Archive for December, 2011


The Best (and Worst) of Yours Truly, 2011

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In a flash, a whirr and a blur, another year in sports came and went. 2011, it seemed, might have been missed had you blinked.

And what a year it was.

Tigers AND Lions in the playoffs, for the first time in the same year since 1935.

Pistons with a new coach (again).

Red Wings almost coming all the way back from an 0-3 playoff deficit against the San Jose Sharks.

Michiganfootball resurging under new coach Brady Hoke.

And I wrote about it all—with varying degrees of premonition and soothsaying.

For the fourth year in a row, I take you through the calendar and share some of my bon mots—and why they were or were not some of my best.



(on Steve Yzerman putting together a winner inTampaBay)

You can dress him however you like, put him wherever you want, but you can’t take the will to win out of him.

There’s quite a story going on in the NHL, not that you’d know it, because it’s happening to a team closer toCubathanCanada.

Yzerman is Vice President and General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a hockey team that really does play in the NHL; I looked it up.

No team with which Yzerman has been associated has had a losing season since 1991.

Now he’s taking the slapstick Tampa Bay Lightning and making them the new Beasts of the East.

Yzerman is turning theTampa(freaking) Bay Lightning into winners in his first year on the job.


Stevie’s team made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, as a matter of fact.


(on why the Pistons should hang onto veteran Tracy McGrady)

McGrady might be a Hall of Famer when all is said and done, except not all has been said, and it doesn’t look like all has been done; not even close.

The Pistons signed McGrady last August and it was the quintessential marriage of convenience. McGrady needed the Pistons so he could show the NBA that he still had game, and the Pistons needed another NBA veteran with a name; a player who wasn’t too far removed from his oohs and aahs days.

 The Pistons didn’t need another swingman; in fact, they needed one like a hole in the head. And it wasn’t like NBA teams were knocking McGrady’s door down for


his services. But the Pistons figured they could get McGrady on the cheap (which they did), and maybe he could still score a little and provide a veteran presence.

It’s not a bad idea to keep dudes like this on your roster, if you can manage it.

The Pistons decided otherwise, and let McGrady walk away after one season in Detroit.


(on the once unthinkable retirement of former Piston Dennis Rodman’s number)

He worked as a janitor at theDallas-FortWorthAirportafter 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 calledCookeCountyCollegeinGainesville,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.

The Pistons are going to do something on April 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.

Not long after, Rodman went into the Basketball Hall of Fame, too, for good measure.



(on the long overdue election of NFL Films founder Ed Sabol into the Pro Football Hall of Fame)

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.

It was very satisfying watching Ed, with son Steve by his side, giving his induction speech.



(on who should be the Tigers’ starting second baseman)

If I had a vote, I’d cast it for Will Rhymes to be the Tigers’ second sacker.

Rhymes, a lefty bat, is a prototypical second baseman. He’s hard-nosed and the front of his jersey is always dirty. He hit .304 in 191 AB last season, and he only made four errors in 53 games.

He’s a late bloomer, turning 28 on April 1, but that’s still seven years younger than (Carlos) Guillen.

Umm, you can’t win them all. Rhymes did indeed win the job in spring training, but he didn’t hit a lick and was lopped off the 40-man roster earlier this month.


(on the importance of leadoff hitter and centerfielder Austin Jackson to the Tigers’ cause)

Jacksonis the most important because if he gets a case of the sophomore jinxies, and the Tigers don’t have a reliable leadoff hitter, then the house of cards that is the team’s offense gets blown down.

Jacksonstrikes out a lot, which is understandable for a young player, but also more tolerable when that young player is hitting .300. It’s not so great if the batting average is .250 or .260.

Well, the batting average was .249, and the strikeouts jumped from 170 to 181. Yet the Tigers still won their division.



(on the sad state of veteran forward Mike Modano, who was on the outside looking in, for the most part, during the NHL playoffs)

Mike Modano, healthy scratch. For a playoff game.

Not what anyone had in mind when the Red Wings brought the veteran, home-grown kid back toDetroit.

Modano has gone on record as saying that this is likely his last chance at the Stanley Cup, because retirement is beckoning him.

“I can’t stay on the ice as long,” he told the media a few days ago. “I think my body is telling me that I’m near the end.”

Modano only got into two playoff games, and he retired over the summer, after having missed about three months of the season with a badly gashed wrist.



(on my frustration with the stubborn Tigers manager, Jim Leyland)

Jim Leyland, in case you haven’t heard, is a rocket scientist.

He presides over a job so sophisticated, so complicated, that it defies the understanding of those who aren’t rocket scientists.

He stands above all in his knowledge of his very scientific vocation, and therefore has no use for those whose brains simply cannot wrap themselves around the mesmerizing theorems, laws and corollaries that one must know in order to manage a baseball team.

OOPS; did I say Jim was a rocket scientist?

I made an assumption, since that’s how he treats his job, and those who dare question his logic.

The Marlboro Man had the last laugh, of course.


(on the prospects of new U-M football coach Brady Hoke)

Michiganfootball had been living in the penthouse and is now slumming. This is a program whose name wasn’t just spoken, it was said with a sneer—by both supporters and rivals.


Michigandidn’t get hurt, it inflicted it on others.

…But Hoke needs to start beatingMichiganState, too. And continue to beat Notre Dame. And he needs to keep having good recruiting classes. He needs to restore pride and faith inMichiganfootball once again.

Brady Hoke has one charge and one charge only: He has to saveMichiganfootball. That’s all.

And you know what?

I think he’s gouhnna do it.

That last sentence was my attempt at spelling how Hoke pronounces “gonna.” And, for the record, Hoke seems to be right on course, leading the Wolverines to a fine 10-2 season.


(on the Red Wings forcing a Game 7 in their conference semi-final series againstSan Jose, after dropping the first three games)

It’s now the thinkable.

The Red Wings are Secretariat in 1973, the ‘51 Giants, the ‘78 Yankees. They’re the ‘68-69 New York Jets, the 2004 Red Sox.

The tortoise has nothing on them, in that great race against the hare.

Check the calendar for a month of Sundays. Charlie Brown might get that kick off, after all, out of Lucy’s hold.

This isn’t happening, but yet it is. Even Disney’s Mighty Ducks never pulled something like this off.

The Red Wings are going to play a Game 7, which was a fantasy a week ago. Remember a week ago? A gut-wrenching overtime loss in Game 3? Devin Setoguchi with a hat trick, including a penalty in overtime and the game-winner shortly after he fled the box?

The Red Wings dropped that Game 7 to the Sharks, but they made Hockeytown so extremely proud of them.


(on why the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera hasn’t been embraced by fans as a superstar player should)

We love the idea of Miguel Cabrera being on our team. But we don’t love him. In fact, there’s a bunch of us who may not even like him, because he’s not that likeable of a guy, frankly.

Which is all such a shame, because we probably have him figured out all wrong. His teammates liken him to a big, cuddly bear. That may be the case; they ought to know, after all.

But we don’t see that side because we don’t see him. All we see is a big, talented man wearing a Tigers uniform. That may be enough for some, but it falls way short for most.

We don’t know Miguel Cabrera because we never hear from him. This is his fourth season as a Tiger and the man is a blank canvas, save for some splotches that have been tossed onto it.

I stand by this, though he ingratiated himself more as the season wore on.




(on LeBron James, after the Miami Heat lost the NBA Finals toDallas)

The Miami Heat won’t soon live this one down, folks. Maybe not ever. History, me thinks, will be in a cranky mood when it passes judgment on the 2010-11MiamiHeat—the team LeBron James couldn’t wait to join. The team that so easily seduced him, but that he also disappointed by leaving during the NBA Finals.

Until he wins a championship—and there’s no guarantee that he ever will—LeBron James should go down as one of the most laughable “superstars” that pro sports has ever seen. He should go down as a less-than-brilliant, heartless, gutless player who managed to fool his public even while hiding in plain sight.

But LeBron didn’t just fool them; he failed them.

His name doesn’t belong in the same sentence as Michael Jordan’s, unless it’s to create a grocery list of reasons why it doesn’t.

Why don’t I tell you what I REALLY feel?


(on the death of former Tiger Jim Northrup, and my personal dealings with him)

Jim Northrup always got his hacks in—whether it was at the plate or at the table.

I remember conversing with him on the phone in advance of the roundtable and it was free form Northrup. He was in a mood to talk, as usual, so I obliged, feeding him batting practice pitches and marveling at the results.

I found out that he hated playing for Billy Martin because, according to Jim, Martin was quick to take the credit and even quicker to blame his players and others when the Tigers were in a losing funk.

I found out that when Norm Cash was released in 1974 (the day after my birthday), Norm found out on the radio, driving to the ballpark. Northrup told me that he was so upset about the way his friend and teammate was cashiered, that he burst into manager Ralph Houk’s office to vent.

He was one of a kind, Jim Northrup was. RIP.



(on the potential end of Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood’s career)

So it will be with Osgood, 38, who is likely to be among the last to acknowledge that his days as Howard’s backup are over with.

Osgood is coming off two less-than-stellar seasons that have been pocked with injury, most recently to the groin—a goalie’s worst enemy.

Osgood is another who isn’t making things easy forHolland. Ozzie hasn’t offered to be jettisoned, nor will he make such an overture. At least, it’s doubtful that he will.

 But Osgood’s reticence hasn’t stoppedHollandfrom carrying on with his duties as GM. The Red Wings have some money to spend on a new/old goalie. They told Osgood (and Kris Draper) that a new contract wouldn’t be offered until after July 1, the date that free agents can begin to be signed. That is, if a contract would be offered at all.

It wasn’t, and Ozzie retired to help coach the organization’s young goalies.


(on the All-Star season authored by Tigers catcher AlexAvila)

Now I know why they call April 1, April Fool’s Day.


For that was the date, after just one game had been played in the 2011 season, that sports talk radio was lit up with phone calls from loudmouths on their cell phones, calling for the ouster of catcher Alex Avila from not only the Tigers starting lineup, but from the roster, from Detroit, and probably even the state of Michigan—to be on the safe side.

The Tigers had lost on Opening Day to the Yankees inNew York, and I won’t argue that it wasn’t one ofAvila’s crowning moments. He was shaky behind the plate and he looked overmatched with the bat—albeit he was going against southpaw CC Sabathia.

 After one game, the callers were frothing at the mouth.

 By mid-season, those same callers were urging fellow fans to vote for Avila for the All-Star team.



(on the importance of Lions QB Matthew Stafford staying healthy for the whole season)

Every timeStaffordgets hit, every time he scrambles around in the pocket—hell, every time he jogs onto the field for player introductions—Lions fans will wring their hands and rock back and forth in their seats.

The sales of candles and rabbit’s feet will explode in Motown this football season.

…The Lions are worthy of the buzz for reasons other thanStafford, I will grant you that.

There’s Ndamukong Suh, the wrecking ball defensive tackle, who might be, after just one season, the best in the business. Suh is the godfather of the D-line and sitting with him at the table are some very fearsome lieutenants.

There’s freakishly big Calvin Johnson, the receiver who gleefully gallops across the gridiron, making the football that he’s clutching look like a baking potato.

There’s more talent across the board than any Lions team we’ve been presented with in years.

But Matthew Stafford has to stay healthy. He just has to.

So far, so good.


(on my [then] disappointment with Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera)

Baloney, I say, to those who would tell me that I expect too much from Miguel Cabrera.

Look at his numbers, they’ll say. He grinds out an MVP-like season almost annually.

So how come Cabrera has never truly ever, in his four years as a Tiger, put the team on his back for any extended period of time?

Has he? Go ahead—I’ll wait while you come up with some examples. Or one, even.

Cabrera is doing it again, his timing again impeccably bad.

He has pedestrian numbers, this season, for a man of his talents. He swings too much at the first pitch. He grounds out to shortstop more than I thought was humanly possible.

This is the column that I took the most heat from. And Cabrera turned it around almost immediately and I gladly ate crow.


(on the Pistons hiring yet another new coach—Lawrence Frank)

They paraded another poor sap onto the lectern to be given his death sentence as the new head coach of the Detroit Pistons the other day.

There was Joe Dumars, team president, leading the march, and the way these things have gone over the years, you half expected to see Joe reading from a Bible n Latin, his head bowed.

The scene that unfolded on Wednesday was the seventh one presided over by Dumars since 2000.

It goes like this: Dumars leads his doomed coaching choice onto the lectern, says a few words tinged with hope and confidence that the man seated to his left is “the one.” Doomed coach speaks of work ethic and tradition and fends off questions about his past failures or mercurial history. The proceedings end with Dumars, the coach’s future executioner, shaking hands and smiling with his eventual victim as the cameras snap away.

Let’s hope Frank proves to be something other than just another Pistons coach who stays for a couple years then is jettisoned.



(on Lions coach Jim Schwartz)

Jim Schwartz has been the head coach of the Detroit Lions for nearly three years and I don’t trust him.

He doesn’t have “the look.”

How can he be the coach of the Lions and not look like he just saw Humpty Dumpty fall down and bounce back up?

The Detroit Lions coaches of years past have always had “the look.” The one that speaks the ghoulish thousand words.

…A look further at the hype reveals a common thread—the folks going ga-ga over the Lions do so because they all believe in the head coach.

“Smart” is the word that is most often repeated when describing Schwartz.

Jim Schwartz does know his football. He knows talent. And he knows what he’s doing as a head coach in the NFL.

Now THERE’S a look for you.

Schwartz has the 10-5 Lions in the playoffs, three years after 0-16. Looks good to me!



(on the prospects of the Red Wings without defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom)

Lidstrom, the Red Wings‘ all-universe defenseman, is 41 years old. In human years.

In hockey-playing years, he’s closer to 30, because he hasn’t used his body as a battering ram or for someone else’s target practice.

Lidstrom plays hockey like Bobby Fischer played chess and Minnesota Fats played billiards—literally. No one has seen that 200’x80’ sheet of ice better than Lidstrom, who is always a move or two ahead of his opponent. He’s the geometric hockey player—using the puck’s caroms and angles like Fats used those green felt rails.


There hasn’t been a defenseman like him, before or since he entered the NHL in 1991. I’ll put up a batch of my wife’s Pasta Fagioli that there won’t be one like him after, either. Ever.

Sooner rather than later, the Red Wings will have to pursue the Cup without Lidstrom, a frightening thought indeed.


(on why the Tigers beating the Yankees in the playoffs couldn’t really be celebrated)

It’s tempting to say that this is as good as it gets—that the moment is so savory as to be incapable of being eclipsed.

The problem with beating the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs—on the Yankees home field in a do-or-die game that boils down to the fate of the last batter, indeed the last strike—is how easy it is to feel like nothing can be tougher.

Or that nothing could be better.

As sweet as the Tigers’ 3-games-to-2 victory was over the Yankees in the American League Divisional Series (ALDS), it doesn’t change the fact that the Tigers are still just one-third of the way toward their post-season goal.

And that’s as far as the Tigers got, thanks to Texas’s Nelson Cruz.



(on why Lions DT Ndamukong Suh is good for the NFL’s business, good guy or bad guy)

It doesn’t matter if the publicity is positive or negative. The NFL loves Ndamukong Suh because, for the first time in decades, the league has a Bad Guy.

Suh’s entry into the NFL is the best-timed debut of any pro player since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird splashed onto the NBA scene in 1979. Before Magic and Bird, the NBA was scrambling for media attention. They were like the NHL has always been.

Prior to Magic and Bird, the NBA used to televise its Finals games on tape delay. No fooling.

The NFL has been desperate for a marquee name on defense for several years. The two guys who most fans think of when it comes to tough defense—Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis—are on the back end of their careers.

Suh’s play on the field seemed to take a slight step backward in his sophomore season, but his presence in the league is still high-profile and impactful.


(on former Lions guard—and paraplegic—Mike Utley’s battle to once again walk sans crutches)

Utley then made one of the most famous gestures inDetroitsports history.

His life certainly flashing before his eyes, his fear of his own well-being no doubt palpable, Utley nonetheless thought about the fans and his teammates.

He managed to work his right hand into a position of hope.

Thumbs up!

The gesture just about brought the Silverdome down. The image was beamed onto the big JumboTron screen above the end zone scoreboard, so that the fans could see it, just as those watching at home on television could.


Thumbs up!

Utley’s message of hope became the rallying cry for the Lions, who didn’t lose another game the rest of the year until they succumbed toWashingtonin the NFC Championship game in January.

It’s hard to find a more inspirational figure than Mike Utley.


(on the mid-season struggles of Lions QB Matthew Stafford)

But someone has to get Matthew Stafford right. And fast. There’s no Dave Krieg 1994 or Eric Hipple 1981 standing by. The only way backup Shaun Hill starts is ifStaffordis hurt—there’s no QB controversy here.

Staffordisn’t right. His sluggishness extends back to the 49ers game on October 16.

The Lions have to fix him, or none of this playoff talk will mean a Hill of beans.

The Lions fixed him—i.e., his broken right index finger healed—and Stafford is as hot as they come heading into the playoffs.



(on a new era of Lions football, being ushered in by coach Schwartz, after the team clinched a playoff berth)

It’s a new age of Detroit Lions football. Jim Schwartz aims to make his the next great era. One that will make history not as kind to the Fontes years, after all.

If that happens, we just might look back to Christmas Eve, 2011 as the victory that started the Lions on their way.

We just might.


(on new Pistons coach Lawrence Frank and his dual charge: to make the Pistons competitive and likeable)

From this hodgepodge of a roster, coach Frank has to not only make the Pistons competitive but also make a team that people will want to see perform. He doesn’t have the luxury of a superstar player around whom the rest of the team satellites.

The Pistons’ fan base, I suspect, is ready to embrace a kinder, gentler team—even if it’s one that doesn’t produce a lot of wins right away. That’s how bad things have gotten here since 2008.

Frank has dealt with starting 0-16 inNew Jerseya few years ago.

The Pistons won’t scare him.

The Pistons’ new slogan, to replace the tired and worn “Going to Work,” should be a derivative of Al Davis’s mantra with the Oakland Raiders.

“Just Like Us, Baby.”

After three games, the likeable part looks to be more feasible than the competitive part, for now.


There you have it! 2011 in a nutshell.

See ya next year.



Cruise Control

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Tom Cruise has certainly tried many milieus as an actor.

He’s done romance, suspense, comedy-drama, avant garde, you name it.

Now Cruise, 49, is in yet another “Mission: Impossible” movie, this one called “Ghost Protocol.”

I got to thinking about Cruise’s career as I’ve been seeing trailers for his latest “M:I” movie pass through my TV.

The action/adventure genre—and that’s certainly what the “Mission” movies are categorized—would seem to infer that the star doesn’t have to do much acting. Indeed, in so many of them, that’s been the case.

It’s tempting, to me, to suggest that the acting talents of Tom Cruise are wasted when it comes to the “Mission” films.

Cruise was never better than he was in “A Few Good Men” and the iconic “Jerry Maguire”—that I think will elicit very little argument.

But in the “Mission” movies, there’s an increasing amount of jumping and free-falling and diving and running, and you begin to wonder: is there any acting?

There certainly doesn’t really need to be any, much less from anyone of Cruise’s abilities.

There have been several action/adventure franchises. “Die Hard” comes to mind immediately. In none of them has the acting by the lead been anything remotely close to Academy Award level.

Cruise’s talents are wasted on the “Mission” films but at least he hasn’t buttonholed himself into the genre, like Bruce Willis did some 20 years ago. And Willis isn’t the actor that Cruise is.

Cruise running (what else) in the latest “Mission: Impossible” film

Name me a so-called action/adventure “star” who has the diversity and filmography that Tom Cruise possesses.

In fact, it would be terribly unfair to even call Cruise an action/adventure star, because he’s so much more.

Yet with this latest installment of “Mission: Impossible” eye candy for the holidays, and with any subsequent movie in the franchise—which is now about 15 years from its original—Cruise is getting closer aligned with the action/adventure genre.

Not that the “Mission” movies are all he’s doing.

Next year, Cruise will appear in “Rock of Ages,” which is set in 1987 Los Angeles and centers around a young couple chasing their dreams. Then it’s Cruise as Jack Reacher, a homicide detective, in “One Shot,” slated for late 2012 or early 2013.

But for now it’s another installment of “Mission,” and by all accounts this is the best of the bunch.

How much acting Tom Cruise really does in it, is up for conjecture. Not that it matters. It’s eye candy for the masses—a break from real thespian duties.

Sometimes you gotta give the people what they want, right?

Categories : Enotes, Entertainment
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(note: this column was written BEFORE Saturday’s Lions-Chargers game)

Wayne Fontes was a rotund, big bear of a man, a cigar-chomping, round-faced football coach of Portuguese descent. Fontes couldn’t have been more different than the man he replaced as Lions coach in 1988, Darryl Rogers.

Rogers, fresh from Arizona State University to the Lions in 1985, was often sullen, humorless and seemingly devoid of the passion that you normally find in a head football coach.

But Fontes, who replaced Rogers on an interim basis in November ’88 before getting the full-time gig after the season, was gregarious, loved the media and seemed to bask in the spotlight.

Once, during a particularly dicey period in Fontes’ tenure (1988-96)—and there were plenty of those—Wayne-o stood up to the media and took the bullet for his players.

“I’m the big buck,” Fontes said, comparing himself to a deer in the crosshairs. “Everyone wants a piece of me.”

Fontes rode golf carts during practice, kibitzed with his players and openly fawned over owner Bill Ford. The coach wore a Honolulu Blue heart on his big, fat sleeve.

Fontes coached the great running back Barry Sanders for eight of Barry’s 10 NFL years, and the two formed a tight bond that continues to exist today.

At Barry’s Hall of Fame induction in 2004, Fontes stood from the audience and gave his old RB several fist pumps of support.

Fontes was, at various times, a clown, a martyr, a “big buck” and a Coach of the Year. His players loved him, because as a so-called “players’ coach,” Fontes didn’t push them too hard—especially in December, when padless practices were not uncommon.

There must have been something to Fontes’ laid back approach at the end of the year, because his teams made several playoff runs after Thanksgiving.

The last Lions team to beat the Packers in Green Bay was coached by Wayne Fontes, in 1991—in December, by the way, as the Lions made one of their famous late-season runs.

The Lions under Wayne Fontes were stuck in neutral, however—good enough to make the playoffs in most years, but not nearly good enough to know what to do when they got there.

The playoff losses were painful and infamous.

Today’s Lions fan worth his salt no doubt can recall with a sour look the image of Green Bay’s Sterling Sharpe, standing alone in the back of the end zone at the Silverdome, as young gunslinger Brett Favre found him for a game-winning touchdown in the first round of the 1993 playoffs.

There was the ugly post-season loss in Green Bay the following season, when the Packers, playing on their God forsaken Frozen Tundra, made Sanders look like he was playing with his ankles tied together. The Packers held Barry to the ignominious total of minus-1 yard rushing for the afternoon.

It got worse the next year, in Philadelphia.

The Lions finished the season on another of their hot streaks—seven wins in a row to close out the schedule. Tackle Lomas Brown, momentarily forgetting for what franchise he was playing, blabbed to the media that he “guaranteed” a Lions victory.

The Eagles dismantled the Lions at Veterans Stadium—jumping out to a 51-7 lead before coasting.

After a disheartening 6-10 season in 1996, Ford finally fired Fontes after eight seasons, which makes him the longest tenured coach in Lions history.

As Casey Stengel once said, you can look it up!

The fans would like to think that they helped drum Fontes out of town, except that Ford doesn’t do anything just to placate the fan base, much less fire anyone.

Matt Millen ought to be proof of that.

Yet it’s an indictment of the Lions since Fontes’ firing in 1996 that his 66-67 career record can now be looked at as the “good old days” of Lions football, for fans that aren’t yet drawing Social Security.

Might as well say it: Wayne Fontes is still the only Lions coach to win a playoff game since 1957.

Since the 21st century dawned, the sometimes mediocre, sometimes brilliant, sometimes befuddling era of Wayne Fontes—he of the 1-4 playoff record—has been looking better and better the further it gets in the rearview mirror.

That’s ironic, because today’s Lions coach doesn’t believe in looking behind you.

Jim Schwartz is perhaps as far away from Wayne Fontes as garlic is from honey.

Schwartz is fit and trim where Fontes was a big bowl of jelly. Schwartz is covert where Fontes was an open book. The only place you’ll find Schwartz driving a golf cart is to the first tee.

Schwartz doesn’t chomp cigars or go easy on his players. He doesn’t call himself by any catchy, cutesy nicknames. Smiling is a chore for him.

But the Lions under Jim Schwartz have made leaps.

Schwartz came to town just weeks after the Lions lost in Green Bay to end their 2008 season at 0-16, which I submit will be among the most notorious numbers in Detroit sports history.

In 2009 the Lions won two games. In 2010 they won six, including their last four in a row. Today they sit at 9-5, with their playoff destiny in their own hands, to use a tired cliché.

It’s appropriate that the Lions are owned by a car guy, because Jim Schwartz is on the verge of taking this franchise from zero to the playoffs in three seasons.

Schwartz is looking to forge his own era of success—and one where just making the playoffs isn’t considered to be such a great feat.

If the Lions beat the San Diego Chargers on Christmas Eve, Schwartz’s team will be in the playoffs. No help needed, no scoreboard watching to be done. No formulas to calculate. Win and you’re in.

With the young talent assembled by GM Martin Mayhew—Fontes didn’t have such a whip smart personnel guy to help his cause—the Lions look to be set up for success for years to come. Meaning, the playoffs could become familiar again around these parts.

And playoff victories, that most precious commodity, could be mined by Schwartz and Company as well.

It’s a new age of Detroit Lions football. Jim Schwartz aims to make his the next great era. One that will make history not as kind to the Fontes years, after all.

If that happens, we just might look back to Christmas Eve, 2011 as the victory that started the Lions on their way.

Categories : Detroit Lions, football
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Butt, He Should Know Better

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Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner has battled Democrats and those within his own party. He’s seen the worst of legislative gridlock, just like all his colleagues. He is no stranger to tumult.

But Rep. Sensenbrenner (R-WI) hasn’t likely ever come up against a group like the one he’s mixing it up with now.


Sensenbrenner has succeeded in offending women of all shapes and sizes—especially those who aren’t runway model, thin as a rail types—in his comments about the, um, “posterior” of Michelle Obama.

Yes, First Lady Michelle Obama.

Sensenbrenner, it seems, is offended that Mrs. Obama has a healthy food agenda for America’s children. He looks at the First Lady as government personified—big government, specifically.

So Sensenbrenner did the very short-sighted, small-thinking thing and tried to use Mrs. Obama’s own posterior against her.

“She lectures us on eating right while she has a large posterior herself,” Sensenbrenner was overhead saying into a telephone, according to MediaBistro.

This from a man who, as one of my Facebook friends said, “needs an abacus to count his chins.”

The disturbing part of Sensenbrenner’s clumsy remark isn’t even so much about attacking a First Lady, an untoward as that is.

It’s the thinly-veiled meaning, which is that women have to look perfect in order to be considered healthy, or on track to make themselves healthy.

Heaven forbid a posterior be a little “large.”

It constantly amazes me, these men who are often rotund themselves, casting aspersions on a woman’s appearance.

Sensenbrenner, who ironically has the word “sense” start his last name, apparently believes that unless you have a perfect body with the requisite tiny amount of body fat, then you are not qualified or allowed to speak of healthy diet choices for others.

From the Huffington Post account of Sensenbrenner’s comments: Michelle has traveled the country for her “Let’s Move!” campaign for over a year, talking about healthy eating, promoting a more user-friendly pyramid graphic, getting stores like Walmart to stock their shelves with nutritious items and playing sports with kids.

But none of this advocating is OK, according to Sensenbrenner’s line of thinking, because the First Lady’s butt is too big.


The decidedly unfit Rep. Sensenbrenner

Aside from the flawed thinking that Sensenbrenner is displaying, is the brazen verbal attack on not only another man’s wife—but the president’s wife.

But all that is sure to be trumped by the deluge of e-mails and phone calls that Rep. Sensenbrenner’s office is sure to be contending with, probably as you’re reading this.

Those folks will be, in the vast majority, female.

And they won’t be happy, nor quiet.

If Sensenbrenner, at his age, doesn’t know enough to not trifle with a woman’s age or weight, then it’s amazing he got anywhere in life.

Well, he’s about to find out the error of his ways.

A spokesman for his office says the Congressman planned on apologizing to the First Lady.

Something tells me that she’ll be a LOT more forgiving than the rest of her gender.

That poor, poor man.

Categories : Enotes, Politics
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Lions’ Theft In Oakland Biggest Win In Years

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The man with half a foot and a stump for an arm trotted onto the field at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans on November 8, 1970. The least likely pro football record holder was a pudgy, roly-poly man with what looked like a block of wood for a right foot.

As Tom Dempsey strode onto the field, with two seconds remaining and the ball on his Saints’ 44-yard line, his team trailing the Lions, 17-16, chortles began in the Lions defensive huddle.

Alex Karras has confirmed it, on many occasions. He and his teammates openly mocked the Saints and Dempsey for attempting a 63-yard field goal, when the current record was merely 56 yards.

But the Saints only needed three points for the win, and new coach J.D. Roberts (he took over for the fired Tom Fears that week) figured the chances were just as good, if not better, of Dempsey getting a good “foot” into one, rather than tossing a Hail Mary pass.

So the Saints lined up for the kick. In Dempsey’s own words, as told to the Detroit Free Press’s George Puscas back in 1992, “The goalposts looked far away.”

They were.

Dempsey’s kick was square and true. His club foot made a sound like a cannon going off, according to those who were there that day, when it made contact with the football.

The pigskin traveled like a missile instead of a kicked football. It didn’t really go end-over-end, like a normal kick. Rather, Dempsey’s shot kind of sailed with the ends of the ball parallel to the field. Only at the very end did it return to end-over-end status, and plopped just over the crossbar.

The Saints beat the Lions, 19-17. Karras, who moments earlier was among the mockers, had actually tried his damndest to block the kick but barely missed it with his outstretched hand.

It was impossible for old goats like yours truly to not flash back to that November day in 1970, when Sebastian Janikowski jogged onto the field in Oakland on Sunday, preparing to swing his left foot into a 65-yard field goal attempt.

The CBS announcer in New Orleans was Don Criqui.

“Dempsey will set a new National Football League record,” Criqui said into the microphone, which can be relived courtesy of YouTube. “In addition to winning the game.”

Janikowski would have set a new National Football League record with his kick. In addition to winning the game.

Could the Detroit Lions fall victim to such crapola twice?

If any franchise could, it would be the Lions, right?

Not this time.

Ndamukong Suh, compared by I earlier this season to the great DT Karras, succeeded where old no. 71 failed. Suh blocked Janikowski’s kick, causing it to flutter harmlessly away from the goalposts.

And the Lions had sealed an improbable 28-27 win.

In the euphoria of such a win, i.e. the 24 hours or so after it happens, it’s easy to overstate its importance, and its place in history.

It’s so easy for those who rap on keyboards and who blab into sports talk radio microphones to get overly giddy about a win like Sunday’s, in which the Lions trailed by 13 points with 7:47 remaining.

Go ahead. Get giddy. Everyone has my permission.

This wasn’t just a win, after all. The bloggers and radio hosts are right this time.

The Lions franchise has turned the corner, I tell you. Four comeback wins of 13+ points in the same season—never before done in the 90+ year history of the NFL.

It’s a team that can look maddeningly undisciplined and neutralized on the one hand, but then look like a juggernaut on the other.

But the NFL is perhaps the most “bottom line” of all the four major pro sports leagues. There are only 16 regular season games, and every one of them is the most important game of the year, starting with opening day.

So the only thing that matters in the NFL is this: did you win, or did you lose?


The Lions have been able to say they won nine times this season. Which, after 14 games, puts them on the precipice of their first playoff appearance since the 2oth century (1999).

The Lions are winning games this season like they’ve never won before. And the best part is that they haven’t really lost like they used to lose, i.e. games they shouldn’t have lost.

Look at who’s beaten the Lions this season.

The 49ers, who are 10-3.

The Falcons, who are 9-5.

The Bears, who were riding a hot streak at the time.

The Packers. Enough said.

The Saints, who are 11-3.

So it’s not like the Lions are losing to chopped liver.

You win for a reason in the NFL, and, more telling, you lose for a reason, too.

No team can look at their record after 16 games and say that luck or flukes played a factor.

You’re 3-13 for a reason. And, conversely, you’re 13-3 for a reason as well.

The Lions are 9-5 and that’s that. They are a 9-5 team for a reason.

And they are tantalizingly close to that elusive playoff appearance. A winning record is already secured, their first since 2000.

Also in the 20th century, by the way.

The Lions are, like so many teams in the NFL, a flawed, imperfect platoon. They are capable of so much greatness, and so much exasperating play, too.

Just like every other team in the league, even the Packers.

A win like Sunday’s in Oakland can do so much for the psyche of a football team, just like the crazy comeback wins engineered over the Vikings and Cowboys earlier this season, on successive weeks, both on the road.

Matthew Stafford leading a 99-yard drive with just over two minutes to play, sans timeouts, brazenly throwing the football to the man who everyone in the stadium knows shouldn’t beat you (Calvin Johnson), was like Justin Verlander striking out three straight All-Stars with first base open to seal a win.

It shouldn’t happen. But it did.

Stafford is the best quarterback not named Bobby Layne in Lions history. Already.

He’s just getting started, and when you look at the Lions’ young talent and developing depth, it’s hard not to say the same thing about this team.

Go ahead, get giddy. It’s about damn time.

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Pistons’ Frank Has to Make Team Likable AND Competitive

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Auburn Hills is a 35-minute drive north of Detroit. Make that almost an hour if you dare try it in the shadow of 5:00 traffic. It’s a rather uninspiring trek up I-75, with warehouses and impersonal office buildings surrounding you on the east and west.

The starkness of the Detroit city limits gives way to those of the industrialized Troy as you head north, with a lovely view of the Oakland Mall to your right. Your passengers can practically reach out and touch Macy’s.

Then there’s a woodsy interlude before more commercialization, in the form of the Great Lakes Crossing shopping complex. More retail outlets and fast food joints than you can shake a stick at.

Finally, there it is, to your left, off Lapeer Road. The Palace of Auburn Hills, sitting by its lonesome self, like the Silverdome did so infamously in Pontiac.

The Palace, built in the middle of the woods in 1988, is a state-of-the-art facility that continues to be a model of engineering for those seeking out new sports arenas.

It’s a delightful arena with wonderful sight lines and plenty of parking. You don’t have to settle for a space in another part of town and take a shuttle (or a People Mover) to get there. There isn’t a parking structure with which to contend.

The problem is that it’s too far away from…anything.

Certainly too far to travel to watch an unlikable pro-basketball team lose on a snowy January night.

Professional hoops has never been the easiest sell in our town. The Pistons, in their sometimes-inglorious 54-year history in Detroit, have heavily discounted and given away more tickets than all the community theater performances of “Annie” put together.

When the Pistons first arrived in our town back in 1957, they played Olympia Stadium like they were the Beatles’ opening act.

The maintenance crews would throw some would panels onto the ice surface so the folks in the expensive seats wouldn’t slip and fall on their fannies. The court was also laid on said ice, which resulted in some players sliding too.

The crowds were a couple thousand of the most curious, or those who happened to see a voucher on a fast food counter.

Then the Pistons took their act to brand new Cobo Arena in 1961. Cobo, a pill-shaped venue on the Detroit River, was gorgeous in its own way but too vast for the Pistons crowds. Cobo seated about 11,000 for basketball and on most nights about 8,000 of those were empty.

In 1978, the Pistons moved into the Pontiac Silverdome, an even more cavernous facility. It was like moving a mouse into a mansion.

Ten years later, the Pistons inched even further north, into the glitzy Palace of Auburn Hills.

For a time it worked. The team was winning championships—two for two in the first two years in the Palace. The drive north didn’t turn too many people away, as it turned out.

But as soon as the losing returned to a franchise that had been quite used to it—circa 1993-96—the Palace seemed like a faraway place.

The championship of 2004 and the near miss a year later made the Palace seem closer again. Funny how that works.

Today, the Palace is far away, once more.

Lawrence Frank is the Pistons’ new coach. His charge isn’t necessarily just to make a winning team. He has to make people like the Pistons—enough to want to venture to the Palace on a snowy night in January to see them battle the rest of the NBA. On most nights, those battles will likely end up in the other team’s favor.

Some would say that the challenge of making the Pistons likable again is more daunting than that of making them winners once more.

Let’s wind the clocks back to June 2004.

There the Pistons were, championship t-shirts and caps on their bodies and heads, confetti dumping on them from the Palace rafters.

World Champions!

There was no superstar on that Pistons roster, which was greater than the sum of its parts. The Pistons were bucking the trend that said you had to have at least one megastar, if not two or three, to win the whole shebang.

It was all a fluke, as it turned out.

You DO have to have at least one white-hot star on your roster to win an NBA championship. Two would be even better, thank you.

The Miami Heat notwithstanding, that’s the reality of today’s NBA.

The Pistons, who will begin play the day after Christmas to tip-off the truncated 2011-12 season, have no superstars. Not even close. They have a roster full of guys who are 6’8”. No one does anything particularly well.

The Pistons were last in the playoffs in 2008 and that ended in an ugly fashion on a May evening in Boston. The Pistons who had confetti rain on them in the Palace in 2004—Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, et al—had turned into petulant, shameful crybabies.

The 2007-08 season was the culmination of four years of almost greatness that instilled an unattractive sense of entitlement into a team whose players felt like all they needed to do was show up, and a return trip to the NBA Finals would be theirs.

The Pistons made it to six straight Eastern Conference Finals, but in the last three they progressively regressed physically and mentally.

It all ended with an ejected Wallace tearing his jersey off and the Pistons imploding in Boston in 2008. Billups was traded early the next season, and the die was cast.

Since then, it’s been three seasons of bad coaching hires, inmates running the asylum, questionable trades, suspect free-agent signings and general disdain.

Lawrence Frank has a rookie point guard, Brandon Knight, who might be something. He has a second-year big man, Greg Monroe, who showed promise in the second half of last season.

He has a healthy Jonas Jerebko, one of those 6’8” guys, but has some potential as an X-factor or a sixth man.

Frank has Tayshaun Prince, newly signed to a four-year pact. Another 6’8” guy that could have championship pedigree.

Frank also has the disappointing free-agent class of 2009—Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.

Frank doesn’t have Hamilton any longer—but this is addition by subtraction.

That’s pretty much it. Everyone else is either a hard-worker, a role guy, or both, like the ancient warrior Ben Wallace.

From this hodgepodge of a roster, coach Frank has to not only make the Pistons competitive but also make a team that people will want to see perform. He doesn’t have the luxury of a superstar player around whom the rest of the team satellites.

The Pistons’ fan base, I suspect, is ready to embrace a kinder, gentler team—even if it’s one that doesn’t produce a lot of wins right away. That’s how bad things have gotten here since 2008.

Frank has dealt with starting 0-16 in New Jersey a few years ago.

The Pistons won’t scare him.

The Pistons’ new slogan, to replace the tired and worn “Going to Work,” should be a derivative of Al Davis’s mantra with the Oakland Raiders:

“Just Like Us, Baby.”

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Join the (Towne) Club!

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Towne Club pop isn’t dead. Those rumors are greatly exaggerated.

Well, maybe not greatly exaggerated; it’s not exactly on every shelf around town.

Or should I have spelled it, towne?

But Towne Club, that distinctly Detroit soft drink, can still be accessed.

Our daughter spotted some at Produce Palace, on Dequindre in Warren.

The bottles aren’t the same, bullet thin sized as before. They’re 16 oz. now. But it’s still Towne Club.

If you’re under 30 years of age, you might want to click away. For Towne Club was a staple in the late-1960s, early-to-mid-1970s.

It worked like this.

You bought the pop, in its multitude of varieties, by the case. You could mix and match. The main bottling and distribution center was located on Ryan Road near 1o Mile, if memory serves.

The cases would be purchased and there was a deposit on the case itself—which at the time was a HEAVY wooden thing.

Then you’d bring the empty bottles and the case back, and repeat the process all over again.

Sometime in the 1980s, Towne Club seemed to vanish. Certainly the center on Ryan Road closed. I’ve not done the research, so there may have been a reason. Regardless, Towne Club pop kind of fell off the radar for quite some time.

Over the past decade, I’ve seen Towne Club pop up (no pun intended) at select specialty stores; certainly not in any “mainstream” markets like Kroger, Meijer’s, etc.

The “new” Towne Club bottle: not as thin as the original

The pop itself wasn’t, to me, award-winning, but the varieties were plenty and that was more than you could say about so many of the other soft drinks on the market.

I think what made Towne Club an allure was the process. The whole notion of getting into the car, empty bottles in their cases in tow, and driving to the center to pick out new varieties and bring them back home.

I was a little disappointed when I saw the “new” Towne Club bottle, I must confess. It seems so….fat!

The old bottles could have been fit inside a paper towel roll.

Towne Club pop, I guess, wasn’t just a beverage, to so many of us.

It was an experience.

And one that you can still partake in, I’m happy to report.

Categories : Enotes, food, society
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Driven to Distraction?

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The National Transportation Safety Board has spoken, and there are two ways that you can look at it.

First, here’s what they said, according to a story in today’s Free Press: “The National Transportation Safety Board says distracted driving has claimed too many lives and made a sweeping recommendation today calling on states to ban the use of portable electronic devices for everyone behind the wheel – even if they have a hands-free device.”

In other words, no talking on a cell phone, period. Even if both hands are on the steering wheel.

As promised, here are the two ways to look at this recommendation—which is all it really is, because the states pretty much write their own traffic laws.

First, seems that we all got along just fine for decades without talking to people on phones inside our cars. It’s not so much that we have to talk—but that we can. So, we do.

Second, I think the NTSB should extend their recommendation to other distractions that I have seen, like the application of makeup, shaving and eating, among others.

Ask yourself: could YOU give up chatting on a phone in the car? And I mean, cold turkey?

“It may seem like it’s a very quick call, a very quick text, a tweet or an update but accidents happen in the blink of an eye,” Deborah A.P. Hersman, the chairwoman of the NTSB, was quoted in the Free Press story. “We’ve investigated a lot of accidents and we know a lot of times the distraction that’s there is not just about manipulating something.”

There’s no question that the number of accidents involving drivers distracted by electronic communication gadgets is increasing. And the incidents aren’t limited to the average Joe or Joanne on the road; people in whom we place our trust, like those who are in charge of commuter trains, tugboats and the like, are being distracted by laptops, texting, etc.

In fact, Blogger’s spell check just flagged “texting,” which is an accepted 21st century word but apparently isn’t in their dictionary yet.

So it’s an ever-changing world.

The NTSB might be overreacting, but it’s hard to make that case when people are dying.

I am just like everyone else. I talk on the phone in the car, while driving. And mine isn’t a hands-free model, either.

And I’ve looked down to change a CD or reach for a beverage.

So far, I’ve been lucky that none of those actions have resulted in me getting into a wreck.

If the states began implementing bans on devices, period, whether they were hands-free or not, I know there’d be an adjustment I’d have to make. It seems so natural, anymore, to pick up the phone and dial my wife or home. But, frankly, most of those conversations are mundane and can occur after I get home.

Safe and sound.

Categories : Enotes, laws, society
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The penalty was for one yard. Three measly feet. Yet it seemed like a mile, and it felt like a reminder to us of Lions ineptitude and bad timing.

One more act of stupidity, right? One very Lions-esque thing to do, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and turn what had been a fun, festive Sunday afternoon into something that Stephen King might have penned.

Cliff Avril was the Lions player this time. He was the one looking to the heavens, shaking his head, wondering why he had just done what he had just done.

It’s been a question asked too often by and about Lions players of the past.

What did Cliff Avril just do?? Are you kidding me?

Avril had inexplicably jumped offsides, as if he’d been shot out of a toy cannon, with the Minnesota Vikings on the Lions’ two-yard line, sans time outs, and the clock heading for single digits.

The blunder stopped the clock, of course, with nine ticks remaining.

The infraction moved the Vikings merely a yard closer to paydirt, but that yard carried a big stick.

It was but a yard, but it appeared to represent so much more.

Avril’s gift of a yard to the Vikings looked like it would be the three feet that QB Joe Webb needed to march his team to the winning score. The Lions led 34-28 but never before did a six-point lead look so fragile. It wasn’t a lead, it was a fraying rope with a piano tied to it, hovering over the Lions’ playoff hopes.

And Avril, it looked like, had just held a blowtorch to that fraying piece of rope.

He did WHAT?

Tell me that your thoughts didn’t go back to Bobby Ross going for two or Marty Mornhinweg taking the wind. Tell me they didn’t and I’ll call you a liar.

Tell me, as the Vikings lined up at the one-yard line with nine seconds left, on the verge of wiping out a 21-point deficit and squeezing the life out of the Lions’ season, that you didn’t think back to the Matt Millen Era and the Paul Edinger field goal on the last play of the 2000 season which led to said Era.

Avril’s random act of madness caused a packed house at Ford Field to cease breathing, which the faithful didn’t re-commence doing until Avril, of all people, finally pounced on a football (aka the greased pigskin) that bounded some 50 yards downfield after it was slapped from Webb’s hands by a blitzing DeAndre Levy.

The final play of Sunday’s game was like the final scene of a horror movie—the kind where the girl is about to get killed and the hero shoots the villain from behind, when you didn’t even know the hero was around.

It was a stunning finish to a game that the Lions should have had in their back pocket, except that pocket had a hole the size of Joe Webb in it.

The Lions had no clue as to how to deal with Webb, who bounced around like a pinball in the Vikings backfield, rattling off one would-be Lions tackler after the other, and always ending up in a bonus cup.

Webb ran around and around and around—sometimes appearing to run half the length of the football field, except horizontally and in zig-zag fashion.

As Lions coach Jim Schwartz said afterward as he was still catching his breath, his team tried everything against Webb. And still Webb almost led the Vikings back from a 31-14 second half deficit.

Webb started the comeback by managing to gallop from the pocket to the end zone, some 65 yards away, with no Lions defender within a 10-yard radius. He made Denard Robinson look like Scott Mitchell.

It all came down to the Vikings at the Lions’ one, with nine seconds left. Three feet away from a tying touchdown and the near-certain go-ahead PAT.

Three feet from the apparent end of the Lions’ season, or certainly the beginning of the end.

Three feet from another brutal loss that this town would be talking about for years to come.

Then Levy struck, blowing up Webb and the Vikes’ hopes of an improbable victory.

“I was nervous, watching that football,” Schwartz said afterward of Webb’s game-ending fumble, his words captured by Fox 2 Detroit’s post-game show camera. “I thought (Webb) would pick it up and start running around with it again.”

Good thing Webb didn’t. I don’t think football fans can hold their breath that long.

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Tigers’ Laird Back, Now as the Prototypical “Mr. Backup”

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The only difference, as far as I can see, between the backup catcher in baseball and the backup quarterback in football is that no one clamors for the former to play. Other than that, you can barely slide a credit card between the two positions, in terms of what they mean to their respective teams.

Both are non-starters for a reason.

Yet in the NFL, there is a mystique about the backup quarterback. He’s not the starter, but as soon as the real starter goes a little sideways, everyone from the crank yankers calling in to sports talk radio to your Uncle Gus can’t wait to see the No. 2 QB jogging onto the field.

Not so with the backup catcher.

The backup catcher is someone who can’t hit, who can’t run and whose only seemingly redeemable quality is that he’s “a good clubhouse guy.”

At least the backup quarterback has been known to save the day on occasion, with a heart-stopping drive at the end of a game or a surprising starting performance that makes him look, for 60 glorious minutes, like the second coming of Johnny Unitas.

The backup catcher is a guy who plays only because the starter can’t possibly catch all 162 games.

The Tigers tried to have Alex Avila catch that many games last year, or so it seemed. He was given less time off than an accountant during tax season.

There was a pseudo rotation between Avila and the newly-signed Victor Martinez for a time, but Victor’s knees couldn’t take the punishment and he was relegated solely to designated hitter duties.

That left Avila, with token appearances by utility man Don Kelly and a couple of dudes from the stands, if memory serves.

The Tigers have provided Avila with some relief, however, for 2012 with the signing of—drum roll, please—our old friend Gerald Laird.

He’s baaack!

For what the backup catcher normally provides offensively, Laird fits the bill. He also fit the bill in 2009 and 2010, during his first tour of duty with the Tigers. Trouble was, he was the starter—and still hitting like a backup.

I don’t have the time or the energy to do the research, but if you were to tell me that the mean batting average for backup catchers last year—or any year, for that matter—was around .200, I wouldn’t bat an eye (no pun intended).

That’s what backup catchers do, you know. They hit around .200, play once a week, maybe twice, and the hope is that they just don’t screw anything up.

They’re like substitute teachers, in a way.

Laird had the last laugh, though. Tigers fans weren’t exactly enamored with him after his less-than-spectacular hitting prowess (he hit a composite .218 in his two Detroit seasons), and were happy when he wasn’t asked back for 2011.

That’s OK—for Laird, who hooked up with the St. Louis Cardinals last December, got all of 95 at-bats in 2011, hit a robust .232 and (here’s the punch line) won a World Series with the Cards.

All the great catchers in baseball history had their caddies, which are what the backups are, essentially.

The Yankees’ Yogi Berra had his Charlie Silvera. The Reds’ Johnny Bench had his Bill Plummer. The Tigers’ Bill Freehan had his Jim Price.

Silvera, Plummer and Price were your typical backup backstops. That is, they couldn’t hit their way out of a paper bag. None was a threat to unseat the starter ahead of them.

Tigers fans might have rolled their eyes at the news of Laird’s signing last week, but he makes sense, frankly. Laird already knows the Tigers pitchers, for the most part, he has no grandiose ideas of taking young Avila’s job and he hits the requisite .200-ish.

But in fairness, the backup catcher should at least field a little, and Laird can do that. His 32-year-old arm is still strong enough to keep would-be base stealers somewhat honest.

The Tigers just need Laird to catch no more than 40 games next season, stay out of the way and don’t screw the pitchers up. It’s all any big league team asks of its No. 2 catcher.

Oh, and be a good cheerleader, that so-called “good clubhouse guy.”

When the Tigers went to the World Series in 2006, they had Vance Wilson around as Pudge Rodriguez’s caddie. If backup catchers were an organization, Wilson would have been a card-carrying member.

Actually, Vance might have been the Chairman of the Board, for he spent several seasons backing up Mike Piazza with the Mets before coming to Detroit to give Rodriguez an occasional breather. That’s playing second banana to two Hall of Famers. Not bad.

Wilson actually batted .283 in 152 at-bats with the ’06 Tigers, and he was widely recognized as one of the best backup catchers in the game—not that they give out any awards for that.

And Wilson was consistent. Before his career ended with a bad elbow injury after that 2006 season, Wilson in his final three seasons had 157, 152 and 152 at-bats from 2004-06, respectively. He was Mr. Backup—the Sultan of Squat.

Wilson was manager Jim Leyland’s attitude guy, too.

After he hurt his elbow in spring training, Wilson stayed with the team all season in 2007, rehabbing and keeping his spirits up—and those of his teammates with his practical jokes and loosey-goosey demeanor.

I saw him in the clubhouse a couple times in ’07, and on both occasions I asked him how close he was to coming back and playing.

“REAL close. REAL close,” he’d say.

Wilson never did play after 2006.

No matter. The backup catcher is the never-say-die guy on the baseball team. He’s often the least pretentious and with the smallest ego. He’s just happy to be in the big leagues.

As well he should, given his hitting skills.

Welcome back, Gerald Laird! It’s nice to have your .200 batting average, good defense and slow legs back with the Tigers.

Just don’t screw anything up.

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