Wednesday, October 01, 2014

A unique position

Let's take a look at what happens to most professional athletes when they hit a period of time when their play is below their usual or necessary standards.

If it's a short slump, the athletes might come out of a particular game in favor of someone else. If a hockey player keeps giving the puck to the other team, he'll take a seat on the bench for a while. When a basketball players misses eight straight shots, well, let him think about things for a while sitting next to the coach. If a baseball pitcher can't get anyone out, off to the showers ... until the next opportunity.

In any of those cases and almost all of the others, the players receives another chance to do well. If it goes on for a period of time, the baseball hitter will be dropped in the batting order or platooned. The football player will see spot duty and find himself on special teams. The hockey player will be placed on different lines and/or see his ice time reduced. Even golfers have a chance at redemption in upcoming tournaments.

But there is one big exception to the rule, and it centers on the single most glamorous and single most difficult position in sports - the football quarterback.

Ask EJ Manuel.

The Buffalo Bills quarterback was replaced this week as the team's starter, as Kyle Orton will take over on Sunday against the Detroit Lions. Manuel had not been playing well lately, and coach Doug Marrone announced the move earlier this week.

Let's review here. Manuel was a first-round draft pick in 2013 by the Bills in something of a surprise move, since other teams had him projected much lower. It would be interesting to know if Buffalo had planned to start him right away last season. Plan A might have been to start Kevin Kolb at the beginning of the year and give Manuel a chance to get his feet wet a bit. But Kolb suffered a career-ending concussion in preseason, and Manuel was Plan B. Manuel didn't look like the obvious answer at quarterback when he played last season, but then again he was good enough that we didn't know that he wasn't going to be the answer some day.

Fast forward to this year. The Bills traded two number-one picks to Cleveland for wide receiver Sammy Watkins, in theory giving Manuel a big-time target. Thad Lewis showed up in the spring, and the backup quarterback apparently had forgotten how to throw a football. He was quickly cut in camp. That left a vacancy at quarterback, and the Bills spent major dollars - something like $11 million over two years - to sign veteran free agent Kyle Orton. That's one expensive insurance policy, but an important one since Manuel was injured three times last year and in the NFL these days your season is essentially over if your QB goes down and you don't have a decent backup.

It didn't take an injury to force a switch. Manuel had trouble completing a pass beyond 10 yards or so, checking down to his running backs frequently. Shades of Trent Edwards. The team won two of its first four games, and it wasn't enough to keep the fan base happy. After defending Manuel after the Houston loss, Marrone announced a switch in starters 24 hours later. He might as well have dropped a green flag announcing "Let the speculation begin."

Were the Bills giving up on Manuel forever? The denials about that possibility quickly came from the team, but some quick research revealed that quarterbacks put in similar situations over the years frequently disappear for good. Check with J.P. Losman. The switch certainly prompted questions about whether the Bills were as sold on Manuel back in August as they said they were in public, and thus had this at least in mind since then.

And what about the pressure to win now? Certainly, another poor season would not go over well for a team that hasn't made the playoffs in this century. But throw in the fact that the AFC East looks pretty mediocre at best so far, and there's an opportunity to march into the playoffs relatively easily if things stay the way they are. What's more, the Watkins trade was designed to help the team immediately. Another poor season would bring another top-notch draft choice ...  to Cleveland.

Overshadowing all of that, naturally, is that the Bills are about to get a new owner. It's tough to know what Terry Pegula will do with the team when he takes over. He made some changes in the Sabres' front office, but he left the hockey department alone for a while. The people in the NFL are always under pressure to "win now." Still, observers have been guessing how many wins it would take to prevent a major housecleaning at One Bills Drive in the offseason. The most popular number is nine.

If this situation had come up in any other position, Orton probably would have come in for Manuel in the second half last week. Then maybe Manuel starts next week or maybe he doesn't, but no one is suggesting he's at the crossroads of his career.

But we're talking about a starting quarterback here, and the rules are different.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Caught by surprise

The other day at work, I suddenly and surprisingly found myself in the middle of a journalistic battlefield.

I was working on the night's High School Extra for the newspaper, a daily roundup of some of the results from the prep schedule on a particular day. It's a handy way of giving publicity to all/any achievements in some of the "other" sports - which means anything but football at this time of year and is not meant to demean those who participate in soccer, cross-country etc.

