Friday, June 12, 2015

Unsafe at any speed?

Drivers in the city of Buffalo these days are facing some very odd times. Let's call it the law of unintended consequences at work.

In late May, there was a simply horrible accident on a Saturday on Route 198, the Scajaquada Expressway. A driver apparently fell asleep at the wheel and drove off the road - right into Delaware Park. One child was killed, and another critically injured. The mother also was slightly injured in the accident. It doesn't get much worse than that.

One of the worst parts of the accident is that we all should have seen it coming. Placing a four-lane divided highway with a 50 MPH speed limit in the middle of a park for part of its run, with no major railings, was a horrible idea. The rest of the highway isn't exactly relaxing, either. There's an extremely short merge lane going west of Parkside, and the on-ramp from the 198 to Route 33 is often backed up and features an on-ramp that can require a cross-over technique through traffic that always looks like it could create an accident a day.

Governor Cuomo wasted no time in taking action. He almost immediately ordered the speed limit reduced from 50 MPH to 30. The Department of Transportation was told to take a long-term look at the situation in order to make it safer for everyone. Can't argue with that premise.But it will be a while for a solution is reached. And in the meantime, driving on parts of Route 198 is downright scary.

Ever drive on a road where everyone is going a different speed? That's what is happening in places. There are some posted signs on spots about the new rules. Some drivers are obeying them as soon as touch the road. Some are slowing down a notch to 35 or 40. Then there are others whostill  are going 50 and above. Granted, I don't drive through the park section of Route 198 much, but the end of the highway by Route 33 feels unsafe.

I have heard that speeding tickets are being handed out, which is good. But it's tough to patrol every inch of the highway at all times of the day or night. It's also tough to break an old habit of hitting a particular speed on a highway, no matter how big the signs are. People have been driving at a certain rate for decades. And others tend to believe they have the Constitutional right to drive at almost any speed they want, a philosophy I've never understood.

Again, I don't want to this conversation to diminish our sympathies for the family involved in the accident by the slightest bit. The way we responded - and will respond - to the circumstances involves is what's being examined here. We can only hope that the DOT does a thorough job of investigating the situation, using, ahem, all deliberate speed. In the meantime, if you see a driver who is a little slower than most cars on Route 198 and looks a little nervous about it, well, that could be me.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The second time around

Veteran Buffalo Sabres' fans remember Ted Nolan's first tenure as coach of the Buffalo Sabres. It was one of the oddest times in the history of the franchise.

General manager John Muckler and Nolan were barely speaking by the end. Muckler wanted to fire Nolan in the middle of a successful 1996-97 season, but wasn't allowed to do so by team management. Players on the team were split into sides, most famously in the case of Dominik Hasek (Muckler) and Pat LaFontaine (Nolan). As team member Derek Plante once said, he didn't mind missing his usual soap operas on TV; the drama at the rink each day filled that need nicely.

Muckler was fired right after the 1997 playoffs, and Nolan left after turning down a one-year contract offer from new general manager Darcy Regier.

Yet that might be the second-oddest period of Nolan's coaching career in Buffalo. That alone says a lot about what to think about his latest departure, a day after the end of the regular season. It's sure tough to put "Nolan II" into perspective.

To recap, Nolan was brought in as interim coach when LaFontaine arrived as the top hockey executive when Regier and coach Ron Rolston were fired relatively early in the 2013-14 season. Fans, who always had a great relationship with LaFontaine and Nolan, reacted in some cases like MacArthur had returned to the Philippines. Yes, the team had a massive rebuilding job in front of it at that point and wasn't going to be good for a while, but having Nolan around made the idea more tolerable for many. Eventually, Tim Murray was brought in from Ottawa as the new general manager.

Then with a month or so to go in the 2013-14 season, LaFontaine abruptly resigned his position. And at that exact moment, Nolan knew that the countdown toward unemployment had begun.

