Archive for June, 2009


Curry Out as Pistons Coach; Van Gundy High On List

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The Detroit Pistons have fired head coach Michael Curry after just one season on the job.

The Pistons went 39-43 in Curry’s lone season, then were swept in the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Pistons President Joe Dumars announced the decision in a statement, saying that it was “very difficult.”

I have a source close to the Pistons that says, among the top candidates, former Houston Rockets and New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy is high on Dumars’ list to replace Curry.

The source says that no press conference is imminent, but that there are negotiations with Van Gundy ongoing, although former Pistons coach Doug Collins might also be in the mix.

The source says that former Pistons player and Detroit Shock coach Bill Laimbeer is not a candidate.

Van Gundy is currently an NBA TV analyst.

Come back to for unfolding details.

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Tonight I’m a Guest Panelist on This Week In Tigers Baseball

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I’m happy to be a guest panelist tonight on This Week In Tigers Baseball, hosted by Joe Dexter and Motor City Bengals Live.

The podcast can be streamed LIVE at 7:00 p.m. ET, if you click here.

I’ll join Joe, and Tigers bloggers J. Ellet Lambie , Ian Casselberry, and John from

Looking forward to it!

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We’re baaaack!

“The Knee Jerks”, my weekly Blog Talk Radio gabfest with Big Al from The Wayne Fontes Experience, made its return last night after a five-week hiatus due to Al recovering from major (and more painful that he thought) back surgery.

Al’s stamina was impressive. After initially indicating that he wanted to do a 35-40 minute show, he stayed with me until 12:15 — a full 75 minutes after we started.

You can hear us rehash the Red Wings’ Stanley Cup run (including my experiences being at the Finals as a member of the media); listen to us talk about the team’s future — both on the ice and in terms of which building they’ll play in; wring our hands over Magglio Ordonez; and talk glowingly about the Lions’ new regime (no, it’s not Kool-Aid sipping, promise!) if you click below.

We are now back on schedule — every Monday night live at 11 PM ET. Click here for more details about upcoming episodes, including our special guest — former Detroit broadcaster Bob Page — on July 13.

Categories : Greg on the radio
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Joe Dumars needs a new deck of cards. For better luck, if nothing else.

The deck from which Dumars has been dealing cards to himself for the past several years must be crooked or stacked against him. Either that, or he’s just simply a bad dealer.

Dumars, the Pistons’ president and GM, drew Blackjack in 2004, when his team upset the vaunted Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. A year later, his card total was 22, as his Pistons lost to the San Antonio Spurs in seven hellish games.

Since then it’s been a lot of bad hands.

But Dumars can blame no one but himself. He’s been a one-man act at the table, functioning as both dealer and player. Joe D has played no hand that he hasn’t dealt to himself.

Tonight, when the clock strikes 12:01 AM, the NBA free agency period begins. Dumars is about to play another self-dealt hand.

Armed with a boatload of cash — thanks largely to expiring contracts coming off his books due to his pre-meditated moves — Dumars will go shopping. He has, roughly, some $20 million of salary cap space with which to work. He fully expects to sign two impact players, adding to a roster that is in dire need of a makeover.

Problem is, Dumars’ card sharking has left a lot to be desired since those 2004-05 Finals appearances.

It used to be that we looked the other way, politely, when Joe drafted, because his other personnel moves were so successful. Free agency and trades were his thing. The draft was something that he did because it came around every summer. Joe would make his pick and then we’d watch said pick either wallow on the bench, be traded, or both.

There were a couple of nuts for the blind squirrel: Tayshaun Prince in 2002 and Rodney Stuckey in 2007 come to mind.

I needn’t run through the rest of them, because it’s all been told before.

So we excused Dumars’ misses at the draft — and there were plenty of them — because he was able to fortify the roster in other ways.

Now he can’t even do that anymore.

It started, you could say, with his curiously large contract with center Nazr Mohammed, signed in 2006 in the wake of Ben Wallace’s fleeing to the Chicago Bulls via free agency.

There were a lot of Tony Delks and Flip Murrays in there as well, and still we nodded in semi-approval, because the Pistons kept traipsing to the conference finals every spring.

