Monday, March 29, 2010

Dying is easy...

... and comedy is hard.

That lesson came back this past week as I took on a little extra work at The Buffalo News.

As part of an effort to introduce several new features to the print edition of the paper in March, we dropped "Sports Today" Monday through Friday and put in a column consisting of "Five Spot," "This Day in Buffalo Sports History" and "The Watch List." I write the history lesson, which has gotten some good feedback since appearing in print.

"Five Spot" is the baby of Greg Connors. It's essentially five smart-aleck, topical comments about the world of sports. It's usually set up as a news item, followed by a punchline.

Greg wrote the column for a few days, and then took off on vacation. He heroically has been continuing to write it while on the road, but I offered to help him out a bit by sending him items.

Whew. Now I know what Jay Leno's staff goes through. It's not easy to come up with five one-liners about sports. But here was what appeared in the paper today above my name, if only to show you how difficult it is:

Tiger Woods will have a news conference the Monday before the Masters, and will take questions from reporters. However, in order to minimize the potential audience, it will only be shown on NBC in prime-time.

The New Jersey Nets guaranteed Friday night that they wouldn't be alone in having the worst record in NBA history, winning their ninth game. When the Nets' game ended, the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers (9-73) raised a glass and toasted the Nets ... using expired milk.

Former Foreigner lead singer Lou Gramm performed the national anthem before Saturday's lacrosse game between the Bandits and Knighthawks in Rochester. When asked if he had ever heard Gramm in person before, one Bandit replied, "It feels like the first time."

It was a tough week for Cornell athletics in NCAA Tournament play. On Thursday, the basketball team lost to Kentucky. On Friday, the hockey team dropped a one-sided decision to New Hampshire. Expect the Big Red to suggest that a pregame written test be added to the protocol for all future events.

A Chicago teenager supposedly was the only person in the bracket pool to get the first NCAA 48 games right. If true, it's clearly time for him to stop worrying about basketball and start worrying about tomorrow's lottery numbers.

I know. "Don't quit your day job."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

No wrong answer here

If you've been following the health care reform debate lately, you know that the House passed the Senate version of the bill Sunday night. Then it sent some amendments to the Senate that had to be passed in their entirety in order to avoid another House vote on those amendments.

So, the Republicans in the Senate offered all sorts of amendments. The one that seemed to get the most publicity was presented by Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who proposed the "No Erectile Dysfunction Drugs To Sex Offenders" amendment. It was described this way:

"This amendment would enact recommendations from the Government Accountability Office to stop fraudulent payments for prescription drugs prescribed by dead providers or, to dead patients. This amendment also prohibits coverage of Viagra and other ED medications to convicted child molesters, rapists, and sex offenders, and prohibits coverage of abortion drugs."

Naturally, if this had been brought up during the debate, it would have been passed easily -- since no representatives (no people, period, in fact) wants to pay for Viagra for child molesters. But it's obviously a procedural attempt to force a House vote -- since the alternative would be ads from the nut groups saying, "Senator Xxxx voted in favor of giving Viagra to sex offenders." It's rather ugly and transparent, not to mention a waste of time, and it didn't help the vote.

However, while briefly listening to Rush Limbaugh today (always good to check in on what all sides are saying in these times of explosive rhetoric, even if a few minutes is all I can stand), he said that Democrats really want to give such drugs to sex offenders, and he couldn't wait for the TV commercials. Limbaugh even criticized a Senator for labeling the amendment "a trap," which it clearly is.

The radio host is certainly sophisticated enough to know the background of the situation and thus is being deliberately provocative in order to generate strong emotions among the audience.

So which is worse: the Senator who would take the low road and give the extremists a weapon for further over-the-top rhetoric, or the talk show host who deliberately misinterprets it to fan those flames for his own benefit?

Monday, March 22, 2010

A theory

Remember back in the early 1990's, when the Republican Party decided that the best way to stop Bill Clinton's Democratic agenda was to block his health care initiative at all costs?

It worked, to some extent. The Republicans gained control of the House, and Newt Gingrich and Clinton actually got a few things done once the government was once again open for business. (Then came Monica, which is another subject for another time.)

All right. We fast forward to Barack Obama's election. Things have gotten even more partisan in the ensuing years. Obama is coming off an election in which he has added millions of young people to the voting roles and run a campaign that was the proverbial well-oiled machine. A second term figured to be difficult to stop.

So the Republicans went back to the old playbook. Stop the President. Since Obama had run on a campaign of finally bringing health care reform to the country, it was clearly time for a re-run. (Check out this blog from Glenn Locke on a fundraising call a while back.) After all, most people are happy with their health care plans on a personal level, so why not appeal to their more selfish instincts?

The legislative process dragged on and on, in part for that reason. It looked as if the Obama package would die when Scott Brown was elected to the Senate in Massachusetts, but some smooth procedural moves by Democrats made it a surrmountable obstacle. So, what do you do if your position seems headed for failure?

You raise the stakes, and that's what Republican commentators and legislators seemed to do in the last couple of weeks. This wasn't just a health care reform package, this was the end of freedom and liberty as we know it. The rhetoric was way over the top and almost silly. You expect that stuff out of Glenn Beck, who was called "insane" by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday. You don't expect that stuff out of legislators, some of whome spoke during Sunday's debate. Congressman John Boehmer was particularly wound up as a show-closer. Texas Republican Rep. Randy Neugebauer admitted that he yelled "baby killer" during a speech by Rep. Bart Stupak, who agreed to vote for the package after a deal over abortion language.

It's been funny to listen to the media reports. After the vote Sunday night, MSNBC acted like it was V-E Day while Fox News staffers looked ready to burst into tears. On radio on Monday, Rush Limbaugh said freedom was hanging by a string, and that this was not the type of change that Obama was elected to install (of course, this is EXACTLY the type of change that was promised). Meanwhile, host Ed Schultz and guest Jesse Jackson were verbally patting each other on the back.

So where, then, is the sensible center?

No one knows for sure how the package will shake out when everyone is done with amendments, and how insurance companies will react to it. My guess is that some reforms will be made, and conditions in certain areas will get better. Some of the people who show up on the doors of emergency rooms looking for treatment, people that we subsidize now because no one can be turned away, will be covered by insurance and be covered more efficiently (which is where some of the deficit savings come in).

I also expect a little more money to come out of my pocket somehow. It may be through taxes and it may be through a rise in premiums. Then again, prices have been doing up well above the inflation rate for years. We can't do much worse than we have been doing in that sense.

The rules are going to be a little different in the months and years ahead. Some people will win a little, some people will lose a little.

Life will go on. Despite what you are hearing.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Coming up...

Think it's tough to combine the subjects of the last two blog entries? Watch how easy it is.

Some time ago, it was a typical Friday night in the NCAA Tournament sometime in the Eighties. That is to say, the games had run really late. I think it was about 12:30 to 12:45 when the last game of the night finally ended.

At that point, your local CBS affiliate was obligated to show "your late local news." You'd hate to guess the size of the audience at that point; I think I could hear the television sets clicking off across Western New York.

Bob Koop and the rest of the crew at Channel 4 turned in a professional job, though. They went through the news, weather and sports. Then it was time to wrap up the show.

"That's News 4 Buffalo for tonight," the news anchor said. "Thanks for watching. Coming up next on Channel 4..."

With that Koop looked down at the script and started to laugh.

"... paid programming." Then with laughter and sarcasm, Koop added, "I know you are going to enjoy that. Good night."

Even Tom Vu couldn't produce that sort of laugh.

Friday, March 19, 2010

"You Be The Judge"

"It's time for another exciting episode of 'You Be The Judge," the show that allows the reader to decide the fate of a fellow human being.

"Here's today's situation, taken from a real-life incident.

