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The National Football League’s roots in the 1920s were planted in sleepy burgs across the Midwest. It was a small town league, offering the curious something to follow until the next baseball season.

The franchises were located in such dazzling metropolises as Canton, OH; Racine, WI; Akron, OH; and Rock Island, IL. The locations were fitting, when you consider that the league itself was founded in an automobile showroom in Canton, on August 20, 1920.

In 1921, the Akron franchise (the Pros) was one of several which had one of its players double up as the coach.

Fritz Pollard, who stood 5’9″ and who was listed as weighing all of 165 pounds, coached the Pros. Mainly a running back, Pollard’s tremendous speed and elusiveness as a player caused legendary sportswriter Walter Camp to remark that Pollard was “one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen.”

Pollard coached Akron in 1921—the league was known as the American Professional Football Association (APFA) back then—to an impressive 8-3-1 record, all while maintaining his roster spot as a running back, scoring seven touchdowns on the season.

But Fritz Pollard wasn’t just any coach in the APFA—he was the only African-American one in the league.

Pollard lasted just one season as a coach, and in 1926 he was dismissed as a player as well, when the NFL (name changed in 1922) booted Pollard and the other eight black players at the time out of the league, permanently.

Pollard wasn’t just a footnote in pro football history. After being kicked out of the NFL, Pollard organized all-black barnstorming teams, playing under names such as the Harlem Brown Bombers. This barnstorming continued into the 1930s.

The NFL didn’t go the black head coaching route again until 68 years after Pollard coached the Akron Pros, when Art Shell became coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989.

While Fritz Pollard should be lauded for his stature as a league pioneer, it would be disingenuous to say that he paved the way for Shell to coach the Raiders. Nearly seven decades kind of dilutes Pollard’s participation toward Shell’s hiring.

But Shell, who played for the Raiders to the tune of a Hall of Fame career as an offensive tackle, is rightly recognized as the modern game’s first black head coach, and thus was indeed a trail blazer of sorts for those  of color who followed him on the sidelines over the past 25 years.

The Lions’ Jim Caldwell is one who should give a nod of appreciation to Shell—and, maybe more so, to late Raiders managing general partner Al Davis, who hired Shell after firing Mike Shanahan.

It took the Lions a little bit longer than some franchises—but quicker than others—to hire an African-American head coach. Caldwell became the first on January 15, 2014.

Many Lions fans, if they had their druthers in January, envisioned Ken Whisenhunt as the one who would open training camp on Monday in Allen Park. Whisenhunt, who is white, was seen as the Lions’ first choice after firing Jim Schwartz.

But Whisenhunt spurned the Lions and never got on the private plane that was famously waiting for him in San Diego, ready to jet the Chargers’ offensive coordinator across the country where he would, presumably, get a contract offer in Detroit.

I am not, for a moment, suggesting that the popularity of Whisenhunt over Caldwell, in the fans’ eyes, had anything to do with race. For whatever reason, Whisenhunt’s resume excited the Lions fan base more than did Caldwell’s.

Frankly, the fact that Caldwell is the Lions’ first black head coach kind of slipped my mind until it was brought to the fore on Saturday, when the coach was honored by the Detroit Historical Society’s Black Historic Sites Committee for the distinction.

The celebration of Caldwell’s status was nice, but it was low-key and it should have been. For despite the fact that Caldwell is the Lions’ first black head coach, thankfully those of Caldwell’s ilk aren’t a novelty anymore in the NFL.

Not that the league couldn’t do a little better in that regard, as Caldwell pointed out on Saturday, but in his usual classy way.

“It’s (black head coaches) come a long way because of the fact that I think now there might have been 47 (African-American coaches) that have gotten that opportunity (in NCAA Division I football), if I’m not mistaken,” Caldwell told the Detroit Free Press.

“And in the National Football League there’s 17, I think, that have gotten that opportunity, even some of those that have been interim. So there’s been quite a few guys.

“I think it’s changed quite a bit in my lifetime. You can see some progress in that area, but certainly a long way to go.”

The Lions are the only team in the NFL with a black head coach and a black general manager, something that has happened just once prior in league history. That, too, should be celebrated, but not without some concern.

The NFL has always been a little slow on the uptake when it comes to minorities holding positions of power and influence, though progress is indeed being made.

But I don’t believe the fans in Detroit care if the football coach is white, black, blue or purple. The Lions haven’t won a league championship in 57 years. To give that perspective, remember when the Red Wings finally ended their Stanley Cup drought in 1997? That was a mere 42 years between Cups at the time.

Caldwell was not quite three years old when the Lions beat the Cleveland Browns to capture the 1957 NFL championship.

Now he is set to open his first training camp as the first black head coach in Lions history—and the team still hasn’t won it all since ’57.

Jim Caldwell was properly honored on Saturday night, but that distinction should lose its luster pronto. The Lions were hardly on the cusp in this regard, as Caldwell followed Shell in Oakland by a quarter century.

Since Shell in 1989, the Lions have gone through eight head coaches before hiring Caldwell (including interim coaches). Three of those guys were assistants who’d never been a head coach in the NFL prior to Detroit—hired when there were eminently more qualified black men available at the time.

But that’s all ancient history now, right?

Caldwell’s being black won’t shield him from criticism when the Lions falter, and it won’t help give him accolades when times are good.

He will be judged solely on his win/loss record.

I think even Fritz Pollard would agree with that notion.

Jul
20

Tall, Dark and Oklahoman

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James Garner was once asked if he’d ever do a nude scene on camera.

“I don’t do horror movies,” he said.

Rim shot.

Garner, who died on Saturday at age 86, was a Hollywood leading man but a humble Oklahoman at heart.

“I got into the business to put a roof over my head,” he once said. “I wasn’t looking for star status. I just wanted to keep working.”

And work he did, especially in the 1960s, when Garner was often teamed with the biggest female names in movies, such as Doris Day (Rock Hudson is more famously connected with Day, but Garner did his fair share with her as well), Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and Kim Novak.

The film boom for Garner was set up by his work in TV’s Maverick, in which he starred from 1957-60, playing old Western card shark and ladies man Bret Maverick. The show went toe-to-toe on Sunday nights with The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show, more than holding its own.

If you were a casting director and could mail order a leading man, Garner would arrive at your office.

He was tall, dark and handsome, and possessed a self-effacing style bereft of cockiness. His Oklahoma lilt, which he never tried to disguise, added to the down home feel that just about all of his characters had.

Garner, left, with Jack Kelly as Bret and Bart Maverick

Garner, for a brief time, even dabbled in auto racing, an interest that was piqued when he co-starred in 1966′s Grand Prix. Garner thus joined Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as actors/racers.

But mention James Garner, and even today the first thing likely to spill from peoples’ lips is The Rockford Files, NBC’s series that ran from 1974-80. Loosely based on Garner’s Bret Maverick, brought into modern times, the private investigator Jim Rockford character landed Garner an Emmy Award in 1977.

Some old-timers like yours truly will also recall Garner in a popular series of Polaroid TV commercials in the late-1970s, early-1980s, sharing the screen with Mariette Hartley. The chemistry between the two was so genuine that many viewers thought the pair was married in real life, even though the commercials never really suggested that they were playing a wedded couple.

Garner left The Rockford Files in 1980, not because of poor ratings or disenchantment with the show, but because of the physical toll. Garner, who was an athlete in high school (football and basketball), insisted on doing his own stunts, and the result was significant damage to his knees and back.

In his later years, Garner really used his tall Oklahoman stature to his advantage, often playing rugged, wise cowboys and fatherly and grandfatherly figures. His characters would occasionally fall in love as well.

Speaking of falling in love, Garner did that well, too—and fast. He married Lois Clarke in 1956—just two weeks after they met. He remained married to her until his death.

Despite his own stable marriage, Garner once offered that “Marriage is like the Army. Everyone complains. But you’d be surprised at the large number of people who re-enlist.”

And to show how much Bret Maverick resonated in Garner’s hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, the city unveiled a 10-foot tall bronze statue of the actor as Maverick in 2006, with Garner present for the ceremony.

Garner once explained his acting theory, such as it was.

“I’m a Spencer Tracy-type actor. His idea was to be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth. Most every actor tries to make it something it isn’t [or] looks for the easy way out. I don’t think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote.”

Here’s the irony in Garner’s words: he may have been acting and “putting himself aside,” but to watch him on screen was to have the feeling that James Garner was just being James Garner.

He could have done much worse. And so could have we.

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Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has won a Stanley Cup, lost two others in the Finals in seven games, has won two Olympic Gold Medals and a World Juniors Championship. His Red Wings teams have never missed the playoffs in the nine years he’s coached in Hockeytown.

So who can blame him for puffing out his chest a little bit?

After the Red Wings struck out in free agency when all the high profile guys got signed by other teams on or around July 1, hockey fans in Detroit demanded to know why.

What free agent worth his salt rejects the Red Wings?

How can you say no to the winged wheel? How can you look at the tradition, the Cups won, the refusal to miss the playoffs since 1990 and say, “Naah, that’s OK. I’m good.”

According to the Wings fans in Detroit, Hockeytown—as they like to call their city—is the NHL’s Valhalla.

You’d think that once a new signee’s plane lands on the tarmac at Metro Airport, the first thing he does when his feet hit the ground is kneel and kiss Mike Ilitch’s pinky ring.

Clearly, that’s not the case anymore, in this day of salary caps and that thorny word, parity.

So the Red Wings whiffed on the big names that hit the market at the top of the month—guys like Dan Boyle, Radim Vrbata, Mike Cammalleri, Mark Fayne et al—and Hockeytown was all aflutter.

The cross-eyes focused on Babcock.

He’s too tough. No one wants to play for him who is coming from elsewhere. It is Babcock and Babcock alone who is causing the major free agents to say “Thanks but no thanks.”

It’s all hogwash but finally the coach himself had enough.

“They way I look at it here, if you don’t want to be coached, don’t come here.”

The words are Babcock’s, and they were spoken on the radio earlier in the week.

Those words, and others Babcock said while talking to “Ryan and Rico” onDetroit Sports 105.1, paint an image of a man who’s heard the bluster and decided to tell his side of the story.

“If you want to be pushed to be the best that you can be, that’s what we do here. You know what? The proof is in the pudding,” Babcock said.

Then this.

“If (the Wings) are concerned about (free agents not liking him), then I should coach somewhere else.”

Give ‘em hell, Mike.

Babcock is not the reason free agents nixed Detroit when the market opened on July 1.

Why wouldn’t a guy want to play for a proven winner?

