Monday, February 12, 2007

An Honor Much Deserved

Former Lions tight end Charlie Sanders was recently elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The honor was greatly deserved.Sanders was a marvel as a player. I have never seen a receiver make more “impossible” catches than Sanders did during the late 1960s and 1970s for the Lions. It was uncanny. He wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in there and block, either. Don’t believe it? Just ask Dick Butkus.Name a tight end. I don’t care which one, and Sanders was just as good - and probably better.What really hindered Sanders’ bid for The Hall was the fact he played for the Lions. Not only wasn’t he part of a championship team, he didn’t come close. Yet, honestly, he couldn’t have done more, from his position, to help his team win.It always leads to a perplexing question. How high do we place winning when accessing the performance of an individual player? Not to pick on the Lions (although they deserve it), but what type of player would Peyton Manning have become were he thrust into that mess? Conversely, how much better would Chuck Long, Andre Ware and Joey Harrington have been had they been selected by another organization? To take the question further, Barry Bonds has never won a title. Does that diminish his accomplishments? I loved Bill Russell as a player, but I don’t think he was as great as Wilt Chamberlain. Russell had Red Auerbach building teams around him. Wilt didn’t have the same type of smart GM working for him. When he did have comparable talent with the 76ers in 1966-67 and Lakers in 1972-73 - his teams dominated like few in NBA history.Jim Plunkett was a bad QB in New England and a champion in Oakland. Dan Marino was a better player than Bob Griese. He just was, but Griese has the rings and Marino - who might have been the best pure passer in history - carries this weird stigma because he didn’t win a title. Teams sports are not about one player. Even the truly great ones have sidekicks. Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen, Joe Montana had Jerry Rice, Wayne Gretzky had Mark Messier, Babe Ruth had Lou Gehrig, etc.Who was Archie Manning’s sidekick?I think most times were a little too tough in accessing athletes as losers if they are put in the wrong spot. And a little bit quick with our praise of athletes when they are put in the right place at the right time.And it’s one of the reasons I am so pleased Charlie Sanders, who is also one of the good guys, finally got his due and reached the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Random Thoughts

- I heard some people talk about the Indians as if they are a real threat in the American League Central. I am not so sure. I like their power and their starting pitching, but their fielding and their bullpen are more than just a little questionable.

- The best high school football player I ever saw was John Miller from Farmington Harrison. The best high school basketball player was Chris Webber from Country Day. The best high school baseball player was Steve Howe from Clarkston.

- It’s just my opinion, but I think Paul Woods does a great job with his commentary on the Red Wings radio broadcasts. His knowledge of the NHL and hockey in general is extraordinary.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Downside Of The NCAA Tourney

I know the NCAA Tournament is a huge plus for college basketball. I know it provides enormous amounts of money for college basketball programs - and universities in general. I truly love "The Big Dance." It is a great, great thing. But must admit to a certain sadness about it as time goes on. Let me explain. With each passing year, it becomes more evident that the NCAA Tournament has taken away from the regular season. A team can win its regular season conference title - and it is no big deal. Same for not winning the conference regular season title on, say, the last day. I watched the North Carolina-Duke game the other night. It is supposed to be the best rivalry in college basketball. However, there was something missing because the game, in reality, didn’t mean much. There is always a second or third chance in college basketball because of the postseason conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament. While I enjoy both, I am not sure if the game has not suffered to a growing degree because everything is predicated on the NCAA tourney. Now I have covered many NCAA Tournament games. The environment, particularly for the early rounds, is odd. There is little fan reaction. Sometimes the arena is not nearly full because some fans ignore the games not involving their teams. The atmosphere pales in comparison to the Breslin Center or some of the other arenas in the Big Ten. Regular season college basketball is great. But does anybody notice it anymore? Does anybody care? Unfortunately, not as many people as there used to be.

Random Thoughts

- Handing Matt Millen and the Lions the second overall pick in the NFL draft is like trusting Carl Lewis to sing the national anthem at an NBA game. Been there. Done that. Dogs everywhere are prepared to start howling.

