Monday, July 31, 2006

Tigers' Trade For Casey Secondary To Shelton Demotion

So which is the bigger surprise: that the Tigers made a deadline deal -- giving away nothing, basically -- or that first baseman Chris Shelton was a casualty of the trade, being sent to AAA Toledo to make room for new first sacker Sean Casey?

The Tigers acquired the 32 year-old Casey from the Pittsburgh Pirates this morning for AA pitcher Brian Rogers. Casey, a lefthanded bat, is a career .300 hitter who's at .296 this season in 213 AB.

But Shelton's demotion, I believe, is what's going to be on most people's lips today and in the days to come.

Over at Where Have You Gone, Johnny Grubb?, I wrote recently that Shelton's hot start and apparent storybook season might not have a happy ending. His struggles since April are quite apparent, and he seemed weary of discussing it when I spotted him in the Tigers' clubhouse during the White Sox series. He's hitting .277, but it's not a solid .277. I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks that Chris Shelton, at this time, is a .277 hitter. He is, unfortunately, more like the below-.250 hitter who's been scuffling along since mid-May.

Casey is a smart pickup, considering the Tigers didn't have to surrender anything from their 40-man roster. He's a veteran guy, a multiple All-Star, who should fit in nicely.

Shelton will, most likely, be back in September when rosters expand. But his presence on a postseason roster -- should the Tigers qualify -- is very much in doubt. Most would say that Shelton's omission from a playoff roster was considered unthinkable at one time. It's still quite a surprise, despite his struggles. But this is a game of production, and those who produce will stay. The Tigers are doubtless very grateful for what Shelton provided them in April, but the decision to option him to Toledo was, in their eyes, necessary. And they're probably right.

The Tigers are most likely done with trades, but I suppose we'll all know at 4pm today.

Meanwhile, so long for now, Big Red -- go to Toledo and get your swing back. The Tigers might still need you yet.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Summer Of 63

I started following the Detroit sports scene in 1970. That’s 36 years, and the only reason that I’m not yet a curmudgeon is because I was seven years old in ’70. But still, 36 years is 36 years. Vietnam to Iraq.

The other day I decided to count coaches/managers in that time frame for our four major sports teams. Yes, I have no life. But it only took me a few minutes, thanks to the brain that resides in my cranium that has the amazing ability to remember Sparky Anderson’s first uniform number worn with the Tigers (it was #7), yet filters out commands to pick my dirty socks off the floor.

The grand total? 63. Sixty-three men have been hired and fired as leaders of our teams since 1970. Lions coach Rod Marinelli, conducting his first training camp right now, is #63. A perfect number. I was born in 1963, in August. So thanks to Mr. Marinelli, we have The Summer of 63 redux.

We’ve had boisterous (Wayne Fontes, Butch van Breda Kolff). We’ve had wallflowers (Billy Dea, Tommy Hudspeth). We’ve had snake oil salesmen (Dickie Vitale, Ned Harkness). We’ve had geniuses (Scotty Bowman, Chuck Daly). We’ve had vagabonds (Larry Brown, Darryl Rogers). We’ve even had a Flip (Saunders) and a Mayo (Smith).

We’ve had the French (Jacques Demers). We’ve had the German (Joe Schmidt). We’ve had the Italian (Steve Mariucci). We’ve had the Latino (Luis Pujols). We’ve had the Jew (Ron Rothstein). And, since we have a hockey team, we’ve certainly had the Canadian (just pick one, eh?).

We’ve had the fighter (Billy Martin). We’ve had the lover (Larry Brown – who said during a timeout in the Finals, “I love you guys!”). We’ve had the good guy (Alan Trammell). We’ve had the bad guy (Teddy Garvin). We’ve had the hugger (Fontes).

We’ve had the military man (Bobby Ross). We’ve had the ex-player, many times over. We’ve had the past and future TV announcer (Doug Collins). We’ve had the college guy (Gary Moeller). We’ve had the Unknown Soldier (Les Moss).

We’ve had the quotable (Anderson). We’ve had the strong, silent type (Rick Carlisle). We’ve had the affable (Fontes). We’ve had the truculent (Bowman). We’ve had the fill-in guy (Joe Schultz). We’ve had the Answer To a Trivia Question (Moss; as in who did Sparky Anderson replace in June 1979 after just two months on the job?).

We’ve had the Major (Ralph Houk). We’ve had Captain Hook (Anderson). We’ve had Daddy Rich (Daly). We’ve had Scrap Iron (Phil Garner).

We’ve had one-year wonders (Don McCafferty, who died of a heart attack before his second season with the Lions). We’ve had one-year blunders (Harry Neale). We’ve had the interim man (Dick Jauron). We’ve had the nomad (Brown).

We’ve had brothers (Larry and Herb Brown). And we’ve had bro-thus (Ray Scott and Earl Lloyd).

But what we also have, in 2006, are four men who are all either in their first season in Detroit, or have just completed their first: Marinelli; Mike Babcock; Jim Leyland; and Flip Saunders. And in no other year, since 1970 or before, has that ever been the case in this town.

You prefer savants? Try on Scotty Bowman. You like your coaches with more baggage than the main terminal at Metro Airport? Then Larry Brown’s your guy.

You stick around long enough, you’ll see it all, I suppose.

I decided to do a little math. I wanted to figure out the average tenure of our 63 leaders. It was simple, really. I took those 36 years and multiplied it by four, for our four major teams. Then I took that product (144) and divided it by the number of men (63). The quotient: 2.3.
That means the average schmoe lucky enough to lead one of our teams lasted 28 months on the job. Chalk up a win for the real estate agencies.

That’s an average, of course. So when you combine, say Sparky Anderson’s 16-plus seasons as Tigers manager with the Lions’ Gary Moeller’s month or so, it’s no wonder that you get a number like 2.3. But it really is a good indicator of average tenure. You find – should you research it like a certain nerd who shall remain nameless, except on his byline – that the dudes who drifted in and out of Detroit truly did stay the 2-3 years indicated by my math. That’s not a career – that’s a residency.

Forget the math. You want color? Boy, do we have color. Billy Martin prowled the dugout here, after all. And Sparky. And Chuck Daly had his moments with the Pistons. Dickie Vitale’s color went off the spectrum. Wayne Fontes had so much color he was still awash with it, even after being fired. “Fired? What do you mean I’m fired?,” he bellowed, laughing, as owner Bill Ford Sr. talked to the press and shifted uncomfortably.

You prefer savants? Try on Scotty Bowman. You like your coaches with more baggage than the main terminal at Metro Airport? Then Larry Brown’s your guy. Or maybe you’re fascinated with an opening act (Les Moss) and a closing act (Buddy Bell) – consisting of the men preceding and following Anderson as Tigers manager, some 17 years apart.

Sometimes we need to stop and think about how blessed we are to have had such an array of winners, losers, goofballs, professors, and entertainers blow through town to take the reins. Rarely has there been a dull moment, even when the man himself has been dull (read: Pujols, whose complete lack of panache created its own panache). Mostly there’s been at least one man here at any given time who’s been great copy, or who’s provided memorable sound bites. Or who’s kicked dirt, or thrown his glasses, or slipped and fell on his bum on the basketball court sidelines. All those happened, by the way. I promise you.

So Rod Marinelli is a neophyte at this head coaching thing. He’s not even one week into his first training camp with the Lions. He can still walk around in public and not be recognized. He is, for now, simply #63 for me in Detroit.

But I’m sure we’ll have some Marinelli stories to tell by the time coach #64 hits the city limits. Which, by my math, should be sometime late next year.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Kitna's The Starter? Fine -- Now Stick With Him!

So new Lions head coach Rod Marinelli has named Jon Kitna as his starting quarterback, doing it on the eve of the start of training camp. Good. Now, some free advice to Marinelli: DON'T CHANGE YOUR MIND.

Marinelli says Kitna gives him veteran leadership. He says he has something "special." He says he wanted to make the announcement early so there wouldn't be a quarterback controversy. Now, some more free advice to Marinelli: DON'T CHANGE YOUR MIND.

Offensive coordinator Mike Martz says Kitna has a knack for picking up on things. He looks at Kitna as being wonderfully talented, and even compared him to Kurt Warner. Martz says Kitna's accuracy and mechanics are superb. So, here's some more free advice to Rod Marinelli: DON'T CHANGE YOUR MIND.

Are you feeling me, Rod?

I'm emphasizing the no-mind-changing angle because despite all the firmness in his announcement, Marinelli tossed this into the mix: "The competition's still there. Kitna just enters camp as the starter, and we'll just go from there."


Rod, Rod, Rod.

You named Kitna your starter? Congratulations. It's who we all suspected would get the nod, because you pumped the former Bengal and Seahawk ever since the March mini-camps. Few folks honestly thought you'd tab Josh McCown or Dan Orlovsky as the #1 guy.

But once again, I implore you: DON'T CHANGE YOUR MIND.

I don't care if Kitna fumbles every snap in camp, and throws interception after interception during the exhibition season. It shouldn't mean diddly squat if McCown looks like Johnny Unitas, and Kitna channels Rusty Hilger. Kitna's the starter. Period. Because -- and altogether now -- you DON'T CHANGE YOUR MIND.

