Sunday, April 30, 2006

If It's The Playoffs, Then It's Cliche Time

Okay, we’re going to take it one game at a time here. Because we don’t want to have our backs against the wall, because then it would be a “do or die” situation.

It’s playoff time, which means you can throw the regular season records out the window. For it’s the second season, and the loser goes home.

It’s not hard to get up for these games, because this is what you dream about when you’re a kid playing the game. The pressure heats up this time of year, but we’ve faced adversity before, so it shouldn’t be a problem for the guys in this dressing room.

We have to be careful of our opponent, however, because they’ve been playing “playoff intensity” games toward the end of the regular season, and I’m sure they’re going to be fired up, especially in their building.

We have to protect our home floor/ice, because nobody’s going to come into “our house” and beat us. That’s why we need our fans’ support, because they’re like a sixth man/skater for us. After all, we have the best fans in the world.

I wouldn’t say the next game is a “must win”, but we don’t want to give our opponents any life. Because as a series goes on, and the longer you let a team hang around, you’re playing with fire. The clinching game, of course, is always the hardest one to win.

We have to stay healthy, and get the bounces, because it’s a game of inches and you have to score ugly sometimes to win in the playoffs. But then again, the playoffs are all about defense, because if you look back at all the championship teams, they all played great defense.

Whether or not our star player plays after his upper body injury, I don’t know. He’s going to be a “game time decision.” But he wants to play.

My job as coach is to get these guys ready to play, but they’ve done it all year and they’ve been waiting all season for this. So I think you’ll see us focus in, because we have all summer to rest.

The only thing that matters is a championship and this is what we’ve talked about since training camp. We played all year for home court/ice advantage, because everyone knows you always want a Game 7 in your building.

Yeah, we lost a game, but it’s a seven-game series so I don’t think the fans should panic because I know the players in that lockerroom aren’t panicking. Sure, there’s some frustration, but we just have to make some plays.

I think our goalie will be fine, but I’m sure there were a couple goals he’d like to have back. We just need to eliminate mistakes and not beat ourselves, because against this team, they’ll make you pay.

I don’t think we’re looking beyond this series, just because all you guys in the media are. We know we have business to take care of, and we intend to do that as quickly as possible.

I just want to contribute, and if that means coming off the bench, then that’s what I’ll do because I’m all about winning. Everyone wants to play but I just have to be ready when my number is called. Because the coach is the coach and he makes those decisions and you have to respect that.

Our star players need to play like star players, because in the playoffs it’s the dirty work that gets the job done, and I haven’t seen enough grit from some of our guys. But it’s going to be a long series, so I’m sure sooner or later they’ll break out.

I don’t want to comment on the officiating because that’ll cost me some money, but you all saw what happened, so draw your own conclusions. But if that’s the way they’re going to call it in this series, then I think the league might want to take a look at it.

I know some of our guys don’t have a lot of playoff experience, but sometimes once the games get going, that doesn’t really matter, and besides, maybe our young guys don’t know any better and they’ll just play on adrenalin and emotion.

You know, we didn’t just “back in” to the playoffs. We feel we belong and if the media and the fans don’t give us any respect, than we can just take an “us against the world” mentality and maybe that’ll just galvanize us.

You can never take any team lightly in the playoffs. We need to hold serve at home, because we don’t want to go to their place tied 1-1, because at that point we’re just making it harder on ourselves. Then again, our guys have been crawling out of foxholes all season so I’m sure they can handle it again.

In a playoff series, the next game is always the most important one.

We don’t pay attention to all that talk about great individual seasons or setting a new franchise record for wins. That’s for all of you to talk about. All we care about in this room is winning a championship.

The playoffs are a grind and the first one to 16 wins and you have to have some luck along the way and win some overtime games and above all, stay healthy.

Why? Because it’s playoff time -- and they said so.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Penalty Killers On Parade: Red Wings "Power" Their Way To Victory

If it was a football game, they'd still be playing it.

There'd be so much yellow laundry on the field, it would look like the "before" in a Tide commercial.

The referee's voice would be hoarse from announcing infractions to the viewing audience.

We even had the requisite, overly-long replay consultations.

The Red Wings and the Oilers engaged in a playoff tussle last night -- the Detroiters won, 4-2 to even the best-of-seven series at two games apiece -- but there were so many penalties, so many power plays to capitalize on, so many kills to be made, that I swear I saw Lions special teams coach Chuck Priefer hustling down to the Red Wings bench area, to lend some advice.

Oops -- I think I may have just drawn a whistle. Or maybe it was you, for diving -- for cover from this blog.

The teams played 60 minutes last night, and I think about 1:33 was spent at 5-on-5. Before the "new" NHL, a 5-on-3 in the playoffs was about as frequent as dead air during a "Coaches Corner" segment with Don Cherry. Last night, and in this series, 5-on-3's have been so prevalent, it's as if the referees are trying to make up for lost time.

I'm glad the Red Wings won, of course, but how do we know how well they played when all we saw were their special teams? I mean, I think for that 1:33 of 5-on-5 they were pretty decent, but who the heck really knows?

Ironically, it was partly because of a non-call -- the CORRECT non-call, by the way -- that the Wings won last night. Defenseman Nick Lidstrom, with a veteran's subtlety, picked Oilers penalty killer Jarrett Stoll just enough at the blueline to create some room, and seconds later he one-timed a slapper -- on a 5-on-3, natch -- to give the Red Wings a 3-2 lead in the third period. I found it comical that our trustworthy TV announcers -- Ken Daniels and Mickey Redmond -- kept trying to tell us that Lidstrom was trying to "get out of the way." As if they were afraid the league's minions in the replay booth were listening in. Lidstrom knew exactly what he was doing -- cutting Stoll off at the pass -- and he did it wonderfully.

Speaking of the bozos upstairs -- NOT Daniels and Redmond, but the NHL's replay officials -- how long does it take to make a freaking call, anyway? The trio of shirts and ties spent so much time looking at the Red Wings' go-ahead goal late in the first period that I thought they were going to start sending for pizza, beer, and a TV Guide. I'm pretty sure at one point, the cameras caught them watching another play entirely. No joke. Regardless, they conferred forEVER, eventually awarding the goal to Niklas Kronwall. And I'm not sure that was even correct, because I thought the puck caromed off an Oiler.

How come we can make the correct call at home in 20 seconds, and it takes Larry, Moe, and Curly five minutes? It's been like that the entire series. Remember Kirk Maltby's tying goal in the third period of Game 1? The one that bounced off his legally held stick? I saw that replay ONCE and I made the correct call, mainly because it was the only call you could make -- straight from Refereeing 101. But the NHL's Three Stooges watched the play over, and over, and over. In fact, thanks to them, I think Maltby's goal now has the second-most reruns in TV history, just behind "I Love Lucy."

Maybe it is the pizza, beer, and TV Guide. After all, we have that at home and they don't have it upstairs.

Redmond afterward called the officiating a "disgrace to the NHL."

"You won't see these guys [the referees in Game 4] much anymore," Redmond said.

I hope not. The penalty box door's hinges is going to need WD 40, forthwith.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Pistons' First Round Filled With "Regular Season Intensity"

"The Conference Finals are THAT way"

Maybe the Pistons' playoff slogan should be "Bring It!" instead.

As in, "Bring on the competition."

Bring on the Wizards. Or the Cavs.

Bring on the Heat. Or the Nets.

Bring on the Spurs. Or the Mavericks.

But for now, it should just be this: Bring on the second round. And as soon as possible.

It's fun to watch the Milwaukee Bucks play around at being a playoff team, but their first-round series with the Pistons is beginning to resemble a Harlem Globetrotters-Washington Generals matchup. The only things missing have been a Meadowlark Lemon half-court hook shot, and the confetti-as-water bucket skit.

If you commissioned a political cartoonist to create an image for this series so far, it would be of a large, Pistons bully with his arm outstretched, his hand firmly on the forehead of a young Buck child, whose arms are flailing wildly -- except his reach is about three feet too short.

Occasionally the Pistons have relaxed their arms, allowing the Bucks to creep close, only to once again extend their appendages in full, leaving their outmanned opponents to again swing at air.

These #1 vs. #8 NBA playoff matchups often go like this. This isn't the NHL, where #8 is eighth in seeding only. In pro basketball, you're #8 for a reason. Usually, that reason is that you stink -- comparatively speaking.

The Bucks could make mincemeat in a seven-game series of the Atlanta Hawks, or Toronto Raptors, or the New York Knicks. But against the Pistons, who suddenly look even deeper than I thought, they're reduced to Washington General status.

Having said that, there may still be a Game 5 at the Palace. The Pistons, for all their glory lately, haven't swept a series since brooming the Indiana Pacers way back in 1990. So they could yet drop a game in Milwaukee; the young Bucks might be able to muster enough adrenalin and energy to play out of their minds against a bored Pistons squad and steal a win.

Here's the difference between watching a first round series with the Pistons and watching the same with the Red Wings: Because of the makeup of the two leagues, I casually watched Game 2 last night while doing other things, occasionally glancing at the scoreboard. Maybe I actually stopped and watched intently for 10, 15 minutes here and there. Sometimes the pundits talk of a "playoff atmosphere" in a game played in February. But what about a playoff game in April that has "regular season intensity"?

That was last night's Game 2 to a "T" -- and I don't mean the ones given to Rasheed Wallace.

But with the Red Wings, who play in a league where #8 seeds could make it all the way to the Finals, a first round game is like Game 7 of the Conference Finals. The magic dust of playoff hockey gets sprinkled on the underdogs, and suddenly your 58-16-8 team looks like it's playing one of those great Montreal (or Detroit) teams from the 1950's. It's kind of annoying, frankly. The Red Wings haven't gone into a postseason as one of those lower seeds since 1991, when they gave the heavily-favored St. Louis Blues a scare -- seizing a 3-1 lead -- before succumbing in seven games. Ever since then -- 14 playoffs and counting now -- the Red Wings have gone into at least the first round as prohibitive favorites, and sometimes even beyond that. They've even been the overwhelming choice in the Stanley Cup Finals. I predicted a sweep in 1998, and that's exactly what I got. Nobody gave the Hurricanes a chance against them in 2002, and they were right on.

