Sunday, July 31, 2005

Shootouts? No Red Line? Smaller Goalie Pads? This Isn't Your Father's Hockey League

(the following column can also be viewed at, where a new column from yours truly appears each Sunday or Monday. They will also appear here for your reading pleasure. For archives of my columns there, go to and click on "Columnists")

When the NHL -- a.k.a. the NO Hockey League -- recently announced the ratification of its new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), commissioner Gary Bettman, perhaps the most irrelevant man in professional sports, looked into the cameras and lowered his mouth toward the microphones and said of the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season, "To all of the fans out there, I promise we’ll make it up to you."

Oh? I’m dying to find out how Bettman plans on doing that. What does he mean, he’ll make it up to me? Is he going to change the oil on my car? Mow my lawn for a month? Give me a ticket to a game for half off?

But then I figured it out, sort of. I’m guessing Bettman is trying to "make it up" by introducing a bastardized version of hockey that you would be accustomed to find in the lower minors. Of course, you could make an argument that the NHL itself is a lower minor league. Ba-da-bum.

Seriously, have you read the rule changes that the league plans on implementing this season? They look like a list that some beer leaguers came up with on a cocktail napkin at their favorite pub: No red line. Smaller goalie pads. Some weird trapezoid thingie behind the net. Smaller neutral zones. Teams that ice the puck can’t make a line change. Less room behind the goals. And, worst of all, shootouts to determine winners of tie games.

First, a word about shootouts. And that word is, $#&%!. I’m sorry, but until major league baseball decides to have a home run derby instead of extra innings, or the NBA holds a slam dunk contest instead of having to suffer through the inconvenience of overtime, or the NFL trots out a punt, pass and kick thing so coaches like Marty Mornhinweg don’t have to worry about taking the wind in overtime, then you can take your shootouts and stuff them in your five hole.

I know I might be in the minority here, because old-time hockey fans like me are becoming as much of a part of American history as the Edsel and New Coke. But I like to think there are enough of my type to make me feel not like a party pooper, but rather a voice of reason. Do we really need to determine winners after 65 minutes -- 60 of regulation and 5 of overtime -- by watching six penalty shots in a row? In case you don’t know, the shootout event kicks in if the game is tied after the five-minute overtime, which itself is already bastardized because teams play four skaters a side during it. In the shootout, three skaters from each team get one breakaway attempt each. If the contest is still tied, there will be a sudden death-type shootout. And so on, and so on, until a winner is determined. Heaven forbid there actually be a tie game, after all.

For those of you who are jiggling and wiggling in your seat with excitement and anticipation because the thought of all those penalty shots is just too much to handle, buckle yourself in and let me tell you something. I agree that the penalty shot is one of the most exciting plays in sports. That’s because -- and stick with me here -- they hardly ever occur. Ever hear the saying, "Too much of a good thing...."? I guarantee you, watching six or seven or 10 or 12 penalty shots in a row will dilute the play’s excitement like a gallon of water added to a tea bag. And that’s what you’ll be subjected to, if the shootout thing goes into sudden-death. Some of you may even be hoping that the Red Wings’ opponents score, just to get the game over with.

Forgive me if I sound like an old fuddy-duddy -- I detest the DH in baseball, to show you where I’m coming from -- but ending an NHL game with a shootout is...just plain wrong. First, it gives an unfair advantage to a team with a lot of scorers and penalizes the more defensive-minded teams who worked their rear ends off to broker a tie after 65 minutes to begin with. Granted, a shootout loser still gets a point in the standings (the winner gets two), but those single points add up and can mean something at the end of the season, like whether or not you make the playoffs, where, by the way, shootouts are outlawed. Which brings up another point. If the NHL is so sweet on shootouts, then why don’t they use them in playoff games? Two possibilities: a) the shootout idea isn’t good enough for the playoffs, which makes it flawed from the get go, or b) because the one thing the NHL still has going for itself is the drama of sudden death playoff overtime. And there is drama because such extra sessions only happen in April, May and June. So we’re back to the "you’re gonna dilute the penalty shot" thing.

Like I said, I understand I am probably spitting in the wind here. I can sort of understand what the NHL is trying to do: lure the casual fans back to the game. They know they already have die-hards like me in the fold, although I didn’t miss the game as much as I thought, for whatever that’s worth. The league knows I will be tuning in. They’re going after those who have a lukewarm interest in the game. Fine. So I guess I can abide the shutouts for the greater good. Doesn’t mean I’m happy about it, though.

Other rule changes include eliminating the center red line, which will cut down on offside passes and that’s actually a good thing. Also, supposedly the referees have been mandated to have "zero tolerance" when it comes to interference and grabbing. So while the longlasting effect might be a more open game that benefits the skilled teams, expect tons of penalties for a while. Players can now "tag up" -- leaving the offensive zone and returning -- without fear of a whistle for delayed offsides. Again, okay with me.

But then the league got goofy again. All NHL rinks will now have a trapezoid -- yes, trapezoid -- sectioned off, outlined in paint, behind each net. Goaltenders will not be able to handle the puck outside the ‘zoid -- zoid is void, remember that -- without fear of being whistled for delay of game. The league says this will keep the puck moving. Forget that some netminders handle the puck better than some defensemen I’ve seen. Regardless, I think this is over-legislation, not to mention a waste of paint. And the league can use every penny it can get its hockey gloves on.

Speaking of goaltenders, pads will be smaller on them. I don’t have much of a problem with this, since a lot of them nowadays are starting to look like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. The NHL even toyed with the notion of making the goals themselves larger. Why not stop there? Make the pucks smaller and the sticks longer and hey, make it a rule that you can’t play goal if you’re taller than 5’2". You want more offense? That’ll be a start.

All of this is well and good, but you could make the nets as big as soccer goals and play the game with two pucks at a time, but it’s not going to mean diddly squat unless the game takes a serious look at itself, and how it’s marketed and figures out why in the world there are franchises in Columbus and Atlanta and Miami and Nashville but not in Minnesota or in more Canadian cities. Maybe they are addressing this with the new CBA, somewhere in the small print. The NHL grew itself too fast into some illogical cities, and now they’re in this financial mess. Perhaps the most humiliating blow was when ESPN refused to sign back up for another TV package, even at half the old rate. When they’d rather show billiards or poker or figure skating, then you know you have an identity crisis on your hands.

Finally, the computer spit out a schedule for this season, and not once do the Red Wings play Montreal, Toronto or Boston. That’s four of the Original Six that won’t play each other in 2005-06. Maybe it’s all well and good. To see a Red Wings-Maple Leafs game decided by a shootout doesn’t exactly thrill me.

But then again, the league has already taken my support for granted. And the worse thing is, they’re right.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

I'm Not Wild About These Playoff Chances....

We all have things we’d like to believe.

I’d like to believe, for instance, that hot dogs are made of ingredients that, if revealed, wouldn’t gag a maggot. I’d like to believe that on the day I go to renew my plate tabs, there won’t be a line at the Secretary of State’s office. I’d like to believe that July isn’t almost over with.

And I’d also like to believe that the Tigers are legitimate contenders for a wild card playoff spot.

They’re not, you know, and I’m sorry to burst your bubble, no matter how tiny, even if it is champagne sized. But the Tigers are no more in the hunt for a wild card berth than I am in the hunt for a size 32 waist pant -- and I slip comfortably into a 38, thank you.

I know this to be true because you can’t be a contender for anything except a good draft position unless you’re able to bob above the .500 surface and continue to rise. You can’t be considered a playoff contender when four or five teams, at least, are ahead of you in line, because it’s one thing to leap frog a team or two, but quite another when you need an Evel Knievel-type jump to spring past a logjam.

It’s fun to think that it’s possible, of course. It’s cute and sweet to see the Tigers listed, albeit on the bottom, on ESPN’s wild card standings. It’s encouraging to hear manager Alan Trammell and his players talk bravely of believing they are in the hunt, because what else would you like them to say? That this year is shot? It makes for a nice daydream to imagine the Tigers playing a meaningful series at Comerica in mid-August.

But it’s just not in the (wild) cards, folks. And deep down, you know I’m right.

That the Tigers cannot hoist themselves over the .500 plateau is both puzzling and discouraging. They would appear to have a decent batting lineup. Their pitching, especially the starters and Kyle Farnsworth and Jamie Walker in the bullpen, has been mostly above average. Their defense has been steady if not spectacular. Yet the team continues to treat .500 like a hot potato.

Is it the managing? Is it bad luck? Is it something in the Detroit water? I hate to say it, but it might be the first thing.

Trammell is alright, I suppose, but he makes some curious decisions. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but small things like knowing when to hit and run and when to rest players and when to remove a pitcher -- these things I am not sure he has totally gotten the hang of yet, and it is costing the team some games. The Tigers are pretty good at grounding into double plays, for example, yet the green light has rarely been on for the hit-and-run. Consequently, potential big innings are being killed like bugs under your shoe.

I don’t like to fancy myself as a know-it-all when it comes to coaching and managing, because those types turn me off when they harp on it constantly. But I have a hunch that Alan Trammell is struggling to tread water at this point in his managing career. He finally has the horses to make a go at it, yet the team has failed to put together one of those bad-ass 13-4 runs that can spring you past some teams in the standings. And do you truly think one of those mean streaks is on its way?

There isn’t much more to shout about when it comes to the 2005 Tigers, except maybe to see how some of the youngsters pan out in August and September. There are too many teams, too many far better teams, ahead of them to even remotely entertain the possibility of the Detroit Tigers being a playoff contender.

You see, there are also some things you would like NOT to believe.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Hot Fun In The Summertime -- Football Style

It’s NFL training camp time again, and everything is so pristine. Around here, that means the Lions haven’t fumbled a snap on an extra point, haven’t allowed a team to convert 3rd-and-18, and haven’t thrown a six-yard pass when they need seven.

Anything is possible for your favorite team in July and August. The offensive line doesn’t look...offensive, the defensive secondary appears capable of being a strength, and all the running backs and receivers look like big playmakers through the rose-colored glasses of summertime.

Coaches love this time of year, too. Every head coach in the NFL fancies himself as a molder and leader of men, and for them, training camp is like the x’s and o’s of their chalkboards have come alive as real people. This is the time to reinforce to the veterans how things will be done, and to let the rookies know that this ain’t college anymore, baby. Around the league, hundreds of 21 and 22 year-olds will be working their fannies off trying to impress everyone from the strength and conditioning coach to the curious fans gathered around the practice field.
They say there is a light on Broadway for every broken heart that’s tried to make it there. In the NFL, the same thing applies for every blocking dummy, every whistle toot, every wind sprint. Way more rooks will get cut than not, and dozens of veterans will suddenly find out that their career after football is about to begin sooner than they thought, or were prepared for.

The Lions have held camp at the Cranbrook school off Woodward in Bloomfield, Oakland University in Rochester, the grounds of the Silverdome, and now in Allen Park. From Bobby Layne’s nightly carousing to the filming of the movie "Paper Lion" to the death of a head coach to Darryl Rogers’ country clubs to Wayne Fontes’ golf cart to Barry Sanders’ almost yearly holdouts to Bobby Ross’ supposed one-way tickets out of town, the Lions have had a rather rich and colorful history of football, summertime-style. Maybe it’s been more fun than their autumn football, when it comes right down to it.

Former defensive tackle Alex Karras once co-wrote a couple of columns with the Free Press’ George Puscas in which Karras reminisced about his early days as a Lion. What struck me was his prose about his rookie year, and a training camp which saw him tabbed by the great quarterback Layne to be Bobby’s personal chauffeur and designated drinking partner.

"I can’t believe I made the team, because I played so poorly," Karras wrote. "And the reason I played so poorly was because I was hungover every day." Apparently, Karras drove Layne around Pontiac, back in the Cranbrook days, and almost drank himself to death trying to keep up with Layne’s whiskey binges. Ah, the good old days.

Karras (left) was Layne's reluctant drinking buddy in 1958's camp

1967’s camp saw a Hollywood movie crew invading Cranbrook to film scenes for "Paper Lion," the film adaptaion of George Plimpton’s book, which was his diary of posing as a rookie trying to make the Lions roster as a quarterback. The movie featured Karras and offensive lineman John Gordy, as well as rookie head coach Joe Schmidt. If you ever get a chance, rent it. It’s a wonderful nostalgia trip, and the only time you’ll see Alan Alda in football gear, guaranteed.

There was tragedy, too, in Lions camp. Head coach Don McCafferty, about to begin his second season in Detroit, suffered a fatal heart attack early in camp in 1974. Talk about a horrible way to kickoff a season. McCafferty’s death thrust little-known Rick Forzano into the spotlight as head coach, and just when you thought the Lions couldn’t have had a more unassuming head coach, Forzano gave way to another no-name, Tommy Hudspeth, in 1976. When both men left town, everyone was still saying, "Who?"

Who can forget the images of Fontes toting around in his golf cart, smoking a cigar, kibitzing with reporters and hugging owner Bill Ford? And remember Sanders and his fondness for avoiding camp, supposedly because of contract matters? Of course, Barry needed training camp to get ready for the upcoming season about as much as God needed his seventh day to get ready for the upcoming world. But the one player who could have used training camp the most, quarterback Andre Ware, missed almost all of 1990’s, and the rest is ghoulish history.

So now here we are, in 2005, and as usual, the Lions’ roster looks so much better in July than it typically plays in November. There is a juicy QB controversy just waiting to develop, another usual thing, and another coach is on the hot seat. So what else is new when it comes to summertime football in Detroit?

Enjoy your two-a-days.

By the way, check out "Cheap Seats", a new addition to the "Out of Bounds" blogroll. The Bleacher Guy has a very entertaining, informative Detroit sports blog. You can visit him at

Thursday, July 28, 2005

40 Hits In July: Chris Shelton Going Batty For Tigers

Ready for a pop quiz?

Quick now, which player has the most hits in major league baseball in the month of July? Yes, I said the entire major leagues. The most hits. The month of July.

That I know the answer is the Tigers’ Chris Shelton can only be attributed to the fact that Mario Impemba and Rod Allen made a note of it during Wednesday night’s broadcast. But I didn’t need that fact -- though very impressive -- to confirm that Shelton is a hitting machine that is going to light up Comerica Park and Tigers fans hearts for years to come.

Detroit's next hitting star? Oh yeah

This redheaded kid, this Shelton, simply straps it on every day and works the count and just about handles every pitch that is thrown his way. He strikes out a little bit, but he knocks in runs like a bowler knocks down pins. Also mentioned during Wednesday’s broadcast was Shelton’s batting average this season while the count was full: .438. Who does he think he is, Ted Williams?

Okay, so he’s not THAT good, but his overall average is in the rarified air of .360+ and every time I look at a box score, it seems like he’s gotten two more hits. Maybe that’s why Shelton, with 40 hits for the month going into Wednesday’s game, has more base hits than anyone in the big leagues during July.

Shelton was a steal, which makes his contributions all the more delicious. He was one of those Rule 5 guys, meaning the Tigers basically got him for nothing, as long as he stayed on the major league roster for all of 2004, which he did, but he hardly got any at-bats. Still, I had heard nothing but good things about this kid -- that he hit everywhere he played and had a wonderful command of the strike zone. Just wait til you see this Chris Shelton, those in the know said.

Well, I have seen this Chris Shelton, and the way he’s anchored the #3 spot in the batting order like a 10-year veteran, and I am telling you right now, he’s going to make this town go crazy in the years to come. He’s not flashy, so he won’t turn us on with pizazz, but he will, mark my words, be one of those Alan Trammell-like fixtures here -- substance over style. I mean, come on -- he’s hitting .360 already, for crying out loud. So what happens when he really gets the hang of this major league thing?

From what I’ve seen, Shelton is not an all-hit, no-field type. He plays a more than decent first base. He’s not going to hurt you in the field. But it won’t be his glove work that will make him a star in major league baseball. This kid simply hits the tar out of the ball, but he makes it easier on himself by having such a keen eye at the plate. The strikeouts aside, Shelton makes the pitcher work, every at-bat. He has tremendous patience. A Chris Shelton at-bat might take seven or eight pitches to complete. Even if he doesn’t get on base, that’s okay, because if every Tiger worked the pitcher as hard as Shelton does, the team would be wearing down a whole lot more arms than they are now.

As far as weak spots, I haven’t seen too many when it comes to Shelton. He seems to be able to hit it wherever it’s thrown and however it’s thrown -- high and inside, low and outside, breaking balls, fastballs, sliders, you name it. And he has some pop -- nine homers already in under 200 at-bats.

No, Chris Shelton won’t bowl you over with his flash or his personality or his bravado. All he’ll do is show up to the ballpark and slap a couple of hits around, maybe poke a homer here and there, and drive in some people.

That exciting enough for you?

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Stop Me If You've Heard This One....

There are some things in the world of sports, when said or read, are bound to elicit laughter.

The Los Angeles Clippers. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Curling. Anna Kournikova’s tennis career.

Here’s another one for you: Larry Brown to the New York Knicks.

Woo-hoo! Oh, I’m rolling on the floor with sides hurt. Man, does that bring tears to my eyes!
If taking the Knicks job doesn’t prove that Brown is a coaching whore, then I don’t know what will. Why in the world would he want to coach the Knicks? The roster is a nightmare, the ownership is suspect, and Isiah Thomas is flailing, making his stint leading the Toronto Raptors look like Red Auerbach with the Celtics.

My feelings exactly

This is just so funny, I hardly know where to begin. Shall we start with all the lies and disingenuous things Brown has said? I thought Detroit would be his last NBA coaching job. I thought he only uttered the "New York would be a dream job" comment in passing, harmlessly. I thought he was tired of moving around, lugging the "nomad" tag like an albatross around his neck. And then there was the hilarious smoke screen that he was supposedly "concerned" about displacing interim Knicks coach Herb Williams. That may have been the funniest of them all.

The laughs don’t stop there, people. The Knicks franchise itself is a chuckle fest. The team is ridiculously small and full of coaching headaches (read: Stephon Marbury). They haven’t made any noise in the playoffs since Pat Ewing was their center. Thomas is clue free. The fans will just as soon defecate on you than laud you. Oh well -- it was either Brown or Spike Lee, I suppose. Or Williams. As soon as Brown’s name surfaced as a possible replacement, Herb Williams became the most interim head coach in the history of sports. Another funny thing: the head coaching part of Williams’ contract expires July 31, but the assistant coaching part of it extends through next season. Hey, I want HIS agent.

Of course, $50 or $60 million is a lot of jack, and I can’t say I would have turned it down if I was Larry, from a money standpoint. But a lot of teams would have come up with that dollar amount, or close to it, if they wanted a shot at Brown. He could have waited and picked a more stable situation that was more conducive to winning. Instead, he picked the Knicks, a franchise with a rich history, but a poor future.

Maybe Brown liked the idea of the Knicks as a reclamation project. He did take the Clippers to the playoffs, after all. But that was 13 years ago. Brown is 64 now and in questionable health. I don’t think there is one doctor out there -- including the quacks -- who would prescribe coaching the New York Knicks for a man with the physical baggage Brown now carries, along with all that luggage. Or maybe he just likes introductory press conferences. Maybe he’s a deli guy. Regardless, LB will soon find out that even though Isiah and Joe Dumars were backcourt mates, unfortunately the GM gene was only deposited in one of them, and it wasn’t the point guard.

Of course, as frequently as Larry Brown carts himself around the NBA, ironically he may last longer in New York than Thomas. Any power struggles that ensue -- and they will, believe me -- will almost certainly be won by the coach. Placing Brown’s resume next to Isiah’s is going to look like the Dead Sea Scrolls sitting beside a McDonald’s job application.

Well, good luck to everyone in New York -- Brown, Isiah, the players, the fans. And remember, Knick boosters, the only reason to laugh is if you don’t, you’ll cry. And they won’t be the big, fat crocodile tears Larry Brown is shedding over replacing Herb Williams.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

You're Traded! (As Long As The Other Guy Says It's Okay)

So what do you think Baltimore Orioles GM Jim Beattie will say to pitcher Sidney Ponson the next time he sees him?

"Um...that little trade didn’t take that personally, did you?"

