Greg Eno

Archive for April, 2012|Monthly archive page

Brandon Inge and Ben Wallace: A Tale of Two Detroit Sports Careers

In Baseball, Basketball on April 29, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Two Detroit sports underdogs peeled off their uniforms for the last time as members of their respective teams, and they both did it on Thursday.

While that’s not where the similarities end, the endings couldn’t have been more different. The only thing the cessations of their careers have in common is that they happened within hours of each other.

At approximately 4:30 p.m. Thursday afternoon, Brandon Inge was called into the manager’s office, and he certainly must have known what was cooking. When Inge stepped into Jim Leyland’s lair and saw that GM Dave Dombrowski and assistant GM Al Avila were also there, the trio likely didn’t even need to say a word.

Inge was out, given the ziggy by his patient-to-a-fault bosses.

This wasn’t so much a release as it was a mercy killing.

Inge’s baseball career in Detroit had become that rabid dog in To Kill a Mockingbird and the trio of Dombrowski, Avila and Leyland had no choice but to shoot it dead.

Detroit doesn’t have the reputation of Philadelphia or other tough sports burgs when it comes to booing its athletes out of town. The Motor City sports fan has a lot of forgiveness in his blood, sometimes to a fault.

But when it comes to Inge, the much-maligned utility man, there’s no question that the people had spoken. The Tigers organization, like any responsible customer service-based business, had no choice but to listen.

Inge, along with his .100 batting average, was jettisoned after Thursday’s game against Seattle. He was the butt of a wry and mean-spirited joke.

“Who bats after Brandon Inge?”

Answer: the other team.

In the end, there were one too many pop-outs, one too many strikeouts and one too many mistakes in the field. And each was followed by the cascades of booing in Comerica Park usually reserved for the superstar Tiger-killers from other teams.

I believe that last weekend’s unmerciful booing of Inge is what sealed his fate with the Tigers.

As the Tigers dropped three of four to the vaunted Texas Rangers, and as the entire team struggled to match forces with the two-time defending American League champions, Inge was hardly the Lone Ranger—as Leyland would say—when he struggled to to scratch out a hit.

But no Tiger was booed as savagely as Inge was as one at-bat after the other of his ended badly. He was the dead man walking—or in his case, striking out.

There was a stirring and murmuring in the crowd every time Inge strode to the plate against the Rangers, kind of like there is in those courtroom scenes in the movies.

A weekend of this and the organization that shuns drama decided to put an end to it on Thursday.

In the end, watching an Inge at-bat was—as the late, great sportswriter Jim Murray would say—like watching a guy walk into a noose.

About three hours after Inge was cashiered, Ben Wallace slipped on his Pistons jersey and his blue headband, and took the floor for what is likely the last time in his 16-year NBA career.

Nine of those seasons were spent in Detroit.

Boos didn’t rain from the Palace, however; far from it.

Wallace, who started the game at the insistence of coach Lawrence Frank, was greeted with a standing ovation by the sparse but grateful crowd. A video testimony of his brilliance as an undrafted player from Virginia Union played during a timeout. His Pistons teammates all donned blue headbands in honor of the man they call Big Ben.

The Pistons won, blasting the Philadelphia 76ers out of the gym, 108-86.

After the game, the 37-year-old Wallace appeared noncommittal about his future. After vehemently declaring that retirement was imminent earlier in the year (via ESPN), who among us will be surprised when he hangs up his sneakers and headband for good?

Inge and Wallace both arrived in town around the same time—Inge in 2001, Wallace the year prior.

Both were blue-collar players in their respective sports with less talent than most of their brethren, but with work ethics that dwarfed most.

Both were, at times, the face of their franchise.

You have now reached the end of the Similarity Zone.

Inge never left Detroit to play elsewhere, even when his bosses tried to show him the door. Wallace, on the other hand, grew mystified by coach Flip Saunders and took his act to Chicago in 2006 via free agency.

Ben Wallace and Chicago weren’t a good match. Just two years after inking a deal with the Bulls, Wallace was shipped to Cleveland. It didn’t work out very well with the Cavaliers, either.

By 2009 Wallace was back in Detroit, yet another prodigal son welcomed back by the sports faithful here.

Meanwhile, Inge was a loyal Tiger. Even when the team replaced his star with the likes of Ivan Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera and, by proxy, Prince Fielder, Inge was like a warped Dickens character.

“Please, sir, I want some more.”

Both Inge and Wallace made All-Star teams playing in Detroit, but while that may appear to be a similarity, it really isn’t. Inge’s All-Star year (2009) was an aberration, while Wallace was a multiple-time All-Star who was Defensive Player of the Year four times.

Then there is the end of their respective careers in Detroit.

Inge was driven out of town, done in by poor performance and customer dissatisfaction. Wallace was lauded and cheered, all the way until he disappeared into the tunnel leading to the Pistons locker room.

But there is one more similarity.

Both Brandon Inge and Ben Wallace wore their team logos as if branded onto their heart. Even though Wallace fled via free agency, it wasn’t anything personal against the city or its basketball fans. It was hardly a surprise when Big Ben returned in 2009.

