Greg Eno

Archive for February, 2014|Monthly archive page

Granderson, Once Tigers’ CF Solution, Fighting to Reclaim Career as a Met

In Baseball on February 23, 2014 at 2:44 pm

The center fielder of the Tigers’ present and future was indirectly taking tips from one of the best, who played the position so well some 50 years prior.

It was the summer of 2007, and Curtis Granderson, into just his second full season as the roamer of the vast expanse at Comerica Park, was having an impromptu lesson imparted to him.

Granderson and I, an interloper at his locker, were chatting before a game against the Cleveland Indians, when coach Andy Van Slyke walked by and tossed Granderson a mitt.

The outfielder’s glove had been recently re-laced, and that afforded Van Slyke an opportunity to pull it back from Granderson and jam it into his own hand, discussing the glove’s new laces and their length.

Van Slyke flapped the glove open and closed, open and closed, while pantomiming the act of scooping up a baseball and throwing it back to the infield.

“These laces are kind of long,” Van Slyke said. “Once, my laces were so long, I tripped over them during a game.”

Granderson laughed, but Van Slyke was serious—or so he said.

Granderson didn’t know it, but he was being schooled, indirectly, by Bill Virdon.

Virdon patrolled center field for the Pittsburgh Pirates with aplomb in the 1950s. And when Van Slyke was a young big leaguer playing in Pittsburgh, like Granderson in Detroit in 2007, it was Virdon who did the tutoring in Pirates camp.

And now Virdon’s teachings were being passed on to the wide-eyed Granderson by Van Slyke as I looked on.

Granderson was 26 years old at the time—with a kewpie doll face and a smile that lit up Woodward Avenue. He beat out a speedster named Nook Logan just a year prior to claim the Tigers’ center fielder job.

It was a job that Granderson was growing into very nicely, indeed.

When we last left Curtis Granderson—and by “we,” I mean those who have an Old English D plastered across their heart—he was a bourgeoning star, slapping triples all around Comerica Park out of that nervous batting stance and robbing them with his glove.

Granderson was going to play center field for the Tigers like Chet Lemon did before him, and like Mickey Stanley did before Lemon. And Granderson was going to stay with the Tigers forever.

That last part is what the fans must have thought, anyway.

Granderson was 28, seemingly just hitting his stride as an upper echelon center fielder, when the Tigers did the apparently unthinkable.

On the heels of a terribly disappointing loss in Game 163 to the Minnesota Twins to close out the 2009 season, the Tigers made a blockbuster trade—a deal so big it took three teams to consummate it.

Granderson was at the center of the trade, which landed the Tigers Phil Coke and Austin Jackson from the Yankees, and Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth from the Diamondbacks. The Tigers also gave up starting pitcher Edwin Jackson.

Detroit baseball fans were aghast.

Trading Curtis Granderson was considered blasphemy. He was a nice guy. A fine center fielder. A slapper of triples, a stroker of doubles, with a developing power swing. He smiled a lot. He was out there in the community year-round, helping out and becoming a Detroiter by proxy.

He was going to play center field for the Tigers forever!

It wasn’t just that Granderson was traded—it was that he was traded to the hated Yankees. He was too pure for New York. It was feared by yours truly that Granderson’s good deeds would be swallowed up and not really noticed in the Big Apple.

Pinstripes never really looked good on him, in retrospect.

They didn’t help his hitting. Oh, he hit his home runs in the new, cracker jack Yankee Stadium, where a pop fly to the second baseman could, with a gentle breeze, land ten rows up in the right field stands. But playing in New York ruined his swing.

Granderson was soiled by Yankee Stadium. The tiny ballpark turned him into a free-swinging slugger. He used to be a gap-to-gap guy, spraying baseballs like a machine gun into the outfield, from left to right. As a Yankee, he became Adam Dunn.

In his first season in New York, Granderson hit 24 home runs and his numbers were pretty much in line with what he did as a Tiger in 2009.

But then Yankee Stadium’s poison infiltrated his system.

In 2011 and 2012 combined, Granderson slugged—and that was the word for it—84 home runs, drove in 225 runs, and struck out 364 times. His batting averages for those two years were .262 and then .232, respectively.

But he no longer hit doubles and triples all that much—44 and 14, respectively in 2011-12 combined, where with the Tigers Granderson averaged 29 doubles and 14 triples per season.

And the lefty-batting Granderson never did learn how to hit left-handers after the trade to New York, against whom he has a career BA of .226.

Seduced by the right field porch that he could seemingly reach out and touch from the batter’s box, Granderson turned from sprayer to hacker at the plate as a Yankee. He became, for the most part, a home run or strike out guy.

This year, Granderson takes that poisoned swing from the Bronx to Queens, as a new member of the New York Mets. He signed with the Mets as a free agent after an injury-riddled 2013 season saw Granderson suit up for just 61 games with the Yanks.

Granderson is soon to be 33 years old. To us in Detroit, that doesn’t seem possible. He still has the kewpie doll face but there’s some maturity to it now. He doesn’t look 33 yet he does, at the same time.

He is moving into grizzled vet status. This year will be Granderson’s 10th in the big leagues.

The man who would be the Tigers’ center fielder until he retired is now trying to revive his career in the National League, asked to be a mentor of sorts to teammates and fellow outfielders Eric Young, Jr. and youngster Juan Lagares.

Granderson was a wide-eyed youngster once, getting impromptu outfield lessons from Bill Virdon by way of Andy Van Slyke via pantomime in the Tigers’ clubhouse.

Time will tell if Granderson can smile the calendar into submission in his new pinstripes in Queens.

And also, if he can regain a hitting stroke that, despite his nifty home run numbers, lost its way with the Yankees.

 

 

Raiola, a Matt Millen Relic, Defies Odds En Route to 14-Year (so far) Career

In football on February 16, 2014 at 3:53 pm

In a way, Dominic Raiola is the last man standing. He’s like the ruins of Rome. He’s the remembrance of a monarchy. He just needs a tour guide and a brochure for the passing patrons.

In April, 2001, Raiola, a stubby center out of Nebraska, was the second draft pick ever made for the Lions by President Matt Millen. Doubtless that Raiola had no idea what he was being drafted into.

There is no one on the current Lions roster that better symbolizes the ruins of the Millen Era than Raiola.

Calvin Johnson, the NFL’s best receiver, dates back to Millen’s tenure, but CJ was drafted in 2007 and Millen was gone a year later.

Raiola joined the Lions organization just three months after Millen did. Millen finally got fired early in the 0-16 2008 season, but Raiola and Jeff Backus, the tackle from Michigan drafted ahead of his offensive linemate in ’01, weren’t so lucky; part of their penance was to remain behind—guilty as sin of being drafted by Millen.

Could anyone have possibly known that, 13 seasons later, Dominic Raiola would still be squatting on Sundays, gripping the football and readying it for a snap—all 13 years spent with the Lions?

Raiola plays arguably football’s most thankless position. Nothing can happen until the center does his thing, but aside from that, you hike the football and then ten second later, you pull yourself out from a pile of humanity.

The centers for the game’s greatest quarterbacks are remembered no more than the fellow who broke the four-minute mile after Roger Bannister, the second guy to climb Mt. Everest and the act that followed the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Center in football is not a position played for notoriety, though Raiola has tried to be the story in the past.

There have been some ill-advised, occasionally outrageous comments. He’s gotten into it with the fans, walking off the field. There was an alleged incident with a marching band before a game, with an ugly epithet supposedly tossed around by Raiola.

And through it all there’s been one playoff game in 13 years, a monumental occasion that so overwhelmed Raiola, his comments leading up to the game indicated that he could scarcely believe it was happening. By the time he realized it was real, the Lions were being lapped by the New Orleans Saints, 45-28.

Centers don’t typically play their best football in their 13th season. Two reasons for this: 1) centers don’t typically play 13 seasons; 2) their bodies age as well as bananas.

Yet Raiola, in 2013, was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the second best center in the NFL. Not bad, considering the Lions almost didn’t bring him back after season no. 12.

There won’t be any doubt of Raiola’s coming back in 2014. Moved by perhaps his best season ever, the Lions recently rewarded their center with a one-year contract and a reportedly sizable raise—from $1 million in 2013 to $1.525 million in ’14.

