Friday, March 31, 2006

Drew Sharp: Negativity Is His Activity

I have never met Drew Sharp. Maybe if I did, I'd find him warm, engaging -- puckish, even. Maybe he is not the brooding Moor that he seems to exude through his columns for the Detroit Free Press.

But what is it about certain jabbermouths on the radio and ink-stained wretches in the newspapers that makes them find only the lead lining in even the whitest, puffiest cloud?

I'm not a University of Michigan fan by any stretch of the imagination. That comes from my inferiority complex of attending school at Eastern Michigan University, seven miles east on Washtenaw Avenue, and going to class under the dark shadow that U-M cast over EMU. But I've softened on U-M now. Still, I lean a little green when it comes to the two major universities in this state.

But Sharp's tirade in yesterday's Freep about U-M's place in the NIT -- playing for a second championship in three years -- and how it means not a hill of beans, was too much for even a lukewarm U-M person like me to ignore.

Sharp thinks the NIT is a waste of time, money, and India ink. He wrote that the South Carolina Gamecocks, who were gunning for their second straight NIT title, deserved a kick in the pants instead of a pat on the back. He called an NIT championship an oxymoron.

Kind of like "sportswriter Drew Sharp," I would say.

Sharp's beef -- and he has many, about many different things, at many times of the year -- is that the appearance of Tommy Amaker's basketball team in the NIT is an indictment of his program and should be treated with disdain and sneered at.

Anyone finding pride in this is a fool. This isn't worthy of celebration
and barely deserving of recognition. There's more shame than glory connected with the NIT's "grand" stage, more of an indictment of what has gone wrong with the Wolverines under Tommy Amaker's watch.

Participating in two NIT "championship" games in three years without gaining the slightest whiff of the NCAA tournament is an embarrassment worthy of ultimatums from the Michigan power
brokers. It's increasingly disturbing how rudderless the Wolverines too often look under Amaker, freely flowing to the whims of the tide.

My, my.

I don't know what the NIT did to Drew Sharp to draw such ire. Nor do I know what Amaker has wrought on Sharp, for even Drew admits, "He's a classy individual who runs a clean program."

But that's not enough, don't you know. More of Sharp's take:

And repeated NIT success doesn't equate to winning. This is passing off liver as top sirloin with the hope that with so few paying attention, nobody will recognize the discrepancy.

Maybe Drew Sharp would like to walk up to Daniel Horton, or any of the rest of them, crane his neck and look way, way up and say that winning the NIT doesn't matter.

Yes, the NIT is not the NCAA Tournament. If that's a news flash to anyone, then I'll chow on Sharp's column -- as long as you allow me some hot sauce. But it's still postseason basketball, and it does have a long history, and would Sharp have U-M participate and lose in the first round?

You know -- like MSU in the "real" college basketball tournament?

If you're going to play in the NIT, you may as well play to win. You still have an opportunity to make the final game of the season a victory. And U-M came close to making that happen.

As for South Carolina deserving a "kick in the back pockets" for having the nerve to win two NITs in a row, that's disrespectful to every athlete who's worked his or her tail off in practice, in the weight room, and on the field or the court or the rink in order to compete at the highest level that their situation will allow. It may not mean anything to the Drew Sharps of the world, but the NIT was South Carolina and Michigan's white whale, so what else is there to do but anything you can to slay Moby Dick?

I suppose you can, theoretically, make the argument that the NIT Champion is no better than the 65th best team in the country, though I think that's not terribly accurate. Could South Carolina have beaten a majority of the first-round pretenders in the NCAA tourney? Most likely. But even to be 65th when there are hundreds of Division-I basketball programs in the United States is really nothing to sniff at, when you do the math.

And Sharp is foolish if he thinks Amaker and his program is getting anywhere near a free pass in Ann Arbor by appearing in the NIT. Of course Michigan's standards are higher than that, and they should be. But I believe Amaker has U-M on the right path, despite stumbling toward the end of this season, pre-tournament. He'll take a few teams to the Big Dance when all is said and done.

It's just unfortunate that Sharp's poisoned mind -- as he is wont to do -- chose to use U-M's moment in the basketball sun, such as it was, as the time to defecate all over the school's basketball program.

But what else can you expect from someone whose glasses are forever tinted dark?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Shelton Draws A Lot Of Angst For A #8 Hitter

Will he hit .300 in 2006? Who cares! (But he probably will)

In baseball, the #8 hitter is hardly a guy that generates much airtime on sports talk radio, or has his name on the tips of the tongues of the masses around town. A fellow who is placed that far down in the order, folks usually don't have much time for. In the National League, in fact, the #8 man is just ahead of the pitcher, so how important can he really be in the scheme of things, anyway?

But Detroit is not like most baseball towns. There's all the losing, for one. Find me a big league city who's seen more games in the last 12 seasons where the home team has come out on the bottom of the score, and I'll give you a steak sandwich. With extra onions and horseradish.

Detroit is also unlike all the other big league baseball cities in that its fans do not know how to respond to players' individual success. We Detroiters stumble all over ourselves when a fellow in a Tigers uniform shows even the slightest hint of baseball accumen.

Chris Shelton -- Big Red -- is scheduled to be in the lineup most days as the Tigers' first baseman, and new manager Jim Leyland has placed him in the eighth spot in the batting order. In most towns, that is cause for a yawn and a request to pass the peanuts.

But to hear some teeth-gnashers tell it, it's Chris Shelton who should be watched most closely this season. He should, if they had their way, be the most-anticipated #8 hitter in major league baseball in 2006.

Shelton has earned this ignominious honor because he had the gall to hit at a .299 clip with the Tigers as a rookie last season, and now everyone is wondering if he's a fluke, or if he's the real deal. The recent cashiering of first baseman Carlos Pena has added to this wonderment, because now first base is pretty much Shelton's and Shelton's alone.

"I like Chris Shelton, but I just hope he can keep it up," is the jist of what the baseball denizens in Motown are saying.

Forget that Shelton has hit everywhere he's been -- in college, the minors, the big leagues. Forget that one doesn't hit .300 for nearly 400 at-bats -- as Shelton did -- and is normally a fluke. There've been some one-hit wonders, for sure, in baseball history, but that's not even the point here.

Chris Shelton doesn't have to hit .300 in 2006 to be a serviceable part of the lineup. My goodness, he's batting eighth. And the seven men ahead of him in the order are far more experienced, mostly, than Shelton, and those are the guys we should be concerned about.

Curtis Granderson is basically a rookie batting leadoff. Placido Polanco will bat second and will begin his first full season in the American League. Pudge Rodriguez will bat third and will try to rebound from a so-so 2005. Magglio Ordonez will bat fourth -- cleanup -- and if there's anyone who fans should wonder about, it's Maggs. Dmitri Young will bat fifth and he's had some injuries. Craig Monroe is the sixth hitter and this is the first spring camp he's attended where he's been guaranteed a job. Carlos Guillen will bat seventh -- as long as his knees and his back will allow.

And we should worry about little Chris Shelton?

First, Shelton will -- and you read it here first, folks -- hit no less than .280 this season. And second, even if he doesn't, it won't be all that far removed from that figure to matter, anyway. In other words, chill.

The beauty of the Tigers' lineup -- and when was the last time a sentence began THAT way? -- is that Shelton doesn't have to light it up for it to be successful and productive. Rather, he should be allowed to blend in and even work through a slow start, if that occurs. The seven hitters in front of him, if they're on their game, should make Shelton so much icing on the cake.

Big Red doesn't have to lead the majors in hits for a month, as he did last June. He doesn't have to be the Tigers' best hitter, as he was for much of last summer. If 1-thru-7 do their thing, he only has to relax and do what he does best: hit the baseball. At his pace.

Leave the #8 guy alone. Squawk about the seven dudes ahead of him, if you feel the need to worry about the hitters.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Welcome The Latest "OOB" Sponsor: Online Poker

Let me take a few moments to welcome another new sponsor to "Out of Bounds": Online Poker

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Poker is the hottest thing since Cameron Diaz, so "OOB" recognizes that -- and is always open to a chance to help prop up this cozy little blog at the same time.

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Leyland: Healthy Players Wanted Only

If you're a Detroit Tiger and have something the matter with you, physically, you'd better tape an aspirin to the affected area and grab a bat and glove and give it a go.

Jimmy Leyland has made it clear in his first spring training as Tigers manager that he has no use for players who are injured. And those aren't my words, either.

"I don't want to sound cold here, but injured players -- guys on the disabled list -- I really have no use for. I mean, get better and get back as soon as possible," Leyland says.

The skipper has been cranky lately because as the Tigers prepare for the regular season opener in Kansas City, some bumps and bruises are coming to the surface. In sports, they're called "nagging injuries."

Carlos Guillen, the starting shortstop, has a back that stiffens like a board on occasion, and already has in Florida. Opening Day pitcher Kenny Rogers has a fever and missed yesterday's start. There are others who are nursing the nagging injury. And time was lost for some of the regulars due to their participation in the World Baseball Classic.

The entire squad hasn't been on the field at the same time all that much, and that makes Leyland crave another Marlboro.

One can only imagine how apoplectic Leyland would have been if he was the manager when Juan Gonzalez was here.

Like so many things about Jim Leyland that I like, it's refreshing to hear a manager tell his players to suck it up every once in awhile. Baseball has always been a game where some players come up with the darndest reasons not to put in a day's work. If your leg is dangling from its hip joint, then Leyland wouldn't have any qualms about you missing that game, I don't think. But anything less than that? I'm not so sure.

And there ain't nothing wrong with that, folks.

The more I read Leyland's gems, the more I get to know more about the man and his philosophy about managing a baseball team, the more I am convinced that he was the right guy at the right time for the Tigers. I don't think the team could have afforded another season of Milk of Magnesia Alan Trammell.

Leyland wants his players to come to play, and if that means doing so when the physical mojo isn't grooving at 100% capacity, then so be it. He wants a team that stays healthy, so you'd better damn well stay healthy -- or else. It may not be logical. It may not even be reasonable at times.

