Thursday, November 30, 2006

Winter Meetings Not The Same

Next week is the first week of December. It's a time for shopping, letting out the waistband after another Thanksgiving feast, and praying for little or no snow (unless you operate a ski resort).

But there was a time when the first week of December meant the Annual Baseball Winter Meetings.

Oh, they still have them -- and always someplace warm, of course. But it's somehow not the same. In a simpler time, circa the 1960's and 70's, the Winter Meetings meant staying up to watch the 11:00 p.m. news and slogging thru the first 18 minutes until the sports anchor came on the tube. You had to wait till then to find out whether the Tigers swung a trade. This is before the Internet and sports talk radio. Or, if you nodded off, there was always the morning paper to clue you in.

There just seemed to be more player movement back then. Today, it's so much about contracts and other intangibles that get in the way of a simple handshake in a hotel lobby between two (or more) GMs. That handshake would turn into a telephone call to the league office, officially announcing the trade(s). This is before faxes, too. Then, the reporters would get the word, although many of them used to hang out in the bars and lobbies and had an inkling of what was going to occur before it officially did. And they were sure to write about what they thought might happen, and reading about it was part of the joy of Winter Meetings week.

If a trade was made, especially a major one, you'd try to imagine the new Tigers player in his creamy white, Old English D home uniform. There would be no spring training for over two months. This was also before press conferences announcing the trade, along with the requisite trying on of the new jersey.

The Tigers shipped away lefty Mickey Lolich -- imagine that -- in December, 1975. Mick went to the New York Mets, for DH/outfielder Rusty Staub. Also in the deal was OF Billy Baldwin (to the Mets), and pitcher Bill Laxton (to the Tigers). I couldn't fathom a Tigers team without Mickey Lolich, just as I couldn't picture Le Grand Orange -- Staub -- in a Tigers uniform. And I had to wait till the following February to see the images of that beamed into my television from Lakeland, Fl.

Lolich, by the way, played one season in New York, then retired. The Big Apple killed baseball for him. He ended up sitting out one year and playing for the Padres at the end of his career. In San Diego, with their brown and orange duds, Lolich looked like a giant taco.

Trust me, he did.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What Will 2007 Tigers Do For An Encore?

So when does the hangover begin?

When do we awaken from the wild party that was the Tigers' season last summer and early fall? Have we, already?

I was thinking about that recently. About the only bad thing I can think about the 2006 baseball season, besides how it ended, is this: How do the Tigers follow up such a momentous campaign?

Well, signing a future Hall of Famer like Gary Sheffield was a good start. But even if Shef hits 40 homers and drives in 130 runs, I find it hard to believe that the Tigers can top last season for thrills and excitement. They'll still be very good; of that I am certain. But now we expect good baseball, and you can be sure we'll get cranky if we don't get it.

Honeymoon over, hangover to come.

It won't necessarily be the PC thing to do, but the baseball followers around town will wail to the sportstalk radio stations and wring their hands if the Tigers stumble out of the gate. Doesn't take much to spoil the faithful around here.

Last season was the team's coming out party. 2007 will go a long way toward determining whether the Tigers are a major player in the American League for years to come, or are another in a list of ballclubs who were able to sell their collective souls to the Devil for one crack at a championship.

Doubtful that they are the latter. Too much young pitching, and too many crafty veterans. It's also exciting, to me, to theorize what appearing in a World Series so early in their careers will do to benefit guys like Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya, Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, and Curtis Granderson. Can't hurt, I reckon.

The 2007 Tigers will be everyone's preseason darlings, too -- just you watch. Everyone from The Sporting News to ESPN to Sports Illustrated will pick them to either win the Central Division or be the AL's Wild Card team again. There'll be no sneaking up on opponents next year.

Maybe next baseball season, the Tigers will take us on another fun ride, indeed. It just might not be quite as thrilling. It certainly won't be unexpected. We suddenly won't tolerate a baseball loser again. One good year is all it took. Typical.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Tigers Get It Wrong By Giving Sheffield No. 3

It took about nine days for Gary Sheffield's presence to resonate with the Tigers.

Maybe it was a birthday gift (Sheffield turned 38 Saturday). Maybe someone on the Tigers just took leave of their senses. Maybe the spirit of Pat Swilling took over Sheffield's life form.

