Monday, February 27, 2006



"I'm all for it."

--Tampa Bay Bucs coach John McKay, when asked what he thought about his team's execution, circa the late 1970's.


When Bobby Thomson hit his "shot heard around the world" to win the 1951 pennant for the Giants over the Dodgers, the player in the on-deck circle was rookie Willie Mays. The Dodgers were criticized for not walking Thomson to face the rookie.

With One Word, Mike Martz Had Me

"One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do..."
-- Three Dog Night

Okay, but what about "none"? That, to Lions fans, should be the happiest number -- if you consider "none" a number at all.

Mike Martz, the Lions' new offensive coordinator, uttered the word "none" yesterday in an interview with Mike O'Hara of the Detroit News. It was in answer to a simple question.

How much similarity does his offensive system have with the popgun West Coast offense that's been run in Detroit -- without success -- since 2001?

"None," Martz said.

Simple question, simple answer.

Martz had me at "None"

And, with one word, Mike Martz should have warmed the hearts of Lions fans everywhere -- even the ones who live in the sunny, already-warm states anymore.

As far as I'm concerned, Martz could have given us, through O'Hara, a 5,000-word dissertation on his theories about moving the ball and the ins and outs of a system that has, in the past, been labeled "The Greatest Show On Turf." Catchy nickname -- a bit cutesy for me -- but there is a track record. Points have been scored using it. MVP awards have been won using it.

And a Super Bowl has been won with it, and another appeared in.

Yes, Martz could have droned on and on, but in one word, he got me. Kind of like the girl in "Jerry Maguire" who says, "You had me at 'hello'."

Mike Martz had me at "none."

The fact that the guru himself has declared that his offense will bear absolutely no resemblance to the stuck-in-the-mud baloney that we've been subjected to for the 2000's is enough to make me want to throw my arms around him and kiss him on the cheek.

Well, almost.

Martz didn't pussyfoot around with the question, and I like that. He didn't give nicey-nicey coach doublespeak, like so many of them tend to do. He didn't say anything like, "Well, there's not a whole lot, but there are some base things that are alike." He didn't say, "There's mainly some difference in nomenclature, but other than that there's not much that's different."


He was asked, straight out, what the similarity was.

"None," he said.

There is a football God.

Besides "none," the only thing Mike Martz could have said that would have made me happier -- and caused me to chuckle -- was if he had responded, "Well, the way I see it, my offense scores points, so I can't really see any similarities at all."

But I'll be satisfied with "None."

Not only are there no similarities, according to Martz, but the plan is to move the ball with Pal Joey at quarterback. Joey Harrington is the man, so y'all better get used to it. Martz said, after watching film of Harrington for about a week, "He's better than I thought, skill-wise. After watching him now on tape, I think he's terrific."

So there you have it. The Lions' new offensive genius says Joey Harrington is terrific. And already I can tell that Martz doesn't say things he doesn't mean. He wouldn't have been so glowing about Harrington if he didn't feel that way. He has no loyalty to Joey Harrington. And there is no charity in the NFL; no free lunches. No jobs handed out just because you're a nice guy. If Mike Martz had reservations about his quarterback, we would have been able to tell. We're pretty good at reading between the lines around here. So good, we even see things that aren't there sometimes.

But here's what IS there: Mike Martz says his offensive system bears zero resemblance to the five yard pass on 3rd-and-eight. Nothing at all alike with a screen pass on 3rd-and-22. Zip likeness to four plunges into the defense's belly near the goal line. Maybe there'll even be a pass play called on first down now and again. Imagine that.

By the way, I also have a one-word answer, if you were to ask me what I thought of Steve Mariucci's offense.

Sorry, I can't use it here. This is a family blog, you know.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Even A Lazy Town Like Lakeland Can Be A Hotbed Of Activity - To A Baseball Manager

A team-slurped vat of chili, a mild heart attack, a brief manager resignation, fearless predictions, yearly phenoms, ill-advised experiments - they all happened in Lakeland.

Lakeland - that Florida town where the Tigers have spring trained since World War II. Lakeland - where ballplayers like Tim Corcoran looked like All-Stars, only to have their clocks strike midnight as soon as the team plane crosses north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Lakeland - where reports are filed by the ink-stained wretches, eagerly read by folks up north, their hearts thawing quicker with every sidebar of the year's phenom or how venerable veteran is having a typically rough spring, and just how is the pitching rotation shaping up, anyhow?

There's something about training camps and Detroit teams. Lions summer camp has been full of stories. There was a heart attack there, too - head coach Don McCafferty suffering a fatal one in 1974. If you sneak into Cranbrook at night and be very quiet, you can hear the ghosts of Bobby Layne and Alex Karras and Johnnie Gordy. Always the highjinks were afoot.

I've often said that the four greatest words you can hear in the dead of winter are "pitchers and catchers report." But it's not really spring training until the whole squad makes it to Florida. Then it can become a hoot - if the right manager is at the helm.

The men who have worn the Old English D and commandeered the Tigers are a colorful lot. And nothing has brought out that color more than Florida's sun - for better or for worse.

Spring training in 1966 meant the harbinger of one of the worst seasons in Tigers history - and not because of anything that happened on the field. Manager Charlie Dressen was throwing one of his famous chili parties for his team. The manager would make a vat of chili and help the players enjoy it - a real bonding kind of thing. Only in '66, Chuck Dressen felt a twinge in his chest after the party and it turned out he had a heart attack. Eventually that summer, Dressen would take ill with cancer, too. His replacement, coach Bob Swift, also fell ill. And thus the Tigers became the first - and only - big league team to lose two managers in one season to illness. Sadly, both Dressen and Swift died within weeks of each other. Not a good year, 1966.

When Billy Martin managed the Tigers, he was a tormented soul. Big surprise, I know, but Billy couldn't abide the notion that the frontrunning Baltimore Orioles - in his eyes - seemed to have all the good, young talent, while the Tigers struggled to produce anyone of note from the farm. In 1973's camp, Billy walked out on the Tigers - frustrated with the young players thing and the supposed meddling of GM Jim Campbell. He was back in a day or so, but that was another harbinger. By August of that year, Martin had managed to pull enough nonsense that Campbell had no choice but to fire him. But those seeds were sowed beneath the palm trees in Lakeland, Florida.

Ralph Houk gathered his writers in spring, 1978 and announced that the Tigers would live or die with a couple of kids on either side of second base - Alan Trammell and "Sweet Lou" Whitaker. They came up together for one of those September cups of coffee in 1977, and it didn't take a man with Houk's baseball intellect - which was extensive - to see that something special was brewing inside those cups. 1978 was Houk's fifth and final year as Tigers manager, and he has said that watching Trammell and Whitaker blossom was one of his most gratifying experiences in baseball. But not possible if Ralph Houk hadn't made the leap of faith and granted his two rookies the middle infield in spring training that year.

Houk: He unleashed baseball's
greatest double-play combination

The following year - 1979 - we all tried to figure out who the new Tigers manager was. Oh, we knew his name - Les Moss - and we knew that he had managed in the Tigers farm system. But that was about it. It was determined by GM Campbell that Moss, with his recent history of working with many of the team's younger players, would be a natural follow-up to Ralph Houk's transitional period, which bridged the aging has-beens of 1974 with the team full of potential in spring, 1979. But nobody knew who Les Moss was. He was the accidental manager, perhaps the least-ballyhooed man to skipper the Tigers in franchise history. He looked like your grandfather.

Even by the time Les Moss got the Ziggy - that purely Detroit word for "fired" - in June, 1979 and had been replaced by someone named George "Sparky" Anderson, we still didn't know who he was. In the end, Moss' safe, vanilla personality was his undoing. That, and the fact that he wasn't Anderson. Campbell fired Moss - right after a pretty successful West Coast trip - in order to hire Sparky, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So Les Moss left town, and became the answer to a trivia question. And nearly 27 years later, we're still asking, "WHO?"

In 1980, under Lakeland's warm, humid skies, Sparky Anderson made a prediction. It was his first spring as Tigers manager and he thought it would make great copy if he came up with a prediction for his team. Sparky was no dummy; he knew such an utterance would make its way up north, to the Detroit newspapers.

"I don't see why we can't win 90 games," Sparky declared, a hint of blarney on his breath.

The 1980 Tigers rode in with 84 wins and finished fifth in their division. And Sparky told us he was through prognosticating. But he was not, as it turned out, finished serving up baloney to the beat writers in Florida.

"Chris Pittaro is my second baseman," Anderson told them in spring training, 1985. Pittaro was a 23 year-old switch-hitter who had some tools, but he was no Lou Whitaker. Few were, at the time. Yet Sparky said it: Pittaro would move Whitaker to third base. In fact, he practically told everyone to get their stone tablets and chisels out; this was a done deal, in the manager's eyes.

Chris Pittaro would come to bat 62 times as a Tiger, all in 1985. He would manage 15 hits, for a .242 average.

Sparky: He never met an exaggeration he
didn't like

But this was Sparky Anderson - the man who said Kirk Gibson was the "next Mickey Mantle." The one who decided Lance Parrish, a potential All-Star catcher, would look nice as a first baseman, in that fateful 1980 spring. The one who let actor Tom Selleck bat in an actual Grapefruit League game.

Never again would we see such misguided hubris.

Four men have given it a shot in spring training as Tigers manager after Sparky resigned in 1995: Buddy Bell, Larry Parrish, Phil Garner, and Alan Trammell. None of them inspired any memorable moments in Florida. Now we have Jimmy Leyland, who speaks of a sense of urgency and organization and getting the players to "buy into" his message. Will any of it add up to spring training stories worth telling years down the road?

Stay tuned.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Autism, Opponents Can't Stop H.S. Senior From Scoring Binge

They say truth can be stranger than fiction. But it can also be warmer than fiction.

The story of Jason McElwain ought to be splashed on the front page of every newspaper sports section, firmly implanted and linked on every blog and website, and talked about all over the dial on those sports radio call-in shows that are usually filled with blowhards -- on both sides of the telephone line.

McElwain is a senior at Greece Athena High School in Greece, N.Y. He is autistic. So, instead of being a player for the varsity basketball team, he functioned as the team manager -- keeping stats, handing out water bottles, sitting at the end of the bench in a white shirt and tie. He did all that to be close to the game -- a game he couldn't pursue competitively due to his autism.

But that changed last week.

Jason's coach, Jim Johnson -- touched by the young man's dedication and spirit, despite his terrible disappointment in not being able to play -- decided to let the 17 year-old suit up for a game, the school's home finale.

Jason proceeded to go on a scoring binge that would have made Isiah Thomas -- with his 16 points in 90 seconds in a playoff game -- blush.

Jason drained six three-point shots. He scored 20 points. And he did it in four minutes.

Kobe Bryant's got nothing on this kid.

"I ended my career on the right note," Jason told The Associated Press by phone Thursday. "I was really hotter than a pistol!"

Um, how about hotter than lava, son?

Twenty points in four minutes? In his only game? That's off the hook, as today's kids would say.

Jason couldn't even speak until he was five years old. As is often the case with children who are autistic, social skills can be lacking. And Jason was no exception. But he latched onto basketball, and for four dizzying minutes last week, basketball latched right back.

According to the AP story, Jason entered the game with Athena leading big. He missed his first three-pointer. Badly. Then he missed a layup. But as Jason's dad, David said to the local newspaper, "The thing about Jason is he isn't afraid of anything. He doesn't care what people think about him. He is his own person."

So Jason kept shooting. And he kept hitting. His next triple was nothing but net. He rained five more of them down on Athena's opponent, and would have had another, but his toe was on the line and that shot only counted for two.

Fans at the game came prepared with rumors of Jason playing swirling around the school. One section of students held up signs bearing his nickname "J-MAC" and cutouts of his face placed on Popsicle sticks.


Athena won, 79-43, and Jason's teammates mobbed him and carried him off on their shoulders.

"It was as touching as any moment I have ever had in sports," Coach Johnson told the Daily Messenger of Canandaigua.

Too bad nobody carried Coach Johnson off the court. He was the other hero that night.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

At Least With Isiah Thomas Running The Knicks, Life Is Never Dull

Somewhere, some place, Isiah Thomas has a plan.

I'm not sure where it is -- shoved beneath the basement stairs, lost in a shuffle of papers on his desk, stuffed in the glove compartment of his car, or maybe burned onto a CD-ROM that he's misplaced.

Wherever it is -- and I'm sure he has one, because you wouldn't have a job that pays you millions of dollars a year and NOT have one -- I'm dying for him to find it, and disclose it to the rest of us who scratch our heads, rub our eyes, and clean out our ears every time we read or hear about Thomas' latest misadventure as president and GM of the New York Knicks.

This time Thomas has managed to ply his team with two very expensive guards when everyone knows that the Knicks' problem isn't on the perimeter, but in the paint. Thomas traded Trevor Ariza and Penny Hardaway to the Orlando Magic for Steve Francis, who joins Stephon Marbury as two bitter peas in a very fragile pod.

Rumors swirled around the NBA yesterday that the Knicks were also about to acquire Kevin Garnett.

So Thomas has taken on salary and headaches as if they were necessities in the case of a nuclear attack. If they are, then he'll be the most prepared of anyone. And then maybe he'll have the last laugh, after all.

But with that highly unlikely, it's painfully obvious -- has been almost as soon as he was introduced as Knicks' GM -- that Isiah Thomas may have many different milieus, but one of them is not running a basketball team from inside an office. Coaching one on the floor? Perhaps. But if another NBA owner gives Thomas the keys to his team as an executive, then men in white suits should immediately be summoned and that person's medication should be checked for its proper dosage. Since retiring as a player, Thomas has run the CBA into the ground, botched up the Toronto Raptors, and is now making basketball people mystified as GM of the Knicks.

Francis' acquisition, like so many others
Thomas has orchestrated, makes little sense

But surely Thomas, despite his bizarre transactions, must have a plan, no? Doesn't there exist some sort of blueprint, even if that blueprint might look like a Salvador Dali lithograph? There must, even if the only person who has ever been privy to it is Isiah Thomas.

It's doubtful that coach Larry Brown has ever been shown the plan. Speaking of Brown, he must have wanted to coach the Knicks -- his self-proclaimed "dream job" -- awful badly for him to sign up knowing of Thomas' background as an NBA executive. I have a hunch that LB took the job figuring that he would outlast Isiah and thus would be able to construct the ballclub the way he desires. Of course, that whole process could take several years, and Brown is pushing his mid-60's. Maybe he's Hubie Brown without the decade off for being a TV analyst.

In introducing Francis, who is certainly no choir boy, Thomas went out of his way to affirm that Brown and he were lockstep in the desire to make the trade. Few believe that, but there you have it. The trade simply does not make sense if you look at the Knicks' roster today, unless there's something else coming before today's trading deadline. Again, must be on that plan that Isiah seems to have mislocated.

As for Thomas' future, this might be a longshot, but why not Indiana University? Coach Mike Davis has just resigned. Thomas wasn't a bad little coach, with the Pacers. IU is his alma mater. Would Isiah Thomas chuck the Knicks and take the IU coaching job? Would he even be asked? Or would he invite himself for an interview? Some feel that the only way Thomas would leave the Knicks would be if he was fired, which is certainly conceivable. Don't forget that little matter of a sexual harassment suit that is hanging over him and Madison Square Garden. But I wouldn't discard the possibility of Zeke handing in his resignation, especially if a job like coaching Indiana University awaited him. Call it "Escape From New York -- The Sequel." On IU's campus, Isiah would be a big shot again and nobody would care about that nasty NBA stuff. He could probably attract some players in the area of recruiting. He would have the challenge of returning to his school and bringing it back into National Championship contention. It would be a nice little ego stroke.

Plus, as I said, Isiah Thomas wasn't bad on the sidelines, with the Pacers in the NBA.

He's just not very good when he has the keys to the executive washroom.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Tigers Should Make Sure Monroe Goes Nowhere For Years To Come

If I was Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, which I clearly am not, unless I have been living the much less traveled road of a double-life that I'm not aware of, I would take outfielder Craig Monroe and wrap him up so tight in a Tigers contract that he couldn't even wiggle.

I'd make sure that kid was signed, sealed, and delivered for manager Jim Leyland -- and any of his succesors -- for years to come. No more of this one-year, let's-avoid-arbitration nonsense.

There are a few young Tigers to get excited about -- Chris Shelton, Curtis Granderson, Nook Logan, plus some arms -- and the fact that there are is a testament to the scouting staff that Dombrowski has built from the ruins of the Randy Smith administration.

Monroe is suddenly a Tigers elder statesman,
despite his age

But Monroe is different from the rest because he has a tad more big league experience under his belt. He's produced. But yet he's still not proven, which puts him in that "youngster" category, despite his age (he'll turn 29 on Monday). This is because Monroe didn't see any decent amount of playing time until 2003, when he was 26 -- a little long in the tooth for big league rookies nowadays. Today's baseball executives have a fetish of getting their draft choices and young acquisitions in major league uniforms before they turn 22 or 23 -- or younger.

In the last three seasons, Monroe has averaged a nifty 20 HR and 77 RBI, while batting a respectable .271 over that time. He's played a decent outfield -- and all three positions. He's been, for the most part, the forgotten man in a Tigers outfield that is now less claustrophobic with the departure of Rondell White to the Twins and the retirement of Bobby Higginson. Suddenly, you could even call Monroe a Tigers elder statesman, another paradox. He patrols left field now, with Magglio Ordonez in right and either Granderson and Logan, most likely, in center.

Last season, Monroe flirted with 100 RBI before fading. He played in 157 games, which led the team. He banged out 30 doubles and slugged a respectable .446. Yet he is still unproven, because three seasons of solid but unspectacular production is not enough to shake that tag.

In 2006, Craig Monroe figures to once again be a full-time player. He should be, barring anything unforeseeen, the Tigers' everyday leftfielder. But contract-wise, he's locked up for this year only. The Tigers plucked him off waivers from the Texas Rangers in February 2002, and now have, in my eyes, a gem on their hands. Monroe has the ability to be a solid number five or six hitter in the lineup. He can even handle the cleanup spot on occasion. His power and strength are impressive. He's even cutting down a tad on the strikeouts, which never hurts.

So DD better stop fiddling around and keep Monroe in a Tigers uniform for years to come. He has the strength to muscle the ball over Comerica Park's distant walls in left and left-center field. He doesn't drop the ball with his glove, and can throw it with some accuracy and zip. He is also another rarity among Tigers players of late: he is not baseball stupid.

For the first time ever, Craig Monroe reports to spring training not having to worry about whether he will a) have a full-time job, or b) be on the 25-man roster at all. He is still young, but he's close to becoming a Tigers fixture. He is not totally proven or established, but he is still someone the Tigers can count on with confidence. He is not going to dazzle you, but he will get the job done.

And he can be a free agent after this season, potentially.

Come on, DD -- get loose with the purse strings.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

No Higgy This Spring, And It Doesn't Seem All That Strange

Not in camp this spring: Bobby Higginson

The full Tigers squad reports to Lakeland today, and for the first time in 13 years, Bobby Higginson will not be among those pulling on the creamy white uniform with the Old English D on its left breast.

Higginson is no longer a Tiger -- but hadn't really been much of one for several years prior to his official departure. So even though this is the first spring camp since 1993 that will not have Higginson amongst its participants, his absence doesn't create one of those stark, "Boy this is weird without Bobby" things. Because the Tigers have been pretty much without Bobby Higginson's services for most of the 2000's anyhow.

Higginson's career as a Tiger died a slow death. You could even say that the cemetery plot was being picked out as early as 2001, when Higgy had just signed a fat contract largely based on his 2000 season, when he batted .300 with 30 HR and 102 RBI and 104 runs scored. Over the next four seasons (2001-04), Higginson averaged 13 HR and 63 RBI with a composite BA of .260. He bottomed out in 2005, managing just two hits in 26 AB (.077).

