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Aug
01

Roses Have Thorns

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My memories of Lynn Anderson are rather sardonic, but that’s not her fault, necessarily.

Singer Anderson, 67, passed away the other day of a heart attack in a Nashville hospital while being treated for pneumonia.

She was best known for her song, “Rose Garden,” which peaked at no. 1 on the country charts and no. 3 on the Billboard charts in early-1971.

But around the campus of Eastern Michigan University in the 1980s, Lynn Anderson became a notorious figure, forever linked to the school’s outrageous efforts to keep its football program in the Mid-American Conference (MAC).

Let me explain.

By 1983, MAC officials were considering kicking EMU’s football program out of the conference, because of poor performance on the field and more importantly, poor performance at the turnstiles. The latter was a direct effect of the former’s cause.

The conference pretty much gave the university an ultimatum: lift attendance to a minimum threshold (I can’t recall what that threshold was, but I think it was in the 10-15,000 per game neighborhood), or risk being booted.

Being asked to leave a Division-I conference would have cost EMU lots and lots of money in revenue, so the push was on to increase attendance, real quick.

Shuttle buses were sent to dorms to pick students up and drive them to Rynearson Stadium. Ticket prices were slashed, because the ultimatum wasn’t based on revenue sales—it was based on the number of fannies in the seats. EMU didn’t care what price folks paid to get in, or whether they paid at all. They just needed warm bodies in the stands.

But it was going to take more than the above to get students to take three hours out of their Saturday to watch a football team that was mostly miserable.

So EMU brought in halftime performers.

They brought in stand-up comics (I remember the legendary Skip Stephenson showing up one night). They brought in the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, who were booed because they didn’t wear their iconic halter tops and go-go boots because the night air was too damn chilly. The girls ran onto the field wearing blue Lycra bodysuits, and that didn’t go over too well with the male fans.

And the university also brought in Lynn Anderson.

Anderson was well into her 30s and her career had taken a downturn by the time EMU signed her up for a halftime performance. This was circa 1984.

Things gut ugly when Anderson was found to be obviously lip-synching, which by itself isn’t a crime, but it’s one of those things that, if it’s blatant, can turn an audience against the performer.

The jig was up when the recording had technical difficulties. You can imagine the effects of that.

Anderson was booed off the stage and in the next edition of the school newspaper, The Eastern Echo, a graphic ran in the editorial section that depicted a photo of Anderson being flushed down a toilet.

Now, whether Anderson insisted on the lip-synching, or if the school decided it would be best due to the logistics of performing outdoors, is anyone’s guess. Regardless, Lynn Anderson took the hit and she was mocked, panned and derided.

All told, Anderson had 18 country Top 10 hits, including five No. 1 songs. Among her other hits: “Rocky Top,” the Felice and Boudleaux Bryant tune that’s one of Tennessee’s state songs. Anderson’s version hit No. 17 on the country charts in 1970.

“I am a huge fan of Lynn’s. She was always so nice to me. She did so much for the females in country music,” country star Reba McEntire said in a statement.

I’m sure all of that is true. But on a chilly Saturday night on the football field at EMU in 1984, Lynn Anderson became a twisted footnote in the history of Eastern.

EMU made its attendance commitment, by the way, and stayed in the MAC.

We wore “I survived the Big MAC Attack” t-shirts on campus, a play on a McDonald’s ad campaign of the time.

Fun times.

Categories : Enotes, Entertainment
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Jul
16

Christmas (weather) in July

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I know this: our hot pepper plants aren’t enjoying the cool summer we’re having in Metro Detroit.

But fie on them.

The mercury hasn’t scraped much past the mid-80s so far, and we’re in mid-July.

I couldn’t be happier.

I don’t do well with the heat. The pepper plants do, however, and ours have been struggling to bear fruit, but like I said, fie on them. I can buy hot peppers at the market, although there is a charm to growing your own.

But if that’s the trade off—store-bought hot peppers in exchange for summer days in which I can breathe without an oxygen mask, then I’ll take it and run.

Normally by now, we would have suffered through oppressive heat, with temps in the high-80s and low-90s, with enough humidity to curl you from hair to toe.

But this year?

So far, so good.

Cool evenings, enabling you to sleep with the windows open, and is there anything better than breathing in fresh night air as you slumber?

Pleasant daytime temps, which don’t mandate the use of air conditioning 24 hours a day. I love A/C—I think it was a great invention. But being in it too much makes me feel like I’m living in a plastic bubble and the world outside is so close yet so far.

Now, I do feel for the swimming pool owners out there.

We don’t own a pool anymore, but the year we bought ours, in 1998, we were swimming in it (comfortably) in mid-May, shortly after it was installed.

My, has the climate changed.

Despite the aforementioned oppressive heat, those days haven’t really started until well into June in recent years, so the pool owners’ swimming season has been shrinking steadily.

I saw some pools with their winter covers still on, as recently as two weeks ago!

So you own a pool nowadays and you’re spending God knows how much money on electricity for the pump and chemicals for the water, and you can’t even dip your toes in the stinking thing—until Independence Day.

I also haven’t heard the ice cream truck very much this summer.

But that’s still collateral damage in my book.

I’m enjoying the heck out of daytime temps in the mid-to-high 70s and evening lows in the upper-50s.

I’m basking in the low humidity and the ability to take in a deep breath of air without nearly passing out.

I have no idea how much longer this can last. I keep bracing myself for a heat wave.

And despite the lack of heat thus far, I’m sure I’ll still grumble and bitch the first day the thermometer scrapes 90 degrees.