Sheffield, the Tigers' new DH/outfielder, acquired in a trade with the Yankees on November 10th, will wear uniform no. 3 next season, and the two seasons beyond that, presumably. Unless whatever controlled substances they're consuming at Comerica Park wear off before then.

That's right -- Sheffield, a Tiger for just nine days when the announcement was made, will wear the no. 3 that was done oh-so-proud by shortstop Alan Trammell for 20 seasons.

The real no. 3.

Imagine that. Giving away no. 3 so easily -- to a player whose current age is the same as Trammell's when he played his last game for the Tigers. I wonder what was going thru Sheffield's head when he even inquired about the number. Just like I wondered what Swilling was smoking when he asked about no. 56 when he was acquired by the Lions in 1993. Then the Lions gave it to him, and thus proved that they were even more ripped than their new linebacker.

The Lions' 56, of course, was the Hall of Fame linebacker Joe Schmidt. And the no. 56 jersey was rightly kept out of circulation, forever put away, never to be disturbed again, for no one could ever wear no. 56 with as much aplomb as Joe Schmidt.

Or so I thought. The Lions traded for Swilling during the '93 draft, and it wasn't long before he asked about 56 -- his number as a New Orleans Saint. Even Joe Montana, when he was traded to Kansas City, didn't even bother asking about no. 16. That number was worn into the Hall of Fame by Len Dawson. So Montana settled on 19 as a Chief. But even if Swilling wasn't up to snuff on his Lions history, it was incumbent on some sane voice of reason in the Lions offices to kindly tell him that it was time to wear a new number on the NFL fields. Didn't happen, and they trotted out poor Joe Schmidt for a hastily-called press conference to present his 56 to Swilling.

I thought such nonsense was reserved for dysfunctional franchises like the Lions.

But now the Tigers, just a month removed from their first World Series appearance in 22 years, have repeated the mistake their feline football cousins made, 13 years ago and some change.

Trammell, for his part, offered the expected "it's fine with me" comments when reached after the decision was made to give his number to the new Tiger Sheffield. But what else is he going to say? Kirk Gibson, when he was brought back to join Tram's staff as a coach in 2003, recognized the new status that his no. 23 had assumed in Detroit. Gibby wore 23 as a player, but by 2003, a statue of the original 23, Willie Horton, had been erected at CoPa. So Gibson, in a class move, didn't bother to put the Tigers on the spot; he asked to wear no. 22 instead.

Yes, Trammell's number isn't yet retired by the ballclub. So, theoretically, it's up for grabs. And Sheffield isn't some bum off the street; he may someday end up enshrined in Cooperstown. No matter. A number is worn for 20 seasons, and in the manner that Alan Trammell wore no. 3 -- that number should be stored away forever. Retirement ceremony or not. What's next? Is Lou Whitaker's no. 1 in jeopardy?

Sheffield wore no. 11 with the Yankees for the last three seasons. I don't ever recall him wearing 3 in any of his other baseball stops, which makes this request doubly odd. In fact, my first thought after the Tigers made the trade was, "Will they give him no. 11? That was Sparky Anderson's number, and no one has worn it since he left after the 1995 season."

No, they didn't give Sheffield no. 11. They did worse than that. They gave him no. 3.

Shame on them.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

$4 Million For Jamie Walker? It's The Sign Of The Times

The way things are going lately in MLB, I figure Jamie Walker has maybe 10 more good years left in him, at the outside.

Lefthanded reliever Walker, 35, is set to join the Baltimore Orioles after five seasons with the Tigers, reports indicate, for three years at somewhere near $4 million per season.

Four million dollars for a relief pitcher. Someone check Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson's graves for any signs of disturbance, like spinning going on inside.

Walker: Keep that arm safe and sound

But if you happen to be able to throw a major league baseball with your left arm, and do it reasonably well, you can attain job security that rivals that of the Supreme Court Justices. MLB teams' fascination with the southpaw pitcher is long-dated. And so lefty-lefty conscious managers are nowadays that a lefthanded reliever can pitch in 80 games, yet only register maybe 50 or 60 actual innings pitched. I wonder when the last one of them broke a sweat in a big league game.

Yet here Walker is, set to bolt the Tigers, American League Champs, for the downtrodden Orioles, who must be parched for lefty relief to want to commit $12 million to Walker. This is nothing against Jamie Walker, a good chap who gave the Tigers some reliable relief. In fact, it says more about the state of the Orioles -- and the big league game today, than anything.

