Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Humility, Humor Common Threads At Hall Dinner

If you're tired of the self-aggrandizing ways of today's athlete, the "Ain't nobody can stop me but me" attitude that so many of them have, then you would have enjoyed last night's Michigan Sports Hall of Fame Induction Dinner.

Eight persons were inducted at the dinner, held at Cobo Center's Riverview Ballroom. And the underlying theme for all of them was, "I couldn't have done it without..."

Without teammates. Without parents. Without the right coaches. Without assistants, and administrators, and mentors.

Every one of them strode to the podium after being introduced by emcee Frank Beckmann (WJR radio) and displayed the humility and reluctance to take the credit that is too little and far between for today's boastful bozos.

And there was humor, too.

"I had a marriage that didn't last as long as this program," cracked former broadcaster Dave Diles. And, after recognizing his two children, Diles said, "They're the only two truly creative things I've ever done."

Former MSU star basketball player and current Pistons TV analyst Greg Kelser thanked fellow inductee Jack McCloskey's kind words about him, then said, "But despite how much he liked me, it didn't stop him from trading me -- twice!" (Kelser's first trade was stymied by a failed physical).

Each of the eight inductees' speeches were preceded by a video tribute to their career, which included some rare and priceless footage.

Diles, for example, was the victim of Eddie Brinkman's faux pas during the celebration of the Tigers' 1972 AL East title. I knew of the moment, but didn't know that it was Diles who was interviewing shortstop Brinkman when Eddie blurted, into a live microphone, "I'm just so happy to play with these f***ing guys; we worked so f***ing hard..."

Afterward, I told Diles, "I never knew it was YOU that was Brinkman's victim!"

"That's the first time I've seen that clip since it happened," Diles told me.

I also got a kick out of a clip played during Jimmy Devellano's tribute. Jimmy D., the longtime Red Wings executive, was talking into a camera about his new #1 draft pick -- an 18 year-old named Steve Yzerman.

"I'm a little concerned about his strength, being only 18," Devellano said that summer's day in 1983. "But we think he can play at this level, and that he'll make it."

Ya think?

I tracked down Yzerman after the dinner.

"I liked it when Jimmy said, 'I think he'll make it'," I said.

Yzerman grinned. "Well, nobody was sure back then," he said.

MSHOF Executive Director Jim Stark said the goal for the Hall continues to be a permanent home. Right now, the Hall is still just a long hallway in Cobo, with inanimate plaques on the wall. The dream is for the Hall to be permanently ensconsed somewhere, with interactive displays and other attractions that will make it family and youth-oriented.

Hall Chairman Tony Michaels of Big Boy Restaurants reminded last night's attendees to remember the Hall the next time they enjoy those special sporting moments, with the hope that they'll help support the Hall's mission.

The dinner was the 52nd annual, and also included a special courage award given to former Red Wings defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov, badly injured in a 1997 limousine accident just six days after the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. Vladdie determinedly made his way to the dais with the help of a walker but with little help from anyone else.

"Thanks...so much," he said to a hushed crowd, who had given him a standing ovation.

The inductees were: Pistons GM McCloskey; Diles; Tigers pitcher Frank Tanana; CMU and NBA player Dan Majerle; longtime high school coach Diane Laffey; Devellano; Kelser; and MSU and NFL star and college coach Sonny Grandelius.

Stark reminded Yzerman that, next year, he'll most likely be an inductee.

"I'm not going anywhere. I'll be around, " Stevie Y said.

For more about the Hall, visit their website.

Monday, October 30, 2006

An NFL Sunday Without The Lions? It Can be Grand, Indeed

A Sunday away from the Lions...

Brisk, sunny fall day. Great day to rake the leaves, and clean up the yard a bit. Well, a lot, actually. Fill up the city-approved compost bags with leaves and grass clippings. Tend to my large pot of dill pickle soup occasionally, and if you've never had dill pickle soup, I beseech you to get past the name and try a bowl. I'll even make you one, if you're nice. It's one of the best soups on this planet.

But there's still NFL on the tube, and lots of it, courtesy of my DirecTV NFL Sunday Ticket. Some good games, too: Falcons nudge the Bengals in Cincinnati; Da Raiders spill the Steelers in Oakland; Chiefs win a wild one over the Seahawks in Kansas City; and of course, the Colts-Broncos epic in Denver, won by a totally expected game-winning drive engineered by Peyton Manning and ended by Adam Vinateiri's foot.

But no cringing, no jeering laughs. No rolling of the eyes, no knowing smirks. For the Lions were on their bye week, and it's wonderful how pleasant a Sunday afternoon can be when they are not on the league's schedule.

The actor Charles Grodin has written several books. One of them is titled It Would Be So Nice If You Weren't Here.

A Lions-less Sunday could be retitled It Was So Nice When You Weren't Here.

But then what would we, the all-knowing bloggers, write about?

Well, there are plenty of worse things to ruminate about than dill pickle soup, I can tell you that.

Did I mention it's even better the next day?

Something else it's got over the Lions.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Thank You, Boys!

No matter how exciting the ride, no matter how many thrills and chills it produces, no matter how many heroes make it happen, it always ends the same for the team that finishes in second place in major league baseball.

You’ve seen it, year after year. The looks of stunned disbelief on the players in the losing dugout, each of them appearing to be shocked at what they’ve just seen, even if their team failed to win a single game in the Series. The on-field celebration carries on for the victors, and the second place team stares at it, like a customer who can’t believe the person in front of them grabbed the last hot Christmas item at the department store.

The Fox television cameras caught them, and it’s not hard, for they are as motionless as statues. Pudge Rodriguez had the look. So did Sean Casey. And anyone else who bothered to stick around to watch the St. Louis Cardinals carry on, reveling in the franchise’s first World Series win since 1982. The Tigers’ last world championship occurred in 1984, so there you go: another team WAS waiting longer for their end-of-the-season champagne, after all.

The Tigers lost the 2006 World Series, four games to one, and I suppose they were due; they hadn’t lost a Series since 1940, when they got beat by the Cincinnati Reds.

The three-Series winning streak (1945, 1968, 1984) is over, and in retrospect the Tigers never had a prayer of capturing this one.

Too many mistakes – on the basepaths and with the glove, or more accurately, the arm. Too many key hitters as cold as the weather. Too many runners left stranded.

And, in the end, probably, too many hurdles to clear.

None of the people who wear the title of “baseball expert” on their head gave the Tigers a spitting chance to win the World Series this year, when their picks were solicited back in March. But you already know that those titles of expert are worn like a crown that’s two sizes too small. Still, even the clothes-less emperors of baseball prognosticating figured to be right to dismiss the Tigers as nothing more than Central Division fodder for the Twins, White Sox, and even the Indians.

But the season, they say, is a marathon, and along the way, as the wins piled up as surprisingly as Academy Awards would for William Shatner, the Tigers began to clear hurdles.

First there were those darlings of 1984. At one point, in July, the Tigers’ record first matched, then exceeded, that of the ’84 “Bless You, Boys!” team after the identical amount of games played.

Then came the 50-game swoon to close the season, and there was another hurdle to clear: the notion that the Tigers were paper playoff pretenders, backers-in to the postseason who were unable to win a single game from the dregs of the league, the Kansas City Royals, in order to win the division that they led since mid-May. But the Tigers beat the vaunted New York Yankees in the first round.

Next, the hurdle was an Oakland A’s team who had broomed aside the red hot Minnesota Twins in their first round. Surely the A’s would prove to be a formidable opponent. They had some pitching of their own, and a resurrected Frank Thomas leading the offense. Maybe the Tigers would suffer the dreaded “hangover” after beating the Yankees and their $200 million payroll. Ahh, but The Tigers got out brooms of their own, and took care of the Athletics in four straight games.

So here they were, in the World Series. Baseball’s accidental tourists. This was the biggest hurdle of them all. Teams simply do not win 71 games, as the Tigers did last year, and win the World Series the following season. The experts/emperors say so. But so does the record book. Could the Tigers, one year removed from mediocrity, a status that they’d wallowed in for over a dozen years, reverse their course 100% and win the whole kit and caboodle? It wouldn’t quite be a worst-to-first story, but it would be pretty darn close.

And the Tigers, at the end of their hurdle-filled marathon, 25 miles and some change from the starting line, went to leap against the Cardinals and their legs had lost their bounce. Just like what happens when you overuse a spring.

There was too much to overcome. When you cannot hit worth a lick, and your gloves and throwing arms betray you, and your bullpen suddenly morphs into gasoline, then you find yourself exactly as Rodriguez, and Casey, and the others found themselves after the final out was recorded in Game 5: in the losing dugout, with those incredulous expressions, unable to believe that there will be no baseball tomorrow. The same expressions worn by the 2005 Houston Astros. And the 2004 Cardinals. And the 2003 Yankees. And so on, and so on, for all the second placers. They all took different routes to the department store, but they all came up empty when they reached for the last Cabbage Patch Doll, or Playstation 3.

