Sunday, November 29, 2009

James Litz, artist

Friends might say that I'm probably the last person to have a connection with any sort of artist. And they'd be right. I'm creative with a typewriter, not a paint brush.

But I did have a tie to Western New York painter James Litz, who died this week at the age of 61. You can read his story from The Buffalo News here. You can read my story here.

Back in 1994, I was working for the Cheektowaga Times, a suburban weekly and not to be confused with another of my employers, the Cheektowaga Examiner. My boss, Margaret, said she had just read about a local artist who was gaining a national reputation, and that he'd make a great story. She told me to go find him and write it. I believe I did a little whining; see the first two sentences of this blog for details. But Margaret was persuasive and firm. Yes, boss.

So off I went to talk to Jim Litz, and asked him to tell me his story. It took an hour, and it was a fascinating 60 minutes.

Litz had served in Vietnam and returned home, by his own admission, a mess. He couldn't hold a job for very long, and drank. Then his sister asked him to serve as a baby-sitter one night. Litz objected, saying that he didn't know what to do with kids. The sister said, paint with them or something. OK. They started painting until it was time for the young ones to go to bed. After that, much to his surprise he went back down to the basement to the paint set, where he worked some more. Soon he bought a paint set of his own, and kept at it.

Someone took a look at his work and realized that all of the houses in Litz's paintings were of a Southeast Asian nature, with a particular type of roof. That started the catharsis, and Litz painted his memories of his time in Vietnam, crying along the way.

Eventually, he decided he wanted to work on happier scenes, so his work featured parks and baseball games and area scenes and the like. His was a very child-like style, filled with bright colors, and it was difficult to not look at the work and smile. You can see a copy of one here, copied from the site for Benjaman's Works of Art. Original works by Litz in some cases eventually went for four figures. He became functional in society again.

I came back to the office, filled with an enthusiasm that must have stunned Margaret. This was going to be a great story, I told her. Who is this guy, she no doubt thought. Basically, it was an easy story to write, too. I simply got out of the way and let Litz tell his own version of events. It was the longest article the Examiner may have ever printed, which got a questioning look from the owner, but those who read it all were fascinated.

Litz did two things that are unique in my journalism career. He asked for a tape of the interview, so that he could listen to it and try to prepare to give better interviews in the future. He also gave me an autographed print of one of his paintings, which I still have about four feet from where I'm typing this entry. A few months later, the article won a state-wide award, with the judges saying something like "a wonderful story simply told."

The newspaper story today has the epilogue of the tale. Litz stopped painting some nine years ago due to severe depression and diabetes. It might be an overstatement to say that the Vietnam War claimed another victim this week, but maybe not a large overstatement.

Even so, Litz helped teach me a valuable lesson in the journalism business that probably applies to a variety of other professions.

Sometimes, the boss is smarter than you think.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Saving grace

The other day at work, my boss mentioned that a co-worker has got every press pass he's ever been issued over the years.

Then I picked up a copy of Entertainment Weekly today, and there's an article in the TV section on a show called "Hoarders" -- all about people who can't bear to throw out practically anything. I wonder how many DVD's of the shows the subjects will save down the line.

Yup, we all save something. But what? And to what degree?

I've actually become pretty ruthless on making sure my house doesn't fill up with clutter. I used to save sports programs and sports cards in large numbers. It was a nice reminder of sporting events that I either attended in person or, when they were available through mail order or collectors' shows, watched on television. Then I moved in the mid-1980's -- only a couple of apartment buildings down, so no movers were involved. I had to carry boxes of programs down two flights of stairs, around a building to the next one, and then up two flights of stairs to my new home. Over and over and over.

At some point I said, "I need a lighter hobby." Therefore, I've sold almost all of that stuff -- Super Bowl programs, Final Four programs, World Series programs, Red Sox yearbooks. One time I opted to choose between saving pieces of cardboard with baseball players' pictures on them, or new golf clubs. Hmmm. Guess which won? Fore!

Most of the stuff I have now in the publication department is kept for reference (local media guides and books), and the proceeds of the sales of the other stuff on eBay has paid for some good trips. Boy, where was eBay in the 1980's?

What else do I save? Let's see. I've got most of the ticket stubs from concerts I've attended over the years. We're talking late 1970's for the earliest of them, even if that Doobie Brothers/Outlaws stub from the Niagara Falls Convention Center didn't exactly increase in value.

And somewhere along the way, I decided to take any sort of ticket stub collected along the way from events, trips, etc., then add press passes and other similar items, and make collages out of them. It really works well. A 16 x 20 frame holds two or three years of material, depending on the amount of traveling. It's a great way to remember that trip to the Rutherford B. Hayes burial site in Ohio. (Yes, I've been there.)