But until then, I’m enjoying Christmas in July.

How about you?

Categories : Enotes, weather
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Jul
11

President Van Gundy Still Sounds Like Coach Van Gundy

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Fourteen months into his dual role as Pistons president/coach, it’s quite evident that Stan Van Gundy is a coach at heart, and an executive in title.

The first indicator is in his verbal delivery.

Van Gundy doesn’t speak in the slow, measured tones of most sports executives.

Joe Dumars, SVG’s predecessor, would take to the podium during one of his many media summits as he tried to explain yet another coaching change, and Joe gave thoughtful, if uneventful, answers. He had decorum, even when the Pistons’ world was collapsing around him.

Think of the other GMs in town.

Kenny Holland of the Red Wings has a voice drenched in Western Canada so you know that he’s a hockey guy as soon as he opens his mouth. But Holland doesn’t come at you in a rat-a-tat-tat, staccato way. I don’t think any Canadian does, except for Don Cherry.

David Dombrowski of the Tigers speaks casually, almost in a matter-of-fact manner. He is rather emotionless. He has never, that I am aware, gotten short or terse with the media. His answers and explanations of his moves don’t tumble out of his mouth without being filtered. It’s like he’s talking while using his own seven second delay.

Marty Mayhew of the Lions, if he was a college professor, would no doubt be a cure for insomnia for any student who attended his classes.

But Van Gundy talks like a coach, even when he’s supposed to be being the president.

The coach speak was at the fore the other day as the Pistons introduced new small forward Marcus Morris to the scribes.

Morris was acquired last week in a trade with the Phoenix Suns.

As is typical Van Gundy, even when he’s trying to be presidential, the words came out during the Morris presser with the urgency of a coach talking to his team during a timeout.

“Now I think we’ve got two guys with size, strength and quickness that can get in there and battle at that spot,” the Pistons president (or was it coach?) said about Morris and recently drafted small forward Stanley Johnson.

“Physically, we’ve gotten a lot tougher. We wanted to add some toughness and I think with Marcus, with Stanley, with (Aron) Baynes, with (Ersan) Ilyasova … we’ve added tough, physical guys and great competitors so I feel really good about that.”

Van Gundy came up for air. Then there was some more urgent, almost frenetic talk.

“All of those guys also bring a real good energy to the floor and I think we did all of that with not only not sacrificing shooting but improving our shooting. So with all of those reasons, we should be a lot better. I think we’re more versatile. I think we’ve got a lot more guys who can play more than one position and can defend more than one position.”

All the while, Van Gundy sounded like a coach, as he squirmed in his chair with some eager anticipation and rattled off the virtues of Marcus Morris. It was like he was at halftime and couldn’t wait to game plan for the second half.

The two-headed monster that is Stan Van Gundy appears to be a case of coach first, executive second. I still don’t know how GM Jeff Bower fits into this whole thing, for example, though Bower has been presented as the guy who runs the daily operations of the team—especially during the grind of the 82-game regular season.

As for SVG the president, the jury is still out. He’s made a boatload of moves since being hired a year ago May, but it’s too early to declare them winners or losers, although a few of his signings last summer were odd.

He’s trying, that’s for sure. You knew the roster would churn when Pistons owner Tom Gores gave SVG the key to the executive washroom. And why shouldn’t it have churned? It’s not like the Pistons have done anything of note since 2008, other than fire coaches and sign free agent busts.

Van Gundy the coach wants to have a roster that fits his coaching style and philosophy, which every NBA coach wants. Except in Detroit, the coach gets to pick his players and trade and sign like a kid in a candy store.

Van Gundy wants a good big man surrounded by four guys who can shoot. It’s the way he’s won in the league and he doesn’t see any reason to change his spots now. The trades and signings he’s made since last season began demonstrate a slow but sure transformation of the Pistons into a more SVG-like squad.

Van Gundy the president continued to sound like a coach as the Morris presser went on.

“We think that Marcus is at a point in his career where he’s already established himself as a very good player but now with an increased opportunity we think he’s got a chance to blossom into more than you’ve seen so far. So we couldn’t be more excited to have him here and looking forward to getting the season started,” SVG said with unbridled enthusiasm and restlessness.

After just one season it’s far too early to determine whether the Pistons’ two-headed monster is going to pan out.

But Stan Van Gundy the executive is trying to give Stan Van Gundy the coach the roster that the latter wants.

I still have the feeling that Van Gundy is a coach at heart who is having a ball being the president, because what coach wouldn’t love that?

“We said going into the summer that our biggest priority was to get a starting small forward and with this deal we think we’ve done that,” Van Gundy continued as he raved about Morris in a way that only an NBA coach could.

You get the impression that Van Gundy would just as soon be blowing the whistle right now for the start of training camp’s first practice.

He wore a Pistons polo shirt, for example, while going on and on about Morris.

Bower wore a dress shirt.

Typical.

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The only thing worse than doing something posthumously is doing it because you missed the boat before things got posthumous.

First, let me say that I’m not normally one that’s quick on the trigger when it comes to calling for the retirement of uniform numbers. Frankly I think teams in all sports do too much number-retiring. It’s like the issuing of championship rings, which now extends to the folks who answer the phones, the custodial staff and the parking attendants. Everyone gets a ring!

This practice cheapens the very thing you’re extolling, which is the ring itself.

But I digress. Already.

The Lions have retired only five numbers in franchise history.

There is no. 7, for the old quarterback of the 1930s, Dutch Clark.