Inge, for his part, could have done a money grab last summer when the Tigers designated him for assignment. Yet he chose to stick it out, serve his time in the minors and hope for a call-up, which he got.

It’s ironic that this final similarity did nothing to diminish the extreme disparity of how Inge’s and Wallace’s commitment to their team and their city influenced their exits.

Detroit vilified Inge, but portrayed Wallace as a hero.

Go figure.

Monday Morning Manager: Week 3

In Baseball on April 23, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Last Week: 4-3

This Week: SEA (4/24-26); at NYY (4/27-29)

So, What Happened?

The Tigers did what they needed to do in Kansas City and then scuffled at home against the buzzsaw that is the Texas Rangers.

The Royals and Rangers are two teams going in completely opposite directions, and the Tigers’ results reflected that: a sweep in KC, and a 1-3 record against the Rangers in Detroit.

The Rangers are a bunch of mashers who put more pressure on you than a pop quiz. They hit, they run, they steal, they milk pitch counts, they pitch and they field. Other than that, they’re not much of a team.

In between games of a DH on Saturday, the Tigers optioned maligned and struggling LHP Daniel Schlereth to Toledo and purchased the contract of RHP Thad Weber, who had a 0.75 ERA in 12 innings with the Mud Hens.

Schlereth needed to be put out of his (and the fans’) misery, with a 10.29 ERA this season as he pitched batting practice every time out. MMM would agree, as Schlereth was last week’s Goat.

On Sunday, Terry Foster of the Detroit News suggested that another player be put out of his misery as well. MMM will give you one guess who that is!

On Monday, a certain ace’s pitch count became an issue (more on that in a few sentences).

Hero of the Week

In what is sure to be a constant theme, MMM is going with Justin Verlander, who has already had to play the role of Tigers’ stopper—winning over the Rangers on Saturday (Game 2) in a game that felt like the “must win” variety, even though it was just April 21.

Were it not for JV, who also won on Monday in KC, the Tigers would have been swept in four games by the red-hot Rangers.

For whatever reason, Saturday’s game two felt like desperation for the Tigers, who were outclassed by Texas by an aggregate score of 20-6 in the series’ first two games.

Enter Verlander, who labored through six innings (115 pitches) of annoyingly patient and hard-working Rangers bats, allowing just one unearned run and doing what an ace does: shut down the opposition when it’s badly needed.

On Monday, Verlander pitched a complete-game, 131-pitch epic match to notch his first win of the season.

That outing sent Tigers Nation all atwitter, literally and figuratively. The phones lit up the switchboard of talk radio like a Christmas tree with folks debating whether manager Jim Leyland was either reckless or fearless in leaving JV in for all those pitches.

The final pitch, a 100 mph strike at the knees and on the black, froze Alex Gordon with the bases loaded.

MMM, for one, loved the drama and thinks all the hand-wringing is for naught.

Honorable mention: rookie LHP Drew Smyly, who had two strong outings and survived a blistering line drive right between the numbers on the back of his jersey in Kansas City.

Goat of the Week

MMM would love to give this award to Schlereth yet again, but why speak ill of the dead?

Instead, MMM’s vitriol is reserved for last week’s UtM designee, Brandon Inge.

Inge, as Foster accurately wrote, seems to be letting the fans’ treatment get to him. He has one hit this year (albeit a game-winning HR) and his at-bats continue to be laced with pop-ups and strikeouts. Even his supposedly reliable glove was suspect last week, committing errors and making poor decisions.

We could be seeing the first drumming out of town of a Tiger by fan treatment and pressure since Jason Grilli.

It’s a perfect storm: Inge’s already polarizing presence; his poor hitting; his shaky glove; and the fact that, sans Schlereth, there really isn’t another Tiger who the fans are angry with.

Under the Microscope

MMM is tired of putting Inge here, so this week’s UtM designee is Rick Porcello.

MMM is putting Ricky UtM because of MMM’s curiosity re: how Porcello will respond to his first awful outing of the year: Saturday’s one-inning, 8 ER, 10 hit debacle.

Entering Saturday, Porcello had pitched 14.2 innings and allowed just three earned runs.

His ERA jumped from below 2.00 to over 6.00 in one start.

So just when you thought Porcello might be ready to take the next step toward being a reliable starter, he craps the bed against the Rangers. Granted, Texas can mash, but MMM is worried that Saturday was more indicative of who Porcello truly is, rather than what his first two starts showed.

We’ll see come Thursday, when Porcello toes the rubber against Seattle.

Upcoming: Mariners, Yankees

Just like last week, this week features a warm up act prior to the main event.

Last week it was the Royals before the Rangers; now it’s the Mariners before the Yankees.

Seattle was the victim of a perfect game on Saturday by Chicago’s Phil Humber. The Mariners are offensively challenged, the perfect game notwithstanding, as that can happen to anyone.