But it's still not a bad way to look at things.

After all, what has reason and logic gotten this baseball team over the last 13 years, anyway?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Marinelli's Defining Moment Yet To Come

For some NFL coaches, defining moments are Vince Lombardi being carried off the field by Jerry Kramer and his Packers teammates after winning the first Super Bowl; Hank Stram prowling the sidelines with his rolled-up program, giving NFL Films one great sound bite after another; Bill Parcells being the first recipient of the Gatorade shower; Dick Vermeil tearfully (fill in the blank), but always about a positive thing.

In Detroit, the men who have held the title of head football coach have no such defining moments. Around here the moments are defining, but what they define can be found in a dictionary authored by Dr. Seuss.

There was Harry Gilmer, who fled his last game at Tiger Stadium as he was being pelted by snowballs. He gave that defining moment a postscript when he said, "At least they [the snowballs] didn't have rocks in them."

There was Joe Schmidt, whose defining moment was quitting the Lions when a power play he tried failed. But he was here long enough to coin the term "The Ziggy" -- that distinctively Detroit word for a coach getting fired.

There was Rick Forzano, who was the coach in 1975 when he lost both of his quarterbacks -- Bill Munson and Greg Landry -- to injury in the same game at Houston. That's one way to end a QB controversy.

There was Monte Clark, whose defining moment was standing in front of the football pallbearers in Los Angeles after a loss and saying sardonically, "See you at the cemetery."

There was Darryl Rogers, pigeon counter extraordinaire who will live here in infamy for, "What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?"

Bobby Ross said "I don't coach that stuff!" Marty Mornhinweg told us "The bar is high." Gary Moeller called his veterans "upper classmen" and his younger players "freshmen and sophomores."

Steve Mariucci's moment was the day he was introduced as head coach and looked around him at the ridiculously high-faluten press conference/made-for-TV theatre event and said, simply, "Wow." It was all downhill from there.

So now it's 2006 and we have Rod Marinelli, who says things like:

"I'm supposed to sit in a meeting? I do it. Am I looking forward to going to Detroit? Yes, I am."


"I'm going through this friggin' tunnel, and I'm not looking anywhere else. I've got these little bumps off to the side that I've got to take? I'll do that. But my tunnel is where I want to go."

And, for you Wing Nuts:

"I'm not here to go to hockey games. You didn't bring me here to do that. I'm here to go that way."

"That way", by the way, is to go forward.

We don't know what Marinelli's defining moment will be in Detroit. But he already is on a straighter path than some of the snake oil salesmen posing as football coaches who'd have us believe their malarkey.

Marinelli is, according to pass rushing monster Simeon Rice, who was coached by Marinelli in Tampa Bay, "The best coach in the NFL. I don't mean defensive line coach. I don't mean position coach. I mean he's the best coach, period."

Maybe that's Rod Marinelli's defining moment until they start playing the games, for nothing remotely that glowing has been uttered about any man about to take the helm in Detroit when it comes to football.

Marinelli, according to a story in today's Detroit Free Press, is too wrapped up in his new job to look for a house or go to Red Wings games or to care much about a group photo he was in that was taken at the league meetings in Orlando. The photograph was of all the current NFL head coaches. It is appropriate that they were captured in a snapshot, because there are a lot of new ones, and who knows how long many of them will survive?

"I just put it over here. I don't pay it more attention than it needs," Marinelli said about the group shot.

Maybe Rod Marinelli's defining moment as Lions head coach will be to win a Super Bowl. Or a conference championship. Or a playoff game, period.

Or maybe the moment will be to have a winning record in a single season. At this point, that might qualify.

But there are no games to play yet. There hasn't even been a draft to pick apart -- no player selections that will be the next potential qualifier for Marinelli's defining moment. There have been no mini-camps. Certainly no training camp, either. Supposedly that will be boot camp compared to what Mariucci served up in July. We'll see.

It's all still pretty much unknown about Rod Marinelli. For now there is only no-nonsense talk and a coach-engineered divorce with QB Joey Harrington. That is enough, of course, to keep the denizens around town talking about football. Imagine how much we'd talk about it if the Lions had a season in which their wins outnumbered their losses, for starters.

Football in March, when the coach is new, means you take what you can get.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Nets Win At The Palace? So, What About It?

Yes, the Pistons might, conceivably, face the New Jersey Nets in the playoffs. Yes, they could be a formidable opponent. Yes, they seem to be able to play the kind of defense needed to go on a long playoff run. Yes, they still have Jason Kidd, and now Vince Carter, and Richard Jefferson, and they took the Pistons to a Game 7 in the conference finals two years ago.

But no, you shouldn't worry your little head that the Pistons might lose to the Nets four times in a playoff series.

Oh, if everyone would just listen to me and save on the antacid. Ledges would be safe from footprints, as well.

Just as I tried to reassure everyone about the Miami Two-Man Heat, I will say this about the New Jersey Nets: They are a tough little basketball team, no question. But they are still a couple of bullets short in their holster.

Kidd, frankly, doesn't scare me anymore. He might get 12-15 points and dish out a few assists -- maybe even snag some rebounds here and there -- but he's still finding 30 years of age growing smaller and smaller in his rearview mirror, and there are some nights -- against the Pistons especially -- when he is downright invisible.

Carter is a beast and should be dealt with, and he will be. I saw enough "swarm Carter" defense last night -- very effective, too -- that makes me think when the chips are down, he won't beat the Pistons. Jefferson is a slasher that can cause problems, but during a series of covering -- and being covered by -- Tayshaun Prince, he can be worn down.

The rest of the Nets, I can take or leave.

The Nets handed the Pistons just their third home loss last night, 79-74, and the ESPN jabbermouths were saying that this proves the Nets can beat the Pistons.

Well, yeah -- in a single regular-season game in March.

The Pistons were due for a home loss, frankly, and I'm much more impressed with their win over the Heat last week and the victory in Indiana on Friday, anyway.

Nobody, that I know of, has gone 41-0 at home in an NBA season. The '85-86 Celtics went 40-1. The Pistons are now 30-3 at the Palace. And one of those losses was a double OT thriller against the Washington Wizards that the Whizzes only won because Chucky Atkins was unconscious in the fourth quarter and first OT. So I still like the Pistons' odds of taking care of home court in the playoffs.

In about a month we'll get these NBA and NHL postseason dances underway, and fearless bloggers like yours truly will pick each game apart with maddening frequency and self-proclaimed loquaciousness. So, in other words, there'll be plenty of time for that later.

For now, take last night's game for what it was: a road team stealing a game, winning ugly. Happens every night in the NBA.

But it's only happened thrice at the Palace, and we're nearing April.

So take the Poison Control Center off your speed dial already.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

For The Losing Lockerroom, Silence Is Golden

Phil Linz, the old Yankee from the 1960's, used to play harmonica. How well he played it, I don't know. But he brought it with him everywhere - including on road trips and on the team bus to and from the airport.

One day, after a tough series in which the Yanks were swept, Linz started playing the harmonica on the bus heading back to catch a plane. Someone from the front of the bus, where the star players sat, told Linz to stop. This was to be no time to play a happy-sounding instrument like a harmonica, Linz was told. Better to play an organ funereally, apparently. But Linz didn't stop, and after some exchanging of words, he almost had to have his harmonica surgically removed from his posterior.

Soon afterward, Phil Linz was traded away. He maintained the harmonica incident planted the seeds for his cashiering.

Phil Linz's autographed harmonica

There used to be a decorum about how one was supposed to act after losing a game. Most old-school folks will tell you that only a pin dropping should be heard in the loser's lockerroom. No joking, no smiling. Everyone should act as if their pet dog had just been given away.

I remember being in the Red Wings' dressing room - they are "dressing rooms" in hockey - after a win, and players yukked it up and the music was going and everyone was ribbing each other playfully. Players spoke into the microphones and to the note-taking pens in a relaxed, almost puckish - no pun intended - manner. The postgame food spread was being briskly attacked.

Then, a few weeks later, I was there again, but this time the Wings had lost.

The only reason it was 180 degrees different was because it couldn't be 190 - at least not mathematically. No music. Players walked around with frowns on their faces. Everyone dressed in silence. This was in the 1980's, when the Red Wings didn't do a lot of winning. So they must have had one of the quietest dressing rooms in the league.

And tempers run shorter after a loss. Marc Spindler, when he played defensive tackle for the Lions, was asked after losing to the Bears, "Do you think the team came out flat?"

"FLAT! What does that mean, FLAT? I don't know where you guys come up with this stuff. FLAT. What does that even mean? I'm so sick of hearing that - FLAT. What do you mean, did we come out FLAT? You wanna know what happened? They kicked our ass - that's what happened!"

Spindler now makes a living talking into a microphone on WXYT sports talk radio. But his vocabulary has improved since his playing days.

Spindler (center): Don't talk about being "flat" to him

Coaches are perhaps some of the most self-abused men in the world.

America doesn't tolerate losers. And not just in sports - anywhere in life. And American sports fans better not see even a grin on the face of a player whose team is on the short end of the scoreboard.

"What's HE smiling about? His team is losing!"

No, you'd better have the look of a pallbearer if you're losing, and afterward, you must act as if you are a last meal away from the electric chair.

"I want guys who hate to lose," more than one coach has said. "No laughing or joking after a loss. I want them to despise losing."

That's fine, but have you ever been to a wake, and even the next of kin is laughing and joking?

You can't be sullen all of the time.

Bowman: one of hockey's greatest poker faces

Some coaches take the stone face to the next level. Scotty Bowman, when he coached the Red Wings, was so wooden that you had absolutely no clue, by looking at him, whether his team was winning or losing. Others are still up and yelling and screaming, even if their team is winning handily with little time remaining.

"This is a crazy business," Earl Lloyd said after his first game as Pistons coach in 1971. "You're up by 20 with four minutes remaining, and you're still nervous. I lost my voice out there."

