Archive for Baseball
Dave Bergman didn’t win the World Series for the Tigers on that Monday night in June of 1984, but there might be as many folks who purport to have been at Tiger Stadium then, as claim to have been there when Larry Herndon squeezed the final out of Game 5 on October 14.
I was at Game 5, by the way, but I would have loved to have been in the stands on June 4, 1984 as well.
Dave Bergman is gone. The defensive specialist for the ’84 World Champs. The man whose acrobatic plays saved Jack Morris’ no-hitter in Chicago in April. The man whose face was in the dictionary under “role player.”
Bergman lost his battle with cancer at age 61. That rotten disease whose won-lost record is maddeningly successful.
Bergman was sick and fighting the cancer in his bile duct when he showed up last summer as the Tigers honored their 1984 heroes at Comerica Park. You could see it in his face and body that Bergie wasn’t right.
But he managed to participate in one last double play, when he was on the receiving end of an Alan Trammell/Lou Whitaker twist as the CoPa crowd roared.
Bergman was brought to Detroit for his defense, but as the Toronto Blue Jays found out, there was about to be great irony on June 4.
The glaring lights of “Monday Night Baseball” shined on Tiger Stadium on that June night in ’84, and Tigers fans knew that when “MNB” came to town, special things could happen.
It was eight years prior when Mark “The Bird” Fydrich mowed the mighty Yankees down on national television at the Old Ballpark, also on “MNB.”
Now here was Bergman, taking over the spotlight against the Blue Jays.
It was a lovely night in a lovely year for baseball in Detroit.
The Blue Jays weren’t about to anoint the Tigers division champs, despite Detroit’s 35-5 getaway. Toronto played good baseball as well, and the Jays were keeping the Tigers in sight.
When Toronto came to town to start a four-game series, the Tigers were 38-11 but still just 4.5 games ahead of the 34-16 Blue Jays.
Toronto jumped out to a 3-0 lead on that Monday night, but the Tigers tied it in the seventh, thanks to a three-run bomb from Howard Johnson. Bergman was part of that rally as well, having singled, but the best was yet to come.
The game moved into extra innings. In the bottom of the tenth, Roy Lee Jackson replaced Jimmy Key with a man on second and one out. Jackson induced a comebacker from Rusty Kuntz. Chet Lemon walked, placing runners on first and second with two outs.
Bergman was up next.
Less than three months earlier, Bergman wasn’t even a Tiger. He was finishing up spring training with the Philadelphia Phillies. It was a time when all teams’ rosters appeared to be set for the upcoming 162-game regular season.
But then a Roman candle was fired from Lakeland, FL. The date was March 24, 1984.
Looking for a late-inning reliever and possibly someone who can close ballgames, Tigers GM Bill Lajoie struck a deal with the Phillies, an unexpected trade.
The Tigers dealt young outfielder Glenn Wilson and veteran 1B/C John Wockenfuss to Philadelphia. Detroit would be getting lefty Willie Hernandez, who was the center of the trade. Hernandez was the guy Lajoie really wanted, to give manager Sparky Anderson another reliable arm in the bullpen. The Phillies, to make things square, also relayed a defensive-minded first baseman named Dave Bergman to the Tigers.
The trade was stunning, in its timing and in its scope. Tigers fans didn’t know much about Hernandez and Bergman. There was no Google back then.
A couple weeks later, Bergman demonstrated why he was known for his nifty defense. He made at least two plays that clearly saved Morris’ no-hitter in Chicago.
But Bergman wasn’t necessarily known for his bat. He was a part-time player, nothing else, in his nine previous years as a big leaguer.
You don’t win anything of note in June. Each of the season’s 162 games may, technically, count the same, but June’s games are played with little pressure. They’re played in warmth and laziness, not in the chilly air amid September’s electricity.
But this June Monday night in 1984 was different than a typical June Monday night.
The Blue Jays represented the Tigers’ only apparent serious threat to having their magical season ruined.
The four-game series was the first time the Tigers and Blue Jays played each other in 1984.
Bergman stood in the batter’s box against Jackson in the tenth inning on June 4, the winning run on second base, a meaningless runner on first, and two outs. There was no margin for error. Either Bergman did something to win the game or keep the inning alive, or the game would move into the eleventh.
Jackson went to work.
Bergman fouled off the first five pitches, living on the edge of an 0-2 count for three of them.
As ABC’s Al Michaels, Howard Cosell and Earl Weaver looked on from the broadcast booth, Bergman finally worked the count full in between foul balls. Twelve pitches had been thrown when Bergman settled back into the box, several minutes after the at-bat began.
Jackson reared back and threw pitch no. 13.
Michaels has been behind the microphone for some iconic moments in sports history, not the least of which were the USA hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 and the earthquake during the 1989 World Series.
Cosell called some of the most famous (and infamous) boxing matches in pugilistic history, and his tenure in the “Monday Night Football” booth certainly reverberated.
Bergman provided another such moment.
“Long fly ball! Way back in right!” Michaels yelled as Cosell and Weaver reacted in the background. “She is…..gone!”
Bergman’s three-run homer stunned the Blue Jays and won the game for the Tigers. It was a stinking Monday night game in early June, but the atmosphere belied that.
I was there when Kirk Gibson sealed the 1984 World Series with his three-run blast off Goose Gossage, and I can tell you that the roar of the crowd was greater in that moment than when Herndon caught Tony Gwynn’s fly ball for the series’ final out.
I wasn’t there when Bergman beat Jackson and the Blue Jays, but video evidence and my own recollection say that Tiger Stadium rocked every bit as hard as when Gibby did his thing.
Dave Bergman was the very essence of role player with the Tigers, especially in 1984, a year in which everyone contributed, from Bergman and Kuntz to Trammell, Whitaker et al.
Bergman battled cancer with the same fury and determination as he did Roy Lee Jackson on June 4, 1984.
But cancer doesn’t hang breaking balls. It doesn’t leave a pitch up at the letters for cranking.
In Detroit, we are still blessed to be graced by many members of the 1968 World Series champions, many of whom still live in the metro area.
We’ve lost a few 1984 heroes before their time (Aurelio Lopez, Dwight Lowry and Sparky) but losing Bergman at age 61 is a toughie. Not only did he have his moment on June 4, but he was a good Tiger who knew his place, didn’t bitch and was a terrific teammate.
“He was a leader,” Parrish told the Detroit Free Press. “A very intelligent man who played the game the way it is supposed to be played. He played very hard and I just loved being on the field with him.”
In describing his signature moment in baseball, the home run that beat the Blue Jays, Bergman was characteristically brief and to the point.
“I just happened to hit it right on the button,” he said.
So long, Bergie. You had your moment, and that’s what any athlete ever wants.
Bruce Bochy gets paid a lot of money to manage the San Francisco Giants, and sometimes the best way to earn that kind of dough is to sit in the dugout, shut up and don’t screw things up.
Especially come October.
This one’s for every skipper who’s tried to fix things that weren’t broken; for every manager whose over-thinking and over-tinkering has put his club behind the 8 ball.
This one’s for using pitch counts as a compass instead of listening to the gut. This one’s for managing for tomorrow, even when there is no such thing.
The Giants are world champs for the third time in five years, and you can argue that the 2014 title was won because Bochy made the best non-move in recent World Series history.
