Monday, December 29, 2014

What if I told you ...

... back in July that the Buffalo Bills would have a winning record in the 2014 season? That the Bills would not have a losing record at any point in 2014? That they would finish second in the AFC East?

My guess is that many Bills fans would have settled for that. And that's exactly what happened. The first winning season in 10 years (9-7) was a good sign of progress. As an added bonus, the first-round pick in 2015 that was given up in the trade involving Sammy Watkins turned out to be the 19th pick in the first round. Just for comparison's sake, EJ Manuel went 16th overall two years ago. It's still a slightly painful transaction - but it could have been much worse.

But, while no one expected joy after sitting out the postseason again, there's a lot of anger out there. Maybe 15 years of missing the playoffs will do that, but there are calls for massive shakeups of personnel and some firings in the team's football department. Admittedly, some of this anger turns up in the form of letters to the sports editor or talk shows, and those are outlets which are not representative as the public as a whole. (In other words, those people are more likely to pick up the phone to complain rather than those who are relatively content.)

Part of the reaction naturally can be traced to something along the lines of the old Peanuts cartoon. Remember when Charlie Brown would come up to kick a football, and Lucy always pull it away at the last minute? That what the season felt like to some fans.

The Bills were good enough to get people's hopes up, a welcome development as these things go. Mix that with the good feeling generates by the sale of the team to the Pegulas, and expectations hadn't been so high in years. Then came the Miami game, which dashed some hopes. And then came the Oakland game, a stunning loss to a poor team that took place only a week after an equally shocking win over Green Bay.

In hindsight, a winning record is a good-sized accomplishment under the circumstances. As most people will tell you, the Bills didn't really have a starting quarterback on the roster this season. Manuel didn't live up to expectations and was benched in favor of Kyle Orton, one of those quarterbacks who is good enough to prevent the boat from sinking if your starter gets hurt but not good enough to be a top-flight starter. Orton complicated matters by retiring the day after the season ended, making some wonder what was on his mind for the final weeks of the season. Good teams usually have good quarterbacks.

In addition, the running game did little throughout 2014. The Bills' current coaches never figured out how to use C.J. Spiller properly, and then he broke his collarbone and sat out several weeks. Fred Jackson showed signs of wearing down, and the others looked like the substitutes they were most of the time. By the end of the season, the coaches seemed afraid to try to run the ball on short yardage because they knew they had little chance of making it.

Show me a team with issues at quarterback and running, and I'll show you a team that has offensive line problems. A couple of more good players in that position would have been nice, and the fact that Cyrus Kouandjio, the second-round draft choice, couldn't even get on the field was discouraging. The coaching staff received some criticism for all of this, but the group didn't have much to work with.

This is not to say that it won't be an interesting offseason at One Bills Drive. We start with the fact that new owner Terry Pegula has a chance to put his own stamp on the franchise, if he desires. It's now his shoe store. There are reports circulating that he is interested in hiring someone as either a consultant or as a head of the football department - not a bad idea.

Speaking of reports, stories have circulated that Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley aren't getting along. That has been denied, but it's hard to say from a distance if there is the slightest bit of truth in it. Marrone reportedly has a three-day opt-out clause in his contract, effective at the end of the season, and no one is going to say what might be happening in that area behind the scenes.

Then there's the quarterback situation, which just got more complicated with Orton's announcement. The Bills certainly can't be enthsiastic about the idea of selling EJ Manuel as the only possible option for 2015 at the position. Still, teams are really good about locking up decent quarterbacks, so those who could be available for trades or as free agents have all sorts of flaws attached. That missing first-round draft choice could have been useful there.

It's a complicated picture, and there are a lot of pieces in play. But there's also a little hope after the just completed season ... for a change. By training camp, we'll know more if the Bills have a chance of continuing their forward progress, or if a step backward is more than possible.

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Monday, December 01, 2014

Face of the franchise

Buffalo Bills fans received a shock when they picked up their morning newspaper on Thanksgiving morning. The main story on the front page was on the problems faced by Darryl Talley, one of the most popular players on the Bills' roster during their Super Bowl years of the early 1990s.

As outlined by Tim Graham in an excellent, difficult-to-read report, Talley has fallen on all sorts of bad times. His body has given out, leaving him unable to stand or sleep for long. Talley discovered well after the fact that he played NFL football with a broken neck. He may have brain damage from his playing days. Talley's personal finances are a mess, thanks to the collapse of his small business, to the point that he lost his house. The ex-linebacker suffers from depression and has had thoughts about trying to commit suicide.

Suddenly, the problems of ex-players with physical problems has a face in Buffalo. It's one thing when another team's star had issues. Junior Seau, one of the best linebackers in history, committed suicide due to concussion effects. But in Buffalo, seeing Talley in this situation drove home the point of what a problem this can be now and no doubt will be in the future.

Talley's status raises issues - lot of issues.

The veteran is receiving a yearly disability payment from the league, but it is far from the maximum allowed. The initial reaction from many is along the lines of, how disabled does someone have to be in order to qualify for the max? In fairness, the lines are very blurry in such cases, and the financial stakes over the rest of a lifetime are enormous. Yes, the NFL has plenty of money, but no business would hand out settlements like candy at Halloween.

Then there is the reaction of the Bills' franchise, which has to follow the lead of the National Football League in such matters. Otherwise, the legal complications could be immense.

That, in turn, brings up the issue of the team's new ownership. Ralph Wilson had a connection to the team from 1960 to 2014. He knew all of his veterans over the years, and is said to have personally helped out some of them financially in tough times. But Wilson didn't advertise it, because he knew that might lead to anyone who showed up at a Bills' training camp who had lost a few dollars would come asking for help.

Wilson is gone now, and Terry Pegula has replaced him. Pegula does not have the same emotional connection to every single Bill, even if he was a fan of the team for many years. What will he do in such situations?

Even help from fans can be complicated. A grass-roots effort to raise money to help Talley collected more than $100,000 within a couple of days. The show of support and generosity took everyone's breath away, and proved what Bills' fans thought of their ex-star. But Talley and his family aren't thrilled about taking that sort of handout in good conscience. Understandable. If they don't take the money, what happens to it? If the funds go to some related charity, donors certainly could say, "I sent in a check to help Darryl Talley, and not to go to some organized nonprofit."

Pretty clearly, the number of Darryl Talleys will be coming at an ever faster rate in the coming years. There is a fund dedicates to helping such cases as part of a legal settlement, but even hundreds of millions of dollars can go to victims quicker than you'd think.