And they've lost a few first-rounders, as you know, so this opening round struggle is old hat around here. Even the Cup year of '02 was fraught with first round horror. Remember the Canucks winning the first two games in Detroit? It wasn't until a Nick Lidstrom slapper from around center ice slipped through Dan Cloutier in Vancouver in Game 3 did that series turn around.

I still think our hockey team will right itself in time to make it to Round 2. But they'll have to play like a President's Trophy team to do it.

The Pistons, on the other hand, don't seem to need to "Bring It" until the Conference Finals. LeBron or Arenas be damned.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Game 3 A Disappointment, But Red Wings Should Still Be Okay

Have the sales of razor blades increased, even since 2:10 a.m. this morning? How about nooses? Better check your neighbor's garage, and listen if there's a car engine running inside.

The Red Wings lost a playoff game last night, probably one they should have won, 4-3 in double overtime to the Edmonton Oilers, and thus now trail their best-of-seven series, 2-1. A seemingly game-winning goal by Jason Williams was scored in the first OT, but was correctly waved off when it was evident on videotape that the puck had slipped into the goal beneath the slightly raised net.

I'm not among those searching for cyanide this morning because this game, more than the first two of the series, showed me that the Red Wings should still be alright in this series. They staged an impressive two goals-in-18 seconds comeback to tie the game 3-3 in the third period, and had the majority of scoring chances in overtime. Their power play also looked good, keeping puck possession and creating goals.

Manny Legace, however, is another story. Surprise, surprise, huh?

In Game 2, Legace let a 50-foot wrist shot beat him, which proved to be the game-winning goal by some guy named Winchester, who's starting to get on my nerves, because he's one of these guys who does nothing in the regular season and then suddenly has his name spoken by Ken Daniels incessantly in the playoffs. You know -- one of those Cinderella story guys. Ugh. And what's with the name? Winchester? That sounds like a soccer team in the UK, not a hockey player.

Regardless, Legace failed his team in the first period last night, too, when he was slow to pick up on Ryan Smyth behind the goal, who used Manny's fog to sneak around and wrap the puck into the net before Legace could cover the post. That goal, along with Winchester's wrist shot in Game 2, have killed the Red Wings in this series.

Now I will also say this: Legace has played well at times, too. His brilliant save with about 15 minutes remaining in the third period of Game 1 kept the Red Wings within a goal of the Oilers, enabling them to tie the game about eight minutes later. They later won in overtime, of course. So chalk that up on Manny's "good" ledger.

But it's always about, inevitably, the ones that get past you, in the playoffs. And while it might not be fair and while the margin for error is paper thin, you simply cannot allow the kinds of goals scored by Winchester in Game 2 and Smyth in Game 3 and win a series.

So, are the Red Wings in trouble?

In a hole? Yes. In trouble? I'm not so sure.

I think, frankly, that the Red Wings may have gained some confidence last night, not lost any. They proved that Oilers netminder Duane Roloson, while having played spectacularly, is not an impenetrable wall, like some goalies who've bedeviled the Wings in playoffs gone past. They played their best game of the series in Game 3, and though they lost it, I think they'll keep coming and swipe Game 4, bringing it back to Detroit 2-2, and who would have turned that down after the team lost Game 2 at JLA?

It's not time for jumping off ledges quite yet. Besides, this series is simply proving what we knew all too well all along: That the Red Wings' 58 wins and 124 points in the regular season mean about as much in the playoffs as a politician's promise.

Like coach Mike Babcock said between Games 2 and 3: "Look, we know this isn't going to be easy."

Nothing ever is in the NHL playoffs, where magic dust is sprinkled over lower seeds and players named Winchester as soon as the postseason curtain rises.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Hamilton Wants To Play? Then Let 'Er Rip!

"What -- ME not play? No Sir!"

"We don't need Rip Hamilton -- let him rest."

"Why risk further injury?"

"It's only the Bucks, for goodness sakes!"

Such are the comments I've heard in the 36 or so hours after the Pistons' 92-74 victory in Game 1 of their first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks. Some of them have even been uttered by my boss at MCS Magazine, Muneesh Jain -- and even the usually reliable Terry Foster, one of our writers (I think he also writes for the Detroit News, too -- but who reads that, anyway?), nodded and agreed. We were at the world premiere of Gary Glaser's documentary, Stranded at the Corner, a pretty cool look at the fight to save Tiger Stadium. But even in the lobby of the Gem Theatre, on a night filled with baseball lovers, the talk turned to the Pistons. It IS playoff time, after all.

Apparently a lot of folks think the Pistons can beat the Bucks with one hand tied behind their backs. Oh, how quickly they forget Game 2 against Milwaukee in 2004, which was a Bucks victory, on the heels of a 26-point blowout loss in Game 1.

The debate, of course, is about Richard Hamilton and the most famous (at press time) sprained ankle in Detroit -- his. Rip injured it in Game 1, played on it, and seemed to tweak it again.

But here's the dealio: if a player says he can go (which Hamilton does), and the trainer/strength and conditioning guy (who only happens to be the best in the business) says the player can go, and the coach says the player can go, and his teammates say the player can go -- then guess what?

He goes!!

I can see the pseudo-wisdom of those who prefer to err on the side of caution and let Hamilton sit on the bench in street clothes, a Game 2 witness. I understand their fear that he may reinjure the ankle and be lost for a lengthy time.

But when you start resting players -- starters, especially -- because you feel they're "not needed", then you begin to play with fire a little bit. This is the NBA. There are no cowards or stiffs on the floor in the playoffs. Even though the gap between #1 and #8 is much wider than that of the NHL (ain't that right, Wing Nuts?), an underdog can still steal a game on the road, and all of a sudden you wish you'd have gone into that game at full strength. Why give the Bucks any life?

The point is mostly moot, anyhow. Hamilton is almost a sure bet to start Game 2 -- even if it had been played tonight, and not tomorrow. But it amuses me how some around here would like to sit people down, as if the Pistons hold a "Get Out of the Eastern Conference FREE" card that they drew from Community Chest or Chance.

Yes, the Pistons are heavy favorites to reach the NBA Finals. I -- in case you care -- feel they'll win it all, frankly. But that's only if you stay the course, and not fall into the seduction of feeling like you have the luxury of resting key players if they so much as wake up with a hang nail.

Rip Hamilton's ankle injury is not, thankfully, as bad as it first appeared. Most ankle injuries look worse than they are, anyway. It's not putting him in the "OUT" category of the injury list. It's not even placing him in the "doubtful" ledger. I don't even think it's "questionable."

It's a GO!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Oilers' Win Sunday Should Come As No Shock

In 1984, the Red Wings made the playoffs with a record of 27-41-12. The next spring, in 1985, the Wings qualified again, even though their record was again unsightly — 31-42-7. Not surprisingly, they were bumped out in the best-of-five first round each year, going 1-6 in the process. The format in those days was that the top four teams in each division made the postseason. So the Red Wings, with their brutal winning percentages, nevertheless qualified by virtue of playing in a weak division.

The NHL doesn't allow for such shenanigans nowadays. The competitiveness is such that even teams with several more wins than losses can be on the outside looking in come playoff time. A #8 seed is eighth in position only; it's not eighth because it is a pretender — a pauper amongst princes.

The Edmonton Oilers entered the 2006 playoffs with 95 points. That's a total that has won divisional titles in seasons gone by. They are the #8 seed only because the seven teams in front of them had a bit more success than the Oilers did in the regular season. They are not #8 because they themselves had no success.

So it should come as no shock that the Oilers have squared their best-of-seven series with the mighty Red Wings at a game each by virtue of their much-deserved 4-2 win yesterday at Joe Louis Arena. They played better, stronger, smarter, and were more opportunistic. And, they are a pretty damn good hockey team, to boot.

Hands are wringing in our great metropolitan area this morning because the Red Wings are once again showing their faithful that the road to Lord Stanley's Cup isn't a yellow-bricked one that's without its flying monkeys and wicked witches. The Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy in team sports to win because there isn't a cupcake on the playoff schedule, like the NBA — where the difference between #1 and #8 is a long road, a moat, a drawbridge, and a vat of boiling oil.

The NHL playoffs are fraught with terror and pucks that go bump in the night because the teams that compete in them are, for the most part, good, solid units that could — with some luck and a hot goalie — ascend to the Finals, with few exceptions. I know, and you should, too — because we've seen it. The Mighty Ducks in 2003. The Hurricanes in 2002. The Capitals in 1998. The Florida Freaking Panthers in 1996.

The Oilers beat the Red Wings yesterday because they bottled up the neutral zone, created turnovers in the offensive zone, and converted two of them into goals. They outmuscled, outhustled, and outsmarted the Wings on their own sheet of ice, and now deservedly take a 1-1 series back to Edmonton, where the Red Wings — for all their road success this season — have been very pedestrian in the last few years. I don't even know what they call it nowadays, the Oilers' building, but I always knew it as Northlands Coliseum. Regardless, it's been a sort of house of horrors to the Detroiters lately, and if that trend doesn't change, then you can kiss your fantasies of a dual Pistons/Red Wings parade down Woodward Avenue goodbye.

Bring It!

That's the playoff hockey slogan this year, so chosen by the wiz kids in the Red Wings' marketing department. They do that every year, for it has been determined that we are not capable of creating our own rallying cries. But what else do you expect for a franchise that has unashamedly declared that it plays in a place called Hockeytown? Even though we did not create the game, nor have won the most championships in its history. No matter. But if any city should be called Hockeytown, then that city is Montreal, if you want to know the truth.

