Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Right To The Very End, Brown A Distraction To Pistons

As usual, Brown comes first, his team second, even now

It just never ends with Larry Brown, does it?

The rumors, the innuendos, the cryptic comments, the medical issues, the denials, the insinuations -- looks like they're going to be here right up until the very last buzzer of the last Pistons game this season.

Right now, of all times, as the Pistons struggle to contain the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, comes a report from ESPN's "NBA Insider" Chad Ford that Brown has already told two league sources that he plans on taking the Cleveland Cavaliers' offer of being team president. Just what the Pistons need -- more Brown hijinks to pull their eyes off the prize.

I'm not too thrilled with the Cavs, either, by the way. Why in the world they can't wait until after the Pistons' postseason to ask for permission to talk to Brown is anyone's guess. Why they have to disrupt things now is something I'm sure Pistons president Joe Dumars is wondering. Brown is a hotbed of rumor and speculation even when there's nothing concrete to back them up, much less when there actually is some smoke to follow toward a fire.

But if nothing else, Brown looks to be keeping his word that the Pistons will be his final NBA coaching job. Of course, he never said he wouldn't leave for a non-coaching position, did he? Kind of like that episode of The Brady Bunch where Greg is told not to drive by his parents, yet he ends up driving a friend's car instead. "Your exact words were don't drive; you didn't say whose car I couldn't drive," Greg told Mike and Carol.

"I never said I wouldn't take a front office job with someone else," Brown is basically saying.

But I wrote a column for www.RetailDetroit.com a couple months ago that indicated it was a good thing for Brown to be leaving, as it was apparent he was going to do even back then. All season, Brown has been a distraction to the club, and despite his players' professed adulation of him, they have to be tired of reading and hearing about their coach for things such as hip replacements and complications from hip replacements and whining about the brawl and hinting that he has "other issues" to deal with and how New York would be a "dream job" of his and hinting that he may never coach the team again and then doing an about face 24 hours later and yada, yada, yada. The latest odd thing Brown said was maintaining to the media that he'd never even met Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, that he's aware of. Yet he also has supposedly told two league sources that he's ready to take the Cavs job as soon as the Pistons' season ends. Doesn't seem to ring true, does it?

And by the way, even if the Cavs' timing for this permission thing is strange, even stranger is Brown's leak -- if it occurred, of course -- that he's going to take the job. My goodness, where's the sense in that? Wouldn't you want to keep all focus on winning that second straight NBA title, rather than fueling speculation, even if the speculation has some truth to it? But then common sense with communication isn't a Brown strong suit. Instead of trying to put the November 19 brawl behind him and his team, Brown whined about it for weeks to anyone who would listen, saying it practically ruined coaching for him and that his son, a Pistons ballboy, was afraid to return to the Palace.

So here we are, talking about Brown's future, as usual, even as the Pistons are in the middle of a Conference Final in which they are down, 1-2.

You think Dumars has Flip Saunders' number on speed dial?

Monday, May 30, 2005

The Most Senior Heat Player Proves He Can Still Burn Opponents

The Pistons better keep an eye on Eddie Jones

When the Pistons lost control of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals last night, about midway through the fourth quarter, it wasn't Dwyane Wade or Shaquille O'Neal who triggered the comeback. It was that old Heat standby, Eddie Jones.

I believe the Pistons' downfall began when Jones, in his fifth season with the Heat and who typically led the team in scoring before Wade and Shaq came along, drained a three-pointer with his team trailing, 86-81. The Palace crowd was raucous, the Pistons were on a tear -- an 11-2 run to start the fourth -- and it looked like Wade was finally being reined in after slicing and dicing the Pistons for the first three quarters. Frankly, it appeared as if the Heat were losing their composure a bit. Alonzo Mourning had just picked up a technical foul.

But then Jones hit, making it 86-84, and even though the Pistons answered with a Tayshaun Prince put-back to make it 88-84, you got the sense that this game was far from over. Not only was it far from over, the Heat ended up blowing the Pistons out of the gym during the final six minutes, 32-18. During the onslaught, Jones drove the lane on the break for a layup, hit another jumper, and helped provide a calming influence that enabled his team to come out with a very impressive win that nudged them ahead, 2-1, in these Conference Finals.

Of course, Shaw hitting six consecutive free throws during that time frame didn't hurt the Heat cause, either. In fact, you can probably call it a tie: Eddie Jones' shooting and Shaq's free throwing both were the keys to the Heat's improbable win.

But back to Jones' triple. Basketball is a game of runs, as you know, and it's also a game of poise and confidence. Jones' shot, a catch-and-shoot dagger taken without evene firmly planting his feet, did three things: quieted the crowd, gave his team confidence, and reminded the Pistons that there were others to worry about than Wade and Shaq. Actually, the Heat won largely because they got contributions from many people, including Udonis Haslem, Keyan Dooling and Rasual Butler.

Despite all those weapons, I can't help but come back to 33 year-old Eddie Jones, who finished with 19 points, including 3-for-6 from behind the arc. When the Heat were lousy a few years ago, Jones was their only truly consistent offensive weapon, averaging around 18 points a game after spending four and a half seasons with the Lakers and a season and a half with Charlotte, where he earned the reputation of being a deadeye shooter. He's a graybeard now by NBA standards, but how young do you have to be to shoot the basketball?

The Pistons are in trouble now, for sure, though I fully expect them to respond with a Game 4 victory, and this Eastern Final will be 2-2, which is where most people suspected it would be going into Game 5 in Miami. But if the Pistons keep one eye on Wade and another on Shaq, that doesn't leave a peeper for Eddie Jones, the man who carries daggers in his backpack.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

This Memorial Weekend, Let's Remember Favorite Tigers (And Maybe Win A T-Shirt, Too)

Last year's prize; unfortunately, this year
I could only afford some t-shirts

I hope it's not anti-American or anything, but I'd like to solicit your feedback this Memorial Day weekend. In addition to remembering the bravery of the men and women who gave their lives or limbs for this country so you and I can even be doing what we're doing now -- communicating via the Internet -- let's take some time to remember men who gave their best efforts in a Tigers uniform so that we might enjoy baseball at Michigan and Trumbull, or Brush and Madison (I think that's where Comerica Park is).

Participation is simple. Just email me at GregorySEno@aol.com, or post a comment at the end of this entry, waxing nostalgic about who was your favorite Tiger, and why. Share with us any personal stories involving that player. I know it's tough to pick only one. That's why, once I have all the contributions -- I'll give everyone til June 12, two weeks from today -- I will select three that I will feature on the blog and those three folks will also receive a VERY fashionable "Out of Bounds" t-shirt, and maybe some other goodies. How can you beat that for incentive, huh?

I do hope I get some participation, because it's always fun to hear/read about other Tigers fans' idea of their favorite Bengal. Maybe it was a personal contact in public one day. Maybe it was a home run that moved you. Maybe it was something that player did or said. Maybe it was something from your childhood that stuck with you. Regardless, I want to read them, and share them!

Thanks -- and have a great Memorial Day!!

Tigers' Fate This Season May Already Have Been Decided By An Achy Knee And A Hernia

Oh, what could the Tigers be with a healthy
Guillen (left) and Ordonez?

Quick question: if Tigers shortstop/DH -- actually, it's more like DH/shortstop nowadays -- Carlos Guillen can hit around .360 with a painful right knee that most likely shouldn't be played on, what in the world is he capable of doing when he's healthy?

Quick question II: have there been a more expensive set of 10 at-bats than the ones of Magglio Ordonez for which the Tigers are paying?

Lets take II first. The truly frustrating part of Maggs' odd injury, or rather, ailment, is that the Tigers are basically shooting for 2005's hopes with 2004's lineup. Not that the 2004 lineup is chopped liver, mind you. For the month of April this season, anyhow, it was one of the most productive batting orders in all of baseball. Life without Ordonez, out til after the All-Star Break with a hernia that needs to heal, was seemingly do-able, even though his was supposed to be the big, ferocious, fearsome bat in the heart of the lineup that the team craved.

But then all those .300+ averages started to tumble, and the Tigers, who had been routinely winning games 12-3 and losing them 3-2, suddenly were still losing 3-2 but also struggling to win 3-2 or 4-3. The runs stopped coming. The team scuffled around for offense. And Ordonez, 0-for-10 this season, became someone for whom to pine -- healthy, that is. There still isn't that monster power hitter in the cleanup spot that GM Dave Dombrowski envisioned when he offered Maggs all that jack. And boy, could the Tigers ever use one!

