Thursday, July 31, 2008

"Shocking" Pudge Deal Not So Much, After First Inspection

(I'm cheating today. This post also appears on my baseball blog, Where Have You Gone, Johnny Grubb?)

It's the nature of the big baseball trade that the first reaction is shock. Sometimes how you find out about it adds to that aura.

There I was, sitting in a restaurant, having a nice early dinner out -- giving my wife the night off from cooking during our daughter's band camp week, at which Sharon has been volunteering every day at the high school. Hanging from the ceiling was a television -- its volume down but the closed captions running along the bottom of the screen. Channel 7's guy was on -- I don't know anyone's names anymore -- and there were the words "Pudge heads for New York" scrolling as the talking head spoke. Not knowing what that meant, it became clear moments later, when Pudge Rodriguez's photo was superimposed on the screen, over the talking head's shoulder. And the words "Pudge traded!" was its caption.

My jaw literally dropped -- so much so that my family asked me what on Earth I was reacting about.

It's also the nature of the big baseball trade that, once the shock dissipates, and once you start thinking rationally, most "shocking" trades aren't all that shocking. In fact, some of them make some pretty damn good sense.

It was revealed yesterday, in the wake of Rodriguez's trade to the New York Yankees for reliever Kyle "I Used To Be a Tiger" Farnsworth, that no one in the Tigers' inner sanctum is shocked that Pudge is gone. If only because the team committed, a "couple weeks ago", according to manager Jim Leyland, to the notion that Rodriguez would not be a Tiger in 2009. Pudge's multi-year deal is in its last year, and the cost to bring him back would likely have been quite high, even as he approaches his 37th birthday.

Going further, GM Dave Dombrowski said that Brandon Inge has been tabbed as the new everyday catcher, starting immediately, and extending into next season, at least. That decision, also, was made quite some time ago. So, no shock in the executive offices when the team was able to consummate a deal for Pudge.

So the more I thought about it, the more I can understand the Tigers' perspective. The bullpen is in dire need of help. Farnsworth provides that. Leyland said it best.

"No disrespect to Brandon or Pudge, but whether we make the playoffs isn't going to be decided by who the catcher is," he told FSN Detroit before yesterday's game. "Pitching will decide that," he added.


That much was once again placed into an evidence bag last night.

Closer-for-now Fernando Rodney got all Todd Jones-ish and surrendered a game-tying home run in the bottom of the 9th to Kelly "Babe Ruth" Shoppach, who had himself one of those nights that his children's children will be hearing about, ad nauseam: five hits, all for extra bases, including two home runs. And another late-inning lead, one that the Tigers worked so hard to grab, had vanished in an instant. As if Leyland (and we) needed another case study as to why bullpen reinforcements are so badly required.

If the price to nab at least some of that help comes at the cost of an expensive catcher on the back end of his career and in the last year of his fat contract, then maybe we can all live with that. Pudge Rodriguez was a good Tiger, better than I thought, to be honest. I had some serious reservations in 2005, starting when he showed up to spring training much slimmer and in a nasty mood. He wore a sour puss most of the season, and was widely regarded as being no big fan of manager Alan Trammell. But after Leyland arrived, Rodriguez seemed happier, and he was as big a reason as any why the Tigers made it all the way to the World Series.

Oh, and a word about his coming to Detroit in 2004. Yes, it was a great thing for the franchise, coming on the heels of that 119-loss season. But think back. Despite winning the World Series with Florida in 2003, Rodriguez was 31 and with recent history of back trouble. He didn't have all that many suitors lining up for his services. The Cubs were mentioned. The Marlins showed lukewarm interest. The Orioles came up in discussion. But no team was remotely as desperate -- or as willing to overpay -- as the Tigers were. They needed Rodriguez, for sure, but he didn't have too many other options, either. Not trying to splatter on him, just wanting to set the record straight -- because you'll be reading constantly about how Rodriguez rode into Detroit like a knight in shining armor. You won't read as much, me thinks, about how few teams needed such a knight -- at the cost the Tigers were willing to pay.

But that's not taking anything away from Rodriguez's time in Detroit. It was properly mentioned that not once did he spend any time on the DL during his 4+ seasons here. For a 30+ catcher with a supposed bad back, that's something. And he pretty much maintained a .300 BA and played above average defense. There aren't too many everyday catchers who can do both those things.

This was, at first glance, a shocking deal. Not so much, once you think about it. Pudge will be missed, but as Leyland said -- the catcher isn't going to determine whether the Tigers make the playoffs. Those throwing to the catcher will determine that.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dumars's "Detroit Raiders" Add Another Misfit; So What Else Is New?

The point guard is a four-time loser in the NBA. The shooting guard was deemed too skinny and frail, and was dumped. The small forward was looked at cross-eyed when drafted. One of the big men was labeled a coach killer and a disruption. The other big man's knee was so wrecked that few felt he'd ever play another minute in the league.

With the exception of the big man who might be a coach killer and a disruption -- because he can be, at times -- the above paragraph is no longer an accurate description of the current starting five for the Detroit Pistons. But it was, at one time.

Chauncey Billups, one-time NBA journeyman. Cashiered by the Celtics, then the Raptors, then the Nuggets, then the Timberwolves. Only one of those teams -- the Celtics (and only recently) -- have won anything of note after Billups' banishment. Meanwhile, with the Pistons, Billups has appeared in six straight conference finals, two NBA Finals, and won a championship. Not bad for a four-time loser.

Rip Hamilton, skinny and frail, once upon a time. Will never amount to more than a shot-happy, defensive liability. Or so the Washington Wizards thought, when they traded the former University of Connecticut standout to the Pistons in 2002 for the enigmatic Jerry Stackhouse. Stackhouse has since been bounced over to the Dallas Mavericks, where he still seeks a championship. But Hamilton's heart was apparently never measured, because since becoming a Piston he's worked hard to shed all of the negative labels that were whispered about him. He, too, is a six-time conference final participant, along with all those things Billups has accomplished.

Tayshaun Prince, from the University of Kentucky. They play some good basketball down there, in case you didn't know. But when Joe Dumars drafted Prince in 2002, there were yawns. Except from the Pistons themselves. In his rookie season, Prince rarely got off the bench. The yawners kept yawning. Until the 2003 playoffs, when Prince became coach Rick Carlisle's secret weapon. He's been a starter and a major contributor ever since.

Rasheed Wallace, cantankerous center/power forward. A perceived ringleader of Portland's "Jail Blazers" from several years ago. Judged as being too hard to handle, too much of a loose cannon. A bitch to coach. Often that's been true. It's been true in Detroit. But much of it has been half-truths or rumor or simply a tired tale that's been regurgitated so much that it's accepted as fact. But yet he remains the loosest of the Piston cannons, regardless.

Antonio McDyess, the tragic figure of the Pistons. Once a leaping, high-scoring forward. A first round draft choice, back in the day. Then, a serious knee injury. Then another. Then a career that appeared to be over, until Dumars came calling in 2004. Since then, some tantalizingly close brushes with greatness as a Piston for McDyess. Now is probably the player that teammates and fans would most like to see as a champion. No one takes losing as hard as McDyess, who joined the Pistons as they basked in their '04 title.

To all this, and we haven't even mentioned the young studs waiting in the wings, comes young (still) Kwame Brown, the newest Piston. His resume and NBA experience would seem to fit nicely with the group in Detroit. Former high draft pick -- the highest, actually. Another multiple loser -- the Pistons being his fourth NBA team, and he's only 26. Another who Dumars is taking a gamble on.

Brown, as 2001's first overall pick -- at age 19

The Pistons, it might be said, are the Oakland Raiders of basketball. The Raiders, especially in the 1970s and '80s, were famous for resurrecting careers, a haven to pro football's old, its misfits, its discards. There was something about putting on the silver and black that acted as a fountain of youth, or in some cases, a portable rehab center.

There are those who already are willing to overlook Brown's checkered NBA career, mainly because if anyone has kissed the Blarney Stone more often than anyone in the league, it's Joe Dumars. Same thing with the Raiders. Al Davis would bring in players that, had anyone else in the NFL done so, they would have been laughed at and scorned. But since it was Davis, and since it was the Raiders, then folks simply shrugged and said, "Well, if anyone can get blood from a turnip, it's Al Davis and the Raiders."

Dumars hasn't always rolled seven with those dice. Witness Darko Milicic and Rodney White and Mateen Cleaves and Chris Webber. You play enough craps, you're gonna lose on occasion. But the Brown "gamble" would appear to be a low-to-medium risk, considering the only thing at stake here is some of Bill Davidson's money. At 26, Brown could still have the best years of his basketball life in front of him. He's just a baby, really.

Just another misfit whose career might have needed this.

Sound familiar?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Not Hard To Decipher Junior's Feelings On Millen

One of the prerequisites, if you are contemplating whether to join the bottom feeders and get into blogging or journalism, is to hone your skill at reading between the lines. It's a talent (?) that will serve you well. I promise.

