Greg Eno

Archive for August, 2008|Monthly archive page

42 Years After Their Biggest Game Ever, Spartans Still Trying To Find Themselves

In Michigan State University football, University of Michigan football on August 31, 2008 at 3:31 pm

Rich Rodriguez is the fourth head football coach at the University of Michigan in the past 40 years. Mark Dantonio is the fourth head football coach at Michigan State University – in the past nine years.

And therein lies part of the reason why the Spartans have been playing catch-up with the Wolverines for most of the last four decades, when it comes to football.

It’s time for another college football season, and once again U-M is hogging the spotlight. This time it’s because, for the first time since 1995, the Wolverines are about to be led onto the gridiron by a new man. A coaching change in Ann Arbor is truly news; in East Lansing, where it happens more frequently than presidential elections, the shock factor is almost nil anymore.

You have to be pushing 50 (a group that, sadly, includes me) to recall when it was the other way around. A time when Michigan football was in upheaval and MSU football’s foundation was as solid as oak.

“Kill, Bubba, Kill!”

That was the chant around campus in the mid-1960s, when defensive end Bubba Smith headlined those great Spartan defenses, along with linebacker George Webster. MSU football was the bee’s knees, constantly ranked in the Top 20, and often in the Top Ten. Once, it was no. 1. That was in 1965.

The next year, in ’66, MSU played Notre Dame in, some would tell you, the greatest college football game in the modern era. Certainly one of the most anticipated, and maybe the most talked about – at least around these parts.

No. 1 Notre Dame (8-0) and No. 2 Michigan State (9-0) got it on in East Lansing on November 19 that year. And the MSU student body, all week leading up to the game, urged Smith to kill Fighting Irish quarterback Terry Hanratty. It’s still unclear whether the pleas were literal or figurative.

Both teams boasted great defenses, so the 10-10 score late in the ballgame was hardly surprising. Hanratty wasn’t dead, but he WAS out of the game, courtesy a first quarter sack by Smith.

The Irish got the ball for their final possession with 1:10 left, on their own 30 yard line. They would have needed about 40 yards to get themselves in field goal position.

But Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian would have none of it. With backup QB Coley O’Brien in the game, Parseghian chose to run out the clock. Once the MSU crowd sensed what Ara was doing, they launched into a chorus of boos. There would be no resolution on this gray Saturday afternoon. No satisfaction, for either side. A lousy, rotten, 10-10 tie. In the biggest game of the century!

Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, U-M was plodding along under coach Bump Elliott. Their teams were OK. Not great. Not ranked in the Top Ten. Not like Michigan State.

In 1968, Michigan went into Columbus to play their annual rivalry game against Ohio State. They lost to the Buckeyes, 50-14. Late in the game, OSU went for a two-point conversion, despite their huge lead. After the game, the reporters went after Ohio State’s irascible coach, Woody Hayes. Why had Hayes gone for a two-point conversion with such a big margin in score?

“Because,” Woody snarled, “I couldn’t go for THREE.”

Elliott resigned soon after the OSU blowout. His record was a very pedestrian 51-42.

Michigan then turned to one of Hayes’s old assistants to run their football program.

Glenn “Bo” Schembechler swooped into town and was greeted warmly with this headline from one of the local fish wraps: BO WHO?

The unknown Schembechler lasted 21 years on the U-M sideline. And for those two-plus decades, he turned the tables on stable, always-ranked Michigan State. Gradually, it was Michigan that rose to football prominence in the state, and in the country. And it was Michigan State that became pedestrian, winning some, and losing some more. Michigan began to dominate the U-M/MSU rivalry. The November tilts against Ohio State, with Bo going up against his mentor Hayes, were so legendary that books were written about them. Bumper stickers were printed. They said things like “Woody Is A Pecker” and “Oh How I Hate Ohio State.”

Fun times.

The truth of the matter is that Michigan State football has never really come close to the sort of stature and relevance it enjoyed in 1966 when the Spartans battled the Fighting Irish in a game for the ages. They’ve spent most of their time trying to nip at Michigan’s heels. They haven’t been able to conquer the state, so how can they conquer the country?

