Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Lions' Special Teams Have Been Anything BUT, Lately

He'd field the punt, no matter what---even if a swarm of would-be tacklers were surrounding him. The fair catch wasn't an option. Often, the opponents would have prayed for his hand to go up, as a matter of fact.

Then a jitterbug move here and there, a sidestep, and then he'd emerge from the scrum, bursting into daylight.

The late sports writer Joe Falls had it right about Lemuel Barney.

"Lem Barney was like the National Anthem," Falls once wrote. "He made people stand up."

Barney was the greatest punt returner I've ever seen, mainly because he was fearless.

Never was that more evident than during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Tiger Stadium, in 1970.

The punt actually had rolled to nearly a stop on the grass, with several Bengals players surrounding it, waiting for it to stop completely. But then Barney snatched the ball from the ground, and darted past the stunned Bengals. For a touchdown, some 60 yards or so.

The Lions also had a kickoff return man around the same time named Tommy Watkins, and he was no picnic, either. In 1965, Watkins averaged 34.4 yards per kickoff return.

I remember little Eddie Payton, Walter's younger brother, taking a kickoff and a punt to the house in a game against the Vikings in the Silverdome during a Saturday night edition of "Monday Night Football", in 1977.

In the 1990s, Lions fans were thrilled by Mel Gray, who was as dangerous on kick returns as anyone in the league for a period of about five years.

The Lions had Glyn Milburn after Gray, and he was exciting at times.

Eddie Drummond was electric, when the rest of the team's batteries were dead.

The lineage of return men in Detroit has often been a bright spot amidst a lot of darkness.

Not lately, though.

You can't pin the blame for an 0-16 season on just one thing, of course, but you can say that the Lions' return game and kick coverage didn't help. At all.

It would be one thing if the Lions had one or the other working at an above average clip. But when you combine not being able to bring a kickoff past the 25-yard line along with constantly surrendering field position because of the inability to cover...

Not a good situation.

The Lions' special teams coach is Stan Kwan. Still. And, for all the warm and fuzzies people feel about Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew, the fact that Kwan remains in charge of ST is enough to be deflating.

For now.

When Gray was doing his thing, the Lions' ST coach was the late Frank Gansz, who brought a drill sergeant-like approach to his coaching. Gansz's platoons covered kicks like Kamikazes, and his blocking schemes opened gaping holes for Gray.

Whatever progress the Lions are to make from 0-16 will be stunted if they don't get their special teams acts together.

I'm not talking about the leg men; kicker Jason Hanson and punter Nick Harris are just fine.

But the cover squad didn't do anything to help out the worst defense in the NFL, by constantly handing opponents a short field. And the Lions' own return game was sick. Just as Barney was the best I'd ever seen---at least in Detroit---Brandon Middleton '08 might have been the worst return man I've ever seen, in the entire history of the NFL.

Middleton was awful---a meek, mild-mannered returner of kickoffs who had no burst, no guts.

Aveion Cason was the other main kickoff returner in 2008, and though he wasn't much better, numbers-wise, at least he possessed some gumption.

The Lions drafted WR Derrick Williams from Penn State last April, largely to wow them with his kick returning ability, which he flashed often in college. Veteran receiver Dennis Northcutt, recently signed, has had some success returning punts.

Gray, Milburn, and Drummond at least gave you a reason to watch the Lions, when you didn't care all that much to see their teammates.

But even that kick return mojo has been removed from the menu in recent years.

I'm not expecting the next Lem Barney. But some field position off kickoffs and punt returns that traverse more than five yards would be nice.

It'd be a start, anyway.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"The Knee Jerks": A new open, a new chat room--even a caller!

If it was Monday night, then it was "The Knee Jerks", correct?


Last night was no exception, as Big Al and I blabbed on our weekly Blog Talk Radio Show for the customary 90 minutes and some change.

The first 35 of those minutes were spent with pro wrestler and soon-to-be-Reality TV star Matt Riviera, who regaled us with stories of his career in pro wrestling and his upcoming VH1 show, "Megan Wants a Millionaire," in which Matt and 16 other millionaires vie for the heart of the gorgeous Megan Hauserman. It debuts this Sunday, August 2, at 9:00 PM ET.

After Matt's segment, Al and I talked about two controversial QBs---Brett Favre and Michael Vick. Then we mourned the very possible loss of the Buick Open after this year, talked a little U-M football, and then launched into Tigers and Lions talk. All that, plus our Jerks of the Week.

Oh, and did I mention that we unveiled our new pre-taped show opening and opened up a "Knee Jerks" chat room during the show? And that we took our first phone call from a listener?


Here are some hi-lites:

Big Al

On the Tigers' offense: "It's like watching the same game over and over again."

On Brett Favre: "I'm tired of this. At this point in his career, on a good day, Favre is maybe an above average quarterback. But the Vikings are putting up with him because if he joins them, he's automatically the best QB on the roster."

On the Lions still having draft choices unsigned: "I'm having flashbacks to the days of (former GM) Russ Thomas!"


On the Buick Open: "I've been there. I've covered it. The players love it. Corey Pavin told me a few years ago that the Buick was one of his favorite stops on the tour. It's a shame if this is the last one."

On Favre: "He's transforming his legacy from one of the best quarterbacks in the game to one of the most aggravating people."

On the Lions: "Al, you're over-reacting, as usual, when it comes to the Lions. These guys will get signed---if not now, then soon. Three days to camp is an eternity."

You can listen to the show by clicking below:

Monday, July 27, 2009

Favre Needs To Make Up His Mind, Once And For All

Brett Favre, the high-rolling risk-taker, the reckless gunslinger, has been brought to his knees, apparently.

Favre ran away from would-be sackers, rifled passes into the thick of secondaries with defiance, and was as durable as titanium.

But now a simple question is his Kryptonite.

To play, or not to play?

Favre won't tell.

He has the Minnesota Vikings on the edges of their seats, waiting for the future Hall of Famer to decide whether he wants to, once again, eschew retirement for another autumn playing football.

Training camps are starting all over the NFL this week. Some have already begun. And still Favre isn't sure.

To play, or not to play?

He's been pulling this stuff for several years now, Brett Favre has.

Another football season ends, and Favre starts talking retirement. He winces and sobs and tells us that it looks bad for another year in uniform.

He yearns to spend more time with his family---that age-old reason for hanging 'em up for good.

He almost fooled the Green Bay Packers a couple times with this act, before the Pack got wise and cut Favre loose, tired of the posturing. Besides, it was time to see what Aaron Rodgers could do already.

Favre put in a year with the New York Jets, amidst talk that he wasn't exactly the most accessible teammate the Jets have ever had. Or the most reliable.

Then the Vikings got into the mix after Favre did his annual chin-rubbing and head-scratching.

Twisting in the wind is young Tarvaris Jackson, the Man Who Would Be Quarterback, should Favre turn the Vikings down.

Meanwhile, Favre continues the transformation of his legacy, from one of the game's top signal-callers to one of its most aggravating.

To play, or not to play?

No one said this should be an easy decision. But Favre has had over seven months to make it, and still he hasn't come to a 1-0 vote either way.

He's sitting at 0-0-1, while Jackson and the Vikings wait to see which way they'll proceed as a team.

Easy for me to say, but if I were the Vikes, I'd have told Brett Favre weeks ago one thing, and one thing only.

"We're going to give you a deadline, Brett. If you haven't made a decision by (insert date), then we're moving on. No hard feelings, but this is a business and we have better things to do with our time."

It would be even gutsier, but I'd love to see the Vikings turn Favre down at this point, should his decision be, "I want to play."

Too late!

None of the other quarterbacks enshrined in Canton ever made such an excruciating exit from football.

Even Johnny Unitas, who spent one awful year plus a few days of the following year's training camp as a San Diego Charger before calling it quits, never came close to what Favre has been doing to first the Packers and now the Vikings.

Joe Montana played a couple seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs and then retired with little hesitation.

Many of them even announce before the season that "This is it, guys!" and when the final gun goes off, they peel the uniform off and ride into the sunset.

But Favre is making like a pro boxer, bobbing in and out of retirement, keeping himself in the news all year round.

To play, or not to play?

Ahh, that is the question.

So answer it already!!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sparky's Soothsaying Got It Right For Tigers In 1987

Sparky Anderson was best digested with a side order of salt, at least to those who had him figured out. To try him otherwise was usually a cause for consternation.