Last spring, manager Alan Trammell showed deference to Higginson and his tenure as a Tiger by keeping him on the 25-man roster, despite a typically poor Florida performance and the hot hitting of fellow outfielder Marcus Thames. The inference was clear: most other players would have been lopped off the roster. But Bobby Higginson, with his 11 years as a Tiger, would remain. It was a decision that caused some rancor. Dmitri Young, in fact, publicly declared that Thames got "screwed" -- Young's word -- by being sent to Toledo despite such a solid spring.

But there's no need for such drama this March. Higginson is gone, out of the Tigers' hair for good. We could speculate all day about why Higginson's production dropped so dramatically after signing the rich contract between 2000-01. There were some injuries. The team was mostly awful. Managers came and went. They all wore on Higginson -- beat him up mentally almost as much as the injuries beat him up physically. Maybe more so. All he wanted was the chance to play for a winner. But other than a pseudo fling with wild card contention in 2000, the Tigers during Higginson's run never came close to fielding a team that played even .500 ball -- let alone a playoff contender.

Bob Lanier was another one of those tormented athletes in Detroit. For nearly ten seasons, Lanier put himself through hell with the Pistons, playing on wobbly knees and with broken hands and achey backs and doing so for several different coaches. At least one of those coaches -- Dick Vitale -- privately accused Bob Lanier of dogging it, during one of the center's many bouts with the injury bug. It was an unwarranted, cruel blow. And the national media didn't help. There was an underlying tone, a whispered mantra: Bob Lanier may be many things, but he is not a winner.

Finally Lanier was set free in February 1980 -- sent to the contending Milwaukee Bucks. With Bob Lanier playing center for them, the Bucks instantly became a serious threat to win divisions and playoff series. They did both of those several times, though they never could get over the hump and ply Lanier with a championship ring.

Higginson joins Lanier, Barry Sanders, Robert Porcher and David Bing as athletes in Detroit whose long and meritorious service was never matched by their team's success. Even Higgy's downward slide doesn't remove him from this list. He still played 12 seasons as a Tiger -- an honest sort who didn't play half speed and who only wanted some team success along the way. He never got any to speak of.

So spring camp may not seem all that weird in 2006 without Bobby Higginson in it, but that shouldn't take away from what ended up being a decent baseball career -- and all in Detroit.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Ozzie Guillen: Masking His Opinions As "Truth"

Ozzie, to all of us: "You can't HANDLE the truth!"
(except it's mostly NOT true)

Ozzie Guillen is a punk.

He's a loudmouthed, abrasive, meandering, pugnacious Flavor-of-the-Month whose words are only being paid attention to because his team won the World Series last season.

Let's see who pays attention to Guillen, the Chicago White Sox manager, when his ballclub fails to defend its unexpected championship -- which is a certainty. You read it here first.

Guillen decided to take unmitigated potshots at several of his brethren in a profile done on him by Sports Illustrated, in the February 20 issue. They were acerbic, uncalled-for remarks that did nothing but serve the interests of their source -- who loves nothing more, it seems, than to give writers good copy -- the torpedoes of common decency be damned.

Guillen is one of those guys who professes to tell the truth all the time and then makes you out to be the bozo if you take umbrage with his vitriol.

"People say, 'Ozzie Guillen is a bigmouth, he's so controversial.' No. People don't like it when you tell the truth," Guillen spit at SI writer S.L. Price.

Wrong, Ozzie. People don't like it when you purport to tell the truth, when in fact all you're doing is spouting off outrageous comments because you know that's what reporters -- and bloggers -- eat up. There's a difference between telling "the truth" and giving opinion.

"Why," Guillen wonders, "shouldn't we have the power to say what we think?"

We DO have that power. But we shouldn't abuse it -- masking it as truth when very little of it has any sliver of truth in it at all.

The list of baseball people Guillen skewered in the SI piece reads like a Who's Who: Alex Rodriguez. Joe Torre. Sparky Anderson. Paul Konerko. Tony LaRussa. Lou Piniella. Nomar Garciaparra. Jim Leyland. Mostly it was trash talk -- the words of an ill-informed, brash Napoleon riding the crest of a wave of temporary fame.

The words of a punk.

And there was more:

"People say, 'Joe Torre: genius.' 'Greatest manager ever: Tony LaRussa ... Lou Piniella.' I say they're not good baseball managers. Nobody's a good baseball manager. They talk about Jim Leyland: 'Oh my God, Jim Leyland ...' Jim Leyland quit! Sparky Anderson? Sparky Anderson was horseshit for 10 years with Detroit."

I don't know which ten years Guillen is referring to when it comes to Anderson's run in Detroit, but that's okay -- it's not really about the truth with Ozzie Guillen, as you are quick to discover. I also don't know what Jim Leyland quitting has anything to do with his ability to manage a baseball team. Nor do I see where Guillen simply saying that LaRussa and Piniella aren't good managers makes it so. Ozzie Guillen cries that he is simply telling the truth. But all he is doing is preaching the poisonous Gospel According to Ozzie.

Guillen wasn't close to being done in his remarks to SI's Price.

"The New York Yankees? I could manage that team. Lou Piniella, the best ever? Why don't you win with Tampa Bay?

"Nobody was a good manager. Ever."

"The truth" is that Ozzie Guillen wouldn't last 100 games with the Yankees. There's only a handful of people on this planet who could handle the tempest that is Yankees baseball, and one of them happens to be Joe Torre.

Who is Ozzie Guillen to disrespect the accomplishments of his fellow managers? The coaching fraternity is similar to that of law enforcement: everyone looks out for one another, and respects each other -- at least publicly. Guillen may have gained some temporary notoriety, but probably sacrificed longterm respect. Not that he cares, of course.

Guillen has in fact already issued one apology -- for his volley at third baseman Alex Rodriguez and shortstop/first baseman Nomar Garciaparra. The U.S.-born Rodriguez had been comtemplating playing for the Dominican Republic in next month's World Baseball Classic. Garciaparra will be playing for Mexico.

"Alex was kissing Latino's people's asses. He knew he wasn't going to play for the Dominicans; he's not a Dominican! I hate hypocrites: He's full of shit. The Dominican team doesn't need his ass. It's the same with [Nomar] Garciaparra playing for Mexico. Garciaparra only knows Cancun because he went to visit."

Later, Guillen apologized for taking what he called the "first shot" at Rodriguez. He didn't apologize for anything else, that I'm aware of.

But why apologize, when you hold yourself up as the beacon of truth and are merely exercising your right to state such?

Hiding behind the sanctity of freedom of speech while using that freedom to shoot from the hip and denegrate colleagues -- masking one man's opinion as fact -- is what Ozzie Guillen seems to be good at.

Let's see if anyone pays attention to him this October.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Perfection Eluded Morris, Wilcox By One Batter Each

Sometimes I keep score at baseball games. Sometimes I don't. Depends on my mood, where I'm sitting, and — don't tell anyone — the company I am with. Scorekeeping can be great conversation dissuaders.

I kept score one summer evening in July of 1990 at the old ballpark — Tiger Stadium — and I couldn't blame it on the company, because I was alone. I would do that on occasion — pre-wonderful wife — a bachelor who thought a quick jaunt up I-75 from my job downriver to see the Tigers would be a grand time. Always, it was true.

Baseball is a wonderful game because you can see a couple of last-place teams play and still see something you've never seen before, or will see again — a brilliant play, a phenomenal offensive display, a humorous manager ejection — you name it. And I've seen all those, and then some, in over 30 years of sitting my fanny in various locations around Tiger Stadium and Comerica Park.

I saw Tigers catcher Mike Heath go ballistic late in a game in which the Tigers were getting pounded. Heath was behind the plate, and all of a sudden he sprang up like a jack-in-the-box, tore his mask off, and started screaming at the home plate umpire — literally nose-to-nose. I have never seen a player yell that much — and that close — to an official in my life. Heath was promptly ejected, of course. But that outburst always intrigued me because it came out of nowhere. Proof positive that umpires and catchers have ongoing discussions throughout a game.

On another occasion, I was sitting in the lower deck at Tiger Stadium — along the first base line — when I noticed something strange. The teams were about to resume play after the between-innings rest, and the Tigers' centerfielder, Chet Lemon, was AWOL. Missing in action. I kept looking for some sign that someone on the field — player, coach, or umpire — noticed that Lemon was not patrolling his territory. But nobody seemed to be aware. The game was about to resume. I finally said, out loud, to whomever would care to listen, "Lemon's not out there! Where's Lemon? They're gonna start playing!"

Finally, here came Lemon — jogging out to centerfield at a rather brisk pace — and doing something else at the same time.

He was playing with his belt. Care to guess where he had spent the previous several minutes?

I could fill this column up with other tales, but I'll jump instead to my brush with witnessing Tigers immortality.

Morris: unhittable -- almost, in July 1990

Returning to that July evening in 1990, I kept score as the Kansas City Royals — with Kirk Gibson — came to town. Jack Morris, in his last season as a Tiger before escaping to Minnesota, was on the mound for Detroit. Not only did I keep score, I gave it the full treatment — pitch counts, game time temperature, balls and strikes, who the umpires were. The whole works.

The second batter of the game — Kurt Stillwell — singled. He was erased on a double play. Then the Royals started a parade of 1-2-3 innings. Morris was mowing them down. When I kept score and gave the full treatment, I used two writing utensils: a pencil and a pen. The pencil denoted outs. Ink was used for hits. Inning after inning, the Royals' side of the scorecard was filling up with #2 lead. Three up, three down. Right on schedule, inning-by-inning.

By the seventh inning, it was evident that I was about to miss witnessing a perfect game by one batter. So dominating was Morris — he only threw 102 pitches — that the outcome seemed predetermined: the Royals would get nothing else in ink on their scorecard other than that first-inning single. Sure enough, pinch-hitter Willie Wilson struck out to end the ninth and the game. No runs, no errors, no walks. And one hit. But since Stillwell was erased on the double play, it kept the scorecard beautifully symmetrical. Twenty-seven batters Morris faced that night. Everyone had three at-bats. It was almost perfect.

I kept the scorecard. It didn't take me long to locate it in my basement. I even referred to it when writing this piece. Good thing, too, because I had thought Wilson led off the game with a single and was thrown out stealing. Fifteen years will do that to your memory, I suppose. But there it is, still in excellent condition. And with its 26 markings of pencil in the Royals' 27 spaces worth of batting activity.

