Friday, November 22, 2013

Fifty years ago

Time to weigh in on the topic of this particular day, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, with a rather wide brush. 

I am indeed old enough to remember it. I was eight at the time, so it's rather vivid in my mind - in part because it was such a big deal, and I had started to have an interest in public events. I have memories of times before that, but they were more personal in nature.

It starts with a term that I never hear any more: split session. In my New Jersey elementary school, there were more kids than desks and teachers. So the Wayne school district sent some of us to school in the morning, and some of us did their studying in the afternoon. I was in the morning group, so I was home by 1 or 1:30.

My mother was watching "As the World Turns," like she did most weekday afternoons, when the bulletin came on CBS that the President had been shot. We watched the coverage for the rest of the day I believe. I was too young to realize just how novel it was for television to cover a story like this in wall-to-wall fashion at that point. It probably seemed natural.

By the way, I learned an interesting fact about that afternoon many years later on an Internet message board, of all places. We had an elementary school principal at Pines Lake named Mrs. Rodda. Most of my memories of her center on the way she demanded on absolute quiet in the school lunch room whenever she walked in, which seemed unrealistic for children of that age then as well as now. When the news was released that President Kennedy had indeed died, Mrs. Rodda went to every classroom in the building to tell that news to the children personally. Class move.

Oddly, my other vivid memory of the weekend came on Sunday. The National Football League played that weekend; there's an article in Sports Illustrated this week on that decision. We had season tickets to the Giants, so Mom and Dad went. I recall Mom saying that someone who sat next to them complained for the first half that it was improper to play football on such a day. Finally, Dad turned to the guy and said, "Why exactly are you here?" Way to go, Pops. The guy left at halftime, and I believe the Cardinals beat the Giants. When my parents came home, I told them about how the babysitter and I had watched someone named Lee Harvey Oswald get shot on live television in a Dallas police station.

The story about the assassination has remained a subject of conversation for 50 years. The history student in me likes to ponder the effects of the events of that day. Still, the talk of a conspiracy that has gone on for 50 years has become distasteful to me.

I can understand some of it. People invested a lot of emotional capital in President Kennedy for a variety of reasons, and those feelings came to a tragic ending. I can imagine that it is difficult for those in that situation probably have had trouble coming to terms with the concept that one lone mentally ill gunman could end those hopes. But otherwise, people are still capitalizing on the idea that Oswald didn't act alone. Been in a bookstore lately? Lots of volumes with the "definitive" answer on the subject.

But let's face it. Have you ever read a conspiracy theory that comes close to passing the smell test? Castro ordered it? The Soviets? The CIA? Lyndon Johnson? And how many "conspiracies" have gone on for this long without someone talking? Maybe the Warren Commission didn't cross every T in its investigation, but I still haven't heard a much better version of what happened.

We're better off pondering how that day changed us in a variety of ways, and hoping that we don't go through anything like it again.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

It was time

Absolute shockers are few and far between in sports, at least off the playing field, but Wednesday's developments involving the Buffalo Sabres certainly qualified. When I saw on Twitter this morning that a news conference had been called by the team, my first thought was that coach Ron Rolston was going to be sacrificed to the hockey gods. The replacement might have been current assistant coach Joe Sacco or former Canadiens coach and current Sabres employee Randy Cunneyworth. In fact, when Cunneyworth was hired a short time ago, I wondered if he was given time to study the organization while serving as an insurance policy in case Rolston had to go.

Wrong. Word leaked out only minutes before the news conference that general manager Darcy Regier and Rolston were gone, and that joining the organization would be president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine and interim coach Ted Nolan.

I've written about Regier a lot in this space - I'm the guy who didn't think sending him to a Siberian training camp was a good idea. (Good thing this isn't well read.) He was always a good soldier, who put together a couple of good squads that could have won Stanley Cups over the course of 16-plus years. Regier also had some unusual circumstances over his tenure, with drastic changes in ownership philosophy.

What went wrong? A couple of points come to mind. The Sabres got caught in the middle of the standings for many of the past several years. That meant they didn't get many top 10 draft choices, where the good players are. It's tough to get off that treadmill of mediocrity.

It's also easy to second-guess some of the roster moves, such as the signing of free agent Ville Leino and a big contract to Tyler Myers, whose game went straight downhill. When the Sabres didn't improve, some of the veterans (and the front office) saw the writing on the wall and they headed for the exit one way or another. The last playoff team for the Sabres came in 2011, and names such as Vanek, Roy, Pominville, Gaustad, and Leopold were on that roster but are gone now. I looked at the line combinations the other day and said to someone, "They don't have anything left, do they?"

I heard conflicting stories about Regier personally. Some people I trust said he was a first-class person whose attributes didn't really come across in public well. Others I trust said he kept an unnecessary distance and was a reason why players didn't want to come to Buffalo. What's the truth? Maybe a little of both, and probably I'll never know.

But rather clearly the fan base had had enough, and certainly was ready to start voting with their wallets about the situation. A dreary start definitely looked like it was going to be a dreary season, and it was time for a move.

Was this the right move? It certainly was in terms of public relations, a grand-slam homer with that same fan base. LaFontaine is almost as popular in Buffalo as David Ortiz is in Boston, meaning that LaFontaine probably could have finished third in the mayor's race here like Ortiz did last week in Boston. Nolan isn't far behind. The move may not produce many wins, but it buys the team time with the fans. The Sabres have bought themselves a honeymoon period with the two newcomers, and Nolan certainly will motivate the players the rest of the way so that the product ought to be more entertaining.

Still, there's so much that we don't know right now. Starting at the top, is this a sign that owner Terry Pegula is learning about the hockey business, or that he made this precise move for the wrong reasons? Regier wasn't the only one in the Sabres' hockey department, and LaFontaine will have to figure out what sort of moves will be needed. His first action probably will be to hire a general manager, which should be revealing, They both will have to figure out how to deal with Ryan Miller's situation, the last big piece left on the roster. Plus, that general manager no doubt will wonder how much authority he has to switch coaches - either in the summer or later - under this set of unique circumstances.

And, somewhat ironically, the Sabres won't have much choice but to follow Regier's plan for rebuilding. It's tough to picture Buffalo shipping all of those draft choices from the next couple of years for veterans who can help now, although some minor deals for fringe players who can help a little now probably might not be a bad idea. Remember when Nolan asked general manager John Muckler to give up a pick for an unknown defenseman named Bob Boughner, who proved helpful for a few years? The current teens on the roster will have to grow up and improve, and the ones who enter the organization in the near future must come through.

But the Sabres now can afford to stay the course. Before Wednesday morning, the team was bad and boring. After Wednesday morning, it became bad and fascinating. That's not a bad day's work before lunch.

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Monday, November 04, 2013


There are years when there are Presidential elections, when the nation pays attention to every detail of the campaign. There's an off-year election two years later (or earlier), when we elect some national representatives as well as some state and local ones. And then there are the off-off-year elections, in which hardly anything happens.

Welcome to the 2013 off-off-year election. The golf tour has a name for its end-of-the-year events about this time. The golfers call it "the silly season," because there are a variety of odd little closed tournaments that offer plenty of money for not-so-much work. The politicians could use the same phrase to times like this.

However, the sense of the absurd certainly does help in looking at the races of the moment. The odd local campaigns would get overlooked with a Presidential race looming. We have two examples here in Western New York that are obvious; I'm sure there are others.

The oddest situation concerns the battle for Erie County Sheriff race. This usually is not a position of interest to most people. As I recall, most people in my generation only paid attention in the Seventies when the office-holder used to brag about how many drug busts there were after concerts at then-Rich Stadium. They rushed to the polls that off-off-year in order to kick him out of the job.

This time, Republican Tim Howard currently has the job. The Sheriff's office has had some problems during his time there, such as escapes and suicides. But even more oddly, Howard announced that he wasn't exactly in a hurry to enforce the SAFE Act on gun control in Erie County because it wasn't constitutional. Who knew that the Sheriff was also a Supreme Court judge who only paid attention to laws he liked?

When Dick Dobson defeated Bert Dunn by a whisker in the Democratic primary, it was easy to wonder what might happen in the two-man main election. But Dunn formed his own political  party, got out the family checkbook, and is running on a third-party line. He's spending plenty of money on ads; well, it is his money. There's always something of a spoil-sport strategy to that tactic, because of the risk of splitting the vote of one party and guaranteeing a victory by the other party's candidate.

There's not much polling out there about a Sheriff's race, so it will be fun to see who wins the election for the county's top Constitutional expert ... I mean cop.

There's the Erie County Comptroller's race. The office is filled two years before and after the County Executive race. I haven't done any research on this, but it seems like the Comptroller usually is from the opposing party than the County Executive. The Comptroller's biggest job seems to be to shake his or head sadly when discussing the fiscal policies of the County Executive.

The person in the job is Republican Stefan Mychajliw, perhaps best known as a local television reporter. But his opponent is the more interesting case. Democrat Kevin Gaughan has spent a lot of his free time over the past few years trying to cut down on New York State's many layers of local government.