The Red Wings can still make a series of it. They might even win the darn thing. But through the first two games, they haven't intimidated the Oilers one bit. In fact, Friday's overtime loss seemed to have galvanized Craig MacTavish's team. They had some success against the Red Wings in the regular season, and are clearly not in awe of our hockey gods.

And the fans in this town still have the nerve to act surprised and disgusted. This happens every year in the first round — even in the years when the Red Wings have won it all.

Who do they think the Red Wings are playing? Chopped liver? The 1984-85 Red Wings?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Over 36 Years Later, Gadsby Still Doesn't Know Why He Was Fired

Say your boss comes up to you one day, puts his arms around you, and says, "(Insert your name here), you've really been doing a good job." Spirits seldom have seemed higher.

Now imagine the very same boss calling you into his office - the very next day.

"I'm relieving you of your duties," he says.

You feel slugged in the gut.

The above is what happened to former Red Wings coach Bill Gadsby. And after over 36 years, he still doesn't know why.

In 1968, Gadsby, after a Hall of Fame playing career as a defenseman - the last five seasons of which were spent in Detroit as a Red Wing - took the reins of the team as coach. In his first season behind the bench, the Wings finished 33-31-12, slumping badly at the end - going 0-6-2 in the final eight games - and missed the playoffs by seven points.

Gadsby finished his Hall of Fame playing career with five seasons in Detroit (1961-66)

"I thought we had the makings of a pretty good hockey club," Gadsby told me over the phone earlier this week. He spoke to me for the regular "Where Are They Now?" feature for Motor City Sports Magazine - May issue (available at Barnes and Noble, Kroger's, and other local newsstands - hint, hint). "The first year, we missed the playoffs, but that happens.

"The second season..." His voice trailed off.

In October 1969, the Red Wings jumped out of the gate 2-0 - winning at home against Toronto and beating the Blackhawks in Chicago. It was in the dressing room in the bowels of old, creaky Chicago Stadium where team owner Bruce Norris wrapped Gadsby up in his arms and said, "Well, Bill, you've really got these guys going." The words are recalled today by Gadsby as if they'd been uttered by Norris yesterday. And indeed, the Red Wings - with players such as Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Frank Mahovlich, Garry Unger, and Normie Ullman - were a talented team that had the potential of winning a lot of games.

But the next day, the heavy-drinking Norris - a martini in front of him, Gadsby said - sat across from his coach and delivered the news: He was giving him the "ziggy" - that Detroit word for a coach getting fired.

"I tell ya, it was the biggest shock of my life," Gadsby told me. "This was the day after he threw his arms around me in Chicago and told me how good of a job I was doing. Now, figure that one out! I bet that must be some sort of record: Getting fired after two games, both of them wins."

It might indeed be a record. The only other instance that I can think of that's as similar was when the Los Angeles Rams fired coach George Allen after two games in 1978 - in the exhibition season. But Allen was divisive and managed to incur the wrath of both his players and his bosses. So his cashiering was a preemptive strike.

What's worse, Gadsby says he never did find out why he was let go.

"I went down to the dressing room and confronted [GM] Sid Abel and {assistant GM] Baz Bastien, and they both threw their arms up and said, 'We don't know what the hell is going on.' Then I saw him [Norris] down in Florida a few months later, and he said, 'I don't want to talk about it, blah-blah.' It really stuck in my craw for six, eight months, but I got over it."

"His friends didn't know a damn thing about the game, yet they'd call and say, 'Why is [Gary] Bergman out there, or why does Bill have so-and-so's line on the ice?' Finally I ripped the damn thing out of the wall."

Abel, the former coach and current GM, was once again made the coach - just over a year after passing the torch to Gadsby for what he figured would be a longer run than one season and two games. Sid finished out the '69-'70 season before giving way to Ned Harkness, who is an entire column in of himself.

I advanced a theory to Gadsby, one that had been bantied about in Detroit hockey circles for years: That Norris, not one given to self-discipline when it came to the liquor, gave Gadsby the ziggy after having one too many martinis.

"I don't know about that," Gadsby said. "He seemed fine to me. He had a martini in front of him, but he was fine. I got the message - I'll tell you that!"

Bruce Norris: Two-fisted drinking owner of the Red Wings, until selling to Mike Ilitch in 1982

Bruce Norris was, often-times, an absentee owner. He was given to spend a lot of the hockey season in the warmth of Florida, while his players and coaches labored in the icy weather of Detroit, or Chicago, or Toronto. But if Bill Gadsby had had his way, Norris would have spent the entire season down south.

"There was a phone he [Norris] had wired in behind the bench," Gadsby recalls. "He would sit in that suite he had built in Olympia, with his cronies, and they'd sit up there and drink and make calls."

During the game?

"Oh, hell yeah! His friends didn't know a damn thing about the game, yet they'd call and say, 'Why is [Gary] Bergman out there, or why does Bill have so-and-so's line on the ice?' Finally I ripped the damn thing out of the wall.

"Maybe that had something to do with [me getting fired]," he added with a chuckle.
Gadsby is 78 today and retired in Southfield ("I play golf," he says), and still follows the Red Wings.

"Oh, sure. All the time. And they always seem to find a way to win," he says.

So what would he do, I asked, if he had a $100 bill and had to place a bet on either today's Red Wings, or the great Detroit teams of the 1950's that he competed against?

He gave me a throaty laugh. "Ohhh, man! I'd have to go with today's group. They just seem a little more balanced and deep."

Gadsby never played on a Stanley Cup winner. He came close, though. The 1965-66 Red Wings that he played on made the Finals before losing to Montreal. No matter. A Cup-less career is not any less gratifying to him.

"I just loved the game so much," he says. "I even liked practice. I met so many good people and I really enjoyed the camaraderie amongst the guys. It was a great life. And you couldn't beat the hours, I tell ya."

After getting the ziggy in Detroit, Gadsby had a chance to coach again, in St. Louis. He turned it down.

"A friend of mine was one of the owners there [in St. Louis], and he wanted me to be the coach. But I was just so hurt from what happened to me in Detroit that I just said, 'The hell with it. This profession's got no stability.' So I got out of the game and did other things."

For over 15 years, Gadsby worked for Curran Crane, a construction company in Detroit that rents cranes.

"I had a helluva job," Gadsby says. "I made some phone calls, checked on clients, shot the bull. And I had a membership with the Birmingham Country Club, which was a very nice golf course. It was a helluva job.

"Then I ran a hockey school for about ten years. At one point I had about 11 hockey rinks in the Detroit area that I used for the school. I really enjoyed that, too."

But still, 36-and-a-half years later, Bill Gadsby has one unanswered question: Why did he get fired as Red Wings coach in 1969?

"Maybe [the late trainer] Lefty Wilson knows," he says with a chuckle.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Bloggers, Start Your Keyboards! It's Playoff Time

My goodness, it's upon us and I don't know if I'm prepared. Just like when Christmas looms, and the shopping has barely begun. Though the liquor is usually pre-bought, with plenty of time to spare, to boot.

Starting tonight, and for pretty much every night -- possibly for the next six or seven weeks -- there'll be either a Red Wings or Pistons playoff game on the schedule. Sometimes both on the same day. That means ne'er-do-wells and scufflaws like bloggers and other online journalists will be accelerating their destiny with carpal tunnel, feverishly typing to give you our takes on the happenings -- because we all know you have no opinions of your own, and need us to formulate them. At least you'd think that, for how some of us cram this stuff down your throats. Of course, you don't have to click on us, so maybe part of the blame lies on you. Blame the victim, I always say!

The Red Wings open with Edmonton tonight, and the Pistons follow suit on Sunday against Milwaukee. Both of Detroit's opponents have a combined population of about 1,000, but neither team should be underestimated. It's never more so than in the first round. However, the NBA sees far fewer opening round "upsets" than the NHL. And no wonder. The Oilers accumulated 95 points this season. No playoff hockey team this year has anything close to a losing record, while the NBA has let some dregs into its postseason party this spring.

The Oilers are about as dangerous a team as you'll play in Round One, but then we seem to say that every year about the Red Wings' first-round opponent, don't we? Maybe because the last time we poo-pooed a first-rounder, it was the Sharks in 1994. And we're STILL not completely over that one, despite it being three Stanley Cups ago.

The Pistons, I'm much less concerned about. I see a breeze into the Conference Finals, and even there I'm not all that wound up. I'd also like to take this opportunity to thank the Miami Heat for doing away with small forward/guard Eddie Jones -- the one player in the postseason that would have injected fear into me. So I guess we'll see our basketball team in the NBA Finals.

Those start, by the way, sometime around June 8. Only 48 days from now.

Honey, how's the liquor situation coming along, anyway?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Isiah Was Out To Lunch When McCloskey Taught GM School

Isiah Thomas must have been absent that day. Maybe he was off shooting a DTE Energy commercial with his mother, or a Metro Detroit Ford dealers spot with Sparky Anderson, or perhaps he was working on his jump shot on his custom-made basketball court inside his mansion.

Regardless, he was clearly missing the day Jack McCloskey taught GM class.

But Joe Dumars was present and accounted for -- that much is certain.

McCloskey, the crusty Pistons GM who was the architect of the Bad Boys championship teams, had quite a circuitous route to the NBA mountain top. He was a coach in the Ivy League -- where he met Chuck Daly. He coached the sad-sack, expansion Portland Trailblazers -- and was fired just weeks before the team drafted a hippy, Grateful Dead-loving redhead named Bill Walton. But he was there when the Blazers drafted LaRue Martin -- perhaps the biggest #1 draft bust in league history.

Jack McCloskey

Then he got out of the game altogether. In an interview with me between the two championship years -- in the summer of 1989 -- McCloskey said he invested into a tropical island and was leaving basketball altogether.

"That didn't last very long," he said with a smile and a wink.

He needed to get hoops back into his blood, so he took an assistant's job with the Lakers under Jerry West. From there it was on to the Indiana Pacers -- as another one of those trusty, clipboard-toting assistants.

