Friday, June 30, 2006

Walker's Death Causes Wonder

Randy Walker had a twinge back in 2004. In October of that year, Walker checked himself into a hospital after experiencing chest pains. He was diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle; the condition is not a common ailment, and is usually caused by a virus.

He was out of the hospital in two days.

"I've really taken my doctor's orders to heart, because frankly, I want to see my grandkids someday," Walker, Northwestern's head football coach, said at the time.

Two months ago, Northwestern gave Walker a four-year extension through the 2011 season. He joined the school in 1999 after nine years at Miami of Ohio.

Last night, Walker died, not long after collapsing with chest pains. He was 52 years old.

When I was a child, and someone would die around that age, the adults would say something like, "Such a young man." I remember begging to differ. To me, anyone over 40 was ancient.

Today I'm approaching 43, and I know all too well that a 52 year-old man dying is indeed too young. My own father passed of a massive heart attack ten years ago. He was 57. Another young one.

But my father, like Walker, had previous heart issues. In fact, my dad had open heart surgery in 1965 -- at age 26 -- to have an artificial valve inserted. He flew -- and my dad was deathly afraid of planes -- to Houston to have the operation done by famed heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey.

And that valve was working just fine when he died suddenly in February 1996.

I'm always amazed that coaches, with their long hours and penchant for getting wound up during games, haven't been carted away on stretchers into waiting ambulances more than they have. It's unbelievable that more of them don't drop dead before our very eyes, despite how morbid that may sound.

Detroit has been a heart attack-prone sports city.

There was Charlie Dressen, the Tigers manager of the mid-1960's. He suffered a heart attack in spring training, 1965, and was stricken again in May 1966. He died that August.

Lions coach Don McCafferty was barely a week into his second training camp in 1974 when he was felled. He died almost immediately.

And need I remind you of Chuck Hughes, the Lions receiver? He died during a 1971 game against the Bears -- a seemingly healthy man in his mid-20's. Heart attack.

Ray Oyler, the light-hitting shortstop of the '68 Tigers, was dead at age 42, in 1981, of a heart attack. Joe Sparma, a pitcher on that World Series championship team, died in 1986 after suffering a heart attack. He was 44.

Some get the warning signs. Former Utah basketball coach Rick Majerus, certainly not svelte, obeyed the twinges of his body and cooled it. Eventually, he got out of coaching, preferring the pressure-less world of TV talking head.

Randy Walker's death will be properly mourned, and it may prompt a temporary uptick of physical exams from men in their early 50's.

And still I'll wonder how the sports coach, with his hard and mostly sleepless life, combined with game day angst, doesn't leave us too soon more often. Not that I'm complaining.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Jim Leyland: AL Manager Of The Year

Hockey calls it the Jack Adams Trophy. But they're the league that has a fetish for naming their awards and trophies after hockey people -- and sometimes non-hockey folks. Lady Byng, for example, never skated one shift in the NHL.

The rest of the four major team sports keep it simple, stupid: Coach of the Year. Correction -- in baseball it's Manager of the Year.

Each league likes to present these awards to commanders who've taken over a rickety plane and have managed to fly it straight, if even for just one season.

Wayne Fontes was a one-hit wonder. He took a pedestrian Lions team that finished 6-10 in 1990 and used emotions and some pixie dust to coax it into a 12-4 record and a trip to the Conference Championship. He won Coach of the Year honors, even though the voters must have known that the 6-10 1990 team was also coached by Wayne Fontes. Regardless, the Lions free-falled in 1992, dropping to 5-11. If there was an UN-Coach of the Year award for '92, Fontes would have won that, too.

Jacques Demers arrived in Detroit in the summer of 1986 with this charge: take a 17-57-6 team that gave up over 400 goals and make it at least in the neighborhood of respectable. He did more than that -- he also led his team to the finals of its conference. For that he won the -- ahem -- Jack Adams Trophy. The Red Wings made it to the league's Final Four the next season, too -- with their injured captain Steve Yzerman missing the season's final month due to a serious knee injury. Voters thought that Demers' coaching was still solid, and so bestowed upon him a second straight Adams Trophy.

It's almost unheard of for the Coach (or Manager, or Jack Adams) of the Year Award to go to a coach who takes over a winner and keeps it winning. Pfft -- anyone can do THAT, the voters reason. Show us someone who's making chicken salad out of chicken feathers. It's the main reason why Chuck Daly never won the award whilst coaching the Pistons -- even though there were years when nobody could outcoach him. But there you are.

Jimmy Leyland has won Manager of the Year -- twice, in fact. Once in 1990, after leading the Pirates to a 21-game improvement, and again in 1992, after coming off a division-winning season. He bucked the odds on that occasion.

Your 2006 AL Manager of the Year

The Tigers have been chicken feathers for well over a decade. Some would say they have been more like the feces of a horse, but you get the idea.

Today, the Tigers sit at 53-25, the best record in all of baseball. This in a town where the 53rd win usually comes sometime in September. If at all.

He won't ever agree with the assertion, but there is no way the Tigers have the glittering record they now possess if Jim Leyland does not occupy the manager's office.

He's leading a team that's starting to make a town go daffy over its baseball again, and he does it with daring, unconventional means, and a constant challenge to his players. There is no question, from player 1 to 25, who bosses the team.

Leyland, in my completely unbiased mind, is this year's hands-down winner of his third Manager of the Year Award. You might as well give it to him right now, as far as I'm concerned.

Managers don't pitch. They don't field. They don't hit. So how can they influence a team's success, or failure?

There are maybe six inches between the ears of the average big league baseball player's skull. They say baseball is a game of inches, and never is it more true than in this example. Because it's the manager who can infilitrate those six inches of cranium and take up residence, coating the player's mind with mantras of how to play, how to win, how to lose.

Some can do it better than others, let's face it.

None of the men who've succeeded Sparky Anderson as Tigers manager -- and we're in the 11th season of no Sparky -- have been able to commandeer their players' brain matter like Jim Leyland is doing this season.

Of course, some players' brains aren't the problem. It's their ballplaying skills. So sometimes it doesn't matter how much you control their psyche; if they can't play, they can't play. Leyland knows this perhaps as much as anyone who's ever managed.

In 1997, Leyland's Florida Marlins won the World Series, thanks to a run in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game. He had some players who could play. And the players had a manager who could manage. They also had a GM who knew how to get the right personnel. His name was Dave Dombrowski.

But in 1998, his owner having sold off his star players in the world's most expensive fire sale, Leyland was forced to manage big league impostors. The result was a 54-108 record, 12 months after winning the whole enchilada. The manager had players who couldn't play. And the fact that the players had a manager who could still manage meant nothing.

There is a line about a hotshot rookie that has made the rounds in sports.

"If he doesn't win Rookie of the Year this season," his coach supposedly said, "then he'll never win it."

Jim Leyland isn't limited to one shot at winning Manager of the Year. His duplicity in the early-1990's is proof of that. But his chance of winning one in the American League, with the Tigers, may not be as great as in 2006. Because next year he won't be managing a team that's coming off a season in which they were horse...feathers.

My vote is cast. My unbiased vote.

Monday, June 26, 2006

And With The #1 Pick....

Basketball is unlike any other team sport. And so is how it is replenished every summer, vis a vis the entry draft.

In what other sport can you change 20% of your starting lineup, with one reading of a name into the commissioner's microphone?

The NFL Draft is the mother of all drafts. Well, it's a mother, anyway. Fans circle the draft's date one year hence, and make arrangements to fly to New York City, or crowd themselves into a team-sanctioned circus tent near their town. They wear jerseys and paint their faces and issue a verdict within three seconds of Paul Tagliabue's announcement of their team's choice. The draft is dissected more than a biology lab frog. Pasty-looking experts on ESPN tell us all we need to know, so much so that you wonder why they bother having the actual draft at all? Then you see who actually picks who, and you remember why the pasty experts call them "mock drafts."

But for all that grandeur, pro football is 22 starters -- offense and defense. And don't forget the special teamers. Yes, there are impact players, but their impact can sometimes only be so much, if the buffoons around them are constantly engaged in tomfoolery.

The NBA has no such quagmire. Five starters. Maybe eight contributing players per team -- the ones who play when the score isn't a 20-point gap with two minutes to play.

With such a limited roster, one great choice can indeed affect a team's makeup dramatically.

Or not.

In the early 70's, the Portland Trailblazers selected, #1 off the board, a tall beanpole named LaRue Martin. He was heralded as a "can't miss" kid -- those ancient words. His impact is still being waited to be felt. Although he did have some impact; Martin's bust greased the skids for a certain Portland coach to be fired, because he didn't have the good fortune of coaching the teams's next #1 pick, Bill Walton. That coach's name was Jack McCloskey.

In 1984, the Trailblazers struck again. Michael Jordan was a jewel, staring brightly at them following a couple of glorious years at the University of North Carolina. He was another can't-miss kid. Maybe the Portland people told themselves they weren't going to fall for that label again. They selected Sam Bowie, a rickety center from the University of Kentucky.


