Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"Kill, Bubba, Kill"

When you're seven or eight years old, everybody looks huge.

But for some people, "huge" doesn't nearly describe it.

When I was in grade school in the early and mid-1960s, my parents had season tickets to Michigan State football  games, in the days when the Spartans towered over the college football landscape pretty much as Alabama does  today.

When Mom for whatever reason didn't make it to the games, Dad recruited me as his running mate. So pretty much  from the days I could walk, I knew my way up and down the staircases at Spartan Stadium.

My dad's tickets weren't exactly prime seats, but before some of the games, we would go down to field level near  the players' bench. My dad was 6-foot-2 and looked pretty tall to me, but standing next to some of the players on  Duffy Daugherty's powerhouse teams like George Webster and Charlie Thornhill, he looked positively scrawny.

But next to one in particular, my dad looked like a midget. Like a munchkin.

That player, of course, was Charles "Bubba" Smith.

Smith, who died Wednesday in Los Angeles at the age of 66, was listed in the game program at 6-8 and 300 pounds, and this was in the days when typical offensive and  defensive linemen might be 6-4 and 250 pounds. That's pretty massive compared to your everyday man on the street,  but Bubba Smith loomed over even the other players and made them look tinier still.

Michigan State at the time was riding the crest of a unique wave in college sports history: the fact there were  plenty of talented African-American football players in the South had already been well-established, but the major  colleges in the South were not yet ready to allow them to play.

Daugherty's predecessor, Biggie Munn, had built Michigan State into a powerhouse in the 1950s and Daugherty felt  pressure to maintain the Spartans' status, and he wanted to utilize talent wherever he could find it.

Since most Southern schools would not consider recruiting African-American players, Daugherty capitalized on the  untapped talent source and brought in numerous standouts such as Sherm Lewis, Webster, and Bubba Smith, from  Beaumont, Texas.

Today, Bubba Smith would probably end up at Texas or Texas A&M, and Michigan State would never be on his radar  screen. But the Sixties were the Sixties, and Bubba Smith ended up in East Lansing, a kid from Texas who had never  seen snow until he had to walk through ankle-deep drifts his first November on campus.

Those drifts were probably knee-deep to everybody else. Bubba was a legend from the minute he arrived, the largest  player in college football by a long shot. Even in 1964 when MSU was a disappointing 4-5, Smith was already  building a legend as a nearly unstoppable force on the defensive line.

Smith became a Paul Bunyan figure at MSU, throwing opposing blockers around like rag dolls, tossing running backs  to the turf like sweat socks, and crushing quarterbacks in heaps as they desperately tried to keep up with the  Spartan powerhouse.

He really was that unstoppable force the next two seasons, 1965 and 1966, when the Spartans went 19-1-1 and  grabbed partial shares of two national championships. But a upset loss to UCLA in the 1966 Rose Bowl and the  legendary 10-10 tie against Notre Dame kept the Spartans from unanimous acclaim as one of college football's  greatest teams. I still remember standing with my dad in the bleachers after that Notre Dame game, on a windswept  gray November day, with the empty feeling something memorable had slipped away.

"Kill, Bubba, Kill!!" thundered the crowds at Spartan Stadium, one of the most intimidating chants in all of  college football. Most opponents didn't even bother running toward Smith, which usually delivered them right into  the grasp of Webster, a savage linebacker widely regarded MSU's greatest player ever (with Smith usually one of  the other leading contenders).

The National Football League certainly had no reservations about MSU as the greatest college team ever (up to that  time), taking four Spartans in the first eight picks in the 1967 draft, led by Smith to the Baltimore Colts at No. 1.

Smith quickly became almost as dominant a player in the NFL as he had in college, helping power the Colts to the  Super Bowl, where they became the victims of Joe Namath and the Jets in one of the legendary upsets of all time in  1969. The Colts rebounded back to the Super Bowl in 1971, beating the Dallas Cowboys on a last-second field goal.

After that, injuries and age took their toll on Smith's football skills, and by the end of the decade, he had  retired and drifted into near-obscurity. Following the lead of Detroit Lion Alex Karras, who had hit comic gold as a  role player in "Blazing Saddles," Smith moved into acting, where his massive frame and thunderous deep voice  earned him roles in the "Police Academy" comedy series as well as an amusing series of Miller Lite beer  commercials.

