Sunday, April 30, 2006

Howe's Death Sad, But Not Surprising

Steve Howe: Always pitching screwballs in life

I'm not a gambler, but I wouldn't have given you a plugged nickel on a bet that Steve Howe would have lived a long life.

Howe, 48, the Clarkston (MI) High School and University of Michigan graduate and former big league pitcher, died early Friday morning when his truck rolled over in California. The single
vehicle crash is under investigation -- just like how most of his major league career was spent.

Howe was handled very poorly by the sport that employed him. He was given chance after chance, following suspension after suspension, due to his chemical and alcohol dependencies. He was treated exactly how you should NOT treat an addict: With repeated welcomes back, when instead his baseball career should have been shuttered forever. Then maybe he would have worked harder to kick it. As it was, baseball always had the ruler out, ready to slap on his wrist, and Howe must have known it.

The self-destructive athlete, or coach, or manager, is aptly described because that's exactly what happens -- sooner or later. We may have been saddened at the news of Billy Martin's death on Christmas Day 1989, in another single vehicle accident -- this one involving alcohol, but how many of us were shocked? Or even mildly surprised? Were we stunned when Martin's drinking buddy, Mickey Mantle, died from a destroyed liver?

Those are just two examples, and in just baseball. Those that live hard usually die hard. It's never more true than in music, movies, and sports -- careers in which money is plenty, opportunities are tempting, and caution is discarded.

The time of Howe's death -- 5:55 a.m. local time -- and the fact that it was a single vehicle rollover, suggests possible alcohol or drug involvement. It wouldn't be anything close to a surprise, of course, for Howe was suspended several times by MLB for drug and/or alcohol abuse. In between penalties, however, Steve Howe was a pretty good pitcher -- a lefthander who was the 1980 Rookie of the Year. He stuck in the big leagues thanks to pitching lefthanded and for his ability to work effectively in the late innings. Unfortunately, Howe wasn't able to work as effectively at his own life.

Another Dodger who attended a Michigan school, Bob Welch (Eastern Michigan University), also had his share of off-the-field problems -- brought on by his alcoholism. But Welch sought out help, overcame it, and resumed his career to the tune of 17 seasons. With Steve Howe, you never got the feeling that he truly and seriously confronted his demons head on. And with MLB constantly swinging the door open for him, why should he have? Baseball was an enabler. Howe was suspended six times during his career, before finally being permanently kicked out by Commissioner Fay Vincent in 1992.

After his ban, Howe had to undergo testing to determine whether he had a medical disorder.

"I'm just jumping through hoops," said Howe at the time. "I've done what I've been told to do through the whole thing. I've upheld every bargain. I don't look at this one way or the other. I'm just tired of the whole situation."

Read those words again, and you'll see why he was doomed.

So Steve Howe is dead, not making it to 50 years of age, and baseball should be partly held accountable. Even if the investigators of the crash that killed him determine that no alcohol or drugs contributed to the accident, that doesn't change the fact that MLB failed itself -- and Howe, too -- by not taking a more strict approach toward his repeated offenses. For even if the crash that killed Howe Friday was simply an unfortunate accident, it won't take away from the feeling that if it wasn't this, it would have been something else that did him in before he became an old man -- something that would, indeed, have been caused by illegal use of substances.

It always gets the self-destructive, in the end -- unless an attempt at intervention is made. Then maybe they have a chance at cheating death a while longer.

Friday, April 28, 2006

It's True: Brooks Robinson Was A Popup Dropper

Once, after the great Willie Mays had dropped a fly ball, a venerable sportswriter described it thusly:

"The last time Mays dropped one of those, he was wearing a bonnet and shaking a rattle."

It was one of the game's better pieces of copy.

There was something that I was sure had happened in my childhood, and on my birthday. We used to go to Tigers games every August 6th. The team always seemed to be home on my birthday, so for about eight years, the tradition was such that I'd be allowed to invite two friends, and we'd head to the corner with my folks to catch the game. Anyhow, I had embedded into my memory file that I had witnessed the great Brooks Robinson -- Hall of Famer and quintessential third baseman -- drop a harmless foul popup on my birthday in 1975.

The Tigers, I had told myself, were in the thick of their 19-game losing streak when the O's came calling. And I kept replaying in my mind -- this is almost 31 years ago, you know -- the image of Brooksie settling under a foul ball between third base and the Tigers dugout. And dropping it.

Robinson dropped it -- yessiree

It was the simplest of plays. Little Leaguers make it all the time. Even overweight, old men at the company picnic's softball game can make that play.

Yet Robinson dropped it, the ball simply popping out of his glove like a superball off a playground's asphalt. My file card tells me the crowd gasped slightly, scarcely able to believe what they'd just seen: Brooks Robinson, dropping a foul popup?

So for confirmation I went to my newest most favorite website, I looked up the boxscore from 8-6-75. Sure enough, the Tigers played the Orioles. But wait -- a doubleheader? I don't remember watching two games, but maybe we did. I checked the boxscore of Game 1, and there it was:

ERRORS- B. Robinson (6).

Almost there.

I went to the game's play-by-play, and looked for any mention of Robinson's miscue. And there it is -- in the fourth inning, I believe:

"Robinson dropped Baldwin's foul popup."

Baldwin was Billy Baldwin, who would eventually be part of the trade that sent Mickey Lolich to the Mets for Rusty Staub. And Baldwin, the PBP said, doubled after Robinson's error, driving in a run. But the Tigers lost. And I was right; the loss was their 12th during that 19-game skid.

I still don't remember watching Game 2, but we must have, because my parents weren't "leave the game early" people.

Oh, and another footnote that I discovered: Former Tiger Jim Northrup played for the Orioles that night in Game 1, in what would be his last season. He went 1-for-3.

But Brooks Robinson did indeed drop a foul popup, just like I had always thought -- and that I had been telling people for years.

I'm not sure if he was wearing a bonnet and shaking a rattle the last time that had happened, however.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Colbert's Meltdown Another Of Those Great Baseball Mysteries

Like I may have mentioned in the past, I'm fascinated with ballplayers whose skills erode and vanish suddenly, often even mysteriously. It seems like only in baseball does this phenomenon happen with any consistency. In other sports, players retire or are forced out of their respective games because their end has come on slowly, like a disease that eats away at their abilities to the point where it becomes obvious it's time to move on. But in baseball, many times has a player seemed to have "had it" one day, and "lost it" the next.

