Traditions are terrific things. Whether they run in families, bring together communities or even entire nations, there is no mistaking the notion that honoring tradition is a noble and cozy thing to do, when not misguided.
But let’s do away with the funeral procession, shall we?
In simpler, less crowded, less rude times, the funeral procession, particularly when done using the horse and carriage, was a fine way of respecting the newly-deceased.
Today, it’s more along the lines of a nuisance and, frankly, it can be dangerous.
The journey from church (or other nonsecular place) to the cemetery or mausoleum can certainly be a somber one. There isn’t a limousine leading the way with cans and string attached, with a hand-painted sign that says “Just Died.”
So I get it that commuting during an occasion of burial isn’t the most pleasant thing in the world. And I have nothing against respecting and honoring the dead.
But the funeral procession has worn out its welcome.
Today, with roads packed more than ever with vehicles, the idea of stringing together dozens of motorists and allowing them to pass through intersections and running red lights with impunity, simply isn’t very bright.
It’s nothing against the processioners, per se, although there does always seem to be one car that lags behind the rest, creating a potentially dangerous gap. It’s more about the rude, disrespectful motorists who aren’t part of the procession.
I just don’t think we need to drive en masse to a burial.
I think you can give folks the target address and driving instructions and say “We’ll see you there.”
An exception would be for something more stately, such as the funeral of a police officer or political figure.
If one of the purposes of a funeral procession is to show, in a very visual way, how beloved someone was, I am reminded of some sage words uttered by a wise person.
“The only thing that is going to determine how many people show up to your funeral is the weather.”
My inspiration here isn’t because I was recently inconvenienced by a funeral procession, though Lord knows that I have been. Nor is it because I have encountered strange and exasperating moments whilst driving in a funeral procession, though I once drove the entire way behind a car with no functioning brake lights (that was fun).
In fact, this really has nothing to do with inconvenience. It has everything to do with practicality and safety.
I don’t have the numbers, and maybe they don’t bear me out anyway, but I still think that you increase the chances of an accident anytime a funeral procession rolls on by.
Besides, they’re depressing.
What’s a more in-your-face reminder of mortality than watching 30 cars drive slowly by, following a hearse?
I see enough images of death and destruction on TV and the Internet to last me a lifetime, thank you very much.
Would death be any less significant and the occasion of a funeral be any less morose or somber if we stopped traveling to burials in herds?
I recall a stand-up comedian once remarking that as a show of life’s cruel irony, the only time you get to drive through red lights and stop signs is when you’re dead and can’t enjoy the gratification.
Besides, in my non-funeral procession fantasy world, if I really want to drive miles and miles in a tight-knit pack while pumping my brakes, I have that opportunity, twice a day: my commute to and from work.
The non-contact injury is the scariest of them all.
Sure, there have been some humdingers when bodies have collided and joints get twisted in ways that joints were not meant to be twisted. Think Joe Theismann.
But for whatever reason, the injuries that occur when nary a soul is around the victim, often are among the most devastating.
Dan Marino played 17 years in the rough-and-tumble world of pro football, at quarterback, no less—a position where boys are grown on farms in Iowa and Nebraska specifically to destroy.
Yet I watched in 1993 on television when Marino was felled by…no one.
The game was played in Cleveland. On the sod of Municipal Stadium, Marino did some tap dancing in the pocket, avoiding a pass rush. He did a good job of avoiding potential sackers, but suddenly he collapsed, writhing in pain.
Marino had popped his Achilles tendon. He missed the rest of the season, and nobody had touched him.
Norm Nixon was a whirling dervish of a guard who had starred for the Los Angeles Lakers from 1977-83, and who was playing for the same town Clippers in 1986 when he stepped into a hole in New York’s Central Park during a celebrity softball game.
Nixon missed the entire 1986-87 season, and the only contact he had was his foot in a hole.
Professional basketball players are rough on their knees, ankles and feet. They stop, start and accelerate very abruptly and with violence.
Sometimes a tendon or a ligament gives way, with no contact involved—unless you count sneaker-to-floor.
Brandon Jennings, Pistons point guard whose exemplary play had led his team to a 12-3 run starting just before Christmas, was guarding an in-bounds pass on Saturday night in Milwaukee. No one was near enough to breathe on him, let alone make any physical contact with him.
It was one of those injuries where, when watching on TV, you don’t notice it right away.
But then the camera cut to Jennings, who was inexplicably on the court, in great distress. By the looks of things, something was seriously wrong with his left leg, below the knee.
Everyone wearing Pistons blue, and coach Stan Van Gundy, and the fans watching back home in Detroit, got a sinking feeling.
Non-contact injury. Not good.
You hope for the best and expect the worst when these things happen, and with Jennings, it was the latter.
The worst: a ruptured Achilles.
Prognosis: out for the season and then some.
Jennings may miss a calendar year, if his recovery falls in line with similar injuries to basketball players.
It was a slug in the gut to the Pistons, who’d been prancing through their schedule with unbridled enthusiasm, fun and winning on enemy courts with stunning normalcy.
Jennings was the unquestioned leader of the resurgence, though the Pistons have had many heroes since December 22, when the team shockingly released Josh Smith, which spawned the 12-3 run.
Prior to the injury, Jennings was playing out of his mind, scoring and assisting and defending and growing more comfortable in the idea of the Pistons being “his team.”
The game before the injury, Jennings posted a 20/20 (points/assists), which was the first in the NBA in over five years.
Van Gundy has needed a thesaurus to describe Jennings’ play on a nightly basis over the past month.
The injury is rotten luck for a team that could sure use some good fortune.
So let’s go looking for a silver lining to this latest cloud.
During the 12-3 run, the Pistons have rightly pointed to the host of players who have contributed mightily to the team’s success. It’s not just one guy, they have said over and over.
Despite Jennings’ spectacular play, this is true.
So here’s the Pistons’ chance to prove that they’re not just made of one guy.
Backup D.J. Augustin, who now assumes Jennings’ starting role, is off to a good start in his new job. On Saturday in Toronto, Augustin scored 35 points and dished out eight assists. The Pistons lost, but the pain of the loss was at least partially mitigated by Augustin’s performance.
And here’s where Van Gundy’s dual role of coach and president comes into play.
As a coach, he doesn’t have to petition his GM for a certain player to take Jennings’ place on the roster.
As president, he doesn’t have to convince his coach of anything personnel-wise.
Van Gundy wears both hats, and this is a prime example of why the Pistons thought hiring one man to do both jobs was a good idea.
It’s an unwanted, unplanned example, but here we are.
Van Gundy, like his players, has no choice but to carry on in Jennings’ absence. But with the power invested in him by owner Tom Gores—power that all but a handful of NBA coaches don’t possess—SVG can move on without any hint of disconnect between the court and the front office, which happens more often in the NBA than you think.