How does the quarterback controversy that Marinelli so much wants to avoid happen? By CHANGING YOUR MIND.

Seriously, the only way to truly eliminate the sideshow of the quarterback position this camp is to settle on one man and stick with him. It's fine to say there's competition, but you don't even have to say that. Marinelli, for all I care, could sound like a robot.


That'd be fine with me.

Kitna should be the guy, because the coach said so

It takes a lot of cahonas to name a starting QB and not waver, unless that starter's name is Favre or Manning or Brady. The temptation is always there to go with the hot hand. But Marinelli made his announcement this early for a reason: no controversy wanted. So don't create one, Rod, by changing your mind. Stick with Kitna through camp, and well into the regular season. There's a fine line between showing resolve and being stubborn (read: Steve Mariucci), I know that. But nobody should look at you as stubborn if you ride Jon Kitna until at least thru September.

What a breath of fresh air it would be if Marinelli didn't even give McCown or Orlovsky a glean of hope regarding the starter's job. You guys, he should repeat as a mantra, are competing to be #2. And that's as far as you're going to go, guys.

Joey Harrington -- and Mariucci, for that matter -- are no longer here because Harrington wasn't fully supported by his coaching staff, and Mariucci made him a square peg in a round hole, system-wise. But now there's a fresh start with a fresh staff and fresh plays -- over 400 passing ones, according to those who attended mini-camps. The Lions can now build an offensive attack based on their quarterback's strengths, rather than having the QB trying to fit the system.

The Lions should build that system around Jon Kitna, and leave the dude alone.

After all, that's why Marinelli made the announcement, right?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

White-Hot Twins Lurk In Their Garbage Bag Dome

The Chicago White Sox are SO 2005, aren't they?

If the AL Central race was a race track, and the Tigers were to look in their rearview mirror, they'd see two cars neck-and-neck behind them: the White Sox and the Minnesota Twins. But only one of those cars is zooming along (the Twins); the other is sputtering, in need of a pit stop.

It's the Twins, I hate to say it, that the Tigers should be worried about, if you believe our Blessed Boys should be worried at all, that is. The reason I hate to say it is because the Twins, playing in that garbage bag-filled Metrodome, scare the bejeebers out of me -- mainly because they play in that garbage bag-filled Metrodome.

The Twinkies are 37-11 in the HHH Metrodome, which repeats a pattern they've established in winning World Titles in 1987 and 1991 -- and some of the years before and since. They, for whatever reason, are just so gosh-darned hard to beat at home. And they used that home field advantage to seize all their postseason games in '87 and '91 in winning their two World Series. Forget the fact that in neither season did their regular season record warrant any sort of home advantage, but this is MLB and there you are.

The Tigers visit the Twins this weekend, and I'll look at the series with one eye shut and the other open. Minnesota is on a ridiculous 34-8 tear, and thank God the Tigers are only slightly worse than that, or else their lead would be several games smaller than the current 8 1/2.

Certainly I needn't remind you that the Metrodome has been the Tigers' own private house of horrors over the years. Even dating back to 1984 -- the Tigers' year -- the Detroiters have struggled to win games in Minnesota. It came to a head in the 1987 ALCS, with Games 1 and 2 in Minneapolis. The Tigers were blown away, dazed and confused in a frighteningly loud venue awash with white towels. It hasn't gotten any better since then.

Do I think the Twins can realistically catch the Tigers for the divisional lead? No. But they are very much in the running for the Wild Card, which means the Tigers might have to go thru them eventually to qualify for the World Series.

I just got a shiver.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Break Out The Kool-Aid: Lions Training Camp Almost Upon Us

This is the time for the Kool-Aid sippers.

Not only because it's July, and the weather outside is hot and muggy, begging for a cool beverage. This is a different type of Kool-Aid, after all.

This Kool-Aid consists of the libation that instills never-ending hope for a football team that hasn't won the Big One in nearly 50 years. Forget the Big One; the Lions have only won "one" since 1957 -- one playoff game, that is. And that was 15 years ago, believe it or not.

The Kool-Aid sippers will be out in force this weekend, as Lions training camp gets into full swing. You can tell them, not by their colorful mustaches, but by the things they say.

"New coach: Rod Marinelli. New offensive coordinator: Mike Martz. These guys have what it takes. The Lions' skill players are terrific; they just need the right staff, the right system."

"This is the year they can make a move!"

The words of the Kool-Aid sippers.

But guess what? This year, the sippers might be finally telling us the truth.

Marinelli, if you ask me, is exactly the type of coach the Lions need, with their dysfunctional family of on-field personnel. He's the no-nonsense, you'll practice-in-pads-and-like-it kind of guy that should shake the rabble rousers out of the trees and leave only the leaves of fine football players. Martz can be a flake, but there's no doubting his knack for getting the most out of his players' offensive abilities.

There's a new quarterback -- whether it's Jon Kitna or Josh McCown. There's a retooled offensive line. There's a hotshot rookie linebacker, Ernie Sims. There's some talent in the trenches.

But there are still, in my mind, too many weak spots to declare the Lions anything more than a .500 team, the portrait of glorified mediocrity. But a .500 team will keep folks interested well into December, when the final playoff spots are determined. And that's much better than the 5-11 rubbish that we've been subject to in the 21st century.

Your football team always looks better in the mugginess of July and August than it typically ends up being in the cold of November and December. It's not just a Detroit phenomenon, the Kool-Aid sippers. They exist in every NFL city, although is some towns they're more prevalent than others.

Detroit's Kool-Aid sippers are vast in their number. And now they have something else added to their beverage: "Well, we have three teams who each have/had the best records in their respective leagues," they'll tell you between sips. It's true; the Red Wings, Pistons, and Tigers make Detroit First Place City. "So why not the Lions?"

Hmmm...because none of the other three are battling demons that go back almost half a century?

But there's also the philosophy of my pal Bob Zahari, freelance TV cameraman who's shot and seen his share of sports. Z would tell you that if a team is working on a streak of either greatness or failure, it can only mean one thing: they're due -- either for a fall, or for a boost. The Lions are plenty overdue, of course.

The winning isn't going to start this season. Guess that eliminates me as a Kool-Aid sipper. But it'll start soon -- maybe in 2007. Rod Marinelli is the right man for the job, at the right time. And no Kool-Aid sipper, he.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Woods' British Open Win Cements His Status (He's the best)

I'm an appreciator of history when it comes to sports.

My M.O. is not to gush over today's athlete, and declare him (or her) unequivocally the greatest who's ever excelled at the sport in question. In fact, I've always scoffed at those types.

"Isn't Michael Jordan just the greatest player ever?," those types will blurt.

"You ever hear of a guy named Oscar Robertson?," I would dearly love to reply, not expecting an answer.

I am one who's apt to give the nod to Jimmy Brown as the greatest running back ever, Johnny Unitas as the greatest quarterback, and Gordie Howe as the greatest hockey player. Rarely will someone from the 21st century, or late 20th, be anointed as such by this old curmudgeon.

But Tiger Woods defies all that. He is, quite simply, the greatest golfer to ever slip on spiked shoes and traipse across a fairway. This weekend's British Open was just another example.

He was not all that far removed from missing the cut -- missing the cut -- at the US Open. He's still fighting through the death of his father. And here he was in Liverpool, still the most feared player on the board. Because they know -- oh, they know -- that a Tiger Woods who's been knocked down a notch or two is the most dangerous Tiger Woods that there is. Some sentences are worth ending in a preposition.

Woods was in control all weekend, always a stick's length ahead of the pack, it seemed. Never a moment when you felt like it could get away. Never a time when you doubted his prowess.

But when it was over, yet another major win in his golf bag, the emotions took over. Openly, Woods wept. Perhaps for his father. Perhaps for the realization that he was back. Perhaps the appreciation for victories is more so nowadays. Regardless, he let it go, before the cameras and microphones and the gathered masses.

"You only have one mom and dad," second place finisher Chris DiMarco said. DiMarco himself lost his mother earlier this month, to a heart attack.

Earl Woods certainly was present at the British -- not only in his son's mind, but in those of the folks who watched the tournament. The ones who were any sort of golf fan, that is. This is because when someone attains the level that Tiger Woods has, he enjoys his triumphs and guts out his failures with millions of others -- mostly adoring eyes.

There are those who would maybe argue with me about Woods being the greatest golfer ever. I never saw Bobby Jones. Or Ben Hogan. And maybe I don't remember Arnold Palmer at his zenith. And hey, have I forgotten about Jack Nicklaus?

Bah humbug to all that. I'm shedding the curmudgeon label for this instance. Tiger Woods trumps them all. Sunday's win was his third British Open title (second in a row), and 11th major victory. The bounce back from the US Open debacle is complete -- and it only took him a month to do it.

He's still the standard.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

CoPa Is Nice, But Nothing Beats An Original

I lost track of the sign. My father had it for years – kept it in his garage. It was procured illegally, but considering what else happened that night, a stolen street sign was small potatoes.

“Abbott” it said, the usual white lettering on green sign that populates poles all over this country. I cut my hand open grabbing that sign. But I’ll be darned if I know where it is today. Dad’s passed away, been gone ten years and some change. His second wife and I lost touch, and the sign wasn’t on a list of priorities when we were still communicating.

