Monday, November 12, 2018

Goose Bumps Galore

Posted By on Mon, Nov 12, 2018 at 10:14 AM

Hats off to coach Brooks Monaghan and the University of Memphis women's soccer team. The Tigers' season ended earlier than they'd like, last Friday at the Mike Rose Soccer Complex, but later than most teams can claim. Their loss to Wisconsin came in the first round of the NCAA tournament and less than a week after the Tigers won their first American Athletic Conference championship. This was the Tigers' seventh appearance in soccer's version of the Big Dance since 2007.

I attended three U of M sporting events last week. I saw larger crowds at FedExForum (men's basketball) and the Liberty Bowl (football), but only at Mike Rose did I see a line of fans waiting to get in 20 minutes after the start of the game. It was somewhat ironic, scores of fans waiting in 40-degree chill to pay and see a "non-revenue sport." Soccer is here, folks. Memphis 901 FC will start play in March, but keep an eye on the Tiger women's program. It's exceptional, and has been for some time now.

• Call me a believer in the 2018-19 Memphis Grizzlies. Recent wins over Utah, Denver, and Philadelphia — three playoff-bound teams — have the Griz not just firmly in postseason position, but near the top of the Southwest Division. And as the Golden State Warriors continue to lord over the Western Conference, consider this: the Grizzlies have yet to raise a banner for team achievement to the rafters at FedExForum. With the San Antonio Spurs undergoing their version of a rebuild and the Houston Rockets stumbling out of the starting blocks, the Grizzlies' first division title doesn't seem out of the question. Perhaps Raise a Banner could be adopted as a franchise mantra this winter. If point guard Mike Conley stays healthy — and puts 32 points on the board now and then, as he did last Saturday against the Sixers — the Grizzlies look like a team that could play deep into April, perhaps even May.

• Running Pony is the Steven Spielberg of basketball video intros. Frankly, there have been recent Memphis Tiger teams that haven't quite deserved the 60-second adrenaline pump Running Pony put together for the pregame show. But this season's video seems to be the result of two crowd-raising forces colliding. And it's all about the video's opening.

Clad in a suit straight from Men In Black, Tiger coach Penny Hardaway carries a basketball to center court, above the U of M logo. He leans at the waist and proceeds to dribble the ball twice — right hand to left, then back to his right — and passes the ball offscreen to his left. It's a three-second infusion of goose bumps unlike anything FedExForum has seen on Tiger game nights in at least a decade. Hardaway's star power is such that merely a glimpse is enough to bring Memphis fans alive. But for a hint — even just three seconds — of Hardaway playing basketball? It's almost too much to process for those of us who remember the man's dribbling days of yore. So another Emmy goes to Running Pony. "Cool" was the first overused word in the English language, so apologies, but the Memphis Tigers have the coolest basketball coach in the country.

• The Memphis Tiger football team is one win shy of clinching a fifth consecutive winning season. How rare in these parts is such an achievement? We have to go back four decades to find such a run, the Tigers having posted winning marks from 1973 to 1977. That was, quite literally, a different era for college football, with fewer than half the bowl games we have today. (None of those Tiger teams played in a postseason contest.) Even if Memphis loses its last two regular-season games — to SMU and Houston — the Tigers will play in a bowl game for a fifth straight year (and aim to end the program's three-game bowl losing streak). It's worth emphasizing as coach Mike Norvell's third season nears the finish line: Winning football has grown customary at the U of M.

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Monday, November 5, 2018

Q & A: Stubby Clapp

Posted By on Mon, Nov 5, 2018 at 9:15 AM

Stubby Clapp is headed back to the major leagues. Nearly 18 years after last donning the uniform of the St. Louis Cardinals as a player, Clapp is taking over duties as first-base coach for the club. In two years as manager of the Memphis Redbirds, Clapp won a pair of Pacific Coast League championships (and the 2018 Triple-A National Championship) and was twice named the PCL's Manager of the Year. He's currently managing the Surprise Saguaros in the Arizona Fall League.