And it's in those roles most people today will remember Bubba Smith, for amusing turns in comedy movies, for  playing looming and sometimes lumbering cops for laughs in hot and sunny California.

But for an eight-year-old kid standing in the bleachers on that gloomy gray day in November 1966 as the skies  darkened in the late afternoon, I'll always remember Bubba Smith as the Goliath-like figure looming above the  other players on the field, steam and smoke rising out of his facemask, as he roared at the Davids wearing Notre  Dame's gold and white to give up the ball in the final seconds of that legendary and eternally empty tie, Paul  Bunyan waiting to swing his axe just one more time.

Joe Howley is a sports design editor for the Daily Tribune. Contact him at

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tigers make change at the hot corner

The long national Brandon Inge nightmare is over.

According to Jon Paul Morosi on Fox Sports, the Tigers have acquired 3B Wilson Betemit from the Kansas City Royals, in exchange for two Class-A prospects.

Inge is currently hitting .177. Betemit is hitting .281.


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Before Sparky, the Tigers had another memorable No. 11

When Number 11 in navy blue and white is raised to the rafters today at Comerica Park, it will be all about Sparky Anderson.
And rightly so. George Anderson, of course, was the most storied manager in franchise history (with the possible exception of the brief meteoric reign of catcher-manager-MVP Mickey Cochrane in the 1930s).
For nearly two decades, from 1979 to 1995, Sparky was the face and the voice of the Detroit Tiger franchise.
Sparky won more games, made more headlines, and burned a more indelible place in the memories of fans not only in Southeast Michigan but across the nation, wearing the Number 11 on the back of his Olde English D jersey on those creaky trips out to the mound.
The 1984 World Series championship and the stretch charge to the AL East Division title in 1987 remained the high point of the team’s fortunes for nearly three decades.
With his distinctive white hair, Casey Stengel-style monologues sprinkled with folksy quotes, Sparky remained the dominant personality of the team for the Eighties and much of the Nineties.
So there’s every reason for the Tigers to honor Sparky Anderson by sending his jersey to the rafters today.
Former stars Kirk Gibson and Alan Trammell, now on the coaching staff of the opposition Arizona Diamondbacks, will be among the many paying tribute. But before Sparky ever set up camp in the Tiger Stadium dugout, Number 11 had already been worn with distinction, by one of the greatest catchers in franchise history, Bill Freehan.
From the early Sixties to the mid-Seventies, Freehan, a native of Detroit and a resident of Royal Oak throughout most of his youth, including stints at Royal Oak Shrine in grade school and Royal Oak High School, patrolled the plate at Michigan and Trumbull as one of the best catchers in the American League.
Freehan, the gristle and grit behind the 1968 World Series champions, rose in the Tiger organization after graduating from the University of Michigan, where he was one of the greatest players in the Wolverines’ storied baseball history.
Freehan hit a Big Ten-record .585 in his final season in Ann Arbor, after leading U-M to the College World SerieS title as a sophmore in 1962. Freehan had attended Michigan on a dual scholarship, playing baseball and football for the Wolverines.
As a football player, Freehan, at 6-3 and 205 a solid tight end, showed plenty of promise, but it was in baseball where his future appeared brightest.
After his stellar junior season, the Tigers, churning through a series of nondescript catchers, shelled out about $100,000, a massive bonus at the time, to put him in uniform.
Quickly zipping through the minor league system, Freehan arrived with the big club in 1963 and established himself as one of the best young catchers in the AL. Hitting .300 with 18 homers in 1964, Freehan earned the first of his 11 All-Star Game selections in his 15-season career.
It’s arguable -- and many baseball historians such as Bill James have opined on numerous occasions -- that Freehan is one of the best catchers not in the Hall of Fame.
The Tigers were in the doldrums in the early 1960s, but quickly started to impove with the addition of Freehan, fellow Michigander Willie Horton, workhorse pitchers Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain, along with solid holdovers including Norm Cash, Mickey Stanley, Hall-of-Famer-to-be Al Kaline and the recently-deceased Jim Northrup.
By 1967, the Tigers were ready to contend, and they did, storming to the final day of the season before finally falling to the “Impossible Dream” Red Sox in a four-way race also including Minnesota and Chicago.
After the frustration of 1967, the Tigers came back with authority in 1968, roaring to the AL title with 104 wins and then stunning the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals with a dramatic seven-game victory.
Bill Freehan will always be the Tiger of my youth, since the day in 1969, at age 11, when I met him at a brief appearance in Lansing.
Freehan, still basking in the afterglow of the 1968 Series victory, was quick with jokes and took time out to give batting tips to kids in the crowd.
He asked if I played baseball, and I said, “yeah, but football too,” and he laughed. “So did I!” he exclaimed, then asked if I planned to go to Michigan.
“Probably not,” I replied, “both my parents went to Michigan State.” He gave a mock growl and said, “Ahhh, you’re one of THOSE guys,” then gave me a grinning slap on the back.
After 1968, Freehan remained a mainstay for the Tigers, a key contributor to the 1972 AL East Division winners, and continuing until his retirement in 1976.
Freehan’s Michigan loyalty carried on after his playing career was finished, when he served as the Wolverines’ coach for six seasons.
But his legacy will always be his time with the Tigers, and despite his other accomplishments, the enduring snapshot of Freehan for Tiger fans will always be two plays in the 1968 Series: first, blocking the plate against Cardinal speedster Lou Brock as Brock attempted to score what could have been a  Series-clinching run in Game 6, and finally, grabbing a pop foul for the final out in Game 7, and then hoisting the hefty Lolich skyward in the iconic image of celebration after the championship.
So when Number 11 is raised to the rafters today, it will be in honor of Sparky Anderson, and deservedly so.
But for anybody who followed the “Sock It To ‘Em Tigers” of 1968, Number 11 already held a lofty place in franchise history.

Joe Howley is a sports design editor for the Daily Tribune. Contact him at

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Rest In Peace, Big Man

Clarence Clemons, 1942-2011.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Jockageddon 2011-2012

It has happened before. It will happen again.

Just in case you've been regarding sports as the one refuge from the heaping helping of bad news we're being treated to daily in current events, guess what: We may be heading into a veritable Jockageddon, the end of professional sports life as we know it.

ALL FOUR "major league" sports in North America could be headed for cataclysmic lockouts within the next 10 months. As in, shutting the whole thing down for a full year or more.

Funny thing is, the National Hockey League is considered, by far, to be the junior member of American "major league" sports, trailing Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League by light years in attendance, revenues, TV ratings and overall attention. In fact, in areas of the nation with no traditions as hockey strongholds, the NHL is rarely considered "major league at all."

Yet, despite the undisputed status of the NHL as the most borderline of the "major leagues," it is the NHL the other sports are now using as their role model in the upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations with their respective player unions.

Here's why.

Because the NHL busted its players' association to bits in their last CBA negotiation, which ended up with the lockout of 2004-05, that's why.

After cancelling a full season of hockey including the Stanley Cup playoffs, the owners ended up getting everything they wanted plus more, but the main thing they got was an across-the-board 24% reduction in player payrolls.

Yep, that's right. In one fell swoop, they chopped their payrolls by one-quarter.

Needless to say, that's the kind of numbers which make the eyes of any owner in any business light up like Christmas morning. Reduce your biggest single expense item by 1/4 by one stroke of the pen? Ho, ho, ho, you betcha!

Now you've probably noticed we are in a bit of an economic mess these days, and have been for almost three years now. I would certainly love to reduce my biggest expense by 1/4 just by saying so, and so would you, and so would Mike Ilitch, so would William Clay Ford, so would the Steinbrenner family, so would Jerry Jones, so would Mark Cuban and so would every owner in every professional sport.

The owners all scream, as they always have for 100 years and more, about all the money they claim to be losing. It's all BS, of course -- they're all making money and most of them, tons of it. But as most billionaires always do, they'll use the "economic crisis" as their rationalization as to why everything has to be torn to the ground, RIGHT NOW, and more important than anything else, THEY need to get to keep a lot more of the money.

