Monday, March 18, 2019

Bridge ’Birds

Posted By on Mon, Mar 18, 2019 at 11:22 AM

The 2019 St. Louis Cardinals are about to take flight for what might be called a bridge season for the franchise. The tag will be especially apt when the club visits AutoZone Park to play the Memphis Redbirds in an exhibition game next Monday. After all, they play their home games 280 miles north, on the other side of the Mississippi River.

The Redbirds' parent franchise — winners of 11 World Series, the most a National League team can claim — still suits up veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright and Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina. When the former Memphis players start their first game this year, it will be the 243rd of their careers, the most by a battery in Cardinal history. But if you’re curious about this team’s performance ceiling, the impact variable is the team’s young talent. Can pitcher Jack Flaherty (23) enter Cy Young Award discussions? Can Harrison Bader (24) be an offensive sparkplug to match his defensive impact in center field? What about Alex Reyes (24), perennially one of the game’s top pitching prospects, but coming off two years lost to injury?
  • Taka Yanagimoto/St. Louis Cardinals
  • Paul Goldschmidt

The star of the show — at least for this season — is likely to be a player who falls right between the two “bridge” extremes of aging veterans and rising stars: 31-year-old first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Acquired in a December trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Goldschmidt brings a middle-order threat the Cardinals have lacked, really, since Albert Pujols departed after the 2011 championship season. Goldschmidt won four Silver Slugger awards with Arizona, slamming more than 30 home runs four times and driving in at least 110 runs three. His career slugging percentage (.532) matches the top single-season figure Matt Holliday posted in his seven-year tenure with St. Louis. Goldschmidt also won three Gold Gloves for the Diamondbacks, not an incidental factor for a team that led all of baseball in errors in 2018.

Baseball has never been more about pitching. (The sport produced more strikeouts than hits in 2018.) Wainwright and Flaherty will be joined in the Cardinal rotation by Miles Mikolas (an 18-game winner last season), Michael Wacha (if healthy), and a fifth member from a group that includes Reyes (starting the season in the bullpen), Dakota Hudson (the 2018 Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year for Memphis), John Gant, and former ace Carlos Martinez (currently nursing shoulder soreness). Jordan Hicks — he of the 103 mph fastball — will be joined in the bullpen by free agent acquisition Andrew Miller, just three years ago MVP of the ALCS with Cleveland.

If you’re looking for the metaphorical bridge between these Cardinals and Memphis, gaze into the dugout when the Cardinals are in the field. The last two men to manage here in Memphis — Mike Shildt and Stubby Clapp — are now the manager and first-base coach, respectively, for the parent club. Shildt has climbed the Cardinals’ development ladder as methodically as any player, and won championships at the Rookie League and Double-A levels. Clapp merely won two Pacific Coast League titles (and was twice named PCL Manager of the Year) in his two seasons in Memphis. These two men were never stars as players, but they each understand the game inherently (in part because it challenged them both). Furthermore, they have been embraced by their players, respected for treating every man in the clubhouse like a valuable asset. (A common question from Shildt when greeting someone: “What did you learn today?”)

The most important bridge for the Cardinal franchise is the one that leads back to postseason play. You have to go back to a time when the internet was merely a rumored military tool (1988-95) to find the club’s last four-year playoff drought. (Flaherty was born in October 1995.) This won’t be an easy bridge to cross for St. Louis, as Milwaukee aims to defend its NL Central title with reigning MVP Christian Yelich. The Chicago Cubs have played October baseball four years in a row, and the Cincinnati Reds intend to be in the mix with former Dodger star Yasiel Puig now hitting behind Joey Votto.

There’s a numerical oddity when you look back on more than 120 years of Cardinals history. The franchise has reached a World Series in a year that ends with every digit except 9. For this to change in 2019, a proud franchise must find strength from foundation to superstructure.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Hockey and the Hoop Hall

Posted By on Mon, Feb 18, 2019 at 9:09 AM

I've come to believe the essence of team sports — its purest form at the highest level you can find it — can be experienced on Division 3 college campuses. No athletic scholarships in D-3. No TV contracts and very few sponsors. Athletes with very little chance of making a career out of their game of choice. And free admission to many events for the few hundred fans who might attend a “big” football game.
Hockey in its purest form: Wesleyan vs. Trinity
  • Hockey in its purest form: Wesleyan vs. Trinity

I spent much of last week in Connecticut, on the campus of Wesleyan University, where my daughter, Sofia, is studying (and competing for the Ultimate Frisbee club, Vicious Circles). On Friday night, Sofia forfeited the latest screening in the campus film series (Oscar-nominated animated shorts) for a hockey game at the Freeman Athletic Center. The 12th-ranked Cardinals hosted 11th-ranked Trinity College in a clash between the top two teams in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC). I’ve been to my share of hockey games, and this was the best I’ve ever attended.

