Thursday, September 29, 2011


Someone ought to ask the question.

Was Wednesday night the most dramatic night of sports action ever?

Yes, there have been better games than (pick one from Wednesday), but it's difficult to believe there have been better nights. Ever. Let's review.

With one day left in the long baseball season, no postseason matchup was set in terms of location. So that meant games involving Milwaukee and Arizona in the National League, and Texas and Detroit in the American League had meeting. All four could have won the home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Fine. We know that wasn't the big story of the night. In the American League, we had Boston trying to fight off an historic collapse. The Red Sox, running on fumes for a month, were trying to extend their season while playing in Baltimore. In Tampa, the Rays were trying to complete a stunning comeback on their low budget. They faced the Yankees, who had first place clinched and were concentrating mostly on getting ready for the postseason.

In the National League, the Braves had their own September woes and had thrown away the wild-card lead. They were hosting the first-place Phillies, while the Cardinals were going up against lowly Houston. Playoff games loomed in both leagues; indeed, it looked at times like we might have two of them on Thursday night.

Out of the four big games, only one was a blowout. Houston finally realized it was a 100-loss team and went down meekly. But the Cardinals hadn't clinched anything yet. And the Braves were hanging on against the Phillies, who suited up many of their regulars for most if not all of the game.

On the other side, the Red Sox and Orioles went back and forth for a while. The Yankees started a pitcher that no one outside of Scranton had heard of, but jumped off to a 7-0 lead on David Price.

By the time 11 o'clock rolled around, I looked up and realized that I had been watching baseball for four hours and nothing had been determined in the identity of the two wild-card spots. Amazing.

You know how this turned out by now. The Braves blew a lead in the ninth and lost in extra innings. The Rays got a home run with two strikes and two outs in the bottom of the ninth to tie the Yankees. The Red Sox, unbeaten entering the ninth inning and one strike away from a win, lost. And Tampa Bay got a walk-off homer from Evan Longoria, three minutes after the Orioles' win, to clinch the playoff spot.

For a sports fan, has it ever been better than that? One game, maybe. Three games that will never be forgotten? Nope.

I doubt the NFL has had a day like it. While there have been good playoff games on the same day, the interlocking nature of baseball's finish might give it the dramatic edge. Maybe there have been a couple of Game Sevens in hockey that went into overtime. All I can come up with is a flurry of buzzer-beaters in the NCAA tournament on a given day. But mix the on-field dramatics with the scoreboard watching, and I think this wins.

I didn't like the outcome -- although as a Red Sox I figured Boston could lose a best-of-five series in two games the way the team was playing -- but it was an amazing experience to watch.

Tell me again why people watch "Dancing with the Stars" or "Survivor" instead of live sports events.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Good news

Our long national nightmare may be ending.

More than 10 years ago, "Who's Line Is It Anyway?" was one of my favorite television programs. It was an American version of a British show that had been on Comedy Central for a while, with many of the same cast members.

The program was brilliant. Yes, it was designed to be a very cheap alternative for ABC while "Friends" was in the midst of its huge run. But it was also a chance to see the best improv comics in the business at work. Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie and Wayne Brady were regulars, and others (Brad Sherwood, Greg Proops) filled in a fourth spot semi-regularly. Drew Carey was the host; perhaps you've heard of him. The best things that can be said about the show is that it appealed to people who never watched television otherwise. Like me.

Then it went off ABC, and the reruns moved over to ABC Family. They have been there ever since, on and off for about a decade. Every so often, "Who's Line?" pops up at some odd time slot, like midnight to 1 a.m. Eastern. Even though the Monica Lewinsky jokes are dated, it's still great fun to watch. Mochrie and Sherwood still do their act on the road; they've come to Buffalo a couple of times in the past few years and the laughter never stops.

Now comes word, on Facebook of all places, that another improv comedy show is coming to ABC. It is called "Trust Us With Your Life." Apparently a guest comes on and gives an anecdote about his life. The improvisers will then recreate that story in front of a live studio audience.

The program apparently will be taped in Great Britain sometime in late October. And here's the really good news. The host is the brilliant Fred Willard, and the comics are Mochrie, Brady, and Jonathan Mangum.

I won't even ask why the show is being taped in England and then shown in America. I won't even ask when the show will be on the air, and whether it will get several weeks to prove itself.

I'm just waiting to see the finished product on the air.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Updated thesis

Way back in the 1976-77 school year, when I was a senior, a friend of mine was writing a paper for his political science class. I'm not sure at this point exactly what the assignment was, but he was looking for something fresh to say about the 1976 political campaign.

Without a whole lot of thinking, I came up with the "least objectionable candidate" theory.

This came from a concept discussed in the television business. People didn't have a great many choices back then in the pre-cable/dish days, and sometimes didn't seek out a particular program that filled them with enthusiasm. There weren't many that fit that description. So, they sat in front of the set and flicked the channel selector, looking for something, anything, that they could tolerate. The network boys called it "the least objectionable program" philosophy.

I said that in a relatively wide-open political year, it's often not a matter of generating enthusiasm over a wide portion of the party. Sometimes it's enough to be a good second choice, someone voters can say "yeah, I could live with him." Or these days, her.

In the case of 1976, Jimmy Carter wasn't the ideal candidate, but he was the last man standing. Scoop Jackson had some flaws mostly centered on a pro-defense platform. George Wallace, with all his baggage, wasn't going to get the nomination. Mo Udall was hilarious but not that well known nationally. Fred Harris was too far left. Birch Bayh flamed out in no time in the primaries. Frank Church and Jerry Brown came along late in the process and made some noise, but it was essentially too late.

Let's compare that to what we have now in the Republican Party. The generic Republican Presidential candidate, John Doe, beats Barack Obama, mostly because of the weak economy. However, the declared candidates don't do nearly as well.

Rick Perry has generated some enthusiasm and is obviously shrewd, but he has said more than enough silly things over the years to drag him down. Mitt Romney generates no enthusiasm among the rank and file, and his Massachusetts health care plan is too close to "Obama-care" for the liking of many. Michele Bachmann has been totally unpredictable on the campaign trail, and not in a good way. John Huntsman is a former member of the Obama Administration, which won't sell well at primary time. Ron Paul has never shown that his libertarian views can capture anything more than a niche. Newt Gingrich mixed some good philosophical concepts and thinking with some strange ideas and enough baggage to fill a jumbojet. The other announced candidates are off the radar and don't matter at the moment.

So ... who comes closest to the generic candidate? Political candidate James Carville said in a speech in Buffalo Monday night that he's heard that both Sarah Palin and Chris Christie are ready to run. It's a little tough to take Palin too seriously. Her next interesting political thought will be her first, as her constant interviews on Fox News usually show.

But Christie, now that's a different story. He certainly has created a bit of stir with his work in New Jersey, leaving no doubt who is in charge. Christie is popular with Republicans. The drawbacks are that he said he wouldn't run, not a major inconvenience, and he's only been in office for a short time.

Christie sure looks like the least objectionable candidate to me. That means he probably could see a path to the White House, at least at this time. Anyone with enough of an ego to run for office obviously would notice that, and think long and hard about it.

By the way, the paper got an A-minus. I believe the professor, one of the toughest markers in the political science deparment, wrote, "I have no quarrel with your thesis."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The old college try

The calendar year of 2011 hasn't been too good for college football so far.

The scandals and problems have been quite bad this year. Miami of Florida probably is the poster boy for the year, or more specifically, Nevin Shapiro is the poster boy. If you haven't been paying attention, Shapiro threw tons of money at Miami's players just so that they would hang out with him. Then when Shapiro was thrown in jail for gathering that money in illegal ways, the players never went to see him in jail. Shapiro was rather offended by this lack of loyalty, so he started to do his canary impression to Yahoo! Sports.

I wrote a joke for Five Spot in the paper about it. Basically, he paid people like Willis McGahee -- OK, not my favorite athlete -- to pretend to like him.

I never can understand the thought processes of boosters. Every so often you hear about someone who thinks he has the Constitutional right to throw money or other benefits at college players. Yikes, give it to the university scholarship fund. Maybe they'll give it to a kid who needs it to get an education; he or she is sure to grow up smarter than you are.

At least Ohio State's woes made a little more sense. Some of its players sold memorabilia for money or in exchange for tattoos. While that was good for proverbial slap on the wrist, coach Jim Tressel allegedly knew about some of these actions and then lied about it. That fact eventually led him out the door.

And recently, it was alleged that Fresno State's football players -- up to 24 of them -- had filed for false benefits from the government's social services program. Football players on food stamps? Jeesh. I wasn't crazy about dining hall food either in college, but I never went that far.

It's been obvious for decades that universities have an odd relationship with athletics. We've come a long way of the days where the students who happen to enroll at my school play the students from your school. There are millions and millions of dollars up for grabs, mostly in the form of television revenues. The players at the biggest schools see that money and wonder why they aren't getting a bigger share.

The schools throw scholarship money at people who aren't particularly interested in higher education; for reference, see the "one and done" guys in the first round of the NBA draft. Throw in the conference realignment that does things like put Texas Christian University in the Big East, and it's a rather headshaking arrangement.

Some times I wonder if the Europeans have a better idea. They have clubs for college age players. Some of them can play in their own age-group in sports, while others move up to the highest levels when ready. They earn their pay. The universities, I assume, stick to the education business.

And yet ...

When the games are played, college athletics are great entertainment. I attended a game at Syracuse a couple of weeks ago, a thrilling comeback capped by an overtime win by the home team. There was a good amount of school spirit on display, even though Syracuse isn't exactly Alabama or Notre Dame in that department. When I watch the SU football or basketball team, I'm brought back to the time when I went to school there, and to the friends I made and still have from that era.

It all leaves me a little torn. I love the excitement and emotion on display at collegiate sporting events, but I feel a little guilty about it if I give a second thought to what else is going on off the field.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Blast from the Past

I saw some friends from my college days tonight.

The band Renaissance came to Buffalo on the third stop of its current tour. The picture here is of the group taking a bow at that show. My camera-phone wasn't up to the task of getting this good of a picture, so it was nice to see this one posted on Facebook.

Renaissance has a rather odd history that does indeed go back to the 1970's, when my hair was all the same color and I first became a fan. The English band was an interesting combination of rock, classical music and progressive rock -- somewhere along the lines of the Moody Blues crossed with Yes, although a friend at the show thought Pink Floyd sort of floated in there at times too. The band is mostly known for lead singer Annie Haslam, who in turn is mostly known for her five-octave range. Based on tonight, she can still hit all of the notes.

Renaissance was something of a cult band in the 1970's. I think its live album from Carnegie Hall of picked as the album of the year by a New York radio station in 1977, a year after its release. Wikipedia says the high cost of musicians shortly after that cost the band its orchestral sound; I'd also guess that the rise of the punk movement wasn't good for its bottom line either. In any event, the band more or less fell apart only to re-form somewhat and go through a variety of lineups every so often for the past 30 years or so. Haslam also has done some solo work; one of her songs will be on my annual holiday mix CD in December, which should do wonders for sales (hers, not mine).

We'll have to see how this latest incarnation works. Haslam and fellow original member Michael Dunford are giving it a shot with four new faces, and the band sounds as good as ever. Come to think of it, the sound was much better than the first time I heard the music played tonight -- which was on eight-track. I also have to say that it's fun to have followed their path to Buffalo this week on Facebook; a keyboard player posted updates on how the drive here was going.

The obvious problem for a band like this is trying to get heard. No conventional radio station would play the music today, sadly. It's not like SiriusXM would play more than the odd song or two once a month either. How do you get past that glass ceiling? Renaissance is trying, through social media, e-mail and good old-fashioned mailing lists at shows.

