Thursday, April 17, 2014

After further review

On Saturday, during the Red Sox-Yankees game, a New York baserunners was clearly off the second base bag when he was tagged out. What's more, a television camera had a great view of the play, which was stopped on the video at the precise moment. The Red Sox appealed, and lost.

A day later, the Red Sox were the loser in another replay decision. That prompted John Farrell to have one of his better explosions, which led to an ejection, and led to a fine. Free speech sometimes isn't so free.

Think this is an argument against instant replay in baseball and in all sports? Think again.

Replay is here to stay, and it's just fine with me and with most fans.

When television first started broadcasting sports events, fans at home could complain about umpire calls just like the ones at the game. And they did. When instant replay began to pop up, starting with the Army-Navy football game in 1963, those same fans often were even more sure about botched calls. Granted, there weren't many of them, as the umpires and officials generally did their work well and in a professional manner. In addition, television wasn't so ever-present for a few decades after replay was introduced. Not all games were even televised, and fewer cameras meant fewer good camera angles.

But times have changed as the economics of our games have changed. Every game is on television in one form or another, and cameras are everywhere. We have gotten used to the idea that big mistakes can be made by officials, that they are obvious to everyone, and that they can be corrected. Slowly but surely, accuracy continues to go up via replay.

That's not to say there aren't problems here. Some mistakes just have to be accepted, like a quick whistle in football, because there's no way of correcting them. The system for review takes some trial and error to perfect, as the Red Sox will tell you. And it's tough to strike the right balance between how often to use the technology and when to leave it alone.

The stakes have become enormous in pro sports, and anything to make the game more fair and just is just fine with me.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Respect

I only had a couple of opportunities to hear Ralph Wilson, the late owner of the Buffalo Bills, speak in person.

Usually Wilson didn't bother to fly in for news conferences back when I was covering the team at times in the 1980s. Sometimes he'd be here for a new coach or general manager, but not often. Still, I remember my reaction to those times when I stuck a microphone in his face and perhaps asked a question or two in a small group after the formal part of the session was over.

The first time more or less backed up what my preconception of him was when I saw clips of him on television. He just seemed uncomfortable in that situation. The person I thought of at the time, and it's probably unfair, was Richard Nixon. It's unfair because Nixon really was supposed to be good in those situations because it was his job as a politician. Wilson had an excuse. He was just a businessman.

But the second time, Wilson in a small group was much more friendly and engaging than I had ever seen before. I asked Vic Carucci, a writer for the Buffalo News at the time, about that, and he told me that Wilson could be quite a fine fellow with a good sense of humor in the right situation.

After Wilson died last week, I mentioned those thoughts to Milt Northrop, another veteran News writer. He told me that those were precisely the two sides of Ralph Wilson in his experience.

That strikes me as one of the interesting parts of the relationship between Wilson and Western New York, which lasted more than 50 years. The owner didn't show the warm side of his personality in public very often, forcing people to either judge him on those slightly clumsy public appearances or make judgments based on what happened on the field - which, if you've been paying attention lately, hasn't been very good for most of the past half-century.

Part of the problem probably was that he didn't like strong personalities leading the football operation. There were clashes with three such people who won here - Bill Polian, Chuck Knox and Lou Saban. The Bills certainly had a great many other personalities in key positions over the years who were quite forgettable. Teams lose for a reason, as I'm fond of saying, and the Bills' record can't be defended too easily.

Still, Wilson was caught in an odd situation. He was an out-of-town owner of a business based in Buffalo, a city that had a lot of them over the years. Those businesses put the city at the mercy of people without a strong Buffalo connection, and some of them went elsewhere when they had the chance.

Those moves hurt, but it's tough to root on Sunday afternoons for a manufacturing company. A football team, however, was different. Western New York loves its Bills, and has for much of the team's history. It put the area on the map across the country. Every week of the NFL season, Buffalo was competing with New York, Chicago, Miami, Boston, etc.

To his credit, Wilson realized that he was sitting in Detroit with the passions of this area in his pocket. He certainly could have moved the team to another city at certain points over the years, or sold it to someone who would move it elsewhere. Wilson didn't - in part because he had philosophical problems with that concept, and in part because he didn't want to break so many hearts here.

