Monday, March 31, 2008

Houston, New England Should Never Have Been Howe's Hockey Homes

It was a single, brief moment -- lasting maybe five or six seconds -- but it bears mentioning here. It was before a Tigers game last summer, and I was checking out Jim Leyland's lineup card, the oversized version posted outside his office for the media -- and his players -- to peruse. Another peruser sidled up next to me, also taking a gander at that day's batting order. I instinctively turned to silently greet whomever was joining me.

And Al Kaline, still entwined in the organization, returned my head nod with a lift of his eyebrow and a nod of his own. Then we both went back to looking at the lineup.

It's not surprising to see Kaline hanging around the Tigers, of course. He's still an employee, just as he's been since 1953. And at no time in the subsequent 55 years was he absent from the organization. First he was a player, for 22 years. Then he was a spring training instructor. Then he was a broadcaster. Then he was hired by owner Mike Ilitch as a consultant, along with Willie Horton. No employment gaps in five-and-a-half decades.

Gordie Howe was back at Joe Louis Arena yesterday, being honored on the eve of his 80th birthday. It's not shocking to see No. 9 at his old team's stadium these days, either, but that's where the comparison with the great Tiger Al Kaline ends.

Howe has huge gaps in his 64-year association with the Red Wings. But his resume should be wall-to-wall Red Wing, as Kaline's is head-to-toe Tigers.

You can blame the Norris family, and maybe even Ned Harkness, for that. Howe retired from the Red Wings in 1971, and was given a do-nothing VP job. He was Steve Yzerman, but with no purpose, no guidance, and no dignity. He'd show up to an occasional practice, but was treated coldly. Harkness was the team's GM, and it wasn't until Howe announced that the WHA's Houston Aeros were interested in him and his two boys that Ned made a clumsy, half-hearted offer to step down and be Howe's assistant.

Yet there was another chance for Howe to return to the Red Wings. When sons Mark and Marty were wanting to opt out of their obligation to the Boston Bruins (who owned their NHL rights) in exploring a jump to the NHL in the mid-to-late-1970s, wife Colleen spoke to the Red Wings about all three Howes coming back to Detroit. She was rebuffed. Howe returned to the NHL in 1979, but as a member of the Hartford Whalers. He retired in 1980, and by that time the relationship with the Norrises was pretty much non-existent.

It's one criticism I have of Ilitch as Red Wings owner that he never reached out to Howe after buying the team in 1982, offering Gordie to come back to the organization, where he belonged.

Howe first suited up with the Red Wings in 1946, and there's no good reason that he wasn't the team's Kaline -- always around, in various capacities, but always drawing a paycheck.

Another NHL wrong was finally righted in Chicago last month, when former Blackhawk greats Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita were welcomed back into the organization formally, ending a bamboozling estrangement that began when Hull bolted for the WHA in 1972, and continued when Mikita retired in 1980.

The Red Wings have honored Howe plenty over the years with various ceremonies. There's the magnificent statue of him in JLA, for one. Yesterday's festivities were low-key but classy.

But there's a difference between honoring someone and doing the honorable thing. The Red Wings failed Gordie Howe on the latter, and so he'll never be the team's Al Kaline -- not really.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

You Heard It Here First: Verlander Hall Of Fame-Bound

This is how old Tigers ace Justin Verlander is: 25. This is what he’s done so far: won Rookie of the Year; pitched in a World Series; made an All-Star team; thrown a no-hitter.

Jim Bunning didn’t do all that. Mickey Lolich didn’t do all that. Denny McLain didn’t do all that. Jack Morris didn’t do all that (though he came close).

Want me to go back further?

George Mullin didn’t do all that. Hooks Dauss didn’t do all that. Tommy Bridges didn’t do all that. “Prince” Hal Newhouser didn’t do all that.

Justin Verlander is all that, and he’s 25.

Say hello to your next Tigers homegrown Hall of Famer.

Roll your eyes all you want. Mock my boosterism as nothing more than over-exuberant, hometown bias. Here, I’ll call the men in the white jackets myself, to save you the trouble. Guffaw from now until nightfall, for all I care.

Verlander, I’m telling you, will find himself enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y. when all is said and done.

Don’t tell me about injuries and bad luck and flashes in the pan. Put a sock in it if you’re going to warn me of arms busting at the seams or flames burning out. I don’t want to have this conversation with you if you mean to dissuade me with sensible, even-handed talk. My mind’s made up. My decision is as final as an umpire’s, no matter how wrong he may be.

But I’m not wrong here, not on this one. Video replay will exonerate me, some 15 years from now, or more.

Not to mention how heartily I’ll be laughing at you as we watch Verlander step up to the podium in Cooperstown one August day, perhaps two decades from now, as he unfurls a speech from his breast pocket and starts in on the thanks and the memories.

I’ve already got one of your arguments countered.

Sophomore jinx? HA! Here’s what Verlander did in his rookie year of 2006: 17-9, 3.63 ERA, 186 IP, 124 strikeouts. And here’s what he did in 2007: 18-6, 3.66 ERA, 202 IP, 183 strikeouts. He gave up 187 hits in 2006, a little more than one per inning. Last year, Verlander surrendered but 181 hits, about 0.9 per inning.

The kid got better in his sophomore year.

Oh, and there was that no-hitter last June, against Milwaukee.

Hold your horses. I’m not using a no-hitter, by itself, to support my claim. Lots of mediocre, even bad, pitchers have rendered teams hitless. It’s one of the beauties of baseball, as far as I’m concerned – that the nondescript can rise up for one day and get all Cy Young-ish on us.

It’s how Verlander tossed his no-no that impressed me. No Tigers pitcher had thrown a no-hitter, at home, since Virgil Trucks did it in 1952. Not Bunning. Not Lolich. Not McLain. Not Morris. Others have done it to the Tigers in Detroit, though. Nolan Ryan and Steve Busby both got the Tigers at Tiger Stadium in 1973. Morris’s no-hitter, in Chicago in 1984, was no work of art. And Jack would be the first to agree with me on that. He walked six and threw a lot of pitches. I’ve seen him pitch many games more brilliantly that weren’t close to no-hitters, but they were classics because of his guts, his determination, and because of the situation.

Verlander showed me a lot of those things when he handcuffed the Brewers last June.

He was rarely in trouble. Yeah, he got a couple good defensive plays, but every pitcher gets those. He worked quickly, as is his trademark, not letting the enormity of the moment alter his approach. He went right after the Brewers, in complete control.

But it wasn’t just that he threw a no-hitter. Verlander is displaying now the kind of brazen, fearless competitive spirit that the great ones who’ve stood on a pitchers mound have shown throughout baseball history. He’s morphing into a blend of Morris, McLain, and Lolich – the three most recent Tigers pitching greats: Morris’s ferocity, McLain’s cockiness, and Lolich’s reliability.

As the Tigers stumbled their way through the 2006 World Series, I remember turning to one of my colleagues and gushing that, no matter the result, the exciting part was the experience the younger players were getting by having taken part in a championship series so early in their careers. Their baptism by fire would sure to pay off later, I reasoned. Verlander was one of the players I especially had in mind when I waxed philosophical about a dream season ending in a nightmare.

Verlander has a relatively easy, smooth pitching motion that doesn’t appear to be extra taxing on his powerful right arm. He’s a rhythm pitcher, and opposing batters try to disrupt him by stepping out of the batter’s box. Let ‘em try. He just stands there, on the mound, eyes boring into the hitter, calmly waiting for him to once again be ready.

There’s a certain nastiness that needs to show itself on the mound. It doesn’t have to extend any further than that, though some of the greats have been known to be grumpy bears on the day they pitched, from the moment they rolled out of bed. Bob Gibson, it was said, on his pitching days could part a room like Moses did the Red Sea, because he was so surly.

I’ve seen Verlander in the clubhouse before a game in which he’s scheduled to pitch, and there’s none of that Gibsonesque meanness. Instead, there’s looseness, joking, and a twinkle in the eye. Then he goes out there and hands you your rear end.