I tried Sparky, the old Tigers manager, without salt for the first couple of years he was in Detroit, and I can tell you that he was much easier on the tummy with sodium.

I believed him, or wanted to, when he told the reporters that Kirk Gibson was going to be “the next Mickey Mantle.” I listened, enraptured, when he announced before the 1980 season that his team would win “at least” 90 games.

I was still eschewing the salt shaker the next spring, when Sparky told us that between them, starters Jack Morris, Milt Wilcox and Dan Petry would win 50 games.

Then I got wise, and realized that Sparky was a lot more fun when you added grains and grains of salt to his words.

After that, Sparky amused me instead of bemused me.

Unknown rookie Chris Pittaro, so good that he’d be the Tigers’ second baseman, thus moving the great Lou Whitaker to third base?

HA—that’s a good one!

Pain don’t hurt?

Stop—you’re killing me!

But I found a Sparky gem, uncovered on the addictive site YouTube—a.k.a. your very own video home museum. And, had I heard it live, when he first said it, I’d have shaken my head, grinned, and said, “Oh, that Sparky!”

It was May, 1987. The Tigers were limping along, 9-15 and not showing much life. They had lost All-Star catcher Lance Parrish to Philadelphia before the season, via free agency. The pitching was a shambles, the hitting sporadic.

So Sparky was donning the TV headset and talking to the folks on Channel 4 during one of their pre-game shows. The Tigers were in Oakland.

“I want to tell people something right now,” Sparky said, and you knew you were in for a humdinger. “This is a very good baseball team. Make no question about that. And this will be a very good baseball team.”

Sparky’s words must have caused thousands of eyes to roll. But then he saved the best for last.
“I will say this: the people of Detroit will be very happy come October 4.”

The Tigers slipped to 11-19 in the week after Sparky’s boastful prediction.

The only happy that the fans would be come Oct. 4, it appeared, would be happy that the season was finished!

In early June, the Tigers picked up a former batting champ and aging veteran who was struggling to hit .200 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Bill Madlock’s signing looked like nothing more than a desperate move by a desperate team.

Madlock was 36 years old and looking like it, hitting a sickly .180 for the Dodgers.

But he bounced into town with the Tigers and things started to happen—for Madlock and for his new team. Immediately.

Madlock, in his very first game as a Tiger, in Boston, went 3-for-4 with a home run. The Tigers lost, but they wouldn’t lose very much the rest of the season.

Madlock went 12-for-23 in his first four games with Detroit. He had more hits in those four games than he had the entire season with the Dodgers (11) to that point.

Every time you looked up, it seemed Madlock was getting two, three hits a game.

And the Tigers started to win. Often.

They rose from the ashes of 11-19 and were battling the Toronto Blue Jays for supremacy in the division, along with the honors of having the very best record in all of baseball.

There was a crucial four-game series in Toronto the next-to-last weekend of the season.

The Tigers went into Canada one-half game behind the Blue Jays.

Three days and three one-run losses later, the Tigers were three-and-one-half games behind, including a gut-wrenching, come-from-ahead loss on national TV on Saturday afternoon, a game in which the Tigers blew a 9-4 lead.

The Blue Jays had seven games remaining, the Tigers eight. They started talking about Toronto’s “magic number” to clinch the division, which had now been whittled down to five.

The man who was not the next Mickey Mantle but instead the one and only Kirk Gibson, stood among the reporters in the tomb-like Tigers clubhouse in the wake of Saturday’s piercing loss.

Speaking softly but with determination, Gibson had a doozy for the press people.

“Maybe we’re just setting the greatest bear trap in history,” Gibby said of the Tigers’ seemingly insurmountable deficit in chasing the Blue Jays.

The Tigers won the next day in 13 innings, thanks to Gibson’s home run in the ninth to tie the game, and his game-winning single in the 13th.

They were two-and-one-half games back with a week left in the season.

The Blue Jays stumbled at home against Milwaukee, dropping three straight, while the Tigers split a four-game series at Tiger Stadium with the Orioles.

When the Jays hit Detroit for the season finale weekend, their lead was a measly one game. The bear trap’s jaws were about to clamp down.

The Tigers swept the series, winning all three games by one run. They won the division outright, avoiding the need for a one-game playoff. The bear trap worked. The Blue Jays finished the season 0-7 in coughing up the division flag in Chicago Cubs-like fashion.

It was Oct. 4—the date Sparky Anderson referenced on television back in May—when pitcher Frank Tanana fielded Garth Iorg’s tapper and lobbed the baseball to first baseman Darrell Evans, completing Frank’s 1-0 shutout and sealing the division for the Tigers.

Sparky got one right. The people of Detroit were, indeed, very happy—rivaled only by their surprise and shock.

The Tigers, after their 11-19 start, went 87-45 the rest of the way, nearly a two-out-of-three rate for 132 games.

That they fizzled out in the playoffs against Minnesota was almost forgivable after all they expended just to get there.

Sparky, in his book They Call Me Sparky, called that 1987 team his best in Detroit.

“We were finished,” Sparky wrote of his team’s state after those thrilling, season-ending matches with the Blue Jays, both in Toronto and in Detroit. “They (the players) had nothing left to give me against the Twins. I was very proud of them.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Time For Red Wings' Howard To Step Up, Once And For All

Jimmy Howard is a grizzled rookie.

He's a 25-year-old goalie who's been in the Red Wings' organization for six years, and still no one really knows what we have here.

Howard has managed to find himself between the pipes for all of 556 minutes for the Red Wings since being drafted in 2003. He's 1-5 with a GAA of 2.76 and a save pct. of .896.

He's shown flashes in the minor leagues since being snatched off the board after a fine career at the University of Maine. But he's also confounded some of the scouts and minor league coaches, causing them to look cross-eyed at Howard, befuddled as to why he's not further along in his development.

His numbers in Grand Rapids have been more pedestrian than splendid. Howard, last season, posted a 2.54 GAA and a .916 save pct. And there were those in the organization who were concerned about midway thru the season that Howard had possibly regressed since turning pro.

Yet Howard has the inside track at being Chris Osgood's backup in 2009-10, because Ty Conklin fled to St. Louis as a free agent.

That leaves the Red Wings with Osgood, who'll be 37 in November, and Howard as the goaltending tandem, barring any additional moves.

Osgood (left) might have to play an inordinate amount of games next season if Howard (right) doesn't get his act together

Osgood, before the Stanley Cup Finals began in late May, promised that he would "never" have a regular season like the one he had in '08-'09, when he was mostly awful. Some of that awfulness, he explained, was due to a distinct lack of mental preparation prior to last season.

He says he's learned from that, proving that even being in the NHL for 15 years doesn't mean you're immune from being schooled.

But unless the Red Wings feel a lot more warm and fuzzy about Howard after training camp, they may be forced to play Osgood in 55-60 games, or more. That would be easily the most games Osgood has participated in since 2003-04, when he appeared in 67 contests for the St. Louis Blues.

Osgood, over the past four seasons, has played in 142 games. He was Manny Legace's backup in 2005-06, then backed up Dominik Hasek for the next two seasons. Even last year, going into the season as the clear cut No. 1 guy, Osgood only played in 46 games, because of his below-par performance.

So what would a 60-game workload do to a 37-year-old Osgood? Would that impact him negatively in the playoffs?

And why am I worrying about this in July?

It's never too early, or never the off-season, to wring your hands about NHL goaltending. It's the lifeblood of any championship team. As good as Osgood was in the 2009 playoffs---and he was excellent---Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury was a tad better as the Finals series wore on, Game 5's anomaly aside.

This is it for Jimmy Howard. This is his litmus test, the 2009-10 season.

If he's not up to the task now, forget it. He'll be 26 before next season ends, and he'll have been a professional for about six years. The Red Wings have waited long enough.

To be fair, Howard has found playing time at the NHL level to be elusive, with the Red Wings' goal log-jammed with Legace, Hasek, Osgood, and Conklin over the years. But that's what the minor leagues are for, and Jimmy Howard hasn't caused a lot of folks to write home about his play.

I run the risk of sounding like a typical Nervous Nellie Red Wings fan, but with the team being shredded up front thanks to free agency losses, preventing goals becomes more important than ever. The Red Wings' blue line corps is as good as it gets, especially the top four, so there's that.