But the Mariners can pitch a little bit, and last year in an early-season series in Detroit, the Ms swept the Tigers, and they took two of three in Seattle in April, too. So they’ve played the Tigers tough lately.

But the Mariners’ offense is pitiful; the leading hitter among regulars is batting .275 and many of the starters are below .250 with no power. Even 1B Justin Smoak, who has terrorized the Tigers recently, is scuffling at .203 with two homers.

Ahh, but then it’s the Yankees, in New York.

Another early season litmus test, MMM thinks.

You can’t overstate the importance of games with teams like the Yankees, who the Tigers don’t play very often. This will be their only trip to New York—in the regular season.

The Yanks are off to a fine start and that includes aging SS Derek Jeter, who’s hitting above .360. Curtis Granderson had a three-homer game last week and has six taters overall.

They famously came back from a 9-0 deficit on Saturday in Boston, scoring 14 runs in the seventh and eighth innings to win, 15-9.

The Yankees also remember all too well that their season ended on their home turf last year at the hands of the Tigers, with Alex Rodriguez swinging and missing in Game 5 of the ALDS.

Should be a blast in the Bronx!

That’s all for this week’s MMM. See you next Monday!

Abandoned, Undrafted Night Train a True Underdog Tale

In football on April 22, 2012 at 2:25 pm

The fact that no one wanted the football player from Scottsbluff Junior College—that’s in Nebraska, by the way—and thus never drafted him turned out to be par for the young man’s course.

No one wanted Richard Lane, from the moment he was born. Literally.

Twenty-five years before showing up at the Los Angeles Rams’ training camp, looking for a job because the one he had at an aircraft factory was unfulfilling, baby Richard was taken in as an abandoned infant in Austin, TX.

True story.

The woman was named Ella Lane, and she raised Richard as her very own.

Richard Lane grew up with an athlete’s body: gangly arms and a long torso. No one wanted him at a four-year university, so he played a year for Scottsbluff JuCo.

The theme of no one wanting Richard Lane was a running one.

Lane was a defender and a receiver for Scottsbluff, but football didn’t really grip him. So it was off to the Army for four years, serving in that brief peacetime between WWII and the Korean War.

Lane got a job at an aircraft factory during the Korean conflict. That didn’t really grab him, either.

With his resume thin on experience in anything else, Lane decided to give football another shot.

So he shows up as a walk-on at the Rams camp in 1952, and the coaches look at him and think he’s got a receiver’s body: tall and lanky with those long arms.

The Rams were the NFL’s glamour team back then. They scored on the field and off it. The quarterback, Bob Waterfield, was married to knockout actress Jane Russell.

Lane even took a receiver’s number, 81, in anticipation of joining the Rams’ talented pass-catching corps.

It was the number he wore into Hall of Fame status—as a defensive back.

Richard Lane didn’t impress so much as a receiver, but he took to practicing with the defense, and it was realized that those long arms and that size could be just as useful in defending passes as in catching them.

The Rams had a receiver, Tom Fears, and he liked playing a popular song of the day on his phonograph (that’s right): “Night Train,” a jazzy number by Jimmy Forest.

The Rams players levied the nickname “Night Train” on Richard Lane because of the ferocity with which he tackled. Richard didn’t care for it at first, but the moniker grew on him.

It grew on him partially because one of his vicious tackles was described in print in the L.A. papers as “Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane derails Charlie ‘Choo Choo’ Justice.”

Just like that, Richard became “Dick” and “Night Train” in one fell swoop.

Night Train’s whistle didn’t alert ball-carriers nearly soon enough before they were leveled by a favorite Lane defensive method: the now-illegal clothesline tackle.

It became Lane’s signature move. He rarely made a tackle below the jaw line.

They even had a name for it: The Night Train Necktie.

Lane could tackle, yes, but in 1952, in his rookie season—the walk-on made the team as a DB with flying colors—Night Train set a league record for interceptions, with 14.

It was a 12-game season in 1952. And today, some 60 years later, with the NFL playing a 16-game season since 1978, Lane’s single-season interception record still stands. It hasn’t really been threatened in years, in fact.

Lane was traded by the Rams to the Chicago Cardinals in 1954. He played six seasons for the Cards before being dealt to Detroit. By that time—1960—Night Train was the unquestioned premier cornerback in football.

Lane played the secondary but tackled like a middle linebacker. He was feared for what he could do with the football in the air and with it tucked under a receiver’s arm.

Night Train made All-NFL in his first four seasons with the Lions. He had a tight end’s size and the countenance of a bear awakened early from hibernation.

After Lane retired from the Lions in 1965 at age 38, the defensive back position became less about brawn and more about elegance and style. Rules changed. The clothesline tackle was out, for example. Being physical with receivers didn’t earn respect, only penalty flags.

The position became dominated by players like another Lion, Lem Barney, and Mel Renfro of Dallas and Herb Adderley of the Packers—smaller finesse guys with catlike quickness.

And they wore numbers in the 20s, not 81.

And they were all drafted. And presumably not abandoned shortly after birth.