There is no. 20, for three players—Lem Barney, Billy Sims and Barry Sanders.

There is no. 22, for that partier and winner, quarterback Bobby Layne.

There is no. 37, for the great runner from Texas, Doak Walker.

And there is no. 56, for the father of middle linebacking, Joe Schmidt.

One more needs to be added to that list, and it’s awful that it now has to be done without the man himself present to see it.

Let’s power up the wayback machine and take it to the fall of 1970.

In the NFL, 1970 was, among other things, the Year of George Blanda.

It was the season where Blanda, 43 years old, rescued the Oakland Raiders time and again with his kicking leg or his passing arm. Sometimes he used both to slay the opponent, often in the game’s waning moments.

Blanda had already authored several come-from-behind victories by the time his Raiders invaded Detroit for the annual Thanksgiving Day game on November 26, 1970.

But on this Turkey Day, it started out as if the Raiders weren’t going to need Blanda’s heroics. Not by a long shot.

The John Madden-coached and Daryle Lamonica-quarterbacked Raiders stormed into Tiger Stadium and before anyone could say “Just Win, Baby!” the Lions were down, 14-0.

This wasn’t one of those years where the Lions showed up on Thanksgiving Day and just hoped to put on a good show on national television. They had serious playoff aspirations. Their record was 6-4 and even though the Central Division was a lost cause thanks to the Minnesota Vikings’ domination, the NFL had instituted something new for the 1970 season—the first after the NFL-AFL merger.

It was called the Wild Card.

No longer did a team have to win its division to play a post-season game. Because the new NFL’s alignment called for three divisions in each conference, in order to even things out, commissioner Pete Rozelle decreed that the second-place team with the best record in each conference would qualify as a Wild Card.

The 1970 Lions had a shot at this new Wild Card.

So falling behind 14-0 to the Raiders on Thanksgiving Day had real implications. More than just pride was on the line.

The Lions wore white jerseys that day, only the second time they had worn white at home in team history. The change was asked for by NBC television, which carried the game. NBC was fearful that the Raiders’ white jerseys and silver numbers weren’t a good made-for-TV combination—especially for those with black and white sets.

So the Raiders wore their menacing black while the Lions played a home game wearing their road duds.

The nerve!

Maybe the white jerseys at home played mind games with the Lions, who were sleepwalking while the Raiders put two quick touchdowns on the board.

My colleague and friend Jerry Green has often recalled that the Raiders were smirking and chuckling at the Lions on the sidelines after Oakland’s 14-0 getaway. In those days, both teams’ benches shared the same side of the field.

But then Charlie Sanders went to work.

Sanders, wearing his blue no. 88 on his still-clean white jersey, was about to get dirty. And the Raiders were about to feel filthy.

Sanders made two unbelievably acrobatic touchdown grabs—both of the diving variety, with his big body outstretched and parallel to the turf. On one of them, he landed tremendously hard on his shoulder.

Sanders’ first TD grab came late in the second quarter and tied the game, 14-14. It came from 20 yards out, from the passing arm of Greg Landry.

Sanders made another incredible grab in the end zone in the fourth quarter, from six yards out. That touchdown gave the Lions a 21-14 lead.

The Lions later added an insurance TD via a Mel Farr 11-yard run, and Detroit beat Oakland, 28-14. George Blanda couldn’t save the Raiders on this day.

The Lions moved to 7-4 and kept their playoff hopes alive. Three weeks later, the fans were tearing down the goal posts at the Stadium after the Lions beat the Green Bay Packers, 20-0, to clinch the NFC’s first-ever Wild Card with a 10-4 record.

It’s true that I’m cherry picking one of Sanders’ finest games, but this game was symptomatic, not an anomaly.

Charlie Sanders didn’t invent the tight end position, as Joe Schmidt has been credited with doing for middle linebacker. Sanders didn’t perfect it, either—as Tony Gonzalez would do some 30 years later.

But what Sanders did do from 1968-77 as one of the greatest Lions of all time, was set the gold standard for tight ends in Detroit.

Tight end wasn’t much of a position in Detroit prior to Sanders’ arrival in 1968 from the University of Minnesota. Before Charlie came, the tight end functioned mainly as a sixth offensive lineman, and not much more.

The tight end certainly wasn’t expected to get 20 yards downfield in less than three seconds and haul in a pass over the middle, as Sanders did with frequency as a Lion.

Such was Sanders’ impact on the football field, that every tight end drafted by and traded for by the Lions since 1977 is compared, no matter how unfavorably, to Charlie.

Usually it goes like this.

“Well, (fill in the blank) is definitely no Charlie Sanders!”

No, but who was? Who has come close in Detroit, Pontiac and now Detroit again?

David Hill? Jimmie Giles? Pete Metzelaars? David Sloan? Brandon Pettigrew?

Sanders didn’t post eye-popping career numbers, at least not by today’s standards. His 336 career grabs can be achieved in about six good years—maybe fewer—by the modern tight end.

Sanders didn’t have big numbers but he had big catches. He never caught a football when he was wide open. Every grab was made in rush hour traffic.

Charlie Sanders might have been the most punished—and punishing—tight end in pro football history.

Charlie, as you know by now, is gone—passed away last week at age 68. That indomitable foe—cancer—did Charlie in, moving through his body with insidious speed.

The Lions fumbled the ball on this one. They let the clock run out with time outs left on the board.

They should have retired Charlie Sanders’ no. 88 not long after Charlie made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, way back in 2007.

