Sunday, August 31, 2008

42 Years After Their Biggest Game Ever, Spartans Still Trying To Find Themselves

Rich Rodriguez is the fourth head football coach at the University of Michigan in the past 40 years. Mark Dantonio is the fourth head football coach at Michigan State University – in the past nine years.

And therein lies part of the reason why the Spartans have been playing catch-up with the Wolverines for most of the last four decades, when it comes to football.

It’s time for another college football season, and once again U-M is hogging the spotlight. This time it’s because, for the first time since 1995, the Wolverines are about to be led onto the gridiron by a new man. A coaching change in Ann Arbor is truly news; in East Lansing, where it happens more frequently than presidential elections, the shock factor is almost nil anymore.

You have to be pushing 50 (a group that, sadly, includes me) to recall when it was the other way around. A time when Michigan football was in upheaval and MSU football’s foundation was as solid as oak.

“Kill, Bubba, Kill!”

That was the chant around campus in the mid-1960s, when defensive end Bubba Smith headlined those great Spartan defenses, along with linebacker George Webster. MSU football was the bee’s knees, constantly ranked in the Top 20, and often in the Top Ten. Once, it was no. 1. That was in 1965.

The next year, in ’66, MSU played Notre Dame in, some would tell you, the greatest college football game in the modern era. Certainly one of the most anticipated, and maybe the most talked about – at least around these parts.

No. 1 Notre Dame (8-0) and No. 2 Michigan State (9-0) got it on in East Lansing on November 19 that year. And the MSU student body, all week leading up to the game, urged Smith to kill Fighting Irish quarterback Terry Hanratty. It’s still unclear whether the pleas were literal or figurative.

Both teams boasted great defenses, so the 10-10 score late in the ballgame was hardly surprising. Hanratty wasn’t dead, but he WAS out of the game, courtesy a first quarter sack by Smith.

The Irish got the ball for their final possession with 1:10 left, on their own 30 yard line. They would have needed about 40 yards to get themselves in field goal position.

But Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian would have none of it. With backup QB Coley O’Brien in the game, Parseghian chose to run out the clock. Once the MSU crowd sensed what Ara was doing, they launched into a chorus of boos. There would be no resolution on this gray Saturday afternoon. No satisfaction, for either side. A lousy, rotten, 10-10 tie. In the biggest game of the century!

Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, U-M was plodding along under coach Bump Elliott. Their teams were OK. Not great. Not ranked in the Top Ten. Not like Michigan State.

In 1968, Michigan went into Columbus to play their annual rivalry game against Ohio State. They lost to the Buckeyes, 50-14. Late in the game, OSU went for a two-point conversion, despite their huge lead. After the game, the reporters went after Ohio State’s irascible coach, Woody Hayes. Why had Hayes gone for a two-point conversion with such a big margin in score?

“Because,” Woody snarled, “I couldn’t go for THREE.”

Elliott resigned soon after the OSU blowout. His record was a very pedestrian 51-42.

Michigan then turned to one of Hayes’s old assistants to run their football program.

Glenn “Bo” Schembechler swooped into town and was greeted warmly with this headline from one of the local fish wraps: BO WHO?

The unknown Schembechler lasted 21 years on the U-M sideline. And for those two-plus decades, he turned the tables on stable, always-ranked Michigan State. Gradually, it was Michigan that rose to football prominence in the state, and in the country. And it was Michigan State that became pedestrian, winning some, and losing some more. Michigan began to dominate the U-M/MSU rivalry. The November tilts against Ohio State, with Bo going up against his mentor Hayes, were so legendary that books were written about them. Bumper stickers were printed. They said things like “Woody Is A Pecker” and “Oh How I Hate Ohio State.”

Fun times.

The truth of the matter is that Michigan State football has never really come close to the sort of stature and relevance it enjoyed in 1966 when the Spartans battled the Fighting Irish in a game for the ages. They’ve spent most of their time trying to nip at Michigan’s heels. They haven’t been able to conquer the state, so how can they conquer the country?

Dantonio is in his second season at MSU. He came from Cincinnati, a nice little football program, but in three years leading the Bearcats, Dantonio’s overall record was 18-17. If Michigan had hired a coach with such a mediocre resume, Athletic Director Bill Martin would’ve had to enter the Federal Witness Protection Program.

Before Dantonio there was John L. Smith, a fine man but out of place. He lasted four years. Before Smith there was Bobby Williams, even more out of place than Smith. Williams lasted three years. Not since Nick Saban (1995-’99) has an MSU football coach lasted even as long as five seasons. In the world of college football, where it takes a couple years for the recruiting labor to start bearing fruit, those stints are extremely short and smack of poor hiring decisions and un-thorough due diligence.

There’ve been some peaks at Michigan State, but the distance between them is beginning to grow larger and larger. There was a Big Ten co-championship in 1978 under Darryl Rogers. A Rose Bowl win under George Perles, some 20 years ago. A bit of winning under Saban. But Michigan still beats them like a drum every fall.

It’s been 42 years since Michigan State played the “game of the century” against Notre Dame, another fallen program. Mark Dantonio, it wouldn’t appear, has anything tangible in his background that suggests he can bring the program back to national fame.

Of course, that’s what they said about Schembechler.


Friday, August 29, 2008

Lions' Version Of "LT" Also A Playmaker

(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's a video clip that you must have seen; it would almost be impossible NOT to. You see it on some NFL Films blooper reels, wacky promos for the league, and even for TV shows that have nothing to do with the NFL, per se.

It's of a Lions receiver chasing an errant pass out of bounds. And when he crosses the white sideline, he gets jabbed right in the gut with the business end of an orange first down marker.

The receiver, no. 39, is Leonard Thompson. And I remember seeing that play happen, live. It was in 1983, in Anaheim against the Rams. It was a Lions loss, and afterward it led to coach Monte Clark's famous, "See you at the cemetery" line as he spoke in funereal tones to the reporters. Clark's Lions had fallen to 1-4; he figured he was a goner. Monte survived, the Lions finished 9-7, and won the Central Division.

But back to Leonard Thompson.

Thompson, a Lion from 1975-86, never caught a lot of passes in any one given season. But he was a big play guy. From '78-'83, Thompson averaged 19.6 yards per reception -- including an almost unheard of 26.9 ypc in 1980. Yet the most passes Thompson ever caught in a season was 51, in 1985. He wasn't a big YAC (yards after catch) guy; Thompson simply would run down the field, and the Lions' quarterback du jour would let the ball fly, and Thompson would often come down with it.

Thompson, making yet another big play: Thanksgiving Day, 1983

So many things about Leonard Thompson, I recall.

He was a superior punt blocker, too. I don't know how many he blocked, but it was a lot. None was bigger than a game I watched on TV in 1977.

The Lions were in Baltimore, finishing out the string one the next-to-last Sunday of the season. They were 5-7; the powerful Colts were 9-3, after a 9-1 start. The Colts held a 10-6 lead late in the fourth quarter. And they were back to punt, deep in their own end.

Thompson, as was his trademark, used his blazing speed to rush from the outside. He timed his leap perfectly, and blocked the punt. The ball bounced into the end zone, and the Lions recovered for the game-winning touchdown. I remember Memorial Stadium being deathly quiet.

Thompson was also the recipient of Chuck Long's first NFL TD pass -- a long heave, as usual (about 35 yards) -- in Tampa Bay in 1986.

And Lions fans who are old enough to recall the competitive teams of the early-1980s will remember Thompson running reverses, averaging 10 yards a pop from 1980-83.

Thompson was also an active member in the Metro Detroit community, volunteering his time for many worthy causes.

Probably few people, anymore, know who Leonard Thompson is (especially outside of Detroit), and even the funny video clip of that receiver getting jabbed by the first down marker won't jog their memories; to them, he's just a nameless football player who had something humorous happen to him in a game sometime, in some year.

But when Thompson touched the ball -- whether as a receiver, a runner, or a punt blocker -- good things usually happened for the Lions. And how many people not named Barry Sanders or Billy Sims can you say that about over the past 30 years or so?

( provided the statistics for this post)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Thursday's Things

(when the spirit moves me, on Thursdays at OOB I rant in list fashion)

Things The Lions Need To Do In Tonight's Final Exhibition Game


2. Get

3. Anyone

4. Hurt

5. And

6. Don't

7. Play

8. QB

9. Jon Kitna

10. And

11. See

12. If

13. The

14. Bills

15. Will

16. Agree

17. To Play

18. Touch

19. Instead

20. Of

21. Tackle

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Marinelli Should Be Run Out Of Town If Kitna Plays Against Bills

The Lions have one more exhibition game -- against the Bills in Buffalo tomorrow night. If starting quarterback Jon Kitna plays one down, then head coach Rod Marinelli ought to be fired.

Actually, firing him would be too good for him. The coach should be tortured -- forced to watch a Facts of Life marathon, or some other heinous thing. Then we should consider some concrete shoes and a dunk in the Detroit River.

