Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap forward

It's February 29, which not only comes every four years, except for years such as 1700, 1800 and 1900 (but it did come in 2000, just to confuse us), but marks the end of a long-term project for me personally ... at least in one form.

Yes, I'll explain.

A few years ago, The Buffalo News used to have a roundup of stories that we couldn't fit anywhere else, or that we didn't think were important enough for a 16-paragraph story. I think it was called Sports Today. It came with a little syndicated list of some sort, which broke up the text graphically.

At some point, the light bulb came on over my head as I thought, "Why couldn't I come up with something to fill that space?" I wondered what could fill such a relatively small space on a daily basis. The answer came back soon enough -- a little story on the most significant sports story in Buffalo's history on that particular day. Could that be done?

I plowed into researching the matter in my spare time, grabbing media guides from the local sports teams and writing down the dates from them. I covered the usual big games, trades, hirings, firings, etc., with some help from the Internet and the News electronic library. After a while I discovered that I had filled about 200 days of the years. No, you can't have a daily feature that doesn't have any items in it for almost half of the days. I took the data I had discovered, and threw it in a computer basket for reference.

And there it sat, until the summer of 2009. The News was just getting into the Website business in a big way, and looking for unique material. Sports editor Steve Jones came to me and said he was looking for some feature that could be related in the sports section of the website every day. Could I help?

I told him to wait a minute, and pulled up the old list of sports dates. I said something like, "These are the 200 easy ones, but there are 165 more blanks that would need to be filled." We agreed I would give it the cliched old college try. Whenever I read a book on Buffalo sports, I'd take notes. One item would often lead to another, as I'd say something like, "What about fights by Buffalo natives who became boxing champions?"

"This Day in Sports History" first popped up on line in September 2009. I believe originally they ran for a paragraph or two. Longer versions appeared when I simply wrote an introduction to an event and reprinted our coverage of a particular story from that day. Honestly, I would have done more of that had our library gone back farther than 1989.

Some people noticed. The feature eventually received many hits during the course of the day -- a few hundred, usually, I'd say -- and the feedback from those who found it was quite positive. A few months later, someone made the decision that the feature should also run in the newspaper itself. To show you what a visionary I was at the time, I believe I asked why we should take away the exclusivity from a popular item that was creating some traffic and buzz.

Silly me. It first appeared in the newspaper on March 1, 2010. The response was remarkable. People kept telling me how much they enjoyed it, how they were at the specific game I wrote about, etc. In hindsight, our reading demographic probably skews a little old, so this brought back some memories for them. Eventually I stopped copying the old stories, and just wrote my own version to add perspective on events.

The parts that were the most fun were stories that had gone mostly forgotten over the years. There was the time that the Buffalo Bisons of the 1900's used a midget in a game in Baltimore ... and he got a single in his only at bat. Or the time in a boxing match that a fighter was knocked out, got up a bit later, rushed back at the opposing fighter, and was knocked out again. I had forgotten that the Atlanta Hawks had started their basketball life in Buffalo in 1946. I learned how Buffalo had a team in the National League in the 1880's, until the owners sold the whole team to Detroit. I found out how Buffalo was supposed to get a team in the American League in 1900, only to have league president Ban Johnson arrange to give that franchise to Boston. You may have heard of the Red Sox.

What's more, I filled up two years of dates. Yes, July was tough (no Bills or Sabres), but the space got filled up. But I'd like to think I'm smart enough not to press my luck. So, the series ends today with this piece.

Still, I'm not out of the history business yet. On Thursday, I start with "This Birthday in Buffalo Sports History." This takes a well-known figure from Western New York and gives him a six-paragraph biography. It's actually a way to cover some people who were not discussed the first time around, such as high school coaches. I'm not sure where all the non-pro birthdays will come from; I can only hope the idea catches on and I get some suggestions from readers.

In the meantime, the old material hopefully won't go to waste. There is at least talk of doing a book on the subject, which means I'll be living in the past a while longer. And then there are the inevitable movie rights ... oops, got carried away there.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is that a good idea doesn't necessarily have to go to waste. You just have to be really, really patient before it blossoms.

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Friday, February 24, 2012


"American Experience" on PBS broadcast its latest in a series of documentaries on U.S. Presidents. It was another good offering, this time on Bill Clinton.

