Friday, November 28, 2008

The voice of God

A quick personal story about one of the newest members of the Buffalo Sabres' Hall of Fame:

In October of 1986, I was just starting a new job in the public relations department. One of my responsibilies, I found out early on, was to be Sabres' "second" public address announcer. I was to give the promotional announcements, sponsorship deals, giveaways, three stars, etc. over the p.a., while the regular announcer saved his golden throat for the important matters like goal announcements and "last minute of play in this period."

That "other announcer" was Milt Ellis, who had been with the Sabres in that role since Day One and had worked for the Bisons before that.

In Game One in 1986, two high school friends were in attendance. They may have known I had started working for the Sabres, but they didn't know about my new responsibility. At some point, I turned on the microphone and spoke for several seconds.

One of those friends, thinking of Ellis, said, "Who is that wimpy voice?"

The other thought for a moment, and then replied, "I think it's Budd!"

Milt Ellis, as you can see, was a hard act to follow.

I got to know Milt a bit in the years to come. I'd write up the odd announcement for him and coordinate matters so we didn't talk over each other. He'd come in for each game always in good humor and with a smile on his face. Milt worked for a religious radio station in town, WDCX, so he had the nickname of "the voice of God." No wonder the "other" announcing job was handed over to someone else in a few years; I was much better off running the press box that trying to help the team with my voice.

Milt lasted 26 seasons on the Sabres' job. Afterwards, he was a frequent visitor to the press box to watch games. Milt was good company when we sat together. He always asked about our common alma mater, Syracuse University, as we compared notes about the ups and downs of the football and basketball teams. What's more, Milt was always a class act and a gentleman.

Tonight, Milt went into the Sabres' Hall with Dave Andreychuk. It's a well-deserved honor, and overdue. Congratulations, old friend.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The basic problem

Here's the major issue involving the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League:

They don't seem to matter. And they haven't for years.

Yes, the Bills are one of 32 teams in the league, and that means many cities would kill to switch places with Buffalo in that sense. But when it comes to the national scene, the Bills are practically anonymous. Maybe not Detroit Lions anonymous, but certainly nondescript. They haven't been in the playoffs since 1999 -- remember the Music City Miracle -- and haven't won a playoff game since 1995.

Heck, even the Arizona Cardinals are winning this season. That's a franchise that hasn't mattered in decades, or in at least a city or two. OK, the Cardinals are in a division that is about as bad as the Norris Division of the NHL was in the 1980's, but that doesn't matter -- they are still winning it.

How does someone measure whether a team matters? You'd probably start with national buzz. The Bills never seem to pop up in the national media. There are few stories about their bright young stars or innovative coaching staff or quotable personalities. (I'm throwing early October of this year out of the discussion, since that 4-0 record proved to be something of an illusion.) They just quietly play from week to week.

Once in a while, media outlets make up a list of the top 100 players in the NFL. The Bills aren't in the top 20, or 30, or 50, very often. The Bills' best players probably are Lee Evans, who has stretches where the football is only a rumor to him, and Jason Peters, who held out of all of training camp without telling anyone including the Bills why. Trent Edwards might be good someday. Marshawn Lynch is pretty good and could get better. It's tough to predict superstardom for either of them, at least right now.

If you left Western New York right now, what would be the last (in terms of relevant year) Buffalo Bills jersey that you would be likely to see on a fan in another city? It's tough to picture Lynch or Evans jerseys without a personal connection. I don't think there are many J.P. Losmans, or Drew Bledsoes, or Rob Johnsons out there. Which probably brings us to Doug Flutie, who had a loyal fan base ... about 10 years ago. Otherwise, you'd probably see more jerseys of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas or Bruce Smith than anything else. There are 21-year-olds out there now who might or might not remember those players in their primes.