Trinity scored first, but the Cardinals rallied with three unanswered goals and took a 3-2 lead into the third period. The Bantams scored two goals early in the third, but Wesleyan rallied with two of their own for a 5-4 lead that brought most of the crowd — all 300 of us — to our feet. Alas, Trinity scored the game’s final two goals, the game-winner with just 1:33 left to play. Eleven goals and four lead changes. If such a game occurred in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it would be replayed ad nauseum on the NHL Network. Be glad you got to read about it here.

There was no advertising on the ice or boards. Sofia purchased a bag of candy for $2.50. We sat near center ice, with plenty of elbow room between us and the Trinity cheering section. (The school is in nearby Hartford. This was a D-3 hockey version of Memphis-Ole Miss.) Wesleyan’s top scorer, Walker Harris, scored his team’s last goal. And Harris will eat in the same dining hall Sofia does, unrecognized by most students who aren’t his teammates. A student who happens to be an athlete, and a very good one. Imagine that.

• I hand-delivered a copy of the December issue of Memphis magazine to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. The issue includes my case for Penny Hardaway’s induction. On the day I delivered the magazines, the Hall announced its finalists for the 2019 class, and Hardaway’s name is not on the list. The man Orlando traded to Golden State for Hardaway during the 1993 NBA draft (Chris Webber) did make the cut. Number of first-team All-NBA selections: Hardaway 2, Webber 1.

Should you have any doubts about Hardaway’s credentials for enshrinement, consider the name of a 2018 inductee: Dino Radja. Debate over.

• The Hoop Hall presents honorees in a dynamic, but inefficient, manner. A large, black-and-white, photo of each Hall of Famer is backlit and stares down from the domed roof of the facility. But there is little order to where you might find one Hall of Famer or another. They are not grouped by induction year. They're not alphabetical. And they don't correspond to the information panel that rings the platform below where visitors can read about each basketball legend (by induction year). Furthermore, the photos need to be more carefully chosen, with players as they appeared in the prime of their careers. Larry Bird, for instance, doesn't have a mustache in his Hall of Fame portrait, taken near the end of his days with the Celtics. At the very least, the induction year needs to be added to the Hall of Famer's name, so a visitor can cross-reference the information panel below.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Futures Trading

Posted By on Mon, Feb 11, 2019 at 9:29 AM

When my daughters were younger, I had some uncomfortable conversations with them, trying to explain why one of their favorite players was traded by one of their favorite teams. It's the kind of transaction we adults come to expect, accept, even tolerate. But for kids, those "future fans" who are actually a team's lifeblood for longterm success? It can be a hard conversation.

  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Marc Gasol
"David Freese was MVP in the World Series. Just two years ago. Why would the Cardinals trade him?" The question — from my then 14-year-old — was perfectly reasonable. My attempt at an answer: "Well, Sofia, St. Louis feels like Matt Carpenter is a better hitter, a better long-term fit in the lineup, and fits better at third base than second base." She looked at me, expressionless. Shook her head and left the room. (She's a David Freese fan to this day.)

Now, find a Memphis Grizzlies fan younger than 15. And I challenge you to explain last week's trade-deadline deals, most significantly the one that sent franchise icon Marc Gasol to the Toronto Raptors. "Is Jonas Valanciunas better than Marc Gasol?" No. "Do the Grizzlies have a better fit at center, long-term?" No. "Did Gasol not like playing in Memphis?" No.

Trades have become budget deals and little more. They've become stock plays for future returns, rarely immediate. (The last significant midseason trade that helped a team win a championship at season's end? Houston's acquisition of Clyde Drexler on Valentine's Day in 1995.) They are an accountant's fantasy league, the addition of not-yet-spent dollars here, the subtraction of contracted dollars there.

