Monday, September 9, 2019

Baseball at Its (Almost) Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, August 19, 2019

Redbirds Rewind: Five Highlights from a Mostly Meh Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, August 12, 2019

August Angst: Sport's Cruelest Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 5, 2019

Clipped Wings?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, July 29, 2019

Brooks Koepka: Memphian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, July 15, 2019

The NBA's Supermen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, July 8, 2019

The Memphis Redbirds: Shooting Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, June 24, 2019

Forza Calcio!

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

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

Okay, this warrants an explanation. My family spent a memorable academic year (1976-77) in Torino, Italy, as my dad pursued his Ph.D. in economics. (He was studying people and policies in the country under Cavour, Italy's first prime minister.) I was in 2nd grade at the time and fell in love with the city's renowned soccer club, Juventus. I Bianconeri ("the Black and Whites") were to Italian calcio what the New York Yankees are to American baseball. No Italian club has won more Serie A championships (35), and no Italian club sports as distinctive colors as the vertical stripes — yes, black and white — on Juve's home kits. Before I came to cheer the likes of Lou Brock and Ted Simmons of the St. Louis Cardinals, I had posters of Roberto Bettega and Dino Zoff on my bedroom wall.
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In the spring of ’77, Juventus beat Spain's Athletic Bilbao to win the UEFA Cup for the first time. Now known as the UEFA Europa League, this is a competition between qualifying clubs across Europe. It's not the Champions League and nowhere near the World Cup, but four decades ago, let me tell you, it was a big deal, a title that made Bettega, Zoff, and friends kings of the pitch in Europe.

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

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

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

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

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Monday, June 17, 2019

Beat Me in St. Louis: The Cardinals' Crisis

Posted By on Mon, Jun 17, 2019 at 9:16 AM

The St. Louis Cardinals are fluttering. While much of the team's fan base basks in the silvery shine of the St. Louis Blues' first Stanley Cup championship, the esteemed baseball club — owner of 11 trophies of its own — is hovering around break-even in a season it was expected to make a return to meaningful games in October. Here in Memphis, the Triple-A Redbirds have dropped even further in the standings, the two-time defending Pacific Coast League champions are wobbling with a record of 29-41 through Sunday, essentially out of contention for another playoff berth before the Fourth of July.
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt - COURTESY ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
  • Courtesy St. Louis Cardinals
  • Cardinals manager Mike Shildt

What to make of the struggles? Seventy baseball games make for a considerable sample size. By now, the Cardinals should know what they have (and have not). A rotation of starting pitchers considered as deep as any in the National League in March now finds itself without an ace, minus that "stopper" who can end thoughts of a lengthy losing streak with a shut-down performance. Miles Mikolas was The Guy last season (18-4, 2.83 ERA), but this season appears to be merely a guy (4-7, 4.83 through Sunday). Young Jack Flaherty is the ace of the future, but emphasis on future, as the 23-year-old righty is sporting a 4.28 ERA and last won a game on May 14th. Veteran Adam Wainwright (5-6) has landed on the injured list with a hamstring injury, and Michael Wacha — just last week returned from a brief banishment to the bullpen — got mauled by the New York Mets in his last start. When a rookie (Dakota Hudson) is your most consistent starting pitcher, your baseball team will struggle.

And the Cardinal hitters have been no more consistent than the pitchers. Newly acquired Paul Goldschmidt — armed with a new contract extension — brought the kind of All-Star resume expected to fuel the St. Louis batting order for years. Through Sunday, the slugger is fifth on his team with 29 RBIs. Making matters worse, only one of the four teammates ahead of him (Marcell Ozuna) has driven in as many as 40 runs. This is not a potent attack Cardinal manager Mike Shildt is fielding.

Is help on the way? Three Memphis Redbirds recently made their big-league debuts for the Cardinals. Lefty Genesis Cabrera doesn't appear to be a threat to any of the struggling starting pitchers in St. Louis. Catcher Andrew Knizner is a legitimate prospect, but returned to Memphis the moment Yadier Molina's wounded right thumb healed. And Tommy Edman is a versatile talent, both with the bat and glove. Will he be a difference-maker for the 2019 Cardinals. That's a stretch.

In a season of bewildered looks, the "face of the franchise" may well be Alex Reyes, still the Cardinals' top prospect, now toiling for Memphis. Since his return from a broken finger — injured when he punched a wall in frustration over a poor outing — Reyes hasn't missed a lot of bats with his arsenal. In three June starts, Reyes has surrendered 14 earned runs in 12 innings, never reaching the sixth inning in any of those starts. A young man who appeared to be ace material is now some distance from being merely big-league material.

