Friday, March 30, 2007

As Always, Red Wings' Playoff Fate To Be Determined In Net

Dominik Hasek has turned out to be the pair of shoes you find on the clearance rack for 75% off, that has ended up fitting well and wearing just fine, thank you. And you can't believe you got them for such a steal.

Goaltender Hasek, 42, signed an incentive-ladened, one-year contract last summer with the Red Wings for a base salary in the neighborhood of $750,000. That's bargain basement nowadays, especially for someone with Hasek's resume.

And he wasn't even the team's first choice.

Remember the Red Wings' flirtations with Eddie Belfour? The two sides looked close to an agreement several times, and the papers ran daily updates about Belfour's situation -- even when there was nothing new to report.

"Ed Belfour is STILL not a Red Wing," was the theme of so many items back then.

Today, if you wanted to trade Belfour for Hasek, you'd better package a lot of dough, some prospects, and maybe even a new Zamboni for Al Sobotka. And even then you might not make the deal.

Hasek's numbers thru yesterday blow Belfour's away:

36-11-5; .910 save pct; 2.09 GAA; 7 shutouts

25-17-9; .901 save pct; 2.78 GAA; 1 shutout

The Red Wings appear, more than in recent years, to be playoff-ready. If some of the dinged up players can bounce back and shake off the rust (Henrik Zetterberg and Todd Bertuzzi especially), they have a deeper, tougher roster than did last year's first round victims.

Ahh, but it will still boil down to Hasek, and whether he can stay healthy throughout the playoffs. The goalie is always going to be a team's barometer in the postseason, no matter how nifty the rest of the roster is. And it'll be that way, even if the teammates don't all pull their weight.

Isn't that right, Manny Legace?

"If we play hard, we'll be a good team [in the playoffs]," coach Mike Babcock said the other night. "If we don't, we won't."

I think I know what the coach means. But I also know that if Hasek's play drops off dramatically from the regular season, then none of that will mean a hill of beans. But I don't think it will.

The team has done a marvelous job of keeping Hasek active this season yet not too much so, in order to protect his troublesome groin. The goalie says he feels great; his play would seem to underline that.

The Red Wings, once again, go into the playoffs with the highest of expectations -- even this spring, when all eight playoff teams in the West could have 100+ points. And, once again, they go into the playoffs with a question mark in net.

Not that Hasek should be classified as a question mark, as an individual. But he still remains the only player whose performance will be under the microscope. It still comes down to him.

It's always been that way, and always will be.

And the Red Wings can only hope that their clearance rack find has some more wear and tear left in it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Write About Other Things? Why, When Sports has It All?

I was talking to fellow writer Dave Ruthenberg the other day. The subject was Dave's foray into writing about things other than -- gasp! -- sports. I wondered whether I should spread my wings and tackle other subjects.

So what else is there?

Sex, of course. Drugs. Rock and roll. Politics. Social commentary.

But here's the thing: you have all that in sports already!!

Now we even have a sports murder mystery on our hands.

Cricket coach Bob Woolmer, 58, was found dead 11 days ago in Jamaica, shortly after his Pakistan squad was surprisingly eliminated from World Cup competition. Within a couple of days, the Jamaican police termed Woolmer's death as "suspicious." And this week, the cause appears to be strangulation. Surveillance camera images are being scoured, looking for any signs of a possible suspect.

But the story doesn't stop there at its insidiousness.

Now reports are coming that suggest Woolmer was silenced to prevent him from revealing stories of match-throwing.

Why, Dave Ruthenberg, write about things other than sports when that world treats you to everything that can be found in a grocery store tabloid or on a NY Times bestseller rack?

But seriously, I would like to try my hand at other forms of writing. I have a few screenplay ideas bouncing around in my head. Maybe someday they'll find their way onto a word processing document. We'll see.

Meanwhile, sports will rule the day, at least on this blog.

And I'll just continue to let all the other subjects poke their head into my sports closet, where I can pick and choose their news worthiness.

The Wide World of Sports.

ABC was right.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Mr. Hockey Now Faces His Greatest Challenge

It will most likely come and go without fanfare, and I suppose that's only natural -- though next year better be a different story. Two elbows say so.

Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey himself, turns 79 this Saturday. Only now he's more of Mr. Caregiver.

Howe's wife, Colleen, for so many years the family matriarch and artisan of the Howe Empire, is suffering from dementia, and needs constant care. Gordie has spoken to various outlets, like The Hockey News and others, about the situation, and often you can almost hear the despair and frustration in his words as you read them.

When I saw Howe on January 2nd, the night the Red Wings retired Steve Yzerman's jersey, he seemed in good spirits. The shoulders were still looking strong, in their familiar slope. He joked with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. He playfully elbowed a Fox Sports Detroit crew member while posing for a photograph. And he spoke eloquently and in praise of Yzerman, whose night it was.

But he is starting to show signs, finally, of the age that is relentless in its pursuit. The caregiving task is certain to be hastening that progression. Howe is starting to look a little tired, and can you blame him?

Later that night, I ran into Dr. John Finley, who was the Red Wings' team physician for decades.

Had he heard the quote once uttered about him by Howe, I wondered?

It goes like this. When asked who had the hardest shot in the league, Howe said, "Dr. Finley."

The doctor laughed heartily when I recounted the quote to him. And yes, he'd heard it, but not for a long time.

Whenever I look at Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios, 45, and think about Howe when he finished with the Wings in 1971 at age 43, I'm taken by the different lifestyles both men have led. It's obvious Chelios has played in an era with better weight facilities, air travel, and more of an emphasis on overall physical conditioning. Howe, at 43, looked older than Chelios does now at 45. But Howe began in the 1940s, when train was the method of travel, the game was more brutal on the ice, and helmets were unheard of.

Howe finished his career with the Hartford Whalers in 1980, at age 52. The line he played on included Bobby Hull on left wing and Dave Keon at center. The Geritol Line. But in that final season, Howe played in all 80 games and scored 15 goals. And he had one more shot at the Canadiens in the playoffs, but the Whalers were blasted out in the first round, 3 games to 0. His last NHL game was April 11, 1980, when Chelios was 18 and about to graduate from high school.

But today, Howe battles forces much tougher than Louie Fontinanto in the corner or Rocket Richard in front of the net. Harder to conquer than Jacques Plante in net. More taxing than endless train trips to Montreal or Toronto or New York.

Mr. Hockey is now Mr. Caregiver. Even at age 79 you can be a rookie again.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Tuesday's Feature: The Straightaway

(every Tuesday, "Out of Bounds" will feature NASCAR commentary from longtime racing observer Siddy Hall)


by Siddy Hall


The “feel good” story of the young 2007 NASCAR season has been Mark Martin. After Mark hung up his steering wheel following the completion of the Homestead race last November, it concluded the longest active driver-owner tandem in the sport. Martin and car owner Jack Roush had competed together for 19 years. The duo finished Top-5 in the Cup standings 11 times.

Despite his success, Martin, 48, has still won only four races over the previous seven years. It appeared that his opportunities for winning a NASCAR championship were behind him. So, when Martin elected to sign with also-ran Ginn Racing on a part-time basis, it made a great deal of sense. Ginn Racing had a plan. Along with Sterling Marlin, 49, and Joe Nemechek, 43, Ginn would field veteran drivers who could make races while grooming younger talent.

That younger talent includes Regan Smith, who piloted Martin’s 01-car in his NASCAR debut this past Sunday, and Motocross star Ricky Carmichael, who Mark Martin mentored in a Super Late Model race at Lake City, Florida this past Saturday night. With the new arrangement, Martin received a rare perk – time off.

NASCAR’s 36-race schedule is perhaps the most grueling in sports. Between Daytona testing, the races, and public appearances, drivers live in a small bubble. Who could blame Martin for wanting some extra time for himself and his family at this stage in his career?

The plan was for Martin to run 20 races – including the first four events - and for his protégé, Regan Smith, to pilot the U.S. Army machine for the other 16 races. But there is one important fact that Martin and Ginn Racing were not expecting: that Mark Martin would be the leader of the NASCAR Nextel point standings heading into Bristol for Race #5.

Ginn (top) and Martin: lacking commitment to
winning championships?

The Big Question last week was, “Will he, or won’t he?” Will Mark Martin and Ginn Racing alter their plans and go for the championship while they can? Nope. They sure won’t. Martin is sticking to his deal. A revised plan may have placed Regan Smith into one of the other Ginn cars while Martin pursued a spot in the Chase. But there is no need since Mark Martin insists on taking his time off. Martin’s stubborn logic has a hole in it. From one side of his mouth comes his stated desire to relax. Meanwhile, from the other side he’s discussing his desire for a possible full-time ride in 2008.

This is where NASCAR needed to step in and force the issue. They needed to sit down with Martin and car owner Bobby Ginn and say, “There are a lot of folks in the stands and at home watching these races. They need to know that trying to win a championship is important.”

Because if winning a championship is not that important to Mark Martin, then why should it be important to the rest of us?

The integrity of the sport is at stake here. This is why Ginn Racing and Mark Martin should be fined and/or docked points for their decisions.

