Friday, February 27, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

The bunny hop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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