I don't mean to pick on Bobby Parks, ESPN's "front office insider," but this was an actual tweet he posted shortly after one of the Grizzlies' other trades last week: "Avery Bradley has a $12M cap hit this season and $12.96M for 2019-20. Bradley has $2M guaranteed for next season. Memphis has until July 3 to guarantee his full salary. The Grizzlies will create a $7.6M trade exception." Explain that to your 12-year-old Grizzlies fan, the one wiping tears away after the Gasol trade, hoping that Avery Bradley is somehow a step in the right direction toward more happy nights at FedExForum. "What's a $7.6M trade exception?"

Gasol and the Grizzlies needed to part ways, I suppose. Big Spain is 34 years old and would love to be part of a championship team, something the Grizzlies won't be able to provide in the next three or four years. And maybe that's your explanation for a young fan: Even our sports heroes are mortal. Father Time remains undefeated. If you love someone, let him go. Something like that.

I'm choosing to leave the bean-counting forecasts to Parks and his ilk. Maybe the numbers — some added, some subtracted — will one day yield a sharpshooting wing who can complement the rising star Memphis has in Jaren Jackson Jr. Maybe the empty pieces acquired last week — What is a Tyler Dorsey? — will be flipped into meaningful salaries for legitimate rotation players, the kind of players who sell jerseys in the FedExForum team store. You know, like Marc Gasol. But for now, any attempt at interpreting what shook down last week between the Grizzlies and their trade partners is  a fool's errand. If you can't explain it to a pack of middle-school Griz fans, perhaps it needs no explaining.

• With seven more points, senior guard Jeremiah Martin will pass Penny Hardaway for 17th on the Memphis Tigers' career scoring chart. (Let's remember the current Tiger coach only played two seasons.) Perhaps more significantly, with 15 more assists, Martin will become only the fifth Tiger to rank in the program's top-20 for scoring and top-10 for assists. He'll join Alvin Wright, Andre Turner, Elliot Perry, and Joe Jackson.

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Monday, January 28, 2019

Mike & Marc

Posted By on Mon, Jan 28, 2019 at 9:18 AM

I grew up devoted to some special Dallas Maverick basketball teams. New to the NBA (the franchise began play in 1980), the Mavs drafted my college hero (Tennessee's Dale Ellis) in 1983 and I adopted the team from afar (I was living in New England at the time). I quickly fell in love with a trio of players — Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, and Derek Harper — that steered a run of five straight playoff appearances, including a trip to the Western Conference finals in 1988. (Does this sound familiar yet?)

The problem for my Mavericks was that they peaked at the same time a dominant team from California commanded the Western Conference. (Surely this rings familiar now.) After losing to the mighty Lakers one game shy of the 1988 NBA Finals, the team cracked. Aguirre was traded to Detroit the next season (where he'd win a pair of championships with the Pistons). Blackman was traded to New York in 1992 after a 22-win season. Harper was traded (also to the Knicks) in 1994 and helped New York win the Eastern Conference title. The "cracking" left a considerable emotional gap for at least one basketball fan for several winters to come.
The Grizzlies' dynamic duo. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • The Grizzlies' dynamic duo.

It appears less and less likely that Mike Conley and Marc Gasol will complete their NBA careers in Grizzly uniforms. With his team spiraling toward the bottom of the Western Conference — don't get too close to the Suns — team owner Robert Pera hinted earlier this month that the two franchise icons could be included in trade discussions. When asked about his name being used as trade bait, Conley was quoted as saying, "Memphis is all I know." Gasol suggested that his relationship with the Grizzlies franchise might change, but not his connection to Memphis, Tennessee. By that of course, Gasol means his connection to us, Memphians. It's a deeper sentiment than most modern professional athletes are capable of uttering. And it makes the thought of Gasol (and/or Conley) in another uniform even harder to stomach.

But the Grizzlies, as the roster is currently shaped, are moving further from contention for an NBA title and not closer. It's not a trajectory conducive to retaining highly paid stars, never mind the duo's decade of tenure in Beale Street Blue or the seven playoff trips they made possible. And this has been the hardest part of the reality math for me: Conley and Gasol will leave Memphis (the franchise) with a whimper, and not the celebratory flourish more reflective of their impact on Memphis (the city).

For me, Mike Conley will always be "the masked man," a point guard who played the majority of his minutes in the 2015 playoffs (and against the mighty Warriors no less) with a broken face. For me, the image of Marc Gasol I carry is Big Spain taking the opening tip at the 2015 All-Star Game. A Memphis player starting the All-Star Game. Save for a championship or perhaps an MVP, I'm not sure a moment could more legitimize Memphis as an NBA city than that tip-off in New York's Madison Square Garden.

Both players have been slowed in recent years by significant injuries. Both have nights now when they appear to have lost a step (as athletes do in their 30s). But neither Conley nor Gasol has ever griped, at least not about their plight as players. Their steady comportment, in good seasons and bad, has made them, well, Memphis AF. It's among the reasons no other Grizzly will ever wear number 11 or number 33. Conley and Gasol are destined, you have to believe, for the bronze treatment someday. Only if there's enough room in the FedExForum plaza next to the Zach Randolph and Tony Allen statues.

Our favorite teams hurt us as much as they help us. Only one group of players finishes a season with a parade. And the players we cheer — at least as long as they remain human — move on to new life stages. But joy, while never bottled, has no expiration date, not really. And those who deliver a certain brand of joy (a sweep of the San Antonio Spurs comes to mind) outlast physical presence. Here's hoping Conley and Gasol — no, Mike and Marc — find their paths to happier life stages than the Grizzlies' current record suggests. They'll remember Memphis, perhaps with the same profound appreciation we'll remember them.

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Monday, January 14, 2019

Isaac Bruce: Hall of Famer

Posted By on Mon, Jan 14, 2019 at 8:53 AM

Isaac Bruce was born at the perfect time. The first University of Memphis football player to top 1,000 receiving yards in a season (in 1993), Bruce entered the NFL as the league was shifting from a rather balanced run-pass enterprise to one in which the passing game is almost everything. Trouble is, some other very good pass-catchers happened to be born around the same time.

On February 2nd in Atlanta (the day before the Super Bowl), the Pro Football Hall of Fame will announce its newest class of inductees. Bruce is among the 15 modern-era finalists and hopes to become the first U of M alum to receive a bust at the sport’s cathedral of history in Canton, Ohio. While Bruce’s numbers — starting with 15,208 career receiving yards — were Hall-worthy the day he retired (after the 2009 season), Bruce missed out in his first four years of eligibility, the last two as a finalist. (A maximum of five modern-era candidates are enshrined each year.) I’m convinced this is Bruce’s year.
Isaac Bruce - U OF M ATHLETICS
  • U of M Athletics
  • Isaac Bruce

The challenge for Bruce has been catching (pardon the pun) appropriate attention among receivers who put up similar numbers and during the same time Bruce was setting records for the St. Louis Rams and their “Greatest Show on Turf.” Upon his retirement, Bruce was second only to the incomparable Jerry Rice (22,895 yards) among receivers on the NFL’s career yardage chart. But as he waited the required five years to be placed on the Hall of Fame ballot, Terrell Owens and Randy Moss moved ahead of Bruce. Meanwhile, the 1,000-catch club grew from two in 2000 (Rice and Cris Carter) to its current 14 members (Bruce is 13th alltime with 1,024 receptions).

There developed a logjam of eligible Hall of Fame-worthy receivers, one that’s only now finally starting to clear with the inductions of Tim Brown (2015), Marvin Harrison (2016), Moss (2018), and Owens (2018) since Bruce became eligible. Among this year’s finalists, the Fort Lauderdale native is the only wide receiver. (Tight end Tony Gonzalez is eligible for the first time and is a lock for one of the five slots.)

Bruce was a significant part of one of football’s most historic offenses, one that has already sent running back Marshall Faulk (2011), tackle Orlando Pace (2016), and quarterback Kurt Warner (2017) to the Hall of Fame. Even with Faulk and the great Torry Holt taking carries and catches away from Bruce, he led the 1999 Rams — winners of Super Bowl XXXIV — in receiving yardage (1,165 yards) and scored 12 touchdowns. Bruce’s 73-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter proved to be the trophy-clinching score against Tennessee in that Super Bowl. Warner was named MVP, but the honor could have easily gone to Bruce (six catches for 162 yards).

