Thursday, August 31, 2006

Rogers Will Make The Team, But Is That Enough For Him?

So Charlie Rogers says he'll still be a Detroit Lion come Sunday, when the final 53-man roster has to be submitted to the NFL's offices. He's probably right. But he should take no joy in that fact, nor presume that along with a roster spot comes any sort of entitlement.

I suspect Rogers' making the cut has a lot more to do with his 2003 draft status and the dough committed to him than anything he's shown on the football field. So it seems to be a case of making it the same way a team backs into a playoff spot. Not much honor.

I just hope that Rogers looks at his roster spot as a privilege, not a right. I hope that he treats every week as if it could be his last in the league. I hope he does enough to convince coach Rod Marinelli that his roster spot was earned, not begrudgingly given. And, of course, I hope he doesn't get hurt (again) or violate the league's substance abuse policy (again).

But I'm eager to see Rogers in a Lions uniform in the regular season, if for no other reason than to finally get some tangible reaction of him from Marinelli and offensive coordinator Mike Martz, beyond this training camp doublespeak and nonspeak we've been reading and hearing for six weeks. Also, it will be fun to see how the team uses him -- if they use him at all. Same with Rogers' partner in grime, Mike Williams -- who's a story unto himself.

Rogers is treating tonight's exhibition finale with the Buffalo Bills at Ford Field as nothing special. "It's just a game, man," he told reporters. "It's not the Super Bowl."

Then, in the other corner, here's his coach saying, "For a lot of players, this is like their Super Bowl."

Maybe Charlie Rogers is right, though, because "a lot of players" aren't the third overall pick in the 2003 draft, with a bijillion dollars committed to them in guaranteed signing bonuses. "A lot of players" aren't being kept on the squad because it would appear to be poor business in releasing them.

If Rogers is happy with that sort of status, then maybe he wasn't worth keeping around to begin with.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Time & Patience In Short Supply, But That's What Marinelli & Lions Need

Vince Lombardi. Just say the name and the word "winner" spills from your lips, reflexively.

Tom Landry. Rarely bare-headed, rarely beaten.

Chuck Noll. A Super Bowl ring for every non-pinky finger.

Bill Parcells. NFL franchise doctor extraordinaire, synonymous with toughness. Multiple Super Bowl winner.

Jimmy Johnson. How 'bout them Cowboys?!

Bill Belichick. Steel-jawed, emotionless. But all he does is win the Big One.

You could start a list of the 10 best coaches in NFL history, and chances are most of the above names would be on it, somewhere between one and ten. It would be hard to argue for their exclusion -- let's put it that way.

But all of those men have one thing in common: they were losers long before they became winners.

Lombardi took over a moribund Packers franchise, and it took him a season or two before they were ready for prime time. Landry started from scratch, with an expansion team, and suffered for it. Noll's first season as Steelers coach was in 1969. The team finished 1-13 (only win against the Lions, of course). Parcells had some awful early years with the Giants. Johnson finished 1-15 with the 1989 Cowboys, his first year in Dallas. Belichick failed in Cleveland long before he found his niche with the Patriots.

Rod Marinelli is going to be judged by how well his 2006 Lions fare. No getting around that. He may even be judged on how the season opener goes against the Seahawks on September 10. Some have probably already passed judgement. But time and patience -- the two elements most needed here -- are also the two elements the pro football denizens in Detroit have in the least supply.

Nobody wants to hear that there is going to be a period of adjustment with a new coach and a new staff, but there is. Nobody wants to hear that a first-year head coach is going to need time to feel his way, but he will. Nobody wants to hear that it's going to take time to clear away the stench that's wafted around the Lions organization for decades, but it will.

And, to be fair, for every Lombardi and Noll, there are dozens of anonymous, success-deprived coaches who didn't make a ripple with their chances at being an NFL head coach. Far more failed than succeeded.

But you simply cannot dismiss the fact that the names at the top of this post weren't much to shout about when they entered the fraternity of NFL head coaches. They were, at one time, unknown and unproven at the pro level. Not one of them took their new team to the promised land in their first season.

Nobody knows for certain how many games the Lions will win this season. As usual, the predictions are all over the map. Those who should know -- because they tell us so -- seem to pin the number between five and seven games won. A .500 season would be nirvana for most fans. But one thing is generally agreed upon: the Lions will not win the Super Bowl. They won't even, most likely, qualify for the playoffs. It's quite possible that they'll suffer through another double-digit loss season. The loss totals of Mornhinweg and Mariucci, of Rogers and Clark. And Wayne Fontes, at times.

But it won't be how many games the Lions win this season that should tell the entire story of their progress. With them, it should be more tangential. Are they playing more disciplined? Are they beating themselves? Can they compete with the upper tier teams, especially on the road? Do their offensive and defensive schemes seem to befit the talent they possess?

THOSE are the questions that should be answered to render judgement on the 2006 Detroit Lions. Not, "How many games did they win?"

For if that was the only criteria, the world wouldn't even have heard of Lombardi, Landry, Noll, and company.

Court adjourned.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Marinelli's Cloak And Dagger Act Will Wear Thin Soon

One thing I think we're learning about new Lions coach Rod Marinelli is that he won't easily satisfy our curiosity.

Already, he's made cryptic remarks in training camp about certain star receivers who shall remain nameless -- for another paragraph or two. Then he flew the team to Oakland the day of an exhibition game Friday, offering no real reasoning beyond the maddening, "It's a team issue."

Now he's at it again -- and again the topic du jour is one of those nameless receivers. Namely, Mike Williams.

Williams, the #1 draft pick in 2005 out of USC, didn't play a single down in Friday night's 21-3 loss. And, as usual, no real reason was given.

"Players earn their time in practice," was about all Marinelli would say about the matter. Yet there had been no indications during the week that Williams had disappointed the coaches on the practice field.

Williams, for his part, doesn't know why he didn't play.

"They usually tell you," Williams told the Free Press. "I'd think they'd tell you if you weren't going to play at all.

"I'm not trying to verbally go find out. Just going to keep working and, you know, when they feel like I've earned it, I'll be in," Williams said.

If the Lions -- Marinelli specifically -- are trying to make Mike Williams some sort of poster boy for work ethic and self-discipline, that's fine. But it seems to be drifting off into the realm of punitive to a fault. There's no question that Williams almost looks like a tight end instead of a wide receiver, but if he can play at that weight, what's the big deal? And if his practice habits are unacceptable, why not just come out and say it?

This smacks of head games, and I'm not sure that's appropriate coming from a first-year head coach. Scotty Bowman? Sure. He did it all the time. He also had a cache of Stanley Cups to back him up.

I still think Rod Marinelli is the right man for the Lions' potential rebirth. I just wish he'd back off the cryptic comments and mind games. It's one thing to have the power; it's quite another to abuse it.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Class Remissed

I love the word syllabus. It looks funny, sounds funny, and doesn’t seem to have any real connection to the item it’s describing. (By the way, it refers to a chronological schedule of a school course’s semester — not to be confused with syllable).

So with school about to get back into full swing, it’s time for a syllabus — if there was ever such a thing as a course in Detroit Sports. You’re responsible for your own blue books.

WEEK I: Detroit Lions & The Holy Grail.
An in-depth study of the team’s failure to appear in even one Super Bowl in 40 years. Topics will include: The Great Quarterback Search; losing a playoff game by the score of 5-0; Russ Thomas: Evil football demagogue, or frugal executive?; Darryl Rogers: WHY?; Tom Brady: WHY NOT? (Lab work will include breakdown of videotape of the January 5, 1992 playoff win over the Cowboys, the Lions’ only postseason win since 1957).

WEEK II: What Would Larry Do?
Deep philosophical debates highlight this particular week’s emphasis. Students will form teams of four and prepare for a lengthy argument for and against Pistons coach Flip Saunders’ performance in the 2006 playoffs. Comparisons will be made to Larry Brown, and whether the team’s meltdown would have occurred under his watch. (Lab work: deciphering Ben Wallace quotes culled from the ’06 postseason, using them as either pro- or anti-Flip fodder).

WEEK III: Is Hockeytown turning into GhostTown?
Here we will ruminate about the Red Wings’ loss of captain Steve Yzerman (to retirement), winger Brendan Shanahan (to flight), and goalie Manny Legace (to apathy). The team’s future will be dissected, along with a mandatory essay titled, “If I Were GM Ken Holland, I Would ...” (Lab work: Students will spend the majority of the week trying to answer the following question: Where in the world did Fernando Pisani come from, anyway?)

WEEK IV: Strrrrrretch!
The Tigers’ 2006 September stretch-run will be analyzed. Second-guessing manager Jim Leyland and bemoaning certain players will be encouraged, though it’s not anticipated that such encouragement will be necessary. Win or lose, a discussion of what GM Dave Dombrowski did to help nip the pack at the end will be 50 percent of the final grade for this week. (Lab work: Students will role-play the 1987 final weekend — with half the class as the Toronto Blue Jays, and the other half as the Tigers. Blue Jays students will be mandated to attend class during labs with extra-tight collars).

