Friday, February 29, 2008

Hank Steinbrenner's Red Sox Slam Is Good For Baseball

God bless Hank Steinbrenner.

Proving that the nut -- and I use that word purposely -- doesn't fall far from the tree, George's son and one of the principal leaders of the New York Yankees lashed out at the Boston Red Sox in an upcoming article in the New York Times' Play Magazine.

It's great stuff, because it adds some much-needed fuel to a Yankees-Red Sox family feud that had been drying up in recent years. Part of the evaporation has to do with the fact that the Yankees have become increasingly irrelevant, not appearing in a World Series since 2003, and not winning one since 2000. The Red Sox, meanwhile, have won two championships in the past four seasons -- including the remarkable comeback in the '04 ALCS from an 0-3 deficit against the Yanks.

All of it has been making Hank Steinbrenner chew glass. And in the Times piece, he levels both barrels at Red Sox Nation.

"Red Sox Nation? What a bunch of [expletive] that is," he said in the interview. "That was a creation of the Red Sox and ESPN, which is filled with Red Sox fans.

"Go anywhere in America and you won't see Red Sox hats and jackets, you'll see Yankee hats and jackets. This is a Yankee country. We're going to put the Yankees back on top and restore the universe to order."

The words are so over the top that they read like something taken from one of those satirical pieces at

Hank's words, I think, are great for baseball. It's always nice to have a loose cannon in our midst. Charlie O. Finley played that role to perfection when he owned the Oakland A's in the 1970s. Before Finley, you had Bill Veeck, who was part baseball owner, part circus barker. Then, of course, came Hank's dad, who took over the Yankees in 1973 promising to be an "absentee" owner -- perhaps one of the biggest lies in the history of the world.

No wacky owners as of late -- just goofy managers like the White Sox's little punk, Ozzie Guillen. So it's nice to see Hank Steinbrenner stoking the fire. Agree with me or not, but pro sports are always better served when there's a goofball with a loose mouth wearing the black hat.

Hank's assertion that "We're going to put the Yankees back on top and restore the universe to order" is dynamite, especially the way it ends. "Restore the universe to order"? Who is he -- a pro wrestler yapping about the upcoming match? Regardless, I love it.

It's also funny that Hank is so infatuated with the Red Sox, when there may be two or three teams better than them in the American League; the Tigers, the Indians, and the Angels might all win more games than the Red Sox and the Yankees will in 2008.

But that's OK. Let the Yankees and Red Sox have their Hatfield and McCoy thing. The beauty of it is, contrary to what Hank believes, most of the nation doesn't like either team. But that's our little secret. Don't tell Hank.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Tigers Fans Must Learn To Accept The "Non-sexiness" Of Closer Jones

The oldtimers will remember Dick Radatz, a.k.a. The Monster. He would take the ball in the late innings, all 6-foot-6 of him, and plow thru the order, quelling the enemy rally -- back when closers didn't just wait until the ninth inning to jump into the fray. Radatz -- a Detroit kid -- mainly did his thing with the Red Sox. He played for the Tigers briefly in 1969. He averaged well over a strikeout per inning for his 635 career IP.

The 1970s brought us more crazy-looking, crazy-acting characters out of the bullpen. There was the Mad Hungarian, Al Hrabosky -- who would turn his back to the batter, go through some sort of ritual, then smack the ball angrily into his glove and turn, revealing that bushy Fu Manchu mustache and wild-eyed look.

Rich "Goose" Gossage, another Fu Manchu guy. A sprawling, intimidating windup that ended with the thwack of the ball hitting the catcher's mitt, the sphere of horsehide's flight undisturbed by the Louisville slugger designed to obstruct it.

Then came the 1980s. Rob Dibble. Bill Caudill, The Inspector. Charlie Kerfeld. Kent Tekulve, who was once described as being so skinny that he looked like a giant pair of scissors on the mound. Bushy-faced Bruce Sutter.

And so on.

The common denominator? Theatrics. Gimmicks. Odd body shapes. Odd body movements. Reputations that preceded them. And usually more than one strikeout per inning. The beauty of Charlie Sheen's "Wild Thing" character in the Major League movies -- the Indians closer who comes into the game to an almost rock star-like reception -- was that it really wasn't that far off the mark from reality.

The Tigers do not have the rock star closer on their roster.