Sometimes the cool and near-cool stuff, you can see on television — if you're patient enough to stick with a game. I was between sophomore and junior years at Eastern Michigan University, hanging out with my fraternity brothers in "the house", when someone put the Tigers game on the tube. This was circa May, in 1983. Milt Wilcox — one of only two big leaguers born in Hawaii (Mike Lum was the other) — was pitching for the Tigers. The game was on, but in the background. In those days, drinking beer and talking to the sorority girls was always in the foreground.

Wilcox: oh, so close to perfection

Eventually, someone said, "I think Wilcox has a no-hitter going!" The guys quieted down. The girls kept talking. The TV was turned up. Soon, George Kell revealed to us that not only was Wilcox working on a no-no, he was having himself a perfecto. By this time, even the girls stopped talking as the entire roomful — I'm guessing maybe 15 or 20 of us — watched the Tigers-White Sox game, from old Comiskey Park. Up the Sox would go, and down they would come. More of that 1-2-3 stuff.

The game moved into the ninth inning. The first two White Sox hitters were retired. Even the Chicago fans were on their feet, going crazy. They wanted to see a perfect game, too — even if it meant a loss for the home team.

There have been villains in the eyes of Detroit sports fans over the years. Claude Lemieux and Patrick Roy from the hated Colorado Avalanche. Larry Bird, in his heyday of hating the Pistons and demonstrating it with back-breaking performances on the court — and in the most important of games. Mention Rocket Ismail to U-M football fans, and any of them worth their salt will order you out of the room. I was there on a rainy day in 1989 when Rocket — playing for Notre Dame — took two kicks back for touchdowns, enabling the Irish to take the Wolverines to the woodshed. References to the Minnesota Vikings can still make a Lions fan who remembers the '70's cringe and see purple.

If you polled some diehard Tigers fans who are over 35 years in age, and asked them for a villain's name, a bunch of them would come up with Jerry Hairston. I know Milt Wilcox would, for sure.

Hairston was the White Sox's last hope that night in 1983. And he had been cold, sitting on the bench the entire game, when he was told to grab a bat and pinch-hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning in a game in which the opposing pitcher had been perfect.

No enviable task, indeed.

But Hairston wasted no time. He swung at Wilcox's first offering. It was a rope, but at first it looked like it might be snared by second baseman Lou Whitaker. But it was hit too hard. Whitaker couldn't reach it, and the ball took a hop to the right of the base and just behind it, before skipping into centerfield.

NO! Our roomful of college students collectively said that word when we saw Hairston's batted ball elude Whitaker. We said some other words, too.

The TV cameras showed Wilcox briefly looking skyward and tossing his arms in the air. It was clear what he meant: "You gotta be kidding." Or maybe, "Oh, fudge."

Hairston: ruiner of perfection

Regardless, Hairston was standing on first base, hands on his hips. Even his own fans shouted and cursed him.

On the very next pitch, Wilcox ended the game by getting the batter to ground out weakly to first baseman Rick Leach.

So Milt Wilcox can literally say he was one pitch away from a perfect game.

I was close, too — to seeing Tigers pitching perfection, in person and on television. Maybe I was the jinx.

Friday, February 17, 2006

After Trammell's Departure, Pudge Now Ready To Listen

Pudge: Can you see the halo?

Call it confirmation by exclusion.

Pudge Rodriguez said it, it got printed in India ink on newsprint, so it's there for all to see.

He wasn't all that jazzed about Alan Trammell after all.

This won't come as a shock, especially to my colleagues who were closer to the Tigers clubhouse last season than I was. Pudge didn't always play by Tram's rules in 2005, wore a sour puss most of the season, and had one of his worst offensive years ever.

He was, as I had called him, Drudge Rodriguez.

Rodriguez went on the record in Lakeland yesterday, speaking to John Lowe of the Free Press.
"If he [manager Jim Leyland] asks me to do things, I'm going to," Pudge said. "He's the skipper, and you have to follow his rules. Whatever he tells me to do, I'll do."

They are words that were conspicuous in their absence last season under Trammell.

Lowe said in the article that Pudge made his comments "without drawing any comparisons to Trammell."

He didn't have to.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Alan Trammell no longer manages in Detroit because of the attitude and nonsense of one player: Pudge Rodriguez.

Cancer. Petulant. Disrespectful. Insubordinate. They are cold, nasty words — and they all, at one time or another, fit Pudge Rodriguez in 2005. There are 25 men on a baseball roster. Maybe 23 of them were liked more on the Tigers by teammates than Rodriguez, the 34 year-old catcher.

He was a hitter without a locked in spot in the batting order because Trammell often didn't know where to place an aging catcher who will not be patient at the plate and who was a shell of his former self — even though Rodriguez made the All-Star team. Pudge should have been, truthfully, a #8 hitter, but it's hard to do that to a potential Hall of Famer. Especially when that player glowers and undermines efforts in the clubhouse at peacekeeping.

"I'm an everyday player," Rodriguez told John Lowe.

Maybe he can be that — playing in the American League, with its always-available slot for the designated hitter. The half-a-player.

Rodriguez told new manager Leyland that he wants to catch 140 of the team's 162 games this season. According to Lowe, Rodriguez hasn't started that many games at catcher since 1999 -- seven years and a bunch of wear and tear ago. He wants to be an everyday player, yet he draws less walks than a part-time pinch-hitter. Rodriguez had all of 11 walks in 2005, a pathetically low number. It amounted to a .290 on-base percentage — the lowest of any American League regular.

I hope that Pudge Rodriguez is sincere in wanting to play for — and obey — Jimmy Leyland. Alan Trammell may not have had the resume as a manager that Leyland possesses, but he should have been accorded the same attitude and words that Pudge exuded in his discussion about Leyland.

But then, if Pudge had done that, maybe Trammell would still be here in Detroit, managing the Tigers.

Somehow I doubt that's what Rodriguez wanted, after all.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

It Just Never Happened For Darko In Detroit

The NBA, historically, has had a fetish of dropping the first and/or last names of its superstars.

Someone says Dr. J, Wilt the Stilt, or Magic, you know who they're talking about.

Talk to even a moderate fan and mention Shaq or Kobe; they'll make the connection. Around these parts it has been Isiah, Worm, or VJ. Today it's Chauncey, Rip, or Sheed.

And Darko.

But Darko Milicic is not a superstar. He has not been, in nearly three seasons, able to get off the bench for more than a minute or two, and not more than once or twice a week -- if that. Yet he is never, ever referred to as "Milicic." Even Chauncey is sometimes Billups. Rip is occasionally Hamilton. And so on -- up and down the roster. But Darko Milicic, the second overall pick of the 2003 draft and possible Bust of Busts, has been simply Darko. One name status -- normally reserved for the game's top players. Or petulant rock stars.

Darko is gone now, traded away, shipped to Orlando in a move that was partly financial, partly sympathetic, and partly out of repentance. It was not all that much about basketball, in the end. The Pistons traded Milicic and backup point guard Carlos Arroyo to the Orlando Magic for center Kelvin Cato and a 2007 (or 2008) first round draft pick. But Cato may never play a minute for the Pistons; his acquisition was to provide salary cap relief. Cato's $8.6 million comes off the Pistons' books this summer, enabling the team to have more room to lock up free agent Ben Wallace this year, and Chauncey Billups in 2007. As for the first round pick, the Pistons might not use that either -- at least not as an actual draft choice. It could be packaged in another deal, heretofore unknown.

There is very little about this trade that has anything to do with what happens on the court. Darko never played. Arroyo's minutes were inconsistent, and that was before Lindsey Hunter returned from his injury. Cato is injured and has only played 23 games for the Magic this season. And, he'll turn 32 this August. So why else would you trade a 20 year-old for a 31 year-old? Why, for salary cap considerations. That's how the trading game is played in the NBA nowadays. Players' contracts are looked at before their contributions on the court. You are valued before you are evaluated.

It just never worked out for Darko in Detroit, and that's nobody's fault, really. Pistons President Joe Dumars thought he had a budding superstar in Milicic when he drafted him second overall in 2003, when quicker fixes like Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade were there for the taking. Dumars had plenty of ideas for Darko. He envisioned a boy giant blossoming into a towering man of immeasurable basketball dominance. He imagined Darko playing his way into the rotation -- first under Larry Brown, and again under Flip Saunders -- while at the same time learning about how to be a big man in the NBA. Joe Dumars thought that someday, if certain players moved on or retired, that Darko Milicic would be the next dominant center in Detroit.

Dumars' notion now seems like a ridiculous dream.

But if there's one thing Dumars has not been afraid to do, it's admit the errors of his ways and cut ties. He did it with Mateen Cleaves, a 2000 draft bust. He did it with Rodney White, 2001's failure. And now he has done it with 2003's mistake -- which is the biggest of them all. It is almost unheard of for a player to be drafted so high in any draft, in any sport, and receive as little playing time as Darko Milicic has in his 2 1/2 seasons with the Pistons. Especially in the NBA. A second overall pick in the NBA is a game-changer, a franchise-saver, a walking cash cow of endorsements.

It is not the 12th man on the bench with a nickname such as The Human Victory Cigar.

But that's what Darko Milicic morphed into in Detroit. It seemed as if he arrived in town with a ball and chain around his ankle that he could never remove. Some of it was his own doing, some of it was bad luck. There was a broken hand suffered in the waning moments of the Pistons' Game 5 clincher over the Lakers in the 2004 Finals -- an injury that prevented Darko from playing precious minutes in the summer leagues. But there was also loafing on the court. They said he dogged it at times, and didn't seem all that interested in making the most of his time on the floor. Flip Saunders gave Darko quality minutes in the preseason, hoping to see reason to work him into the top eight in the team's rotation. He would have liked to rely on his 20 year-old seven-footer -- would have delighted in being able to trust him in the second and third quarters, instead of those harmless moments known derisively as "garbage time" in the NBA.

It never happened. Didn't really come close, frankly.

