Monday, August 31, 2009

Michigan Blew It With Miles, So Now It Must Pay

Unless a bunch of University of Michigan football players, past and present, have banded together in a deliberate attempt to sully the reputation and undermine the authority of Rich Rodriguez, then U-M is going to have to lie in a bed of its own making.

Actually, Bill Martin's making.

This latest crisis involving the Michigan football program---the one where players past and present allege NCAA violations in terms of off-season workouts, etc.---is on Martin, the school's fumbling, bumbling Athletic Director.

For it was Bill Martin who so botched up the hiring of Lloyd Carr's successor that he wasn't even able to convince longtime Michigan assistant Les Miles to flee Louisiana State University and come home.

Les Miles should be the coach at Michigan, period.

Miles should have taken over from Carr in a transition that would have been not only a lot smoother, but almost seamless.

Les Miles wanted Michigan, badly. But, amazingly, Michigan didn't seem to want Les Miles in a quid pro quo manner.

Michigan, the Victors Valiant. Michigan, the Leaders of the West. Michigan, the winningest football school in America. Michigan---who let one of their own slip through their fingers.

Martin didn't show Miles nearly enough love upon Carr's exit in 2007.

The following aren't my words, but my sentiment.

Former broadcaster Bob Page, during his appearance on "The Knee Jerks" on July 13---the weekly sports gabfest I have with Big Al on Blog Talk Radio, put it thusly when it came to the Miles debacle.

"All Bill Martin had to do was make one call and say, 'Les, it's time to come home now. We don't care what you're making at LSU. We're not interested in anyone else. We want you to come home now'," Page told us of how Martin's coaching search should have started and ended with Les Miles.

I agree with Page's assessment, 100 percent.

Martin didn't do that. Instead, he publicly stated that Miles was merely one of the candidates Michigan was considering.

Les Miles---a National Championship-caliber college football coach, who cut his teeth at Michigan, wasn't the clear-cut choice to take over from Carr?

Martin screwed up. It got so bad that he couldn't even get Greg Schiano to leave Rutgers.


Martin didn’t go after Miles hard enough, nor quick enough. It should have been a slam dunk—fait accompli. Carr leaves, Miles comes. End of story.

It's likely that Les Miles felt snubbed by Michigan's tentativeness and, when push came to shove, that was enough to convince him that he was best served to stay put in Louisiana.

It wasn't the inadequacy of the Wolverines' facilities. It wasn't the inadequacy of the Big Ten, versus the Southeastern Conference. It wasn't the notion of replacing someone as respected as Carr. It was none of those that kept Miles from moving back to Ann Arbor to take over the Michigan football program, as should have been his fate.

It was Bill Martin's wishy-washiness when it came to launching his coaching search---a search that should have taken nothing more than a phone call and the first flight to Baton Rouge to complete.

Now look at what Martin has.

He has almost constant upheaval and a square peg in a round hole---Rodriguez, who still has that outsider feel about him.

But I've said it over and over: you don't blame the peg---you blame the person trying to cram it into place.

It just seems to me that there's too much smoke this time to think there isn't some sort of fire when it comes to these new allegations of NCAA violations, as uncovered by the Detroit Free Press.

There's always going to be attrition when a new football staff takes over a program. That's to be expected. The defection of Justin Boren way back in early 2008, shortly after RichRod took over, could be taken with a grain of salt, because those things happen.

But the Boren instance was just the first of several whispers, both loud and soft, of Rodriguez's way of doing things being looked at with crossed eyes. Again, that happens. But this is Rodriguez's second season and still the university is trying to get out from underneath the transition phase of his hiring.

Something's amiss at Michigan. All these kids, who were recruited to Michigan and who, one would presume, love the school, aren't making this stuff up. The only question will be the severity of the violations, and the consequences.

Would any of this had happened if Les Miles was coaching Michigan?

I don't bet. I don't gamble. But even I as a non-risk taker would shake hands with you and say, comfortably, one word.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

September’s Baseball Means One Eye Always Elsewhere

The old centerfield scoreboard at Tiger Stadium—before modern technology replaced it in 1979—slapped you in the face. And no wonder; it had arms.

Trudging up the runway from the concourse to your seats, whether in the upper or lower deck, chances are one of two things would enrapt you: the famed “short porch” overhang in right field, or the behemoth scoreboard above the centerfield bleachers.

But the porch wasn’t big enough, or interesting enough, to hold your attention for very long.

The scoreboard was the 400-pound gorilla in the room.

It was made up of body parts.

The clock was the head—first a Longines with an hour and minute hand, then a digital version consisting of hundreds of lights.

The clock/head rested squarely on the torso, which towered over the bleachers.

The scoreboard’s upper chest contained the meat and potatoes: score by innings, balls and strikes and outs, player at bat, etc. Toward the belly button were the umpires’ numbers, upcoming home dates, and the space for an “E”, if the official scorer ruled an error.

Extending left and right were the arms, which ran from upper deck to upper deck.

The arms contained the out-of-town scores; American League on the left, National League on the right.

With no fancy-shmancy game casts from the Internet to help him, the scoreboard operator received his information the old-fashioned way. Not quite from courier pigeon, but not much quicker. Even the phones were slower back then.

Sometimes there’d be no score at all—but rather the letter “R”, which meant there was a rain delay going on.

The scores changed much like the tally of hamburgers served on a McDonald’s sign: when nobody was watching.

The Braves would tie up the Phillies and you wouldn’t see the lights change. All you knew was that it was 3-2, Philadelphia a few moments ago, and now it was 3-3.

The scoreboard changed its scores much like how the tortoise ran his race: slow and steady.

It was July, 1971, and the hated Baltimore Orioles were keeping the second-place Tigers at arm’s length in the old East Division.

The Tigers won the league pennant in 1968—the last year before baseball quartered itself into four divisions—but the Orioles were the kings of the East Division, winning it in 1969 and 1970. Easily.

The Tigers were busy trying to keep at the Orioles’ heels when I settled into my seat that July night in 1971, ready to witness my first big league baseball game in person.

I wasn’t quite eight years old, but already I knew enough to keep my eye on the left arm—the one displaying the American League scores.

Despite my attentiveness, I missed it.

The Orioles were winning elsewhere, while the Tigers were taking care of the Yankees before me.

But then, when the action on the field didn’t dictate it, there was nonetheless a low, dull roar forming throughout the stadium.

The Orioles had given up some runs, and were now losing their ballgame. The scoreboard operator with his crude method of keeping track of such things changed the Orioles from winning to losing.

The Detroit baseball fans, so wise, noticed and gave their loud approval.

The crowd’s reaction fascinated me, still fascinates me to this day, because it wasn’t like an announcement was made over the PA system. Craggy Joe Gentile hadn’t said a word about the Orioles from behind his microphone in the press box, through which his words were heard from the box seats to the washrooms.

The Orioles score simply changed and somehow the fans noticed. And reacted. Loudly.

The Tigers wouldn’t catch Baltimore when all was said and done, and the Orioles captured their third straight East Division title in three years of divisional play.

Scoreboard watching in mid-July might seem a little premature, but now we’re in the thick of that exercise.

August is slipping away, and behind it comes the most dramatic month of all.

I’ll spot you a thrilling Stanley Cup playoff run, or NFL games in December that are pocked with playoff implications, yet you won’t come close to my September baseball schedule.

There isn’t anything like baseball in fall’s first month.

All over the Major Leagues, games are played with a chill in the air and fire in the belly.

Every game, every inning—indeed, every pitch—matters, when the mad rush to the playoffs takes place in September.

The scoreboard watching is delectable.

Today, of course, you don’t watch scoreboards, per se—you surf the Internet looking for your up-to-the-minute dope.

But the premise is the same. The objective hasn’t changed one iota: to see how the teams ahead or behind yours are doing.

It’s mushrooming now in Detroit.

Did the White Sox win? How are the Twins doing?

Damn—Jermaine Dye hit a home run in Chicago. White Sox up, 4-3.

Yeah! The Rangers just had a big inning in Minnesota.

Friday night presented yet another opportunity for scoreboard watching.

The Tigers were handling the Tampa Bay Rays—themselves embroiled in scoreboard watching with the Red Sox and Rangers for the Wild Card spot—and so everyone around Detroit felt free to zero in on the White Sox’ battle in New York with little impunity.

The Tigers finished off the Rays and now undivided attention could be paid to what was going on in the Bronx.

The Yankees had taken an early 2-0 lead, but the White Sox scratched out a couple of runs later on to tie it. The game moved into extra innings.

Doubtless Tigers players watched in the clubhouse, likely half-dressed, as the drama played out in new Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees were batting in the bottom of the tenth. They managed to put a couple of runners on base with two outs.