There's one more factor here, and it almost goes undiscussed around Western New York. The Bills are the NFL's top candidate to move to another city. Owner Ralph Wilson, in his late 80's, has said Buffalo isn't a big enough market to compete with the New Yorks of the world, even in the socialist NFL. Wilson has no heirs who want the team. Meanwhile, a regular-season game a year for five years will be played in Toronto instead of Buffalo. The team's lease runs out after those five years. The Bills might be worth $250 million more in Los Angeles than they are in Buffalo. What matters less than a lame duck?

Western New York still loves its team, selling out the stadium week after week. That's impressive. Still, there's a feeling that the clock is running, and the city doesn't have all of its timeouts left.

I'm not suggesting that anyone in Buffalo would trade places with fans in Detroit. I'm merely saying that a string of mediocrity has more than its share of frustrations as well.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Train wreck

We have "recall keys" on our computers at work in which hitting a couple of buttons will result in any combination of letters and signs appear on the screen. This is handy for, say, putting the correct coding around e-mail addresses at the end of stories or bylines at the beginning, which would take a while if done manually every time.

The joke around the office is that we have two recall keys for sports situations that come up quite often. One reads "It's another black eye for the sports of boxing." The other is "College football needs some sort of playoff system." Let's worry about the latter; boxing if beyond salvation right now.

The colleges have had problems for years in trying to come up with a fair way to pick a national champion. The bowl system was designed to reward good seasons with a trip to warmer climates for teams and their fans, but somewhere along the way we all decided (with some justification, I might add) that picking a national champion by committee isn't an ideal set-up. We've currently come up with a system where a computer ranking system picks two teams that are judged as the best, and have them play off for the title. It's great unless you aren't one of those two teams, which is about 117 schools.

Every year, it seems to get more messy, and this might be the messiest yet. Alabama is undefeated and seems to be number one, but the rest of the country is littered with one-loss teams -- Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech (all in the same conference, which is a nice touch), Florida, Penn State, and Southern California. Then there are schools like Utah and Boise State, merely unbeaten but not from one of the biggest conferences. All of them in theory are good enough to play for the national championship, but only two will get the chance.

It's easy to suggest some sort of eight-team or 16-team playoff, but do we really want teams to play three or four extra weeks? A forgotten point is that colleges, which at least tangentially are in the education business, like to have their students actually studying for final exams during much of the month of December. It's a little tough to do that when there's a first-round playoff game on Dec. 10. And we don't want a playoff system to start in January and extend for three or four weeks.

The only fair compromise out there, it seems, is the so-called "plus-one system." In that, four "semifinalists" are chosen from the country's best teams. They would play in semifinal games around New Year's Day. Then the winners would square off a week later. It probably would come down to the SEC champion, the Big 12 champion, Penn State and Southern California this time, barring more upsets. Could we live with that? Well, it would be better. Sites could be rotated easily enough among the usual suspects.

Sure there would be complaints about picking the final four. On the other hand, there are complaints about the NCAA basketball tournament, and 65 teams are picked there. And only two schools would play an extra game, and it would be around Jan. 10 -- after finals are done. Oh, and it would make a big pile of money for all concerned. Has anyone noticed that generating money in this current economic climate might be a good idea?

I've heard of a perfect set-up, but this seems as good as any other plan I've heard in terms of addressing all concerns. At least we'd have fairer way of deciding a champion, which is done for every single other sports on the college level.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

One of the good guys

People sometimes get into sports journalism because they loved the games when they were a child, and they wanted to spend as much time as they could around them.

Some of those people lost that enthusiasm along the way, as the hours and unusual schedules chewed up their spark. But it's fair to say Tom Borrelli had more of that enthusiasm than anyone I ever met.

Tom died this morning after a horrific accident suffered while covering a high school football game less than two weeks ago. My co-worker was 51.

Newspapers and communities need people like Tom, who truly cared about local sports. When the Buffalo Bandits started playing lacrosse more than 15 years ago, Tom started covering the team. He did such a good job that he went into the league's Hall of Fame. His mood was always brightened when St. Joe's won a high school game, particularly when it was over arch-rival Canisius. Tom always made sure that when the Buffalo Gladiators, a semi-pro football team, checked in, their score and a couple of details made the newspaper. Some of us wouldn't have been so diligent.