Your name came up in discussions about managerial vacancies in the big leagues. What can you share about the process that led you to taking the coaching job in St. Louis?
I went through three interviews with Texas and didn't get considered for other [big-league jobs] beyond my name being thrown around. St. Louis was up front and forward about wanting me to be on staff if things didn't work out on the managerial side. I feel blessed with the opportunity. To play for the Cardinals, and now bounce back and get to coach with the club . . . it's a special honor.

You aced the test in Memphis, with two championships in two seasons. And you were required to use more than 60 players each year. Was there a unifying quality to the 2017 and 2018 Redbirds that led to such success? I've thought about this, and I've given a bunch of different answers depending on my mood or thought process. But the more I think about it, the more I think about my staff both years. We were together on things, had each others' backs to make sure we were doing things the right way. The first thought was always, "What's best for the player?" Winning came second. That positive attitude translated to the players, and they grabbed hold of it. It became a culture. When you have good culture and talent, good things come to fruition.

Positive energy has a stronghold over talent. If you're bitter and you've got talent, you're always looking at what you didn't do. I'm a big believer in a positive atmosphere and knowing that it's okay to fail in trying to be great.

Despite all the wins and trophies, it couldn't have been easy. Were there stumbles along the way? There were struggles. Times we had to look ourselves in the mirror. Last year, there was more [roster] movement early on, especially on the pitching side of things. Guys stepped up and did great jobs. You just gotta believe that something [positive] is going to happen. And go for it.

What kind of relationship do you have with Cardinals manager Mike Shildt (another former Memphis skipper)? We've developed a relationship over the last couple of years. I have a lot of respect for the way he's made his way in the game. It's unbelievable. He's worked hard. He's a great story. He's got a good idea of the way things should be run, and he's a very good communicator. I can't wait to help out in any way.

The World Series seemed to tilt on the managers' use of their bullpens, an area you handled well in Memphis. Any thoughts or secrets you can share on proper bullpen management? I did it in a way that made sure the guys were ready to produce in the big leagues. I followed those parameters and used some creativity to make sure we had enough innings [covered] every day. Between my pitching coaches [Bryan Eversgerd in 2017, Dernier Orozco in ’18] and I, we made sure they were ready. It wasn't necessarily who we had to throw every day, but making sure the proper workloads were there, even on back-to-back days. There was constant communication. But we let the pitchers dictate what part of the game they were good at, whether it's middle relief or end of the game, one inning or ground-ball [specialist]. We let them dictate rather than demand something out of them. Then we let them excel in those situations.

It's been a long time since you've been in the big leagues. What kind of impact do you hope to make, starting in 2019? Positive impact on day-do-day activities and game preparation. Any way they need me. Infield work, base-running … if they just need a pump-up session. Whatever Shildty needs me to do, I'll be there ready to roll and try to get some things accomplished.

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Monday, October 29, 2018

Memphis Tigers Football: Lessons Learned (So Far)

Posted By on Mon, Oct 29, 2018 at 10:07 AM

When the Memphis Tigers take the field at East Carolina this Saturday, they will have gone 27 days without tasting a victory. That's a long time in the course of a college football season, merely three months to separate programs with Top 25 aspirations from those happy with a mid-December bowl berth. Having lost two straight games — a heartbreaker to UCF and a thorough teeth-cleaning at Missouri — Memphis (4-4) will start its final third of the season knowing the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl may be this season's pinnacle, in which case we'll toss out the word "pinnacle." What lessons can we take from the Tigers' first eight games? Here are four.
Darrell Henderson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Darrell Henderson

A soft September did this team no favors. I sat in the Liberty Bowl press box on October 6th as the Tigers wiped the field with UConn Huskies and had a rather uncomfortable conversation with another reporter, one who's been covering the Tigers even longer than I have. "Who is this team? What's their strength? Can Brady White beat a team with premium recruits? Is the defense as bad as it looked at Tulane?"

To be asking such questions in October is scary. Those of us who watch every snap of every Tiger game felt unfamiliar with a team almost halfway through its regular season. The Missouri spanking would have been better — big picture — had it taken place in early September. Coaches need to learn what they have, too. Whatever adjustments (to scheme or personnel) defensive coordinator Chris Ball might make will come too late to impact much of the season, and way too late to impact the Tigers' chances for reaching the American Athletic Conference title game.