The cruelly ironic thing about Ordonez' health is that when the Tigers meticulously structured his contract, they did so with all sorts of provisions about Maggs' knee, which had been severely injured in 2004, a la Pudge Rodriguez's contract re: his back. Nobody seemed to work on or care about a hernia issue. But here it is, ugly and front and center. And all the Tigers can do is sit and wait for him to get better while they cut paychecks that are obscene.

As for Guillen, he is clearly not a healthy man, right knee-wise, and I'm not sure if his ability to remain the no. 2 hitter in the American League is more of a testament to his natural batting skill or is merely a vivid example that good hitting doesn't involve the knees all that much. I saw him run out a groundball Saturday on TV against the Orioles, and it looked like me running wearing a Guillen jersey. Hint: that's not a good sign.

Guillen, by all rights, should probably be having surgery, although I'm not a doctor and don't even play one on TV. But common sense tells me that if this was October, and not the end of May, Carlos would be under the knife, followed by months of rehab. But the Tigers, 22-25 as of this posting, are neither in nor out of this AL Central race yet, though they're more out. Still, it's too early to lose Guillen for any major amount of time. Read: school isn't out yet and the Tigers haven't gotten their post-school attendance bump, and it will be much easier to get such a bump if they can keep fans interested until at least Father's Day.

Yet I get this sinking feeling that this season is already shot, and the maddening part is that the starting rotation, and the bullpen for the most part, has kept up its end of the bargain. The team ERA is a respectable 3.80-ish, and that ain't bad around Tigertown, especially with the offense the Tigers purport to have. Who knew that the White Sox, of all teams, would go nuts, playing at a near .700 clip for the first two months? If it was just the Twins, as usual, the Tigers were chasing, the gap would be alright and not insurmountable. But the Tigers struggle to keep within 11 lengths of the Chisox, and with three teams ahead of them -- don't forget the Indians -- and with everyone playing everyone else in the division seemingly every weekend....well, you know where I'm going.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope Carlos Guillen's knee responds to the treatment of being DH and whatever goes on behind the scenes in the trainer's room. I hope Magglio Ordonez can rejoin the team in July and start clobbering home runs and gobbling up RBI. I hope closer Troy Percival returns and bolsters the bullpen, although Ugie Urbina has held down the fort quite well. I hope the starters can continue to grind out a high percentage of Quality Starts.

And I hope the White Sox come down to freaking earth.

Yes, I hope all this. But you know what? Even if all the above happens, I still have the notion that it's "Wait til next year" at CoPa.

It's enough to give a fan a hernia.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Are The Conference Finals Still On, Or Did They Get Cancelled?

With stars like Wade (left) and Billups,
you'd think the series would still be on TV

Man, just when I was getting into the Eastern Conference Finals of the NBA, they vanish from my television.

That happens a lot with TV shows I like. It happened with a dandy dramedy called "Queens Supreme" a couple years ago, on CBS. It starred Oliver Platt and Annabella Sciorra, and it grabbed me after just one episode. Problem was, CBS only gave it two tries -- TWO -- before pulling the plug, without even attempting a different night/time slot. I'm still ticked off about that.

And now it's happening with the Conference Finals. The series was just getting good -- 1-1 after the two games -- and now nothing. It couldn't be for ratings, do you think? Shaq is usually a good draw. Maybe they should try a different time?

I hate when you don't get to find out how something ends. And there were so many good subplots, too: can young Dwyane Wade rise to the occasion of a conference final? Will veteran Elden Campbell, acquired specifically for this matchup, be able to lean on Shaq enough to make a difference? Will this be Larry Brown's swan song series?

Oh, well.

You'd think with hockey done for the season and having no playoffs, there'd be room for NBA Conference Finals on the schedule. Maybe TNT, ABC, ESPN and the others will reconsider.

I'm going to write them. Please join me -- we'll launch a viewer campaign that they can NOT ignore!!

What's that, you say? The series resumes tomorrow? After a three-day break?

As Emily Litella would say, "Never mind."

Friday, May 27, 2005

A Year After His Dream Season, 'Hot Sauce' Diluted In A Flash

(To help celebrate the return of the baseball All-Star game to Detroit this summer, each weekend between now and the game, "Out of Bounds" will look back at a different Tigers player who toiled for the club since the last Detroit All-Star game in 1971)

Kevin Saucier, like Mark Fidrych, had one year of mound fame for the Tigers

Sparky Anderson, while he managed the Tigers, wasn't much for the oddball types on his teams. He also didn't care much for those who tested the boundaries of his rules. Ron LeFlore, Jason Thompson and Steve Kemp, among other lesser-known players, were all out of Detroit within a year after Sparky took over in June 1979.

One character that Sparky tolerated was relief pitcher Kevin Saucier, a.k.a. "Hot Sauce."

Saucier arrived between the 1980 and 1981 seasons in a trade with the Phillies. The lefthander had a mostly nondescript two years in Philadelphia -- certainly I never knew of his on-field eccentricities, unless he invented them once he came to Detroit.

Baseball suffered through a strike in '81 that lasted throughout much of June and all of July. The decision was made to split the season into two halves; the first half winner would meet the second half winner in each division to determine who would move on to the LCS. I always wondered what the plan was if the first half winner won the second half, too. I guess a first round bye.

Anyhow, the Tigers muddled through Half One at a leisurely pace, finishing something like third. But in the second half, the team caught fire, ending up in a heated mini pennant race with the Milwaukee Brewers. The two players who keyed this surge were, on offense, Kirk Gibson, who hit around .375 after the strike, and on the mound, Saucier. In his glory season with the Tigers in '81, Saucier posted a 1.65 ERA in 49 innings, surrendering only one home run.

Saucier was the closer, and he had all the decorum of an untrained circus animal. After each save -- he had 13 that year, most after the strike -- Saucier leaped and hopped and bounced and pounded his mitt and hugged teammates and generally acted like someone with ants in his pants -- fire ants. He had a herky-jerky motion, his cap regularly flew off after pitches, and while he wasn't the overpowering, strikeout kind of closer, he nonetheless got the job done. The origin of his nickname, "Hot Sauce", I have sadly forgotten. Maybe it was coined in Detroit. Judging from the way Saucier behaved on the field after each save, perhaps it was in reference to the possibility of him having hot sauce oozing in his undershorts.

But like most characters, especially pitchers, Saucier flamed out -- or diluted -- in a hurry. However, his ending was just about as odd as his on-field personality. In the middle of the 1982 campaign, his numbers still respectable -- 3.12 ERA, 40 IP, 0 HR -- Saucier started worrying about his increasing wildness. By late July, Saucier had issued 29 walks in those 40 innings -- an average of about 6.5 per nine innings. Then his worry increased to paranoia.

"I'm afraid I'm going to kill somebody out there," Saucier said, not believing himself to be overdramatizing the situation. He kept telling folks that he felt like he had no idea where his pitches were going. He started freaking out, basically.

So, just like that, Saucier retired. No minor league rehab assignment, no time on the DL. His last game was July 25, 1982.

The Tigers' bottle of "Hot Sauce" was empty.

(next week: Jim Walewander)

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Okay, TNT, We Get It: Dwyane Wade Is Good

I'm not usually one to rant about the blabberings of sports announcers during games, because most of what they say is irrelevant to the action on the field, or court, or rink, but I must call out the three-man TNT team of Doug Collins, Steve Kerr and Marv Albert, who must have done the game with their hands joined in tribute to Miami Heat star guard Dwyane Wade.

This happened last week with ABC's Al Michaels and Hubie Brown, too in regards to retiring Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller, but that was forgiveable because it was Miller's last game and you expected such fawning over.

But last night, it was hard to tell who was happier about Wade's "bounce back" performance (I lost count of how many times "bounce" and "back" were strung together by Tweedles Dee, Dee and Dum) of 40 points after a lousy Game 1 -- Heat coach Stan Van Gundy, Heat fans, Wade himself, or the TNT crew.