Tom's love of sports extended outside of work, though. He was a devoted fan of University of North Carolina, the Cincinnati Reds and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Mention those teams in combination, and friends will immediately only think of Tom. I remember Tom anxiously listening to the Internet radio broadcast of the College World Series while we were on the job one night; North Carolina was in the tournament. Pretty unusual for a Buffalo State grad. And if he wasn't in every single fantasy league east of the Mississippi, it wasn't for lack of trying.

The television business will miss Tom, because he signed up for every possible package of sports programming available. I think there were about three people who got the NBA's package when it first came to cable locally, and he was one of them. I'm not sure how he watched it all, but Tom seemed to have facts on practically every aspect of pro sports when he wrote a fantasy column.

On a personal level, Tom did some reads on my book, "Rayzor's Edge," and made it a better publication. He also was extremely nice to me when I first came to The Buffalo News in 1993, and we remained friends for the next 15 years. Tom could act like he was grumpy at times, but he was always there when you needed him.

Usually when the sports department covers an event, the reporters don't risk their lives. That's for the news reporters in Iraq or Afghanistan. All we usually have to handle is a temporarily angry coach or player. So it was quite a shock when Tom never came back from reporting on a high school football game. But as photographer and friend Bill Wippert said, Tom was doing what he loved right up until the end. Sports were his life. Western New York and his many friends are a little poorer because he won't be on the job any longer. This original personality will be sorely missed.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The football coaching business

I received a comment here on an entry on the Syracuse football coaching situation. I offhandedly made a remark about coaching being a tough business. The visitor pointed out that Greg Robinson made plenty of money from Syracuse University, and that he'll probably get another job. All true enough, and fair enough.

The subject deserves a few more paragraphs, though. Football coaches do lead, by most standards, ridiculous lives. They start out at the bottom as graduate assistants, making virtually no money. They slowly work their way up the ladder, and that usually means moving time after time after time. Sometimes it's because there is a better opportunity, sometimes it's because a losing season means a cleaned house. It's life as a gypsy.

By any definition, the hours are miserable. Football coaches seem to take some sort of perverse pride into working as many hours as possible. They miss most of their family events, especially if they happen in season. When they aren't breaking down video or running practice, they are looking at recruits.

If these coaches are really, really lucky, they get to be a head coach somewhere -- usually not at a school with a good team, because those jobs are taken by success stories. They have to be essentially a CEO of a start-up company, touching on a variety of issues. Their most important skill is finding 18-year-olds who they think will become great football players over a five-year span and begging them to come to their college.

If the coaches succeed, they move up, but there are only about 120 major college coaching jobs out there and some of those aren't exactly prime assignments. Many head coaches fall by the wayside. Yes, they are well compensated. They also can be abused by fans if the team isn't winning, can be the subject of Web sites called, or hear about their kids harassed in school.

In order to have any shot at success, they have to approach the business with an incredible single-mindedness. Skip Bayless once said that he could only think of one football coach who could give an intelligent answer to the question, "Who is your favorite Beatle?" We salute you, Paul Hackett. During a strike year, then-Eagles coach Dick Vermeil was touring the fall foliage in Pennsylvania and started snapping photos like crazy. His wife said, "Honey, it's like this every year."

Yes, Greg Robinson earned a few million dollars at Syracuse, and he'll coach again somewhere. During the last four years, he also hasn't been able to turn on a sports talk show, or pick up a local newspaper, or go on line without afraid of being savaged. Robinson no doubt knew for the last three years that he had little chance of winning regularly, and for the last two years probably had to answer almost weekly questions about his job status. That all can get rather tiring, no matter how big the paycheck.

For Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden, football coaching has been a great profession. But those are the exceptions. For everyone else, it's a tough business.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Liner notes

My friend Jay Bonfatti used to do a Christmas mix every year for his friends, which numbered 250 or so after several years of collections. The mixes started on cassettes and moved to CD's. If you didn't like a song, you just waited a minute and another very different one would come along.

Last year, I copied the idea just so that I could put some of my favorite holiday songs in one place. Then, when I had a book signing at my house in December, I gave the CD out to friends who had bought the book. I figured it was the least I could do.
I received a few calls and e-mails along the lines of "This is great, but who the heck did song 18?"

Thus encouraged, I decided to do another CD for 2008. Jay, sadly, never got to hear it, as he passed away earlier this year. Thinking quickly, I put a dedication to Jay on the list of song titles. I heard he had actually compiled his own CD for this holiday, but didn't have the chance to have it duplicated.

Since a local radio station has started playing holiday music non-stop, it's obviously time to think about 2008. What goes into someone's head when putting together a list? Here's what I was thinking, passed along here so you can get ideas for songs to buy for yourself:

1. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Tori Amos
2. What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? - Barbra Streisand

I like to start slow. Amos beat out a James Taylor song for the opener. I heard of Streisand's Christmas album and said, "I'll bet the songs on there are pretty well done." I hadn't heard of this one before, but I have now noticed it elsewhere.

3. Carol of the Bells - The Nylons
4. Winter Wonderland - Manhattan Transfer

The tempo goes up a notch.

5. Christmas Time Is Here - Dianne Reeves
6. You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch - Thurl Ravenscroft

Christmas is a time for children, so a salute to them here. Reeves' version of the well-known song from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is great, and everyone smiles upon hearing about Mr. Grinch. Did you known Ravenscroft was the voice of Tony the Tiger?

7. I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm - Kay Starr

Time to turn things up and start going through the years. This is a remix of Starr's song with a big beat.

8. Frosty the Snowman - Ronettes
9. Up on the Housetop - Jackson 5
10. Santa Claus is Coming to Town - The Pointer Sisters
11. Christmas - U2

Some old favorites updated. The Ronettes song is from the Phil Spector Christmas album, a must for anyone who likes this material.

12. Christmas All Over Again - Tom Petty
13. Run With the Fox - Chris Squire

Nice songs from rockers that haven't gotten much attention. Squire plays with Yes, and I think some of his bandmates help him out here.

14. Santa Claus is Smoking Reefer - Squirrel Nut Zippers

Funny stuff.

15. A Change at Christmas - Flaming Lips
16. Fairy Tale of New York - the Pogues

Some New Wave material that I hadn't heard until a couple of months ago. "Fairy Tale" has some, shall we say, urban slang (not too bad) but is charming.

17. Come All Ye Faithful - Freddie McGregor
18. We Wish You a Merry Christmas - from "African Christmas"
19. Deck the Stills - Barenaked Ladies
20. Jingle Bells Polka - John Stevens' Doubleshot
21. Snowman's Lane - Keith Emerson

A variety of types of music here - reggae, African, comic, polka, and a bit progressive.

22. A Marshmellow World - Dean Martin
23. Cool Yule - Bette Midler
24. Getting in the Mood - Brian Setzer Orchestra

A little swing music always sounds good.

25. I Pray on Christmas - Blind Boys of Alabama

I like to finish with a Gospel song.

Happy mixing, and happy holidays.

The alma mater speaks

If you went on late Sunday afternoon, you'd see the top stories of the day concerning Syracuse University athletics listed, as usual. The big story at that point was the fact that the field hockey team had reached the Final Four by beating Princeton in overtime. OK, congratulations to them.

The second story was: "Director of Athletics Dr. Daryl Gross Announces Change in Football Program." If this blog had many readers, I'd have a contest for the funniest suggestion about what that could mean. Has the starting time of the Notre Dame game been changed? Will the training table meals start having more fish and less meat? Is the price of the actual program that is sold at home games going to stay the same next year as a bow to the recession? When you are 2-8, the possibilities for comedy are limitless.