It was that disconnect that Van Gundy spoke of back in May, when he was introduced to the media and explained why he took the Detroit job over others that may have been closer to winning.
Those supposedly more attractive jobs were coaching-only gigs, and Van Gundy talked about how sometimes the coach and the front office don’t always see eye-to-eye.
Hence his decision to take the Pistons job, with its direct pipeline from the offices to the court.
Brandon Jennings’ heartbreaking Achilles injury is awful, but at least with one man running the basketball show, and with the players buying into that one man’s message, maybe it will be a little easier to overcome.
I think one of the most depressing parts of winter is that we spend it cloaked in darkness.
It’s dark when you wake up to get ready for work. The afternoons are often overcast and everyone has to drive with their headlights on. It’s dark when you drive home from work. You can go days without seeing any serious sunlight.
In Michigan, you can pretty much put your sunglasses in the drawer in October and not pull them out again until April—if you’re lucky.
It’s like in wintertime, we’ve all forgotten to pay the light bill.
That’s why, when you get a day of sunshine in the winter, your eyes hurt. You spend the day squinting. Everyone looks like Robert De Niro in every movie in which he’s ever appeared.
But there’s something called the Winter Solstice, and we actually passed it a few weeks ago—December 21 to be exact. And when you pass the solstice, you’re in for longer days, slowly but surely.
When I was a kid, I remember folks talking about December 21 as being “the longest night of the year.”
Kids, as we know, tend to take phrases literally. I was no exception. One year, I heard all the blather about December 21′s “longest night” and when that night actually came, I thought it would be dark for the whole next day.
The “longest night” aspect, of course, is an astronomical phenomenon rooted in minutes, not hours.
But that’s not what kids hear.
So here we are, 23 days past the Winter Solstice and while it’s still mostly dark out, the commute home from the office isn’t quite as depressing anymore. I take heart in the fact that from this point forward, nightfall stays away a tad longer, day by day.
But it’s still dark a lot.
This photo was likely taken at 1:00 in the afternoon during a Michigan winter
I like December 21 in the same vein that I dread June 21, the Summer Solstice.
Because after June 21, the days start to get shorter.
I love it that in the summer, the clock will read 9:25 p.m. and you could still mow the lawn if you want. There’s that much sunlight still available.
But after June 21, sunset creeps closer and closer. It’s like a slow water torture.
By August, 8:00 becomes the point where you need flashlights outside. A couple months later, with the leaves on the ground and with more chill in the air, sunlight becomes a precious commodity.
Then we start the whole depressing winter thing all over again.
This blog post may seem like an exercise in futility, because no amount of complaining in the world is going to change the Earth’s axis. We can’t rally and join hands to make our winter days filled with more sunshine.
But I write this because today it hit me—I made it home after work with a sliver of sunshine left in the sky. It was gone a few minutes later, but this is improvement.
Plus, in Michigan, the longer the days get in the winter, the more we get to see all the snow that needs to be shoveled.
Give and take, you see.
The cigar smoke wafted toward the lights above the court. The basketball Mecca was filled with stogies, men clutching rolled up programs and, most of all, breathless anticipation.
Would he, or wouldn’t he?
Could he, or couldn’t he?
Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals was nigh, and Madison Square Garden in the heart of Manhattan was brimming with drama.
The date was May 8, 1970.
New York Knicks center Willis Reed had missed Game 6 in Los Angeles with a severe thigh injury. If you were a betting man, the smart money would have been on Reed not playing in Game 7. Not because of his heart, but because of his body.
The thought of the Knicks going up against the powerful Lakers in Game 7 without Reed, even with the game being played at home, was daunting.
The tip-off was nearing and 11 Knicks were on the court, warming up. The missing Knick was no. 19, Willis Reed, who was in the locker room getting some last-ditch treatment on his bad thigh. No one could be certain whether the doctor’s frantic efforts would pay dividends.
The Lakers tried not to notice, but Reed’s absence was deafening.
ABC-TV was into its pre-game segment; Chris Schenkel and analyst Jack Twyman talked of a Game 7 without Reed.
Suddenly Twyman, on camera at the time, got wide-eyed. He pointed toward the court.
“I think we see Willis coming out now!” Twyman yelled.
The roar inside the Garden was tornado-like in its decibel level. Indeed, Willis Reed, dressed in his warmups, was emerging from the tunnel and making his way to the court. The walk was made gingerly; the gait was determined but clearly distressed.
Nobody cared, or noticed. All the fans knew was that Willis Reed was going to give it a shot.
Reed’s grand entrance that day in 1970 was voted as the greatest moment in the history of Madison Square Garden.
Reed started the game and hit his first two field goal attempts—mid-range jumpers that Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain refused to challenge.
“I don’t know what was going through Wilt’s mind,” Lakers guard Jerry West said about his teammate’s laissez-faire defense on the hobbled Reed. West, speaking to actor/filmmaker Michael Rapaport, added, “”But I never knew what Wilt was thinking.”
Each bucket that Reed made in the opening minutes of the game injected even more noise into the roar from the Garden crowd.
The Knicks didn’t really need Reed beyond those two jumpers, which were his only points in the game. Guard Walt Frazier scored 36 points and dished out 19 assists as the Knicks clobbered the mind-blown Lakers, 113-99, to claim the NBA title.
The Knicks won another title three years later, but the 1970 championship is the franchise’s watershed moment.
Those Knicks teams played in a time when Madison Square Garden was the place to be to watch professional basketball.
MSG wasn’t an arena, it was a place of worship.
The Knicks roster was filled with Hall of Famers: Reed, Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley. The coach, Red Holzman, is in the Hall as well.
Basketball, college and pro, has always been an East Coast game. Up and down the Atlantic coast are cities where Dr. James Naismith’s invention has rattled gyms with impunity and glamour and glory.
But it was Madison Square Garden that rose to the top of all the gyms. It was basketball’s Broadway. It was like what Sinatra sang: If you could make it there, you could make it anywhere.
Willis Reed’s spine-tingling entrance onto the court on May 8, 1970 absolutely deserves to be considered the Garden’s greatest moment.
The Knicks haven’t won a championship since 1973. There have been two Finals appearances since: in 1994 and in 1999, but no ring in 42 years.
Phil Jackson was a role player for those Knicks teams in 1970 and ’73. He went on to become perhaps the greatest coach in NBA history.
But Jackson’s rookie year as an NBA executive (Knicks president) is starting out as bad as the 1970 championship was good.
The Knicks of today, at this writing, are 5-35. They are doing a 1984 Detroit Tigers, in reverse. Words like grisly come to mind.