But despite those obstacles, fans can still enjoy good music performed live if they are lucky enough to catch the band on tour. As I listened, I thought back to the friends in college who opened my eyes, and ears, up to groups like this. For a moment, it was like being back in a dorm. It was fun to get exposed to new music back in the Seventies; there's less opportunity for that right now, it seems.

And it is nice to think that acts are still more or less performing now, just like they did 35 years ago. Back then, I always thought of bands as rather disposable. They came together for a while and then fell apart for one reason or another; the Rolling Stones and the Who come to mind as rare exceptions. I never would have guessed that some bands would still be at it this far down the road.

Good luck, Renaissance, on your latest journey, and thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Closing time

Like every other avid book-reader in the country in a major metro area, I've been keeping an eye on the closing sale of Borders. The book store chain declared bankruptcy a few weeks ago, and it has been slowly selling off its stock since then. It's a perfect time to take a look at the game that such sales create.

I usually assign some sort of price tag to a book when I see it. Some books jump out at me and scream "pay full price." This might include, in my case, the annual NHL Guide and Record Book, the Baseball Prospectus, and the Best Sportswriting series in a given year.

Otherwise, though, it's something of a sliding scale. I'll see a particular book that's new and say, "It's not worth $26 to me, so I'll wait until it comes down it price." It might pop up in trade paperback, it might make it to, or it may make the dollar store in a couple of years. I'm willing to wait; I have lots to read in the meantime. (I should note that I'm as cheap as the next person when it comes to books and thus like libraries, but the selection is obviously a little limited since I don't read my best sellers in the traditional sense.)

In Borders' case, the store obvioiusly wanted to maximize its income from the bankruptcy sale. That's only logical. But the process makes it a big guessing game from the consumer's point of view, as the amount of product is finite.

Readers have the decision as to where a book falls on the price-point scale, and the tests come weekly. Since usually discounts books by 30 percent or so, I obviously started there. When Borders got to 40 percent off of a book by Neil Peart (the drummer from Rush), a volume that doesn't seem to be discounted heavily among used book sellers, I bought it. Last week, prices were discounted 60 to 80 percent. OK, Ron Jaworski's book on significant football games seemed worthwhile at that price, as did a couple of others. But I also saw a copy of Y.A. Tittle's autobiography, which wasn't worth $10 to me.

But a few days later, when everything was down another 10 percent, Tittle's book was still there. That's the game you play in these sales -- would it still be there the next time around? I decided it was worth $7.50 to me. Plus a book featuring a close-up book on the Obama Administration seemed well worth $2.50.

Bargains are where you find them, naturally. Today in the Dollar Store, I saw three books of interest. I tend to think, "A book for a dollar? That's less than a bottle of Coke Zero," and buy it. I'm assuming Dustin Pedroia's autobiography is worth more than a soft drink.

The going-out-of-business sale is winding down this week. A friend said to me about Borders' demise, "It's kind of sad, isn't it?" And it is. I always knew I'd have a good time in a bookstore like Borders, seeing what new stories were out there. It just didn't sell enough product to keep up with (part of the problem), and couldn't move fast enough to stay with the e-book revolution which seems to be coming in some areas.

We'll miss you, Borders.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Travel tips from Buffalo

There are all sorts of adventures waiting for those who need something to do on a Sunday from a Western New York base. Here are two in Canada:

Safari Niagara seems to be virtually unknown on this side of the border, even though it is about eight miles from the Peace Bridge. The place has gone through a name change in recent years, which couldn't have helped, and doesn't seem to have an overwhelming amount of money to spend. The old name, Zooz, still pops up in certain places around the park a couple of years after the change.

Still, it's a good place to look at critters on an afternoon.

This is something of a cross between a nature preserve and zoo. Some of the animals have a good-sized amount of land for play, which is always nice to see. Others, like birds and monkeys, are in cages.

The best chance to see some of the animals close up, without cage bars getting the way of photo opportunities, comes in the group shows. The picture taken here is from Zoo-niversity, with lots of cute baby animals like a timberwolf, fox and the shown tiger cub. Awww. Hard to get the cub to stand still for a photo, though.