- I honestly do not know what to make of Ryan Howard. Is he just the product of the cozy ball park in Philly? And I know this is unfair to a degree, but like Albert Pujols, I cannot help but be suspicious of Howard’s stunning power production given what has happened in baseball’s recent past.

- A prediction: I see Michigan State beating Michigan next week in East Lansing, but the Wolverines returning the favor when they meet again in Ann Arbor.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Is Kobe The Best In The NBA?

One of the great aspects of the NBA is the way it allows for a legitimate debate about the best player in the league. One player can have such an enormous impact on his team. For the longest time, it was not much of a debate, though. The best player in the NBA was clearly Michael Jordan. Before that, however, people would get into these intense discussions about the merits of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. And back in the day, it was about Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Or about Oscar Robertson and Jerry West.
Who is the best player in the NBA today? I know Steve Nash is the two-time MVP and a marvelous player, but I do not think he is the best player in the league. LeBron James certainly has proven his point in Cleveland, but only to a degree. Both he and Nash have not won championships. I also think Dirk Nowitzki is underrated on this front. Yet, he has not won a title, either. Tim Duncan has, but does seem past his prime. That leaves us with Kobe Bryant, who will visit The Palace Thursday night. Is he the best player in the NBA right now? As some of you know, I have never thought as highly as others about Bryant. I think he was more a product of Shaq than Shaq was a product of him. I could not stand the way Kobe played against the Pistons in the NBA Finals. What a selfish chump. I thought he got off easy on his legal problems in Colorado, and is generally a phony. I thought last season was ideal for him because he could just be a ball hog. Well, this season, he has been more of a team player and the Lakers are winning. Kobe, finally, seems to be making the players around him better. And I am starting to come to the conclusion he is the best player in the NBA.

Random Thoughts

- So Michigan did not totally embarrass itself at Ohio State on Tuesday. So what? There is something missing in that team. An intangible factor that leads to capitulation at crucial moments of big games. That team should be better than that. Period.

- The Red Wings have a couple million dollars to work with at the trade deadline. They could use a little more firepower up front from a winger. Problem is, with the deadline a little earlier and parity ruling in the NHL, most teams still have a shot at the playoffs. And teams getting into the playoffs see themselves as Stanley Cup contenders - regardless of the seed. It could make for shallow pool of players available at the deadline.

- I see the key pitcher on the Tigers staff this season as being Fernando Rodney. With Jamie Walker gone, he will be asked to get left-handed hitters out in key situations. He will also have to set up because Joel Zumaya cannot pitch every day. Rodney was pretty good last season. Just look at the numbers. But I am not sure he can be "pretty good" again. His inconsistency can be alarming.

Monday, February 05, 2007

A Super Bowl Lesson For The Lions

There have been exceptions. Trent Dilfer with the Ravens and Brad Johnson with the Bucs come to mind. Then again, you have to remember they won their Super Bowls by bettering Kerry Collins and Rich Gannon. So I guess the lesson of Sunday’s Super Bowl is that when the stakes are that high, the quarterback means everything.

Peyton Manning was not spectacular. He was good enough. Rex Grossman was not. And the Bears will not win that game until they get better at that position. That, of course, leads us to the Lions. I am fully expecting they will pass on a quarterback in the draft while selecting No. 2 overall. It will be the second year in a row they have bypassed on one (Matt Leinart was really good for the Cardinals last season). If they want to win a Super Bowl someday, they are not going to do it with Jon Kitna. They have to develop a young QB, one that is better than Grossman or Joey Harrington. It has to be the right quarterback brought up the right way - the way the Colts did it with Manning and the Patriots with Tom Brady. Otherwise, the futility will continue. It cannot be denied the one constant for the Lions the last 50 years has been inconsistent QB play. As organization, they need to understand that and not be afraid to go after that position because they were burned so badly by what turned out to be a bad decision in drafting Harrington.