It was a light night, and there was something going on with the Bills that night - a sale of some sort, as I remember - that guaranteed I wouldn't have much space to fill. It's a good thing, because exciting finishes or good stories were few and far between. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't.

In order to start the column of notes, I talked to a coach of a local high school about her young team. She was quite articulate and gave me a few good quotes for my story.

Now comes the catch - the team in question was from Lancaster Central High School.

That may not send off alarm bells for those living outside the area. But those who know a little about Western New York know that Lancaster's athletic teams are called the Redskins. That, as you may have heard, is the same name of a Washington football team that has journalists and announcers boycotting the use of the team name while writing for print/Internet or talking for broadcast.

While a few newspapers have announced that they would not permit the use of Redskins on the pages, The Buffalo News has not taken that step. Still, some writers have said in public they will not use the R-word.

It's an issue that has been out there for quite a while, at least with me. At some point, I wondered how the team name could be allowed if at least some of the affected parties - in this case, the Native population - found the word offensive. And at least a portion of them on a national basis do. Put it this way - would you use the word "redskin" in conversation when describing anything but a sports team? Of course not.

At one point, I asked Sabres' coach Ted Nolan about the matter. He said the reaction in the Native community was interesting. There were some who wanted all such nicknames, which could include Indians, Braves, Warriors, etc., to be thrown into the ashcan of history. Other Natives could care less. Nolan went on to say that he didn't mind Braves and Warriors, but that Redskins was over his personal line.

When did I ask this question? In 1997. So this has been simmering for a while.

A few years later, I ran into a speaker at the lodge of Glacier National Park. He was of Native heritage, and took a great deal of pride in the Redskins' name. He collected Redskins' merchandise, including an expensive embroidered jacket, and followed the team closely from Montana.

Lancaster High got drawn into the discussion a couple of years ago, surprisingly late as these things go. There's been some discussion there about changing the name,and some current and former athletes say the name represents a link to the long tradition of the school's athletic history. But some other schools in New York with the same or similar team names have changed them in recent years. The Lancaster school board just had a public forum to talk about the issue in the near future, and sure enough it was lively. Some of the few Natives in Lancaster didn't mind, while others said they were quite uncomfortable. Naturally, there are Facebook groups on both sides.

How did I handle it while on the job? It was actually easy to use Lancaster as a first reference in the story, and then quote the coach talking about the team - using the words team or squad. Therefore, "Redskins" or even " 'Skins" did not appear in the story. However, if this were a 20-paragraph story on the team, I might use Redskins for the sake of writing convenience since there is no overriding directive on the subject. Meanwhile, while editing an NFL story, there was a note on Washington quarterback Robert Griffin - and we use the team nickname on first reference in such roundups. So Redskins' quarterback Robert Griffin it was.

In other words, it's a decision that's above my paygrade and up to the my bosses. But I won't go out of my way to use it, and I'll be quite happy when the R-word isn't used officially any more and can thus leave my vocabulary without fanfare. That day is coming, and soon.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The 24-hour rule

The cheering bounced all over social media, as well as in offices and homes throughout the area on Tuesday.

The Buffalo Bills' future in Western New York is secure.

Everyone wondered what would happen to the Bills once Ralph Wilson passed away and the team was up for grabs. If fact, we wondered for 20 years. Now we know. Terry and Kim Pegula sold some mineral rights, or at least went through the cushions on the living room coach, to raise more than a billion dollars, and apparently won the bidding process in relatively easy fashion. It's certainly one of the biggest sports stories in the area's history - maybe the biggest. And since the Pegulas also own the Sabres and Bandits, this might make them as important as Wilson in the area's sports history - although we'll have to see what develops in the years to come on that.

The fear, obviously, involved the fact that NFL teams are few and far between. What's more, a team in, say, Los Angeles was worth much more than it would be in Buffalo. Therefore, someone who wanted to move the team to a bigger market could afford to bid more, since a change of location might be worth millions and millions of dollars. I spent the last few months wondering if some rich hedge fund guy would come out of nowhere and make an outrageous bid to buy the team and ship it to his backyard.

Therefore, the unsung hero of the whole process was the unnamed person who came up with the idea of putting a huge "poison pill" into the Bills' lease for Ralph Wilson Stadium. It would have cost someone $400 million to move the team ahead of schedule, a number that certainly would give anyone pause. Take a bow, whomever you are. Wilson also gets credit for agreeing to it.