Dantonio is in his second season at MSU. He came from Cincinnati, a nice little football program, but in three years leading the Bearcats, Dantonio’s overall record was 18-17. If Michigan had hired a coach with such a mediocre resume, Athletic Director Bill Martin would’ve had to enter the Federal Witness Protection Program.

Before Dantonio there was John L. Smith, a fine man but out of place. He lasted four years. Before Smith there was Bobby Williams, even more out of place than Smith. Williams lasted three years. Not since Nick Saban (1995-’99) has an MSU football coach lasted even as long as five seasons. In the world of college football, where it takes a couple years for the recruiting labor to start bearing fruit, those stints are extremely short and smack of poor hiring decisions and un-thorough due diligence.

There’ve been some peaks at Michigan State, but the distance between them is beginning to grow larger and larger. There was a Big Ten co-championship in 1978 under Darryl Rogers. A Rose Bowl win under George Perles, some 20 years ago. A bit of winning under Saban. But Michigan still beats them like a drum every fall.

It’s been 42 years since Michigan State played the “game of the century” against Notre Dame, another fallen program. Mark Dantonio, it wouldn’t appear, has anything tangible in his background that suggests he can bring the program back to national fame.

Of course, that’s what they said about Schembechler.

BO WHO?

Matt Stairs: Professional Late-Season Pickup

In Uncategorized on August 29, 2008 at 4:40 pm

When you last saw Matt Stairs, it might have been as a late-season pickup for the Tigers back in 2006. I was watching a Friday night game two Septembers ago and suddenly here’s Stairs, in a Tigers uniform, pinch-hitting! I didn’t even know the Tigers had acquired him earlier that day. It was kind of funny, actually.

Then Stairs hit what COULD have been a big home run in the season finale, tying the game against the Royals in the 9th inning. Had the Tigers won the game, they would have been crowned Central Division champs. But the Royals finished the stunning three-game sweep, and the Tigers settled for the Wild Card. That worked out pretty well, turns out.


If you blinked, you may have missed this: Stairs in a Tigers uniform

On July 31, 2006, Stairs was traded to the Texas Rangers on the deadline day, from Kansas City. Then he went to the Tigers a month-and-a-half later; so he’s used to being the last-minute addition.

Stairs was acquired by the Tigers too late to be added to the post-season roster, but he was on the field when the team celebrated a playoff berth in Kansas City. The Tigers neglected to offer him a contract, and Stairs signed with the Toronto Blue Jays in November ’06.

Now Stairs is, once again, someone else’s late-season pickup — being traded by the Jays to the Philadelphia Phillies to give the Phils some pennant race help. He’s 40 now, and in the National League I imagine he’ll primarily be a pinch-hitter; his outfielding skills are waning. With the Jays, Stairs played less than 20 games in the field, functioning mainly as the team’s DH. But at this time of the year, you can always use another left-handed bat off the bench.

There was a time, about 10 years ago, when Matt Stairs was one of the most feared lefty sticks in the American League, when he played for Oakland. Now he’s one of the most sought after insurance bats, it appears.

I liked Stairs when he was in Detroit for those few weeks. He made his Tigers debut in a romp over the Orioles, and in the clubhouse after the game he sat in his swivel chair in front of his locker and spoke in a relaxed, playful manner to reporters. You could tell he was looking at his stint with the Tigers as a breath of fresh air, in a pennant race once again. I was sad when the Tigers let him walk, but there really wasn’t any room for him anyway, I suppose.

Lions’ Version Of "LT" Also A Playmaker

In Leonard Thompson, Lions on August 29, 2008 at 2:10 pm

(with NFL training camps in full swing, and the Lions celebrating their 75th anniversary, OOB will profile various Lions coaches and players throughout history every Friday between now and the regular season opener)

There’s a video clip that you must have seen; it would almost be impossible NOT to. You see it on some NFL Films blooper reels, wacky promos for the league, and even for TV shows that have nothing to do with the NFL, per se.

