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Mediocre Michigan

Courtesy of Tribune News Service

Collegiate Staff – Matt Meyle


On June 4, 2008, the Detroit Red Wings defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins to win the Stanley Cup Final, earning their 11th National Hockey League (NHL) championship. The Red Wings were a force to be reckoned with stars like Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg. A team that would go on to be a part of a 25-year playoff appearance streak that would come to an end in April of 2017. However, the Red Wings have been on the decline ever since they lost the following year to the same Penguins in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final.

That Red Wings’ victory in 2008 was the last national crowning the state of Michigan has received in professional sports, creating a nearly decade long drought without a championship. Michigan is currently stuck in a state of mediocrity.

There can be a debate about the success the Detroit Tigers have had over the last decade. The Tigers had two World Series appearances in 2006 and 2012, as well as four straight American League Central Division titles from 2011 to 2014. The Tigers were favored to win the World Series multiple times throughout those seasons, resulting in a disappointing finish to each season. This created a World Series “victory-or-bust” scenario for the Tigers. The previous six seasons, from 2011 to 2017, the Tigers have been fifth or higher in salary payroll for their players, meaning they have been paying more for their players than at least 25 other teams over that span. Expectations were set high for this ball club, and the Tigers’ organization embraced the hype, making the World Series defeat feel even more disheartening.

After manager, Jim Leyland, stepped down following the 2013 season, the Tigers hired former all-star catcher and three time Gold Glove winner, Brad Ausmus. Immediately, the Tigers’ organization took some heat from the media, considering Ausmus was still quite young and inexperienced in management, having played in his final professional game in 2010. The critics proved to be correct in evaluating Ausmus’ inexperience as a coach. Although the Tigers won the A.L. Central in his first year, they were heavily favored at the beginning of the season to make a championship run. They lost in their first series in the playoffs, being swept by the Baltimore Orioles, losing three straight games to end their season.

Ausmus was let go by the Tigers on Sept. 22 of this year, after the team could only muster up 64 wins and lost 98 games. This was the Tigers’ worst season since their historical low in 2003, when they only earned 43 wins. The Tigers have now entered into rebuild mode, and have acquired multiple young prospects who still need to be developed into top tier players. Before the trade deadline in the summer of 2017, the Tigers dealt Justin Verlander and J.D. Martinez, who were arguably the Tigers’ best pitcher and hitter, respectively. They wanted to trade away some of their larger contracts to free up salary cap space, and to try and get younger as a team.

The Tigers are still stuck in contracts with Victor Martinez (V-Mart) and Miguel Cabrera (Miggy). At the age of 36, V-Mart signed a four-year deal worth $60 million, in 2014. Most people thought it was absurd to begin with since he would be 40 when the contract ended, and they were right. Martinez was injured most of the 2015 season, and after his second heart attack in 2017, V-Mart decided to sit out the remained of the season to focus on health. There is talk of retirement during this offseason due to health concerns, leaving the Tigers with a contract worth millions and no player on the field to show for it. Cabrera is signed through 2024 with an eight-year $248 million contract. It was well deserved after winning the A.L. Triple Crown in 2012, leading not only the American League in batting average (.330), home runs (44) and RBIs (runs batted in, 139), but also the entire Major League. 2017 was statistically Miggy’s worst year with the Tigers and was a season riddled with injury. As Cabrera continues to age, Tigers’ fans grow weary comparing his contract with his numbers, and many fear if the Tigers’ have another disappointing season, Miggy might get traded away within the next couple seasons. If this happens, Tigers’ fans will find themselves cheering on countless names they’ve never heard of and probably won’t see any remaining players from the 2012 World Series teams. Most teams take years to rebuild back to the status that the Tigers achieved during the mid-2010s, leaving most fans with a bitter taste in their mouth and flashbacks of being swept by the San Francisco Giants in the World Series back in 2012.

The Detroit Pistons last championship banner came in 2004. Former Pistons’ star and member of the 2004 championship team, Rasheed Wallace made a bold claim over the summer about his views of his former squad matching up against the current Golden State Warriors saying “Oh, we’d run through them. Not even close. We play defense.” This was an overwhelmingly bold claim that took some heat from other former players and those in the media. The Warriors had just posted the best record in NBA history during the 2015-2016 season, but lost in the championship series in a rematch against the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, the following season the Warriors added a top five player in the league in Kevin Durant and went on to win the NBA title during the 2016-17 season, winning their second championship in three years. The fact that Rasheed Wallace was supported by even a few of his peers, indicates how incredible the Pistons’ team was during the early 2000s.

Following the 2006 season, Piston’s big man and former defensive player of the year, Ben Wallace, became a free-agent and decided to sign with the Chicago Bulls. The signing ended the era of dominance the Pistons had with the starting five of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace. Ever since Big Ben left the team, they have continually declined each year following. They were able to make the Eastern Conference Finals the two years after his departure but lost both times. During the 2007-08 season, the Pistons tripped into the playoffs with a losing record of 39-43. This would be the last time they made the playoffs, other than the 2015-16 season when they were swept by NBA champion Cavaliers in the first round. That season has been the only season the Pistons have finished with more wins than loses since 2007, when they lost in the conference championship series.