Then Bill Davidson came calling.

I'm not sure how Davidson, the Pistons owner, knew about McCloskey, but wherever he got his information from, I wonder if he also used that source to pick lottery numbers for him.

So on December 11, 1979 -- a date that should be celebrated as a Detroit holiday for basketball fans -- Jack McCloskey was plucked off the Pacers bench as Slick Leonard's assistant and thrust into the general manager's seat at the Silverdome.

And though it took him ten years -- "We were basically an expansion team," McCloskey told me in '89 -- the Pistons became world champions. Twice.

It's probably not the straightest path, but McCloskey went from an Ivy League coach to a fired NBA coach to an island owner to a couple of assistants job in the league to general manager of an NBA champion. So if you've got the time -- say, 20 years -- then that's a route you might consider.

Joe Dumars, no doubt walking around with pages of Jack McCloskey's book stuffed in his pockets, took over the Pistons in the summer of 2000 and, four years later, turned the team into NBA titleists. And not one player that was on that 2004 championship team was on the roster the day Dumars took control. Impressive indeed.

Dumars' similarities to McCloskey are eery.

Gutsy trades: check (re: Jerry Stackhouse for Rip Hamilton; Rasheed Wallace when everyone said he was a cancer).
Risky free agent signings: check (Antonio McDyess)
Bold free agent signings: check (Chauncey Billups)
Unafraid to change coaches: check (Rick Carlisle and Larry Brown: see ya!)
The ability to recognize his own errors and move on: check (Rodney White, Mateen Cleaves, Darko Milicic).
Shrewd deals that fleece the competition: check (Grant Hill for Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins; the Sheed deal; Tony Delk).

Dumars' team is prepping for another long playoff run after setting the franchise record for most wins in a season. They have the best record in the entire NBA.

Isiah Thomas' future is clouded with issues, on and off the court. Many were of his own doing.

Come to think of it, that couldn't possibly have been a one-day class that McCloskey was teaching. So where was the Pistons' point guard when his backcourt counterpart was taking notes?

Oh, Isiah!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Leyland's Outburst A Melody For Un-sore Ears

Thinking back on Alan Trammell's three seasons as Tigers manager, I was trying to recall a moment when he lost his cool and called out his team in public. And Lord knows there were plenty of opportunities to do so. Yet here I am, still thinking, and nothing is coming to mind. It just confirms my belief that Tram's next tirade would be his first.

Jim Leyland only needed 13 games before he'd seen enough red flags in his team's play to go on a rant. Yesterday's lackluster 10-2 loss to the Indians -- which forced the Tigers to settle for a 2-2 split in the four-game series -- was like so many other lackluster losses the team had given this city's baseball fans in the last decade or so that it probably didn't occur to us to give it a second thought. But not Jim Leyland -- and that's good, because he's the skipper of the ship.

"We played like we had our suitcases packed for Oakland, and it didn't matter if we won or lost," Leyland seethed in his office afterward. "That's gone on here before, and it's going to stop. That's not going to get it done."

What Leyland bore witness to was much of the same nonsense that's -- in his words -- "gone on here before": Impatient at-bats; the inability to exhibit a killer instinct; inadequate starting pitching the day after a win. So while Trammell before him may have gone easier on his ballclub, Leyland refused to pull punches.

Reporters said yelling -- Leyland's -- could be heard in the hallway outside the closed doors of the Tigers clubhouse, prior to the media being allowed inside. The team's 2-5 homestand basically canceled out their 5-1 opening road trip. They had a chance Monday to take three of four from the Indians -- a team that must be vanquished, along with the White Sox, in order to call yourself a contender -- yet they went down meekly in front of the Comerica Park faithful.

Magglio Ordonez is one who might soon find himself in Leyland's pooch parlor. Maggs hasn't had good swings lately, and Monday he popped up in foul territory -- on the first pitch, a big no-no. He occupies the cleanup spot in the batting order, but right now the only thing he's cleaning up is the other pitcher's mess.

A typical postgame comment from Trammell after such a loss would be something like, "It was a tough afternoon. Give the other guys credit. They were really ready to play, and I thought their pitchers did a good job on us."

Yadda, yadda, yadda.

And don't think the players didn't know that. The accountability here has been null and void for too long, and Leyland -- so wise in the game -- is very familiar with the smoke signals that get put out in such an environment, and he was quick to nip any complacency in the bud. I suspect he had yesterday's 60-second tirade in his holster ever since the club broke camp, ready to draw it at a moment's notice.

Thirteen games was all it took to use it. And his players better not think for a moment that Jimmy Leyland has but one bullet in his chamber.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Brown's Tummy Troubles Pre-Dated By Pistons' Vitale

FSN's "Best Damn Sports Show Period" recently aired an episode that featured the Top 50 Biggest Blowups in sports -- the ones caught on videotape, of course. After all, had there been TV cameras rolling in the early 20th century, I suspect #1 would have been Ty Cobb's bludgeoning of a paraplegic in the stands in Philadelphia. Or his alleged killing of a fan beneath the bleachers in Detroit. As it was, FSN chose Hal McRae's meltdown as Royals manager in 1993 -- when he went ballistic and yanked telephones out of the wall, cursed, and acted as a whirling dervish possessed by the devil -- in the midst of a horrible start in April.

In fact, as I watched all 50 blowups -- a guilty pleasure -- and I saw one coach after another become apoplectic -- veins bulging in their necks and having to be restrained, it reminded me that I am amazed that one of them hasn't dropped dead -- right then and there -- considering their ages and the pressure they exert on themselves.

Larry Brown has missed two and a half games as coach of the New York Knicks because of something the matter with his stomach. It popped -- perhaps a month or two behind schedule, but not surprising nonetheless. I could have told you last summer that something in Brown's body would go haywire before this season coaching the misfit Knicks was over and done with. It took nearly 80 games, but it happened.

Yet the nuts like Lou Piniella -- who I saw yank first base out of its hole and fling it a couple of times during the "Best Damn" show, while managing the Mariners -- sail through with nary a day in the hospital. They must be made out of stronger stock.

Dick Vitale, when he coached the Pistons, himself had some much-expected tummy trouble. It started when he resigned as coach of the U-D Titans, tearfully announcing that he couldn't continue due to stomach problems.

About 18 months later (summer 1978), he was back -- as coach of the Pistons. It was a job he shamelessly campaigned for. And everyone -- sports columnists, fans, and the team owner himself -- fell for Dickie V's malarkey. It was much the same ruse he used to get the good fathers at U-D to hire him as coach in the '70's, even though there were better qualified men than him who also wanted the job.

But Vitale's stomach was not healed. Or, at the very least, it wasn't healed enough to withstand the nonsense that coaching the undertalented Pistons could regurgitate onto a man.

One night, the Pistons were on their way to another loss. Vitale started screaming at the officials. They gave him a technical foul. He screamed some more. They gave him another. Two T's -- so long, Dickie V. But Vitale kept screaming. He waved his arms. He took off his suit jacket. He screamed some more. Security came. Eventually, Vitale was dragged off the Silverdome court -- literally kicking and screaming -- as the probably-sparse crowd roared.

Not long afterward, Vitale reported something wrong with his stomach. It popped -- and anyone who was surprised should have had their Maalox taken away.

He made it back, but the Pistons finished 30-52. The next season, the team off to a 4-8 start and no hope in sight, the Pistons fired Vitale.

So now Brown is, like Vitale, another New Jersey boy gone bad. Or, at least, he shares the weak stomach gene from the Jersey swamps with Dickie V.

Whether Brown returns to coach the Knicks next season is circumspect. But the Knicks apparently have an insurance clause that says they owe him nothing -- and he signed a five-year, $50 million contract -- if Brown has to resign due to health reasons.

Too bad the Pistons didn't write such a caveat into Vitale's contract. Of course, he would have had to resign for it to matter. And the only way you could have gotten Dickie V. to sign off on such a resignation would be if you had dragged him into Bill Davidson's office -- kicking and screaming.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Regrets Can Be Few If Your Resume Is Filled With Winning

Can you imagine if Lions President Matt Millen said things like: "Sometimes the moves you make work, sometimes they don't." Or this: "I really only have one mulligan, but I'll keep it private." Or THIS: "I wouldn't do anything differently."

My goodness, the jabbermouths on sports talk radio would blow out their collective aortas. The pallbearers who carry notepads and whose words appear in india ink in our daily newspapers would mess themselves.

But the above words were spoken by Red Wings GM Ken Holland, so all is well. Such is the wide berth you're given if your resume has a lot of lines that begin with the word "Won."

Won three Stanley Cups.

Won several Presidents' Trophies.

Won more games than I lost.

That last one is enough to get some consideration in this town.

Holland is one of two front office types in Detroit who has a Midas touch. The other is the Pistons' Joe Dumars, who's as close to a deity right now as anyone who's had the keys to the executive washroom.

So Kenny Holland can say the above things - words spoken to me over a telephone a couple months ago - and there won't be folks waiting in the Joe Louis Arena parking lot, a vat of tar and a bag full of feathers in tow.

Matt Millen, on the other hand, has no such luxury.

Millen (top) doesn't have the wide berth of Holland, and with no surprise

But that's what happens when your team's won/lost record is 21-59 under your charge. Holland's teams post almost the 180 degree opposite marks in any given season. At this writing, the Red Wings sit at 56-15-8. That kind of winning percentage will buy you an awful lot of "mulligans" - even though Holland maintains he has but one of those.

You can also get away with incompetence if your followers are few and far between.

The Pistons, in the mid-1960's, once had a coach named Paul Seymour, a brushed-cut, ex-military man who'd been an NBA head coach elsewhere prior to coming to Detroit as an assistant. After the on-schedule axing of the head coach - something Seymour certainly expected when he took the assistant's job - he had the bright idea of trading forward Dave DeBusschere.