But they were spinning their wheels, and by the time anyone realized it, not the least of whom was Dumars himself, the Pistons were helplessly stuck in the mud while their previously vanquished competitors in the East passed them by, gleefully.

Last summer, after the Pistons unraveled in the Final Four against the Celtics, Dumars told us that everyone was expendable. In a press conference laced with both anger and exasperation, Dumars vowed that there “were no sacred cows”. His words.

But the summer of 2008 came and went with nary a peep from Auburn Hills.

Then, early in the season, Dumars made his big, bold move: trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson, straight up — a trade supposedly calculated in its making. The one where he gets all that money from Iverson’s expiring contract should AI not be re-signed.

Well, the trade was a disaster, Iverson indeed will not be back, and so now Dumars has all that dough.

It says here that this off-season is the most important and crucial of Dumars’ nine-year tenure as team president.

The Pistons, based disproportionately on what Dumars does this summer, will either return to prominence fairly quickly or will tumble into the NBA abyss, where they may remain for years.

Some say they are already dangerously close to that abyss. The roster doesn’t strike a whole lot of fear into opponents. The front court consists of still-inconsistent Jason Maxiell, an aging Rasheed Wallace and an even more aging Antonio McDyess, neither of whom may be back anyway.

Rip Hamilton and Prince are the only two established NBA starters who are likely to return next season.

Don’t come at me with Stuckey talk or Will Bynum talk. Neither point guard has proven a lick. Each of them has shown spurts, but neither has come close to producing, night after night, over the course of an 82-game schedule.

When Dumars took over in 2000, he was hit immediately with the Grant Hill defection. But Joe D took those lemons and made a big, refreshing pitcher of lemonade, vis a vis the Ben Wallace acquisition. He added Hamilton and Billups in short order, rooking the other teams in both trades. He acquired Rasheed Wallace for a pair of sneakers and a warm bucket of spit in 2004 — a move that elevated the Pistons to title contenders.

So he has done it before.

He’ll have to do it again.

The Pistons, as they stand right now, will be lucky to make the playoffs next spring. How Dumars does in his mini-spending spree this month will determine the future of the franchise.

The King Midas image of Joe Dumars has long ago faded away. His honeymoon in Detroit — probably longer than any GM has enjoyed in this city’s history — is finally over with.

The natives are restless. And a little scared, too. We know all too well the 22-60 and 16-66 records that bad NBA teams can produce.

Dumars is shuffling that deck. At 12:01 tonight he starts to deal himself some cards.

You in?

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A Rudy Awakening

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Rudy Giuliani, once, had all the political capital in the world at his disposal.

Giuliani, as mayor of New York in the wake of 9/11, was more popular in the city than the Statue of Liberty. The political world, it seemed, was his oyster.

He was another whose career aspirations were pumped up, albeit in an unseemly way, by the September 11 tragedy.

President George W. Bush rode that wave for a while, too, until he toppled off the surf board.

Giuliani, it says in the news, is contemplating a run for Governor of New York in 2010.

He’s anything but a shoo-in.

When Rudy was at his political zenith, governor was small potatoes for him. Way too small. He had one destination and one destination only in mind: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., as another Republican president to follow Bush.

Even after some of the very same firefighters and policemen that he bonded with in the aftermath of 9/11 grumbled that Rudy wasn’t all that, a presidential bid was still on his radar.

It didn’t matter that, as time went on, the grumblings began to grow and the whispers grew louder.

Rudy Giuliani, some of the city’s finest said, is a fraud.

He wasn’t at all, they said, the heroic mayor portrayed to the rest of the country. The way he treated some of the city employees, both before and after 9/11, left a lot to be desired.

But Rudy ran for president anyway, and he, for whatever reason, thought highly enough of his chances to all but ignore some of the early states’ primaries and caucuses.

He focused on Florida, for example, and it backfired on him.

He didn’t perform all that well in the debates and his policies didn’t appeal to the Republican base. Or to anyone else, for that matter. At least, not enough to be much of a factor.

Giuliani, the people decided, wasn’t all that, after all. The hard-working city employees in New York were right.

