Greg Eno

Archive for March, 2013|Monthly archive page

Drummond, at Age 19, Already Pistons’ Best Player

In Basketball on March 25, 2013 at 9:26 pm

The Pistons’ best player is 7’0″ tall, a teenaged rookie who suits up for the games these days in Armani.

He’s wearing dress pants with razor sharp creases instead of warm-ups. His shoes are pointy and shiny instead of leather and high tops. His shirt is collared instead of a tank top. His role is now that of the NBA’s tallest cheerleader.

Andre Drummond isn’t your typical basketball Redwood. His back is screwed up, for one. And his value has shown the most when he hasn’t been on the floor.

The math has been painfully simple. The Pistons are suffering from subtraction by subtraction.

This is another basketball season wasted in Detroit.

Coach Lawrence Frank is finding out, in his second year on the job, that his father’s Pistons weren’t these bums. The team is cruising down the home stretch, its engine turned off weeks ago. In a league where supposedly any team can beat any other on any given night, the Pistons are routed with shocking regularity.

Early last week, Frank—fresh off a brief hiatus while he tended to his ill wife back in New Jersey—played one of the cards of desperation that some coaches play in order to shake a moribund team. Call it a verbal shock to the heart.

“We have to restore the pride in being a Piston,” Frank told the press Monday before the team went out and got shellacked by the Brooklyn Nets, 119-82, on the Pistons’ home floor.

It’s a card of desperation, right up there with “everyone has to look in the mirror.” It’s a plea to the base character of his players. And it’s falling on deaf, uncaring ears.

When Frank took the job of coaching the Pistons in the summer of 2011, he referred to the past. He spoke of championship banners won, a mystique forged. He fancied himself as the guy that could do what Flip Saunders could not in the end, what Michael Curry could not and what John Kuester could not.

Frank thought he could restore the Pistons back to the championship status they were in 2004 and 2005. It has proven to be folly.

But Coach Frank has a few pieces to work with. Whether he will have the time to use them remains to be seen. His boss, Joe Dumars, has a fetish for firing coaches after two seasons. The Pistons have shown no real improvement from the mess they were when Frank took over from a shell-shockedKuester.

Those pieces are point guard Brandon Knight, big man Greg Monroe and Drummond—who has already achieved Best Piston status after just 50 games of his rookie season.

The Pistons drafted Monroe out of Georgetown in 2010, Knight out of Kentucky in 2011 and Drummondfrom Connecticut in 2012. You could do worse than be products of those three college programs.

Everyone else on the roster is expendable, except maybe veteran point guard Jose Calderon, who brings wisdom and experience.

Around this trio of recent first-round draft picks, Dumars—or his successor—has to construct a squad that is at least capable of not being run out of the gym on a regular basis. Whether Frank is the coach that will be around to work with Dumars’ new pieces is circumspect.

But it should all be built around Drummond. Even Monroe, a great player, plays second fiddle to the rookie.

Drummond is 19, but that’s irrelevant. He is the Pistons’ best player because he has that delightful basketball combination of size, athleticism and nastiness that serves all the good centers well. He defends the paint like a king does his castle. He swats shots away with disdain. Rebounds find their way into his big hands. He runs up and down the court with such long, loping strides that you’d swear he can make it from foul line to foul line in no more than three of them.

Drummond doesn’t, yet, score like a proper big man should in the NBA. He has no low post moves, really. But he is not like Ben Wallace, the Pistons’ last dominant (defensively) big man, in thatDrummond doesn’t have hands of granite. Big Ben didn’t develop any offensive moves because he physically couldn’t. Drummond has shown signs, even at his tender age, that he can be deft around the basket.

Frank worked Drummond into the rotation slowly early in the season, too slowly for many people’s taste. The coach stubbornly refused to play his prized rookie more than 20 minutes or so per night, even when Drummond’s extrapolated numbers proved him to be one of the best rookies in the NBA and probably the best rookie center.

But for all this praise, the best proof of Drummond’s worth is happening right now, as the kid misses game after game—almost 20 now—with a bad back.

