Monday, June 4, 2018

Q & A: FESJC Tournament Director Darrell Smith

Posted By on Mon, Jun 4, 2018 at 9:42 AM

Memphis Flyer: This is your third year as tournament director. What have you learned since taking the position?

Darell Smith:
I’ve been around the event for quite some time, and to [my predecessor] Phil Cannon’s credit, I’d been given a lot of exposure to the operation. What I love most is the excitement leading into tournament week, and all the things we have to do. It’s a long list, but that excitement is something I thoroughly enjoy. There are a lot of moving parts: players, customers, volunteers, staff. Everyone is pulling in the same direction to put on the best show we possibly can come tournament week.

The player relationships have been fun. This time of year, we’re talking about sponsor exemptions. Those are some tough conversations, but rewarding conversations at the same time. I’m a relationship person and we have relationships with people all across the country, a lot of good, young players. You’re making some pretty big decisions for some young men who may have a career in professional golf. I wish I could give an exemption to everyone who writes us with a request to play.
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MF:
It really is a relationship business, more so than many other sports.

DS: There are things players have done for us or [St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital] that influence our decisions. At the end of the day, we’re trying to raise funds and awareness for St. Jude.

MF: The big news this year is actually 2019 and the tournament’s transition to a World Golf Championship event, one of just four on the planet (also Mexico City, Shanghai, and Austin, Texas). Summarize how this unfolded.

DS: We have a title sponsor [FedEx Corp.] that believes in professional golf at an extremely high level: what it does for their business, how it impacts their business. Being attached to this event since 1986 and the FedEx Cup since 2007, they see the value of the PGA Tour brand. We knew there was an opportunity to enhance our event, and with FedEx’s support, we were able to make that happen.

What it means for this event and this city, I probably can’t put into words until you see it in 2019. The World Golf Championship puts our event on a whole new platform. It will be called the World Golf Championship-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. The field will take on a whole new look. The event we’re replacing — in Akron, Ohio — had 49 of the top 50 players in the world. That excites me and excites our team. I know it excites Memphis and the surrounding communities.

MF: How will planning — and running — the tournament change when it’s moved from June to August?

DS: The amount of hospitality we have on site will increase. Our “build,” as we call it, will be larger. We’ll probably start the build about when we do now [the week of the Masters in April]; it’ll just be larger. Tents, flooring, all that. At the end of the day, it’s still a golf tournament, which we’ve been producing for 61 years now. There could be some small tweeks to the TPC Southwind golf course, and we’ll get to those as soon as we can after this year’s tournament.

MF: Before 2019, we have the 2018 FedEx St. Jude Classic. Share your elevator pitch for this year’s event.

DS: We’re welcoming back two-time defending champion Daniel Berger. We’re happy that we’ll have Phil Mickelson, who will be playing his sixth straight year here. They’ve set the bar for us. There’s so much to do, and more than just golf. We’re debuting some new hospitality venues on our corporate side.

MF:
What’s “Fireworks on the Fairway”?

DS: That’ll be Friday night [after the second round]. Our friends at Southern Security Federal Credit Union came on board as presenting sponsor. It’s really just to keep the party going after play. We’ll finish play around 6:45 p.m., then we encourage everyone to come out to Southwind. Beginning at 5 p.m., admission is free. Parking is just $10 [in Lot C]. If you have to work on Friday, we feel sorry for you, but you can go home, pick up the kids, and come out to have a great time. We’ll have live music and around 9 p.m., we’ll shoot some fireworks. Bring a chair or blanket. This is part of our continued evolution: doing things outside the world of golf. We want this to be the largest community event it can possibly be.

MF: You mentioned community. How many volunteers are on board this year?

DS: Eighteen-hundred volunteers. It’s the fabric of the PGA Tour. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to produce this every year. The majority are from the Mid-South, but we have a committee leader who lives in Columbus, Ohio. This tournament is far bigger than one player, one vendor. It really connects. People know about St. Jude, and they’re committed to the event.

MF: Are you able to watch much golf during tournament week? And are there certain players you make time to follow?

DS: I’m a golf fan. I always try and keep my eye on the leader board. I’m always interested in sponsor exemptions, seeing how those individuals play. We’re offering them that spot, and we like to see them play well. I don’t really have a rooting interest, but I love our past champions, love that they come back and devote time to us. We like Brooks Koepka playing our event last year, then going to the U.S. Open and winning. Playing our event may have had no impact on him winning the Open, but inside our walls, we think it does.

MF:
Did you have a favorite golfer growing up?

DS: I grew up watching Tiger Woods. He got me interested in golf. I started working in the game of golf when I was 14. I got a job as a cart boy in Bartlett, and I’ve worked in the game [for 21 years now]. Watching Tiger and his dominance, that’s what I remember.

MF: Putting you on the spot: Who will wear the winner's seersucker jacket this weekend?

DS: I’m gonna go with Brooks Koepka. He’s played us religiously over the last several years. He’s back from injury and is playing awesome. We’d love to see him, as reigning U.S. Open champion, play well. He’s said this golf course sets up perfectly for him. He’s my pick for the 2018 FESJC champion.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

I'm Keith Hernandez, Too

Posted By on Tue, May 29, 2018 at 11:59 AM

“The wall isn’t smooth. Its façade is brick, with mortar inset between the brick. So if I throw the ball against the wall, it might hit a corner of the brick or an indentation within the brick itself and not come straight back. It is unpredictable, just like a live batter.”
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Keith Hernandez played a version of wall ball as a boy in the early Sixties. If there’s no one else around with a glove or bat, young baseball players improvise with a rubber ball and a solid wall (preferably brick for the reasons Hernandez describes above). I played wall ball, too. There was a significant difference, though, between my version and the one described by Hernandez. When I played in my grandmother’s backyard in the early Eighties, you see, I pretended to be Keith Hernandez.

****

Baseball books are my comfort food. If a novel or presidential biography (I love both) serves as escape, a book about baseball — for me — is a further departure from the drills and details of the day. But I’m Keith Hernandez (released earlier this month by Little, Brown and Company) was something new. Something as close to personal as I’ll likely ever read on a published page under another author’s name. The book is a terrific biography, worth reading for any baseball fan regardless of team (or player) of choice. But it was something deeper for me.

I learned to love baseball at my dad’s side. He grew up in Memphis, the son of a man who fell in love with the St. Louis Cardinals when Dizzy Dean was baffling hitters (and the English language) and Ducky Medwick was dodging bottles in decisive World Series games. Dad shared stories of his own heroes: Harry Brecheen, Red Schoendienst, and especially the great Stan Musial. He emphasized the remarkable talents of Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, though I was too young to fully understand, let alone follow, their exploits.

But there was Keith Hernandez. And Ted Simmons. And Garry Templeton. These were my Cardinals, my heroes, a trio of late-Seventies stars whose numbers in the box score each morning sent my day in one direction (three hits for Tempy!) or another (hitless night for Simba). Hernandez emerged from relative anonymity to superstar in 1979, becoming the first infielder to win a Gold Glove and batting title in the same season on his way to National League MVP honors. I was 10 years old and wanted to become Hernandez someday.

As we learn in I’m Keith Hernandez, the Cardinal (and later New York Met) star had his own childhood heroes, some of them San Francisco Giants (he grew up in the Bay Area) but others St. Louis Cardinals. Hernandez’s dad, John, had been a teammate (briefly) of Musial’s during the latter’s 1945 service in the Navy. When Hernandez wasn’t playing “wall ball” as a child, he was learning the game on teams coached by his father, watching film (when it was actual film) of his batting stroke for areas to improve.