Baseball is merciless — and relentless — in its everyday schedule. Players have little time to "find themselves" when lost on the mound or at the plate. If Goldschmidt hits in the season's second half like he has in the first, the Cardinals will miss the playoffs a fourth straight season. (Something that hasn't happened since 1988-95.) On the other hand, if Goldschmidt finds his groove and if Matt Carpenter becomes a shadow of the homer-machine he was last August, the Cardinals are within range of the Brewers and Cubs in the National League Central.

Old friend Albert Pujols returns to St. Louis this weekend, the three-time MVP's first appearance at Busch Stadium since he departed for the L.A. Angels after the Cardinals' 2011 championship season. Perhaps a reminder of the most recent glory days will spur a turnaround for the Cardinals. There's lots of baseball to be played yet for the Cards. Will the coming months be an extended slog or a return to glory?

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Monday, June 3, 2019

St. Louis Blues Fans: Hope Hard

Posted By on Mon, Jun 3, 2019 at 8:59 AM

This is a column about optimism and possibilities, at least in the realm of sports. It's also a column about patience, the most frustrating, maddening "virtue" on the spectrum of human emotion. If your team of choice wins championships regularly, you might move on to our dining coverage, perhaps our calendar of (non-sports) events. Boston sports fans have no business here. But if, say, you've chosen to ride with a still-young professional franchise — to date, title-free — or a college program that has gotten this close but not quite . . . well, read on.
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I adopted the St. Louis Blues upon landing in the middle of hockey country (Vermont) in 1982, a 13-year-old boy choosing to root outside the regional box of Boston Bruin and Montreal Canadien fans. I'd been raised on Cardinal baseball, and if I needed to speak hockey to survive, I might as well track another St. Louis team in the NHL standings. Upon their arrival in my winter thoughts and prayers, the Blues had played 15 years in the NHL without winning the greatest trophy in sports, the Stanley Cup. They had been gifted trips to the Stanley Cup Final their first three seasons, the result of a bizarre alignment strategy in which six expansion teams comprised the same division, its champion to face the best of the Original Six in the final series. (Imagine the PCL-champion Memphis Redbirds facing the Boston Red Sox last fall.) St. Louis was swept all three times. When they lost to the Bruins in the 1970 Final, I was in diapers and certainly couldn't say "Plager brothers."

Fast-forward 49 years, and 37 years from my adoption of the Blues. Several life stages there: high school, college, marriage, parenthood, firstborn to college. The Blues have still not won the Stanley Cup (17 other franchises have). They've suited up Hall of Fame-bound players: Joey Mullen, Doug Gilmour, Scott Stevens, Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Chris Pronger. Each of those players has his name engraved on the Cup, but under a team he played for after leaving St. Louis. (Think it hurt for Pau Gasol to win an NBA title with the Lakers? What if brother Marc does so with the freaking Raptors?) The greatest coach in Blues history (Joel Quenneville) has won the Cup three times . . . for the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blues won division titles and made the playoffs every year from 1980 through 2004, but departed every postseason by shaking hands with a team that was better. They reached the conference finals in 1986, 2001, and 2016, three painful teases of what might come should the Blues achieve one more elevation on this all-too-steep mountain.

Then 2019 arrived. The first week in January, St. Louis had the worst record in the 31-team NHL. But a rookie goaltender (Jordan Binnington) and interim coach (Craig Berube) proved to be historic boosters. The Blues reeled off the longest winning streak (11 games) in franchise history. They upset Winnipeg in the opening round of the playoffs, beat Dallas on a goal in the second overtime of Game 7 (patience, remember?!), and then — cue angels — knocked San Jose silly in the Western Conference finals to earn a berth with Boston in the Stanley Cup Final.

I haven't handled this as "professionally" as a longtime fan should. My highs have been among the puffy white clouds (in the clear Blues sky). My lows (the Bruins are formidable) have reminded me of crushing, season-ending losses of days gone by. I've come to recognize that winning the final four games necessary to raise the Cup is every bit the challenge of winning the 12 playoff games necessary to play for it. I never had this perspective before. And I'm so grateful for the perspective.