Todd Jones is pushing 40, is a good old boy from Georgia, and averages no where near a strikeout per inning. In fact, most of Jones's saves -- and there've been 301 of them -- are predicated on the opponent striking the ball with his bat, hopefully at someone for an out. It's not the sexiest way to end games, and that's what makes people around here nervous.

Jones relies on his control and location to get batters out, and that may be a great approach for starters, but it's an unordinary way for a closer to make a living.

Truth be told, even if Jones WERE that sexy, overpowering closer in the mold of an Eric Gagne or Gossage, there'd still be hand-wringing. There always is, when you're talking about the one guy who frequently stands between victory and heartbreaking defeat. But the fact that Jones uses brains and not brawn when it comes to closing games makes, for some reason, his job security all the more flimsy in many people's minds.

Todd Jones makes people nervous in Detroit, and it's almost as if all those saves he registered happened by accident -- like the thug who protests that his victim "rammed his face into my fist ten times", in explaining away an assault. Couldn't have been something Jones did; must be something the batter didn't do.

It'll be another summer of drama around Comerica Park in the ninth inning this season, for Jones isn't going anywhere, the Tigers have no intentions of getting anyone else, and so you pretty much just better learn to deal with it.

I must admit to occasionally being wistful. I, too sometimes wish that Jones was someone else -- a power pitcher, specifically. I wish he could come in, blow people away, and put everything to bed without ratcheting up my blood pressure. But that's just not who he is. The nice thing, though, is that he KNOWS that's not who he is. So he doesn't try to be that pitcher. He stays within himself, and enjoys the ninth inning tension more than you know.

The funny thing is, for his lack of strikeout ability, Jones rarely gives up that baseball dagger -- the walk-off homerun. He manages to keep the ball in the park most of the time. Now, he may surrender a string of hits that may lead to some damage, but he doesn't usually give up the knockout punch. If you're going to beat Todd Jones, you're going to have to do it on points.

May as well accept it, folks. Jones is the Tigers closer, he is who he is, and that's about it.

But he must be doing something right.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Ceremonial First Bitch

It just isn't baseball season until Gary Sheffield throws out the first bitch.

Sheffield is again in the news, which means that someone asked him a question.

In his latest rant, Sheff goes off on agent Scott Boras, who Sheffield says took money from his Yankees contract that Boras wasn't entitled to. Among other things, Sheff calls Boras a "bad person" and that things will get "ugly, very ugly" as soon as he can REALLY say what's on his mind -- when the legal proceedings are over and done with.

And, as usual, I'm sure fans and media across the country will vilify Sheffield -- even though this time the target is a sports agent, which isn't exactly in the same category as children and animals when it comes to effusing sympathy from the general public. So maybe the fallout from Sheffield's latest diatribe -- spoken eagerly with the intention of it being oh, so very public -- won't be as vitriolic.

But look -- if you don't want to know what Gary Sheffield thinks, then the solution is simple: don't ask him. Frankly, I find his unfiltered honesty refreshing. He simply answers what is asked of him. Does he enjoy the consequences? Well, he admitted in his Boras rant that even his wife and family thinks he's "psychotic" because he sometimes thrives on the negative reactions to his words. But so what? That's his prerogative. The bottom line is, he doesn't say things just to say them. He won't give you one answer on Monday, and a different, sugar-coated one on Tuesday.

Sometimes I just don't know what my colleagues in the media -- or the fans -- want out of an athlete. If he speaks his mind, he's volatile and militant. If he gives processed, cliche-filled answers, he's mocked for his triteness. If he doesn't speak at all, he's aloof and a bad apple.

The media, especially, has no idea how good they've got it, as long as Gary Sheffield is still in the big leagues. He should be a writer's dream, for all his colorful copy. They love to hate on him, so what will they do when he goes away? Some will say that they'll be thankful when Sheffield fades into the sunset. Same thing with Bobby Knight. But all I know is, college basketball is more boring now with Knight gone, and so will baseball be when Sheffield hangs up his spikes and rests his jaw.

Don't ask, and he won't tell.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Jones, Thames Combine To Make An All-Star-Caliber Left Fielder

In 1983, when the Baltimore Orioles won the World Series, their left fielder had 34 HR, 124 RBI, scored 97 runs, and batted around .270. It was MVP-like production.

