Greg Eno

Archive for February, 2017|Monthly archive page

February baseball in Lakeland is the game’s annual promise of grandeur to its fans

In Baseball on February 14, 2017 at 9:55 pm

Published February 14, 2017

The images are being beamed now from Lakeland. Hearts in Detroit are being warmed.

The Tigers, in their creamy whites, are playing catch. In the batting cage, they’re toughening up hands made tender by a winter off.

The players are smiling, chortling even. They embrace, ready to spend the next eight months together on planes, buses and in hotel lobbies.

Every team in baseball is 0-0. The San Diego Padres are still mathematically alive for the playoffs.

The Internet is being filled now with the photos and the videos. The men with the Old English D plastered on their jerseys and over their hearts.

Oh, to be among the fortunate down in Lakeland, basking in the sun, enjoying the warm temps and being within arm’s reach of Justin Verlander.

Soon the rest of the squad will join the pitchers and catchers, along with some non-roster invitees who’ll wear numbers like 72 and 66 during spring games.

It’s the beginning of the realization of dreams by some young players and the last gasp effort at glory for some grizzled veterans.

The crack of the bat and the thwack of a baseball hitting the mitt will never sound so good all year.

It’s just not the same with the other sports.

The Lions gather for the first time in late-July in Allen Park and that’s nice for the die-hard football fan but where’s the romance? Football is violence and precision and it’s filled with military metaphors. The start of a new football season is as romantic as new recruits arriving at boot camp.

The Red Wings meet in Traverse City in September and that’s exciting for the antsy puckheads, but how many of us ever laced up a hockey skate? Hockey training camp is background noise. We’ll pay attention when they drop the puck for real.

The Pistons have media day in early-October but how long can you listen to the sound of basketballs bouncing on a gym floor before you need an aspirin? Basketball camp is as antiseptic as a bottle of Listerine. Let us know when opening night is.

Ah, but baseball spring training…

Who among us has never had a game of catch? Who hasn’t played in a company picnic softball game, or in Little League?

Who doesn’t live and die with their baseball team?

Image result for detroit tigers spring training 2017

Peekaboo! Baseball, I see you!

It’s an old line and it might be apocryphal but here goes.

Baseball Fan goes to Opening Day. His/her team loses. The fan pouts and doesn’t eat supper.

“What’s got ya down?” the Fan’s friend asks. “What, did you think your team would go 162-0?”

Baseball Fan looks up at the friend, and says with all sincerity, “Yes.”

But Opening Day is still six weeks away. And that’s OK because the boys of summer are back in Florida and Arizona, where they belong in February and March.

Spring training is perfectly timed.

It comes when the winter blahs have set in. The glitz of the holidays have worn off. The groundhog never seems to cooperate. It’s still February, for gosh sakes.

If it wasn’t for spring training, if it wasn’t for the photos of the players kibitzing and hitting fungoes, I don’t think many of us would survive the winter.

Spring training is an iron clad promise.

It guarantees us that something good is coming. And its very existence, its machinations, provide a source of comfort, especially to those of us to the north.

I don’t know if a Dodgers fan or a Marlins fan or a Rangers fan can truly appreciate what spring training means to a Tigers fan.  How can they, when those Southern California, Florida and Texas folks never have to deal with winter’s blast to begin with?

How can they wax romantic about palm trees, cactus and baseball when they get the first two all year long?

This hasn’t been a very vicious Michigan winter (yet), granted. But it’s winter nonetheless. And baseball’s been absent around here for over four months, which is about four months too long.

Where’s the single to right, moving the runner from first to third? Where’s the Verlander bender for called strike three? Where’s the 6-4-3 double play that nips the batter by a microsecond?

Where’s the six-game winning streak in June? Where are the fireworks on Friday night?

Where’s the Miguel Cabrera three-run homer to right-center? Where’s the Ian Kinsler dirty uniform?

Where’s the 2-8 stretch in July that elicits the calls to fire the manager?

