Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Best (and Worst) of Yours Truly, 2011

In a flash, a whirr and a blur, another year in sports came and went. 2011, it seemed, might have been missed had you blinked.

And what a year it was.

Tigers AND Lions in the playoffs, for the first time in the same year since 1935.

Pistons with a new coach (again).

Red Wings almost coming all the way back from an 0-3 playoff deficit against the San Jose Sharks.

Michiganfootball resurging under new coach Brady Hoke.

And I wrote about it all—with varying degrees of premonition and soothsaying.

For the fourth year in a row, I take you through the calendar and share some of my bon mots—and why they were or were not some of my best.


(on Steve Yzerman putting together a winner inTampaBay)

You can dress him however you like, put him wherever you want, but you can’t take the will to win out of him.

There’s quite a story going on in the NHL, not that you’d know it, because it’s happening to a team closer toCubathanCanada.

Yzerman is Vice President and General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a hockey team that really does play in the NHL; I looked it up.

No team with which Yzerman has been associated has had a losing season since 1991.

Now he’s taking the slapstick Tampa Bay Lightning and making them the new Beasts of the East.

Yzerman is turning theTampa(freaking) Bay Lightning into winners in his first year on the job.


Stevie’s team made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, as a matter of fact.

(on why the Pistons should hang onto veteran Tracy McGrady)

McGrady might be a Hall of Famer when all is said and done, except not all has been said, and it doesn’t look like all has been done; not even close.

The Pistons signed McGrady last August and it was the quintessential marriage of convenience. McGrady needed the Pistons so he could show the NBA that he still had game, and the Pistons needed another NBA veteran with a name; a player who wasn’t too far removed from his oohs and aahs days.

The Pistons didn’t need another swingman; in fact, they needed one like a hole in the head. And it wasn’t like NBA teams were knocking McGrady’s door down for

his services. But the Pistons figured they could get McGrady on the cheap (which they did), and maybe he could still score a little and provide a veteran presence.

It’s not a bad idea to keep dudes like this on your roster, if you can manage it.

The Pistons decided otherwise, and let McGrady walk away after one season in Detroit.

(on the once unthinkable retirement of former Piston Dennis Rodman’s number)

He worked as a janitor at theDallas-FortWorthAirportafter high school, but after another growth spurt he gave hoops another shot.

Keep in mind he played little to no high school basketball.

Turns out Rodman could play the game, after all, mainly because he had a fetish for rebounding. He played a semester for some place calledCookeCountyCollegeinGainesville,Texas, averaging over 17 points and 13 rebounds per game.

From there it was on to SE Oklahoma State, an NAIA school—which was not exactly the career path of choice if one hoped to crack the NBA.

The Pistons are going to do something on April 1 that, had you put money down on it in 1986, you’d be breaking the bank right about now.

On that date, Dennis Rodman’s No. 10 Pistons jersey will be raised into the rafters, which is appropriate because that’s often where you could have found Rodman himself, in his salad days as the league’s most ferocious rebounder.

Not long after, Rodman went into the Basketball Hall of Fame, too, for good measure.


(on the long overdue election of NFL Films founder Ed Sabol into the Pro Football Hall of Fame)

Ed Sabol is still around, thank goodness. He’s 94 years old.

I say thank goodness because only last week did the powers that be deem him worthy of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

You heard me; it took them nearly 50 years after he fed his first footage into his 16 mm camera to put Ed Sabol into the Hall of Fame.

This is more overdue than a cure for the common cold.

Ed Sabol doesn’t just belong in the Hall of Fame, he should have his own wing. This is like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame realizing it hadn’t yet inducted the electric guitar.

It was very satisfying watching Ed, with son Steve by his side, giving his induction speech.


(on who should be the Tigers’ starting second baseman)

If I had a vote, I’d cast it for Will Rhymes to be the Tigers’ second sacker.

Rhymes, a lefty bat, is a prototypical second baseman. He’s hard-nosed and the front of his jersey is always dirty. He hit .304 in 191 AB last season, and he only made four errors in 53 games.