The ’84 Tigers had their “Bless You, Boys!” rallying cry. But even that has irony. The expression was borne out of sarcasm, you see. Channel 4 sportscaster “Acid Al” Ackerman first started to use it in 1983, when the Tigers stumbled out of the gate for the season’s first 30 games or so. The Tigers would win one for a change, and there was Acid Al at 11:21 p.m. during the sports portion of the news, jabbing them with the “Bless You, Boys!” that was dripping with you-know-what. In 1984, though, it was revisited, and this time with sincerity.

The 2006 Tigers, I submit, should be festooned with the cry of “Thank You, Boys!” The stunned faces that are so familiar to the World Series losers indeed showed up in the Tigers dugout as the baseball season ended in St. Louis. They didn’t, I’m sure, feel very blessed at that moment, anyway. So why not thank them, instead?

They deserve it, you know, for taking us along on an unexpected type of baseball marathon. The kind with hurdles. One too many, as it turned out.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Tigers Must Rely On The Age Old Cliche Of One At A Time

The Tigers, as much as they would like to, cannot win three games tonight in St. Louis. They cannot win two. They cannot hit five-run homeruns, nor make three outs with one pitch. They can't steal home from first base, and they can't strike people out by throwing anything less than three strikes.

It's human nature, of course, to want to do that in a baseball playoff series in which you trail, three games to one. But the reality is, the Tigers have to go back to that cliche of all cliches: take it one game at a time. Indeed, they must now take things one inning at a time, one at bat at a time, even one pitch at a time.

It's the only way.

The Cardinals dug deep into the bag of breaks that is available to postseason baseball teams last night in Game 4. It's hard to think of anything, frankly, that didn't go their way. So you'd like to think that the Tigers are due for some breaks of their own.

But again, forget about breaks. Just play the game. Focus on one pitch. Try to get good at-bats. Grind it out. Play nine innings and all that rot.

It's not an exciting, dazzling way to approach things, but what have the Tigers left at their disposal, really?

One thing they have going for them, and what the fans should have going for them, is this: Despite the fact that the Tigers were probably considered the favorites in this Series -- and in baseball that seems to matter very little nowadays -- they were hardly favorites when teams convened for spring training in February. In other words, this shouldn't be one of those Pistons or Red Wings catastrophes, when anything less than a championship is considered a colossal failure. That's not just written to be a salve if the Tigers lose, either. It's a fact. And one folks around here should embrace.

The players, too. Have fun. Play loose. Where is the pressure right now, do ya think? On the Tigers? Or on the Cardinals to close it out tonight? We've been there before, haven't we, in Detroit? Up big in a series, not wanting to give the other team any life, or any hope? You can't breathe until the clinching game is over with, can you?

Tonight, the Cardinals and their fans will brave it out, but they'll scramble for oxygen, especially if the Tigers can get off to a good start. They did it last night. They need to do it again.

No, the Tigers can't win three games tonight. They couldn't in Game 5 in 1968, either. Last night the ghost of Curt Flood grabbed Curtis Granderson and took him to the ground. How about tonight Justin Verlander channels Mickey Lolich?

I mean, fair is fair.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Pistons, Red Wings Flying Low, And That's Just Great

It's becoming trendy, now, to dismiss the Pistons. They are no longer the sexy team -- the lunch bucket "Workin' Hard" squad. It's not considered a smart thing, anymore, to elevate them to championship-caliber status.


Sports Illustrated, no less, is the latest to shove the Pistons to the side. In their 2006-07 NBA Preview, the magazine picked the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the Central Division. They labeled the Pistons no better than fourth in the Eastern Conference, behind the Miami Heat, the New Jersey Nets, and the aforementioned Cavaliers. Now, I have never put much stock in what the folks at SI have to say when it comes to forecasting and handicapping any sport. Usually, their crystal ball is cloudy.

It bemuses me to see how teams are treated like fashion trends. The Pistons are now, apparently, sooo 2004. Doubtless that their struggle with the Cavaliers in last spring's playoffs has contributed to that feeling. And losing Ben Wallace, to those rivals of yesteryear, the Chicago Bulls.

Regardless, the Pistons don't impress too many people anymore. Wallace's departure has been blamed, by Wallace himself among others, squarely on coach Flip Saunders. Naturally, this has caused Flip to be looked at cross-eyed. Who ELSE does he not get along with? Oh, and now he wants the team to play some zone defense? Tsk-tsk.


The Pistons, like the Red Wings, seem to be under the radar, and that's wonderful. Isn't it nice to NOT be considered THE team to beat for a change? In the NHL, teams like the Minnesota Wild -- normally one of the pedestrians of the league -- are off to jackrabbit starts. Their wins are piling up, and their loss totals are miniscule. And the Red Wings are scuffling along at .500 after nine games, struggling on special teams. Good! Let's lie in the weeds, and go into the playoffs as a sixth or seventh seed, and ruin someone ELSE's season for a change.

The Pistons won 64 games last season. They qualified for the conference finals for the fourth year in a row. They have, as far as I'm concerned, improved their bench. But they do not have Ben Wallace. And the Cavaliers have LeBron James, and a smart young coach named Mike Brown. And the Heat are defending champs. And the Nets have tweaked their roster. So, I guess, that puts the Pistons down the list three more notches.

The Pistons have always thrived when they can play the "nobody respects us" card. They ought to be beside themselves with giddiness nowadays. All that pressure, you see, is on LeBron and company.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

World Series Burning Questions

Mosey on over to Where Have You Gone, Johnny Grubb? for Burning Questions after every World Series game!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Brock's Daring Almost Singlehandedly Won '68 Series

When the Tigers and the Cardinals got it on for the world's championship of baseball in 1968, there was a St. Louis player who terrorized the Detroiters with his jackrabbit speed and his Wallenda-like daring on the basepaths.

My, was Lou Brock a disruptive force in that '68 Series!

Brock, the Cards' left fielder, went 13-for-28 in the Series (.464 BA), including three doubles, a triple, and two homeruns. He also scored six runs. A strong case could have been made for Series MVP, even in a losing effort. But Mickey Lolich, with his three complete game victories, sealed that deal.

But it wasn't Brock's hitting, which was amazing enough, that made him such a thorn in the Tigers' sides. It was his ability to do something that is hardly ever attempted in postseason play anymore.

Lou Brock could steal a base or two.

He stole seven of them, in fact, in that '68 World Series. He was caught twice -- once when Lolich picked him off and Brock was thrown out by Norm Cash. Not only did Brock attempt nine steals in the seven games, he dared Tigers pitchers to pick him off. Brock took leads off first base that were obscene in their distance from the bag. Everytime I watch film reels of that Series, I'm taken by the length of Brock's leads. It seemed like he was halfway to second base. And there were few who got a better jump off a pitcher's delivery than Lou Brock. Never was it more true than in the 1968 Fall Classic.

In the regular season in '68, Brock stole 62 bases. He was caught 12 times. That's an amazing success rate of almost 84 percent. In World Series play (1964, 1967, 1968), Brock stole 14 bases and was caught twice -- an 86 percent success rate. Brock stole 14 bases in 21 Series games because he was always on base. He went 34-for-87 (.391 BA) with an OBA of .424 in October.

But back to the point. How many stolen base attempts did you see this postseason, including games not involving the Tigers? Certainly not as many, combined, as Lou Brock accounted for all by himself in 1968 alone (nine). And I don't mean hit-and-run plays that turn into stolen base attempts. I'm talking straight steals, folks.

It must be a lost art, the stealing of bases in the postseason. And it's not like there are hordes of rifle-armed catchers in baseball at the moment. Taking Detroit's own Pudge Rodriguez out of the equation, there aren't too many catchers who should strike fear into would-be base stealers.

If any baseball manager should care to do so, I would suggest he obtain a copy of the '68 World Series and watch how much chaos Lou Brock created because of his feats of daring. Of course, Brock himself was a special player -- a freak of a base stealer. But it doesn't have to be a Brock on the base paths to create some havoc.

I wonder why teams don't try swiping bases more often. But, SHHH -- don't tell the Cardinals, even though the testament to what I'm saying is in the form of a statue in front of new Busch Stadium. Lou Brock's statue.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Stripeless Tiger

They’re paraded before us, in print and on the idiot box – images from championship days gone by: 1968 and 1984. There’s Mickey Lolich, talking about pitching on two days’ rest to win the ’68 title. And they tracked down Mr. Nice Guy, 1984 World Series MVP Alan Trammell, brand new hip and all, and got him to say a few words about the team that he helped set up for success in 2006.

The newspapers, especially, are spraying India ink all over their pages about Gates Brown’s pinch hit heroics, or Kirk Gibson’s moonshot off Goose Gossage, or how Mayo Smith moved Mickey Stanley from center field to shortstop, or how a team could actually begin a season 35-5.

Current Tigers manager Jim Leyland is, everyday, called that most ancient of sports words: genius. Other adjectives and nouns find themselves repeated ad nauseum: magical, Cinderella, destiny.

But it’s the former players from those, ahem, magical ’68 and ’84 teams that have been consulted, prodded, recalled, and sought out as the ’06 Tigers venture into a place nobody thought they would find themselves: the World Series.