Your team will win a championship. It's gonna happen. Or you know what? It won't happen. (A 90-year-old Chicago Cubs loyalist who died in 2015 personified die-hard fan.) The math is very much against you. Only one playoff team ends its season with a victory. The vast majority of fan bases in your sport of choice are actually brethren, suffering the same abrupt termination to one season after another. But let me emphasize: Your devotion is worth the wait, however long. That notch on the mountain — the one you can sometimes see, however distant — is yet attainable. Don't take your eyes away. More importantly, and no matter the scars, don't take your heart away.


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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Memphis Sports Hall of Fame Announces Inaugural Class

Posted By on Wed, May 22, 2019 at 2:12 PM

As Memphis celebrates the city's bicentennial, its sports legends will soon have a home — a Hall of Fame — all their own. Wednesday afternoon at AutoZone Park, the Memphis Sports Council announced the members of what will be called the Bicentennial Class of the Memphis Sports Hall of Fame. The inaugural class includes 22 members — six of them deceased — and will be featured in the Memphis Sports Hall of Fame exhibition space on the third floor of AutoZone Park. The Hall of Fame will be open to the public year-round. (Visitors will need tickets when attending during sporting events at the stadium.) According to Memphis Sports Hall of Fame project manager Pierre Landaiche, the goal is to complete design work for the museum in 2019.

The Memphis Sports Council tasked a 35-member advisory committee to select the inaugural class after a nomination process that began in March. (Disclosure: I'm a member of the committee.) There are three categories under which candidates could be considered. Athletes must be five years removed from competing in their sport of choice. Coaches must be five years removed from competition or over the age of 50. And contributors include administrators, philanthropists, trainers, or members of the media who have demonstrated "outstanding service . . . through the development and advancement of sport."

Below are the members of the Memphis Sports Hall of Fame's Bicentennial Class:

Betty Booker-Parks — Record-setting basketball player at Memphis State (1976-80). Scored more points (2,835) than any player at the university, male or female. Jersey number (31) retired by Tigers.
Isaac Bruce — First Memphis Tiger football player to accumulate 1,000 receiving yards in a single season (1993). Jersey number (83) retired by Tigers. His 15,208 receiving yards rank fifth in NFL history. Caught game-winning touchdown pass for St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Bill Dance — Nationally renowned bass fisherman and TV personality. Three-time B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year and member of the Professional Bass Fishing Hall of Fame.
Billy Dunavant — Founder and original owner of The Racquet Club of Memphis and key player in attracting professional tennis to venue, which hosted a tournament for 40 years. Owner of Memphis Showboats, one of the most successful franchises in USFL (1984 and 1985). Helped attract Ducks Unlimited headquarters to Memphis from Chicago in 1992.
Larry Finch
  • Larry Finch
Larry Finch — Star guard for the early-Seventies Memphis State basketball team that helped unify the city in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968. Led Tigers to the 1973 championship game and still holds program record for career scoring average (22.3 points per game). Won 220 games in 11 seasons (1986-97) as Tiger coach.
Avron Fogelman — Prominent real estate developer and owner of the Memphis Chicks for 20 years (1977-97). Part-owner of Kansas City Royals when franchise won first World Series (1985). President of ABA's Memphis Pros. First chairman of Memphis/Shelby County Sports Authority.
Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway — Most accomplished basketball player in city's history. All-America (1992-93) at Memphis State, third pick in 1993 NBA draft, two-time first-team All-NBA with Orlando Magic, and member of the 1996 gold-medalist U.S. Olympic team. Took over coaching duties at the U of M in 2018.
Claude Humphrey — Star defensive end with the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles. Twice named All-Pro and accumulated more than 100 sacks before stat became an official statistic in 1982. Born in Memphis and played at Lester High School. Member of Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jerry Johnson — Won more than 800 games over 46 seasons as basketball coach at LeMoyne-Owen College. Led Magicians to 1975 NCAA Division III national championship.
George Lapides — Longtime sports journalist, first an editor and columnist at the Memphis Press-Scimitar then a longtime talk-radio host and sports editor with WREG-TV. President of the Memphis Chicks in mid-1980s when Bo Jackson played briefly for team.
Keith Lee — All-America forward for Tiger team that reached the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 four straight years (1982-85), culminating with an appearance in the 1985 Final Four. Tops Tiger charts in career points (2,408) and rebounds (1,336).
Verdell Mathis — One of the top left-handed pitchers in the Negro Leagues. Played nine years for the Memphis Red Sox and beat the legendary Satchel Paige three times. Attended Booker T. Washington High School.
Tim McCarver — A baseball and football star at Christian Brothers High School before playing for three World Series teams with the St. Louis Cardinals, earning championships in 1964 and 1967. Followed playing days with renowned career as a TV analyst. Honored in 2012 by the Baseball Hall of Fame with the annual Ford C. Frick Award.
Nikki McCray-Penson — Star basketball player at Collierville High School before earning All-America status at the University of Tennessee. Won gold medals with U.S. Olympic team in 1996 and 2000. Played nine seasons in the WNBA.
Cary Middlecoff — After graduating from Christian Brothers High School, became first All-America golfer at Ole Miss (1939). After giving up dentistry to play full time, won 40 PGA tournaments including the 1955 Masters and two U.S. Opens (1949 and 1956).
Cindy Parlow — Led Germantown High School to 1994 state soccer championship before twice being named national player of the year at North Carolina, where she helped the Tar Heels to two national titles. Member of iconic 1999 World Cup-champion U.S. soccer team.
Ronnie Robinson — Teammate and close friend of Larry Finch, first at Melrose High School, then at Memphis State, where "the Big Cat" helped the Tigers reach the 1973 Final Four. One of only four Tigers to score 1,000 points and pull down 1,000 rebounds.
Verties Sails — Won more than 700 games over 33 years as basketball coach at Shelby State Community College. Graduate of LeMoyne-Owen College and University of Memphis (where he earned his master's degree in 1967).
"Memphis Bill" Terry
  • "Memphis Bill" Terry
Fred Smith — Founder, chairman, and CEO of FedEx. Integral in promoting and supporting the Memphis sports landscape, with FedEx attached for years to the local PGA tournament and FedExForum the home (since 2004) of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies. FedEx is also the presenting sponsor of the annual Soutern Heritage Classic football game at the Liberty Bowl. Graduate of Memphis University School.
Rochelle Stevens — State champion at Melrose High School then 400-meter national champion at Morgan State. Won 400 meters at 1992 U.S. Olympic trials and earned silver medal as part of 4x400 relay team at Barcelona Games. Won gold with 4x400 team at 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Melanie Smith Taylor — Won gold medal in show jumping at 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. One of only two to win Triple Crown of show jumping, and only rider to win aboard the same horse (Calypso). Longtime television analyst.
Bill Terry — Star first-baseman for the New York Giants in the 1920s and ’30s. Batted .401 in 1930 and .341 for his career. Later managed Giants to three National League pennants and the 1933 world championship. Inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame in 1954.

