Sunday, December 27, 2009

In the spirit of the season

This is a good time of year to be charitable.

Therefore, let's say something good about Terrell Owens.

Remember all of the dire predictions about Owens? How he would ruin the Bills' chemistry simply by walking through the locker room? How he was an overpaid diva who would be complaining as soon as a pass was thrown elsewhere?

Let's settle up here. It hasn't happened. It's tough to know if he's been a model teammate behind closed doors, but based on an outside perception you'd have to say he hasn't been a problem child. Owens has shown up for every game, apparently worked hard in practice, and given some coaching to younger players after workouts.

That's not to say that the Bills acted correctly in signing Owens, at least in hindsight. The $6.5 million spent on Owens probably could have gone elsewhere -- yes, I'm thinking of the offensive line. He was something of a luxury that the Bills really couldn't afford at this stage. And he did take playing time away from young players like James Hardy and Steve Johnson; the Bills needed to know if those performers had any sort of future before going forward. We still don't know.

Still, you can't blame Owens for taking the money, especially since he probably wasn't going to get an offer like that from any other team. And he sold some t-shirts and jerseys around town.

My friends have joked that Owens may walk straight out of the stadium next week and head for a limo to the airport, littering the tunnel and parking lot with his equipment as he goes along. Owens only has had a few good moments in Buffalo this season, the touchdown against Miami topping the list, but he hasn't been a disaster.

But the dreary standards of the 2009 season, that counts for something.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Material on books usually pops up in my book review site. But that wouldn't be proper in this case.

My fingerprints can be found in portions of Suzanne Taylor's book on Memorial Auditorium, "AUDieu." So you think I'm not going to like it?

I didn't do that much for the book. A few quotes of mine pop up in the text, and my name appears in the credits and in the index. Even that much, though, is something of a thrill. I've been in a couple of book acknowledgements over the years, but never in an index. My name is even spelled right and everything.

This is an interesting idea for a book. For those of you who don't live in Western New York, it's difficult to describe what happened in the community as the Aud came down. It was something of a summer-long wake. People trickled down to the foot of Main Street, all to take a look at the place for one of the last times. And, of course, to ask for a rock. (Public disclosure: I've got one myself. But I'm not telling where it is.)

"AUDieu" can be split into two portions, essentially. The first half is about the Aud when it was a working building. There are plenty of good stories about what happened there, what it was like to work there, what it was like to sneak in (apparently everyone but me did so), etc. It's easy to tell this portion works well; most readers who went to the Aud will find themselves thinking of their own stories about the place. At least I did.

There are plenty of great pictures, too. John Boutet, who is the area's leading collector of sports memorabilia, allowed Taylor to take plenty of pictures of his material. There are many shots of ticket stubs and programs too.

The second half centers on the demolition, with several pictures of various parts of the building coming down. You still may recognize many of the scenes, despite the chaos around it. ("Say, I used to meet friends in the Beer Garden for the second intermission...")

There's one little feature of the book that I missed at first that is a very good one. The corners have a series of small photos of the Aud coming down, almost day by day. If you flip through the pages from front to back, you can watch the demolition from start to finish. Or, if you miss the place, go backwards and watch the Aud go back up.

About the only problem with the book is that Taylor and the publishing crew obviously didn't have much time to get it out. It missed the start of the holiday shopping season by about two weeks as it is. I found myself wondering why pictures of the demolition were placed in the front of the book at times, where they seemed out of place. And one more reading for fact-checking purposes probably would have cleared up a couple of minor issues.

Taylor also takes the unusual step of quoting herself for sections of the book, including using her own thoughts in breakout quotes. I can't say I've ever seen that before, and goes against my usual belief that history books usually should be written from a distance if they aren't autobiographies.

Still, that's a sign of how personally Taylor felt when the Aud came down. And that's exactly the audience (or if you prefer, AUD-ience) she's trying to reach. For those who feel that connection to the Olde Gray Lady of Main Street, "AUDieu" ought to keep the spirit alive.

(Learn more about this book.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Crossing your fingers

The University at Buffalo has hired a new football coach.

Good luck, Jeff Quinn. Bulls Nation is counting on you.

The reaction around town to the departure of former Bulls' coach Turner Gill has been quite remarkable. Sometimes you hear bitterness about someone leaving Buffalo at a better opportunity. This time it's almost as if a favorite son has left the area, and no one has nothing but good wishes for his success. "And come back to see us soon, Turner."

Gill did a remarkable job at UB. His hiring was a surprise several years ago, mostly because he had a lack of experience as either a head coach or coordinator. Gill moved into what was considered the worst job in America at the time, and built up the talent level to the point where UB won a conference championship and made it to a bowl game.