He’s a late bloomer, turning 28 on April 1, but that’s still seven years younger than (Carlos) Guillen.

Umm, you can’t win them all. Rhymes did indeed win the job in spring training, but he didn’t hit a lick and was lopped off the 40-man roster earlier this month.

(on the importance of leadoff hitter and centerfielder Austin Jackson to the Tigers’ cause)

Jacksonis the most important because if he gets a case of the sophomore jinxies, and the Tigers don’t have a reliable leadoff hitter, then the house of cards that is the team’s offense gets blown down.

Jacksonstrikes out a lot, which is understandable for a young player, but also more tolerable when that young player is hitting .300. It’s not so great if the batting average is .250 or .260.

Well, the batting average was .249, and the strikeouts jumped from 170 to 181. Yet the Tigers still won their division.


(on the sad state of veteran forward Mike Modano, who was on the outside looking in, for the most part, during the NHL playoffs)

Mike Modano, healthy scratch. For a playoff game.

Not what anyone had in mind when the Red Wings brought the veteran, home-grown kid back toDetroit.

Modano has gone on record as saying that this is likely his last chance at the Stanley Cup, because retirement is beckoning him.

“I can’t stay on the ice as long,” he told the media a few days ago. “I think my body is telling me that I’m near the end.”

Modano only got into two playoff games, and he retired over the summer, after having missed about three months of the season with a badly gashed wrist.


(on my frustration with the stubborn Tigers manager, Jim Leyland)

Jim Leyland, in case you haven’t heard, is a rocket scientist.

He presides over a job so sophisticated, so complicated, that it defies the understanding of those who aren’t rocket scientists.

He stands above all in his knowledge of his very scientific vocation, and therefore has no use for those whose brains simply cannot wrap themselves around the mesmerizing theorems, laws and corollaries that one must know in order to manage a baseball team.

OOPS; did I say Jim was a rocket scientist?

I made an assumption, since that’s how he treats his job, and those who dare question his logic.

The Marlboro Man had the last laugh, of course.

(on the prospects of new U-M football coach Brady Hoke)

Michiganfootball had been living in the penthouse and is now slumming. This is a program whose name wasn’t just spoken, it was said with a sneer—by both supporters and rivals.

Michigandidn’t get hurt, it inflicted it on others.

…But Hoke needs to start beatingMichiganState, too. And continue to beat Notre Dame. And he needs to keep having good recruiting classes. He needs to restore pride and faith inMichiganfootball once again.

Brady Hoke has one charge and one charge only: He has to saveMichiganfootball. That’s all.

And you know what?

I think he’s gouhnna do it.

That last sentence was my attempt at spelling how Hoke pronounces “gonna.” And, for the record, Hoke seems to be right on course, leading the Wolverines to a fine 10-2 season.

(on the Red Wings forcing a Game 7 in their conference semi-final series againstSan Jose, after dropping the first three games)

It’s now the thinkable.

The Red Wings are Secretariat in 1973, the ‘51 Giants, the ‘78 Yankees. They’re the ‘68-69 New York Jets, the 2004 Red Sox.

The tortoise has nothing on them, in that great race against the hare.

Check the calendar for a month of Sundays. Charlie Brown might get that kick off, after all, out of Lucy’s hold.

This isn’t happening, but yet it is. Even Disney’s Mighty Ducks never pulled something like this off.

The Red Wings are going to play a Game 7, which was a fantasy a week ago. Remember a week ago? A gut-wrenching overtime loss in Game 3? Devin Setoguchi with a hat trick, including a penalty in overtime and the game-winner shortly after he fled the box?

The Red Wings dropped that Game 7 to the Sharks, but they made Hockeytown so extremely proud of them.

(on why the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera hasn’t been embraced by fans as a superstar player should)

We love the idea of Miguel Cabrera being on our team. But we don’t love him. In fact, there’s a bunch of us who may not even like him, because he’s not that likeable of a guy, frankly.