"I didn’t really want to trade you....ownership made me do it"

"I knew it wouldn’t go through...I just had to humor the Padres."

"Sometimes the best trades are the ones that get blocked by the other player’s no-trade clause."

The Orioles had a deal on the table with the San Diego Padres: Ponson for first baseman Phil Nevin, straight up. It was shaken on by both GM’s -- Baltimore’s Beattie and San Diego’s Kevin Towers. The newspapers reported it. Both players were informed. Both managers started plotting their strategies with their new players plugged into the roster. Fans from both cities flooded sports talk radio with their opinions of the new Oriole and the new Padre.

Only one problem: Nevin didn’t feel like going to Baltimore. Normally this wouldn’t mean a hill of beans, because players get traded all the time, even if they go to their new city kicking and screaming. But being a "5 and 10" man -- five years with one team, 10 years in the big leagues -- Nevin has the right to waive a trade, plus it’s in his contract. And he wanted to waive that right, very much. So Ponson stays an Oriole, Nevin a Padre, and both GM’s are presumably consulting White House staff for their advice on damage control.

The funny thing is, this isn’t the first time the Padres have tried to trade Nevin, only to be rebuffed by their player. Nevin nixed a deal in December 2002 that would have sent him to the Reds for Ken Griffey, Jr. If I were Phil Nevin, I’d approach GM Towers and ask, "What part of NO-trade clause don’t you understand?"

And how about Ponson? He didn’t have such authority to say yea or ney to a trade, so he basically twisted in the wind while Nevin made up his mind: surfing or crabcakes? Uprooting his wife and kids wasn’t an attractive idea for the die-hard Padre, so Ponson stays with a team that can’t exactly be giving him a warm and fuzzy feeling right about now. I thought Baltimore’s 40 year-old first baseman Rafael Palmeiro showed his experience by uttering these "cover my ass" words about the trade, prior to Nevin’s decision to stay put: "I think it would be great to have a hitter like (Nevin) in the lineup, but we have to worry about our pitching staff now." Well done, Raffy, well done!

They say trades are part of the game, but what about almost-trades? How is a player like Ponson supposed to handle this? Granted, he’s been slumping, but what do players typically say when they’re dealt? "At least I’m going somewhere where I’m wanted." I guess Ponson is left to say, "Well, I almost went someplace that wanted me; now I have to go back to a place that thought they’d be a better team without me on it." Great cure for a slump, I tell you.

The richest quote in the aftermath of Ponson-almost-for-Nevin came from Towers, who was also behind that non-trade of Nevin to the Reds.

"It’s pretty clear where he (Nevin) wants to be," Towers said.

Ya think, Kevin?

Monday, July 25, 2005

Yes, Virginia, It's True -- Lions Have A Shot In 2005

The Lions open training camp this week, which means we will have the same feelings about them as we have had in every other year that starts with "19" -- maybe THIS will be the year it all comes together so the team can reach its goal of winning....a playoff game.

I would have said Super Bowl, except for the realization that you have to start somewhere smaller as a goal when you’re talking about the Lions, a franchise that has exactly one playoff victory -- none on the road -- since 1957.

But that disclaimer being said, this year, to me, has some parallels with 1992 and 1996.

In each of those years, the Lions, I thought, were on their way to something special, finally. That lone playoff win I referenced occurred after the ’91 season, a postseason in which the team actually made it all the way to the NFC Championship game. Sure, they got thumped by the Redskins, as could have been predicted, but league records shall forever show that the Detroit Lions reached the NFL version of the Final Four in 1991-92.

Everything seemed in place for the 1992 squad to make some noise. They were, after all, mostly the same bunch that had the magical 12-4 season of the year prior, a record that may have been artificially inflated thanks to an emotional wild card called Thumbs Up for Mike Utley. But whether the Lions owed some of their 1991 success to the on-field tragedy that was guard Utley’s paralysis is circumspect. On paper, the ’92 Lions were practically the same as the ’91 version. But the 1992 Lions lost the opener in Chicago on the game’s final play, and that pretty much was a microcosm of how the entire year would go. The record? 5-11. So much for carry over from ‘91’s brilliance.

In 1996, the Lions were coming off a season in ’95 that saw all sorts of offensive records being broken -- individual and team, both for the Lions and the NFL. It was the Scott Mitchell Sold His Soul To The Devil season. Mitchell threw for over 4,000 yards and had 32 TD passes, many to the duo of Herman Moore and Brett Perriman, who combined for over 230 catches and 3,100 yards between them. After a 3-6 start and a threat from owner Bill Ford that coach Wayne Fontes would be fired unless the team made the playoffs, the Lions rattled off seven straight wins to finish the season 10-6. Momentum was growing. The Lions appeared capable of doing some damage in the playoffs. They did damage all right -- to the pride of Lions fans everywhere. They got massacred in Philly, 58-37, a playoff game in which they trailed at one point, 51-7.

Still, the hope was that despite that awful ending to a season, the ’96 Lions could use their seven straight regular season wins and 10-6 record from 1995 and build on it. Again, they were mostly the same team on paper, just as they were from 1991 to 1992. Instead, the Lions never got it going in ’96 as Mitchell came back to earth and the defense suffered some major setbacks. The result was 6-10 and the firing of Fontes, as threatened a year prior.

So now we have 2005, and when you look at this year’s Lions roster, when has it looked so young yet experienced, so talented, so promising, on both sides of the ball? Honestly -- take your Lions rose-colored glasses off for a moment and be honest with yourself. Doesn’t this year’s team seem poised to do some special things soon, if not this season? Isn’t there more speed and youth, especially at the skill positions, than you can shake a stick at? Isn’t there more athleticism and veteran leadership in the secondary than maybe since the ’91 defensive backfield of Ray Crockett, Bennie Blades, Melvin Jenkins and William White? Doesn’t the coaching situation seem to be as set as ever before?

Yet these are the Lions, and despite the fact that the correct answer to all of the above questions is "yes", I can only recall ’92 and ’96, when dreams of legitimate success went down the tube and in a hurry.

Still, Lions or no Lions, the roster of the NFL entry from Detroit is a pretty decent one, folks. Everything seems in place to make a run at a division title, at the very least. Look, I know it seems like we’ve been down this road before with the Lions -- training camp optimism and all that. And I know you may be sneering or smirking as you read this. So I guess all there is to do is for the team to wipe that sneer or smirk off your face.

Isn’t football in late July fun?

Sunday, July 24, 2005

His Numbers Not As Big As Howe's, But Yzerman Greatest Red Wing Ever

(the following column can also be viewed at, where a new column from yours truly appears each Sunday or Monday. They will also appear here for your reading pleasure. For archives of my columns there, go to and click on "Columnists")

It’s been a classic hockey question for years now: Who was the greatest NHL player, Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe? The comparison is tempting to make. Howe -- Mr. Hockey -- 26 seasons and 801 goals in the NHL, 32 years and over 1,000 goals combined in professional hockey. Gretzky -- The Great One -- over 20 years of pro hockey and the all-time leader in goals and points. Both were multiple Stanley Cup champions. Both, combined, are considered the face of hockey, past and present. It makes for a wonderful debate -- in a bar, at work, or in your living room.

But hey, forget Gretzky -- was Howe better than even Steve Yzerman?

Ahh, I just heard spirited discussions firing up all over metro Detroit.

Mr. Red Wing (left) and Mr. Hockey

It says here that Yzerman, despite not playing quite as long -- if he plays this season it will be his 22nd -- and not scoring as many goals and not breaking as many opponents’ noses and not playing in the NHL at age 52, is nonetheless the greatest player to ever pull on a Red Wings sweater.

Sorry, Abel, Delvecchio and Stewart -- you all move down a notch. My apologies, Sawchuck, Lindsay, and Goodfellow -- take a step backward. For if Steve Yzerman hasn’t surpassed Gordie Howe in terms of Red Wing greatness by now, he never will. But he has.

I never saw Howe play in his prime -- my first recollection of watching the Red Wings was during his last season in 1970-71. But I also never saw Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison or Michelangelo in their prime, either, and I feel safe to say that they were pretty good at their stuff. So it’s not about me not ever seeing Gordie during the heyday of the 50’s and thus not being to appreciate his skills or contribution to the game. It’s just that Yzerman’s career was....better. And here’s why.

What comes to mind first is the transition Yzerman made from 1983, his rookie year, to now. Playing for several different coaches and different systems and during times when he was the only Red Wing you’d care to see play to the times when he was surrounded by Hall of Famers, Yzerman persevered, changing his game from high scorer and finesse to some scoring and tenacious checking. He seamlessly, like a chameleon, reinvented himself and in the process became a better player.

Squawk all you want about how the NHL was a tougher, better game when the league only had six teams, as it did for the majority of Howe’s time. But not once did Howe, until the expansion of 1967, have to fly west of Chicago for a road trip. Nor did he have to endure four grueling rounds of playoffs to win a Stanley Cup. If you think all those cross country flights to Anaheim or San Jose or Phoenix or Los Angeles, many during playoff series, don’t take their toll over the years, then you’ve been sniffing the goalpost paint.

Yzerman has been the Red Wings captain since 1986, and he has filled the role with all the specs of a hand into a hockey glove. Howe wasn’t a leader per se; that wasn’t his way. But not only has Yzerman led the team with the "C" on the sweater, he has been the very personification of the franchise, from the times when his teammates were the likes of Kelly Kisio and Larry Trader to the salad days of Brendan Shanahan and Nicklas Lidstrom. He has been coached by Nick Polano and Harry Neale and Brad Park and Jacques Demers and Bryan Murray and Scotty Bowman and Dave Lewis, and through most of them he has maintained his captaincy and his class, all while suffering through playoff disappointments and bearing the weight of an entire franchise and a city on his shoulders. Howe, as wonderful as he was, was almost immediately surrounded by great players when his career launched in the late 40’s, early 50’s. Never did he, truly, have to carry the Red Wings to the promised land. And never was he asked to change his game and undergo the NHL version of an extreme makeover.