Sometimes there are physical explanations. The most famous, of course, was Lou Gehrig. Folks suspected the Iron Horse was beginning to tarnish after his pedestrian performance in the 1938 World Series as a 35 year-old. And when he struggled in 1939's spring training, then followed that up with a 4-for-28 start in the regular season, Gehrig's performance suddenly became startling in its putridness. Later on everyone knew with frightening clarity what was causing Lou's demons: a debilitating muscle disease.

In 1990, a slugger named Nick Esasky joined the Atlanta Braves after signing a fat free agent contract in December 1989. Esasky signed with Atlanta after some impressive seasons in Cincinnati and one great year in Boston.

He opened the season well, going 3-for-6 in an Opening Day doubleheader (how many of THOSE do you see?), but then it was gone. A 3-for-29 slump -- which included an alarming number of strikeouts -- raised eyebrows, and I'm sure the blood pressure of Ted Turner, who was forking over the dough for the 1989 version of Nick Esasky. But this 1990 model was resembling an Edsel. Baseball-wise, it was actually closer to the 1939 Lou Gehrig.

And with good reason. Esasky, it turned out, was suffering from vertigo. And despite repeated attempts to treat it sufficiently for him to return to the field, his last game was April 21, 1990. End of career. At age 30 and two months.

But it isn't always a physical illness that slams the brakes on a baseball career. In fact, usually it isn't. Which makes the stories of players like Nate Colbert mesmerizing to me.

Colbert was the worst disappointment to come out of Detroit since the Edsel

The Tigers traded for Big Nate before the 1975 season, acquiring him from San Diego. He was a slugging first baseman whose notoriety was that he had slammed five homers and driven in 13 runs during a doubleheader in 1972. Both are still major league records for a DH. Anyhow, he was going to be the next powerful first baseman in Detroit, supplanting Norman Cash, who'd been "cashiered" the previous August.

Colbert was one of those guys who always wore a batting helmet -- even playing first base. Funny how only the homerun hitters could get away with that, like George Scott, or even Willie Horton, who wore a helmet in left field later in his career. And Nate started out well -- hitting two homers in his first few games as a Tiger. GM Jim Campbell was looking brilliant.

But even as the Tigers as a team got off to a surprisingly good 10-5 start, Colbert went into the toilet. He struck out a lot. His power went away. In fact, he could barely muster a single most days. As the oh-fer collars piled up, Tigers fans started scratching their heads. We didn't know much about Colbert, since he came from the National League, but still we wondered: Isn't he supposed to be better than this?

Finally, his average an unsightly .147, Colbert was traded to the Expos in June. He had four homers in 156 at-bats, far more plate appearances than he deserved, but he was granted them, since he was the Tigers' big-name offseason acquisition.

Colbert didn't fare much better in Montreal, hitting at a .173 clip in 81 at-bats. He was out of baseball a year later. Just three seasons before he became a Tiger, Colbert slugged 38 homers and had 111 RBIs. But he, too, was done at age 30. But why? How? Where did it all go? How could Nate Colbert suddenly not have a clue against big league pitching? It's like some of these guys have leases with someone either up above , or down below, and when that lease runs out -- BOOM. Done, like dinner.

Colbert's meltdown, however, paved the way for another lefthanded-hitting, slugging first baseman to make it as a Tiger: Jason Thompson. And like Cash, Thompson knocked a few balls over the right field roof at Tiger Stadium. But then he eventually fell into disfavor with manager Sparky Anderson -- just like Ron LeFlore and Rusty Staub, and eventually Steve Kemp -- and was traded in 1980, to the Angels.

Sparky ended a few careers, too -- sometimes before they even started.

Isn't that right, Torey Lovullo? Chris Pittaro?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

"Stranded At The Corner" A Must-See For Tiger Stadium Fans Everywhere

About a month ago, I urged readers to revisit that wonderful series of old baseball footage called "When It Was A Game", put out by Black Canyon Productions and first seen on HBO.

Today I urge you to get your hands on another baseball documentary, but this one has a local -- if you're a Detroiter -- flair.

"Stranded At The Corner," by filmmaker Gary Glaser, is a 90-minute look at the fight to save Tiger Stadium, and the resistance meeting those efforts. Narrated by Chris Felcyn (longtime host of WDET-FM radio's "The Listening Room" and now a host on classical/jazz WRJC-FM) and written by author Richard Bak ("Cobb Would Have Caught It", and others), "Stranded" is the story of a ballpark, its adoring public, and the ignominious "demolition by neglect" that has seemingly sentenced the stadium to a date with a wrecking ball -- maybe as early as this summer.

Glaser weaves vintage footage of Tiger Stadium -- in color and black & white -- along with many on-camera sound bites and testimonies, plus Felcyn's baritone narration, to tell the story of baseball played at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, including when the stadium was known as Bennett Park in the early 20th century, then eventually Navin Field and Briggs Stadium.

The film examines the various plans for Tiger Stadium post-major league baseball that were shot down for one reason or another. It also takes to task the Detroit City Council, and current Tigers owner Mike Ilitch for rebuffing those plans, all of which would keep the stadium useful and even turn it into a potential money maker. Ilitch, the graphic says at the end of the film, respectfully refused to be interviewed for the project. The only member of Council who spoke on camera was Maryann Mahaffey, who's clearly sympathetic to the movement to keep Tiger Stadium from being demolished.

"Stranded" will resonate deeply with anyone who's spent any number of afternoons or evenings at The Corner, watching the Tigers over the years. And the rare clips of action inside the stadium are fascinating, some of which date back over 50 years. Also intriguing was the sight of President John Kennedy speaking in a United States Olympic Committee film, announcing that the USOC had nominated Detroit to be the host of the 1968 Summer Games. Apparently an olympic-sized stadium was to have been built on the State Fairgrounds, and the Tigers were to have played there when the Games ended. This would have resulted in, as Felcyn boomed, "the 1968 World Series being played on Eight Mile Road."