When Magglio Ordonez, the erstwhile White Sox and now Tigers outfielder, watched the 2005 World Series, and saw his former Chicago teammates celebrating a world’s championship that he was but one year removed from sharing, he turned off the television. And he cried. He said so, don’t you know. It’s been reported.

I wonder, then, how many tears Bobby Higginson has shed?

Higginson has been persona non grata

You remember Bobby, don’t you? The Philadelphia kid who played ball in Detroit from 1995-2005? The rocket-armed rightfielder who was the one Tiger you came to watch play, when just about all of the others weren’t worth a hoot?

He used up all of his time in Detroit, Bobby Higginson did. He had 11 seasons here, and that ended up being enough. In 2004, with Higgy stumbling through another down season, I puffed out my chest and wrote that he should no longer be a member of the Tigers when the team opened play in 2005. It was another moment when an ink-stained wretch played at being the GM. Or the manager.

But I wrote it, because I believed it to be true. And, indeed, when the Tigers broke camp in spring, 2005, Bobby Higginson was clearly finished, done like dinner. He had had another horrible spring, but that was nothing new for him, even during his good years. But this particular spring, in 2005 in Florida, Higginson was a shell, even for him. He had no business being on the team. And there was a kid slamming the ball all over the grapefruit fields of south Florida that March: a fellow by the name of Marcus Thames.

But manager Alan Trammell, perhaps in another display of his still unrefined skills as a dugout boss, kept Bobby Higginson on the squad and sent the powerful outfielder Thames to Toledo.

Dmitri Young, outraged, told the newspaper fellas that Marcus Thames had been “screwed.” The words made their way up north, to chilly Detroit. They were crude and maybe a bit of deliberate theatre, but they were some of the truest things that Young ever uttered as a Tiger.

Yet even though Higginson didn’t deserve to be a member of this season’s Tigers, is he no less of a Tiger, period?

So maybe the reason why nobody has sought out Higginson, why no one has bothered to ask an 11-year Tiger what he thinks of his teammates making it to the World Series, is because the team was not a winner in any of his 11 seasons. And I don’t mean they weren’t playoff winners, or division winners, or even wild card winners. They weren’t winners, period. In none of Higginson’s 11 seasons did the Tigers ever manage to complete 162 games with more wins than losses. Although, they did manage to lose over 100 games a couple of times. They even lost 119 in 2003, another number that will be regurgitated over and over during this World Series.

But the fact that the Tigers were never winners under Higginson’s watch is exactly why he should be talked to. Why not ask a perennial loser how he feels to see his team finally win, albeit without him? Magglio Ordonez said he cried tears of sadness when he watched the White Sox whoop it up in Houston after completing their sweep of the Astros. What did Bobby do when he watched champagne and tears – of joy – flow in the Tigers’ lockerroom following their dismantling of the Oakland A’s in the ALCS?

What, indeed?

I’ve thought of Higginson often during this Tigers playoff run. There always seems to be one, doesn’t there, who labors for a team during the lean years yet never gets to enjoy the fruits of that labor when that club finds success, even if it’s from under a rock? Sometimes it’s a trade that sends that player away just before the harvest. Sometimes it’s unforced retirement. Higginson finished out his contract in 2005, a year in which he came to bat less than 20 times. That he wasn’t offered another one was both unsurprising and just.

Yet even though Higginson didn’t deserve to be a member of this season’s Tigers, is he no less of a Tiger, period? Why should his stripes be taken away simply because he didn’t time his career just right?

Nobody speaks of Bobby Higginson, that I’m aware of. He isn’t written about, he isn’t even yakked about on sports talk radio. He’s the stripeless Tiger, when so many of the others of the past are fawned over, simply because they happened to be at the right place at the right time. Higgy found himself neither.

Alan Trammell, I hear, will be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch of Game 2 on Sunday, along with his manager, Sparky Anderson. It’s another thing you won’t hear or read, but Sparky was Higginson’s first big league manager. It was a long time ago, when losing baseball began to become all the rage in Detroit. Right when Bobby Higginson started his career as a Tiger.

Wrong place, wrong time.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Weaver Was Supposed To Be In Verlander's Position

Jeff Weaver returns to Comerica Park tomorrow night, and that's what's great about sports.

Weaver, the former Tiger, will start Game 1, facing the fireballer Justin Verlander.

There was a time when the roles were thought to one day be reversed. It was going to be Weaver who was going to someday lead the Tigers to a World Series. It was going to be Weaver whose personality the Tigers would take on -- kind of like a poor man's Jack Morris.

But the Tigers were not a good baseball team for most of the time when Jeff Weaver pitched for them. They were slapstick -- a sadsack group of players, many of whom had no business being in the big leagues. But that's where the Tigers were in Weaver's day: short on talent at the big league level, bereft of hope in the minor leagues. They are that way no longer.

Weaver: tip your hat tomorrow night for #36

Weaver was GM Randy Smith's lone success story -- a homegrown talent who could actually pitch a little. He was, as he still is, fiery and prone to being affected by an umpire's skewed vision of the strike zone. A little Jack Morris in him, after all. But there were too few pieces of the puzzle surrounding him in Detroit, so the losing mounted and so did the frustration. Finally, in an act of mercy almost, GM Dave Dombrowski traded Weaver, to the Yankees, in a 2002, three-team deal.

The Tigers received a big first baseman with a sweet swing and a soft glove. He was to be the cornerstone of the trade for Detroiters: Carlos Pena. They later got a toss-in player. Someone to, basically, even up the bodies. That player, barely out of his teens, was a young pitcher named Jeremy Bonderman.

So Weaver traipsed to New York, had a small amount of success, went to the Dodgers, and then ended up with the Angels. He was roughed up there, and was released. He signed with the Cardinals, and had a bad start in St. Louis. His career was foundering. But he righted himself in the nick of time, and was one of the Cards' better starters in the playoffs. Surprise, surprise.

When Weaver is introduced tomorrow at Comerica Park, doubtless there'll be mostly boos. He's with the enemy, after all. But if you listen carefully, you'll hear some smattering of applause. As it should be.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Giants, Unlike Lions In '99, Get A Warning About Their Star Running Back

If Barry Sanders had come to the Lions in October 1998 and said, "You know what, guys? I'm kind of thinking of packing it in at the end of this season. Whaddya think?," you would have seen the biggest courtship and rear end smooching since Randy Smith tried to keep Juan Gonzalez in Detroit as a Tiger.

It didn't go down that way, of course. Sanders bailed out on the Lions, pulling the plug on his career on the eve of training camp in 1999. But the Hall of Fame running back knew, pretty much, when he walked off the field in Baltimore after the Lions' last game of '98 that he wasn't going to play anymore. He has said as much.

For reasons that only he still fully knows, Sanders chose not to clue the Lions in on his plans until it was far too late to plan for his absence for the 1999 season. It continues to remain among the most mysterious of retirements.

Barber: 10 and out, just like Barry?

The Giants have one up on the Lions. Running back Tiki Barber, the franchise's all-time leading rusher, stated publicly that he is considering retiring at the end of this season. How seriously he is considering it, he won't say, although the words "leaning toward it" were used. But he's already told the Giants more with that small nugget of information than the Lions knew until the day before camp in 1999.

"I've been considering [retirement] for a few years now," Barber said during one of those NFL conference calls the league holds every Wednesday. "It comes to a point where your body just doesn't want to take it anymore, you see other opportunities out there. I'm excited about the rest of my life as well as I am about this football season. So we'll see what happens.

"I don't think there are any definites in life. It's too early in the year to say it for sure. But I'm leaning toward it, for sure."

Barber is the league's leading rusher this season with 533 yards after five games. Last season, he rushed for 1,860 yards and made his second straight Pro Bowl. And now he says that this season, his 10th, might be it. Broadcasting might beckon, after all. It always seems to, for the handsome, former athlete. Maybe Barber has what it takes to make it on the tube.

But right now, the Giants have a dilemma, although at least they have some time to deal with it. Make some plans. Some of that contigency stuff that you look into when your superstar runs the idea of retiring up the flagpole.

The Lions were afforded none of that with Barry Sanders, and you can't help but conclude that it went down that way deliberately -- a final dig into the back of an organization that Sanders felt was foundering beyond help. Certainly beyond his help. Beyond 1,500+ yards and the moves of a whirling dervish. For if that kind of contribution wasn't enough to at least put the Lions on the better side of .500, then why bother? So the Lions got what Sanders apparently thought they deserved: a faxed letter of intention the night before weigh-ins.

What the Giants choose to do about their little Tiki Barber situation, nobody knows yet. It's still too early. I'm sure the entire organization is walking around in a fog this morning.

But nothing like the pea soup the Lions and their faithful waded through in the wake of Barry's bombshell in 1999.

The Giants should consider themselves lucky. You never know what those little scat backs are capable of.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Tigers' Magic Began On An Ohio Highway In April

When the story was told, it was to be off the record, but that was back in April so I think the statute of limitations is up. In fact, I myself had forgotten about it until the other day, when I reflected how truly magical this Tigers season has been.