WEEK V: The Misfits.
After four grueling weeks, we take time out for fun to remember some of the miscreants who’ve played sports in our town over the years. Players discussed will include Bob Probert, Joe Don Looney, Reggie Harding, Denny McLain, and Juan Gonzalez. An essay titled “My Favorite Misfit Is …” will count for 75 percent of this week’s grade. (Lab work: Students will be asked to locate the Customs window where Probert was caught with drugs in his underwear).

WEEK VI: The Choir Boys.
The fun continues for another week, as we recall the “Good Guys” over the years. An essay titled “Nice Guys Don’t Always Finish Last” will be due that Friday. (Lab work: Students will contest who can gather the autographs of Nick Lidstrom, Curtis Granderson, Jon Kitna, and Antonio “McNice” McDyess the quickest).

WEEK VII: Fire Millen. And Harkness. And Bill Ford Sr. And Russ Thomas. And Billy McKinney. And Randy Smith.
A return to the grind, as the week looks at some of the most vilified executives in city history. Bad trades, ill-advised signings, and absurd bon mots fill this week. (Lab work: Students will pair off and see who can screw each other the worst in a sports version of the board game Diplomacy).

WEEK VIII: Can’t anybody here play this game?!
It seems like more fun, but it’s actually painstaking, as the class will debate who were the least talented players to wear a Detroit pro sports uniform since 1979 — the year of the 2-14 Lions and the 16-66 Pistons. (Lab work: Find goalie Bob Essensa and crank call him).

WEEK IX: We’re from Detroit, too!
Venturing from the four majors, this week will focus on great athletes with Detroit ties who have excelled in other sports. Peaches Bartkowicz, Sheila Taormina, Tommy Hearns, and Todd Eldridge will be discussed. Students must choose one and write a paper on that person. (Lab work: Students will be asked, “What was the Virginia Slims Tournament, and where was it played?” for extra credit).

WEEK X: We played in Detroit, too!
Detroit has a rich history of defunct teams from sometimes-defunct leagues. The Michigan Panthers, Detroit Wheels, Michigan Stags, and Detroit Drive will be among those whose résumés will be scrutinized. Remember John Corker? Marc Tardif? (Lab work: A field trip to Cobo Arena to look for Stags artifacts).

So there you have it — the syllabus as it would be.Don’t worry: I’d grade it on a curve. A long, sloping, meandering curve.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Julio Franco: Almost 50 & A World Series Virgin

Julio Franco debuted in big league baseball in 1982. He was the All-Star Game MVP -- in 1990. Going into this season, he had accumulated over 2,500 hits, with a career BA of .299. He is currently a first baseman with the New York Mets, and as of the other day, was hitting a very respectable .270 in 115 AB.

He is 48 years old, reaching that birth milestone Wednesday.

Yet, despite nearing 50 years of age, there's one thing Julio Franco hasn't experienced in his baseball career.

He has not set foot on the field during a World Series game.

That could change this season, as his Mets are running away with the NL East. But Franco's been to the playoffs before, with little luck. He did make it to the NLCS in 2001, with the Braves.

Whenever you need a poster child for a player whose career was lengthy but unsuccessful from a team standpoint, you trot out Ernie Banks. Mr. Cub played 19 seasons in Chicago, and managed to keep a smile on his face and a cheery disposition, despite playing on some of the worst teams in baseball. In 1969, the Cubs flirted with winning the NL East before collapsing in September.

But Ernie Banks was a youthful 40 when he retired in 1971. Franco is almost ten years past that, and he says he wants to play past age 50.

The thought of a 48 year-old player making his World Series debut does something for me. It ought to be one of the best stories of the postseason, and with Franco playing in New York, that has a good chance of happening.

Franco: he debuted BEFORE the last Tigers' World Series win

If the Tigers make the World Series, and they face the Mets, you could see 41 year-old Kenny Rogers facing Franco at the plate. I don't know how to find this out, but I'm sure some sabermatrician could tell us: the combined age of Rogers and Franco would be 89 years old. Has such a combination of ages ever clashed in the World Series? Somehow I doubt it.

I'd root 100% for the Mets and Franco except for one thing: I'm a huge Dodgers fan. I think it stems from buying their yearbooks at Tiger Stadium in the 1970's. You could buy yearbooks from a few teams other than the Tigers back then, and the Dodgers were always one of them. So I started buying Dodgers yearbooks in the mid-70's, and have been a fan ever since.

But I might waive that allegiance in order to see Julio Franco play in his first World Series game at age 48.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Lidstrom In Danger Of Becoming A Trivia Answer

Danny Gare scored 354 goals in his 13-year NHL career. He played in the 1975 Stanley Cup Finals. He made some All-Star teams. Twice he scored at least 50 goals in a season.

Yet around here, he's no more than the answer to a trivia question.

Gare was the Red Wings' last captain before Steve Yzerman. He wore the "C" from 1982-86, when the Red Wings were derisively called The Dead Things. Detroit was the furthest thing from Hockeytown in those days.

Gare: Red Wings captain from 1982-86

Gare was a fine hockey player, one that deserves more than just being "the guy who was the captain before Steve Yzerman."

Nick Lidstrom is a Hall of Famer. No question about that. He will be elected, on the first ballot, virtually unanimously. He will go down as one of the ten best defensemen to ever play in the NHL.

And now he, too, will be the answer to a trivia question.

Lidstrom will apparently be named the next Red Wings captain, although coach Mike Babcock says the decision hasn't been finalized. But assuming he will be -- and he will, I believe -- Lidstrom will be "the guy who was captain after Steve Yzerman."

Somebody has to follow Yzerman, of course. Notice I didn't use the word "replace", for that notion is ridiculous. But there has to be a next captain, and Lidstrom makes all the sense in the world. He's been in the league since 1991, and while he's not vocal, Yzerman wasn't either. And, we don't know how many times Yzerman did his talking in the dressing room, anyway.

The best talking is the talking done by actions. Lidstrom will be a fine captain. There's no reason to compare him to Yzerman, because that's counterproductive. Instead, he should be embraced as Nick Lidstrom, captain. Not Nick Lidstrom, the guy after Yzerman.

But, sadly, there's no getting around the fact that Lidstrom is, indeed, the answer to somebody's trivia question. And forever will be. However, it shouldn't besmirch his career, and it's just happenstance that he's becoming captain after the last dude was captain for almost 20 freaking years.

The Red Wings aren't full of peach-fuzzed kids. They have more players 30 years and older than any team in the NHL. They might be as close to a team that needs no true captain as any you'll ever see. But you gotta have a guy that wears the "C". And you can do far worse than Nick Lidstrom, in that capacity.

Danny Gare was one of the few veterans with any hockey playing credibility when he was in Detroit in the 1980's. He was acquired, along with veteran defenseman Jim Schoenfeld, in December 1981 for Mike Foligno and Dale McCourt. It wasn't the greatest of trades, but it wasn't bad. Schoenfeld and Gare provided leadership and presence that the team sorely lacked. And Gare was a logical choice to become captain in 1982. He helmed the Red Wings thru choppy waters when they were mostly rudderless.

Trivia answer or not.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Good Thing Lilly Didn't Challenge Billy

For baseball fans born before 1980, two words probably flashed in your head the moment you read or heard about the altercation last night between Blue Jays pitcher Ted Lilly and manager John Gibbons.

Those words would be Billy, and Martin.

Billy Martin, manager/pugilist. Billy Martin, who had almost as many "altercations" with his own players as he did with the opposition -- or marshmallow salesmen.

Lilly, lifted in the third inning after letting the Oakland A's chop an 8-0 deficit to 8-7, was furious with Gibbons, refusing to give him the ball at one point. Then, after he left the game, Lilly waited for Gibbons in the dugout runway. What followed was some sort of scuffle that left Gibbons with a bloody nose.

Both combatants said no punches were thrown and all is now well.

For me, the first image that swooped into my mind was that of Martin challenging Reggie Jackson to a fight in the dugout at Fenway Park. It was circa 1977, and Jackson had earned Martin's wrath by attempting to bunt against the manager's orders. He struck out doing so. Then, later in the game, Reggie loafed on a fly ball, according to Martin's thinking. Billy removed Reggie on the spot -- in the middle of the inning.

I can still see Jackson's replacement -- I can't remember who it was -- jogging out to right field, shrugging at Reggie in a sort of "Just doing what I was told" manner. When Jackson returned to the dugout, Billy was waiting.

Oh, was he waiting.