The Pistons had themselves a cache of first round picks in the 1978 and '79 drafts. They were stockpiled -- gathered for long, hard winters by management. The team would only need to use them with some degree of competence, and a competitive team would be theirs.

Only one problem: Dickie Vitale.

Vitale gathered the curious under his draft circus tent and proceeded to select the following players in those two years: John Long (U-D); Terry Tyler (U-D); Phil Hubbard (U-M); Greg Kelser (MSU); Roy Hamilton (UCLA). The territorial draft had been killed off by the NBA in the mid-1960's. Yet Vitale, with his one good eye, couldn't see past his own state's borders, apparently.


This Wednesday, the bright TV lights will burn and camera flashes will pop and the former players-turned ESPN announcers will tell us all about it before it happens, as usual. More can't-miss kids will be selected. Some will definitely miss, however. So we will be lied to -- imagine that.

Mock drafts, indeed.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

30 Years Later, Still None Like Fidrych

Mark Fidrych died in spring training, 1977. Funeral arrangements are still pending.

For one year he was very much alive – The Bird. From May to October, 1976, Fidrych spun the baseball world round and round on top of his self-manicured pitching mound. He was a spike on what was mostly a flatlined baseball heart monitor in Detroit between 1974-78.

Then Fidrych himself flatlined, and it basically happened in one fateful moment in Lakeland, Florida in March 1977.

Nobody since has splashed onto the baseball scene as Fidrych did in ’76. Nobody has captivated the game’s fans – young and old – with the same youthful naivety and innocence as Mark Fidrych did 30 years ago. Nobody has even come close, really.

Do not tell me about Fernando Valenzuela’s debut, or Kerry Wood’s. Do not tell me about Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire and their assault on a homerun record, which was most likely taken via a crooked path. Do not tell me about any of these, or any other, because I will spot you the goofiest stretch of gravitational pull of fans that you can muster, and it simply cannot match Fidrych’s 1976 traveling show.

The legend of Fidrych is oft-told, so there’s no need to bother with too much space for that. Suffice it to say that the tall, gangly, 21 year-old kid with the yellow mop of hair turned everyone on by talking to the baseball, grooming his pitching mound – on his hands and knees – and enthusiastically congratulating his teammates after big plays and wins. And oh, yeah – The Bird could pitch, too. He had a 19-9 record and a league-leading 2.34 ERA. He was the American League’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game.

“I’ve seen Tom Seaver go out and mow them down,” then-teammate Rusty Staub, the former New York Met, said during that glorious summer of ’76, “but I’ve never seen a pitcher turn on the fans like The Bird.”

The numbers – the attendance figures, specifically – told the story. Ballparks across the country held an average of over 30,000 fans every time Fidrych took the mound. He certainly must have led the majors in walk-up ticket purchases. Fidrych was baseball’s pied piper.

Fidrych owned the baseball world in 1976

Then it all ended, and with a soft thud of a leg awkwardly planting itself on an outfield’s grass.

It was Staub who felt a feeling of foreboding.

“Bird was goofing around, shagging balls in the outfield,” Staub once recounted of that March day in 1977. “He was jumping up and down, and acting foolish. I told him that he’d better take it down a notch. I was afraid he was going to hurt himself.”

A few minutes later, Staub’s fears were realized.

“I saw him come down funny on his left leg, and there was a popping sound,” Staub said. “I thought, ‘Oh, no. He did it. He hurt himself.’ Bad.”

Fidrych tore up his left knee, shagging flyballs in a spring training outfield.

June 28, 1976. The night that Mark Fidrych officially became a part of the public’s consciousness.

He missed the first nine weeks of the season, and made his return at Tiger Stadium in late May, 1977. The opponents were the expansion Seattle Mariners. Fidrych, pitching again in front of a sellout crowd of shrieking fans, pitched well but lost.

He seemed on the way back, going 6-4 with another respectable ERA of under 3.00. But then more trouble: His right arm went funny.

Tendinitis, they called it. Back to the disabled list Fidrych went.

That was pretty much the end of his baseball. Fidrych tried several comebacks from the arm trouble, but each got progressively worse. He retired officially in 1981, after getting knocked around like a pinball while trying to make the Boston Red Sox.

The prevailing thought, the connect-the-dot wisdom, was that Fidrych’s knee injury caused a subtle change in his pitching mechanics, which brought on the tendinitis. It’s a logical theory, one that has been put forward by medical experts.

So using that widely-held view, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych died 29 springs ago.

But that was the flatlining. The spike occurred almost 30 years ago to the day.

June 28, 1976. The night that Mark Fidrych officially became a part of the public’s consciousness.

It was “Monday Night Baseball” on ABC, a network that found football so pleasing on Monday nights that it decided to try baseball there, too. Besides, they only had to change one word on the graphics.

This was a big deal because the New York Yankees were the opponents. And after some moribund years, the Yankees were returning to the glory that had been theirs and theirs alone for decades. Billy Martin was their manager. They came to Detroit with a healthy eight-game lead in the American League East division.

Fidrych handled them. Easily.

Pitching with the urgency and quickness that was another of his trademarks, Fidrych finished off the Yankees in one hour, 51 minutes before nearly 48,000 fans and millions watching their boob tubes. The final score was 5-1. Fidrych’s win bumped his record to 8-1, and by Tuesday morning the 29th of June, 1976, an unbelievable amount of folks knew who Mark Fidrych was, who may not have known the previous evening.

That Monday night game, for all intents and purposes, was Fidrych’s zenith. He was the All-Star starter a few weeks later, but he was knocked around in two innings by the cream of the National League crop.

Fidrych was the quintessential “one hit wonder”, but he was never bitter about his career’s brevity. Consistently he has been thankful for the time he had, and genuinely unfazed by his body’s betrayal. Always he has been willing to return to Detroit to participate in special occasions or sign autographs.

He has been at peace with his playing career, yet he never got back into the game in some other capacity. He never really tried. We are left to wonder why.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Danica Patrick: America's Racing Sweetheart (Is That Sexist?)

It might be nice, sometime soon, if Danica Patrick were to actually win an Indy-style race. But there's evidence that that moment may not be all that long in coming.

She led her first Indy 500 for awhile, in 2005, as a rookie. She placed in the top five. She was no joke in this year's Indy, either. The girl has shown, to me, that she belongs among her male brethren. Kind of like the anti-Anna Kournikova, who didn't even belong in her own gender when it came to her tennis-playing ability. Though she was in the top five in looks, granted.

Patrick is an adorable young woman who likes to have pedicures, facials, and go shoe shopping. She wants to take care of her new husband because, as she told Sports Illustrated in the current issue, "He takes care of me and supports me at the track." So she seems like she has a proper, balanced personal scale as well.

And, by the way, Danica Patrick can race a car.

"I like to cook dinner with my husband and watch TV at home,"
Danica told Sports Illustrated

She's amused at comments like those from fellow driver Robby Gordon, who suggested that Patrick's lighter weight gives her an unfair advantage.

"That [weight thing] is silly and not relevant, really," she told SI. "If my weight gave me such an advantage, I would have won every race by now. I'm kind of flattered when people try to pick apart and find reasons or excuses as to why I've been successful. It means I'm doing something right."

You go, girl.

It's not just Patrick's looks, though, that pulls me toward her. It's her outlook and her toughness and the fact that she's already proving that a woman belongs in the pits. But then I had a strange, if not morbid thought.

What if, God forbid, something were to happen to her on the track? Something really bad. Something, dare I say, fatal?

What would that effect be on our psyche?

I remember when the Challenger space shuttle exploded in 1986, and the first thought many of us had was of that teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who was along for the ride as a civilian. Fair or not, her life seemed more mourned than those of her trained, experienced companions. She represented any one of us, I suppose.

Danica Patrick is cute and young and recently married and vibrant, and fair or not, I believe that places her on another shelf when it comes to today's race car drivers. Which is strange, because there are a lot of male drivers who are handsome, married, and vibrant.

But Patrick is female, and despite her obvious belonging, I still think she resides on a slightly different plane among her sport. So if something were to happen, I believe that would be extra difficult to digest. Even writing those words, I wince, because it suggests her life is more important than her colleagues -- which it clearly isn't.

I'm just talking about the effect it would have on people in general -- maybe the non-racing fans, especially. But then again, maybe I'm exhibiting some subtle sexist angle by even bringing it up. She can take care of herself in a car, clearly, but why do I feel like a lot of America would like to shield and protect her?

But she's great for the sport and I'm all for her.

Go, Danica!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Best Since 1984? Guess Again

The 1984 Tigers stormed out to a 35-5 record. It's a numeric benchmark that is burned into the consciousness of an entire state's psyche. They won 104 games, the pennant, and the World Series. As if you needed reminding.

The 1987 Tigers had a substandard benchmark. They started 11-19. But then they ended up with 98 victories -- the most in baseball. They finished 87-45, a .659 clip. They won their division before they, as manager Sparky Anderson believes, ran out of gas in the ALCS following their heart-stopping final-week leapfrog over the Toronto Blue Jays. The Miracle of Michigan and Trumbull.