The Tigers have dropped a notch in speed. This is the easiest team-wide component to measure on a football team. Strength and "football IQ" get lost in the mass of bodies on every play. But as one team outruns another — be it on offense or defense — games are won and lost. And the Memphis defense is surrendering big plays as though it's down a man. After pulling within four points (21-17) at Mizzou, the Tigers gave up four touchdowns in less than nine minutes. A turnover played a role, but three of the Missouri scores covered at least 44 yards. Stare at the film as long as you'd like, but I'll summarize: Missouri players outran Memphis players, all the way to the end zone. (Let's acknowledge the SEC-AAC gap while we're here. However much the Memphis program has grown in recent years, a mid-level SEC program is of a different talent stripe.)

Memphis is not a bad football team. I'll point you to the Tiger record book and circle recent records: 2-10 (2006), 2-10 (2009), 1-11 (2010), 2-10 (2011), 3-9 (2013). Memphis has fielded some boot-licking football teams since the turn of the century, but the 2018 bunch is not among them. With merely seven points against East Carolina, the Tigers will move into the top 10 teams in the program's history as measured by points scored, and with at least three more full games to play. But as of today, the Tigers' biggest win this season came over a Connecticut team that's 1-7 and staring up from the AAC's East Division cellar. This must change. A win over East Carolina (2-5) would do it, but barely. Memphis needs to circle the Houston game (November 23rd) in thick, red ink. The regular-season finale at the Liberty Bowl (the day after Thanksgiving) is the last chance the U of M will have to beat a team with real claws.

 Darrell Henderson is mortal. Proof came with a hamstring injury in the Missouri game, one that sidelined the Tigers' star tailback after only four carries and 15 yards. Henderson's in a virtual dead heat with Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor for the national lead in rushing, trailing in total yards (1,155 to 1,148) and yards per game (144.4 to 143.5). But Henderson's yards per carry (10.1) dwarfs Taylor's (6.4). Needless to say, Henderson faces a lighter schedule in November than does Taylor, so this will be a fun race to follow, particularly if Henderson is fully recovered from the hamstring tweak. (Coach Mike Norvell has indicated Henderson will play at East Carolina.)

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Monday, October 22, 2018

National Baseball Day

Posted By on Mon, Oct 22, 2018 at 9:15 AM

Baseball has its problems. For the first time in major-league history, fans saw more strikeouts over the course of a season than base hits. Eight-man bullpens and infield shifts have transformed the game into something that would be vaguely familiar to the likes of Jackie Robinson or Stan Musial. (Ty Cobb would spit, snarl, sharpen his spikes, and take the bunt single every time an opposing infield shifted against him.) Fans aren't exactly flocking to the new whale-or-whiff culture. Total attendance in 2018 fell below 70 million for the first time in 15 years.

Baseball needs to rekindle its long love affair with Americans, and it can be done. There's still no sport that cultivates leisure time like the one that gave us the seventh-inning stretch. The first significant step Major League Baseball could take toward attracting new fans — and reminding us longtime fans that it still cares — is to provide an extra day of leisure in the form of a holiday: National Baseball Day.

Here's how National Baseball Day would work. On the day Game 1 of the World Series is played — typically a Tuesday — Americans would get to stay home in honor of the sport that gave us Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and a craving for Cracker Jack. No one plays like we do in the United States. National Baseball Day would bridge the holiday gap between Labor Day and Thanksgiving while celebrating an act of recreation.

The game would start at 3 p.m. Eastern, allowing every child from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, to see every pitch, hit, stolen base, and replay review (ugh) if he or she so chooses. Families split across time zones could connect via smart phone and share in the exploits of the latest October hero. Extra bonding time for friends and families around a baseball game. Imagine that.

If you’re not a baseball fan, stop the eye roll. This holiday is for you, too. Take a hike (literally). Grab your rod and reel. See a movie you’ve been meaning to see, and with the right person. Have a picnic lunch. Enjoy a day of leisure, courtesy the game of baseball.