But it still comes down to goaltending. And the Red Wings will go to battle with a 37-year-old starter and a 25-year-old who can't seem to decide whether to pee or get off the pot, so to speak.

Sorry to dampen your summer's fun.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Another Exciting Episode of "The Knee Jerks" Is Waiting For Download!

It was yet another jam-packed episode of "The Knee Jerks" last night on Blog Talk Radio!

My weekly gabfest with Big Al of The Wayne Fontes Experience went off without a hitch, as for the first 30 minutes we were joined by Paul Swaney of Bleacher Report, who will begin a quest in August 2010 to visit all 122 venues in the NHL, NFL, MLB, and NBA within a 12-month period!

Paul's website is, and you can check out more of him and his mission there.

As for Al and me, we launched into a 35-minute discussion on the Tigers, talking about everything from their sorry offense to the team's financial state to Curtis Granderson's off-field distractions. Then we lit into the Pistons and their doughnut-like team (a big hole in the middle), despite the signing of free agent Chris Wilcox. We also pooh-poohed the notion of Big Ben Wallace returning to the Pistons, as has been rumored.

Some highlights....

Big Al: "I wouldn't be surprised if Magglio Ordonez was released when Carlos Guillen comes back."

"You're going to see a much different Tigers team next year. The payroll might drop below $100 million."

"The Pistons are going to have to score 100, 110 points a night to win anymore."

Eno: "Rick Porcello won't be going back to Toledo, EVER. He won't have to ride another bus the rest of his life. That's how good this kid is."

"If Curtis Granderson is going to be a leadoff hitter, then he's got to hit better than .255. He hits homers, but he's getting them quietly."

"I wish the Pistons would quit trying to fill their center position on the cheap."

We also named our respective Jerks of the Week!

You can listen to the show below:

Monday, July 20, 2009

Delmas Could Be Big Hitter Lions Have Lacked

Chris Spielman looked around at what was going on around him and he could scarcely believe it.

It was the summer of 1988. The Lions had just made Spielman their second round pick, a wrecking ball of a linebacker from THE Ohio State University. Spielman was a throwback, a guy who could have played with a leather helmet and been nice and comfy.

And he was a winner. He won as a prep student, growing up near Canton, Ohio, where the Pro Football Hall of Fame is located, and playing for Washington High School in football tradition-rich Massillon. The winning continued in Columbus, with OSU.

The winning wouldn't come so easily in the NFL for Spielman, because he had the misfortune of being drafted by the Lions, who were a little better in 1988 than they are now, but only by a smidgen.

So Spielman launches into his off-season workout regimen and is aghast that precious few of his new Lions teammates want to join in.

The ones that bother to hit the weight room with Spielman are both amazed and bemused by his intense routine. They'd never seen anything quite like it.

Another Lions rookie that summer was safety Bennie Blades, an assassin from Miami of Florida.

Together, the intense and zealous Spielman and the natural-born hitter Blades helped inject the Lions defense with energy and physicality that had been woefully missing.

After his second season in the NFL, I ran into Blades at Fishbone's in downtown Detroit. I was working for a local cable TV station at the time and co-producing a sports talk show. I gave Bennie my card and asked him to be on the show sometime. He agreed.

A few months later, in the spring of 1990, Blades indeed appeared on our TV show. And, noting that the Lions had a Monday Night Football date that year with the L.A. Raiders, he had a message for the fans.

"Get your tickets early," Bennie said, looking into the camera, "and watch me hit Bo Jackson in the mouth!"

The Lions haven't had much of that bravado since, at least not on the defensive side of the ball. Certainly not in the secondary, where good teams separate receivers from footballs routinely.

Blades teamed with another OSU guy, William White, to form a very respectable and physical safety duo in the early-1990s. Blades and White laid some hats on you, while cornerbacks Melvin Jenkins and Ray Crockett disrupted pass patterns. That quartet was a big reason why the Lions finished 12-4 and went to the 1991 NFC Championship game.

The Lions, today, have another Bennie Blades-type in the making.

I love Louis Delmas. Already, and he hasn't so much as had one training camp practice.

Delmas, the Lions' second-round pick out of Western Michigan, has the right attitude befitting a feared safety: the bravado and mentality that says, "Warning to all who dare wander in my neighborhood."

He just might hit you in the mouth, indeed.

Delmas didn't take long to start talking some trash. Just a couple days after the Lions drafted him, to be exact. Then he kept telling fellow rookie Matthew Stafford, the team's bonus baby QB, how Delmas was going to intercept him in drills. Which he did, eventually.

But it's not just the trash talk. Delmas joined a WMU program that was among the dregs of the MAC, and helped lead it back to the top. And he's supremely confident that he can contribute to a similar resurgence with the Lions.

The Lions haven't had a true enforcer at the safety position in quite some time. Ronnie Rice, from my alma mater at EMU, was a decent player but didn't command the same respect as the top hitters in the NFL do.

Delmas, it says here, can be that kind of a difference maker.

The coaches love him, too. Their only concern, now, is how to harness some of his energy and tone him down a bit.

As if THAT'S been a problem around here very much.

Spielman, by the way, was once asked, during one of those NFL Films 1-on-1 interviews, if he had any game day routines or rituals that he'd like to share.

"If I told you, then I'd have to kill you," Spielman said.

I'm still not sure if he was joking.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Still A Flicker Left In “Big Red’s” Flame

Baseball is magic.

Check that—baseball is a magic act. It likes to pluck unsuspecting people out of the crowd and shine the spotlight on them, to entertain the rest of us. Then, in a flash, the poor sap is back into the crowd, often never to be heard from again.

It’s one of the beauties of the sport, to me, that the Joe Blow player—sometimes the 25th man of a 25-man roster, can take his place on stage, performing feats that belie his abilities, and thus take a place in baseball history. Forever.

The list of pitchers who’ve thrown no-hitters or even perfect games, for example, doesn’t read like a Who’s Who of hurlers. It’s dotted with Hall of Famers, but also liberally sprinkled with guys whose ERAs look like the price of a Big Mac meal.

Don Larsen was not a great pitcher. If we’re going to talk among friends here, he wasn’t even very good. He was serviceable. Another noodle in a plate full of spaghetti.

So how to explain Larsen throwing the only perfect game in World Series history, for the Yankees in 1956? Especially since, three days earlier, Larsen pitched one-and-two-thirds innings and walked four batters.

Larsen even tempted fate, daring to spit into the face of baseball superstition.

Sometime along the sixth or seventh inning, despite his teammates doing the usual ritual of not so much as even looking at him, much less discussing his ongoing perfect game, Larsen, nonetheless, found Mickey Mantle in the dugout.

“Hey Mick,” Larsen recounted years later, “wouldn’t it be something if I threw a no-hitter?”

Larsen said that Mantle looked at him as if the pitcher was possessed, and quickly moved away.

A trip to the ballpark can, three hours later, be unforgettable. Could be a no-hitter. Could be someone hitting for the cycle. Maybe a spectacular catch in the outfield that lifts you out of your seat. Perhaps that 25th man knocks a couple balls out of the park, including a game-winner in the bottom of the ninth.

Stuff that keeps you talking to captive audiences for years.

Chris Shelton is back in the big leagues. Could be a sip of coffee, but he’s back. He’s with the Seattle Mariners now. They say he’s going back down when the M’s need a fifth starter again, but it’s only been a few days and Big Red has already driven in a game-winning run. So who knows?

Shelton owned Detroit for a few weeks. It was in 2006, and Shelton, a red-headed first baseman who looked like Raggedy Andy all grown up, came out of the gate in April like he was being chased by a pack of wolves.

Big Red, they called him. Some took to calling him Red Pop, in honor of Detroit’s Faygo soda company.

The dark skies descended upon Shelton in a hurry in '06

Nine home runs in the Tigers’ first 13 games, Chris Shelton hit in April 2006. That power display made him just the fourth player in MLB history—and the first ever in the American League—to hit at least that many homers in his team’s first 13 games, joining Mike Schmidt, Larry Walker, and Luis Gonzalez before him.

If there had been one of those special mayoral elections in Detroit back then, the kind the city has fallen in love with lately, Shelton would have won in a landslide.

He was another of baseball’s faces in the crowd pulled on stage by the fickle magician.