In Drummond’s absence the Pistons have collapsed like a house of cards. They are shockingly inept with Drummond out of the lineup. They are pushovers in the paint, and lost everywhere else on the court defensively. The only rebounds they grab these days are the ones that fall directly into their hands.

The Pistons, with Drummond on the sidelines, have become a disinterested, wretched mess of a basketball team. They are unable, perhaps even unwilling, to play anyone tough right now.

Drummond’s absence and the Pistons’ subsequent freefall into oblivion are about as coincidental as cause and effect.

So it’s not too much to say that Drummond, at 19 years old, is the Pistons’ best player right now. It was not too much to say back in 1981 about Isiah Thomas, when the 20-year-old rookie from Indiana University became the Pistons’ best player just a few minutes into his first game.

Thomas didn’t stop there; he became the franchise’s best player of all time.

He did so with no small help from Dumars, Thomas’s backcourt partner starting in 1985.

Now Dumars must help the young center Drummond by building a team around him, in Dumars’ role as GM.

It’s a task that is best done with Dumars watching in an Italian suit instead of Drummond.

The West Won, Red Wings Head East–Finally

In Hockey on March 17, 2013 at 3:16 pm

The news that the Red Wings are moving to the Eastern Conference should have been announced by one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not a league spokesman.

The Five-Star General of choice should have gotten up, like in a military briefing, and announced that the Red Wings’ years-long occupation in the West was finally over with.

It’s peace for our time. We don’t have to fear fear itself anymore. The Korean War is ended. It’s pulling out of Vietnam, without Saigon falling.

The Red Wings’ mission out west has been completed. The NHL is letting the Winged Wheelers pull up their stakes from Los Angeles. That time share in Anaheim is going up for sale. They won’t need the guest house in San Jose.

Vancouver is a beautiful city, but it’ll have to survive without the Red Wings. The oxygen masks marked “Denver” can be put away.

No more looking around Dallas—Dallas—for good ice. The Alberta twins, Calgary and Edmonton, and their 9:30 p.m. Detroit starts won’t be missed.

So long, Minnesota. We hardly knew ye. St. Louis and the Gateway Arch? We’ll miss your breweries but not much else. Somehow we’ll have to live without that hockey Mecca, Phoenix.

Columbus will have to go back to being that town where Ohio State University calls home. Nashville? Love your music, loathe your hockey tradition.

Finally, there’s Chicago. Like Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz, “Chicago, we’ll miss you most of all.”

But the soon-to-be truncated rivalry with the Blackhawks—which began when they were the Black Hawks—isn’t enough to make the Red Wings grow wistful for the West.

No more 10:30 p.m. Detroit starts. No more playoff games watched by hundreds of thousands who showed up as bleary-eyed zombies the next morning at work.

The Red Wings have carried the West long enough. Their occupation has ended. General Bettman says it’s OK for the Red Wings to join the East.

Fittingly, the news came down this week, with the Red Wings making one of those lovely Western Canada swings through Alberta. They reacted so giddily, you half expected that they would drop their hockey sticks and run to Philadelphia.

Or Boston. Or New York. Heck, even New Jersey, and no one runs to New Jersey unless they’re in the Mob.

The Red Wings are moving to the East for the 2013-14 season. It’s all part of the realignment that was signed off on by the players association.

It’s Christmas in March for the Red Wings and their fans, particularly those old enough to remember the Original Six, when a trip “out west” meant you were taking the train to Chicago and Detroit.

The Red Wings will be placed in a division with four, count ‘em, four, Original Six organ-eye-zayshuns.

Detroit. Montreal. Toronto. Boston. And the New York Rangers are just a division away. Only the Chicago Blackhawks, from the O-6, are left behind in the West. The Blackhawks are a dynamic hockey club with a wealth of young talent, and they started this season with a streak of getting points in their first 24 games. It’s their turn to prop the West up.

That’s what the Red Wings did, you know—prop up the West. Don’t let anyone in the league offices in New York tell you otherwise. But the NHL loved having the Red Wings playing all those games in the Mountain and Pacific Time zones.

The Red Wings, with their expansive fan base and their Stanley Cups and their annual appearance in the playoffs, papered the houses, from the old Fabulous Forum in Inglewood to the arenas in San Jose and Anaheim, and all the way to Columbus. Especially Columbus.

For two decades, the Red Wings’ success was a boon to the attendance out west. It wasn’t unusual to see more blood red and white jerseys in the seats than those of the home teams.

Those days are done. The Red Wings will be rekindling rivalries that go back to before World War II.

The fans are beside themselves. They’re rubbing their hands together at the prospects of seeing the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs and the Bruins in Joe Louis Arena more than once every Leap Year.

The beauty of the move is that, finally, the powers that be saw the value of having the Red Wings in the Eastern Time zone.

It’s what’s best for the NHL, really.

The timing couldn’t be better. Look at the standings. All four of these Original Six brethren—even long-suffering Toronto—are good teams. It’s not just that they share lineage, they’re highly competitive.

NBC is a winner, too. The league’s TV network surely must be busting buttons when they see all the tradition-rich games featuring the league’s top squads that they can schedule for Sunday afternoons.

Remember Detroit-Toronto in Steve Yzerman’s young years? Remember how exciting those games were? And the Maple Leafs weren’t even any good back then.

I can see the smiles on the faces of the old-timers when they see those iconic Canadiens jerseys skating up and down the JLA ice several times a season.

You missed the Bruins’ visit to Detroit? There’ll be another one next month; you won’t have to wait until the next presidential election cycle.

Not all the teams in the new division are filled with tradition, but that’s OK. The Red Wings will also be joined by Florida, Tampa Bay (though Yzerman is the GM), Buffalo and Ottawa. But as Bettman pointed out, the Florida markets are filled with transplanted Michiganders.

The winners, clearly, are the Red Wings and their brand in this league gerrymandering. No more jet lag, and during the playoffs, no less. Fox Sports Detroit will enjoy higher TV ratings. A road trip from Toronto to Detroit is back in play, and vice versa.

The Red Wings’ mission out west is complete. They’ll be able to get through a hockey season without spending half of it waiting for their bodies to adjust to the time.

You miss games in L.A.? I guess you’ll have to wait until the Finals.

Tigers’ Verlander Poised to Be MLB’s First $200 Million Pitcher (and a bargain)

In Baseball on March 11, 2013 at 6:24 am

There was Hal Newhouser, Prince Hal, who never got the credit he fully deserved because he had the misfortune of dominating during the so-called “war years,” as if he planned it out that way.

There was Jim Bunning, who’d one day baffle America as a Senate curmudgeon. But before that he baffled hitters.

There was Denny McLain, whose life off the field was as turbulent as a private plane in a storm, but who thrilled for two years with fastballs, the organ and hubris.

There was Mickey Lolich, old rubber arm himself, portly and durable. Mr. Opening Day.

There was Jack Morris. The Cat, who never met a big game he didn’t like, or thrive in.

Then there’s Justin Verlander.

It’s Verlander’s world and we’re all just living in it—and that includes American League hitters.

See Verlander smile, broadly. See him giving TV interviews during games. See him with swimsuit models. See him throw no-hitters, and come close to throwing more.

See Verlander win the Rookie of the Year award. See him pitch in two World Series. See him win the Cy Young Award and the MVP in the same year. See him almost win another Cy Young.

Verlander isn’t a pitcher, he’s a cereal box.

The Tigers haven’t had a pitcher like Verlander, in terms of personality, talent and accomplishment, since…well, they never have.

We are seeing something unprecedented right now. The Tigers have a top flight pitcher, maybe the best in the game today, whose world is his oyster. And there’s something else that may be unprecedented.

Actually, there are maybe 200 million things that could be unprecedented.

Verlander’s contract expires after the 2014 season. Whether the Tigers sign him to a new deal before then or not, it’s likely that Justin Verlander will become the big league’s first $200 million pitcher.

I’m usually not keen on giving pitchers outlandish contracts. Pitchers are high maintenance, delicate creatures. They make their living putting their arms through gyrations that the human arm wasn’t meant to be put through. After every outing, they strap enough ice on their arm to keep a keg of beer cold.

The ink dries on their big contracts and the next thing you know, they’re in the doctor’s office. Then they’re on the disabled list.

The fat contract for pitchers I usually shy away from. But Verlander is no typical pitcher.

I would have no qualms throwing $200 million at him, spread over 7-10 years, even though he just turned 30 years old. And I’d have no qualms even if it was my money to spend, to show you.

I’d have no qualms because Verlander isn’t a typical pitcher any more than was Feller or Koufax or Ryan or Clemens. Verlander is a freak, but in a good way.

Like Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens before him—power pitchers with howitzers for arms—Verlander has that feel about him. He has that feel of someone who is going to be bringing it well into his 30s, if not into his early 40s.

First, there’s no violent delivery to put unneeded wear and tear on the arm. Verlander’s motion is as smooth as a milk shake and as powerful as a locomotive. The baseball explodes out of his arm with nary a jerk or a snap.

Second, in seven full seasons he’s never sniffed the disabled list, and he’s never had a “tired” or “dead” arm. It just doesn’t feel like he’s ever going to be brittle.

Verlander is going to get his money—somewhere. So it may as well be in Detroit.

But here’s where the fun-loving, the world-is-my-oyster Verlander shows up.

He recently told the press that to be a free agent would be “fun.”

You gotta like a guy who doesn’t mince words.

Of course it would be fun, to be the best pitcher on the planet and have teams lined up, ready to shower you with cash. Who wouldn’t love to be courted and wooed?

That’s not to say that the Tigers won’t sign Verlander to a contract extension long before free agency can kick in, with its temptations and playful wickedness.

Owner Mike Ilitch never met a big star that didn’t make him want to break out his wallet—whether his own player or that of another team’s. That goes for the Red Wings, too. If you could play at the highest level, Ilitch signed you. If you were a member of one his teams, he kept you.

How many Red Wings players did Ilitch let walk away into free agency? Only two notable names pop out—Sergei Fedorov and Brendan Shanahan. And both wanted to leave for different reasons. Fedorov chased crazy money with Anaheim in 2003, and Shanahan felt that the torch should be passed to younger Red Wings when he left for the New York Rangers in 2006.

Other than those two cases, Ilitch has kept his stars in Detroit when it comes to his hockey team. In baseball, he’s done the same thing—while adding to the payroll with players from outside the organization.

So I wouldn’t worry too much about Justin Verlander hitting the free market after next season. Ilitch won’t have that. There will come a time when the owner will yank DaveDombrowski by the ear into a room and ask his GM, flat out, how much it’s going to cost to keep Verlander in the Old English D. Dombrowski will tell his boss, who will fork over a check, and that will be that.

That check is likely to steamroll past $200 million.

It will be a bargain.

Verlander is nothing like we’ve ever seen on a pitching mound in Detroit. He’s 30 years old and he’s just getting started. He’s pitched in more big games already than most guys will see in a lifetime. His awards and achievements and accolades read like a 20-year veteran’s. He’s funny and good-looking and loves the media.

He also thinks free agency will be fun. Too bad he’ll never get to find out for real.

Collecting Baseball Cards Was Our Childhood Version of Gambling

In Baseball on March 3, 2013 at 5:18 pm

We were far too young to even be within 500 feet of a casino, but we had our version of a slot machine. We may not have been old enough to bet, but that didn’t stop us from plunking down coins for a shot at what was inside those mysterious wax packages.

Come to think of it, the Cunningham’s drug store near my Livonia house was sort of like a casino. There was no clock. They served food and drink at cheap prices. There were surveillance mirrors on the walls.

And, of course, the gambling that we did inside!

There was no crapshoot on the Vegas strip as thrilling to an adolescent boy as a venture into the Cunningham’s on Plymouth Road and Farmington during baseball card season.

Your fate was held in the hands of the trading card gods. You had no more control over how you’d make out as the adult in Caesars Palace did at the Roulette Wheel.