The actual story wasn't so funny, at least to Greg Robinson. He lost his job as head coach, effective at the end of the season. It's a tough profession, and Robinson saw the program hit bottom in his four years there, but at least he'll get $1.1 million or so next year not to coach.

Even so, Syracuse has the finest journalism school in the country, according to its graduates. Anyone ever teach the athletic department the phrase "burying the lead"?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hockey's other Guy

When I moved to Buffalo in 1970, it was a great time for a sports fan to come to town. The Braves and Sabres were just getting started, and someone named O.J. Simpson was waiting to blossom for the Buffalo Bills.

As I met people in the Western New York area, though, I heard every so often about the good old days. The Little Three basketball doubleheaders came up, of course, even though attendance hadn't been that good since the 1950's. And the hockey Bisons of the American Hockey League were fondly remembered too.

The hockey Bisons played for more than 30 years, and went out as winners by winning the Calder Cup in 1970. Guy Trottier was the star of that Buffalo team, scoring more than 50 goals. Trottier was one of those players who was a great AHL player, small but quick, but someone who wasn't quite good enough to be an NHL regular in a 14-team league. He went up to the NHL for a while in the Seventies, but he was never better than he was here.

Trotter visited this weekend's "Farewell Old Friend" show about the Aud at the Convention Center. I naturally took advantage of the opportunity of the chance to have a photo taken with him. He was as gracious as could be, and seemed pleased to be remembered.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Farewell old friend

I've started to wonder if one of my oldest pals in the sports business is on its way out: the printed version of the media guide.

The National Hockey League's teams this season have gone away from that particular way of distributing information. They've put a version on line, and there are said to be CD-ROM versions floating around.

Media guides and I go way back. The fascination with sports material for me started with yearbooks, like it does for most kids. I know I had the 1961 Boston Red Sox yearbook, complete with a tribute to the end of the career of Ted Williams, at the ripe old age of 5 1/2. Some rookie named Carl Yastrzemski was considered a top prospect and it was hoped that he could be some semblance of a replacement for Williams. The yearbook was a great place to get statistics and pictures on players on your favorite team.

Something like 10 years later, I discovered the media guide. They were almost mystical books at that point, mentioned by reporters in passing. A book just filled with sports statistics? Wow, what more could a teen sports fan ask for? My friend Kevin and I decided we should try to get a few of these, so we typed up letters to the various major league baseball teams asking if they could send us copies. Some did; the Houston Astros must have thought they had a big fan base in Western New York.

Teams finally figured out there was a demand for the information, and sold the books to the public. The Philadelphia 76ers, and the mathematically clever Harvey Pollock, led all of pro sports in this sense. Pollock would count up the number of dunks in the entire NBA, and print them. Or do plus-minus statistics for the Sixers. And about 400 other things. A kindred spirit.

When I was hired to work for the Sabres in October 1986, it was with some glee that I started to put together the team's official guide in the spring of 1987. The previous book was something like 108 pages. Well, I took care of that, raising the 1987-88 to 160 pages. If there were any kids like me out there, I hope they appreciated it. I hope Harvey did too. The book got even bigger in my next five years. (Should I mention that just after I finished the last book, the Sabres let me go? And didn't give me any credit in the guide? Yeah, why not?)

I do have every Sabres media guide from 1970 to 2007. The first one is the toughest; I found an extra copy in the basement of the Aud in a clean-out mission at some point. Now it looks like I have a complete, final collection. Yes, the information is still available -- and it's even free -- but a little romance is gone, at least for me.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Maybe now...

This is a story with a terrible punchline.

Back in the late 1970's and early 1980's, I used to do, on average, one television appearance a year while I was working for WEBR Radio. WNED-TV often would broadcast the Harvard Cup football championship on Thanksgiving morning, and the sports staff from WEBR would do the announcing. I usually did commentary or halftime interviews.