It recalls a line about the legendary Scotty Bowman, spoken by one of his players on the great Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s.

“For 364 days of the year you can’t stand him, and on the 365th, you hoist the Stanley Cup.”

I’ll go one step further than Babcock.

If a player is saying no to the Red Wings because he doesn’t want to be pushed, then that’s not the player for the Red Wings.

There were many underlying factors affecting the decisions of this summer’s free agent class. Some had ties to the organizations with which they signed. Some were attracted to the bright lights and big city.

It’s a new game these days, anyway.

In the halcyon days, before salary caps, successful NHL teams more readily used free agency to build their core. Homegrown kids and trades were used to complement.

Today the league’s model is more like the one that’s been used by the NFL since that grand old football league started in the 1920s; i.e. use the draft to build a core and free agency to complement.

The most recent Stanley Cup winners—Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston—all have rosters liberally sprinkled with homegrown players. They are teams that have been largely built through the draft. Free agents have been signed, but not as the main focus.

The Red Wings are moving along with the times.

Partly out of necessity due to injuries and underperformance from veterans, the kids from Grand Rapids stepped up last season and are threatening to form a new core of Red Wings hockey.

Signing big name free agents should no longer be the preferable way of staying in Cup contention. The Red Wings are doing it the right way—the way that’s been proven to work by the Blackhawks, Kings and Bruins.

Sometimes the best free agent signings are the ones you don’t make.

Two summers ago, Hockeytown was in a depression over the Red Wings’ failure to secure the services of free agent center Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who were considered the best catches of the Class of 2012.

Both signed with the Minnesota Wild, and their addition was supposed to vault the Wild into the conversation as a serious Cup contender.

In the two seasons since adding Parise and Suter, the Wild have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Just like the Red Wings.

The draft is the way to go in the NHL. Frankly, the Red Wings have known that all along. They have been experts at finding superstars buried in the lower rounds.

But those draft choices weren’t the focal points. The big splash was made in free agency back in the day. Anything the Red Wings got from drafted players was a bonus. That, or the youngsters were used as bargaining chips at the trade deadline.

Another thing: are the Red Wings one high profile free agent away from winning the Stanley Cup? Unless that guy is a proven, sniper-like scorer—and there weren’t any of those on the market this summer—then the answer is a resounding no.

The Dan Cleary signing aside, the team seems to be transitioning smoothly from a veteran-laden group to a younger, faster, more energized squad.

Mike Babcock is the least of the Red Wings’ worries.

The coach is signed only through next season, but he keeps telling us not to read anything into that. And he has another message for those who suggest that he runs too tight of a ship for free agents’ liking.

“We just have the hard meetings. We get it out front. Does it piss people off once in a while? Absolutely. But it also leads to behavioral changes and getting things better. So you know what, I’m not apologizing for that stuff at all. I like to be treated honest.”

The Red Wings’ chances to win the Stanley Cup are no better and no worse after Free Agent Frenzy, 2014. And Mike Babcock is not the reason free agents signed elsewhere.

Honest.

 

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It’s an old line, written by an ink-stained wretch sometime in the early-1960s, when the Yankees were continuing to dominate Major League Baseball.

“When the New York Yankees go out to dinner together, they sit at 25 different tables,” the line went.

The implication was clear. Togetherness and camaraderie, those feel-good words, were overblown.

The Oakland A’s of the early-1970s were a mustache-wearing, raucous group that disliked their owner slightly more than they disliked each other. Yet they managed to win three straight World Series.

During the “Bronx Zoo” Yankees years, circa 1977-78, one of the zoo’s animals said that losing streaks weren’t necessarily a bad thing, because “the more we lose, the more (owner George) Steinbrenner flies around the country to watch us play. And the more he flies, the greater chance that his plane will crash.”

The Yankees won the World Series in both ’77 and ’78—with a group that battled the owner and the manager, Billy Martin, with the same ferocity with which they battled the Orioles and the Red Sox and the Royals.

There are two C-words that are mightily overblown in the world of sports: camaraderie and chemistry.

The former is at least somewhat easy to define. The latter, not so much.

But neither word has as much to do with winning as the users of the words like to think.

Chemistry is the worst word in sports.

It is undefinable, overused and is trumped by the king of all words, which is TALENT.

Give me talent over goodwill any day of the week.

Long ago, we should have added the L-word to the list of offensive utterances in pro sports.

Leadership.

It’s another word that is hard to define, overused and is most certainly trumped by talent, which is the Godfather of words in the sports lexicon.

Nice guys don’t necessarily finish last, but their niceness alone won’t win any brass rings, either.

This isn’t to say that talented groups don’t need leaders, because they do. But not every talented guy can be a “leader,” however you choose to define that.

The Lions’ Ndamukong Suh seems to find himself swimming in the 24-hour news cycle, often not by his own choosing.

Suh, the fifth-year defensive tackle, is immeasurably talented, gifted and strong. He can be a game changer at a position that can change games.

So why can’t we just let him play football?

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.

Let’s talk about some of the so-called “leaders” in Detroit sports history.

There was the Red Wings’ Steve Yzerman, who was the strong, silent type. I maintain that one of the most brilliant moves ever made by any coach/manager in Detroit was when Jacques Demers bestowed the team’s captaincy on Yzerman, who was a 21-year-old entering just his fourth NHL season.

