Monday, April 22, 2013

I meant it, but ...

This is almost too easy of a target.

I note with some degree of alarm the tendency of public figures to say something really, really stupid, and cause an uproar.

And then, they don't apologize. They come up with some way of saying "sorry I offended you." That's not the same as saying, "Boy, was I stupid. Next time, have someone stop me before I speak again."

Which brings us to Arkansas state legislator Nate Bell.

Here's a man who uses Twitter and Facebook frequently - more than most news organizations as far as I can tell. On Friday, as events unfolded in Boston, Bell put out this message:

"I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?"

Yes, everyone in Boston was thinking that more weapons in the region on that particular day would be a good idea. Sigh. But that's not the bad part.

When an outcry came out from a variety of sources, Mr. Bell responded this way later on Friday:

"I would like to apologize to the people of Boston, Massachusetts for the poor timing of my tweet earlier this morning. As a staunch and unwavering supporter of the individual right to self defense, I expressed my point of view without thinking of its effect on those still in time of crisis. In hindsight, given the ongoing tragedy that is still unfolding, I regret the poor choice of timing. Please know that my thoughts and prayers were with the people of Boston overnight and will continue as they recover from this tragedy."

The thought struck me that the people of Boston may have tried to put those thoughts from Bell back in the mail and sent to Arkansas if they weren't busy at the time.

There are other examples of this sort of behavior on both sides of any issue, political or otherwise. But picking on Mr. Bell at this particular time makes me feel a little better, so I'll let this stand alone.

In the meantime, take a look at the comments under his "apology" on his Facebook page. They run the spectrum.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

When worlds collide

I just completed Bill James' book, "Popular Crime." James is best known as the man who helped popularize statistical analysis in baseball to the point where someday he should be in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

A couple of years ago, James put out a book on crime. Just when we all figured he did nothing but study baseball, it turns out he's read dozens and dozens and dozens of crime books over the years. "Popular Crime" is something of a recap of a variety of murders, etc. since the 19th century. James is as quirky and entertaining as ever as a writer here, going through some famous cases in rapid-fire style over the course of 460 pages or so.

One part of the book stopped me in my tracks, but it was due to a spectacular coincidence. In a section about the book "In Cold Blood," Truman Capote's book on the murders by Floyd Wells and Richard Hickock, I came across this:

"In Cold Blood was required reading at Shawnee Mission North High School in Mission, Kansas, in the early 1970s. One day a young man was so affected by doing his homework that he dropped the book to the floor, and staggered out of the classroom in a daze. He had figured out, from reading the book, something that his family had never told him. His father was Richard Hickock. He was a baby at the time of the crime. His mother had long since re-married, and he had been adopted many years earlier. But he knew his grandmother, and he pieced the facts together after he saw her name in the book."

At this point in the story, we introduce my sister - who I'm proud to say is the former president of the Shawnee Mission School Board. I'm not sure she was out of college at that point, and was 10 years from even moving to Kansas, so she obviously had no influence on the selection of books in the schools at the time.

I recently read this story to her, and she had never heard it. I mentioned that if she still had any influence with the Shawnee Mission School Board, she should suggest much calmer reading for the today's students. Personally, I think "Rayzor's Edge" by Rob Ray would be the perfect choice. And considering that copies probably can be purchased cheaply out of the remander bins of stores, the school district and its taxpayers could save some money. Talk about a win-win!

All right, the shameless plug is over.

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Monday, April 15, 2013

Unpopular premise

Want to see a blogger become unpopular in no time?

Here's one method - suggest that Darcy Regier is not the source of all of the Buffalo Sabres' problems, and that firing him at the end of the current season is no sure cure.

Here goes.

The Sabres have been a major disappointment again this season. Hopes were high when Terry Pegula bought the team, but so far the franchise hasn't been able to capitalize on the new approach and turn it into wins - or more to the point, playoff wins. A few players have been sent packing recently for various reasons, so the roster is more or less out of scapegoats there. Coach Lindy Ruff was sacrificed to the hockey gods earlier this season. That has helped a little in terms of won-loss record, but a playoff berth seems unlikely.

Housecleanings of the front office are always popular. They are a sign of action, and people like action in such circumstances. The media members like it, because it creates news. Fans like it, because everyone likes to play general manager ... although I don't think actually being one would be the least amount of fun.

Appropriate here? Much harder to say. Let's ask some questions.

What's the easiest way to get fired as a general manager? Not get along with the people above you, naturally. Ask John Muckler. Heck, ask Scotty Bowman, who drastically changed the team's front office culture and is still hated for it. We've had a variety of people involved in Sabres' ownership since Regier arrived in 1997. They all seem to think that Regier has done a good enough job to hang on to his position, and done it in a variety of circumstances - from bankruptcy to unlimited riches. A lot of people who see him work on a daily basis, up close, have been impressed. He's been a good soldier, taking the blame for organizational faults at times. Stability is also a virtue, and he's certainly provided that over the years. That's all worth something.

How is his record? The answer is mixed. It looks as if the team is about to go two straight seasons without making the playoffs, and six straight seasons without winning a playoff series. That's not a good sign, and some may want to stop here and show Regier the door. But the team was in the conference finals in two seasons before that, and probably was one healthy defenseman away in 2006 from winning the Stanley Cup. Before that, there were three years of sitting home in late April, and nothing but playoff appearances before that. It's not consistent excellence like the Detroit Red Wings' ledger, but it's not the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Are there extenuating circumstances? Absolutely. Bankruptcy is never a good sign, and we'll never know what working conditions were like in that era. We do know that a few years later under actual owners, the Sabres cut way back on their scouting budget and watched prospects through video. While the technique was rationalized at the time, it's tough to believe it didn't play a part in the team's problems for the past few years. In other words, the Sabres could be paying for it now.

How have Regier's transactions gone? Stay long enough, and you'll have some successes and failures. This month's housecleaning brought in several high draft choices that could turn out to be helpful in a few years. Know anyone who didn't like Cody Hodgson and Alexander Sulzer for Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani? A first-round pick for Paul Gaustad? The original Robyn Regehr traded was helpful. Then again, deals for Brad Boyes and Raffi Torres didn't work out. And so on down through the years. Rarely, though, has a trade been announced and fans thought, "Just what was Darcy thinking there?" Regier supposedly is rather cautious in his negotiations and can be difficult to deal with, but it's hard to know just how true that is unless you are on the phone talking trade or contract with him.

How about free agent signings? Swings and misses. Christian Ehrhoff wasn't a bad pick-up. Ville Leino hasn't worked out so far. You get the idea. Hockey players peak at 25 or 26 for the most part, and free agents become available at 27. You never know how fast they'll slide, and teams often pay for past production that isn't duplicated.

And the ones that got away? I'm not willing to blame Regier for the loss of Chris Drury and Danny Briere once upon a time. Ownership didn't take a pro-active approach to those moves and let them get away. To be fair, Drury and Briere probably didn't earn their inflated salaries elsewhere. Buffalo did match the contract offers for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter last year, but they opted to go to Minnesota for the same money. Hard to complain too much about that.

The draft choices? Ups and downs, as could be expected. Tyler Myers was a fine choice, Marek Zagrapan was not. It's very, very difficult to try to look at an 18-year-old and figure out how he'll be at 23. It's a little easier if you have a top 10 pick. Care to guess how many top ten picks the Sabres had between 1997 and 2011? One, and it was Thomas Vanek. In other words, the Sabres usually haven't been bad enough to get great picks. 

See any slam-dunk reasons there, objectively speaking? I don't.

One of my pet theories about pro sports is that people in leadership positions help their own cause by being available and polished to the public. My Exhibit A was Dick Jauron of the Bills, who everyone said was a nice, brilliant man but who never spoke much and when he did, chose his words so carefully that it was hard to get a read on his personality. Jauron didn't get the benefit of the doubt when things turned bad.

Same here. Regier has always come across as shy to me. The internal drawback is that some people internally have complained about a lack of communication from the GM, which is not good. But more to our point is how Regier has dealt with the public, which is most obvious through the media. The fun in the job for him comes from working with people he likes and trusts, which is why Ruff certainly got the benefits of a few doubts over the years. Lindy had more chances to build up good will with the public since he was on television after every game and practice, but that area isn't Regier's strong suit.

So ... what do we have here? Certainly Regier's departure would be taken by many fans that ownership is willing to try new approaches to win. It's an ideal time to do that in the sense that a new GM could bring in his own coach in the offseason, as well as make other front-office moves.

But would it help? Is there someone obviously better equipped waiting at the door? That's a tough call. Sports teams win or lose for a reason, and usually the reason isn't obvious. When I worked for the Sabres from 1986 to 1992, I saw first-hand that the team's biggest problem was what I called "a commitment to mediocrity." In other words, ownership wasn't prepared to go the extra mile to win a championship; it was relatively content to have a competitive team. This may remind you of the Golisano years with the Sabres, when breaking even was a major goal.

You never know how any architect of a sports team will do in a particular set of circumstances. Glen Sather won a bunch of Cups in Edmonton, but has been blanked in New York while spending lots of money. Harry Sinden never won a Cup as a GM in Boston, although his teams won plenty of games. There are just too many variables to predict future results.

I guess I'd have to see have some good evidence from the inside that shoving Regier out the door would be helpful before pulling the trigger. That's mostly because change for the sake of change isn't necessarily a good idea.