It’s of a Lions receiver chasing an errant pass out of bounds. And when he crosses the white sideline, he gets jabbed right in the gut with the business end of an orange first down marker.

The receiver, no. 39, is Leonard Thompson. And I remember seeing that play happen, live. It was in 1983, in Anaheim against the Rams. It was a Lions loss, and afterward it led to coach Monte Clark’s famous, “See you at the cemetery” line as he spoke in funereal tones to the reporters. Clark’s Lions had fallen to 1-4; he figured he was a goner. Monte survived, the Lions finished 9-7, and won the Central Division.

But back to Leonard Thompson.

Thompson, a Lion from 1975-86, never caught a lot of passes in any one given season. But he was a big play guy. From ’78-’83, Thompson averaged 19.6 yards per reception — including an almost unheard of 26.9 ypc in 1980. Yet the most passes Thompson ever caught in a season was 51, in 1985. He wasn’t a big YAC (yards after catch) guy; Thompson simply would run down the field, and the Lions’ quarterback du jour would let the ball fly, and Thompson would often come down with it.


Thompson, making yet another big play: Thanksgiving Day, 1983

So many things about Leonard Thompson, I recall.

He was a superior punt blocker, too. I don’t know how many he blocked, but it was a lot. None was bigger than a game I watched on TV in 1977.

The Lions were in Baltimore, finishing out the string one the next-to-last Sunday of the season. They were 5-7; the powerful Colts were 9-3, after a 9-1 start. The Colts held a 10-6 lead late in the fourth quarter. And they were back to punt, deep in their own end.

Thompson, as was his trademark, used his blazing speed to rush from the outside. He timed his leap perfectly, and blocked the punt. The ball bounced into the end zone, and the Lions recovered for the game-winning touchdown. I remember Memorial Stadium being deathly quiet.

Thompson was also the recipient of Chuck Long’s first NFL TD pass — a long heave, as usual (about 35 yards) — in Tampa Bay in 1986.

And Lions fans who are old enough to recall the competitive teams of the early-1980s will remember Thompson running reverses, averaging 10 yards a pop from 1980-83.

Thompson was also an active member in the Metro Detroit community, volunteering his time for many worthy causes.

Probably few people, anymore, know who Leonard Thompson is (especially outside of Detroit), and even the funny video clip of that receiver getting jabbed by the first down marker won’t jog their memories; to them, he’s just a nameless football player who had something humorous happen to him in a game sometime, in some year.

But when Thompson touched the ball — whether as a receiver, a runner, or a punt blocker — good things usually happened for the Lions. And how many people not named Barry Sanders or Billy Sims can you say that about over the past 30 years or so?


(Pro-Football-Reference.com provided the statistics for this post)

Thursday’s Things

In Thursday's Things on August 28, 2008 at 5:16 pm

(when the spirit moves me, on Thursdays at OOB I rant in list fashion)

Things The Lions Need To Do In Tonight’s Final Exhibition Game

1. Don’t

2. Get

3. Anyone

4. Hurt

5. And

6. Don’t

7. Play

8. QB

9. Jon Kitna

10. And

11. See

12. If

13. The

14. Bills

15. Will

16. Agree

17. To Play

18. Touch

19. Instead

20. Of

21. Tackle

With Few Other Options Available, Tigers Need To Pursue F-Rod

In Uncategorized on August 27, 2008 at 5:37 pm

When it comes to signing free agent pitchers to fat contracts, I’m usually the first one screaming “NOOOO!” and imploring the signing team to put the pen down and run screaming in the other direction. Far too many poster children exist, since free agency was spawned in the mid-1970s, that are examples of why any franchise should shake in its cleats when it comes to luring the “big name” pitcher.

You’ve read the story, time and again. Big name pitcher signs fat contract with a new team. Then, said pitcher immediately either: a) gets hurt; b) goes down the toilet; c) gets hurt WHILE going down the toilet.

From Wayne Garland (1977 Indians) to Carl Pavano (2005 Yankees) and countless others in between, the free agent pitcher has been a risk that many teams have taken with disastrous results. For whatever reason, it almost seems as if free agent pitchers, once they sign with their new teams, simultaneously have voodoo dolls of themselves created, which are then pricked unmercifully by the baseball gods.

So call it desperation. Call it temporary insanity. But I’m here to tell you that the Tigers should take a serious look at free agent closer Frankie Rodriguez this winter.

Rodriguez, the Angels’ awesome closer, announced in July that he will file for free agency, testing the market. He’s 26 and the consensus is that he’ll fetch the richest contract ever awarded to a relief pitcher.

The Tigers have an astounding 23 blown saves this season. That’s almost too unbelievable to comprehend. If even HALF of those had been converted, the Tigers would be in the thick of the playoff race. I’m not even sure if that figure includes all the games in the 7th and 8th innings that the Tigers bullpen frittered away. If the 23 blown saves include just the ninth inning, then that’s even more amazing, when you think about it.

The bullpen, as a whole, has killed the Tigers in 2008. It was perceived as a weakness in the off-season and in spring training, but the feeling was that if it should be a glaring weakness, then GM Dave Dombrowski would make it all better with some sort of bodacious transaction. But, no such help has come from outside the organization. The Tigers, since defrocking Todd Jones as closer, has gone to that age-old “bullpen by committee” thing, and everyone knows that when you start doing things “by committee” in sports, it’s not a good sign. It means that you don’t have anyone.

Since no one has grabbed the closer’s role by the gonads, then I say throw some money at F-Rod and takes your chances. Don’t get me wrong; the idea does kind of make me jittery and maybe even a bit nauseous. It’s so not what I would usually recommend. But the Tigers have no other real solution for their bullpen troubles, at least none that are currently part of the organization. Perhaps a trade will happen, but are the Tigers likely to get a bona fide closer in a trade? You think these guys grow on trees? They’re more like precious gems — and teams are VERY unwilling to trade them. You have to break in and steal them — which is what free agency sort of allows.

The Tigers, for sure, are 64-68 for more reasons than just that their bullpen blows chunks. They have other issues. But one of those issues is age; lots of these guys aren’t getting any younger. How many more years can these players watch the bullpen toss games out the window? It becomes demoralizing after awhile.

I’m not 100% comfy with the notion, but I think it’s time for the Tigers to roll the dice and get into the Frankie Rodriguez sweepstakes this off-season.

Marinelli Should Be Run Out Of Town If Kitna Plays Against Bills

In Jon Kitna, Lions, Rod Marinelli on August 27, 2008 at 3:07 pm

The Lions have one more exhibition game — against the Bills in Buffalo tomorrow night. If starting quarterback Jon Kitna plays one down, then head coach Rod Marinelli ought to be fired.

Actually, firing him would be too good for him. The coach should be tortured — forced to watch a Facts of Life marathon, or some other heinous thing. Then we should consider some concrete shoes and a dunk in the Detroit River.

The Lions might not be all that in 2008, but they will finish somewhere south of the equator if Kitna goes down for any length of time. He’s no Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas, but he’s the best the Lions have, easily, behind center. And his three cameos in the pre-season, against other teams’ starters, suggest that he’s more than ready to go when the curtain rises for real, September 7 in Atlanta.

So why tempt fate and play Kitna against the Bills? What good can come from such an appearance? But plenty can go wrong.

Let me take you back to 1979. The Lions were coming off a 1978 season where they finished strong, winning six of their last nine games. Leading the charge was former World Football League QB Gary Danielson, from Dearborn Divine Child and Purdue University. Danielson peaked against the Vikings on the final Saturday of the season, throwing and running the Lions to a 45-14 win. Some so-called experts predicted some big things for the Lions in ’79.

Then came the final exhibition game, in Baltimore.