Justin Verlander is 25 years old. He’s 35-15, with over 300 strikeouts and a no-hitter in his first two seasons. And he’s just getting started.

Goodness gracious.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Boren Brings Conjecture, Speculation Upon Himself

Justin Boren's father just wishes that all the speculation and murmurings surrounding his son's self-ziggy from the Michigan football program would all go away.

Well, tough. His son created this monstrosity; he can now deal with the fallout.

Boren, a starting offensive lineman and Honorable Mention All-Big Ten player in 2007, abruptly left the football team this week. No great crime there. Student-athletes are free to drop out whenever they'd like. But Boren didn't just quietly walk away.

“Michigan football was a family, built on mutual respect and support for each other from (former) Coach (Lloyd) Carr on down. We knew it took the entire family, a team effort, and we all worked together," Boren said in a statement.

“I have great trouble accepting that those family values have eroded in just a few months. ... That I am unable to perform under these circumstances at the level I expect of myself, and my teammates and Michigan fans deserve, is why I have made the decision to leave.”

And Mike Boren, who played at Michigan under Bo Schembechler, has the temerity to be agitated by the furor that those comments of his son's has spawned?

If you want to leave, leave. Boren was a starter, so simply leaving without saying anything at all might have been strange, too. But a simple, "I've chosen to go in a different direction" would have sufficed. You can't torpedo ALL speculation, but you can certainly do things to discourage some. And you can certainly do things to egg it on, which is what Justin Boren did with his cryptic, silly statement.

What in Hell's acre is he talking about? Family values? Talk about a hackneyed, overused, now almost meaningless term. You can't get much more broad, speculative, and non-committal than that.

In the first paragraph he lauds former Coach Lloyd Carr and the environment that he created. ("We knew it took the entire family, a team effort, and we all worked together"). Then in the next paragraph he says of new coach Rich Rodriguez, though he doesn't refer to him by name,
"I have great trouble accepting that those family values have eroded in just a few months."

So here's what any clear-thinking, sane person can gather from Boren's statement.

Coach Rodriguez has, "in just a few months", fostered an environment where it DOESN'T take a team effort, and everyone DOESN'T work together. He's eroded those mystical family values, after a few spring practices.

Here's father Mike: "We wanted to have this go away quietly, but we didn't want people to think he's a quitter or couldn't handle the system. There were definitely problems. It just could not work. Justin went to the right people and tried talking to people, but no one wanted to listen."

Note to dad: if you want things to "go away quietly", then you don't toss out head-scratching, vague statements such as the one your son issued. This is MICHIGAN. Your kid didn't leave some small, podunk school here. And as for Justin wanting to talk to people and no one wanting to listen, that's just more fodder for everyone to kick around. Another cryptic remark.

So now we're all left to submit our own version of what went down between Justin Boren and Michigan football, i.e. Rich Rodriguez. The coach, for sure, won't comment. He only likes to talk about the kids who play for Michigan, as it should be.

It amuses me when people plant seeds then act incredulous when things start sprouting. Yes, this will pass. We will move on. But don't whine about the interim storm, when you created those conditions to begin with.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Thursday's Things

(just about every Thursday at OOB, I rant in list fashion. Last week it was Things That Made Prized Football Recruit Terrelle Pryor Choose Ohio State Over Michigan)

Things That The Pistons Are REALLY Thinking About While They Plod Through The Rest Of The Regular Season, Unable To Change Their Playoff Positioning

"WHICH team does Chucky Atkins play for again?"

2. "When did we get rid of Primoz Brezec?"

3. "How is that new Sonic Burger in Southgate?"

4. "I'm going to shoot my next free throw underhanded"

5. "I just realized: I've never seen Flip sit down -- ever"

6. "Just for fun, let's sign Bob Seger, Tommy Hearns, and Kid Rock for the rest of the season"

7. "Do these warmups make me look fat?"

8. "I forget: is it Charlotte Hornets and New Orleans Bobcats, or the other way around?"

9. "I wonder what the record is for quickest time fouling out"

10. "You know what would be funny right now? An alley-oop to Lindsey Hunter"

11. "I still don't know how to pronounce Cheikh Samb's name"

12. "Is McDyess Irish?"

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sadly, One Wrongly Called Timeout To Be Webber's Legacy

Chris Webber, it's reported, is set to retire today. The shadow of his blunder 15 Marches ago outlasted him after all.

The timeout Webber called in the 1993 NCAA Final -- a timeout his Michigan team didn't have -- in the waning moments against North Carolina just won't go away. Not that it should, but it's now filed in the Bill Buckner category of sports blunders -- those that will forever follow their perpetrators, almost completely rendering irrelevant their careers.

The Detroit Free Press took one last cheap shot at Webber -- and Webber's a Detroit kid, remember -- with this silly headline: Time Out! Webber To Announce Retirement.


That headline was disgusting, and not even funny. What does a timeout have to do with retirement? A timeout suggests action will restart at some point. Webber is hanging up his sneakers for good. At best, it's a bad joke. At worst, it's simply mean-spirited, another attempt to obliterate what Webber did as an NBA player, which is only average 20.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.2 apg, along with making five All-Star teams. That after helping to lead U-M to two NCAA Finals in both his years in Ann Arbor.

Yeah, there's the Ed Martin scandal. A blemish, for sure. But just as that shouldn't discard Webber's basketball accomplishments, nor should the timeout in '93.

Returning to Buckner, you'd think the man played one game, and handled one chance in his brilliant 22-year career. He had nearly 2,000 hits, had a career BA of .295, and a .992 career FA at 1st base. Yet he'll never, and I mean NEVER, outlive his error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, when Mookie Wilson's weak grounder went between his legs, enabling the Mets to complete their improbable comeback win over Boston.

Scott Norwood won't be remembered for much more than his errant kick at the end of Super Bowl XXV, when his miss allowed the Giants to escape the Bills.

Granted, these were high-profile mistakes, no question. Each occurred in their respective sport's biggest games. And history isn't kind; it's simply there to record what happened, not to put anything into context.

Yet it's still a shame that as Webber holds his press conference today, many will look at him and STILL think of that stupid timeout against NC fifteen years ago, instead of all that he did on the floor in the NBA.

Now, you can knock Webber the NBA player all you want with my permission. He never won a championship. He had a lousy attitude in Philly. He ran out of gas, out of shape, with the Pistons last spring. He was, at times, more divisive than apt to show leadership. Those charges vary in their credibility, but all are legitimate, at least on their surface. Not all are true.

But for the Free Press, Webber's hometown paper, to take such a cheap shot at their local kid as he prepares to retire because of painful knees, is classless.

Shame on them. THEY need a timeout.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Magic, Bird Took NCAA Tourney To New Heights

Where I get my haircut, there’s sports memorabilia strewn all over the walls, from top to bottom. It’s enough to ask for some extra clipping time as the chair spins you around, so you can get as much as you can of the photos within your line of vision (and in the mirror).

What’s striking is a display directly in front of the chairs, which is a series of framed, enlarged front pages from the Detroit Free Press, heralding championships from our teams in recent years gone by.




The headlines are, what they used to call in the journalism business, in Armageddon type. Bold, black letters, several inches in height. And with an accompanying photo that extends to the bottom of the page. It put things like a Red Wings Stanley Cup on the same order as President Kennedy being assassinated. That’s progress for you.

But over on the right, devoid of color, is a front page from a sports section – not a Front Page. It’s from March, 1979. And the headline is far from Armageddon-like. In fact, if you weren’t looking for it, it might not be the first thing you read on the page.

“Spartans No. 1 in the Land.”

That’s it. Oh – and with a modest, black-and-white photo of Greg Kelser and an Indiana State player, battling for a rebound.