Nolan knew first-hand that general managers want their own people to be head coaches most of the time - and probably for good reason.He went through that when he coached the Islanders, as he and general manager Garth Snow didn't get along philosophically - whatever that means. Come to think of it, if Nolan had taken Regier's one-year contract contract offer, he probably would have exited after the 1997-98 season. Regier obviously valued a close relationship with a coach, and had that sort of friend in longtime Sabre coach Lindy Ruff. Shotgun marriages usually don't work, in hockey and in life.

It's very, very difficult to judge how Nolan did as a coach in Buffalo the second time around. Most of the veteran talent was sent elsewhere for prospects and draft choices, leaving a roster that slowly deteriorated to the point where it often wasn't competitive once the calendar flipped to 2015. We know that Mark Pysyk was kept in Rochester for most of the season against the coaching staff's wishes; we don't know if there were other such disagreements. A few of the kids seemed to take some small steps forward at times, but it's still a little tough to guess how many of them will be part of a better Sabres' future. There's Zemgus Girgensons and Rasmus Ristolainen ... well, the Magic 8 Ball replies to those questions about others with "Ask again later." Plus, all the speculation of a deliberate, year-long (or perhaps longer) tank attempt by the front office poisoned the atmosphere.

I've heard that some of the players had mentally packed in the season a few weeks before the actual conclusion, but the team didn't completely fall apart. It almost broke the hearts of some Sabres' fans by not finishing last with a little rush at the end. Nolan is known as a motivator and not an X's and O's genius, but this season certainly tested those skills. Ted is a survivor, and at least seemed to roll with the punches as well as could be expected. Meanwhile, a member of upper management said recently that the season was toughest on the team's front office, which sure sounds like someone who is a little too insulated for his own good. It was tough on everyone, right down to the last fan in the 300 level.

No one should feel too sorry for Nolan. He walks away with a nice golden parachute of a few million dollars for his efforts, paid out through 2017. Consider it a lofty 401K payment.

Nolan also leaves as someone who has gone 0 for 3 in terms of getting along with his boss at the sport's highest level. It seems unlikely that he'd get a fourth chance somewhere.I'd argue that the Sabres' front office probably got good value for what it paid, and will pay, Nolan. I'm not sure anyone else could have calmed the fan base that much during the past two years of losing. People still came to games throughout the season and watched on television.

Now that the page has been turned, though, it's fair to say the Sabres had better swing for the fences, to borrow a baseball phrase, when it comes to hiring the next coach. Teenagers Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel can't be expected to do all the work concerning good will around here. After all the talk about the Sabres being deliberately bad, a "name" coach would go a long way toward putting a bizarre and often unwatchable season behind them as quickly as possible.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Tanks for nothing

There's one last point to make about one of the strangest and ugliest hockey seasons in recent memory.

It all could have been prevented by changing the draft lottery just a year sooner.

The Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes play on Thursday night here in Buffalo. If the Sabres lose in regulation, it will be very difficult to catch the Coyotes in the overall standings, which means Buffalo probably will finish last. This pleases a segment of the fan base, which wants to see the team grab one of two potential stars in the summer draft in Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. So you'll probably hear some people cheering Thursday in Buffalo when/if Arizona scores.

It's part of a very odd year. Let's count the ways.

The Sabres organization has been accused of writing off the entire year in order to get a shot at one of the stars. The fans aren't sure how to react, and it may depend on whether you are willing to donate thousands in season-ticket payments for the chance at better times in the future. The players know that there are a bunch of prospects waiting to grab their seven-figure salaries, and thus have the usual incentive to play hard to stay in the league. The general manager signed several free agents last summer who haven't helped much. Did the team look for players who weren't too good and who could simply fill up a salary cap minimum without helping the team much, or does the hockey department have people who aren't good judges of talent? The coach realizes that this season hasn't been exactly a fair test of his abilities, and that he could lose his job at the whim of a general manager who was hired by an executive who is no longer with the organization ... and who hired the coach before that general manager. The coach wants to win games; does the front office want him to do the same? Sometimes players and coaches love to play the "us against the world" card. Usually it's silly, but in this case it might be true.