Yzerman certainly wasn’t as feared as Howe was on the ice, no question about that -- at least not physically. Stories of Howe-metered-out justice are legendary. Gordie was also known for taking his time to gain his vengeance, something that the tiny NHL allowed, because you played each team 14 times a season prior to expansion. One of my favorite tales involved the Hall of Famer Stan Mikita of the Blackhawks. Apparently early in his career, Mikita really decked Howe good. Skating to the bench, proud of his actions, Mikita was told by a teammate, "You shouldn’t have done that." Well, several Red Wings-Blackhawks games passed, and Howe appeared to pay no attention to Mikita, who thought he had gotten away with his deed. But then finally, after making a pass near center ice several games later, Mikita woke up on the trainer’s table. "Who was it?," he groggily asked. "Number nine," the trainer said. Mikita moaned and said, "That damn Howe."

No, Yzerman doesn’t have such a story in his legacy, but he was feared in other ways. Feared for his leadership. Feared for his heart. Feared for his drive. Feared for his persistence. And there was some fear of his hockey playing, too. But mostly I think of Yzerman’s effort, thru pain and duress and changing times, when his will would not allow the Red Wings to lose. And more often than not, they didn’t under his watch. When they did succumb, never could a finger be pointed #19’s way.

Howe was larger than life on the ice, and off it to a degree. He did so many things so well -- scoring, toughness, passing -- but in a cruel irony, I think it was Gordie Howe’s ridiculous consistency, performed with far more substance than style, that actually places him behind Yzerman. Why? Because Steve Yzerman had to navigate the Red Wings through so many murky waters with so many obstacles in front of him for so many years that substance-only consistency simply wouldn’t have cut the mustard. There is no question in my mind that Gordie Howe -- and oh, this is difficult to write -- would not have accomplished what Steve Yzerman did in Yzerman’s time, yet I believe Stevie would have been able to just about match Howe’s production on those great Red Wings teams of the 1950’s.

I’m sorry, I’m just of the belief that whenever you think of the Detroit Red Wings, you should think of Steve Yzerman first. What more could one player do for a franchise, for a city, no matter the sport? I know that if you disagree with me, you always will, because what else can Yzerman do to convince you at this point? But it should never be construed that a vote for Yzerman is a vote against Howe. It is almost impossible to measure Gordie’s value to the Red Wings, or hockey in general. He is, and always will be, Mr. Hockey. He’s just not Mr. Red Wing, not anymore.

That title is now taken by the shy boy from Peterborough, Ontario.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Thankfully, Tedy Bruschi Decides To Sit This One Out

It is a haunting, tragic list.

Chuck Hughes. JV Cain. Korey Stringer. Hank Gathers. Reggie Lewis. All promising, young, relatively healthy athletes, except for one thing: their ultimately defective hearts. Another thing they all have in common: they all died doing what they loved -- playing their respective sports. So I hope to goodness that the list will not grow by one, now that New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi has decided to sit out the 2005 season, at least.

Bruschi’s ailment isn’t heart-related, at least not directly. He suffered a mild stroke in February, but to me, "mild stroke" is an oxymoron. I don’t see how anything that is called a stroke can be mild, although I know it’s all relative. Earlier this week, Bruschi announced that he would skip this season and maybe the next, too, if medical clearance is hard to come by.

Thank you, Tedy.

Thank you for considering your wife and your three beautiful boys and how your well-being means everything -- EVERYTHING -- to them. Thank you for having the sense to place football, the sport you love almost more than life itself, behind the people that love you as you love the game. Thank you for resisting the temptation to put on the pads at training camp next week, just to see how it goes, only to perhaps become seduced by football’s aura and not realizing until it’s too late that playing so soon was not only unwise, but maybe even deadly.

Three times a football champion, Bruschi proved he is a champion at home, too

Most of all, thank you because unlike Hughes, Cain and Stringer, your body has given you a warning sign. And you listened to it. With those three men, no one could possibly have known, could possibly have detected, that their hearts were literally ticking time bombs. And that’s why all three of them dropped dead on a football field -- Hughes during a game, Cain and Stringer during camp. But you were given the gift of forewarning, Tedy, and thank God you have recognized that. So as much as football fans everywhere admire your play and your embracing of the game, I think they appreciate even more your level-headedness respective to your decision to sit this one out.

I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision to make. Whenever it comes to prognoses, even the best and brightest of medical minds can disagree. I am also sure that some of those minds had you thinking that playing in 2005 would be okay after all. I’m even more sure that you considered playing very strongly. You’re 32 years old. You’re too young to have strokes, or at least to have them where they can have lasting effects....right? So when you heard that the likelihood of you having any medical problems this season was very low, any right-minded person could hardly blame you if you all but made travel plans to report to training camp with the rest of your two-time Super Bowl champ teammates.

But you didn’t, and I for one am grateful and relieved.

We don’t need some grotesque image of you lying on the field and twitching, your life possibly seeping away before our very eyes. But forget all of us, Tedy. Your wife and boys would be destroyed by such a thing. And that would make our pain all the more great.

But it’s all for naught now, isn’t it? You’re passing on the 2005 season, waiting for the next one to come around. Maybe you’ll be healthier and better suited to play in 2006. And if you’re not, I hope you come to the same conclusion then as you have now:

It just isn’t worth it.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Pistons' Coaching Change Will Tell More About Players Than About Flip Saunders

The Pistons have a new coach and the throttle will be on "high" for the team to march right back to at least the conference finals. It could very well be a pressure cooker kind of situation.

Hear that, Chauncey? Got that, Rip, Tayshaun and Ben? Can you stand the heat, Rasheed?

Contrary to popular belief, and maybe even conventional wisdom, this Pistons coaching change is going to tell us a whole lot more about the men in uniform than the man in the suit.

I don’t mean to be a lone wolf here, but after two seasons of playing "the right way" and being led by the NBA’s coaching Yoda, Larry Brown, I am convinced the Pistons players should be the ones on the hot seat, not their new coach, Flip Saunders. But you’ll be hard-pressed to read such a thing around here, because all the focus will be on Flip and how daunting a task it will be to follow a Hall of Fame coach, especially on a team that has been to two straight NBA Finals.

Yet it will be the players about who we will find the most out. For as long as Brown was at the helm, the lightning of criticism and second guessing struck the aluminum pole that was the coach. Sure, there was some critique of Chauncey Billups’ style of play, or Rasheed Wallace’s perceived lack of shooting or Ben Wallace’s free throw shooting and overall offensive game, but in the end Brown was the one who was pulling the strings, according to most folks, as if he could will a Chauncey trey to go through or make Rasheed shoot the ball just by staring him down.

But Larry is gone now, and how will his disciples react? Will they put their money where their mouths are and continue on with the things that brought them success -- selflessness, defense, passing and toughness -- or will they drift and make excuses, if convenient, that things aren’t going so well because the coach is different?

Flip Saunders will have some say-so in how the Pistons perform, no question. He’d better for what they’re paying him. But as solid of a career as Flip has had on an NBA sideline, he simply does not cast a shadow nearly as long as Larry Brown. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course. Frankly, maybe it’s exactly what the team needs, whether the players agree or not. Regardless, because Flip isn’t Larry, we will now see just what kind of men these Pistons are. We will find out if they became what they are -- usual suspects when it comes to NBA title contenders -- because of who they are, instead of by who was guiding them. We will know, sometime around next January, I’m figuring, if this is a machine that runs fairly well-oiled no matter who the mechanic is. We will see if the Pistons have true, unequivocal leadership from within their playing roster.

One of the easiest things to do in pro sports is to be seduced by the allure of ready-made excuses. Conversely, one of the best tests of character and focus is how vehemently a team refuses to be sucked in by such excuses. The Pistons have built a nice cache of credibility by their recent success, and so hardly anyone would argue with them if they floated comments about how tough it is to change coaches and gee whiz, we’re still trying to get the hang of this Flip dude.

So let’s see if the Pistons rise above that and almost go into the season with the mindset that, dammit, we ARE two-time defending Eastern Conference champs and we can increase that by one no matter who the coach is because we’re the Detroit Freaking Pistons.

My man Flip, you’re not irrelevant, not at all. But I think it would be wonderful if your new players proved that you certainly could be.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Brown's Departure From Pistons Messy, But So Were These

In the movie "Cocktail," there's an interesting little scene where Tom Cruise's character, Brian Flanagan, has a rather messy and dramatic breakup with his older woman/fling that ends up with the woman slapping him in the face. She regrets the slap, then pleads with him, saying, "I don't want this to end badly."

"Everything ends badly," Cruise/Flanagan says, "or else it wouldn't end."

I thought about that scene as I watched this whole Larry Brown/Pistons split go down the last couple of days. As ar as coaching departures go, I've seen smoother, for sure. But then I got to thinking about other partings of the ways of Detroit sports coaches over the years, and I realized there have been some dandies around these parts. So let's turn on the time machine, shall we, and I'll take you on a little tour of the theater of the absurd....

1973: Red Wings Fire Coach Ted Garvin

This may be one of the most bizarre endings to any coaching stint anywhere, bar none.

In November 1973, the Red Wings were stumbling through the National Hockey League, as was their wont in the 70's. The team just wasn't responding to new coach Ted Garvin, promoted from their minor league affiliate. The record was something like 2-9-2, or some such nonsense. Anyhow, the team had intended to fire Garvin and replace him with team captain Alex Delvecchio. Well, to say that the transition didn't go smoothly would be one heck of an understatement. Garvin was informed of the move in the afternoon. However, since Delvecchio had not retired as a player officially, he was ineligible to coach that night's game at Olympia, according to league rules, which the Red Wings had neglected to review before telling Garvin he'd been canned. So, believe it or not, the team asked Garvin to coach that night even though he'd been fired, so Delvecchio could get his retirement papers together.

With about seven minutes to go in the third period of a loss to the Flyers, Garvin decided he'd had enough and walked away from the bench, with the game still going on. He informed Tim Ecclestone, an injured forward in street clothes, of his decision as he headed down the runway. Ecclestone coached the last several minutes as Garvin hurried out of Olympia, never to be heard from again. And you know what's really bizarre? The loss was officially put on Delvecchio's coaching record, even though he neither played nor coached that night!