Raiola captained an offensive line that, despite a 60% turnover from 2012, was among the NFL’s best and most consistent units in 2013.

“It’s humbling to me that I earned another year in the NFL, that’s first and foremost,” Raiola told the Detroit Free Press on February 7, after the Lions announced the signing.

“I’m in the same spot as I was last year, another proving ground. Can this 35-going-on-36-year-old play? And I’m going to work hard and let my play do the talking.”

Raiola, like Backus before the latter retired a year ago, is often guilty by association with the Lions when it comes to his legacy. He has never made the Pro Bowl, despite missing just four games in his 12 years as a full-time starter (all four came in 2008). Consequently, he’s often been portrayed as part of what’s wrong with the Lions instead of being lauded for his durability and solid play.

But Raiola hasn’t helped his own cause with some of his antics, usually involving his mouth.

Raiola hopes to play 15 years and hang them up. His newest contract is for one year, so like he said, it’s proving time again in 2014.

Since becoming a starter in his second season, here’s who Raiola has hiked the football to: Joey Harrington; Mike McMahon; Jeff Garcia; Jon Kitna; J.T. O’Sullivan; Dan Orlovsky; Daunte Culpepper; Drew Stanton; Shaun Hill and Matthew Stafford.

That’s 10 quarterbacks, and only Stafford was worth a hill of beans. It’s also a big reason why the Lions’ record while Raiola has been with the team is a putrid 60-148.

Hence the guilt by association thing.

It doesn’t matter that Raiola is hardly why the Lions have been so bad for so long—he’s been here, and that makes him part of the problem in the fans’ eyes.

Also, Raiola lives in his native Hawaii in the off-season, which doesn’t help. He’s not Nate Burleson, the recently released receiver whose gregarious demeanor and frequent appearances on national networks, pumping the Lions and the city of Detroit, have ingratiated him to the fan base.

Raiola leaves the mainland after the season and never makes it back unless there are OTAs to be conducted.

Plus, well, he’s a freaking center.

But the Lions aren’t bringing Raiola back for a 14th season out of pity or nostalgia. Salary cap dollars are too precious for anything silly like that. Witness the cashiering this past week of Burleson and safety Louie Delmas—two vocal leaders and proud Lions.

It’s about whether you can still play football, no matter what the birth certificate and the calendar have to say.

The Lions inked Raiola for another year because they don’t have a ready replacement, and his 2013 season was pretty damned good. And by all indications, the new deal is met with great appreciation by its recipient.

“I call (the Lions) my hometown team,” Raiola told the Free Press. “So it’s very humbling to me and I’m just thankful that they saw more gas in my tank.”

It’s funny. Raiola, the man who ends just about every play on the turf, is still standing when it comes to the Matt Millen Era.

 

Pistons’ Odd Coaching History Took Shape 50 Years Ago

In Basketball on February 11, 2014 at 4:16 pm

David DeBusschere was all of 24 years old when he sat down for a drink in an East Side Detroit bar in November, 1964 with Detroit Pistons brass.

The location was appropriate. DeBusschere had been a high school star athlete at Austin Catholic High School, on the city’s East side. He specialized in throwing—baseballs to the plate and basketballs toward the hoop.

Inside the bar that evening, Pistons owner Fred Zollner and general manager Don Wattrick floated an idea past DeBusschere, who by then had been entrenched as the Pistons’ star player after a ballyhooed college career at the University of Detroit.

The idea was pretty simple, yet bold. Others would use different adjectives for it, hardly complimentary.

Hey, would you coach the team? DeBusschere was asked.

Over beers, the plan was hatched and DeBusschere accepted. At 24, he would become the player-coach of the Detroit Pistons, a franchise that had moved to the Motor City in 1957 and which had already suffered some ignominious moments, such as playing playoff games against the Lakers in a Grosse Pointe High gymnasium, because Olympia Stadium was busy and Cobo Arena had yet to be built. There was also the time the team was sent a school bus instead of a chartered bus to transport NBA players to a game. Wilt Chamberlain, no less, somehow managed to curl his long legs enough so he could sit in the tiny yellow bus.