Second baseman Robinson Cano then decided matters with a three-run homer to give the Yankees a 5-2 win, one of those newfangled “walk off” jobs. But, more importantly for the Tigers, it meant a 5-2 loss for the White Sox.

The White Sox dropped to third place, behind the surging Twins, who are 8-2 in their last ten games and who can never be trusted.

The Tigers woke up Saturday morning with a solid four-and-a-half game lead over the Twins and a full five games ahead of the stumbling White Sox.

The scoreboard watching is just getting started. So will be, soon, September baseball.

Gentlemen, start your keyboards!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Denver Writer Needs History Lesson When It Comes To Bertuzzi Signing

Terry Frei needs a history lesson. And a Valium.

Frei is a sports writer for the Denver Post, and he's got his shorts in a knot over the Red Wings' signing of free agent Todd Bertuzzi, announced last week.

The column, "Wings whiff on toxic Bertuzzi," appeared recently.

Frei has apparently not been paying very good attention to the Red Wings---odd for someone who roams the Rocky Mountains, where they're obsessed with the Winged Wheel and wondering where the rivalry went off to.

"Purely from a hockey standpoint, it makes no sense," Frei writes---perhaps one-handed as he scratches his head with the other. "Bertuzzi, who had 15 goals last season for the Calgary Flames, is washed up."

Ahh, I see.

Bertuzzi will be 35 before next season ends, but if Frei thinks that such a player can be washed up, then he's not even paying attention to his own team.

Joe Sakic just retired, at age 40. He had 36 goals two years ago, when he was closing in on age 38.

And what of Chris Chelios, age 47? How can Frei watch his hockey, when his peepers are embedded in his rectum?

Frei then points out that the only playoff series Bertuzzi's teams have won in the past five years came with the Red Wings---in 2007.

So how is that an argument for why the Red Wings shouldn't have signed him? Seems to be one of those hockey/good luck/superstition things to me.

Frei hasn't been paying attention, because if he had, he'd know two things: 1) the Red Wings have trademarked the rescuing of veteran players; and 2) he doesn't know more than Red Wings GM Ken Holland and his support staff.

Holland doesn't "whiff", as the headline of Frei's column stated. In his 12 years as GM, Holland has made maybe two or three bad signings and/or trades.

Uwe Krupp in 1998 (which Holland would admit to). Bringing Dominik Hasek back in 2003 (which Kenny would NOT admit to, despite me trying a few years ago). And the Kyle Calder trade at the 2007 deadline.

That's it.

Does Frei truly think Holland has gotten dumb, or is he just jealous over a rivalry that's turned from Red Sox-Yankees to (insert NFC North team)-Lions?

Maybe it grinds Frei that the Red Wings are one of the classiest organizations in pro sports. They aren’t the Avalanche, who clumsily and shamelessly publicly courted Patrick Roy (!!) to be their coach, all while their current coach, Tony Granato, twisted in the wind.

It was disgusting. “Toxic,” even.

I can understand Frei's state, after watching the Red Wings toy with the Avalanche in the 2008 conference semi-finals.

But the true source of Frei's displeasure might be the fallout from Bertuzzi's cheap shot leveled against Steve Moore, back in 2004.

"What Bertuzzi did was disgraceful," Frei writes. "...To me, though, what's most galling at this point is the cavalier acceptance of Bertuzzi within the sport as just some guy who temporarily snapped, went a bit far, but served his five minutes in the penalty box, and is back on the ice..."

First, the "cavalier acceptance" isn't coming from Holland or the Red Wings. Are they to blame? The NHL has deemed Bertuzzi fit to play in their league. So the Red Wings should prop themselves up as some beacons of justice and vow never to employ him?

Would the Avalanche do such a thing?

OH, I forgot---the Avs aren't a player or two away from Stanley Cup contention. They're a player or two away from the conference cellar.

Second, Bertuzzi's not getting off scott-free here. He's going to have to pay---financially. And he already has.

Third, I believe Bertuzzi IS just someone who temporarily took leave of his senses.

Another history lesson for Frei: Eddie Shore.

Shore was a bruising defenseman for the Boston Bruins in the 1930s and '40s who lost his mind in anger one night against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was searching for King Clancy, but in Clancy's absence from the ice, Shore went after Ace Bailey, drilling him to the ice, head first.

Bailey's injuries were life-threatening. It was touch and go for a while. And he'd never play hockey again.

But Shore did.

It's a shame, but tempers are lost in the heat of battle. The league is remanded with the power to suspend or ban a player for life. But failing that, does that mean the teams should refuse to hire that player?

That seems to be asking an awful lot.

Frei concludes, "Bottom line: Bertuzzi is a lot of things. His 'case' is a black eye for the league. Yet even if it just comes down to trying to win games, he's more trouble than he's worth."

I guess I need to give Frei another news flash.

Bertuzzi was adored in the Red Wings locker room. He got along well with his coach, his GM, his teammates. His relative ineffectiveness in the '07 playoffs was due to his bad back, which had just been operated on months before.

Kenny Holland doesn't need any advice or scolding from little Terry Frei.

Frei best write more about teams he's actually been paying attention to.

I know that means having to cover the Avalanche, which I understand isn't the greatest gig in the world anymore.

The Avs' big brother just skated by and splattered them with some more snow, and Frei can't stand it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Today's Lions Don't Even Know How To Have Proper In-Fighting

The helmet flew across the locker room, somewhere in the bowels of what was then known as City Stadium. You might know it as Lambeau Field, in Green Bay.

The hurler of said helmet was beside himself with anger.

"Absolutely violent," he would describe his state, some years later.

The noggin that was the target of the flung helmet belonged to a quarterback. The flinger was a defensive tackle.

Alex Karras might have killed Milt Plum, had he been more accurate.

Karras and the rest of the Lions' defense had played their hearts out against the Packers, on the road, on a muddy and sloppy field in Green Bay. It was October, 1962, and this was a time when the Packers and the Lions were the unquestioned cream of the NFL's Western Division.

The Lions nursed a 7-6 lead late in the fourth quarter. They held the ball, with about two minutes to play. It was third down, around midfield.

Football protocol dictates a running play, then a punt deep into the opponent's end of the field.

But Plum, to everyone's either horror, curiosity, or glee---depending on your perspective---faded back to pass.

"What's he doing?" Karras and linebacker Joe Schmidt cried from the sidelines.

Someone from the Lions---Plum never revealed who---got greedy and wanted a first down to put a nail into the Packers' coffin. So instead of the safe running play, Plum went for a decidedly less safe passing play.

The Lions' receiver, Terry Barr, slipped on the City Stadium mud, and fell. Plum's pass was then easily picked off by DB Herb Adderley, who returned it deep into Lions' territory.

A few moments later, Paul Hornung kicked the game-winning field goal.

Karras demanded to know who called such a hare-brained play. Plum, smugly, told Alex that it was none of his business.

Not long after uttering those words, Plum was ducking to avoid Karras' helmet, hurled at him from across the room.

It was a gut-wrenching loss, certainly one of the worst the Lions endured in their history.

The Packers finished 13-1 that season---the only loss coming in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day, when the Lions sacked Bart Starr over 10 times.

The Lions went 11-3.

Quick math: if the Lions win that game in Green Bay, as they should have, they and the Packers would have been tied at the end of the season, 12-2.

Not sure about tiebreaker rules back then, but in head-to-head play, the Lions would have been 2-0 against Green Bay. At the very least, they would have played the Packers in a playoff to determine the divisional winner.

Those close to the Lions in those days say that the horrifying loss in Green Bay in October 1962 divided the team for years, and torpedoed any real chances of glory.

So time was, the Lions would fight each other---after games. In the regular season. About something meaningful.

Sometimes it seems as if the Lions of today are in competition with the Oakland Raiders to see who will be named Most Dysfunctional Team of the NFL. Heck, let's give out two such awards---one for the NFC (Lions) and one for the AFC (Raiders, by 20 lengths).

The great thing about covering the Lions and following them is that you can never, EVER say, with any degree of certainty, "Well, I've seen just about everything now."

Two Lions players, DE Dewayne White and TE Carson Butler, got into a scrap on Saturday night, some 30 minutes before game time, prior to a meaningless exhibition game in Cleveland. And White isn't letting it go.

"We're going to have bad blood for quite some time," he said afterward.

Seriously, who gets into a pre-game fight, as members of the same team? In the pre-season, no less?

Two teams come to mind: the Lions, of course---and the Raiders, whose head coach likes to use his assistants as punching bags, it seems.

New Lions coach Jim Schwartz has himself his first infighting, literally, among the troops. We'll see how he handles it.

Can you imagine Grady Jackson throwing his helmet at Matthew Stafford?

Well, Jackson is no Karras (damn), and Stafford is no Plum (thank God).

The Lions can't even fight themselves properly; so how do they figure on handling the rest of the league?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inge Giving Us A Performance That Will Be Legendary

It was used as yet another example of why hockey players are supposedly the toughest human beings on the face of the Earth.

Brent Gilchrist, a forward for the Red Wings with suspect talent but not suspect determination, made his teammates sick, literally, in the 1998 post-season.

Not that we knew anything about it at the time.

Playoff hockey is filled with mind games and secret intelligence that would make the CIA proud.

Never is this more evident than when it comes to player injuries.

Coaches smirk, players wink. General managers divert attention.

It’s a very well-orchestrated operation.

The NHL doesn’t require teams to divulge details of player injuries, an option that is taken advantage of, whole-heartedly.

Guys who are out of the lineup have “upper body injuries.”

Smirk. Wink.

Guys who are playing but who clearly don’t look like themselves are merely struggling. There’s nothing the matter with them.

Smirk. Wink.

It’s not until that team’s playoff run is over with, that we’re told the truth.

Gilchrist, we were told once the intelligence officers for the Red Wings deemed it OK, had played the entire post-season with a torn groin.

Try getting out of bed with one of those without sinking back onto the mattress, sobbing in pain.

Yet Gilchrist, not wanting to miss out on what he believed to be an excellent chance to win his first Stanley Cup, not only got out of bed, he dragged his butt to the hockey rink and proceeded to make even the most hardened of his teammates look away in disgust.

Gilchrist, it was disclosed, would have the training staff inject his groin with syringes the size of knitting needles, so that he could be administered the proper amount of cortisone, and in the precise spot, so the pain could be dulled enough for him to play.

Sometimes the cortisone would wear off, and Gilchrist would undergo the procedure during games—whether between periods or between shifts.

Other Red Wings players reported becoming almost sick to their stomachs, having accidentally catching a glimpse of what Brent Gilchrist was enduring, just so he could play some hockey.

The Red Wings played 22 playoff games that spring, which culminated in their second straight Stanley Cup. Gilchrist, with his mangled groin with the track marks, participated in 15 of them.

The extent of his injury was so severe that Gilchrist only managed to play in five games for the Red Wings the following season. It was acknowledged that his decision not to have surgery when he should have—choosing instead to play in the playoffs—cost him basically the whole next season due to belated surgery and recovery.

But he had himself his Stanley Cup—the only one of his career.

That’s a hockey player for you, eh?

Baseball players are wimps!

They sit down if they have a hangnail!

Can’t even play when it’s raining!

I have two words for you and your myths.

Brandon, and Inge.

Inge, the Tigers’ marvelous third baseman, is, under full disclosure, authoring one of the gutsiest feats by any athlete we’ve seen in Detroit—Gilchrist included.

Inge is playing on one leg for the Tigers right now—and he’s still one of the best third basemen in the game, defensively.

Correction: Inge is playing on, at best, two-thirds of one leg.

Rod Allen, the astute analyst for Fox Sports Detroit, put it right.

“There’s a difference between playing in pain, and playing injured,” Allen said Friday night as the Tigers were embroiled in yet another tight ballgame, in Oakland.

“And Brandon Inge is injured.”

No kidding.

This isn’t the NHL, so we’re all able to marvel at what Inge is putting himself through, just so he can do whatever he can to help shove the Tigers across the finish line before the White Sox or the Twins.

His knees are killing him—the left one being the worst of the two.

“Excruciating” has been used to describe the pain.

“Unbelievable” is what I’d use to describe his being on the field, and not in the hospital, his leg propped up and recovering from the surgeon’s knife.

Inge has what doctors say is about a 75 percent tear in the middle portion of the patella tendon in his left knee.

Yeah. That’s right.

The right knee hurts him, too.

But, as Allen said, the right knee is just pain. The left knee is injured.

Inge should be on the disabled list, for the rest of the season, and should have had surgery weeks ago. Someone else should be playing third base.

“It affects everything you do,” he said recently. “Anything that gets you in any sort of an athletic position, that’s what hurts. Anything.

“It’s not fun playing like this.”

Even stepping into the batter’s box—stepping into it—causes Inge great discomfort.

But here’s where it gets legendary, as if that wasn’t enough.

“How could I go on the disabled list and not play, when we’re in first place, when there are people all over out of work and struggling to get by? What kind of message would that send?”


Did a professional athlete, being paid millions of dollars, just say that?

The words are Inge’s, said a few weeks ago.

I wrote earlier in the season, before Inge’s travails were made known, that if they ever get around to erecting some more bronze statues at Comerica Park, they might want to include Brandon Inge, the Tiger with the most seniority of the current bunch, among the casts.

I got the expected reaction—scoffs and chortles and head shaking. A few, and only a few, agreed with me.

Then I found out about Inge’s knees and what he’s putting himself through, and the “v” word starting floating around my head.


Did you hear the latest?

Now they’re sticking needles into Inge’s knee and injecting him with a glucose solution, which is supposed to function as an irritant, alerting the body to fix the problem.

I just saw your hangnail and raised it by a broken knee and a half.

The Tigers offered Inge some time on the disabled list—the minimum 15 day requirement. This was several weeks ago.

But he said no, because no medical expert around the team could assure him that 15 days off would do any real good.

“I don’t want a day off the rest of the year,” Inge told the Detroit News’ Tom Gage last week. “Be sure to tell the skipper (manager Jim Leyland) that, too.”

The skipper isn’t obeying. He’s sitting Inge down occasionally, but not for entire games. Leyland can’t resist the urge to insert Inge into the game in the later innings, because his glove is so valuable.

Leyland failed to do that last Sunday against Kansas City, and faux third baseman Ryan Raburn let a hard groundball gobble him up in the tenth inning. The miscue led to the Royals scoring the game-winning run.

“Inge would have made that play,” was the first thing that came to mind when I saw Raburn turn butcher.

Brandon Inge, on two-thirds of one leg, would have made that play. Likely.

Don’t any of you dare forget what this guy is going through to play baseball this season.

I know I won’t.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bertuzzi Latest To Be Christened By Red Wings' Magic Potion?

Last we saw of Todd Bertuzzi in Detroit, he was a skating shell. No more than 50, 60 percent of the player he'd been in his heyday.

Bertuzzi gave it the old college try, but he wasn't what the Red Wings thought they were getting when they dealt for him at the 2007 trade deadline. Or, at the very least, he wasn't what the Red Wings hoped they were getting.

He was coming off serious back surgery, and had only played in a handful of games for the Florida Panthers when the Red Wings came calling.

The result was a gingerly-skating Bertuzzi in the '07 playoffs, rarely crashing the net and hardly ever throwing his big body around.

Still, the Red Wings wanted him back for '07-'08, thinking an off-season and more rest and therapy would make him more of the Todd Bertuzzi, circa 2002 that vexed the Red Wings in their series with Vancouver that spring.

But Bertuzzi wanted more of Mike Ilitch's pizza dough than the Red Wings were willing to offer, so Bert signed with the Cup champions, the Anaheim Ducks.

After being released by the Ducks and catching on with the Calgary Flames last season, Bertuzzi is back in Detroit, signing a one-year, $1.5 million deal.

He's 34 now, but has played in 134 of a possible 164 games over the past two seasons, which isn't bad for a 30+ year-old coming off back surgery.

Bertuzzi's career has been pocked with controversy. There was the Steve Moore sucker punch, which resulted in criminal charges and a lawsuit. Moore hasn't played in the NHL since the incident, which was over five years ago.

Bertuzzi's first Detroit stint was a game effort, but his back wasn't anywhere near 100 percent

Bertuzzi badly wanted to be the final piece of the Red Wings' playoff run puzzle two years ago, and was genuinely excited upon arriving in town in late March '07. But his body betrayed him, not ready yet for the rigors of playoff hockey. He managed three goals in 16 playoff games, but his shifts were auspiciously devoid of the on-ice presence that he once wielded.

But there must be some sort of magic hockey potion in the Detroit River, which for years has been pumped into Joe Louis Arena via underwater pipeline, and under which players are christened.

Unwanted free agents. Unproven youngsters. Other teams' castaways. Veterans looking for one more "kick at the can"---the Stanley Cup.

All of the above have donned the Winged Wheel and found their mojo playing in Detroit.

The current roster is dotted with these types.

Dan Cleary, a cast-off from Edmonton and Phoenix, is probably the best example---a guy who scuffled along, trying to find his foothold, then joining the Red Wings and blossoming.

There was Dallas Drake, brought back by the Red Wings for a swan song, the last bar of which was Drake skating around the Mellon Arena ice with the Stanley Cup in June 2008, at age 39.

So the Red Wings, having lost Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson, Jiri Hudler, and Tomas Kopecky to free agency this summer, are opening the magic potion pipeline once again, hoping that Bertuzzi and the afore-signed Patrick Eaves and Jason Williams can benefit from it.

Bertuzzi will probably never again be the player NHL fans remember in his prime. It usually doesn't work that way the further the calendar advances. But he's on board for a relative pittance of a salary, and the Red Wings believe in the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. They always have.

They play hockey a certain way in Detroit, and the team's aura has enabled players to buy into the system and eschew any bad habits learned elsewhere.

Bertuzzi didn't get the prize---that has so far eluded him---in his first go-round in the Motor City. Already, most "experts" are counting his new/old team out of the running for the 2010 Cup.

Just like they counted the Red Wings out after they fell into an 0-2 hole against Bertuzzi's Canucks in the first round of the '02 playoffs. I think you know how that post-season ended for the Red Wings.

So Todd Bertuzzi knows a little bit about what the Red Wings can do when they've been written off.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Last Night on "The Knee Jerks": Hooping It Up, "Old School", With Ray Scott!

It was time to talk some "old school" basketball last night on "The Knee Jerks"!

The weekly gabfest I have with Big Al from The Wayne Fontes Experience had another jam-packed episode, and our guest was former Pistons player and coach and member of the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (MSHOF), Ray Scott.

Ray regaled us with stories, from his being drafted by the Pistons in 1961, to his time as the team's coach from 1972-76. And we discussed the state of the current Pistons, and got Ray's take on the rebuilding project that GM Joe Dumars is undertaking.

Finally, we talked about the sorry financial state of the MSHOF, how it got to be so bad, and whether there's hope for it. (Ray seems to think there could be a "white knight" on the horizon; we'll see).

It was a glorious (and fast) 60 minutes with one of the "walking encyclopedias" of NBA history---Mr. Ray Scott.

After Ray, Al and I talked some Tigers and Lions for the remaining hour.

The highlights:

Big Al

On the Tigers acquiring Aubrey Huff:
"The Tigers FINALLY did what I've been asking since the beginning of the season---they got a left-handed bat! But where the heck is Huff going to play?"

On the beanbrawl in Beantown featuring Rick Porcello and Kevin Youkilis: "Youkilis was a pussy. The Tigers got bent over by the league with the ejection of Porcello."

On the Lions' exhibition win Saturday:
"I still don't see this team winning more than four games because there are too many issues on defense. The front four produced no pressure against the Falcons' starters."

On Matthew Stafford: "I think it might be a good decision, after all, to have Stafford start Game One of the regular season. If he's the best QB, then there's no reason not to play him. Period."


On Huff:
"He may be what the Tigers need to get over the hump. Sometimes guys who come from last place teams get re-energized. This could be good for both parties."

On the beanbrawl: "To eject Porcello without any warnings handed out was a screw job, for sure."

On the Lions' exhibition game: "I wouldn't read too much into the defensive issues right now. At least the Lions have a coordinator who believes in blitzing and pressuring the QB, and that in of itself is a breath of fresh air."

On Stafford: "It's getting to the point now where if you're looking for reasons NOT to like him, it's like nitpicking. And what an arm he has!"

You can listen to the episode by clicking below!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Lions Should Trade Drew Stanton To A Team That Deserves Him

Drew Stanton led the Lions to a comeback win in Saturday's exhibition opener. The team's No. 3 quarterback looked good, looked confident, and showed what he can do with his nimble feet when the situation calls for it.

Now let's hope he never sees the light of day on the football field---as a Lion--- from now until death do we part.

Stanton, the kid from Michigan State who's been treated oh-so-poorly since becoming a Lion in 2007, can only hope to be the Gary Kubiak of our time---an apprentice and clipboard holder for one of the best quarterbacks in the league.

Of course, the latter is still up to Matthew Stafford, but as long as Stafford is in Detroit and healthy, Stanton will be nothing more than a career No. 2 man.

Kubiak played that role for the Denver Broncos, taking care of garbage time behind John Elway. But Kubiak clearly was paying attention, as he eventually became a well-respected offensive coordinator and then parlayed that into a head coaching gig with the Houston Texans.

As it is, Stanton is No. 3, with Daunte Culpepper and Stafford crowding him out.

It would mean disaster for the Lions if Stanton lines up behind center and starts a regular season NFL game.

Frankly, I wish the Lions would trade him.

Stanton is probably comfortable in Detroit, having played at MSU and going into his third season as a Lion. But he's not going to play, and that's what every professional athlete wants to do---play.

In the NBA, playing time is still the one weapon that coaches can wave in their players' faces. The threat of not getting as much still can quell some bad behavior. It's also the reason a lot of players leave as free agents. They want to play. Simple as that. Many of them would just as soon leave a winner---and have on many occasions---to join a losing team, if there's a chance to see serious playing time.

Stanton can't possibly be any different. He didn't sign a pro contract to wear baseball caps and earphones.

The Lions should deal him, and quickly. It's the least they can do for the kid.

Two years ago, with the Lions' offense still under the thumb of Mad Mike Martz, the rookie Stanton hurt himself early in training camp, just as Martz was monkeying around with the young man's mechanics.

That was bad enough, but then the Lions made the curious decision to place Stanton on the Injured Reserved list, thus ending his season before it began. His rookie season, no less.

So Stanton did the best he could to learn, even though he was basically persona non grata.

2007 was a wasted season.

Martz was then fired, and a new coordinator came in---Jim Colletto.

But the Lions still had Jon Kitna, and Dan Orlovsky as Kitna's backup. Stanton was, for all intents and purposes, a rookie all over again. He wasn't on IR, but he was given no bigger role, really. Never really given a chance to see what he could do.

Even after Kitna went down with an injury, the Lions looked elsewhere for QB help, bringing the pudgy and out of shape Culpepper out of retirement, and thrusting him into the lineup despite Daunte looking like a nose tackle instead of a quarterback.

The Lions even brought Drew Henson in, for goodness sakes.

Rod Marinelli and Colletto were among the casualties of the 0-16, 2008 season.

This meant a new head coach and yet another o-coordinator for Stanton to work with.

Then the Lions went and drafted themselves a "franchise quarterback" last April---Stafford.

Culpepper got himself into shape, dropped weight, and looks and feels like the Daunte of old.

The new o-coordinator, Scott Linehan, has history with Culpepper. And Stafford is clearly the QB of the future. GM Martin Mayhew, as camp opened, hinted the Lions would seek yet another veteran QB, to combine with Culpepper to sandwich around the rookie Stafford.

So where does this leave poor Drew Stanton, perhaps the most shabbily-treated second round-drafted quarterback in history?

For his sake, I hope it leaves him with another NFL team. The Lions don't deserve him after what they've done to him.

They pick him early in the second round in '07, amidst some genuine excitement from the locals, who remembered vividly what he did both in high school in Okemos and at MSU.

Then they sic Martz on him, who screws him up and makes him un-learn everything he ever knew about quarterbacking.

Then they put him on IR, which is tantamount to stuffing him in a closet for the year.

And that was just for starters.

Stanton needs to go somewhere else---both where he can play and show off his mobility, and to get a fresh new start on an NFL career that just might have some promise.

None of the above will happen in Detroit, with the Lions and their commitment to first Culpepper and, eventually, Stafford.

The Lions will likely get nothing more than a 3rd or 4th round pick for Stanton in a trade, but that's OK. It would be more of a mercy transaction---more for Stanton than the Lions.

Saturday's contest was one of those games in August that can mean so little, but it's also all you can go on sometimes. And Stanton showed some poise in the waning moments against the Falcons, eventually using his feet to traverse the final 18 yards the Lions needed to move into Jason Hanson's field goal range.

The Lions won, which of course means nothing, but at least Stanton knows that he led them to the victory, no matter how hollow.

"Stanton's stock is rising", I saw one Internet headline scream this morning.

Sell high---isn't that what the money folks recommend?

The Lions ought to unload Stanton while he's got some value---even if they have stripped him of most of it by their own hand.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Martin’s Self-Destructive Pattern Began In Detroit 40 Years Ago

Billy Martin made one thing perfectly clear in one of his first team meetings as manager of the Tigers.

“I am,” Martin said, “a very bad loser.”

Looking back on it, it’s actually quite amazing that Martin ever came to manage the Tigers to begin with.

Billy was not the kind of man that General Manager Jim Campbell usually looked for in his manager.

The button-downed Tigers organization didn’t seem like the place for Martin, a brawling, drinking, pugnacious runt of a man.

Campbell need only have looked at a parking lot down the street from Tiger Stadium, and recalled an incident a couple years prior, in order to be reminded of Billy’s demeanor.

Martin was finally a big league manager in 1969, for the Minnesota Twins. It was the culmination of eight years in the organization, first as a scout then as a third base coach.

Two hallmarks of Martin as a manager began in Minnesota: his ability to work wonders with ball clubs, and his propensity for self-destruction.

The latter first bobbed to the surface in Detroit, on an August night in 1969. Forty years ago last week.

The Lindell A.C. was a wonderful sports bar, filled with history and memorabilia. A place to have a cold beer and a juicy burger, while staring at things like Wayne Walker’s jockstrap hanging on the wall. Honest.

The Lindell was also a swell place to have a good, old-fashioned barroom brawl.

One night, they put chains and manacles on the pro wrestler Dick “The Bruiser” and dragged him out of the Lindell—located right on the corner of Cass and Michigan, maybe a mile from Tiger Stadium—when he got overzealous in trying to get under the skin of the Lions’ Alex Karras prior to their celebrated wrestling match in 1963, when Karras was suspended from the NFL for a year.

The Twins were in Detroit the first week of August ‘69, on their way to the AL West Division title. They were trying to hold off the charging Oakland A’s.

Dave Boswell was a 24-year-old pitcher for the Twins, a tall drink of water at 6-foot-3. And he was in the middle of something at the Lindell after one of the games in Detroit. Martin was among the patrons that night.

Martin, who never met a fight he didn’t like, took exception to something Boswell did. Or so says Billy. To hear Martin tell it, Boswell came at him first.

Of course.

Regardless, Martin, all 5-foot-10 of him, slugged his pitcher with a solid punch, in the alley behind the Lindell, where the proceedings had moved.

Billy kept battering Boswell, knocking him unconscious. Boswell ended up needing about 20 stitches to close up his face.

Four days later, Martin held a mini-press conference, explaining why Boswell hadn’t continued with the Twins on their road trip.

That’s when Billy told of the escapade behind the Lindell, and his version of acting in self-defense.

Boswell, one day later, refuted that.

This wasn’t chopped liver that Martin had punched out. Boswell would win 20 games for the Twins in ’69, starting 38 times.

Boswell went 18 days between starts while his face, and his ego, healed.

Martin was 1-0 as a fighter as a manager.

And Martin’s pattern of self-destruction while managing, his propensity to rain on his own parade, began on that August night in 1969, behind the Lindell A.C. in Detroit.

The Twins won the division, but lost in the playoffs, swept away by the Baltimore Orioles.

The Twins fired Martin after the season, deciding instead to hire someone who didn’t have a fetish for punching out his pitchers.

Another trend began: Martin getting canned.

Meanwhile, the Tigers were happily playing for Mayo Smith, the manager of the 1968 championship team. They didn’t repeat in ’69, but the Tigers won 90 games.

“He was the best manager I ever played for,” Jim Northrup once told me about his days under Mayo. Of course he’d say that about Smith; Mayo pretty much wrote out the lineup card and stayed out of the players’ way.

But by the end of the 1970 season, Mayo’s magic had worn off. The Tigers sunk to below .500, the standard for mediocrity.

The team, Campbell believed, needed a spark. A piss and vinegar kind of guy.

And you couldn’t get much more pissy or vinegary than Billy Martin.

Campbell made the move. He fired Mayo Smith and hired the volatile Martin.

It worked, for a time.

Martin’s Tigers won 91 games in 1971, and then captured the AL East flag in 1972. In ’71, Campbell acquired a veteran arm to help in the eventually futile chase of the Orioles for the division title. The veteran was a right-hander named Dave Boswell.

In Detroit, Martin always had an older team, with precious few young prospects, but he was able to whip them into shape. Billy was good that way.

“The worst manager I ever played for,” Northrup said of Martin. I think Jim used the word “hate”, too.

Martin may not have ingratiated himself to Northrup, or to many others, but he won. Billy was building quite a reputation as one of the game’s best managers—brilliant at getting the most out of the talent available to him.

Billy didn’t make friends. He just won.

One day, desperate and in a losing streak, Billy pulled his batting order from a hat. The Tigers won.

But his desire to win—his aforementioned hatred of losing—got the best of him and ruined him in Detroit, as it would in Texas and Oakland and, several times, in New York.

That, and all the fights, which didn’t end with the Boswell incident.

Around this time of the month in 1973, Martin openly and brazenly admitted that he had ordered some of his pitchers to throw spitballs and beanballs at opposing hitters. Billy was tired of it happening to his team.

That was the last straw. Campbell had looked the other way when Billy flew into Chicago on his own and showed up in the dugout less than an hour before game time, earlier in the season. He was annoyed but let it go when Billy would take his beefs about the Tigers’ woeful minor league system to the media.

The league suspended Martin for ordering spitballs, but before the suspension was lifted, Campbell fired him.

The Tigers, still winners to the end of Martin’s tenure, were 71-63 when Billy got the ziggy.

Then the team went into the toilet, with four straight losing seasons after Billy left.

The Tigers’ inability to replace their aging stars with good young talent did them in. Just as Billy had crabbed about to the press.

The Texas Rangers snatched Martin up about a week after the Tigers fired him. He worked some magic in Texas in 1974, then was fired the next year. The Yankees snatched him up not long after the Rangers fired him in 1975.

Billy’s time in New York under owner George Steinbrenner is a book, not a column. It could even be a series of books. Steinbrenner hired and fired Martin so many times it became a national joke, and fodder for a beer commercial.

Twenty years ago this Christmas, Billy Martin died in a car wreck, after a night of drinking, naturally.

He self-destructed one last time.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Lions' Only "Curse" Has Been Their Tendency To Make Bad Decisions

The haggard pub owner traipsed down to the ballpark, as had been his wont, and brought his sidekick with him, as he'd done several times before.

Only this time, the sidekick wasn't allowed in.

It was the World Series, and seats were at a premium.

Besides, the sidekick was a billy goat, so a line had to be drawn somewhere.

The pub owner, Billy Sianis, was outraged.

"Them Cubs, they aren't gonna win no more," Sianis was said to have muttered in his disgust as he trudged away with goat in tow.

This was in 1945 as the Cubs were playing the Tigers in the World Series. The words of Sianis might have been apocryphal, but it has been confirmed that Sianis and his goat were asked to leave Wrigley Field that day.

The newspaper people jumped on Sianis' supposed words of fury, and turned them into a "curse."

Chicago-based syndicated columnist Mike Royko was one of the biggest instigators of this malarkey.

That the Cubs haven't been to a World Series since '45 is proof, the conspiracy whacks say, of Sianis' curse still in effect.

Fast forward from '45 to 1958.

The alcoholic, carousing quarterback leaves town after being abruptly traded, just one season removed from a championship year.

In his shock and anger, the QB shakes his fist and yells at team management that they won't win for 50 years.

The Curse of Bobby Layne, allegedly.

If common folks had the ability to "curse" people, or teams, or companies, can you imagine the chaos in this country?

CEOs would be dropping dead like flies. Big box retailers would have moths eating all their clothing and cockroaches infesting all of their food. The guy who cut you off in traffic would turn into a donkey at your command.

Sianis and his goat are denied entry into Wrigley Field during the 1945 World Series, according to the Chicago Tribune's description of this photo

There are no curses.

Bad luck? Sure.

The Lions are 51 years removed from Layne's "curse", which has never been properly confirmed, by the way. Not that it matters that we adhere to the facts. That's no fun for the conspiracy whacks!

The Lions aren't cursed, unless it's been by poor decision making and bad hires and miserly approaches to the business---all of which has dogged the franchise in various stages since Layne left.

The question was put to me by my partner, Big Al, on Monday night's episode of "The Knee Jerks" on Blog Talk Radio.

The Lions have been running into some injuries during training camp, which is less than two weeks old. Even the superstar receiver Calvin Johnson found his hand in a cast briefly, due to a jammed thumb.

Al wanted to know: Are the Lions snakebit?


No more than any other NFL team, all of which are navigating through player injuries of various types right now.

It's called training camp. Guys pull up lame. Some joints get tweaked. Thumbs get jammed.

Or defensive ends pop their Achilles tendon, as the Lions' Jared DeVries did, now lost for the season.

It happens.

Depth is key to any successful team. The Lions don't have much of it right now, but they'll still have to answer the bell on September 13 when they tee the footballs up for real.

If one man, Bobby Layne, was able to plunder the Lions for five decades because of some angry words he may or may not have said, then that's a world I'd be petrified to live in.

The Lions have done themselves in, thank you. They haven't needed much help from the outside, or from the netherworld.

There were no mysterious forces at work when Joe Schmidt resigned in a huff as coach in 1973, fed up with GM Russ Thomas' meddling. No one held a gun to the Lions' heads when they plucked Darryl Rogers from Arizona State University to coach them in 1985.

You think the Lions were "cursed" when Barry Sanders dropped into their laps in 1989, after the Packers took leave of their senses and drafted tackle Tony Mandarich instead?

Hmmm...the conspiracy and curse whacks never talk about that, I notice.

Did Layne come into Wayne Fontes' dream one night and tell him to draft Andre Ware in 1990?

The Lions' bonus baby QB of today, Matthew Stafford, has been blessed, they say, with coming from the same Texas town and high school as Layne and fellow Hall of Fame Lion Doak Walker.

Blessed, or....cursed?


Stafford graduating from Layne's high school has been more fodder for the conspiracy and curse whacks.

But now it's a reverse curse.

Stafford must surely be "the one", because he went to the same high school as the great Bobby Layne!

If it wasn't so funny, it'd be sort of pathetic. That's how desperate Lions fans have become.

If Matthew Stafford is "the one"---and he just may be---it'll be because the kid is something special. He's making lifelong football people stumble over themselves with effusive praise. The media are having a love-in with him.

But Stafford could come from Timbuktu, for what it's worth. That he hails from Layne's school is nothing more than a wonderful coincidence.

And a delectable piece of bubble gum for the media people to chew on, long after the flavor has vanished.

I've been to the Billy Goat Tavern, by the way---Sianis' pub in downtown Chicago, which was also immortalized by the zany, original cast of "Saturday Night Live", who made fun of the staff's "cheeseburger, cheeseburger" shtick.

They really do say that at the Billy Goat. It's funny.

The walls are adorned with blown-up photos of legendary Chicago newspaper men from over the years, as the tavern is across the street from the Chicago Tribune building.

No doubt many of the men whose images stare at the patrons of the Billy Goat Tavern were willing participants in the propagation of the "billy goat curse" legend.

And the folks bought it---hook, line, and sinker.

The power of the press, people!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Last Night On "The Knee Jerks": Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Joe Dexter

It was a baseball extravaganza last night on "The Knee Jerks"!

The weekly gabfest I have with Big Al from The Wayne Fontes Experience had another thrilling episode, and our guest was Detroit sports blogger and radio host Joe Dexter of Motor City

The topic, as expected with a guy who's got a website named that, was the Tigers.

We spent a full hour and some change with Joe, covering everything from the Tigers' chances to win the division (plus how they stack up against the Yankees and Red Sox); the possibility of adding another bat before Aug. 31; the confounding Magglio Ordonez; the possibility of adding John Smoltz; whether we trust Armando Galarraga; Jim Leyland on steroids; the toughness of Brandon Inge; and much, much more!

I went on a rant about the fear of dealing prospects, and even though I apologized on the air, it felt oh, so good!

After Joe, Al and I talked some Lions and Pistons for the remaining 25 minutes.

The highlights:

Big Al

On Lions rookie QB Matthew Stafford:
"This kid has got a gun. No, he's got a cannon. He's got a high-powered weapon." (this is a week after Al said he wasn't going to allow himself to get excited!)

On new coach Jim Schwartz: "I hate to say it, but one of the reasons why I'm so excited about the season starting is that Jim Schwartz has been impressing the hell out of me."

On the Pistons signing Ben Wallace:
"He's going to play for about $1.3 million, which in the NBA is nothing. I wonder if Rodney Stuckey will let him have No. 3 back."


On Stafford:
"It looks like a perfect storm for him to play. New regime, new teammates, all this praise. It looks like it's all coming together for him."

On Schwartz: "I don't get the feeling that he's going to let the inmates run the asylum, as has been the case in the past. The Lions finally seem to have a strong personality as head coach."

On Wallace: "If he can block a few shots, grab some rebounds, change the momentum a little bit...inject some energy, then he's worth the money."

You can listen to the episode by clicking below!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Roenick Retires, But More Importantly, So Does His Mouth

Truth be told, I wish Jeremy Roenick could have played forever. Maybe just his mouth can show up from now on. That was often the best part of JR anyhow.

Roenick, who retired---this time for good, he says---from the NHL the other day after 20 seasons, was one of the few guys in the league who had the personality of something better than a dish rag.

The NHL is an association of nice guys. It could stand for the No Heathen League.

A bunch of quiet, unassuming, humble dudes from places like Brantford, Ontario and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. You've heard us media folks gush about their demeanor and how gosh darn terrific they are.

No offense, but at the same time, NHL players aren't the Valhalla of good copy.

You'll find more quips at an accountants convention.

So it was that Roenick was a breath of fresh air.

He could score on the ice, and register on the Richter scale off of it, with his mouth.

His latest salvo was fired just a couple months ago, while the Red Wings were engaging the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Roenick, a former teammate and current friend of defenseman Chris Chelios, blabbed that Red Wings coach Mike Babcock held some sort of ill will toward Cheli, and that he "never liked him." Roenick cited mysterious incidents that supposedly occurred that lent credence to his assertion.

That was why, JR said, Chelios wasn't going to play in the Finals.

Yes, it was another eye-roller from Roenick, who was full of them over the years.

But he was one of the few who dared to try to put the NHL on the map through means other than propping up star kids like Sidney Crosby.

Roenick was like Brett Hull---another superstar who shot from the hip and didn't care who got in the line of fire.

But players like Roenick and Hull were too few and far between. The rest of them were the same guy.

It's true. The more hockey players you talk to, the more they sound like the same person. Nice, polite, soft-spoken, full of cliches.

There's nothing wrong with that---if you're not battling NASCAR and soccer and lawn darts for your share of the public's consciousness.

But the NHL doesn't have the luxury of blandness. They can't afford a league full of prim and propers. They need the Roenicks and the Hulls and the Don Cherrys.

With Roenick retired---he tried to quit before but the San Jose Sharks talked him out of it---who is now the league cut-up?

Take your time. I'll wait.


The NHL used to have clowns and jokers sprinkled throughout its six-team alliance.

There was Eddie Shack, who even had a song written about him.

"Clear the track! Here comes Shack!"

Eddie played for a bunch of teams and had a bushy, Fu Manchu-like mustache and didn't so much skate around the ice as figure eight around it in a reckless manner.

There was Howie Young, who played for the Red Wings---a carousing man off the ice and a carousing man on it, too. Howie didn't win all of his fights---far from it---but there was never a man he didn't want to take on.

There was Bill "Cowboy" Flett, who was the first player to wear a full beard on the ice.

Bob "Hound Dog" Kelly. Dave "The Hammer" Schultz.

I remember seeing John Wensink, who played for the Boston Bruins and wore a silly-looking Afro-like hairdo that looked like a fright wig, take on the entire Minnesota North Stars bench one night at the Boston Garden.

There were no takers.

Even our old Red Wing, Ted Lindsay.

Terrible Ted responded to death threats during the playoffs in Toronto by scoring the game-winning goal in overtime and skating around the Maple Leaf Gardens ice, pretending to mow the Toronto fans down with a machine gun---his hockey stick. (see above)

So farewell, JR. You were often a clown, sometimes a jerk, but rarely dull.

The NHL could use a few more like you, I'd say.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Unwanted Wallace Helped Start Pistons' 21st Century Rebirth

The unwanted basketball player piled his worldly possessions into his college kid car and drove west.

Not sure if he made the trek non-stop, but David Bing left the campus at Syracuse University and made a road trip to Detroit.

The Pistons’ first round draft choice was sloppy seconds in the minds of the pro basketball fans of Detroit back in 1966—all three thousand or so of them. They wanted Cazzie Russell from the University of Michigan, not the kid from out east.

Today, Bing is the Mayor of Detroit—and in no small part because of how he thrilled Pistons fans from 1966-75 and then helped repair the area as a businessman and community leader.

Not bad for an unwanted.

Nine years ago, another unwanted basketball player arrived in Pistons Land.

When Joe Dumars retired as a player in 1999, he was given one year to function as a sort of observer before taking over the reins of the front office in the spring of 2000.

For that entire first year of observing, folks knew what Joe D’s first challenge would be, and it would be a doozy.

The superstar forward Grant Hill, the Pistons’ prized first round pick of 1994, was at a crossroads. After six years of being the team’s best player with not much support around him, Hill had a choice to make: stay in Detroit, or test the uncharted waters of free agency.

What would Grant do?

And what would Dumars do, should Grant opt to leave?

Hill was a poor man’s Bob Lanier—a front court gem among scuffed, dirty cubic zirconium. A perennial All-Star who often had to suffer the fools on the court wearing “PISTONS” on their jerseys.

Lanier, though, had another All-Star with him, at least: Dave Bing. But then Bing was traded, and Lanier was truly alone as a star basketball player.

Hill didn’t even have that luxury of playing part of his career with another star. He had the frenetic defender and crooked shooter Lindsey Hunter at point guard, and the gunslinger Allan Houston at the shooting guard position. But Hunter and Houston, even when combined, didn’t make one Dave Bing.

There were some playoff appearances for Hill, but just as with Lanier, they were brief and of the cameo variety.

In the playoffs of 2000, Hill and the Pistons gamely took on the superior Miami Heat in one of those best-of-five challenges.

Hill hurt his ankle, badly, in Game Two in Miami. It was so mangled that the Pistons’ best player was reduced to that of cheerleader on the bench as his teammates gave the Heat all they could handle before succumbing in the final moments.

A couple nights later, the Heat finished the Pistons off at The Palace.

So, would Grant stay, or would he go?

It wasn’t the best way for a rookie GM to become indoctrinated into the front office wars of the NBA. But Dumars would soon prove to not be any ordinary rookie GM.

The Orlando Magic fancied themselves just one more star player away from serious championship contention. Someone to complement the high-scoring guard Tracy McGrady.

They wanted Hill. It wasn’t determined whether Hill wanted the Magic, though.

Dumars made a play for keeping Hill in Detroit. But Joe played 14 years in the league and he knew when players wanted, in their heart, to change their scenery.

It didn’t take Dumars long to realize that he didn’t have a prayer of keeping Grant Hill in a Pistons uniform.

So a sign-and-trade arrangement was made with the Magic.

The Pistons would sign Hill, then immediately trade him to the Magic for a scowling guard named Chucky Atkins, and a sculpted big man named Ben Wallace.

The Pistons got rooked.

How could these guys possibly make up for the talents and skill lost when Hill fled for Orlando?

Atkins only had one NBA year under his belt, but was a better shooter than Hunter, who also departed in the summer of 2000. But he was a far less experienced player than Lindsey, who’d played seven years in Detroit.

And this big guy, Ben Wallace?

Undistinguished, Wallace was—first in Washington, then in Orlando. No scoring skills to speak of. A pretty good defender, we were told. Could block some shots with the best of them.


A second-year guard and a one-dimensional center, for Grant Hill?

Soon after the trade was consummated, Hill was seen stepping off a plane in Orlando, where he was greeted like a returning war hero. The Magic all but wetted themselves, imagining what Hill and McGrady could do as a dynamic duo.

Ben Wallace?! Chucky Atkins?!

But Hill’s damaged ankle was, it turned out, far more damaged than originally suspected. After signing a $92.7 million contract, Hill played a grand total of four games—four—for the Magic in 2000-01.

Wallace, meanwhile, endeared himself to Pistons fans with his blue collar work ethic and his fearsome defensive presence near the basket.

A rival player would dare drive to the hoop, and Big Ben was there to dissuade him, to put it mildly. Often the rival’s shot was swatted into the $500 seats at courtside. If the shot managed to elude Ben’s muscular arms, likely it was bothered enough to be off target. And Wallace would gobble up the ensuing rebound.

Ben Wallace still couldn’t score. But neither could the men he was assigned to guard every night.

Wallace, as the Pistons’ starting center, scored a grand total of 511 points for the entire season. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have that by Thanksgiving, easily.

But Wallace averaged over 13 rebounds a game, and well over two blocked shots per game. What wasn’t recorded was the number of shots that Wallace “adjusted” because of his mere presence in the lane.

The fans in Detroit came to worship and adore Ben Wallace, just as they embraced the unwanted Dave Bing 34 years prior.

Before long, Wallace’s choice of hairstyle was even a big deal. Corn rows, or Afro?

The vendors at The Palace, never to be confused with dumb-dumbs, began selling Afro wigs for the denizens.

Fear the ‘Fro!!

That was the rallying cry as Wallace and, eventually, reinforcements that Dumars assembled in the names of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, and Rasheed Wallace joined the fray.

The unwanted Wallace and his new cast of characters went all the way to the NBA Finals in 2004 and upset the vaunted Los Angeles Lakers. The next year, the Pistons almost repeated, losing in seven angry games to the San Antonio Spurs.

Earlier in the ’04 championship season, Dumars traded away a guard to the Boston Celtics to complete a complicated transaction in which another guard that Dumars traded days earlier could be re-acquired.

The traded away guard was Chucky Atkins. The guard being re-acquired was Lindsey Hunter.

Friday, the Pistons announced that Wallace was coming back to them, after three years away as a free agent bust—first with Chicago then with Cleveland. He’ll be 35 when training camp begins.

And he still doesn’t score. But Pistons fans still love him.

They no longer say, “Ben WHO?”

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Namath Has Lions To Blame (Partially) For His Injury-Ravaged Career

Joe Namath said he only knew how to play football one way: full throttle.

It was that kind of desire and approach that contributed to the end of his career---and the Lions played a big part in that.

Time to turn on the wayback machine and take you to Tampa, FL for an exhibition game between the Lions and the New York Jets. It happened this week, back in 1971.

It was the exhibition opener, and Namath was coming off a season in which he missed several games due to a wrist injury. At age 28, he was still in his prime.

Sometime in the first half, Namath faded back and delivered a pass. It was intercepted by Lions MLB Mike Lucci.

On the return, Namath, instead of staying the hell out of the way---being the franchise player and all---went for the tackle.

Bad idea.

Joe Willie tore up his knee trying to tackle Lucci, and was declared out for the season.

After the game, Namath defended his decision to try to tackle Lucci by declaring that "I only know how to play football one way."

Namath would end up watching too many Jets games in fur coats and other street clothes following his injury against the Lions in August '71

The Jets struggled through the season, sans their prize quarterback. Namath did return ahead of schedule, but only a handful of games remained and the Jets were out of contention.

Namath didn't miss a game during his first five years in pro football, but then missed 30 of the next 58 due to an assortment of injuries---including those to his knees, which would eventually be ravaged.

The knee injury Namath suffered against the Lions in Tampa in August 1971 was one of the most severe he would encounter, and his eventual limited mobility due to that incident would contribute to more hits to his knees---which clearly shortened his career.

One of the most enduring moving images I can recall seeing on NFL Films is the clip of Namath, in overtime in a game against the Giants in 1974.

The Jets were within the 10-yard line and Namath went back to pass. His receivers covered, Namath made a run for the end zone. Actually, he made a gimpy, excruciating ramble.

Somehow, Namath had enough to score the game-winning touchdown, on two legs that were about as healthy as Lindsay Lohan's movie career.

It's impossible to declare with any degree of assurance that had Namath stayed out of Mike Lucci's way in 1971, that he wouldn't have suffered any subsequent injuries. But he did, and it's also impossible to not factor in the Lucci incident as a contributing factor to those injuries.

See? The Lions sometime even ruin the other teams' quarterbacks.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Last Night's Episode of "The Knee Jerks": What a Shame!!

There's a new drinking game that might sweep the nation.

If you were to take a shot of liquor every time Big Al or I said the word "shame" last night on "The Knee Jerks", then you'd likely be hungover this morning.

So what was so shameful?

The sorry financial state of the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. The loss of the Buick Open, and perhaps the Belle Isle Grand Prix. The way Lions third string QB Drew Stanton has been treated in Detroit. And more!

The first 45 minutes of last night's show were spent with former WDFN and WRIF morning man and current Free Press blogger Jamie Samuelsen, who regaled us with some back stories of why WDFN fizzled out, and mused about the landscape of sports talk radio in Detroit, present and future. We also got his take on the Lions and Tigers. It was a very fun and fast 45 minutes.

Then, it was on to Detroit sports proper.

The highlights:

Big Al

On the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame:
"This is disturbing news. How are they $150,000 in debt with no overhead?"

On the early raves about Lions rookie QB Matthew Stafford: "I'm not going to allow myself to get excited. I want to see him in game situations first. I want to see it to believe it."

On the Tigers not getting a bat at the trade deadline: "(GM) Dave Dombrowski didn't do his job. He had a job to do, and that was to get a bat, and he didn't do it."


On the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame:
"I know some things that I can't say on the air, but I can tell you that when this stuff hits the fan, someone's going down, because some of this stuff seems pretty heinous."

On Matthew Stafford: "The thing I like about what they're saying about Stafford is the intangibles, like grasping the offense and having command and a presence in the huddle. I like that more than the physical tools."

On the Tigers: "If the Tigers lose the division because they couldn't score some freaking runs, then Dave Dombrowski ought to be fired."

You can listen to the episode by clicking below!

