Greg Eno

Archive for the ‘Tigers’ Category

The Roller Coaster Grinds To A Halt

In Tigers, Todd Jones on September 28, 2008 at 1:02 pm

A sports era ended in Detroit this week. Perhaps you heard of it. It was a time that had people wringing their hands and double-checking the supply of antacid in their medicine cabinets. Sports talk radio just got a little quieter.

One of the city’s perceived athletic villains is no more.

No, this isn’t about Matt Millen, the ex-Lions president who was “relieved of his duties” on Wednesday. I only have about 900 words left, after all.

Todd Jones isn’t a roller coaster, but he played one on the baseball diamond.

They say Ernie Harwell gave Jones the nickname.

“Here comes Roller Coaster Jones,” Ernie supposedly said into his microphone, back in the earlier days of Jones’s Tigers career. Because with Jones, the closer and the Tigers’ all-time leader in saves who retired on Thursday, it was hardly ever three up and three down in the ninth. It was up and down and around and down and up and across and down – and then the Tigers were on the field, shaking hands after Jones put everyone through the ringer.

Just like a roller coaster. It was yet another of Ernie’s apt nicknames.

But there’s great irony in the moniker, because if ever there is someone who’s so NOT a roller coaster, as a person, it’s Todd Jones.

Why in the world someone would want to be a closer for a baseball team, I’ll never know. You sit in the bullpen for eight innings, sometimes freezing your fanny off, and then, after some two-and-a-half hours of your team clawing and fighting, you’re asked to warm up and, basically, you’ll have one of two outcomes by the time the game is over: hero or goat. Nothing in between. Sometimes a minion will hand the closer a warm up jacket as he departs the bullpen for the pitching mound; he might as well hand him a blindfold and a cigarette.

You save the game for your team, or you blow it. No gray areas. And no one cares if a couple of the base hits were of the bloop variety, or that the umpire squeezed the strike zone, or your shortstop couldn’t come up with the ground ball that had “game-ending double play” written all over it. If you need to get four outs instead of three thanks to your team’s leaky defense, then so be it. Just do it.

It’s a job that has destroyed lesser men than Jones. Literally.

Donnie Moore was the California Angels’ closer in 1986. His team was on the brink of going to the World Series, about ready to nail the coffin shut on the Boston Red Sox. Moore was one out away from saving the clinching game in the ALCS that year. He entered Game 5 in the top of the ninth with a one-run lead and a man on first base. But then Boston’s Dave Henderson drilled a home run off Moore deep into the left field seats, and the Red Sox moved in front, 6-5. The Angels tied the game in their half of the ninth, but the Red Sox won it in extra innings. And they would rally to win the ALCS in seven games.

Games 6 and 7 wouldn’t have been necessary, if only Donnie Moore hadn’t given up that home run. Or so it was written, and talked about, and screamed and cried about, in the days that ensued. Boston’s Bill Buckner and his horrific gaffe a couple weeks later in the World Series took Moore off the front pages. Or so we thought.

Moore let the Henderson home run haunt him. Terrorize him, really. The fans and the media were no help, of course – but then, they never are in situations like that. Moore pitched the 1987 and ’88 seasons, but with not nearly the effectiveness as his pre-Henderson home run days. The Angels released their one-time closer in August, ’88.

Then one July morning in 1989, another baseball season in full swing, the news came in: Donnie Moore was dead. Of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 35. Think about that for a moment. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

So don’t tell me that pitchers who close baseball games aren’t a little goofy, to want to do something as thankless as that.

Todd Jones heard it all in Detroit, especially during his second stint here, which began in 2006 and ended with Thursday’s announcement.

He stinks! He’s costing us! He couldn’t close a door!

Get rid of him!

Jones, you see, wasn’t the prototypical closer by the time he returned to Detroit in his late-thirties. He was, as they say, a pitcher who “pitches to contact”, which is a nice way of saying, “he couldn’t strike out Stevie Wonder even if you spotted Jonesey an 0-2 count.” Jones’s style was to let the batter hit the ball, and hope for the best. That’s not as ill-conceived as it reads. His control was usually pretty good, so you didn’t have to worry about walks. And, he was usually ahead in the count, which meant he held the upper hand in numerous at-bats. But he wasn’t the brute who storms into the game, treating the affair with disdain and acting as if the opposing hitters are making him late for a date with a Playboy bunny after the game. Jones didn’t have that closer’s scowl or the temperament of a hibernating bear being nudged awake. In fact, the way he chewed his gum so fervently on the mound, you got the impression that he was just as nervous as we were. He wasn’t Don Quixote. He was Don Knotts.

Jones closed games as if he was waiting for everyone who had been in line at the concessions, or in the little boys room, to return to their seats, so as not to miss the final out. He didn’t know the meaning of one-two-three, unless it was in terms of how many base runners he was going to surrender before finally ending the matter.

Now, about that irony of which I spoke earlier.

If Jones was a roller coaster on the field, he was a Ferris Wheel in the clubhouse: slow, comfortable, and reliable.

Part of the closer’s job is to field questions from the media, especially when things don’t turn out so well. Then you’re staring at a bunch of bottom feeders in the face who want to know, “Hey, what happened out there?”

I’ve been one of those bottom feeders, and I can tell you that Jones never ran and hid from any of us. If he stunk, he said he stunk. No excuses. No sugar-coating. And no flashes of anger, even after some obnoxiously stupid questions. He manned up.

Oh, and I should tell you that, a few years ago, Todd Jones helped set up a trust fund for a paralyzed high school football player in Jones’s native Georgia. Paid for a new wheelchair ramp and everything for the kid’s home. Jones said that watching the young man battle his horrible misfortune gave him pause.

But you probably didn’t read about that, did you?

Well, now you have.

Tigers’ Willis A Self-Microcosm Of Disappointing Season

In Dontrelle Willis, Tigers on August 24, 2008 at 4:11 pm

Dontrelle Willis would be having a great season – if the plate was high and outside.

I apologize to the unknown baseball observer whose words I have semi-pirated, when he was talking about a young Sandy Koufax in the 1950s. Koufax, before becoming one of the best pitchers of his time, had control problems when he first reached the major leagues – wildness that he had difficulty wrangling in the minor leagues. And it was that lack of command that led to the line from which I unashamedly stole for my opening sentence.

“Koufax would be a great pitcher if the plate was high and outside.”

Sandy Koufax got his control together, and did very well with home plate where it has always been, thank you.

Willis is a Detroit Tigers pitcher, and that’s not just a rumor. Only, he’s not really a Tigers pitcher. He’s a Toledo Mud Hens pitcher. Before that, he was a Lakeland Tigers pitcher. Last year, he was a Florida Marlins pitcher. Just a few years ago, he was considered one of the top young pitchers in the big leagues. The fact that he’s left-handed made him all the more of a precious commodity.

Today, Willis struggles mightily to get minor league hitters out, mainly because he often has no clue where the ball is going. His apparently sudden loss of control is stunning, if not frightening. This sort of thing has ruined promising careers in the past.