Long gone.

So too is the walk. Park the car on Abbott, between Rosa Parks Boulevard and Trumbull. Find a lot normally for employees of the industrial buildings that lined the street, and park for free. Worth it, despite the long walk. Correction. Worth it, because of the long walk.

Not sure how many vendors you’d pass on Trumbull as you hoofed it the five or six blocks to the ballpark. Ditto the ticket scalpers. Some of the city’s most colorful vagabonds sprinkled about – curled up near buildings or lilting along the sidewalks with a nip on their breath and a purpose in their eyes that only they understood. Or not.

Off to the right, Sultana’s garage. And where was the old Sultana’s? Up there – to the right even further, closer to Michigan Avenue. Hoot Robinson’s on the corner – always let’s meet on the deck outside. And the lovely, ambiguous sign, as pointed out by my friend Cory Bergen one evening: CAN BEER ONLY.

“Can beer only,” Cory said. “Is that the start of a question, like, ‘Can beer only…’?”

I still laugh at that line.

There’s the Firestone tire and car repair shop, along Michigan. Parked there often when a kid riding in the backseat with generous parents who’d take me to at least two games a year, sometimes more. Look further east down Michigan, on the south side, and you can see the old Lions offices, the annex they used when they shared the stadium with the Tigers.

Turn your head across from there and lay your eyes on Nemo’s, the pregame watering hole to end all pregame watering holes. Some folks never were able to drag themselves out to see the game. Wonder how many unused game tickets exist thanks to that joint.

Enter the ballpark grounds and buy a program – the pencil’s free, after all. Thanks to names on the jerseys, you really can tell the players without a program, but we won’t break it to the white-haired hawker. Besides, he always keeps the #2’s sharp for us, so it’s the least we can do.

Don’t forget to tip your usher.

When the hot dog guy comes, you don’t need to shout. Just simple eye contact and a head nod, and you can attract one easier than luring a mouse with cheese. Hold up your fingers, tell him how many you want. Watch him slather on the mustard. And why does he have two tubs of mustard, and no ketchup? Because the ketchup is sweet and attracts flies, and bees. You don’t know how happy I was to solve that mystery.

Maybe a batting helmet for a souvenir; remember when they were two dollars each? Be sure to check the out-of-town scoreboard to see if the Orioles are losing. Smile at the big catcher’s mitt above the clock that has “Stroh it home!” across it.

Game over, and there has to be enough time for a stroll over to Sportsland USA, a block or two east on Michigan, for at least a look-see at caps, jerseys, and other cool stuff. Memorabilia. Oh, and with the poorly-depicted logos of our teams on the side of the building, painted. Maybe if the wallet will allow, I’ll pop for a genuine New Era cap – the kind the big leaguers wear.

It’s a fifteen-minute walk back to the car, and tell Jimmy B. and the boys that we’re on our way to the Lindell A.C., so keep the grill open. When we get there, I’ll slug down a bottle of hops while you play “Raspberry Beret” on the jukebox. We’ll chuckle at Wayne Walker’s jockstrap, bronzed and hanging near the ceiling, and cackle at the channel 4 news set from the mid-1970s. One of hundreds of photographs adorning the wall. There’s Billy Martin, Mickey Mantle and Jimmy B., for example. Billy and Mickey are holding glasses with amber-colored liquid and ice in them. Surprise.

Then it’s onto I-75, but let’s get back to that sign.

My dad grew up on Abbott Street, near the stadium, when it was known as Briggs. Not sure exactly which block of Abbott, but that was irrelevant. I had known for awhile, back in 1984, that I wanted to get my hands on a genuine Abbott Street sign and present it to pops. The Tigers were on their way to something special in ’84, and I had plenty of ideas.

Chris Gerbasi swung tickets to Game 4 and 5. Alan Trammell hits a couple out in Game 4, and the Tigers are one win away from the championship. So on the way to the ballpark for Game 5, we make sure to buy several bottles of champagne and some ice. There they’ll rest, in a cooler, while we take in the clincher. No game plan if the Tigers had lost.

Still thinking about the sign, though. Probably even as I saw Kirk Gibson’s homer fly into the upper deck off Goose Gossage in the eighth inning. Larry Herndon catches the final out in left field, on the run, and a good thing too. The mob is on the field in a heartbeat. We’re in the upper deck, center field bleachers. Then a large patch of outfield turf appears, tossed from the field, popping over the facing of the upper deck. Then, in an instant, it’s gone. Darndest thing I ever saw, if you want to know.

So we’ve made it through the throngs, passed a police car engulfed in flames, and are now whooping it up at the car – trunk opened and bubbly flowing. We’re pouring it over our heads, like all those post-victory lockerroom scenes we’d seen on television. It stings the eyes but it’s worth it.

Then the moment of truth. With all of Detroit’s finest too busy, looking the other way, I’m hoisted up to the Abbott sign. I’m pretty sure strangers are involved in helping me up. Armed with nothing more than a screwdriver, I go to work. It’s a stubborn son-of-a-gun, but I manage to wrench it from its pole. There’s some cheering. I spirit it away into Gerbasi’s car. Finally I have it. Boy, will pops be surprised.

I’ve tried, and I can tell you that you just can’t get the same baseball experience at Comerica Park – before, during, and after the game – as you could at the ballpark at Michigan and

Abbott Street doesn’t run anywhere near CoPa, for starters.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Dombrowski Could Use Some "Gambler" Magic Rub Off On Him

Seems Dave Dombrowski could use the "other" Kenny Rogers right about now. The original Gambler. The "Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em" guy.

This will be perhaps the most interesting week DD has ever experienced as Tigers GM.

Usually, he's spending late July trying to fend off the vultures, who'd pick at his carcass of a baseball team, trying to get something for nothing, or at least very little. He'd be in "dump salary" mode, or "trade him because he's gonna flee as a free agent" mode.

Not this year.

Today, Dombrowski sits near the top of the baseball world -- if you aspire to being an executive in the sport. He has a first-place ballclub, by 5 1/2 lengths. He has depth in the area that most teams drool over: pitching. He's on a hot streak of sorts, with trades that have panned out and free agent signings that look like a coupon purchase combined with a sale.

His phone will be ringing, that's for sure. Already has, doubtless.

Another strong middle-of-the-order bat would be nice, though I don't believe it's mandatory. Dombrowski probably agrees with me -- or more accurately, I agree with Dombrowski -- so he's unlikely to make a trade for the sake of making a trade, as the July 31st deadline for non-waiver trades fast approaches.

Something tells me, however, that dealing for the Washington Nationals' Alfonso Soriano might fall into that "for the sake of" category.

It's believed that the Nats' asking price, with still ten days left before deadline, borders on the outrageous. The Free Press reported that the Nationals mentioned top pitching prospect Humberto Sanchez, top outfielder prospect Cameron Maybin, and another top prospect for Soriano. Not mentioned them, as in individually, but together -- a three-for-one heist.

The Tigers, thankfully, told the Nationals to cork themselves.

Soriano is a supreme offensive talent -- no question there. He hits with power, hits for average, and -- bonus -- he actually draws walks. You know what those are, right? The Tigers hitters, sometimes, seem to need to be reintroduced to them from time-to-time.

But is he truly needed here?

First, Soriano bats righthanded, and in case you didn't know, the Tigers have more of those than Carter's has pills. Second, he's going to be a free agent at the end of the season. Can you say "rent-a-player"? Third -- and here's the biggie -- what happens to Marcus Thames and Craig Monroe?

Soriano, Thames, and Monroe are left fielders, for all intents and purposes. One of them can DH -- especially if Dmitri Young isn't the answer, the question of which is precipitating all this trade talk to begin with -- but not both, not last I checked with the major league baseball rule book. So one sits. And it won't be Soriano.

Marcus Thames sitting his fanny on the bench for any considerable amount of time appears to be folly. His is the most powerful -- in terms of sheer strength -- bat on the ballclub, hands down. It's the most powerful since Cecil Fielder, if you want to know the truth. But would you constantly sit Monroe, as far as that goes? The kid has had some wonderful moments as well. But one of them -- Thames or Monroe -- would have to be on the bench during a vast majority of the upcoming stretch run.

Now, Soriano may come here, crank homers and draw walks and play defense and be the second coming of Willie Mays, and the previous two paragraphs, I would print and eat with a side of crow.

But what's the likelihood of that? Of a guy switching leagues and immediately becoming lights out? Has it happened? Of course. How often? Not very. Would you be giving up too much for such a gamble?

Oh, Kenny -- where are you now? Not you, Kenny. I meant Kenny.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Is This A "Big" Series? Yes. No. Maybe

Jim Leyland says no, it's really not. Todd Jones agrees. Craig Monroe would beg to differ. So would Fernando Rodney. Marcus Thames is just having some fun.

It doesn't matter if there's a consensus, or a plurality, or a hung jury. The Tigers are engaged in some sort of series with the Chicago White Sox currently -- and depending upon whom you talk to, it's very important. Or not.

"You know how it is -- you lose and you're out of good graces, and you win and you're back in," manager Leyland told us crowded around his desk after last night's big -- or not -- 5-2 win over the Chisox.

Someone asked him if managing big -- IF it's big --games like last night's was fun.