Oh, one other point. When Toronto comes to town later in the season, many Maple Leaf fans will be showing up as usual. Will they be rooting for the Sabres to win, so that Buffalo has less of a chance of getting McDavid or Eichel and then be better in the future (plus perhaps give a slightly better chance statistically to the Leafs of winning the lottery)? Would that be the strangest moment in a good-sized, old rivalry?

I think that covers it, more or less. Yes, it's complicated. There's probably an Arizona version of that list, but I'll leave that to a Coyotes' watcher.

The problem is the system. The National Hockey League set up a draft lottery a few years ago to prevent this sort of season. The idea was that last place would not be any sort of guarantee of receiving the first draft pick. The 30th-place team right now has a 20 percent chance of going first in the draft. Who would throw an entire season away, and possibly anger the fan base, with an 80 percent chance of not getting the top pick? No one. But what happens when there are two really good players coming into the league?

Since only one team could move up in the draft lottery, the number 30 team in the standings was assured of going second in the draft. Therefore, that team would definitely get one of the two top prospects. That created an award for finishing last - which the lottery tried to avoid, and is exactly what shouldn't have been allowed to happen. Even the 29th-place team has only a 33.5 percent chance, more or less, of getting one of the two top players - 20 percent of the No. 30 winning the lottery, and 13.5 percent of moving up a notch. That's quite a difference.

Next year, however, there will be a lottery for the first three picks in the draft. There will be no guarantee that the worst team in the league will do better than the fourth pick overall. It seems like it will prevent this sort of season. That's the way it works in the NBA. Admittedly, some years lately there hasn't been one franchise player out there, let along two or three. And it doesn't stop teams from stocking up assets for the future, as the Philadelphia 76ers have been doing.

But at least their fans know who to root for during the course of the season. And they know that management has the same goal as the coaches and players. Not so in hockey this time.

It's been a mess of a season, and I don't want to see its likes again.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Our hostess

I took a trip back to the Seventies today while going to the barber shop. While waiting for my turn in the chair, I picked up the Clarence Bee - the weekly of the town where I lived in my high school and college days - and unexpectedly came across the obituary of Mary Hormell - the mother of some good friends of mine from that era. Once I got past the initial shock, memories from a distant era quickly came back.

Did you ever wonder about how and where kids gather? The dynamics probably change from case to case. But when it came to the Hormell family, it was easy to see why the house was such a magnet. Mr. and Mrs. Hormell had two sets of twins - Dave and Debbie, Peter and Tish - who were two years apart. Since they lived only a couple of blocks from high school property, the house could have a crowd of teenagers just by leaving the front door open. Still, in spite of what the real estate agents tell you, location isn't everything in such matters. A welcoming presence by the people with the keys to that the front door is a necessary part of the equation. The Hormell parents didn't just tolerate the friends of their children (which usually is the way it works), they actually seemed to like them.

The house became a frequent collection point for me and some of my friends by the time my senior year of high school rolled along as I got to know classmates Debbie and Dave. Then Debbie and I went to Syracuse together where we worked on the school newspaper, broadening our ties. And then Debbie and I worked together briefly after college, extending the base of friendship even more. Dave and I maintained connections through sports; he kept insisting that the upcoming season would be the one that the Bills would win a Super Bowl in spite of the obvious evidence against that prophesy in a given year.

Every so often, a party would break out - either planned or unplanned. Everyone would have a fine time, staying later than they planned. I think I set a personal record for my latest night out while visiting the Hormell residence one year. It was New Year's Eve, and they were having a party. I had to cover a Sabres' game (remember Tux 'N Pucks?), so I didn't get to the party until about 12:30 a.m. Well, I believe I got in the car to leave around 5:45 a.m. The reason I know that is I listened to my own taped report on the game on my radio station on the drive home, which - trust me - is an odd experience.