Bless you, boys, indeed!

Manager Jim Leyland was in his office, several hours before a game April 12. It was two days after the home opener, one day after the requisite off day in case of bad weather for the opener. A few ink-stained wretches were in there with him, including this interloper from a monthly sports magazine. After some small talk about that day's lineup, which included Omar Infante as the DH, the talk turned to how Leyland had spent the off day. What followed was a story that, had I been clairvoyant, would have tipped me off as to the kind of season the Tigers were going to have.

The manager was in Ohio, visiting the family, and was on his way back to Detroit. It was late afternoon, early evening. Then a tire gave out, and the man who today could be elected governor of the state of Michigan was nothing more than a stranded motorist, somewhere in the boondocks of Ohio.

A tow truck was called, and when it arrived, the driver saw Leyland's Tigers equipment bag.

"Hey, Detroit Tigers!," the driver said, according to Leyland. "I'm a big fan."

"Oh yeah?," Leyland said, "Well I'm the G** damned manager!"

Needless to say, from that point on, Leyland received the red carpet treatment. The tire was changed, and Leyland responded by telling the guys at the shop that tickets would be waiting for them the next time the Tigers were in Cleveland. But on a more serious note, he was told that the condition of the blown out tire meant that the car could very well have gone out of control, considering his speed.

In typical Jim Leyland humor, he said that when he called the team to tell him that he was going to travel all night to make it back to Detroit in time for the next day's afternoon game, coach Gene Lamont -- who would have taken over the team in Leyland's absence -- supposedly said, "Jim was in an accident? He's not okay, is he?"

That killed the room of visitors and interlopers.

The blown out tire, which was NOT followed by a horrific accident, the tow truck driver who was a Tigers fan (in Ohio, no less, and near Indians country), the red carpet treatment -- all that should have portended good things for Leyland and the Tigers in 2006.

Later that day, I interviewed coach Andy Van Slyke and he spoke of how the Tigers needed to learn how to win and "turn the page" after every game, win or lose.

Well, they did that, but we needn't have worried, after all. Leyland and his Tigers have been blessed from the get go.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

"Teddy Ballgame" A Softy After All, Diles Says

He had never told it to anyone, at anytime, except to his family. Nobody but Dave Diles’ loved ones knew about his friendship with Ted Williams. Just the way Williams preferred it. For it turns out that Teddy Ballgame wasn’t always the irascible, pugnacious sort after all. And Williams couldn’t have folks possibly know that.

Diles, 75 last Saturday, was as much Detroit sports television as snow is winter. From the early-1960’s until the late-1970’s, Diles casted sports during the six o’clock and 11 o’clock shows, hosted a radio show, did some freelance TV shows, and, perhaps most famously, flew to New York on weekends to work for ABC, most notably during the college football season as host of the halftime and postgame scoreboard shows.

“I never lived in New York. Let’s get that straight,” Diles said, correcting me when I asked him how long he’d lived in the Big Apple. “I commuted every weekend, about ten months out of the year,” he said on the telephone from his home near Athens, Ohio.

Well, it sure seemed like Diles lived in New York, because I remember him on ABC almost as much as, if not more so, than watching him on WXYZ-TV channel 7.

Diles was happy to discuss a career that was fulfilling, if not one that rose to superstar status (“I was no Keith Jackson or Howard Cosell,” Diles says), while we chatted the other day for a nostalgic piece for Motor City Sports Magazine.

There were good friends, for one. And one of those was the iconic Williams.

“I first met him when he was nearing the end of his career with the (Boston) Red Sox,” Diles told me. “I was leaning on a bat near the batting cage in spring training. And here comes Williams. He kicks the bat out from me, and I fell onto my ass. I looked up and he was grinning and razzing me about something (Red Sox manager) Mike Higgins had supposedly said about me. “We kind of struck up a relationship, then it became a friendship.”

Back in those days, newspapers were smitten about homerun hitters. The papers and their art departments had a fetish for publishing wide shots of the ballpark the day after a big homerun. The flight of the longball was drawn onto the photo with an elliptical black line with an arrow at the end. And always, the estimated distance was superimposed, too.

“Ted used to love playing in Detroit,” Diles said. “The hitting background was great, and there was the upper deck in rightfield. He used to call Briggs (later Tiger) Stadium his favorite ballpark, outside of Boston.”

It was then that Diles, who was a young AP reporter at the time, began a sort of routine.

“So when Teddy would hit one out, and the papers in Detroit created one of those photos, I’d have them make an extra one,” he recalled. “And I’d take it to the ballpark and put it in [Williams’] locker. I’d see him on the field during batting practice and I’d say, ‘I put something in your locker.’ He liked that. He liked me. And I liked him.”

“If you ever f***ing tell anyone that I was here, I’ll never f***ing talk to you ever again, you hear me?”

But, Diles said, there was a soft side of Williams that the Hall of Fame slugger was very careful to keep from the public eye.

“One time I was scheduled to visit some sick kids over at Detroit Osteopathic Hospital, and Williams came along. He and I talked to the kids, and he was great with them.

“On the way out of the hospital, he said, ‘If you ever f***ing tell anyone that I was here, I’ll never f***ing talk to you ever again, you hear me?’”

And Diles never did, until the very moment he let his caller in on the secret.

“I had the good fortune of being invited to his home in Florida after he retired,” Diles said. “And when I retired, we kept in touch, usually by telephone. It was quite a friendship. And I never told anyone about it, other than my family, until this very second.”

Regarding his time in Detroit, Diles spoke of violations of code when it came to former Lions player and coach Joe Schmidt.

“I know that you’re never supposed to become friends with those whose careers you are chronicling, either in print or on the air,” Diles said, “but I violated that code when it came to Joe Schmidt. I found him to be wonderful. I had a very special relationship with him.”

But at the top of his list as far as professional relationships go, was #9 himself, Gordie Howe.

“I think God broke the mold when He made Gordie. He was always good for a quote, and he was always accessible. If I asked him to do a charity event, his only question was, ‘When do you want me to be there?’”

Diles quit channel 7 in 1972 over a dispute with management. Already bogged down with his ABC work and the radio shows, Diles asked out of doing the 11 p.m. newscast. But management, citing the increased ratings at 11 versus other times, wouldn’t allow it. So he quit, but only after being assured that his not working for channel 7 wouldn’t affect his status with ABC. He returned to channel 7 in 1979.

Diles’ replacement at channel 7 was an ascerbic, snarling man named Al Ackerman. And that hiring also contributed to Diles’ crankiness with WXYZ.

“I was the sports director [at channel 7], and I thought it was underhanded that they should bring in someone (Ackerman) without consulting me first. I had wanted Larry Adderly to do the 11 o’clock show, but of course they wouldn’t let me out of it. But then they hired Al, who I never really respected professionally. I thought he was just about shtick. I had no relationship with him personally. So shortly after Al replaced me, I walked into the station manager’s office, and I quit.”

Diles will be inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame on October 30, at a gala dinner at Cobo Hall. He’ll go in, along with other inductees who include Tigers pitcher Frank Tanana; MSU football star Sonny Grandelius; Pistons GM Jack McCloskey; Red Wings vice president Jimmy Devellano; and NBA forwards Dan Majerle and Greg Kelser.

Of turning 75, Diles said, “Bet you didn’t think I’d make it, did you?”

Not only did he make it, he sounds fit enough to eventually have 75 way back in his rearview mirror.

He’s not ready to re-join his friend Ted Williams just yet.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Ordonez's Rocket Puts Him In An Elite Club

Kirk Gibson, meet Magglio Ordonez. I know you already have -- you were his coach, after all, last season -- but I'm talking about something deeper here.

Vinnie Johnson, get over here and say hello to Maggs.

Stevie Y -- Mr. Yzerman -- can you take time out from your new duties as Red Wings vice president to slap Mr. Ordonez on the back and welcome him into your club?

I know Jim Northrup is still around. I'm sure the Grey Fox would be happy to extend a hand and escort Ordonez into the fold.

At 7:53 p.m. Saturday, October 14, Magglio Ordonez stepped to the plate, swung, and lofted a ball not only into the grandstand at Comerica Park, but also into a hallowed circle of Detroit sports memories. He's part of a special club now, no matter how the Tigers do in the World Series.

Ordonez's three-run blast in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the the American League pennant is now a snowball. For years from now, that snowball will take on gargantuan proportions. Doubtless the story will be repeated to those who don't know better as having occurred in the seventh game, or, GASP, in the World Series itself.

But it's big enough as it is, thank you, without such exaggeration.

The beauty of Ordonez's blast, as with Gibson's that put away the Padres in the 1984 World Series, was its majesty. It was a "no doubter", and you kind of wished it would never come down, because there's nothing quite as orgasmic as a pennant-winning homerun in flight. In fact, I don't know that Ordonez hit quite as spectacular of a homerun, in terms of its asthetic quality, as the one he hit off Huston Street to sweep away the Oakland A's. It was a moonshot, and 22 years of coming up short were obliterated somewhere near the top of its parabolic pattern.

