak (and presumably owner Bill DeWitt) chose to stand pat at the July 31st trade deadline, despite the Cardinals’ sub-.500 record and four months of mediocre, often sloppy baseball on the field. It’s not as though St. Louis lacks movable parts. The question is one of value. Who wants those movable parts, and can the Cardinals improve their roster by moving them?
Cardinals President John Mozeliak
  • Cardinals President John Mozeliak

As Cardinal manager Mike Matheny dodges more and more arrows, certain positions (or groups of positions) will be carefully watched. Whether or not St. Louis can steal a playoff spot in the weaker-than-expected National League Central, Cardinal players will be auditioning the next two months. Ignoring (if briefly) the glaring need for a run-producing thumper in the batting order, here’s a quick look at the positional pileups:

• OUTFIELD — Dexter Fowler, Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, Stephen Piscotty
You could add Jose Martinez to this grouping, but Martinez has played the role of “fourth outfielder” to perfection, producing runs in spot starts (a grand slam in Sunday’s win at Cincinnati) and delivering as a pinch-hitter from the right side. Fowler has missed more than 20 games with various bumps and bruises and doesn’t look like a long-term solution in centerfield. But he’s playing under a fat, no-trade contract three more years. (This is how congestion starts.) Pham started the season by hitting .283 in 25 games here in Memphis and has been the most productive Cardinal outfielder this season (.314 batting average, 14 home runs, 15 stolen bases). He’s older than Grichuk and Piscotty (turns 30 next March), which means we’re likely seeing Pham in top form. Does this make him a long-term fix (perhaps in centerfield) or trade bait?

Piscotty and Grichuk have been uneven influences this season. Both were considered rising stars twelve months ago. It’s hard to envision both wearing Cardinal uniforms this time next season.

• MIDDLE INFIELD — Paul DeJong, Aledmys Diaz, Kolten Wong
Like Martinez in the outfield, Greg Garcia has owned his role as a reserve infielder, meaning at least one of these three players is without a job in St. Louis. (Diaz is currently playing shortstop for Memphis.) All three have been considered top prospects. Diaz played in the 2016 MLB All-Star Game and DeJong has combined to hit 28 home runs this season between stints with Memphis (13) and St. Louis. But none can be said to have seized the everyday gig at second base or shortstop. You have to believe one of them will be part of a deal this winter.

Yes, the 31-year-old veteran is a one-man freeway pileup. Remember that glaring need for a middle-of-the-order run producer? The most likely position for such a player is first base (where Carpenter has played primarily this season), third base (where Carpenter played the previous three seasons), or a corner outfield (its own distinct pileup, as noted). Perhaps Jedd Gyorko (the Cards’ leading run producer) will be moved to open third base for a new arrival (or Carpenter). If not, the Cardinals must manage the irony of a three-time All-Star complicating the eight-man mix they must send to the field on a daily basis. For good or ill, Carpenter has performed better as a leadoff hitter (.291/.427/.503) than when he’s dropped to third (.221/.353/.429) in the order, which makes that need for a new bat all the more glaring.

The one position in baseball where a surplus is healthy is starting pitching. And the Cardinals have seven men in the mix for five rotation spots in 2018. (This includes free-agent-to-be Lance Lynn, Luke Weaver, and Alex Reyes, recovering from Tommy John surgery last spring.) If that much-needed slugger is to be landed this winter, one of these arms may need to be sacrificed. Until then, expect some confused and congested roster management by Matheny. The 2017 St. Louis Cardinals have become the poster team for an important business lesson: Abundance, when uneven, can be inadequate.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

2017 Memphis Redbirds: Wisdom Prevails

Posted By on Tue, Jul 25, 2017 at 9:44 AM

The Memphis Redbirds are enjoying a season for the ages. In beating Las Vegas Sunday afternoon at AutoZone Park, the Redbirds improved their record to 65-35, reaching 30 games above .500 for the first time in the 20-year history of the franchise. With more than 40 games still to play, the team record for wins in a season — 83 by the 2000 Pacific Coast League champions — is all but sure to fall. The winning continues as the club continues to sacrifice talent to the parent St. Louis Cardinals.

No fewer than four of the eight position players who took the field for Memphis on Opening Day can now be found wearing Cardinal uniforms. Outfielder Tommy Pham and shortstop Paul DeJong are playing every day for St. Louis. (DeJong is just the second player to hit 10 home runs for both the Redbirds and Cardinals in the same season. The first was Rick Ankiel in 2007.) Slugger Luke Voit is playing some first base for the Cards and delivering right-handed pop off the bench. Just last Friday, St. Louis promoted Carson Kelly, the top-ranked catching prospect in baseball. Memphis has won all four games (through Monday) since Kelly’s departure.

What has kept this team so steady, so consistently strong despite the roster fluctuation? The first place you might look is third base, where 25-year-old Patrick Wisdom — in a supporting role — has put up numbers that could earn him team MVP honors by season’s end. Through Monday, Wisdom has clubbed a team-leading 22 home runs, driven in 66 runs (also tops on the team), while hitting .251 with a .506 slugging percentage. The power numbers are already career highs for Wisdom, a 2012 supplemental draft pick of the Cardinals. (He entered this season with a career batting average of .237 and hit 14 home runs in each of two seasons at Double-A Springfield.) 
Patrick Wisdom
  • Patrick Wisdom

Wisdom spent the 2016 season with Memphis, but missed 64 games with an injury to his left hand (broken hamate) that required surgery. He’s been healthy since spring training, though, and has focused on the same development priority of every Triple-A player from Pawtucket to Tacoma: consistency. Instead of muscle memory, though, Wisdom’s emphasis has been on the organ that controls muscle memory. “It’s being able to switch off from baseball once you leave the field,” he says. “Finding an outlet, whether it be reading, video games, hanging with the guys, a TV show. This game is so mental. Leave baseball at the field.”

Wisdom’s quick to credit Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp for instilling a don’t-quit, never-panic culture in the Memphis clubhouse. This has come in handy not just in game situations — the Redbirds are 7-0 in extra-inning contests — but in adjusting to the roster fluctuation as the Cardinals continue searching for a winning mix. “We just have an expectation to win,” says Wisdom. “Individually, we all bought into that mindset. We know what we need to do to be successful. When that comes together, you see the results. We have a lot of high-character guys in the clubhouse, and that carries over to the field. Whether we’re playing card games, or just sitting around the table, we’re laughing, having fun together. We come to the park ready to win. And we bounce back after a loss.”