When the Tigers acquired Willis along with Miguel Cabrera from the Marlins last December for top drawer prospects Andrew Miller (LHP) and Cameron Maybin (OF), the trade was a bona fide blockbuster. Cabrera is a beast – a 25-year-old manster who’s good for 30+ HRs and 100+ RBI for the next 10 years, at least. If not more. And Willis is a 26-year-old lefty who’s already thrown over 1,000 big league innings, and with a fine 3.78 career ERA. The move looked to put the Tigers over the hump and put the rubber stamp on a playoff appearance in 2008, and for many years beyond. The team was gutting the cash-strapped Marlins, absconding with their two biggest stars.

Cabrera has pretty much held up his end of the deal, despite an atrocious start. He has 27 HRs and 99 RBI after slugging two homers in Friday night’s win over the Kansas City Royals.

On Wednesday, Willis made his second start for the AAA Mud Hens, after sort of earning a promotion from the Class A Lakeland team. Truth be told? Willis was moved up to AAA because, well, you simply don’t keep multi-millionaire pitchers in Class A for too long; it’s embarrassing for everyone involved. He didn’t really earn it with his performances, though they reportedly improved in tiny increments.

In that start Wednesday, Willis threw five innings, surrendered three runs, and – here’s the troubling part – walked five batters. Tigers manager Jim Leyland, as usual, minced no words, sugarcoated nothing, when he said flatly, “It wasn’t a good outing.”

There were no hints, really, that Willis had control issues when the Tigers traded for him. In 1,022 big league innings thru the end of last season, Willis has walked 344 batters. The calculator tells us that such a ratio is about 3.0 walks per nine innings – hardly alarming. But since joining the Tigers organization, Willis has been nothing but wild and exasperating. The control problems surfaced in spring training, but it was hoped that they were the bi-product of switching teams and simply having a poor spring. Then Willis made his first start of the season on the first Saturday of the 2008 campaign, and while he didn’t give up many hits, he walked a bunch. Then he started again, and hurt his leg in the first inning. Then he returned, started again, and once again there was a parade of opposing hitters jogging to first base after taking ball four.

The Tigers sent him down to the minors – wayyyy down, all the way to the bottom feeding team in Lakeland, which plays in a league mainly for rookies and second-year prospects. It’s an instructional league, certainly not one where you’d expect to find a 26-year-old pitcher with 1,000 big league innings under his belt. But Willis was so off the mark with his control, so messed up, it was thought, with his mechanics, that Tigers brass felt only the instructors and baseball scientists in Lakeland could put him back on track.

It worked, as I said, sort of. Hence the promotion to Toledo – one step away from the big leagues. So close yet so far, in the case of Dontrelle Willis.

There’s no indication that Willis will throw another pitch for the Tigers this season – even when the rosters are expanded to 40 players on September 1. He really hasn’t slain his control dragon. There’s still wonderment when Willis throws the ball, as to where it will end up. Usually it’s not in the strike zone.

I’m not the first to draw this comparison, but it’s hard not to think of Steve Blass.

Blass was a Pirates pitcher in the early-1970s who helped lead the Bucs to the 1971 World Series championship. In 1972, Blass pitched nearly 250 innings and won 19 games, with an ERA of under 3.00. He had no control problems. Like Willis, Blass averaged about three walks per nine innings. But the next year, Blass lost it. He pitched 89 innings and walked, get this, 84 batters – the same amount he walked in 250 innings the year previous. He tried to pitch again in ’74 but walked seven in five innings. His career ended, at age 32. His curious and sudden loss of command and control helped spawn a new term, Steve Blass Syndrome. SBS became the terminology whenever a pitcher suffered from sudden loss of control.

Dontrelle Willis was supposed to be an integral part of the Tigers rotation this year. He was supposed to be one of the many reasons why the team was to overwhelm its opponents and cruise to the World Series. He was supposed to continue his path to greatness, the path he forged in Florida. Now he can’t even throw a strike with any consistency. It’s not overstating things to suggest that he may have SBS and will never pitch in the big leagues again – at least with any degree of success.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way, but neither was the Tigers season as a whole. Willis symbolizes that by his lonesome.

"Shocking" Pudge Deal Not So Much, After First Inspection

In Pudge Rodriguez, Tigers on July 31, 2008 at 4:45 pm

(I’m cheating today. This post also appears on my baseball blog, Where Have You Gone, Johnny Grubb?)

It’s the nature of the big baseball trade that the first reaction is shock. Sometimes how you find out about it adds to that aura.

There I was, sitting in a restaurant, having a nice early dinner out — giving my wife the night off from cooking during our daughter’s band camp week, at which Sharon has been volunteering every day at the high school. Hanging from the ceiling was a television — its volume down but the closed captions running along the bottom of the screen. Channel 7’s guy was on — I don’t know anyone’s names anymore — and there were the words “Pudge heads for New York” scrolling as the talking head spoke. Not knowing what that meant, it became clear moments later, when Pudge Rodriguez’s photo was superimposed on the screen, over the talking head’s shoulder. And the words “Pudge traded!” was its caption.

My jaw literally dropped — so much so that my family asked me what on Earth I was reacting about.

It’s also the nature of the big baseball trade that, once the shock dissipates, and once you start thinking rationally, most “shocking” trades aren’t all that shocking. In fact, some of them make some pretty damn good sense.

It was revealed yesterday, in the wake of Rodriguez’s trade to the New York Yankees for reliever Kyle “I Used To Be a Tiger” Farnsworth, that no one in the Tigers’ inner sanctum is shocked that Pudge is gone. If only because the team committed, a “couple weeks ago”, according to manager Jim Leyland, to the notion that Rodriguez would not be a Tiger in 2009. Pudge’s multi-year deal is in its last year, and the cost to bring him back would likely have been quite high, even as he approaches his 37th birthday.

Going further, GM Dave Dombrowski said that Brandon Inge has been tabbed as the new everyday catcher, starting immediately, and extending into next season, at least. That decision, also, was made quite some time ago. So, no shock in the executive offices when the team was able to consummate a deal for Pudge.

So the more I thought about it, the more I can understand the Tigers’ perspective. The bullpen is in dire need of help. Farnsworth provides that. Leyland said it best.

“No disrespect to Brandon or Pudge, but whether we make the playoffs isn’t going to be decided by who the catcher is,” he told FSN Detroit before yesterday’s game. “Pitching will decide that,” he added.


That much was once again placed into an evidence bag last night.

Closer-for-now Fernando Rodney got all Todd Jones-ish and surrendered a game-tying home run in the bottom of the 9th to Kelly “Babe Ruth” Shoppach, who had himself one of those nights that his children’s children will be hearing about, ad nauseam: five hits, all for extra bases, including two home runs. And another late-inning lead, one that the Tigers worked so hard to grab, had vanished in an instant. As if Leyland (and we) needed another case study as to why bullpen reinforcements are so badly required.