Tigers Fire Billy Martin

Okay, so firing Billy Martin shouldn't be considered unusual or strange, but the circumstances were a bit different, even for Billy. After leading the Tigers to the 1972 AL East pennant, the manic Martin began acting like, well, Martin, publicly complaining that the Orioles seemed to have all the good young talent and the Tigers didn't. Then, Martin responded angrily to his belief that Gaylord Perry was throwing spitballs at his team in August, so he ordered two of this pitchers to throw spitters as well. Of course, Billy got caught, and the league suspended him. But before the suspension was lifted, Tigers GM Jim Campbell fired his manager, clearly tired of the sideshow that was Billy Martin. So, less than a year after being heralded as a manging genius for guiding the aging Tigers to within a couple of runs of the World Series, Martin was out in a blaze of inglory.

Joe Schmidt Quits The Lions

To this day, no man has led the Lions to an overall winning record as a head coach in the Bill Ford era of ownership except for one -- Joe Schmidt. In January, 1973, with a mark of 43-34-7 as Lions coach from 1967-72, Schmidt began having disagreements with team GM Russ Thomas. It became a power struggle, and Schmidt unwisely decided to take the conflict to Ford, figuring the owner would take his side, because of Schmidt's winning record and the fact that Thomas may have been, at the time, the most hated man in Detroit sports by the fans. But Ford and Thomas had history, so the owner backed his GM. Enraged and disgusted, Schmidt quit, on the spot. He never really has been in touch with the team in any official capacity since. Sad, considering he was the best defensive player the franchise has ever had.

Wayne Fontes Gets The Axe

I'm including this one because of the bizarre scene that occurred at the press conference announcing Fontes' firing. As Ford was addressing the reporters, Fontes appeared, totally unexpectedly, and threw his arms around Ford and thanked the owner sloppily. Then, as the stunned Ford looked on and politely smiled, Fontes hammed it up for the writers, yelling with feigned shock, "Fired?! What do you mean I'm fired?", then chuckling. It was a strange and disconcerting scene. But then again, as with Billy Martin, did you really expect anything else from Wayne Fontes?

Tigers Fire Les Moss

Poor Les Moss. All he wanted to do was manage in the big leagues, and he had gotten that opportunity in 1979, replacing the retired Ralph Houk with the Tigers. After a slow start, the Tigers got hot, and had just finished a successful West Coast trip in June when Jim Campbell found out that ex-Reds skipper Sparky Anderson was close to agreeing to manage the Cubs in 1980. Moving quickly, and figuring he'd never have a chance to hire someone with Sparky's credentials again, Campbell reached an agreement with Anderson. Then, in what he called a very difficult thing to do, Campbell fired Moss and announced Sparky Anderson as the new Tigers manager. As for Les Moss, talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was Moss' only managing job in the majors.

Red Wings Demote Bryan Murray

This one is here because of what happened afterward.

The Red Wings were having trouble in the postseason under Murray, who held dual roles as coach and GM. So after another disappointment, a first round knockout at the hands of the Maple Leafs in 1993, the team decided to strip Murray of his coaching duties, hiring Scotty Bowman to replace him behind the bench. But the Murray-as-GM and Bowman-as-coach arrangement was dicey, to say the least. Scotty largely ignored Murray and his title, and the team was soon split into two factions: that which confided in Bowman, and that which aired its gripes about Bowman to Murray. The tension was thick around Joe Louis Arena all season, which ended with another first round blowout, this time to the fledgling San Jose Sharks. Losing the power struggle, Murray was cut loose in summer, 1994, and Bowman then took on the dual role of coach and GM.

Lions Fire Marty Mornhinweg

To say that Lions president Matt Millen could have handled this situation better is like saying Lizzie Borden could have handled her hacking instruments more responsibly.

After a 3-13 season in 2002, Millen went out of his way to announce publicly that Mornhinweg would return as Lions coach in 2003. That was on New Year's Eve, 2002. Then, about two weeks later, the 49'ers fired coach Steve Mariucci. things weren't like they were 14 days prior. So Millen acted swiftly, entering into poorly-guarded talks with Mariucci about his becoming the next Lions coach, even though Mornhinweg was still employed by the Lions, the possessor of a still-fresh Matt Millen vote of confidence. Naturally, the Lions hired Mooch, and then Millen informed Marty that his time as Lions coach was over. Not the best way to go about this scenario, for all you aspiring sports team presidents out there.


There you have them -- some of the most uncommon dismissals/resignations involving coaches of the teams around town. Where does the Larry Brown fiasco rank among them, in your mind? Let me know -- post a comment or email me at See ya!

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Percival's Woes Not Uncommon When It Comes To Free Agent Pitchers

From the moment pitcher Dave McNally became baseball's first honest-to-goodness free agent, in 1975, there has been one constant: signing pitchers can be hazardous to your mental and financial health.

Tigers closer Troy Percival might have, just might have, thrown the final pitch of his career. We'll know more as time wears on, and we see how Percival's arm concerns are treated. If surgery is needed, Percival has strongly suggested that retirement might be the most attractive option he has. Surgery could push him 12 months back as far as timetables are concerned. Percival has gone on record saying that he would have to seriously consider quitting if surgery was in the offing.

This is nothing new when it comes to free agent pitchers signing with new teams. The finger of fate has been extra fickle whenever moundsmen have been involved. Baseball History, 1975-Present, is littered with stories of pitchers who have, for one reason or another, ended up being busts for their new teams. In fact, I can't think of one category of pro athlete that is more tenuous and unstable than that which is free agent pitchers. They are like microwave popcorn; when it's done right, it smells soooo good. But if it's cooked just a tad too long, you've got a smelly, unappetizing disaster on your hands -- no in between.

In fact, Dave McNally himself was an example of how free agent pitchers can be a rather unreliable investment. He had nowhere near the success with the Montreal Expos, his new team, that he enjoyed with the Baltimore Orioles.

I'm not sure why all this is, except that pitchers, as a rule, are more delicate then position players due to the great unpredictability of the human arm, when it's used as a slingshot. Regardless, any team owner who decides to throw millions of dollars at the next hotshot free agent pitcher ought to be furnished with a rabbit's foot, a Bible, a horseshoe, and a string of garlic -- all designed to bring as much good luck and repel as much bad luck as possible.

It hasn't always been injuries that have made these rich pitchers busts. Sometimes, plain old bad performances have been the reasons why, for every hurler who makes his new owner proud, there are countless others who have gone directly into the proverbial tank.

Wayne Garland, if you say the name in Cleveland, is likely to get you tossed out into the streets on your ear. Garland parlayed an impressive 1976 season (20-7, 2.68 ERA) with the Orioles into a rich contract with the Indians, but in the next two seasons Garland went 15-22 with an ERA of over 4.00. Soon after, he was out of baseball. Garland was probably the first true pitching bust of the free agent era.

Ed Whitson. Mike Moore. Andy Messersmith. Kevin Brown. These are but a few arms who have turned into Venus de Milo after signing fat contracts with new teams. Believe me, if given enough time and research resources, I could compile a list of busts that would far exceed that in length of any list you could come up with of those who have actually bettered themselves after signing for the big bucks.

That's why I wasn't all that jazzed about the Tigers and their pursuit of Carl Pavano. The free agent from the Marlins signed with the Yankees -- what else is new? -- after the Bronx Bombers barely edged out the Tigers in Pavano's heart. I certainly wouldn't have cried in my milk had the Tigers landed Pavano, but knowing the history of free agent pitchers as I do, I always thought our team would be better off without him. And how is Carl doing in New York? Well, in 100 innings, he's 4-6 with a 4.77 ERA. He has given up 17 home runs and 129 hits in those 100 innings. You don't think the Tigers have kids on the farm who could be called up and produce those kinds of numbers?

But returning to Percival, his case is more substantial because this is the possible end of a man's career we're talking about, and it's not at all his doing. The Tigers knew that Percival, at age 36, had his best years behind him, yet they thought he still had enough in the tank to warrant taking a flyer on him. That belief may not have been warranted, as we now see, but I hate to use the word "bust" about a warrior like Percival who is only succumbing because the doctors say so. But at the same time, the Percival signing certainly can't be considered a success, can it?

Yep, throw the serious money at the sluggers, I tell you. They are more reliable and don't break down as easily.

Right, Magglio?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

With Brown On The Way Out, Pardon Me If I Don't 'Flip' For Saunders

Larry Brown didn't smile much when he coached the Pistons. Even when they were world champions, Brown seemed to always wear a sour puss.

Lord knows what demons Brown battles on a daily basis, but you get the feeling he's been battling them from the moment he started prowling a basketball sideline. Restlessness, angst, unfulfillment, curiosity -- those, I surmise, are just some of the moons that orbit around Planet Brown. And each of them seem to have their own gravitational pull that makes being Larry Brown as unpredictable as Michigan weather.

Well, we won't have to worry too much about that anymore, because, as I suspected, Brown is on his way out as Pistons coach. Perhaps the finishing touches on his buyout are being placed as you read this.

This ending is, at the same time, both totally predictable yet also surprising in its finality. Predictable, because....hey, it's Larry Brown we're talking about here. Surprising, because you still kinda thought that Pistons president Joe Dumars would do everything he could to keep Brown on the team's bench. But, as I posted here last week, owner Bill Davidson has the memory of an elephant and the sense of loyalty of a wife until she's been wounded. Then, all bets are off. And that proved to be too much for even a Hall of Fame coach to overcome.

The Pistons will probably miss Brown more than I care to admit, and while I am happy that the team will no longer have to suffer through his sideshow, it is very possible that overall team performance is on the line here, unless the right man is brought in to take over. Which is also why I am not thrilled with the prospects of Flip Saunders being the new man at the Palace.

Saunders is a nice enough guy, I suppose, and he certainly has some experience, having coached the Minnesota Timberwolves for nearly a decade. But what exactly has he accomplished there, when it has mattered the most -- in the postseason?

Saunders' playoff record, and I don't have the exact numbers before me, is suspect, and that's being kind. And it's not like he has coached chopped liver; Kevin Garnett was on his teams, for starters. He alone should be worth a playoff series win or two. But Garnett was surrounded by others who have some pretty good NBA talent, and at times the T-Wolves appeared, on paper at least, to have one of the best squads in the league. Yet when spring rolled around, the Wolves played like puppies.

