Detroit sports fans have had the privilege of watching some of the best in the game at their given sport. Thinking back to all the great athletes that we have seen wear a Detroit uniform, it is hard to just limit it to just 10 players.
So, what I have done is base my top 10 list off of players that I got a chance to see play, that either “wowed” me as an adult or that I emulated as a child growing up playing in the backyard pretending I was that player, copying their moves on the court, practicing my batting stance in the mirror or just made me turn on the game because I knew I could see something amazing at any given moment.
These are the players that made me the sports fan I am today, the players that have given me some of those “wow” moments.
10. Justin Verlander
Justin Verlander was the face of the Tigers for over decade and anchor of the staff as well. Verlander was a significant part of the team that took the Tigers from being bottom dwellers for years to a team that was consistently competing in the playoffs and making World Series runs. He was rookie of the year, threw no-hitters, won the pitching triple crown, lead the league in wins twice, earned run average once, strikeouts four times and was also the league Most Valuable Player and Cy Young winner all while a member of our Detroit Tigers.
He will go down as one of, if not the best Tigers pitcher of all-time and unlike Morris when he left the Tigers, I found myself rooting on the Houston Astros in the playoffs and in the World Series. I was truly happy to see Verlander win a World Series championship.
9. Jack Morris
Going back to those Tigers teams of the mid-1980’s I don’t know if there was a more feared pitcher in the league at the time than Jack Morris. Morris was the winningest pitcher of the 1980’s, and all of which was pitched for the Detroit Tigers. He threw a no-hitter in 1984 and lead the league in wins in 1981 and strikeouts in 1983.
Morris is another Tiger that made me fall in love with the game of baseball as a kid. Seeing Morris leave the Tigers organization after the 1990 season was tough as a fan, but he did end up going on to win three more world series in a row after leaving the Tigers, which, as a fan was a bittersweet moment. Morris was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the modern-day era committee. It is nice as a fan of those great Tigers teams see some of the players finally get the recognition they deserve.
8. Joe Dumars
Joe Dumars was the perfect complement to Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boys, where most of that team was outspoken and flashy, Dumars was the opposite, he was a quiet leader that led by his play on the court. Dumars, was the Finals Most Valuable Player in 1989 when they beat the Los Angeles Lakers. He was the anchor of the Pistons defense, quietly shutting down the other teams shooting guards, and this included holding Michael Jordan in check most nights.
I remember as a kid, going in the backyard and practicing shooting free throws just like Joe D did or trying to put a huge arc on a shot because I just watched Dumars do it earlier in a game. Dumars is definitely one of the greatest to play as a Piston, but I also feel Dumars does not get the credit he deserves for what he did as Pistons General Manager. Yes, a lot of us remember the mistakes he made, because they were big ones, but also remember that he was the one that orchestrated the deals to get Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace which lead the Pistons to one NBA Championship and had them in the hunt for others for years.
7. Earvin “Magic” Johnson
When I think of the greatest Spartans of All-Time, Earvin “Magic” Johnson is always the first that comes to mind. Being an avid Wolverines fan, I have nothing but the utmost respect for Magic and the run he made with his Spartans in winning the national championship in 1979 against Larry Bird and his Indiana State team, which is still the most-watched NCAA championship game. Johnson was named the most outstanding player of that Final Four season. Leading to more intrigue with Magic being a local guy is the Lakers vs. Pistons, Isiah vs. Magic rivalry.
Knowing Magic was from the area only made those matchups that much better. Magic still keeps in close contact with Michigan State basketball through Twitter, giving encouragement to Tom Izzo and Michigan State players and he has gone back to the Breslin Center to play in charity basketball games as well in the past. Earvin “Magic” Johnson is arguably the best college basketball player to ever play in the state of Michigan.
6. Charles Woodson
Yes, I do have a couple of college players that I thought deserve to make my list, because of the impact that they had on me as a fan and how they changed the game at their position. Charles Woodson is a once in a lifetime type of player that Michigan fans got to enjoy to watch play. Woodson anchored the 1997 National Championship Michigan Wolverines team, not only did he have highlight after highlight (that you can watch below) on the defensive side of the ball, he also played special teams and offense for those Wolverine teams which helped him earn the Heisman Trophy Award for that season.
Woodson could arguably be one of the greatest college football players of all-time. He definitely is a one of a kind special talent, that many two-way players have been compared to, but that hasn’t been seen since. Woodson is the last defensive player to win the Heisman award. Just like I would emulate Barry Sanders when playing backyard football, I would do the same with Woodson. I still wear my #2 Michigan jersey around proudly today.
