Greg Eno

SVG, the president, needs to let SVG, the coach, do his thing

In Basketball on July 19, 2016 at 5:11 pm

The New York Yankees had the Core Four.

They were players around whom several championship teams were built in the late-1990s, early-2000s.

Derek Jeter. Mariano Rivera. Jorge Posada. Andy Pettitte.

That quartet helped put rings on many a Yankees player’s finger.

They’re all retired now, and today the Yankees’ core looks more like that of an eaten Big Apple.

The Pistons had a Core Four, too.

Isiah Thomas. Joe Dumars. Bill Laimbeer. Vinnie Johnson.

This was the group around whom the powerhouse Pistons teams of the late-1980s (and 1990) were built.

Two were drafted by the Pistons (Thomas, Dumars) and the others arrived in 1981 trades—early in GM Jack McCloskey’s marvelous era—one that should have put Trader Jack in the Basketball Hall of Fame by now.

The Pistons’ Core Four stayed together for an entire decade, capturing two world titles and coming close to a third–and maybe a fourth, if it wasn’t for an errant pass in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals.

The Core stayed intact while McCloskey tinkered with the surrounding parts.

The Pistons needed a power forward in 1984 so McCloskey pried Dan Roundfield (CMU) from Atlanta.

Roundfield was a Piston for one year. He didn’t pan out so he was out and Ricky Mahorn, from Washington, was in.

The Pistons needed low post scoring in 1986 so Kelly Tripucka, allergic to the paint, was out, and Adrian Dantley (Utah) was in.

The Pistons offense was bogged down a few years later and in one of the boldest trades in NBA history, Dantley was out and Mark Aguirre (Dallas) was in.

Other pieces were added and lopped off, as needed.

James Edwards, in. Kurt Nimphius, out.

John Salley and Dennis Rodman, drafted.

Other, smaller parts came through Detroit, wore the Pistons jersey for a period of games, and moved on.

McCloskey knew when to buy. More importantly, he knew when to sell. He wasn’t afraid to admit an error and move on. He didn’t let foolish pride stand between the team and greatness.

McCloskey tinkered and played chemist, looking for the right mix.

It culminated in five straight trips to the conference finals (1987-91), two championships and a near-miss.

All this, from the dregs of a bare cupboard left for him by Dick Vitale in 1979.

Why this transformation from a team that was essentially an expansion club, to a championship contender in less than 10 years, hasn’t put McCloskey into the HOF, is beyond me. And it’s not like that’s all Jack did in basketball.

He was a damn fine coach in the college ranks in the 1960s, as well—along with being a trusted NBA assistant for the likes of Jerry West and Slick Leonard.

Jack is past 90 now and if they wait too long, it’s going to be posthumous, and that would be a crime—and shameful.

The Pistons of today have a Core Five.

Reggie Jackson. Andre Drummond. Tobias Harris. Marcus Morris. And I’m including Stanley Johnson in this quintet.

These are five young players whose contracts indicate they’ll be Pistons for several years to come.

In today’s NBA, this kind of grouping, when it comes to the contract situations, is almost unheard of.

Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons’ boss who wears the hats of coach and president, wields power that some coaches can only fantasize about. He’s been on the job for two-plus years and the roster from when he took over in 2014 is unrecognizable today—which is a good thing.

The summer free agency period is basically over with and Van Gundy kept his Core Five together. He even signed Drummond, the Pistons’ man-child and franchise player, to a much-anticipated long-term extension.

Now all the Core Five has to do is win—and all Van Gundy has to do is tinker, which is what he’s done with his July signings.

Check that—Van Gundy also has to be patient.

SVG needs to let his new concoction brew. He needs to give it time.

He can add and subtract all he wants around the Core Five, but he’d better not touch the core itself.

Van Gundy has shown a McCloskey-like desire to pull the trigger, even if that means trading someone who was a Piston for less than a year—Ersan Ilyasova—for Harris.

Van Gundy has also shown that he likes the power with which he wields, and that as a coach, it’s delicious to be able to design your own roster.

But with that power comes responsibility.

If the Pistons get off to a mediocre start—or worse—in 2016-17, it will be interesting to see whether SVG has the patience to leave his core alone, or if he will be tempted to try more trades, contracts willing.

The Core Five needs time to jell. It’s an intriguing quintet and it could become a power in the Eastern Conference.

Van Gundy just needs to let it breathe.

Just because you can make major changes, doesn’t mean that you have to, or that you should.

The first stage of the Pistons makeover is pretty much complete. Van Gundy took a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2009 and in less than two years, turned it into a winning organization.

The 2015-16 Pistons, it could be argued, played the world champion Cleveland Cavaliers as tough as anyone did in the playoffs, despite the four-game sweep.

The first stage of the makeover is done, and the next stage is the toughest for a man with Van Gundy’s front office girth.

The Pistons are onto something here, but it ought not be broken up too soon.

I think that Stan Van Gundy has done, overall, a marvelous job as coach and president of the Pistons. You might say that he’s been a better president than he has a coach, to be honest.

Coach Van Gundy has his core. He has an improved bench with which to work. The starters shouldn’t play as many minutes next season as they did in ’15-16.

It’s all set up for the coach to embark on Stage Two of the Pistons makeover with great success.

Let’s see if President Van Gundy can sit on his hands long enough to let the coach do his job.

Soon, MLB teams will be trading for their mystery men

In Baseball on July 11, 2016 at 3:28 pm

Somewhere, on some big league baseball roster, there’s a mystery man—or two, or three.

These mystery men don’t know it, but they will play a significant role in the 2016 playoff races.

Notice I didn’t say “pennant races.” True pennant races have gone the way of the dinosaur and drive-in movie theaters. We haven’t had a pennant race, in its purest form, since 1968. Ever since MLB split like an amoeba into divisions starting in 1969, we have playoff races.

But I digress.

The mystery men are players who will be dealt from their “have not” teams to one of the “haves”—or at the very least, a pretend have, on or around the July 31 interleague, non-waiver trade deadline.

It could be a Ryan Braun of Milwaukee. Or an Albert Pujols of Anaheim. Or a Julio Teheran of Atlanta.

Or a Victor Martinez or Justin Verlander of Detroit.

These players, who don’t know it yet, will join their new teams and at least one of them will help determine who get into the playoffs and who doesn’t. They could help their new team get into the playoffs with fantastic play, or help a rival qualify for the post-season because of gross ineffectiveness.

The late-season acquisition has some delicious history in baseball playoff races.

Cesar Cedeno was acquired by the Cardinals from the Reds in late-August of 1985. Cedeno, primarily a centerfielder, was, in his prime, one of the most electric players of the 1970s when he played for the Houston Astros.

Cedeno was a true five-tool player. A typical Cedeno season was a .280 BA, double-digit home runs, an OPS of over .800 and some 50-plus bags stolen. He also gunned down baserunners with his rifle arm for a centerfielder.

But by 1985, Cedeno was 34 and a shell of his former self.

The Cardinals dealt for Cedeno and basically gave the Reds a bucket of baseballs in return.

In September 1985, Cedeno turned into the Cedeno of old. Scratch that. He turned into a combination of Mays, Ruth and Cobb.

In 28 games as a Cardinal, Cedeno went 33-for-76 (.434) with six home runs, 19 RBI and five stolen bases. His OPS was an unworldly 1.213.

The Cardinals were nursing a 2.5-game lead in the NL East when they made the Cedeno trade. They edged the Mets by three games at the finish line, and there’s no way the Cards would have won the division if it wasn’t for Cesar Cedeno.

Cedeno, the Cardinals’ X-factor in 1985, douses manager Whitey Herzog with bubbly after the team won the NLCS over the Dodgers.

Cedeno wasn’t much of a factor in the NLCS or in the World Series, but the Cardinals play in neither if it wasn’t for him.

Two years after the Cedeno bargain, the Tigers dealt a low-level minor league pitcher named John Smoltz to Atlanta for soon-to-be 37 year-old right-hander Doyle Alexander.

I don’t have to refresh your memory on that one.

The Tigers have tried the late-season acquisition throughout the past 50 years or so, with variable success.

Third baseman Eddie Mathews came over from Houston in August of 1967. An unquestioned Hall of Famer, Mathews was secured for the ever-popular “player to be named later.”

Mathews, 35, cranked out six home runs in 108 at-bats as a Tiger in 1967, but his contribution wasn’t quite enough, as the Tigers lost the pennant—yes, the pennant—on the last day of the season.

Frank Howard was acquired from lowly Texas in 1972, on August 31.

Hondo, who had terrorized the Tigers for years as a member of the Washington Senators, was 36 years old at the time. He only got 33 Tigers at-bats in ’72, hitting one homer. The Tigers won the division in 1972, though Frank Howard’s mark was hardly indelible.

In 1993, the Tigers brought in one-time stud centerfielder Eric Davis.

The Tigers were on the peripheral of the division race, in fourth place, six games behind first-place Toronto, when Davis was acquired from Los Angeles on August 31 for that ubiquitous player to be named later.

Davis did OK for the Tigers, hitting six home runs in 75 at-bats in September, driving in 15 runs.

But the Blue Jays were too powerful and the Tigers finished fourth, 10 games behind.

In recent years, the Tigers have tried, with varying degrees of success, Jarrod Washburn, Aubrey Huff, Doug Fister, Delmon Young, Anibal Sanchez and David Price as key trade deadline acquisitions.

The above list is a microcosm of overall success in MLB when it comes to the fire sale trades.

You win some, you lose some. When the pundits say with certainty that a deadline trade is great for the acquiring team, don’t believe them, because they don’t know. They think they know, but they don’t really know.

Mention Huff’s name in Detroit and you’ll still get sneers, some seven years after his failed experiment (.189 BA in 106 AB), which was made all the worse when Huff went to the Giants and became a key contributor to San Francisco’s 2010 world championship.

But talk about Fister and the Tiger fan’s face will light up.

They’re out there—the mystery men whose acquisitions and subsequent performances will somehow shape the 2016 playoff races. They’re on their way to a contender—or a pretender—later this month, or in August.

We don’t know who they are yet—and neither do they—but they’re out there.

Will the Tigers get in on the action? And if so, how so?

I’m no soothsayer, but I somehow doubt that owner Mike Ilitch signed off an a $200 million payroll to sell off his assets two years in a row, though last year did bring a trio of pitchers with bright futures—futures that Ilitch may not be around to enjoy.

The Tigers are 46-43 at the All-Star break and, depending on the day of the week, they look like they’re either treading water, taking it in, or bailing it out successfully.

The Indians are gone in the Central Division. So it’s all about qualifying for the one-and-done play-in game.

Think about that for a moment. Teams all around MLB will be making crucial decisions about the futures of their franchises, based on whether they want to roll the dice and try to qualify for a single game this October.

Forget pennant races or even playoff races anymore.

Today we have play-in races.

That coveted (these days) 163rd game.

 

Cabrera proves what can happen if the swing is sweet

In Baseball on June 23, 2016 at 2:56 pm

Published June 22, 2016

The photograph was snapped in the summer of 1990.

It shows Cecil Fielder, aka Big Daddy, taking a stroll on the left field roof of Tiger Stadium, carrying a bat and chomping on a stogie, wearing his Tigers batting practice uniform.

Cecil was pacing near the site of where his most mammoth home run skipped, across the left field roof and eventually over it.

The prodigious blast came off Dave Stewart of the Oakland A’s, who was no slouch in those days, on August 25, 1990. Fielder blasted two homers that day, but the one over the left field roof took the cake.

Hitting a ball out of Tiger Stadium wasn’t unprecedented when Fielder did it, but way more often, those roof-clearing blasts came at the hands of lefty sluggers, because the stadium’s right field roof became fodder for such moon shots, thanks to the ballpark’s geometric configuration.

The left field roof, not so much.

In fact, only Fielder, Mark McGwire, Harmon Killebrew and Frank Howard managed to clear the left field roof in the roof’s nearly 70-year history.

Cecil Fielder takes a stroll on Tiger Stadium’s left field roof in 1990.

Norm Cash made the right field roof his trademark blast, having cleared it on many occasions.

One of the most famous home runs in All-Star game history—if not the most—was Reggie Jackson’s missile that struck a light transformer in 1971, which was the only thing preventing Reggie’s blast from clearing the right field roof. Moreover, Reggie’s iconic homer was hit more toward right-center, making it even more jaw-dropping.

These majestic home runs in Detroit come to mind in the wake of Miguel Cabrera’s monstrous blast out of Comerica Park and onto Adams Street on Monday—a shot that measured about 460 feet, unofficially.

Comerica isn’t exactly a paradise for home run hitters, but just as the Internet makes this a small world, Cabrera sometimes makes CoPa look like a bandbox.

I was at The Corner in 1983 when Kirk Gibson spanked a baseball well over the right field roof against the Red Sox.

Just as I can still see Gibby’s home run off Goose Gossage that clinched the 1984 World Series in my mind’s eye (I was there that night as well), I can see his 1983 blast from my vantage point in the lower deck behind the Tigers dugout.

We weren’t spectators that night—we were witnesses.

And Gibson, as fate loves to have it at times, was in the broadcast booth when Cabrera took Seattle right-hander Nathan Karns deep in the same way that the Mafia takes you for a car ride.

All things have to be in perfect order for a baseball to be struck with the violence and depth that Cabrera, Fielder, McGwire, Killebrew, Howard et al did.

A baseball swing is like that of golf’s.

It’s filled with mechanics, angles, hand-eye coordination, balance and strength. So many things can go wrong with it–and even the most minute of those can turn a .300 hitter into a heap of frustrated, confused  jelly.

The golfer will tell you that part of the problem is that he’s swinging down at a ball in order to make it go up.

The baseball hitter will say that he’s being expected to swing a cylindrical bat at a round ball and hit it square.

But when everything falls into place with the baseball swing, the contact that is made with the ball can be a sight to behold, as it was on Monday with Cabrera.

And with Cecil Fielder on a hot August afternoon in 1990.

 

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