Former Tiger Willie Horton, Tiger Stadium Fan Club President Frank Rashid, longtime usher Fred Rice, and executive producer Peter Comstock Riley (President of Michigan and Trumbull, LLC) are among those seen frequently reminiscing and/or explaining about their roles in the fight to save the stadium. Native Detroiter and actor/comedian Thom Sharp provides comic relief in several on-camera bits shot just outside the stadium, where a guard supposedly is stationed. Sharp gives us funny and sarcastic commentary as he waits for the guard to make his appearance, which never comes of course.

I had the pleasure of viewing the film at its world premiere Monday night at the Gem Theatre downtown, and I strongly recommend you purchasing the DVD, which should be available in stores soon. For more about the film, visit Glaser's website at There's also a story about the making of the film in the current (April) issue of Motor City Sports Magazine (he wrote in a shameless plug for his publication).

"Stranded At The Corner", if you care at all about Tiger Stadium, will make you wistful, angry, and perplexed about its past and apparently doomed future. It'll leave you shaking your head, but is also guaranteed to bring out the nine year-old kid in you who attended his or her first game at the old ballpark.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


(Sorry about the Monday Morning Manager -- my weekly take on the Tigers -- being a day late this week)

Last Week: 5-2
This week: (4/24-26: at LAA [lost 4/24]; 4/28-30: MIN)

In his interview with me for the May issue of Motor City Sports Magazine -- conducted April 12 -- Tigers first base/outfield coach Andy Van Slyke said it was fairly obvious that the current team didn't know how to win quite yet.

"But they're starting to find out that it feels a lot better to win than to lose," Van Slyke told me.

I wonder what AVS would say about the Tigers now, as they sit at a pleasant 12-8, after Monday night's 3-0 loss to the Angels in Los Angeles.

Twenty games does not a season make, but I'm pretty sure most Tigers fans would absolutely have taken 12-8 if it was offered to them at the beginning of the season.

I think what has impressed me most is the 5-2 week on the heels of a disappointing opening homestand. I thought we'd find out a bit about the club should it falter after its 5-0 getaway. And since the Tigers' four-game losing streak that quickly turned them into a 5-4 team, they have gone on a 7-4 run -- including a very impressive, come-from-behind win in Oakland last Thursday -- which will forever be known as the "Brandon Inge 15-pitch at-bat game."

I'd say they rebounded quite nicely from their losing skid at home.

The good news: a 10-3 record on the road. The bad news: only 2-5 at home, and against two divisional rivals. After coming home from the West Coast, the Tigers will try to make hay at home against the Twins and Royals -- two more Central foes, but not ones that are in the same class as the White Sox and Indians. It's even more imperative this year that the Tigers beat up on the Royals, because not only is Kansas City already the orchestrators of an 11-game losing streak this season, they are clearly the dregs of the league -- which means that everyone else is going to rack up wins against them. So beating the Royals at least keeps the Tigers up with the Joneses in the AL. And, the Tigers' record against the bums from KC hasn't exactly been stellar lately.

Bottom line: unless the Tigers get swept in Los Angeles, it's been a wonderful western swing, and if they can get off the schneide at home, we're looking at something like a 17-11 record by the middle of next week.

Oh, how easy it is to be pleased anymore in Detroit!

Friday, April 21, 2006

A Bases Loaded Walk? Who ARE These Tigers, Anyway?

This isn't usually a "game recap" kind of blog, but indulge me please.

When was the last time the Tigers had a bases-loaded walk to win the game? When was the last time they had a bases-loaded walk, period?

Before you answer those two questions, be mindful that a cynic -- not like me , of course -- could ask, sardonically, "When was the last time the Tigers had a walk of any kind?"

Look, we all know our lovable Bengals aren't the most judicious team at the plate. They hack away sometimes as if Mike Ilitch's private team plane is sitting on the tarmac, gassed up and ready to take flight. They treat even a ball three count like Bird Flu at times.

So that's why it was so much fun to see them score three runs in the top of the ninth and whip the A's, 4-3, yesterday -- courtesy the bases-loaded walk. I'm not sure, come to think about it, what was more surprising: The way the Tigers won, or the fact that their game was on TV -- and a midweek DAY game at that.

Ahh, maybe I AM cynical, after all.

Bless the heart of Brandon Inge, who fouled off NINE two-strike pitches before drawing the walk that loaded the bases in the ninth -- on the 15th pitch of an epic at-bat. Curtis Granderson then walked, forcing in the winning run.

High marks also to manager Jim Leyland for sticking with Fernando Rodney in the ninth, even though F-Rod had pitched the eighth, and had gotten himself into his own bases-filled jam in the ninth. But J-Ley stuck with him, and the closer induced a 5-2 groundball out, then got a swinging strike three to end it.

I guess I was also tickled because of how happy and giddy the Tigers reacted after the win. They bounced out of the dugout after Pudge Rodriguez thrust his fist into the air as he caught Rodney's last pitch, and the postgame high-fives and fist-bumpings seemed to have more oomph and energy in them. It was a big win for them, and they knew it. Good for them.

The team is now 2-1 after Ley-ley's mini-outburst following Monday's mailed-in loss to the Tribe, and 9-7 overall.

Remember when a 9-7 record would make this town go crazy -- if it was the Lions' mark?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

What Happens When Shelton Returns To Earth?

In 1982, an outfielder named Eddie Miller made the Tigers out of spring training. He was one of Sparky Anderson's annual darlings -- those players who would come out of nowhere in Lakeland and captivate the manager, who would in turn try to get the writers as excited about that individual as he was.

Anyhow, Miller had been an outfielder with the Braves, and was in his mid-20's when he broke camp with the Tigers as Sparky's new leadoff hitter.

On Opening Night, Miller singled in his first at-bat. The white-haired genius had struck again, right?


24 hitless at-bats later, Eddie Miller vanished from Detroit Tigers baseball.

Chris Shelton is certainly no Eddie Miller; and Sparky no longer manages here -- another astute observation. But what happens when the hoopla that engulfs Shelton due to his jackrabbit start -- and it will -- starts to fade?

Shelton: A slide a comin'

Shelton will not hit .400 this season. He probably won't hit .375, either. Or maybe not even .350. He is human, after all, and no human has managed the .400 standard since Ted Williams -- 65 years ago. Rod Carew gave it a go in 1977, ending at .388. George Brett made a run in 1980 -- sitting at .400+ as late as September before "slumping" to .390. But other than those two tries, no player has seriously challenged the hallowed .400 mark.