If the price to nab at least some of that help comes at the cost of an expensive catcher on the back end of his career and in the last year of his fat contract, then maybe we can all live with that. Pudge Rodriguez was a good Tiger, better than I thought, to be honest. I had some serious reservations in 2005, starting when he showed up to spring training much slimmer and in a nasty mood. He wore a sour puss most of the season, and was widely regarded as being no big fan of manager Alan Trammell. But after Leyland arrived, Rodriguez seemed happier, and he was as big a reason as any why the Tigers made it all the way to the World Series.

Oh, and a word about his coming to Detroit in 2004. Yes, it was a great thing for the franchise, coming on the heels of that 119-loss season. But think back. Despite winning the World Series with Florida in 2003, Rodriguez was 31 and with recent history of back trouble. He didn’t have all that many suitors lining up for his services. The Cubs were mentioned. The Marlins showed lukewarm interest. The Orioles came up in discussion. But no team was remotely as desperate — or as willing to overpay — as the Tigers were. They needed Rodriguez, for sure, but he didn’t have too many other options, either. Not trying to splatter on him, just wanting to set the record straight — because you’ll be reading constantly about how Rodriguez rode into Detroit like a knight in shining armor. You won’t read as much, me thinks, about how few teams needed such a knight — at the cost the Tigers were willing to pay.

But that’s not taking anything away from Rodriguez’s time in Detroit. It was properly mentioned that not once did he spend any time on the DL during his 4+ seasons here. For a 30+ catcher with a supposed bad back, that’s something. And he pretty much maintained a .300 BA and played above average defense. There aren’t too many everyday catchers who can do both those things.

This was, at first glance, a shocking deal. Not so much, once you think about it. Pudge will be missed, but as Leyland said — the catcher isn’t going to determine whether the Tigers make the playoffs. Those throwing to the catcher will determine that.

Always A Roll Of The Dice When You Add Latecomers To The Mix

In Baseball, Tigers, trades on July 13, 2008 at 3:01 pm

Something funny goes on in Major League Baseball along this time of the summer. As the calendar charges forward to the end of July, the 30 teams get funneled into two categories. And we stop talking about them as baseball teams and start referring to them in Wall Street terms.

Buyers? Sellers?

The deadline for consummating trades between teams without players having to pass thru waivers is July 31. Once the clock strikes midnight on that day, any trade that is made after that point becomes less likely to come to fruition, because all involved players must make it thru the waiver process – meaning that every team in the majors must take a pass on said players, which is not always likely. It’s kind of like going to a garage sale, finding a great deal on a lamp, and having to ask everyone else if they want it – and everyone saying no, before you can purchase it.

The Tigers have been “buyers” the last two seasons – meaning they have something to play for in August and September, and thus are looking to add to their roster. The have-nots – aka the “sellers” – can get into fire sale mode, wanting to peddle as many players (read: contracts) as they can, usually to acquire prospects. And when the buyers and sellers get together on or around July 31, the rumble can be seismic.

But this season, there seems to be some question as to whether the Tigers should consider themselves buyers. Yet, they would appear not to be sellers, either – not with their cache of huge contracts and the recent purging of their farm system. But in baseball when it comes to the trading deadline, you’re either a buyer or a seller. Nothing in between. So let’s call them buyers.

Jim Campbell, the crusty general manager of the Tigers from the early-1960s to the early-1980s, sort of made it his habit to secure latecomers for his manager, trying to give Chuck Dressen or Mayo Smith or Billy Martin or Sparky Anderson those extra horses needed to nip the pack. And as what happens when you are a “buyer”, you must beware. Sometimes those horses come up lame.

Not so in 1972.

Martin was at the helm in Detroit, working his usual magic, and pissing people off in the process – namely, his own players. Nobody could make a closer replica of chicken salad out of chicken feathers than the hyper Martin, and nobody could grate on his players’ nerves quite like Billy, either. Jim Northrup, for one, once told me that he never hated a manager as much as he hated Billy Martin. But check out Northrup’s numbers while Billy was here. Not shabby – which speaks to the professionalism of Northrup, and the fire-lighting ability of Martin.

Martin’s tenure in Detroit (1971-73) was marked with aging veterans and precious few legitimate prospects being groomed at the minor league level. Basically, Billy was asked to coax one more championship out of the core that made up the 1968 World Series-winning team. And he darn near did it in 1972 – with some help from Campbell.

As four teams jockeyed back and forth for the divisional lead – the Tigers, Red Sox, Yankees, and Orioles – Campbell went to work, burning up the phone lines talking to his counterparts who were that year’s “sellers”.

From Philadelphia came lefty pitcher Woodie Fryman. Duke Sims, a catcher/outfielder, was acquired from the Dodgers. Frank Howard came over from the Texas Rangers.

Fryman was sensational, going 10-3 down the stretch for the Tigers. Sims provided clutch hits and batted over .300 after the trade. And Howard, who didn’t join the team until mid-September, hit a couple home runs and became the team’s no. 1 cheerleader. All that was left was for Martin to push the right buttons – and he did so, including those of his players, on occasion. The Tigers won the East by a half-game over the Red Sox, then fell, 3-to-2, to the Oakland A’s in the ALCS.

In 1988, Bill Lajoie tried to supply Sparky with some of those extra horses. And it involved some manic air travel.

On August 31 – the last day players can be acquired and still be eligible for a playoff roster – Lajoie worked out one of those waiver deals with the Baltimore Orioles. Coming to the Tigers would be 36-year-old outfielder Fred Lynn – a bona fide All-Star in his heyday. Only, this wasn’t his heyday – hence him clearing waivers.

Anyhow, Lajoie makes the trade, but according to MLB rules, Lynn must be in the same city the Tigers are in by midnight that night, or else he can’t be eligible for the playoffs. In other words, he has to literally join the team before the clock strikes twelve. Sort of a twisted, baseball version of Cinderella. The Tigers are in Milwaukee, and Lynn’s Orioles were on the west coast when the trade was made. So Freddie hops some planes and lands in Milwaukee a tad before midnight. I’m not making this up.

This SI cover’s headline had even more meaning when the Tigers dealt for Lynn in 1988

Lynn is eligible after all. He hits some home runs in September, plays some good defense, and basically holds up his end of the bargain. But the Tigers end up in second place, one game out of first place, when the season’s curtain comes down. Not enough extra horse power, apparently.

In 1993, Jerry Walker is the Tigers GM and he pries another one-time superstar past his prime, outfielder Eric Davis, from the Dodgers on trade deadline day. Davis easily makes it to Detroit in time, and hits a home run in his first game as a Tiger. But the Toronto Blue Jays have more and better horses, and leave the Tigers in the dust.

Two summers ago, the Tigers rescued Sean Casey from the Pirates. In the World Series, Casey was easily the Tigers’ best hitter, going 9-for-17 with a couple of homers. Last season, the Tigers – although considered buyers by most – stood pat, satisfied with their horses. But too many of them came up lame, and before you knew it, the Tigers were done – shoved ingloriously out of playoff contention by the Indians and Yankees.

This year, the Tigers are fiddling around with .500 and they’re on the cusp of being sellers, but they probably consider themselves buyers, if they’re wearing their rose-colored glasses. Trouble is, glasses or not, one thing never changes.

