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May 28th, 2019

Cheap, inept Tigers, Avila

wrong on Iglesias, McCann

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

So I’ve got the truck pointed north on I-75 in northern Kentucky and I’m flipping through the radio dial looking for a ball game. Because baseball. Nothing that makes the miles tick by faster. At least for me.

 

And there it was, crystal clear, with the broadcaster setting the scene before I even knew who was playing: “Man on second, no outs, and here’s the pitch. . .”

 

Is there anything more sweet-sounding than the crack of the bat striking a mid-90s horsehide two-seamer? Even on the radio? Not for me.

 

“There’s a ground ball to deep short, and here’s a throw to third. GOT HIM! What a play! Jose Iglesias had no play at first, but once he tracked down that ball he had the presence of mind – and the arm to throw on the run – to get the runner at third. What a play! And now instead of men on first and third and no outs, we have a man on first with one out.”

 

Immediately, my heart sank just a little bit. Boy, the Tigers could sure use a guy like that, I thought to myself.

 

A few pitches later, a double-play ball ended the inning, and a lead-off double went for naught.

 

Now I’m getting angry. Difficult plays that few players could make win ball games. And Iglesias not only handles them but makes them look easy.

 

Moments later, the broadcaster and his partner were discussing the merits of the Cincinnati Reds signing Iglesias to a multi-year deal to keep him there. It’s quite likely to happen.

 

The slow burn has turned into a seethe, which only gets worse when I see Ronny Rodriguez throw wildly to second on a routine double-play ball in yet another Tigers’ loss.

 

It didn’t have to be this way.

 

Unheralded and clearly unappreciated in Detroit, Jose Iglesias (“Joe Church” is how he introduced himself after the Cuban refugee earned American citizenship last summer) – was essentially cut by the Tigers, who didn’t want to pay even low market value for him.

 

Instead, they signed Pittsburgh castoff Jordy Mercer to a one-year contract worth $5.25 million with $250,000 in incentives after he hit .251 with six homers and 39 RBI in 117 games last season, when Iglesias, 29, played in 125 games and hit .269 with five homers and 48 RBI – the

best season of his seven-year major-league career. And as defensive shortstops go, Mercer can’t carry Iglesias’ glove. But don’t take my word for it. According to Fangraphs, only three shortstops – Andrelton Simmons, Francisco Lindor and Marcus Semien – generated more value with their fielding in 2018 than Iglesias, and only Simmons, Lindor and Brandon Crawford compiled more defensive value over the past four seasons.

Truth be told, and with all due respect to Chico Fernandez, Ray Oyler and Tom Veryzer (OK, Eddie Brinkman and Alan Trammell, too), Iglesias is arguably the best defensive shortstop ever to play for the Detroit Tigers.

Now get this: After earning his $6.275 million salary last season in Detroit, Iglesias settled for a minor league deal with Cincinnati that paid him an MLB salary of $2.5 million – if he made the team, with an additional $1 million in incentives. Then, of course, he stole the starting job, and in 50 games this season he’s hitting .306, with four home runs and 21 RBI already while impressing with several clutch hits as well as flashing the leather.

And with every dazzling play he makes like the one on the radio the other day, his bargaining position gets stronger when it comes time to negotiate a new deal.

Bottom line: Tigers GM Al Avila screwed the pooch, big time, on this one. He overpaid Mercer, who has done little this season because of two long stints on the disabled list. And Avila could have kept Iglesias in Detroit for the next several years, on an absolutely bargain of a contract. Instead, all we’ve seen is a parade of ineptitude at short this season, and it’s painful to watch.

But it gets worse.

Avila made an equally bad call on the catcher’s position over the winter. He let James McCann walk and turned the everyday duties over to Grayson Greiner, with John Hicks as the backup.

In 34 games this season, Greiner is hitting .182 – 37 points lower than he hit last season in 30 games. He has three home runs among his 22 hits, with 11 RBI.

Avila gambled that Greiner was ready for prime time, and that McCann wasn’t going to improve much after batting just .220 with eight home runs and 39 RBI – most of that production coming in the first two months of the season.

Avila was wrong. The Chicago White Sox inked McCann to a one-year deal for $2.5 million, just $125,000 more than he made in Detroit in 2018. And now? In 32 games for the Sox, McCann is hitting .322, with four home runs and 12 RBI.

So last season appears to be an anomaly in McCann’s offensive game. Meanwhile, McCann defensively remains among the stronger catchers in baseball at controlling the running game. He threw out 36 percent of attempted base-stealers last season, eight points above league average, and owns a 37 percent career rate.

For a pittance of a raise, the Tigers could have kept McCann, platooned him with Greiner and developed him more patiently. Instead, they put the kid, a former third-round draft pick, on the road to ruins by rushing him into the starting role before he was ready.

But the good news, as Avila would report to his ownership family: Greiner is only being paid $558,600 this season – whether or not he actually earns it.

This is what we’ve come to expect from the sheer ineptitude in the GM’s office. Avila evaluates talent like the old ladies who only shop off the 70 percent off clearance racks at the outlet shops.

Baseball is like anything else. You get what you pay for. And when you build a team from misfits from other clubs and cheap waiver-wire refugees, this is what you get: a team on pace for more than 100 losses in a new era of penny-pinching disguised as a rebuilding effort.

The joke is on us. Now quiet down and turn up the radio.

-30-

 

May 24th, 2019

If clothes make the man,

can DNA make the coach?

 

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

Somewhere, Bo Schembechler is smiling. A bona fide, blue-chip, certified, maize-and-blue-blood Michigan man is coaching the University of Michigan’s basketball team.

 

Juan Howard, the center of the renowned and infamous “Fab Five” – arguably the most famous college basketball recruiting class of all time, has been named the Wolverines’ new coach.

 

Let history continue to be revised, starting with the guy who hired Howard.

 

“We have found someone with high integrity, great character and a coach who has unbelievable knowledge of the game of basketball,” Michigan’s athletic director, Warde Manuel, said in a statement. “Juwan has proven himself to be a tremendous leader, a wonderful communicator and a developer of talent. We couldn’t have asked for a better role model for the young men in our program. We are excited to welcome back a member of the family to Ann Arbor.”