The Lions might not be all that in 2008, but they will finish somewhere south of the equator if Kitna goes down for any length of time. He's no Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas, but he's the best the Lions have, easily, behind center. And his three cameos in the pre-season, against other teams' starters, suggest that he's more than ready to go when the curtain rises for real, September 7 in Atlanta.

So why tempt fate and play Kitna against the Bills? What good can come from such an appearance? But plenty can go wrong.

Let me take you back to 1979. The Lions were coming off a 1978 season where they finished strong, winning six of their last nine games. Leading the charge was former World Football League QB Gary Danielson, from Dearborn Divine Child and Purdue University. Danielson peaked against the Vikings on the final Saturday of the season, throwing and running the Lions to a 45-14 win. Some so-called experts predicted some big things for the Lions in '79.

Then came the final exhibition game, in Baltimore.

Danielson, needlessly appearing in the game, scrambled out of trouble. Only, he didn't quite make it. He went down in a heap after being caught, and mangled his knee. Out for the season -- done, after a meaningless play in a meaningless game. Then, suddenly, the Lions' regular season turned meaningless.

Veteran Joe Reed was elevated to no. 1, but Reed was about as mobile as a telephone pole, and before long he was gone, too, to injury. That left the Lions' offense in the rookie hands of Jeff Komlo. The team finished 2-14, with Danielson on crutches and Reed recuperating. Danielson returned in 1980, and the Lions finished 9-7. It was no coincidence.

Now let me take you to 2003. Final pre-season game. Running back James Stewart, playing for God knows what reason, goes down with a career ending (ultimately) shoulder injury.

The Lions, as usual, have no capable backup quarterback -- no veteran who can step in and run the show. The roster shows Dan Orlovsky, an injured Drew Stanton, and recently signed Drew Henson. The thought of Kitna going down ought to make your skin crawl.

So why there's even any question whether Kitna should suit up and enter the game in Buffalo tomorrow night, is anyone's guess. I don't even want him to trot on the field, only to be called back to the sideline. He may suffer a season-ending toe stub, with the Lions' luck. Certainly bring Kitna along for the plane ride, and let him help out on the sideline, baseball cap and earphone adorning his bald head. But don't let him anywhere near a huddle, unless it's the post-game prayer.

According to the papers, Marinelli hasn't confirmed yet whether Kitna will play tomorrow, nor how much, if he does. Again, there hasn't been a no-brainer this obvious since Moses pondered whether to part the Red Sea.

Yes, it's true that (God forbid) Kitna could go down in the regular season opener. But losing a QB, or any front line player, in a game that counts in the standings is a lot easier to swallow than to lose one in any game played before Labor Day. And yes, Kitna has proven to be durable; he has started all 32 games since he's been a Lion. He's barely missed any playing time due to injury (last year's concussion against the Vikings notwithstanding). Still, only bad things can happen when you play your starting quarterback in the fourth and final pre-season game -- the Mother of All Meaningless Games. The only players who the fourth pre-season game means anything to are those fighting for roster spots. With the trio of quarterbacks below him on the depth chart, Jon Kitna hardly has to wage THAT battle. So don't play him. Not for one down. Don't even let him put his helmet on.

The head coach is no dumb-dumb. He should get that, shouldn't he?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Allen May Be Best Tigers Analyst Ever, But So Is Kelser For The Pistons

Jim McFarlin, in the current issue of The Metro Times, declares that Tigers TV analyst Rod Allen is the best that the team has ever employed at that position. Ever. (The dangling word "ever" is McFarlin's dramatic emphasis, not mine). I'm usually not one to declare anyone in modern times the best ever at anything because I'm a curmudgeonly history guy who often rolls my eyes at such declarations. It's amazing how many young folks think that nothing of much interest happened before they started following sports.

Well, McFarlin isn't young, for one. And second, even though he mistakenly tosses George Kell into the list of "analysts" (Kell was a play-by-play guy, and one of the best. Ever.), he makes a good case. He also rightly acknowledges that Allen's competition isn't all that enthralling. Jim Northrup, Al Kaline, and Kirk Gibson, for starters, weren't terrific -- although I still have never heard anyone on TV who knows more about baseball than Kaline. Al just didn't always have a compelling way of conveying it, is all.

Still, I have no problem giving Allen his due as the best Tigers TV analyst. Ever. Mr. McFarlin and those who agree, have my permission.

McFarlin mentioned all the catch phrases Allen uses, and even gives a nod (I think) to my friend Big Al and his Rod Allen game, without mentioning Al's site by name. And Allen, in the story, frets a bit about being made fun of, as opposed to being taken seriously. It's easy for me to say, but I don't think Allen should worry too much about that. I get the impression that he's respected and liked far more than he's mocked. Heck, we made fun of Kell and his Arkansas twang. Remember George Baier on WRIF radio and his "George Swell" character?

But reading McFarlin's anointing of Allen made me wonder when someone is going to do the same for Greg Kelser. So I guess I will.

Kelser, Special K, is the best Pistons TV analyst. Ever. Yet he flies under the radar, and I suspect it's because he's taken for granted. That, and Kelser doesn't really have any catch phrases. He's not loud or over-enthusiastic. He's just smooth as silk. If he was still a player, he'd be considered a "bad interview" because he doesn't utter anything outlandish. But if you want the straight dope on the basketball you're watching on television, then Kelser's your man.

Kelser's Pistons career started auspiciously, if only because of the clown who drafted him.

Dickie Vitale held a draft party at the Silverdome in 1979, prior to his second season as Pistons coach. Dickie's Pistons had finished 30-52 the season before, an eight-game drop-off from the previous campaign. It was about to get much worse. For here came Vitale, proud as a peacock, waving a box of Special K cereal. No joke.

"The Pistons have just made a trade!," Dickie declared to the curious and perplexed inside the Dome. Then Vitale told of how he had bamboozled the Milwaukee Bucks into trading draft positions so the Pistons could select Kelser, from MSU. Special K was Kelser's nickname at State. So Dickie thought he was a laugh riot, waving the box of cereal as he announced the trade and, in his mind, how smart he was.

Here's how smart he was: the Bucks had no intention of selecting Kelser, despite his fine career in East Lansing and the NCAA championship he won with Magic Johnson a couple months earlier. The Bucks had their eyes on Sidney Moncrief, a dynamic guard from Arkansas. All along. So they took the $50,000 of Bill Davidson's money that Vitale waved as enticement, and agreed to switch draft positions with the Pistons. It was because of decisions like that, that Vitale made a much better living barking into a television microphone than he ever did as an NBA coach and personnel guy.

Now, nearly 30 years later, Kelser is still with the Pistons, the perfect complement to George Blaha's stirring play-by-play work. The Pistons are lucky to still have him; I would be shocked if he didn't have opportunities to work at the network level. I've listened to all the blowhards on TBS and TNT and NBC and ESPN, and I'm not seeing where any of them are more insightful about the NBA and aware of the nuances that go on during games than Gregory Kelser. Seems that most of them are a little too cognizant of the fact that their words are being broadcast, because they seem to enjoy listening to themselves so much.

Jim McFarlin can have his Rod Allen as best Tigers analyst thing, without my dissent. Just allow me my Greg Kelser thing. Anyone got a problem with that?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tigers’ Willis A Self-Microcosm Of Disappointing Season

Dontrelle Willis would be having a great season – if the plate was high and outside.

I apologize to the unknown baseball observer whose words I have semi-pirated, when he was talking about a young Sandy Koufax in the 1950s. Koufax, before becoming one of the best pitchers of his time, had control problems when he first reached the major leagues – wildness that he had difficulty wrangling in the minor leagues. And it was that lack of command that led to the line from which I unashamedly stole for my opening sentence.

“Koufax would be a great pitcher if the plate was high and outside.”

Sandy Koufax got his control together, and did very well with home plate where it has always been, thank you.

Willis is a Detroit Tigers pitcher, and that’s not just a rumor. Only, he’s not really a Tigers pitcher. He’s a Toledo Mud Hens pitcher. Before that, he was a Lakeland Tigers pitcher. Last year, he was a Florida Marlins pitcher. Just a few years ago, he was considered one of the top young pitchers in the big leagues. The fact that he’s left-handed made him all the more of a precious commodity.

Today, Willis struggles mightily to get minor league hitters out, mainly because he often has no clue where the ball is going. His apparently sudden loss of control is stunning, if not frightening. This sort of thing has ruined promising careers in the past.

When the Tigers acquired Willis along with Miguel Cabrera from the Marlins last December for top drawer prospects Andrew Miller (LHP) and Cameron Maybin (OF), the trade was a bona fide blockbuster. Cabrera is a beast – a 25-year-old manster who’s good for 30+ HRs and 100+ RBI for the next 10 years, at least. If not more. And Willis is a 26-year-old lefty who’s already thrown over 1,000 big league innings, and with a fine 3.78 career ERA. The move looked to put the Tigers over the hump and put the rubber stamp on a playoff appearance in 2008, and for many years beyond. The team was gutting the cash-strapped Marlins, absconding with their two biggest stars.