Coach Elston Howard had to stand between the two. Reggie took off his glasses -- later admitting he did so because he thought Billy and he were going to dance. Martin was furious, screaming at Jackson until the veins in his neck bulged. If you remember Billy's tirades, you know the look. Several times Martin had to be restrained from going after Jackson, who seemed perplexed and bemused. And it was all captured by TV cameras trained on the Yankees' dugout.

Martin and Jackson in a rare playful moment; the two detested each other

Martin also had a rumble with his own pitcher -- Dave Boswell of the Twins. Billy was managing the Twins in 1969 when he and Boswell took an argument that started inside the old Lindell AC in Detroit into the parking lot. In typical Martin fashion, Billy slugged Boswell with a sucker punch as soon as they stepped outside the bar. When Martin managed the Tigers in 1971, one of the players GM Jim Campbell acquired late in the season was ... Dave Boswell.

Martin also had tumbles with many opposing players, a marshmallow salesman, and a few teammates.

He died on Christmas Night, 1989, in a well-publicized single-vehicle crash in which whether the driver was Martin or friend Bill Reedy became an issue. Yes, alcohol was related.

Controversial to the bitter end -- Billy Martin.

Monday, August 21, 2006

We Need A T.O. From Owens

Dallas Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells turns 65 tomorrow. He is, frankly, not too old to coach football. But he IS too old to have to deal with cartoon-like wide receivers.

Terrell Owens has this way of sucking attention and focus from his teammates like a leech.

Only is it with Owens that a ride on a stationary bike can become an icon of an entire team's training camp.

Owens, acquired earlier in the year by the Cowboys, has missed most of training camp with an injury. His participation has mostly consisted of riding the bike and giving his coach the hives.

Parcells has been justifiably growing more and more cranky as Owens' passive/aggressive holdout has gained a life of its own. At first, Parcells didn't want to talk about Owens, because he doesn't like to talk about players who aren't playing. Then, as Owens watched practice after practice on his iconic bike, Parcells began to moan to reporters -- again justifiably -- that sooner or later, Owens needs to be on the field.

Now we have diversionary tactics. The REAL story out of the Cowboys' camp ought to be the quarterback situation. Veteran Drew Bledsoe is being nudged -- shoved, actually -- by Tony Romo, and Bledsoe isn't happy about it -- which he shouldn't be, being a 14-year veteran and all. In any other year, Romo/Bledsoe would be dominating August Cowboys news.

But instead we have Owens and his non-participation, which is yet another example of how he can go into leech mode. Whether it's outlandish end zone celebrations, or brazen comments about teammates, or denying the validity of quotes taken from his own autobiography, Owens manages to overshadow his team.

Ironically, Parcells used to have that ability. He became larger than life on the sidelines -- a franchise doctor who had worked wonders at other NFL stops. His hiring by the Cowboys in 2003 was the talk of the NFL. Miniscule hopes that he would be the Lions' next coach, before the team hired Rod Marinelli, had football fans in Detroit slobbering all over themselves. He is, to many, the modern day Vince Lombardi.

But Lombardi never allowed himself to be overshadowed, and his players included such high-profile guys as Paul Hornung, Max McGee, Jerry Kramer, and Bart Starr -- all of whom never shied away from the spotlight.

Owens is bigger than his teammates right now, as usual. He's bigger than the quarterback duel. He's bigger than any other player who catches footballs for a living -- Randy Moss included. But what's different this time is that he's bigger than a coach who's not used to playing second fiddle to anyone, let alone one of his players. And Parcells coached Lawrence Taylor, don't forget.

Parcells turns 65 tomorrow, but certainly he might feel 75 or 85 before the season kicks off next month.

Pimpin' Your Baseball Blog

OK, OK -- shameless plug time.

In March 2006, I started an all-baseball blog, Where Have You Gone, Johnny Grubb? Of course, it was long before the Tigers started setting the baseball world on its ear. I just had a lot to say about the national pastime, and I didn't want Out of Bounds to be the primary vehicle for that.

Now, as the thirst for Tigers-related stuff grows, and so you won't think I'm putting them on the back burner, I beseech you to check out my Grubber site for all things Tigers and MLB. Many of you already do that, and I'm very appreciative. WHYGJG is usually updated 3-4 times per week. Thanks again and happy reading!!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Dantley Deal Had To Be Done, McCloskey Says Today

The Pistons were cruising along, in control of their division, winning about 70% of their games. It was February, 1989. The NBA trade deadline loomed. But surely the Pistons, with their glittering record and odds-on favorites to appear in the NBA Finals for a second consecutive year, wouldn’t, couldn’t, be players in the trading game … right?


The Pistons traded forward Adrian Dantley to the Dallas Mavericks for forward Mark Aguirre. It was a bold move, one that lesser GMs wouldn’t have had the guts to make. But it had to be done, according to the deal’s artisan.

“We had some internal problems on that team,” Jack McCloskey says today from his home on tiny Skidaway Island, just outside of Savannah, GA. “Adrian didn’t want to talk to [coach] Chuck Daly. I told him [Dantley], ‘Look, coach Daly will talk to you about anything in the world. You gotta talk to him.’ But Adrian didn’t want to do that.”

When I suggested to McCloskey that certain cynics – me included – thought the trade would harm team chemistry, he scoffed.

“It was because of team chemistry that we had to make the trade,” McCloskey says. “We had internal problems.”

Such as, a falling out between Dantley and coach Daly?

“Such as … internal problems.”


McCloskey, during the Pistons' Bad Boys era

Aguirre was no saint, either. Drafted just ahead of Isiah Thomas in 1981 by Dallas, out of DePaul University, Aguirre was going to someday lead the second-year Mavericks to the promised land. Coach Dick Motta raved about him on draft day.

But eventually, years later, Motta would call Mark Aguirre a “coward” and a “jackass.”

So wasn’t it a risk to try to improve team chemistry by trading for someone like Aguirre, who came with his own baggage?

“I spoke to Isiah, and Bill Laimbeer, and Rick Mahorn, and I told them, ‘If we get this guy [Aguirre], then you have to make sure he plays Pistons Basketball,’” McCloskey recalls. “And they told me they’d take care of it.”

Did they ever.

The team was on the west coast when the trade was made around Valentine’s Day. But there weren’t any candy kisses being passed around when Thomas, Laimbeer, Mahorn and company took the new Piston to dinner.

Basically, each of them took turns browbeating Aguirre, reminding him that he came with a poor reputation, and that wasn’t going to be tolerated with the Pistons.“I’ve heard a lot of bad things about you, and the only reason I’m willing to give you a chance is because you’re Isiah’s friend and he vouches for you,” Laimbeer told Aguirre during the dinner, according to Jerry Green’s book, The Detroit Pistons: Capturing A Remarkable Era.

Trader Jack, they called McCloskey. Never afraid to pull the trigger.

The Pistons caught fire after the trade. They finished with a 63-19 record, and cruised to the championship, losing just two playoff games in the process.

Dantley had his own suspicions about why the trade was made. Thomas’ friendship with Aguirre, which dated back to their childhood in Chicago, certainly must have contributed to the move, Dantley thought. When the Pistons and Mavericks met at the Palace for the first time after the trade, Dantley whispered something into Thomas’ ear before tip-off. What he said, has never been revealed. But it’s widely accepted that it wasn’t, “I love you, Isiah.”

Although, maybe “you, Isiah” was included in the missive.

Naturally, McCloskey debunks the conspiracy theorists who would have us believe that Isiah Thomas orchestrated the Dantley-for-Aguirre trade.

“I made that trade,” McCloskey has always maintained. “Me. Nobody else.”

McCloskey insists he, not Isiah, put Aguirre into a Pistons uniform and Dantley into a Mavs jersey

Did he think, I asked, that the Pistons would have won the championship with Adrian Dantley instead of Mark Aguirre, had the trade fallen through?

“It would have been questionable,” McCloskey answered me. “Because of what was going on with the team.”

Trader Jack, they called McCloskey. Never afraid to pull the trigger. Bold, sometimes to a fault. But also a master drafter and team architect. He was, in Detroit, the Frank Lloyd Wright of the NBA. When today’s NBA observers laud current Pistons GM Joe Dumars, the more informed ones recognize that Dumars’ inspiration and the one he emulates is Jack McCloskey.

Yet the biggest trade of all, the mother of all deals, never happened. But it wasn’t because McCloskey didn’t try.

Shortly after becoming Pistons GM in December, 1979, McCloskey realized his roster was more befitting that of an expansion team than one that had been in the league for over 25 years. Across the country, dazzling NBA fans in Los Angeles, was the rookie Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

McCloskey had some ideas.

“I called Lakers GM Bill Sharman, who was a good friend. I offered him any three players from our roster for Earvin. He said no. I upped the offer to any six players. He said no again. So a few days later I told Bill he could have my entire team for Magic.”

Sharman, stunned, talked to Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke. The next day, he called McCloskey and declined the offer.