There's one other issue, but it's for the long term. How many mothers read that story on Thanksgiving morning and said, "My son is not going to play football"? Get enough of those parents, and it's easy to wonder if football will start to lose popularity in terms of participation.

There's plenty at stake here, and it was rather brave of Talley to open up his life for the story. He's changed the conversation among Bills' fans for good, and for that we all owe him a debt of gratitude.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Finish line

It's not often I get to be in the same photograph as two
marathon directors ... and two of my favorite people. Here Mary
Wittenberg of New York Road Runners is honored by the late Tom
Donnelly at the Western New York Running Hall of Fame
induction ceremony in August, 2014.
Whenever something happened in the running community in the journalistic sense around Western New York, I knew exactly whom to call for a reaction. Inevitably I would try to reach Tom Donnelly, the unofficial leader of that community, who was sure to give me an intelligent, thoughtful response full of perspective.

Imagine, then, what happened when the news came out on Saturday night that Tom had died of a heart attack of the age of 61. Who could put his life into the proper perspective? No one.

Basketball star Bill Russell once said, when he heard about the death of Wilt Chamberlain, "I am unspeakably injured." Many runners in Western New York have that feeling now.  

I could pinpoint more or less precisely the time when I started to get to know Tom. He was the subject of my third running column back in February 2005. I may have known him slightly before that through mutual friends, but we hadn't really talked one-on-one. That changed quickly. For nearly 10 years, I think he was the most quoted person in the column.

That's because talking to Tom was one of the major benefits of the job. We basically had the same goals for the sport locally, even if we approached them  in different roles. Tom and I both wanted the sport to grow in Western New York. We both thought that the Buffalo Marathon and the YMCA Turkey Trot could become signature events on the running calendar. We believed that there should be a way to honor the great runners of Western New York in the past. When so much is in common, it's easy to strike up a conversation ... and a friendship.

Whenever I needed to know what was going on in running circules, Tom would point me in a direction or introduce me to a person. In fact, he did so many introductions that it was nice last month to reverse the roles. In one of the last times we were together, both of us turned up at the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner. Tom was somewhat excited about seeing some of the ex-Sabres in the crowd, so I called Derek Smith and Don Luce over to say hello. Tom was thrilled. 

Lives often can be divided into different "compartments," with relationships coming in different ways. In Tom's case, I knew few other members of his family, even though it was a big and happy one - based on the frequent Facebook pictures of reunions and events. I can't say we ever talked about his job at the NFTA; we never got around to it. Tom even had a "bridge" compartment, as he had a regular group of card players that participated in that particular game. He had the chance to play bridge with the legendary Warren Buffett. Even though I knew how to play the game, I never did sit across the table from him and be his dummy. So to speak.

No one locally, though, had a bigger "running compartment" than Tom. He had started the sport simply with a need to get in shape, and ran constantly for the rest of his life. Tom was always in great condition, except when he had gave in to the temptation of a Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner every so often. It was the only time he had an ounce of fat on him during the time I knew him. But the act of running wasn't quite enough involvement for Tom. When he had the chance to move into the business side of the sport, he jumped in with, um, both feet.

At the end, he was the director of the Buffalo Marathon, director of the YMCA Turkey Trot, president of the Checkers Athletic Club (which included many of the area's best runners), and the leader of the Western New York Running Hall of Fame. Oh, and he had a small business in which he designed logos for shirts given out at races. Where did he have the time to have any other compartments?

One way to do so was to find good people to help him. Tom used to say that he was no genius, but that he had surrounded himself with top-notch assistants. He was kidding himself in a sense; it takes a special type of person to be able to persuade people to give up their spare time to work on a project - particularly without pay. 

Tom was always willing to talk about running and runners. Our last conversation was rather typical of that. I was running in the Sarkin race in October, jogging down Delevan Ave. at my usual pace. Suddenly I heard Tom shout out some encouragement while doing a training run in the other direction. This sort of greeting, by the way, was a regular event for him; he knew everyone. This time, though, Tom went past me, turned around, caught up with me (not too hard for him, a former 2:35 marathoner), and started talking with me. This went on for more than a mile. At one point, Tom said that he thought we might be disturbing the woman running in our vicinity. She turned and said, "Oh, no. You guys are really interesting."

What's more, Tom was always willing to listen to new ideas. For example, I always believed that the Buffalo Marathon should sell licensed merchandise (shirts, hats, bags, etc.) in order to connect runners to the race. Tom replied that the Marathon didn't have the extra money needed to produce the items in advance of their sale. A couple of years later, I heard that a local company might be interested in supplying "official" items for the Marathon, giving the race a portion of the proceeds. I told Tom about it on Monday; he had completed a deal on Friday. That has to be a business record for speed. It's not merely good to find someone who appreciate your ideas and is willing to act on them; one cherishes it. Tom realized how that sort of action builds loyalty.

Admittedly, Tom and I were on different sides of the journalistic fence. We both realized that if something went wrong with one of his races, I'd have to ask the tough questions, and he'd have to answer them. But that never proved to be an obstacle for us. Our on-the-record conversations featured as many smiles as the personal ones.

Sudden deaths don't happen in your life very often, but they are shocking and unforgettable when they occur. In Tom's case that was particularly true because he was so active. His Facebook page became an instant memorial, with people from all portions of his life saying how much of a difference his attitude and upbeat approach made to them. Tom had a history of heart disease in his family. It was often as if he was determined to cram as much as possible into the years that he did have. If so, he certainly succeeded.

It's often said at such times that a departed person can not be replaced. That's very true in Tom's case; it will take five or six people to take on all of his jobs. Hopefully they'll carry Tom's dream with them and make running an even larger part of our community.  

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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Untold story

The midterm elections are over, and commentators throughout the country are busy trying to read the tea leaves in an attempt to figure out, solemnly, "what it all means." Usually they and the candidates themselves try to put some sort of great overriding theme into the results, when in reality it's more of a case of many individual decisions that may or may not have anything to do with each other when you try to connect the dots.

With all of this analysis, there's one overriding factor that doesn't get discussed here. But listen to people talk or pay attention to their posts on social media, and the message comes across loud and clear.

People are angry at the campaign process itself.

Few people were talking about who might win a political race. They were more likely to talk about how much mail they received on a given day from campaigns, or how many phone calls they received from candidates or their surrogates.

