Those of us who watch (and write about) sports more than regularly do so with the hope of, now and then, witnessing something that has not been seen before. Better, something that may never be seen again. As the stories are written and shared about the 2017 Pacific Coast League champion Memphis Redbirds, various components will take hold and become the team’s legacy. Among them:
*Stubby Clapp’s return to the town and ballpark that embraced him 15 years earlier as a player (and champion) and earning PCL Manager of the Year.
*The most regular-season wins (91) by a PCL team in 11 years.
*27 consecutive series either won or split.
*Sending more than 20 players to the parent St. Louis Cardinals, including their top two starting pitchers (Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty), but never slowing.
*Facing elimination in two games at Colorado Springs in a semifinal series and winning them both despite allowing a combined 18 runs (they scored a combined 24).
All these achievements are memorable, but if I live to be 102, the tale of the 2017 Memphis Redbirds I’ll tell will be of their record in extra innings: 13-0.
Read that again: 13-0. The odds of such a record — when extra innings are generally a coin flip — are beyond calculation. The Redbirds won all six of their extra-inning games on the road. Home teams have an advantage, of course, in batting last. Didn’t matter for these battling ’Birds.
For some perspective on the Redbirds’ unblemished mark in the tightest of baseball games, consider that no major-league team has gone undefeated in extra-innings dating back to at least 2000. And the only three teams that finished a season with just one extra-inning loss did not win as many as 10 games in extras. (The 2001 San Diego Padres and 2002 San Francisco Giants went 8-1, while the 2006 Toronto Blue Jays went 7-1.) This century’s king of extra-innings is actually the 2012 Baltimore Orioles, a team that went 16-2 after the ninth inning. (Those O’s won 93 games and the AL wild-card contest before losing a division series to the New York Yankees.)
Adolis Garcia played twice as many games for Double-A Springfield this season (84) than he did for Memphis (40). He hit a respectable 15 home runs combined (in 445 at bats). But playoff hero? There was Garcia last Thursday afternoon at AutoZone Park, being drenched in Gatorade at home plate, having delivered a two-out, two-run, walk-off home run and the Redbirds’ final extra-inning victory of the season.
Sixty-two players — more than twice the number of the active-roster limit — suited up for the 2017 Redbirds. There were key contributors nowhere near El Paso when the team sprayed champagne Sunday night in Texas. Catcher Carson Kelly, outfielder Harrison Bader, and pitchers Weaver, Flaherty, and Ryan Sherriff are now with the Cardinals as the parent club clings to its own playoff hopes. It simply didn’t matter. Clapp’s reinforcements — notably Matt Pearce, the winning pitcher in the clincher — rose to the considerable occasion.
The Redbirds didn’t clinch the franchise’s third championship in extra innings, but the tying runs were on base for El Paso in the ninth inning. Mathematicians and odds makers will look at that 13-0 extra-inning mark and insist luck was a huge component to the 2017 Redbirds’ success. To them I’d respond: Damn right. Call it luck, magic, karma, the Stubby Factor . . . whatever. As summer turns to fall here in the year 2017, with troubles — geopolitical, environmental, economic — weighing heavy near and far, I like the idea a minor-league baseball team in Memphis, Tennessee, had some luck on its side. Feels like the good guys won.
Flags fly forever. So do pennants.