“They were thinking about it,” McCloskey said in Green’s book. “We would have taken Magic, and filled the roster with CBA players and free agents.”

And the basketball world would have been set on its ear.

McCloskey left the Pistons as a two-time champion after the 1991-92 season. Then it was off to Minnesota to be the Timberwolves’ GM for three years. In 1995, Thomas called up his old boss.

“When Isiah went up to Toronto, he asked me to come up there and help,” McCloskey says. “So I went to Toronto and was a consultant and a scout for almost ten years.”

With the Raptors, McCloskey used his expert drafting eye to help select players like Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Marcus Camby, and Chris Bosh. It was the same eye that had once drafted names like Joe Dumars, John Salley, and Dennis Rodman.

“All-star players,” McCloskey says with pride about his Raptors picks, “but management couldn’t keep them.”

Today, McCloskey, who turns 81 next month, is still an avid tennis player.

“I play tennis three times a week and golf about nine times a week,” he says of his retirement on Skidaway Island. “If I sound out of breath now, it’s because you caught me in the middle of a workout.”

McCloskey will be back in Detroit in October, when he’s inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he says.

Watch your valuables, if you plan on attending. Trader Jack will be back in town.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Millen Haters Have No Alternative

The numbers are stark in their reality, impossible to shrink from. They are able to be recited by even some of the non-fanatical pro football followers. They have appeared on homemade signs -- billboards of doom that are held up high at Ford Field, with the hope that the TV camera's eye will capture them for beaming into the homes of other beaten down denizens. In Detroit, the numbers are almost as much on the forefront of the sports fan's psyche as "John 3:16."


On first glace, they may see to be random figures, joined together by a hyphen arbitrarily. But then it sinks in, and you know what the configuration means.

21-59. Matt Millen's record as Lions president and GM. Hired January 2001. Vilified not long afterward.

The record is hideous, for sure -- the worst in the league in that time frame. It's almost impossible to defend, to play at a .283 clip -- not even a great baseball average -- for five NFL seasons, in this day and age of parity and lesser teams rewarded for their awful play with soft schedules the next season.

21-59. A cloak of shame for Millen and his underlings.

But I've never, and refuse to do it now, called for Millen's dismissal. I'm not ready to cast aside one administration for another, mainly because I don't know who the next administration would consist of.

And neither do Matt Millen's detractors.

In the five seasons of 5-11 and 4-12 and 3-13, I can count on one hand -- and have fingers left over -- the amount of people mentioned by the shrieking masses as being Millen's successor.

"Fire Millen!"

It's a chant, and another billboard of doom. It's a website. It's seen at out of town baseball and hockey games, like the John 3:16 placard. It's almost a countrywide joke.

"Fire Millen!"

And replace him with who?

Who is there, really, that the Lions can hire at this point and make significant strides toward respectability? Is another "fresh start" going to right the ship in one season? Or two?

It says here that the Lions will improve at the exact same rate -- and maybe quicker -- with Matt Millen as their president than with him not.

There's the coach, for starters. Rod Marinelli is, finally, the right man for the job. It's not an opinion supported by facts and figures, necessarily. It's simply one borne from a strong hunch.

Had Matt Millen made smarter coaching hires prior to selecting Marinelli in 2006, a lot of what ails the Lions would never have materialized.

The blind-leading-the-blind approach failed miserably when Millen hired Marty Mornhinweg in 2001, after one interview and a late night film session. A brand-new president hiring a brand-new head coach was a recipe for disaster. Millen should have, instead, tabbed someone with head coaching experience, a more grizzled veteran of NFL sidelines. That would have been a smarter start.

In 2003, Millen became just as enamored with Steve Mariucci as the fans and the media, which was another mistake. It's not anyone's job but Millen's to do his due diligence, and find out why Mariucci won in San Francisco, and whether those circumstances existed in Detroit. It's also his job to have queried Mooch and determine how flexible he would be to tweaking his West Coast Offense, based on the Lions' talent -- particularly the quarterback. That didn't happen, and Mariucci was a rousing failure.

So in 2006, the situation is 180 degrees away from that of 2001. Millen is the grizzled veteran now -- his record be damned -- and so hiring a first-time head coach isn't a recipe for disaster. It can, in fact, be exactly what the doctor ordered.

"Fire Millen!"

And get who?

Get back to me on that.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Weight Requirements Trump Hair Concerns Any Day

Mike Williams' weight, I can understand. It helps to play football when you're not channeling Marlon Brando, post-"Godfather." I can even abide quirky things in contracts like not being allowed to bunjee-jump, or windsurf, or anything else that might compromise an athlete's career -- the one that management is paying millions to nurture.

But it was a haircut -- or lack thereof -- that ended a career in Detroit that could have been something special.

Garry Unger was a hotshot center for the Red Wings in the late 1960's. He could skate, score, check, and was very durable. The Wings had snatched him from the Toronto Maple Leafs, before King Clancy and company knew what they really had. In the 1969-70 season, Unger scored 42 goals -- as a 22 year-old. He had long, flowing blond locks, which made him a darling with the female fans, this being before the days when most players wore helmets.

Ahh, those locks.

In a move that is still questioned by oldtimers as being fueled by one too many cocktails, Red Wings owner Bruce Norris hired Ned Harkness to coach his hockey club. Harkness was fresh off the 1970 NCAA hockey title, coaching Cornell. Almost immediately, he bemused his new players.

"I remember the first time I met Ned," the late Gary Bergman, defenseman, once recalled. "It was in the summer, and I'm drinking coffee and here he comes, to my house. He started talking about hockey and how we were going to do things, and before you know it he's rearranging the furniture in my living room, representing hockey players.

"My wife poked her head in, took a look, and shook her head and left," Bergman said.

"I knew we were in trouble," Bergman said of Harkness.

And the Red Wings were. It didn't take long before Harkness had alienated just about every player on the roster, including Gordie Howe, who was in his final season as a Wing. It culminated in an ugly 13-0 loss in Toronto on January 2, 1971. The players had signed a petition begging management to fire Harkness.

GM Sid Abel tried to do exactly that.

But Abel was overruled by the stubborn, absentee owner Bruce Norris. Turning his back on the franchise near and dear to his heart, and completely frustrated and mystified, Abel resigned on January 8th.

And who was promoted to replace him?

Ned Harkness!

And Doug Barkley was promoted from the minors to coach the Red Wings.

Unger and his hair

But back to Unger. Harkness harped on his young center about the length of his hair. Get a haircut, get a haircut, Harkness said. No, no, Unger said. They were at an impasse.

Finally, in February, Harkness made his move, trading Unger and Wayne Connelly to the Blues for Red Berenson and Tim Ecclestone. It wasn't a terrible trade, but it wasn't good, either.

Unger ended up being the NHL's Iron Man, playing in over 600 consecutive games at one point. He finished his career with 413 goals, most with St. Louis.

But it didn't happen in Detroit. All because of a haircut.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

I'm Not Wild About That Extra Card

I miss the American League East. I don't mean the bastardized version we are witness to now. I mean the OLD AL East -- the one the Tigers once occupied, along with the Blue Jays, the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Brewers, the Indians, and the Orioles. I miss the late '80's and 90's, when it seemed like the divisional crown got passed around like a peace pipe. To wit:

1982 Milwaukee
1983 Baltimore
1984 Detroit
1985 Toronto
1986 Boston
1987 Detroit
1988 Boston
1989 Toronto
1990 Boston
1991 Toronto

That's ten seasons, and five different winners, including a different one every year from 1982-86. You gotta love it.

I'm sorry, but I miss the old two-divisional format. It was the closest thing we had to a "true" pennant race since, well, the ONE divisional format.

The '68 Tigers were the last true pennant winners, if you ask the oldtimers. MLB split itself, like an amoeba, into four divisions for the 1969 season -- partly due to expansion. Each league grew to 12 teams in '69, and I suppose the powers that be felt uncomfortable with league standings that would have a dozen teams listed on top of each other. They felt -- and I suppose you can't blame them -- that putting twelve teams together would be akin to placing both legs into one stocking. But more than that, the idea of a 12-team division, with perhaps half the league out of contention by the All-Star break, probably gave the owners the creeps.

The solution? TWO divisions, six teams each. Winners play each other in a best-of-five championship series to determine the league pennant. So long, traditional pennant race. Hello, sweating out mini-series -- if you're the odds-on favorite.

The 1984 Tigers won 104 games. The AL West champion Royals won 84 games -- a 20-game differential. Yet because of baseball's silly back-and-forth home field advantage at the time, it was the West champion's turn to host Games 1,2 and 5 (if necessary). So the Tigers, 20 games better than Kansas City, had to start the ALCS at Royals Stadium. Fair? Hardly. Sure, the Tigers swept, but they should NOT have started that series on the road. They started the World Series away from Detroit, too.