DeBusschere was as Detroit as General Motors. He grew up on the city's east side, attended high school in town, and played college ball at the University of Detroit, before becoming a Piston. He even coached the team for a couple years - still the youngest man to coach an NBA team. And yet Paul Seymour saw it fit to trade him - to the New York Knicks. Those in the know suspected that Seymour traded DeBusschere due to jealousy and fear of being overshadowed by the local star.

"I was expecting some backlash when I traded DeBusschere," Seymour said smugly. "But all I got were three letters.

"The Pistons never won anything with him, so what's the big deal?"

You can utter such nonsense, when your games are being attended by fewer people than the latest big sale at Wal-Mart. The Pistons could have mailed maps to Cobo Arena to the entire metropolitan area, along with a free ticket, and they'd still struggle to get 3,000 fannies into the seats in those days.

If a crap trade is made in a city and nobody cares, does it make a sound?

But Matt Millen doesn't work in a city that's apathetic about its football team. That's evident when Ford Field is sold out for a stinking exhibition game in August - at regular season prices to boot. It's also evident when the denizens are riled into protesting its own team at the behest of a local radio station, convinced to wear the opposing team's colors and to stage a "Millen Man March" outside the stadium, as happened last December with the Bengals in town.

The forest is definitely not empty here, so nothing can be done or said, or inferred, without it making a sonic boom.

After three days of mini-camps in Allen Park, Millen gushed over the new head coach, Rod Marinelli, and his staff. He compared the head guy to Paul Brown, and said after only two days that you could see the competence and leadership skills of the new coaches Marinelli hired.
"We're finally getting it," Millen said.

I'd say after five seasons and 80 games and three head coaches, perhaps you'd better be further along than "We're finally getting it," but that's just me.

But Millen can say those things, because those are perceived to be words of the pathetically clueless. They aren't words of arrogance or of defiance. Yet if he were to talk as Ken Holland talked - maintaining that he wouldn't change much or that, hey, you win some, you lose some - then the rumbling would begin.

These are unusual times. I can't remember ever having two general managers in Detroit who enjoyed such a Teflon® coating, while the other two were under such fire. The Tigers' Dave Dombrowski is feeling the heat after four brutal seasons. His era here is even being compared to Millen's ineptitude with the Lions. Dombrowski works in quicksand, apparently.

Of course, this jazz of having two Goofuses and two Gallants in town makes for great times for bloggers, sportswriters, columnists, radio voices, and other such riff-raff. If everyone was a Gallant, it'd be boring. What fun would it be to always write and talk about unmitigated success? On the other hand, there isn't enough time in a day to have four Goofuses. We had that, by the way - in the 1970's - and I don't think we're ready for that again, even 30+ years later.

For the record, Holland gave the answers in the first paragraph to questions about not making any moves on trade deadline day in 2004, bringing goalie Dominik Hasek out of retirement in 2003, and about any moves he's made that he'd like to "have back" - just like goalies and the shots that go behind them. And Holland was a netminder in his playing days, so it's an apt analogy.

He was comfortable and confident as he spoke about some of the past's hiccups. The seat is cool when the winning pours out of the spout like water.

Friday, April 14, 2006

NHL Should Shed Their Stuffed Suits And Create An Original Six Division

The idea for the NHL isn't sexy, nor will it produce more offense, or create something cute and minor league like a shootout. It won't place a franchise in a poorly-chosen U.S. city, and it won't place the league in dire financial straits. So, naturally, it won't happen.

But if the NHL is looking for some sort of additional shot in the arm to keep from alienating its already fragile fan base, it might want to try this:

Place all six original teams in one division.

No more force-fed rivalries like Detroit-Columbus or Detroit-Nashville. Even Detroit-Colorado is losing its oomph because it's becoming so one-sided.

The Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks get the short shrift, because the other four Original Six are in the Eastern Conference and get to beat up on each other. So this proposal is mainly for Detroit and Chicago.

But it's a league thing, too.

Today's newer fans would be better served to be brought into the fold of the league's history, and the casual fan who doesn't care about that stuff as much will still have his Atlanta-Carolina game to watch -- and better him than me.

Of course, with today's sterile, geographical divisional names like Atlantic, Northeast, Southeast, etc., I don't know what you'd call such a division. Maybe the Erie. Or Mid-Eastern. Or Semi-Midwestern. Or, simply call it "The Original."

"The Red Wings have another Original Division battle tonight, as the Toronto Maple Leafs invade Joe Louis Arena for the third time this season..."

Doesn't that have a nice ring to it?

Home-and-home games with the Rangers. A few Saturday nights in Montreal. A Sunday matinee at home against the Bruins. A Tuesday night in Chicago, followed by the Leafs here on Thursday. And a return match in Toronto on Saturday.

I'm getting so excited, I can hardly type straight.

But I needn't get my hopes up. The NHL, I'm sure, would look at that idea as one of exclusion, not inclusion. They'd say that to make such a move would alienate more fans than it would enrapture.

Tell me -- what has the league done in the Gary Bettman era to secure fans? Shut a team down in Winnipeg and relocate it to the desert of Phoenix? Place a team in Atlanta? TWO teams in Florida? Let a team in Quebec evaporate? Allow labor strife to tear the game apart? Lose a big-time TV contract?

Ahh, but we have shootouts and a trapezoid behind the goal and no center line. Yippee.

Red Wings fans are splayed all over this country. Give them an Original Division, and they'd be able to get more of their friends and family into the game, because surely they'd never shut up about how great hockey was in those days, and how awesome it is to have all of the Original Six teams in one fantastic division.

Weren't all those games against the Blue Jackets this season simply heart-stopping? As in, you got bored to death.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

"Turning The Page" Key To Learning How To Win, Van Slyke Says

Bob Seger would be so proud of Andy Van Slyke.

"This team has to learn to turn the page after a loss," AVS told me before yesterday's 4-3 Tigers loss to the White Sox.

Ahh, turn the page. Cue Alto Reed's saxophone.

Van Slyke, the Tigers' outfielders/first base coach, is part of a staff, led by Manager Jim Leyland, that's trying to instill a winning attitude into a team that knows as much about winning baseball as the Lions do about winning football. Van Slyke, Lloyd McClendon, Don Slaught, and Gene Lamont either played or coached during the salad days of Pittsburgh Pirates baseball, circa the early-1990's.

"This ballclub [the Tigers] is starting to get a taste of what it means to win," Van Slyke told me in the coaches' cubbie yesterday morning. It was part of May's interview for Motor City Sports Magazine. "And I think they're getting the idea that winning feels a lot better than losing. There's a time when you have to turn the page with the acceptance of losing ballgames, and I think this ballclub is at that point."

The Tigers, after a 5-0 start, have had to turn the page three times in a row now after yesterday's loss, but players like Brandon Inge talk about having a "different agenda" in 2006 -- one that says, with confidence, "Let's go get 'em tomorrow."

Before, it may have been mostly talk. But the prevailing feeling is that thanks to leaders like Leyland and his staff, there is real internal believability among the players that they have a genuine chance to win everytime they take the field.

I believe this is an important homestand for the Tigers -- six against the White Sox and the Cleveland Indians -- because not only does the team not want to cancel out their 5-1 opening road trip, but those two teams are the white whales in the Central Division that must be slayed if the Tigers are serious about being considered anything more than also-rans.

They're 0-2 thus far, and while they haven't been blown out, they're already dropping close games -- games that the champion White Sox made a monotonous habit of winning in 2005.

The starting pitchers aren't walking people -- "Gotta throw strikes," Leyland said before yesterday's game -- but they're giving up homeruns that, in the two losses to the Chisox, were the difference makers. And the offense still seems to be relying on their own longball abilities too much when it comes to scoring runs. But 5-3 is still 5-3. Let's just hope it doesn't turn into 6-8 before long.

"I think number one is, you have to believe you have enough talent to win, and I think we have enough talent here to have a winning record," AVS told me. "Now, how that shakes out in the long haul, I don't know. I don't think anyone knows."

I guess we'll find out 154 games from now.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Happy Birthday To Me! (Well, Almost)

Yes, it's true.

Well, not for me personally -- I've had 41 more than one -- but for this blog thingie I call "Out of Bounds," it certainly rings true.

One year ago today -- April 12, 2005 -- I joined the blogosphere with a rant about Tiger Woods winning the Masters. To wit:

Every sport, I am convinced, needs a dominant player, someone that everyone guns for. Someone that fans love, but yet also love to see get defeated every so often. Someone that fellow competitors dream of going up against, even if they get the snot kicked out of them.Tiger Woods was once that player, and with his dramatic, come-from-behind win at last weekend's Masters, he may be on his way back to being that player. If he is, golf just got a much-needed shot in the arm.

After that, there was no stopping me -- and for that I apologize.

So this isn't going to be about any particular topic this morning -- just a heartfelt thank you to all who click this way from time-to-time. I know there are a handful of you who browse over here almost daily, and for that I'm truly grateful: Ian at Sweaty Men (who's also one of my writers at MCS Magazine, so he HAS to show up); Big Al at Wayne Fontes Experience; Brian at Beyond Boxscores; Dolphin Fan at My Opinion on Sports; Ozz, a radio guy down in Virginia who's always leaving comments here; Kevin Antcliff, who gave me my first published writing gig; the Leelanau Sports Guy; Luke Walton's Forehead; Josh Bartlett and EJ Smith of MCS Mag; and that's just to name a few, and I really hope I haven't offended those I may have left off. I was once instructed to never start thanking people like this because you'll inevitably omit someone and that could hurt feelings. See how I listen?

Anyhow, "OOB" spawned "Where Have You Gone, Johnny Grubb" -- my baseball blog -- and thanks to the folks who've directed themelves over there as well. It's been incredibly fun, and I must once again thank Kevin Antcliff, who e-mailed me a year ago and said, "You should start blogging, Eno." So blame it all on him.