Sometimes, you will find out, reading between said lines isn't all that difficult. In fact, you may even find that the spaces between those lines practically reach out and yank on the cuffs of your pants, craving attention.

I'd say that pretty much sums up the feelings Lions Vice Chairman Bill Ford, Jr. has for President Matt Millen -- without saying so, of course. Leaving us to our own devices.

Several months ago, in one of those "exclusive" newspaper interviews that was long on quantity but low on quality, Ford spoke on many subjects re: the Lions. Inevitably, the topic turned to Millen, the beleaguered prez with the 31-81 overall record. How would Ford, who pushed for Millen's hiring, judge the man now?

"Matt doesn't report to me," Ford said in the beginning of a non-reply that was more of a reply than you can imagine. "So I don't feel like I should comment on that."

Wow. That was one of those things that creates an awkward silence, even if you're alone reading it, as I was at the time.

The other day, Ford was at it again. He had just attended a Lions training camp practice, and was collared on his way off the field. And again Millen came up, because, well, why wouldn't he?

"I discussed that earlier in the year (Ed. note: well, not really), and I don't want to talk about it," Ford said.


Ford Jr., left, will talk all day about coach Rod Marinelli; not so when it comes to Millen

That sounds about as far away from even a mild endorsement as you can get, from someone who SHOULD have an opinion, and SHOULD deem it necessary to at least give it a cursory comment.
Junior's going out of his way to NOT talk about Millen shouldn't be all that hard to decipher, even for those who don't make it a point to write drivel about the team as a career, or hobby.

There wasn't even the obligatory, intelligence-disrespecting attempt to toss us some canned words, like, "I think we're finally on the right track", or "No one is more frustrated than Matt," or anything at all suggesting that Millen has even the tiniest bit of support, or confidence, from Junior.

Rarely have two instances of, essentially, "No comment" spoken so loudly around Lions Land. If you're inclined to read between the lines -- in this case, wide gaps, like a double-spaced child's book report.

I just found it odd, and like I say, kind of uncomfortable, that Ford Jr. would take such a hard, "mum's the word" approach when it comes to Millen, when it would have been totally in character and expected if he fed us some malarkey, if only to give the appearances of some solidarity in the executive washroom, whether that was the case or not.

But Ford chose to evade the subject, lamely explaining that since Millen doesn't report to him, that means he has no opinion on the matter -- or at least, not one worth mentioning.

Now, THAT'S some malarkey.

It doesn't take much of a leap, I don't believe, to suggest that Ford Jr. declines comment on Matt Millen because he is taking some sort of sage advice from an elder: If you have nothing kind to say, then say nothing at all.

But that advice comes with the rider that, by doing so, by staying mum, you pretty much show your cards anyway. There's another old saying: The silence is deafening.

Ford was asked what, if any, ramifications there will be if the Lions do not make the playoffs in 2008.

"I'm not getting into that," Ford said. "I'm not getting into any kind of what-ifs and end of the year. That'll sort itself out at the end of the year."

Now THERE'S the kind of canned response that was missing when it came to Millen.

But Ford makes sense in this instance. No reason to talk tough or make threats about people's jobs, in the first week of training camp, when the team is trying to be optimistic and flowery.

When it comes to Matt Millen, it's obvious that Junior has little say, if any, in the prez's fate. It also seems obvious that, HAD he any say, Junior might have pulled the plug on the Millen Era, perhaps even years ago. That part just might frustrate him beyond belief. And might lead one to choke out a "no comment", when you'd love to do just the opposite.

Of course, that's just me reading between the lines.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

What You Don’t See Won’t Hurt You

The hospital room was bursting with folks – family members of all different ages. Some hugged, others held hands. The daughters were bedside, comforting the man who would, we all knew, soon be gone. Some quiet sobs. Some soft hymns sung.

It was just a matter of moments, and my wife knew when it would be official – her having gone through it with her own father, some 19 years earlier. My grandfather, 96 years old and finally about to fade, would be passing – with me right there, in the room. It was April 30, 2005.

Then, the final breath – that snore-like thing you hear people talk about. I heard it.

“He’s gone,” my wife said.

I nodded, knowingly.

I never looked up. Never looked at him, in those final moments. What you don’t see won’t hurt you – as much. I was a coward that way, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Why look at someone die if you have the option NOT to? Seems like an easy enough decision to me.

And I have just given you an admittedly heavy-handed analogy to what I feel about the destruction of Tiger Stadium – going on now, all sentiment be damned.

I won’t look. Why should I?

My grandfather pre-dates the stadium by three years, so they’re about the same age at their passing. And with the same inevitability of their fate as their demise approached. Grandpa’s lungs, thickly coated with pneumonia, finally would be his downfall, after some game efforts to the contrary. And Tiger Stadium ran out of chances, too – eventually landing on life support thanks to the stubbornness and cold calculations emanating from Mike Ilitch’s camp, for one. This was one time when Ilitch’s normal benevolence when it comes to all matters Detroit was nowhere to be found.

Well, that life support’s plug finally fell out of its socket, and here we are – Tiger Stadium being pounded into rubble by the unbiased wrecking ball.

Not that I’m watching, or paying much attention. That cowardice again.

So there won’t be any pilgrimages to Michigan and Trumbull, to watch the destruction. No wistful, long looks from across the street. I’m not that kind of a guy. My own father passed away in 1996, way up near Charlevoix, and I’ve still never even visited his gravesite. If that makes me a bad person, so be it. Certainly I would have done so, if he was interred closer to home. But why journey five hours to stand there, when I can talk to him and remember him wherever I’m at?

So you’ll pardon me if I don’t peel off I-75 at Rosa Parks Boulevard and pay my respects. I have my memories, and that’s enough. I don’t need to rehash them as I see the object of my affection destroyed. That just seems too...masochistic. And totally unnecessary.

We all have our views of what should be done with the old ballparks when they’re not servicing us anymore. When their turnstiles are stilled. When their grass turns to weeds.

I don’t know what side of the construction fence you stand on, but knock ‘em down, I say. I know others disagree. Perhaps you do, too. Some would keep the old lady standing, but nobody did much for the upkeep of Tiger Stadium after its final game in 1999, so whenever I drove by it during the past nine years, all I saw was a decaying building whose time had passed. Detroit has a few more of those lying around, you know. So it seemed kind of odd to me to want to keep such a structure standing, when nothing was being done to preserve it. The stadium earned a state historical marker years ago, but I wonder if any other such designated building was allowed to rot like Tiger Stadium.

No, if better use can be made of the parcel of land, then by all means, go for it. They turned the Polo Grounds into apartments. An armory ended up being built on the site of Olympia Stadium, at Grand River and McGraw.

I’m not with those folks who seem to think that a wrecking ball can simultaneously destroy memories while it pulverizes an old ballpark.

Yet I admit to flinching a bit as the first images hit the wire of Tiger Stadium’s normally enclosed walls showing a hole blown open in them the size of a crater. It wasn’t something I regaled in, just because I agree with its doing. I have no joy in knowing that Tiger Stadium is going down – absolutely not. But I refuse to look, which is my right.

Tiger Stadium will soon be no more. Yes, it’s on a much smaller scale, but this is similar to those final moments of grandpa’s life at U-M hospital. It was going to happen, whether I wanted it to or not. And I never expended so much energy NOT looking at something so hard in my life. It was bad enough I had to hear it.

So I won’t subject myself to the heavy machinery and construction – no, DEstruction equipment – carrying on with its brazenly uncaring efficiency as it obliterates Tiger Stadium. I won’t watch. And this time, I don’t even have to listen.

I have my memories of the old ballpark at The Corner. Like those I have of my dad, and grandpa. That’s good enough. No wrecking ball is going to take those away.

People still talk about the Polo Grounds, by the way. And Olympia Stadium. And countless others, who now rest in peace. Tearing those sports palaces down didn’t seem to cause memory erasure. And my watching Tiger Stadium perish isn’t going to amplify those memories one bit, so why bother?

I’ll just try to avoid the area for a while.

Friday, July 25, 2008

English Was Terrific, But Another "What If" Player For The Lions

(with NFL training camps in full swing, and the Lions celebrating their 75th anniversary, OOB will profile various Lions coaches and players throughout history every Friday between now and the regular season opener)

There was great irony in the tale of Doug English. For he was there when his absence wouldn't have mattered a lick, then chose to sit out when he could have made a big difference.

English, one of the best defensive linemen to ever play in Detroit, was a beaten down, frustrated football player by the close of the 1979 season. The year prior, the Lions had finished strong, winning six of their last nine games under new coach Monte Clark. The 7-9 overall record was mediocre, but there were high hopes heading into the off-season. Some "experts" picked the Lions to win their division in 1979.

But in the final exhibition game of the season, starting QB Gary Danielson went down with a season-ending leg injury. Then, in the season opener, backup-turned starter Joe Reed was also lost due to injury. That placed the signal-calling responsibility on the shoulders of Jeff Komlo, a rookie from Delaware. The results were predictable.

The Lions were awful in '79, finishing 2-14. The entire reason for that could not be directed at Komlo, because there were many guilty parties. The running game was non-existent. The secondary was like a sieve. And there was Komlo, who struggled mightily, as you would expect from a rookie thrust into the starter's role from third string.

After the season, English -- one of the team's few stars -- decided he had had enough of pro football. He informed the Lions that he was retiring -- at age 26 -- to pursue interests in the oil business. English was a Texas kid, through and through. He played high school ball in Dallas. He went to the University of Texas, and was the Lions' second round pick in the 1975 draft. So back to Texas he went, in the heart of American oil country.

His departure left a void in the Lions' D-line, but with the drafting of Billy Sims and the return of Danielson, the team came together nicely. The Lions started 4-0, and appeared on their way to a playoff spot. English's absence wasn't being felt all that much. The Lions still had DE Bubba Baker, and interior guys like Dave Pureifory. They were tough to run against.

But as the season wore on, and teams played the Lions tougher, the W/L record suffered. Eventually, a 4-0 start turned into 7-7. Despite winning their final two games, the Lions were bumped out of the playoffs by the Minnesota Vikings (naturally) when the Vikings won a late-season contest against the Cleveland Browns on a Hail Mary pass (naturally) that was somehow corraled by Ahmad Rashad.

It's impossible to know for sure, but I have a feeling that if Doug English was playing in 1980, the Lions' defense, which tired as the season went on, might have stood up better and could have managed the one more victory it needed to surpass the Vikes.

Buoyed by the team's resurgence, and not having made a killing in the oil business, English returned to the Lions in 1981. And again the team lost a playoff bid late, getting upset at home by Tampa Bay on the final Sunday, in the Silverdome.

English continued his fine play in subsequent years. In 1983, when the Lions finally won the Central Division, English had 13 sacks, making the Pro Bowl for the third straight season.

Ahh, but there's still the matter of "what if?" when it comes to Doug English.

When Darryl "What's a guy got to do to get fired around here?" Rogers was hired in 1985, the Lions switched to a 3-4 defense, as most teams in the NFL were doing at the time. This turned English from a DT to a nose tackle, a position that didn't really suit him. He was undersized, for starters, at 260 pounds, and never excelled in the new scheme. Then he hurt his neck in a game against the Bears, playing the unfamiliar NT position, and the injury was serious enough to force him to retire at age 32. So despite how good his career was, you couldn't help but think that it might have been even better if it wasn't for the change of schemes and the neck injury.

Interesting tidbit: English co-holds the NFL career record for most safeties recorded by one player, with four.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Thursday's Things

(when the mood strikes, on Thursdays at OOB I rant in list fashion)

Things Seen On Matt Millen's "To Do" List As Training Camp Opens

Get all weekend passes for Pennsylvania approved by Mr. Ford

2. Schedule photo opps, smiling with coach Marinelli while watching practice; make sure to wear shorts and have beard scruffy

3. Work on compiling that list of "58 coaches" Steve Mariucci said I've fired

4. After drafting guys named Kevin Jones, Charles Rogers, Mike Williams, and Calvin Johnson -- learn how to spell and pronounce Gosder Cherilus.

5. See if I can do that Army thing with Caleb Campbell

6. Convince myself that all those signs say "HIRE Millen!"

7. Continue to polish my TV analyst audition tape

Now that Shaun Rogers is gone and so is his weight distraction, look into Slim-Fast for myself

9. Double check safety deposit box weekly that contains "those photos" of Mr. Ford

10. Remind myself of my over-seventy percent success rate at making the rest of the NFL feel good about itself on a weekly basis, for my benevolent self-esteem

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Once Again, Lions Late To The Party When It Comes To Spikes

The Lions have made a killing in the free agent market -- the has-been market, that is. They have a thing for signing players just a tad past their prime -- a tad enough to be considered over-priced busts. It doesn't take much of a tad to veer into that area in the NFL, when the calendar decides to catch up with you instantaneously almost, and with little warning.

The latest addition to that bourgeoning category just might be LB Takeo Spikes, who fits the Lions' history perfectly: 31 years old. Recently injured. Best years behind him. A winner, somewhere else, in a galaxy far, far away.

Spikes has been hovering around Allen Park -- if not physically then certainly spiritually -- circling, debating whether to land and join the Lions. The team says they are close to signing him and having him ready for the start of training camp tomorrow. Spikes's people says he has other options to consider.

The Lions seem to do this more often with defensive players than anything. Once-great DBs like LeRoy Irvin, Todd Lyght, Eric Davis, and Tim McKyer were all Lions too late in their careers to be much more than off-the-field mentors. LBs like Mike Johnson, Pat Swilling. DL guys like John Mendenhall, Curley Culp, Joe Ehrmann. All flourished with other teams before coming to Detroit. In most instances, the Lions were their last employers. Even the younger fans should be able to remember Lyght, who went to high school in Flint, gamely but unsuccessfully trying to cover receivers when he played for the Lions in 2001 and 2002.

If you want to get a photo of NFL players when they were still good, snap them before they are signed by the Lions (Spikes, above)

Now the Lions are hoping that Spikes, who coach Rod Marinelli says has "plenty of rubber still left on the tires", can come in and make an impact. It's the hope of losers -- those who weren't smart enough or cunning enough to have such players on their roster when their best years were ahead of them instead of in the rearview mirror. There's a reason that Spikes is still unsigned as training camp begins. The Lions will probably uncover that reason once they sign him and he begins playing.

This isn't to say that Spikes is done completely. It's just that it pains me to see the Lions constantly adding these types of players after the fact of their prime. The phrase "a day late and a dollar short" comes to mind, only with the Lions it's more like "a day late and a dollar more." You see, the Lions are pretty good at out-bidding teams for the thirty-somethings of the league. Remember tight end? That was a position the Lions annually reserved for The Flavor of Last Month: Rodney Holman; Ron Hall; Jimmie Giles; Pete Metzelaars.

The Lions' all-time roster is dotted with some of the finest players the NFL has had to offer -- if the clock was set back 3 or 4 years. In radio, a seven-second delay is employed to give the censor a chance to bleep out any naughty words before they hit the air. The Lions, for decades, have been operating on a three-year delay: the average amount of years a player is past his prime by the time the Lions get a hold of him.

I do hope I'm wrong about Takeo Spikes. Once, he was an impact player, a linebacker who could wreak havoc. I hope Marinelli is right about the rubber on the tires. History tells me otherwise, however.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Martz Needs To Re-Prove Genius Status In San Francisco

It is presumed, at least for the sake of this posting, that once he was hailed as a genius, Albert Einstein never had to re-prove himself as such. Nor did Stephen Hawking, or any of the panel from "Stump the Professor" (warning: obscure Detroit pop culture reference, so don't sweat it if you went, "Huh?"). No, I don't think Einstein or Hawking, or anyone else to whom the word "genius" has been properly applied, ever had to go back and remind us why they were being hailed.

In sports we like to use the word "genius" haphazardly -- sometimes even, dare I say it, sarcastically (gasp!). This morning, with NFL training camps just about to get underway, I'm not sure where the meaning of "genius" lies when it comes to offensive mind Mike Martz. But I'm thinking it's edging toward sarcastic, because I'm almost certain that it was probably initially used haphazardly.

Martz, the erstwhile Lions offensive coordinator in 2006 and 2007, has taken his voluminious playbook and "genius" mind (there's that word again) and headed west, to infiltrate the mind of poor Alex Smith and the rest of his San Francisco 49ers offensive teammates. 49ers head coach Mike Nolan is the latest to gamble that Martz can do for him what he once did for the St. Louis Rams, some nine years ago. The Lions took that gamble in early 2006, courting Martz with everything but chocolates and roses with Super Bowl week in Detroit as the backdrop. He turned the Lions down, Martz did, but that didn't stop new head coach Rod Marinelli from pursuing the genius relentlessly, confident that Martz was the man to inject life into an offense teeming with wide receivers but with a brand new quarterback at the helm, Jon Kitna.

So Martz breezed into town, clearly regaling in his reputation as a genius -- and with a playbook the size of the New York City yellow pages in tow, as if to prove his brilliance in terms of quantity, if not quality.

After two seasons in Detroit, about the only thing we could conclude definitively about Martz was that, if he was good at anything, it was at being in control and being less-than-amenable to suggestions from the rank-and-file, or from his boss. His playbook clogged the Lions' players minds and mystified some of the brutuses in the trenches. Yet, for all of its content, Martz's playbook seemed to somehow ignore something intricate to a football offense -- namely, the running game.

Smith: "Whaa?"

By the end of last season, about the only player who publicly endorsed Martz was Kitna -- and with back-to-back 4,000 yard passing seasons, that was no wonder, really. It was less than surprising when Martz was given the ziggy by Marinelli, and maybe even less so when Martz was snapped up by the 49ers -- if only because once you get labeled in the NFL, good or bad, it takes some time to shed it. Nolan, we presume, did his due diligence on Martz and knows what he's getting himself into. Whether the Lions did is always open to conjecture.

The Lions have a new offensive coordinator, Jim Colletto. I'm tempted to call him a simpleton, and in doing so, I mean no offense. But Colletto, he says, is all about paring down the playbook and relying more on the running game. The Lions drafted a huge offensive tackle with their no. 1 pick, Gosder Cherilus, as if to emphasize this new way of thinking. Substance instead of flash.

I saw a photograph the other day of Martz, in the 49ers colors and wearing the gratuitous team baseball cap, instructing Smith, the fine young San Francisco quarterback. I couldn't tell through his helmet and face mask whether Smith had a faraway look on his face.

I guess we'll find out whether he did once they start playing the games for real.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Kitna, For All His Warts, Gives Lions Some Stability

The words reverberated all over the country, not just in Detroit. It was tough talk, if not foolish, and so naturally the words were mocked and derided.

Jon Kitna, the Lions quarterback, was asked to complete a sentence. It was spring of 2007.

“If there’s one thing you could say to Lions fans about the 2007 season,” he was asked, “what would it be?”

“That I would be disappointed if we didn’t win at least ten games,” Kitna replied.

The questioner was me. And the words, repeated again a short while later to the rest of the media, grew legs, as they say in the business.

They barely made a ripple when Kitna spoke them to me, over the phone for one of those quickie Q & A pieces, when I was working for a now-defunct Detroit sports magazine. But when he repeated them soon after, for a radio station’s consumption, then you had something.


It was all over the radio dial, and the newspapers, and the Internet.

But nowhere was it reported that had I not posed the question to him, Kitna may never have uttered the bold statement. Oh well.

The Lions won all of three games in 2006, and the last of those three came on the season’s final Sunday. So to predict – rather, expect – a 233% increase in wins from a franchise that has had as much success on the football field in the last 50 years as Charlie Brown has in kicking the football out of Lucy’s hold, well ...

I reminded Kitna that his words would appear in print, after he made the proclamation into his cell phone.

“Doesn’t bother me one bit,” he said.

Obviously not, because he clearly enjoyed saying them, over and over. When challenged, Kitna refused to back down. And really, when you think about it, what would you have your quarterback say?

“Gosh, I guess I would tell the fans to get ready for another bad season, folks.”

Is that preferable?

The Lions didn’t win ten games in 2007, though they enjoyed a jackrabbit 6-2 start. Kitna looked extremely clairvoyant. Then a 1-7 finish made him a liar, or at the very least, misguided.

Kitna’s gumption was fueled by the quality of the opponents on the Lions schedule last season. When he repeated his assertion to other media outlets, he did add one rider: that when he looked at the team’s schedule, he figured on a winning bonanza, based on the foibles of the teams on the opposite sideline. Never mind that those teams no doubt said pretty much the same thing about the Lions, fresh off their 3-13 year.

But this isn’t about Jon Kitna’s rose-colored glasses (he again predicted something similar to ten wins for 2008). It’s about how he has suddenly become a rarity when it comes to Lions football.

Next week, when the Lions open training camp, Kitna will show up as the unadulterated #1 quarterback. It will be the third straight summer that he will do so, and if he survives it, 2008 will be the third straight year that no one but Kitna has started a game as Lions quarterback.

That may not seem like great shakes, but in a city where the metaphor for quarterback stability is a carousel, or a revolving door, it kinda is. Kitna provides some consistency at QB, and whether you like him or not, or consider him mediocre or not, there you have it. The Lions may not have Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, or even Eli Manning, but nor do they have to truly worry about who will line up under center when the curtain goes up in September – barring injury, that age-old disclaimer.

No “quarterback controversy” in Detroit, not now. Other than the 35-year-old Kitna (he’ll be 36 in September), the Lions possess Drew Stanton and Dan Orlovsky on their roster. That’s it. Stanton missed all of his rookie season last year due to injury, and Orlovsky is, well, Orlovsky: a backup with no real credentials other than he shows up, works hard, and might have some potential. Kind of like most second or third-string quarterbacks in the NFL.

So don’t tell me, with a straight face, that either Stanton or Orlovsky pose any genuine threat to the veteran Kitna when it comes to who will be the Lions starting quarterback in 2008.

The Lions haven’t enjoyed such stability at QB in recent years. And when I say recent years, I’m going back about four decades or so.

Do not talk to me about Scott Mitchell or Joey Harrington – three-year starters who were as soft as Charmin tissue and about as accurate a representation of blue collar Detroit as Chardonnay wine and Gouda cheese. Do not come at me with Erik Kramer, who brokered one magnificent playoff game against Dallas into folk hero status here. The truth was, Kramer was an average quarterback, at best, who won over Lions fans hearts in a jiffy before fleeing to the Bears as a free agent. He didn’t do much in Chicago, really.

Talk not of Gary Danielson or Eric Hipple or Greg Landry or Bill Munson or Karl Sweetan or Milt Plum. They all had their moments, but they all were forever, it seemed, in a life-or-death struggle with another who wanted his job, and who was just about the same in quality. Hence the carousel. And the revolving door.

Jon Kitna is as good as it gets in Detroit right now, and at least he's got some blue collar in him. He's a tough customer whose sleeve-worn Christianity should not be misconstrued for weakness. He's as close a thing we've had to beer-and-shot Detroit, at quarterback, since maybe Bobby Layne. Though Kitna is no Bobby Layne, of course. He's Jon Kitna, and that's just going to have to do. Bold, misguided words and all.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Usually Patient Ford Pulled Plug On Clark Era Too Soon

(with NFL training camps set to open soon, OOB will profile various Lions coaches and players every Friday between now and the regular season opener)

Lions owner Bill Ford Sr. has been touted as being supremely loyal to his employees -- at least the football ones -- even to a fault. It's been his downfall on several occasions, like when he would keep certain coaches on the payroll a tad too long -- or a president/general manager who shall remain nameless.

Yet he didn't show that same patience with a Lions coach who, in retrospect, might have earned a little.

Monte Clark is still employed by the Lions. Has been for years. You can still see him around Ford Field, especially if you happen to be allowed into the press area with all the ink-stained wretches.

Monte's role is kind of clandestine, but suffice it to say that he's a sort of consultant/advisor nowadays. How much input he has, I really don't know. But he had a ton of input some 30 years ago, then lost it before his time -- if you petition me for my flawed yet heartfelt opinion.

Clark was brought over from the San Francisco 49ers in 1978. Monte got shafted there, too. But more on that later.

Clark was handed the first-ever title (in Detroit) of Director of Football Operations, in addition to head coach. That meant that Clark would have total control over everything -- personnel, trades, the draft, the whole nine. It was that control that Clark insisted upon before he would agree to come to the Lions -- largely because of his bad experience in San Francisco.

Clark was one of Don Shula's top lieutenants in Miami -- coaching the offensive line (Monte was an NFL lineman himself) during the glory days of the 1970s with the Dolphins. And it was Shula who recommended Clark to Ford, Shula still having a Detroit connection, thru Ford and from his early days as a pro assistant with the Lions.

Clark today, as a Lions consultant

But between Miami and Detroit, Clark stopped off in the Bay Area, being hired to coach the 49ers in 1976. The team started out 6-1, then slumped to finish 8-6. Despite the disappointing finish, few expected that Clark's job was in danger after just one year. But the 49ers were run by the oddball GM Joe Thomas, who was sort of a poor man's George Steinbrenner -- or Charlie Finley: impulsive, unpredictable, and meddling. Thomas wasn't an owner, but he acted like one. And Thomas impulsively fired Clark, stunning many.

After being blindsided by Thomas, Clark refused to take another head coaching job unless he had much more control over the shaping of his roster. The Lions had Russ Thomas as GM, but apparently the team's organizational chart was adjusted to allay Clark's fears, and Monte came on board, armed with a six-year contract and more clout than he'd ever had.

After 7-9 and 2-14 seasons, Clark presided over a resurgence. The Lions drafted Billy Sims in 1980 (thanks to their 2-14 mark) and the Lions became respectable instantly. They went 9-7 in '80 (after a 4-0 start), 8-8 in '81 (losing the division on the final Sunday), and 4-5 in '82 (qualifying for the playoffs in the strike-shortened year). Then the Lions won the division in 1983 (9-7) and came a crooked Eddie Murray kick away from upsetting the 49ers (how would Monte have liked THAT?) and moving into the NFC Championship Game.

But early in the '84 season, Sims went down with what would be a career-ending knee injury, and the Lions never recovered. They finished at 4-11-1. But it was their first truly bad season since the '79 debacle, so many figured Clark would be back -- especially working for the supposedly patient and loyal Ford.

