Published Sept. 30, 2018
If Chicago is the Second City, then what must Detroit be—when it comes to sports?
I came of age as a sports fan in Motown in the 1970s, which was a decade hardly known for its success when it came to the Tigers, Lions, Pistons and Red Wings.
None of the four pro teams in town did much to turn you on.
The Tigers made the playoffs in 1972 with an aging core still left over from 1968, but that was the only pennant chase in the decade. If not for Mark Fidrych’s magical 1976 season, the rest of the ’70s would have been pretty much insufferable.
The Lions made the playoffs in 1970, but naturally lost a playoff game in Dallas in which they did not surrender a touchdown (5-0). The rest of the decade? The definition of spinning wheels. The Lions of the ’70s were mostly star-less, and records like 7-7 or 6-8 were the norm.
The Pistons had some token playoff appearances in the ’70s but only once did they advance beyond the first round. The decade ended with the horror that was Dickie Vitale.
The Red Wings were stumbling through years torn asunder by Darkness With Harkness, tripping over the blue line on a nightly basis. The team made the playoffs once in the entire decade (1977-78). Most of the time, the Red Wings were an organizational mess, an Original Six team that was a league laughing stock.
Drab ’70s about to return home to roost
In a decade that gave us the Pet Rock, the Mood Ring and bell bottoms, Detroit’s sports teams were an abomination as well.
But in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s, the putrid decade of the 1970s, which around Detroit was awful for more than just fashion and taste, became a distant memory—something you looked back upon and winced about, but were thankful that those days were in the rear view mirror.
That’s because in each of those decades, a Detroit team won at least one championship.
The 2010s are almost done—yes, it’s hard to believe but true—and while there were no titles involved, we at least saw a Tigers World Series appearance, some Lions playoff games (all losses, natch) and mostly competitive Red Wings teams. The Pistons? Next question, please.
But my friends, they say that fashion goes through cycles. What used to be “out” becomes “in” again. That’s not always a good thing, but there you go.
I fear that the 1970s are about to cycle back to us on the Detroit sports landscape. Check that. They’re already here.
Look around the Woodward corridor that houses our teams. Cass Corridor is more appropriate.
Where are all the stars? In other cities
If it seems like all the other teams in all the other cities have all the good, exciting, young superstars in the respective sports, it’s not your imagination.
The Tigers capped Year One of their dreaded rebuild by getting swept by the playoff-bound Brewers. A major culprit on the Milwaukee nine over the weekend was Christian Yelich, a Triple Crown threat. Yelich is 26 and, free from the shackles of playing for the Miami Marlins, appears to be on the verge of superstar status.
The Lions did their Lions thing and pulled defeat from the jaws of victory in Dallas on Sunday. A major culprit on the Cowboys platoon was Ezekiel Elliott, whose over-the-shoulder, 34-yard grab stuck a dagger in the Lions’ hearts. Elliott, 23, accounted for well over 200 yards from scrimmage.
The Red Wings aren’t expected to go anywhere but to the golf courses after this upcoming season is played out. They don’t possess, yet, any elite players in the NHL. Their youngsters are a work in progress, though to be fair, a few seem to be trending upward.
The Pistons are hoping that the Blake Griffin of 2018 magically becomes the Blake Griffin of 2013 on the 15th and 30th of each month, when they cut the team’s payroll checks. The team hasn’t had a young, dynamic NBA superstar since, well, you have to go back to Isiah Thomas in 1981, truth be told.
All the other cities seem to have all the other young, exciting players and none of the Detroit teams have anyone truly close to that status.
Granted, that’s the game plan with the Tigers and the Red Wings—to stockpile youth and develop them. Those teams at least have some semblance of a blueprint. But there are no guarantees, of course. And the Tigers’ 64-98 record was pretty much what was expected of a roster filled with Four-A players, aging veterans and fuzzy-faced rookies.
The Pistons and Lions? They’ve been scrambling to make over their respective rosters on the fly for the past 8-10 years but simply haven’t come close to cobbling together a unit that is capable of making a serious mark in their respective leagues. And no young, dynamic superstars that create a nationwide buzz.
The future of Detroit sports is, at best, uncertain. At worst? Let’s try not to go there.
The road to nowhere
So how did we get here?
Everyone got old, retired and nobody filled their shoes. That’s pretty much the nuts and bolts of it.
Poor drafts, questionable free agent signings, patience invested in certain players that wasn’t rewarded—all that, and more, conspired to turn the Detroit sports landscape into the vast wasteland that it is today. It’s been the slowest acting nuclear bomb ever dropped on a city.
The 1970s was a drab decade for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with sports. But in Motown, the uniformed heroes injected an extra special pain into the veins of the town’s faithful.
Aside from Fidrych, none of the four teams really had any player, among them, that was worth the price of the admission from 1970-79. Certainly none that got national ink for their exploits.
The landscape now is frightful in its similarities to the ’70s.
Coaching changes left and right. Losing cultures that need to be exorcised. The lack of superstars. A city full of “meh” rosters.
It’s becoming annoying to live vicariously through other teams’ stars.
Hope. It’s not a four-letter word. It’s all the Detroit sports fan has got.
Hope that among the multitudes of Tigers prospects, there’s a few who can turn the city on in the near future.
Hope that of all the kids that the Red Wings are grooming, they’ll eventually do for the city what the Stanley Cup heroes of yesteryear did.
Hope that the Lions and Pistons can end the revolving door madness, establish an identity and win something for a change.
Hope. It’s all we got. Because we sure don’t have superstars in this town.
They play on all the other teams.