Today's Tigers play at the pace of thoroughbreds. Their record is a spiffy 48-25. A .658 rate of victory. Just .001 away from the '87 team.

It's an easy mistake to make, to say that this year's Tigers are playing the best ball of any Detroit baseball team since 1984. Often I've heard it.

"This is just like '84."

"Wow -- haven't seen this kind of winning since those 'Bless You Boys' Tigers of '84."

Then again, I've taken it one step further backward. Frankly, this season's club reminds me more of the 1968 team, with their power and late-inning comebacks and aggressive play. Of course, I can hardly expect a comparison to a team that many of today's fans with cell phones speed-dialed into sports talk radio stations weren't anywhere near being around to see.

Regardless, the '84 comparison is nice, but wrong. The '87 Tigers played better after their first 30 games -- much better actually -- than the '84 boys did. To wit:

1984 Tigers last 132 games: 78-54, .591
1987 Tigers last 132 games: 87-45, .659

The '87 team comparison is right in another way: neither team -- the '87 and '06 versions -- was picked to do much of anything in their division. The 1984 Tigers, though, were second-place finishers in '83, and after the Willie Hernandez/Dave Bergman trade, many folks placed them as the frontrunners. But in 1987, the Tigers were going to go without Lance Parrish, who had signed with the Phillies as a free agent. There were question marks on the mound, and on paper the club looked rather pedestrian. The 11-19 start did nothing to dissuade the naysayers.

But in early June, the Tigers picked up Bill Madlock, who'd been set free by the Dodgers. He was a veteran hitter, a former batting champ, and he was a non-entity in Los Angeles.

There can be something marvelously theraputic for a player whose scenery changes. Many pennant winners have had such a player -- the persona non grata of Team A who gets picked up by Team B and for a month, or two, or three, becomes Babe Ruth or Cy Young. The Tigers rescued Frank Howard from Texas late in the '72 season, and Hondo helped them win the division in return. They would get the same kind of help from Bill Madlock in 1987.

Madlock turned back ino vintage "Mad Dog", and the Tigers picked up a dour veteran pitcher named Doyle Alexander in August. He went 9-0, with three shutouts. Doubtless the Tigers would have been in peril without Alexander's contribution.

Already, the trade deadline still over a month away, possible pickups for the Tigers' presumed playoff push are being bantied about. More speculation and pretend trades by the cell phone callers to WDFN and WXYT radio. Some are fantasy moves, only benefitting the Tigers. The owners of the other teams better hope their GMs aren't as stupid as those Detroit callers want them to be.

So let 1987 be the better comparison to the 2006 Tigers.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Dwyane Wade Is The CURRENT Michael Jordan

The Miami Heat finally have their next Michael Jordan -- fourteen years later.

In 1992, the Heat drafted Harold Miner, a 6'5" guard out of USC. He was dubbed "Baby Jordan" -- though I wasn't sure why at the time, and I sure as heck don't know why now -- 14 years after the fact. Regardless, Miner was supposed to be able to do things on the basketball court that only a certain #23 for the Chicago Bulls was capable of doing. He was a first round pick, #12 off the board. How 11 teams managed to pass up on such a sure thing as the next MJ would be curious, except those teams were clearly much smarter than the executives from the Heat.

Miner was out of the NBA three years later, a career PPG of 9.0. The legend of Jordan was saved!

But now I submit to you that the Heat do indeed have a player that's as close of a package to Michael Jordan as I've ever seen.

Dwyane Wade, I begrudgingly declare, is the current Michael Jordan. But don't misunderstand me here. For to declare someone the "current Michael Jordan" is not the same as saying that player is as good as Michael Jordan. Though Wade is pretty damn close.

Wade is poetry in motion -- a stylish artisan of swoops, leaps, fadeaways, and hangs. He is an assassin in sneakers -- a player to whom the fourth quarter belongs, with hardly a failure. He has a cache of weapons that nobody else possesses. The only chink, to me, is his pedestrian three-point shot. The same shot that took Jordan several seasons to hone.

I knew Wade was good, but I had no idea just how good until I saw him slice and dice the Pistons in the Conference Finals. You'd still have trouble convincing me that Wade missed even one shot in the Pistons series -- even if you showed me a videotaped replay of it. Then I would tell you that you had the tape digitally altered by some Hollywood hotshot.

THAT'S what I'm talking about!

Now, in the NBA Finals -- the world's biggest basketball stage -- Dwyane Wade is filleting the Dallas Mavericks. Once again the fourth quarter is his and his alone. The shooting percentage isn't always high -- less than 40% in Game 5 -- but the effects his game has on the outcome is undeniable. With about ten seconds to go in Game 5, the Heat down by one, Wade got the ball and proceeded to dribble through about three or four Mavericks. Most players would be considered out of control. But Wade was very much in control. All of the Mavericks, it seemed, collapsed on him. No matter. Wade drew the foul, then calmly -- CALMLY -- sank both free throws, the nothing-but-net variety. Those free throws provided his team with the margin of victory, which has enabled Miami to win its first ever NBA title tonight.

Wade has the same gravity-defying airborn abilities -- it appears -- that Jordan so brilliantly displayed. He has the Jordan fadeaway jumper. The Jordan magic beneath the basket on baseline drives.

He does not, though, possess the Jordan number of basketball championships -- he may yet approach them -- nor does he play in the same league that which Jordan ruled. And that second thing is why I call Wade the "current" Michael Jordan.

Wade's NBA is a watered-down version of Jordan's NBA. More teams, thinner talent on those teams. He -- Wade -- is a prince of paupers, while Jordan was a king of royalty.

But that doesn't mean that Dwyane Wade isn't one of the very best players to ever slip on an NBA tank top and shorts. He is. In today's game, he is without question the best player on any team, on any day.

He will have his time, as Jordan did before him and Bird, Magic, Kareem, Chamberlain, and Russell did before that. They all had theirs, which is all anyone can ask.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Is Phil Mickelson An Idiot?

The way I figure it, Billy Buckner still has one over on Phil Mickelson.

Buckner, whose error blew Game 6 of the 1986 World Series for his Red Sox teammates, at least had the dignity of having his blunder over and done with in a split second. It was painful, but it was over quickly; if you blinked, you might have missed the ground ball slipping between his legs. Of course, there's always videotape, in case you missed it.

Mickelson, though, whose horrifying 18th hole Sunday relinquished the U.S. Open to Geoff Ogilvy, had his nightmare played out before everyone in slow-motion fashion. Lefty, in six gruesome shots, suddenly had Winged Foot jammed up his rear end, when it looked as if he'd be kissing it as the victor.

"I'm such an idiot. I can't believe I did that," Mickelson groaned to the reporters and media folks who wondered, hey, what happened?

Then again, we've all said that, haven't we?

"I'm such an idiot. I can't believe I did that."

If I had a dime for everytime I uttered that to Mrs. Eno, for example, I might be as rich as Mickelson or any other successful pro golfer.

But Mickelson's idiocy cost him some dough, not to mention the ignomity of having blown a major tournament.

Rare is it when a golfer wins a major championship while waiting in the clubhouse, but that's exactly what happened to Ogilvy. Mickelson's fold on #18 ensured that.

Shot #1: Tee shot flies over the crowd and ricochets off a hospitality tent.
Shot #2: An iron smacks a tree.
Shot #3: He clears the tree -- but lands in a sand trap.
Shot #4: On the green...but off again.
Shot #5: Out of the rough and onto the green for good.
Shot #6: Made putt.

No, those weren't my most recent six shots -- they were Mickelson's. And with them, he handed Geoff Ogilvy the U.S. Open on a silver tee.

The thing about golf -- especially when a hole turns into Hades -- is that there's nobody to blame but yourself. Each shot, as things get worse and worse, brings more and more winces and groans from a crowd that has turned from observers to a gallery full of parents watching their child walk for the first time. Or drive a car. One eye shut, the other open.

Bill Buckner's error was a Band-Aid being ripped off in one fell swoop. Phil Mickelson's fourth-round 18th hole was a centimeter-by-centimeter Band-Aid removal, with some salt and vinegar poured in for good measure.

Is Mickelson an idiot? Of course not. He's just a guy who had his worst hole of the tournament at the worst possible time. In slow motion. In front of millions. To lose a major.

Beware those winged feet. They'll get you every time.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

What Have You Done For Me Lately? Legace On His Way Out Of Hockeytown

The defeated goaltender squinted through sweat into the bright TV lights, microphones jabbing toward his mouth. His words were suicidal, and in the aftermath of his team’s playoff ousting, nobody was sure if they were literal, or figurative.

“Right now, I feel like hanging myself,” Manny Legace said that night – May 1st – in Edmonton. It’s either a sad truth or a pathetic observation that there were thousands of fans, at that moment, who’d spring for the noose and helped build the gallows.