It’s not talked about a whole lot, but I wonder if Night Train Lane’s 14 interceptions in 1952 will be eclipsed someday. Today’s players have four more regular-season games to work with than Lane had, yet they still can’t touch his record.

Night Train died over 10 years ago, in January 2002. After his playing days, he became a champion of Detroit’s inner city kids, working especially closely with the Police Athletic League. With PAL, he tried to give drugs and gang life the Night Train Necktie.

Richard Lane comes to mind as we move closer to another NFL Draft.

The undrafted player is, at the very best, only the 225th-best college football player in the country, theoretically. Thirty-two teams, seven rounds, and that makes 224 drafted kids.

But when you consider how many young men play college football—including all the NCAA Divisions and the junior colleges—being no. 224 ain’t bad.

But it still isn’t likely to equal winning a job in the pros.

As for the undrafted players?

Vegas wouldn’t touch their odds.

Richard Lane probably wasn’t calculating odds or consulting polling experts when he showed up at Rams camp in 1952 as an undrafted, unfulfilled aircraft factory worker.

He just wanted to try football again.

Assessing the skills of college players in 1952 didn’t involve nearly the due diligence we see these days. But could even today’s NFL personnel gurus miss out on a Night Train Lane, with all their bells and whistles of preparation and surveillance?

Undrafted free agents flood NFL training camps every summer. Few make their respective teams. Even fewer become stars.

Richard Lane’s life before pro football was something ripped from a dime store novel.

Abandoned as an infant. Played one year of football for a junior college. Took four years off from the sport to serve in the Army. Arrived uninvited to the day’s most glamorous pro team’s camp. Tried out at receiver but was moved to cornerback. Set a new record for interceptions in one season, as a rookie. Became a Hall of Famer and was named the best defensive back of all time for the NFL’s first 50 seasons.

Wonder what Vegas would have given those odds.

Will there be another Night Train Lane, left unchosen at this year’s draft?

Well, there hasn’t been one in 60 years, so why should the streak end now?

Verlander’s 131-Pitch Outing Great Theater, But Much Ado About Nothing

In Baseball on April 20, 2012 at 3:56 am

A pitcher’s start on April 16, unless it results in a no-hitter, ought not have the kind of buzz, scrutiny, debate, outrage and hand-wringing as Justin Verlander’s did, Monday against the Royals.

Yet it did.

That’s what throwing 131 pitches will do around these parts.

The trouble with Verlander is that he’s a freak—a pitching specimen not seen around Detroit since the ball was dead and there weren’t any numbers on the backs of the jerseys.

And because Verlander is a freak, we don’t really know what to do with him.

He’s strong enough and durable enough to zing 130+ pitches into the catcher’s mitt, many north of 95 mph. Yet he’s also important enough that if he were to be lost for any significant amount of time, the Tigers might as well forfeit.

So we want to see Verlander finish what he started, because he is, in a way, his own de facto closer. You can make a case that a Justin Verlander, after 100+ pitches, is still your best bet in the ninth inning of a save situation—better than even the man who saved 49-of-49 attempts last season, Jose Valverde.

Manager Jim Leyland gave Verlander a shot at the now elusive complete game last week against Tampa. That didn’t go so well, if you recall. But the men who followed JV to the mound didn’t do him any favors, either.

But that game against the Rays was another freakazoid outing by Verlander: eight innings of one-hit ball, with not even 90 pitches thrown.

A “no brainer,” as Leyland said, when it came to running Verlander out to the mound in the ninth inning.

Monday night in Kansas City wasn’t a no-brainer, not at all.

Verlander had eclipsed 100 pitches, yet went out to finish what he started, with a 3-1 lead. The one KC run came way back in the first inning, which in a Verlander start might as well be last week, for the way that he can distance himself from early damage.

Personally, I thought it was great baseball theater, watching Verlander struggle and put men on base and allowing the second Royals run to cross the plate.

Will Leyland take him out, or leave him in?

After the second runner was placed on base, Leyland chugged out of the dugout.

But he didn’t remove Verlander. He didn’t even look at the bullpen. It was marvelous.

The bases became loaded after a hit batsman—the no. 9 hitter—and leadoff hitter Alex Gordon could have won the game with a simple base hit.

But nothing is simple against Justin Verlander, not even in the ninth inning after over 125 pitches.

Maybe especially in the ninth inning, after 125+ pitches.

Gordon’s at-bat was as heart thumping and exhilirating as any you will see in a game played in Kansas City on a Monday night in mid-April. Or in New York in late September.

I loved it. I loved the drama. And I loved the ending: a 100 mph fastball at the knees and on the black, taken for strike three.

With no margin for error, Verlander had thrown the unhittable pitch.

So who cares if it was 131 pitches? Who cares if it might have seemed reckless? Who cares if 29 of the 30 managers wouldn’t have done what Jim Leyland did?

It was great theater and Justin Verlander will be just fine and all the scuttlebutt is much ado about nothing.