However, he probably should have looked at the incoming mail when he was doing all that pro bono work. Gaughan had a good-sized tax debt to the Internal Revenue Service - well, $22,000 is good-sized to me - which he blamed when he paying attention to his ill mother. The Republicans quickly jumped on the issue, asking the question - if a guy can't pay his taxes, should he be trusted to worry about an entire's county finances. Gaughan criticized the "party bosses" for taking that stand.

The Buffalo News - my employer, for the record - started its endorsement editorial by saying neither candidate would be chosen by a company to watch over its finances. It opted to essentially hold its nose and endorse Gaughan.

There are plenty of other races out there that will be decided Tuesday, but most of them figure to be called by the experts at about 9:02 p.m. Can't wait to see how these two turned out, though.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Uncle Milton

How many of you have the chance to work along side of a Hall of Famer almost every day? Not many, I'll bet.

I do. I work with Milt Northrop. Just to make sure there's no confusion, he's the one on the right in the picture.

Usually Hall of Famers are retired from their chosen profession and have moved on to other things, usually golf or gardening. Milt is 76, and he's not going anywhere. When it comes to journalism, the man is a lifer.

What's more, Milt carries large amounts of passion with him wherever he goes and whatever he does. It was evident in one of the first times we encountered each other. Naturally, it was on the softball field in the local media league.

I was pitching for WEBR, and Milt was playing for one of the News teams in that league. Milt hit a ground ball to second, I believe, and I went over to first base in case I was needed on a play. Now this being slow-pitch softball, and this being WEBR, we usually didn't have the depth to put someone at second who could actually field a grounder consistently. So I didn't bother to get particularly near the bag after the ball was kicked into right field.

Out of nowhere, Milt said something like, "Get out of my way, or I'll knock you over!!!!" I thought to myself, if this guy is like this when he is going to first base, what's he like when he's pursuing a story?

I found out at a Bills' game a short time later. One time Milt was interviewing someone in the Bills' locker room by himself. A television interviewer came along, and steered the player away from Milt and toward himself. Milt patiently waited for the TV interview to end - and then exploded at the guy.  Trust me, the TV reporter had it coming.

I eventually discovered that those explosions were quite infrequent, and that Milt was actually pretty charming most of the time. What's more, the man was a walking encyclopedia on anything connected with sports. One year at the Bills' draft, he and I were sitting around with a few others covering the  the draft at Rich Stadium's media room. Now in those innocent days of the early 1980s, we needed to look up a guy in Street and Smith's magazine when anyone got taken after the first round.

New Orleans had a third round pick, and selected Eugene Goodlow, a wide receiver from Kansas State. Milt looked up from his work and said out of nowhere, "Didn't he go to high school at Williamsville South?" Indeed, he did - attending the suburban Buffalo school for a couple of years before moving. Only Milt would know that.

Milt showed his versatility one December day in 1981. The Sabres had completed one of the biggest trades in their history, sending Jim Schoenfeld and Danny Gare among others to Detroit for Dale McCourt, Mike Foligno and Brent Peterson. With my usual sense of timing, I had arranged the Buffalo Evening News football writer - Milt - earlier to be my guest on my talk show. He arrived and I told him we couldn't talk about football on this particular night, and he was welcome to leave (I couldn't reach him by phone beforehand). Milt stayed for an hour, adding good insight into the deal. That was and is Milt - you couldn't stump him. Talking to him was like having the Internet at your disposal without the clumsy sign-on.

It was a skill that proved to be handy some years later. WGR had a trivia show with Chuck Dickerson about four times a year for a few years. We - Milt, Mike Haim, Mike Harrington, Bob Gaughan and I - would take questions, and Milt was always good for coming up with obscure answers. My favorite moment on that show was when someone called in a question about a 1930s hockey player. Since Milt was the senior member of the panel, we liked to kid him about his age. "You covered him, Milt - what sort of player was he?" I asked in a smarty-pants tone. Quick as a flash came the perfect answer - "Good face-off man."

Speaking of stories about talk shows, someone told me how Milt turned up on some radio show a while ago and started telling stories on the air. A listener was on his way to some business appointment and got caught up in the show. After a while, said listener decided that this was more interesting than the guy who was waiting for him. So the driver pulled over, called the office and said, "I'm having car trouble, I'll be there as soon as I can." Then he turned up the radio and listened to the rest of the show. That's Milt - get him going, and you can be spellbound.

When I got to the Buffalo News as an employee in 1994, I had the chance to work with Milt regularly. He had been there for more than 25 years already. We both covered the Sabres for a few years, and we've both been in the office for much of the past 12 years or so. What's more, let me assure you that he still carries that same passion he had the softball field. Sometimes it is revealed when one of the office computers acts up, which is good for the occasional scream and slam. Sometimes it comes out when someone makes a mistake about the spelling of a name in the high school report. Sometime it's about an article in another section of the paper that he perceives is showing more than a touch of liberal bias. Anytime anyone says that the media is filled with liberal thinkers, I point quickly to Milt as one of the examples of someone rooting for the other side. (There are several others by the way, even in the news department.)

And Milt still remembers everything. Sometimes I'll mention some obscure NBA backup center from the 1970s, when he was covering the Buffalo Braves, and I'll get a biography off the top of his head. The other day the name Carl Mays came up at work, as he was the winning pitcher when the Red Sox last wrapped up a World Series at Fenway Park. Milt had a sly little smile when he said, "Hey, Budd, what else was he known for?" Usually I'll answer such a question with a kidding "You are old!" But this time, I knew the answer - he was the pitcher who threw the ball who killed Indians infielder Ray Chapman around 1920. It's tough keeping up with Milt in such matters, so it was nice to be lucky this time.

You put in almost 50 years telling people what's going on in the sports world in one place and a high level of professionalism, and you deserve to be recognized. Milt's day came on Wednesday, when he was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. He complained, a little, that such Halls are for the athletes, but didn't put up too much resistance. In other words, I'm sure it was quite a night for him.

Usually tributes to veterans in the business come in the form of obituaries. It will be comforting, then, when Milt and I work together again this weekend. He'll still be the fastest typist I've ever seen in a sports department, still yelling every so often, still making phone calls to collect information. In other words, he'll still care. Hopefully, he'll be showing that quality to our sports department for quite a while longer.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

It's a long season

The Buffalo Sabres recently tied a franchise record for longest winless streak at the start of the season. People no doubt were wondering what it was like inside the Sabres' offices during such a stretch.

Been there, done that.

The 1990-91 edition of the Sabres also went seven games without a loss. Take it from someone in the public relations department of the team, it seemed like an eternity. Everyone had a feeling that was along the lines of "we're never going to win a game."

Remember, that team was coming off one of its best regular seasons in recent memory. It had 98 points, only to get a tough draw in the first round of the playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens and exit in six games. But it didn't help at the start. I can still remember when the streak ended that Channel 2 running a crawl announcing that the Sabres had won a game, complete with exclamation points.

Usually, this is the time when I might preach patience for the current edition of the Sabres. After all, the 1990-91 team actually rebounded and made the playoffs. A team can go winless for seven games at any point of the season, but it sure looks a lot worse when it is in the start of the season than it does in February. That zero in the win column of the league standings after two weeks can be haunting.

I like to quote former Canisius basketball coach Nick Macarchuk. He once pointed out after a game that when his team was trailing by 10-0, it sounded a lot worse than it was. The Griffins had something like 36 minutes to make up the deficit against Vermont, and it did. But it's human nature to look at the first four minutes and wonder if it's the start of a trend that will last throughout the game.

The talk around Buffalo hockey circles, fan division, is about the need for some drastic move in the hockey department, meaning the departure of general manager Darcy Regier and/or coach Ron Rolston. Granted, I'm a voice in the wilderness for keeping Regier around. That's partly because I'm a believer that if you think you have good people, you accept the inevitable ups and downs by keeping them and figure tomorrow will be better. Regier's record hasn't been great, but it has often been good, The team rarely has been awful during his tenure on the job, and there have been some unusual circumstances surrounding the team (ownership actions, bankruptcy, budget restraints, etc.) at times.

It's an easy jump from keeping Regier to keeping Rolston. A decision was made in the summer to bring Rolston back, and Regier said at the time that hard times were probably ahead. Oh, and if you fire Regier, you probably get rid of Rolston as well, because every general manager wants his own coach watching out for his decisions on the ice. Besides, do you fire a coach who has been on the job on a full-time basis for 10 games?

But that rational - at least I think it's rational - line of thinking may get thrown out in the relatively near future. The difficult circumstances are tightening by the game. The fan base is still looking for a scapegoat from the letdown it suffered when the team didn't meet the high expectations felt when Terry Pegula took over as owner. Lindy Ruff's departure just wasn't enough.

The team's two best players, Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek, are potentially gone by the end of the season. Without them, there would be two fewer reasons to buy tickets - as if the current product's entertainment level isn't dreary enough to get people in the mood to start saving for lacrosse tickets. Economics usually drives these arguments anyway - when people start voting with their wallets, it gets attention.