Without question, 88 should have joined 7, 20, 22, 37 and 56 in Lions eternal glory, sometime during that 2007 season.

That Charlie only played in one playoff game in his 10-year career should hardly be a referendum on his greatness.

There were years when Sanders was the best offensive player on the Lions—including quarterback.

Sanders’ impact on the Lions organization was felt long after his retirement as a player.

Charlie coached. Charlie broadcasted. Charlie worked in the personnel department. Charlie mentored many Lions players, and not just tight ends. Charlie was one of the Lions’ best-ever ambassadors.

Of course, no. 88 can still be retired but now it has to be done after Charlie’s death.

The Lions blew this one. Shame on them.

 

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Jun
24

The Many Degrees of DVP

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Which Dick Van Patten would you like to remember and mourn today?

Is it the actor Van Patten, who most famously seeped into our consciousness as Tom Bradford, the patriarch of the TV family on ABC’s “Eight is Enough” from 1977-81?

Is it the tennis player Van Patten, whose sons got some of the old man’s genes and did pretty good on the court as well?

Is it the animal activist Van Patten, who worked tirelessly for our furried and feathered friends, including founding National Guide Dog Month in 2008?

Is it the entrepreneur Van Patten, who co-founded Natural Balance Pet Foods in 1989?

Take your pick—or take them all, if you’d like.

Van Patten passed away on Tuesday at age 86. Some reports blame the cause of death on complications related to diabetes.

There was some juice to the Van Patten name in the entertainment industry. There was Dick, of course, and there was his younger sister Joyce, a fellow actor. There were the Van Patten boys—Vincent, Nels and Jimmy—who were all actors.

It’s so fitting that Dick Van Patten made his most pop culture hay as family man Tom Bradford on “Eight is Enough” because his own family tree is pretty interesting and runs like an artery through show business.

In addition to the aforementioned, check this out.

Van Patten’s sister Joyce married actor Martin Balsam, and the couple had a child—actress Talia Balsam.

Talia Balsam’s first husband was George Clooney. You may have heard of him.

Talia Balsam is now married to “Mad Men” actor John Slattery.

Van Patten’s son Vince is married to soap star and current reality TV personality Eileen Davidson.

Dick’s other son Nels is married to former “Baywatch” regular Nancy Valen.

For some, it may seem like “Eight is Enough” lasted longer than just four seasons, but that’s a testament to the show’s impact. It hit the small screen four years after “The Brady Bunch” filmed its last episode, and American TV viewers were ready for a family show featuring a large brood that was a little more grown up.

With “EiE,” entire episodes weren’t spent on trying to find the family dog or teaching kids lessons about humility. The show was about (mostly) grown-up kids who had more convoluted issues.

Of course, by the end of the hour, all the loose ends were tied up, but not before some laughter, some crying and some reflection.

Real-life tragedy was dealt with, as well.

Actress Diana Hyland was originally cast as Tom Bradford’s wife but she succumbed to cancer four episodes into season two. Her untimely death wasn’t ignored, like the shows from the 1950s and 1960s would have done—replacing the passed away actor with someone else playing the same character.

Instead, the producers of “EiE” dealt with Hyland’s death head on, writing it into the show, and the cast’s mourning on the screen was real.

Betty Buckley was brought in to play Tom’s new love interest (and eventual second wife), Abby, for seasons two through four.

Leading it all was Dick Van Patten, whose character was based on real-life newspaper columnist Tom Braden, who chronicled his large family with an autobiographical book also titled Eight is Enough—a reference to Braden’s (and Bradford’s) eight children.

Dick Van Patten was hardly the leading man type—thin-haired, slightly paunchy and with a round face. He looked more like your neighbor—which was likely why Tom Bradford resonated on the screen. Van Pattenlooked like a guy who had eight kids and who worked for a newspaper.

Van Patten’s Tom Bradford was also unlike other TV dads in the sense that he wasn’t written as a buffoon who somehow got a pretty, smart girl to marry him. The kids didn’t zing witty one-liners at dad’s expense; rather, Tom Bradford was a true patriarch who had his kids’ respect.

Van Patten was acting on stage and screen for some 28 years before he got the “EiE” gig, but he was treated by many viewers as a virtual unknown until 1977. Such is the power of being a lead actor on a successful TV show.

Van Patten was also a favorite of comedian/director Mel Brooks, who cast Dick in a number of films.

Such was Dick Van Patten’s varied interests that he even served as a TV commentator for the World Series of Poker from 1993-95.

Trivia: Van Patten named his son Nels after the character that Dick played in his first TV job, a series called “Mama” (1949-57).

Dick Van Patten didn’t light up the screen. He wasn’t that type of actor. But you were always aware of his presence.

Unlike some of his brethren who felt typecast and button-holed by roles they played on television, Dick Van Patten embraced Tom Bradford.

“I appreciate ‘Eight is Enough’,” he once said. “It made me recognizable.”

But he was influential in so many other ways, and for that so many are grateful.

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Jun
19

Spock Would Be Proud

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In the interest of full disclosure, I’m 51 years old.

I only tell you this because, when she was my age, Jeralean Talley was living in the year 1950.

And she continued to live, some 65 more years, until passing peacefully the other day in her home in Inkster.

Jeralean was 116 years, 25 days old when she slipped away, ending her two-month reign as the world’s oldest living person.

I wonder what it would have been like to be my age now, in 1950.

Harry S. Truman was president. Television was still a relatively new thing and lots of folks didn’t even own one. And if they did. it broadcast everything in beautiful, gorgeous, vivid…black and white.