Demers was crazy like a fox when he put the “C” on Yzerman’s jersey.

At the time (1986), Yzerman was the captain of a fledgling team coming off a 57-loss season. Nearly 20 years later, the Red Wings had won three Stanley Cups and were constantly in the mix for more titles when Yzerman hung up his skates as one of the most-respected captains in league history.

Yzerman played hurt, he played hard and his teammates followed suit, yet Stevie did so without raising his voice much above a whisper.

Yzerman was perhaps the quintessential captain of anyone who pulled on a uniform in the Motor City.

Isiah Thomas, pound-for-pound the toughest player in NBA history, led the Pistons by example while also functioning as a de facto coach on the floor.

Thomas’ performance in the 1988 NBA Finals, when he played the last 72 minutes of that series on one leg, will never be forgotten in Detroit, nor should it.

The Pistons lost that series, but rebounded to capture the next two NBA championships with Thomas’ on-court presence leading the way.

I will give you Yzerman and Thomas as the two greatest, measurable leaders in Detroit sports history.

I will even give you Bobby Layne of the Lions, who was the unquestioned Chief of the Lions in the championship days of the 1950s. Bobby led on the field and he led in the saloons. His teammates followed him in both environs.

Now, back to Suh.

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.

Suh didn’t enter the NFL with a reputation of being a leader in college, if you recall.

He was known for tossing blockers around like rag dolls and for busting heads. That, presumably, is why the Lions drafted him second overall in the 2010 NFL Draft.

This is the perfect time to leave Suh alone and let him play football.

The Lions have a new coach, Jim Caldwell. This, naturally, ushers in new systems on both sides of the ball. There are new assistants and new philosophies and new playbooks.

There ought to be a new approach when it comes to engaging Ndamukong Suh, as well.

He doesn’t have to be well-liked by teammates, contrary to popular belief. He doesn’t have to show up at voluntary camps. He doesn’t have to walk around with a smile on his big face.

Suh isn’t Steve Yzerman, and he sure as hell isn’t Isiah Thomas.

But that’s OK.

One of the greatest of all the Lions, running back Barry Sanders, was an Indian. He didn’t have a Chief’s bone in his elusive body. You didn’t hear what Barry said on Wednesday—you heard what he did on Sunday.

Yet I don’t recall anyone in the Lions organization, or within his adoring fan base, trying to make Barry Sanders a leader. He was accepted for what he was—the best runner in the NFL who made our jaws drop every week.

Why can’t we accept Ndamukong Suh for what he is—which is a beast of a defensive lineman who can change games in the blink of an eye?

Why does he need to be a leader, if it’s not in his DNA?

If you want to dog Suh because he doesn’t attend voluntary camps and he prefers to be introverted, fine.

I happen to believe that you win football games with talented, dominating players—whether they get along with each other or not.

The Lions should strip Suh of his captaincy, but not to be punitive—to be realistic.

Square pegs never did do very well with round holes.

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Jul
10

Rockets’ Red Blare

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I’m beginning to think that the celebration of Fourth of July with fireworks is carrying on longer than the Revolutionary War itself.

In our neighborhood, the pop-pop-pop of things with fuses starts in late-June and is still going on, and this is nearly a week after the 4th.

Granted, the pace is slowing, but why are we still hearing things that go boom?

If people still possess these firework-like items, what are they waiting for?

Maybe I’m more sensitive to this because we have a dog, and he’s not unlike many other canines who don’t appreciate the rockets’ red glare. Last night we set out for our evening stroll and just five minutes into it, something went boom and just like that, our pup was making a beeline for the house.

I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but do we need to hear the commotion (sometimes past 11:00 p.m.) for a three-week period?

I could go into the accidents, some tragic, but that’s piling on. It’s unfair to take pot shots because some of these mishaps are truly not the result of being careless. The highest profile ones to Detroiters—the death of a 44-year-old man and the loss of an eye of channel 7 meteorologist Dave Rexroth—appear to be nothing more than horrible accidents.

Still, this is what can go wrong when lighters are set to fuses, when those doing the lighting are not professionals.

But back to the ever-growing July 4th “season.”

I understand the concept of a Christmas season, with decorations going up after Thanksgiving and staying up past New Year’s Day. I get it with Halloween as well. It’s fun to look at how creative people can get with their homes. Sometimes we like to pour some hot chocolate or coffee and just hop into the car and drive around, looking at the displays.

But those are nice, quiet holiday seasons. Independence Day is all about twilight’s last gleaming—and it seems to be every twilight for 21 days straight, at least where we live.

As I write this, I must admit that things are quieting down quite a bit, but it’s July 10th, for crying out loud, and the bombs are only just now abating.

I guess my biggest question is, if you shelled out the dough for the higher-end fireworks, why are you holding onto them well past July 4th? It’s not like these things are being discovered in a basement somewhere.

I know there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule here, and I don’t want to come off like a sourpuss (maybe that ship has sailed), but at the risk of sounding like a prude, this does fall into the realm of disturbing the peace, does it not?

Frankly, I quite enjoyed the night of the 4th around here. The celebration lasted for several hours and it was actually pretty cool and impressive, hearing all the rapid fire booming and seeing the pretty colors of fireworks that were mini-me versions of the awesome display we saw in Madison Heights the Sunday prior.

It had really ramped up on the 3rd and carried pretty strong into the 5th. No problem; it was the weekend. I get it.

But this started the last week of June and is only now slowing down. That’s about three weeks.

As for the accidents, they’re going to happen every year, no matter how many safety tips are floated around. It’s sad but true—and inevitable.

But while some of those are unavoidable, what isn’t is the setting off of fireworks for three weeks straight.

Or maybe we just chalk this whole thing off to the grouchiness of a 50-something white male living in the suburbs.

That “season” is much longer than three weeks, by the way.

Categories : Enotes, holidays
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Jul
04

Torres’ Big Hat is the Jacques Plante Mask of Today

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Jacques Plante had had enough.

Plante, goalie for the Montreal Canadiens, had taken the last puck off his unprotected face in an NHL game.

It was November 1, 1959.

Earlier in the season, Plante—who was the most innovative goalie in league history—had been experimenting with a crude form of a hard fiberglass face mask in practice. At the time, every goalie in the six-team NHL played without any facial protection. It was like racing cars without a seat belt, but there you have it.

During team practices, Montreal coach Toe Blake begrudgingly allowed Plante to wear the mask, which was a creepy-looking, haunting thing with a mouth hole that resembled the “Scream” masks of today.

But Blake forbade Plante to wear the mask in an actual game, fearing that the protection would cut down on his goalie’s span of vision.

Finally, coach and goalie had a showdown. It came during the Canadiens’ tilt with the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

Plante suffered a broken nose when New York’s Andy Bathgate, who had one of the hardest shots in the league, blasted a puck off Plante’s bare face.

The six-team NHL employed six goalies in those days. There were no backups. Plante knew that, and he leveraged that fact to his advantage.

As he was getting stitched up to return to the game, Plante told Blake that he was going to wear the mask. The coach disagreed. Plante said that if he wasn’t allowed to wear the mask, he wasn’t getting back onto the ice. Blake seethed but he relented in the face of Plante’s hockey blackmail.

What happened next reminds me of what is happening to San Diego Padres pitcher Alex Torres these days.

Torres is getting grief for donning MLB’s new protective hat for pitchers. The bulky head gear is designed to cushion the blow in case a pitcher takes a line drive off the noggin. In some cases, the hat could be a life saver.

But safety took a back seat to mocking, as the sight of Torres in the oversized hat—and granted, it takes some getting used to—spawned a furor on social media and even in the broadcast booth.

They were laughing at Alex Torres and his big hat, heartily so.

Some have even questioned Torres’ manliness.

This is not unlike what Plante faced as he returned to the ice at the Garden that November night in 1959, wearing his goofy-looking mask.

Plante was derided by the fans, who hooted and hollered at him as he took his place in the goal crease. The players weren’t exactly supportive, either.

As in Torres’ case, Plante’s courage was called into question.

No goalie wore a face mask!

But Plante did a lot of things that no goalie prior to him had done.

Plante was the first netminder to confidently handle the puck outside of the crease with his stick. He was the first to shout instructions to his defenseman. Plante is also credited with being the first goalie to raise his arm, signaling his teammates that icing was being called. He was the Thomas Edison of hockey.

Of all of these innovations, the goalie mask by far is Plante’s legacy.

Plante didn’t care what the fans thought of the mask. He didn’t care what his coaches, teammates and the other players in the league thought. The only thing Plante cared about was his own well-being.

As it should have been.

Coach Blake told Plante he could wear the mask until the broken nose’s cut healed.

But Plante and his mask didn’t lose. The Canadiens beat the Rangers, 3-1, on November 1, 1959 and what followed was a 12-game unbeaten streak, all coming with Plante’s face protected.

One night, against Detroit, Blake ordered the mask off and the Canadiens lost. The next night, the mask was back on Plante’s face and Montreal won.

Not that hockey people are superstitious or anything.

Like Plante was with his mask in 1959, Alex Torres is steadfast in his intent on continuing to wear the oversized baseball hat.

While with Tampa Bay a year ago June, Torres was summoned into the game after teammate Alex Cobb was drilled in the skull by a liner off the bat of Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer.

The incident shook the lefty Torres to his core.

“When I came into the game, (Cobb) was already on his way to the hospital,” Torres told FoxSports.com. “That was a really tough moment, after the pitching coach [Jim Hickey] said I was going to pitch after that happened.

“I was really shaking. My legs were shaking. It’s not easy to take that off of your mind, especially when you’re there. It was a really bad moment. A really bad situation.

“I don’t want to spend three or four months on the disabled list, or to not be able to play baseball again.”

Makes sense to me.

Plante’s mask idea didn’t catch on right away. After he debuted the mask in 1959, goalies continued to go bare-faced for almost a decade before the protective mask became a league staple.

Today, if a goalie dared to play without a mask (it’s against league rules anyway) he’d be mocked just as much as Alex Torres is being today for wearing the protective baseball hat.

Torres believes that the big hat will eventually be accepted.

“In the future, you’re going to see a lot more pitchers in the big leagues wearing it,” Torres was quoted on MLB.com recently.

Granted, Torres’ big hat isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing thing a baseball player can wear.

And Jacques Plante’s original mask was, by today’s standards, rather hideous.

Yet today the goalie mask reflects the wearer’s personality and creativity. The paint jobs on them are amazing in their detail and in their flair.

It could be presumed that MLB’s protective hat for pitchers (or anyone else who wants to wear it) will evolve. It might not look, five years from now, like it does now on Torres’ head.