That’s how we read of Michigan State’s victory over ISU in the ’79 final. “Spartans No. 1 in the Land.” Today, a regular season game gets almost the whole darn front sports page. That 1979 sports page had enough room for some Tigers spring training news and a couple other stories.

So it’s ironic, to me, that the framed headline with the least fanfare at my barber’s just happened to be documenting the one event that, by itself, had more impact on its sport than the other five or six combined.

Bird ended up the one being down and out after the final buzzer in '79; but the tables would turn -- and turn, and turn

Michigan State beat Indiana State, yes, for the 1979 college basketball championship. They were, indeed, No. 1 in the land. But there was much more to it – oh, so much more.

It was the last college game for Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, for starters. Magic, of MSU, and Bird of ISU only faced each other once in college, and it was for all the marbles in 1979. Then both would enter the NBA and carry their rivalry into the pro game – forever changing the face of the league. Magic’s Los Angeles Lakers and Bird’s Boston Celtics tended to pass the NBA trophy back and forth in the 1980s – often playing each other in the Finals. But more than that, the NBA before Magic and Bird was still primarily a bush league – showing its Finals series at times on late-night tape-delay, if you can imagine such a thing. It was a league of under-publicized, under-appreciated stars, played in hoops Meccas like Buffalo and Kansas City and Baltimore and Cincinnati. The New Yorks and Philadelphias and Los Angeleses – and even Bostons – weren’t enough to sustain prolonged interest across the country.

The NBA was, to put it in more easily understood terms, kind of like how the NHL is today, with the latter’s pipsqueak TV contract and ill-advised expansion.

Magic and Bird changed all that. They joined Julius Erving, who was working wonders in Philly, and gave Dr. J help, forming a trio that ushered in pizzazz, trash talk, and – how about this – INTEREST. From 1980, when the rookie Magic’s Lakers won the title, to 1988, either the Lakers, Celtics, or 76ers won the whole shebang. The league thrived like never before.

Bird and Magic's rivalry lasted throughout the 1980s

But let’s go back to school.

That ’79 NCAA title game did some terrific stuff for the college game, too. Bird’s ISU team was undefeated when it played Michigan State. Magic, as a freshman, had led MSU into the tourney the year before, but couldn’t get past the Sweet 16. Now, as a wily sophomore, Magic went up against the “hick from French Lick (Ind.)”, Bird and his team from tiny Indiana State. It was a match made for TV heaven, and for a tournament that, like the NBA, needed a jolt. Interest waned in the years after UCLA dominated the tournament. No school was taking the baton with any regularity or competence. It’s one reason why news of MSU’s victory was barely heralded, even in the supposed hometown papers.

MSU-ISU was really Magic vs. Bird, and normally it might be considered off-putting to classify a team sport that way. Yet the nation thirsted for such a depiction. Ratings for the game soared. The NCAA tournament suddenly became must-see TV. Even the two stars’ promotion to the NBA didn’t stop the momentum that their epic battle in March 1979 had started.

You think I aggrandize too much? In a country where the common folks forecast the tournament with such fervor that we’ve spawned a new word, this “bracketology”? Where news of a presidential candidate’s (Barack Obama’s) tourney picks jostle for top billing with REAL news headlines?

You can thank Magic and Bird for a lot of that, too. Honest.

What they did was bring the spotlight back onto college basketball. Their pro careers simply added to that aura, because that proved them to be no flashes-in-the-pan; no “college-only” stars who flickered out when they began to get paid for their services. It said that, yes, great college players can not only be pro superstars, but also basketball ambassadors. Everyone wanted to know when the next Magic and Bird was going to arrive on campus. They practically demanded it, once those dudes turned pro.

Even if the Free Press didn’t know it at the time, nor accorded the NCAA Final the hype that it deserved, back in 1979.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Missing Out On The Madness, Once Again

Slap me across the face and send me to the woodshed. Stitch a scarlet letter "O" on my shirt, for outcast. If you're asking about my brackets, look elsewhere. I don't know a Winthrop from a Davidson. For as far as sports knowledge and being informative go, the NCAA basketball tournament is my Krypton.

It's been this way for a long time. I haven't gotten caught up in March Madness, really, since Michigan State captured the whole enchilada in 2000. It doesn't disgust me; I don't have anything against it. I just don't get into it.

If you've read me for any length of time -- both thanks and apologies are in order if you have -- you'll know that I'm a pro snob. Always have been. College sports don't wrap me in their tentacles of excitement and pageantry. Something's the matter with me, I know. There's a lot, I'm sure, to like about the college games, but they just don't hold my interest for very long.

I actually considered filling out a bracket the other day, just for fun. But then I remembered that I always -- always -- pick Duke to win the whole thing, so what's the use? Every time I was in one of those office pools, I'd pick Duke. I even picked them when they played my alma mater, Eastern Michigan, in 1996. EMU beat them.

So my brief burst of tourney energy fizzled, and I never did take the 15 minutes to make my wholly uninformed predictions.

The fun is going on without me, and I'm like someone walking past a raucous party going on in a bar. I hear the noise and the hoopla, the rumble growing louder the closer I come to the establishment, and it might be enough for me to stop and peer inside. Then I take a look, grinning at the folks having their jollies -- happy for them but because it doesn't look like my cup of tea, I move on. Maybe I then go into a quiet bookstore and browse.

I'm so boring, I know.

So have fun with your March Madness. Have heart palpitations when schools like Belmont (see, I'm a LITTLE informed) almost beat my perennial choice Duke. Thrill at the upsets, near upsets, and outstanding individual performances. Keep track of your brackets and good luck to you; I hope you win the whole stinking pot.

It'll all go on without me, as usual. I know I'm the one missing out. Feel sorry for me.

One question, though: how come it's called March Madness, if the winner is crowned in April?

Just wondering.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Thursday's Things

(on most Thursdays at OOB, I rant in list fashion. Last week it was Things In Sports I'd Love To See)

Things That Made Prized Football Recruit Terrelle Pryor Choose Ohio State Over Michigan

Doesn't trust Michigan after finding out that no wolverines exist in the state

2. Buckeyes' scarlet uniforms hide blood better

3. Is secretly a huge Blue Jackets fan

4. Was afraid Rich Rodriguez might "accidentally" shred his high school football records

5. Jim Tressel's red sweater vests very soothing and grandfatherly

6. Still sees some of Tom Brady's shadow in Ann Arbor

7. Has always wanted to dot the "i" in Ohio during halftime band performances

8. That whole Appalachian State thing

9. Can't wait to help his teammates lose more national championship games for Buckeyes

10. Ann Arbor full of "left wing liberals" and "hippie freaks"

11. Likes all those little stickers the Buckeyes put on their helmets

12. Was promised that he'd never have to visit Cleveland

13. Likes the guaranteed win every November against Michigan

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Heat's Freefall One Of NBA's Strangest Stories

OK, all of you who had the Miami Heat sitting on 12 wins on March 19, raise your hand.

That's what I thought.

Of all the crazy things that have happened during this NBA season (the rise of the New Orleans Hornets, the Houston Rockets' 22-game winning streak, the blockbuster Cleveland/Chicago/Seattle trade), I maintain that the Heat's plunge to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings is right up there in terms of strangeness.

How can a team with Pat Riley as coach, Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal (for half the season anyway) and other castmates from the 2006 championship squad, fall so far from grace, and with such a thud?

The Heat managed to win one last night, topping the Bucks in Milwaukee. That gives Miami just its fourth win in 2008; they're 12-54 overall, and 4-30 since January 1.


They'll be hard-pressed to win more than a few more games the rest of the way, now that Wade is out till next season with an injury.

Alonzo Mourning hasn't played, but I find it hard to believe that Mourning is THAT valuable to the Heat.