Cabrera has pretty much held up his end of the deal, despite an atrocious start. He has 27 HRs and 99 RBI after slugging two homers in Friday night’s win over the Kansas City Royals.

On Wednesday, Willis made his second start for the AAA Mud Hens, after sort of earning a promotion from the Class A Lakeland team. Truth be told? Willis was moved up to AAA because, well, you simply don’t keep multi-millionaire pitchers in Class A for too long; it’s embarrassing for everyone involved. He didn’t really earn it with his performances, though they reportedly improved in tiny increments.

In that start Wednesday, Willis threw five innings, surrendered three runs, and – here’s the troubling part – walked five batters. Tigers manager Jim Leyland, as usual, minced no words, sugarcoated nothing, when he said flatly, “It wasn’t a good outing.”

There were no hints, really, that Willis had control issues when the Tigers traded for him. In 1,022 big league innings thru the end of last season, Willis has walked 344 batters. The calculator tells us that such a ratio is about 3.0 walks per nine innings – hardly alarming. But since joining the Tigers organization, Willis has been nothing but wild and exasperating. The control problems surfaced in spring training, but it was hoped that they were the bi-product of switching teams and simply having a poor spring. Then Willis made his first start of the season on the first Saturday of the 2008 campaign, and while he didn’t give up many hits, he walked a bunch. Then he started again, and hurt his leg in the first inning. Then he returned, started again, and once again there was a parade of opposing hitters jogging to first base after taking ball four.

The Tigers sent him down to the minors – wayyyy down, all the way to the bottom feeding team in Lakeland, which plays in a league mainly for rookies and second-year prospects. It’s an instructional league, certainly not one where you’d expect to find a 26-year-old pitcher with 1,000 big league innings under his belt. But Willis was so off the mark with his control, so messed up, it was thought, with his mechanics, that Tigers brass felt only the instructors and baseball scientists in Lakeland could put him back on track.

It worked, as I said, sort of. Hence the promotion to Toledo – one step away from the big leagues. So close yet so far, in the case of Dontrelle Willis.

There’s no indication that Willis will throw another pitch for the Tigers this season – even when the rosters are expanded to 40 players on September 1. He really hasn’t slain his control dragon. There’s still wonderment when Willis throws the ball, as to where it will end up. Usually it’s not in the strike zone.

I’m not the first to draw this comparison, but it’s hard not to think of Steve Blass.

Blass was a Pirates pitcher in the early-1970s who helped lead the Bucs to the 1971 World Series championship. In 1972, Blass pitched nearly 250 innings and won 19 games, with an ERA of under 3.00. He had no control problems. Like Willis, Blass averaged about three walks per nine innings. But the next year, Blass lost it. He pitched 89 innings and walked, get this, 84 batters – the same amount he walked in 250 innings the year previous. He tried to pitch again in ’74 but walked seven in five innings. His career ended, at age 32. His curious and sudden loss of command and control helped spawn a new term, Steve Blass Syndrome. SBS became the terminology whenever a pitcher suffered from sudden loss of control.

Dontrelle Willis was supposed to be an integral part of the Tigers rotation this year. He was supposed to be one of the many reasons why the team was to overwhelm its opponents and cruise to the World Series. He was supposed to continue his path to greatness, the path he forged in Florida. Now he can’t even throw a strike with any consistency. It’s not overstating things to suggest that he may have SBS and will never pitch in the big leagues again – at least with any degree of success.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way, but neither was the Tigers season as a whole. Willis symbolizes that by his lonesome.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Pureifory's Brutality Nearly Ended A Lion's Career Before It Started

(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)

For all of their warts over the past 51 years since the last NFL Championship team to come from Detroit, the Lions have often excelled in one area: the defensive line. It was a great strength of the bridesmaids teams of the early-1960s, and was a force to be reckoned with in the early-1970s. Then, right on cue, the Lions' D-line once again rose to prominence in the early-1980s. And those 1980s front fours included an undersized SOB who nearly made one of the Lions' best offensive linemen quit during his rookie season.

Dave Pureifory was a short, stocky defensive end/tackle who played on some of the best teams Eastern Michigan University ever fielded. The 1971 Hurons (yes, they were Hurons before they became Eagles) actually played in a bowl game, albeit one for smaller colleges. One of the defensive captains was Pureifory. But a combination of playing for a lesser-known school (especially when it came to football) and being relatively short (he was VERY generously listed as being 6-foot-1) worked against him, and so he wasn't drafted until the sixth round in 1972, by Green Bay.

Quietly, Pureifory made a name for himself in the NFL. He played on some bad Packers teams, and so yet again he was shoved to the back burner. But those in the know -- opposing O-linemen and quarterbacks and runners -- respected Pureifory for his cat-like quickness and brute strength. He also possessed an intangible so important for successful front four guys: an insatiable, almost ravenous appetite for tackling and inflicting punishment. Plus, he had a very nasty disposition, which added to his legend. It was this snarling, spitting part of his personality that almost led to Pureifory causing Keith Dorney to quit before the rookie tackle played a down in the NFL.

Pureifory as a Packer in his early NFL days

Dorney, in his book, Black and Honolulu Blue, described how Pureifory made his life "hell" in Dorney's first training camp with the Lions in 1979. Pureifory was relentless. Dorney, a prized rookie from Penn State, couldn't block no. 75. The veteran was making the touted newbie look awful. And he took great pleasure in doing so.

Dorney related how Pureifory would add insult to injury by verbally attacking the rookie and mocking his efforts to block him. Pureifory wouldn't let up. No one on the field -- coaches or teammates -- tried to intervene on Dorney's behalf. So the abuse -- both physical and verbal/mental -- continued throughout camp. Dorney was so shaken by Pureifory's brutality that he nearly quit football altogether. His confidence was shot.

Until one day.

Dorney was walking off the field, dejected as usual after another tough practice. Then Pureifory joined him for the walk back to the dormitories. Dorney braced himself.

Yet Pureifory came not to bury Dorney, but to praise him. He told the rookie that he was going to be a great NFL tackle, and he inferred that a lot of the smack talk was done to "toughen" Dorney up. The conversation was brief, and one-sided. But it impacted Dorney for years -- so much so that he called Pureifory the "toughest" guy he's ever played with or against in the NFL.

Pureifory was part of the Lions' "Silver Rush" front four that bordered on being dominant from 1980-82. And Pureifory himself bordered on being dominant at times. Keith Dorney wasn't the only tackle who had trouble blocking him.

After leaving the Lions following the 1982 season (he had seven sacks in just nine games), Pureifory tried his luck in the USFL with the Michigan Panthers and the Birmingham Stallions. I doubt very many OL dudes had much luck blocking him there, either.

As for Dorney, good thing Pureifory had that chat with him, or else the Lions would have maybe missed out on one of the best offensive tackles in their history.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Thursday's Things

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

Things That Stalled Negotiations Between MLB & The Umpires Regarding The Use of Instant Replay

Battles ensued over who gets to say, "After further review..."

2. Replay dismissed by umps because it "will just prove that we're always right"

3. Fear that it will create fewer reasons to eject Bobby Cox

4. Concerns whether shroud over monitor is large enough to accommodate an average umpire's head size

5. Umpires wanted to use replay to determine whether to use replay

6. Umpires requested video monitor occasionally show snippets from The Food Network

7. Cost of installing umpire-requested "sound proof booths" in MLB dugouts too prohibitive

8. The number of 12-year-olds needed to competently run the computers replay would require presented logistical nightmare, especially when school is in session

9. Dodgers manager Joe Torre's request to use replay to determine length of Manny Ramirez's dreadlocks kept coming up

10. The term "wind-blown home run" will now need to be changed to "video-aided home run"

11. Fear that certain hard-line umpires will ostracize video monitor during umpires' down time on the road

12. Concerns over wording on new umpire creed, which is proposed to be, "It ain't nothin' till I see it again on TV."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Bowman As Consultant May Not Fly Much Longer

There's been a certain sameness about Scotty Bowman.

When he was behind the bench, guiding the Red Wings -- and before that, the Penguins, and before that, the Sabres, and before that, the Canadiens, and before that, the Blues -- you couldn't tell if Bowman's team was winning 8-1 or losing 8-1. He showed about as much emotion as a stone. And as far as his physical appearance, that didn't change all that much, either over the years -- save for some thinning of hair on top. He's going to be 75 next month and he looks terrific, considering all the years of travel and extended post-seasons he's coached, starting in 1968.

Bowman's not ours anymore -- possessive if you're from Detroit. He's with the Chicago Blackhawks now, as a consultant -- the same position he held with the Wings after retiring as coach in 2002. Speculation is that Bowman took the (what appears to be) lateral move to be closer to his son, Stan, who works for the Blackhawks as assistant GM.

But there's other speculation, too. And it speaks to that sameness about Bowman.