It’s the need — and burning desire — to improve that shapes Hernandez’s memoir, and it’s the component that will engage any reader who once had difficulty hitting an inside fastball or felt anxiety over securing a position on the diamond. We learn that it wasn’t until after Hernandez received that MVP trophy that he truly felt he belonged in the major leagues, that he’d come as close as he could to mastering the hardest skill in sports. You won’t find recollections of the 1982 World Series championship Hernandez won with St. Louis (or the 1986 title he captured as a Met). If ever a memoir has focused on the proverbial journey to stardom, it’s the one with Hernandez staring at us from under a Mets helmet on the cover. (Hey, you gotta sell books in the Big Apple.)

Between tales of his rise as a player, Hernandez includes views of today’s game that might not be familiar to fans who don’t hear his color commentary as a Mets television analyst. He’s decidedly old-school, even as he acknowledges the impact of analytics and computer-generated scouting reports in building a modern baseball team. “It’s a lot of information to sift through in a very sterile, static learning environment,” writes Hernandez. “And despite all the headphones and video games in today’s youth culture, we are all still social creatures.”

Hernandez’s wall-ball skills took him further than mine took me. (Among baseball’s fabled five tools, I had two, and outfielders who can run and catch don’t play beyond high school.) But boys tend to join the ride of their baseball heroes, and I felt very much a part of Hernandez’s glory days as a Cardinal. Revisiting those days in the pages of his illuminating and heartfelt memoir was a joy along the lines of a cleanly struck baseball into the right-centerfield gap.

Monday, May 21, 2018

NBA Draft Doldrums

Posted By on Mon, May 21, 2018 at 9:07 AM

Luka Doncic - WORLD NEWS INSIDER
  • World News Insider
  • Luka Doncic
Live long enough and you’ll see your share of game-changing NBA drafts. A quick personal brainstorm brings to mind the four drafts from 1982 to 1985, when James Worthy, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Patrick Ewing (the first lottery!) were chosen by teams they’d lead to the NBA Finals. When the Orlando Magic won the chance to draft Shaquille O’Neal in the 1992 draft, it altered the next year’s game-changing draft when the same franchise again chose first (Chris Webber) but traded its top pick for Golden State’s third (Anfernee Hardaway). The 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs tanked long before it was a thing (with star center David Robinson sidelined by injury), landed the top pick in the lottery, and secured themselves the greatest cyborg to ever play basketball in Tim Duncan. Five championships ensued.

Four of the first five picks in the 2003 draft — LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade — are bound for the Hall of Fame. (The second pick that year was once a Memphis Grizzly! Alas, those were Darko days.) Cleveland landed a championship-caliber point guard in 2011 (Kyrie Irving), a year after James took his talents to South Beach. New Orleans grabbed Anthony Davis in 2012, the finest big man in the game today and a future champion (mark it down).

All of this leaves me underwhelmed by last week’s big event, the draft lottery “won” by the Phoenix Suns. Despite being represented by Elliot Perry — as gracious and classy a good-luck charm as this city can claim — our Grizzlies ended up fourth in the draft, despite the franchise’s best tanking efforts having resulted in the second-worst record in the league in 2017-18. According to the consensus view, this means no Deandre Ayton and no Luka Doncic. The Grizzlies will likely be able to choose among a pair of one-and-done college forwards, Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson. (Oklahoma sharpshooter Trae Young will tantalize, the Memphis franchise long devoid of a consistent three-point threat.)

But here’s the thing: If Memphis is to be disappointed with its position in the draft, it presupposes Ayton and Doncic will be annual All-NBA talents. And I just don’t see it happening. The NBA is a different league today than it was as recently as 2010, when the three All-NBA centers — Dwight Howard (first), Amar’e Stoudemire (second), and Andrew Bogut (third) — were comfortable posting up, backs to the basket, waiting to be “fed” by a point guard or wing. Perhaps Ayton will run the floor like a small forward and defend like a stretch-four. But that’s quite a bet to make with Golden State and Houston dominating the Western Conference playing a style that forgoes a traditional center.

And Doncic? I’ll believe a European wing is an NBA star when I see a European wing star in the NBA. Scanning the list of All-NBA teams over the last decade, exactly one such player catches the eye: Slovenia’s Goran Dragic was a third-team honoree in 2014 with Phoenix. Perhaps Doncic will climb such heights with Sacramento or Atlanta (the Suns will take Ayton, right?). But that must be the standard — All-NBA status — for a player chosen among the top three in the draft. It’s not automatic.

All this is to say I look toward the 2018-19 Grizzlies season with more curiosity about Mike Conley’s return (and health) than I do the franchise’s choice in next month’s draft. Bagley and Jackson appear to be the kind of players that can land a rotation spot in their first NBA game. But neither appears to be the game-changer much of the country lost its breath over in analyzing last week’s lottery. Let’s agree on this: The NBA draft lottery is a party worth attending only when no other will have us.


  

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Monday, May 14, 2018

Carson the Cardinal (For Now)

Posted By on Mon, May 14, 2018 at 9:29 AM

Carson Kelly
  • Carson Kelly

Carson Kelly is a major-league catcher. We can say this in the present tense, as Kelly is currently receiving pitches for the St. Louis Cardinals, the team’s longtime backstop — one Yadier Molina — having suffered an injury no man wants to suffer when he took a 100-mph foul tip to the groin in a game against the Chicago Cubs on May 5th. (Molina had emergency surgery after the game and is projected to be sidelined four weeks.)

The I-55 pipeline between Memphis and St. Louis has long been frenetic, a two-way street traveled by current-and-future Cardinals hoping to maximize their time in the Gateway City and minimize any return trips to the Bluff City. Ask pitchers John Brebbia and Mike Mayers about this and they could probably map every rest area and billboard over the 280-mile trip. But no player currently personifies this final leap in the Cardinals’ farm system more than the 23-year-old Kelly. Yes, he’s a big-league catcher, for now. But yes, he’ll be back in Memphis this summer. For how long, it will depend largely on the health of his acclaimed mentor behind the plate.

There are major-league teams — probably as many as a dozen — for whom Kelly would be catching every day right now. (You can count on Kelly’s name surfacing in trade rumors as the summer unfolds, particularly if the Cardinals continue to struggle collectively at the plate.) His position is one that requires defensive talent to reach the majors, with merely competence as a batter enough to survive. Kelly was awarded a Gold Glove as the finest defensive catcher in all of minor-league baseball in 2015. In limited duty upon being promoted by the Cardinals last July, Kelly gunned down five of 11 would-be base-stealers. At the plate, he hit .283 in 68 games for Memphis but struggled for the Cardinals, batting .174 in 69 at-bats. (Since his promotion last week, Kelly has one hit in 16 at-bats.)

The fact that Kelly makes a living donning “the tools of ignorance” is splendidly ironic, considering he recently earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Oregon State. And it’s that “muscle” between Kelly’s ears that could make the eventual transition to full-time duty in St. Louis more seamless than it would be for most men following Molina. For it’s Molina’s game management — and particularly his handling of pitchers — that has long been considered the skill that makes him a future Hall of Famer. The eight-time Gold Glover turns 36 in July and has a contract that will keep him in St. Louis at least through the 2020 season. As Kelly plots his course for permanent status in the majors — with the Cardinals or another team — Molina’s proximity is considered a unique benefit.