Riley has to be as floored as anyone over the Heat's season

In 1979, the Pistons thought they had a frontline combo that would lead them out of the muck. Coach Dickie Vitale, functioning as a de facto GM, got rooked in a trade -- though he didn't know it. He was hell-bent on acquiring the former scoring champ Bob McAdoo, who had worn out yet another welcome, this time with Boston. McAdoo had previously poisoned the Knicks after being traded from Buffalo. So Vitale signed McAdoo, and the cost in terms of compensation (they don't do that anymore) was a pair of top draft picks and forward M.L. Carr. The draft picks were used by the Celtics to finagle Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. It wasn't one of the Pistons' better trades.

So McAdoo joined Bob Lanier up front, and with a feisty point guard in Ron Lee and a shooting guard in James McElroy, plus youngsters Greg Kelser, Phil Hubbard, Terry Tyler, and John Long (yes, Vitale was afraid to draft beyond the state of Michigan), the Pistons brass felt like they were onto something.

Oh, they were onto something, alright: a 16-66 disaster, in which Vitale was dumped after a 4-8 start.

The Heat, frankly, will be lucky to match the '79-'80 Pistons' win total of 16.

I just didn't see this coming. ESPN, for whatever reason, showed lots of Heat games this season, and I watched them play a bit in January and February. Their defense was non-existent; not par for a Pat Riley-led team. Strange.

Miami Heat, the dregs of the NBA. Who would have thought?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Red Wings' Closing Schedule Nauseating

As if you need any more proof that the NHL's schedule is cockeyed and in desperate need of repair, take a look at the Red Wings' menu (home games in CAPS):

Yesterday - at Columbus
Wednesday - COLUMBUS
Thursday - at Nashville
Saturday - at Columbus
Mar. 25 - at. St. Louis
Mar. 28 - ST. LOUIS
Apr. 2- at Chicago
Apr. 6 - CHICAGO

Doesn't that just get your juices flowing?

Good grief.

I know what the league is trying to do here. They mean to augment what they hope will be stirring divisional races with nothing but divisional games down the stretch. Not a totally bad concept, but here's the deal: divisional races mean very little, in a playoff system where the top eight teams in each conference qualify, regardless of division. It would come into play when a division is so poor that if you don't win it, you don't qualify for the playoffs at all. But that's highly unlikely. Otherwise, all that's at stake are post-season seedings -- and we know how much that matters in the zany world of NHL playoff hockey.

I must admit, though, that I wouldn't be nearly as cranky if all these divisional games were happening in the East, and the Red Wings were playing endless games against Boston, New York, or Toronto. Or Montreal. But the Blue Jackets, Predators, and Blues just don't do it for me. And I only tolerate the Blackhawks because they're an Original Six team, and they're on the way back to respectability.

If you've happened upon this blog with any degree of consistency (and if you have, I thank you), you know that this is a frequent beef of mine. Guilty as charged. Nothing really new here, but it's like any other pet peeve: you can only suppress your disdain for so long. Then you need to vent, and then you're fine again until the next implosion.

Playing the same teams over and over again was fine pre-expansion, because that's all there were. Besides, it was compelling when those clubs faced each other 14 times a year; made for some great rivalries and personal grudges. But playing the same clubs ad nauseam when there are 30 teams in the league isn't cute anymore.

At least next season, there's some relief on the horizon.

The NHL will cut back from eight games with divisional opponents to six, opening things up for more inter-conference matches. It's a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, three games with the Blue Jackets in seven days. Lovely.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Coming To A Basketball Arena Near You: Coach Joe Dumars

The Pistons were in the midst of another search for a coach. It was typical, for a franchise that had two winning seasons on its resume in 26 seasons in Detroit.

It was the spring of 1983. General Manager Jack McCloskey was rumored to have interviewed several candidates. A couple, it was whispered, turned him down. One of those rejecters was supposedly the revered Dr. Jack Ramsay, a future Hall of Famer. McCloskey, it was reported, turned to an old friend from his days with the Lakers, Jack McKinney. McKinney, too, said no.

Other names bobbed to the surface. The days dragged on. Then it occurred to me.

Jack McCloskey wants to coach this team himself.

He could have done it, you know. McCloskey was a successful coach in the Ivy League, back when some of the best college basketball in the country was played in the small arenas of Princeton, Brown, and Yale. And Penn, where McCloskey roamed the sidelines in the 1960s. In the NBA, McCloskey coached the woeful Portland Trailblazers, getting fired just before the team drafted Bill Walton. He assisted his friend Jerry West with the Lakers, and did the same thing for McKinney with Indiana.

It was while on the Pacers bench as an assistant that McCloskey was recommended to Pistons owner Bill Davidson as just the basketball man the dysfunctional franchise needed to recover from two years of Dickie Vitale’s destruction. That was in December 1979.

So I was bracing myself for the announcement that I was sure to come, that McCloskey had tired of the coaching search and was going to assume the role himself.

He made a fool of me. He hired Chuck Daly, another former Penn coach. I suppose it was a good decision.

I hit McCloskey with my theory in 1989, the summer after the Pistons’ first-ever championship.

“If I thought it was the best decision for the team, I would have taken the job,” McCloskey told me with a shrug. But no, it wasn’t his intention.

I wonder if Joe Dumars will ultimately show the same restraint.

Flip Saunders is the Pistons coach, but he isn’t where the buck stops when it comes to in-season personnel matters. They do things a little differently in Detroit. Most NBA coaches bristle when it’s suggested that he’s not the one pulling all the strings all the time – during the season. The GM’s role for those teams is to make trades, look at free agents, and sit in a suite somewhere during the games. And keep the pie hole shut when it comes to who should play when, and for how long, and against which teams.

Dumars doesn’t play that.

Frequently he’s consulted, and I wonder how much of it is Saunders consulting Dumars, or Dumars consulting Saunders, if you get my drift.

The coach was talking to the media last week about veteran Lindsey Hunter, idle for over a month and resting – getting ready for the playoffs, when he’ll once again coax energy and ball-hawking defense out of his 37-year-old body.

When, it was asked, will it be time to suit up Hunter and begin blending him back into the rotation, the playoffs about a month away?

“Not sure,” Saunders said. “Gotta talk to Joe (Dumars) about it. See what Joe thinks.”

You can count on one hand how many NBA coaches would be comfortable with such an idea, and have some fingers left over.

Gotta talk to the GM first? See what he thinks?

Hey, if it works for Saunders and the Pistons, then everyone has my blessing. But it’s starting to crystallize now – why Joe Dumars has burned through coaches like a teenager does with his allowance.

Let’s take a look back. Dumars canned Alvin Gentry in 2000, promoting assistant George Irvine. Irvine was gone a little over a year later. Dumars then brought in Rick Carlisle, who lasted two seasons – both 50-win seasons, by the way. Despite leading the Pistons to the conference finals, Carlisle was fired. Larry Brown was hired. Brown flamed out in two seasons, as well – with a championship and a runner-up on his record. Enter Saunders, who’s actually survived into a third season – a record for any man that Dumars has hired.

Dumars, letting another coach go (Carlisle, in 2003)

I wonder how much of this is Dumars being aggressively restless and risk-taking, and how much of it is that he can’t get along with coaches? Or, rather, that they can’t get along with him?

I’m not castigating Dumars here. There’s no crime in running things the way you see fit, especially if the success rate is high. But something tells me that Joe Dumars may not be totally content until he seizes control of the team himself, as coach someday. He already is mega-involved in personnel decisions. Don’t kid yourself here. One of the reasons you see Saunders’s rotation fluctuate and change so often – in an ongoing effort to bring the youngsters Dumars has drafted into the fold – is because Dumars has ideas. And he isn’t shy to flex his muscles with his coach when it comes to those ideas.

Is Flip Saunders a puppet? That’s far too strong of a word. But it’s not inaccurate to describe Dumars as a sort of micro-manager, and those types aren’t ever happy unless they can do things themselves – like coach basketball teams.

Gregg Popovich is maybe going to go into the Hall of Fame one day as a coach, leading the San Antonio Spurs as the team of the 21st century. But Popovich was an accidental coach himself. He was a little-known GM when he fired his coach one day, took the job on an interim basis, and never gave it up.

