Archive for November, 2010
Tuesday, November 30th, 2010
Hey-ho….need to keep the weblog a tad fresher. Will do my best. Here’s some randomness for you.
1. It’s a big game tomorrow night for Ron Wilson behind the bench for the Maple Leafs. This team was everything I thought they”d be this summer, and….worse. I’m not sure the last time (in the cap era where teams are closer to equal than they were before 2004) ANY NHL team was so inept in a 5-game stretch on the road. In the last 5 games away from the ACC, the Maple Leafs have been worked over 16-2 in total goals, and haven’t scored any goals in the first OR second period of any of those five games. Digest that sentence, and then admit, you are unable to digest it, and that you actually have indigestion.
I think Wilson is a good coach, but even I (one of his strongest defenders in this city for seeing what he can do with talented players – San Jose wasn’t winning 16 playoff games with Evgeni Nabokov, so throw that one in the direction of Doug Wilson, rather than Ron — they stayed with that dud too, too long) can admit that if this is how it’s going to go the rest of the way, Wilson should be jettisoned sooner, rather than later. Names in mind to replace him? Sure, there’s many — but I think the logical solution is to bring Dallas Eakins up from the Marlies and re-assess next summer when names like Kirk Muller, Bob Boughner, and a guy I think will get another crack at a head coach gig, Tony Granato, might be willing to make the hop up. Of course, there’s other AHL and junior names, and the usual suspects like Ken Hitchcock and Michel Therrien (before you ask, Burke wouldn’t ask Craig MacTavish to coach, and MacTavish wouldn’t accept from Burke — there’s too much bad blood from all the cheapshots fired between the Ducks and Oilers when Burke was in Anaheim).
But again, this roster simply isn’t playoff-worthy — and everything Burke is doing and has done needs to be questioned and questioned fairly. Did he change too much? Doesn’t he bear ALL the responsibility last fall for thinking the Leafs goaltending was good enough to compete (it wasn’t – not at all), and this fall for thinking the Leafs forward core was threatening enough to win more than 1/3rd of their games (they aren’t – most certainly not). It’s all elementary – if Burke was out of term in the summer of 2012, it’s a worthy conversation to question his future. He earned (if you can negotiate it, you “earned” it) a 5-year deal and thus can take his time, ahem, “rebuilding”. I have enormous respect for the man on and off the job, but his tenure’s been more double-faults than it has been aces, that can’t be questioned.
2. Not sure what to say about the New York Islanders….so many earnest, good-meaning people in that organization on-ice and off-ice. I don’t blame Charles Wang for being remarkably frustrated — this was not what he bargained for (waiting forever to get out of a dilapidated and run-down arena and facilities) but you still have to compete, and the Isles are making an absolute mockery of the league’s salary cap and LTI rules by continuing to count Mark Streit’s salary against their cap, so they don’t fall below the floor.
As for Josh Bailey being sent to Bridgeport — I know this kid, and anything he handles, he does professionally, and with grace. He’ll be fine — he’ll be the same kind of “fine” Luke Schenn would have been spending a week or two with the Marlies last season instead of sitting games out. No harm, no foul — Schenn’s becoming the defenseman he was supposed to be (not a star, not an offensive threat) and Bailey (same age, same draft) will bounce back up and be even better for the experience.
3. Biggest positive surprises in the NHL at the “quarter pole”: 1. Columbus, 2. Dallas, 3. NY Rangers. Rangers were 9-4 on the road coming into Monday night’s action, and were they to play just a touch better at Madison Square Garden, would be threatening for maybe a #4 seed come April. I expect them to hang in and make the playoffs. Many of you might suggest Tampa Bay or Atlanta, but they’re about where I thought they’d be — Tampa was a clown show off-ice and it impacted on-ice performance. It doesn’t anymore, and if Atlanta truly is allowing Rick Dudley and Craig Ramsey to call the Thrashers’ shots from a management perspective, and have moved Don Waddell on to less-damaging job duties, then they’ll continue to thrive. I like John Anderson, and always heard great things about him as a coach…but the current Thrashers have taken shot after shot at how he handled certain scenarios last season, most of which if you read the tea leaves, involve coddling Ilya Kovalchuk — shocking.
4. My four favourite hockey writers in the USA are: Kevin Allen (USA Today), John Buccigross (ESPN.com), Kevin Paul Dupont (Boston Globe), and Larry Brooks (NY Post). Brooks though suggested Devils future Hall-of-Famer Martin Brodeur might net quite the catch in a trade scenario should the Devils (and obviously Brodeur given he calls the shots on any transaction involving him) decide to move him. Brooks’ contention that Brodeur would merit (say, from Washington) a John Carlson or Karl Alzner, a budding young forward, AND a 1st-round pick seems completely off the rails to me.