Coaches are perhaps some of the most self-abused men in the world. They are tormented souls who would absolutely be doing nothing else with their lives, yet they put themselves through nothing short of hell in doing so.

"I remember walking off the field after a 'Big win,' and I wasn't even to the tunnel, and I started thinking about the next game," Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said years ago when he was with the Giants. "That's just the way we are."

"I don't remember any of the wins," Dan Henning said while he was coaching the San Diego Chargers, "but I remember every loss."

You still doubt that they're tormented?

The Tigers clubhouse - they're clubhouses in baseball - was a mess last season. Some of the antics that were pulled were childish, but they were also taking place because manager Alan Trammell provided fertile ground for such nonsense. Among the accusations was the notion that not always did the players treat losing with its proper sadness. The same has been said about the Lions and their players' quarters: Not enough disdain for losing. Such behavior has positively mortified some veterans who have come here from other teams, and who are mystified by the casual acceptance of losing in the Lions' den.

Steve Mariucci, Alan Trammell, and Dave Lewis are no longer coaching in Detroit because they were that dreaded "nice guy." None of them were prone to cracking the whip on their charges, and while they may have been well-liked, they were not always well-respected. Former Canadiens forward Bob Gainey said of Bowman, "You hate him for 364 days of the year, then on the 365th day, you pick up your Stanley Cup."

But it all runs in cycles for the losing franchises: Fire the nice guy. Hire a disciplinarian. Fire the disciplinarian. Hire another nice guy. Fire the another nice guy. Hire a no-nonsense type. Fire the no-nonsense type, for it's time for a looser goose.

Right now the Lions, Tigers, and Red Wings aren't in looser goose mode. They are all in the tough guy/disciplinarian/no-nonsense guy boat. Where losing won't be tolerated, and everyone better walk around like they are next for the executioner's noose.

Oh, if losing could only be solved with a sour puss.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Red Wings Helped Seal Their Own Fate In Forum Laugher

It was December 2nd, 1995. The Red Wings were about two months into a march that would lead them to setting a new NHL record for wins in a season. They were in Montreal, about to take on the Canadiens on a Saturday night. Hockey Night In Canada. It turned out to be Mocking Night In Canada.

Patrick Roy was in net for Les Habitants. By the time the night ended, he would declare to never play another minute for the Canadiens as their goaltender. You can partially blame the Red Wings for that, with an assist from Montreal coach Mario Tremblay.

The Red Wings, a scoring machine forever it seems, were that way back in '95-96, too. It was one of the reasons why they finished with a 62-13-7 record, with a lineup featuring the Russian Five: Sergei Fedorov; Igor Larionov; Slava Kozlov; Slava Fetisov; and Vladimir Konstantinov. So when the puck started going in behind Roy that December night, the Red Wings smelled blood, as red as their road sweaters they wore in the Forum.

The Wings kept swarming. And they kept shooting. And the puck kept finding the twine. Roy's neck was becoming sunburned from the goal light turning on behind him.

The Wings were pouring it on, the Canadiens seemed helpless to stop them, and Patrick Roy was Swiss cheese. On any other night in the NHL, a coach would have pulled his peppered netminder -- especially a sure-fire Hall of Famer such as Roy. But Mario Tremblay did not pull Patrick Roy. He left him in the game, even when it appeared that the Red Wings were on the verge of humiliating his start netminder.

And that, as it turned out, was quite possibly what Tremblay was trying to do to Patty Roy: humiliate him.

Roy and Tremblay had been clashing for weeks prior to the Red Wings game. There were some spats. So when the Red Wings began pouring it on, and with no hope of catching them on the scoreboard, Tremblay thought he had an opportunity to finally show Patrick Roy who was the boss.

It backfired on him -- big time.

With the score way out of hand -- the Red Wings won 11-1 -- Roy had made a routine save and, as the Forum crowd gave him the sarcastic Bronx cheer, Roy thrust his arms into the air -- a far more sarcastic move than any derisive cheer.

Tremblay pulled Roy at the next whistle.

Then, HNIC viewing audiences were treated to one of the all-time greatest stare-downs in sports history. First, Roy skated off the ice, refusing to make eye contact with his coach. Then, after having second thoughts, Roy returned to the gate area and said a few words into the ear of the Canadiens' head honcho, who was sitting just behind the Montreal bench.

The words were, "I have just played my last game as a Canadien."

Through it all, Tremblay's eyes never strayed from Roy. After Roy spoke his words, and returned to his location on the bench, Tremblay's eyes threatened to bore holes into the goalie's skull.

The fallout from that debacle was earth-shattering.

Roy was right: He was done as a Canadien. He was traded days later.

His new team was the Colorado Avalanche.

And when the Red Wings, so fantabulous in the regular season, met Colorado in the Conference Finals and were getting their lunch handed to them, they would look into the Avalanche net and see Patrick Roy frustrating them -- even taunting them verbally after the Red Wings won Game 5 at Joe Louis Arena.

"I would say it's about time they won a home game," Roy said with a sadistic sneer. The Avs had won Games 1 and 2 in Detroit, and even after the Game 5 loss held a 3-2 advantage in the series -- a series they would clinch on their home ice in Game 6.

The Wings -- and Mario Tremblay -- are to blame for this

The Red Wings set that glittering regular season wins record, then struggled in the playoffs, going 10-9. They needed Steve Yzerman's double overtime goal in Game 7 to get past the St. Louis Blues in the conference semis. The Red Wings trailed that series, too, 3-2 before rallying.

The Red Wings may have had their fun on December 2, 1995 with their 11-1 romp on Montreal Forum ice. But Patrick Roy had the last laugh.

Until 1997, of course.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Two-Man Heat Shouldn't Make The Pistons -- Or Their Fans -- Sweat

Ben Wallace gets his hand in the face of half of Miami's basketball team: Shaq

The way I see it, this Heat-Pistons thing is much ado about nothing. And I'm not talking regular season; you can mark that down for the playoffs as well.

This is all moot, because unless the Heat can figure out how to beat the Pistons playing two against five, then there's nothing for us Detroiters to worry about, truthfully.

Last night the Heat played one-and-a-half against five and lost, 82-73. Shaquille O'Neal had 27 points, but Dwyane "Pat Riley says compare him to Michael Jordan" Wade only had 13, a season low for him.

Antoine Walker had 15 points, and no other Heat player scored more than six. Jason Williams (how many NBA players are or were named that, anyway?) -- who is supposed to be some sort of "x" factor, had five points in 31 minutes. And Gary Payton? Isn't there still a missing persons report out on him from the 2004 NBA Finals?

The Heat have been as hot as their name, going 15-3 since the All-Star break. But a lot of those wins have come against chump opponents -- the kind that are giving the Pistons fits lately, but only because Flip Saunders' crew is fighting boredom.

But the gaudy 15-3 run aside, the Heat are still a two-man team: Shaq and Wade. Gone is the one man who could cause me to reach for another scotch and soda: Eddie Jones. If anyone could be that "x" factor, it was Jones, in my book. And he was, in Game 3 of the Eastern Finals last May. Jones took over midway through the fourth quarter, and the Pistons were cooked. But Eddie Jones is gone now, and I don't see anyone on the Miami roster who strikes fear into me like Jones could.

Walker is okay, no question about that. But the Pistons can handle him, I believe. Williams is flashy, but how playoff-capable is he? There's a lot of scuttlebutt about Alonzo Mourning, who can block shots and intimidate, but don't the Pistons have the best backcourt in the business? And aren't most of their makes from 15-feet and beyond? Can 'Zo intimidate that? I doubt it.

The Pistons had some trouble with the Heat last night because they couldn't shoot straight. They had some good looks but the ball wasn't falling. Sheed happens, you know. But the Pistons don't normally shoot that poorly. If they had even been at 40 percent last night instead of 35, the game wouldn't have been very close, for the Pistons were doing a number on Mr. Wade (3-for-15 from the field).

The Heat were tired, no question, playing their fourth game in five nights. And the NBA playoff schedule, with its fetish for days off between games -- even in the same city -- won't provide such fatigue-inducing stretches. But rested or not, weary or not, the Heat are still, in my mind, a two-man gang.

Oh, that's not to say that the Pistons will sweep them if they meet in the Conference Finals. You always have to allow for a role player to have the game of his life (a la Brian Scalabrine), or for Shaq or Wade to dominate and lead their team to victory. That might even happen twice in a seven-game series.

But the Pistons have too many weapons, are too tight-knit and confident in each other, to let the Shaq & Wade Heat beat them four times.

Wake me when it's Dallas or San Antonio you want to talk about.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Nationals Dug Their Grave, And Soriano Is Shoveling Dirt Over It

Oh, if Ted Williams was only resurrected and managing again in Washington.

Teddy Ballgame would take Alfonso Soriano, by the ear most likely, and march him out to left field -- Ted's old stomping grounds -- and screw him into the turf if necessary.

"THAT'S your new f***ing position," Teddy'd bellow in that booming voice of his. "Don't move until I say so."

Ahh, the old days.

"I'm a second baseman, dammit! A bad one, but that's what I am!"

Soriano, the Washington Nationals' petulant second baseman who the Nats are trying to convert into a leftfielder, is constructing quite an embarrassment for his new team. The Nationals acquired Soriano in the offseason from Texas. They admit to not inquiring of him -- or his agent; that's the way of the world now -- if he would be so kind as to move from second base to left field. Since Soriano owns the worst career fielding percentage of any second baseman in the last 50 years (.971), I can see the Nationals' logic. So it's not like they're asking Rembrandt to put down his brush and become a chimney sweep. But it probably would have been a good idea -- in this day and age of the prima donna athlete -- to make sure Alfonso was on board with a switch to the outfield before pulling the trigger on a deal.

But what Soriano has done -- refusing to physically take his position in left field during an exhibition game -- goes far beyond the pouting and brooding that most spoiled brat players demonstrate when they feel "dissed." It got so bad that Nats manager Frank Robinson had a team of eight players on the field the other day, because Soriano refused to jog to left field. So Robby had to make a switch before the first pitch was thrown.

The Nationals and Soriano have been round and around about this, almost ever since he was acquired. And Soriano has remained steadfast -- not folding, not capitulating -- in his unacceptance of the position the Nationals would like him to play. But, like most of these dramas, there is irony dripping from it like a melting icicle.

When Soriano, now 30, broke into the bigs with the Yankees in 2001, he was only able to play second base -- after a career in the minors as a shortstop -- because then-second sacker Chuck Knoblauch agreed to move to ... left field -- to make room for the rookie.


The Nationals are in this mess because when they traded for Soriano, they already had a second baseman, and a pretty good one: Jose Vidro. So Washington made the deal, and pinned their hopes on Soriano's being a reasonable person willing to do anything to help the team win.

Again, I say: HA!

It's cute how professional sports teams can still be naive in the 2000's.

But the Nationals' naivety aside, what Soriano is doing is unconscionable. He is poisoning the team's chemistry, and he can't possibly be winning over any of the team's fans -- not that that is important to today's player, either. It's not like the Nationals are asking him to be a catcher, or a pitcher -- two positions that would, indeed, be ludicrous for him to learn on the spot. It's left-freaking-field. At least it's not right field, Alfonso. That's where they would always put the worst player in pickup games.

That's not to say, of course, that there isn't a learning curve to playing left field. No position on a baseball diamond is as easy to play as it may look. Granted, left field is usually where your weakest arm is stationed, but you still have footwork and anticipation and catch-and-throw techniques and a host of other things that have to be mastered in order to become a solid outfielder.

But Soriano isn't even trying to learn all that. He clearly has no interest in doing so. He would rather sit on the dugout bench and sulk -- and make his manager and team -- who signs his paycheck -- look like fools.

The Washington Nationals may have erred in not doing more due diligence before trading for Alfonso Soriano. And Soriano is clearly in the wrong, too.

But there are no givesies-backsies in baseball trades.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

McLain Always Pointed The Finger At Someone Else

McLain, in between bad business deals

Denny McLain, for anyone who cares to know, is not my kind of guy. In fact, if I found Denny trying to tread water in a lake, and there was a life preserver near me, I might hesitate to use it.

Rough? Not if you are a resident of Chesaning, Michigan -- where Peet Packaging was located, before Denny and a business partner made off with people's hard-earned pension money. What I just wrote is nothing when it comes to those folks -- many of whom would like to see McLain six feet under.

McLain was full of those sorts of business deals -- the kind where he reaps all the benefits and the rest of the world can go to hell. It hasn't been reported much, but Denny hoodwinked a bunch of his Tigers teammates into investing into a paint company. That went belly-up, too.

"If Denny McLain was caught on the playground with a knife and a stabbing victim," former broadcaster Dave Diles once said, "He would tell you that he was just standing there and the victim ran into his knife a dozen times. And he would expect you to believe it."

I bring up McLain because every year during spring training, I think of his dousing of some sportswriters with a bucket of ice water, which was actually one of his more benevolent misdeeds.

"Yeah, he got me," the Oakland Press' Jim Hawkins told me several years ago. "I was one of the guys he got with the water."

McLain was beefing about negative ink, and so decided to take matters into his own hands. This was 1970 -- Denny's last year as a Tiger. It was also the year he got suspended for half the season by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for possessing a loaded gun. There were also rumors of his involvement with organized crime -- fueled by McLain's "mysterious" foot injury toward the end of the 1967 season, which was thought to be the result of a mobster stomping on it. Years later, the organized crime connection seemed like a good bet, when McLain got himself involved in racketeering and extortion, among other niceties. He went to prison for those misadventures.

Yet he kept reinventing himself, on TV and radio, all while pointing the finger elsewhere for his nefarious activities.

He was a 31-game winner in 1968, and a 22-game loser in 1971. And he's been at least that many times a loser in his life since then.

There aren't many sports folks that I hold in contempt, but Dennis McLain is at the top of the short list. From leaving fellow Tigers pitcher Mickey Lolich stranded at the 1969 All-Star Game in Washington, D.C. to the shameful stripping of Peet Packaging employees' retirement monies, McLain has been a real darling.

But I am nothing if not fair -- and mindful that bozos like McLain are polarizing figures whose words still enrapture certain segments of sports fans in this state. So it is with that fairness that I agreed to profile McLain in the May issue of Motor City Sports Magazine. Denny wants to talk, which always sends up a red flag, but we'll listen, write, and present. And most of you will read.

Heck -- I even would, even if I wasn't forced to do so in my role as editor-in-chief.

Meanwhile, I hope those of you who have read the March issue of MCS Magazine enjoyed it, and are looking forward to April's book, which includes a 23-page baseball section.

For more info on MCS Magazine, click here.

Monday, March 20, 2006

While We're At It...Can We Send Pena Packing, Too?

While we're riding athletes out of town here (read: Joey Harrington and Darko Milicic), let's put Carlos Pena on the same one-way train.

To say I am fed up with waiting for Pena to tap into his potential is like saying I've given up on seeing Elvis alive again. In fact, between the two instances -- Pena blossoming and Elvis re-emerging -- I'm not sure which has worse odds of happening anymore.

I wrote a column two years ago this summer asking for Pena (along with Eric Munson) to be jettisoned, so you know where I'm coming from this morning.

Pena: It's time now -- it's BEEN time now

Look, Carlos is a good guy and all that. Angie Mentink of the Detroit Sports Report told me he's her favorite Motown athlete because he's smart, he reads, and he even tried to teach her how to salsa dance. That's terrific. But I'm sure even Angie would agree that Mr. Pena has been squatting far too long on the proverbial pot.

He's at it again -- Carlos Pena is. His spring average is down to .171, and while for many players that's about as much of a concern as a mild headache, for Pena it could be fatal -- from a Tigers career sense. If anyone needed to be nicknamed Hot Springs this March, it was Pena.

Yesterday, after being collared again, Pena got demonstrative. According to John Lowe in today's Freep, Pena threw his helmet after making one of his outs, then he "nailed a video camera in the dugout" after another.

"That's good," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said of Pena's outbursts. "That's real good. I like that."

Leyland wants his Tigers to bare their teeth and be surly at times this season. So he looked at Pena's tantrum in a positive light. Whether or not he looks at Pena's on-field performance with as much positiveness is up to conjecture.

Carlos Pena, truth be told, should be shipped away from Detroit -- traded elsewhere, even if all you get back is an old bag of baseballs and a tube of Ben Gay. It's either that or release him, and in either scenario the Tigers will be chowing down on some losses. It's not going to happen for him here -- let's face it. The same syndrome as Harrington and Milicic experienced here, in their own ways.

Pena's career here -- he joined the Tigers in the 2002 three-way trade that shipped Jeff Weaver to the Yankees -- was summed up in this analysis from new hitting coach Don Slaught after yesterday's game:

"He knows what he has to do," Slaught said. "He just has to do it."

Do I hear a big, fat AMEN? Or, ALLELUJAH? Or, more appropriately, NO S**T!

Slaught is, according to Lowe, "working with Pena on keeping his swing in the strike zone longer." Near as I can tell, that's hitting coach jargon for "he has to get better, and stop striking out once every three at-bats."

I don't even care, anymore, if Carlos Pena goes to another big league team and wreaks havoc on the league. If that happens, then I'll tip my scotch and soda and wish him more success. After all, he is a nice guy; I have nothing against him personally. I'm just tired of singing the same song about his chances with the Tigers.

When you think about it, there are few words in sports that are more biting than "potential." It's code for "He's just not gonna get it, is he?"

So transplant Carlos Pena and his potential somewhere else -- anywhere else. That ship has not only sailed, its waves have even settled.


Speaking of the Freep, I turned the front page of the sports section, and there on page 3 was a photo of an African-American NASCAR driver, Bill Lester, who is going to make his Nextel Cup debut today at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Now, I'm not a NASCAR fan by any stretch. If it all ended today, in fact, I wouldn't lose a wink of sleep. But good for Lester, who is the first black driver to qualify for a Cup race since Willy T. Ribbs in 1986. Show those good ole' boys, Bill!

Sunday, March 19, 2006

I've Got The Answers — If Only They'd Listen

If only Larry Brown had listened to me, he wouldn't be in this mess he now finds himself in — coaching a terrible Knicks team in New York, his point guard calling him "insecure" to the media. I tried to warn him. It was folly to think he could leave a team as wonderful as the Pistons and take his "dream job" -- his words -- in the Big Apple and be nearly as content. Oh well. Those hotshot coaches aren't paid the millions to listen to inkstained wretches like me.

But this is nothing new not paying heed to me. I'm quite used to it by now. I've had all the answers for years. Not all of them have been the correct answers, mind you, but I've had 'em. Something about a typewriter -- or a word processor -- adds dozens of points to your sports IQ, don't you know.

I can't remember who said it, but it was an NFL head coach, and he marveled at the miracle powers of a TV announcer's headset.

"I gotta go to Radio Shack and buy me one of those headset things," the coach said to the reporters who were acting as their usual football pallbearers.

"Why?," one of them said, serving up a fat pitch.

The coach grinned devilishly. "Because as soon as you put one on, you know all the answers!"

Nicely done.

Well, it's not MY fault if the Red Wings didn't take my advice back in 1973 when they fired coach Johnny Wilson, despite a fine 37-29-12 record that missed the playoffs by two measly points.

"What are you DOING? Wilson's got the team on the right track," I might have uttered back then, and probably did.

The Red Wings hired a minor league coach named Teddy Garvin -- and got minor league results. Garvin was fired after just 11 games in the '73-'74 season.

I can't help it if I ranted but no one would listen that the Lions were making a colossal mistake by hiring Darryl Rogers -- a career college coach -- to run their team in 1985.

I've known the answers to all that have ailed our teams in the past, but yet mistakes keep being made.