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Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Boo boo

Steve Ott caused a bit of an uproar this morning when he described the Sabres' fans booing of his team on Sunday night as "completely ridiculous." I immediately had a bit of a flashback to the 1995 season, I think.

The Sabres had just completed a relatively dreary loss at home, the latest in a series of so-so efforts. I was talking to Wayne Presley, a veteran who had been around the block and for the most part was a very logical, insightful interview. I'm not sure how the subject came up, but someone asked about the fan reaction - which was not overly polite.

The response surprised me. It was something along the lines of "Nobody believes in us, only the guys in the locker room are behind us, we'll just have to get this done for ourselves."

I realized that this could be personally harmful to his popularity, and that it was uncharacteristic of him, so I did something I haven't really done before or since. I gave him a chance to bail out. I said something like, "Wayne, in fairness, the team hasn't played well lately, and the fans have filled the building and been generally supportive. Don't you think it was just a case of the booing briefly reflecting on the frustration of a bad night?"

Presley didn't take the life preserver. No, he said, everyone's given up on us, so the heck with everyone, we'll do it for ourselves. I included the second quote in my story.

Booing does happen at sports events, mostly at the pro level. When people pay a lot of money to see a game that doesn't have a happy ending, a few - and that's important to remember - are quick to voice their disapproval. Personally, there's usually only one thing that gets me to even think of booing if I'm in the stands, and that's a lack of effort. You don't try, you deserve the worst. Otherwise, I prefer giving the silent treatment.

What Ott needs to remember, even in moments of frustration, is that professional athletes are making a grand bargain. They earn a lot of money at their craft, to the point where it only takes a few years to have a big head start on everyone else when it comes to having no financial worries for the rest of their lives. They are generally treated like royalty, and admired by people in the community. When they do something well, the cheering rings in their ears. And when they don't, it only takes a good play to help to erase those bad feelings.

But there is a downside. The odd boo or remark from the stands is part of that. None of us would like it if, when we made a mistake on the job, we had people surrounding us, yelling a chorus of boos. There can be a lack of privacy and an excess of rumors about your personal life. There even may be criticism in the media based on incorrect information or just plain poor assumptions (hard to believe, I know).

If you don't want to accept that deal, fine. There's a line of people out the door who are willing to take it.

Athletes are never going to win this type of argument with fans. It's better to keep quiet and try to do better next time. Or, maybe say something like, "I felt like booing me too." Those athleties might remember that it's better to have them in the building and caring about the team than sitting at home watching a reality show on television. In that sense, apathy is the biggest boo of all.

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Friday, April 05, 2013

Thumbs up

Back in the dark ages, sometime around 1990 I guess, my friend Dave Kerner got on the kick of asking people a classic question: Who is the most famous person to have shaken your hand? I said Jimmy Carter, who passed through Syracuse when his Presidential campaign was just starting in 1975. Dave said Buzz Aldrin, I think. I even used the question in a a couple of Sabres' media guides.

I think there's now a 21st century equivalent of that question. Who is the most famous person to have sent you a personal email?

My answer would have to be Roger Ebert, whose death was announced on Thursday.

Some years ago, I had watched the movie "Ali" with Will Smith. As a sports fan, I was very familiar with the Ali story to the point where some of the historical inaccuracies jumped out at me, and it spoiled the effect of the motion picture a bit. Ebert had his website fully up and running, and took questions from readers.I wrote and briefly recounted my experience, and asked the question, "Can a little too much knowledge about a subject spoil a biographical film?"

To my surprise, within about two days there was an email from, yes, Roger Ebert. He wrote, "I think it can. But remember, no person's life comes as a movie. RE." The right answer.

Ebert's life as a critic had more than one act. The first was when he was a newspaper critic in Chicago, and the Pulitzer Prize might indicate he was pretty good at it. Then Ebert started doing a PBS show with rival critic Gene Siskel, with its now-familiar thumbs up or down rating system. Around that time, I guess, he started publishing annual books that served as collections of reviews, and we all got to see his long, thoughtful reviews of movies. Ebert's enthusiasm always came through. If a movie was a dud, well, the next one had to be better - a line stolen from "Ed Wood" but one that is appropriate here.

When the Internet came along in the 1990's, we could start reading both Siskel and Ebert on line. As I recall I never saw a review from Siskel that was longer than a few paragraphs. Ebert's reviews were always better in terms of going into depth and exploring the subject thoroughly. Those reviews eventually piled up on Ebert's own website, where they served as a great resource for picking out good movies past and present. Even the loss of his voice through cancer couldn't silence him; he just kept communicating with us as he always did, through his words. Ebert's death hit with the peculiar feeling that comes with the loss of someone who you've never met, yet feel as if you know him well enough to feel a certain level of personal sadness.

It's tough to guess who will fill Ebert's niche when it comes to film criticism. Those are impossible thumbs to replace.

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