Then there are articles that have appeared in print. I've got notebooks and notebooks of bylined stories from my time in the business. In fact, I still have some junior high newspapers. Somehow I was picked as the editor in ninth grade, which was junior high then, and I still have some of the papers. In fact, when I went back to a high school reunion in Elmira (I moved from there after ninth grade), the papers were a big hit because no one had seen them since 1970. Then I've still got articles from high school and college. As my coworker Jerry Sullivan once said, if you don't get a bit of a thrill seeing your name in print, you probably are in the wrong business.

I do have some autographed books, which can be broken into two categories for the most part. There are authors I actually know, so owning a copy is a must. Then there are the big stars, with many of the autographs obtained in person or through some sort of special arrangement (Jeremy Schaap, Clarence Clemons, Terry Anderson, Bob Woodward, etc.). (Think those names have ever been together in a Google search?)

I'm not sure I'd call it a "collection," but I have plenty of compact disks covering a variety of musical types. The holiday stuff is starting to grab some space as the annual search for tunes for my mix CD continues. Then there's a cabinet that has some videos in it. There are a few movies and other documentaries there. For example, whenever I'm a little down about the baseball season, I can get out a disk and play it. Suddenly, it's 2004, and the Yankees are leading the Red Sox, three games to none ... and then Dave Roberts steals second.

So, dear reader, what do you save?

The holiday season...

So with Thanksgiving now in the rear view mirrow, I guess Christmas tunes are now fair game. This song has been getting a little buzz on the Net, it seems. It's an interesting mix of humor and a lullaby from Tim Minchin, called either "White Wine in the Sun" or "The Christmas Song." Whatever you call it, it's nice.

Too bad the only version I could find for purchasing purposes is 10 minutes -- too long for the annual holiday mix. I should keep looking.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Still the boss

I sent out a Facebook update at 1 a.m. on Monday, essentially saying: "Quick review of Springsteen in Buffalo: Best. Show. Ever." Strong words for me, but I'll stick to them 18 hours later.

Why do I say that?

1. The talk of the band making its last show in its last full tour added an edge to the proceedings. Haven't seen that sort of electricity around here since the Who played the Aud the night after the Cincinnati tragedy. The building was just jammed with fans who seemed to wake up a week or so ago and said, "Hey, this is the end of the tour, and these guys aren't getting any younger. I gotta go." It included Pat Riley, the NBA executive who wrote a book blurb for Clarence Clemens' book, "Big Man."

It's pretty unusual to get an audience that's filled with true believers, fans that know every song and would rather be at the show than any place on earth. That's what it felt like.

2. The complete playing of "Greetings from Asbury Park" helped make the night an event, since it hadn't been done before. I don't think I've heard "Spirit in the Night" since the late 1970's, although I haven't checked.

And I noticed what could have been a sense of relief from the band once the album had been played. "OK, the tough part is over, so let's have some fun."

3. The attitude was very playful from the gang, particularly Springsteen himself. Can't say I've seen too many kids pulled out of the audience to sing at a Springsteen show. Helping that approach was Steve Van Zandt's birthday, complete with cake, and the coming Christmas season (good for two songs).

4. If you felt like a birthday or Christmas party, this was the best set list imaginable. This was not a time to hear "41 Shots" or "The River," worthwhile songs but not a good fit here. The only really slow tunes were in the "Greetings" portion. Otherwise, it was clear the decks and start rocking. My back is still sore from all the standing. (Just wondering: When was the last time I saw a show without "Badlands"? I think it was 1977 in Utica.) What's more, there were a ton of songs that most bands would have been happy to use as a set-closer. For Springsteen, they were just another tune.

I've learned never to say never when it comes ever playing together again. Even with these guys. But if this was a farewell show to this particular combination, except on special occasions, it was a great one.

For a more enthusiastic review, click here.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Another first

You try to be a nice guy, and it backfires. Ask Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer after he was named first star at a recent game:

Thanks to Mike Harrington for pointing this out.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Track record

I just finished reading Brian Billick's book on the current state of the National Football League. You can read a full review of the book here, but there are a couple of applications to what has been going on at One Bills Drive lately.

First, Billick talks about how well he worked with Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome during the time he was head coach there. Newsome basically stayed in the home office and watched every practice and game as he did his job. He sent scouts to look at other players; he was only interested in his own team. Therefore, when something came up, Newsome was very familiar with the situation. He could give a direct, face-to-face, reason why the team was taking a specific action, such as cutting a player or starting one player over another.