"No," he said as soon as the question was done being asked. "It's work. I mean, I love my job, but it's work, not fun."

"Like I keep saying, it's July 19. The pennant race hasn't even started yet. I mean, I'm glad we won, but the great thing about baseball is that you don't have a lot of time to dwell on a loss. But you also don't have a lot of time to enjoy a win. We can enjoy this one for about 12 hours."

Monroe sure will enjoy it.

Functioning as designated hitter, Monroe cranked a game-changing grand slam in the sixth inning, putting the cherry on top of a five-run inning. It was the ony inning in which the Tigers scored, and they made it a good one.

"Biggest homerun I've ever hit, by far," Monroe said.

Then, when pressed about the magnitude of the White Sox series, he took a left turn from his boss' company line.

"We know how important this is," Monroe said. "They're the defending champs and we're chasing them. It was important that we beat them."

Not so much, Jones said.

"You guys said it was an important series," Jones told me when I cornered him and hit him cold with the notion that White Sox-Tigers was bigger than, say, Devil Rays-Tigers. "To us, it's just another series. But you guys kept saying it was a big series. It's not so big. We have 63 wins. We're just trying to win as many games as we can, and all those series will shake themselves out."

Turns out there's not even agreement within the bullpen corps.

"Very big," Rodney said with a nod when the visitor to his locker wondered aloud if a 1-6 record against Chicago this season added any drama to last night's win. "Whenever you play a team like Chicago, it's big because they can come back a lot and win games."

OK, whatever.

The Tigers won and I'll say it, once and for all: It was a big win. Sometimes you gotta just cut through all the bull and call a spade a spade. It was big because of the 1-6 record. The fact that the offense slumbered Tuesday night, and was oversleeping thru five innings last night. The fact that the Tigers bumped their lead back to 4 1/2 games, essentially taking two more games away from the White Sox' drive. And it maintained a remarkable run for the team: the absolute freakishness of anything more than a two-game losing streak for the Tigers. That's one way to climb to 63-31.

And there was even a curtain call. Monroe took it, acknowledging the crowd's frenzy after his game-breaking granny.

"I don't think I've ever seen that in Comerica Park," Jones, who should know, said.

On this team, in this year, the spotlight shines on it very broadly. Meaning, many different players get to bask in it. It's all about team.

Marcus Thames was pinch-hit for by Alexis Gomez, in the eighth inning. The pitcher was lefthanded. Gomez bats lefthanded. Huh?

"Defensive substitution," Thames told me when I sidled up to him and said, basically, Huh?
"We've done it before. No big deal."

What a difference a year makes, huh, Marcus?

"It's fun, man."

Maybe that's something we can all agree upon.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

As Trading Deadline Nears, Some Players' Hands Will Be Wringing

Imagine going to work everyday, and not knowing whether your boss will ask you into his (or her) office and say something like, "We've decided to make a move. You're to report to (fill in the blank of any city) immediately. They're expecting you at 9 a.m. tomorrow. Thanks for everything."

Now imagine reading in the newspapers, or hearing on the radio, that this scenario will quite possibly play out soon -- today, tomorrow, next week. The media has you going to Detroit, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles. Pick one. Any day could be your last day at your familiar office, with its familiar faces, and its familiar commute. Your bags lie open in your bedroom -- awaiting quick deposits for an airplane jaunt to wherever.

Such is the life of the player on the block -- the trading block, that is.

This is the time when baseball engages in careless, reckless mentioning of players and their apparent destinations. The interleague, non-waiver trading deadline is July 31st. Less than two weeks. Only 13 more shopping days!

It's also the time of year when MLB splits itself, like an amoeba, into two distinct parts: the buyers (teams with a chance at the playoffs) and the sellers (teams who have long ago given up on even a .500 record).

The Tigers, it's presumed, are buyers this season -- the first time in years. This means they are the potential destination for any number of players that fit their needs -- which are also presumed. The need du jour for our Bengals is a lefthanded bat. It's been said for so long that even if you didn't believe it at first, you might be tempted to believe it now.

The Tigers badly need a lefthanded bat.


Fortunately, Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski is not one who's easy prey to hypnosis.

Regardless, the names keep bobbing to the surface: Bobby Abreu. Alfonso Soriano. Matt Stairs. To name a few. These players, and other like them, playing for teams who are now hopelessly out of the fun, will be haphazardly mentioned by the "trade rumor quacks," as the Detroit News' Jerry Green so eloquently named them in an online column earlier this month. They'll be headed for Detroit, or New York, or any other city that one of the "quacks" deems fitting.

But not just the quacks will chime in. Real writers -- genuine, card-carrying members of the media -- can't help themselves, either. They get caught up in all the pre-deadline hype, too. So they will also trade players, pumping for certain deals in their inch-wide spaces full of india ink.

And the players whose names are being tossed out there like so much shark bait will profess to keep their focus and play for the team to which they currently belong, but you can't tell me it doesn't affect their performance. And you are wrong if you don't think many of them are glad that they are staying put after the deadline passes.

"How can he be happy to stay in Kansas City? The team stinks!"

True enough. But all the fans see is a player in a different uniform. They don't know about the last-minute travel arrangements, or the kids left behind, or the learning of a new city with new streets and freeways and places to eat. They don't think about the mostly unknown faces in the new clubhouse, and the fact that he'll have to live out of a hotel, maybe throughout the rest of the season.

Baseball trades are still some of the most exciting, breathtaking, season-altering transactions in pro sports. It's fun for fans of the "buyers" to see their new acquisition, adorned in the home team whites. Besides, he might just help win a playoff spot along the way.

But they aren't always loads of fun for the players so dealt.

But why should we care, right? They make enough money.

So ... wanna start a rumor?

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Ed Belfour Watch: Day 5

Will he or won't he?

The suspense is killing me.

Actually, the media coverage is.

We are, apparently, on an Ed Belfour Watch in this town. The Red Wings have interest in the 41 year-old netminder. Belfour has interest in the Red Wings. So much so, that he flew into Detroit with the expressed purpose of being poked, prodded, and wired -- all part of an extensive physical, something the Red Wings surely insisted upon, given Belfour's coming off back surgery.

The holdup to the signing is -- cue drumroll please -- money. In the form of incentives. Fine.

But we are being treated to fits of over-reporting by our venerable dailies.

"Today's news: NO news on the Ed Belfour front," the stories lately have said, basically.

But not in one sentence, like the above. Hundreds of words, complete with headline, still tell us what we've known for days, and it goes something like this:

The Red Wings have interest in the 41 year-old netminder. Belfour has interest in the Red Wings. So much so, that he flew into Detroit with the expressed purpose of being poked, prodded, and wired -- all part of an extensive physical, something the Red Wings surely insisted upon, given Belfour's coming off back surgery.

Sound familiar? It should. It's the same paragraph I wrote a few short 'graphs ago. And it's basically what the News and Free Press have been doing since last midweek.

Even Red Wings GM Kenny Holland realizes the absurdity of this situation.

"I would say sooner or later, one of us has to fish or cut bait," he said about the Belfour Watch, Day 5.

I'd say it's more like Eddie needs to pee or get off the pot, but that's jus' me.

I'm reminded of an old, old bit on Saturday Night Live, circa 1976. On the show's Weekend Update bit, Chevy Chase, or someone, would say, "And in other news, Generalissimo Francisco Franco is STILL dead."

Enough, already.

At this point, it's safe to say that the next "news" about Ed Belfour better be about his signing with the Red Wings, or his officially telling them that he's cut bait -- or gotten off the pot.

No more "Wings Still Waiting On Belfour" or "Bonus payments the hangup on Belfour talks" - type pieces. We KNOW, already! We get it.

Maybe the sports editors in town are still in pre-talented Tigers mode -- you know, when we all couldn't wait for Lions training camp to start, and when the Red Wings would sneeze and everyone -- EVERYONE -- would offer up a Kleenex.

Well, those annual big free agent signings are a thing of the past, pretty much -- thanks to the "new" NHL. And I think the media misses them, judging by the Belfour over-coverage.

Ed Belfour is still mulling over an offer from the Red Wings?

Let me completely slip from beneath this rock under which I've been living to say this:

I didn't know that.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Day Was Bright – And Dark – When Sports Talk Radio Arrived

July, 1994. I was minding my own business, watching the Lions crunch into each other at training camp, near the Silverdome. Later I’d get some sound bites for the cable television station for which I was toiling. But for now, I stood on an incline and took in the sight of Wayne Fontes’ boys gear up for another doomed football season, in the relentless sun.

An attractive blonde walked up to my cameraman and me.

“What TV station are you guys with?,” she asked, cheerily.

We started talking. About our job. Our reason for being there. Then it turns out the young lady had spent some time in Chicago – one of my favorite cities. We talked about that, too.

“Well, good luck,” she said, smiling. Then she walked back to her location on the small grassy hill and sat down.

In between her greeting and her wish of luck for us, Jennifer Hammond introduced herself as an employee of a brand-new radio station in town – WDFN. The Fan. It was an all-sports station. Heavily populated, at first, with local hacks and out-of-towners who’d tell us how to do our business – all while speaking with blatantly New York and/or New England accents.