Wisdom has heard stories of Clapp’s playing days in Memphis, which hasn’t hurt the rookie manager’s standing among the players he now must lead. “When he played, he played with a lot of grit, liked to get dirty on the ground,” says Wisdom with a smile. “He’s rubbed that off on us. Have fun, but play hard. He allows us to be ourselves, and that’s a big part of [our success].”

Barring a calamity of Hindenburg proportions, the Redbirds will return to the PCL playoffs in September, their first postseason venture in three years. And Wisdom offers a confident nod when asked if this team can win the franchise’s third PCL championship. “I like our team,” he stresses. “I like the way we play baseball. There’s no panic. Our pitching has kept us in games, we play solid defense, and we’ve been hitting the ball. I like our chances. It’s been a fun year.”

A native of California, Wisdom grew up rooting for the San Diego Padres and L.A. Angels. He confesses to having to do some research upon being drafted by the Cardinals. “I knew they were one of the two top franchises, along with the New York Yankees,” he says. If Wisdom continues to produce as he has in 2017, he may soon be able to continue that research in the clubhouse at Busch Stadium.

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Monday, July 17, 2017

An Athlete's "Third Death"

Posted By on Mon, Jul 17, 2017 at 9:19 AM

Thirteen days before Christmas in 1980 — I was 11 years old — I received quite the opposite of a Santa Claus delivery. My dad came into my room, grim look on his face. “The Cardinals have traded Ted Simmons, son. I’m sorry.” Had my parents chopped up our tree, one limb at a time, it wouldn’t have been more painful. My favorite baseball team had told my favorite baseball player that his services were no longer required. Worse, my favorite baseball player would play for a team I cared nothing about (the Milwaukee Brewers). The mind of an 11-year-old doesn’t have programming for this kind of loss.

I’ve been thinking of Ted Simmons since July 4th, when we learned Zach Randolph signed a free-agent deal that will transform him from a Memphis Grizzly into a Sacramento King. (I can’t get over the irony of this, Z-Bo departing a city that loves its “kings” to become one himself in California.) It’s long been said that a professional athlete dies two deaths, the first when he is forced to stop playing the game that made him famous. From a fan’s viewpoint, though, you could say an athlete actually dies three deaths, the first when he departs a franchise that has embraced him for as many as eight years (as Memphis did Randolph).

This isn’t to say Zach Randolph is any less our Z-Bo. Not even close. Eight years of memories stack much too high for a change of uniform to erase a relationship. (When Simmons homered at Busch Stadium — for the Brewers — in Game 1 of the 1982 World Series, I couldn’t help but smile. And my beloved Cardinals were crushed that night.) Randolph’s next two years in Sacramento will do no more to tarnish his Memphis era than the years he spent prior to arriving here (largely forgettable seasons in Portland, New York, and L.A.). The Grizzlies have already announced that Randolph’s number 50 will be raised to the rafters at FedExForum, the most permanent love note a community can send a former player.

But there is a mourning period. Those of us “seasoned” fans have experienced versions of this separation, though it’s unlikely any Griz backer would compare Z-Bo’s departure to a previous player’s exit. He’s that special. And it’s the 11-year-old fans who surely hurt the most. I hate the image — and I’ve seen it — of a child shooting hoops in his or her driveway, wearing a number-50 jersey. Tugs at my heartstrings. The jersey should be worn with pride and for the happy memories, to say the least. But it now carries a component of loss. Past tense. Z-bounds gone by.
Zach Randolph started the second half and almost made a miraculous comeback happen. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Zach Randolph started the second half and almost made a miraculous comeback happen.
It could get  worse, of course, for Grizzly fans this month. It appears the franchise is ready to part ways with 35-year-old Tony Allen, the Grindfather himself. Should Allen end up in a Clippers uniform — gasp! — the Memphis “core four” will have been reduced by half. In other words, the core four will be no more. If Randolph became the backbone the Grizzlies franchise desperately needed in 2009, Allen brought soul to a team that had been more buttoned-up than most things Memphis. He brought edge and humor with his All-Defense presence, and a region fell further in love.

The Grizzlies will play on. Few NBA teams can claim as talented a tandem as Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. The newly acquired Tyreke Evans is a kind of offensive threat Allen never was. Should Chandler Parsons regain his health . . . well, it’s possible. Right? The local NBA outfit will be very different next season, but this is no tanking.

And departures can bring new friendships. Almost precisely a year after the Cardinals dealt Simmons to Milwaukee, St. Louis shipped another of my favorite players, Garry Templeton, to San Diego in an exchange of shortstops. You can now have your picture taken next to Ozzie Smith’s statue in St. Louis.

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Monday, July 10, 2017

Memphis Redbirds’ All-time All-Star Team

Posted By on Mon, Jul 10, 2017 at 9:20 AM

A pair of Redbirds — catcher Carson Kelly and pitcher Ryan Sherriff — will represent Memphis for the Pacific Coast League in Wednesday’s Triple-A All-Star Game in Tacoma. This being the Redbirds’ 20th season in Memphis, the time seems right for an all-time All-Star squad.

An important note: This team is made up of players who made significant impact in Memphis, not necessarily later in the major leagues. So sorry Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina. Your greatness was clear, but we hardly knew ye.

• Catcher — Keith McDonald
McDonald spent parts of five seasons (1998-2002) with the Redbirds, the backstop for teams both good (the 2000 PCL champs) and bad (62-81 in 2001). He only played in eight big-league games but in 2001 became just the second player in MLB history to homer in his first two at-bats.

• First Base — Kevin Witt
This slugger played only one season for the Redbirds (2004), but what a year. His 36 home runs remain the franchise’s single-season record (and led the PCL that year) and his 107 RBIs are the second-most since the club’s arrival in 1998. Witt batted .306 yet was overlooked when the PCL’s postseason All-Star team was announced.
• Second Base — Stubby Clapp As hard as it may be, forget the backflips. Clapp was a stellar second-baseman and offensive sparkplug over four years (1999-2002) in Memphis, the first at Tim McCarver Stadium. He led the 2000 PCL champions with 138 hits and 89 runs. Clapp is third in Redbirds history in games played (425) and hits (418). Hopes to match his championship as a player with one as the current Redbirds manager.

