Greg Eno

Archive for October, 2013|Monthly archive page

This Time, Babcock’s Hand-Wringing is Warranted

In Hockey on October 30, 2013 at 3:20 am

Back in the day, it used to be difficult for Mike Babcock to find anything wrong with his Red Wings.

 

How could there be, when the other team never had the puck?

 

Babcock’s players would throw the Winged Wheel onto the ice on the blood red sweaters, play tic-tac-toe with the puck, bury a few pretty ones behind the enemy net minder and skate off the ice with another two points in their back pockets.

 

Not that Babcock didn’t try to find something amiss. He’d stand before reporters after another night of toying with the opponent, set his rock jaw and nitpick. Nobody was buying it. The Red Wings were elite, and the other teams didn’t beat them so much as the Red Wings beat themselves, which wasn’t very often.

 

Babcock doesn’t have to pretend these days. It’s not a tough sell when he puts on his concerned coach face and rattles off reasons why his team isn’t very good.

 

“We’re facing some adversity here,” he said the other day.

 

And this: “If I saw our team play from the outside, I’d say that we don’t have a coach. And that hurts my feelings.”

 

Now, Mike Babcock is not a guy whose feelings you want to hurt, if you’re one of his players. It’s like waking up a bear, mid-hibernation.

 

Babcock has never sugar coated things since he arrived as Red Wings coach in 2005. He wasn’t always easy to believe, when his team was having its way with everyone every night, but when the Red Wings have stumbled in recent years, “Babs” tells it like it is, complete with odors.

 

He won’t throw a player under the team bus, but he doesn’t have to. Babcock just won’t play him, or he’ll demote the offending player. And if he’s asked about it, he’ll tell you why, and it won’t be a spin job.

 

Scotty Bowman, when he was in Detroit, had a reputation for playing mind games with his players. Babcock cuts to the chase. He doesn’t do the passive/aggressive thing.

 

So here we are, the Red Wings on a four-game losing streak, and about to play four games out west.

 

“A west coast trip is exactly what we need,” Babcock said after the Red Wings let another one slip through their hockey gloves, 3-2 in overtime at home against the New York Rangers on Saturday night.

 

Babcock says the Red Wings are in search of an identity. He said that the four-game winning streak of a couple weeks back was “fool’s gold,” with the way they were playing.

 

Mostly, he said the team isn’t playing with the puck enough. And it’s surrendering far too many shots on goal.

 

“I look at the stat sheet and I see 40 shots against,” Babcock said after the Rangers game. “That’s way too many shots. Twenty-eight is too many.”

 

It’s not difficult to see why the coach is aghast. It used to take the other teams two games to get 40 shots on the Red Wings, and half of those would be fired from near the blue line. Remember when we fretted that the Red Wings goalie du jour would get rusty or bored during a game?

 

Now, it’s all Jimmy Howard can do to swat pucks away as if they’re being fired from a batting cage machine.

 

The Red Wings are still a talented group—they’ve been talented since Reagan was president—but the talent and skill isn’t so much that it separates the Red Wings from the rest of the NHL like it used to. You could drive a Mack truck through the gap between the Red Wings’ skill and their brethren’s. Now, you can barely slip a credit card in there.

 

So what do you do in hockey when you can’t just show up and grab two points? You work hard and you are hard to work against. Neither has happened too much in this young season, and that’s why Babcock’s jaw is set even firmer these days. That’s why the post-game comments are dripping more with disdain.

 

Babcock never did look happy behind the bench, even when the Red Wings were waltzing through their schedule. But back then, he looked concerned just to be polite to the other team.

 

Then again, what hockey coach does look happy, mad or sad? Bowman’s expression changed as much as Mona Lisa’s.

 

These are tough times for Babcock’s bunch, just 12 games into the season. He has some guys he badly would like on the ice but just can’t be, due to injury—like Darren Helm, who is exactly what the Red Wings need right now. Patrick Eaves will be dressing for the first time, Wednesday in Vancouver.

 

Babcock also has guys who are new and who were supposed to be a big deal but who haven’t been yet—Stephen Weiss, for starters. Daniel Alfredsson, to a lesser degree.

 

Babcock has a defenseman, Brendan Smith, who is confused and prickly for being scratched. He has had to split up Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, which the coach is loathe to do, because when he does so, it usually means that something is wrong.

 

And something is wrong with the Red Wings right now. This time, Babcock doesn’t need to give us a hard sell on it.

 

“Right now, with the way we’re playing, we have no chance,” he said after the Rangers game.

 

No eye rolling from anyone this time.

 

Pistons Coaching Merry-Go-Round Lands—For Now—On Maurice Cheeks

In Basketball on October 26, 2013 at 8:27 pm

They are the Jacks-in-the-box of pro sports coaches. They bounce up from their chairs like someone rigged it with 5,000 volts. They do more pointing and screaming than a Manhattan traffic cop.

If you wanted to cast for an NBA head coach with any combination in Hollywood, past or present, you’d need Don Knotts, Robert DeNiro and Sam Kinison. And with John Gotti’s tailor.

They’re gym rats in sweats by day, models for the Men’s Wearhouse by night. Every one of them, it seems, speaks with an East Coast accent.

I have been following and covering the Pistons since 1970, and in that time Detroit has seen its share of doozies prowling the sidelines at Cobo Arena, the Silverdome and The Palace.

There was Bill (Butch) van Breda Kolff (1969-71), lover of steam baths, beer and technical fouls. VBK was leather lunged, cynical and impatient. After coaching his first home game as Pistons coach, VBK blasted the fans as less than smart.

VBK signed a two-year contract and when that ran out, he signed another. Not that he had a lot of faith in legal pacts when it came to coaching.

“Hell, they can always fire you,” VBK said. “And you can quit if you want to.”

Ten games into his third season—and that second contract—VBK quit the Pistons. He was fed up with the modern day player.

VBK was followed by Earl Lloyd, the first black player in NBA history—and a former Piston.

“When you sign on as a head coach, you’re signing your own walking papers,” Lloyd said. Seventy-seven games later, Lloyd’s walking papers were filed.

Next up was Ray Scott, a prince of a man and another former Piston who got you 17 points, 10+ boards a night, playing for some wretched teams in the 1960s. Scott put it into perspective when he got the job, promoted from assistant after his good friend Lloyd was fired.

“It was a bittersweet feeling,” Ray told the Detroit media from Portland, where the Pistons had given Lloyd the ziggy. “Like seeing your mother-in-law drive over a cliff in your new Rolls Royce.”

Or something like that.

Scott won in Detroit, which was unusual, and was even the NBA Coach of the Year in 1974. Less than two years later, after admittedly losing his locker room, Scott got the ziggy.

Next up was Herbie Brown, a frenetic, nervous jitterbug whose fights with his players were often more the news than the game the Pistons played that night. Brown coached Marvin “Bad News” Barnes in Detroit, and in a crazy way, maybe Herbie was the most appropriate man in team history to have that as his charge.

The names are dizzying.

Brown gave way to Bob Kauffman, who was the GM and who had been a player in the NBA just a couple years prior. Kauffman coached for a few months then ran back into his GM’s office to hide.

In the spring of 1978, at a ridiculously bodacious ceremony at the Silverdome, the Pistons announced Dick Vitale as coach. Vitale spoke of “Pistons Paradise” and “ReVitaleIzation” and he never stopped talking until he was fired 94 games later—but not before he left the team bereft of draft choices, functioning as his own GM after Kauffman quit in exasperation.

Richie Adubato—Vitale’s assistant—was next, and he finished Vitale’s second season by going 12-58 and then returned to the anonymity of assistant coach for decades after leaving the Pistons.

Still with me?

Scotty Robertson was next and he was atypically cast. He spoke with the Southern drawl of an SEC football coach, for one. He was a heart attack survivor, for two. But he was refreshingly honest.

“We’re not very f***ing good,” he told the papers of his Pistons before they tipped the ball off for Scotty’s first season. He was right; the Pistons went 21-61 in Robertson’s first season.

Scotty actually lasted for three full seasons, which was the longest coaching stint of any Pistons coach since Fred Zollner moved his Fort Wayne team to Detroit in 1957.

But Scotty got the ziggy, of course, and Chuck Daly—whose resume was filled with the Ivy League and being a Philadelphia 76ers assistant and not much else—stepped in and stayed for nine years and won two championships.

Then it was Ron Rothstein, a former Daly assistant who was a broadcaster during Chuck’s last year and who campaigned vigorously for the job—shamelessly so—and then actually got the job and lasted one treacherous season.

The names continue.

Don Chaney. Doug Collins. Alvin Gentry. George Irvine.

The 21st century began with Joe Dumars as the GM and he hired Rick Carlisle as the team began to resurrect. Rick took the team to the NBA’s Final Four in 2003 but it wasn’t enough to avoid the ziggy.

Larry Brown, with a travelogue and a suitcase plastered with stickers, became coach and Larry led the Pistons to their third world championship and got a whisker away from another one the following year. But Larry was all about Larry, and his reported dalliance with the Cleveland Cavaliers—as he coached in the NBA Finals in 2005—spelled his doom in Detroit.

Flip Saunders, the old University of Minnesota guard and former Timberwolves coach, followed Brown and won a lot of games and lots of playoff series, but couldn’t get the Pistons back into the Finals.

Then it got tragic-comical.

Michael Curry. John Kuester. Larry Frank. Lots of losing, lots of internal fires to put out.

Forty-three years after Butch van Breda Kolff, here we are, with Maurice Cheeks about to begin his first season as Pistons coach.

Cheeks is the antithesis of an NBA head coach. He doesn’t scream. He actually sits down from time to time. He played significantly in the league—which hasn’t always been a prerequisite in Detroit.

Cheeks is lucky. He is the beneficiary of Dumars’ frantic off-season makeover of the Pistons roster—brought on by a win-or-else mentality brought forth by owner Tom Gores.

After watching some pre-season action, my take is that the Pistons are on to something. They’re a good mix of youth and experience, they’re athletic and they have a big man, Dre Drummond, who is already a beast.

And they have Cheeks, who has a champion’s pedigree as a player and who has had some success coaching in the NBA.

Besides, the Pistons can always fire him. And he can quit if he wants to.

Tigers New Manager Will Have Pressure Beyond Belief

In Baseball on October 25, 2013 at 1:56 am

There isn’t that much pressure on the next manager of the Tigers. All he has to do is win the World Series in his first season.

There’ll be no honeymoon. No get-to-know-you period. They’ll give a hearty cheer when the new skipper is introduced on Opening Day at Comerica Park, then the second guessing will begin on talk radio and on Twitter that night.

There’ll be head scratching and open questioning of President/GM/CEO Dave Dombrowski’s lucidity in hiring the new guy—sometime in mid-April, I reckon.

And here’s the real laugher: the new manager will be compared, unfavorably, to Jim Leyland—by those very people who wanted to run Leyland out of town.

Then the new man will have to fend off the improving Cleveland Indians, win the division, tiptoe through the mine field that is the American League playoffs and win the World Series. That’s all.

Yet there is no shortage of takers for this job. Maybe half these guys have no real idea of what they’re getting themselves into.

You thought 2012 was “World Series or bust”? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Just because the Tigers will have a new manager doesn’t mean the fans’ insistence on the team’s first world championship since 1984 will abate. Next season will mark the 30th anniversary of that ’84 club, as if the pining about that magical year needs any more encouragement.

Lloyd McClendon, the Tigers hitting coach, had his interview for the managing job already. Experienced job seekers will tell you that it’s best to be either the first or last person interviewed for a position. So Lloyd might have something going for him in that regard.

I won’t pump for any particular individual here. I will say that I’m not sold on promoting from within. The Red Wings tried that with Dave Lewis, who followed Scotty Bowman after winning the Stanley Cup in 2002. That didn’t go so well, mainly because—and GM Kenny Holland admitted this to me in 2006—the Red Wings needed a new voice entirely, and Lewis didn’t provide that.

That’s not to say that McClendon can’t be successful as Tigers manager. But with three straight post-season flame outs, it says here that an outside person might be needed.

Here’s the rub: as good of a job as the Tigers managerial position is, it will come with intense pressure to win now. The roster may look significantly different as soon as in 2015.

As the speculation persists as to who Dombrowski will hire, and as the list of supposed candidates grows, it’s easier for me to tell you who won’t get the job.

Scratch the following off your list.