There are doubters out there. Those that think it's laughable that Bowman would leave a cushy job with the Red Wings -- an organization that's treated him perhaps better than any other he's worked for -- to simply be a consultant for another team -- his son be damned (so to speak). The doubters say that Bowman left Detroit for one reason and one reason only: to someday return as a coach.

To some, THAT may be laughable. But Bowman is a coach, first and foremost. He's done double duty very often -- as GM while being a coach. As a personnel and front office guy, Bowman isn't shabby, either. But he's a coach. Just like Chuck Daly and Hubie Brown in basketball. Dick Vermeil in football.

Tell me, is there anyone who makes you think "hockey coach" more than Scotty Bowman?

The Blackhawks are a team on the rise. They have young stars, a fair blend of veterans, and they have that organizational hunger. The Stanley Cup hasn't lived in Chicago since 1961. That's 47 years -- five more than the Red Wings' drought when they finally won in 1997. Bowman ended that nonsense in Detroit. Could he end the same in Chicago?

Consultant (for now) Bowman tries on his new threads (the 11 stands for the number of Cups he will have won as coach and/or GM, when he wins his next one)

Denis Savard is the current coach of the Blackhawks. He's a true Blackhawk, having played so many fine seasons for the team. But as a coach he hasn't found the same consistency. It's unfair, to be sure, but Savard will be under a different kind of pressure now, with his youngsters maturing, and with Scotty Bowman having his paychecks issued by the organization.

Would Bowman, really, come out of retirement, closer to age 80 than 70, to coach again?

I never thought I'd see Dick Vermeil back on the sidelines. Or Hubie Brown screaming at NBA players and referees again. So, who's to say that six years of consulting hasn't made Bowman restless to be behind an NHL bench again?

Of course, such talk means that there were some secret goings-on behind the scenes, some nudge-nudge, wink-wink stuff that said, "Yeah, come here as a 'consultant'. That's it. But if you'd ever like to coach again ..."

It would be almost as foolish, if not more so, to think that such a plan wasn't discussed, as it would be to suggest that it could have.

Scotty Bowman got his first coaching job when Lynn Patrick, the first coach of the Blues, quit early in the team's maiden season. He got the Canadiens job after Al McNeil left under fire, despite winning the 1971 Stanley Cup. Captain Henri Richard had called McNeil "incompetent" -- during the Finals, no less. Bowman left the Canadiens after being snubbed for the GM job. He then coached in Buffalo, near his home. He latched on with the Penguins after some years in TV, and became coach after the late Bob Johnson got sick with cancer. He came to Detroit when the Red Wings were looking for a top drawer coach to get them over the hump. He's been a combination of opportunistic and restless -- perfect attributes for the professional, "coach for life" type.

Do I, personally, feel that Scotty Bowman will re-emerge behind the Blackhawks' bench?

I wouldn't bet against it -- let's put it that way.

Monday, August 18, 2008

NFL's "White Out" At Home Puts Me In A Dark Mood

I'm a traditional kind of guy when it comes to sports. Hence me detesting the DH in baseball, no jump balls in college basketball, and voting for the baseball All-Star game in any way other than with the chad-filled ballots at the ballpark.

Tradition, to me, also says that home teams wear their dark jerseys in the NFL.

You can't even tell who the home team is anymore. It seems that only the NFC North teams (read: the "black and blue", old NFC Central) abide by this rule, and wear dark at home. Everywhere else, it's apparently "chic" to wear white at home.

The only teams I gave free passes to when it came to who can wear white at home were the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns -- both out of tradition. I remember the old St. Louis Cardinals would try to take the Cowboys out of their comfort zone and wear their white jerseys in St. Louis, forcing the Cowboys to wear their rarely-used blue jerseys. It usually didn't work. As far as the Browns go, they've been wearing white at home since the days of Jimmy Brown. Sometimes they'll slip the brown jerseys on in Cleveland. I don't think I've EVER seen the 'Boys wear blue in Irving.

The Lions only wore white at home once, that I know of. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1970. The Raiders were in town, and in those days, Oakland's white jerseys had silver numbers on them. The TV folks thought the silver-on-white combo wouldn't look good for the nationally-televised game, so they asked the Lions to wear white so the Raiders could wear black. The Lions did, and they beat the Raiders 28-14 wearing their road whites at Tiger Stadium.

The Vikings always wear purple at home. The Packers wear green. The Bears have only worn white at home on a handful of occasions. Beyond that, it's pretty much up for grabs, who wears white at home.

OK, who's the home team in this photo? Not so fast....

The Bengals donned white yesterday against the Lions in Cincinnati. And the Bengals were one of the final holdouts; they could be counted on to wear dark at home, as supposedly mandated.

Why does this bother me so?

Not sure. I guess I just like knowing, immediately, who's home and who's away when I turn a game on. I have NFL Sunday Ticket, which means I am festooned with every single freaking game on my television set each week (which rocks, by the way). But when you tune in, you have to gather yourself and find the scoreboard graphic to see which team is at home. It used to be that the colors of the jerseys was the tip-off.

I guess I just like knowing that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. The NBA teams wear white at home. So does baseball. That's fine. Hockey teams wear dark at home. Also fine. I really don't care which is which, as long as we settle on one way and stick to it. The NFL is almost reversing entirely, with more teams wearing white at home than don't. Plus, don't dark jerseys look more menacing on a football team? And shouldn't those more menacing jerseys be worn in front of the home crowd?

Frankly, if I were the Lions back in 1970, I would have told NBC where to put their request to have the Raiders wear their black jerseys in Detroit. The nerve!

Speaking of black jerseys, let's hear three cheers for the Lions' black alternate jerseys being retired. Those were God-awful.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

NFL Pre-Season: Wake Me When It's Over

I was going to start off this column by presenting you with a list. It was going to contain those things in life that are less compelling than NFL exhibition games played in August. Then, I was going to crank out my 900 or so words from there.

Well, it’s been about 15 minutes and I haven’t come up with anything yet.

I tried, believe me. I considered such things as five-day forecasts, anything to do with the ladies on “The View”, and watching paint dry. Then I thought, maybe tofu, any furniture sale, or a piece of mail addressed to Resident. Perhaps, my mind went on, Geraldo Rivera, corn flakes without banana on top, or any song by Lionel Ritchie.


Exhibition football, or pre-season football – take your pick – is the most rotten, unprovoking, irrelevant, and wretched creation ever foistered on the general public. And that’s saying something, when you’re talking about a society that has produced liver and onions. And Ann Coulter.

That the National Football League is allowed to charge full price for these pretend games is akin to placing Splenda in the nation’s sugar bags and calling it tit for tat.

Here’s a typical pre-season game situation: each team plays its starters for maybe two series each, in the first quarter. And with a dumb-downed playbook. And with absolutely no inclination by either team to fully reveal its arsenal of weapons or plays because, it’s well, the FREAKING EXHIBITION SEASON.

Then, the second stringers come in, and after halftime, after you’ve paid your $8 for a beer (no such things as “exhibition prices”, natch) and $7 for nachos, you’re treated to football played by guys who would only play in a regular season game if there was a nuclear holocaust and they somehow survived, like cockroaches.

Watching on TV might be cheaper, but no less harmful to your mental well-being. Even the regular network analysts hardly show up; the TV teams are mostly minor league, too. The Lions have experimented with several of their former players to assist in the broadcast booth for the four exhibitions played every August, and the results have been as even as a metro Detroit road. This year it’s Desmond Howard, who says things like “Way to go, Deeetroit Lions!” Or at least he did, when I suffered a brain fart and tuned in to the game against the New York Giants last week. Less than sixty seconds later, I came to my senses and switched channels. Maybe even to Geraldo Rivera; not sure.

It’s amazing, really, that you could take the New England Patriots and the Giants, put them in a Super Bowl, and have a game for the ages – and then pit them against each other six months later on a Thursday night in August and have all the allure of your grandmother in a bikini (unless your grandmother happens to be Christie Brinkley, I apologize for the image I just conjured in your mind).

But that’s what you get when exhibition football happens. I was around, but have conveniently blocked from my memory the days when teams actually played six of these monstrosities instead of the current four. In 1978, when the regular season schedule expanded to 16 games from 14, two of the exhibitions were scrapped to keep the total allotment to 20 games. I say we split the atom again, and reduce the pre-season to two games per team, and increase the regular season to 18 games. My opinion.

The NFL Network, bless their desperate-for-programming hearts, have been showing pre-season games – which is nothing more than pirating the local TV feed and presenting it for the nation’s consumption, complete with the local graphics, trivia questions, and deer-in-the-headlights sideline reporters who would be outclassed by the latest freshman class at the Specs Howard Institute.

Again, in a moment of weakness, my remote thumb stopped on a pre-season game between the St. Louis Rams and the Tennessee Titans last week. There were under two minutes to play, the game well in hand for the Titans, who held the ball deep in St. Louis territory. But instead of running a play, the Titans decided to simply snap the ball and take a knee three times in a row, to run out the clock.