 

Maybe those tainted Final Four banners will suddenly reappear, hanging from the rafters of the Crisler Center, and all those remarkable accomplishments of the Fab Five – back-to-back Final Four appearances – will be recognized once more. They were vacated following a scandal involving hundreds of thousands of dollars being paid by boosters to some of those players. The program wound up on probation.

 

Howard was never implicated in the scandal. He left Michigan after three seasons and enjoyed a 19-year NBA career, playing in an all-star game and winning two NBA titles in Miami, where he has been an assistant coach for six seasons.

 

He has never been a head coach, so it’s more than a small gamble Manual is taking by inking Howard to deal that will pay him $2 million per over a five-year contract.

 

Howard joins an athletic department that includes football coach Jim Harbaugh, who quarterbacked the Wolverines under Bo Schembechler in the mid-1980s. Manual, too, is a Michigan grad.

 

Which means we’re about to put this whole “Michigan Man” thing to the ultimate test, eh?

 

Schembechler, of course, was the legendary Michigan football coach whose teams won or shared 13 Big Ten titles – and zero national championships – under his watch from 1969-1989. Late in his coaching career, he also assumed the athletic director’s portfolio. And he was not amused when, just before the 1989 NCAA men’s tournament, news leaked that basketball coach Bill

Frieder had verbally accepted the job at Arizona State, which he planned to start when Michigan’s season ended.

 

Not a chance, Schembechler said, and he showed Frieder the door immediately.

 

“A Michigan man will coach Michigan!” Schembechler fumed.

 

Actually, Frieder was a Michigan man. He held two degrees from the university. Not good enough for Schembechler. He elevated assistant Steve Fisher to interim coach, and the Wolverines went on to win the national championship.

 

Fisher soon was named head coach. Also soon: the program was under NCAA investigation. Fisher and his Fab Five have lived under that ugly shadow ever since.

 

Now, it seems, Michigan’s basketball program has come full circle. Howard is just getting started, and he has enormous shoes to fill with Beilein leaving to coach Cleveland in the NBA. He deserves our patience.

 

But four years into his run as savior of Michigan’s football program, Harbaugh still has much to prove.

 

“Glory days, well they'll pass you by. . .” wrote Bruce Springsteen.

 

Yes, you can go home again, but it ain’t always easy like it used to be. Springsteen warns us of that, too.

 

“Think I'm going down to the well tonight . . . I'm going to drink till I get my fill. And I hope when I get old I don't sit around thinking about it. . . But I probably will.

 

“Time slips away, leaves us with nothing but boring stories of. . . glory days.”

 

Except for one important factor the Boss somehow missed, at least in these parts.

 

Those glory days of Michigan athletics? They may be few and far between, but they’re anything but boring.

 

Here’s hoping both Howard and Harbaugh can help create some more. Real soon.

 

-30-

 

May 18th, 2019

An open plea to owners of

the Detroit Tigers: Please sell

 

Dear Mrs. Ilitch:

 

As if you needed any more proof that this city has checked out on its baseball team, merely browse the box score of Wednesday night’s game.

 

With the prodigal son who personified the last great and proud moments for your ballclub in the house, pitching for the opposition even though you’re still underwriting a big chunk of his salary, there were fewer than 16,000 paying customers there to watch.

 

On a beautiful May evening with the temperature a perfect 70 degrees at the first pitch, with Justin Verlander on the hill for Houston, you couldn’t draw flies.

 

It’s time. Long past time, in fact.

 

Please sell the team.

 

Sell it before you crush the soul of one of America’s great baseball towns. Sell it before we forget all your beloved late husband, Mike, did to build a team that had one of the best decade-long runs in its storied history. Sell it before we forget. . . how much we loved this team.

 

Once a mighty oak among the forest of big-league franchises, the Detroit Tigers have been reduced to mere kindling, fueling the competitive fires of the great franchises, like the Yankees and the Red Sox, teams that set out to win the World Series every spring. That’s how Mike’s Tigers once were.

 

Yes, he spent a lot of money. But that’s what it takes. Oh, and he made a lot of money, too. Three million plus streaming through the turnstiles at the ballpark munching overpriced pizza and beer, most of them leaving with those clear, plastic bags full of expensive team licensed merchandise produced a pretty good payday for the ownership family, eh?

 

Not to mention how the franchise as exploded in value – from the reported $85 million you paid for the team in 1992 to the $1.25 billion that Forbes Magazine says it’s worth today.

 

Take your money and run. Please.

 

If Dan Gilbert doesn’t want it, and I find that impossible to believe, you shouldn’t have trouble finding a buyer. Billionaires with big egos don’t grow on trees – but in today’s America there are more than ever before. So shedding it from your enormous portfolio should be fairly painless, and profitable.

 

Do it please, before there is absolutely nothing left. Already the lineup is filled with no-names from Toledo and cast-offs from other franchises. It’s so bad that the team’s last bona fide star,

Miguel Cabrera, is complaining publicly that lack of production at the plate is because he has a bunch of banjo hitters behind him. No one to protect him, so he rarely sees a decent pitch to drive out of the park.

 

And the one other guy who seemed like he was becoming a foundational piece in the organization, Nick Castellanos, has had his professional spirit smothered. Once a go-to guy in the dressing room, always accountable and willing to speak for the team – especially after Verlander was traded away to Houston – Castellanos has backed far away from that role. While cordial to reporters, he keeps to himself, comes to work on time, does his job and leaves – while he waits for the phone call during which he’s told he’s no longer a Detroit Tiger.

 

There’s a guy drafted and developed by the organization, who became precisely the kind of hitter scouts predicted he would, coming off his best year and embracing a leadership role with the club he would love to play for his entire career, and all he hears is how he’s probably Detroit’s best trade chip at the deadline.

 

And he’s not alone. We heard the same trade speculation about Michael Fulmer when he looked like he was developing into an ace of this pitching staff. He was one of the first pieces the team acquired when it began this despicable rebuild at the trade deadline in 2015. Along with young arms like Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris – both of whom have developed, it appears, into mainstays of this pitching staff.

