Tuesday, September 19, 2006

37 Years? Sure, If You Start Young

I can remember the moment it began, albeit barely. And since the moment involved the Lions, it’s no wonder that my indoctrination into Detroit sports began with not just losing, but with fantastic losing.

November 8, 1970. The Lions were playing the New Orleans Saints down in the bayou. And they would have won, if a kicker with half a foot and a stub of a right arm named Tom Dempsey hadn’t picked the end of the game to boot his way into the NFL record books. Dempsey kicked a still-record 63-yard field goal at the final gun, and the Lions lost, 19-17.

I was watching from home, age seven. I remember the hysteria in the announcer’s voice as the kicked football fluttered over the crossbar, just barely. And that was my first memory as a Detroit sports fan and, eventually, journalist.

So I use the 1970-71 season as my first, making this the 37th season of living, dying, laughing, crying, and swearing. Sometimes all in the same game. With the Lions, sometimes all during the same play.

I’ve seen guys with nicknames like Bad News and Sweet Lou and Worm, and coaches coined Daddy Rich and the Big Buck and Muddy.

I watched a baseball inning almost begin at Tiger Stadium with the Tigers short one centerfielder. Then I watched Chet Lemon race from the dugout moments before the first pitch, zipping his fly and fastening his belt.

I saw Isiah Thomas score 16 points in 90 seconds during a playoff game at Joe Louis Arena, and that’s something that names like Bird and Jordan and Magic never did – never came close to doing, if you want to know the truth.

I had an enraged Windsor Spitfires coach race around the perimeter of the hockey rink at Cobo Arena, with the expressed intent on tearing me limb from limb. Thank goodness for Detroit’s finest, and the ability to blend into a crowd.

I cried when the Pistons lost Game 7 of their brutal series with the Bulls in 1974, ending abruptly their best season in franchise history, to date. Then I saw coach Ray Scott last March, some 32 years after the fact, and he told me that his guys cried, too.

I was there when Kirk Gibson salted away the Tigers’ world championship in 1984 with his homerun off Goose Gossage, and I was just a few feet away from a burning police car on the way out of the stadium. Yet I wasn’t scared. I wonder why.

I remember listening on the radio when Lions receiver Chuck Hughes lie motionless on the grass at Tiger Stadium, already dead of a massive heart attack, and announcer Bob Reynolds saying over and over, “I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.”

I was at Olympia Stadium when the Red Wings were set to take on the expansion Washington Capitals for the first time and when the Caps skated onto the ice with white hockey pants to go along with their patriotic red and blue motif … well, if a hockey crowd can be heard giggling, then I heard it.

I saw Brooks Robinson, no less, drop a foul popup under no duress. And even at age 12 I knew I had seen something that should have caused my jaw to drop. I think it may have, come to think of it.

Earl “The Twirl” Cureton was having lunch with me at Ginopolis, discussing a possible TV project, and out of nowhere he grinned at me and said, “Y’all gained a few pounds, haven’t you?” The perils of being married to an Italian-Polish wife.

I can still see White Sox pitcher Wilbur Wood flopping around like a fish out of water in front of the pitcher’s mound at Tiger Stadium, his knee shattered by a Ron LeFlore line drive. And I wish I could get the image out of my head, believe me.

When Dickie Vitale’s U-D Titans upset Marquette on the Warriors’ home floor in Milwaukee on local TV, circa 1976-77, I was watching when he literally danced a little jig during the postgame interview on the court.

Once I shared stories of premature babies with Braves pitcher Steve Avery, whose wife had just had one. Ours was born two months early, and in talking I found out that Avery and our daughter share the same birthdate. Imagine that.

I spent Thanksgiving at the Silverdome in 1983, and my timing couldn’t have been better, as the Lions destroyed the Steelers, 45-3. Yet one of my most vivid memories of that game was a wonderfully done banner with an image of Mr. T on it that said, I PITY PITT.

Travis Fryman hit for the cycle against the Yankees in 1992, and I was with Bob Zahari at the ballpark. When Fryman’s cycle-clinching triple was on its way out to right center, as it was in the air, I shouted, “This will be the first Tigers cycle since Hoot Evers in 1950!” Of course I was right, and Zahari still laughs about that today.

I was at Olympia Stadium the night the Red Wings played their final game there, and when Greg Joly scored the tying goal late in the third period, I thought the deafening crowd noise would save the city a wrecking crew tab. Honest to goodness. Then I remember seeing a couple of guys dragging an entire row of attached seats out the front door. Where they were going to put it, I’m still dying to know.

Shortly after Scotty Bowman became Red Wings coach, our TV crew was setting up to cover the team’s first exhibition game at Joe Louis Arena, and Bowman stopped me, asking me where the referees’ lockerroom was. I told him – so now my secret is out, and I hope the officials will forgive me.

I was standing in front of Chris Shelton’s locker in July, asking him what had gone wrong with his swing, and for a moment I thought he was going to ask that I depart, and not so nicely. About a week later, the Tigers traded for Sean Casey and Shelton got sent to the minors – to work on his swing.

I remember the late, great U-M football radio announcer Bob Ufer and the horn he blew into the microphone every time the Wolverines scored a touchdown. And I remember him saying things like, “Bless his maize and blue heart!” and calling U-M coach Bo Schembechler “General George Patton Schembechler.”

Speaking of Michigan-Ohio State, I remember seeing a bumper sticker on a car, circa 1979, that said “Woody Is A Pecker,” referring to Buckeyes’ coach Woody Hayes. And another that said “Oh How I Hate Ohio State,” which I think is my favorite.

I was in the Pistons’ lockerroom after a win back in 1984 and I asked Kent Benson if that was the best Pistons team he’d ever played on, a question that deserved the derisive cackles that it got from other nearby players

Tom Dempsey did more than beat the Lions with his deformed foot back in 1970, I reckon. He kicked me into a fire that constantly burns, and from which I never hope to get rescued.

1 comment:

Ozz said...

I think we need to hear that Windsor Spitfires coach story!