So, basically, the other three professional sports, the "big three" to the NHL's junior-member status in the pecking order,  are going to follow the Roadmap to Prosperity mapped out by the NHL in 2004-05:

  1. Declare a lockout
  2. Cancel an entire season of competition
  3. With a new season approaching, impose an agreement on the players, completely dictated by you
  4. Tell the players they can either take it, go play in some other league, or go work at Burger World.

It worked before; the owners see no reason it shouldn't work again. So, they are all poised to follow the same basic template in order to bust the player unions to dust and impose the conditions they want. And, of course, the NHL intends to follow its own example in its own upcoming lockout.

Each individual sport has its own problems but really they end up being pretty similar: the owners want to assume complete control over every aspect of the game, and pay the players a hell of a lot less while doing it.

What the owners in all three sports want, and what they'll eventually get, will boil down to something like this:
  • Huge across-the-board reductions in salaries (both average and maximum)
  • Iron-clad salary caps -- no exceptions, grandfather clauses or other loopholes
  • Dramatically limited ability of players to negoitate for huge free-agent contracts
  • Complete elimination of no-cut contracts -- owners will be allowed to cut anybody any time they want
  • Dramatically-expanded authority of owners and league officials to impose disciplinary authority (suspensions, huge fines, contract terminations, lifetime bans) for behavior violations (criminal offenses, on-field actions, drug usage violations, etc etc). Basically when the league commissioner in each sport makes his decision on fines, supensions, etc etc., that is going to be it -- no more appeals. 

A lot of people say, "oh, don't be silly. The owners aren't going to go THAT far. If they get the pay cuts they want, why would they go for all that other stuff too?"

Well, why wouldn't they? If you're going to shut the whole shebang down for a year or more, are you going to do it for chicken change? If you're going to take hostages, might as well demand a big ransom. They're not going to do it for a 3% reductions in salaries. If you're going to go sit on Santa's lap and hold a gun to his head, you might as well throw everything you want on your gimme-gimme list. Plus, it fits in perfectly with the overall game plan of our modern billionaire class: go for unconditional victory.

They'll get it, too. Why? Because eventually, it'll go to the courts, and then to Congress (they'll eventually need antitrust exemptions to ram most of this stuff through).

And when things go to the courts and Congress, who wins?

The billionaires, that's who. The luxury boxes and free-food buffets at pro sports stadiums aren't packed with politicians and judges by any accident.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pistons and Wings: Better off going their separate ways

The long-rumored, long-awaited, long-delayed and long-overdue sale of the Detroit Pistons is all but complete, with only final NBA approval pending on the deal between current owner Karen Davidson and new buyer Tom Gores.

It was obvious from the moment longtime Pistons owner Bill Davidson died in March 2009 that his widow had little interest or inclination in running the team, and it was only a matter of time before it was unloaded.

Unfortunately, this process was dragged out about 18 months too long, resulting in the team stumbling zombie-like through a completely wasted season in every sense.

More on that later, but first, let's simply breathe a sigh of relief the proposed (at times rumored to be nearly completed) sale to Tigers/Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch did NOT go through.

Ilitch obviously has been a great owner for the Red Wings and a decent one for the Tigers, but the proposed purchase of the Pistons appeared to be really nothing but an attempt to build leverage to get a new multipurpose downtown arena built for the Red Wings -- almost certainly primarily at taxpayer expense.

Had Ilitch bought the Pistons, he could have used as a "carrot" for financing of  a new downtown arena the idea that the Pistons would join the Wings as tenants.

Fine idea -- Joe Louis Arena certainly needs to be replaced --  but one problem: such a move would have ultimately left The Palace of Auburn Hills, still a virtual state-of-the-art arena (due to constant renovations and remodeling under Bill Davidson) for the most empty with no pro sports franchise as an anchor tenant.

"But they'd have plenty of concerts," comes the retort, but in fact the concert schedule would be severely cut into by the new Wings arena, which would attract most of the marquee events.

So essentially, the taxpayers would be "asked" to finance the construction of a new $300-$500 million arena, while another $300-$500 million arena (paid for completely at PRIVATE expense) sits vacant in the suburbs, probably eventually to be demolished.