Political battles have become something of a virus, infecting people unexpectedly. In New York, we're somewhat immune from the major battles. The state usually goes Democratic in Presidential battles, and elections for Governor and Senator have been relatively one-sided too. I can't imagine what it's like to live in Ohio in an election year these days.

This year, we had an odd set of circumstances in my State Senate district. Usually, the Democrat wins handily since the registration edge is something like three-to-one. This was not a typical year. Two years ago, Mark Grisanti switched parties to run and win as a Republican. Since then he voted for same-sex marriage and gun control, angering some Republicans. He lost the primary to Kevin Stocker, and then opted to run on the Independence Party line. Meanwhile, Democrat Marc Panepinto was waiting in the general election. Panepinto was mostly known for being convicted of election fraud 11 years ago - not a good sign for someone seeking elective office. None of them, by the way, would ever be called "the best and the brightest" when it comes to serving the public - at least based on their public statements.

Throw in another conservative candidate who figured to draw some votes, and no one had the slightest idea who would win. So special interests came out of the woodwork to back Grisanti and Panepinto, and they threw money at the voters in the form of television ads and literature. And threw it, and threw it, and threw it. You couldn't watch the local news without seeing political ads, with the same candidate sometimes promoted more than once within the half-hour cycle. Heck, at the end of the news I was starting to miss ads like Fred Thompson's support of reverse mortgages.

The day before the election, I received 19 pieces of mail - mostly about this particular State Senate election. To be fair, Stocker's campaign was rather quiet in this sense, but that was probably more a case of a lack of supporting funds. Keep in mind that I'm not affiliated with a political party, although my wife is. We both were overwhelmed.

We all know that negative campaigning works, otherwise candidates and groups wouldn't be so quick to use it. Political parties and other groups have been happy to spread negative thoughts about opponents, using anecdotes and conclusions that sometimes are only within touching distance of the truth. The literature often comes without the name of the sponsoring group attached, meaning that the recipient has no idea who is doing the attacking. (At least on television, the group paying the bills has to be identified ... briefly.)

By the end of the campaign season, the voters are pretty tired. When the phone rings, many check Caller ID to see if the call is from a number they recognize. Otherwise, it goes unanswered. If they do answer, they hang up quickly. This isn't new. I remember one time some years ago, a co-worker came to work at 5 p.m one late October., and I asked him how he was. "Lousy - Hillary Clinton woke me up from my nap," he answered. But it's getting worse by  the year.

On Sunday, I even was frustrated enough to fight back once. I got an actual person calling me asking if he could count on my support of Panepinto. I told him that the election fraud conviction really bothered me, although I never said it was a disqualifying offense in terms of a vote. The guy on the phone said that was 11 years ago, and I said it still showed very poor judgment. With that, the guy just gave up - said thank you and hung up. No room for discussion there.

What happens by election day? People are sick of everyone. No candidate comes through the process without scars. Most of my friends vote all the time, so they take it all with a grunt and move on. Still, can you blame anyone for not voting? The numbers haven't been good in terms of turnout for off-year elections for a few decades - under 50 percent. According to some early statistics, turnout dropped in more than 40 states this time as compared to 2010. Remember, this is apples to apples, and not compared to 2012 when there was a Presidential race.

My guess is that by driving away those who aren't fully invested in the process, you tend to get a larger percentage of the "true believers" - which translates into the left and right wings. Which leads to less of a willingness to compromise, more gridlock in government, and more anger at the other side.

I would think that we need to take a look at all of this in a rational manner, starting with making it easier and more convenient to vote. I know that some think that reducing the size of the electorate can work in a particular party's favor in a particular race. But let's agree on something, shall we? The goal in a democratic society (note the small D) is to make the process more inclusive. What we're doing now is driving people away. 

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Traveling man

One of the best parts about traveling is that you find out what other cities are doing with their resources. In other words, it's educational.

Let's take, for example, the city of Little Rock, Arkansas. Little Rock has a riverfront, and civic officials there obviously have put some effort into turning it into a gathering place, instead of a swamp. There are all sorts of walking and running trails, and the nearby historic district is filling up with shops and restaurants.

This amphitheater, however, is the part that caught my eye. It's obvious a nice facility, with a good-sized covered stage and some permanent seating (there are some grassy areas surrounding it as well). Looks like a nice place to spend a summer day or night, doesn't it?

Now. Wouldn't one of these look good on Buffalo's waterfront ... somewhere?

My personal choice would be LaSalle Park, which might be the most underutilized or at least underrated piece of public property in the region. It's right on Lake Erie, and there is something of a stage there now. Yes, it would take a little money to do the stage itself, with other funds needed for such elements as parking. But it could turn into a magnet for people. If the amphitheater wouldn't work at LaSalle Park, there are other spots that could work as well.

I've seen other cities with subways have stops that are physically connected to major facilities, so that no one has to be outside in the winter in order to enter. Think about that the next time you walk outside from the ugly subway stop for the First Niagara Center on a chilly night for a Sabres' game. It wouldn't take much effort to construct a new station down the street a ways.

I've also seen cities in northern locations connect buildings through tunnels and skyways. That would be a natural here, but I'm not willing to be so ambitious quite yet. We've made some fast progress in Buffalo lately, and I'm willing to borrow ideas from any source to keep the momentum going. Everyone else should be too.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

A unique position

Let's take a look at what happens to most professional athletes when they hit a period of time when their play is below their usual or necessary standards.

If it's a short slump, the athletes might come out of a particular game in favor of someone else. If a hockey player keeps giving the puck to the other team, he'll take a seat on the bench for a while. When a basketball players misses eight straight shots, well, let him think about things for a while sitting next to the coach. If a baseball pitcher can't get anyone out, off to the showers ... until the next opportunity.

In any of those cases and almost all of the others, the players receives another chance to do well. If it goes on for a period of time, the baseball hitter will be dropped in the batting order or platooned. The football player will see spot duty and find himself on special teams. The hockey player will be placed on different lines and/or see his ice time reduced. Even golfers have a chance at redemption in upcoming tournaments.

But there is one big exception to the rule, and it centers on the single most glamorous and single most difficult position in sports - the football quarterback.

Ask EJ Manuel.

The Buffalo Bills quarterback was replaced this week as the team's starter, as Kyle Orton will take over on Sunday against the Detroit Lions. Manuel had not been playing well lately, and coach Doug Marrone announced the move earlier this week.