Right from the get go, you knew what you were in for with the microphone types. They pounded home the "great players bounce back from bad games" theme before the opening tip, and never let up. Wade's every move, every jump shot, every dunk, every pass, every bead of sweat was glorified. The Pistons played Washington Generals to the Heat; the only thing that was missing was the confetti-in-the-water-bucket trick.

Like I said, I normally don't get my shorts in a knot over such things, but the Dwyane Wade Love Fest was incessant. But the good news is maybe it's over. What will their Wade theme be next game? "Can Dwyane Wade match his great performance of Game 2"? Ugh. I hope not.

The only thing that rang true out of Wade's performance was my contention that if you contain Wade, you win. The Pistons did it in a Game 1 victory, and failed in a Game 2 loss. But of course, Collins, Kerr and Albert didn't say that, despite all their drum beating for Wade. It was all about how great of a game he had -- they treated an alley-oop dunk as if they'd never seen one before -- and not about the effects of his performance on the series.

Everyone has three days off before Game 3. Maybe enough time to debut "Dwyane Wade: The Movie" on TNT. Whaddya think?

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

If It's The Offseason, It Must Be Another Coaching Change For The 76'ers

The typical pose of a 76'ers coach after a season on the job

The only brotherly love being offered in Philadelphia, when it comes to the NBA team that plays there, is by way of all the men 76'ers GM Billy King has been making head coaches recently.

"Step right up and coach the 76'ers! Take your chances! One full season to see what you can do! Or less if your luck runs out!," King might as well be barking into a megaphone in the parking lot of the Wachovia Spectrum.

Ever since Larry Brown left to coach the Pistons two summers ago, King has been going through head coaches like Liz Taylor used to go through husbands. The irony is that Brown, noted for his nomadic coaching career, bouncing from team to team like, well, a basketball, is still in Detroit, and King has been running men in and out of Wachovia like he's playing some sort of NBA version of "The Dating Game."

"I just didn't like the direction our team was going in," King said announcing his latest hatchet job -- firing coach Jim O'Brien after the now usual one season on the Sixers bench.

This came just a few weeks after King said there would be no coaching change this summer, an annual rite now in Philly. Apparently King had a change of heart after discussing the matter with his players and other club officials. Perhaps the urge to can coaches is a bit too much for King to resist.

But, just as former pro football coach Bum Phillips once said, "If they want to fire you, they'll come up with a reason -- he's too mean, he's too nice. They'll find a reason to fire you."

O'Brien's homecoming to the Philly area -- he attended nearby St. Joseph's University and was an assistant there in the late 70's -- turned sour because his style supposedly clashed with the desires and abilities of his players. The same old song. The song sung by losing franchises.

Since Brown fled to Detroit, the Sixers have tried Randy Ayers (promoted from being a Brown assistant), Chris Ford (promoted from being an Ayers assistant), and O'Brien (promoted from being unemployed).

Since Brown (left) signed with Detroit, the Sixers
have tried Ayers (center) and O'Brien, along with
Chris Ford on an interim basis

Now they will try Maurice Cheeks, the former Sixers point guard, fresh off his defrocking in Portland, where he was 162-139 coaching the Trailblazers. Actually, to have that good of a winning percentage coaching one of the most dysfunctional teams in the NBA, past or present, should make Cheeks aptly qualified to coach any team, any time.

Cheeks was one of the Sixers' most popular players

Well, Allen Iverson is happy about the hiring of Cheeks, and that's a start. Iverson grew fond of Mo when Cheeks was an assistant under Larry Brown, and at the press conference yesterday Iverson joked he was so pleased about the hire that he'd kiss Mo on the mouth. Cheeks' response, unfortunately, was not preserved for history.

"If you got a problem with Mo Cheeks, there must be something wrong with you," Iverson declared at the press conference, also becoming an annual event in Philadelphia.

Please, please -- someone mark those words and refer to them again sometime around next December or January!

Actually, maybe Iverson means all those nice things and there will indeed be Brotherly Love -- Basketball Style, in Sixer Land next season, and the seasons beyond.

King better hope so. In pro sports, GM's don't usually get this many opportunities to fire coaches before they get axed themselves. I sort of get the feeling that the next press conference at Wachovia will be to announce a new GM, not a new coach.

Notice that Iverson didn't mention kissing King anywhere, much less on the mouth.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Stopping Wade, Not Shaq, Key For Pistons To Turn Down The Heat

I'm telling you, the Pistons should stop the guy on the right
if they want to advance to the NBA Finals

How is it that I can have it right and everyone else have it dead wrong?

The key to this Pistons-Heat Eastern Conference Final isn't whether Shaquille O'Neal will play (he will, by the way). It isn't whether he will be effective and get his points and rebounds (he will, by the way). It's whether or not the Pistons can contain Dwyane Wade enough to win four games (they will, by the way).

Short term memory loss is perhaps more prevalent in sportswriters and other media types than in any other profession. Wasn't it less than a year ago that the Pistons let Shaq put up his numbers -- well, maybe not let -- and instead concentrated their focus on stopping Kobe Bryant? And didn't the Pistons harass Kobe into 30%-ish shooting? And didn't the Pistons win in five -- and should have won in four straight?

Those were rhetorical questions, but if you were playing along, all the answers were yes.

I don't think it's a stretch to say Wade will have far more touches of the ball in this series than Shaq. After all, there's no way Shaq will even see the ball if it doesn't first pass thru Wade's hands. So if the Pistons can use their ballhawking guards -- and forwards...and centers -- to make life uncomfy for Dwyane the moment he gets the ball, even in the backcourt, then the world champs will turn down the Heat in six games.

As Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News said on ESPN's "The Sports Reporters" yesterday, "Miami isn't playing the Washington Wizards anymore." I agree. Throughout these first two rounds, I've noted that the Heat hasn't played an opponent anywhere near the quality of the Pistons, and when they do, it will be a big whiff of smelling salts into their 8-0 nostrils. The Pistons are relentless and they appear to be fine tuning their game at just the right time.

Frankly, I don't think Miami will know what is hitting them until it's too late. I foresee a 3-1 Pistons lead slashed to 3-2 in Miami, then the Palace confetti will fly for Game 6.

So talk about Shaq all you want. Wring your hands over his troublesome thigh injury. Play the odds at Vegas about whether he'll be in the lineup. Fret about him getting his points and boards.

Right church, wrong pew.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

ANOTHER "Curse Of The Bambino"?

If Bonds (right) looks skyward nowadays,
he might want to think hard about Ruth (left)

That Babe Ruth sure gets around, even some 57 years after his death.

Now that the Boston Red Sox have broken Ruth's curse by winning last year's World Series, the Babe has moved on. Now he apparently is haunting Barry Bonds.

Bonds, out with a bum knee, is recovering so slowly and making such little progress physically that there is talk, although in its infancy, that he may never play again.

Bonds, with 703 career homeruns, is 11 behind Ruth for second place behind Hank Aaron.

I don't think it would occur to me that Ruth's curse has shifted to Bonds if Barry wasn't such an apparent jerk. I have never met Bonds, but I have talked to people who have, along with reading, like everyone else, horror stories of Barry Bonds confrontations. Close Encounters Of The Rude Kind. If half of these tales are true, then Bonds is making Albert Belle look like Dale Carnegie.

Frankly, I don't know what Bonds' psyche is driven by, nor will anyone else ever know. Why someone with his talent who should have the world as his oyster is instead so surly and angry at the madding crowd is anyone's guess. But we can't all be nice folk, I suppose. And, I'm sure Bonds looks at the media as an evil that may not always be necessary. You get the impression that Barry Bonds would just as soon play ball in an empty stadium and live in a plastic bubble. Just keep the paychecks coming.

If Bonds is, indeed, finished as a player, it will be hard not to look skyward and wonder about Ruth's possible involvement from the afterlife. Or if not Ruth, then surely the baseball gods' fingerprints are all over this, aren't they? Because even if Bonds had surpassed Ruth, he'd still be about 40 homers away from overtaking Hammering Hank. If Bonds is done and Ruth, or at least Aaron, is safe from his slugging, I think you'd have better luck finding Ku Klux Klan sympathizers in Harlem than you would fans all broken up over the end of Bonds' onslaught.