Random Thoughts

- The best stories I heard hanging around the Tigers Fantasy Camp last week were from Darrell Evans. And he was not talking about baseball, either, but rather about when he played guard for Jerry Tarkanian at Pasadena City College during the mid-1960s. One of the teams Evans faced was UCLA’s freshman team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "He swatted one of my shots away," Evans said. "The guy had really long arms. I had never seen anything close to it. UCLA was the defending national champs - and they lost to that freshman team." Evans had to guard former NBA player Lucius Allen. "He was a lot quicker than me, that’s for sure," Evans said. "And he could really jump." Evans said people are too vindictive toward Tarkanian, a long-time target of the NCAA because of recruiting violations. "Shark belongs in the Hall of Fame," Evans said. "He was a great coach. He put UNLV on the map. He won at Long Beach State, too. He even won with us."

- Ohio State has a talented team, but Michigan State was capable of beating the Buckeyes at home. It was disappointing they did not. The stretch run does not get any easier. It will be one of the most challenging coaching tasks Tom Izzo has faced - getting this team in the NCAA Tournament. It appears the Spartans will have to beat Wisconsin. Izzo had trouble doing that when he had the better team of the two. Now he has to turn the tables on his nemesis Bo Ryan. I am not sure he can.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

What If They Had Not Been Traded

Two of the former Tiger players taking part in the Fantasy Camp here in Lakeland are Jason Thompson and Steve Kemp. Remember how they were the rising stars on the Tigers during the late 1970s? It seemed like they would be the saviors of the franchise. It has always struck me how those two both had fairly good major league careers, but were not part of what the Tigers eventually accomplished in 1984 with their world title. Darrell Evans, who is also here, was the one free agent signing the Tigers used in '84 after they dealt away Thompson. Nobody could argue with the Kemp trade. Chet Lemon, acquired for Kemp from Chicago, in center field was a very important piece of the Tigers puzzle. If those trades had not been made, I doubt the Tigers would have had the type of success they did during the 1980s. Then again, Thompson and Kemp have nothing to be ashamed of about their major league careers.

Random Thought

- By the way, one of my pet peeves used to be people referring to "Justin" Thompson as "Jason" Thompson.

- The Sporting News Baseball Yearbook has Minnesota No. 1 its power poll in the major leagues, with the Tigers second. Surprised? I am. But this is what the Twins have going for them: Morneau, Mauer and Santana - their best three players just might be the best three players in the American League.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Back To My Youth

I used to talk to my father all the time about baseball. It was one passion we shared. To me, the Tigers I grew up with, and remember the most, were those from the late 1960s and the early 1970s. For my father, it was the Tigers of the 1930s - that team that won back-to-back American League pennants in 1934 and 1935 - and beat the Cubs in the 1935 World Series. He would talk about Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Mickey Cochrane, Tommy Bridges and the epic World Series loss to the Cardinals in '34 a lot. It helped fuel my love of baseball. As a kid, I loved the Tigers of late 1960s and 1970s. I remember the World Series in 1968 and the 1972 team that won the division and took Oakland to the limit in the ALCS. My favorite player was Willie Horton. So, even though I have been in this business a long time and have been fortunate enough to meet a lot of famous people and all that, a part of me is still enthralled by the Tigers of that era. That is why being down in Lakeland this week writing columns from the Tigers Fantasy Camp is a thrill. When I see Gates Brown or Horton or Mickey Lolich - or any of those players from that era - it reminds me of my youth when I loved baseball so much it was an obesession. This is going to be fun. I will doing a four-part series in The Oakland Press starting Thursday. Oh, and I guess baseball is still my obesession.

Random Thoughts

- I thought Michigan State was teriffic at Ohio State Saturday. Just one clutch shot here or there and the Spartans would have pulled it off. Certainly they sent a message to the rest of the nation - and Ohio State - they are for real.

- Chris Webber is making a huge difference for the Pistons. I do not care if they lost to Washington Friday. The Wizards were just hot that night. The Pistons are clearly the best team in the Eastern Conference.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Best Super Bowl Matchup In Awhile