There was one part of the job that often came up in discussions before and during the broadcast: the climb to the press box at All High Stadium. The press box was located on top of the roof. In order to get up there, visitors had to go up stairs that were more like a ladder in terms of steepness, and go through a small opening to get to the roof.

It was terrorizing. We climbed it because it came with the job, but we never liked it. When the subject came up, we'd roll our eyes upward and shake our heads. Everyone knew, or should have known, that it was an accident waiting to happen.

That accident happened Saturday afternoon. We'll never know exactly how it happened, but my co-worker Tom Borrelli fell down those stairs down to the pavement below. He was taken to the Erie County Medical Center immediately and was listed in critical condition. It's going to take a few days for the trauma and swelling to quiet in order to see what will happen with Tom. If you're the type that says prayers asking for a little help, Tom could use a few right now.

(To see the tragic conclusion to the story, click here.)

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Take Five, post-election wrap-up edition

* A moment of silence, please, for the alleged Bradley effect. And a moment of applause for Nate Silver and, which got the percentages for Obama and McCain exactly right. Read more about Nate here.

* Have we reached the point of no return when it comes to information jammed on the television screen on election night? Some channels showed returns on a rotating basis, state predictions, poll closing times, identifications of speakers, and actual pictures of someone talking. Good thing I didn't look at the returns on my one-inch Watchman.

* Sarah Palin said she would be very upset if she cost John McCain even one vote in the election. Sarah, a friend of mine went on this very blog and saw a clip of your interview with Katie Couric ... and announced she was voting for Obama/Biden. Oops. I'm still wondering if Lindsay Graham of South Carolina might have brought John McCain a lot more gravitas along with credibility with the Republican base and a youthful image had he been picked for VP. But maybe he just didn't want the job.

* Go back a couple of entries, and you'll see where I said that McCain probably would get torched by conservative talk-show hosts after the election. Well, a local announcer on Wednesay called McCain "a corpse," and a national figure said the conservatives didn't lose the election because they didn't have anyone running for President. Those same hosts, by the way, respectively said Obama was "a socialist Marxist" and that the vote's outcome was a case of more than half of America committing "assisted suicide."

* Let the record show that a few days ago someone asked me when the election would be decided. "At 11 o'clock [Eastern], when California comes in," I responded. That's one in a row. I'm ready for that pundit's job in 2012 now.

Thrown under the bus

It sounds like members of the McCain campaign couldn't wait to privately reveal stories about Sarah Palin's conduct during the campaign. You know it's a bad sign when a Fox News reporter comes up with more than five minutes of damaging information:

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A step forward....

Early in my lifetime, back less than a half-century ago, we were using fire hoses and letting the dogs loose on African Americans. Now, we've elected one President. That's historic.

We don't know how President Obama will do once he takes office. We know he will have a difficult job ahead. But at the least, the phrase "America - land of opportunity" became much more meaningful to millions of us tonight.

Monday, November 03, 2008

New rules

It's always fun when a play comes up in a sport in which an obscure rule is used to make a call that seems to make little common sense.

Such was the case Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Here was the situation:

When the Bills kicked off to the Jets at one point, Leon Washington of New York let the ball bounce because it looked as if it were headed out of bounds. That would give the Jets something like 20 extra yards, as the ball would be placed at the 40.

But the football took a right turn, and stayed in bounds upon resting. Washington looked up and saw a horde of Bills' tacklers coming his way. So what did he do? He didn't grab the ball and advance a yard or two. He stepped out of bounds.

That seemed odd, until he then reached out and grabbed the free football. The official threw a flag, citing an out-of-bounds kickoff. Ball on the Jets' 40.

And every Bills' fan said, "Huh?"

The rulebook is a little vague on such matters. But, we do know that if a wide receiver is out of bounds when he leans forward and catches a pass, the ball is out of bounds and the reception doesn't count. Or, if a player has his feet out of bounds when he picks up a fumble, the other team gets the ball. That happened to the Bills a few years ago in New England.

