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Winning Developments

Prospects are brighter for the Redbirds this year.

By Frank Murtaugh

It's tricky being a minor-league baseball fan. Tricky, in that root, root, rooting for the home team isn't as elementary as pulling for wins, like every big-league fan does. The minor leagues are, first and foremost, about development. Winning is considered a bonus. Former Redbirds president Allie Prescott pointed this out to me before the 'Birds played their first game at Tim McCarver Stadium four years ago -- and he did so with a smile on his face. With Triple-A baseball, winning really isn't everything. Period.

The joyous 2000 season is one local baseball fans will never forget, nor should they. Memphis ran away from the Pacific Coast League's Eastern Division, won 22 more games than they lost, then won the league championship in dramatic fashion on an extra-inning home run from St. Louis Cardinal star-to-be Albert Pujols. That team had a pair of key offensive ingredients in Eduardo Perez and Ernie Young, two players with major-league experience who provided power in the middle of the lineup. It had players like Stubby Clapp, Keith McDonald, Lou Lucca, and Mark Little ... players not quite ready for the Show but more than capable on the Triple-A level. (In some circles, these are known as "Four-A" players.) Add to the mix pitchers like Clint Weibl, Luther Hackman, Mark Nussbeck, and Bud Smith and you have the confluence of rising talent and seasoned veterans that results in winning baseball -- a lot of it.

The table was turned dramatically last season when, without Young and Perez, the Redbirds had very little power. (Luis Saturria led the club with 13 home runs.) Smith was called up to St. Louis at mid-season, and Weibl was limited to 12 innings of work due to shoulder trouble. Memphis fell from first to 10th in the PCL in ERA and finished next to last in the league in batting. End result: a last-place finish, 19 games under .500.

The worst aspect of last year's struggles wasn't so much the losing but the fact that, aside from Smith, there appeared to be nary a big-league prospect on the field. In the bushes, losing is accepted in the name of development. While the team may fail on the scoreboard, it wins -- and its fans win -- if rising stars are learning their trade in the process. (The '98 and '99 clubs were mediocre when measured in the standings, but it was some fun watching the likes of J.D. Drew, Placido Polanco, Eli Marrero, and Rick Ankiel.) I still have to be convinced the likes of Saturria, William Ortega, or Ryan Balfe -- all Memphis mainstays last year -- will have any impact on the major-league level. So not only were the 2001 Redbirds losing, their players weren't going anywhere.

Which brings us to the 2002 model. Ivan Cruz and Mike Coolbaugh have assumed the Perez/Young power slots. A pair of Smiths -- Travis and Bud -- joined a healthy Weibl and Jason Jacome to give the club arguably the best starting rotation in the PCL. Even with Bud Smith's recent call-up (to fill the injured Garrett Stephenson's slot in the St. Louis rotation), the Redbirds have some inning-eaters who will help the club avoid long losing streaks. At the plate, Cruz and Coolbaugh have already equaled Saturria's home run total from a year ago, and Mike Frank appears to have the prettiest Redbird swing since Chris Richard was traded two years ago. Injuries to McDonald and Clapp won't help in the runs department, so the newly acquired Warren Morris and the backup backstops (Matt Garrick and Alex Andreopoulos) will need to pick up some big hits.

Will the new faces mean more wins and PCL playoff hopes for Memphis fans? A lot will depend on the fortunes of the parent club. If the Smiths wind up spelling injured Cardinals, the Redbirds' fortunes will suffer. And injuries to Cruz or Coolbaugh would seriously damage the team's run production. But a healthy Frank-Cruz-Coolbaugh trio in the middle of the lineup bodes well and could mean as many as 60 home runs this year.

Prospects? You've got to start with Weibl, the 2000 PCL ERA champ who seems to be on the cusp of getting the big call. Jason Simontacchi has already earned a spot on Tony LaRussa's staff, and So Taguchi -- back in Memphis after being called up to the Cards June 10th to fill in for the injured Jim Edmonds -- is worth measuring (though it's hard to consider a 32-year-old player a prospect). Combine this rising talent with the "Four-A" group in uniform for Memphis and you've got a club with more than a few parallels to the 2000 championship edition. Making it that much easier for local fans to root for wins -- and development.

On a Role

Sometimes, the people behind the scenes make all the difference.

By Ron Martin

I was 8 when my basketball coach passed out everyone's assignments. It was our first game after a month of twice-weekly practices. My excitement turned to disappointment when Coach said, "Ron, sit next to me and keep the scorebook." I would've looked to my dad to intervene on my behalf because I knew that keeping the scorebook was not a good thing if I wanted to see some playing time. But Dad was of no help because he was the coach. So early on I was introduced to one of the most unheralded positions on any team: the role player.

A role player arrives every day for practice just like the stars. He dresses out for each game, takes warm-up, then sits on the bench. He does everything the stars do except play. He never gets interviewed and in most cases is not recognized as he walks down the street.

Meet former role player Brendon Gaughan (pronounced "gone").

Gaughan crossed the country to become a role player for John Thompson's Georgetown University team featuring Allen Iverson. "My job was to work Allen hard in practice," said Gaughan. "I tried to beat him up and get him ready for the game and the NBA."

This week, Gaughan, of Las Vegas, will be at the Memphis Motorsports Park with his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge team trying to win his second consecutive NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race.

"I knew my role at Georgetown," he said. "Coach Thompson made it real clear to me. I didn't get to play a lot but playing in the games wasn't my job. But I sure learned a lot."

Learn he did. Gaughan graduated from Georgetown with a degree in human-resource management and an unwritten degree in life. "I'll never forget what Coach Thompson taught me; I'd be a fool if I did," he said. "I owe everything I am or will be to Coach and to my dad."

Normally, when the first of the year rolls around, race teams have the core of their stable of cars prepared. But when sponsorship comes late, so does preparation. "We had nothing -- zero -- when January rolled around," said Gaughan, adding that a team needs at least seven trucks to be competitive. "Today, we have seven trucks and a win."

Why? Gaughan uses the John Thompson style of coaching, "Shane Wilson is the crew chief, but I'm the Allen Iverson of the team. I do all the interviews, get all the applause, but I'm nothing without the role players like Junebug." Junebug is Robert Strmiska, the rear-tire changer.

"Junebug works as hard as anyone on the team," explained Gaughan. "If he screws up, our trainer punishes him just like anybody else, just like I was at Georgetown. No applause, just hard work."

Gaughan made a trip to the NCAA Tournament and appearances in the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight because he fulfilled his role -- getting Iverson ready. Now Junebug Strmiska has made his first trip to the winner's circle because Brendon Gaughan traveled across the country and met a guy by the name of John Thompson and accepted the position of role player.

Flyers ... The University of Memphis will soon be presented a "hard to turn down" proposal from the Grizzlies to join them in the new arena. Heavy-hitter boosters are being polled as a way of testing the waters.

The Sporting News picked the U of M football team to finish fifth in C-USA, with seven wins. If they're right, Memphis spends Christmas in Hawaii. TSN picked Louisville to win the conference with 12 wins, which could result in a BCS bid, leaving the AXA Liberty Bowl without a team. Remember these are just predictions, but, just in case, I'm sure Steve Ehrhart is dusting off the contract to remind Louisville of its commitment.

Ramblings ... Did Magic Johnson play pick-up with some U of M players and declare Billy Richmond, Earl Barron, and Antonio Burks ready to be big-time players? That's what I'm hearing ... The August trial of Lynn Lang is actually a trial of college sports ... Just asking: How much of the multimillion dollar deal between Coca-Cola and the NCAA will filter down to the athletes?

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