The Knicks still play at MSG, but they do so the same way a child plays inside his father’s car.
The Knicks have one star player, Carmelo Anthony, who after 12 seasons still can’t seem to find himself on a championship-caliber team. Anthony is injured now and the Knicks brain trust of Jackson and first-year coach Derek Fisher are trying to determine whether Anthony should even bother coming back this year.
This is turning out to be, by far, the worst Knicks team in franchise history. They are on pace to win 10 games.
Jackson doesn’t do losing. He never has—not as a player and certainly not as a coach. He was hired by the Knicks last summer with great fanfare and he didn’t come out of retirement to preside over a bloodletting.
You can say that hiring a rookie coach working for a rookie executive (Fisher was a player as recently as last season) wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Think Matt Millen and Marty Mornhinweg with the Lions in 2001.
But Jackson has continuously defended Fisher, flat out saying that this season of horrors “is not Derek’s fault.”
Jackson is pointing the finger of blame at himself.
Jackson just got done trading J.R. Smith in the first indication that the white flag of surrender has been planted at the Garden.
No matter what you think of Jackson or the Knicks, the NBA needs a strong franchise in New York. The Knicks are one of the cornerstones on which the NBA was built. Despite the 42-year championship drought, whenever the Knicks have been competitive since 1973, the league has been better for it.
But the past decade around the Garden has been pocked with strange hires (Isiah Thomas, Larry Brown), lawsuits (Thomas; sexual harassment) and bad basketball.
But nobody saw 5-35 coming.
And it’s not going to go away overnight. Jackson has a major rebuild job on his hands—maybe one he wasn’t expecting when he signed up.
Jackson is going to turn 70 years old in September. He already is grizzled with white hair. What on Earth will the Knicks do to him?
When the Knicks do manage to win a game, you can’t even light up a cigar. No smoking inside the arena, anymore.
And where there’s no smoke, there’s no fire.
So here the Lions are, in Dallas for a playoff game. I was wondering if they’d ever get a chance to toss some dirt on one of the most frustrating, horrible, maddening losses in that franchise’s frustrating, horrible, maddening history.
A couple weeks ago I flipped on the wayback machine and told you of a frustrating, horrible, maddening loss in Green Bay, in 1962.
But that was in the regular season. What happened in the Cotton Bowl on December 26, 1970 was in the playoffs.
Prior to 1970, there was no such thing as a Wild Card in the NFL playoffs. You got into the post-season by winning your division, of which there were two. Period. Occasionally there’d be a tie for a division, which would necessitate a one-game playoff. The Lions won one of those playoffs, a comeback victory in San Francisco, in 1957.
That was also the year of the Lions’ last championship, as you no doubt know. Nineteen fifty-seven means to the Lions what 1955 used to mean to the Red Wings and what 1984 still means to the Tigers.
But in 1970 the NFL and the AFL merged, and just like that, the NFL was a 26-team conglomerate. The league split, like an amoeba, into six divisions and two conferences.
The league stopped being so stingy with playoff spots, introducing a “wild card” entry into each conference.
And the Detroit Lions, though never having appeared in a Super Bowl, have the distinction of being the first-ever Wild Card in the NFC.
It was poetic justice, in a way.
The 1962 Lions went 11-3 yet there was no playoffs for them. The Packers won the Western Division with a 13-1 record.
The Lions did play in something the NFL put on in those days called the Runners Up Bowl in Miami, but that hardly counts as “playoffs.”
So it was fitting that the 10-4 Lions of 1970 got invited to the post-season party, despite finishing second in the Central Division to the Minnesota Vikings. The Lions always finished second to the Vikings in the 1970s.
The Lions’ first “real” playoff game in 13 years would take place in the Cotton Bowl, against the Cowboys.
The 1970 Lions, like today’s version, were lauded for all of their “offensive weapons.”
There were Mel Farr and Altie Taylor in the backfield. Earl McCullouch and Larry Walton at wide receiver. The great Charlie Sanders at tight end. There was the capable though not brilliant Greg Landry and Bill Munson at quarterback—two-headed signal callers. The offensive line was pretty good.
The Lions won their final five games down the stretch, and their offense averaged nearly 25 points per game. The defense was stubborn, giving up just 14+ points per contest.
It had the makings of a Super Bowl team, especially in the eight-team tournament that the NFL post-season was in 1970.
The Cowboys were no slouches, of course. They, too, were 10-4 in 1970. They were led by Craig Morton at quarterback, who had running back Duane Thomas, receiver Bob Hayes and a stellar offensive line with which to work. The defense was sprinkled with future Hall of Famers. And they were coached by the legendary Tom Landry.
The game was ruled by the defenses. It was turned into a punting contest. It was football’s version of a pitching duel.
The Cowboys did manage a 26-yard field goal from Mike Clark in the first quarter. The game was still a 3-0 affair early in the fourth quarter (punts still rained down) when the Lions, pinned deep in their own zone, tried to pass their way out of the shadow of their own goalposts.
Landry was besieged by the Cowboys pass rush and was sacked in the end zone by Jethro Pugh for a Dallas safety.
Yet the score was still only 5-0. A touchdown would put the Lions in the lead.
Just one, measly touchdown.
But this was the defense’s day. It was the Cowboys and this was the first emergence of what would be called the Doomsday Defense by the football pundits.
The Lions launched one final, frantic drive. Coach Joe Schmidt replaced Landry with Bill Munson, which was a typical move. When Schmidt wasn’t replacing Landry with Munson, he was replacing Munson with Landry. The typical quarterback carousel in Detroit.
Munson breathed some life into the Lions. They actually started to move the football against the vaunted Cowboys defense.
Less than a minute remained on the clock when Munson moved the football past the 50-yard line. As Lions fans watched on TV at the edge of their sofa seats, the Cotton Bowl crowd grew antsy.
Munson faded back to pass yet again. His target was McCullouch.
But the pass was slightly high and McCullouch couldn’t reel it in. The football deflected off his fingers and into the opportunistic hands of Dallas’ Mel Renfro. Just like the opportunistic hands of Green Bay’s Herb Adderley in that awful loss in 1962.
The interception effectively ended the game and the Lions’ season.
Final score: Dallas 5, Detroit 0.
There isn’t a Lions fan worth his salt who doesn’t carry that awful final score around with him.
It was also the final game of Alex Karras’ career. Alex would say later that he felt like the Lions would have won the Super Bowl had they managed six points against the Cowboys in Dallas.
The Lions did get back at the Cowboys, sort of, in 1991. They beat Dallas in the divisional round, at the Silverdome. It remains the Lions’ only playoff win since 1957.
But for the Lions to go to Texas today and beat the Cowboys in the playoffs would be the ultimate erasure of that brutal 5-0 loss in 1970.