The run for the White House stalled in the first turn, and it looked as if Rudy had squandered away most, if not all, of the political capital he had accumulated–deserved or not–while Mayor of New York.

Now, they say, he wants to plunk his rear end in Albany and run the state for at least four years. After that, who knows?

It’s anything but a sure bet that Giuliani will take the oath of office as New York governor on January 1, 2011, even though some of those surveys of mock elections has Rudy ahead of unpopular Democrat David Paterson, the incumbent.

This is because if Giuliani is matched up in these same fantasy polls against state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, then Rudy loses.

Giuliani disappointed me when he ran for president. I tried to put aside the cries of “fraud” from some of the citizens of New York when I assessed him. Even though he’s part of my rival party, I was curious to see how he would fare on the national stage.

There just didn’t seem to be enough “there” there, to borrow from an old quote.

Then it dawned on me, as it probably did on a lot of folks.

Since when does a guy go from being mayor to being president? Regardless of the size of the burg?

That’s quite a leap–I don’t care how you try to present it.

So will Giuliani indeed take a run at Paterson’s seat in Albany?

“I’m thinking about it but I don’t know if I’m at the point of seriously considering it. It’s a little too early.”

Translated: Hell, yeah.

That’s my gut speaking.

Rudy Giuliani, it turns out, was nowhere near being presidential material in 2008. He may have enough to be a governor. But he might want to get the White House out of his head. Seldom does a candidate fare so poorly in a presidential bid, then is able to rebound and capture the nomination down the road.

Time to build that capital back up from its ruins, Rudy G.

Categories : Enotes, Politics
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Monday Morning Manager

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My weekly take on the Tigers, also known simply and affectionately as “MMM.”

Week of 6/22-28: 4-2

This week: 6/29-7/1: at Oak; 7/3-5: at Min

Goat of the Week

It was a pretty good week for the Tigers, so it’s hard to find a true goat.

But a couple things happened on Friday night in Houston that were troubling, because they flare up from time to time.

First, the Tigers’ uneven offense was at full bloom.

They jumped off to an early 4-0 lead, thanks largely to Placido Polanco’s three-run homer. They had Justin Verlander on the mound. Their seven-game winning streak looked good at being extended to eight.

But the offense began stranding runners, exhibiting its ill-timed flare for not being able to move runners along. The 4-0 lead just sat there, as the Astros pecked away at it.

The Astros got to within 4-3 going up against Verlander, and then the Tigers’ bullpen stepped into the fray.

Then, the other season-long, nagging thing the Tigers occasionally do reared its head.

Issuing free passes.

This time the culprit was Joel Zumaya, who walked three straight in the eighth inning, including the tying run.

Tigers pitchers’ inability to throw strikes at precisely the wrong moment has been an Achilles’ heel kind of thing all season. Even closer Fernando Rodney has been a transgressor at times.

So all those runners the Tigers left on base, combined with handing out walks, essentially cost them the ballgame on Friday. It was a giveaway, pure and simple.

You can’t give ballgames away in the big leagues–especially when you’re trying to maintain a lead in the division.

The Astros had no business winning Friday, but the Tigers let them off the hook.

Hero of the Week

Just as the Tigers had no business losing on Friday, they stole one on Sunday.

Brandon Inge was so the hero.

Inge, the brilliant third baseman-turned-deadly power hitter, pulled the game from the fire Sunday, blasting a two-run home run off Astros closer Jose Valverde in the top of the ninth to turn a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead.

Valverde now is an unsightly 6-for-10 in save chances.

The impact of Inge’s home run was like that of a meteor slamming into Earth.

With one swing, Inge saved the Tigers from a sweep, won them a game on a day in which everyone else in the division also won, and maintained their lead in the AL Central at four games, instead of it slipping to three.

Valverde walked Marcus Thames, who had a marvelous at-bat, before facing Inge with two outs.

And here’s how Inge has matured into such a dangerous hitter.

“I saw him throw a lot of split-fingered pitches to Marcus, which missed,” Inge explained afterward about his blast on a 1-0 pitch. “Then he started me off with a splitter, missed, and so I thought he might go fastball because he wouldn’t want to fall behind 2-0.”

So THAT’S how it’s done, eh?

The Tigers swept the Cubs, thanks in part to Ryan Raburn’s pinch-hit, two-run, walk-off homer on Wednesday night. But Inge’s homer was one of those “huge” hits that playoff teams get during the course of the season.

Yeah, you heard me — playoff teams.

More on that later.

Quick scouting reports: A’s, Twins

The Tigers have been on the road an inordinate amount of time during the first half, so it’s no wonder that they’re off on another extended trip.

This week it’s off to Oakland and Minnesota.

The A’s are scuffling. The Tigers swept them in Detroit in May. The biggest name right now, at least as far as Tigers fans are concerned, is Matt Holliday.

Holliday, the right-handed hitting slugger, has been mentioned as a possible trade deadline acquisition for the Tigers. Certainly, he would qualify. The A’s figure to be sellers come July 31, and Holliday is having an off year, with just 8 HR in 270 AB, plus a .274 BA that is way below where he’s used to being.

But July 31 is the inter-league deadline, as far as players being traded without having to go thru waivers. Teams within the same league don’t have such restrictions come August 1. So if Holliday is to be dealt to the Tigers (or any AL team), it doesn’t necessarily have to be by July 31.

Aside from Holliday, the A’s are 31-43, fading fast, and coming off a gruesome 5-13 spate of interleague play.

The return of Jason Giambi to Oakland has been mixed in its results. Giambi has 10 HR, but is only hitting .203.

Ah, the Twins — and that lovely Metrodome. My favorite place, as all my faithful readers would attest.

Yes, the sarcasm drips.

Another reason why Inge’s homer was so big on Sunday was that it maintained the Tigers’ lead over the Twinkies at four games. Anything less than four when the Tigers invade Minnesota this weekend puts the Twins a sweep away from tying or surpassing the Tigers for first place.

The Tigers were swept away in the Dome in May. Which was hardly the first time that’s happened.

Speaking of the Twins, the usual suspects are at it again: Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Joe Crede, and Joe Mauer all have double digits in homers, and Mauer is batting .394 in nearly 200 AB.

The Twins have a feeling of invincibility at home, where they are 24-15, but where they play at a much higher percentage, it seems, against the Tigers.

It’s never fun when the Tigers play in the Metrodome. Fans of the team will concur that it’s a place where you close your eyes, grab on to whatever you can, hold on tight, and hope for the best.

Even when the Tigers get swept, you’re still left with a feeling of “I’m glad THAT’S over with.”

Going into the Metrodome is like going to the dentist, in that regard. Even if the doc finds nothing, you’re still glad to hop off the chair.

Under the microscope

MMM is placing Zumaya under the scope.

Talk amongst yourselves.

OK, the reason why is that Zoom Zoom has been the biggest offender of bullpen wildness. For every 102 MPH fastball, there’s a curve ball missing the strike zone. For every “blow ‘em away” strikeout, there’s a trouble-inducing walk.

And, for every big out, there’s an ill-timed home run surrendered.

Zumaya is still a presence, but he’s been unreliable, if you want to talk honestly.

His ability to put out fires consistently in the 7th and 8th innings is just as important, maybe more so, then anything Fernando Rodney has to do in the 9th.

A more consistent, reliable Zumaya is imperative for the Tigers in the second half of the season.

Hence, him under the scope.

Bottom line:
The Tigers will have the benefit of playing tons of home games after the All-Star break, where they have a very impressive record. But it’s also why they need to finish this latest road trip strong.

Puffing up the road record — and there’s no better place to do that than in Minneapolis this weekend — would really put pressure on the teams below the Tigers. This, of course, assumes that they continue their stellar play at home.

It’s been a grind, this first half has, with all the travel. But these six games in Oakland and Minnesota are the kinds of games that test a team’s attrition. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but you have to keep grinding it out. No more giveaways, like what happened in Houston on Friday.

That’s all for this week’s MMM. Join me every Monday!

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Lou Piniella came into town and left this week and we didn’t even have to batten down the hatches, as it turns out. The kiddies’ eyes didn’t have to be covered. The umpires were spared.

The Tigers brought a kid second baseman up from the minor leagues, along with his shortstop partner. It was September, 1977, after the rosters were allowed to burst at the seams—jumping from the 25-man limit to infinity following the end of the minor league seasons.

The shortstop was Alan Trammell, and his keystone mate was Louis Rodman Whitaker. “Sweet Lou”, we were told to call him for short.

Tigers fans, the next season, began to be regaled with the fine play of Trammell and Sweet Lou—the start of the longest-running double play combo in big league history.

The denizens in Tiger Stadium likely thought they had the market cornered on Sweet Lous, no doubt.

They’d have been wrong.

The original Sweet Lou came up through the Baltimore Orioles system, debuted in 1964 during one of those September cups of coffee, and five years later won the American League Rookie of the Year Award playing for the Kansas City Royals.

Lou Piniella, “Sweet Lou”, was a marvelous ballplayer.

He made his real mark with the Yankees, after the Bronx Bombers fleeced the Royals in a trade for his services in 1973.

Piniella was usually nosing around the .300 mark every year, and playing some fine outfield.

But his nickname surely must have been a joke, like when you call a bald guy Curly or a fat dude Tiny.

Sweet Lou was sweet, in reality, the way vinegar is.

You can chalk it up to his Italian heritage if you’d like. Whatever floats your boat. But Piniella was an angry man, playing baseball with a fury that was always threatening to burst into flames.

It started in the batter’s box, where Piniella would glare at the pitcher over his left shoulder, staring daggers at him as if the guy just cut him off in traffic.

It continued on the base paths, where Sweet Lou made up for his lack of speed by crash landing into unsuspecting infielders at second base.

It was on display in the outfield, where Piniella possessed a cannon of an arm. He even threw angry.

And it sure as hell was evident when an umpire dared make the wrong call, in Sweet Lou’s dark eyes.

Piniella played baseball on edge. Then he became a manager, and there were times when I thought the game just might kill him.

The Lou Piniella Outburst became a classic, ranking up there with those of Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, and Bobby Cox.

When Piniella got going, it was “Katie bar the door,” to borrow an old hockey term.

Bases would be pulled out of their sockets and tossed. Dirt would be kicked. Caps would be tossed to the ground and stomped on. Then, after the expected ejection, no water cooler or bat rack in the dugout was safe.

The stuff of legend.

He ended up managing a few years ago in Tampa, his hometown. The Rays, then, were typically awful. But Lou took the job anyway, believing that ownership would do whatever it took to win.

They didn’t, at least not fast enough for his liking, and he took his gripes to the papers. He all but challenged his bosses to fire him.

But it appears that Sweet Lou Piniella might finally be mellowing.

It only took him about 45 years.

Piniella’s Chicago Cubs passed through town this week and the Tigers handled them, three straight times. All the games were close. The umpires didn’t always cooperate with Sweet Lou’s team.

His players didn’t always cooperate, either. Runners were left stranded. Mistakes were made defensively. One night, the closer served up a game-winning, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth, to a pinch-hitter.

But Lou didn’t pop a gasket. He came out to the field once in the three games, that I saw, to discuss a call with an umpire. And it was all very civil. The TV cameras even caught him in the dugout, sharing a chuckle with bench coach Trammell (ironically)—and it was the ninth inning of a game in which the Cubs were losing.

Now, in the irony of ironies, Sweet Lou finds himself managing a player very much like how he was, back in the day. And he’s not liking it too much.

Milton Bradley—not the game company—is an outfielder, just like Lou was. He’s edgy, just like Lou was. He’s prone to tantrums, just like Lou was.

Well, you get the idea.

Bradley has bounced around the big leagues, wearing out welcome mats in dizzying fashion. The Cubs are his seventh team in nine seasons. He’s talented but is higher maintenance than a 1966 Mustang.

Piniella is running out of patience, already, with Bradley, who’s in his first season with the Cubs.

Friday night in Chicago, the Cubs visiting the cross town White Sox, Bradley made an out, ran back to the dugout, and then proceeded to bludgeon a water cooler in his ferocity.

Piniella caught him in the runway, confronted Bradley, and told him to go into the clubhouse, get dressed, and go home.

“This has been a common occurrence and I’ve looked the other way a lot and I’m tired,” Piniella said after the game about Bradley’s caustic behavior.

Imagine that—Sweet Lou tired of the very same fury that he himself played and managed with for decades.

Oh, they’ll tell you that it’s hogwash that Piniella has mellowed. His players will say that he still has that famous short fuse, at least behind closed doors.

Certainly, it’s still there to a degree. But it’s doing a slow burn out, befitting a man approaching 66 years of age. Time would have been when Lou would have shrugged off Milton Bradley-like behavior from one of his players. The “boys will be boys” mentality.

Before you know it, Sweet Lou really will be sweet, after all.

Then we’ll have to start calling him Sour Balls, I suppose.

Categories : Baseball, Out of Bounds
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Babcock “Right Guy” For Team Canada — And The Red Wings

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There’ll come a day when Mike Babcock no longer is the coach of the Detroit Red Wings. Just don’t go holding your breath waiting for it.

The Red Wings have a gem in Babcock, and right now I’d say it’s pretty darn difficult to imagine the team being coached by anyone else.

It’s a measuring device I use–a yardstick, if you will. I look at the coaches around town and mentally insert someone else in their place. Then I see how easy (or hard) that is to do.

Jim Schwartz, still getting a feel for what he’s gotten himself into with the Lions, is brand new so he doesn’t really count.

Jim Leyland, despite the contract extension he just signed with the Tigers, still strikes me as someone whose flame might burn out instantly, with little warning. I’ve said it before: don’t be shocked if Leyland, one day, maybe in the middle of May, pulls a Bobby Ross and quits, on the spot.

Just a hunch.

Michael Curry, learning on the job with the Pistons, is the easiest coach in town to imagine packing his belongings and being shown the door.

But Babcock?

Steve Yzerman, the head of Team Canada for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, yesterday named his old coach as his new coach for the pursuit of the gold medal.

It’s a job that Babcock wanted badly, and now he has it.

There will be those who’ll cry nepotism, in a broken arrow sort of way.

Let ‘em cry.

Babcock is supremely qualified to coach Team Canada. Not just because of his unmitigated success with the Red Wings in his four seasons, but because of his experience coaching in the international arena.

Babcock led Canada to gold twice: at the 1997 world juniors, and in 2004 at the world championships.

In 2006, Team Canada foundered, finishing an embarrassing seventh in the winter games in Torino.

The scuttlebutt is that the expectation is to go from No. 7 to gold medalists, period.

Babcock is just the man to do it, according to Yzerman, who played for him for one season.

“I’m certain Mike is the right guy to take the reins and play a style of play that will be successful this winter in Vancouver,” Yzerman said at the press conference announcing the hiring.

But back to his Red Wings gig.

There’s a little bit of Chuck Daly and Jack McCloskey going on with Babcock and Ken Holland, in terms of coach and GM relationships.

Daly and McCloskey, who worked together for nine seasons with the Pistons, didn’t always see eye-to-eye. Sometimes their contract negotiations were contentious. Daly even worked a couple of playoffs without a contract at all.

But they meshed brilliantly, if not always smoothly.

I can see the same kind of longevity developing with the Red Wings, when it comes to Babcock and Holland.

Holland, to his end, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. His feet are as firmly planted in the executive offices at Joe Louis Arena as the pillars in the concrete basement, holding up the stands.

Then there’s the fact that the two men genuinely admire and respect each other. All that, plus Babcock has fallen in love with the city and its surrounding area. He wants his kids to go through school here, all the way to high school graduation. And one of them isn’t anywhere close to that right now.

There was a time when I, no joke, couldn’t imagine anyone managing the Tigers other than Sparky Anderson. But after the team was purchased by Mike Ilitch in 1992, and it became clear that the new regime didn’t hold Sparky in as high of a regard as the Tom Monaghan ownership did, then the “name game” began.

It no longer was, “Will Sparky ever not manage the Tigers?”

It became, “So, who’ll be the next Tigers manager?”

I find myself not being able to imagine someone else prowling behind the Red Wings’ bench, besides Mike Babcock.

