Who is the best in the Motor City?
Who is the one who will rule them all?
That’s the question that’s frequently debated over in sports, sometimes on an hourly basis, and it’s one that was recently asked by the Detroit Free Press.
Looking at the course of history, of the four major sports teams that play in Detroit, who is the best player ever to suit up for the Lions, Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings?
Naturally, it didn’t take long for things to heat up, especially in online comment sections and on social media, but after wading through that muck, I think you could make the case for a lot of guys on each team.
The Free Press put 16 players from each team in a bracket and fans can vote on who they think is the best in each one. Seeing as the voting is currently in round 2, I’ll limit my picks to the players remaining and I’ll tell you who will win as well as who should win. For some of these teams, the winner was pretty obvious, but for others, it was a little difficult.
Let’s start off with the most popular Detroit franchise, the Lions. The Motor City Kitties don’t exactly have the greatest history of postseason success, but there have been some truly talented players like Bobby Layne, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Calvin Johnson and current quarterback Matthew Stafford. Among those four guys, the debate would be more interesting, but when you add Barry Sanders in the mix, it makes things pretty easy. Over 19 seasons, Sanders (who obliterated poor Chris Spielman in the first round) racked up 15,269 rushing yards, 109 total touchdowns and averaged just shy of 100 yards per game. He was NFL co-MVP in 1997 after a 2,053-yard, 14 (total) touchdown season and is currently third all-time in total rushing yards behind Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton. Johnson had some eye-popping receiving stats and Night Train was one of the most feared defensive players ever, but when you ask people about great Lions, the first person they’ll probably mention is Sanders and for good reason.
Who will win: Sanders. Who should win: Do I really need to say it?
Now there’s the Tigers, a franchise that may be mediocre now, but when it comes to history, has been one of Major League Baseball’s best. There’s some quality guys among the final eight. Well, one of them was in fact, a terrible human being, but when it comes to sheer talent on the field, there’s eight. Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell were one of the best double play combinations ever, Hank Greenberg was one of the best overall hitters in history and Miguel Cabrera is a future Hall of Famer who is the MLB’s last triple crown winner and still is a threat at the plate. When you get down to it though, it comes down to two guys, Al Kaline and Ty Cobb. Kaline is a member of the 3,000-hit club, has more than 1,500 runs batted in and 1,600 runs scored. He’s a 18-time All-Star and also has 10 Gold Gloves. While Kaine’s stats are impressive, they pale in comparison to Cobb’s, who has more than 4,000 hits, more than 2,000 runs and is still the league’s leader in career batting average with .367. While the knock on Kaline may be his numbers aren’t as good, Cobb’s flaw is not just his disgusting personality, which fair or not, is always a factor in voting, but also the fact that he played a ridiculously long time ago when the style of the game was different. It’d be interesting to see how Cobb would play in the 21st century and my guess is that his stats would still be good, but not as legendary. Still though, the numbers are too mindboggling to take the award away from him even though I think that’s what the fans will do.
Who will win? Kaline. Who should win? Cobb.
The Pistons come next and this was one of the more difficult brackets to pick. Like the previous two teams, they have some high-quality players. However, unlike the other two, there’s no frontrunner or even top-two guys. You can immediately take out Chauncey Billups, the wildly overrated Bill Laimbeer (who somehow beat out Grant Hill) and human enigma/North Korean foreign policy enthusiast Dennis Rodman. Also, as much as I like Ben Wallace, you can’t be considered the best if you’re only known for defense.
So, there’s four guys left and each of them has a reasonable case.
Bob Lanier was a consistent scorer in the paint, a 7-time All-Star while in Detroit and is an NBA Hall of Famer. Joe Dumars is also a Hall of Famer who helped lead the Pistons to back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990 and was Finals MVP in 1989. Isiah Thomas shared the backcourt with Dumars during the Pistons’ heyday in the late 80s, won Finals MVP in 1990 and is a 12-time All-Star. Finally, there’s Dave Bing, who scored more than 18,000 points in his career, 15,000 of those as a Piston, is a fellow Hall of Famer and a 7-time All-Star.
When I look at all the stats, Lanier was a solid player, but compared to the other three, he doesn’t have as much of a lasting presence. Dave Bing is a legend and although kudos to him for trying to clean up Detroit as its mayor, I think he’d have an even harder task edging out Thomas or Dumars for this award. Perhaps appropriately, it comes down to the tandem of Pistons guards and in my mind, I think when you combine his offensive stats with his better-known defensive prowess, that places Dumars above Thomas. However, I don’t think it’ll shake out that way in the voting.
Who should win? Dumars. Who will win? Thomas.
Finally, there’s the toughest bracket of all, the Red Wings. There have been so many great skaters who wore the “Winged Wheel” logo that it probably isn’t fair that the bracket was limited at first to just 16 players. Seriously, how did goaltender Chris Osgood make the list, but not Dominik Hasek? At least that wrong was righted quickly when Osgood got smoked in the first round by Steve Yzerman. However, the voting is down to eight players now, so I’m going to abide by the rules.
I whittled the bracket down to the final four fairly easily and was left with a mix of old-timers and guys who retired not too long ago.
In the battle of the olds, Gordie Howe easily zooms past Ted Lindsay. Even though he’s a legendary player, Lindsay struggled to get past Pavel Datsyuk in the first round, so he had no shot going up against Howe. Over on the youth side (I’m using that loosely), it’s Yzerman vs. Nick Lidstrom. The former is a 3-time Cup winner, 10-time All-Star, a Selke trophy winner, a one-time playoff MVP and is seventh all-time in career points. The latter won four Stanley Cups, seven Norris trophies and was a 12-time All-Star. He’s also considered one of the best defenders in league history. It’s a tough call, but I’m giving it to Yzerman.
In the final bout, it’s “Mr. Hockey” vs. “The Captain,” which sounds like an old-school pro wrestling match. Howe’s got better overall stats, but he also had an incredibly long career to help with that. Yzerman has the sentimental value for Wings fans as he was seen as the team’s leader for years and even has a street named after him in front of Joe Louis Arena, but if you ask the casual hockey fan, they’ll know who Howe is but might not know Yzerman. When it comes down to it, numbers never lie and that will determine the outcome.
Who will win? Howe. Who should win? Yzerman.
By the time this voting process is done, fans will have chosen their Mount Rushmore of Detroit athletes and there will probably be people who will want to chisel a different face into the rock. And that’s what makes sports debates like these ones fun. Even though one player may be on top now, that crown could be snatched away quickly.
Because no one can rule forever.
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.