Only, the Orioles' left fielder wasn't one person. It was the two-headed monster of John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke. Lowenstein started against right-handers; Roenicke was the guy who got most of the at-bats against left-handers. Together, the two of them made one helluva player.

The Tigers, 2008 version, have the same kind of two-headed monster in the making, if pre-season indications are correct. The at-bats figure to go largely to the left-handed hitting Jacque Jones, and the right-handed hitting Marcus Thames. Manager Jim Leyland is expected to platoon those two, barring something unforeseen.

And the two of them might just make one helluva player.

Jones (top) and Thames (above) might be better, together, than any left fielder in the AL Central

Not that they aren't solid players all by their lonesomes. Jones, who came over from the Cubs in an off-season trade, was on fire after the All-Star break last summer. And he has a decent resume, including some serviceable years with the Twins, where he was a sort of Tiger killer. Thames is very well-known around these parts -- a brutally strong man who has been slugging one home run every 12-14 at-bats in a Tigers uniform.

The Tigers haven't really used the two-headed monster approach with any success in recent years, so it'll be fun to see Jones and Thames share left field and the no. 7 or 8 spot in the batting order -- flying under the radar amongst all the All-Star sluggers the Tigers employ.

Jones arrived early to camp in Lakeland, Fla., getting in some swings before the complex begins to grow in population today, when position players are expected to report. Some analysts believe his slow start last season was due to that being his first year in the National League. But now Jones is back in the more familiar AL, and back in the Central Division, as well. He could be primed for a big year, combining with Thames to give the Tigers an All-Star-like performance in left field.

Too many cooks may occasionally spoil the broth, but in left field, the mantra for the Tigers is "two heads are better than one."

Especially when each of those heads is strong on their own merit.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Leyland Will Earn His Pay This Year Like Never Before

Please, do not take this as any sort of dismissal of what Jim Leyland did in 2006. Let's make that clear. But baseball history is filled with those skippers who take chicken feathers and make chicken salad for a short period of time, before the ingredients get stale and you're ready to snap a clothespin on your nose.

Leyland's 2006 magic, which resulted in taking a below-.500 team all the way to the World Series in 12 months, should never be forgotten. It was one of the most stunning turnarounds in Detroit sports history.

But frankly, that might prove to be the easiest season Leyland will ever have in Detroit.

This is the 2006 version of Leyland's monkey; 2008's has the potential to be more King Kong-like

It's one thing to guide a team thru the waters when there isn't much expected out of it. Had the Tigers capsized, it would have been written off to the growing pains suffered under a new leader. But the Tigers didn't capsize, though they rocked and swayed down the stretch. Yet they made the playoffs and righted themselves in October. It was a marvelous job of managing.

But that and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee right about now.

Now, the talk is World Series -- and the players haven't all reported to spring training yet. Perusing the Net, national baseball writers are using superlatives to describe the Tigers like never before.

"Will the Tigers score 1,000 runs? 2,000?"

"Will they win 110 games? More?"

And so on.

So now is where Leyland REALLY earns the big bucks -- when there is suddenly a Yankees-like approach to the season: World Series or bust.

It's heady stuff, and not since 1985 -- and before that, 1969 -- have the Tigers been roundly looked at as World Series contenders so seriously. Those were the two years after their most recent world championships, so it was natural that they were deemed the "team to beat". But when was the last time that a Tigers team that didn't even make the playoffs the previous season was hailed as odds-on favorites to go all the way? Maybe never?

So this is what Jim Leyland must do: cobble together a team of superstars into a driven, focused bunch that won't get sucked in by its own press clippings. He must deftly use a shaky bullpen to complement his talented starting rotation. But the biggest job he has is to make sure the Tigers are OK between the ears.

No sneaking up on people this time. No feel-good stories here. Just the realization of so many people's expectations, which are the highest.

It's Yankees-like pressure, and it hasn't been felt around here in eons.

Never will Leyland have a tougher time of it in Detroit than this season, methinks.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Still Plenty Of Time To Nab Some Relief Help

They are still four of the greatest words that a sports fan -- especially a baseball devotee -- can hear.

"Pitchers and catchers report."

Go ahead and bask for a moment. I'll wait.

Soft, soothing music as visions of leather mitts and batting cages dance in your cranium.

You back now? Good.