Danielson, needlessly appearing in the game, scrambled out of trouble. Only, he didn’t quite make it. He went down in a heap after being caught, and mangled his knee. Out for the season — done, after a meaningless play in a meaningless game. Then, suddenly, the Lions’ regular season turned meaningless.

Veteran Joe Reed was elevated to no. 1, but Reed was about as mobile as a telephone pole, and before long he was gone, too, to injury. That left the Lions’ offense in the rookie hands of Jeff Komlo. The team finished 2-14, with Danielson on crutches and Reed recuperating. Danielson returned in 1980, and the Lions finished 9-7. It was no coincidence.

Now let me take you to 2003. Final pre-season game. Running back James Stewart, playing for God knows what reason, goes down with a career ending (ultimately) shoulder injury.

The Lions, as usual, have no capable backup quarterback — no veteran who can step in and run the show. The roster shows Dan Orlovsky, an injured Drew Stanton, and recently signed Drew Henson. The thought of Kitna going down ought to make your skin crawl.

So why there’s even any question whether Kitna should suit up and enter the game in Buffalo tomorrow night, is anyone’s guess. I don’t even want him to trot on the field, only to be called back to the sideline. He may suffer a season-ending toe stub, with the Lions’ luck. Certainly bring Kitna along for the plane ride, and let him help out on the sideline, baseball cap and earphone adorning his bald head. But don’t let him anywhere near a huddle, unless it’s the post-game prayer.

According to the papers, Marinelli hasn’t confirmed yet whether Kitna will play tomorrow, nor how much, if he does. Again, there hasn’t been a no-brainer this obvious since Moses pondered whether to part the Red Sea.

Yes, it’s true that (God forbid) Kitna could go down in the regular season opener. But losing a QB, or any front line player, in a game that counts in the standings is a lot easier to swallow than to lose one in any game played before Labor Day. And yes, Kitna has proven to be durable; he has started all 32 games since he’s been a Lion. He’s barely missed any playing time due to injury (last year’s concussion against the Vikings notwithstanding). Still, only bad things can happen when you play your starting quarterback in the fourth and final pre-season game — the Mother of All Meaningless Games. The only players who the fourth pre-season game means anything to are those fighting for roster spots. With the trio of quarterbacks below him on the depth chart, Jon Kitna hardly has to wage THAT battle. So don’t play him. Not for one down. Don’t even let him put his helmet on.

The head coach is no dumb-dumb. He should get that, shouldn’t he?

Monday Morning Manager

In Monday Morning Manager on August 25, 2008 at 4:38 pm

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 4-2
This Week: (8/25-27: CLE; 8/29-31: KC)

The Tigers are loathe to admit it, but the team is pretty much in 2009 mode now. Even the announcers are saying as much.

Yesterday, during another come-from-ahead loss, TV guys Mario Impemba and Rod Allen were musing over what spring training, 2009 might entail.

Allen said, “There will definitely be some jobs up for grabs next year.” Both men agreed that 2008’s spring was devoid of much drama, because few spots on the team appeared to be unset. But no one could foresee Dontrelle Willis’s disappearing act, or Edgar Renteria’s slide, or Gary Sheffield’s MIA status in the season’s first half. Also not figured on were injuries to Joel Zumaya and Jeremy Bonderman, and the dethroning of Todd Jones as closer. Yet it all happened, and more, and so 2009’s spring certainly promises to be more unsettled, and more competitive.

Where, for example, might guys like Ryan Raburn and Matt Joyce fit in? Will Marcus Thames be traded in the media and on the Internet all winter? What does the future hold for Zumaya? Will Kenny Rogers retire? Who will the backup catcher be? Is Renteria toast?

Oh, and even manager Jim Leyland got into the act.

Yesterday, it was reported, Leyland and Sheffield had a discussion about 2009 — specifically, if it was mutually agreed that Sheff can be a productive player at age 40, which he turns in November. Not surprisingly, the consensus among the two men was a resounding yes. Maybe Sheff’s $14 million contract has something to do with that.

Regardless, with 32 games remaining and a 10-1/2 game playoff deficit, it’s appropriate to talk 2009, as painful as it may be.

As for 2008, the Indians come to town with a seven-game winning streak and just 1-1/2 games behind the Tigers. Last year, the Indians and Tigers were battling for first place at this time. Now they are staging a less-than-stimulating fight for third place. What a difference a year makes.

Allen May Be Best Tigers Analyst Ever, But So Is Kelser For The Pistons

In Greg Kelser, Rod Allen on August 25, 2008 at 3:27 pm

Jim McFarlin, in the current issue of The Metro Times, declares that Tigers TV analyst Rod Allen is the best that the team has ever employed at that position. Ever. (The dangling word “ever” is McFarlin’s dramatic emphasis, not mine). I’m usually not one to declare anyone in modern times the best ever at anything because I’m a curmudgeonly history guy who often rolls my eyes at such declarations. It’s amazing how many young folks think that nothing of much interest happened before they started following sports.

Well, McFarlin isn’t young, for one. And second, even though he mistakenly tosses George Kell into the list of “analysts” (Kell was a play-by-play guy, and one of the best. Ever.), he makes a good case. He also rightly acknowledges that Allen’s competition isn’t all that enthralling. Jim Northrup, Al Kaline, and Kirk Gibson, for starters, weren’t terrific — although I still have never heard anyone on TV who knows more about baseball than Kaline. Al just didn’t always have a compelling way of conveying it, is all.

Still, I have no problem giving Allen his due as the best Tigers TV analyst. Ever. Mr. McFarlin and those who agree, have my permission.

McFarlin mentioned all the catch phrases Allen uses, and even gives a nod (I think) to my friend Big Al and his Rod Allen game, without mentioning Al’s site by name. And Allen, in the story, frets a bit about being made fun of, as opposed to being taken seriously. It’s easy for me to say, but I don’t think Allen should worry too much about that. I get the impression that he’s respected and liked far more than he’s mocked. Heck, we made fun of Kell and his Arkansas twang. Remember George Baier on WRIF radio and his “George Swell” character?

But reading McFarlin’s anointing of Allen made me wonder when someone is going to do the same for Greg Kelser. So I guess I will.

Kelser, Special K, is the best Pistons TV analyst. Ever. Yet he flies under the radar, and I suspect it’s because he’s taken for granted. That, and Kelser doesn’t really have any catch phrases. He’s not loud or over-enthusiastic. He’s just smooth as silk. If he was still a player, he’d be considered a “bad interview” because he doesn’t utter anything outlandish. But if you want the straight dope on the basketball you’re watching on television, then Kelser’s your man.

Kelser’s Pistons career started auspiciously, if only because of the clown who drafted him.

Dickie Vitale held a draft party at the Silverdome in 1979, prior to his second season as Pistons coach. Dickie’s Pistons had finished 30-52 the season before, an eight-game drop-off from the previous campaign. It was about to get much worse. For here came Vitale, proud as a peacock, waving a box of Special K cereal. No joke.

“The Pistons have just made a trade!,” Dickie declared to the curious and perplexed inside the Dome. Then Vitale told of how he had bamboozled the Milwaukee Bucks into trading draft positions so the Pistons could select Kelser, from MSU. Special K was Kelser’s nickname at State. So Dickie thought he was a laugh riot, waving the box of cereal as he announced the trade and, in his mind, how smart he was.

Here’s how smart he was: the Bucks had no intention of selecting Kelser, despite his fine career in East Lansing and the NCAA championship he won with Magic Johnson a couple months earlier. The Bucks had their eyes on Sidney Moncrief, a dynamic guard from Arkansas. All along. So they took the $50,000 of Bill Davidson’s money that Vitale waved as enticement, and agreed to switch draft positions with the Pistons. It was because of decisions like that, that Vitale made a much better living barking into a television microphone than he ever did as an NBA coach and personnel guy.