So when Shelton comes back to earth -- and he's already showing signs of that now, if you want the truth -- how will he handle it? How will the media? How will the fans?

Sometimes the tumble down the mountain is more difficult to contend with than the struggle upward.

It says here that we'll find out a lot more about Chris Shelton as his batting average slides than we ever have as a Tiger. He's basically hit the cover off the ball ever since he was brought to Detroit -- stolen, actually from the Pirates organization -- so we'll see what happens when the inevitable slump occurs.

Still, Shelton is probably good for .320, 35 HR and 90-100 RBI. If only others on the team could "slump" and still hit those numbers.

Seeing how "Big Red" handles the adversity of his return to this planet will be an interesting case study in baseball maturity.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Anger Toward Bonds Rooted In The Public's Dislike Of His Character

A word now about Barry Bonds, and I hate to even give it that much.

But I think folks who believe that the anger that's being levied toward Bonds in the form of yelling from the stands and objects being thrown in his direction onto the field is somehow rooted in the fans' simple lack of desire to see him eclipse Hank Aaron's all-time homerun record, are off the mark. Certainly it's not racist; Aaron is black too, after all.

The vitriol and poisonous correspondence and threats directed Aaron's way back in 1973-74, as he chased Babe Ruth, were shameful and many were, indeed, based on the "white man" not wanting to see a "n*****" break Babe's record. It got so bad that Aaron's daughter had to receive special police protection due to kidnapping threats. It wasn't one of this country's better moments.

But people are angry at Bonds because he's a petulant, rude jerk. End of story. Oh -- and that he's a petulant, rude jerk who most likely used performance-enhancing drugs and then lied about it.

Let's face it. If Barry Bonds was Willie Stargell -- gregarious, amenable to the fans, gracious -- then MUCH fewer folks would have an issue with his chasing Aaron. Or even if he wasn't quite that nice but at least had gone about the chase in a clean, drug-free fashion, that would have been alright, too. But the combination of being a steroid-using a**hole is just too much for the baseball public to bear. Hence the need for heightened security in any city where Bonds is performing.

Don't get me wrong. Throwing stuff onto the field -- regardless of how clever the objects may be in their symbolism -- is plain wrong and those people should be dealt with accordingly. There's never going to be justification for that behavior -- ever.

The root of the evil being unleashed upon Barry Bonds has nothing to do with the sanctity of Aaron's record, but rather has everything to do with the quality of the person chasing it.

Monday, April 17, 2006


Welcome to the Monday Morning Manager -- my weekly look at the Tigers.

Last week: 2-4
This week: vs. CLE (4/17); at Oak (4/18-20); at Sea (4/21-23)

If there's such a thing as "big wins" in April, the Tigers got them -- despite going 2-4 for the week.

Friday's win over Cleveland was "big" because it snapped a four-game losing streak, and it was against a team the Tigers had better learn how to beat if they are to be anything more than pretenders in the AL Central. And Sunday's 1-0 victory was more than small because: a) The team doesn't usually win those kinds of games, and b) It meant two out of three (so far) against the Tribe, perhaps showing that Friday's win was more than just something to stop the bleeding. In other words, maybe the Tigers have put the losing behind them -- at least for now.

First baseman Chris Shelton, according to FSN analyst Rod Allen, is "locked in."

"I haven't seen anyone be this locked in for two weeks," Allen blared into his microphone yesterday. "Two weeks! What Shelton's been able to do is ridiculous."

Indeed. Shelton continues to hit well over .400, despite being collared Sunday (0-4). He shares the ML lead in homers with eight, and leads in RBIs with 16. He's not locked in; he's welded, cemented, and fused.

I worry a little about pitcher Jeremy Bonderman, however. He's 1-2 with a 6.23, and the buzz is that he's trying to get by with just two pitches, and not working his changeup into the mix enough. It's far too early to be terribly concerned, but I sometimes get these nightmare images of Bondy becoming the pitching version of Carlos Pena: All potential and little production.

On the other hand, reliever Joel "Zoom" Zumaya continues to impress. He got out of an eighth-inning jam yesterday (1st and 2nd, one out) with two strikeouts, and the way he got them should make every Tigers fan drool. First he dropped a NASTY curve ball in on a lefthanded hitter for called strike three, then got the next batter, a righty, swinging on a 98 mph fastball. End of jam. End of inning. End of the Indians, for all intents and purposes.

The Tigers are still relying too much on the longball to score runs, however. I know that's not manager Jim Leyland's first preference as far as producing offense, but it's working for now. However, I'd feel better if the team played some "smallball" and moved runners around, and kept the factory open (my term for "manufacturing runs"). Yesterday's win notwithstanding, the Tigers blew a chance to get some insurance when they had runners on the corners with one out in the eighth. They failed to score -- mainly because nobody hit a homerun, apparently.

This week it's out west to Oakland and Seattle, after one more game today with the Indians. It's good to get a West Coast trip out of the way early. Again, it'll be another barometer to gauge the Tigers' progress and status.

It's never too early to make judgements for us bloggers, you know.

Friday, April 14, 2006

"Hondo" Still The Benchmark For Power In One Week

Chris Shelton has seven homeruns after just nine games for the Tigers, and it looks like it might be a neck-and-neck race between he and the White Sox's Jim Thome, if the first week or so of the season rings true.

Seven homers in nine games? Not bad, Big Red. But still, you go sit in the corner.

Frank Howard -- the Capital Punisher, or Hondo if you prefer -- once hit 10 dingers in a single week, for the old Washington Senators. And I mean, a single week -- Monday thru Sunday, babe. It was in 1968 -- the last Year of the Pitcher as we know it. Starting in 1969, the baseball powers that be lowered the mound by several inches, and a new age of offensive prowess was ushered in.

Hondo about to dole out some capital punishment

Howard comes to mind, because he always does whenever someone goes off on a power binge like Shelton and Thome -- who has six homers after blistering Tigers pitching this week -- have.

Ten homers in seven days is Ruthian, but if anyone could occasionally travel in such rarified air, it was Frank Howard. And he was briefly a Tiger, which some folks don't even know.