Bochy sat on his hands instead of calling down to the bullpen in Game 7, when Madison Bumgarner was mowing down the Kansas City Royals for five innings.
Bumgarner was pulling a Koufax, and Bochy knew it. So the Giants manager went with it.
The last time a left-handed starter pitched on two days’ rest in Game 7 of the World Series—on the road—was when Sandy Koufax took the mound in Minnesota in 1965.
The home team won the first six games of the ’65 World Series. Dodgers manager Walter Alston knew that in order to break that trend, he would have to rely on his ace—who also happened to be the ace of all of baseball at the time—on two days’ rest.
Alston knew it might come down to this.
The Jewish Koufax sat out Game 1 because it conflicted with his observance of Yom Kippur. That screwed Alston’s rotation up, if he wanted to get Sandy three starts. Barring a rainout, it didn’t take a genius to know that in order for Koufax to start three times, the last of those starts would have to be Game 7 on short rest.
Alston could have gone with Don Drysdale, who was 1a to Koufax, in Game 7. Big D started Game 1, and a Game 7 start would have been on Drysdale’s regular three days’ rest.
But Drysdale had been hammered by the heavy-hitting Twins in Minnesota in Game 1, giving up six runs in the second inning.
The performance spawned one of the greatest lines in baseball history.
Drysdale looked at his manager after the brutal outing and, referencing Koufax’s absence due to Yom Kippur, the big right-hander said to Alston, “I bet you wish I was Jewish too.”
Alston didn’t know what he would get from Koufax in Game 7, but if the lefty faltered, Alston still had Drysdale available in relief.
But the Dodgers’ bullpen remained quiet all game, as Koufax—relying almost strictly on fastballs from his painful, arthritic left arm after his curve ball abandoned him early—shut the Twins out on three hits as the Dodgers won, 2-0 and captured the ring.
In Kansas City on Wednesday night, the Giants’ Bochy proved that you don’t have to show how smart you are in terms of the quantity of moves you make—just the quality.
Everyone knew that Bumgarner, who won Games 1 and 5 in impressive fashion, was a ready and willing option for Game 7 in relief, if it came to that.
The Royals blew the Giants out in Game 6 and from the Kansas City perspective, it was a classic case of “be careful of what you wish for.”
The Royals forced a Game 7 but they also unleashed Bumgarner for the third time in the series.
The question going into Game 7 wasn’t if Bochy would summon the southpaw Bumgarner, but when. The Giants manager had a weapon of mass destruction and he wasn’t about to let it go unused when there was no baseball until spring, 2015.
The entry came in the fifth inning.
Bumgarner, with his long stringy hair swinging past the neck of his 6’4″ frame, loped in from the bullpen and Kauffman Stadium became the center of town in an old Western flick, at that moment when the bad guy arrives.
The Royals had no answer and no chance.
Bumgarner burned through the Royals like a teenager through his allowance.
Bochy looked on and he wasn’t about to screw this one up. This wasn’t just a game, it was history.
Bochy admitted later that he stayed as far away from his ace as possible, so the pitcher couldn’t even inadvertently tell his manager that he was feeling tired.
“I wasn’t about to take (Bumgarner) out,” Bochy told the press afterward.
In the ninth inning, Bumgarner pulled a Koufax in another manner: he eschewed his breaking stuff and poured one fastball after the other past the Royals hitters.
He also figured out that in doing so, he didn’t even have to throw a strike.
In baseball parlance, it’s called “climbing the ladder”: enticing hitters with fastballs that are slightly up in the strike zone, which they usually can’t catch up with.
Bumgarner used the strategy brilliantly, and he wasn’t daunted when Alex Gordon ended up on third base after a misplayed hit with two outs and the Royals trailing, 3-2.
It didn’t hurt Bumgarner’s cause that the Royals’ last hope was Salvador Perez, today’s Manny Sanguillen.
For those too young, Sanguillen was a catcher who “came out of the dugout swinging,” as the announcers of the day would say. Sanguillen was almost impossible to walk. An intentional walk was even money on whether Sanguillen would make it to first base.
So Bumgarner threw Perez nothing but fastballs that were no lower than the bill of the cap. And Perez kept swinging.
The final out was a foul pop fly between third base and the dugout. Series won, legend secured.
What Madison Bumgarner did was as close as you’ll see, in this day and age, to what Koufax did to the Twins in 1965.
It’s still not as impressive, because Koufax started and pitched a complete game on two days’ rest with essentially one pitch. But in today’s game, with pitch counts and “roles” for relievers and stubbornness from managers, it’s very hard to create the perfect storm that Bumgarner and Bochy weathered in Kansas City last Wednesday.
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?”
In the great press box in the sky, Jacques Plante is grinning broadly.
The center fielder of the Tigers’ present and future was indirectly taking tips from one of the best, who played the position so well some 50 years prior.
It was the summer of 2007, and Curtis Granderson, into just his second full season as the roamer of the vast expanse at Comerica Park, was having an impromptu lesson imparted to him.
Granderson and I, an interloper at his locker, were chatting before a game against the Cleveland Indians, when coach Andy Van Slyke walked by and tossed Granderson a mitt.
The outfielder’s glove had been recently re-laced, and that afforded Van Slyke an opportunity to pull it back from Granderson and jam it into his own hand, discussing the glove’s new laces and their length.
Van Slyke flapped the glove open and closed, open and closed, while pantomiming the act of scooping up a baseball and throwing it back to the infield.
“These laces are kind of long,” Van Slyke said. “Once, my laces were so long, I tripped over them during a game.”
Granderson laughed, but Van Slyke was serious—or so he said.
Granderson didn’t know it, but he was being schooled, indirectly, by Bill Virdon.
Virdon patrolled center field for the Pittsburgh Pirates with aplomb in the 1950s. And when Van Slyke was a young big leaguer playing in Pittsburgh, like Granderson in Detroit in 2007, it was Virdon who did the tutoring in Pirates camp.
And now Virdon’s teachings were being passed on to the wide-eyed Granderson by Van Slyke as I looked on.
Granderson was 26 years old at the time—with a kewpie doll face and a smile that lit up Woodward Avenue. He beat out a speedster named Nook Logan just a year prior to claim the Tigers’ center fielder job.
It was a job that Granderson was growing into very nicely, indeed.
When we last left Curtis Granderson—and by “we,” I mean those who have an Old English D plastered across their heart—he was a bourgeoning star, slapping triples all around Comerica Park out of that nervous batting stance and robbing them with his glove.
Granderson was going to play center field for the Tigers like Chet Lemon did before him, and like Mickey Stanley did before Lemon. And Granderson was going to stay with the Tigers forever.
That last part is what the fans must have thought, anyway.
Granderson was 28, seemingly just hitting his stride as an upper echelon center fielder, when the Tigers did the apparently unthinkable.
On the heels of a terribly disappointing loss in Game 163 to the Minnesota Twins to close out the 2009 season, the Tigers made a blockbuster trade—a deal so big it took three teams to consummate it.
Granderson was at the center of the trade, which landed the Tigers Phil Coke and Austin Jackson from the Yankees, and Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth from the Diamondbacks. The Tigers also gave up starting pitcher Edwin Jackson.
Detroit baseball fans were aghast.
