Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Millen Fired"

I woke up this morning...wait who am I kidding, I mean this afternoon and instinctively groped around for my cellphone. I found it twisted around in my bed sheet in some impossible fashion where I could feel it and make out its shape but I couldn't find a way to actually touch it. Frustrated I aired out the sheet and watched as my phone shot out as if it had been fired from a cannon and smack against the wall with enough force to knock the backing off of it. A year ago beginning a day like this would have led to me flying into a fit of rage and spewing so many curse words that I would have made Richard Pryor sound like Bill Cosby hosting "Kids Say the Darndest Things."

But today I just didn't care. Not because I was in some euphoric state or because I had just rolled out of a bed full of naked and satisfied Victoria's Secret models. Quite the opposite in fact. Not literally of course, I'm not saying I was depressed and rolled out of a bed full of Jockey Men's underwear models, (although I'm not NOT saying that either). No, it's just that for the past couple of weeks (months, years, decades really who's counting) I've been depressed after being hit with the harsh reality that faces thousands of people my age every year. Being diagnosed with gonorrhea. But I'm not talking about that, I really meant to say entering the real world after being babied through seven years of college (There, I think I covered that up nicely, now I just have to burn all these bills from the clinic and vow to never sleep with hookers or anyone from Baltimore ever again).

I was under the impression that graduating from law school included receiving a diploma, a monocle, leather driving gloves, a trophy wife, a 100k job offer and enough henchmen to help get my fledgling law/super-villain practice off of the ground. Instead I've got a diploma, student loan debt, no job, no girlfriend and worst of all I think the two henchmen I hired out of pocket are using me more for crashing on my futon and playing my Wii instead of arching my nemesis. In short the lack of job offers in Detroit is leading me back to my hometown to work with my Dad, a fate I thought the last seven years of school would help me avoid. The only intriguing advantage of moving back home is the chance to purchase a wardrobe of nothing but white suits and try to bring the wild Besaw Boys running shine from their uncle's farm out on Dodge road to justice through a series of arm wrestling matches over poisonous cacti. Only problem is that instead of trying to get with their hot cousin Daisy I'll have to settle for some 300 pound lady with curly, greasy hair who drives a Pontiac Sunbird with a decal that says "I Like Big Bucks and Big Trucks" on the back window. Gross.

So by the time I put the casing back on my phone and turned the power on I was thoroughly depressed and was surprised to see that I had missed a number of phone calls, text messages and voicemails from friends of mine. With my present state of mind my thoughts naturally turned to the idea that something terrible had happened. Something along the lines of Mickey Tettleton releasing a statement to the press saying how disappointed he was to find out a website in named in His honor was run by such an insufferable douchebag. When I finally dared to open my text message inbox I read in the subject heading of my friend T.J.'s message the most glorious and uplifting words I had laid my eyes upon since reading that Scott Mitchell was injured for the remainder of the 1994 season.

It simply and succinctly read, "Millen Fired"

I would be overstating things if I said this was some life altering moment and from that point on my fortunes turned around for the remainder of the day until everything culminated with a nude Kate Beckinsale crashing through my apartment window while riding a unicorn and offering to take me away to her English castle where she would allow me to be the fatherly leader of a gang of quickwitted cockney pickpocket children. However the Lions as a franchise had personified and paralleled the hopelessness I had been feeling through my life recently.