5-0 wouldn’t be forgotten (it never will be), but it would be shoved further back into the recesses of the Lions’ frustrating, horrible and maddening history.
You know those annoying end-of-the-year letters you get from family members around the holidays?
The ones that tell about little Johnny’s new teeth and sister Sarah’s new puppy and the family’s trip to the Grand Canyon? And how mom has taken up embroidery and dad ran a half marathon?
Or, something like that.
Well, this is your annual annoying blog post from yours truly.
The one that reviews the year through the lens of my writing, and which serves to remind everyone that the words that appear on this site don’t always ring true. As if you didn’t already know that.
But sometimes I get it right, or at least semi-right!
So what follows, as usual, is a look back at words of false prophecy and (occasionally) wisdom.
On the Tigers’ acquisition of closer Joe Nathan:
Nathan is a real closer. There’s nothing accidental about him. After a few years in the San Francisco Giants bullpen, setting up games in the late innings, Nathan was traded to the Minnesota Twins before the 2004 season and became the Twins’ lock down man in the ninth inning.
He’s been at this closer thing for 10 years now.
Nathan has 341 career saves. The man he’s replacing in Detroit, Benoit, had 13 career saves prior to last season.
If the Tigers falter in the ninth inning this year, it’ll be because the other guys beat one of the game’s all-time great closers.
Nathan has made the All-Star team six times, all as a closer. In 2013, for Texas, Nathan saved 43 games and had an ERA that you needed a microscope to see (1.39).
He’s 39 years old, but so what? Nathan had Tommy John surgery a few years ago. He’s 39, but his new arm is four.
Nathan’s style of closing is quick and to the point. He doesn’t do the rollercoaster thing with the fans’ emotions. He gets in and he gets out. He works fast. He closes games like he has a plane to catch.
It’s a breath of fresh air from recent years, when Tigers closers often turned ninth innings into a soap opera.
As they say about goalies who let in a soft one, I might want to have that one back.
On U-M football coach Brady Hoke firing offensive coordinator Al Borges:
Borges, Michigan’s offensive coordinator, got real dumb in 2013, according to the fans and segments of the media.
He was brought to Michigan by head coach Brady Hoke, part of the minions who accompanied Hoke from San Diego State.
The offense struggled mightily in 2013, with quarterback Devin Gardner regressing with frightening rapidity as the season moved along.
So Borges, opposite of hot shot, was given the ziggy last week. Presumably, it was Hoke who rendered it, his decision alone.
“The decisions I make will always be what is good for Michigan,” Hoke said, as he introduced his new coordinator at a presser in Ann Arbor.
The new guy is Doug Nussmeier. Hoke snagged him from Alabama, but the Crimson Tide had already appeared to move on, hiring Lane Kiffin immediately after Nussmeier took the job in Ann Arbor.
Nussmeier is being warmly received, for the most part, by Michigan supporters. I suspect some of the support is derived from the fact that Nussmeier’s name isn’t Al Borges.
Hoke looked on at the presser as Nussmeier shared his vision for Michigan football, when the team has the football.
“We’re going to be explosive,” Nussmeier said.
But it won’t matter, and no one in Ann Arbor will care how the sausage was made, as long as Nussmeier is able to develop Gardner and start torching defenses that Michigan should be torching, by all rights.
And Hoke won’t care how Nussmeier became surprisingly available, as long as the win totals start to move into double digits consistently.
If none of the above happens, Michigan will be looking for a new head coach. It’s as simple as that.
It pretty much was as simple as that.
On the passing of Lions owner William Clay Ford:
Bill Ford, the Lions owner who passed away today at age 88, subscribed to behavior that is just fine and dandy in the conventional business world, but not always so good in the competitiveness of pro sports.
Two L-words come to mind when I think of Ford and his Lions ownership, which spanned an even 50 years.
Loyalty is one. Losing is the other.
The two are not mutually exclusive, except that Ford was never able to strike a healthy balance between loyalty and the cutthroat nature needed to be successful in the NFL.
Ford employed two of the most hated men in Detroit sports—Russ Thomas and Matt Millen—for a combined 30 years between them. Thomas served as GM from 1967-89, and Millen was team president and de facto GM from 2001-08.
Thomas was a miserly curmudgeon who was maybe just as reviled by some of the players as he was by the fan base. Millen had no real issues with the players, but was toxic among the fans.
Neither Thomas or Millen would have survived with any other NFL team for nearly as long as they did with the Lions. Their woeful won/loss records simply would not have been tolerated for that many years by other team owners.
Losing branded the Ford ownership. This is true. But let it never be said that Bill Ford didn’t want to win. He just didn’t know how.
Too bad Ford didn’t live to see another playoff appearance, but at least things look to be trending in the right direction, especially with the coaching.
On the Tigers starting a rookie at third base in 2014:
Nick Castellanos might want to read up a bit on Mays. Hell, maybe the blabbermouths with cell phones who call into sports talk radio should read, too.
Can you imagine if Castellanos, the rookie ordained to play third base for the Tigers starting this year and for many years beyond, starts his 2014 season in a Mays-like 1-for-26 funk?
Why, it could be enough for folks to call for (gulp) Don Kelly!
The Chicken Little people would be out in full force, should Castellanos stumble out of the gate as badly as Mays did some 63 years ago.
On March 31, Castellanos finally makes the transition from prospect to big leaguer, when he slips the creamy white jersey with the Old English D over his 6’4″ frame and gets after it as a full-fledged player — not one of these September call-ups. On March 31, Castellanos is no longer the third baseman of the future. He is no longer a player waiting for a position to open up in Detroit.
You know what? The kid will be fine.
Sure, it’s a hunch, but it says here that a flame out isn’t on the horizon. There may be some cringe-inducing moments. Maybe he’ll throw wild to first base, costing the team a game in the late innings. Some nasty right-hander will eat him alive with some sliders from Hell. There may be days at a time where it looks like the bright lights of the big leagues are blinding him with their glare.
Castellanos was no Mike Schmidt and he needs to improve his range, but he wasn’t the Tigers’ Achilles heel, either.
On the retirement of Nick Lidstrom’s no. 5 jersey:
If Sawchuk was the brick wall, and Lindsay was the pest, and Howe was the complete player, and Delvecchio was the smooth playmaker, and Abel was the fulcrum, and Yzerman was the heart and soul, then Nick Lidstrom was the Red Wings’ calm.
The plaque of Ty Cobb outside Tiger Stadium called him ”a Genius in Spikes.”
Lidstrom’s should say “a Guardian on Skates.”
