Friday, August 31, 2007

Bubble Players Might Go Pop After Lions Blow It

So if the Lions' reserves and scrubs were to play the Bills' reserves and scrubs, the Bills' reserves and scrubs would win.

That's about all you could get out of the (mercifully) final exhibition game of 2007, a 16-13 loss to Buffalo after the Lions' first-but-mainly second stringers forged a 13-0, first half lead. It's what you can get out of any final preseason game, really. Whose reserves are better?

Clearly, it's not so much about winning or losing as it is about evaluation of the "bubble" players -- those lads who better have a football exit strategy at the ready.

"I was very direct with them," coach Rod Marinelli said of his bubble guys. "I told them that they didn't help their cause," he said, referring to the blowing of the 13-0 lead. "But we'll look at the film."

Ah yes, the film. Football coaches love film more than Leonard Maltin. And it's bound to show them, through their practiced viewing, who will stay and who will go. I'm not quite sure what the pre-requisites are to remain a Lion, but you can bet the coaches will know them when they see them. And if they don't ... well, there's always that afore-mentioned exit strategy.

Over 20 players' heads will be lopped off over the next couple of days. Receivers who wear numbers like 10 and 15, and linebackers who wear numbers like 43, and other similarly out-of-place dudes, will be on the NFL released list. The final cuts are the cruelest, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which that it's harder to find work with another club this late in the game. Everyone pretty much will have their roster set. The last thing teams want to do the week before the regular season begins is to scour the league for someone else's discards. So, in an ironic way, those cut last might have the honor of knowing they survived the longest, but may be in worse shape than those who were cut earlier in camp and have perhaps been able to latch on with someone else. It's crazy, the NFL.

In 1979, the team coming off a brisk second half finish in 1978 to earn a semi-respectable 7-9 record, the Lions watched in horror as starting QB Gary Danielson went down with a knee injury in the final preseason game. There was no real capable backup, except for the creaky veteran Joe Reed. Then Reed, too, went down, early in the season. All that was left was rookie Jeff Komlo, probably a bubble player himself. The Lions finished 2-14. The next year, Danielson healthy, the Lions went 9-7. No bubble QB that season.

The Lions lost last night and it hardly matters. That is, unless you're a bubble player trying to stay in the NFL by the skin of your false teeth. Then helping to blow a 13-0 lead to another team of bubble guys matters very much.

It's all on film, most likely.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Thursday's Things

(every Thursday at OOB I'll rant in list fashion. Last week it was "Things I Love About Football")

Things You Might Not Know About Detroit Sports

1. That Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel nearly became Tigers managers. In the 1930s, Ruth's career near the end, Tigers management threw the idea of The Bambino managing their team at the aging slugger. He was intrigued, but wanted to wait till he returned from an overseas trip to give his answer. Unwilling to wait, the Tigers hired Mickey Cochrane instead. Ruth would have had the job had he said "yes" right away. As for Stengel, the Tigers had all but hired him to take over the team in 1961, but a doctor's checkup advised against the notion. Stengel had even chosen his Tigers coaching staff, eager to become the pilot in Detroit. Deeply disappointed, the Tigers hired Bob Scheffing.

2. That there will never be another #85 on the Lions. It hasn't been officially retired, but no Lions player has worn #85 since 1971, when WR Chuck Hughes did so before dying on the field of a heart attack. Then again, they didn't officially retire #56 either, and somehow they let LB Pat Swilling talk them into letting him wear Joe Schmidt's old number, in 1993.

3. That the Red Wings played part of a game without a coach. In November 1973, the team flopping on the ice, the Red Wings fired coach Ted Garvin with a game scheduled for later that night. Their intention was to give the job to captain Alex Delvecchio, who was ready to retire as a player. But Delvecchio's retirement papers didn't get processed in time, so therefore he couldn't coach (league rules at the time prohibited active players from coaching) that night's game. Incredibly, management asked Garvin to coach, even though he'd already been canned. With about seven minutes to play, Garvin had had enough and walked off the bench and out of Olympia Stadium. This was the day before assistant coaches. So, injured winger Tim Ecclestone finished coaching the game!

4. That the Lions have only worn their white uniforms once at home. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1970, and NBC was set to broadcast the Lions-Raiders game. Back then, the Raiders' white jerseys featured silver numbers -- which were kind of hard to see on TV sometimes. So the network asked both teams to switch -- the Lions wearing white (with blue numbers) and the Raiders wearing their familiar black jerseys. The Lions won, 28-14 -- but never went back to wearing white at home, like so many teams do nowadays.

5. That Ernie Harwell was traded for a player. While broadcasting in the minor leagues, Harwell's team wanted a particular player. The other team, the Atlanta Crackers, didn't really like anyone on Harwell's team's roster. So after some wrangling, the Crackers agreed to accept Harwell as compensation, because they needed a radio announcer!

6. That the Pistons played a playoff game in a high school. In the early 1960s, before Cobo Arena was ready, the Pistons played home games at Olympia Stadium, sharing it with the Red Wings. But come playoff time, any conflicting dates would go to the Red Wings. One such instance occurred as the Pistons were playing the Los Angeles Lakers in a playoff series. Normally, they would have switched their home games to U-D's Calihan Hall. But that, too, was unavailable. So the Pistons played their two home, nationally-televised playoff games at Grosse Pointe High School. The Pistons won both of them, but lost all three in L.A. to drop the best-of-five series, 3-2.

7. That the Lions were the first NFL team to lose to an AFL team. It happened in the preseason, in 1967. The Lions traveled to Denver, and DT Alex Karras said he'd walk home if the Lions lost. The Lions lost. Karras flew home with the team, after all. No NFL team had lost to an AFL team prior to this. How unsurprising.

OK, all done. Talk amongst yourselves. And remember, they're just things.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

MSU's Revolving Door Must Stop With Dantonio

The words were strongly prophetic, but considering who was speaking them, they were also sopping wet with irony.

"We need to build stability here, instead of changing coaches every gosh darn three or four years."

The speaker was former MSU football coach John L. Smith. And he spoke them to me, over a telephone, for a preseason, published profile prior to the 2006 season.

Well, here it is 2007, and right on schedule, the Spartans have a new football coach -- as they do every gosh darn three or four years.

Stability, Smith's word, has been hard to come by in East Lansing ever since George Perles hung them up after the 1994 season. Nick Saban, awash in rumors he was NFL-bound, lasted from '95-'99, but they were five distracted years -- with annual speculation about his fleeing to the pros. Then, after all was said and done, he took his whistle and chalkboard to LSU. The NFL would have to wait. Bobby Williams was a disaster from 2000-02. Then Smith, despite a denial on national TV, was named coach in early 2003. His reign lasted four seasons, but they were pock-marked with player behavioral problems and, in bottom line fashion, more losses than made alumni and administration comfy.

So here comes Mark Dantonio, a former Spartans assistant and fresh off three relatively successful years at Cincinnati. And here's hoping he's given more than the token 3-5 years to turn things around.

If you look at the history of college athletics, success is rooted in there not being a revolving door in the coach's office. Unlike the pros, where "quick fixes" can be attained via free agency or trades or high draft picks, it takes time to build at the college level. There's recruiting and teaching and weeding out the problem children, and more recruiting, and momentum that needs to be gained and support that needs to be garnered. It just doesn't happen in two or three years.

Now, this isn't to say that MSU erred in releasing Smith, who at times acted the fool and was mocked more than he was respected by the media, often times. But if the powers that be, i.e. AD Ron Mason and his bosses, feel that they've learned from past transgressions and gotten it right with Dantonio -- and so far college football observers think that they have -- then give the man time. REAL time. Not four years. Not five years. Barring scandal or frequent court appearances by players, give Mark Dantonio a full six years before properly evaluating his performance.

In Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan has employed three head coaches since 1969. Three. The Spartans do that in a decade. Let's flip it around. In basketball, MSU has stability. Tom Izzo has been there for over ten years. Meanwhile, the Wolverines have struggled on the court, and coaches have come and gone frequently since Steve Fisher was fired in 1997. Which program do you suppose has been the one going to Final Fours and getting the best recruits?

Ahh, recruiting. Today's high school athletes aren't hayseeds. They know what's going on. And many of them have folks advising them who also know what's going on. And a recruit commits not to a school as much as a coaching staff. So when they see the silver whistle being passed to and fro, like a hot potato, it may be off-putting.

I have no idea if Mark Dantonio is the right guy for MSU, though there's evidence to suggest that he is. But I'm not paid to make that decision. The due diligence has been done, the interviews were carried out, and the hire was made. MSU has secured their next football coach. Now let him be.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

WNBA Drops Ball Come Playoff Time

In 1984, the Tigers cruised to the AL East Division crown. They started 9-0, then 16-1, then 26-4, then 35-5. Nobody ever caught them. They won 104 games. Still, when the curtain was raised on the '84 postseason, the Tigers found themselves in Kansas City, playing on the artificial rug of Royals Stadium -- even though they won a full 20 games more than the Royals during the regular season. No matter. The Tigers, thanks to baseball's silly method of awarding home field advantage to divisions in opposite years, had the misfortune of winning their division in an even-numbered year. The year for the West winner to host the first two games of the best-of-five series.

It rankled a few, as it should have. Could the Tigers, despite their April-to-September brilliance, be bumped out of the playoffs by an inferior Royals team, thanks in part to starting a short series on the road, unfairly so?

Thankfully, it didn't come to that. The Tigers dutifully swept the Royals into their living rooms, to watch the World Series on television.

The WNBA is once again showing why they are a wannabe major league operating under bush league conditions.

The Detroit Shock, like the '84 Tigers, made mincemeat of their division. They had sewn up the title with four regular season games remaining -- out of 34. The first round of the league playoffs is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it best-of-three affair. That's kind of weird to me, right there. But it gets weirder. For whatever reason, the series is set up so that the team with home court advantage -- at least it's determined by merit -- begins on the road. So the Shock, with their glittering 24-10 record, had to begin their league title defense in New York, in hostile Madison Square Garden, against a mediocre Liberty team.

Sure enough, the Shock were tripped in Game 1. Suddenly they faced elimination, just like that, as they prepared to play Game 2 at The Palace.

The Shock slipped by the Liberty, 76-73, in Game 2. Their title defense survives for another game. Game 3, the rubber game, is set for tonight in Auburn Hills.

Now, it's not a gimme that the Shock would have won Game 1 had it simply been played at home. The Shock, after clinching the division so early, went into that "we don't care about wins, just health" mode, and promptly lost their last four matches. Frankly, I've never been comfortable with that approach heading into the playoffs, no matter the sport. Good, crisp play doesn't come out of a spigot; you can't just turn it on whenever you want.

So the late season half-effort is playing more than a small part, I think, in the Shock's difficulties with the much weaker Liberty. But starting Game 1 on the road in a best-of-three, when you have home court advantage, is unacceptable.

The WNBA is once again showing why they are a wannabe major league operating under bush league conditions.

Why does the WNBA do it this way? To save on travel costs? In a three-game series, the home-away-home system means more traveling than the away-home-home method, granted. But is the league that cash-strapped? How much does it cost to jet the teams from Detroit to New York and back again?

Travel cost is already being saved by limiting the first round to a three-game maximum, although I always thought longer series meant more gate and concession money, but what do I know?

But I can abide the 2-of-3 mini-series if the superior team gets to start it at home, where it should. Yet nobody seems to squawk about it, so there you have it.

Still, it's time for the WNBA to step up and act like a major league, instead of putting on minor league-style playoffs.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Time For Tiger Stadium To Go Is Now

If it was up to the boy mayor and his Cass Tech lieutenants, they’d probably steal away in the dead of night and plant the implosives themselves, and depress the plunger before anyone could stop them. Down it would all come, and the matter of what to do with Tiger Stadium would be over with, once and for all.

I really don’t blame them.

There was the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan. The first field of Willie Mays. The spot of the Shot Heard ‘Round The World. The teams used to enter the field from a steep set of stairs in dead center field. It was by those stairs that Mays robbed Vic Wertz of an extra-base hit in the 1954 World Series. Only maybe the most famous defensive gem in postseason history.

The Giants moved away from New York after the ’57 season. Off to San Francisco they went, leaving the Polo Grounds vacant. The impatient New Yorkers wasted little time in turning the field of Ott, Hubbell, Mays, and Thomson into a brand new set of apartment housing.

The Polo Grounds, Manhattan

There was Ebbets Field, across the river in Brooklyn. Branch Rickey’s Dodgers called it home. Da Bums. Announcer Red Barber used to say that when the Dodgers lost, there were a lot of suppers that went cold and uneaten that evening. Ebbets Field, where Jackie Robinson broke the ancient color barrier. Where Roy Campanella blocked the plate. Where Gil Hodges hit home runs. And where the Dodgers played many a World Series themselves, usually losing to the Damn Yankees.

But when the Dodgers joined the Giants in the venture out west, to Los Angeles, in time for the 1958 season, Ebbets Field’s fate was sealed. It, too, was being battered by the medicine ball before long – thumped until its concrete crumbled and the structure came crashing down onto the weeds it housed.

Ebbets Field, Brooklyn

There was Sportsman’s Park, in St. Louis. Stan “The Man” Musial played there. Did you know that of Musial’s 3,630 hits, exactly half were made on the road, and half at home? Half at Sportsman’s. But when the Cardinals moved into Busch Stadium in the 1960s, the city figured it had no more use for a vacant ballpark. Down Sportsman’s Park went. Out with the old, in with the new.

Comiskey Park, in Chicago. The White Sox started playing there in the early 20th century. Down by the stockyards, on the city’s South Side. It’s where the fans almost took the place down themselves, in 1979, during an ill-conceived “Disco Demolition” promotion. They blew up disco records in center field, between games of a twi-night doubleheader with the Tigers. Soon the field was covered with drunken, non-baseball, but disco-hating fans. The turf was torn to shreds as the explosives rang out. The White Sox forfeited Game 2 to Detroit.

"The night they drive old Comiskey downnn...." (almost)

Anyhow, they built a new Comiskey Park, adjacent to the old one, and opened it in 1991. The Tigers, ironically, were the first opponents in the new Comiskey Park. They destroyed the White Sox, much like the disco-hating fans destroyed the old Comiskey turf, by the score of 16-0. The Tigers did it all, except for cracking a champagne bottle against the new building. As for Old Comiskey? Leveled – a parking lot for new Comiskey, which is now U.S. Cellular Field or some such thing. Didn’t take long – didn’t take long at all, for the aldermen and other politicos in Chicago to declare Old Comiskey D.O.A. Not much wrangling or swapping of pie-in-the-sky plans for its preservation. They needed parking. So there you have it.

Atlanta used to have Fulton-County Stadium. It was a banner year for Atlantans in 1966. That’s when the Braves moved there from Milwaukee, and the NFL’s Falcons first spread their wings. They called FCS the Launching Pad, for all the home runs that took off there. It was where Henry Aaron surpassed Babe Ruth, in April 1974. Neon Deion Sanders ran back punts and interceptions with brilliance there, channeling another similarly talented DB – a guy named Lem Barney.

But then the city had Turner Field built, named after Braves owner Ted Turner. Before long it was evident that Atlanta had no need for FCS. BOOM! Implosives took it down. No controversy. No real debates to speak of. No more need, so down it came.

Other cities seem to know what to do with their old stadiums. In fact, there isn’t a municipality that comes to mind that has left one of their relics to sit and decay for the eight years that Tiger Stadium has, having been of no more use to the Tigers.

I have the same memories and fondness for what Tiger Stadium used to be, just like the next person. I know that it will never truly be replaced as a baseball-watching venue, nor will the area surrounding the park be matched in romance by Montcalm, and Woodward, and Brush Street – the roads paved around Comerica Park. I know all this. And I know that it IS an official Michigan Historical Landmark.

But enough. Enough of the multitude of plans for its restoration, and renovation, and preservation – and any other “ation” you can come up with. Enough with the talk. Enough with trotting out Ernie Harwell and the visions of boxing matches and museums and amateur baseball and Lord knows what else. Please.

Let it go. Implode Tiger Stadium, forthwith, and let them use the land wisely, we hope. I’ll bet Corktown could use some new shops, or a bank or two, or maybe a grocery store, for goodness sakes. Keep the Historical Marker and maybe even a portion of a wall or maybe erect a statue or two. That’s fine. But please, PLEASE, knock the stadium down and remove the source of all the uncertainty and the visual eyesore that is a daily reminder of what used to be and what will never be again.


Friday, August 24, 2007

VBK Spiced Up A Dreary Pistons History

He was the most colorful of all the Pistons coaches -- including Dickie Vitale, because he lasted longer than Dickie and actually had some success. Plus, he quit. Dickie was last seen being dragged, kicking and screaming, from the Silverdome court during a game. A couple days later, Vitale was given the ziggy.

Bill (Butch) van Breda Kolff is gone. Dead at age 84. He was the Pistons coach from 1969-71, and boy, did he pack a lot of punch in his relatively short time here. But Butch spent a relatively short time everywhere he went. And he left stories in his wake.

There are a few I can recall, thanks to what I remember and what I've read. Butch met his future wife in the army brig; that's pretty colorful. They were both in there for different transgressions, and sometime before they were released, the seeds of love had been planted. He loved beer and steambaths. Whenever he arrived at a new NBA town, he went in search for the nearest steambath house, when other folks were looking for the nearest pool hall or bar.

van Breda Kolff (right) as Princeton coach in the 1960s

VBK (that's what they called him, probably thanks to weary headline writers) coached the Lakers in 1967-68 and '68-69. Both years the Lakers went to the Finals. Both years they lost to the Celtics. In '69, in Game 7, VBK famously left Wilt Chamberlain on the bench for some crucial fourth quarter minutes. Wilt couldn't believe it. The press couldn't believe it. But VBK had an attitude and a look that said, "BELIEVE it." He was fired after that. VBK had a great line about Wilt and his lack of mobility. "If the basketball court was made of grass, Wilt would wear out a one-foot square patch," Butch said.

So while the Pistons were in search (again) for a new coach in the summer of 1969, there was a well-known face at their draft table that June.

VBK was being courted, apparently, by Detroit. Although he failed to confirm that, even as he sat with Pistons executives on that draft day in 1969. But the Pistons did, indeed, hire VBK. And after the team drafted Bob Lanier in 1970, things took off -- for a little while, anyway.

The '70-71 Pistons streaked out of the gate at 9-0. It's still the best start in franchise history. You can look it up. They finished, though, at 45-37 -- stumbling toward the end and failing to make the playoffs. But it was the first time, since the team moved to Detroit in 1957, that any Pistons club had managed to win more games than it lost. It's also the first season I remember following pro sports, and I have vivid memories of a TV news piece about VBK. The camera isolated on him on the sidelines. He was like an aerobics instructor. He was up. He was down. He lied down on the floor, on his stomach, looking for God knows what. He yelled at the refs. He yelled at his players. He yelled at the refs some more. He kicked a basketball into the crowd in anger. And this was one game.

The summer after that season, the Pistons gave VBK a shiny new contract. He wasn't impressed.

"Hell, you can always quit if you want to. Or they can fire you," VBK said of the written word.

In November '71, his team 6-4, VBK quit, because he wanted to. He felt like the players were tuning him out. Just like that, his career in Detroit was over with.

He became a basketball vagabond after that, coaching in Phoenix for a little while, then New Orleans. Then some women's team. A college. A high school. VBK did it all. Have whistle and chalkboard, will travel.

Once, while coaching in the ABA (he did that, too), VBK kicked another basketball. This time his shoe flew off with the kick. He was ejected and fined. He protested. The reason? The shoe, VBK pointed out, had traveled further than the basketball.

That was Butch for you.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Thursday's Things

(every Thursday at "OOB" I'll rant in list fashion. Last week it was "Things I Can Do Without")

Things I Love About Football

1. Second and one. There's nothing better than when your team gets nine yards on first down. The playbook opens wide, like a bank vault. It's almost like a free play -- as long as you don't do anything silly, like throw an interception. But the Lions never do silly things, do they?

2. Measuring for a first down. I remember ex-Bucs coach John McKay, talking to NFL Films, and he was amazed at how the officials were able to toss the ball around after a play, and somehow manage to place it where it was when the ball carrier touched the ground. He said it with his classic sarcastic edge, i.e. Do they REALLY know where to put the ball? Anyhow, I must admit that there is some nifty little drama when the chain comes onto the field and it gets extended, and the camera is showing the ball and the end of the chain in extreme closeup, and you're wondering if the football's nose will poke past the first down marker... Man, I'm getting chills already.

3. Blocked kicks. I just love it when kickers or punters have their perfect little world tossed upside down, and they have to do something like chase a blocked kick or, better yet, throw a panicked pass or make a run for it. Of course, NOTHING will usurp Miami's Garo Yepremian and his ridiculous pass attempt in Super Bowl VII, which was plucked out of the air by Washington's Mike Bass (U-M), who ran it about 50 yards for a TD. Good stuff.

4. LaDainian Tomlinson. Hard to spell, and kinda tough to pronounce -- especially after a few cold ones -- but this guy is what pro sports should be about. He's talented, has a great personality, is all about team, and is the kind of guy you'd want your daughter to marry. And not just for the money -- though that doesn't hurt. But seriously, the "new" LT is a dynamite guy -- on and off the field.

The "new" LT is squeakier clean than his predecessor, the Giants' Taylor (shown in a mug shot)

5. Goal-line stands. I like when a running back takes a handoff, leaps over his linemen, and is met by a wall of defenders, who slam him backward. Nuh-uh. Not this time, baby.

6. Incomplete passes. Huh? More accurately, I like it when a DB breaks up a pass and there ISN'T a penalty flag thrown. Every receiver makes that abhorrent move with his right hand, like he wants a flag thrown, after every single freaking incomplete pass. Not EVERYTHING is pass interference -- and even pass interference isn't pass interference, half the time.

That's all for this week. Talk amongst yourselves. And remember, they're just things.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

50 Years Ago, Parker Quit And Lions Were Winners

There have been 49 NFL champions since the Lions last captured the honor -- 41 Super Bowl winners and eight victors when it was still called, simply, the NFL Championship Game. And not once in those 49 years has the coach of those championship teams been someone thrust into the driver's seat at the last minute.

Leave it to the Lions to be unconventional, even in one of their greatest hours.

Fifty years ago this month, Lions coach Buddy Parker, who had led the team to their 1952 and '53 world titles, stepped up to the podium at a preseason banquet. He gazed out over the crowd of well-wishers and hangers-on who were expecting some canned words of optimism about the upcoming season. After delivering some obligatory, innocuous comments, Parker then stunned everyone.

"I can't coach these guys anymore," Parker said in so many words. Then, after some more exasperated words about losing control over his players, Buddy Parker quit the Lions -- right then, right there, on the banquet rostrum.

Parker walked off the stage and into the night, leaving dropped jaws and reporters scurrying to telephones.

Parker's assistant, George Wilson, took over the team. The regular season was about a month away.

In 1956, the Lions finished 9-3, just a half-game behind the 9-2-1 Chicago Bears. So this wasn't a bunch of shmucks that Wilson was taking over. But to have a head coach bail on a team that close to the regular season didn't appear to be a good thing. After all, Parker was the coach for those other championship Lions teams earlier in the decade.

After the regular season had been played, the Lions and San Francisco 49ers were tied at the top of the Western Division with 8-4 records. A playoff would have to be held to determine who would play the Cleveland Browns for the whole enchilada.

Lions QB Bobby Layne (left), head coach Buddy Parker (center) and assistant George Wilson (right) watch the action at Briggs Stadium, sometime before Parker's stunning resignation in August '57

The Lions traveled to the Bay and were getting their butts kicked in the first half. At halftime, some Lions players recalled, the paper thin walls at old Kezar Stadium enabled the whooping 49ers to be heard as they prematurely celebrated their divisional title. Supposedly, some 49ers were heard bragging about how they were going to spend their championship money.

In the second half, the Lions mounted a stunning comeback, beating the 49ers 31-27. Then, in the championship game, they destroyed the Browns, 59-14 -- and with their backup QB, Tobin Rote, subbing for the injured Bobby Layne. And also with their thrust-into-the-spotlight coach, George Wilson.

As for Parker, he landed with the Pittsburgh Steelers the next season. And, ironically, he was reunited with Layne, who was mysteriously traded to Pittsburgh after just two games of the 1958 campaign.

But Buddy Parker didn't come close to big-time success with the Steelers, who back then were usually among the league's bottom feeders. By the early-1960s he was out of football, never to return.

Wilson coached the Lions -- some very good Lions teams -- thru the 1964 season, after which the team's new owner told him to fire some assistants in order to keep his job. Wilson told the new owner to take his job and shove it. The new owner was an automobile heir, named William Clay Ford.

I'm not holding my breath that current Lions coach Rod Marinelli will pull a Buddy Parker and quit before August is out. Nor would I want him to. Something tells me that Ford may have finally gotten it right with Mr. Marinelli. Plus, there aren't any banquets scheduled anytime soon, anyway.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Sudden Death, But Longlasting Smiles, Too

Every once in awhile, if you're lucky in life, you meet a guy like Jay Strassner.

Chances are, 99% of you don't know who Jay was. But it doesn't matter, for each of you, as I said, has met someone like him in your life.

Jay Strassner was 62 when he collapsed and died suddenly last Monday from a presumed heart attack. He was still working as a part-time cable TV sports announcer Downriver (south of Detroit for you non-Detroiters), which is how I met him, back in the early-1990s.

I worked in cable as a producer/director from 1986-1998, and Jay was our Ken Rosenthal for high school sports broadcasts. Our Jack Arute. Our Craig Sager. Sometimes he worked in the booth, but mostly he was on the field or on the court, gathering info on injuries or simply giving us his perspective. Bob Zahari, our play-by-play guy, would get the cue from me that Jay was ready with a report.

"Now let's go down to Jay Strassner," Bob would say, and Jay would do his thing.

But it wasn't what he did that made Jay special. It's who he was. He worked a full-time job, so that meant he rushed to wherever we were broadcasting that evening, always with a smile and a happy attitude. And always with professionalism, even though we were paying him peanuts -- if we were paying him at all. He was a big, teddy bear of a man who had a round face and a simple outlook on life. And he simply loved helping us cover high school sports. In fact, his last gig, I'm told, was a Junior League World Series game in Taylor.

I remember Jay losing his brother, circa 1992 or 1993, I believe. I wondered if that would affect somehow his being available to us. It didn't. We all offered our sympathies, of course, but Jay seemed much more interested in doing the game he showed up to do.

I lost touch with Jay after I left the company, but I was no less shocked and saddened by the news of his passing last week.

They're having a memorial service this evening in Riverview (another Downriver suburb). I imagine it will be filled mostly with smiles and laughter, as opposed to long faces and sadness. It better be -- Jay would insist on it.

Bob should now say, "Let's go UP to Jay Strassner."

Sunday, August 19, 2007

It Was Wild When Playoffs Meant Finishing First

The heat of one of the National League’s best pennant races drove Juan Marichal batty – literally. The year before, his baseball team gagging uncontrollably, manager Gene Mauch succumbed to a pennant fever that threatened to send mercury bursting thru the top of the thermometer. A couple years after Marichal’s explosion, Detroit’s Dick McAuliffe broke Tigers fans hearts by grounding into a season-ending double play – the first time he’d done such a thing all year. Five years later, McAuliffe and his teammates whooped and hollered as they plopped manager Billy Martin into an ice-filled whirlpool, enjoying their vengeance over the Red Sox. In 1978, the Yankees demolished the Red Sox in Fenway Park in a four-game sweep called, aptly, The Boston Massacre.

The Tigers and Indians are duking it out in another one of those inaccurately described “pennant races.” It’s a divisional race, to be exact. The pennant can only be raised if you are the only team left standing when the two-tiered playoffs are done. And, with the Wild Card in the mix, even divisional races are diluted. Lose the AL Central, Bunkie? That’s OK; you can still qualify. Just beat out some other team in some other division. Wild stuff.

Regardless, the ballclubs from Detroit and Cleveland, a puddle-jumping flight over Lake Erie away from each other, are playing rock-paper-scissors with a division that, at times, nobody appears to want to win. It used to be that great “pennant races” were between two teams that responded from the other’s blows with one haymaker of their own. Now, it hardly matters if the victorious team has but 84 wins, or 88, or some other unworthy number. As long as it’s close, we proclaim it marvelous baseball theater.

But this isn’t a blow-by-blow race right now, between the Tigers and Indians. Lately, the Tigers lose and stagger – then the Indians respond with some bad baseball of their own. They’re trading blows alright – but both teams are mostly on the receiving end from a third party. The Indians lose, and Tigers fans are relieved, for the Tigers probably lost, too, and thus lost no ground. A two-game set in Cleveland this past week ended, predictably, in a 1-1 draw. Tied going in, tied going out. Nobody is seizing control.

The Tigers went into Yankee Stadium, which, if you listen to the media, might as well add “The Hostile Environment of” in front of its name on the building. Tigers announcers Mario Impemba and Rod Allen, who are actually OK in my book, used that term innumerable times in the first two games of the four-game series. The heralded rookie outfielder Cameron Maybin was summoned all the way from Double A ball just in time to make his MLB debut on Friday night.
“To come here, for your first big league game, and play in this hostile environment … ,” Allen said of Maybin. I don’t remember the rest of the sentence.

The Tigers grand-slammed their way to victory Thursday night. The Indians were idle. The Tigers moved a sliver ahead, by one-half game. Friday night, the Tigers lost. The Indians, no longer idle, beat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays – as well they should. The Indians now hold that sliver of a lead. Only in divisional races in sports can we identify something as being worth one-half game. You gotta love math. Which half, though?

It’s likely to be this close the rest of the way; Indians winning a couple, then losing a couple. Tigers doing the same. Countless nights when both teams lose. Back and forth it will go, and at times we will wonder what is so awful about winning the AL Central that causes the Tigers and Indians to treat it so disrespectfully.

Ah, then there’s the Wild Card. This Tigers series in the Bronx is being bantied about as being big because the Yankees – making another of their classic second half charges – are now leading the second and third place teams in the league for the consolation Wild Card playoff spot. The Tigers, last season, let a sure-thing division crown slip through their fingers, settling for being Kings of the Second Place Finishers – a.k.a. the Wild Card. Of course, they played that card all the way to the World Series. Some, like Pudge Rodriguez’s 2003 Florida Marlins, have played that Wild Card all the way to a world championship. Still doesn’t make it right, though.

There was no Second Place Crown in 1965, which might have gotten to Giants pitcher Marichal, he of our lead sentence. Angered by a ball thrown back to the pitcher by Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro – a ball that Marichal, the batter, thought nicked his ear – Marichal took his bat and slammed it down onto Roseboro’s skull. Several times. Battered and with blood running down his chest protector, a dazed Roseboro was aided by, of all people, Giants outfielder Willie Mays, who pulled the Dodgers catcher out of harm’s way. The ’65 Dodgers-Giants race was another in a series of classic season-long duels between the two bitter rivals. But Marichal’s violent act was certainly the most (in)famous incident of all those sprints to the finish line.

Marichal (far left) lets the pennant race heat get to him

Mauch, managing the Phillies in 1964, panicked when his team started to fritter away a six-game lead with 12 to play. He over-relied on his two ace starters, Jim Bunning and Chris Short, sometimes pitching them on two days rest. The Phillies lost 10 in a row, and by the time they won again, they had been eliminated from contention. The Phillies, as a franchise, reached the 10,000 loss mark this summer. They’re the first pro sports franchise to lose that many games. But 9,990 of those losses, combined, weren’t as painful as the ten suffered, in a row, late in the ’64 season.

In ’67, the Tigers, Red Sox, Twins, and White Sox engaged in a wild four-team race for much of the summer. It came down to the final weekend. The Tigers were forced to play doubleheaders on both Saturday and Sunday, due to earlier rainouts. If they could somehow win all four games, they’d be pennant winners, outright. Three-of-four would force a playoff between themselves and the Red Sox. But the Tigers could only manage to beat the visiting California Angels twice, surrendering the pennant to the Red Sox. McAuliffe, who hadn’t hit into a double play all season, accounted for the final two outs by grounding into one.

Five years later, the Tigers got back at the Red Sox, taking two of three from them at Tiger Stadium in the final weekend to win the AL East in the strike-shortened ’72 campaign. That’s when they dunked Martin in the icy whirlpool.

These were, like so many others not mentioned here, terrific races, in their own way. But each had one thing in common: you had to finish in first place to play on in October. How much of their luster would have been cut had finishing in second place also meant a trip to the postseason? They’d be not so wild, I would think.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

New Feature: Thursday's Things

Gonna start doing something new here at OOB. Thursdays are the victims.

I'm calling it "Thursday's Things." Here's how it works: every Thursday I'll meander (even more so than usual), in sort of list fashion. Every week I'll discuss selected "things." Today's inaugural edition is "Things I Can Do Without." These may rotate, so several weeks from now there may be more Things I Can Do Without. Next week might be Things That I Love About Football, etc.

Ready? Here we go...

Things I Can Do Without

1. Captain's "C" on sports jerseys other than hockey. I don't know why, but I completely accept the "C" and "A" on hockey jerseys, but when I see them pop up in other sports, it just looks ... stupid. Jason Varitek wears a "C" for the Red Sox, Mike Sweeney wears it for Kansas City, and I've seen some NBA players donning them. I'm sorry, but reserve the "C" for hockey -- the first team sport to use them. When you talk hockey, it MATTERS to wonder, "Who's going to wear the 'C'?" In baseball or basketball? Sorry -- just doesn't cut it.

2. Bill Walton. OK, so Bill Walton isn't a "thing" (actually, maybe that's debatable). But Walton is like Michigan's weather; if you don't like what he says, wait five minutes -- he'll change. One trip up the court, the Pistons are the greatest team in the league. Three minutes later, after a couple of turnovers, they're a team in disarray. At halftime, the Spurs' defense is the most questionable entity in basketball. Midway thru the third quarter, they're impenetrable. Walton is bipolar in his analysis. Everything is either great or awful -- no in between.

3. References to God's sports roster when someone passes away. My goodness, I'm sick of this hackneyed phrase in memorium to someone: "God must have needed a (fill in the blank)." Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (or maybe his spokesman, considering The Boss's declining health) was guilty of it after Phil Rizzuto died. "God must have needed a shortstop," Steinbrenner's statement said. Ugh. I've heard that so many times. Considering all the athletes who've died in world history, I think God's roster is full. You never hear regular people say, "Well, God must have needed an insurance salesman," or "God must have needed an interior decorator." Why does God only need athletes? I'd like to hear this, after someone unpopular dies: "Well, God must have needed an ---hole."

4. "We Will Rock You". That song was released by Queen about 30 years ago. And still we're bombarded with it at sports venues. That, and Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll (Part II)" have got to go. And, at risk of defending the hometown Pistons fans, I'm sort of tired of that "Final Countdown" theme that was the song of the Bad Boys, circa 1989-90 -- but is still played today at The Palace. But I'll be satisfied, for now, with the banishment of "We Will Rock You."

5. Rod Allen's "third base leads" lesson. This is about the only thing I dislike about Allen, the Tigers' FSN analyst who's one of the best in the business, as far as I'm concerned. But he seems infatuated with telling us that a runner at third base should always take his lead in foul territory, lest he be hit with a batted ball and be called out. Rod, I have NEVER, EVER seen a big league ballplayer take a lead from third base in fair territory. I don't know if I've ever seen it happen in a Little League contest. He said it again the other night in Cleveland. ENOUGH!

6. Soccer enthusiasts. Look, your game is terrific -- for those who like it. I appreciate the stamina and physical skills needed to play it. But why are some folks so insistent that it be accepted in the United States? Why can't they just accept it for what it is: a niche sport that's played by children because it tires them out for the parents' peace at home? Those who warm to it pursue it beyond high school -- like any other sport. But it just seems to be rammed down our throats in the States and I'm not sure why. And it's not the lack of scoring that I have a problem with. It's the lack of scoring chances. I can stomach 1-0, 2-1 games if there are a lot of near misses. The enormity of a soccer goal is almost mocking the attackers. "I'm 90 feet wide by 70 feet tall and the score will STILL be 1-0 -- if you're lucky."

Those are my "things" for this Thursday. Feel free to kick the stuffing out of me now, if you wish. Or agree with me. Either way. They're just things.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Who Is Kia Vaughn And What Reputation Is She Referring To?

Don Imus is a jerk. He's ugly -- both physically and in his heart. I laugh at those who would give him another chance in radio, using the logic that "everyone screws up once and is entitled to a second chance." For Imus, fired by CBS Radio after his brutal verbal attack on the Rutgers University womens basketball team, has been engaging in bully antics for decades. He just happened to go one step too far with the Rutgers ladies. So the idea that he deserves a second chance is laughable. This isn't exactly Bill Cosby who acted out, you know.

But I have a problem today. Not with Imus anymore, but with one of the players on the Rutgers team.

Kia Vaughn, a center for Rutgers, has filed suit against Imus and CBS, claiming that Imus's comments about the team (he called them, among other things, "nappy-headed 'hoes") damaged her reputation. No dollar amount was listed in the suit.

OK. Not to be mean or cold here, but ... WHAT reputation? Have you ever heard of Kia Vaughn? Did Imus defame her personally? Did he single her out in his rant?

Imus's comments were ridiculous and terribly mean-spirited. No question about that. But I gotta tell you -- the Rutgers team ate that stuff up. Instead of taking the high road and saying, in effect, "We don't care what you say about us; WE know how terrific we are. So Don Imus can go to hell," they seemed to bask in the victim's spotlight.

So here comes Kia Vaughn with her lawsuit and again I have to ask: what reputation is she referring to? If it's with her friends and family, then surely she can't mean that those people would question how wonderful a person she probably is. Is being lumped into a group that's been called "nappy-headed 'hoes" harming her chances of finding a job? Of pursuing her Master's degree? Of finding a spouse? Of having children? Of getting a piece of the American Dream?

To me, it would only seem to harm those chances if Vaughn herself allowed it to.

Kia Vaughn knows she's not a nappy-headed hoe. Her friends know that. So do her teammates. And her coaches. And her school's administrators. And it certainly won't come up during a job interview. Until today, I literally had never heard of her. But as you can see, I'm already giving her the benefit of the doubt as to the level of her character. I'm assuming she's a neat kid.

But all this lawsuit against Imus and CBS is doing is simply perpetuating something that should be put away. Imus said his thing, he was properly lambasted for it, he lost his job, and now we move on. Kia Vaughn should do the same. The sooner she sheds the victim cloak, the sooner she can get on with her life and continue to prove Don Imus wrong -- not that she needs to.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Jones's Chip Exactly What Lions Have Been Lacking

When the Tigers were stumbling through the American League thru most of the 1990s and into the 21st century, one spring training staple was this: that everyone got along magnificently, and the players couldn't stop talking about how the clubhouse was full of great guys, yadda, yadda, yadda. Then they, the nice guys that they were, would go out and finish last -- or somewhere near it.

The Lions have been guilty of misplaced nirvana, too.

Many a July and August have come and gone with players and coaches talking about the peace and harmony in the land of the Honolulu and Blue. Bill Ford Jr., one year, even spent some time with the 49ers, hoping to impart some of their winning ways onto the Lions. Too bad he couldn't, in the end, impart the 49ers' players, or coaches.

So while it was nice, to me, to hear QB Jon Kitna and WR Roy Williams wax enthusiastic about 10 wins and 40 points per game, it's even nicer to see some piss and vinegar come out of Allen Park, courtesy RB Kevin Jones.

Jones, the injured running back trying to work his way back into the lineup after a very serious foot injury, appears to be a little cranky that the Lions went out and got some insurance at the position, in the form of Tatum Bell and T.J. Duckett.

"If I wasn't injured, he (Bell) wouldn't even be here," Jones said recently. "I'll be the starter when I come back."

It was written that the relationship between Jones and Bell was "cordial." Fiddlesticks. I hope it isn't true. Or, I hope that "cordial" is another way of saying "stand-offish."

Sometimes tension between players of the same position is a bad thing. Just ask the Red Wings of 2003-04, who had to tiptoe around the locker room during the infamous Dominik Hasek-Curtis Joseph cold war.

But in this case, I think it's good that Kevin Jones seems to have a chip on his shoulder about the infiltration of Tatum Bell in his training camp.

Throughout camp, Jones's words have had one stubborn theme: I'm the starter and that's that. And nobody you bring in here is gonna change that. None of this, "Oh, Tatum and I get along great; each of us pulls for the other. Whether it's him or me as the starter, it's cool as long as we're winning."

Those are the courteous, paper thin words of quarterbacks. And rarely are those QBs playing for a winning team when they say them.

Kevin Jones is sneering at the Lions' acquisition of Tatum Bell. It's nice to see, since all we've gotten lately have been meows when what we really need to see is some roaring.

Monday, August 13, 2007

These Yankees Are OK In My Book

These are the Sterling Heights Yankees.

And that handsome young man in the front row, second from left, is "Out of Bounds" fan and all-around great kid, Ryan Wietchy.

Back in May, if you recall, I had lunch with some terrific sixth-graders at Penna's in Sterling Heights as part of a magazine assignment. The idea was to expose these youngsters to career choices. One of the kids I met was Ryan, who wanted to be an accountant. He ended up visiting "OOB" and becoming a fan.

Yesterday I received an e-mail from Ryan. Here's a portion:

"Each year, my baseball team, called the Sterling Heights Yankees, attends the Tigers game as the "Pepsi Team of the Day." This year we went on August 3rd, against the White Sox. During the pre-game ceremonies, we had our picture taken. Early in the game, my team was featured on the scoreboard along with a live clip of us. We sat in Kaline's Corner, located right around the right field foul pole. Even though the Tigers lost against the White Sox it was still an enjoyable evening. Since you cover the Tigers and are a fan of them, just like I am, I figured I'd send you our team photo. I have attached the photo onto this e-mail."

As MasterCard would say, priceless.

So I'm posting this photo of Ryan and his Yankees. And I must thank him for curing the little writer's block I had today. This post is better than anything I could have come up with.

By the way, Ryan says that if accounting doesn't work out, and since he loves sports and likes to write, that he might give sportswriting a whirl.

That is, if the baseball playing falls through. Believe me, Ryan -- it's a lot more profitable being written about than doing the writing!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

David’s Death One More Broken Link To Lions' Gloried Past

I never saw Jimmy David play in person, but thanks to the dusty reels of NFL Films, I have just as much recollection of his day in football as I do of the dudes who play it today.

David, the old Lions defensive back who passed away recently at age 79, was nicknamed “The Hatchet.” He’s another link to the Lions’ championship days to leave us. Fewer and fewer are the still-alive members, which is only to be expected when your last ring was captured 50 years ago.

I was thinking about David, and others of his time, as I watched today’s version of NFL football – specifically the attempts by the secondary men to cover gigantic wide receivers – in the form of the Lions-Bengals pre-season game Thursday night.

The men who catch NFL passes these days are growing exponentially. The Lions’ heralded rookie, Calvin Johnson, stands 6-5 or 6-6, depending on who you believe. Any pass catcher shorter than 6-2 is considered a shrimp. Yet the poor defensive backs haven’t grown as rapidly. In fact, they’ve hardly grown at all. The league is filled with 5-9, 5-10 guys trying to deny the ball from skyscrapers with legs.

Oh – and they have to defend these behemoths with a rule book that is ridiculously slanted against them. I’m not sure, but I think garlic consumption by today’s DBs is disallowed, for if you breathe that on your man, a yellow flag will be thrown.

If you ever choose to look, you’ll see that interception rates of the quarterbacks in the 1950s and 1960s are considerably higher than those in the 21st century. Why? Two reasons: the receivers weren’t bean stalks, and the men covering them could actually, you know, COVER them.

Hence the earlier reference to NFL Films.

It’s wonderful to look at the black-and-white footage and see DBs giving a forearm shiv here and there. Or watching an unsuspecting ball carrier getting roped to the ground because of the beatific clothesline tackle – the tried-and-true method of ending a play by engulfing the ball carrier’s neck in the crook of your elbow and following through until said carrier is pounded into the brown, muddy grass. In fact, you’ll hardly see a tackle made by those secondary men that was below the shoulder blades.

There was a maniacal defender named Hardy Brown, who played for the San Francisco 49ers. Hardy learned to play football with his brothers in an orphanage. True. Once, his orphanage played another group of tough kids from across town. Halfway through the game one of them started to complain.

“All of us have busted lips!,” the bigger kid said to the smaller Hardy Brown, who recalled the moment for the NFL Films folks. Brown chuckled and said, “That’s the way I learned to play football. I only know one way.”

Brown’s way was to line up a receiver, or ball carrier, in a manner that Brown could see him, but not vice-versa. Then, at the precise moment, Brown would ram his right shoulder somewhere near the jaw line of the exposed player, leaping off his feet in the process. This was the day before face masks on helmets. I saw the move several times, repeated in quick editing on different victims. Always the result was the same: victim’s head snaps back, his body going in a different direction, before slamming onto the turf, flat on his back. It was one reason why little Hardy Brown, the orphaned football player, was widely regarded as the meanest SOB of his day.

But back to Jimmy David. His teammate on the Lions was Dick “Night Train” Lane, whose nickname wasn’t secured because of his affinity for locomotives. They called Lane “Night Train” because that’s what it felt like hit you after he clotheslined you to the ground. David was “The Hatchet” because he cut down everything that came his way.

You could do a lot more in David’s time to ensure a thrown ball wouldn’t be caught. None of this moratorium on touching a receiver past five yards downfield. Pass interference rules were much looser. And, of course, if a man did happen to be lucky (unlucky?) enough to catch the football, you could bring him down in much more creative, entertaining, effective, and hazardous ways.

There are cornerbacks playing in the NFL today that would have a hard time tackling their grandmother. It’s amazing to me how many of them avoid, like the plague, any physical contact. Deion Sanders, one of the best cover men of his generation, was a pip squeak when it came to tackling.

Jimmy David, after he put his forearms on ice, became an assistant coach for his old teammate, Joe Schmidt, with the Lions in 1967. He didn’t hold the title, because it hadn’t been invented yet, but he was basically Schmidt’s defensive coordinator. And with the Hall of Fame linebacker Schmidt at the helm and the six-time Pro Bowler David calling the shots defensively, it’s no wonder that those Lions teams (’67-’72) annually fielded one of the league’s stingiest defenses. One of David’s first pupils was Hall of Famer Lem Barney, a rookie in ’67. He left coaching, never to return, after his boss, Schmidt, quit the Lions in January 1973.

David was drafted in the 22nd round of the 1952 NFL draft by the Lions, out of Colorado State. That means that some 160-170 players were taken in front of him. Yet there he was, a fixture in the Lions’ defensive backfield, and a three-time NFL champion (1952, ’53, and ’57).

The Detroit area has been blessed. Frequently our old sports heroes stay in town after they retire, occasionally gracing us with their presence at banquets, golf outings, or down at the ballpark/arena/stadium.

Mike O’Hara of the Detroit News wrote of a Jimmy David memory in Saturday’s edition.

A few years ago, David was watching the Lions. Of course, he paid strong attention to the work of the secondary. After a DB had a noticeably difficult time wrangling a receiver to the ground, David shook his head.

“Should have clotheslined him,” David said.

It was during practice.

Today, they’ve buried “The Hatchet.” But not those precious moments on celluloid. Thank goodness.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Lions' Onside Kick Absolutely Mesmerizes Beckmann

I thought just Lions fans were this easy to impress.

Watching the Lions-Bengals exhibition game last night (btw, remember when they played SIX of these things every summer? ugh!), I was amused at how amazed play-by-play man Frank Beckmann was at the execution of an onside kick in the fourth quarter.

Beckmann, also the voice of U-M football, has watched the sport for years and years. Yet he just couldn't seem to get over the nature of the onside kick, courtesy of ... well, I can't remember the kid's name at the moment. It was a fairly typical technique: kick the teed up ball near the top, punching it into the turf so it will bounce high and well past the required minimum of ten yards downfield.

"What an unconventional onside kick!," Beckmann screamed into the mike. Broadcast partner Erik Kramer, who's seen his share, wasn't nearly as impressed. The TV folks showed us a closeup of the ball and the kicker's shoe striking it. It's an onside kick that I've seen dozens of times. There are many ways to do an onside kick, and this was just one of them. Yet Beckmann was beside himself.

"Let's get a look at that again," he said. Several plays later, dutifully, the crew in the truck showed us the replay -- from two different angles. But Beckmann seemed expecially enamored of the closeup of the ball version.

"What an UNCONVENTIONAL kick! Look at this!"

For the record, the ball, once it was pounded into the turf, did the usual thing a football does when struck in such a manner -- that is, a series of unpredictable, crazy bounces. I'm no football expert, like Beckmann, but I presume that the "not knowing" what the ball is going to do is what makes that particular onside kick technique attractive.

I'm going to give Beckmann the benefit of the doubt and chalk his over-exuberance up to a fit of homerism. Granted, it was a well done, almost perfectly struck kick. But Beckmann described it as if: a) the Lions had just invented it, and b) he'd never seen it before. I know "a" isn't true, and I hope like hell "b" isn't, either.

Earlier, Beckmann was falling all over himself describing the length of time a TD pass from Dan Orlovsky to Ron Bellamy took to complete. Orlovsky scrambled parallel to the line of scrimmage for what seemed like forever. But Beckmann took it upon himself to count the number of seconds.


The replay, however, was in slow motion.

Funny thing. I was watching the tape-delayed game late in the third quarter, the Bengals ahead, 19-10. Then I flipped over to ESPN, and, forgetting that I wasn't watching the Lions game live, I stumbled across the final score on the scroll at the bottom of the screen. So I knew the Lions won, 27-26 -- even when they fell behind 26-10. Believe me, it's a much more fun, stress-free way to watch football.

I was impressed by the Lions' fourth quarter comeback. I thought Orlovsky looked good, even though he was playing against a bunch of scrubs. The receivers, the scrub receivers for the Lions, caught balls and didn't drop them, even when hit hard. The scrub offensive line protected well. Still no running game, though.

Yes, I was impressed. I even liked the onside kick. But I don't think anyone could have liked it as much as Frank Beckmann. He needs to pace himself. He'll blow out an aorta by Week 3 of the U-M season.

Pray for no onside kicks, for his benefit.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Davidson's Sale Of Lightning Another Reminder: NHL Is Shooting Wide Again

If only it were so easy to fix the NHL.

If only we had a commando-type commissioner that would gather the owners of the Nashville Predators, Florida Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Atlanta Thrashers, and Phoenix Coyotes together in a room.

"I'm really sorry," the commando commish would say, "but the league is revoking your ownership and holding it in trust until new owners can be found."

"Wha--??," the owners of the above-mentioned clubs would say, but they'd be cut off.

"We're placing your teams in Winnipeg, Hamilton, Kansas City, and in two locations TBA."

Then the commando commish would walk out while the owners picked their jaws up from the carpeted floor.

You read correctly. Put a fresh coat of paint on the Winnipeg Arena, if it's still there. If it's not, construct a new one, forthwith. Throw a few bucks and some reassuring promises to the owners in Toronto and Buffalo and place an NHL franchise in Hamilton, Ontario. Against my earlier wishes, give Kansas City another whirl; maybe the first try wasn't done properly. Then put the other two franchises up for grabs, with the first two NORTHERN cities placing the highest bids getting them.

Bill Davidson, in a surprise move, sold his Tampa Bay Lightning to three men -- one of whom is former NHL coach Doug MacLean. The trip vows to keep the Lightning in Tampa. Curses. Commando commish needs to step in and strip them of ownership until they say "uncle" and retract that statement.

We don't need the NHL in Florida. We don't need it in Georgia, or in Arizona. It's OK in southern California because it's been there for 40 years and somehow it seems to work. We certainly don't need it in the college town of Columbus, or in the country music capital of the world -- Nashville. We need hockey where hockey is appreciated -- not where it's treated like a curious sideshow. And if that doesn't sit well with the sport's enthusiasts in my targeted cities, I'm sorry. You're collateral damage, I'm afraid.

Enough with this approach that tries to prop up the NHL as a sport of the masses in North America. There's nothing wrong with being a niche sport -- as long as you recognize that and market it accordingly. I'd rather see the league put concentrated marketing and grass roots efforts in the smaller, hockey-loving towns than have their work get diluted and swallowed up in big cities that wouldn't know a hockey puck from a day-old doughnut. The NHL is like a dropper full of dye in a swimming pool when it tries to peddle itself in cities like Phoenix and Atlanta and Nashville. It needs to be a basting tube in a shot glass, like it would be in Hamilton and Winnipeg and Saskatoon and even American cities like KC and Seattle and Milwaukee.

I know I've gone on this rant before, and I apologize. But reading of Davidson's sale of the Lightning -- expressly done because of the simplest of reasons: the team annually hemorrhages cash -- illustrated my angst all over again.

The NHL needs to go where it's wanted and needed -- not exist on life support where it deems to be liked.

While we're at it, let's see if we can give the Colorado Avalanche back to Quebec City.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Laimbeer Needs To Take His Coaching Career To The Next Level

I don't know that it's ever happened before, but it should.

Has a coach ever been "promoted" directly from the WNBA to the NBA?

I'm not sure what Bill Laimbeer's motivation is. I think it's admirable that he toils in the WNBA, coaching the Detroit Shock -- two league titles so far and maybe a third on the horizon. He seems to be, at least in the world of women's professional basketball, a master motivator. He's not shy to light into his players publicly -- not that THAT'S a good idea with NBA players.

Laimbeer has his ladies cruising again after a rocky period in June. The Shock have won 11 of 12, and not coincidentally, the hot streak came after another dose of brutal honesty to the media types. He benched his starting center -- who just happened to be the starter in the WNBA All-Star game -- Kara Braxton, and filleted her play. Last September, during the Finals -- his team down 2-1 in the best-of-five series -- Laimbeer turned the focus on the folks at ESPN and his perceived unfair coverage of the series. He called out Nancy Lieberman-Cline, for example, and banded his players together in an "us against the world" mentality. The Shock won a stunning Game 4 on the road at Sacramento before taking care of business at home in Game 5 to capture the championship.

I'm intrigued -- very much so -- at the prospects of Bill Laimbeer on an NBA sideline.

Laimbeer and some of his championship jewelry -- as player and coach

Not all of his tactics would be well-received -- especially the one about dumping on his players to the press. That I understand. But there surely must be a team in the league in which he once was the biggest villain that can use his services. That is, of course, if he's willing to give it a whirl. He seems happy with the Shock, and in the WNBA -- that summer option for those who need a basketball fix.

Katie Smith, the Shock leader in the backcourt, spoke these words about her boss to me last fall, when I asked her what Laimbeer's biggest negative was:

"He likes to hear himself talk," she said with a giggle. "He always has something to say."

Again, maybe not the best trait for an NBA coach who's in it for the long haul.

Still, should he want it, I think Laimbeer would make a marvelous NBA head coach. He played on teams that were nothing if not about teamwork and one player being no better than the other. He spent 10 years with Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, and Chuck Daly. I think he's learned a thing or two from that decade. Clearly he's showing as much directing the Shock -- the cream of the WNBA at the moment.

In February 1989, shortly after the Pistons acquired Mark Aguirre from Dallas for Adrian Dantley -- one of the most controversial trades in team history -- some Pistons took Aguirre out for dinner. The idea wasn't to nosh so much as it was to clue the new guy in about what it meant to be a Bad Boy -- especially since Aguirre's reputation preceded him as being, at times, selfish and boorish.

"Everything I've heard about you isn't good," Laimbeer snarled to Aguirre in that dinner, according to Jerry Green's book, The Detroit Pistons: Capturing A Remarkable Era. "But I'm willing to give you a chance because Isiah vouches for you."

Aguirre himself called the dinner significant and a powerful first impression as to life as a Piston. The Pistons cruised after the trade and went thru the NBA like a hot knife thru butter in the postseason (15-2), winning the title.

Bill Laimbeer is doing a terrific job in the WNBA. No disrespect to the ladies he coaches, or to the league in which he's doing it, but it's time that he graduate. Some NBA team could use him. It would be foolish to think that one couldn't.

Monday, August 06, 2007

With Charlie Sanders Finally Enshrined, What About Karras?

It was written by Drew Sharp in the Free Press over the weekend, and I was almost set to agree, but I won't, because I'm still holding out hope that it isn't true.

"Savor this moment," Sharp wrote of former Lion Charlie Sanders's Hall of Fame induction on Saturday, "because it may be another 15 years before another Lion is enshrined" (or words to that effect).

At first glance, Sharp appears to be correct. Certainly no Lions player the franchise has employed during the past 15-20 years that isn't named Barry Sanders deserves Hall acceptance -- Jason Hanson included, I'm afraid.

But what about Alex Karras?

Karras, the great defensive tackle from 1958-62 and 1964-70 (he was suspended for the 1963 season because of gambling issues) is, for whatever reason, not in the Hall. He was a four-time Pro Bowler. He was part of the NFL's All-Decade team of the 1960s. Yet he is not enshrined in Canton -- which is now the Hall's biggest crime after Charlie Sanders finally got his love.

Whenever I complain to folks about this -- granted, my whining thus far has been to people who have absolutely no control over the situation -- I'm told, "Well, it must be that 'gambling thing.'"

Let's look at that "gambling thing."

Karras and Green Bay running back Paul Hornung were each suspended by commissioner Pete Rozelle because of wagering done on an NFL Championship game. Neither played in the game, and both considered their side bets relatively harmless. But Karras's name and reputation were still in Rozelle's brain for Karras's part ownership of the old Lindell AC bar in Detroit, which was thought to be frequented by organized crime types (it almost certainly was). Rozelle harangued Karras to sell off his ownership, which he eventually did. So when Karrras's name popped up as being one of several players thought to have placed a bet on the championship game, poolside in Miami (where the Lions were, getting ready to play in the league's old Runner Up Bowl), Rozelle railroaded the DT into the one-year ban.

Four Pro Bowls and a spot on the All-Decade Team for the 1960s STILL hasn't earned Karras Hall of Fame status

Yet Hornung was eventually elected into the Hall, while Karras is still on the outside looking in. So toss out the "gambling thing" as the reason #71's bust isn't in Canton. Probably, as with Lem Barney and Charlie Sanders's too-long wait, playing for the dysfunctional Lions didn't help. But the Lions weren't all that bad in the 1960s. In fact, in some years they were very good. They were 11-3 in 1962, to show you, and 9-4-1 in 1969 and 10-4 in 1970.

Karras, in his book Even Big Guys Cry, said of the famous 1962 Thanksgiving Day spanking of the then-undefeated Packers, "Lord, were we ready for Green Bay that day. They were wearing championship rings that we thought were ours." The reference was about the Pack and the fact that the Lions finished second three years in a row (1960-62) behind them. Besides, the Lions had given a game away in Green Bay earlier that season, and were hellbent on revenge. Detroit beat Green Bay, 26-14 that Turkey Day, but at the end of the season, "sure enough, they were champions again," Karras wrote.

I'm not sure how the rules work, but I suppose Karras's only hope now, if the chance hasn't already passed, is for the Veterans Committee to right this wrong. They did it with RB Doak Walker, back in the mid-1980s -- some 30 years after Doak's retirement from the Lions. Maybe they can ride to the rescue again, with regards to Alex Karras.

Not that it bothers Karras. It's typical, really, that these sorts of injustices drive those of us who watched him batty, yet don't seem to ruffle the feathers of the one being wronged.

I talked to Karras, a year ago February, for one of those "Where Are They Now" magazine pieces. He's in California still -- much more Hollywood and Left Coast than he ever was on the football field. He's an owner of a theatre near Los Angeles, with his longtime wife and fellow actor, Susan Clark.

"My job was to know when to be a ballet dancer and when to get the hell out of the way," the man whose nickname was "Tippy Toes" (because of his unusual pass rushing footwork at the snap of the ball) told me. "But most of all, my job was to tackle the ball carrier."

Of his days in the NFL and with the Lions, Karras said simply, "It was a grand time."

He was at peace with his football career, and didn't seem fazed by his Hall exclusion.

But it still doesn't make it right.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Happy Birthday At The Ballpark

I’m going to turn 44 on Monday. It’s not 34, but I’ll take it. For now, I’ll just be happy that it’s not 54 – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But it’s also not 10, and that’s when I saw Frank Howard jack a homer into left field to tie the Yankees in the bottom of the ninth inning – sort of. Actually, sitting in the upper deck in left, all I saw was the ball in flight, the Yankee outfielder drifting back, and then it disappeared from my view – but the screaming, full house crowd at Tiger Stadium told me what had happened. That, and Hondo rounding the bases in a jubilant home run trot.

44 isn’t 12, either, and that’s when I saw – as sure as I’m typing this – Brooks Robinson drop a foul popup with nobody around him. The man whose name should be forever etched on every third base in every big league stadium for his defensive brilliance, simply dropped it. I can still see it today – the Tigers in the middle of a 19-game losing streak. And even Brooks’s unthinkable bobble didn’t help. The Tigers dropped both games of a doubleheader.

My parents started carting me and some choice friends to Tigers games on my birthday, starting when I was ten and continuing to when I was 16. Amazing that there was always a home date on August 6 – and I didn’t even have a pipeline to the league schedule maker. At least not that I’m aware of. Maybe my folks placed a courtesy call each winter.

That first date, in 1973, ended wonderfully but started horribly.

There was a mix-up of some sort – my mix-up. I was allotted two tickets for two friends.

At this time, I’d like to publicly apologize to Brian Mitter, wherever you are.

Mitter was the victim of a 10-year-old’s lack of organizational skills. Somehow, I told Mitter he could go, after the two allotted tickets were promised to other friends. Can’t even blame it on a computer glitch.

So one of my two friends is already at the house, and while we’re chatting, I see my other lucky friend running across our front lawn, laughing and giggling. But he’s not alone. He’s racing with Brian Mitter.

Can a 10-year-old make a faux pas?

I remember some random things: my mother breaking the news to Brian, Brian crying, my mom calling Brian’s mom, and him trudging home. Not my best moment. My mom even offered to return the birthday gift Brian toted. Brian’s mom let me keep it.

Ahh, but the game.

It was Monday night, and the Tigers-Yankees were that week’s NBC Game of the Week. The Tigers trailed by a couple runs going into the ninth. Then big Frank Howard laced a pitch into the lower deck, and we’re tied. Then I recall Aurelio Rodriguez sliding home with the winning run in the 10th. Wonderful ending, as I said. But 34 years later, I can’t forget the beginning. You don’t think Brian Mitter turned to deadly violence because of it, do you?

