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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