Now, nearly 30 years later, Kelser is still with the Pistons, the perfect complement to George Blaha’s stirring play-by-play work. The Pistons are lucky to still have him; I would be shocked if he didn’t have opportunities to work at the network level. I’ve listened to all the blowhards on TBS and TNT and NBC and ESPN, and I’m not seeing where any of them are more insightful about the NBA and aware of the nuances that go on during games than Gregory Kelser. Seems that most of them are a little too cognizant of the fact that their words are being broadcast, because they seem to enjoy listening to themselves so much.

Jim McFarlin can have his Rod Allen as best Tigers analyst thing, without my dissent. Just allow me my Greg Kelser thing. Anyone got a problem with that?

Tigers’ Willis A Self-Microcosm Of Disappointing Season

In Dontrelle Willis, Tigers on August 24, 2008 at 4:11 pm

Dontrelle Willis would be having a great season – if the plate was high and outside.

I apologize to the unknown baseball observer whose words I have semi-pirated, when he was talking about a young Sandy Koufax in the 1950s. Koufax, before becoming one of the best pitchers of his time, had control problems when he first reached the major leagues – wildness that he had difficulty wrangling in the minor leagues. And it was that lack of command that led to the line from which I unashamedly stole for my opening sentence.

“Koufax would be a great pitcher if the plate was high and outside.”

Sandy Koufax got his control together, and did very well with home plate where it has always been, thank you.

Willis is a Detroit Tigers pitcher, and that’s not just a rumor. Only, he’s not really a Tigers pitcher. He’s a Toledo Mud Hens pitcher. Before that, he was a Lakeland Tigers pitcher. Last year, he was a Florida Marlins pitcher. Just a few years ago, he was considered one of the top young pitchers in the big leagues. The fact that he’s left-handed made him all the more of a precious commodity.

Today, Willis struggles mightily to get minor league hitters out, mainly because he often has no clue where the ball is going. His apparently sudden loss of control is stunning, if not frightening. This sort of thing has ruined promising careers in the past.

When the Tigers acquired Willis along with Miguel Cabrera from the Marlins last December for top drawer prospects Andrew Miller (LHP) and Cameron Maybin (OF), the trade was a bona fide blockbuster. Cabrera is a beast – a 25-year-old manster who’s good for 30+ HRs and 100+ RBI for the next 10 years, at least. If not more. And Willis is a 26-year-old lefty who’s already thrown over 1,000 big league innings, and with a fine 3.78 career ERA. The move looked to put the Tigers over the hump and put the rubber stamp on a playoff appearance in 2008, and for many years beyond. The team was gutting the cash-strapped Marlins, absconding with their two biggest stars.

Cabrera has pretty much held up his end of the deal, despite an atrocious start. He has 27 HRs and 99 RBI after slugging two homers in Friday night’s win over the Kansas City Royals.

On Wednesday, Willis made his second start for the AAA Mud Hens, after sort of earning a promotion from the Class A Lakeland team. Truth be told? Willis was moved up to AAA because, well, you simply don’t keep multi-millionaire pitchers in Class A for too long; it’s embarrassing for everyone involved. He didn’t really earn it with his performances, though they reportedly improved in tiny increments.

In that start Wednesday, Willis threw five innings, surrendered three runs, and – here’s the troubling part – walked five batters. Tigers manager Jim Leyland, as usual, minced no words, sugarcoated nothing, when he said flatly, “It wasn’t a good outing.”

There were no hints, really, that Willis had control issues when the Tigers traded for him. In 1,022 big league innings thru the end of last season, Willis has walked 344 batters. The calculator tells us that such a ratio is about 3.0 walks per nine innings – hardly alarming. But since joining the Tigers organization, Willis has been nothing but wild and exasperating. The control problems surfaced in spring training, but it was hoped that they were the bi-product of switching teams and simply having a poor spring. Then Willis made his first start of the season on the first Saturday of the 2008 campaign, and while he didn’t give up many hits, he walked a bunch. Then he started again, and hurt his leg in the first inning. Then he returned, started again, and once again there was a parade of opposing hitters jogging to first base after taking ball four.