Not so.

Ford fired Clark, and then inexplicably hired Darryl Rogers from the campus of Arizona State University -- possibly the old man's worst coaching hire, which is saying a lot.

That started a nosedive that wasn't reversed until the team bottomed out and was able to draft Barry Sanders in 1989.

I often wonder how the fate of the Lions would have changed, if at all, had Monte Clark been given another year or two. Clark was a fan of grind 'em out, old-fashioned football -- bred from his own playing career and his time with the Dolphins.

In fact, it was one of the Lions' best OL ever, Keith Dorney, who called Clark "the best coach I ever played for" in his book that was released several years ago. Dorney still laments over that '83 playoff loss to SF, insisting that the team Clark built in the early-1980s was Super Bowl-worthy with a break here and there. Dorney's not far off. The Lions barely missed the playoffs in 1980 and '81, so they were almost post-season qualifiers four years in a row. Certainly they were contenders.

Rogers, on the other hand, drove the Lions into the ground, his passion for football gone by the time he was fired in 1988.

If you go to a Lions game and you happen to see Monte Clark -- some of the kiddies probably don't even know what he looks like -- say Hi and thank him. He gave the Lions some good years, and was given the ziggy before his time. My opinion.

You can read Monte's bio at the Lions' website here.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Thursday's Things

(on some Thursdays at OOB, I rant in list fashion)

Things Overheard In Yankee Stadium During Tuesday Night's All-Star Game

1. "This is the House That Ruth Built and that Steinbrenner Foreclosed"

2. "There are more Cubs here than in Yellowstone Park!"

3. "Is it possible to root for the American League but not the Red Sox?"

4. "15th inning? What else do you expect from an All-Star game played in the City That Never Sleeps?"

5. "This game ended right around the time Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford would be getting in for the night, so it's appropriate"

6. "Isn't there someone else the AL can play?"

7. "Those ice cream cones remind me -- where's Madonna?"

8. "It worked for Tampa Bay: let's just call them the 'Kees"

9. "This game is almost as long as the run of Magic Johnson's talk show!"

10. "So now that the AL won, this means the Yankees get home field advantage in the World Series, right? RIGHT?"

11. "Fire Millen!"

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The WFL's Wheels Ended Up On Blocks In Detroit

Thirty-four years ago this week, they burst out of the womb -- kicking and screaming. No wonder, if they were the least bit clairvoyant. For if the Detroit Wheels knew what was in store for them, they would have done all they could to stay unborn. No doubt that a self-ziggy before one football was inflated would have been just fine with them.

1974 wasn't such a great year in the Motor City. The Big 4 -- yes, there were four major car companies back then: Ford, GM, Chrysler, and American Motors -- were struggling as the country entered into a recession. And the sports teams in town were in varying stages of decay. The Tigers were entering into a recession of their own, having gone too long with the 1968 heroes and nosediving into last place with kids and creaky veterans. The Lions were treading water, nothing more -- and their coach would die before one pre-season game was played, dropping dead of a heart attack during training camp. The Red Wings stumbled through another NHL season ingloriously. Only the Pistons, playoff qualifiers and losers of a rugged seven-game series with the Chicago Bulls, provided any breath of life.

Ahh, but there were those expansion teams in eventually-defunct leagues.

Fall of '74 would give us the Michigan Stags of the World Hockey Association, attracting a few thousand of the very curious at Cobo Arena on a good night. But the Stags wouldn't last the season, disbanding with players' paychecks bouncing around like rubber balls.

But there was still the summer to get through before the Stags debuted, and right around the baseball All-Star break, the World Football League crashed the scene.

The Detroit Wheels were one of the original WFL franchises. And that's pretty much all that you can say about them without getting into the bizarre and surreal.

The Wheels (one of the investors was a pizza magnate named Michael Ilitch) began inauspiciously when they didn't have a place to play -- not a good sign when there's an entire league schedule -- 20 games worth -- to be played forthwith. Tiger Stadium was out -- the Lions saw to that. The Wheels looked into U-M Stadium, but were again rebuffed. Some other choices were deemed ill, for various reasons. So the Wheels settled on tiny Rynearson Stadium, on the campus of Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.

The coach was former EMU coach Dan Boisture (maybe he had something to do with the selection of Rynearson). The GM was former MSU and NFL star -- and Lions assistant coach -- Sonny Grandelius, who just passed away this spring. The quarterback had a semi-famous name: Bubba Wyche, the decidedly lesser known brother of NFL QB and coach Sam Wyche.

The Wheels lost on the road to the Memphis Southmen in their opener, 34-15, then christened Rynearson as their home a week later by losing a close one to the Florida Blazers, 18-15. The Wheels then kept losing, both games and money, until their fate was pretty much sealed. Though they kept a lot of games close, the Wheels nonetheless lost and lost, going 0-11 before upsetting Florida for their only victory.

Yes, that's what the Wheels' helmet looked like back in '74

The Wheels didn't stick around for the entire 20-game WFL season. They folded up shop after Game 14, with a 1-13 record and pretty much zero fan base.

The WFL itself didn't last much longer. They played two full seasons, but couldn't rake up enough cash to make a go of it in 1976. But you can't say the league wasn't progressive -- or at least creative.

There was the Action Point, for one. Touchdowns in the WFL were worth seven points, not six, and the Action Point was the point you tried for after a TD. Only it couldn't be kicked; the scoring team would have the ball put in play on the five yard-line and would have to run or pass it over the goal line to get the AP. It made for some weird final scores -- like 25-11, etc.

There were no fair catches. Although, punt returners had to be given a three yard cushion in order for them to have a fighting chance.

The WFL tried to avoid too much head-to-head competition with the NFL by holding training camp in June and playing a July-November schedule. There were no exhibition games -- hence the 20-game schedule. And the games were usually on Wednesday or Thursday evenings. Only the team from Hawaii -- called simply The Hawaiians (that's how they were listed in the standings, too) -- played their home games on Sunday, which made for some interesting scheduling quirks. Teams who played in Hawaii were usually playing on three days rest, although they'd get ten days off before their next game.

The Detroit Wheels, like every other WFL franchise, figured themselves a viable option for football-hungry fans. And with the Lions not exactly setting the NFL on fire, the Wheels fantasized about stealing away some of the Honolulu Blue and Silver's fan base -- even while playing in Rynearson Stadium out in Ypsi, which back then was barely more than a large high school set-up.

Didn't work out that way. Not even close.

Like the Michigan Stags after them, the Detroit Wheels were mere blips on the city's sports screen, not able to take advantage of their more famous colleagues' yearly struggles and attract those disgusted and fed up with the Red Wings and Lions, respectively. Guess we only like our losing on a much grander scale.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Favre Saga Unlikely To End Happily

Brett Favre can't be trusted. But then again, if you've watched him play the Lions for the past 16 years, especially in Wisconsin, you already knew that. You knew that he couldn't be trusted to do anything but beat them consistently. You couldn't trust him if he had a poor first half, or a poor 3/4 of a game. Chances would be, at the end, he'd walk off victorious.

So no wonder that Favre can now not be trusted with his words, either.

As you know, the maybe-erstwhile QB of the Green Bay Packers is trying to "unretire", some four months after telling the Pack and the football world that he was hanging them up after 16 wonderful seasons, a stretch during which he never missed a start. And the Packers aren't making it easy for him, figuring that there's the small matter of having already told Favre's heir, Aaron Rodgers, that he's the guy, starting in 2008.

"We're prepared to move on," has been the paraphrased sentiment of the Packers' hierarchy.

Not without me, Favre says. Or else, release me and I'll play for someone who wants me.

Nuh-uh, the Pack said to Favre's requested release.

At first blush, I was seeing Favre's side of the story. How much different is it now, really, than it was four months ago, in Green Bay? How far along could the team have possibly moved with Rodgers in such a short time? What was the big deal if Favre came back for another run? The Packers fielded a surprisingly strong team in 2007; who says Favre couldn't nudge them further in 2008?

Of course, it might be bad form to mention at this juncture that it was Favre's gaffe that probably cost the Packers their playoff game -- at home -- last January.

But after further review, as they say in the NFL, I see where the Packers front office is coming from.

How can they trust Favre anymore? How do they know when he's really retiring? How many "comebacks" does he have in him? Is this the only one?

The question of whether Favre will return for the next NFL season has been asked for several springs now -- and recently, during the ongoing campaign. It can't possibly NOT have been a distraction. And Favre has been taking longer and longer to make his decision. This time, he decided -- or so we thought -- in early March.

So is this how it works? Favre can string the Packers along yearly, and they'll acquiesce to him?

Retire? Sure! Oh, come back, you say? Sure! We'll just tell Mr. Rodgers to sit tight and that he'll get his chance...someday.

Not the way to run a business.

But Favre has placed the Packers in a tough spot. Internet polls (and probably sports talk radio sentiment) have Favre in a big lead over Rodgers as far as who folks would like to see as the Green Bay QB in 2008. He's making team management out as the villain here. The media seems willing to go along with that portrayal.

Favre wants to play so badly, apparently, that he's willing to be released so he can play with another NFL team. I wonder if just ANY NFL team will do. I wonder if he'd play for a sad sack team? Or does he want to win? And which contending teams are able to fit a Brett Favre under their salary cap at the expense of their probably already-expensive signal caller? How much contract would have to be devoured and digested to bring Favre in?

Ahh, but what if, you might ask, Barry Sanders had pulled the same switcheroo back in 1999?

A fair question.

First, running back isn't the same as QB, in terms of importance to the team. In other words, it's a lot easier to bring in a new starting RB than to have invested all that time and teaching into a new quarterback, only to shove him aside. Second, Sanders didn't have an heir apparent, mainly because no one truly thought he was on the brink of retirement. His announcement on the eve of training camp -- that was different, too -- caught a lot of folks off guard, even though in retrospect it shouldn't have, necessarily. There was no one waiting in the wings -- not that you can replace someone like Sanders, anyway.

So what should the Packers do? They've offered to let Favre return -- but as the backup. That's quite a gesture, I think -- for even though Favre himself has been durable, that's not really the norm. Rodgers could go down -- it's quite feasible.

But think about Rodgers for a second. How terrible would it be for him as a rookie QB to play with Brett Favre over his shoulder, and with public sentiment wanting Favre to start? As if being a first-year QB in the NFL isn't hard enough...

It's hard to imagine this saga ending any way other than badly. But the "bad guys" aren't the ones who created this mess. Brett Favre did, public sentiment be damned.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Always A Roll Of The Dice When You Add Latecomers To The Mix

Something funny goes on in Major League Baseball along this time of the summer. As the calendar charges forward to the end of July, the 30 teams get funneled into two categories. And we stop talking about them as baseball teams and start referring to them in Wall Street terms.

Buyers? Sellers?

The deadline for consummating trades between teams without players having to pass thru waivers is July 31. Once the clock strikes midnight on that day, any trade that is made after that point becomes less likely to come to fruition, because all involved players must make it thru the waiver process – meaning that every team in the majors must take a pass on said players, which is not always likely. It’s kind of like going to a garage sale, finding a great deal on a lamp, and having to ask everyone else if they want it – and everyone saying no, before you can purchase it.

The Tigers have been “buyers” the last two seasons – meaning they have something to play for in August and September, and thus are looking to add to their roster. The have-nots – aka the “sellers” – can get into fire sale mode, wanting to peddle as many players (read: contracts) as they can, usually to acquire prospects. And when the buyers and sellers get together on or around July 31, the rumble can be seismic.

But this season, there seems to be some question as to whether the Tigers should consider themselves buyers. Yet, they would appear not to be sellers, either – not with their cache of huge contracts and the recent purging of their farm system. But in baseball when it comes to the trading deadline, you’re either a buyer or a seller. Nothing in between. So let’s call them buyers.

Jim Campbell, the crusty general manager of the Tigers from the early-1960s to the early-1980s, sort of made it his habit to secure latecomers for his manager, trying to give Chuck Dressen or Mayo Smith or Billy Martin or Sparky Anderson those extra horses needed to nip the pack. And as what happens when you are a “buyer”, you must beware. Sometimes those horses come up lame.

Not so in 1972.

Martin was at the helm in Detroit, working his usual magic, and pissing people off in the process – namely, his own players. Nobody could make a closer replica of chicken salad out of chicken feathers than the hyper Martin, and nobody could grate on his players’ nerves quite like Billy, either. Jim Northrup, for one, once told me that he never hated a manager as much as he hated Billy Martin. But check out Northrup’s numbers while Billy was here. Not shabby – which speaks to the professionalism of Northrup, and the fire-lighting ability of Martin.

Martin’s tenure in Detroit (1971-73) was marked with aging veterans and precious few legitimate prospects being groomed at the minor league level. Basically, Billy was asked to coax one more championship out of the core that made up the 1968 World Series-winning team. And he darn near did it in 1972 – with some help from Campbell.

As four teams jockeyed back and forth for the divisional lead – the Tigers, Red Sox, Yankees, and Orioles – Campbell went to work, burning up the phone lines talking to his counterparts who were that year’s “sellers”.

From Philadelphia came lefty pitcher Woodie Fryman. Duke Sims, a catcher/outfielder, was acquired from the Dodgers. Frank Howard came over from the Texas Rangers.

Fryman was sensational, going 10-3 down the stretch for the Tigers. Sims provided clutch hits and batted over .300 after the trade. And Howard, who didn’t join the team until mid-September, hit a couple home runs and became the team’s no. 1 cheerleader. All that was left was for Martin to push the right buttons – and he did so, including those of his players, on occasion. The Tigers won the East by a half-game over the Red Sox, then fell, 3-to-2, to the Oakland A’s in the ALCS.

In 1988, Bill Lajoie tried to supply Sparky with some of those extra horses. And it involved some manic air travel.

On August 31 – the last day players can be acquired and still be eligible for a playoff roster – Lajoie worked out one of those waiver deals with the Baltimore Orioles. Coming to the Tigers would be 36-year-old outfielder Fred Lynn – a bona fide All-Star in his heyday. Only, this wasn’t his heyday – hence him clearing waivers.

Anyhow, Lajoie makes the trade, but according to MLB rules, Lynn must be in the same city the Tigers are in by midnight that night, or else he can’t be eligible for the playoffs. In other words, he has to literally join the team before the clock strikes twelve. Sort of a twisted, baseball version of Cinderella. The Tigers are in Milwaukee, and Lynn’s Orioles were on the west coast when the trade was made. So Freddie hops some planes and lands in Milwaukee a tad before midnight. I’m not making this up.

This SI cover's headline had even more meaning when the Tigers dealt for Lynn in 1988

Lynn is eligible after all. He hits some home runs in September, plays some good defense, and basically holds up his end of the bargain. But the Tigers end up in second place, one game out of first place, when the season’s curtain comes down. Not enough extra horse power, apparently.

In 1993, Jerry Walker is the Tigers GM and he pries another one-time superstar past his prime, outfielder Eric Davis, from the Dodgers on trade deadline day. Davis easily makes it to Detroit in time, and hits a home run in his first game as a Tiger. But the Toronto Blue Jays have more and better horses, and leave the Tigers in the dust.

Two summers ago, the Tigers rescued Sean Casey from the Pirates. In the World Series, Casey was easily the Tigers’ best hitter, going 9-for-17 with a couple of homers. Last season, the Tigers – although considered buyers by most – stood pat, satisfied with their horses. But too many of them came up lame, and before you knew it, the Tigers were done – shoved ingloriously out of playoff contention by the Indians and Yankees.

This year, the Tigers are fiddling around with .500 and they’re on the cusp of being sellers, but they probably consider themselves buyers, if they’re wearing their rose-colored glasses. Trouble is, glasses or not, one thing never changes.

Caveat emptor.

Friday, July 11, 2008

After 1,000 Posts, Two Words Come To Mind: I'm Sorry

Like viruses, cancer, and mold, it started innocently enough.

On April 12, 2005, an unsuspecting Internet world was exposed to the following post on a brand-new blog called Out of Bounds:

Tiger Wins Masters, And Golf Needed It

Tell me, was golf really better off while Tiger Woods hibernated? In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Tiger gobbled up majors like Pac-Man, folks squirmed and moaned that one man's dominance was somehow damaging to the game. How much more fun it would be, they said, if others won once in awhile. So as Woods slumped in the last two-plus years, nobody, predictably, came close to matching his exploits. Nobody emerged, front and center. Nobody was, truthfully, the player to beat. Everyone was in the same boat, it seemed, without Tiger at the rudder. Well, you know what? Golf got a tad more boring, folks, in the meanwhile.

That was 999 posts ago.

Today, some 39 months later, post no. 1,000 is appearing in this space.

I first became aware of my date with destiny a few weeks ago, when my Blogger dashboard showed that OOB was in the high-900s in terms of posts. That's cool, I thought. I should make note of it, kind of like when your car's odometer reaches some sort of milestone number.

A penny for my thoughts? How about a thousand of 'em?

Well, here's my little special self-tribute.

Actually, 1,000 posts means a lot of wrong predictions, ill-advised opinions, and self-serving rants. It means getting caught up in the moment and being not all that different from the boobs on their cell phones calling in to sports talk radio stations, no matter how much I don't want to admit it. But it also means being self-referenced as a "bottom-feeding blogger", so as to be an equal opportunity basher.

1,000 posts means a lot of chances to regurgitate my lifelong Detroit sports memories on you, culled from a steel trap memory that has as its roots Tom Dempsey's 63-yard field goal to beat the Lions on November 8, 1970. So now it's almost 38 years -- Nick Lidstrom's age -- of recollection, and I'm not quite 45 yet. So I started young. But I can just about guarantee that if you read it here, as a look back in the day, then it probably happened. I don't have such good recall when it comes to chores or where I placed my keys or wallet, but my sports memory is the antithesis of Teflon.