 

Now both could be gone at the deadline, along with Castellanos, if we can believe the headlines?

 

But don’t blame the media. This is why newspapers employ beat writers, to hang with the team day in and day out to get to know how it operates, to develop sources, to keep fans who once lived and died on every pitch the best informed about their team.

 

Now we live and die on every rumor, wondering when all this nonsense will end, and when there will be enough prospects to come up and stick together long enough to remind us what winning baseball actually feels like again.

 

The answer, clearly, is never. Not as long as the Ilitch family owns this team. Not now. No chance. And Mike Ilitch would be ashamed.

 

The team he built with that big payroll he financed is gone. Now we have a lineup filled with spare parts and misfits from other teams. All this talk of a rebuild is propaganda. This is a teardown, pure and simple – a metamorphosis from a proud, competitive franchise to one that looks like it’s content to operate like frugal, small-market teams like Oakland and Miami.

 

As soon as a player gets to the point where he deserves a decent, competitive salary, like Castellanos, he’ll be gone.

 

It’s “money ball” minus a general manager like Billy Beane, with the acumen to pull it off.

 

Marian, sell the team. I know how much you detest the thought of those bloated salaries and an astronomical payroll. Your husband bought the Tigers – flush from the more than $60 million in profits you made from the Red Wings in the late 1980s – because that was his first love. A minor-league player in the Tigers’ organization after a four-year stint in the Marines, he never lost his shortstop’s mentality or his Semper Fi commitment to the city he loved.

 

“I’m very happy with my little hockey team,” you were fond of saying before he bought the Tigers. But you tolerated it, as wives often do for husbands chasing a dream.

 

Your little hockey team hasn’t done so badly either, eh? You and Mike bought the Red Wings for a reported $8.5 million in 1982, and about 75 percent of that was inherited debt, so out of pocket money was closer to $2-3 million. And today? Forbes values the franchise at $775 million, and growing nicely in its new home at Little Caesars Arena.

 

Speaking of which. . .

 

Your son, Chris, is doing his best to live up to the family legacy, but he – and by extension your family – is being eviscerated by the national and local media for failing to deliver on promises to develop retail, residential and commercial properties within The District Detroit, which surrounds the LCA. Little has been done other than developing surface parking lots, which tend to bring development to a screeching halt.

 

Better, perhaps, to take the failing baseball team off his plate. Sell it so he can focus on building a community that will only enhance the value of your little hockey team.

 

Sell it, please, before it’s too late.

Sincerely,

Anyone who has ever loved the Detroit Tigers

-30-

 

April 24th, 2019

Shocking Stanley Cup playoff upset

in Tampa? Red Wings fans can relate

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

The hype-sters among us have been hasty in calling the quick exit of the Tampa Bay Lightening from the Stanley Cup playoff tournament the biggest upset in the league’s post-season history. After a record-tying 62-win season, the President’s Trophy winners went down in four straight games – and after the first period of the series opener, it wasn’t even close.

 

Every bookie in Vegas and beyond has Tampa Bay as the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup this spring. No other team was even worth betting a nickel. And then they dropped the puck.

 

The truth is, however, that while the result was stunning indeed Tampa Bay isn’t the best team to be swept in the first round. That distinction goes to the 2003 Detroit Red Wings, one the most star-laden team in NHL history. Eight Hall of Famers: Captain Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Nick Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Chris Chelios and Igor Larionov. And two more who will be there soon: Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, both youngsters at the time.

 

No, those Wings did not win the President’s Trophy that season. They weren’t even first overall in the Western Conference. They finished second. But they were coming off their third Stanley Cup championship in six seasons, and few doubted this team. It was full of veterans who had been there before. They knew how to pace themselves. They knew how to win when it counted.

 

Sure, two important pieces were missing from the Wings of a year earlier: Coach Scotty Bowman had retired, succeeded by Dave Lewis. His departure was followed by goaltender Dominik Hasek, who was succeeded by the tandem Curtis Joseph and Manny Legace.

 

Few gave either loss much consideration. That team didn’t need a coach, just somebody to hold the gate open during line changes. And goaltending? Who needed great goaltending when your team had the puck the entire game? This was the new era of puck possession, after all, a style of play perfected by Detroit since the mid-1990s, when the Wings put five former Soviet players on a unit together and changed the NHL forever.

 

And then they dropped the puck.

 

Four games later, the reigning Stanley Cup champions were done. All those Hall of Famers were booking tee times.

 

The Wings were dispatched by the upstart Anaheim Mighty Ducks, who in their ninth NHL seasons advanced to the second round of the playoffs for just the second time. They were led by a good young player in Paul Kariya, an unknown goaltender and a rookie coach named Mike Babcock.

The goalie, J.S. Giguere, was spectacular, beating Detroit in four, low-scoring one-goal games. He out-dueled Curtis Joseph in the Detroit net. Joseph wasn’t horrible, but he wasn’t able to steal a game, like the great goalies find ways to do when it counts. (And still, for reasons I cannot fathom, people are clamoring for Joseph to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the same time they dismiss Chris Osgood as someone who won three Stanley Cups only because he played behind such great teams.)

 

The seventh-seeded Ducks (and Babcock) rode Giguere all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they were beaten in a spectacular seven-game series by New Jersey. Giguere, nevertheless – and deservedly so – was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP.

 

Babcock, of course, cemented his reputation as the game’s hot new coach, and when General Manager Ken Holland was ready to replace Lewis two years later, the only person he considered was Babcock. In 10 seasons with Detroit, Babcock won a Stanley Cup in 2008, lost a chance to repeat despite a three-games-to-two lead in a second straight Finals against Pittsburgh, but lost.

 

And the genius coach, arguably the most over-rated in the game today, hasn’t been able to win in the playoffs ever since.

 

But I digress.

 

They do not award the Stanley Cup on the strength of expectations. If they did, Detroit would have had about 15 from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s. Like Tampa Bay fans today, Red Wings fans know the ungodly pain of having a team everyone expected to win it all go down too early.