Which is all such a shame, because we probably have him figured out all wrong. His teammates liken him to a big, cuddly bear. That may be the case; they ought to know, after all.

But we don’t see that side because we don’t see him. All we see is a big, talented man wearing a Tigers uniform. That may be enough for some, but it falls way short for most.

We don’t know Miguel Cabrera because we never hear from him. This is his fourth season as a Tiger and the man is a blank canvas, save for some splotches that have been tossed onto it.

I stand by this, though he ingratiated himself more as the season wore on.


(on LeBron James, after the Miami Heat lost the NBA Finals toDallas)

The Miami Heat won’t soon live this one down, folks. Maybe not ever. History, me thinks, will be in a cranky mood when it passes judgment on the 2010-11MiamiHeat—the team LeBron James couldn’t wait to join. The team that so easily seduced him, but that he also disappointed by leaving during the NBA Finals.

Until he wins a championship—and there’s no guarantee that he ever will—LeBron James should go down as one of the most laughable “superstars” that pro sports has ever seen. He should go down as a less-than-brilliant, heartless, gutless player who managed to fool his public even while hiding in plain sight.

But LeBron didn’t just fool them; he failed them.

His name doesn’t belong in the same sentence as Michael Jordan’s, unless it’s to create a grocery list of reasons why it doesn’t.

Why don’t I tell you what I REALLY feel?

(on the death of former Tiger Jim Northrup, and my personal dealings with him)

Jim Northrup always got his hacks in—whether it was at the plate or at the table.

I remember conversing with him on the phone in advance of the roundtable and it was free form Northrup. He was in a mood to talk, as usual, so I obliged, feeding him batting practice pitches and marveling at the results.

I found out that he hated playing for Billy Martin because, according to Jim, Martin was quick to take the credit and even quicker to blame his players and others when the Tigers were in a losing funk.

I found out that when Norm Cash was released in 1974 (the day after my birthday), Norm found out on the radio, driving to the ballpark. Northrup told me that he was so upset about the way his friend and teammate was cashiered, that he burst into manager Ralph Houk’s office to vent.

He was one of a kind, Jim Northrup was. RIP.


(on the potential end of Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood’s career)

So it will be with Osgood, 38, who is likely to be among the last to acknowledge that his days as Howard’s backup are over with.

Osgood is coming off two less-than-stellar seasons that have been pocked with injury, most recently to the groin—a goalie’s worst enemy.

Osgood is another who isn’t making things easy forHolland. Ozzie hasn’t offered to be jettisoned, nor will he make such an overture. At least, it’s doubtful that he will.

But Osgood’s reticence hasn’t stoppedHollandfrom carrying on with his duties as GM. The Red Wings have some money to spend on a new/old goalie. They told Osgood (and Kris Draper) that a new contract wouldn’t be offered until after July 1, the date that free agents can begin to be signed. That is, if a contract would be offered at all.

It wasn’t, and Ozzie retired to help coach the organization’s young goalies.

(on the All-Star season authored by Tigers catcher AlexAvila)

Now I know why they call April 1, April Fool’s Day.

For that was the date, after just one game had been played in the 2011 season, that sports talk radio was lit up with phone calls from loudmouths on their cell phones, calling for the ouster of catcher Alex Avila from not only the Tigers starting lineup, but from the roster, from Detroit, and probably even the state of Michigan—to be on the safe side.

The Tigers had lost on Opening Day to the Yankees inNew York, and I won’t argue that it wasn’t one ofAvila’s crowning moments. He was shaky behind the plate and he looked overmatched with the bat—albeit he was going against southpaw CC Sabathia.

After one game, the callers were frothing at the mouth.

By mid-season, those same callers were urging fellow fans to vote for Avila for the All-Star team.


(on the importance of Lions QB Matthew Stafford staying healthy for the whole season)

Every timeStaffordgets hit, every time he scrambles around in the pocket—hell, every time he jogs onto the field for player introductions—Lions fans will wring their hands and rock back and forth in their seats.