"College coaches hardly EVER make it in the pros!," I certainly squawked. What's worse, the Lions didn't listen to me -- TWICE -- during that maneuver. They let Rogers bring almost his entire Arizona State University staff with him, against my better judgement. Twelve blind mice.

Three years later, Rogers was caught by a reporter counting pigeons on the roof of the Silverdome while practice was going on nearby. A few weeks after that, he uttered, "What does a guy have to do to get fired around here?" He was gone shortly thereafter, his record dismal and his hiring a blunder.

Just like I had warned.

Where were the ears back in 2000 when the Tigers' GM, Randy Smith, was offering Fort Knox to Juan Gonzalez? I was trying to tell Randy that Juan wanted to be Juan Gone. He had no intention, Gonzalez, of staying in Detroit after a November 1999 trade brought him to the Tigers from the Texas Rangers. Yet Smith, against my wishes, kept trying to court Gonzalez, trying to squeeze Juan's square peg into the Tigers' very round hole. Even after the offer to sign a longterm deal escalated into well over $100 million, Gonzalez told the Tigers to take their money and stuff it in their jockstrap. As a result, the Tigers looked foolish, and Gonzalez bolted for free agency.

And again I had to say "I told you so."

Oh, I'm full of them. I've known the answers to all that have ailed our teams in the past, but yet mistakes keep being made.

More errors, I'm afraid, are being made right now with the Lions. Not earth shattering news there, I know, but again I am trying to shout for them to look for the big iceberg approaching. And I don't think they're hearing me. Again.

When the 2005 season ended, it was generally accepted that the Lions NFL's swiss cheese had holes in a lot of areas, but the most gaping ones were at offensive line, pass rushing, and the defensive secondary. And that's kind of like saying that the only things keeping one of Bill Ford's cars from running are an engine, a chassis, and some gasoline.

Then the news came that the Lions would have lots of money to spend under the new salary cap. Fans started having visions of sugarplums and players like Simeon Rice and Will Shields dancing in their heads. Oh, the holes they could fill, if they only would spend their money wisely.
Naturally, the Lions, addressing their needs at offensive line, pass rushing, and the defensive secondary, signed three quarterbacks in less than two weeks.

Am I in a soundproof booth or something?

The slew of quarterback signings — Jon Kitna, Josh McCown, and Shawn King — means the end of Joey Harrington's career as Lions quarterback. And I'm not so sure that three heads are better than one here. I don't know if any of the aforementioned names are a significant upgrade from Joey. The Lions seem, once again, to be on one of those slippery slopes they are so often trying to traverse.

"I don't think this is such a good idea," I am already saying with the familiar foreboding. And besides, we still have all those holes at all together now offensive line, pass rushing, and defensive secondary. Three holes. Three quarterbacks. I've never been very good at Lions math.

But in my years of experience in such matters, I have learned not to get too discombobulated when our local heroes don't heed my advice. It IS their money, and their players, and their coaches, and their balls and pads and uniforms. I know that now. And I've also learned that, just as an announcer's headset can make a TV guy smart, something else is true.

Sometimes, all that money, all those players, and all those balls and pads and uniforms can make some men in Armani suits awfully dumb.

Not that anyone is listening.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Harrington Could Still Be "The Guy" -- But It Won't Be In Detroit

Maybe Joey Harrington flunked quarterback school.

Maybe he was sent home, with a note to his parents, describing him as incorrigible, unwilling to learn, unteachable.

Maybe he decided he had had enough of it and decided to play hooky instead.

Or maybe the school's administators and their pupil came to a realization: This ain't gonna work, brother.

Regardless, Harrington is as good as gone now, about to be cast away by the Lions on the heels of the signings of Jon Kitna (33) and Josh McCown (26). If you love someone, they say, you must set them free. The setting-them-free thing also works if you aren't particularly enamored with them.

This is going to be an interesting release/trade, because of all the Lions quarterbacks that the team has kissed goodbye -- on the cheek or elsewhere -- Harrington is by far the most talented and has the most potential to reinvent himself and arise from the ashes, like a phoenix. This isn't Scott Mitchell being waived goodbye. Or Charlie Batch -- Super Bowl ring or not. Or even Erik Kramer. And certainly not Mike McMahon, or Jeff Garcia (both with Philly, inexplicably).

Harrington has tools. He is still young. He can wing a football -- if he's given the authority to do so further than 15 yards. He cannot run well, but with a team who has an offensive line capable of moving a rolling chair backwards, then maybe that's not a big deal. Dan Marino and John Elway were about as mobile as marble statues, after all. So this isn't some scrap-heap guy the Lions are offloading. Joey Harrington can still be a very serviceable quarterback -- for someone. How his career pans out is anyone's guess, but he certainly could be the first QB in a long time to leave Detroit and be lethal elsewhere.

Today's Detroit Free Press, citing sources familiar with the situation, says Harrington came away from his so-called "quarterback school" with new offensive coordinator Mike Martz without a warm and fuzzy feeling. That led, the source says, to a mutual understanding: maybe it's best if the Harrington-Lions marriage was ended.

If Joey has his way, there wouldn't be a divorce, but rather an annulment. That way, he can declare that his Lions years didn't really happen -- legally. If you're going to go for a clean start somewhere else, may as well go for it all.

"Draft bust" is an ugly, cruel term. It is a tag that, once it is attached, is about as easy to remove as a tattoo. Whether Joey Harrington is, indeed, a bust, will be determined as his career unfolds. If he goes to another NFL team and puts in a few decent years, then maybe the "bust" word will fade away.

But in Detroit, it must now be officially declared that Harrington was a bust. And it can't be easy for Lions president Matt Millen to choke down the thought of essentially admitting his third overall pick in 2002 was that four-letter "b" word.

The Lions were not winners in the Joey Harrington era. His starter's record, now ingrained on the minds of all Lions fans, was 18-37. And the fact that not all of the blame for such a hideous won/lost mark can be laid at Harrington's doorstep is irrelevant, frankly. For the Harrington Years will be remembered with derision -- like the end of Mitchell's time here, and the bust to end all busts -- Andre Ware. It may not be fair to think like that, but there is no other way to recall a winning percentage of .327.

I was actually looking forward to seeing Harrington with a fresh start in Detroit. I was eager to see what he was capable of -- with a new head coach, a new coordinator, and the promise that whatever happened in the past stays in the past. I thought such a clean slate was the perfect tonic for a quarterback with still the best years in front of him, presumably.

But now we'll never know -- at least not in Detroit.

Certainly, there are parties being thrown in offices in metro Detroit this morning. Honolulu blue and silver confetti might even fly in Campus Martius or the New Center Area. That's fine. Some would never be Joey Harrington fans -- save a Super Bowl victory.

But there is also a chunk of Liondom that thinks this could be yet another move destined to haunt the Lions in some way, shape, or form. After all, Harrington is being replaced by a 33 year-old with an average resume, and a 26 year-old who couldn't impress the Arizona Cardinals -- one of the few teams the Lions have been able to handle recently.

If this is discernible improvement, if this is an upgrade, then I'm dying to see it on the field.

Because, on paper, it seems awfully like a lateral move. And in football, laterals are tossed backward.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Rod Marinelli: A Pigeon Hunter Who Can Lead The Lions Out Of The Muck

It was sometime in the fall of 1988. The football coach was in attendance at practice, but he wasn't truly there. He was distracted -- by something skyward.

There was a news reporter standing nearby, and he noticed the coach staring toward the ceiling. This was at the Pontiac Silverdome. The reporter, curious as to why the football coach was more interested in what was going on above him than what was taking place on the practice field, finally asked what was so interesting.

"I was just counting," the coach said.

"Counting what?," the reporter asked.

"The pigeons on the roof," the coach said, returning his gaze to the ceiling to count the tiny bird feet on the Silverdome roof.

The coach, Darryl Rogers of the Lions, was fired several weeks later.

Rod Marinelli doesn't strike me as a pigeon counter. Pigeon hunter, maybe. But not a pigeon counter.

It is Marinelli's charge to coax, ride, whip, or otherwise drive his football team to some assemblance of respectability first, and perhaps a winning record second. It is highly unlikely the latter will come before the former.

Marinelli: The "Lucky 13th" coach in the Bill Ford Sr. ownership

Rod Marinelli is the 13th head coach to give it a shot under the Bill Ford Sr. ownership. An even baker's dozen around the maypole. I have said it before, and I'll say it again: it takes most NFL teams 40 seconds to call a play and yell "Break." It has taken the Lions 40 years to yell "Break," and the only things they've broken have been coaches.

The new coach has himself his first mini-controversy on his hands, thanks to the signing of quarterback Jon Kitna, 33, to a four-year deal the other day. There are already indications that the incumbent QB, Joey Harrington, would like a fresh start in another NFL city -- presumably far, far away from Detroit. If Harrington stays, it won't be Mike Martz's problem. It won't be Matt Millen's problem. It will be Rod Marinelli's problem -- right between the back pockets.

How he handles this situation will tell us a lot about Marinelli, the head coach. We know enough about Marinelli, the defensive line coach. He comes with glowing recommendations -- from his former players and from fellow coaches. But I pay much more attention to former players. The NFL coaching fraternity is tighter than the boys in blue -- police officers. They wouldn't say anything bad about each other if you paid them a year's supply of game film.

Simeon Rice, on the NFL Network recently, said this about the Lions' new coach, who coached him in Tampa Bay:

"Let me tell you something about coach Marinelli," Rice, the Bucs' pass rushing beast, said. "He is, in my mind, the best coach in the NFL. Period."

As the Network hosts murmured "Wow," Rice went on.

"He is so well-prepared. The players in Detroit -- I'm jealous of them now. I don't know what I'm going to do without my man Rod. That's nothing against Jon [Gruden, the Bucs' head coach]. Because Jon is the man. But Rod is...he's the best."

Rice said that he puts Marinelli at the top of the heap because of his in-game knowledge, his before-game preparation, and because of his motivational skills.