Howard, 6'7", broke into the majors with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and after several good seasons in L.A., he was dealt to the Senators. He was the diamond stick pin on the crumpled suit that was the Washington baseball entry in the American League. Howard crushed homeruns at the rate of about once every 13 at-bats in his heyday, but his Senators teams were mostly awful.

Then, with about a month to go in the 1972 season and the Tigers in a dogfight for the AL East crown, GM Jim Campbell rescued Howard from purgatory. The Senators had moved to Texas and became the Rangers, but they still stank. So Campbell made the trade, and Howard chipped in with a homer in 32 closing week at-bats for the Bengals. And the Tigers captured the division.

Problem was, Howard was acquired just a day or two after the cutoff for players to join their new teams and still be eligible for postseason play. So despite helping the Tigers win the AL East, Frank Howard had to watch his team lose a heartbreaking 3-games-to-2 ALCS to the Oakland A's. His bat may have helped to reverse that result, but we'll never know.

Hondo stuck around for one more season in Detroit before calling it quits at the end of the year, 37 years old and his playing career over after 382 homers and 1,119 RBIs. He later became a first base coach for the Yankees.

So revel in Chris Shelton's hot power start if you'd like. But it's still nothing like Frank Howard's week in 1968.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Now You See It, Now You Don't: The Big League Skill

It's happened in Detroit, where the Hot Sauce got diluted and became mostly vinegar. Where a frustrated third baseman heaved a ball out of Tiger Stadium. Where a phenom pitcher turned into a non-roster invitee whose fastball couldn't break a pane of glass.

But it's happened elsewhere, of course. In Pittsburgh, where a World Series pitching hero morphed into a wild, completely ineffective chucker almost overnight. In San Francisco, where a 24-game winner became a three-game winner the next season. In Washington -- old school days -- where a once-30+ game winner melted into a 22-game loser.

It has always fascinated me how humbling the game of baseball can be. Sparky Anderson used to have a sign in his office that said, "Everyday, the world turns upside down on someone sitting on top of it." Oh, how often that's true in the National Pastime.

It seems to happen with pitchers more than anyone else. Hot Sauce was reliever/closer Kevin Saucier, who did his thing for the Tigers in 1981-82. In '81, Saucier was the Sauce, to the tune of an era well under 2.00. He punctuated the ends of games that he closed by hopping around on the field, slapping his glove and whacking his teammates on their backs. The crowds at Tiger Stadium loved it.

But in 1982, Saucier -- his numbers actually quite respectable -- quit the game, suddenly fearing what he perceived to be a lack of control. "I'm afraid I'm going to kill somebody out there," Saucier said. The lefthander retired, then and there, the season droning on.

Darnell Coles, a Tigers third baseman in the mid-to-late 1980's, grew so discombobulated with his inadequacies that he reared back and flung a baseball over the roof on the third base side one evening between innings at the Stadium. He was once the third baseman of the future, a supposed steal from the Mariners who hit over 20 home runs in 1986. But a few years later, Coles threw a baseball and his Tigers career onto Kaline Drive.

Mark Fidrych was as "one-hit wonder" as the song "Kung Fu Fighting." He turned the baseball world on in 1976, and by 1980 he was a non-roster invitee who had no clue on the mound. Arm injuries, perhaps triggered somehow by a bad knee injury in spring training, 1977, turned The Bird into a carcass.

Steve Blass was a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who helped his team win the 1971 World Series. In 1972, Blass was 19-8 with a 2.49 ERA and 84 walks in 250 innings. Then, in '73, Blass sunk to 3-9 with a 9.85 ERA and 84 walks -- in just 89 IP. Who knows what robbed Steve Blass of his gift of pitching a baseball? But it happened.

Blass: Where did the talent go between 1972 and 1973?

Ron Bryant, a lefty, won 24 games in 1973, and then arm trouble hit. In '74, Bryant went 3-15. He reappeared with the Cardinals in 1975, but pitched just 8.2 innings, his ERA 16.62. He was out of baseball soon after.

Denny McLain, as you know, won 31 games in 1968, but with the Washington Senators in '71, Denny lost 22 times. He had one more year left in him , and then he went off to a life of conviction -- in the legal sense.

There are scores of others, of course. Here today, gone tomorrow. For some, their talents inexplicably leave them. Perhaps it's in their heads. For others, the injury bug strikes and it's a virus they can't shake -- ever. Regardless, they can be turned so instantly into baseball rubbish that it can make your head swim.

I was speaking to Tigers coach Andy Van Slyke yesterday for an upcoming MCS Magazine interview, and he told me he tries to convey to his outfielders that playing in the big leagues "is a privilege, not a right."

And how definitively and/or swiftly that privilege can be taken away -- one way or another.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Opening Day In Detroit Something Special

Observations of another Opening Day in Detroit...

Walking to the ballpark yesterday after entertaining guests at the Motor City Sports (MCS) Magazine tailgate party, I asked my boss -- publisher Muneesh Jain -- if he had ever been to Opening Day in Detroit. He said no -- but that he'd been to OD in other cities.

"Well then," I said, "I guess that means that you've never truly been to Opening Day."

It's true. There's something magical in the air when it's OD in Detroit, and when Mother Nature smiles upon the city as she did Monday afternoon -- with mostly sunny skies and temps in the upper 50's to low 60's -- it's even more so.

The pregame crowds were jovial and well-behaved, and it struck me that this is still one helluva baseball town. Tigers jerseys and attire were everywhere -- even on those bodies that don't look particularly good in double-knits, but what the heck?

At the MCS party, we enjoyed hot dogs, submarine sandwiches, Swedish meatballs, and the beverage of your choice -- thanks to the good folks at Anheuser-Busch. There was soda pop for the youngens, too. Plenty of magazines were available for free, and it was good to mingle with readers and advertisers.

On the field before the game, I saw actor Jeff Daniels, who was almost unrecognizable in his full, bushy beard. I spoke to him briefly about being the subject in an upcoming MCS Interview, and he was quite receptive, so stay tuned on that.

The drawback, though, to watching the game in the press box is the disconnect from the atmosphere in the crowd. It's a sort of antiseptic way to watch baseball, but that's where we were stationed, so there you have it. Of course, we get free hot dogs and pop so I can't complain too much.

I had predicted a Tigers win and an ejection of White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen right here in this very space yesterday, and when Guillen came onto the field in the fourth inning to argue Dmitri Young being safe on his steal of third base, I made sure the folks around me knew of my fearless forecast.