Still, the team was well ahead of the fan base. Attendance, at least in terms of actually bodies in the seats, rarely hits five figures. But at least some enthusiasm had been generated, which may have lead to more ticket sales, more alumni contributions, etc.

With Gill off to Kansas, the UB athletic department needed to get the successor right. Have you ever seen a conference that had a better example of the haves and have-nots than the Mid-American Conference?

The good teams can be decent. Ball State last season was ranked in the top 25 until losing to UB in the conference championship game.

But when the MAC teams are bad, they have been really bad. Plenty of sources rank the teams in college football, and the bad MAC teams usually are somewhere between 100 and 120. That's out of 120. Look out below.

The dramatic differences are a bit unusual, but such problems are pretty typical of the mid-majors. You really do need a good coach. When one leaves and you don't have one, it's look out below. In basketball, Canisius has had trouble replacing such coaches as John Beilein and Nick Macarchuk. Where would Niagara be without Joe Mihalich, who has done a great job year after year keeping the Purple Eagles near the top of the MAAC?

You never know where the next great coach is coming from. Quinn helped to run one of the nation's best offenses at Cincinnati, but he's never been a head coach. If he's good, he'll have a nice run at UB ... and then move on to a place with better facilities and a bigger contract. If he's not so good, the Bulls move almost to the point where Gill started.

No pressure, Jeff. So win that Sugar Bowl game against Florida, and then get to work here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

It's all relative

Here's a story filled with the Christmas spirit.

One of my distant relatives (great-great-grand-uncle, or something like that) is Ellwood Cooper, born in 1829. Cooper eventually lived in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he was the first American to manufacture olive oil and put in on the market for sale. Cooper later was the head of Santa Barbara College, and he also planted eucalyptus trees in the area that are still present today. Cooper died in 1918.

His old house was bought for about $4,000 in the late 1930's from a family member. It was somewhat furnished, and had some books in the house that Helen Louise Cooper had owned. My guess is that she's a daughter, although I don't have her in the family tree. Helen even wrote her name in the books as well as the date - March 20, 1905.

Here's the way it looks:

The relatives of the purchasers held on to the books for about 70 years, and decided to see if they could find one of Ellwood's relatives. They went on and found me. My cousin Mary loves this stuff, so a couple of books are being sent without charge to her by the purchaser's family. Mary, therefore, will have an unusual Christmas gift, sent through the generosity of someone she's never met.

Pretty nice.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Three and counting...

The third annual holiday music CD has gone out to friends and family, causing all sorts of people to listen to songs by everyone from Jethro Tull to the Singing Dog. I gave the first one out as a thank-you present for those who showed up at my house in 2007 for a book signing -- besides, it was fun to have some of my favorite songs on one CD.

The idea was copied from my friend Jay Bonfatti, who had been doing it for years and years. Sadly, Jay died in August of 2008, so I picked up a small part of his tradition by making a 2008 CD and giving it to what common friends we had, plus my own group. It went over well enough for a 2009 version. (Heck, I'm about done with 2010 already -- hard to find tunes in the summer and fall for this sort of thing.)

A few comments and tips on the process:

* For a smart look at the whole holiday music scene, it's tough to beat Hip Christmas. There are all sorts of lists and updates, plus some free rare songs. If you are looking for good downloads, then Santas Working Overtime is the way to go. The Webmaster updates that site at least once a day, and sometime more.

* Since this is the third such CD for me, I'm running out of tunes that turn up on the radio with any regularity. You do hear "River" by Joni Mitchell, "2000 Miles" by the Pretenders, "Christmas Canon" by Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and "Jingle Bells" by the Singing Dog. I got married to Pachelbel's Canon, so it was an easy choice to use here (and thus continue family harmony). And I always giggle when I hear the Singing Dog.

* There's a group of songs from Little Steven's CD from a year ago; it's definitely worth a look if you like this sort of thing. The Darlene Love song "All Alone on Christmas" was recorded with the E Street Band, and sounds like it ... and except for the missing Mr. Springsteen on lead. "White Christmas," by Tina Sugandh, is proof that a good song is a good song even when the tempo is changed.

* I also laugh when I hear "Santa Claus Llega a la Ciudad," by Luis Miguel. It's a great swing version, and the Spanish is a definitely change of pace.

* "Santa's Gonna Come in a Stagecoach" has Buck Owens in good voice. Who can resist Buck? Hee haw.

* My thanks to the Clarence library for supplying "Jing-A-Ling, Jing-A-Ling" by the Andrews Sisters. No, I couldn't find any Snooky Lanson songs.

* When people look at the list of songs, Jethro Tull always gets a reaction. The flute works really well, though.