Hammond was an aspiring sports reporter, and she was bemused by two guys with a video camera and a microphone at Lions training camp. Twelve years later, I’m bemused at some of the goofball things that are uttered on WDFN’s – and WXYT’s – airwaves. By callers and hosts alike.

“Hey, man – longtime listener, first-time caller!,” Sports Boob yammers into a cell phone from his car.

“What’s up, Joe Fan?”

“I just wanted to say that I think the Pistons should trade for Kevin Garnett.”

“Who would you trade?”

“How about Carlos Delfino and Dale Davis, plus a draft pick?”

“I don’t think the Timberwolves would do that trade, Joe.”

Then, you don’t know whether to be angry or feel sorry for Joe Fan as his sure-bet trade proposal is shot down on live air.

“You know what I hate? I hate it when you’re sitting on the can and you realize there’s no more toilet paper!,” Diarrhea Host blabs into his bully microphone.

“Oh, that’s the worst!,” Ex-player Co-Host yells.

“I mean, what’s up with THAT?,” Diarrhea says. “Bill from Ann Arbor, thanks for the call…”

“Yeah, thanks for taking my call. I just think that’s why we should all keep magazines in the bathroom, man!”

Three cackling and bellowing tubs of testosterone.

But I have, no joke, been subjected to 15 minutes on this topic: reading while sitting on the toilet.

Sports talk radio was a good invention. Kind of like the freezer. But as Albert Brooks said to Debbie Reynolds in “Mother,” about her propensity for food freezing, “It’s not meant for EVERYTHING.”

Doubtful Jennifer Hammond had any idea what her radio station was about to unleash on its listening public back in 1994. Doubtful the station itself did. But with several four-hour shifts to fill seven days a week with local sports talk, it’s inevitable that the talk will stray from point.

“Coming up on the program: ‘Boxers or briefs?’ And, the women who should know!”

I’m not in the car all that often. I’ve been blessed with short commutes, all the more glorious in this day of rising gas prices. So when I do tune in to sports talk radio, I expect to hear … sports talk.

But I have, no joke, been subjected to 15 minutes on this topic: reading while sitting on the toilet. Phone calls were taken. Then more talk.

It’s slightly awkward for me to prattle on, negatively, about sports talk radio. My magazine, Motor City Sports, works in partnership with WDFN. I have some friends who work for The Fan. Sean Baligian and I have had boisterous discussions about hockey – on and off the air.

Terry Foster writes for us. And he also appears on WXYT as an on-air guy. Another connection to the radio airwaves. He’s a super guy, and we’ve also gotten into it about Detroit sports, over a pop or two.

But that doesn’t change the fact that sports talk radio – which I still believe is an absolute necessity in this town – has created almost as many monsters as it has provided outlets for the previously-unheard fan. No sword has been as much double-edged.

It didn’t start here, of course. New York – surprise, surprise – became the first city that was known for dedicating an entire radio station to sports. And once those airwaves became open to the New Yorkers vis a vis the telephone – another great invention that wasn’t meant for everything – you can imagine the crackpots THAT brought out from the weeds.

For whatever reason, when WDFN began, it had a fetish for putting hosts on the air who were clearly not from Detroit. They didn’t even SOUND like Detroiters – mainly because Detroiters don’t have accents awash with Brooklyn. Or Boston. Or the Hamptons.

So these blowhards, these Johnny-come-latelys, would tell us how to do things here. They would mispronounce local names, and generally display an overall lack of knowledge of the town in which they worked. They probably only knew one way to and from the radio station, to their short-lease apartments.

Most of those types are gone now, thank goodness. At least now we’re subjected to dudes who grew up in the metro area. Their hot air, I can mostly abide – because at least it’s homegrown hot air.

I hope my friends at WDFN, should they read this, don’t get too mad at me. I still like them, after all. They can trash MCS Magazine all they want, in return. They have my permission.

But that’ll be the day when I sign off on a piece about male flatulence in public venues.

Besides, the radio station has already done that.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Lefthanded Bat Absolutely Critical For Tigers -- Or So I've Been Told

The lefthanded bat. The Tigers just can't live without another one, if you listen to all the blabbermouths on sports talk radio and read all the worry warts in the newspapers. Even those bottom feeders -- the bloggers -- who should know better are smashing the words on their Internet-connected keyboards.

The Tigers have made it 89 games -- with a 60-29 record -- without said lefthanded bat, but heaven forbid they try to play the next 73 matches without it.

Come to think of it, though, it was the lefthanded bat that has lifted the Tigers and carried them twice before.

In 1981, the lefthanded bat was Kirk Gibson. That was the strike-shortened season, the one that necessitated two "halves" -- with each half winner playing the other for their division's championship. Then, an LCS would follow.

Gibby wasn't much pre-strike in '81 -- again battling injuries. But once play resumed in August, Gibson was hotter than a firecracker. He hit around .370 in August and September, and it was this smoking stick that nearly lifted the Tigers to half a division pennant. They lost it to the Brewers in the season's final weekend. But Gibby had tried.

Five years later, the lefthanded bat was Johnny Grubb. Another August heater-upper. The rest of the 24 players jumped on Grubb's big back and took it for a ride, as the Gentleman From Virginia batted close to .350 for about four weeks, shooting the Tigers back into the divisional lead. But, like Gibson before him, Grubb's dramatics had an unhappy ending.

Looking at the Tigers' batting order, you'll find a lefty swing at leadoff, and not much else anywhere else. Switch-hitters can count -- so you throw Carlos Guillen in there. I suppose you toss Alexis Gomez, a lefthanded batter, in there as well, though Gomez is a part-timer. Other than that, the hitters are predominantly righthanded swingers. Such a bad thing, the worry warts would have us believe. Just think how much better than 60-29 we'd be with that lefthanded bat, they'll crow.

Dmitri Young is a switch-hitter, so he can be that lefthanded bat. Except no one seems to enthusiastically want him on the active roster. He's viewed as possible poison, which is probably unfair. But the Tigers players aren't as interested in being fair as they are being in the playoffs. For that, you cannot blame them.

So what to do? The trading deadline's shadow can almost be seen. It's 17 days away. 408 hours -- and the clock's ticking -- to make a deal. GOTTA make a deal! My kingdom for a lefthanded bat!

Everyone is saying it, so it must be so.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

NBA Teams Usually More Than A Ben Wallace Away From Glory

The last piece to a championship puzzle?

If there is any team in the entire NBA that can honestly say, "We're a Ben Wallace away from winning a championship," then that team is either: A) lying to us; or B) lying to themselves. There's a "C" option, too -- but it's just plain lying.

It is my opinion that the Chicago Bulls are performing option B.

Today the Bulls will make it official, with an evening press conference set to formally introduce Ben Wallace as their new starting center -- at the price tag of a cool $60 million spread over four years. The Pistons had offered, according to sources, about $10 million less than that. See ya.

Wallace is a unique talent -- even freaky. He's a big, powerful man who can, in one possession, defend, block shots, rebound, and draw fouls. He can't shoot free throws, score consistently, or pass especially well.

All that's special -- and frustrating in a mesmerizing way. But is that the one last player you need to scale Mt. NBA?

History says that teams rarely -- if ever -- use as their last, "key" pickup, a player who fits most of Ben Wallace's attributes. That last ingredient is typically a scorer of some sort. It's not a "good field, no hit" type of player. But the Bulls have 60 million reasons to argue with me, so I'll let them.

The prevailing wisdom -- at least it's a theory that I think holds the most water -- is that the Bulls hope to pull a double whammy here: Strengthen themselves, and weaken a divisional rival at the same time. The fact that the rival is the Detroit Pistons is, I presume, playing out very well in Chicago.

Well, OK -- I can buy into that. But the Bulls are NOT just a Ben Wallace away from winning the whole kit and kaboodle, no matter what they've done to the Pistons.

But yet there Wallace was, the supposed crown jewel among this summer's free agent class. A walking 9.0 PPG average. A bushel full of rebounds. A masonry's license for his work on the free throw line. A human "No Trespassing" sign, defensively. A terrific player, for sure -- in that system (the Pistons').

Whether Ben Wallace can maintain his reputation as a great defensive player and keep the lane clear of trespassers, while wearing the red and black of the Bulls and surrounded by a few more miscreants -- the coach included -- than he was used to playing with in Detroit, remains to be seen. It says here his effectiveness will take a slight hit, and he'll find it not quite as easy to blend in.

But the Pistons will take a hit, too -- so I guess mission accomplished, Chicago.

A $60 million mission, but a mission nonetheless.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

July No Longer As Full Of Football Talk

Sometime, probably by the first week of August, at the absolute latest, the Tigers will win their 71st game of the season. It, by all indications, will come when the number to the right of "71" in the standings reads something less than 40.

The number 71 is significant because it is the number of games the Tigers won all of last season. Took 'em 162 games to get to 71, an ending win total that puts teams squarely in the category of mediocre. A step below pedestrian.

But this year, 71 will come early -- oh, so early -- and it figures to be one of many win totals the team will pass, like so many orange cones on a freeway.


The Tigers' success this season is also changing the July routine around here.

April- Opening Day
Mid-April: Pennant elimination
May/June: Pistons/Red Wings playoffs
July: Lions camp opens

Whoa -- cross that last one off the list. At least add this next to it: Tigers hunt continues.