Debbie once reminded me of another story from those times. Mom had instructed me to pick up the proverbial quart of milk to bring home for someone's breakfast. I stopped on the way to the Hormells and put it in the refrigerator for "safe keeping." Well, at some point the milk was desperately needed for a purpose that has been lost to history, although it probably was used as a mixer with an alcoholic beverage. Debbie remembers me stumbling around after it was consumed saying, "What am I going to tell Mom?"

I have two specific memories about those gatherings in general. One, there were people in the living room. This was almost shocking. When you grew up in the suburbs, you learned as a child that the living room was filled with "good furniture." That translated into furniture which was too good to actually use, especially by children. Yet the Hormells actually let their children's friends sit in the living room for long periods of time. For whatever reason, that really made me feel welcome.

Then there was a fact that a regular participant in these gatherings was Mrs. Hormell. I don't want to imply that she was crashing any parties, or trying to act 19 years old or something. She'd simply be around, and start conversations with her children's friends. Mrs. Hormell was obviously quite interested in what those friends were like and what they were doing. I'd walk in the house, and Mrs. Hormell would be at the dining room conversation, chatting with a 21-year-old as naturally as could be. That was very unusual. Looking back, it is obvious how she set a comfortable tone for all who entered the house.

That era came to an end as the 20-somethings moved on with their lives, which in some cases took them out of town or at the least out of the house. I'll bet Mrs. Hormell missed those gatherings as much as we did in some ways. In looking over the obituary, it was striking how little I knew about Mrs. Hormell - her first name, for starters. But we all knew what a kind, nice woman she was, and hope she realized how much we appreciated her hospitality and interest in our lives.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

The alma mater

We're all used to seeing universities receive penalties and go on probation for some sort of violation with the NCAA. If we've learning anything over the years, it is that the rule book is incredibly large and difficult to comprehend, let alone follow to the letter. In addition, we all know that if some booster wants to give a $100 handshake with a player on the basketball team, well, it's a little tough to enforce.

We're also used to see some schools cut some corners when it comes to recruiting these days. The idea of a student-athlete is a romantic one. But realistically, being a college football or basketball player is essentially a full-time job these days, and that doesn't include study time. Not too many young people can balance the workload easily, and - as one coach once said - those people go to Duke or Stanford. When the rewards of success are considered, it's easy to understand why teams might take a chance to keep a talented quarterback enrolled and eligible.

Athletic programs have gotten so ridiculously big, and the amount of money involved has gotten so large, that it's difficult to wonder how our universities got so far away from their original mission statement of educators first and providing extra-curricular activities second. It's particularly true when it's remembered that most university athletic programs lose money; places like Texas and Alabama are the exceptions.

That brings us to Syracuse University's latest programs. Just for the record, that's of interest to me, a Class of 1977 graduate. That's so long ago that I still covered Jim Boeheim's introductory news conference from his hiring in 1976. Since I'm in the sports journalism business, I'm still something of a fan of the Syracuse sports teams; it's a good way to feel a connection to some good times and good people from my past. But I'm also a fan of the university itself, and have something of a stake in its reputation. When the athletic department breaks the rules, all graduates, students and staff members suffer consequences in a sense.

Syracuse doesn't exactly have a history of innocence here. The school has been on probation in the past. Still, this particular incident has a really odd feeling. Not only did it take forever to investigate, but a description of the offenses sounded worse than the actions themselves.

For example: it's never good when a booster is charged with paying players. In this case, a few football and basketball players and athletic staff members earned a few thousand dollars for so-called volunteer work. That's not a good idea, but I've heard of far worse.

For example: the director of basketball operations tapped into players' email accounts in order to check on academic progress, and may have even attached some revisions to course work that way. Of course, if you recruit student-athletes who have trouble with the student part, the pressures build all through the system.