I would suspect we'd follow the usual order of actions here when a team is losing. There is some reshuffling of the lineup via recalls from the minor league team, and then there's a trade or two of less than major significance.

But after a few more weeks of uninspired, less-than-entertaining hockey, all bets are off.

(P.S. As we discovered, Regier jumped a step or two when he received a good offer from the Islanders for Vanek. The point remains the same.)

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Back in business

Remember the good old days of the work by the federal government? They came in the first nine months or so of the year.

Everyone seemed rather exhausted after the 2012 election season. President Obama made a few speeches about some areas but no one seemed particularly enthusiastic about any of them. That's partly because nothing of consequence was going to get past the Republican-controlled House, which played the part of the distant father shaking his head "no" with vigor anytime something was suggested by the Democrats.

The Republicans kept passing bills that would repeal or gut the Affordable Care Act, even though they had no chance of going anywhere but the Capital recycling bin. What's the popular definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?

Therefore, we had months and months of nothing. I guess a few post offices were named, but that's about it.

We probably have Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to thank for shaking us out of lethargy. His filibuster on the ACA, which increased his public profile for better or worse, got us all ready for the senseless gridlock to follow. As you know, Tea Party Republicans in the House soon demanded huge changes in the ACA, and if they didn't get it they planed to block any bills that would allow some government functions to continue. With essentially three different factions bickering in the House, nothing could get done.

You'd think the sight of cancer patients being locked out of treatment centers would have been enough to settle matters, but they didn't. We even had the ugly sight of the government picking and choosing what functions were popular enough to receive temporary funding.

The Tea Partiers should have realized they had a chance for one of the great "I told you so's" in recent history. If they had shut up about government operations and funding, they could have pounded the inefficient start of the ACA and its on-line problems. If it fails like they think it will, they can gloat all the way to the next Election Day.

As a wise man once told me about the trades in hockey, deadlines make deals. It took the possibility of exceeding the debt limit of the United States to get everyone to the table, and with only a few hours before a potential financial disaster an agreement was settled.

No winners here. As Senator John McCain said, the Tea Party group had no chance of winning the discussion but did it anyway. It was a reckless, dangerous approach, particularly with an economy that still isn't at full steam ahead stage. The rest of the House and Senate didn't exactly cover themselves with glory, and the Obama Administration seemed to be a bit player in the whole discussion. No wonder everyone's poll numbers have dropped.

There are some unspoken rules about taking part in government, which serves a variety of functions that the private sector couldn't do. One of them is "keep it open." If you want to fight about a particular part of the budget, great. There will be time and opportunity for that. Any other strategy is more destructive than constructive.

And another just might be, "you spent the money, you pay the bills." Few like deficit spending, but there are more mature ways to handle that issue than refusing to authorize loan to cover the debts. 

Speaking of that, several members of Congress voted against the deal in a symbolic gesture. One of them was Chris Collins, who represents a district nearby to me. Collins barely won election last year even though he was a Republican in a very Republican district. Collins had made "Obamacare" a big part of his campaign, even though blaming a less-than-one-term Democrat for that seemed a bit silly.

Here's the catch: Collins left a successful private business to enter politics, and pledged to run government more like a business. But he voted against raising the debt ceiling and allowing the credit of the United States to be damaged.

Is that how he ran his business? By not paying his bills? I'll have to try it sometime and see what happens.

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Tuesday, October 01, 2013

The Legend

Former Buffalo Bisons' announcer Pete Weber passed along word that former Bison Rodney Craig had been murdered in Los Angeles on Saturday. I hadn't thought of him for a while, but he was certainly one of the most memorable personalities in Bisons history. A few stories came back from the depths of my brain with that terrible report, and they should be told so that his exit isn't the only way he'll be remembered.

Craig had one of those odd baseball careers that don't get much attention but probably deserve it. He was signed by the Mariners as a free agent in 1977, and arrived in Seattle for a September recall in 1979 - where he promptly hit .385. The Mariners were only in their third year at that point, and there wasn't much excitement connected with the team at that point.

Craig's moment in the sun didn't last long. He had a trial with Seattle the next year - 70 games, .238 batting average - and the Mariners sent him back to the minors. The outfielder bounced around a bit, including a stop in the Mexican League, and landed with Buffalo in 1986. He had gone from prospect to suspect.

I covered that team in my radio days, and that might have been the toughest baseball team I've ever seen. You think the '96 Sabres were tough with Ray, Barnaby, May and Boughner? These guys were really tough, and Craig was a leader in such activities.

I remember one game in the Rockpile in which somehow a fight broke out while the Bisons were on the field. Craig came sprinting in from right field to participate, showing the type of speed he rarely displayed while tagging up on a fly ball. Craig wound up to throw a punch at about the second base spot, and connected near the opposing dugout. Daryl Boston, Ivan Calderon and Joe DeSa were on that team as well, and it was good to have all of them on your side when hostilities erupted. Pete's Facebook posting has a couple of notes on how Rodney was a popular teammate.

Craig achieved ever-lasting fame one night when he was ejected from a contest. Suddenly, the story started making the rounds that Craig had talked the mascot into giving him his Buster Bison outfit for the rest of the night. Someone sure was filling out the uniform differently than the usual occupant. Being the fearless reporter I was at the time, I checked with a source in the clubhouse who shook his head up and down and said, "Yes, it was Rodney."

Rodney's best moment, though, came in a different game. At one point Craig airmailed a ball from right field that had fans behind the third-base dugout ducking. But later in that same game, Craig actually threw out someone on the bases. When asked about the play after the game, Craig defiantly said, "My arm is a legend in this league."

That's the type of quote that can come back to haunt you. Even the public address announcer at Bisons game started to call him "Rodney 'The Legend' Craig" when he came up to bat.

I even remember the quote spilling over to softball later that year. One time my team had a game, and a very overweight opponent tagged up from second on a ball hit to our shortfielder in right-center. I swear, Glenn could have sprinted in from his spot in the outfield and beaten this guy to third. Instead, he lobbed the ball to third base for the easiest double play in softball history. As Glenn went back to his position, he yelled, "My arm is a legend in this league."

Craig did some more bouncing after his time in Buffalo, landing in the Mexico League for a while. He apparently retired in 1990, and dropped out of sight. There were stories about drug addiction, so it wasn't a complete surprise that he wound up homeless on the streets of Los Angeles. Craig got into a scuffle with some people, and then was struck and stabbed. No one deserves that sort of ending.

At least, we'll always have one of his minor-league baseball cards, which is all over the Internet as one of the great poses in the history of this particular artform. It is shown above.

May the Legend live on.

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Monday, September 30, 2013

New York Times State of Mind

Word spread around the blogosphere pretty quickly on Sunday - the New York Times had written an editorial saying baseball was becoming irrelevant.

I had visions of the editorial board of the Old Gray Lady of journalism sitting around the office talking about that particular issue. Then I found out that the "editorial" was actually an op-ed piece, meaning it was one person's opinion. In other words, it wasn't the entire newspaper staff that believes baseball has lost its luster. The person in question who does is Jonathan Mahler. You can read his article by clicking here. I'll wait.

The immediate reaction of most people to the headline, even before they read the story, was that this was typical New York City-think. The Yankees had a year to forget, with its longtime stars either leaving or thinking about it. The Mets continued their rebuilding plan for another year, meaning they weren't very good.

I'm not sure how to judge if baseball has fallen out of the national conversation, as Mahler claims. Attendance seems to be quite good, competitive balance is at record levels. Great talents are arriving in droves, including Matt Harvey of the Mets to go along with names like Machado and Trout.

It's tough to argue that television ratings for the World Series, etc., are what they used to be, because they aren't. Yes, I know in a 300-channel universe (for those silly enough to pay for all those channels), there are more ways than ever to divide the audience. So everyone's numbers are worse than they used to be.

Here's what you need to know about that: The ratings for Breaking Bad's finale Sunday smashed records - 10.3 million viewers. The buzz about that show was terrific. Care to guess how many people saw me on "Jeopardy" in 1998? About 15 million.

I do have a theory, though, on what has happened to television ratings for the big events in baseball, basketball and hockey.

We're in an era where virtually every team in those sports has a connection to a television outlet. Here, the Sabres' games are carried on MSG. The Yankees and Nets are on the YES Network, although I'm still trying to figure out how one channel becomes a network. You can watch virtually every game of your favorite team these days.

Contrast that to the "good old days." In New York City, a good chunk of the games of the Yankees and Mets were on home TV, but that was relatively rare. In places outside the major metro areas - and remember we only had 16 teams in 14 cities in 1960 - the Saturday game of the week was pretty much. That made the World Series a major event because you could actually watch a game - well, you could if you were home during the day before night games arrived in the Series in 1971. And if you didn't want to watch those games, well, there were only a couple of other choices on the dial.

Hockey used to be even more restricted in its broadcasting. After 1967, you could get a game of the week on CBS and NBC if you didn't live near a team, and that was it - provided your local station carried it. Many in the South didn't. That even included the playoffs. It's different now. Most people have a rooting interest in a team, and after seeing three games a week for 26 weeks more or less, they may not be in too much of a hurry to see teams they don't care about if the Sabres aren't in the postseason.

