Niyo: Detroit sports landscape bereft of star power

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is the most recognizable athlete in Detroit.

The stars were out Tuesday night, and if you looked from just the right vantage point — squinting, maybe — you could find Detroit somewhere in the constellation.

There was Max Scherzer, once the Tigers’ wild-eyed bulldog and now the reigning two-time National League Cy Young Award winner, making another All-Star Game start in front his home crowd in Washington, D.C. The fans chanted “Let’s go, Max!” as he struck out Mookie Betts and Jose Altuve to set the tone for the Midsummer Classic.

But there were other former Tigers orbiting, as well. J.D. Martinez, MLB’s most productive slugger since getting traded out of Detroit a year ago, batted cleanup for the victorious A..L. team. And Justin Verlander, now the dominant ace for the defending champs in Houston, was busy calling the shots in the dugout — literally — as he predicted Aaron Judge’s second-inning homer.

There was also a brief glimpse of Joe Jimenez, the Tigers’ 23-year-old reliever who came in to face one batter in the fourth inning, striking out Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford.

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 But for Detroit sports fans accustomed to stargazing on an almost nightly basis, right here in our own backyard, Tuesday’s baseball showcase in the nation’s capital was another reminder of what’s missing.

Specifically, stars — and the gravitational pull they have on us.

Few owners in professional sports understood that better than the late Mike Ilitch, who spent hundreds of millions of dollars chasing big-name talent and box-office draws with the Tigers and Red Wings.

As ex-Tigers manager Jim Leyland often explained, “Mr. Ilitch always refers to ‘stars.’ Mr. Ilitch likes stars.” He liked them because he was as much a fan as he was a businessman, and Ilitch knew what resonated, packing Joe Louis Arena and eventually Comerica Park not just because his teams won, but also because he packed his lineups with high-profile players.

Those memories are starting to fade, though.

Forecast: Bleak

We’re a decade removed from our last major championship in Detroit — the Red Wings’ 2008 Stanley Cup triumph — and the last near-miss came a half-dozen years ago when the Tigers got swept by the Giants in the 2012 World Series. The next one is nowhere to be found on the horizon, unless you’re an eternally optimistic Lions fan.

Yet even understanding the cyclical nature of sports, it feels like an eternity since things were this dark. The last time the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons missed the playoffs in the same year — as they did in 2017 and could again in ’18 — was 1981.

And amid all the losing around here lately, with large swaths of empty seats greeting all but the mediocre Lions, the question isn’t so much about where all the fans have gone. (They didn’t all disappear to the concourse at new Little Caesars Arena, despite what some officials might insist.) No, it’s about who’s going to bring them back.

The best and brightest star in Detroit remains Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who at age 30 is in the prime of a record-setting passing career. Yet he’s never won a playoff game, is 60-65 as an NFL starter and has just one Pro Bowl appearance entering his ninth season.

The recent NFL ranking of the league’s top 100 players — voted on by the players themselves — included just two Lions: Stafford at No. 31, and cornerback Darius Slay, fresh off his first Pro Bowl appearance, at No. 49. And while those two are locked up with contract extensions for at least the next few years, other prominent players like Ezekiel Ansah and Golden Tate are entering contract years.

Meanwhile, Lions fans, well aware that stars alone don’t win much — Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson, most notably — are still waiting to see if another will emerge from general manager Bob Quinn’s recent drafts. Taylor Decker? Jarrad Davis? Kenny Golladay? Kerryon Johnson? Your guess is as good as anyone’s right now.

Rebuilding, pardon our dust

Still, the future is even murkier elsewhere in a revitalized downtown.

The Pistons have had just one player make the NBA All-Star game in the last decade, and that’s Andre Drummond, who went twice in the last three seasons while leading the league in rebounding. But he’s hardly a box-office draw. (The Pistons ranked second-worst in the NBA in attendance based on arena capacity last season.)

The recent draft picks have been underwhelming, especially when compared to players the Pistons passed on — Luke Kennard over Donovan Mitchell, Stanley Johnson instead of Devin Booker. And the franchise was so desperate to find another star that owner Tom Gores signed off on a blockbuster trade last winter to bring in 29-year-old Blake Griffin, who’s last All-Star nod came in 2015 and who’s owed more than $140 million over the next four years.

The Tigers’ teardown last summer left only Miguel Cabrera as a marquee name, and it’s clear the two-time MVP and 11-time All-Star has lost much of his luster at age 35 after two injury-ravaged seasons. Beyond Cabrera, there’s only uncertainty and long-range projections as Al Avila embarks on what he promised would be a “painful” rebuild.

Nick Castellanos has emerged as an All-Star-caliber hitter, but he’s scheduled for free agency in 2020 and could be traded before then. Ditto the new staff ace, Michael Fulmer, an All-Star last summer who is under team control through 2022 but seems likely to be dealt at some point. And of the four Tigers prospects listed in the latest Baseball America Top 100 — Casey Mize (18), Franklin Perez (43), Matt Manning (56) and Alex Faedo (89) — only Faedo is pitching above Class A ball at the moment.

Dylan Larkin

The other Ilitch-owned team in town seems a bit further along in its retooling. But considering the Red Wings’ last two All-Star representatives were 34-year-old Frans Nielsen and 32-year-old Mike Green, there are no sure things here, either.

Dylan Larkin, a homegrown talent who made a big splash as a rookie All-Star and expects to sign a contract extension after an impressive 2017-18 campaign, is the best bet to grab the torch carried by Henrik Zetterberg the last several years. And the most recent first-round pick, 18-year-old Czech forward Filip Zadina, a goal-scoring winger brimming with confidence, probably carries the greatest hopes. 

There’s also strength in numbers, and with 21 draft picks the last two years — including four of the top 36 overall this summer — and 11 more penciled in for 2019, Red Wings GM Ken Holland figures the odds are in his favor when it comes to finding the next Pavel Datsyuk or Nicklas Lidstrom. Or at least the next bona fide star.

“I’m trying to put together lots of young players that give our franchise — and give our fans — some hope,” he said.

Until then, however, those fans are left to wonder when the dark skies will light up again around these parts.