The NHL had six teams. Major League Baseball had all of 16. The NFL was still finding its audience as teams were experimenting with something called the forward pass. The NBA was four years old.

The only phones we had were mounted on our kitchen walls. You had to actually read the hands of a clock or wristwatch to tell time. Shoes had laces, not Velcro.

If you wanted to know what was going on, you bought a newspaper. If you needed more, you bought a Late edition on the street.

Cars were as big as tanks and the only things that weren’t metal were the seats and the dashboard.

If you wanted to know how to get where you were going, you bought a map.

You didn’t send e-mails, you wrote letters. If you wanted to pay a bill, you licked a stamp.

We were just five years removed from the second World War and on our way into another conflict in Korea.

That’s just when Jeralean Talley was 51.

She graduated from high school during World War I. When she was old enough to vote, she couldn’t.

She saw the invention of the telephone, the airplane, radio, air conditioning, modern refrigeration and instant coffee.

For starters.


Jeralean Talley (1899-2015)


But Jeralean is gone now, and according to daughter Thelma Holloway, who’s a youngster at age 77, her mother “was ready to go home and rest.”

“She asked the Lord to take her peacefully, and he did,” Holloway told theDetroit News.


According to the News story, the California-based Gerontology Research Group, which keeps track of the world’s oldest people, declared Talley in early April to be the oldest human on the planet.

The previous record-holder, Arkansas resident Gertrude Weaver, died April 6 at 116 years old, according to the group.

Mrs. Talley is succeeded as the world’s oldest person by New Yorker Susannah Mushatt Jones, who turns 116 on July 6.

Jeralean Talley moved to Detroit from Georgia in 1935, right smack in the middle of the Great Depression. Her husband, Alfred, has been gone since 1988 after 52 years of marriage to Jeralean.

Jeralean was an avid bowler, continuing to roll games until she was 104. Her last game rolled produced an astounding score of 200.

Despite the number of people around the world who have lived well past their 100th birthday, there continues to not be any succinct reason why they were able to eclipse normal life expectancy by such a wide margin.

They all had their “secrets” to longevity, and some of those secrets wouldn’t necessarily lead you to believe that they would have anything to do with living past 50, let alone 100.

So maybe it’s just a crapshoot.

Regardless, it won’t be long before these centenarians no longer have 19th century dates on their birth certificates. To be born in 1899 and still be alive today is a marvel.

Jeralean Talley’s longtime friend and fellow churchgoer, Christonna Campbell, spoke for so many of those who knew Mrs. Talley.

“We just thought she was going to live forever,” Campbell said.

But didn’t she, in a way?

Categories : Health, society
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Jun
07

American Pharoah Creates Dramatic Moment in Non-Dramatic Way

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Conventional wisdom says that if something in sport has only been done 12 times in over 120 years and never since 1978, it must not be easy to do.

American Pharoah ran his eighth career start Saturday. When he finished it, he won horse racing’s first Triple Crown since Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978.

Eight starts? Then a Triple Crown?

I thought this was supposed to be hard.

Affirmed, the Triple Crown winner of 1978, ran nine races in 1977 alone.

But now here comes American Pharoah, the 3-year-old colt with the chewed off tail, and he ran the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, history waiting at the finish line—and the horse with seven starts under his mane glided to victory by 5-1/2 lengths.

This, after a one-length win at Churchill Downs and a seven-length cruise in the rain and muck in the Preakness.

Just like that, the Triple Crown.

At the Preakness, American Pharoah became the first horse since 1994 to win the race while starting on the rail in the usually unfavorable no. 1 post position. The torrential downpour on race day didn’t matter, either. Jockey Victor Espinoza used American Pharoah’s long stride to its fullest.

American Pharoah has been called, by various horse experts, a “superhorse” that’s “nice and light on his feet.” Espinoza has called him “an amazing horse,” and the Mexican jockey has had two other cracks at a Triple Crown, so it’s not like he’s never been around the block.

Baseball hitters will tell you that when they swat the ball on the sweet spot of the bat and drive it out of the park, the impact is so perfect that they can barely feel it in their hands.

Espinoza said something similar when interviewed on camera immediately after Saturday’s Belmont.

“The way he moves, the way he travels, the way he stretches his legs, the way he hits the ground” Espinoza told NBC about American Pharoah, “you don’t even feel it when he’s going that fast. You feel like you’re going in slow motion.”

Except that the colt was hardly going in slow motion. He was, however, gliding into the history books on Saturday.

There was a slight stumble out of the gate, but American Pharoah quickly recovered and he basically led, wire-to-wire.

There was little drama to what should have been a dramatic moment. Instead, there was a feeling of fait accomplit as you watched Espinoza guide the three-year-old around the track, not truly challenged by the rest of the field.

It wasn’t Secretariat stuff (he won the Belmont by 31 lengths in 1973) but nor was the outcome really in doubt. The lead was never eye-opening, but nor was it in any danger.

Espinoza said that after the first turn, it was the best he’s ever felt on a horse. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said he knew the Triple Crown was his long before the home stretch.

As if to punctuate his place in history, American Pharoah poured it on at the end, turning a two-length lead into a 5-1/2 length romp in the official order of finish.

With all great race horses, there’s a moment when jockey, owner and trainer all realize that something special is going on.

Owner Ahmed Zayat bought American Pharoah as a yearling for $300,000.

Why?

“We felt that he had brilliance in him,” Zayat said. “His demeanor, his aura, his conformation, the way he moved.”