Having the privilege (disfavor?) of going to nearly every Lions home game since I was about ten years old I've seen first hand the damage Millen instilled on an already tortured and frustrated fan base. It's unfathomable to think now but in the first days of Matt Millen's reign things started out promisingly. The first season was a disaster record wise but everyone knew the Lions were in full-on rebuilding mode and there was excitement over first round draft choice Joey Harrington fresh of a dominating season at Oregon where he led them to the Rose Bowl. I saw the excitement on peoples faces when Harrington showed some pluck in battling Brett Favre and the Packers in his first start. During that offseason the Lions jettisoned overwhelmed position coach masquerading as a a head coach (hmm...that sounds awfully familiar) Marty Mornhinweg in favor of a proven and successful coach and Michigan native Steve Mariucci. Marriucci's hiring along with the drafting of Saginaw native and Michigan State star Charlie Rogers led to a great deal of excitement heading into the season. I watched as the line outside the Team Store in Ford Field ran the entire length of the concourse as people eagerly waited for a chance to purchase local hero Charlie Rogers jersey after his impressive two touchdown debut. Even I, already a cynical Lions fan at the age of 20, talked excitedly with my Dad as we left the season opener against the Cardinal about the beginning of a dynamic young quarterback-receiver combo that might one day rival Montana-Rice and Manning-Harrison as one of the greatest of all time. Sure that was short-sighted and little did I know at the time that Charlie Rogers was probably smoking himself retarded at the same time I was praising him, but the excitement I felt for the first time since Barry Sanders retired was genuine. This season also coincided with heady days from a personal standpoint. I was acing all of my classes at MSU, I had a great girlfriend who really cared about me, and I had just killed the LSAT. I felt that my future was as bright as the Lions. Unfortunately that statement still turned out to be true.

Shortly after that game Rogers broke his clavicle in a bye week practice collision with cornerback Dre Bly. The team floundered and finished a disappointing 5-11 and the development of Harrington seemed to have stalled. Millen made what was arguably his only good draft decision swapping spots with the Browns to pick up two 1st round picks which he used on Roy Williams and Kevin Jones in an effort to create what many believed to be the makings of the most exciting young offense in the league. However, the season started off ominously when Rogers once again was lost for the year after breaking his clavicle for a second time on the seasons opening drive. Even though the team started 4-2 it quickly fell apart as the Lions lost 8 of their last ten games to finish a disappointing 6-10. I sat and watched as the fan base grew increasingly and justifiably frustrated as they watched a seemingly talented and expensive young team flounder under the leadership of an expensive veteran coach. (That's right when I go to games I sit and watch everything but the game, namely the expressions on peoples faces and the line to the team store. I'm just not a very good writer).

2005 was a crossroads year for many people in Detroit. Marriucci was feeling the pressure to win and live up to the money he was being paid and the excitement that surrounded his hiring. Jeff Garcia was brought in to challenge a stagnant Joey Harrington for the starters job. Chuck Rogers was trying to prove he wasn't injury prone and resurrect his dying career, Matt Millen was supposedly fighting for his own job and I was moving to the city to start law school. By December everything had fallen apart for all parties involved. Mooch was made the scapegoat and fired after an embarrassing Thanksgiving Day loss to the Falcons. Harrington was hated so venomously and vociferously that I took five seconds out of booing and cursing him from my seat to actually feel sorry for him. Rogers was suspended for drug abuse and watched as his NFL career flamed out. Millen made national news by ordering a fan with a Fire Millen sign to be physically kicked out of a game and watched as fans organized a march advocating his dismissal and I found out that I was unprepared and in over my head with my classes, essentially becoming the Marty Mornhinweg of law students. The fans were angry and frustrated with the franchise and voicing their opinion to any outlet available and I was overwhelmed and angry with my decision threatening to quit school at the next available opportunity.

After the season and my first semester I expected Millen to be fired and for me to have the courage to quit something I felt I hated deep down inside. Instead to the shock and dismay of the entire fanbase Millen received a five year extension and I begrudgingly decided to give class one more semester (nobody was shocked and dismayed by my decision...maybe my cat). During the next season Harrington and Rogers were unceremoniously dumped and the last remnants of all that excitement that I had felt just a view years earlier had faded away entirely. I watched as apathy set in among the fanbase and in my own personal life. The distinguishing moment for me as a fan came late in that season during another Lions home loss. During the game a fan in our section tried to start a "Fire Millen" chant and nobody joined in. He was persistent though, standing up and yelling it at the top of his lungs trying to encourage others to join him but was rewarded with silence. After another minute or so a second person yelled, "Stop chanting. The Ford's never listen to us anyways!" and the man who had been trying so valiantly to start this Fire Millen chant just stopped trying and sat down defeated. No truer words had ever been spoken at Ford Field. During this same time I had begun withdrawing from school, missing classes at an alarming rate receiving bad grades and feeling despondent.