Trading Curtis Granderson was considered blasphemy. He was a nice guy. A fine center fielder. A slapper of triples, a stroker of doubles, with a developing power swing. He smiled a lot. He was out there in the community year-round, helping out and becoming a Detroiter by proxy.
He was going to play center field for the Tigers forever!
It wasn’t just that Granderson was traded—it was that he was traded to the hated Yankees. He was too pure for New York. It was feared by yours truly that Granderson’s good deeds would be swallowed up and not really noticed in the Big Apple.
Pinstripes never really looked good on him, in retrospect.
They didn’t help his hitting. Oh, he hit his home runs in the new, cracker jack Yankee Stadium, where a pop fly to the second baseman could, with a gentle breeze, land ten rows up in the right field stands. But playing in New York ruined his swing.
Granderson was soiled by Yankee Stadium. The tiny ballpark turned him into a free-swinging slugger. He used to be a gap-to-gap guy, spraying baseballs like a machine gun into the outfield, from left to right. As a Yankee, he became Adam Dunn.
In his first season in New York, Granderson hit 24 home runs and his numbers were pretty much in line with what he did as a Tiger in 2009.
But then Yankee Stadium’s poison infiltrated his system.
In 2011 and 2012 combined, Granderson slugged—and that was the word for it—84 home runs, drove in 225 runs, and struck out 364 times. His batting averages for those two years were .262 and then .232, respectively.
But he no longer hit doubles and triples all that much—44 and 14, respectively in 2011-12 combined, where with the Tigers Granderson averaged 29 doubles and 14 triples per season.
And the lefty-batting Granderson never did learn how to hit left-handers after the trade to New York, against whom he has a career BA of .226.
Seduced by the right field porch that he could seemingly reach out and touch from the batter’s box, Granderson turned from sprayer to hacker at the plate as a Yankee. He became, for the most part, a home run or strike out guy.
This year, Granderson takes that poisoned swing from the Bronx to Queens, as a new member of the New York Mets. He signed with the Mets as a free agent after an injury-riddled 2013 season saw Granderson suit up for just 61 games with the Yanks.
Granderson is soon to be 33 years old. To us in Detroit, that doesn’t seem possible. He still has the kewpie doll face but there’s some maturity to it now. He doesn’t look 33 yet he does, at the same time.
He is moving into grizzled vet status. This year will be Granderson’s 10th in the big leagues.
The man who would be the Tigers’ center fielder until he retired is now trying to revive his career in the National League, asked to be a mentor of sorts to teammates and fellow outfielders Eric Young, Jr. and youngster Juan Lagares.
Granderson was a wide-eyed youngster once, getting impromptu outfield lessons from Bill Virdon by way of Andy Van Slyke via pantomime in the Tigers’ clubhouse.
Time will tell if Granderson can smile the calendar into submission in his new pinstripes in Queens.
And also, if he can regain a hitting stroke that, despite his nifty home run numbers, lost its way with the Yankees.
Sometimes I wonder if Florida and Arizona were placed on this Earth just so we in the North can see real life baseball players jogging and playing catch in the sunshine and in 80 degree temps every February.
Now all those reading this who live in those states, hold your horses. I’m not “dissing” your burg. I’m sure your state has more to offer than warning tracks, base lines and pitcher’s mounds. I’m pretty sure, anyway.
But this is a special week for those of us who are winter weary.
We get to see white balls being thrown—that have stitches in them. The fat men this week won’t have carrots for noses and charcoal for their eyes and mouths—they’ll be hitting fungos into the outfield.
We get to see brooms cleaning off home plate, instead of brushes sweeping snow off cars.
It’s spring training time.
This has been an especially rough winter in Michigan, so the four best words in the English language, “Pitchers and catchers report,” bring extra joy.
We’ll smile extra broadly when we click on those initial images beamed up from Lakeland, showing the Tigers in their creamy white uniforms, running in the outfield and throwing the first pitches of the year.
Female fans will be smiling, too, when they see new manager Brad Ausmus, all of 44 years old, tanned and handsome and wearing the Old English D.
It may not be scientifically possible for photos and videos from baseball’s spring training to actually lower the outside air temperature, but don’t tell that to Michiganders who have been slugged by one of the most relentless winters in decades.
Florida baseball and Arizona baseball, in February and March, seems to make all things possible.
You start reading stories of the young phenoms and the free agent signees joining their new teams and the teams with new managers and the magazines with the predictions start to come out and it makes the winter a little easier to stomach, for you can see a flicker of light at the end of this frozen tunnel.
The Tigers’ recent Winter Caravan was just a tease. It was seeing baseball players in person, but they were in winter coats and leather jackets and ski caps. It was Comerica Park, but under a thick blanket of snow.
This week, pitchers and catchers start doing their thing, revving up for another baseball season. They’re the warm-up act for when the rest of the gang joins the fray a few days later.
Before long, you’ll see the intense face of Justin Verlander, staring down the plate, instead of Tweeted photos of him smiling with swimsuit models.
Nothing against swimsuit models, mind you.
You’ll see Ausmus, taking in his first spring training as a big league manager, gazing out onto the field and you won’t be able to help but wonder what those gears in his head are spitting out.
Who will bat lead-off? Who’s my Opening Day starter? (It’s not a slam dunk, is it?) How much do I catch Alex Avila? Do I have a strict platoon in left field? Will Ricky Porcello continue to develop into a solid big league starter? How will lefty Drew Smyly complement the four righties in the rotation?
Just for starters.
There will be the delightful sight of Miguel Cabrera, smiling and cherubic, punishing baseballs all over the outfield—and beyond.
There’ll be Torii Hunter, his youthful exuberance defying his 39 years, laughing with teammates and telling the press, yet again, that all he wants to do is play in one freaking World Series before he retires.
There’ll be the new Tigers—Ian Kinsler, Joe Nathan and Rajai Davis especially, stretching in their new duds and talking about how fun life should be as a Tiger.
And don’t forget The Kid—Nick Castellanos—who on Opening Day will officially no longer be a prospect but a big league third baseman. Think there might be a few eyeballs on him?
The Tigers team that gathers in Lakeland starting this week won’t be like any Tigers team you’ve seen in the Jim Leyland Era.
They won’t be as plodding. There won’t be as much waiting for the three-run homer. There’s a vacuum cleaner at shortstop. They’ll actually go from first to third on a single now and again—and even better, from first to home on a double.
Spring training is time to start asking questions and making prognostications. It’s time for even Cubs fans to think the unthinkable—at least until they throw the first pitch.
Spring training is the time of year when the words “if” and “then” are used more than in the other 10 months combined.
Spring training means seeing former players back in uniform once again, instructing the newbies. In Detroit, it recalls Bill Freehan, always looking like he could still play every February, tutoring Lance Parrish. And Al Kaline, who at 79 will again pull on the Old English D, like he has for the past 62 years, and teach the outfielders how to catch the ball and throw it in one motion—because no one did that better than Al.
Spring training is when big league players actually hop on buses to travel, just like their days in the bushes. And it’s when players like Castellanos dream of traveling by air all year.
It’s a time for baseball to warm our frigid winter hearts—to pump the blood through our chilly veins with more urgency.
Are you feeling warmer and cozier already?
It was something out of a cartoon. Warner Brothers would have been proud.
The right fielder chases the well-hit baseball all the way to the wall, where he then tumbles over said wall and disappears, like the Coyote vanishing in yet another attempt to chase down the Road Runner.
Only, this scene was hardly funny to Tigers fans.
It was Game 2 of the ALCS last October, in Boston’s Fenway Park. The Tigers swiped Game 1 behind a combined one-hit effort from five pitchers. And they led Game 2, 5-1, in the eighth inning. A 2-0 series lead and a surprisingly easy path to the World Series beckoned.
Then disaster struck, like a horror movie. The Red Sox weren’t dead, after all. The Tigers looked at the Bosox, lying prone on the ground, turned around to hug the girl, and when they turned around, the Red Sox were gone.
So was the baseball hit by David Ortiz, off Joaquin Benoit, the Tigers de facto closer by process of elimination.
The bases were loaded with Red Sox when Benoit served up a beach ball to Ortiz, whose nickname is Big Papi, and it’s not one of those “opposite” nicknames, like a bald guy they call “Curly.”
Ortiz slammed a laser to right field, and Torii Hunter, bless his heart, gave it his all, but Hunter ran out of grass and ran smack into the wall, spilling over it and disappearing into the Boston night.
With one dagger of a swing, Ortiz tied the game and as Benoit sagged on the mound, visibly shaken, the Tigers took on the persona of their makeshift closer, eventually losing the game in the ninth inning.
You could say the series was 1-1, in favor of Boston.
The Tigers, of course, lost the ALCS, 4-2, and the fourth loss was punctuated by another grand slam in the late innings, the second one off the bat of Shane Victorino, who teed off on reliever Jose Veras.
Two grand slams into the Boston night, in two different games, both off late-inning relievers. Two swings that effectively canceled out the brilliant starting pitching the Tigers received the entire series.
The bullpen was the Tigers’ fickle lover all year long in 2013. Every time the team felt its advances, it would turn its back on them. And the Tigers got rebuffed one final time, at the worst possible moment.
As the Joker said in “The Dark Knight,” let’s wind the clocks back a year.
A year ago at this time, the Tigers thought they had their new closer to replace the deposed Jose Valverde. He was big, young rookie Bruce Rondon, the roly-poly kid with the big arm and the big smile.
It was a risk and a half. Plunging a rookie into a closer role is like tossing a grenade into a fox hole to test whether it will detonate. You turn your back, stick your fingers in your ears and hope for the best.
Rondon went boom.
It was clear from the get go, after the season started, that Rondon was too green to close anything other than a door.
In May, the Tigers actually brought back Valverde. Papa Grande went boom, for the second time in eight months.
That left Benoit, the Accidental Closer.
It was makeshift, but it sort of worked. Benoit navigated the Tigers out of troubled waters, with the occasional banging into an unlit pier along the way.
The rest of the bullpen was shaky—just unreliable enough to make it a source of worry for Tigers fans heading in to the playoffs.
When FDR said that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, he obviously hadn’t seen the Tigers bullpen.
The starters were terrific, and the bullpen tried to hold it all together, but then the playoffs arrived and there was a blown game in the ALDS in Oakland, then the debacles in the Red Sox series.
But opposing hitters beware. There’s a new sheriff in town.
“Yeah, there’s pressure. But I will take that pressure with a chance to go out and win, a chance to get to the World Series.”
The speaker is Joe Nathan, talking to the Detroit Free Press during the Tigers’ winter caravan.
Nathan is a real closer. There’s nothing accidental about him. After a few years in the San Francisco Giants bullpen, setting up games in the late innings, Nathan was traded to the Minnesota Twins before the 2004 season and became the Twins’ lock down man in the ninth inning.
He’s been at this closer thing for 10 years now.
Nathan has 341 career saves. The man he’s replacing in Detroit, Benoit, had 13 career saves prior to last season.
Don’t let anyone tell you that moving from set-up man to closer, as Benoit did last year for the Tigers, is like switching lanes on the freeway.
Well, it could be that way, if you’re talking about moving from the shoulder of the road to the fast lane from a dead stop.
There’s a different mentality that the ninth inning man has—that’s why so many of them are nuts.
The closer is the Red Adair of baseball—fighting fires with a ferocity and stubbornness that just isn’t in every man. When the game is the tightest, when the stakes are the highest, that’s when the closer licks his chops.
Nathan signed with the Tigers last November, despite having a very similar offer from his old team, the Texas Rangers. And Nathan is a Texas kid, born in Houston.
The decision to come to Detroit was about winning, and about being the ninth inning man for a team whose bullpen and makeshift closer fizzled out in the playoffs, when someone like Nathan likely would have led the Tigers past the Red Sox and to the World Series for the second straight year.
“All around, I was attracted to … how much this team can do,” Nathan told the Free Press. “Especially with the speed they brought in, (with) the improvement of their defense, which I think is going to be their biggest difference.”
He is too modest.
The Tigers gambled last year with the back end of their bullpen, anointing an unproven rookie and then bringing back a guy who crashed and burned in 2012. They ended up with a set-up man as their closer and the risk caught up to them at the worst possible time.
No risks this year. No messing around. The Tigers, three-time defending division champs, are once again a World Series contender. They were burned once, so now they hired a fireman by trade.
If the Tigers falter in the ninth inning this year, it’ll be because the other guys beat one of the game’s all-time great closers.
Nathan has made the All-Star team six times, all as a closer. In 2013, for Texas, Nathan saved 43 games and had an ERA that you needed a microscope to see (1.39).
He’s 39 years old, but so what? Nathan had Tommy John surgery a few years ago. He’s 39, but his new arm is four.
Nathan’s style of closing is quick and to the point. He doesn’t do the rollercoaster thing with the fans’ emotions. He gets in and he gets out. He works fast. He closes games like he has a plane to catch.
It’s a breath of fresh air from recent years, when Tigers closers often turned ninth innings into a soap opera.
Former big league umpire Dave Pallone once set me straight on the credibility of the men in blue on the baseball diamond.
“Remember, we umpires may not always be right, but we’re never wrong.”
He’s right. The arbiters of the game might miss a call here and there, but their word is final. You’d have better luck protesting at a show trial.
But what is this? Baseball is about to pop open a bottle and let a genie out that has been corked inside for over 125 years.
Get ready for challenge flags and even more TV timeouts. Prepare yourself for confusion. Is this reviewable? Is that?
Video replay is about to be unleashed on the game, and unlike before, where it trickled out for a few select plays, this time Bud Selig isn’t messing around. He’s dumping the genie out fully with a big plop.
Someone once said of baseball’s lazy allure, “In baseball, you can’t run out the clock, like in other sports. You have to get 27 outs.”
Baseball and time have always had a relationship built on trust; they agree not to interfere with each other.
Umpiring the game has been no small part of this timelessness.
Even when technology grew legs and could walk around and visit every game known to man, sprinkling its advances like Johnny Appleseed, baseball always managed to stay unexplored. It was the unconquered game in that respect.
The means to allow umpires to have a peek at video replay to aid in decision making has been present since the 1960s. But half a century went by before baseball seriously considered using it.
The game that has survived the Black Sox, the reserve clause, spit balls, sign stealing, collusion, the designated hitter and George Steibrenner will soon have another cross to bear.