“I’ve been getting to spend more time with Yadi,” said Kelly in April, shortly before the Redbirds opened their season. “Especially in spring training, then last year a good chunk of time [with the Cardinals]. All the studying of reports, formulating a game plan. It’s a little bit different up there. The small things he does, what he picks up on. We’d watch video together. Those little things . . . they’re priceless and they’ll help me down the road.”

Kelly has hit .234 in 21 games for Memphis this year. When I asked him about his hitting stroke in April, Kelly emphasized baseball’s elusive C-word: “Everything is about consistency in this game. It’s the small little details. There’s always something to work on.” Over the parts of three seasons with Memphis, Kelly has thrown out 22 of 86 base thieves. He remains the third-ranked player in the St. Louis farm system (behind pitchers Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty) and 55th in all of minor-league baseball according to Baseball America.

In addition to Molina, Kelly has the luxury of a manager in St. Louis who caught more than 1,000 big-league games and won four Gold Gloves himself. “Mike Matheny has been so gracious to me, helping me through my process,” notes Kelly. “Everybody’s been great to me, but it seems like Mike goes that little extra mile. It’s pretty awesome.”

He plays the most demanding position in sports, but with tools few others can claim. Whether he establishes traction with the Cardinals or here in Memphis, Carson Kelly appears to be playing for long-term gains. Something his economics professors would appreciate.

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Monday, May 7, 2018

J.B., Penny, and Redbirds Alumni

Posted By on Mon, May 7, 2018 at 10:12 AM

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I’m glad the Memphis Grizzlies named J.B. Bickerstaff — officially — their head coach last week. Compassion isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a factor in hiring a person to lead a professional sports franchise, but Bickerstaff has earned this chance, particularly having coached 63 games last season with the requirement, in roundball terms, that he dribble with one hand only. Exactly zero of those games included Mike Conley at point guard (to say nothing of departed icons Tony Allen or Zach Randolph). The 39-year-old son of a longtime NBA coach (Bernie), Bickerstaff has paid his dues with more than 10 years as an assistant and was unable to earn the Houston Rockets’ trust over the course of 71 games (and a playoff appearance) in 2015-16. The least the man deserves is an 82-game season, a healthy roster (Conley and Chandler Parsons are crossing all fingers and toes), and the mission to win every game he can. Throw in a top-five pick in this June’s draft, and Bickerstaff may look back at his first winter calling the shots at FedExForum as one of those disguised blessings that shapes a career.

• It’s hard to imagine a wider disparity between what I’ll call the “buzz rating” of the Memphis Grizzlies’ head coach and that of the new Memphis Tigers’ coach. On a scale to 100, I’d put Bickerstaff’s number somewhere in the 40s. He’s recognizable among regular followers of the Grizzlies (and there are indeed many of them in this town). But Bickerstaff could walk into Huey’s and find a table without much ado.

Penny Hardaway eating at Huey’s? He’d never get the toothpick out of his burger. The Tiger icon is the most talked-about, photographed, and cheered human being in Memphis right now. And his college record is 0-0. This isn’t so much about one coach being better than another. It’s not even about relative popularity. (Though the last Memphian as popular as Penny Hardaway died at Graceland 41 years ago.) The disparity speaks to the difference an NBA coach can make in a league dominated by its superstar players and the difference a college coach can make on a landscape dominated by superstar coaches. Next winter will be fun as both these “rookies” establish credentials for the near and long-term future of their beloved teams.

• Last Friday in Seattle, Albert Pujols became the 32nd player in baseball history to reach the 3,000-hit plateau. In the age of WAR and OPS, any achievement involving “counting stats” is somewhat diminished, but we should appreciate Pujols’s climb up the national pastime’s Olympus. He’s only the fourth player to count more than 600 home runs among his 3,000 hits (following Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Alex Rodriguez). Pujols may have played only 14 games as a Memphis Redbird (in 2000), but he has a permanent place — and red seat — in Bluff City baseball history for the walk-off home run he hit at AutoZone Park on Sept. 15, 2000, to give Memphis its first Pacific Coast League championship.

There’s already discussion about whether Pujols’s Hall of Fame plaque will feature a St. Louis Cardinals hat or that of his current team, the Los Angeles Angels. When Pujols wins a pair of World Series and three MVP awards with the Angels, this will be worthy of debate. There is one player in the history of the sport who can claim ten consecutive seasons with a .300 batting average, 30 home runs, and 100 RBIs. All ten of those seasons (2001-10) happened with Albert Pujols wearing a Cardinals uniform.

• It was a big weekend for another man who enjoyed a brief moment in the sun as a Memphis Redbird. Vince Coleman led the National League in stolen bases six straight seasons (1985-90) as a St. Louis Cardinal, then attempted a comeback in 1998, signing a minor-league contract with the Cards. He was the first Memphis Redbird to step into a batter’s box (on April 9, 1998). Coleman left the Redbirds after 20 games — and eight stolen bases — when it became clear a big-league promotion wasn’t imminent. Last Friday, Coleman was elected to the Cardinals Hall of Fame. He’ll be inducted along with a star from the 1940s (Harry Brecheen) and another from the 1990s (Ray Lankford) on August 18th.

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Monday, April 30, 2018

How to Enjoy the Griz-less NBA Playoffs

Posted By on Mon, Apr 30, 2018 at 10:58 AM

UNSPLASH
  • Unsplash
What’s a grit-and-grinder to do during the NBA playoffs without any Beale Street Blue? For the first time in eight years, Memphis basketball fans have been forced to watch the NBA’s best determine a champion without the Grizzlies in the mix. Fret not. Below are five ways to spark your rooting interest (or the precise opposite).

• Bad Guys Lose, Too
The Grizzlies have reached the playoffs 10 times and have been eliminated by a total of six franchises: the Spurs, Suns, Mavericks, Thunder, Clippers, and Warriors. Among this sinister six, only the Warriors are left for Griz fans to stomach as things get real in May. Find vicarious thrill, Memphis fans, in knowing the Spurs fan base — one that has cheered the elimination of the Grizzlies four times — has as much chance at a 2018 championship as those of us married to a 22-60 club. And let’s be honest: Any NBA postseason without the Clippers is better than one with L.A.’s second sons.

• Real Rivalry Renewed
Expansion and relocation have diluted NBA rivalries, but aside from Celtics-Lakers, there’s none better than Boston-Philly, a pair of original franchises now meeting in the Eastern Conference semifinals. In 1967, the 76ers ended the longest run of championships in the history of American pro sports when they beat the Boston Celtics to prevent a ninth consecutive championship for Bill Russell and friends. (The Celtics recovered and won the title the next two years.) The Celts and Sixers met in the Eastern finals four times over a six-year period (1980-85) when Larry Bird and Julius Erving were the two best forwards on the planet. The latest confrontation will miss Celtic stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, but feature two of the most dynamic young stars in the sport: Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. And those Grizzlies fans who got on board this winter’s tank ride can consider Philly the poster franchise for such big-picture tactics. Between the 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons, the Sixers won 19, 18, and 10 games for the right to grab their prize tandem.