Monday Morning Manager: Week 2

In Baseball on April 16, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Last Week: 3-3
This Week: at KC (4/16-18); TEX (4/19-22)

So, What Happened?

The Tigers lost a player, added a lightning rod to the active roster, saw two starting pitchers make their 2012 debuts (one a MLB debut), watched in stunning horror as they lost a game started by Justin Verlander, and are trying to ride out a 0-for-17 slump by one of their superstars.

It was quite a Week-After-Opening Day.

Outfielder Clete Thomas was lost to the Minnesota Twins via waivers, and on Saturday the Tigers activated IF Brandon Inge from the DL.

Drew Smyly lasted four innings in his maiden MLB start but pitched pretty well. Adam Wilk started Saturday and did OK.

But it was Verlander’s shocking loss, midweek, that had Tigers fans everywhere buzzing.

Taking a one-hit shutout into the ninth against Tampa, JV got away from what had been working, got over excited, and was tagged with four runs as the Rays beat him, 4-2.

A 5-0 start for the Tigers looked imminent when Verlander strode to the mound to start the ninth, but it didn’t take long for the Rays to kick up their heels in a half inning that seemed to last forever (actually, over 35 minutes). When the dust settled, the Rays scored four runs off Verlander, Daniel Schlereth and Jose Valverde.

Count MMM among the stunned.

But the Tigers bounced back with a win the next day to go 5-1 on their season-opening home stand.

Hero of the Week

MMM likes Rick Porcello, who made two terrific starts last week: 14.2 IP, 3 ER. He salvaged a game in the White Sox series, after taming the Rays on Tuesday.

Porcello, if he can pitch like this, will be an enormous lift to the Tigers’ cause. MMM doesn’t expect results quite this good, but the starts were nonetheless encouraging for a kid trying to find consistency in his performance.

MMM was gleeful, watching Ricky-Por turn the White Sox bats into limp noodles. How many tappers back to the mound did Porcello induce? Seemed like 10.

Honorable mention: backup catcher Gerald Laird, who had three hits (including a home run) filling in for Alex Avila during Sunday’s win.

Goat of the Week

As mentioned above, Cabrera is 0-for-17 lately, but MMM just can’t name him GotW.

That dishonor goes to southpaw Schlereth, who can’t seem to get anyone out this year—not even lefty batters.

Mark’s kid poured gas on Verlander’s start, and just hasn’t been very good. At all.

Frankly, MMM is losing patience with Mr. Schlereth, because if he can’t retire lefties, then what good is he?

Under the Microscope

Oh come on; you need MMM to tell you?

Why, Brandon Inge, of course!

MMM isn’t crazy about naming Inge, either, because of fatigue over the Man You Hate to Love.

But MMM would be derelict in his responsibilities if he didn’t name Inge, coming off the DL and ready to play, for better or worse.

You know the drill. Inge plays, Inge enrages, Inge comforts, Inge smirks, Inge is defiant.

Rinse. Repeat.

He was the DH on Sunday (hold the jokes) but figures to rotate at 2B with Ramon Santiago and Ryan Raburn. A three-headed monster at 2B? As of now, yes.

Upcoming: Royals, Rangers

A three-game set at Kansas City is this week’s opening act.

The REAL excitement should be at CoPa, when the two-time defending AL Champion Texas Rangers invade on Thursday for four super-charged games.

What an early season treat!

MMM can’t wait to see this ALCS re-match.

Verlander will go on Saturday, in case you were wondering. He opens the Royals series tonight.

As for the Royals, the Tigers ought not overlook them. KC is brimming with young, up-and-coming talent, and MMM feels that finally, the Royals are getting it right.

That’s all for this week’s MMM. See you next Monday!

Coaches Izzo, Petrino On Opposite Sides of Moral Spectrum

In College Basketball, college football on April 16, 2012 at 2:06 am

Two college coaches stood at their respective podiums recently. I don’t need a program listing to tell me which is taller.

The images couldn’t have been starker in comparison.

First, there was Bobby Petrino, the morally bankrupt coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks football program, looking every bit the pathetic fool that he is, addressing the media with his scratched, cut-up face and wearing a neck brace.

Had Petrino been in that condition because a group of Alabama or Auburn fans set upon him and beaten him to smithereens, then that’s a different kind of pathetic.

Instead, Petrino was the kind of pathetic that makes you feel embarrassed for him and even more so for his family, particularly his humiliated wife.

Petrino was, as it turns out, spewing lies as he spoke of the motorcycle accident that (fittingly) occurred on April Fool’s Day.

Petrino was lying to the press, to the university, to his boss, to the police, to Arkansas football fans and—again, worse—to his family when he said that he was alone on his bike when he careened off a highway.

Thankfully, Petrino said, a Good Samaritan in the form of a 25-year-old woman named Jessica Dorrell happened along and offered a ride to the hospital.

It didn’t take very long for that version of what actually transpired to be folded, spindled and mutilated.

Petrino was actually in the company of Dorrell—she was his passenger—when Bobby wiped out. And she wasn’t a hitchhiker.