Mahler argues that baseball was slow to adapt to changing times coming out of the Fifties, and lost its place to the NFL as the nation's top spectator sport. No argument here. Football also is a great sport for television, and a great sport for gambling, and those two factors have grown hand-in-hand. It's also a once-a-week commitment, event programming that makes a huge difference in interest for a particular game.

One other point here - Mahler has this to say after pointing out that college football and basketball been fed increased interest in their professional counterparts: "Why has college baseball failed to attract any meaningful interest? Mostly because there are already so many professional baseball games to watch."

You mean there aren't many college football and basketball games on television? In football, there's a game on virtually every night of the week, and a couple of dozen on Saturday. When January arrives, it's tough to avoid college basketball. Baseball is a different animal, with some top high school players siphoned off into the minor leagues. and without the tradition the other college sports have. It's apples and oranges.

And for the argument that the baseball draft has much more interest than football and basketball - let those two sports draft 18-year-olds out of high school, and see how much of an event it is.

Baseball isn't in the same spot as it had many years ago, but that's all right. It's still doing quite well by most metrics. You don't have to be a guest columnist for the Times to know that.

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Olbermann, again

You can always count on Keith Olbermann to come up with a reason to write a column.

I've stated my admiration for his broadcasting talents in this space in the past. He's a brilliant communicator, someone who simply commands your attention when he's on the air. But Olbermann also has shown over the years that he doesn't suffer fools gladly, and when you are that smart, there are more than a few fools out there.

That's led to a unique career path, that's includes some sports jobs and some news stints over the years. I lost track of Olbermann when he was on Current TV, Al Gore's channel that wasn't on my cable lineup. I'm told that didn't end particularly gracefully either for anyone involved there.

(Tangent: Someone will have to explain to me where people get the money to guarantee that they are able to watch every possible channel at a given moment. I'd don't even particularly like paying $80 for the basic channel lineup of 2 through 70 - with some of those missing. But I digress.)

We wondered what Olbermann's next step would be, and it was a surprise - a return to ESPN. Someone famously described his departure from that outlet as not just burning bridges, but napalming them. Olbermann's reply about his comeback there was along the lines of, when the bridge is out, take tunnel.

He's in his third week of broadcasting now on ESPN2, and it's been a tough time to debut. ESPN has had the rights to the U.S. Open tennis tournament for most of that time, and as we know, no one can predict when such a broadcast will end. So Olbermann has been backed/backed/backed well into the night most of the time.

Therefore, when I've asked a few people if they've seen the show, the answer usually has been no. But thanks to my particular lifestyle, I've caught it a lot. And one word comes to mind when describing it.


There's a great deal of smarts on display each night, and it comes in a variety of forms. The show often starts with a strong, fairly long segment on a particular issue in sports. A guest frequently turns up to offer opinions on the matter as well. It can be anything from the NCAA's suspension of Johnny Football to soccer in Costa Rica, but so far I haven't seen a bad one.

Then there are the highlights of the night, filled with the attitude and Olbermann and Dan Patrick virtually invented 20 years ago on ESPN. Two other regular features so far are "The Worst Sports Persons in the World," familiar to viewers of Olbermann's "Countdown" show on MSNBC, and "Time Marches On," a newsreel-like group of silly stories.

But there are also good solid interviews along the way, too. The program actually has some authors on the show, and how often do you see authors on television these days? (O.K., I'm biased on this one because of what's in this link, but it's still worth noting.) You can only talk about Tim Tebow's future for so long, and SportsCenter probably has gone past its limit there.

What we've got, then, is Olbermann's old show in a slightly altered form. Tackling sports matters has taken the intensity down a notch at times, and it feels a little less in-your-face. I don't know if the right wingers will ever forgive Olbermann for his nightly liberal viewpoints on the MSNBC show, but that's their problem.

It will be interesting to see if this program evolves in the months to come. Maybe it could become something of a "Nightline," with particularly long segments dedicated to stories that warrant such coverage. No matter how it's done, though, it will be done with plenty of smarts.

Therefore, when I can watch it, I will.

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Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Gamble

I just finished the book, "The Gamble," something of a review of the 2012 Presidential election race from the point of view of political scientists. The authors, John Sides and Lyn Vavreck, have poured over all sorts of numbers and polls from the election cycle, and they came to a conclusion that surprised me quite a bit although it probably shouldn't have done so.

Very little happened during the race in terms of movement.

In other words, the authors could have made a very public guess in December 2011 on what the election would look like almost a year later, based on what the economy was doing at the time. They would have been less than a percentage point off.

In other words, all of those so-called big moments of 2012 really didn't do much in terms of the final outcome. Everything stayed more or less static until Election Day.

All of those ads that those of you in battleground states? The net effect was essentially zero. It's interesting to note that people tend to remember political ads for about a day, and then any slight bump quickly disappears - at least according to the evidence. 

The "47 percent" line from Romney and the "you didn't build that" line from Obama? Didn't have much of a long-term impact.

Obama's performance in the first debate? It gave Romney a small bump, but Obama did better in later debates and the effect evened out.

And so on. The "game-changing events" didn't have an effect for very long. People more or less knew who they were going to receive their vote, even most of the independents, and little changed from those views. If anything, the big events merely hardened the probables to definites.

That's not to say that the billions of dollars spent on the campaign were wasted. If one party had thrown a big party and not spent a dime, there would have been an impact on the final result. But the evidence for 2012 indicates that the two sides essentially cancelled each other out.

If you want to argue that Obama ran another brilliant campaign and that Romney was a poor nominee, be my guest. But the evidence indicates that both did about as well as could be expected. I have often wondered if another Republican politician could have done better as a candidate in 2012. If I'm reading the book correctly, the answer probably is no. A fringe candidate (I guess Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich might qualify) probably would have done a little worse. Romney was shown to be closer to the majority of the voters ideologically than Obama was, but enough people saw enough steady growth in the economy to be convinced not to change courses.

Who struck me as the "loser" in the book? Those who follow these elections closely for professional reasons. That includes those in the campaign business, such as the endless political strategists who offered public commentary. But it also included media commentators and many media outlets themselves, such as the all-news channels, who have a vested interest in making the election dramatic.You aren't going to get them to say that campaign tactics or perceived gaffes or news analysis doesn't affect voters.

Sides and Vavrick also do some tearing apart of commentators late in the book, when it comes to such things as "mandates." It sounds as if political types are so carried away by electoral victories that they assume everything on a political platform has received a ringing endorsement ... and then they remember that there are still arguments about all sorts of individual issues.

This is not the sort of book that is going to be a big seller, naturally. Political science books never are. There aren't many anecdotes here, which are always interesting to read after the fact. The resulting text comes off as dry. (Reviewer's note: I read a Kindle version of the book for early release in which the charts and tables did not translate to the format. I got the idea of the points from the text, but I'm sure it loses a little when read this way.)

It's certainly good to have such voices as part of the discussion, though. "The Gamble" offers some interesting conclusions about politics, and they are worth your attention if the subject is of interest.

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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Catch you later

There was a story in the New York Times ago that struck me as very interesting, and touching on an "issue" that I've never seen discussed in a newspaper. That is to say - it was about a certain wedding tradition.

If you are over 30 and you've been to a wedding in your life, you know that often the bride takes her bouquet of flowers and flings them at a collected mass of unmarried female guests. Supposedly the person who catches the bouquet will be the next to marry.

But the story said that the tradition is dying out for the best possible reason in our more liberated times. The stigma of being unmarried has pretty much disappeared. That means no one is particularly anxious to grab on to some ancient ritual that is said to change that status. Good.

I've got to give my sister a ton of credit on this particular issue for being ahead of her time. When she got married a few years back (ahem), there was no flower-tossing. She sent the flowers to be placed on the grave of our beloved grandmother in Massachusetts. That sort of gesture has become quite popular in one form or another.

But the article didn't get into the flip side of that tradition, one that isn't romanticized as much. Welcome to the garter toss.

In this particular tradition, a garter is taken off the leg of the bride by the groom, and then flung into a crowd of unmarried men. Yes, the one who catches it will be the next to be married.

I can state with categorical certainty that for shy guys, this was a form of torture. I've never heard it better expressed than a high school friend spoke up about this tradition. Neither of us had dates at this wedding, which was pretty much the case for practically every other social event on our calendars.

"I feel a little stupid showing up at a wedding without a date, but there's not much I can do about that," he explained. "And what do they do? Drag me out into the middle of the reception floor with a bunch of other single guys who are perceived to be a little pathetic, leaving me hoping that the garter doesn't land in my lap and call more attention to me."

And where was this conversation? In the men's room. That's where some single shy guys headed when it was time for a garter toss. Ladies, you'd never believe how crowded it was in there. I always wondered if it was that crowded in the female counterpart at the appropriate time, but never found the nerve to bring it up.

Let me emphasize that neither of us had anything against marriage. Both of us are now happily married and have been for decades. We just didn't like wearing the equivalent of a scarlet letter at that point in our lives.