Television will resist this movement, of course. Those at Fox or TBS or whoever happens to hold the rights to the Fall Classic will rope themselves to the mast of prime-time ad rates. Instead, they might consider another sporting event that does rather well as a stand-alone happening, begun before prime time, with most families together at home: the Super Bowl. Savvy ad execs will recognize their audience for National Baseball Day.

You wonder why kids aren't wearing Alex Bregman jerseys (outside Houston) or collecting Anthony Rizzo baseball cards (outside Chicago)? It might have something to do with their recent World Series heroics happening after the kids were in bed. Among baseball's eternal charms is its every-day quality, 162 games played by each team over six months. But it's showcase — its primary sales tool for the next generation — must be the World Series. Heck, the Fall Classic now has to compete with NBA games.

National Baseball Day is the first answer to baseball's woes. You say a holiday requires an act of Congress? Email your congressman and attach this column. Better yet, ask your kids (or grandkids) to write their congressman. It's not a sport we're saving. It's a country.

Monday, October 15, 2018

2018-19 Memphis Grizzlies: 5 Predictions

Posted By on Mon, Oct 15, 2018 at 9:16 AM

Here's a prediction for the most predictable league in American sports, and you can consider this guaranteed: The Golden State Warriors will not face LeBron James in the 2019 NBA Finals. (See if Vegas will give you odds.) With King James now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, he will have to beat the mighty Warriors in the Western Conference playoffs merely to reach his ninth straight Finals. Is James enough to transform a 35-47 team — a franchise that hasn't reached the postseason since 2013 — into a title contender? Let's put it this way: James is the only player who might perform such, ahem, magic in L.A.

As the Grizzlies prepare to tip off their 18th season in Memphis (Wednesday night at Indiana), here are five more predictions as 29 NBA teams try to prevent a third-straight Bay Area championship parade.

Mike Conley will make things right for Memphis.
What exactly right means remains to be determined. But Conley's absence last season significantly compounded the departures of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. Limited to 12 games by an injury to his left foot that required surgery, Conley watched with the rest of us as Tyreke Evans, JaMychal Green, and longtime running mate Marc Gasol did what they could to make a 22-win season feel competitive. But when a rookie finishes second on your team in minutes played (as Dillon Brooks did last season), playoff basketball is rarely in the conversation. Considering his size, Conley has been remarkably durable over his NBA career, last season being the first of 11 in which he played fewer than 50 games. He turned 31 last week and is now in the third year of that mega-deal he signed in 2016 paying him $30 million annually. Conley won't play 82 games, but he'll play more than 50. It'll be enough to feel like "our Griz" are back.

Jaren Jackson will be more popular than Chandler Parsons.
I like the idea of an athletic four — we once called them "power forwards" — running the floor with Conley, helping Gasol on the defensive end, and flushing offensive rebounds. Memphis chose Jackson with the fourth pick in June's draft for these purposes. Can he become the kind of player who sells tickets, a team "personality" we tend to crave in the Bluff City? Let's give the kid some time. (He's 19 years old, three years younger than Memphis Tiger point guard Jeremiah Martin.) But he'll lap the veteran Parsons in popularity by Christmas while earning a fourth of the salary.

Kyle Anderson and Garrett Temple won't overwhelm anyone. But they won't underwhelm, either.
Anderson started 67 games for the San Antonio Spurs last season. Consider me sold on those credentials alone. Temple averaged 8.4 points and 2.3 rebounds as a part-time starter for Sacramento last season. He's starting his 10th NBA season but has reached the playoffs only three times (with the Spurs and Washington Wizards). These are rotation players for the Grizzlies, "glue guys" in college terms. They won't move the needle when it comes to highlight clips, but they're the kind of players who tend to deliver what's expected. And that's needed at FedExForum.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Marc Gasol

Marc Gasol will finish the season atop the Grizzlies' leaderboard in games played, points, and rebounds.