This isn’t a fashion statement, anyhow.

“I don’t want to wait for someone to hit a line drive right to my head before I start wearing it,” Torres says of his big hat. “I don’t want to lose two or three months because I got a concussion. Why not wear it if I have it right now?”

Good question.

In the great press box in the sky, Jacques Plante is grinning broadly.

Categories : Baseball, Hockey
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Jul
02

You Couldn’t Better Fretter

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Before the commercial airwaves on television were taken over by ads for prescription drugs, lawyers and car insurance companies, there was the wild and crazy pitchman.

Every city had them.

The products being pumped were usually electronics, appliances and used cars.

The ads were low on productions costs—usually all we saw was the pitchman screaming into the camera with an occasional glimpse at what he was hawking.

The emphasis was on the supposed insanity of the pitchman, because the deals were so good, you see.

New York had Crazy Eddie, who pitched electronic gizmos while shrieking maniacally at the viewer.

And Detroit had Ollie Fretter.

Fretter, who passed away Sunday at age 91, blanketed the TV and radio ad space with commercials for his appliance store, starting in the 1960s and continuing for about 30 years. He promised five pounds of free coffee if he couldn’t beat your best deal.

The appliance wars in Detroit were hot in the 1970s and ’80s. Fretter went up against Highland Appliance’s creative ads on TV, and Adray Appliance didn’t do as much TV advertising, but Mike Adray was in the game. He sponsored lots of little league baseball and hockey teams to help keep his name on people’s lips.

We fell in love with the items that Fretter and Highland advertised on television. It was a time when microwave ovens, stereos, color TVs and newfangled refrigerators/freezers hit the market with gusto.

At the forefront was Ollie Fretter, who didn’t scream, but who was very prevalent in all his ads, never afraid to look silly and foolish on camera as he shamelessly plugged his metro Detroit locations.


Ollie Fretter, ever shameless

But it was the tag line about the free coffee that became iconic, not unlike Mr. Belvedere’s “We do good work,” which ended all of those home improvement commercials.

Fretter was hardly the only Detroit-area pitchman on TV at the time.

There was Irving Nussbaum for New York Carpet World (“The BETTER carpet people”); the aforementioned Belvedere; Mel Farr “Superstar” (Ford dealership); and a host of other car dealers, like Walt Lazar Chevrolet and Bill Rowan Oldsmobile.

These days, law offices are all over the dial, but of course it would be unseemly if those types got wacky on the air.

There was no shame in screaming about a steal of a deal on appliances and used cars back in Fretter’s day.

In fact, we all waited to see what Ollie’s next spot would bring. Each one seemed to want to outdo the previous in terms of silliness.

Fretter shuttered the last of his stores in the early-1990s. His was one of many dominoes to fall around that time as store after store went out of business, outdone by national, big box retail chains.

I always wondered if Ollie ever gave away any free coffee.

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The question, I suppose, was fitting, because Travis Bader seems to like to do things in threes.

“They asked me what three celebrities I’d like to have dinner with,” Bader told Al Beaton, Adam Biggers and me on the latest episode of “The Knee Jerks” podcast last Sunday.

The “they” were a consortium of NBA scouts and coaches. The reason for such a question was the NBA’s version of the NFL combine, particularly the portion where the draft hopefuls are taken away from the court, away from the workouts, and interviewed one-on-one.

So how did Bader answer the celebrity dinner trio question?

“I can’t remember all three,” Bader said. “But I know Bill Gates was one, so I could appear smart.”

Three is Bader’s favorite number. He wore it on his jersey at Oakland University, and he made a college career out of 3, including setting a new all-time NCAA record for triples, breaking the mark set by Duke’s J.J. Redick.

Everyone knows Bader can drain a trey, so there was more to explore about the shooting guard when he had his 11 workouts for 13 NBA teams over the past several weeks.

Hence the oddball questions.

“They also asked me, ‘What does two plus two mean to you?’,” Bader told us on the podcast.

And?

“I said four.”

Fair enough.

When we cornered Bader on the phone, the NBA Draft had yet to occur. It was four days away, and at the time there was hope that somehow, some way, Bader would be selected in the two-round, 60-player process.

He wasn’t, but that’s OK.

That’s not the end of his NBA dream.

That he has gotten this far is a testament of sorts.

Bader’s dad was closely tied to the Michigan State University basketball program, and because of that connection, an adolescent Bader got to hang around the Spartans and coach Tom Izzo.

“Coach Izzo was great. He’d let me hang out at practice, shooting for hours,” Bader recalled. “I traveled with the team. I went to Sweet Sixteens and Final Fours.”

But despite Bader’s up close-and-personal relationship with the Spartans program, there was no real interest by Izzo from a recruitment standpoint. And Bader doesn’t blame the coach one iota.

“Whenever people suggest that Coach Izzo let me ‘get away,’ I always laugh,” Bader said. “I wasn’t very impressive coming out of high school. I was six-foot-two, 165 pounds.”

But one coach did see something in Bader.

Greg Kampe has won over 500 games, all at Oakland. He has built a program that flies under the radar but which has been very competitive over the past decade especially. And Kampe went after Bader, the skinny shooting guard from Okemos.

“Coach Kampe has been amazing to me,” Bader said. “He was the only one to offer me a Divison-I scholarship. He saw something in me that nobody else did. He’s very honest. When he says something, he means it.”