Monday, August 03, 2009

Stafford Likely To Be Ready Before His Protectors Are

The Lions are building a foundation for a brand new era, but in typical Lions fashion, they've got things mixed up.

The crown jewel, QB Matthew Stafford, is looking to be ready before the bulletproof case designed to protect it, is.

Stafford is wowing them in Allen Park, in the infancy of training camp. Even the writers, who can be funereal, are stirred by the rookie's raw physical tools.

A gun, he has. Lasers, he throws. Maturity, he possesses.

Why, he's the next John Elway! Or Bobby Layne!

They didn't say these things about Joey Harrington back in 2002, when Pal Joey was the third overall pick in the draft. They didn't say it about him in mini-camp or maxi-camp or the pre-season or the post-pre-season.

But they're saying all this, and more, about Stafford, as the pressure mounts on the Lions coaching staff to start him come September 13 in New Orleans.

To me, it's a fairly simple analysis to render.

Matthew Stafford should not start until his team is ready for him---read: the offensive line.

The question of whether to start Stafford or not has nothing to do with the kid himself. Well, unless he pee-pees his pants or his arm falls off or something like that, this isn't about Stafford.

Stafford has the goods. I'm sold. You don't have to rave about him any longer. He's much more refined than Harrington, and his confidence appears to be more unshakable than Joey's.

No, this isn't about Stafford. It's about those hired to protect him.

Stafford shouldn't be thrust into the lineup---barring injury to Daunte Culpepper, of course---until his o-line is deemed trustworthy enough to keep the kid from being laid onto his back five or six times a game.

Stafford's arm, his guile, his absorption of the offense---none of it means a hill of beans if he's running around for his life in the backfield snap after snap.

Those of you not living in the bowels of the Uniroyal Tire on I-94 for the past several years know that protecting the quarterback hasn't been one of the Lions' strong suits. Of course, the Lions really haven't had a strong suit, but one of the weakest has been pass protection.

There have been moves made to shore that up, but left guard is still a huge question mark, and LG is surrounded by a bunch of little question marks.

If the Lions' offensive line was a Batman villain, it would be The Riddler.

Why, oh why, make Stafford's indoctrination into the NFL more difficult than it already figures to be?

Why make the kid try to learn NFL quarterbacking on the run---literally?

With this o-line, Lions QBs figure to be sacked anywhere from 50 to 60 times this season.

You want to make Stafford another David Carr?

There's at least been a little centrist movement lately when it comes to starting Stafford. Some cooler heads are trying to bob to the surface, stating that Stafford shouldn't start on Opening Day, but instead maybe later in the season, when all playoff hope is mathematically lost.

Yet I could show you some math that eliminates the Lions on Sept. 13. But be that as it may.

Give GM Martin Mayhew one more season of trades, draft choices, and waiver pickups, in the hopes that the o-line will improve for 2010.

Then, play Stafford with impunity. Have at it.

Naming Stafford as the starter for Opening Day wouldn't be a promotion---it would be a sentence.

Sacked, with no chance of parole.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Karras Almost Didn't Survive Layne's Antics

Another football training camp has begun. Another opportunity for nostalgia.

Harry Gilmer, the beleaguered coach of the Lions between George Wilson and Joe Schmidt in the mid-1960s, stared out at the confounding young running back on the practice field.

The running back was easy to spot, for he was the only one not wearing a helmet on his bemusing head.

“Coach,” Gilmer calmly said to one of his assistants, “tell that boy to put a helmet on his head.”

The young running back, Joe Don Looney, might have played some football sans helmet, at some point in his life.

It’s another day at Cranbrook, the high brow school whose campus the Lions used for training until the early-1970s. Again, Looney is the focus.

Joe Don didn’t want to practice that day. Gilmer sent team captain Schmidt up to Looney’s dorm room to talk to him.

Schmidt found Looney on his bed, strumming a guitar.

“Joe,” Schmidt began, sitting across from Looney. “The team needs you on the field. I’ve played in this league for 12 years and I’ve never missed a practice.”

Looney, according to Schmidt’s re-telling, looked up from his guitar.

“Well then, Joe, I’d say you’re due for a day off! Stay with me.”

It’s the mid-1990s, and the Lions are training at the Silverdome, on a field outside of the big plastic bubble.

I’m one of the interlopers, with a TV camera man in tow, hoping for some good sound bites after practice.

I’m daydreaming, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, when I hear some raised voices and some “Whoas” and “Look outs”.

I turn just in time to see a golf cart zooming toward me.

Behind the wheel is a moon-faced man chomping on a cigar.

“Hey fellas!” Wayne Fontes says brightly as he stops to give us his post-practice report.

Alex Karras played 12 marvelous seasons for the Lions, as one of the best defensive linemen to ever grace their roster. And, dare I say, one of the best to not be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But he almost didn’t make the team as a rookie, to hear Alex tell it.

The late, great Bobby Layne, for whatever reason, took a shining to Karras when the latter arrived as a rookie in 1958.

Just a bumpkin from Iowa, Karras once described himself.

And now he was a rookie in the NFL, playing for the defending world champions.

Layne took Karras under his wing, which in the world of Bobby Layne took on an entirely different meaning than from what you and I take that to mean.

Karras (top) became Layne's sidekick during the 1958 camp, for whatever reason

Karras re-told the experience in the early-‘70s to the late Detroit Free Press sports writer George Puscas, who Karras grew close to while playing for the Lions.

Seems Layne turned Karras into his personal drinking buddy during that 1958 camp.

“I was drunk all the time,” Karras told Puscas. “I have no idea how I made the team because I was hungover at every practice.”

Karras wasn’t a drinker, per se, and definitely not one to partake of hard liquor. But Layne loved his Cutty Sark, which meant Alex had to love it, too.

Layne, according to Karras, only required one, two hours of sleep per night. The two of them would stumble into the dorms at Cranbrook after a long night of partying at a bar in Pontiac, and while Karras struggled to squeeze a little sleep into his body, Layne would head into the shower and sing his favorite song, “Ida Red”, fresh as a daisy.

Karras said that he believed that Layne’s lack of sleep was due to fear of sleeping, because when Bobby was a kid he was in a car accident and spent an entire night stuck in the overturned car with a dead body. That's what Alex had heard, anyway.

If true, I can see that theory.

But on the practice field, while Karras battled hangovers, Layne was spry, imparting his knowledge of quarterbacking to his receivers and even the coaches.

“Tell that boy to take that route one more step before turning raght,” Layne would say in his Texas twang. And, Karras said, when the receiver did it, he found the ball perfectly delivered by Layne.

“The coaches listened, because they knew that nobody knew quarterbacking better than Bobby Layne,” Karras said.

The routine was daily: practice would end for the day, and Layne, after dinner, would come looking for “Tippy”, which was short for Karras’s nickname, “Tippy Toes”, so garnered for the way Karras would make his moves toward the quarterback on the tips of his toes.

“Hey,Tippy! Time to go out!”

Karras said that one day, he hid under his bed, hoping that Layne wouldn’t find him. But he relented and made himself visible.

The odd couple combo of veteran QB and rookie defensive tackle would head into Pontiac, where Layne would throw down Cutty Sarks and listen to the live band perform.

Karras said the band would want to take a break, and Layne would implore them to keep playing.

“But we’re tired, Mr. Layne,” one of the band members said.

Layne would dismiss that and throw money into one of the horns. The band would keep playing.

One night, on the way back to Cranbrook, Karras said Layne was singing “Ida Red” and sticking his head out the window, which Bobby had done before.

But this time was different. The car was traveling at breakneck speed, faster than normal. To Karras’s horror, he saw that Layne had placed a brick on the gas pedal and was halfway out of the vehicle, singing at the top of his lungs.

“The car was moving so fast it was shaking,” Karras related. “I was begging him to slow down, to stop the car.”

Layne didn’t have a great camp on the field, but the quarterback blew that off.

“Just wait till the regular season starts,” Layne told Karras at the bar one night. “That’s when ole Bobby will shine. Yes sir!”

The regular season indeed began, with Karras on the roster, to his surprise.

The Lions opened with a loss in Baltimore, and followed that with a tie in Green Bay, when Layne, who also placekicked, scuffed the infield dirt with a potential game-winning field goal.

After that game, Layne was suddenly and mysteriously traded to Pittsburgh.

The following season, the Lions played the Steelers.

“Layne was scrambling and was headed for the sidelines,” Karras said. “I lined him up and really let him have it. I mean, I creamed him. It was almost an illegal hit because he was mostly out of bounds. I’m not sure why I did it.”

According to Karras, Layne looked at him and smiled.

“He liked that. He said, ‘How ya doin’, Tippy?’”