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Michigan sports year in review for 2017

John U. Bacon

Time to look back on 2017 – but we’ll spare you the serious stuff and stick to sports.

Even in sports, alas, Michiganders waded through a lot of bad news, starting with the passing of Mike Ilitch. He and his wife Marion opened their first Little Caesar’s Pizza Treat in Garden City, Michigan, in 1959. Twenty years later they had built an empire big enough to support a kid’s hockey league that produced NHL players.

By 1982, they bought the long-dormant Detroit Red Wings, drafted a kid named Steve Yzerman, and started a two-decade dynasty that won four Stanley Cups.

In 1992, they bought the Detroit Tigers, who eventually made it to two World Series, before getting swept in both. But if your life’s biggest disappointment is that your baseball team fell just short of winning a World Series, I’d say you did pretty well.

Since Ilitch died in February, neither team has produced any good news.  

The Tigers finished last, fired their manager, and are being led by a new general manager, Al Avila, who isn’t very good. The good news is your favorite players will continue to thrive – just not in Detroit. After the Tigers traded the popular Victor Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks, he hit four home runs in one game. When the Tigers sent pitcher Justin Verlander to the Houston Astros, he won his first World Series. Worked out for them, I guess.

The Red Wings missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years – right before they opened their fancy new $863 million dollar arena, with $250 million coming from Detroit taxpayers who can’t afford it. What if they opened a pleasure dome and no one came? That’s what’s happening now.

The Pistons also play in the new arena, and they’re playing a lot better than the Red Wings. Under coach Stan Van Gundy, they’re playing smart, hard-nosed basketball – even defense. Just crazy enough to work.  

The Lions – and stop me if you’ve heard this one during the past six decades – will miss the playoffs again this year. They’re led by coach Jim Caldwell, a nice guy who isn’t very good, and who had already proved it with his two previous teams. But they hired him anyway.

Wild guess: Caldwell will be fired soon, and the Lions will start over. Again.

After Jim Harbaugh’s first two Michigan teams both finished 10-3, the Wolverines finished 8-4. Not a crisis, especially when you’re down to your third-string quarterback, but everyone expected more.

My strong hunch: They will come back stronger next year, and the year after, but patience is hard to come by after a decade losing to Ohio State and Michigan State.  

Speaking of the Spartans, after they went a disastrous 3-9 last year, Coach Mark Dantonio got back to basics and flipped the script, finishing a sterling 9-3. Turned out Dantonio hadn’t forgotten how to coach.

But Michigan State is still struggling to fix an off-field tragedy. One of their athletic doctors, Larry Nasser, pled guilty to 10 counts of molesting female athletes and is accused of molesting more than a hundred. He will get whatever he deserves, but it’s not clear if the University leaders who let him get away with this, ever will. It is my sincere hope that they will.

Finally, some good news. After waiting two decades, both Alan Trammel and Jack Morris will be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. After Trammel’s last game in 1996, he talked with me for half-an-hour, and he owed me nothing. That’s class. Ask anyone who knows him, and they’ll tell you Trammel is simply one of the best guys you’ll ever meet. So it’s good to see that, yes, sometimes nice guys finish first. Mr. Illitch would be proud. 

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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