1,000 posts means that I've gotten a chance to meet other bloggers -- and blog readers -- and I must say, it's a very cool, tight-knit community. I used to start naming names whenever I would reach some sort of milestone, despite advice I've received in the past that says that when you start doing that, someone invariably gets left out who shouldn't. So no names -- just the faith I have in each of you that if you've come to know me a little bit, or this blog, or if you consider yourself a regular visitor, or even semi-regular, then you know that you are included in my thanks. But if you must know names, just check out the links. It's lazy of me, but those are the folks who keep the heart pumping when it comes to Detroit sports. Without them, all you'd be left with are those darn sports talk radio callers, and you already know my feeling about them. Actually, they're not bad dudes -- I just like to pick on them is all.

Oh, one name you should know, for sure: my wife, Sharon. Not to throw her under the bus, but she's the one who suggested I pursue my writing career in earnest some five years ago after nearly 20 years in television production. But seriously, folks -- she should be thanked. Not only for the nudge, but for her patience. I've held her up on more than one occasion because I'm banging away on the keyboard.

So here's to another 1,000, I suppose. Sorry. It's like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. I'm afraid I can't stop this monster that I've created. I could stop writing, but two things about that: 1) it's my vocation, and 2) all that would be left for me would be to start calling sports talk radio stations. And how hypocritical that would be of me -- don't ya think?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Lions' Decision To Bring In Brown A Rare Example Of Common Sense

As far as I'm concerned, Lomas Brown only blew one major assignment in his 11 years with the Lions.

That assignment was to keep his mouth shut and act humble prior to a certain playoff game. He failed, and miserably.

Brown, arguably the best offensive lineman in team history, was full of vim and vigor heading into a 1995 NFC Wild Card showdown with the Eagles in Philadelphia. The Lions were on a roll, having won their last seven games to finish 10-6, thus saving coach Wayne Fontes's job. Owner Bill Ford Sr. had said, after a loss in Atlanta dropped the Lions to 3-6, that the only way for Fontes to come back in 1996 was if his team made the playoffs. It was a rare public ultimatum coming from hizzowner.

So the Lions went out and won their last seven, and Brown had, himself, a rare moment of bluster.

"I guarantee we'll win down there (in Philly)," Brown crowed to the newspapers. "I guarantee it."

It didn't look like a bad prediction, albeit fodder for the Eagles' bulletin board. The Lions were the hottest team in the NFL. They had won some road games down the stretch, when every game mattered. And the Eagles weren't exactly Super Bowl contenders themselves. They were quarterbacked by Rodney Peete, first of all.

I remember saying to one of my co-workers a few days before the game, "The only way I see Fontes not coming back in '96 is if the Lions go down to Philly and lay an egg." But even I didn't believe that would really happen.

But the Lions did just that; they laid a big ole ostrich egg on the Veterans Stadium turf.

What else can you call it, when the score becomes 51-7, as it did at one point? It was 34-7 at halftime. Only a late flurry of scoring by the Lions made the final score a semi-respectable 58-37. It was Brown's last game as a Lion; he would end up in Arizona in 1996.

Brown, again thwarting a pass rush

But something tells me that Lomas Brown will make a much finer tutor than he was a prognosticator.

There's good news out of Allen Park, and that is that the Lions are letting Brown, 45, openly work with first round draft choice and offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus in a sort of tutorial/mentor/coach relationship. They figured, rightly so, that there are many worse choices to pair up with Cherilus other than Brown, who for so many quality seasons anchored the Lions' offensive line from the left tackle position. Brown, no. 75 (which should be retired, by the way, because it was also worn by another top drawer lineman -- guard John Gordy of the 1950s and '60s), was the best pass-blocking lineman I've ever seen play for the Lions. His run-blocking skills weren't bad, either, even if he fell into some unconventional habits by way of blocking for the unconventional Barry Sanders for seven years.

The move to bring Brown back into the Lions family to work with their prized no. 1 draft pick is a pleasantly surprising display of common sense and forward thinking on the team's part. Brown has told folks that he's been chomping at the bit to work with the Lions' offensive linemen for several years now. The wait might be worth it; for Brown now gets to work with the most-hyped OL the Lions have had in years.

Cherilus is penned in to be the Lions' right tackle, since Jeff Backus maintains hold on the LT position. But Cherilus played LT at Boston College, and Brown feels the rookie can be a great tackle, no matter which side he plays.

Lions rookie Gosder Cherilus at Lions mini-camp

No doubt footwork will be on Brown's agenda with the hulking Cherilus, who will come into training camp far huger than Brown ever was during his playing days. Brown, every week, gave up size and weight, but his footwork was so good that he rarely was beaten by those monster DEs and OLBs gunning for a sack. So it will be up to Brown to school Cherilus on the subtle but extremely important mechanics of footwork, to make his 6-foot-7, 320+ pound frame that much more mobile and effective from a finesse standpoint. Brown played mainly at 6-foot-4, 280 throughout his career.

Brown finally won a Super Bowl, with the Tampa Bay Bucs during the 2002 season, at age 39. It was there that he met and joined the Mutual Admiration Society with Lions coach Rod Marinelli, a Bucs assistant at the time. Perhaps it was just a matter of time, once Marinelli got the Lions job, that he'd call on Brown to impart his knowledge onto a high-profile project like Cherilus.

Can't hurt.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Chasing The Ring Never The Wrong Move

Sparky Anderson once said it, in his inimitable way.

"Just once I'd like to see one of them free agents say at one of them news conferences that he's switching teams because they backed a Brink's truck up to his door. They always say they're glad to go where they're wanted. They're glad to go where the money is," the white-haired baseball skipper once opined about his sport's free agents. But I'm sure his sentiments would have applied for other sports, as well. It's just that, at the time, baseball was far and away the leader when it came to player movement.

Well, you'd think that Sparky would have dearly loved what Marian Hossa did last week , even if others around the NHL apparently have a problem with it.

Hossa, a superstar forward, joined the Red Wings for the 2008-09 season, signing a one-year deal worth around $7.4 million. Whatever the deal's true worth, we know that it's at least one dollar less than what Nick Lidstrom makes, since there's an unspoken rule -- actually, sometimes it IS spoken -- that Lidstrom, for the moment, must be the highest-paid Red Wing. It was widely reported that Hossa could have received more money -- much more money, in fact, plus long-term security -- had he signed elsewhere. Edmonton was a reported suitor, among others. The Oilers, folks say, were prepared to offer Hossa, 29, a nine-year pact worth about $81 million.

But Hossa stuck with the Red Wings, and for the purest of reasons -- at least what you'd think would be considered pure -- that is, he wanted to win the Stanley Cup, and sooner rather than later. And we know that Hossa is no dumb-dumb, for when he looked around the league, he saw no team as loaded and as primed for another successful run at the Cup than the Red Wings. Smart man -- or at least one brimming with common sense.

Yet Hossa took some hits in the wake of signing the deal, from those who complained that while on the surface it looked like a selfless move, what Hossa was really doing was just going for his brass ring, while at the same time putting himself back on the free market next summer. In other words, Marian Hossa was trying to have his cake and eat it, too. In the process, the complainers said, Hossa was turning free agency on its ear and making the strong stronger, etc.

File this under the "some people are never happy" category.

One of the critics, a writer from Toronto, had his words dripping with jealousy and bitterness, going so far as to take a potshot at Joe Louis Arena, describing it as old and smelly and some other unpleasant adjectives. Kind of like what Maple Leaf Gardens was, right -- before it was belatedly replaced?

No matter how you try to slice and dice it, I don't know how you can ever diss a guy for taking less money in the name of winning.

What if, God forbid, Hossa suffers a serious injury next season? That would significantly impact his worth. Or, frankly, what if he just has a bad season, production-wise? Again, that would make it tougher for him to command the kind of dollars he could have gotten last week. So don't tell me about being selfish or upsetting the apple cart.

I was as surprised as anyone when Hossa became a Wing, because I hadn't heard that he was on Detroit's radar screen. Even Red Wings management, GM Ken Holland confessed, figured Hossa would be too expensive to sign to a long-term deal, because of its impact on locking up Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen next summer. But a one-year deal made Hossa infinitely more attractive -- and affordable. And it was Hossa, Holland said, who angled for the one-year contract, not the Red Wings.

Now, even if Hossa had the intention of winning a Cup AND being a free agent next summer, so what? He's playing within the rules. And he's still taking a risk by doing so, even if the complainers want to conveniently leave that part out of their discussion.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Lions Created A Monster When Favre Found Sharpe

As long as Brett Favre got to play the Lions twice every season, I’d have thought he would never retire. So it’s not surprising, to me, that his announcement earlier in the year that he was hanging up his spikes and putting his golden arm in storage is now appearing to be premature.

