Sunday, September 13, 2015

What's Up In Lion Land For 2015?

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
PHOTOS BY CANDICE EBLING
JACKSONVILLE, FL

On December 28, 2014, We covered the Detroit Lions vs Green Bay Packers at Historic Lambeau Field with the NFC North Division Title on the line. The Green Bay Packers emerged as 30-20 winners and won the Norris Division.

What stood out in this game was former Lion Ndamukong Suh stepping on Packers QB Aaron Rogers leg which almost cost him an opportunity to play in the wild card game on the road against the Dallas Cowboys.

Suh has since signed with the Miami Dolphins and will now have an opportunity to collect fines against  Patriots QB Tom Brady. A new challenge and a new conference for Suh.

But life goes on in the NFL where rosters change drastically and big name players find new addresses.

The head coaching turn over every year leads to more intrigue as to what teams will make dramatic improvements to reach the playoffs.

It's also worth mentioning that some previous years playoff teams regress, thus find themselves out of the Playoff Tournament.

Now it's time to turn the page for 2015.

The last time I covered a Lions pre-season game was back in the late 1990's at the Pontiac Silverdome.

There was a much different atmosphere at EverBank Field on Friday, August 28, 2015. It was a rainy and wet night in Northern Florida.

There was no division title on the line. Just jobs.

On this night, the Lions had a 75 man roster.

They didn't use Suh's replacement Haloti Ngata so other than what I've heard throughout the off-season, it will be interesting if he'll be a big impact on the Lions defense.

Three offensive players from last season never made it to today's opener in San Diego against the Chargers.

Tight-end Joseph Fauria was released and is now a member of the Arizona Cardinals.

QB Kellen Moore is now on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad. I have a gut feeling that Moore will land a starting job within a year or two.

Wide-receiver Ryan Broyles was released, and as of today is still an unsigned free agent.

Aside from the addition of Ngata, I will be curious as to how much of an impact two new draft choices make.

We all know that rookie running back Ameer Abdulla was an exceptional player at Nebraska. He'll be wearing jersey No. 21.

Here is an interesting comparison between Lions Hall of Famer Barry Sanders and Abdullah.

Although Nebraska is currently a Big 10 School, it used to be a member of the Big 12.

Sanders played for Oklahoma State, which is still in the Big 12. Sanders wore No. 21 for Oklahoma State and came out of college 5-8, 200 pounds.

Abdulah is 5-9, 203 pounds and like Sanders runs low to the ground. If he's used as an outside receiver, then he's even more dangerous in space.

While it's unfair to compare a rookie to a Hall of Fame player, both wearing No. 21 in College, both having Big 12 ties and similar physical characteristics, it's worth noting.

The Lions had good luck with another former Big 12 running back. Have you ever heard of Billy Sims? He played for the Oklahoma Sooners.

If injuries hadn't cut Sims' career short, who knows how much more success Billy would have had with the Lions.

But when you have good luck drafting with these Big 12 Schools, there is nothing wrong with adding more players from these institutions: especially, when it comes to running backs.

The other draft choice in this year's class who intrigues me is defensive tackle Gabe Wright.

This kid is from Auburn and is 6-3 and 305 pounds. He was selected in the fourth round.

During the off-season, the Lions didn't re-sign Nick Fairley, who was also from Auburn. Fairley is 6-4, 308 pounds. He was the Lions first round pick in the 2011 draft. Fairley is currently with the St. Louis Rams.

Will Fairley's departure haunt the Lions or will Wright be a hidden gem for Detroit? I will be curious to see how these story lines play out this season.

It's time to see if tight-end Eric Ebron's sophomore season will be much better than his rookie campaign. There is no question he has the potential, now the question is will he be productive on the field?

If the Lions can avoid the Tigers injury problems this season, then I'll be curious to see if they can return to the playoffs.

The four offensive players that will be key are QB Matthew Stafford plus wide receivers Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and running back Joique Bell.

What type of contribution will running back Zach Zenner have?

Zenner is 5-11, 222 pounds and played college ball for South Dakota State. He had an impressive pre-season.

As I've watched many football experts predict playoff teams, the Lions have been absent from many of these lists.

I've always relished the underdog role because it gives you a chance to prove your critics wrong. This is Detroit's chance to do so.

The Lions will have plenty of National TV Appearances. Are they going to be contenders or pre-tenders?

How good will Ngata be or how much will the loss of Suh have an impact on one of the top defenses in 2014?

As much as I would have liked to see Suh stay because he gave the Lions an incredible ferocious defensive identity, his contract could be a tough one for the Miami Dolphins to swallow if they don't reach the playoffs immediately. This is a must win season for Miami.

The Lions defeated Jacksonville 22-17.

After the game, Detroit Coach Jim Caldwell was pleased with Stafford's play throughout the pre-season.

"He has had a good pre-season," Caldwell said. "He has done a nice job on his completion percentage. He moved the ball."

What are Stafford's thoughts about what he expects from the offense in 2015?

"I am pleased with it, "he said. "As an offense, we're playing with good tempo. If we stay out of our own way, we'll be a pretty good football team."

How good of a football team will the Lions be?