Don Mattingly. Kirk Gibson. Tony LaRussa. Ron Gardenhire. Mike Scioscia. Joe Maddon. Eric Wedge. Manny Acta.

The reasons are as follows, for each man respectively.

Sticking with Dodgers. Sticking with Diamondbacks. Staying retired. Won’t leave Twins without pitching coach Rick Anderson. Contract too complicated to get out of in Los Angeles. Tampa won’t let him leave. Health issues. Too risky.

There.

Now, as to who might get the job?

Keep these guys in the mix for now.

McClendon. Dusty Baker. Brad Ausmus. Jim Tracy. Ozzie Guillen. Tony Pena.

The reasons are as follows, for each man respectively.

Already interviewed. Past success. Mike Matheny redux. Dark horse but brilliant mind. Crazy enough to work. Experience, can relate to the plethora of Latin-American Tigers.

Dombrowski, it’s been reported, will likely wait no longer than the first 10 days of November before choosing his new manager. This gives us about two weeks or so to see the focus shift to the finalists, as news of interviews comes to light.

Regardless, this is a great job for the right person. But the right person must know that if the 2014 season isn’t capped with a parade down Woodward Avenue, there will be hell to pay.

 When Leyland said yes to Dombrowski eight falls ago, the Marlboro Man wasn’t exactly following a tough act—and God bless Alan Trammell.

Dombrowski’s impending hire will step into a pressure cooker that will have as its only saving grace that it isn’t located in New York.

There won’t be much smiling next year after Opening Day, which will serve as a polite welcoming for the new skipper. After the first pitch, let the second guessing begin.

This is going to take a special type of individual.

Somebody better be careful of what they wish for.

History Will Judge Leyland Kindly in Detroit, As It Should

In Baseball on October 22, 2013 at 4:27 pm

The year still looms there, like the cheese that stands alone.

1984.

It used to be 1968. That was the year that all Tigers fans would reference, sometimes happily, sometimes wistfully, sometimes pessimistically.

It seemed like we waited eons after the Tigers’ 1968 World Series triumph for that feeling to come again. But it was only 16 years, which in retrospect is nothing, really.

And there was plenty of winning between ’68 and ’84 to keep fans from losing too much faith.

The ’68 club was the core of the 1972 team that won the AL East on the next-to-last day of the season. That group got old and fizzled, leading to the lean years of 1974-75.

Mark Fidrych was more than enough of a distraction in 1976 to keep you from remembering that the Tigers were winning just 74 games.

There was another 74-win season in 1977, but we were still blinded by the idea of Fidrych, who kept trying to come back from a shoulder injury.

In 1978, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker made their full-time debuts, and the Tigers began a stretch of .500+ baseball that would run through 1988.

And in there was 1984.

You don’t have to say much beyond the year.

And here we are, some 29 years later, and 1984 is the cheese that stands alone.

There was 1987, when the Tigers rocketed past the Toronto Blue Jays in a frantic final week of baseball that will never be forgotten in these parts. But that Tigers team was spent and fell to the Minnesota Twins in five games in the ALCS.

There was a close call in 1988, but the Tigers couldn’t quite catch the Boston Red Sox in the AL East.

Then came 1989’s bottoming out—a 103-loss season, which saw manager Sparky Anderson take a leave of absence due to exhaustion.

That 1989 season started an ugly stretch of baseball in Detroit—one that continued unabated for 16 years.

Mike Ilitch bought the team in 1992 and after a series of miscues in the front office and in the dugout following Sparky’s departure after the 1995 season, Ilitch hired a young executive named Dave Dombrowski to get the team’s act together. It was November, 2001.

Dombrowski, hired in as the team’s president and CEO, fired GM Randy Smith and manager Phil Garner one week into the 2002 season—after Dombrowski had been on the job for five months.

The Tigers bottomed out once more, to the tune of 119 losses in 2003. Dombrowski knew that was coming. He also knew that the team would be so wretched on the field, the dugout may as well have some flair.

Hence the hiring of Alan Trammell as manager for 2003.

Trammell was the sacrificial lamb—the rookie manager who couldn’t possibly have any success with the joke of a roster that he had been provided. Casey Stengel managed the 1962 Mets, you know. Funny how stupid Casey was when he didn’t have Mantle, Maris, Berra and Ford on his roster.

Trammell had Munson, Halter, Young and Witt.

Tram put in his three years, and was dispatched when Dombrowski’s roster re-tooling began to take shape.

1984!

That year was even more prominent when Trammell managed the Tigers, because he had Kirk Gibson and Lance Parrish on his coaching staff. It was maybe the only time in big league history when the coaches, even at their ages, were better players than the guys on the 25-man roster.

Tram got the ziggy after 2005, with a clubhouse in disarray and the taste of an 8-24 finish to the year lingering in everyone’s mouths.

Jim Leyland sat at the podium, just announced as the Tigers new manager in October 2005, and made a confession.

“I don’t know too many players on the roster yet, to be honest with you.”

Leyland had been out of the managing game for six years, after stepping down following one less-than-inspired year managing the Colorado Rockies in 1999.

But at the press conference announcing his hiring by the Tigers, with his friend Dombrowski smiling beside him—the pair won a world title in 1997 in Florida—Leyland declared his vim and vigor were back.

The Tigers were his home town team, to be truthful. Forget the Ohio and Pennsylvania roots. Leyland was a catcher in the low minors for the Tigers in the 1960s. He managed in the Tigers farm system in the 1970s. He was in Lakeland, FL every spring, brushing shoulders with Kaline, Freehan, Cash and Northrup as Leyland was busy managing a bunch of guys named Morris, Parrish, Whitaker and Trammell.

The Tigers were his team, in his heart.

Leyland was a Pirate for a while, as we all know. He won some divisions in Pittsburgh—three straight in fact, from 1990-92. The World Series eluded him.

Then it was on to Florida, and an unlikely and unexpected World Series victory in 1997.

The Marlins had a fire sale that began almost right after the parade, and Leyland suffered through a 108-loss season in 1998.

Then it was that year in Colorado, which Leyland is least proud of among all his years managing. He felt he stole a paycheck from the Rockies. He has admitted that he should never have taken the job—it was too soon after the Marlins debacle and his juices weren’t flowing right.

But he was rested and raring to go when Dombrowski called him and asked him to take over the Tigers.

It may not have been quite the rush to Detroit as Brady Hoke’s was to Ann Arbor when U-M Athletic Director Dave Brandon called Brady and asked him to “come home” to coach the Wolverines, but it didn’t take long for Leyland to say yes to Dombrowski, either.

Leyland said yes so fast, he barely looked at the Tigers roster.

1984!

The cheese still stood alone, but Leyland’s first year in Detroit seemed to have magic pixie dust sprinkled on it. The Tigers were 76-36 at one point, before stumbling to the finish with a 19-31 record over their final 50 games. Still, it was good enough to qualify for one of Bud Selig’s wild card berths.

The 2006 Tigers made it to the World Series, where cold bats and their pitchers’ inability to field their position resulted in a 4-1 series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.

1984!

That magical year of Trammell, Whitaker, Parrish, Morris et al continued to haunt the Tigers.

There was the last week of 2009, which was the 180-degree opposite of that of 1987. The Tigers blew a three-game divisional lead with four games to play, and had to settle for a one-game playoff in Minnesota. It was a marvelous game, but one that makes Tigers fans shudder, and always will.

1984!

In 2011, the Tigers cruised to a divisional title and lost to Nelson Cruz, er, the Texas Rangers, in the ALCS.

1984!

In 2012, the Tigers had to fend off a pesky Chicago White Sox team just to win the division, but made it to another World Series. Again, the bats and the base running went cold, and the San Francisco Giants swept the Tigers.

In 2013, the Tigers kept the Cleveland Indians at arm’s length and made it to another LCS—their third straight. But, as Leyland said more than once at his retirement press conference on Monday, the Tigers “let one get away” against the Red Sox. And, he said, it hurt him deeply.

Jim Leyland had eight years as Tigers manager. In only one of them did the team fail to reach the .500 standard. Three times they won their division. Twice they won the American League pennant.

In the 17 years prior to Leyland’s arrival, the Tigers had exactly one winning record. Four times in those 17 years, they lost more than 100 games.

It rankles some to say that Jim Leyland made baseball relevant again in Detroit. Because, after all, the goal isn’t to be relevant—it’s to win the whole shebang.

It also rankles them because the Tigers’ success since Leyland was hired is largely due to the magic wand of Dombrowski, whose trades and free agent signings have given Leyland the tools any manager needs to be successful. Those tools all have one thing in common: talent.

Any knucklehead could have managed the Tigers with the rosters Leyland was given, and won as much as he did. Right?

We’ll never know for sure, mainly because Leyland isn’t a knucklehead. He’s a grizzled baseball guy who has stood up to the likes of Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, who has given confidence to the Don Kellys of the world and who has presided over a clubhouse that the players police themselves and which has had hardly any fracturing.

Leyland was like Chuck Daly that way. Leyland expected his players to be grown men and act as such. It has helped that the Tigers have made it a habit of employing players who are pretty darn good guys—men of character and dignity. Carlos Guillen comes to mind.

The team has also had lots of veterans in the clubhouse during Leyland’s tenure, which doesn’t hurt. It’s why the manager has felt it best to keep out of the players’ sanctuary, for the most part.

Leyland didn’t always push the right buttons, but what manager does? He was slave to pitch counts. He wasn’t particularly aggressive or creative. The move of Jhonny Peralta to left field, when it comes to Leyland, was almost off the charts. It was Mickey Stanley to shortstop-ish.

But the players adored him. And when players like the manager, they tend to play better. That’s a fact.

1984!

It still stands alone. Leyland wasn’t able to rip that year from the wall. It’s 29 years and counting. That gap makes the 1968-84 wait seem like nothing.

Leyland, thanks to the emergence of the Internet and talk radio, was nitpicked and criticized more than any Tigers manager prior to him, combined.

But would we have nitpicked and criticized, if the team was dreadful?

Isiah Thomas, the great Pistons point guard, once said that fans don’t boo nobodies.

Translated: only the irrelevant escape feeling the heat.

The very fact that Jim Leyland, in his eight years managing the Tigers, faced so much criticism, is actually a testament to the man.

Leyland started winning as soon as he got to Detroit, and except for 2008, he never really stopped.

We started caring about the Tigers again when he arrived, and we have never really stopped.

Like him or not, that much is irrefutable.

Suh’s “Dirty” Reputation a Cash Cow for the NFL

In football on October 20, 2013 at 4:32 pm

The video still exists, if you nose around You Tube long enough. The craggy old basketball announcer screams into his microphone, crying of the humanity of it all to his radio listeners, in the same vein as Herb Morrison did in describing the explosion of the Hindenburg.

“Oh, the way they do things here!” Johnny Most screamed to his Boston listeners. Video cameras caught Most, pounding his hand onto the press table.

The Pistons had committed another rough foul on the Celtics. It was during a tense (weren’t they all?) playoff game at the Silverdome.

“Oh, (Bill) Laimbeer! What a gutless, despicable player!” Most shrieked.

Pistons thuggery!

These were the Bad Boys days of the late-1980s, and this was Johnny Most, riling up his listeners with another embellished version of what actually was happening on the basketball court. Fortunately for radio announcers, there isn’t a video screen accompanying the words.

The Bad Boys Pistons of Isiah, Laimbeer, Mahorn, Rodman et al wore the black hats in the NBA, and with pride. There was the Rolling Stone magazine cover, featuring Laimbeer and Mahorn, squeezing a basketball into deflation and terrorizing a rim for the photographer.

Everywhere the Pistons went, bad press followed them. They came to your town like the villains in a Spaghetti Western—daring local law enforcement to do something to stop them. They were the Dirty Dozen, literally.

The joke was on the critics and the out-of-town radio announcers. The more people complained about the Pistons’ style of rough, physical play, the more it steeled the Bad Boy—and the more steeled they were, the better they played. And the more games they won.

The Bad Boys won two straight NBA championships, even though Isiah Thomas declared the Bad Boys an expired moniker in the White House in celebrating the first title in early-1990.

The Bad Boys Pistons aren’t alone when it comes to Detroit athletes who have earned the scorn of others around the country—and in Canada.

Bob Probert, goon extraordinaire, was the NHL’s heavyweight champion, but in the way that the wrestling people do it. Probert was the NHL’s heel, to use a pro wrestling term. He was the guy everyone was gunning for. He wore the belt.