Turns out Dorrell, an Arkansas football staffer, had been carrying on with Petrino, 26 years her senior, in the form of what Petrino finally admitted was an “inappropriate” relationship. Basically, she was his mistress.

Anyone surprised that Petrino’s tale unraveled faster than a cheap wool sweater maybe played football—or rode a motorcycle—without a helmet.

Let’s wind the clocks back to the fall of 2007, shall we?

Petrino was in his first year as coach of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, having been hired away from the University of Louisville by owner Arthur Blank. The Falcons had played 13 games and were having a rough go of it under the rookie pro coach with a 3-10 record.

One day in December, the Falcons players arrived to their lockers to find a brief, typed out letter in their respective stalls. It contained all of four sentences.

It was a notice, put out by Petrino, informing his players that he had quit the Falcons and was about to take the job at Arkansas.

Signed, Bobby.

It was a dash into the night, one coach’s impersonation of the Baltimore Colts skipping out to Indianapolis back in 1984.

Petrino didn’t have the guts—hell, the common courtesy—to speak to his football team in person. And this after he promised owner Blank that despite the rumors to the contrary, Bobby wasn’t about to abscond to Arkansas.

Shortly after giving Blank that assurance, Bobby banged out his four-sentence letter, made photocopies and hopped onto a plane for Arkansas.

His players, after finding out that their coach had the integrity of a marked deck of cards, flew into a rage. They let Petrino have it, to the media. The Falcons’ season was spiraling out of control and the coach had fled.

Petrino sacked his team with a blindside hit, but he had the temerity to sing the Razorbacks fight song mere hours after his photocopies cooled.

Blank was seething, like the Falcons players. The man who Blank showed confidence in by giving him his first pro coaching job turned out to be a gutless liar and a phony.

So I wasn’t surprised at all when details of Petrino’s lies and the subsequent facts about the voluminous number of text messages and cell phone calls that pocked his relationship with Dorrell, were made public.

Not at all.

The second coach to take the podium this week was MSU basketball wizard Tom Izzo.

Izzo was the antithesis of Petrino: He was dressed casually, but looking very professional, and serious as a heart attack, as he talked to the press about senior player Derrick Nix’s arrest on suspicion of DUI, which occurred April 3 and resulted in Izzo kicking Nix off the team, albeit temporarily, as it turned out.

It was temporary because after Nix pleaded guilty to a reduced charge, Izzo rescinded the suspension. But that’s far from the end of the story.

Nix spoke before his coach and sobbed as he apologized to those who he disappointed and let down. Tears rolled down his very sincere face.

Then Izzo spoke.

The coach said that it was still too early to determine Nix’s ultimate fate as a Spartan hoopster. Izzo said he had met with his coaching staff—and presumably Athletic Director Mark Hollis and university President Lou Anna K. Simon—and kicked Nix’s future around, so to speak.

What kind of challenges does Nix face now, both academically and as a person? Does the kid have it within him to recover from this and be a productive member of society, let alone of the basketball team?

Those were the kinds of questions, Izzo said, that he discussed with his inner circle.

And, last but not least, what kind of further discipline will Izzo mete out?

“There is gonna be issues that I’m gonna have to determine yet,” said Izzo to the media on Thursday, “depending what he does this summer, depending on how he acts.”

And through it all, one couldn’t look at Tom Izzo, standing mere feet away from the repenting Nix, and not see a coach in total, complete control of his program—and with the integrity and credibility that goes with that.

Compare that to the image of the fool Petrino, looking like Wile E. Coyote after another go-round with the Roadrunner. How can Petrino ever guide young men again?

It’s been a rough year for the institution of the college coach—pro coaches, too, for that matter.

It’s been a year of shrinking leaders and emperors wearing no clothes.

But watching Tom Izzo discuss Derrick Nix, in front of Derrick Nix, was a silver lining to a cloud.

At least somewhere, there’s a college coach who won’t embarrass his school, his AD, his president, his players or his alumni supporters. Ever.

So take some heart in that.

NHL Playoffs’ Justice Not Always Fair

In Hockey on April 8, 2012 at 1:33 pm

I’m not sure where the April showers are so far, but it is the fourth month of the year, and this is Detroit, so whether the rains come or not, the hockey fan is about to venture into “that time of the year.”

It’s a time of mysterious injuries of the upper and lower body; a time of a game every other night, each the most important the Red Wings will have played thus far.

It’s a time of guys trying to get off the schneid; a time of “puck luck” and a word that rhymes with it. It’s a time of struggling power plays and stealing home ice. It’s a time of ricochets and “lively boards” and a time to panic.

It’s a time when goalies “would like to have that one back” unless they’re “standing on their head.”

It’s a time when skaters are being “Johnny on the spot” and speedy, pesky guys who are great on the “PK.”

It’s a time when you can’t let anyone come into “your building” and shove you around and a time to play a “good road game.”

It’s trailing in a series, 3-1, and declaring that you’re just taking everything “one game, one period, one shift at a time.”