THE REAL WINNER IS: Haas Motorsports. Both cars from the Haas Motorsports stable will automatically qualify for the Martinsville race by placing their cars in the Top-35 Owners Points standings. Johnny Sauter, one of the so-called “Go-or-Go” cars, failed to make the Bristol race, but still landed in the 35th, or final spot that guarantees entry into the following race. It’s been almost five years since teammate Jeff Green scored a Top-5 finish. He came close at Bristol with an outstanding sixth-place run. Green’s timing could not have been better as he secured an automatic berth for the Martinsville event. If Green had finished in the bottom eight at Bristol, he would have landed outside the Top-35.

Sauter (left) and Green are Martinsville-bound

THE REAL LOSER IS: Toyota. Seven cars for their inaugural season of NASCAR. All seven are outside the Top-35. Even the guys who made every race, Dave Blaney (36th) and Dale Jarrett (37th) are in a bad position. Jarrett has already used four of his six Champion’s Provisionals. A Matt Kenseth lovetap helped crush Jarrett’s car at Bristol and his hopes of remaining in the Top-35. The other five Toyota cars have gone 9-for-25 at qualifying for races while scoring an average of about 70 points per race, or about a 31st place finish. Well, Jack Roush, it looks like you’re winning the war.

A HEE-HAW SALUTE TO: Sterling Marlin, hometown Franklin, Tennessee – population,48,593. Marlin was the only “Go-or-Go” driver that managed to qualify his car for all five races this year. Coo-Coo would be so proud. SAAAAALLL-UUUUUUTTTEEE!!!

Marlin has been Sterling so far in 2007: 5-for-5

Sheed's Miracle Shot Crushes The Nuggets

I saw Isiah Thomas score 16 points in 90 seconds in a playoff game. I saw the Pistons beat the Denver Nuggets, 186-184 in a multiple-overtime thriller. I saw The Pass that Larry Bird stole. I saw Thomas again, this time scoring 22 points in the third quarter of an NBA Finals game. I saw Jerry Stackhouse go off for nearly 60 points.

All that and more, and what I saw last night ranks right up there.

The Pistons were down three points with 1.5 seconds remaining. And they didn't have the ball. And the ball was being inbounded in their half of the court.

And they ended up winning the game.

Of course, I'm leaving out the main reason why: Rasheed Wallace's 60+ foot heave that smacked off the glass backboard and straight into the twine as time expired. But first the Pistons had to steal the inbounds pass, and thanks to Tayshaun Prince, they did that -- albeit probably due to a rather lazy effort by the Nuggets, who rightly figured they had this one in the left hand column.

That same situation could be played out a thousand times and I don't know that you'd see what happened last night at the Palace more than once, if at all.

Overtime was almost anti-climactic, but the Pistons prevailed, 113-109.

If Wallace's heroics had occurred in a playoff game, it would be talked about for years. Kind of like Chauncey Billups' half-court prayer to extend Game 5 of the 2004 Eastern Finals against the Nets. The Pistons lost that one, though.

Being an old fart, after Wallace's shot, I immediately thought about Jerry West's half-courter to tie the Knicks in an NBA Finals game. No three-pointer back then, or else West's shot would have been a game-winner.

But what made Wallace's shot so amazing wasn't just the shot itself. It was the circumstances. Teams with three-point leads AND the ball, and inbounding in their opponent's half of the court, aren't supposed to lose. Ever. Yet the Nuggets did.

The win was important for the Pistons, but the loss was even more important for the Nuggets. They haven't clinched a playoff berth yet, and every win is precious for them at this point.

I thought Denver coach George Karl's reaction, caught on replay by the FSD cameras, was priceless. Kind of like, "What am I supposed to say after THAT?"

Another old fart alert: after the Saints' Tom Dempsey beat the Lions with a 63-yard field goal at the final gun in 1970, Lions coach Joe Schmidt said, "Well, what can you say after something like that? You take a left turn and head home."

I don't think Karl would disagree that he couldn't have said it better himself.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Red Wings’ Playoff Push Without Yzerman Still An Unknown

The Red Wings found themselves mired in another unexpected struggle in the playoffs against a lesser foe. A series with the St. Louis Blues was becoming a dogfight, and so quickly were the memories of postseasons wasted popping up on the hockey landscape in town.

The series with the barely-over-.500 Blues was squared at two victories each. The Red Wings had just been shutout in St. Louis, 4-0, to fall into that 2-2 tie in games. It was 1997, and the albatross was still being worn around the hockey team’s neck.


The year of the last Stanley Cup winner in Detroit, and even fans who were casual about their hockey knew the year’s significance. In New York, fans used to derisively chant “1940!” whenever the hometown Rangers stumbled in the playoffs – 1940 being the last time the Rangers captured the Cup on Broadway. They stopped chanting, finally, in 1994 – 54 years later – when the Rangers survived a seventh game against the Vancouver Canucks and became NHL champs.

But in Detroit the chanting and snide remarks were still going on. In 1996, the Red Wings took their gaudy record of 62 regular season wins into the playoffs and coughed and wheezed into the conference finals, struggling mightily in the two warmup rounds. Then the Colorado Avalanche bounced them from the playoffs, almost a mercy killing.

Two years before that, in 1994, the Red Wings couldn’t even survive a first round tussle with the third-year San Jose Sharks.

So here the Red Wings stood in April, 1997: tied at two victories apiece with another inferior opponent. Then their captain stood taller, as usual, in a sweaty, angry locker room in St. Louis after Game 4’s shutout.

Exactly what Steve Yzerman said has not been preserved for history, unfortunately. But enough has been said ABOUT what he said, by his awed teammates, to know that it went something like this: Everyone in this room knows we’re the better team. So let’s start proving it, if you want this season to continue.

The Wings blasted the Blues out of the playoffs in the next two games. Less than two months later, they stopped the chants of “1955!” and the like. Yzerman held the Stanley Cup aloft while in front of the adoring fans, one of whom had written a sign for the Captain to see.

It said, “NOW I can die happy!”

The last time the Red Wings went into the playoffs without Steve Yzerman as their captain, the year was 1985 and the team wasn’t much to look at. They qualified for the playoffs only because of a flawed system that rewarded mediocrity. What else do you call it, when the Red Wings played in the playoffs without shame, despite having a record that was 14 games below .500? They lasted three short, one-sided games against the Chicago Blackhawks.

In about three weeks, the Wings will plunge into another postseason – their 16th consecutive appearance in the playoffs – but this time they’ll go at it with Nicklas Lidstrom wearing the captain’s “C” on his red and white sweater.

The team Lidstrom will lead into the tournament is strong. It’s deep. It has quality goaltending. It has the two new players – Kyle Calder and Todd Bertuzzi – and they are supposed to provide an ingredient missing from recent playoff failures. It has a trio of future Hall of Famers on defense: Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, and Mathieu Schneider.

But it does not have Steve Yzerman.

Yzerman, who retired last summer as a player, will watch the proceedings high above the ice at JLA, dressed in his current work uniform of neatly pressed suit and silk tie. He’ll be close to the team in heart, but oh-so-far-away at the same time.

I only recently started wondering how the Red Wings will react, how they will handle it, if they get into another of those unexpected dogfights in the playoffs, and are unable to look around the dressing room and see #19, Yzerman, and thus can’t look to him for guidance.

This is no knock on Lidstrom as captain; not at all. If anyone can lead an Yzerman-less team into battle, it’s Nick Lidstrom. But the team has been so used to Yzerman doing or saying the right things at the right times, that I wonder how they’ll cope when that is no longer an option.

I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

It’s yet another testament to Yzerman’s sustained greatness that I am not alone, I’m sure, in doing some hand-wringing at the thought of no Yzerman in the playoffs, despite the fact that the team is still heavily populated with terrific veterans. Why should we be concerned about leadership, when there’s Lidstrom, and Chelios, and Kris Draper, and Kirk Maltby still around – all Cup winners in Detroit and elsewhere (in Chelios’s case)?

Because Steve Yzerman led a hockey team like few have done before him, or ever will after him. So even a team sprinkled with Hall of Famers ought to be concerned.

They’ll say they aren’t. They’ll talk bravely of knowing this day would arrive the moment Yzerman announced his retirement last July 3rd. They’ll maybe even have us convinced of this. Until the first blip on the screen. The first hoop to jump through – and history says it will occur in the very first round.

Then they will look around and see something that hasn’t been seen since 1983: a Red Wings dressing room without a stall for Steve Yzerman.

Perhaps they’ll be just fine. Maybe Lidstrom and the other veterans will be able to right the ship should it go off kilter. Maybe there’s no real reason for worry, after all. It’s not like the Red Wings roster is filled with chopped liver.

But there isn’t Steve Yzerman.

So what will Nick Lidstrom say in a must-have locker room speech?

Friday, March 23, 2007

President/Coach Joe Dumars? Naaah -- Unless ...

Flip Saunders will not be the coach at the University of Minnesota next season. Tubby Smith took that job, fleeing the University of Kentucky in what seems to be a lateral move, at best. But that's another post entirely.