So there you have it: Simeon Rice says the Lions snagged themselves the best coach in the business.

"And I don't mean head coach. I mean the best coach -- period. Head coach or position coach," Rice said emphatically.

If you can recall the last time a player said that about any of the previous 12 head coaches in the Ford administration, then maybe it was from a dream you had one night.

It says here that Marinelli has the goods to make the Lions winners. He has the pedigree, he has the knowledge, and he has a blissfully clean track record as a head coach. In this case, I don't think that's a negative -- not being a head coach previously. With Marty Mornhinweg, it was a nightmare. With Steve Mariucci, head coaching experience meant diddly squat.

And no counting pigeons.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Unless Kitna Can Pass Block, I Don't See The Need

A familiar place for Kitna lately

First there was Milt Plum and Karl Sweetan. Things got so bad back then that even DT Alex Karras slung his helmet at Plum's head after a brutally heartbreaking loss in Green Bay.

Then we had Greg Landry and Bill Munson, and Landry was your choice if you wanted a third running back in the backfield. Munson kept stealing the starter's job, and back and forth they went, until one Sunday in Houston when they both went down to injury in the same game.

Not long after, we were treated to Gary Danielson and Eric Hipple. One was a World Football League castoff (Danielson) and the other was from Utah -- and how many great QB's have come from there? Hipple went ballistic on a Monday night against the Bears, and wasn't heard much from since then. Danielson threw five picks against the 49'ers in the playoffs in 1983, and STILL would have led the Lions to victory if Eddie Murray's leg didn't go crooked.

Then there was Rodney Peete and Erik Kramer, and again you had a runner and a pocket guy. Kramer is still the only quarterback to lead the Lions to a playoff win since 1958, and may have two if he hadn't thrown an interception in the end zone that was returned for a TD against the Packers in the Silverdome after the '93 season. Peete haunted the Lions after he left town -- demolishing them in the playoffs in 1995, and toying with them as a Carolina Panther a few years ago.

Charlie Batch was the man who wrestled the starter's job away from Scott Mitchell, and isn't it just perfectly appropriate that he should have a Super Bowl ring and the Lions do not? Batch hung around until president Matt Millen uttered the famous "We're married to Charlie Batch" line -- and we all know how most football marriages turn out.

Fast forward to 2006. All of the above are about to be joined by Joey Harrington-Jon Kitna, for you do not give a "backup" a four-year deal, as the Lions did to Kitna, and not expect some competition for the starter's job.

How the Lions can declare Kitna strictly a backup while festooning upon him a four-year contract, all while keeping a straight face, is beyond me. But that's their story and they seem to be sticking to it.

Last I looked, Jon Kitna cannot pass block. He cannot run block. He cannot rush the opposing passer. And he cannot cover wide receivers. Yet when the Lions made their first foray into what is supposed to be a buyer's market for free agents, they signed 33 year-old Kitna away from the Bengals. One week after signing Shawn King to be the backup - or so I thought.

The Lions reached into their free agent pie and picked a "backup" QB out with their thumb. Jack Horner has nothing to be worried about.

The Lions, we were told, were going to be major players in this year's free agent bounty. Eager were the fans for the team to start addressing needs. Names like Simeon Rice and Will Shields were mentioned, as men who could come in and immediately plug gaping holes in the Lions' lineup.

Instead, the Lions have hung back, perhaps star struck. They appear to have their cleats firmly entrenched in cement, while other teams are making transactions at the cashier's window and crossing items off their shopping lists.

There is still money left in the Lions' wallets, but the dearth of marquee players is dwindling. Nobody says you can completely build a winner thru free agency, but I thought the Lions might use the draft to snag the players needed to address the needs that Kitna and WR Corey Bradford satisfy, and use free agency for their more gaping holes.

There's still time left, and perhaps this isn't all we'll see from the free agent bounty.

Meanwhile, buckle yourself in for Joey-Jon. They even share the same uniform number (3). Offensive coordinator Mike Martz has even suggested that Harrington, as part of his clean slate, change numbers. So now we have something ELSE for them to battle over.


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Ides Of March In Hockeytown Mean Goalie Concerns -- Deserved Or Not

Legace (top) and Osgood: let the hand-wringing begin

It has arrived right on time this season -- always reliable. You can almost set your calendar by it. It didn't come upon us last year, but only because there was no hockey.

The Ides of March are here, in Hockeytown (that would be Detroit, for those reading this not from the Motor City, where we have declared our city the center of a sport that we did not create). Our Ides don't mean the killing of any Ceasar -- except for his Little pizzas -- but they do mean the portend of skepticism, uneasiness, distrust, and worry.

And they are here again -- right on schedule.

It's time for goalie concerns for the Red Wings. It is always this way, you see -- a few weeks before the playoffs begin. No matter how well the netminder plays, something takes over along about mid-March:


Manny Legace says he has been "awful" since the Olympic break. Chris Osgood, the other netminder, has been doing his best impression of a see-saw. He continues to make the most difficult of saves, and whiff on some of the easiest. But he has won a Stanley Cup -- despite having a few whiffs in those playoffs, too.

By all rights, there shouldn't be any discussion here. Legace has remained among the league's goalie leaders throughout the season, in stats like wins, GAA, and save percentage. He has some shutouts. He continues to prove, as far as I'm concerned, that he is capable of playing the leading man for an NHL team.

Osgood keeps us on our toes, for we do not know which of his split personalities will show up between the pipes on any given night.

Red Wings GM Ken Holland, in an interview I did for MCS Magazine (on newsstands now), told me that he feels either one of his goalkeepers is capable of providing the kind of top shelf play that is required to make a bid for a Cup.

"But to make a long playoff run, you need everything to fall into place," Holland says.

And everything means everything: freedom from injuries, scorers who are scoring, defenders who are defending, and pucks that tumble your way.

Oh, and the goaltending. Of course.

It's always the same refrain here, but it is generally accepted that no matter how many of those other things "fall into place" for the Red Wings, none of them will mean a hill of beans if Legace -- or Osgood -- does not perform in a better-than-average capacity. Maybe even WAY better than average. So with the playoffs fast approaching, and since it's the norm in Detroit, and since Legace himself has called his recent play "awful," this is your cue -- if you're a Wings fan -- to wring your hands. Hands that are calloused from clapping for Manny Legace all season, by the way.

In the interest of fairness, however, there have been times when the concern in net has been real, and the performances subpar. Osgood, then a 21 year-old rookie, committed a gaffe in Game 7 of a first-round series with San Jose that cost the Red Wings the series. His failed clearing pass was intercepted and deposited into the Detroit net late in the third period. Afterward, Osgood wept in the dressing room -- and he was joined by hundreds of thousands of Red Wings fans. But Osgood was only in net as a rookie because late-season acquisition Bob Essensa proved as effective as a giant slice of swiss cheese.

In 1995, Mike Vernon and Osgood were not top shelf, and the Red Wings were swept in the Finals by New Jersey. The following year, the Red Wings struggled mightily in the playoffs, despite a 62-13-7 regular season record. They were finally eliminated by Colorado in the Conference Finals -- mainly because the Avs' Patrick Roy was far superior to the Vernon/Osgood tandem. Two heads are not always better than one.

The Cup-winning years -- 1997, '98, and 2002 -- were interesting because in '97, Vernon won the Conn Smythe Award as MVP of the playoffs, but in '98, the Cup was secured despite shaky (at times) play from Osgood. And in 2002, Dominik Hasek brought his world-class play to Detroit, but it wasn't until overtime of Game 3 of the Finals in Carolina that the Red Wings truly needed Hasek to rise to the occasion. And he came through -- big time.

The same garbage that has been spewed about Manny Legace in the past will be stirred again this April: He has never been "the guy"; he has no experience as the #1 goalie in the playoffs; he simply isn't good enough to lead the Wings to the Stanley Cup.

Yadda, yadda, yadda.

They were probably the same concerns raised about Miikka Kiprusoff, or Jean-Sebastian Giguere. Both were unheralded -- "unproven" -- and both led their team to one win of the Stanley Cup (Kiprusoff in 2004 with Calgary, and Giguere in 2003 with Anaheim). The coach of the Mighty Ducks during their improbable Stanley Cup run in '03? Mike Babcock.

Experience isn't always mandatory. Besides, it's not like Legace is a fuzzy-faced rookie.

If the Red Wings, as a team, perform capably in front of him, there should be no real concerns about whether the goaltender will make or break the team's Cup chances.

But, there will be. It's March, after all.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Leyland Tries To Impart Feeling Of Urgency Onto His Players

Jim Leyland always speaks with a sense of urgency when it comes to managing the Tigers, and I like that.

Part of it is his age -- let's face it. You'd be urgent, too, if you were looking in the rearview mirror at age 60 and it was getting smaller and smaller. He wants to win now -- or soon -- because he ain't getting any younger.

But part of it is the urgency to rid the Tigers of the stench that has wafted over the franchise since the Bush administration -- the FIRST George Bush. George W's dad was still president when Michael Ilitch bought the Tigers in the summer of 1992. And other than a barely-over-.500 record in 1993, the L's have always outnumbered the W's. Many times, they've not only outnumbered them -- they've dwarfed them.

It's been a few weeks in Florida now for Mr. Leyland as Tigers skipper, and even though he went to Lakeland speaking with -- ah! -- urgency, he's ratcheted it up a notch.

According to the Detroit News, Leyland had a pow-wow with his club Sunday morning. His motivation, he says, is that, "I smell stuff."

The stench is still not gone.

"Lakeland's for development, Detroit's for progress and production," Leyland said, summing up his Sunday talk to his team.

It wasn't said, not specifically, and his name wasn't mentioned, but there is a consensus growing that one of the players Leyland is referring to when it comes to his "produce or go elsewhere" decree is first baseman Carlos Pena.

Lynn Henning, in today's News, says that Leyland openly wonders if years of losing have surreptitiously set lower standards, and that players have rarely been taken to task if those artificially low standards are not met.