Legace wasn’t the only reason, for sure, that the Red Wings, such hotshots in the regular season, were drummed out in the first round of the NHL playoffs by the Edmonton Oilers, four games to two. But he was perhaps the most visible. It’s always true in hockey; the man in the net is so often the difference maker.

In any given NHL postseason, the two finalists are teams each anchored by a goalie who has outplayed his counterpart in each round. Sometimes it’s an expected veteran, like Dominik Hasek or Ed Belfour or Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur. Sometimes it’s a journeyman who’s gotten hot at the right time. Sometimes it’s a playoff neophyte who doesn’t know any better, but is stopping everything in sight just the same.

Regardless, the two teams who end up playing for Lord Stanley’s Cup don’t have goaltender issues.

Legace was one of the outplayed counterparts.

Dwayne Roloson, the Oilers goalie, was the victor because he had the deftness to stop the pucks he should have stopped, and the brilliance to cause everyone to free him from blame on the shots that ended up behind him.

Manny Legace could do neither of those things, and in every game of the series, he let in what the announcers like to call “soft” goals.

A wraparound. A fluttering puck between the arm and side. An unscreened shot, along the ice, between the legs. A fifty-foot wrist shot.

The ice cold truth: Legace had his chance, and blew it

They were backbreaking goals, all of them, and it’s difficult to ignore the impact they had on the Red Wings’ chances against the eighth-seeded Oilers.

But it looks like Red Wings fans won’t have Manny Legace to kick around and fantasize about hanging anymore.

General Manager Ken Holland announced last week that the team would not try to re-sign Legace before the July 1st deadline for free agency. Manny is, Holland said, free to pursue a deal with another team. It’s a nice, professional way to say that someone has been fired.

Legace’s cashiering is, I’m told through good sources, just part of what could be a fairly substantial personnel change within the Red Wings this summer. Holland is taking this playoff defeat hard, the sources say, and it should be unsurprising to us to see significant roster changes. We’ll see.

But this playoff run was supposed to be Legace’s big chance to prove to folks that he was more than a career backup goalie. He understood the implications of failure, but at the same time, he seemed overwhelmed by them. His words before the Edmonton series belied someone whose confidence was soaring. And his play indicated someone whose shirt collar was tightening. Like a noose.

Holland, though, could hardly be faulted for thinking Legace could handle the load of being the #1 goalie in a town not known for its sympathy toward netminders. The regular season numbers were slick.

If you had asked me just before the playoffs if I thought Manny Legace could be the guy who’d win a playoff series or two for the Red Wings, I’d have said yes.

If, after the playoffs, you’d have asked me if the Red Wings needed to upgrade themselves in net, I’d have said yes.

That’s the way we play it in Detroit.

We ran Timmy Cheveldae out of town, then Bob Essensa ran himself out of town. The Mike Vernon/Chris Osgood tandem proved ineffective, until Vernon alone kept the net during the 1997 Cup run. Vernon left, and it was Osgood’s turn in 1998 to man the goal. It wasn’t the most stable of netminding jobs of any Cup victor, Osgood’s ’98 performance. He had a fetish for letting in slap shots from center ice. But he got the job done.

Three more years of a Cup drought ensued, so the Red Wings traded for Hasek, a big name veteran who’d never won the Big One. It worked. Hasek didn’t need to be brilliant all of the time, but he was when he had to be. Some say he won Game 3 of the Finals – a triple overtime thriller – by himself. I was one of those “some.”

But then Hasek retired, and the Red Wings tried the big name game again. They signed Curtis Joseph, paid him lots of dollars. The team won one playoff series in two seasons with Joseph as its goaltender.

So the job was given to Legace, almost by default. Joseph was allowed to sign with Phoenix, and Osgood came back, but strictly in a backup role. The Red Wings’ playoff fate would ride with a “career backup,” those ancient words.

The big name game had failed, with Joseph. And the “career backup who’d prove to everyone he was more” angle has failed.

It might be cruel to say that Manny Legace choked – gagged ingloriously – when he had his big chance. It could be called unfair to place the blame for the Red Wings’ surprising first round defeat at his crease.

But this is Detroit – a city that is so arrogant about its hockey that it has proclaimed itself Hockeytown. I’d like to know what that makes Montreal, but that’s another story. Anyhow, here it doesn’t matter if it’s cruel or unfair to throw the goalie under the proverbial bus.

The Red Wings are in search of another goalie this summer. But where do you go to find the next Dwayne Roloson, or Jean-Sebastian Giguere? Or Dominik Hasek? How do you know if who you’re signing can reliably stop pucks in May?

The only sure thing is knowing who can’t, and too late.

Friday, June 16, 2006

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Tigers-Cubs Nice, But An '84 Version Would Have Been Nicer

Kenny Rogers and I have something in common -- at least for the next 48 hours.

Neither he, nor I, have pitched in Wrigley Field.

That common ground between us will end Sunday, when Rogers will get the nod against the Cubs in an interleague game. Amazingly, Wrigley is one ballpark that The Gambler hasn't experienced on the mound. He was a member of the Mets in 1999, but didn't pitch against the Cubs in Chicago.

"I'm looking forward to pitching there," Rogers said earlier this week.

Hasn't anyone told him it's not exactly a pitcher's park?

These interleague games are nice, I suppose, but had the Cubs not folded like a tent in 1984, we'd have been treated to a REAL dandy: Tigers/Cubs, World Series-style.

The '84 Cubs had a 2-0 lead over the San Diego Padres in the NLCS -- winning the first two games at Wrigley. Back then, you only had to win three games to capture the pennant. But the series shifted to San Diego, and so did the momentum. The Cubs dropped all three in Southern California, including a Leon Durham error that cost them a game -- kind of a Bill Buckner play, before Billy Buck came along to ruin the Red Sox in the '86 WS.

But when the Cubs had that 2-0 lead, and the Tigers were doing the same to the Kansas City Royals, visions of a Tigers-Cubs World Series filled our heads like sugar plums around Christmastime. It would have been dubbed the I-94 Series. Two old, historic ballparks. Two old, historic teams. And they had some WS history -- the Tigers beating the Cubbies in 1945, and the Cubs vanquishing the Tigers twice in a row late in the 20th century's first decade.

It would have had another meaning, but not too many folks would have been aware of it. In the book, They Call Me Sparky -- published in 1998 -- it was revealed that Tigers manager Sparky Anderson was very close to signing on as Cubs manager for the 1980 season. He was doing California Angels TV games as an analyst early in the '79 season, having been fired by the Cincinnati Reds after the '78 season. Tigers announcer George Kell found out Sparky was in negotiations with the Cubs, and so he told Tigers GM Jim Campbell. The word was that Sparky was going to take over the Cubs starting in 1980. The thought of Sparky managing the Tigers started to intrigue and interest Campbell more and more, and before long, he was peppering Anderson with phone calls. After a lot of persuading and determination, Anderson agreed to join the Tigers -- and in 1979 instead of 1980.

"I couldn't look [then manager] Les Moss in the eye if I knew I was firing him after the season," Campbell was quoted in the book.

So Sparky took over in June 1979 -- and the team promptly lost 9 of its next 11 games.

Things got better after that.

So here we are with Tigers-Cubs '06, and this version ain't bad. The first place Tigers -- owners of baseball's best record -- invading the Cozy Confines. Kenny Rogers taking the hill for the first time at Wrigley Field -- as a 41 year-old.

So NOW what will Kenny and I talk about, now that some common ground will be lost forever?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Roethlisberger's Air Of Invincibility Common Among His Ilk

Superman -- another movie version -- opens June 30 (at theatres everywhere). The Man of Steel is fiction -- a comic book hero whose exploits have been transferred to the boob tube and silver screen throughout the past 50 years or so. He is, for all intents and purposes, indestructible -- both from pop culture, and from our consciousness.

Ben Roethlisberger -- and this should come as no shock -- isn't Superman. Maybe somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he thinks he is. Winning the Super Bowl (notice the first word of the game's name?) in his second pro season, and the adulation that comes with that, and his young age, might encourage the Superman mentality.

But Roethlisberger, who until today lied in a Pittsburgh hospital recovering from injuries sustained in a horrific motorcycle accident Monday, is no more immortal than the next person. Some would say his behavior -- riding the bike without a helmet -- made him, at the moment of the crash, more mortal than the next, helmeted person.

Pro athletes -- especially the younger ones -- and their college counterparts often carry themselves with the invincible air that should only be reserved for comic book characters. But they, along with movie stars and recording artists, live hard and play hard. Fast. Reckless. Invincible.

There's no telling how much worse, or fatal, Roethlisberger's accident could have been had he landed a different way after being thrown from his bike. The lack of a helmet contributes greatly to this ghoulish hypothetical vision.

James Dean, Hollywood rabble rouser, had the invincibility air. He drove his sports car at fiendishly high speeds. One day, he drove it too fast for the last time.

A pitcher from the Milwaukee Brewers named Danny Frisella celebrated New Year's, 1977 by riding a dune buggy with reckless abandon. His celebration ended with a fatal crash. He wasn't yet 31 years old.