Along with Gonzalez, a pair of defensive backs — Champ Bailey and Ed Reed — are likely to be elected in their first year of eligibility. This would leave two slots open for Bruce and the other 11 modern-era finalists. Tony Boselli? Steve Atwater? Kevin Mawae? John Lynch? Edgerrin James? All good players, all worthy of the case that will be made for them in the selection room. But more worthy of induction than Isaac Bruce? Hell no.

Bruce is one of just six players to have his jersey (#83) retired by the University of Memphis. He visits the Bluff City regularly and, with the Rams having returned to Los Angeles, remains an icon in our sister city of St. Louis. In these parts, we've long known Isaac Bruce is a Hall of Famer. It will be nice when the Pro Football Hall of Fame officially recognizes such. Let’s hope it’s February 2nd.

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Monday, December 24, 2018

Frank's Faves (Part 2)

Posted By on Mon, Dec 24, 2018 at 8:00 AM

The five most memorable sporting events I attended in 2018:

5) Redbirds 4, Oklahoma City 3 (September 9) — There are no analytics that measure The Stubby Touch. But it was on full display in Game 4 of the Pacific Coast League semifinal series between the Redbirds and Oklahoma City Dodgers. Leading the series two games to one, with a chance to advance to a second straight championship series, the Redbirds fell behind, 3-1, in the top of the 10th inning (in a game scheduled for seven innings as part of a potential doubleheader). With two outs and two strikes, Alex Mejia drilled a line drive single just over the glove of the Dodger second baseman to drive in the tying run. An intentional walk to Max Schrock ensued and forced Memphis manager Stubby Clapp to send his pitcher to the plate, having exhausted his supply of bench players. Giovanny Gallegos clubbed a ball into the left-centerfield gap for the series clincher. It was his second at-bat in seven professional seasons. The Stubby Touch.
St. Jude Marathon
  • St. Jude Marathon

4) Tigers 52, Houston 31 (November 23) — Teams that start league play 1-3 are not supposed to play for a conference championship. But thanks to help from other middling teams in the American Athletic Conference’s West Division, the Tigers found themselves playing favored Houston for a chance to face undefeated UCF in the AAC title game. The Tigers’ incomparable running-back duo of Darrell Henderson (178 yards, two touchdowns) and Patrick Taylor (128 yards, two touchdowns) were too much for the Cougars. Three of the tandem’s four scores came in the fourth quarter after Houston had tied the game at 31. Oh, and Tony Pollard was there with 116 receiving yards, 83 on the ground, and a 37-yard kickoff return. Stars were shining this Friday afternoon at the Liberty Bowl, and Memphis indeed clinched a second straight division crown.

3) Tigers 76, Tennessee Tech 61 (November 6) — I’ve sat courtside at Memphis Tiger basketball games for the better part of two decades. I’ve been able to read tattoos on the likes of Derrick Rose and Will Barton, hear the screams of John Calipari and the cheers (alas, too infrequent) of Donna Smith. But on this night, I confess to staring more than a sportswriter should during game action. For there on the Tiger sideline — finally, after making us wait more than seven months! — was coach Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. The announced crowd (15,231) made it feel like a major conference clash in late February, and not merely Tennessee Tech on the other bench, the Tiger football season still going strong. Senior forward Kyvon Davenport scored 30 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to help Memphis win Penny’s first game as a college coach. But the star of this show was wearing a coat and tie, a new era dawning only a few feet from where I sat.

2) Redbirds 5, Fresno 0 (September 15) — Randy Arozarena drilled a three-run homer in the first inning and a two-run bomb in the eighth. Jake Woodford pitched seven shutout innings. And the Memphis Redbirds clinched their second straight PCL title (and first at AutoZone Park since 2000). Despite suiting up 66 players over the course of the season and sending only two position players — Wilfredo Tovar and Tommy Edman — to the field with 2017 championship credentials, Memphis ended another season with champagne showers. Having won Game 3 with the first squeeze play of their season (Mejia drove in Edman), the Redbirds made the celebration seem almost formulaic.