Shelton was a nobody, and I don’t mean that derisively. It’s fact. He was a 26-year-old who’d kicked around in the minor leagues for a few years, unable to even make the 40-man roster of the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates, who left him exposed in baseball’s Rule V Draft in December 2003.

The Tigers snatched him up, and the only reason he stayed with them is because, according to Rule V, a selected player has to stay with the selecting team the entire season, or else he goes back to his previous team. No being sent to the minor leagues, in other words.

Shelton had a grand total of 46 at-bats in 2004, tethered to the Tigers.

The next season was a lot more active, and productive, for Big Red: 388 AB, 18 HR, a .299 BA.

Still, no one could have foreseen Shelton’s jackrabbit and history-making start in 2006. After 41 AB, Shelton was hitting a softball-like .512.

But the magician was eventually done with him, and Shelton got dumped back into the crowd, his participation in the act over.

By mid-June, people no longer stopped what they were doing to watch a Chris Shelton at-bat, as they had done back in April. The Tigers as a team thrived, but Shelton individually was in the 14th minute of his 15 minutes of fame.

He was no longer a .500 hitter, or a .400 hitter, or even a .300 hitter. As July began to wane, Shelton was at a very ho-hum .278, and sinking fast.

That’s when I found him in the Tigers clubhouse, in a sour mood.

I was making the usual rounds before game time, the first-place Tigers trying to fend off the visiting Chicago White Sox, who were just three-and-one-half games behind them in the Central Division race.

I saw Shelton, at his locker, head down, twirling a bat slowly. Perhaps he was silently asking the piece of lumber why it had forsaken him so quickly.

“Got a few minutes?”

Shelton looked up and slowly nodded. He wasn’t the jovial, smiling kid from a couple months ago.

I dared to ask him about his swing, wondering where it had gone.

My question shouldn’t have blindsided him, for everyone was beginning to wonder about Chris Shelton. Yet Shelton snorted and sneered, telling me that he had no intention of answering such a query, incredulous that I had the temerity to pose it.

About a week later, Shelton still slumping, the Tigers shipped him back to Toledo. To work on his swing.

Shelton didn’t make the Tigers in 2007, and was traded in December of that year to Texas. He batted .216 for the Rangers in 97 at-bats last season.

The Mariners signed him as a free agent over the winter. They called him up from the minors last week, and he delivered a game-winning single last Sunday. He’s still only 29 years old.

The 15 minutes are up, and Shelton is just another face in the crowd. But at least he’s in the crowd. For now. But better to be in the crowd in the big leagues, than on stage in the minors.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Hamilton The Roadblock To Pistons' Three-Guard Fantasy Coming True

Jack McCloskey loved tall guys.

Made sense, since Trader Jack was a basketball guy, through and through, and basketball does tend to be played by dudes who have to duck through doorways.

There aren't too many shrimps in the Hall of Fame.

Ralph Sampson was one of those big men who had McCloskey, the Pistons' GM, drooling.

Sampson, dominating the college game down at Virginia, was, for a time, undecided about whether he'd turn pro in time for the 1981-82 NBA season. If he'd eschew college for the pros, then McCloskey would have been beside himself.

The Pistons won 21 games in 1980-81. But the expansion Dallas Mavericks won but 15, so they'd have the No. 1 overall pick in the '81 draft. This was when the worst team got the first pick, no strings attached---before envelopes tumbling around in a bingo cage or ping pong balls being sucked through a tube decided the fate of NBA franchises.

McCloskey wanted Sampson. Wanted him badly. If Ralph had come out of college, Trader Jack would have done all he could to either trade with the Mavs for the No. 1 pick, or dissuade them from drafting Sampson.

But the Mavericks had their eyes on Mark Aguirre, anyway---a talented forward of ill repute, who was driving his coach Ray Meyer crazy at DePaul.

Sampson stayed put, and McCloskey went with Plan B.

"We need creativity really bad, and that's what Isiah Thomas provides," I recall Jack telling the media folks in the weeks leading up to the draft.

Isiah wasn't the big man that McCloskey coveted for his sad sack team, but he was the best little man available. By far.

Isiah was just two years out of high school when he made himself NBA-ready. After two seasons and an NCAA championship with Bobby Knight at Indiana, Isiah had had enough---of Knight and the college game. But especially Knight.

They said you can't build an NBA championship team from scratch---and that's what McCloskey had in Detroit, scratch---around a little guy. Isiah was 6'1" and so he wasn't even very tall by everyday life standards, much less the beanpole world of the NBA.

It was a big man's game, and Jack McCloskey knew it. But Isiah Thomas was supremely gifted---a dazzling passer and tough-as-nails attacker of the key. Today they call it "the paint."

So Jack took Isiah, right after the Mavs took Aguirre, Thomas' boyhood buddy from Chicago.

Isiah became The Franchise in Detroit, while Aguirre so irritated his NBA coach, Dick Motta, that Motta would eventually call Aguirre a "coward" and a "jackass" over the years.

Isiah would, in time, combine with Vinnie Johnson and Joe Dumars to form perhaps the greatest guard trio to ever play for the same NBA team at the same time.

There's a fantasy being lived out in Pistons Land nowadays.

That fantasy says that today's Pistons can recreate that guard trio magic through the talents of Rodney Stuckey, Richard "Rip" Hamilton, and newly-signed Ben Gordon.


Where do I begin?

I could start with the obvious---that Stuckey is no Isiah Thomas. But that's too easy, and maybe a bit unfair, for Stuckey is still only about to embark on his third NBA season, and he hasn't yet gone into training camp as a starter.

Last season, Hamilton was blinded with grief.

They traded his pal Chauncey Billups, and Rip was too busy pouting and mourning that he didn't see the opportunity before him.

Even with Allen Iverson in tow, the Pistons could have been Hamilton's team. Rip was the most consistent scorer, the hardest worker, and he had himself a nice little love affair with the fans.

In Detroit, the sports fans appreciate the hard workers, the blue collar guys. Players who approach their game the way the fans approach their lives.

Hamilton, even though he lost his starting role briefly to Iverson due to the emergence of Stuckey at point guard, nonetheless could have been Mr. Piston with Mr. Big Shot traded away to Denver.

It wouldn't have mattered if Rip was a bench player. If he had the right attitude, he could have been team captain material and the fans would have continued to embrace him---maybe even more so with the popular Billups gone.

Who else would have been the leader?

Tayshaun Prince? Too quiet.

Rasheed Wallace? Too noisy.

Antonio McDyess? Too nice.

Hamilton wanted no part of providing leadership. He was too busy bitching.

So to think that Hamilton is going to play nice in a three-guard setup with Stuckey and Gordon, who plays the same role as Rip, that of scoring machine shooting guard---is fantasy of the highest order.

Unless Hamilton has an epiphany with new coach John Kuester, after fighting rookie coach Michael Curry tooth and nail last season, you can forget about the Pistons reigning terror on the NBA with another three guard dealio.

Oh, it could work---if Rip gets his 35 minutes a night. But where does that leave Gordon, who the Pistons are paying $11 million a year?

It could be that Rip gets traded; that's been the scuttlebutt, too. The Gordon signing would make even more sense if Hamilton is shipped away.

Rip Hamilton could have made the Pistons his team. But he wanted no part of it. He showed me a part of him that I didn't know existed. I didn't think Rip had the petulant gene in him.

But he did, and I think it's folly to believe that he'll embrace a three guard rotation.

Where's Mr. Rourke when you need him?

"What is your FAHN-tasy??"

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Latest Episode of "The Knee Jerks" With Special Guest Bob Page!!

It was a no-holds barred episode of "The Knee Jerks" last night on Blog Talk Radio, as Big Al and I welcomed former Detroit and New York broadcasting legend Bob Page to the program.

As expected (and hoped), Bob told it like it was. It was a wonderful first hour of a special, expanded, two-hour edition of TKJ.

Here are some highlights:

On being down on major league baseball: "After the 1994 strike, when they canceled the World Series, I was essentially done. You think I'm going to pay to see that nonsense?"

On his time in Detroit: "It's my hometown, and always will be. I would have liked to have come back and done something in Detroit, but it's a soft market and everyone is afraid of their own shadow."

On working in New York: "They brought me in the back door, on a little-known network and a little-known show. Other guys, like Eli Zaret and Bernie Smilovitz, were brought in as these big stars. Maybe that's why I lasted so long and they didn't."