As both the losses and poor grades mounted and the future that had once been so bright and promising became darker and more disenchanted a sense of abject hopelessness began to settle in the fanbase and in myself. Matt Millen would always be in charge of the hapless Lions and my destiny would be to remain in my hometown, take over the family business and watch dreams die. But maybe that changed today. Maybe things that seem to be written in stone can be changed. Sure the Lions may still suck for this year but maybe they'll finally hire the right person, draft the right players, sign the right free agents and a few years from now my Dad and I will be able to go to Ford Field and watch them win a home playoff game. Sure, I might have to go back home and work but maybe after a couple of years I'll make a name for myself, meet the right people, find the ambition and drive that propelled me through my first few years of college and get the hell out of there. Maybe I'll finally have the courage to abandon this whole lawyer thing and do something I really love. Or maybe nothing will ever change. Who knows but now there seems to be hope, for the first time in the last five years there seems to be a little bit of light peeking through the darkness. (Editor's note: I'm not some emotional douchebag who talks like this all the time. It's only like this 6 times a week or so.)

Also, I know some people have compared this to the French Revolution and credited Millen's firing to the fan's revolt of not buying tickets and vociferously denouncing the team. The parallel to the French Revolution would have been if the Millen Man March in 2005 would have been rolling around a portable guillotine and successfully captured and beheaded Millen and the Ford family as they tried to escape in a carriage in the shape of the Lombardi trophy. Then the fans went on to run the team as a democracy before being overun by a tiny man with an unquenchable thirst for Dan Snyder or Mark Cuban or someone. I think this feels more like a liberation. I feel like someone who has been beaten by and toiled for an oppressive, cruel and tyrannical despot only to be saved by a spoiled great-grandson of a billionaire bigot riding in on his white Mercury Mariner and begging his dad to listen to him for once. It's not really iconic imagery but it's still liberating nonetheless.

Finally, I may be in the minority here but I don't hate Matt Millen. As an executive yes but as a person he seemed likable. He kind of reminded me of a guy my Dad would be friends with, and I honestly believe he was trying as hard as he could to build a winner. A lot of people would have swallowed their pride and quit 3 or 4 years ago but Millen was willing to see this thing through until they drug him out of his office kicking and screaming and a part of me admires that. Ah what am I saying. Fuck Millen. Amen.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Detroit Tigers History Vol. 2: Li'l Rastus

A little over two months ago Detroit City Councilwoman Barbara Rose-Collins created a mini-controversy when she stated that she wasn't sympathetic towards the efforts to save Tiger Stadium because of her childhood memories of the racist history of baseball at large and more specifically the steadfast refusal of former team owner and horseless carriage magnate Walter Briggs to sign African-American baseball players. Briggs refusal resulted in the Tigers being the second to last team to integrate when they finally traded for Ozzie Virgil in 1958 over eleven years after Jackie Robinson had broke the color barrier after signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Of course Rose-Collins statements weren't nearly as big a controversy for her as when she fired a homosexual aide because she was afraid he might have AIDS. However her opinion on Tiger Stadium's fate did elicit a wide range of sentiments in defense of and opposed to her assertion. Of course everything devolved, as it usually does when the topic of race and Detroit is brought up, into an argument between people from the city blaming white suburbanites for being afraid and or reluctant to visit or work in the city and people from the suburbs blaming Coleman Young and the City's most recent administration for making them feel unwanted and unwelcome in the city. It seemed like the only thing the commenters could agree on was wanting to punch in the face all of the skinny-jeans and scarf-wearing Black Kids-listening Ann Arbor undergrad dildoes (dildos? dildi?) who felt compelled to interject with comments like "I visited Detroit once this summer and found the mixture of magnificent Art Deco buildings with abandonment and urban decay hauntingly beautiful." Pricks.