I was writing weekly columns prior to starting "OOB," but in this world I found I could ruminate daily, scratch my writing itch, and perhaps entertain people at the same time. How cool is that?

So again -- thanks to all who stop by and pay me a visit. Your traffic here means more to me than you'll ever know.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Upper or Lower? Only The NHL Knows

In the world of anatomy according to the National Hockey League, players don't suffer injuries to specific parts of their bodies. The human skeleton, in NHL-speak, is broken down into two parts -- just like our wonderful state: Upper body (peninsula) and lower body (peninsula).

This phenomenon is never more prevalent than during playoff time, and with a handful of regular season games remaining, it's close enough to start qualifying things that hurt by simply indicating which of those two regions have the boo-boo.

The Red Wings are being stricken these days, frustratingly so, with some Upper and Lower peninsula injuries: Robert Lang, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and Mathieu Schneider are all nursing mysterious ailments that are either upper or lower, and even that might be a smoke screen. The theory is, why give your opponents a target at which to aim? Better to have them go lower when you're really hurting top shelf. But sometimes you can't hide the affected area.

Years ago, sometime in the 1990's, before the Red Wings began winning Stanley Cups again, Sergei Fedorov had something the matter with his shoulder as the team headed into the playoffs. Sergei wasn't convinced, necessarily, that he could muster the intestinal fortitude to play with such a disturbance. His teammates weren't all that convinced, either. So one of them -- I can't recall who it was -- took Fedorov, who was wearing some sort of protective contraption under his sweater, onto the ice after practice and started checking him into the boards, trying to assure him that it was okay to give it a try during a game. The reactions of people like Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe, and Bill Gadsby were, unfortunately, not preserved for posterity.

The Red Wings, already in smoke screen mode, naturally insist that the upper and lower parts of their injured players aren't anything to truly worry about. The bumps and bruises are being shrugged off as minor annoyances and little more. Which, of course, in the NHL could mean that someone's about to have their right leg amputated. Or not.

In the old days, NHL teams would actually tell the conveniently-leaky press that a perfectly healthy player was the one hurting, keeping the real injured player unnamed and thus safe from nefarious opposing players with bad intentions. But the league eventually put an end to that, though their rules about reporting injuries are still sort of winked at -- hence the "upper" and "lower" designations.

After Steve Yzerman got smashed in the face with a puck in Game 5 of the conference semifinals against Calgary in 2004, I wonder if anyone with the team had the thought of describing Yzerman's injury as that of the "upper body." Or lower.

This is the NHL, after all -- the league of regionalized injuries and diversionary tactics.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Once And For All...

Sports is full of age-old questions and debates. They make for grand times at the polished oak of your neighborhood bar, positively mesmerizing moments on talk radio, and are sure to get the blood roiling in Internet chat rooms. Certainly everyone thinks they've got it right, you know.

As do I.

Frankly, it's not so much that I've got it right -- even though I do -- but rather, that I'm sick of all the back-and-forth, nothing-ever-gets-solved-or-decided nature of these morsels of discussion.

So, without further ado, here's what it is, jack -- once and for all...

Pete Rose should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. And Barry Bonds shouldn't. And Barry can smack his lips between my back pockets.

Jim Brown was the greatest running back who ever played in the NFL. And Barry Sanders was the most exciting. And if you think I'm making that distinction to have it both ways, you too can buss me where Barry Bonds can.

Pro sports are better than college. And so are the cheerleaders.

Nobody will ever hit .400 again in the major leagues. But someone WILL break Joe DiMaggio's record of hitting safely in 56 straight games, and within the next five years.

The shorts on basketball uniforms today are too long. But in the old days they were too short, so go figure.

Gordie Howe was the greatest hockey player who ever lived. But Steve Yzerman should go down as the greatest Red Wing. Again, go figure.

Muhammad Ali would've beaten Rocky Marciano, or Joe Louis, or just about any boxer you'd care to throw in front of him. And we'd never hear the end of it from him.

Ty Cobb was the greatest baseball player who ever lived. And Henry Aaron was much better than anyone gives him credit for.

Domed stadiums are the bane of our society. And AstroTurf was positively sent here by Beezelbub.

The designated hitter rule should be eliminated. Including in high school and college. It's that bad.

Michael Jordan was great, but he wasn't better than Wilt Chamberlain. Or Bill Russell. Or even Oscar Robertson. And I'm still not sure about Elgin Baylor.

College basketball should bring back the jump ball. Any sport that can't trust its referees to toss a ball three feet in the air fairly is no sport worth watching, in my book.

The new shootout rule in the NHL is exciting. It's fun to watch. More fun than I thought. But it's got to go.

The NFL should let its defensive backs actually COVER receivers. So the rule outlawing the "chuck" beyond five yards of the line of scrimmage needs to be eliminated. Let the DB jostle -- until the ball's in the air.

Tommy Hearns beat Sugar Ray Leonard in their 1989 rematch that ended in a draw -- I don't care what anyone says. But even Ray agrees with me.

Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker are the greatest double play combination in baseball history. But they do not belong in the Hall of Fame. However, the lack of consideration they got from the voters was shameful.

I'd rather have Isiah Thomas with the ball in the closing seconds of a must-win game than Chauncey Billups. But not by much. And Joe Dumars shooting rather than Richard Hamilton. By even less. And I'll take Ben Wallace's defense and rebounding over Dennis Rodman's. But give me Bill Laimbeer over Rasheed Wallace, and Tayshaun Prince instead of Mark Aguirre.

While we're at it, I'll take Mickey Lolich over Jack Morris; Trammell and Whitaker over Dick McAuliffe and Ray Oyler; Chet Lemon over Mickey Stanley; Al Kaline over Kirk Gibson; Willie Horton over Larry Herndon; Lance Parrish over Bill Freehan; and Willie Hernandez over anyone you got, and the 1984 Tigers would beat the '68 Tigers in a seven-game series. And they'd need all seven, believe me.

But don't talk to me about today's Red Wings against the teams from the 1950's, because our current heroes are missing one very key ingredient, and his name is Terry Sawchuk. End of THAT discussion.

The next NFL Commissioner, after Paul Tagliabue retires, should be someone with sports acumen, who can bring people together, who can be a visionary, and who isn't afraid of innovation. A forward thinker. A dynamic public speaker and someone who isn't bigger than the game, but isn't dwarfed by it either. Someone like...Bill Clinton.

The Stanley Cup is the greatest trophy in all of sports, and its pursuit is the most compelling. But the NFL's Vince Lombardi Trophy means more to more people. Which is funny, because it's nowhere near as tough to win as the Stanley Cup.

Baseball got itself in this steroid mess because when it had the chance to lay down the law against drug users like Steve Howe and Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, it gave them chance after chance after chance, and so here we are. And Mark McGwire's and Barry Bonds' single-season homerun records should have the biggest, fattest asterisks you can find placed next to them. And the record books in which they are contained should be placed in the Fiction section of the library.

If a football game needs to be won, and I need a quarterback to direct the winning drive, you can keep Joe Montana. You can keep John Elway. You can even keep Tom Brady. I'm sending for Bobby Layne.

If I need a baseball game to be won, and it absolutely has to happen, give me Jack Morris.

Lou Brock was out at the plate in Game 5 of the '68 World Series, no matter what he says. If he would have slided, he would have been safe. So he has no one to blame but himself.

Today's players, in all the four major sports, have it tougher than their ancestors because of all the coast-to-coast travel they have to do, even when you factor in that yesterday's athletes had to travel mostly by train. But if one of today's owners had to pay for a Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams, extrapolated into 2006 funds, that owner would have to take a second job.

If the Lions would have beaten the Cowboys in that 1970 playoff game in which they lost, 5-0, they'd have won the Super Bowl, and maybe another.

Tiger Stadium should be somehow renovated and put to use. Knocking it down would do far more harm to the city's -- and state's -- soul than anyone in the mayor's office or on the city council could possibly imagine.

The Silverdome, however, should be imploded and its plastic roof melted.

So there you have it. The way things are, and should be.

Got anymore?

Friday, April 07, 2006

Three Games, Three Wins, Fifteen Homers: Maybe DTE Doesn't Have A Monopoly On Power After All

The Tigers have hit 15 homers in their first three games.

No, don't keep reading -- read that first sentence again and let it soak in.

Fifteen homeruns in three freaking games.

Granted, 11 of them have been solo shots, but STILL -- come ON.

At this rate, the Tigers will hit 810 homeruns in 2006. And if 70% of 810 homers are of the solo variety, then that's nearly 600 runs right there.

I know, I know -- the Tigers aren't going to keep hitting taters at the rate of five per game, but the fact that they have their hitting shoes -- their power shoes -- on, this early out of the gate is refreshing for several reasons. One, the pitching is usually ahead of the hitting in the opening weeks of any season -- at least that's what the sabermetricians would have us believe. But I think it's mostly true. Two, if there was one thing the Tigers absolutely would need to do to balance the scales against their still-questionable pitching and defense, it was to hit the tar off the ball. Scoring 27 runs in the first three tilts is more than a little encouraging, even if two of those games were against the dregs of baseball -- the Kansas City Royals.

The Tigers could come home Monday 4-2 or 5-1, a refreshing change for a team that has put up lots of home opener red, white, and blue bunting with a 1-5 record after playing the first six on the road in recent years past.

Chris Shelton -- Big Red -- has four of those dingers, and maybe now some of the worry warts who wondered if Shelton was "for real", even though he's hit at every level from tee-ball on up, might simmer down their anxiety. Even Magglio "I've never met a first pitch I didn't like" Ordonez has gotten off his tiny schneide -- hitting two homers last night in Texas.

But perhaps the most encouraging sign after 27 innings of play is the fact that, until rookie Jordan Tata walked a man in the ninth inning last night, Tigers pitchers had only issued one free pass prior to that -- in over 26 innings pitched. Who do they think they're tossing to -- the 2005 Tigers?

