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Eye of the (Memphis) Tiger

After receiving my bachelor’s degree from Truman State University I attended the University of Memphis for graduate school.  It was quite the change from the tiny, rural, campus where I had spent my first four collegiate years.  Kirksville has historically been most notable for tornadoes and being named after a guy who supplied surveyors with a whiskey and turkey dinner in exchange for naming the town after him; not the most exciting place in the world by any measure.  Memphis on the other hand is a city busting with excitement.  Between Beale Street, the BBQ and about a billion Elvis centric attractions, there was always something to do.That’s not to say that all way peachy keen for me in Memphis.  There were a lot of things I disliked.  It’s actually a pretty extensive list.  For example, even with “The Club” securely affixed someone tried to steal my car and ripped the interior to shreds, there were a ridiculous number of hubcap stores (never a good sign of economic prosperity for a community), pro wrestling was seen as real sport (Jerry “The King” Lawler ran for mayor – twice) and my girlfriend at the time borrowed my Cameo “Word Up” CD and never returned it.  These were all disturbing events, but perhaps the most devastating debacle was the state of college baseball.

After attending a DII school where crowds measured in the half-dozens was commonplace, I was excited to cheer for my new school’s team.  However my enthusiasm quickly waned from the first moment I saw their home diamond.  The stadium they called home had fallen into disrepair.  The walls were crumbling and the grass was a patchy as a quilt.  Additionally, the team seemed to know when I was in attendance, saving their worst games for when I could witness them first hand.  It was a good thing there was so much else to do in Memphis, because watching the UM Tigers take to the diamond was a only draw for only the most dedicated of supporters.

Unfortunately for me, but lucky for baseball fans, big things have happened since the time I left the Midsouth.  Local benefactor FedEx has poured millions of dollars into renovating the Tiger’s home turf making it one of the best complexes in the nation.  In addition, the team has played some of its games in the immaculate AutoZone Park – one of the best stadiums in all minor league baseball.

Not surprisingly, the quality of game between the lines has changed just as much as outside of it.  With its new digs the Tigers have been able to mine some the best talent in the region instead of being forced to feed the on scraps that other teams overlooked or left behind.  One of the most prolific recent examples of the Tiger talent revival is local luminary Drew Martinez.

Drew had been wooed by a number of schools but choose to wear the Memphis blue and grey as he saw where the program was headed.  With the new facilities that were being built and the other players that were coming in, choosing to stay near home was not a difficult choice.

The decision had an immediate impact for the Tigers as he put together a solid campaign as a freshman, leading the team with a .309 batting average.  It was the first time a freshman led the team in batting since 1981 – the year of birth of Memphis native Justin Timberlake!  Drew also brought sexyback by showing hints of being a weapon on the basepaths; he stole nine bases after compiling over 100 swipes as a high schooler.

But it was last year when Drew really turned the mother out and elevated his game to the next level.  He batted .377 and led the team with five triples.  He also doubled his stolen base total, upping his total to nineteen.  His ability to get on bases and wreck havoc on the base paths positively impacted the run production numbers of his teammates, allowing many of them, such as Chad Zurcher and Tyler Heulsing to have career seasons.

However it was after the regular season when Drew would really start to get his game right.  He was invited to play in the Cape Cod Baseball League over the summer, competing against the best of the best of the collegiate level.  He tore it up, finishing second in the league with a .359 batting average and also second with 22 stolen bases.  His .434 on base percentage was best in the CBL, as were his 52 hits.

This past summer I had opportunity to chat Drew up for a bit.  As a pessimist I was worried that he may have a big head following the great summer he had put together.  Fortunately, I found he couldn’t have been more amicable.

He admitted that that his peak performance on the Cape was just as surprising to him as it was anyone else.  He stated that he loved playing against the top players on the Cape and that the increased level of competition brought out the best in him.

He also loved swinging the lumber instead of a metal bat.  While it is not uncommon for players to see their averages swoon .150 points below their season average when the play in the CCBL, Drew felt completely at ease with a wood bat and looks forward to using it again. However he felt no rush to join the professional ranks and use one full time. Signing with the Mets, who had drafted him in the middle rounds, was one of the furthest things on his mind over the summer.  He was having a great time, meeting new people and knew he was going to be happy if he signed a contract or returned to campus.

Drew has two goals for the upcoming season: to have fun and help the Tigers win the Conference USA title.  He wants to show that Memphis is a legit baseball program and not the same old Tiger ballclub in a new pretty wrapper.  He felt that if a couple of breaks had went their way they could have finished in second or third in conference last season.  He expects some incoming freshman and sophomores to step out and continue to elevate the program.  Drew also predicted that despite the loss of their rotation from last year, the 2011 Memphis pitching staff is really going to surprise some people (in a good way, not like the type of surprise in the movie  “The Crying Game”).

However what impressed me the most was Drew’s stance on leadership.  He is focused on bringing the conference crown to Memphis and wants to lead the club by example.  He said anyone can be vocal and shout encouragement, but he doesn’t want people to think he’s all talk and no game.  He wants his teammates to watch him and think that’s the kind of player they want to be – one who treats every single pitch for all nine innings like it was the payoff pitch in the World Series.

As a former Tiger I’m truly excited to see what Drew and the rest of the team will bring to the table this spring.  I haven’t been this captivated with something that came out of Memphis since I first laid eyes on Shannen Doherty (how did she get voted off of DWTS the first week!? Damn you America!).  Technically I shouldn’t have a rooting interest in games and be as unbiased as possible.  However after talking to Drew I’ll be pulling for him and the Tigers this season as if there were playing against those bastards who destroyed my beloved Fiero.