Where’s the no-hitter after six innings? Where’s the hate for Alex Avila?

Where are the peanuts and Cracker Jack?

Where’s the turn on the Merry-go-Round or on the Ferris Wheel?

Where’s the thrilling walk-off win on a Friday night over the Indians?

Hey, when are the Yankees in town, by the way?

Where’s baseball?

It’s coming. Spring training sees to that.

Be still the heart.

Ilitch and his pizza dough made Detroit a city of champions once again

In Hockey on February 11, 2017 at 4:06 am

Published February 10, 2017

Before the Stanley Cups, before the World Series appearances, there were the Detroit Caesars.

Before Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, there was Ronnie Ford, Mike Nye, Doug Gerdes and Tex Collins.

Before the NHL and MLB, there was the APSPL—the American Professional Slo-Pitch League.

The Caesars owner was the Steinbrenner of the APSPL. He spent big bucks to hire the best softball players in the midwest.

Now, you might think of softball players as overweight guys with beer bellies slamming home runs left and right and needing an oxygen tank halfway to second base.

You’d be right.

But in order to win championships in professional softball, you still need the best overweight guys with beer bellies. And the Caesars owner made sure of that.

They say that two things are seldom realized: your worst fears and your wildest dreams.

Michael Ilitch had built a pizza empire but he was, in his heart, a frustrated baseball player. His wildest dreams meant that he would one day play in the big leagues.

Unrealized.

So Ilitch set out to live vicariously through other professional athletes. The Caesars—named after his pizza stores—were the first team to make Ilitch, in an indirect way, a champion athlete.

Ilitch, a then-48 year-old rags-to-riches entrepreneur, was the owner of the Caesars—and his softball team powered its way through the APSPL to win consecutive championships in 1977 and 1978.

Ilitch (foreground, far left) celebrates the Detroit Caesars’ APSPL championship in 1977.

 

The aforementioned players live on forever in Detroit Caesars lore. There are websites about the team. The Caesars are a delicious footnote in Detroit sports history.

They played at Memorial Field in what was then known as East Detroit (Eastpointe now). To add some spice to Caesars games, Ilitch signed former Tigers Jim Northrup and Norm Cash as players in 1978.

Even back then, Mike Ilitch was signing big names. It was the start of his fetish for the high profile, superstar signings that dotted his ownership with the Red Wings and the Tigers.

I’m not certain, but I bet that Ilitch was the best owner in the APSPL.

But despite his success in pro softball, Ilitch was still largely a low-profile guy when his name started being bandied about as the potential new owner of the Red Wings in late-1981.

Ilitch at the time was known as a pizza baron—not as the championship-winning owner of the Detroit Caesars. Ilitch probably sold more Little Caesars pizzas in a week than the number of fans who went to his softball games during an entire season. If I’m exaggerating, it’s not by a lot.

The Red Wings had been owned by the Norris family for a quarter century, but the franchise had been in poor shape for several years when Ilitch inquired about its availability. The pizza baron and ex-minor league baseball player would have preferred to buy the Tigers, but John Fetzer hadn’t put the team up for sale.

Bruce Norris, however, was willing—indeed, even eager—to listen to potential buyers of his hockey team.

The Red Wings were a mess in the summer of 1982 when Ilitch was announced as the new owner. The team had qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs just once in the previous 12 years.

The price tag? Eight million dollars.

Today $8 million might buy you a third line forward or a utility infielder. But in 1982 bucks, eight million was a lot of money.

If Ilitch couldn’t have the Tigers, then the Red Wings, he figured, were the next best thing. So he scraped up the pizza dough to make the purchase from Norris.

Ilitch, when he bought the Red Wings, didn’t have Yzerman. He didn’t have Lidstrom. Heck, he really didn’t even have Kris Draper.