I'm ranting about this because I don't think MLB should have a wild card. And here's why.

In 1978, the Yankees made their incredible comeback from 14 games behind in July to force a single-game playoff for the AL East flag with Boston. That game, of course, is remembered for Bucky Dent's homerun that won it for New York. Loser go home in that instance. So the Red Sox, despite their 99-64 record, would watch the AL playoffs from home, just like the rest of the 13 teams.

With a wild card, the Red Sox would have qualified for the postseason despite their loss to New York in the playoff. So how thrilling would that "Bucky Dent game" have been, indeed -- knowing that whomever lost was still in the playoffs?

In 1967, the Tigers were involved in a terrific pennant chase, along with Boston and Minnesota. The race wasn't decided until the final hours of the season, when Dick McAuliffe hit into a game-ending double play against the Angels, sealing the pennant for the Red Sox. It was the only DP McAuliffe hit into all season. But with a wild card, that game-ending DP would have been a whole lot easier to swallow.

The Tigers are now embroiled in what should be a nip-and-tuck, heart-pounding tug-of-war (is that enough hyphens for one sentence?) with the White Sox, and maybe the Twins, for the AL Central crown. But it isn't, quite, because the wild card is currently placing the White Sox in the playoffs anyway, whether they overtake the Tigers or not.

I know why baseball is doing this, and why they won't ever rescind it: MONEY. The more teams they can involve in a "pennant" chase -- no matter how paper it might be -- the more fan interest in those cities and, presumably, the higher the attendance. In the National League, this means that teams with records below .500 are actually in the wild card race. In mid-August.

But even though I know why, it doesn't mean I have to like it.

Sure, if the Tigers were to ever qualify for the bastardized playoffs via the wild card, I'd be cheering them just like everyone else. Yet even if it were to benefit our boys, I'm still against it in principle. The AL has 14 teams, the NL 16. Why can't we go back to four divisions? That'd make it seven per division in the AL, and eight per in the NL. Do-able, because from 1969-93, that's how it was done, pretty much, anyway.

Baseball somehow managed to survive about a hundred years without a wild card. Was it broken?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Wilkinson's Signing With Dolphins Rather Curious

So let me get this straight: "Big Daddy" Dan Wilkinson, defensive tackle, tells the Lions he's not interested in playing for them this fall because he's leaning toward retirement. He just can't muster up the energy nor the commitment needed for another season in the NFL trenches.
Thanks, but no thanks, he tells them. No harm done.

Of course, Detroit isn't Miami -- in a lot of respects.

Wilkinson signed with the Dolphins yesterday -- for three years, no less. Interesting, considering Big Daddy is 33. He went from considering retirement to signing up to play until he's 36 years old.

Miami has been a fountain of rebirth for pro footballers in previous years. It started in the early-1970's, when the Dolphins acquired an aging QB named Earl Morrall -- a former Lion. Morrall helped Miami achieve its perfect record in 1972. Along with Morrall came a wide receiver named Paul Warfield, from Cleveland. Warfield had some terrific seasons in Miami.

Junior Seau, linebacker extraordinaire, signed up in 2003 after a stellar career in San Diego. He played well, though he was hampered by injuries.

And lest we forget about Pal Joey Harrington?

But more than the Dolphins' history of resurrecting careers, Wilkinson's signing makes me wonder if he simply didn't want to play in Detroit any longer, as opposed to experiencing some sort of epiphany about his pro football career.

Strange, considering a new coaching staff is in place, seemingly ready to wash away the bile that has been poisoning the Matt Millen era. Yet Wilkinson obviously wanted no part of it.

Big Daddy isn't irreplaceable, however. His absence will presumably amp up the career of players like Shaun Cody -- a 2005 draft pick out of USC. But he did create quite a one-two punch with another "Big" -- Baby, as in Shaun Rogers. Those two attracted double teams, and made life easier for the rest of the Lions' front seven.

So why didn't Wilkinson want to continue playing pro football in Detroit, with a new coaching staff no less? Is the lineage of losing too much to overcome in some players' eyes? Is the perhaps more stable situation under Nick Saban a narcotic?

The Lions have tried the same formula as the Dolphins and, most famously, the Oakland Raiders: signing players on the back ends of their careers and hoping they have something left in the tank. On the defensive side of the ball, especially, they've had a fetish for this approach. Always with DBs and linemen, it seems. Rarely have they gotten their money's worth. Another example of how some teams can do it, and the Lions can't.

Anyhow, Big Daddy is gone -- gone for the sun and the dollars in South Beach. He'll be back, though, on Thanksgiving Day, with Harrington and the rest of the Dolphins. Fitting he should return on the most popular feasting day of the year.

They don't call him Big Daddy for his dieting skills, after all.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Even In '84, Tigers Had Bumps And Bruises

Sometimes, when you feel the need to blog your way into people's hearts every single freaking day, you might have moments when the blank page mocks you, and your mind suddenly is as empty as a parking meter in downtown Royal Oak on a Friday night.

But then material presents itself.

Thanks to my pal Big Al at Wayne Fontes Experience, I have something to say. Actually, it's something to elaborate on.

Al correctly points out that the 1984 Tigers -- those Blessed Boys of Tram, Sweet Lou, Gibby, et al -- contrary to popular/I'm under 25 years old belief, actually had some stumbling blocks on their way to the AL pennant and World Series. Even a 35-5 start didn't make them immune from the pitfalls that a 162-game schedule will foist upon you.

The Tigers went 69-53 after the 35-5 start -- still admirable but hardly awesome. But it was enough to keep the Blue Jays at arm's length most of the way. Yet the way they got to 69-53 caused plenty of us to reach for the Tums -- or a pop -- often, especially after the All-Star break.

There was, for example, a weekend series with the Royals at Tiger Stadium in the first week of August. The Jays were hanging around, annoyingly so, about 7-8 games behind. How DARE they stick around, Tigers fans thought. Don't they know we started 35-5? That's supposed to be good enough to anoint the Tigers divisional champs, don't you know?

Well, it wasn't -- not until August turned into September. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Royals came in, and beat the Tigers Friday night. Then they beat them again on Saturday. Sunday was a doubleheader. The Royals won Game 1. They won Game 2.

Bless You Boys, indeed!

That gave the Tigers an unexpected four-game losing streak. The Jays were lurking, 7 1/2 games out. And now it would be on to Boston for a five-game series. The five games would be played in three days, including back-to-back doubleheaders on Monday and Tuesday -- thanks to some April rainouts.

With scores that resembled slow-pitch softball games, the Tigers split the two doubleheaders. Then they lost Wednesday night, 8-0. It made them 2-3 in the five games, but it was enough to keep that 7 1/2 game lead. The series was wild. Jack Morris, in his start, gave up two grand slams before the third inning. Emergency starter Carl Willis got knocked out in the first inning. Same with Glenn Abbott, on Wednesday.

But despite all that, despite giving up 42 runs in the five games, the Tigers had enough offense of their own to win two games. Especially dear to manager Sparky Anderson's heart was Lance Parrish's 11th-inning homerun that won game 2 of Tuesday's doubleheader. The Tigers had lost two of the first three games of the series, and looked headed for a third loss before Parrish connected to salvage Tuesday's nightcap.

After the game, Sparky closed the clubhouse doors to the media and told his team how proud of them he was. It was a moment that resonated, and has been recounted over and over by those who'd experienced it.

Following that maniacal week, the Tigers righted themselves, and punctuated that by taking the Blue Jays to the woodshed in Toronto in early September -- a three-game sweep that made the rest of the season inconsequential.

The '84 drive to the pennant wasn't the walk in the park some would have you believe -- if you didn't know any better. But now you do.

Thanks, Big Al!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Inside The Writer's Studio

James Lipton is the rather eclectic, ethereal host of Bravo’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” where he chats up stars of stage and screen and asks them rather pointed and sometimes off-the-wall questions. He’s also a Detroiter – having attended Wayne State University back in the day. If you’ve seen the show, you know his questions can be as if they came from a combination of William F. Buckley Jr. and Ayn Rand.

So what would Lipton ask me? How would a special edition of “Inside the Writer’s Studio” go, with a certain sportswriter and magazine editor sitting across from him on that stage in front of an audience of aspiring journalists?

Heaven help you all …

Lipton: He is, without question, one of the foremost advancers of rudimentary writing of sports as anyone on this molecular planet. He has been known to wax mediocre about the inane in a benign fashion, and can certainly be considered banal to a fault. We are indeed fortunate to have with us a sportswriter who, if I weren’t sitting here, would need no introduction. So please, without anymore hesitation, join me in welcoming Greg Eno to the Writer’s Studio.

(applause and whistles)

Lipton: Tell me … why are you here?
Me: (confused but polite) I … was … invited?

Lipton: And why was that, in your own words?
Me: I suppose you thought I’d be an interesting person to talk to.