Saunders will coach the Pistons next year, odds are – barring a total meltdown in the playoffs, i.e. a first or second-round exit. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. And I’ll again brace myself, as I did back in 1983, for the Pistons GM to announce that, guess what, he’s the new coach, too.

McCloskey made a fool of me in ’83. I doubt that Dumars will.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Jones, Edwards Just Two More Examples Of The NFL's Harsh Reality

If there's a team in the National Football League that has so badly managed its draft in the past seven years as the Detroit Lions, I'm dying to know who it is.

Yes, luck plays a part. No question. But the consistently good teams consistently find gems in the lower rounds -- while also having a good retention rate from their first-day selections.

The Lions released Kevin Jones and Kalimba Edwards yesterday. Two more planned key cogs now jettisoned -- unemployed after years dotted with injury and lack of production. And two more unequivocal failures of the Matt Millen Era, now about to begin its eighth year of holding football fans hostage in Detroit.

Jones is gone because he could not stay healthy. There's no crime in that, but nobody said a football life was fair. Often, it isn't. And there simply is too much at stake to keep a running back who, when he carries the ball, causes you to hold your breath.

Barry Sanders did not get hurt. Emmitt Smith did not get hurt. Tony Dorsett did not get hurt. Jim Brown never missed a game. And the great ones who got hurt, their careers ended. Gale Sayers. Billy Sims. OJ Simpson, in the end.

You stay healthy, you play. You show a history of injuries, you get released. There's no room for empathy in professional football. It's about winning games and Super Bowls. And you can't do that with fragile running backs.

Or with underproductive defensive ends, as Edwards was.

Even after being rewarded with a fat contract a couple years ago, and being under the watchful eye of head coach Rod Marinelli -- and I'm tired of folks referring to Marinelli as a defensive line "guru" -- Edwards failed at the one main objective he was handed: to sack the quarterback.

You don't produce, you get released. And really, when you think about it, where's the unfairness in that?

Returning to Jones, some may look at this as a rather hardened move by the Lions. Jones, after all, is the team's winner of the Ed Block Courage Award -- given annually to one member of each NFL team who shows extraordinary examples of courage, on or off the field. Jones was recognized for his tireless efforts in coming back from his serious foot injury -- and early, to boot.

Kevin Jones, in an unfortunately typical scenario for him

But Jones got hurt again, tearing an ACL late last season. So, despite losing TJ Duckett to Seattle (a big blow, as far as I'm concerned), and with a supposed return to the running game under new o-coordinator Jim Colletto, Jones's injury-plagued past was enough to make the Lions jittery about committing to him again.

Taking the courageous efforts of Jones out of the equation, can you really blame the Lions here? Do YOU feel comfy with the idea of Kevin Jones being your running back and staying injury-free in 2008?

Jones's situation -- and he may end up on an NFL roster yet, and I hope that he does -- reminds me of the efforts of one Nick Eddy. Now THERE'S and Ed Block winner for you.

The youngsters among you don't remember Eddy, most likely. He was a star running back for Notre Dame (he finished third in Heisman Trophy ballotting in 1966), drafted by the Lions in 1967. But throughout his six years in the NFL, Eddy was hurt. Always hurt, it seemed. Actually, it started in college. It was his knees. But oh, how he tried to make it with the Lions. Tried like hell.

In Alex Karras's book, Even Big Guys Cry, Karras tells of how Eddy was coldly cut just before an exhibition game in 1971. The way Eddy found out? He noticed he had no locker in Philadelphia when the team entered Veterans Stadium off the bus.

"Nobody, NOBODY, worked harder to make a football team than Nick Eddy did to make the Lions," Karras wrote. Yet Eddy was released, because the team couldn't count on him staying healthy.

It's not warm and fuzzy. It's not even very nice. But it's the harsh reality of pro sports. You go with the players you can count on, extra courageous or not.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Thursday's Things

(most Thursdays at OOB, I rant in list fashion. Last week it was Things Overheard At The Shaun Rogers Press Conference When He Was Introduced As A Cleveland Brown)

Things In Sports I'd Love To See

1. Tom Selleck and Billy Crystal in a homerun derby

2. One more Pistons game at Cobo Arena

3. Kobe Bryant pass the ball

4. The Houston Rockets lose again

5. Niklas Kronwall healthy for the playoffs for the Red Wings

6. Niklas Kronwall healthy for the regular season for the Red Wings

7. Niklas Kronwall healthy for the exhibition season for the Red Wings

8. Flip Saunders sit down, just once, while coaching

9. Interleague games in MLB played with AL rules in NL parks, and vice-versa

10. Someone explain to me why we can't enact an overtime rule in the NFL that ensures each team gets the ball once (e-mail me and I'll tell you my proposal:

11. A return to all day games at Wrigley Field

12. An actual, REAL doubleheader in baseball -- not these day-night things

13. No NBA players under 20 years of age

14. How Mel Kiper spends his free time

15. On second thought, I'd rather not

16. The removal of the term "at the end of the day" when talking about ANYTHING -- not just sports

17. Same with "on the same page"

18. The surgical removal of the vocal cords of any announcer who calls the free throw line the "charity stripe"

19. Or the penalty box "the sin bin"

20. The San Francisco Giants put the players' names back on their home jerseys. Who do they think they are? The Yankees or the Cubs or the Red Sox?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Nice Guy" Ford Will Always Finish Last, So Why Worry?

Mickey Rivers was clearly never a Detroit Lions fan.

If the former MLB ballplayer and resident oddball was, he wouldn't have been so footloose and fancy-free, when it came to this meandering observation about the act of worrying.

"Ain't no use in worrying about things you have no control over, because if you have no control over them, there's no sense worrying about them. And ain't no sense worrying about things you DO have control over, because if you have control over them, you shouldn't have to worry."

And I only paraphrase ever-so-slightly, believe me.

So how do I get from Mickey to the Lions? Usually the only Mickey associated with them has big ears, white gloves, and lives in Orlando.

At this time of the year in the NFL, when free agency is at a crescendo and the draft looms, being a Lions fan is bittersweet. OK, mostly bitter. But what I mean is, you want things to improve, you think they might, and then you see who the Lions have signed and who they've lost and it all boils down to this:

It just doesn't matter.

Mickey Rivers

It doesn't matter because of one fact that none of us has any control over -- hence my Mickey Rivers quote from above.

Bill Ford still owns the team. And that simply is not a good thing.

Ford -- the league's Nice Guy. How many times have you heard that? Even the poisonous Drew Sharp, on the radio the other day, conceded this.

"When you take football out of the equation, Mr. Ford really is a good guy," Sharp said.

And what did Leo Durocher say about nice guys?

Matt Millen, I hear, is a nice guy. I've never met him, but I'll take it on everyone's word.

But as long as Ford owns the Lions, the team will never be successful. He's had 43 years to prove otherwise, and hasn't done so.

Yes, I know this conclusion goes right alongside the notion that water is wet, but I bring it up because of what has happened in our very own town. And to point out the double-edged side of this sword: you can't change who the owner is, so you might as well not worry. Right, Mickey Rivers? But yet, you DO worry, BECAUSE you can't change who the owner is.


But let's jump into the wayback machine and set it for the summer of 1982. The Red Wings, at the end of the Norris family ownership, were in the thick of a wretched stretch in which they made the playoffs once in 12 seasons. And it wasn't all that hard to make the playoffs in the post-expansion NHL, yet the Red Wings managed to fail 11 out of 12 times. There were moments when I truly never thought I'd live to see the Stanley Cup won by my team. The Cup-less streak was 27 years and with no end in sight.

Then Mike Ilitch bought the team.

He didn't get it right at first; his directive to GM Jimmy Devellano to sign aging veterans and unproven college free agents was a disaster. His hiring of coach Harry Neale was a disaster, as was his successor, Brad Park. Long story short, though, Ilitch got it right eventually -- largely because he hired Devellano in the first place.