Lidstrom, for 20 years, was the Red Wings’ sentry, a hockey beefeater who played the game without expression or emotion. He logged his 25-30 minutes a night, poke checking and angling opponents into submission. He didn’t lay a body check on anyone in his life. Lidstrom was the game’s Lt. Columbo, who didn’t need a gun to solve crimes.
Tonight it will be official: Nick Lidstrom will take his rightful place among the Red Wings’ all-time greats. No one shall wear no. 5 in the Winged Wheel ever again.
As with the other retired sweaters in the rafters, why bother?
We still miss Lidstrom but the transition has been less painful than was anticipated.
On the hotness of Red Wings winger Gustav Nyquist heading into the playoffs:
Nyquist didn’t join the Red Wings until November 21, from Grand Rapids of the AHL. In his first game this season, he scored twice. It seemed like a harbinger, because of Nyquist’s heroics in the 2013 playoffs, which included a game-winner in overtime in Anaheim in the first round.
But after that two-goal debut in November, Nyquist’s scoring stick fell asleep, and on January 18, he had just five goals.
In 29 games since January 18, Nyquist has 23 goals.
That’s Crosby and Ovechkin-ish.
With Zetterberg and Datsyuk felled by injuries for much of the 2014 portion of the season schedule, it’s been Nyquist to the rescue. When he scores a goal, the Red Wings are 16-6.
It seems as if every Nyquist goal has some sort of importance attached to it. He’s either giving the Red Wings the lead, tying the game, or winning the game.
Nyquist is a Bruce Martyn kind of player: He shoots, he scoooooores!
The brilliance of Nyquist is that he scores from everywhere on the ice, and from any position—skating, falling, sliding, what have you. All that’s left is for him to beat a goalie from the third row of the stands—and that might be coming.
Nyquist continues to show that he can be a consistent 30+ goal scorer in the NHL.
On the Tigers’ fast start in 2014, and what it meant to the AL Central race:
It may not matter, because the AL Central pretty much shapes up like this: there are the Tigers and four pretenders.
This race may be over before Memorial Day, folks.
The Tigers are distancing themselves from the division pack as if the other teams all had Limburger and onion sandwiches for lunch.
This isn’t a pennant race, it’s an anointing. The only way the Tigers don’t win this division is if they stop showing up—and even then they might squeak it out by a game or two.
This was supposed to be the Kansas City Royals‘ year. The Royals won 86 games last year and their young talent and all that pitching was to mesh and bring post-season baseball back to KC for the first time in 29 years.
But the Royals can’t hit, they never could hit, and the trendy folks who picked the Royals to be serious threats to the Tigers either ignored the lack of offense or tried to see through it.
The Royals’ so-called young studs—Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer—can’t hit their way out of a wet paper bag. It takes them a week to launch a home run, and two weeks to score 20 runs.
The AL Central is child’s play now. The division will be clinched by the All-Star break, at the latest.
I took a lot of grief for this piece on Bless You Boys, as well I should have!
On the Pistons’ hiring of Stan Van Gundy to be coach and president of basketball operations:
Van Gundy will return some lost interest in the Pistons. He will be front and center, and not just because he is wearing two hats. His is a big personality, matching his physical girth. He won’t be a wallflower, operating in clandestine fashion behind the scenes. His face won’t end up on the side of a milk carton upon the first long losing streak.
This hire isn’t about whether Van Gundy can do both jobs—and Lord knows we’ll be hearing that question being asked relentlessly over the next several months.
This is about the Pistons frantically waving their arms and saying, “Look at us! We’re the Pistons! Pay attention to us!”
Stan Van Gundy has respect, a fine track record and he’s refreshed after being away from the game for two years.
He can coach, big time.
This is the Pistons’ best hire at coach since Flip Saunders in 2005, and some cynics might go back two years earlier, to Larry Brown.
I’ll roll the dice with a coach who has a .641 winning percentage any day. I’ll gamble that he knows enough about the players in the league that he can cobble together a workable roster.
This isn’t Matt Millen, redux.
It may not be Matt Millen, but it’s not good—yet. Maybe the cashiering of Josh Smith will be the turning point of the season.
On the prospects of injured Andy Dirks (back) returning to the Tigers in 2014:
Backs are funny things, and I don’t mean ha-ha.
Remember the sight of Rick Mahorn lying on his stomach, rather than sitting on the bench, when he wasn’t in games as a Pistons Bad Boy? The unusual posture was best for Mahorn’s trick back.
Tigers left fielder Andy Dirks is, reportedly, about to begin a rehab assignment that is designed to put him closer to rejoining the Tigers, perhaps sometime around the All-Star Break. The rehab is the culmination of his recovery from lower back surgery that he underwent in March.
Dirks’ bat and glove are already being penciled into the Tigers lineup with zeal by fans who are begging for a left-handed hitting alternative in left field, despite the unexpected success of righty-swinging J.D. Martinez.
It is assumed by the Tigers faithful that, once cleared after his rehab assignment, Andy Dirks will step into the lineup and start producing like nothing ever happened to him.
Good luck with that.
But don’t be too disappointed if, for the rest of the season, Dirks has to take occasional days off to rest his still-tender back. And don’t be surprised if we don’t see a true facsimile of the Dirks of old until 2015.
Dirks never dd come back, and his career seems to be hanging in the balance.
On why the Lions’ Ndamukong Suh shouldn’t be considered a leader:
There seems to be an obsession in Detroit with making Suh a “leader”—that obtuse, undefinable noun that nonetheless makes sports fans and analysts salivate.
Why do a team’s best players all have to exhibit model behavior and all be chiefs?
You need to have some pretty damn good Indians to win, as well.
The Lions, and their fans, should toss away this misrepresentation of Suh as a so-called leader, forthwith.
They should leave him alone and let him play football, for crying out loud.
So Suh doesn’t show up to voluntary camps. He is absent at teammates’ charity events. He prefers to be left alone and work out on his own.
He is the Garbo of the Lions. He is enigmatic, like DiMaggio of the old Yankees and Jeter of today’s.
He can also be one of the most dominant players in the NFL. He has the potential to be the best football lineman in Detroit. Ever.
But it says here that we may never see how close Suh can come to reaching his ridiculously high ceiling if the yoke of leadership and being an extrovert continues to be placed on him.
Yet new coach Jim Caldwell designated Suh one of the team captains this season. It continues to be a crown that rests uneasily on his huge head.
On why Brady Hoke’s lack of winning might be a good set-up for his successor:
It can now be said that Brady Hoke, Rodriguez’s successor and “Michigan Man” extraordinaire, is presiding over the most turbulent years in Michigan football history. Hoke is making the Rodriguez Era look like the halcyon days in Ann Arbor.
Hoke, in his fourth season as Michigan’s football coach—one more than Rodriguez was granted—is doing two things at once.
One, he’s showing that a “Michigan Man” can fail just as easily as an outsider.