So, thankfully, we can put the Saunders-to-Minnesota rumors to bed.

Flip Saunders will be the coach of the Detroit Pistons next season. Probably. Barring disaster in the playoffs, anyway. But will he, really?

It's not as clear cut as it may seem. In fact, you could make a case that Saunders has the least amount of job security of any coach in Detroit right now. And in a group that includes Lions coach Rod Marinelli, that's saying something.

Why? Especially now, when the team has appeared to have righted itself after being wobbly in January, prior to Chris Webber's arrival?

The good news for Saunders is that the Eastern Conference appears to be very winnable. The bad news for Saunders is that the Eastern Conference appears to be very winnable. It would be almost cataclysmic if the Pistons didn't win the East, despite Miami's current hot streak. And not getting out of the conference, especially with home court advantage, would make two playoff disappointments in a row. President Joe Dumars has already shown that he has a quick trigger when it comes to coaches. He seems to can them on schedule, after two seasons.

George Irvine: out after less than two seasons, the first coach of the Executive Dumars Era.

Rick Carlisle: out after two seasons, despite winning 50 games each year and making it to the conference finals once.

Larry Brown: out after two seasons, even after a championship and a runners-up.

Flip Saunders: in his second season; vilified after last season's flameout against the Heat, which was preceded by an unexpected struggle against the Cavaliers. A conference there for the taking.

If the Pistons win the East and win at least one game in the Finals, I think Saunders might buck the trend and become the first coach hired by Dumars to start a third season as Pistons coach. But anything shy of that ...

It's not probable, but it's possible that Dumars will be looking for another coach if the Pistons stumble and bumble in the postseason again. Who he'd hire is up to conjecture, but it would certainly be a big name, high profile guy. No apprentices. Maybe the next Pistons coach, if it isn't Flip Saunders, is currently on an NBA bench somewhere. Maybe he's in a studio or on press row, wearing a microphone and/or headset. Maybe he's occupying the president's office.

Dumars' track record would seem to put Saunders on the hot seat if the Pistons flop in the playoffs

It's a longshot, but in these times, nothing shocks me much anymore. So if Joe Dumars were to hold a press conference and announce the dismissal of Saunders, and at the same time reveal that he, himself will be the next Pistons coach, I don't think I'd soil myself. He might be the best choice anyway.

After GM Jack McCloskey fired Scotty Robertson in 1983, he didn't have a replacement waiting in the wings, as so often happens nowadays. And his search became long and mysterious, almost as if McCloskey had no one in mind. In fact, some -- and I was one of the "some" -- theorized that McCloskey, a former coach, wanted to coach the team himself.

I was wrong.

Back in 1989, interviewing McCloskey for cable TV, I hit him with my theory.

"Well, if I wanted to do that, I would have taken the job right away," McCloskey told me.

The truth was, he shopped the Pistons coaching job around the NBA, and it wasn't all that attractive to the names he was trying to lure. He got a nibble from Dr. Jack Ramsay, but things didn't work out. He turned to another Jack -- former Lakers coach McKinney, but nothing doing there, either.

Finally, after being rejected by a few other guys, McCloskey "settled" for a little known former Sixers assistant and Cavaliers interim coach: Chuck Daly.

Things worked out pretty well, if you recall, with Daly at the helm.

Would Dumars become a wearer of two hats, a la his former backcourt mate Isiah Thomas with the Knicks?

It's all hogwash, if the Pistons go deep, very deep, into the 2007 playoffs.

But if they don't, nothing should surprise you anymore, should it?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Lopez Wants To Tee It Up Again? Fine With Me

It was embarrassing to watch, no question. The wobbly outfielder had no business being in a spring training game, let alone a World Series match. Unable to run the basepaths with any competency, nonetheless he was in centerfield, and now a long flyball was hit in his general direction.

I can still see the image of 42-year-old Willie Mays, once the Say Hey Kid, stumbling in the outfield grass of Oakland's Coliseum during the 1973 World Series. He wasn't Say Hey anymore; he was Hey Lookout!

Mays was terribly past his prime when his Mets tussled with the A's in a thrilling seven-game series (the A's won), and thankfully retired soon after. I was a tad too young to see Mays perform in his prime, so unfortunately my lasting impression is of him fighting a losing battle with Father Time.

Others, too, I've watched perform when the calendar has been less than kind, and I've wished that they were in street clothes, watching from the stands, rather than in uniform, trying to participate.

Still, I must disagree with the Free Press's Carlos Monarrez, the paper's golf writer, who is against Nancy Lopez making an LPGA tour comeback of sorts, at age 50. Monarrez is afraid, and maybe justifiably so, that Lopez, who hasn't broken par since 2002 and finished dead last in her only tour event in 2006, will embarrass herself as she plans to play six events this year, beginning with the Ginn Open on April 12.

I feel where Carlos is coming from, I really do. But I've never been comfortable with sportswriters, fans, talk radio mouths, or even bottom feeding bloggers and magazine editors deciding when it's time for an athlete to hang 'em up. That's a decision that is theirs and theirs alone.

Here's the deal: these folks have been performing in their sport since they were barely out of diapers, in some instances. Even a ballplayer at the relatively young age of 35 has probably been playing organized ball for nearly 30 years at that point. So it's not so easy to walk away sometimes. The retired athletes I've spoken to have repeated the reason: they miss the camaraderie, the togetherness of team, the spirit of competition. Once it's in your blood, it's awfully hard to remove.

So who's to say when it's time to say "when"? Only the athlete him/herself. Only the person who's putting their body thru the rigors of training, dietary changes, and other physical sacrifices in order to try to recapture past glories. True, often the comeback bids are failed. Often they don't come close to materializing in games that count. But at least the athlete has left it all out there, and can ease back into retirement comfortable that there wasn't anything left in the tank -- the nagging feeling of which can haunt for years.

Lopez epitomizes this premise, and said so to Monarrez.

"I think this time I'll know if it's really the time to walk away because of your body and because of your age and what your body is telling you more than anything," she says.

Monarrez closes his piece by saying that Lopez deserves to remain "atop the leader board of our memory as a youthful, vigorous champion untouched by the passage of time."

I can empathize with Monarrez here, I really can. But his words, and those of others who feel the same way about the aging, once-great athlete, are terribly selfish. They are words spoken and written by the person who wants no memories tarnished, even at the expense of the peace of mind of the very same athlete they are admiring.

Only the athlete knows when to say when. We have no business making that decision for them.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Bertuzzi's No Thug; Cheer For Him With Impunity

Todd Bertuzzi is not a dirty hockey player. Let's get that straight right now. He's a big guy who made a mistake and took too much liberty with an opponent, and in many instances, his actions wouldn't have caused the injuries that they did.

But Steve Moore, the Avalanche player that Bertuzzi mugged on the ice a couple of years ago, went down to the ice in an awkward fashion and was significantly injured. Not a proud moment for Bertuzzi. But also not one that was part of a trend, either.

Sometime this week, Bertuzzi will make his Red Wings debut, and you probably won't be able to detect them amongst all the cheers, but there are those who would chastise the Wings for bringing Bertuzzi to Detroit.

"He's a thug!"

"The Red Wings have lowered their standards!"

"I won't cheer for them as long as they have that hooligan Bertuzzi on the team!"

That's fine. Everyone is entitled to their opinion -- no matter how misguided it might be.

Bertuzzi, when healthy, is one of the NHL's best big men -- and it has nothing to do with physical intimidation or fisticuffs. It's because he's able to combine soft, deft hands with a large, unmovable frame with such aplomb that few have been able to do it as well before him, and even fewer are doing it with him. Yet fewer will do it after him, most likely.

Not Bertuzzi's greatest moment, but not a trend, either

But he's not a thug. He's not a hooligan. He's not dirty. He's just a big man who let his temper get the best of him in an instant while playing a fast, mean game. And he paid his penance.

The angriness of ice hockey has gotten the best of good, clean players before.

I remember watching the Red Wings' Dan Maloney pummel the Maple Leafs' Brian Glennie, slamming his head into the ice at the end of a terribly one-sided fight. It was so bad that Ontario police had a bounty on Maloney's head for some time. But Maloney wasn't dirty, either.

The Red Wings' Dennis Polonich, no saint but no thug, was the victim of a horrific stick swinging incident, at the hands of Colorado's (Rockies, not Avs) Wilf Paiement, back in 1978. And while Polo never quite forgave Paiement, largely because of Wilf's feeble show of remorse, it really couldn't be said with accuracy that Paiement was a dirty player, frankly. But in a moment of bad decision-making fueled by anger, Paiement took his stick to Polonich with such brutality that it hospitalized him and practically disfigured him.

I am slightly amused by those protesting Bertuzzi's place on the Red Wings roster. I don't have any proof, but I wonder how many of them have cheered Bob Probert when Probie was menacing the NHL, even after his skills as a hockey player had eroded.

Detroit sports fans have long cheered the anti-hero, the social misfit.