1974 was the Indians and, as it turns out, Norm Cash’s last game as a Tiger., simply the best website ever created, gives you play-by-plays and box scores of thousands of games, sorted by year. I knew Cash was released by the Tigers around my birthday, so I looked him up. Says his last game was on the 6th, against the Indians. Seems he pinch hit late in the game and got a single. He was cut by the Tigers the next day. I saw his last big league hit. Then it was my turn to cry.

1975 was the Orioles, and Robinson’s dropsie. The Tigers were losing in bunches, and my dad was irritated. When something went wrong for them early in the ballgame, my father clapped derisively. He rode them hard, but the Tigers lost again.

1976 – I don’t recall. Retrosheet says the Indians were again the opponents. The Tigers won, 3-1. I’ll take their word for it.

1977 – Texas was in town. I sort of remember that one.

1978 – the White Sox, on a Sunday afternoon. Somewhere I still have the scorecard from that one. The Tigers won. The White Sox wore shorts, I believe. Not sure if I did or not. Two days later, as part of my birthday present, I was allowed to go to Toronto with my friend Steve Hall and stay with his aunt and uncle. We took in a couple of Blue Jays games, hoping to laugh at the second-year Jays. They won both games we went to. Go figure.

1979 – the Texas Rangers again, and a twi-night doubleheader. For those too young, the twi-nighters were awesome. Game 1 started around 5:30 or 6:00, followed by another game. It was, as my dad liked to say of DHs, “A LOT of baseball.” They played faster back then, but it was still … a LOT of baseball. Tigers won both games.

Don’t EVEN ask me who went with me to these games. I think I pretty much rotated friends in and out. Kind of like the faces who join Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles on “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” The same suspects, just taking turns.

The tradition mysteriously ended after that ’79 DH, for whatever reason. Maybe I got too old. Maybe the tickets got too expensive. Maybe my rotating friends became too insufferable. All I know is, I haven’t gone to a birthday game since. But I am going to Thursday afternoon’s game, covering it for Michigan In Play! Magazine – three days late and not as a fan. Doesn’t count, I’m afraid. The Streak continues.

I had an old buddy from college, named Todd Dunne. His birthday was in November, and he told me that his dad always took him to a Red Wings game to celebrate.

“St. Louis always seemed to be the other team,” Dunne said.

The Red Wings usually lost, he added. Of course they did. That was long before this city had the gall to call itself Hockeytown. It was a time when it was still trying to lift itself out of “Darkness with Harkness.”

Did anyone ever go with you, I asked Todd. No, he said – just his dad and he.

No offense to the rotating friends, but that would have been enough for me, too. And mom. She put up with her two sports-loving men like a trooper.

After all, who ended up breaking the news to Brian Mitter?

Brian, man – again, I’m sorry. Please don’t kill anyone.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Williams Becoming The Rarest Of Lions: Talent + PR Value

When he says things like, "We left 40 points on the field," he's derided. When he speaks with unbridled enthusiasm that borders on dementia about the football team for which he plays, people chuckle and roll their eyes. When he insists that the winning will come, and come soon, he's practically disregarded.

But Roy Williams, the Lions' premier wide receiver -- at least until a kid named Calvin Johnson unseats him -- should start to be recognized as something else . He's the face of the team, the spokesperson, the leader even. And the Lions haven't had one of those in .... quite some time.

Think about it. Who's the last Lions player whose words you looked forward to hearing, if only because they teetered on outrageous? Who was the last Lion to have a smile that lights up the entire locker room. Who was the last Lion to do something silly on the field, like Williams does with his enthusiastic "first down" dealio? And, most importantly, who was the last Lion to begin to master his position to the point where he should be considered among the top five in the entire league at it?

Williams added to his unusual legacy this week by snatching two youngsters out of the crowd at training camp, because they were wearing his no. 11 jersey, and making them water boys for the afternoon. He provided each child with not only lifelong memories, but autographed footballs and some one-on-one time.

It was great, impromptu P.R. stuff. The kind that will take your mind, albeit briefly, off the Lions' brutal won-lost record since 2001.

"...we went to Dallas and scored 39 points when everybody was clicking," Williams says in defending his outrageous comments after Opening Day '06

Williams was at it again yesterday. Speaking to the Free Press, he defended his comments made after last year's Opening Day loss to Seattle, when he spoke of those 40 points left behind, somewhere on the Ford Field turf.

"People didn't understand that," Williams said. "In Week 17, we went to Dallas and scored 39 points when everybody was clicking. So that's the kind of offense we're in. We're a little bit more comfortable now. So hopefully this year we can put up 40 points a game."

Like I wrote before about QB Jon Kitna's brazen, maybe wacky predictions of 10+ wins in 2007, give me players who think like the glass is half full, if not about to overflow, any day over the dour, gloomy athlete who doesn't believe in what's going on around him.

Chris Spielman is one of the best linebackers in Lions history, for my money. He was one of those special athletes to come thru Detroit whose words I hung on. If you asked Spielman a question, he'd give you the straight dope. No sugar coating. When the Lions got blown away in Philadelphia in the 1995 playoffs, Spielman looked at his eight years with the team and then at his birth certificate, and decided enough was enough.

"The wheels are coming off here," he said as he fled to the Buffalo Bills. Straight dope.

Spielman, last week, was asked about the Lions and Kitna's predictions.

"I wish he would have said they (the Lions) were gonna go 16-0," Spielman said. "I want my quarterback, especially, to think we're going to win every game. Every player should feel that way."

Spielman saw 12-4 and 10-6 seasons as a Lion, as well as 4-12 and 5-11. He saw playoff games (one win) and seasons in which the playoffs were out of the question in October. But I doubt he ever went into a campaign thinking the Lions were going to blow, even when it was painfully obvious that they were.

Roy Williams is flashy. He's colorful. He's outspoken. He's optimistic to the point of being maddening. But he is not a clown. He is not a snake oil salesman, like so many others we've seen. And he just happens to be one of the elite wide receivers in the National Football League.

Face it: when he talks, you listen. Whether you roll your eyes or not.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Martz Has Enough In Detroit To Keep Him Busy -- And Off The Market

When the Lions courted Mike Martz to be their offensive coordinator during Super Bowl week of 2006, I don't think many people would have given you a plugged nickel's chance that: a) Martz would come at all, or b) even if he did come, that he'd stay for any appreciable length of time -- like more than a year. Once a head coach ...

But Martz is sounding, to me, like a guy who wouldn't mind sticking it out in Detroit for a few seasons.

You have to have ego to be successful in professional sports. Nothing wrong with that. And there's a difference between having an ego and being egotistical. Egos need to be massaged and challenged frequently -- especially for the best savants. Martz, I think, has enough challenges and potential in certain players with the Lions that he'll shelve any plans of returning to the world of head coach anytime soon.

S0me of this feeling is due to the fact that Martz wasn't a serious candidate for any of the openings that availed themselves after the '06 season. He wasn't jetting across the country, talking to other teams' management people. His name was barely mentioned for even the openings in which he purportedly had an interest. It doesn't necessarily mean that he's lost his luster as a head coaching candidate; it just means that, for whatever reason, teams chose to go in a different direction.

So that contributes to me thinking Martz will be here for this year and next -- and possibly the year after that, too.

Martz is probably looking ahead to a few more years in Detroit

He has some raw stones here to polish. QBs Drew Stanton, Dan Orlovsky, and J.T. O'Sullivan; receiver Calvin Johnson; a new, revamped offensive line. The mystery at running back, with an injured Kevin Jones about to find his job threatened by Tatum Bell. The schemings necessary to find out how RB/FB T.J. Duckett fits into the offense. And more.

All that is enough to keep the genius Martz busy for quite some time, should he decide to see it through. And I think he will -- at least for two or three more seasons.

The other day, Martz was enthused and encouraged by what he saw from the line. Before that he had high praise for his quarterbacks -- especially starter Jon Kitna and newcomer O'Sullivan. He likes Bell a lot. He's eager to see Jones back. And, of course, he can't wait to get his playbook-stained hands on #2 overall pick Johnson.

Offensive savants like Mike Martz can't have idle hands. They need projects and Cinderella stories. It's good for the ego -- and the legacy. How many times have we heard of Martz's influence on the success of Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger? A little bit too much for my liking, but at least it's legitimate praise, unlike the hollow credentials of Marty Mornhinweg, when he was hired by the Lions in 2001.

"He worked with Brett Favre in Green Bay," we were told over and over.

Yeah -- like a hospital orderly "works" with a great heart surgeon.

I'm sorry, but I don't think Brett Favre's emergence and growth would have been stunted had he not had the brilliant Marty Mornhinweg there to hold his hand.

Martz is an NFL coordinator whose reputation precedes him. He'll always be mentioned, at least casually, as wanting to get back onto the head coaching horse. Every January, after the latest batch of coaches are canned, we'll hear Martz talk. That's just part of the package.

And now that I think about it, I can't think of any greater challenge and better chance of sewing up one's legacy than presiding over the reclamation project of ALL reclamation projects: helping turn the Lions into winners with your magic offense.

Maybe he'll never leave.