1) St. Jude Marathon (December 1) — If you don’t get a lump in your throat at the sight of thousands of runners on Riverside Drive — all for the kids at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital — your throat isn’t designed properly. My wife, Sharon, ran this year’s marathon, her first (at age 50). Attending a marathon as a spectator is somewhat similar to a golf tournament except the athletes are, you know, running. I caught a glimpse of Sharon (she claims she saw me) on Front Street, early in the race. Then I did my own jogging, first to Riverside (around mile 7), then to Carolina Avenue. From there, I drove to Midtown, where I saw her closing in on mile 20 on North Parkway. All the while, other spectators ringing bells, flashing signs of support, and calling these runners what they are: heroes. It’s the single greatest sports day in Memphis, Tennessee, and may not need the “sports” qualifier.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Frank's Faves (Part 1)

Posted By on Mon, Dec 17, 2018 at 9:32 AM

This week (and next), a countdown of the 10 most memorable sporting events I attended in 2018.

10) Tigers 94, UAB 76 (December 8th) — A banner hangs from the FedExForum rafters during Tiger games that honors Gene Bartow, the coach who led Memphis State to the 1973 Final Four. Bartow was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009 as much for his role in founding and building the UAB program as for his success in the Bluff City. Which makes games between these two programs more poignant than most, especially considering most current players were born after Bartow coached his last game in Birmingham. The Tigers took control early in this Saturday matinee, hitting seven three pointers over the game’s first 12 minutes. Freshman guard Tyler Harris led the way with 24 points to help provide Penny Hardaway his first winning streak as a college coach. Coach Bartow would have relished the cross-generational significance.

9) Grizzlies 123, Lakers 114 (January 15th) — The Grizzlies’ Martin Luther King Day game is one of the top-two annual sporting events in the Mid-South. (You’ll find the other later in this countdown.) This year’s contest, of course, had some extra weight, coming only a few weeks before Memphis commemorated the life of Dr. King, slain a half-century earlier on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, today the National Civil Rights Museum. Among the pregame honorees as a Sports Legacy Award recipient was Penny Hardaway, the hometown hero who would make his own significant news two months later. The Griz were down a star, Mike Conley sidelined by injury. But this was the Lakers, post-Kobe and pre-LeBron. Eight Memphis players scored at least 10 points, led by rookie Dillon Brooks with 19. Best of all, my firstborn daughter was in town between college semesters, so the matinee was a family affair. Basketball matters in Memphis. Always will.
Darrell Henderson, All-American - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Darrell Henderson, All-American

8) Tennessee 102, Tigers 92 (December 15th) — Forget the outcome. A crowd of 18,528 stuffed FedExForum for this nationally televised game between cross-state rivals renewing a series that had fallen dormant since their last meeting in 2013. The third-ranked Vols (fresh off an upset of top-ranked Gonzaga) made their first five shots from the field to take a 15-5 lead just four minutes into the game. For the remaining 36 minutes, the two teams played even basketball: 87-87. Tiger senior Kyvon Davenport scored 26 of his 31 points after halftime in the kind of performance that takes ownership of a season. Penny Hardaway suffered his first home loss as Memphis coach but spoke for an entire region after the game: "We're going to higher places, and we'll be there sooner than later."

7) Redbirds 6, Iowa 3 (July 16th) — When Stubby Clapp is managing in the major leagues, this is a game I’ll remember. On a hot and sticky Monday night, the Redbirds’ bats looked cold and sickly for seven innings. Even with Luke Weaver on the mound (after a recent demotion from St. Louis to fine-tune his arsenal), Memphis trailed the lowly I-Cubs, 3-1, entering the bottom of the ninth. The Redbirds proceeded to score five times, with big hits from Edmundo Sosa (a reserve infielder playing his 17th game at the Triple-A level) and Alex Mejia (off the bench). The Redbirds simply didn’t quit, and did not in two years on Clapp’s watch. They had no business winning this game, and it meant little in the big picture (the victory gave Memphis a 14-game lead in its division of the Pacific Coast League). But professional athletes are paid to perform, to compete until the final horn or final out.

6) Tigers 59, Georgia State 22 (September 14th) — The only reason this game isn’t higher on my countdown is the soft opponent. Manhandling Georgia State doesn’t lead national game coverage. But Darrell Henderson could only outrun the next team on the U of M schedule, and he did so to the tune of 233 yards on 14 carries in the Tigers’ second win of the season. The junior All-America scored on a 54-yard run in the first quarter and a 61-yarder early in the fourth on his way — 10 games later — to setting a new single-season touchdown record for Memphis (25). I got to see what voters for the Doak Walker Award did not.