Caveat emptor.

Like Martin Did, Maybe Time For Leyland To Pull A Rabbit Out Of His Hat

In Billy Martin, Jim Leyland, Tigers on May 11, 2008 at 2:32 pm

Eddie Brinkman was a fine fielding shortstop, one of the best of his time. He once played nearly half a season – 72 games – without committing an error. His glove was about as dependable as you’ll ever find.

The only problem with Brinkman was that he couldn’t hit a lick. He might as well have been swinging a limp noodle at the plate, rather than a piece of lumber. Edwin Albert Brinkman had nearly 6,000 official at-bats in the big leagues, and finagled them to the tune of a lifetime .224 average. In 1972, playing everyday for the Tigers, Brinkman managed a .203 mark – his steady glove keeping him in Billy Martin’s lineup. He had six home runs in 516 at-bats.

So you can only imagine the stunned looks on the faces of Tigers fans who crowded into Tiger Stadium on August 13, 1972 when it was announced over the public address system by the late, great Joe Gentile: “Batting fourth, playing shortstop, number 8, Eddie Brinkman.”

Eddie Brinkman??!! Batting cleanup? The spot of Horton and Killebrew and Aaron and Stargell? Skinny Eddie Brinkman, the man with the Golden Glove and the aluminum foil bat?

Today’s Tigers manager, Jim Leyland, has been reaching deep into his bag of tricks while his talented team struggles under the pressure of too much pre-season praise and regular season underachievement. He’s tried players switching positions. He’s tried yelling and screaming. He’s tried reminding them that they’re good. He’s tried players changing spots in the batting order.

Ahh, that last one – Martin tried that, too. But his method was a bit less scientific. And it’s why Brinkman was the Tigers’ cleanup hitter that August day.

The ’72 Tigers were an old, fragmenting team, still built around the core of the 1968 world champs. Precious few new, young players were being injected into the lineup, mainly because the Tigers’ farm system wasn’t growing any. And it was Martin’s charge to cajole this group of aging vets into one more act of triumph. That he pulled it off should go down as one of the greatest managerial displays ever seen in Detroit. But then again, no one said Billy couldn’t manage. I certainly never did.

So when Martin’s graybeards lost five out of six to slip into second place behind the Baltimore Orioles in the divisional race, Martin had an idea. And when Billy had an idea, there really wasn’t anything that was going to stop him from implementing it. Such headstrongness cost him a few jobs – in many different cities.

What would happen, Martin wondered, if he selected his next batting order out of a hat?

That’s right.

Place the names of the eight position players (there was no DH in 1972) into a baseball cap, and have someone reach in and pluck the names out. And that would be today’s batting order. No joke.

So Martin did that, and here’s what resulted:

1. Norm Cash 1B
2. Jim Northrup RF
3. Willie Horton LF
4. Eddie Brinkman SS
5. Tony Taylor 2B
6. Duke Sims C
7. Mickey Stanley CF
8. Aurelio Rodriguez 3B
9. Woodie Fryman P

Martin’s experiment could have been even more skewed, really. Besides Stormin’ Norman Cash batting leadoff (that was weird) and Brinkman hitting fourth, the rest of the lineup wasn’t all that out of whack.

Oh, and the Tigers won, beating the Indians 3-2 – Cash with two hits and Brinkman doubling home a run. Told ya Billy could manage a little bit.

Martin’s impulsiveness worked; will Jim Leyland follow suit?

Martin worked his magic through the end of the regular season, nudging his old-timers a half-game ahead of the Boston Red Sox to claim the AL East flag. Then they lost a heartbreaking ALCS, 3 games to 2, to the Oakland A’s. No more lineups drawn out of a hat, but maybe there should have been.

Jim Leyland won’t resort to such chicanery – I don’t think – in order to shake his team out of its malaise, which is now entering its second month. Leyland’s impulsive at times, but he’s no Billy Martin in that sense. Few ever were.

The other night, his Tigers again going gently into the night with nary a whimper, Leyland tried yet another tactic as he spoke into the tape recorders and microphones from behind his desk. He, in one breath, combined sober self-reflection with hope and optimism.

“It’s not that anybody’s not trying. We’re a slow team. When he don’t hit we look lethargic. But we’re a good team. I believe that. But it’s not because of lack of effort.”

The game before, the Tigers awoke from their daze long enough to rally for a 10-9 victory over the vaunted Red Sox. They did it against closer Jonathon Papelbon, who’s a genuine door slammer. Then they went back into hibernation the next night, prompting Leyland to wax sage and wise.

It’s only May 10, and Jim Leyland has run through most of his gamut with his maddening ball club.

But he hasn’t tried drawing a batting order out of a hat. Maybe he’s saving that one, like something in a glass case with the words “Break only in emergency” painted on it.

The old St. Louis Browns, owned by crazy Bill Veeck (as in wreck), once let their fans manage a game, complete with large placards that had the words YES and NO on either side. An attendant would flash a piece of poster board with a question like, “Infield in?” and then wait for the response from the section which possessed the placards. The Browns won that game, too.

Funny, huh?

McLain Could Make It All Back As A Professional Cautionary Tale

In Denny McLain, Tigers on April 13, 2008 at 2:28 pm

Denny McLain is broke, evicted, and has just been arrested again. This hardly qualifies as earth-shattering news. In fact, I’d place it in the same, getting-fatter file of shenanigans like Britney Spears’s latest personal train wreck. Denny’s stuff would be in that file, too.

The latest McLain mug shot appeared in the papers this morning. You could wallpaper a small room with the variations over the years. Denny’s been getting arrested since 1985, you know. And he keeps getting broke. And he keeps reappearing, on the radio, or on TV. Then he gets broke again. And arrested. And reappearing. He’s been running in place for 23 years.

Some Oakland County sheriff’s deputies showed up at McLain’s door in Livingston County’s Hamburg Township on Friday, to finalize an eviction due to a foreclosure judgment that went against him. Then they discovered that Denny had an outstanding warrant, from failing to appear in court on a civil charge back in January. Back to the hooskow went Denny. Another mug shot to add to the collection.

I blame Mayo Smith for all this. It’s always convenient to pick on the dead.

Smith, McLain’s manager in the salad days of 1967-69, let his star pitcher run rampant. It was OK for Denny to flit off and play the organ between starts, and fly his plane to the cities the Tigers were in, and otherwise break team rules, as long as he kept winning. That’s one version, anyway – one that I tend to believe the most. You can find the truth about McLain somewhere, as long as you don’t resort to asking him to tell it.

Smith, and Tigers management – usually a stiff, staid bunch – liked to turn the other way when McLain acted up. After all, Denny did win 92 games for them from 1966-69, including 31 in the World Series year of `68. He took home two Cy Young Awards (’68 and ’69). Maybe they just thought he was a flake – that wink of a baseball term for the fresh, the funny; the oddball. Whatever, it wasn’t until Denny dumped a bucket of water over some sportswriters’ heads in 1970, then was caught with a gun later that year, that he was suspended by the team, and eventually the league.