The second thing may come as a shock to your system.
Hoke is turning the football job at Michigan into quite the plum.
Hoke’s car wreck is setting the job up for a big name guy to come in and “save” Michigan football.
There is a lot of ego in coaching, as there should be. It’s actually a desired attribute, as long as it’s kept in check.
Somewhere out there is a high profile coach who would drool at the opportunity to bring Michigan back from the brink of irrelevance—which is where it is now.
Somewhere is a man whose eyes light up at the thought of being a near god in Ann Arbor.
Somewhere there is a coach who doesn’t look at the Michigan job as a career killer, in the slightest.
Somewhere, it turned out, was San Francisco.
On why new Lions coach Jim Caldwell might succeed where so many predecessors failed:
It’s hard to imagine Caldwell, a fine, experienced, intelligent man, sinking to the level of the aforementioned coaches by saying something untoward or doing something weird.
The Lions coach seems to have his act together.
There certainly won’t be any words or actions from the new coach that will induce eye-rolling and sighs. My opinion.
Caldwell, on the surface and beyond, seems to be the Lions’ most refined coach since George Wilson. And Wilson coached in Detroit some 50 years ago.
Jim Caldwell is a grounded, spiritual, experienced coach who doesn’t have the “embarrassing” gene in him. His foot doesn’t seem destined for his mouth.
That’s not to say that Caldwell won’t eventually be fired by the Lions without achieving his goal of winning a Super Bowl in Detroit. But if that happens, it won’t be because of multiple losses of composure.
The Lions played more disciplined football, overall, than under Jim Schwartz. They didn’t jump offsides and they rarely committed stupid personal fouls at inopportune moments. Now, about those hard-to-control feet…
On U-M’s chances of landing Jim Harbaugh as its new football coach:
Anyone other than Harbaugh could be perceived as being sloppy seconds.
And guess what? Michigan isn’t getting Jim Harbaugh.
If Michigan fans were being honest with themselves, they’d have faced the fact that once a football coach leaves college and has some success at the pro level, he usually doesn’t go back to school. He becomes an NFL journeyman and then ends up in a TV studio as a talking head.
Only those coaches who flop in the pros, return to college. Usually.
Harbaugh won’t be Michigan’s coach. I don’t have any insider information to support this, but I don’t think any is needed to come to this conclusion.
Harbaugh has spurned his alma mater, but Michigan shouldn’t take it personally. Jim’s an NFL guy now, and who can blame him?
I have no more idea who will be the next coach at Michigan than you do. But I do know it won’t be Jim Harbaugh.
But Michigan faithful, take heart.
No one knew who Bo Schembechler was in 1969.
I saved my worst for last, right?
So there it is. If you hung in there and are still reading, my hats off to you. And I hope you resolve to keep reading in 2015, warts and all.
Happy New Year!
Gustav Nyquist kept the puck on his stick for 28 seconds, which in hockey is an eternity. It’s the world’s fastest team sport—a game predicated on moving the puck quickly and in tic-tac-toe fashion.
Yet here was Nyquist, the puck seemingly glued to his stick, literally skating circles around the Ottawa Senators and his own teammates on Saturday night in overtime, in the Senators’ zone.
Nyquist made three revolutions around the perimeter of the Ottawa zone, hogging the puck. He was a one-man, ice rink version of the Harlem Globetrotters. All that was missing was “Sweet Georgia Brown” blaring from the arena sound system.
It was overtime, so there was more ice with which to work, since the NHL plays 4-on-4 for the extra session in the regular season. And Nyquist used the extra ice to glide around with the puck as if he was a man playing among boys.
I have never seen one player keep the puck for as long as Nyquist kept it on Saturday night. Not even a video game player keeps it for nearly 30 seconds.
The solo puck possession was impressive enough in its length, but Nyquist finished the display by rifling a shot past Senators goalie Craig Anderson from the top of the right circle. Game over. Red Wings win, 3-2.
Just call him Gustav “Curly Neal” Nyquist.
Nyquist’s overtime goal was much needed, as it meant that the Red Wings would avoid the shootout, which is like Superman avoiding Kryptonite.
It’s also no secret that the Red Wings’ offense comes and goes without warning. First they’re popping four and five goals into the net per night, then it takes them a week to score that many.
The NHL isn’t sprinkled with the liberal amount of snipers that used to grace the ice as recently as 10 years ago. Like baseball, which is going through an offensive malaise, the NHL hasn’t exactly been lighting up the scoreboard with any consistency for a number of years.
Pure goal scorers don’t grow on trees. This is true. Gone are the Brett Hulls of the world—at least for now.
The Red Wings have raised some eyebrows this season among the so-called experts, as they are sitting in the elite tier of the Eastern Conference and have been almost since the season began in October. The pre-season prognosticators didn’t give the Winged Wheelers much love.
Unlike the Stanley Cup-winning years of 1997 and beyond, today’s Red Wings have to scratch and claw to put every puck they can past enemy goalies. That’s why you see fits of scoring closely followed by bouts of sparseness, and vice-versa.
The Red Wings’ goal-scoring chart, if you spread the games played from left to right, would look like an EKG.
The Red Wings should place a phone call.
Stewart is trade bait because he is a pending, unrestricted free agent next summer and it’s doubtful that the small market Sabres want any part of a long-term, expensive deal with the 27-year-old. He is in the final year of a contract that pays him $4.15 million this season.
Stewart has only scored 20+ goals twice in his career (and hasn’t done so since the 2010-11 season), but he’s certainly a 15-20 goal guy who shoots right and isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty. He’s a Justin Abdelkader type but with maybe a little more skill.
Stewart isn’t having a great year so far (just five goals and a minus-14) but he likely would perk up if traded to a team that has a chance to actually do something, which the Sabres are not, despite their recent stretch of solid play.
So far there have been no indications that the Red Wings are in on Stewart, but they should be.
Buffalo’s Stewart is on the trading block. The Red Wings ought to be interested. (Getty Images)
Stewart will be 28 when next season starts, which should be the start of the prime of his career. He’s already played on some good teams in Colorado and St. Louis, so he knows a little about winning. With the Red Wings, he should get a healthy dose of that culture of success for many years to come, should he sign with them long-term next summer.
Watching the Red Wings on a nightly basis, you get the feeling that the team is still one goal scorer away from being a serious Stanley Cup contender. Even with the return of the oft-injured Stephen Weiss, who has been effective, there’s still a missing je ne sais quoi.
The inconsistent offense is a reason why coach Mike Babcock feels it necessary to occasionally pair Henrik Zetterberg with Pavel Datsyuk to jump start things. If the coach had his druthers, he’d play those two veteran stars on different lines to spread the wealth.