Ben Roethlisberger leaves the hospital today, and already folks are wondering how this will affect his play on the field. But thanks to his play off the field, the bigger question should be: How will this affect his life?

When you get a reprieve despite your reckless ways, it's best not to go to that well too many times.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Straight Shooter Rutherford Hard To Root Against

Doubtless Jimmy Rutherford will once again be pacing a hallway, somewhere in Carolina's ice arena, staring at the floor, tomorrow night. It's how I caught him years ago -- 14 and some change -- as a rookie coach of the Detroit Junior Red Wings. But the stakes will be slightly higher Wednesday night. For Rutherford, the old Red Wings goalie during the "Darkness With Harkness" 1970's, is on the verge of winning his first Stanley Cup -- as GM of the Hurricanes, who are up 3-1 in their Finals series with Edmonton.

In December 1991, Rutherford, then the GM of the Ontario Hockey League's Jr. Wings, fired coach Andy Weidenbach and took over the coaching reins himself. He'd never coached before. I was directing Jr. Wings games on television in those days, and one of our broadcasts just happened to be the night Rutherford was to make his coaching debut.

Rutherford today: Carolina's slick GM

But there was a snowstorm that evening, and the bus carrying the Jr. Wings' opponents was late due to the bad weather. So Rutherford's coaching debut would be delayed about 90 minutes. I spotted him outside his team's dressing room, pacing, arms folded, staring at the floor.

"What a night for this to happen, huh?," I said, trying to soothe his nerves. Rutherford was always a fan of our broadcasts, and he and I had struck up a professional, courteous relationship.

He looked at me and gave me a weak smile. "I just want to get the game started," he said.

We chatted for a bit longer. Inside, his players were dressed, taped, and anxiously awaiting their turn on the ice.

"Good luck," I said, and bid him farewell.

The other team showed up, finally, the game started -- finally, and the Jr. Wings won. "Roach," as his teammates called him when he was a stub of a goaltender, was 1-0 as a head coach.

About the only time I rooted against Rutherford was when the Red Wings faced his Hurricanes in the 2002 Finals. But Roach, as straight a shooter as you'll find in pro sports, would have understood.

There was a time when Rutherford was the tormented goalie for a terrible team. Sometime in the mid-70's, his team playing like a sieve in front of him, Rutherford suffered from nightmares. He would awaken in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat, dreaming of pucks coming at him. Honest to God.

Rutherford as a tormented Red Wings goalie

Everywhere he went as an NHL goalie, it seemed, there was a losing team in front of him. And as a 5'8" goalie, he wasn't the protoptypical, big guy you see now with equipment the size of the Michelin Man. But yet Rutherford persevered to the tune of 13 NHL seasons.

When I first met him, in the summer of 1990, he was a mild-mannered, unassuming guy who spoke softly but with that definitive Canadian accent. We discussed how many games we would broadcast -- the team was called the Ambassadors back then and played their first season at Cobo Arena -- and other business items. Later that first season, Rutherford let me get miked up and stand behind the Ambassadors' bench and be accompanied by a cameraman, for a special feature. I was a quasi-coach that night. It nearly got me killed.

The Windsor Spitfires were in town, coached by Brad "Motor City Smitty" Smith, a former Red Wings tough guy. A Detroit player purposely ran the Spits' goalie late in the blowout loss, and Smith went ballistic. He spotted me on the bench after the game and assumed I was an assistant. He walked all the way around Cobo to come after me, or anyone associated with the Ambassadors. Fortunately I blended in with the crowd. Smith ranted and raved outside the Detroit dressing room before being led away by police. As he left, he saw me again and screamed some obscenities. His eyes were wild.

After the game, I saw Rutherford.

"Of all nights for something like this to happen," I said, a precursor to my remark the night of his coaching debut.

He grinned. "Oh, he'll be alright," Rutherford said about Smith. Of course, it wasn't Smith's well-being that I was concerned about.

But Rutherford had let me stand behind the bench, just as I had asked. Alongside me, a rookie assistant -- a real one -- was Paul Maurice. In 2002, Maurice would coach the Hurricanes against the Red Wings for the Stanley Cup. Today, he is set to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Roach played for them, too.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Cycle Of Winning Can Vary, But It's Always There

Sports runs in cycles. How long those cycles last, is anyone's guess.

When it comes to expansion teams, the learning curve before graduating into winners has varied.

The Toronto Blue Jays didn't sniff postseason hopes until their seventh year in existence, in 1983. Two years later, they won their division, and have been strong contenders, off-and-on, ever since. They won two World Series, to boot.

The Philadelphia Flyers actually won a Stanley Cup in year #7, dispatching the much older Boston Bruins. The Buffalo Sabres were finalists in their fifth season.

The Florida Marlins won a World Series in year #5. In the NFL, the Carolina Panthers played for a conference championship in just their third year of existence.

Others have provided their respective leagues with slapstick much longer before turning from ugly ducklings to swans.

Our own Pistons were a league-wide joke for 30 years after moving to Detroit, before they wore championship rings. They were, throughout the 60's and 70's especially, a dysfunctional organization with a fetish for firing coaches and placing oddballs in the GM chair, like radio announcers, accountants, and lawyers. Then Bill Davidson bought the team and put an end to that nonsense -- Dick Vitale excluded.

The Dallas Mavericks sit this morning halfway to their first NBA Championship, after dismantling the Miami Heat, 99-85, in Game 2. The Mavericks are in their 26th season. Their learning curve, apparently, had a few twists and turns in it.

In 1981, after their maiden season, the Mavs had a chance to draft either Mark Aguirre, a scoring forward from DePaul, or Isiah Thomas, the smiling point guard extraordinaire from Indiana. The Mavs went with Aguirre, because the prevailing feeling back then was that you can't build a title team around a 6'1" point guard.

Mavs coach Dick Motta raved about his new selection in 1981. He couldn't talk enough about how Mark Aguirre was going to lead the Mavericks to the promised land.

Years later, the marriage dissolving, Motta would call Aguirre "gutless" and a "jackass."

The Mavericks did, however, reach the conference finals in 1988 -- year #8 for them. But that was that with Mark Aguirre, and a season later, he was a Piston, joining friend Isiah. And Mark Aguirre got his championship ring -- two of them, actually -- after all. Even jackasses can be winners sometimes.

The Miami Heat are in their 18th season as an NBA team, and they gave the league's fans the expected amount of Keystone Kops for their first several seasons. But it wasn't until past their tenth season that they became semi-serious title contenders. It has always taken longer in the NBA.

It's always fun to see how teams will go from being champs to chumps, usually over a period of X-amount of years. Today, the Portland Trailblazers are snickered at. "The Jailblazers", they are called with derision. But there was a time when the team from Portland was the league's yardstick. They won a championship, and played for a couple more. They were all but invincible at home.

The Green Bay Packers were the NFL in the 1960's. Then, in the 70's and 80's, they were among the dregs of the league. The uniforms stayed the same as those title teams of Vince Lombardi, but the play was 180 degrees different. Then the Packers traded for Brett Favre, and we were once again reminded what a competent quarterback could do for a franchise.

The Yankees had a down time in the mid-to-late 1960's. Fans everywhere gloated when the Yanks were scraping the bottom of the American League. They don't gloat any longer.

The cycles run, and nobody can do anything about them, it seems. This year, in the NBA, it's a first-timer's year to wear the ring. And someday the Mavs and the Heat will once again be laughed at. The Pistons were slapstick just a few years after their second straight championship. So it can, and does, happen.

Sports churns.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Curtis Granderson: Ron LeFlore Without The Baggage

Curtis Granderson sat in front of his locker stall, slowly twirling a bat in his hands. It was quiet time – a couple of hours yet before the Tigers were to take on the Chicago White Sox in April. And he spoke in a soft, pleasant tone to the visitor standing before him. Me.

“We work on footwork a lot,” Granderson said. “We try to find the best way to get to the ball.”

As Granderson filled the interloper’s head with serious baseball talk, his teacher – the other half of “we,” happened by.

“Check out this glove,” outfielders coach Andy Van Slyke said, flapping the leather open and closed in his left hand. “You’ll never drop a ball with this beauty.”

The coach mimicked reaching for a shoestring catch, his eyes dancing and his face bright.

Granderson nodded, watching his tutor with bemusement.

“Here,” Van Slyke said, and he handed the mitt to the Tigers starting centerfielder – anointed as such after a brilliant spring training in which he so badly outplayed Nook Logan, Nook didn’t even make the team. Logan plays in Toledo now.

Granderson took the glove, fitted it onto his hand, and did the same thing every ballplayer from Little League on up does when he places a foreign mitt on his hock: The open-and-close flapping that Van Slyke had just done.

Open. Close. Open-close. Open-close-open-close.

“It’s a nice glove,” Granderson said quietly. “Nice glove. Strings are long, though.”