If you’re the Caps – would you even trade your 1st-round pick for Brodeur (knowing it’ll be 24th or later)? I mean, it’s not a no-brainer, is it? A 38-year old keeper whose skills have diminished remarkably fast, who’s fought injuries two of the last three seasons, and who has won FIVE of his last 21 playoff games? That’s the guy you want to sell the future for? Not me – no thanks…and let’s lose the notion Brodeur would be a “great teammate” and a “mentor” to a younger goalie. Child, please. Brodeur whined and pouted when losing his job to Roberto Luongo at the Olympics, when any logical hockey mind could see (as Mike Babcock and obviously the brass above him did) Team Canada wasn’t winning the gold medal with Brodeur in net. I’d make the strong argument they may not have beaten Slovakia in the semi-finals. Luongo had to make big save after big save to prevent overtime in that one.
So no, Brodeur (and I’m not saying I blame him) isn’t the type to don a ball cap and mentor a younger keeper — when he can’t start, he’s gone. Unlike Roy, who retired after a 1st-round loss to the Minnesota Wild in 2003, at the age of 37 who walked away, Curtis Joseph played until he was 40, Ed Belfour until he was 41, and both great goalies were shadows of their former selves (the Belfour/Florida Panther year? Remember?). Brodeur hit that era with his putrid playoff performances of the last two years, and shows no signs of stopping. At least this year, he’ll be spared the indignity (so it would seem of a recent 7-25 or 8-25 playoff record).
5. One more on the Leafs — some have raved about their GAA being lower this season than last season. Toronto’s 15th in the league for goals-against at 2.68 going into tonight’s game with Tampa Bay. But isn’t this a worthy question? Isn’t it possible their GAA is so, well, average, because the other teams don’t HAVE to score many goals to beat them. If you’re Ottawa, Buffalo, or Montreal, why do you need more than two or three goals. You simply don’t. You only NEED to score 5 a game when the other team is capable of scoring 4.
6. I want Carlos Pena to be the Blue Jays first baseman this season. I think he’d be great here and the media will love his candor and accessibility. I bet Jose Bautista will love batting behind him also.
7. I think the four teams getting 1st round byes in the NFL this year will be: New England, Baltimore, Chicago, and Atlanta.
8. I think the four teams hosting games Wild-card weekend will be: San Diego, Indianapolis (yes..haven’t FULLY lost faith), NY Giants, and (gulp) the 8-8 St. Louis Rams. Rams would join the 1985 Cleveland Browns and 2008 San Diego Chargers as the only 8-8 teams ever to make the post-season.
9. It brings up the notion of all eight division winners getting home games…..if you want to guarantee a division winner a playoff spot, fine…then go to FOUR divisions of eight teams…then take the top two teams, and two more wild-cards per conference. Stop “championing mediocrity” like Diane Court’s dad Jim suggested his daugher stop doing in “Say Anything” when she got back together with Lloyd Dobler.
10. Throw things if you want, but if I have a playoff game to win, I want Jay Cutler instead of Michael Vick, and as people know who follow me on twitter (gregbrady71) — I said that long before Cutler outplayed him handily (with a worse offensive line) on Sunday at Soldier Field.
11. Next BBC/NFL travel date for me is a reunion with Arlo White — we’ll call Patriots at Bears at Soldier Field. Been to Soldier Field twice before for Lions/Bears regular season games, but seeing this kind of game in December should be something else. I’ll be on the road calling a game every playoff weekend…so I’m watching the potential matchups very carefully.
12. Very disappointed the Oscars will be hosted by James Franco and Anne Hathaway. Nothing against those two kids — but I want to laugh. They won’t make me. So I need any of: Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Tina Fey (w/ Tracy Morgan presenting 11 awards), or Bill Hader (yes, I know….most movie snobs are unaware of who he is). But Franco and Hathaway won’t interest me. Have they ever asked Tom Hanks? Mrs. Brady says Franco shouldn’t be allowed to host if he does indeed get a Best Actor nomination for 187 Days. Too right, it’s awkward watching a host who’s also a nominee.
Tom Hanks? Seriously — you have to ask the guy, right?
Wouldn’t Denzel Washington have any interest? We all still like him. I can’t believe I’m even suggesting this, but couldn’t Will Smith (yes…his star has fallen) end up being funny? I’d call Eddie Murphy also — but not Joe Piscopo.
Aren’t there former Best Actress nominees/winners who’d help out?
Wouldn’t we watch Mickey Rourke and Julia Roberts co-host just for the awkwardness alone? I’d settle for Nic Cage and Elisabeth Shue if they just repeat random lines from Leaving Las Vegas, and Shue does a couple walk-thrus with Ralph Macchio, as both declare that the Karate Kid remake this past summer never did happen.
Mark Wahlberg co-hosting with Andy Samberg AS Mark Wahlberg? Wouldn’t MORE people watch that? OK…I give up — but Franco/Hathaway isn’t the answer.
13. If there ever was a North American sports league that needed relegation this season — it’s the NBA’s Eastern Conference. For serious. Memphis is currently 11th in the West, and I polled (legal in 47 states) 4 NBA “people” and they think, on average, if Memphis played an Eastern Conference schedule, they’d win between 47-52 games. That’s quite indictable, really. It doesn’t help season-ticket holders for fans of the Raptors, Sixers, Wizards, Pistons, Cavaliers, and others, that’s for certain.
14. (BONUS) — Please donate to my Movember campaign. One day left with a mustache…here’s the link. If you donate $25 (at least) before Wednesday at 5pm, I will personally purchase you (if you are one of TWO names drawn) a lower-bowl pair of Raptors tickets for any game of your choice in January or February. Make me proud. Do some good. Use the tax receipt. Thanks so much.
Wednesday, November 17th, 2010
There’s no league quite like the National Hockey League, there really isn’t. No league tries harder to be accepted by its hardcore P1 base, yet endeavours to seek new fans wherever and however.
No pro sports league has the complexities of starting it’s season against Major League Baseball’s most vital and most-watched month of games (its playoffs), and no league has its playoffs battling with not just the first months where many of us can actually be outdoors and enjoy the weather without needing a wool cap and gloves, but also NBA playoffs, the start of baseball, the Kentucky Derby, the Indianapolis 500 (though the latter two events have certainly faded in stature in the last couple decades), and coming into its climactic series, really nice weather in early June.
No other pro sports league has once considered one of the “Big Four” which it clearly no longer is in the United States, and no other pro sports league has as low-risk/even lower reward in terms of a major network television deal, despite the best efforts of Versus during the season.
No other pro sports league has missed an entire season of activity, as it did in 2004-05, only to find it come back in October 2005, and find not nearly as people welcomed it back, as did rue its departure when it disappeared and went “poof”.
In short, the NHL has challenges, and then some. It’s completely and utterly running one of its franchises in the Phoenix Coyotes, after suffering a public relations nightmare and many embarrassing revelations and accusations in a bankruptcy court case initiated by Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie, in a rogue attempt to hijack the team to move to Hamilton. It has what can be described as “franchise survival issues” in Atlanta, Nashville, Dallas, Florida, and potentially Columbus. Oh, and the New York Islanders who came into the league when there were only 16 franchises. So, yeah, not good.
But one of the biggest issues in my mind the NHL has in the insular way in which they conduct their “external” affairs. Yes, internal affairs ARE internal affairs. We’re all allowed some degree of privacy, certainly in our personal lives, and at times equally as often in our professional lives. Transparency’s impossible for people who work at almost any level of business, and I understand that completely. I’ve often said general managers, coaches, and even players in sports can’t necessarily be truthful when asked questions, but it doesn’t make them liars by definition, not by a longshot.
But the NFL and NBA, to degrees more so than Major League Baseball, and certainly more than the NHL have remarkable credibility with their fanbases, for doing things properly, for getting in front of issues, instead of slipping behind them, only to offer muted responses to discipline issues, and to pretend there aren’t problems which need addressing.
The NFL had a problem in one weekend alone with too many players suffering concussions from helmet-to-helmet hits — they modified rules, to near-unanimous public support (and limited griping from players, and NO griping whatsoever from owners, managers, or head coaches).
The NBA realized they had a snake in the grass in disgraced referee Tim Donaghy, who was attempting to deal his way out of a massive prison sentence. They admitted they’d slipped up, hadn’t been as vigilant as they should have been to keep nefarious characters like Donaghy from its inner circle of officials, and promised its base and JUST as importantly its players and teams that it would never, ever happen again.
The NBA thought it was developing an image problem with how players dressed while sitting on or near NBA benches and how they would leave the arena after games. Despite the controversy, and cries of “racism”, the league believed in the obvious principle that given the players ARE league employees, and just like your boss or my boss, they had the ability and right to set even a mild standard of dress for players a couple hours before and after each game.
Back to the NFL, and Commissioner Roger Goodell dealing with an image problem of its own with its players. Goodell demanded higher behavioural standards off the field of play. If you play in our league, Goodell reasoned, you’ll follow a certain code. Getting arrested isn’t part of that code. Making poor moral decisions even if you aren’t charged with a crime isn’t part of that code. Carrying guns isn’t either. The league took a chance, risked revolt and again, accusations of racism, and have treated players of all creeds and colours alike — screw up and we’ll deal with you harshly.
In the NHL, well, we’re just not sure where they stand on discipline, and things have gotten even cloudier now with the expansion of dialogue in emails exchanged a few years back between NHL vice-president Colin Campbell, and then-director of officiating Stephen Walkom, which are legally obtainable and publishable because of their involvement as evidence of a wrongful dismissal lawsuit by fired NHL referee Dean Warren.
This is ground well-covered at this point but the emails are embarrassing both in terms of their profanity (yes, we’ve all been there and done that, sometimes to a lesser extent than Mr. Campbell to a man he was essentially a “boss” of), their appearance of inappropriate questions/answers, and as has been brought to light by hockey blogger Tyler Dellow, the certainly disputable, yet fair, suggestion that Colin Campbell has gotten himself over-involved and has “meddled” in both criticism and threats of dismissal against NHL referees (at least one, as many as three) who have called what he deems (even sometimes without seeing the penalty) unnecessary penalties against his son, Gregory, now a Boston Bruin, then a Florida Panther.