Oh, there was more that went largely unreported. Jim Northrup once told me of a business idea that McLain hoodwinked some of his teammates into, involving paint manufacturing and distribution. Sportscaster Dave Diles said on an ESPN piece about McLain: “Denny is the kind of person who would stab someone and explain that the victim ran into his knife – sixteen times.”

The sordid history of McLain, off the pitcher’s mound, begins in 1967. He complained late in the season of a mysterious foot injury. The Tigers, his teammates, were in a dogfight with three other clubs for the league pennant. But Denny, thanks to his bothersome foot, was largely unavailable to pitch in September, the race for the pennant in its last leg. The Tigers lost the flag – it being torn from their grasp on the last day of the season. There’s no telling how much a healthy McLain could have changed things.

One of the most understated book titles in publishing history

But here’s the rub. It eventually came out that McLain, in trouble with some gangsters over a bad debt, had his foot stomped on by one of the thugs late that summer. Again, it’s one version. But after what happened since ’67, it’s probably not all that far off the mark – despite Denny’s frequent denials.

So you have that, then the suspension in 1970. Then a disastrous season in 1971 with Washington, to whom the Tigers traded Denny in one of their best, most lopsided deals ever. He was washed up by the end of the 1972 season, at age 28.

There were failed business go-rounds, but that’s no crime. From ’72 to 1985, Denny McLain was simply a sad tale of a once-great player who lost his mojo quickly and whose career went down in flames at a tender age. Usually, that tale is sad enough. But McLain added to it, thickening his file, so much so that I wonder why he never went on the lecture circuit, giving speeches with the theme, “Don’t do what I did.”

Really. If Denny chose to, he could have made a living flying around the country, warning anyone in the crowd – anyone – to not do the things that he did. That’s all. Not even any writing involved. Just an easel, listing his boneheaded decisions, and a big circle to the right with one of those lines through it – the international symbol for NO.

“Don’t do the following…”

He could have made a mint. Of course, he would have maybe needed two easels, come to think of it.

Racketeering and other federal crimes in 1985. Convicted. Released after the verdict was overturned, due to prosecutorial misconduct. Another chance at life. Another chance to get it right.

Bought a meat packing plant in Chesaning in 1993. Charged with embezzling from the pension fund – actually, the WHOLE fund. Convicted in 1995. Thousands of families left holding an empty bag and staring at broke futures. Released in 2003. Yet another chance to get it right. Instead, McLain refused to show any remorse or acknowledge the big deal that his actions caused. He couldn’t care less.

In between, there were more failed business endeavors and several stints on talk radio and television. Someone kept hiring Denny. He wrote a book last year, belatedly titled I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect. Although I don’t remember Denny ever telling us that. I DO recall, however, his frequent cries of “not me” and “well, ME, but here’s why.”

Denny McLain has spent most of his life telling us that things just didn’t happen the way that they appear to have happened. He was a victim, just like those that he screwed.

Well, he’s a felon and a liar. And he STILL could have made it, if he only would have told everyone that, and cautioned them to be his antithesis.

He’s the only weasel I know with nine lives.

You Heard It Here First: Verlander Hall Of Fame-Bound

In Justin Verlander, Tigers on March 30, 2008 at 2:19 pm

This is how old Tigers ace Justin Verlander is: 25. This is what he’s done so far: won Rookie of the Year; pitched in a World Series; made an All-Star team; thrown a no-hitter.

Jim Bunning didn’t do all that. Mickey Lolich didn’t do all that. Denny McLain didn’t do all that. Jack Morris didn’t do all that (though he came close).

Want me to go back further?

George Mullin didn’t do all that. Hooks Dauss didn’t do all that. Tommy Bridges didn’t do all that. “Prince” Hal Newhouser didn’t do all that.

Justin Verlander is all that, and he’s 25.

Say hello to your next Tigers homegrown Hall of Famer.

Roll your eyes all you want. Mock my boosterism as nothing more than over-exuberant, hometown bias. Here, I’ll call the men in the white jackets myself, to save you the trouble. Guffaw from now until nightfall, for all I care.

Verlander, I’m telling you, will find himself enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y. when all is said and done.

Don’t tell me about injuries and bad luck and flashes in the pan. Put a sock in it if you’re going to warn me of arms busting at the seams or flames burning out. I don’t want to have this conversation with you if you mean to dissuade me with sensible, even-handed talk. My mind’s made up. My decision is as final as an umpire’s, no matter how wrong he may be.

But I’m not wrong here, not on this one. Video replay will exonerate me, some 15 years from now, or more.

Not to mention how heartily I’ll be laughing at you as we watch Verlander step up to the podium in Cooperstown one August day, perhaps two decades from now, as he unfurls a speech from his breast pocket and starts in on the thanks and the memories.

I’ve already got one of your arguments countered.

Sophomore jinx? HA! Here’s what Verlander did in his rookie year of 2006: 17-9, 3.63 ERA, 186 IP, 124 strikeouts. And here’s what he did in 2007: 18-6, 3.66 ERA, 202 IP, 183 strikeouts. He gave up 187 hits in 2006, a little more than one per inning. Last year, Verlander surrendered but 181 hits, about 0.9 per inning.

The kid got better in his sophomore year.

Oh, and there was that no-hitter last June, against Milwaukee.

Hold your horses. I’m not using a no-hitter, by itself, to support my claim. Lots of mediocre, even bad, pitchers have rendered teams hitless. It’s one of the beauties of baseball, as far as I’m concerned – that the nondescript can rise up for one day and get all Cy Young-ish on us.

It’s how Verlander tossed his no-no that impressed me. No Tigers pitcher had thrown a no-hitter, at home, since Virgil Trucks did it in 1952. Not Bunning. Not Lolich. Not McLain. Not Morris. Others have done it to the Tigers in Detroit, though. Nolan Ryan and Steve Busby both got the Tigers at Tiger Stadium in 1973. Morris’s no-hitter, in Chicago in 1984, was no work of art. And Jack would be the first to agree with me on that. He walked six and threw a lot of pitches. I’ve seen him pitch many games more brilliantly that weren’t close to no-hitters, but they were classics because of his guts, his determination, and because of the situation.

Verlander showed me a lot of those things when he handcuffed the Brewers last June.

He was rarely in trouble. Yeah, he got a couple good defensive plays, but every pitcher gets those. He worked quickly, as is his trademark, not letting the enormity of the moment alter his approach. He went right after the Brewers, in complete control.

But it wasn’t just that he threw a no-hitter. Verlander is displaying now the kind of brazen, fearless competitive spirit that the great ones who’ve stood on a pitchers mound have shown throughout baseball history. He’s morphing into a blend of Morris, McLain, and Lolich – the three most recent Tigers pitching greats: Morris’s ferocity, McLain’s cockiness, and Lolich’s reliability.

As the Tigers stumbled their way through the 2006 World Series, I remember turning to one of my colleagues and gushing that, no matter the result, the exciting part was the experience the younger players were getting by having taken part in a championship series so early in their careers. Their baptism by fire would sure to pay off later, I reasoned. Verlander was one of the players I especially had in mind when I waxed philosophical about a dream season ending in a nightmare.