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Friday, May 17, 2019

Precious! Memphis Secures Top Recruiting Class in the Country

Posted By on Fri, May 17, 2019 at 12:15 PM

"We want to win a national title. I don't think that's far-fetched. That drives me."

Penny Hardaway shared those sentiments with me before the start of his first season as basketball coach at the University of Memphis. The interview would inform a feature in which Memphis magazine named Hardaway its 2018 Memphian of the Year. (Yes, we named him MOY before he coached his first college game. Any questions about that now?) Hardaway did not say in that interview, "We want to win a national title in 2020."
Penny Hardaway, recruiting king. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Penny Hardaway, recruiting king.

He might say that today.

With Precious Achiuwa's announcement Friday (via social media) that he will play at the U of M, Hardaway has landed the top-ranked recruiting class in the country. Along with James Wiseman — the top-ranked player in the country, a center who starred at East High School for Hardaway — Achiuwa gives Memphis a pair of five-star recruits for the first time since Joe Jackson and Will Barton arrived on campus as part of Josh Pastner's second recruiting class in 2010.

But the five-stars have a supporting cast. Forwards Malcolm Dandridge (another East product) and D.J. Jeffries have been signed for weeks, along with Tennessee Prep guard Damion Baugh. Guard Lester Quinones committed to Hardaway a week ago (which may have clinched Achiuwa, the two having played together for years) and Boogie Ellis signed on the blue-and-gray line earlier this week. All five players are considered four-star recruits by Rivals.

Achiuwa's commitment pushes Memphis above Kentucky, Arizona, and Duke to number-one in the national rankings, according to 247Sports. When you add up the numbers, fully 10 percent of the country's top 50 recruits (according to Rivals) are coming to play for Hardaway at Memphis. In order: Wiseman (1), Achiuwa (17), Ellis (37), Quinones (48), and Jeffries (50).

I recently asked someone close to Hardaway how he has reacted with the serial signings of superstars. Excitement? Delight? Does he consider this normal? The description I received: "Supreme confidence."