DeBusschere’s promotion had the expected results, i.e. it didn’t work. Dave was 79-143 as the Pistons coach before it became painfully evident that Zollner’s bright idea had not been so bright, after all. DeBusschere was relieved and Donnis Butcher took over as coach.

The Pistons, from their move to Fort Wayne to spring, 1983, had a reputation for burning through coaches every two years or so—if not sooner. Sometimes the coaches quit, saving the team from firing them. Many of the coaches were hated by the players. Some proved to be incompetent. But what do you expect from a franchise that, in the ’60s, moved their radio announcer (Wattrick) into the GM chair? Zollner, the owner, was an out-of-towner, based in Florida. He would occasionally jet in to take in a game or two.

Who does that sound like?

But in May 1983, the Pistons, forever cursed with bad luck, it seemed, finally had the basketball gods smiling down on them.

That was when Chuck Daly was introduced as coach by GM Jack McCloskey, who literally flipped Daly a basketball and told Chuck to “go get ’em” at the intro presser.

Daly, on the surface, didn’t have much on his resume for the fans to get excited about.

Daly was a college coach at Penn, which is where McCloskey coached for years as well. The pair met on the college coaching circuit in the late-1960s. When the Pistons hired him, Daly’s NBA “pedigree” consisted of 41 games as head coach of the Ted Stepien-owned Cleveland Cavaliers (9-32 record) and some time on the Philadelphia 76ers bench as an assistant to Billy Cunningham. That was it.

The Pistons got lucky, because Daly was at least the third choice of McCloskey’s, after Jack McKinney and Jack Ramsay turned him down. Phil Johnson was rumored to have turned the Pistons down, too.

From those less-than-stellar NBA creds, Daly ended up becoming a Hall of Fame Coach—a two-time NBA champion and an Olympic Gold Medalist.

But aside from Daly’s nine years in Detroit, the Pistons have always been a franchise that shoots coaches on schedule.

The roster of Pistons coaches from 1957-83, then again from 1992 to current, shows that longevity means staying on for three years.

So this deal of Pistons GM Joe Dumars changing coaches almost as frequently as we change the oil in our cars, is really nothing new to this franchise. The Pistons have been doing this for 57 years, with a nine-year break in between.

Maurice Cheeks is out, in the latest forced abdication from the coaching throne. Someone named John Loyer, Cheeks’ lead assistant, is in—for now.

The Pistons have done that a few times, too—promote an assistant into first chair.

One of those promoted coaches was Ray Scott, who took over for the fired Earl Lloyd in 1972.

“It’s not easy,” Scott told Al Beaton and me on “The Knee Jerks” podcast on Sunday night, mere hours after Pistons owner Tom Gores, the out-of-towner based in L.A., gave Cheeks the ziggy.

“The thing is, as an assistant, you know what the team should be doing,” Scott said.

Scott himself would get the ziggy, in January, 1976. Assistant coach Herb Brown, a disloyal opportunist, was promoted.

With Cheeks out after 50 games, Loyer has a 32-game audition. Gores wants playoffs or else. The Pistons are on the fringes of qualifying for a spot. And Loyer has 32 games to show what he’s got. And even then, it may not be enough to be offered the job beyond this season—especially when someone like Lionel Hollins is looming, unemployed as a coach.

It’s slapstick right now with the Pistons, but aside from Daly’s run and the success from 2003-2008 (three championships in those two eras), the Pistons have been bouncing basketballs off their sneakers and out of bounds since moving to Detroit in 1957.

Gores, like Zollner was, is proving himself to be an impatient, impetuous owner. That is actually a breath of fresh air in these parts, where the football team’s owner is patient and loyal to a fault.

With Cheeks dismissed, the spotlight turns to GM Dumars, whose contract expires after the season. The natives have been restless for a few years, but now even the national media is calling for Joe’s ouster. Lists of Dumars’ ill-advised moves have been compiled by those outside of Detroit and splashed onto the Internet for national consumption.

It is unclear whether Gores has a plan beyond his “playoffs or else” mandate. The owner flew into town a week ago Saturday, gave a less-than-thrilled assessment of the team to the media, and then flew back to California. Some say that Gores made up his mind to fire Cheeks on the plane out west, if not sooner.

