Monday, December 11, 2017

1997-2017: Twenty Years of Memphis Sports

Posted By on Mon, Dec 11, 2017 at 10:07 AM

December is a month for reflection. Particularly when it comes to sports. Players of the Year. Coaches of the Year. Teams of the Year. Everywhere you turn, a top-10 list. (Be patient, loyal readers. You’ll get one next week.) If we look back at 12 months of Memphis sports, it’s been a year of considerable highs (a PCL championship for the Redbirds, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl for the Tiger football team) and considerable lows (farewell Tony Allen and Zach Randolph, thousands of empty seats for Tiger basketball games at FedExForum).

But why stop at 12 months? Why not a larger perspective, a lengthier sample size, as it were, for the state of Bluff City sports? Let’s go back to this precise month 20 years ago — December 1997 — and draw a few comparisons.

• In December 1997, the Memphis Tiger football team had just completed its third straight losing season under coach Rip Scherer. The mammoth upset of Tennessee 13 months earlier had proven to be a merely a magical moment and not a reset button on the program’s growth from regional also-ran. Scherer was (and is) a decent and honorable man, but his teams had trouble scoring 70 points in a month, something the 2017 Tigers did in a single game. Twice. Memphis hadn’t played in a bowl game in a quarter century back in ’97. This year’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl will be the biggest postseason game in the program’s history and mark the fourth consecutive year Memphis has gone bowling in December.
TIC PRICE
  • Tic Price

• In December 1997, Tic Price was leading the Tiger basketball program. But toward what? The first-year coach managed to get Memphis to the 1998 NIT but was chased out of town a year later under a cloud of scandal, having been involved romantically with a Memphis student. Don’t tell me we’ve reached the lowest point in Tiger history when no one wants to see the Tigers play Samford in an NBA arena. I was here in 1999.

• In December 1997, the Tennessee Oilers — that’s what they called themselves for two years — were wrapping up their lone season in the Liberty Bowl, unable to fill the stadium even at the epic height of NFL popularity. Bud Adams was using Memphis as a rest area for his franchise, on its way to Nashville after nearly 40 years in Houston. Having been spurned for an expansion franchise five years earlier, Memphis resented its “home” team, so much that the Oilers chose to play at Vanderbilt in 1998 instead of, as originally planned, a second season in the Liberty Bowl. Memphis had been big league for exactly four months. Sort of.

• In December 1997, Dean Jernigan had announced that the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate was moving to Memphis, to play in the most palatial stadium ever built for a minor-league team. But what did we know then about AutoZone Park? Or the joys of Triple-A baseball? No brick had been placed; no Redbird hitter had entered a batter’s box. Since then? Memphis has helped feed the most successful franchise in the National League, the Cardinals winning four National League pennants and a pair of world championships since 1998. Along the way, the Redbirds have won three Pacific Coast League titles themselves, including a 91-win season here in 2017.

• In December 1997, the Grizzlies were playing their third NBA season. In Vancouver, British Columbia. Shareef Abdur-Rahim was the face of the franchise. There weren’t even rumors of an NBA franchise calling Memphis (and the Pyramid) home. Today? We complain about losing streaks and the possibility — now likelihood — that our NBA team may have its playoff streak end at seven years. Two players (Allen and Randolph) will have their numbers retired in the near future and two more (Marc Gasol and Mike Conley) are destined for the same recognition.

The last 20 years have been the best such period in Memphis sports history, a pair of decades impossible to top between now and 2037. But let’s give it a try. There are seats to fill at FedExForum and an NBA championship parade to attend.

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Stubby Clapp Named Minor League Manager of the Year by Baseball America

Posted By on Thu, Nov 30, 2017 at 11:00 AM

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Baseball America
has named Memphis Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp its 2017 Minor League Manager of the Year. Once a favorite among Redbird fans for his backflips and gritty play at second base, the 44-year-old Clapp returned to Memphis last spring for his first stint as a Triple-A manager. Despite significant roster fluctuation between the Redbirds and parent St. Louis Cardinals, Clapp led Memphis to 91 wins (the most by any Bluff City team since 1948) and the franchise’s third Pacific Coast League championship, beating El Paso in a five-game championship series.

During their title march, the Redbirds set a franchise record with an 11-game winning streak, won or split 27 consecutive series, and built an astounding record of 13-0 in extra-inning games. Clapp earned accolades as the PCL’s Manager of the Year in September, shortly after the end of the regular season. He’s the first Memphis manager to earn either of these honors.

“I’m honored and humbly accept the award in respect to all the other managers,” says Clapp, who lives with his family in Savannah, Tennessee. “Because I know the hard work that goes into their days. It’s not an easy gig.”

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Monday, November 20, 2017

Frank's Memphis Sports Thanksgiving

Posted By on Mon, Nov 20, 2017 at 12:05 PM

My annual column of gratitude for the little extras — in the world of sports — that enrich my life.

• I’m grateful for eight years with Zach Randolph and seven years with Tony Allen . . . and these two personalities sharing a locker room at FedExForum for a seven-year playoff run. Winning may be everything, but doing so with character, exuberance, zaniness, and style is the stuff of Hollywood. No movie will ever be made about the Memphis Grizzlies’ “Grindfather” years. But we don’t need one, do we? We lived it.

• I’m grateful for Tony Pollard returning kickoffs.
Tony Pollard - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tony Pollard

• I’m grateful for a top-20 football program at the University of Memphis. And the chance to see the Tigers play for the American Athletic Conference championship (December 2nd).

• I’m grateful for Anthony Miller on a post pattern. And at the sideline. And in the corner of the end zone. And on a slant.

• I’m grateful Tennessee didn’t see Riley Ferguson the way Memphis did.

• I’m grateful for a college football world that considers the Memphis coach a hot commodity.

• I’m grateful for Stubby Clapp and a championship season for the Memphis Redbirds that was worthy of a backflip. The most wins (91) for a Memphis team in 69 years and a 13-0 record in extra innings. Remarkable baseball team.

• I’m grateful for Phil Mickelson on the weekend at Southwind.

• I’m grateful for Tyreke Evans off the bench.

• I’m grateful for the Mid-South Coliseum, while it’s still standing.

• I’m grateful for the lack of Lawson family drama in the U of M basketball program.

• I’m grateful for the vivid appreciation of past Tiger basketball greats at the palatial new practice facility, particularly salutes to Larry Finch, Keith Lee, Elliot Perry, and Penny Hardaway. Now, for that Finch statue . . .

• I’m grateful for a banner at the Liberty Bowl honoring the six Tigers to have their jerseys retired. It was a long time coming.

• I’m grateful to live in a world where the Kansas City Royals, Chicago Cubs, and Houston Astros can win the World Series.

• I’m grateful for 94 years (so far) of Red Schoendienst.

• I’m grateful for Wilfredo Tovar and Breyvic Valera. If you know who they are, you love them as much as I do.

• I’m grateful for the sports journalists who have helped spread the word about my novel, Trey’s Company: Greg Gaston, Eli Savoie, Don Wade, and Dave Woloshin. It’s almost as hard to sell a book as it is to write one.

• I’m grateful for this region’s 5K scene. Every weekend you’ll find a race in one pocket of the community or another, each raising money for a worthy cause. These have given me a chance to get a bit healthier while watching my wife kick ass and take names (well beyond her age group).

• I’m grateful that NFL stars aren’t immune to punishment for domestic abuse.

• I’m grateful for the NBA returning the Grizzlies’ MLK Day game to, you know, MLK Day. The 2018 event should be especially memorable as the city salutes Dr. King across a half-century.

• I’m grateful for four decades of professional tennis at The Racquet Club of Memphis. Connors, McEnroe, Borg, Sampras, Agassi, Lendl, Roddick. The sport of tennis has changed, more international than any this side of soccer. But it grew through a little club on Sanderlin in Memphis, Tennessee.

• I’m grateful for the 2017 White Station High School softball team, the first in Spartan history to advance to the state sectionals (“Sweet 16”). For one magical spring a senior Murtaugh (centerfielder Sofia) and freshman Murtaugh (pitcher Elena) shared a dugout, along with the ups and downs — there were more ups — of a group cause. The older I get, the more seasons will fade in my memory. But I’ll never forget this one.

Monday, October 23, 2017

National Baseball Day

Posted By on Mon, Oct 23, 2017 at 8:52 AM

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“As long as the grass is that luscious green, as long as the uniforms inspire young jaws to sag, and as long as the taste of Cracker Jack and the sound of ball on bat remain the same, baseball will be the delightful diversion to workaday life it was meant to be.”

On September 14th — a Thursday — I spent most of the afternoon watching two baseball teams play for a championship at AutoZone Park. It was a bright, cloudless day, still technically summer, but minus the stifling heat and humidity the season can bring this region of the world between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Game 2 of the Pacific Coast League championship series had been pushed back a day by lingering effects of Hurricane Irma. Since Thursday was “getaway day” for the two teams — the Memphis Redbirds and El Paso Chihuahuas — the game started at noon to accommodate an evening trip to Texas (where the Redbirds would win the title three days later).

It was bliss. For a middle-aged kid still devoted to America’s original pastime, this was as close to National Baseball Day as we’ve come. Sunshine, championship baseball, and a break from work. (In my case, the break absorbed most of the afternoon, and my boss joined me for the late innings, as every boss should for such an event.) When Adolis Garcia crushed an 11th-inning home run for a 1-0, walk-off win for the home team, it was confirmed: the baseball gods were watching.

National Baseball Day will come. It’s taken longer than I’d like, but so did my taste for red wine and Norman Mailer. Some rewards are better appreciated with a long buildup.

Here’s how the holiday would work, in case you’ve missed this column the past 15 years. 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 the Seventh Inning Stretch. 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.

The opening quote of this column? I wrote that for Memphis magazine’s October 2003 issue, when my daughters were ages 4 and 1. One is now a freshman in college, the other a sophomore (pitcher!) in high school. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the last daytime World Series game (one ironically played in Minnesota’s abominable Metrodome). Let’s not allow another generation of children to grow up before they can enjoy the magic of National Baseball Day.

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Monday, October 16, 2017

NBA 2017-18: We’ve Been Here Before

Posted By on Mon, Oct 16, 2017 at 9:20 AM


Predictability is poison in the sports world. And despite a few significant offseason transactions, the NBA has become a 30-team barrel of arsenic. LeBron James has played in the NBA Finals seven years in a row. This will become an eight-year streak next June unless King James suffers a calamitous injury. (James has played 14 years and only once missed more than eight games in a season.) The Golden State Warriors have reached the NBA Finals three years in a row and feature two former MVPs still shy of their 30th birthdays. They’ll be the team in the way of LeBron and his current band of merry men, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Mike Conley - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Conley

There have been precisely two NBA champions this century that, in historical terms, were surprises. The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons beat an L.A. Laker “super team” that featured Karl Malone and Gary Payton in addition to Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. And the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks upset James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and a few other Miami Heat, before that more-recent “super team” had fully formed. Sure, it can be said the Cavs upset the 73-win Warriors in the 2016 Finals, but they did so with LeBron James, so come on.

This isn’t new, of course. We likely would have seen eight straight Chicago Bull championships in the 1990s had Michael Jordan not wanted to prove he could hit a curve ball. We knew Magic Johnson’s Lakers or Larry Bird’s Celtics would win the title in the 1980s, but that was a fun coin to flip every spring. You have to go back four decades, to the 1970s, to find an NBA that was truly anyone’s guess. Eight different franchises raised the trophy in the disco decade. Raise a glass to healthy living if you remember the 1974-75 Warriors or the 1977-78 Washington Bullets.

There are fan bases today that are certain their team can crack the Finals code this season. Oklahoma City has filled Durant’s one-year void with a pair of perennial All-Stars: Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. If reigning MVP Russell Westbrook again averages a triple-double — did that really happen? — he’ll do so with more assists and fewer points. Last year’s assist leader — Houston’s James Harden — will now share a backcourt with former Clipper Chris Paul, a man who has led the league in assists four times himself. Will this dynamic duo vault the Rockets into the Warriors’ stratosphere, or will Paul and Harden just keep passing the ball to each other one night after the next?

One predictable component of the modern NBA has actually played right here in Memphis. The Grizzlies are one of only three franchises to make the playoffs each of the last seven seasons (along with the San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks). If the Griz are to make it eight in a row, it will be without two players whose jerseys are now bound for the FedExForum rafters. With Zach Randolph in Sacramento and Tony Allen in New Orleans, the local franchise will be, in many ways, discovering itself for the first time in almost a decade.

With Anthony, George, and Jimmy Butler (now a Minnesota Timberwolf) having fled the Eastern Conference, the Western Conference playoff race has never been more top-heavy. If you consider Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Minnesota locks for the postseason, the west has ten teams each playing 82 games to secure three dance tickets to the playoffs. This will boil down to which teams can win the most games when not being knocked around by the conference’s “big five.”

Mike Conley still wears Beale Street Blue. So does Marc Gasol. Few NBA teams have as talented a tandem atop the roster. However familiar — however predictable — it may seem at times, the NBA season is here. In Memphis, that means one thing: grind time.

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Monday, October 9, 2017

MLB's Playoff's Push

Posted By on Mon, Oct 9, 2017 at 12:31 PM

Historical perspective on baseball’s postseason has been turned inside-out by the recent championships won by the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox. Not that long ago, the Cubs and Red Sox were the sport’s representative brands for dashed hopes. On the rare occasions either franchise reached the playoffs, heartache ensued. Boston was supposed to end its epic drought in 1967 (“only” 49 years at the time), then again in 1975 and 1986 (Buckner!). The Cubbies were one Leon Durham from the National League pennant in 1984, a mere Steve Bartman away in 2003. Generations of baseball fans lived and died without reading or writing the following sentence: The Cubs and Red S ox have won championships more recently than the New York Yankees.
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But here we are in 2017. If you’re pulling for underdogs, you’re rooting against the Red Sox, and even more so against the Cubs, the defending World Series champions. Consider: If the Yankees and Cubs meet in the World Series two weeks from now (a long shot with New York facing two more elimination games in their Division Series with Cleveland), the Bronx Bombers will be the new kids on the block.

This is healthy, of course. The NFL and NBA have been all too predictable this century. (We’ll check in on pro basketball next week.) Two of the franchises still alive in the MLB playoffs — the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals — have never won the World Series, despite having played since 1962 and 1969, respectively (the Nationals originally as the Montreal Expos). The team with the longest current championship drought (thanks to the Cubs’ and Red Sox’ success) is the Cleveland Indians, a team that set an American League record this season with 22 consecutive wins. Should the Tribe play that kind of baseball this month, a 69-year skid would come to a close and the Texas Rangers would inherit the torch of loneliest loser (none since the franchise was founded in 1961). Even the hallowed Los Angeles Dodgers — perhaps the second-most famous franchise in baseball — are competing for their first crown in 29 years. It’s enough to make October topsy-turvy, but it’s also worth embracing.

• In Game 1 of Houston’s Division Series with Boston, pint-sized second baseman (and likely AL MVP) Jose Altuve became just the 10th player to hit three home runs in a playoff game. Two of the other nine — the Angels’ Adam Kennedy in the 2002 ALCS and the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols in the 2011 World Series — played for the Memphis Redbirds on their way to October glory.

• MLB has chosen to brand its playoffs as “Postseason.” I’m not sure why “playoffs” doesn’t fit, as it does for the NFL, NBA, NHL, and virtually every organized league right down to rec-league soccer. But it’s literal and thus fits. Why, though, must a logo (“Postseason”) be patched on the hat of every player still playing? From a distance, the logo looks like a skull-and-crossbones. But forget the bad design. A major-league hat is the most sacred component of a uniform in American sports. It should carry one logo, and only one. The “Postseason” patch is on the sleeves of players. Let’s live (and play) with that.

• I was sorry to read the news of Matt Cain’s retirement at season’s end. The pride of Houston High school had a fine career with the San Francisco Giants, tossing baseball’s 22nd perfect game in 2012 and contributing to three World Series championships. Cain has battled arm trouble in recent years though, so at the still-tender age of 33, he’ll move into the next stage of a baseball career that should have included more trips to the mound. I managed a brief chat with Cain during batting practice at Busch Stadium before his first All-Star Game in 2009. The big man offered a big smile when I told him a lot of Memphians were behind his career rise and looking forward to all the fun still to come. By the measure of baseball mortals, Cain delivered, and then some. Like so many pitchers before him, though, anatomy and too many fastballs (let alone curves) brought things to a halt. I wish him the best.

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Monday, September 25, 2017

No Fun League (2017)

Posted By on Mon, Sep 25, 2017 at 10:53 AM

@AMERICANSPIRIT
  • @Americanspirit


The news last week that the brain of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was damaged with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was disturbing, but in a ho-hum sort of way. Another dead-too-young former football player whose brain we would have described, not that long ago, as “punch drunk?” Pardon the lack of shock on my part. Pardon the brief pause to wonder if CTE may have contributed to Hernandez killing another human being, or to his own suicide. (The 27-year-old Hernandez was serving a life sentence for murder at a Massachusetts prison when he hanged himself in April.) There are countless people with mental disorders who do not commit murder (or suicide), but let’s say this unequivocally: CTE can’t help.

With CTE now “in the room,” so to speak, you have to wonder where football is going, particularly at its highest level. A multi-billion-dollar industry has been built on the violent collision of large men at high speed. And no helmet will be designed to fully protect a human brain from sudden, jarring stops. That precious organ — floating as it does in a small, protective space — prefers not to be slammed against the inner wall of a skull. Until tackling (and falling down, for that matter) is disallowed, more football players are going to die before they should with brains left scarred by the profession they chose.

I’m conflicted. I have been, honestly, since my first football hero, Roger Staubach, retired after the 1979 season. Staubach was 37 years old at the time and led the NFL in passer rating in what proved to be his final season. But he was concerned about repeated concussions, worried about how they might impact the rest of what he hoped would be a lengthy life. (Staubach has been hugely successful in real estate since his retirement from football.) I was 10 years old then. You can say brain trauma has been whispering in my ear as I watch football for almost 40 years.

My high school was too small to field a football team. (I played soccer in the fall.) My wife and I are blessed with two daughters who have played soccer and softball since they were losing baby teeth, so I’ve managed to dodge a decision about allowing my child to play football. But I’ve covered the Memphis Tiger football program for more than a dozen years, finding myself closer than most to young men devoted to a sport that delivers plenty of redeeming virtues . . . but threatens their very functionality the longer they play it.

When I’ve asked Tiger players about brain trauma, the answers have been virtually the same: “It’s part of the game.” There’s a component of bravery in taking the football field, knowing violence will ensue. Players clearly take such bravery up a deadly notch when (or if) they include CTE on the menu of potential damage. So I remain conflicted. I think I’ll start following up the standard question with a follow-up: “Is it an acceptable part of the game?”

• President Donald Trump has managed to redefine the expression “political football.” In choosing to describe an NFL player who chooses to kneel during the playing of our national anthem as a “son of a bitch” (the English language’s finest two-for-one insult), Trump has taken a nationwide debate into the metaphorical locker room where he’s known to speak freely on the female anatomy. This is unfortunate, as the right kind of leader — one capable of weighing and balancing conflicting opinions — might steer discussion in such a way both sides of the debate could better understand the other. Instead, he’s taken a side and chosen the language of high school freshmen in denigrating the other.

Let’s remember that Trump once ruined a professional football league (the USFL) by suing the NFL on its behalf. He’d tell you he “won” the antitrust lawsuit, but he wouldn’t remind you the amount of damages rewarded: a single dollar. The NFL has been Donald Trump’s daddy since Joe Montana and Dan Marino were in their primes. The president stands little chance of reducing the number of players kneeling for what they consider affronts to their definition of America (starting with equality among all men and women). More than likely, Trump has thrown gas on a fire of division this country needs like a living diagnosis of CTE.

Football! Enjoy your fantasy league, because the real thing ain’t much fun anymore.

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Monday, September 18, 2017

Memphis Redbirds: 2017 PCL Champions

Posted By on Mon, Sep 18, 2017 at 9:14 AM

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Those of us who watch (and write about) sports more than regularly do so with the hope of, now and then, witnessing something that has not been seen before. Better, something that may never be seen again. As the stories are written and shared about the 2017 Pacific Coast League champion Memphis Redbirds, various components will take hold and become the team’s legacy. Among them:

*Stubby Clapp’s return to the town and ballpark that embraced him 15 years earlier as a player (and champion) and earning PCL Manager of the Year.
*The most regular-season wins (91) by a PCL team in 11 years.
*27 consecutive series either won or split.
*Sending more than 20 players to the parent St. Louis Cardinals, including their top two starting pitchers (Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty), but never slowing.
*Facing elimination in two games at Colorado Springs in a semifinal series and winning them both despite allowing a combined 18 runs (they scored a combined 24).

All these achievements are memorable, but if I live to be 102, the tale of the 2017 Memphis Redbirds I’ll tell will be of their record in extra innings: 13-0.

Read that again: 13-0. The odds of such a record — when extra innings are generally a coin flip — are beyond calculation. The Redbirds won all six of their extra-inning games on the road. Home teams have an advantage, of course, in batting last. Didn’t matter for these battling ’Birds.

For some perspective on the Redbirds’ unblemished mark in the tightest of baseball games, consider that no major-league team has gone undefeated in extra-innings dating back to at least 2000. And the only three teams that finished a season with just one extra-inning loss did not win as many as 10 games in extras. (The 2001 San Diego Padres and 2002 San Francisco Giants went 8-1, while the 2006 Toronto Blue Jays went 7-1.) This century’s king of extra-innings is actually the 2012 Baltimore Orioles, a team that went 16-2 after the ninth inning. (Those O’s won 93 games and the AL wild-card contest before losing a division series to the New York Yankees.)

Adolis Garcia played twice as many games for Double-A Springfield this season (84) than he did for Memphis (40). He hit a respectable 15 home runs combined (in 445 at bats). But playoff hero? There was Garcia last Thursday afternoon at AutoZone Park, being drenched in Gatorade at home plate, having delivered a two-out, two-run, walk-off home run and the Redbirds’ final extra-inning victory of the season.

Sixty-two players — more than twice the number of the active-roster limit — suited up for the 2017 Redbirds. There were key contributors nowhere near El Paso when the team sprayed champagne Sunday night in Texas. Catcher Carson Kelly, outfielder Harrison Bader, and pitchers Weaver, Flaherty, and Ryan Sherriff are now with the Cardinals as the parent club clings to its own playoff hopes. It simply didn’t matter. Clapp’s reinforcements — notably Matt Pearce, the winning pitcher in the clincher — rose to the considerable occasion.

The Redbirds didn’t clinch the franchise’s third championship in extra innings, but the tying runs were on base for El Paso in the ninth inning. Mathematicians and odds makers will look at that 13-0 extra-inning mark and insist luck was a huge component to the 2017 Redbirds’ success. To them I’d respond: Damn right. Call it luck, magic, karma, the Stubby Factor . . . whatever. As summer turns to fall here in the year 2017, with troubles — geopolitical, environmental, economic — weighing heavy near and far, I like the idea a minor-league baseball team in Memphis, Tennessee, had some luck on its side. Feels like the good guys won.

Flags fly forever. So do pennants.

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Monday, September 11, 2017

PCL Championship: Memphis vs. El Paso

Posted By on Mon, Sep 11, 2017 at 10:02 AM

Patrick Wisdom, Redbirds president Craig Unger, and Manager Stubby Clapp
  • Patrick Wisdom, Redbirds president Craig Unger, and Manager Stubby Clapp
The Memphis Redbirds are headed to the Pacific Coast League championship series. This may have seemed pre-destined, the Redbirds having posted the most regular season wins (91) in the PCL since 2006. But the cruel nature of postseason baseball forces a Triple-A team built over five months and 140 games to prove itself in a best-of-five series, and often (as noted in last week’s column) with stars long gone to expanded major-league rosters. Having split the first two games of its conference final with Colorado Springs last week at AutoZone Park, Memphis didn’t so much as win a three game series on the eastern foot of the Rocky Mountains as survive the closest thing to beer-league softball professional baseball will see this year.

Consider some numbers from Games 3 through 5 (the latter two won by the Redbirds). Memphis and Colorado Springs combined to scored 73 runs on 99 hits in the three games. The fewest runs scored by a losing team was eight (by the Sox in Game 4), and the Redbirds lost a game in which they scored 15 runs (Game 3). Memphis manager Stubby Clapp — the PCL’s Manager of the Year — made a total of 14 pitching changes to bring his team back to Memphis with its season alive.

I’m convinced the Redbirds won their semifinal series in a game they actually lost. Down 16-7 in the eighth inning of Game 3, the Redbirds rallied for seven runs in the eighth and one more in the ninth, coming up a run short in what looks like the final score of a bad-weather football game (16-15). When asked what distinguishes his club, Clapp has insisted it’s a refusal to quit, however bleak things might look on the scoreboard. The Redbirds may have entered Game 4 (and Game 5) with their season on the line, but they had every reason to believe they could make more than a dent in the Colorado Springs bullpen. (Three home runs in the first inning of Game 5 made it clear the Sky Sox starters weren’t safe either.)

The roster shakeup (thanks to St. Louis and Milwaukee promotions) made for some bizarre moments. Sky Sox pitcher Aaron Wilkerson made his Triple-A debut this season in Game 2 at AutoZone Park . . . and no-hit the Redbirds for seven innings. (Wilkerson was removed after seven, having reached a pitch-count limit. This is still the minor leagues, and still primarily about development, no-hitters be damned.)

There was an uncomfortable moment for Memphis in the 10th inning of Game 4 when the Redbirds loaded the bases, the score tied and one out. His club’s season on the line, Clapp sent Tommy Edman to the plate. Edman starred last year on the campus of Stanford University. A sixth-round pick of the Cardinals in the 2016 draft, Edman split the 2017 regular-season between Class-A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield. That key at-bat was Edman’s third at the Triple-A level, all as a pinch-hitter in these playoffs. He struck out, but Nick Martini followed with a walk, the Redbirds rallied to score four runs, and Stubby’s gang improved to 12-0 in extra-inning games this year. Perhaps there is some pre-destiny in the mix.

The Redbirds will have to beat the PCL’s defending champs to raise their third pennant. And the El Paso Chihuahuas — an affiliate of the San Diego Padres — have retained plenty of offensive firepower since the MLB roster expansion, including this year’s PCL batting champ, Nick Buss (.348). Outfielders Franchy Cordero (.326) and Rafael Ortega (.317) would make life difficult for the likes of Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty (now pitching in the St. Louis Cardinals’ rotation). Clapp will send Dakota Hudson (eight Triple-A starts), Kevin Herget (10), and Ryan Helsley (two) up against this formidable lineup.

It’s somewhat eerie to compare this Redbirds postseason run to the one Clapp enjoyed (as the team’s second baseman) in 2000. Seventeen years ago, Memphis fell behind its semifinal opponent (Albuquerque) two games to one, only to rally and win a pair of games (at home, a significant difference from last weekend’s fun in Colorado Springs). Those Redbirds also relied on lower-level reinforcements, one of them — Albert Pujols — delivering the most famous hit in franchise history, a home run to win the PCL title at AutoZone Park.

This year’s PCL champion will be crowned in El Paso (where Games 3 through 5 will be played, as many as necessary). Clapp played his college ball at Texas Tech in Lubbock, a short (by Texas standards), 350-mile drive from El Paso. In a year of coming home for Stubby Clapp, you get the sense this story’s final chapter may include one more dose of pre-destiny.

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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

PCL Playoffs: Next ’Bird Up for Memphis

Posted By on Tue, Sep 5, 2017 at 8:41 AM

Minor league baseball never feels more minor than when the playoffs arrive in September. This is especially the case at the Triple-A level, where eight teams — four from the Pacific Coast League and four from the International League — vie for championships at the highest level below the majors. When big-league rosters expand on September 1st, many of the finest Triple-A players in the country are given lockers in major-league clubhouses, leaving playoff teams — like the 2017 Memphis Redbirds — with unfamiliar faces in the batting order and pitching rotation.
Stubby Clapp
  • Stubby Clapp

St. Louis Cardinal fans were thrilled to see Harrison Bader launch a tie-breaking home run in Sunday’s win over the Giants in San Francisco, the Cards still clinging to hope for a wild-card slot in the National League playoffs. Those with an interest in Memphis winning its third PCL title would prefer to see the 23-year-old Bader in centerfield at AutoZone Park Wednesday night when the Redbirds and Colorado Springs open their best-of-five semifinal series.

Pitchers Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty combined to win 17 games for Memphis this season. At the front of the Redbirds’ rotation, they would make Memphis the prohibitive favorite to win the PCL championship. Instead, they’re now 40 percent of the Cardinals’ rotation. (Adam Wainwright landed on the disabled list with a back ailment and Mike Leake was mercifully — for St. Louis — shipped to Seattle last week for a minor-leaguer and a Starbucks gift card.) Relief pitcher Ryan Sherriff was a PCL All-Star each of the last two seasons, but can now be found in the Cardinal bullpen.

The roster depletion is ugly on paper, but hasn’t yet impacted a Redbird season that is already historic by a few measures. Not even two months into the season, Memphis set a franchise record with an 11-game winning streak. (Back then Paul DeJong was clubbing baseballs for Memphis. He’s now the Cardinals’ everyday shortstop.) The 2017 Redbirds are the first PCL team in 11 years to win 90 games and the first in 36 years to win its division by more than 20 games. (The last Memphis baseball team to win 90 games was the 1955 Chicks.) Few postseason awards are more predictable than Stubby Clapp’s PCL Manager of the Year hardware. In his first year at the helm, Clapp has filled slots with the bats and arms St. Louis allows him, while retaining cohesiveness in the clubhouse consistent with five months of sustained success.

Dakota Hudson will take the mound Wednesday for Game 1 against the Sky Sox. One of the top pitching prospects in the Cardinal system, Hudson went 9-4 at Double-A Springfield before a late-season promotion to Memphis (one that coincided with Weaver’s move to St. Louis). Hudson will likely be throwing to a catcher — Gabriel Lino, Jesse Jenner, or Jeremy Martinez — who spent most of the season below Triple A. The Cardinals seized both the Redbirds’ starting catcher (Carson Kelly) and backup (Alberto Rosario) for their playoff push. After Hudson, Clapp will give the ball to the likes of Kevin Herget (62 innings pitched for Memphis this season) or Matt Pearce (54 innings). They’ll be tasked with winning a championship for some teammates nowhere near AutoZone Park.

Another irony of the PCL playoffs is empty seats. With school having resumed and football season underway, small crowds are the norm as the best teams in Triple A face one another for a crown. It will be a shame if Memphis baseball fans don’t find a way to properly salute this year’s club. Pending another Cardinal promotion, Patrick Wisdom (31 home runs and an all-league selection) remains a Redbird. So do Breyvic Valera (.314 batting average), Nick Martini (.303), and Rangel Ravero (.314). With the recent addition of outfielder Tyler O’Neill (a combined 31 home runs for Tacoma and Memphis), the Redbirds present a formidable lineup even with the mass defection to St. Louis.

Baseball measures greatness with flags. Having posted the greatest regular season in franchise history, it’s now time for the 2017 Memphis Redbirds to raise their own.


EDITOR'S NOTE: On Tuesday morning, St. Louis promoted Valera, a reinforcement for Cardinal infielder Matt Carpenter (currently nursing a shoulder ailment).

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Monday, August 21, 2017

Q & A: Stubby Clapp

Posted By on Mon, Aug 21, 2017 at 8:54 AM

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In his first year as a Triple-A manager, Stubby Clapp has led the Memphis Redbirds to the longest winning streak in franchise history (11 games), the most single-season wins in franchise history (83 through Sunday), and a division title clinched with more than 20 games to play in the regular season. (The Redbirds will likely host Colorado Springs in the opening round of the Pacific Coast League playoffs, with Game 1 of their series scheduled for September 6th at AutoZone Park.)

Have you taken any time to celebrate (or at least contemplate) what this team has already accomplished?
We celebrated the night we clinched the division, then back to work. The work’s not done. Everybody knows the kind of season it’s been, but we don’t talk about it. You can feel it in the atmosphere. But we don’t talk about numbers; we just go out the next day and play. That’s the easiest way and humblest way to do it.

Your club is 10-0 in extra-inning games and either won or split 27 consecutive series. These are major violations of the law of averages. How do you explain such numbers?
They don’t quit. Don’t have “quit” in their vocabulary. We don’t have one superhero. We have a team full of very capable, highly talented athletes who try to play 27 outs every night . . . and some (in extra innings). I’m not a big numbers guy. I’ve never looked at how it all stacks up until the season’s over.

Has there been a game or moment that, in your eyes, represents what this team has become?
Every extra-inning game. Every game they’ve won by one run, or come back late in the game. It’s not just once. First game of the season: 13 innings. We won. That was the first time I’d ever managed a National League-style game, learning how to double-switch. We got through it and the players pulled it off.

A few significant members of your team — Paul DeJong, Luke Voit, and Carson Kelly to name three — are now playing with the St. Louis Cardinals. If anything, your club’s record has improved. Again, how do you explain?
We’ve kept all 25 guys involved. Every day. Somehow, some way, all 25 guys are involved. I don’t like to let position players sit more than two days. All of our players have big-league value, so it wouldn’t be fair to let them sit three or four days, then ask them to be ready when someone gets called up. I’ve tried to keep everyone hot and involved. So they’ve been ready to play. I can’t take credit, because I read it in one of my books: include everybody. There have been several things that have happened to me in life that have made me think about including everybody. When you make the extra effort to do that, it’s usually a positive response. You get a good clubhouse atmosphere and the by-product is [winning] results.

Are there unsung heroes in the clubhouse, players fans might not realize have played a critical role in the team’s success?
Nick Martini, Wilfredo Tovar, and Alberto Rosario. Rosey was our backup catcher. He accepted his role, and he was great at what he did. When Carson [Kelly] was gone, he stepped right in and helped us get quality starts [from our pitchers]. Same with Tovar. When DeJong got called up, I didn’t think twice about what I was going to do [at shortstop]. Martini came up from Double-A and was ready to play.

How would you compare the gratification of an 83-45 record with telling players like DeJong and Voit they’re going to the big leagues for the first time?
I can’t take one from the other, because they’re two different things. When you tell a DeJong or Voit they’re going up for the first time, that’s an individual thing. But when I look at our record, that’s the clubhouse. Our team.

It’s rewarding to send someone to the big leagues, both for [the player] and for me. I get to see that the work they’ve put in is rewarded. Looking at the record, I get to see the rewards of the team paying attention, getting it put together, and doing it from 7:00 to 10:00 every night.

Do you see any similarities between the 2017 Redbirds and the 2000 club you helped win a PCL championship?
The chemistry. When guys are pulling for each other. All in for the right reasons, everyone involved. Players are doing the right thing for each other, and not just themselves.

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Monday, August 14, 2017

The Sports World When Elvis Died

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

It’s safe to say the world changed on August 16, 1977, when Elvis Presley died at his Graceland mansion. But how much? How different is the world — and Memphis — today from that sad, late-summer day 40 years ago? I’ll leave the economy and geopolitics to other columnists. But the world of sports? Let’s take a look.
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• 1977 was a dark year for professional baseball in Memphis, the last summer the Bluff City had no team to cheer. The Triple-A Memphis Blues had gone bankrupt after three seasons, former Detroit Tiger star Denny McLain proving not as capable in the front office as he’d been on the pitching mound. To the rescue came Avron Fogelman, the local real estate titan and baseball enthusiast. Baseball returned to Memphis in 1978 when the Double-A Chicks (affiliated with the Montreal Expos) joined the newly expanded Southern League. (The St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate spent precisely one season — 1977 — in New Orleans. It was a transition year between Tulsa and Springfield, Illinois.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, August 7, 2017

Cardinal Congestion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

2017 Memphis Redbirds: Wisdom Prevails

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, July 17, 2017

An Athlete's "Third Death"

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

Thirteen days before Christmas in 1980 — I was 11 years old — I received quite the opposite of a Santa Claus delivery. My dad came into my room, grim look on his face. “The Cardinals have traded Ted Simmons, son. I’m sorry.” Had my parents chopped up our tree, one limb at a time, it wouldn’t have been more painful. My favorite baseball team had told my favorite baseball player that his services were no longer required. Worse, my favorite baseball player would play for a team I cared nothing about (the Milwaukee Brewers). The mind of an 11-year-old doesn’t have programming for this kind of loss.
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I’ve been thinking of Ted Simmons since July 4th, when we learned Zach Randolph signed a free-agent deal that will transform him from a Memphis Grizzly into a Sacramento King. (I can’t get over the irony of this, Z-Bo departing a city that loves its “kings” to become one himself in California.) It’s long been said that a professional athlete dies two deaths, the first when he is forced to stop playing the game that made him famous. From a fan’s viewpoint, though, you could say an athlete actually dies three deaths, the first when he departs a franchise that has embraced him for as many as eight years (as Memphis did Randolph).

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

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

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

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

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