* The last song added was "Good King Wenceslas" by the Roches. It bumped "The Closing of the Year," in part because I couldn't find the original version from the soundtrack of the movie "Toys" anywhere, and a cover wasn't as good.

Happy holidays.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A textbook example

I'm not sure how many textbooks I bought and used in college -- a few dozen, I suppose.

I remember the author of exactly one of them.

That would be Paul Samuelson, who died the other day at the age of 94.

The obituaries contain all sorts of facts on Samuelson. He won a Nobel Prize for economics, the second person to do so. He worked with the Kennedy Administration on economic policy, and was considered one of the architects of the tax cut that created a growth spurt.

But Samuelson had a more lasting influence in some ways. He wrote the definitive college textbook in "Economics," which was first published in 1948. I think just about every college student who took economics was assigned to go out and buy it.

(Note to self: Stop writing hockey books; start writing economic books. More residuals.)

And why did everyone use it? Because it was good. Not only was the book comprehensive -- we got through about half of it in a year -- but it was easy to read. This is not easy; they don't call economics "the dismal science" for nothing.

Here's how good the book was. It was about the only textbook in which I actually looked through other sections of the book just for the heck of it. Even though the guns vs. butter argument rarely comes up while covering running, I have little doubt that I have used Samuelson's wisdom in discussing economic matters throughout my life.

Samuelson said at some point that the textbook was "my baby," that his goal was to make the subject understandable and enjoyable. I'd say he did that, paving the way for such authors of Steven Levitt of "Freakonomics" fame.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Three stories

A tale of three people:

1. A few months ago, the word "unknown" wouldn't go far enough to describe Susan Boyle. She was simply an Englishwoman who liked to sing. Then she appeared on a talent show in Great Britain, apparently without even bothering to comb her hair. As has been written before, she walked on stage as the subject of ridicule, and walked off a star. There were some bumps in her life after the show, but Boyle did indeed get a recording contract.

Now here we are in December, and Boyle has a compact disc out. Care to guess how many copies that CD sold in the first week of release? Try 701,000. That's the biggest such number of the year.

All of a sudden, every single dream that Boyle ever had about music has come true, and then some. Her life has been changed forever, hopefully for the better. Even music company accounting won't be able to keep her from being financially secure for the rest of her life, assuming she gets a good team behind her.

And now comes the tough part. I'm not sure there's anyone who has been less prepared for this rush of fame than Boyle. Let's cross our fingers and hope that she comes out the other side O.K.

2. We may never know the whole story of what happened in the Tiger Woods family household late Thanksgiving night. We may not want to know, come to think of it. But we do know that Woods' life has been changed, perhaps forever.

Woods tried to successfully balance being the most public of figures in some ways -- television appearances through golf, commercials, etc. -- with the most private of personal lives. There were whispers about extra-curricular activities a couple of weeks ago, but he probably could have dodged them ... until he drove into a tree at 2:30 a.m. That unleashed the hounds in the form of the world's tabloid press. All of a sudden, we've had claims of so many affairs that I expect to see a bumper sticker that reads "Honk if you've slept with Tiger."

No matter that it's not exactly our business, it is interesting to wonder what Tiger's motivation was for the transgressions. Does he live such a cocooned life that his super-competitive side pushed him to engage in risky behavior? Can he rebound from this, something that Kobe Bryant apparently has done to some degree in spite of worse allegations? Stay in your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy flight.

3. When Bruce Springsteen first played in London around 1975, the promoter plastered fliers all over the city saying something like, "Is London ready for Bruce Springsteen?" Bruce reportedly went around tearing the papers off the walls, saying something like, "This is not what I bargained for."

Then, looking back years later, he said he realized, "That was exactly what I bargained for." He probably could have a talk with Woods about that, and have some good advice for Boyle.

Friday, December 04, 2009

At a book signing

One of the best parts of C-SPAN is the way it shows everything at an event. For example, it will spend a half-hour at a political picnic in New Hampshire in the summer of 2007, as potential candidates drop by to court a handful of voters. It's a great way to see the candidates in action, as well as hear what the voters are thinking.

The same applies to book signings too. C-SPAN recently was in Cincinnati, where camera were ready for an appearance by Sarah Palin at a Barnes & Noble. The store had closed early to non-ticket holders for autographs in order get ready for the former Governor, and the cameras even shot people trying to get in the building to try to buy a magazine. ("Sorry, come back in five hours.")

Before Palin even showed up, some of those waiting for her were interviewed. And it was fascinating to watch those conversations. In fact, it probably was more interesting than listening to Palin, who kept the chit-chat to a minimum.

The parade of people interviewed were all women, which I don't think was a coincidence. Those in line seemed to say something along the lines of "She's one of us" every chance they got.

