Thursday, December 13, 2012

Fish story

This one is funny for Western New Yorkers, mostly. So I'll give them the joke first, and then tell the backstory to the rest.

I was in Florida last week and picked up a newspaper. The headline on top of the local section made me burst out laughing.

It read "Bass Pro payout put off." And when I brought the section back here and showed it to a friend, he burst out laughing too.

Bass Pro and Buffalo go way back in terms of comedy. When Memorial Auditorium came down some years ago, the original idea was to put some sort of big attraction in terms of a store in that area. Bass Pro was considered by some at the time to be a good choice, since it was known as a huge recreation outlet that was only available in selected markets and thus could be a huge draw for the outdoor set. A deal, contingent on tax breaks, was announced.

And then Western New York waited, and waited, and waited some more. It became a running joke. "What are you doing tonight?" "Oh, thought I'd go down to Bass Pro and look for ... oh, right, never mind."

When I was in Geneva, I visited a Bass Pro there just to see what it was like. It was a nice, big fishing store -- not some place that would be on my list of shopping destinations, although I'm not part of the target audience.

Finally, after five years of negotiations -- I'll repeat that, five years -- local politicians finally said "enough" and walked away. Bass Pro's only comment was that it hadn't had enough time to put together a final deal. Glaciers move faster, and not just because of global warming.

The city turned to other plans, and developed the area at the foot of Main Street as a park. Turns out people like to gather by the waterfront on nice days, because it turned into a popular spot in about, oh, an hour. And construction on a project on the Aud site is underway.

By the way, some of the credit for this burst of action goes to Congressman Brian Higgins, who moved the project along. You know those surveys in which people say they hate Congress but think their Congressman is doing a fine job? That's the story here.

As for the Florida Bass Pro, the plan was to put in a story just off an Interstate in Brandon. The company first asked for $40 million in subsidies, much of that in direct tax break. The burden on the county has been negotiated down to $8.25 million in local funds. It was difficult to say by reading the story if there are other tax breaks involved.

County Commissioners voted to postpone making a decision on the transaction until February. Based on what we've seen up here, I wouldn't plan on purchasing that new fishing pole there anytime soon.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Not fair

For whatever reason, it's been a busy couple of weeks in the obituary department of the newspaper. We've gone through quite a run of people who have passed away - some at least a little expected, others not so much.

It's difficult to think of Marvin Miller, Larry Hagman, "Macho" Camacho and Bob Swados in the same breath, but that's who we lost. I interviewed Camacho once when he fought a boxing match in Buffalo, and he was hilarious. Camacho was like an elf, floating around town in anticipation of the fight. Swados was one of the central figures in the history of the Sabres, so I worked for him when I was with the team. Anyone connected with the team has a supply of stories about Swados, an unforgettable personality by any definition.

But oddly, it was someone else that caught me off guard -- someone most people haven't heard of.

I wrote about the progressive rock band Renaissance a little more than a year ago. The group had some success in the 1970's, and put out some fondly remembered albums by fans of the genre. Disco and punk weren't kind to a classical sound late in the decade, and the band split up. Various combinations of the band tried reforming over the next 25 years or so, but nothing ever lasted.

Then Michael Dunford and Annie Haslam decided to give it one last try. They found some other musicians to round out a band, did some rehearsing, and took to the road. One of their stops was in Buffalo, where I saw them. The music still worked, and the crowd seemed enthusiastic. Renaissance even put out a DVD/CD of their performance.

Their next step was an unusual one. Renaissance needed money to produce a new album (or whatever you call it in this digital age), so it went to Kickstarter. That's a web site designed to raise money for a variety of projects. The target was somewhere in the $44,000 range, with a variety of premiums offered depending on the donations. Needless to say, U2 doesn't have to do that when it wants to put out some music, but at least the idea worked. Renaissance raised more than twice the money it needed - $92,000.

The band headed to the recording studio, and finished the album. The band tuned up with a few more live shows, although some physical problems kept Haslam off the road at times and thus some performances were postponed. Still, Dunford was autographing sheet music for backers as of a couple of weeks ago.

Then on November 20, Dunford was eating with his family in England and suffered a massive Instantaneous Cerebral Hemorrhage. He never regained consciousness and died that night.

There's never anything fair about such things. But in Dunford's case, leaving behind a wife and two children ages 13 and 10, and missing the opportunity to play new music in a style that he loved, this story seems particular cruel.

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Monday, November 26, 2012

Breaking news coverage

Ever wonder how the story of the Three Little Pigs would be covered today?

A British TV ad speculates. Great stuff.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Legal opinion

I had a chat with a lawyer the other day, and not because I was in any trouble with the law. I was interested in a good opinion about the NHL lockout, and he has a great deal of experience in dealing with the ins and outs from a legal perspective of a labor dispute.

He's not much of a hockey fan, so I had to explain some of the particulars of this case. His first question was why there was a lockout in the first place, since that's a last resort in most industries. I explained that almost 20 years ago the players figured out that they make their money in the regular season and the owners make their money in the playoffs, so it was better to go on strike in April rather than do it in September when the collective bargaining agreement expired. The owners, therefore, have called for lockouts to prevent that from happening.

Then we got into the particulars. I said how the owners had been giving up 57 percent of hockey revenues to the players, and wanted that share to drop down to 43. The legal expert was pretty stunned about that sort of drop. Then I pointed out that they seemed to compromise at a 50-50 divide a few weeks ago.

"So they are about ready to settle then?" he asked.

Well, no, I explained. There are all sorts of other issues that haven't been resolved. And our lawyer was not impressed.

He sort of wondered if the owners in this case had an alternative goal to just getting a better CBA. That could go in a number of directions, including breaking or intimidating the union for the long term.

But failing that, he concluded that there should be absolutely no way that, if the owners and players were anxious to work things out, it couldn't be done quickly at this point. The hard part was decided a while ago; the rest is just details. Yes, there are millions of dollars at stake, but there are ways to get to a fair compromise in such a situation with a little work.

That's about what I thought, but nice to hear it well presented by someone with legal training. It also means to me that there is still hope for some sort of hockey season in the coming months. It obviously won't be a full season, but they could pick up a 48-game season sometime in January and have a full playoff run. They did it before in the 1990s.

That's probably the next deadline, and deadlines lead to deals. And if we go sailing past that date, the owners and players will be trying to figure out what 50 percent of nothing is. You do the math.

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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Seeing the future

Here's my favorite story about journalists and predictions. It dates back to the spring of 1984.

The Buffalo Sabres were getting ready for a first-round playoff series with the Quebec Nordiques. The Sabres did a postgame show on television after a late-season game to talk about the playoffs, and my friend Dave was asked to be a guest.

At some point Dave was asked to give a prediction about the series. He explained that while the Sabres had the better regular-season record, the Nordiques had won the season series between the teams in convincing fashion. Dave said he thought it was a bad matchup for the Sabres, and thus picked the Nordiques.

When the red light went off and the show was over, veteran sportscaster Ralph Hubbell immediately "yelled" at Dave. His speech went something along the lines of "never pick against the home team in public. If you do and you are wrong, people will gloat and hold it against you. If you do and you are right, you won't get any credit."

Dave, to his credit, said he was just being honest. And, the Nordiques did beat the Sabres. It hadn't occurred to me to do anything but give an honest opinion, but I've been thinking about it lately.

Journalists are often asked to give predictions, especially in sports. Most of them are quickly forgotten. Do you remember what anyone said about the current Bills' season? About what the World Series matchup was supposed to be from an April standpoint? Me either.

The News has been running predictions on each week's NFL games. Some years the winner does pretty well. Most years the losers are behind a coin toss. It's not easy to outguess the pros in Las Vegas who set the point spreads; they make their living on establishing a line that is a 50-50 proposition.

News reporters also are asked to make predictions. The economic analysts - in journalism or on Wall Street - are famous for being wrong. But it's the political journalists who have to see the future more than most. This usually is easier than it sounds in their line of work. Most races are determined the day the ballot is finalized. There are surprises, particularly in primary season when data is difficult to find and turnout tough to estimate, but not too many.

That brings us to the recent Presidential election, which set up a very unusual set of circumstances. We had a election that was judged a virtual tie the morning of the election by some pollsters. Even so, the demands on the "experts" were such that they were asked to predict a winner in the electoral college. There were indications that President Obama was favored to win reelection, but it was hardly certain.

However, the predictions fell almost completely by party lines. All of the Democrats picked Obama to win rather handily in the electoral college. Many of the Republicans thought Mitt Romney would take a narrow win. Some of the conservative pundits, including Dick Morris and George Will, had Romney winning with more than 300 electoral votes. Others were quick to think of reasons why Romney was going to win, such as "undecideds always break toward the challenger" (let's forget about Bush-Kerry in 2004, shall we?).

The odd part was that a lot of people who should know better used less-than-scientific reasoning to make their picks. Peggy Noonan, who is as smart as they come and who should know better, talked about the big crowds and enthusiasm Romney was generating at the end as the reason why he'd win. Heck, Walter Mondale felt that way when he ran in 1984, as people pay attention in the final days and turn out. But Mondale still got crushed. Joe Scarborough rejected Nate Silver's analysis by saying he had talked to the campaign staffers on both sides, and Silver was wrong. Guess the old ways of determining the outcome had magically become a little less valid. As I wrote before, we may have hit a new age in such matters.

A lot of people seemed crushed by the outcome of the election, and I just wonder if those Republican predictions set people up for a fall by mistake. In other words, how many were making predictions in a certain way because that's what their audience was expecting? How many were following Ralph Hubbell's advice. Hard to tell, but it's probably a few. And if they were lying to make their audience happy, how can we trust their judgment on other matters? When will we know if they are giving an honest answer about anything? That question hangs over the results.

As for me, while I try to be honest, I usually take the coward's way out. If people ask for predictions, I'll answer by saying that if I knew the future, I'd be buying lottery tickets.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Free agency arrives

At 9:01 p.m. on Tuesday, something of an earthquake took place in my political life.

In New York state, voters who change their party affiliation during the course of the year can do so at any time. However, it doesn't go into effect until after the next general election.

Therefore, the form I filled out in June went into effect at that point. Presto, I went from affiliated with the Republican Party to affiliated with no political party.

After 39 years of an association with the GOP, it was not a step I took lightly. But perhaps an explanation is in order in the hopes that it will point out a few important issues that should be part of the conversation on the Republican side, particularly as they deal with the after-effects of losing another Presidential election.

Yes, my parents were strong Republicans, so I had an initial bias that way. But as someone coming off age politically (meaning I could vote), I did identity with the Republican idea that government was not an answer to all of our problems. For as long as I could remember, I tended to associate the Democrats with throwing federal money at problems without much of a sign that it made much of a difference. Still, in hindsight I hoped I realized that there were several ways to get to a goal, and that discussion and compromise were part of the process.

I still think that way, but I found myself more and more in the minority in the Republican Party. As we rolled through the 1980's and 1990's, the voting machine looked as if I had thrown some M&M's at random at the keys when I was done with it, with all sorts of candidates represented. I did have a small bias toward Republican legislators and Democratic judges, since they seemed more inclined not to take much action toward many issues. So in other words, this switch that happened Tuesday will have little practical implication on my voting patterns.I still plan to be all over the place.

But in the past decade or so, I have grown more and more uncomfortably with the right-wing agenda of many Republicans, and their voices in the party have gotten louder.

Let's sum it up in a few issues. I don't attend church. I am pro-choice and pro-same-sex marriage. I don't mind paying more in taxes if I'm convinced the reason is a good one. I have enough respect for our military forces to want them usually only when it is in our vital national interest. Working with all sides is the way to get good deeds done in our system; in other words, compromise should not be a sign of weakness.

When I hear Republicans talk about a return to "family values," I hear them say "my family values and no one else's." When I hear Republicans talk returning to the beliefs of our Founding Fathers (see the health care debate), I want to point out that our Founding Fathers initially didn't believe in the direct election of Senators, didn't let women vote at all, and considered blacks to be only three-fifths of a person. Circumstances change, people change.

Does it sound like Republicans want someone like me in their shrinking "big tent?" I don't think so. If I've learned one lesson over the years, it's "don't stay where you aren't wanted." A lot of people in the Republican Party don't want moderates around -- which is a great way to lose national elections.

I first thought about switching parties in 2008. The choice of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential candidate struck me as particularly dreadful. She was clearly unqualified to be President, and was only picked because John McCain needed someone to excite the base. Palin is clearly unqualified to make any remarks about the "lamestream media," particularly considering her reading habits. It was difficult to be associated with that choice even in a very small way, since people heard my party affiliation and made a wide range of (incorrect) assumptions about my views.

But it took the New York Presidential primary of 2012 to actually get me to look up the procedure on switching. The primary, at that point, was merely a symbolic gesture since Mitt Romney had the nomination wrapped up. But I couldn't vote for him. He had seemed promising to me once upon a time, but changed his views frequently in an obvious attempt to pander to more conservative elements of the party - especially in this second Presidential bid. Romney came off with a bored rich guy who needed something to do. Rick Santorum was far too conservative for me, and Newt Gingrich mixed a great deal of intelligence with megalomania. Jon Huntsman would have been acceptable, as he seemed like the adult at the table, but he wasn't on the ballot. I instead voted for Ron Paul in the primary. Paul has nine wacky ideas for every interesting one, but at least he's been consistent in his viewpoints.

It wasn't much of a choice. The next day, I went on line to look up how to change registration affiliations. And it was easy - print out a form and find a stamp.

Now, I'm a blank. I'm still not comfortable with all the Democrats represent. If people want to drink 32-ounce Big Gulps, I don't think government should stop them. Therefore, a non-affiliated listing is a good place for me - somewhere in the middle. In other words, I find both Sean Hannity of Fox and Lawrence O'Donnell of MSNBC partisan to the point of being unwatchable. I'll try to collect information and cast an intelligent ballot ... just like I do for the baseball all-star teams, the lacrosse awards, and the other important issues of the day.

My vote is now more up for grabs than ever, boys and girls of all political parties. You are invited to try to get it.

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Monday, November 05, 2012

I've seen this movie before

It is starting to look like history is repeating itself.

About 35 years ago, a night watchman in Kansas started spending his spare time between rounds analyzing baseball. He knew he had piles of data, but wondered about what people were doing with it. He wondered when a player hit his prime, pondered how good a catcher was at throwing out baserunners, and asked why no one considered the ability to draw walks as a valuable offensive tool.

Eventually, those techniques caught on, spawned bunches of imitators and copycats, and changed the game of baseball. Some day, Bill James - as unlikely a choice as possible based on apparent athletic ability - may get into the Baseball Hall of Fame for his revolutionary work.

I'm starting to believe Nate Silver is headed down that path, even if there's no Hall of Fame for political forecasters.

Silver was one of the geniuses who worked on the early editions of Baseball Prospectus, something of a successor to James' Baseball Abstracts. He also was a professional poker player some years ago. He decided to use the techniques he'd picked up elsewhere, due to his interest in probability, and apply them to politics. His blog gained a large niche audience in 2008, and his reputation grew due to the fact that he picked 49 out of 50 states in the Presidential race and every single Senate race correctly.

Silver's blog was picked up by the New York Times, which means readers have to go through the old link (see above) or follow him on Twitter to avoid the paywall. Sounds like the audience has figured that out. The number of readers has to be huge.

Silver has reminded us that the Presidential race is not one election, but 51 - one for each state plus D.C. So all of those national polls that take a snapshot of Candidate A vs. B can essentially be thrown out because they are meaningless. He's concluded that even in an election that is tied nationally, President Obama has a much better chance of winning.

Silver has paid attention to the state polls, and there have been no shortage of them in the past two months. The analyst also has created some large complicated model, which even includes the impact of economic factors such as unemployment, for coming up with probabilities. He's also checked the history books, and made what should be a simple discovery: a three-point lead in January is much different than a three-point lead on November 5 (at least this year). Get enough polls pointing in one direction, even within a margin of error, and the probability is good that such a leading candidate will win.

Silver's done his figuring this year, and he points out a few facts along the way -- such as the fact that Barack Obama has never trailed at any point in Ohio when the polls are factored together. So Obama certainly figured to be the favorite there tomorrow, right? And he is, at least as of my last glance at the site - an 87 percent chance of taking the state. (Florida, by the way, is virtually tied but Silver gives a 56 percent chance to Governor Romney.)

Take that and apply it to the other 50 elections, and as of Monday afternoon Silver gave Obama an 86 percent chance of winning the election. As he explained in an essay, it would take a lot of bad polls for the election to come out differently. That's possible, but in Silver's view not likely.

There's a lot of noise out there about the election. Someone at work the other day mentioned how close the national polls were and predicted a long night of election-watching. The television networks, who have an obvious interest in driving up their audiences, are emphasizing those national polls. And it's fun to hear some of the pundits make predictions; people such as Dick Morris and Jim Cramer are busy predicting landslides (although not the same landslide). Speaker John Boehner supposedly guaranteed Ohio would go to the Republicans yesterday.

That puts Silver on a bit of the ledge, and he's heard about it. The political insiders say in private and public that the election really is too close to call. And that's fine. James heard the same sort of criticism in his first decade of writing. The smart guys usually turn out fine in the end, and Silver is one of the smart guys.

(P.S. It turned out that Mr. Silver had a good night. He got the first 49 states plus D.C. right, and said Florida came out to a virtual tie - with Obama holding the lead on the fourth or fifth decimal point. This was called "the Moneyball election" by one pundit, and Silver was a reason why.)

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Birds of a feather

I've been reading Nate Silver's book, "The Signal and the Noise," lately. You might know Silver's work lately from his New York Times blog that came over from, although there's still a link that way and I think you can avoid the paywall that's usually up. But I've been a fan since his days when he worked for Baseball Prospectus, the geniuses that come up with some of the most innovative writing in the business as they match statistical research with innovative projections and good writing.

Silver made his political reputation in 2008 when he called 49 of 50 states right as well as all the Senate races. His new book is on the science of predicting and forecasting, as he goes through a variety of areas. For example, weather forecasting has gotten much better in recent years. Weather experts a few decades ago used to need a day before determining a city such as New Orleans would get pounded. Now they have the same chance of predictive success three days out. How many lives has that saved in recent years?

In the early part of the book, Silver makes a great point about the state of information in this country, and that leads to an even better point about where journalism in this country right now. In fact, this whole idea could turn into another book for someone.

The starting point centers on how the amount of information available to the average citizen these days has simply exploded. That's mostly due to the Internet, of course, although the rise of cable television in the 1980's and the ever-expanding number of books that are published in one form or another factors in as well.

But here's the catch - it doesn't mean the audience is learning anything. In fact, we're probably learning less, at least in terms of information worth knowing.

That's because we now can pick out who is delivering the news to us, and make sure the point of view matches our own. You don't have to hear an opposing position, unless it's almost by accident.

We have to give Fox News credit for starting this trend, for better or for worse. Conservatives for years have claimed that most of the media has a liberal bias, dating back I guess to Nixon and Agnew. Personally, I don't think it was as big as claimed, but most journalists I know are a little more liberal than the population as a whole because they have a bias for action. Doing nothing, in the conservative tradition, doesn't create much news.

The group at Fox perceived an opening in the political dialogue by hiring conservatives in their prime-time commentary role, and then mixing in points of view during the rest of the day (although liberal guests usually get double-teamed by the conservative anchors). Viewers flocked to it. MSNBC tried the same approach to the left, but hasn't been as financially successful - perhaps due to demographics, perhaps due to the fact the outlet doesn't do bias as well as Fox.

But that's not all. There are conservative and liberal web sites. For every Drudge Report there's a Huffington Post. It keeps getting easier not to read a discouraging word about your side. And I'd have to guess that has made people much more likely to accept ridiculous points of view that are self-generated and promoted but which have no basis in reality (see the whole Obama birthplace matter). That sells more books by authors from the fringes, because the points of view have a better chance of being accepted.

That leads to the question of what this all means for journalists. Can't say I like it.

Our training is to try to figure out what's accurate, sort out the facts, and come to some conclusions. If candidates lie in political speeches or ads, this profession is the one that's charged with calling it to everyone's attention. It's taken very seriously, at least on this end. But to take one example, Mitt Romney apparently feels free to say and place in an ad the implied fact that Jeep is moving a product line to China without fear of being shouted down by responsible third parties.

At this point in the political cycle, I could use some good, objective information on what's going on. There are plenty of good journalists who are trained to think that way. Sometimes I think I'm one of the few who appreciate that sort of approach. Most people seem to want to only hear from their side; any other opinion is part of the "lamestream media," to quote noted philosopher Sarah Palin. 

And is there anything worse than listening or reading to someone put an obvious spin on events, even if they don't care about facts? I can appreciate the fact that office holders have to spout the party line on television and in print interviews, but I could do without these relatively anonymous unnamed party strategists.

My guess is that all of this tends to harden political positions. That leads to strict party conformity, a feeling that the other side is filled with idiots (we've been bashing Presidents since Reagan in one form or another), and a sense that compromise is death politically.

None of this is good. The process is headed in the wrong direction, and I'm not sure how we turn any of it around.

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Monday, October 22, 2012


What's the most uncomfortable situation in the sports world these days?

How about being introduced to Lance Armstrong?

He's had a tough year. Armstrong has lost all of his Tour de France titles, as well as, I assume, a few other championships that no one really cares about. He's lost his main sponsors, such as Nike. Armstrong has left his charity, Livestrong. Everyone he ever met, seemingly, during his racing career has testified that he was a cheater and a bully.

Oh, and on Monday, the New York City Marathon took his name out of its archives of finishers. Mary Wittenberg, the head of New York Road Runners and one of my favorite interviews in the running business, is always on top of things.

I've written before about the effects of a letdown. It came earlier this year in the context of the Sabres missing the playoffs when hopes were so high about a Stanley Cup the previous fall. We're seeing more of it in Buffalo with the Bills, who supposedly had upgraded their defense with some topnotch acquisitions. Defensive coordinator Dave Wannstadt is the current choice of local fans to be the scapegoat, although you have to think the players bear a good-sized share of the responsibility for all of this.

But Armstrong isn't a case of losing a few football games. This is a special level of disappointment. Ben Johnson let down all of Canada when his doping story broke hours after he won a gold medal in 1988. The Armstrong case centers on someone who had been admired for more than a decade, and now he's been firmly identified as a cheater and a liar.That's crushing.

Armstrong was such a good story. He was a promising cyclist who was moving up the ladder in the world rankings when he was diagnosed with cancer. Armstrong wasn't expected to live, let alone compete again. He beat the disease, came back better than ever, and starting winning Tour de France titles i 1999 ... 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

How could you not root for a guy like that? And more to the point, how could you not consider donating to his cancer-fighting foundation? A lot of people did write those checks, and $500 million was raised by Livestrong. That's a half-billion dollars, which sounds even more impressive.

While all of this was going on, the sport of cycling continued to be hit with scandals involving drug use. It seemed that no one could ever reach the podium in Paris without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs.

Except Lance. He kept passing the drug tests, one after another. Armstrong defiantly pointed that out whenever there was the hint of an issue with those tests, or his involvement with a doctor who was known to "help" cyclists with their needs at the nearest pharmacy. In hindsight, how easy must have it been for people to dodge positive test results? Better living through chemistry, indeed.

Eventually, the wall all came down, and in an unconventional fashion. Rather than rely on tests, the USADA instead turned to testimony from Armstrong's teammates. The wall of silence didn't just fall, it crashed into a zillion pieces. Today, those pieces were swept away and put into the dustbin of history. Lance Armstrong no longer exists, as least in the history books.

Cycling has worked hard to clean up its image in the last few years. It's tough to say if this episode is another step forward in that direction, or one last huge blow to the sport's reputation. Maybe both.

Armstrong hasn't commented on any of this, merely saying at one point a while ago that he chose not to fight the charges any more. His web site as of this writing still recognizes his Tour de France wins, and still says Armstrong "has become one of the most recognizable and admired people of this era." Well, at this point, it's half-right.

What do we do with such people? Some sort of public apology is the usual first step, no matter when it comes. I suppose at some point he'll write a book, explaining the whole sorry episode. Pete Rose did it after years of lying about his gambling on baseball. Remind me not to buy either of them.

In fact, Armstrong and Rose have plenty in common. As the Beatles sang, they are real nowhere men, sitting in their nowhere land, making all their nowhere plans for nobody.

Hope I don't bump into them.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Sound bite of the year

It appears that we have a winner for the best interview answer of the year. And in a Presidential election year, it's a small surprise that it came from an offensive tackle.

Last weekend, Chiefs' quarterback Andrew Cassel was injured during a game with the Ravens. Some of the fans in Kansas City, apparently frustrated by the team's inability to generate any offense this season, cheered. The exact number was impossible to guess, but the message came through clearly.

Cassel was later diagnosed with a concussion. After the game, Chiefs' tackle Eric Winston -- one of those generally anonymous players except in the places where he played -- was ready to address the media, and ready to rip his own fans. Listen to the words, and see how well he expresses himself.

This might raise a larger issue regarding football. I've written before about how NFL games are no place for the timid, how many fans who sit in the stands will hear and see vulgarities that wouldn't be tolerated anywhere else. And this sort of attitude from fans is one of the end products of that atmosphere.

This postgame speech by Winston reminded me of Phil Esposito's remarks after Team Canada was booed during a loss in the 1972 Summit Series. It's now considered one of the great speeches in Canadian history:

I'm not so naive to think that Winston's remarks might generate a few more feelings of civility in sports events. But I can hope.

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Friday, October 05, 2012

Drive-by sighting

Ever see something on the road that makes you feel like rubbing your eyes in disbelief, although you don't because you are going 70 miles per hour on an Interstate and you have no desire to get into a major accident over a billboard?

This was such a time.

Earlier this week I was driving on Interstate 95, headed north in Georgia. When I got into Camden County, this billboard was on the side of the road. If you click on it, the image gets bigger. It was definitely a "Did I just see what I thought I saw?" moment.

I eventually went on line to see what was going on. I found this link to a story explaining that the billboard was indeed placed by the Republican Party of Camden County just north of Jacksonville. (Yes, it's a Mother Jones story, but the background story isn't up for question, and I couldn't find the one from a local paper through the search engine.)

Now let's forget the obvious implication of the billboard that you either vote Republican or you get your marching orders from some corner of the Kremlin that didn't hear about the fall of the Soviet Union.

Somebody thought it was a good idea for the Republican Party of the county to spend a lot of money to rent space on a billboard on an Interstate. That's probably expensive, and the sign would be seen mostly by people who are passing through Camden County to get somewhere else. So that's rather inefficient. Something on Main St. might have been better.

Some of those cars might be filled with people looking for a place to eat or stay. Last I looked, Democrats spend the same brand of money as Republicans. Wouldn't those Democrats be tempted to keep going into the next county instead of getting off at an exit?

Those who depend on tourism dollars in Camden County, even on a small basis, must be really thrilled about now.

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

My pal Joe

It's now safe to tell this story, which tells you about the strange relationships that journalists sometimes have.

Joe Illuzzi was something of a gadfly to the politics in Western New York. He ran several blogs, including It's fair to say Joe was well to the right on the political spectrum, and wasn't shy about his expressing his views. Otherwise, the blog was devoted reprints of columns by other right-wing pundits, such as David Limbaugh and Anne Coulter. Surrounding those posts were ads from several political types of a variety of viewpoints. You may not have agreed with Joe, but you certainly know where he stood.

One of his frequent targets was The Buffalo News. Not surprisingly, Joe's rhetoric was turned up a few hundred degrees about our newspaper after The News did a story on the website. It seemed that the politicians who bought ads received much kinder treatment from Illuzzi than those who didn't. That raises certain words like blackmail, extortion and protection money.

But there was at least one person at The News who had a civil relationship with Joe. And that was me.

Joe's father was something of a runner. He showed up at races well into his late 80's, at the end walking more than running but taking pride in his participation. One time Joe Sr. had won an age-group trophy for the Runner of the Year competition, but didn't drive and thus couldn't come get his reward. Being the nice guy that I am, or at least not wanting to mail the trophy to Cheektowaga, I stopped by the condo of Joe Sr. to deliver it to him personally. That got me a warm write-up in the blog, praising me for my actions. I think I sent him a quick note of thanks. We probably exchanged a couple of other short emails over the course of a couple of years.

Joe Sr.'s running days ended in a strange way, as he was hit by a car while walking home from a workout last year. He hung on for much longer than anyone thought, but never did get out of the hospital and died after a couple of months. When the accident first happened, Joe Jr.let me know about it and kept me up to date on events. In fact, he wrote once to say that doctors had turned off all the machines for Joe Sr. because there was nothing else they could do. But the elder Joe fooled everyone, and stayed alive a few weeks longer.

Death finally did come to Joe Sr., and his son wrote to say that he was happy to be an anonymous source of background material for a story. The younger Joe also directed me to another son, who lived outside of Philadelphia, who gave me a terrific interview. Joe Jr. sent me a note after the story ran, saying how much the whole family appreciated it.

Joe Illuzzi often came off badly in his stories because he seemed to have a lot of anger. Still, I only saw the side of him that was a loving son. It was a nice reminder that all of the aspects of a personality don't fit neatly into one compartment. We need the whole dresser, and then some.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The speech

There is some talk that political party conventions have outlived their usefulness in terms of the national conversation. There is no drama at them any more, as everything presented is as tightly scripted as an infomercial -- in some cases, more so. Let's do away with them, the argument goes, approve the nominees electronically, and move on to the campaign.

That talk may have come to an end this year, at least for now.

I was talking today with a political insider about the subject today. We both agreed that despite all of the noise and posturing that had taken places during those few days in Tampa and those few days in Charlotte, something had cut through the buzz and made a powerful statement that changed the course of the election. In other words, to use the cliche of the moment, "a game-changer."

That would be Bill Clinton's speech during the Democratic convention.

Much of America was more or less split into two camps going into the conventions. We were in Fox News Nation or MSNBC Nation, to use shorthand. The election figured to be won in those eight to 10 percent that wasn't paying attention before. President Obama had lost some of his popularity, but some voters weren't sure if they ready to hand the keys to the White House over to Mitt Romney.

Then Clinton spoke. Within an hour, the argument behind the Republicans' attempt to win the Presidency was in shreds. The main argument has been mentioned here before, that the Bush Administration featured tax cuts and deregulation and the result was a financial mess. Why would we go back there? Clinton had covered a little of that ground in a very effective television commercial for Obama, but this was amplified. Along those lines, Clinton wondered how Republicans planned to reduce the federal debt when they talked about lowering taxes and raising defense spending.

There were other areas mentioned, such as a change in direction in foreign policy, and universal health care. Obama and his team haven't been good at defending these actions, but Clinton raised the issues nicely. The ex-President also attacked the Republicans' effort to do anything but stonewall Obama's efforts to pass legislation, perhaps noticing that Congress has an approval rating of about 13 percent right now. You get the idea.

The tide started to turn that night. Many people were watching, but others read about the speech the next day. Or heard friends, neighbors and pundits talk about it. Or watched highlights on line.

Where are we now in the election? Obama has a good-sized (at least five points) lead, according to the polls, in most of the swing states. Ohio's economy is doing well, thanks to the auto bailout, and the Republicans' ideas on Medicare aren't too popular in Florida. That makes the electoral math extremely tough for Romney, who hasn't had a particularly good September in other ways either. You might have heard about that taped fund-raising speech from earlier in the year.

Republicans, many of whom violently disagree with Obama on many issues, figured the President would be relatively easy to beat this year no matter who ran. Times are not good. But they nominated someone who has done little but come across as a "bored, rich guy" most of the time. His attacks come off as less than sincere, as if he's almost too good a person the rest of the time to put his heart into it.

And Romney always has been in a tough spot. He sprinted to the right in order to win the nomination, even though he didn't generate much enthusiasm. But that didn't leave him much cover for a general election that would be decided in the relative middle. (Then again, think Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum would have done better?)

Yes, something could happen in the coming weeks, with the debates an obvious starting point. But with every passing day, Obama's reelection seems more likely. It's another reminder that a simple speech really can move mountains.

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Monday, September 24, 2012

New team, old team

A friend of mine used to attend Buffalo Bisons' games frequently when he lived in town. He once in a while burst into song, the tune being "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." His version of a couple of verses went like this:

"So it's root, root, root, for the Bisons. If they don't win it's the same."

His point at the time was that he loved baseball, loved seeing good players and the odd future star, and loved sitting outside on a warm day and sipping a beer. If the team won, well, that was a bonus.

More than 20 years later, it's easy to wonder just how important winning is at the minor league level.

The Bisons had established a good relationship for several years with the Cleveland Indians. Not only were they close by, which has its advantages, but the Indians sent Buffalo good players. The Bisons usually were at the worst playoff contenders, which ensured several happy endings to home games.

But, the Indians had a chance to jump to Columbus in 2009. That was an even better arrangement for the Tribe, which liked the idea of some television synergy between Cleveland and Columbus. So the Bisons went searching for a new affiliation.

They picked the New York Mets, which on the surface made plenty of sense. The Mets were quite popular locally -- maybe not at the level of the New York Yankees, but somewhere around a tie for second. New York should have plenty of money to spend on player development, although the team hasn't been as efficient as other franchises. The Mets' games were on SportsNet New York, which is partially owned by Time Warner ... and thus the parent club's games were frequently on Western New York cable.

Alas, it didn't work out. During the last four years, the Bisons haven't come close to the playoffs, They have compiled one of the worst Triple-A records in baseball in that span. Admittedly, it's difficult to know how good a minor-league team might be in a given year. Injuries and recalls have a way of foiling the best laid plans. And, the Mets' woes in the Madoff financial scandal didn't help them either, although the team still has a relatively big budget compared to some of the other teams in the league.

Now the Blue Jays are coming to town. They have a very good farm system at the moment, and they are excited about the advantages of having a Triple-A team just down the road. Everyone is hoping that Southern Ontario fans will make more trips down the QEW to see the future Jays in action. The question of the day is, will the new affiliation help the Bisons?

Minor league baseball has changed in 20 years, especially locally. A honeymoon was to be expected when the Bisons moved into a new stadium and were trying to become a candidate for a major-league expansion franchise. It came in the form of million-plus attendances. Those days are clearly gone forever, and not just because the newness of the park wore off. I've said that the Bisons almost seem to be out of the baseball business at times and in the fireworks business, because such a large percentage of paying customers turns out for the lights in the sky on Fridays and special events.

What's happened? It's gotten a little too easy to keep up with a favorite major-league team through television, in high definition no less. It doesn't even matter what team a fan follows any more. It's like the local fans who say they love college basketball and watch all sorts of games on television, but who rarely pull their wallets out to go see Canisius, Niagara or UB.

Game presentation also matters. The Bisons have tried to make it interesting in recent years, and they have listened to fans at times. The mascot races have been a big hit, particularly as we wait anxiously for Celery to actually win for once. But it's funny how little things matter. Ever try to keep score there? The lineups are reviewed so quickly before the start of the game that no one can write them down in a scorebook. Some of the in-game promotional activities come off as a little lame and not worthy of Triple-A. And don't sit under an overhang if you are afraid of the dark.

Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News wrote a piece earlier this month that has a long list of other items. I like to say that Mike is one of the few people that truly cares if the team wins or not. He's concerned with individual performances, pennant races, etc. The players want to do well so they can advance to the majors (winning is just a happy byproduct of that), and the coaches want to see those players go up and contribute to the majors (because their job is to prepare the players to do exactly that). The fans like to see the home team win, but I would guess few could evenly vaguely quote the International League standings at a given moment.

Bisons' management likes to see the turnstiles spin and the beer sold, of course. Will a better team (and in terms of win-loss record, it almost has to be better) help that, or do the attendance problems go even deeper? Is it really "the same" if the team doesn't win?

Stay tuned.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Strike four

As I used to say in my radio days, let's go to the phones:

"Budd, wondering what your take is on the NHL strike is and how it will affect the Buffalo area economically and spiritually?"

All right, I actually took this question on Facebook. But you get the idea.

Work stoppages in any area of life are never fun, but this is a peculiar one.

The NHL has had a long, odd labor history. You might recall way back when that the hockey players were well behind their pro sports comrades when it came to salaries, benefits, free agency, etc. It turned out that Alan Eagleson was a major reason why. Eagleson was first known as Bobby Orr's agent, and also became the head of the players' association. It turned out that he essentially sold the players out so he could make money on his own. This was rewarded with a jail term when Russ Conway did some outstanding investigative journalism into the situation and supplied evidence about the chicanery. 

A wall of mistrust between the players and owners went up right about then. I suppose some of it has come down in 20 years, but it's still been difficult whenever the two sides have met. No wonder the NHL missed some of the end of the 1991-92 season, the first half or so of the 1994-95 season, and all of the 2004-05 season. This is the fourth stoppage in 18 years.

Strikes and lockouts used to be unthinkable in pro sports. The baseball players changed that in 1972 when the first part of the season was missed while union head Marvin Miller and the union started to flex their muscles a bit. The football players followed a decade later, and eventually all of the sports joined in.

We've gotten used to the idea that millionaires and billionaires will disagree over large sums of money, and that the fans have little recourse to influence the situation. As a result, I think fans have become a little less angry when something does happen. We were shocked over the baseball strike in 1972. We were stunned when NFL owners came up with replacement players in 1987 (and deservedly so; that was one of the great frauds in recent sports history). We were disappointed when the NHL closed up shop for half a year in 1994, especially since the league was coming off a Rangers' Stanley Cup and seemed poised to make huge gains.

And we weren't too crushed when an entire NHL season was lost eight years ago. Some people said at the time that they'd never watch another pro hockey game, but really, who keeps track of how many people keep that vow? If people like to watch hockey, they usually won't deny themselves the pleasure when it comes back. And they did come back, in a big way, after 2005.

It brings us to now. As for economic effects, any such action isn't good news, particularly here. Some people will lose their jobs, although many of those positions are part-timers like concession workers, restaurant staffers, etc. Some small businesses (restaurant/bars, sporting goods/memorabilia, etc.) will take a hit for each game lost. About half of the money in the hockey business goes to the players, and it's a large number, of course -- which goes into investments or such items as out-of-town homes rather than into Western New York for the most part. My guess is that Sabres' games don't attract as many long-distance fans as the Bills (although there are many more games), so the tourism impact isn't huge.

As for the fans, if they aren't spending their money on hockey tickets, they probably are spending it on something else ... such as movies, etc. That's assuming that they'll get it back at some point, rather than leaving it as a credit toward future ticket purchases. Oh, and naturally, they'll be buying fewer newspapers, which has a large impact ... on my business. They won't be watching MSG or listening to WGR as much as well, so ad rates will go down and money won't be generated. And I'm not sure they care if anyone "wins" in the end of negotiations between players and owners.

My guess is that some wonder why a seemingly thriving game (overall revenues keep rising) wants to cut the players' salary percentage by several points. The owners threw around serious dollars before the moment of the lockout. It's easy to think that no matter what sort of deal is reach, some NHL owner will find new ways to break the spirit of the new CBA and shell out millions to get the best available talent.

Spiritually, it's more difficult to figure out. I've always thought the Bills represented something of an "us against them" attitude for Western New York. When Buffalo beat the Jets, it was something more of a football game -- it was our city taking on the New York metropolitan area, containing a huge and remarkable city, and winning .It's good to be in that sort of company; it makes us "major league."

There's a similar sort of pride when the Sabres do well, but not as much. In other words, it's always fun to beat Toronto and Boston. Still, the NHL's stage isn't as big and as bright as the NFL's, so the buzz is less.

The hockey season is arguably 10 to 14 games too long anyway, so a short lockout probably won't cause a spiritual void in casual fans. Heck, they might enjoy having a little extra money.

But once the Bills' fate is decided, one way or another, local sports fans are in the habit of turning toward the Sabres for entertainment. There will be a void if they aren't there.

So hurry up and get this settled, boys. Any minute now, Congress will start to look functional in comparison.

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Monday, September 17, 2012

Demanding a recount

And now, one of my favorite election stories ... one that I don't think I've told in this space before:

My mother and father were registered members of the Conservative Party in New York when they lived in suburban Buffalo before moving. This was a rather exclusive club, since most people are registered members of the two major parties. In this particular year, which was sometime in the Eighties, there was a primary within the Conservative Party for a town office.

One day of two before the primary, the doorbell rang. Mom answered the door, and there was a man at the doorstep. He was running for that town office in the primary, and sought her support. Mom talked to him briefly, took his literature and closed the door.

That's all quite typical. The primary came and went, and then something atypical happened.

The doorbell of our house rang three days later. That same man who was campaigning earlier in the week was back.

Mom was rather startled to see him when she opened the door. She mumbled a "Can I help you?" The candidate apologized for returning, but had a question for her.

"Did you vote for me in the primary?" he asked.

"Um, no," Mom answered.

"OK. There seems to have been something odd about the returns, and I've been checking on it."

"Well, how many votes did you get?"


"Oh ... I'm sorry."

And off the candidate went to the next house, in futile search of someone, anyone who claimed to vote for him.

Ah, politics. A humbling business.
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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Pass the mud

Thursday is primary day in New York State.

Thank goodness.

It will be the end of silly season in these parts.

If you're a voter, you've probably seen the infection in the past. Every so often, a primary or general election pops up that is particularly nasty. Chances are good that the race isn't important enough for the candidates to slug it out on television. Instead, they stick to direct mail literature.

The designated nasty race in Western New York happens to be in my district. Mark Grisanti ran as a Democrat for a Senate seat in 2008 and was beaten. Then he switched parties and ran as a Republican two years later, taking that same seat in a mostly Democratic district.

Trying to perform a balancing act like this -- keep the Republican Party happy but don't upset the mostly Democratic voters -- is difficult at best. Then Grisanti was thrown into the middle of a huge argument over gay marriage, and his vote became a key one. At the last hour, Grisanti opted to vote for the concept.

You knew there would be a price to pay for that vote, and the bill collector has come in the form of Kevin Stocker, who is running against Grisanti. Not only have Stocker and Grisanti been busy filling mailboxes with literature, but they have had help.

My favorite anti-Grisanti ad is above, with his face photoshopped onto a Seventies suit. The back reads, "Whatever this is, it isn't Republican. Mark Grisanti claims to be a Republican. His record shows otherwise.We need a return to Republican values. Grisanti isn't the answer. Give him a piece of your mind. Vote no on Grisanti."

Close behind was an ad that featured an Old West sign reading, "Gambling Hall - Leave Guns at Bar," which the caption, "Not the sort of sign we expect to apply to our politicians. With Mark Grisanti, we never know what to expect." It's a reference to a scuffle Grisanti had in a casino earlier this year.

There is no easy way of identifying the group that sent these and other mailings. However, the address is 2701 South Park Ave. in Buffalo, which is the home of the Erie County Conservative Party. You'd think it doesn't have a dog in this hunt, but it has endorsed Chuck Swanick for that seat. Swanick is in his own primary on the Democratic side against Mike Amodeo, and the Conservatives obviously think a Stocker win would help their own chances of backing a winner in Swanick ... even if they aren't too forthcoming about it in their literature.

Meanwhile, the NY Unity Pac sent out the brochure to the right. (By the way, click on the ads to get a larger image of them. Sorry I couldn't get the far left side of the image, but you'll get the idea.) The Pac was created by Paul Singer and Ken Mehlman to help Republicans who voted for same-sex marriage.

Today, the mail left an ad with a picture of a wooden figure, and the caption, "Kevin Stocker kinds of makes Pinocchio seem ... well, truthful ..." No return address on that, either.

And on and on it goes. Both sides always say "the other guy started it" when it comes to this sort of negative material, and that they can't control what outside organizations are doing.

You hear, quietly, that despite the poor image that negative campaigning has, it works. But it never has with me. I tend to look for the worst ad whenever these nasty elections come up, and be sure to vote the other way. But I do know that when the primary is finally over on Thursday, I'm going to feel like taking a nice, long, hot shower.

And my mailman will be signing up for radiation treatments.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A half-century ago

Even I don't remember all of these television intros from the 1960's.

But I do remember the Pruitts of Southhampton.

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Monday, September 10, 2012

Down the stretch

Here it is mid-September, and it's an odd time of year for the Red Sox fans.

They are following the National Football League instead of the baseball scores.

When's the last time that happened? I guess the 2001 season has that feeling. That was the year when Jimy Williams was fired and replaced by Joe Kerrigan, who went 17-26 and seemed to destroy a good reputation built up over the years as a pitching coach. (Although, you too can be a good pitching coach with Pedro Martinez running out there every five days.)

But perhaps that isn't bad enough. Perhaps we have to go back to the 1994 Red Sox, who went 54-61 in a short season under Butch Hobson. Even Roger Clemens went 9-7 on that team.

The Red Sox problems have been well documented. They started last September, when the team forgot how to pitch for a month and missed out on a playoff spot. The collapse received a little more attention than the Braves' fold, in part because of market size. Then the stories started to leak out about chicken snacks among the starting pitchers who weren't playing on a particular day.

Theo Epstein fled to the Cubs, where he soon discovered what a rebuilding job really looks like. Terry Francona fled to ESPN, following the tradition of Bill Parcells and Doug Collins of keeping your name out there until the next good coaching job comes along.

From there, life in Fenway Park seemed to spiral downward. New general manager Ben Cherington wasn't allowed to pick his own manager, as Bobby Valentine got the job. And Valentine wasn't allowed to pick all of his own coaching staff, which is never a good sign. Valentine knows his baseball inside out, and I still can't believe he got THAT Mets' team in 2000 into the World Series (go look at the roster sometime). But I wouldn't prescribe him as the anecdote for a potentially tense situation.

Valentine didn't help himself by making some curious remarks about Kevin Youkilis, who might be in decline physically but certainly always gave 100 percent on the field and was popular. He also got hamstrung by injuries to players like Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz, and events such as Daniel Bard's complete loss of effectiveness. Jon Lester and Josh Beckett were pretty bad in the first half of the season as well.

Then came the reboot. You'd probably heard a little about the trade that sent a quarter of a billion dollars in contracts to the Dodgers for mostly prospects. It was the smart thing to do under the circumstances, since the season was going nowhere. Still, I wouldn't want to be in charge of selling tickets and sponsorships next season. And since the move, the current Red Sox team seems to be saying that if the front office has given up on us, we'll give up on them. They are in last place in the American League East.

Someone will pay for all of this, and certainly Valentine will have to be sacrificed. Bobby V. had me somewhat emotionally when he took Tony Conigliaro's number (they were roommates with the Angels), and I don't think he had a fair chance. Still, he didn't help himself at times.

But there's one big question that hangs over the franchise. It was asked a few years ago by a reporter, and it still remains valid today. Why don't star players on the Red Sox ever leave on good terms?

Ponder the list, which obviously includes Youkilis and Beckett. Pedro Martinez departed as a free agent after a squabble over contract length. Nomar Garciaparra had turned sullen by the time of his trade. Manny Ramirez's own teammates didn't want him around. Heck, we could go back to Mo Vaughn about this. Well, Carl Yastrzemski wasn't run out of town.

Boston baseball is followed as closely as it is anywhere in the country. The media can have an unyielding appetite, and the pressure is intense. It takes a certain type of personality to thrive there. The catch is that it takes a certain type of personality to stay there. When the rebuilding process begins this year, Red Sox management will have to ponder those factors in addition to mere baseball skills.

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Sunday, September 02, 2012

They should know better

We're in the middle of the silly season for politics, with one convention down and one convention to go. Both sides will line up the programs for the events with speakers anxious to galvanize their audience into cheers and, eventually, action.

Realistically, much of the language is going to be slanted toward a particular side. We expect that out of our politicians throughout the Presidential process. Ex-candidate Michelle Bachmann often referred to the "failed stimulus," even though most could make a good case that our GNP has gone through this weak recovery better than any other Western democracy -- in part, because of the many billions pumped into the economy by the government. (The money is going somewhere, after all.).

Still, sometimes a line gets crossed. Let's bring up a couple of examples. Since the Republicans have spoken and the Democrats have not, I'll pick on them here. I no doubt could do the reverse in a week.

In his acceptance speech, Paul Ryan blamed Barack Obama for an auto plant's closing in Wisconsin, even though the plant more or less shut down before January 2009 when Obama took office. When the media pointed that fact out, loudly, Ryan said that Obama promised to lead the effort to re-tool the plant and get it operational again ... which hasn't happened. That's a rather weak defense.

Then there's the theme taken out of many speeches in which President Obama is quoted as saying that small businesses didn't make their enterprise go, that the companies had help -- which sounds like he doesn't value the work of entrepreneurs..

The problem is that while the principle matches a Republican campaign theme, the quote was taken very much out of context. I heard Mike Huckabee do it live, but there were others. For the record, here is the actual quote:

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” Obama said. “There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

That brings me to the major point.

As a journalist, what are two of the worst things I can do when reporting on a story? Number one might be to get a fact wrong, which puts into question every single other piece of information in the story. Number two is to quote someone out of context, leading to charges I have deliberately misled the reader to go in a specific direction. 

Everyone I know in the business works very hard to avoid those flaws. But when they happen, and sometimes they do, the reporters are called on it ... often loudly. Since political figures are quoted more than most people, they do the most calling. 

And since politicians know the effects of such bending and breaking of the truth in such ways, you'd think they would know better. But too often, they don't. 

If you'd like to know why reporters, and voters, become cynical about campaigns, this strikes me as a good, if relatively discreet, example.

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Saturday, August 25, 2012


Let's take a backhanded approach to the big debate in major league baseball.

Remember Dick Fosbury? He was the first guy who went over the bar backwards in the high jump in a track and field meet. Not only did it work, but he brought everyone along with him because it turned out to be more effective than what had gone before.

Remember Pete Gogolak? He came over from Hungary in the 1960's, and started kicking "soccer-style" for the Cornell football team. Then it was on to the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants, where he was a reliable place-kicker for years. Within 30 years, every pro football kicker came from the side and not from straight behind the ball.

Remember the first guy ever to try to flip in the air during track's triple jump? Of course you don't, because it was hard to get enough momentum to go all the way forward in the area. It usually resulted in the jumper's shoulders landing in the sand first.

The pioneers of life sometimes get remembered, and sometimes they don't. They all get criticized along the way ... unless it works.

That brings us to Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals.

Strasburg is one of the three most valuable pieces of talent in major league baseball. He, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are all very, very good and very young. You want to take care of them.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo knows this. He also knows Strasburg is coming off Tommy John surgery. So he doesn't want to take any chances on his career.

Therefore, Rizzo is limiting Strasburg's innings for the year. The number supposedly is around 170, more or less, and the pitcher is coming up on that number soon. Rizzo says he'll send his young pitcher home then, even though the Nationals are in a pennant race for the first time in history.

Rizzo has received plenty of criticism for his action. The argument goes that there is no definite link to pitching more than 170 innings in Strasburg's situation and an arm injury. You don't get that many chances at a World Series, and Rizzo's move might jeopardize Washington's chances of winning it all.

But the biggest problem is that Rizzo's approach is new. And people don't like new.

Tony La Russa decided several years ago in Oakland to use his closer for one inning at a time when his team was ahead. Before that, pitchers came in for two or three innings when necessary. Dennis Eckersley filled that role nicely, the Athletics won a lot of games -- or more to the point, didn't lose many with leads in the ninth, and everyone copied La Russa because success breeds imitators.

Some years later, the Red Sox didn't have an obvious closer, so they tried to mix and match pitchers with batters -- closing by committee. Boston got roasted. The problem was that they didn't have anyone good in the bullpen, so it didn't work. But it might have been more of the fault of the personnel than the idea.

We'll never know if Rizzo's approach was best. Strasburg's arm could fall off, rhetorically speaking, next season no matter what happened this year. It's the nature of the beast. But he's willing to put his reputation on the line to possibly trade the present for a brighter future.

It's easy to root for a guy like that. Let's hope he winds up like Fosbury and not the guy in the landing pit, shoulders first.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Doc Baseball

I've seen a lot of baseball documentaries over the years. Maybe too many.

Which is why I found this pretty funny:

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A week in review

I have seen electoral future, and its name is Kathy Hochul.

Sorry, I could resist the chance to borrow a line from the most quoted rock music review in history, Jon Landau's description of Bruce Springsteen in concert, and apply it to the current political race.

We waited a long time for some actual news to come out of the Presidential campaign. It came when Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan to be his running mate. It was a fine choice for analysts, because it gave them something to discuss for weeks on end on the all-news channels.

After hearing all of the analysis for the past week, it seems as if Mitt Romney has made an interesting gamble that probably will end up backfiring.

Romney has essentially campaigned on the idea that Barack Obama has done a poor job, and he's not Barack Obama. He hasn't offered a great many alternatives yet, thus building up the perception this this is just another bored rich guy who having made millions in business thinks it would be fun to be President. This approach is a contrast to the Obama's campaign, which as Jon Meacham said, comes down to "it could have been worse under anyone else."

The problem for Romney was that it wasn't working particularly well. Most of the data indicates that all but a few percentage points of the electorate have made up their minds, and Obama right now has about a 70 percent chance of winning. (If you aren't reading Nate Silver's blog regularly, you should be. He's about the smartest guy out there.) Times are indeed tough, but Obama has retained a good portion of his personal popularity. What do you do under those circumstances?

You try to shake up the dynamic with your biggest card, the vice presidential choice. Ryan is clearly a thoughtful man of substance, and he offers a point of view that tries to put the rage of some Republicans into practical solutions. It's quite a chance from four years ago. As Jeff Greenfield said, no one has to ask Ryan what newspapers he reads, because he seems to read all of them.

The fabled "Ryan budget" offers plenty of particulars to the Romney campaign. The biggest centers around Medicare, which under Ryan's plan would switch to a voucher system at some point down the road.

Which brings us, finally, to Kathy Hochul.

When there was a special election last year for an open Congressional seat in upstate New York, Democrats ads pounded the Republicans for their position on changing Medicare. Anyone who has dealt with Medicare -- and that includes looking over the forms with Mom and Dad and trying to figure them out -- knows it's difficult now, but it does offer help to those that need it. The voters like it.

Now Ryan comes along, and offers to make it more complicated by changing the rules down the road. It was a big factor in Hochul's somewhat surprising victory (admittedly, a three-way race didn't hurt her either).

Ryan's pick offered a change of subject to the Democrats, who haven't done a great job of defending their actions in the last four years. The economy is sputtering, but we've had more growth than any other Western nation in that time -- fueled in part by deficit spending, but clearly the government needed to take strong action under severe circumstances.In a country where hospitals must accept any patient regardless of their ability to pay, universal health care is at least an attempt -- a poorly explained one, but an attempt -- to make the system more efficient.

I would suspect we'd see bunches of ads about Ryan's Medicare plan in the weeks to come. That might be enough to push Florida into the Democratic column, and maybe Ohio too -- although Ohio's relatively good economy ought to help Obama as well. If both of those states turn blue, it's almost impossible to see a path for Romney to get to 270 electoral votes.

I'm not sure if there was a better choice out there for Romney; a Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty wouldn't changed the campaign picture much. And I know vice presidential picks usually don't matter much; if Sarah Palin didn't move the needle much in the other direction, no one would. But it's tough to picture the Republicans getting any boost from Ryan, and one was definitely needed.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012


Sometimes it hits me that a sign of intelligence can be the linking of two very separate thoughts in order to solve a problem. The problem is that it takes me a while.

Here's the latest example:

Part One of the story centers on my iPod. My old one was perfect for sticking in a protective case, which went in my pocket. I attached headphones, turned it on, and off I went on a run. I never knew which of 980 songs would pop up along the route, which takes me about 35-40 minutes to complete.

(Yes, I know running to music isn't the best idea. But it's not too loud, so I can hear noises from possible obstacles. I stick almost exclusively to sidewalks or roads without vehicular traffic, so it's not much of a problem most of the time. And I like it.)

Sadly, my old iPod died after several years of fine service. I purchased the new Nano, which is even smaller. As I discovered, it also is more likely to pick up perspiration which turns the iPod screen into all sorts of interesting colors -- a sure sign that you have a problem. I took it back to the store, and the salesman said, essentially, stop putting it in your pocket even with a carrying case.

I therefore switched to an mp3 player, which was had a nice, solid plastic case and was simple and cheap. Converting music files is a little time-consuming, but it can be done.

Part Two of the story is completely different. My wife was getting catalogs from The Great Courses on a regular basis. This is a collection of lectures for a variety of subjects. The idea of getting a bit more education in subjects that interested me was appealing. But the prices for courses seemed to be pretty high, and the idea of sitting in a room with headphones on, listening to a portable CD player, wasn't so appealing. Who has the time to do that regularly?

But eventually, emphasis on eventually, I noticed that The Great Courses put all of their courses on sale for something like 70 percent off. And when I went to the web site to investigate the list of courses, I noticed that the company also sold audio downloads of its products at a reduced price as compared to the CD version. No packaging, and all that.

And the light bulb finally went on.

I purchased a course on events that changed history, and loaded the mp3 files into the player. Put on the sneakers, go out the door, and hit play. These days, I come back from a workout smarter than I was when I left.

The other day I returned ready to talk about Martin Luther with anyone who would listen. Buddha, Jesus, Columbus, Dante ... they have been covered in the course so far. Someone asked me if it were tough to concentrate on the material while running. I answered by saying that it's not like I have to take notes on the lectures. Besides, there's no test at the end of the run. As a bonus, hearing a professor talk about the Black Death has to be less dangerous than listening to Led Zeppelin.

What's more, I have converted the files for CD use, and my wife has been listening to the lectures as well in the car. She may not have found what she was looking for at the mall, but she came back from the drive better informed on Michelangelo.

Now, the people at the Great Courses are the most relentless marketers I've ever seen. I've gotten one catalog for August and two other sale catalogs. Plus, I think there have been two emails a week on average announcing some sort of sale.

Even so, this combination has worked out quite well overall. It could prove to provide a burst of intellectual productivity for me long term ... provided my knees hold up.

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Monday, August 06, 2012

Well done, both of you

It's 1:25 a.m., and I'm home from work watching television. Usually, I don't bother at this hour, especially late on a Sunday night, but there's something of interest on for a chance.

The Mars rover "Curiosity" is landing as I write. It soon will send a message back to Earth, hopefully, that essentially says, "I'm O.K." Then, according to the plan, there's three weeks of kicking the tires, and two years of scientific research into another world.

Let's look around the dial.

Fox News has "Geraldo at Large." He is interviewing Mike Huckabee about Chick-fil-a. Yawn. I'm not exactly a fan of Geraldo Rivera under any circumstances, but I don't want to see him on tape now.

MSNBC is showing a very special edition of "Lock Up." But aren't they all very special? No? Yup, they have turned out the lights and gone home.

Meanwhile, CNN has been doing a live broadcast about the Mars landing for the past 30 minutes or so. They have animation of the landing and what the rover will do what it lands.

In other words, CNN is presenting the news. Isn't that what it is supposed to do?

Fox and MSNBC get most of the buzz because they take a point of view. But at times like this, it's nice to have a good, factural accounting, in real time no less, about what's going on. CNN may be a little gray at times, but there's something to be send for dependable.

Shouldn't that be the mission of any "all-news" television outlet?

Nice work, guys. And nice work by NASA as well. The scientists have heard from Curiosity, and data is coming in. It's a great success story for the scientists, and I'm glad I got to see it.

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Thursday, August 02, 2012

On the platform

The only place to watch the Olympics right now is through NBC and its affiliates. There's a ban on other outlets using the clips of the Games, particularly in the window right after the events are completed. It's standard procedure for NBC, which invested zillions in the broadcast and wants to protect the ratings. So far in that sense, it seems to be working, as the ratings are huge.

Still, there's an odd side-effect. For that, we have to switch the channel.

We all know that ESPN has become a giant in the sports broadcasting business, almost overshadowing everything else. No one is better than promoting an event than ESPN. It has a variety of platforms for that purposes, from the television stations, to radio, to websites, to the magazine, etc.

But when ESPN doesn't have the rights to an event, you notice the lack of promotional muscle right away. In this case, that applies to the Olympics.

The network isn't ignoring the Games per se. They do have results on the crawl, and the stories are often the lead story on Sportscenter. But without the action clips, the outlet is reduced to showing interviews and still photos -- in other words, not exactly compelling television for a channel that is devoted to providing exactly that.

What has ESPN done? Moved into the lovely little town of Cortland, New York, where the New York Jets are staging training camp. I've covered training camp, and there's a reason no one writes romantic prose about it like people do for spring training. It's hot, and it's boring. There's not much news there, unless someone gets hurt.

But Cortland is hosting Tim Tebow, so ESPN -- which shows the Monday night NFL games -- sent a crew there for updates. Today ESPN breathlessly reported that the Jets were going to start practicing the Wildcat offense with Tebow at the controls.

Meanwhile, on ESPN2, Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless started "First Take" by breathlessly talking about ... Eli Manning. Hold on to your hats on that one.

When I go searching for an update on all categories of news (including sports), I'd like an unbiased viewpoint of what's going on. I don't want the editorial department's views to leak into the newspaper, I don't want a certain political slant to bubble up like a gusher into news coverage (which is why Fox News' deliberate breaking of the mold was so disturbing), and I don't want the marketing department calling the shots on what's important. And no one markets like ESPN.

ESPN calls itself the Worldwide Leader in sports for good reason, but sometimes it's good to remember why you have been told a particular story is worth watching.

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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Passing the torch

I mentioned in a blog two years ago an issue about the Olympics that I should cover at some point down the road. We've reached that point, now that the Games of London are underway as proclaimed by the skydiving monarch of the United Kingdom.

I understand the interest in the Olympics as a concept. It's downright romantic. The entire world's best athletes gather together in one place every four years for peaceful sporting competition. The storylines are usually remarkable. Everyone once in a while, someone from your hometown makes it to the national team, adding to the drama. The flag, the oath, the torch, the flame.

And we watch them. The television ratings are truly huge, especially when applied to a global scale.

Here's the question, then: Where is the carryover effect for Olympic sports? Why don't we care much unless there are Olympic rings involved?

You want examples? I've got a bunch of high-profile ones.

Michael Phelps is by any definition a great, great athlete. He certainly is one of the best swimmers ever, if not the best. Winning eight gold medals in one Olympics in 2008 was remarkable, squared.

Did anyone pay much attention to what he's been doing in the last four years? (Note: This doesn't not include out-of-the-water activities.) Seen much swimming on television lately? Didn't think so.

Usain Bolt is a marketer's dream. He's as dynamic a performer as we've had in track and field in a long time, a sprinter you'd pay to see. Throw in the fact that he's a big kid at heart with a great personality, and a name that's just made for his sport, and we should be drowning in him in person or on television.

Nope. You've got to look hard to just find track on TV or staged at a high level in this country.

I would think gymnastics probably fits into the same class. We've been paying attention to women's gymnastics since Olga Korbut in 1972. A few break through into the public eye for a while after the game, but not many. If the Americans do well, they make some money right after the Games on a tour at an arena near you, and then we spectators get ready for the next NFL game.

Swimming, track and gymnastics -- those are three of the biggest attractions in the summer games. There's not much carryover in attention.

Some sports that use professional stars do well in the Olympics, but it's the stars that are driving the attention. LeBron James, Roger Federer and Serena Williams were superstars before they got to London this week. They will leave the same way, no matter what happens. (Tangent: The NHL's best players are in the same class for hockey, but the Olympics have become a world championship for all concerned, drawing attention to the game. The NHL still can't figure out a way to make this work out for it.)

Admittedly, NBC is trying to change that a bit. Now that is has its own sports network in NBCSN, it has some space on the electromagnetic spectrum to promote some of Olympic events. Track and swimming popped up quite a bit earlier this year when the Trials were held. It's a natural first step.

But changing habits in the sporting world by viewers and spectators isn't easy. It's a crowded schedule, and we're well trained to think that the Olympics, and only the Olympics, belong on the personal calendar for watching some sports. Keep an eye out for breakthroughs in the next 16 days, but don't hold your breath.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

High cost of travel

I know that cities love it when conventions come to their city limits. They bring people with money to spend, usually their company's money. Political conventions are particularly good ones, since they draw delegates, media members, and lobbyists. The city can get a little crowded that way.

But for those of us who aren't on expense accounts ... whew.

I had planned to take a trip to Tampa in late August on personal business. Then I was reminded that the Republican National Convention was going to be there at the same time. OK, I wasn't planning on staying in a downtown hotel, so how much of a soaking could I take?

I checked the plane fares first, and there were seats available at respectable prices ... especially if I left on a Saturday with most people going home from the convention on a Friday. Then I moved on to rental car rates. Ouch. 

For a six-day rental, the lowest rate I could find for a car was about $490. The others were around $550. And I didn't check Hertz and Avis, who traditionally are more expensive than the other companies.

For comparison's sake, I rented a car in Tampa for the same time period earlier in the year. It was $211. You'll be stunned to know that none of the coupons in the books worked this time either. OK, maybe you won't.

I wondered what hotel prices had hit for that week, but it was difficult to find a decent one that had a room available. There wasn't an available spot at a Holiday Inn throughout the Tampa Bay area. There were some rooms in fine Motel 6's in Clearwater available, though.

It reminds me of the time a friend of mine went to the Super Bowl in Dallas about 18 months ago. When he checked out of the hotel, he was afraid to look at the bill. Someone else said the Hampton Inn was charging something like $250 a night.

I can hear my friend Glenn reading this and saying, "Gouging tourists at a convention? I'm shocked. SHOCKED." Still, it's fun to see the numbers.

I know I won't get to see Mitt Romney in August (I know he can afford the rental car prices, even if the Bush tax cuts expire), but maybe we'll get together later.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Downhill rides

I've made a couple of field trips this month to sporting locations this month. Buffalo Raceway and Coca-Cola Field have something in common: they aren't what they used to be in terms of attendance.

The racetrack probably is the more interesting of the two places from an observer's standpoint. The issues surrounding horse racing have been quite well documented. The Sport of Kings, whatever that means, was big news back through the 1960's or so. Heck, the local sportscasters used to give the daily double on their late night television shows every night, even though there was no off-track betting and in theory the only people who would be interested were at the track and thus knew how it came out. I guess the key words there are "in theory."

But horse racing has had some problems since then. Other entertainment options have multiplied. The industry was ill-equipped to embrace television when it arrived in full force around that times. Racing officials thought opening the doors would always be enough, and it didn't take long to disprove that theory. For most people, horse racing devolved down to the Triple Crown races unless you lived near Saratoga in August, which had a unique county fair atmosphere that pulls in thousands of fans a day.

Around that time, governments decided to use other forms of gambling in an effort to raise money. The lotteries cane first, followed in many states by casinos filled with slot machines. Suddenly there were plenty of legal ways to bet and lose their money as racing lost its monopoly. Not only that, but it was much easier to make a wager on some numbers or on the pull of a handle as opposed to trying to figure out which horse might win a race. You had to think, and plenty of people don't want to do that. The result has been predictable. The pot is being split into too many piles so that even the casinos aren't doing as well as they used to do. Racing, at the bottom of the list, is really struggling. Locally, Fort Erie race track may close at the end of the year if it doesn't find a buyer.

A trip to Buffalo Raceway now is an odd experience. The grandstand is as big as it ever was, but it was almost completely empty. That always gives a "what are we doing here?" atmosphere. We hung out in the air conditioned clubhouse this hot summer night, and there were many rows of empty tables there as well. I suppose it could be argued that people had better things to do on July 4, but on the other hand virtually everyone wasn't working and thus had the opportunity to show up if they so chose. With so few people in the building -- it's hard to judge, but couldn't have been more than a couple of hundred -- I swear that a $2 show bet changed the betting odds significantly.

Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, the plight of the Buffalo Bisons recently received some publicity through this article by Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News. While no one expected attendance to stay at the million-per-year levels of the late 1980's when the team moved into the new ballpark, the numbers do keep dropping.

The Bisons put a lot of promotional muscle into their three big events of July - the annual July 3 show with the Buffalo Philharmonic, the AAA Home Run Derby and the AAA All-Star Game. It paid off with big crowds for all of them. But for the most part, the only time that crowds turn is when fireworks are part of the program. As I've said to Mike, the Bisons seem to be more in the fireworks business at times than the baseball business.

I went the other night to a Bisons' game. It was a perfect night for summer baseball. It had the added advantage of having a popular promotion, as the first 4,000 fans received replicas of City Hall. (I even showed up early to make sure I got one.) But there were fewer people than that who actually stuck around to watch the game; some people grabbed the model and then went home. It wasn't a particularly interesting game, but that's the luck of the draw -- the games the night before and the night after had plenty of excitement.

The problem in both cases is that there's no sure cure for either venue's problems. Better horses aren't exactly a lure these days, and the race tracks certainly don't have much money for promotions.

Meanwhile, it doesn't hurt a baseball team to win, but I can't say I've ever heard many people say, "I'm not going to see the Bisons play this week, because they aren't very good right now." A change in team affiliation comes up in such situations. But, it's tough to believe that many teams would be more popular than the Mets as a parent club. Yes, the Yankees are the most popular major-league team in town, but they aren't going anywhere. There is a lot of Mets' clothing that is worn by fans during Bisons' home games, more than I ever saw during the Cleveland and Pittsburgh days. Mets' games are shown on local television, so it's easy to follow ex-Bisons as they move up the ladder. It's difficult to think that a switch to the Blue Jays would do much good for attendance, even if the on-field product was better.

There's no great point to all this. It wouldn't be surprising to see Buffalo Raceway get out of the horse racing business and stick to slot machines. The Bisons aren't going away, but crowds averaging 10,000 a night aren't coming back soon either.Enjoy the present while you can, kids, because the future is more of an unknown that you could ever guess.

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