But, who knew it would be to the returner's advantage to get out of bounds first before grabbing the ball? Only Washington ... and Devin Hester, who reportedly made the same play last year for the Bears.

Here's the key point: The way the rule reads now, it was to the returner's advantage to go out of bounds before getting the ball, because he gained 20 yards of real estate in the process. That shouldn't happen.

I'll bet the league changes the rule so that if a returner does that, the ball is dead at the spot it was touched.

The league spends hours trying to come up with foolproof rules, and it takes one play to make it go back to the old drawing board.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A preview of Wednesday

What if John McCain really does lose on Tuesday? What will Wednesday be like, at least as far as certain political commentators are concerned?

I don't think it's going to be pretty. I can see some commentators throwing McCain under the proverbial bus on Wednesday.

The argument would go something like this: "The Republican Party made a huge mistake when it nominated a moderate as President. It gave up the soul of its party. John McCain wasn't one of us. He was never one of us. The man was just pretending to be a true conservative. He didn't represent a choice. Sarah Palin tried hard to show us what true conservatism was like, but as a vice presidential nominee she couldn't make up for what McCain represented. Today marks the first day of our efforts to take back the Republican Party, and fight the socialist hordes that will attack us from the White House in the years to come."

Here's the catch. McCain did better than any other possible Republican choice for President, better than he could have been expected to do.

Any Republican was up against it this year:

1. It's a Democratic year. The generic Democrat beats the generic Republican in polling. Party registration tilts heavily toward the Democratic side. Abraham Lincoln would have had trouble running on the Republican line this year.

2. It's a poor year to be associated with George Bush. The current President's approval rating is south of 30 percent. Any Republican candidate was going to be linked to him, especially one that was a member of Congress. That was a huge disadvantage.

3. The economy's timing was perfect for Obama. Initially, it looked as if Barack Obama could ride an anti-war feeling into the general election. The surge has bought the Republicans some time at the least for the moment. However, Obama received a replacement issue when the stock market started to crumble, and fit into his motto of change nicely. Sure McCain didn't handle the initial meltdown well, but that only reinforced the situation.

4. There were few game-changing choices out there for Vice President for McCain or anybody else. McCain obviously felt he needed something to shake up the calculus of the situation. Tim Pawlenty, the pick of conventional wisdom, wouldn't exactly send volunteers out into the streets to ring doorbells.

McCain took Palin, who clearly was not ready for the national stage. Yes, she invigorated the Republican base. Yes, she found an audience for her brand of politics. She also stunned many by not even knowing what a vice president does, which is high school social studies material. She drove away those with moderate views with some of her public stances, and her "us vs. them" approach to politics appealed to the Pat Buchanan wing of the Republican Party. The pick was obviously a political one, which flew in the face of "Country first." And it ruined one of McCain's best arguments, that experience matters. If it did, how could you put her a 72-year-old's heartbeat away from the White House? So add it up, and the gamble didn't really work ... but McCain clearly loses without doing something.

McCain has a great biography and an unquestioned love of country. Yes, his message has wobbled at times over the campaign, and he and his supporters could have done some things differently. But he still is projected to lose by only six percent or so. Obama hasn't been the perfect candidate, but he's run a clean, focused campaign. It's not a bad showing for McCain to be slightly out of striking distance at this point.

It's been a pretty ugly campaign at times, with some incidents that shouldn't be preserved as Kodak moments. The last ugly moment could come Wednesday to someone who deserves better.

We'll see what happens Tuesday ... and Wednesday.

One last look

Buffalo News photographer Harry Scull -- whose work you no doubt have seen as you've read "Rayzor's Edge" over and over again for the last 11 months -- made his last trip to the Aud the other day. The first shot he sent me is an interesting one -- out the back door, looking out from the past into, well, the present and future.

His other shot is one last look from ice level: