Monday, June 19, 2017

Memphis Redbirds Revival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, June 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

The most memorable play this season by one of the team’s core players — first baseman Matt Carpenter — was the veteran getting thrown out at third base as the potential game-winning run in the ninth inning . . . for the first out of the inning. It was reckless and embarrassing (particularly for Carpenter, one would assume), but a precise microcosm for a team that has had but one losing season this century. How have the Cardinals collapsed so quickly? Let’s explore three reasons.
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• Roster “gains.” St. Louis let longtime centerpiece Matt Holliday fly via free agency (he’s now clubbing baseballs as a DH for the New Yankees), while also parting ways with Brandon Moss (28 homers in 2016) and Jeremy Hazelbaker (12 homers in a reserve role). The Cardinals finally moved Matt Adams (at one time considered a fixture in the team’s heart of the order) last month after giving the first base position to Carpenter.

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, June 5, 2017

Phil Mickelson, Fatherhood, and the FESJC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Frank Deford (1938-2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Lord Stanley Comes to Tennessee

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

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Hockey will never stick in Nashville.

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

Hockey will never stick in Nashville.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Triathlon Tandem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, May 8, 2017

“Uncle Tim” McCarver: An Appreciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, May 1, 2017

The Derby and a Daughter

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

KENTUCKY DERBY, FACEBOOK
  • Kentucky Derby, Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Monday, April 24, 2017

Softball Sisters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

Villainy, Thy Name is Spurs

Posted By on Mon, Apr 17, 2017 at 11:45 AM

Once, there was Louisville. When Memphis State basketball (as the program was then known) ruled this city’s landscape, the Louisville Cardinals played the role of arch villain. There was a glorious, 10-year stretch (1982-91) in which the Tigers and Cardinals faced each other in the Metro Conference tournament nine times, after having played twice already in the regular season. It was pure hate. Milt Wagner and the McCray brothers against Doom Haynes and Keith Lee, games that served as prelude to deep NCAA tournament runs for each program.

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Alas, Louisville remains a Final Four threat annually, now from the most prestigious neighborhood in college basketball, the Atlantic Coast Conference. To say the Memphis program has taken a different direction would be an exercise in sugarcoating. There is no more Tigers-Cardinals rivalry . . . except for the emotion those distant memories stir.

But we now have the NBA. We have the Memphis Grizzlies, embarking on their seventh playoff run in seven years. And we have the San Antonio Spurs. Arch villains by a few measures. These dastardly ballers even wear black.

Do you find the prolonged success of the NFL’s New England Patriots tiring, oppressive in their Tom Brady-driven dominance for the better part of two decades? Well, the Patriots can best be described as the San Antonio Spurs of football. Since Gregg Popovich’s first full season as head coach (1997-98), the Spurs’ lowest winning percentage for a single season is .610. (They went merely 50-32 in 2009-10.) San Antonio has won five NBA titles over the last 20 years, and has won at least 50 games 18 years in a row (including the lockout-shortened 66-game season of 2011-12).

The Spurs lost one of the 10 or 15 greatest players in NBA history before the 2016-17 season (Tim Duncan), and went 61-21, second only to Golden State in the Western Conference. Turns out Duncan is not actually a cyborg; it’s the franchise itself that is machine-built and operated, programmed for the kind of sustained success 29 other NBA franchises consider fantasy talk. They now have their own Gasol brother, Pau appearing in the postseason with his fourth franchise, though toe-to-toe with his kid brother for the first time.

Over their 16 years in Memphis, the Grizzlies have enjoyed exactly four 50-win seasons. They’ve yet to reach the NBA Finals (thanks to the Spurs, who swept Memphis in the 2013 Western Conference finals). In nine previous appearances in the postseason, the Grizzlies have been bounced by San Antonio three times. These are bad dudes who play very good basketball, commanded by a man who — even with five rings — is known (sometimes celebrated) for abrasive brevity with on-air reporters, and resting his stars when he damn well pleases, TV ratings be damned. Patriot coach Bill Belichick bows to Gregg Popovich in the Temple of Arrogance.

Memphis will always have 2011, of course. Shane Battier’s corner jumper beat the Spurs in San Antonio (Game 1) for the first playoff win in Grizzlies history. The underdog (8th seed) proceeded to eliminate the top-seeded Spurs in six games. (The 18-point beat-down of the Spurs in Game 4 remains the loudest crowd I’ve heard at FedExForum.) Memphis has lost all nine of its playoff games against the Spurs since that upset six years ago, perhaps a sign that a Faustian deal was, in fact, struck somewhere along the San Antonio River Walk before Battier’s 2011 heroics.

Villains are good. At least in sports, where the stakes are merely trophies and endorsement deals. Memphis-Louisville may be a thing of the past. Soon enough, the Grizzlies’ “Core Four” (first names only: Mike, Marc, Tony, and Zach) may be a thing of the past. But for a couple of weeks, we’ll see some real animosity on the hardwood. No need for “Memphis vs. Errrbody” when we have the Memphis Grizzlies vs. the San Antonio Spurs.

• Sportswriters track milestones, including — once in a great while — our own. This is the 700th column to be posted under the “From My Seat” banner on this site. When my first column went up (in February 2002), Stubby Clapp was preparing for his fourth season of back-flipping to second base for the Memphis Redbirds and Mike Conley was in the 8th grade. The column has been a happy distraction — for 15 years now — from my regular chores as managing editor for Memphis magazine. I’ve enjoyed hearing from readers — touched, angry, or in-between — over the years, and remain grateful for the loyal, engaged readership the Flyer has cultivated for the better part of three decades. So thanks for reading. And if you’re new to the dance, get on the floor and join the fun.

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Grizzlies and Tigers and ’Birds, Oh My!

Posted By on Mon, Apr 10, 2017 at 9:46 AM

Certain times of the year are peak season for football fans. Others rev the engine for basketball junkies or baseball enthusiasts. This week in Memphis, Tennessee, it’s a special week for all three types. If you dress yourself in homage to your favorite local team — Grizzlies? Redbirds? Tigers? — open your closet wide. It’s gonna be a fun week.
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• The Redbirds open the home portion of their 20th season Tuesday night at AutoZone Park. This year’s club features a trio of prospects the 2016 team couldn’t claim. Catcher Carson Kelly (the Cardinals’ 4th-ranked prospect, according to Baseball America) and centerfielder Harrison Bader (7th) will be in the lineup every day. Pitcher Luke Weaver (2nd) will lead the Memphis rotation once he returns from the disabled list (back tightness).

Better yet, franchise icon Stubby Clapp is back in the Redbirds’ dugout, now conducting things as manager. “We’ll play good Cardinal baseball,” said Clapp before his team’s exhibition game with the St. Louis Cardinals on March 30th. “Run the bases hard, good solid defense, fundamentals, pitch to contact, and challenge the other team. Those are the principles. Now it’s a matter of us executing.”

As far as returning to the franchise where he played four years — where he got his call to the big leagues in 2001 — Clapp doesn’t hold back. “There are a lof of overwhelming feelings,” he says. “Sitting at Chief’s desk. I can’t even refer to it as mine; that’s Chief’s desk. [Clapp’s manager in Memphis, Gaylen Pitts, was affectionately called Chief.] In the end, though, it’s not about me coming home. It’s about getting these guys ready for the big leagues.”

The Redbirds will enter play Tuesday with a winning record, have taken three of their first four games at New Orleans. (They play Monday night in NOLA.)

• The day after the Redbirds open their home schedule, the Memphis Grizzlies will close their 16th regular season at FedExForum with a game against the Dallas Mavericks. And for the seventh year in row, the regular-season finale will serve as mere prelude to a Griz playoff run. Only two other NBA franchises can claim such a current streak. One is the team Memphis will face in the first round, the San Antonio Spurs. (The NBA would not conduct playoffs without the Spurs.) The other is the Atlanta Hawks. Wednesday’s game may be meaningless in the standings, but what an opportunity to salute, in particular, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Tony Allen, and Zach Randolph. You can’t win an NBA title without making the playoffs. Somehow, the Grizzlies’ “core four” have made the postseason feel routine in these parts.


• Then the Memphis Tiger football team plays its annual spring game — Friday Night Stripes — to end the workweek. This year’s event should bring a healthy dose of optimism, the Tigers coming off a third consecutive bowl season. (Tiger football would seem to occupy the other end of the community-mood spectrum from Tiger basketball these days.) Not since quarterback Danny Wimprine and tailback DeAngelo Williams returned for the 2004 season has a Tiger team welcomed back the kind of tandem star power it has in senior quarterback Riley Ferguson (3,698 passing yards and 32 touchdowns in 2016) and senior wideout Anthony Miller (95 receptions for 1,434 yards and 14 touchdowns). Coach Mike Norvell has a season behind him and knows the community landscape in ways he didn’t a year ago. The U of M is another year closer, astonishingly, to being “a football school.”

Last week was a downer, with the news the Racquet Club of Memphis is losing its annual tournament, a staple on the local sports calendar since 1977. But there’s so much left to cheer in this town. Three events over four nights this week — baseball, basketball, and football — will remind us the games do, in fact matter. Dress up, Memphis. Your teams are here to play.

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Monday, April 3, 2017

2017 St. Louis Cardinals: Hunting the Bear

Posted By on Mon, Apr 3, 2017 at 11:02 AM

Yadier Molina
  • Yadier Molina
“I think we can win the World Series.”

Before the St. Louis Cardinals’ exhibition game at AutoZone Park last Thursday, a reporter asked outfielder Dexter Fowler — a Chicago Cub this time a year ago — what should be expected from his new team this season. And the 31-year-old veteran answered precisely the way at least half the players in Major League Baseball should this time of year. There is no date for optimism like Opening Day.

A year ago in this space, I wrote about a transformation in Cardinal culture, that from hunted to hunters. The Chicago Cubs had beaten St. Louis handily in a 2015 division series (after the Cards had won 100 games and the National League Central title). It had become abundantly clear that the young, talented North Siders were the team to beat, at least in the NL Central. They proved, of course, to be the best team in all of baseball, winning the franchise’s first World Series in 108 years. Outside a few fans in Boston and Los Angeles (those that cheer the Dodgers), the Cubs are expected to repeat this season, even without Mr. Fowler manning centerfield.

But there are 162 games to play before the postseason, the longest, most grueling regular season in sports. And the Cardinals opened the campaign Sunday night with a thrilling victory over the champs, Randal Grichuk delivering a walk-off single after Chicago had tied the game with a three-run homer by Willson Contreras in the top of the ninth inning.

A few signs that suggest the Cardinals can make the mighty Cubs sweat this season:

• Fowler scored the Cardinals’ first run of the season, on a sacrifice fly after going from first to third on a single. That’s a speed-generated run, something that seemed all but extinct at Busch Stadium in 2016. The man who drove Fowler in was Matt Carpenter, the team’s former leadoff hitter, whose bat fits better in the run-producing third spot in the batting order. Along with improving the team’s outfield on two fronts (his own place in center and sliding Grichuk to left), Fowler’s impact on the Cardinal offense is already positive, and with a ripple effect.

• Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina signed a contract extension (three years, $60 million) just as the unofficial deadline for such a signing — Sunday’s game — arrived. This eliminates the cloud of pending free agency — and endless discussion/deliberation — that would have otherwise been a subtext to anything the Cardinals achieve on the field this season. The extension will keep Molina (34) behind the plate for St. Louis through the 2020 season, securing the face of the franchise, a player who contributes to the team’s pitching success every bit as much as the official pitching coach (Derek Lilliquist).

(Molina’s new contract could make trade bait of 22-year-old Carson Kelly. The top catching prospect in baseball will start the season behind the plate for the Memphis Redbirds, but it’s hard to envision him waiting four years to assume everyday duties for a big-league team.)

• The stars who won last year’s World Series for the Cubs are back, save one: Aroldis Chapman. St. Louis last scored on Chapman before Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty could shave. In Sunday’s opener, Chicago manager Joe Maddon trusted Mike Montgomery with the ninth inning of a tie game. Montgomery allowed two hits, two walks and retired only two batters. If former Royal Wade Davis overcomes recent arm trouble, he could approximate Chapman’s role of last fall. If not, the Cubs have an Achilles heel, and in an area that shows up in the standings.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals will have a say in whether or not the Cubs return to the World Series. Can the Cardinals — now hunters after so many years as the hunted — surprise the baseball gods and declaw their mighty rivals? Keep your eyes on Dexter Fowler over the next six months. If he’s smiling like he was last Thursday at AutoZone Park, they just might.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Redbirds XX: 20 Years of Memphis Baseball

Posted By on Mon, Mar 27, 2017 at 9:17 AM

The Memphis Redbirds’ 20th season begins (unofficially) this Thursday, when the St. Louis Cardinals visit for an exhibition game at AutoZone Park. (Memphis opens the regular season April 6th at New Orleans. The home opener is Tuesday, April 11th.)

In celebration of two decades of Redbirds baseball, here are 20 historical facts to flavor your next conversation at AutoZone Park.

• The first batter in Memphis Redbirds history was none other than Vince Coleman on April 7, 1998. The outfielder who won six stolen-base titles with the Cardinals in the 1980s played just 20 games for Memphis (and stole eight bases) before retiring for good.

• Three Redbird pitchers have gone on to homer in their first at-bat in the major leagues (with the Cardinals): Gene Stechschulte (2001), Adam Wainwright (2006), and Mark Worrell (2008).

• In 2000, during a brief stint with the Cardinals, Redbirds catcher Keith McDonald became just the second player to homer in each of his first two big-league at bats. (The first was Bob Nieman with the St. Louis Browns in 1951.)

• Albert Pujols hit the most famous home run in Redbirds history, one that clinched the 2000 Pacific Coast League championship for Memphis on September 15, 2000. Pujols played a total of 14 games for Memphis and enters the 2017 season (with the L.A. Angels) nine homers shy of 600 for his career.

• Five former Redbirds have been named MVP of a League Championship Series: Adam Kennedy (Angels, 2002), Pujols (Cardinals, 2004), Placido Polanco (Tigers, 2006), David Freese (Cardinals, 2011), and Michael Wacha (Cardinals, 2013).

• No Redbird pitcher has thrown a no-hitter. Four have tossed one-hitters: Clint Sodowsky (1999), Britt Reames (2000), Anthony Reyes (2005), and Tim Cooney (2014).

• Adam Kennedy owns the longest hitting streak in Redbirds history: 20 games in 1999.

• Rick Ankiel has the Ruthian distinction of having led the Redbirds in strikeouts (as a pitcher) one season (1999) and home runs (as a hitter) another (2007).

• One former Redbird has earned more than 150 big-league wins: Dan Haren (153). The Cardinals’ longtime ace, Wainwright, enters the 2017 season with 134.

• Five Redbirds have won the PCL ERA title: Brady Raggio (1998), Clint Weibl (2000), Jason Ryan (2003), Kevin Jarvis (2005), and Mitchell Boggs (2008). But no Redbird has won a PCL batting title.

• Five members of the Redbirds’ 2009 PCL championship team also played for the 2011 World Series champs in St. Louis: David Freese, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Fernando Salas, and Jaime Garcia.

• A former Redbird has appeared in every MLB All-Star Game since 2003.

• Two former Redbirds have compiled more than 2,000 hits in the major leagues: Pujols and Polanco.

• Only five Triple-A franchises have been affiliated with their parent club longer than Memphis and the St. Louis Cardinals: Omaha (Royals), Pawtucket (Red Sox), Iowa (Cubs), Toledo (Tigers), and Tacoma (Mariners).

• Before the Redbirds’ arrival, the longest affiliation Memphis professional baseball had with one MLB franchise was 11 years (1984-94) with the Kansas City Royals.

• He only played in 147 big-league games, but Nick Stavinoha dominates the Redbirds career-record book. The slugger ranks first in franchise history in games played (479), hits (531), home runs (74), RBIs (316), and runs (260).

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• Stubby Clapp’s uniform number (10) is the only one to be retired by the Redbirds. It was painted on the bullpen wall at AutoZone Park in 2007. The number was removed, though, in 2012 when the St. Louis Cardinals retired the same number in honor of longtime manager Tony LaRussa. The Cardinals’ policy calls for a honored number to be retired throughout the farm system . . . for the same individual. (Clapp will, in fact, be wearing number 10 as manager of the 2017 Redbirds. You could say his number has been unretired twice.)