On New York as a sports town: "I will tell you that New York is, by far, the most overrated sports town. By far."

On the U-M football program: "Les Miles should be the coach at Michigan. All (AD) Bill Martin had to do was call Les, say, 'It's time to come home. We don't care what you're making at LSU.' And Les would have been on the next plane. Bill Martin screwed that up terribly!"

And that's just scratching the surface.

Tune in, and after Bob, Al and I talked Tigers, Pistons, and Red Wings, plus named our respective Jerks of the Week (mine wasn't even about sports!).

You can listen to the show here:

Monday, July 13, 2009

20 Years Ago, Russ Thomas Had One Last Contract Squabble

Russ Thomas was a curmudgeonly soul, a sort of modern day Charles Dickens-type character.

He walked with a limp and had an old, craggy face and seemed to live in a time about two generations before the rest of us.

And he was tight-fisted with the cash that his boss charged him with overseeing.

Thomas was the Lions' GM, way before Matt Millen soiled himself in that role.

Thomas had played for the Lions in the early-1950s, was a radio broadcaster for the team, and ended up in the good stead of Bill Ford when Ford bought out the syndicate owning the Lions in 1964.

Ford made Russ Thomas his general manager, and it was as if the Lions were under the thumb of Ebeneezer Scrooge reincarnated.

Thomas had yearly go-rounds with players and coaches, almost always about money. Ole Russ had this funny thought: why pay them fair market value before putting them through the wringer first?

And even then, Russ might not loosen his grip on the wad.

The Lions, maybe out of blind luck than anything else, had drafted some Hall of Fame players in the middle of the 1960s. Legendary names, truth be told.

Receiver Fred Biletnikoff. Safety Johnny Robinson. Quarterback John Hadl.

Trouble was, each and every one of them were legends for teams in the American Football League---Biletnikoff with the Oakland Raiders; Robinson with the Kansas City Chiefs; Hadl with the San Diego Chargers.

This is because the tightwad Russ Thomas wasn't willing to meet the contract demands of these priceless players, so they jumped to the rival AFL.

Who knows how successful the Lions might have been with players like that toiling for them in the 1960s and part of the '70s.

It was stuff like that, and more, that made Russ Thomas Matt Millen in Detroit before Millen even graduated from high school.

Thomas was vilified in Detroit; the most-hated executive this town has ever seen. And we're talking about a city that has seen the likes of Ned Harkness with the Red Wings and the lightning rod Millen with the Lions.

It's the view of this grizzled rabble-rouser that the hatred for Thomas ran deeper than that for Millen, because Thomas' own players despised him.

Twenty years ago, Thomas had announced that 1989 would be his last season. But he had time for one last go-round with a superstar player.

The Lions, those blind squirrels, had lucked upon a nut in the '89 draft. The Green Bay Packers gift-wrapped running back Barry Sanders for them after passing on Barry to take mammoth tackle Tony Mandarich.

Yeah, I know.

So here comes Barry, the most electrifying player the Lions had on their hands since the days of Billy Sims and, before Billy, Lem Barney.

But Russ Thomas was being miserly again.

Barry and his dual agents wanted a certain dollar figure to sign with the Lions. Russ balked. Lions fans rolled their eyes, but with a twist.

If Russ Thomas blows this for us, they said, then there's no telling what we're capable of doing---to the Lions financially, and to Russ physically.

There was no AFL, of course, for Barry to use as leverage, but there was the Canadian league. Rumors started that Barry Sanders might take his jitterbug running style north of the border.

Training camp came and went. The stand-off between Thomas and Sanders' people dragged on throughout the summer.

The exhibition season came and went. Still, Sanders remained unsigned.

Then, just days before the Lions' season opener against the Cardinals at home, the word came: Barry Sanders had, finally, come to agreement on a contract.

But it was only about 72 hours before game time. And Sanders hadn't so much as attended one practice session.

The Lions hosted the Cardinals, and Barry was in uniform, though he didn't start. Information leaked that Sanders would certainly play, at least a little---though it was unknown when in the game he'd get the chance.

In the second quarter, Sanders jogged onto the field with the rest of the Lions' offense, and the Silverdome crowd went mad. He was wearing no. 20, the number worn so well by Sims and Barney.

He took a handoff, and, without the benefit of training camp, practice, or anything football-related, Sanders slithered through the Cardinals' defense to the tune of 17 yards.

He earned his first contract on that initial carry alone.

Sanders' contract squabble was Thomas' going away present. He retired, as promised, at the end of the 1989 season.

Russ is gone now, but he's not forgotten, at least not by fellow curmudgeons who've been following the team for almost 40 years, like the one banging on his keyboard right now.

Twenty years later, the Lions got their prized rookie, Matthew Stafford, signed in a heartbeat.

No CFL for him, I guess.

I wonder what Russ Thomas would think of Matthew's contract terms? If he wasn't already dead, it would no doubt kill him.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

’71 All-Stars Left Burning Legacy In Detroit

You knew it was going to be a different type of an All-Star game when Dock Ellis served up a dandy for the sports writers in the days leading up to the contest.

“Ain’t no way,” Ellis, who was black, told reporters, “they gonna start two brothers against each other in the All-Star game.”

Ellis was pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates and having himself a fine year for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1971. Already, it had been announced that Vida Blue, another “brother” terrorizing batters pitching for the Oakland Athletics, would be the American League starter.

Ellis wasn’t exactly a wallflower as a player, or as a person. He once pitched a no-hitter, and maintained that he had done so under the influence of the hallucinogen LSD.

So it was par for the course that Ellis should brazenly speak of his views about the social landscape in which we lived in 1971.

Ellis was asked if the young manager from the Cincinnati Reds, Sparky Anderson, would choose him as the National League starter, as part of Sparky’s duty as helming the defending NL champs.

That’s when Dock dropped the “brother” comment on everyone.

Whether he did it to call Dock’s bluff or not, Sparky did, indeed, name Ellis as the starting pitcher for the National League.

And there’d be two brothers facing each other as starting pitchers after all, for the first time in All-Star history.

The game was played in Detroit, and they’re still talking about it.

I was a not-quite-8-year-old lad, having just seen my first Tigers game in person a few days earlier, when Jimmy Boldt stopped his bicycle in front of my house. It was the afternoon of the All-Star game.

Jimmy’s dad was Herb Boldt, who was, at the time, the sports editor for the Detroit News. So Jimmy had himself some connections, even as a 12-year-old.

“I’m going to the All-Star game tonight,” Jimmy told me, not so much bragging as stating fact. Regardless, I hated him.

The All-Star game in Detroit, 1971 version, was a treasure trove of baseball Hall of Famers from the 1960s and ‘70s. That’s number one.

The National League lost only one All-Star game between 1962 and 1983—and it was the ’71 game in Detroit. That’s number two.

And Reggie Jackson jacked a Dock Ellis fastball into the Detroit River. And I’m only exaggerating slightly.

Tiger Stadium, the old girl, looked positively gorgeous that evening. Three huge stars—red, white, and blue—were painted onto the outfield grass in left, center, and right. The bases weren’t the normal white; they, too, were red, white, and blue. Bunting hung from the green facades of the upper deck, like they do on Opening Day.

All those Hall of Famers dotting the rosters of both teams.

I hope Jimmy Boldt appreciated all that. I still hate him, by the way.

So Reggie, Vida’s Oakland teammate, pinch-hit in the third inning. Already, Johnny Bench and Hank Aaron (Hall of Famers, natch) had hit home runs for the National League. Aaron’s, believe it or not, was the first All-Star homer of his career.

Dock Ellis tried a high fastball, and Reggie clobbered it.

Reggie takes Dock Ellis deep, deep, DEEP

They say the ball may have traveled some 540 feet, had it not been for one of the light towers at Tiger Stadium stopping it on top of the right field roof.

Was that any way for one brother to treat another?

The Jackson home run was epic and still they play the clip from time to time. Trouble was, the camera man wasn’t used to balls being hit into the stratosphere like that, so he didn’t tilt up high enough to show the ball actually hitting the light tower.

I bet Jimmy Boldt got to see it. Yep, still hating him.

Here’s who hit home runs in that ’71 All-Star game in Detroit: Bench, Aaron, Jackson, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, and Harmon Killebrew.

Every one of them, in the Hall of Fame.

The American League won, 6-4. The Tigers’ Mickey Lolich got the save.