They welcomed Denny McLain warmly after his half-season suspension for nifty things like carrying a handgun and dumping buckets of water on sportswriters. They chanted "News! News!", encouraging Pistons coach Herb Brown to insert Marvin Barnes into the game. But Barnes's nickname was "BAD News," and there was a reason. Kirk Gibson, as a young Tiger, was adored even as he was snarling at kid autograph seekers before games.

Why? Because the fans were more concerned about the performance during games, and not so much about behavior -- before or after the contests.

The beef with Bertuzzi is that his mugging of Moore is considered by some as part of his modus operandi. It isn't.

And most who will huff and puff about his being a Red Wing are hypocrites, plain and simple.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Tuesday's Feature: The Straightaway

(every Tuesday, "Out of Bounds" will feature "The Straightaway," NASCAR commentary from contributor and longtime racing observer Siddy Hall)


by Siddy Hall


Drivers typically end up with a NASCAR Nextel ride one of two ways. They either rise through the racing ranks by demonstrating success at lower levels, or they arrive at the top level by nepotism. The most common path is the former. But even that route can have some unusual twists. Juan Pablo Montoya’s leap from Formula One racing to stock car is rare. Steve Kinser once made the jump to NASCAR from the World of Outlaws. In 1994, Kinser competed in the “International Race of Champions”. IROC is the manufactured event where drivers from different styles of racing converge and race in “identical” stock cars. The series is heavily skewered in favor of NASCAR drivers. When Kinser won an event, car owner Kenny Bernstein offered Kinser a ride. That experiment lasted a total of five races.

Montoya’s fifth race, this past weekend in Atlanta was much better than Kinser’s. His fifth place finish stole the show from Jimmie Johnson’s second straight win. Prior to Atlanta, Montoya’s early season performance could be characterized as “problem-free.” He stayed out of trouble, ran his laps and didn’t bottom out which is a decent enough start as he acclimated himself to a heavier car on unfamiliar tracks.

Montoya has cut his learning curve since the move from Formula One

Atlanta looked the same as he ran in the mid-teens through the first half of the event. Slowly, viewers noticed that Montoya was picking up spots. Finally, the cameras focused on the Texaco Havoline 28-car and it was clear that we were watching something different. Montoya ran a line different than everybody else. He kept the car stuck on the outside groove glued to the wall. He probably ran an extra ten miles as he brought his car home fifth.

Montoya’s Busch win in Mexico City earlier this month was impressive but not surprising. Mexico City is after all, a road course which is what Montoya has run his whole life. It became clear after his Mexico City showing that Montoya would be a threat to win either of the two NASCAR road events later this year. His fifth at Atlanta is a signal that once Montoya familiarizes himself with all the NASCAR ovals, he can possibly threaten to compete for the NASCAR title.

WRECKLESS ATLANTA: NASCAR made a mistake running consecutive races on identical tracks. After battling the new pavement of Las Vegas, the normally dangerous and swift Atlanta Motor Speedway seemed like, well, a Sunday Drive. They could’ve run all day without an incident. Only the suspicious “debris” cautions kept this race from going flag-to-flag green.

CELL PHONE WARS: Nextel, the sponsor of the premier series in NASCAR is upset with competitors decorating the car of Robby Gordon. Gordon’s “Motorola” logo was removed and replaced with the logo of an MP3 player. Jeff Burton’s Cingular Wireless machine, the best-looking paint job in NASCAR, is being sued by AT & T. They want their logo on Burton’s 31-car after having purchased Cingular. OK, so what’s the problem? Just remove the decal.

Going loco over a logo: AT & T and Burton's Cingular car

IF JUAN CAN, RICKY CAN: Perhaps the most bizarre of the many strange stories in ’07 is Ginn Racing’s hiring of Motocross racer Ricky Carmichael to its developmental team for future NASCAR racing. Carmichael is regarded as being the most successful Motocross racer ever. This move is becoming even stranger by the week. Carmichael’s first event is this week in Lake City, Florida. Serving as his crew chief will be none other than … NASCAR points leader Mark Martin. Say what!!!??

Well, at least he has "car" in his name: Motocross' Carmichael

Martin, the NASCAR points leader, insists that he will not run a full schedule. He will continue to share the 01-ride with Regan Smith, as originally planned. Ginn Racing, which purchased this team from MB2 Motorsports, has never had a points leader in its 11-year history until now. They are sticking with their plan, however. Martin will forfeit any hope of winning this year’s championship by missing any race.

Meanwhile, rookie Regan Smith will deal with some huge obstacles at Bristol Motor Speedway this week. One, he has to deal with Bristol’s wild track configuration. 36-degree banking on a half-mile track. That’s like driving in a cereal bowl. That’s more banking than Daytona at 2.5 miles. Second, he’ll be dealing with the debut of “The Car of Tomorrow.” He’ll be piloting a new machine on a strange track. The bet here is that Ginn Racing is bluffing. Mark Martin shows up and drives the 01 car this week. They’re just playing with us.

BIG WRECK: NASCAR wrecks can be grouped into different categories. There is the “Blown Right-Front Tire Headfirst into the Wall” wreck. There’s the “T-Bone” special. There’s the “Big One” at the restrictor plate races. There’s also the “Barrel Roll”. These and others can produce devastating car wrecks. It’s been about 17 years since the Michael Waltrip Busch series wreck at Bristol. This crash is generally regarded as one of the most bizarre and scary in NASCAR history. It also defies easy categorizing. It was an unexpected one car occurrence as you can see here.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Martin's Cavalier Comments Symptomatic

It was treated as a throwaway line, buried in the pile of March Madness coverage over the weekend. The speaker may not have intended it to come off looking as it did, but the words jumped off at me, spraying me with arrogance cloaked in India ink on newsprint.

Bill Martin, athletic director at the University of Michigan, was talking about the search for a new mens basketball coach. And he was responding to the concerns put forth to him that a candidate might have about the job -- specifically, the antiquated facilities at U-M, including the lack of a real practice facility.

"We're taking a look at the infrastructure of Crisler Arena," Martin said.

OK. Fine. But the next line is what staggered me.

"But if a coach wants to make a big issue out of not having a practice facility, then maybe he's not the coach for Michigan."

Is that so?

If Michigan is serious about mens basketball, and not just paying lip service, then the attitude poorly hidden in Martin's words to the papers must go the way of laces on the ball and short shorts.

Martin wants everyone to have a high regard for the Michigan basketball program, but where's his?

I wonder how many potential candidates, the prime time guys, got wind of Martin's flippant, cavalier remarks. I wonder how much that changes their opinion of the Michigan basketball program. And I wonder what would cause Martin to say such a thing.

"But if a coach wants to make a big issue out of not having a practice facility, then maybe he's not the coach for Michigan."

What does this mean, exactly? That whomever comes to Ann Arbor to coach basketball ought to just kiss the ground on the Diag and thank his creator that he's been afforded the privilege? That if you're going to make a "big issue" out of something as seemingly reasonable as, Why no practice facility?, that you yourself are unreasonable?

I submit that Martin's words are symptomatic of the second-class priority the athletic department places on basketball -- mens and womens. And while some may still consider the Michigan job a prime one, it's only that way because of its potential, not necessarily because everything's in place right now. But the potential will continue to be snuffed out as long as the attitude exhibited by Martin's pithy comments is the norm at Michigan.

It was also reported over the weekend that former coach Tommy Amaker had to pay for new carpeting for his office out of his own pocket. Strange, and I can't fathom Martin hitting football coach Lloyd Carr up for new rugs.

That being said, Amaker had to be fired, for lack of results on the floor. But someone needs to be culpable for the lack of investment in the program.

Or else the university will never truly get the "right coach for Michigan."

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Worst Thing That Could Happen To A Hitter? Terrific Success, Sometimes

Three months earlier he was the hottest hitter in baseball – a redheaded pounder of the baseball who had put a team full of players many years his senior onto his back and lugged them along for a couple of weeks. He was, I had written at the time, Player of the Month after just one week in April.

Now he sat in front of his locker, fiddling with a bat, perhaps wondering what had happened in the ensuing 90 days. The batting average was sinking like a block of concrete in the Detroit River. The strikeouts were piling up like an autumn’s worth of unraked leaves.

So maybe it was natural that Chris Shelton scowled at the interloper who was talking to him before a game against the Chicago White Sox – the ink-stained wretch who was asking him, basically, Hey, what happened to the swing?


“I’m not going to answer that question,” Shelton told me, with all the warmth of an Alaskan winter.


But the evidence was irrefutable. Shelton, the Tigers first baseman, had a tenuous hold on his job, which would have been an unthinkable notion three months prior, when he tore the cover off the baseball. Yet here he was, slumping horribly, a confused young man, another humbled by a game just when he thought he had it figured out.

“You got all that notoriety at the beginning of the year, and you really don’t like that, do you?,” I asked that day in late July.

He shook his head slowly and spoke in soft, thoughtful tones, still fiddling with the bat.

“That’s not me,” Shelton said. “I just like to go out and play, and I’m not comfortable with the spotlight on me.”

It occurred to me that Chris Shelton was in fact being cursed by the very same success that had blessed him coming out of the gate in April.

Shelton's hot start was his undoing, as it turned out

Less than two weeks later, Shelton still in the throes of a slump he didn’t wish to speak to me about, the Tigers traded for veteran first baseman Sean Casey. A player had to go, in order to make room for the solid hitter Casey.

Chris Shelton was that player – demoted to the bus rides and miniature ballparks of AAA ball, in Toledo.

Forty-five years earlier, another Tigers first baseman had a year in which it could be rightly suspected that he had made a pact with Mr. Satan himself.

Norm Cash’s middle name could rightly have been changed to Anomaly.

Cash, a career .271 hitter, had his Mr. Hyde year in 1961. As part of the Tigers’ own Murderers’ Row lineup which included Al Kaline and Rocky Colavito, Cash went ballistic. He had 41 homeruns, 132 RBI, and his batting average was a robust .361 – 90 points above his eventual career mark. The season before, Cash’s line read 18 HR, 63 RBI, .286 BA. The year after his anomaly, Cash sank to 39 HR, 89 RBI, and – get this – a .243 BA. One-hundred-and-eighteen points off from the season before.

Cash, years after, admitted two things: his ’61 season was maybe the worst thing that happened to him in his career; and that part of his success that year was due to corking his bat. So he was a victim of his own success – both as a hitter, and as a tamperer of baseball bats.

Cash cheated in '61, and paid for it

Cash steadfastly believed that if he didn’t try to hit as many homeruns – he ended up with 377 for his career – that he could have had a much higher batting average. Maybe.

Last April, Shelton exploded out of the blocks. He was 14-for-20 after his first five games, with five homeruns. He had nine homeruns by April 17. Then, just like that, the magic was gone. In his next 49 AB, Shelton managed just six hits. Perhaps more alarming was the fact that in those 49 AB, he struck out 12 times. In a heartbeat, it seemed, Shelton turned from a confident, powerful swatter to a flailing, clueless hack.

I’m no expert, but I suspect Shelton’s unbelievable homerun pace out of the gate cursed him into the thought that he was a true power hitter. That’s when the flailing began. It’s also when opposing pitchers, a rather smart lot, figured out that he expanded his own strike zone. Shelton, basically, would swing at anything within an area code of the plate.

At the time of our prickly discussion, Shelton was batting .274. Respectable, but it was a falling mark, like Ford stock. He was recalled in September, the time in Toledo hoped to be some sort of tonic. It wasn’t. In 19 September AB, Shelton had four hits – three of them in one game.

Today, in Florida, the Tigers working out under the sun, getting ready to defend their American League Championship, Shelton struggles to stay with the team when it flies to Detroit in about two weeks. An early spring training injury hasn’t helped. Manager Jim Leyland says it will be a “dogfight” between Shelton, Neifi Perez, and Ramon Sanitago to see who nails down the final bench spot. A year ago at this time, Shelton was already clobbering the ball in spring training, and his place on the roster was assured.

One year later…

Chris Shelton, if you want to know the truth, is working on a slump that’s now in its 10th month. For it hasn’t been since last May that he’s hit the ball with any authority. When he returned to the Tigers in September, he still exhibited the same hacking, flailing ways that got him demoted after the team traded for the reliable Casey.

But for the first two weeks of last season, Shelton was the hottest of hitters – a man swinging a magic bat that jet-propelled baseballs several rows into the bleachers. An awesome combination of power and a batting average in the stratosphere.

And it was the worst thing that could have happened to him, in retrospect.

Joe Garagiola said it – titled a book with the words, actually.

Baseball is a funny game.

And not always HA-HA funny.

Friday, March 16, 2007

For Michigan Basketball To Reach Point B, Transitional Guy Amaker Must Go

If this is the way it has ended for Michigan basketball coach Tommy Amaker, then it won't be the greatest of legacies, but he can always hang his hat on the "transitional guy" hook.

Amaker, it's apparent to me, is the "transitional guy" -- the coach who takes a program, college or pro, from the depths of Point A, and manages to get it to Point A-and-a-half. But not quite to Point B.

Last night, Amaker's kids playing in a tournament they'd rather have no part of, Florida State kicked Wolverine tail, 87-66, in a second round NIT tilt.

Some of Amaker's seniors were shockingly candid in their assessment of Michigan's participation in the NIT before it began earlier this week. Lester Abram was perhaps the most blunt.

"Nobody wants to play in the NIT, but we have to do it," Abram said.

Hail to the Victors.

About 24 hours after Abram's comments, Michigan beat Utah State, but before just 3,114 at Crisler Arena, which was reportedly the smallest crowd ever for a Michigan men's game.

Amaker spoke bravely and positively about the NIT bid before the first round game, even as his seniors were contradicting him to reporters. Amaker thought it was peachy; the players thought it was the pits. Some even hinted that less than a 100% effort might be on tap.

That was, to me, when the situation crystallized regarding Amaker's situation at Michigan.

The folks I've spoken to all agree that Amaker should be out after six seasons as Michigan's basketball coach, but they also don't believe it will actually happen, because the coach is: a) well-liked by the university president; b) his wife works for the university; and c) he cleaned up the program, which was part of his charge.

It's quite out of character for Michigan to fire any of their varsity coaches; they do so only when there really is little choice in the matter. But most of Michigan's coaches are "Michigan men," which Amaker is not. Had Gary Moeller not had his very public drunken moment in a Southfield restaurant in 1994, he wouldn't have been let go. But it was impossible to keep him after that.

Amaker is the quintessential transitional coach. He has done some good things at U-M, no question -- picking up the pieces after the Ed Martin stench being a very good thing, for example. His teams have won an NIT and lost in the finals of another. The recruiting has gotten better.

But all that has done is gotten Michigan basketball to Point A.5. There still needs to be an ascension to Point B, for this is the University of Michigan and this is a basketball-rich state, and nothing less should be acceptable. Tom Izzo and MSU has run roughshod over Michigan in basketball, and Tommy Amaker has not been the man to stop it, or even slow it down much.

A while ago I mentioned Phil Hubbard, a former Michigan center, NBA player, and now currently a tenured assistant NBA coach. Michigan's administrators could do a lot worse than to give Hubbard a call and talk to him about the job.

The Wolverines are almost there in basketball, but not quite. Tommy Amaker has reached a certain level, but I fear he's topped out. And his players got spanked in a tournament they wanted no part of, one game after playing before just a few thousand of their own fans, and on a day where the March weather was gorgeous and could not be blamed for the pathetic turnout.

It's time for the man who can bring the Wolverine basketball program to the next level. And that man doesn't currently occupy the coach's office in Ann Arbor, sadly.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Oh, Isiah! I Was Wrong -- As Of Now

I'll take my serving of crow with some salt, and maybe some crushed red pepper, for flavor. Just have plenty of ice cold suds on hand for me, to wash it down.

Isiah Thomas just received a contract extension to remain an employee of the New York Knicks, in both the capacities of coach and general manager. This after last year's ultimatum from owner James Dolan that basically indicated Thomas had to show significant progress from the 23-59 disaster in 2005-06 in order to save his job(s).

I was one of many who didn't think Zeke had a sno-cone's chance in Hell to make good on his part of the bargain.

And while the record isn't terrific -- 29-35 -- it's still on par to put the Knicks in the thick of the playoff hunt in the Leastern Conference. Which is enough for Dolan to invite Thomas back for some more hijinks.

I looked at the roster that Thomas had constructed while wearing his GM hat, and considered it a fantasy that he could improve much on the 23 victories of last season. I probably let my regard for Thomas the GM -- which is about as low as my regard for cold french fries and warm beer -- taint my analysis of Thomas the coach, which I must admit isn't all that bad.

Isiah did alright in Indiana, coaching the Pacers, and now he's taken his Knicks misfits -- now minus Jamal Crawford due to injury -- and has them on pace to win nearly 40 games. Not remarkable by most standards, but these are the Knicks and, worse, these are the Knicks assembled by GM Isiah Thomas. So a 38 to 40 win season would be impressive indeed, and would be a 15+ win improvement over last season.

Thomas should, in my mind, get some consideration for Coach of the Year. And that, for me, is like writing, "Carrot Top should get some consideration for Comedian of the Year."

But it's true. Isiah Thomas has stood up to the challenge levied by Dolan, which could have made him a lame duck coach to some of his players. He was teetering, Isiah was, and a few miscreants on his squad could have toppled him for good.

Didn't happen. Probably not gonna happen.

Thomas is no lame duck anymore, thanks to the extension, the details of which were not disclosed.

All this doesn't mean that Isiah is off the hook with me. I'm going to give him through next season to see if this extension was a smart move by the Knicks, or a knee-jerk reaction to a possibly overachieving unit. But for now, at least, Thomas has done enough to make me feel it justified to order a helping of crow.

And when was the last time an ink-stained wretch/bottom feeding blogger admitted he was wrong?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"One Hit Wonders" Harm NHL's Fragile Credibility

It happens every year in the NHL, and it's happening again now.

