Thursday, April 29, 2010

Lidstrom at 40: Still Pretty Damn Good

They say Nick Lidstrom isn't the defenseman that he once was. He's not as sharp; maybe has lost a step.

That's OK. Lidstrom can lose three or four steps, as far as I'm concerned. His stick is still in its mid-20s.

It's laughable, anyway, to accuse Lidstrom, the Red Wings' Hall of Fame defenseman, of losing a step. That's like crabbing that the Leaning Tower of Pisa has dropped another centimeter.

Speed and "steps" were never part of Lidstrom's game. You don't have to be blazing of foot to launch howitzers from the blue line. Or to look at the game as a bunch of angles, as Lidstrom does.

The Red Wings are in the second round of the playoffs because players like Lidstrom raised their game to a level that couldn't be matched in Game Seven against the Phoenix Coyotes.

The Red Wings turned the drama of a Game Seven into slapstick hockey. It was like tuning in expecting to see "Gone With the Wind" and getting the Little Rascals instead.

6-1, the Red Wings won. Lidstrom had a couple of goals, an assist, and he played all the angles correctly. Again.

The critics were out on him, especially after Game Six, when Nicky was on the ice for three of the Coyotes' goals---albeit two of them on the power play.

He was about to turn 40 at that point (he did yesterday), so it seemed fair to question whether his skills were slipping.

Lidstrom could slip and slip some more and I'd still take him over a majority of the defensemen in the league.

And as for Game Six's supposed struggles, I'll say this: I haven't seen Nick Lidstrom play two poor games in a row. But then again, I've only seen him play for 19 seasons.

Lidstrom is the team captain and they knock him for that, too.

He's not vocal enough. The team has no personality. We miss Steve Yzerman.

Contrary to popular, misguided belief, you don't have to yell and scream to be a good leader.

All I know is, when October rolls around, you fit Lidstrom with fresh batteries, turn him on, and 82 games later he's racked up another near-perfect season. Still. You don't think that inspires his teammates?

He didn't win the Norris Trophy last year, and won't win it this year, either. But he has six of those and he needs another to validate his legacy like a hole in the head.

Then there's that stick he has. The stick of a 25-year-old. It says here that Lidstrom has used his stick better than any defenseman that's ever laced up a skate. He can go an entire game without throwing a bodycheck but the desired result is the same: scoring chances are denied.

Lidstrom is the well-mannered defender. He practically says "sorry" and "excuse me" while he relieves you of the puck. He wouldn't lose his temper on the ice if you called his mother names. In a sport that's famous for a bump and a cross-eyed look turning into World War III, Lidstrom manages to defend his zone with nothing but his savvy, his stick, and a wink.

So it's the San Jose Sharks next for the Red Wings, who are trying to coax another long playoff run out of their old legs.

Two of those legs belong to Nick Lidstrom, who supposedly has lost a step or two from them.

Keep telling yourself that.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

No In-Between when Game 7 Plays Out

It's the Valhalla of pro sports.

It's the revered temple where you, at the same time, might find yourself both giddy and terrified to be.

The Super Bowl is a nice little sporting event, perhaps even deserving of its Roman numerals on occasion. Other games/events/tournaments shine in their own way: the Final Four; the Kentucky Derby; the Indy 500; The Masters.

You can have them all, and give me the Valhalla itself---Game 7.

They are two of the most concentrated words in sports. Simply by saying "Game 7," you can cause grown men to crawl into the fetal position. Or you can bring glorious memories back to the fore.

Game 7.

You only need a couple of drops of Game 7 to turn a playoff series vat into a kick-your-ass level of spiciness.

You think the Super Bowl rules?

What the Phoenix Coyotes and Detroit Red Wings wouldn't do to dispense of a playoff series and hop on a plane, jet out to a resort town, soak up the sun for two weeks, and play a single hockey game for two-and-a-half hours to decide their playoff fate.

Tonight's Game 7 of their Western Conference Quarterfinals series is winner-take-all (sort of), but it's not that simple.

There is the matter of the previous 360 minutes of hockey, for starters.

You don't play a playoff series, you invest in it.

A series that goes the maximum seven games is a portfolio filled with profits and losses and jackpots and busts. Each game is 60 minutes at the blackjack table or the slots. You go home either mumbling to yourself or clutching your bag of loot.

Game 7 is the day of reckoning.

The previous six games are in the record books, but they aren't history. They're with you, and whether you choose to have them load you down or give you support is up to you.

There isn't a more nerve-wracking evening that a pro sports fan will spend than one watching his or her team play a Game 7.

It hardly matters that tonight's contest is three rounds shy of the Stanley Cup Finals. Hell, it may as well be for all the marbles, because the loser has no more hockey this season. It's the ultimate crap shoot. They make you bet all your chips at Game 7, like it or not.

You're either going to go home with your pockets empty or you're moving on to bet another day.

There's nothing that happens in a Game 7 that's meaningless.

For the hockey people, that means every crooked bounce of the puck, every whiff with the stick, every shoulder-slumped trip to the penalty box could play a crucial role in who wins and who loses.

And Lord help the fan whose team is forced into overtime in a Game 7.

I've been there. We all have.

I remember being dropped to my knees, practically bowing in deference to Steve Yzerman when he blasted a shot from just beyond the blue line over the shoulder of Jon Casey in the second overtime to win Game 7 of the Red Wings' second round series with the St. Louis Blues in 1996.