• LeBron
We’ve reached the stage of LeBron James’s brilliant career where it’s impossible to turn away from his exploits. (Think Michael Jordan over the course of his second three-peat with the Bulls, now 20 years ago.) James’s Cavaliers are really the second playoff team that will feel the impact of Irving’s absence, the star guard having forced the trade that sent him from Cleveland to Boston last summer. Kevin Love has been a reasonable running mate, but these Cavs feel more like the faceless bunch James put on his back and carried to the Finals in 2007. Among the four teams left in the Eastern Conference, the three-time defending champs are actually the underdogs. For James to reach an eighth straight Finals, he’ll have to lead upsets — no home court advantage — over top-seeded Toronto and the winner of the Boston-Philly series. And if he does, that sculpture of James on the NBA’s Rushmore will gain a layer around the jaw line.

• The Villainy!
The Houston Rockets — owners of the NBA’s best record this season (65-17) — have the best backcourt in the game: Chris Paul and the league’s scoring champ, James Harden. They are also about as unlikable a duo as you’ll find. Paul, let’s be real, is a Clipper in Rockets clothing, best appreciated with a Tony Allen sneaker near his kisser. Harden’s greatest skill with the ball is drawing fouls. He shot 727 free throws in 72 games this season, almost 100 more than the second-most prolific foul “victim.” It’s like cheering the playground whiner (you remember him). The Rockets are the most likely team to topple the Warriors in the Western Conference. They’re also perhaps the only team fans would prefer Golden State backhand into the offseason.

• Oh, Canada
No Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup in 25 years. With that the case, the Toronto Raptors aim to flip the North American sports script and take the Larry O’Brien Trophy north of the border. If you can’t find another team worth your support through May and June, the Eastern Conference’s top seed will do. And hey, four-time All-Star Kyle Lowry was once a Grizzly.

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Monday, April 16, 2018

Memphis Redbirds Still Soaring

Posted By on Mon, Apr 16, 2018 at 9:20 AM

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The beginning of every baseball season brings new first impressions at AutoZone Park.

Most apparent: The Memphis Redbirds again have a talented team. Even with centerfielder Harrison Bader (promoted by the St. Louis Cardinals) and first-baseman Luke Voit (oblique injury) out of the lineup, the Redbirds have won nine of their first 11 games, the best start in franchise history. (Last year’s club was merely 6-5 after 11 games.)

Three more takeaways from the season’s first home stand:

• It took 17 years — since the franchise’s first Pacific Coast League title — but AutoZone Park finally has a permanent display saluting the championship teams that have played in the ballpark.

Prominently displayed below the press box are the years 2000, 2009, and 2017, forever binding the franchise’s past success to its current progress.

Even better, all the Cardinals’ retired numbers — from Dean to Gibson, from Musial to Brock — are also there for the gazing, along with two distinct tributes to Memphis baseball. Stubby Clapp’s number 10 — originally retired in 2007, only to be taken down a few years later when the Cardinals retired the same number for Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa — is there (next to a second 10 for LaRussa).

You’ll also see a microphone honoring player-turned-broadcaster (and native Memphian) Charlie Lea, right next to the same image saluting the great Jack Buck. These are merely cosmetic improvements, sure. But it feels like the stadium’s spirit is finally complete.

• The Redbirds won a total of 97 games last season and hoisted a championship pennant despite suiting up a total of 62 players over the course of the season. Those 62 players answered to one manager, so it stands to reason Stubby Clapp had a unifying influence.

During last Wednesday’s matinee against Omaha, fans paying close attention got a glimpse at what makes Clapp’s relationships with his players productive.

Memphis had taken an early 3-0 lead, but the Storm Chasers plated two runs and had a runner on second base with two outs in the top of the fifth inning, with Redbird starter Dakota Hudson approaching 100 pitches for the game.

Clapp strolled to the mound, typically an indication that a relief pitcher is on the way. Surrounded by the Redbirds’ infielders and catcher, Clapp looked up at his 6-foot, 5-inch hurler, had a brief conversation, then turned around and walked back to the dugout. Hudson retired the next batter and the Redbirds’ bullpen shut down Omaha the rest of the way for the win.

By leaving Hudson in the game — with the lead in jeopardy — Clapp gave his pitcher a chance to earn a victory (five innings being required for a starter to get the W). The gain (his young pitcher’s trust) was worth more than the risk (a loss in early April).

There will come a time — many, actually — when Clapp will indeed have to remove a starting pitcher with a game in the balance. But when he shows an understanding for what’s at stake for the player, that player better understands the team’s collective priority.

• Gimmickry with baseball uniforms — right up to the major leagues — is getting out of hand. (Camouflage fits a baseball diamond like batting gloves do a battlefield.) But I kinda like the Redbirds’ “throwback Thursdays” promotion.

The team will wear Memphis Chicks uniforms for Thursday home games, a nod to the brand that represented Memphis professional baseball for much of the 20th century. (The Chicks last played here in 1997, the year before the Redbirds franchise arrived from Louisville.)

But there’s a big-picture oddity to the approach, one clearly aimed at older fans with memories of Bo Jackson and Tim Raines, if not Luis Aparicio. Those older fans can no longer listen to the Redbirds on the radio, at least not as they typically have while tinkering in the garage, driving in their car, or grilling in the back yard.

Broadcasts are now entirely digital. You can listen to Steve Selby’s call on your computer (memphisredbirds.com) or via the TuneIn app on your smartphone. This may be the way of the new century.

For all their recent success on the field, though, the Redbirds continue to battle for relevance in a city that cheers loudest for a basketball coach on Opening Night. (Penny Hardaway threw out the ceremonial first pitch last Tuesday.) Making it harder to access the team — particularly for the “grizzled vets” among their market — appears to be a risk the Redbirds are willing to take in 2018.

• The best story of the young season — and there’s not a close second — is Daniel
Daniel Poncedeleon
  • Daniel Poncedeleon
 Poncedeleon.

The 26-year-old righty tossed five shutout innings in his first start of the season at Round Rock, then struck out 12 Iowa Cubs in just five innings last Saturday in a Redbirds win at AutoZone Park.

All this less than a year after Poncedeleon lost his 2017 season — and quite nearly his life — after a line drive fractured his skull in a game at Iowa last May.

The California native would be a great sports story had he merely been able to take the mound again. But to make the impact he’s already made for a team with high aspirations after such a traumatic injury makes Poncedeleon a great human story. Easiest man in baseball to cheer this season.

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Monday, April 9, 2018

2018 Redbirds Preview: Encore Season?

Posted By on Mon, Apr 9, 2018 at 10:13 AM

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A star player, long retired, returns to lead a new generation, applying a touch that results in a historic season and ultimately a championship.

If Penny Hardaway’s first season as University of Memphis basketball coach goes anything like Stubby Clapp’s return to Memphis last year as manager of the Redbirds, the Bluff City may actually implode. In his first season in the skipper’s office, Clapp led the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate to the most wins (91) any Memphis baseball team had posted since 1948. The Redbirds reeled off a franchise-record 11-game winning streak early in the 2017 campaign and posted a statistically impossible record of 13-0 in extra-inning games. Your turn, Penny!

A few storylines as the Redbirds’ 21st season in Memphis gets underway:

Forget about an encore.
The Redbirds won their first four games of the season in Round Rock, and scored 40 runs in doing so. But look at those silly numbers above. The 2017 Redbirds won or split 27 consecutive series, for crying out loud. It’s not happening again. But here’s the good news: The Redbirds could shave 10 wins — and merely split their extra-inning results — and still win their division of the Pacific Coast League. Furthermore, no Redbird team has successfully defended a championship, so there’s much to gain with another pennant chase.
Stubby Clapp hopes his 'Birds get off to another flying start.
  • Stubby Clapp hopes his 'Birds get off to another flying start.