Verlander has a relatively easy, smooth pitching motion that doesn’t appear to be extra taxing on his powerful right arm. He’s a rhythm pitcher, and opposing batters try to disrupt him by stepping out of the batter’s box. Let ‘em try. He just stands there, on the mound, eyes boring into the hitter, calmly waiting for him to once again be ready.

There’s a certain nastiness that needs to show itself on the mound. It doesn’t have to extend any further than that, though some of the greats have been known to be grumpy bears on the day they pitched, from the moment they rolled out of bed. Bob Gibson, it was said, on his pitching days could part a room like Moses did the Red Sea, because he was so surly.

I’ve seen Verlander in the clubhouse before a game in which he’s scheduled to pitch, and there’s none of that Gibsonesque meanness. Instead, there’s looseness, joking, and a twinkle in the eye. Then he goes out there and hands you your rear end.

Justin Verlander is 25 years old. He’s 35-15, with over 300 strikeouts and a no-hitter in his first two seasons. And he’s just getting started.

Goodness gracious.

Inge Should Be Careful About What He Wishes For

In Brandon Inge, Tigers on February 10, 2008 at 1:24 pm

I’m not going to get to him in time to say this in person, because I won’t be in Lakeland, Fla. for spring training, so I’ll blare it here, in black and white.

Brandon Inge, my friend, let me tell you a tale of two Detroit Tigers: Mickey Stanley and Lance Parrish. Then maybe, just maybe, you might be a tad happier with your current situation in Detroit.

First, I’ll get the reader up to speed, for sake of completion.

Inge, who’s been with the Tigers since being drafted by them in 1998, is now a man without a position. At least, that’s how HE looks at it. I say he’s a man of many positions, and that he should embrace that; it’s liable to keep him in the big leagues for a very long time.

Inge was the Tigers’ starting catcher during the lean years, a.k.a. B.P. – Before Pudge (Rodriguez). He was a barely-.200 hitter for a 43-119 team when the Tigers signed Rodriguez for the 2004 season. Inge hadn’t hit a lick in the majors. One could make the argument that had he not been playing for such a wretched team, Brandon Inge would be scrambling to absorb himself into society with the rest of us working stiffs. He wasn’t much of a player, his decent defense notwithstanding.

Yet Inge had the nerve to squawk when the Tigers signed Rodriguez – who’s only a Hall of Famer – going public with his contention that the team already had a catcher: him. So why did they need to go out and get another one?

“My defense, I believe, can be on par with Pudge’s,” is my paraphrasing of what Inge was feeding us four Februarys ago. He made no mention of the 180-degrees difference in offense between Rodriguez and him. He was exhibiting, I thought, a rather reticent reaction for someone whose career batting average, at the time, was under .200, and who should have been kissing the turf that he was under the employ of a big league team. But there you have it.

I didn’t think much of Brandon Inge at that point, and couldn’t have cared less if he was an ex-Tiger, or an ex-big leaguer.

My opinion has changed, so hence I offer this friendly advice to him.

The advice comes because Inge is again chafing, though this time he has the resume to chafe.

In December, the Tigers acquired All-Star third baseman Miguel Cabrera from Florida. This displaced Inge, who after Rodriguez’s signing became a third sacker himself – and a darned good one. Defensively. He still has occasional issues with the stick, which Cabrera does not have. Cabrera can be counted on for 30+ homers, 100+ RBI, and .300+ BA. And he’s only 24 (he’ll be 25 in April; Inge is 30). It’s frightening how good he – Cabrera – can be

Rodriguez is still around, so the question was obvious: Where will Brandon Inge play, if he plays at all, for the Tigers?

Inge wants to play – can’t blame him there. He still sees himself as a starting third baseman. Again, I can see that. He loves Detroit, but was wondering – again, publicly – if that love would trump his desire to be a full-time player. The Tigers view him as a sort of “super sub” – someone who could play multiple positions (including catcher) and find his way into the lineup that way, because of his great athletic ability. Inge bristled at the notion of being a glorified utility player.

Brandon, meet Mickey Stanley.

Stanley was the Tigers’ starting centerfielder from 1965 till around 1974. After that, when the team groomed Ron LeFlore and other youngsters, Stanley stuck around, playing all over the field. It was warmly remembered that Stanley switched to shortstop in the 1968 World Series to make room for Al Kaline in the Tigers’ lineup. His ability to be the chameleon baseball player was not lost on Tigers brass. One day he was at first base; the next, maybe left field. After that, perhaps third base. He did it all, except catch and pitch. And maybe only because they never asked him.

Stanley filled this role, gallantly and without brooding, until his retirement after the 1978 season. He, like Inge, loved Detroit, its fans, and the way he was treated. He also realized that baseball’s grass isn’t always greener in other cities. His acceptance of the “super sub” designation no doubt added years to his career – and money to his bank account.

Now, Brandon, say hello to Lance Parrish.

Parrish, the stalwart catcher of the 1980s, played out his option after the 1986 season. For whatever reason, he and the Tigers couldn’t come to terms. He, like Inge and Stanley, was a homegrown Tiger – drafted and nurtured by the club. It didn’t hurt that his personal tutor every spring was a guy named Bill Freehan. Parrish had become a fixture in Detroit. He wore the Old English D on his massive chest fiercely. But, just like that, he was gone – fleeing to Philadelphia for more dough.

From the moment I saw Parrish walk onto the field at spring training with the Phillies in 1987 (they had cameras taping his debut), I knew that this was going to end badly. He never looked comfy in the Phillies pinstripes. Then there was the issue of the fans – which was the first thing I thought of when Parrish’s exodus to Philly was announced.

“My goodness, they’re going to eat him alive there,” I thought. Philadelphia may be the City of Brotherly Love, but it’s a brotherly love full of noogies and Melvins and cat poop in your chocolate bar wrapper.

Not surprisingly, Parrish struggled. And the more he struggled, the more the fans rode him. And the more they rode him, the more he struggled. Those Phillies pinstripes were wrapping themselves around him like tentacles, squeezing the baseball life out of him.

Parrish was never the same. He became a journeyman, ending his career on a carousel. He asked the Tigers for a tryout at the end, but they politely told him no.

So, Brandon, I would suck it up, put on a smile, and be ready when needed. I know you’ve agreed to do it, and I know you’ve said you’re not happy about it. That’s understandable. But look no further than Stanley and Parrish for what can be – both good and bad.

Do with this what you will.

Leyland A Dying Breed: The Quotable Manager

In Baseball, Jim Leyland, Tigers on January 20, 2008 at 4:08 pm

It was very early into a baseball season that would turn magical, when the very mention of the manager’s name would spread the lips of millions of Tigers fans into relieved smirks, then eventually into elated grins.

The crusty Jim Leyland regaled us with a story of a broken down car, an Ohio mechanic, some free tickets, and at the time I had no idea that it would serve as a sign of how things would fall into place for the Tigers in 2006.