Okay, maybe not to that extreme, but you get my drift. I'm sure there are mobs of Bonds fans in the Bay Area, but that might be about it. The BALCO steroid controversy pretty much shoved most Bonds fence-sitters away from him. Now, I think as far as Barry Bonds is concerned, that fence would be pretty much empty. You either love him or loathe him. The last ballplayer who performed near Bonds' level that was either on or off with fans was perhaps Reggie Jackson. But looking back on it, Jackson was cartoonish and innocent compared to Bonds, who carries with him a dark, almost sinister undercoating. Most of the photos I remember viewing of Reggie showed him smiling or laughing, even if he was smiling or laughing at someone. Bonds' images are mostly of him scowling.

Reggie was a cartoon; Bonds is more sinister

Maybe Babe isn't up there sticking needles into a Barry Bonds voodoo doll. Maybe the knee will respond and Bonds will be back on the field after the All-Star game, as is hoped by the Giants. Maybe this is all just a temporary roadblock to his eventual anointing as the game's all-time leader in homerun hitting.

But as the Red Sox franchise discovered, if Babe really is behind all this, then Bonds may as well kiss catching Ruth and Aaron goodbye. The Bambino did it to an entire city for 86 years. You think he can't do it to one man for a few?

Saturday, May 21, 2005

I'm No Longer Afraid Of "Ex-Tiger Carlos Pena"

Pena, probably swinging and missing again

Here we go again.

Tigers first baseman Carlos Pena is on the wrong side of .200, with few homers and tons of strikeouts. He is, once again, looking like a poor impersonation of a big league hitter.

Last summer I wrote a column in which I maintained that if I was suddenly appointed Tigers GM, I would offload Pena and, at the time, Eric Munson. Well, Munson is gone, thank God, and I haven't seen anything in Pena to change my mind about him, either.

The word "potential" can be exciting and a curse. Players who realize the "p" word are forever in our hearts, while those who fall short eventually end up in the garbage heap of never-weres. Sadly, it looks like Pena may be sanitation fodder.

I also wrote that I would only have traded Pena if I had absolutely no idea of the history of the Tigers and what happens to the players they jettison. I pointed out that for some odd reason, players who seem talented come to Detroit and forget how to play the game, only to remember the moment they go elsewhere. Of course, Pudge Rodriguez and Carlos Guillen reversed that trend last season, so maybe that black cloud has passed the Motor City. Anyhow, I was jittery last season to ship Pena, because it gave me the chills to think of what he might have done as an ex-Tiger.

But I'm not afraid anymore. I don't think, at this point, that Pena will be anything more than another Tony Clark -- that other ex-Tiger first baseman with loads of "p". Pena, like Clark, may just float around the majors for a few years, enjoy a bit of success here and there, then show enough warts to be dumped off on someone else. He doesn't seem to be, in my mind, anything more than journeyman material.

If Pena either: a) didn't bat lefthanded, or b) didn't play a decent first base with the glove, he may already be planning for a life after baseball. If you bat or pitch lefty, you can buy yourself an extra year or two or three to prove your worth. Baseball loves lefties. If you can catch the ball a little bit, that's okay too. But even those two ingredients will only keep you in The Show for so long if you can't hit a lick.

Pena supposedly impressed baseball people in spring training with his oozing, new-found confidence and his relaxed approach at the plate. But baseball history is full of players who performed like All-Stars in March but chumps during the summer. And the chumps far outnumber the All-Stars. Clearly Pena's magic elixir wore off as soon as the Tigers' plane crossed the Mason-Dixon line this April.

The sooner Carlos Pena is an ex-Tiger, the better. I don't care who replaces him at this point -- Dmitri Young, Chris Shelton, Dave Bergman. Just please ship him out of here. Hey, maybe we can get someone who has some....potential!


Friday, May 20, 2005

The Gentleman From Virginia: Johnny Grubb

A rare photo of Grubb -- a shy type

(To help celebrate the return of the baseball All-Star game to Detroit this summer, each weekend between now and the game, "Out of Bounds" will look back at a different Tigers player who toiled for the club since the last Detroit All-Star game in 1971)

As far as opposing baseball players go, there was perhaps nobody I hated to see at the plate with men on base and the game on the line more than Dave Winfield or Eddie Murray. To me, there wasn't a more menacing vision than the image of Winfield or Murray glaring into the Tigers pitcher, bat waving slowly and ominously. It seemed like they batted .800 in those clutch situations.

But conversely, of all the Tigers players I've seen in the last 30 years or so, there weren't many more I enjoyed watching bat with ducks on the pond than Johnny Grubb, the Gentleman From Virginia, as Ernie Harwell used to call him.

The Tigers acquired Grubb in 1983, and I immediately fell in love with his lefthanded swing, which was as smooth as silk and free from fault of technique, as far as my untrained eye could see. I didn't know much of Grubb before the Tigers got him -- only that he'd been with the Padres and the Rangers. I think he was named to the all-rookie team in 1973 with San Diego, when he hit .311 in 389 at-bats. Anyhow, it didn't take me long to embrace Grubb, who simply went about his business and had an "Aw, shucks" attitude that endeared him to manager Sparky Anderson, who loved those types.

I am telling you, when he was ahead in the count, 2-0 or 3-1, there was nobody I'd rather see up there for the Tigers than Grubb. He could drive the ball up those gaps in Tiger Stadium as good as anyone, and while he wasn't a power hitter per se, that short porch in right field was a frequent destination for Grubb's shots. He wasn't all that much with the glove, with a below average arm and limited range, but he didn't drop too many, either. You could do far worse in the outfield, and the Tigers did over the years, believe me.

Grubb was mostly unemotional, but I remember him subtly clenching his fist in triumph during the 1984 ALCS after a clutch double in Kansas City. It was probably on a 3-1 pitch. Grubb was part of the conglomerate that roamed the outfield for the '84 club that steamrolled over everyone en route to the World Series title -- along with Ruppert Jones, Kirk Gibson and Chet Lemon. No doubt he was the quietest among that group, but also one of the most lethal to opposing pitchers.

Grubb found himself the center of attention in 1986 when he literally put the Tigers on his back and carried them during a second half charge as the team tried to catch the Boston Red Sox. They damn near did it, too, thanks to Grubb, who hit something like .380 in June and July. It was one of the most prolonged displays of hitting domination by a Tiger that I've ever seen. Grubb was white hot, even batting cleanup at times, as the Tigers kept closing the gap. Alas, Grubb and the team cooled in August, and it was a good effort ended sadly.

Grubb played one more season for the Tigers before retiring at age 39. He went quietly, just as he entered and stayed.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Giving The Keys Back To Daddy

It's time for Pacers like Foster to come back to earth

Okay, Indiana Pacers and your fans, you had your fun with this Eastern Conference Semifinals series -- but now it's time to give it back to daddy and be on your way.

The Pacers took this best-of-seven series out for a joyride, forging a 2-1 lead, but then daddy -- that would be the Detroit Pistons -- came home and all the Pacers are now are grounded.

Most championship caliber teams run into a defining moment during a long playoff run -- a time when their backs are to the wall and there's no tomorrow and it's "must win" and all that rot. The Pistons have had their little wobbly moment, and now it's time to get back to the business of defending their world title. So, it'll be a Game 6 win tonight in Indy, and a much anticipated matchup with the Miami Heat in the Conference Finals.

The Heat, however, haven't had their defining moment yet. Miami swept two far inferior opponents -- the Nets and Wizards, teams they swept in the regular season, too -- and have been sunning themselves and enjoying the high life, waiting for the Pistons to do away with the Pacers.

But the Pistons will most likely head into the Conference Finals as underdogs, despite their status as reigning champs. It's a role they relish, and despite not having home court advantage, it will be the underdog mentality that will help them leap over the Heat in six games.

You know how it is -- the Heat, 8-0 in the playoffs and with a false sense of superiority, will be touted as this machine that is in high gear and has just been rolling over playoff foes. But the truth is, they haven't faced an opponent anywhere near the quality of the Pistons in this postseason, and all the rest and sun and relaxation in the world won't mean a hill of beans because the Pistons will be the ones in high gear.