So it all boils down to Dumars and my complete faith in his decision-making abilities. There is absolutely no one I trust more in Detroit sports than Joe D., and that may go for all 35 years of my watching and covering the teams in this town. If Joe Dumars were to tell us tomorrow that it's going to snow this weekend, then I'm going to bring my boots up from the basement and drag my shovel from the garage. And if Saunders gets the Pistons job, as has been widely speculated, and if it's because Dumars says Flip is the right man at the right time for the team, then I'm on board. I may be reluctant, but I'll be on the train.

It's too bad that it couldn't have worked out for Brown here longer than the two seasons, and while I thought a five-year contract was a tad bit ambitious, on both sides, I still was hoping we'd get more than two years out of him. He is, after all, one helluva basketball coach. But there were just too many distractions, too much focus on "coach" rather than "team." And in the end, there was just too much feeling of dread coming from Davidson that Larry had one eye elsewhere. Just like a jealous, suspicious wife.

But then it always ends like this for Larry wherever he goes, doesn't it?

Monday, July 18, 2005

In Baseball, The Only Things That Should Be Cleared Are Fences, Not Benches

If you can find the original two combatants, you're better than me

Can you imagine watching a hockey game -- you remember hockey, don’t you? -- and seeing two guys fight for the puck in the corner, and then suddenly they’re fighting each other, and then, as a matter of practice, all skaters from both benches empty to join the fray? Or how about basketball? A couple of sharp elbows are thrown, and in a flash all 24 players from both teams are dancing on the court? Of course not.

Then why, oh why, is it allowed in baseball?

Watching the Tigers and Royals get it on today on the tube, it occurred to me, as it always does when I see such shenanigans, that this business of EVERYONE leaving the dugouts and bullpens as soon as two players even look at each other cross-eyed is a bag of pine tar.

By now you probably know the scenario from Sunday’s Royals-Tigers tilt: Tigers shortstop Carlos Guillen gets drilled in the head by Royals starter Runelvys Hernandez -- the third Tigers hit batsman of the day by Runelvys -- and isn’t too pleased about it. No problem there. I wouldn’t expect Guillen to be too warm and fuzzy about such an occurrence. So as Carlos jaws with Hernandez on the way to first base, the Royals pitcher makes a questionable gesture and Guillen takes exception. Fine. So far it’s still between the two principle characters, along with a catcher and an umpire to help keep things under control.

But then, on cue, because this is baseball and this is accepted, everyone in uniform rushes to the scene. Because not all of the rushers are good-intentioned, this is the equivalent of a gang rumble, except instead of in an alley at night, it’s on the ballfield in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. But again, baseball accepts such rumbles as routine, matter-of-course stuff.

Like I said, most rumblers are well-intentioned, but folks shouldn’t be shocked to know that tempers can flare up in these volatile situations. So, somewhat predictably, the dispute between Hernandez and Guillen splits, like an amoeba, into other pieces. One of those other pieces was Tigers reliever Kyle Farnsworth, a bull of a man, rushing toward Royals reliever Jeremy Affeldt and cactus-jacking him to the turf in a move that would make most pro wrestlers proud -- shoulder forward, lift-and-slam by the legs. It was a moment that caused the Comerica Park patrons to "oooh" and "ahhh", and Affeldt wasn’t hurt, but it was absolutely unnecessary and foolish.

Countless players have been injured in bench-clearing brawls, and more often than not they were guys not involved at all in the original fracas. Why baseball allows these donnybrooks to happen without stiff, and I mean stiff penalties, is beyond me. And the sad thing is, it’s a very simple thing to legislate: anyone who leaves their dugout, or bullpen, is immediately ejected and suspended for three games, or more, at the league’s discretion. Simple as that. No ifs, ands or buts about it -- just like shoplifting.

This isn’t a sexy viewpoint, I know, because bench-clearing skirmishes make for good SportsCenter highlights and fans find them fascinating for the most part. Tough cookies. There is simply no reason a dispute between two players -- and let’s face it, they almost all start with two guys, that’s it -- should warrant 48 other players and a dozen coaches running onto the field. Let’s not forget, there are four umpires, folks. Those aren’t good odds. And how many times have coaches and managers gotten involved in one of the sub-skirmishes? If they go out there, they should at least be peacekeepers, helping the umpires restore order. Instead, they start jawing and shoving and pointing fingers, and before you know it you have two middle-aged goofballs threatening to go at it.

I just don’t see the good that can come out of these bench-clearers. It’s not like 48 policemen are running to the scene of a crime; you might have 40 policemen but eight more hooligans. Yet I hardly hear anyone other than myself questioning this bizarre practice. Am I the only one who sees this is crazy and without just cause?

If you have a counterpoint, I’m dying to hear it. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe there is, indeed, ample reason for 50 players and 12 coaches to be on the field because two guys have some words for each other. But I have thought about this for what is probably too long, and I fail to see it.

By the way, a lasting image for me from Sunday’s dance was Tigers pitcher Jeremy Bonderman, who only happens to be perhaps their most important young player for goodness sakes, being restrained by coach Kirk Gibson. Bondy’s cap was askew, his jersey was tore open, and his facial expression looked like that of one of those combatants from the TV show "Cops" who is being held at bay by a police officer. Now, what if Bonderman had managed to do something really ill-advised before Gibby could get to him, and he either got hurt or suspended for any length of time?

I wonder if the fans at Comerica would have "ooohed" or "ahhed" or simply "ewwwed".

Food for thought, don’t ya think?

Sunday, July 17, 2005

You Go, Jerry! -- From One 42 Year-Old To Another

(the following column can also be viewed at, where a new column from yours truly appears each Sunday or Monday. They will also appear here for your reading pleasure. For archives of my columns there, go to and click on "Columnists")

Jerry Rice and I stopped having something in common in, oh, 1984. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel completely qualified to act as his advocate.

Rice is a 42 year-old suiting up as a wide receiver for the Denver Broncos this September. He will begin his 21st NFL season. And he’s not some token, some sideshow. He will be, if he has his way, a bona fide pass catcher for a team that has a real chance at playing in Detroit in February -- in Super Bowl XL.

But back to 1984. You see, that’s when Rice’s and my lives started forking away from each other. In the fall of ‘84, Rice and I were both seniors in college -- he at Mississippi Valley State, and me at Eastern Michigan University. Perhaps the only other thing we had in common was our grade point averages, or maybe our steady diet of pizza. Beyond that, I don’t know. No matter. Despite the drastically different paths to which our roads have led, I am nonetheless a credible authority on something with which he has had to contend: namely, Why in the world are you doing it, Jerry? Why are you coming back AGAIN when most men your age are getting winded just watching pro football on television?

Who else but Jerry Rice should decide when it's time to quit?

Like Rice, I too will be 42 years old by the time the 2005 NFL season kicks off. So why not listen to someone who is in the position to give some advice? So as a fellow 42 year-old, Jerry, I now shall speak on your behalf.

In four words, Go Get ‘Em, Jerr! If you are physically fit enough (and he is) and mentally tough enough (no question) and passionate enough (obviously) and capable enough (there’s still some stickum on those hands), then don’t you listen to those who would maintain that you should be peeling the eye black off your face and shipping your uniform to Canton. Damn the torpedoes of doubt! Pshaw to the mealy mouthed critics who say your desire to play is motivated by selfishness and greed and the simple lack of knowing when to quit. If you want to break off tight pass patterns and catch a ball up the middle with safeties and cornerbacks around wanting to decapitate you, then God bless you, brother. You have my permission.

I always have been a little perturbed at media folks who purport to know when it’s time for an athlete to retire. How would they like it if athletes pestered them in the press boxes across America, bluntly suggesting that they close up their laptops for good? There is only one person who knows when it’s time to quit playing the game, and it sure isn’t any sportswriter whose waistline is probably the same as Rice’s age, and then some.

Granted, there have been some painful endings to some pretty awesome careers. Watching Willie Mays, also at 42, stumble around the outfield and the base paths in the 1973 World Series for the Mets was not a pretty sight, and two words come to mind: "sad" and "grimace". Steve Carlton got knocked around like a pinata toward the end as he bounced from team to team, his ERA looking like the trading price of General Motors stock. And I can still see the images of Muhammad Ali being beaten to a pulp by Larry Holmes, who several times looked pleadingly at the ref to halt the carnage to which he was adding, albeit reluctantly. In these examples, it’s easy to say, "They hung around too long," and from a performance standpoint, that’s probably dead on accurate. But an athlete continues to play and participate not solely because of statistics and results. He or she presses on because, quite frankly, that’s mostly all they’ve ever known since they were tikes. If you listen to the comments of most former athletes, their common denominator is that they quit when the game was no longer fun, or became work, or was simply a drag. They submitted their retirement papers not because their skills had eroded, which may have occurred years earlier. No, they slipped into civvies because the flame of desire had been snuffed out. Simple as that.

Mike Schmidt of the Phillies tearfully quit early in the 1989 season because he felt that he was taking a roster spot away from someone who could help the team more than he was capable of doing. Schmidt called the decision to retire in midseason a wretched one, but he was at peace because he always had told himself that he would get out before he became a caricature. That’s all well and good, but Schmidt is the exception, not the rule. Most guys and gals seem to be on a seven-second delay, figuratively speaking, when it comes to their erosion of skills versus their realization that instead of playing a game, they have a job.

Jerry Rice, I believe, still has some football left in him. But even if I felt otherwise, who am I to say that he should retire? Do I feel his passion? Do I have his fire in my belly? Do I break myself during offseason physical training? Am I truly in a position to say "quit" when I can’t even motivate myself to clean my basement?

No, I am not in that position, but like I said, I feel very much in the position to tell Jerry Rice "full speed ahead" because, as a fellow 42 year-old, I can even more appreciate Rice’s two decade-plus career. And let’s not forget Redskins offensive lineman Ray Brown, a former Lion, who at 43 will be butting heads with those beasts from the other side in the trenches for 30 minutes or so every game this season. And I do mean every game; Brown, in 20 seasons, has missed less games than you have fingers. You don’t think his motivation is anything other than personal pride and the feeling of contentment he has that he is still able to do, at 43, what he did at 23? In the NF-freaking-L?

