Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tough job

One of the appeals of fantasy sports leagues is the chance to pretend to be a general manager of a pro team.

Better that the real thing. Particularly in hockey.

In other words, who would want to be Darcy Regier right now?

The Buffalo Sabres were coming off two straight seasons of just missing the playoffs as they entered the 2009-10 campaign. Since home playoff games are worth something like $1 million per game, that sort of drought can put a little pressure on an organization.

But the Sabres got off to a good start this past season, and the playoffs were never in doubt. They were a little lucky in the first half of the season in terms of one-goal games, but still grabbed the lead in the Northeast. Ottawa made a bit of a run in the second half, but Buffalo eventually won the division by six points. That meant that the Sabres had the third seed in the playoffs.

The area turned up its enthusiasm about five fold in mid-April. Flags were everywhere, bars were crowded, Sabre uniforms were fashionable.

Then, after a Game One win over Boston in the first playoff game, Thomas Vanek gets hurt and the Sabres blow a third-period lead for the first time all season to drop Game Two. The Bruins take Games Three and Four at home, with the fourth coming on an overtime goal by, of all people, Miroslav Satan. Buffalo has a convincing win in Game Five, but loses Game Six and the series. Flags gone, Bandits uniforms are fashionable.

All of those good feelings about the team that were built up during the past six months? See ya, at least for the moment.

Regier doesn't know how to put together a team, Lindy Ruff can't coach, Tim Connolly and Derek Roy should take up basketball, etc. Well, that's if you believe the talk shows and the letters to the editor column.

It's always disappointing to exit the playoffs, particularly when a team is the higher seed. But it shouldn't be that unexpected.

I've done the math, and high seeds usually win only about 63 percent of the series in the NHL (2004 through 2009). In other words, the better teams doesn't win a third of the time. It's not a coin flip, but it's not a sure thing. For further proof, ask the people in Washington and New Jersey right now. The top three seeds in the East were all eliminated this year, the first time that's happened, I believe, since 1999.

Compare that to the NBA, which has its playoffs going on now as well. The "better" team wins more than 80 percent of the series there. That's a good-sized difference.

The NHL playoffs are a thrilling ride, as no one has a good idea on how they will ultimately turn out. They are a great time to see who the coaches trust in huge situations (hope you enjoyed your view in the press box, Raffi Torres), and they create heroes and goats.

But it's also a time when it's important to keep matters in perspective. Four losses in less than two weeks shouldn't completely cloud six months of data when making long-term conclusions.

Even if it usually does for some.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Forward pass

You may have heard about New York candidate for Governor Carl Paladino and his, um, off-color e-mails. Paladino apparently has been forwarding all sorts of material to his friends for some time.

He sent an e-mail to those same friends recently, trying to explain why he did it. You can read the text of the letter here from a Buffalo News blog. Be sure to read some of the comments if you go there.

Short version -- Paladino says that it's a way of keeping in touch with his friends, to let them know he's thinking about them. Which leads to an interesting issue.

Everyone with an e-mail account gets some sort of forwarded material. It might be jokes, it might be political propaganda, it might be somewhat wild statements that can be proven to be untrue; it might be "Bill Gates will send you $1,000 if you forward this e-mail within..." messages.

Me, I think I'm doing my friends a big favor by not sending them jokes, especially ones with potentially objectionable content. (Luckily, I don't find that stuff the least bit funny, so it is very easy to hit "delete.") If someone does send out something that can easily be checked out and proven wrong, sometimes I'll hit "reply all" and quote a source saying the forwarded e-mail is completely offbase. You know how news types are, always interested in promoting accuracy.

I'd like to think I'm being a much better friend this way. And hopefully, my friends realize that.

And I'm not even running for Governor.

P.S. One final catch to the story -- the fable, essentially, was used as a Twilight Zone episode. You can read about it here.

Friday, April 23, 2010

My kind of guy

Joe Queenan recently wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review called, "Keep Your Team Out of My Book."

I had to check to make sure I didn't write it. Clearly, a columnist who won't even read a book that has a character that likes the New York Yankees is a man after my own heart.

I particularly liked the line, "Stalin would have been a Yankee fan."

Here's next year's Pulitzer Prize winning column.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Fan mail

The risks of a columnist are many.

As I've mentioned before, I have filled in on our newspaper's new feature, "Five Spot." These are designed to be gentle jabs at the sporting world, without harming anyone.

OK. I wrote the column for today, and came up with this item after the start of hockey's postseason:

Higher seeds have had their problems during the first few days of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It now looks as if the Sabres-Bruins winner will take on the winner of Murray State-Northern Iowa in the second round.

Well, it's nothing Woody Allen or Larry Gelbart would put it in his scrapbook, but it filled the purpose. Then I got this note in my e-mail today:


I'd like to comment on your Five in today's paper.

Comparing the Sabres and Bruins to college hockey can only tell me you have a problem. Whether you're just looking for e-mail or your JUST PLAN STUPID.

You better stay with the little people, you haven't grown up yet.

In that short note, our letter-writer showed that he:

1. Can't spell my name.
2. Can't spell plain.
3, Can't use "you're" correctly.
4, Doesn't know Murray State and Northern Iowa were references to huge basketball upsets in the NCAA tournament.

To quote Bill Simmons of ESPN, "Yup, these are my readers."

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A taxing question

It's been almost fun to watch the tea party set go through the past week or so.

Last Thursday was the deadline for tax returns to be filed, and the tea partiers did a little protesting around the country to get some attention. Here's a guess as to what is going on, leading to a key question.

I get the distinct impression that the far right wing of the conservative side of the political spectrum started this movement. These are the people who don't trust government to do anything, including deliver the mail, and who still don't believe President Obama was born in Hawaii. I'm not sure I'd like to hang out with any of these people. Their anti-tax, anti-deficit did hit a chord with some people, due in part to the stimulus package and health insurance plan that has gone through Congress in the past year-plus.

We've seen Republicans like Sarah Palin sprint to the right to support these groups in pursuit of their energy and, no doubt, their money. Her brand of anti-intellectualism is popular in some circles but not exactly comforting. We've also seen the classic conservatives -- older and wealthier than the population as a whole -- support some of the Tea Party goals, which helps explain some of the demographic characteristics revealed in recent polls.

One of the public opinion polls circulating centers on the question, "How much are you willing to pay in taxes to the government?" And that strikes me as a far more fascinating question than you'd think.

My answer would not be in the form of a percentage, but rather, "Whatever it takes to run the functions of government properly and efficiently." Representatives figure out what needs to be done, and then collects enough to pay for it. We all might disagree what what those functions are, but that's part of the fun of a democracy.

But few of our political leaders have ever shown the courage needed to make those decisions. They have instead put off those decisions by borrowing money. Both sides have been doing this for 50-plus years. For a more recent example, President Bush started two wars in his Administration, and never bothered to figure out how to pay for them. If the Tea Parties want to hop on that bus, it's great to make room for them.

Otherwise, though, a few specifics would be nice. As in, what part of government spending should be cut -- and cut drastically -- to reduce the tax rate? Let's see -- just try to cut social security benefits and see what the reaction would be about the voting public. Same with Medicare and Medicaid. Defense spending is something of sacred trust for some conservatives. We can't exactly not pay off the interest on the national debt. And that's a vast majority of government spending.

I suppose government support of the financial system and of certain big businesses (General Motors) isn't too popular with the Tea Party set, even though most think it probably was necessary to avoid an even bigger recession than the one we had.

Some protesters will use the old discussion about reducing welfare roles, even if many have come off in recent years and a certain percentage of the population is never going to be a productive part of society. Plus, the social costs of ignoring those people are huge.

And if anyone thinks simply cutting taxes generally will magically create revenues on a huge scale, think again. President Reagan tried that -- he saw growth, but he also saw large deficits.

So, Tea Partiers, here's your challenge. Either step up and contribute some important ideas to the political dialogue, or just sit back and complain. It's a choice between good citizenship and irrelevance.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

One taste was enough

Curiosity got the better of me the last couple of nights. I've been hearing a lot about Glenn Beck in the last few months, mostly in a bad sense. I did read a profile in Time magazine for background information. When I was up at 2 a.m., he popped up on a re-run on Fox News.

Beck usually is quoted as saying something really odd, such as that President Obama's henchmen were going to be coming for him in the near future. Still, there's nothing like seeing him in his own element.

It took about four minutes for me to get annoyed. Beck made the statement that he was not a journalist, and "wore that fact as a badge of honor." Hmmm. Collecting the facts and informing the public always struck me as something of a noble profession, even if the bearers of bad tidings aren't always popular. Wonder how he gets his news?

One night Beck used a headline on economic indicators from the New York Times as a launching point for a rant. The headline was something like "Why so glum? Economy shows strong growth." Which, according to everything I've seen is true. You may argue that it's propped up by government spending, and I'd argue that it is what most people want about now.

Good indicators don't match gloom-and-doom message, so Beck launched an attack ... on the New York Times. If things are so good, why is the New York Times laying off people, he argued. I'm not going to say this is a great time for newspapers, but that industry is a little small to be called representative of When the facts get in the way, attack the messenger.

Then today, Newsweek came out with a commentary saying the economy was rebounding in impressive fashion. This was written off as another example of "Obama-media." (In fairness, the Fox News host did complain about a picture layout in that article with him under Father Coughlin, which might have been over the line for the magazine).