The Pistons were foundering, owned in absenteeism by Fred Zollner, who brought pro basketball to Detroit, made a series of curious moves, then finally settled into 90% retirement in Florida, attending maybe one game a season. Bill Davidson was part of a consortium of folks who bought the team from Zollner, in 1973. Then Davidson bought out his partners, becoming sole owner. He, too, made some bad decisions before bringing Jack McCloskey into the fold in 1979.

The Tigers have been blessed with mostly good ownership, going back to John Fetzer buying the team in 1960. Fetzer was followed by Tom Monaghan, who may have been slightly strange, but who didn't do anything too foolhearty; the Tigers remained winners on his watch.

So it's all a waste of time and breath -- and worry -- when you think about it, to fret over the Lions. To suggest draft choices. To suggest free agent signings. To suggest offensive and defensive systems. To pay attention to them at all, frankly.

I know, easier said than done.

But it really is all a waste. Except for the most masochistic.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Phantom Calls Threaten NHL Experience

Mickey Redmond's incredulous comments aside, I'm able to formulate my own opinions -- and they don't stray very far from the Red Wings' TV analyst.

"Holy smoke!"

"He barely touched him!"

"(derisive chuckling)"

Officiating in the NHL is at an all-time low in terms of quality, consistency, and accuracy. I'm talking in terms of penalties, though there have also been some curious judgments when it comes to rather obvious things -- like pucks bouncing off the protective netting above the glass. I'm sure you know of which I refer.

Watching the Red Wings and the Predators play last night, it occurred to me that the NHL fan gets two games for the price of one: the regular contest between the two teams, and a bonus game, pitting each club's specialty teams against one another. The latter is ridiculously influenced by the zebras.

It's a case of being careful what you wish for. As early as the mid-1980s, I had longed for a second referee -- someone to stay behind the action, policing the nonsense that was happening 30-40 feet from the main action. It was a time when I thought that would be, you know, a GOOD thing.

So the NHL added that second ref, alright, but all it got us was an influx of power plays -- and 5-on-3s.

A year and a half ago, I was talking to Ted Lindsay, the still-irascible Red Wing of the 1950s.

"When I played, if you saw two 5-on-3s the whole YEAR, that was a lot," Terrible Ted told me. "And the player who was responsible for the second penalty would find himself in Edmonton the next day." (Edmonton was the Red Wings' minor league affiliate in those days).

"But now, you see 5-on-3s all the time," Lindsay said, shaking his head.

But it's not JUST that there's a lot of penalties -- and, of course, 5-on-3s. It's what's being called.

Last night, Niklas Kronwall was moving, stride-for-stride, with a Predator player along the boards. It was nothing more than two determined players going for the puck. But up went the referee's right arm. Holding.

"I think the refs are trying to balance things out a bit," Larry Murphy said from his new position, between the benches, as the third man on the FSN team. "They called a lot of penalties on Nashville earlier in the game. They like to have a more even scoresheet."

Now, the notion of refs and umps making "makeup calls" has been going on forever. I can even tolerate that, to a degree. But the NHL officials are bastardizing the game with their ticky-tack, almost basketball-like way they're calling games. In other words, I agree that if the sport was hoops, then you've got yourself some fouls. But the game's hockey, and you can't touch a guy anymore.

The league, several years ago, wanted to come down hard on obstruction. Their reasoning -- and it wasn't bad -- was that the game's more talented players were being held up by some of the lesser ones. No one was paying, they said, to see the star players being put into wrestling holds through the neutral zone. Again, hard to argue.

But the trouble is, nobody seemed to hold any sort of leadership meeting to actually try to define what should be called and what shouldn't. The result was that each referee formulated his own opinion, and more and more of them erred on the side of blowing the whistle. As bad as it was in the beginning, it's horrific now.

It's hard to watch the NHL now as a result. Games have little flow, and nearly half of the 60 minutes, often, are spent in power play situations, or 4-on-4s. It'd be like if the NFL switched to Canadian football rules and punted on third down. Way too much special teams emphasis.

I really hope the league mucky-mucks congregate this summer and try to better define what is a penalty and what should be, frankly, ignored.

Or, to quote Redmond again: "It's hockey, for goodness sakes!"

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Secret’s Out: O’Ree Broke Color Barrier Half Blind

The first black hockey player in NHL history was crushing my hand. He didn’t know his own strength.

Now THAT’S a hockey player’s grip, I thought. Strong. Firm. Bone-crunching, if you didn’t get your hand in there just right.

Willie O’Ree is 72, fit as a fiddle, and prancing around the country, playing pied piper for North America’s disadvantaged youth, hoping they’ll follow him into the world of ice hockey.

And he’s doing it all with one good eye. In fact, he did EVERYTHING in his hockey career with one good eye.

“I had an accident in my late teens, when a slap shot hit me in the right eye. I ended up losing about 95% of the vision in that eye,” O’Ree tells me. We’re sitting in a hotel in Detroit, he and I, in between one of O’Ree’s many appearances in town a few weeks back. It’s another leg of his pied piper tour. And there, in the quiet before the hotel lounge’s evening storm, he regales me with a story that he kept secret from his teammates, his coaches, everyone.

“I was a left winger and a left-handed shot, so because I couldn’t see out of my right eye, I had to completely turn my head to the right. But I decided to concentrate on what I COULD see instead of what I couldn’t see, and I only told two people about my eye: my youngest sister, and my best friend. I swore them to secrecy, because I was afraid if anyone found out they wouldn’t let me play again... the truth was that I was blind in my right eye.”

So there you have it. The “Jackie Robinson of Hockey” played with one good eye. And no one ever knew about it – except his sister and best friend. How could he have kept such a thing hidden?

“I never took an eye exam for any of the eleven professional teams I played for.”


Willie O’Ree might be the Jackie Robinson of Hockey – he says the media dubbed him that – but his NHL debut was about as heralded as that of a little-known rookie called up from the Quebec Aces playing in just another regular season game in January. Which is what O’Ree was, and that’s exactly how it went down.

O'Ree, as a Bruin

“On January 18, 1958, the (Boston) Bruins contacted the Aces and said they wanted me to join the team in Montreal for their next game against the Canadiens,” O’Ree recalls. “Prior to that, to the Montreal fans I was just Willie O’Ree of the Quebec Aces. The big write up was that we beat the Canadiens, 3-0 – not that I broke any sort of color barrier or anything. I traveled with the team to Boston and Montreal beat us, 6-2. Then I was returned to Quebec to finish the season.”

O’Ree came back up during the 1960-61 season, when he played 43 games. It was his only NHL season. After that, he played minor league hockey – until 1979, at age 43.

The notion that O’Ree’s entry into the NHL was treated so subtly fascinates me. And he was the only black player until 1974, when Mike Marson suited up for the expansion Washington Capitals. Just because the other NHL teams were slow on the uptake shouldn’t be held against O’Ree, of course. He’s still a trailblazer, even if that trail was overgrown with weeds when Marson joined the fray.

Yet O’Ree didn’t see himself that way – as a trailblazer. Still doesn’t.

“Well, that was my goal, to be a professional hockey player and hopefully one day play in the National Hockey League,” he says with not so much as a tiny shrug.

Surely, I asked him, beyond the racial remarks, there must have been those “Jackie Robinson moments” that come with being a minority of one.

There were. But one stands out in O’Ree’s mind, and I can see why.

“There was a big right winger for the Blackhawks – about 6-foot-4, 230 pounds – named Eric Nesterenko. We got into an altercation (in Chicago); I was behind the net, and was coming out front, and Nesterenko came from my blind side and butt-ended me in the mouth (with his stick). Split my lip, split my nose, knocked my two front teeth out. He made a couple of racial remarks, but what really got me mad was that he was kind of laughing at me, waiting to see what I would do.