We collected cards back then—circa the 1970s—ostensibly to someday accumulate every card in that year’s set. That was the goal, every year. Whether through barter, luck or perseverance—or all three—you wanted to be able to check every card off the list. And we’re talking some 500+ cards.

There were two ways to acquire cards.

The first was the wax package route. Fifteen cents bought you 10 cards and a flat rectangle of pink bubble gum with a sugary coating that invariably rubbed off on the card it rested against. For years you could tell which card was the “gum card” because the sugary coating left a stain on the card that was indelible.

The second was the slot machine method. They had the machine near the front entrance, chained to the floor. There were maybe four or five slots with respective metal levers, each operated by placing two quarters on the steel tray above the levers. The trick was, after plopping down your four bits, to jam the lever into the machine and pull it back out, rapidly. The cards then poured through the slots.

We believed that the number of cards that was distributed was directly proportional to how hard you were able to jam the lever into the machine, and also by how fast and violently you pulled it out. We believed this because the number of cards that the machine doled out was often different, unlike the wax packages, where you knew you were always getting 10 cards.

I’m sure there were many Cunningham’s cashiers who furrowed their brows at the gaggle of boys who treated the baseball card machines like the slots in the casino, complete with cheering and cussing.

But the acquisition of the cards was only the beginning of the collection process. The next step was the Barter. That took place outside the store.

We’d always opt for a combination of bubble gum cards and those from the machine, sans sugary coating. No one just bought one over the other. You combined, apparently to somehow better your luck.

Outside the store we’d stand, our bikes between our legs, gum packing our cheeks like sunflower seeds in a hamster’s.

The first thing you tried to do was offload “doubles”—those duplicate cards that were not needed. We’d shuffle through our cards like traders on the floor of the NYSE, calling out doubles loudly in case anyone was interested, right then and there.

The checklists were always mental. Everyone seemed to know which cards they needed, cold. We didn’t have to consult with a grocery list of needed cards. And we also knew which cards we already had, so the doubles could either come in the form of two of the same card from that day’s haul, or by way of mentally connecting your collection at home with those cards being shuffled in your hands in front of the store.

Sometimes you’d end up with triples or even quadruples, usually of some bench player who rarely found his way into an actual game. No one got three or four Rod Carews.

I kept my cards categorized by team, rubber banded together. It was easier, to me, to keep track of who I had and who I needed if I could think of them by team name.

Topps was the trading card brand of the day, and nobody else. We only knew Topps. Today, the baseball trading card world has been turned upside down by so many different companies and sizes and shapes of cards that it’s a lesson in futility to even think of garnering a complete set.

Topps used to release their card sets in stages. The first was right about now, in spring training. Those cards kept us busy for a couple months, and then we’d keep our eyes on the machine in the front of Cunningham’s.

Sure enough, the machine’s sample cards would one day change and there’d be a sign on the machine that indicated a new “edition” of cards was available.

That was an exciting day, boy.

More wax packages would be snatched up and into the trays would go our quarters as we sought to add copiously to our sets. Then, of course, more bartering in front of the store, done through wads of gum.

One year a Bill Freehan card became contentious.

It was the 1973 set. I can still see the Freehan card today: the Tigers catcher lunging to try to tag a New York Yankee player out at the plate. The card was auspicious because it was a horizontal photograph, as opposed to the standard vertical. That in of itself made it a cool card to have.

Anyhow, I needed that card to complete my Tigers team. My friend Rob Polster had it. And Rob was a transplanted Chicagoan, never really a true Detroit sports fan. He rooted for the Windy City teams. He was a Cubs fan, as was his family.

To this day I blame Rob Polster’s lack of Detroit sports loyalty for his utter disregard in bartering with me for the Freehan card. He knew how important it was to me, but there was no fellow Tigers fan empathy going on. If anything, there was some Chicagoan spite.

Rob simply wasn’t going to trade me the Freehan card. I’d be left to get it on my own devices, i.e. multiple trips to Cunningham’s until I got lucky.

I never got the card. A couple years later Rob and his family moved back to Chicago.

The House wins again.