Spring training for the Tigers starts this Thursday -- Valentine's Day, appropriately -- when the battery mates show up in Lakeland, Fl. But spring training, for all its splendor and all the warmth it brings to the chilled hearts up north, is also Winter Meetings, Part II.

Many a cunning trade has been made under the shades of the palm trees in Florida and near the prickly cacti of Arizona in the months of February and March. They usually occur late in spring training, after teams have a better idea of what they have and which prospects and longshots are either in or out. It's a terrific opportunity to fill some holes, and sometimes even at a bargain basement price.

So there should be some hand-wringing, but not panic, as the Tigers shake out their bullpen, which appears to be the only real Achilles heel on a ballclub that many feel -- present company included -- can go deep into October. There's still about seven weeks until Opening Day. The feeling here is that GM Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland are going to reserve their judgement of the pen until the final couple weeks of March. Then, if they see someone that has become available, they might make their move.

Ahh, but what if they don't?

What it boils down to are two crucial innings: the seventh and the eighth. Oh, so many games are decided in these two frames. It's why I've constantly resisted the notion of turning Joel Zumaya into a closer -- when I feel he's much more valuable earlier in the game. But I digress.

If the Tigers can somehow, from within their present group -- even if one of those individuals isn't currently on the 40-man roster -- putty together a bevy of arms that can keep things under control until Todd Jones arrives in the ninth, then a move may not be necessary right away. Remember, Zumaya is done until well into the summer, out with another freak arm injury.

Fernando Rodney might as well eschew his no. 56 and don a big, fat question mark on the back of his jersey. So many eyes will be on him shortly, he's going to get a complex. But it stands to reason; Rodney is, without question, the "X" factor of the bullpen. Injuries and inconsistency -- the two seemed to feed off one another -- turned his 2007 season into a roller coaster, and in the process he sort of fouled up everyone's plans. The rest of the bullpen wasn't good enough to pick him up, and that (along with Gary Sheffield's bad shoulder) was a big reason why the Tigers' playoff hopes were torpedoed. Games the Tigers were winning in the late innings in 2006 were being lost in 2007.

There's a mix of youth and inexperience in the pen, but whether it adds up to be enough talent to complement the Tigers' rich offense is cause for the hand-wringing.

But no panic button yet. The Winter Meetings, Part II, haven't even started.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Don't Laugh, But Sheffield Would Make Best Manager After Retirement

Call it another Hot Stove League game -- something to while away the time until the pitchers and catchers report to Lakeland, and we can start talking about current events on the field again.

Something to ponder while the snow piles up outside: which current Tigers player would make the best manager when he retires?

I'll make it easier for you: eliminate all the pitchers, including Kenny Rogers. For whatever reason, pitchers traditionally have made lousy managers, with few exceptions: Tommy Lasorda and Bob Lemon come to mind, and that's about it. So that's 40% of the roster you don't have to consider, right off the top.

First, let's rewind. Had I posed this question some 20 years ago, I'd wager most folks would have gone with Alan Trammell. He seemed to have "manager" written all over him. He was, and still is, an unabashed Sparky Anderson protege. I still think Tram could be a winner in MLB, with the right roster. But it was easy to see Trammell as a manager, while he was an active, cerebral shortstop in Detroit.

Let's go around the horn ...

C: Ivan Rodriguez. Pudge as a manager? I don't think so. He has the fire, but I don't know that he's patient enough. I can see him as a frustrated, Ted Williams-type. I don't think he'd enjoy the daily interaction with reporters, either.

Vance Wilson. Oh, absolutely. This guy could manage right now, probably. I can see him working his way up through the Tigers system. He may even run the Tigers someday. Don't laugh.

1b: Carlos Guillen. Guillen could be OK, if he came out of his shell a bit. He fits the mold because he wasn't a star right away; he had to work hard and be a rank-and-file guy for some pretty good Seattle teams. Those types sometimes have a better sense of what it takes to be successful in the big leagues.

2b: Placido Polanco. Not a manager type, but I see him as tomorrow's Rafael Belliard -- an infielders coach and a trusted manager's confidante.