 

It happened in consecutive seasons in the ’90s – first, in a shocking seven-game, opening-round loss to Toronto, on Nikolai Borschevsky’s overtime goal that cost Bryan Murray his coaching job. It happened again the following year, in Scotty Bowman’s first season in Detroit, in an even more shocking fashion. Detroit, the overwhelming Stanley Cup favorite, lost in seven games to the No. 8 seed San Jose Sharks in just their third NHL season.

 

More disappointments followed. In the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, Detroit posted a 12-2 record going into the Stanley Cup Finals against New Jersey. Everyone said this was the Wings’ year, finally winning it all and breaking a 40-year drought. They were swept by the Devils.

 

The next year, Detroit won a record 62 games. The favorite again to win the Cup, only to lose in the Western Conference Finals to archrival Colorado. So both teams that share that 62-wqin record have failed to win the Stanley Cup.

 

It’s hard for Lightening fans to accept now, but those so-called “upsets” by No. 8 seeds, while surprising and always painful to the favored team, shouldn’t be so shocking anymore. It happens in a league whose salary cap has provided the kind of parity that should be the envy of other professional sports.

 

In 2012, remember, the Los Angeles Kings barely made the Stanley Cup tournament. Then, as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, they rolled to through four rounds to win it all.

 

Let’s see an NBA team do that. The closest we’ve seen to that in the NBA is when coach Rudy Tomjanovich took his sixth-seeded Houston Rockets to the title over the top-seeded Orlando Magic – in a four-game sweep.

 

The top seed in the NHL’s regular season gets the President’s Trophy. The last time that trophy-winner won the Stanley Cup was in 2013, by Chicago. So some are prone to calling a curse these days.

 

In fact, since the President’s Trophy was introduced in 1986, the winner has gone on to raise the Stanley Cup eight times, so just over 25 percent of the time. (Detroit has won it six times; two of those teams have won the Cup.)

 

During those same years, the top-seeded NBA club has gone on to win the playoff championship 21 times, nearly two-thirds of the time.

 

Just one more reason – sorry Tampa Bay fans – the Stanley Cup playoffs offer far more entertainment value, at least for me.

 

-30-

APRIL 19TH, 2019

Shocking Stanley Cup playoff upset

in Tampa? Red Wings fans can relate

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

The hype-sters among us have been hasty in calling the quick exit of the Tampa Bay Lightening from the Stanley Cup playoff tournament the biggest upset in the league’s post-season history. After a record-tying 62-win season, the President’s Trophy winners went down in four straight games – and after the first period of the series opener, it wasn’t even close.

 

Every bookie in Vegas and beyond has Tampa Bay as the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup this spring. No other team was even worth betting a nickel. And then they dropped the puck.

 

The truth is, however, that while the result was stunning indeed Tampa Bay isn’t the best team to be swept in the first round. That distinction goes to the 2003 Detroit Red Wings, one the most star-laden team in NHL history. Eight Hall of Famers: Captain Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Nick Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Chris Chelios and Igor Larionov. And two more who will be there soon: Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, both youngsters at the time.

 

No, those Wings did not win the President’s Trophy that season. They weren’t even first overall in the Western Conference. They finished second. But they were coming off their third Stanley Cup championship in six seasons, and few doubted this team. It was full of veterans who had been there before. They knew how to pace themselves. They knew how to win when it counted.

 

Sure, two important pieces were missing from the Wings of a year earlier: Coach Scotty Bowman had retired, succeeded by Dave Lewis. His departure was followed by goaltender Dominik Hasek, who was succeeded by the tandem Curtis Joseph and Manny Legace.

 

Few gave either loss much consideration. That team didn’t need a coach, just somebody to hold the gate open during line changes. And goaltending? Who needed great goaltending when your team had the puck the entire game? This was the new era of puck possession, after all, a style of play perfected by Detroit since the mid-1990s, when the Wings put five former Soviet players on a unit together and changed the NHL forever.

 

And then they dropped the puck.

 

Four games later, the reigning Stanley Cup champions were done. All those Hall of Famers were booking tee times.

 

The Wings were dispatched by the upstart Anaheim Mighty Ducks, who in their ninth NHL seasons advanced to the second round of the playoffs for just the second time. They were led by a good young player in Paul Kariya, an unknown goaltender and a rookie coach named Mike Babcock.

The goalie, J.S. Giguere, was spectacular, beating Detroit in four, low-scoring one-goal games. He out-dueled Curtis Joseph in the Detroit net. Joseph wasn’t horrible, but he wasn’t able to steal a game, like the great goalies find ways to do when it counts. (And still, for reasons I cannot fathom, people are clamoring for Joseph to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the same time they dismiss Chris Osgood as someone who won three Stanley Cups only because he played behind such great teams.)

 

The seventh-seeded Ducks (and Babcock) rode Giguere all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they were beaten in a spectacular seven-game series by New Jersey. Giguere, nevertheless – and deservedly so – was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP.

 

Babcock, of course, cemented his reputation as the game’s hot new coach, and when General Manager Ken Holland was ready to replace Lewis two years later, the only person he considered was Babcock. In 10 seasons with Detroit, Babcock won a Stanley Cup in 2008, lost a chance to repeat despite a three-games-to-two lead in a second straight Finals against Pittsburgh, but lost.

 

And the genius coach, arguably the most over-rated in the game today, hasn’t been able to win in the playoffs ever since.

 

But I digress.

 

They do not award the Stanley Cup on the strength of expectations. If they did, Detroit would have had about 15 from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s. Like Tampa Bay fans today, Red Wings fans know the ungodly pain of having a team everyone expected to win it all go down too early.

 

It happened in consecutive seasons in the ’90s – first, in a shocking seven-game, opening-round loss to Toronto, on Nikolai Borschevsky’s overtime goal that cost Bryan Murray his coaching job. It happened again the following year, in Scotty Bowman’s first season in Detroit, in an even more shocking fashion. Detroit, the overwhelming Stanley Cup favorite, lost in seven games to the No. 8 seed San Jose Sharks in just their third NHL season.

 

More disappointments followed. In the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, Detroit posted a 12-2 record going into the Stanley Cup Finals against New Jersey. Everyone said this was the Wings’ year, finally winning it all and breaking a 40-year drought. They were swept by the Devils.

 

The next year, Detroit won a record 62 games. The favorite again to win the Cup, only to lose in the Western Conference Finals to archrival Colorado. So both teams that share that 62-wqin record have failed to win the Stanley Cup.

 

It’s hard for Lightening fans to accept now, but those so-called “upsets” by No. 8 seeds, while surprising and always painful to the favored team, shouldn’t be so shocking anymore. It happens in a league whose salary cap has provided the kind of parity that should be the envy of other professional sports.

 

In 2012, remember, the Los Angeles Kings barely made the Stanley Cup tournament. Then, as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, they rolled to through four rounds to win it all.

 

Let’s see an NBA team do that. The closest we’ve seen to that in the NBA is when coach Rudy Tomjanovich took his sixth-seeded Houston Rockets to the title over the top-seeded Orlando Magic – in a four-game sweep.

 

The top seed in the NHL’s regular season gets the President’s Trophy. The last time that trophy-winner won the Stanley Cup was in 2013, by Chicago. So some are prone to calling a curse these days.

 

In fact, since the President’s Trophy was introduced in 1986, the winner has gone on to raise the Stanley Cup eight times, so just over 25 percent of the time. (Detroit has won it six times; two of those teams have won the Cup.)

 

During those same years, the top-seeded NBA club has gone on to win the playoff championship 21 times, nearly two-thirds of the time.

 

Just one more reason – sorry Tampa Bay fans – the Stanley Cup playoffs offer far more entertainment value, at least for me.

 

-30-

 

APRIL 12TH, 2019

Tigers thrive, Pistons survive – and Red

Wings take a dive in NHL’s draft lottery

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

A year after their 4-8 start en route to a second straight 98-loss season, the Detroit Tigers surprised everyone (except themselves, allegedly) by sprinting to an 8-4 start heading into this afternoon’s rubber match with the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park.

 

The difference, so far at least, has been pitching. They’re winning with that statistically so far is the best staff, top to bottom, in Major League Baseball. They topped all 30 teams in hits allowed per game (6.1) and were second in runs allowed (2.9), batting average against (.191), ERA (2.50) and WHIP (0.98).

 

But there is plenty of cause for concern because their great pitching has overcome a woeful lack of hitting. In fact, the Tigers also rank as one of the very worst offensive clubs. Their 2.8 runs per game ranked 29th, along with their slugging percentage (.311). They were 27th in hits (6.5), average (.199) and OPS (.599), and dead last among all 30 teams with just five home runs.

 

After awakening the bats with 11 hits the day before, 10 off the previously unhittable Trevor Bauer, in a 4-1 victory, they were back to the doldrums on Thursday. Niko Goodrum was Detroit only base runner through four innings, with a walk and a single off starter Shane Bieber, who shut out the Tigers on three hits and six strikeouts in six innings.

 

--

 

All puckered up

 

The Pistons celebrated their first trip to the NBA playoffs since 2016 – and just their second in a decade – not with champagne and those ridiculous ski goggles, or even much laughter, high-fiving and back-slapping.

 

No, after avoiding one of the most spectacular collapses in modern-day Detroit sports history by securing the last playoff spot with a lopsided win at New York against the bungling Knicks, the Pistons’ revelry was limited pretty much to a huge sigh of relief, while they unclenched their sphincters.

 

At least until Sunday, when they begin their best-of-seven series against the Milwaukee Bucks, who finished the season with the NBA’s best overall record this season.

 

This has the potential to be a short, ugly series – especially if Detroit’s best player, Blake Griffin, is unable to play. He missed the regular-season finale on bum knee. But even when he was healthy, the Bucks toyed with the Pistons this season – winning all four games by a margin of 17.2 points.

 

Detroit had absolutely no answer for Giannis (The Greek Freak) Antetokounmpo, the league’s likely MVP. And there is no expectation of anything different in the playoffs.

 

It didn’t have to be this way. With a win Sunday at home against the Charlotte Hornets, the Pistons could have sewn up the 7th seed and faced Toronto in the first round. No guarantee of advancing, of course, but the Pistons might have at least pushed it into a longer series. They beat Toronto all three times they faced the Raptors this season.

 

So while we have some playoff basketball at the Pizz-Arena this spring, enjoy it while it lasts – likely no more than two games and an early exit after four or five games.

 

--

 

No puck luck

 

A conversation a few weeks ago between two Wings executives while their team was in the midst of a six-game winning streak:

 

Exec. 1: “It’s nice to see us win a few games, but I can’t help but wonder if we’re not screwing this thing up.”

 

Exec. 2: “Don’t worry. Everybody’s talking about the top one or two guys available in the draft, but there are five very, very good players in this draft. We should be all right.”

 

Then the ping pong balls started rattling around.

 

Detroit entered the annual NHL Lottery Draft with the fourth best odds at the top pick. And when the balls stopped spinning, the Wings wound up with the sixth overall pick.

 

If it weren’t for bad luck in this lottery, the Wings would have no luck at all.

 

Now they have to hope that some team ahead of them goes off the board, like Montreal did last year, and allow a player like Filip Zadina to drop into their laps, like he did when Detroit picked sixth last year as well.

 

-30-

 

March 19th, 2019

NCAA Committee’s effusive love for

ACC disrespects Big Ten, Spartans

 

KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

Can anyone explain how Michigan State won the Big Ten regular season and, for an encore, rolled through the conference tournament and beat a great Michigan squad for the third time this season to win the championship – and still wound up on the 2-line of the NCAA tournament? And in the same East region bracket pod as No. 1 overall seed Duke?

 

Anyone. . . Anyone?

 

Bueller?

 

That’s like kicking over the ladder while the nets are getting cut cutting down.

 

Beyond curious, the decision to put three ACC teams on the top line with Gonzaga at the expense of the dominant team in the deepest conference in the land is disrespectful to the Big Ten and borderline disgraceful.

 

The Big 10 leads the tournament with eight teams. The ACC has seven, though NC State has good reason to be angered by the snub. And arguably Duke and North Carolina are the best two teams in the land. But Virginia’s upset by Florida State early in their conference tournament gave the NCAA Selection Committee the out it needed to drop Virginia to the 2-line and elevate the winner of Sunday’s Big Ten title game between Michigan and Michigan State.

 

A more likely scenario – given the NCAA’s perennial love affair with the ACC -- Gonzaga’s inexplicable loss to Saint Mary’s provided the committee another option.

 

But if the Zags were the committee’s No. 4 seed in the tournament, Michigan State belonged in their bracket at a second seed.

 

As it stands, it’s hard to see the Spartans advancing to the Final Four, which many of us envisioned at the start of the season. Not if they have to go through Duke. Michigan State never beats the Blue Devils, and with a healthy Zion Williamson Duke looks like an impossible matchup for the Spartans.

 

Michigan – a team we seriously began to imagine as a Final Four candidate in the midst of its early season win streak – got the better draw on Sunday. The Wolverines wound up in Gonzaga’s bracket, and if they are more than capable of getting on another roll like we’ve seen from them the past few years. Another Final Four appearance for UM wouldn’t at all be surprising.

 

Bottom line: Buckle up! These two teams, with eminently likeable coaches and talented lineups, have given us a lot to cheer about all season long, and both should give us a couple more weekends of great basketball. Enjoy it.

 

--

 

Fulmer Fallout

 

Maybe it’s a good thing that Michael Fulmer has apprenticed as a plumber during his recent off-seasons.

 

The former American League Rooke of the Year once viewed as a mainstay in the Detroit Tigers’ starting rotation for years to come, may need that fallback livelihood. His baseball career is suddenly after a crossroads after a surgeon recommended he undergo Tommy John surgery to repair his right arm.

 

Just a week ago, the Tigers shut him down “to refine his lower-body mechanics” following knee surgery in the off-season. Turns out, the lack of velocity on his fastball had little to do with his legs and hops. He needs elbow ligament reconstruction surgery, said orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews.

 

Fulmer began experiencing soreness in the elbow after a recent bullpen session, according to the Detroit Free Press. Fulmer is seeking a third opinion.

 

If he and the Tigers opt for the procedure, it will be the second time in two years he has undergone surgical repairs. In 2017, he underwent ulnar nerve transposition surgery. He has had three surgeries on his right knee – largely blamed for the loss of 6-8 mph on his fastball.

 

Tommy John surgery typically requires 12-15 months of rehab time, meaning we won’t see Fulmer on the mound for the Tigers until 2020 – if ever again.

 

And that would be a damned shame.

 

 

-30-

 

February 25th, 2019

As trade deadline looms, remember:

Players are only human; scouts too

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

They’re only human, eh?

 

Yeah, all that praise and adulation – or the boos and badmouthing – are all part of job when you’re a professional athlete. So are protracted contract negotiations, salary arbitration, waivers, buyouts and trades.

 

We tend to forget about that, or dismiss it out of hand as just not that important, at times like these, when a trade deadline approaches and the rumors and gossip and hot-stove talk on the radio airwaves intensifies. And rarely do we think about the athlete when he goes home to a wife whose worried sick about having to pack up a household, move to another city, and maybe even another country, and get the kids situated in new schools.

 

I don’t pretend to know how it is around Jimmy Howard’s house these days, but it isn’t hard to imagine. Howard, who turns 35 next month, has played his entire 13-year professional career in the Detroit Red Wings organization. He and his wife, Rachel, have been married 10 years.

 

They have two little boys, James IV and Henry, who idolize their father and the way he earns his living. Check out the recent YouTube clip of Howard being interviewed at the NHL All-Star Game a few weeks ago, with the boys at his side. See how they look at him with such reverence – the way many of us look up to our fathers.

 

I wonder about them, how they react when the kids at school start teasing about how their dad is going to get traded. Part of me worries for them, too. So imagine how Dad feels, and how he must have to sit those boys down and discuss some of the harsh facts of life before they get to their multiplication tables in their classrooms.

 

Could that explain how, after a stunningly good first half that earned him his third All-Star appearance, Jimmy Howard suddenly can’t stop a beach ball? Seriously, in his past two starts, Howard has been a sieve, giving up nine goals on 32 shots.

 

That represents a goals-against average of 8.62, and a save percentage of .719, numbers that do not exactly inspire confidence, especially when the Wings’ asking price is said to be a first-round draft pick. That isn’t likely to happen at these rates.

 

For the second straight year in this ground-up rebuild, the Wings are serious sellers, Howard, along with winger Gus Nyquist and defenseman Nick Jensen are getting a lot of buzz because they’re all on expiring contracts.

 

General manager Ken Holland is looking for future assets – prospects and draft picks. But those come with no guarantee. Those picks are worthless if the Wings don’t select the right players. Which makes amateur scouts among the most important people in the franchise.

 

And scouts are only human, too. They make mistakes, some of them colossal. In the 1980s, Mike Ilitch’s first GM Jim Devellano built a brilliant scouting staff that had some extraordinary success. In their first draft, for instance, they selected, in order in the first three rounds: Steve Yzerman, Lane Lambert and Bob Probert. And in the fifth round, they added Petr Klima and Joe Kocur.

 

In 1989, with a rising Holland now the chief scout, they were even better, getting, in order through the first four rounds: Mike “Suitcase” Sillinger, Bob Boughner, Nick Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov. And in the 11th round: Vladimir Konstantinov.

 

Occasionally, the Wings rolled craps at the draft table. In the first round in 1987, for instance, they took defenseman Yves Racine. Four picks later, the Quebec Nordiques took Hall of Famer Joe Sakic. In the second round, the Wings took another defenseman, Gord Kruppke with the 32nd overall selection. With the next pick, Montreal took John LeClair, one of the most dominant power forwards of his generation. And in the third round, at No. 41, Detroit yet another defenseman, Bob Wilkie. Three picks later, Montreal took defenseman Mathieu Schnieder.

 

That didn’t happen very often in the 80s and 90s, as the Wings drafted and developed players to sustain them through a remarkable run of 25 straight appearances in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But at the start of a new millennium, those draft picks often were used to add assets to help them sustain a certain level of excellence.