It’s playoff hockey time in Detroit, where every fan wakes up the morning of Game 1 of the first round and sees that a panic button has been installed on their TV remote, ready for the run.

It’s a fun time to be on Twitter and to listen to talk radio to parse the thoughts of the suicidal as the Red Wings fight through a series, and I’m reminded of a line from Steely Dan’s song, “Black Friday,” which is about the financial ruin of stockbrokers.

“I’m gonna stand out by the door; gonna watch the grey men as they dive from the 14th floor.”

There’s nothing quite like a long playoff run in Detroit, the legions of which have so smarmily given the city the moniker of “Hockeytown.”

It’s springtime hockey, which is significantly different than fall and winter hockey.

As the temps increase, so does the pressure. The checking turns tighter than a cheapskate’s wallet.

The other three major team sports’ postseasons don’t have the element of luck, chance and quirkiness that playoff hockey is rife with.

Last year, during the ALCS, the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera hit a shot down the third-base line in the sixth inning of Game 5 that struck the bag and shot over the head of Texas 3B Adrian Beltre. The fortuitous hit drove in the go-ahead run and started a four-run rally that swayed the game in the Tigers’ favor.

But playoff baseball isn’t filled with bad hops and caroms and the feeling of kismet that playoff hockey provides.

Nor does basketball or football; those sports’ matches are overwhelmingly decided by talent, scheme and execution.

Hockey is the fickle finger of fate of sports. It’s blood, toil and sweat—and broken noses, jaws and teeth—but so often the final score is as fair as a crooked judge.

In basketball, if you outplay, out-rebound and outshoot your opponent, you win by 25 points. In baseball, if you bash the ball, pitch the ball and catch the ball, they’ll call it a laugher. In football, if you outclass the enemy, you’ll cover the spread and then some.

Playoff hockey will have none of that kind of justice.

The shots-on-goal counter can read a two-to-one ratio. The playing surface can look tilted in a 45-degree direction. The outplayed, outshot team can look like it’s wearing skates made of lead.

Yet the scoreboard won’t indicate any of that.

Playoff hockey isn’t interested in following formula or offering up the usual cast of characters as heroes. It’s sometimes not enough to lead in every category one can think of, because in the only one that matters—the final score—you just might find yourself on the losing end.

A successful playoff run in hockey lasts about two months, has more ups and downs than a teeter-totter during recess and plays with the emotions of fans like a cat with a ball of yarn.

Brendan Shanahan is a three-time Stanley-Cup-winner and a playoff hockey war horse. He came to Detroit in a trade in 1996, anxious to win a championship. He got it, eight months later. Then he got two more, wearing the Winged Wheel on his chest as if it had been branded there.

A couple Aprils ago, I sat across from Shanahan while he was in town prepping for a Fox Sports special involving two local high school hockey teams renewing a bitter rivalry.

He clued me in on how a hockey player looks at a playoff run.

“You close yourself off to all other things,” he said. “Eating wasn’t enjoying food—it was just adding more fuel to your body. Sleeping wasn’t rest, it was something you needed. Everything was done for the next game. You sequestered yourself in the hotel with your teammates and you got blinders on.”

Shanahan was just over a year removed from retirement when we spoke and he already was pining for participating in playoff hockey.

“I miss playing for the Stanley Cup,” he told me, plainly.

Yet playoff hockey isn’t just the Shanahans of the world, who played in 184 postseason games and scored 60 springtime goals.

It’s also a quiet, shy kid playing with a bottle of water, sitting at a table with his name on a placard during a media meet-and-greet, looking like he was feeling foolish by his mere presence at such a gathering.

Darren Helm, just a couple days removed from scoring the overtime goal that sent the Red Wings into the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, was another of those accidental heroes that the playoffs are so famous for conjuring up.

I was roaming the big media/players room the NHL set up at the Renaissance Center in advance of the Red Wings-Penguins final when I caught Helm playing with his water bottle. He was so young the bottle might as well have had a nipple on it.

Yet he was the hero of the moment—except no one was talking to him.

Too many other stars to grab sound bites from, I guess.

I chatted Helm up for a bit and strained to hear him. He had just scored the biggest goal of the Red Wings’ season but had the countenance of a boy meeting his girlfriend’s father for the first time.

Brendan Shanahan and Darren Helm—two playoff heroes, two ends of a spectrum.

But this is springtime hockey, so they’re also one and the same.

Ordonez Latest Proof: Retirement Often Chooses Players, Not Vice-Versa

In Baseball on April 1, 2012 at 5:50 am

The 39-year-old third baseman, less than two months into his 18th big-league season, went 0-for-3 against the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park and decided he’d had enough.

The 0-for-3 added to a brutal slump that made the Hall of Fame-bound slugger 2-for-38 in his past 12 games. That’s when he called a press conference.

His batting average barely over .200, his once lightning-quick swing having abandoned him, Michael Jack Schmidt, through unabated tears, sat before reporters and announced his retirement, effective immediately.