Part of the joy of the announcement came from the fact that the two losing bidders certainly weren't ideal candidates for the job. The Toronto group might have sworn on a stack of Bibles taller than the CN Tower that it wasn't interested in moving the team north, and no one would have believed it. Maybe someday we'll find out its real intentions. And maybe Jon Bon Jovi will be able to sell some CDs in this part of the world now, although I still wouldn't book him for a concert here for a while.

Then there's Donald Trump, who wasn't exactly the picture of reason during his days as an owner in the United States Football League. Some old-timers in the NFL might have thought twice into accepting him into their exclusive club. Besides, how many football owners want to be sure of receiving more publicity than the team's starting quarterback?

Given those three choices, this is clearly the best possible outcome for Western New York and its fans.

All right, we start with that celebration. Some football teams say they will celebrate a win for a day, and then move on. I'm willing to do that hypothetically here. So what will the landscape look like ... tomorrow?

That's an interesting question. The jury is frankly still out on what sort of owners the Pegulas will be, at least based on their time with the Sabres. No one is ready to compare them to, say, Bob Kraft of the New England Patriots quite yet.

Terry Pegula has shown a willingness to spend money on the product so far with the hockey team, and that's important. The team's record since his takeover, however, has been headed in the wrong direction - crashing at the bottom of the league last season. There's also the matter of Pat LaFontaine's arrival and departure, which was at best sort of clumsy and certainly raised questions about management decisions from the top. Considering the Bills' front office hasn't been known as particularly functional in the last several years, it's easy to wonder if help is on the way.

Then there are the matters that surround the franchise's future in Buffalo. A new stadium - or a major restructuring of the old one - is going to be necessary in the next several years. That's going to cost a billion dollars or so. That's a good-sized commitment for a facility which could be used only 10 times a year. (A domed stadium would increase usage but also increase the price tag.) The community - all of it - needs to have a discussion about whether it is willing to pay that price, and it might be a loud one.

A domed stadium also might help to solve another Bills problem - attendance. Plenty of people take a wait-and-see attitude about buying tickets for November and December games, which means Buffalo is one of the few cities in the NFL to worry about blackouts during the regular season. It's basically here and Jacksonville, with San Diego showing up once in a while. I have no doubts about the loyalty of existing Bills' fans, but the team could use more of them who are willing to open their wallets in cold weather. Even restaurant owner Russ Salvatore isn't willing to buy a few thousand Bills tickets every week. Meanwhile, new NFL stadiums are all about luxury boxes and club seats these days, and Buffalo isn't New York when it comes to Fortune 500 companies. The words "major league city" carry responsibilities as well as benefits.

But enough negative thoughts. Those other items are just details - important, certainly, but not at the top of the list. You have to have a team first, and Western New York will have one for the foreseeable future. That's worth celebrating ... for quite a while.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The old college try

College athletics haven't made a great deal of sense in a couple of generations.

It sure looks like the situation is about to get worse before it gets better.

The marriage of athletics and academics has always been a shaky one in our universities. In the olden days there was something quaint about having a college team in a variety of sports, just like what took place in high school.

Then someone, someone figured out that there was money to be made. That led to big stadiums in some cases, national publicity, media attention. Better yet, the players didn't have to be paid, at least legally. The college picked up the costs of their education, period. Well, OK, there always have been problems with boosters and their $50 handshakes, but that was always tough to prevent. But for years and years, it wasn't a bad deal. The students would get an education, the university would essentially hire them to work 20-odd hours a week in return. That wasn't a great trade for the biggest stars, but for 99 percent of the student-athletes it worked out fine.

But the stakes seem to be increasing by the day. College sports seemed to start embracing marketing when Don Canham, he of the 100,000-seat stadium at Michigan, took over in the late Sixties. That's a lot of seats to sell ... so why not try to sell them, week in and week out. Other schools saw the cash involved and wanted to play too. They all got better at the process. Been in a college bookstore lately? Not many books.

And then the television coverage blew up. In the quaint old days, there were about two college football games on every Saturday. Now there are five games on at noon on Saturday, and often one on Tuesday nights. Tuesday night football? Kind of tough not to miss classes for that road trip, which by the way keep getting longer and longer.

Naturally, we all didn't stop to look at the big picture. As in, why are colleges in the athletics business, with nine-figure budgets? How far away is that from the mission statement of a university? At the big schools, we've entered a world where offensive coordinators can earn a million dollars a year. You may have realized that no one ever paid to see an offensive coordinator do anything.