• Redbird first-baseman Larry Sutton hit the first home run in AutoZone Park history on April 14, 2000. (The Cardinals’ Eli Marrero and Mike Matheny homered in the inaugural exhibition game on April 1, 2000.)

• Three Redbirds have led the PCL in home runs: Ivan Cruz (2002), Kevin Witt (2004), and Brock Peterson (2013).

• Redbird outfielder John Rodriguez hit four grand slams in less than a month (June 15 to July 9) in 2005.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Memphis: Hoop City, Indeed

Posted By on Mon, Mar 20, 2017 at 9:33 AM

Perspective can be challenging when it comes to basketball in Memphis, Tennessee. That talented team at East High School aside, you’d think soul-crushing roundballs were falling from the sky these days, at least from FedExForum to the Larry Finch Center on the University of Memphis campus.

The Memphis Tigers lost six of their last eight games, the last two by 41 and 30 points, to finish the season 19-13 and shut out of postseason play a third straight year. The honeymoon for Hall of Fame-bound coach Tubby Smith ended around Valentine’s Day. Can he recruit? Can he manage a game? Can he fill empty seats at FedExForum?

A recent five-game losing streak had followers of the Memphis Grizzlies questioning everything from rotation dysfunction to Chandler Parsons’ social life. When Parsons’ on-court struggles came to an end with the announcement last week he requires knee surgery, the loss of a starter seemed like a blessing. Related or not, the Grizzlies now find themselves on a four-game winning streak, the latest a takedown of the mighty San Antonio Spurs Saturday night. Exhale.

However trying this winter has been in our fair city, this week should prove palliative, and considerably so. Three other cities may be hosting regional finals in the NCAA tournament, but make no mistake: Memphis will be playing in the center ring.

LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Headed to FedExForum for games this Friday are three of the top eight teams in the country (according to the AP rankings): 8th-ranked UCLA (31-4), 6th-ranked North Carolina (29-7, the region’s top seed), and 5th-ranked Kentucky (31-5, coached by one John Vincent Calipari). The Ringo Starr of the South’s foursome is Butler (25-8), a team that has been to the championship game twice this very decade. With Memphis transfer Avery Woodson a key member of the Bulldogs’ rotation, this is the closest the Tigers have gotten to the Sweet 16 since 2009 (when, yes, Calipari called FedExForum his home arena).

But pull back for the broad perspective of this weekend’s three games. North Carolina is seeking its 20th trip to the Final Four and sixth national championship. UCLA is aiming for a 19th Final Four appearance and 12th crown. Calipari’s Wildcats are clawing their way toward an 18th Final Four slot (fifth under Calipari) and hope to raise their ninth championship banner at Rupp Arena in Lexington. If college basketball teams were Avengers, Memphis will host Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor this weekend.

Phoenix hosts the actual Final Four next weekend and won’t come close to the historical weight under FedExForum’s roof come Friday. A confluence of this magnitude is extraordinarily rare. We saw a similar gathering at the 2008 Final Four (remember that one, Memphis fans?), when UCLA, North Carolina, and Kansas were all there. You have to go back to 2005 to find a regional (hosted that year by Austin, Texas) that approximates what we’ll have in Memphis this week. Duke, Kentucky, and Michigan State played that weekend in Texas. The Spartans have been championship contenders for most of Tom Izzo’s tenure in East Lansing, but they’d be in the Falcon category on our team of Avengers.

On top of all the history, we have Calipari’s return to Memphis. (Has it really been eight years?) Do Memphians celebrate the Kentucky coach for the remarkable heights his Tigers reached under his watch for nine years? Or do Memphis basketball fans curse Calipari for setting a standard that cannot be matched, whatever the expectations or hopes? Even when you subtract his 38 wins from the 2007-08 Final Four season (those vacated for the Derrick Rose test-taking affair), Calipari is one of two Memphis coaches to win 200 games here. He would not be Kentucky’s coach were it not for the success he enjoyed in the Bluff City.