So Darko is gone -- his last name gone with him, now a member of the Magic. Perhaps it is in the sun of Florida that he can discover his basketball playing mojo. Maybe he's just a late bloomer. Then again, maybe he will never be all that much in the NBA. That sometime happens, too, to high draft picks. You win some, you lose some.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Available: One Human Victory Cigar, Barely Lit

There is Joe Dumars the dealer -- deft and sly -- always ready, willing, and able to fleece his colleagues. When will his fellow brethren at the trading post ever learn?

There is also Joe Dumars the drafter -- unsteady and wobbly -- who has basically tossed aside his bummer selections almost as often as he's kept them on the roster.

Today, and in the days leading up to the NBA trading deadline February 24, Joe Dumars -- the dealer -- will have to engage in some soul-searching with Joe Dumars -- the drafter -- to see whether or not it is wise to cast away yet another first round pick that never bore fruit.

Darko: Time to cut the Pistons' losses?

At least that's what appears will be happening in the next nine days as rumors -- the substantiated ones on this occasion -- run rampant that the Pistons are mulling over a trade that would send Darko Milicic, the second overall pick in the 2003 draft, and backup point guard Carlos Arroyo to the Orlando Magic for injured center Kelvin Cato and a first-round draft choice.

Dumars might be ready to toss his human victory cigar into the trash before it even got its wrapper fully removed.

Despite his spotty draft record -- read: Mateen Cleaves and Rodney White -- Dumars has mostly been given a wide berth on the Milicic selection by media and fans because, well, he's Joe Dumars. He is today's Jerry West -- a modern day basketball tycoon -- who has turned the Pistons into champions and yearly contenders by buying low and selling high. He has gathered his group of All-Star starters from various teams around the league, offering up not all that much in some instances. He has traded chicken feathers for chicken salad, and when he has had to part with real talent -- like Jerry Stackhouse -- he has done so with courage and an acute accumen for seeing the next diamond in the rough (Rip Hamilton).

Many of today's Pistons -- the starters especially -- bounced around the NBA like pinballs until they found a snug fit in Detroit. So why has Joe Dumars been able to see things in these players that others have not?

And why hasn't he been able to do that with players in high school or college?

If Dumars was most every other GM in the league, he would be vilified for the Milicic pick -- mocked and derided for blowing such a high selection for such little return. The Pistons had no business having the No. 2 pick off the board in '03, but because David Stern's ping pong balls tumbled the right way, Joe D. beat the odds and the Pistons had themselves the second overall selection -- even as they stumbled their way through the Eastern Conference Finals, being swept by the New Jersey Nets. But Milicic, selected when Carmelo Anthony was staring the Pistons in the face, has barely raised his posterior from the bench in now his third season in Detroit.

What would we all be saying in this town if Dumars was anything less than the Frank Lloyd Wright of pro basketball that he continues to be? As it stands, with the Pistons champions and runners-up in Darko's two seasons in Motown, he is the charming player at the end of the bench, chanted for when victory is secure. He is winked at, accepted as the twelfth man, even though only one player in the world was selected before him in the draft. It would not be so cute if Joe Dumars didn't possess such a remarkable resume as Pistons president.

I am asked often: Would you trade Darko Milicic? Should he be traded?

I've answered that question with a "have my cake and eat it too" caveat: Yes, I would trade him if I could trade him to a Siberian NBA team that is harmlessly tucked away somewhere in the depths of the Western Conference. Golden State. Charlotte. Portland. Any place where Darko could barely cause a ripple that would even remotely affect the Pistons, should he find his basketball mojo.

Darko Milicic is like that salad maker you find in the basement during spring cleaning: you hate to part with it in case you might ever need it. And you remember that when you bought it, it seemed like a good idea at the time. And you're afraid that if you give it to your neighbor, salad makers will suddenly become the hottest gizmo going. And you'll be stuck without one.

Something like that, anyway.

I am growing weary, frankly, of waiting for Milicic to blossom in Detroit. He might be the classic case of the player who needs that ever-talked about "change of scenery", the ancient justification for trading young, unrealized talent. Sometimes that kick starts a career. Some careers never get started. It's unknown, at this point, whether Darko Milicic's NBA career will ever be anything more than the notorious answer to a trivia question: What NBA bust was drafted just before Carmelo Anthony in the 2003 draft?

Darko might be the NBA's Tony Mandarich, the offensive tackle from MSU who was selected by Green Bay No. 2 overall in 1989. Ahead of Barry Sanders, no less. But Milicic might also be a sleeping giant -- a late bloomer who needs to ply his trade in another NBA city after nearly three seasons watching and learning from the best players and coaches in the business. Change of scenery -- that tonic has worked before, many times over. Just look at today's Pistons starters for proof of that.

As for Cato, he will be 32 years old in August. He has been a starter in the league, but never much of a scorer. He can rebound a little bit, block a few shots. He's Ben Wallace Lite. The sort who won't mind as much as a restless 20 year-old can if he sits shackled to the bench -- which is where he certainly will be stationed. The Pistons still have Dale Davis, remember.

But the trade isn't Milicic for Cato. It's Milicic and Arroyo -- the up-and-down point guard -- for a first rounder. Another crack in the first round for Dumars, basically -- and it may be a top ten pick, too. The high draft pick might be something about which to get excited, if it wasn't for one fact.

Joe The Dealer will be presenting that pick to Joe The Drafter.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

First Annual "OOB" Valentine's Day Virtual Massacre

Ahh, Valentine's Day. Time for romance, chocolates, cuddling, and maybe even exchanging "I do's". My parents got married on February 14, back in 1959. We won't get into how it turned out, however.

But save the red roses and cute stuffed animals for your sweetie. Or for yourself, if things are rough on the "significant other" front. Here at "Out of Bounds", there's always room for black roses and bitter chocolates. So without further ado, here is the first annual "Out of Bounds Valentine's Day Virtual Massacre."

Vice President Dick Cheney: "OOB" doesn't usually get political, but this isn't about politics. Today's Freep ran a headline that said "Cheney broke a key hunting rule."

Yeah -- don't shoot your companions. It's considered bad form.

Phoenix Coyotes Assistant Coach Rick Tocchet: With this ring, I thee implicate.

Actress Janet Jones, wife of Wayne Gretzky: Honey, can you pick up a gallon of milk and the over/under on the Celtics-Hornets game on your way home from the rink?

Knicks Coach Larry Brown: No, LB, this isn't a dream -- in more ways than one.

New Raiders Head Coach Art Shell: How does it feel to be, like, the fifth choice?

Da Raiders: Commitment to Pestilence.

Rock Financial's Ubiquitous David Hall: A self-made man in love with his creator.

Former Ohio State Running Back Maurice Clarett: 3rd-and-10 to 20.

Chicago White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen, who skipped the team's White House visit: You know this only happens once every 88 years, don't you?

Colts QB Peyton Manning: Let me tell you about the big one that got away...

Pistons Forward Tayshaun Prince: What a slacker. Everyone else managed to make the All-Star team!

The Winter Olympics: You got your triple salkow in my halfpipe!

Tony Kornheiser, New "MNF" Analyst: What, The Schwab wasn't available?

The Colorado Avalanche: Are they still in the league?

So there you have it. Rinse off the blood on your way out.


By the way, I didn't watch any Olympics coverage last night as I had promised. I'll try again tonight. Still looking for a helmet and goggles, and pure oxygen.

Monday, February 13, 2006



"Sandy Koufax would be a great pitcher -- if the plate was high and outside."

-- Early scouting report on the Hall of Fame pitcher. Obviously, he corrected that problem.


Heads we win, tails you lose

The Lions are the only NFL team to lose an overtime game on a kickoff return. Dave Williams of the Chicago Bears took the OT kickoff 95 yards to paydirt to beat the Lions 23-17 on Thanksgiving Day, 1980. The Bears had tied the game in regulation on QB Vince Evans' sneak with no time remaining.

My Own Daredevil Act: Watching The Olympics

One of my favorite advertising campaigns on television right now is the exploits of Ted Ferguson, Bud Light Daredevil. You've seen him. He's the guy, dressed in street clothes, who straps on a helmet and goggles and pads and attempts to do "daring" things like listening to his girlfriend, staying at work two minutes past 5:00 (on a Friday, no less), and other activities that supposedly try his soul. It's funny stuff, mainly because for a lot of us, those things can indeed be an effort.

I'm being my own Ted Ferguson at home right now. I'm going to try to watch the Olympics. And not just hockey or ski jumping or the luge, which I always found easy on the eyes. No, this time I'm going to give it all a shot, at one time or another: figure skating, speed skating, curling, snowboarding, maybe even the biathlon -- or at least a portion of it. So maybe for me it'll be the mono-athlon.

Like Ted Ferguson, the carrot on my stick

Regardless, I'm going to strap on the helmet (figuratively), watch the clock (literally), and see how much Olympics coverage I can gut out before my hand reaches for the greatest invention since Bazooka bubble gum -- the remote control. Yes, I have a feeling that after perhaps 33 seconds of lycra-encased speed skaters turning left on an oval, my fingers will be straining themselves to keep from hitting a button -- any button -- on the trusty clicker. Or maybe after 18 seconds of a pre-taped profile. Or 13 seconds of Bob Costas.

Speaking of announcers, what is it with these downhill skiing analysts? Every one of them I've ever heard -- and I'm going back to the 1970's and Bob Beattie -- scream into the microphone as if they're witnessing the Hindenburg explosion. It happened again last night as I stopped playing my tabletop/dice hockey game long enough to watch American Daron Rahlves' journey in the men's downhill. As the split times were shown on the screen, indicating that Rahlves was falling further and further behind the leader, the analyst (I didn't get his name, other than Todd) was positively beside himself.

"I don't believe this! He changed skis and now look what's happened! He' skiing so well -- what's wrong!! It must be those skis -- they're not moving!! This is awful!"

I waited for the "Oh, the humanity!", but it never came, surprisingly. And if that was Daron Rahlves when his skis weren't moving, then you would have needed cameras that videotaped at the speed of light to capture him when they were moving. He looked like he was moving pretty fast to me. Just not fast enough to finish higher than 10th.