Let's review here. Manuel was a first-round draft pick in 2013 by the Bills in something of a surprise move, since other teams had him projected much lower. It would be interesting to know if Buffalo had planned to start him right away last season. Plan A might have been to start Kevin Kolb at the beginning of the year and give Manuel a chance to get his feet wet a bit. But Kolb suffered a career-ending concussion in preseason, and Manuel was Plan B. Manuel didn't look like the obvious answer at quarterback when he played last season, but then again he was good enough that we didn't know that he wasn't going to be the answer some day.

Fast forward to this year. The Bills traded two number-one picks to Cleveland for wide receiver Sammy Watkins, in theory giving Manuel a big-time target. Thad Lewis showed up in the spring, and the backup quarterback apparently had forgotten how to throw a football. He was quickly cut in camp. That left a vacancy at quarterback, and the Bills spent major dollars - something like $11 million over two years - to sign veteran free agent Kyle Orton. That's one expensive insurance policy, but an important one since Manuel was injured three times last year and in the NFL these days your season is essentially over if your QB goes down and you don't have a decent backup.

It didn't take an injury to force a switch. Manuel had trouble completing a pass beyond 10 yards or so, checking down to his running backs frequently. Shades of Trent Edwards. The team won two of its first four games, and it wasn't enough to keep the fan base happy. After defending Manuel after the Houston loss, Marrone announced a switch in starters 24 hours later. He might as well have dropped a green flag announcing "Let the speculation begin."

Were the Bills giving up on Manuel forever? The denials about that possibility quickly came from the team, but some quick research revealed that quarterbacks put in similar situations over the years frequently disappear for good. Check with J.P. Losman. The switch certainly prompted questions about whether the Bills were as sold on Manuel back in August as they said they were in public, and thus had this at least in mind since then.

And what about the pressure to win now? Certainly, another poor season would not go over well for a team that hasn't made the playoffs in this century. But throw in the fact that the AFC East looks pretty mediocre at best so far, and there's an opportunity to march into the playoffs relatively easily if things stay the way they are. What's more, the Watkins trade was designed to help the team immediately. Another poor season would bring another top-notch draft choice ...  to Cleveland.

Overshadowing all of that, naturally, is that the Bills are about to get a new owner. It's tough to know what Terry Pegula will do with the team when he takes over. He made some changes in the Sabres' front office, but he left the hockey department alone for a while. The people in the NFL are always under pressure to "win now." Still, observers have been guessing how many wins it would take to prevent a major housecleaning at One Bills Drive in the offseason. The most popular number is nine.

If this situation had come up in any other position, Orton probably would have come in for Manuel in the second half last week. Then maybe Manuel starts next week or maybe he doesn't, but no one is suggesting he's at the crossroads of his career.

But we're talking about a starting quarterback here, and the rules are different.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Caught by surprise

The other day at work, I suddenly and surprisingly found myself in the middle of a journalistic battlefield.

I was working on the night's High School Extra for the newspaper, a daily roundup of some of the results from the prep schedule on a particular day. It's a handy way of giving publicity to all/any achievements in some of the "other" sports - which means anything but football at this time of year and is not meant to demean those who participate in soccer, cross-country etc.

It was a light night, and there was something going on with the Bills that night - a sale of some sort, as I remember - that guaranteed I wouldn't have much space to fill. It's a good thing, because exciting finishes or good stories were few and far between. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't.

In order to start the column of notes, I talked to a coach of a local high school about her young team. She was quite articulate and gave me a few good quotes for my story.

Now comes the catch - the team in question was from Lancaster Central High School.

That may not send off alarm bells for those living outside the area. But those who know a little about Western New York know that Lancaster's athletic teams are called the Redskins. That, as you may have heard, is the same name of a Washington football team that has journalists and announcers boycotting the use of the team name while writing for print/Internet or talking for broadcast.

While a few newspapers have announced that they would not permit the use of Redskins on the pages, The Buffalo News has not taken that step. Still, some writers have said in public they will not use the R-word.

It's an issue that has been out there for quite a while, at least with me. At some point, I wondered how the team name could be allowed if at least some of the affected parties - in this case, the Native population - found the word offensive. And at least a portion of them on a national basis do. Put it this way - would you use the word "redskin" in conversation when describing anything but a sports team? Of course not.

At one point, I asked Sabres' coach Ted Nolan about the matter. He said the reaction in the Native community was interesting. There were some who wanted all such nicknames, which could include Indians, Braves, Warriors, etc., to be thrown into the ashcan of history. Other Natives could care less. Nolan went on to say that he didn't mind Braves and Warriors, but that Redskins was over his personal line.

When did I ask this question? In 1997. So this has been simmering for a while.

A few years later, I ran into a speaker at the lodge of Glacier National Park. He was of Native heritage, and took a great deal of pride in the Redskins' name. He collected Redskins' merchandise, including an expensive embroidered jacket, and followed the team closely from Montana.

Lancaster High got drawn into the discussion a couple of years ago, surprisingly late as these things go. There's been some discussion there about changing the name,and some current and former athletes say the name represents a link to the long tradition of the school's athletic history. But some other schools in New York with the same or similar team names have changed them in recent years. The Lancaster school board just had a public forum to talk about the issue in the near future, and sure enough it was lively. Some of the few Natives in Lancaster didn't mind, while others said they were quite uncomfortable. Naturally, there are Facebook groups on both sides.

How did I handle it while on the job? It was actually easy to use Lancaster as a first reference in the story, and then quote the coach talking about the team - using the words team or squad. Therefore, "Redskins" or even " 'Skins" did not appear in the story. However, if this were a 20-paragraph story on the team, I might use Redskins for the sake of writing convenience since there is no overriding directive on the subject. Meanwhile, while editing an NFL story, there was a note on Washington quarterback Robert Griffin - and we use the team nickname on first reference in such roundups. So Redskins' quarterback Robert Griffin it was.

In other words, it's a decision that's above my paygrade and up to the my bosses. But I won't go out of my way to use it, and I'll be quite happy when the R-word isn't used officially any more and can thus leave my vocabulary without fanfare. That day is coming, and soon.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The 24-hour rule

The cheering bounced all over social media, as well as in offices and homes throughout the area on Tuesday.

The Buffalo Bills' future in Western New York is secure.

Everyone wondered what would happen to the Bills once Ralph Wilson passed away and the team was up for grabs. If fact, we wondered for 20 years. Now we know. Terry and Kim Pegula sold some mineral rights, or at least went through the cushions on the living room coach, to raise more than a billion dollars, and apparently won the bidding process in relatively easy fashion. It's certainly one of the biggest sports stories in the area's history - maybe the biggest. And since the Pegulas also own the Sabres and Bandits, this might make them as important as Wilson in the area's sports history - although we'll have to see what develops in the years to come on that.