The boys are back. 
Carson Kelly (catcher), Patrick Wisdom (third base), Luke Voit (first base), Harrison Bader (centerfield), and Wilfredo Tovar (shortstop) played significant roles in last year’s championship, and they’re all back. Outfielder Tyler O’Neill hit a combined 31 home runs last season between Tacoma and Memphis. Judging by his button-popping physique and four home runs in the team’s first four games, he’ll hit another 31 this year.

With the Cardinals keeping only four reserve position players on their roster, there will be an express shuttle between AutoZone Park and Busch Stadium. (Bader has already flown north to fill in for the injured Jedd Gyorko, currently on the 10-day disabled list.) But that shuttle will also deliver big-league-ready players to Memphis. When I asked Clapp last week about new faces that caught his eye during spring training, he paused and said, “We only have three.” (Max Schrock was acquired in the trade that sent Stephen Piscotty to Oakland and he’ll take over at second base.) A “veteran” Triple-A team means a team of players hungry for the next promotion. Under the right leadership — Clapp was named Minor League Manager of the Year by Baseball America last year — the 2018 Redbirds will aim to capitalize on the culture of winning established in 2017.

A pair of aces.
Two young flame-throwers — Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson — should front the Redbirds’ pitching rotation. Flaherty went 7-2 with Memphis last season and posted a 2.74 ERA. Filling in on for the injured Adam Wainwright, Flaherty struck out nine Milwaukee Brewers in five innings for St. Louis last week then fanned 11 in Round Rock Sunday in his first start for Memphis. Hudson went 9-4 with a 2.53 ERA at Double-A Springfield last year before a July promotion to Memphis. (He won a pair of playoff games for the Redbirds.) As of now, 21-year-old Jordan Hicks and his 101-mph fastball are in the Cardinals’ bullpen. But when the Cards’ newly signed closer, Greg Holland, is ready for game action, Hicks may join Flaherty and Hudson in the Memphis rotation. The Houston native had not pitched above Class A before making the St. Louis roster last month.

The USL is coming!
We learned a hard truth last season at AutoZone Park: A popular manager and exceptional team don’t necessarily sell tickets. The Redbirds finished 13th in the 16-team PCL in attendance, averaging 5,073 tickets sold for their 69 home dates. The upcoming season may well be the team’s last in a baseball-only stadium, as the Bluff City’s new United Soccer League franchise will open play — coinciding with baseball season — in 2019. Championships have proven easier to attain at AutoZone Park than profitability, so significant adjustments — including what we see in the stadium — continue. But in a facility built for baseball, Memphis has a baseball team built to win. Should make for a good match in the months ahead.

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Monday, March 26, 2018

St. Louis Cardinals 2018 Season Preview

Posted By on Mon, Mar 26, 2018 at 9:19 AM

The 2018 St. Louis Cardinals open their season Thursday with a matinee in New York against the Mets. (Quick side note: When I’m finally running things, no baseball game will be played until the Final Four is behind us.) Rarely is a new “era” officially recognized, but you get the feeling this storied franchise is turning a corner of sorts. Consider this oddity: The Cardinals have made the playoffs 12 times since the turn of the century, yet their next October hero may well be a postseason rookie. St. Louis is in danger of missing the playoffs a third straight season for the first time since Bill Clinton was president (1997-99). Marcell Ozuna, Paul DeJong, Luke Weaver, and Alex Reyes have never suited up for a meaningful October baseball game. If the Cardinals are to again contend for a National League pennant, all four of these players will need to make positive headlines.
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Three questions to ponder as the Cardinals’ 127th season takes flight:

• Can Marcell Ozuna be The Guy in the Cardinals’ batting order?
It’s been seven full seasons since a Cardinal bashed 30 homers and drove in 100 runs (Albert Pujols in 2010). That’s a long time — with two World Series appearances it should be noted — for a franchise to go without a muscle man in the middle of the lineup. Ozuna may have been the consolation prize in the Cardinals’ pursuit of free agent Giancarlo Stanton, but the 27-year-old leftfielder is a premium Plan B. He won both a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger with Miami last season, hitting 37 home runs with 124 RBIs. Ozuna has hit three home runs in 19 spring-training games and posted a slugging percentage of .642. The two-time All-Star will sell a lot of jerseys in St. Louis if he can match his 2017 numbers (and perhaps reduce his 144 strikeouts). Ozuna is two seasons from free agency, so motivation won’t be an issue whether or not he takes an immediate liking to the Gateway City. The Cardinals of recent vintage have been built around the Oscar-equivalent of supporting actors. This guy is a leading man.

• Is the Cardinals’ rotation a matter of “if” or “when”?
If Adam Wainwright can come off the disabled list (hamstring) and shave a few years off his curveball, he may be among the best number-two starters in the National League. If Carlos Martinez makes the natural progression a 26-year-old ace should, he’ll contend for the Cy Young Award. If Michael Wacha finds a slice of the magic that made him a postseason phenom as a rookie in 2013, he’ll give the Cardinals a trio better than most in franchise history. If Alex Reyes returns from Tommy John surgery and displays the arsenal that made him baseball’s top pitching prospect in 2016, he will either solidify the rotation or make a fearsome closer for the time being.

If Luke Weaver shows the promise he did after his promotion from Memphis last year (7-2 over 10 starts), the Cardinals will have a talented and affordable arm to replace the departed (and generally durable) Lance Lynn. If Miles Mikolas approximates the 2.18 ERA he posted over two seasons with the Giants — the Yomiuri Giants — he might steal a headline from another import from Japan you may have heard of. (Mikolas is not expected to play the role of slugger when he’s not pitching, as is the case with the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani.) Now, replace all of those “ifs” with “when” and Cardinal fans can purchase their 2018 playoff tickets today.

• Where is the edge in the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry?
I’m not one to advocate bench-clearing brawls, but here I’m going to promote one before the 2018 season even begins. St. Louis has been looking up to the Chicago Cubs for going on three seasons now, ever since the North Siders plucked the Cards’ feathers in the 2015 playoffs (the Cardinals’ last postseason appearance). The Cardinals went 5-14 against the Cubs last season after losing “only” 10 of 19 in 2016. While St. Louis added Mikolas to the roster last winter, the Cubs landed perhaps the best pitcher on the market in Yu Darvish. (Darvish will fill the slot vacated by former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, now a Philadelphia Phillie.) The Cubs are the superior franchise now, and every player on their roster knows it.

Among the qualities the Cardinals lost when Tony LaRussa retired after the 2011 World Series is an emotional edge. Mike Matheny, to his credit, is made of emotional granite. (And physical toughness. As a Brewer, the man once took a fastball to the jaw and didn’t fall down.) But Matheny’s club has played the National League nice guys for going on seven years now. “The Cardinal Way” is one thing when the team is playing in late October, and quite another when staring up at the Cubs in the standings.

The Cards and Cubs will face either for the first time this season in a series at Wrigley Field, April 16-18. But you might circle late July on your calendar, when the clubs collide for seven games in 11 days (July 19-29). By then we’ll have a sense of whether or not the Cardinals are a threat to the Cubs’ rule over the NL Central. And a seven-game crunch over such a short period breeds contempt even in teams that don’t have a history of discord like these two. Here’s hoping no baseball meets a batter’s jaw. But an overflow of tension on a sultry summer night in Chicago or St. Louis? One of these two franchises could use such a jolt.