Add the Edmonton Oilers to the list of "one hit wonders" who've sold their soul to the hockey Devil in exchange for a magical run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Theirs was last spring, when just about every bounce, deflection, and dribbling puck went their way. A spring when someone named Fernando Pisani went berserk as a playoff goal scorer. A spring when castoff goalie Dwayne Roloson joined the team late in the year and became the second coming of Georges Vezina. A spring in which the Oilers clawed their way to within one game of hoisting the Cup.

But now their agreement with Satan (the entity, not the hockey player) must have expired, because today the Oilers are four games under .500 and totally out of the Western Conference playoff picture.

It's a fate that has befelled team after team lately.

The Calgary Flames pushed the Tampa Bay Lightning to seven games in 2004, and neither team made it past the first round in 2006, after the lockout year.

Remember when the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, coached by Mike Babcock, dumped the Red Wings out in four straight in the first round in 2003? And remember when they went all the way to the Finals before losing to New Jersey? Then surely you remember the following season, when the Ducks didn't come close to making the playoffs, finishing six games below .500, costing Babcock his job?

How about the story of the Carolina Hurricanes? The 'Canes made it to the Finals in 2002, before being spanked by the Red Wings in five games. The next season, the Hurricanes were nothing more than a tepid rain shower, finishing an unsightly 21 games under .500 and nowhere near the playoffs.

This is my problem with the NHL. I'm resentful, frankly, of a playoff system that seems to lend itself to pretenders ascending to the penthouse temporarily, as if they were the borrowers of a key that had to be returned immediately. Where is the sustained success? Where are the repeat visitors to June hockey?

Contrary to Gary Bettman's belief, it's not a bad thing to have a few teams rotating in and out of the last round of the playoffs. It has worked in other sports, as far as interest goes.

Wasn't the NFL compelling when the Cowboys and 49ers traded Super Bowl appearances, meeting in the NFC Championship several times in the 1990s? Didn't the NBA benefit from the Celtics and Lakers duking it out for supremacy every spring? How about the Yankees and Red Sox battles in the AL playoffs?

These matchups repeated themselves -- and for their game's good, I might add -- because they were played out in an environment that rewarded talent and had no use for luck, hot streaks, and flukes. That's why there was rarely an ascending pretender in those sports. Very few "one hit wonders."

The NHL has a flawed game, if every year one of the previous season's finalists ends up in the toilet when the 82-game schedule has been completed.

I suspected, even as they were taking care of the Red Wings, that the Oilers might be a one hit wonder. Then when they got rid of Chris Pronger, I was even more convinced they would be. And now here they are.

The league has to do something to save the integrity of their game. Whether that's through officiating, rules changes, or whatever, something must be done. It's not compelling to have a different Cinderalla team playing in June every year. It's annoying at best, and a credibility killer at worst.

The way it's going, one of this year's finalists is going to rue its appearance next season.

And that's not how sports is supposed to work.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Tuesday's Feature: The Straightaway

(every Tuesday, "Out of Bounds" will feature The Straightaway -- NASCAR commentary by contributor Siddy Hall)


by Siddy Hall


The man could have walked straight off the “Dukes of Hazzard” set. Remove some hair, add a couple of wrinkles and perhaps you are looking at “Boss Hogg,” the wealthiest, filthiest man in Hazzard County. The real life counterpart to the Man in White from the old TV show is none other than O. Bruton Smith. The “O” stands for Ollen.

NASCAR just finished running at one of Smith’s tracks, the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. As usual, O. Bruton was talking up a storm to the media. His company, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI) owns six tracks that play host to 10 of the 36 races run in the Nextel Cup Series. If Smith could have it his way, that total would increase to 11. He wants another race in Las Vegas. Usually what O. Bruton wants, O. Bruton gets.

Smith: NASCAR's Boss Hogg (left)

Currently, the NASCAR tracks are nearly all owned by SMI and the International Speedway Corporation (ISC). All but seven races are run on their turf. ISC, which hosts 19 races, is run by the France family. This is the same family that started and operates NASCAR. The France family has a great deal of power. The ownership of NASCAR plus the power to designate race sites smells like a monopoly. A rivalry has developed between these groups. Call it the NASCAR Hatfield’s & McCoy’s.

O. Bruton Smith succeeded in obtaining a second race for his Texas track. He did so by talking a lot and filing lawsuits. It appears that he may threaten court action again to get a second race for his Las Vegas track.

As these billionaires battle for control of NASCAR turf a disturbing trend has entered the sport: the proliferation of “cookie cutter” tracks. Like baseball’s love affair with the symmetrical, synthetic turf stadiums circa the 1970s, NASCAR can’t get enough of the 1.5 mile D-shaped oval. Seven of the ten SMI races run on this configuration. If Las Vegas does receive another NASCAR date, then nearly one quarter of the races will basically be run on the same track. Texas, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Las Vegas are beginning to resemble baseball’s Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and St. Louis from yonder.

STARTING GRID BLUES: How important is starting position at a race? Not much, at least this week at Las Vegas. The top-10 starters all finished outside the top-10. According to, this has not occurred since July 5, 1965 at Daytona, or 1421 races ago.

NINE LIVES: Teams are battling to make the top-35 in Owners Points by the completion of Race # 5 at Bristol. That’s when the current standings determine which cars gain automatic entry to each race. Each week the top-35 teams are safe. Keep an eye on Kyle Petty. The guy hasn’t threatened to win a race since he drove the Mellow Yellow car in 1995. But he’s a survivor. He ended 2006 exactly 35th in owner points, thus protecting himself for the beginning of ’07. Currently, he’s 33rd, just five points ahead of 36th place Kasey Kahne.

"Survivor NASCAR": Starring Kyle Petty

TOYOTA TEAMS STRUGGLE: Time is running out for some of the new Toyota teams. Jeremy Mayfield and his Bill Davis Racing machine have yet to make a race. The Red Bull duo of Brian Vickers and rookie AJ Allmendinger are a combined 1-6 at making shows. Michael Waltrip has collected two DNQ’s (did not qualify). These are four fully-funded teams that have combined for two appearances in twelve attempts to qualify. Sponsors surely are getting itchy and may stop the cash flow without results. Things will not get easier in Atlanta this week. There are already 51 cars attempting to fill the 43-car field. Never has qualifying been filled with as much tension as this year. How much longer can some of these teams hold on?

Mayfield and some of his Toyota teammates have had little to smile about in '07

THREE DOWN, TWO TO GO: Three teams have qualified for all three events without the benefit of 2006 Owner Point guarantees. They are the veterans Joe Nemechek and Sterling Marlin, both from Ginn Racing, and most surprisingly, Johnny Sauter. Pre-season, absolutely nobody was talking about Sauter. Now he’s two races away from being one of the survivors. He’s currently 24th in points. Another driver to watch is Paul Menard. He’s the third entry from the Teresa Earnhardt stable and is sitting 37th in points despite missing one race. For all the bad news leaking from DEI, Menard’s successfully attaining a top-35 spot would be a coup for this outfit.

Monday, March 12, 2007

McLain, Again, Misses An Opportunity To Take His Own Bullet

Denny McLain's book is mistitled.

His latest biography, I Told You I Wasn't Perfect, is out, and this isn't a book review, for I haven't read it. Nor do I plan on it. I'm getting enough snippets from the newspapers to know where Denny is going with his latest rewriting of history.

It's mistitled because if there was ever a perfectly named memoir for McLain -- at least one that was told in the first person -- it would be I Told You It Wasn't My Fault. Such a named publication could be placed on a bookstore's nonfiction shelf with at least a small measure of credibility.

McLain throws the usual suspects under the bus, like fellow starting pitcher Mickey Lolich ("Lolich was miserable in the middle of the '68 season because I was going so well and he was pitching so badly," McLain writes, according to published reviews. "There's nothing worse than somebody wallowing in his own misery, and Mickey was a miserable guy in 1968."), but he also unleashes some venom toward Al Kaline, albeit in an unfactual manner.

He chides Kaline for missing 40 games in 1968 after jamming his bat into a bat rack in anger, then accuses the media of covering it up by reporting that he broke his arm after being hit by a pitch thrown by the A's' Lew Krausse. The truth, as usual, eludes McLain. Kaline's bat rack incident happened in 1967; the broken arm was factual, and indeed occurred in 1968.

Also in the book, McLain "exposes" the supposed alcohol-drinking excesses of manager Mayo Smith.

"Mayo drank so much that it usually took him three or four innings to sober up and get his head into the game."

Whether Smith drank too much, I don't know. But even if he did, it must not have affected his ability to manage; the Tigers won 103 games in '68, and you don't win that many with a drunk for a skipper.

I've already spent too much time on McLain's book, cowritten by broadcaster Eli Zaret. Because in it, he fails to own up to anything of any real significance. Jerry Green, semi-retired and writing for the Detroit News online every Sunday, offers up a nice preview of the book for those interested, here. Green does give a nod, however, to the poignancy when McLain talks about some of his personal tragedies, including the death of his 26-year-old daughter. So Denny does have feelings; that much I suspected.