There were the Red Wings, and there was Probert. He was in a league of his own. Probert ruled with his fists. He took on all comers. Such was his reputation of fighting prowess that when the home town goon even landed a punch, that guy’s fans went wild. Then Probert would get an arm free and moments later, the fight was over.

Probert wasn’t considered dirty, per se, but he wasn’t always clean, either.

Probert reminded some old-timers of Gordie Howe, because Gordie wasn’t above slipping in an elbow or a face wash when the guys in the zebras weren’t looking. Even when they were looking, Gordie still managed to inflict some extracurricular pain.

Ndamukong Suh is the latest Detroit sports star who is on the top of his league’s Most Wanted list.

Suh plays the game of football with an angry edge. He’s a rules bender. He’s another football player whose personality is that of Jekyll and Hyde—sweet as pie with kids, soft spoken with the media, but diabolical and maybe a tad deranged on the gridiron every Sunday.

That’s what they said about past mad men like Alex Karras and Dick Butkus—that off the field they were the nicest guys, humble even, but for 60 minutes every Sunday, they turned nasty.

Suh’s reputation precedes him like a man who had a Limburger and garlic sandwich for lunch.

Suh hits someone and the play gets analyzed like it’s the Zapruder film. Surely there must be something wrong!

The league has fined Suh almost continuously since he came into the league as a  rookie from Nebraska in 2010. Some of the disciplinary action—suspensions and fines—have been warranted. Others have been “reputation” punishment.

“I think there’s always going to be a microscope on me,” Suh said recently.

More like a Hubble telescope.

Suh’s latest fine, a $31,500 debit for hitting Cleveland Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden last Sunday, is laughable. But it’s not really funny.

Suh rushed the quarterback, as he does so well, and while he led with his helmet, kind of, it was Suh’s body that slammed Weeden to the turf just after the Browns QB released a pass. It was a hit that defines professional football—clean and hard, with no malice other than to put the quarterback on his keister.

There was no penalty flag on the play, even though it occurred right in front of the referee.

For that hit, the NFL fined Suh.

The telescope got brought out again.

The league has its Jason and its Freddy Krueger, in Ndamukong Suh. And don’t think that they don’t love that idea.

Pro sports are often as much about who fans root against as it is who they root for. No doubt that the NBA profited from the Bad Boys, financially and from a publicity standpoint. There was more licensed merchandise derived from it, and more tickets were sold in enemy arenas, when the Bad Boys rode into town.

The NFL and those who cover it decry Suh on one hand, and can’t stop talking about him on the other. They want Suh to go straight publicly, but privately they are terrified of that.

So what you get are fines that wouldn’t be levied on other players. The fine for the Weeden hit was a disgrace.

Suh is having an exemplary year. His play on the field has been fierce, as usual, but even better than what we’ve seen since he entered the league. He tosses around blockers like rag dolls and opens up space for his teammates to make plays.

He is also the NFL’s biggest villain, as cooked up by the league’s marketing department, working in conjunction with the disciplinarians.

Lots of what has been done to Suh’s pocketbook hasn’t been fair. Some of what he’s done on the field hasn’t been, either.

But nobody should want, honestly, for Suh to change the way he plays. The fans shouldn’t, the press shouldn’t, and the NFL shouldn’t.

Where’s the fun—and the money—in that?

Tigers-A’s Playoff Rivalry Began With a Bat Toss

In Baseball on October 5, 2013 at 10:08 pm

The eyes are wild, the face tight and taut. He is caught in pre-fling, rage washed over his mug. He is prepared to throw the bat, and it looks as if in that moment, he wants the lumber to behead its intended target.

Bert Campaneris is shown in the photograph, snapped from the first base side of the diamond, standing in the batter’s box, a baseball bat in his right hand, grasping the handle, barrel down. The photo shows him in the split second before he whipped the bat toward Tigers pitcher Lerrin LaGrow.

With that moment of indiscretion by Campaneris, the first salvo in the playoff wars between the Oakland A’s and the Detroit Tigers was fired.

It came in Game 2 of the 1972 American League Championship Series, in Oakland. The A’s had won Game 1 and were ahead, 5-0, in the seventh inning when Campaneris took leave of his senses.