"A basketball fan was at his local car dealer this afternoon for a state inspection and an oil change. When he sat down in the waiting room, the television set was tuned to Fox News. While no one seemed to be closely watching it, the fan thought it would be rude to change the station to NCAA basketball.

"However, when all of the people left, he got up and changed the station to CBS and basketball. He was watching the game between Cornell and Temple, an impressive upset in the making. The fan did have a book in his hands, which he had brought in case he couldn't watch the game.

"However, a 60's-ish man came down, and plopped down near the television set, and shortly thereafter he changed the channel ... back to Fox News -- the station that put a small insert picture on the air yesterday of a speed reader going through the health care bill, page by page. (Fair and balanced, my ...) The fan didn't say anything, mostly because the guy was wearing a General Motors jacket and the fan figured he had suffered enough in the past several months.

"But, even so, should the fan have been cleared of murder charges if he decided to take strong action against the rude visitor?

"You Be The Judge!"

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

All night long

What are the responsibilities of a television station when it comes to its advertising?

This is not a hypothetical question.

We are often bombarded with infomercials when we turn on the television at odd hours. In fact, sometimes it is the same informercial, running at the same time on adjoining channels.

If you watch any of these shows, your suspicions about the content involved problem are raised. Then, if you do a little Internet research, you'll find more reason to wonder.

The person dominating late night right now is probably Kevin Trudeau. He's hawking a couple of books, one on natural cures and one on reducing debt. Then there's a series of CD's which supposedly offer valuable information provided by secret societies. Can't imagine what that might be like, but can't imagine it's worth three figures either.

Trudeau recently found himself facing a contempt of court charge for telling his associates that they should bombard a judge with e-mail in an effort to set him free. The Chicago judge wasn't amused. Funny that he's on the air so much now, after that episode. By the way, the informercial star once allegedly impersonated a doctor in order to cash $80,000 in bad checks back in the 1990's. That's the guy selling a book on natural cures. Hmm. Here's a look at him from ABC.

Then there's BetterTrades, a stock market system featuring that well-known financial wizard, Jimmy Johnson. That's ex-football coach Jimmy Johnson. Those who go to the free seminar discover something about a $3,000 fee for a six-month course, and a $6,000 cost to some sort of special computer software. Johnson, by the way, recently became a participant in infomercials for ExtenZe, which, um, supposedly deals in enlarging certain body parts. Does Jimmy need the money that badly?

I haven't seen much of Jeff Paul's Internet shortcuts ad lately, but it's usually a classic in comedy. They aren't up to Tom Vu's previous standards for women in skimpy outfits, but it's close. Jeff has done such great work over the years that there's a site called The last ad I saw was rather vague about the businesses involved and the overall costs assumed by buyers, and there are many reports of credit cards getting abused.

Many of us know enough not to spend any money on these ads, but some victims always emerge. But if it takes about five minutes of research to figure out that some might be less than honest, you'd think the television stadium involved could figure it out too ... and protect its customers.

And doesn't the television station have some sort of public responsibility to air honest ads? The disclaimer before and after the ad just doesn't cut it in terms of responsbility. After all, airing the ads at 7 p.m. against "Wheel of Fortune" might get noticed, and thus subject to attention by consumer groups and government agencies.

All this makes the television station seem like it would do almost anything to take in a few dollars for the airtime. It's easy to wonder about the cost of those dollars on its credibility.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Take five

1. Why do I have the feeling that the idea of Michael Jordan owning a pro basketball team is not going to end well? He's about to take over in Charlotte. It's a bit unfair, but I still have an image of Jordan as a general manager in Washington. He was very detached, not even bothering to move to D.C., and his player evaluation skills were very much in question. It's tough to see things changing when he's another step away from the action, in a less competitive situation.

It reminds me a bit of Wayne Gretzky's situation when he took over as Coyotes' coach. At least Gretzky gave it a full shot, and he was handicapped by ownership's financial problems. Still, I was never crazy about some of his personnel thoughts, dating back to his playing days. The Coyotes' relative success this season now that Gretzky has stepped down isn't an advertisement for his work.

2. I haven't agreed with much Karl Rove has said for free in the public arena (Fox News, Wall Street Journal) since he left the public sector. Therefore, I'm not going to pay $25 to read what he says about his old job in a new book -- even if I usually like to read books about the Presidency. I've heard that Rove has his former boss ready to go up on Mount Rushmore. Well, that's one who thinks so.

3. If I'm a member of the Buffalo Bills' front office, don't I at least ask Derek Anderson, former Browns quarterback, to come in to at least have his tires kicked? The man was a Pro Bowl selection a couple of years ago, and he is a completely free agent. Anderson has to be better than anyone the Bills have on the roster right now.

4. How would you react if you were in the gallery for Tiger Woods' return to pro golf? I'd be awfully tempted to give him the silent treatment for that first tournament. As in, "Now on the tee, Tiger Woods," followed by nothing. It would be rude to yell anything, but I'd like to let him know that he needs to earn my applause with his actions on and off the course.

5. I'll make you a deal. If you don't tell me how badly your bracket pool is doing -- and I've never talked to anyone who is happy about their selections in mid-tournaments, which is another reason why I don't do such pools -- I won't tell you any more facts about my family tree. Even if I did find a connection the other day to John Adams. Yes, that John Adams.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Some top-heavy, some bottom-heavy

Funny how an innocent remark can spark some interesting conclusions.

I recently visited the Buffalo Home Show at the Convention Center downtown. There I ran into a familiar face as one of the vendors -- Rob Ray. Now, everyone thinks of Rob as one of North America's top authors (at least I do, although I'm a little biased here). Rob has a business that deals with home remodeling.

After Rob and I exchanged the usual pleasantries, the status of the Buffalo Bandits came up. He asked why the team wasn't doing well this year, at least by its own high standards. I said that while the team had maintained a corps of stars from last season, it had turned over much of the rest of the roster. And based on all of the transactions that have happened during the course of the season, it's fair to say that some of the moves concerning the surrounding cast just haven't work. Practically everyone except for the stars has done some sitting during the course of the season, as Darris Kilgour has searched for the right combination.

I paused for a moment, and then some unexpected words came out of my mouth. "It's the exact opposite of the problem that the Buffalo Bills have," I said.

I went on to say that the Bills had some decent enough players scattered through the roster. But how many of them would you call stars? Virtually none of them. Lee Evans and Aaron Schobel are about the only ones who could be considered elite talent, and Schobel is pondering retirement as we speak.

While talking, I realized that any description of the Bills also could be applied to the Sabres ... with the exception of Ryan Miller. Is there anyone on the Sabres roster who could be considered an elite player, a near-untouchable? Thomas Vanek is supposed to be that player, but he probably isn't there yet.

You can win some games in the NHL with a top-flight goalie and a decent supporting cast; the Sabres themselves did it for a few years with Dominik Hasek. But it's tough to win it all that way.

In a salary-capped sports world, it's tough to figure out the right balance between a team that invests too heavily in its stars and leaves the rest of the roster a bit barren, or a team that has plenty of good players but no one who could be called elite. There's no obvious road map. Just ask the sports teams around here.

Monday, March 08, 2010


Remember how you thought your parents may have had a sense of humor, but never did anything too silly? And then someone came along to show that they weren't always like that? That applied to my father, a smart, responsible business executive by day. When the kids heard stories from his lifelong friend, we knew Dad had a goofy side buried in his past.

In this case, the best friend was Stewart C. Brown, "Stewie" to his friends. Mr. Brown died on Cape Cod this past weekend. At such times it's always a good idea to remember a departed friend like Stewie with some of the stories that were told when our two families got together -- sometimes under the influence of an alcoholic beverage or two. It sort of softens the image that the obituary gives of him, a respected member of the Brockton, Mass., business community as the head of Brockton Oil Heat, a former president of a country club, etc.