Already manager Jim Leyland is proving himself to be a mad professor. Brandon Inge leading off last night, despite a monstrous game from Curtis Granderson on Wednesday. Throwing rookie pitcher Joel "Zoom" Zumaya into a tight, 2-1 game on Opening Day in the seventh inning. Shifting Shelton from his projected eighth spot in the order to sixth. Letting Tata try to pitch out of his self-induced jam in the ninth in Texas, so the youngster could get a save. Installing Pudge Rodriguez into the three hole, even though he had a lousy 2005. They're all working, these crazy-like-a-fox moves.

Sure, it's only 3-0, but how many times have we seen 0-3 around here and gotten that creepy feeling of impending doom? And how often was that feeling dead-on accurate?

The Tigers are 3-0 and can come home no worse than .500 for their opener Monday against the defending champion White Sox.

Oh, by the way, the White Sox finished just four games above .500 in 2004 -- the year before they became baseball's little darlings.

Just thought you might like to know that.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

"Real" Pudge Key To Tigers' Success

Rodriguez must lead in order for Tigers to win in '06

In two games, Pudge Rodriguez has a walk and a five-hit game.

Guess which should be considered more impressive?

2005, if you're a Rodriguez fan, should be tossed into a dark closet and forever put away, never again to be seen or relived. It started weird, got weirder, then switched to downright shameful, and ended sadly -- almost seriocomically.

It began with a slimmer -- MUCH slimmer -- almost sickly-looking Rodriguez arriving at spring training. He was truculant, stand-offish, and just not all that happy. Folks around the team wondered who put the sour milk in his corn flakes.

Then they played the games, and it was quickly evident that the '05 version of Pudge was nowhere near the 2004 model, with its .330+ average and run-producing ability. Even the defense was slipping. Whispers began that it was the beginning of the end for the 33 year-old catcher.

Then Ugie Urbina, his friend and confidante, got traded and things started to get ugly. The Tigers' clubhouse was Romper Room gone evil, and Pudge was no help there. He was far from winning any popularity contests amongst the cubicles. He may have been the second-most liked player on the team -- with the other 24 guys tied for first.

His production was less than stellar, despite being named to the All-Star team, which was a paper achievement. Thin, typing paper -- complete with watermark. Stained.

On and on it went, this skinnier impostor playing at being Pudge Rodriguez in 2005. He ended up with 11 walks -- 11 ! -- and his final numbers were very pedestrian: 14 HR, 50 RBI, .276 BA.
He flatly refused to go out of his way to show any public support for manager Alan Trammell -- not that Tram necessarily deserved any. But Pudge, it's generally known, certainly didn't help Trammell's chances at returning in 2006 -- on or off the field. The catcher was, I had written, Drudge Rodriguez.

Already 2006 has been different. In Lakeland, Rodriguez was more of his old self -- both from a paunch standpoint and with the press. He seems ready to lead again -- or at least try to.

As much as he turned me off last season, it's a plain fact that the Tigers need an interested, genuine Ivan Rodriguez if they plan on making any noise in their division. In fact, the team had better start rubbing rabbit's feet and hanging horseshoes and knocking on Pinocchio's head that Rodriguez '05 was a fluke, and that he'll return to form this summer. Because without him -- HIM, not the impostor -- the Tigers have a snowball's chance in you-know-where to do anything fun this season.

"He looks like the Pudge of old," manager Jim Leyland said Wednesday after Rodriguez's 5-for-5 performance in Kansas City helped the Tigers to a 14-3 shellacking of the "woe is us" Royals.
"Last season he got away from the strike zone and he paid the price," Leyland said.

Leyland calls 11 walks in 500+ at-bats "getting away from the strike zone." That's manager talk for "he swung at bad pitch after bad pitch, and had no patience at the plate," which is fan talk.

Here's plain talk: Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez had better earn his Tigers stripes this season, or else he, his team, and his fans -- however many there are still remaining -- are going down in orange and black flames.

So Pudge had a walk in Game 1, and five hits in Game 2. That means he's on pace for about 80 walks this season. And 400 hits. I'm still not sold that the 400 hits aren't more attainable for him than the 80 walks.

Come on, Pudge -- prove me wrong.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Babcock Better Do As Scotty Says, And Not As He Did

Seems as though Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has been picking the brain of hockey's Yoda, Scotty Bowman. Not a bad choice, considering all the Stanley Cups won and the players broken down -- both analyzed and demoralized. Besides, Bowman is still employed by the Red Wings as a consultant, so why not have him earn his money from time-to-time?

Helene St. James, in today's Freep, related some tidbits of conversation between the coaches of present and past.

"I told him, '[Steve] Yzerman is the ultimate team player,' " Bowman said of one of his discussions with Babcock. Additionally, St. James wrote, Bowman remembered telling Babcock to be "upfront with Yzerman about where he would fit in."

Bowman ought to know.

For it was after Bowman's first season in Detroit, with the coach a clear-cut winner in an internal power struggle, that Steve Yzerman was whispered to be the target of Scotty's wrath the summer after a horrific first-round playoff loss to the San Jose Sharks. The captain, we were being told, was being dangled in front of the then-awful Ottawa Senators as trade bait. It was more than just rumor, as it turned out.

Yzerman was, in 1994, a 29 year-old who was still an elite scorer in the league and not necessarily known for being a two-way player -- although he was by then widely regarded as a premier faceoff man. Although he was coming off a down year offensively -- 24 goals and 58 assists in just 58 games -- he was only one season removed from a banner '92-93 campaign (58 goals, 79 assists). He could score, everyone recognized, but some questioned Yzerman's ability to be a two-way forward who could consistently help the team on the backcheck and in the neutral zone -- defensively.

One of those questioners was Scotty Bowman.

So as training camp approached in 1994, rumors swirled of Yzerman's impending dispatching to Ottawa, the province where is father had been a prominent politician. Who the Red Wings were to receive in such a trade was unclear, leading to speculation that it was mostly talk, encouraged by Bowman, forever the master of the reverse psychology method of motivating.

In Bowman's first season, the team operated under the odd and ultimately disastrous hierarchy of Vice President Jimmy Devellano, General Manager Bryan Murray (the deposed coach who was kicked upstairs upon Bowman's hiring), and Coach Bowman. It wasn't long before the old coach/new GM and the new coach/wannabe GM clashed, and the players could see it readily. Eventually, there were players who went to Murray with their concerns about Bowman, and those who remained in the coach's corner. It made for an unharmonious dressing room all season.

Murray and Bowman went weeks without speaking. A late-season trade that exchanged goaltenders -- Tim Cheveldae to Winnipeg for Bob Essensa -- was reportedly made by Murray with little or no consultation with Bowman.

The first-round upset at the hands of the Sharks may have been the last straw for Murray's tenure in Detroit. The fact that Essensa -- the man Murray brought in to "solve" the team's apparent goaltending weakness while also ridding the JLA denizens of whipping boy Cheveldae -- played so poorly down the stretch and earlier in the series that rookie Chris Osgood started Game 7, didn't help the GM's situation.

The power struggle won, Bowman assumed dual roles of GM and coach -- a consolidation of power he relished and had before, in Montreal and Pittsburgh. It was with this newly-acquired autonomy that he stoked the fires of a possible Yzerman trade. The Red Wings hadn't won anything, really, with Steve Yzerman as their captain, Bowman reasoned, so what harm would there be if he was moved?

Meanwhile, Bowman used the trade rumors to encourage Yzerman to buy into the notion of the center being less of a scorer and more of a defender. If Yzerman did that, the theory went, then the rest of the team would follow suit and overall team defense would improve.

There was a labor dispute that wiped out the first half of the '94-95 season, but once play resumed, the Red Wings -- with their new emphasis on defense and a new goalie (Mike Vernon) -- reached the Stanley Cup Finals. The following season, the team set an NHL record with 62 wins.

From then on, Yzerman switched roles gradually, until he became a Selke Trophy winner as the league's best defensive forward in 2000. And the Red Wings won three Stanley Cups between 1997 and 2002.

Now, whether Bowman's Ottawa threat was an example of being "upfront", as he encouraged Babcock to be with Yzerman, is very much up to conjecture. But there's no quibbling with the results.

Yoda always did know best.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Zumaya Makes Seventh Innings Fun

It may have been one of the most anticipated seventh innings around here in quite some time. In fact, I'd call it Todd Jones' opening act.

When 21 year-old righthander Joel Zumaya took the mound for the Tigers yesterday in their Opening Day, 3-1 victory over Kansas City, you could just sense eyeballs and ears tuning themselves in a little more intently all over Metro Detroit. This was, after all, the first chance many folks got to see Zumaya -- the kid who, along with starter Justin Verlander, was all the rage in spring training for his velocity, location, and control.

Zumaya pitched the seventh and eighth innings, scorelessly, and helped preserve Kenny Rogers' victory. For now, the closer is Fernando Rodney, but when Jones returns from the DL, it will be he that Zumaya will setup. Oh, there'll be others in those innings, but it's Zumaya that'll be the most fun to watch. Unless you're an opposing hitter.

"He's throwing 100 miles an hour -- in the dark," the Royals' Doug Mientkiewicz said afterward, referring to Zumaya throwing in the late afternoon shadows. "It's hard enough to hit 100, let alone when you can't see it.

"Start your swing, use the Jedi mind trick, and hope the ball hits the bat."

And that's coming from the only guy who got a hit off the kid. Can you imagine what Reggie Sanders and Emil Brown -- who both struck out -- would have said?

First, Zumaya simply looks like a beast. He's barrel chested and has that scruffy facial hair on his chin and he looks like the grownup version of the kid who would shake you down for your lunch money in sixth grade. He's actually sweet as pie, but on the mound he has that Sopranos thing going on.

And, of course, there's that 100-mph fastball. Although, on occasion, Zumaya eased up on the Royals and only threw it about 98.