“Good move,” one of the minor league announcers said with sincerity and total seriousness. “Don’t want to get anyone hurt here.”

Who are you going to hurt? A fourth-string lineman? Anyone playing in the waning moments of a blowout pre-season game isn’t anyone you’re going to miss – no offense to those players or their immediate families. Besides, that’s the other cockamamie thing about pre-season football. The mantra, right out of the gate, is “don’t get anyone hurt.” But this is football, people. Playing pro football games with the pie-in-the-sky goal of not getting anyone hurt is like taking a shower and hoping not to get wet. Not gonna happen. Every year, some poor team has to deal with an injury suffered by one of their key players, or more, that occurred in one of these totally meaningless matches.

The Lions had their 1979 season torpedoed before it began, thanks to a knee injury suffered by QB Gary Danielson in the final exhibition game, knocking him out for the season. The Lions finished 2-14 with a rookie quarterback leading them. More recently, RB James Stewart had his career ended by an ill-timed shoulder injury, incurred when he wasn’t even supposed to be on the field, yet was left in the game by an admittedly wrong head coach Steve Mariucci in the final pre-season game of 2003. Thanks, Mooch.

Coaches will tell you that they need the games to evaluate their players and make choices as to who makes the team and who doesn’t. Fair enough. Just do it in two games, not four. Any coach worth his salt should be able to make up his mind after several weeks of training camp and 120 minutes of live game action.

And if they can’t, then sentence them to watch these games on television. In their entirety. With the mute button disabled.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Owens's Knees Did To Him What Opposing Tacklers Could Not

(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)

Detroit Lions running backs and their knees have often been at odds with each other. Many careers have been sidetracked or halted altogether -- promising careers, too -- because of that traditional NFL bugaboo, the recurring knee injury.

There was Nick Eddy, whose knee trouble actually began in college, at Notre Dame. But he had such an upside when healthy that the Lions took a flyer on him in the 1966 draft anyway. For this the Lions could hardly be blamed, because if Eddy had stayed healthy, he would have been something. But from 1967-72, Eddy could barely stay on the field due to one knee injury after another.

There was Mel Farr, who had to hang them up in 1974 before his 30th birthday due to ravaged knees.

And who can forget Billy Sims, who was tackled by Minnesota's Walker Lee Ashley in 1984 in the midst of a great season, statistically, and would never play another down in the NFL, retiring in 1986 at age 31.

Between Farr and Sims there was Steve Owens.

Owens, from Oklahoma, was the Lions' first-round draft choice in 1970, the Heisman Trophy winner for 1969. He didn't play much in his rookie season, but in '71, Owens became the franchise's first 1,000-yard rusher, and its last until Sims did it in 1980. In the 14-game season in '71, Owens rushed for 1,035 yards. He was the prototypical NFL fullback: tough, with little speed, but with a propensity for running OVER people as opposed to around them. And he could catch a football, too, as well as block rushing linebackers. In that '71 season, Owens added 32 catches for 350 yards, giving him nearly 1,400 total yards from scrimmage.

Portrait of an NFL fullback: Steve Owens

But Owens hurt himself in 1972 and spent most of the next three seasons trying to stay on the field. Finally, it all came to a head on Thanksgiving Day, 1974.

It was also the Lions' last home game ever at Tiger Stadium. The opponent was the Denver Broncos. And Owens, damning the torpedoes as usual, tried to gain some extra yardage with second effort on one particular play. His knee popped.

Owens gave it a go for a couple more years, but could never make it all the way back as an active player. He finally officially retired in 1976, at age 28. Yet he managed to score 20 rushing TDs as a Lion, and rushed for over 2,400 yards. Not awesome numbers, but serviceable for his limited action.

I rooted hard for Owens to recover from his severe knee injury, as I remember my father rooting hard for Eddy, who was one of my dad's favorites. When Sims tried like mad to make it back during the summers of 1985 and '86, I remember having much the same feeling I had when I watched Owens struggle, some ten years earlier.

The running back injuries with the Lions haven't been limited to the knee. James Stewart (shoulder) and Kevin Jones (foot) have fallen victim. Another knee victim was veteran Wilbert Montgomery, the ex-Eagle who was signed to replace, ironically, Sims.

The Lions aren't the only team to have its backs ravaged by injuries. Take a peek at the New Orleans Saints' history in this area (especially in the 1980s and '90s), if you want another extreme example. And, for all the Lions' bad luck in the backfield, there was Barry Sanders, who managed to stay virtually injury-free in 10 seasons.

Steve Owens, old no. 36. Last week I wrote about another Oklahoma running back, Joe Don Looney, and his bizarre escapades. Owens was about as 180 degrees away from Looney as you can get. They were both Sooners, but that's pretty much where the similarities end.

The Oklahoma connection, though, was pretty good to the Lions: Owens, Sims, Sanders (Oklahoma State).

Owens, after his football career, became a successful Detroit-area businessman, then eventually returned to his alma mater as Athletic Director at Oklahoma in the 1990s. The university erected a statue of Owens in 2006 on campus. You can view it at his Wikipedia page, HERE.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Happy 20th To "The Auburn Hills Arena"

It used to be that a 20-year-old sports stadium/arena would be still among the newest of its brethren. In fact, it might have, at one point, still reign as the newest.

Not so anymore.

The Palace of Auburn Hills -- for a long while I refused to refer to it as that (more on that later) -- officially turns 20 today, as it held its first event (a Sting concert) on August 13, 1988. But what's striking isn't that the arena is 20 -- time does fly, after all -- but that its age places it as the third oldest arena in the NBA, behind Madison Square Garden in New York and the Izod Center in New Jersey, which is on its countless different name. I remember it as the Brendan Byrne Arena, which shows you my age.

So the Palace, still a youngster at age 20, has now risen to being the third oldest arena in the league, out of 30 venues. So 27 arenas have been built since '88, and that's over one a year, on average (I told you I was good at math). It's hard to believe that the Palace could be no. 3 in age, but we are smack dab in an era of stadium-building frenzy. An era when fans and municipalities are held hostage by franchise owners who threaten to pick up stakes and leave unless money is freed up for a new stadium.

I'm not going to get into my own personal memories of the Palace -- I haven't really attended all that many events there, anyway -- but I will reveal my own private war that I waged back when the arena opened.

They ran a contest to name the new arena, and opened it to the public. The winning entry was announced during a Pistons game at the Silverdome. When "the Palace of Auburn Hills" blared over the PA system, folks booed. Loudly.

I, for one, was appalled at the choice. I thought the name sounded far too stately and snooty. "The Palace" was bad enough; when combined with Auburn Hills, it made the arena sound far too California for blue collar Michigan. My opinion.

So I boycotted the name. For years -- maybe five to ten -- I refused to call the Palace by its contest-awarded name. I referred to it only as "the Auburn Hills Arena." Admittedly, people would look at me strangely, or assume I was talking about another venue in Auburn Hills. Others wouldn't challenge me, and would know that I was referring to the Palace. Occasionally, someone would say, "Don't you mean the Palace?" Yes, I would say. "Then why not say, 'The Palace'?" Because I refuse to acknowledge that name, I would say.

Yes, I was petulant and, maybe, a jerk about it. I admit that. But I just didn't like the name. So I refused to use it.

Anyhow, Happy Birthday to the Palace, and in its 20 years, it's seen its share of championships: three by the Pistons and two by the Shock. It's also hosted marvelous concerts and other special events. It was the site of Gordie Howe's one-shift stint with the old Detroit Vipers, at age 68, so no. 9 could say he played professional hockey in six different decades.

I am beyond my petulance now -- I've been calling it the Palace for more years than I didn't. I don't know what caused me to stop my private war. Guess it gets boring after awhile.

I lied, by the way, about not sharing any memories of the arena. I will just say this: I was living in Clarkston and working in Taylor (thank God this was before gas prices skyrocketed) when the Palace was being built. So, from I-75, I could see it grow before my very eyes.

Oh, and I did attend a boxing event at the Palace with my late father, an avid boxing fan. I had scored some free tickets. We got there after the bouts started, and almost as soon as we entered the building, we could hear the bell ring, signaling the end of a round. My dad looked at me, I looked at him, and we both said, almost at the same time: "Some things never change," referring to the ringing bell. I'll never forget that.

Monday, August 11, 2008

R-Rod Comes With More Baggage Than Any U-M Coach In Memory

This isn't the first time that I've imparted this nugget to you, so I apologize if you've read it here before.

I was talking to the late Mark "Doc" Andrews, then a member of Dick Purtan's radio chuckleheads, back in the early-1990s. This was when the Tigers were in search of a new radio team, with the forced retirement of Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey still fresh in everyone's minds. I knew that Andrews, for several years, was the Pistons' radio voice in the late-1970s to early-1980s.

"Are you going to throw your hat in the ring for the Tigers job?," I asked Andrews. There were many candidates at the time.