After Kampe recruited him, Bader grew a tad (he’s six-foot-five now), filled out some, and became perhaps the best player in Golden Grizzlies history, though Keith Benson, who has played in the NBA, is also in the conversation.

As Bader grinded his way through college, the three-pointers started raining down.

They kept coming to the tune of 504 in 1,246 attempts, which is not only an NCAA career mark for triples made, but Bader did so by making them at a 40 percent clip, which is another impressive stat.

The obvious question we had for Bader on “The Knee Jerks” was, “Was there any team that impressed you the most during the workout process?”

His answer was diplomatic but understandable.

“You know what? Not really. Every team treats you well. They put you up in nice hotels, give you a food stipend. I just want to be drafted.

“I’ll be a practice player, if that’s what teams want,” he added.

OK, so the guy can shoot, but what else does he bring to the table? I wanted to know why an NBA team should take a flyer on Travis Bader, according to Travis Bader.

“Well I’m a team player. I believe in the team. It’s not about me. My work ethic. But the idea is to put the ball in the hole. And that’s my real strength.”

The NBA game today is played so close to the three-point line, and so often. The most prolific three-point shooters aren’t just little guys. Big men are stepping behind the line with dizzying frequency. Whether you choose to call it The Dirk Nowitzki Effect or not, the fact is that being proficient as a long-range shooter is a very important weapon to have, no matter if you’re six-foot-two or nearly seven-feet tall.

But Bader knows that he can’t make the NBA on outside shooting alone.

“I’ve been working hard on my defense,” he told us on Sunday. “I want to show teams that I can defend multiple players and positions.”

But let’s face it. Bader’s real appeal is that three-point gun he carries in his holster.

So the NBA dream lives on, despite Bader going undrafted on Thursday night.

Just today, it was announced that Bader will play for Philadelphia and Golden State in two separate summer leagues next month.

“Travis thought it was the best-case scenario for each league,” coach Kampe told the Oakland Press. “He felt like each team was the best fit for each camp.”

After the draft, Bader texted me and said that six NBA teams were showing high interest in him and had already reached out to his agent.

Is one of them the Pistons, who are in dire need of outside shooting?

Not sure, but Bader listed the Pistons as one of his best workouts.

“To be honest, I’ve been thinking about the NBA since my sophomore year (at Oakland),” Bader told us.

Bader, who literally wore 3 on his chest at Oakland, could still find his way onto an NBA roster.

“The NBA is full of great, great players and specialists. He’s a specialist. Everybody needs a shooter,” Kampe said.

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May
22

Safety in (Recall) Numbers

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The recall of a car seems to be a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of proposition.

General Motors is recalling cars almost as fast as they’re making them, but what is worse—recalling cars or ignoring the problem?

If anyone knows both sides of that sword, it’s GM.

Nearly 14 million GM cars have been recalled in 2014, and the year isn’t half over.

The latest mulligan for General Motors is the Chevy Aveo, which the other day became the 30th GM vehicle to be recalled in 2014. The 218,000 subcompact Aveos brought the grand total of recalled GM cars to 13.8 million.

The latest recall involves Aveos in model years between 2004 and 2008. The daytime running light module in the dashboard center stack can overheat, melt and catch fire.

Of course, nothing is worse than a recall born out of deaths, and GM knows all about that, too—with its infamous ignition switch debacle from earlier this year that is responsible for at least 13 deaths (according to GM; suing lawyers say the number is 53).

No injuries or deaths have been reported as yet in connection with the Aveo recall.

Yes, recalling nearly 14 million cars isn’t the greatest thing for consumer confidence, but neither is under-reporting or non-reporting problems, as might have been the case with the ignition switch thing.

General Motors, which at one time was among the largest and most robust companies in the entire world, has been, to use an appropriate analogy, spinning its wheels in 2014.

The ignition switch problem, which may have gone on for about 10 years before GM did anything about it, is costing the company $35 million in fines.

But again, what is worse—recall or looking the other way?

I’m reminded of the restaurant that is cited for a slew of health violations and is then host for high profile dignitaries after the problems have been addressed, to supposedly prove how safe it is.

Well, of course it’s safe! A restaurant coming off health violations ought to be the safest in town, don’t you think?

Maybe GM cars will soon be among the safest on the road, seeing as they are being built under hawk-like eyes these days.

Regardless, the question begs: why so many recalls in 2014?

Jeff Boyer, GM’s new safety czar, recently told the media that the ignition switch problem led GM to look at a slew of safety issues with its vehicles, and that begat the spate of recalls.

Makes sense.

Make that, dollars and cents.

So far in 2014, GM is on the hook for $1.7 billion in recall-related charges.

That’s a lot of dough, but the loss of business already incurred due to the ignition switch mess is incalculable. How do you measure the number of folks who won’t buy your cars?

GM is taking its safety concerns as seriously as ever these days. Boyer, for one, holds the title of vice president, and that’s a first in the area of safety for GM.

My parents used to own GM cars only, because my father worked for the company. Now we own Fords, because my mother is a retiree.

But in comparing the two, I can only report from personal experience that I have had good luck with both GM and Ford cars. My 1986 Chevy Cavalier, for example, was driven hard for six years, racking up nearly 150,000 miles. It was still kicking when we traded it in for our 1992 Mustang.