The dearth of talent on that 1982-83 Red Wings team was fascinating in its breadth. There were so few players that you’d pay to see, that Ilitch gave away cars in between periods to put some fannies into the seats. He ran other promotions designed to distract you from the disaster taking place on the ice.

It’s almost forgotten now, but Ilitch’s first Red Wings hire was probably his best Red Wings hire—ever.

Jimmy Devellano was a squeaky-voiced rink rat who helped build what would become a dynasty with the New York Islanders, first as the team’s scouting director and eventually as assistant GM to the great Bill Torrey.

The Isles had just won their third straight Stanley Cup when Ilitch tabbed Jimmy D to be the first GM of Ilitch’s Red Wings ownership.

Devellano took over what was, essentially, an expansion team in Detroit. That’s how far the Red Wings had fallen under the Norris family.

Ilitch hired Devellano, stayed out of Jimmy’s way, and let him do in Detroit what he had done on Long Island.

It was Devellano who hired Jacques Demers as coach in 1986, believing that Jacques was the right guy to coach the young talent that Jimmy D was cobbling together in Detroit. Demers was; the Red Wings made the Cup semi-finals in each of Jacques’ first two seasons.

And it was Devellano, by now Executive Vice President, who went to Ilitch in the summer of 1993 and told the owner that he had this old friend in hockey who could be gotten as coach. A man who Devellano first came to know when Jimmy worked for the St. Louis Blues as a young scout while his friend was the Blues coach.

That’s how Scotty Bowman became coach of the Red Wings.

Mike Ilitch wanted to win at all costs—literally and figuratively. No name was too big; no check was too expensive to write.

It worked with the Red Wings, to the tune of four Stanley Cups. The list of players who came through Joe Louis Arena during the Ilitch ownership reads like a mini Hockey Hall of Fame.

Image result for mike ilitch stanley cup 1997

20 years after the Caesars championship, Ilitch hoists the Stanley Cup on June 7, 1997.

No less than nine of the players listed recently in the Top 100 in NHL history played for the 2001-02 Red Wings—Ilitch’s third Cup-winning team. That’s astounding.

Ilitch drafted some of them but he signed a whole bunch of others as free agents. It was the era before the salary cap. And Mike Ilitch’s checkbook was whipped out more than excuses for being late.

It worked with the Red Wings but it didn’t quite with the Tigers, which Ilitch purchased in 1992.

The brass ring eluded Ilitch in baseball. I think he’d have swapped the four Cups for one World Series title but it wasn’t meant to be. The Tigers went to two WS (2006 and 2012) but did pratfalls in both, to the tune of a 1-8 combined record.

In one of his last public appearances, at the signing of pitcher Jordan Zimmermann a year ago November, Ilitch said, “I’m tired of just getting to the World Series. I want to win the damn thing.”

Mike Ilitch is dead. The World Series quest will go down as another dream of his unrealized.

But he built a pizza empire, won his softball and hockey championships, poured money into the city and made millions of folks proud to say they were from Detroit.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, in a statement released this evening, said of Ilitch’s passing, “The Red Wings have lost the consummate owner, the National Hockey League has lost a cherished friend and passionate builder, Detroit sports has lost a legend and the city of Detroit has lost not only a devoted native son but a visionary and driving force in the rebirth of downtown.”

Indeed.

Mike Ilitch just wanted to win. He wanted to win in professional softball. He wanted to win in the NHL. He wanted to win in MLB and he wanted to win for the city of Detroit. His commitment to doing so was unparalleled by any team owner in the city’s history. He may not always have spent his money wisely, but who ever has, when the ultimate prize was considered the be-all, end-all?

“When we hired Scotty Bowman, everything changed,” Ilitch once said.

Wrong.

Everything changed in the summer of 1982.

It was the best $8 million any man has ever spent.

 

Kissing cousins Magic, Isiah battled each other, then their respective teams

In Basketball on February 8, 2017 at 4:13 pm

Published February 8, 2017

The two combatants met at center court. At stake was the championship of the NBA.