The Bills lately have not had a football man as general manager, preferring to use a committee that included a variety of people working under team president Russ Brandon. And we all see how well that has worked in the last couple of years.

Owner Ralph Wilson has had a couple of bad experiences with something along the lines of "director of football operations." Apparently Bill Polian made Wilson feel uncomfortable visiting the team offices, and Tom Donahoe didn't exactly work out to his liking either. But it's nice to have someone in charge, and that's why apparently we're headed back toward that organizational structure ... and a few years too late, at that.

Billick also discusses the need for good drafts in a salary cap world. Drafted players represent relatively cheap labor, particularly after the first round. If you don't make good on those picks, and then keep them around as long as you can, you start furiously plugging leaks. And you never catch up.

Need proof? Let's examine the Bills' first-round picks for the last 10 years:

2000 -- Erik Flowers wasn't much help at all. A whiff.

2001 -- Nate Clements was a very good pick; too bad he left for a huge contract.

2002 -- Mike Williams was the fourth overall pick and never justified the pick. If he had worked out, he'd still be a cornerstone of the offensive line -- and life would be much easier to this day in that area.

2003 -- Willis McGahee was a big gamble, considering the Bills knew he'd miss a year after knee surgery. He had a couple of moments in a Buffalo uniform, but this swing for the fences resulted in a pop-up.

2004 -- After giving up a first rounder for Drew Bledsoe, Buffalo saw Bledsoe start to decline and took J.P. Losman as the "quarterback for the future." When Bledsoe's career took a continued dive, Losman never was able to take over. Lee Evans was much more like it.

2006 -- Donte Whitner has at least started whenever he's been healthy. The Bills tried to trade John McCargo, but the defensive lineman flunked his physical and has been a backup since then.

2007 -- If McGahee had come through, the Bills wouldn't have needed to draft Marshawn Lynch here. They could have addressed another need.

2008 -- If the Bills hadn't lost so many cornerbacks to free agency in the decade, the selection of Leotis McKelvin wouldn't have been necessary. We'll see how he does after losing almost all of 2009 to injury.

2009 -- Aaron Maybin signed very late and has done little this season. He shouldn't be written off yet, but early returns are discouraging. The jury is still out on Eric Wood.

Get the idea?

Dick Jauron made some mistakes in his three and one-half years as head coach of the Bills. The no-huddle offense this season in particular, with a very green offensive line and a young quarterback, might have been the biggest one. It not only didn't work, but it caused a fight with the offensive coordinator that resulted in a firing just before the start of the season. Jauron also never did any sort of job of becoming a public face for the franchise, something that the team could have used and something that could have bought him a little more time.

But if you're asking me if he ever had a chance, I'd guess, probably not. And if you're asking me if it would be worthwhile for a new football executive to at least give Billick a call, I'd say, probably so.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The last stop

Word is spreading quickly about Bruce Springsteen's last show on his current tour, which will be next Sunday night in Buffalo. Springsteen has been playing entire albums on this tour, and the trend will continue with the surprising "Greetings from Asbury Park." He's never played this album, his first, live in sequence before, and he's never played one of the songs from it ("The Angel") live anywhere.

Here's the Newark Star-Ledger's take on the event. There are less analytical descriptions at and

So the question that's going to come up is, Will this be the last concert ever for the band? Or at least for a long while? Hard to say -- certainly an interesting choice of material for a closing night. I'm betting that the last song played on Sunday will be "Blood Brothers" -- just as it was when the Rising tour ended in October 2003 in Shea Stadium.

No drama

Here's a problem for Buffalo Bills' fans after the team's ninth game of the season.

There's no drama left.

National Football League seasons essentially answer question that come up from the start. The big one, naturally, is, who will win the Super Bowl? But there are sub-plots along the way as well. The idea is for the season to slowly go toward a climatic moment.

Don't look for any climatic moments here, unless you are interested in knowing if the team will run for the bus the rest of the way. In the Bills' case, we wanted to know back in September if the team was capable of making a playoff run. With seven weeks left and a 3-6 record, it looks almost certainly like the answer is no.

There were other questions. Would Terrell Owens fit in and make the Bills better? Um, it's fair to say that Owens isn't going to make the season memorable for Buffalo for the right reasons. He still has a chance to make it memorable for the wrong ones. Right now his signing looks like an interesting but less-than-successful and expensive gamble.

Is Trent Edwards going to be the quarterback of the future? You'd have to guess no. The Bills would have to come up with some major dollars to sign him long-term in the coming offseason, and that doesn't look like a good idea. In other words, it's about time to start from scratch at the position ... again. The Bills apparently haven't made a great long-term decision about a quarterback since Jim Kelly; Doug Flutie and Drew Bledsoe merely had short-term moments.

