Sunday, March 04, 2007

Winning Trumps The Sour Puss

The big, brooding forward from the University of North Carolina blew into town with a negative reputation that preceded him. He was angry. A coach killer. Poison in the locker room. He had played for several teams before joining the Pistons, after all. But oh, was he talented.

Several months later, the preceding reputation proved to be spot on. By then, the brooding forward wanted out of Detroit so badly he openly defied team rules and decrees and awaited his eventual cashiering.

Nearly 25 years later, another big, brooding forward from UNC arrived – stomping into Detroit with the same kind of baggage. The similarities were uncanny – for those old enough to remember – to the first failed instance a quarter of a century earlier.

Several months later, the preceding reputation for UNC forward #2 proved to be a bunch of hooey. And it was long forgotten by the time Rasheed Wallace traveled down Woodward Avenue in an open vehicle on a sunny June day, a world champion.

The first brooder, the sour puss that was Bob McAdoo, didn’t even last two seasons before the Pistons released him. Probably only after being reminded that it would be illegal to kill him.
The difference in the two situations isn’t all that hard to recognize. McAdoo joined a Pistons team that would go 16-66 in 1979-80. And Wallace took his place on a roster that was talented, spirited, and coached well enough to capture an NBA championship just three months after his arrival.

It was the same elixir – the talent and the coaching and the esprit de corps – that washed away the dreck that supposedly came with Mark Aguirre when he became a Piston in 1989. Once, he was a highly sought after scoring machine out of DePaul University. His only NBA coach, Dick Motta of Dallas, raved about him on draft day in 1981. But years later, Motta would call Aguirre a “coward” and a “jackass.”

Four months after he joined the Pistons, the team won the first of two straight NBA championships with Mark Aguirre playing the role of sure shot small forward for them.

Yep, winning sure seemed to wipe those sour pusses off the faces of Rasheed Wallace and Mark Aguirre. And, not surprisingly, the Pistons’ horrifying tendency to lose quickly alienated Bob McAdoo from them.

“McAdoo, McAdon’t. McAwill, McAwon’t.”

It’s what they said about him before he left town.

All this comes to mind because the Tigers – the pristine, bunch-of-nice-guys Tigers – have a player in camp down in Florida who is supposed to be some nasty things, from time to time.

It would be an understatement to merely say that Gary Sheffield’s reputation precedes him. The way it’s laid out sometimes, that’s like saying it gets windy when a tornado happens by.

The Tigers don’t usually go this route – bringing the supposed knucklehead into town – and the last time they tried it, in 2000, Juan Gonzalez told the team to take its ostentatious contract extension offer and stick it in their ball bag.

But the Tigers were, in 2000, pretenders to contention. It’s likely that Gonzalez saw what was on the baseball horizon here, and not even hundreds of millions of dollars – yes, that WAS the offer – could entice him to stick it out here.

Sheffield is a 38-year-old beast with a bat. He’s a baseball terrorist, is what he is. He’s the triple threat guy, par excellence: the batter who can hit for power, hit for average, and drive in runs. He’s destined for the Hall of Fame, hands down.

And so now he’s here, playing for his seventh big league team. And to hear some tell it, he was run out of town at his other six stops. Or, that he ran himself out of town.

Not all true. Not all false.

Regardless, he’s here, and he’s here on a winning Tigers ballclub – one that is now in the unfamiliar position of being the hunted – the one that all the brilliant preseason magazines are predicting to win the Central Division. No 43-119 nightmare here. No sir.

Already, Sheffield’s puss is distinctly sweet, not sour. It started in January, when he rode the bus during the team’s annual winter caravan tour. In recent years, the tour has been filled with snake oil salesmen who’d tell us that some sort of baseball paradise awaited us, somewhere over the rainbow – if we’d just be patient enough.

This year, Sheffield saw up close just how much adulation this state can festoon upon a winning baseball team. He was, by all accounts, duly impressed. It didn’t hurt that he knew he’d be playing for a manager, Jim Leyland, with whom he teamed to win a World Series in 1997, in Florida.

And when it was time for Leyland to blow his whistle and take attendance for the team’s first full-squad workout last week, it was Gary Sheffield who wore the excited visage of an invigorated kid playing ball for fun. In his second spring training game, Sheffield walloped a three-run homerun that some Lakelandites think might still be rolling somewhere.

It’s amazing to me how simply genius the postulate is: if a sour puss joins a winning outfit, he probably won’t stay that way for long. And it will further become evident that his reputation was likely filled with disclaimers to begin with.

Oh, it should be pointed out that the brooding Bob McAdoo ended up playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. There, he won two NBA championships. He wasn’t any trouble for Pat Riley or Magic Johnson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.


No comments: