Detroit — The range of moments and emotions in sports is staggering, from fumbled snaps to majestic home runs to brutal brawls. We’ve seen everything in Detroit, except for a local team participating in that little annual event called the Super Bowl.
While waiting for the real world to heal, I sifted and sorted the Detroit sports moments since I began writing for The News in 1989, and put them in order of impact — 1 through 20. Apologies in advance. Everyone’s list can’t be the same, and in my 31 years here, I’ve learned cheers and tears aren’t separated by much.
Again, these aren’t necessarily the “greatest” moments but the most “memorable.” If you read the bottom half of the list —11 through 20 — you know what I mean. Here come the rest, from 10 to the top, some uplifting, some soul-crushing. If I missed one, hopefully you’ll find it in the honorable mentions. If not, complain to the editor.
► 10. Nov. 26, 2016 — A matter of inches, a matter of opinion
Ah, the replay that would replay forever, Michigan’s latest torment in the Ohio State rivalry. In the second overtime of a classic in Columbus, J.T. Barrett’s fourth-and-1 run either touched the edge of the line or fell an inch short. Depending on the camera angle, and the school affiliation, it was either too close to call and thus too close to overturn, or the travesty of a lifetime. (Objectively, too close to overturn).
Curtis Samuel ran 15 yards on the next play to win it for the Buckeyes, 30-27, and send them to the playoff. Urban Meyer’s legend grew. Jim Harbaugh’s anger spewed. In his second season, he showed what was possible and still unreachable, spawning a debate that apparently will never end.
► 9. Jan. 5, 1992 — The Lions flirt with glory
They got as close to the Super Bowl as they ever have (or will?) in one remarkable afternoon. The Lions won their division at 12-4 and hosted the Cowboys in the NFC playoffs. The Silverdome was beyond raucous and the nation was taking notice of a team inspired by the loss of offensive lineman Mike Utley, paralyzed Nov. 17 against the Rams.
This moment wasn’t Barry Sanders’, although it sort of was. The Cowboys stacked the box to stuff him, so Wayne Fontes and his staff simply let Erik Kramer throw and throw. Sanders rushed for 69 yards and Kramer threw for 341 and the Lions destroyed America’s Team, 38-6. It was their lone playoff victory since 1957, and they were labeled one of the next power teams in the NFL. That lasted about a week. They lost to Washington, 41-10, in the NFC championship game, then went 5-11 the following season.
► 8. April 3, 2000 — One tearful, shining moment
There were plenty of memorable snapshots as Michigan State rolled past Florida, 89-76, to win the 2000 national championship. There was the moment early in the second half when Mateen Cleaves fell to the floor with an injured ankle after colliding with the Gators’ Teddy Dupay. There was the moment a short while later when Cleaves hobbled back from the locker room and limped onto the court to a huge ovation.
But this was the moment framed forever: Cleaves and Tom Izzo standing on the floor in the old RCA Dome in Indianapolis, looking up as “One Shining Moment” played on the video screen. Izzo’s mouth is open in amazement as he tears up, while Cleaves sobs so heavily, he puts a hand to his face and leans on Izzo. From Magic to Mateen, the circle was complete.
► 7. Oct. 17, 2015 — Trouble with a particular snap
Arguably the most shocking finish in college football history, a flash of 10 seconds that altered trajectories, created heroes and destroyed TV sets in Ann Arbor. Michigan led Michigan State 23-21 in the Big House in Jim Harbaugh’s first meeting with Mark Dantonio. At the Spartans’ 47 with 10 seconds left, the Wolverines didn’t kill quite enough time, and Blake O’Neill lined up to punt.
Of course you know what happened next. O’Neill bobbled the snap, tried to pick it up, and the ball squirted to the Spartans’ Jalen Watts-Jackson. He scooped it and ran 38 yards to the end zone for a 27-23 Michigan State victory, and simultaneously fractured his hip under the weight of exuberant teammates. On ESPN, Sean McDonough’s voice cracked like a teenager’s as he yelled, “Whooaaa he has trouble with the snap!” It’s a phrase that will never need further explanation.