The hometown team was represented well; Tigers Norm Cash, Bill Freehan (both starters), Al Kaline, and Lolich were on the AL roster.

But the collection of talent was amazing, even for an All-Star game, in how it represented the best baseball had to offer, transcending eras.

You had guys like Willie Mays and Aaron and Clemente and Kaline and Killebrew, whose careers began in the 1950s. You had some of the brightest stars who debuted in the 1960s, like Pete Rose and Bench and Willie Stargell and Ferguson Jenkins. And you had the younger stars, who would come to dominate the rest of the ‘70s and even into the 1980s, like Rod Carew, Amos Otis, and Jackson.

It was simply one of the most legend-filled All-Star games ever played.

The stars didn’t come back to Detroit until 2005, but it wasn’t the same. Not even close.

Jackson has often said that people continue to approach him, wanting to talk about his mammoth homer in Detroit. And, knowing how much Reggie likes to talk about himself, I’m sure he’s been happy to oblige.

The ’71 All-Star game was the first one played in an American League park that was held at night. And Jimmy Boldt, wherever you are, no doubt going by just “Jim” nowadays, I hope you enjoyed yourself that evening.

But I still hate you.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Pistons' Coaching Job Not As Appealing Anymore -- And Coaches Know It

Avery Johnson is a smart man. Of course, you can be awfully smart when you're not desperate.

Johnson is having his cake and eating it, too. He's the fired Dallas Mavericks basketball coach who's still drawing cool millions from Mark Cuban -- in addition to gabbing into a microphone as an NBA analyst for ESPN. And he's not doing that for free, either.

Johnson hosted Pistons President Joe Dumars --- Sunday, it was reported --- at Johnson's home in Houston. The two met for nearly four hours, reports say.

Dumars flew to Houston firmly expecting to return to Detroit with Johnson signed, sealed, and delivered as his next basketball coach --- Joe's sixth since taking over the front office in 2000.

Once, that would have happened, without question.

Dumars would have flown to Houston to talk to someone like Johnson --- an experienced, highly-regarded coach --- and indeed Joe would have returned to Detroit having gotten his man. A press conference would have been called, perhaps the next day. Another go-round with a coach would have begun, the clock already ticking loudly on the new guy's time with the Pistons.

Johnson is no dummy.

He knows that Dumars no longer deals from strength when it comes to hiring coaches.

The Pistons job isn't an unattractive one, necessarily, but it's no longer one that you drop whatever you're doing and follow Dumars to Detroit, as if he's a pied piper.

The sticking point between Johnson and the Pistons, we're told --- and it makes sense --- was that Avery wanted no less than a four-year commitment from Dumars, at something around $4 million a year.

The Pistons were only willing to offer two years plus an option for a third.

Johnson was intrigued by the Pistons, but not enough to budge on his demand for four years.

He got himself into a staring contest with Dumars and this time, Joe blinked.

So Dumars flew back to Detroit, still coach-less.

Johnson knew that Dumars and the Pistons needed him a whole lot more than Johnson needed the Pistons.

So do others in the coaching fraternity.

Doug Collins was Dumars' No. 1 choice. Collins coached Dumars in Detroit, and has made it known that he's itching to get back into coaching. Dumars wanted Collins; Collins wanted the Pistons.

At first.

Then Doug came to his senses and looked at all the notches on Dumars' belt and decided that maybe he didn't want the Pistons so bad after all.

Dumars, sources say, is close to hiring Cleveland Cavaliers assistant John Kuester as his sixth coach --- with the two-year/option deal that Johnson rejected, and at a considerably lower price, it's presumed.

Kuester will be, if my math is right, Dumars' third choice. They say Kuester gives Dumars a comfort factor because of his one season in Detroit as Larry Brown's assistant (the year the Pistons happened to win the NBA championship), and his being an offensive guru of sorts for Mike Brown and the Cavs, which include one LeBron James.

Funny how those traits weren't enough to make him the first choice.

First Collins (top), then Johnson (above) turned Dumars down, each having their own reservations

Former football coach Bum Phillips used to say of the job insecurity of his profession, "If they want to fire you, they'll come up with a reason. He's too mean, he's too nice."

Same thing with hires.

To steal from Bum, if you want to hire a third choice bad enough, you'll come up with a reason to do so.

But just because John Kuester isn't even sloppy seconds, doesn't mean he'll be a bad hire.

Dumars had a rough year personally. In March, he lost longtime owner Bill Davidson, who was like a father to him after Joe's dad passed away in 1990. Davidson passed away rather suddenly, despite his being in poor health.

Then, in May, Joe's old coach, Chuck Daly, died from cancer. In about two months, Dumars lost two influential men in his life.

But Daly, a Hall of Fame coach, was hardly the Pistons' first choice back in 1983, when he was hired.

Jack McCloskey, the GM, let me in on a secret, when I interviewed him in 1989, shortly after the Pistons won their first of two straight titles.

John Kuester, even as a third choice, is one up on Daly.

McCloskey told me that, after firing Scotty Robertson, he offered the job to two high profile guys -- just like Dumars did last week. The two men were the iconic Dr. Jack Ramsay and the former Lakers coach, Jack McKinney. Both coaches said thanks but no thanks. Then a third man, who McCloskey didn't identify, turned him down, too.

Daly was the Pistons' fourth choice in 1983. A former Cleveland coach, too, to boot.


But the facts are these: Dumars doesn't have himself the same shiny job to dangle in front of potential coaching candidates as he once had. And he no longer negotiates from a position of strength.

Doug Collins and Avery Johnson both read that, crystal clear.

And John Kuester just wants a crack at a head coaching job.

If Dumars could ever use some of fourth choice Chuck Daly's magic, even posthumously, now's the time.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Latest Episode of "The Knee Jerks" Is Ready For Public Consumption!

Another episode of "The Knee Jerks" on Blog Talk Radio is in the books!

My weekly gabfest with Big Al of The Wayne Fontes Experience is now a 90-minute extravaganza, and we needed every one of those minutes to talk about what was a VERY busy week in the Detroit sports stratosphere.

Last night's show was chock full of goodies....

We kicked things off with an interview with Tom Hannon, who runs and has written a book about Wiffle Ball (yep!) called Backyard Ball. Tom also has constructed a to-scale replica of Brooklyn's Ebbets Field.

After Tom, Al and I delved into the chaos in Pistons Land, with free agents coming and going and the coaching job still vacant; the Red Wings losses in free agency; the Tigers' feeble lineup; the Steve McNair tragedy; and our Jerks of the Week.

Some highlights:

Big Al (on the Pistons' coaching search): "You throw enough money at someone, you'll get them."

(on the Red Wings losing Marian Hossa): "The Red Wings are the best-run organization in sports. If anyone can make up for Hossa's loss, it's the Red Wings."

Eno (on Curtis Granderson): "I can't believe he made the All-Star team, to tell you the truth. He's fallen in love with the home run."

(on the Tigers' lineup): "I look at it and I think, 'Where's the pop?' This is NOT a division-winning lineup, I'm sorry. They need a bat."

There wasn't even any time for Word Association!

Click below to listen!

Monday, July 06, 2009

Wallace Officially Leaves Pistons, After Unofficially Leaving Them Last Season

Rasheed Wallace won't be contributing to the Pistons' cause anymore. He's gone, off to the hated Boston Celtics.

Wallace will be missing when the Pistons gather for training camp this fall, but he won't be missed.

The Pistons won't have him anymore, but I challenge you to notice the difference.

Wallace has been AWOL from the Pistons for too long now. His signing with the Celtics just makes it official, is all.

Speaking of missing...

Once, Wallace was the missing piece. He was the final addition to the puzzle, when Pistons President Joe Dumars stole him from the Atlanta Hawks in February, 2004. His energy, outside shooting touch, and athleticism in the post was just what the doctor ordered. The Pistons, likely, don't win the NBA Title that year without acquiring him.

Now, he's leaving, and whether it's because the puzzle has changed, or his piece has become deformed, it doesn't matter. Rasheed Wallace is an ex-Piston and the only regret should be that it didn't happen sooner.

Wallace was particularly missing last season, when the Pistons could have really used his participation in the wake of the Chauncey Billups/Allen Iverson swap and the Rip Hamilton pouting jag and eventual injury.

Not to mention to provide some veteran leadership, a lot of it gone to Denver with Chauncey.