The sales of candles and rabbit’s feet will explode in Motown this football season.

…The Lions are worthy of the buzz for reasons other thanStafford, I will grant you that.

There’s Ndamukong Suh, the wrecking ball defensive tackle, who might be, after just one season, the best in the business. Suh is the godfather of the D-line and sitting with him at the table are some very fearsome lieutenants.

There’s freakishly big Calvin Johnson, the receiver who gleefully gallops across the gridiron, making the football that he’s clutching look like a baking potato.

There’s more talent across the board than any Lions team we’ve been presented with in years.

But Matthew Stafford has to stay healthy. He just has to.

So far, so good.

(on my [then] disappointment with Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera)

Baloney, I say, to those who would tell me that I expect too much from Miguel Cabrera.

Look at his numbers, they’ll say. He grinds out an MVP-like season almost annually.

So how come Cabrera has never truly ever, in his four years as a Tiger, put the team on his back for any extended period of time?

Has he? Go ahead—I’ll wait while you come up with some examples. Or one, even.

Cabrera is doing it again, his timing again impeccably bad.

He has pedestrian numbers, this season, for a man of his talents. He swings too much at the first pitch. He grounds out to shortstop more than I thought was humanly possible.

This is the column that I took the most heat from. And Cabrera turned it around almost immediately and I gladly ate crow.

(on the Pistons hiring yet another new coach—Lawrence Frank)

They paraded another poor sap onto the lectern to be given his death sentence as the new head coach of the Detroit Pistons the other day.

There was Joe Dumars, team president, leading the march, and the way these things have gone over the years, you half expected to see Joe reading from a Bible n Latin, his head bowed.

The scene that unfolded on Wednesday was the seventh one presided over by Dumars since 2000.

It goes like this: Dumars leads his doomed coaching choice onto the lectern, says a few words tinged with hope and confidence that the man seated to his left is “the one.” Doomed coach speaks of work ethic and tradition and fends off questions about his past failures or mercurial history. The proceedings end with Dumars, the coach’s future executioner, shaking hands and smiling with his eventual victim as the cameras snap away.

Let’s hope Frank proves to be something other than just another Pistons coach who stays for a couple years then is jettisoned.


(on Lions coach Jim Schwartz)

Jim Schwartz has been the head coach of the Detroit Lions for nearly three years and I don’t trust him.

He doesn’t have “the look.”

How can he be the coach of the Lions and not look like he just saw Humpty Dumpty fall down and bounce back up?

The Detroit Lions coaches of years past have always had “the look.” The one that speaks the ghoulish thousand words.

...A look further at the hype reveals a common thread—the folks going ga-ga over the Lions do so because they all believe in the head coach.

“Smart” is the word that is most often repeated when describing Schwartz.

Jim Schwartz does know his football. He knows talent. And he knows what he’s doing as a head coach in the NFL.

Now THERE’S a look for you.

Schwartz has the 10-5 Lions in the playoffs, three years after 0-16. Looks good to me!


(on the prospects of the Red Wings without defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom)

Lidstrom, the Red Wings‘ all-universe defenseman, is 41 years old. In human years.

In hockey-playing years, he’s closer to 30, because he hasn’t used his body as a battering ram or for someone else’s target practice.

Lidstrom plays hockey like Bobby Fischer played chess and Minnesota Fats played billiards—literally. No one has seen that 200’x80’ sheet of ice better than Lidstrom, who is always a move or two ahead of his opponent. He’s the geometric hockey player—using the puck’s caroms and angles like Fats used those green felt rails.

There hasn’t been a defenseman like him, before or since he entered the NHL in 1991. I’ll put up a batch of my wife’s Pasta Fagioli that there won’t be one like him after, either. Ever.

Sooner rather than later, the Red Wings will have to pursue the Cup without Lidstrom, a frightening thought indeed.