"Unbelievable! A guy who actually makes predictions of ejections," George Eichorn, the Executive Director of the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association, said. But I was disappointed when Ozzie argued so mildly.

The other thing that struck me was how many folks hung around the ballpark after the game. Nobody was in a hurry to get to their cars and go home. It was a quickie game -- 2:14 -- so maybe that was a factor. But the streets were alive, and you couldn't tell from the happy looks on people's faces that the Tigers had lost. Of course, I wonder how many of them even knew that fact. Perhaps imbibing trumped watching the game's outcome.

Chicago 5, Detroit 3. Oh well -- there's always Wednesday.

Monday, April 10, 2006


Welcome to the Monday Morning Manager!

Each Monday, in this space, you'll get my takes on the Tigers: the week just played, the games that lie ahead, and other odds and ends.


Last Week: 5-1
This week: vs. CWS (4/10,12,13); vs. CLE (4/14-16)

If there ever was more of a lock for Player of the Week honors -- in the history of the award -- than Chris Shelton, then that person must be playing slow-pitch softball somewhere.

Shelton started the 2006 season this way: 14-for-20, 5 homers, 2 triples, and a slugging average that looks like the price of gasoline. And the Tigers won their first five games.

A hiccup yesterday in Texas notwithstanding, the team comes home 5-1. Break out the red, white, and blue bunting, Mildred -- these aren't your daddy's Tigers.

Comerica Park and the surrounding areas promise to have some more zip and zing in their air this afternoon for Opening Day -- and this time you truly can capitalize both those words.

The Tigers did so many good things, played such good baseball, that it makes you wonder if the team somehow sold its soul to the devil in order to spend at least one week among the game's elite.

The starting pitchers won their first five decisions. They only walked three batters. The defense was solid. The hitting was overpowering. Manager Jim Leyland surely must have been stowing a crystal ball with him on the trip, because just about every move, every lineup change, every bullpen summons -- worked to a "T" -- for Tigers.

Opening weeks aren't usually much, in the long run. They are, truthfully, just one of some 27 or so weeks that a team will experience during the course of a season. It just happens to not be sandwiched with a week before it, so it stands out.

But no matter when a baseball team has a week that the Tigers had, it should be cause celebre, because this is the way winning teams play the game, man. It was such a good display, even if the Tigers don't have anything close to it for awhile, they should keep it fresh in their minds -- if only to prove to themselves that they are capable of performing as an elite club performs.

Shelton was uneblievable, of course, and it's hard not to get too excited about this kid. He swung the bat with such authority and in such a businesslike manner, that opposing pitchers around the league might be waking up in cold sweats the night before facing Big Red. You just can't pitch to him right now. The other team would have as good of luck -- if not better -- if they just placed the ball on a tee and let him swing away. Chisel him in for .315 or .320 by the end of the year -- easy. No sweat. This young man, I'm convinced, could hit .300 just by showing up at the ballpark.

It'll be interesting to see, as it is with all unheralded teams who get off to fast starts -- how the Tigers react now that they've lost a game. Will it trigger a slide, or can they avoid a losing spell and keep the wins coming?

It's AL Central Varsity this week: the White Sox and the Indians for six at CoPa. None of this JV, Kansas City Royals stuff. The defending champs haven't had their Wheaties yet. I wonder what words of self-proclaimed wisdom manager Ozzie Guillen will utter to his charges before the game today.

Opening Day prediction: Tigers 6, White Sox 4. And a Guillen ejection.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Where, Oh Where, Have My Stirrup Socks Gone?

Where have all the stirrups gone?

Baseball uniforms have undergone fashion changes, just like every other sport's has, but I see a trend that's been happening for several years that has me beside myself.

Stirrup socks -- those used-to-be-tall strips of material that run alongside the ankles and lower legs of ballplayers -- are fading away, like drive-in movie theaters and the use of turn signals on cars. At their peak, stirrups were tall and lean and made the ballplayers look cooler than cool. They went well with the double-knit craze of the '70's and '80's.

But about ten years ago, the stirrups got shorter and shorter, until today -- when they have disappeared from some players' uniforms entirely. The baseball pant is now worn all the way to the top of the shoe. Mama mia!

Although, even in their heyday, stirrups had their quashers. Sparky Anderson's Cincinnati teams were notorious for their low stirrups. They were made in such a way that no matter how hard you tugged on them, the stirrup didn't show very much white sanitary sock beneath it.

When I played for Bra-Con Industries in 1977 -- my first time wearing a "real" baseball uni of top and pant -- I yanked my stirrups so high they were like ultra-thin whisps of blue over my white sanitary sock. I wore them that way because that's how all the "cool" players wore them. Check out the 1979 champion Pittsburgh Pirates, with their interchangeable black, yellow, and white monstrosities of uniforms. All the members of Willie Stargell's "Family" wore the high, high sturrup.

High stirrups made the players look taller and leaner than they really were. Even Stargell didn't look quite so tubby in those uniforms with the cool stirrups.

THAT'S what I'm talkin' about! (Stargell, in his '79 uni)

Stirrups, when they were visible, also functioned as an actual portion of the team's color schemes. The Tigers' road uniforms, circa 1972-1981, had orange and white stripes that ran around the circumference of the stirrup top -- a key accessory to their "away" look. Other teams used the stirrup tops for stripes and logos, etc.

But now?

The stirrup is vanishing, and I'd like to know why. Is it a comfort issue? Or just a bad fashion trend, like leisure suits in the polyester 1970's?

And don't be confused. When I say stirrups, I mean the skinny portion of the sock that runs alongside the ankle. Wearing the pants to just below the knees -- a la Marquis Grissom and Curtis Granderson and Brandon Inge -- calling it "old school," doesn't count. Because those socks STILL aren't showing hardly any stirrup.

Come on, big leaguers -- get loose.

Friday, April 07, 2006 -- For ALL Of Your Baseball Needs

Thanks to my friend Lee Panas at Detroit Tiger Tales and his ambitious but wonderfully inventive Mark Fidrych Diary, I checked out a website called

I'm still reeling.

I thought and took the cake when it comes to providing baseball nuts with factoids and career stats, quotes, memorable moments, etc. But digs deeper.