Right about now, in Julys of recent past, the Tigers would have long ago fallen off the radar, and we -- nothing else to do -- would be drinking our annual cup of Kool-Aid and raving about the Lions' chances. Some of our raves would turn into rants, but you feel me -- it was all about football, at the baseball All-Star break.

Not this July. Not this August.

Not this September, even.

Maybe not even this October.

The Lions could never, truly, be pushed off the fans' agenda in this town. It's a right of passage, Lions fever. If you think that's strange, indeed, for a team who has one playoff victory in 49 years, well there you are. But it's true.

In 2006, however -- this summer of dreams -- Lions talk has been properly placed on some backburner on a stove that surely must be 40 feet deep. You can't even hear the sizzle; can't smell the aroma, of Lions talk, and here we are, two weeks and some change from training camp -- and with a new coach, to boot.

Blame it on the Tigers. They won't mind.

The pan will be moved up to closer burners as the summer moves along, certainly. You can't keep the Lions fan quiet forever. The bleating will begin soon enough. But it won't begin as soon, you get the feeling. The talk is still likely to be starting pitching, Curtis Granderson, Pudge Rodriguez, that ever-mentioned left-handed bat, Joel Zumaya, Justin Verlander, and Carlos Guillen. To name but a few. Good muffling, I'd say, for whatever Lions talk you choose to muster.

July -- the vacation month. The swimming month. The car washing month.

But not the Lions' month -- no more. Not this year. Uh-uh.

Now, where'd I put my pouch of Big League Chew?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Red Wings Without A Face -- For Now

So this is how it's going to end, is it? This is how the empire known as Hockeytown is going to crumble -- with its chieftains withdrawing, voluntarily removing themselves from the picture.

Sometimes it isn't this graceful. In fact, often it isn't. Chieftains and warriors alike have been known to be forced out -- swept away by the broom of change and the bottom-line heart of management.

Steve Yzerman, chieftain -- gone. Retired, willing and content to leave the battlefield for good. The battlefield that was at times his and his alone. The leader of all leaders, except now he will help the cause from afar. No more will he be in the trenches.

Brendan Shanahan, warrior -- gone. Lured away by riches of another fighting community. Tempted, then capitulating to feelings of a time gone and another battle to be fought, someplace else. The unrestricted free agent. Meaning, nothing there to stop him, if fleeing is what he'd like to do. He leaves behind nine seasons of thrills, chills, and spills. Three Stanley Cups. Clutch goals, once upon a time.

Delusionists will say that a portion enough of the Red Wings' empire still remains to be considered not crumbling. There's still Chris Chelios. Nick Lidstrom. Kris Draper.


Sergei Fedorov is long gone. Scotty Bowman, too. Darren McCarty is elsewhere. And on, and on.

Now we would lose Yzerman and Shanahan, in less than a week no less, and some would have us believe that these are just a couple of holes to fill?

It's fitting that, when Jiri Fischer had his frightening moment at JLA last November, it was Yzerman and Shanahan who stood before the lights and cameras and microphones and spoke for their teammates -- indeed an entire franchise. Maybe an entire hockey nation. The two of them told, with concerned faces and tight mouths, of what had transpired, from their perspectives, and what the mood on the bench was. They provided some emotional security for the folks watching from home, mainly because they were, as a tandem, the faces of the franchise.

The Red Wings now are without a face.

Do not tell me Nick Lidstrom. He's a great player, a great guy. But he's not a Detroiter, really. He's the part-time Red Wing, flitting off to Sweden at the earliest opportunity. And that's OK. He'll go down as one of the very best defensemen of all time, but he's not a franchise face.

Again, it's all good.

Hockeytown needs to be retooled, but not rebuilt. A player here and there, some more youth joining the ranks. An expected dip in won/loss record. It's not in ruins.

Faceless, but not in ruins.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Retirement Not Always Attractive To The Career Athlete

In Norman Rockwell’s world, the aging, fading star athlete would hit a homerun, score a goal, run for paydirt, or hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer, then announce after the game that he is now going gently into the good night.

That’s why Norman Rockwell was a painter of canvases. He wasn’t a manipulator of fate.

Sometimes it’s true. Star athlete sends one more rush of chills down his adoring faithful’s spine in a mother of all swan songs.

Teddy Williams fit inside Rockwell’s framed canvas. He knocked one last pitch out of the park – in his final at-bat – to close his career in 1960.

Raymond Bourque, loyal employee of the Boston Bruins for over 15 seasons, spilled blood and dropped sweat in pursuit of hockey’s Stanley Cup. Many times there were playoffs, and a couple times there were Finals appearances. But never did Bourque, the greatest Bruins defenseman not named Bobby Orr, get the opportunity to raise the Cup over his head. Until he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche – a mercy offing by the Bruins. In his final game, Bourque’s Avalanche beat New Jersey and the Cup was his.

Most of the time, however, the storybook ending has more of a gothic nursery rhyme flavor to it.

Steve Yzerman last week sat before the bright TV lights and the whirring cameras and cache of microphones in the bowels of Joe Louis Arena and announced he wouldn’t be subjecting himself to anymore training camps, exhibition games, regular season games, and – worst of all – playoff games. He decided to take the 22 years-and-out plan, three less than Gordie Howe’s 25-and-out package. But then Gordie kept going, after all, and it became 32-and-out.

“I think I’ve done my best, and always tried to do what’s best for the team,” Yzerman said – dressed in the business suit of the non-hockey playing hockey player.

“It’s great to be a Red Wing.”

Well, yeah – once Steve Yzerman joined them, that is.

That Yzerman didn’t take a final lap around the ice with the Stanley Cup in tow after his final game as a player doesn’t mean that his retirement didn’t have some Rockwell in it after all. Been there, done that, frankly. But he left on his own accord, listened to his body, and has comfort in knowing that, in his heart and mind, he’s leaving the ice with the energy gauge squarely on “Empty.” Gobs of athletes would long for that kind of an exit.

Plus, it happened during the offseason, Yzerman’s announcement. Tormenting is the midseason retirement, which generally means that either something catastrophic has occurred, or the body has shut down – the skills vanished like something from a David Copperfield trick.


“Do you know how Norm Cash found out he was being released? … He was driving to the ballpark.”


The midseason quitting – now that’s a toughie. Athlete calls a press conference, in the environs of his trade, but wearing those street clothes of surrender. He’s not in uniform today. The tears flow, the weeping real as he describes how he’d like to keep going, but his being on the team is actually hurting, rather than helping.

I remember watching Mike Schmidt presiding over such an event.

It was May, 1989. The Phillies were scuffling along, and Schmidt, who would be a first ballot Hall of Famer, wasn’t having an impact. He was becoming a part-time player, only seeing action at all out of deference to his past accomplishments. Folks looked at themselves in Philadelphia and wondered when the greatest third baseman in franchise history would call it quits.

He finally did it, the kids still in school, the baseball season not really even warmed up yet.

“It’s becoming obvious that I can no longer do what I’ve once been able to do,” Schmidt forced through tears and shaking sobs. “Therefore, I am retiring as an active player, effective immediately.” Schmidt, 39 going on 40, had five hits in his last 57 at-bats. Tank empty.

Even the great Schmidt couldn't make it thru the 1989 season

Bill Laimbeer, Pistons Bad Boy extraordinaire, threw his last elbow early in the 1993-94 season. The team going nowhere, his 6’11” tank running on tired fumes, Laimbeer called one of those “uh-oh” press conferences, the season droning on. No tears – not that any of us expected any – but the message was clear enough without them for added emphasis: I’m done with this game, even if we do have over 60 games to play this season.

The announcements issued by the players are one thing, but those that are team-generated, ending up in agate type in the Transactions section of the sports page are quite another. Athlete is getting fired. The club has determined that his skills are corroded beyond repair. Athlete has to clean out his locker. No press conference. No dignity.

“Do you know how Norm Cash found out he was being released?,” former Tiger Jim Northrup bellowed into a phone to me last week. “He was driving to the ballpark. He was in his car!” Cash, 39, was let go by the team in August 1974. “I tell you, he was the best teammate I ever had,” Northrup said.

Sometimes athlete overstays his welcome. We say he is “hanging on.” He offers his services, but there are few interested takers. He is a shell of his former self. We watch him play with one eye open, the other closed.

Willie Mays. Steve Carlton. Tony Dorsett. They are names enshrined in their sport’s Hall of Fame. Names that should be cherished. But each of them became the hanging on athlete. They are, sadly, sometimes more remembered for their wobbly exits than their peaks.

Whenever I’ve talked to the retired athlete, and have asked him what he misses most about the game, the common denominator is this: I miss the camaraderie. I miss the togetherness of the lockerroom. I miss the team meals. The team flights.

It’s a powerful narcotic. Golf and travel and even family aren’t always enough of an antidote.

What else are some of these guys going to do, anyway?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Stuck In A Time Warp: Belfour, Hasek Again Options For Red Wings

In the late 1960's, the St. Louis Blues, NHL neophytes, employed as their goaltending tandem Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall. Each was in his 40's. But hold the Geritol. Plante/Hall led the Blues to the Stanley Cup Finals. Such a nice effort for their young coach. His name was Scotty Bowman.

Today the Red Wings are in search of a goaltender. The same refrain. The club bid adieu to Manny Legace, telling him that he was free to shop his services around the league, as of July 1st. The polite firing.

The search has only been half completed. Chris Osgood will be back, but he's not being regarded as the #1 goalie. Another repeated refrain. Indications are the search's second half will be wrapped up with the signing of 41 year-old Ed Belfour.

Osgood is going to be 34 before the end of the 2006-07 season. A Belfour/Osgood two-headed goalie would give the Red Wings 75 years worth of age in net. Close to the amount of years of Plante/Hall.

Still, no Geritol. But you might want to invest in Doan's Pills, and whatever OTC groin medication is out there nowadays.

Belfour is coming off major back surgery, and a lousy season. Osgood is still recovering from a groin injury, and a so-so season.

Two significant injuries, two seasons not worth a hill of beans. Yet this might be the duo that GM Kenny Holland commits himself to for next season.

Belfour was in town the other day, taking a physical. A strenuous one, by all accounts. He passed.

Hurdle One cleared.

Naturally, Belfour says he "feels great." He can't wait to get back onto the ice, presumably to prove to everyone that there's still some goaltending left in his tank. The usual things you say when you're selling yourself to a potential suitor.

In 2002, after Dom Hasek retired, the Red Wings had their choice of Curtis Joseph and Belfour as replacements. Joseph was the expensive one. Belfour was the cheaper and, supposedly, inferior one.

Belfour had a wonderful season. Joseph struggled at times, then presided over a four-game sweep at the hands of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the first round of the 2003 playoffs.

Now Belfour is an option for the Red Wings again. And so is Hasek, apparently.

The buzz is that Hasek intrigues Holland, so much so that the Dominator might get a look-see as well.

Hasek is 41, and will turn 42 in January.

But both Hasek and Belfour are at least younger than one of the defensemen that will protect them, 44 year-old Chris Chelios.

Let's do the time warp again!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Retired Numbers Ain't What They Used To be

It used to mean something, and I would submit to you that it has lost some of its luster. It hasn't lost all of it, but it has lost some. And now some would say that it isn't all that a big deal, so what's the harm in doing it over and over?

"It" is retiring uniform numbers, that franchise practice of so much honoring a former player that it's deemed mandated that no future performer shall ever wear the same number, so as not to desecrate the memory of the old one. So when #19 is raised to the rafters at Joe Louis Arena, it'll have Steve Yzerman's name above it, reminding us that it's not Randy Ladouceur or Danny Bolduc that we're festooning.

The body that is Ben Wallace's Detroit-playing cadaver isn't cold yet, and already the question is being raised: Should the Pistons retire Big Ben's #3?

It was a suggestion advanced yesterday by Mike Stone of WDFN. But you know sports talk radio -- always gotta find SOMETHING to talk about.

Stoney is a relatively wise sort. He's been around these parts for about 20 years, transplanted from his hometown of Philadelphia. So he's not some newcomer, some Johnny-come-lately who would tell us how to run our business, like so many other loudmouths employed by Stone's radio station have done in the past.

But Stoney, in a fit of boosterism for the just-departed, used his pulpit to alert us that a #3 retirement should be imminent for the Pistons.

"I'm not saying you do it now," Stone said. "But they retired Vinnie Johnson's number, and he wasn't even a starter!"

It was soon pointed out by a caller that Vinnie played 13 seasons in Detroit and won two titles. Wallace was in Detroit for six seasons, a one-time NBA champ.

That didn't deter Stone. Number 3 was as good as unavailable in his book.

"I just think for all he did, that he should be up there. And Dennis Rodman, too."

Rodman, Ben Wallace before there was Ben Wallace, played seven seasons in Detroit, before he requested a trade. He won some Defensive Player of the Year Awards, and two league championhips. He was as key to the Pistons' postseason success as anyone. Without his offensive rebounding, and relentless defense, you can forget about any championships.

So there is no disagreement with Mike Stone about retiring Rodman's #10, though part of me still wonders, When is enough enough? Rather, my beef with Stoney is with the notion of taking Wallace's #3 out of circulation.

"It's not like the Hall of Fame," Stoney said into his bully microphone. "It's just a number."

Whoa. Hold it right there.

A select group of retired jersey numbers IS its team's Hall of Fame. Each time a number is retired, its wearer is, in essence, inducted into a cherished fraternity.

So yes, Stoney -- it IS like the Hall of Fame. And Halls of Fame are supposed to be for the great, not the very good.

I have a problem with the Wallace number retiring, because where will it end? If you retire #3, then don't you have to set #32 out to pasture? #1? #30? #22?

Those are the numbers of the remaining Pistons starters. Each of them, it could be argued, were equal in value to a championship-winning club. So, using that theory, don't they all deserve to have their numbers retired?

Number retiring USED to be a big to-do. A player had to be the Al Kaline of his team to warrant such an honor from his former club.

Not anymore.

I look at stadiums and arenas all over the country, and their walls and balcony facings and rafters are full of the ubiquitous retired numbers. Some are no-brainers: Killebrew and Oliva in Minnesota. Rick Barry in San Francisco. Orr in Boston.

Others are not so obvious.

I see numbers that are surely retired for names out of deference, or even politeness, rather than for any sustained greatness on the field of play. And that's OK. Everyone has my permission. But the aura of a retired number isn't so much anymore. How can it be, when it's happening at the speed of light?

The Tigers have kept it properly limited when it has come to retired numbers. So have the Lions. The Red Wings have done OK. But the Pistons would probably have hiked strength and conditioning coach Arnie Kander's number to the Palace's rafters, had he worn one. Again, that's OK. Just a tad diluting.

You can honor Ben, if you'd like. Simply go to the Palace the first time his Bulls invade, and cheer as loudly and as longly as you can for him. Just know you'll be in the minority, of course.

But at the same time, don't give #3 to Nazr Mohammed. Not yet, anyway.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Yzerman's Backloaded Career Almost Happened In Ottawa

When Steve Yzerman joined the Detroit Red Wings, in the summer of 1983, an 18 year-old drafted from the Peterborough Petes, the Tigers' boys weren't blessed yet, the Pistons' Isiah Thomas had yet to qualify for his first playoffs, and the Lions were still six months way from becoming the victims of Eddie Murray's crooked right leg in the playoffs in San Francisco.

Ronald Reagan was president, "Cheers" hadn't even been on the air, Michael Jackson was gloved and several shades browner, you didn't need a second mortgage for a tank of gas, and "M*A*S*H" hadn't signed off yet.

And the Red Wings had made one playoff appearance in their past 13 seasons. Things were about to get a little better.

Yzerman, who retired yesterday after 22 seasons in Detroit, was hardly the person you'd have imagined resurrecting an entire hockey franchise by himself. He was shy -- oh, so shy -- and barely old enough to drink alcohol legally when coach Jacques Demers, in perhaps the greatest act of clairvoyance in Detroit sports history, named the 21 year-old Yzerman as his captain in October 1986.

Three Octobers earlier, only a few weeks into his NHL career, I spotted Yzerman in the Red Wings dressing room after a win. I was a cub reporter for the Michigan Daily. All the media folks were surrounding players like John Ogrodnick and Brad Park. And standing behind me was this teenager, for goodness sakes, who dressed quietly and by himself. Microphones and notepads weren't anywhere near his cubicle.

I engaged him in conversation, this shy youngster with the funny-sounding name that began with "Y". Getting words out of Steve Yzerman back then was like pulling a hockey player's teeth.

Little did I, or anyone for that matter, know that #19 would be the savior of pro hockey in Detroit.

It didn't come without blood, toil, tears, and sweat, though. Steve Yzerman's career was terribly backloaded. All his pain and suffering of losing and disappointment mostly happened in the front end of his career. The Red Wings didn't appear in a Cup Final uintil his 12th season. They didn't actually win it until season #14.

During those first 11 seasons, sometimes the whispers would start. Yzerman was too much of a one-way player. He wasn't the leader to take the team over the hump. He was going to be traded -- and that would be a good thing, perhaps.

But the worst thing -- and it wasn't said in a whisper but in a strong pitch -- was that they said Steve Yzerman cannot win.

They said it after first round defeats in 1993 and 1994, to Toronto and San Jose, respectively. They said it after the Finals sweep at the hands of the New Jersey Devils in 1995. Some even said it after the Wings lost the Conference Finals to the Colorado Avalanche in 1996.

The apex of this madness came in the summer of '94, when rumors began -- encouraged by coach-turned GM/coach Scotty Bowman -- that Yzerman was about to be traded to Ottawa. The Senators were not the powerhouse that they are now, back in 1994. They were the laughing stock of the league -- the worst NHL team by far. And Yzerman was being shipped there -- in the newspapers, on television, on the radio. And he would have been dealt to Ottawa on the Internet, too -- but Al Gore hadn't perfected it yet.

Some were aghast, at the thought of an Yzerman-to-Ottawa deal. One of the aghast was certainly Yzerman himself. His father had been a prominent politician in the province, but that would have been little consolation, going from one of the league's best teams to its absolute worst. The Senators finished '93-94 with a wretched 14-61-9 record. They scored 201 goals, gave up 397. And the Red Wings would seriously consider trading their captain of eight seasons THERE??

Turns out it was all a ploy. Bowman, trying to give his captain a jolt, never seriously considered the deal, it was found out years later. The coach was looking to install a more defensive-oriented system, and he wanted to make sure Yzerman bought into it. The other players, Scotty knew, would tumble into line if Yzerman was on board. Scotty was sly like a fox. Everything worked out just fine. Yzerman turned himself into one of the best two-way players in the game, and two seasons later, the Wings won the first Bowman/Yzerman Cup.

Well, lookie there, the naysayers are presumed to have said -- you CAN win with Steve Yzerman after all.

He is gone now -- retired and out of skates for the first time since he was in diapers. It's an apt distinction, because there are zillions of fans who were diapered when Yzerman made his Red Wings debut in October 1983.

He scored a goal in his very first game, by the way. An NHL goalscorer before he was a legal drinker.

Today, we're all sober.

Monday, July 03, 2006

This One Counts -- If You Can Make The Team

Superstar player pouts. Thinks he should be an All-Star, and damn those voters! He feels "dissed", that 21st century word that is supposed to justify any reaction, including anything up to physical confrontations. Says he won't be on our stinking All-Star team even if he's added later. Doesn't care to be an "afterthought" selection.

It happens in almost every sport -- the player left off an All-Star roster who feels strongly that the fans, writers, bloggers, and other riffraff have done him a horrible injustice. Then an injury happens, or someone's conscience gets the best of him, and there's a place for Superstar after all.

"You can take your roster spot and stick it in your $#!#$," Superstar says.

It's July, and that means baseball's best -- a definition about as easy to grasp as soup with a fork -- will congregate, this time in Pittsburgh, and engage each other in an All-Star game that is actually falsely named. There are stars, true, but there aren't "all" of them.

Sometimes it's been misnamed because the players in the lockerrooms haven't "all" been stars. The fans, God bless them, have been known to vote a miscreant or two to the team, based on reputation and past performance. But it's their game, so all is forgiven.

The Tigers, to a man, believe that five or six of their teammates are worthy of All-Star consideration. You certainly can't blame them, with a nifty 56-26 record and all. But so far, only catcher Pudge Rodriguez and pitcher Kenny Rogers will be in the Steel City representing the American League. Pitcher Justin Verlander has a shot, if he gets elected via the online "Extra, Extra!" that MLB now provides. One roster spot is up for grabs during the Internet voting, and Verlander is among the five candidates.

If everyone who "deserved" an All-Star roster spot actually got one, rosters would be as long as Refrigerator Perry's grocery list. And managers have a difficult enough time getting everyone in the game as it stands. So there's going to be "snubs", that worn All-Star suffix.

Some missing persons are indeed conspicuous, no question. They are the ones for which "snub" is the appropriate designation. A cache of .300+ hitters, pitchers with glitzy records and teensy-weensy ERAs, and other worthyables have spent the three day break fishing, golfing, playing with their kids, and taking their wives to dinner. Come to think about it, what's so bad about that?

In 1974, when the All-Star ballot was a 3x6 card full of chads, and only available at MLB ballparks courtesy of the good folks at Gillette, candidates were limited. Back then, it was fun to see who was going to be on the ballot at all, much less who was going to be voted in as a starter. And you couldn't vote for pitchers; that was the manager's duty. But there was a space at the bottom of the ballot for write-in candidates. You punched that chad, and wrote in your choice.

Steve Garvey, the Dodgers' first baseman and All-American kid, had enough smart, discriminating fans write in his name that he ended up starting the game in '74. Impressive, because it took a lot more than frivolous mouse clicks to earn a spot that way.

It's too early, still, to know if we'll have a Superstar Crybaby pouting over his "snub" from this year's All-Star teams. But it's not too early to say that there have been some. And not always has the pouting been without reason.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Hot Turkey On Wry: Tigers Are Killing Him Softly

Okay, we all know that when you quit something abruptly, like a bad habit, it’s known as quitting “cold turkey.” But what happens when you have to suddenly pick up a routine once again?

The Tigers are causing an entire city to engage in what will be known here as “hot turkey.”

Hot turkey is what it’s called – because I said so – when you have to re-learn a drill with all the easing into it of a boiled tomato being plunged into ice water so that it may shed its skin. Or maybe, since the Tigers have been so bad for so long, it’s the other way around: A cold tomato being plunged into boiling water.

In short, hot turkey is the exact opposite of cold turkey, and what else can you call it when a slumbering, moribund fan base is rousted and told to go full throttle? Tigers fans are being asked to go from zero to 60 in, oh, five seconds.

I called my old pal Hotchkins on it.

“Can’t talk right now. Looking for my Tigers cap,” Hotchkins panted into the phone. He’s a 60-something curmudgeon who only last season gave up on Barry Sanders returning to the Lions. But even a hopeless optimist like Hotchkins has been dormant when it comes to the Tigers. Not that it was ever easy to get him to let go. A few years ago I found him sitting on the curb near Brush and Madison, in front of Comerica Park.

“What are you doing here?,” I asked him, but not before I snuck a bag of Better Made potato chips from his knapsack when he wasn’t looking.

“Playoff tickets,” he said through a wrinkled, weathered puss.

This took the cake for even Hotchkins. The Tigers were about 30 games out of first place, with about that many games remaining.

“WHAT? PLAYOFF tickets? You’re out of your mind!,” I screamed, but not before pointing to something behind him and lifting a bottle of Vernors from his knap.

“Gotta be first in line,” Hotchkins said.

“There IS no line, Hotchie. The Tigers are nowhere near the playoffs.”

“They’re due,” he said.

Now, there’s no dissuading Hotchkins when he has his mind made up, so I let him be. But not before wincing at an imaginary traffic accident to his right, after which I palmed his wallet. I needed gas money.

Anyhow, after Hotchkins told me he couldn’t talk on the phone, I engaged him in conversation. Hotchkins will ALWAYS talk, as long as you don’t mind long, pregnant pauses while he multi-tasks. And when I say pregnant pause, I almost mean that literally. I swear I once waited a trimester for Hotchkins to get back to the phone while he made a limburger and head cheese sandwich. I suspect that was because my waiting time also included the after effects of him consuming that sandwich.

“How about those Tigers?,” I bellowed into the phone as Hotchkins scrambled. He has one of those fancy ear thingies that enables him to talk on the phone hands-free. Hotchkins has also been known to talk thought-free, too, but that’s another story.

“Doing okay…where’s my freaking ‘Bless You, Boys’ shirt?!,” Hotchie said, his breath and his patience growing shorter.

“Hotch…how you handling all this? It’s been awhile since they’ve even sniffed contention,” I asked, genuinely concerned. I’ve seen Hotchkins tear his own hair out watching the Tigers – his armpit hair. Hotchkins takes his baseball seriously.

“Living and dying, my friend. Living and dying,” he said.

“I see where Todd Jones – ,” I began.

“DON’T you mention that #$!#$!% to me ANYMORE,” Hotchkins roared about the Tigers’ up-and-down closer. “He’s DEAD to me! DEAD!”

I thought I heard some armpit hair ripping.

“Whoa, okay…easy now,” I said, and as is so typical when I talk to Hotchkins on the phone, I slipped into air traffic controller-trying-to-talk-a-passenger-through-landing-the-plane mode.
“It’s gonna be okay…we’re gonna get through this,” I said in a calm, even tone. I poured myself a Scotch. It’s not just Hotchkins who I have to get through these conversations, after all.

“I know it’s sudden. I know this is like a glass of cold water in your face at dawn, but it’s a long season,” I said – and now I was pacing. I had to keep him talking. Hotchkins has been one to pass out from implosion.

“No lefthanded hitter. Too much reliance on homeruns. And those $#!%$ WHITE SOX!,” Hotchkins cried, and I could practically see him sliding against the wall into a sitting position.

“I know. I know. But they’re for real. They can overcome that. YOU taught me that, Hotch! You’re the eternal optimist!” I tossed down another Scotch.

“I know they’re for real! Why the hell do you think I’m losing my mind? I haven’t had to care about the Tigers for SO LONG! And I’m NOT ready! This wasn’t supposed to happen this soon! Dammit, where’s my ‘Year of the Tiger’ album?!”

“HOTCH…Hotch,” I said, trying to remain measured in my cadence. “You know how these seasons go – they’re rollercoasters.”

“I SAID – don’t mention Todd $#$!$% Jones to me!”

I winced. I should have known Hotchkins would equate a rollercoaster to Jones. I quickly changed direction.

“Hey – Jimmy Leyland. Huh? HUH?,” I said with a grin.

There was a pause. I heard him sigh. But it was a reassured, content sigh. I imagined a small grin curling Hotchkins’ lips.

“Yeah,” he finally said. “Jim Leyland. Manager of the Year, for sure. Thanks, Eno. I guess I need to get a hold of myself.”

I nodded a knowing nod. I shoved the Scotch glass aside. My work was done. I talked him down from the ledge once again.

“Wow – what a relief,” I said. “I thought I was going to need a pitcher of Scotch that time.”

There was a rumble on the other end of the phone.

“RELIEF?,” Hotchkins said. “PITCHER?”


I sighed, rubbed my forehead, and brought the Scotch glass closer to me again.

Todd $#$%! Jones, indeed.