Switching from Rogers' carefully located and plotted array of pitches that range from 70-85 mph to Zumaya's horizontal bottle rockets should almost have been outlawed against the sad-sack Royals. But it won't just be the league's worst team that Zumaya will bedevil when all is said and done. The Tigers haven't had this kind of thing in a lonnnnng time: A young stud who can come in and wreak havoc on the opposing lineup in the seventh and/or eighth innings so the stage can be turned over to the closer.

What makes Zumaya particularly nasty is his control and location. He's not just chucking it up there to see how high he can make the radar gun go -- no sir. He has some breaking stuff, and he knows how to use it, and he misses low.

I have been wont to make fun of today's starting pitchers, who are only asked to go six innings most games and call it a day, in this modern age of bullpen-by-committee. But if Zumaya plans on performing like he did yesterday, I just might be yelling for manager Jim Leyland to yank the starter like a bad opening act stand-up comic. For maybe it's Zumaya who'll be the main act, and the starter the opener. The closer can be the movie they play at the drive-in for the second time that night.

Regardless, it sure was fun to watch Joel Zumaya terrorize Royals hitters yesterday in that shadow darkness. The kid throws 100 mph -- and that's tough to hit, like Mientkiewicz said, even when you CAN see it.

Like Reggie Jackson once said about Tom Seaver, "Blind people come to the ballpark to hear him pitch."

Six and out, starters!

Monday, April 03, 2006

A Year Too Late, But Dumars A Hall Of Famer

THAT'S what I'm talking about!

It came a year too late, if you ask me, but Joe Dumars is going into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

Dumars has been elected, the Detroit News is reporting, and the official announcement will come sometime today.

Dumars was eligible for the first time last year, but failed to garner enough votes for enshrinement. If anything has changed in his career since a year ago March, I'd like to know what it is.

Last I looked, Dumars hasn't made one more assist, stolen one more pass, drained one more clutch three-pointer, or played one more game of shutdown defense since March 2005. And he hasn't, that I'm aware of, done anything earth-shattering as an executive, other than trade Darko Milicic and cashier Larry Brown and bring in Flip Saunders. Did THAT put him over the top?

No, none of that mattered. For some reason, the chosen folks who fill out Hall of Fame ballots seem to think that sometimes an individual doesn't merit induction in his first year of eligibility. It doesn't matter, to them, if the cold, hard stats remain static and unchanged from year to year. I just can't get a handle on the notion that if a guy was worthy in Year Two, he wasn't worthy in Year One. You'd think the decisions should be made based on the career set before the voters, regardless of what year of eligibility it is. I can almost see players waiting for several years before induction, because sometimes new blood comes in and rights an old wrong.

But Joe Dumars is no more qualified in 2006 than he was in 2005, and that rankles me. Last year I wrote a column decrying the Hall, declaring it unworthy of existence because of Dumars' exclusion. It was a fraud Hall, I maintained, as long as Dumars was not a part of it.

It's a little less of a fraud today, but it's still tainted. They all are -- our sports Halls of Fame.

The Baseball Hall of Fame will have suffered more harm in excluding Pete Rose than it would have caused by admitting him. The Football Hall of Fame, I look at with cross eyes because for years it told us that the reason Alex Karras and Paul Hornung weren't in was because of their gambling suspensions in 1963. Fine. Yet Hornung eventually got in, and Karras -- possibly the best defensive lineman not enshrined -- still is on the outside looking in. What's the reason now?

I could give you more examples in each of the Halls, but that's okay, because nothing that is based on such subjective criteria will have a perfect list of haves and have nots -- or in this case, "ins" and "not ins." So it's not the fact that a guy's not in that bothers me so much, because that's what happens when players who haven't met certain standards -- like 500 homeruns or 20,000 basketball points -- are up for consideration.

What puts a burr in my britches is the incongruities, like in the case of Karras, and the unnecessary waits, like with Dumars. In a crazy way, I almost would have been less angry if Dumars failed to be voted in this year, too. But with the voters saying "yes" in 2006 but "no" in 2005 -- that's beyond my comprehension.

Of course I'm happy for Dumars this morning. He's where he belongs -- in the Hall -- and that's the good news. And I'm sure it makes me more upset than him that it came 365 days tardy. But that doesn't change the fact that these Hall votes are goofy and sometimes smelly.

Maybe the scribes and wise men who vote on such things realized the errors of their ways and moved to correct it forthwith. That'll be my glass is half-full approach to it, anyhow.

But a part of me suspects that maybe their 24-second clocks don't have all the ticks in them.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Tigers' Dearth Of Young Talent A Generation In The Making

Billy Martin was one of the first to complain about it, and while he was right, his bosses didn't appreciate their dirty laundry being aired before the baseball nation. But that was Billy, of course.

"The [Baltimore] Orioles have all the good, young players," Billy said in the summer of '73. The Orioles, back then, were the team against whom the rest of the American League was measured. They had a lethal combination of clutch hitting, pitching, defense, and always the youngsters moving in to supplant the veterans. The infusion of youth was not lost on Martin - which was sort of ironic because Billy Martin was one of the best managers in his time at coaxing and prodding veteran players, somehow getting them to perform above their apparent capabilities. It worked in 1972, when the aging Tigers nipped the pack to win the American League East Division on the season's final weekend. But it was failing in '73, and Billy pointed squarely at the Orioles and their blend of veterans and younger players to underscore the Tigers' seeming deficiency in producing homegrown talent.

To say that rankled General Manager Jim Campbell would be like saying the Atlantic Ocean is slightly damp.

Martin's popping off about the Tigers' anemic minor league system was a contributing factor to his being fired in August 1973, but he was a soothsayer, because the team's inability to replace their 1968 World Series heroes with anything worth shouting about led the Tigers into some pretty bleak, winning-challenged baseball years from 1974-77. Billy told it like it was - even if the brass didn't want anyone else to hear about it. But we all found out soon enough.

The drafting got better and the development improved in the mid-70's, and that paid off with the core of players that won the 1984 World Series: Jack Morris; Lance Parrish; Sweet Lou Whitaker; Alan Trammell; Dan Petry, and Tommy Brookens were all products of the Tigers' minor league system.

But then the well ran dry again, and it has remained mostly parched since the mid-1980's.

One year, Sparky Anderson, perhaps bored in his sixth full season as Tigers manager, pointed to an unknown young infielder and said the kid was so good, gosh darn it, that Whitaker would have to move to third base just to get the youngster into the lineup as the new second baseman.

The kid who would force All-Star Lou Whitaker to learn a brand new position was someone named Chris Pittaro. It was 1985, the Tigers about to defend their championship. And Sparky would have us believe Pittaro was the best thing since....Lou Whitaker.

He wasn't.

A few years after that, Sparky tried to sell us on a lefthanded-hitting outfielder who had modestly impressed in a late-season call-up the previous September.

"Torey Lovullo can do it all," Sparky essentially said.

No, he couldn't. Ten hits in 87 at-bats in 1989 proved that quite nicely.

How a major league baseball team can employ dozens of scouts, a peck of minor league instructors and a bushel of general managers for nearly 20 years and not produce one player that can even be remotely considered a Rookie of the Year candidate is astonishing...

Other teams were producing young players throughout the 1990's, and if you want a big reason why winning baseball hasn't been seen here since 1993, and only twice since 1988, you can place a big fat check mark next to this: Failure to draft big league-caliber ballplayers.

There was a pitcher named Ricky Greene that was supposed to be all that in the early '90's. Uh-uh. There was a tall, supposedly intimidating switch-hitting first baseman named Tony Clark that was going to make folks go crazy in this town. After several years of unrealized potential, the folks went crazy, alright. Right to the funny farm - which would be an apt name for the Tigers' minor league system during the 1990's.

A little bit into that decade, the team was high on a catcher named Rich Rowland. For several years we kept hearing about this Rowland and how he was going to make people forget Lance Parrish. But if people watched Rich Rowland play in the big leagues and forgot about Lance Parrish, then it was due to some medication-induced blackout. Eventually Rowland was shipped off to the Red Sox, where his career died its expected death forthwith.

Then we all wanted to believe in a righthanded starter named Nate Cornejo. Oh, did we want to believe. By the time Cornejo entered the big league picture in 2001, the Tigers had run through top draft picks and "promising" young players like grease rags for ten years. But that was all to change when Cornejo started taking the ball every fifth day, we were assured by then-GM Randy Smith, a snake oil salesman if there ever was one.

In four trials with the Tigers, Cornejo's ERAs read like stock prices of a fledgling corporation: 7.38; 5.04; 4.67; 8.42.

And, speaking of the stock market, the Tigers did the usual thing with Cornejo that they did with all their supposed promising players: They bought high, and sold low.

Pittaro (left) and Lovullo: No sale, Sparky!

Clark (left) and Cornejo: Yeah....RIGHT

Other kids have been anointed baseball emperors by Tigers management over the past 15-20 years, but mostly they've been sans clothes. Certainly they've been devoid of big league talent.

How a major league baseball team can employ dozens of scouts, a peck of minor league instructors and a bushel of general managers for nearly 20 years and not produce one player that can even be remotely considered a Rookie of the Year candidate is astonishing, and would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

But now we're in 2006, and it looks like there may finally be some peach fuzz that could materialize into major league whiskers.

Joel Zumaya and Justin Verlander are two righthanded pitchers who made the team's 25-man roster out of spring training, and by all accounts these kids are the real deal, because baseball people whose zip codes do not begin with "48" say so. In other words, other teams are actually coveting Zumaya - a reliever - and Verlander - a starter - and wishing they were on their rosters. How easy it is to be impressed around here!

Zumaya throws in the mid-to-high 90's, and is said to have a nasty little breaking pitch. Verlander is a tall drink of water whose "stuff" is of excellent big league caliber already, those in the know report. They are labeled, together, as "can't miss" prospects. There is talk of All-Star appearances and more for these youngsters down the line. It's all just a matter of time.

Time shouldn't be much of a factor for us. What's another year or two, when you've waited 20?