The Heat didn't even make the playoffs last year. They haven't enjoyed much postseason success, period, in franchise history. The Pistons are battle tested, about to reach the Conference Finals for a third year in succession. They know what it takes to win a championship. They went into a hostile New Jersey arena in Game 6 of the conference semifinals last year down 3-2 after a bitter, three-OT loss in Game 5, and spanked the Nets in the fourth quarter on their own floor to force a seventh game, which the Pistons dominated. Their core has grown and matured together. They will hardly be intimidated by the Heat, despite playing the first two games in Miami and with "The Big Guy" -- Shaquille O'Neal -- in the middle. Don't forget, O'Neal also happened to be the center for the Lakers last season -- a team the Pistons "swept" in five games in the Finals. So forget the Shaq factor as a Heat advantage ("paging Elden Campbell....paging Elden Campbell").

O'Neal (left) and Wade: tough but not unbeatable

Don't get me wrong -- Pistons-Heat has the makings of a wonderful series, for players, fans and media alike. ESPN and ABC will love it, and I already can't wait for the hyperbole and other jibberish spewing from the mouths of Bill Walton and Company. Shaq and Dwyane Wade are to be reckoned with, no question, and the Pistons will have to be at the tippy-top of their game to turn down the Heat.

Enjoy it -- it should be a dandy. But the Pistons, with their playoff experience and mental toughness, should take it, 4-2. Shaq will watch the Palace go bonkers again as his team is eliminated -- again.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Those Damn Yankees


To: Everyone, Especially Red Sox Fans
From: The Yankees
Subject: Our Demise

"The rumors of our death have been greatly exaggerated."

I liked it better when the Yankees were 11-19.

I've never been a Yankee hater, per se, but I certainly never embraced them. The old comedian Joe. E. Brown once said, "Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for General Motors." Actually, it's worse than that; if GM does well, maybe that means the economy is doing well, too. What jobs have the Yankees ever created -- that is, for people who have to scrape by on less than $10 million a year?

Anyhow, it was fun when they were 11-19, because, well, they're the Yankees, and they spent all that money and they are always in the World Series or damn near it and isn't it the American Way to build things up and tear them down? Wasn't it kinda enjoyable hearing all the "Will Joe Torre be canned?" talk? Wasn't it delicious watching the Yankees share last place with those bottom feeders, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays?

But now the Yankees have won 10 straight, are 21-19, and their stars are finally playing like stars and damn them to hell!

But you know what? A few weeks ago I wrote that golf was better off with a Tiger Woods that wasn't struggling. I wrote that every sport needs a consistent in superiority -- whether it's to wear the black hat, or to have something to shoot for and mark as a target. So I guess I'd be a hypocrite if I said baseball was better off with a Yankees team that played at a .367 clip.

No, baseball might not be better off, but some baseball fans might be -- don't you think?

There truly are Yankee haters out there, and it's real. Some of them are not only not playing with a full deck, they might even have some extra jokers in there. And for these folks, the Yankees' inglorious start to the 2005 season was a panacea for them, for all that ills them in their lives. But now the Bronx Bombers are on a 10-game roll, and you'd better hide the razor blades and any inhalants.

Of course, this current hot streak doesn't mean all that bothered the Yankees throughout April and early May has gone away. They still have a frightful bullpen, shaky starters beyond the top three of Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina and Carl Pavano, and not all of their money players' batting averages are where they should be resting. But for now, anyway, the Yankees are showing people that you'd better put away the shovels and cancel the order for the casket.

Speaking of Johnson, what must he have been thinking while the Yankees touched the bottom of the AL East? Last year, his Arizona Diamondbacks were 52-110, and so he wanted to go to a winner, but just last week the Yankees were in last place and the D-backs were in first! I bet he was choking on his New York bagel.

Rest easy, Randy -- you still made the right choice. The Yankees will end up in better shape than Arizona when all is said and done.


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

My Fellow Non-NBA All-Star: Chauncey Billups

Billups says he's cool with not being an All-Star

Chauncey Billups, like I, has never been selected to play in the NBA All-Star game. It's one of the few things we have in common. Of course, my non-selection is easily explained; I don't play in the NBA, and I am far less skilled than Billups -- not necessarily in that order.

Billups' omission, however, is much more of a mystery.

Almost every time I see Billups, the Pistons point guard, play, I shake my head and wonder how it is that he's never made the midseason game.

Never was that feeling stronger than Sunday as I watched Game 4 of the Pistons' Eastern Conference Semifinals series with the Pacers. The Pistons, down 2-1 in the series and coming off seven pretty ugly quarters of basketball, needed someone to jump to the forefront and re-establish control of a series they should win by all rights. Fortunately, several players answered the bell, but none sooner than Billups.

The Pacers got off to another fast start in Indy, and had the Pistons in a 9-2 hole. Billups then took over, using his strength and shooting skills to post up Jamal Tinsley and lead the Pistons on a dominating 19-1 run to take a 21-10 lead. The Pistons never looked back, nor trailed again. Billups finished with 29 points, dished off some assists, and was the on-court general that coach Larry Brown adores.

The Pistons have been widely described as a team devoid of superstars, and while I agree with that, I don't think there's any question that the engine lies under Billups' hood. Ben Wallace may be the heart and soul and the personification of the "Goin' To Work" theme, but Billups is the one who will take matters into his own hands, offensively, and jump start the team when baskets are needed. They don't call him "Mr. Big Shot" for nothing.

Billups doesn't panic, rarely loses his poise, and carries with him an unwavering confidence and belief that he is the point man for the best team in the world, and if you don't believe him, take him on and try to wrest the NBA crown from him.

Billups is one of few NBA players to win
a championship and Finals MVP, yet not make the All-Star team

Billups, with sincerity, says not making the All-Star game (backcourt teammate Rip Hamilton hasn't made it, either -- which is also hard to believe) doesn't bother him. He's all about team concept and winning. That's great, but it doesn't mean we fellow non-All-Stars can't beat his drum.

The Pistons should do away with the Pacers in six, and then they will be appearing in their third straight Eastern Conference Finals. That streak started with Billups' first season in Detroit.

Don't even think of that being a coincidence.

Now, will someone make him an All-Star, already?

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Rasheed's Guarantee Is One Of Confidence, Not Bravado

Has Rasheed put more pressure on his mates?

So Rasheed Wallace thinks the Pistons will win Game 4 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series against the Indiana Pacers. How dare he!

"Oh, we're definitely going back to Detroit with this thing 2-2, no question about it," he said. Wallace, actually, is one of the reasons the Pistons trail the series, 2-1, heading into today's Game 4. He has been, in a word, awful in this series.

But he is convinced the Pistons will win, and what's wrong with that? Shouldn't everyone on both teams show up to the arena every night believing that?

For some reason, we have created an environment in sports where it's unseemly to talk publicly of confidence in victory. The funny thing is, we'd be horrified if a player said, "I guarantee we'll blow the next game. We are definitely going home down 3-1." Perhaps the only person who could have gotten away with such a statement would have been former Pistons coach Chuck Daly, a.k.a. The Prince of Pessimism. Once, with the Pistons up 2-0 in a best-of-five first round series with the Celtics, Daly said of the trip to Boston, "I'm taking enough clothes for several days." In other words, there just might be two games to play. The Pistons swept, of course. Daly didn't look at a glass as being half empty -- he worried about the glass breaking.

In Daly's world, there was always evil lurking

The ballyhoo about Sheed's comments, made in the highly emotional aftermath of Friday night's ugly Game 3 loss, is that Wallace made a similar "guarantee" following Game 1 of last year's Conference Finals series with the Pacers. "All I'm saying is I'm guaranteeing Game 2. That's all I'm saying," Wallace said then. "They will not win Game 2. You heard that from me. You all print whatever you want. You put it front page, back page, middle of the page. They will not win Game 2." The Pistons won Game 2, and the series in six games.

Actually, when you think about it, there should be much more teeth-gnashing had the Pistons not backed up Wallace's boast last year. But the Pistons won it, so what's the big deal? And really, what's the worst that can happen when a player does this? He says "we'll win it," the team loses, and....oops, guess he was wrong! These are pros, after all. Are we really to believe that just because a teammate boldly promises victory, it puts more pressure on his guys to deliver? Are they thinking, "Geez, I better make this jump shot because Rasheed said we'd win"?

Highly doubtful.