As I’ve said before, Campbell has seen and done it all in the NHL and I’d even make the argument that because of his versatility and ushering the league through changing eras, even before the 04/05 lockout, that the league will owe him a great debt of gratitude for at times, deflecting issues of controversy, disorganization, and an utter lack of transparency from others whom he works with. He is said to be a man of “integrity”. That word’s been tossed around a lot by those who know him personally. I myself don’t know him personally, but I’m finding as time has moved on that knowing people “professionally” in this business allows one to maintain a greater semblance of objectivity than knowing them “personally”. It’s not what I got into the business for, and if I make friends along the way, long-term or short-term, that’s fantastic – it only enriches the experience, but it won’t colour my judgement of what’s right and wrong, and clearly it has done just that for people who have waved their “hockey guy” hand at suggestings that Campbell at best, acted remarkably inappropriately and with belligerence towards his co-workers, and, for lack of a better term, underlings, and at worst, has committed a notable dereliction of his duties in not recognizing or respect the tremendous conflict of interest it is to question, comment on, rule, opine, or threaten punishment and/or job loss concerning decisions in hockey games involving a blood relative such as his son.
You won’t find it any of the other sports, you really won’t. “Colie” is a good “hockey guy”, they say. “Colie” acts with “integrity”, other “hockey guys” say. OK, fine. Who am I to judge? Websters’ Dictionary defines “integrity” as “adherence to moral and ethical principles, soundness or moral character, and honesty”. “Hockey guy” in my travels is used far more than “football guy”, “baseball guy”, and “basketball guy” — exponentially so. But often times, you will find – it’s used more as a defence of a personal nature, rather than an answer to questions of a professional one.
One may HAVE integrity, but if they are going to claim such a virtue as their own, and for others to pass such a noted label upon them, that person in question is going to have to do it a touch more often than Mr. Campbell has shown here in these emails. One can have an honourable characteristic inherent in them, and I wouldn’t think to question that Campbell doesn’t, but you must demonstrate that on a foolproof and consistent basis in the line of work that good ol’ “Colie” is in. He hasn’t done that in this case. He’s left the door open to his critics, those who question every suspension, feel he has bias in his heart towards certain players or organizations — and like any relationship, professional or personal, once the trust and sacredness is broken, how can it become repaired?
Certainly not by another rug sweep job by the NHL. Much like the Alex Burrows/Alain Vigneault/Stephane Auger affair, in which HNIC host Ron MacLean and Colin Campbell openly, without representation, and without providing any semblance of a defence or rebuttal, essentially hung Alex Burrows as a “faker” and a “liar” to a jury of his peers (the millions of fans, media, league executives, and players who watch CBC’s Saturday institution).
The segment lacked objectivity or fairness, and Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault had to say so (unasked of course) later that evening following the HNIC late game.
I mean, you tell me — in WHAT other pro sports league can a player, as Burrows did, and a coach, as Vigneault did, imply a referee has gone after a player with prejudice, after informing him in the pre-game skate that he will do just that, and there is NO investigation, there is NO face-to-face hearing, and there is NO punishment either way, besides a paltry $2500 fine for Burrows for questioning the integrity of the referee, and summarily the entire league?
Quick answer is there isn’t one. If a player alleged a referee did that in the NBA (especially post-Donaghy) or the NFL, there’d be a swift and organized reaction. Witnesses would be called, questions would properly be asked, and if the player’s accusation couldn’t be verified, he’d be in a boatload of trouble for bringing the league’s, “ahem”, integrity into question. That and the Richards/Booth and Cooke/Savard incidents made it a tough year for Campbell, one which I wasn’t necessarily sure he would survive.
I do think he’s done this job too long and said so adamantly in the springtime following Cooke/Savard. Of all players now for him to label a “fake artist” as he’s apparently (evidence looks quite damning) done with Marc Savard in these emails, a player who because of the league’s system of justice being so behind the times in terms of what the game has become (faster, more reckless, and thus, more dangerous), is simply hoping for another chance to play the game at which he is so talented at.
It would have also been so easy for Campbell to admit he’d gone too far in his emails. As I said, he’s a likable, folksy guy (you know, say the “hockey guys”). Can you imagine how instead of justifying to TSN that he was “just a hockey dad, venting”, he actually took one iota of accountability for anything which ANYONE could deem inappropriate? Mr. Campbell, sir, with due respect, a “hockey dad venting” is exactly what your job does NOT entail, does NOT allow for, and which your employer should NOT stand for. Be the league’s chief disciplinarian, or be a hockey dad. The option should not allow for you to actively be both. We assume you’ll cheer internally, or in the privacy of your own home, we assume you’ll hope your son touches the Stanley Cup one day and has a long and healthy career (one which the “fake artist”, your boy’s current teammate, again, is on his knees praying he’ll have again), but get this: you are NOT allowed to actually DO IT. Oh, and the “it” part includes threatening to have refs fired because they called a penalty on your son. “Integrity”? No, not in this case.