I can only think of one memorable toss in my career as a single wedding guest. For some reason the groom limited the backwards flip to members of the wedding party, none of whom were close to getting married at that point. The garter was heading right into the middle of the circle, and nobody moved. At the last instant, one of the group reached down and made a shoestring catch. At some level I realized it was just a silly little tradition, but it all sure made me feel uncomfortable.

On behalf of people of both sexes who are happy with their lots in life, let's hope the story is right and the trend continues. Shy people have their rights too.

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

57 Up

Ever heard of the movie landmark series that has a number, indicating age, followed by "Up"?

It's a British idea for a documentary. The first film took a bunch of 7-year-olds and interviewed them about their lives at the time for a film called "7 Up." Then, seven years later, a second film was made called "14 Up." The series has gone through age 56 now, and it's fascinating.

Some people come and go from the series, but all travel through a variety of typical human changes as part of life's journeys. Luckily, there are frequent flashbacks to previous films in order to provide context. Go rent it, one after another, and thank me later.

Then again, there's an easier way to see the process in action. Just go to high school reunions. You'll miss the first couple of episodes, but the concept is the same.

We just had another one Saturday night, 40 years and counting, and it was a typically happy affair. The high school experience is an intense one, of course, but the typical issues of those times eventually fade away for most and high school graduating classes more or less turn into one big happy family. Well, that may not be true for those who never want to look back at their high school days for whatever reason (and I know they are out there), but usually they aren't around to infect the atmosphere.

(Note: In our case, one person did do exactly that one time in our many reunions - anyone who tried to start a conversation in a lone reunion appearance came away shaking his or her head. I took an informal vote Saturday night, and the vote was perfect - no one missed that person this time.)

I'm a good candidate to go back to these reunions. I've stayed in the area, and several high school friends are still pals today, so I know I'll have a good time in that sense. One year, I showed up when I was unemployed; this time I showed up with a book coming out within days. In that sense, this time was better. At least I had a ready answer when someone said, "What's new?" But in both cases, I came away with a smile on my face at the end of the evening.

Besides all that, there are a couple of reasons why I find this tradition to be worthwhile:

I find out how stories turned out. I tell stories for a living, mostly about people, and the twists and turns are often dramatic. People show up with new jobs, new spouses, and new stories about parents and children. The quiet kid in the corner turns out to be a huge success story, the person considered to be the most brilliant person in the group falls on hard times and disappears. There's no way to guess what happens, even now. Sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong.

I make new, or at least better, friends constantly. I sometimes joke about having the longest conversation of my life with people at reunions, but it's often true. Since I only went to a high school in suburban Buffalo for the final three grades, it's not as if I had 12 years to get to know everyone. Sometimes people didn't pop up in my classes, and I missed them. But we still had some common experiences through mutual friends, classes, etc. 

Eight years ago when we had a group 50th birthday party for the class, I struck up conversations with two classmates who I never knew particularly well. You know how you exchange email addresses with such friends and say you'll keep in touch? We actually did it, and it's been very rewarding. The same thing happened to me in 2003 when I attended the reunion of the high school I would have attended had I stayed in Elmira. I got back in touch, and stayed in touch, with people I hadn't seen in 33 years.

By the way, I even signed a yearbook of someone I didn't know at all until Saturday night ... a mere 40 years and two months after publication. Haven't done that in a while - 40 years and two months, come to think of it.

I noted in one brief philosophical moment Saturday that the conversation at reunions had gradually gone from what we hope to be into what we are. The biographies are more or less written; now we're working on happy endings. Toward that end, I also noticed that the r-word, "retirement," started to pop up this time. My guess is that I'll be hearing that word a lot more in 10 years when the next installment of this personal documentary is written.

Can't wait.

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Let me explain...

The other day, veteran journalist Jack Germond died. Germond was one of those old-time reporters who had seen it all, knew everybody, and could crank out stories with the best of them. You might remember him as a liberal on such panel shows as "The McLaughlin Group."

When I saw the news on Facebook - welcome to the new world  of news-gathering - I thought of his book, "Fat Man in a Middle Seat." It was more than 300 pages of Germond looking back of his career, written more than 10 years ago.

But my Facebook comment, designed to be quick and easy, had nothing to do with that in recalling the book. It was connected to the fact that Germond sure seemed to have a lot of cocktails along the way. I believe he made a few reference to missing the days when he could sit down with politicians for "a few jars," meaning drinks.

Really, that's too short of a comment to make to be fair to a fine reporter. But it does deserve a little further explanation, and I'll do it here.

I've read a variety of memoirs from journalists over the years, and enjoyed almost all of them. But alcohol seemed to play a part in the job just as much as a typewriter and notepad did. Reporters would frequently get together with the people they covered for an off-the-record cocktail or three. Some of the stories in the books about what happened after the third cocktail are designed to be humorous.

But for in many cases - and I'm not specifically pointing at Germond by any means here - those stories merely came off as sad. We've much more aware since those days about the dangers of drunk driving, not to mention the damage that drinking to excess can do to families. Obviously, times sure have changed.

And looking back, I can tell you the exact moment when I reached "a tipping point" on the issue. When I worked for the Sabres in public relations at first (1986), the cooler in the press box always had cold, free beer in it. Most people who liked an adult beverage during the game didn't abuse the situation, but there were a few people who did.

Then at the summer meetings of the NHL, someone raised the issue. What would happen if someone who had consumed several free alcoholic beverages drove home and, God forbid, killed someone? Could the team be considered partly liable? I didn't want to find out. The following fall, beer was out of the cooler. I'm sure there were some complaints about that which I never heard directly, but I think most understood the situation.

I'm hardly saying that drinking by journalists doesn't take place. As long as there are road trips and deadlines and bars, alcohol will be consumed. But my unscientific guess is that we've become quite a bit more professional in this area over the years.

Reporters like Germond were simply from a different era, with different standards. I'm sure if he had come along 50 years later, he would have scooped everyone under the new rules.

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Monday, August 12, 2013


Another major championships has come and gone in the world of professional golf, and late Sunday night, when the PGA trophy was handed to Jason Dufner, I let out a large sigh of relief.

Tiger Woods had been blanked for another year.

It's an oddly emotional reaction to me, a person who is almost clinical in looking over the sports scene and who tries to be more fair and balanced than a room full of Fox News commentators (granted, the bar isn't too high in that particular analogy).

I have all the respect in the world for Woods' individual brilliance. At his peak, he probably was the greatest golfer in the history of the sport. Four straight majors, in this day and age? I would have thought that was impossible. I would have been willing to argue that the talent pool was so strong that no one was capable of winning so many big tournaments in such a short time. In fact, there's no one in history I'd rather see putting for the United States if the Ryder Cup came down to just one 20-footer.

That doesn't mean I am predisposed to root for him. Growing up, my dad was the Jack Nicklaus fan, preferring to root for consistent brilliance and gentlemanly play. Me, I rooted for Arnold Palmer, who never seemed to take the safe way out and was something of a thrill ride. Who would have been more fun to meet?

It's been the same story lately. That's Woods in the role of Nicklaus, and Phil Mickelson playing Palmer. Lefty recently had one of the great finishes in golf history, coming from way back to win the British Open - just like Palmer did in the 1960 U.S. Open.

For years, it looked as if Mickelson would be stuck playing Avis to Woods' Hertz, but then a funny thing happened - Woods' wife took a well-placed iron to the back of Tiger's car on Thanksgiving after learning of some of his, um, exploits. Woods hasn't played as well as he used to play in majors - zero wins - and Mickelson has driven through the vacuum to ensure his legacy as one of the most beloved athletes of his generation.

In the meantime, Woods certainly has the right to make a living at his chosen profession, and he's doing that. He's the number one player in the world, and can draw people into galleries which translates into sponsorship and appearance fees. Fine. But Tiger had always set his sights on the Nicklaus record of 18 major championships - he's at 14 at holding. And Woods' personal actions, and corresponding arrogance that went with them, were so over the top that it's difficult to root for him.

The Germans have a word for it - schaudefreude, pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. I have to admit I feel some of that when someone else holds up one of those big trophies at the end of a major golf tournament. I'm not proud of that feeling, but it's there. And it's not going away.

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Monday, August 05, 2013

In the locker room

ESPN recently aired a documentary on women in sports journalism called "Let Them Wear Towels." It was very well done, as the filmmakers spoke to most of the women who fought the battles to do their jobs in the 1970s.

The reporters involved certainly were tougher than their male counterparts, which includes me, since they had go through many more hoops just to get a story. The film made me think of my own experiences as something of a bystander to the story.

Let's state the obvious first. Interviewing someone who isn't wearing any clothes is an odd experience under any circumstances. When the President of the United States is done with the State of the Union, does he go to a locker room and tell reporters while he's undressing how he thought the speech went? Thankfully, no. But, traditionally it was part of the job and everyone learned to accept it.

