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Friday, January 09, 2009

Detroit, Sports, and Other Ramblings

In this week's Sports Illustrated, Mitch Albom writes about sports and Detroit and Detroiters. Actually, it's thin on sports and thick on what it's like to live in Detroit. It's Albom's love story with his adopted hometown.

I'm not from Detroit and haven't visited it a whole lot, but I know the place. I've spent my whole life in cities just an hour's drive away and Albom's descriptions could be Cleveland, or Buffalo, or my Toledo. From the front porch of my parent's house, you can see the three smokestacks that read "Willys Overland", the original name of the Jeep plant. Or rather could, as the old plant was replaced a few years back by a new one (paid for by the city when Chrysler threatened to pull out) which now appears on the verge of total shutdown. My wife's cousins have 18 years in at Jeep and are next on the layoff list. We never had the same boom that Detroit did, so we never had the same spectacular bust, but that doesn't mean we're doing particularly well here.

I always tell people, with tongue firmly in cheek, that aside from our booming economy, fantastic weather, and visionary civic leadership, Toledo is a great place to live. Those are three big drawbacks but if you can live with them you see why Cpl. Maxwell Klinger was a tireless cheerleader for the place. I love Toledo and couldn't ever leave.

Anyway, Albom makes much of the history of the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons, as well as the University of Michigan. Believe it or not, Detroit was once a big track town as well. Cobo Hall, home of the Detroit Auto Show, hosted the NCAA Indoor Championships from their inception in 1965 all the way up to 1981, which then moved to the Pontiac Silverdome for two more years before leaving the area permanently. At its inception, the Detroit Marathon was one of only 12 marathons held in the continental US, and studs like Jerome Drayton and Greg Meyer rank among its past champions. And UM's Ferry Field will never be forgotten as long as people remember Jesse Owens.

This, combined with a mulling-over of the NHL's Winter Classic games, leads me to wonder. Track used to be most accessible not through its traditional outdoor format, but indoors on 160-yard banked board tracks laid on arena floors. Meets were everywhere--New York, Boston, Detroit, Philly, Cleveland, Chicago, San Francisco, LA, DC, Portland, you name it. I've only been to one--the last ever held in Cleveland--and had a blast. You were so close to the athletes that you felt like you could reach out and touch them. There was a reason the ITA held the vast majority of their meets indoors. Do you remember the IAAF's indoor Grand Prix series? The season finals were always in Madison Square Garden.

Was the decline of track & field in the USA inevitable once the banked indoor track all but disappeared? Sure, we've had more than our share of bad management, like Detroit's Big Three, but most observers would have to say Detroit's manufacturing base was going to decline to one degree or another regardless of who was in charge. Likewise, indoor track was the thing we could do so well that the world came to us, and once we threw that away what was there?

Actually, I wouldn't say we threw it away. Rather, the sport got too nerdy. When you base qualifying to championships on times rather than a system of real competition, people don't want to run on slow tracks. I think the mere existence of NCAA Indoor Championships themselves may have been part of the downfall; there was a time when everyone knew indoor track wasn't real track, but an All-American is an All-American. Then you get people taking indoor track seriously all on its own, and they figure out banked board tracks suck for running. And now there are a grand total of three indoor tracks suitable for major meets in this country, two of them in the backwaters of Fayetteville and College Station. Your local paper doesn't send its sportswriter to those like it used to when a meet was just an hour or two down the highway--and newspapers hook the hardest-to-get people, the casual fans.

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