Saturday Morning Quarterback

Andy Reed • May 20, 2017 at 8:30 AM

Nashville was a minor-league city when I was coming of age as a sports fan.

The Nashville Sounds were the big deal, even though they were “only” Double-A. Before they became big league managers, Don Mattingly and Buck Showalter were spraying hits all over Herschel Greer Stadium and becoming instant Music City legends. Skeeter Barnes had his number retired. Before he became an Atlanta Braves base-stealing hero, Otis Nixon was doing his thing here. Before they won batting titles and Most Valuable Player awards, Mattingly and Willie McGee were developing their games in the ballyard south of downtown Nashville next to Fort Negley.

Those names were well known to Middle Tennessee sports fans, whether they went to Greer Stadium every night or not. Fans celebrated Southern League championships in 1979 and ’82.

Now? the Sounds play in a state-of-the-art park on the north side of downtown. Fans flock to the games, but it’s for the experience of the game and the amenities of the stadium. Players’ names? Don’t know a single one. How is the team doing? Have no idea. When they won the Pacific Coast League pennant in 2004 (I believe), no one paid attention. What were the Vols, Vandy and the Titans doing that weekend?

When Larry Schmittou owned the Sounds, he left no promotional stone left unturned, but considered winning the best promotion and held the parent club to that. If the big league team didn’t supply good teams, he didn’t hesitate to find another new organization.

Now, the players, largely anonymous to the local fans, are the sideshow. The promotions and atmosphere are the thing. Of course, since the minor-league officials can’t control what players are sent to them, they focus on what they can control.

I was listening to the Oakland A’s radio stream of Sonny Gray’s start Thursday night and the announcer was talking about the A’s’ Triple-A team, the Nashville Sounds, and how they are leading all of baseball in home runs for the month of May.

If I only listened to and read Nashville media, I would have no idea.

To be fair, I can’t really blame the Music City media. They have gone ga-ga over the Nashville Predators, as have the rest of us. It reminds me of the early days of the Tennessee Titans, who stole our hearts with the Music City Miracle and the joyride to the 1-foot line at the Super Bowl.

Fans, who like me, don’t know a blue line from a clothes line (stolen from Al Michaels from his opening in the 1980 Miracle On Ice game) or can’t define icing, are living and dying with every shot, save, forecheck (whatever that is), penalty kill and power play (I love that term and believe it should apply to a 2-on-1 fastbreak in basketball). A goal by the other team cuts a hole in our heart while a goal by Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidson, P.K. Subban and company immediately lifts our spirits. Pekka Rinne is to goaltending in Nashville what Johnny Bench was to catching in Cincinnati during the 1970s. Mike Fisher is married to one of the several country music superstars who populate the mid-south metropolis. James Neal is no longer the federal prosecutor from Nashville, he’s a Predator left-winger, whatever that is. We used to listen to Buffalo-native Coyote McLoud on pop radio, now we listen to Preds radio voice Pete Webber (who used to call games for just about every Buffalo team before coming to Nashville, call the name of another left-winger, Cody McLeod.

Kids of all ages will remember these names forever even if they won’t know who’s then playing for the Predators of the future, especially if the team is struggling.

People are putting their Titans and Vols jerseys in the closet until fall and donning Preds gear with some of the above names on the back. There are Preds hats adorning the news sets on TV. The area is glowing with gold.

Scrolling down my Facebook timeline following Thursday’s game were pictures and posts from so many fans from Lebanon who were at Bridgestone Arena or trying to find the game on TV. People who tweet for the firing of Butch Jones in the fall are lamenting the lack of shots on the power play in the spring. They refer to the Predators as “we”, “us” and “ours”. Some can’t bear to watch and others won’t because the Preds lose when they do and win when they don’t. Bets are being placed and polls run on which superstar will next sing the national anthem at Bridgestone. A bit of advice, should the Preds face Ottawa in the Stanley Cup finals, they better learn to sing “Oh, Canada”.

As for the Sounds, what happened to that team which stole Nashville’s hearts at the dawn of the 1980s?

Founding owner Schmittou, eyeing a major-league team in the future, took the logical next step by buying the Triple-A team from Evansville, Ind., and moving it here in 1985. The Double-A team was moved to Huntsville, Ala., where it remained until (long after Schmittou unloaded his baseball empire) it was moved to Biloxi, Miss., a couple of years ago and renamed the Shuckers.

I can’t name a 2017 Sound, but I know who the opening night starting pitcher for the Biloxi Shuckers was? He was Aaron Wilkerson, one of the aces of Cumberland’s 2010 national championship team who set the NAIA record for consecutive wins. Now toiling in the Milwaukee Brewers’ system, he pitched 6 2/3 hitless innings against the Mississippi Braves earlier this week.

Maybe Wilkerson will get that long-awaited call to The Show soon. Maybe the Predators will hoist the Stanley Cup for Nashville.

That’s really big league.

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