I have a brain, I don’t always use it. Some have hearts, and they don’t always use them. We ALL have integrity (almost all) — a sense of right and wrong, a sense of just and fair, or tilted and imbalanced — but as Christian Bale’s Batman ended up learning from his cutesy child friend Rachel Dawes in “Batman Begins”:
“It’s not who I am, but what I DO that defines me”.
So it is. Do I think Campbell should quit over this? Or be fired? Or should the disciplinarian be disciplined? Frankly, no. He should have over other issues. Or just because fresh thinking and a new person might be necessary in this gig. It’s maybe the hardest administrative job in all of North American pro sports, I could make that argument. I think the new voices and new faces — those which don’t owe favours to The Sheriff, those who haven’t tipped beers with The Sheriff, those who haven’t played golf with The Sheriff — should be considered. Roger Goodell and David Stern aren’t “buddies” with players or managers — it makes it easy for them to let them know “hey guys, it’s business – it’s nothing personal”.
If anything, hockey fans salivating over this controversy should be crushed if they were hoping Campbell would depart anytime soon. I am not one of them — mostly because of how the revelations must hurt the mental and emotional state of Marc Savard and Gregory Campbell, completely innocent bystanders, dealt a cruel hand by a league executive and father’s careless, threatening, and profane words, and lack of an ethical compass to understand why some might think at least an “I got a bit carried away in these emails but I want what’s best for the league, the players, AND the officials andI do my job to the best of my ability and without an ounce of bias” explanation statement might be overdue.
Embattled leaders in history, be it because of economic crisis, war, or internal strife are often the hardest to remove from office. They dig in deeper, they build barricades higher, and they then outlast their critics. Any thought Campbell might depart of his own volition anytime soon goes out the window with this issue, because neither the league, nor he, will wish it to be perceived that he’s being forced out….remember, the league also likes to suggest its buildings are full, it’s US TV contract is a dream come true, that the Versus channel is available in major hotels, and that the Phoenix Coyotes are on solid financial ground.
Wednesday, November 10th, 2010
I’m the furthest thing from a newsbreaker, believe me — in fact, I got to give people news “first” WAY more anchoring updates on WDFN in Detroit — there’s a real adrenaline rush in this business letting people know something juicy yet factual, for the very first time.
A story developed which I brought to our audience’s attention Wednesday regarding MLS&E CEO & President Richard Peddie. Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment has recently enlisted a consulting firm/headhunter to search high and low for a replacement for Richard Peddie, who at some point in the next several months, will take leave of his position, which he’s held since 1998. They’ll consider internal and external candidates, and obviously candidates on either side of the 49th Parallel. You never know, maybe a bright shining light emerges from Europe, maybe someone Peddie or Anselmi met in their soccer travels in the United Kingdom.
All this naturally attracted some attention and raised some questions. First off, Peddie isn’t being fired, but yes, there’s a succession plan that will end up “replacing” him. He may not like the term “replaced”, but given many people he summarily gave the gaspipe too probably didn’t like any term Peddie used in moving them along to other walks of employment.
There’s a lot to admire about Peddie, in his business acumen and methodology in keeping MLS&E shareholders very, very happy (and yes, being rich CAN buy happiness shockingly). Yet, he’ll always have the sports fan in Toronto resent him greatly — the lack of success for the sports entities under MLS&E’s umbrella is truly shocking since Peddie came aboard. For those who claim Peddie still makes the shareholders money, you’re right — of course he does, but the amount of money that’s been lost by early playoff exits or no playoffs at all (six seasons and running for the Maple Leafs, where the Raptors will miss the playoffs for the seventh year of the past nine. If you assume (and no you wouldn’t be making an ass of you or me) the Raptors and Leafs will be excused early before the postseason wackiness begin, in the last fifteen seasons combined for both clubs with a total of eleven home games in the playoffs. Simply a remarkable record for futility, pretty much unparalled — although James Dolan’s Knicks and Rangers always give it the old college try at Madison Square Garden on a near-nightly basis.
As for the next step in this process, it’s simply looking, talking, and learning for this firm now committed to finding Peddie’s successor. If they get the “right person” in March, they get him/her then — if they get him/her in June, that’s when they make the move and Peddie, prior to that, will announce his departure.