He frowned. "I won't be the guy to replace Ernie," Doc told me. "But I'll be the guy who replaces THAT guy!"

Indeed -- an easier act to follow.

With all due respect to Lloyd Carr, his emergence as the head football coach at Michigan in 1995 was, frankly, made easier by the circumstances under which it happened.

His predecessor, Gary Moeller, had lost the job in the wake of a very humiliating, drunk-in-public ordeal in a Southfield restaurant. Bootlegged audio tapes of Moeller's arrest made the airwaves, in which his loud, slurred, emotional words were heard, and he's lucky it was a time before the Internet got hopping, because we'd probably all own a copy on our computers by now.

So in stepped Carr, and while he was definitely qualified, expectations were a little stunted, considering the distraction that Moeller's fall from grace had caused. But Carr made things easier on himself, and the program, by guiding the Wolverines to a 9-3 record and a berth in the Alamo Bowl.

Before Carr, there was Moeller, of course -- and Mo had to fill the shoes of Bo Schembechler, no less. But Moeller was another whose resume qualified him for the job, and he was that quote-unquote Michigan Man that seems to be so desperately needed.

Ironically, it was Schembechler himself who wasn't a Michigan Man, when he arrived in Ann Arbor in 1969 to take over after the uneven Bump Elliott Era. In 1968, Bump's last year, Ohio State beat Michigan, 50-14. That didn't go over too well in Ann Arbor. Elliott's overall record at U-M was 51-42-2, so Schembechler wasn't exactly replacing a coaching legend. You couldn't last anywhere near 95 games at Michigan nowadays with such a winning percentage.

Rich Rodriguez is on the scene now, and he comes with so much baggage, he needs his own conveyor belt.

Rodriguez has endured, before he's coached one football game at Michigan, more off-the-field distractions than any U-M coach has for his entire career, almost. Most of them have been legal, and have involved his acrimonious departure from West Virginia. But some have involved messing with Michigan tradition (read: the great "Who wears jersey no. 1?" controversy), and players fleeing the team (Justin Boren). Then there's following Carr, who might not cast as great of a shadow as Schembechler on campus, but who was pretty darned good, and certainly respected. The fact that Michigan's last National Title was 11 years ago hasn't lessened or lowered the expectations. Any Michigan coach has to win, and he has to win now. And Rodriguez must do this, regardless of the challenges posed by the transition from one coach to the next.

Rodriguez arrives in Ann Arbor under, perhaps, the strangest conditions ever for a Michigan football coach. Some of it was inevitable, coming from the natural drama that ensues when you don't hire from within. But there were no clear-cut candidates already at Michigan to take over. Carr didn't really groom anyone. Mike DeBord and Ron English, the offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively, weren't deemed fit for the job, for one reason or another. There was Les Miles with his Michigan ties, but Miles rightly looked at the Michigan job and listened to his mind rather than his heart, and stayed at LSU -- the proper decision, from a purely football perspective.

Rodriguez also doesn't have anywhere near the trust factor from the fan base and alumni, yet, that Carr and even Moeller enjoyed. Again, you have to go back to Schembechler in 1969 to find a comparable situation in this regard.

All this, and R-Rod must win, and win now. What helps his cause is that expectations, from the national scribes, is relatively low -- although Michigan does find itself in the pre-season Top 25. Yet there are three Big Ten teams, sometimes four, picked above them. Not too many folks think all that much of Michigan's Big Ten title hopes, but that hardly matters, when it comes right down to it. Even in a so-called transition year, six or seven wins won't be acceptable. Losing to Ohio State, despite the fact that Michigan will almost certainly be considerable underdogs, won't be acceptable, even if it is expected. Michigan fans will recall what new OSU coach Jim Tressel said when he was hired lo those many years ago: We WILL beat Michigan this year! And Tressel did, and he hasn't really stopped.

Michigan fans might bemoan the fact that their school didn't hire that elusive Michigan Man to coach the football team, but who would you have hired, Miles excluded?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

This’ll Get Billy’s Goat: 2008 Might Be The Cubs’ Year

Check the calendar for a month of Sundays. See if Hell is forming ice crystals. Look into those rumors that the Pope isn’t Catholic. The million-to-one shot is looking like a winner.

The Chicago Cubs are disturbing our world order.

The Chicago Cubs, non-participants in the World Series since 1945. Non-winners of the whole enchilada since 1908 – one hundred years of losing, and in all different shapes and sizes. They’ve been laughable, lovable, and tragic. Pretenders, contenders, and stuck in the starting gate. Cursed, jinxed, and mocked. Close, but never cigar puffers. They’ve been eliminated from the race in some years after Labor Day, and others before Easter.

This is one of the years where they have teased the faithful on the city’s North side. It’s well into August now, and the Cubbies are either setting their fans up for another heartbreak, or about to obliterate the city’s other century-long dry spell, following by three years the cross-town White Sox World Series title of 2005, which ended nearly a hundred years of thirst on the South side.

Have you looked at the standings?

Take a break from gnashing your teeth over the Tigers’ travails, and take a peek at the National League Central race. Only it’s not so much of a race right now, for the Cubbies are starting to scamper away with things. They are a full five games ahead of the second-place Milwaukee Brewers (another franchise that’s been awash with failure) – and that margin was secured a couple weeks ago, when the Cubbies went into Milwaukee for a four-game series. They landed in Milwaukee with a one-game lead, and left with the five-gamer, thanks to a cold and calculating four-game sweep – the kind that the Cubs have been on the receiving end of when the chips have been down.

But it’s still only the first week or so of August, and there are still about 50 games to be played, and these are still the Cubs. Which means there is still the Curse of the Billy Goat.

It’s a story, apparently not apocryphal, and it’s been told and re-told, but there may be some of you who don’t know.

1945 World Series. Local tavern owner Billy Sianis, who used to bring his pet goat – hey, this was the ‘40s, pets were different, OK? – to Wrigley Field during the regular season, is told that, since it’s the World Series, the goat wouldn’t be allowed in. Sianis is furious, and places a hex on the Cubs, saying they’ll never return to the World Series. It’s been 62 years and counting. The Billy Goat Curse lives, for now.

Sianis and his goat

It’s 1969 and the Cubs, after another couple of decades of wretched baseball, are actually leading the newly-formed East Division of the National League. Their closest challengers are the Miracle Mets from New York, themselves poster children for baseball comedy. But as the summer progresses, the Cubbies are losing their toehold on things. It comes to a head one evening, when, from out of nowhere, a black cat scurries in front of the Cubs dugout during a game in New York. It’s joked that the black cat is a harbinger of bad things to come. The joking is prophetic, for the Cubs go into the tank, the Mets catch fire, and hearts are again broken on the North side.

It’s 1984 and the Cubs are in the playoffs. It’s best-of-five back then, and they take the first two games over the San Diego Padres in Chicago. The Tigers are romping over the Royals in the American League, and so folks get dreamy over a potential Tigers-Cubs World Series, just like in the Billy Goat Year of 1945. But Leon “Bull” Durham, the Cubs first baseman, lets a routine grounder go thru his legs in Game 5 in San Diego, the Padres go on to win, and they take three straight from the Cubbies. No I-94 World Series, after all.

It’s 2003 and the Cubs are as close as they’ve been to the Fall Classic as anytime since 1984. They lead the Florida Marlins, three games to two, and are leading the Marlins, 3-0, heading into the 8th inning at Wrigley Field. A foul fly is hit toward the left field line, right next to the stands. Cubs left fielder Moises Alou drifts under it, only he’s unable to try his hand at a catch because fan Steve Bartman tries for it instead. Bartman deflects the ball as Alou reacts animatedly. The Wrigley fans, once they realize what has happened, boo Bartman, one of their own, mercilessly. He is escorted from the ballpark, his safety threatened. Bartman’s try for the baseball extends the Marlins inning, and they go on to score eight times, capturing Game 6. They then win Game 7 and advance to the World Series.

The above incidents from ’69, ’84, and ’03 are all chalked up to the Billy Goat Curse, along with just about any other malfeasance the Cubs franchise has suffered over the past 63 years.

But you look at the calendar, and you look at the Cubs’ five-game lead, and you look at their manager, Lou Piniella – who played on the Yankees team of 1978 that overcame a 14-game deficit to overtake the Red Sox – and you start to wonder, once again. Is THIS the year they call Billy Goat’s bluff?

I have been waiting, as I’m sure millions of others have along with me, for the Cubs to collapse, or fade, or at least give their fans collective heart attacks, even if they should hold on to win the division. Because wining the division is hardly a meal ticket into the World Series. There are still a couple rounds of playoffs through which to navigate – in other words, plenty of time for something to go wrong, and for the Billy Goat to triumph.

Yet the Red Sox (2004) and the White Sox have erased decades-long demons in recent years. Even our own Tigers broke a 19-year mini-drought of playoff-less seasons, back in 2006. So there’s still hope for the Cubbies. There’s always been that, even when there hasn’t been much else.