Selig, the outgoing commissioner, apparently wants to be known for more than a tied All-Star game, a missed World Series and the wild card.
So he’s about to shove video replay—serious, some-holds-barely-barred replay—down our throats.
This is more than just the occasional home run, fair or foul calls that are now subject to review. Selig is opening up a whole array of plays that will now send the umpiring crew off the field and under a hood.
The list of plays of which managers can begin to challenge umpires’ judgment starting this upcoming season isn’t pretty, if you’re a baseball purist.
The Chicken Little people will tell you that baseball is taking a giant leap toward making every ball and strike an issue. The “let’s get the call right” people will tell you that any delays caused will be worth it.
The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between.
But there is one indisputable repercussion.
Once the videotape machines start whirring, there’s no going back. It’s not too maudlin to say that the game will be changed forever.
Baseball doesn’t change itself forever very often. I guess it figures that it got 90 feet for base paths right on the first try back in the 1850s, so it can be filled with hubris if it wants.
Once Bud Selig’s expanded replay system starts spitting out videos, we won’t have another Don Denkinger or Jim Joyce to kick around anymore, that’s for sure.
Denkinger famously blew a safe/out call at first base in the 1985 World Series that cost the St. Louis Cardinals a game—and maybe the series itself.
Tigers fans and Joyce need no introduction after the latter picked a horrible time to be human in 2010, robbing Armando Galarraga—remember him?—of a perfect game with two outs in the ninth inning, also with a missed call at first base.
We aren’t likely to have any more poster children for blown calls, once managers start using NFL-like challenges and more and more final words are taken away from the umpires on the field.
Sounds good, right? The “get it right” people are doing a happy dance.
Since the 19th century, I’d say baseball got along just fine without halting play and making sure that every call was beyond reproach.
Despite the voluminous list of calls subject to review starting in 2014, not every play is covered. So there will still be plays that affect games which could go against a team unabashed.
The trouble with creating subjective lists of plays that are reviewable, is that inevitably plays are left out that will enrage TV viewers in their incorrectness, yet nothing can be done about them.
So baseball will have created a whole new set of problems.
It’s like changes to playoff systems. The more fair you try to be, and the more teams you include, the more changes and tweaks you have to make to validate those already installed.
You think more people have been placated by MLB’s playoff tweaks than were offended before the addition of the wild card in the first place?
Hard to say. But the fact that the answer isn’t clear, says something.
Baseball’s expanded use of replay in 2014 will include everything from safe/out calls to hit by pitch to trapped catches to tag and forced plays, and more. Managers will be allotted two challenges each up to the seventh inning, after which time Big Brother takes over and determines what is going to be reviewed or not.
You can say that if the technology is there, why not use it. You can say that there’s nothing wrong with getting a play right.
You can also say this. Once the videotape machines take over, baseball’s sense of timeliness goes away forever. We’ll be subject to on-screen clocks that are tracking how long reviews are taking to be completed. More fans will be looking at their watches.
Suddenly, a game that has been played at its own pace in time frames ranging from 90 minutes to four hours per match, for over 150 years, will be overshadowed at times by Father Time.
Managers will freely use their challenges—you can count on that, especially in the new system’s initial years. Callers to sports talk radio, as if they need anything else to bitch about, now have another bone with which to pick with their team’s manager.
The talk around the water cooler the morning after a game won’t be about Miguel Cabrera’s home runs or Max Scherzer’s strikeouts. It’ll be about “that challenge” in the fourth inning.
Will more calls be right than were before? Well, that’s the punch line. I have a feeling that video replay will support the original call on the field far more often than not. So play will be halted for several minutes, only for everyone to be told that the original call made by human eyes was not so bad, after all.
And the cry of “Play ball!” will need to be repeated over and over, between challenges and reviews.
How long before we look back longingly at baseball’s “pre-booth review” days?
There was Hal Newhouser, Prince Hal, who never got the credit he fully deserved because he had the misfortune of dominating during the so-called “war years,” as if he planned it out that way.
There was Jim Bunning, who’d one day baffle America as a Senate curmudgeon. But before that he baffled hitters.
There was Denny McLain, whose life off the field was as turbulent as a private plane in a storm, but who thrilled for two years with fastballs, the organ and hubris.
There was Mickey Lolich, old rubber arm himself, portly and durable. Mr. Opening Day.
There was Jack Morris. The Cat, who never met a big game he didn’t like, or thrive in.
Then there’s Justin Verlander.
It’s Verlander’s world and we’re all just living in it—and that includes American League hitters.
See Verlander smile, broadly. See him giving TV interviews during games. See him with swimsuit models. See him throw no-hitters, and come close to throwing more.
See Verlander win the Rookie of the Year award. See him pitch in two World Series. See him win the Cy Young Award and the MVP in the same year. See him almost win another Cy Young.
Verlander isn’t a pitcher, he’s a cereal box.
The Tigers haven’t had a pitcher like Verlander, in terms of personality, talent and accomplishment, since…well, they never have.
We are seeing something unprecedented right now. The Tigers have a top flight pitcher, maybe the best in the game today, whose world is his oyster. And there’s something else that may be unprecedented.
Actually, there are maybe 200 million things that could be unprecedented.
Verlander’s contract expires after the 2014 season. Whether the Tigers sign him to a new deal before then or not, it’s likely that Justin Verlander will become the big league’s first $200 million pitcher.
I’m usually not keen on giving pitchers outlandish contracts. Pitchers are high maintenance, delicate creatures. They make their living putting their arms through gyrations that the human arm wasn’t meant to be put through. After every outing, they strap enough ice on their arm to keep a keg of beer cold.
The ink dries on their big contracts and the next thing you know, they’re in the doctor’s office. Then they’re on the disabled list.
The fat contract for pitchers I usually shy away from. But Verlander is no typical pitcher.
I would have no qualms throwing $200 million at him, spread over 7-10 years, even though he just turned 30 years old. And I’d have no qualms even if it was my money to spend, to show you.
I’d have no qualms because Verlander isn’t a typical pitcher any more than was Feller or Koufax or Ryan or Clemens. Verlander is a freak, but in a good way.
Like Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens before him—power pitchers with howitzers for arms—Verlander has that feel about him. He has that feel of someone who is going to be bringing it well into his 30s, if not into his early 40s.
First, there’s no violent delivery to put unneeded wear and tear on the arm. Verlander’s motion is as smooth as a milk shake and as powerful as a locomotive. The baseball explodes out of his arm with nary a jerk or a snap.
Second, in seven full seasons he’s never sniffed the disabled list, and he’s never had a “tired” or “dead” arm. It just doesn’t feel like he’s ever going to be brittle.
Verlander is going to get his money—somewhere. So it may as well be in Detroit.
But here’s where the fun-loving, the world-is-my-oyster Verlander shows up.
He recently told the press that to be a free agent would be “fun.”
You gotta like a guy who doesn’t mince words.
Of course it would be fun, to be the best pitcher on the planet and have teams lined up, ready to shower you with cash. Who wouldn’t love to be courted and wooed?
That’s not to say that the Tigers won’t sign Verlander to a contract extension long before free agency can kick in, with its temptations and playful wickedness.