"There's a lot of talent here," Leyland says, "but we've got a lot of work to do."

Pena is, indeed, probably one of the players who has a big fat target on his back. He has produced in maddeningly brief intervals, and always it comes with a side order of hope and is washed down with a bitter drink of potential.

Leyland is making it clear to his ballclub that such "now you see it, now you don't" performances are not to be accepted -- at least not in Detroit.

There's the pot, Leyland is telling his players, so go pee in it. Or not.

Still up north, this January, the Tigers' winter caravan about to hit the road, Leyland said he knows he has a very short window of chance here.

"We have to get this done, and get it done relatively quickly," he said at the time. "The fans don't want to wait. Mr. Ilitch doesn't want to wait. And I don't want to wait."

The good news is the Tigers' camp is finally -- FINALLY -- occupied with genuinely talented young ballplayers. Special consultant Al Kaline told the papers Saturday that for the first time in his recent memory, other teams are calling the Tigers, inquiring about their youngsters.

"We haven't had that," Kaline said, and rarely have four words been more true.

Leyland is impressed with the Tigers' talent -- up and down the roster, and throughout the minor league system. He looks around him and sees great young arms, skilled position players that are, in some cases, still in their teens, and he marvels.

The youth movement the Tigers have afoot is in full swing, and it is by all accounts the real deal.

Yes, youth is great. But you know what they say: It's wasted on the young.

Jim Leyland wants his team to feel the heat, because he's feeling it. After only three weeks of spring training.

"This is a big boy's game," he says.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Don't Expect Fanfare When Yzerman Calls It Quits

There is no farewell tour, but that's by design. He isn't being showered with gifts at every NHL stop, and that too is part of the plan. Nothing, if Steve Yzerman can help it, is going to take away from the focus being on the team, and not himself.

It's slipping away now, Yzerman's playing career, and it has almost morphed into an unspoken acceptance that this is the way it will be, and that's that.

Some, but not many, were surprised when Yzerman, 40, decided to suit up for the Red Wings last fall, after a one-year, lockout-forced layoff. After all, the last, enduring image of the Red Wings' captain was of him holding a bloodied towel to his face May 1, 2004, skating off the ice, taking some of his team's heart with him. The fans' tickers were in their throats. He had been struck by a shot puck, which crushed his eye socket and face something fierce. Lesser players approaching 40 years old would have bowed out gracefully.

Steve Yzerman recovered -- maybe thanks to the lockout, ironically -- and said "yes" to returning to the Red Wings for a 22nd season. He knew his role would be diminished. No longer would he be a top six forward -- maybe not even top nine. He would continue to wear the captain's "C" on his sweater, but the honor was beginning to become titular. Most teams' captains do not sit on the bench for 45 of the 60 minutes played. They are regular, contributing members on their teams. They are not benchwarmers, as Yzerman has become on most nights. But we're not talking most captains here - just one. Yzerman has been the Wings' captain for 19 of his 22 seasons. So if coach Mike Babcock chooses to chain him to the bench, so be it. He's still The Captain.

So when Yzerman, his broken face healed, returned for another season of 80 games and West Coast trips and back-to-back games and meaningless contests against St. Louis in January and Minnesota in February, Red Wings fans looked at one another and gave each other knowing nods: This is probably it for Stevie Y.

And they were right.

He hasn't announced it officially, but some have tried to weasel such a declaration from him. Jim Rome, who makes a lot of money on television and radio for asking such things, said to Yzerman -- who was appearing on Rome's TV show -- "Are you retiring after this season?"

"You know, I got a pretty good idea right now," Yzerman replied, and he noted the rise of young Red Wings like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. "It's time for players such as myself to back off and let them go. I'm getting a sense that it's time to step away and call it a career at some point."

"Is this the point?," Rome asked.

"I've pretty much made up my mind as to what I want to do," Yzerman said. "We're 20 games from the playoffs ... I don't think it's the right time to make any announcement or any decision today or before the season ends."

If you can't read between THEM lines, then you are officially in denial.

A Steve Yzerman who on most nights lacks his former brilliance and luster, is still better than some of the fakers wearing NHL uniforms today.

I am almost certain that Yzerman made his decision about his future the moment he agreed to a pay cut to return to the Red Wings last summer. I don't think there was any doubt in his mind that this season would be his last as a player. And it is so typical of him not to make such an announcement before the season, because that would have turned the Red Wings' quest for another Stanley Cup into a circus. Too much emphasis on Yzerman, and not enough on the team. And that's a "no-no" in Stevie's book.

Will Yzerman hoist one more Cup?

There will be -- and those of you looking for a safe wager can take this to the bank -- an almost anti-climactic confirmation at season's end (not long after the playoffs) that this season was Yzerman's own private farewell tour, after all. There will probably be a press conference, and I'm not saying it won't be emotional, but the announcement itself shouldn't slug anyone in the gut.

Watching Yzerman play this season tells me that there is still some hockey left in his tank. For certainly a Steve Yzerman who cannot do all that he once could, a Steve Yzerman who on most nights lacks his former brilliance and luster, is still better than some of the fakers wearing NHL uniforms today. His shifts are short, his face seems to reflect that it's more of a chore now, but there are still moments when it is quite evident why Yzerman is on the Red Wings roster. He'll still score a goal here and there, make the occasional wondrous pass, come from behind an opponent on a backcheck and strip him of the puck. There aren't too many players that can give you all that on a nightly basis.

But time stops for no man, and thus it maddeningly zooms forward. So despite the occasional flashes of greatness, it is best to be honest and admit that not all of Steve Yzerman's skills have moved through the calendar with the rest of his body. It is, frankly, time for him to, as he so richly put it, "back off and let [the younger players] go."

But if you're waiting for a big deal, don't hold your breath. Yzerman came into the league shyer than shy. He was, at one time, an 18 year-old rookie whose name most people in this town couldn't even pronounce properly. He would hardly look at you when he spoke -- which was, in itself, rare indeed. And he will leave with much of that shyness still intact. When he does speak, he does so with authority, if not with panache. He always spoke softly and carried a big hockey stick.

So when he goes, when he steps away from the game that was, at times, his kingdom, Yzerman will not allow us to blow him kisses. He will scoot away -- take a year off, he says -- before returning to the game in a front office capacity. He says he spoke to the Pistons' Joe Dumars about such a strategy.

Its all mapped out. Even if we choose not to follow it. It's called leaving on your own terms. For only the rarest of athletes is it an option.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Birth Announcement: It's A Baseball Blog!

I am proud to announce that Out of Bounds has given birth -- to a baseball blog.

It's called Where Have You Gone, Johnny Grubb?, and it will be an informal, meandering look at the national pastime. It will be updated daily and will be more journal-like in its presentation.

So go on over and say hi to Johnny.

"The Bird" Was The Word In '76, But "Frank" Wasn't

Thirty years ago this May, a gangly kid with blond, curly locks took the hill for the Tigers and shut down the Cleveland Indians. It was a relatively unimportant game, and hardly anyone knew the young right-hander -- before or after the contest.

Within a month, however, Mark Fidrych would -- with apologies to the Yardbirds -- turn the baseball world over, under, sideways, down. He played to packed houses, like a traveling pop show. Amazing what talking to a baseball and looking like Big Bird can do for a guy's career. Of course, the pitching itself was pretty darn good, too: 19-9, with a 2.34 ERA -- and 24 complete games. Nowadays, it takes pitchers four or five seasons to accumulate that many CGs.

But Fidrych wasn't the pitcher who the Tigers were counting on as being their prized rookie in 1976. The Bird came out of nowhere, really -- not making the 25-man roster until the final days of spring training. So when Fidrych became bigger than life, the team decided to see if lightning would strike twice -- with their "real" rookie ace in the hole.

Frank MacCormack was a 21 year-old righty out of Rutgers who was signed by the Tigers as an amateur free agent in 1974. He was tall, like Fidrych -- 6'4" -- but that's where the similarities ended. Where Fidrych relied on mixing pitches and changing speeds, MacCormack was a fireballer who challenged hitters. Where Fidrych was unassuming with an "Aw, shucks" attitude, MacCormack was a wound-tight bull. Where Fidrych was a character, MacCormack was a button-downed businesman.

There was another difference: Fidrych was a winner.

The Tigers rushed MacCormack thru the system on the heels of Fidrych's success. He was advertised as Mark Fidrych II, for all intents and purposes.

"You think The Bird is something? Wait till you see this MacCormack kid," the Tigers basically told everyone -- especially the media and other such riff-raff.

Frank MacCormack made his Tigers debut on June 14, 1976. And he was out of the majors less than a year later.

Of course, Fidrych wouldn't be that far behind MacCormack in vanishing from baseball, but injuries contributed mightily to his downfall.

MacCormack started eight games for the Tigers in '76, going 0-5 with a 5.79 ERA. He walked 34 batters in 32 2/3 innings. The Tigers were hoping for some sort of "Godfather II" magic. Instead, what they got was the sequel to "Porky's."

MacCormack ended up with the expansion Seattle Mariners in 1977, and started three games for them. But Fidrych Lite only appeared in seven innings in those three starts because his wildness got the best of him. He walked 12 in those seven innings, giving him a career total of 46 in 39 2/3 innings.

Like a former scout said about Sandy Koufax, "Koufax would be a great pitcher -- if the plate was high and outside."

Koufax, though, corrected his problem -- corrected it into Hall of Fame greatness. Frank MacCormack faded and was done as a big leaguer by May 3, 1977.

This is why you should never get too greedy with the baseball gods, as the Tigers did in 1976.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Holland Adds That "Depth Guy" With Addition Of Cory Cross

Ahh, happy days are here again.

The Red Wings did it -- they acquired one of those mid-30's, stay-at-home defensemen for the playoff push. Just like the days of yore -- before the new CBA swooped in and tried to steal all our trade deadline fun.

Cory Cross, 35 and a card-carrying member of the NHL Journeymen Club, was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins for a fourth-round pick in the 2007 entry draft.