Even the most famous guarantee in sports history, Joe Namath's promise to win Super Bowl III, was much to do about nothing, frankly. Namath's New York Jets were 17 point underdogs. The Baltimore Colts were 13-1 in the regular season in the supposedly superior NFL. They seemed invincible. What did Namath have to lose by saying what he said? Besides, even Joe himself admitted he may have had a cocktail or two prior to blurting it out. The Jets won, of course, but it had nothing to do with Namath's prediction. They simply outplayed a Colts team that may have beaten them eight out of ten times normally.

Two opposite ends of the guarantee spectrum: Namath (left) and Brown

In Detroit, some Lions fans might remember offensive tackle Lomas Brown guaranteeing a playoff victory against Philadelphia in 1995. Now, I admit that such a guarantee coming from a player whose franchise has exactly one playoff victory since 1957 is a tad odd, but Lomas just got caught up in the moment. The Lions were riding a seven-game winning streak and were actually playing quite well. Many pundits had them beating the Eagles, even though the game was in Philly.

The Lions lost, 58-37, in a game in which they trailed at one point, 51-7.

Guess Lomas was a little off, huh?

Critics of guarantees say all they end up being are bulletin board material for the opponents. Somehow I don't see Reggie Miller walking into the Pacers lockerroom and saying, "Okay, boys, Rasheed thinks the Pistons will win. Good thing he said that, because now we have motivation!"

No, I think the only folks who care about such things are the ones who get paid to watch the game at courtside, sipping free pop and eating free hot dogs.

I guarantee that's what they do.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

One Of My First Heroes: Bill Freehan

(To help celebrate the return of the baseball All-Star game to Detroit this summer, each weekend between now and the game, "Out of Bounds" will look back at a different Tigers player who toiled for the club since the last Detroit All-Star game in 1971)

Freehan was one of the best defensive catchers of all time

By now, it's old hat -- meeting and talking to athletes in lockerrooms and elsewhere. That I have done time and time again. But back in 1976, as a 13 year-old, it was just about the most exciting thing I could ever imagine.

Somehow or another, my mother knew someone who knew Tigers catcher Bill Freehan. And, somehow or another, it was arranged that my friend Steve Hall and I would get a chance to meet Freehan in the Tigers clubhouse prior to a game in '76. Freehan, a member of the 1968 World Champs and the '72 AL East winners, was in his final season and was mostly a part-time player. But he was always one of my favorites because he was a helluva catcher and he was extremely professional in his approach to the game.

So Hall and I were escorted to the entrance to the Tigers lockerroom before the game at old Tiger Stadium and we waited. And we waited. Slowly I began to wonder whether it was all a cruel joke, this promise to meet Bill Freehan. But then the door slid open, a security guard appeared, and we were told to wait a moment. Then, as promised, Freehan appeared, larger than life and seemingly taking up the entire doorway. He had his uniform pants on and his undershirt. He was already sweating -- maybe due to a pregame workout.

"Hi fellas," Freehan said, grinning.

And Hall and I, who had talked all the way downtown about what we were going to say to Freehan and what questions to ask him, said nothing.

"Glad you could come to the game," Freehan added.

Again, we said nothing. Instead we stared, dumbfounded, not believing that we were standing before a real life big leaguer.

My mom muttered some words, not easy for her either, but mainly because she was taken by Freehan's good looks.

Then, after a few more awkward moments and minor dialogue, Freehan told us he'd wave to us before the game -- he knew where our seats were behind the Tigers dugout -- and then he bid us farewell.

The whole encounter probably lasted a few scant minutes. And, sure enough, Freehan looked for us after the pregame warmups and indeed waved to us. I never felt prouder as the fans around us wondered who we were to receive such an acknowledgement.

But you can only have one "first" in your life in whatever category you choose, and nothing can change the fact that Bill Freehan was the first pro athlete I ever met in person. And I suppose that's another reason why he was a favorite of mine, even after his career. So I followed Freehan after his playing days, noting how he helped Tigers catchers in spring training year after year (he still does it), recalling his days as a Tigers TV analyst, and nodding in approval as he took the University of Michigan baseball coaching job (he was a U-M grad).

I also marveled at how Freehan never changed. Most former big leaguers, even the ones who were svelte when they played, get a tad chubby when they hang up the spikes. And catchers are generally chunky to begin with. Yet Freehan, even today in his early 60's, looks like he could catch 25 games a year. I remember when he tutored a young player named Lance Parrish, and now Parrish himself works with Tigers catchers of the future. But Freehan still shows up in Lakeland every February, ready to teach the finer aspects of catching. And you could do far worse as a young catcher than to work with Freehan, who has one of the highest career fielding percentages in baseball history for backstops.

Freehan in 1967, not all that much different than he looks today

Freehan, although a major cog in the Tigers' 1968 world championship season, had an awful World Series offensively, managing just one hit in the seven games. But his blocking of the plate against Lou Brock in the famous play that turned the Series around in the fifth game did as much to save the day for the Tigers as Willie Horton's throw on the play. One of the most well-known baseball photos of the modern era is the one of Freehan, accepting the throw, blocking the plate as Brock, who foolishly and arrogantly decided not to slide, tries vainly to touch the dish with his foot. Classic stuff.

The most important play of the '68 World Series

By the way, as big as Freehan appeared in that doorway in 1976, he has nothing on Michigan offensive lineman Bubba Paris, who I met briefly as a freshman at EMU in 1981, and who took up the entire elevator with his 6'7", 325 pound frame. But that's another blog entry.

About nine or ten years ago, I ran into Freehan again, this time in the Petoskey area. He was leaving a diner that my wife, father and I were entering. "Hi, Bill," I said, not shy this time. He acknowledged me.

20 years after our initial meeting, I found my voice.

(next weekend: Johnny Grubb)

Thursday, May 12, 2005

How To Win Friends And Influence Teammates?

Nowitzki's method of lighting a fire under a
teammate is not recommended

First let me say, I wasn't there. I wasn't at the postgame press conference in Phoenix after Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, in the aftermath of the Suns' 127-102 whipping of the Dallas Mavericks. I emphasize this fact because I missed the question that prompted Mavs' forward Dirk Nowitzki to treat teammate Erick Dampier like a pinata -- verbally. But somehow I don't think the question is relevant. What Nowitzki did violated just about every rule of team camaraderie that I know of -- calling a teammate out publicly, practically putting the blame of a loss squarely on his shoulders.

"We didn't get much out of him," Nowitzki said at the podium. That's how these comments are recorded nowadays -- at podiums, usually solo, very organized and with plenty of time to think about what you're about to say. Nowitzki's comments weren't in the heat of the moment, with a microphone stuck in his face as he changed into his civvies. They came at least 30 minutes following the final buzzer, after the respective coaches had a chance to speak. "He's a step slow on everything," Nowitzki continued. "He never got involved in the game. He has always been in foul trouble. The first series was the same thing. He gets a quick two fouls in the first two or three minutes, and we can't be aggressive any more. Then he gets the third foul and has to sit."

That would have been bad enough, but for some reason, Nowitzki didn't see to it to stop there.

"The bottom line is we've got to get something out of our center position," he said. "We really haven't gotten anything out of it."

You should know, Nowitzki's venom was spewed after he himself shot just 5-for-14 in the blowout loss.

Unfortunately, Nowitzki's comments about his own performance didn't get nearly the air play. Probably because he was much easier on himself than his teammate.

Not surprisingly, Dampier fired back.

"He can say what he wants," Dampier said. "We really didn't get a lot from anyone. This is not a one individual game. It's a team concept. We didn't play the way we are capable of playing, so for him to say something like that is totally stupid."

Erick Dampier is totally correct.

Can you imagine if, say, Bruce Smith of the Buffalo Bills strode to the podium after Super Bowl XXV and said of placekicker Scott Norwood, who had missed the field goal that would have won the game at the gun, "We really didn't get what we needed out of our kicker. It's the same thing -- he misses kicks he should make."

Of course not.

Granted, Dampier's play, though not up to par, wasn't as directly responsible for the Mavs' loss as Norwood's miss was for the Bills in the Super Bowl, which is only the biggest event in the history of the world (I exaggerate, but only slightly). But Dampier is right -- basketball is a team game, and it's up to teammates to pick up the slack when one of the starting five is struggling. You usually don't prop up team morale by publicly blasting one of your own, especially in the playoffs.