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Monday, February 26, 2018

Hey NCAA, Vacate This!

Posted By on Mon, Feb 26, 2018 at 9:39 AM

History can be revised, to some degree, by intelligent and thorough historians. But history cannot be erased, no matter how much the NCAA believes it can. Last week, the national governing body for American college sports decided Louisville must vacate its national basketball championship — won right before our eyes in 2013 — as part of its punishment for a slew of violations under former coach Rick Pitino. The history books, according to the NCAA, will now read “vacated” between Kentucky’s title in 2012 and Connecticut’s in 2014.
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This is absurd, of course. No more or less absurd than USC’s vacated football championship in 2004, but just as absurd. Games played on a field (or court) can be erased only when that device made famous in the Men In Black movies is actually invented for the elimination of memories on a mass human scale. If you find it hard to forget Louisville’s Kevin Ware shattering his lower leg during that 2013 NCAA tournament, imagine the NCAA now trying to tell us it didn’t happen, that the Cardinals’ tournament run that season is now . . . vacated.

This kind of penalty is salt to the wound for followers of the Memphis basketball program, whose 2008 Final Four banner is currently in an undisclosed closet. The Tigers were forced to take that banner down when the Derrick Rose test-taking scandal came to light (in 2009), though the 1985 Final Four banner — for a run also vacated by the NCAA — hangs proudly from the rafters at FedExForum.

Cheaters must be punished and yes, there is cheating in college sports. But the sad and unfair truth is that athletes must often pay for misdeeds that occurred before they arrived on campus. Erasing history just can’t be done. Would the NCAA return any proceeds from games Louisville played five years ago? Would it reimburse Memphis fans who paid hard-earned money to watch the scandalous Rose in the winter of 2007-08? The answers are no and hell no.

Punish programs clearly in violation of NCAA rules and regs. But leave history — and its banners — alone. We saw what happened.

• I find the strategy of tanking in professional sports repugnant. By now you know the concept: compile losses now with the hope of acquiring high draft picks — and actually competing — later. Baseball’s two most recent champions perfected this craft. The Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros fielded historically poor teams for multiple seasons before building rosters around draft jewels like Kris Bryant (Cubs) and Carlos Correa (Astros) and winning the World Series.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver was right to fine Mavericks owner Mark Cuban last week for publicly acknowledging that losing is in his team’s best interests this season. If a franchise is going to openly concede games — in an industry built on a foundation of competition — it had better slash the cost of tickets and sponsorships. And no child should have to pay for a ticket to see his or her home team suit up a roster shy of its best.

As long as the NBA has a lottery system for its draft — no matter how it’s weighted — there will be incentives to accumulate losses. So here’s a novel idea: order the draft by the number of tickets sold by teams that miss the playoffs. Reward struggling franchises that retain the support of their fan base. The more home tickets sold in a down year, the higher that team will pick in the next draft. Fans are smart, and their money is as honest as Mark Cuban. Losing on purpose can’t be sold.

• The only silver lining to Tiger point guard Jeremiah Martin’s season-ending injury is that it may secure a league scoring title for the Memphis junior. How special would a conference scoring title be for Martin? Larry Finch never led his league (the Missouri Valley Conference) in scoring. Neither did Lorenzen Wright, Rodney Carney, Chris Douglas-Roberts, or Joe Jackson. Over the last 50 years, only four Tigers have led their league in scoring: Keith Lee (Metro, 1984-85), Elliot Perry (Metro, 1990-91), Penny Hardaway (Great Midwest, 1992-93), and Will Barton (Conference USA, 2011-12). Martin finished his season with an average of 18.9 points per game. Second among American Athletic Conference players is SMU’s Shake Milton (also injured) at 18.0.

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Monday, February 19, 2018

The 1980s "Grizzlies"

Posted By on Mon, Feb 19, 2018 at 9:15 AM

As tough as the 2017-18 season has been for the Memphis Grizzlies — far more of a transitional campaign than most expected — I feel like I’ve seen this movie before. And I’ll be holding off on the popcorn until it becomes clear the ending isn’t as gut-wrenching as the original.

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A brief back story: As a 14-year-old Vermonter in 1983, I adopted the Dallas Mavericks. When they drafted my college hero, Tennessee’s Dale Ellis, I felt like I had an NBA team I could call my own. My family had moved to Southern California in 1979 (the year Magic Johnson arrived), but the mighty L.A. Lakers didn’t find my heart. Neither did Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics upon our arrival in New England. (A bandwagon basketball fan I will never be called.) But the Mavericks had a fun, young team, led by a pair of sharpshooters, small forward Mark Aguirre and shooting guard Rolando Blackman.

Dallas made the playoffs for the first time in 1984, only the franchise’s fourth season in the league. When they drafted Derek Harper (with Ellis in 1983) and Sam Perkins (in 1984), they had a close equivalent to the Grizzlies’ recent “core four” (Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen). The Mavericks made the playoffs five straight seasons (and six of seven), culminating with a trip to the Western Conference finals in 1988 where they took Magic and the defending-champion Lakers to a seventh game before bowing. The addition of skilled big man Roy Tarpley (in 1986) seemed to be the final piece in a championship-building puzzle for the young franchise.
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Then the 1990s happened. Tarpley succumbed to chemical addictions, eventually earning a ban from NBA commissioner David Stern. Aguirre was traded to Detroit in 1989, just in time to earn a pair of rings with the Pistons. Perkins left (for the Lakers!) as a free agent after the 1989-90 season. Meanwhile, Blackman and Harper — at one point among the NBA’s best backcourts — grew old together in Maverick uniforms. The Mavs went 22-60 in their final season together (1991-92), then, with Blackman shipped to New York, fell off the NBA map, winning 11 and 13 games the following two seasons. That’s 24-140 over two winters. The Dirk Nowitzki era was a long time coming.

Cut to 2018 and the Grizzlies are heading toward a final record that will be uncomfortably close to 22-60. After having reached the playoffs seven straight years, including a trip to the Western Conference finals (in 2013). Two of their core four are no longer here, Randolph now a Sacramento King, Allen traded from his new club (New Orleans) to Chicago earlier this month, only to be released by the Bulls. Gasol and Conley remain (as did Blackman and Harper), still the most valuable members of the Memphis roster, still hoping to serve as the franchise engine for another deep playoff run.

The trade-then-don’t drama that unfolded around Tyreke Evans earlier this month was a bad look for a front office now tasked with instilling confidence in a nervous fan base. Are the Grizzlies better with Evans on the roster this season? Without a doubt. Will the Grizzlies be better with Evans on the roster in 2018-19 or 2019-20? I don’t know the answer to that question. And what has me worried: I don’t think general manager Chris Wallace and the Grizzlies brass know the answer either.

After the Mavericks’ roaring Eighties, the Nineties were absolutely atrocious. The team’s win totals from 1992-93 through the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season: 11, 13, 36, 26, 24, 20, 19. The team returned to the playoffs in 2001 (Nowitzki’s third season), and won at least 50 games 11 years in a row, upsetting Miami for the 2011 championship. The historical lesson: successful eras — lengthy ones — can sandwich dry spells.

Here’s hoping the Memphis Grizzlies keep their current dry spell limited to a winter or two of discontent. But fair warning. Franchise turns are hard to accomplish in the NBA. Front-office clarity on what’s to happen after the turn is a must.


