Saturday, June 28, 2008

Sad surprise

I've been checking in with co-worker Mary Kunz Goldman's blog in the last few weeks, seeing how her book with musician Leonard Pennario was coming along.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the first edition of the newspaper came up from the printing room on Friday night. I was looking through it when I got to the obituaries, when I read that Pennario had died. It hit me a little harder than I thought, which I guess is a tribute to Mary's writing.

You can see what she's been going through by going here. In the meantime, my sympathies to her to the loss of a friend, and to his family.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Give me that old-time writing

If you go back and look at old newspapers, one of the biggest changes that you'll see is in sportswriting. The stories are full of gridders and cagers. The bases aren't merely loaded, they are Full of Bostons (FOB's).

It took a long time for people to realize that the department with the worst writing in the paper had turned into the one with some of the best. Even so, it's fun to turn back the clock once in a while.

Which is why this article from Deadspin, an account of Sunday's game between the Red Sox and Cardinals, is fun to read.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Lesson learned, we hope

The public reaction to Tim Russert's death has been interesting because of its intensity. It's unusual, of course, for a well-known electronic journalist to die in the midst of his career in sudden fashion. Russert always came across as a friendly face on the air, someone smart yet approachable, as comfortable with steelworkers as Senators. And so the tributes have been numerous.

It's been particularly true for those with a Buffalo connection. I've heard from a few out-of-town friends about the news. Russert may not have lived here since college vacations, but he never forgot his roots, and never traded allegances from the Bills to the Redskins.

But there's one interesting footnote to the whole tragic business.

It's been one of the most fascinating political years in memory already, and by all accounts Russert was having the ride of his life. I believe he recently said something like, "Can you believe that we're getting paid to cover this?" to a friend.

But the demands of work were quite high. Russert had "Meet the Press." He was appearing every primary night (and day) with analysis. There was the usual news during the rest of the time. You can throw in the duties of being Washington bureau chief. And who knows what other blogs and Internet-related responsibilities were on his plate as well.

At one point, Russert was asked to appear on television for his 40th straight day, and he told NBC president Jeff Zucker an executive something like, "Jeff, you've got to give the people what they want," followed by a big laugh.

While Russert lived for this stuff, the only silver lining in the tragedy is that maybe television executives are starting to realize that talent is getting spread awfully thin. I see more of David Gregory, Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell than I do of my friends, counting all outlets, and I'm never up in time for the Today show.

Well, after the memorial service, I believe Zucker was quoted as saying that he planned to hire several people to take over Russert's responsibilities. And that's a good move. Let's give those journalists a little time to recharge their batteries and gain some perspective. It's probably in everyone's best interests.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Green machine

My interest in the National Basketball Association has dropped off in recent years. Part of it is that so few teams run the fast break these days, as coaches try to control every possession. Part of it is that many of the best players have been coming into the pros either straight from high school (before the rule was changed) or after just one year of college. It was fun to watch a player develop in college and then follow him to the pros; now it seems like most top players are hired guns.

Still, it was fun to watch this year's final between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. Sure there was a little history involved, but you have to be above a certain age to remember Bird and Magic, let alone Russell and West. But this week's series-clinching win had enough to stand on its own merits.

Let's consider what Danny Ainge accomplished here. The Celtics' executive had a team that finished last in its division in 2006-07. After a series of moves that included trading a high first-round draft choice for an over-30 standout (Ray Allen), and a seven-for-one deal with Minnesota for another star (Kevin Garnett), Boston suddenly had a completely new look. Then Ainge filled out the rest of the puzzle with spare parts from around the league, as players say a chance to be with a winner.

Everyone thinks they could turn around a pro sports franchise with the right moves -- it's one of the appeals of fantasy sports, I guess -- but it's quite another to actually do it in this day and age. Ainge made the Celtics relevant again in record time ... and seemed to get awfully smarter in the process.

Game Six was an odd night. The Celtics pulled ahead in the second quarter, and the Lakers started forcing up shots from all sorts of bad angles and playing as little defense as possible. The word "quit" is a little strong, but it did come to mind. It became pretty obvious that there was no magical comeback coming on this night.

When it was finally over, the past and present came together. Garnett and Bill Russell hugged on the court, and fans got ready for a 17th banner-raising ceremony in the fall.

Boston has had more than its share of athletic success in the past few years, and I'd prefer the championships to be spread out a little more around the continent (for example, Buffalo). But in some cases, it just seems right when certain teams are contenders. The Montreal Canadiens ought to be good most years, just like the Dallas Cowboys. (I can't bring myself to say the New York Yankees are in this group, but you can.)

The Celtics are another one. After more than 20 years, it's easy being green again.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Numbers guy

Nate Silver is one of the people behind "Baseball Prospectus," the annual book that tries to forecast player performance on an annual basis. The book is well done and nicely written; it's obvious the writers know what they are talking about and have a lot of fun doing it.

Silver apparently is doing other things in his "spare time" -- politics. He was just written up in Newsweek for being on target in his predictions for primaries.

I went searching for a sample of his work, and found this -- a very impressive page of notes on the upcoming election.

If you have an interest in elections, this one might be worth a bookmark.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

A class act

It's a tough day for Baby Boomer sports fans.

Jim McKay, the signature personality for ABC Sports, died at the age of 86. His many fans not only think of him as one of the top broadcasters of his time, but as something of a friend. Which, in some ways, he was.