With images of a pudgy Gasol learning the game at Lausanne, Big Spain's 11th NBA season has me dodging AARP flyers. He's already the Grizzlies' career leader in scoring (10,850 points), trails Conley by just two games (716), and needs 126 rebounds to pass Zach Randolph atop the rebounding chart. He's become an active franchise icon, something very few NBA teams can claim. Like Conley, he stuck around when other franchises may have offered clearer paths to a championship. He'll be here at least one more season and will be central to any playoff aspirations in the Memphis locker room.

The Grizzlies will be among the NBA's most improved teams, but will still miss the playoffs.
The Western Conference was stacked before the century's best player immigrated from the East. And James joined a Laker team that didn't qualify for last year's playoffs. That's at least nine teams competing for eight spots before Memphis enters the conversation. Let's say the Grizzlies improve by 15 games (not ridiculous considering the absence of Conley a year ago and his return this season). Those 37 wins would have been 10 games short of a playoff berth last season. There are simply too many teams the Grizzlies must catch and pass to rejoin the Western Conference elite. If the Griz improved by 20 wins, where would 42-40 leave them? Lots to hope for in the season ahead — starting with a ban on four-letter words that start with "t" and end with "k" — but within the sobering context of a heavy Western Conference that got heavier over the summer.

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Monday, September 24, 2018

The USFL: When Pro Football Was Fun

Posted By on Mon, Sep 24, 2018 at 9:41 AM

"If the 1980s was the era of blissful, colorful, dynamic excess, the USFL was the football league of blissful, colorful, dynamic excess."

Minor-league sports get a bad rap. And Memphis has been a part of some ugly marriages with "professional" football: the WFL, the CFL, and the XFL to name three. But the United States Football League — home to the Memphis Showboats for two buzz-worthy seasons in the 1980s — was an exception. And Jeff Pearlman has brought the magic to life with his book, Football for a Buck (released earlier this month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). There was a time when football teams called themselves Gamblers, Invaders, Gunslingers, and yes, Showboats. When two-point conversions and end zone celebrations were encouraged. When Burt f*****g Reynolds rode to midfield as part of the Tampa Bay Bandits ownership group. This was the USFL.

Pearlman's book is part history lesson, capturing the brilliantly mad idea of a spring football league that placed teams not just in NFL cities, but had them play in the very stadiums NFL teams called home. The league's first champion — the 1983 Michigan Panthers — played better football in the Pontiac Silverdome than did the Detroit Lions. But the enterprise seemed to survive on duct tape and barbed wire. One team hired a blind equipment manager. One hired 24-hour security for a coach whose life had been threatened by a player he chose to cut. During the league's first offseason, the Chicago and Arizona franchises were traded for each other. (Yes, 50 players in two USFL cities — and their families — moved to the other city for the 1984 season.)

But the USFL grabbed those who paid close attention. Herschel Walker was the first big name to take a lavish contract and snub the NFL, but Steve Young and Jim Kelly followed, pumping up TV ratings (somewhat) and giving the new league glitz beyond its scantily clad cheerleaders. Who cared about baseball in April when the reigning Heisman Trophy winner was cutting his professional teeth in the Big Apple?

"The Showboats were a model USFL franchise."

Memphis was among six cities that gained expansion franchises for the 1984 season. Under owner Billy Dunavant, general manager Steve Ehrhart (since 1994, the executive director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl), and wacky coach Pepper Rodgers, the Showboats got much of minor-league football right, in part by treating their Memphis fan base like they were big-league. Star players — most notably Hall of Fame-bound defensive lineman Reggie White — made public appearances, shook hands, and provided moments of connection long before selfies were a thing. And it showed on game day. More than 50,000 fans packed the Liberty Bowl for a sweltering June 1984 game against the Birmingham Stallions. (My dad and I were among them.) Memphis lost the game, but there was nothing minor-league about the experience. We left the stadium that day feeling like we'd witnessed the birth of a new regional rivalry, and that the ’Boats would be back.