I think it’s rather amusing, actually, that Favre – the Green Bay Packers quarterback since 1992 without interruption – is making news by talking about coming out of “retirement”.
First of all, it’s not really retirement until you’ve actually, you know, MISSED some games. How can Favre be coming out of retirement when there haven’t been any games to be played since his announcement?

But I digress.

The National Football League’s own TV network occasionally airs what are, in their minds anyway, some of the greatest games in league history. At least the ones to which they have access to the game footage.

I was watching one of these airings the other night, and the soup du jour involved our very own Detroit Lions.

It was the 1993 season’s Wild Card game, played in early January, 1994 in the Pontiac Silverdome. Or, as it’s known around these parts, “The Sterling Bleeping Sharpe Game.”
But it was really Brett Favre’s game. Those who should know said so, time and again for the NFL Network’s cameras.

I was impressed, really, that that game – a 28-24 Packers win – should be considered among the best in recent times. And I was even more impressed that so many key participants could recall so much about it, some 14 years later.

Here’s Chris Spielman, the Lions middle linebacker at the time.

“I think that game was Brett’s launching pad game. And I’m glad to have been a part of launching him into stardom,” Spielman said with a chuckle.

Spielman can chuckle now. But there wasn’t any of that at the time. I know I didn’t chuckle one bit.

Favre himself had crystal clear recollection of the game, as did Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren, and Lions quarterback Erik Kramer. Everyone pretty much agreed: that game – the Packers’ first playoff win in years – was Favre’s first real defining moment in the NFL. The first of many, of course. Leave it to the Lions to have created that monster.

The Lions had the jitterbug running back Barry Sanders, and Kramer – who wasn’t brilliant but who was capable – and some nifty receivers like Brett Perriman and Herman Moore. What they didn’t have, however, was the same level of talent on the defensive side of the ball – and certainly not in the backfield, which Favre exposed quite nicely, thank you.

But it was a Packers defender who triggered the change of momentum that would eventually lead to Favre’s coming out party.

The Lions were leading, 17-14, and driving late in the third quarter. Sanders was running around, through, and past the Packers. Kramer was finding Perriman, especially, in the underbelly of the Packers’ defense. The famed, frenetic Run-n-Shoot offense – with one running back and four receivers splayed across the field – was giving the Packers fits. A ten-point lead looked inevitable as Kramer and Perriman and Sanders picked the Green Bay defense apart.

Then came one of those signature plays – the kind the Lions are famous for being involved in, and always on the wrong side.

Inside the five yard line, Kramer eschewed the wizardry of Sanders and opted for another pass. But despite having a receiver open (tight end Ty Hallock), Kramer’s toss was on the wrong side of Hallock, and rookie George Teague intercepted it and returned it for a touchdown – 101 yards away. Instead of leading 24-14, the Lions were suddenly down 21-17. It was a change that they’d never truly recover from.

But they did go back in front, and that’s where they were in the closing minutes of the game – leading the Pack, 24-21. Time for another signature play – a dagger that Lions fans to this day talk about. I imagine it’s much like when the Lions blew a game in Green Bay back in 1962 – a game that may have eventually cost them the division championship – and folks talked about it for years. Some say the ’62 debacle sent the franchise spinning into an irreversible nosedive.

So Favre got the Packers to the Lions 40, thanks to a strong kickoff return. The time was whittled away, to about one minute remaining. The Silverdome crowd was roaring. A date in San Francisco one week later in the conference semi-final for their team was oh, so close. Then Favre went back to pass.

He ran around in the backfield – and by his own admission it wasn’t really necessary that he scrambled, but he did so anyway. He ran to his left, drawing lots of attention. Then, in an instant, Favre stopped, looked to his right, saw something he liked, and heaved the ball. And I mean, heaved.

Floating beneath the heave was Sterling Bleeping Sharpe – who had already caught two touchdown passes in the game. And he was as open as a 24-hour diner.

Kevin Scott was the rookie cornerback assigned to Sharpe on the play, and replays show that, once Favre engaged in his needless scrambling, young Scott stopped covering and started watching. And that’s what caught Favre’s eye when he stopped for that moment and looked to his right.

The ball came to rest in Sharpe’s belly toward the back of the end zone, and 75,000 fans in the Silverdome wheezed, the air knocked out of them. There were but 55 seconds left. There would be no trip to San Francisco after all. Packers 28, Lions 24.

The Packers lost the next week in Dallas, but that game in Detroit gave them confidence and affirmed Brett Favre as a QB who could rally a team in the late stages. And they rode that confidence, built on it, and three years later, Green Bay was league champion. Favre never did stop beating the Lions, either, when you really think about it. He’s perfect against them at home, and does OK in Detroit nowadays, too.

So it doesn’t surprise me that Favre is re-considering his short-lived “retirement” – not when you have the Lions twice on your schedule every year. They helped create him, after all.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Devellano's First Foray Into Free Agency An Unmitigated Disaster

I can still hear Jimmy Devellano's squeaky voice, some 26 years after the fact. He had just been hired by the Red Wings as the team's general manager, coming from the excellence of the New York Islanders organization. It was June, 1982. And the Red Wings were a steaming, runny pile of dog doo-doo. Had been for years, near the end of the Norris family ownership. But a pizza pie guy, Mike Ilitch, had bought the team and brought Jimmy D. on board after some due diligence. The Islanders, at the time, had just won their third straight Stanley Cup. They'd win another the following season -- a grand slam of Cups.

Now Jimmy D. was speaking to the Detroit media on his first day as Red Wings GM. And he wanted to emphasize that the team would not mortgage its future for any quick fixes.

"I want to say right now to the people of Detroyet," Jimmy said in his Canadian squeak, "that as long as Jimmy Devellano is the general manager of the Detroyet Red Wings, we will NOT trade a draft choice."

And Jimmy never did.

He chose to cultivate the team from within, mostly. He began working on overhauling the scouting department, which was wretched. Jimmy D. would plug in a veteran free agent here and there -- band-aids, nothing more. Just about every one of the NHL players Devellano brought in was over-the-hill: Reggie Leach, Rick MacLeish, Stan Weir, Eric Vail. And so on.

Then, after a few years of this method, Devellano got antsy. He decided to make a bigger free agent splash -- still sticking to his promise of not trading away draft choices.

In the summer of 1985, Devellano signed and signed and signed some more. The Red Wings were coming off two straight playoff appearances, but they were bounced in the first round each time, going 1-6 in the process. Jimmy was impatient.

Devellano (left) with coach Nick Polano (right) and 1983's #1 Red Wings pick, Steve Yzerman

First, a flurry of college free agents were signed -- players who weren't drafted but who had OK resumes on campus. If you don't remember names like Tim Friday, Ray Staszak, and Dale Krentz, you're forgiven. Each of them was a bust. The only college FA that amounted to anything who Jimmy D. signed was a center from RPI named Adam Oates.

After the college dudes, Jimmy D. brought in established NHL players -- and ones who didn't appear to be on their last legs, necessarily. Harold Snepsts was signed from Minnesota; Mike McEwen from Washington; and Warren Young, a 40-goal scorer the year before, from Pittsburgh.

The new-look Red Wings caused a stir. Some national pubs picked them to win the Norris Division. There was a photo spread in Sports Illustrated. It showed Snepsts and McEwen and others playfully making pizza pies in a Little Caesars kitchen. Devellano had tossed around a lot of Mike Ilitch's pizza dough, and anticipation for the 1985-86 season was high. There was even a new coach to mold everything together: Harry Neale.

It ended up being the worst season in Red Wings history. In their HISTORY.

The team finished 17-57-6, giving up 400 goals in the process -- an average of five per game. They surrendered 10 goals in a game on four separate occasions before Christmas. They were flat awful. Devellano's spending spree had bought nothing but defective items.

Young was a perfect example. He scored 40 goals playing on a line with Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh, yet in Detroit it would have taken three or four players' talent to make one Lemieux, and even then it was close. Young scored 22 goals in Detroit without Lemieux to feed him passes.

Neale was fired on New Year's Eve and Brad Park took over. It didn't get any better.

Stung by that failure, Devellano changed course. He made trades. Kids began contributing from the minor leagues. He hired Jacques Demers as coach. The team made it to the Final Four in each of the next two seasons.

Free agency is heating up this summer in the NHL. A bevy of players have switched teams already, on the first day of signing. The Red Wings signed a backup goalie, Ty Conklin, and re-signed defenseman Brad Stuart. If they can add another veteran forward, they will. But there's no sense of urgency. Not when you've just won the Stanley Cup.

Jimmy D. is still around, of course. If he can survive the debacle of '85-'86, he can pretty much survive anything. Owning seven championship rings doesn't hurt, either.

One thing has changed, though: the Red Wings do, indeed, trade draft choices nowadays. But that's worked out pretty well for them, too.