Dampier called Nowitzki's comments "totally stupid" -- totally correct

But my praise goes to Dallas coach Avery Johnson, who spoke to both players, apparently cleared the air -- or at least sprayed emotional disinfectant in the area -- and got the team ready to play Game 2, a 108-106 victory that tied the series. Bravo.

"Maybe it was what I said," Nowitzki said of Dampier, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds.

So what's next, Dirk? Personal attacks on Dampier's mother? Or are you saving that for motivation for a possible Game 7?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Amazing Race....Card

White Canadian NBA-ers like Nash - unite!

Let's see....a white Canadian boy wins the NBA Most Valuable Player Award and....it's racism?

How many white Canadians have won the NBA MVP, anyway? I'd say it's about time we recognized one.

First, you must read Steve Aschburner's column about this recent vote (click link at end of this post). Not only is it funny, it's also insightful. Aschburner is a columnist for AOL Sports. I don't know if he's white, red, green or yellow -- but he has a marvelous take on things.

Anyhow, the brouhaha is about the selection of Phoenix's Steve Nash as the league's MVP, instead of Miami's Shaquille O'Neal. On a basketball level, an outstanding case can be made for both men. Each spearheaded a remarkable turnaround for their new respective teams. Each is, indeed, so valuable that if either player were lost for any significant amount of time, the results would be catastrophic. Actually, Nash was hurt, early in 2005, and the Suns struggled.

Shaq is the Eastern Conference MVP, anyway

Too bad we can't have MVP's of each conference, like baseball does with its leagues; that would straighten out all the mess.

The funny thing about this whole "race" issue when it comes to Nash over Shaq is its source -- or rather, its lack of a source. Somehow this grew legs, yet no one has really been credited with starting the whole flap. Of course, how does anything start? Who told the first "knock-knock" joke, for example?

And that's what all this MVP "controversy" is -- a joke. Apparently it has roots in south Florida, hardly a coincidence considering Shaq plays in Miami. But in this world of Internet and cell phones that send messages and other methods of electronic communication that makes this world about as large as a peanut, you have the Cup-A-Soup of issues -- just add water for instant hubbub.

For the record, Shaq himself doesn't seem all that bent out of shape about it. He jokingly feigned horror when the reporters asked for a sound bite, then proceeded to very graciously congratulate Nash, even mentioning the joy of Nash's new twin girls. Classy move.

I could use up an entire blog just on racial issues alone, of course, but I won't do that. But I will tell you that Steve Nash was no more voted MVP because of the color of his skin than Shaq was when he won it.

By the way, I can't stand coconut, and that's as white as snow.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Sportswriter Aerobics

According to some observers, Ben Wallace & Co.
should muscle the Pacers out of the playoffs in four straight

It always amazes me how out-of-shape the media types in this town are, especially the sportswriters. They're a pudgy lot, which is hard to believe considering all the exercise they get jumping to conclusions, leaping to assumptions, and putting carts in front of horses.

Now they're at it again -- some of them, anyway.

The Pistons took care of the Indiana Pacers rather handily, 96-81, in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series. Now this wasn't all that surprising, considering the Pacers had only dispatched of the Boston Celtics in a seventh game 48 hours earlier and the Pistons had time to rest, heal their aches and pains, take a vacation to Paris, and return. And they were the home team.

But already some ink-stained wretches have this series signed, sealed and delivered for the Pistons in four, maybe five games. To hear them tell it, Indiana will be lucky to steal even one game in this series.

Oh, when will they ever learn?!

Calling a series over after one game is foolhearty, but hardly without precedent. And, to be fair, it isn't just the Detroit media that is guilty of it. Do I think the Pistons will win it? Absolutely. But I also won't be surprised if it goes at least six tough games.

The Pacers know how to win in Detroit, and if they "ugly" it up, they can make this interesting. Coach Rick Carlisle has done a phenomenal job squeezing as much out of his at-times depleted squad as is humanly possible, and it's quite likely the Pacers will straighten out their act once they find their legs and get into the swing of things in this series.

Besides, how many times has a team looked awful early in a series, yet pulled itself together in time to win the darn thing? A best-of-seven series is a grind-it-out battle of attrition, full of peaks and valleys. In the 1997 Western Conference Finals, the Red Wings, leading 3-1, got spanked by the Avalanche in Denver, 7-0. Two nights later, the Wings ousted the Avs. In '99, the Wings won the first two games of the Conference Semifinals in Denver, and with Red Wings fans -- and media -- crowing about a sweep, the Avalanche got Valeri Kamensky back in the lineup, and four games later the Avs were moving on and the Red Wings were planning tee times.

Need I mention last year's ALCS? You know the one -- when the Yankees blew a 3-0 series lead? Or, more recently, this year's NBA first round in the West, with the Dallas Mavericks losing Games 1 and 2 at home, yet regrouping and capturing the series with a colossal Game 7 blowout?

Oh, there's more, believe me -- but you get the drift.

There's no question the Pistons should eliminate the Pacers; they are deeper, more talented, and have the heart of a champion.

But don't let Helen St. James of the Detroit Free Press fool you -- it won't be over in four, or five. Alas, some folks just don't learn lessons very easily.

Monday, May 09, 2005

How About Those #$%!# White Sox?

Damaso Marte (left) after saving another one for the 24-7 White Sox

In 1984, the Tigers got off to that amazing 35-5 start. Never again, we said -- never again would a team equal that after 40 games.

Well, the Chicago White Sox won't, either, but they might come close -- close enough to be within a couple games of it. The Pale Hose are 24-7, and what's to say they can't win, say, seven of their next nine games and be 31-9?

Isn't 31-9 almost in that rareified air of 35-5? Heck, isn't it close to enough to tip your caps to them?

It looked like the White Sox were coming down to earth after they started 16-4 (the '84 Tigers were 18-2), when they lost three straight. But they're off and running again, on an eight-game winning streak as of this writing to climb to the aforementioned 24-7.

Hardly anyone talked about the White Sox as a contender in the A.L. Central during spring training. After all, they lost free agent slugger Magglio Ordonez, and their offense wasn't all that much with him. It was supposed to be the Twins and the resurgent Indians, and if you listened to Tigers DH Dmitri Young, you could forget the Twins and narrow it down to Detroit and Cleveland.

Guillen, in a typical pose

But here the White Sox are, getting timely hitting, great starting pitching, and becoming a mirror image of their feisty manager, Ozzie Guillen. The ex-shortstop is a pugnacious little guy, and as much as I thought his brief war of words with Ordonez was unseemly ("F*** him -- he's a piece of s***"), I kinda admired his spunk. Baseball needs fiery managers. Most of them are too vanilla for my liking.

The White Sox will come down to earth, no question.

Then again, that's what everyone said about the '84 Tigers.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Insignificant Tiger: Bobby Higginson

An $8.85 million extra:
Bobby Higginson

If I was Bobby Higginson, I would either: a) prepare for life after baseball, or b) keep my mouth shut.

Higginson, who should kiss the ground of every big league stadium he sees this season, is instead crabby. He barely made the team at all in spring training, and that was largely because of the deference manager Alan Trammell showed to him because of his seniority, instead of young Marcus Thames, who simply bashes the baseball and doesn't appear ready to stop. Higgy's appearance on the Tigers' roster instead of Thames was a bone of contention for a few days, especially for veteran Dmitri Young, who said Thames had gotten "screwed." But it was all moot when free agent signee Magglio Ordonez' insides went funny and he ended up on the DL, freeing a spot for Thames after all. In case you forgot, Thames hit a grand slam in his first game this season, just hours after arriving in Detroit and barely having slept.

As for Higginson, his contribution thus far is as follows: 26 at bats, two hits, .077 average, one RBI. And this is what he had to say to Jim Hawkins of the Oakland Press: "I thought I was supposed to be insurance in case a guy went down. Well, Magglio (Ordonez) went down, and I'm still not playing."

It would be different, and maybe Higginson's side of the story would invoke more empathy, if the last several seasons hadn't been so non-productive. But the truth is, Higginson hasn't come close to earning his fat contract which was signed after his breakout season of 2000, when he was basically a 30 HR, 100 RBI, .300 guy. Starting in 2001, he was mostly a .240, 10 HR, 50 RBI guy. Now he's not even that.

"I'm just an extra guy," Higginson admitted to Hawkins. "I guess that's what they're calling it now."