I had visited this place in 2004 for a 5-kilometer race. The second-best part of the race was that as I ran around the circular path of the facility, a moose came over to the fence to watch as I ran by. He probably was wondering what my hurry was. The best part, naturally, was that I was second in my age-group and thus won a medal. And even more naturally, the race was never held there again because of the small field. Any time I win a medal, it seems they cancel the next race. It's enough to give a mediocre runner a complex.

After visiting Safari Niagara, it was clearly time for refreshment. Sources had reported (newspaper guys like this sort of talk) that Cows Ice Cream had come to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, on the northern point of the gorge between the U.S. and Canada.

Again, not many Americans know about Cows, which was named the world's best ice cream stand in an article that was plastered on the front window. Speaking of advertising, they use a technique that is almost unfair. They make waffle cones right on the site, and then leave the door open. The smell alone draws passers-by in the door.

The ice cream seems loaded with ingredients, and the cones really are good. But it's also difficult to leave without buying something from the merchandise area. I thought the National Mustard Museum's stuff was clever, and it is. But this is in the same class. You really have to be a viewer of Hockey Night in Canada, with Ron MacLean and the well-dressed Don Cherry to get this joke: a t-shirt that reads "Cowch's Corner," with one cow in a normal suit and another cow in plaid (MacLean and Cherry, respectively). Sold. I passed up the Sidney Cowsby hockey shirt and a Moo Tube shirt. I also bought a couple of post cards with a drawing of a cow in a barrel, with the caption, "Common cow + barrel + Niagara Falls = Second thoughts."

Take a look at the link to get a better idea of what's on sale. There's a tribute to the Royal HoneyMOOn on Prince Edward Island.

I have had ice cream at a Cows in Vancouver, and one in Halifax. That about covers Canada. Nice to have one just up the road.

Sunday, September 04, 2011


I'm coming off a vacation, which has left me more tired than work leaves me. This wasn't one of our relatively famous "if it's Tuesday, we must be in Ripon, Wisconsin" vacations. Instead, it included a number of smaller missions.

The week started in the air, literally. I headed down to Florida on some personal business for a couple of days. It was a quick trip by myself. When I travel alone, I find I pay even more attention to the surroundings than normal.

I have concluded that there are two types of travelers. Some like to bring their lives with them on the airplane, and some like to pack them up and forget about them for a few hours. I prefer to be with the second group.

The first group, you see, is in too much of a hurry for my tastes. I'm sure there are some business travelers in that category, but it's not exclusive to them. It's gotten very easy to stay in touch on the road these days, with cell phones, laptops, iPads, etc.

But mostly, those people come across as nervous. They are on their laptops just before boarding, and on the phone until the doors close. I once saw a guy who was ordered by the flight attendant to turn off his cell phone and end a call NOW! three times before he finally got the hint. These personalities prefer to sit in the very front of the plane, of course, so they can get out faster. Those three minutes of a head start in getting to the baggage claim are crucial, I guess. And often they bring large carry-ons into the plane, hammering the luggage into the bins above their seats. Hey, pal, it's free on Southwest -- check it and save us all the congestion. Once the plane stops, these people are on the phone and ready to dash out the door.

Me, I kind of like that feeling of being in a cocoon. I try to give myself more than adequate time to handle any unforeseen difficulties in flying. I usually don't use the cell phone much beforehand, and don't carry a laptop on trips (although I can see that day coming, if only for logistical help). I get some overpriced, less-than-nutritious food, buy a newspaper and/or magazine I usually don't see, have a book at the ready, climb into a chair and relax. From there, I'll head to the back of the plane, continue the book or publication, and wait for the plane to clear 10,000 feet. That's when the bell sounds, the iPod comes on, and I can be in my own little bubble. I'll stay there until we get ready to land. In this case, I got two books read by the time I got back.

It doesn't work for everyone, but it works for me.