Peddie didn’t seem the least bit indignant or shocked when asked about what I’d revealed on-air by the reporters who called him. But it’s standard course for him to dance and deflect, and I understood that. The day played out pretty much as I expected I would, having watched stories like this develop, yet very rarely having been in on the ground floor for when they become public. My colleague Nick Kypreos, who’s broken a remarkable amount of NHL news in the last several months, didn’t seem surprised by it and as such, noted the plan for Peddie to step down has been in the works for quite a while, as Peddie himself admitted. If anything, Peddie confirmed my story, as opposed to denying it. MLS&E, say what you will about the sports futility, is too savvy and too conscious of what could go wrong to make a rash decision on such an important hire. Admittedly, the story is that the firm to seek his replacement is now on the job, not that his retirement is/was “imminent”. Everything in life is “imminent”. As Keith Olbermann noted years ago, “we’re all day-to-day”. So yeah, Peddie stepping down IS imminent and the search firm working for MLS&E will now move that process along into its final stages over the next several months.
Friday, November 5th, 2010
I won’t waste your time telling you I knew Sparky Anderson. I got into the Tiger clubhouse with a media credential from CHRW Radio Western in the summer of 1994, and sat in his office and did ask a question or two after a weekend series with the Toronto Blue Jays. I got to do 2-3 (can’t remember) phone interviews with him in my time at WDFN in Detroit. I passed him in the bowels of the then-new, and then quite unfinished Comerica Park as the Detroit Tigers opened their new stadium in 2000 on a snowy day against the Seattle Mariners. All that combined, even times ten, hardly constitutes “knowing” someone.
But I FELT like I knew Sparky, and that’s all that matters. He was a massive part of my childhood, a massive part of connecting with sports, and like others was able to give me the joy of watching a favourite team win a World Series in 1984 at the age of 13.
I’d admit I hadn’t thought about Sparky Anderson in a long time before hearing Wednesday that he’d, at age 76, been placed in hospice care at his California home, suffering from symptoms of dementia, and a day later the word that he was with us no more. But weirdly, I didn’t have to think about Sparky for him always to be there.
Anderson managed the first powerhouse baseball team I ever watched play in the Cincinnati Reds of 1975 and 1976 (Dick Williams and the 1972-74 Oakland A’s didn’t really connect with the 1-3 year old version of me!), and I marvelled at the skill and the numbers and the star power. From Johnny Bench to Pete Rose, from Joe Morgan to George Foster, and even the clutch hitting of Dave Concepcion, or the speed and range of Cesar Geronimo — no one was more dominant than the Big Red Machine. As a kid, even before the Blue Jays existed, I remember a couple summers when the Reds would play the Montreal Expos on the CBC Wednesday night game, and there was excitement in sitting down with my father to watch such a team.
Then the Los Angeles Dodgers rose up and became slightly more dominant in the NL West Division, started winning division titles and after only a couple seasons removed from back-to-back World Series Wins, Sparky Anderson was fired and found himself a free agent, despite a 92-win season in 1978.
As it would happen, the Reds wouldn’t make another World Series until their win in 1990 after ditching Sparky, and in fact, eight of their twelve National League counterparts would win at least one pennant until the 1990 Reds finally ended that drought. But luckily for me, and countless other Detroit Tigers fans, Sparky landed in Detroit early on in the 1979 season.
A virtually faceless Les Moss was fired early days of 1979, and Sparky Anderson took over and even going as a kid, you marvelled to see his teams at work — you WANTED to see him make the move to the mound, gingerly step over the lines and make a pitching change. It’s hard to explain. I’m well aware that no fan goes to a game to see a manager manage, but Sparky Anderson almost broke that mold to some extent. We all get excited by players and plays instead of lineup changes and visits to the mound, but Sparky challenged that conventional thinking.
He was 45 when he started in Detroit and while we’ll never truly know the influence he had on a growing crop of young talent, suffice to say, it was an extremely positive one.
Lance Parrish was 23, Lou Whitaker was 22, Alan Trammell was 21, Jack Morris 24, Dan Petry 20, and a key cog in 1984, Milt Wilcox, was 29.
For whatever reason, Tiger all-stars like Steve Kemp and Jason Thompson seemed more part of the past than the future at age 24, and that was even the case with the ultra-talented Dave Rozema, who was mostly a bullpen presence for Sparky’s real good teams.
I remember as a kid when Steve Kemp was traded to the White Sox for speedy centre-fielder Chet Lemon, and I thought the trade was insane. But Lemon fit like a glove, after Kirk Gibson chose baseball over football for a career, and veteran National Leaguer Larry Herndon was added to play left field.
Regardless, every Tiger pre-game show on WDIV Detroit wasn’t to be missed, Sparky would go off on some sort of entertaining tangent, would talk about some young player making his debut and set up impossible expectations for that player to meet (famously comparing a young Kirk Gibson to Mickey Mantle, among them), and would always be full of grace and respect for his opponents and adversaries.
The Tigers under Sparky knocked on the door for a couple seasons — the players strike in 1981 split the seasons into two, and the Tigers lost out to Milwaukee on the final weekend in 1981, missing a chance to play in the division playoffs. They slipped to an 83-79 record in 1982, and were off to a 9-14 start in 1983 before they caught fire and won 92 games (going 81-56 the rest of the way) but it wasn’t enough to catch Baltimore, and the Orioles would handily win the World Series.