Some of these colleges aren't too good at making the financial numbers work. My newspaper ran a series this week on the University at Buffalo, which would like to become a larger force in athletics. Revenues for UB in 2013 were listed at $28.7 million, while expenses were $28.6 million. That would seem to be close to breaking even, except that $22 million of revenues comes from subsidies from the university. Most schools lose money on athletics overall. Alabama, one of the major exceptions, made $34 million last year - more than UB's entire budget.

Most of the colleges believe that athletics is something like advertising for the institution, attracting students and connecting with alumni. Is it worth it? If the numbers keep adding up like this, someone might ask about that eventually. But that person probably won't be in the athletic department.

Meanwhile, the players have been fighting back a bit. They have seen the enormous revenues generated by their efforts. They've also seen their jerseys with their names sold at the bookstore and on line, and seen their image in video games. So athletes headed to court; some of them filed to form a union at Northwestern; others took part in a class action suit over the video games. The schools cling to the public line that some sort of system embracing the amateur concept is needed, even though amateurism was shown years ago to be a way of keeping money away from those who earned it.

After some frantic realignment, we've gotten down to five major conferences - especially in football. There could be more shifting in the future, as four 16-team conferences would be a neat package for football. But in the meantime, the big conferences already received permission from the NCAA to make up some of their own rules. Think it's tough for the UBs to compete now?

We're clearly headed toward something new. Maybe the big conferences will simply call student-athletes employees at some point, and treat them accordingly. Perhaps those schools will have their own playoff system in football and men's basketball, leaving the others out. (So long for those cute upsets at the start of "March Madness.") Maybe those other schools will go back to the relatively old model, forming a second tier where a college scholarship is enough incentive to attract some "second-level" players.

I'm sure it's going to be an ugly process along the way. We can only hope that the ends, in the form of a better system, justify the means.

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Friday, August 01, 2014

Every December 25

Kevin Chase and I practice for a 1975 performance.
Here's a long story about a friend of mine of more than 40 years who passed away this week. The odd part of the tale is that I generally went exactly one year between visits with her.

Way back in the fall of 1973, I was just starting college. One of my high school classmates sent me a note in December, wondering if I was going to collect a few of my friends and serenade her with Christmas carols back in our hometown of Clarence on Christmas night. When December 25 rolled around and family dinners were finished, most 18-year-olds want to go running into the night with their friends to blow off steam. So I collected a couple of them, and off we went to my classmate Colleen's house - dressed in "gay apparel" in the "Deck the Halls" sense - jackets, ties, hats from fathers' collections, etc.  We rang the door bell and started singing some simple song like "Jingle Bells."

We were prepared to do two or three songs, but Colleen's family quickly invited us in and handed us beer in order to prevent us from singing. It didn't take long for a light bulb to go on. Could this scheme work at other houses?

Indeed it could. We went to a couple of male friends' houses next, and it was a repeat performance - a few off-key notes, and a beverage. Food sometimes was thrown in as well.

It was getting a little late at that point, but we opted to make one last stop at the Cullinan residence. The Cullinans had a house full of children, and Mr. Cullinan was on the school board. Therefore, practically every kid in the school district had some sort of relationship with the family. The parents were both friendly, smart people who always took an interest in other kids' activities. That was a little unusual. I remember when I won a Letter of Commodation for PSAT scores (remember those?), Mrs. Cullinan congratulated me on it when she saw me at some school function. I was quite impressed that she noticed.

I was still a little nervous about a visit to relative strangers. But, sure enough, the formula worked quite well at that location. There was a little beer and a lot of laughter over the hour or so of our visit.

As you'd expect, none of our group forgot what had happened when December of 1974 rolled around. We made a few rounds on Christmas night, and ended the night at the Cullinans. We gave them all updates on our year, and laughed a lot along the way. It was the same story in 1975 and 1976. Our apparel became less formal, but no one noticed.

College eventually ended for our group of "singers," and we moved on with our lives. Still, we knew a good Christmas tradition when we saw one. We still showed up on Christmas Night when we could in some sort of combination, although distances and jobs sometimes got in the way. We dropped the other stops on the tour, but always made a big effort to visit the family homestead on Roxbury Drive. As friend Glenn said, could they even have Christmas without us? It got to the point where someone would just hand us a beer when appeared on the front step. Our singing days apparently were over, but we still turned out.

Our best stunt involved a letter to the newspaper editor from Mr. Cullinan. He was complaining about reactions to the Bhopal chemical disaster in 1984, a horrible industrial accident in the chemical business. Mr. Cullinan, a worker in that industry, wrote about the over-the-top reaction of "wooly-hatted liberals." Naturally, that Christmas we showed up wearing wooly hats. Mr. Cullinan roared.

In fact, there were two things we could count on during such visits. We'd laugh for a couple of hours straight over practically anything, not even recalling most the details later on. And if we brought a guest male visitor along, Mrs. Cullinan would try to match one of her daughters to him. My friend Mark, the Notre Dame graduate, barely escaped without Mrs. C. setting a date.

After a couple of decades, the Cullinans apparently started to wonder if we were coming back on a given year after such a long streak ... but we usually did.  There were all sorts of ups and downs handed out by life to all of us, but this was a nice constant. We celebrated the victories and mourned the losses. I'm not going to say this was the absolute only time of the year that I saw the Cullinans; sometimes we'd run into each other at some function like the Clarence Center Labor Day Fair. The Cullinans again were quick with a laugh and always interested in my activities.

Eventually, the visits wound down, due to moving or work or something else as the logistics turned daunting. Mr. Cullinan passed away some years ago, and Mrs. Cullinan eventually moved into an assisted living program as she lost a few miles per hour on her mental fastball. But I always sent a holiday letter to her, and made sure she got a copy of one of my books when they came out. Son Brendan told me how in her later years, Mrs. Cullinan still got a thrill of seeing my name in the paper. In fact, she loved the newspaper - if only because it reminded her of the date every morning.

When word came this week that Mrs. Cullinan had passed away, my thoughts immediately turned to those many December 25ths. Most warm Christmas memories are associated with Santa Claus and childhoods in some sort of combination. I was lucky - I didn't need a guy in a red suit saying "ho, ho, ho" to make me jolly at Christmas. I had the Cullinans. I'm sure I'll think of those good times on December 25 for the rest of my life.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Scanning the horizon

I had a thought about the Buffalo Bills' upcoming season in an odd place - the barber's chair.

Bear with me on this one for a moment.

As I sat in the chair for the monthly visit, it came up in conversation that I had been going to the same barber almost dating back to the time I moved to Buffalo. In other words, I've been having Sandy give me a trim for more than 40 years.

In other words, I made a decision back in 1971, and haven't looked back. That's in spite of the fact I've moved within the region a couple of times. I may have to drive a ways now, but I make an appointment, get it done, usually have lunch with a friend near his establishment in Clarence, and move on. That's one fewer thing I've had to worry about over the years.

Now let's put that in terms of building a football team.

The fewer decisions a football team has to make, the better off it is. No, teams don't pick players and expect them to be starters for 40 years, but 10 would be nice for high draft choices. Let's look back at the Bills' fairly recent history and see how they've done in that regard.

Let's go back to 2000, when the first-round pick was Eric Flowers. It took about two years to figure out he wasn't going to be a factor at defensive end. That meant they had to take Aaron Schobel in the second round the following year. Schobel was one of those good picks, but it meant they couldn't address another need. In the Flowers category was Aaron Maybin, a 2009 first-rounder. I won't go over the players who could have been Bills in that slot, as you'll become ill.

In 2001, the Bills had the fourth pick overall and took Mike Williams, a tackle from Texas. Everyone thought he was a can't-miss player, a future Pro Bowler. Well, he missed. His failure to produce meant the Bills had to bring in many other players to fill that gap, and they spent a lot of money while failing to do so for years. It looks like Cordy Glenn is that guy now, at least.

Running backs can be a little injury-prone, and it's tough to count on someone lasting a decade. Still, the Bills have gone through a few of them. Willis McGahee was a gamble from the start, but did last for quite a while in the NFL. Sadly, only three of those seasons were in Buffalo, as he wore out his welcome. When McGahee was traded, Marshawn Lynch was drafted to replace him. Lynch again may make it through a decade, but not here. He had issues in Buffalo, and the Bills drafted C.J. Spiller to replace him. (Fred Jackson's arrival also helped make Lynch expendable, although Lynch certainly has done well in Seattle.)

