Thursday, April 24, 2008

A look back

Sports Illustrated has done something very interesting on its Web site.

It has put its entire editorial content -- throughout its history -- on line. For free.

Remember an article from the past? Do a search and there it is. It's obviously a great reference tool, but it's also fun.

Here's an example for Western New York audiences. I still own a copy of a 1969 Sports Illustrated that had a rather discouraging profile of Buffalo. It had a black-and-white picture of War Memorial Stadium that would have looked just as gray had it been taken in color.

The story is still interesting. To find it, click here.

Happy reading.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Got 20 minutes?

Sometimes it's fun to watch the CBC News from our listening post on the other side of the border. The National does an hour newscast, often at 10 p.m. when the hockey playoffs don't get in the way. The first half-hour is pretty conventional, but the broadcast often does long, long features in the second half-hour.

For example, Monday night CBC had a 20-minute look at the current state of Hillary Clinton's campaign. The report had plenty of insight from a variety of sources. You can watch it by clicking here.

I found myself wondering how many American newscasts would put this sort of effort into a feature. "60 Minutes" has 20 minute investigative reports, but that's a different sort of animal. Wouldn't it be nice if the all-news stations (from left to right, MSNBC, CNN & Fox News) did this sort of work every once in a while?

Friday, April 18, 2008

New York State of Mind

Siena College asked New York State residents recently, "What is your favorite sports team?"

As you might expect, the Yankees are the leaders at 27 percent, followed by the Mets and Giants.

Here's the fun part: The struggling Knicks checked in at under 3 percent -- behind the Boston Red Sox. There's something to use as a marketing tool. The Sabres were tied with the Red Sox, just behind the Bills. Buffalo's teams were ahead of the Jets, Rangers and Islanders, for what it's worth.

For complete results, click here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Evil Empire

It's another interesting week in the history of the Red Sox-Yankees baseball rivalry.

You might have heard about one of the latest chapters. The New York Post revealed that a construction worker at the new Yankee Stadium dropped a David Ortiz jersey into the concrete some time ago, as a way to curse the new ballpark.

The Yankees responded in their usual good-natured manner: "It never happened." Then more evidence and witnesses came forward, and the story seemed to be true. So the Yankees spent the time to chisel down into the concrete, taking a few hours in the process, to pull out the jersey. Apparently it will be given to charity for a public sale, which actually is a classy gesture on New York's part.

It was easy to wonder what might happen to the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry what with George Steinbrenner's health failing. George was a great villain over the years; he made winning a little extra sweet.

But have no fear, Hank is on the way. George's son has come through with some silly statements about the state of the rivalry in his first full year of being the main team spokesman. I particularly liked his claim that ESPN was biased toward the Red Sox while saying that Red Sox Nation couldn't possibly compare to Yankee Universe.

The Red Sox and Yankees played their first three games of the season over the weekend, and the games as usual were long and dramatic. There's two more coming up in a couple of days.

Fasten your seat belts. It'll be another fun trip.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

How does it feel?

Always good to use a Bob Dylan lyric at the start of a item.

But it works in this case.

The Boston Red Sox brought out Bill Buckner for the home opener on Tuesday afternoon. The ex-player is best-known for an error in the 1986 World Series that allowed the winning run to score in Game Six. The Mets went on to win the Series in seven games.

The image of Buckner's error has been replayed constantly over the past 22 years. Well, at least until 2004 when the Red Sox finally won a World Series. Buckner has had an odd reaction to the play over the years. He has been hounded by the media about it, as has his family. On the other hand, he signed photographs with Mookie Wilson, who hit the ball in the first place.

As the last part of the ceremony for the home opener began, Buckner emerged from the Green Monster door and walked slowly to the pitcher's mound to throw out the first pitch. He was greeted with a long standing ovation that left him weepy before he got to the infield, and left observers feeling it was a little dusty even when watching on television. (Check out the video here.)

So, how did it feel? It came off as a nice enough moment, if nothing else showing that these are not your father's Red Sox in the sense that the past is buried. (Just don't expect an ovation for Bucky Dent sometime soon.) But it wasn't your standard roof-raising cheer, which made it a little odd. It wasn't a favorite son returning home. Have there been many sports moments like it?

