Certain times of the year are peak season for football fans. Others rev the engine for basketball junkies or baseball enthusiasts. This week in Memphis, Tennessee, it’s a special week for all three types. If you dress yourself in homage to your favorite local team — Grizzlies? Redbirds? Tigers? — open your closet wide. It’s gonna be a fun week.
• The Redbirds open the home portion of their 20th season Tuesday night at AutoZone Park. This year’s club features a trio of prospects the 2016 team couldn’t claim. Catcher Carson Kelly (the Cardinals’ 4th-ranked prospect, according to Baseball America) and centerfielder Harrison Bader (7th) will be in the lineup every day. Pitcher Luke Weaver (2nd) will lead the Memphis rotation once he returns from the disabled list (back tightness).
Better yet, franchise icon Stubby Clapp is back in the Redbirds’ dugout, now conducting things as manager. “We’ll play good Cardinal baseball,” said Clapp before his team’s exhibition game with the St. Louis Cardinals on March 30th. “Run the bases hard, good solid defense, fundamentals, pitch to contact, and challenge the other team. Those are the principles. Now it’s a matter of us executing.”
As far as returning to the franchise where he played four years — where he got his call to the big leagues in 2001 — Clapp doesn’t hold back. “There are a lof of overwhelming feelings,” he says. “Sitting at Chief’s desk. I can’t even refer to it as mine; that’s Chief’s desk. [Clapp’s manager in Memphis, Gaylen Pitts, was affectionately called Chief.] In the end, though, it’s not about me coming home. It’s about getting these guys ready for the big leagues.”
The Redbirds will enter play Tuesday with a winning record, have taken three of their first four games at New Orleans. (They play Monday night in NOLA.)
• The day after the Redbirds open their home schedule, the Memphis Grizzlies will close their 16th regular season at FedExForum with a game against the Dallas Mavericks. And for the seventh year in row, the regular-season finale will serve as mere prelude to a Griz playoff run. Only two other NBA franchises can claim such a current streak. One is the team Memphis will face in the first round, the San Antonio Spurs. (The NBA would not conduct playoffs without the Spurs.) The other is the Atlanta Hawks. Wednesday’s game may be meaningless in the standings, but what an opportunity to salute, in particular, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Tony Allen, and Zach Randolph. You can’t win an NBA title without making the playoffs. Somehow, the Grizzlies’ “core four” have made the postseason feel routine in these parts.
• Then the Memphis Tiger football team plays its annual spring game — Friday Night Stripes — to end the workweek. This year’s event should bring a healthy dose of optimism, the Tigers coming off a third consecutive bowl season. (Tiger football would seem to occupy the other end of the community-mood spectrum from Tiger basketball these days.) Not since quarterback Danny Wimprine and tailback DeAngelo Williams returned for the 2004 season has a Tiger team welcomed back the kind of tandem star power it has in senior quarterback Riley Ferguson (3,698 passing yards and 32 touchdowns in 2016) and senior wideout Anthony Miller (95 receptions for 1,434 yards and 14 touchdowns). Coach Mike Norvell has a season behind him and knows the community landscape in ways he didn’t a year ago. The U of M is another year closer, astonishingly, to being “a football school.”
Last week was a downer, with the news the Racquet Club of Memphis is losing its annual tournament, a staple on the local sports calendar since 1977. But there’s so much left to cheer in this town. Three events over four nights this week — baseball, basketball, and football — will remind us the games do, in fact matter. Dress up, Memphis. Your teams are here to play.