• Third Base — Scott Seabol
Poster boy for the “Four-A” player. Only played in 60 major-league games, but boy, was he good in Memphis. Enjoyed his best season in 2004 when he hit .304 with 31 homers, 78 RBIs, and compiled 156 hits (a franchise record that still stands). One of three Redbirds with 50 career home runs (56). Fourth in total bases behind three other players on this team.
Scott Seabol
  • Scott Seabol

• Shortstop — Tyler Greene
The Cardinals haven’t developed star shortstops over the last 20 years. Instead, they’ve relied on imports like Edgar Renteria, David Eckstein, and Rafael Furcal. Greene manned the position for the better part of three years, including the 2009 championship season. (He hit .320 as the Redbirds won all six of their playoff games.) Holds the franchise record for career stolen bases (68).

• Leftfield — John Gall
One of four men to play 400 games with the Redbirds, Gall ranks second in franchise history in hits (476), home runs (57) and RBIs (255). His best season as a Redbird was his first, in 2004, when he hit .292 with 22 homers and 84 RBIs. Played in only 33 big-league games but made a playoff cameo with the Cardinals in 2005.

• Centerfield — Adron Chambers
Chambers played stellar defense and was an offensive sparkplug over four seasons (2010-13) with the Redbirds. His 57 career stolen bases rank second in Redbirds history. Hit 10 home runs and stole 22 bases for Memphis in 2011 before earning a World Series ring with the Cardinals.

• Rightfield — Nick Stavinoha
Easiest selection for this team. The burly outfielder (and first-baseman) is the Redbirds’ all-time leader in games played (479), hits (531), home runs (74), runs (260), and RBIs (316). He played parts of five seasons with Memphis (2007-11) and went out with a bang: 28 homers and a franchise-record 109 RBIs in 2011.

• Starting Pitcher — P.J. Walters
The Redbirds have had their share of one-year wonders on the mound. Adam Wainwright, Dan Haren, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Michael Wacha all pitched here, but for little more than a full season (at most). Walters started 78 games over four seasons (2008-11) and won more games (32) than any other Redbird. He’s actually the only Redbird pitcher with as many as 30 career wins.

• Relief Pitcher — Victor Marte
Marte first pitched for the Redbirds in 2011, between big-league stints with Kansas City and St. Louis. He saved 31 games that year, the first and only Redbird to save as many as 30 in a season. His 45 career saves are also tops in franchise history.

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Monday, July 3, 2017

My Country. My Team

Posted By on Mon, Jul 3, 2017 at 2:30 PM

It’s been said there are three fundamental ways an American can serve the country: voting in elections, serving in the military, and sitting on a jury. With Independence Day upon us, I’m here to tell you there’s a fourth way to fully engage in the American experience: choose and cheer a sports team.

There’s one qualifier when it comes to this component of patriotism. The team’s flag you wave can’t simply be your college alma mater. This is too close to a member of the Army showing off his stripes. It’s one’s duty, after all, to support the football team (and swim team!) from the campus one called home. Do so with passion. But pick at least one other team, cut ties to any other (in the same sport), and count the ways you honor this country’s founding fathers.

• The pursuit of happiness.
In these trying times, is there any more direct path to happiness — at least for a day or night — than pulling for your baseball team to end a losing streak? Or for your basketball team to knock off a division rival? No narcotic unleashes the endorphins like a stirring comeback victory by the team you call your own. And no happiness, I’d argue, is quite as pure.

• Freedom of assembly.
“I’ve got tickets.” Perhaps the three most liberating words in the English-American language. Sports command our attention on screens more than ever, but it’s still about being there. In the arena or stadium. With thousands, or even hundreds (hell, even dozens) of others with a shared devotion. The sounds and smells of a ballpark are as rewarding as anything we see on the field. With your numbered seat secure, you’re more than merely a fan. You’re part of a movement.

• Freedom of religion.
Sports fandom is a form of faith. Never doubt this. Witness the tears of Atlanta Falcon fans after surrendering their first Super Bowl title in about 20 minutes of playing time. Witness the tears of Chicago Cub fans kneeling at gravesites with newspapers, tangible proof that curses and miserable baseball do, somehow, go away. Witness rally caps, lucky t-shirts, game-day meals, and fathers explaining to daughters why they need to stand straight when they walk by the statue of Stan Musial.

• Freedom of speech.
Have you checked your Twitter feed lately? If you can dance around the blather from or about our current president, the most opinionated commentary from American “twits” involves one team or another. LeBron James has made two franchises champions merely by his choice of uniform. Kevin Durant has ruined the NBA by choosing the same path James did in 2010. My team will win the Stanley Cup finally (or again). Your team is an embarrassment to all things right and holy. Matter of fact, YOU are an embarrassment to all things right and holy. The teams we choose stir discussion. It’s up to us to avoid Stephen A. Smith and keep the discussion intelligent.

• No cruel or unusual punishment.
I know. This one has you wondering. Sure as hell feels cruel (if not unusual) when the San Antonio Spurs once again end a season for our Memphis Grizzlies. But here’s the beauty of team sports (and one of life’s grand clichés): There’s always next season. Unlike actual life, “dead” teams come back. Rosters are adjusted, coaches changed, and every team opens a new season undefeated. Losing hurts, particularly the losses that mean months without a game to attend. But in the world of 2017? Have you read (non-sports) headlines of late? A bad day at FedExForum is better than most in or near a state capital.

Happy Fourth of July everyone. Fire up the grill and gaze at the fireworks. But do so in your favorite team jersey. It’s perfectly American.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Memphis Redbirds Revival

Posted By on Mon, Jun 19, 2017 at 9:36 AM

In mid-May, not long after the Memphis Redbirds reeled off a franchise-record 11-game winning streak, I asked first-year manager Stubby Clapp about the secret sauce he’d concocted at AutoZone Park. Once a blue-collar player, the blue-collar manager responded with a blue-collar answer: “Our pitchers attack the strike zone and our hitters grind through every at-bat.”

It was an understated evaluation, to say the least. Using even fewer words, Clapp could have responded: “We have a lot of talent in this clubhouse.”
Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp is head over heels about his team's success. (This shot, of course, is from Stubby's playing days.)
  • Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp is head over heels about his team's success. (This shot, of course, is from Stubby's playing days.)

Not since 2013 — when Baseball America ranked the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system the best in the business — has Memphis been stocked with the kind of talent we’re seeing these days at the corner of B.B. King and Union Avenue. You’ll recall that 2013 club included outfielder Oscar Taveras, second-baseman Kolten Wong, and a pair of top pitching prospects, Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez. Taveras died tragically in 2014, but the other three are now regulars at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. (If you read last week’s column, you’ll know performance this season hasn’t matched projection with the exception of Martinez.)