You ever wonder why you hardly ever see lefthanded closers? Because a majority of hitters still bat righthanded. And the lefty reliever is seen as someone best used in the sixth, seventh, or eighth innings, mano-a-mano with the lefthanded batter. One and done, usually.

So no wonder their stamina is high, and that many of them pitch well into their 30's, and even into their early 40's. Jamie Moyer is an exception. He's a 40+ lefty, but he's a starter.

It wasn't expected that the Tigers would match the O's offer for Walker. Already their search, folks say, is underway for a (cheaper) replacement.

You just have to have that reliable lefty in your bullpen, in today's game. But the Tigers, for one, aren't a team that's willing to concede that that need equates to $4 million per season. Maybe someday it will be.

Until then, let the search begin!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Tigers' Trade For Sheffield Uncharacteristic, But Refreshing

The significance of the Tigers' trade for Gary Sheffield isn't so much what kind of impact it will have on the team -- and it will be great -- but the fact that they were in a position to make a trade of this magnitude in the first place.

The Tigers have not, throughout their history, been blockbuster makers. Even when the team was competitive in the 60's and 80's, they didn't take many risks. They won the "old fashioned way" -- with homegrown talent and a few "safe", low-risk trades along the way. The second side of that sword is that, when the farm was suffering through a drought, the lack of bold moves meant a series of bad years in the 70's. And the 90's. And the early 2000's.

He's not a bad guy, according to DD and Leyland

The Tigers are no longer sellers and watchers of other having fun during the offseason. The Sheffield trade for three minor league pitchers seals that belief. This is a potential Hall of Fame guy, a fearsome bat that should thwack many a line drive over the Comerica Park left field wall.

Already, manager Jim Leyland can't contain his excitement.

"I was up at 1 a.m. making out [a bunch] of lineups," Leyland told the Detroit press after the trade was announced. "You talk about adding a bat, then you talk about adding Gary Sheffield.

"I'm tickled to death right now."

He should be. In a great minority is the major league manager who works for an ownership that will think nothing of making a trade such as the one the Tigers made for Sheffield. More often than not, a manager watches helplessly as his talent base is lost thru attrition and lack of money. Leyland has been there, too -- with the Florida Marlins after their improbable 1997 championship.

Chances are that at least one of three young pitchers the Tigers traded for Sheffield will find some success in the big leagues. The way the Tigers have been scouting and drafting lately, it's unlikely that all three of them will fizzle out. But it was worth it, in their eyes -- in GM Dave Dombrowski's eyes, most importantly -- to get a bat of the stature of Sheffield, who is closing in on 500 career homers.

The risk, of course, is there not only due to Sheffield's age (38) and his recent wrist injury (he says the wrist is better than ever), but because of his less-than-stellar reputation as a problem player. Problem for managers. Problem for management. Problem for the paying customers.

Bah, humbug, the Tigers say.

Sheffield has history with DD and Leyland, winning that '97 Series with them as a Marlin. He has already been quoted as being "ecstatic" about the trade. But it has begun nicey-nicey with Sheffield before, in other baseball towns. It usually hasn't ended that way. Even this departure from the Yankees was not without the usual salvos fired by the malcontent athlete.

Gary Sheffield may come to be despised and looked at with disdain by the folks around Comerica Park, including the ticket takers and bat boys, by the time his new three-year deal is set to expire. The leap of faith is that by then, the Tigers will have won a World Series or two.

Which makes it all worth it.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Guillen, Tiger of the Year? Was There Ever Anyone Else?

Carlos Guillen, while a Tiger over the past couple of seasons, has played on one good leg, with a bad back, and thru assorted other dings and dents. And he is, pound for pound, the best player currently wearing the Old English D. He was the most consistent player in the 2006 postseason.

And he is, today, rightfully so, the 2006 Tiger of the Year, as voted on by the Detroit chapter of the Baseball Writer's Association of America.

The Tigers all season long were portrayed as a team without stars, one that is nearly impossible to assign a true MVP to. So many candidates. So many contributors to the best baseball season around here in two decades. How can you pick just one player? That's folly.