And I remember feeling like I'd been slugged in the gut when Toronto's Nikolai Borschevsky deflected a shot past Tim Cheveldae in overtime to beat the Red Wings in Game 7 of the first round in 1993.

Game 7 is the greatest moment in pro sports because there's no in between: at the end of it you're either going to feel pleasure or pain. Nothing else.

If the Red Wings win tonight, the hero is just as likely to be Henrik Zetterberg or Patrick Eaves. The game-winning goal may be scored in the game's opening minutes or in its waning moments. A seemingly innocent-looking play early in the second period may turn as horrific as a car crash.

You never know.

This is Game 7. This is where you open up your soul and it's either going to be sucked out of you or blessed.

No in between.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Playoff Hockey without Shanahan Not the Norm in the NHL

Brendan Shanahan played 21 physical, angry seasons in the NHL yet he could walk into a Hollywood producer’s office tomorrow morning and be cast as the male lead.

Shanahan, 41, still has his looks; most old hockey players have faces that are zippered on and are the texture of corduroy.

Shanahan is still the best looking man in most rooms these days, plus among the smartest and most charming, and it’s enough to make guys like me sick.

I’m not telling you anything the ladies don’t already know.

He sat behind a desk in an office inside the Kennedy Ice Center in Trenton Saturday and spoke eloquently on a number of subjects, including his involvement in a fascinating story involving two local high school teams from 1999. But more about that later.

This used to be Shanahan’s time—right now. Spring hockey. The playoffs going on. Lose four games within a seven-game window and you’re on the golf course tomorrow.

Shanahan loves golf and he’s very good at it. But he never loved it enough to choose it over playoff hockey.

“I miss playing at the elite level. I miss the highest level of competition,” Shanahan told me. “I miss playing for the Stanley Cup.”

Shanahan isn’t in the playoffs this year for the first time in 14 years, because he retired last fall. That’s the only way you could keep him out of the post-season; Shanny played 21 seasons in the NHL, and he made the playoffs in 19 of them.

The last time he missed the post-season, it was in 1996 and it was because he was playing for the awful Hartford Whalers. Shanahan scored 44 goals in the 1995-96 season and those were ten more than the wins the Whalers had.

Shanahan, at that point, had played nine NHL seasons and his teams’ playoff runs lasted about as long as a 4th of July sparkler.

The Red Wings in 1996 were elite. They’d just set an NHL record with 62 wins, but were blasted out of the Western Conference Finals by the hated Colorado Avalanche.

In the early throes of the ’96-97 season, Shanahan got himself some ideas.

“(The trade to Detroit) took about two weeks to come together,” he said. “It wasn’t a phone call that said, ‘You’re traded.’”

Shanahan, unhappy with the tenuous Whalers, who would soon relocate to Carolina, looked at the Red Wings and saw an opportunity.

“They were an Original Six team, they were on the cusp of winning, and I thought I could help,” he said, adding a gross understatement at the end of that sentence.

The Red Wings had been manhandled by the Avs in the ’96 Final Four. They were humiliated by guys like Claude Lemieux and mocked by goalie Patrick Roy. The Red Wings’ overall team toughness was seriously questioned.

The Stanley Cup drought in Detroit had reached 41 years. And counting.

And here’s 44-goal scorer Brendan Shanahan, annually garnering triple digits in penalty minutes, a tough Irish guy who was as lethal with his gloves off as with them on, and he thinks he “could help”?

Yet not everyone agreed with him that Detroit would be an ideal destination.

“The players’ union tried to get me to go to Washington,” Shanahan told me. He nearly rolled his eyes when he said it. “There were others who tried to convince me that there were better places for me to go [than Detroit].”

But Shanahan wanted to make Shanny-to-the-Red Wings a reality.

I asked him about that first night as a Red Wing—when he was introduced at the team’s home opener, having rushed into town after the deal was finally done, to a mighty ovation. Thunderous, was more like it.

“When I stepped onto that ice, it was like, ‘OK, it’s official now. It’s all worth it.’”

Eight months later, the Red Wings exorcised their Stanley Cup demons. They won the thing 42 years after Lindsay and Howe and Sawchuk skated the Cup around the ice.

Shanahan played in all 20 of the team’s playoff games and scored nine goals, seemingly every one of them big—and was whistled for 43 penalty minutes. Natch.

The Red Wings weren’t soft any longer. Shanahan “helped” in that department, big time.

He’s helping in a different way now.

Shanahan, working with the folks at Gatorade, will serve as honorary coach for the 1999 Trenton Trojans high school reunion team who will take on the 1999 Detroit Catholic Central Shamrocks to settle some unfinished business. Those hockey powerhouses, fierce rivals, played to a 4-4 tie in a game at Trenton that was suspended following the horrific injury suffered to Trojan Kurt LaTarte, whose throat was slashed by a skate.

It’s all part of a TV series called REPLAY, where high school teams are reassembled to replay games that ended without a winner. The Trenton-CC game was selected for replay among over 2,000 applicants.

The CC honorary coach is Scotty Bowman. Yes, THAT Scotty Bowman.

“I want to win,” Shanahan said of the May 9 game. “I want to win at checkers. It should be an intense game. These players are blessed. They have a chance, 11 years later, to settle the score.”