A rookie head coach could really have used some help from his supposed leaders. A veteran dude like Wallace could have been indispensable.

But Sheed showed his true colors. He lied down on the Pistons, turning in one uninspired performance after the other.

It used to be that you could put up with Wallace's antics, because his play was in the upper echelon of power forwards/centers in the league. The ill-timed technical fouls, the ejections, the loss of emotional control that would affect his game for several minutes --- you could abide that, because Rasheed was good for 15 to 20 points and about 10 boards and a couple of three-point daggers every night.

But each year he was a Piston, his fuse got shorter and his production got smaller.

By last season, Wallace was a shell of the player he was when the Pistons traded for him.

It wasn't just his age (he'll be 35 in September) that made his numbers shrink, either. It was his attitude.

It won't surprise me, not one bit, if Sheed goes to the Celtics and elevates his game. He's probably at that "needs a change of scenery" part of his career. The Celtics are a better team than the Pistons, and are clearly championship caliber.

The Celtics, in fact, are a much better team than even the 2004 squad that Wallace joined in Detroit.

Maybe he needs to sniff a title to get interested again.

Rasheed Wallace, when he's engaged both physically and mentally, plays basketball with a fury like few others I've covered and watched in my 30-plus years of observing the NBA. When he cares to be, Wallace can be a marvelous player -- a bona fide game changer.

He just has rarely cared to be, in Detroit as of late.

Sheed's mental breakdowns have been voluminous, but perhaps his most egregious example was in Game Five of the 2005 Finals against the Spurs, at the Palace.

The Pistons had drawn even in games, 2-2, and were in a dogfight at the end of Game Five. They managed a two-point lead in the final seconds. The Spurs inbounded the ball.

Wallace, for whatever reason, left his man, Robert Horry, to double-team Manu Ginobili in the corner, a senseless move. Ginobili recognized it right away and kicked the ball back to the unguarded Horry, who had murdered the Pistons in the fourth quarter with his deadeye shooting.

Horry calmly drained a game-winning triple, shoving the Spurs to a 3-2 lead. They won the series in seven games.

In my cleverness and incredulity, I wrote that Wallace left the wolf to guard the sheep.

A couple of years ago in the conference finals, they all but had to drag him kicking and screaming from the arena in Cleveland, after Wallace got ejected while his teammates were trying to force a seventh game.

I, for one, won't miss Rasheed Wallace. Once, he was the fire and brimstone that the Pistons needed to win a title. That was then.

Wallace, by the end of his time with the Pistons, had denegrated into a disinterested, scowling malcontent. It used to be that Sheed saved his disdain for his opponents and the officials. By the end, even his own team wasn't immune to his toxic behavior.

Now he's gone, off to Boston, where the Celtics hope he can do for them what he did for the Pistons five years ago -- to be that missing piece.

In Detroit, he was just missing.

No Sheed.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

For First Time In Decades, Lions Seem To Have A Plan

It’s deliciously ironic that the last time the Lions had a semblance of a plan, it was designed by a moon-faced, cigar-smoking oaf of a coach.

One fall Sunday, back in 1988, owner Bill Ford levied one of the worst indictments any owner could on his football coach.

He had just seen his team get creamed once again, another mercy killing in a season careening out of control, and he gave the reporters a rare postgame analysis.

“We’re losing,” Ford said, “and we’re boring.”

It wasn’t long before the coach, Darryl Rogers, was shoved out the door.

The Lions of 1988 showed up at every Sunday gunfight with a penknife.

The offense was slow, plodding. The aerial attack was virtually non-existent, matched only by the nearly invisible running game.

It reminds me of a classic line by that crack-up/coach John McKay.

“We didn’t block,” he said about his Tampa Bay Bucs after another beatdown, “but we made up for it by not tackling.”

The Lions of ’88 couldn’t pass, but made up for it by not running.

Bill Ford was spot on: They were losers, and they were boring.

And the Silverdome was half-empty on Sundays, which also hastened Rogers’ canning.

Ford handed the keys to his Edsel to defensive coordinator Wayne Fontes with five games left in the wasted season.

After managing two wins in those five games—both against the nearly-as-woeful Green Bay Packers—Ford ripped the “interim” part off Fontes’ label and made him a full-fledged NFL head coach.

The jolly, maudlin Fontes may have projected a clown-like persona, but he had some ideas.

He had a plan, in fact.

The owner was right about the boring part, so why not un-boring things up a bit?

Fontes, during his five-week audition, managed to hire an offensive guru named Darrell “Mouse” Davis. Mouse espoused something called the Run-n-Shoot offense, in which anyone who wasn’t a lineman or the quarterback was a wide receiver.

Fontes’ order to Mouse was simple: Don’t be boring.

So Mouse scurried into town, his playbook and head filled with passing patterns and player movement and all those little receivers running all over the field.

It was a quantity-over-quality theory. The Lions weren’t blessed with talented pass catchers, but Mouse and Fontes (sounds like a vaudeville act) figured that if they sent as many of them into the secondary as the rules would allow, they might get lucky.

And the Lions, at least, wouldn’t be boring.

Wayne Fontes had a plan. For sure. He lucked into drafting the jitterbug running back Barry Sanders in his first draft. He picked up some more receivers, still not filled with talent but a little better than what he inherited from Rogers.

Then, in 1990, Fontes moved on to Phase II of his plan.

He had the run part down in the Run-n-Shoot offense with Sanders. He just needed a straight shooter.

Fontes chomped on his cigar and gave us that big Portuguese smile as he announced the drafting of Andre Ware, the gunslinger from the University of Houston.

Ware didn’t turn out to be a straight shooter, after all. His passes had a funny habit of drifting from their intended targets.

So Ware didn’t work out, but Mouse and Fontes plugged away. Eventually, Mouse left the Lions, mystified, but Fontes kept at the Run-n-Shoot, trying to emulate the success the Houston Oilers were having with it.

The Oilers, of course, had much better pass catchers. And a straight shooter, indeed, in Warren Moon.

That helped.

Fontes may have been a lot of things that weren’t so great, but he was the last Lions coach who had a plan and actually set about to implement it.

Until now.

The Lions' braintrust of (from left) GM Martin Mayhew, coach Jim Schwartz, and President Tom Lewand seem to have their ship headed in the right direction

There’s nothing clown-like or jolly or ostentatious about Jim Schwartz. He comes to the Lions with a defensive background, but that’s where the similarity to Wayne Fontes ends.

Oh, except in the plan-having department.

The Lions—and here’s where you need to fasten your seatbelt and make sure your tray is in the upright position—have a direction now. And it’s not just coming from the coach’s office.

It’s a cop out to say that, just because the Lions finished 0-16 last season, things simply can’t get any worse and that anyone would look better following such a lousy act.

To a degree, that’s true.

But Schwartz, the new head coach, and Martin Mayhew, the promoted general manager, are beginning to tantalize me with their approach to getting the Lions out of this sticky, gooey mess that they were served up upon their hiring.

Mayhew first impressed me last October, when as an interim (that word again) GM he fleeced the Dallas Cowboys—shaking them down for a first round draft pick for the confounding receiver Roy Williams.

He impressed me again when he nabbed All-Pro linebacker Julian Peterson for the overrated lineman Cory Redding.

The plan was simple, but not any less effective, if done right.

The Lions, Mayhew said, must get faster, stronger, and bigger.

So that’s what he’s setting about to do.

Aside from acquiring Peterson, Mayhew has smartly signed some free agents and made other, lower-profile trades. I say smartly because he’s not simply throwing money at his problem. He’s grabbing a mix of grizzled and younger veterans who fit into the overall scheme.

He’s doing it in lockstep with Schwartz, who displayed confidence in his job security by hiring experienced men to lead his offense (Scott Linehan) and defense (Gunther Cunningham)—two former NFL head coaches.

Mayhew was a Matt Millen disciple, which is like saying someone learned about racial equality from the Ku Klux Klan. But Mayhew is proving, to me, that he must have left Millen’s office rolling his eyes on many an occasion, overruled but not out-witted.

Mayhew seems to have a handle on this whole personnel thing. He made a couple of terrific draft picks—again, my opinion—in tight end Brandon Pettigrew and safety Louis Delmas.

