Archive for February, 2011

Somewhere, there’s a broken mold of Dennis Rodman.

Never again will we see someone of his ilk, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

Rodman tended to do that, you know. He tended to spawn confusion—in emotion, to his opponents, to his teammates, to his fans and to his coaches. He was a bemusing fellow.

But this much is true—since Rodman retired from the National Basketball Association in 2000, I haven’t seen anyone close to who he was on the basketball court. Certainly not off it, as well.

Again, not sure if that’s good or bad.

Rodman played basketball with the grace of a baby eating strained carrots. He was a freak, seemingly playing the game on his own personal pair of pogo sticks, springing from the floor to grab rebounds as if everyone else was nailed down.

The program stubbornly listed him as 6’8”, but that was when he was at rest, which wasn’t often. When he was in motion, Rodman became 7’8”, or taller, depending on how high he needed to leap to snare a wayward basketball.

Watching Dennis Rodman from the start of his NBA career, with the Pistons in 1986, and following it through to his retirement, was like watching a Fellini film—it got weirder the longer it went on.

He arrived in Detroit as a 25-year-old, drafted out of a college called Southeastern Oklahoma State University, and to this day for all I know, the Pistons made the school up.

Somehow Pistons GM Jack McCloskey found Rodman, most likely by looking toward the gym’s ceiling. I’m still impressed that Jack found the school, let alone its gym.

What McCloskey didn’t know when he first laid his eyes upon the leaping, rebounding Rodman was that the kid—who really wasn’t a kid anymore according to his birth certificate—already had a life better prepped for the Jerry Springer Show than the NBA.

Where shall we begin?

Rodman’s dad left his mom when Dennis was three years old. The old man would go on to father 27 kids with four different women. You heard me.

The Rodman household in Oak Cliff—a rough and tough section of Dallas that would become infamous for being the neighborhood of Lee Harvey Oswald—was all female at that point, other than Dennis, who lived there with his mom and two sisters.

You want more?

Rodman became so withdrawn in the all-female house, so awkward and unconfident around girls in school, that in his mid-teens, he actually believed he might be homosexual. His first sexual experience was with a prostitute.

As for basketball?

Rodman tried it, but kept getting cut from teams—both in middle school and high school. He was a 5’6” freshman who couldn’t hit a layup. He tried out for football and they didn’t want him, either.

He worked as a janitor at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport after high school, but after another growth spurt he gave hoops another shot.

Keep in mind he played little to no high school basketball.

Turns out Rodman could play the game, after all, mainly because he had a fetish for rebounding. He played a semester for some place called Cooke County College in Gainesville, Texas, averaging over 17 points and 13 rebounds per game.

From there it was on to SE Oklahoma State, an NAIA school—which was not exactly the career path of choice if one hoped to crack the NBA.

Jack McCloskey couldn’t have known this history when he first watched Rodman sky for rebounds as an NAIA All-American.

The Pistons are going to do something on Apr. 1 that, had you put money down on it in 1986, you’d be breaking the bank right about now.

On that date, Dennis Rodman’s No. 10 Pistons jersey will be raised into the rafters, which is appropriate because that’s often where you could have found Rodman himself, in his salad days as the league’s most ferocious rebounder.

Rodman will then join the likes of Dave Bing, Bob Lanier, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson, all of whom have their jersey numbers hanging over the Palace floor.

But Rodman was the most unlikely—to have an NBA career, period.

I remember Rodman’s arrival in Detroit.

He had big ears, gangly arms and his shorts were too short. And too tight. He ran up and down the court like a distance runner—arms pumping with loping strides. He had no offensive game that was apparent. He couldn’t shoot free throws.

Based on first blush alone, I might have cut him on the spot.

If Rodman’s book had been judged by its cover only, he’d have never made it as a pro basketball player, because he didn’t look like any pro basketball player you’d ever seen before.

Rodman was no more than a curious, second-round draft pick when he first started getting playing time in 1986 for the Pistons. He was the guy who looked funny—the guy who couldn’t throw the ball into the Detroit River, even if he was standing on the deck of the Bob-Lo Boat.

But he could rebound, as we all began to see in relatively short order. He was like a specialist on the court, a jack of one trade. He gained a nickname—The Worm—which I found ironic because worms live underground and Rodman made his living soaring above it.

It was uncanny, the way Rodman would rise above the other nine players on the court, and either grab the basketball after its carom, or tip it to a teammate for a fresh 24 seconds of shot clock.

But rebounding alone won’t keep you in the NBA, so Rodman focused on playing defense, which would.

All he did was become the best defender in the NBA, a two-time winner of the Defensive Player of the Year award.

When he first won the award, in 1990, Rodman wept openly at the press conference announcing his honor.

“I wanted this…so bad,” he said through tears, sobbing.

I think what might give some people pause in light of the news of Rodman’s number being retired by the Pistons is that, after he left the team, he became a sideshow.

The hair became dyed, the tattoos became more prevalent, the behavior became more bizarre. He made a movie or two. He even “married” himself in a display that made normal people squirm.

Rodman won two championships with the Pistons, and three more with the Chicago Bulls. He captured seven straight rebounding titles (1992-98). He made the first team of the All-NBA Defensive squad seven times.

Not bad for a kid who couldn’t make his high school team and who played at an NAIA school, and who lived a tumultuous life as a child.

Rodman wasn’t drafted by the Pistons. He was rescued.

Congratulations, Worm. You done paid them back with interest.

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He played as a contemporary of Brooks Robinson, which meant that the Gold Glove would be as off limits to him as a cookie to a child before dinner.

I can see him in action now, without even closing my eyes: the graceful snag of a smash targeted for left field, followed by the snap throw to first base that was lasered into the mitt of Norm Cash, Jason Thompson, or whoever the Tigers had planted there.

He was Aurelio Rodriguez, the smiling third sacker who ought to come to mind to Tigers fans old enough to remember him, as they assess the team’s current custodian of the Hot Corner.

The comparison between Rodriguez and Brandon Inge is apt, because both had gloves of gold but bats of tin.

Like Inge, who is decried today for his low batting average and propensity for strikeouts, Rodriguez swung a puny bat for the Tigers when he played for them from 1971-79.

Aurelio’s high water mark as a Tiger was .265, in limited duty in 1978. Mostly, there were a lot of .220s, .230s, and .240s on his record.

And like Inge, Rodriguez had some occasional pop; he could slam a home run if you threw a bad pitch.

But oh, that glove.

Rodriguez led the American League in fielding percentage for third sackers with a robust .978 in 1976, committing just nine errors in 128 games.

His arm was phenomenal, the laser throws often preceded by a patient double cocking that signaled, “I’m about to throw you out now by half a step.”


Aurelio Rodriguez: 1947-2000


Rodriguez was a frequent occupant of eighth or ninth in the Tigers’ batting order, typically swapping those spots with shortstop Eddie Brinkman, the quintessential good field, no hit infielder.

Rodriguez, Brinkman, and pitchers Joe Coleman and Jim Hannan came to the Tigers from Washington after the 1970 season in the celebrated trade which shipped pitchers Denny McLain and Norm McRae, 3B Don Wert and OF Elliot Maddox to the Senators.

It was one of the biggest steals in Tigers history.

There’s no real point here today, other than when I think of Brandon Inge, I can’t help but also think of Aurelio Rodriguez, himself a fan favorite back in the day.

Sadly, Rodriguez died tragically, being hit by a runaway car in southwest Detroit on September 23, 2000.

The Happy Mexican was but 52 years old.

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Feb
24

Heeeere’s NOT Johnny!

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Johnny Carson is dead.

No news here, I know, but I mean more than just Carson dead in a physical sense, which occurred just over six years ago.

I mean, Johnny is dead in the same way as pay phones, drive-in theaters, and chivalry.

Specifically, Johnny Carson is dead in a “Who’s good at hosting the Oscars?” sort of way.

Carson did it brilliantly—emceeing the Academy Awards five times (1979-82, 1984), providing the perfect blend of wit, sarcasm, irony and class as he shepherded the sometimes seemingly interminable production through the evening.

Not that others didn’t host the show with aplomb—Billy Crystal comes to mind—but this blog post serves to lament that there just isn’t another Carson out there today who can do what Johnny did during the Oscars telecast, which takes place again this Sunday night.

David Letterman gave it the old college try on more than one occasion, but he had the smarm factor that Johnny wouldn’t, couldn’t bring to the podium.

Johnny Carson, for example, would never had tried the whole “Uma, Oprah” thing.

Yes, it’s another occasion where I’m living in the past, being curmudgeonly and cranky about today’s entertainment landscape.

This year, Oscar will try co-hosts: James Franco and Anne Hathaway, who looks like she could have posed for the svelte trophy and who looks like she weighs about as much as Oscar does, too.

But tell me: who is Carson-like right now, in the entertainment biz?


Carson, during one of his five turns hosting the Oscars
Who is self-effacing, disarming, funny, and mystical, as Johnny was?

Regis Philbin, who’s retiring from his morning talk show he co-hosts with Kelly Ripa?

Anyone else?

Regis might do a good job if ever given the Oscar reins, which is something I’d like to see, actually.

Steve Martin wasn’t a bad host, but he was an insider.

Johnny Carson wasn’t replaced by Jay Leno, and he really wasn’t replaced as Oscars host, despite Crystal’s funny takes.

The other alluring thing about Carson as Oscars host was that you hardly ever saw Johnny outside of his “Tonight Show” milieu. He didn’t exactly make the rounds when he wasn’t doing “Tonight” in Burbank.

So whenever he was on television outside the comforts of his studio—and wearing a tuxedo, no less—you knew something special was happening.

It was most certainly something special when Carson hosted the Oscars.

So here’s to Franco and Hathaway. Godspeed, you two.

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In retrospect, the Detroit Pistons’ knack for reaching the Eastern Conference Finals was probably the worst thing that has happened to them in the Joe Dumars Era.

Not that it wasn’t a terrific feat. Anytime you’re reaching the Final Four you’ve had a good year, and to do it six times in a row, as the Pistons did (2003-08), is nothing less than impressive.

But that sword has two edges.

First, the Pistons only parlayed two of those Final Fours into NBA Finals appearances (2004 and ’05). In the other conference finals, the Pistons were only moderately competitive.

They were swept in 2003 by New Jersey, blasted out in six games by Miami in 2006, in six by Cleveland in 2007 (punctuated by the Pistons’ inability/unwillingness to stop LeBron James in the lane in Game 5), and in six by Boston in 2008.

President/GM Joe Dumars had, as it turns out, some Fool’s Gold on his hands.

The Pistons were good enough to survive two playoff series in the traditionally weak Eastern Conference in those four years when they were eliminated, but when it came time to play the elite—or in the case of Cleveland, the up-and-coming—in the Final Four, the Pistons wilted under the pressure.

Dumars was teased into thinking he had a title contender in Detroit, when in fact he had nothing of the sort.

That kind of thinking, in concert with poor draft choices, questionable contracts and odd coaching hires, have put the Pistons where they are today: among the dregs of a still-poor Eastern Conference.

Now it comes out that Dumars not only doesn’t plan on dealing forward Tayshaun Prince by tomorrow’s trade deadline, the GM wants to explore re-signing Prince, who will turn 31 on Monday.

This is a disturbing thought that Dumars has rattling around in his addled brain.

Dumars has been slow on the take in massaging the Pistons’ roster, even when they were going to Final Fours. The great executives in sports don’t rest on their laurels, and aren’t afraid to upset the apple cart.

After LeBron James torched them in the 2007 ECF, the Pistons were ripe for change. That made two straight years of being bounced out in the Final Four, and that was the moment Dumars should have seized.

It was evident that the Pistons’ surprise championship of 2004, achieved without the quote-unquote superstar player that most champions have, was an aberration. And it should have occurred to Dumars, who isn’t a dumb-dumb, that his team simply wasn’t good enough to make it past the conference finals.

The summer of 2007 was when Dumars should have been aggressive in changing the dynamics of the Pistons roster.

The Pistons’ appearance in the 2008 ECF wasn’t much to shout about, either. The Celtics took them to the woodshed in the Pistons’ own building in the pivotal Game 3, after the Celts were stunned in Boston in Game 2. After tying the series in Game 4, the Pistons went down meekly—and in Rasheed Wallace’s case, shamefully—in the next two games.

Dumars sacrificed coach Flip Saunders after that, and hired the neophyte Mike Curry to coach. Then Dumars saddled Curry with the high maintenance Allen Iverson and left his coach to deal with the tempestuous Rip Hamilton, whose little world was upset when AI joined the team.

From 2004 to 2009, the Pistons didn’t make any bold moves, personnel-wise—with the exception of bringing in Iverson, which was just plain wrong—and they are now paying the price.

The free agent signings of Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon in the summer of 2009 were suspect when they occurred, and they are no less so today.

Now Dumars is talking about signing Prince to an extension?

The window of real opportunity for tangible, successful change has closed. Now all that’s left for the Pistons is a blow up and a total rebuild. All connections to the “good old days” of the mid-2000s must be done away with.

It’s not an easy thing to keep a franchise winning, year-after-year, for a decade. The Pistons almost did that, posting winning seasons from 2001-08. But it can be even harder—and gutsier—to tweak personnel when the wins are outnumbering the losses.

Joe Dumars isn’t a bad GM. But he’s not one of the best, either. It’s one thing to take a loser and take it upward when there’s nowhere to go but up. It’s an entirely other to keep the team in contention when there’s a target on its back—especially when there’s virtually no help from the draft.

Provided he’s asked to stay by new owner Tom Gores, Dumars must do what he’s done before, thanks to his own lollygagging: rebuild a Pistons team that is a conference bottom feeder.

Bringing Tayshaun Prince back flies directly into the face of that task.

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Feb
22

The British Are Coming!! (Again)

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What’s the fascination in TV advertising with those who sport a British or Australian accent?

This isn’t an anti-UK post, bloke, but I must protest.

Seems there must have been some market research done, that says us Yankees are more inclined to yank out our credit card or rush to the nearest big box store if we hear said items being hawked by those who hail from across the pond or Down Under.

How else to explain the influx of voices I am hearing lately on the telly?

Before, the tack du jour was to yell. That’s all. Just simply shout EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO SAY IN HOPES THAT VOLUME WOULD TRUMP COMMON SENSE.

The late Billy Mays yelled at us, as he sold us on those great TV offers. He was hardly the first TV pitchman to literally “give a shout out.”

Now it’s not so much shouting as it is the apparent allure of the British or Australian accent.

You may not be aware of what I’m talking about, but give the TV commercials these days a listen.

There’s the GEICO gecko, for example. The dude selling us the Magic Bullet food chopper. And many others.

We’ve always been battling those British Invasions. They haven’t really stopped for all that long since the music version of the 1960s.

Did you see who’s replaced the venerable Larry King on CNN, following Larry’s retirement?

It’s none other than Piers Morgan, another British import.

I think we as Americans are still fascinated and charmed by the British dialect and demeanor.

Two words: Cary and Grant.

Was there anyone on the silver screen more suave and charming and debonair than the famed actor Grant?

But back to the advertising on TV.


Piers Morgan: The latest British invader, and Larry King’s successor
I can see the impact someone like Cary Grant would have on our psyche, but I confess to not being moved by a British accent when I’m being sold goods.

I remember when the comedic actor John Cleese (Monty Python) did radio and TV voice-overs for Callard and Bowser, a British candy company. They were fun to listen to, but because it was John Cleese and John Cleese is freaking hilarious.

It wasn’t because Cleese is British.

Again, I’m not angry or crying foul here. It’s just something I’ve noticed.

The advertising execs apparently have been told by someone that they have a better chance of selling goods and services if the person doing the voice-over spells labor “labour.”

Then again, it’s better than all that yelling.

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The most recent men who’ve tended goal for the Detroit Red Wings and led them to the Stanley Cup don’t have much in common except for being stark raving mad.

I’ve always felt that way about hockey goalies.

Terry Sawchuk was the maddest of them all (he played mostly without a mask), and the most tormented.

It reminds me of the great comedians throughout history—the men and women who’ve made us laugh so hard but who themselves were among the saddest of folks.

Sawchuk, the legendary netminder and Hall of Famer of the 1950s and ‘60s, was the best goalie the NHL has ever seen, but if they gave out awards for self-fulfillment, old Terry would have come away empty-handed.

Sawchuk rarely smiled, and when he did, it was brief and forced. He was almost a goaltending savant who didn’t really like what he did, but he did it because he had to.

His teammates on the Red Wings tried to get close to him, tried to engage him, tried to get him to lighten up. But Terry always seemed so sad, which in turn saddened them. How much more enjoyable the Red Wings’ Stanley Cups of the 1950s would have been, had Sawchuk only been able to relax.

Sawchuk was dead by age 40, after a tragic bout of rough-housing with New York Rangers teammate and roommate Ron Stewart over some unpaid apartment bills.

Sawchuk’s brief life, in my opinion, was among the saddest in all of sports.

It was 42 years after Sawchuk and the Red Wings raised the Cup when the team finally did it again in 1997, behind the clutch goaltending of veteran Mike Vernon.

Vernon was a Cup winner once already, leading the Calgary Flames over the tradition-rich Montreal Canadiens in 1989.

In 1996, you could have driven Vernon off the Ambassador Bridge and no Red Wings fan would have trolled for his remains.

After a brilliant 62-13-7 regular season in 1995-96, Vernon and Chris Osgood’s shaky play against the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Finals helped drum the Red Wings out in six games.

The Cup-less stretch reached 41 years, and counting.

But one year later, as the confetti flew inside Joe Louis Arena and the Red Wings skated around the ice with hockey’s silver chalice in tow, Mike Vernon was back in the city’s good graces.

Some fan had made a sign out of poster board and pressed it against the glass.

It read, “Vernie: I’m sorry!”

In a postgame interview on the ice, Vernon was asked about the sign.

He chuckled sheepishly and said, “What can I say? Apology accepted, I guess!”

A year after that, with Vernon banished to the San Jose Sharks, it was Chris Osgood’s turn to be the madman in goal who’d lead the Wings to another Stanley Cup.

It was a playoff run with more twists and turns than a corkscrew, and with surprise endings to games that would have made O. Henry proud.

Osgood caused almost as much anguish as he provided joy, making things more interesting than they should have been, usually due to his penchant for failing to stop shots fired from beyond the blue line.

Three times Osgood surrendered goals that came off shots originating in Timbuktu. All three times, the shots either tied the game late or won it.

But Ozzie persevered, and as the champagne flowed in the Red Wings dressing room in Washington following the Cup clincher, Osgood’s mother found him and hugged her drenched son.

“You did it, Chris! You did it, baby!” she cried.

In 2002, the Red Wings goalie was another savant, the 36-year-old Dominik Hasek, the human Slinky.

Hasek was an amazing netminder but a baffling person. You could say that he marched to the beat of a different drummer, except that it was a drummer no one could hear but him.

The Red Wings of 2001-02 were teeming with future Hall of Famers, and Hasek tended goal in the playoffs with a pure brilliance befitting the team’s roster of greatness.

As the final horn sounded on the season, the Red Wings had captured another Stanley Cup, with another goalie.

Six years later, Osgood did it again, rescuing the Wings when the 43-year-old Hasek faltered in the first round. Another Cup won.

And in 2011?

It’s getting closer to playoff time, which means it’s time to trot out the usual blather about the Red Wings goaltending situation heading into the postseason.

The doubters are out, once again.

Other than Sawchuk, who was born to win Stanley Cups, the Cup-winning goalies for the Red Wings all beat back the doubters.

Vernon, despite a resume that had “Stanley Cup Champion” on it, had to win back the fans after the disappointment of 1996.

Osgood alternately made friends and enemies in Detroit in 1998, sometimes shift by shift.

In 2002, Hasek had to overcome an 0-2 hole in the first round against Vancouver, when the fans were about to declare him a fraud in pads.

And Osgood was a 35-year-old backup when he replaced Hasek after four games of the first round in 2008. You could cut the doubt with a knife.

Currently, Jimmy Howard’s ability to lead the Red Wings to the promised land is being seriously questioned, and not just by the hockey denizens around town.

A couple weeks ago, the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports, ESPN, splashed on its website that the Red Wings were in big trouble and delusional if they expected the second-year goalie Howard to make like Sawchuk, Vernon, Osgood and Hasek.

The talking heads pointed to the numbers, which place Howard toward the bottom of the league in things like save percentage.

Apparently ESPN.com, allegedly so wise, has forgotten that the NHL has two distinct seasons: the regular one in the fall and winter, and the other one in the spring.

Like it or not, Howard will be the target of the springtime doubters, for as long as he shall live—in the playoffs.

It’s understandable, really.

Howard won a playoff series and lost one last year, his rookie campaign. In real plain terms, he hasn’t won diddlysquat for the Red Wings.

So naturally, people are going to say that he can’t. Until he does.

Because this is Detroit, and these are the Red Wings, a premier hockey team that has been typecast as one that has to win championships in spite of its goaltending, not because of it.

History doesn’t really bear that out, but why let facts ruin a good myth?

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Let’s get one thing out of the way, right now.

Miguel Cabrera is no Bobby Layne.

Layne, the liquor-guzzling quarterback for the Lions in the 1950s, was a drunk, but a happy, functioning drunk.

Layne’s drinking binges were legendary, and almost romanticized.

Rookie DT Alex Karras was assigned to Layne—literally—during Alex’s first training camp in 1958. It was Karras’s duty to drive Layne around town, usually to the watering holes in Pontiac, and not only act as Bobby’s chauffeur, but to be Layne’s drinking buddy, too.

Karras couldn’t keep up with Layne in the liquor consumption department. No one could.

Layne, Karras said, would drink the night away, pay the house band to keep playing even when they were tired, and would hang halfway out of the car on the ride home, screaming the words to the song “Ida Red.”

After a night of partying—this went on several days a week—the two would return to the dormitories at Cranbrook, with time for maybe an hour or two of sleep.

Then it was back onto the practice field for workouts in the hot summer’s sun.

“Bobby didn’t need sleep,” Karras once recalled. “He’d be in the shower, singing, fresh as a daisy, and I’d be trying not to throw up.”

Karras still can’t believe he made the Lions squad in his rookie year because Layne abused him more than the practices did.

“I was awful,” Karras said of his performance during camp and the exhibition season.

Layne could hold his booze. There are tales, confirmed, of him taking a few nips at halftime and leading the Lions to victory in the fourth quarter.

And, in Bobby’s words, “I always came in through the front door. I never sneaked in the back.”

In other words, Bobby couldn’t care less who knew that he’d been drinking.

One teammate said of Layne’s leadership in those salad days of Lions football of the 1950s, “When Bobby said ‘block’, you blocked. And when he said ‘drink,’ you drank.”

Cabrera, the Tigers’ troubled young superstar first baseman, can’t hold his booze, isn’t a happy drunk, and his binges are far from romantic. Maybe legendary, but in an Ichabod Crane sort of way.

I draw the comparison in a preemptive strike manner, in case you hear of any goofball trying to put Layne and Cabrera in the same boat.

If anyone says, “Miggy is just like Bobby Layne. Nobody cared if Bobby drank,” you have my permission to smack them across the puss.

Layne didn’t run afoul of the law. He didn’t drink and drive. He didn’t beat his wife. He didn’t get himself so soused that he couldn’t help his team during a key game.

Layne never got belligerent with the cops. He didn’t scream, “Do you know who I am?!” to the police. He didn’t yell frightening things like, “I’m going to kill him!”

Cabrera needs help, clearly. Again, you have my permission to punch any bozo who tries to brush Cabrera’s incidents of October 2009 and Wednesday night in Fort Pierce, Florida off as “isolated.”

Yeah, maybe isolated in terms of public displays of drunkenness, but do you really think that the only times Cabrera drinks to excess have been these two high profile instances?

Please.

Lord knows how much Cabrera has gotten shnockered since becoming a big league ballplayer. Now, what he does in the privacy of his own home is his business. But it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a serious problem with the bottle.

Ryne Duren, the flamboyant relief pitcher of the ’50s and ’60s, who was an avowed alcoholic, once said he could look at a team photo of his Yankees teammates and circle “at least” eight or ten fellow drunks.

Drinking in baseball goes back, really, to the days when Alexander Cartwright designed the first diamond in the mid-1800s.

But this thing with Cabrera goes beyond the “boys will be boys” mentality, when folks winked at the players who boozed it up. The writers of the day sometimes drank with them, in the drinking cars of the trains that carried the teams from Boston to St. Louis or wherever.

This thing with Cabrera is sinister. It’s dark and it’s scary and it holds the life of a young man in its mitts, not merely a career.

Tigers fans, if they have a decent bone in their bodies, ought to not give a damn whether Miguel Cabrera suits up for the Tigers ever again. They shouldn’t care whether he hits another home run. They ought not fret what that does to the team’s chances of making the playoffs.

Baseball is just a game. The issue isn’t whether Miguel Cabrera plays baseball again, or when.

It’s whether he can re-claim his life.

Shame on anyone who’s worried about the Tigers’ chances in 2011 without Cabrera.

This is a young man’s life we’re talking about.

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Of all the coaches in all of the four major sports, you’d have better luck putting a sawbuck down on “00″ on the roulette wheel than be able to accurately guess what a hockey coach is thinking.

The other coaches don’t hide their feelings or thoughts so well.

You know what’s running through the mind of the football coach.

In fact, they make it easy for you to guess.

Clutching those laminated sheets of plays, color coded for every possible situation, it doesn’t take a soothsayer to surmise what the football coach is thinking on third down and six.

The basketball coach is easy to profile, because he’s a raving lunatic, stomping his wing tip shoes on the floor, his face looking like he just drank sour milk.

His thoughts are easy to guess, and can be summed up in three letters, courtesy of the text messaging age.

WTF?

The baseball manager sits in his dugout, chews sunflower seeds, and you don’t have to be the Amazing Kreskin to figure him out, either.

Should I hit and run? Is it time to pull my pitcher out of the game? How come we can’t move the runner from second to third with nobody out?

Good luck mentally undressing the hockey coach.

I’ve been watching the sport for 41 years and I still don’t really know what those guys are thinking behind the bench.

They all have the same looks on their faces, like they’re trying to remember whether they turned the iron off at home.

They look up at the scoreboard a lot, which is funny, because you don’t need a calculator to keep track of a hockey score, like you do in basketball.

Either that, or they’re the most obsessed clock watchers you’ll ever meet, like they’re afraid they’re going to be late for a plane.

Scotty Bowman, Hall of Famer, never changed his expression once in the nine years I watched him coach the Red Wings. If you had to rely on Scotty’s face to tell whether the Red Wings were winning or losing, you were in trouble.

He would have made a hell of a poker player.

Mike Babcock, coaching today’s Red Wings, doesn’t change much either, facially. His look is more of confusion mixed with a mild headache. He looks up at the scoreboard a lot, too.

But don’t you dare think that Babcock doesn’t know what to say, or when to say it.

Babcock’s brilliance as the best coach in the NHL was on full display this past week.

His team, so rich in talent and rarely in need of their coach’s size ten boot delivered to their pants, was in the throes of a two-week stretch of un-Red Wing-like play.

Turnovers. Bad special teams. The startling inability to win at home consistently. Suspect goaltending, even more suspect play in the defensive zone.

Very un-Red Wing-like.

Babcock, after last Wednesday’s 4-1 shellacking at home at the hands of the Nashville Predators—the Preds’ second win over the Red Wings in five days—had seen enough.

After that game, Babcock used the word “unacceptable” a lot in describing his team’s play. He questioned his players’ work ethic. He not only had no problem with the fans’ booing the Red Wings off the ice, he wanted to join in, during the post-game meeting with the press.

Babcock then did something he’s rarely needed to do since arriving in Detroit in 2005: he delivered his size ten shoe square between the players’ back pockets.

Babcock skated the Red Wings hard Thursday during practice, gathered them together Friday morning in Boston for a talking to, then waited to see how they’d respond that night against the high-flying Bruins.

The Red Wings, themselves disgusted with their subpar play, stepped onto the ice at the TD Garden and destroyed the Bruins in front of their home fans, 6-1.

Less than 48 hours later, in Detroit, engaging in one of those rare and glorious home-and-home series with an Original Six team, the Red Wings took care of the Bruins again, 4-2.

Those two games should be Exhibits A and B if you ever needed to make a case before the judge as to why Mike Babcock is peerless as an NHL coach.

The Red Wings are filled with veteran leadership, but even the vets need an old-fashioned butt kicking from time to time.

Babcock keeps this method in a glass case at Joe Louis Arena, labeled, “Break in case of emergency.”

It worked, perfectly.

Don’t be surprised if the Red Wings continue their roll, especially with Brad Stuart and Mike Modano close to returning to an already deep lineup.

We may not be able to figure out what Mike Babcock is thinking on a nightly basis.

What shouldn’t be a mystery, is why he’s such a damn good coach.

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Feb
15

Promo Seltzer

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Tell me, what would be your annoyance factor if, while trying to watch television in your living room, someone occasionally steps in front of the screen, making hand gestures and other things to call attention to themselves?

Pretty flipping annoying, right?

Then why do some television networks insist on pumping their programs in the CGI version of what I just described?

You’ve been there—watching whatever on wherever, and you get momentarily startled by a moving image that is doing something in the lower right corner of the screen.

Your eyes can’t help but go over there, and it’s a graphic or an image of a person (or people) dancing or moving or waving their arms, calling attention to their show, which is sometimes several days away.

Some networks, in addition to the moving images, simply leave the programming information for what they’re promoting on the screen for the entire duration of what you’re currently watching. Though that’s easier to ignore because it’s just text. But still.

Again, it’s often not even the show that’s coming up next—it’s a few days out yet.

So why would network bosses insist on distracting their viewers from what they’re currently watching? It isn’t enough that there are minutes upon minutes of time to accomplish this during, you know, commercial breaks?

Ahh, I know—much of America runs away from the TV during the interminable breaks. You have, after all, sometimes up to five minutes to get stuff done before your show decides to grace you with its reappearance.

Especially in this day and age of DVRs that fast forward and rewind, it’s easy to zoom past commercials on programs you’ve pre-recorded.

So those slime ball network execs figured out a way to get their precious promos in, in a way that is fast forward-proof: emblazoning them on the screen during programming.

The family and I were trying to watch something on WEtv the other night. I say “trying” because that’s exactly what we were doing—thanks to repeated moving images of Joan and Melissa Rivers popping up in the lower right corner.

The two of them were literally trying to distract us. Their arms were flailing. They shoved and pushed each other.

LOOK AT US! LOOK AT US!!

We know you’re trying to watch your movie, but LOOK AT US!!

This would occur once every five minutes or so, if I had to guess.

It’s reprehensible, really.


Joan and Melissa Rivers, inanimate—unlike they were on my TV screen the other night, ad nauseam

Like other things on television that start small and harmless, this has grown into a pandemic.

It amazes me that even things that are bad ideas end up being aped by other networks.

Doesn’t anyone do market research anymore? Is the focus group dead?

And what’s worse, these images started small from a size standpoint and now the TV folks are getting bolder and making them larger and larger.

It’s off-the-charts annoying.

The TV advertising people used to hawk products with the alluring line of being able to try said products “in the privacy of your own home!”

Now, in grotesque irony, that privacy is now being invaded by the very same people who were touting it back in the day.

It’s getting so you can’t watch TV without being bombarded by not-so-subliminal promos for shows that are days away.

How long before the actual programs are on the lower right hand of the screen and the promos take center stage?

Don’t answer that—I don’t want to know.

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Feb
13

Ed Sabol’s NFL Took On a Life Of Its Own

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Before Ed Sabol started documenting it, pro football was canned as newsreel footage, shown in two minute increments in the movie houses across America.

It was filmed in black and white, always from the same high angle with the camera perched at the 50 yard line.

The images were sterile, the music usually a cheesy version of some college fight song.

There was nothing about pro football on film in the 1940s and ‘50s that was compelling. You’d find more drama looking at a fish tank.

Then along came a 46-year-old Jew from New Jersey with a 16 millimeter camera, owner of a small company called Blair Motion Pictures—named after Blair Academy, the school he attended.

Ed Sabol and his camera landed a whopper of a contract in 1962: filming every play of the ’62 NFL Championship Game at Yankee Stadium in New York, pitting the Green Bay Packers against the New York Giants.

In 1964, Blair Motion Pictures became NFL Films.

And just like that, the NFL became more than a league—it was mise-en-scène, played out in slow-motion with close-ups and reaction shots. And in living color—the blood was red.

Sabol bought more equipment once he started cashing the checks from the league, so that every game every Sunday could be documented.

One of his first cameramen was his son, 22-year-old Steve.

Sabol’s NFL Films brought the league to life. His company began producing mini-documentaries and team highlight films.

But as enthralling as the images of Sabol’s NFL were on celluloid, they doubled in their drama when Sabol brought in a former Philadelphia newsman named John Facenda to voice the pictures in his trademark stentorian baritone.

The two men met in a tavern.

It was Lana Turner being discovered at that malt shop, sort of.

So Facenda is at this tavern called the RDA Club, near Philadelphia, and some NFL Films footage is being shown on the TV. I’m not making this up.

Facenda gets interested in the slow-motion images adorning the TV screen, being drawn to them like a bug to a porch light.

Here’s Facenda, telling the story.

“I started to rhapsodize about how beautiful it was. Ed Sabol, the man who founded NFL Films, happened to be at the bar. He came up to me and asked, ‘If I give you a script, could you repeat what you just did?’ I said I would try.”

That was in 1965. Facenda was hired on the spot, and would remain the voice of NFL Films until his death in 1984.

Sabol had his images. He had his voice. All he needed was the music.

Running beneath every great film is a gripping soundtrack.

What’s a thriller without the music building to a crescendo, warning the heroine to LOOK OUT!!—if she could only hear the strings and horns of doom?

Sabol knew that his NFL was richly documented, but signature music would be the pièce de resistance.

Enter Sam Spence.

Spence was a former music instructor at USC who Sabol brought into the fold in 1966 to score some NFL Films documentaries and shorts.

The combination of Spence’s music cues with Facenda’s “Voice of God,” as it had been nicknamed, was the best thing to hit film since emulsion.

The tunes Spence composed aren’t known by name, but they have given football fans goose bumps for over 40 years.

They do have titles, of course.

“West Side Rumble.”

“Ramblin’ Man from Gramblin’.”

“Salute to Courage.”

Head over to YouTube, type the above in the search box, and it’s impossible not to visualize Joe Namath throwing a perfect spiral to Don Maynard, or Dick Butkus slamming an unsuspecting runner three yards behind the line of scrimmage.

The NFL before and after Ed Sabol got his mitts on it is like a caterpillar before and after pupal transformation.

That 22-year-old cameraman son, Steve, gradually took over his father’s business and became synonymous, facially, with NFL Films.

We marveled at the images, listened delightfully to Facenda’s voice and Spence’s scores, but the films needed to be introduced once they began being shown on television.

Steve Sabol became the face of NFL Films, the last piece of the puzzle.

The younger Sabol, with his handsome face and in his Philadelphian dialect, became the Rod Serling of sports films. He was there to usher us in and out of each segment, teasing us with what we were about to see.

Ed Sabol is still around, thank goodness. He’s 94 years old.

I say thank goodness because only last week did the powers that be deem him worthy of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

You heard me—it took them nearly 50 years after he fed his first footage into his 16 mm camera to put Ed Sabol into the Hall of Fame.

This is more overdue than a cure for the common cold.

Ed Sabol doesn’t just belong in the Hall of Fame, he should have his own wing. This is like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame realizing it hadn’t yet inducted the electric guitar.

But at least he’s in. At least Ed Sabol—God willing—will be live and in person when it comes time to call his name in Canton this summer.

They flirted with doing this posthumously, and that would have been a disgrace.

Ed Sabol, and his son Steve—who should probably go in, too, someday—rescued the league from black-and-white conformity and whisked it into a world of color and drama.

The Sabols breathed life into the National Football League with their expert photography, gripping music, and the “Voice of God” telling the stories.

Steve Sabol once put everything his dad started into perspective.

“The only other human endeavor more thoroughly captured on 16-mm film than the National Football League is World War II,” Ed’s kid said.

Those Hall of Fame voters have bad clock management. They damn near let the time run out on Ed Sabol, who was powerless to stop it.

I wonder if he’ll walk up to the podium in slow motion.

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