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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