For example: the athletic department didn't follow the written guidelines for a drug testing policy. Apparently some first violations (probably involving marijuana) was supposed to be reported to parents and weren't. Again, it's not a good idea to follow the guidelines, but players weren't exactly completing drug deals at halftime. 

Let's say you were the Chief Executive Officer of a corporation, and certain violations of a comparable nature popped up. Mr. or Ms. CEO would call someone into the office, and promptly suspend the culprit until he or she could be suitably fired. The regulations in college athletics might be different, but the goal should be similar. The coach has to set the tone for the entire program, and make sure everyone is on the same page. Based on the NCAA report, a few people weren't even reading out of the same book. It's tough to know how often Boeheim acted like a CEO and how often he acted like "just another employee" here, but the NCAA obviously believed there was too much of the latter.

Syracuse received some punishment for its actions from the NCAA. The basketball team will lose scholarships after the coming year. Even in a world when a team has something like 15 scholarships but only plays eight guys regularly, the cuts will make an impact on depth and make it difficult to compete on a national level. A five-year probation shouldn't matter, as long as things in the department get fixed. Boeheim will sit for nine conference games next season; well, potential coach-in-waiting Mike Hopkins will get some on-the-job training that way. And Boeheim and the university will have to vacate 108 wins, which always seemed like an odd penalty that only matters to the historians.

The other shoe dropped on Wednesday morning. It was announced that athletic director Daryl Gross has left that job in favor of moving on to other responsibilities at the university. I can't say how much Gross had to do with any of this, but he seems to be taking some blame - fairly or unfairly. Gross might be feeling like a bit of a scapegoat, although you probably won't get him to say that. Then the school announced that Boeheim would retire in three years at the latest. The longtime coach will be around through the scholarship limits and thus hand Hopkins a program with fewer worries and restrictions in 2018. Boeheim did reserve the right on Thursday to retire when he saw fit.

I'm just a long-distance observer here, but it's easy to guess that the Syracuse athletic department has pressure - pressure to win games, pressure to sell the 30,000+ tickets in the Carrier Dome. They've done rather well over the years, which might have led to some institutional arrogance on the basketball side. (I would guess that there might be even more pressure on the football side, because they've been mediocre at best for quite a while and could REALLY use wins and filled seats ... but that's for another time.) Considering the charges from the NCAA, it's a small stretch to think that a complete housecleaning was in order - although business as usual isn't going to cut it any more.

Still, Boeheim's reputation certainly feels a little tarnished. He's still the most important person in history of Syracuse basketball. He's still a respected voice on the sport. But Boeheim is still at times a bit on the prickly side, particularly in a public setting. That combination has made him easy to respect, but tough to love.

Well, he's got three years tops to complete the book on a legendary career of coaching. He doesn't seem too concerned with his legacy. He's certainly done a lot of good for the university and for the community. Still, you'd think he'd have an interest in righting the ship before he goes. It might make a disproportionate effect on how he's remembered.

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Friday, March 06, 2015

Defenseless

Let's forget about the endless arguments about tanking by sports teams for a moment. As I've said before here, it's more of a rhetorical matter anyway.

Instead, let's talk about a related problem in a couple of sports that no one is really discussing.

It's become standard practice in baseball and hockey for teams who are doomed to losing seasons to sell off their assets - usually in the form of free agents to come - to contenders. In baseball, the trading deadline is at the end of July, although other deals can take place through the end of August. In hockey, the deadline is final - in this case, on March 2.

Yes, if you were a general manager, you'd probably do the same thing. Why let a free agent walk away without any compensation? A team can get a draft choice, prospects, etc. (depending on the circumstances and the sport) in return for someone who is departing. Fans of contenders can't wait to see if their teams fill some holes for the stretch run and playoffs, while fans of non-contenders see what sort of ransom those players can bring. I could argue that in a perfect world teams should have a similar roster at the end of the season to the one that started it - in other words, no loading up for the final weeks plus playoffs. But fans like to see wins, and championships.