Two point guards, both of them superstars on their respective teams. One of them had what the other one craved.

So they met at center court and…gave each other a peck on the cheek?

The bromance between Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Isiah Thomas was widely known when Magic’s Lakers and Isiah’s Pistons faced off for the 1988 NBA Championship.

Magic had been to the NBA’s mountaintop—four times. Isiah badly wanted to get there. His thirst for championship champagne was insatiable. The Pistons were steadily rising in the standings and making deeper runs in the playoffs since Thomas was drafted in 1981 and the Pistons began making the postseason every year, starting in 1984.

But…kissing?

Yes, kissing.

The affection ended, of course, as soon as the basketball was tipped off.

Early in the series in 1988, Isiah drove the lane. A Lakers player clobbered him with a forearm—a so-called “hard” foul. Isiah tumbled to the hardwood, wincing in pain. The same Lakers player who clobbered him offered a hand as Isiah struggled to his feet.

The Lakers player was Magic Johnson.

It was good, clean but tough basketball. The kind of basketball that Isiah and his “Bad Boys” teammates thrived on.

When Isiah saw that it was Magic who fouled him hard, the cherubic Pistons point guard smiled.

The series went on, for a full seven games. It was a fascinating, almost iconic Finals series.

Before each game, Magic and Isiah swapped pecks on the cheek.

Image result for isiah thomas magic johnson 1988 finals kissing

The most famous kisses of 1988 occurred before each game of the NBA Finals.

Magic’s Lakers survived, but not before Isiah thrilled the basketball world by scoring a Finals-record 25 points in the third quarter of Game 6 at the Forum—on a badly sprained ankle.

Seven pecks on the cheek but seven games of heavy, at times brutal competition.

The next year, the Lakers and Pistons reconvened in the Finals. Magic went down early with a hamstring injury and missed most of the series, which Isiah’s Pistons won in a four-game sweep.

Yes, there was more kissing in 1989, too.

The relationship between Magic and Isiah has always been strong.

The same can’t be said of their relationship with their respective teams, however.

It’s appropriate to talk about now, because tonight the Pistons will be recognizing Isiah’s memories of the Palace at halftime of what will be the Lakers’ last visit to the building. It’s quite possible that Magic Johnson will be somewhere in the house.

It’s quite possible because not only was Magic a huge part of the Pistons-Lakers rivalry of the late-1980s, he has also just been hired as a special adviser by the Lakers.

It’s unclear yet what Magic’s new role will entail. What’s not unclear is the criticism that Johnson has levied at the Lakers in the past.

It probably started when Magic was an ill-advised choice to coach the Lakers toward the end of the 1993-94 season, following his first retirement as a player. He went 5-11 as coach before realizing that his institutional knowledge and natural ability didn’t necessarily translate well to coaching. The hiring of Magic as coach tarnished his legacy a tad in Southern California.

Magic played again two years later before retiring for good. And since then he’s been, at times, a harsh critic of his old team—particularly the front office.

In the past, Magic has called for Lakers co-owner and executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss to relinquish power, has criticized Buss’ decisions to hire Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni as coaches, and has ripped Buss for failing to land marquee superstars.

But apparently that’s all forgiven, now that Johnson has been hired by Buss as a special adviser.

“I’m taking Magic at face value, that he’s here to help,” Jim Buss told ESPN. “He’s one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Who wouldn’t value his opinion? I’m excited to work with Magic for years to come.”

Magic and the Lakers have appeared to “kiss” (sorry) and make up.

Isiah’s relationship with the Pistons,while strong now, wasn’t always that way.

The rancor began when Isiah retired after the 1993-94 season. He jumped the gun and all but announced that he would be joining the Pistons’ front office after his playing days.

The trouble was that he hadn’t run that by owner Bill Davidson, who was miffed at the corner into which Isiah painted him.

Davidson didn’t hire Thomas, because there were personal changes the owner wanted Isiah to make, which weren’t made at the time of Thomas’ post-retirement declaration. Of all the owners who’ve run franchises in Detroit, Bill Davidson was the one you never dared cross.

Isiah never returned to the Pistons in any official capacity, and he still hasn’t, though his relationship with the current administration is fine and dandy, as exemplified by tonight’s festivities.

Since Isiah retired he’s had a strange, uneven career in NBA upper management and on the sidelines.

Isiah was a failure in Toronto, even more so with the Knicks and he had an underachieving team with the Pacers as coach until new executive Larry Bird, who was another fierce on-court competitor of Thomas’, relieved him of his duties in 2003.

There was also the time that Isiah ran the Continental Basketball Association into the ground.

Maybe Davidson was smart not to hire Isiah as an executive, after all.

But all that will be a thing of the distant past—as it should be—as the Pistons recognize Thomas (and, to a degree, Magic and the Lakers) tonight.

The clashes between Isiah and Magic will never be forgotten in these parts—nor will they in Los Angeles, I declare.

They were superstars and friends who battled hard on the court but who, at times, battled their respective franchises almost as hard.

Magic is back with the Lakers. Will Isiah ever return to the Pistons in an official capacity?

Not likely, but that’s water under the bridge.

I bet Magic and Isiah, if the former shows up, exchange pecks on the cheek again tonight.

Just like old times.

Forty years, by George! Pistons’ broadcasting icon finally gets his own night

In announcers, Basketball on February 5, 2017 at 4:51 pm

Published February 5, 2017

In the world of the sports broadcaster, it’s not enough to call the action as is.

Take pro basketball, for example, in the World According to George Blaha.

A layup isn’t a layup; it’s a “bunny.”

A dunk isn’t a dunk; it’s a “flush.”

If the clock reads 2:43 remaining, it’s “two and forty-three left.”

A three point attempt is “gunning from downtown.”

If it’s good, it’s “through.”

If it’s not, it’s simply “no.”

A deke toward the basket is a “shake and bake.”

Even the basketball itself isn’t just a ball—it’s “the rock.”

All the Pistons on the floor are referred to by their first names; the other guys are referenced by surnames. “Reggie to Tobias at the wing. He takes it to the rack, dishes it to Andre. Hook shot—got it!”

A Pistons player makes a basket and is fouled, so it’s “Count that baby AND a foul!”

The downer when it comes to local broadcasters is that they never get to call the franchise’s biggest moments on television—which is where most of the iconic calls happen. The local guys get relegated to radio—at best—while the national announcers take over on the tube.

So we never got to hear, on television, Blaha, who’s more than 40 years into his Pistons broadcasting career, call Vinnie Johnson’s celebrated shot to clinch the 1990 Finals in Portland. And that’s just one example.

Blaha first called Pistons games at venerable Cobo Arena in 1976. It was a long time and two arenas ago. Soon to be three, as the Pistons prepare to play in Little Caesars Arena downtown next season.

I was a blossoming pro basketball fan at age 13 when I first tuned into Blaha on the radio, where he began. Television was still several years away for him, and the Pistons weren’t on the telly all that much anyhow in those days.

I remember being in my bedroom in Livonia to hear Blaha as he called the action from Cobo. That 1976-77 Pistons team was one of my favorites.

It was a team filled with internal dissension and was coached by the vagabond Herb Brown. Herbie had four guards and they all bitched about playing time. The most contentious relationship was between Herbie and Kevin Porter, the angry, frenetic point guard.

They won 44 games and made the playoffs for the fourth straight year, but what made that team special to me was its place as the first I remember following seriously on the radio.

Much, if not all of that, was due to Blaha.

I didn’t know much about broadcasters at age 13, except that I sometimes liked to turn the sound down on the TV while watching Red Wings games and pretend I was Bruce Martyn calling the action. I even talked into a tape recorder my parents got me for Christmas one year.