Owner Mike Ilitch never met a big star that didn’t make him want to break out his wallet—whether his own player or that of another team’s. That goes for the Red Wings, too. If you could play at the highest level, Ilitch signed you. If you were a member of one his teams, he kept you.
How many Red Wings players did Ilitch let walk away into free agency? Only two notable names pop out—Sergei Fedorov and Brendan Shanahan. And both wanted to leave for different reasons. Fedorov chased crazy money with Anaheim in 2003, and Shanahan felt that the torch should be passed to younger Red Wings when he left for the New York Rangers in 2006.
Other than those two cases, Ilitch has kept his stars in Detroit when it comes to his hockey team. In baseball, he’s done the same thing—while adding to the payroll with players from outside the organization.
So I wouldn’t worry too much about Justin Verlander hitting the free market after next season. Ilitch won’t have that. There will come a time when the owner will yank DaveDombrowski by the ear into a room and ask his GM, flat out, how much it’s going to cost to keep Verlander in the Old English D. Dombrowski will tell his boss, who will fork over a check, and that will be that.
That check is likely to steamroll past $200 million.
It will be a bargain.
Verlander is nothing like we’ve ever seen on a pitching mound in Detroit. He’s 30 years old and he’s just getting started. He’s pitched in more big games already than most guys will see in a lifetime. His awards and achievements and accolades read like a 20-year veteran’s. He’s funny and good-looking and loves the media.
He also thinks free agency will be fun. Too bad he’ll never get to find out for real.
We were far too young to even be within 500 feet of a casino, but we had our version of a slot machine. We may not have been old enough to bet, but that didn’t stop us from plunking down coins for a shot at what was inside those mysterious wax packages.
Come to think of it, the Cunningham’s drug store near my Livonia house was sort of like a casino. There was no clock. They served food and drink at cheap prices. There were surveillance mirrors on the walls.
And, of course, the gambling that we did inside!
There was no crapshoot on the Vegas strip as thrilling to an adolescent boy as a venture into the Cunningham’s on Plymouth Road and Farmington during baseball card season.
Your fate was held in the hands of the trading card gods. You had no more control over how you’d make out as the adult in Caesars Palace did at the Roulette Wheel.
We collected cards back then—circa the 1970s—ostensibly to someday accumulate every card in that year’s set. That was the goal, every year. Whether through barter, luck or perseverance—or all three—you wanted to be able to check every card off the list. And we’re talking some 500+ cards.
There were two ways to acquire cards.
The first was the wax package route. Fifteen cents bought you 10 cards and a flat rectangle of pink bubble gum with a sugary coating that invariably rubbed off on the card it rested against. For years you could tell which card was the “gum card” because the sugary coating left a stain on the card that was indelible.
The second was the slot machine method. They had the machine near the front entrance, chained to the floor. There were maybe four or five slots with respective metal levers, each operated by placing two quarters on the steel tray above the levers. The trick was, after plopping down your four bits, to jam the lever into the machine and pull it back out, rapidly. The cards then poured through the slots.
We believed that the number of cards that was distributed was directly proportional to how hard you were able to jam the lever into the machine, and also by how fast and violently you pulled it out. We believed this because the number of cards that the machine doled out was often different, unlike the wax packages, where you knew you were always getting 10 cards.
I’m sure there were many Cunningham’s cashiers who furrowed their brows at the gaggle of boys who treated the baseball card machines like the slots in the casino, complete with cheering and cussing.
But the acquisition of the cards was only the beginning of the collection process. The next step was the Barter. That took place outside the store.
We’d always opt for a combination of bubble gum cards and those from the machine, sans sugary coating. No one just bought one over the other. You combined, apparently to somehow better your luck.
Outside the store we’d stand, our bikes between our legs, gum packing our cheeks like sunflower seeds in a hamster’s.
The first thing you tried to do was offload “doubles”—those duplicate cards that were not needed. We’d shuffle through our cards like traders on the floor of the NYSE, calling out doubles loudly in case anyone was interested, right then and there.
The checklists were always mental. Everyone seemed to know which cards they needed, cold. We didn’t have to consult with a grocery list of needed cards. And we also knew which cards we already had, so the doubles could either come in the form of two of the same card from that day’s haul, or by way of mentally connecting your collection at home with those cards being shuffled in your hands in front of the store.
Sometimes you’d end up with triples or even quadruples, usually of some bench player who rarely found his way into an actual game. No one got three or four Rod Carews.
I kept my cards categorized by team, rubber banded together. It was easier, to me, to keep track of who I had and who I needed if I could think of them by team name.
Topps was the trading card brand of the day, and nobody else. We only knew Topps. Today, the baseball trading card world has been turned upside down by so many different companies and sizes and shapes of cards that it’s a lesson in futility to even think of garnering a complete set.
Topps used to release their card sets in stages. The first was right about now, in spring training. Those cards kept us busy for a couple months, and then we’d keep our eyes on the machine in the front of Cunningham’s.
Sure enough, the machine’s sample cards would one day change and there’d be a sign on the machine that indicated a new “edition” of cards was available.
That was an exciting day, boy.
More wax packages would be snatched up and into the trays would go our quarters as we sought to add copiously to our sets. Then, of course, more bartering in front of the store, done through wads of gum.
One year a Bill Freehan card became contentious.
It was the 1973 set. I can still see the Freehan card today: the Tigers catcher lunging to try to tag a New York Yankee player out at the plate. The card was auspicious because it was a horizontal photograph, as opposed to the standard vertical. That in of itself made it a cool card to have.
Anyhow, I needed that card to complete my Tigers team. My friend Rob Polster had it. And Rob was a transplanted Chicagoan, never really a true Detroit sports fan. He rooted for the Windy City teams. He was a Cubs fan, as was his family.
To this day I blame Rob Polster’s lack of Detroit sports loyalty for his utter disregard in bartering with me for the Freehan card. He knew how important it was to me, but there was no fellow Tigers fan empathy going on. If anything, there was some Chicagoan spite.
Rob simply wasn’t going to trade me the Freehan card. I’d be left to get it on my own devices, i.e. multiple trips to Cunningham’s until I got lucky.
I never got the card. A couple years later Rob and his family moved back to Chicago.
The House wins again.
It’s become an annual tradition. Look back at 12 months of tripe and pick out the stuff that I either got very wrong, very right, or that makes one think I might be onto something (or on something, whichever).
So without further ado, here’s the Best (and Worst) of Greg Eno for 2012.
On the state of the Lions after their 45-28 playoff loss in New Orleans:
“There needs to be more roster massaging before the Lions can truly call themselves Super Bowl contenders. No one gets bumped out of the playoffs in the first round, as soundly as the Lions did, and comes back with the same cast and crew and expects to make progress.”
Yet that’s exactly what GM Marty Mayhew did, for the most part, as his draft was less than spectacular. And you saw what happened.
On what the Tigers should do in the wake of the Victor Martinez knee injury:
“Is there a Martinez on the list?
The closest is Prince Fielder, and while it’s intriguing to imagine Cecil’s kid accepting a one-year deal in Detroit before testing the market again for 2013 and beyond, it’ll take a boatload of cash and quite a payroll hit to make that happen. Not likely to transpire, but fun to think about.
The next closest, perhaps, is Vlad Guerrero, coming off a so-so season in Baltimore.