So it is that Ordonez joins Gibson, Yzerman, Northrup, and Johnson in the Circle of Five who have authored the greatest moments in Detroit sports history.

Gibson: crushes an eighth-inning homerun off Goose Gossage to turn a 5-4 lead into an 8-4 margin in the clinching Game 5 of the '84 World Series.

Yzerman: blasts a puck from the blue line and over the shoulder of Blues goalie Jon Casey to win Game 7 of the 1996 Western Conference semifinals in the second overtime.

Northrup: drives a ball over the head of Cardinals centerfielder Curt Flood in the seventh inning, breaking a scoreless tie in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series.

Johnson: with Jerome Kersey draped all over him, swishes an 18-foot jump shot with :00.7 left to snag the Pistons' second straight championship, in 1990.

Ordonez: hits a two-out, three-run homerun in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Oakland A's and capture the Tigers' first American League flag in 22 years.

Whether the Tigers win the World Series or not, Ordonez has joined this exclusive club. Yzerman' goal, after all, proved to only delay the inevitable, as the Avalanche blasted the Red Wings out of the playoffs in the conference finals. The other three moments came in games in which our teams won the whole enchilada.

Of course, there's still another series to be played here. Who's to say that someone can't do something that trumps Maggs?

We'll see.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Pass The Salt: These Words Need To Be Eaten, And Quick

Oh, how I wish the words, once they get launched into cyber space, are gone forever. But there they are, glowing against my eyes, searing into my soul.

The Tigers had lost their last five regular season games, including the nightmarish three-game sweep at the hands of the gosh-awful Kansas City Royals. They blew the divisional title, letting it slip through their fingers at the very end, despite having a chokehold on it from the middle of May. And now they had been blasted out of Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the ALDS, 8-4.

On October 4, a mere nine days ago, and in a fit of pessimism, I sat at my CRT and banged these words out for all of the Internet who cared to look, to see:

The Tigers are grossly overmatched in this series, and even if they had started at home against Oakland, I wouldn't give them a plugged nickel chance of surviving beyond this week. They are a team running on fumes, wheezing to the finish line, and by Friday it will all be over.

The rant wasn't over just yet. I was just getting started, actually.

The season is likely to end with eight consecutive defeats, and those horrid Wild Card t shirts will be sprinkled around the local retail outlets. Reduced price. It's funny that we kept posting magic numbers around town in September, when the magic had abandoned this team about a month before that.

No way did I think, obviously, that the Tigers would be here, in the ALCS, coming home with a 2-0 series lead. I didn't come to praise them on October 4th. I came to bury them.

Maybe this experience will prep the young Tigers for great things in the future. It's all that's left now, with the last rites about to be issued tonight in Game 2.

Oh, Lord of mercy!

I could have kept these invectives buried (where they belong), figuring that nobody would bother enough to dig them up and taunt me with them. But even I, glancing at that post's headline, "Tigers Overmatched Because The Magic Disappeared Long Ago," was curious as to how poisonous I had gotten.

Only about as much as cyanide, it turns out.

So I decided to come clean, on this day of Game 3 of the ALCS, and admit that those words should be printed from the computer, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and consumed by their author posthaste. And give me a side order of crow while you're at it.

Sometimes you write stuff and shudder at their re-reading. Mostly that happens weeks or months later. This vitriol was written not ten days ago. Shame on me for not believing in this team. I should have Jim Leyland preside over the chowing down of my words, with Marcus Thames there to make sure I don't try anything.

Now, in my defense, maybe I'm right more than I am wrong?

I must be; bloggers and such always have all the answers. It's amazing how smart you can be when you sit in front of a computer and bang away at the keys.

So give me a pass for my lunacy of October 4. I must have just been having a bad day.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Looking For Burning Questions? Head To Grubber

Burning Questions after every Tigers playoff game can be found at the junior site, Where Have You Gone, Johnny Grubb?. Check it out!

Lions' Bag Of M&M's Should Have Stopped With Moeller

I can never look at a bag of M&M's the same way again.

Matt Millen. Marty Mornhinweg. Steve Mariucci. Now, Rod Marinelli.

And, before that -- before even Millen -- Gary Moeller.

I don't know for sure, but it's likely the Lions have set some sort of a record by having four consecutive coaches all have their last names begin with the same letter.

And you know what? The earliest of those four might have been the best choice, after all.

When Moeller, the erstwhile U-M coach, took over for Bobby Ross about two-thirds through the 2000 season, nobody gave him much of a chance to stay beyond the year. And when the Lions lost on Christmas Eve to the Bears, knocking themselves out of the playoff picture, Moeller's chances took another blow. Then, when Millen was hired shortly thereafter, Moeller was toast. Everyone knew it, including Mo himself. Millen gave Moeller a cursory interview, but it was all a sham.

Mo: Never had a chance, and that's a shame

I wouldn't be complaining about Moeller's dismissal some six years later if the coach that Millen hired in early 2001 was someone experienced and respected as a head coach. But Millen hired Mornhinweg, an assistant, after one good interview and a late night film session. No joke. In fact, Millen tripped all over himself to hire Marty before he could get on a plane to interview with Cleveland the next day. Unbelievable.

It says here, as it's been said here many times before, that the Lions, and Millen, wouldn't be in this world of hurt today if they had made a different choice as coach in 2001. I could abide the Moeller cashiering if his replacement was someone who you'd hear and say, "OH...well of COURSE you hire him and dump Mo." But the Lions didn't get that by hiring Mornhinweg. That much was painfully proven in two horrible seasons and one notorious motorcycle ride-out.

I always felt like if the Lions were going to hire a newbie, then they should have just stayed with Moeller. He already knew the personnel, he had gotten the team to play for him in the short time he was there, and he seemed like he had the energy and enthusiasm needed. It would have been fun to see the Lions guided by an old college guy, and a Michigan one to boot.

It's impossible to say where the Lions would exactly have been with Gary Moeller as their coach in 2001 and beyond. But it's pretty safe to say they wouldn't be any worse off than they are now. The thought of this being worse is chilling, frankly.

Oh, Mo, the Lions hardly knew ye.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

24: Not Just A TV Show; Also Jim Leyland's Worth

Back in April, for the cover of Motor City Sports Magazine, we selected a photo of Jim Leyland for our cover with the inquisitive headline, "How many wins is this man worth?" Most of our staff figured the Tigers for anywhere between 80 and 85 wins in 2006.

Nobody picked 95, a 24-game improvement over 2005.

But then again, neither did anyone else in the country, the world, or the universe. I hear those Pluto folks like their baseball, but that hasn't been confirmed.

From the moment I saw Jim Leyland speak as the team's winter caravan saddled up its buses, I knew we were in for something, though I didn't really know what it was. He spoke with a sense of urgency befitting a 61 year-old man who knows he doesn't have all that much time to deliver a winner.

"Everyone's out of patience here. The fans aren't patient. Mr. Ilitch isn't patient. And I'm not patient," Leyland said that January day. "We have to turn this around, and we have to turn it around quickly."

Mission accomplished.

When Billy Martin took over the Tigers for the 1971 season, legend has it that he gathered his players around him in Lakeland, Fla. and said, "I'm Billy Martin. I'm your new manager. And I'm a very bad loser."

Of course, despite some success, including the 1972 AL East flag, Martin's players soon grew weary of him. He wasn't well-liked, and when he was fired in August, 1973 after less than three seasons on the job, there weren't exactly any wakes held on his behalf.

Leyland, though, could probably stay in Motown for as long as he wants. He's the Pied Piper of Detroit when it comes to baseball. His players will follow him anywhere. And they'll play hard for him, too.

"I didn't think this would happen this soon," Leyland admitted amongst the revelry of the Tigers' stunning almost-sweep of the Yankees in the ALDS. So the Tigers made it happen even quicker than the skipper thought, and the skipper wanted it done quickly to begin with. Those fast track Tigers.

I get it asked of me frequently: Would the Tigers have had this kind of success if Alan Trammell had remained the manager? After all, they say to me, Tram didn't have a lot of the pieces that Leyland has at his disposal.

Very true. But Trammell himself also doesn't have a lot of the pieces that Leyland possesses -- the ones that don't involve player personnel. They are intangibles that come with managing over 3,000 big league games, including many in the playoffs and World Series. The ability to keep the other team's manager on the defensive more often than not. The way he relates to his players. The complete trust they have vested in him. If you don't think those things matter, than yes, Trammell should still be the manager here. But there's no way the Tigers win 95 games if he's here instead of Jim Leyland.

There was urgency in Leyland's tone when the streets of Detroit were still slick with ice and a dusting of snow. Now the thaw is here, and you can point squarely at the manager's Marlboro-coated roar for providing it.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Lions Blow Another, But Is It A Surprise?

I wish I could soothe the angst of other NFL team's fans. I wish I could rock them gently in my arms and say in a hushed tone, "Relax...it'll be okay...you're playing the Lions."