The fear, obviously, involved the fact that NFL teams are few and far between. What's more, a team in, say, Los Angeles was worth much more than it would be in Buffalo. Therefore, someone who wanted to move the team to a bigger market could afford to bid more, since a change of location might be worth millions and millions of dollars. I spent the last few months wondering if some rich hedge fund guy would come out of nowhere and make an outrageous bid to buy the team and ship it to his backyard.

Therefore, the unsung hero of the whole process was the unnamed person who came up with the idea of putting a huge "poison pill" into the Bills' lease for Ralph Wilson Stadium. It would have cost someone $400 million to move the team ahead of schedule, a number that certainly would give anyone pause. Take a bow, whomever you are. Wilson also gets credit for agreeing to it.

Part of the joy of the announcement came from the fact that the two losing bidders certainly weren't ideal candidates for the job. The Toronto group might have sworn on a stack of Bibles taller than the CN Tower that it wasn't interested in moving the team north, and no one would have believed it. Maybe someday we'll find out its real intentions. And maybe Jon Bon Jovi will be able to sell some CDs in this part of the world now, although I still wouldn't book him for a concert here for a while.

Then there's Donald Trump, who wasn't exactly the picture of reason during his days as an owner in the United States Football League. Some old-timers in the NFL might have thought twice into accepting him into their exclusive club. Besides, how many football owners want to be sure of receiving more publicity than the team's starting quarterback?

Given those three choices, this is clearly the best possible outcome for Western New York and its fans.

All right, we start with that celebration. Some football teams say they will celebrate a win for a day, and then move on. I'm willing to do that hypothetically here. So what will the landscape look like ... tomorrow?

That's an interesting question. The jury is frankly still out on what sort of owners the Pegulas will be, at least based on their time with the Sabres. No one is ready to compare them to, say, Bob Kraft of the New England Patriots quite yet.

Terry Pegula has shown a willingness to spend money on the product so far with the hockey team, and that's important. The team's record since his takeover, however, has been headed in the wrong direction - crashing at the bottom of the league last season. There's also the matter of Pat LaFontaine's arrival and departure, which was at best sort of clumsy and certainly raised questions about management decisions from the top. Considering the Bills' front office hasn't been known as particularly functional in the last several years, it's easy to wonder if help is on the way.

Then there are the matters that surround the franchise's future in Buffalo. A new stadium - or a major restructuring of the old one - is going to be necessary in the next several years. That's going to cost a billion dollars or so. That's a good-sized commitment for a facility which could be used only 10 times a year. (A domed stadium would increase usage but also increase the price tag.) The community - all of it - needs to have a discussion about whether it is willing to pay that price, and it might be a loud one.

A domed stadium also might help to solve another Bills problem - attendance. Plenty of people take a wait-and-see attitude about buying tickets for November and December games, which means Buffalo is one of the few cities in the NFL to worry about blackouts during the regular season. It's basically here and Jacksonville, with San Diego showing up once in a while. I have no doubts about the loyalty of existing Bills' fans, but the team could use more of them who are willing to open their wallets in cold weather. Even restaurant owner Russ Salvatore isn't willing to buy a few thousand Bills tickets every week. Meanwhile, new NFL stadiums are all about luxury boxes and club seats these days, and Buffalo isn't New York when it comes to Fortune 500 companies. The words "major league city" carry responsibilities as well as benefits.

But enough negative thoughts. Those other items are just details - important, certainly, but not at the top of the list. You have to have a team first, and Western New York will have one for the foreseeable future. That's worth celebrating ... for quite a while.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The old college try

College athletics haven't made a great deal of sense in a couple of generations.

It sure looks like the situation is about to get worse before it gets better.

The marriage of athletics and academics has always been a shaky one in our universities. In the olden days there was something quaint about having a college team in a variety of sports, just like what took place in high school.

Then someone, someone figured out that there was money to be made. That led to big stadiums in some cases, national publicity, media attention. Better yet, the players didn't have to be paid, at least legally. The college picked up the costs of their education, period. Well, OK, there always have been problems with boosters and their $50 handshakes, but that was always tough to prevent. But for years and years, it wasn't a bad deal. The students would get an education, the university would essentially hire them to work 20-odd hours a week in return. That wasn't a great trade for the biggest stars, but for 99 percent of the student-athletes it worked out fine.

But the stakes seem to be increasing by the day. College sports seemed to start embracing marketing when Don Canham, he of the 100,000-seat stadium at Michigan, took over in the late Sixties. That's a lot of seats to sell ... so why not try to sell them, week in and week out. Other schools saw the cash involved and wanted to play too. They all got better at the process. Been in a college bookstore lately? Not many books.

And then the television coverage blew up. In the quaint old days, there were about two college football games on every Saturday. Now there are five games on at noon on Saturday, and often one on Tuesday nights. Tuesday night football? Kind of tough not to miss classes for that road trip, which by the way keep getting longer and longer.

Naturally, we all didn't stop to look at the big picture. As in, why are colleges in the athletics business, with nine-figure budgets? How far away is that from the mission statement of a university? At the big schools, we've entered a world where offensive coordinators can earn a million dollars a year. You may have realized that no one ever paid to see an offensive coordinator do anything.

Some of these colleges aren't too good at making the financial numbers work. My newspaper ran a series this week on the University at Buffalo, which would like to become a larger force in athletics. Revenues for UB in 2013 were listed at $28.7 million, while expenses were $28.6 million. That would seem to be close to breaking even, except that $22 million of revenues comes from subsidies from the university. Most schools lose money on athletics overall. Alabama, one of the major exceptions, made $34 million last year - more than UB's entire budget.

Most of the colleges believe that athletics is something like advertising for the institution, attracting students and connecting with alumni. Is it worth it? If the numbers keep adding up like this, someone might ask about that eventually. But that person probably won't be in the athletic department.

Meanwhile, the players have been fighting back a bit. They have seen the enormous revenues generated by their efforts. They've also seen their jerseys with their names sold at the bookstore and on line, and seen their image in video games. So athletes headed to court; some of them filed to form a union at Northwestern; others took part in a class action suit over the video games. The schools cling to the public line that some sort of system embracing the amateur concept is needed, even though amateurism was shown years ago to be a way of keeping money away from those who earned it.

After some frantic realignment, we've gotten down to five major conferences - especially in football. There could be more shifting in the future, as four 16-team conferences would be a neat package for football. But in the meantime, the big conferences already received permission from the NCAA to make up some of their own rules. Think it's tough for the UBs to compete now?

We're clearly headed toward something new. Maybe the big conferences will simply call student-athletes employees at some point, and treat them accordingly. Perhaps those schools will have their own playoff system in football and men's basketball, leaving the others out. (So long for those cute upsets at the start of "March Madness.") Maybe those other schools will go back to the relatively old model, forming a second tier where a college scholarship is enough incentive to attract some "second-level" players.

I'm sure it's going to be an ugly process along the way. We can only hope that the ends, in the form of a better system, justify the means.

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Friday, August 01, 2014

Every December 25

Kevin Chase and I practice for a 1975 performance.
Here's a long story about a friend of mine of more than 40 years who passed away this week. The odd part of the tale is that I generally went exactly one year between visits with her.

Way back in the fall of 1973, I was just starting college. One of my high school classmates sent me a note in December, wondering if I was going to collect a few of my friends and serenade her with Christmas carols back in our hometown of Clarence on Christmas night. When December 25 rolled around and family dinners were finished, most 18-year-olds want to go running into the night with their friends to blow off steam. So I collected a couple of them, and off we went to my classmate Colleen's house - dressed in "gay apparel" in the "Deck the Halls" sense - jackets, ties, hats from fathers' collections, etc.  We rang the door bell and started singing some simple song like "Jingle Bells."

We were prepared to do two or three songs, but Colleen's family quickly invited us in and handed us beer in order to prevent us from singing. It didn't take long for a light bulb to go on. Could this scheme work at other houses?

Indeed it could. We went to a couple of male friends' houses next, and it was a repeat performance - a few off-key notes, and a beverage. Food sometimes was thrown in as well.

It was getting a little late at that point, but we opted to make one last stop at the Cullinan residence. The Cullinans had a house full of children, and Mr. Cullinan was on the school board. Therefore, practically every kid in the school district had some sort of relationship with the family. The parents were both friendly, smart people who always took an interest in other kids' activities. That was a little unusual. I remember when I won a Letter of Commodation for PSAT scores (remember those?), Mrs. Cullinan congratulated me on it when she saw me at some school function. I was quite impressed that she noticed.

I was still a little nervous about a visit to relative strangers. But, sure enough, the formula worked quite well at that location. There was a little beer and a lot of laughter over the hour or so of our visit.

As you'd expect, none of our group forgot what had happened when December of 1974 rolled around. We made a few rounds on Christmas night, and ended the night at the Cullinans. We gave them all updates on our year, and had a good time. It was the same story in 1975 and 1976. Our apparel became less formal, but no one noticed.

College eventually ended for our group of "singers," and we moved on with our lives. Still, we knew a good Christmas tradition when we saw one. We still showed up on Christmas Night when we could in some sort of combination, although distances and jobs sometimes got in the way. We dropped the other stops on the tour, but always made a big effort to visit the family homestead on Roxbury Drive. As friend Glenn said, could they even have Christmas without us? It got to the point where someone would just hand us a beer when appeared on the front step. Our singing days apparently were over, but we still turned out.

Our best stunt involved a letter to the newspaper editor from Mr. Cullinan. He was complaining about reactions to the Bhopal chemical disaster in 1984, a horrible industrial accident in the chemical business. Mr. Cullinan, a worker in that industry, wrote about the over-the-top reaction of "wooly-hatted liberals." Naturally, that Christmas we showed up wearing wooly hats. Mr. Cullinan roared.

In fact, there were two things we could count on during such visits. We'd have a wonderful conversation for a couple of hours, not even recalling most the details later on. And if we brought a guest male visitor along, Mrs. Cullinan would try to match one of her daughters to him. My friend Mark, the Notre Dame graduate, barely escaped without Mrs. C. setting a date.

After a couple of decades, the Cullinans apparently started to wonder if we were coming back on a given year after such a long streak ... but we usually did.  There were all sorts of ups and downs handed out by life to all of us, but this was a nice constant. We celebrated the victories and mourned the losses. I'm not going to say this was the absolute only time of the year that I saw the Cullinans; sometimes we'd run into each other at some function like the Clarence Center Labor Day Fair. The Cullinans again were always interested in my activities.

Eventually, the visits wound down, due to moving or work or something else as the logistics turned daunting. Mr. Cullinan passed away some years ago, and Mrs. Cullinan eventually moved into an assisted living program as she lost a few miles per hour on her mental fastball. But I always sent a holiday letter to her, and made sure she got a copy of one of my books when they came out. Son Brendan told me how in her later years, Mrs. Cullinan still got a thrill of seeing my name in the paper. In fact, she loved the newspaper - if only because it reminded her of the date every morning.

When word came this week that Mrs. Cullinan had passed away, my thoughts immediately turned to those many December 25ths. Most warm Christmas memories are associated with Santa Claus and childhoods in some sort of combination. I was lucky - I didn't need a guy in a red suit saying "ho, ho, ho" to make me jolly at Christmas. I had the Cullinans. I'm sure I'll think of those good times on December 25 for the rest of my life.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Scanning the horizon

I had a thought about the Buffalo Bills' upcoming season in an odd place - the barber's chair.

Bear with me on this one for a moment.

As I sat in the chair for the monthly visit, it came up in conversation that I had been going to the same barber almost dating back to the time I moved to Buffalo. In other words, I've been having Sandy give me a trim for more than 40 years.

In other words, I made a decision back in 1971, and haven't looked back. That's in spite of the fact I've moved within the region a couple of times. I may have to drive a ways now, but I make an appointment, get it done, usually have lunch with a friend near his establishment in Clarence, and move on. That's one fewer thing I've had to worry about over the years.

Now let's put that in terms of building a football team.

The fewer decisions a football team has to make, the better off it is. No, teams don't pick players and expect them to be starters for 40 years, but 10 would be nice for high draft choices. Let's look back at the Bills' fairly recent history and see how they've done in that regard.

Let's go back to 2000, when the first-round pick was Eric Flowers. It took about two years to figure out he wasn't going to be a factor at defensive end. That meant they had to take Aaron Schobel in the second round the following year. Schobel was one of those good picks, but it meant they couldn't address another need. In the Flowers category was Aaron Maybin, a 2009 first-rounder. I won't go over the players who could have been Bills in that slot, as you'll become ill.