There are boxscores for games dating back decades, including in-game play-by-play and practically every fact about a game you'd care to know. There are schedules from years gone by. Standings, of course. Game-by-game results for individual teams for just about any season you'd like to look up. And more.

Maybe many of you are rolling your eyes and saying, "Geez, Eno -- you're just NOW hearing about retrosheet?," but I don't care. I discovered it last night and if I didn't stop myself -- which was hard to do -- I might STILL be browsing that site.

But the bestest part of was that I was able to go back in time and look at boxscores and play-by-play from some of the most precious games I attended as a child.

For example, it took me a little while to find it on the schedule, but I always knew my first game in person was a 1971 Tigers-Yankees contest. I guessed that it was played after the All-Star game that was in Detroit that year, because I seem to remember the giant red, white, and blue stars that were painted in the outfield -- NOBODY else did that but Detroit, by the way -- and I thought them to be kind of grown over. Turns out the game I attended was actually played July 8, 1971 -- five days before the All-Star Game. So maybe the stars weren't grown over; perhaps they just weren't totally painted at that time. I knew the date was correct because my memory said the Tigers won, 3-1. And sure enough, the score of the 7/8/71 game was 3-1, Detroit.

I eagerly clicked on the boxscore and discovered that Tigers second baseman Tony Taylor played an inning at first base that night. I could see who the umpires were, what the attendance was, and how the teams scored. It also gives you the standings at the end of that day's games. The Tigers were about eight games out of first -- behind the frontrunning Orioles. It was a Thursday night. Sadly, just about my only memory of that game -- played about a month before my eighth birthday -- was of walking in the concourse and passing one of the ramps leading to the stands as we entered the ballpark. I remember how GREEN everything was -- the seats, the grass, the dugouts, the fences. I could see the pitching hill, and my eyes literally got wide and my father chuckled as he saw my wonderment. I remember that chuckle, but nothing from the game itself -- other than the final score. But that's all I needed to know, because filled in all the blanks.

There was a Monday night game in 1973 -- on my birthday, August 6. It was the first of eight straight birthday games -- a little tradition we had. Anyhow, the game was the NBC Monday Night Game of the Week, and again the Yankees were in town. I remember the joint was packed. We sat in the upper deck in left. I also recall that Frank Howard hit a homerun in the bottom of the ninth, and the Tigers won in extra innings. So I looked it up on, and my memory was dead-on: Howard hit the homer, pinch-hitting for Gates Brown, who also had homered earlier in the game. I remembered that Aurelio Rodriguez had slid home with the winning run in the 10th, and I was right about that, too.

I looked up some other games I attended throughout my life, including a couple games I saw in Toronto in 1978 with my friend Steve Hall, whose relatives lived outside of Toronto. After an hour of this stuff, I had to stop. It was after 2 a.m., after all.

Check out -- and keep a cup of coffee handy. Still, don't be surprised if you fall asleep in front of your computer. Even the nuttiest of baseball nuts poops out eventually.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Rollins' Broken Arrow Hitting Streak Tougher Than DiMaggio's

The Phillies' Jimmy Rollins' latest assault on Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak -- he's at 38 and counting -- brings up an interesting, potential debate.

If Rollins, bless his heart, manages to hit safely in at least 18 more consecutive games, it will beg the question: Was Rollins' achievement any easier or more difficult than DiMaggio's?

Think about it a moment. Hitting safely in 56 straight games is tough, no matter how you slice it. But Rollins' way -- spread over two seasons (36 in 2005 and 20 in 2006) with six months between at-bats -- is a different kind of tough. Not necessarily tougher, but different. So when things are different, is it not natural to want to compare them?

It says here that should Rollins manage to at least tie DiMaggio, his way should be considered tougher than doing it all in the same season.

A long hitting streak in the middle of a season means, obviously, that you're on a roll, seeing the ball good, and all that rot. You've gotten into a rhythm. You're "locked in." You can't wait to get to the ballpark. No pitcher is remotely like Cy Young.

But to have to wait six months, including going through spring training with its meaningless games, only to suddenly "turn the switch" when the curtain rises for real in April, and pick up where you left off in order to keep the streak alive -- well, I just think that requires something extra that DiMaggio didn't have to deal with.

Some great hitters have been described as being able to jump out of bed on Christmas morning and slap a single to left. Jimmy Rollins essentially had to do that to lengthen his hitting streak, when you consider it.

Anyhow, it's a fun thing to discuss, as so many other baseball-related arguments tend to be. So in that spirit, take a gander at the latest WHYGJG poll to the right and chime in with your opinion.

Even if Rollins blows it the next game, he's gone long enough to trigger debate.

You got a problem with that?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Nighttime Baseball Is Slowly Taking Over The Game

The White Sox hosted the Indians on Sunday night -- a made-for-ESPN event. It was billed as Opening Night.


First of all, it's Opening Day, not Opening Night.

Second....well, it's Opening Day, not Opening Night.

You don't start a baseball season at night. In fact, you shouldn't start it any later than 2:00 in the afternoon, although several teams broke that rule on Monday, too.

Ironically, the Texas Rangers, who play most of their home games at night due to the heat, opened their home schedule Monday during the day. Even the night owls in Arlington got it right on Opening Day -- so why can't so many others?

Night baseball is a necessary evil, and I'm okay with that. I even like attending the occasional evening contest. But we're already phasing out day games at a rapid enough rate: Gone are day playoff games, for example. And Saturday afternoons are slowly being replaced with Saturday nights. The only safe haven for daytime baseball, it seemed, was during the opening couple of weeks of the season, when most teams loaded up on day games -- especially the northern cities (the domeless ones), to combat the chilly April nights.

So now even that is being infiltrated by night baseball.

The Tigers didn't used to play their first night game until well into April, and only a few for the month, period. But now they play a night game Friday the 14th, and then they're off and running into the crisp evening air.

The more I gnash my teeth about it, the more I'm convinced the Cubs had it right all those years, and the more I wish they had never installed those darned lights in Wrigley Field. To FORCE day games is a delicious thought.

Again, I don't want to sound as if I hate the night game. Because I don't. You have to have them. This isn't 1935 anymore -- I understand that. All I'm saying is, can't baseball squeeze a little more room for the afternoon contest played beneath the summer's toasty sun? Isn't there a demand out there for games played and completed before the 5:00 rush hour traffic begins?