As much as I absolutely HATE the Minnesota Vikings -- more than any other professional sports franchise, by the way -- I had the same desire to calm their fans in the wake of the Lions' taking a 17-3 lead into the fourth quarter of their game against the Vikings yesterday in the HHH Metrodome. (The "H's" stand for Horrible, Horrendous, and Hideous, by the way).

Don't worry, I wanted to tell them. The Lions will find a way to give your team this game. And when they did -- the only fun is waiting to find out how they're going to give it away -- it bothered me about as much as it does when we're out of beer at home. A little disappointing, but expected. I likes my beer.

Anyhow, the Lions forged their nice little lead, and then all there was to do was settle back and watch how they were going to fritter it away. It didn't take long to find out.

First possession after the Lions' final touchdown. The crowd was out of the game -- cranky, even. It was a Sunday on which the NFL teams who know how to win, and even the ones who don't do it all that well, would go for the jugular and smell blood. But the Lions continue to have this amazing proclivity to remove their cleats from their opponents' throats, while at the same time tightening the collars around their own.

So, let's see...well, there's Shaun Rogers getting flagged for a personal foul. Tack on 15 yards to the Vikings play. Now they have the ball beyond midfield. The crowd stirs. The drive continues, and as the third quarter ends, the Vikings are knocking on the Lions' door. As usual, it's unlocked.

Brother, I wanna help you, but...

So it's 17-10 early in the fourth quarter. Let's see what else we have on the menu...well, there's an Eddie Drummond kickoff return for a TD that's coming back. Illegal block above the waist. Drat. Oh, well. Let's put some first downs together, chew up some clock, and maybe get some more points, too. That's how you win, right, when you have a fourth quarter lead?


What else we got? Oh, look -- Jon Kitna fumbles, and it's a touchdown for the Vikings. Extra point's blocked, so it's 17-16. Lions still lead, amazingly. Vikings fans, though, hardly need my comfort at this point.

Do teams with winning in their blood, or even scabbing on their knee, go three and out and give the ball right back, momentum totally lost? No, but the Lions do, and did.

Field goal, Vikes. They lead 19 to 17. The denizens have now forgotten about the Twins' demise. With no help from me, as it turned out. My words of calm are not needed.

OK, so there's still about three minutes to go. A field goal puts the Lions back on top. They make it to midfield. The teams who at least have "Winning" in their Rolodex, even if it's not frequently dialed, can make the necessary 20 or 25 yards to get themselves into field goal range, right?


The offensive line is on casters, and the Vikings roll them back with all the ease of moving a stool. Kitna is harrassed, as usual, and has to do everything under duress. Three incomplete passes ensue. Fourth and ten. The Vikings rush three men, but it doesn't matter. Kitna is running for dear life. Nobody's open. Az Hakim is on his tush, knocked down like an eight-year-old after a legal chuck by Antoine Winfield. Nowhere to throw the ball, except to the Vikings, which Kitna does generously. TD Vikings.

The Lions once again prove that they could be one of the best teams in the NFL, if only the games were 45 minutes long.

I just don't know what to do with these guys. They simply do not know how to win. They have no clue what to do with a lead, even a 14-pointer. It's a mindset. They're a bunch of losers who have no idea what it takes to win football games. When you have a team down, 17-3 on the road, and the crowd is out of it and even booing the home squad, it's a game for the taking. Those kinds of chances to snatch a game on the road don't come along every week in the NFL. But the Lions have absolutely no idea what to do with such an opportunity.

I'm still in coach Rod Marinelli's corner, and I'd love to give him some pearls of wisdom for advice, but I'm at a loss here. I don't know what the answer is. I'm tempted to say blow it up and make an overhaul in personnel, but I'm not sure if that's the right way to go. How do you change a mindset? How do you wash away decades of futility? I really don't know what to do anymore. But I do know this: when they lost yesterday, I was not surprised. But here's the worst part: I didn't even really care, either. The Lions are 0-5. The season is a lost cause, and we're barley into October. Yet my overall feeling is, So what?

The chilling thought, though, is that I'm afraid some of Rod Marinelli's players might have the very same attitude as I have. I think they have for years now, those Lions.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Sign Here (Please?)

For a moment, I wished very badly that I hadn’t asked Dennis Rodman for his autograph. Let’s put it this way: I was also glad, in that moment, that we were in a crowded bar & grill, where there were dozens of witnesses.

I had approached Rodman, the erstwhile Pistons forward/goofball, at Ginopolis Bar & Grill in Farmington Hills, circa 1990. He was in a booth with a few other folks, and my friend Chris Gerbasi and I were on our way out, having watched the NCAA college basketball championship game.

“Hey, Dennis, can I trouble you for an autograph?,” I asked, my cardboard coaster and a pen in hand. I was friendly, non-threatening. Rodman’s six-foot-eight. He can be very threatening.

Rodman kind of closed his eyes, gave a sigh, and then looked at me. No, not looked. Glared. It was as if time stopped for a couple of seconds. Or was that my heart?

Rodman took the coaster, signed it “Dennis ‘Worm’ Rodman #10,” and slid it back to me. I thanked him, he smirked, and Gerbasi and I scrammed. I jetted out of the place with the same urgency as if I’d just stolen some DNA evidence.

I’m not one to ask for autographs anymore. It’s unbecoming, being a member of the media now. But I’ve always been able to recognize, in public, people of varying degrees of celebrity. I just don’t approach them anymore, unless it’s to say Hi and wish them well. I’m a good well-wisher. I once even saw the mayor of my town, Warren – Mark Steenbergh – at Oakland Mall around the holidays and said, “How are ya, Mr. Mayor?,” while my wife rolled her eyes.

All this comes to mind because Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers was involved in an incident last Saturday night, and it revolved around the hounder for an autograph.

Seems Rogers was approached late Saturday night/early Sunday morning by a fan -- I won’t give the dude anymore publicity than he’s already gotten by using his name – outside the players’ parking structure outside Comerica Park. The Tigers had lost that night in a rain-delayed affair, their fourth loss in a row as they saw their divisional title hopes slipping away. Doubtful that Rogers was in the best of moods at the time.

So the guy asks for the autograph. What happened after that is questionable, because there are a few different versions. Surprise, surprise.

In the fan’s version, Rogers declined the request, the fan – whose son was in the backseat of his car – used some salty language, and Rogers approached him. According to the fan, Rogers took hold of the fan’s shirt collar and reiterated that the request would not be granted.

In other witnesses’ versions, the fan pounded on Rogers’ car, which prompted the pitcher to approach the fan. The fan flatly denies touching Rogers’ car, and even boasted that he would take a lie detector test to prove that he didn’t – or to prove that he’s a really good liar. Not sure which. Rogers denies touching the fan.

The day after the incident was reported by the local newspapers, the fan added a human element to his story by saying that his son, who “worships” Rogers, was in the background, “hobbling along” on a broken leg. God bless us everyone.

Regardless, the fan filed a complaint. And this all came out as the Tigers arrived in New York to begin their playoff series with the Yankees. But then, 24 hours or so later, the fan backed off, saying he’d drop the whole matter. All Rogers had to do was apologize, and the fan would call it square.

“I would hope this doesn’t create a distraction for [Rogers],” the fan said. “I was wrong, too. All I really want is for him to apologize.”

No dice, Rogers said. The fan, Rogers said, wasn’t telling the truth about the incident. And he wasn’t about to say “I’m sorry” for something he didn’t do. Rogers might be a tad touchy about these kinds of things, and who can blame him? In 2005, if you recall, he was thrust into the spotlight thanks to an ugly physical confrontation with a video cameraman that was caught on tape by other video cameramen. He who lives in glass houses shouldn’t throw cameramen.

Look, there’s nothing in any professional athlete’s contract that stipulates he or she has to sign autographs whenever they’re requested.

I’m not sure where this all stands right now. The Tigers’ 2-1 lead in the series has sort of pushed this incident off the pages. In fact, if Rogers was distracted, then I say we accost him more often, because he pitched 7 2/3 innings of brilliant baseball in Game 3 Friday night. I can tell you that it may very possibly have been the best pitching performance I’ve seen in Detroit. Ever.

But the lesson to all this is this: If to whom you’re directing your autograph request rejects you, drop it. It’s over. Walk away. Curse if you’d like, under your breath. Go home and make a voodoo doll of that individual and stick pins in it, if that’ll make you feel better. Start a blog. Whatever floats your boat. But at the moment of declination, walk away.

Look, there’s nothing in any professional athlete’s contract that stipulates he or she has to sign autographs whenever they’re requested. Or any celebrity, for that matter. Sure, it would be nice if every request was satisfied, but that’s not reality. And as disappointing as a “no” might be, tough cookies.

If the fan had nodded, said “OK,” and been on his way, none of this mumbo-jumbo would have happened. He denies touching Rogers’ car. Fine. But he does acknowledge using abusive language toward Rogers. Wrong, pal. That’s unacceptable. So Rogers didn’t feel like giving an autograph at that time – nearly 1 a.m. on a Saturday night near his car. Deal with it. For all he knew, the fan was more than just a fan. I might be a tad creeped out myself if someone was lurking near my vehicle at that hour.