If the Lions make the playoffs, I think they'll do it with a 9-7 record.

The main goal is get into the tournament.

The 2011 New York Giants won the Super Bowl with a 9-7 record against the New England Patriots, who were 13-3. The Giants are the only 9-7 team to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

There have been other 10 win teams that won the Super Bowl.

As for My Super Bowl Prediction, look for a rematch of last year's Super Bowl.

But this time, the Seattle Seahawks will defeat the New England Patriots. The Seahawks were one play away from repeating.

Running back Marshawn Lynch emerges as the MVP in Super Bowl 50.

Seattle Coach Pete Carroll gets vindicated after last year's heart-breaking 28-24 loss which costed his team a chance at a repeat.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at www.scottsports33.com. He is a member of the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Back To The Future

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
PHOTOS BY CANDICE EBLING
DAYTONA BEACH, FL

The first time I saw the movie "Back To The Future" was back in the 1980's when my long-time colleague George Eichorn and I watched it in a cinema in Southfield, MI.

When I made the decision to cover the Detroit Lions vs Jacksonville Jaguars on Friday August 28th, I was curious about who was playing the following night in Florida State League (FSL) action, Advanced Class A Professional Baseball in Daytona Beach.

As it turned out, the Daytona Tortugas were hosting the Tampa Yankees at Jackie Robinson Ballpark.

This game brought back some fond memories from my past.

The Tortugas are the Advanced Class A Affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.

Meanwhile, the Tampa Yankees are the Advanced Class A Affiliate of the New York Yankees.

What made this real special for me is I was a beat writer for both organizations from 1982-86. There were a lot of great memories at Fort Lauderdale Stadium and Al Lopez Field. I worked with the Yankees from 1982-84, then with the Reds from 1985-1986.

It was a pleasure working with future major league players, coaches, managers and trainers.

Fort Lauderdale Manager Stump Merrill was fantastic.

My best memory of Merrill, though it didn't feel that way at the time, was when my tape recorder stopped working during a 40 minute interview.

Thanks to My Photographer Ken Rotberg, who used his tape recorder to track players, I used his recorder, and Merrill was nice enough to do the interview all over again.

He said to me, "I'm here to develop young players. I'm glad that I can help a young reporter." He patted me on the back and said, "Hang in there Scott, you're doing fine and I appreciate you promoting the team. I enjoy working with you and please keep it up."

I got to know the Fort Lauderdale Yankees really well and the most notable prank they played on me was letting me wear one of their hats, only for it to be filled with shaving cream. I was stunned to say the least.

During the season, I had an unforgettable interview with late Yankees Owner George Steinbrenner. He was very cooperative, but if you asked a certain question about his managerial revolving door, he'd abruptly end the interview. Early in the conversation, we talked about some interesting topics, then I saved the managers question for last, which saw the interview come to an end.

I don't feel bad about this because weeks later, Ted Koppel of ABC News Nightline, did the same thing and Steinbrenner ended the interview quickly on National TV.

All in all, I learned a lot from the Steinbrenner experience.

The players that stood out in my tenure with the Yankees included, DH Pete Dalena, Infielder Todd Demeter, Pitcher Tim Birtsas (Pontiac, MI), Catcher Scott Bradley, Pitcher Bob Tewksbury, Infielder Rex Hudler, Pitchers Jose Rijo, Jim Deshaies, Rey Fontenot, Eric Plunk and Infielder Orestes Destrade.

Rijo, ironically played for both the New York Yankees and Cincinnati Reds. He won a World Series in 1990 for the Reds and was a key contributor on that squad.

During the 1982 season, Hudler went on to rip Steinbrenner in the Fort Lauderdale News/Sun Sentinel about his ways of handling the Yankees farm system while The Boss was in town. Hudler went on to have a solid carer in the major leagues. There were many players in this group that made it to the majors.

I'll never forget Pete Dalena, who played for the 1983 team.

My Hallandale Digest Editor Dan Bluesten didn't think Dalena could make the majors by being a DH. I asked Merrill about this and he said that Dalena would go as far as his bat would take him.

Two days after I wrote the Dalena article, he was promoted to Class AA Nashville, then eventually played for the Cleveland Indians in 1989.

There were many instances Bluesten questioned my gut feelings on story ideas and he was proven wrong several times.

It didn't hurt that My Mentor Tony DeMarco always taught me to trust my instincts. Whether DeMarco ever gets into the writers wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame remains to be seen, but he's in My Hall of Fame as a Mentor and a Friend.

Merrill would eventually manage the Yankees in the Major Leagues and Steinbrenner always found a role for him in the organization.

Players such as Brian Butterfield and Chuck Hernandez have been coaches in the major leagues. Hernandez, a former Yankees left-hander had one of the best moves to first base that I've ever seen.

Hernandez, who was a pitching coach under former Tigers Manager Jim Leyland, told me during an interview in Lakeland, FL., that he had to have a good move because he had troubles getting hitters out, and had no difficulty joking about it.

Merrill went on to win two titles with the Fort Lauderdale Yankees in three years while I was covering the team. One of these titles was against the Tampa Reds.