Nyquist could be a 20-goal guy (at least) every year, for sure. He has 15 goals this season in 36 games, and he popped in 28 goals in 57 games last season.
But one more sniper-type guy—just one—and the Red Wings could make this a special season after all.
The defense doesn’t have the lapses it has had in the recent past. The younger guys back there are maturing. Goalie Jimmy Howard is enjoying a nice bounce back from a checkered 2013-14 season. There’s some toughness and grit up front, with forwards who often outwork their opponents. Their coach is still among the best in the league.
The Red Wings of 2014-15 can’t throw their sweaters with the famous logo on it, onto the ice every night and chalk up two points. Those days are long gone. This squad can’t be outworked or it will lose. But it has something going, and if they can add one more guy who can put the puck into the net, the sky’s the limit.
Easier said than done, I know. But isn’t that why GM Ken Holland makes the big bucks?
So how many Christmas cards did you get this year?
Are they adorning the wall? Do you have so many that they outline the closet door frame? Or are they stuffed in a holder on the coffee table, bursting?
Not at our house, either.
The Christmas card is a dinosaur—like drive-in movies and transistor radios.
Nobody sends Christmas cards anymore. It’s another example of how Americans today just don’t like to slap a stamp on anything and ship it via the United States Postal Service.
Sending Christmas cards was a feeling of accomplishment but not of gratification. I mean, you were never there to see the recipient open yours.
But getting Christmas cards? Now that was some fun.
They would start to come, slowly at first, usually the week after Thanksgiving. Those cards were sent by the early bird folks.
But as the month of December moved along, the Christmas cards moved along with it, filling the mailbox more voluminously as the days ticked down toward December 25.
You almost had a mental checklist of from whom to expect cards, and crossing them off as you received them. It was fun to see the different styles, the cozy illustrations and the heartwarming words inside.
Everyday, it seemed, you got at least one card in the mail during December.
This is not a sign of the times anymore
The envelopes usually gave them away: red, of course, and also by shape and size. The electric bill never came in an envelope the size of a good, old fashioned Christmas card.
About 10 years ago, the cards didn’t come with the same frequency as in years gone by. It got to the point where the propped open cards could fit on the coffee table without much trouble.
Today, you’re lucky if you get ten cards, total. I think we’ve received about that many, though we sent out far more than that.
However, even our sending has decreased, mainly due to attrition, i.e. people passing away.
That’s the thing, right there: the older folks are much more likely to send holiday cards than the second generation of Baby Boomers (those born in the mid-to-late 1960s and beyond). And the older folks are dying off.
The thing now, of course, in the digital age, is to send an “e-card,” which is basically an online link that takes the recipient to an animated feature, about 30-45 seconds in length. They’re cute and all, but it’s not the same.
I can’t tape e-cards around my door frame, can I?
It’s a losing battle, I know. Christmas card sending isn’t coming back. Soon we won’t receive any at all.
It’s sad, but what are you going to do?
The helmet whizzed past Milt Plum’s head, missing his melon by inches. The hurled headgear slammed against the locker room wall.
It was October 7, 1962.
A few weeks later, the country would be captivated and would squirm on their living room sofas, as they followed with racing hearts the tense missile crisis playing out in Cuba.
But in Green Bay, the Lions had a potentially explosive situation going on in their dressing quarters.
The Packers, sad sacks in the latter part of the 1950s, had been rebuilt by coach Vince Lombardi. The former New York Giants assistant had molded prior losers like Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jimmy Taylor et al into a unit that played for the NFL Championship in 1960, where they were edged by the Philadelphia Eagles.
In 1961, the Pack drilled Lombardi’s old team, 37-0, at Yankee Stadium to win the franchise’s first championship in 17 years.
The Lions were re-building something as well, under coach George Wilson.
League champions in 1957, the Lions lost their way in 1958 and struggled for a few years but by 1962, the team was reloaded and ready to end Green Bay’s two-year reign as Western Division champs.
Both teams entered the game with 3-0 records. The winner would capture first place in the division, which was important because neither squad looked like it was going to lose too many games that season. A one-game deficit in October would be difficult for the loser to overcome during the course of the fall.
On that fateful day in Green Bay in 1962, the field conditions were less-than-spectacular, thanks to heavy rains. Mud ruled.
The conditions didn’t lend themselves to much offense, and with the Lions’ stout defense, that was even more accentuated at City Stadium (renamed Lambeau Field in 1965).
The Lions managed to forge a delicate 7-6 lead. They had the football near midfield in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.
A third down presented itself. A first down might have killed the rest of the clock, but a failed conversion and a subsequent punt would have pinned the Packers deep in their own territory.
The safe bet would have been to run the football then punt.
Alex Karras and Joe Schmidt, two stalwarts of the defense, were slapping each other on the back on the sidelines with congratulations on a victory that seemed certain.
Then they saw Lions quarterback Plum fade back to pass.
“What the hell is he doing?” Karras recalled saying in his book, Even Big Guys Cry.
Plum’s intended receiver fell down. Packers defensive back Herb Adderley intercepted and ran the ball deep into Lions territory.
The Packers ran a couple of token plays into the Lions’ line, then Hornung booted a 26-yard field goal to win it for Green Bay.
It was a cruel, bitter loss—perhaps one of the worst in Lions history, which is saying something.
Afterward, in the locker room, members of the defense screamed, asking who the idiot was who called the pass play.
No one responded, until Plum finally said, “None of your business.”
That set Karras off.
The defensive tackle flung his helmet at Plum’s head, barely missing his target.
On Thanksgiving Day that year, the Lions, bent on revenge, destroyed Starr and the Packers. But it was too late. Green Bay won the division with a 13-1 record. The Lions finished 11-3.
Had the game in Green Bay gone differently, both teams would have finished 12-2 and a playoff for the division would have been needed.
“No one would have heard of Vince Lombardi,” Karras wrote, lamenting the fate of the 1962 season.
Whatever ill will the football gods anointed over the Lions in Green Bay, it began on that muddy field in 1962.
In the 1970s and 1980s, both the Lions and the Packers were usually pretty bad, so wins and losses by the clubs on each other’s fields were mostly inconsequential.
The 1990s ushered in the Brett Favre Era in Green Bay, and the Lions stopped winning in Wisconsin. Period.
You all know the inglorious history of the Lions on the road in Green Bay.
No wins since 1991. Including playoffs, 23 straight losses.
Favre left Green Bay in 2008 but the misery continued for the Lions. Aaron Rodgers simply took the torch and has been burning the Lions with it ever since.
The thing about streaks—winning, losing, hitting, missing—is that they all end. Eventually.
In the 1970s, the Buffalo Bills could never beat the Miami Dolphins. Literally. No matter where the game was played.