Enjoy this week of basketball, Memphis. Cheer and jeer like it matters (because it does). UCLA’s Lonzo Ball will be a top-three pick in this year’s NBA draft and he may play his final college game at FedExForum (as Blake Griffin did in the 2009 South Regional). Malik Monk (Kentucky) and Justin Jackson (North Carolina) will soon be wearing pro uniforms, too. So relish this chance sighting. And go ahead and let the rest of the country know where Hoop City can be found this Friday.

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Monday, March 13, 2017

Searching For Bear Bryant

Posted By on Mon, Mar 13, 2017 at 9:34 AM

It took me 34 years, but I have proof that Bear Bryant was, in fact, mortal. At least as much proof as I can have without getting grisly and breaking a few laws. During a brief visit to Birmingham last weekend, I paid a visit to Elmwood Cemetery and, on a gray, rainy Saturday afternoon, found the resting place of college football’s greatest legend, certainly as measured in the state of Alabama.

Bear Bryant
  • Bear Bryant

Legends, they tell us, never die. But men do. And Paul W. Bryant did on January 26, 1983, four weeks after coaching his final game, a Crimson Tide win over Illinois in the 1982 Liberty Bowl in Memphis. He took to his grave the most wins in the history of his sport at the time (323) and six national championships as coach of his alma mater. But Bryant’s numbers are but dressing to his legend, one built on the kind of toughness a man displays in wrestling a bear at age 13 or incorporating methods just this side of institutional abuse in building a team. (Read The Junction Boys, the story of a 10-day summer camp conducted by Bryant his first year as coach at Texas A & M.) 


To be clear, I’m no fan of the Crimson Tide and will never sport a houndstooth hat in honor of a football coach, living or dead. But Bear Bryant’s legend is that big. So I paid my respects.

I was born in Knoxville, the son of University of Tennessee alumni. (My dad was a junior halfback at Central High School here in Memphis in 1958 when Bryant took over in Tuscaloosa.) The third Saturday in October was rarely pleasant in Big Orange country during Bryant’s tenure at Alabama. His teams went 17-6-2 against the Vols, enjoying one 11-game winning streak (1971-81) during which they allowed UT as many as 20 points just once. 



Cry me a river, say fans in Oxford, Baton Rouge, and Auburn. The Bear dominated throughout the SEC, helped integrate the conference, and did it all with a cigarette and stiff drink nearby. If we could wake the dead for one quote and one quote only, I’d like to ask Bear Bryant what he thinks of Twitter.

Here rests Bear Bryant
  • Here rests Bear Bryant
 

Birmingham’s Elmwood Cemetery is enormous: more than 400 acres with more than 120,000 human beings interred. There is but one gravestone for Bear Bryant, though, and it attracts so many pilgrims that red stripes (crimson stripes!) have been painted along the narrow roads leading to Block 30.

Even upon locating Block 30, I needed some direction to find the Bear’s resting place. The man coordinating a grave-digging crew kindly directed me: “He’s over there, across from that tree in a triangle.” (This was an awkward inquiry, a person much more recently deceased than the Bear being laid to rest as I pursued a personal mission. But it was taken with grace — he’d answered this question before — and note the present tense in the directions I received. Bear Bryant was the coach at Alabama . . . but he is still “over there,” near a tree in an Alabama graveyard.)

Near a large marker with the family names Bryant and Folmar, I finally found Bryant’s marker. And that’s all it can be called: a marker. No larger than two feet by one foot, the granite stone is inscribed, “Paul William Bryant, Sr. / Sept. 11, 1913 / Jan. 26, 1983.” It is almost precisely the size and style of my father’s marker in Jackson, Tennessee. By this measure, the Bear and my dad are equals. Dad would chuckle at the notion and point out that he was, in fact, a better fisherman than the coaching legend. Bryant’s stone had several coins on it, and a single red flower. Never forgotten, to say the least.

Each of us can become a legend, if only to one other family member, friend, or beneficiary. It’s the numbers we reach — and how we reach them — that make a legend grow, and Bear Bryant’s is beyond measure. (Schools in Alabama were let out on the day of his death, a Wednesday.) I’ll relish my journey to the Bear’s resting place for the irony of that tiny headstone representing a man so tremendous in the memories of so many. Measure a man not by the size of his tombstone, but by the endurance of his impact. For some, there’s no cemetery large enough.

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