Sports » Sports Feature

Catching On

Redbirds backstop Keith McDonald loves Memphis ... and is quite ready to leave.



If familiarity breeds contempt, the Memphis Redbirds and Keith McDonald are dancing dangerously close these days. Now in his fifth year wearing a single cardinal, McDonald bows only to Rockey and maybe Stubby Clapp in terms of recognizability at AutoZone Park. While the dream of every pro ballplayer is to spend his career in one happy home, the nightmare is to be cast for the sequel to Bull Durham. Sure, minor-league baseball is charming ... for everyone but the players.

McDonald and relief pitcher Rick Heiserman are the only two Redbirds to have played in each of the team's five seasons in Memphis. Only Clapp has played in more games as a Redbird than the 29-year-old backstop from southern California. So McDonald has enjoyed the highs of a Pacific Coast League champion (2000) and the lows of a last-place finish (2001), with countless faces alongside him, either on their way up to St. Louis or on their way out of baseball. While his sights are firmly set on a big-league job, McDonald is magnanimous in describing his Triple-A home. "I enjoy Memphis," he says. "It's hard not to like the facility and the fans. When you're moving up, [minor-league] level to level, you don't really get to know a place. I've got some really good friends in Memphis now, and that's nice. The die-hard fans we have here are really good people."

Triple-A rosters change as frequently as the cast of NYPD Blue. McDonald has become Andy Sipowicz with shin guards and a catcher's mitt, trying to match new names with new faces, all the while keeping his sights set on a permanent promotion. As the Redbirds' everyday catcher, McDonald's job is made all the more challenging by the new faces on the mound. "Position players moving up and down don't have near the impact on a team as does the pitching," explains McDonald. "We're using [pitchers] that didn't break camp with us. Trying to get the best out of them is the hardest thing. It's kind of organized chaos."

While McDonald's time in the big leagues to date might best be described as a cup of coffee, his short stint was worthy of the finest mug of joe ever poured by Starbucks. McDonald celebrated the Fourth of July in 2000 by becoming only the third St. Louis Cardinal in history to homer in his first at-bat, drilling a pinch-hit tater off Cincinnati's Andy Larkin. Two days later, McDonald homered in his second big-league plate appearance, joining the St. Louis Browns' Bob Nieman who pulled the trick in 1951 as the only players in more than a century of major-league baseball to homer in their first two at-bats. In only nine career at-bats in The Show, McDonald has three hits all of them home runs for a nice little slugging percentage of 1.333.

"I've only watched [the homers] on tape once," says McDonald. "The Fourth of July, the stadium packed ... it was a great feeling. The second one, I was more worried about getting Rick Ankiel through the game than the record. What I have in my head, as far as memories go, is a lot better than what video can reproduce."

After getting off to a dreadful start at the plate, McDonald has pushed his batting average above his career mark of .271. For a player who feels his glove is his ticket to the major leagues, that kind of hitting is well above the norm for his position. If he can carry that figure to the next level, McDonald feels certain his minor-league career will be over. "I don't think my skill level is an everyday catcher's," admits McDonald. "But I think I can back up."

When you take into consideration some of the pitchers McDonald has caught in Memphis Ankiel, Matt Morris, Alan Benes, Bud Smith, Gene Stechschulte you realize he's been 60' 6" from big-league arms, though still miles away from the roster spot he covets. While a love affair with Bluff City fans has its virtues, McDonald would be the first to tell you that five years of Triple-A ball is enough. "I haven't really been given an opportunity to show [the Cardinals] I can play every day up there," he says. "[A promotion to St. Louis] is out of my control, unless somebody gets hurt or gets traded, or I get traded."

Does McDonald fear having plateaued at Triple-A? "I wouldn't say I've plateaued" is the catcher's quick answer. "It just hasn't worked itself out yet."

Dajuan, Drew, Or Dunleavy?

By James P. Hill

The Grizzlies look for an impact player with their fourth pick.

Grizzlies management walked away from the NBA draft lottery in New Jersey having learned that it will pick fourth overall in the first round and 32nd and 44th in the next two rounds. Now the focus shifts to available talent. The Grizzlies are looking for the type of player who can make a quick transition to the NBA.

"That's the most important thing. You need a player that can step in and make some contribution almost immediately, particularly when your team is not where you want to be," said Grizzlies GM Jerry West.

So who would you pick with the fourth selection in this year's NBA draft? How about Yao Ming, the 7' 5" center/forward out of China? Chances are Ming will probably be in New York City on June 26th smiling and wearing a Houston Rockets cap.

"Somebody that big who's played fairly successfully for China and played very well in the Olympic Games, people will have an interest in him," West said.

What about going small and picking a guard? Well, if you're thinking about Jay Williams from Duke, he may be in New York grinning and holding up a Chicago Bulls jersey or even sporting a Golden State Warriors hat. Since Chicago picks second and Golden State third, there's a strong chance Williams will be unavailable. Many observers believe Williams is arguably the best prospect in this draft.

How about selecting Caron Butler, a 6' 7" forward from UConn? Butler can flat-out score, averaging 19.5 points per game in the Big East. And Butler goes to the glass and snatches 7.6 rebounds per contest. He possesses hoop skills, which can surely help the Grizzlies, but is Butler the right fit for a team that already has four forwards?

Another player with smooth moves and a solid post game is 6' 10" Kansas forward Drew Gooden, whom many experts expect to be a lottery lock. The Big 12 MVP is ready to play at the next level, but with Lorenzen Wright healthy and playing well, what would the rookie bring to Memphis that the Grizzlies don't already have?

How would Mike Dunleavy Jr., the 6' 9" Duke standout, look wearing a Grizzlies uniform next season? Probably pretty good. Dunleavy can dribble, pass, score, and run the floor. If Dunleavy is available at number four, the Grizzlies may be hard-pressed to pass him up. He's a player and not just because of his father's legacy. Mike Jr. has proved he's got game.

How about Dajuan Wagner, last season's University of Memphis freshman phenom? After leading the Tigers to the NIT championship, he's ready to test his game at the highest level. But the question remains: Is Wagner coming out too early? And with Jason Williams and Brevin Knight playing the point, can the Grizzlies use a quick-scoring lead guard? Many fans in Memphis would love to see Wagner stay and play in the Pyramid one way or another.

Finally, a sleeper in the draft may be Western Kentucky's 7 ' 1" center Chris Marcus. He brings a big low-post game to the blocks that could be helpful in freeing up more scoring opportunities for the Grizzlies' power forwards.

Whether the Grizzlies decide to go big or small with their pick, you better believe Mr. Clutch will bring in a player he knows can help the Grizzlies next season and for the long haul.

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