The Bills beat the Dolphins in November, 1969, when both were members of the American Football League.
The Bills’ next win over the Dolphins didn’t happen until September, 1980. Twenty straight defeats to the Dolphins occurred in between.
All streaks end, for better or for worse.
The Lions, for all their ignominy of never winning in Green Bay through five-and-a-half presidential terms, have never played a game during The Streak as big in magnitude, in the regular season, in Wisconsin as the one they’re about to play next Sunday.
This one’s for the NFC North marbles.
This isn’t a mid-season game in October with the Lions foundering and the Packers gearing up for another successful season.
This isn’t a meaningless (for the Lions) contest played out on the frozen tundra with the Packers playoff-bound.
This isn’t an early-September game with optimism still high, only to be crushed as the season wears on.
This is for the division title.
Now, the loser still makes the playoffs. This isn’t being played under the no-wild card rules of 1962.
But the loser doesn’t get a home playoff game, which is crucial for both teams. The Lions are 7-1 in Detroit; the Packers are 7-0 at Lambeau Field.
Despite their team’s surprising success this season, few fans feel warm and fuzzy about the Lions on the road in the playoffs, even if the game is played at the winner of the NFC South’s field.
Trouble is, the fans don’t feel warm and fuzzy about the Lions on the road in Green Bay, either.
Yet Lambeau Field is where the Lions have to win, in order to capture their first divisional title since 1993.
The Packers are used to these moments. They are a battle-tested, playoff-veteran team, laden with individual and team success.
And they are playing at home, which is a double whammy against their opponents, though the Packers’ magic at home in the playoffs has taken a few hits in recent years.
But this is all new for the Lions.
The Lions don’t play for the division, head-to-head, on the last week of the season. They just don’t. In fact, they haven’t done so since 1981, at home. And they lost, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
On Sunday, in a house of horrors that the forces have refused to smile on them even once in 22 years, the Lions have to find a way to win a stinking football game against odds, history, aura and the whole bit.
Three things have been certain since 1991: death, taxes and the Lions losing in Green Bay.
Maybe high stakes, which have never been higher for the Lions in Green Bay since maybe that game in 1962, will somehow change the course of football history.
Tee it up on Sunday and let’s find out.
I was at a public gathering one evening and I needed to find out the score of a game. So I used a phone.
Only, I didn’t bring up the Internet and go to ESPN.com or the like; I placed a call. And it wasn’t my phone.
No, not to my bookie. I never made enough dough to have a bookie.
I called SportsPhone.
We’re talking circa the mid-to-late 1980s.
Anyone reading this under the age of 40 may not know of what I speak. It may as well be written in hieroglyphics to those folks.
Wherever there was a public phone (remember those?), there was SportsPhone. We’re talking the days before everyone had a “mobile device.”
SportsPhone was a lovely invention. Not lovely enough to not be made extinct by the advances of technology, but in that regard SportsPhone is hardly alone.
Oh, how I miss those days.
There was excitement, there was drama. I’m not talking about the games themselves; I mean in terms of just waiting for the score.
SportsPhone worked like this: you dialed into a number (1-976-1313) and on the other end you were greeted by the (fresh) recording of a fast-paced, breathless voice of someone like Dave LewAllen or Rich Kincaide, who would blast through the scores of all the major sports matches of the night. Some brief mentions of top stories were thrown in as well.
The recordings were updated every 10 or 15 minutes, so you were getting almost all partial scores unless you called past 11 o’clock at night, in which case everything was pretty much final—unless the Tigers, Pistons or Red Wings were playing on the Left Coast.
Sounds archaic, doesn’t it?
Well, of course it was! But that’s all we had in 1985.
The Tigers didn’t air 162 games a year back then, even with the birth of the pay-to-watch Pro-Am Sports System (PASS) on cable.
The Pistons had plenty of games not televised, as did the Red Wings.
So with no Internet to run to, what else was a shaggy young man to do if he wanted to know how is team was faring?
Dial 1-976-1313, that’s what.
Now, using public pay phones meant you needed one of two things: lots of loose change, or a calling card.
I can see the 30-year-olds’ heads spinning at the mention of a calling card.
It was actually very simple. Before AT&T there was something called Ameritech. And before Ameritech there was something called Michigan Bell. And Ameritech and Michigan Bell had calling cards.
The calling card was a sort of credit card for phone calls. The calls were billed to your home phone bill. You dialed the number you wanted from a pay phone and then, when prompted, you’d punch in your calling card number in lieu of depositing coins.
I knew my calling card number by heart. In fact I was probably the fastest calling card puncher in the midwest.
You had to be fast, if you wanted to get the score in rapid fashion, so you could rejoin your party without appearing to be too rude.
I called SportsPhone from all sorts of places and events: wedding receptions (including when I was the Best Man), social gatherings, business meetings and even dates.
One of the first things I would do whenever I entered an establishment was ascertain where the pay phone was. I’d mark the spot mentally, because you never knew when you might have to make a quick dash to call Dave LewAllen to see how the Red Wings were doing in Chicago.
This was when establishments had pay phones.
The voices on SportsPhone all sounded so rushed and urgent and I liked that. It added to the drama. Every time, LewAllen et al sounded as if they were giving their reports amid gunfire from a war zone. They couldn’t mince words or waste any time.
At the end of every call, they’d tell you when the next update was forthcoming. Mostly it was 10 or 15 minutes, although on some especially frantic nights, SportsPhone would update in seven or eight minute increments.
I think I got hooked on SportsPhone during the first Tommy Hearns-Sugar Ray Leonard fight, in September 1981.
I was a college freshman and if the fight was on closed circuit TV, I had no idea where it was being shown. And even if I did, I certainly didn’t have the cash for admission.
So I called SportsPhone that night. A lot.
Even from my dorm room, I could get a feel for the excitement and drama of that fight as it happened, because I was dialing SportsPhone every couple of rounds or so.
My heart sank when, on one call, I got the word that Hearns had been knocked through the ropes in the late rounds. Another phone call confirmed it: Sugar Ray had won by technical knockout.
Times had changed by 1989, when I did have the dough to pay to see Hearns-Leonard II on closed circuit TV. I wished I hadn’t; Hearns was jobbed in the decision, which was a draw.
I saw Hearns last December and I told him that he got rooked, which probably made me the millionth person to tell him that.
He laughed and told me that even Sugar Ray admits that Tommy won that fight.
But despite witnessing the second fight on television as it occurred, somehow it still doesn’t measure up to that September night in 1981, when as a freshman at EMU I “followed” the bout from my dorm room through several frantic phone calls.
For some who lived through the 1980s, the most famous phone number is 867-5309.
Gimme 1-976-1313. Now THAT’s a phone number!