A kind of magic…GO TIGERS!

“There comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place and the universe opens itself up for a few seconds to show you what’s possible.”

Ray Kinesella- Field Of Dreams


I should have written sooner but I’ve been afraid I would break the spell.

After over a decade of consistent failure the Tigers are not only in first place in their division, but indeed have the best record in baseball.  Friends who in prior years wouldn’t be caught dead using my season tickets are now calling to see if I have any games to sell.  The new Tiger Stadium is jam packed with people night after night.

So what’s going on?  Well, as long time Tigers victim fan I’ll try to bring the you bandwagon jumpers up to speed.

When last we left our heroes

At the tail end of last season things were bleak for the Tigers.  High priced free agent signings such as Magglio Orgonez, Troy Perceival, Pudge Rodriguez, and Ugeuth Urbina had gotton the team nowhere. Magglio missed large chunks of the season with various ailments, Perceival was diagnosed with a career ending arm injury, Pudge was in a nasty funk due to being in the middle of divorcing his wife, and Ugeuth had been offloaded in a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies for second baseman Placido Polanco.

Every time the Tigers reached the .500 mark they would start another losing streak.  Eventually the wheels came off and they ended up 20 games under (71-91).  But the really disturbing thing is that they seemed to get worse once they began to get their player back from injury.  I came extremely lose to giving up my season tickets.  I love baseball and enjoy going to games but the teams seamed to be regressing.

I hoped for a major shake-up in the offseason.  And we really didn’t get it.  The Tigers fired Manager Alan Trammell and brought in Jim Leyland to replace him.  At the time this didn’t seem to be that big of a deal- more on this later.  They also signed pitcher Kenny Rogers and relief pitcher Todd Jones.  These were hardly the signings I had hoped for.  Kenny Rogers had been involved in an off-the-field incident last season where he got into an altercation with a cameraman and Todd Jones has previously been with the team.  Ugggh.


So as the season began I had muted expectations to say the least.  I figured if everyone stayed healthy the Tiger might end 5-10 games over .500 but then again I thought they should have finished near .500 in 2005.

And then an amazing thing happened.  Actually a number of amazing things.  The Tigers starting winning…and winning…and winning.  They’ve developed a swagger that you rarely see.  They honestly believe that they are going to wing every game no matter how far they get or what happens.

Down in the 9th inning?  No problem.

Ken Griffey hits a grand slam late in the game to take the lead?  No sweat.

Five runs down in the 6th inning?  Yawn.

What’s Changed?

Jim Leyland has taken control of the club that floundered last last season.  He’s created an atmosphere where veteran and rookie alike knows what’s expected of them.  The Tigers have been remarkably injury-free.  An injury to starting pitcher Mike Maroth was filled with prospect Zach Minor.  The biggest change was bringing in veteran pitcher Kenny Rogers.  By him having a great season (and remarkably not getting into fights with the local media) he has solidified a Tigers pitching staff that looks incredibly strong right now.

A kind of magic

I don’t know how long this ride will last.  But over the last four months I’ve seen some things happen that are just amazing.  Baseball is a sport ruled by statistics and probablities but there is no explanation for things I’ve seen this season while watching the Tigers.

Two out opposite field home runs in the bottom of the ninth inning.  Infield singles.  Opportune errors by opponents.  Five run rallies.  I’ve been at games this season when the Tigers have been down we sit there and wonder how they’re going to come back this time…And they do.  I’ve seen the stadium packed with over 40,000 screaming fans calling for a ninth inning comeback…And the Tigers have responded.  A starting pitcher get hurt…Just call the next guy up from the minors and watch him run off a string of victories.

These are seasons that make life long fans.

It’s the sweet mystery of baseball when inexplicably the mathematically probablities stop applying for certain teams.  When you’re head tells something can’t happen but your heart tells you it will- that it must.  When what happens on the field seems less determined by probablites and more by what’s possible.

I don’t know how much longer this ride will last.  Maybe the Tigers won’t even make the play-offs.  Perhaps the wheels will fall of as many naysayers have been predicting all season.

But one thing is certain.  If you haven’t been paying attention who’ve missed on the great sport stories of the year.  And anyone trying to describe it you will fail miserably.  It’s like trying to describe sunset- words are inadequate to get the job done.

You have to be there for yourself.  So if baseball’s not your thing, go about your business. It’s your loss.

A Tale of Two Cities- Boston, Detroit, Fenway Park and Tiger Stadium

I spent Thursday evening at historic Fenway Park in Boston.  On Friday I returned to Michigan to read that Detroit has made plans to tear down historic Tiger Stadium.  Both stadiums opened in 1912 but Fenway Park has a bright future while Tiger Stadium is destined for the wrecking ball.