He’s dug in deep here, and with the way the Red Wings replenish old talent with new, there’s no reason to think that the team will suffer through any significant “down” years. At least not in the near future.

So why not stick with Babcock and see if he can be a sort of poor man’s Scotty Bowman?

The Red Wings could do worse, you know.

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Leyland An “Every Man” When It Comes To Embracing City

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Jacques Demers, as the irrepressible coach of the Detroit Red Wings, wasn’t happy.

It was early in his tenure in Detroit, circa 1987. And his team was slumping. Worse, Jacques thought the effort wasn’t always there, which he couldn’t abide.

So he called practice at 7:30 a.m. one blustry winter morning.

“I wanted them to get up early, just like all the hard-working people who pay to see them play,” Demers said, explaining the early-bird ice session. “I wanted them to fight rush hour traffic and everything. Just like the fans do every day.”

On another occasion, Demers arranged for a field trip–bussing his players to a blighted part of the city, so they could see how fortunate they had it in the NHL.

Demers took a team that surrendered over 400 goals and mustered just 40 points the season prior and instilled a more intense work ethic. On the ice, he emphasized defense and checking first, scoring second.

It worked. The Red Wings went from 40 points to 78 points in his first season, and made it all the way to the conference finals.

Demers had a good handle on the city in which he worked while he was in Detroit.

Jim Leyland possesses that same keen awareness, as Tigers manager.

Leyland was effusive in his praise of the Detroit baseball fans Thursday, in the aftermath of a 6-5 matinee win over the Chicago Cubs, which gave the Tigers another sweep and a perfect 6-0 record on their homestand.

“Detroit’s a tough, resilient town, and they’re going to make it,” he was quoted in the Free Press today. “They’re not going to give up, they’re going to fight and going to make it. I think what you’re seeing out here is case in point. They’re out here supporting their team. I wish I could give every one of them a ticket, to be honest with you, for one game. But I can’t. I wish I could because the support is unbelievable.”

Leyland gets it. That’s one thing I can’t take away from him. When it comes to appreciating his lot in life, and the responsibility that he has as Tigers manager–responsibility whose range extends beyond what goes on between the white lines–Leyland has no false illusions.

That’s why I was so surprised and disappointed in him last fall when he crabbed to the media about his contract situation, and that he felt he deserved an extension (which was signed last week). It was a calling out of the owner and, in an indirect way, a slap to the folks in town who were–and still are–going through job loss and other stress.

His words were calculated and self-serving, and I didn’t think Leyland had that in him.

But all is forgiven. The Tigers are playing well, the manager appreciates the fan’s support, and he knows that a good baseball season can do wonders for the psyche of the people in and around the city.

“We’d like to do something special for them, but I’m not putting the cart before the horse. We’re playing pretty good, it’s June, and I’m not getting excited about that. But I’m happy to see happy faces; I’m happy to see people up there drinking a beer, having a good time. It’s great, it’s wonderful.”

Leyland, who’s very close to St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, and who worked for the Cardinals as a scout, has now been associated with two of the best baseball cities in the country, according to him.

“I keep talking about it all the time. St. Louis and Detroit are the two best baseball towns for me, without any question, they’re the two best. They’ll come out, they’ll figure out a way to get in the ballpark and support their team. That’s what I like about it. Detroit fans, they’re different. They don’t care who the leftfielder, rightfielder, centerfielder, rightfielder, manager is, they’re Detroit Tiger fans and that’s what the best thing about it is to me. … It’s just a great baseball town.”

New Lions coach Jim Schwartz spoke recently about the “responsibility”–that word again–that he feels he has as the football coach in town. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has expressed similar views as Schwartz and Leyland, vis-a-vis the tough times the fans are going through in Detroit, and how winning teams can do wonders to soothe them.

I don’t always agree with Leyland’s in-game decisions–what a boring world this would be if I did–but I have to hand it to him: he knows which side his bread is buttered on. And he also knows that there are some people who are fans of his team who might not know where that next loaf is even coming from.

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Pop Goes the King

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Farrah Fawcett, in one blazing moment, has just been reduced to the obscure answer to a trivia question.

