Five biggest Detroit sports stories of 2013

Jim Leyland decided in early September that 2013 would be his final season managing the Detroit Tigers.

Jim Leyland decided in early September that 2013 would be his final season managing the Detroit Tigers.

1. Tigers cough away ALCS

What a disaster.

Joaquin Benoit delivered a first-pitch grand slam to David Ortiz in Game 2 that translated a series stranglehold into a momentum-shifting, Torii Hunter-tumbling disaster. Verlander pitched a gem and still lost a pivotal Game 3, Miggy’s torn groin turned an MVP into a ghost, the Tigers ran bases like those kindergartners on Monday nights at Comerica Park, and Prince Fielder’s flop was the picture-perfect moment of a miserable series.

Shane Victorino’s series-clinching grand slam in Game 6 joined Ortiz’s blast with a picture of Jim Leyland’s confused face. One can argue that neither homer happens if Max Scherzer stays in the game, but that’s a matter of opinion and nobody can change it now.

The season-long issues were exposed in a six-game exit: Poor base running. No bonafide closer. A lack of timely hitting. Poor managing.

2. Wings build 3-1 series lead, but lose to eventual Cup champs

They nearly missed the playoffs for the first time since 1989-’90. But captain Henrik Zetterberg notched 10 points in four straight wins to push the Wings into the postseason for the 22nd straight year.

PreZident Hank continued his clutch abilities in the first round against Anaheim with an overtime-winning goal in Game 6, then scored in the opening 1:49 of Game 7 to give the seventh-seeded Wings a date with Original Six-nemesis Chicago.

The Wings swept both games at Joe Louis Arena to build a 3-1 series lead and place the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Blackhawks on the brink of elimination. They harassed and annoyed Hawks captain Jonathan Toews into a classic meltdown during Game 4 that featured three minor penalties in 5:24.

A prime opportunity to finish the Hawks came in Game 6. The Wings held a 2-1 lead entering the third period, but a pillow-soft defensive pairing of Kyle Quincey and Brendan Smith coughed up two goals in 5:48, then Michael Frolik buried a penalty shot to force a Game 7.

Zetterberg nearly stole the deciding game by his lonesome. He scored in the opening minutes of the third period to tie the game, then had several dominating shifts as the United Center held its breath.

It appeared Chicago’s Niklas Hjalmarsson won the game with 1:49 left in regulation, but a quick whistle from referee Stephen Walkom negated the goal. (It’s one of the few times we’ve ever thanked Quincey, whose tussle along the boards with Brandon Saad stopped the play.)

But at 3:35 of overtime, Brent Seabrook’s shot from the top of the circle deflected off Niklas Kronwall and beat Howard. On the play, Wings forward Gustav Nyquist appeared to be boarded by Dave Bolland at center ice, but there was no whistle.

The Hawks went on to win the Stanley Cup.

3. Prince Fielder traded to Texas for Ian Kinsler

It was Christmas in November.

It’s a perfect deal on so many levels: The elimination of Fielder’s albatross contract allows more room to sign Max Scherzer to a lucrative long-term deal. Miguel Cabrera moves back to first base. Ian Kinsler brings much-needed speed to the top of the lineup.

Fielder sealed his fate in Detroit with his aloof comments that were voiced in the Fenway Park visitors’ locker room just minutes after the Tigers’ heartbreaking exit to Boston. He confirmed our suspicions all along: He’s a spoiled brat who never had a tough day in his life and could truly care less about winning.

“I got kids,” Fielder said over and over when asked about his emotions.

Yeah, and 90 percent of your teammates have kids, Prince, so what’s your point?

It’s truly a sad ending to what could have been a special run for Fielder, the son of old home-run hitting hero Cecil Fielder. We had thoughts of Prince launching 40 homers into those right-field bleachers on a yearly basis for the next decade. He should have been part of a 1-2 punch with Miguel Cabrera that would rival Manny Ramirez-David Ortiz during their 2004 championship run in Boston.

Prince, however, never lived up to the bargain, starting with a putrid performance in the 2012 World Series against San Francisco. He never found his footing in 2013, went through a divorce, struggled again in the opening round against Oakland, then got caught in a pickle in Game 6 at Fenway Park that sadly will be the poster-boy moment of his brief Tigers’ tenure: A belly flop that fell short of his expected destination.

4. Leyland retires

The chain-smoking, white-haired manager who wore his emotions on his sleeve was expected to return for another run at an elusive World Series title. But Jim Leyland shocked Tigers fans when he revealed he had been planning a retirement since a Sept. 7 conversation with GM Dave Dombrowski.

Thus ended an eventful ride for the Tigers skipper, who won three straight division titles but caught the ire of die-hard fans who watched his moves with a magnifying glass. Every lineup card, every pitching change, every hit and run, every late-inning defensive replacement came with scrutiny.

Really, it was unfair criticism for a manager who helped restore Tigers baseball with a magic-carpet ride to the World Series in 2006.

How long before fans start questioning Brad Ausmus?

Remember the old saying that the “Wings goalie and Lions quarterback are the two toughest positions in town”? It’s fair to say the Tigers’ manager is now atop the list by a landslide.

5. Lions choke away playoff berth

Oh, come on. You really didn’t think they were a contender, did you? You knew Baltimore’s Justin Tucker would drill a 61-yard field goal attempt to kill the Lions’ playoff hopes. If not, then you haven’t watched this sad-sack franchise long enough, because all of us who have been beaten and whipped by the Lions for decades said, “Only the Lions would lose on a 61-yard field goal,” then watched fate sail through the uprights.

The “ways to lose a game” book adds another chapter. Add Matthew Stafford’s pick-six against the N.Y. Giants to the list, too.

Oh, the Lions will blame Jim Schwartz and fire him for this collapse. Sure, he deserves blame for failing to win a division when Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers missed time with an injury, but let’s get real: Coaches aren’t the problem. Neither is GM Martin Mayhew, who made the mistake of hiring the hot-tempered Schwartz.

The problem is the Ford Family, who will always fail. Tom Dempsey booted a half-footed 63-yard field goal to beat the Lions in 1970, and Tucker confirmed nothing has changed 43 years later. Russ Thomas. Matt Millen. Rod Marinelli. Marty Mornhinweg. Charles Rogers. Joey Harrington. The list of failures stretch I-75 from Ford Field to the Silverdome.

Barry Sanders’ entire career went without a Super Bowl, and it sure seems like Calvin Johnson’s tenure will end in similar fashion now that he’s approaching his eighth season. A wide receiver’s shelf life only lasts so long.

Suddenly, that $76-million extension for Stafford doesn’t look so promising, does it?

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