It had to be the most rewarding loss in at least two decades of Memphis Tiger football. And it will be talked (and written) about for the next two weeks with language you won’t hear (or see) in many recaps of a defeated team. Justin Fuente’s Tigers did, indeed, fall to UCLA last Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, 42-35. But if you envisioned this Memphis team trading punches with a top-15 program from the Pac 12, you haven’t been to the Liberty Bowl in a long, long time.
The fact that the game was played so late locally, and with such limited TV coverage, gave it a modern word-of-mouth quality. Twitter seemed to red-line with astonished (#gotigersgo) reactions, eyes and minds opening 140 characters at a time. Whether you were packed into a bar with a feed of the game on a flat screen or listening to Jarvis Greer hyperventilate next to Dave Woloshin on the radio broadcast, you experienced the football version of that first Rocky Balboa-Apollo Creed affair. By the fourth quarter, when the Tigers tied things at 35 on an interception return, I honestly expected Greer to scream into his microphone, “Cut me, Mick!”
When’s the last time a Memphis football team benefited from a huge penalty call? The Bruins had a touchdown taken off the board in the fourth quarter on a personal foul penalty. That kind of break doesn’t happen to the football Tigers. Well, that kind of break didn’t happen to the football Tigers. And that’s the catch: There’s a past-tense quality to misery in this program.
The best part of the next two weeks — as the Tigers prepare to host their nemesis from Middle Tennessee — will be how dissatisfied the Memphis players and coaches act. They lost. UCLA may or may not reach college football’s first playoff in January, but the Bruins were good enough to edge the Tigers, and the goal around here is to no longer be “edged.” By anyone. There won’t be 70,000 fans at the Liberty Bowl when the Tigers return to action on September 20th, but every fan there will look at the team in blue differently after the events of September 6th in Pasadena. For the time being, Memphis football fans can be forgiven if they relish a defeat.
• Does winning matter in minor-league baseball?
This question has been debated for years, often over a $7.00 beer and heaping basket of nachos. So let’s end the debate, once and for all. Performance on the field — wins and losses — means squat when it comes to drawing crowds in the minors. Just take a look at this year’s Pacific Coast League playoffs.
Despite winning 79 games (third-most in franchise history), the Memphis Redbirds finished ninth in the 16-team PCL with an attendance average (tickets sold) of 5,693. (Note: AutoZone Park lost five dates this season to inclement weather.) And the Redbirds’ figure is tops among the four teams in the PCL playoffs. Omaha averaged 5,628, Reno 5,270, and Las Vegas finished dead last in the league with an average of 4,640. Then you have the Albuquerque Isotopes, third-worst team in the PCL with a record of 62-80. The Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate averaged 8,066 tickets sold, third-most in the league. That beer must be extra cold in New Mexico.
Need a broader view of attendance, relative to the Redbirds’ on-field success? Check out total attendance for two seasons since the economic collapse of 2008. In 2009, Memphis finished 77-67 and won its second PCL championship. Attendance that season was 474,764. Three years later, the team was dreadful (57-87), but sold 493,706 tickets.
And how does the parent club, the St. Louis Cardinals, feel about things? Pitcher Tyler Lyons won six straight starts for the Redbirds during the team’s playoff push this season. Instead of starting a game for Memphis in the PCL playoffs, Lyons has sat in the Cardinal bullpen — part of the club’s September roster expansion — and pitched a total of one inning this month.
The day after Game 1 of the Redbirds’ series with Omaha last week (a Memphis loss), the Cardinals recalled first-baseman Xavier Scruggs, the team’s steadiest bat over that two-month drive to the postseason. (Scruggs started that night for St. Louis in a win at Milwaukee.) As Omaha was eliminating the Redbirds last Saturday night at AutoZone Park, a total of 46 Memphis home runs — hit by Scruggs and outfielder Randal Grichuk — sat on the Cardinal bench in Milwaukee. If major-league clubs don’t care about winning games in the minors, should you?