The five most memorable sporting events I attended in 2018:
5) Redbirds 4, Oklahoma City 3 (September 9) — There are no analytics that measure The Stubby Touch. But it was on full display in Game 4 of the Pacific Coast League semifinal series between the Redbirds and Oklahoma City Dodgers. Leading the series two games to one, with a chance to advance to a second straight championship series, the Redbirds fell behind, 3-1, in the top of the 10th inning (in a game scheduled for seven innings as part of a potential doubleheader). With two outs and two strikes, Alex Mejia drilled a line drive single just over the glove of the Dodger second baseman to drive in the tying run. An intentional walk to Max Schrock ensued and forced Memphis manager Stubby Clapp to send his pitcher to the plate, having exhausted his supply of bench players. Giovanny Gallegos clubbed a ball into the left-centerfield gap for the series clincher. It was his second at-bat in seven professional seasons. The Stubby Touch.
4) Tigers 52, Houston 31 (November 23) — Teams that start league play 1-3 are not supposed to play for a conference championship. But thanks to help from other middling teams in the American Athletic Conference’s West Division, the Tigers found themselves playing favored Houston for a chance to face undefeated UCF in the AAC title game. The Tigers’ incomparable running-back duo of Darrell Henderson (178 yards, two touchdowns) and Patrick Taylor (128 yards, two touchdowns) were too much for the Cougars. Three of the tandem’s four scores came in the fourth quarter after Houston had tied the game at 31. Oh, and Tony Pollard was there with 116 receiving yards, 83 on the ground, and a 37-yard kickoff return. Stars were shining this Friday afternoon at the Liberty Bowl, and Memphis indeed clinched a second straight division crown.
3) Tigers 76, Tennessee Tech 61 (November 6) — I’ve sat courtside at Memphis Tiger basketball games for the better part of two decades. I’ve been able to read tattoos on the likes of Derrick Rose and Will Barton, hear the screams of John Calipari and the cheers (alas, too infrequent) of Donna Smith. But on this night, I confess to staring more than a sportswriter should during game action. For there on the Tiger sideline — finally, after making us wait more than seven months! — was coach Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. The announced crowd (15,231) made it feel like a major conference clash in late February, and not merely Tennessee Tech on the other bench, the Tiger football season still going strong. Senior forward Kyvon Davenport scored 30 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to help Memphis win Penny’s first game as a college coach. But the star of this show was wearing a coat and tie, a new era dawning only a few feet from where I sat.
2) Redbirds 5, Fresno 0 (September 15) — Randy Arozarena drilled a three-run homer in the first inning and a two-run bomb in the eighth. Jake Woodford pitched seven shutout innings. And the Memphis Redbirds clinched their second straight PCL title (and first at AutoZone Park since 2000). Despite suiting up 66 players over the course of the season and sending only two position players — Wilfredo Tovar and Tommy Edman — to the field with 2017 championship credentials, Memphis ended another season with champagne showers. Having won Game 3 with the first squeeze play of their season (Mejia drove in Edman), the Redbirds made the celebration seem almost formulaic.
1) St. Jude Marathon (December 1) — If you don’t get a lump in your throat at the sight of thousands of runners on Riverside Drive — all for the kids at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital — your throat isn’t designed properly. My wife, Sharon, ran this year’s marathon, her first (at age 50). Attending a marathon as a spectator is somewhat similar to a golf tournament except the athletes are, you know, running
. I caught a glimpse of Sharon (she claims she saw me) on Front Street, early in the race. Then I did my own jogging, first to Riverside (around mile 7), then to Carolina Avenue. From there, I drove to Midtown, where I saw her closing in on mile 20 on North Parkway. All the while, other spectators ringing bells, flashing signs of support, and calling these runners what they are: heroes. It’s the single greatest sports day in Memphis, Tennessee, and may not need the “sports” qualifier.