Friday, August 08, 2008

No Lion Could Top Looney For Craziness

(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)

If there was ever a football player -- or a person, period -- whose surname fit its owner, it was Joe Don Looney.

Looney was a remarkable talent -- a big, tough running back from the University of Oklahoma. He was thought of so highly that he was drafted in the first round by the New York Giants in 1964, who were just months removed from appearing in the NFL Championship game against Chicago.

There was no questioning Looney's skill. There was, however, plenty of room to do so when it came to his sanity. At Oklahoma, in fact, coach Bud Wilkinson kicked Looney off the team for punching a graduate assistant coach. Still, the Giants snatched Looney off the board with the 12th overall pick in '64.

Looney as a Sooner

Looney proved himself to be incorrigible with the Giants, who got rid of him less than a month after drafting him. He was traded to the Colts before the '64 season. He lasted long enough to carry the ball just 23 times for Baltimore. Coach Don Shula, who had ties to the Lions from his days as a Detroit assistant in the early-1960s, somehow convinced the Lions to take Looney off his hands in time for the 1965 season.

Looney lasted longer with the Lions than any pro team he played for. In fact, he had some decent numbers in Detroit in '65, rushing for 356 yards. But eventually Looney's lunacy reared its head in the Motor City.

Perhaps the most famous incident was one that would seem to be apocryphal, except that it actually happened. Coach Harry Gilmer asked Looney to send in a play during a game, to which the RB replied, "Coach, if you want a messenger, send for Western Union."

On another occasion, veteran LB Joe Schmidt was once dispatched to Looney's room during training camp, to convince him to show up for practice. Looney had decided that he wasn't in the mood, apparently.

Schmidt entered Looney's room to find the enigmatic running back relaxing, strumming a guitar. Fighting the urge to throttle Looney, Schmidt calmly sat down and tried to explain why it was important that Looney attend practice. Schmidt had a plan: he decided to regale Looney with Schmidt's near-perfect attendance record when it came to practice.

"Joe, I haven't missed a practice in 12 years," Schmidt told Looney.

Looney looked at Schmidt, put his guitar down, leaned in and said, "Well then, I'd say you're due for a day off, Joe!"

So much for that.

When Looney cared to be, he was a serviceable running back who could block and catch the ball out of the backfield. He just didn't always care to be; in fact, he rarely did. He didn't particularly like football, for starters. He would tell folks that he found it unnecessarily violent and, for lack of a better word, useless.

So it wasnt surprising that, after he "retired" from football after a stint with the Saints in 1969, Looney moved himself to India and began working with elephants -- training them and, to others' curiosity and fear, befriending them. Looney said he liked elephants more than people. Eventually, Looney converted to Hinduism and joined the Siddha Yoga movement led by Swami Muktananda. A fellow convert once alleged that Looney was one of Muktananda’s “enforcers” who intimidated people into obeying him.

Looney, though, was maybe destined to die a violent death -- ironic because of his dislike for the violence of pro football. In September 1988, at the age of 45, Joe Don Looney died when his motorcycle veered off a road and crashed into a fence, in Texas.

There have been quite a few characters who've worn the Honolulu Blue and Silver, but it's doubtful that any were "loonier" than Joe Don Looney.

(some facts were taken from Looney's bio at Wikipedia, which you can read HERE)

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Thursday's Things

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

Things That Are About As Reliable As The Tigers' Bullpen

A Brett Favre retirement announcement

2. "Check's in the mail"

3. A claim in a political ad

4. The accuracy of a drive-thru fast food order

5. Arrival and departure times at the airport

6. Flavored tea

7. A five-day forecast

8. A Ben Wallace free throw attempt

9. A resume from George O'Leary or Wally Backman

10. Those bottom feeding bloggers

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

30 Years Ago, Red Wings' First Foray Into Free Agency Was Free From Success

As adept and cunning as the Red Wings are today with money and navigating their way around the rules of free agency and salary caps -- no team does it better, in any sport, in my opinion -- it wasn't always that way, of course. The money has been tossed out the window carelessly, never to show any return on the investment. This was particularly true in the mid-1980s, when a haphazard foray into free agency, both pro and college, failed miserably in the form of a 40-point season in '85-'86.

But that was hardly the first instance of tomfoolery when it came to money.

30 years ago this week, the Red Wings dove into expensive free agency for the first time in their history, and its utter lack of success and legal drama that ensued perfectly befitted their Keystone Kops-like escapades of the 1970s and early-1980s.

The ironic thing is that the Wings looked like they were onto something in the summer of 1978. They had emerged from the muck of a 41-point season in '77 and, behind new GM Ted Lindsay and new coach Bobby Kromm, the Red Wings improved to 78 points and made the playoffs. They upended the Atlanta Flames in the 2-of-3 mini-series, and split the first two games in Montreal before losing that series in five games. The team appeared to finally be leaving the horrors of the Ned Harkness Era behind them.

But goaltender Rogatien Vachon, once a crown jewel for the Los Angeles Kings (pun intended), became a free agent after the '77-'78 season. Despite the fact that the Red Wings' weakness was their offense, and not so much their goalies (they had Jimmy Rutherford, Eddie Giacomin, and Ron Low -- who weren't great but very serviceable), Lindsay saw Vachon and got some ideas.

It should be mentioned here that the NHL didn't really have "free" free agency back in 1978. No one was truly unrestricted, as they can be today. In Vachon's case, any team that signed him would be indebted to the Kings, and would have to provide them with compensation. Despite that caveat, Lindsay plunged ahead, signing Vachon, who was 32 and had his best years behind him, to a fat contract in August, 1978. Today, a 32-year-old goalie isn't that off-putting. But back then, before the intense conditioning and supreme physical shape that players engage in today, that was a little on the old side for a netminder who began his career in the 1960s.

Almost immediately, in the wake of the media frenzy surrounding Vachon's signing by the Red Wings, trouble ensued.

The league deemed that, as compensation to the Kings, the Red Wings would send second-year center Dale McCourt to LA. Quite a price to pay for a goalie in his 30s, but that's what the NHL mandated. Lindsay's smile, which ran from ear-to-ear as the cameras snapped Vachon signing his contract, vanished. The Red Wings were getting rooked, as usual.

McCourt, in his rookie season, had scored 33 goals. He was only 21 years old. The Red Wings looked at him as a cornerstone around which to build the franchise. Now he was gone, headed to the Kings. Just like that.

But true to his last name, Dale McCourt fought the move, legally. He didn't want to go to Los Angeles. The Red Wings certainly didn't want him to go. So McCourt filed for an injunction with the U.S. Federal Court. His reasoning was that the compensation rule was illegal.

Training camp approached. Vachon reported, and so did McCourt. The Red Wings had both players in uniform, while the legal drama played out. The Kings were appalled that someone would actually NOT want to play for them under the Southern California sunshine. McCourt dug himself in for a long legal fight.

The ruling came down, finally: McCourt wouldn't have to go to the Kings. Other compensation would have to be worked out.

Once again, smiles in Red Wings Land.

Then the regular season began, and everyone saw what Rogie Vachon had left in the tank. It wasn't much.

On opening night, at Olympia, against the St. Louis Blues, Vachon was awful. After the game, he admitted to having a bad case of nerves. He let in six goals on less than 20 shots. The Red Wings lost. The season went on, McCourt and Vachon both wearing the winged wheel. But both Vachon and the team underachieved. The new goalie, wearing a new number (40 instead of 30), was hardly an upgrade from what they had previously. The more Vachon struggled, the more the fans howled. And the more they howled, the more he struggled. He played an occasional brilliant game, but mostly he was horse feathers.

The team nosedived in '79, missing the playoffs. They weren't able to carry over the momentum from the previous season.

Eventually, the Red Wings and Kings came up with a plan: McCourt signed a new contract with LA, who then "traded" him back to Detroit immediately, for center Andre St. Laurent and some draft picks. This time the Kings were rooked.

Vachon played one more season in Detroit, then was traded to Boston, even up, for goalie Gilles Gilbert. Around the same time Vachon was traded, in the summer of 1980, Lindsay was relieved of his GM duties, demoted to coach. And Terrible Ted would be let go entirely after a 3-14-3 start. The Red Wings didn't return to the playoffs until 1984. The Vachon experiment was an utter failure.

Next time I see Ted, I'll ask him about Rogie Vachon. Then I'll duck.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Selfish Favre Can't Be Given A Pass On This One

Summer, 2003. The Red Wings, fresh off a first-round playoff defeat at the hands of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, were presented with a quandary. Their former no. 1 goalie, a certain Hall of Famer, decided that he had enough of reitrement after one season and wanted his old job back. And the Red Wings, with a very expensive replacement, himself a maybe Hall of Famer, were in a sticky situation.

