Greg Eno

Ilitch’s impetuous ways will likely decide Ausmus’ fate

In Baseball on September 15, 2016 at 4:27 pm

Published September 15, 2016

Brad Park, eventual Hall of Fame defenseman, was sitting at home when his phone rang on Christmas Eve, 1985.

On the other end of the line was Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch.

Ilitch told Park, who had played for the Red Wings in his final two years (1983-85), that the owner was considering a coaching change. The Red Wings, under Harry Neale, were having an historically bad season.

Park was doing some broadcasting at the time.

Ilitch’s gambit to sign a bunch of college and NHL free agents in the summer of ’85 and hire the well-traveled Neale to be coach was backfiring badly.

“Do you know of anyone who might be a good fit?” Ilitch asked Park.

Park said he’d have to give that one some thought.

Then, after a pause, Ilitch dropped a Christmas Eve bombshell on Park.

“Would YOU be interested in coaching my team?”

At first Park said no. But then he thought about it and rang Ilitch back.

The two hammered out some details about Park’s role beyond coaching—specifically in giving Park some say-so in personnel decisions, which was being handled exclusively by GM Jimmy Devellano.

Park, of course, had never coached a hockey team in his life. But Ilitch was showing his impetuous, knee jerk side that would rear its head many times in his ownership of the Red Wings and the Tigers.

Ilitch’s loose cannon ways brought Brad Park back to the Red Wings as coach and Director of Player Personnel, which naturally led to a power struggle between Park and Devellano, which Devellano eventually won.

The Red Wings were just as awful under Park as they were under Neale. A large problem was keeping the puck out of their own net less than five times per game.

Park was out by June.

Jacques Demers was hired away from St. Louis, and again it was Ilitch’s aggressiveness that sparked a tampering charge against the Red Wings by the Blues.

For all the loyalty assigned to Mike Ilitch over the years to certain people in his sports organizations, there is also quite a bit of typical sports owner impatience in him as well.

Hiring and firing general managers of the Tigers left and right shortly after purchasing the team in 1992.

Turning a cold shoulder to iconic manager Sparky Anderson after Sparky refused to manage scab replacements in spring training of 1995.

Making a bold move to hire Scotty Bowman as coach of the Red Wings in 1993.

Doling out big free agent contracts to baseball and hockey players, often unexpectedly and maybe in an ill-advised manner at times.

Signing off on trades that nobody saw coming.

Firing Tigers President and GM Dave Dombrowski in 2015.

Ilitch will be loyal to you—see Holland, Ken—but he’s not above being abrasive and unpredictable, either.

It’s the owner’s age, health and that unpredictability that will be the brew that decides the fate of Tigers manager Brad Ausmus if the team fails to qualify for the playoffs in a couple of weeks.

If the post-season starts and the Tigers are on the outside looking in, there will, of course, be the usual post-mortem on the season with the team’s brass.

Every team does it.

GM Al Avila and his lieutenants and advisers will gather and assess the 2016 season and talk about what went wrong and what went right.

They will discuss whether what went wrong was mostly beyond Ausmus’ control, or if some of it was self-inflicted by the skipper.

Finally, they will render their decision as to whether Ausmus should be brought back in 2017. Because that decision will determine the direction of the team and could figure into any trades and free agent signings that Avila chooses to make this winter.

But the wild card is Ilitch.

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Right or wrong, the only way Ausmus will breathe a sigh of relief is if the Tigers make the playoffs.

All of the discussion and all of the assessing and all of the two cents put in by all of the brass won’t mean a hill of beans as much as the owner’s countenance will.

It won’t necessarily matter that there may not be any attractive candidates to replace Ausmus who are readily available. The Tigers’ bench doesn’t have any manager-ready candidates on it, like the Red Sox—Dombrowski’s team—have with Torey Lovullo. So Avila would have to look outside the organization, most likely, for a new manager.

If the owner decrees, then that’s what Avila will do.

It won’t matter if the prevailing opinion of the team’s front office, backed by facts and well-measured arguments, is that the manager deserves another year.

Mike Ilitch will determine Brad Ausmus’ fate, plain and simple.

Now, to the reasoned baseball observer, an owner’s impatience, age and possible health concerns shouldn’t, by themselves, mean that the manager needs to go.

So much will have gone into the Tigers’ missing the playoffs, if that’s what ultimately happens.

Injuries. Guys performing below their resumes. More injuries.

All of these are beyond a manager’s control.

But stubborn use of relievers such as Shane Greene and Justin Wilson, when their performances have been trending downward for weeks, won’t help Ausmus’ cause.

Yet this is nitpicking. You could put any big league manager under the microscope and find faults or disagree with his decision making.

Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe was on the MLB Network last week and said that Red Sox skipper John Farrell is “wildly unpopular” with the fan base in New England. Ryan added that if the Red Sox don’t make the playoffs this season—David Ortiz’ last one as a player—then Farrell is in trouble.

And Farrell won the World Series just three years ago.

Yet Dombrowski didn’t hire Farrell; he inherited him when Dombrowski took over the Red Sox last summer.

It’s a “What have you done for me lately?” business, this professional sports thing.

It’s my opinion that giving Brad Ausmus the ziggy if the Tigers don’t make the playoffs will smack of making a change for change’s sake. Of course, sometimes that’s a good thing.

Other times, not so much.

I’m also not sure who would be available that would appear to be a decided upgrade, barring unforeseen circumstances, such as a high profile guy leaving his team unexpectedly (*cough* Mike Scioscia  *cough*).

Again, that is not enough of a barrier if the impetuous, aging owner wakes up on the wrong side of the bed one day.

So what Ausmus has before him is a scenario in which he’d better make the playoffs—and maybe get beyond the play-in game—in order to feel safe. Anything less than that makes his return in 2017 a coin flip.

Would it be fair to let him go? Would it be reasonable?

Does it matter?

Not in the least.

Poetic justice ruled when Long became an NBA champion with Pistons

In Basketball on September 9, 2016 at 7:18 pm

In its nomadic days of the 1950s and ’60s, the NBA instituted a geographic element to its college draft.

The league allowed teams to claim certain players without fear of competition, based on “territorial rights.”

So the Pistons, for example, would be allowed their choice of players that attended the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, the University of Detroit or any other Michigan college. Each NBA team could utilize one territorial pick per year.

Sometimes the league fudged a little.

Wilt Chamberlain, who attended the University of Kansas, was allowed to go to the (then) Philadelphia Warriors as a “territorial” pick in 1959. Why? Because Wilt had grown up in Philadelphia and starred there in high school! And the NBA didn’t have a franchise anywhere near Kansas.

The Pistons had bad luck with the territorial rule.

The NBA abolished the rule in 1966, the year that prized college hoopster Cazzie Russell was set to graduate from the University of Michigan.

The Pistons drooled over Russell. But with the territorial pick no longer an option, the last-place Pistons had to engage in a coin flip with the other last-place team, the New York Knicks, to determine who would draft first overall and thus select Russell.

The Pistons lost the flip. But they did end up selecting David Bing from Syracuse, so all was not lost.

Someone must not have told Dickie Vitale that the territorial picks were abolished when Dickie ran the Pistons for two drafts (1978-79).

Among his first five picks in ’78 and ’79 combined, Vitale drafted four players who attended school in the state of Michigan: Terry Tyler and John Long (Detroit), Gregory Kelser (MSU) and Phil Hubbard (Michigan).

The drafting of Tyler and Long, the Pistons’ two second round picks in 1978—the Pistons didn’t have a first round selection that year—was looked at as a shameless act by Vitale, the players’ old coach at U-D.

Surely Tyler and Long’s U-D ties must have influenced Vitale. And they did!

But to be fair to Dickie Vitale, Terry Tyler and John Long ended up carving out decent NBA careers for themselves. Tyler was the Pistons’ X-factor off the bench—a sixth man who could jump, rebound and hit a baseline jumper. Long was a prototypical NBA shooting guard—someone whose “rock set” (per broadcaster George Blaha) mid-range shot was one of the most reliable in the league.

But both Tyler and Long played for bad Pistons teams. And just when the Pistons were getting better and playoff-worthy, both players left for other franchises: Tyler signed with the Sacramento Kings as a free agent in 1985 and Long was traded to Seattle in 1986.

Its presence doesn’t always manifest itself, but poetic justice occasionally shows up in sports.

That was the case when the Pistons, by then a legitimate championship contender and looking for a veteran shooter, reacquired Long in February, 1989. Just a few days earlier, the 32 year-old Long was waived by the Indiana Pacers. The Pistons moved quickly to snap up old no. 25 and bring the Romulus native back home.

Long celebrated with the Pistons in June of 1989 when the team swept the Los Angeles Lakers to win the franchise’s first-ever NBA championship.

John Long, one of two maligned draft picks from U-D during the disastrous Dickie Vitale Era of Pistons basketball, got his brass ring after all—with the team that drafted him in 1978.

Long retired from the NBA in 1991 but more than five years later, at age 40, he was dragged back onto the court by old teammate Isiah Thomas, who convinced Long to return as a player with the Toronto Raptors, the franchise that Isiah was running at the time. Isiah also signed retired ex-Piston Earl Cureton to fill the Raptors’ bench.

Why?

“Isiah wants (Long and me) to keep an eye on the young players and help coach (Darrell) Walker police the locker room,” Cureton told me via phone shortly after it was announced that the two dinosaurs were being brought back. As soon as I heard the news, I dialed Cureton, to whom I gave his first color commentary job (U-D basketball for Barden Cablevision) and gave him the 1996 version of “WTF?”

Actually, it might have been “WTF?”

Cureton chuckled and said that their stay on the roster wouldn’t be too long.

“Just until Darrell feels more comfortable,” Cureton said of the first-year coach.

Long played 32 games as a 40 year-old for the Raptors and Cureton—another U-D guy—played in nine contests at age 39.

It’s yet another stark example to this writer of how time flies that it’s been nearly 20 years since John Long hung up his basketball sneakers for good.

Tonight, the sneakers will stay in moth balls but the Armani suit will be broken out, as Long is inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.

Long’s college career at U-D was marked by the exuberance of Vitale, dramatic on-court entrances from the corner of the Calihan Hall gym, a lot of winning and a memorable appearance in the 1977 NCAA tournament, in which Detroit met Michigan in the second round. The Wolverines edged the Titans in what would be Vitale’s last game as U-D’s coach.

Less than two years after that Michigan game, Long and Vitale—and Tyler—were reunited with the Pistons. The reunion was scoffed at as nothing more than a former college coach trying to get his old band back together in the NBA.

It might have been that, but if you can shoot the basketball, there’s always a place for you in some form of organized hoops. If you can shoot it as consistently well as John Long did, the NBA will keep you around.

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Long doing what he did best, against the Celtics.

Long was a one-dimensional player but that was OK. He had a specialty and when Thomas shared the backcourt with him, many a time Isiah would find Long in the corner or at the elbow for that patented set jumper. From 1979-86, Long hit those shots to the tune of no less than 45 percent to as high as 51 percent of the time.

That’s some serious shootin’.

Long just celebrated his 60th birthday on August 28. His nephews, fellow Romulus natives and former Pistons Terry Mills and Grant Long, are 48 and 50, respectively.

It’s enough to make an old-timer like me groan.

John Long will be inducted into the MSHOF tonight, nearly two decades removed from hoisting his last NBA jumper.

But to hear him say it, Long is a “young” 60.

“I’m still in the same shape I was when I was playing, but I can’t run anymore,” Long told Perry Farrell of the Free Press. 

“I had a left knee replacement. If the Champions league (a new league made up of former NBA players) could find a way for me to run I could do everything else. I could play, but not like I used to. I can walk, and that’s the most important thing.”

Tonight Long will walk up to the podium on his replaced left knee and take his rightful place at the MSHOF induction ceremony, to be held at the Max Fisher Music Center.

He wasn’t an official NBA territorial draft pick, but John Long will always be a Michigander.

And a Hall of Famer, at that.

These are some of my most perplexing things

In All Sports on August 25, 2016 at 12:55 am

Occasionally I will do a stream of consciousness piece because I’m too lazy to come up with a well-thought narrative.

Today is one such day.

I’ve done these before—ruminating on things in sports that I miss, things in sports that I love, etc.

My favorite—because I get to use my own words against me—is my annual proof or disproof of my bleatings for the year, which runs every December 31.

But it occurred to me that there is also an awful lot of things in sports that are simply mind-boggling.

Of course, my mind isn’t that hard to boggle, but be that as it may.

So, without further ado…

I’ll never understand…

Why a baseball manager refuses to let his starter try to get some outs in the ninth inning before bringing in the closer to, you know, close. Especially when the pitch count is friendly.

Why a football coach will call timeout to “ice” a field goal kicker, when many kickers have gone on record saying that they actually appreciate that time on the field to gather their thoughts, talk to the holder and snapper, etc—rather than possibly hurry the very important kick.

Why some video replays take forever to decide, when I can pretty much determine the proper call after just one look. Am I in the wrong profession? Or are the officials?

Why baseball players put their gloves over their mouths when they talk to teammates. Their lips don’t work that good that they can be read anyway. Especially when the player has a huge chaw of gum or tobacco in his mouth to begin with.

Why hockey doesn’t simply make the nets larger if everyone is complaining (and they are) about the huge goalie equipment and the lack of offense in today’s game.

Why a 20-second timeout in basketball takes over a minute.

Why kickers don’t go back to wearing single bar facemasks. I mean, who are they kidding?

Why it took hockey goalies over 40 years for one of them to finally put on a damn mask in 1959.

Why some hockey goalies were still going bare-faced some 15 years later.

Why some baseball stadiums—even the ones not in Canada—include meters of distance on their walls. Is it to show off?

Why some fans will complain about a $5 hot dog, a $12 beer, a $4 pretzel, $30 for parking and a $15 program, yet declare that games are “better in person.”

Why we need mascots and the scoreboard to tell us when and how to cheer. We’re not attending a rugby match for the first time.

Why tennis scoring is the way it is. I mean, at least go 15-30-45 for crying out loud.

Where the aluminum trees are that provide all the bats in high school and college baseball.

Why we need a two-minute warning in the first half of pro football games, when college football doesn’t need any at all.

Why baseball teams hold “players only” meetings. They never work and often times the team gets its ass kicked following said meeting anyway.

Why Gaylord Perry wasn’t caught throwing a spitter in every single game he pitched.

What the Arizona Diamondbacks were thinking when they came out with their hideous brown uniforms. They make the San Diego Padres look like sartorial splendor.

Why hockey arenas announce the last minute of play in each period. There are these things called scoreboards…

Why the 3-0 pitch is always a strike and the 3-1 pitch is always fouled off.

Why Fox Sports Detroit doesn’t show us the innings a new pitcher has thrown in their little stat box, upon entering the game. Would sure put everything into perspective.

What constitutes offensive goaltending in basketball.

Or all the ways that a pitcher can commit a balk.

Why it’s called a “technical” foul.

Why managers kick dirt on umpires. The arbiters don’t do their own laundry.

Why we need sideline reporters on television. Other than a drunk Joe Namath slobbering over Suzie Kolber, what value for viewers has ever come from a sideline reporter?

Why football officials stopped firing pistols to signal the end of the quarter. Wait, maybe I do.

Why we don’t have coaches with names like Bear, Punch, Toe, Bo, Mayo, Sparky, Bep, Boom Boom, Whitey and Bud anymore.

Why every pitched baseball that even scrapes the dirt needs to be taken out of play. I never heard of a dirtball—outside the realm of used car sales and lawyers.

Why some Cubs fans still blame Stave Bartman for 2003.

Why no one remembers Bob Stanley for throwing the wild pitch that scored the tying run in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Why do we have to pin everything on one man all the time?

How a holder for a place kick manages to catch the ball, spin it laces out and place it down in such a short period of time. And get his fingers out of the way of being kicked.

Why a hockey goalie who allows no goals is said to have “pitched a shutout.” They’re firing the pucks at HIM!

How Alexander Cartwright nailed the 90 foot base path on the first try, some 160-plus years ago.

How a punt returner decides whether to call for a fair catch or not, because some punts that are fair caught seem so returnable and others that are returned, never should have been.

Why pitchers—whose job it is to throw the ball—can’t execute an accurate throw to second base after fielding a ground ball.

Why anyone would begrudge a pro football player’s salary, given their career’s brevity and the sheer danger it causes them.

Why basketball doesn’t add a four-point shot—if nothing else, for the sheer intrigue.

Why the 1985 Tigers didn’t come close to contending for the division, just one year removed from their magical season, with mostly the same cast and crew.

How the 1994 Red Wings lost a seven-game series to the (then) three year-old San Jose Sharks.

Why Johnny Wilson was fired as coach of the Red Wings after the 1972-73 season. Johnny didn’t either; I asked him about it 10 years ago and all he said was “Darkness with Harkness.”

Why baseball is the only sport that tolerates players leaving the benches during skirmishes.

Why Jhonny Peralta spells his first name that way.

Why the Lions hired Darryl Rogers as coach in 1985. Or why the Red Wings hired Ned Harkness in 1970.

What separates a pro bowler from a non-pro.

How the camera men follow a golf ball in the air on television with such precision.

Why we can’t have jump balls in high school or college basketball.

Why there’s still so much about sports that I don’t understand.