Here's the catch, though - if you were an employee of major league baseball or the National Hockey League, you might have another reaction. Is all of this really in the best interests of the sport?

The Buffalo Sabres, in this case, are exhibit A. They completed several deals short of the trading deadline. In the biggest swap, several assets were shipped to Winnipeg for a respectable defenseman and a power forward who will not take a single shift for the team this season. While it's tough to know who will "win" that deal in the end, few would argue that the Sabres had a better big-league roster when it was completed. In addition, the No. 1 goalie, Jhonas Enroth, was set to Dallas for a backup goalie and draft pick. Then on Deadline Day, the Sabres unloaded four players for draft choices and a couple of players.

When the dust had settled, the Sabres had two goalies who had enjoyed almost no success lately in the NHL before turning up in Buffalo. They also had lost some other forwards and defensemen. The roster as presently constituted is a long way from being competitive for the rest of the season.

The unspoken question, then, boils down to this: How would you like to have bought tickets for games in the next few weeks, and now realize the chance of your team winning has, um, dropped considerably? Would you take it like a fan, say that it's all part of the rebuilding process and hope for the best? Or would you start asking lawyers about class-action suits?

It's not just a Sabre matter. The Arizona Coyotes moved some of their assets as well in the past few weeks. The Edmonton Oilers have been doing this for a few years, it seems, and they don't seem to be making a whole lot of progress. Remember, this isn't just about the first overall pick. Some sellers won't come close to the bottom three in the standings, so their chances of getting a top 18-year-old are pretty small.

And it's not just a hockey matter. Baseball's Boston Red Sox tore apart the roster in midseason when it was obvious that repeating wasn't going to happen. Most of the pitching rotation went elsewhere. To be fair, the Red Sox made their moves with 2015 in mind, and have been busy since then in putting together what appears to be a competitive team. That didn't help much when fans were watching the 2014 team in August and September, especially at some of baseball's most expensive prices.

Solving this problem isn't particularly easy. Yes, the trading deadline could be moved up to earlier in the season. That would make it more difficult for teams to figure out if they are out of the playoff race, and thus less tempted to have a clearance sale. But it wouldn't affect a team like the Sabres much, since their fate has been sealed for months. In the meantime, the status quo is pretty ugly.

And so we watch the real value of tickets drop - StubHub has some Sabre tickets barely above $10 for some games the rest of the way - and we guess that the no-show numbers will rise (which means less money in the form of concessions, souvenirs, etc.). And we wonder, is the well of patience and loyalty by fans really as bottomless as teams hope it is?

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Friday, February 27, 2015

1-976-1313

Ever have something come out of nowhere to remind you about the relatively distant past?

Let's hope so. Otherwise, this essay may be pretty boring.

This just happened to me while looking over Grantland the other day. The website had an article on Sports Phone. As the article states, this service definitely was a Eighties way of catching up with sports news. It was also my employer, on a part-time basis, for six years.

If you don't know much about the concept, go ahead and read the story. I'll wait.

As the article mentions, this was something of a New York City invention that at its peak received zillions of calls. I'm sure the peak hours were at night and on the weekends, particularly NFL Sundays, when sports fans (and especially gamblers) had no other way what was finding out what was going on. So they paid a few cents per phone call to hear the latest scores.

Left out of the story was the Buffalo connection. Since the service was doing so well in New York City, New York Telephone asked Phone Programs Inc. (the company that supplied the service) to do a Buffalo version of it. To do that, it needed some sort of Buffalo sports reporter.

I'm not sure how Phone Programs found me, but I was certainly available. I was working part-time in radio, as a job at a suburban newspaper had fallen apart and I could use the work. I don't recall the interview process too well, but I don't think there was much to it. Soon I became the Buffalo bureau chief ... heck, I was the Buffalo bureau.