Sometimes you get lucky in the draft. In 2008,the Bills picked up Stevie Johnson in the seventh round after whiffing on James Hardy in the second. Similarly, Buffalo took Kyle Williams in the fifth round after trading up to the first round to acquire, gasp, John McCargo.

What's more, free agency certainly adds some odd angles to the equation. The Bills have had some successes in recent years in the draft or in the free-agent market - Andy Levitre, Paul Posluszny, Jairus Byrd, Jason Peters, Donte Whitner. All left for greener pastures. That's going to happen in some cases in an era of free agency, but it's difficult to see 10-year solutions walk away.

That brings us to today. EJ Manuel is the Bills' big hope at quarterback. Buffalo obviously liked him enough to take him in the first round more than a year ago. As a rookie, he didn't show us that he would be a 10-year answer at the position. But, he didn't show us that he couldn't be that 10-year answer. We'll have to wait and see, which makes this a key year for him and the team.

Meanwhile, there obviously is a decision to be make on Marcell Dareus, a first-round pick in 2011. He's obviously a good-sized talent, pardon the pun, making the Pro Bowl last season at nose tackle. But he's been adding personal baggage by the month lately. It's tough to know when a player like that has become more trouble than he's worth ... and he's worth a lot.

Naturally, the more you miss on players, the more losses you have ... which leads to coaching changes, and new football philosophies, and more player changes. The cycle of losing can be painful to watch.

The long-term theory also applies to other sports, although there are differences. It's very difficult to judge 18-year-old hockey players when they become available for the draft. You're asking scouts to say what someone will be like five years into the future. If they could predict the future, they'd be buying lottery tickets. Still, when you miss, it's painful. There's a lot riding on Sabres' top pick Sam Reinhart in the coming years. He has to replace such players as Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek as the face of the franchise, although at least the Sabres got their 10 yearsor so  out of those two before they were traded just before free agency.

Fans want to win right away, and sometimes that can happen with skill and luck in roster-building. But usually the building blocks for such seasons have come with good, long-term decisions from the past that improve the odds.

Ask my barber about those.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Building up memories

My former workplace, reduced to rubble.
Is it easy to feel nostalgic over the death of a building?

Of course it is.

I worked at WEBR Radio from 1978 to 1986, and then in 1993 or so. I made a lot of friends there. In other words, I'm probably never going to be able to forget the address of 23 North St. for the rest of my life.

This was back in the day when most of Buffalo's radio stations were in the same neighborhood, in Allentown. WGR/WGRQ and WYSL/WPHD were down Franklin, WKBW was just over on Delaware, and WBLK was around the corner. This is as opposed to today, when all of a city's radio stations are in the same building or two, thanks to giant companies that swallow up outlets with the zest that bears have for salmon. Our building was a classic three-story mansion between Linwood and Main St. While it had been remodeled a few times in certain ways, it must have been quite a place in its day.

Let's start with the main part of the structure during my days there. The first floor consisted of a switchboard area/lobby and the station manager's office at the front. My old friend, Hall of Famer Margaret Russ, was in a room just off the station manager's office, and across the hall from a big area the size of a fancy dining room. When a station (AM or FM) had a fundraising period scheduled, that's where the phones rang. I believe that was where Mike Collins passed along the news around 1993 that virtually everyone was being fired as the station was going to mostly National Public Radio programming with almost no local news. Sigh.

There were wide stairs leading up to the second floor, which contained studios, offices and a music library. That's where WNED-FM was located. The news group and the classical music types didn't mix too much. Longtime program director Peter Goldsmith bravely came into the news area once in a while to talk hockey with the sports guys. You can build up a lot of good will that way.

From there, stairs led up to a third floor. I think it took two years for me to get the courage to go up there. It was the official office furniture graveyard. You've never seen more broken tables, typewriters, etc. in a relatively small space. I never asked why the area wasn't cleaned out - it probably was because no one could figure out how to get the stuff out of there without using the window.

In the back of the main building was a stairway leading downward to the basement, the true mystery area of the place. Dave Kerner and I one day figured it was time to look around. It was pretty empty. The "find" of the tour was a tiny political button for Franklin Roosevelt, running on a minor party line for President. We asked engineer Don Lange when the last time the basement had been used. "Well, I've been here since 1937, and it's never been used in that time," he said. So maybe that button played a small role in FDR's win over Alf Landon in '36.