McKay is well-known for his work on "Wide World of Sports," which debuted in 1960. Executive Roone Arledge has put on an anthology show, mostly consisting of events that paid very little or nothing in rights fees. McKay was there for many of those events. He didn't have a signature play-by-play call that lasted for the ages, but McKay wore well -- no easy task. He introduced people to all sorts of sporting activities throughout the world. Irish hurling, track and field, barrel jumping, World Cup skiing, auto racing -- it really was a wide world.

And McKay handled it all with equal portions of grace, enthusiasm and humanity. He knew that barrel jumping was on no one's list of important events, but he also knew that it meant something to the competitors. So McKay and the rest of the announcing staff (Bill Flemming comes to mind) treated people like Ken and Leo LeBel with respect and dignity. It's a sign of the impression that the broadcast made that I still remember the LeBel brothers and how they jumped at Grossinger's Resort in Liberty, New York.

McKay mixed plenty of other good qualities, of course. He knew the value of good writing in a broadcast; indeed, he worked for a Baltimore newspaper for a while before he made the somewhat unexpected move to this new toy called television. Heck, he could quote poetry. And McKay had that quality that made him approachable; you might think twice about saying hello to Howard Cosell on the street, but you'd assume McKay would be thrilled to hear praise from you no matter how many times he'd heard such words before.

You'll be hearing a lot once again in the next few days about McKay's work at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He was on the air for hours during the terrorist attack on the Israeli team, serving as the only immediate source of information to an anxious public. That day, the start of terrorism on a worldwide stage, became the day that everything changed. It's instructive that Cosell wanted badly to anchor the coverage on that day, but Arledge made the call that McKay's special qualities were appropriate for the occasion. After McKay's work that day, every sports broadcaster in the country realized that he or she wouldn't have to take jokes about working in "the toy department" any more.

McKay said later that he realized the parents of one of the Israeli athletes, David Berger, were watching back in suburban Cleveland, so he made sure to be sensitive to their situation. Typical.

Television sports wasn't as ubiquitous back in the Sixties, so fans tended to gobble up everything that was shown back then. It was a more innocent time, and McKay was a perfect host. He'd be one now as well.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Take five

1. I'm not sure how Southwest Airlines saves money by not assigning seats on its airplanes, but it's absolutely fascinating to go on a flight with it and see how the seats fill up. In other words, people will cram into the first few rows, filling every seat, before the rows in the back have more than a few people in them. Are they that claustrophoic that getting off the plane two minutes quicker is more important than being able to stretch out over the course of a three hour flight?

2. I'm getting sick of political candidates who have supporters sitting behind them during speeches. What happens? I tend to look at the people behind the speaker, rather than actually listening to what's said. This can not be a good thing.

3. Throwing out the Lakers-Celtics history aside, this has a chance to be a very interesting NBA Finals for a change. The Paul Pierce saga in Game One added a little spice, and if Boston wins Game Two the Lakers would have to win four out of five. The Celtics may have more of a chance than I originally thought if Ray Allen can have some big games; he's looked pretty old at times down the stretch.

4. Million-Dollar Password was something like third in the television ratings last week. This once again proves that a classic game show never grows old, it only needs a little break.

One of my favorite game show anecdotes (you mean you don't have any?) involved the original Password. As I recall, the password was "father." The first clue blurted out by the contestant was "mean." Paging Dr. Freud.

5. The ratings are in for the NHL Finals. As you'd expect, Pittsburgh and Detroit were at the top of the rankings by city. Buffalo was third despite missing the playoffs. But care to guess what city was 10th in the country in terms of ratings?

You are wrong. It was Las Vegas.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Whipping boy

The National Hockey League usually gets trashed pretty hard for its microscopic television ratings.

But it might be nice to look at the entire picture.

On Saturday, the NHL finals did a 1.6 rating and a 6 share. No one is going to confuse those figures with the Super Bowl.

Still, it was second of the four networks in its time slot. It was only 150,000 viewers behind CSI.

In other words, hardly anyone was watching television Saturday -- relatively speaking. That's probably typical of June, but it might deserve a mention.

Here's the full report from

Sunday, June 01, 2008

He got it...

"Rayzor's Edge" did not send America's book critics sprinting for their word processors to write lengthy commentaries on the hidden meanings and themes. A couple of bloggers seemed to like it, although one did think it was a little short (well, I can send you the original 80,000-word version instead of the 55,000-word version that actually got printed).

One writer, though, did write such a piece. I'm not surprised that Rob's hometown paper had a good review. I am a little surprised that it was extremely perceptive.

Here's the review from The Shield newspapers in Ontario.

Richard Turtle figured out the appeal in the story, at least to me. Rob Ray was never one of those guys who had a ton of talent in hockey and could afford to take anything for granted. He had to make a conscious decision to do what it took to make the next level. If it included getting punched in the face, so be it. If it meant helping his teammates on and off the ice, fine. If it meant sitting on the bench for all but 30 seconds a night, well, OK.

I particularly liked the line about the way the book reads like the man is sitting across the table from you, "telling it exactly the way he sees it." When I was covering the Sabres, I could count on Rob to give an honest, sometimes emotional reaction to events. That's why I didn't go to him constantly -- wanted to save him for the important moments.

Thanks for paying attention, Richard.