Stewie and Dad (left and right in the photo) were friends since high school or so. After being part of the "Greatest Generation" in World War II (Stewie in India and China, Dad defending such hot spots as Norman, Okla.), the two returned home after the war. The two attended the University of Vermont together, although it doesn't sound like they frequented the academic buildings very often.

Two stories live on about Stewie in Burlington. One time, he had been out rather late the night before an exam, and was in no state to actually take the test by the next morning. The teacher handed out the test, Stewie took a look at it, and then put his head on the desk.

"What seems to be the problem, Mr. Brown?" the teacher asked.

"War nerves," Stewie said solemnly.

"Oh, in that case, you can be excused and take the exam some other time." That was actually a common problem among returning veterans. It just wasn't Stewie's.

Stewie, who joined the VFW post in Burlington with my dad because it was the only place they could drink on a Sunday, one night went out on a date with some young woman. His romantic overtures were rejected, so he opted to drown his sorrows. Then, he had to walk back to his dorm room. But walking was an adventure at this point, so after a while he had to crawl in order to make it.

Dad saw the door open later that night, and in crawled Stewie, with torn pants and bloody hands and knees. "She dumped me, Linc, she dumped me!" Stewie exclaimed.

Later on, Dad, a Navy pilot, took Stewie up for a plane ride in Brockton. The problem was that once airborne, the plane developed mechanical difficulties. So the two flew at a low altitude, following the street signs to a familiar landmark. Dad landed the plane on one of the fairways at Thorny Lee Golf Club in Brockton, with the club pro chasing them down the grass, yelling obscenities at them. I never did hear how they got the plane back to the airport.

I usually encountered Stewie on the golf course, caddying for my father as a teen-ager. Stewie had the best bogey I've ever seen in my life. He was playing a par-4 at Brockton Country Club. Stewie did not have a particularly reliable swing, and he mis-hit a tee shot. It went a few yards, hit a rock on the tee, skied high in the air, and landed near a tree behind where we were all standing. Stewie had to chip back on to the tee.

Hitting three, he launched a ball way right, way way right, up against some rocks near farmland. Taking a drop, Stewie smashed the ball through a couple of trees and safely on the fringe. One putt, bogey.

Stewie once had a hole-in-one, something that my father never had. But Dad got even by inviting Stew to member-guest tournaments in Elmira. The second hole at Elmira C.C. was a long, uphill par-4, with tree branches extending into the hitting area. Stewie never did finish that hole in several attempts; he could have used a saw instead of a 4-iron most times. Dad somewhat smugly gave Stewie a framed drawing of the hole for Christmas one year.

My friends got to know Mr. Brown a bit over the years at family functions. One time Glenn and I dropped my parents off in Massachusetts when we took a car trip to New Hampshire. Glenn's wit was typically on target about Mr. Brown's business interests in the 1970's.

"So, Mr. Brown, are you raking in those windfall profits?"

"I sure am, Glenn. Imagine, some people want us to lower oil prices these days. Ha ha ha ha ha."

"That's great. You gotta put the screws to the little guy."

Stewie always brought a smile to our faces when we checked in with him. I'll always remember having the unfortunate duty of telling him my father had died, and how he answered, "Oh ... I've lost my best friend." But Stewie still called or wrote my mom every so often, and he stayed on my holiday card list right through the end.

Mr. Brown lived to the age of 86. I'll miss the laughter he provided, and think of him whenever oil prices go up. He'd appreciate the gesture.

Adding it up

It's always amazing to look at the purchase of concert tickets these days. I'm old enough to remember a time when if a ticket cost $10, you walked up to the box office with $10, and walked away with a ticket. (Actually, for Springsteen in Dec. of 1980, it was only $8.50. And Billy Joel was a little less than that a year earlier.)