Was not re-signing Jason Peters to a big contract a good idea? Based on the problems on the offensive line, it's fair to say Peters might have helped somewhere. Unless you like false starts and concussed quarterbacks.

Is Dick Jauron going to make it to next year? My guess is that it would take a winning record at this point to keep the fan base even a little happy, and that would mean 6-1 down the stretch ... with games against Indianapolis and New England, among others. I don't like his odds.

So here we are, in mid-November, and the story of the season seems more or less written. We're going to just have to wait to see what shoes will drop come early January in terms of some sort of top football executive, new coach, new quarterback, etc.

We've seen a lot of anger about the Bills in the first part of the season. It's easy to wonder if those feelings are about to turn into apathy for the rest of the calendar year, which is never a good sign. Put another way, I'm glad I don't have to sell Bills' tickets for a living the rest of the way.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Educational process

Does it seem like that we heard more about Veterans Day today than we have in a long time? This isn't just a case of the usual TV pictures of ceremonies involving men and women in uniform, which come every Nov. 11.

Every sporting event this week has taken time out to honor veterans. ESPN set up shop at West Point today. Applebee's gave away meals to service personnel. A local barber gave out free haircuts to military members. My Facebook page is filled with tributes.

All well and good. But I think there's something else at work here, and it's something good. My guess is, we've learned something.

One of the few good things about getting older is that you have a personal memory for history. I am old enough to remember our involvement in Vietnam in the 1960's and early 1970's, a military action that dragged on indefinitely with no end in sight. Let me know if this sounds familiar.

How did Americans react to that? By protesting in the streets in some cases, and I'm a little surprised there hasn't been more of that in the last few years. (I talked to an Army vet who served in the Sixties about this, and he absolutely agreed with me.) There was a lot of anger back then, though, and some of it was directed at the people doing the actual work in Vietnam. As a result, we forgot about Vietnam veterans for too long a time. They didn't get enough "thank yous" for their thankless work, let alone parades and recognition.

This time around, there are a lot more "thank yous." You can argue about past and present policy decisions by the commanders, but you can't argue with the fact that today's military members are volunteering for jobs that the rest of us are less than anxious to do.

You're never too old to learn something. Consider this one more salute to those who deserve one.

Survey says...

I recently read about a survey done by the College of Communications at Penn State University on the ethics involved in sports writing. And let's not have any smart remarks that it was an extremely brief paper. Being the inquisitive type, as the title of the blog says, I wrote Penn State to get a copy of the results. It's interesting stuff.

The survey authors surveyed 285 sports journalists across the country. More than 91 percent were male, 85 percent were white, 91 percent were college graduates, and almost 96 percent were full-time sports journalists. That sounds about right, based on personal observation.

In terms of career conditions and outlook, about 39 percent of sports writers say they have been threatened with violence by athletes, coaches or fans. Well, John Muckler once shook his finger at me, but otherwise I think I've been lucky. About 53 percent have considered quitting the job, which sounds low if anything to me. About 94 percent say they are satisfied with their job, which seems something of a contradiction to the previous answer. And almost 75 percent say they have a good job future; those people must not have looked at the business climate in journalism these days.

Next up is the conflict of interest behaviors, as it is called the survey results. A total of 11.6 percent say they have given free tickets to friends. I was a little surprised by that; most sports organizations don't even ask that question any more. More of a surprise was the fact that 26.3 percent of respondants got free tickets for their supervisor. I could argue that it's good that the sports editor attend events when possible; it's always nice to be on the scene. But that should be in the form of a press pass and not tickets (and note the plural form, ndicating "company.")

For the record, we have a policy of not accepting anything of value. So a box of popcorn at HSBC Arena is OK, which may tell you something about its taste. However, I have turned down all offers of free entries to area running races, which usually go for about $20 each.

Now comes the most surprising part. Care to guess what percentage of sportswriters gamble on sporting events? Try 41.1 percent. Breaking it down a little more, 4.6 percent of sportswriters say they gamble on sports that they cover. I'm not sure that covers fantasy sports, but my guess would be that it doesn't.

Statistically speaking then, if you see 21 sportswriters covering a particular game, the odds are pretty good that one of them has bet on the contest you both are watching. And remember that hardly anyone is covering horse racing regularly these days, where betting is legal and predictions of winners are more or less expected and frequently followed by trips to the betting window.