5. Isiah Thomas
Love or Hate him, Isiah Thomas was the backbone of those Bad Boy teams that won back to back NBA championships. What a time in Detroit Sports, having three leaders/captains like Steve Yzerman, Alan Trammell, and Isiah Thomas to watch grow up. Isiah was the face of the Bad Boys, the image that every Detroiter loved, he could get under the skin of opposing players and sometimes, even his own teammates. But this is why I loved Isiah, he was small in stature but didn’t back away from anyone.
He could totally take over a game by himself. Who could forget Thomas going off for 16 points in a spurt of 90 seconds against the New York Knicks in the first round of the 1984 playoff? I don’t know if there was a tougher Piston during this era than Isiah. He was in the midst of every loose ball and playing through countless injuries. Isiah was not only the Pistons leader because of talent, but also his leadership on the floor. This is what made those Pistons teams the champions they were.
4. Alan Trammell
I think every kid has that team and player that makes them the sports fan they are today. For me, it was the Tigers teams in the ’80s and that player was Alan Trammell. Trammell was the leader of those great Tigers teams and he was another blue-collar leader that this city can really relate to and rally behind. He was the reason why I drug my parents out to go sign me up for T-ball when I was five years old. I wanted to be Alan Trammell! I wanted to play shortstop, wear #3, I would copy his batting stance and how he would turn to the outfielders and show “two outs” with his fingers.
The face of the Tigers for nearly 20 years, Trammell was part of the last Tigers World Series championship team, where he was named the series Most Valuable Player. His two home runs in a single game in the 1984 World Series will always be remembered. He is also a six-time All-Star, four-time golden glove winner, and a three-time silver slugger. He also was part of arguably the greatest double-play combination in the history of the game alongside with Lou Whitaker. Trammell finally got the recognition he deserved as he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the modern era committee in late 2017.
3. Steve Yzerman
I am openly not the biggest hockey fan, but when it comes to Detroit sports, how could I leave Steve Yzerman off the list? Yzerman was a Red Wing for over two decades and served as the captain of Red Wings for 19 of those years. Yzerman was part of some of the lower days in Red Wings history (The Dead Wings) and he saw some of the best days in Red Wings history as well, winning three Stanley Cups with the team in 1997, 1998 and 2002.
He was a true leader and a blue-collar type player that this city embraces and loves. When I did watch Red Wings hockey, which was mostly during the playoffs, I could see that Yzerman exemplified his leadership through his play. It is truly great that Yzerman returned home to become the Red Wings GM prior to the 2019-2020 season.
2. Miguel Cabrera
I don’t know if there is more of a pure hitter in this era than Miguel Cabrera. Not only does he hit for power, but he also hits for a high average as well. Detroit fans have had the luxury to watch the arguably the greatest hitter of all time for the past decade wear the Old English D. He solidified being one of the greatest of all time in 2012 when he won the Triple Crown award until Cabrera accomplished this feat it had not been accomplished in 45 years and the last player to do so was Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox.
He is number two on my list because, in my opinion, he is a once in a lifetime type player that we as Detroit sports fans have had the privilege to watch. Career numbers of .315 batting average, 2,815 hits, 477 home runs and 1,694 runs batted in have him on pace to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Miguel might not be in his prime, but I do believe we will get to see a couple of solid seasons from what will go down as one of the greatest Detroit Tigers players ever.
1. Barry Sanders
Whether the Lions were a perennial playoff contender or not, I would not miss watching a Lions game back in the 90’s due to one reason, and that reason was Barry Sanders.
Sanders was not only arguably the best player in the NFL back then, he definitely was the most exciting player during those times. You never knew what unbelievable run or move he would pull off next. Every kid playing backyard football wanted to be Barry and we would try to emulate his moves and jukes he would do during any given game. Sanders could be the only running back that could make a rush for a loss and turn that into a highlight.
Even when the Lions were a dismal team, Lions fans could hold their head up high, because they had Barry Sanders on their team and he was the only one of his kind in the league. Adding to his folklore status is him retiring prematurely with what seemed to be years still left in the tank. This is another reason why I appreciate Barry more as an adult. He stuck by his convictions and even if I was mad at the time as a football fan, I can see him as a person with integrity. He never came back and decided to give it one more go with a contender. He retired at the top of his game, even if that left Lions and NFL fans in general with that question of “What if?” and “If Only?”
For all of these reasons, I have Barry Sanders number one on my list.
There will always be comparisons as to who is the next Barry Sanders, but in my opinion, Barry is one of a kind and there will never be another like him.