I used to imitate George Kell’s Tigers calls (under my breath) while hitting fungoes with my whiffle ball and bat.

But I wasn’t much of a Pistons fan until Blaha started describing the action at Cobo. There was just something about his style.

It was his enthusiasm, for one.

I would be in my bedroom and I could envision the action and the small crowd watching it as Blaha painted the picture, which I guess is what every good radio guy is supposed to do.

Wonderful names from the past: Bob Lanier, Porter, Ralph Simpson, Chris Ford, Eric Money, M.L. Carr.

Lanier, the Hall of Fame center, was “The Dobber” (derived from Bob-a-Dob). Kevin Porter was “KP.” Howard Porter was “The Geezer.”

Blaha made the NBA thrilling to me on the radio in my adolescent years. But I had no idea what sort of treasure I had unearthed.

I had no idea that, some 40 years later—or as Blaha would say “Forty and six months”—George would still be calling Pistons games, much less with three NBA titles under his belt.

When I first tuned into the Pistons, the thought of them winning anything more than a freaking playoff game was mere fantasy, much less capturing the whole ball of wax.

Blaha has seen it all with the Pistons, and for a franchise with a past as checkered as theirs is, that’s saying a lot.

Let’s start with the coaches.

There was the mod, leisure suit with no socks Herbie Brown, whose rift with KP eventually turned physical until the Pistons had no choice but to trade the point guard.

There was the GM-turned-coach Bob Kauffman, a wine connoisseur and man of fashion, just a few years removed from being a player.

Kauffman gave way to bombastic Dickie Vitale.

The coaching roll after Vitale reads: Richie Adubato. Scotty Robertson. Chuck Daly. Ron Rothstein. Don Chaney. Doug Collins. Alvin Gentry. George Irvine. Rick Carlisle. Larry Brown. Flip Saunders. Michael Curry. John Kuester. Lawrence Frank. Maurice Cheeks. John Loyer. Stan Van Gundy.

That’s 20 men prowling the Pistons sidelines, and George Blaha called just about every one of their games. Since 1976, Blaha has missed only three games due to illness. He’s pretty much been the Cal Ripken, Jr. of announcers in that regard.

Blaha is also a helluva football broadcaster, and has been the only announcer most Michigan State fans have ever known.

His MSU duties have meant occasional Pistons conflicts, so he’s missed basketball games due to that, but that’s with an asterisk if you ask me.

Image result for george blaha

Blaha started his Piston broadcasting career by calling games on WJR radio in 1976.

In addition to the coaching carousel, Blaha has broadcast during times of franchise despair (16-66 in 1979-80) and triumph (those three NBA championships). He’s seen the team play in cozy but mostly empty Cobo, the cavernous and cold Silverdome and the luxurious Palace.

Blaha has described the exploits of Hall of Famers Lanier, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and a host of other Pistons greats and benchwarmers.

But regardless of the players’ places in the NBA’s pecking order, when they became Pistons, Blaha was on a first-name basis with them on the air. It’s a subtlety but very Blaha.

And let’s not forget the nicknames—some of which that Blaha himself coined.

The Worm. Spider. The Microwave. The Palace Prince. Special K. Joe D. And many more.

In a town that’s been blessed with the likes of Martyn, Ernie Harwell, Kell and—for the oldtimer Lions fan—Van Patrick, George Blaha is the icon who remains with us, still going strong after four decades behind the Pistons mike. (Martyn is still alive and well, but retired for over 20 years).

Blaha was elected to the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 2010, but on Friday night during halftime at the Palace, the Pistons will honor Blaha for his 40-plus years calling games. A bobblehead likeness of George—and it’s a pretty darn good one—will be given away to the first 10,000 fans.

“I’m very honored. And much appreciative that the Pistons would do that,” Blaha said the other night after broadcast partner Gregory Kelser read the promo for Friday’s festivities.

“Much deserved, George,” Kelser said.

Count that baby!