Two thoughts came to mind while watching:

1. Dick Morris sure is impressed with himself. He was about the only self-serving expert to be interviewed in the four-hour program. And that includes a great many members of the Clinton Administration, who obviously had a stake in an historical look back.

2. What happened during the Clinton years to start the cycle of absolute hatred between the two sides of politics?

It's the second issue that deserves the most attention. For whatever reason, Clinton turned into a polarizing figure in record time. It's almost as if our politics got off the tracks right there.

Yes, Clinton was a man of huge appetites, with a tendency toward self-destruction. I'll never understand the relationship between Bill and Hillary along those lines. He took some steps in office that worked, and some that didn't. That happens in the Presidential business; you just have to hope that you win more than you lose.

But, jeesh, somewhere in there we went over the line of rationality. Clinton was no longer the political opposition, he was the enemy. The level of rhetoric went over the top.

And where has that led us? When Democrats lost the White House in 2000, they obviously remembered what had happened in the previous eight years. So ... George Bush wasn't merely wrong, he was an idiot. The man couldn't even put a sentence together, went the argument. There are still those who can't understand how John Kerry lost to "that man" in 2004.

Then things flipped again in 2008, when Barack Obama won. It was the right's turn to attack again, and they have answered the call. That has carried over to the 2012 campaign, with a couple of new wrinkles raising the stakes.

First, the rise of the Tea Party crowd has led to Republican candidates raising their rhetorical levels of disagreement to new heights. Obama isn't just wrong on issues, he's declaring war against our religious institutions, values, etc. I'm not sure how you win a general election that way, but that's an issue for down the road.

Then there's the case of the superpacks. Philosophically, it's hard to quarrel too much with the idea that the use of money is covered under free speech. But its consequences aren't exactly constructive.

In other words, if one of Newt Gingrich's rich pals wants to spend $10 million funding nasty television advertisements that rip the other candidates to shreds, he's welcome to do so. That doesn't make it a good idea. We all could make a long, long list of better things that could be done with that $10 million, but except for those in television ad sales, we probably agree that it's not helping the level of political discourse.

It's tough to guess where elements of the media fit in to all of this. From the right, people like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity keep raising the stakes of what idiocy comes from the other side. On the other side, Keith Olbermann and Ed Schulz just reverse the arguments. They all have a stake at raising their voices louder and nastier, in an effort to keep their viewers energized. It's just tough to know how genuine it all is.

A great many people don't vote in this country. There are a number of reasons for that, such as difficult registration laws and inconvenient voting hours (why aren't we voting on the weekend, anyway?). There's also a feeling among some that there isn't much difference between the candidates in practical terms, so why bother?

But you'd have to think that some people are getting turned off by the entire process. Too often, after hearing a political ad or speech, those people must feel the urge to take a very hot shower and wash away the stain.

It would be nice to see someone take the high road once in a while. But I'm not holding my breath.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Happy birthday, Michael

I'm a day late with birthday greetings for Michael Jordan. Hope he doesn't mind.

Come to think of it, he might.

My admiration of Jordan's abilities and performances as a basketball player remains extremely strong. Not only was he great on both ends of the court, but he had a will to win that was unmatched. The only person that could match him in that department probably was Bill Russell. Jordan's highlight videos will sell forever.

But since he left the Chicago Bulls, his record hasn't been quite as good. And it's almost as if everyone is willing to sweep that fact under the rug.

As you recall, Jordan took over the basketball operations of the Washington Bullets in 2000. He did clean out some bad contracts, but didn't show much talent in picking up replacements. Perhaps you remember Kwame Brown. He also seemed disinterested, often staying in Chicago and watching games on television. Jordan's biggest accomplishment was to make a comeback in the fall of 2001. No, the Wizards didn't improve much in the standings, but the slightly more earth-bound Jordan did sell a lot of tickets. He also called out several teammates who didn't meet his high standards.

When Jordan was finally done playing a couple of years later in 2003, he expected to return to his former administrative duties with the Wizards. Owner Abe Pollin essentially said, don't let the door hit you on your back on your way out. Jordan said later he never would have come back had he known that he would be treated that way. Welcome to our world, Michael.

Three years later, Jordan bought a stake in the Charlotte Bobcats. He ran the basketball operations there, and he became the managing general partner of the franchise in 2010. Since 2007, the Bobcats have had one winning season, which earned them the chance to lose four straight games to Orlando in the first round of the playoffs. This season the Bobcats, admitted hit by injuries, are playing like a team that could break the NBA record for worst winning percentage, currently held by the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers (9-73). Jordan doesn't shoulder all the responsibility for this, but he should get a little of it.