It is always the strange Sunday. The one after the conference title games and before the Super Bowl. I like the matchup in this Super Bowl, though. It gets some new blood in there. And not some teams off in the distance like when Atlanta and Seattle made it. It is two teams and two cities we can identify with - Chicago and Indianapolis. It is the Big Ten Super Bowl. The Midwest Super Bowl. The Bears are known for their defense. Yet, their defense has not been dominant during the post season, while their offense has been better than advertised. The Colts are known for their offense, but at least until the second half of the AFC championship game, it was their defense which had been carrying them during the postseason. Peyton Manning is an extraordinary player. He is so good that we only recognize his failures. He was brilliant in the second half against the Patriots. He outplayed Tom Brady when it mattered. Yet, it was almost viewed as ho-hum - despite his failures in the past. It is OK. We can give Manning credit. I am always puzzled by the view people have of Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher being overrated. He is not. He is a great football player. The coaches of these teams are ideal. Both are even-handed and calm. You do not see gimmicks from Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy. They are solid - and so are their teams. To me, this is the best Super Bowl matchup in a long time, certainly better than the one we had last season at Ford Field.

Random thoughts

- I know VS takes a lot of heat for carrying NHL on a network nobody heard of, but they did do a decent job during the All Star Game. Having Marty Turco miked during the game and talking to him while he was actually playing was an effective and interesting concept.
- Reason No. 7,891 the Lions are a joke: Running pictures of Smith, Dungy and Lions head coach Rod Marinelli on their website together, as if they are equals, just because they coached together and are friends. Marinelli led his team to a 3-13 record last season. At this point, he has nothing in common with Smith and Dungy as an NFL head coach. I guess, the Lions will do anything to come up a contrived spin to try to justify their dismal bottom line.
- I wonder how good Brent Clevlen will be this season. He struggled at Double-A last season, but his tools were much better than I had anticipated when compared to major league players. It would not surprise me if he contributes significantly to the Tigers this season.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Give Me The Fall Classic, Please

Do not get me wrong. The Super Bowl is just fine. Sometimes the hype gets overwhelming, but I do enjoy the game. I like the Stanley Cup playoffs immensely, but in their totality more than just the finals. Seems like the finals, and I do not know exactly why, are often anti-climatic. The NBA Finals are often exciting - especially back in the day when Magic went against the Pistons and the Bird and the Celtics. The NCAA championship game, too. But to me, the World Series tops them all. There have been more memorable moments and legends sealed in it down through the years than all the other big events combined. It is not just one game, like the Super Bowl and the NCAA title game. A team down 3 games to 1 has a legitimate chance to come back. That is not really true in the other sports. And baseball is meant more than any other sport for moments. You never forget those World Series moments. Too bad the World Series last year was such a dud. At least the rest of the playoffs, especially the Tigers divisional series with the Yankees and the Cardinals win over the Mets in the NLCS, were compelling.

Random Thoughts

- One of my favorite events is the Senior Bowl. The best part of the NFL Network is the way they cover it. I cannot wait for the NFL Draft. Personally, I do not think Joe Thomas, the big offensive tackle from Wisconsin is that good. But at this point, I do not see a clear-cut pick for the Lions. I know this, the organization collectively lacks the guts to do the right thing and take a quarterback in the first round.

- What happened to University of Detroit basketball? The Titans are 6-12 and have not had a winning season 2003-2004. Seems like they are slipping. I would like to see the Titans play Oakland. Seems like a natural rivalry. It is odd they do not play each other. They should every season.

- I love the grit Drew Stanton displays, and he can certainly run. He just does not seem to be as fluid as the top quarterbacks in the NFL.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Webber Move: So Far, So Good

It was Friday night, late at the end of what had not been all that exciting of an NBA game.
But I cannot help but wonder if what the Pistons did in overtime at Minnesota Friday night was not a turning point for their season.
Chris Webber played very well in that game. He fit in like a glove with his passing. He made a couple key plays, including scoring in overtime. It was more than that, though. Everybody, it seemed, made a key play or basket. The Timberwolves are not a great team by any stretch of the imagination. Kevin Garnett had been thrown out of the game earlier, sure, but it was a struggle nonetheless on the road - and the Pistons won it after they had lost six of their previous nine games. Ultimately, it might prove to be a very important victory. Certainly it looked like it based on the way the Pistons played Saturday against Sacramento. Looks like the Pistons are getting their act together.