It was late May, 1989. Schmidt started the season strong—two home runs in his first two games. He was hitting a decent if not spectacular .255 when his skills vanished quicker than ice cubes dunked in boiling water.

The 2-for-38 that led to one of the greatest third baseman of all time to hang them up began innocently, as all slumps do. It was an 0-for-4 against the Dodgers at Veterans Stadium on May 12. Two weeks later, to the day, Schmidt played what would be his last game for the Philadelphia Phillies, at The Stick.

Schmidt felt he was hurting the team more than helping it. It went against his grain, he said, to retire at any point other than during the offseason. But the batting average was sinking like a stone. Two hits in 38 at-bats were enough to convince Schmidt that it was time to say goodbye as a player.

Just three years earlier, Mike Schmidt had been named National League Player of the Year by The Sporting News. It was a typical Schmidt season: 37 homers, 119 RBI, a .290 batting average. He turned 37 in the season’s final weeks, but his play defied his birth certificate.

1987 was another strong year for Schmidt: 35 homers, 113 RBI, .293 BA.

But in 1988, things started to turn. It started, as it often does, with the injury bug.

Schmidt only made it into 108 games in 1988, and he took just 390 official at-bats—the fewest for him in a non-strike year since his official rookie season of 1973.

Under the HR column next to Schmidt’s name in 1988 was the paltry number of 12. The batting average was a pedestrian .249.

Schmidt, at his best, could hit 12 home runs in a fortnight. He was as reliable as the Liberty Bell.

But the Schmidt of 1988 was 39 at season’s end, and there were whispers.

The murmurs about whether Schmidt was finished didn’t stop him from showing up at spring training in 1989, ready to go. Then he hit those two dingers in two games, raising the possibility that maybe Schmidt was actually getting better with age.

Fitting, in a way, that Schmidt should retire around Memorial Day.

As gut-wrenching as it was to watch Schmidt sob through his retirement press conference, at least he had one—a press conference, that is.

Oh, how many fine big-league ballplayers are there, who don’t get to call their own shot when it comes to giving up the game?

The body is what usually does them in.

How wonderful was it that Tigers great Al Kaline was able to go riding off into the sunset of his own volition in 1974, his 3,000th career hit safely in his back pocket?

We didn’t have to watch Kaline toward the end with one eye opened and the other closed. He didn’t go up to the plate as a shadow, though he certainly wasn’t the Kaline of 10 years prior.

Kaline was the Tigers’ full-time DH in his final season, which we all knew it was going to be when he arrived at Lakeland in February 1974.

Kaline told us that 1974 would be it for him. He was 39 and other than the chase for 3,000 hits, there really wasn’t anything else for him to play for. The ’74 Tigers were about to embark on a long and grisly rebuilding journey, and Kaline knew it. Some of his teammates from the 1968 World Championship team were still on the roster, but they were all six years older, too.

In August, the Tigers released Norm Cash and traded Jim Northrup, two ’68 heroes. Bill Freehan was still around, bad back and all. Gates Brown still traipsed to the plate as a pinch-hitter, but his magic was gone. Willie Horton was there, but he was injury-prone in those days.

Lefty pitchers John Hiller and Mickey Lolich were Tigers in 1974, but age was working against them as well.

So Kaline politely declined an offer to play beyond 1974, and no one could blame him.

Kaline was one of those players lucky enough to tell the game when enough was enough, rather than the other way around.

Cash was cut and went unclaimed. No press conference for him. Just…fading away.

Schmidt had his presser, and even though it was sad and filled with tears, at least he had it.

Magglio Ordonez won’t have a press conference. Not likely, anyway.

Ordonez took to the social media platform of Twitter to fire off a couple of tweets last week, hinting strongly at retirement.

That’s how they do it these days, I guess.

The offseason has been unkind to a certain contingent of Tigers fans.

Carlos Guillen, the Gentlemanly Tiger, is gone—not re-signed and then off to retirement last month. Victor Martinez, who became the team’s glue in just one season, wrecked a knee in January and will miss the season.

Now Ordonez, author of the second-greatest home run in team history, after finding no takers after the Tigers bid him adieu following last season, has no choice but to retire.

Unlike with Kaline, baseball is telling Ordonez that enough is enough. So often that’s how it goes.

The player whose career is long and extends well into his 30s, and who is able to declare with certainty when he will see or throw his last pitch, is the rare player indeed. And quite fortunate.

For every Kaline or Schmidt, there’s a whole bunch of Guillens and Ordonezes and much lesser-known players whose careers just kind of crumble with little fanfare.

Oh, and the author of the first greatest home run in Tigers history, Kirk Gibson, thumbed his nose at retirement like he did at the fans and the media in his younger days.

Gibby looked to be waived out of the big leagues after 1992, but convinced the Tigers to give him a shot in 1993. He came back and had two-plus productive seasons before retiring in the middle of the 1995 season—on his terms.

It had nothing to do with his body—he just didn’t want to play anymore. He saw a team whose wheels were coming off, and so said, “Sayonara.”

Another lucky one, Gibson was.