But there’s this feeling of entitlement fans get, just because athletes and celebrities make lots of money. “The least they can do is sign an autograph,” some fans believe. Maybe that’s true. But if they don’t, that’s their prerogative, too. Hurling insults and acting like a petulant child doesn’t make them say yes. All it does is lay the groundwork for the confrontation that occurred outside Comerica Park last weekend.

Sometimes your heroes say yes, sometimes they don’t. And when the answer is no, the best thing to do is acknowledge the disappointing reply and walk away.

Did I mention that my wife is very artsy craftsy and can make voodoo dolls by request?

Friday, October 06, 2006

Young Tigers To The Rescue! ALDS 1-1

Somebody forgot to tell Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya that they were supposed to be scared and intimidated by Yankee Stadium and the expensive-as-gold bars team that plays in it.

On a day when most of the veterans were a non-factor, the Tigers' kids rescued them and led the way in a 4-3 win in Game 2 of the ALDS. The series is now tied at 1, and has been reduced to a best-of-three, with the next two games at Comerica Park.

Curtis Granderson, Verlander, and Zumaya were the keys. Granderson's triple in the seventh -- on an 0-2 pitch off Mike Mussina -- drove in the eventual winning run. Verlander shrugged off Johnny Damon's three-run homerun to battle his way through 5 1/3 innings. And Zumaya? Well, he was the stuff of Grantland Rice: rookie fireballer enters the game at Yankee Stadium and blows away the All-Star laden Yankees lineup. Storybook stuff.

We're still waiting to hear from Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, and Sean Casey, but Carlos Guillen hit a game-tying solo homer, and Marcus Thames -- who's not a "kid" but isn't a grizzled veteran, either-- had three hits, including two doubles.

Fit to be tied.

An 0-2 hole would have taken a lot of luster off tonight's Game 3 at Comerica Park. To me, it never really "feels" like a playoff series until your team wins a game. Until then, it's more like being on borrowed time; that demeaning term: token appearance. But the Tigers are token no longer, although I still don't think they have enough ammunition to take the Yankees down twice more. Maybe not even once more. But for now, we'll take it and let CoPa rock like it's never rocked before. Good thing the Tigers aren't playing in Tiger Stadium anymore. I wonder if the Grand Old Lady would be able to hold up -- literally.

Mussina said afterward that the Tigers "always seemed to get a hit when they needed it." And how often have you heard even the most pedestrian opposing pitcher say that about them lately, let alone a potential Hall of Famer? The Tigers have spent most of the past two months making guys like Boof Bonser look like Cy Young. It was nice to see them reverse that, if even for just one night.

Granderson's triple might be the biggest hit of his young career, and who knows what that will do for his confidence? But I do know what should help his confidence: remove him from the leadoff spot. He doesn't belong there, just as no one belongs there who strikes out 174 times and rarely walks and hardly steals bases. I hope Grandy is elsewhere in the order in 2007, but we'll save that discussion for later. For now, it's a 1-1 series, the Tigers are coming home, and people are getting their flasks ready as I write this, just before noon.

Bottoms up!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Oh, By The Way Department: Red Wings Open Tonight

In case you missed it, the Red Wings begin their 85th season tonight.

Remember them?

The last time the Red Wings competed with the Tigers for October ink, Jacques Demers was starting his second season as coach, Steve Yzerman his second season as captain, and Chris Chelios was only a ten year veteran.

Sorry, Cheli.

No, Chelios was 25, and a Montreal Canadien. Talk to today's young Red Wings fans, and to some of them, finding out that Chelios played for a team before the Blackhawks is like them being told that Paul McCartney was in a group before Wings.

It's fitting that the curtain goes up tonight on the Red Wings season with not a lot of fanfare, because I think that's how the team will be regarded this season on the ice. They'll make the playoffs, but don't be surprised, or dismayed, to see them ride in as the #5 or 6 seed. And that's just fine with me. All that Presidents' Trophy, almost-60 wins stuff is for the birds. Just sets you up for major disappointment. Tell me, how good did the Red Wings' 58 wins last season look on the morning of May 2, the day after the Edmonton Oilers drummed them out of the playoffs in the first round?

No, to lie in the weeds and be able to sneak up on people would be nice for a change. Some say that it's impossible for an NHL team that wears the winged wheel on the front of its sweater to lie low, no matter what their record may be. They're the Red Wings, and they have a mystique. But we'd know better here. We'd know whether the Red Wings are worthy of being an elite NHL team that can do damage in the playoffs. We'd know if the first round should be a struggle.

Look, the team lost Brendan Shanahan and his 40 goals, and the irreplaceable Yzerman, whose worth can't be measured by numbers. Their best bet is to keep the goals against down, and the four men who are most responsible for that are the following: goalie Dominik Hasek, age 41 (42 in January); defensemen Nick Lidstrom (36); Mathieu Schneider (37); and Chris Chelios (44; 45 in January). That's an average age of about 40 years old. But we won't call them "old"; rather, let's use the term "youth challenged."

Ahh, but with that age comes experience. And each of the above keeps themselves in supreme physical condition, Hasek's temperamental groin nothwithstanding. So if having mental files means anything, Hasek, Lidstrom, Schneider, and Chelios are hockey's Library of Congress. Some of the stuff they've got stored is so old, it's probably on microfiche somewhere.

But there's some under-30 guys, too. Henrik Zetterberg; Pavel Datsyuk; Mikael Samuelsson; Brett Lebda; Niklas Kronwall; Jiri Hudler; and Tomas Kopecky are all capable of being key components, in one way or another. This isn't chopped liver; it's just not a 55+ win team anymore. And the sooner all of Hockeytown accepts that, then the more enjoyable this season will be to the denizens.

Besides, there's also this forward who had a strong training camp, according to observers. His name is Robert Lang, and he's just a 35 year-old kid.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Tigers No Match Because The Magic Vanished Long Ago

During games 1 thru 112, it wouldn't have happened that way. In games 1 thru 112, the ball would have been slapped to right, a run would have scored, and runners would have still been on the corners. In games 1 thru 112, the inning would have produced a couple of runs, at least.

During games 1 thru 112, the tapper toward the mound would have been fielded cleanly, and little harm would have been done. If this was game 1 thru 112, the slugging Yankee DH wouldn't have been able to muscle the high and inside pitch over the rightfield fence.

In paragraph one, Placido Polanco hit into an inning-ending double play, with runners on first and third and one out. Polanco, the most reliable of all the Tigers with a bat when bat control is needed, uncharacteristically pulled a pitch to the left side of the infield. 6-4-3.

In paragraph two, Nate Robertson's flub of Johnny Damon's swinging bunt changed the complexion of the Yankees' third inning. You can't give this Yankees team a fourth out, especially when it's hard enough to get three.

Yankees 8, Tigers 4. Not surprising, not terribly disappointing.

But things like the above happened quite frequently in games 113-162, during which the Tigers went 19-31 and relinquished their stranglehold on first place in the Central Division. One of my regular visitors, Ozz, commented on my Johnny Grubb site that the Tigers we are seeing in the playoffs are the Tigers of games 113 to 162, not the Tigers who went 76-36 and terrorized the American League from April 3 to August 7.

There is very little excitement about this Tigers postseason from yours truly, because it is painly evident that the Tigers are not really a 95 win team. They are, frankly, an 85 win team that sold its soul to the devil for four months. To play .380 ball for nearly a third of a season, as the Tigers did for the final 50 games of the season, is not an anomaly. It's a trend.

The Tigers are grossly overmatched in this series, and even if they had started at home against Oakland, I wouldn't give them a plugged nickel chance of surviving beyond this week. They are a team running on fumes, wheezing to the finish line, and by Friday it will all be over. The season is likely to end with eight consecutive defeats, and those horrid Wild Card t shirts will be sprinkled around the local retail outlets. Reduced price.

It's funny that we kept posting magic numbers around town in September, when the magic had abandoned this team about a month before that.

Maybe this experience will prep the young Tigers for great things in the future. It's all that's left now, with the last rites about to be issued tonight in Game 2.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

October Returns To Detroit

Baseball in Detroit in October …

It’s 1968. The superstar rightfielder, injured much of the year, is finally presented with his first chance to play in a World Series. But there is no place for him to play. The outfield is full with deserving guys: Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley, Jim Northrup. The manager, Mayo Smith, can hardly afford to sit any of the aforementioned down. So the superstar, Al Kaline, volunteers to sit this one out – even though it’s taken him sixteen seasons to get there.

Smith thinks that’s unacceptable. So he arranges for Stanley, the centerfielder, to play shortstop, creating a space for Kaline in rightfield. In the World Series. Not unbold. Stanley plays a decent shortstop. Kaline bats .379.

The roly-poly pitcher steps to the plate in Game 2 of the Series. He is normally about as productive with a bat in his hand as one is when he tries to eat soup with a fork. But the tubby Mickey Lolich, perhaps closing his eyes in the process, swings at the Nelson Briles offering and smacks the ball. It’s deep. It might be, it could be …


The foul popup off the bat of the Cardinals’ Tim McCarver rises high above the area on the first base side of the diamond. Tigers catcher Bill Freehan, who later said his only thought was, “Don’t drop it, dummy,” settles under it. He squeezes the horsehide in his puffy catcher’s mitt, and immediately he is the destination of Lolich’s elated leap. Freehan’s adrenalin enables him to lug the hefty Lolich long enough to create memories of both moving pictures and still photographs. Game 7 to the Tigers.