A few hours before game time, Leyland accepts, sometimes begrudgingly, the intrusion of journalists into his modest office. Occasionally, there’s even something new to talk about. On this April afternoon nearly two years ago, Leyland, just a few games into his first season back managing in seven years, had something new to talk about.

“I was driving back thru Ohio,” he told us, talking about returning from an Easter-related family gathering in Pennsylvania. Next were details of a flat tire, a car he had to suddenly control at high speed, and a fortuitously located tire store.

The manager had gotten a lift, from a tow truck driver, to the tire store. But not before the driver saw the large duffel bag with the Tigers logo on it. This was squarely in Cleveland Indians country, too.

“Hey, Tigers!” the driver said, according to Leyland, when the tow truck guy started helping the stranded, gray-haired motorist. “I love the Tigers!”

Leyland had us set up for one of several funny lines.

“Yeah? You like the Tigers?” Leyland told us of his response to the young man. “Well, I’m the ***damned manager!”

The first round of laughter erupted in the office.

Later, after Leyland told of getting the royal treatment with his crippled car, he then related his telephone call back to Detroit. He wasn’t sure if he’d make it back in town in time to manage the next day’s game.

“(Third base coach Gene) Lamont says, ‘Jim’s stranded on the road? He’s not OK, is he?”
More laughter, uproarious this time. Lamont would have managed the game if Leyland wasn’t

And two lucky tire store employees were left free tickets to the next Tigers-Indians game in Cleveland, thanks to a grateful Jim Leyland, about to embark on his magical season in Detroit.

I have just done a very poor job in relating this story, because if ever the term “you had to be there” was appropriate, it’s when Leyland holds court and starts in.

Leyland, then only a few games into what would be a hallmark season in Detroit, is now so firmly ensconced in the manager’s chair with the Tigers that he could probably give Kwame Kilpatrick a run for his money for the mayor’s chair at City Hall.

He’s a dying breed, Jim Leyland is – and I’m very sad to say it. He’s the quotable baseball manager, the kind who gets your juices flowing when you see the punctuation “ “ appear in newspaper stories with his name attached to the “ ‘s.

Sometimes, Leyland is even quotable with the umpires — just not for family papers

I’m not talking Casey Stengel or Yogi Berra quotable, necessarily. Those were baseball geniuses who occasionally played the fool for good newspaper copy. Leyland is a straight shooter, and he uses wit and plain, brown paper-wrapped wisdom to illustrate his philosophy. But he’s also good for a crack-up.

Think of how many times you read something, to yourself, and break out into laughter. Not too often, for if someone sees you laughing with no one around, they’re liable to place a phone call to the men in white suits.

I cracked up, loud and long, when I read a simple Leyland description the other day. He was talking about the convenience of having Toledo as the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate.

“Yeah, you can get a guy to Detroit in an hour,” Leyland told a lucky reporter last week. “In my first year managing in Pittsburgh, our minor league team was in Hawaii. You’d call a guy up, and ten days later he’d arrive.”

Like I said, you had to be there – in my brain, as I read the copy. I’m sorry – I thought it was hilarious.

Point being, look around the major leagues and tell me which managers make you look forward to the “ ‘s attached to their names. All I see are cookie cutter, generic, vanilla dudes.

We’ve been blessed in Detroit. We had Charlie Dressen, full of spit and vinegar, who unfortunately got himself so worked up as Tigers manager that he had not one, but two heart attacks during his run in the 1960s. The first one, in spring training 1965, he covered up by explaining that he had to tend to his wife in California. He checked himself into a hospital as soon as his plane touched down. But Dressen was quotable.

So, too, Billy Martin – who was also just plain wacky enough with his managerial moves and gamesmanship to make his verbal output just the cherry on top of a delicious baseball sundae.

Before long, Sparky Anderson blew into town. I needn’t say more.

Leyland doesn’t always enjoy his little media sessions, but you couldn’t tell by the generosity with which he scoops out the sundaes.

That first spring training, in 2006, Leyland was explaining why he lifted a young outfielder prospect from a game.

“Because of the way he was circling around out there looking for a fly ball,” Leyland said. “He took so many twists and turns, I almost smoked a whole Marlboro before he finally caught it.”

Come on – curl your lips into a grin. That’s good stuff.

Lions Need To Start All Over (Maybe With Holmgren?)

In Lions, NFL, Pistons, Red Wings, Tigers on December 17, 2007 at 7:17 pm

First, let me thank DirecTV. They tried to spare me.

For almost an hour after kickoff of yesterday’s Lions-Chargers game, DirecTV lost their over-the-air channels, probably due to the bad weather. These included Fox 2, which was showing the Lions. Even my fancy-shmancy NFL Sunday Ticket couldn’t help me, because it blacks out games scheduled to air on local channels.

So when the game finally appeared after the technical glitch, the Fox Bar scoreboard along the top of the screen told me that I hadn’t missed much — unless you count 17 Charger points as something worth seeing. So I watched a few minutes, and called it a day.

But today’s post isn’t about yesterday’s game. What is there, really, to say? The Lions are tanking, freefalling like a lead balloon. So best to talk about the future, and to do that it’s necessary to analyze the pasts of the other three, more successful teams in town.

I was thinking about this last evening. Why have the Tigers, Red Wings, and Pistons been able to find success? How have they done it?

Red Wings. They may not live up to the hype every spring, but for about 15 years now, you’ve been able to look at the Red Wings as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders as every playoff has begun — sometimes they’ve been the odds-on favorite. Think about that for a moment. Fifteen straight seasons of being considered a possible champion every April. No team in any other sport can say such a thing — not for 15 straight years, anyway.

How have they done it?

Drafting, scouting, free agency, trades. These are the elements of any personnel department. And the Red Wings have excelled in every area at various times in the ’90s and ’00s. Have they made some mistakes? Sure. But few of them. Their work in Europe and Sweden has been exemplary. It sounds simple, but one of the reasons the Red Wings have been so good is because they’ve had some pretty damn good players come through Detroit. And those players were an amalgam of drafts, trades (especially those deadline deals), and free agency — almost in equal distribution. Amazing.

Coaching. This happened in stages. Jacques Demers took the team to a certain level. Bryan Murray nudged them forward a bit more — at least in terms of regular season success. Then, finally, Scotty Bowman was brought in to finish things off. Then, after two disappointing playoffs, Dave Lewis was let go and enter Mike Babcock. Today, the Red Wings are again the elite of the league.

Pistons. A bold, sometimes brazen mindset in Auburn Hills, led by President Joe Dumars, has spelled the rise of the Pistons to elite status.

Personnel moves. The Rasheed Wallace trade was one many GMs would have been afraid to make. Not being afraid to admit mistakes and trade bad draft picks like Mateen Cleaves and Rodney White. Letting Ben Wallace flee (wisely). Constantly tweaking the supporting cast. Taking a flyer on Chris Webber. Finding gems like Tayshaun Prince and, it appears, Jason Maxiell. Blending youth in with experience (Rodney Stuckey, Arron Afflalo, Amir Johnson). Basically, being just restless enough in this area — and never truly being satisfied.