Van Slyke told of how, when he played for Pittsburgh, his long strings got caught in his spikes and he tumbled over his own feet going for a shoestring catch.

Then came the smile from the young centerfielder that I submit will someday be almost as famous around these parts as Isiah Thomas’ cherubic grin.

Thomas’ grin, though, hid an executioner’s heart on the basketball court: cold, lethal, without remorse.

It’s hard to imagine Curtis Granderson, at this stage of his young career, being lethal to even a housefly.

But Granderson is not only the Tigers’ centerfielder, he’s also been installed as the team’s leadoff hitter. And so, it’s his charge to make things happen. Teams don’t put slow-footed hacks at the top of the order, after all.

There are those that say manager Jim Leyland is still not sold on Curtis Granderson as a bonafide leadoff hitter. Still too many strikeouts. Not enough walks. No bunt singles to speak of.

Granderson can be the best leadoff hitter/centerfielder in Detroit since Ron LeFlore

But there’s speed. Lord, there’s speed. And some power. And, slowly but surely, there’s the innate ability developing of getting the key hit at just the right moment. Often, those hits have driven in runs.

Curtis Granderson, it says here, is going to make this town go bonkers at the leadoff position.

Granderson, a lefthanded hitter, is beginning to remind me of Ron LeFlore – a righthanded hitter, but another leadoff hitter/centerfielder who plied his trade in Detroit.

LeFlore, when he came to the big leagues, was an unpolished, rushed work still being sculpted. He had speed, and that was about all. He wasn’t all that great defensively, and his baseball acumen was toward the bottom of the barrel. But what else do you expect from someone who learned how to play the game from behind the brick and stone walls of Jackson State Prison?

LeFlore was busted for armed robbery, but because of his raw and untapped baseball skills, he was rescued from hard time by the Tigers, who saw something and signed him to a professional contract. Imagine that. In one of baseball’s greatest shows of irony, Tigers manager Billy Martin entered the prison to watch LeFlore play. Some say Billy belonged there just as much as LeFlore.

LeFlore spent a brief time in Clinton, Iowa, in the minors, before being called up to Detroit in midseason, 1974. Tigers fans, followers of a losing team, attached themselves to LeFlore’s unmitigated speed and base-stealing knack. They cheered loudly for the young man who went from stealing as a civilian to stealing as a ballplayer.

Gradually, but definitively, LeFlore’s baseball skills grew, and soon he was hitting around .300 every year, with 50-80 stolen bases. He started to hit some homeruns. In 1976, he had a 30-game hitting streak. He was elected as an All-Star starter – three years after living in a six-by-six jail cell. They made a movie about his life. It was called Million To One: The Ron LeFlore Story.

LeFlore turned Tiger Stadium crowds on from 1974-79, but then forgot what got him to the big leagues

But LeFlore wasn’t the quiet, unassuming player that Curtis Granderson is. That’s where the similarity ends. LeFlore eventually forgot what got him to the big leagues, and how thankful he should be that he was out of prison. He began to break team rules. He was accused of not truly shedding his tendency toward illegalities.

Sparky Anderson joined the team as manager in June 1979, and after three months of observing Ron LeFlore’s antics, he’d had enough. LeFlore was traded that December, for a pitcher named Dan Schatzeder. The Tigers got rooked in the deal, but Sparky was rid of LeFlore, and that’s what mattered most, truthfully.

LeFlore played a few more seasons, sometimes brilliantly, then retired. As he was walking off the field at Tiger Stadium in 1999 after the final game played there, part of the closing ceremonies, LeFlore was served with a warrant and arrested for being a deadbeat dad. In his Tigers uniform. There were few folks surprised.

Curtis Granderson, it says here, is going to make this town go bonkers at the leadoff position. He already has the range to make Comerica Park’s vast centerfield his kingdom. He catches balls that others before him in the Detroit home whites haven’t come close to sniffing, let alone catching. And there’s that smile: Face-spreading. Engaging. Ken Griffey Jr.-esque.

It’s not an assassin-hiding smile yet, like Isiah Thomas’. But it will be.

Friday, June 09, 2006

World Cup, Here I Come -- Be Gentle With Me

I don't understand all the rules, I barely know a yellow card from a Green Card, and I have railed against the sport for most of my adult life, but guess what?

I'm giving the World Cup a chance.

For some reason, I'm discovering soccer. I'm growing to appreciate the game, and I want to learn more about it. I'm hungering for some headers and corner kicks and even uneventful play in midfield.

I watched a little bit of an MLS game last night, to give my new-found interest a test drive. This wasn't some casual tuning in, on my way to the Food Network or the Travel Channel. In the past, those channels would have trumped soccer tenfold. This time I watched, intently, absorbing the announcers' jargon and studying the movements of the players on the -- damn, it's huge! -- field. I saw a yellow card held aloft by one of the officials, who then wrote something on it. For all I know, the words were, "Bad boy!"

I had to get used to a game clock that counts up. I had to get used to the game clock never stopping. But it was welcome; no TV timeouts or breaks. It was like I was watching the game on TiVo -- with the commercials lopped out.

When I tuned in, the LA Galaxy were trailing some team that was abbreviated "CHV" on the scoreboard, 2-1. And the Galaxy were playing their first game under a new coach. Even in soccer do coaches get the "ziggy" in midseason, apparently. And ESPN even gave us an interview with the new coach -- LIVE, while the big white ball was being kicked and tossed around harmlessly, hundreds of feet from either goal.

"Well, we're in the game," the new coach (I forgot his name) said, in a typical British accent. All soccer coaches have British accents. Just like all football coaches have southern accents, and all basketball coaches have New York accents.

The field reporter asked about the dude from CHV who had both their goals.

"We talked about keeping everything to his right foot," coach said. "He has a lethal left foot."

I wanted the reporter to ask how in the world you keep everything to one's right foot, when both legs are running and kicking, but I guess that's why the other Galaxy coach got fired. Maybe the players didn't keep things to one of the other star's feet well enough.

And you can't fire the team, so...

So anyhow, that's my soccer story, and we'll see how it goes, and how much World Cup soccer I actually watch.

It's not exactly Bud Light's Ted Ferguson Daredevil stuff, but it's as close as I'll ever get to "forcing" myself to watch a sport.

Hey, if a player in soccer kicks the ball straight on, is he labeled a "football style" kicker?

Just in case it comes up.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Humbler Stackhouse Finds Himself On The Brink Of Greatness

The Pistons had just taken the first two games of a best-of-five, first-round series against the Toronto Raptors. It was spring, 2002. And its star was getting loose-lipped to folks with microphones, notepads, and video cameras.

"I'm not even going to pack any clothes," for the Toronto trip, Jerry Stackhouse boldly said, and with the sneer of someone with a chip on his shoulder.

The implication was easily understood. Stackhouse believed the series would end with one more game in Canada, so why bother bringing a bunch of luggage?

If you think that was a strange attitude, indeed, for a player toiling for a team that hadn't won a playoff series in 11 years, well there you are.

The Pistons lost the two games in Toronto. It wasn't clear whether Stackhouse had enough threads to last the stay.

Regardless, the Pistons came back to Auburn Hills, and barely disposed of the Raptors -- the outcome not being safely decided until late in the fourth quarter. And Jerry Stackhouse, prognosticator extraordinaire, had played simply awful in Games 3 thru 5. It could be argued that the Pistons won the series despite their supposed star player.

The Pistons got bumped out in the next round, in five games against the Celtics. Stackhouse, once again, was less-than-stellar. But at least he made no more predictions.

It was after the disappearing act in the playoffs, which followed a season in which he shot just .397 from the field, that Stackhouse was shipped away. The general consensus was that the Pistons would never win the big one with Jerry Stackhouse as their top gun. So off he went, to the Washington Wizards for a skinny beanpole of a shooter named Richard Hamilton.

And while Rip Hamilton helped lead the Pistons to four straight conference finals, an NBA championship and a league runner-up, Stackhouse kicked around with the Wizards before landing in Dallas. Now Stackhouse plays for an NBA championship of his own, as his Mavericks prepare to face the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.

Stackhouse: No more predictions, but more winning

Stack's not generally considered a key player for the Mavericks, although he averaged 13 points per game this season. His FG pct. is typical -- in the low 40's. But he was enough of a component to help the Mavs upend the defending champion Spurs, and the Phoenix Suns in the last two rounds.

There was a time when Stackhouse was generally thought of as a player around whom you could build a championship-caliber team. But he couldn't coexist with Allen Iverson in Philadelphia, Grant Hill in Detroit, or Michael Jordan in Washington. Now he, perhaps having learned his lesson, coexists with Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard and his coach, Avery Johnson, in Dallas. No more tough talk. No more bold predictions.

It would be ironic, in a way, if Jerry Stackhouse won an NBA title before Iverson or Hill. Some would even say it would be unfair. But he's humbled now, and the league championship that critics said would forever elude him is now within his grasp.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

What Part Of Fox Sports DETROIT Don't They Get?

Fox Sports Detroit betrayed my trust last night, and I'm ticked off.