"Asked" in the way these things are usually done: first with subtle hints, then some not so subtle, and finally with an out-and-out threat to move (or sell) one of the franchises (almost certainly the Pistons) out of town.

Instead of "if you build it, he will come," it's "if you DON'T build it (or more accurately, pay for it), we will leave."

(It's not totally inconceivable the early-season rumors about a possible Pistons move might have been floated as early-warning signals in just such a campaign. The rumors, you remember, started to bubble up when the sale to Ilitch was supposedly on the verge of completion.)

Not totally incidentally, a minor side effect of the deal would have been the complete monopolization of the concert business in Southeast Michigan under the auspices of the new combined Palace/Olympia Entertainment banner, allowing the new company to jack up ticket prices to any event held anywhere in the area pretty much as high as they wanted to.

Now, in case you haven't noticed, we're in a bit of a financial crunch around here -- there isn't enough money to run the public school system OR the municipal government in Detroit OR any number of other public/governmental services which are being chainsawed away every day.

And we're told the state is broke too. (Not quite broke enough not to give away $1.8 billion to corporations but let's leave that alone for a while.)

So the whole idea of the taxpayers -- ohh, it might be through some kind of subterfuge like a hotel room tax, a rental car tax, maybe bond guarantees, any variation of other financial flim-flammey, but in the end it would be the taxpayers shelling out -- spending $300-$500 million to build a new arena for two professional sports franchises owned by a billionaire would seem a little far-fetched.

Happily, with the purchase of the Pistons by Gores, that whole scenario is most likely off the boards for good. The Pistons can get back to the idea of putting together a decent team (after next year's lockout of course) and the Red Wings can continue their pursuit of the Stanley Cup. And the Palace/Olympia concert businesses can both continue to operate separately -- and occasionally compete, which might actually (shocking!!) result in slightly lower ticket prices for fans.

If Mike Ilitch really really wants a "New Olympia" downtown, he can get one the same way most businesspeople get new buildings: he can arrange the financing himself. He's a billionaire, so it shouldn't be all that hard.

It's a great day in America whenever somebody FIRES MILLEN!!!

The NFL Network is doing football fans a favor by dumping Matt Millen: has learned that Mike Mayock will join the NFL Network's broadcast team for its eight-game Thursday Night Football package. He will replace Matt Millen and Joe Theismann on the broadcast.

Now, it's time for ESPN and ABC to quit insulting the intelligence of football fans and yank the idiot off the airwaves as well.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Houston, we had a problem.

Well, it's been three or four days now and I've finally gotten the rotten aftertaste of Monday night's NCAA championship game between UConn and Butler out of my system.

Houston, of course, is the home base of the soon-to-be-dismantled U.S. manned space program. Perhaps in a tribute to the imminent shutdown of NASA, the Huskies and Bulldogs teamed up to give us a game straight from the era before humans slipped the surly bonds of earth, back in the 1950s or so.

The 53-41 stinkbomb of a game was the worst game in recent NCAA history, rivaled only by the Michigan State-Wisconsin semifinal sludgefest in 2000.

That was actually a good defensive game, but the UConn-Butler game, rather than a display of dominating defense, was an exhibition of execrable offense. Both teams are decent on defense (UConn is quite good), but more than anything else the game swung on Butler's horrible shooting, 18.8 percent, and a ridiculous race-to-the-bottom display of the gut-grinding "play the right way" philosophy which has strangled the whole game of basketball over the last 20 years.

UConn also doesn't get a pass for the obnoxious offensive exhibition, because once the Huskies got out to about a 6-7 point lead, Jim Calhoun also went all the way back to the pre-shot-clock era for the late and much-unlamented Four Corners.

Whenever Butler plays, the announcers just can't shut up about how disciplined, dedicated, hard-working, well-coached and of course fundamentally sound they are. (In contrast of course to the undisciplined, slacking, lazy, badly coached and fundamentally futile idiots they happen to be playing). Oh, and do you know, they play in the same fieldhouse "Hoosiers" was filmed in? (Yeah, I knew.)

Unfortunately, like all sports, basketball is a game of imitation. And, unfortunately, more and more we are probably going to see more scenes like these, from the actual Milan-Muncie Central game in 1954 which was the actual basis for "Hoosiers."