Coaching. Firing Rick Carlisle (after two 50-win seasons) and bringing in Larry Brown was bold. So was letting Brown go, despite two straight trips to the Finals. Hiring playoff-challenged Flip Saunders wasn’t without its risks. Yet the Pistons have managed to make five straight trips to the Conference Finals. Not too shabby.

Tigers. As with the Red Wings and Pistons, boldness and a commitment of money by ownership has turned the Tigers into a powerhouse ballclub.

Personnel. Getting Pudge Rodriguez, Rondell White, and Fernando Vina to sign here after a 119-loss season was off the charts. Though White and Vina were hardly All-Stars in Detroit, their signings nonetheless made the Tigers relevant again. If nothing else, those guys, plus the acquisition of Carlos Guillen later on, put some bona fide big leaguers on the roster once again.

Since then, the team has fleeced others for Placido Polanco, Gary Sheffield, and Edgar Renteria, and of course the blockbuster trade with the Marlins a couple weeks ago was another feather in the Tigers’ baseball caps. Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson were throw-ins from other trades, believe it or not. Marcus Thames was stolen. For every Neifi Perez trade, there’ve been many more good ones.

Scouting has brought Curtis Granderson, Justin Verlander, Brandon Inge, and new potential ace Rick Porcello. And it has helped the Tigers stockpile bargaining chips to use in the aforementioned trades.

Free agency has been used mostly wisely. Vina was a bust (due to injuries), and so was Troy Percival (for the same reason). But other signings have yielded Kenny Rogers, Magglio Ordonez,
and Rodriguez.

Coaching/managing. Do the Tigers go to the World Series in 2006 with any other manager than Jim Leyland? I wouldn’t wager on it.

How far the Tigers have come in four years is unreal. Basically, since 2003 they’ve gone from national embarrassment to possibly the best team in baseball. They reached the Series three years after the 119-loss campaign.

OK, so what is the common denominator here?

The One.


The One is the person who’s presided over all these successful machinations. The Red Wings’ resurgence started with owner Mike Ilitch’s very first hire: former Islanders super scout Jimmy Devellano. Jimmy D. had a rough first few years as he found his footing, but then he hired Demers, and the franchise was reborn. Devellano was also the driving force behind the team hiring Bowman in 1993. A steady, efficient front office was started with Devellano’s hiring, and has led to unheard-of stability. The trio of Ilitch, Devellano, and current GM Ken Holland have been together forever, it seems. Bowman’s stint as coach/GM was wildly successful, and the passing of the torch to Holland, promoted after the 1997 Cup, was seamless.

So right now Holland is The One for the Red Wings, but he was set up for success by the work of Jimmy D. and Bowman, who were each The One in their own time.

The Pistons have Joe Dumars as The One. The team was treading water when Dumars stepped out of his basketball sneakers and into the wing-tipped shoes of an executive, back in 2000. Dumars then began acting as if he was born to be a GM. It was spooky, how good he was right out of the gate. Reminded me of Jerry West, but even West served as coach for a few years before rising to GM status. Dumars is almost making more noise as a GM than he did as a player — and this is a Hall of Famer and FInals MVP we’re talking about here.

The Tigers were going absolutely nowhere until they hired Dave Dombrowski in November 2001. After a rough start (mainly because of what he inherited) that included the 43-119 bottoming out, DD has been King Midas.

Dombrowski is clearly The One for the Tigers. I shudder to think where the franchise would be if Ilitch followed up the Randy Smith Era with another bad GM hire.

The Lions. I’m not trying to be funny or a smart ass here, but the Lions have possessed NONE of the stuff I’ve talked about here that breeds success in professional sports. No boldness, no guts. Wanna know the difference between boldness and foolishness?

Hiring Scotty Bowman was bold. Making Joe Dumars a GM so soon after his playing days was bold. Luring Dombrowski from Florida and giving him complete control was bold. Hiring Leyland to manage after seven years away from it was bold.

But being bold means taking calculated risks. It doesn’t mean just doing something out of the box for kicks.

Hiring Matt Millen from the broadcast booth wasn’t bold. It was foolish. There was nothing calculated or researched about it. The only thing that would have made it bold was if Millen was brought in with the mandate to immediately surround himself with sound, solid football people. If he was ordered to form a coaching search committee consisting of such minds. Then maybe it’s a bold move. Instead it was just plain misguided. It created excitement for a while, but that doesn’t have long shelf life if the clothes have no emperor.

Personnel? HA! Poor drafts, questionable (at best) free agent signings, and curious trades have made the Lions the antithesis of their three sports neighbors in Detroit.

Coaching? Bad hires here, of course. But the Tigers (Luis Pujols, Phil Garner), Red Wings (Harry Neale, Brad Park), and Pistons (Alvin Gentry, George Irvine) have all had their warts in this department, too. But they were able to learn from those mistakes. The Lions have been making strange coaching hires since 1974. And as much as I want to like Rod Marinelli, this current six-game slide/surrender has made me wonder about him, too.

Lack of The One. The Lions have never, EVER, come close to employing The One. I hate to say it, but you really have to go all the way back to Nick Kerbaway, GM of the 1950s, to find The One. Russ Thomas lasted way longer than Matt Millen has, but his decades of tenure produced nothing. Since Thomas, the Lions have been managed by Chuck Schmidt (please), Jerry Vainisi (he was never given a real chance), and now Millen. Ugh.

You win in any sport with good players, I understand that. But someone has to procure these players, no?

So here’s the deal: the Lions will never mimic the rise of the Pistons, Red Wings, and Tigers (all of whom were in the depths of their sports at one time or another) unless they do one of two things — have a change in ownership, or a change in paradigm. Since the former is unlikely, then let’s look at the latter.

The Lions need to find The One. Somewhere out there in the NFL, such a person exists. I believe that. Is he a former player? Unlikely, especially if we’re talking recent former player. It’s asking a lot to expect a recently-retired player to become a successful NFL GM. Dumars did it, but the NBA is different than the NFL. Far fewer players, for one.

Is he a former GM? Well, maybe, but hopefully not one who’s been out of the league too long.

Most likely, The One is employed by another NFL team currently, possibly as an assistant GM or in a similar position in the personnel department. What I would do is look at perennially successful teams like the Patriots, Seahawks, Colts, and maybe even the Cowboys and raid their front office for their bright, young executives.

I don’t know as many front office types in the NFL as I do in other sports, so I don’t have a lot of actual names to throw around here. So in lieu of that, I mention traits and backgrounds.

But if you want a name, here’s one: Mike Holmgren.

If you can get him out of his contract in Seattle, maybe Holmgren would come here as a GM-only guy. If he feels he has the coaching bug out of his system, that is. He’s still young enough, he clearly has been around winning organizations, and he’s made sound personnel moves in his career. Just a thought.

Matt Millen obviously isn’t The One. And the Lions will continue to wallow until they find that person. Because it all begins there — as the other teams in town have illustrated.