► 6. March 26, 1997 — For Wings, it took a turtle to clear a hurdle
In a bitter, simmering rivalry, it was the brawl to end all brawls, except it actually started the brawls. Late in the first period between the Wings and Avalanche, there was a chilling, thundering roar from the crowd, practically blood-curdling. Mild-mannered Igor Larionov had started scuffling with Peter Forsberg when Darren McCarty suddenly dropped his gloves and launched himself at Claude Lemieux, an act of hockey vengeance that was brutal but necessary. McCarty delivered about a half-dozen blows as Lemieux curled into the turtle position, his blood staining the ice.
Lemieux had shown no remorse for his blindside hit on Kris Draper the previous year and practically mocked the Wings into retaliation. By the end of the night, goalies Mike Vernon and Patrick Roy had fought and there were 148 minutes in penalties. Poetically, McCarty scored the OT goal to win it 6-5 and the Wings were imbued with a spirit that led them to their first Stanley Cup in 42 years.
► 5. June 2, 2010 — Blemished perfection
The night hummed along, batter after batter, and before anyone realized, history beckoned. The Tigers’ Armando Galarraga was mowing down the Indians in Comerica Park, 26 up and 26 down.
It was so unfathomable, and yet so near. With two outs in the ninth, Galarraga induced Jason Donald to tap a grounder wide of first, where Miguel Cabrera scooped it up and tossed to Galarraga covering the base. After a slight hesitation, umpire Jim Joyce called Donald safe. When replays showed he was out, the crowd booed louder and louder, Jim Leyland raced out to argue and players gestured angrily at Joyce. It actually became a bigger story because of the gaffe and Joyce’s tearful apology, perhaps the most bizarre regular-season moment in Detroit sports history.
► 4. Sept. 27, 1999 — Grand old lady takes her bow
Possibly the most emotional event I’ve ever covered, as the weathered cathedral at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull hosted its final game. Shortly after Robert Fick clubbed a grand slam off the Tiger Stadium roof in the eighth inning, I headed to the stands to talk to fans, and I don’t mind admitting I got choked up. When Todd Jones struck out Kansas City’s Carlos Beltran to end it, fans hugged and sobbed and clutched the girders, refusing to let go.
It was another 10 years before Tiger Stadium was demolished, and I swear it took that long for people to accept their childhood touchstone was gone. The cramped concourses, the steaming boiled hot dogs, the obstructed views, the right-field overhang, the greenest grass a kid ever saw.
► 3. Nov. 19, 2004 — Malice at the Palace
Another rivalry due to boil over. The Pistons and Pacers were battling for supremacy in the East, and it was a combative Friday night at the Palace. With 45.9 seconds left and the Pacers ahead 97-82, the ignition was lit, in the form of a blue plastic cup of beer fired at Ron Artest.
For the record, the mindless cup-tosser was named John Green, and what ensued was one of the ugliest player-versus-fan-versus-player-versus-security brawls ever. It began with a hard foul by Artest and a shove by Ben Wallace, and spawned heated discourse for weeks about player-fan tensions in the NBA. It led to nine suspensions, including a season-long ban for Artest. The defending champion Pistons regrouped while the Pacers crumbled, and by June the Pistons were back in the NBA Finals, where they narrowly missed a repeat, falling to the Spurs in seven games.
► 2. Oct. 14, 2006 — Magglio’s marvelous swat
Comerica Park was ready to burst, figuratively speaking. A party was about to start, and the fans just needed the signal. There were two outs in the ninth, score tied 3-3, Game 4 of the ALCS against Oakland. The Tigers already led the series 3-0, so tension had given way to festiveness, which then gave way to bedlam.
On the second pitch from A’s reliever Huston Street, Magglio Ordonez struck the ball high into the autumn night, and fans were leaping and screaming before it landed. Rounding the bases ahead of Ordonez, Placido Polanco skipped like a kid. The three-run homer sent the Tigers to their first World Series since 1984, and came just three years after the team lost 119 games. Jim Leyland had helped them believe, and a talented blend of veterans and youngsters made it happen.
► 1. June 7, 1997 — The Captain’s Cup
A celebration four decades in the making, and there was no stopping it. The Red Wings hadn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1955, enduring crushing disappointments, and captain Steve Yzerman was 32 and in his 14th season. It was now or never, on its way to now and forever, as the Wings led the Flyers 3-0 in the series.