Here's one last survey result. Respondants were asked to grade from one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree) on the statement, "If I were to gamble on a team or sport that I was covering, I think it would have an effect on my ability to cover that team or sport objectively." The median score was 3.45. That sure sounds like some writers are going to be angry if the team they bet on loses, no matter what the actual outcome is. As in "That last-second field goal cost me $500, so I'm not going to make him sound like a hero."

My guess is that the industry may have to be a bit more vigilant on this issue. But I wouldn't bet on it.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Getting punchy

Dave Kindred has an interesting column this weekend about fighting and the media. As in, punches exchanged between media members, or between a media member and an athlete. You can find it here; it is worth your time.

Kindred has seen a lot more of this stuff than I ever did. But I do have a couple of stories along these lines.

Once at then-Rich Stadium, the Bills were going through the postgame ritual of interviews at their lockers. One time, a newspaper writer was alone with one of the players. Then, a television reporter turned on the camera and stuck in a microphone, which showed a little impatience but does happen. But then the TV guy had the player turn away and do a one-on-one into the camera, leaving the newspaper guy behind.

Our print scribe patiently waited for the television interview to end. Then, and only then, did he launch a tirade against the electronic type. It's good thing the television guy got out of the way; he might have gotten a punch in the face.

The Sabres' original trainer was Frank Christie, a crusty old sort who used to challenge new, young reporters just for the sport of it. I saw an argument or two start up, but not many 20-somethings were willing to smack a 60-something, short, 140-pound trainer.

But speaking of hockey, Jerry Sullivan represented his profession well one time when working in Binghamton. He wrote a column that was critical of one of the Broome County Dusters, the local minor league team. Jerry went into the locker room for the next home game. The Duster in question looked at Jerry and said, "I ought to knock you into the wall."

Jerry paused for effect, and replied, "Well, if you do, it will be the first thing you've hit all year." The rest of the Dusters went wild, as their teammate was silenced.

We all should be so quick as Jerry was that night.

Friday, November 06, 2009

And in other video...

Elizabeth Lambert of New Mexico has once again demonstrated the power of the media. The women's soccer player turned up on ESPN today, and those clips quickly spread to the Internet. Tonight she received a suspension.

Here's the video:

This is not a woman to be trifled with.

You make me feel like dancing

One of my favorite college basketball moments ever was preserved on YouTube and popped up today on SportsbyBrooks. It came when Tim Ryan and Al McGuire were interviewing the Syracuse basketball team after the then Orangemen had just won to advance to the Final Four. Al couldn't contain himself.

We still miss Al.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

In olden days

There was an item in The Boston Globe's sports section today on an old friend of mine. In fact, it was a good reminder about how the sports business has changed over the years, and how old I am.

The item was on a player from Bridgewater, Massachusetts, who is now a pitching coach with the Philadelphia Phillies. I don't know the coach in question, Rich Dubee, but I do know the other Massachusetts player in the story, Glenn Tufts.

Tufts was an absolute terror when it came to high school baseball. I think he hit about .625 in school, playing mostly first base and doing some pitching when needed. He graduated in 1973, which was my senior year in high school as well.

Here's the coincidence: Tufts dated the daughter of my father's best friend. So when my family went up to Massachusetts around the holidays in 1972-73, I had the chance to spend a little time with Glenn. Good guy. In fact, while the grown-ups went out on New Year's Eve, the best friend's kids took over the house for the night. I had the chance to talk to Glenn for quite a while about what it was like to be one of the nation's top high school players. As I recall, he complained about not getting many pitches to hit. And remember, he still hit about .625. I saw him one or two other times as well during trips there.

Now comes the quaint part. Tufts was taken fifth overall in the baseball amateur draft in the summer of 1973. The debate was to take the signing bonus offer from the Cleveland Indians, which probably was something along the lines of $50,000, or to take a full scholarship from the University of North Carolina. The parents argued for college, saying that the education was a good safety net. I recall saying that the bonus wasn't a bad safety net either, and that you could still go to school with some of that money.

My side of the argument won, not that I ever made the case personally, as he signed with the Indians. Unluckily, he had some injury problems -- I think there was an auto accident involved -- and he never did quite fulfill his potential. Tufts stayed in baseball as a career and became a great scout and coach, I believe. But he never did grab the brass ring.

Let's compare that to today. I looked on-line at some recent signing bonuses. The number five pick in 2007's draft was Matt Wieters, taken by Baltimore. He was a special case because he had signing issues, but he eventually agreed to a $6 million bonus with the Orioles. The fourth pick, Daniel Moskos of Pittsburgh, picked up a check for $2.475 million. It's a little tough for the colleges to compete with that.

Sometimes you're just born 35 years too early.