The record of superstars who move into the management of professional sports is mixed. Jerry West turned into a great general manager. Wayne Gretzky's Phoenix team improved greatly once he left the bench. Russell was a much better coach when he started himself at center. It's a different set of skills, as Jordan probably has learned in the past few years.

What's more, Jordan's final statement about his basketball playing career came when he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009. Michael did thank some people who were helpful, but he also took the time to single out those who had somehow inspired him with perceived slights over the years. It made Jordan look ungracious and petty, when he had every reason to be the opposite of those qualities under the circumstances.

I can admire Jordan the basketball player, but before I dive too deeply in hero-worship I should remember Jordan the ex-basketball player. A little balance is always importance, even if it's probably not appreciated by the subject.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Two minds

The Federal Communications Commission recently accepted opinions about the National Football League's blackout rule. Not surprisingly, a great many people actually wrote to say something about it.

Who says the art of writing a letter is dead in our society?

I can guess how the tide of opinion came in on this matter. Fans want to see all the games on television. That's as predictable as politicians getting on the bandwagon in supporting those fans, because they think it's an easy issue to support and thus gain votes.

But the matters strikes me as more complicated than it seems from a quick glance.

On a personal level, I'd be more than happy to see every NFL game on television. I can not attend most games because of work. Yet seeing the games helps me in my job at the newspaper as I check out and edit stories about that same game. Events are clearer in my mind, and I catch more innocent mistakes.

Oh, and of course, I enjoy the games.

But I live in Buffalo, one of the few areas where blackouts are a problem. There were only 16 games blacked out in the NFL last season, and three of them were here. Tampa Bay and Cincinnati were the only teams ahead of Buffalo in that dubious department.

From there, we get down to the matter of personal philosophy. If the NFL were forced to show every game on television, we would be forcing the league to give away its product for free when it has tickets to sell. If you believe in free markets, that doesn't seem to be particularly fair.

I have heard the argument that the Bills, like many NFL teams play in a facility that is at least partially constructed with tax dollars. Therefore, why shouldn't the entire public be entitled to see the games? The problem with that is it would be a heck of exception to the usual rules of such support. In other words, the government funds a variety of enterprises through grants, loans, etc. Does it force any of those companies to give away its product as a trade-off for the financial backing? I don't think so. Otherwise, I'd have a new General Motors car in my driveway every year or two.

The Bills are particularly vulnerable to blackouts. They play in one of the smallest markets in the league, and they have a large stadium (75,000 seats). In addition, they play in an area where the December weather is, at best, iffy. Granted, the team hasn't been in the playoffs for more than a decade, but it's never been easy to sell late-season games no matter what the team's record.

This past season, the Bills played the Broncos on Christmas Eve in a meaningless game to them. There were fewer than 50,000 in the stands, and the game was blacked out. It's fair to say the building didn't have a great deal of electricity because of the relatively small turnout. How many more people would have stayed home had the contest been on television? Hard to answer that one, but "some" seems correct. That means the team loses money on possible ticket sales, and it loses other game-related revenues (parking, concessions, souvenirs, etc.) from those who choose to stay home.

Add up the considerations, and I guess I believe that if I don't buy tickets on a regular basis, I don't have much of a case to complain. I know that some fans can't afford to go to any games, and that some fans can't physically attend games due health issues. We'd all like to see the games, but I can't sit here and say we have a right to see the games.

Maybe the NFL will look over the economics involved, and decide that a no-blackout rule actually might help it. Such a move would help television ratings and making the TV package more valuable to networks and advertisers. It seems to work for the Sabres.

Again, that's the NFL's decision. In the meantime I'm an interested bystander, but only an interested bystander.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy retirement, again

Back when I was an impressionable sports fan of the age of 11 or so (we're talking 1966), I loved to read all about my favorite sports through newspapers and magazines. That meant, at the time, that if I wanted to read about the American Football League, I could study every word written in Sporting News or in Street and Smith's Football Yearbook. (The Elmira Star-Gazette wasn't known for its football coverage at that time.)