Tim Ryan, the play-by-play man -- or in this event, maybe you call him the slope-by-slope man -- felt compelled to yell, too. So you had this poor guy Rahlves skiing his heart out, going downhill at breakneck speed, and Ryan and "Todd" screaming about it as if: a) screaming was going to make his skis "move", and b) they were two guys at a loud nightclub, yelling into each other's ear to be heard. Only they had microphones -- another marvelous invention.

I actually heard Todd say the snow was "aggressive."

What does that mean? Did it come on too strong? Take someone's parking space? Cut somebody off on the freeway? Or, it being aggressive snow, maybe Todd meant that tiny, nasty flakes were grabbing at Rahlves' skis, slowing him down.

Anyhow, I actually watched about 10 minutes of skiing and speed skating last night, albeit with the volume turned down much of the time so as not to disturb my concentration as my 1970-71 Red Wings were hosting the Minnesota North Stars on my tabletop. (Pairadice Hockey, by the way -- a nifty little game). So I suppose those minutes don't count, since they were sans audio.

But I did get a chance to see -- with sound -- American Apolo Anton Ohno stumble in speed skating. (By the way, have you noticed that the names of Olympians are as if they were given out by rock stars and actors? Apolo. Daron. Bode. But I digress.). So Ohno, in second place and trying to pass the leader, tapped his hand on another competitor's skate and slipped. That's all it takes to lose your balance. Kind of like lightly touching a spinning top. By the time he righted himself, he had fallen to fourth and out of medal contention. And, of course, the NBC turn-by-turn man and his partner had a baby, right there on the air.


Why, oh why, didn't the other guy say, "OH NO!"?

They could have had an act.

Tonight it's figure skating, and the snowboarding half pipe. Didn't they used to sell those in head shops back in the day?

Look out, Ted Ferguson -- I'm gunning for you, my man.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Best Source Is Always The Horse's Mouth

Yes, Willie Horton really did quit the Tigers for a couple of days.

And to hear Herb Brown tell it, bagels and lox diplomacy never happened when he coached the Pistons.

Yes, Earl Cureton said, Isiah Thomas brought him out of retirement in Toronto to help babysit the kid players.

No, Bob Page says, he was never banned from the Silverdome press box. But he was kicked out of Billy Martin's office once.

And Jim Northrup swears Curt Flood wouldn't have caught his triple in the '68 World Series even if he hadn't tripped over his own feet in center field.

I know these things to be true, because I practiced a technique that I believe they teach you in Journalism 101: I asked them.

Wayne Gretzky knew of his wife's involvement in Rick Tocchet's alleged gambling ring because he was wiretapped talking about it, according to that always convenient source who speaks on the condition of anonymity. Mike Martz's hiring as Lions offensive coordinator was a done deal the week of the Super Bowl, because a source close to the situation said so. And Dewey was to defeat Truman in the 1948 presidential election, because someone who passed himself off as reliable whispered into a Chicago newspaper's ear.

But I have yet to find a better source than the mouth of the horse.

NOT from the horse's mouth

It's funny how the people who want to talk the most are the ones who know the least. Television shows are filled with those types. So are the bylines of sports columns in newspapers throughout America. Talk radio is positively crawling with them.

But the ones who know best, who possess the truth in their brain's microprocessor, are hardly ever on the record. Lots of times it's because they won't talk. Other times it's because they're never asked, because our fine journalists are busy tracking down their Deep Throat knockoffs.

My questions to the folks leading off this column might not have been Pulitzer Prize material, but they were mine and I was curious about certain things so I asked, to get the real skinny. And then I knew, and now you know -- so you too can sleep well tonight.

I had heard that Tigers legend Horton got so frustrated and angry with his own performance, the treatment from the fans, and the team's play that he briefly quit the team and dropped out of sight for a day or so. This was sometime in the mid 1960's.

"Yeah, that's true," Horton told me when I hit him cold with it. It was before a taping of Bob Zahari's "The Sportsdesk" back in the early 90's, when I worked downriver as a local cable TV producer/director. "Yeah, I got really mad and walked out," Horton said.

Did he rip his uniform off and toss it in the trash can, as I had read?

"No," Horton said with a chuckle. "Nothing that dramatic."


Horton quit, but no jersey-ripping

I had always been led to believe that Pistons coach Herb Brown, circa 1976-77, experiencing a great deal of difficulty with his petulant point guard Kevin Porter, resorted to an attempt by team General Manager Oscar Feldman at brokering peace. This attempt involved a brunch at Feldman's house, attended by Brown and Porter. Bagels and lox were supposedly on the menu, a new kind of diplomacy.

So, what about it, Herb? I started an interview with Brown with the bagels and lox question a couple of years ago.

"No, I don't remember that," Herb Brown told me over the telephone after a pregnant pause. "I might have been over to Oscar's house once with my kids, but..."

I was incredulous. I was certain this was not some sort of Pistons urban legend. Jerry Green, one of my idols, had even written about it in a book.

"That never happened, as far as I'm concerned," Brown said. Then he said, without context, "Kevin Porter....yeah....."


When Isiah Thomas was done as a player and decided to be a bull in a china shop as a basketball executive, his first NBA front office gig was running the Toronto Raptors. In the 1996-97 season, Thomas called upon two of his former teammates and ex-University of Detroit Titans -- the very retired John Long and the recently retired Earl Cureton -- to lace up the sneakers once more. Long was past 40 years old. Cureton wasn't far behind him. Long hadn't been in the NBA for several years at that point. Cureton was maybe a season and a half done as a player. The scuttlebutt, not confirmed, was that the two veterans were called upon because the Raptors rookie coach, Darrell Walker (another former Piston), needed help in the discipline department with his young team.

"Is this true?," I asked Cureton in another one of those phone conversations. This was shortly after he signed with the Raptors. "Are you guys there in a babysitting capacity?"

I gave Earl Cureton his first job as a basketball analyst, back in the days of Barden Cablevision, when I was the program director. I hired Cureton to provide analysis during our telecasts of Titans basketball from Calihan Hall. So I figured the least he could do was answer my questions honestly. And he did.

"Yeah...Isiah thinks Darrell needs some help, especially at the end of the bench," Cureton told me. "You've got 20, 21 year-old millionaires, and Isiah wants John and me to keep tabs on them and keep them in line.

"Plus," he added with a smile in his voice, "we can still play a little bit."

The former Titan/Piston players didn't last very long -- maybe a couple of months -- as Isiah Thomas' glorified hall monitors. But that's absolutely why they were hired, more so than their waning basketball playing skills.

Cureton: benchwarmer/babysitter

End of discussion.

I hadn't seen Bob Page, the old channel 7 and radio sports broadcaster, in about 15 years when I ran into him at the Super Bowl XL Media Party at the Fox Theatre January 31. It was fortuitous that I saw him, because I had a question that was bothering me, deep down from within.

"Weren't you kicked out of the Silverdome's press box?," I asked Page, now mostly retired in Florida and New York. There was some commotion about Bob Page's criticism of the Lions in general, but specifically about how he felt the team's presentation of the play-by-play to its media denizens in the press box was slanted toward the guys in Honolulu Blue and Silver. This was in the mid-to-late 80's.

He was beside himself. "WHAT? No...but I was kicked out of Billy Martin's office once."

"Who wasn't?", I said.

But another mystery solved.

Northrup: a bone to pick -- but not with me

Back in 1998, Jim Northrup was perturbed. Not with me, but with people in general.

"Everyone thinks the only reason Curt Flood didn't catch my triple was because he stumbled," Northrup complained to me when he hosted a sports collectibles show on Comcast Cable with writer Jim Hawkins. It was Northrup's hit that broke open Game 7 of the 1968 World Series and enabled the Tigers to complete their comeback from a 1-3 Series hole. And it is widely believed that it was Cardinals centerfielder Flood's lack of good footwork that prevented him from catching Northrup's drive to deep right centerfield in the seventh inning.

Hogwash, says Northrup. "I hit that ball so far and on such a line that Flood could never have caught it, whether he stumbled or not," he told me, as if I was the one who was contradicting him.

"I believe you," I assured him.

So there.

You see? All you have to do is ask -- the best source of them all. The horse is the source of course, of course.

Friday, February 10, 2006

This Enough "Respect" For You? Four Pistons Make All-Star Team

The Pistons All-Stars: (clockwise, from upper left) Billups, Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace

Well, take the "No Respect" card out of the Pistons' deck.

All the concern about a lack of league recognition, all the hand-wringing over the Pistons getting short shrifted when it comes to individual honors, all the complaints that the team gets dissed on a continual basis in general -- about anything and everything -- went out the window like Rick Tocchet's coaching career last night when it was announced the Pistons would send four -- and slightly possibly five -- starters to the All-Star game in Houston February 19.

So scratch that off the list of motivators for our boys in blue (and, on alternate jersey night, red).

Actually, this announcement, while the biggest of the season, is not the first time Pistons players or coaches have been honored as individuals in the 2005-06 campaign. Coach Flip Saunders has had an ironfisted hold on the Coach of the Month Award -- winning it in November, December, and January. Chauncey Billups was Player of the Month in the Eastern Conference for January. Rip Hamilton has won some Player of the Week honors.

The Pistons can no longer assume an "Us against the world" demeanor, because the world -- at least the world of the NBA -- seems to be very much for them.

Having said that, I never really bought into the notion that the Pistons' mission -- this season especially -- was being driven by their perceived lack of respect throughout the league. I mostly believed that was a card played more by the media and fans. Check it for fingerprints and tell me what you discover.

Instead, I think what drives the Pistons -- what pisses them off, actually -- is losing in the NBA Finals last June. To a man, they believe in their heart of hearts that they let the San Antonio Spurs off the hook -- gave them Game 5 in a box with bows and ribbons. They put forth an amazing effort to win Game 6 in San Antonio, then had the Spurs down by seven late in the third quarter of Game 7. The Spurs are wearing rings that the Pistons feel rightfully belong to them. It is this consternation that fuels their inner rage.