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Monday, February 5, 2018

We Are PyeongChang

Posted By on Mon, Feb 5, 2018 at 11:11 AM

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The Winter Olympics are quaint. Cozy even. I say this having enjoyed every Winter Games since Sarajevo (1984) indoors, thermostat set at or near 70 degrees. The Winter Olympics are made up almost entirely of events that I have never so much as attempted. Sledding down Vermont hillsides — even on “blades” designed like skis — doesn’t qualify me to speak with authority on the luge. As for alpine skiing, merely staying upright became an Olympian feat for me, so what Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin will do the next two weeks in PyeongChang, South Korea, is, like Nicklaus’s golf swing: a game with which I’m not familiar.

We need these PyeongChang Games, and especially considering North Korea and South Korea will compete as a unified team of athletes. Even if this is some kind of scripted drama Kim Jong-un is waving in the face of western interests — “As Donald divides, we unite!” — the symbolism of conflicting nations coming together for two weeks of sports is . . . well, it’s quaint. Perhaps we, as a planet, can share a warm international hug amid the snow and ice.

The Summer Olympics are held in places we all know, at least from coffee-table books and travel brochures: Los Angeles, London, Athens, Barcelona, Rio. (And yes, Atlanta qualifies as an international destination.) The Winter Olympics are held in places — sometimes villages — we couldn’t locate on a map before the Opening Ceremonies: Albertville, Lillehammer, Torino, Sochi. (I lived in Torino for a year as a young boy. No gold medal won there in 2006 impressed the natives like the most recent Juventus win on the pitch.) Salt Lake City has but one major-league team, named after the great music of New Orleans and with no championship banner hanging from its arena. But the Winter Games found Salt Lake (in 2002) and they were a fun — quaint — two weeks, welcome so shortly after the horror of September 11, 2001.

Rare are the Winter Olympic heroes who have staying power in the American sports consciousness. (March Madness is almost here!) Dorothy Hamill, Eric Heiden, and Scott Hamilton took their skills on ice to national prominence, but none of them had a movie made about their lives, as Tonya Harding has for her villainous role at the 1994 Games in Norway. And that’s part of the magic of the Winter Olympics: There’s so little actual drama that when things do go sideways, Hollywood demands the rights.

Only at the Winter Olympics do we discover “curling” and “skeleton” are athletic events yielding gold, silver, and bronze. (Skeleton is a form of bobsled, just minus the protective ice-chariot. Thus the name, I suppose.) The idea of firing a weapon with your lungs and legs on fire may seem like a stretch until every four years men and women compete for a total of 11 gold medals in biathlon. Don’t look for an American on the podium in this competition. This is considerably ironic when you compare the number of guns in this country with the favorite in the biathlon relay, Norway.

There will never again be an Olympic team like the 1980 U.S. hockey club that beat the mighty Soviets. (For the first time since 1994, the NHL is not sending players to compete in the Games.) But over the course of two weeks just south of the DMZ in South Korea, there will be moments and memories. Perhaps Vonn’s last Olympics will carry headlines, or perhaps it will be Chloe Kim’s first (she’s a snowboarder with a smile that makes her helmet a crime). PyeongChang will enter our living rooms this week with an introduction to a region beyond the reach of many. The Winter Olympics will — again — enter our hearts, however foreign short-track speed-skating may seem. And that’s perfectly quaint.

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Monday, January 29, 2018

The Brady Bowl

Posted By on Mon, Jan 29, 2018 at 9:54 AM

BEN HERSHEY, UNSPLASH
  • Ben Hershey, Unsplash
“If the Super Bowl is the ultimate game, how come there is another one next year?”
— Dallas Cowboys running back Duane Thomas (1972)


Five quick angles to make this Sunday’s football game not seem like the rerun you think it is.

• In terms of reliability, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady trails the sun, seven seas, and Betty White. And by some distance. Since Brady entered the NFL in 2000, a whopping 10 Super Bowls have been played without him. Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson quarterbacked teams to the Lombardi Trophy and a franchise younger than Brady — the Carolina Panthers — played for the championship in Super Bowl 50. Should he win three Super Bowls in four years for a second time, we’ll always wonder . . . why not four in a row, at least once?

• Much has been made locally about two former University of Memphis kickers facing one another in Super Bowl LII. Philadelphia Eagle rookie Jake Elliott broke most of the Tiger records established (between 2002 and 2005) by New England Patriot veteran Stephen Gostkowski. How unlikely is this toe tangle? Gostkowski came to the U of M initially as a pitcher for the baseball team. Elliott was a tennis star in high school. It can be said these Tiger alumni will be on American sport’s biggest stage but playing their alternative sports.

• This still-young century has been an era for drought-ending championships. The Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, Kansas City Royals, and Houston Astros have all won World Series that ended droughts of at least 30 years. LeBron James brought Cleveland its first major championship of any kind in a half-century. Among the 32 NFL franchises, only two — the Lions and Cardinals — have played longer without claiming a title than the Eagles, who last were crowned kings when Chuck Bednarik tormented quarterbacks in 1960.

Tom Brady, of course, is the chief reason Philadelphia hasn’t won a championship in 57 years, having led the Patriots to victory over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX after the 2004 season. Brady has won Super Bowls over two franchises that have never won championships (Carolina and Atlanta). He pays no attention to drought sentiment, having suffered his own 10-year dry spell between wins in Super Bowl XXXIX and Super Bowl XLIX. That World War II veteran the Eagles saluted during the NFC Championship? He can wait until Brady’s finished.

• Sunday’s game will be the seventh rematch in Super Bowl history. (We have to count Steelers-Cowboys twice, as the franchises have played each other in three Super Bowls.) This will be the second-longest stretch between meetings — 13 years —among those rematches. (Pittsburgh and Dallas waited 17 years between Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XXX.) Somehow, Tom Brady remains the quarterback for the Patriots, 13 years after Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb seemed to run out of gas in the fourth quarter. McNabb was 28 years old in Super Bowl XXXIX. Brady, we all know, is now 40 years old. He’s closing the distance on Betty White, if not the sun.

• I’ll preemptively duck (twice) as I write this, but among this country’s four major team sports (excluding MLS soccer), the Super Bowl is the easiest championship to win. If you can ignore the ruined knees and damaged brain cells, of course. The NFL regular season is merely four months, two-thirds the length of Major League Baseball’s. The top two seeds in each conference can win the Super Bowl by winning just three playoff games, and after a week off to prepare for the first.

Baseball’s opening playoff round — a wild-card game, followed by a best-of-five series — is a trap door. If your ace loses Game 1, he may not pitch another inning. In the NBA (as predictable as it’s become), the champion must win 16 games in two months. Same for the winner of hockey’s Stanley Cup, as brutal a sport, in many ways, as football . . . minus the week off between games.

So take heart, NFL fans outside New England. Your team will, in fact, win a Super Bowl. You may just need to wait until Tom Brady is LII years old.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The NFL's Final Four — Destined for Upset City?