In the back of the main part of the building was a good-sized room, perhaps the kitchen once upon a time. There were a couple of rooms just off it, converted to office and supply space. The main area had a vending machine, copier and individual mailboxes, the latter of which was too frequently used to announce via memo that someone else - usually a friend - would be departing the station soon for parts near or far.

There was a door in the corner of that room that led to the major addition, which was the home of the AM radio news operation in my day. There was a long hallway on one side, bordering a couple of offices and the rest rooms (where one employee essentially had a nervous breakdown one night). When I first got to WEBR as an intern, Pete Weber handed me a baseball glove and told me to catch some slapshots as a goalie as he fired plastic pucks in the hall. ("So this is big time radio," I thought to myself.) By the way, the hallway also served as a soccer area, and when someone broke an exit sign with a shot, the station manager banned hockey from the hallways. Well, sports weren't his strong point.

On the other side of the hallway came studios, the main newsroom (the spot where Richard Simmons once yelled at me for eating a doughnut), and a "bullpen" for reporters' desk. The bullpen, by the way, was the scene of an arrest. One night someone broke into the front of the building, setting off a silent alarm in the AM control room. The Jazz in the Nighttime DJ was taught to call the police and leave the building, which Eulis Cathey did. When the policemen showed up, they asked the guy in the bullpen who he was. "I'm the burglar," he responded. Thus ended the fastest and most effective investigation in Buffalo police history.

The last big change to the building came when I was there. The garage had contained a variety of items beforehand. I seem to recall some sort of pedal-cart that WEBR had used once upon a time. It (the garage, not the cart) was turned into more studio space and offices. I spent quite a bit of time dubbing news features there. Just outside in the parking lot was a large tower, used at one time to send the signal to the transmitter in the Southtowns.

There were all sorts of characters in the building over the years, but I'll only bring up one of the most obscure: Nelson. Mark Hamrick certainly would remember him. We had some sort of cleaning service take care of the place, and Nelson came in around 6 p.m. to start the nightly process. He looked about 60, was actually over 80, and was the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet. I think Mark went over to his house for Thanksgiving one year. The problem was that Nelson wasn't particularly good at his job. He spent most of his time talking and little of his time cleaning. No one was too concerned, because he was such a good person. His manager showed up one night to look around, and was absolutely horrified by what he saw. We had a new cleaning person soon after that. But I've still got Nelson's voice on a fake broadcast that I created for Jonathan Aiken's goodbye party. (I was good at that stuff - much better than I was on the air. Which is partly why I work for a newspaper now.)

As some have heard, lightning struck the building, and I mean that literally. The construction crew came in and judged the place not worth saving. So demolition began. There had been plans to turn the place into a residential building, but they never got off the ground. On Facebook, there are pictures of an opening where a wall should be. Haven't felt like that over a building's demise since the Aud came down.

I used to drive by 23 North St. once in a great while. The building was sold when WEBR moved into the new public broadcasting headquarters close to the waterfront, and has been vacant for some time. It was rather depressing seeing the old place lately, so I didn't go often. 

But the day after I heard about the demolition, I went back to the grounds. The building was completely down, but the area hadn't been cleared yet. So ... I snapped a picture (see above) and took a brick home with me.

While I was there, I thought of my coworker, Bruce Allen Kolesnick. He passed away earlier this week, and I had attended his memorial ceremony earlier in the day. Bruce hosted a weekend show at WEBR among other duties. He was one of the most good-natured people in the building's history, always having a smile on his face and making the area a better place to work. When Dave Kerner and I needed a third voice for a spoof of a rap song we were doing, we knew Bruce would figure out what we wanted and go at it with enthusiasm and good humor. I believe Bruce and I left WEBR at the exact same time, sharing a goodbye party at Bullfeathers. I didn't see him enough after that, as he was at UB in a separate orbit. My loss.

I thought of some other friends who used to spend 40 hours per week on that piece of land - people like Dawn Hamilton and Mary Brady and Larry Hatzi and Brad Krohn and Steve Coryell and John Gill and Jerry Fedell and Peter Goldsmith, who aren't around any more, and the many others who are.

And then I smiled.

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Friday, July 04, 2014

The full story

You might have seen the advertisement for Heineken on television lately, featuring an Elvis Presley song that wasn't a number one hit.

You haven't seen the whole ad.

It's actually a two-minute story - too long for television, but not too long for YouTube. As you would expect, the 30-second edited version is far less interesting than the one four times as long. Good fun.

See for yourself.