But you can pick just one, and that one is absolutely the shortstop Guillen. Yes, the Tigers suffered greatly with second baseman Placido Polanco out of the lineup with his shoulder injury. You can make a good case for the man they call "Poly" in the Tigers clubhouse. Yet he doesn't do all that Carlos Guillen can do on the baseball diamond. Guillen batted .320, 20 points higher than the next best Tiger (Pudge Rodriguez). His on-base percentage was .400, 50 points better than the second-best Tiger in that category. He had, by far, the best batting average on the team after the All-Star break. And he moved to first base in the playoffs and made the move virtually seamless.

Guillen, more than any Tiger, consistently delivered the big hit in '06. He was still, in my mind, the one Tiger you were relieved to see at the plate when something key needed to happen. Usually, he came through.

He was criticized at times during the season for his defensive blunders, including off-target throws. But looking back on it, how many of those errant tosses truly hurt the Tigers when it mattered the most?

Guillen was absolutely stolen from the Seattle Mariners, in a trade in which the Tigers sent Ramon Santiago to Seattle. And now the Tigers even have Santiago, to boot. In fact, Guillen's batting average has risen steadily, every year, beginning in 2001. In 2001, he was a .257 hitter. Today he is over 60 points better than that. And maybe he can even get better. Who knows what he can do, if he's completely healthy for an entire season?

Carlos Guillen, Tiger of the Year. It doesn't sound out of place. Not at all.

Monday, November 06, 2006

These Questions Have Been On My Mind

Just askin...

What did they call Tommy John Surgery before Tommy John had it?

Why did short relievers who finish games, who were known as Firemen, then become known as Stoppers, and then changed yet again, to Closers?

Why can't most players bunt properly?

Why is a high, bounding ball in the infield known to have taken a "Sunday hop"?

Why are bloop hits known as Texas Leaguers?

Why do we stand in the middle of the seventh inning?

Why is the game of quickly hitting the ball to several players called "pepper"? And why isn't it allowed near the grandstand?

Why is the next batter up considered to be "on deck"?

Why is a lefthander a "southpaw"?

When did stolen bases become obsolete in the playoffs?

Will Tampa Bay ever be good?

Do we really need first base coaches?

Why aren't there any lefthanded catchers?

What IS pine tar, anyway, and how did it become a part of baseball?

Can you recite the Infield Fly Rule?

Or do you know who was "on deck" when Bobby Thomson hit his "Shot Heard 'Round The World"? (I do)

Why is home plate shaped like a pentagram?

Just thought I'd ask.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Guilty Pleasure For Eno & Daniels: Tabletop Sports Games

When I interviewed actor Jeff Daniels for the November issue of MCS Magazine, I asked him to tell our readers something about him that nobody knows.

His answer caused my jaw to drop.

Seems Daniels, like I am, is a closet sports board game enthusiast. His game of choice, he told me, is APBA baseball. That's the game with the player cards and the two different colored six-sided dice that are read "APBA style": 11 thru 66.

Daniels: A fellow sports board gamer

"I played a sixteen team league, thirty games per team," Daniels told me.

Some quick math will tell you that's 240 games. How long did it take to complete?

"Oh, most of the 1980's," he said.

So there you have it. Jeff Daniels and I shared something, and it was the least expected thing I could imagine.

But unlike Daniels, I play ALL the major sports, on my tabletop. APBA, Strat-o-Matic, Statis-Pro, plus countless others. Daniels asked me if I play video games, too.

"NO," I answered emphatically.

"It's about the dice, isn't it?," he said, "and the cards."


I've never been much for the loud, frenetic video game. It has always been, like Daniels said, "about the dice and the cards."

I'm bad at starting seasons and replays and never finishing them. Downstairs in the basement are at least a dozen boxes of various sports games, with attempts to replay seasons and playoffs and my own little tournaments, all started and all in varying degrees of completion.

In May, I was at a local hobby shop and discovered, to my glee, an unopened version of Dynasty League Baseball, which just happens to be the best baseball tabletop game on the planet. It would have cost close to sixty dollars had I purchased it online. As it was, the shop, perhaps not knowing what it had, was selling the game (2003 season) for $25. I couldn't buy it fast enough. Maybe someday I'll get the nerve up to replay the 2003 Tigers, to see how close to 119 losses I can get. Currently, I'm replaying the 2003 Red Sox, and we're 18-16 thus far.

I'm still rolling 'dem bones, usually late at night, when the wife and kid are in bed. You can keep your video controller. Like Jeff Daniels says, "It's all about the dice and the cards."