Bring Dominik Hasek back, or let him sign with another team? Hasek made it clear that he wanted back into the NHL, with the Red Wings or anyone who'd have him. And the replacement, Curtis Joseph, wasn't exactly chopped liver. And he for sure wasn't the reason the Ducks beat the Wings -- that could be blamed on the super-human play of Anaheim goalie J-S Giguere.

General manager Ken Holland told me, back in early 2006 during an interview, that Red Wings brass was very afraid that Hasek was going to sign elsewhere -- specifically, Colorado. The Avs were rumored to have interest in Hasek, to replace the retired Patrick Roy. And the idea of Hasek, dressed in Avs maroon and blue, beating them in the playoffs in the spring of 2004 was simply too ghoulish to monkey with, according to Holland. So Hasek returned to the Red Wings, disharmony in the locker room ensued as the two high-priced netminders never got along. And the Wings were blasted out in the second round of the '04 playoffs, Hasek never coming close to playing in the post-season due to one of his many groin injuries. But the damage had been done.

The Green Bay Packers are in a similar situation this morning, though the replacement in their case is hardly a Hall of Famer. In fact, he's never started an NFL game.

It used to not be fashionable to diss Brett Favre -- at least not for anything off the field. While he may have been prone to the occasional ill-timed interception (what QB isn't, really?), there wasn't really anything to criticize him about as far as his work ethic, character, or his being a good teammate.

But now it is time to question Favre -- mainly his selfishness.

I have done the same in the past about Hasek -- maintaining that his damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead mentality when it came to returning to the NHL was overriding what was best for Curtis Joseph and the Detroit Red Wings. And, in essence, that made his selfishness less than admirable. "I'm coming back, so get the hell out of my way," in other words.

Kind of like what Brett Favre told the Packers, coming out of retirement with all the finesse of a bull in a china shop.

Favre has reported to the Packers, and just because he didn't do it wearing a mask and brandishing a gun doesn't mean it didn't have the same heavy-handedness.

Poor Aaron Rodgers. On the precipice of finally taking over the reins at QB in Green Bay, after three seasons of clipboard holding and baseball cap wearing. Now here comes Favre, five months after his retirement announcement, in camp and "competing" for the starter's job.

Poor Mark Murphy, the Pack's president. It would seem that he took the path of least resistance by allowing Favre to report, as opposed to trying to trade him, or fighting his return. But there was really no path of least resistance here, because with Favre in camp, the circus-like atmosphere around Packers camp is only going to get goofier.

Poor Mike McCarthy, the Packers coach. He had, for months, formulated plans that included Rodgers as his quarterback. Just as when Favre was the starter, McCarthy figured on no quarterback controversy -- Rodgers was clearly the no. 1 guy. Now the coach has to juggle -- an appropriate word because of the big top covering Packers camp right now.

Ahh, but no one is saying poor Brett Favre, and nor should they, for he is the one who has caused all the upheaval. I have said it before, and I'll say it again: is this how it will be every year? Brett Favre calls the shots, and retires/un-retires, depending on his mood? And the Packers are to hold the starting QB job open for him, even during the first week of training camp? When does it end? How can the Packers believe him, the next time Favre "retires"?

Favre clearly cares about no one other than Brett Favre, at least in this instance. There's no question that HE believes firmly that he gives the Packers the best chance to win, as opposed to Rodgers. From a purely football perspective, he might be right; it's not like Favre fell off the map in 2007. His performance was outstanding for a man of his age. But this isn't about just what goes on between the sidelines; it's about other people, other feelings, other intangibles. And all are being disrupted while Favre un-retires. Yet Favre doesn't seem to care about that. All he cares about is what's good for Brett Favre. And what's good for Favre isn't necessarily what's good for the Packers -- either now or in the long run.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Now That Closers Are Allowed In, Why Keep DHs Out Of Hall?

Two down, one to go – at least.

First, it was Bruce Sutter in 2006, who pitched for years with that lumberjack-like, bushy beard. This year it’s Richard “Goose” Gossage, who pitched for years with that intimidating Fu Manchu mustache.

Clearly the facial hair didn’t help either man’s chances at the Hall of Fame. Nor did their statistics, or how they impacted the game. Or the winning teams they played on – or, in Gossage’s case, not even having his most marquee years in New York, a city known to be a boon to Hall of Fame chances with other players. The only thing that worked to get Sutter and Gossage inducted was the wearing down of the voters’ resistance over time.

There can be, I suppose, at least a degree of slack given to the folks who cast ballots for the baseball Hall of Fame in their stubborn refusal to consider relief pitchers for induction. After all, the phenomenon of the “closer” – known in various decades as the “stopper” or the “fireman”, depending on when you started following the game – didn’t really come into prominence until the 1970s. Prior to that, your best pitchers were your starters – mainly because they pitched the whole game most of the time, so why wouldn’t those guys be your best arms?

Watching the Tigers on television a few weeks ago, on the night the team honored the 1968 World Series champs, I was taken by the words of former reliever Darryl Patterson, a member of that wonderful outfit in ’68. Patterson was asked how many save opportunities he got, back in the day.

“Well,” he said with a wry chuckle, “(Denny) McLain finished all of his games, and (Mickey) Lolich finished all of his games, and (Earl) Wilson just about finished all of his games, so that didn’t leave too many chances for guys like me,” Patterson continued, and the booth erupted.

It’s true.

In ’68, McLain, Lolich, Wilson, and Joe Sparma combined to complete 53 games (McLain himself pitched 28 complete games out of 41 starts). That’s a third of the 162-game schedule. And if they didn’t complete the game, they came darn close on many occasions, leaving few outs for the bullpen to worry about. There was one stretch, in September, when Tigers starters completed 12 straight games. Their relief pitchers needn’t have bothered to even show up for a couple of weeks.

But in the ‘70s, perhaps fueled by the designated hitter (keep reading to find out more about the DH), which ratcheted up the offense in the American League, starters finished fewer games. And the role of the “fireman” – the late-inning guy who would come in and pitch out of jams – became more and more important.

Sutter and Gossage were more than just finishers, though. They were no ninth-inning only pitchers, like the closers of today. Today’s closer often starts the ninth inning, the bases empty, the pressure gauge lower than it was in the days of Sutter and Gossage, who more often than not jumped into the fray after the starter left them with a mess – and not just in the ninth inning. Gossage, for one, would sometimes come into the game as early as the sixth inning – and finish the game.

It wasn’t until the early-1990s when the ‘70s generation of firemen/stoppers/closers became eligible for the Hall of Fame. At first, their appearance on the ballot was mostly scorned and derided.

“Hall of Fame? For a guy who pitched a couple innings here and there?”

Well, yeah – since those just happened to be the most crucial innings of the damn game.

It took awhile for the voters to catch on.

Finally, they did, and Sutter was elected in 2006 – the first true relief pitcher to be so honored. Grouchy at the time was Gossage, whose numbers were every bit as good. And Gossage wasn’t shy to voice his displeasure – not with any ill will toward Sutter, just at those who didn’t seem to understand that what was good for the gander was good for the Goose.

The error was corrected this year; Gossage was inducted just last week. And in regards to my opening sentence, the third reliever that belongs is Lee Smith, who is still waiting for justice himself.

Now, as promised, some words about another group of players who are being shunned.

Edgar Martinez was one of the finest hitters of his time. There were years when he may have been considered the best pure hitter in the game. Ten times he hit over .300 in a season, sometimes wayyyy over .300. He had seasons of .356 and .343 and .337. It was especially impressive, since Martinez was a right-handed hitter in a game where the vast majority of pitchers throw right-handed.

Martinez: should be considered a serious Hall candidate, despite his DH-only status

But Edgar Martinez is now the victim of having played his entire career in the era of the designated hitter. He didn’t make the rules, he only played within them. Yet there are those who would penalize him for that.

Martinez played his last game in 2004. A player isn’t eligible to appear on the Hall ballot until he’s been retired five years. So in January, 2010, Martinez’s name will appear for the first time, his candidacy to be considered officially by the notoriously slow-learning vote casters. As the calendar rolls along, there’s more and more talk about Martinez, and others like him, who played most of their games as DHs. And, as with the firemen, there is rancor.

“Hall of Fame? For half a player?”

For me, the DH is a bane. I, personally, don’t care for it. Still – and it’s been around for 36 years. It’s not the way the game, I believe, was meant to be played. Yet I refuse to penalize those who did that job, and did it well, because they weren’t the ones who included it in the rule book.

Yes, the DH has allowed aging players to stick around when they, by rights, should have been forced into retirement the moment they became liabilities defensively. Willie Horton had one of the best years of his career in 1979, aged 36, as a full-time DH for Seattle – when Willie had no business playing the outfield.

So you would hold that against them? The full-time DHs played baseball the way it was deemed, for their era. The rules said someone gets to bat and not wear a glove. So some simply went out and became the best hitters they could be. Like Edgar Martinez. He had over 2,200 hits and a career average of .312. They aren’t shoo-in numbers, but they’re worth considering – not to be mocked.