And then there was 1984 — I was turning 13 that summer, it was a year I started wearing braces, and cologne, and finally accepted Duran Duran wasn’t just a “chick band” (ahem..), I quit hockey that fall to play tennis full-time and year-round, and that was a very good decision. I was never more than an average hockey player on a good team, or a pretty good player on an average team, and tennis let me stretch my boundaries — more hustling and less sitting, a fantastic family decision. Purple Rain, Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom, Ghostbusters, Footloose, The Karate Kid — all summer 1984 movies, and all films I’ve seen a thousand times.
And then there were the Tigers. 35-5. Does anything more need to be said? That was their start. It hasn’t been surpassed let alone equalled since then. If anything, the Tigers pace cooled dramatically after that 40 game start, winning 104 ball games and losing 58 (thus going 69-53 the rest of the way). It’s a team that actually underwhelms you with the individual statistics.
Catcher Lance Parrish despite 33 home runs hit a meagre .237.
Gibson was the only other player with 25+ home runs with 27.
Trammell was the only regular with a .300+ average clocking in at .314
Free Agent signing Darrell Evans looks like a bust with 16 home runs and a .232 average.
No 20 game winners, but Morris won 19, Petry 18, and Milt Wilcox 17.
Willie Hernandez would win the league’s Cy Young and MVP awards, with 9 wins, 32 saves, and a 1.92 ERA (his WHIP was 0.94 for you youngsters out there).
But Sparky was Sparky and had worked his magic with this group. He took very good baseball players, admittedly none Hall of Famers (although I’d argue Trammell, Whitaker, and yes, Morris, all can make cases for entry), and made them one of the most memorable baseball teams of a generation in an era when winning the AL East was remarkably difficult.
The Blue Jays would deservedly come together in 1985 with their amazing outfield of Bell, Moseby, and Barfield and the add of veteran righty starter Doyle Alexander, and win the American League East. The Tigers couldn’t find the same magic as the year previous and dropped off 19 wins from their 104-victory campaign of 1984. Where they went I’ll never figure out, especially given they started 6-0 and it looked like all the same things would go right as the year prior, but as Sparky understood — that was baseball.
1987 was special though, and in many ways for me, more special than seeing your team win it all in 1984 was. The Tigers had started the season 11-19 and looked nothing special. Had they kept players around too long, or had they even made too many changes from their ’84 squad. Gone was Lance Parrish to the Phillies via free agency and a tandem of a youthful Matt Nokes and a veteran presence in Mike Heath would handle the catching. Tom Brookens was the every-day third baseman. And creeky knees and muscles of both 40-year old first baseman Darrell Evans and fulltime DH and former NL batting champ Bill Madlock (age 36) had to be concerning.
Somehow, someway, despite a real leaky bullpen, the Tigers fought themselves into contention in August with a very strong Blue Jays squad and a resurgent New York Yankees team, which had been very average much of the decade.
Jack Morris would just do what he does, winning 18 starts, Walt Terrell won 17, but it was the acquisition of Doyle Alexander, a move Sparky pushed hard for, winning nine of his eleven starts coming over from the Braves, and losing none of them, that put the Tigers over the top, so much so that Alexander got strong support from Cy Young and MVP award voters.
Just a small price to pay to the Braves, then 20-year old minor leaguer and Michigan native, John Smoltz. OK then. Money well worth spending.
Ask anyone to recall those seven games on the last two weekends of the season between the Tigers and the Blue Jays, and they’ll simply say that they will never forget them. All battles, all one-run games, as intense a baseball series as any playoff set I’ve ever witnessed. The Tigers led in all of the first three games at Exhibition Stadium, and now down 3 1/2 games in the division to Toronto, found themselves down again 1-0 most of the game.
Veteran Jim Clancy threw 7 shutout innings and Tom Henke attempted a 2-inning save but was tagged in the ninth by Kirk Gibson for a tying solo homerun. I mean, I’ll never forget it — an absolute bomb over the right field fence, almost into the Argonauts end zone. Tie game. Extra innings.
Both teams would score a run in the 11th inning, and then the Tigers won the game in the 13th. Detroit used 13 position players, the Jays used an inexplicable 17. I get September roster call-ups, but, wow. 17 players in one game. But the win left the Tigers down 2 1/2 games instead of an impossible 4 1/2. Detroit had 7 games left, Toronto had 6, and there’s famous post-game footage of Sparky waving and smiling at the jeering Blue Jays fans following the Tigers win on that Sunday.
It was like he KNEW they were OK now, and for whatever reason, I believed they were also. I have no idea how we as Tigers fans felt confident 2 1/2 games down with a week left, but we did. Detroit would nearly blow it even before the three-game set with the Blue Jays at Tiger Stadium, splitting four games with Baltimore, but the Blue Jays had it even worse, having already lost Tony Fernandez for the season thanks to a hard Bill Madlock slide and a tough fall on a bad spot on the Exhibition Stadium infield, but they’d lose Ernie Whitt to an injury in Milwaukee, and they’d lose all three games there.