And it’s sad.

As a season ticketholder the new Tiger stadium I love my nice padded seats, spacious aisles, and variety of modern concesssions.  But sitting in Fenway Park I felt nostalgic for old Tiger Stadium.  I noticed that Fenway has the same type of pillar construction that results in some obstructed views and tiny seats with little leg room.  I recalled all the great players who had played there and history that the place represents.  It along with Yankee Stadium (slated to be replaced in the next decade) and Wrigley Field are truly cathedrals of the game.

The Tigers did a great job of convincing the public of the need for a new stadium.  They stopped doing basic maintenance the last few seasons and let people convince themselves that cracked paint somehow proved that the old stadium was unable to be saved.  Make no mistake- the decision to replace Tiger Stadium was a choice and different ownership could have made a decision to renovate rather then build new.

Sitting in Fenway and seeing an old ball park meticously preserved reminded me that the decision to leave Tiger Stadium for the gleaming new park says more about us as sports fans than anything else.
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said today that tearing down old Tiger Stadium gives the surrounding neighborhood the best chance to rebound.  No Mr. Mayor, the best chance for the surrounding neighborhood was to not desert Tiger Stadium in the first place.

You can’t hit what you’re not aiming at

For years Michigan football coaches have chanted same mantra:

Big Ten Championship, Rose Bowl…

Big Ten Championship, Rose Bowl…

But things have changed.  The Rose Bowl is no longer the exclusive domain of the Big Ten and Pac Ten conferences.  Now Included in the BCS rotation, the Rose Bowl periodically becomes the home of the National Championship game.

And it’s time for Michigan to change with the times.  And it doesn’t mean that the Big Ten Title is any less desirable but there’s now a higher goal.

Other Michigan teams regularly aim for a National Championhship and manage to win their conference title along the way. 

No softball team east of the Mississippi river had evert won a National Championship.  It didn’t stop the Michigan softball team from aiming year in and year out for a National Championship.  Did they treasure their Big Ten Championships?  Sure, but there was a larger goal, one that they were able to achieve despite participating in a sport dominated by warm weather schools. 

Does the Michigan football team lack the same gumption to shoot for the highest goal available?

True, football does regularly lose players early to the NFL which hampers the Wolverine cause.  But no sport have been ravaged by early departures worse than Michigan hockey.  But every season coach Red Berenson leads his team in an attempt to capture a National Championship.  It doesn’t matter how many freshman need to play critical roles during the upcoming season. 

The goal is the same…National Championship or bust.  And it doesn’t dim their desire for a conference championship.

Does the Michigan football team lack the resources available to the hockey team?

Of course not.  The only thing lacking is an acknolwdgement that a National Champinship shoould now be the goal every season.

Two Titles,  National & Big Ten…

Two Titles,  National & Big Ten…

It’s time to re-examine and the lore of Michigan football history.  The Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl were the goal because that was the ultimate goal available for most of Michigan football history.  The goal has been moved, it’s time for Michigan football to expand its vision. 

This isn’t a betrayal of Michigan tradition.  The “Leaders and Best” should aim for the highest goal available.

After all you can’t hit what you’re not aiming at.

Michigan Football- Cupid Interferes

The University of Michigan Football team has to return to its winning ways to prove to itself, its fans, its enemies, and the college football world in general that it is a program on the upswing again, and capable of recruiting, competing, and winning against the likes of the Irish and the loudmouthed, and always only so slightly soiled Buckeyes of the world.

That the Wolverines have several new Assistant Coaches this year is well known.  It is hoped they will instill a new enthusiasm (Coach English has referred to it as increased defensive violence within the rules) in the Wolverine program..

The offense seems to be the major work.  The dismal offensive production last year led to the appointment of long time Assistant and onetime Offensive Coordinator, Mike DeBord as Offensive Coordinator again, replacing the well liked Terry Malone, who had replaced Mike as OC earlier.

Many have cited Mike’s record as Head Coach of the Central Michigan Chippewas as one reason he should not have assumed that post, that he is the beneficial recipient of cronyism since he and Carr are friends, and others decry his style, which in the past has stressed the run, and has favored play action, the TEs, and sometimes the waggle.  His first half calls in the 2000 Orange Bowl are also cited.  The Wolverines persisted with a non productive running attack during the entire first half against a great Alabama defense, but after the break they let Tom Brady light it up, and they squeaked by with a victory.

Can Mike D. elevate the dismal offensive performance of last year to something approaching an elite Big Ten level?  I think he can, but before we injure ourselves leaping to conclusions, we await the proof.