 

Case in point: Vladimir Konstantinov’s career-ending injuries in the limo crash a week after the Wings won their 1997 Stanley Cup left a gaping hole on the blue line. Holland plugged it with Chris Chelios – but it cost two first-round draft picks.

 

Soon began nearly a decade of bust after bust after bust at the draft table. Holland, the former minor-league goaltender who made his chops in this game as a scout, will admit privately that the organization got a little fat and lazy, resting on its laurels. Part of the problem was that Holland delegated the oversight scouting department to assistants, and he probably shouldn’t have.

 

The overhaul of the scouting staff began about five years ago, and it’s beginning to pay dividends. The cupboard of prospects is no longer barren. In the past couple of years as Holland finally accepted his team was in need of a rebuild, he has been stockpiling draft pics.

 

It’s too early to tell, but early indications are last year’s draft may one day rival 1983 and 1989 in terms of the number of keepers and trophy catches the Wings hauled in.

 

We will know by Monday at 3 p.m. whether Howard stays in Detroit or is moved to another city with a playoff-bound club that needs goaltending depth. And so will his family. Until then,

though, these are anxious times. We should keep that in mind when we watch the goaltender make that long, slow skate to the bench after he’s been pulled.

 

Keith Gave will be signing copies of his book “The Russian Five” at Little Caesars Arena during the Red Wings-San Jose Sharks game on Sunday, Feb. 24, at 3 p.m.

He also will be appearing at the Traverse City Opera House on Friday, March 8, for a National Writers Series event. For details, visit: nationalwritersseries.org, or call (231) 941-8082.

 

Follow on Twitter @KeithGave

 

-30-

 

February 18th, 2019

Hey Bub, Tigers think they’re going

to the World Series this summer!

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

Detroit Tigers Pitchers and catchers arrived in Lakeland, Florida this week amid a cascade of optimism heading into the new year. But while it remains an open question whether they can actually improve after two straight 98-loss seasons we know this about manager Ron Gardenhire.

 

He doesn’t have to call most of his players, “Bub.”

 

In his second season at the helm, at least he knows most of their names.

 

He’s not settling, either. Gardenhire has high expectations of his team. Enormous, actually. Unthinkable, perhaps, but certainly irrational.

 

And he’s challenging his players before they even step into the clubhouse door. On several doors throughout the facility where players walk. On those doors, there is a picture of the Commissioner’s Trophy awarded each October to the World Series champion. And with it, the words: “Believe this is going to belong to US!! Don’t walk through this door until you do!”

 

For a team with so many open questions – from the health of its superstar to the strength of its pitching staff to the weakness at so many positions, especially up the middle – you have to love the Tigers’ moxie, eh?

 

--

 

Ten days remain until the NHL’s tradeline, which means you’re going to hear a lot of wild rumors involving several Red Wings players.

 

And some of them might actually be true.

 

General manager Ken Holland is in the middle of a rebuild, and he’s spent the last couple of deadlines collecting assets for players on expiring contracts, and he’ll do the same this year. That means there’ll be a lot of speculation about core players like goaltender Jimmy Howard and winger Gus Nyquist – both having outstanding seasons, thank you very much. To a lesser extent, we’ll hear about defensemen Nick Jensen and Niklas Kronwall and winger Tomas Vanek, whom the Wings traded at the deadline a couple of years ago.

 

Kronwall, a fixture on the blue line for 15 years, isn’t going anywhere. Though he’s enjoying his best season in a long time, he’s 38 and will likely be contemplating retirement this summer. Loyalty still has currency in Detroit – perhaps too much the way Holland hands out no-trade clauses in negotiations with players – and the Wings just don’t trade guys like that.

 

It’ll hurt to trade Howard, too, which is why the Wings’ asking price of a first-round pick might be a bit unreasonable. Unless, of course, a playoff-bound team loses its starting goalie. Howard, a deserved all-star this season, has been spectacular all seasons – and he knows the business. If the Wings traded him, he could still return in the off-season on a free-agent contract – albeit for less than the $5.2 million he’s being paid on his current deal.

 

Same goes for Nyquist. Holland has had many opportunities to trade him over the past 3-4 years, but stuck with him hoping he would eventually match or exceed the 55 combined goals he scored in his first two full NHL seasons. After three seasons in which he came up far short, Nyquist is on pace to have the most productive season of his career, and could fetch a prospect and a decent draft pick if Holland decides to cut him loose.

 

Signing Jensen makes a lot more sense than trading him, but that ship has probably sailed. Statistically, Jensen has been Detroit’s most successful defenseman this season, no matter whom he’s been paired with, and in the process he’s become a valued asset. That said, it’s hard to imagine the Wings getting anything near in a trade what he’s worth to them right now. Call his agent; get him signed.

 

Vanek, 35, knows the drill. He’s been dealt at the deadline in each of the past two seasons – by Detroit to Florida in 2017 for a prospect and a third-round pick. With 11 goals among 28 points in 50 games this season, he still has some value to a playoff-bound team that needs depth on the wing – and a solid team guy.

 

One rumored deal that makes absolutely no sense has the Wings trading forward Luke Glendening, who at 29 just so happens to be enjoying the best of his six NHL seasons.

 

With nine goals among 20 points in 58 games, Glendening also has a plus-11 rating – on a team with a minus-28 goal differential. Moreover, he has proven to be one of the best face-off specialists in the NHL – as proven in the 3-2 win at Nashville the other night when he won 15 of 19 draws.

 

Of course Toronto coach Mike Babcock loves Luke Glendening. The way Babcock talked about him early in his career when he arrived in Detroit from Grand Rapids made a lot of us think he wanted to adopt Glendening. Why Holland would even entertain the notion of trading him is beyond comprehension – which makes me conclude he isn’t.

 

This is what a rebuild looks like. It ain’t about playoff runs and hanging banners in Detroit anymore. It’s about trade deadlines and drafts. It’s not all that exciting, but it’s all we’ve got.

 

Which is still better than a bunch of guys called “Bub.”

