BUY ME SOME PEANUTS AND CRACKER JACK! Peanuts and Cracker Jack! Remember how you felt on the last day of school? Think back to, oh, fourth grade. Remember the final bell and the race for the door? Outside the classroom, the sun seemed brighter, supper tasted better, bedtime was even more peaceful. Time itself seemed to expand as you imagined the adventures ahead and the many, many days before the next roll call. Now, add to that emotional bliss the joy of finding precisely the toy you most desired under the Christmas tree . . . and youll understand how I feel on baseballs Opening Day. Six months ahead, filled with box scores, batting averages, and the leftfield bluff at AutoZone Park. Take your NBA scores, your March Madness, your Winston Cup standings and move em all to the back page. Baseballs here and weve got some questions to answer.
Can we love the Redbirds without Stubby Clapp? Our favorite back-flipping second baseman is now toiling in the Braves system. His 425 games played as a Redbird is a record that may as well be written in granite. Sure, hell be missed, as will catcher Keith McDonald who, after five years in Memphis is now with the (yikes!) Cubs. The cold truth is that these two local favorites are prototypes for the plateau player. Theres a reason Clapp and McDonald spent so much time in Memphis, and such a tenure doesnt do much for their major league hopes. Pitching prospect Jimmy Journell will be fun to watch as he works his way toward a crowded stable of St. Louis Cardinals starters. New names will mean new heroes. Remember, a year ago, none of us knew the name Ivan Cruz. He went on to lead the minor leagues in home runs last season. Heck yeah, we can love a Stubby-less Redbird team.
What will new manager Tom Spencer do for the Redbirds? Known by friends and fans as Sporty (a nickname he was given by none other than Pete Rose), Spencer succeeds another Bluff City icon, Gaylen Pitts (who managed the Redbirds all five years theyve been in Memphis). At first blush, Spencer seems just as likeable as his predecessor, with maybe a little more thirst for the big time. He was open about his desire to manage in the big leagues when he met local media in December. And there was genuine excitement in his voice about the challenge ahead. I miss that lump in my throat in the seventh inning, when my starters running out of gas, said Sporty. Now manning a dugout at AutoZone Park, Spencer knows hes landed in a minor-league gold mine. He wont waste the opportunity.
Do All-Star games mean anything? Come July 16th, they sure mean something in Memphis. When AutoZone Park hosts the Triple-A All-Star game, youll see the best the Pacific Coast Leauge has to offer take on the finest of the International League. Tomorrows big-league stars on the same field for one night in front of a national TV audience. This will be a moment for our hallowed ballpark to shine from Tacoma to Pawtucket. In years past, the game has featured Mike Piazza, Jim Thome, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Pedro Martinez, and Chipper Jones. And Ill promise you one thing: the game will NOT end in a tie.
Is this the year for the Cardinals? The Redbirds parent club has a batting order that will have National League pitchers stocking up on Tylenol. With All-Stars Edgar Renteria, Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols, and Scott Rolen making up the heart of the order, St. Louis will score runs in bunches. As with most teams between Arizona and Yankee Stadium, the question is whether or not their pitching can prevent runs. A healthy Woody Williams behind Matt Morris would make for a solid one-two punch. After those two? The much-traveled Brett Tomko will assume the third spot in the rotation, followed y some combination of Garrett Stephenson, Cal Eldred, and former Redbird Jason Simontacchi. Not the kind of group that calls to mind the 86 Mets, but probably solid enough not to lose games 10-8.
Say what you will about the ailing J.D. Drew (recovering from knee surgery) or the mystery that is Rick Ankiel, the key to this years club may well be closer Jason Isringhausen. If the hard-throwing fireman is healthy after offseason shoulder surgery, hell make up for some of the shortcomings in the Cardinals middle-relief corps. (The Cards have parted ways with Dave Veres, Rick White, and Luther Hackman.) If Izzy misses long stretches of the season Ñ and hes on the disabled list as the campaign opens Ñ all the runs in the world may ot be enough to keep St. Louis on top for those precious final three outs.