And finally, when he died, everyone seemed to realize that keeping the Bills in Buffalo from 1960 to 2014 was in the first sentence of his obituary. The fans were appreciative and thankful. The demonstration of warmth toward Wilson was a little surprising in its size, considering that it was often absent in the past, but it was still nice that it happened. It was as if everyone suddenly caught on to that second part of his personality.

At the end, Wilson finally received the respect he deserved from this area. Too bad he didn't get to see it; I'd bet he would have smiled broadly.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

A self-image problem

It's almost inevitable.

A good-sized sporting event comes to Western New York, one that attracts out-of-town visitors. The sports departments gets to work, covering the various athletic aspects thoroughly. As an example, I was a small part of the team that put together The Buffalo News' coverage of the NCAA basketball games here last week, and I was quite proud of the package that was put together on a daily basis.

And what do news departments do? Run to find some tourists and ask them if they are having a good time. If they say yes, and they usually do, we pat ourselves on the back.

This all leaves me with a feeling that the area is still insecure of its image. I've seen that in people, but it has to be a little rare for towns. Well, it's about time we got a shot of confidence.

Historically, Buffalo has some reason to be nervous about the actions of outsiders. After all, non-natives have been in charge of large segments of the economy for years. The region was a manufacturing hub for decades, which often means outside interests have placed factories here. That had some obvious benefits at one time, but our economic fate was dictated by the whims of others. That means we were hit hard when some big factories closed when economic conditions, and when the St. Lawrence Seaway was built to take a huge chunk of the shipping industry away.

The area economy is still making a transition from those days, and it's painful. We also have the usual problems associated with good-sized cities in terms of poverty. But there have been some signs of hope in recent years. The most obvious comes in the relatively recent discovery that Buffalo has a nice waterfront, and we should construct facilities for people to gather there. That's only taken a half-century, but we're making progress.

Buffalo obviously isn't New York and Chicago when it comes to hosting events, but at least the area has some experience at it. The NCAA tournament is the latest example of this. It's been held here a few times in the past 14 years, and we learned some things along the way. Back in 2000, we discovered that the biggest problem for visitors was trying to find something to eat between the first day's double-headers. That's always going to be a bit of an issue when 19,000 people are let loose on the town with 90 minutes to eat, but we've continued to get better at it. Otherwise, the region seems to be following the hospitality game plan nicely.

In short, I have plenty of confidence that we can handle such events nicely, and will be doing so for the foreseeable future. I'm actually more worried about times when there isn't an NCAA tournament around - and let's specialize on the summer months for that discussion.

We have one of the greatest natural resources to generate tourism right up the road. It's called Niagara Falls. Plenty of people go there every year when the weather turns nicer (even though my personal opinion is that the Falls are very underrated in the winter if you can stand being outside long enough to look at them). How do we get those visitors to stay longer, and how do we get more such people to show up?

Those questions have haunted us for years, and we're still working on it. It's going to take some more work as well as some international cooperation. Still, the rewards could be large.

In the meantime, I've traveled enough to realize that every region has its good points and bad points, and there are always portions worth exploring. They all can be proud of something. That's why I always look down on those who make fun of other regions of the country - in journalism, it's a sign of unimaginative writing - and why I don't do it. That's especially true when talking about my own home town.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Trumped

Whew.

That's the sound of an entire state letting loose with a sigh of relief. In this case, it comes with the weekend announcement that Donald Trump has decided not to run for Governor of New York. That means we don't have to avoid listening to him from now until November.

Now, let's start with one basic fact: no one was surprised by the announcement. Mr. Trump likes the idea of people asking him to run for office, since it gets his name in the newspapers and on television. He seems to enjoy that ... a lot. But as far as actually running for office, well, that would be a lot of work.

Besides, he might lose. Come to think of it, he probably would lose a race for Governor in New York. After all, the current Governor is relatively popular in the polls, and the Democratic party has a good-sized edge in enrollment figures. Do you think Mr. Trump's ego, which by most accounts is the size of Montana, could handle a crushing rejection by the voters?

Of course not. Better to withdraw from consideration with a note that said he could win the election, but has moved on to much bigger plans. Naturally, saying that you'd win is impossible to disprove. This was what happened when there was Presidential talk about Trump; he encouraged the conversation and then headed for the sidelines.

It's easy, at the least, to admire Trump's campaign strategy. He said he would run for Governor if the state's Republican leadership handed him the nomination without opposition. When the group couldn't do that, he exited with the charge that the leaders were "totally dysfunctional."

But the approach had a flaw. All's it took was one person to not go along with the plan - one who would gather a little support from party bosses - and in theory a unanimous vote would be spoiled. That seemed inevitable, as we aren't into coronations in this country, and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino provided the necessary opposition. He may get a lot of votes as a thank you.

There is a point to be made about all this besides making fun of a billionaire, which admittedly can be good sport.

The recession of 2008 not only made billions and billions of dollars disappear from the economy, but it also scared the population. That fear has been part of the political landscape ever since. It comes up in a lot of ways. For example, small business owners have become something close to saints - even though the rate of failure always has been high, no matter what the good intentions of the proprietors were. Ever look at how many storefronts on commercial streets change in a year? I'm all for small business, big business and in-between business. We can use the jobs, and the "system" of giving tax breaks to those who ask is political pandering at its worst. (It's far better to have one fair rate for everyone.) But looking through rose-colored glasses never helped anything.

In addition, there have been a few political candidates who come from the private sector and say that it's time "to run government like a business." This is a catchy phrase, and there are times and circumstances when it is a good idea.

But there are two obvious flaws with it. One, government has functions that no business would touch. You could argue about how many of those functions there needs to be, but that's an argument for another day. We can all agree for the need on items ranging from national defense to environmental protection.

Two, business leaders are used to getting their own way within their own companies. Sometimes when they make the transition to the public sector, they find out that they just can't order everyone around by whim like they used to do. In Erie County, we found just such a man in Chris Collins, who quickly found the number of "yes, sirs" decreased over time from such people as legislators ... until voters said "no, sir" emphatically when he asked for a second term.

Trump, who no doubt makes Collins seem modest in comparison, probably would have hated that part of being governor. He's better off doing something he's good at doing most of the time - making money. The rest of us will be better off too.

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Sunday, March 02, 2014

Scratching my head again

It's been two memorable nights at the workplace this week - back-to-back, no less.

On Friday, my Twitter feed suddenly was filled at 6:30 p.m. with the news that Ryan Miller and Steve Ott were not on the ice for the Buffalo Sabres, even though they were in the original lineup for that night's game. Kremlin-watchers correctly figured out that some sort of trade had happened. Miller and Ott had been told to pack for St. Louis shortly before that.

Then on Saturday, stories about problems in the Sabres' front office started to circulate on Twitter. At first, we guessed that something might be up with team president Ted Black. Then the scuttlebutt started to spread in social media that it was Pat LaFontaine who might be in the middle of it. Sure enough, a news release was emailed to us later in the night that LaFontaine had resigned his position as president of hockey operations, and would be returning to a position with the National Hockey League.

As you could imagine, we "tore apart" a few planned pages for the sports section as the night went on. Our layout editor for the two nights has applied for combat pay.

There was only one thing that could be certain about all this: We couldn't blame Darcy Regier for any of it.

The name of the Sabres' former general manager did come up in one out of town story I saw, at least. Someone said the Miller/Ott deal was another example of the Sabres getting maximum value for their assets, following in the footsteps of trades for players like Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek. In other words, new general manager Tim Murray is following the same plan as Regier did.

The biggest drawback with this is that the Sabres aren't going to have many gate attractions on the team next season. I'm not sure who will be on the cover of the calendar, either. There aren't many players of note left who will be able to drink adult beverages in commercial establishments.

When the Sabres realized that their planned nucleus wasn't going to be nearly good enough to get the job done, they opted for a complete rebuild. The question that will haunt the near-term future of the team is - was that completely necessary? Is the team now unneccesarily bad because of a lack of good NHL veterans in an effort to reach better days? Time will decide that one, but pretty obviously, once the course had been set there was no turning back. That's why trading Miller made sense, no matter that he had become the face of the franchise.

However ... if you are looking for a logical explanation for events surrounding LaFontaine's departure, look elsewhere. I got nothing. News columnist Bucky Gleason was right on target Sunday morning when he said there are only unanswered questions by the somewhat mysterious resignation. Statements in the news conference on Sunday only added to the lack of clarity. You can play all sorts of word games in these situations without telling what happened; heck, I used to do that for a living.