The zany behavior — often blended with outstanding football — fuels Pearlman's storytelling. But there's a shadow figure throughout the tale. The USFL died a quick death in large part because a direct challenge to the NFL crashed mightily. The man leading the attempt to (1) move the USFL to a fall schedule and (2) merge certain franchises with the established league? One Donald J. Trump. (In a coincidence best appreciated by Robert Mueller, Pearlman's book was released on the same day Bob Woodward's Fear: Trump in the White House hit shelves nationwide.)

The upstart league actually won an antitrust lawsuit filed against the NFL, but was rewarded precisely one dollar in damages. As the future president might have put it, "So much winning." The NFL's commissioner at the time, Pete Rozelle, as quoted in the book: "Mr. Trump, as long as I or my heirs are involved in the NFL, you will never be a franchise owner in the league."

Pearlman has written books on more mainstream football subjects: Walter Payton, Brett Favre, the 1990s Dallas Cowboys. But Football for a Buck is a unique time capsule on as distinctive a three-year life as any minor-league American sports entity has seen. And that's the catch: The USFL may have been a minor league, but it was operated with major-league balls. Did it fail? When measured for posterity, it did indeed. But in generating memories for those of us who witnessed the colorful stumbles? The stories live on. And we finally have the book to prove it.

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Monday, September 17, 2018

Star Power

Posted By on Mon, Sep 17, 2018 at 9:28 AM

It's unlikely Stubby Clapp and Darrell Henderson have met each other. One manages a professional baseball team (our Triple-A Memphis Redbirds), his season ending in September. The other carries the ball for a college football team (our University of Memphis Tigers), his season beginning in September. It would be a nice tandem photo, though, of Clapp and Henderson arm in arm. For they have delivered the kind of star power that fuels a fan base, regardless of season.
Darrell Henderson
  • Darrell Henderson

Over the course of 27 hours last weekend, within about 10 miles of each other, Clapp and Henderson further solidified their places in Memphis sports history. The junior tailback rushed for 233 yards — on merely 14 carries — and scored two touchdowns to help his Tigers eviscerate Georgia State at the Liberty Bowl. Henderson has 521 rushing yards over his first three games, tops in the entire country. No one will confuse Georgia State's defense for Alabama's, but 4.3 speed doesn't slow for any opponent. With good health (and maybe a few more carries), Henderson will enter All-America conversations and climb NFL draft boards, another college season of eligibility be damned.

As for Clapp, he delivered a second-straight Pacific Coast League championship to Memphis, despite being asked by the parent St. Louis Cardinals to juggle 66 players over the course of the five-month season. (Last year it was merely 62.) Clapp's entire starting rotation and outfield — at least those we saw in April — are now in uniform for St. Louis. But it didn't matter. Clapp sent Tommy Edman onto the field, an infielder who spent most of his season at Double-A Springfield, and Edman proceeded to earn co-MVP honors — with Randy Arozarena — for the PCL championship series. (Ironically, Edman is one of just two Redbirds position players to appear in the championship series each of the last two years, the other being shortstop Wilfredo Tovar.) Edmundo Sosa, playing third base, caught the final out in Saturday night's clincher. Like Edman, Sosa played more games this season at Double-A than Triple-A. Didn't matter. He's being sized for a Pacific Coast League championship ring.

Clapp and Henderson are bound for the highest level of their respective sports. A manager who wins back-to-back championships at the highest level of the minor leagues with whomever the parent club provides brings the kind of touch major-league teams crave. A running back whose 54-yard touchdown run is merely second on his game-night highlight reel is an all-too-rare breakaway talent most NFL teams lack.
PCL champions. Again.
  • PCL champions. Again.

Thanks to the NBA's Grizzlies, Memphis has been a "big-league town" for 17 years now. And it's nice to belong at the adult table for sports. But let's not lose an appreciation for the rising stars we glimpse on their way to larger stages, brighter lights. A fan's greatest challenge is recognizing — identifying — history before it happens. Crystal balls shatter like light bulbs in the hands of analysts and those paid the big bucks to forecast greatness. (Where are you, JaMarcus Russell? Anyone seen Greg Oden recently?) Stubby Clapp and Darrell Henderson will be wearing different uniforms in the near future. Which makes the present they've provided Memphis all the more special. Extraordinary even.