Maybe I'll call my friend Angie Mentink and complain.

The Tigers had just suffered one of their toughest losses this season -- a 4-3 dagger to the White Sox, after a couple of ill-timed walks and a thre-run homerun by Alex Cintron in the bottom of the eighth inning. Ugh.

So that was bad enough -- that the homerun happened, because you can accept being beaten on a tater by Jim Thome or Paul Konerko, but NOT by little Alex Cintron. It was Cintron's first homer of the year -- maybe of his career, for all I know.

Anyhow, insult was added to injury -- and by our "own" FSD network affiliate. In the postgame recap -- and this was a brutal loss, folks -- lovely Angie sent us back to Chicago, where John Keating was standing by with...


Why in the #!$&! would we want to hear from Alex Cintron? The little guy who beat us?! Talk about pouring salt into the wounds.

But there he was, being interviewed on the field -- a White Sox hero. And, in his very broken english, he described the joy of hitting his first dinger of the season to beat our stumbling Tigers.

Was I the only one outraged by this decision to place Cintron on our Detroit airwaves? After a loss like last night's, the LAST thing I want to be subjected to is an interview with the happy hero from the enemy side. When the Pistons lose a playoff game, I can see where ESPN or TNT would talk to a player from the winning side on the court immediately after the game. They're national networks and supposedly impartial. Not that they are, of course, but you get my drift.

But for FSD -- OUR FSD -- to put the other team's hero on our television screens to hear him describe his joy was a poor, poor decision and I'm afraid it alienated a ton of viewers. I was outraged and yelling at the TV throughout Cintron's interview -- which extended too long on top of it occurring in the first place -- because I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

This is sports, baby -- and we take it seriously in Motown. We don't want to see a happy enemy gloating about his game-winning hit on Detroit airwaves.

For more media complaining, tune in to my Johnny Grubb blog, where I take Tigers radio analyst Jim Price to task for his use of the pronoun "we" when talking about the team.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

NBA's Finals Feature Teams Who Actually Belong

The NBA Finals will feature two teams who are making their maiden voyages in the championship series, and if you think that's a ho-hum fact, you have to go all the way back to 1975 -- Golden State vs. Washington -- to find the last time that's happened.

It's okay by me if the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks slug it out for Larry O'Brien's trophy. Everyone has my permission.

In fact, if you can see past your "Why aren't the Pistons here?" anger for a moment, you'll see that this Finals has the makings of being a doozy.

You have, on the one side, two superstars in Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal. And, for Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard and a cast of several who don't rely on just one person, most of the time.

You have Alonzo Mourning, playing for his first championship deep into his 30's. Wade, who's trying to capture the first of what will probably be a handful of rings.

The Mavericks have the, ahem, maverick owner Mark Cuban. The Heat has the venerable coach Pat Riley -- the East's Phil Jackson.

Dallas likes to put up points. Miami likes to deny that.

Some team is going to emerge as a first-time NBA champion, and that's not a bad thing every now and again. Thirty-one years is long enough to wait for such an occurrence, I believe.

And this isn't some freak matchup, like in the NHL. These aren't two teams -- the Heat and the Mavs -- who would only have been picked by one in a thousand people. These are two of the top five teams in the league, and they will play for the championship, as they should. Neither of them lucked into this position due to a white hot journeyman or goofy bounces of the ball -- like in hockey.

By the way -- getting off subject here -- wasn't it delicious to watch the Edmonton Oilers, who've worn Cinderella's slipper long enough already, cough up the puck and have it end up in their net with 31 seconds left in last night's Game 1 of the Finals?

It's about time something bad happened to the Oilers in the playoffs. And, they lost their goalie to injury. The only thing that can make this a happier Finals, besides the Hurricanes winning of course (at least they had a top five league record this season), would be if Fernando Pisani went scoreless and had his bell rung a couple of times, to boot. He's another who's milked this Cinderella stuff ad nauseum.

No, this is the NBA, where teams who appear in the Finals actually belong. Where the leading scorers are guys who should be leading scorers. Where playing at home matters. Where flukes and lucky bounces and unconscious fourth-stringers are prohibited.

It's a real championship, so sit back and enjoy it.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Fitting In '61 For Cash That Tiger Stadium Located In Corktown

He cheated, he admitted to it, and that was that.

45 years ago, Stormin' Norman Cash assaulted the American League -- swatting 41 homers, driving in 132 runs, and batting a robust .361. His was an MVP-type year, except for those two "M" Boys in New York -- Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.

Cash tumbled all the way down to .243 in 1962, and never again came close to his monster year of 1961. But there was a simple explanation: Norm Cash cheated.

He admitted to it, years later, the Statute of Limitations up. He had a fetish for cork in '61, and thus used his lightened bat with whiplike quickness.

Cash's carpentry helped produce a career year in 1961

It was simple. Cash would drill out a 1/4" diameter hole in the top of his bat, about three inches down. He'd remove the wood, hollowing out the hole. Then he'd fill the cavity with cork, seal the top with wood pieces and glue, and voila! -- a lighter, more dangerous warclub.

Now if we can just get Barry Bonds to 'fess up.

Cash spoke with impunity, because what were they going to do to him? His career was over, and he hadn't won any awards nor led his team to any pennants, though the '61 Tigers won 101 games -- yet still finished eight games behind the Yankees.

Why Cash decided to forego the corked bats for 1962, I'm not sure. Maybe he decided one year tempting fate was enough. But even corkless, Cash packed a whallop. He hit 377 career homeruns, and drove in 1,103 runs. He had a career BA of .271.

When Kirk Gibson came up to the Tigers, Cash was the team's TV analyst for the old ON Network -- a precursor to PASS and Fox Sports Detroit. He once commented that Gibson's lefthanded stance reminded him of himself.

"He looks like me up there," Cash said on the air. After Gibson struck out -- as he was wont to do -- Cash said the frequent K's confirmed their similarities. Cash struck out 1,091 times during his 16-year career.

The Yanks may have had their "M Boys", but the Tigers had the "C Men." Cash teamed with Rocky Colavito to give the Bengals a formidable one-two punch of their own. Between them, the C Men combined for 86 homers and 272 RBI.

It's presumed The Rock got his numbers fair and square.

Maybe Norm Cash got his wrist slapped upstairs. He died tragically in October 1986 when he slipped off a dock and drowned. They said he'd been drinking.

Norm could do that, too.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

If Quantity Equals Quality, Lions' Passing Game Will Shine Under Martz

Today’s NFL quarterbacks wear wristbands filled with pass plays, running plays, and plays to call with two minutes or less remaining. They are printed, on the plastic-covered band, in small type for easy reference, yet the QBs still have to look to the sidelines, or at least rotate their heads until their radio-filled helmets can tune in the signal from the play-calling wizards upstairs. Heaven forbid they call upon one of the wristband plays on their very own.

When we played street football, our play-calling was bounded by lamp posts and fire hydrants and parked cars. And the quarterback used those landmarks, along with a finger traced along his palm, to distribute the pass patterns for his teammates to run.

“Kenny, you go to the blue Lincoln, then cut sharp to the left. Chris, take it to the hydrant, stop, then curl back.

“Eno, you go long.” The gridiron equivalent of rightfield.

Football wasn’t my sport.

The Lions have been holding some of those mini-camps in Allen Park, and their new quarterbacks are getting their fill of pass plays. More than can be traced on a palm, or even listed in agate type on a laminated wristband.

Mike Martz is the Lions’ new offensive coordinator, and he’s one of those play-calling wizards. Genius is a word overused in sports, a world not known for its restraint when it comes to superlatives. People who know about such things frequently have called Martz a genius. Maybe it’s true, in a relative manner. Around here, if the coordinator calls a pass play on 3rd-and-8 that is designed to get eight yards or more, that man is a genius. Maybe even a savior – another of those overused sports words.

According to Nicholas Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press, Martz had about 160 passing plays installed for the Lions’ first mini-camp, last month. He has about 240 ready for the current mini-camp.

That’s 400 ways to say “Hut-hut!,” fade back, and look for a receiver. How many wristbands does that equal to?

The voluminous amount of plays aren’t Joey Harrington’s to learn anymore. The Lions are off in another of their “different directions” when it comes to the quarterback position. They have 400 passing plays, and have taken about that many different directions in the past 42 years of Bill Ford’s ownership. Every direction, of course, except up.

Mike Martz: Genius du jour

The learning of the plays is now up to Jon Kitna. Or Josh McCown. Or Dan Orlovsky. Kitna says he’s the starter until told otherwise. McCown thinks it’s anyone’s job. Orlovsky is happy to be here – and thinks he can be the play-learner if need be.

Regardless, it’s Martz – the genius/savior – who must somehow cram nearly half of a thousand passing plays into the helmet-encased heads of three players he barely knows, and do it within a few months.

There’s evidence that it’s not an impossible task.

Mike Martz better be a genius in the same way as Einstein – not in the sports vernacular.