She’s now the actress whose death was knocked out of the stratosphere by Michael Jackson’s.

Michael Jackson is dead. Again. And that’s pretty much all you need to know for your entertainment news for the day. Or for the year.

Jackson died once before.

The cherubic child from the Jackson Five who grew into a fine-looking young man–that Jackson expired sometime in the mid-1980s.

That’s my impression, anyway. Jackson died twice, for when you see videos and movie clips of Jackson as part of his brothers’ group and when he recorded Off the Wall, it’s very much, to me, like looking at someone who’s perished.

Jackson was 50 when he suffered cardiac arrest today in Los Angeles. Efforts to revive him failed, and he died at UCLA Hospital, though he may have been dead before the stretcher hit the emergency room door.

So there’s your three–the way they die in show business: Jackson, Fawcett, and Ed McMahon, who passed away the other day.

Jackson was a bunch of things. Weird. Odd. Creepy. A boy trapped in a man’s body. A freak. A molester of children, perhaps.

All those have been used to describe him. I’ve been guilty of more than one of those adjectives and designations.

But Jackson was also, like it or not, one of the greatest entertainers in history.

Call him whatever you’d like, but names will never hurt his legacy in show biz.

And, like him or not, his death is tragic. All arguments to the contrary will be dismissed, forthwith.

There’s sadness because no more will Jackson entertain, and if you think that’s a good thing, then shame on you.

Already, reports are surfacing–and as I write this his death is still being freshly unearthed–from family members, no less, that Jackson may have abused drugs, leading to his being stricken.

The first of you to be surprised by this notion, please go stand in the corner.

Lord knows what Jackson ingested during his life, although at times he was uber-concerned about his health–even sleeping in hyperbaric chambers. But his skin pigmentation was curious, and as much as he and his people tried to blame it on some sort of “condition”, you had to wonder.

Do 50-year-old men drop dead from cardiac arrest? You bet your sweet bippy they do. But the likelihood that Jackson’s death was accelerated by overdoing it with the prescription drugs intake is probably pretty great.

Jackson, the reports say, was in L.A. getting ready to rehearse for some upcoming shows.

They called him Jacko, which he despised. They cheered him, jeered him, danced to him, and were abhorred by him.

But his music was dynamic. His videos were groundbreaking.

Michael Jackson was like the National Anthem. He made people stand up.

But Jackson was also like a gruesome car wreck. He made people look away in horror.

I enjoyed many of Jackson’s songs. But then, most of the songs I liked were recorded in his early-20s, when he was still a wholesome looking, handsome young man.

Michael Jackson was, in his early adult life, full-faced, soft-looking. He was very much the grownup version of that adorable kid in the Jackson Five.

Something happened to Jackson as he approached 30 years of age, and a doctor could make a mint if he or she ever could explain, really, what it was.

He went sideways, to use a very un-scientific term.

I don’t know if something snapped within him, or if some sort of switch was turned on, or off. But something happened. Maybe we’ll never really know.

His physical appearance changed, obviously. He cavorted with children. He built something called Never Land on his compound grounds, again catering to children. He slept with them. He was, it seemed, infatuated with kids. Or obsessed. Or worse.

They brought him up on molestation charges, which did nothing to abate his new reputation — that of just another show business weirdo who’s able to get his jollies doing disgusting things because of who he was.

He married Lisa Marie Presley, and you’d make another mint if you could ever get Lisa Marie, who I adore, to fully explain that one. My feeling is that she doesn’t even know how that went down.

He hung around with Liz Taylor, who’ll never be mistaken for someone of mental stability, bought the remains of The Elephant Man, and wore surgical masks in public.

But oh, how he could sing. And dance. And choreograph.

Now he’s dead. For good this time, at age 50. Another entertainment icon whose legacy will be even greater because of his relatively short life.

He was, no matter what you thought of him personally, the King of Pop. It’s a pop culture nickname ranking up there in aptness with The Fab Four and The Queen of Soul.

It didn’t matter to Jackson what people thought of him. It only mattered that he be able to entertain them.

Michael Jackson rarely had us not talking about him. You think that’ll stop with his death?

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