The initial restructuring of the team was always a little odd. LaFontaine and Black both had the title of president, leaving open the question of what happened when they disagreed on something. Black is said to be something less than a beloved boss around the office. We don't know much about LaFontaine's management style, but we do know that he quit a position after a brief stay with the Islanders over a dispute with ownership.

Plus, we've had a top executive immediately hire a new coach, take his time to hire a new general manager, and then leave. What could Murray be thinking about now, especially with the news that a replacement for LaFontaine isn't coming? Heck, he just got a promotion out of all of this.

And then there's Nolan, who apparently was about set to sign a long-term contract with the team. Now his friend and his boss - same guy - are gone. Is he having 1997 flashbacks? And just to add to the story, Nolan certainly knows this is his last shot at an NHL coaching job. Fold now, fold forever - as we say at the poker table.

There's more intrigue to come here in the coming weeks, and probably more head-scratching to come. But I'll throw in my usual point about professional sports teams. They usually lose for a reason, and that reason isn't so obvious from the outside. But there are a great many players in the story at the First Niagara Center, and it would be nice to see them row in the same direction and at the same time. It sure doesn't sound like that's been happening lately.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Censored

As a journalist, I realize that I'm supposed to support the free release of information at all times. I think it comes with the job description.

But what happens when I become the gatekeeper, instead of the writer? It suddenly puts everything in a different light.

This is the odd situation that has popped up in the last week or two, regarding one of my other blogs, the Sports Book Review Center. It's prompted a new situation for me, one which deserves a little thought and discussion.

I recently reviewed the book, "Whatever It Takes," by Daniel Kelly. The review is here. He sent an e-copy directly to our newspaper, billing it as the story of how someone overcame long odds to work in the National Football League. That is true. He was hired back in 1998 in personnel by the New York Jets, despite never having played the game at virtually any level. That fulfilled a lifelong dream; good for him, as Peggy Noonan would write.

The catches to the story, though, were many. He lasted two years as a full-timer and two years as a part-timer before losing his job. While I was expecting/hoping for stories about Jets coaches and players, there aren't many to be found. By the sound of it, Kelly admits he wasn't a model employee. Sadly, most of the second half of the book was about the major health problems of his young child - a difficult tale to read, but one that obviously had very little to do with football. Along the way and only an issue in the context of this commentary, Kelly became a devout Christian.

While the book review site gets plenty of hits - I'm closing in on 50,000 in the second version of the blog - comments are few and far between. Shortly after publishing this review, I received a comment.

"This an outstanding book, If you are in need of hope were there is no hope, and if you have ever had a dream that no matter who or what told you that you coulndt achieve it, then this book is for you. Daniel really sheds light on why you should not only never give up on your dreams but that when you begion to dream the same vision God has for your life then anything is possible. I highly reccomend reading this book, buy one for you and buy one for a friend, Every great success story starts with someone who was told they cant! Daniel shares why You can do all thing through Christ who strengthens you! "

I did publish this comment, but did a little editing to the original review. I wanted to make clear that I thought Kelly had his chance to fulfill a dream, and didn't take advantage of it. That's not a happy ending, even though it's easy to root for someone who had overcome some long odds just to get that far. That's why I read it in the first place. The religious and philosophical arguments involved here are better left unsaid, since no one will convince those on the other side of their validity.

But then another comment came in, making essentially the same point. That was followed by two more comments in the same way, more or less. So ... does anyone want to read four comments saying the same thing?

Perhaps not. That's why I deleted the other three. (I moderate all comments, mostly because of spam.) In our newspaper's letters page, we would not print four of the same comments - perhaps orchestrated - together on one page. But, I still feel a little guilty about that. I like promoting the exchange of ideas, and I've never deleted a rational comment before. And, our newspaper has to approve comments before publication, just to make sure that that vile, anonymous comments aren't listed - but rational ones always go thorugh. So it's a little odd to play censor, and a little confusing. Did I do the right thing? I'm not sure.

By the way, I can't wait to see if I'll publish comments that might come in reaction to this blog entry.

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Thursday, February 06, 2014

Don't let the door...

Let's talk about an entertainment situation for a moment without naming names.

Pretend there was a talk-show host who had been on the same job for about 22 years. Imagine he did nothing but win the ratings battle, week after week. That meant his employer made untold millions of dollars on his work.

When that person moved on, what would be the proper response? I'd probably start with a ticker-tape parade, followed by one of those zillion-dollar presents in the Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog.