What further motivates the Pistons is the fact that they came so close to winning Game 7 IN San Antonio. In fact, Game 7 should almost have been easier to pull off than Game 6, when the team was coming off the toughest of losses and had to play before a hostile crowd that was just bursting to party. Game 7's crowd was much more nervous. The fact that they didn't win the final game, but came so close to doing so, tells the Pistons that if there is one thing they need to accomplish this season, it's claiming home court advantage throughout the playoffs. If there is going to be a Game 7 in the NBA Finals this season, they said, then let it be played at the Palace.

And yet, despite a glittering record of 40-8, the Pistons only lead the Dallas Mavericks, who are 39-10, by a game and a half. The Mavericks drilled the Pistons in Dallas, manhandled them really, and there isn't a Pistons player, coach, fan or supporter who wants to relinquish home court to those deadeye shooting Mavericks. Big, long Dirk Nowitzki is one of the few players in the league the Pistons don't match up well against, and he can go off like a Chinese New Year celebration if you're not careful.

The four All-Star reservations -- for Billups, Hamilton, Rasheed and Ben Wallace -- are certainly well-earned and I doubt many would begrudge the Pistons such a representation on the Eastern Conference squad. There are reports that Celtics coach Doc Rivers and Knicks coach Larry Brown voted for all five Pistons starters. Some NBA beat writers have even spoken wistfully of a Pistons vs. All-Stars game -- which is a fantasy but a serious notion to those folks who are suggesting that it be played. Tayshaun Prince may yet be named as well, as a replacement for the injured Jermaine O'Neal.

Yes, the bouquets are being bestowed on the Pistons now -- in print, on CRTs, and on television and radio -- across the country. The team that couldn't get any respect is getting it by the bucketfuls now. Everyone thinks the Pistons are the team to beat, it seems. And now, four of their starting five has made the Eastern Conference All-Star team.

But, like I said, the lack of all that stuff wasn't what was making the Pistons crabby anyhow.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Playing Hard-To-Get Pays Off For Martz

Back in the late 1960's, the Pistons were coached by Donnis Butcher, who was only a season removed from being a player himself. To assist him, the team hired Paul Seymour, a crewcut-haired, ex-military guy who had been a head coach for several seasons elsewhere in the NBA. There were whispers that the hiring of Seymour would somehow either undermine Butcher, or make the rookie coach nervous, having an experienced head coach sitting beside him. A ready-to-hire replacement, in other words, if the team stumbled. And Seymour himself didn't help matters when he spoke to the press after his hiring.

"What can I tell you? I guess you could say I am more or less the Pistons' ace in the hole," Seymour said. Somewhere, Donnis Butcher must have felt like passing a basketball -- through his colon.

The Pistons did their predicted stumbling, and Butcher was fired, replaced by the more experienced Seymour. But when that season ended, in 1969, Seymour had already had his fill of the Detroit Pistons and returned to his liquor business out east, presumably to consume some of the inventory.

Fast forward to today, where the Lions have a similar situation, but in reverse (Rod Marinelli is the ex-military guy this time, not his assistant), if you listen to the doomsayers -- like talk radio hosts and Internet writers and other such riffraff, bloggers included.

The Lions have hired Mike Martz as their new offensive coordinator, for those living under a rock or who actually have lives and don't follow the goings on of a perennial loser during the tundra of February. Martz's hard-to-get act worked to perfection. The Lions chased him like a smitten schoolboy does the cute redheaded girl at recess and during lunchtime. They did it all, it seemed, except pick a bouquet of daisies and hand it to him with a box of chocolates and flush red faces. Fitting the hiring came around Valentine's Day.

Martz hopes to bring smiles to the faces of Lions' fans
with his vertical passing game

"Please be mine," the Lions told Mike Martz last week, the Super Bowl hype in full swing.

"Not yet," he told them, dropping his handkerchief on the ground and walking away, apparently over money.

Well, the Lions picked up the hanky, went back to their books, and maybe they 86'd the team banquet or shifted money from petty cash into their rainy day account, because despite professing to having a Plan B (B for bogus), they called on Martz again, this time with more money -- and the hanky, daisies and chocolate, of course.

"NOW will you be mine?," they asked the man everyone wants to call an "offensive guru."

"Oh, alright," Martz said. "I'll be yours."

Mike Martz is the Lions' employee today, but we don't know for how long or with how much success. The official introduction hasn't even occurred yet, and already there are whispers that Martz is merely using this gig as a springboard to another head coaching job -- which could come as early as 2007. That gives Martz one season to take the Lions' offense from the dregs of the league to somewhere near respectable.

Guru, indeed.

And, the naysayers proclaim, what about Martz and his strong personality? How will he coexist, in a coordinator's role, with head coach Marinelli? Actually, this argument has slight merit. Friction between a head coach and a coordinator has precedent. Perhaps most famous of these poor relationships was the venom that defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan spewed toward head coach Mike Ditka with the Bears. It was a nasty little maelstrom. But the 1985 Bears won the Super Bowl, didn't they?

And Buddy Ryan fled immediately to Philadelphia, to build his own football empire.

So if Rod Marinelli, who maintains he doesn't want "yes" men surrounding him, has his hands full with Martz, then so be it. Martz, after all, didn't come looking for the Lions. We'll just hope that professionalism will win out and all this drivel about coexistence difficulties is much ado about nothing.

It would be folly to think that Mike Martz would not like to, once again someday, be a head coach in the NFL. And the Detroit Lions, for all of their warts, couldn't possibly be dismissing the possibility that Martz could crack his contract in half and run the show in some other NFL city. But it is a chance they obviously are willing to take, and I am with them. When you have an opportunity to hire someone with Martz's resume and success to run your moribund offense, you do it. Frankly, it's unlikely Martz will leave after just one season anyway, though it's possible. Regardless, I have said since the middle of October that the Lions, once they bid adieu to Steve Mariucci and his popgun offense, should go looking for someone who will make the team fun to watch again. I had said that person should be the head coach, but this is the next best thing. Maybe it's even better, knowing that the Lions have a head coach who understands the critical state of his team's offense enough to go looking for someone of Mike Martz's stature.

The pursuit of Martz did make the Lions look a tad desperate and starstruck, but that will be long forgotten once training camp begins, or maybe even when the draft rolls around in April. What will matter most is what happens on the field, a field that Martz will most likely try to stretch with a vertical passing game, not the horizontal stuff the Lions have been adhering to under Mariucci's Just Toast offense.

So is Mike Martz the Lions' "ace in the hole"?

Well, the team always did have trouble getting 21.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

NHL Should Leave No Pucks Unturned In Tocchet Investigation

Rick Tocchet is not the NHL, first off. He is not wearing an Armani suit and sitting in the ivory towers of the league office in Manhattan. He is not the one who formulates league policy, who hands the Stanley Cup to the captain of the winning team, or who drops pucks at ceremonial face-offs.

Tocchet is the Phoenix Coyotes' assistant coach who this morning sits implicated in a widespread, multi-million dollar sports gambling ring -- accused of being its main financier -- but who is also only one potentially crooked man in a league full of law abiding ones. But if these charges are true, if Rick Tocchet is the main cog in a ring that has ties to organized crime in the southern New Jersey/Philadelphia area, then NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who is all of the things mentioned in the first paragraph, has a nasty little public relations nightmare brewing -- in a best case scenario. At its worst, Tocchet is not the only NHL player or coach involved, and if that's the skinny, Bettman's wobbly league just might be toppled to its stump.

Tocchet (left), Gretzky and Jones: a gambling ring threesome?

Already there are charges of other NHL-related people being involved -- and it's not a small potatoes person. Janet Jones, wife of Hall of Famer and Coyotes head coach Wayne Gretzky, is among those mentioned as having placed sports bets through Tocchet's alleged ring. So far, there are no indications that any of the bets were placed on hockey games. But that news should be of little if no consolation to the NHL. These are illegal activities, whether the sport is hockey or football or tiddlywinks. And the league should move swiftly to determine whether Rick Tocchet -- who played 18 seasons in the NHL -- is merely a sore thumb, or one of many dirty fingers within its sport.

It's a metaphorical paradox, but dirty fingers launder money. Tocchet, according to the legal complaint, "received illegal sports bets from wagers and funneled money back to New Jersey." These were the words of New Jersey State Police Colonel Rick Fuentes. The bets were allegedly mostly placed on basketball and football games. The official charges against the 41 year-old Tocchet are promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy. For these one must serve much more than two minutes in a penalty box.

What should concern Bettman and his lieutenants in the league office even more than Tocchet's alleged involvement, however, is the implication of Gretzky's wife Janet Jones. The potential involvement of Jones would be a fog of smoke that very possibly could lead investigators to a fire within the league and its affiliates. Gary Bettman couldn't, in his worst nightmares, have thought of anyone he'd least like to see even remotely a part of this muck than Wayne Gretzky. And Gretzky's initial volley of personal denial has an element of separation from his wife that is untowardly at best and desperately self-serving at its worst.

"First of all, my wife is my best friend," Gretzky said. "My love for her is deeper than anything. The reality is, I'm not involved, I wasn't involved and I'm not going to be involved. Am I concerned for both of them? Sure there's concern from me. I'm more worried about them than me. ... I'm trying to figure it all out."

Gary Bettman better hope that Gretzky's words -- "I'm not involved, I wasn't involved and I'm not going to be involved" -- are truer than true. Trouble is, The Great One is already involved, whether he chooses to admit it or not. You don't, as the wife of Wayne Gretzky, become implicated in this sort of thing without involving your husband. Even if Janet Jones is guilty of wrongdoing because she participated in Tocchet's alleged ring without her husband's knowledge -- which is conceivably possible -- it nonetheless has stained Gretzky's name. It stains it because already, I am certain, there are people who will forever wonder if Wayne Gretzky himself had any involvement in a gambling ring that allegedly features his friend Tocchet as the financier and his wife Janet Jones as a participant. Worse, Gretzky's involvement will not only be wondered about, it will be assumed as being true. And if that becomes the prevalent feeling, or if, heaven forbid, evidence materializes that supports that as fact, then the NHL will be almost mortally wounded.

It's highly unlikely that the league is taking this lightly. After all, Tocchet is scheduled to meet with Bettman forthwith to discuss the allegations. But the league has to do more than just confront Rick Tocchet. It needs to swing into action immediately, determined to find out how how deep into the NHL Tocchet's alleged activities penetrate, even if the league is afraid of what it will discover. Actually, especially if it is afraid.