That meant I became very familiar with Larry Felser's byline. Felser not only was the beat reporter for the Buffalo Bills for the Buffalo Evening News, but he was the AFL writer for both of the other publications. Felser stayed in that role over the years to come, and I got to read his work every day once our family moved to Buffalo in 1970.

Once I graduated from college and went to work in the Buffalo media, I slowly developed a different relationship with Felser. Not only did I read him all the time, as he made the transformation to columnist, but he became an acquaintance and then a friend. As a former talk-show host, I could always count on Larry to come on my show a couple of times a year and get the phone lines lit up. You learn to appreciate people like that. He was always friendly and open to me and everyone else in the business, and it was always appreciated.

Then in 1994, I was hired by The Buffalo News, and wound up working side-by-side with Larry on a few occasions. That was always a pleasure. Not only was Larry good company, but he was willing to confer with me so that the game story and the column on the same event didn't overlap. That happens more than you'd think.

I also had the chance to edit Larry's work when I had office duty over the years. Let me assure you that there was nothing better than reading Larry's column before anyone else when the Bills did something stupid. It was particularly fun when you could tell that Larry had finished one column attacking the move, obviously thinking "I'm not done with this yet," and banging out another column that read like a continuation of the first. His no-nonsense, straight-forward style was always welcome. One time in the late 1980's I told someone that I wished the News had a columnist in the news department was followed that example.

Larry retired from regular duty in 1999, but stayed on at the newspaper as a Sunday columnist. He was still popular, according to the surveys. It was particularly fun to have him spin stories about those AFL days; having the thoughts of a guy who was on a first-name basis with AFL owners added plenty of perspective.

Felser wrote those weekly columns for more than a decade, and threw in a good book on the AFL along the way. His last column appeared Sunday; you can read it here.

Not many people get to retire twice like Larry is. Let's hope this one is a long and happy one too.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Nothing in the middle

One of the great parts of the election season is that it's impossible to guess what the next big issue might be in a particular campaign.

Let's, then, welcome the latest player on the political stage: contraception.

This story can be subtitled, how to make everyone look bad at the same time. Note: this is not unusual.

For those who have missed it, one of the coming mandates involving health care involves coverage for contraception for women. In other words, birth control pills would be covered. The Obama Administration decided to exempt religious organizations, such as church employees, from those rules. However, to use the popular analogy, employees at Catholic schools and hospitals would not be exempt under the current plan.

Let's say what hasn't been said too often -- this is a difficult case. Working for a school isn't exactly the same as in the church office. I'm assuming some of the employees might not follow church doctrine to the letter for one reason or another. In other words, I know a Jewish doctor who works at a Catholic hospital. Where's the line concerning what he has to do, and believe, to work there?

What happens during difficult cases under ideal circumstances? We work out a solution that makes everyone reasonably happy.

Apparently members of the Obama Administration realized that this ruling was going to cause a stir. So it loses points for the clumsy way it was handled. We all knew details would need to be worked out for universal health care to work properly, and this is a shining example. A trial balloon would have been a much better approach.

When the announcement did finally make the rounds, the rhetoric used by both sides was scortching. This was either a threat to religious freedom, or to the rights of women everywhere. We've gotten used to that level of conversation over the years, as the public relations battle between pro-choice and pro-life goes on and on.

The problem is that the public has more or less spoken with its actions on this issue. Something close to 98 percent of sexually active women have used birth control, and the percentage of Catholic women doing the same is a shade (we're talking one percent or so) less than that. (For a look at the numbers, click here.) Rick Santorum has said banning contraception is an issue he wants to address head-on in the campaign; that's a great way to appeal to two percent of the electorate.

Then there's the matter of the fact that doctors prescribe birth control pills for other health-related means; the number is said to be around 20 percent of users. Do we therefore make those women pay full price for those pills, even though no religious group could complain about their use? If we do, it could be argued that we are discriminating against those women for their religious beliefs.

This shouldn't be that hard. We can design some sort of opt-in or opt-out policy for people or employers. It could allow equal access to medical resources, but not present the bill to those who have an ethical problem with it. Compared to the issue of health care as a whole, this should be relatively easy to work out.

Let's get it done, and move on. And be quiet already.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Word play

I wasn't familiar with the idea of writing an essay in which the first words on the line spell out something when read down.

But I am now.

Check out this essay on It's pretty clever, even if you have to know the Rick Astley song to fully appreciate it.

Facebook sure points a visitor in some interesting directions.