The 2017 Redbirds have featured three everyday players who will soon be seen in big-league batter’s boxes. Infielder Paul DeJong (who turns 24 in August) enjoyed a 12-game cup of coffee with St. Louis recently when Wong landed on the disabled list, returned to Memphis for less than a week, and can now be found again in the Cardinals’ dugout (Wong back on the DL). He became the sixth former Redbird to homer in his first major-league at-bat and has played stellar defense at second base. Here in Memphis, DeJong has it .299 and hammered 13 home runs, the kind of pop that increases a middle-infielder’s value exponentially. (DeJong homered 22 times and drove in 73 runs at Double-A Springfield last season.)

When I watch centerfielder Harrison Bader (23) play, I see a shorter (and whiskers-free) version of Charlie Blackmon, the Colorado Rockies’ All-Star. The former Florida Gator brings speed and a dose of power (12 home runs) to the Redbirds lineup. And he’s perfectly willing to crash into walls to rob opposing hitters of extra bases. It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals manage Bader’s rise in light of the multiyear contract their new centerfielder, Dexter Fowler, signed last winter.

Then there’s catcher Carson Kelly. Yadier Molina’s presumed heir will turn 23 next month but handles backstop duties with the aplomb of a 30-year-old big-league veteran. Kelly’s offensive production — .290 batting average, 7 home runs — feels like a generous bonus package. He could be catching every day for a few major league clubs. Similar to Bader, Kelly’s rise is blocked somewhat by a Cardinal player with a multiyear contract manning his position. For now, he simply helps the Redbirds win baseball games, the man Clapp trusts with those pitchers tasked with attacking the strike zone.

And those pitchers? Three members of the Redbirds’ current starting rotation — Luke Weaver (24 in August), Marco Gonzales (25), and Jack Flaherty (21) — have been ranked among the Cardinals’ top-10 prospects (Gonzales topped the list in 2015). Among all position groups and across all levels of the farm system, the Cardinals enjoy their greatest abundance in starting pitching. Which means flexibility between Memphis and St. Louis and bargain chips should the Cardinals remain in contention when the trade deadline arrives in late July. (As noted in last week’s column, the Cardinals lack “The Guy” in their batting order.)

Prospects don’t necessarily translate to winning baseball. (The 2013 Redbirds finished 69-75.) But this year’s club has a supporting cast that steals the spotlight one win after another. First-baseman Luke Voit has been a right-handed-batting Matt Adams (and then some), belting 12 home runs while putting up a slash line of .322/.404/.572. Healthy and manning third base has been Patrick Wisdom (12 home runs, 41 RBIs). Through Sunday, the Redbirds are 42-27 and five-and-a-half games ahead of second-place Nashville in their division of the Pacific Coast League. Triple-A baseball may be about development first, but take this as gospel: Winning spurs development.

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Monday, June 12, 2017

St. Louis Cardinals in Crisis: What's Gone Wrong

Posted By on Mon, Jun 12, 2017 at 9:45 AM

When presented a good news-bad news scenario, I like receiving the bad news first. Take the punch, then find salve (or an ice bag). This week and next, I’ll share my take on the current baseball season, particularly as it’s unfolding here in Memphis (for our Triple-A Redbirds) and up the river in St. Louis (for the Cardinals, the Redbirds’ parent club). In sticking with my preferred method for good and bad news, this week’s column will focus on the rather gray skies — metaphorically speaking — over Busch Stadium.

What’s gone wrong for the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals? Everything. Literally, by every measurable component — roster composition, positional performance, hitting, fielding, pitching, and base running — the Cardinals have graded below average (at best). Areas in which they were supposed to be strong (top of the batting order, starting rotation) have at times sabotaged the team. Areas in which they needed to improve from 2016 (fielding competency, base-running decisions) have, if anything, regressed. What not so long ago was called “The Cardinal Way” in a nose-up, self-reverential tone has turned into a confused, often sloppy approach to nine innings on the diamond.

The most memorable play this season by one of the team’s core players — first baseman Matt Carpenter — was the veteran getting thrown out at third base as the potential game-winning run in the ninth inning . . . for the first out of the inning. It was reckless and embarrassing (particularly for Carpenter, one would assume), but a precise microcosm for a team that has had but one losing season this century. How have the Cardinals collapsed so quickly? Let’s explore three reasons.

• Roster “gains.” St. Louis let longtime centerpiece Matt Holliday fly via free agency (he’s now clubbing baseballs as a DH for the New Yankees), while also parting ways with Brandon Moss (28 homers in 2016) and Jeremy Hazelbaker (12 homers in a reserve role). The Cardinals finally moved Matt Adams (at one time considered a fixture in the team’s heart of the order) last month after giving the first base position to Carpenter.

Filling these roster spots are the likes of Jose Martinez, Tommy Pham, and Paul DeJong, each recent stand-outs here in Memphis and, perhaps, future difference-makers in St. Louis. But the most important roster addition last winter — centerfielder Dexter Fowler, last season a Chicago Cub — has been under-performing, and dramatically. Through Sunday, Fowler was hitting .230 with an on-base percentage of .323. These are well below Fowler’s career figures (.266 and .364) and not the kind of numbers for which a team typically invests $16.5 million (Fowler’s salary this season).

• Core four? How about a core one? Catcher Yadier Molina may well be bound for the Hall of Fame. Now in his 13th season as the Cardinals’ everyday catcher, Molina has earned a waiver of sorts when it comes to measuring his relative value. (Cardinal ownership considers that value worthy of a $60 million contract extension that will keep Molina in St. Louis through the 2020 season.) But the other position players general manager John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny have expected to steer this team have all stumbled: Carpenter, outfielder Randal Grichuk (currently retooling his hitting stroke here in Memphis), second-baseman Kolten Wong, and outfielder Stephen Piscotty. If one or two of these players slump, St. Louis should find its way. When all four have down years? You land in fourth place (if not fifth) in a five-team division.

• Scoring scarcity. The Cardinals have blown leads with regularity, including all three games of a recent sweep at the hands of the world-champion Cubs. Brett Cecil — another big-ticket free-agent acquisition last winter — has essentially been throwing batting practice for Cardinal foes, posting a 5.66 ERA. Jonathon Broxton (6.89 ERA) was finally released last week, making room for John Brebbia (1.69 ERA over the season’s first two months with Memphis).