• The Redbirds are now one of only three current PCL franchises with as many as four championships. (Tacoma has five and Sacramento four.) And only Sacramento has won as many since Memphis joined the PCL in 1998.

• Henderson has a slight lead over Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor atop the country's rushing leaders. He's averaging 173.7 yards per game while Taylor has averaged 171.7. Taylor has the advantage of one of the biggest and best offensive lines in the country, though he also faces a Big Ten schedule, while Henderson will be able to feast on AAC competition. Also keep an eye on Henderson's career total (currently 2,157 yards). He stands a reasonable chance of becoming only the second Tiger to gain 3,000 yards on the ground. DeAngelo Williams, it should be remembered, gained 6,026.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Redbirds vs. Grizzlies for PCL Championship

Posted By on Mon, Sep 10, 2018 at 9:24 AM

Memphis will spend the next week rooting hard against the Grizzlies.

After a pair of heart-stopping comeback wins last weekend, the Memphis Redbirds advanced to the Pacific Coast League (PCL) championship series for a second straight season where they'll defend their title against the Triple-A affiliate of the world champion Houston Astros, the Fresno Grizzlies. Battling Mother Nature in both Oklahoma City (where they split the first two games of the best-of-five semifinal series) and Memphis, the Redbirds beat a hot Dodger team in four games, the last two in walk-off fashion.

In Game 3 Friday night, Alex Mejia, Lane Thomas, and Max Schrock delivered consecutive RBI singles in the bottom of the ninth inning to erase a 4-2 Oklahoma City lead and give Memphis a 2-1 series advantage. But that comeback served merely as prelude to Sunday's epic Game 4.
Courtesy Memphis Redbirds
  • Courtesy Memphis Redbirds

The Redbirds tied Sunday's game at a run apiece in the bottom of the seventh inning on a sacrifice fly by Tommy Edman. (The game had been scheduled for seven innings, as Game 5 would have followed had the Dodgers won.) Oklahoma City took a two-run lead in the top of the 10th inning on a home run by Henry Ramos. But the Redbirds rallied again, this time tying the score at 3 on a two-out, two-strike single by Alex Mejia. Then, things got a little weird.

Thomas reached second after drilling the ball off the Dodgers' first baseman, putting Redbirds at second and third. Oklahoma City manager Bill Haselman then seemed to corner Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp by walking Schrock. Out of position players on his bench, Clapp was forced to let relief pitcher Giovanny Gallegos bat with the winning run 90 feet away. Gallegos had exactly one at-bat in his seven-year professional career.

Gallegos clubbed the baseball over the leftfielder's head for a series-clinching walkoff victory. Such is Redbirds baseball in what can now be called the Stubby Clapp era. Pieces of a good team are removed. Others arrive, suit up, and impact victories.

The 2018 Redbirds, for a time, had the finest outfield in the minor leagues: Tyler O'Neill, Oscar Mercado, and Adolis Garcia. Mercado was traded in late July and O'Neill and Garcia are now helping the St. Louis Cardinals fight for a big-league playoff spot.

In April, Memphis had what appeared to be an electric rotation of starting pitchers: Jack Flaherty, Austin Gomber, John Gant, Daniel Poncedeleon, and Dakota Hudson. Hudson won 13 games for the Redbirds and earned PCL Pitcher of the Year honors. But all five men are now pitching for the Cardinals, leaving the likes of Jake Woodford, former Cardinal Tyler Lyons, and Kevin Herget to take turns in the PCL playoffs.

And take their turns they will, now three games from back-to-back championships for a man — already a back-to-back PCL Manager of the Year — who may be on to new ventures next spring. When the Toronto Blue Jays announced last week that manager John Gibbons will not return in 2019, Clapp's name instantly became an offseason talking point. (Clapp is a native of Windsor, Ontario.) Would a major-league team hire a manager with no experience in such a role on the game's highest level? Check out the managers' offices at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park as the Yankees and Red Sox prepare for this year's postseason.