The Mustang, for its part, is 22 years old and is still running.

So there.

It’s been a tough year at GM for many reasons, but at least no one can say that the cars rolling off the assembly lines these days are being given the bum rush.

And isn’t the bum rush what consumers don’t want from their automakers?

Categories : cars, economy, Enotes, laws
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Stan Van Gundy was less than 30 seconds into his first press conference as the Pistons’ coach and director of basketball operations, and his voice was already hoarse.

But that’s par for the course. Basketball coaches always sound like they’ve been screaming bloody murder for days on end.

Listening to Van Gundy speak today at the Palace, two things came to mind. One was, get that guy a Sucrets. The other, was that Detroit is going to love this guy.

Van Gundy fits perfectly in what the Detroit sports fans crave in their coaches.

They like the fiery, no-nonsense type. The athletes can be quiet leaders of few words—Steve Yzerman, Barry Sanders, Nicklas Lidstrom and Calvin Johnson come to mind—but the coaches need to be engaged and have some hothead in them.

Based on that description alone, Van Gundy will win over many a fan, initially.

Van Gundy spoke with urgency, energy and fire, and if any franchise in this town needs that in its leader, it’s the Pistons.

The fan base is dwindling. Worse, they’re flat-out bored and disinterested.

There’s nothing boring about Van Gundy. Maybe the most exciting part about him is that he has never had a losing record as a coach. His .641 winning percentage ranks in the top five of coaches with at least 500 NBA games under their belt.

In the late-1980s, when the Lions were again stumbling and bumbling through the NFL, owner Bill Ford levied a most damning indictment against his football team.

“We’re losing,” Ford said as he made his way past the media in the press box after yet another loss, “but worse than that, we’re boring.”

Not long after uttering those words, Ford gave coach Darryl Rogers an overdue ziggy.

The Pistons have been losing for five years, and they’ve been boring—unless you count player revolts, a flavor-of-the-month coaching plan and the death of the owner and subsequent sale as exciting stuff.

No one comes to the games anymore, but that’s nothing new. Detroit has always been a front-runner’s town when it comes to pro basketball. Unlike its three brethren in football, baseball and hockey, the Pistons don’t get love unless they’re winning. It’s been that way ever since the team moved here from Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1957.

When you consider that the Pistons haven’t made the playoffs since 2009, the hemorrhaging of fans in five years from an already shaky base is significant.

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.

It would be that way if Van Gundy was only coaching, or if he was only in the front office. There isn’t any run away-and-hide in him.

That was proven when Van Gundy went shoulder to stomach with Dwight Howard in Orlando. The coach lost, but he didn’t go down without a fight—nor without some hard truths about the All-Star center.

Howard, by the way, now counts himself as a Van Gundy fan, after further review.

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!”

But that’s being a little unfair, too.

The Pistons needed a high profile hire at either coach or GM in the wake of the non-renewal of former president Joe Dumars’ contract last month. They ended up getting a high profile guy at both jobs, so hats off to Tom Gores.

That’s right, I said it. As someone who has been less than kind and thrilled with the Pistons owner, I must admit that he hit a home run here.

I was concerned that Gores, who I viewed as a clown of an owner, wouldn’t have the acumen to hire the right people after Dumars’ departure.

I was wrong.

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.

The dual hat thing even has some national people who don’t follow or cover the Pistons wringing their hands.

But I would ask them, how much worse can it get?

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.

Millen, the atrocity of a president with the Lions, not only had zero GM experience, he had never coached. So he didn’t have an aura about him—a presence that would automatically attract good football people without any coercion or major sell jobs.

Van Gundy, on the other hand, will have little trouble, I believe, in attracting quality basketball people to Detroit—and that simply wasn’t possible under the previous administration, anymore. Dumars was too tarnished by the time his contract ran out.

So this won’t be Van Gundy doing two jobs. It will be Van Gundy coaching—and he’ll attract quality assistants as well—and a presumably sharp front office staff being the new man’s eyes and ears on a day-to-day basis.

This won’t be Millen, who hoarded power and who tried to take on too much by himself. The most egregious example was hiring a rookie head coach, which made things worse.

People already seem to have this misconception that Van Gundy will conduct practice in the morning, run upstairs to change from sweats to a suit in the afternoon to be the front office guy, and then race down to the floor to coach that night’s game, skipping lunch and dinner.

It won’t work that way, folks.

There’ll be quality (assumption) people in the offices, doing the grunt work, and reporting to Van Gundy at the end of the day.

It’s very doable. Frankly, I wonder why more NBA teams don’t try this model, which has been very effective in San Antonio and Miami, as Van Gundy pointed out in Thursday’s presser.

I’ll go you one further and say that more teams will go this route before too long.

Through it all, Pistons fans will enjoy Van Gundy’s blue-collar, no-nonsense manner of coaching and they’ll enjoy seeing the top dog in the front office not shying away from the cameras and microphones.

Dave Dombrowski with the Tigers, Kenny Holland with the Red Wings and even Marty Mayhew with the Lions aren’t afraid to show their faces on a regular basis.

You can now add Stan Van Gundy to that group.

This is all well and good, but of course there is a roster that needs some overhauling. There is a losing culture that needs to be discarded. There is a certain restricted free agent big man who needs to be addressed.

But at least we won’t be looking under rocks to find the man who is making the decisions.

 

 

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