It's a conscience that I'm still trying to find.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Life After Barry Pretty Much Like Life Before Him

They have come from football-rich schools like Notre Dame and Oklahoma and UCLA, and from the next tier below, and a few tiers below that. They have been black, white, with brute strength, and with fancy feet. But there is a common thread between them.

The men who have carried a football for the Detroit Lions in the position of running back, the pertinent ones anyway, all have flickered brightly for brief periods of time, then have had their flames snuffed out by injury. It’s still happening, some 40 years after it began occurring.

The potential star that is Kevin Jones is in the middle of the mother of all rehabs, when it comes to foot injuries. He’s trying to come back from such a mangled wreck going on below his ankle that some medical people wonder if he will ever play again. So the Lions have been gathering running backs like acorns before the winter: Tatum Bell, from Denver in a trade for cornerback Dre’ Bly; TJ Duckett, the ex-MSU star, signed away from Washington. And others are being considered, too.

It’s been a struggle for the Lions, finding capable players to take handoffs and make yards, all the while keeping them healthy for any significant amount of time.

There was Nick Eddy, out of Ara Parseghian’s football factory in South Bend. Knee injuries in college, but the Lions took a flyer on him in the 1966 draft. Alex Karras once said that he’d never seen anyone try harder to make it in pro football than Nick Eddy. But in six injury-ravaged seasons, Eddy carried the ball 152 times for 523 yards and three touchdowns, until his painful knees couldn’t take it any longer.

There was Mel Farr, drafted the year after Eddy, out of UCLA. He shone brightly for a few seasons, before the dreaded knee injury forced him into a life of cape-wearing and car-hawking on television.

In 1970, the Lions picked Heisman Trophy winner Steve Owens off the board out of Oklahoma. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in 1971. Three years later, he played his last game as a Lion. Knee injury, that heartless career-ender.

Ten years after Owens was drafted, the Lions went the Heisman Trophy winner-out-of-Oklahoma route again, when they nabbed Billy Sims, the high-stepping speedball and eventual Lions fan darling. And he thrilled for a few seasons, before a cruel tackle in Minnesota in 1984 ended it all for him.

If it wasn’t injuries, it was a simple lack of capable talent that did in the Lions’ running backs in the interim periods between these high-profile cases. Backs came and went, and so many times they had us still asking, “Who?” even after they had left town.

But there was a time, an era really, when the Lions surely must have sold their soul to the football Devil. For when Barry Sanders, that whirling dervish, arrived in Detroit in the fall of 1989, all the bad luck, curses, and futility when it came to the team’s running backs vanished.

Sanders, for ten virtually 100% healthy seasons, produced enough highlights and thrills and chills to make up for all the garbage that happened prior to his arrival.

Now, it seems, Sanders’ brilliance is apparently going to have to wash away all that has come after him, as well.

The 2007 season will be the ninth, believe it or not, that the Lions will try after Sanders abruptly retired prior to training camp in 1999. And there is no real indication that they’ve even come close to finding their running game mojo.

The history post-Sanders reads much like the history before his arrival.

There was Greg Bell, brought in to be the first runner after Barry retired, and if you forgot how that went, think Rick Rizzs and Bob Rathbun after Ernie Harwell. That’ll give you an idea.

There was James Stewart, who was capable, but who blew out a shoulder in the last preseason game of 2003. Never again would he tuck a football under his arm.

There was Olandis Gary, who showed some potential in Denver, but who couldn’t find a hole in a block of swiss cheese as a Lion.

Then the Lions drafted Jones in 2004, out of Virginia Tech. He looked like something, especially in the second half of his rookie season, when he rushed for over 700 yards. 2005 was a little disappointing, and then came last season’s foot injury extraordinaire. Only the most optimistic believe Kevin Jones can fully recover from his injury and be that star he looked to be in 2004.

So now the Lions are trying Tatum Bell, a 1,000+-yard rusher in Denver last season. And they’ll try Duckett, who had a couple good seasons in Atlanta. And Aveion Cason. And Brian Calhoun. And anyone else they choose to acquire.

“You can never have too many running backs,” President and GM Matt Millen said recently.

Well, yes, that’s true – if you can’t find a good one and keep him healthy, that is. There’s another more terse, derisive name for what the Lions are trying to do: running back by committee. And when was the last time anything good ever came from a committee, honestly?

The Lions put up their big top and the calliope music played, in the years before Barry Sanders, when it came to their running backs. Then Barry came, spent a decade, and the calliope music was replaced by a melodic string section and the film was played in slow motion.

Now he’s been gone over eight seasons, and the Lions went right back to the cotton candy and the three rings.

Maybe Tatum Bell will be something here. Maybe Kevin Jones can heal his foot and be a player again. Maybe a new back from the draft, or from free agency, or from another trade, will make his mark. Whomever it is, maybe they’ll avoid the injury bug and their flame won’t flicker and die so prematurely.

Maybe all that’s as likely as seeing Barry Sanders reincarnated in another draft.

It’s kinda looking that way, I would say.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Yardley An Early Pistons Rarity: He Was A Record Setter

George Yardley didn't look like a basketball player, even playing in an era in which basketball players didn't look like basketball players. But he was one of the deadliest scorers of his time.

49 years ago today, wearing super short shorts and canvas sneakers and floppy socks, Yardley became the first player in NBA history to score 2,000 points in a single season. And he did it playing for the Pistons, he being one of the stars that came with the franchise after it relocated from Fort Wayne, Ind.

Yardley was tall, gangly, and was conspicuous by his balding head that made him look like your high school science teacher rather than one of the best forwards of his time, which he was. His trademark was the set shot, which has gone the way of the bounce pass and raising your hand when you commit a foul.

But as was so typical of the Pistons in the slapstick years of the late-1950s thru most of the 1970s, Yardley was eventually traded, to Syracuse in 1959. He had fallen out of favor with Pistons owner Fred Zollner, who was angered by Yardley's negative remarks about the NBA in a Sports Illustrated article. So Yardley was shipped to the Nationals for Ed Conlin, one of the worst trades in team history, which is saying something for a franchise that was once famous for making them.

Gene Shue. Dave DeBusschere. Ray Scott. Bob Lanier. Dave Bing. These were some of the greatest players during the Pistons' leaner years, and all were traded away -- often times for inferior talent. But Yardley was the first of these fine players to be dealt, and less than a season after his history-making 2,000-point campaign.

Yardley died in August, 2004, at age 75. He was the first great Pistons player, even if he didn't look like a hoopster.

By the way, when was the last time you saw a set shot?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Pal Joey Should Be Another Raider Reclamation Project

Once upon a time, the Oakland Raiders were the NFL's version of rehab. Their franchise was the one where various ne'er do wells, miscreants, and aging players would wind up, often times reinvigorating their careers and sometimes even reinventing themselves. It was a reputation that the team embraced. And they used it to win -- usually at percentages that touched .700, along with three Super Bowl championships.

In 1980, the Raiders rode the tired, popgun arm of Jim Plunkett to a world championship. Plunkett was a two-time loser, run out of town in New England and San Francisco. Before and after Plunkett, countless players wore the silver and black after their time was supposedly done -- and were productive, key players to all the winning.

More recently, Jeff George was a Raiders reclamation project. So was Jeff Hostetler. So was Jerry Rice. And Warren Sapp.

Today, there's another quarterback available who, if this perhaps was a different time, would qualify as a possible Raiders Rehab guy.

Plunkett was hardly the most talented QB the Raiders ever had, but he won two Super Bowls (XV and XVIII)

Ever since Pal Joey Harrington fled the Lions, I've felt that he would look good in silver and black. He neatly fills the bill as the reclamation project in waiting. And the Raiders need a quarterback, if only to be the transitional guy until their #1 pick -- almost certain to be a QB -- is ready for prime time. Harrington was released last week by the Dolphins.

The idea of Harrington wearing the eye-patched pirate insignia on his helmet may seem folly to some, who feel he lacks the toughness to be a Raider. But how tough do you have to be to play for a team that finished flat bottom in the NFL last season?

Harrington as a Raider makes sense. Where else can he go? Chicago, with the wobbly Rex Grossman as the starter? Buffalo? Washington? Maybe. But put Joey Harrington in Oakland, and I think you might be surprised at the results, albeit short term.

When Alex Karras was released by the Lions late in camp in 1971, he wrote in his book, Even Big Guys Cry, the Raiders had contacted him about resuming his career. But Karras opted for the potential of the bright lights of Hollywood instead of the rigors of more football. So even back then Al Davis's franchise was making the reclamation project part of its trademark.

If I was Harrington's agent, I'd give the Raiders a call. He's not a first round pick anymore. He wouldn't be playing on a Super Bowl contender. He could reinvent himself rather quietly -- a lot quieter than those before him have had to do.

It's not "Just Win, Baby!" anymore in Oakland. It's "Just Keep Us Respectable Until Our New Hotshot QB Is Ready."

Sounds like a match made in hell? That's exactly the kind that the Raiders used to thrive on.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Larson's Slapper Thrilled Long Before Lidstrom's

Speed fascinates. We can't get enough of it, and that includes the games we watch our teams play.