So rock on, Jerry Rice -- and Ray Brown. You go out there and show those whippersnappers a thing or two about life in the NFL, even if you are almost old enough to be their father. Best of luck to you and I am behind you -- wayyy behind.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

30 Years Ago, The Only Thing The Tigers Could Beat Were The Odds Against A 19-Game Losing Streak

I’m not usually one for anniversaries -- except my wedding one, of course. It’s kind of amusing to me, really, that we have a fascination with anything that is divisible by five, when it comes to how many years since a particular event. If the 29th anniversary of something passes, we yawn. But just one year later, we throw a party. Then, the next year, back to snoozes. It’s funny when you think about it.

But there was absolutely nothing funny about what happened to the Tigers 30 years ago this month. For it was in July 1975 that the team commenced to go on a 19-game losing streak, second longest in major league history for a single season.

Consider the magnitude of that for a moment. It’s amazing to me, frankly, that a major league team can go that many games between victories, no matter how bad it is. Nineteen games. That’s five or six series and about three weeks, with days off included. You’d think that at least the law of averages would rear its head and provide the Tigers with a win or two in 19 games.

The Tigers of ’75 were managed by Ralph Houk, and it was in the deepest depths of a painful rebuilding process that wouldn’t truly end until Sparky Anderson was hired in June 1979. Tracing the source of why the wheels fell off, one must go all the way back to the core of the 1968 World Series team.

Norm Cash. Al Kaline. Bill Freehan. Jim Northrup. Willie Horton. Mickey Stanley. Dick McAuliffe. All these guys made up the backbone of those ’68 champs, yet Tigers management squeezed them dry, until finally the fruit could produce no more juice. The team was longer in the tooth, but still managed to win the AL East flag in 1972, coming two runs shy of advancing to the World Series. But instead of replenishing the team and phasing the vets out so younger players could take their places, the Tigers realized too late that their drafts of the early 70’s were mostly flops, and precious few players were climbing the minor league ladder. Finally, the bubble burst, and the Tigers found themselves old and slow and devoid of any serious young talent.

Instead of Horton, Kaline and Northrup, the Tigers had to throw in not-ready-for-prime-timers such as Danny Meyer, Leon Roberts and that ex-con, Ron LeFlore. In the infield, Cash, McAuliffe and Eddie Brinkman gave way to such non-luminaries as Jack Pierce, Tom Veryzer and Gary Sutherland. Freehan was ready to retire, too, and it would be a few years before a youngster named Lance Parrish could be an anchor behind the plate.

The results were predictable; the Tigers were awful. After a relatively surprising start in April, the team nosedived and before long they were holding up the rest of the division. Although, at 46-55, their record was hardly embarrassing.

Then came mid-July.

Suddenly, the Tigers did their best impression of the 1962 Mets until their next one in 2003. They often fell far behind in the very first inning, and their hitting, pitching and defense all went south at the same time. They became a joke. And, in three wretched weeks, 46-55 turned into 46-74. The Tigers finished 57-102, which means they went 11-47 for their last 58 games, not even a .200 winning percentage. The ’62 Mets would have made mincemeat of them.

I remember attending a game at Tiger Stadium in the middle of the 19-game madness, with Baltimore in town. As usual, the Tigers bumbled and fumbled it away, dropping balls and making errant throws and not being able to get anyone out. All that probably happened by the third inning. Anyhow, I remember when a couple of Tigers let a fly ball drop between the outfield and infield, and the crowd started booing and my father was derisively clapping and "cheering" their ineptitude. It should have been funny, but I was almost 12 years old and the whole scene made me practically sad enough to cry.

The whole city was depressed back then, too. The recession of 1974 was still spidering out its after effects, especially in the Motor City, and none of the four major teams in Detroit were worth a hill of beans. None of them were remotely close to championship caliber play.

And until Ray Bare beat the Angels in California, 8-0, to snap the losing streak, the only reason anyone talked about the Tigers, locally or nationally, was because of that God awful 19-game skid.

So there you have it -- I have become what I have often mocked. I am "glorifying", or at least recognizing, the 30-year anniversary of one of the darkest periods in Detroit Tigers history. I guess to make my point, I should have done it last year, or waited until next year. Oh well. Pop open a cold one and drink to the memories of Danny Meyer, Leon Roberts, Vern Ruhle and Dave Lemanczyk. They managed to go a few weeks without a victory back in 1975. And that ain’t easy to do.

Happy Anniversary!

Friday, July 15, 2005

How Do I Love Sports? Let Me Count The Ways

I have been married for nearly 13 years, and that's approaching 5000 days, and I bet you I can come up with about that many things that I love about my wife. It's the little things that do it, you know -- like the way she looks when she sleeps, or her homemade Fettucine Alfredo or the way she stares wide-eyed at the television when she's watching something that interests her or how much she loves children and animals. And on and on.

But before I get too sappy, and at the risk of making a gear change here that would blow out most transmissions, I submit to you that there are lots of those little things that I love about sports as well. Are any of these on your list?

I love a puck being swept the length of the ice toward an empty net, and the brief feeling of tension and gasps from the crowd as it slides just wide of the goal. I love a home run off a foul pole. I love a hot dog at the ball park, and I love how money and change is passed down the aisle, person-to-person, to the vendor, who passes the dog the same way, only in reverse. I love going to a football game and watching the players doing their calisthenics and stretching sans shoulder pads long before kickoff. Speaking of kickoffs, I love the moment when you realize your team's returner is going to go all the way. I love when a basketball bounces high off the back of the rim and drops straight down through the hoop as if it was a piece of laundry down the chute.

I love a head football coach who doesn't wear a headset on the sidelines. I love how a manager or pitching coach talks to his pitcher on the mound long enough that the home plate umpire has to intercede, only to leave right when the ump arrives. I love a goal that is scored SO top shelf that the water bottle gets knocked off the top of the net. I love it when the holder bobbles the snap during a field goal attempt and has to improvise. Same with punters. I love the sound of a metal wood "pinging" off a ball during a blast from the tee. I love it when you realize the seats you have at a game are freaking awesome. I love how an NHL referee makes the signal for a penalty as he casually skates by the penalty box. And I love it when an angry player skates into it and slams his stick down inside it. I love college football on a crisp Saturday afternoon, and I love how kids still toss those plastic miniature footballs outside Michigan Stadium, as I did back in the mid-70's.

I love that we were blessed to hear Bruce Martyn's "He scooores!" and George Kell's "There's a LONGGG drive!" and George Blaha's "Four and fifteen remaining" and even Mark Champion's disgusted "And it's....CAUGHT" as the Lions' opponents convert another 3rd-and-17. I love a good bounce pass in basketball and a crunching hip check in hockey and great pass protection by the left tackle and good run blocking by the right guard in football. I love that I can enjoy curling without understanding it, mainly because of those sweeper guys. I love a draw play for a first down on 3rd-and-6, and I love it when you see that your team's screen pass has caught the defense off guard and it's going to be a long gainer. I love the fact that the NBA shot clock is 24 seconds, because absolutely nothing else in life happens in 24 seconds other than a pro team trying to get a shot off. I love a strike thrown by anyone who throws out one of those ceremonial first pitches at a baseball game.

I love how a kicking team's players manage to stay onside as they rush downfield as the kicker approaches the ball. I love looking at a small child at a baseball game, with his oversized mitt and mustard on his face. I love a well-executed bunt and a 3-6-1 double play and a pitcher picking off a runner at first. I love a fastbreak executed so well in basketball that the ball never touches the floor. I love the chill you get when an NHL referee points to center ice, signaling a penalty shot. I love it when you turn on the radio just as the announcer is giving the score of the game. And I love that Ernie Harwell used to give the score almost as often as that female recording gave the time over the phone. I love a perfect faceoff win that leads to a goal from the point -- bang-bang. I love it when announcers still refer to high hoppers in baseball as Sunday hops and lazy fly balls as cans of corn. I love that Ray Brown can be 43 years old and still be a serviceable offensive lineman.

I love batting practice and I love watching a coach hit fungoes to the outfield. I love a tomahawk slam on a put-back of a missed shot. I love that hockey's on-ice officials stay on their skates the whole damn game, even as the players are changing every 45 seconds or so. I love when the visiting team's coach or one of its players gets a technical foul because it ignites the crowd even more. I love it when a golfer sinks a 20-foot putt. And I love it when I sink a six-footer. I love how golf cameramen can keep that tiny white ball in their frame off a drive. I love that I can tell my grandkids that I saw Barry Sanders' entire career, every year of which he was in his prime. I love that I can say I saw the Tigers play at Tiger Stadium and the Pistons play at Cobo Arena and the Red Wings play at Olympia Stadium. And I love the fact that the Lions played at Tiger Stadium, even though I never saw them play there.

I love a 55-yard field goal attempt that's successful. I love a 20-yarder that's not, because it's so rare. I love it when people actually keep score at a baseball game. I love it when a horse race has a photo finish. I love how hockey players will play even if their arm is dangling from its socket. And I even love that a baseball player will sit out if he has a paper cut. I love a bicycle kick in soccer. I love that soccer halves are 45 minutes and the clock never stops, and it counts up. I love sipping hot chocolate during a cool night at a baseball game. I love that the Tigers haven't changed their home uniforms since.....practically ever. I love it that the Yankees refuse to place names on the backs of their jerseys. I love a defensive lineman returning a fumble for a touchdown, because you just know that he's in seventh heaven.

So there you have it -- some reasons why I love sports.

But as much as I love sports, it still can't make Fettucine Alfredo better than my wife.

Here's to another 13 years, sweetie.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

For My 100th Post: Things That Make You Go "What The $#!%$#?"

According to my Blogger dashboard, this is my 100th post. Champagne, anyone?

So to mark the occasion, I am going to veer from my usual one-topic-per-post format and give you a potpourri of items, culled from merely browsing thru Wednesday’s Detroit Free Press sports section.These items are, just as the above headline screams, things that made me go "What the $#!%#?"

This Bud’s For You....PLEASE
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig held a question-and-answer session with writers covering the All-Star Game. He had this to say when asked why the All-Star Game winner determines home field advantage in the World Series, instead of best regular season record, as in basketball and hockey’s championship rounds (until three years ago, home field was alternated between leagues): "We can’t wait until late September or early October to determine that, relative to hotels and everything else. It takes months."