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

U of M Athletic Director Tom Bowen Steps Down; Prescott Named Interim A.D.

Posted By on Tue, May 14, 2019 at 10:21 AM

University of Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen resigned Tuesday morning and will be replaced on an interim basis by Memphis attorney and longtime Tiger booster Allie Prescott.

Tom Bowen
  • Tom Bowen
“I have made the decision to step down as director of athletics to pursue a new career opportunity,” said Bowen in a press release. “I know that the athletic program here at the University of Memphis will continue to achieve great success both in the classroom and on the fields and courts of competition. It has been my privilege to serve this University.”

The Tiger football program has reached new heights under Bowen's watch with Top 25 teams in both 2014 and 2017. A new indoor facility is under construction to help close the gap between Tiger football and the wealthier programs on nearby SEC campuses. In addition to football's growth, men's basketball is now housed in the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center and has experienced a resurgence (and top-five recruiting class) under second-year coach Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway. (Bowen took his share of criticism for hiring Hardaway's predecessor, Tubby Smith.) Tiger women's soccer and men's golf are current American Athletic Conference champions.

A longtime community leader, Prescott has been both president of Allie Prescott & Partners, LLC since 2002 and senior vice president of Waddell & Associates Inc. since 2007. An M Club Hall of Famer who was a three-year letterman in baseball from 1967-69, Prescott was an All-Missouri Valley Conference first baseman in 1969. He was the original president and general manager of the Memphis Redbirds upon the franchise's arrival in 1998.
Allie Prescott
  • Allie Prescott

“Allie Prescott is quintessential Memphis,” said U of M president David Rudd in the release. “Growing up as a Tiger, he has played a pivotal role in supporting the University of Memphis and the City of Memphis in his lifetime. Allie is the perfect person to lead Memphis Athletics in this transitional period. His diverse leadership background will help us continue the momentum as University of Memphis athletics continues its quest for preeminence.”

Monday, May 13, 2019

Prospects Assemble!

Posted By on Mon, May 13, 2019 at 9:54 AM

I'm going with James Wiseman as the incredible Hulk. Then D.J. Jeffries as Iron Man. We'll find a shield for Lester Quinones and call him Captain America (Captain Memphis?). And Malcolm Dandridge has the arms to play Thor. At least for now. At Penny Hardaway's current pace, the casting for the 2019-20 Memphis Tiger basketball team is hardly complete.

Hardaway's second recruiting class has become an Avengers movie. And if you have trouble focusing during an all-in Marvel battle at the multiplex, just wait for upcoming winter nights at FedExForum. If Hardaway's second class of freshmen lives up to its ranking and signing-day reactions across the country, Tiger basketball and the NIT won't again be mentioned in the same sentence.
Does this man own an eye patch? - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Does this man own an eye patch?

By now, we know a single Avenger can make a blockbuster. (Iron Man proved this three times.) Had Hardaway merely signed Wiseman — the top-ranked recruit in the country, a five-star center who starred for Hardaway at East High School — the Memphis program would find itself in new territory come November, one where teams well beyond the American Athletic Conference must now consider Penny power in the national recruiting race. But Wiseman now represents the centerpiece in a collection of NBA-bound talent, a group unlike any seen in these parts in over a decade. (And I'm not convinced any of John Calipari's classes topped this one.)

Let's review the new arrivals. In addition to Wiseman, Hardaway — as Nick Fury, minus the eye patch — has landed two other top-50 recruits (according to Rivals): Quinones (48) and Olive Branch star D.J. Jeffries (50). Guard Damion Baugh (ranked 84th by Rivals) and Dandridge (123rd) give the class no fewer than four four-star members to surround the five-star Wiseman. With two scholarships still on the table, Hardaway's pursuing a trio of five-stars: New York forward Precious Achiuwa (a pal of Quinones'), Alabama forward Trendon Watford, and Texas guard R.J. Hampton. Yet another blue chip, guard Boogie Ellis, was on the U of M campus last week, deciding if Memphis might be a better fit than his original destination: Duke. Consider that: A prize recruit is deciding if Memphis basketball is more attractive than Duke.

For the first time in a quarter century, the Tigers will open their season without a single starter from the previous campaign. (Hardaway himself was part of the 1992-93 starting five that departed together.) And it's a good thing those starters are gone, for there are still only 200 player minutes to distribute in a college basketball game. It's little wonder three members (all reserves) from last year's team have decided to transfer. There would not be room in next year's rotation for Antwann Jones, Victor Enoh, or David Wingett. When you boil things down — remember, two scholarships left — there's only room for two of three more five-star recruits on the Memphis radar.