And Gary Bettman and company should be very afraid.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006



Steve Stone as an Oriole

"I won 15 games in 1977 with Eric Soderholm, who had a cast iron glove, playing third base, and Ralph Garr in left field, who could have played without a mitt and nobody would have known the difference."

-- Former pitcher Steve Stone, on his '77 season with the White Sox


Ted Lyons

The bullpen needn't have shown up

Here's something you won't see again. In 1942, pitcher Ted Lyons of the Chicago White Sox appeared in 20 games -- all starts, all complete games. He went 14-6 with a 2.10 ERA (which led the league) in 180 innings. He walked just 26 -- 1.3 per nine innings. Lyons was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955, finishing with 260 wins.

Do You Hear That? Me Neither -- We Must Have Done A SUPER Job

The silence is deafening, which should be music to the ears of anyone who sat on the Super Bowl Host Committee, who passed out welcome materials at Metro Airport, who served drinks in any of our downtown watering holes, and who toted around the interlopers in shuttle buses and taxi cabs.

Even Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated hasn't squawked.

Hosting a Super Bowl is like being an umpire in baseball: you know you must have done a good job if the complaints are kept to a minimum. And though I haven't gone out of my way looking for trouble, it seems as though our committees and volunteers and organizers in Detroit did a bang up job, because there has been barely a peep out of the naysayers.

I bring up Zimmerman, SI's supposed football guru, because it was he who went on "Good Morning America" back in January 1982 during the week of Super Bowl XVI here and trashed the city and its efforts. He complained about his hotel, which was overlooking the Southfield Freeway. He complained about the weather. He complained that there was nothing to do here. Too bad his comments came before the 1983 draft, in which he smugly scoffed at the Dolphins' first round selection.

"I don't like this pick at all. I don't know who is going to work with him down there," Dr. Z said of the young quarterback the Dolphins had just selected. Zimmerman, so wise in the game, thought the Dolphins had made a boneheaded move in picking their new signal caller.

The young quarterback was Dan Marino.

But unfortunately, the '82 Super Bowl occurred before the world realized just how untrustworthy Paul Zimmerman could be, and thus his biting words were taken as gospel.

"There was a furor" over Zimmerman's remarks, uttered on national TV's "GMA", retired (semi) Detroit News columnist Jerry Green told me a few months back. "Paul Zimmerman dissed Detroit, and Detroit being Detroit, we got very defensive and angry." Green said the city officials fired back, as did its citizens. Problem was, Zimmerman's comments must have made the rest of the media contingent feel comfy to bark, because as much as the pro-Detroit case was made, the venomous anti-Detroit words flew with just as much vigor, maybe more so. It was not a pretty backdrop leading up to the game, which was actually one of the better Super Bowls -- on the field. The 49'ers nipped the Bengals, 26-21. Zimmerman's first shot, combined with the resulting "furor" and weather that was even colder, more bitter and angrier than the Detroit bashing that occurred that week, all made folks here wonder if we'd ever get another Super Bowl.

There should be no such concerns this time. I didn't make it downtown for anything other than the Media Party last Tuesday at the Fox Theatre, but my intrepid colleague at MCS Magazine -- Josh Bartlett -- sure did, and his reports on how the city dolled itself up and the happenings on the street should be read at his blog. Another MCSer, EJ Smith, has some nice thoughts about Detroit's performance as a host as well. And I must say that the city looked splendid when I was down there. I had the opportunity to see most of it, trying to navigate our way to the Fox's parking garage.

Green also told me that, fair or not, how the media perceives a city and its hosting efforts go a long way toward determining whether that city is worthy of another try. Beyond the perfunctory "Detroit has been a great host" comments that are almost obligatory on the TV airwaves, it is what you don't hear that should put a smile on every Detroiter's face this week. You didn't hear about crime. You didn't hear about abandoned buildings. You didn't hear about the cold, snowy weather. You didn't hear that there was "nothing to do." Were those things talked about? Certainly. But the fact that they didn't bob up to the surface -- in this day and age of Internet vitriol -- leads me to believe that those comments were either few and far between or not uttered by anyone of any significance.

The game itself -- Super Bowl XL -- is getting some heat because of some questionable decisions made by officials on the field. For us Detroiters, that's exactly the kind of heat that is desired at this point. Keep it aimed at the game, not the city in which it was played.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Steelers' Hand Is Now Completely Adorned, As Are The Careers Of Bettis, Cowher

Super Bowl XL MVP Hines Ward celebrates 43-yard TD pass from Antwaan Randle El

As usual, Jerome Bettis' numbers were unspectacular. As usual, the Pittsburgh Steelers made several big plays on offense, including a couple of gadgets. As usual, the Steelers' defense came up with a sack or an interception at the best of times. And, as usual, there were some scary moments.

But what was unusual was the Steelers played a home game in these playoffs. Their jerseys were road white, as they had been in the three qualifiers, but in Super Bowl XL at Ford Field, there was no mistaking who was the home team. The crowd roared or was silent as the Steelers had success or failure on the field. Even the city of Detroit shamefully, but with pride nonetheless, declared itself Steelers people, through the mouth of its still-maturing mayor.

The Steelers' 21-10 victory, played out in Bettis Country, gave the franchise five Super Bowl wins. It gave Bettis, the retiring running back, his first. It gave Bill Cowher, Steelers Legendary Coach II, his first. The win brought one Hall of Fame career full circle (Bettis), and got the monkey off the back of another (Cowher).

As Bettis himself said afterward, if you had penned a script similar to what transpired during the Steelers' playoff run, it would probably be rejected by Hollywood as being too good to be true: Hometown kid makes it back to his stomping grounds for the Big One, and goes out a winner in his final game.

But not before some trials and tribulations, of course. Need I mention The Tackle -- Ben Roethlisberger's season-saving tackle in Indianapolis on a return of a fumble by Bettis of all people -- which has now entered NFL legendary lore, joining The Catch and The Drive? Need I mention Kelly Herndon's interception of Roethlisberger in XL, which was returned 76 yards and turned a possible 21-3 rout into a 14-10 nailbiter? Need I mention the possible making of The Drive II, when the Seahawks picked the Steelers apart from their own 2 and almost made it to the Steelers 2 -- poised to take a 17-14 lead -- before a penalty and a sack and an interception stopped them?

No, winning these Super Bowls haven't been easy lately. We've had some close ones, and some good ones, and it only took about 35 years to see some compelling games on a consistent basis.

But the Steelers have their moniker for a reason. They are indeed as steely as their name and as their coach's chin suggest. But they aren't just tough. Everyone in the NFL is tough, or else they wouldn't be in the league. They aren't just opportunistic. Teams capitalize on opponents' mistakes to win games every Sunday. They aren't just a team that likes to grind it out on the ground. Just about every team in the league would like to run for 180+ yards every game.

The Steelers are creative. They are aggressive. They are smart. They are physical. And the fact that very few teams are all of these things at once for any considerable length of time is why the Vince Lombardi Trophy returns to Pittsburgh for the first time in 30 years.

In fact, one play illustrated how the Steelers are creative/aggressive/smart/physical, all at once. It came on a 3rd-and-28, the ball on the Seattle 40, late in the first half. Roethlisberger, who had just been sacked as the Steelers went from being in the Red Zone to possibly being out of even field goal range, was flushed out of the pocket with the ferocity of a public toilet. He scrambled, looking for an open receiver (creative). He made sure he knew where the line of scrimmage was so as not to go over it (smart). He opted for a deep ball rather than a safety valve dump-off (aggressive). He threw it to Hines Ward, who came back to the ball and outworked his defender to catch it (physical). Ward caught it at the Seahawks 2 yard line. End of predicament. Beginning of control.

Tell me, what would a Lions quarterback have done in a similar situation? What would the play call have been under their popgun offense?

And would our Lions have tried the "it's a handoff -- no it's a reverse --no it's a pass!" gadget that Antwaan Randle El converted to Ward for a 43-yard touchdown? And would the Lions' offensive line been able to have opened the Mack truck-size hole that Willie Parker used for his 75-yard touchdown run? And would they have been penalized as infrequently as the Steelers were?

Yes, there is parity in the NFL. That's why there are so many teams that bob along between 7-9 and 9-7 in any given year. But there is most certainly a cream to this crop, and those teams -- the losing Seahawks included -- are the ones who commit the fewest mistakes, make the biggest plays, and have the moxie to stare down a 3rd-and-28 and declare that it isn't a lost cause, when most teams are prepping the field goal unit before the play is even called.

And, of course, there is Bettis. You look at the stat sheet at the end of the game and find Bettis' name, look to the right, and see this: 14 carries, 43 yards. No touchdowns. And those might be GOOD numbers, compared to some of his other lines (this is a man who once had this line: 4 carries, 2 yards, 3 touchdowns). So even though Bettis didn't score yesterday, he chewed up some clock, made a big 13-yard run to the Seahawks 10 (which was later nullified by Herndon's pick), and provided his usual leadership and poise in the huddle. That latter quality was captured by ABC's microphones in the fourth quarter, the game still in the balance.

"Huddle up! Huddle up! Look, we're not gonna change anything! Let's just do what we do, ever since training camp! We've been doing this since training camp! One play at a time!" (I paraphrase, but that was the gist.).

And he's not even the quarterback.

Bettis will go into the Hall of Fame with a Super Bowl championship on his resume because he and his teammates would not be refused any longer. It's as if they said "Enough is enough!" and put their recent playoff disappointments -- all those playoff and AFC Championship Game losses at home -- in the dumpster and packed their suitcases and footballs and cleats and set out on the road trip to end all road trips. They played nary a single playoff game at home, entering the postseason as the last seed. They were, as Al Michaels pointed out, 7-5 after 12 games and not even a playoff qualifier at that point.

So they simply went out and ran the proverbial table. The Colts were perfect through the first 13 games, when it didn't truly matter all that much. The Steelers were perfect for the last eight, when it mattered the absolute most.

Thirty years the Rooney family waited to add their thumb ring. That makes the Fords a whole hand behind them.