Joel Zumaya lasers one across the plate, the juiced up gun registers 100+ mph, and the Comerica Park crowd ignites. NASCAR and Indy races mesmerize folks, largely due to the almost unreal speeds the cars attain on their respective ovals. Football draft time comes around, and you'll hear the term "improve our overall team speed" countless times. Then there's the numbing tennis serve that's barely returnable. And so on.

Nicklas Lidstrom is many things, of course. You tend to be so when you're going to go down in history as one of the all-time greatest defensemen to ever lace up an NHL skate.

Smoothe. Unrattled. Deft. Durable. All those Lidstrom is, and to the nth degree.

But when Lidstrom deposited his 200th NHL goal behind Chicago goalie Nikolau Khabibulin Friday night, he revealed another of his trademarks: the blazing shot from the blue line. It was fitting, I thought, that Lidstrom got #200 in that fashion -- booming a slapper on a Red Wings power play. Perhaps 80% of his goals have been scored that way. Speed thrills.

Mathieu Schneider scored #200 last night, reminding us that the Red Wings have three fascinating older defensemen: Schneider, Lidstrom, and Chris Chelios. But the speed factor only applies to Lidstrom, and only to his rocket slap shot.

But before Lidstrom thrilled us with his steady play and blueline howitzer, Red Wings crowds were enthralled by another big slap shot from the point.

Reed Larson scored 188 goals as a Red Wing. And his slapper was one of the few reasons you'd bother to go down to Olympia Stadium, and later Joe Louis Arena, when the rest of the team wasn't much to cheer for.

Larson was a Red Wings defenseman from 1976 to 1986, and he had goal totals like this: 19, 18, 22, 27, and 21. And, like Lidstrom, many of those markers were the result of him cocking that stick and blasting the puck through whatever, and whoever, was in its path -- including the goaltender.


Those were the chants from the rafters on down when Larson got the puck at the point. Often he'd pause, maybe for dramatic effect, then WHACK! -- the poor puck would be slammed toward the net. And 188 times it found its mark, followed by the crowd's roar of approval. They were giddy moments in an era that had few of them.

Larson was traded to Boston in March 1986, the Bruins looking for more scoring from their defensive corps for the stretch run. The Red Wings got the less remarkable but steady Mike O'Connell in return.

It kind of went downhill for Larson after leaving Detroit. He only scored 34 more goals before playing his final NHL game in the 1989-90 season.

But as a Red Wing, Reed Larson had a heavy shot, scored a lot of goals, and dished out his share of physical punishment. In Detroit he accumulated over 1,100 penalty minutes. He made some All-Star teams.

He didn't quite reach 200 goals as a Red Wing, as Lidstrom has. He won no Stanley Cups. But let it be known that his was the first slap shot that Detroit hockey fans got juiced up about. Today's Wing Nuts ought to be told.


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Tuesday's Feature: The Straightaway

(Every Tuesday, "Out of Bounds" will feature NASCAR commentaries from Siddy Hall, who's been following the sport for nearly 15 years)


by Siddy Hall


Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s proclamations during SpeedWeeks in Daytona promises to provide fans with a view of a power struggle which is rarely seen in sports. In this modern age of free agency, teams and fans often have to wrestle with the decisions of individual athletes and where they choose to offer their services. These decisions often leave fans feeling jubilant or helpless as players arrive or leave town at their own choosing.

As Earnhardt, Jr. completes the final year of his contract in 2007, it’s not just money that is being requested to maintain his services, but ownership. Perhaps even 100% ownership – of three teams. The three-car DEI Racing stable is currently owned by Teresa Earnhardt, the widow of Dale Sr, and stepmother to Dale, Jr. Talk about a complicated stepfamily.

The most successful NASCAR car owners tend to be ones who can build a race car. Jack Roush can build cars. So can Robert Yates and Rick Hendrick. Whenever some Big Money arrives to the sport and tries to compete they usually turn to these teams for help on their motors. But it’s still not enough to compete. People with money lose to people with money and car-building capabilities. The only exception to this has been Joe Gibbs.

Dale Earnhardt Sr. formed his racing organization just before his death. It was an unusual set-up from the beginning. While driving the 3-car for Richard Childress Racing, he chose to start a two-car team that he didn’t drive for. This was unprecedented. Dale was setting up for retirement. He would continue to drive for Richard Childress and make bushels of money while setting up for ownership when he hung up his steering wheel. Then of course, Earnhardt died at Daytona.

Then along comes Teresa Earnhardt, Racer Widow and now Race Car owner.

For many years, when her husband Dale was alive, TV viewers would frequently see her along pit row during pre-race telecasts walking with Earnhardt. She appeared to be the Queen Bee among the drivers’ wives and boyfriends, with Jeff Gordon’s ex-wife, Brooke, holding court as the Princess of this group. The funny thing was, in this trophy-wife, teased hair, silicon implant world of racer wifedom, you never heard any fan make a snide remark about Teresa. She had a gravity about her that commanded respect. In turn, she seemed to lend some off-track credibility to her husband. He was a simple man who seemed to have made a shrewd choice for a wife – one with beauty and brains.

All My Stepchildren: Dale Jr. (top) and Teresa's tenuous relationship provides NASCAR with another soap opera subplot

Still, Teresa Earnhardt cannot build a race car and she’s in charge of an outfit that has slowly been decaying. What’s worse, she publicly called out the most valuable asset in her company, Dale Jr. Her comments to the Wall Street Journal last December that questioned her stepson’s commitment to driving a race car over seeking celebrity were sheer stupidity. And Dale Jr. was stung badly, especially since he certainly must question Teresa’s own on-track commitment to the team.

Dale Jr. holds all the cards. He’s the most valuable driver in racing. He can race wherever he wants. After Dale Sr. passed away, Richard Childress pulled the 3-car off the track and he continues to retain the rights to that car number. He’s told Junior that the ride is there for him whenever he wants it. That’s an open invitation. If Dale Jr. were to accept Childress’s offer for 2008, it’s a decision that would send fans’ tongues wagging as they never have in the history of NASCAR.

So Dale Jr. has all the options. He can race for Childress. He can buy his stepmother out or somehow he can stay put with Teresa in charge. The latter seems the least likely to happen.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Red Wings-Avs: Yawwnnnn

Once upon a time they were games that you circled on your hockey calendar as soon as the new schedule was released. The term "meaningless regular season game", NHL-style, would be temporarily suspended during those pre-circled contests. The national TV folks were sure to show up, and the joint would be jumping -- whether the game was played in Detroit or Denver. That ancient term -- electricity in the air -- applied.

The Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche got it on again yesterday at Joe Louis Arena. The Avs prevailed, 4 to 3, in overtime. But if there was any electricity in the air, it might have been because someone rubbed their socked feet on a rug somewhere. Or dried their clothes without a fabric sheet.

Red Sox-Yankees. Giants-Dodgers. Michigan-Ohio State. These rivalries endure, no matter the era, no matter the players filling out the uniforms. Red Wings-Avalanche, once one of the more remarkable and nasty feuds, barely registers anymore. There just isn't much about it, any longer.

Theirs was a rivalry made by the people involved, not by the sweaters they wore.

How can there be much of anything anymore, when there is no longer Patrick Roy slapping away shots and smirking about it afterward? How can you get your juices going when there is no Claude Lemieux around to function as the player wearing the black helmet? And how exciting is it when many of the Avs' skill guys have fled or have been traded?

From 1996 to 2002, the Red Wings and Avalanche met five times in the playoffs. The Wings won two of those series, and in both years they beat the Avs, they also hoisted the Stanley Cup. The Avs did the same in '96. But since '02, not only have they not played any postseason games against one another, the principal characters have sort of disintegrated, into retirement or other NHL teams. And it's becoming evident that the great Red Wings-Avs rivalry was one based on people, not on any sort of terrific franchise histories.

The Avs didn't even come into being until 1995, when they moved from Quebec. That move, by the way, and ironically, killed one of the league's best feuds: the Montreal Canadiens/Quebec Nordiques battles. And as soon as Le Nordique became Les Avs, the relocated squad captured the Cup. And Lemieux busted up Kris Draper's face in the process, which was truly the birth of the rivalry.

"I can't believe I just shook hands with that (expletive)," Wings forward Dino Cicarelli famously sneered about Lemieux after the Avs dumped the Wings out in the Conference Finals in six angry games.

And a star was born: an instant feud that the NHL embraced warmly.

But think about the Avalanche right now. Can you even identify more than a handful of players from their roster? They aren't in the playoff hunt, at least not seriously. They're inconsequential -- never a helpful ingredient in a recipe for great rivalries. And the history is too short-- eleven seasons -- to overcome a dearth of talent or a few down years by one of the combatants.

All that, plus the Red Wings usually come out on top these days, yesterday's game notwithstanding. It just isn't all that much fun to beat the Avs anymore, frankly.

Once it used to be VERY fun.

Come on back, Patty. Stone us and speak sarcastically about us once more. Claude, do the turtle again.

Book closed, I think.

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.