John Loyer becomes yet another little-known assistant to become Pistons coach in mid-season, after guys like Herb Brown and Alvin Gentry before him. And Ray Scott, who wasn’t little-known in Detroit (a stellar playing career as a Piston ensured that), but who was also an assistant-turned head coach. So was George Irvine, who had head coaching experience before taking over for the deposed Gentry in 2000.

The Pistons even moved Bob Kauffman from GM to coach in 1977, to replace Herb Brown.

And don’t forget the ill-advised promotion of young player DeBusschere to coach.

Chuck Daly came in and restored order for nine years, winning two championships along the way.

But mostly it’s been calliope music, tents and three rings.

From I to XLVII, Super Bowls Filled With Little-Known Trivia

In football on February 1, 2014 at 5:36 pm

It’s almost here. The game so big, they need to use Roman numerals to name it.

The history of the Super Bowl is filled with pre-game antics, outlandish quotes, flaky players and impressive individual performances.

But it’s amazing what you can find out when you do a little research.

There are tons of nuggets out there.

So while you’re probably sick and tired (aside: why does “and tired” always follow “sick”?) of pre-game coverage of SB XLVIII by now, I hope you can find it in yourself to indulge in a few more tidbits.

Super Bowl I (Los Angeles, 1967). Coliseum security are called when the Kansas City Chiefs are caught trying to flee the stadium upon the arrival of the Green Bay Packers’ team bus. Authorities manage to corral the Chiefs back onto the field, where they are promptly buggy-whipped, 35-10.

Super Bowl III (Miami, 1969). Everyone knows of Joe Namath’s guarantee that his AFL New York Jets would defeat the mighty Baltimore Colts of the NFL, but how about the drunken guarantee made by Colts LB Mike Curtis, who told the media the day before the game that Namath would be embalmed at the fifty yard line by halftime?

Another fun fact: Jets coach Weeb Ewbank’s first name, spelled backward, is Beew.

Super Bowl IV (New Orleans, 1970). The Minnesota Vikings declare that SB III’s win by the Jets was a fluke and that the NFL is still the dominant league. The Vikes display that dominance by losing, 7 to 23. After the game, Vikings QB Joe Kapp’s ribs fall out. KC d-lineman Buck Buchanan adds BBQ sauce and engages in a post-game victory meal.

Super Bowl V (Miami, 1971). It was the most mistake-filled of all the games. There were six fumbles, six interceptions and 14 penalties—and that was all before kickoff. The fans weren’t much better. There were 12,787 beer spills, 9,452 mustard stains and three turnovers—women who went home with men other than their husbands.

Super Bowl VII (Los Angeles, 1973). The Miami Dolphins’ perfect 17-0 season is threatened when kicker Garo Yepremian’s ill-advised pass attempt after a blocked FG attempt late in the fourth quarter is returned for a touchdown by Washington’s Mike Bass, drawing the Redskins to within 14-7. Order is restored on the next series, when Miami fullback Larry Csonka runs out the clock with a five minute, 23-second rushing attempt for a one-yard gain, while Redskin defenders are unable to wrestle him to the ground.

Super Bowl X (Miami, 1976). Pittsburgh receiver Lynn Swann victimizes Dallas cornerback Mark Washington twice with acrobatic catches and once with an atomic wedgie. Steelers d-lineman Mean Joe Greene gets into the spirit of the upcoming USA Bicentennial by planting Cowboys QB Roger Staubach into the ground after a sack and painting his rear end red, white and blue.

Super Bowl XIII (Miami, 1979). Back in Miami for a rematch with the Steelers, Cowboys LB Tom “Hollywood” Henderson says before the game that Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw couldn’t spell “cat” if you spotted him the “c” and the “a.” Pittsburgh’s center Ray Mansfield responds that Dallas’s intellectual QB Roger Staubach couldn’t spell “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” even if you spotted him the “supercalifragilisticexp”.