Check back next week for my top five.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Gameday Gratitude

Posted By on Mon, Nov 19, 2018 at 9:12 AM

I like to give thanks this time of year for the little (and big) treasures from the local sports scene that have enriched life in Memphis.

• I'm grateful for two years of Stubby Clapp-led baseball teams at AutoZone Park. The Memphis Redbirds' 2017 championship club — 13-0 in extra-inning games — felt over the top at times. The winning came so steadily, so "easily." Then 2018 happened and the Redbirds did it again. More than 60 players but one hugely popular manager with a clubhouse touch apparently borrowed from Casey Stengel. The back-to-back Pacific Coast League championships will forever be attached to the height-restricted back-to-back PCL Manager of the Year. Clapp is moving on to St. Louis, where he'll coach first base for the Cardinals. He managed to transform Memphis baseball both as a player and a manager, a total of three championships left behind in the record book.
Jaren Jackson Jr. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jaren Jackson Jr.

• I'm grateful for Jaren Jackson Jr. The day will come — I know it's hard to stomach — when the remaining members of the Memphis Grizzlies' Fab Four (Mike Conley and Marc Gasol) are no longer sprinting the floor at FedExForum. A franchise can fall into a post-superstar hangover in which roster comings-and-goings matter little to a fan base. (See the post-Kevin Garnett years in Minnesota.) "Triple J" (or "Trey J"?) may be the bridge to the next era for our NBA outfit. I've seen nothing not to like about the 19-year-old forward over the first month of his pro career. Here's hoping we get to see a playoff run (or two) with Conley, Gasol, and Jackson.

• I'm grateful for Darrell Henderson on first down. And second and third. The numbers for the Memphis Tigers' junior tailback are silly: 1,521 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns with at least two games left to play. There will never be another DeAngelo Williams, but let it be said Henderson has been a nice reminder.

• I'm grateful for Coach Penny Hardaway. It's been a unique view. I'm of Hardaway's generation (two years older), so I've witnessed his rise to greatness as a player, his dormant years of early retirement, and now this year's resurrection as a city's cultural icon, all the while passing through my own life stages, however distant they are from the limelight. So I feel young whenever Hardaway is described as a new or rookie coach and I feel "seasoned" when I remember he's older today than Larry Finch was when Finch coached his final Tiger game. Most of all, I'm grateful to again be on a ride driven by Penny Hardaway. He's yet to disappoint.

• I'm grateful for plans to erect a statue of the great Larry Finch. This was overdue, but many of life's happiest developments are just so. Memphis recently endured a period of conflict over statues that divided segments of the community. We will soon be able to visit a statue (and park!) that I'm convinced will unify Memphians. For such a bronze idol we should all be grateful.

• I'm grateful to be married to an exceptional athlete. My beloved wife, Sharon, will run her first marathon on December 1st, not quite four months after her 50th birthday. She has become a local running star, whether she'll admit it or not. (She won the 2018 Race for the Cure women's division, all age groups.) I've witnessed her devotion to the cause, her daily training (well beyond my reach), and the joy she's taken through the agony of a last mile. You spend your working life admiring athletes from different circles, then find yourself cheering loudest for the person across the dinner table.

• As always, I'm grateful for Flyer readers. I hear from you year-round, appreciate your perspectives, counterpoints, and especially your passion for Memphis sports. The title of this column originated from my own devotion to fandom, to being part of the crowd that makes a sporting event — large or small — worthwhile. Thanks for keeping it alive these 17 years.

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Monday, November 12, 2018

Goose Bumps Galore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, November 5, 2018

Q & A: Stubby Clapp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, October 29, 2018

Memphis Tigers Football: Lessons Learned (So Far)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, October 22, 2018

National Baseball Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 15, 2018

2018-19 Memphis Grizzlies: 5 Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, September 24, 2018

The USFL: When Pro Football Was Fun

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

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

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

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

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

"The Showboats were a model USFL franchise."

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

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

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

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

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Monday, September 17, 2018

Star Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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