He’s giving Schwartz, through other pickups, some halfway decent NFL players with which to work—enough, I suspect, to at least keep the Lions from being laughed at from sea to shining sea; until Mayhew can go back to the store and get some more provisions.

I haven’t seen this kind of level-headed, competent approach to putting together a Lions football team since Fontes tried the Run-n-Shoot to complement his hard-hitting defense.

Fontes’ teams won a little bit, and certainly weren’t boring. In that way, he accomplished his mission.

Schwartz and Mayhew. Doesn’t sound so much like a vaudeville act, does it?

Friday, July 03, 2009

Hossa Blew Golden Opportunity To Change Perception Of Pro Athletes

Marian Hossa had a chance to put his money where his mouth is, so to speak, and he jammed his foot into it instead.

That, and he stuck his head into his five-hole too, while he was at it.

Hossa, the Red Wings' 40-goal scorer for a season, is on the move again.

He's been a rent-a-player (with Pittsburgh after being acquired at the trade deadline in 2008), and a mercenary (signing with the Red Wings for a year for a "kick at the can", as hockey players call the pursuit of the Stanley Cup).

Now he's disingenuous.

Hossa signed with the Red Wings last summer, almost one year to the day, because he was oh-so-wanting to win a Stanley Cup. He took less dough to play in Detroit, turning down more lucrative offers from the Penguins and, reportedly, the Edmonton Oilers.


But now Hossa has turned down the Red Wings' offer of $4 million a year to ply his trade for the divisional rival Chicago Blackhawks, who offered a 12-year deal at an average of a little over $5 million a year.

Granted, the contract is front-loaded, meaning that even though the average is $5 mill-plus, the first few seasons will pay Hossa over $7 million per campaign.

But the average isn't much more than what the Red Wings were able to offer, albeit in shorter term.

Hossa, apparently, doesn't fancy the Stanley Cup as much as I thought he did.

I shouldn't be surprised; money does speak a very influential language.

The Blackhawks aren't league dregs, by any stretch. I've written that they will, someday soon, hoist the Cup.

But the Red Wings, with Hossa, are a better bet to return to the Cup Finals than the Blackhawks are without him.

Yet the Blackhawks, with Hossa, still aren't better than the Red Wings. The main difference is on the blue line.

Anyone can declare, after signing a one-year contract, that it's all about the Stanley Cup. One year isn't much of a commitment.

I said before the free agency period began, that it will be this summer, in this scenario, where we'll see just how serious Hossa is about winning a Stanley Cup.

Let's see what he does, I thought, when there's more than just a 12-month commitment at stake.

And, he didn't disappoint.

I'm not angry with Hossa. I'm not hating the guy.

But let's not, anymore, make this about the Stanley Cup. Because it's not, not now.

Marian Hossa is a business. And he's a businessman. Again, no quarrel with that.

I'm fine with all that, as long as he's fine with ending the talk about Stanley Cups being worth more than the jack.

Championships are for legacies. Contracts are for financial security. The former doesn't provide the latter. I get that.

Hossa had a chance to really make a statement, though. A golden opportunity to change, in one fell swoop, the perception of the typical professional athlete.

Had he re-signed with the Red Wings, putting his faith into a team that came within a couple of goals of winning two straight Stanley Cups -- goals that he could have provided, by the way, if he was on his game -- then he'd really have said something.

It really would have been about winning, and winning only. And with enough dough to be comfy cozy, to boot.

Hossa had a wide open net staring him in the face and he missed it.

Didn't he learn his lesson, after leaving the Penguins?

I guess the Red Wings just won the 2010 Stanley Cup.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Pistons' Rite Of Summer Arrives Again, Right On Schedule

Ah, summer in The D.

School's out, the kids are free.

A whiff of lighter fluid burning off the charcoal as another grilling session is about to begin, somewhere.

Fireworks being held in all the burgs.

Joe Dumars fires a coach.

It's a rite of summer around here. Pistons president Dumars gets an itchy finger and cans a coach.

Add Michael Curry's head to the wall, right next to Flip Saunders' mug, which is next to Larry Brown's, which is next to Rick Carlisle's, which is next to George Irvine's.

When will Dumars' noggin join them?

I run the risk of being the ole broken record here, so I'll just mention it once more.

Maybe Joe should coach the Pistons himself.

There -- I promise not to bring it up again. But me is thinking it.

Hiring and firing coaches is a cause and effect sort of thing.

Irvine was canned, back in the infancy of Dumars' tenure as team president, because he didn't have the fire in his belly. George admitted as much. He was the accidental coach, minding his own business as Alvin Gentry's assistant, when Gentry was fired toward the end of the 1999-2000 season.

Irvine was in the shower -- I'm not making this up -- when his wife told him the Pistons were on the phone.

George took the job, reluctantly (he'd been a head coach before and had no aspirations, really, to do it again), figuring it would just be for the rest of the season.

Dumars convinced him to remain as coach while Joe got his feet wet as an executive.

But Irvine wasn't really into the gig, and it showed.

Then Rick Carlisle, whose belly was simply bursting with fire, was hired.

Carlisle lasted two seasons and was canned, mainly because Dumars had the chance to hire....

...Larry Brown, who came with a resume, a road map, and a lot of baggage -- with the names of NBA and NCAA cities stickered all over it.

Brown lasted the usual two years before his antics repulsed the owner.

Enter Saunders, who was deemed the right fit after Brown's suffocating ways.

Flip did better than the others. He lasted three seasons.

But Flip Saunders rubbed the players the wrong way, eventually.

Maybe a recent NBA player might be the ticket. Someone who could better relate, perhaps, to the delicate synergy that had existed in the past with Pistons players and authority figures.

So Dumars hired Curry after just one season as Saunders' assistant.

Now we see how THAT turned out.

A 39-43 record. An embarrassing sweep at the hands of the formerly-tormented Cleveland Cavaliers. A complete loss of the players' respect.

Some of which was Dumars' fault, self-admittedly.

"Maybe I put too much on his plate for a first year coach," Dumars said yesterday, and it wasn't hard to figure out that he was largely referring to the Allen Iverson trade, so early in the season.

Ya think, Joe?

Part of an employer's responsibility is to put his workers in positions to succeed, not fail. When Dumars made the Iverson deal, he may as well have fired Curry on the spot, for Mike had no chance. I'm not sure that he had much of a chance before the trade, but was olly olly oxen free.

Rip Hamilton, by the way, disappointed me.

Hamilton pouted publicly and no doubt profusely privately after his friend Chauncey Billups was traded for Iverson. The usual mourning period was extended, a lot, in Hamilton's instance.

I began to be mystified by Hamilton's behavior and body language.

It wasn't easy, I know, for Rip to come off the bench when the backcourt got crowded, thanks to Rodney Stuckey's emergence as a starter. I wouldn't expect him to be happy about it -- even though some players have made quite a name for themselves as sixth men.

But Hamilton didn't even try to buy in, and whether that was an indictment of the inexperienced Curry, who knows. Likely, the fact that Rip had himself a rookie head coach with which to toy fueled his pouting jag.

Dumars is an anomaly.

Precious few other GMs, in any sport, ever get the opportunity to hire and fire more than two coaches, let alone six. This is because, normally, the owner looks at the guy hiring and firing and starts to wonder.

Dumars, it was written here yesterday, is in a slump. His Midas touch is no more. He has a bundle of cash but not the premier free agent destination that Auburn Hills once was. Joe D has to sell NBA players on playing for the Pistons harder than he ever has before.

Speculation is that the still-green Curry was an obstacle to players signing with the Pistons.

Dumars told WDIV-TV yesterday that's not true.

"Not at all...not that I've seen," he said in answer to that notion.

This is a great time for the Pistons to hire a coach that has a good chance of sticking around for a while. It's a time of transition -- a word that Dumars has used often -- and a time that begs for consistency and stability.

New free agents are sure to join the Pistons very soon, maybe even by the time your eyeballs hit this jabber. The contracts won't be for one or two years, either. A perfect time to wed them with a new regime.

An opportunity to wash away the stench of the way the Pistons' very successful recent run ended, and start a new, fresh one.

I can see the cover of the media guide now.

The newly-signed free agents, and a player or two from the previous regime, surrounding the newly-hired, EXPERIENCED coach, smiling brightly for the camera.

"The Pistons' Engine Has Been Rebuilt!"

I've got plenty of 'em.

Something tells me I'm going to need them, too.