The work was rather straight-forward. I was expected to give short (30 seconds) reports on the news of the day - Bills and Sabres mostly. I believe I received $5 for each of those reports. That meant I needed to grab the morning paper minutes after waking up, type up the report, and read it to someone back in New York. He'd record it and put it on the service shortly after that.

I was assigned to cover every Bills and Sabres home game. Phone Programs paid to install jacks in the two press boxes, so each game I would bring my phone in a small tote bag, and plug it in. I called in updates on scores and quarter ends, and then collected a few sound bites through interviews for transmission back to the home office. That was good for $35 per game. I also did some local college basketball games, but that was simply updating scores every so often for $10 per game. I recall going to a game with some friends once, and excusing myself every so often to run to a pay phone at Memorial Auditorium. I explained it, but they probably still thought it was odd. Sports Phone didn't want anything on the Stallions or Bisons, probably because not many people were betting on indoor soccer back then. Or now.

Sometimes during hockey season, Sports Phone didn't have anyone in the hosting city of a Sabres game, so I was charged with phoning in the updates. One time the Sabres played a 0-0 game in Quebec, which meant I made $10 for making three phone calls - one after each period. Nice work if you can get it.

At other times, there were conflicts, and I couldn't be in two places at ones. So I farmed out jobs to friends. Since virtually any sports fan could call in the score, I'd make some calls and find someone, anyone, who could listen to a Niagara basketball game while I was at the Sabres game. Or, if I just wanted to go to a movie for a change. Because I saw a lot of games in that era.

When I counted up everything, including Stallions and Bisons games I covered for WEBR, I believe I saw something like 132 sporting events in Buffalo one year. That may be the all-time record; at least I haven't heard of someone who has matched it. The money added up by my standards at the time, as I made something like $200 a week on the side during the busy season (December to March). That gave me a quick lesson in the area of "estimated taxes."

Every sports fan had heard of Sports Phone, thanks to some advertising. When I mentioned I worked for it to a college friend, he answered, "I call them when no one else will talk to me." But while friends knew I worked for it, I can't say I remember a single person who mentioned hearing me on it.

This job lasted a few years, until somewhere in the 1984-86 range. I started to hear stories that Sports Phone was having financial difficulties, although it's not like I had a boss who checked in with me regularly. But one summer day, the man who hired me called to say the Buffalo service was coming to an end. He still wanted me to cover games involving New York teams, but the "gravy train" was essentially over.

The story from Grantland actually filled in a few gaps in my knowledge of the organization, and the history of Sports Phone. I had no idea that Gary Cohen, Howie Ross and Al Trautwig were fellow alumni, and I had fun reading about Andy Roth - whose name I remembered from those days.

Looking back from 30 years later, my memories of Sports Phone are generally good ones. I hung out with a lot of good people in the form of sports journalists, saw many good games, and got a graduate course in the business. The money, such as it was, even paid some bills. I guess you'd call it "paying your dues" now, but in hindsight it sure seemed liked I was getting paid for something I liked to do.

That's still the case now most of the time. Maybe Sports Phone is a reason for that.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

The bunny hop

The view down the street tends to be obscured by the mountains of snow
that have piled up in space between the road and the sidewalk.
Let's start with the rabbits.

You can tell they are around. Their footprints show up in the snow, often overnight. Traces of their visits used to be seen in the area, but that's getting tougher to find as the snow piles up. Mostly they are hiding, trying to find a small corner of their world to keep relatively warm.

But let's face it: just about everyone in Western New York has become a member of the rabbit species in a sense.

We've had an odd set of circumstances here in the last couple of weeks. After a relatively calm stretch of weather for more than a month, the entire area went into the freezer. Yes, that can happen here. We've also received some snow in that time - a few inches here, several inches there, and so on. One key point is that Lake Erie has frozen over; it's the only Great Lake shallow enough to do that. So most of the snow has been widespread and not arriving in bands, like it did for the Southtowns when it received 79 inches in November.