That could lead to the odd bizarre moment. I remember covering a Canisius basketball game at the Koessler Center with a male newspaper reporter who was on a tight deadline. He needed quotes in a hurry, and I didn't want to make the Canisius player repeat his answers. So we talked to him at the entry to the shower as he was toweling off. I'm surprised I didn't have "Could you pass the talcum powder?" in the middle of a radio sound bite about the Griffins' zone defense.

My former radio news director once told a story about how he had to fill in on Bills coverage one time at then-Rich Stadium. The game was over, and he was in the Bills locker room collecting audio tape. He told me how he had looked over in the room, and saw me talking to Fred Smerlas, the Bills' defensive tackle. We were carrying on a normal conversation, except for the fact that Smerlas was naked. To his outsider's viewpoint, this was bizarre journalism. To me, it was another day at the office.

Women were rather scarce during the time I covered Bills' games. Most of them were put lower on the totem pole when it came to assignments as they were new and had to work their way up the ladder. That meant hockey led the way. I don't recall that there were major fights over press box access by the time I was a regular at Sabre games.

That battle was an easy one; credentials were merely written. But certain teams were tougher than others when it came to locker room access back then. I remember some issues coming up in that area, and about all I could do is be supportive to the journalists involved. At some point, the Sabres used to have a public relations person come into the locker room to announce that a woman was in the night's press corps, so that they would have the option to dress appropriately or go into another room entirely to avoid potential embarrassment. Of course, the women didn't have that option.

By the time I was in public relations with the Sabres from 1986 to 1992, I don't recall any major problems since it was league policy to accept female reporters. I remember Lisa Olson, involved in a celebrated incident involving the Patriots, coming to Buffalo to cover a hockey game while her status was being sorted out. I made sure to try to make her feel welcome, figuring she'd gone through enough stuff on that job.

One local women's reporter in the Nineties, when I asked if others wanted to know if she saw the Sabres naked in her job, quickly answered, "All the time." But even the cramped Aud locker room added a small changing room along the way which helped the situation; the visiting room didn't have that luxury.

When the Sabres moved to their new arena a block away, it was a little easier for the players to gain privacy. The First Niagara Center, as it is now called, is filled with off-limits spots and hiding places. Come to think of it, after a tough loss sometimes the media members of both sexes would file into the locker room and see ... no one. I haven't covered a Bills or Sabres game for years, but I would guess players have the opportunity to dress without prying eyes of all types staring at them.

There's one other issue involved here. It's a lot easier than it used to be to get "candid" photos in a lockeer room. About fifteen years ago, we just had to make sure television and still camera were only turned on and used in interview situations. Now, everyone has a cell phone with a camera, and the potential for mischief on the Internet is ever present.

I now have been covering the Bandits for five years, and there finally is true parity there. No one, male or female, is admitted into the locker room. It's a small area, and it's fair to say that it would be difficult for anyone to move around if six people were trying to talk to the same person at one time. Therefore, players are brought to a separate room, one at a time, and interviewed by the whole group collectively.

The thought has struck me that the policy does hurt the quality of my stories a little. Every interview is put up on the Internet shortly after it is recorded. It's a little tough to get quotes that no one else has under those circumstances. I do miss the chance to bounce from interview to interview in search of the best quotes, and maybe catch someone alone who can provide original insight.

But, to be fair, the system does provide equal opportunity, something that the women journalists of the past often didn't have. Men don't go into the locker rooms in women's tennis or golf, and stories still get written or produced. It seems as if all of the major sports are headed toward that approach. We may need time to get used to it, but the end result - equal access - strikes me as being worth the effort.

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Monday, July 29, 2013

On Mount Rushmore

Every so often, ESPN does something silly like ask America who should be on our sporting Mount Rushmores. This is usually broken down into states and big cities, since doing so for the entire country probably would be a little diffuse. And, it is usually done in the summer, somewhere between the end of the NBA Finals and the beginning of NFL training camps.

All right, I'm a little late to the party. The Bills had their first training camp practice Sunday.

Still, the question is fun to consider. In case someone starts building a sports equivalent of Mount Rushmore in between the two falls at Niagara Falls (I'm thinking tourism and not geology in this case), who should be the four people on it?

It's relatively to come up with the ground rules. It can be anyone connected with local sports, but there's only four winners. Splitting up the sports is a nice touch but not absolutely necessary.

The Bills get first crack at it. It's fair to say that O.J. Simpson would have been on it at one point. It's also fair to say I'm not sure we need a tourist attraction with his face on it at this particular time. Luckily, we have other candidates. Ralph Wilson brought the Bills here and kept them here for more than 50 years, and he deserves credit for that. Still, I'm not sure owners belong on the mountain, which - jumping ahead a bit - means Seymour Knox of the Sabres won't make it. Marv Levy is clearly the greatest Bills coach in history, and maybe the best Buffalo coach ever. If the space by the Falls was a little bigger, we'd have an argument.

After some thought, I'd start with Jim Kelly. Quarterbacks have the biggest impact on the game, and Kelly was one of the all-time best. If you wonder how tough it is to find someone like that, consider the revolving door at the position since he left. Jack Kemp deserves consideration with his two titles, but Kelly's body of work probably is more impressive. I'd put Kemp with Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas.

The Sabres are next, and at least we know who the two finalists are. Gil Perreault and Dominik Hasek are clearly the best candidates. Perreault helped establish the credibility of the franchise and was exciting from the first day to the last. Hasek might have been the best goalie ever if you needed to win one game. In other words, he didn't have the best career ever, perhaps yielding to Martin Brodeur, Patrick Roy or Terry Sawchuk. But Buffalo was attacked by raging hockey hoards from Montreal, Boston or Toronto, I'd want Hasek on my side. Still, Hasek's exit was clumsy, so Perreault gets a narrow win here.

How about basketball? The best pro player to ever call Buffalo home was Bob McAdoo, while two obvious college standouts were Bob Lanier and Calvin Murphy. McAdoo was a comet, an absolutlely thrilling performer during his days with the Braves. The rest of the country doesn't remember how good he was in those days, but we know. But I'd take Lanier's longevity over McAdoo's brilliance in terms of a sculpture. Besides, Lanier was born here, raised here, and went to college here. That earns him some points.

Then there's the fourth spot. Buffalo hasn't been a major league city very often in baseball, and I would doubt that Pud Galvin and Dan Brouthers deserve a spot on the mountain for their work in the 1880s. The Bisons haven't had anyone long enough to make a huge impact in the modern era; it's the nature of the business. If I needed a baseball player, I would lean to Warren Spahn, who was raised here and went on to have the best career of any left-handed pitcher in history. Still, he left town after he was finished with high school, and I'd like more of a connection.

We've still got an open spot on the hill, and I think I would pick John Tavares of the Bandits. He has been here since 1992, and he has set records in indoor lacrosse that may never fall. Tavares has become a consensus pick as the best player ever in his sport, and how many people with Buffalo connections ever can say that? I'm a little biased because I cover the sport, and I know some would never put a lacrosse player on such a mountain, but his career is unmatched.

So, I've got Kelly, Perreault, Lanier and Tavares, although I could be convinced to replace Tavares with Levy. You may disagree. Come to think of it, I hope you do.

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Thursday, July 25, 2013


I distinctly remember the words of my co-worker Jim Kelley one time, talking about the business of journalism.

A member of the Buffalo Sabres had told him directly that he had not asked for a trade to another team. Then Kelley discovered that the player had indeed asked to go elsewhere.

Kelley was incensed. To paraphrase Jim's argument, he said that people speaking for the public record could dodge a question, say no comment, hem and haw, etc. But, as he put it, "just don't lie to me."

No, that should be put another way. "JUST DON'T LIE TO ME!"

If you look at the rage issued by the nation's sports commentators in the past couple of days, you can see that they agree with Jim. Ryan Braun lied to them, lied to the fans, lied to everyone when it came to performance enhancing drugs. The fallout is one big mess. Braun accepted a suspension for the rest of the season, admitting he had taken PEDs in the Biogenesis probe.

You might remember how Braun had tested positive on a sample from the fall of 2011. An investigation showed that the specimen hadn't been handled in a completely proper way, and thus had to be thrown out. Braun then protested the entire episode, and continued to proclaim his innocence loudly to anyone who would listen.

And now this, complete with a statement with the comment, "I realize now I have made some mistakes."

There aren't many winners here. Many other major leaguers have commented that they are glad Braun was punished for his actions, so the MLB office gets credit for concluding this case relatively quickly.

On the other hand, Braun has a completely ruined reputation. He's done for the rest of this year, and when he gets back, his life on road trips is going to be, um, difficult. I'd say the good citizens of Milwaukee might not give him a warm welcome, but I remember San Francisco's fans not caring too much about Barry Bonds' situation as long as he was hitting home runs for the Giants.

The Brewers might be an even bigger loser. They picked Braun to be the face of the franchise in the form of a nine-figure contract, and Braun will get most of it in the years to come. The team had a choice of keeping either Braun or Prince Fielder, because they couldn't afford both. If they had to do over again, what would they do now?