 

 

Keith Gave will be signing copies of his book “The Russian Five” at Little Caesars Arena during the Red Wings-San Jose Sharks game on Sunday, Feb. 24, at 3 p.m.

 

Follow on Twitter @KeithGave

 

-30-

 

February 7th, 2019

Pistons mercifully pull the plug on

playoff hopes with two trades

 

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

Confession: When I sat down to pen this missive to the Pistons about what they should do ahead of Thursday’s 3 p.m. NBA trade deadline, I’d planned to begin with just three words:

 

Blow it up.

 

Enough with this business of trading the future assets, uncertain as they may be, for expensive pieces that inevitably make the present that much more unpleasant. Enough throwing good money after bad. Take a page out of the files of the Tigers and the Red Wings. Collect prospects and draft picks and rebuild from the ground up. If that means trading superstars like Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, so be it.

 

Blow it up and start over. It may take 3-4 years, but disappointing product the Pistons have put on the floor year after year for more than a decade now is the worst kind of torture for fans. No wonder they’ve quit showing up. They deserve better. That beautiful new building deserves better. Just rip it apart and start building for the future.

 

Within 48 hours of the deadline, though, it appeared the Pistons might be doing the next best thing. Even after consecutive wins that put them within a game of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, they waived the white flag. Even while Reggie Bullock was scoring 19 points to help the Pistons to an easy win at New York over the tanking Knicks, the Pistons were putting the finishing touches on a deal that would send him to the Los Angeles Kings.

 

For an encore, the Pistons shipped Stanley Johnson to the Milwaukee Bucks.

 

Suddenly, there was no more talk from owner Tom Gores about how he believed his team was playoff worthy and he was willing to do anything to add the necessary pieces to help his team get into the post-season, even if it meant exceeding the salary cap forcing him to pay a luxury tax. No, Gores ultimately decided, likely with some gentle persuasion by Ed Stefanski, his right arm in the front office.

 

For once in Pistons-land, sanity prevailed. There would be no trading a first-round draft pick for a player who might lift Detroit into seventh or eighth place, only to become a colossal underdog in the first round of the NBA playoffs. And we know the history of post-season underdogs in that sport.

 

Instead, the Pistons added 22-year-old wing Sviatoslav (you can call him Svi) Mykhailiuk – also known as the LeBron James of Ukraine – and a 20-21 second-round pick from the Lakers for

Bullock, their best three-point shooter. They also acquired 7-foot-1 center Thon Maker, who turns 22 later this month, from Milwaukee for Johnson, Detroit’s first-round pick (eighth overall) in 2015.

 

Both Bullock and Johnson are on expiring contracts, and the Pistons weren’t likely to re-sign either, so they did the smart thing (so very rare for this organization), and got a couple of prospects for rentals in a trade. Those are the kinds of moves that well-run teams make.

 

But prospects are just that. Either or neither could be a good fit as the Pistons try to retool around Griffin, Drummond and the resurgent Reggie Jackson. One sure bet, though, is that coach Dwayne Casey will find out. One of his specialties in his redoubtable career is developing young players.

 

Mykhailiuk (pronounced me-HI-look) was the 47th overall pick in last summer’s NBA draft – eight spots after Detroit selected Bruce Brown. He may not be ready for prime time in the NBA, but Mykhailiuk came into the league with impeccable credentials out of Kansas. In 136 college games, he shot 41 percent from three-point range, including 44 percent his senior year.

 

In 38 games with Los Angeles, he averaged 10.7 minutes and 3.2 points. But if he can get it going like he did at KU, Pistons fans are going to love watching this guy shoot from the corner.

 

Maker isn’t much of a household name, either. He’s a South Sudanese Australian drafted by the Bucks in the first round, 10th overall, out of Canada’s Athlete Institute. He had played himself out of the rotation in Milwaukee, where he averaged 7.5 points per game on 38 percent shooting, 28 percent from long range. He is better known for his defense.

 

And if you’re less than thrilled by these moves, you’re not alone. Put a gun to their heads, and the Pistons would probably agree with you. But the ugly truth is, there just wasn’t much Stefanski could do with a roster pathetically assembled by Stan Van Gundy. Stefanski is tasked with making chicken salad from chicken droppings.

 

While it seems doubtful the Pistons will make another move, I can’t shake the feeling that another shoe is about to drop. With a few hours remaining, there’s still time to do something big, like trading one of their big stars.

 

They could still blow it up, and I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Shed some payroll, add some future assets. Still makes sense. But so does a short-term retreat.

 

With a debilitated lineup and 16 of their final 29 games on the road, the Pistons are a better bet to fade in the standings and in the process improve their draft status. If the NBA draft were held today, they would have the No. 9 pick.

 

They’re suddenly a serious contender for a top-five pick, which could bring them the kind of player who, with Griffin, Drummond and Jackson, could help to quickly reverse this franchise’s fortunes.

 

We can only hope. So for now, let’s put away the dynamite.

 

 

Keith Gave will be signing copies of his book “The Russian Five” at Little Caesars Arena during the Red Wings-San Jose Sharks game on Sunday, Feb. 24, at 3 p.m.

 

Follow on Twitter @KeithGave

 

-30-

 

February 7th, 2019

Pistons mercifully pull the plug on

playoff hopes with two trades

 

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

Confession: When I sat down to pen this missive to the Pistons about what they should do ahead of Thursday’s 3 p.m. NBA trade deadline, I’d planned to begin with just three words:

 

Blow it up.

 

Enough with this business of trading the future assets, uncertain as they may be, for expensive pieces that inevitably make the present that much more unpleasant. Enough throwing good money after bad. Take a page out of the files of the Tigers and the Red Wings. Collect prospects and draft picks and rebuild from the ground up. If that means trading superstars like Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, so be it.

 

Blow it up and start over. It may take 3-4 years, but disappointing product the Pistons have put on the floor year after year for more than a decade now is the worst kind of torture for fans. No wonder they’ve quit showing up. They deserve better. That beautiful new building deserves better. Just rip it apart and start building for the future.

 

Within 48 hours of the deadline, though, it appeared the Pistons might be doing the next best thing. Even after consecutive wins that put them within

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