In 2001, the Bills had the fourth pick overall and took Mike Williams, a tackle from Texas. Everyone thought he was a can't-miss player, a future Pro Bowler. Well, he missed. His failure to produce meant the Bills had to bring in many other players to fill that gap, and they spent a lot of money while failing to do so for years. It looks like Cordy Glenn is that guy now, at least.

Running backs can be a little injury-prone, and it's tough to count on someone lasting a decade. Still, the Bills have gone through a few of them. Willis McGahee was a gamble from the start, but did last for quite a while in the NFL. Sadly, only three of those seasons were in Buffalo, as he wore out his welcome. When McGahee was traded, Marshawn Lynch was drafted to replace him. Lynch again may make it through a decade, but not here. He had issues in Buffalo, and the Bills drafted C.J. Spiller to replace him. (Fred Jackson's arrival also helped make Lynch expendable, although Lynch certainly has done well in Seattle.)

Sometimes you get lucky in the draft. In 2008,the Bills picked up Stevie Johnson in the seventh round after whiffing on James Hardy in the second. Similarly, Buffalo took Kyle Williams in the fifth round after trading up to the first round to acquire, gasp, John McCargo.

What's more, free agency certainly adds some odd angles to the equation. The Bills have had some successes in recent years in the draft or in the free-agent market - Andy Levitre, Paul Posluszny, Jairus Byrd, Jason Peters, Donte Whitner. All left for greener pastures. That's going to happen in some cases in an era of free agency, but it's difficult to see 10-year solutions walk away.

That brings us to today. EJ Manuel is the Bills' big hope at quarterback. Buffalo obviously liked him enough to take him in the first round more than a year ago. As a rookie, he didn't show us that he would be a 10-year answer at the position. But, he didn't show us that he couldn't be that 10-year answer. We'll have to wait and see, which makes this a key year for him and the team.

Meanwhile, there obviously is a decision to be make on Marcell Dareus, a first-round pick in 2011. He's obviously a good-sized talent, pardon the pun, making the Pro Bowl last season at nose tackle. But he's been adding personal baggage by the month lately. It's tough to know when a player like that has become more trouble than he's worth ... and he's worth a lot.

Naturally, the more you miss on players, the more losses you have ... which leads to coaching changes, and new football philosophies, and more player changes. The cycle of losing can be painful to watch.

The long-term theory also applies to other sports, although there are differences. It's very difficult to judge 18-year-old hockey players when they become available for the draft. You're asking scouts to say what someone will be like five years into the future. If they could predict the future, they'd be buying lottery tickets. Still, when you miss, it's painful. There's a lot riding on Sabres' top pick Sam Reinhart in the coming years. He has to replace such players as Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek as the face of the franchise, although at least the Sabres got their 10 yearsor so  out of those two before they were traded just before free agency.

Fans want to win right away, and sometimes that can happen with skill and luck in roster-building. But usually the building blocks for such seasons have come with good, long-term decisions from the past that improve the odds.

Ask my barber about those.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Building up memories

My former workplace, reduced to rubble.
Is it easy to feel nostalgic over the death of a building?

Of course it is.

I worked at WEBR Radio from 1978 to 1986, and then in 1993 or so. I made a lot of friends there. In other words, I'm probably never going to be able to forget the address of 23 North St. for the rest of my life.

This was back in the day when most of Buffalo's radio stations were in the same neighborhood, in Allentown. WGR/WGRQ and WYSL/WPHD were down Franklin, WKBW was just over on Delaware, and WBLK was around the corner. This is as opposed to today, when all of a city's radio stations are in the same building or two, thanks to giant companies that swallow up outlets with the zest that bears have for salmon. Our building was a classic three-story mansion between Linwood and Main St. While it had been remodeled a few times in certain ways, it must have been quite a place in its day.

Let's start with the main part of the structure during my days there. The first floor consisted of a switchboard area/lobby and the station manager's office at the front. My old friend, Hall of Famer Margaret Russ, was in a room just off the station manager's office, and across the hall from a big area the size of a fancy dining room. When a station (AM or FM) had a fundraising period scheduled, that's where the phones rang. I believe that was where Mike Collins passed along the news around 1993 that virtually everyone was being fired as the station was going to mostly National Public Radio programming with almost no local news. Sigh.

There were wide stairs leading up to the second floor, which contained studios, offices and a music library. That's where WNED-FM was located. The news group and the classical music types didn't mix too much. Longtime program director Peter Goldsmith bravely came into the news area once in a while to talk hockey with the sports guys. You can build up a lot of good will that way.

From there, stairs led up to a third floor. I think it took two years for me to get the courage to go up there. It was the official office furniture graveyard. You've never seen more broken tables, typewriters, etc. in a relatively small space. I never asked why the area wasn't cleaned out - it probably was because no one could figure out how to get the stuff out of there without using the window.

In the back of the main building was a stairway leading downward to the basement, the true mystery area of the place. Dave Kerner and I one day figured it was time to look around. It was pretty empty. The "find" of the tour was a tiny political button for Franklin Roosevelt, running on a minor party line for President. We asked engineer Don Lange when the last time the basement had been used. "Well, I've been here since 1937, and it's never been used in that time," he said. So maybe that button played a small role in FDR's win over Alf Landon in '36.

In the back of the main part of the building was a good-sized room, perhaps the kitchen once upon a time. There were a couple of rooms just off it, converted to office and supply space. The main area had a vending machine, copier and individual mailboxes, the latter of which was too frequently used to announce via memo that someone else - usually a friend - would be departing the station soon for parts near or far.

There was a door in the corner of that room that led to the major addition, which was the home of the AM radio news operation in my day. There was a long hallway on one side, bordering a couple of offices and the rest rooms (where one employee essentially had a nervous breakdown one night). When I first got to WEBR as an intern, Pete Weber handed me a baseball glove and told me to catch some slapshots as a goalie as he fired plastic pucks in the hall. ("So this is big time radio," I thought to myself.) By the way, the hallway also served as a soccer area, and when someone broke an exit sign with a shot, the station manager banned hockey from the hallways. Well, sports weren't his strong point.

On the other side of the hallway came studios, the main newsroom (the spot where Richard Simmons once yelled at me for eating a doughnut), and a "bullpen" for reporters' desk. The bullpen, by the way, was the scene of an arrest. One night someone broke into the front of the building, setting off a silent alarm in the AM control room. The Jazz in the Nighttime DJ was taught to call the police and leave the building, which Eulis Cathey did. When the policemen showed up, they asked the guy in the bullpen who he was. "I'm the burglar," he responded. Thus ended the fastest and most effective investigation in Buffalo police history.