“So I hit him over the head with my stick, and we got into a fight. Both benches emptied. I had to remain in the locker room, for my own safety. That was probably the worst fight.

“But I told myself, if I’m going to leave the league, it’s because I don’t have the skill – not because someone’s trying to run me out.”

That, and concentrating on what he COULD see, instead of what he couldn’t, through that blind eye.

It’s easy to understand, when you spend some time with O’Ree, why NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, in a rare fit of foresight, tabbed O’Ree to be the director of the league’s Diversity Program. That was ten years ago.

“We have approximately 39 programs throughout North America,” O’Ree says. “What I do are on and off-ice clinics with these programs, personal appearances, autograph sessions, fundraisers. I speak to about 40 schools a year. I go into the inner cities and try to encourage boys and girls to play hockey. Basically, I’ve had good success trying to let these kids know that there’s another sport out there that they can play. The tough part is getting them on the ice. But once we get them on the ice and they start maneuvering the puck with the stick, we find out that a lot of these boys and girls have a lot of natural talent.”

O'Ree today, instructing

O’Ree was in Detroit last month as part of the NHL’s “Hockey in the Hood” tour. The city was hosting a tournament, featuring youth teams from all over North America. All teams were made up of kids of color and who would never have had the opportunity to lace up a pair of skates if it wasn’t for the Diversity Program’s equipment bank – donated gear that gets recycled.

O’Ree is still wacking away those weeds, 50 years later.

(note: you can read the entire Q&A I had with O'Ree -- a five-part series that will continue throughout the month, at

Friday, March 07, 2008

Theo Ratliff: Another John Long, Lindsey Hunter For Pistons?

The guard's ranks were depleted, and concerns were raised that, despite their under-30 age, Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars might have to log too many minutes during the regular season. Vinnie Johnson was solid as a reserve, but there was an old favorite wasting away on a bench in Indiana that still had that smooth-as-silk "rock set" jumper, as George Blaha used to say.

Enter John Long, University of Detroit alum, and a Piston from the Dickie Vitale days. He, unlike Thomas and Dumars, was over 30 -- 32 to be exact -- when GM Jack McCloskey called his number once more. Long didn't play much, but was nice to have on the bench. Coach Chuck Daly no doubt felt some relief when he looked down the row of players and saw Long in his warmups. Eventually, Daly would see Long in the Pistons locker room, drenched with champagne, as the team won its first of two straight world titles.

Fifteen years later, the Pistons -- once again nervous about the playing time of their backcourt starters -- brought Lindsey Hunter back into the fold after a brief hiatus. Lindsey Hunter -- one of the team's two first round picks in 1993 (Allan Houston was the other) -- had been a Piston for seven seasons before moving on to Milwaukee, Los Angeles (where he won a championship as a Laker), and Toronto. Now he was back, at age 33, older, wiser, and still with that ball-hawking defensive gene. And again bringing back an oldtimer worked; the Pistons won another championship in 2004.

Earlier this week, the Pistons followed form, but with a big man.

Theo Ratliff, a teal Piston from back in the day, is a red, white, and blue Piston now. Once upon a time, Ratliff was a youthful bundle of energy, running up and down the court and swatting away enemy shots like a seven-foot tall octopus. He could score a little, and there was no telling how much his raw talent could be developed. Sort of like Jason Maxiell is today. Or Amir Johnson.

Dumars, now the Pistons' architect, signed Ratliff away from the dreadful Minnesota T-Wolves, just after Theo got in a few games, returning from injury. Ratliff says he's healthy and ready to go. Of course, who wouldn't feel energized, going from the league's worst to among its best?

There's something that tells me that the Pistons' history of bringing old players back into the fold prior to a championship run might work yet again, in the matter of Theodore Ratliff.

Ratliff, like most players his age (he's 34) -- especially big men -- isn't the same player he once was. The arms are still as long as ever, but the springs might not be as bouncy. Regardless, Dumars figures Ratliff to get into a playoff game now and again, play a few minutes, disrupt some things, and maybe, just maybe, slow down the likes of Ben Wallace, Josh Howard, and Kevin Garnett. Even for a little while. Every little bit helps in May and June.

Ratliff left the Pistons in 1997, traded away to Philadelphia in the deal that brought Jerry Stackhouse to Detroit. He's never been a GREAT rebounder, but he's made up for it at times with his shot-blocking ability, which is spectacular. He's batted away over 1,700 shots in his NBA career -- an average of about 2.6 per game. Even this year, with Minnesota, at age 34, Ratliff blocked 19 shots in 214 minutes -- an outstanding ratio.

The Pistons will need to "get big" in crucial times in the playoffs. They always do. Dale Davis had been that guy in the recent past, but it didn't work. Davis isn't half the shot blocker that Ratliff is. How will Theo's swatting skills play out this spring?

History might be on the Pistons' side.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Thursday's Things

(every Thursday -- most of them, anyway -- at OOB I rant in list fashion. Last week it was Things In Sports I'll Never Understand)

Things Overheard At The Shaun Rogers Press Conference When He Was Introduced As A Cleveland Brown

"You guys got a Sonic Burger here?"

2. "How about Fuddrucker's?"

3. "Dunkin' Donuts or Tim Hortons?"

4. "So, the target weight is a minimum, right?"

5. "I'll answer questions, but first I need to be put on pure oxygen for 15 minutes"

6. "OH! I thought you said I was playing for Cleveland BROWNIES"

7. "Well, at least here, I won't look as big standing next to the head coach!"

8. "When's lunch?"

9. "I'm here today because Detroit wasn't big enough for me and coach Marinelli -- literally"

10. "Please don't show the video of me returning that pick for a TD against the Broncos. I get winded just looking at it"

11. "I'm just here to give 50% and help the team have a great first half of the season"

12. "I pretend the quarterback is a Slim Jim"

13. "I'm not so big once you get to know me and doctor the media guide"

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Browns Prove Dumbness Not Relegated To Allen Park

Another Mistake By The Lake.

Until today, that was the less-than-flattering nickname given to the city of Cleveland, Ohio. Like many city monikers, it was neither accurate nor fair. Chicago isn't all that Windy, Philadelphia doesn't show much Brotherly Love, and Detroit is losing claim to being the Motor City.

But the new Mistake By The Lake is the Browns' decision to wrap DT Shaun Rogers in green thru the 2013 season, to the tune of $42 million. His current contract was set to expire in 2010; the Brownies added three years and about $20 million to the pot.

That sound you hear is hundreds of thousands of Lions fans clutching their bellies, laughing and pointing across Lake Erie.


Why the Browns decided to lock Rogers up so quickly, when there was hardly a sense of urgency to do so, is beyond me. They acquired him Friday from the Lions for a draft pick and CB Leigh Bodden.

The Browns, you'd think, would have liked to have seen Rogers squeeze himself into his football pants, at least, before hooking him up with so much dough.

But Rogers is their problem now, so I really shouldn't care. But it's nonetheless amusing to see another team spend its money so foolishly.

There is nothing -- zero, zip, nada -- that makes me think that Rogers will suddenly become a 16-game beast on the D-line, just because he's changed teams. The whole "change of scenery" thing is a nice thought, and I think it's cute that the Browns think that it applies here, but once a scalawag, always a scalawag. The change of scenery theory mostly applies to hard-working but frustrated players who either struggle to find playing time or are caught in a system that doesn't exploit their virtues. It's not designed to be a panacea for all -- especially overweight, out-of-shape, brooding dudes like Shaun Rogers.

Like I've written here, Rogers could have owned Detroit. He could have turned this town on like no other D-lineman since Al "Bubba" Baker -- a modern day Alex Karras, if he had only smiled or talked. After his monster performance against the Broncos in that 44-7 win, Rogers was silent. That was his chance to seize the moment. I would have taken outrageous. I would have taken a Roy Williams-like propensity to say goofy things. I would have taken some humility, some leadership. I would have taken the ability to play more than four plays in a row without needing an oxygen tank.