But the shaky bullpen must be forgiven, to some degree, as the Cardinals simply don’t score runs. Through Sunday, they ranked 26th out of 30 MLB teams with an average of 4.1 runs per game. Since May 25th, St. Louis has scored more than three runs in but six of 18 games, and as many as five in only three games. With no Matt Holliday, to say nothing of no Albert Pujols (remember him?), the Cardinals are lacking “The Guy,” a hitter capable of cleaning the bases of runners or driving himself in when no better scenario presents. This will be a hard fix for Mozeliak. Unless such a slugger can be groomed from the farm, multiple prospects will be required to add him to the Cardinals’ roster. It’s been eight years now since the St. Louis GM actually pulled off such a move. (The acquisition was Matt Holliday.)

Check back next week for the good news. Because the Cardinals’ farm system — particularly the first-place Memphis Redbirds — has climbed its way back.

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Monday, June 5, 2017

Phil Mickelson, Fatherhood, and the FESJC

Posted By on Mon, Jun 5, 2017 at 9:48 AM

With Tiger Woods now battling midlife demons, no player on the PGA Tour fills a gallery like Phil Mickelson. And the biggest galleries Mickelson sees this month, it turns out, will be right here in Memphis at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. The 46-year-old Hall of Famer will skip next week’s U.S. Open so he can attend his daughter Amanda’s high school graduation. (As class president, Amanda will speak at the ceremony.) With the Open concluding on Father’s Day, as it does every year, Mickelson is sharing some perspective on family and career that goes well beyond fairway-splitting drives or a smooth putting stroke.
Don’t forget, the U.S. Open is Mickelson’s white whale. He’s won each of golf’s other three majors, but has never been crowned this country’s national champion. He’s come tantalizingly close, finishing second on Father’s Day six times (first in 1999, most recently in 2013).
 And Mickelson is 46. The oldest man to win the U.S. Open? Hale Irwin, who did so at age 45 in 1990.

All this is to say: relish Phil Mickelson’s visit to the TPC Southwind course this week. This winner of five majors has become a regular in recent years at the FESJC, and is an eye-popping example of how superstars sell tickets. I’ve walked the Southwind course with groups ahead of Mickelson’s in which you can listen to the conversation between a player and his caddie. I’ve stopped to wait for Mickelson to arrive and it’s like an organized march ensues, younger fans sprinting ahead for a prime viewpoint along the rope or near the next green. Mickelson is a one-man brand in a sport lacking the built-in marketing tool that is a team nickname. He earns every dime he’s paid by sponsors, every check he cashes at the end of a tournament.

Mickelson tied for second at last year’s FESJC, three strokes behind first-time winner Daniel Berger. Here’s hoping he takes the winner’s check home this Sunday. It would be a nice graduation gift for Amanda.

• This week’s tournament marks the 60th consecutive year the PGA has called Memphis home for a week. Among the FESJC’s 10-year anniversaries, which tournament is most memorable? Curtis Strange won the 30th event (then the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic) in 1987. Ten years later, the Shark himself, Greg Norman, took the winner’s check. But I’d have to go with the 1977 event, in which Al Geiberger won by virtue of the first 59 in PGA Tour history. Geiberger didn’t break 70 in any of his other three rounds, but that epic Friday at Colonial Country Club made him a Memphis sports deity.

• This will be the first FESJC since longtime tournament director Phil Cannon died last October. If you’re among the thousands who enjoy the comforts of TPC Southwind this week, remember Phil and the impact he made over his four decades of involvement with the event. A convenient concession stand on the back nine? That’s Phil. A volunteer handing out free lip balm as the mercury rises? That’s Phil. Proximity to the best golfers in the world while feeling right at home? That’s Phil Cannon.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Frank Deford (1938-2017)

Posted By on Tue, May 30, 2017 at 10:46 AM

“I was more interested in writing long magazine feature pieces than I was in breaking hard news. Let radio and TV have the games. The culture of sport interested me more.” — Frank Deford

We lost a great one Sunday with the passing of Frank Deford. A kind, eloquent, honorable man with a sharp-as-a-scalpel wit, Deford just happened to make his living as a sports journalist. If you didn’t read his work in the pages of Sports Illustrated (to use a verb Deford would have rejected himself, he dominated the craft for much of the Sixties and Seventies, and well into the Eighties), you surely caught a few of Deford’s weekly commentaries on NPR’s Morning Edition. Whether his subject was international soccer (confounding), Bill Russell (greatest team-sport athlete of the 20th century), or Johnny Unitas (a personal hero from his youth in Baltimore), Deford made the games and performers we cheer somehow larger than scores, championships, or records broken. As treated by Frank Deford, sports helped expose humanity and reveal beauty, and under a spotlight not found in many other endeavors.

I reached out to Mr. Deford at two distinct stages of my life. Living in Boston as a college senior in 1991, I wrote him to ask about possibilities at The National. Deford was the founding editor of the daily sports newspaper destined to fold a few short months later. He wrote me back as though a 22-year-old college kid was a priority while he fought to keep a much larger ship afloat. His wisdom: Find a region you like and report there before considering the national stage. His was a kind way of telling me to walk before I run as a writer. I chose to report from and about Memphis, Tennessee.

Eleven years later, established as a (still-young) journalist in the Bluff City, I wrote Mr. Deford again, this time asking about my next career stage, if I needed to return to the northeast, to seek a larger market and/or a national byline. He put me in touch with an editor at a national magazine, and noted how he took a liking to a subject of mine — Stubby Clapp — during a visit to Salt Lake City when the Memphis Redbirds were in town. There was irony in that exchange: “Regional” journalism could stretch geographic boundaries. Good writing didn’t require a national readership. It required an individual’s care for the craft, and a certain delicate touch with one’s subject. Deford personified that touch for me, and I chose to remain in Memphis.

Deford and I happened to share a few coincidental commonalities. Neither of us played golf. (“The better question . . . is whether I have taken good enough advantage of the hours I have had in my life not playing golf.”) We both defined Boston sports fans well beyond Fenway Park. (“I laugh now, too, at all the Red Sox Nation crap, the myth that all New England has always worshipped the Sawx through thick and thin.”) And we both bristled at athletes or coaches who sold themselves above the team, or modern journalists who consider themselves above their subject matter. (“I was raised — infused — with a distaste for the smug and high-hat. Indeed, the worst label that a Baltimorean could give you was common.”)

Deford and I both married well, and we were both blessed with daughters. When his beloved Alex died at age 8 from cystic fibrosis, Deford turned to writing. Alex: The Life of a Child is one of 18 books Deford wrote, ten of them fiction. (I had hoped to send him a copy of my first novel, to be released in mid-June.) Perhaps the best coincidence of all, Mr. Deford and I are both Frank III.

Deford considered Jackie Robinson and Billie Jean King the most significant athletes of his lifetime, and this is perfectly Frank Deford. For Robinson and King changed the way we live, not just the sports they happened to play. And perhaps that’s the best way to remember this great American sportswriter, as a man who chronicled man’s continuing evolution, only through the lens of ball games, tennis matches, and prize fights. The final words of this column belong, as they should, to Frank Deford:

“Times change only because we who inhabit them do the changing first.”

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Lord Stanley Comes to Tennessee

Posted By on Tue, May 23, 2017 at 11:00 AM

Hockey will never stick in Nashville.

This was my thinking on October 10, 1998, when an official first dropped a puck for a Nashville Predators game at what was then known as Nashville Arena. The Preds lost that game, 1-0, to a team I considered equally misplaced in the National Hockey League (the Florida Panthers). Hockey was a sport — the sport — loved most above our northern border, in Canada, where the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, and Edmonton Oilers established themselves across a land that made the “frozen tundra” of Green Bay, Wisconsin, feel balmy. Having spent nine winters in New England, I considered the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings geographic outliers and my team of choice, the St. Louis Blues, purely southern when it comes to pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

Hockey will never stick in Nashville.

This was my thinking when blurry memories of the Atlanta Flames (thanks to Ted Turner’s Superstation) entered my head. Among the most tastelessly named teams in sports history — think about it — the Flames burned out after only eight seasons in Georgia and moved so far away (Calgary, Alberta) that you had the impression a point was being made. The American South and hockey were, at best, a relationship destined for neglect. But the NHL is a stubborn suitor. An expansion franchise (the Thrashers) took the ice in Atlanta in October 1999. It lasted 11 years and can now be found in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

But hockey somehow stuck in Nashville. The Predators didn’t qualify for the NHL’s 16-team playoffs until their sixth season (2003-04), when their average attendance ironically bottomed out at 13,157. (Capacity at Bridgestone Arena for a Predators game is 17,113.) They reached the playoffs six of the next seven seasons, attendance climbing closer to 16,000 per game and with an actual star — defenseman Shea Weber — to sell hockey sweaters to people more accustomed to leather vests or football jerseys.

And the hockey-Nashville marriage has the legitimacy of the mighty dollar behind it. The median ticket price for a Predators game this season was $119 (according to, the ninth highest in the NHL. (Believe it or not, the Winnipeg Jets were seventh, with a price of $136.) NHL clubs aren’t as deep in television revenue as those in the NBA or NFL. Hockey still relies on that quaint variable — the ticket-buying public — for profitability. And there is a large ticket-buying public with pucks on the brain in middle Tennessee. The Predators averaged 17,159 tickets sold this season, meaning a sellout (and then some) for 41 home games.

Hockey has stuck in Nashville, and Tennessee’s capital will now see slap shots and glove saves in June. With their six-game win over the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference finals, the Predators will face either Pittsburgh or Ottawa for the most glorious trophy in North American sports. Like it or not Grizzly fans and Titan fans, the most famous pro athletes in Tennessee the next two weeks will be P.K. Subban (the Preds’ star defenseman) and Pekka Rinne (their Finnish goalie). Should Nashville prevail in the final series, the Predators will become the first team from the Volunteer State to claim a championship in one of this continent’s four major team sports.

There are surely hockey fans in British Columbia and Quebec still thinking (if silently), “Hockey will never stick in Nashville.” Canada has gone Cupless now for 24 years, since Montreal raised Lord Stanley’s chalice in 1993. Since then, Tampa Bay has won the Cup (2004, over Calgary), as have the Carolina Hurricanes (2006, over Edmonton), Anaheim Ducks (over Ottawa, in 2007), and Los Angeles Kings (twice). It turns out the only frozen requirement for a Stanley Cup champion is the ice rink itself.

Memphis and Nashville will continue to be rivals, whether or not it’s productive for the state of Tennessee. The Grizzlies may not interest someone in country music’s heartland, and this means little to regulars at FedExForum. Likewise, most Memphians will be checking the NBA Finals schedule while the Zamboni machine does its thing 200 miles east. But Tennessee is four Predator wins from becoming the 12th American state to claim the Stanley Cup. Tighten your laces, boys.

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Triathlon Tandem

Posted By on Mon, May 15, 2017 at 9:47 AM

Shared interests strengthen a marriage. It just so happens that Wendy and Jeff Fejfar of Olive Branch share an interest in one of mankind’s most grueling endeavors: triathlon. The Fejfars will be in the field together for the Memphis in May Triathlon this Sunday in Millington. (The Olympic-distance event features a 1.5K swim, 40K bike ride, and 10K run.) A pilot with FedEx, Jeff won his age group (35-39) at the MIM event in both 2012 and 2015.
Jeff and Wendy Fejfar
  • Jeff and Wendy Fejfar

You’ve been married 14 years. What’s the origin story?
W: I was in graduate school in Florida. I’d become the “International Sweetheart” for Sigma Chi Fraternity, so I’d travel to various colleges to work with the Sigma Chi chapter. I happened to be invited to Jeff’s alma mater [Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida] and we met through friends there.

Does this come up in casual conversation, at cocktail parties? “We compete in triathlons.”
J: We’ve been in the sport long enough now that a lot of our friends are triathletes of some form or another. With coworkers, people are just intrigued. It comes up, and it’s something that interests people.

What’s the most challenging component of a triathlon? And what’s your favorite part?
W: The run is the hardest part for me to do well, just being at the end. My favorite is the biking.

J: Same for me. The run is the most challenging.

You’re the first triathletes to tell me the swim isn’t the toughest part of a triathlon.
W: We’ve become good swimmers. I learned to swim when I was pregnant with my son, so I’ve only been swimming 10 years. I was 30 years old. Grew up in Buffalo, New York. I could swim for survival, but I’d never learned proper style. Learning as an adult was an advantage; no bad habits.

J: I’ve swum in races where there’s a lot of contact at the beginning. But it tends to spread out pretty quickly. Getting comfortable with the fact that there’s going to be contact is important. People can swim all day long in a pool. When a lot of people are touching you, it can be uncomfortable for some. There are people in kayaks out there to help you [if there’s any danger].

What about the Memphis in May course? Likes or dislikes?
W: It’s a straightforward swim. The bike course can be amazing in cooler temperatures; pretty flat. The run is harder than most people expect. There are some hills that challenge. And you can have that spring heat kick in.