Altogether, now: "What the $#!%#?"

Excuse me, Mr. Commissioner, but have you been into the Old Milwaukee again? How can basketball and hockey make all the necessary arrangements for home advantage on the fly, round by stinking round, and baseball can’t? And what on earth takes "months" to plan? Hotel reservations? Can’t you just troll around town until you find a "vacancy" sign lit? And what is "everything else"? Mama mia -- that’s alotsa meat-a-bull!

Okay, on to the next item....

Eli Claims He Wuz Robbed

You remember Eli Zaret, right? Face made for radio, voice made for mime? Anyhow, he was sought out by Mike Brudenell way back on page 14D, right above some article about cycling. In the interview, which extolled Zaret’s new-found success in public relations and marketing, Eli said this about not being named to the Tigers’ radio team along with Dan Dickerson and Jim Price:

"I had that job. Someone didn’t want me on the team. Doesn’t matter now; I’m very happy with where my career is."

Well, Eli, if that "someone" who didn’t want you on the team happened to be the person who was in charge of making the decision, then I guess you’re just like every other poor slob out there who applies for a job, interviews, and doesn’t get selected.

"Honey, I had the job....but someone didn’t want me hired."

"Oh? And who was that, dear?"

"The hiring manager."

And by the way, when someone in the world of media says they’re happy with where their career is, they’re not. I’ll bet Eli can’t stand to listen to Tigers broadcasts on the radio.

Moving right along.....

Chelios Bashes Bettman
This one wasn’t so much a "What the $#!$%#?" as a "No $#$!%, Sherlock."

Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios, speaking to Canada’s National Post about NHL commissioner Gary Bettman: "For a guy who has done such a horrible job running a league, it’s a miracle he still has a job...He’s run our league into the ground."

Chelios also suggested that Bettman be fired as soon as the new CBA is signed and ratified.

For my money, any league commissioner worth his salt should never, ever let an entire season be lost due to a labor dispute, or anything else for that matter. It’s unconscionable and totally avoidable. Why even have a commissioner if such an atrocity cannot be averted, especially in a sport like hockey, which needs every fanny and eyeball it can get? I’m dying to see the job description of Bettman’s position.

1. Announce the draft selections.
2. Present the Stanley Cup.
3. Hold press conferences in which you speak grim-faced about your own irrelevance.

Hey, sign me up!

NOW We Have A Game! Home Field Advantage And The All-Star Game

Back to the baseball All-Star Game.

I have to laugh whenever I read blather like this from Michael Rosenberg, who I actually enjoy reading, regarding the All-Star Game determining home field advantage in the World Series:

"The All-Star Game, which had turned into a show, has gone back to business. And if the home-field advantage was the carrot that did it, then (Bud) Selig should be applauded."

It cracks me up when folks think that these players need extra motivation to win the All-Star Game. Time and again, I have read and heard players, past and present, go on and on about how there is a distinctive competitive fire in their bellies when it comes to the All-Star Game. They say they want their league to have bragging rights. They maintain that this isn’t just a meaningless exhibition game -- it’s a prize to be won. Back in the 70’s and early 80’s, when the National League was beating the brains in of the American League, you don’t think that riled up guys like Rod Carew, George Brett, Reggie Jackson and Jim Palmer? Conversely, do you think this current AL domination isn’t nagging the hell out of the NL’ers? Don’t kid yourselves, and don’t believe writers like Rosenberg, who usually knows better, when they tell you that the players needed something to make this game important to them.


Ahhh, that was refreshing. We should do this again sometime.

See ya at post #200 -- and hopefully every one in between.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Prediction: There Will Be A Brown-out In Detroit

Pistons owner Bill Davidson is a man who believes fiercely in loyalty -- both from employer to employee and vice-versa. The lack of the latter, or at least the perceived lack, is what cost Dick Vitale his job as Pistons coach, and it cost Isiah Thomas a chance to be Joe Dumars in the team's front office. And those are just two examples, but two of the highest profile ones.

And now, I believe, it has cost Larry Brown his job as the Pistons coach as well.

Brown's dramatics run against Mr. D's grain, but he would have been able to abide that, it says here, if there hadn't been this nonsense with the Cleveland Cavaliers during this year's playoff run. The sloppy courtship of Brown by Cleveland did not set well with Davidson at all. What's worse, it appears now that the reason the Cavs came calling might have been because Brown himself initiated talks with them back in March, some reports indicate. Now Davidson has called a meeting today with Brown, his agent Joe Glass, and Dumars to discuss Larry's future with the Pistons.

Well, here's the future: there ain't none. I predict the result of this meeting will be the buyout of Brown's contract, and a parting of ways. Davidson has had enough. The in-season distractions were bad enough -- the health (unavoidable, of course, but still there), the foolish comments about New York being a "dream job", the whining about the brawl, and the strange changing of gears about when he would return to the bench -- but when it carried into the playoffs, that was just about the last straw. Now, if Davidson believes the reports that the Cleveand discussions may have been started by Brown himself, then the camel's back is breaking.

Davidson doesn't put up with anything that smacks of disloyalty or divided attention. One of his first moves as the Pistons new majority owner was to trade Dave Bing -- yes, THAT Dave Bing -- because Bingo had the nerve to want to renegotiate his contract in the summer of 1975. Nowadays, that would not cause Davidson to react in such a way. But 30 years ago, Mr. D thought it unseemly to declare such a thing. But as the years moved on, there were still other examples of Davidson reacting in the most extreme way to what he believed to be disloyal behavior. When Vitale started whispering into reporters -- and others' -- ears that he felt ownership wasn't committed to winning, that whispering eventually landed in Davidson's ears. Bye-bye, Dickie. When Isiah made an assumption that he was going to move right from the lockerroom to the front office and declared so publicly, then started entertaining other offers, Davidson pulled the rug right out from Zeke's feet.

So the meeting will apparently occur today, and while the actual decision to release Brown might not be revealed today, I don't think it will be long before that is what ultimately happens. Davidson's history says so, even if the coach in question is a Hall of Famer and one of the best around. Of course, Brown fans should only point to my prediction of how Game 7 of the Finals would turn out to hold out hope that I'm wrong.

But results of games are subject to all sorts of variables. Bill Davidson doesn't have many of those.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Don't Look Now, But NFL's Most Exciting Offense May Be In....(gasp!) Detroit!

(l to r) Jones, Rogers, Roy and Mike Williams: YOU try to defend them

The Lions start training camp next week, and so far Charlie Rogers hasn't reinjured his shoulder. Both of those tidbits should warm the hearts of Lions fans everywhere, not that they need warming in this sweltering heat.

In a flash, it seems, the Lions suddenly possess one of the youngest and potentially most exciting offenses in the entire NFL. No joke. Which team tops them, at the skill positions, when it comes to youth and talent?

Just look at the names and digest them for a moment. Kevin Jones running the ball. Rogers, Mike and Roy Williams catching it. A pretty decent offensive line. A solid tight end in Marcus Pollard. Even Joey Harrington can't screw this up, can he? On second thought, don't answer that question.

But really, this Lions offense is primed for success and could be awfully fun to watch. Until Rogers falls on his shoulder, then all bets are off. I know that's not so funny, because you think in the back of your mind -- or maybe even the middle of your mind -- that Rogers could indeed be hurt again. Why not, when you think about it, which everyone hates to do.But providing Rogers bucks the odds and stays healthy, defenses might have fits with this group.

It all centers around....Kevin Jones. Thought I was gonna say Harrington, didn't you? No, it's Jones. Football 101 says that no matter how potent your passing game, without the threat of the run, you may as well start planning for next year's draft. But with the way Jones ran in last season's second half, opposing defensive coordinators might have some sleepless nights during "Detroit week." And that's why Jones' performance this season is so crucial. When Jones runs the way he did in November and December, the field opens up as if parted by Moses. The Williamses and Rogers will be able to run wild in the flats and secondary, and a play-action move will freeze defensive lines. Just like they draw it up on the chalkboard.

So it's Kevin Jones, not Joey Harrington, that Lions fans should focus on this season. But of course, they won't. Harrington, the quarterback, will be in the fish bowl once again, swimming with the sharks. And I suppose that's only fair, because QB may be the most important position in all of team sports, right up there with a hockey goalie and Juan Gonzalez' x-ray technician. No wonder the majority of the venom in this town, then, gets spewed on Harrington and Curtis Joseph of the Red Wings. But it's nothing personal, guys -- it's the position, not the person. I have a feeling even old #22, Bobby Layne, might have to fend off the loudmouths on talk radio if he were to be reincarnated. Same with Terry Sawchuk if he were to reappear between the pipes for the Red Wings.

But while I admit Joey has something to do with whether Jason Hanson tries mostly field goals or extra points, he will still only be as effective as Kevin Jones' running will allow him to be. In fact, I submit to you that this year, 2005, we will finally get to see what kind of an NFL quarterback Joey Harrington really is. That's because all the pieces are in place for him to be successful. No more excuses. No more Joey apologists whining that there is no running game to set up the pass. This is it, Pal Joey. Let's see what you're made of.

Still, if Jones goes down, heaven forbid, kiss the playoffs goodbye and watch opposing defenses bump our receivers at the line like pinballs off cushions. Watch for nickel defenses and blitzes and whatever else the other guys' defenders can come up with to disrupt Harrington's groove. I'm telling you, Jones was so impressive in the second half of 2004, you thought you were seeing Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith (in his prime) morphed into one running back. He was that good -- fast and powerful and jiggly at times. He electrified the Ford Field patrons.

And it's not just locals like me saying these things. I have noticed more and more national media talking all googly about the jewels the Lions have at the skill positions. The Sporting News, for example, raved about the Lions' offense a few weeks ago. Even the fantasy footballers, those Mel Kiper knock offs, think there is something good happening in Motown as it pertains to the NFL. In fact, the Lions are so stacked at the running back and receiver positions that some FF'ers worry that no one player will have enough outstanding fantasy games, because the wealth may be spread too thin.

Not that the Lions care, of course. Their goal is to win enough games to get into the playoffs and qualify for the franchise's first Super Bowl.

Talk about Fantasy Football.