Pick a moment in the clincher. Darren McCarty deking brilliantly and tapping in the puck to make it 2-0 in the second period, and the way the Wings were grinding, it was essentially over. The spine-tingling moment came in the closing 10 seconds as fans — tears streaming down their faces — roared and thumped the glass. At the final horn, players threw their equipment into the air and flooded the ice, and I can say with assurance the cheers were the loudest and throatiest I’d ever heard.
The final moment: Yzerman raising the Stanley Cup, grinning as he turned, the noise seemingly shaking the old barn. The Joe is gone now, as is Tiger Stadium, as is the Silverdome, as is the Palace, and the games are on hold. But the images endure, magnified and appreciated even more, until the next ones are made.
Wojo’s Most Memorable Moments since 1989
1. June 7, 1997 – Steve Yzerman lifts the Stanley Cup after Wings sweep Flyers
2. Oct. 14, 2006 – Magglio Ordonez clubs walk-off HR to send Tigers to the World Series
3. Nov. 19, 2004 – Malice at the Palace, as Pacers’ Ron Artest charges into stands
4. Sept. 27, 1999 – The final out at Tiger Stadium
5. June 2, 2010 – Armando Galarraga’s perfect game ruined by Jim Joyce’s blown call
6. March 26, 1997 – Wings and Avalanche engage in epic brawl at Joe Louis Arena
7. Oct. 17, 2015 – “Whoa trouble with the snap” as MSU stuns UM
8. April 3, 2000 – Tom Izzo and Mateen Cleaves share tearful One Shining Moment
9. Jan. 5, 1992 – Erik Kramer goes wild, Lions crush Cowboys 38-6 for lone playoff win
10. Nov. 26, 2016 – J.T. Barrett converts controversial fourth down, Buckeyes torment Wolverines again
11. June 14, 1990 – Vinnie Johnson’s shot with 00:7 left at Portland wins NBA title for Pistons
12. Nov. 22, 1997 – Charles Woodson’s 78-yard punt return sparks UM past OSU to keep unbeaten season alive
13. May 24, 2004 – Tayshaun Prince blocks Reggie Miller’s shot and Pistons take control of Pacers series
14. Dec. 21, 1997 – Barry Sanders tops 2,000 yards and Lions clinch playoff berth
15. April 3, 1989 – Rumeal Robinson’s free throws seal UM’s national championship against Seton Hall
16. May 16, 1996 – Yzerman’s goal in second overtime of Game 7 lifts Wings past Blues
17. Jan. 8, 1994 – Sterling Sharpe catches 40-yard touchdown pass as Packers stun Lions in playoffs
18. Dec. 5, 2015 – LJ Scott scores lunging 1-yard TD to give MSU Big Ten title over Iowa
19. Oct. 13, 2013 – David Ortiz clubs grand slam to tie Tigers, turn ALCS toward Red Sox
20. April 5, 1993 – Chris Webber calls timeout he didn’t have, Michigan loses title game to North Carolina
June 8, 2002 – Igor Larionov’s goal in third OT gives Wings 2-1 lead over Carolina in Stanley Cup Finals
Dec. 3, 2013 – Aaron Rodgers’ 61-yard Hail Mary stuns Lions
Sept. 24, 1994 – Kordell Stewart’s 64-yard Hail Mary stuns Wolverines
Sept. 18, 2010 – Mark Dantonio’s “Little Giants” fake field goal beats Notre Dame
Oct. 6, 2009 – Tigers drop epic Game 163 to Twins, 6-5 in 12 innings
Nov. 3, 2001 – “Spartan Bob” clock game, MSU beats UM on final play
Jan. 4, 2015 – Refs pick up pass-interference flag and Cowboys beat Lions in playoffs
Sept. 12, 2010 – Calvin Johnson doesn’t “complete the process” and Lions lose to Bears
June 12, 2007 – Justin Verlander throws first of his two no-hitters for Tigers, beating Brewers
March 29, 2013 – Trey Burke hits 3-pointer to force OT, Wolverines stun Kansas