Hopefully, it wasn't taken by people as an "all is forgiven" cheer. A lot of things went wrong in the final half-inning of Game Six, starting with manager John McNamara not bringing in Dave Stapleton to play first base like he usually did in the late innings. And then there's Calvin Schiraldi's hits allowed and Bob Stanley's wild pitch. The score was already tied when Wilson hit the ground ball; the Red Sox weren't about to win that game even if Buckner made the out. And it was Game Six; Boston still had a chance at Game Seven two days later.

The hope is that it provided a little closure for Buckner, who certainly acted a little tormented by the whole episode, and deservedly so. If it did, maybe the Buffalo Bills can hold a similar ceremony some day for Scott Norwood, someone who was even more unjustly singularly blamed for the mistakes of his whole team.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

If you thought the musical in a food court was elaborate, check this piece of video out. The folks at Improv Everywhere moved in to a Little League game and treated it like a big-league contest ... complete with fans, programs, television broadcast and Jumbotron, not to mention a surprise guest from above.

Thanks to Deadspin for pointing this out. The Improve site has other details and some pictures.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Foolish behavior

I was hired to work for the Buffalo Sabres in October 1986. I really wanted to work for them just on April 1.

That's because of April Fool's Day.

The Sabres had established a reputation throughout professional sports for practical jokes in the previous several years. Paul Wieland was the mastermind of the projects. Every year he'd send out a release that stretched the limits of credibility.

One year the Sabres were officially pronounced America's team, complete with a White House letter from the President and fake magazine cover. One year the Sabres had rented a battleship for training camp; the ship would go up and down Lake Erie as the team worked out on it. One year the team announced the invention of artificial ice, "Sliderex," which would be installed in Memorial Auditorium.

The news releases were faithfully mailed out, embargoed for April 1 release. Most simply laughed at the jokes. One local reporter, so excited about the news of Sliderex, broke the embargo to breathlessly report it the night before. His reputation has never quite recovered.

I think I helped write the first release during my tenure with the Sabres. The team had taken over a practice facility in Wheatfield called "Sabreland," and it seemed logical for it to expand its holdings that way. Therefore, the team announced a housing complex in Wheatfield called "Sabre Meadows." I believe it was supposed to have 47,000 units, which you have to admit is a lot of houses for Wheatfield.

I received a call from a reporter at one of the local radio stations that afternoon. I didn't really want to go on the air with him and ruin his credibility, so I started asking questions. "Did you read the release closely? Don't you think 47,000 units is a lot? And what day on the calendar is it?" Finally, he got it.

Future projects were placed on television as Wieland's responsibilities shifted, but we tried to do something every year. One time a friend from the Washington Capitals called, and I said, "I'll call you back. We're planning our April Fool's Day TV show." He was ready to switch jobs that day.

We came up with interactive television one year. We asked a question per period, and had an alleged fan vote. In the first period, the question was "Should the Sabres change their lines more quickly?" The fake response (the phone number flashed was in the Sabres hotline recording) was posted: an emphatic yes. Announcer John Gurtler was shown going into the Sabres' coaches office to tell them the fans' decision ... only to reveal Ted Sator and Barry Smith playing table hockey between periods.

In the second period, the question was whether Mike Robitaille should interview Christian Ruuttu, but have Ruuttu answer in Finnish. Not surprisingly, the yes responses easily won. So Robitaille asked a question in English, and Ruuttu responded in his native language. Robtaille was shown shaking his head up and down every so often, as if he knew what Ruuttu was talking about. Once he added, "So when you say that, it follows that ..." I asked Ruuttu later what he had actually said; I believe it was something like "That's a really ugly suit, but I really like your haircut." I'm sure the Finnish audience loved it.

The best one, though, was the Sabres' Shopping Service. I must have spent a month trying to come up with a series of items to sell. We had Wowie Housley Cola, J.F. Sauve game-used sticks (he was the smallest player in the league, so the stick was a foot long), Benoit Hogue-ee sandwiches, and the Daren Puppa Scoopa. Gurtler transformed himself into Wink Dickerson, talkative host and ultimate salesman. He was assisted by my friend Andrea, who became Andrea Hedberg (in honor of the ex-pro star). Talk about bringing material to life -- Gurtler deserved an Emmy that night.

Toward the end of my time with the Sabres, I could sense that the organization was starting to lose its sense of humor about such projects, even though such stunts seemed to help the team's image. Why a fan or two might be actually fooled! Wieland left in the mid-1990's, bringing his bag of pranks to other jobs.

Pro sports has grown dramatically in the past 20 years on the business side, and it's lost some of its sense of fun along the way. That's inevitable, but still a little sad. It's not allowed to be foolish even one day a year.