It was an incredible three-year run covering the New York Yankees in Spring Training as well as the FSL Yankees.

Two of the nicest people I worked with in the Press Box were Doug and his wife Dee Pett. Doug was the PA Announcer and Official Scorekeeper while Dee assisted him. They are both former Metro Detroiters.

When the Miami Marlins came up I-95 to Fort Lauderale, two incredible people that became friends were executives and media personalities, Larry Bluestein and the late Sonny Hirsch.

In 1985-86, I covered the Tampa Tarpons for the Tampa Tribune.

The Manager of the Tarpons was Marc Bombard. He's worked with the Reds when I was in Tampa and has moved to other organizations.

During my tenure with the Tarpons, his two teams were real competitive.

In 1986, he guided the Tarpons to the FSL Playoffs. I joked with Bombard that we were rivals and now we're teammates.

He laughed when I told him you need to win a championship while I'm here. He said, "We'll try Scotty," smiling.

We had a good two-year run and the two players who stood out were left-hander Chris Hammond and Catcher Joe Oliver.

In my only year with Hammond in 1986, he posted a 3-2 record with a 2.81 ERA.

The thing that Hammond will best be remembered for was when I wanted to interview him, he turned me down. He said that he doesn't talk to the media. I told him "OK and I hope you're as good as Phillies legend Steve Carlton. You're Just a Minor Leaguer that is Just a Prospect with no guarantees to make it to the Major Leagues, who could use the publicity to promote yourself."

Hammond was a member of the 1990 Cincinnati Reds Championship team, but wasn't on the post-season roster because Manager Lou Piniella lacked confidence in him.

His ride to the majors was attributed to the fact that he was a left-handed pitcher. Left-handers are always in demand and Ray Fontenot took the Southpaw route to get to the majors.

As for Hammond, he was a mediocre pitcher, who had a 66-62 record with a 4.14 ERA. He was a journeyman pitcher that played for seven teams.

One of the nicest players I ever worked with was Tarpons 1985 Catcher Joe Oliver. He had a .269 average in 112 games, with seven home runs and 62 RBI.

Oliver would play for the Reds from 1989-1994 and was also a member of the 1990 World Series Championship Team. He would play two stints with the Reds.

Joe's other baseball stops were with the Milwaukee Brewers, Detroit Tigers, Seattle Mariners, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

In case you were wondering, I never fell for any shaving cream pranks with the Tarpons. I got just a little smarter to let it happen again.

To this day, Joe and I remain good friends. He lives in Orlando, FL.

My employer the Tampa Tribune gave me lots of flexibility with the Tarpons.

My Executive Sports Editor Joe DiSalvo was great to work with. Joe allowed me to also free-lance write for RedsVue Magazine in Cincinnati. He allowed me to use their computer system to send stories, plus allow his Editor Rick Nelson to proof read them before I sent them.

One of my fondest memories of Nelson is when I covered the FSL All-Star Game in Osceola, FL in 1986. This was a new stadium for the Houston Astros.

The Tribune allowed me to use a company computer. I typed my story into it but the phone lines wouldn't allow me to send it after four attempts.

Nelson would get me a 25 minute extension, and I dictated two stories to Rick and made it with two minutes to spare. Rick did an excellent job typing the story which was approximately 25-30 inches under extreme pressure. We would joke around about this the following week, but it wasn't fun at the time.

The stories look real good when I saw them in the paper. This pressure situation was good for me.

RedsVue Editor Mark Schmetzer was also a great guy to work with. In addition to the Tarpons, he utilized me during Spring Training as well as Fantasy Camps.

Schmetzer got me credentialed for a three-game series at Riverfront Stadium against the LA Dodgers.

Schmetzer and I also remain good friends.

Former Tarpons Official Scorekeeper Bill Campbell and his wife Cathy were tremendous folks to work with.

So now "We're Back To The Future" in 2015 at a very Historical Ballpark.

I saw one familiar face for Daytona Beach. He was a USF Alumnus and also worked for a year as a pitching coach for FAU when I worked with the Owls. His name is Tony Fassas. I will be writing on him at a later date.

But Jackie Robinson Ballpark is a must see if you're a baseball junkie. It has a Museum throughout the park with a lot of commemorative photos, plaques and a Statue Outside.

This is a real neat place.

I was impressed by the way the Daytona Beach Community has embraced this team.

The fans were also great to us. It was just as fun before the game as it was during the contest just taking pictures with Jackie Robinson's historical breakthroughs which changed MLB forever.

As for the game, it was 0-0 and Rained Out after four innings.

But that didn't matter to me. The score meant absolutely nothing!

Seeing the history about Jackie Robinson was fantastic.

More importantly, the two organizations that were facing each other meant everything.

I met so many great people during my five years covering both that I can proudly say I was covering these people at the beginning of their careers.

The Hallandale Digest and Tampa Tribune were my employers throughout college.

Not only did I enjoy working in baseball, but I was getting paid to do it.

It doesn't get any better than that.

This night was a collection of a memorable past that brought me "Back To The Future" even though I'm not Michael J Fox.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at www.scottsports33.com and is a member of the Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association.

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