Dateline, Detroit. Confetti rains down on Woodward Avenue, and the workday is interrupted, thanks to the frenzy of a city that only a year before saw tanks roll down its rioting streets. People of different colors and religions and beliefs cry and grab each other, hugging away, at least momentarily, the inner strife that has tormented them in recent years.

Tigers Win!

It’s 1972. The Tigers are in Oakland to play the A’s in Game 2 of their best-of-five go around for the American League pennant. The A’s lead the series, 1 to 0. At the plate is shortstop Bert Campaneris, a fiery, skinny player. On the mound for the Tigers is Lerrin LaGrow. The pitch to Campaneris is low and hits him in the foot. What happens next is completely unexpected and immediately becomes notorious.

Campaneris, enraged, grips his bat in his right hand, at the handle, and flings it toward the pitching mound. LaGrow has to duck, lest the flying lumber drill him in the noggin. Tigers manager Billy Martin charges out of the dugout. Martin is a street fighter, and what Campaneris has just done violates Martin’s alley cat code.
Game 5.

The Tigers can advance to their second World Series in five seasons, if only they can beat the A’s one more time in Tiger Stadium. After losing the first two games in Oakland, the Tigers come home and spank the A’s twice, forcing a deciding Game 5.

Early on, the A’s try a double steal, including Reggie Jackson racing home once Freehan’s throw goes to second base. Reggie slides, and howls in pain. He’s safe, but he tears his hamstring. His season is over. By the end of the day, so is the Tigers’. They lose a heartbreaking 2-1 decision. The game is marred at the end by frustrated Tigers fans littering the field with debris.


Wire-to-wire first place occupants, artisans of a remarkable 35-5 start, the Tigers bulldoze their way into the World Series by sweeping the Kansas City Royals in three games. The opponents are the San Diego Padres, just 16 seasons old and with their brown and yellow uniforms that make them look like giant tacos.

The Tigers come home tied, 1 to 1. The Padres start a pitcher named Tim Lollar in Game 3. As the Tiger Stadium denizens shriek, Lollar has as much success finding home plate as Ben Wallace does finding the basket during a free throw. One after the other, it seems, Tigers batters draw walks. Lollar’s wildness puts his team into a hole from which they can’t escape. Tigers win, lead 2 to 1.

The shortstop who some say would make a fine manager someday takes center stage in Game 4. Twice he clubs homeruns. Alan Trammell has led his team to victory, and the Tigers are one game away from their first championship in sixteen seasons – the same amount of seasons Al Kaline needed to capture his only World Series title. Once again, an entire city is ready to cut loose.

Game 5. As the ball takes its flight, high into the Sunday night sky and toward the upper deck in rightfield, the cutting loose begins. The Padres’ chances disappear along with the baseball, which lands well into the second deck.

The pose. It’s etched into any Detroit sports fans psyche who can remember it. And even those too young, because it’s immortalized on film. The former college football player, arms raised, fists clenched, helmet off, mouth roaring. Always a roaring mouth on Kirk Gibson. That, and an inner rage. A rage that helped him crush Rich “Goose” Gossage’s eighth inning pitch into the seats. A three run homer, that turned a 5-4 nailbiter into a comfy 8-4 cushion. Bust loose!

1987. The Tigers own the best record in all of baseball, with 98 wins. But it doesn’t come easy. They are in the playoffs, but with eight days left in the season, the Tigers are 3 ½ games behind the Toronto Blue Jays. It would take a miracle, almost, to pass the Jays with that kind of a deficit that late in the season.

The final pitch is a tapper back to the mound. Frank Tanana, who grew up in Detroit but missed out on the ’84 fun, is still in the game. He’s pitching a shutout, and when Toronto’s Dane Iorg taps meekly to him, Tanana jogs toward first base and underhands the ball to Darrell Evans as if it were an egg. Evans clutches it, and the Tigers have their miracle. They surpass the Jays and clinch the division on the last day of the season. They make up the 3 ½ game deficit, chiefly because during those last eight days of the season, the Blue Jays fail to win a single game, including being swept by the Tigers on the final weekend.

It’s a crucial time in Game 4 of the ALCS. The Tigers trail the Twins, two games to one at Tiger Stadium. Another Sunday night. Evans is on third base, a critical run if the Tigers can get him home. It’s a line drive. To third base. Evans, 40 years old and as veteran as it gets, somehow is lost in no man’s land. Before he knows it, and as the crowd watches in horror, Evans is doubled off at third base, unable to crawl back to the base in time. He is on his knees, hands on his hips, head down. Nobody in the world feels worse at that moment than Darrell Evans.

It’s the day after, also known as Game 5. Evans strides to the plate for the first time since his awful gaffe in Game 4. He doesn’t know what to expect, but what happens certainly isn’t on his short list. In an amazing show of fan forgiveness, the Tiger Stadium crowd rises to its feet and gives Darrell Evans one of the warmest, most fascinating ovations I’ve ever seen in Detroit. Visibly shaken, he steps out of the batter’s box to compose himself. Tigers lose, but Evans’ ovation almost overshadows that.

2006 …We’ll see, won’t we?

Monday, October 02, 2006

A Game Of Inges: Tigers Can't Hold On To Division

Brandon Inge stood at the plate in the bottom of the 11th inning with a chance to make some history, and to gain some redemption. The bases were loaded, there was one out, and the game was tied, 8-8. Just 90 feet away was the run that would give the Tigers their first divisional title since 1987.

It was easy to think it was appropriate that Inge, of all the Tigers, should be standing in the batter's box at that critical juncture. Inge is one of the survivors from the wretched 2003 season -- the season of 119 losses and Jay Leno jokes. When the team signed Pudge Rodriguez to catch in 2004, Inge -- the supplanted backstop -- came off as a petulant sort when he whined that he could play the position as well as the perennial All-Star Rodriguez, so why did the team have to go and sign that bum, anyway? He's been -- Inge, that is -- maligned as a Tiger the last two seasons. He can't do this, he can't do that. But in 2006, he finally silenced most of those hypercritical folks.

Friday night, the Tigers were one out away from a win that would have crept them ever-so-close to the frustratingly elusive AL Central title. A foul ball was lofted toward the stands on the third base side. A seemingly impossible play would have to be made in order to catch the floater, but Inge, the most athletic of all the Tigers, was going to try to make it anyway. Running full speed, Inge crashed into the metal barrier and fell forward into the stands, having gotten his glove on the ball -- a miracle in of itself. He didn't make the catch, but he was inches from doing so. Moments later, the pesky Kansas City Royals tied the game, and won it in extra innings. Celebration on hold.

Now Inge could gain his redemption. One little hit, or a fly ball, or even a walk, and the Tigers would be winners and the division would be theirs. Inge swung, and laced a ground ball at third base -- the actual base itself. It was foul. Barely.

A game of inches. A game of Inges.

The bursting-at-the seams Tigers all began to race out of their dugout, so sure that Inge's hit was fair and the game was over. But it wasn't, and the at-bat would continue. Alas, Inge struck out on what Rod Allen told us on television was a forkball. Celebration on hold.

In fact, there was no celebration, at all. The Tigers failed to score during that 11th inning rally, and the Royals, who wore their hitting shoes all weekend, erupted for two in the top of the 12th. They won the game, 10-8, recovering from an early 6-0 hole. On Friday, the Royals won after falling behind 5-0.

The Tigers lost the game. They lost the division. They lost home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. In fact they cannot, as a Wild Card, have home field advantage in any playoff series they play. From May 16 to September 30, the Tigers held at least a share of first place. But the MLB schedule ran to October 1st, and on that day, the Tigers were no longer even shared occupants of first place.

What the Tigers did gain, however, was the ignominy of losing their final five games, all at home, including the last three to the horrid Royals. But a word about Kansas City's team. That Missouri city ought to be proud of them. They came here clearly determined not to see another on-field celebration, as they witnessed last weekend on their home field. They played the Tigers hard, and suddenly turned into the 1927 Yankees at the worst possible time. It made me think that if they had played that way for the other 159 games, the Central would have been the best division of all time.

But alas, it must be said -- and I'm sure I'm not the only one to do so this morning: the Tigers choked. They gagged totally, unable to win just a single game since Tuesday. The White Sox gave the Tigers the help they needed, beating the Twins Friday and Saturday. The Tigers went to the ballpark Saturday knowing the Twins had lost. They gave up seven runs in the first inning and fell 9-6. Sunday, they had that 6-0 lead and frittered it away, giving it up like a slow water torture. Those pesky Royals.

It's just a bummer. A lousy way to end a season. The best way to describe it is this: The Tigers were great for 112 games, and lousy for 50. Now they have to be great again, or else their postseason run will be over by the end of the week.