So now, the deficit is 1 game. The Tigers would tie the Blue Jays for the division lead, winning Friday night’s affair 4-3. They’d win Saturday 3-2 in 12 innings. NBC broadcast the game continent-wide and Alan Trammell hit a grounder through Manny Lee’s legs with the bases loaded and one out with the infield drawn in. Sunday’s famous beyond belief in Detroit. Larry Herndon’s wind-aided home run and Frank Tanana outdueling Jimmy Key to win 1-0. Tigers win the division by 2 games, and naturally, get obliterated by the Minnesota Twins in the ALCS 4 games to 1. Weirdly, it didn’t matter. I’m dead serious, coming from where they came from, against a team so respected and so ready for a dynasty as the Blue Jays were, it was the greatest baseball summer of my life and Sparky Anderson helped give it to me.
The team seemed good enough to win in 1988 as well, but fell apart badly that September, no thanks to the eccentric Lou Whitaker making an errant move on a dance floor in Milwaukee after a game and injuring himself for the rest of the season, helping give the Red Sox the opportunity to get hammered by the up-and-coming Oakland A’s.
1989 under Sparky was simply a disaster. The team got VERY old VERY fast and some inexplicable trades rendered it limp and lacking. 1990 was a fun team under Anderson with Cecil Fielder bopping 51 home runs — in fact this summer in Toronto following Jose Bautista’s exploits were reminiscent of the excitement when Fielder would lumber to the plate. And yes, even in 1991, with Jack Morris having departed for Minnesota via free agency, the team stayed in the pennant race against a more talented and more highly-paid Blue Jays team. Additions of Rob Deer and Pete Incaviglia made it a team that could stay in any game at any time and the Tigers headed into September in a dead heat with Toronto, but just couldn’t stay with them.
I haven’t mentioned Sparky Anderson much in the last several paragraphs, other than he was the one constant, the reason you always believed in your team. We all think differently of our athletes and sports heroes when we’re kids. I wish I could say sports was as important to me (in terms of wins and losses) as it was in the summer of 1984 or the fall of 1987…and perhaps it will be again one day. I still care a ton, believe me. I devour the information, and I’m so fortunate to do what I do and have it exist all around me, and have an amazing and lovely wife who will watch with me. Sparky Anderson helped make me that person, he really truly did. To get to watch a man so bright and personable and fiery manage YOUR team for 16 seasons was such a gift and I knew it even then, believe me, but it really resonates upon his passing now.
It’s not all flowery though, there’s a dark side to the Anderson story. It’s well-documented that Sparky and the Tigers had a serious falling-out in the spring of 1995 when Anderson left spring training and refused to manage replacement players during baseball’s ongoing labour dispute, which cost the sport the 1994 World Series. Anderson just never felt right about doing so, and thus when the season resumed with the regular players, something was always wrong from that point on and the Tigers suffered through a miserable 60-84 season. Sparky wouldn’t manage again in Major League Baseball and despite being 61 then, probably could have, but a fit just didn’t end up being there.
Many around him say he was perfectly happy not to manage, but was quite wounded by the treatment upon his exit from Detroit. Mike Ilitch certainly has always done what it takes to make the Detroit Red Wings a winner and a competitor, but Tigers fans since he took over the team often viewed his baseball ownership differently. At best, it was a struggle until 2006 and the Tigers World Series appearance, and at worst, it was a remarkably inept, unfeeling, and ludicrously out-of-touch ownership and management. From 1994 through 2006, the Tigers didn’t have a .500 season or better — and manager after manager passed through both Tiger Stadium and Comerica Park and none could win, either because of them or because of the talent on the field. Buddy Bell, Larry Parrish, Phil Garner, Luis Pujols, and sadly, Tiger great Alan Trammell, all were fired after short stints running the team until Jim Leyland took over and somehow everything turned to magic in 2006, despite an unforgivable collapse in the AL Central and having to settle for the wildcard.
Sparky though, was never properly honoured by the Tigers. He’s in baseball’s Hall of Fame, yet there is NO acknowledgement of it at Comerica Park. Nothing. His number 11 isn’t retired by the Tigers, he doesn’t have a statue along the outfield concourse like many of the Tigers greats do. It’s all out of petty and bitter feelings, that’s how it started anyway. Whether it’s just Ilitch and Sparky or some intermediaries mixed in between, it doesn’t matter. The Tigers failed and failed mightily in properly honouring this man who’d given so much to the game, the city, the franchise, its players, its fans, its media, and now it’s too late.
Nothing they ever do can make right their ignorance and I know more than a few Tigers fans who’ll never ever forgive the current ownership for not doing justice to this great man, who did so much for charity, who treated an idiot college radio dude like me with the same respect when asking a question as a Hall of Fame writer, and for giving me such memories of watching him work at Tiger Stadium in person, on television, or elsewhere. I learned so much about baseball and hopefully how to treat people from watching and yes, “knowing” Sparky Anderson.
He is already missed.