Recruiting rankings go only so far. No banner will be hung at FedExForum for Hardaway-as-Fury landing a top-five class. Ultron (Houston?) is out there, standing between Memphis and its first AAC championship. For the ultimate goal — a national championship — to be attained, Hardaway and his recruits will have to topple Thanos in one form or another (Kentucky? please??). But here's the thing: You don't topple Kentucky without the star recruits. Thus the spring euphoria around the U of M program.

By the time you read this, Achiuwa (Hawkeye?) may be posing for pics in blue and gray with Quinones.  Perhaps Ellis will sweep back into town (Falcon?) to make Memphis the envy of Duke fans far and wide. However Hardaway's roster is completed, the 2019-20 season can't get here soon enough. Marvel fans had to wait an entire year between Infinity War and Endgame. It's only six months until this Tiger blockbuster premiers at FedExForum.

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Monday, May 6, 2019

Rising Redbirds

Posted By on Mon, May 6, 2019 at 10:01 AM

The Memphis Redbirds return to AutoZone Park this week after a lengthy (13-game) road trip. Good time for a refresher on a few rising stars as the club seeks a third consecutive Pacific Coast League championship.
ADOLIS GARCIA
  • Adolis Garcia

Adolis Garcia — The 26-year-old Cuban is blocked by an abundance of outfielders with the parent club in St. Louis. Which means Garcia will likely anchor the batting order for manager Ben Johnson throughout the Triple-A season. Through Sunday, he leads the club with eight home runs and 25 RBIs. The one thing that might compromise Garcia's impact for Memphis this season? A trade. A lesson we learned a year ago when the Cardinals dealt Oscar Mercado to Cleveland: extra outfielders are easily moved for more coveted commodities (pitching or low-level prospects).

Daniel Ponce de Leon — There's no commodity in baseball more valuable than starting pitching and the Cardinals are blessed in this area. Having fully recovered from a skull fracture suffered during the 2017 season, Ponce de Leon won nine games for Memphis last season and started four games for the Cardinals. With Michael Wacha briefly on the injured list, St. Louis promoted the 27-year-old righty for a start against Milwaukee on April 23rd. He earned the win, striking out seven and allowing but one run in five innings, only to be demoted to Memphis to make room for Wacha's return to the rotation. "Ponce" is 2-1 with a 3.57 ERA for the Redbirds. There are big-league teams for whom he'd be starting every fifth day. They just don't call Busch Stadium home.

Andrew Knizner — Catching prospects in the Cardinal system tend to find themselves eventually making a living in other systems. Carson Kelly appeared to be the man to finally succeed the ageless Yadier Molina in St. Louis, only to be shipped to Arizona in the deal that brought Paul Goldschmidt to the Cardinals. The eighth-ranked prospect in the Cardinals system, Knizner is the latest to carry "heir apparent" status behind the plate for Memphis. The 24-year-old Knizner is a better hitter than Kelly, currently slashing .329/.391/.456 for the Redbirds. He comes equipped with a strong arm and has time to develop his catching skills at Triple-A, with former All-Star Matt Wieters currently backing up Molina in St. Louis.

Tommy Edman — The PCL has long been a hitter's league. Edman's .333 batting average barely places him among the circuit's top 20. But the infielder's bat is proving to be a top-of-the-order spark plug for the Redbirds, his versatility — as a second-baseman or shortstop — expanding Johnson's options when putting together a lineup card. Edman starred in last year's PCL playoffs, hitting .432 over the Redbirds' nine-game run to the Triple-A national championship. Keep that performance in mind as the 23-year-old Californian finds his way. There's no intangible for a professional baseball player like confidence.

Austin Gomber — Like Ponce de Leon, Gomber has already established major-league credentials. The 25-year-old lefty went 6-2 in 11 late-season starts for St. Louis last season, helping the Cardinals climb within a short winning streak of a playoff berth. (That winning streak, alas, didn't happen in September.) He's off to a 4-0 start for Memphis this season, with a 2.97 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 33 innings pitched. The Cardinals are currently functioning with no left-hander in their rotation and only two pitching out of the bullpen. It stands to reason Gomber will get a call for the trip up I-55 this season. Only a matter of when.

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