(on why the Tigers beating the Yankees in the playoffs couldn’t really be celebrated)

It’s tempting to say that this is as good as it gets—that the moment is so savory as to be incapable of being eclipsed.

The problem with beating the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs—on the Yankees home field in a do-or-die game that boils down to the fate of the last batter, indeed the last strike—is how easy it is to feel like nothing can be tougher.

Or that nothing could be better.

As sweet as the Tigers’ 3-games-to-2 victory was over the Yankees in the American League Divisional Series (ALDS), it doesn’t change the fact that the Tigers are still just one-third of the way toward their post-season goal.

And that’s as far as the Tigers got, thanks to Texas’s Nelson Cruz.


(on why Lions DT Ndamukong Suh is good for the NFL’s business, good guy or bad guy)

It doesn’t matter if the publicity is positive or negative. The NFL loves Ndamukong Suh because, for the first time in decades, the league has a Bad Guy.

Suh’s entry into the NFL is the best-timed debut of any pro player since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird splashed onto the NBA scene in 1979. Before Magic and Bird, the NBA was scrambling for media attention. They were like the NHL has always been.

Prior to Magic and Bird, the NBA used to televise its Finals games on tape delay. No fooling.

The NFL has been desperate for a marquee name on defense for several years. The two guys who most fans think of when it comes to tough defense—Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis—are on the back end of their careers.

Suh’s play on the field seemed to take a slight step backward in his sophomore season, but his presence in the league is still high-profile and impactful.

(on former Lions guard—and paraplegic—Mike Utley’s battle to once again walk sans crutches)

Utley then made one of the most famous gestures inDetroitsports history.

His life certainly flashing before his eyes, his fear of his own well-being no doubt palpable, Utley nonetheless thought about the fans and his teammates.

He managed to work his right hand into a position of hope.

Thumbs up!

The gesture just about brought the Silverdome down. The image was beamed onto the big JumboTron screen above the end zone scoreboard, so that the fans could see it, just as those watching at home on television could.

Thumbs up!

Utley’s message of hope became the rallying cry for the Lions, who didn’t lose another game the rest of the year until they succumbed toWashingtonin the NFC Championship game in January.

It’s hard to find a more inspirational figure than Mike Utley.

(on the mid-season struggles of Lions QB Matthew Stafford)

But someone has to get Matthew Stafford right. And fast. There’s no Dave Krieg 1994 or Eric Hipple 1981 standing by. The only way backup Shaun Hill starts is ifStaffordis hurt—there’s no QB controversy here.

Staffordisn’t right. His sluggishness extends back to the 49ers game on October 16.

The Lions have to fix him, or none of this playoff talk will mean a Hill of beans.

The Lions fixed him—i.e., his broken right index finger healed—and Stafford is as hot as they come heading into the playoffs.


(on a new era of Lions football, being ushered in by coach Schwartz, after the team clinched a playoff berth)

It’s a new age of Detroit Lions football. Jim Schwartz aims to make his the next great era. One that will make history not as kind to the Fontes years, after all.

If that happens, we just might look back to Christmas Eve, 2011 as the victory that started the Lions on their way.

We just might.

(on new Pistons coach Lawrence Frank and his dual charge: to make the Pistons competitive and likeable)

From this hodgepodge of a roster, coach Frank has to not only make the Pistons competitive but also make a team that people will want to see perform. He doesn’t have the luxury of a superstar player around whom the rest of the team satellites.

The Pistons’ fan base, I suspect, is ready to embrace a kinder, gentler team—even if it’s one that doesn’t produce a lot of wins right away. That’s how bad things have gotten here since 2008.

Frank has dealt with starting 0-16 inNew Jerseya few years ago.

The Pistons won’t scare him.

The Pistons’ new slogan, to replace the tired and worn “Going to Work,” should be a derivative of Al Davis’s mantra with the Oakland Raiders.

“Just Like Us, Baby.”

After three games, the likeable part looks to be more feasible than the competitive part, for now.

There you have it! 2011 in a nutshell.

See ya next year.

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