You've probably figured out that this isn't so hypothetical. It's about Jay Leno, whose last night on "The Tonight Show" will be broadcast tonight.

As departures go, this is a really odd one. The obvious comparison is with Johnny Carson, who left the same job after more than 30 years. Carson's departure was a national event, with an absolutely endless parade of celebrities stopping by to be on his show one last time.

But a lot has changed in Leno's 22 years on the job. Television certainly has. The Big Three networks no longer are the only dominant players on the scene, winning a plurality instead of a majority of the viewers. The Tonight Show's viewers have dropped greatly in that span. Then again, everyone's numbers have gone downhill.

Still, that's not the only factor at work here. Leno was always the safe choice when it came to late night comedy. He didn't come up with many memorable jokes, but he was there for a few laughs night after night. And safe won the (ratings) race, consistently - even if it didn't create a great deal of buzz along the way.

Then there's the fact that Leno was in the middle of the affair in which NBC tried to move him to 10 p.m. weeknights and replace him with Conan O'Brien. Leno had a reputation for being rather insecure before all this; I can't imagine that episode did a great deal for his confidence.

I rarely watched Leno. David Letterman was and is more of my taste. And I can't say I feel sorry for Leno. He's made plenty of money over the years, and did what he loved on a nightly basis. Leno will return to doing stand-up at clubs and casinos, as well as do a little television when something interests him. Considering he reportedly banked his Tonight Show earnings and lived off the other gigs, Leno can work when he wants. And I'll be watch tonight's show, as something of an era ends. After all, I still have a video tape of Carson's last week.

Does the proverbial shout-out from this space go 1/1,000,000th of the way to compensating for the lack of buzz and thanks concerning his departure? Probably not. But you punch in at the job night after night and perform, you deserve a salute. So that's what this is.

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Been a long time

 I ran into an old friend today - a television show.

That's because I woke up much too early by accident - darn nightmares - and couldn't go back to sleep. Rather than toss and turn for another hour, I put on ESPN2 and watched "The Sports Reporters."

It's been a little tough to find the show at times in the last couple of years. "The Sports Reporters" used to be on regularly on ESPN at either 10:30 a.m. or 11 a.m. But as ESPN has gotten more and more into the pregame show business, meaning the program has expanded exponentially in length, "The Sports Reporters" has been bounced around the family of networks in terms of time slot. Its current landing area is 8:30 a.m., although apparently it is going back to 10:30 a.m. next week. Always tough to find a show when you're not sure when it's on, and tougher to watch it when it is shown before you get up.

Then again, it's not like it was in the good old days, when it was just about my favorite show. The cast certainly has evolved over the years.

For most of the early years of the show's life (it started in 1988), Dick Schaap was the host. He was really good, with a knack for prompting top-notch discussion. Schaap died in 2001 - has it really been that long? - and was replaced by John Saunders. The "new guy" came off pretty well right from the start, and still is a good host.

But the supporting cast is different, and as a result the show feels different. The program used to use some very good sports writers from around the country - mostly from the East. Not only were they obviously thrilled and animated over the chance to be on national television, but they always had something interesting to say. Bob Ryan of Boston, Mike Lupica of New York, Mitch Albom of Detroit, John Feinstein of Washington, and Bill Conlin of Philadelphia were semi-regulars, although some others of note (Tony Kornheiser, Dave Anderson, etc.) popped up as well. In that more innocent time, it was fun to actually see these relatively famous (in my world) writers on TV.

What's more, it seemed like the writers were more than happy to get into issues. There's more to sports than trying to figure out who will win today's game. They were discussions that don't come up much on network television.

In recent years, ESPN has been more anxious to promote some of its own staff members. For example, Jemele Hill and Israel Gutierrez were on with Lupica - you never know when he is on the ESPN payroll in one form or another - for today's show. I have nothing at all against them individually; in fact, they seem to follow sports closely. Granted, it's a difficult day to be interesting. We'd been hearing about Manning and Brady for a week, and at this point we're ready to move on and see the games played.

Still, the level of discussion in the last few years has often been at the level of "First Take," another ESPN2 show broadcast during the week - except quieter. I can't say I noticed anything different today. Can't say I'll be recording the program if I can't watch in real time, which I used to do.

It's a different media landscape these days, and the conversations have changed too. That doesn't mean I can't miss the good old days, does it?

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