After reading through the array of comments, blog posts and op-ed pieces regarding Rose-Collins opinion it appeared that most people took an extreme position on the subject. They either dismissed racism as an unfortunate but ultimately irrelevant portion of the stadiums history which shouldn't impede the efforts to save the stadium while others supported the Councilwoman's views and wanted to put the racist past of former owner Briggs to the forefront of their advocacy to tear down the eyesore in Corktown. Since I'm constantly racked with indecision (you should see how I act when someone asks for my suggestion on where to get something to eat, it usually involves me suggesting everything from Barbecue to Mexican to Thai food then hemming and hawing until tears well up in my eyes and the person I'm with becomes so frustrated and annoyed with my antics that they end up not talking to me during dinner) and have a hard time choosing a side and making a strong argument for my position, which may end up being a problem after I become a lawyer. Naturally my opinion falls somewhere in between. As a student of history (and I hope that sounds as pretentious as I intended) I hate when people pick and choose what parts of history to remember. So under that flimsy line of reasoning I'm going to drag the story of L'il Rastus out from the annals of Tiger Stadium history. This isn't an indictment on the Stadium or the team or a show of my support for either side of the argument proposed by Rose-Collins, but rather an unbiased and agenda free look at a piece of history for both the Stadium and the team. It happened and right or wrong (definitely wrong unless the ghost of Nathan Bedford Forrest is reading this blog) we can't and shouldn't just forget about it because, well, that would make up no better than the Germans.

The story of L'il Rastus goes like this. In early July of the 1908 season the Tigers were battling through a horrible midseason slump. Allegedly Ty Cobb showed up to the Bennett Park and found a homeless black orphan who looked to be about ten years old hanging outside of ballyard. Throughout the history of the game baseball players, even the greatest ones, have been a superstitious lot. Ballplayers are either trying to maintain their good luck (i.e. lucky undershirt), change their bad luck (i.e. switch up the height of their socks), not upset the Baseball Gods (i.e. not stepping on the foul lines while going on or off the field), or in the case of Wade Boggs they are completely insane (i.e. eating chicken before every game, taking batting practice at 5:17 every day, claiming to hit better during games his mistress Margo Adams attended without underwear on, etc.). Ty Cobb was no different than any other player when it came to being hung up on irrational superstitions and with his team mired in a downswing Cobb decided to change his behavior in order to change his teams performance. So instead of running the young African-American orphan over in his brand new 1908 Chalmers Runabout as he was typically wont to do Cobb rather generously invited the young child into the Stadium to work as a clubhouse attendant.

The young attendant endeared himself to the team by running errands for the players and he quickly became the Tigers de facto batboy and mascot. Since the young man was in the clubhouse so often, even sleeping at the Stadium after games and while the team was out on road trips, the Tigers players brought him within the camaraderie found inside most pro sports teams locker rooms and christened him with a nickname. Since this was the early part of the 20th century and political correctness consisted of NOT getting blind drunk and burning down the haberdashery shop owned by a Polish immigrant, baseball nicknames weren't very sensitive (Yes, I only wrote the previous sentence so I would have an excuse to use the word haberdashery it doesn't make my point any less salient). For example nearly every player with Native American ancestry was given the nickname "Chief" and just about every uneducated player from the country was called "Rube". Worst of all in the first half of the twentieth century, before baseball became integrated, it was common for baseball players with dark complexions to be given the moniker "Nig". So it should come as no surprise that the Tigers gave their youthful orphan attendant the designation of L'il Rastus. Shortly thereafter the Tigers players took to rubbing their bats on L'il Rastus head for good luck a habit that was elegantly described by the Detroit News in July 1908 as such

"The Tigers had a pickaninny batboy with hair full of corkscrew kinks. When (Germany) Schaefer went to bat in the fourth he rubbed his bat in the darky's hair and then singled. Some of the rooters advised Cobb to try the same method but the pickaninny, knowing Ty's nativity, kept well out of his way."