The catch is that none of it has had the chance to melt. So, when the shovels, snowblowers and plows attack, they push and throw the snow ... somewhere. It piles up, and up, and up. Until it's difficult to find a free spot to put it. I believe I have shoveled for the last 14 straight days. I think that's a personal record. The snow pack has been above 20 inches for most of that time. If you are ready to say it's always like that in Buffalo, well, no, it hasn't been like this in at least 13 years. The statistics on this run of frozen weather keep changing, so it's difficult to keep up with them.

When this happens for several days, you have a mess - not an emergency mess for the most part, but a mess. Driving becomes an adventure filled with uncertainty. It starts with just getting out of the driveway, which comes with the knowledge that you might not even see an oncoming car because the view is blocked by snow. Once on the road, will there be space on a sidestreet for two cars coming in the same direction? Will the car get stuck somewhere? How long will a 20-minute drive take? That makes each car trip mentally tiring. I have been able to get around when necessary, but I'm not in a hurry to do so.

Adding to the trouble is the inevitable wind that blows some snow right back where the old snow was. Then there are the plows, which clear frozen material out of the street and deposit it on the side of the road, including the entrance to the driveway. By the way, street-cleared snow comes in boulder-sized chunks, so snowblowers are useless there. The stuff has to be cleared by shovel. I appreciate those plows ... after I'm done shoveling.

Driveways and sidewalks resemble bobsled runs. When pulling the car into the driveway, the best approach is to simply aim it up the middle and hope you don't skid too much. There's a chain link fence in my backyard. At least there is at the moment. Some of the drifts have just about reached the top of it, and we're probably a storm or two away from covering up most of it.

This weekend provided something of a cruel joke for the entire episode. On Friday morning, temperatures plunged to minus-5. Usually when we hit negative numbers here, it's because there is no cloud cover and the heat rises up and goes straight to Venus or something. Yet we had a little snow that day, dry and fluffy stuff that blows around easily. On Saturday, temperatures rose to 20 degrees as a front came through and deposited about four inches to mess things up a bit more. It made for an interesting drive to lacrosse practice.

And today, the forecast is for the coldest day in Buffalo history. I'm not sure how that's figured, since we aren't going to come too close to the record of minus-20. But we're scheduled to be below zero for virtually all day, hitting bottom at minus-12 early Monday morning. When exactly did I move to Winnipeg? It will warm up after that, sort of, but some single digits are still looming in the days ahead.

One of the odd parts about all this is that the cold spell dominates conversation as well as the news, but it's rarely been "don't even think about going outside" bad. (Admittedly, today is not the day for a leisurely walk through the park, with below-temperatures and a strong wind combining for a dangerous windchill.) Generally, it's just been tiring and inconvenient.

Yet life goes on. While driving on Saturday morning through the snow burst, one of the downtown streets was closed to traffic. Was there an accident? A snow drift? No, it was a 5-kilometer road race. I'm not sure how many people took part in the event, or in the 10-mile run in Lockport, but I salute all those that did.

I'm certainly not willing to trade this sort of weather for Boston's, which is working on its second blizzard of 2015 and has already broken the record for snow in February. And it's only the 15th. When I consider that city's street grid, laid out in the 1700s, I can't imagine what life is like there.

So, we trudge on. We pack an overnight bag when traveling, just in case. We wait for a 35-degree day after which we'll be able to see pavement again.

And we stay under cover and munch on lettuce. Because we're rabbits, for the time being.

(Late update: The high on Sunday apparently was plus-2, set at 12:20 a.m. The number sung into negative numbers pretty quickly and stayed there for the rest of the day. So we didn't set the record for the lowest high temperture in Buffalo's recorded history of about 150 years - merely for the lowest high figure on Feb. 15. So that's certainly a sign that things aren't THAT bad.)

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