Thirteen days before Christmas in 1980 — I was 11 years old — I received quite the opposite of a Santa Claus delivery. My dad came into my room, grim look on his face. “The Cardinals have traded Ted Simmons, son. I’m sorry.” Had my parents chopped up our tree, one limb at a time, it wouldn’t have been more painful. My favorite baseball team had told my favorite baseball player that his services were no longer required. Worse, my favorite baseball player would play for a team I cared nothing about (the Milwaukee Brewers). The mind of an 11-year-old doesn’t have programming for this kind of loss.
I’ve been thinking of Ted Simmons since July 4th, when we learned Zach Randolph signed a free-agent deal that will transform him from a Memphis Grizzly into a Sacramento King. (I can’t get over the irony of this, Z-Bo departing a city that loves its “kings” to become one himself in California.) It’s long been said that a professional athlete dies two deaths, the first when he is forced to stop playing the game that made him famous. From a fan’s viewpoint, though, you could say an athlete actually dies three deaths, the first when he departs a franchise that has embraced him for as many as eight years (as Memphis did Randolph).
This isn’t to say Zach Randolph is any less our Z-Bo. Not even close. Eight years of memories stack much too high for a change of uniform to erase a relationship. (When Simmons homered at Busch Stadium — for the Brewers — in Game 1 of the 1982 World Series, I couldn’t help but smile. And my beloved Cardinals were crushed that night.) Randolph’s next two years in Sacramento will do no more to tarnish his Memphis era than the years he spent prior to arriving here (largely forgettable seasons in Portland, New York, and L.A.). The Grizzlies have already announced that Randolph’s number 50 will be raised to the rafters at FedExForum, the most permanent love note a community can send a former player.
But there is a mourning period. Those of us “seasoned” fans have experienced versions of this separation, though it’s unlikely any Griz backer would compare Z-Bo’s departure to a previous player’s exit. He’s that special. And it’s the 11-year-old fans who surely hurt the most. I hate the image — and I’ve seen it — of a child shooting hoops in his or her driveway, wearing a number-50 jersey. Tugs at my heartstrings. The jersey should be worn with pride and for the happy memories, to say the least. But it now carries a component of loss. Past tense. Z-bounds gone by.
Zach Randolph started the second half and almost made a miraculous comeback happen.
It could get
worse, of course, for Grizzly fans this month. It appears the franchise is ready to part ways with 35-year-old Tony Allen, the Grindfather himself. Should Allen end up in a Clippers uniform — gasp! — the Memphis “core four” will have been reduced by half. In other words, the core four will be no more. If Randolph became the backbone the Grizzlies franchise desperately needed in 2009, Allen brought soul to a team that had been more buttoned-up than most things Memphis. He brought edge and humor with his All-Defense presence, and a region fell further in love.
The Grizzlies will play on. Few NBA teams can claim as talented a tandem as Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. The newly acquired Tyreke Evans is a kind of offensive threat Allen never was. Should Chandler Parsons regain his health . . . well, it’s possible. Right? The local NBA outfit will be very different next season, but this is no tanking.
And departures can bring new friendships. Almost precisely a year after the Cardinals dealt Simmons to Milwaukee, St. Louis shipped another of my favorite players, Garry Templeton, to San Diego in an exchange of shortstops. You can now have your picture taken next to Ozzie Smith’s statue in St. Louis.