Beck also showed a clip of Ben Bernanke from early in 2007, saying he expected good growth through the summer and fall. Beck made fun of that prediction; the problem is that, while it's difficult to say when exactly the recession began, it very well could have been very late in 2007. So in other words, Bernanke may have been right.

Click. New channel.

I realize that Beck has an interest in telling people that disaster is right around the corner. More gloom and doom builds ratings and fires up the audience.

It doesn't mean I have to watch, though.

Monday, April 05, 2010

On the job

Here's a look at how "big time journalism" works these days when it comes to deadline pressures:

Last Saturday night, your Buffalo Bandits hosted the Colorado Mammoth in exciting National Lacrosse League action. The Bandits started quite slowly and trailed most of the way. They made a few comebacks, but seemed to be done early in the fourth quarter.

All right. The first edition of the newspaper has a deadline of 10:15 p.m. That means that I need to have my story in the hands of the office staff as soon as the game ends. Let's repeat that -- as soon as the game ends. Obviously, I do some writing ahead of time.

In this case, I wrote about 10-12 paragraphs on the first three quarters of the game. It mentioned a pregame ceremony, individual goals, etc. Then in the fourth quarter, about 9:45 or so, I started to write about six paragraphs for the top of the story.

I started out something like, "If the Buffalo Bandits fail to make the playoffs this year, they'll look back at two games that helped kill their chances. They lost to the last-place Philadelphia Wings at home in February, and they lost to the last-place Colorado Mammoth, xx-x, before a near-capacity crowd in HSBC Arena Saturday night."

Time continued to tick off, and I filled in some other paragraphs -- playoff race, top scorers of the night, etc. I was looking pretty good when the Mammoth had a four-goal lead with less than two minutes to go.

The Bandits scored one goal, and then a second, and then a third. I started typing a comeback story, just in case they completed the improbable rally. But what to write?

I started with "The Buffalo Bandits came back from the dead on Saturday night." Then I said to myself, "That's probably not the most appropriate lead on Easter." So I switched to "Never leave a Buffalo Bandits' game early. (Paragraph) Never."

The Bandits tied it in the final 15 seconds sending the game to overtime. So, I resisted the opportunity to swear at Brett Bucktooth, who had three of the four goals, and wrote more about a Bandits' victory in overtime, leaving some spaces blank.

However, it was Colorado that scored the game-winner a little more than a minute into overtime. That made it story number three -- and remember, once the game ended, the story was due at the office. So I furiously re-wrote the story, starting with the "don't leave early" angle and working my way into overtime and the loss.

I don't really remember writing that part, but it looked like it was in English once I saw it in the paper. Whew. My only saving grace was that I knew the Bandits would take their time talking to the media after the game, which was the case.

By the time I got to the locker room areas, I bounced between the two sides. Colorado was happy, Buffalo was not. Then I walked back to the office, wrote up an entirely fresh story by 11:25 p.m., cleaned up the notebook a bit, posted a note on the Bandits' blog, and headed home.

And you know, there's never a beer in the house when you really need one.

Friday, April 02, 2010

A matter of faith

I'm the first to admit it: I don't have a dog in this hunt.

I'm not religious, so I don't have a direct interest in what has been going with the "scandals" surrounding the Catholic Church lately. It would be easy to say, "It's not my problem," and walk away.

But I do wonder what people who do have something at stake are thinking here.

Short version: Priests have been involved in a variety of sexual abuse cases for many years. There were said to be 10,000 such cases in the U.S. between 1950 and 2002. The most famous ones on this side of the ocean came through an investigation in 2002 by the Boston Globe, but other stories have come out as well. One documentary, "Deliver Us From Evil," was particularly powerful. It's rather sickening to hear that priests who commit terrible acts were shuffled off to an out-of-town location without comment, and repeated their crimes again and again.

Now some new allegations have come up in Germany, touching church leaders below the current Pope dating back to his days as a Cardinal, and creating something of a firestorm. And stories from other countries such as Ireland have come out as well.

Let's spell out the obvious: there are many, many more good people in the church than bad ones. There's been plenty of good work done for centuries.

Still, we're talking about powerful authority figures here. When disputes about behavior did come up, how many times were the authority figure's words taken at true without argument, leaving some not to even bother trying to complain? How much of that, even today, is still happening?

And, with patterns of deceit present, how difficult is it to listen to church leadership on any other issue, including the really big ones (God, heaven, etc.), without wondering about their validity of their point of view? Religion often tries to answer the unanswerable, and faith is part of the process. What happens when faith in church leadership is rattled?

It probably is good if cathartic to get this sort of issue out in the open again, and we can hope that the reform process will continue. But, believers sure do have to be asking themselves some tough questions these days. It's easy to wonder about the long-term effects of all of it.