J: I’ve always enjoyed the course. It was the first Olympic triathlon I did. It’s a very well organized race, but it still has a grassroots feel. Family-friendly. It’s an enjoyable atmosphere.

Do you train together?
W: We’ll do swim dates. But we’re coached by different individuals, so we do our own workouts. We never run together.

J: We used to run together a lot. When [our son] Dylan was born [10 years ago], we got a jogging stroller. Dylan would fall asleep in the jogging stroller if he was upset. We still ride together, when we don’t have specific workouts.

What about diet?
J: I’m not super particular. Wendy’s a little more diligent with her diet. I’ll eat some junk, so I have to watch it.

W: We don’t have a specific diet, but we try to eat healthy. My background is in cardiovascular health. Jeff’s father is type-one diabetic, so he grew up in a health-conscious household. I don’t eat a lot of red meat, so that’s probably the only thing significant in our house.

J: We try to eat whole foods. We’ll eat sweets, but everything in moderation. We’ll have a bowl of ice cream, but maybe just two small scoops.

On the morning of a triathlon, how do you fuel yourselves?
W: Oatmeal is pretty standard. You can make instant oatmeal anywhere. And we drink a lot of coffee.

Advice for someone competing in their first triathlon?
J: Focus on having fun, getting through it, and enjoying the experience the best you can. Don’t worry so much about performance the first time. As you continue to train, being consistent over time is important. If your goal is to get faster, it doesn’t happen overnight, or in a month. It varies for everyone, based on your athletic background. But everyone will progress if you stick with it. Stay diligent.

W: Just worry about what you can control, and show up ready. You can’t predict the weather or change what a day’s going to be like. Don’t stress over it. Have fun. We’re getting out there to do the best we can.

What have triathlons done for your marriage?
W: We’re both goal-oriented people. We make five-year goals together. When we started doing triathlons, it translated well. Jeff’s my confidant. Our strong marriage has made us strong triathletes.

J: Early on, we started doing longer races, but found that a little challenging, to have all that training going on. We’ve learned to balance things, and have more give-and-take. We’re supportive of each other with each of our goals. And we hold each other accountable. We’re vested in what we want to accomplish. For us, this is an outlet to relax.

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Monday, May 8, 2017

“Uncle Tim” McCarver: An Appreciation

Posted By on Mon, May 8, 2017 at 9:03 AM


My father enjoyed sharing three celebrity tales from his youth in Memphis. The first involved a chance encounter with St. Louis Cardinals legend Stan Musial at Russwood Park in 1953 (when Dad was 11 years old). The second was a brief visit with Elvis Presley at Katz Drug Store in 1956. And the third story he’d tell regularly was an account of the football game he played — for Central High School — against local legend Tim McCarver (and Christian Brothers) in 1958. The fact that football was merely McCarver’s second sport somehow inflated the legend of a fellow Memphian who went on to fame and fortune, first as a catcher for the Cardinals, then as a Hall of Fame broadcaster. My dad was an only child, so I came to view McCarver as the equivalent of a displaced, very famous relative: “Uncle Tim.”

This is a big year for McCarver’s legacy as a baseball player. It’s the 50th anniversary of the 1967 world champion Cardinals, known to history as “El Birdos,” primarily because of the impact Orlando Cepeda (a Puerto Rican native) made on the team upon being acquired the year before from the San Francisco Giants. Cepeda earned National League MVP honors that year after leading the circuit with 111 RBIs. Who finished second in the 1967 MVP voting? Tim McCarver.


Just last month, McCarver was elected to the Cardinals Hall of Fame. He’ll be inducted in August along with steroid-stained slugger Mark McGwire and one of the key members of the Gas House Gang from the 1930s, Pepper Martin. And McCarver’s induction is a bit overdue. He wore the tools of ignorance for three pennant winners and two world champions in St. Louis. Only Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina have started more games as a battery for the Cardinals than did Hall of Famer Bob Gibson and McCarver.

McCarver spent most of the 1970s in Philadelphia where he became the personal catcher for another Hall of Fame-bound hurler, Steve Carlton (a man he first caught in St. Louis). Carlton and McCarver were so closely linked that speculation grew the pair would eventually be buried sixty feet, six inches apart. When McCarver played six games for the Phillies in 1980, he became the rare man to have played major-league baseball in four different decades.

McCarver’s view from behind the plate helped him transition rather smoothly into the broadcast booth, first with the Phillies, then for many years with the New York Mets’ cable station, WWOR. McCarver’s cerebral style competed for attention with his play-by-play partner, Ralph Kiner, who became known as much for his malaprops in the booth as for the 369 homers he hit in ten seasons, most with the Pittsburgh Pirates. (“On Father’s Day, we again wish you all happy birthday.”)

His skills as an analyst took McCarver back to the World Series, where he called the 1985 Fall Classic as a late replacement for Howard Cosell. He went on to call 23 more World Series, the most for any broadcaster in history. And he gained his share of critics, in large part for the cerebral approach that worked so well in the Mets’ booth with Kiner. There are fans who feel McCarver aims to speak above his audience, never settling for a two-syllable word when four will do. (He titled his 1998 book Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans. Awkward title, but it’s a terrific read.)

McCarver hasn’t forgotten his hometown. During his acceptance speech at the 2012 National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony — he received the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting excellence — McCarver announced a donation to build a baseball complex for kids in Memphis. “I learned the game in Memphis, Tennessee, on long-ago fields . . . . The hope is that some of these African-American kids will become major-league baseball players.” [Sources were unable to confirm where in the planning stage this project currently sits.]

“Uncle Tim” is now 75 years old. Though he’s no longer in the booth for the World Series, you can hear him now and then on the Cardinals’ regional Fox broadcasts. It’s been a long time since his football team beat my dad’s (7-0) on the gridiron. Long enough for some perspective on the size and weight of Tim McCarver’s impact since he left Memphis more than half a century ago. He’s a member of a few halls of fame now. When we finally get around to an organized, formal Memphis Sports Hall of Fame, you can count on Tim McCarver being a charter member.

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Monday, May 1, 2017

The Derby and a Daughter

Posted By on Mon, May 1, 2017 at 9:46 AM

  • Kentucky Derby, Facebook

For 23 years, my parents threw the finest Kentucky Derby party in New England. This was their way — as native Tennesseans — of bringing a considerable slice of the American South to Main Street (literally) in my tiny hometown of Northfield, Vermont. However chilly or damp the first Saturday in May might have been, our house throbbed with Yankees eager for another mint julep or a chance to stuff their wallets with an exacta. (My dad created a computer program to manage the almost-casual betting action. Stories became legends.) There were even a few ladies in big hats. Derby Day was an event at the Murtaugh place.