3b: Miguel Cabrera. Too early to tell. He's still a kid, for gosh sakes.

ss: Edgar Renteria. I don't see it, but maybe he would do it in a Winter League or in the low minors.

lf: Jacque Jones: Not feeling it here.

cf: Curtis Granderson: Still young, but out of all the under-30 stars in baseball now, Grandy might be in the Top Five in the Potential Manager category. Patient, affable, and knowledgeable, Granderson might have the goods. Excellent with the media, too.

rf: Magglio Ordonez: I don't know why, but I can see Maggs not really being heard from again after his playing days are done. Another Chet Lemon. Seems like he'd just as soon fade into the sunset.

utility: Brandon Inge. Interesting case here. I think he could do it, but how he'd do with the super egos, I'm not sure. Also might be a tad too glib. But he'd be fun to cover.

dh: Gary Sheffield. OK, now here's where you may be surprised. I believe that Shef, of all the Tigers, would make the best manager. The bigger doubt is whether he'd even do it.

Sheffield: he'd have the fire to lead a ballclub; but would he do it?

He has so many of the right attributes: knowledge; exposure to big media markets; courage; approachability; a "pizzazz" factor. He'll utter something outrageous at times, a la Ozzie Guillen, but it won't be for shock value; it'll just be what he believes. I'd like to see it happen, but like I say -- would he even be interested?

Another question: how many of the most successful managers of all-time were considered to have a bright future when they started? In other words, you could play this game throughout history, and maybe not even mention some of the best to ever patrol a dugout. Those you thought would be good, weren't. And vice-versa.

So it's a meaningless little game that we just played. What else do you expect in the days leading up to spring training?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Good Guy Granderson Gets Well-Earned Extension

Sorry, Leo Durocher, but nice guys don't always finish last.

I'm not one to get caught up in how much dough a professional athlete makes. I still follow baseball statistics, not salaries. If a batter comes up in the bottom of the eighth with runners in scoring position and the game on the line, how much he's being paid isn't even on my radar. I've managed to keep the game wholesome in my mind, in that regard.

Salaries, though, are very much part of the game -- I know that. Especially in the winter months of the Hot Stove League, when there's not much else to talk about. It's also when most contract extensions are signed.

So I must comment on the Tigers locking up centerfielder Curtis Granderson on a brand-new extension that could carry him all the way to the 2013 season in Detroit. Grandy made about $650,000 last year. He'll make about nine times that now, thanks to a $30+ million extension.

Not to get too fawning here, but just about every father with a daughter should hope that she marries a young man like Curtis Granderson. At 26, it's scary to think what he can still accomplish on the ball field, and exhilirating to think of how many people he's yet to help and serve with his charitable work and donation of time.

One of the game's most approachable players, Granderson is one of many key components that the Tigers are locking up for the longterm, as they try to remain elite for years to come. Having good people like Granderson in the clubhouse goes a long way toward that goal.

Granderson: chisel his name at leadoff for the next five years; the community will benefit, too

I wrote a couple summers ago that Granderson would eventually make this town go crazy as the Tigers' leadoff hitter and centerfielder. I believe it even more after his monster 2007 season, in which he batted .302, with 38 doubles, 23 triples, 23 HRs, 74 RBI, stole 26 bases, and scored 122 runs. Past MVPs haven't had as nice numbers as those, if you want to know.

But it's more than what he does in uniform that will make Detroit fall in love with Granderson. With the contract extension all but ensuring that he'll remain in town for several more years, if not for the rest of his career, I can see Granderson becoming as much of the fabric of Detroit and the state of Michigan as any Tigers player in recent memory. We might, MIGHT, be seeing a Hall of Famer forming before our very eyes, and when you combine that with a sense of duty and giving back that Granderson has already displayed, then you have the makings of that special player who isn't just a player -- he's a local icon.

Already, Granderson has hosted a benefit celebrity basketball game, traveled to Europe as an MLB ambassador, and participated in countless other charitable events, since beating Nook Logan for the starting CF job in spring training, 2006.

Is this too much praise? Am I putting the cart in front of the horse? I don't think so. There's no reason to believe that Granderson won't continue his prowess on the field. And there certainly is nothing to indicate that his off-the-field goings-on will subside.

Granderson's mother, Mary, gushed these words -- and doesn't every parent want to be able to say the same of their child?

"As a parent, and especially as a mother, you always want your child to be respected and loved because of the individual they are," she told the Free Press. "You look at them growing up, and you have all these plans for them. It's been one of those things in the back of my mind, that I wanted him to be a whole person, a good person.

"And he grew up to be that."