If you think this case interesting, consider the angles of the Alex Rodriguez case. A-Rod already has admitted previous PED use, and reports have leaked out that the case against him is stronger than the one against Braun. Rodriguez's body has become more and more injury-prone in the past few years, and his huge contract mixed with a lack of production continues to be an anchor around the franchise. Are the Yankees quietly hoping that somehow A-Rod receives a lifetime ban from baseball? There's a history-making event that we didn't see coming a while ago.

Meanwhile, the pennant races go on, and several other players are at least possible targets of the Biogenesis probe. That could affect the pennant races in bizarre ways, such as having players who are appealing decisions take part in September and October games.

The other players would do well to remember the words of Jim Kelley. Just don't lie to me.

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Tied up in cable

Here's something to do when lounging around in a hot summer day: Make up a list of your favorite utilities, in reverse order of how much you hate them. Electricity, heat, etc.

I'll wait.

Was the cable company at the top of the list? I thought so.

Customer service is the usual problem. If something goes wrong with the power, there's a good chance that you'll can call a phone number and have someone at least understand the situation. But traditionally, that's never true about your favorite cable television outlet.

Here's today's real-life example.

The New York Mets played the Pittsburgh Pirates today. The game was not on SportsNet New York, which is owned by Time Warner Cable. It was on WPIX in New York City, but out-of-town cable systems can pick up the broadcast and show it on another station. In this case, the game was on Channel 87, which is a local access channel that usually shows the ARTS network. This station broadcasts opera videos among other items; it is nothing if not restful.

Once David Wright replaced Maria Callas at 1 p.m., we were ready with baseball ... with one problem. The sound level of the broadcast was basically a whisper. Our television goes from 1 to 100 in sound, and 100 wasn't loud enough. Obviously, there was a problem with the feed into the cable system as all of the other channels were fine.

Experience teaches us much about dealing with a cable problem on a Sunday afternoon. The first issue will be talking to an actual person who knows what he or she is talking about. It's not exactly easy to find a number that doesn't have a recording in such circumstances. Lots of "call during business hours from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m)" or something.

But if you do get through, you can bet that he or she won't be able to solve the problem too easily. And that was the case today, and the person on the other end of the phone had us try some techniques with the converter that were doomed to failure.

Admittedly, it's fair to say the phones weren't ringing off the hook at the home office. I don't know what percentage of people can even get Channel 87, since a converter is needed. And, not many of those people are interested in seeking out a Mets' broadcast under most circumstances. Anyone eager to see the game probably gave up after thinking of picking up the phone and moved on to the two other games on the dial.

At our house, we turned up the volume - closed captioning wasn't even working - and did the best we could. At least there was a partial happy ending for the Mets' fan of the house, as the New York beat Pittsburgh.

In the meantime, the cable company dropped further down the national rankings for monopolies. You wouldn't think you could fall further than last.

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Nearing the finish line

Here's a story about one of the joys of writing a book that you don't hear much about.

After months of rewriting, updating, etc., I recently was all set with the manuscript of a story about Buffalo sports history. I had given it to the publisher, who had bunches of good questions and found a few errors. Then I went back and edited those changes into the manuscript - finding a couple of new mistakes along the way (what the heck is a defense coordinator, and how did I miss it so many times?).

But then, I considered things finished by Wednesday. The computer disk containing everything would be delivered Thursday morning. Ahhh. If there was a cold one in the house, I would have had it.

At 12:45 in the morning, I was reading a book on the Milwaukee Braves. There was a section on the signing of Henry Aaron. I knew that Aaron had been scouted by the Braves while playing in the Negro Leagues while playing in Buffalo. However, I didn't know where that double-header took place. I had checked the microfilm of the Buffalo News, but there was no game story. Aaron played for the Indianapolis Clowns, which didn't play home games in Indianapolis but rather had a business address in Buffalo. The News indicated the Bisons played a twin-bill at Offermann Stadium that day, so two more games by another pair of teams seemed unlikely.

"Bushville Wins!" had the answer. The Clowns played at Riverside Park. I had heard that some Negro League games had been played there, but this book showed that Aaron's big moment came there.

The couch was comfortable, and I was a bit sleepy. But the more information in the book, the better. I got up, went up the stairs to the office, and typed in the new fact. Then I copied the new corrected page over to my computer-file copy of the manuscript,  and resealed the envelope with all of the information for the publisher.

Then, I went to bed. Yawn.

For those who are curious, the book does not have a title yet. Since I don't have a contract signed, I won't give any details about the business side for now. But it's essentially a done deal, and with luck it should be out for sale around Labor Day.

I'll keep you posted here and on Twitter about developments (including the ever-popular book signings) in the weeks to come. So start saving now.

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Friday, June 28, 2013

The first step toward success

You may have noticed that Buffalo's sports teams are in the midst of a down period. Most people in Western New York certainly did.

The Bills haven't made the playoffs in forever. The Sabres have missed the playoffs in the last couple of seasons, and haven't won a series in years. The Bandits were the one team out of nine to miss the playoffs this spring. All three fired their coaches in the last six months.

The reaction to all of this losing has been predictable - more housecleaning, more trades, etc. Something else has popped up, which is equally annoying.

Fans have been calling for the local teams to think more locally. This can take the form of drafting local players for their teams' rosters, or for hiring ex-players for the front office. It's an obvious reaction to circumstances.

And it's wrong.

When Bill James was writing in the early days of his Baseball Abstract, somewhere around 1979, he wrote about the history of the Chicago Cubs. Now, the Cubs were not on the cutting edge of the bush to bring players of color into baseball. As a result, they slid into mediocrity and below rather quickly in the 1950s. As James said, when you start using discrimination as one of the factors of selecting talent, you are limiting your choices and are essentially helping yourself fail.

I've tried not to forget that. So when people were upset when Europeans starting arriving in the National Hockey League, I said the Sabres should embrace the additions to the talent pool. Think Japanese baseball players are a poor risk for signing purposes? Ichiro has worked out well on this side of the ocean.

This can be a tricky business. The Bandits for years had a strong Native component to their roster, and they won a lot of games. They also had a Native coach. Was the team giving an edge to that segment of the population when it came to roster decisions, or was it simply taking advantage of an underutilized segment of the lacrosse community? My guess is the latter, but that's impossible to judge completely.

The theory applies to front office hirings as well, of course. If you starting ruling out good people from being a candidate for a job, then you are hurting your own chances. If you have a shoe store and don't hire a good salesman for whatever reason, then you might find yourself with too many shoes in the back room at the end of the month.

We're all human, meaning that some people certainly would think twice about hiring the tattoo-covered Chris "Birdman" Andersen of the Miami Heat to run their Wall Street bank. But especially in the results-driven world of sports, inclusion is definitely the way to go.

After all, what do we have to lose, besides more losses?

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Friday, June 07, 2013

Hero becomes something better

I've been going on quite a baseball journey for the last few years, one that dates back more than 40 years and includes a pro baseball player and a kid who watched him. It's worth sharing, even though I've told part of the story in a book review, of all places.

When I lived in Elmira in 1965 to 1970, the city had a Double-A team that was mostly affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles. You might remember that the Orioles were in the process of building some good teams around then, and some talent passed through Elmira on the way to Baltimore.

Dad's company did the civic-minded thing during those years, buying season tickets to the Elmira Pioneers. Here's the good part from my standpoint - hardly anyone from the company ever wanted to go to games. Therefore, I had a pretty good chance of going almost any time I wanted. First, it was with my Dad, who was always good about taking me. Then later I'd take friends, with my mother dropping us off (it was a 10-minute drive from home, tops) and then listening to the game on the radio so she could arrive in the eighth inning or so to pick us up.

Since I was a pesky 10-to-14-year-old in those years, naturally I bought a program and kept score for every game. It was a good way to learn about the game, even though by that age I had already figured out that the Red Sox would have to get somebody else to play left field for them when Carl Yastrzemski was done because I wasn't nearly good enough. (Note: they found Jim Rice, who was good enough.)

Give a kid a program, a pen or pencil and baseball tickets, and naturally he's going to hound players for autographs. That's what I did, over and over again. I only saved one of them, a 1966 edition which is shown above. I went over Delano Hill's and Jim Hardin's writing in pen, but also there are Darrell Johnson, Jim White, Bob Litchfield, Gary Fancher, George Farson, Hank McGraw (yes, Tug's brother), and Steve Cosgrove in pencil.

The next year, one of those I bothered constantly for autographs was a pitcher named Tim Sommer. He was 6-foot-1 and 155 pounds, probably right after lunch. Yes, his nickname was "Slim." I remember him as always friendly and willing to sign, which was appreciated. Sommer stayed in Elmira for parts of the next four seasons, as his records page indicates, which made him a constant part of my summers in Elmira before I moved to Buffalo in 1970.

Fast forward almost 40 years, when I had finished reading a book about life in the minor leagues. Afterward, had a list of suggested books, and it included a memoir by Tim Sommer. That Tim Sommer? That Tim Sommer. I bought the book, read it and found it brought back a lot of good memories. I wrote this review.