Occasionally, a sports team can leap from the nether regions to the top offensively, statistically and otherwise.  Penn State was a stunning example of that last year.  In other sports, those long time bottom feeding Detroit Tigers are floating to the top.  Even I am regaining interest in them.  It can’t be predicted that Michigan has the ability to do that this year.  I won’t believe it until I see it.

Obviously, Coach DeBord and the other coaching additions  have  to prove themselves. As importantly, it is time for Chad Henne to step up.  It is time for him to lead his team to victory against the Irish and Ohio State. It is time for him to lead his team to a major bowl victory. He has a ton of experience, with plenty of highs (overtime wins against Michigan State, that laser to Manningham with a second left to skewer  PSU etc)., and plenty of lows (interception at Notre Dame, poor ball security, batted balls and so on). It is time for Chad Henne to take  his long anticipated place among the elite QBs in the Big Ten.  Hopefully he can challenge the Green and White’s Drew Stanton who is as of now annointed the Big Ten’s best by most.  Do you think Drew remembers that Woodley hit that put him out of the game a couple of years ago?  Their fans, poor babies, are still upset by that little extra Woodley twist.  Not me. Clean play. No flag.

If there is to be an offensive resurgence, Chad will have to lead it by producing in the red zone and moving the ball at crunch time.  He will have to prove he is an improved QB.  It appears he has the talent to achieve the level of play that he wants, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Last year I seriously over rated the quality of the offensive line when healthy, and worse they were dinged most of the year. Senior offensive Linemen Matt Lentz, Adam Stenevich,  and Leo Henige didn’t get drafted by the pros.  That fact speaks for itself.  Big Leo was running around on “wheels” too often repaired, which of course reduced his mobility, so his effectiveness did not match his courage.  You have to credit him with the guts just to play. I appreciate that line’s contributions and they were and are good Michigan men.  We expected too much of them because we credited it with more talent than it proved to have. Certainly we expected more production than we got.

It is hoped improved mobility is the key to OL improvement. It has been indicated that certain linemen such as Jake Long are slimmed up (or should I say slimmed down) this year, maybe quicker if not faster.  For Michigan to suceed this year, Jake has to have an all Big Ten year. Mark Bihl has to finally break through and establish himself as THE offensive center, BEYOND ALL DOUBT, so the rising Adam Kraus can play elsewhere. Will they suddenly become a good run blocking line after last year’s discouragement?  I think DeBord will make them play tougher, but again we shall have to wait until they prove it before we anticipate great success.  Some newer blood, like Alex Mitchell, has to develop, and it would be nice if Reuben Riley could work at guard instead of tackle as it seems to be his position of choice.  Fortunately, he is good enough to play where the team needs him.

It is easy to anticipate Mike Hart having an outstanding year.  You have to respect this kid’s attitude, toughness, vision, desire, strength, competitiveness, and ability to avoid contact, and to gain yards after contact.  He is the complete package, especially when healthy, even if some question his top end.  It is easy to predict lots of carries and lots of yards, and a great season if he remains healthy, but I am not ready to anticipate him gaining 1,400 yards at this point in time as some would have it.

It seems the better situation would be sharing some of the wear and tear with Kevin Grady.  Grady had an outstanding spring and is leaner this year.  There is plenty of talent at the running back position.  Mister Simson proved a hard runner in the spring, Alijah Bradley can move it, Jerome Jackson may be back, and hyper talented newcomer Carlos Brown, an unusual combination of speed, power and agility may help us endure the loss of Antonio Bass to injury.  He has the break-away speed that some say Mike Hart lacks. Brown’s highly regarded classmate, Brandon Minor could contribute. At about 210 he has some size. Obi Oluigbo, had a fine spring at full back.

Michigan’s receivers aren’t getting a lot of love from the preseason magazines, but I am very confident Mario Manningham is the real McCoy.  Steve Breaston has to have a better season as a pass receiver than he has enjoyed previously.  Don’t hesitate in predicting an outstanding special teams season for him as a punt and kick return specialist.  The quality of his effort in those endeavors is already proven and without question, and is extraordinary. We do not have to wait and see on this one.  What is in question is his ability as a down field pass receiver. He will have to demonstrate that he can do that in order for the Wolverines to shine and for us to believe in him as a receiver.

Will Zoltan Mesko take over the punting duties?  It would be better than a kick in the pants if he could.  A better punt game would benefit both the offense and defense.

It seems that Michigan should be able to play some offense in the red zone this year, with a  QB of better than average talent.with a ton of experience.  While the effectiveness of the OL is still an unproven concern, there are enough good backs with a variety of skills, and a corps of talented receivers, including tight ends, to move up in the Big Ten offensive standing in total offense.  Mike D. should be able to spread our offense out some, but how can we be assured Michigan’s red zone woes are over until we see the TD proof?