Random thoughts

- The most mystifying move of the off season was when the White Sox traded Brandon McCarthy on the heels of dumping Freddie Garcia. Maybe White Sox GM Ken Williams knows something we do not know, but it seems like those two moves have opened the door for the Tigers to edge out the White Sox again. The Tigers starting pitching is clearly better now.

- Hope some of you saw “Hockey Night in Canada” Saturday. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins put on quite a show against the Maple Leafs. Seems like the NHL has found its next Gretzky - and nobody outside of the hockey geeks know about it. That is a shame.

- When Michigan plays Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Wolverines will need to at least be competitive. If they get destroyed, like at UCLA, their credibility - already shaky - will suffer immensely.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

This Is Not A Real Rivalry

There was an article on the cover of The Oakland Press sports section that caught my eye. It was not about Chris Webber, either. It was about the Red Wings and Nashville and whether they are really rivals. In the “new” NHL, they absolutely should be. Nashville has an excellent team and leads the division. The two teams play each other eight times. The Red Wings, typically strong, are not far behind. They play tonight (Wednesday) at Joe Louis Arena. Yet, there is little buzz about the game. It points out the folly of the “new” NHL as it relates to the schedule. Unless the Red Wings and Preds play an epic series or two during the playoffs, they will not be considered rivals. I cannot help but hope that the Red Wings move to the Eastern Conference in the future. It is just so much more interesting when they play teams from the Eastern Conference. It is not that I do not appreciate what Nashville has accomplished. The Preds are really good, but the rivalry seems forced and contrived, and as much as I would like to, I am having trouble buying into it. Sorry.

Random Thoughts

- As long-time readers of this blog know, I have always thought that Omar Infante has enormous potential as a player. I just wonder if he will ever get the chance to display it as long Jim Leyland is his manager.

- Signing day is not too far down the road for college football programs. I hear Michigan State is not doing too well in recruiting and will definitely finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten. Not a good sign. But it is not surprising. The Spartans football program is really on the back burner in the mind of the public and, evidently, recruits.

- I do not understand why Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson still have so much appeal to clubs. Both used to throw in the high 90s. Now both throw in the low 90s. Both are well into their 40s. Neither is close to being the same pitcher they used to be. Clemens got a million dollars per start last season and will likely get that much this season. That is insane.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Tigers Caravan Was A Classic

The Tigers have their winter caravan this week, and while it is done much differently than when I covered the team as a beat writer for The Oakland Press from 1986-98, it always brings back memories - most of them fond.
I used to dislike the trip. It meant spending hour after hour on a bus with team president Jim Campbell, who did not like me at all. I remember one time, in St. Clair, he "greeted" me as I got off the bus. He pulled out this old, leather appointment book, and out fell this yellowed copy of a column I had written a couple years before. Below my smiling face, the headline said: “Monaghan’s Pizza Logic Destroying Tigers.” It was very critical of then-Tigers owner Thomas S. Monaghan, who was incredibly off-the-wall.
"Just to let you know how much I follow the #%@* you write in that newspaper, I carry this where ever I go,” Campbell said. Then he started screaming at me, "You wish he were dead, don’t you!!!!"
It was not all bad, though. We used to stop at Win Schulers for a great meal - although the deviled eggs at various stops got to be a bit much. You really got to know the players back then on the bus. I remember playing hearts with players from Cecil Fielder to the late Chris Brown to current White Sox general manager Kenny Williams on the caravan. I used to remember thinking that I was glad we were not playing for money because they had a lot and me none.

Random Thoughts

- Best laugh I got all weekend was watching Steve Mariucci on the NFL Network hem and haw and dodge the subject of his good buddy Andy Reid punting on fourth down when he should have gone for it during the Eagles playoff loss to the Saints. His co-hosts, Rich Eisen and Deion Sanders, just would not let up on Mooch, either. It was as if he were dodging questions from the media as the Lions coach again.

- I really like the concept of a high school basketball tournament to celebrate Martin Luther King Day in Pontiac. Kudos to Pontiac Northern for the idea. Pontiac is truly a great basketball town.

- I am going to Michigan’s game on Wednesday vs. Penn State. The Wolverines should win that game, but it will be a tricky one because Penn State does have experience. The last thing Wolverines can afford is to be upset in conference play at home.