Martz took over the offense of the St. Louis Rams in 1999. He was working with an Arena League castoff and other nobodies, and in his first season he turned Kurt Warner into Johnny Unitas and the Rams went 13-3 with the NFL’s #1 offense and won the Super Bowl. And this was one season after the Rams went 4-12 and ranked 27th in total offense. Then, in 2001, the Rams made it to the Super Bowl again – this time with Martz as the head coach. A genius promoted. The Rams’ offense even had a catchy nickname: The Greatest Show On Turf.

“I think he’s [Martz] just trying to throw it all out there, see what we can handle,” Kitna told the Freep.

“The volume is up there, but that’s why it’s so good. People can’t get beads on it on defense.”

It’s not the defense that Lions fans are worried about. They want to make sure their quarterback can get “a bead” on it.

And there’s evidence that THAT’S an impossible task.

No championships since 1957. One Pro Bowl quarterback since then (1972, Greg Landry). Mostly popgun offenses that have scared nobody on defense, and everybody who follows Lions football. Five yard passes on the aforementioned 3rd-and-8.

Mike Martz better be a genius in the same way as Einstein – not in the sports vernacular.
But the Lions, at least, saw what they needed, honed in on who they wanted to provide it, and persisted until Martz said yes. They did it all during the whirlwind courtship except bring a dozen roses and a box of chocolates to his doorstep.

Harrington tried the quarterback school for a couple of days in March, and decided he’d be happier elsewhere. Maybe it was the hundreds of passing plays that scared him off. Maybe it was the new head coach, Rod Marinelli. Whatever it was, Joey is gone now, a Miami Dolphin. And, to show that God has a sense of humor, the Dolphins are the Lions’ Thanksgiving Day opponent this season. Better yet, the projected Dolphins starter, Daunte Culpepper, has a gimpy leg. The rest I leave with you.

So the Lions are going to cram plays into the helmeted head of Kitna, 33 and a castoff of the Cincinnati Bengals, of all teams. And into the cranium of McCown, younger but a castoff of the Arizona Cardinals, of all teams. That the Lions are going into their season with two guys who were unwanted by two teams with an even more inglorious past than their own, is typical in its absurdity, and delicious in its irony.

But that’s okay. Mike Martz is an offensive genius, don’t forget. If 400 passing plays doesn’t convince you of that, then I don’t know what will.

Of course, it’s not whether Martz is a genius that will determine the fate of the Lions’ offense in 2006. It’s whether his quarterbacks are. Even Einstein couldn’t teach the theory of relativity to a bumpkin, I wouldn’t think.

What Can I Say About The Pistons That You Haven't Already Heard? Just This

I suppose I should write something about the Pistons' demise, but what words could I possibly string together that doesn't say something you've already read, heard, or said ad nauseum?

How smart does a blogger have to be to point out that the Pistons shot like grade schoolers? How much observation does it take to question the coach's distrust of his bench? How astute does one have to be to say that the Pistons need a low-post scorer like a fish needs water?

All this, and more I'm sure, you've bantied about, or read, or listened to on sports talk radio. Doubtless your speakers are still vibrating from all the bleating if you tuned in.

The Pistons lost a conference finals series, and perhaps to the straightest thinkers, that's all they lost. There is, I'm pretty sure, always next year. But this isn't the time for straight thinking. This is the time for knee-jerkiness -- correct?

So fire Flip Saunders. Blow up the bench. Do it all, and let Ben Wallace go while you're at it.

That last one is actually the result of some straight thinking.

Sacrifice some defense and put a low-post scorer on the block for this team, and I can all but guarantee a return to the NBA Finals next June. As close as I can, anyway, while the odor of this Heat series still wafts around me.

The Pistons could create the same inside/outside niftiness that the Heat and the Spurs have, and other great teams of the past have possessed. They can do it with the Billups-Hamilton backcourt -- and Tayshaun Prince shooting jumpers. Give the Pistons someone to whom they can toss the ball in the post, and who can either score or get fouled, or kick it back to one of the gunners, and then you'll see something.

No more 4-on-5 -- that's not going to cut it anymore.

So enough about the Pistons. At least they played into June for the third straight season.

Not long enough for a June Swoon, but that's what it felt like.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Oilers-Hurricanes? Guess Who's Going To Start Lying?

Gary Bettman is going to be a liar, once again.

He will smile a courageous smile and tell anyone who asks that yeah, he's thrilled with the finals matchups for his league's Stanley Cup.

Edmonton vs. Carolina.


I don't know what the market shares are for those teams, but I sorta think they may fall behind Topeka, KS or Peoria, IL. Maybe even our own Fraser or Chelsea or Pinconning are within shouting range.

Bettman will lie again when he says the NHL playoffs are great because, as this Oilers-Hurricanes final shows, you never know what can happen.

See? I TOLD you anything could happen!
(and that's why your league's playoffs suck, Gary)

That's why the NHL playoffs aren't great, and he knows it.

In the NBA, you pretty much know going into the postseason which two teams will be in the Finals. Certainly you would know which four teams will make the conference finals. And those are, uncoincidentally, the best, most exciting matchups.

But in Bettman's league, where goblins and gremlins come out during the playoffs, this business of not being able to rely on the regular season's best teams is getting out of hand. There's no home-ice advantage. No talent advantage. No experience advantage. No tradition advantage.

So instead of a Red Wings-Devils barnburner, or Stars-Flyers, or even Flames-Senators, we're stuck with Oilers-Hurricanes because the NHL doesn't ever, EVER, follow script.

This is the equivalent of a Bucks-Kings NBA Final, and that just doesn't happen in basketball -- a sport that rewards those that can play, and eliminates those who can't, usually in the very first round.

But in hockey, where unknown goalies get white hot and little-used fourth line players turn into Wayne Gretzky in April and May, you have these "who woulda thunk it?" finals matchups.

Someone named Fernando Pisani is, I believe, the league's leading goalscorer in the playoffs.

And if Bettman wants us to believe that he's thrilled that the teams who are playing for the Stanley Cup have a combined TV share of 1.1, then he's an even worse liar than he is a league commissioner.

As for the finals, I'll wait until it comes out on DVD. Maybe.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

With Their Backs Up Against It, Pistons Respond -- So What Else Is New?

If it wouldn't be so cumbersome, and if I were Flip Saunders, I'd have a mini brick wall attached to each one of my player's backs at all times. Maybe even a pretend cardboard one, for symbolism sake. That way they could still run around and function on the court.

The walls would serve their purpose, I'm sure, because that seems to be the only time the Pistons play at anywhere near 100% potential: When their backs are up against the wall. When the chips are down. When push comes to shove. When the going gets tough. When it's win or go home. And all that rot.

The Pistons played out of desperation -- again -- and won -- again: 91-78 over Miami, to creep closer in the Eastern Finals. They now trail 3-2. Backs still against wall. Push still coming to shove. Chips still down. It's still tough going.

"We're looking at this like a college tournament," Ben Wallace said. "Win or you're done."

But in college tourneys, you don't get the chance to teeter along at 3-6 for nine postseason games before deciding it might be time to play.

The Pistons are twitching, and while that might cause the Miami Heat a little bit of consternation, they should relax and remind themselves that if they play their best and the Pistons play with anything less than 100% interest -- and it's happened often in this series -- the Heat will make their first appearance in the NBA Finals.

BUT...the Pistons have facts on their side, and those facts are these: The Heat still are poised to eliminate Detroit, which means the Pistons are still desperate, which means they are once again cornered, which means...

Maybe the Heat should be a tad anxious, after all.

But Miami has Dwyane Wade, and I'm now convinced he's the closest thing to Michael Jordan since MJ retired. No offense to LeBron James, who may yet get there, but Wade inhabits his own stratosphere. He's the best player I've seen in a long time. He's simply phenomenal, and he's ratcheted up his game a notch in this series. He's playing, along with Shaquille O'Neal -- who also hasn't looked this good in years -- like a man possessed and very hungry for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. When they're both on, the Heat don't need as much help from their supporting cast as the talking heads on TV would have you believe -- especially in Miami. Two really can beat five sometimes.

But that's mainly because the Pistons' five have been underachievers to the nth degree. They have turned into the Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight. Their trademark weapon -- the three-point dagger -- is lost somewhere, maybe misplaced in the bottom of one of the team's equipment trunks.

Tayshaun Prince has been the Pistons' rescuer in their two victories, and he dug up the triple dagger at a time when the team needed it most last night -- late in the fourth quarter, the Heat making one of their runs, creeping to within 79-76. An attempted layup by Rip Hamilton swatted away. But right into the hands of Prince.

One dagger into the heart later, the Pistons were ahead 82-76.

Game 6 on.

Why, oh why, Lindsey Hunter was asked, do the Pistons always seem to know WHAT to do, but don't always actually DO IT?

"I don't know," he said. "It's like when you keep telling a baby not to do something, and he does it anyway. We're kind of like that."

Million Dollar Babies.

See ya in South Beach. But will the Heat return to Michigan with the Pistons?