Ten things to love about Saturday's Civil Rights Game at AutoZone Park:
1) Back for a second year, the Civil Rights Game is beginning to feel like a national Opening Game, even if but an exhibition. Boston and Oakland may have officially started the 2008 season Tuesday in Tokyo(!), but we can certainly consider the Mets-White Sox tilt at AutoZone Park a lid-lifter here stateside.
2) The national exposure for AutoZone Park -- and Memphis -- is magical, and this has everything to do with the mission of the game itself. Say what you will about the crime and poverty problems Memphis suffers, but in hosting the Civil Rights Game, the city becomes a voice for the entire country. A voice that reminds us that the struggles of the civil rights movement remain pertinent, with lessons still to learn.
3) Regarding that national exposure: there are a LOT of TV sets in New York and Chicago. As wonderful as the inaugural CRG was -- played between St. Louis and Cleveland -- there will be millions more viewers tuning in this Saturday.
4) One of this year's Beacon Awards honorees is Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. Not only is Robinson somehow one of the most underrated legends in the game's history (586 home runs, a Triple Crown, MVP in both leagues), he belongs in the Club of Class along with Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, and Tom Seaver. Robinson was also the first African American manager in the major leagues (Cleveland, 1975). The weekend will be made brighter merely by Robinson's presence.
5) For nine years (1948-56), the Memphis Chicks were an affiliate of Chicago's South Siders. Luis Aparicio was a Memphis infielder before he was helping the "Go-Go Sox" win the 1959 American League pennant on his way to the Hall of Fame. The Chicks won three Southern Association championships during this stretch, including two seasons (1952-53) when they were managed by Hall of Famer Luke Appling.
6) After seven years without professional baseball (following the burning of Russwood Park), the Memphis Blues took the field in 1968 at the fairgrounds ballpark that would become Tim McCarver Stadium. And the Blues' big-league affiliate was the New York Mets. These were glorious days for "the Amazin's," with a world championship in 1969 and a National League pennant in 1973. The Blues were winners, too, earning Texas League titles in 1969 and 1973.
7) Let's all hope for a plate appearance by Chicago designated hitter Jim Thome. According to Memphis baseball historian John Guinozzo, only two players have batted in Memphis exhibitions having already hit 500 home runs: Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. With 507 career long ones, Thome would become the third.
8) Few teams can match the star quality the Mets will bring to Third and Union. Centerfielder Carlos Beltran, shortstop Jose Reyes, and third baseman David Wright are among the finest players at their positions in the majors, and should remain such for years to come.
9) The Mets are managed by an African American (Willie Randolph) and have a Latino general manager (Omar Minaya). The White Sox are managed by a Latino (Ozzie Guillen) and have an African American G.M. (Ken Williams). Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente would be proud.
10) The game will be played merely six days before the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis. Which makes the partnership between the Redbirds and the National Civil Rights Museum as poignant -- on many levels -- as any sporting event might be.