Just for fun, let's look at what happens when one goes on line for a ticket to see Joel and Elton John now. They are playing in Buffalo on Tuesday. The listed ticket prices are $177, $97 and $47.

Now being a cheapskate, I'll go with two of the $47 seats. But they aren't $47.

We start with a $2.50 ticket facility charge each. In other words, I guess that $2.50 goes to HSBC Arena. I'm not sure why that isn't initially included in the cost of the ticket, since you gotta hold the show somewhere. It might be cold to have it where the Aud is now.

Then there's the matter of something called a "convenience fee." This is $11.65 per ticket. If I go to my friendly neighborhood outlet, which I'm willing to do, I'll probably pay something similar. Where exactly, then, is the convenience? I have to buy them somewhere.

We're not done yet. It's $3 for "order processing" (you'd think that would be part of the "convenience fee"). And say I don't want to get in the will call line, and prefer to print the tickets at my own computer. That's an extra $2.50 for "shipping and handling." What was handled, anyway? gives free shipping for an order this size, and it actually mails me stuff.

The not-so-grand total is $61.40 each for a total of $122.80. An extra 30 percent is going out of my wallet. Somebody made an extra $28.80 on my order.

If I had ordered the $177 tickets, my bill for two would have been $397.50. That's $43.50 extra on that order. Multiply that by 15,000 or so, and we're talking six figures easy.

Let's say the concert gets cancelled. The standard story heard is that the concert fee is refundable, but that many of the extra fees aren't. Just as a coincidence, this particular concert has been postponed twice before -- so it can happen. It may cost me almost $30 if Elton comes down with a cold tonight.

Is there any other business in the world that acts like this in its pricing? I have visions of buying Cherrios at Wegmans. The price on the box says $3, but Wegmans charges 25 cents for carrying the product, the cereal company adds a dollar for getting the product to the store. And, oh, do you want it in some sort of cardboard package? That's another 75 cents. Five dollars, please, for that $3 box of cereal.

This has been going on for quite a while, of course, and you really have no choice but to pay it if you want to see a particular show badly enough.

But that doesn't mean I have to like it. And that does mean I understand why ticket merchants seem to be getting sued all the time. The possibility for mischief seems endless.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Justice prevails

In honor of the start of baseball season:

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

A one-man jinx

It may start getting tough to cover the Buffalo Bandits in the future. No one is going to want to talk to me.

No, my hard-hitting prose hasn't made any enemies in the locker room, at least that I know about. I'm on a great run this year of single-handedly slowing down careers.

It started in the opening week. Frank Resetarits had been acquired from Washington in the offseason. He's from Hamburg, coming home to play before friends and family for the first time. What a great story for the season opener!

I wrote up his story, which appeared the day of the first game in Rochester. Then, I covered the opener in Rochester. When the lineup for that game was announced, Frank was nowhere to be found. He was scratched. I sighed, heavily.

This started a disturbing trend, at least for me. The next week, I talked with Kevin Dostie. He was scratched. I spoke with Chris Driscoll. He wasn't just out of the lineup soon after that, but he got traded to Rochester. A.J. Shannon? Released. Chris White? Injured. Last week, I did a story on Kyle Clancy, the Bandits rookie forward who had worked his way on to the roster. Whoops, dropped for the Philadelphia game.

I think that the problem is that the Bandits have been losing, and coach Darris Kilgour has been quick to shuffle the lineup in an effort to find a winning combination. He can't be reading the paper and then making decisions from there. Can he?

In case he is, I've come up with a new approach. This week, I'm writing about Kilgour himself.

If he gets fired next week, at least I know who will get the blame. The Sports Illustrated cover jinx has nothing on me.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Hurry-up offense

Syracuse sure can play a game in a hurry. Here's a look at Saturday's big win over Villanova ... in less than a minute.

The Game - and 34,616 Fans In Less Than A Minute

It's great to be a graduate of a nation's top team, a real basketball factory.