Lipton: If you were a tree, what would it be?
(audience snickers)
Me: Boy, that’s a toughie. There are so many out there that I like. I’m a big fan of trees.

Lipton: Well, if you had to pick ONE.
Me: OK, the mighty oak.
(audience applauds)

Lipton: You once wrote that you thought Kirk Gibson’s homerun off Goose Gossage in the 1984 World Series, and I’ll quote you, “Caused an entire city to exhale.”
Me: (still waiting for the question) Yes …

Lipton: Why did you write that?
Me: It was … my impressions. I felt strongly that the city of Detroit did, indeed, exhale after Gibson connected. It was the first championship in Detroit in 16 years, and only the second in 27 years.

Lipton: Why do you suppose that was?
Me: Why do I suppose WHAT was?

Lipton: That that was the first championship in Detroit in 16 years, and only the … well, what you said.
Me: (shifting in chair) Well, mainly because it was the first one since 1968, and only the second one since 1957.

Lipton: What do you hate?
Me: Hate? Umm … Mondays? (chuckle)
(audience claps)

Lipton: What do you love?
(audience applauds, then breaks out into loud cheering)

Lipton: Why sportswriting?
Me: I’ve been a passionate, almost maniacal sports fan since I was seven years old, and writing is another passion. The two together made perfect sense.

Lipton: The late, great Jim Murray, no less, never was able to comment on your career, as he had passed away before it took off. Your reaction.
Me: (exhaling in deep thought) Wow. That’s a toughie. (audience snickers) I guess I’d have to say that I’m sorry that Jim never got a chance to read my stuff.

Lipton: If he read it today, what would he say?
Me: I would hope that he’d think I was pretty good.

Lipton: Let’s change gears. I want to talk about a column called “Why I Like To Go To The Ballpark Alone.” (audience claps loudly)
Me: (unsure again of the question) OK … what would you like to know?

Lipton: Why?
Me: Why … what?

Lipton: Yes.
Me: I think it was fate. It was meant to be.
(audience giggles)

Lipton: Why do you write?
Me: I have so much to say, I’m finding, and I find the written word the perfect outlet for me.

Lipton: As opposed to …
Me: The … spoken word?

Lipton: What’s your favorite swear word?
(audience giggles)
(audience giggles)

Lipton: What’s your favorite sound?
Me: A baby laughing.
(audience goes “Awwww”)

Lipton: What’s your least favorite sound?
Me: The sound of the last piece of pizza being eaten – by anyone, including me.
(audience murmurs knowingly)

Lipton: You write about sports in a style that’s been described as creative. Do you agree?
Me: Really? Who said that?

Lipton: I … am not allowed to tell you.
(audience giggles)
: (chuckles nervously) Well then, I appreciate the compliment. And yes, I agree, I can definitely be creative at times. I’ve always admired creativity, especially in writing. I think the words “creative writing” go so well together.

Lipton: What turns you on?
Me: Spaghetti.

Lipton: What turns you off?
Me: No spaghetti.
(audience laughs)

Lipton: Complete this sentence: If I wasn’t a sportswriter, I’d be …
Me: Wishing I was a sportswriter.

Lipton: And if that failed?
Me: You’re losing me again, Jim.
(audience roars)

Lipton: OK, let’s instead talk about sportswriting.
Me: Weren’t we just?

Lipton: Perhaps. Why do we need sportswriters?
Me: I think sportswriting is the last true form of writing: impromptu, improvised, and full of human drama.

Lipton: Well said. This has indeed been a pleasure and a treat. Let’s now take some questions from some of our writing students.
Student #1: What advice do you have for someone like me who wants to be a sportswriter, but just doesn’t know anything about sports?
(students nearby nod with interest)
: Well, what DO you know?

Student: (giggles nervously) I’m a big movie fan.
Me: Then write about movies. Maybe become a movie critic.
(audience claps as student smiles, thanks me, and sits down)

Lipton: Well, sadly, we’re short on time and have to cut it right there. Greg Eno, thank you for joining us on “Inside the Writer’s Studio.”
Me: My confused pleasure, Jim.


Friday, August 11, 2006

Weak Regular Season Record Doesn't Eliminate NL West, Wild Card Winners From World Series Hopes

When Major League Baseball split, like an amoeba, into four divisions in 1969, critics warned that the best-of-five LCS format would enable a team from a weaker division to best its opponent in the playoffs and "sneak" into the World Series. For the first several years, in both leagues, those fears were moot: there were mostly sweeps in the LCS, and all by the favored teams.

In fact, when the Tigers pushed the Oakland A's to the five-game limit in 1972, it was the first ALCS that lasted longer than the three-game minimum.

But in 1973, the New York Mets finally proved the critics right.

Scuffling along in the depths of the NL East for most of the season, the Mets, as late as August 28, were 60-70 and in last place. They were only 6 1/2 games behind, but there were five teams ahead of them.

Then, Yogi Berra's boys finished 22-9 and won the division -- with an 82-79 record.

Nobody gave them much of a chance against the mighty Cincinnati Reds, who won 99 games. Yet the Mets were not only competitive, they beat Sparky Anderson's troops to qualify for the World Series. The Mets' feistiness and season were both encapsulated by Bud Harrelson's fight with Pete Rose at second base in one of the games at New York.

The Oakland A's were defending world champs in '73. They, too, seemed invincible -- too much, again, for the 82-79 Mets. No matter. The Mets put up a whale of a struggle before succumbing to the A's in seven games.

In 2006, the National League West winner is unlikely to win 90 games, and might struggle to hit 85. The Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Padres are tied for the division lead at 58-56. The wild card winner in the NL might have a record similar to the 1973 Mets. Currently, the Reds lead the wild card race with a 59-56 record -- not one to make anyone shake in their boots.

Ironically, the team with the best record in the NL is ... the New York Mets.

So if they think a trip to the World Series will be a walk in the ballpark, they'd better think again.

Just ask the Cincinnati Reds of 1973.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Over/Under On Clarett's Life Expectancy Isn't Good

I don't do the betting thing. I'm not a gambler, and I don't even buy scratch-off lottery tickets at the gas station. But I'm the guy usually standing behind someone making such a purchase -- poetic injustice if I ever saw it. But I digress.

If I had some spare dough, and it was burning a hole in my pocket, I might place the following bet: Maurice Clarett will be dead by age 40. Maybe 35. A higher roller might even take 30.

I don't say that to be maudlin, or for shock value. Just a hunch -- but a hunch like I have a hunch that the sun will rise tomorrow.

Clarett, the former Ohio State running back extraordinaire and 22 years old but with the criminal and emotional wreck history of someone twice his age, was arrested in Ohio yesterday. On his person, authorities found several guns. He was wearing a bulletproof vest. And he was taken into custody not far from where a key witness in his robbery trial resides.

I'm sure you can connect those dots.

The police tried to subdue Clarett with a stun gun, but couldn't due to the vest. So, they went the pepper spray route.

Since his promising 2002 freshman season, Clarett's resume includes the following:

--Suspended for the 2003 season for falsifying a police report
--Dropped out of school
--Sued and lost in an attempt to be eligible for the 2004 NFL Draft
--Drafted by the Denver Broncos in the third round in 2005, but cut during the preseason
--Facing trial in an armed robbery case involving a holdup that netted a cell phone

My, we've been busy in the last few years, haven't we?

Clarett is heading down a path that I fear will end in his early and untimely demise. Maybe jail is the safest place for him at this point, and the venue where he can extend his life expectancy. Certainly the streets seem unlikely to provide that safe haven.

But the most difficult person to save a person from is himself. And wherever Maurice Clarett goes, there he is. I wouldn't give you a dirty penny for his chances, right now, at a decent life. And not past the ages mentioned above.

Sometimes people like Clarett are just destined for the Big Sleep before their time. You know the kind; they're the dudes who fall out of the public eye for years, then when the news of their expiration hits the wire services, hardly any of us react with any shock.

The Pistons, in the mid-1960's, had an extremely talented young center named Reggie Harding. Reggie was a Detroit kid. He came to the Pistons when the team used its territorial draft pick, which was an NBA oddity that enabled teams to draft players from their geographical area without fear of them being selected by other NBA teams. It was a rule that was eliminated in 1966 -- they year the Pistons would have, for sure, drafted Cazzie Russell out of Michigan. Instead, they got stuck with a skinny guard from Syracuse named David Bing.

Anyhow, Harding was a player -- when he cared to play. He just didn't always care to. Yet he was still unrefined -- overpowered by experienced centers like Chamberlain, Russell, and the like. But Reggie Harding had immense talent.

He didn't make it with the Pistons, and was eventually cut. Not long after, Harding put on a ski mask and tried to rob a local liquor store with a gun. The store was in Reggie's neighborhood. The owner took one look at the beanpole with the ski mask, and after hearing his voice, said, "Oh come on, Reggie -- what are you doing?"

"I ain't Reggie," Reggie said.

He got arrested.

In 1972, long out of the basketball game, Reggie Harding was on the streets of Detroit. A car pulled up, someone inside called his name, and some words were exchanged. Then someone from inside the car fired a gun into Harding and killed him. He was in his late 20's when he died.

I'd like for someone to tell Maurice Clarett the cautionary tale of Reggie Harding, but I doubt he'd listen.

Hence my bet.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Millen Is Right (I Promise) -- Charlie Sanders Is A Hall Of Famer

Of all the things Matt Millen has said as Lions president and GM, I believe there is one that would ring true in just about every fan's ear:

"Charlie Sanders belongs in that Hall of Fame, too, by the way."

The words were uttered, in tossaway fashion, Friday on Stoney & Wojo's radio show on WDFN (1130 AM). The subject was the induction of Millen's old coach, John Madden.

"I'm going down [to Canton]," Millen said. "Charlie Sanders and I are going down there."

Sanders, the best tight end in Lions history, now works in the team's front office.

Then Millen put in his two cents about Sanders before continuing on about Madden.

You can't Fire Millen based on his feelings about Charlie Sanders, at least.

They finally put Lem Barney in a while back, and that was overdue. The "other" Sanders -- Barry -- was a no-brainer. He was inducted in 2004.

But Charlie Sanders, the third and only other Lions player of his era deserving of Hall status, remains out in the cold. Some have told me Robert Porcher should be enshrined. Porcher was a fine player, but that might be a stretch. Not so with Sanders.

Sanders, out of Minnesota, joined the Lions in 1968, along with QB Greg Landry. It was during some salad days of Lions drafts. In '67, Barney and Mel Farr were drafted. Then the next year, Sanders and Landry.

In ten seasons as a Lion, Sanders caught 336 passes for 4,817 yards (14.3 yds/rec) and 31 touchdowns. Those may not be eye-popping numbers nowadays, but Sanders was a tight end when that position required more than catching passes. You had to block in Sanders' day, for starters. Today teams carry multiple tight ends: a blocking guy, a pass-catching guy, and a special teams guy. Three-headed monsters, and still Charlie Sanders trumps most of them, combined.

The albatross of playing for the Lions in a dismal era hurt Barney for years, until the voters came to their senses. In Barry Sanders' case, he could have played his entire career without a victory, and he would have been inducted. And now it appears to be dragging Charlie Sanders down, too.

Sanders only caught an average of 2.6 passes per game during his career, but they were some of the hardest, most spectacular, and rugged 2.6 catches you'll ever see. There are folks who still talk sbout the 1970 Thanksgiving Day Game, to show you.

The Lions fell behind the Raiders quickly, 14-0. Then Landry and Sanders went to work. Not once, but twice, Sanders made an acrobatic, mind-numbing catch for a touchdown. I can still see the one touchdown: cutting across the middle, diving so he was almost parallel to the turf, Sanders brought the ball into his chest as he landed in the end zone, bumping against the goalpost (they were still on the goal line back then). It was one of the greatest catches in team history, I'm willing to bet you.

Matt Millen got one right -- you have to give him that -- when he made his throwaway comment about Charlie Sanders and the Hall of Fame.

Monday, August 07, 2006

NFL Exhibition Opener: Wake Me When It's Over

In 1967, the Lions were the first NFL team to play an AFL team in the exhibition season, when they traveled to Denver to play the Broncos. Defensive tackle Alex Karras said he'd walk home if the Lions lost.

The Lions lost. And Karras took the team flight; doubtful anyone wanted to remind him of the "walking home" comment.

The Lions and Broncos tangle this Friday in the exhibition opener for both teams. Rumors that Jake Plummer said he'd walk home if the Broncos lost are unfounded.

If you want to make any sort of pseudo-conclusion about these Lions -- not the smartest thing during an NFL exhibition season -- then you'd better make it in the first eight minutes of the first quarter Friday night. That's when both teams' starters, mostly, will be on the field. At regular season prices, no less - but that's another blog post entirely.

The first exhibition game of any NFL season is like watching a party from outside, through a window. The excitement is muted and the action is sterile. It looks like it should be a great time, but often you're happy you're outside, after all.

Perhaps an early indictment is that Charlie Rogers and Mike Williams -- who at one time were sure-fire starters -- will most likely not take the field until well into the second quarter, if at all. Or maybe one of them won't play at all (Rogers?), though that still seems inconceivable, despite their disappointing performances. Regardless, instead of getting their play out of the way and taking the rest of the game off, they'll be sweating and running and fighting off bumps and chucks in the second half. The half of the scrubs, when you're talking NFL preseason.

Besides, aren't the Tigers playing that night? Maybe I'll watch that instead.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

You're Traded! So, What Are You Waiting For?

For Sean Casey, all of the remaining contests of the 2006 baseball season become away games.

Oh, he’ll wear the creamy white home uniforms along with the rest of his new Tigers teammates when the team is in town and performing at Comerica Park. But don’t you believe it. Casey is destined to be on the ultimate road trip, baseball style: he’s the traded player.

The Tigers nabbed first baseman Casey last week at the trading deadline, pilfering him from the perpetually last-place Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for a tube of linseed oil and a box of baseballs. Okay, it was actually for AA pitcher Brian Rogers, but for the moment there’s hardly a difference to the Tigers; Casey didn’t cost them anyone that matters right now.

Casey: from the outhouse to the penthouse

Fans read of trades and they dissect them – slice and dice them forthwith. And the folks who become experts because they wear announcer headsets and carry notepads and pens will declare winners and losers of such trades before a single inning is played by the involved players with their new clubs. We must have instant gratification. Forget that the true value of any baseball trade worth its salt isn’t determined until several years hence.

But baseball trades generate excitement, and there’s anticipation when your team’s newest player is shown on the tube wearing the good guys’ jersey and joining the cause. Casey is now a Tiger – going the worst to first route in the process – and he wore his whites for the first time Friday night during the Tigers’ thrilling, come-from-behind win over the Cleveland Indians. But he’s going to be the visiting player from here out. As will be Bobby Abreu, and Ben Broussard, and Greg Maddux, and anyone else who was dealt like baseball cards in recent days.

“Home” will be a hotel room, the “dresser drawers” will be a suitcase. Meals will be prepared and served by room service, and transportation will be a taxi cab. Wives and girlfriends and children will be miles and miles away, perpetually. There’ll be no such thing as the comfort of their “own” bed.

The deal for Casey was completed around 10 a.m. Monday morning. The announcement came around 10:30. The Tigers were in Tampa to begin a series with the Devil Rays. When the game began that evening at 7:05, Casey was there, in uniform – wearing #12. With the Reds and then the Pirates, Casey wore #25. But Dmitri Young is #25 in Detroit. So a #12 jersey with “CASEY” stitched on it is hastily made up. The game is played, the Tigers lose, and Casey never gets off the bench. Then it’s back to the team hotel, and only then can Sean Casey get to know his teammates.

There’s the video game-playing Brandon Inge. The prank-playing Vance Wilson. The Latino contingent: Placido Polanco, Omar Infante, Magglio Ordonez, Pudge Rodriguez. The easygoing Todd Jones. And, of course, the venerable manager.

“I’ve always been a big Jim Leyland fan,” Casey tells the Detroit writers and radio guys of his Pittsburgh roots and Pirates affection. He is reunited with Young, a teammate in Cincinnati and who he calls his “brother.”

“Playing with Young again, and playing for Leyland – this is great,” Casey gushes. You’d gush, too, if you were going from the outhouse to the penthouse.

The next night, Casey wears #21. He reverses the 12, for reasons only he knows. He starts, plays first base. He slugs a two-run homer. The Tigers win. Back to the hotel.

Ben Broussard, late of the Cleveland Indians, was traded to the Seattle Mariners the Friday before the deadline. And guess where the Mariners were playing that night?


So Broussard had to merely go to the visitors clubhouse that night, and wear a different uniform. Convenient, yet surreal.

But not as surreal as being traded for yourself.

In 1987, the Tigers – in the thick of a divisional race with the Toronto Blue Jays – traded for veteran relief pitcher Dickie Noles, in late September. Noles was a king beer drinker who had some good years in the National League. He was acquired from the Cubs for the famous “player to be named later.” He saved a couple games, and helped the Tigers snatch the division from the Jays in the season’s final week.

In the offseason, the Cubs were still owed that “player to be named later” for Dickie Noles. So the Tigers sent them – cue fanfare – Dickie Noles.

Noles-for-Noles. I’d like to see the hindsighters analyze THAT trade. How much more even-steven can you make a deal, anyway?

Or how about Greg Kelser? With the Pistons, he was traded to the Seattle SuperSonics. Said his goodbyes, traipsed off to Washington state. The Sonics decided to give Kelser a physical. Oops – a bum leg. Return to sender. Can you imagine the Pistons’ countenance toward Kelser as he walked back into the team’s lockerroom?

“Ummm … hope you didn’t take that whole ‘trade’ thing seriously,” they might have said, channeling Don Adams’ Maxwell Smart.

But then the Pistons traded Kelser anyway, a season or two later, to the Sonics after all. The player the Pistons received was a pudgy, streak shooting guard named Vinnie Johnson.

All hail the bad physical.

Johnson: a Piston thanks to Kelser's bad leg

Trades are a part of pro sports, but can you imagine reporting to work one day and your boss telling you that you’ve been dealt to Portland, for example? And that you’re to be on the next flight? And that you’ll not be able to come back home to fetch your things until the next time your new group flies into Detroit – several weeks hence? And oh, by the way, the Portland people need maximum performance … tonight.

Not so much fun anymore, are they?

So when you see Sean Casey dressed in his home Tigers whites, know that he’s a hometown player without a hometown – when it comes right down to it.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Weaver For Bonderman? But Never Vice-Versa

Jeremy Bonderman pitches tonight for the Tigers, as they open a weekend series with the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park. Chances are the Tigers will win, or at least be in a position to win, with Bonderman on the mound. He is, along with rookie Justin Verlander, an almost-sure bet for a team win when he starts.

Jeff Weaver will pitch early next week for the St. Louis Cardinals. Chances are his team will lose, or at least be put into a hole.

Such is the way for Weaver now.

The Tigers acquired Carlos Pena and Bonderman in a trade in 2002 with the Oakland A's. The pitcher they gave up -- the supposed centerpiece of the three-team deal with the Yankees -- was Jeff Weaver.

That trade, four years later, has flipped 180 degrees. Would YOU trade Bonderman for Weaver? I mean, without asking for Albert Pujols as a throw-in?

Bonderman was an unknown in 2002; not so anymore

Weaver's career post-Tigers has veered into an abyss. He didn't do much with the Yankees, fizzled with the Dodgers, tanked with the Angels, and is now getting torched in St. Louis. In his first four Cardinals starts, he has an 8.68 ERA. Wednesday night, Weaver lasted 3 1/3 innings, giving up seven runs. His combined record in 2006 is 4-12, with a 6.71 ERA.

Cue the dry heaves.

Weaver: his stuff is nasty -- literally

Bonderman, however, has blossomed -- hardened by the 43-119 2003 season. He seemed to flatten a bit in 2004-05, but in '06, he's taken that next step. He is simply one of the best righthanded starters in the game -- certainly in the American League. Teammate Verlander is among the top five, as well -- two huge reasons why the Tigers carry a 72-36 record into the weekend.

Trades are funny. They're evaluated in about 30 minutes -- before any players have played one inning with their new teams. Yet the true verdicts can't be reached until several years later. For example, nobody knew who the heck Jeremy Bonderman was in 2002. He was considered a toss-in. In fact, Bonderman wasn't included in the trade until six weeks later -- mainly because the Tigers were still owed a player.

Well, look at Jeremy Bonderman now.

The other supposed crown jewel was Pena. He was the hotshot first base prospect the Tigers were pleased as punch to get for Weaver, who by 2002 had turned into a sullen, volatile, yet talented player.

Pena didn't pan out either. But Weaver, at age 29 and not lefthanded, might soon find himself out of the big leagues at a time when Bonderman's MLB career is about to shift into overdrive.

Trades ARE funny things.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Rogers' Career As A Lion On Life Support

Chuck Long. 1986's #1 draft pick, a stud QB out of Iowa. A can't miss kid, they said. Just you wait and see. We waited. We waited some more. Then the Lions could wait no longer, and drafted Rodney Peete out of USC.

Reggie Rogers. 1987's #1 draft pick -- a fleet-footed defensive end who could chase down running backs, sideline-to-sideline. But Reggie was involved in a car accident in which a person was killed, and in which Reggie himself was badly injured. There was a trial. Vehicular manslaughter. End of career.

Andre Ware. 1990's #1 draft pick -- a record-setting arm at the University of Houston. Drafted into the frenetic, ADD-like offense of the run-n-shoot that the Lions were playing around with. But Ware lacked one significant ingredient to being a serviceable NFL quarterback: the ability to throw the ball anywhere near an intended receiver. The poster boy of all bad Lions' draft picks.

Juan Roque, 1996's #1 draft pick -- a six-foot-eight, 330 pound tackle out of Arizona State. Supposed to be a pillar of the offensive line for years to come. He ended up being simply a pillar -- the inanimate kind. Career over in short order.

Stockar McDougle, 2000's #1 draft pick -- a six-foot-six tackle out of Oklahoma. If Wayne Fontes was still here, he would have said McDougle could "block out the sun." Turns out Stockar couldn't block his way out of a paper bag -- parchment paper, even.

And now....

Charles Rogers, 2003's #1 draft pick -- an amazingly talented receiver out of Michigan State.

Rogers is perilously close to being lumped into the above group.

Already, training camp just six days old, there's talk that Charlie Rogers is having trouble grasping the convoluted offensive schemes of new coordinator Mike Martz. He didn't participate in one single play yesterday, the scuttlebutt is. Whispers are floating around questioning Rogers' cranial capacity. Well, at least that's different; they used to question his commitment, his work ethic, his durability.

Charles Rogers: not smart enough to play in the NFL?

Now they wonder whether Charlie Rogers has the smarts to be a competent NFL receiver.

If I had some dough to toss away on a gamble, I'd place some cash that says Rogers will no longer be a Lion when the regular season begins next month against the Seattle Seahawks at Ford Field. Not traded, not placed on injured reserve, or the PUP list. Just ... cut.

Rogers and 2005's #1 pick, Mike Williams, were mentioned as the two players who had to have perhaps the two best training camps on the entire team. Both are under the microscope of doubt and skepticism.

Neither is impressing, by all accounts, and it's certainly fathomable that one of the two -- doubtful both of them -- will be released by the Lions within the month. My bet is on Rogers, because he's had a couple more seasons in Detroit than Williams. Yes, the Lions would have to chow down on Rogers' contract if they cut him, but as team president Matt Millen said last week, the club wouldn't hesitate to do that if it was for the betterment of the program.

Rogers' latest setback is yet another in a series. There was the freakish broken collarbone suffered midway through his rookie year in 2003, followed by the freakish broken collarbone suffered during the first series of the opening game in Chicago in 2004. Last year, Rogers was suspended for four games by the league for violating its substance abuse policy. Now the "he's not very smart, after all" training camp.

Too much to overcome? Certainly too much to blame the Lions, should they cut him.

Time is running out for Charles Rogers in Detroit. Odds are.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Dominik Hasek? Well, yeah -- why not?

Look, I'm going to make this simple for you. Which of the following makes you feel most comfortable tending goal during a playoff series?

a) Dominik Hasek*
b) Chris Osgood
c) Manny Legace

*when healthy

Please be honest.

Make your choice?

So did the Red Wings.

GM Ken Holland indicated as such, signing the 41 year-old Hasek to a one-year deal yesterday. And Hasek immediately becomes the Wings' #1 goalie, with Osgood as an "insurance policy" -- Holland's words.

"We just felt like, if you can get a Dominik Hasek...he's one of the best, when he's healthy," Holland told WXYT AM-1270.

Holland said he hadn't required that Hasek have a physical exam -- something he asked of Ed Belfour a few weeks ago.

"No...he says his groin is healed, and I believe him," Holland said.

Holland says the plan is for Hasek, who'll make about $750,000 next season plus incentives, to start 50-55% of the games, with Osgood starting the rest.

"Unless Dom has another groin injury," Holland said in his best caveat emptor voice.

It was a running theme during Holland's radio interview: Hasek's health. But also not surprising, when the goalie in question is 40 years old plus one.

Hasek's numbers last season, before he injured his groin, were phenomenal. A GAA in the low 2.00's, and a save percentage of about .925. Not shabby at all.

But as usual, there are questions about Hasek's work ethic, and his slowness recovering from his groin injury last season didn't answer those questions at all. Holland, for his part, seems unfazed. And he's the only one who truly matters, who's not named Dominik Hasek.

But back to that question I posed at the top of this post.

I think the answer is clear: a healthy, happy Hasek* can out-goaltend the other two something silly.

*unlikely to happen.*

This time, there's no awkward coming out of retirement. No big-ticket goalie that Hasek will have to co-exist with (read: Curtis Joseph). The reward far outways the risk.

Besides, the deal is only for one-year; one-and-out, and it doesn't appear to bother Hasek in the least. Methinks the prodigal son is returning -- tail somewhat firmly lodged in the five-hole. How many chances does Dom get after this, after all?

Just keep the groin doctor nearby.