The rest of the list contains some acceptable names, but not all of them would one consider to be enough protection behind Miguel Cabrera. In fact, few of them would be.
So the Tigers have to realize that they just won’t go out and pluck another V-Mart from the tree.
Guerrero would be a fine addition. He is strictly a DH at this stage of his career, so in that way he’s a tit-for-tat replacement for Martinez, who even before this latest injury wasn’t going to play in the field anymore—not with the Tigers signing Gerald Laird to be catcher Alex Avila’s backup.
But Vlad won’t hit .330, and he’s not a switch-hitter, another thing that Victor has over the available free agents.
Still, a Guerrero who can hit for power but not threaten .300 would make opposing managers at least think twice before issuing Cabrera the four-finger pass.
My money is on the Tigers signing Guerrero for a year.”
They didn’t sign Guerrero for a year. They signed Fielder for nine.
On the Red Wings’ Tomas Holmstrom playing in his 1,000th career game:
“Holmstrom is the crazy guy in the war movies who tosses himself onto a grenade in a fox hole. Only the fox hole, in this case, is the goal crease. The grenade is the puck. And Holmstrom has allowed his body to be battered and bruised all in the name of moving said puck across the red line—for 1,000 games.
You figure that if Holmstrom plays about 15 minutes a night, then his 1,000 games represents 250 hours of punishment in front of the net. Can you imagine being slashed and cross-checked and making yourself a target for shooting pucks for over 10 days straight?”
Sadly, Holmstrom hasn’t been able to add to his total, thanks to the lockout. And it’s no sure bet that he’ll be back, anyhow.
On the status of Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch:
“Jackson shouldn’t be batting leadoff any more than Ben Wallace should be the Pistons’ new starting point guard.
Why not make Boesch the new leadoff hitter?
Dump Jackson down to ninth, where he belongs.
Boesch IV, the leadoff version, will likely hit .270-plus, start the occasional game with a home run, and—most importantly—he won’t strike out 175 times. He’s got some speed, is a competent base runner and he won’t strike out 175 times. He’ll get on base with surprising frequency. Did I mention that he won’t strike out 175 times?”
Jackson had a breakout year of sorts, and Boesch…didn’t. Shows you how much I know.
On the off-season (up to that point) of Lions GM Mayhew:
“Martin Mayhew seems to be the guy that can take this thing from 0-16 to the Super Bowl. He has done a marvelous job of drafting, trading, signing and re-signing.
The latter—re-signing—has been far more important to the Lions’ future than any free agent from outside the organization they’ve signed in recent years.
Mayhew wanted to keep his own free agents in the fold, and rework the contracts of some of his star players to create the financial space in which to do all that re-signing.
His off-season, thus far, has been A+.”
That was BEFORE the draft, which wasn’t very good, to say the least. And Mayhew is suddenly on the hot seat, perhaps.
On Pistons (then) rookie point guard Brandon Knight:
“Coach Frank, speaking basketball-ese, put it this way to the Free Press the other day.
“I think a big part of it is when Brandon is playing north-to-south and not east-to-west. He has those, we call them ‘rack attacks,’” Frank said in that East Coast dialect that all pro-basketball coaches seem to have.
“That’s vital, especially for a primary ball handler, you have to be on the attack and put pressure on a defense,” Frank continued. “When you do that, it might not be your shot, but you’re going to collapse (the defense) and force help.”
There you have it. The Pistons are better off when Mr. Little makes those big rack attacks.
Only time will tell if those rack attacks, and his growing chemistry with Greg Monroe, will put Brandon Knight on the path of Dave Bing and Isiah Thomas-like greatness.”
Knight this season, at times, appears to be regressing, or at the very least, not progressing as much as hoped.
On the dreaded retirement of Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, after it was made official:
“You don’t replace Nick Lidstrom. Let’s get that straight right now.
All the Red Wings can do is cobble together as much talent as they can on defense and hope for the best, really. They’re a much worse team now than they were yesterday, no question.
But all is not lost. Plenty of teams have won the Stanley Cup without the greatest defenseman in NHL history on their roster. I mean, look who’s playing for the Cup right now (LA and New Jersey).
The sun will rise tomorrow. It’s just hard to imagine that it will, after it set on Nick Lidstrom’s career today.”
And there STILL haven’t been any games played since, to see what life post-Lidstrom is like.
On Pistons big man Greg Monroe, as said by frequent “Knee Jerks” guest and former Pistons player and coach, Ray Scott:
“It was then when Scott said something that would have caused me to bop the speaker in the mouth—had the speaker not been Ray Scott.
“With Greg Monroe, we finally have a big man in Detroit who we can throw the ball into for all four quarters and make something happen and we haven’t had that since Bob Lanier,” Scott said of the kid from Georgetown who just finished his second season for a bad Pistons team, which Scott and Lanier know all about.
For full disclosure, Ray wanted us to know that he serves on the board of Monroe’s charity foundation. That’s OK; what he said didn’t smack of shilling. Ray doesn’t roll like that.
Monroe, to hear Scott say it, might become the best NBA center from Georgetown since Patrick Ewing. No less.”
Nothing that Monroe has done this season indicates that Coach is wrong.
On the Lions’ consistency:
“So far, the lack of football heads rolling in Detroit since 2008 seems to be working. The Lions seem to be getting better. Schwartz is on the last year of his contract, but that will soon be ripped up and an extension signed, I would imagine.
All of a sudden, the Lions are a model of consistency in today’s NFL. An improved won/lost record has been concurrent with that consistency.”
On the hype over Quintin Berry:
“Jackson, one of the premier center fielders in baseball, went down, and here came Berry, riding in from Toledo on what some people thought was a white horse.
Berry did his best at being Jackson’s stand-in. For a few games the Tigers got a lift from the journeyman. It didn’t hurt his standing that, at the time of his promotion, Boesch and Young were terrible.
But let’s not get carried away. Berry may not even be with the team come September. He might be long forgotten by then, as the Tigers, it is hoped, scramble for a playoff spot. Or, his speed alone may keep him on the roster. We’ll see.
Who will not be forgotten, who will not be a footnote to this season, is Jackson. And, I submit, Boesch and Young, when all is said and done.
Jackson has the potential to be the best all-around center fielder the Tigers have had since Al Kaline roamed there in the late-1950s.”
Berry faltered, as I expected, though his spot on the 2013 roster seems secure, for now.
On Tommy Hearns’ induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame:
“Hearns fought all the big names: Sugar Ray Leonard (twice), Roberto Duran, Wilfred Benitez and Marvin Hagler. The opponents were always the best that boxing had to offer at the time. Tommy didn’t always win, but even in defeat, he fought a hell of a fight. The Hagler bout is legendary for its fury.
He did all this mostly in the first half of the 1980s, at a time when Detroit needed a champion and a figure of respect in the worst way. The 1979 depression, which hit the Big Three automakers hard, had sapped a lot of the spirit out of Detroiters.
But then came Tommy Hearns with his long arms and his wicked right, and in a way, when Tommy kicked the ass of Duran (in 1984 with the hardest punch I’ve ever seen thrown, by the way), we felt like we were kicking ass, too. And when Tommy lost, most famously to Leonard and Hagler, we felt like we got slugged in the gut as well.
Tommy Hearns was more than a boxer. He bridged some of the gap between team champions (1968 to 1984) and made Detroiters proud again.
For that alone, he should be in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.”
I think we can all agree that this was long overdue.
On the worry over the Lions’ lack of a bona fide running attack:
The Lions’ fortunes, make no question, will ride on Stafford’s golden arm and Johnson’s Velcro hands. They are the best QB/receiver tandem in the NFL, bar none.
Why force-feed a cache of questionable running backs the football, just for the sake of laying claim to running and passing balance?
It makes no sense.”
I stand behind this, despite 2012′s 4-12 record.
On the MVP race between Miguel Cabrera and the Angels’ Mike Trout:
“Cabrera is having a season that would be a runaway MVP year in just about any other, except for the kid Trout and his highlight-reel play in center field, which has combined with the power and cunning batting eye to give Cabrera a run for his money.
Trout has dropped off, however, at the bat in recent weeks. He hit .284 in August and is at .257 in September. His team is still in the playoff hunt, as is Cabrera’s, so that’s mostly a wash.
It would be easy for MVP voters to become enamored of Trout’s position of glamour, to recall the feats of derring-do he’s accomplished in center field, look at his total offensive numbers (not just the ones since August), and award him not only the Rookie of the Year, but the big enchilada, too.
Those voters will try to justify their vote by pointing to Cabrera and his sometimes uneven play at third base, which isn’t as sexy as center field to begin with, and offer that up as a reason to go with Trout as MVP.
If a man can win the Triple Crown, or come so damn close to it that we’re still wondering if he can do it on Sept. 22, his defense would have to be a combination of Dave Kingman and Dick Stuart’s to cancel it out enough to take him out of the MVP race.”
Thankfully the right decision was made!
On the future of Lions RB Jahvid Best, and his role in today’s NFL, when it comes to concussions:
“Some have suggested that Best hang up his spikes and call it a career, despite his tender age and this being just his third pro season. The brain is nothing to be trifled with, they say. Maybe because of Best’s youth, he should consider retirement.
Best has given no indication that he will retire. Lions fans, eager to see what Best can do for an extended period of time, haven’t exactly blown the horn for retirement, either.
No matter what Best’s fate turns out to be—short-lived career or full recovery and longevity—the NFL has a problem on its hands.”
The NFL needs to work on better helmets, among other things. Best won’t be the last player imperiled.
On the Pistons using big men Greg Monroe and rookie Andre Drummond at the same time:
“Two years ago, GM Joe Dumars selected Greg Monroe, a scoring big man, from Georgetown University, which has been known to produce a good NBA big or two.
Monroe has developed to the point where, heading into his third season, he is considered a team leader and on the verge of stardom. He’s the first scoring big man on the Pistons since Rasheed Wallace, only Monroe doesn’t treat the key as if there was a force field around it.
Neither does Andre Drummond, the Pistons’ rookie center from Connecticut, a seven-foot, shot blocking kangaroo who, at 19 years, is tender in age but loaded with skills, some of which still need to be harnessed, and refined.
Pistons fans are daft. They are beside themselves in wonderment of what they could be seeing on the floor, with Monroe and Drummond running side-by-side. Never before have the Pistons possessed two athletic men of this size, at the same time.
It’s enough to make one dare murmur those two words.
About time the Pistons tried it.”
Coach Lawrence Frank has been trying it more, with success, and to the pleasure of the fans.
On Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who I obviously soured on after the beginning of 2012:
“But Schwartz, acting as impulsively and with the same lack of discipline and brains that his team frequently shows, whipped out his red challenge flag and slammed it into the Ford Field turf, a move as illegal as going through a red light, according to the NFL rule book, which states that attempts to challenge a touchdown play are as against the rules as they are unnecessary.
Now, you can say that the rule is silly. You can say that it would be nice if the referee, Walt Coleman, would have sidled up to Schwartz and said, “Jim, put the flag away. The guys in the booth will take a look at it.”
But Schwartz should know the rules. Of all the boneheaded moves the Lions (and their coaches) have made over the years, Schwartz’s blunder might be at the top of the list. It’s right up there with Marty Mornhinweg taking the wind and Bobby Ross going for two.
“I was just so mad, I had the flag out before (Forsett) got to the end zone,” Schwartz told the media after the game.
The Lions are undisciplined, mouthy and in a freefall.
Just like their coach.”
It’s been reported that Schwartz’s job is “under review” by the Ford family, largely because of this kind of stuff.
On Matthew Stafford’s inconsistency:
“The concern, and it’s a valid one, is that Matthew Stafford this season has been too erratic. His once accurate arm has betrayed him too often, and not just with difficult throws. Basic tosses are going astray. High, just out of the reach of wanton fingertips. Wide, too far for even the longest of arms to grab. Low, skipping off the turf into the receiver’s belly.
Too many errant throws.
It doesn’t matter how much the Lions run the football. They are, not yet, a team that is going to ram the ball down anyone’s throats with any consistency. The Jacksonville Jaguars, it should be noted, are not exactly a league powerhouse.
The Lions will only go as far as Matthew Stafford’s golden arm will take them. That arm, so far this season, has been puzzling in its too-often inaccuracy.”
Though I certainly didn’t foresee an 0-8 second half.
On the Tigers’ signing of pitcher Anibal Sanchez, and the future of Rick Porcello:
“High profile, expensive free agent pitchers, as soon as the ink dries on their signature, become as unpredictable as tomorrow’s weather. Their arms get fragile. They need a GPS to find home plate. They spend more time on the disabled list than eggs on a grocery list.
But if you’re going to have an embarrassment of riches anywhere on your roster, then it may as well be in your starting rotation. You could do worse.
The Tigers can now trot out, weekly, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Sanchez, and a pitcher to be named later, who might as well be Dontrelle Willis. The critique is that they’re all right-handed (except for Willis). But that’s like saying the one thing wrong with Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady is that they all wear number 12.
In a business where teams struggle to even name four starting pitchers, the Tigers have four who could lead many rotations in baseball. The Tigers are so rich in starting pitchers that they actually have six of them.
Ricky Porcello, the oldest 23-year-old pitcher in baseball, will apparently battle it out with lefty Drew Smyly for the fifth spot in the rotation. But there should be no battle here. Keep the southpaw Smyly, whose ceiling is ridiculously high (witness what he did in Game 1 of the ALCS in Yankee Stadium, after the Tigers were waylaid by Jose Valverde in the ninth inning), and trade Porcello.”
Time will tell, but I maintain that Porcello is more valuable as trade bait than as a long reliever.
On the city’s two octogenarian sports owners—Mike Ilitch and Bill Ford:
“The two octogenarian owners in town, Bill Ford and Mike Ilitch, each have white whales. One is bereft of a Super Bowl, the other a World Series.
Both are proud, loyal and considered to be very nice men who are respected within their respective circles.
But when compared, side by side, it just isn’t close when it comes to rendering a verdict as to which man has the stronger sense of urgency to win.
Does Bill Ford want to win a Super Bowl before he dies? Of course he does.
Mike Ilitch just seems to want to win a World Series more.”
Anyone want to disagree with that?
So there you have it. The highlights (and lowlights) of another year of scribbling.
Hope you have a great 2013!