Posted By on Tue, Jan 16, 2018 at 12:42 PM

The greatest two-man dynasty in the history of American team sports rolls on. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his quarterback, Tom Brady, will compete in their seventh straight AFC Championship this Sunday in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Only one other NFL team has played in as many as three conference championships over this period (the San Francisco 49ers). Belichick and Brady — say the names like Smith and Wesson — will be accompanied by 52 men dressed in Patriot uniforms, but they really don’t matter. Not a single one of them was in that uniform when Belichick and Brady won their first title after the 2001 season. This is Year 17 of a dynasty unlike any we’ll see again.
Tom Brady New England Patriots - JERRY COLI | DREAMSTIME.COM
  • Jerry Coli | Dreamstime.com
  • Tom Brady New England Patriots

Magic Johnson had what could be called a championship era with the Los Angeles Lakers. He won five championships over a nine-year period, but with two coaches and Hall of Famers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy at his side. During those same 1980s, Wayne Gretzky won four championships with the Edmonton Oilers, but with Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and Grant Fuhr playing supporting roles. Heck, Edmonton won the Stanley Cup two years after Gretzky left for L.A.

In football history, nothing comes close to what Belichick and Brady are doing. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ dominance in the 1970s had a peak that lasted seven years (1974-80) and claimed four Super Bowls. One Dallas Cowboys dynasty (1992-95) began 14 years after another one (1970-78) ended, less time than Belichick and Brady have spent making the rest of the NFL their orchestra.

No former teammate of Brady’s has yet been elected to the Hall of Fame for his achievements in New England. Randy Moss is on his way to Canton, but his years with Minnesota trump those he had on the receiving end of Brady’s passes. This is the Belichick and Brady show. Love ’em or loathe ’em, it should be appreciated for its singularity in the American sports storybook.

• If the Patriots play in their eighth Super Bowl under Belichick and Brady, they’ll do so against a trophy-starved franchise. The Philadelphia Eagles lost the only two Super Bowls they’ve appeared in while the Minnesota Vikings lost all four of theirs. (The Vikings technically have an NFL championship. They won the last title — in 1969 — before the league merged with the AFL, but they lost Super Bowl IV to Kansas City.)

A lot of good football has been played in the Gopher State since the Vikings last appeared in the Super Bowl after the 1976 season. The ’98 Vikings went 15-1 — one of only seven teams to win that many games in a regular season — but lost the NFC Championship in overtime to Atlanta.

Thirteen NFL franchises have never won the Super Bowl and three of them are playing in the league’s semifinals this weekend. And should the Vikings win in Philly, Minnesota will play the first home game in Super Bowl history.

• The last three Super Bowls have featured the top seeds from each conference. If that trend holds, a University of Memphis alum will make every field-goal attempt in Super Bowl LII. Stephen Gostkowski has led the NFL in scoring five times in his 12-year career with the Patriots, a feat matched only by Hall of Famer Don Hutson. The Eagles’ rookie kicker, Jake Elliott, broke all of Gostkowski’s records at the U of M. Elliott connected on 26 of 31 field-goal attempts this season and scored 117 points.

• Only two Super Bowls have been won among the six franchises the NFL has added since 1976. Tampa Bay raised the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the 2002 season and Seattle did so after the 2013 campaign. (The Baltimore Ravens, remember, are actually the relocated Cleveland Browns. Technically speaking, the current Browns’ atrocity is an expansion franchise.) Jacksonville put up 45 points at Pittsburgh — against the NFL’s fifth-ranked defense — last weekend. The Jaguars had the second-ranked defense in the league this season (behind only Minnesota’s). Belichick and Brady’s defense was ranked 29th (out of 32 teams) this season.

I’m calling upset this weekend. Jacksonville vs. Minnesota in Super Bowl LII.


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Monday, December 25, 2017

Frank's Faves 2017 — Part 2

Posted By on Mon, Dec 25, 2017 at 6:00 AM

Continuing my countdown of the 10 most memorable sporting events I attended in 2017.

* 2017 Liberty Bowl: Memphis vs. Iowa State (December 30) — I’ve written this countdown annually for 14 years now, but this is the first time an event yet to happen — Scrooge would love this — has made the top five. Unless the creek rises or planes stop flying south (I’ll be in Vermont for Christmas), I’ll be in the Liberty Bowl press box next Saturday for the biggest bowl game in University of Memphis history, a home-field send-off for the record-shattering duo of Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller. The weather, crowd, and outcome may impact where exactly it finishes on this list (thus the asterisks), but it’s going to be unforgettable.
Memphis erased the Navy curse - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Memphis erased the Navy curse
4*) Tigers 30, Navy 27 (October 14) — On a hot (nearly 90 degrees) fall Saturday at the Liberty Bowl, Memphis removed an outsized monkey from its back by containing — barely — the Midshipmen and their surgical triple-option offense. (When does a triple-option become a double option? When it completes precisely one pass, as did Navy quarterback Zach Abey in this game.) The lead changed hands five times after Navy kicked a field goal following a Tiger miscue on the opening kickoff. Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson threw three touchdown passes (two to Anthony Miller) and freshman kicker Riley Patterson delivered three field goals. Sophomore Austin Hall shifted to safety and picked off two of Abey’s seven passes to help secure the win and a ranking of 25 for the Tigers in the next AP poll.

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3*) Redbirds 3, Sounds 2 (August 16) — Sometimes it’s not so much the game you attend, but who accompanies you. I raised my firstborn daughter, Sofia, at AutoZone Park. She attended her first game at the downtown jewel a few weeks before her first birthday. I have pictures of Sofia romping on the left field bluff in a Redbirds cap and a diaper. I have a treasured photo of her at age 3, timidly posing with her mom and Stubby Clapp near the end of his final season as a player (2002) with the Redbirds. Sofia’s grown up now. She spent two summers (2015 and 2016) as the franchise’s first regular bat girl. This was one of the last games we’d attend while living under the same roof. Stephen Piscotty and Patrick Wisdom homered to support seven shutout innings by Jack Flaherty and the Redbirds — managed by Clapp — reached 40 games over .500 (82-42). When Memphis won the Pacific Coast League championship the next month, Sofia was finding her way as a freshman at Wesleyan University. Where they call themselves the Cardinals.

2*) Tigers 48, UCLA 45 (September 16) — After their first two games were directly impacted by hurricanes (one of them cancelled, then moved back three weeks), the Memphis Tigers took the field at the Liberty Bowl under a sunny sky and temperatures hot enough to make even their opponents from SoCal breathe heavier than they’d like. Kickoff was at 11 a.m. (that’s 9 a.m. Pacific Time), a slot preferable to the schedule-makers at ABC, which televised the game nationally. UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen — an All-America candidate — played well, passing for 463 yards and four touchdowns. But Tiger quarterback Riley Ferguson played better, connecting on six touchdown passes in a game that featured six lead changes. And Anthony Miller. The Tigers’ senior wide receiver became a star beyond the Mid-South on this day with 185 yards and two touchdowns through the air. At season’s end the AP named Miller first-team All-America.

1*) Redbirds 2, Chihuahuas 0 (September 14) — Game 2 of the Pacific Coast League championship series was played under bright sunshine — imagine that! — on a Thursday afternoon at AutoZone Park. And the teams played like something was at stake. Memphis starter Kevin Herget — nowhere near a top-prospects list in the Cardinal system — struck out 15 El Paso hitters in eight innings, but the Redbirds couldn’t crack Chihuahua starter Bryan Rodriguez either. The game went to extra innings scoreless. With two outs in the 11th, following a single by Aledmys Diaz, Redbird outfielder Adolis Garcia — having split the 2017 season between Double-A Springfield and Memphis — launched a home run onto the leftfield bluff (shades of Albert Pujols and the 2000 PCL championship). The win improved the Redbirds to an astounding 13-0 in extra-inning games. Three days later in El Paso, they clinched the franchise’s third PCL title.


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