But none of those things was Shaun Rogers interested in doing, so now he's gone, someone else's concern. The change of scenery theory might apply for a series, a quarter, a game. Maybe even a stretch of several games. But it cannot, I maintain, apply for a 16-game NFL season, because Rogers hasn't shown, in seven years, the gumption to prove otherwise. He's poison, and it's time now to infect another's apple.

The Browns will regret today's decision as early as the midway point of next season. They may even regret it in the first week of training camp, when they look over and see Rogers doubled over, gasping for air.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Sharp's Premature Burial Of MSU Returns Us Back To Normal: 180 Degrees Apart

I must have been terribly busy this weekend. I'm clearly uninformed, so for that I apologize. I'm usually more on top of things in the sports world -- so how in the world did I miss the news that Michigan State had been eliminated from the NCAA tournament before it even started? I'm embarrassed to come before you as your faithful blogger with this admission.

Unless I'm mistaken -- which I hope I am.

The Free Press's Drew Sharp didn't take long to wander 180 degrees away from me again -- his usual proximity from me. Drew and I were briefly (sorta) together last week, bemoaning the Red Wings' lack of action at the trading deadline. But now we're at our more customary positions -- one that I share with a bunch of other readers and writers in being opposite of Mr. Sharp.

Sharp, in this morning's Freep, is almost done pouring dirt over the Spartans' casket, without the bother of checking for a pulse. He writes that the Spartans, I guess because they didn't win the Big Ten title, might as well pack their equipment bags, wish the seniors well and look ahead to 2008-09. For there is nothing left to play for this month -- the month of Madness.

To wit:

"But all the Spartans' flirtation with Mexican cuisine did Sunday was exacerbate the collective heartburn of a season that currently ranks as a stunning underachievement.

Their offensive output showed what these Spartans could be, but it doesn't change what they are right now -- a big disappointment nationally.

They scored 103 points against Indiana, but there remain almost as many questions as to why the Spartans' personality deviates so radically between games."

A stunning underachievement? A big disappointment nationally? It's a Top 25 program that lost some tough road games, yet took care of business at home, going undefeated. And there aren't any road games, per se, in the tournament. Everyone, in theory, is in the same boat in that regard.

Oh that's right -- the Spartans have been eliminated from the post-season.

Sharp has the scoop; MSU is going to be on the sidelines, without hope. For you cannot win the Final Four if you're not even invited in the door.

Ahh, but upon reading further, we have coach Tom Izzo to set everyone straight.

"I think a few of our guys had their dreams shattered when we had an opportunity to win the league and didn't," he said. "But it's really a mark of some special guys to get back up. It's March. March is a great time around Michigan State, and we're going to try to make it a special month if we keep playing well."

Whew! The Spartans are still alive after all!

Winning league titles are nice. Winning a tough road game along the way would be even nicer. Finishing in the Top Ten would have been awesome. None of that happened. But that hardly means the Spartans are underachieving disappointments. Now, if they get bumped out of the tourney in the first round (which they've done), that's another story. And just because the Spartans have shown a maddening occasion to let something special slip through their grasp, it's foolish to dismiss their March chances.

Or has Sharp forgotten about Villanova in 1985, or North Carolina State in 1983?

College basketball is like the NHL that way. It's not how you finish ... the regular season, but how you do in the school of bracketology.

Besides, how can ending the season by beating a fellow Top 25 school by nearly 30 points -- albeit at home -- be disappointing? Tournament champs have gone into the post-season with much less momentum, that's for sure.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

My Hockey Life On The Streets

I’m sure there are plenty of things more frightening than a slapshot from Bob Davis, but I’ll be darned if I can think of any right now.

Davis – and I’m using his real name here, for I feel no need to protect the innocent, since he’s not in my book – was the kid who was slightly bigger than everyone else. But he was no bully. He just happened to be able to terrorize us with his slappers.

The game was street hockey, though the action mainly occurred on our driveways. And nothing was greeted more warmly than a fresh dusting of snow. The phone lines in my Livonia neighborhood would start sizzling, even before the snow could finish falling.

“You look outside?”




And that was about the extent of the formalities of planning. A house was chosen – usually mine or Steve Hall’s, because both of us possessed a hockey goal, complete with netting. Then the gang of us – anywhere between three and six – would gather, some with plastic sticks, others with wooden ones. Our object of choice was either a tennis ball or a plastic puck. The usual equipment for boys of our age, and I’m talking 13-to-15 years old. Hall played hockey for real, so he had some goalie equipment, the amount of which that was worn varying from kid to kid, depending on how bold he felt. I was a full equipment guy – a baseball chest protector to go with the trapper, waffle glove, cage mask, and leg pads. Unless Davis wasn’t around, in which case I might eschew the mask. Hey – I fancied myself a handsome kid, and Davis’s shot was just menacing enough to threaten that, had I gone mask-less.

The snow was vital because we would use it to provide a slick coating for the driveway. But there was a process. Functioning like human Zamboni machines, we would use our sticks, boots, and even a broom from the garage to get the snow just right. It couldn’t be too thick, lest the ball or puck not move well. But it couldn’t be too thin, or else you’d fall too easily. It was an art, I tell you, getting that driveway covered with the film of snow perfectly.

The driveway was too small for a real game, and besides, we only had the one goal. So it was an all-out assault on the goalie. We set up a little game, thanks to a stopwatch I received for Christmas one year. One person would be the timekeeper. The others would take the role of goalie and shooters. The shooters had sixty seconds to score four goals. How we came up with such a ratio, I’m not sure. But as sure as I am that I’m breathing right now, thems were the rules, folks.

The timekeeper was to stop the clock after every goal, to give time for the ball/puck to be placed at the “point” – also known as halfway down the driveway from the garage. Then the ball/puck would be teed up, the timekeeper would nod, and the action would begin again. The timekeeper was also responsible for keeping track of the situation.

“Two goals. Twenty-seven seconds left,” or something like that, he would crow into the winter air. He was also under strict orders to count the time down, loudly, in the final 10 seconds, if a fourth goal was still needed. He also served as referee, his word on disputed goals or those scored after time had run out being final.

But back to Davis and his slapper.

All of the above was needed when Davis wound up for his slapper

Like I said, Davis was big for his age, and he could really thwack the ball/puck. The fellow shooters had the advantage of being able to scatter when Davis, playing the point (the shooters would rotate positions, like in volleyball; this was all organized stuff, you know), would begin his wind up.

The goalie had no such option to his avail.

What was worse was that Davis, for all his firepower, was dreadfully lacking in accuracy. Plainly put, Bob had no idea where the ball/puck would go after he thwacked it. It was like stepping up to the plate against Ryne Duren, the drunk, wild Yankee of the 1960s.

I don’t think I actually saw Davis’s stick hit the ball/puck, ever, because my eyes were always closed – even when I was a scattering-out-of-the-way shooter.

It was like being on the firing line. Here was the three-step process:

1. Davis winds up

2. I close my eyes – squeeze them shut, actually, cringing

3. A or B occurs

“A” was that the shot was off target, in which case you’d here the smack of the metal garage door being pummeled. “B” was that it was spot on, and it either hit you – and hurt you, despite the gear – or it went into the net.

I was deathly afraid of “B” and no goal.

We had one of those garage doors with the rectangular windows in it. Drive around any subdivision built after 1975 and if you find one, give me a holler and I’ll buy you lunch – after calling you a liar. Well, Davis broke many of those windows, and my mother knew it. She didn’t really seem to care. Perhaps it was a resigned feeling. Of course, Davis was almost bigger than her, too.

But Davis’s presence was great, because it provided an edge to the game. The unpredictability and instability of his slapshot was something to be feared. He was the North Korea of street hockey.

With all the shoveling to be done lately, I’ve been thinking a lot of those perfectly-snow-coated driveways. Today my aim is the cleanest driveway possible. But occasionally I get the urge to toss away the shovel and break out the broom.