Then there is the schedule.  Notre Dame is the home of homer calls.  Penn State is in Happy Valley at night.  The game against THE Ohio State University, in the land of security checks for opposing players and in the house shaped like a toilet seat, is always a challenge.

To say that Michigan has not prospered away from the friendly confines of the Big House lately is not a stretch especially when you add in their bowl losses each of the last three years (USC, Texas, Nebraska).  Of the three losses, the one that festers most is the loss to the Huskers, the worst of those three bowl adversaries. Michigan simply did not rise to the occasion and unfortunately Nebraska did.

We do get those pesky Spartans at home. Each year Michigan has better recruiting classes and ranking than the Spartans.  And most years the Spartans give them trouble.  Football is after all a game of emotions.  This year, offensively the Spartans will put up points, but will the Sparty defense show up, especially  the secondary.  Overall the Wolverines look superior again as they have looked on paper the past two years, during which time they have played a total of four overtime periods with the Green Meanies.  Fortunately, the Wolverines won both, but it has been razor close, and Smith needs a win over Michigan.  Badly.  Many of the Spartys that I talk to (there is no avoiding it)  think his hire was a mistake.  That negative opinion would change instantly with a win over Michigan.

All of these games have a propensity to be hotly contested and close.  All could be losses.  All could be wins. Based on recent past history, it is only rational to fear several losses. On the hopeful side of the ledger, both Penn State and Ohio State lose a significant number of their talented defensive players.

Michigan could field a better team this year and improve their record only slightly.

An oddity in the schedule is that in November we get a visit from Brady Hoke and his Ball State minions.  It is a strange time of year  to play what is essentially an exhibition game.  We will be going to A squared in the cold, perhaps to see guys we haven’t seen play much.  I hope this isn’t one in which we only run, run, run, to hold the score down on a friend. This is the extra money game the NCAA has instituted beginning this year, thus bringing the total to 12 games instead of 11.

By now you have probably noticed that we have only talked offense, and not defense. We’ll catch the defense later.  Statistically the defense had a much better year as a unit than did the offense so it is reasonable to be less skeptical regarding defensive improvement than offensive improvement.

Michigan’s outstanding and annual football camp for high schoolers is over now and we got as couple of commitments, including Troy Woolfolk, whose Dad Butch was an outstanding back at Michigan .  I mention Troy because it is nice to recall his father’s accomplishments in Maize and Blue.  Butch and the Wolverines opened the 1981 season at Wisconsin, with the Wolverines ranked number one in the country, if I recall correctly.  That honor did not last long as they fell to the Badgers, but I have always fondly remembered the way Butch played football.  He had TD runs of 92 and 89 yards, longest and third longest TD runs in Michigan football history at the time..  Not too highly touted, DB Troy has blazing speed.  A team can’t have too much of that, and I wish him luck.

My grandson attended the Michigan camp for a couple of years and  both enjoyed and learned from it .Among other things, they learn how hot South and West Quads can be in the summer.  Some great High School Coaches staff the camp, players get to measure themselves against players they have heard about but have not seen, and so on.  Lloyd Carr does not get enough credit for this outstanding, well run, and very sizable operation.

“Okay, Grandpa, you’ve strung us along far enough.  What’s your prediction for the upcoming season, now that you have decided to write this kind of article.  Cut to the chase.  I thought you were going to write about Bill Martin’s visit to the Lansing Alumni Club where he was scheduled to talk proposed stadium improvements.  What happened?”

“You are quite right, Josh.  I thought that would be a most interesting article; but it was skewered by Cupid’s arrows.”

“Cupid’s arrows?”

“Yes, Mr. Martin canceled because of a relative’s wedding plans.  I was going to hear what was happening directly from the horse’s mouth, but Cupid intervened.”

“Grandpa, there are rumors that you get your information from the other end of the horse. But that’s another matter.  Michigan’s record for the 2006 season will be?”

“Well, right now I would predict a nine and three regular season.  I think they will win one of their three key away games and they may lose an additional game by upset.  That makes three losses. With a bowl victory, they could end up ten and three, but lately they have not won bowl games.  We ought to wait until after the Notre Dame game for these predictions. Michigan will play no bigger game this year as it could start some momentum, or kill momentum.  It will be a measure of what we can expect looking forward.  There is a lot at stake for the Michigan program this year, and Lloyd Carr’s legacy is now being formed.  Is this program going up or down?  You know what I hope…..”

In any case, let us hear your email opinion and thanks for reading this far and most of all…

Go Blue!