Super Bowl XV (New Orleans, 1981). Raiders owner Al Davis is presented the Vince Lombardi Trophy after Oakland’s victory over Philadelphia by his nemesis, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. After the cameras are turned off, Davis pulls Rozelle’s suit jacket over his head and a hockey game breaks out. Raiders QB Jim Plunkett is ejected from the post-game celebration for being the third man in.

Super Bowl XVI (Pontiac, 1982). It’s the first SB played in a northern climate. Temps the week of the game dip below zero, with wind chills of up to -50 degrees. Paid attendance is 79,877, but actual attendance is estimated at being about 6,000 fewer, with those unable to attend found frozen into human popsicles on the streets of downtown Pontiac.

Super Bowl XVII (Pasadena, 1983). The big play of this game is Washington’s John Riggins breaking off left tackle for a 43-yard TD run to put the Redskins ahead of the Miami Dolphins to stay. Riggins is named MVP and immediately places a call after the game to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, starting a whirlwind courtship that would end dramatically months later.

Super Bowl XX (New Orleans, 1986). The Bears destroy the Patriots, with even DT William “Refrigerator” Perry scoring a touchdown as a fullback instead of Bears Hall of Fame RB Walter Payton, whose anger spills over into the locker room after the game. Feuding head coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan placate Payton by hugging each other, showing Payton the true meaning of Super Bowl.

Super Bowl XXII (San Diego, 1988). The Redskins score a Super Bowl-record 35 points in the second quarter against the Broncos and hop on a plane at halftime. The second half is played by members of the 1972 Redskins, giving them the feeling of victory they missed out against Miami. The ’72 Skins outscore the ’87 Broncos, 7-0, after intermission.

Super Bowl XXIV (New Orleans, 1990). The Broncos show up in the SB for the fourth time—well, maybe that’s an overstatement, as they lose to the 49ers, 55-10. San Francisco QB Joe Montana slings touchdown passes all over the place to Jerry Rice, even connecting with no. 80 on a 25-yard strike in the men’s bathroom.

Super Bowl XXVIII (Atlanta, 1994). The Buffalo Bills suffer their fourth straight SB defeat and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue bans them from future appearances, a ban that despite several legal attempts by the Bills to undo, remains in place to this day.

Super Bowl XXXI (New Orleans, 1997). Green Bay’s Desmond Howard, the game’s MVP, returns a third quarter kickoff 97 yards for a game-clinching touchdown, and returns a post-game salami sandwich 965 yards to a New Orleans deli for extra provolone.

Super Bowl XXXIV (Atlanta, 2000). Tennessee’s Kevin Dyson is stopped one yard shy of the end zone on the game’s final play as the Rams’ victory is secured. The Titans immediately file a court injunction to have the field reduced to 98 yards long but judges don’t work on Sundays, preserving St. Louis’s win. Rams coach Dick Vermeil sheds tears of joy as his players cheer, then roll their eyes behind his back.

Super Bowl XXXVII (San Diego, 2003). The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally yank off their cloak of franchise futility by capturing a 48-21 victory over Oakland. Bucs coach Jon Gruden, who coached the Raiders just the year before, is asked to come back to Oakland by Al Davis, but Gruden scowls the Raiders owner into the fetal position.

Super Bowl XLI (Miami, 2007). The Indianapolis Colts, behind QB and MVP Peyton Manning, defeat the Chicago Bears. Television microphones capture Manning’s audibles, as he yells out every state capital and other popular city names at least once during the game, though his attempt at Albuquerque results in a delay of game penalty.

Super Bowl XLII (Glendale, 2008). The New York Giants ruin the New England Patriots’ bid for a perfect 19-0 season when Peyton’s little brother Eli Manning makes a remarkable play late in the game, eluding a sack and throwing for a long gain. Eli’s Giants win the game, but that doesn’t stop Peyton from wrestling Eli to the ground after the game, a move that only ends when Eli yells, “I can’t breathe.”

Super Bowl XLVII (New Orleans, 2013). The game is remembered for a lengthy delay in the third quarter when the lights go out. After the stoppage, the Baltimore Ravens take control, their dominance enhanced when the 49ers complain to the officials repeatedly that their wallets are now missing.

So there you have it—crack research at its best, with an emphasis on “crack.”

What nuggets will SB XLVIII produce?