Wait, instead of elegant I meant to write blatantly and overtly racist. Apparently the sports editor at the Detroit News doubled as the Grand Wizard of the Detroit Klan Chapter either that or he was my grandfather. Either way the News writer/editor was not only unabashedly racist they were also wrong regarding the relationship between Cobb and L'il Rastus as by most contemporary accounts Cobb and the young man were friendly with each other and L'il Rastus worked for Cobb at his home in Georgia during the offseason. (Although it should be noted that L'il Rastus did disappear from public view after working at Cobb's Georgia home following the '09 season, his true name and identity lost to history, so there is anywhere between a 1-100% chance that Cobb ate the child but I digress). But that's beside the point

For those readers who haven't travelled to the early 20th century or through parts of the present day Deep South there are at least a couple of things from the previous paragraphs that should jump out as patently offensive. First is the nickname itself. Rastus has been a highly offensive pejorative name for African-Americans dating back to the appearance of character of Brer Rastus in the first Uncle Remus book released in 1880. Uncle Remus books were a collection of stories and fables from the Deep South that were collected by Joel Chandler Harris and infamously put to film in the infamous Disney movie Song of the South (Hopefully Blogger isn't associated with Disney in anyway or else that last sentence I wrote will likely be replaced with the Mouse Ear logo or an advertisement for The Lion King 8: Rafiki's All Anal Adventure). However in the early 20th century Rastus became synonymous with the portrayal of any happy and naive African-American and commonly appeared in many different minstrel shows, books and popular songs. There were also a series of short comedy films produced with titular character Rastus that included such names as "How Rastus Got His Chicken," and "Rastus Among the Zulu's". Finally and most famously Rastus is the name of the character who appears in the Cream of Wheat logo that began in 1890 and continues to be used to this day.

The second racist gesture may be harder to pick up on as it has faded into relative obscurity but it was the act of rubbing L'il Rastus head for good luck. This used to be a relatively common practice and a way for whites to be disrespectful and/or condescending towards African-American's in a subtle and passive way. This practice fell to the wayside entirely by the late 70's early 80's as it became a much more common way for people to get their asses kicked then it was to subtly pass off as racism. Now that that's out of the way let's get back to the conclusion of the L'il Rastus story.

As the Tigers continued to win the team attributed their success to the presence of their batboy/mascot and rubbing their bats in L'il Rastus' hair, so naturally he started to accompany the team on the road. Beginning in September, however, the Tigers luck once again began to turn for the worse as they started to lose ground in the race for the A.L. pennant. Just as something can be deemed to be a good luck charm when things are going well it can just as easily be regarded as a jinx when things start to go poorly and in this regard L'il Rastus was discarded from the team and treated no differently than if he had been an old pair of lucky socks. The team believed there was such a negative hoodoo surrounding the child that during the 1908 World Series against the Cubs the Tigers banished their former batboy to sitting in the visitors dugout. In displaying their collective ignorance the Tigers may have in fact established the existence of the Baseball Gods as they watched the Cubs run roughshod over them en route to winning their second consecutive World Series over Detroit 4-1. In fact L'il Rastus proved so lucky that the Cubs have not won a World Series since he last graced their presence while sitting in their dugout. Great now some jerk from Chicago is probably going to dig up his bones and place them under Lou Pinella's seat on the bench. Forget I said anything.

I would quote sources but I'm so far removed from writing history papers in undergrad that I've forgotten how to make proper citations. So I'm just going to say that I got most of my information from the book Crazy '08 by Cait Murphy. This book is amazing so instead of giving you page numbers I recommend you just go out and buy it and read it cover to cover. You'll be a better baseball fan and person for it.