Shanahan knows intense. He played hockey with a fierceness and fearlessness that I hadn’t seen in Detroit from a player of his talent prior to his arrival.

The playoffs, especially, were Shanahan’s time. He played in 184 post-season games and scored 60 goals. He racked up 279 penalty minutes. He helped import the term “power forward” from basketball’s lexicon.

And he won three Stanley Cups.

Shanahan scored, and he fought. He also increased the interest in hockey among the females. Often all in the same game. The Brendan Shanahan Hat Trick was a goal, a fight, a swoon.

I wanted to know what this time of the year meant to an old NHL warrior like him.

“You close yourself off to all other things,” he said. “Eating wasn’t enjoying food—it was just adding more fuel to your body. Sleeping wasn’t rest, it was something you needed. Everything was done for the next game. You sequestered yourself in the hotel with your teammates and you got blinders on.”

And the payoff?

“That’s what I liked most about it. When the final horn sounded and you were the winner and the season was over, that’s when you sort of pulled the blinders off and really took a look around you. You were on a mission. You were focused entirely on winning, and that was a lot of fun.”

Saturday was just the third time Shanahan had been on skates since he announced his retirement last fall. And don’t expect him to join any men’s leagues or appear in any old-timers games.

“Once you’ve climbed Mount Everest,” he said, “why step up a hill?”

Friday, April 23, 2010

Mayhew Commits Yet Another Robbery at NFL Draft

NFL general managers, beware: you can't stop Martin Mayhew, you can only hope to contain him.

Mayhew, the Lions' football brainiac, reminds me of those chess experts who can play multiple opponents at once, because he's staying one move ahead of his brethren.

His latest heist was the trade he made last night during the first round of the NFL Draft, when everyone thought Mayhew's work was done with the selection of Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh with the second overall pick.

Mayhew's never done. You can't drop your guard for one second with this guy. He'll fleece you in broad daylight---in front of your family, your friends, your fans. He doesn't bother to wear a mask. None of the great bandits did---just the amateurs who are afraid of being caught.

Mayhew obviously couldn't care less who sees his face. He's Jesse James, Clyde Barrow and John Dillinger, all rolled into one.

Mayhew picked Suh, as pretty much expected, then he went back to his chess board.

Later in the evening, the announcement came: the Lions had swapped with the Minnesota Vikings---a division rival, mind you---so that the Detroiters could get themselves a second first round pick. They bumped themselves up four picks, from 34th to 30th, and nabbed California running back Jahvid Best.

Mayhew is leaving a trail of victims in his wake.

It all started in October 2008, when Mayhew was on the job only a few weeks, when he played coy and gave misdirection about wanting to trade WR Roy Williams at the upcoming trade deadline.

His patience and savvy fooled Jerry Jones into surrendering a first round pick for the underachieving Williams.

It was then that I thought the Lions might have something special with this Martin Mayhew guy.

And it wasn't beginner's luck. Mayhew first perfected the art of the low-risk, high yield move. Now he's flat out picking other GM's pockets in full view of everyone.

In between there was his fine 2009 draft, from which the Lions got several starters.

I get the feeeling that Mayhew loves this stuff. Some executives become intoxicated by the art of the deal. Pistons GM Jack McCloskey comes to mind.

But Mayhew isn't making trades and signing free agents just for the sake of it. His every crime has designs. He's his own, one-man Mafia.

The impressive thing is that Mayhew seems to have this knack for making the other teams see things through his prism. I don't know how he does it---charm, guile, intimidation---but he gets what he wants because he brainwashes the other guy into thinking that it's for his own good, too.

Mayhew is the mugger who convinces you that you didn't need all that cash and jewelry after all.

And the NFL's GMs have to still suffer through a couple more days with Mayhew at the draft. They'd better watch their wallets---not that it would do them any good.

They say 40 is the new 30. Mayhew is the new Joe Dumars.

Remember when we gushed about Dumars? I was guilty of it. I was hardly alone.

Dumars is out; Mayhew is all the rage now.

Someone mentioned to Mayhew recently that he and the Lions have had a pretty good off-season.

"You don't know if you have a good off-season until you play the season," Mayhew said he responded.

Gee, all that and he has common sense and wisdom, too?

And to think that he served under Matt Millen for all those years. Millen was the goose who laid the Golden Egg (Mayhew) and no one knew it until the goose was run out of town.

The Lions had a good draft yesterday. Already. They're Barry Sanders with two carries for 80 yards and 55 minutes still to play.

Pity the rest of the league.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bare, Fuzzy-Faced Howard Gives Us a Moment to Remember

If they gave out a Comeback Player of the Series Award, Jimmy Howard would win it, hands down.

Or, should I say, mask down.

Howard, the Red Wings' rookie goalie in title only, has added to his burgeoning legend.

It was vintage Chris Osgood: follow up a stinker by coming out smelling like a rose.

Howard rebounded from a rocky Game 3 and was impenetrable in Game 4's 3-0 win, jamming a hockey puck into the mouths of his detractors who'd have rather seen his mentor Osgood between the pipes, a suggestion only slightly less reactionary than using a bazooka to kill a gnat.

There have been many iconic images flitting through the minds of the Hockeytown faithful throughout the spate of Stanley Cups since 1997.

Darren McCarty's beautiful, where-did-THAT-come-from move that was essentially the Cup-winning goal in '97; Kris Draper's overtime goal that completed a storied comeback in Game 2 of the '98 Finals; Igor Larionov's tally made in slow motion that ended Game 3 of the '02 Finals in triple overtime; Colorado's Patrick Roy and his failed "Statue of Liberty" move in the '02 Conference Finals.

If the Wings make an extended post-season run, you can add Howard and his breathless, maskless moments during the second period of last night's Game 4 to the list.

It was the stuff that folks around here eat up.

Phoenix's Keith Yandle ripped a shot that tore Howard's mask from his noggin. The puck lay dangerously in front of the Red Wings' crease. The game was a scoreless affair at that point, settling into what FSD's Mickey Redmond said would be a contest where the team who scored first would likely win.

For a split second, we got to see what a goalie's face looks like in the heat of battle, when the puck is loose and could be rapped behind him at any moment.

Howard looked like I imagined someone like him would look in that situation.

The FSD replay showed it: Jimmy Howard's eyes got as wide as saucers. He looked at the loose puck as if it was a grenade whose pin had just been pulled.

It didn't take a terribly creative mind to deduce that the words going through Howard's mind at the time likely all had exactly four letters.

Howard sank to the ice, on his knees, mouth agape and with those saucer eyes. He was, for a split second, just like those 1950s and '60s goalies in those priceless hockey photos---an era when the netminders, sans mask, put their anxiety on display on a nightly basis, courtesy their facial expressions.

Oh, _ _ _ _!!

Howard stopped the rebound, then smothered the vulcanized rubber disc with his trapper.

"I would have stopped it with my face if I had to," he said afterward about the ensuing rebound.

His maskless face.

We love grit and toughness in Detroit, even from our goalies. Maybe especially from our goalies.

Mike Vernon could have been elected mayor after fighting Roy at center ice in that famous '97 regular season game. Not to be outdone, Osgood rose to the same status the next year, also against Roy.

Howard made the fans giddy after roughing up Sidney Crosby at the final horn last month.

Now he's stopping pucks bare-faced. He just called Vernon and Osgood and raised them one.

The beauty of it is that, even though the maskless play took just seconds to occur, you know that Howard would have remained bare-faced for as long as he had to and it wouldn't have bothered him a lick.

"It didn't faze me," he said, with words as strong as garlic. "You don't think; you react."

This first round series with the Coyotes is 2-2, which is about where most people thought it would be after the first quartet of games. And Howard, frankly, has only been good in one of the four games so far.

But you can't be more good than shutting the other guys out.

It was just one game in a first round series, but if the Red Wings move on and play into May, we might look back at Howard's un-masking as a turning point in their playoff run.

No _ _ _ _.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Howard for Game 4? Absolutely

It was, for my money, the gutsiest playoff decision I'd ever seen a coach make in Detroit. And I've been nosing around our teams since 1970.

Mike Babcock took conventional wisdom and the safe path and he chucked them into the Detroit River. For all I know he ripped out the pages of the coaching manual that says you don't do it and he swallowed them whole.

"It" happened in 2008, almost two years ago to the day.

The Red Wings were in a dogfight of a first round soiree with the Nashville Predators. The Western Conference finalist Red Wings of the year previous had their hands completely full with Barry Trotz's scrappy bunch from Tennessee.

The Red Wings had won the first two games in Detroit, but were swept in Games 3 and 4 in Nashville, squaring the series at 2-2.

But Babcock had a pretty good idea why the Predators were able to tie the series.

"The puck is going into the net," Babcock said. He didn't add it, but he inferred it: not only is it going in, it's going in too frequently, and too easily.

He didn't have to name the culprit.

Dominik Hasek, Babcock's Hall of Fame goaltender, was becoming far too gracious in the Red Wings net. The 43 year-old Hasek was waving and whiffing and his legs weren't closing fast enough. Pucks were fluttering past him at an alarming rate. Even in the Red Wings' wins in Detroit, there had been some goals allowed by Hasek that made people look cross-eyed at him.

The Red Wings came home to play the crucial Game 5.

Babcock had a surprise in store.

Hasek was out and Chris Osgood was in. Just like that---for the pivotal Game 5.

The manual says stick with the Hall of Famer, especially coming home. The safe path was alluring, too: don't make a decision that can't, truly, be un-made.

Babcock looked at that stuff and raised his steely jaw at it with disdain.

The coach had seen enough of Hasek. Osgood was in.

Nothing much was riding on Babcock's decision---just his team's season, his reputation as a playoff-ready coach, and the potential for suicide of a city's fan base.

That's all.

Babcock repeated his assertion when queried about the yanking of Hasek and the insertion of Osgood right smack dab in the middle of a first round series.

"The puck was going into the net."

End of discussion.

Babcock didn't care how Hasek, whose feelings could sometimes be ultra-sensitive, would take the news. He didn't worry about the mess he'd have on his hands if Osgood stunk up the joint in Game 5.

He made the decision, it was final, and it was absolutely brilliant. And fearless.

Babcock did what truly great coaches are paid, and are expected, to do.

Osgood played marvelously and, despite giving up a tying goal late in regulation, he emerged the victor, thanks to a Johan Franzen goal in overtime. Osgood was named one of the three stars, and he skated onto the JLA ice to a thunderous ovation, raising his goal stick to the crowd.

It gave me goose bumps.

The Red Wings closed out the series in Game 6 in Nashville; Osgood was again terrific.

Babcock's guts were underlined in the next series, when Colorado Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville brought his team home for Game 3 down 0-2 to the Red Wings---thanks largely to the ineffectiveness of his goalie's play in Detroit.

It was a situation crying for a change---some sort of big move to shake things up and perhaps energize the Avs.

A goaltending change would have accomplished that quite nicely.

But Quenneville stuck with Jose Theodore, who was again awful in Game 3. Quenneville had to yank him, he was so bad. The Red Wings blasted the Avs out in four straight games.

Quenneville coaches the Blackhawks now. We'll see how well they do this post-season, won't we?

The Red Wings, with Chris Osgood planted in goal for the rest of the playoffs, won the 2008 Stanley Cup.

Tonight the Red Wings are in a precarious situation. They will skate against the Phoenix Coyotes fighting for their playoff lives. The only thing worse than being down 2-1 to the Coyotes would be to trail them 3-1. Conventional wisdom again.

It's another opportunity for the wrong-headed and the mealy-mouthed to show their true colors.

The rookie Jimmy Howard isn't ready for all this playoff stuff; put in Osgood!!

No one said every hockey fan was intelligent.

For all Chris Osgood has accomplished, inserting him into Game 4 when he's played but two games since January 27 would be an egregious error on Babcock's part. And it would do absolutely nothing for the confidence of the rookie Howard.

So Babcock isn't having any of it. Mike Babcock is a smart man.

The goalie tonight will be Jimmy Howard, as it should be. How else are we going to find out how he bounces back from less-than-stellar performances in the playoffs?

Babcock might be fearless, but he isn't a fool.

He'll leave that to the fans with cell phones on the freeway.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Lions Missed on Rogers in More Ways than One

Somehow, the Lions missed it.

Somehow, it escaped their attention that the young stud receiver had some serious issues off the field.

It should have been all there, had the team done their due diligence. The implications, today, are that a young man two years shy of 30 might be a complete, total waste.

Charlie Rogers beamed that April day in 2003, holding up a Honolulu Blue jersey with the symbolic No. 1 running down its front. The Detroit Lions baseball cap rested on his mixed up, pot-addled head.

Lions President Matt Millen fired another blank.

Millen’s team, hard up for a serious talent that could catch passes from its young quarterback, Joey Harrington, wanted Michigan State’s Rogers so badly it hurt. The Lions drafted second overall. The Cincinnati Bengals, with the No. 1 overall pick off the board, were rumored to want hotshot QB Carson Palmer of USC.

Rogers would be the Lions’, after all.

There was some drama, though. The Lions didn’t submit the index card with Rogers’ name on it right away when their turn came to pick. They dilly-dallied a bit. Maybe another player was in the mix at the last moment—or a trade was in the works.


The index card was handed to Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who read Rogers’ name.

There was the usual hooting and hollering. Some of it could be heard at the draft in New York all the way from Detroit.

Lions fans wanted Rogers, too—for the most part. He was local, growing up in Saginaw. He was terrific in college. The football need only be thrown in his general direction and Charlie would do the rest. There was no telling what he could do in the NFL.

But the Lions missed it.

They missed the serious character flaw Rogers had. They missed it in the pre-draft interviews with him. They missed it when they looked at his college career in East Lansing. They missed it, or they refused to acknowledge it. Take your pick.

But Charlie Rogers was a Lion and that was all that mattered. Apparently.

In fairness, you can do all the prep work in the world—interviews until everyone turns blue, watching film until your eyes get bleary. The NFL Draft is the biggest sports crap shoot outside of Las Vegas.

The Lions, though, missed on Charlie Rogers so badly that their pick of him is likely among the 10 worst ever made in the history of the league.

Rogers caught two touchdown passes on Opening Day of his rookie year. One of them was a beauty—stretching out so that he was parallel to the turf, snaring the football in midair.

Turns out it wasn’t the first time Rogers went flying. Nor would it be the last.

Charlie Rogers was a pothead, and the Lions missed it. His reefer madness had been going on for quite some time at MSU, as it turned out. He was smoking weed and exercising poor judgment on a regular basis. The Detroit Free Press dug up the story: Rogers had failed drug tests in college. He was irresponsible and sometimes lazy on the football field.

But he had talent. Oh, but did he have talent. Rogers might have been the best pure pass catcher to ever play for the Spartans. He had hands like Velcro and the acrobatics of a circus performer.

The Lions drooled over him. Millen, never one to do all his homework, whether it came to draft picks or coaching hires, envisioned Rogers and Harrington forming a duet that would dazzle the league.

But Rogers broke his collarbone less than halfway through his rookie season. In Year Two, he suffered a very similar injury in the season’s first game.

In Year Three, Rogers failed an NFL drug test for a third time. He was suspended for four games.

It took the Lions that long to find out that their supposed prize receiver was a pothead—something that had been going on since high school.

It took another year before they realized that he wasn’t too bright, either.

In 2006, the Lions had a new offensive coordinator.

Mike Martz arrived in town with a three-ring binder bursting with pages of passing plays. He was a mad general of aerial attacks. There was something not quite right about him, but we couldn’t put our finger on it. He was kind of strange. Yet we were glad he was with the Lions. Perhaps he could help revive a boring, popgun offense.

Martz started throwing his myriad of plays at the receivers and one of them was lagging behind: the talented pothead Charlie Rogers.

Rogers plodded through training camp that summer. He wasn’t impressing Martz in the least. There were whispers that Rogers lacked the mental capacity to grasp Martz’s complicated offense.

The Lions cut Charlie Rogers at the end of training camp in 2006.

He never played a down of football after that.

His short-lived NFL career consisted of 15 total games in three seasons. The Lions sued him for breach of contract after they learned of his drug consumption. They may as well have sued a stone.

Today, Rogers is being sucked further and further into the abyss.

He’s alone, it seems. His behavior has been erratic, to put it kindly. He keeps getting arrested. Twice, the police have found him passed out in his car, under the influence of drugs or alcohol—most recently on January 5 of this year. He was accused of assault and battery on a woman he knew in 2008; the charges were later dropped.

Rogers’ life is in complete disarray. He has no talent beyond football. He isn’t very smart. He’s only 28 years old and he’s perilously close to being a total waste.

That’s sad enough, but what’s worse is that Charlie Rogers doesn’t appear to have a support system; no one has taken him under their wing. No one has stepped forward and linked their name to his in the form of help. He has no advocate, no spokesperson.

He’s alone.

And that’s what is saddest of all when it comes to Charlie Rogers. He had all sorts of “friends” when he was making the big bucks and flitting around as a hotshot NFL receiver.

Now he has no one.

If he does, then I apologize. But those folks aren’t doing a very good job with him, apparently. Rogers isn’t getting any better—he’s getting much, much worse.

Ryan Leaf, the quarterback drafted from Washington State in 1998 who might be the biggest NFL Draft bust of all time, was just sentenced for some felonies involving drugs.

So you never truly know what you’re getting when you hand that index card to the commissioner on draft day.

But the Lions should have caught the Rogers thing before they drafted him. They were so blinded by the kid’s talent that they failed to see his foibles.

Now look at him.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Happy Birthday to Me! (sort of)

It all started with a rant about Tiger Woods, and five years later, we're STILL ranting about Tiger Woods.

On April 12, 2005, this blog started soiling the Internet. The first post was a commentary about Tiger Woods' win at the 2005 Masters.

Today is the fifth anniversary of "Out of Bounds," and even though traffic is down, thanks to the consolidation of my writing at, I still get faithful visitors here.

I just want to thank everyone who has wandered over here since the beginning, especially in the first couple of years when the blog was trying to gain some traction. I wouldn't be celebrating five years without you!


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Cabrera's Future Includes Hall of Fame and Mass Destruction

He’s 6'2", with arms the size of Paul Bunyan’s and thighs that look like folded over sandbags. He doesn’t have a chest, he has Rhode Island, and maybe a little of Vermont.

He doesn’t walk, he advances.

He’s just shy of 27 years of age and already has 211 home runs, is edging nearer to 800 RBI, and has collected over 1,200 hits. He has a career batting average of .311.

Miguel Cabrera is just starting to inflict his damage. If he was a country, he’d be North Korea. He’s his own weapon of mass destruction.

We haven’t seen a specimen of Cabrera’s kind in Detroit since Big Daddy Cecil Fielder was launching rockets from home plate at Tiger Stadium in the 1990s.

But Cabrera is better than Fielder. He hits for average, number one. And Cabrera’s no pylon at first base. He’s among the rarest of players: the big slugger who also has the dexterity of a ballet dancer. He’s a bull at the plate, but light as a feather in the China shop.

This is the Adonis who will, someday, surpass 500 home runs, 2,000 RBI, 3,000 hits, and Iraq as a threat to national security.

I ragged on Cabrera last September. I was cranky. But I still think he had some of it coming.

The Tigers slugger’s shoulders were losing their broadness, I wrote, in the heat of the divisional race. He was the Incredible Shrinking Man.

Some of that, I submit, was truism. Some of it was my inner Chicken Little coming out.

Fox Sports Detroit’s Rod Allen, a poor man’s Joe Morgan behind the mike, but no less knowledgeable about the game, put it this way after the right-handed hitting Cabrera lasered a base hit past the Kansas City Royals’ second baseman this week.

“He (Cabrera) hits the ball as hard to right as a left-handed hitter does,” Allen said in amazement.

It’s another part of Cabrera’s greatness: his power to right field is freaky.

A beleaguered pitcher of an era gone by once said about Henry Aaron, “Trying to sneak a fastball past Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.”

You could say the same about Cabrera. Sometimes he swings as if it’s an afterthought. Yet he’s so strong, he drives the ball the opposite way like he’s flicking lint off his shoulder. He goes to his right better than Rush Limbaugh.

Miggy—and someone ought to check with him pretty soon to see if it’s OK that we call him that—has hit two home runs this young season, and both have been to right field. He’s an equal opportunity destroyer.

Cabrera’s power is like a fireworks display. Some of his homers get launched high and in majestic fashion, arcing gloriously above the diamond, scraping the sky before they come to Earth in a crash landing. You could make a sandwich in the time between when he makes contact and when the ball re-enters this atmosphere.

Others are laser shots, as in blink-and-you-miss-it. Those fly under the radar, but still do their damage.

The Tigers aren’t an offensive juggernaut, but they’re not chopped liver, either. They have some pieces.

You take Miguel Cabrera out of that lineup, however, and that jelly-filled doughnut just turned into one with a hole in the middle.

I believe in Cabrera again. I’m impressed with his maturity and his manning up to his ill-timed drinking binge at the end of last season. He took ownership of his life. He made no excuses.

There was some parsing of words this winter—Cabrera's taking exception to terms like “drinking problem” and “alcoholic.” Not that I blame him, but there was a hint of denial in there that caused me to squirm a bit.

But that’s nitpicking. Cabrera has not only said the right things about his behavior, he’s backing it up with actions. He came to spring training in superb physical shape, which for him means that he looked great carrying the world on his shoulders before placing it off to the side.

The man is some kind of big and strong.

He dwarfs base runners who stand next to him at first base. They all look like Eddie Gaedel.

Miguel Cabrera is going to bash his way into the Hall of Fame. The numbers he’s capable of accumulating are enough to make grown men cry. He’s 27, and that’s just wrong. And scary as hell.

The Tigers locked him up for a while with a contract as fat as the day is long, but they’ll probably have to tear that one up eventually and start over. It’ll take the GNP of his native Venezuela to keep him in the Old English D. Cool—a bargain.

You float Cabrera’s name around baseball fans and the words that come back are very violent in nature.

Beast. Terror. Monster. Freak.

An overly sensitive guy might take offense to words like that being used to describe him.

I don’t think Cabrera cares. Not only do I think he doesn’t care, I think he prefers it. A sinister nickname never hurts.

Frank Thomas, the old White Sox slugger, was The Big Hurt. Frank Howard of the Senators was the Capital Punisher. The Phillies’ Greg Luzinski was the Baby Bull. None of them complained.

I don’t know how many World Series the Tigers will win with Miguel Cabrera entrenched as their cleanup hitter. But I know their chances of winning one without him right now, approaching his prime, are similar to seeing pigs fly. And I think I might place my money on the pigs sprouting wings.

That’s why I was so cranky about this guy last September. I knew that with his talent, if Cabrera would have just turned it up a notch, to even a low simmer, the Tigers would have won the division in a cake walk.

His shoulders are plenty broad enough to carry the Tigers for stretches of time this season, if need be. And the need will be. Whether he does so won’t depend on his ability—it will depend on the space between his ears. The only thing Miguel Cabrera doesn’t have quite yet is a killer instinct in crunch time, when the games matter the most.

He’ll get that, too.

Scary, isn’t it?

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Howard a Rookie in Title Only

The rookie goalie who is going to lead the Detroit Red Wings into the playoffs has one thing going for him.

He's too dumb to know what he's getting himself into.

Don't gasp; that's not a put-down. First of all, I didn't call Jimmy Howard stupid. I'm calling him dumb. As in "ignorance is bliss."

Howard is 26 and he's played as many minutes of playoff hockey as I have, and you, too.

Zero, zilch, nada.

The Red Wings, first of all, don't start rookie goalies in the playoffs. I think it says so on their contract with the league.

But contracts, like records, are meant to be broken. Sometimes you don't even need a lawyer.

Howard has been given the key to the executive goalie washroom, and just because he looks like the kid who should actually be cleaning that washroom appears not to bother his coach, Mike Babcock.

Babcock is riding Howard like a carousel horse, for that's about as bumpy as it's been with Jimmy in net. The kid has started all but one game for the Red Wings since January 27. Every night, he gives them a chance to win---not that his teammates have always taken advantage of that little nicety.

They're doing it now, though. The post-Olympic Red Wings resemble those before the Games like a Barry Bonds "before" and "after" photo comparison.

FSD's Mickey Redmond said it best the other night about Red Wings goalies and the playoffs.

"We don't expect you to win it for us, but don't lose it for us, either," Mick said.

Or else.

This is playoff time in Hockeytown, and in the past that's meant the veteran Mike Vernon, or the veteran Dominik Hasek, or the veteran Chris Osgood. See a pattern here?

Playoff hockey in the Detroit net isn't supposed to be a rookie named Jimmy.

But I'll say it again: Jimmy Howard is dumb.

He must be, or else he's a hell of an actor. Some of that ice water that they use to spray on the floor of Joe Louis Arena must be coursing through his veins.

You listen to Howard in post-game chats and he is as much aware of what awaits him next week as a laboratory mouse.

He speaks as if he's been the starting goalie here for six years, not six months. People worry about Babcock wearing him down by playing him so much. You'd have better luck running a four-year-old ragged after a trip to the candy store.

Howard isn't getting tired, he's getting mature. Real fast.

And that's about to get faster next week when the playoffs start.

No matter. Howard's body language on the ice is another clue that the kid is blissfully ignorant.

There's a certain je ne sais quoi about the confident goalie. It's not an easy thing to describe but it's very blatant to notice.

Howard has it. It might be that he's on auto pilot, or is still working on the adrenalin from some game last November. Regardless, it's working. He's stopping shots as if he's part brick wall. If one gets by him anymore, you want to do a double-take.

Babcock is another who isn't stupid, but he's not dumb, either. The coach knows what he's got, and in his mind, he doesn't have himself a rookie. It hasn't taken a lot of convincing lately; Howard is among the very best goalies in the entire NHL---rookie, veteran, what have you.

Howard is the team's MVP. By far. That's dumb, too. But true.

There hasn't been a rags-to-riches rookie story like this in Detroit since Mark Fidrych. You heard me.

Look at what the expectations of Howard were back in October, and look at him now.

Fidrych was the last man to make the 1976 Tigers roster. Mid-May was upon us and he hadn't started a game.

You know what happened after that.

Jimmy Howard is a rookie in legal definition only. He's just too dumb to know it.

And he's making the other teams' snipers look stupid.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Robertson Last of a Dying Breed

They used to be scattered all over the state, particularly in the tri-county area.

The tony suburbs of Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills were popular for them, but towns like Washington and Livonia were home to some of them as well.

Theirs was a time when you not only played baseball for the Detroit Tigers, you stuck around to experience our winter months, too.

They weren’t commuters. The Tigers’ roster, when it contained names like Horton and Stanley and Lolich and Kaline, was liberally spread with guys who called Michigan home year-round.

Mickey Lolich lived in Washington, Michigan for most of the time that he pitched for the Tigers, and it took me until my grown-up years to finally learn that Washington was in northern Macomb County.

Al Kaline, though a Baltimore kid, made the Detroit area his 24/7 home. He wasn’t a commuter, either.

Every winter, they traded their bats and gloves for ice scrapers and mittens, those stay-at-home Tigers players did.

Granted, they were in essence indentured slaves, thanks to the eventually illegal but always improper reserve clause—that archaic mandate that said a player was the property of the major league team that owned his rights ad infinitum. Free agency was still a glimmer in someone’s eye.

So it made sense, in a way, to keep a home in metro Detroit in those days (pre-1975) year-round, because if you were a Tiger, you’d remain one, until the team traded or cut you.

It was a time when players came up through the minor leagues together, became big leaguers together, and so formed a bond due to familiarity, if nothing else.

And they lived here. All year—not just during baseball season.

The Tigers player who was a year-round Detroiter wasn’t such an anomaly back then.

Nate Robertson has been traded. He’s a Florida Marlin now, thanks to last week’s deal that sent the lefty pitcher Robertson to the Marlins for a minor league pitching prospect.

It is the irony that is woven into the fabric of sports; Robertson has returned home, in a baseball sense, in a trade that has ripped him from his home, in a real-life sense.

Robertson was drafted by the Marlins, and was part of the Florida organization for several years before being acquired by the Tigers in January 2003.

Now he’s back with the Marlins, but during his tour of duty with the Tigers, Robertson liked our town so much he decided to plant roots here.

And he moved not to the fancy-shmancy suburbs of northern Oakland County, but to west side Canton, which could be described by a cynic as nothing more than a bunch of strip malls and some churches. When Ford Road is your main drag, you could make some jokes.

But Robertson fell in love with the area, and started his family there.

The Tigers fan base didn’t go into mourning and weep when Robertson was dealt, like it did when the Kewpie Doll Curtis Granderson was traded to the Yankees over the winter.

Curtis is a great guy, alright, but he was a commuter, too. For all of his kind deeds, Granderson is a Chicago homey and he didn’t move himself to Detroit year-round.

Some rogue elements of Tigers fans said they would no longer support the team—not even watch them on television—because Granderson was traded.

Granderson, the commuting Tiger from Chicago.

Robertson got traded last week and you could hear a pin drop in the Tigers community of supporters. The silence was deafening.

Nate Robertson, the year-round Detroiter, didn’t get much love from Tigers fans in the wake of his rather surprising trade to Florida. Robertson had pitched well in spring training, but got caught up in a logjam in the pitching rotation.

So off he went, and the eyes were noticeably dry among Tigers fans.

No one swore they’d never cheer the Tigers on again, as multitudes did when Granderson was moved.

Since when do we embrace the commuter more than the year-rounder?

“We made our life in Detroit,” Robertson said after the trade. “This is harder than normally getting traded, because beyond leaving a team, we are leaving home. This is really tough.”

Indeed, Robertson was the only Tiger in recent years to make his home in the Detroit area for 52 weeks every year.

Free agency, clearly, has been maybe the biggest culprit in this downward trend of year-round ballplayers. No one sticks with a team long enough, it seems, to make it worth it to sell a home and buy one, just for the sake of living year-round where you play.

But even the big shot guys, the ones with the long-term contracts and who are often the “face” of their respective franchises, they commute, too.

Carpetbaggers, the lot of them.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Miguel Cabrera to have snowball fights with his kids in Michigan.

Nate Robertson was the last of a dying breed in this respect.

“We have so many friends there,” he said of Canton and the surrounding area. “There are people we know at church and in the community.”

These aren’t baseball cards that are being traded. These are people and families. Sometimes we lose sight of that.

Imagine being called into your boss’s office to be told that you will report to work tomorrow in Seattle, or Houston, or Kansas City. Tomorrow.

Not long before the Robertson trade was made, Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge announced that he plans on making the Ann Arbor area the year-round home for him and his family. Like the Robertsons with Canton, the Inges became enamored with Ann Arbor and want their kids to finish high school there.

Thanks to the Robertson trade, Inge will be the only one of the 25 Tigers to call the Detroit area home both in winter and summer.

It may not matter to a lot of fans where their Tigers heroes lay their hats in the offseason. But doesn’t hearing that Inge plans on entrenching himself in our community make you feel good?