Currently, the Pistons sit with 13 wins and 6 loses on the season, and are the number two seed in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, the season won’t end until May and the Pistons still have a lot of games to win if they want to change the trend over the last decade. Perhaps the Pistons could be a dark horse in the NBA this season and break Michigan out of its championship slump. Of course, LeBron James still plays in their division, and the Boston Celtics have been red-hot to start the season with an 18-game win streak after losing their first two. The Celtics currently hold the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, however, the Pistons were able to chip away at the Celtics lead with a victory against them on Nov. 26. If the Pistons did manage to win the East, waiting in the Finals from the star-studded Western Conference would most likely be the Warriors, or perhaps another team that is able to top them, making the path for the Pistons even more difficult. For many fans, the beginning of the season has been a refreshing surprise to see the team perform well, but as a Michigan professional sports fan, the feeling that a collapse is coming at some point or another still looms over the season.

Who could forget about those notorious Detroit Lions? A historically losing franchise, with quite literally the worst professional sports blemish on their resume, a winless season. This wrapped up former General Manager, Matt Millen’s era in Detroit with a cherry on top. Fans brought signs to games in protest of their general manager, exclaiming in huge letters and accompanied by chants throughout the corridors of Ford Field, “Fire Millen!” The general manager is in charge of putting together a roster and coaching staff, and Millen seemed to put together a circus rather than an NFL team. He drafted unknown players in the first round of the NFL draft, with laughable names such as offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus, from Boston College, whose name sounds like he could be a “Muppets” character. He also drafted four wide receivers in consecutive drafts because not a single one would pan out. Charles Rogers was arrested on drug charges and was kicked off the team. Mike Williams took a year off of football before the Lions drafted him in 2005 and his lack of game time showed up on the field. The Lions wasted pick after pick on players who would only play for them for a couple of years before they were pushed away to the wideside along with the thousands of other former NFL-has-beens with failed careers.

The Lions have been able to turn around their franchise ever since drafting quarterback, Matthew Stafford, in 2009. They have been able to make the playoffs in 2011, 2014 and 2016, but still haven’t won a division championship since 1993, when they still played in the Central Division. The Lions have made the playoffs as a wild card during those three seasons. They failed to win their division, the National Football Conference North Division (NFC North) each time and were able to make the playoffs by finishing with a top eight win/loss record in their conference during the regular season. They have failed to win in the playoffs on nearly every attempt in recent history. The last time they won a playoff game was in 1991 against the Dallas Cowboys. They have won only a single game in the playoffs during the Super Bowl era. This upcoming Super Bowl is Super Bowl 52, which means the Lions haven’t even come close to hanging a championship banner during the last six decades. The last time Detroit won a championship, people watched the game on black and white TVs. This team summarizes professional sports championships in Michigan, why even bother?

Currently, the Lions have six wins and five losses, and are in poor shape to make the playoffs after their defeat on Thanksgiving against division rival and current NFC North leader, the Minnesota Vikings. By winning this game, the Lions would have beat the Vikings twice on the season and pulled within a single game, making for an interesting finish to the season. However, the Lions pulled a Lions and did not hold a single lead in the game and lost by a touchdown. This loss essentially ended the Lions playoff hopes on the season. It would be a miracle if they managed to win their remaining five games, and other teams continued to lose allowing the Lions to barely make the playoffs. Since this is highly unlikely, it seems as if the Lions will end another year as a disappointment, helping to keep Michigan’s championship drought alive.

As for the Red Wings, a championship seems like a lifetime away with all the youth and inexperience they have, coupled with the massive and lengthy contracts for old veterans who are well beyond their best playing years. The Red Wings currently have 10 wins, 10 losses, and five overtime losses. Wins count as two points and overtime losses count for one point. They have 25 points on the season and are holding onto the third seed in the Atlantic Division in the Eastern Conference. If they are able to end the season with the same seeding, they would make the playoffs. Unfortunately, just making the playoffs does not ensure a championship, considering the Red Wings have made the playoffs 25 out of the last 26 seasons, and won just four Stanley Cup Finals during that impressive playoff appearance streak.

Most fans have reserved their optimism on the season so far. The Red Wings are barely in the playoff picture and over the last decade their playoff history has been shaky. Although they are impressing their fans by overachieving expectations thus far, it is a very long season. The Wings started out strong last year and ended the season just outside of the bottom five teams in the NHL. Even if the Red Wings make the playoffs, they must overcome the trend of losing in the first round of the playoffs. They have not won a playoff series since 2013, causing fans to lose hope in the Red Wings’ ability to play complete games, series and seasons. The team seems to show flashes of greatness, through the missed passes and marshmallow goals allowed (a shot that probably could have been stopped by a middle school goaltender). The only thing Red Wings fans have to cheer about right now is their new ice at Little Caesar’s Arena, but they might find themselves looking back to the memories of the dynasty the franchise put together at Joe Louis Arena.

As 2017 comes to a close, the window for a Michigan sports championship during this decade is running out. The Tigers will only have two seasons to attempt to bring a championship to Michigan before the turn of the decade, and with so many new faces for players and coaches, it seems as if Michigan will have to wait quite some time before a championship squad takes the diamond. The Lions have essentially doomed their season by losing on Thanksgiving, but still are in the playoff race as of now. They have the remainder of the year and the next two to try to create a championship team. Considering the Lions’ history, fans will tell you it won’t happen this decade, and probably won’t even within the next few, but stranger things have happened before. As weird as it may sound, the Pistons may have the best chance to bring home a championship before the decade ends. If they are able to finish the season as the two seed in the Eastern Conference, they may have a fairly easy path to the Conference Finals and would have to play their best basketball in the last two series of the season. Much like the Red Wings, the Pistons recent playoff history has been subpar leaving question marks around them. Perhaps a Detroit sports team can prove the world wrong and restore Michigan to championship status, but until that happens, Michigan seems to be stuck in a rut.

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