Can't ESPN suck it up and open the season with a Sunday afternoon match?

We'd watch -- I promise.

And a whole lot of fans would be saved from frostbite.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Opening Day Around MLB -- Sorta

Some random thoughts as I watched Opening Day around the TV dial...

Ken Griffey Jr. is wearing #3 for the Reds. Since when? What happened to #24? His dad wore 30, so that can't be the reason. Is he paying homage to Babe Ruth? Or Alan Trammell?

Speaking of the Reds, they're supposed to be terrible this year and after seeing parts of their ugly 16-7 loss to the Cubs, I can see why. Their third baseman short hops one to first base, it's bobbled, and EVERYONE is safe. President Bush watches after throwing out the first pitch. It's the best toss he's made since throwing our troops under the bus.

Chris Shelton IS the real deal, folks. He muscles homers to left and right, and if he does that all season, how do you pitch to him? Pencil him in for .315 -- maybe higher. And put it in pen, on second thought. Or chisel it in stone, if you'd prefer.

The Braves nearly blow it against the Dodgers. And I wish the Dodgers would put their names back on their uniforms, or at least make their numbers thicker. They look like a minor league team.

Boston takes care of Texas as Curt Schilling seems in midseason form. It already looks hot in Arlington. No wonder they play most of their home games at night -- even the Sunday ones.

Magglio Ordonez first-pitch swings and grounds out with runners on first and third to kill a rally, right after Pudge Rodriguez walks on four straight pitches. Come on, new hitting coach Don Slaught -- that's SO Tigers 2005!

The Reds look simply miserable in front of their home crowd, many of whom apparently came disguised as empty seats. Of course, the weather looks lousy. There's Griffey again with his #3 -- will someone PLEASE explain?

Braves and Dodgers in a slugfest. Back in the day, that was unheard of in a Braves/Dodgers contest. Of course, I'm going back to circa 1992. I always did live in the past.

Kenny Rogers will be a joy to watch as he turns hitters inside out. And this Joel Zumaya? Are you KIDDING me? This guy's a nasty beast. 'Bout time we had a presence like that on the mound in Detroit. The kid is up there throwing bottle rockets -- and they have movement. He's got stuff big league hitters wake up thinking about in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.

Mario Impemba and Rod Allen wearing suits and ties in the booth? What happened to the nifty FSN polo shirts? Maybe it's an Opening Day thing.

The Cubs telecast signs off, and the lead announcer lists off five or six names as broadcast partners. That's not an announcing team -- that's a coaching staff.

This just in: Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies gets a hit and extends his broken-arrow hitting streak to 37 games, 36 of which came in 2005. Guess an entire winter didn't cool him off.

Fernando Rodney finishes off the Royals, who stink. Still, it's nice to see Jimmy Leyland pop out of the dugout as a winner in his American League managing debut. 1-0, with a day off. Savor the moment.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Okay, The Season's Here, So What WILL This Blog Do?

Just a quick post to let you know what to expect from WHYGJG this baseball season.

I filled March with musings, meanderings, and memories, and the feedback was positive. Thanks for everyone's support who's been reading this blog and who's been leaving comments.

Now, for the regular season...

What I'm NOT going to do is provide recaps of games, on a daily basis, because you'll get enough of that elsewhere. I may touch on certain contests from time to time, however -- but if it's a daily "beat blog" you're looking for when it comes to the Tigers and baseball in general, look elsewhere, such as Tiger Tales by Lee Panas and Detroit Tigers Weblog by Bilfer.

What I AM going to do is provide weekly commentary, every Monday, about the Tigers and the rest of the American League. It'll be a combination recap of the past week and a look ahead to the week before us. It may even be in the form of a column from time-to-time.

As for the rest of the days of the week, expect more recollections, observations, nostalgia, and trivia about the game -- just like what you saw in March, but with some more fun stuff here and there, like polls, interactive discussions and more. Stay tuned.

And again, thanks for the visit!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Me, Write A Tigers Preview? Okay, But Only Cuz You Asked

I'm not much of a Preview guy.

I originally wasn't going to place any sort of prognostication about the Tigers and how they'll fare in 2006 on this blog -- even though it's all baseball, all the time. After all, I'm not a writer who's set up that way. Doesn't lend itself too well for sarcasm and irreverance, a "Preview" isn't. Besides, folks like Lee Panas at Detroit Tiger Tales do a much nicer job of it, anyway.

But there should be, I suppose, an opinion about the Bengals here because how can I call this blog Where Have You Gone, Johnny Grubb? and NOT put in my two cents worth about the team's chances this season?

So, here goes.

Jimmy Leyland brings an approach to the game that I think the Tigers sorely needed. He's a National League guy, which means he believes in moving runners along, stealing a base or two, and keeping the factory open.


I just came up with this one, but from now on whenever I say "keeping the factory open," it means the team is manufacturing runs.

I know -- cute, ain't it?

Be that as it may, if there are two departments in which the Tigers have been awful lately -- meaning, more awful than everything else they've done in the past decade -- it's been in the areas of creating runs without hitting homeruns, and overall on-base percentage. As Lee Panas correctly pointed out to me recently, the former won't matter if the latter doesn't improve.

And that's where I think Leyland and hitting coach Don Slaught will have an impact.

Team defense has been marginal since, oh, the late 1980's, if you want to know the truth. And there are still too many popgun arms in the outfield to suit me, and an adventure or two during flyballs waiting to happen. The middle infield is pretty tight, as is the catching position. First and third base are mediocre to average.

Pitching -- ahh, pitching -- is where I feel the Tigers will be made or broken. The rotation could be quite nice, thank you, if everyone performs to their potential. The bullpen is shaky, and it's not Todd Jones that will be the concern, but rather getting to him. Rookie Joel Zumaya could be a beast or a bust early -- we'll see. Jamie Walker is satisfactory against lefties, and Fernando Rodney, who looks like the main setup guy, can give hitters fits, but not all the time.

So there you have it -- as much of a "preview" as you're gonna get from me.

Oh yeah -- in case you were wondering: 82-80.

Satisfied now?


Come back tomorrow and I'll let you know what you can expect from WHYGJG during the regular season, now that these preliminary, spring training posts are over and done with.