That raises the question, is this a good way to determine your favorite politician? I would argue that it doesn't.

When it comes to my representatives in government, I don't want them to be my equals. I'd prefer them to be smarter and better-informed than I am, with well-thought-out positions. In other words, I lean toward representatives who use their own good judgment on the issues of the day, and not do something because it's popular. There's a balance here, of course, but I'm willing to give representatives the benefit of the doubt if they make an effort.

One of the best political discussions I've heard in the past few years was a forum featuring Mario Cuomo and Newt Gingrich out of New York City. You couldn't find two more different viewpoints, but both men presented those viewpoints extremely well after what was obviously a lot of thought.

I don't think you'd get that sort of depth out of Palin. A friend once told me that Palin reminded her of a woman who shows up at every PTA or Board of Education meeting across the country, a woman who knows just enough to be wrong. That's why (in part) for me to get enthusiastic for someone like Palin, but there are some women in Cincinnati who definitely have the right to disagree with me.

After all, I'm not one of them.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A sad duty

Boy, this is a painful essay to write. I have come to praise the New York Yankees.

Sort of.

In our Sunday's sports section at The News, we have a letters to the sports editor section. When the Yankees won the World Series, we got a couple of letters saying that it was another case of New York buying a championship. The authors pointed out that the team had promised more than $400 million dollars for three players -- CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Texeira. That was about the same as what the government spent on the last stimulus package, although a bit more concentrated.

The Yankee fans came roaring back; apparently the letters struck a nerve. They pointed out that the Yankees haven't bought all of their best players -- just some of them. They actually developed Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Robinson Cano, Jorge Posada and Phil Hughes from the farm system, and made trades to acquire other players such as Nick Swisher (the Alex Rodriguez acquisition was a trade, but more of a contract dump to a willing partner than player-for-player).

One fan even whined that the Yankees don't get their fair share of postseason awards ... as if Joe Mauer's fabulous season at a crucial defensive position didn't make him the most valuable bit of talent in the American League right now. You'd think a championship would be enough to make the guy happy. (ESPN's Bill Simmons once said that Yankee fans get too much self-esteem from how their favorite team does. He could be right, at least in this case.)

The authors ignore the fact that many teams often develop plenty of talent -- there is a common amateur draft, after all -- but only the rich teams can afford to keep most of it. If Jeter had been drafted by the Pirates, he might have joined the Yankees some time ago because he probably wouldn't have stayed put for economic reasons.

Still, we have to give the Yankees credit for two critical points.

1. They have plenty of resources, and they spend them on the team.

It would be very easy to sit back and count the money acquired through ticket sales and through the YES Network. The Yankees have plowed a lot of money back into the team. Not only is it a good business move (keeps the brand strong and the television ratings up), but it does reward the fans for loyalty.

In other words, the Yankees could spend $150 million a year on payroll instead of $200 million, and save several more millions because of decreased luxury tax payments -- and even the biggest fan wouldn't complain that the franchise wasn't committed to winning.

2. When it comes to spending money, they are pretty good at it.

The Yankees have only missed the playoffs once in the last decade. That's a pretty good record. Sure, they have guessed wrong on a number of players -- thank you Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano, etc. -- but overall the record is good.

This is not an unimportant fact. Compare it to other teams in other sports.

The New York Rangers traditionally spent more money than any other team in the NHL, at least until the salary cap era started. They haven't won a Cup since 1994, when they collected ex-Edmonton Oilers and got over the hump. Since then, nothing but mediocrity. (This doesn't apply to just New York teams. The Maple Leafs and Flyers have spent lot of money over the years, and there aren't any banners flying there from recent years either.)

Then there are the New York Knicks, the NBA's poster boy for bad spending. The Knicks always seem to shell out money for a luxury tax for no apparent advantage. Team executive Donnie Walsh has been busy trying to install some sort of financial discipline to the team, if only to put the Knicks in position to get someone from the free agent class of 2010 (hello, LeBron).

In fact, the best comparison to the Yankees is probably the Lakers. Los Angeles has never let money get the way of going after top talent, spending more than $100 million this year on payroll. As a result, the Lakers usually seem to be in the argument at the end of the season.

With the Yankees' resources and approach, they always should be close to the top of the standings under the present rules -- and that means they almost have to win once in a while. Yes, they can be beaten -- witness the the 2001 to 2008 period. But the Yankees are always around.

I never bought the argument that it's good for a league to have one team dominate year after year. For every fan that watches the Yankees, there are probably three in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, etc. who have lost interest in the game because their favorite team isn't competitive any more. But I can't be too critical of a team that plays the game under the rules that are written.