The Tigers sent him down to the minors – wayyyy down, all the way to the bottom feeding team in Lakeland, which plays in a league mainly for rookies and second-year prospects. It’s an instructional league, certainly not one where you’d expect to find a 26-year-old pitcher with 1,000 big league innings under his belt. But Willis was so off the mark with his control, so messed up, it was thought, with his mechanics, that Tigers brass felt only the instructors and baseball scientists in Lakeland could put him back on track.

It worked, as I said, sort of. Hence the promotion to Toledo – one step away from the big leagues. So close yet so far, in the case of Dontrelle Willis.

There’s no indication that Willis will throw another pitch for the Tigers this season – even when the rosters are expanded to 40 players on September 1. He really hasn’t slain his control dragon. There’s still wonderment when Willis throws the ball, as to where it will end up. Usually it’s not in the strike zone.

I’m not the first to draw this comparison, but it’s hard not to think of Steve Blass.

Blass was a Pirates pitcher in the early-1970s who helped lead the Bucs to the 1971 World Series championship. In 1972, Blass pitched nearly 250 innings and won 19 games, with an ERA of under 3.00. He had no control problems. Like Willis, Blass averaged about three walks per nine innings. But the next year, Blass lost it. He pitched 89 innings and walked, get this, 84 batters – the same amount he walked in 250 innings the year previous. He tried to pitch again in ’74 but walked seven in five innings. His career ended, at age 32. His curious and sudden loss of command and control helped spawn a new term, Steve Blass Syndrome. SBS became the terminology whenever a pitcher suffered from sudden loss of control.

Dontrelle Willis was supposed to be an integral part of the Tigers rotation this year. He was supposed to be one of the many reasons why the team was to overwhelm its opponents and cruise to the World Series. He was supposed to continue his path to greatness, the path he forged in Florida. Now he can’t even throw a strike with any consistency. It’s not overstating things to suggest that he may have SBS and will never pitch in the big leagues again – at least with any degree of success.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way, but neither was the Tigers season as a whole. Willis symbolizes that by his lonesome.

Moe Berg: Baseball’s Only Governmental Spy

In Uncategorized on August 22, 2008 at 6:28 pm

I encourage anyone who has a soft spot for some of the oddities that make up baseball history, read about the story of Moe Berg.

Berg was a rather nondescript catcher in the 1920s and 1930s. But that was hardly where he made his name. A voracious reader of newspapers and a world traveler, Berg enjoyed the amenities that came with being a big league ballplayer. And his fervent interest in world affairs and other cultures (he could speak many foreign languages), plus some inside connections, led to Berg becoming a spy for the United States during World War II.

Berg’s life reads like a fiction novel: there’s romance, intrigue, inner struggle, and Berg himself was a mysterious figure — even to those who supposedly knew him the best. He seemed to regale in his role as an undercover figure, mainly because that’s how he lived most of his life. His teammates recall Berg being not necessarily UNfriendly, but certainly not all warm and fuzzy, either.

I’m reading about Berg in a book called The Catcher Was A Spy, written by Nicholas Dawidoff. It’s a fascinating tale — and I think what makes it such is that it’s true, not fiction like it would appear. It’s also a return to a time in baseball history, and indeed U.S. history, that will probably never be re-lived. Can you imagine Brandon Inge or Paul LoDuca moonlighting as government spies?

If you can find the book (try Amazon.com), you may think that some of the passages are long on detail and short on substance; in other words, the book can be slow-moving at times. But the trade-off is that Dawidoff does a great job placing you in Berg’s world; sometimes you feel like you’re with Moe as he sips wine or beer in France or elsewhere, and lounging with him as he reads one of his dozens of newspapers.

Berg, who died in 1972 at the age of 70, was a lifetime .243 hitter over 17 big league seasons. He was no baseball star. But he actually used that backup player status to his benefit, blending in during barnstorming trips to Japan, for example — where he was able to use his 8mm home movie camera to shoot footage that helped make him attractive as a potential spy.

If you’re tired of the typical baseball-only book, I recommend The Catcher Was A Spy.