Then I became a father on May 6, 1999. Sofia arrived on a Thursday, two days before Charismatic won the 125th Run for the Roses. Thanks to a Leap Year in 2000, Sofia’s first birthday arrived on Derby Day, and we celebrated in Northfield, with both sides of our family and scores of guests convinced Fusaichi Pegasus would become the first favorite to win the Derby since Spectacular Bid 21 years earlier. (They were right.) The most important two minutes of the day were lost on our baby girl, as she napped throughout the race in her car seat.

My father died in 2005, and Derby Day in Vermont moved into the history books. But the event remains a pivotal date on the sports calendar, and particularly for my family. Sofia celebrated her seventh birthday on Derby Day in 2006. A friend from high school (and New England) joined us in Memphis and we made mint juleps and cheered Barbaro on to victory as though we were among the 157,000 in attendance at Churchill Downs.

Little girls love horses, so the older Sofia grew, the more heartfelt her interest in the Derby became. In 2008, she — along with millions — felt her heart break when Eight Belles, a beautiful filly, collapsed after finishing second to Big Brown in the Derby. With compound fractures in both front ankles, Eight Belles was euthanized on the Churchill Downs track. Try rationalizing that for your 9-year-old daughter. The Eight Belles Stakes (for filly sprinters) is now an annual feature of Derby Day.

Two years ago, when American Pharoah became the first thoroughbred since 1978 to win the Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont), there was discussion of horse racing going mainstream, filling whatever gaps there might be in American spectator sports between football, baseball, basketball, golf, and such. If anything, it’s gone the other direction. Casual fans were drawn to the Triple Crown events largely out of curiosity over the drought, hoping to witness what might never be witnessed again. (Ask Chicago Cub fans about this phenomenon.) With the drought over, the next Triple Crown winner will be merely another Triple Crown winner, still in the shadow cast by American Pharoah and 37 years of anticipation.

But this is the Kentucky Derby. Among single-day sporting events in the United States, what else compares? The Super Bowl? There were 90 Derby days before the first “NFL-AFL World Championship” in 1967. The Daytona 500 or Indy 500? A horse on four legs for two minutes is more beautiful than any machine on four wheels for four hours. “Pageantry” is an overused word when it comes to sports (see: college football), because it should be a term exclusive to the Kentucky Derby.

Because of another Leap Year, Sofia has gone 11 years without a birthday on Saturday, but she turns 18 as the Kentucky Derby turns 143 this weekend. She was finishing first grade in May 2006 and is now bound for Wesleyan University. Her taste for mint was based entirely on a flavor of ice cream at age 7. (Okay, I hope she holds off a few more years on the bourbon-infused cocktails.) Sofia has even developed an appreciation for fashionable hats.

Enjoy the greatest two minutes in sports this Saturday. (My pick: McCraken.) I’ll be celebrating the greatest 18 years (so far) of my life.

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Monday, April 24, 2017

Softball Sisters

Posted By on Mon, Apr 24, 2017 at 9:27 AM


I’m a Softball Dad. Have been since my firstborn daughter took her first swing in t-ball “way back” in 2005. Twelve years (and 13 softball seasons) later, Sofia Murtaugh will be honored this Thursday as part of White Station High School’s annual Senior Day. Also in uniform for the Spartans this week will be Sofia’s sister, Elena, a freshman pitcher/outfielder. It will be one of the happiest days of my life. And one of my hardest as a father.

Any semi-regular reader of this column knows what the game of baseball means to me. My days as a glove-first outfielder (read: poor hitter) in high school are among the happiest memories of my life. My devotion to the sport — and all it teaches us about patience, trials, order, and yes, fate — has fueled my outlook on life, in general, and on the most important job I will ever have: raising my daughters.

I’ve been fortunate to have AutoZone Park less than ten miles from my home. My daughters have scampered on the leftfield bluff in diapers and enjoyed the luxuries of a club-level suite. Sofia spent two summers there as the franchise’s first batgirl. She became a friend of Willie McGee’s. In steering Sofia toward a life of happiness, I consider friendship with Willie McGee a significant mile marker.

My daughters happen to be very good softball players. Sofia was in the starting lineup for her first game at White Station Middle School, and has spent four years in the starting outfield for the high school. Challenged with learning to bat left-handed (to capitalize on her speed) as a freshman, she pulled it off and batted second in the order. A switch-hitting centerfielder by her junior season in 2016, she earned All-Metro honors and was named the Spartans’ offensive player of the year.

Elena is three years younger than Sofia, born just in time(!) to try out and make one team with her sister in the same dugout. (This was not scripted, but I’ll spend the rest of my life telling people in casual conversation that it was absolutely part of the family-planning math.) A lefty, Elena is one of two pitchers on the Spartan roster, so has thrown her share of innings, still four months shy of her 15th birthday. My wife and I have sat in bleachers behind home plate and watched one daughter in the pitcher’s circle, the other just over her shoulder in centerfield. I’ve actually ached at times with swollen pride.

And it’s coming to an end. Sofia will play her final game in green-and-gray next month, hopefully deep into the postseason, but just as likely shy of the regional title White Station continues to chase. She’ll be off to college in the fall, softball a possibility but not exactly a priority as an 18-year-old begins carving her own path. Elena has three high school seasons ahead of her, and it will be a delight to cheer her as she tosses her way toward Senior Day in 2020. But she’ll have new centerfielders behind her.

Baseball and softball are agonizing joys, both to play and watch. Hitting a fastball with a round stick remains the hardest thing to do in sports. Catching and throwing a ball properly — and to the right base! — aren’t much easier. Add the mental challenge of overcoming continuous failure (one hit in three at-bats is outstanding, remember) and a softball player doesn’t so much compete as she does survive. I thought I knew agony when I whiffed on a third strike so many years ago. Then I saw Sofia’s tears after doing the same. A day after striking out ten hitters without allowing a walk, Elena was pitching when the Spartans were “run-ruled” by a district rival. A father suffers when his children are ill. And the pain is acute when his children feel the sting of defeat.

Both of my daughters’ grandmothers made the trip from Vermont to Memphis to see their favorite softball duo. They get it. They understand that certain seasons, for certain families, are unlike any other. They watched number 9 chase down a fly ball and number 6 induce an inning-ending grounder. Best of all, they saw the outfielder and pitcher return to the same dugout, sisters forever, but teammates for this brief — yet eternal — moment in time.


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