I figured it would be worthwhile to get an autographed copy of the book, and managed to connect with Sommer - now living in Arizona. He no doubt was a bit startled to hear from one of those pesky autographed-seeking kids. Sommer explained in an email that the book was simply a way for him to pass on his memories of his baseball days, so I was quickly convinced that maybe my criticism of the writing/editing standards in that context might be a little harsh. In fairness, I didn't know the circumstances at the time.

On the other hand, the message of "if you're going to do something, you might as well do it right" apparently carried a little weight. Because he did have good stories to tell. Sommer made several fixes to the book and printed up some more copies, and sent me one of them nicely autographed.  I think I owe him a copy of my book that's coming out in the fall.

What's more, we still exchange emails almost five years since the initial "conversation." Tim is 70 now, and the book is still attracting interest. He wrote to tell me recently about how he sold almost 100 copies at a recent 50th anniversary reunion of a team in Stockton, California. Sommer also just sent me a letter he had kept from 1971 or so, explaining why he was retiring. It could have been written today, except the "big money guys" who receive preferential treatment from front-office types - even if they don't play like it on the field - make a lot more money now than they did then.

My baseball-loving friends and I all looked up to people like Sommer - literally and figuratively - back in Elmira. We all would have loved to at least been given a chance to play ball, but the odds were long just to get that far. The years have gone by since then, and that tends to level the playing field, to use the obvious sports cliche. Tim has gone from something of a hero in the Sixties to something even better almost 50 years later - a friend.

And to use a phrase from the Sixties, that's pretty neat.

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Friday, May 31, 2013

One more barrier down

It looks as if a coaching technique that has been around for decades is about to disappear from sports.

The image has been a popular one. Coaches have been yelling and screaming at their players at all levels for quite a while. Basketball legend Phil Jackson recently said that a lot of people came out of World War II with a military approach to leadership, and they carried it into athletic coaching. There's a lot to that. Think of how many coaches have practiced something later called "tough love" - plenty of yelling and screaming in the name of discipline. The parents of the baby boomers have put up with it, perhaps because that's how fathers learned to teach as well.

Some coaches had a lot of success that way. Remember the story of Bear Bryant and the Junction Boys, featuring practices so tough that part of the squad headed home after quitting the squad? Vince Lombardi didn't exactly take it easy on the Green Bay Packers during their glory days. And so on. In basketball, Bobby Knight was extremely hard on his players - but most at Indiana looked the other way because he was a brilliant basketball mind who never cheated and, let's be fair about this, won games. My theory is that in the Sixties and Seventies a lot of adults loved coaches who imposed strict discipline on their players, perhaps because those adults couldn't do the same in their own lives - like in raising their own kids.

But time has moved along, and so have attitudes. Maybe we've learned that there are all sorts of ways to win, and one of them is to treat the athletes like people. Bill Walsh won a lot of games in San Francisco, and he refused to yell at his players. If Marv Levy had been very tough, I would think some of the Buffalo Bills stars of that era would have rebelled and the team never would have reached four straight Super Bowls. Going way back for an example, John Wooden never said anything stronger than "goodness gracious saints alive" but made it stronger than any curse word.

And now we're reached the tipping point. It came in the form of a video showing then-Rutgers coach Mike Rice verbally abusing his players and throwing basketballs at them during practice. Virtually everyone who saw it knew a line had been crossed. Rice even received a warning from the administration, but didn't - maybe couldn't is a better word, speaking from the outside - change his ways. Rice was finally shown the door.

That incident also cost the athletic director, Tim Pernetti, his job. The university searched all over the place for a replacement. It came up with Julie Hermann, who had a quiet couple of weeks on the job. Then it was revealed that she had been charged with the same sort of behavior as Rice when she coached volleyball at Tennessee. Hermann said she never heard of those charges, but this blog by one of her ex-players makes a very convincing and rational case that something bad happened in Knoxville. You'd think previous coaching tactics would have been the second or third question on the list by the Rutgers search committee.

I would guess that this is the tip of a relatively small iceberg. Coaches of all sports around the country probably have been reading these stories about Rutgers in recent weeks, and looking themselves at the mirror. Maybe they'll try to treat their athletes a little more humanely in the future. As for the athletes, maybe they'll be a little quicker to complain when they have a valid complaint about a particular coach.

I don't doubt that a majority of coaches have a genuine interest in teaching their players lessons about games as well as life. Still, we seem to have learned a lesson in the past several weeks about behavioral limits.


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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Hanging curveball

Traditionally, I find that I don't pay much attention to many of the local elections. There are exceptions, naturally, mostly when I happen to know something about a particular candidate or actually am a friend. But for the most part, it's often a case of "eeny, meeny, miny, moe" when filling out the ballot.

The Erie County Sheriff race certainly qualifies. People in my generation only cared about this race once. Way back in the 1970's, Mike Amico was the sheriff. Whenever there was a rock concert in Rich Stadium, Amico seemed to devote every resource in the department toward making arrests of concert-goers. That technique was at least subject to debate, but I swear he had a news release issue about the number of arrests before the parking lots were clear. When he ran for election, everyone in my age group headed to the polls to cast a ballot for Ken Braun, who won in fine style.

It looks like it's time for another exception.

When I scanned the newspapers after returning from vacation, I discovered a surprising front-page article about the current Sheriff, Timothy Howard. He said that he doesn't support New York State's new gun control law, which is his right as a citizen.

However, he said about the law, "I won't enforce it." He thinks it's unconstitutional and thus will be overturned by the courts.

Funny - I don't remember Sheriff Howard's appointment to the Supreme Court. I thought he was elected to enforce all the laws, and not pick and choose the ones he likes. His opinion just doesn't matter.

Luckily, it's an election year, so this year's Sheriff's race will be the equivalent of a hanging curveball - an easy choice to swat out of the park. The incumbent definitely is an "eeny" this year, and the other major candidate is a "moe."

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Thursday, May 09, 2013

New boss, old boss

My coworker Miguel made the crucial comment on Tuesday night when it came crystallizing an opinion about Ron Rolston's return as the coach of the Buffalo Sabres for the 2013-14 season. Miguel said that Rolston sounds just like Darcy Regier when he talked in public. I later saw a clip of the news conference and realized that Miguel was on to something here.

All of a sudden, the hiring made good sense, at least from Regier's standpoint.

As I've written before, Regier got his hockey training under Bill Torrey with the Islanders. He picked a head coach in Al Arbour, one he was comfortable with, and stuck with him for years and years. It worked out pretty well, especially in the dynasty days of the early 1980's. Regier got the GM job in Buffalo in 1997, and stayed with Lindy Ruff through last winter for mostly the same reasons.

Put yourself in Regier's shoes at the end of the season. He knows the fans aren't happy with how things have gone lately, and he certainly might have been fired had he been associated with a different set of upper management types. The rebuilding process started with the trading of veterans leading up to the deadline. Regier needs someone as a coach that he had confidence will serve as a good teacher and partner in the process.

Rolston is right down the hallway, figuratively speaking. They'd worked together for two years, and apparently gotten along fine. Rolston did oversee an uptick in the team's play during his tenure this past season, even with some talent leaving along the way, so there's no pressure there to switch coaches for that reason. They talked alike, which can be translated into having similar philosophies about the game.

Regier is known for playing it cautious on player transactions, and we'll assume that reputation extends into other areas of his work philosophy. If this is a situation where Regier knows he had better be right, well, he's not going to be throwing any long passes. Picking Rolston might not be an simple handoff on third-and-16, but it might be a low-risk flare pass that might turn into something better.

The result? To quote the Who, "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss."

If I can understand the hiring, I have to ask a follow-up question. Was the process done properly a good idea? I'm not so sold on that part.

We have a fan base that is disillusioned after the past couple of seasons. The team has watched the playoffs lately, and has already traded some veterans. There is talk of trading Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek, who probably are the two best players on the roster. The bundle of draft choices involved in the spring trades aren't going to be ready to help for a while. And the hockey management team will have the same leaders.

Think there will be some empty seats at the start of the season next fall? Me too - even if a couple of high-priced free agents are signed, which would seem to go against the current plan.

I would have been tempted to at least talk to some other possible candidates. To use an historical example, John Muckler needed a new coach in the summer of 1995 after moving upstairs full-time. He picked Ted Nolan, which certainly didn't work in terms of front-office harmony. But in terms of changing the hockey culture dramatically, Nolan did that job successfully. Promoting assistant coach Don Lever probably wouldn't have had the same effect on the organization.

The fans became relatively excited about a rebuilding roster, one which thanks to Muckler's moves and Nolan's coaching went on to win a division title well ahead of schedule in 1996-97. Note: I am not saying Nolan should have gotten an interview here. But could it have hurt to interview somebody, anybody? It might have been a good opportunity to talk with outsiders about the state of the Sabres' franchise, if nothing else, as well as a bit of a public relations technique.

It's fair to say, then, that Regier didn't act like he was under pressure from the boys and girls in the marketing department to do something. He went with an option that featured the fewest unknowns, one that was obviously approved by team ownership. That sort of faith is relatively rare in professional sports, a results-oriented, high-pressure business. Now we get to see how the near future plays out to determine if the team's faith is justified.

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