Baffert, who took over the training of American Pharoah in the spring of 2014, said, “I’ve never had a horse that moves or travels over the ground like he does.”

As for the chewed off tail, Baffert has his own theory of how that happened.

“I think he was in the pasture one day and there was a mountain lion chasing him—that was the closest he could get.”

Now when Bob Baffert is that effusive in his praise over a horse, it’s like Scotty Bowman glowing over a young hockey player. Both have seen lots of colts and skaters come and go, and when both say that a particular one is special, well, you should listen.

Espinoza was a history maker as well on Saturday. He became the oldest jockey (43) to win the Triple Crown, and the first Latino to do it.

Twice before, Espinoza had a shot at the Crown but, in his words on Saturday, “the third time was the charm.”

Baffert bemoaned to NBC in the winner’s circle that the elusive Triple Crown Trophy was something that had caused him to hate the damn thing. Espinoza said the trophy has “caused me a lot of stress.”

Not anymore.

American Pharoah made it look easy on Saturday. He made it look easy in the mud at the Preakness. He needed a late charge to win the Kentucky Derby (the Crown’s first leg) but to use an analogy from that other sport that reveres Triple Crowns, it’s like an ace pitcher: if you don’t get to him early, forget it.

The thing about racing horses, however, is the short shelf life of their careers. In that regard, the era of a Secretariat or a Man ‘O War pack a lot of punch. The bang for the buck is amazing, because we can talk for decades about a two or three-year career.

After the Crown was won, Espinoza said that American Pharoah’s future would be determined by Baffert, and that the horse’s best interests would be of primary concern. But the jockey also acknowledged, correctly, that the sport “needs our stars,” too—i.e., racing the greats for as long as is possible and safe to do so.

Zayat said he hopes American Pharoah races for as long as he was healthy and “has it in him.”

But even if the colt was retired tomorrow, his place in history is secure.

Baffert said it best.

“This little horse deserves it,” the trainer told Forbes magazine. “There’s something about this horse that he just brought it every time. He’s a joy to be around.”

 

 

Categories : Horse racing
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Dave Lewis finally got his opportunity. But he never had a chance.

Scotty Bowman skated the Stanley Cup around the Joe Louis Arena ice. It was a June evening in 2002.

Bowman had just won his ninth Cup as coach, and third with the Red Wings. He was 68 years old.

During the on-ice celebration, Bowman—arguably the greatest coach in professional sports history—whispered into captain Steve Yzerman’s ear that this was it. Scotty was retiring.

Bowman had been the Red Wings coach for nine seasons. After a rough first season (first round playoff KO at the hands of the upstart San Jose Sharks), there was much success. Three Stanley Cups speak for themselves.

With Scotty’s self-ziggy, the Red Wings needed a new coach, and there wasn’t any real competition for the plum job.

Lewis, ex-Red Wings player and longtime assistant coach who’d worked for three head coaches in Detroit, was tabbed as Bowman’s replacement.

It was hailed as the proper comeuppance for a loyal employee.

This was Dave Lewis’ big chance, but truth be told, Lewis didn’t have a prayer as Scotty Bowman’s successor.

Lewis was too close to the players as an assistant, especially given Bowman’s sometimes prickly relationship with his players. When the players in pro sports have a beef with the boss, they take those beefs to the assistants.

Lewis had been that assistant, for some 14 years, working for Jacques Demers, Bryan Murray and Bowman. For 14 years, Dave Lewis played the role of confidante and sounding board for the players.

That role evaporates when you move into the big office.

Lewis had two good regular seasons in Detroit as head coach, but he failed to get past the second round of the playoffs. In his first year, Lewis’ Red Wings were swept in the first round by a surprising Anaheim team that would make it to the Cup Finals.

The Mighty Ducks were coached by some guy named Mike Babcock.

In year two, Lewis managed to make it past Nashville before being blasted out by Calgary in another playoff upset.

Then the lockout happened, wiping out the 2004-05 season.

When play resumed in 2005, Lewis was out as coach of the Red Wings.

Babcock replaced him, and three years later the Red Wings won another Stanley Cup.

Dave Lewis is the cautionary tale among Red Wings coaches.

He was Exhibit A in the argument that longtime assistants shouldn’t necessarily be rewarded with promotions.

Lewis didn’t get along with some of the veterans as head coach, notably Brett Hull, who in Lewis’ defense could be a handful.

Things change when you go from assistant to head man.

The Red Wings, as I write this, are homing in on their new coach, to replace Babcock, who signed with Toronto.

He is Jeff Blashill, a loyal, longtime employee of the Red Wings organization and current coach of the team’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids.

Blashill appears to be on the verge of being hired with virtually  no competition.

Kind of like Dave Lewis was in 2002.

But Blashill has an advantage over Lewis: Blashill only stood behind the Red Wings bench as an assistant for one year. Several players at the NHL level know Blashill from their days at Grand Rapids.

But there’s a distinct difference between being a former Babcock assistant and an AHL coach, and being head coach of the Detroit Red Wings.

Blashill is, apparently, about to find out. He is expected to be named Red Wings head coach any day now.

The Red Wings, unlike with the Dave Lewis hire in 2002, are doing the right thing. My opinion.

There’s no real reason to interview anyone outside of the organ-eye-ZAY-shun to replace Babcock.

The Red Wings, if they’re anything, are prepared.

As early as last summer, the Red Wings had a hunch that Babcock might bolt when his contract expired come July 1, 2015. So they locked up Blashill, doubling his salary at Grand Rapids with the provision that he not entertain any offers (he would have gotten some) from NHL teams throughout the 2014-15 season.

Now Babcock is gone, as feared, and the Red Wings have their next coach all lined up.

Preparation.

There’s no real reason to interview anyone other than Blashill because the Red Wings have groomed him for this moment. Now that it’s here, why look elsewhere?

 

The eggs are all in the Blashill basket, but that’s OK, because if there was ever a “good” time for arguably the best coach in the NHL to flee Detroit, it’s now.

Mike Babcock—with some definite help from GM Ken Holland—has left the team in good shape for a young, inexperienced (NHL-wise) coach such as Jeff Blashill to commandeer.

Babcock has coached up the Grand Rapids Griffins-turned-Red Wings who’ve turned up on the NHL roster over the past three years. Players that Blashill had first crack at.

Blashill coaches in the same manner, it’s said, as Babcock. Certainly Blashill, in Grand Rapids, believes in the same system that they use in Detroit.

The next couple of years should be fascinating to watch when it comes to Red Wings hockey.

There’s going to be a referendum, one way or the other.

The question to be answered will be, “How much will the Red Wings miss Mike Babcock?”

That’s where Jeff Blashill comes in, because if he’s able to lift the Red Wings to the next level, i.e. past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2009, it won’t be about Babcock anymore.

With Dave Lewis, the shadow of Scotty Bowman always loomed. Lewis took over the defending Stanley Cup champs and a team that won three Cups in six years.

There was nowhere to go but down for Lewie.

Blashill is succeeding a high profile guy behind the Red Wings bench, but at the same time, it’s not a terribly tough act to follow.

Babcock has a great resume and the hardware to support it, but the hard fact remains that the Red Wings haven’t advanced to round three of the playoffs in six years.

In the six years prior to Lewis taking over the Red Wings in 2002, the team had won three Cups.

Dave Lewis, in retrospect, never really had a chance as Red Wings coach.

Jeff Blashill seems to have a great chance.

We’ll see.

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May
26

Meara, Meara

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Comedians/actors Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara were married for 61 years, but had they not heeded warning signs, the marriage might have ended some 44 years ago.

The comedy team of Stiller & Meara was seemingly cruising along in 1970, having just enjoyed a nice run of 36 appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the 1960s, when both members of the team/marriage sensed that something was amiss.

With an act based largely on their real-life domestic trials and tribulations, Stiller and Meara found that despite their success—or maybe because of it—the line between life at home and life on stage was getting further blurred as the years went on.

“I didn’t know where the act ended and our marriage began,” Meara toldPeople magazine in 1977.

“We were like two guys,” Stiller said in the same article.

With Meara questioning things and Stiller worried that he might lose his wife, the act was disbanded in 1970.

But they never stopped working together for very long at any given time; they just didn’t do so as the stage act Stiller & Meara.

The couple had been teaming up on a web series in recent years before Anne Meara passed away over the weekend. She was 85.

On television, Stiller and Meara were most recently seen sharing some scenes together on “The King of Queens,” with Stiller playing Carrie Heffernan’s widowed father Arthur Spooner and Meara playing the part of Veronica Olchin, the widowed mother of Doug Heffernan’s friend Spence Olchin.

Ironically, that series ended with Stiller and Meara’s characters getting married.

Stiller and Meara’s actor/producer/director son, Ben Stiller, produced the web series for Red Hour Digital, which Ben owns.

Anne Meara met Jerry Stiller in New York after a failed audition in 1953, and the couple was married a year later. But it took much prodding and several years of convincing before Meara agreed to join her husband on stage as a comedy team, whose only rival at the time in the male/female duo category was the team of Elaine May and Mike Nichols, who weren’t married.

Thus, Stiller & Meara would eventually become the entertainment industry’s longest-running, most successful husband and wife comedy duo, surpassing that of George Burns and Gracie Allen.

After the stage “breakup” in 1970, Stiller and Meara hardly disappeared from view or from listeners’ ears.

They did radio ads for Blue Nun wine, and appeared in television commercials together. They also teamed up in 1977-78 for “Take Five with Stiller & Meara,” which was a series consisting of humorous blackouts about everyday life.

Meara was no Gracie Allen, and that’s hardly a knock. Where Allen was George Burns’ ditzy foil, Anne Meara was Jerry Stiller’s equal, and then some—both physically and in terms of material. She was a tall, Irish, Brooklyn redhead whose height caused her to loom large on stage next to her husband, literally and figuratively.

Meara was a four-time Emmy Award nominee and she was nominated for a Tony Award once.

There was so much more to Anne Meara than being Jerry Stiller’s comedy partner—and Ben Stiller’s mother. There was the acting and the writing and the teaching and the trailblazing aspect to her career for other female comics.

Not bad for a woman whose own mother committed suicide when she was 11 years old.

Meara once gave a glimpse into what the secret was to staying married to a co-worker for over six decades, practically unheard of in show business.

“Was it love at first sight? It wasn’t then—but it sure is now.”

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Twenty-five years ago, Mike Ilitch sent a car to pick up his hockey coach.

Jacques Demers was about to go for a ride.

Inside Ilitch’s home, the Red Wings owner sat down with Demers and the two men had a good cry.

Ilitch gave Demers the ziggy, after four years in which Jacques won back-to-back Jack Adams Trophies and led the Red Wings to two Final Four appearances. All this, after Ilitch hired Demers away from St. Louis on the heels of a season in which the Red Wings won 17 games and allowed over 400 goals.

But after three straight playoff appearances under Demers, the Red Wings slid, and missed the post-season in the 1989-90 season.

Jacques wasn’t shocked by the ziggy, but ever emotional, Demers began weeping and so did Ilitch.

Bryan Murray, the Red Wings coach-in-waiting, was brought over from Washington for the 1990-91 season and beyond.

The Red Wings made the playoffs again in Murray’s first season and they haven’t missed spring hockey since.

The coach for the past 10 years of that post-season streak called his boss, GM Ken Holland, on Wednesday morning.

There was a message to be relayed to Ilitch, the ziggy-renderer of Jacques Demers 25 years ago.

Mike Babcock, Holland told the octogenarian owner, was leaving the Red Wings. This time, the coach was giving the team the ziggy.

Such is the change in the landscape these days.

Babcock was the tail wagging the dog with the Red Wings. He had all the leverage. It was quite a role reversal from the status of most coaches in professional sports.

It was the old Pistons and NBA legend Earl Lloyd, who we lost earlier this year, who put it best.

In 1971, Earl was just hired as the coach of the Pistons and he made an astute observation.

“When you’re hired as a coach,” Lloyd said, “you’re signing your own termination papers.”

But Mike Babcock wasn’t in the boat of so many of his brethren. He was the rare pro coach who could call his own shots. His question wasn’t whether he’d have a job—it was where that job would be.

Ilitch, who values loyalty as much as winning, and probably more so, couldn’t possibly have enjoyed seeing his coach, who was still under contract, flitting around North America, playing the field.

It’s been suggested that Max Scherzer’s refusal to take the Tigers’ contract offer made before the 2014 season turned Ilitch sour on the Tigers star pitcher. From that point on, those folks suggest, Ilitch wasn’t going to sign Scherzer. No way, no how.

Yet Ilitch let the Mike Babcock Road Show go on, with the apparent provision that the Red Wings and their contract offer (reportedly five years at $4 million per) would be waiting for Babcock should he determine that the ice wasn’t smoother elsewhere.

Then again, Scherzer was only a Tiger for five years; Babcock coached the Red Wings for ten.

The Babcock spectacle was unlike anything we’ve ever seen in Detroit, involving player or coach.

Players certainly can’t shop their services before their current contract expires, so why should coaches?

It’s a question that nobody seemed bothered enough to ask while Babcock jetted from city to city, entertaining offers.

As usual, the so-called insiders on social media made their sure-fire declarations of what was going to happen before it actually happened.

Bob McKenzie of TSN boldly stated on Monday that Babcock was definitely NOT going to Toronto. McKenzie didn’t know where Babcock would end up, except that it wouldn’t be in Toronto.

A day later, rumors heated up, led by more “insiders,” that Buffalo had become the front runner for Babcock’s services. A contract with the Sabres was being negotiated, the insiders said.

The San Jose Sharks were longshots.

The Red Wings were still in the mix as late as Tuesday, other insiders maintained.

In the end, on Wednesday morning, the Sharks had been eliminated. The Sabres had dropped out of contention on their own volition.

And Babcock made his phone call to Holland, informing the GM that Detroit was out, as well.

That left the Toronto Maple Leafs, widely dismissed as a poor destination for a coach of Babcock’s stature and desire to win, as the last team standing.

Go figure.

Holland told the media on May 1 that money wouldn’t be an issue for the Red Wings when it came to retaining Babcock as coach.

But money was even less of an issue for the Maple Leafs, who ponied up $50 million, spread over eight years.

That offer dwarfed that of Detroit’s, which was five years at $4 million per.

Babcock told us that he was all about winning. His hesitation at re-signing with the Red Wings was supposedly tied to his concerns about the future of hockey in Detroit, i.e. would the Red Wings be Cup contenders again soon?

The Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967. They have made the playoffs once in the ten consecutive years that Babcock has guided the Red Wings to the post-season.

Their locker room has been dysfunctional. One of their best players, Phil Kessel, has a reputation for being difficult to coach and he’s sparred with reporters along the way.

The team isn’t close to winning and their farm system doesn’t have very many people talking.

Yet Babcock, who is all about winning and who had grave concerns about the hockey future in Detroit, signed with Toronto.

It would be easy to call this a money grab and nothing else, but who among us wouldn’t have taken an offer that was, essentially, $30 million more than what you were being offered by your current team?

All things being equal, yes, it’s about winning. If the Leafs offered roughly what the Red Wings were offering or slightly more, then Babcock probably stays.

But $30 million is a lot to leave on the table.

So Babcock is gone, and another Detroit sports team has to pick up the pieces.

First it was the Tigers, with the departure of Scherzer to the Washington Nationals.

Then it was the Lions, who lost Ndamukong Suh to Miami.

Now it’s the Red Wings, who’ve lost their coach to another Original Six franchise.

But at least the Red Wings appear to have a capable replacement for their loss, unlike the Tigers and Lions with Scherzer and Suh, respectively.

Jeff Blashill is the coach-in-waiting, just like Bryan Murray was 25 years ago, when Jacques Demers got the ziggy.

Blashill is 41 years old and all he’s done is win at the college level and in the high minors. His Grand Rapids Griffins are still in the AHL playoffs.

Blashill has coached many of the current Red Wings and he has one year as a Babcock assistant on his resume as well.

It says here that Blashill will be named the next coach of the Red Wings as soon as it can possibly happen.

The Red Wings are ripe for a coach like Blashill. The NHL has been moving more toward younger head coaches for several years now, and with some success.

Blashill will also come much cheaper than Babcock.

Not that money is an issue.

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