For at least three more games, though, Stubby Clapp will command the Memphis Redbirds. (The championship series opens Tuesday night in Fresno, with Games 3 through 5 scheduled for AutoZone Park, starting Friday night.) You can bet against the Redbirds at your wallet's peril. Clapp has emphasized "never say die" for two seasons now as a Triple-A manager. When relief pitchers are drilling series-winning hits to the wall, perhaps it's time we all believe in the mantra.

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Monday, August 20, 2018

Stubby's Stretch Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 6, 2018

Can Redbirds Weather Cardinals' Transition Storm?

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

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

Cut to the present, and "the Cardinal Way" has become a brand of baseball from which those with a weak stomach must turn away. The Cardinals — winners of more Gold Gloves than any other National League franchise — have committed the most errors in the Senior Circuit. They are near the bottom of the NL in stolen bases, doubles, and triples, the kind of acts on a baseball field that energize a crowd, that demoralize (and more often than not, beat) an opponent. They have a quartet of pitchers on the disabled list — Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, and Alex Reyes — that would make one of the sport's finest rotations if healthy and taking the mound four out of five games.

At last week's trade deadline, St. Louis parted ways with two of the system's best athletes, both centerfielders. After receiving MVP votes after the 2017 season, Tommy Pham was sent to Tampa Bay for three minor-league prospects. A few hours later, Oscar Mercado was shipped to Cleveland for two low-minors prospects. Mercado had been the Memphis Redbirds' spark plug for four months, leading the Pacific Coast League in steals (31) while topping the first-place Redbirds in hits (109) and runs (73). Mercado seemed to personify what the current Cardinal roster is desperately missing: a player with speed who makes contact at the plate and plays strong defense at a premium position. He'll now present that skill set in the Indians' system.

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 23, 2018

2018 Redbirds: Making Memories

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

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

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

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

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

• The highest two-year win total — regular-season only — in Redbirds history is 159 (accumulated in both 2009-10 and 2010-11). After Sunday's win over Colorado Springs, the Redbirds have won 155 games since Opening Day 2017. So the team could theoretically break this mark with the entire month of August left to play.

• First-baseman Luke Voit became just the second Redbird to hit for the cycle . . . and he needed two months to do it. Voit tripled and singled in a game at Iowa on June 30th before the game was suspended by a thunderstorm. The slugger got a good night's sleep, ate breakfast, then doubled and homered after the game was resumed on Sunday, July 1st.

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

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

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

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


Monday, July 16, 2018

St. Louis Cardinals in Crisis; Matheny Fired

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

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

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

• The Cardinals are still looking for The Guy.

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

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

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

• An abundance of pitching is always good.

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, July 2, 2018

The Capital Gazette and Ripples of Hope

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

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

Then on June 28th — my Thursday at the beach — five journalists at the Capital Gazette in Maryland died by gunfire in their offices, slain by a person unable to process anger but all too able to purchase a firearm. The horror felt intensely personal. These were my people, doing what my colleagues and I do every day. They shared my interests, my curiosity, my priorities. Informing the world — now and then, enlightening the world — was their call to duty. Never should such a career require an escape plan for an “active shooter” attack.

But here’s the important catch, one “my people” would surely emphasize if they could: These were our people, all of us. There can be no more “us,” no more “them” if we — that universal pronoun — are to coexist. I know this because Bobby Kennedy told us so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 18, 2018

Baseball's Bruises

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

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

As the temperatures rise, though, I find myself hot under the collar over various issues related to cowhide, lumber, and the seventh-inning stretch. None of these are deal-breakers for my relationship with the greatest game we know. But each of them are threats to the game’s place atop life’s mountain of pleasures. Even Marilyn Monroe had make-up pros on set. Let’s touch up a few of baseball's blemishes, starting now.

• Hitting against The Shift.
It’s time we start capitalizing this infernal tactic where teams place three infielders on the right side of second base against hitters apparently unable to hit to the opposite field. Stars who hit from the left side — the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo is a prime example — stare at a virtually empty infield from third base to second, but continue to swing away. The belief, of course, is that you beat The Shift by hitting over The Shift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Redbirds Roll as Roster Revolves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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