Some bean ball shenanigans were being played in Game 2. In the A’s fifth inning, Tigers reliever Fred Scherman knocked A’s slugger Reggie Jackson down twice in the same at-bat.

Campaneris was fleet of foot, and there are stories that say Tigers manager Billy Martin ordered the rookie LaGrow—who had just 39 big league innings on his resume—to throw at Campaneris’ legs. Knowing Billy, the speculation is probably true.

LaGrow’s pitch did indeed nail Campaneris in the ankle area. Without hesitation, as if acting reflexively, Campaneris planted his feet and flung his bat toward LaGrow, who ducked to avoid being decapitated.

A donnybrook ensued, and Campaneris was suspended for the remainder of the series.

The series went the maximum (at the time) five games, the A’s prevailing with a nail-biting 2-1 win in Game 5 at Tiger Stadium—aided by a highly questionable call at first base that went against Detroit.

Thirty-four years later, Magglio Ordonez stood in the batter’s box at Comerica Park, a bat in his hand, but he chose to use it in the conventional manner.

It was Game 4 of the ALCS in 2006, the Tigers leading the A’s, 3-0. The game was tied, 3-3, in the bottom of the ninth inning, with two outs. Two runners were on base, and Ordonez stepped in against Oakland’s usually reliable closer, Huston Street.

With one swing, Ordonez evoked memories of Kirk Gibson against Goose Gossage in Game 5 of the 1984 World Series, sending a Street fastball deep into the night, far over the left field wall, sending the Tigers to the Fall Classic.

No Tigers fan worth his or her salt will ever forget the sight of Placido Polanco jumping up and down like a little boy as he rounded third base, once Magglio’s home run cleared the fence.

The second salvo in the A’s-Tigers playoff wars was fired, more than three decades after the first.

It’s another raucous night at the Oakland Coliseum. Game 5—the deciding game—of the 2012 American League Divisional Series is being played, Tigers vs. A’s yet again.

Oakland and its scrappy bunch, which made the walk-off win part of its strategy in 2012, had roared back on its home field and erased a 2-0 Tigers series lead, forcing the Game 5. Game 4 was won in typical A’s fashion—in the last at-bat, with the crowd beside itself. The A’s scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth off wobbly closer Jose Valverde to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Slugged but not out, the Tigers turned to Justin Verlander, whose charge was simple in definition but difficult in its execution: to shut the A’s down and quiet the feverish Oakland crazies.

Verlander, pitching as if possessed, mowed the A’s down. He pitched all nine innings, allowing just four hits. He walked one and struck out 11. The Tigers won the game, 6-0, and the series, 3-2.

The third salvo was fired.

The Tiger and A’s are separated by thousands of miles, geographically, but historically, the two teams are almost joined at the hip.

It began with the irascible Ty Cobb.

Cobb, after 22 years as a Tigers player and manager, took his services to Philadelphia, to play for the A’s, in 1927. Cobb in an A’s uniform was like Bobby Orr wearing Blackhawk colors.

Mickey Cochrane, old Black Mike himself, was traded by the A’s to the Tigers after the 1933 season. Cochrane managed the Tigers for parts of five seasons.

The Tigers traded for Hall of Fame third baseman George Kell, getting him from the A’s in 1946 for Barney McCosky.

In less than 20 years—from the Cobb defection to the Kell trade—the Tigers and A’s had swapped baseball legends and moved mountains three times, each a stunning move that, had they occurred today, would have sent Twitter and the Internet in general, aflutter.

All was quiet on the A’s-Tigers front for some 26 years, after the Kell trade, until Bert Campaneris treated a baseball bat like a hand grenade.

They’re going at it again, the A’s and the Tigers. They are duking it out in the ALDS. The Tigers, behind new ace Max Scherzer, are up 1-0, thanks to Scherzer’s domination.

Verlander, the old ace, is pitching Game 2. It reminds one of the Dodgers’ 1-2 punch of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the mid-1960s.

Did Scherzer fire the fourth playoff salvo, A’s-Tigers style, with his brilliance in Game 1? Or is there something else coming that will define the fourth post-season series between these two old AL rivals?

I wonder if Bert Campaneris had any idea what his bat toss would spawn.