Cross is a typical Red Wings deadline day acquisition: tough, rugged, unheralded.

And old.

Cross: An old journeyman -- so what else is new?

It just wouldn't be deadline day for Red Wings GM Kenny Holland if he didn't grab someone well into their 30's.

In another move, Detroit traded D Jamie Rivers, who had no role with the team, to Phoenix for a seventh round pick in 2006.

Cross is a veteran of over 600 NHL games, and has never scored more than seven goals in any season. But he wasn't acquired for his offense. At his best, Cory Cross can be the physical presence sorely needed with the end of Jiri Fischer's season. At worst, Cross will be a depth guy that coach Mike Babcock can scratch on any given night.

But don't pooh-pooh this trade. Remember in 2002, when the Red Wings faced a Game 5 in the Finals without Fischer, who'd been suspended? In stepped deadline day acquisition Jiri Slegr, who played well and filled in admirably. The Wings won the Cup that night, mainly because of their tough defensive play.

Cross started the season with Edmonton before being traded to Pittsburgh in late January.

You have my permission to say that a Red Wings opponent hit by Cross has been "Cross-checked."


This USED To Be A Fun Day!

I'm kinda bummed out, but I knew it would be this way.

This used to be one of my most favorite days of the year.

Today is trade deadline day in the NHL, and thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), it's unlikely there'll be lots of moving and shaking when it comes to the Red Wings. As I write this, just over two hours remain before the 3:00pm deadline is upon us.

Oh, how I used to look forward to trade deadline day!

When I spoke to Red Wings GM Ken Holland last month for the Motor City Sports Magazine interview (March issue available at Barnes & Noble and Kroger's and other newsstands -- hint, hint), he told me that, because of the salary cap and the Red Wings being so close to it, it was unlikely the team would do anything major at the deadline.

"We have space to add a depth player, but nothing like a Robert Lang," Holland told me, referring to the deal two years ago -- about a week before the deadline -- that brought Lang to the Red Wings from Washington.

Holland: "We can add a depth player, but nothing major."

Some trades come together at the last minute, though -- so maybe there is hope something will happen before 3:00 today. But, again, probably nothing major.

Trade deadline day used to mean watching the crawls on the bottom of all the ESPN screens and checking every ten minutes and listening to sports talk radio -- even in the shower. If I was at work that day, I had moles all over -- minions who kept me abreast of the goings on in the outside world. Now I work from home, so I have all the resources at my disposal. Problem is, what are they resourcing?

It's not boring all over the league, however.

The Avalanche and Canadiens traded goaltenders -- David Aebischer to Montreal for Jose Theodore -- and that's blockbuster-ish. Other teams have some space to do some serious things. Todd Bertuzzi of Vancouver is supposedly a hot item. Maybe he'll be moved today.

But around here, the new CBA has pretty much put the kibosh on the Red Wings doing anything major, unless big salaries were swapped, and that's unlikely. Every year, it seemed, the Red Wings would pull something out of their hat -- or a part of their anatomy -- like a Larry Murphy (1997), Fredrick Olausson (2002), or Jamie Macoun (1998). Sometimes it was really big doings, like in 1999, when Holland pulled off several deals within the final few hours that landed the Red Wings Chris Chelios, Wendel Clark, Ulf Samuelsson, and Bill Ranford. All old guys, and it didn't work (the Wings lost in the second round to Colorado), but it sure was fun that day.

It's also exciting to see the new player(s), learning a new uniform number or two, and seeing how the new guy fits in. It's also satisfying to hear the predictable comments from the new acquisition, talking about how great it is to be a Red Wing (they all say that, you know). It seems like it's sports that's the only venue where people are public in stating their affection for coming to Detroit -- as long as it's about the Red Wings and the Pistons.

So now it's about 1:00, I made one more check at, and all's quiet.

Damn that new CBA!

P.S. If the Red Wings do something, come back to "Out of Bounds" for expert analysis. (Now, if I can only find an expert....)

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

"Revelation" Of Bonds' Funny Chemistry Is A Yawner -- And That's Too Bad

"I'd like to thank God for human growth hormone...."

Barry Bonds isn't the first baseball player to use performance enhancers. Babe Ruth did it, some 70 or so years ago.

I have said that the Babe was also guilty, but that his substances of choice were beer and hot dogs. And maybe a healthy shot of bicarbonate soda to settle his tummy. Don't laugh -- it worked wonders. And it was legal.

The revelation, in a new book called "Game of Shadows", that Bonds used an array of performance-enhancing drugs for five seasons beginning in 1998 was kind of like finding out, as an adult, that Santa Claus never really existed.

Next we'll be told that Jared didn't really lose all that weight by eating Subway sandwiches.

Barry Bonds, pre-enhancers, and Barry Bonds, post-enhancers, looks like the comparison of David Banner and the Incredible Hulk. So forgive me if I stay firmly planted to my chair as write this.

I don't want to get into Bonds' medicine cabinet, because the list of what he used reads like a word search that employees of the Food and Drug Administration do in their spare time. Some of the stuff wasn't even meant for human consumption. And they have jazzy nicknames like "the cream" and "the clear" and "Mexican beans." Did the last one make him gassy?

Could explain some of the bloating.

I am bittersweet about this "revelation" in the book written by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters. On the one hand, I am happy that Bonds is finally, it appears, being unmasked as the fraud that he is. But another side of me weeps, because never can we again look at powerful homerun hitters in quite the same way. You wonder how many of these gaudy homerun figures are spurious. Clearly, Bonds' are -- but we pretty much knew that already. How much human growth hormone would he have needed to smack the dead balls of Ruth's era over the wall?

Predictably, Bonds was nonplussed by the book, the excerpts of which appear in the new Sports Illustrated.

"I won't even look at it. For what? There's no need to," Bonds said Tuesday at spring training in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Well, sure there's no need, because he already knows what he's done. Why would he need to read it?

The other melancholy aspect of this whole thing is there isn't even a "Say it ain't so, Joe" angle here, because Barry Bonds is not revered and lovable. So there is no shock factor -- no feeling of umbrage. No "How DARE they say that about Barry Bonds!" outrage.

Instead, it's "So how did the the United States do in the World Baseball Classic?"

Yes, even that is more exciting to talk about.

Quibblers and fine-liners and Bonds apologists will point to the fact that baseball didn't ban performance-enhancing drugs until after the 2002 season.

"So he really wasn't doing anything illegal!," they'll crow.

Well, no, but it certainly wasn't right, either. It may only be illegal if you get caught -- or if they write a rule against it. But pumping your body full of foreign substances so you can bulk up and crush a baseball farther than someone who's not doing that isn't what folks are paying their hard-earned money to see. They want baseball players, not laboratory creations.

Barry Bonds has 708 homeruns. He is six away from tying Ruth for second place all-time, and 48 from surpassing Hank Aaron to lead the pack.

Now, if any record deserves an asterisk....

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Puckett Played The Game As If He Needed It To Survive


It is not too much to say that Kirby Puckett put the Minnesota Twins on his shoulders and carried them.

It is also not too much to say that Kirby Puckett played baseball as if it was as important to his very being as oxygen.

And it is certainly not too much to say that Kirby Puckett is gone dozens of years too early.

Puckett, 45, died yesterday of complications from a stroke he suffered at his Arizona home on Sunday.

They're starting to fall now -- those whose careers I remember in their entirety: Reggie White, Walter Payton, Ken Caminiti. And now Kirby Puckett, who I remember, pre-pudginess, skidaddling along the basepaths and chasing down flyballs, but never hitting homeruns. But something happened to Puckett about the same time the Twins changed their uniforms to the current version. No longer was he a spray hitter who had no punch. Puckett had bulked up, learned to drive the ball with power, and made himself one of the best centerfielders in the business.

He was also one of the players that I absolutely hated to see come to the plate with the game on the line.

There were a few of those that I labeled as Tigers killers: Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, John Mayberry, and Paul Molitor, to name a few. Yeah, they killed other teams too -- that's why most of them are in the Hall of Fame. But they seemed to, in my eyes, save some of their most poisonous venom for our Tigers. And Kirby Puckett was among those guys -- especially in that God-awful Metrodome. Of course, I think the Atlanta Braves have me trumped in that department.

It was Puckett, of course, who single-handedly demoralized the Braves in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. First he makes an acrobatic, climb-the-wall catch to rob the Braves of a homerun, then he smacks the game-winning tater, walk-off style, to force Game 7. Everyone remembers Jack Morris' 10-inning shutout in the seventh game, but none of it is possible without Kirby Puckett's heroics in Game 6.

I don't know that I ever saw Kirby Puckett make an easy out. He was never a walk in the park. Every at-bat with Puckett at the plate, you knew you were in for a struggle -- if you were a pitcher, or a fan of the opposing team watching on television, or at the ballpark. He went up to the plate with the intention of battling the pitcher on every pitch, whether it was fouling balls off or using his keen eye to take pitches and run up the count. There was always a sigh of relief when he was finished at the plate -- even if he was standing on first base, because that meant that at least he didn't slap a double or slug a homerun.

After he had to quit prematurely at age 35 due to glaucoma -- that came on suddenly, too -- some say he was never the same. The game was taken away from him, when he almost certainly had five or more years left in his roly-poly body. As a result, Puckett let himself go physically, ballooning to proportions that made his friends and colleagues concerned. I don't know if his obesity contributed to his stroke, for I am not a doctor. Skinny people have strokes, after all. But it is never a good thing when the weight gets too high; it can be a precursor to too many things, and a sign of too many others -- mostly bad.

Kirby Puckett dying at age 45 has already been compared to Lou Gehrig's untimely passing. With all due respect to Kirby, I don't know that I'd go quite that far. But I will allow you that Puckett's death has shaken more than a few of us who remember him as he once was: one of the most energetic, exciting, baddest dudes to pull on the double-knits and New Era cap. He loved the game, and the game loved him back. So did his people.

He was lucky that way.