I don't want to be too hard on Bobby, because he did have some serviceable years for some pretty awful Tigers teams. This is his 11th season in Detroit. He was the face of the franchise, such as it was, for a few years. He was a Tiger you might want to watch play in person, when not another one of them you would care to see.

But unfortunately, long careers don't always end the way you'd like them to, especially in Detroit. Our football team knows that all too well; Barry Sanders, Herman Moore and Robert Porcher, probably the best Lions ever at their respective positions, all had their careers in Detroit end unceremoniously. Lucky and blessed is any athlete who can ride off into the sunset in the manner by which he (or she) chooses.

Sanders, Moore and Porcher (l to r) all had their careers
in Detroit end in a less-than-desirable fashion

Such seems to be the case with Higginson. It's going to end badly -- we just don't know how, or when. It could be next week, could be after the All-Star game, could be in the cold of November or December. It's like watching someone die slowly of a terminal disease.

Nobody wants to sit on the bench, and Higginson is experiencing culture shock like few athletes ever do -- suddenly playing the role of 25th man on a 25-man roster when he is used to being in the lineup pretty much every day.

Tigers life is lonely these days for Higgy

So I will allow Higgy his verbal moments, no matter how little outrage they inspire among Tigers loyalists. But I really do wish he'd zip it. Speaking obviously of Trammell, Higginson told Hawkins, "There are ways to get guys at-bats. You see other teams do it. But that's the manager's decision."

Yes, just as it was his decision to keep an over-the-hill 35 year-old over a promising rookie who did nothing except hit the cover off the ball in Florida.

You try and do a guy a favor....

Friday, May 06, 2005

Stormin' Into My Baseball Heart: Norm Cash

(To help celebrate the return of the baseball All-Star game to Detroit this summer, each Friday between now and the game, "Out of Bounds" will look back at a different Tigers player who toiled for the club since the last Detroit All-Star game in 1971)

Stormin' Norman Cash: Character, Anomaly

To this day, I haven't taken the end of any Tiger player's career as hard as I did Norm Cash's in 1974, and it's unlikely I ever will -- we're talking over 30 years ago here.

I was fond of Cash because he was a character, and I always gravitated to that type. Alex Karras with the Lions, Bugsy Watson with the Red Wings -- for guys like these I had a special place.

Plus, Cash, who played for the team for 15 years (1960-74), had a brief TV show in Detroit, and that was in the early 70's, way before cable and satellite and when every Tom, Dick and Harry could have a TV show. I even remember some of the theme song: "I'm a swinger, and I'll swing, swing, swing....I'm a swinger, and I'll swing, swing swing..."

Okay, it wasn't Irving Berlin stuff, but I'm pretty sure Cash sung it -- and probably wrote it as well. It was a little talk show, and of course his guests were always fellow Tigers players. I doubt very much it was Emmy material.

Cash jacked several homers over the right field roof at old Tiger Stadium. He also struck out a lot. I remember at Norm Cash Day, one of the sportswriters presented him with a baseball bat full of holes, like Swiss cheese, to commemorate all the whiffs. You do that nowadays, you get asked to step outside the lockerroom.

Cash also was the author of one of baseball's greatest anomalies. A career .271 hitter, Cash had an incredible year in 1961, batting .361 with 41 homers and 132 RBI. He never came close to any of those figures after that. Years later, Stormin' Norman admitted he was aided by a corked bat. I even thought that admission was another thing to add to his colorful legacy. But in the clutch, Cash produced. In the '68 World Series and '72 ALCS combined, Cash batted .310 with two home runs in 45 at bats.

But in August 1974 -- on my birthday, no less -- the 39 year-old Cash was waived by the team, his average in the low .200's and his spot on the team clearly gone. I cried and created a Norm Cash Shrine in my bedroom, with photos and the cut out headline from the Free Press. "Cash Cut, Northrup Traded As Tigers' Shakeup Begins." Jim Northrup went bye-bye that day, too, but it was the cashiering of Cash that bothered me most, by far.

Cash in 1974, just before
it all ended as a Tiger

Cash was a Texas boy who spoke with a drawl and did goofy things, like wear sunglasses with tiny windshield wipers on them in spring training, and doffing his cap as he was being carried off on a stretcher after damaging his ankle sliding into home plate. He also did something else I'd never known anyone else to do: against right handed pitchers, the lefthanded-hitting Cash wouldn't wear a helmet. Instead, he wore a small protective lining beneath his baseball cap. I always thought that was the coolest thing. Needless to say, my attempts to do something similar in Little League were met with outrageous disapproval.

Unfortunately, it was Cash's penchant for misadventure that contributed to his untimely death at age 51 in 1986. In the northern Lower Peninsula, Cash, who had been drinking, slipped and fell off a dock into some shallow water. But it was deep enough to drown him.

I took that hard, too.

(next Friday: Bill Freehan)

Thursday, May 05, 2005

George Should Fire Torre -- If He Wants To Give Up On 2005

Four World Series titles since 1996
may not be enough to save Torre

When the Tigers fired Billy Martin in 1973, the Texas Rangers hired him within a week. When Martin was canned by the Rangers in 1975, the Yankees came calling days later.

If the Yankees are foolish/smart enough to axe Joe Torre (whichever adjective you choose to use is okay by me), he may set a new record for Shortest Time Between Managers Jobs.

Of course, if Torre were let go, he may not want to so much as sniff a baseball stadium, let alone manage again, at least not right away. Joe will be 65 this summer, and after 9+ seasons managing in the biggest fish bowl in sports, he might want to finally draw his blinds.

But if he is willing, there are a couple handfuls of teams that would be placing calls to his agent, should Torre indeed be fired. The Yankees are a very un-Yankee-like 11-17, and are looking more and more pedestrian every day. They just gave up 11 runs on successive nights to the -- cough, cough -- Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Firing Torre would be the ultimate act of desperation, though, even for someone as impetuous as George Steinbrenner. The team is simply not playing anywhere near their abilities, and though some of it can be attributed to age, it's mostly a case of everyone underachieving at once. But hasn't Torre earned the opportunity to get it fixed after more than just 27 games?

Proponents of the idea of cashiering Torre say it would be just the shakeup the team needs. But it's funny how folks who want a coach or manager fired hardly ever have someone in mind as a replacement. I haven't heard too many names bantied about, mainly because there aren't too many names out there who could thrive under such circumstances. Besides, Torre can manage a bit, too, and how many guys possess a combination of his skills and aura and resume? Tell me, who would you hire to replace Joe Torre?

That's not to say that Torre is irreplaceable, of course. But at this juncture, barely in May, the team still not all that far from first place (or even a Wild Card spot) --is this really the time for someone to hop onto The Steinbrenner Express? If Torre is to go, perhaps it should be at the end of the season, after 2005 plays out, or sometime during the final month, if the Yankees are hopelessly far behind a playoff spot.

Yes, the Yankees imploded during last year's ALCS, blowing a 3-0 series lead. Yes, the team hasn't won a World Series since 2000, despite having the highest payroll in the universe year after year. Yes, the Torre magic might be wearing off. These days, to manage or coach some place for nine years in a row is like the 50 years Connie Mack put in with his Philadelphia A's in the early 20th century. But a managerial move now would be terribly premature and, frankly, probably wouldn't produce the desired results anyway. Don't expect another Bob Lemon this time.

Lemon (left) was like night and day
compared to the fiery Martin

For those who don't know, don't care, or who were born after 1975, Lemon was the man Steinbrenner hired to replace Martin in June 1978, the club 11 or 12 games behind the Red Sox. Lemon brought with him a calming presence, and the team caught fire, catching the Red Sox and beating them in the infamous Bucky Dent playoff for the divisional title.

But Lemon was a former manager himself, steeped in baseball knowledge and experience, presented with a win/win situation. Nobody expected much that late in the season, with the Yankees that far behind the lead. Besides, Lemon was a breath of fresh air for the players after the stormy Martin. Everyone relaxed, the pressure off, and it showed on the field.

The situation this time is far different.

Steinbrenner, and Yankees fans, should pull their fingers as far away from the panic button as possible. There are still 135 games to play. Actually, if you ask me, maybe some players should be canned instead.

Now you know why there is no such thing as a guaranteed contract for a manager.