The last big change to the building came when I was there. The garage had contained a variety of items beforehand. I seem to recall some sort of pedal-cart that WEBR had used once upon a time. It (the garage, not the cart) was turned into more studio space and offices. I spent quite a bit of time dubbing news features there. Just outside in the parking lot was a large tower, used at one time to send the signal to the transmitter in the Southtowns.

There were all sorts of characters in the building over the years, but I'll only bring up one of the most obscure: Nelson. Mark Hamrick certainly would remember him. We had some sort of cleaning service take care of the place, and Nelson came in around 6 p.m. to start the nightly process. He looked about 60, was actually over 80, and was the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet. I think Mark went over to his house for Thanksgiving one year. The problem was that Nelson wasn't particularly good at his job. He spent most of his time talking and little of his time cleaning. No one was too concerned, because he was such a good person. His manager showed up one night to look around, and was absolutely horrified by what he saw. We had a new cleaning person soon after that. But I've still got Nelson's voice on a fake broadcast that I created for Jonathan Aiken's goodbye party. (I was good at that stuff - much better than I was on the air. Which is partly why I work for a newspaper now.)

As some have heard, lightning struck the building, and I mean that literally. The construction crew came in and judged the place not worth saving. So demolition began. There had been plans to turn the place into a residential building, but they never got off the ground. On Facebook, there are pictures of an opening where a wall should be. Haven't felt like that over a building's demise since the Aud came down.

I used to drive by 23 North St. once in a great while. The building was sold when WEBR moved into the new public broadcasting headquarters close to the waterfront, and has been vacant for some time. It was rather depressing seeing the old place lately, so I didn't go often. 

But the day after I heard about the demolition, I went back to the grounds. The building was completely down, but the area hadn't been cleared yet. So ... I snapped a picture (see above) and took a brick home with me.

While I was there, I thought of my coworker, Bruce Allen Kolesnick. He passed away earlier this week, and I had attended his memorial ceremony earlier in the day. Bruce hosted a weekend show at WEBR among other duties. He was one of the most good-natured people in the building's history, always having a smile on his face and making the area a better place to work. When Dave Kerner and I needed a third voice for a spoof of a rap song we were doing, we knew Bruce would figure out what we wanted and go at it with enthusiasm and good humor. I believe Bruce and I left WEBR at the exact same time, sharing a goodbye party at Bullfeathers. I didn't see him enough after that, as he was at UB in a separate orbit. My loss.

I thought of some other friends who used to spend 40 hours per week on that piece of land - people like Dawn Hamilton and Mary Brady and Larry Hatzi and Brad Krohn and Steve Coryell and John Gill and Jerry Fedell and Peter Goldsmith, who aren't around any more, and the many others who are.

And then I smiled.

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Friday, July 04, 2014

The full story

You might have seen the advertisement for Heineken on television lately, featuring an Elvis Presley song that wasn't a number one hit.

You haven't seen the whole ad.

It's actually a two-minute story - too long for television, but not too long for YouTube. As you would expect, the 30-second edited version is far less interesting than the one four times as long. Good fun.

See for yourself.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Here we go again

Every generation or so, a community that is lucky enough to have a National Football League franchise has to face a crushing reality: its team needs a new stadium.

While stadiums seem like they've been around forever at times, they do get old and wear out. That's particularly true in this day and age, when standards for such buildings seem to change by the hour.

Remember when the Cowboys' old stadium, the one with the hole in the roof, was the latest thing? Not many games are taking place there now. NFL owners love their suites for business reasons, the more the merrier. Dallas is playing somewhere else now.

That brings us to the situation in Buffalo and Western New York.

There was talk about how to renovate Ralph Wilson Stadium before the last lease was signed between the parties involved. Once that was settled, in the form of millions of dollars in renovations, the conversation immediately changed. There was no more discussion about how The Ralph was on its way to becoming Lambeau Field II in terms of history and tradition. Suddenly the clock started ticking on a facility that was headed for extinction, and what was needed to replace it.

To get to the point quickly, a new facility is not going to be cheap. It could cost something close to $1 billion, if everything associated with it (roads and other infrastructure, etc.) is added in. And the team is not going to pay for all of it.

The sides are already lining up here. The non-football fans can't understand why a penny of taxpayer money should be spent on a stadium. They don't know why such a huge subsidy for a private company is necessary. They see such areas as area schools and roads starving for financial support, while hundreds of millions may go to a football stadium used just a little more than 10 times a year. This is not an irrational position, especially for those who do something else on fall Sunday afternoons besides watch football.

The football fans know that National Football League franchises add much to the quality of life to their areas. What's more, you can't buy that sort of good publicity on a national baseis. That's Buffalo, linked with New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, etc., on a weekly basis in the fall. And if Western New York doesn't want to cough up the money for a new stadium, well, there are plenty of other cities that will jump on it.

If that weren't enough to throw into the mix, there are a couple of other huge factors floating around on this issue. How about public opinion? Politicians think that supporting a stadium is a winner for them. Yet do you think they are likely to put the issue up for a referendum? Not likely. Any major expenditure has a very good chance of getting voted down if it comes to that. Heck, school budgets in the suburbs sometimes lose, and there's no argument about the value of that particular matter.

Then there's the matter of a new stadium's location. In Western New York's case, such locations as Batavia and Niagara Falls have come up in an effort to regionalize the market. But usually, when a stadium is put in the middle of two markets and the team loses, it's a case of out of sight/out of mind. Richfield, Ohio, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is a fine example of that. "Why should I drive an hour to Batavia to see the Bills lose again?"

The usual argument for building a stadium downtown somewhere is that the city can reap the benefits of some economic spin-offs. Supposedly, economic activity grows around it. On the other hand, the area around The Ralph isn't exactly Silicon Valley. The land around First Niagara Center downtown has seen some activity lately (finally!), but some of that is credited to a waterfront location - as Buffalo finally discovers that people like to hang out by the water when the weather is good.

One final thought for consideration - Buffalo actually was lucky with the timing of the old 15-year lease that expired a short time ago. If that lease was set to run out in 2015, the list of potential ownership candidates now might be populated with a bunch of rich guys who would want to buy the team in order to move it somewhere else. Thanks to a nicely written lease, that won't happen for several years.

Western New York got off easy in 1973 with Rich Stadium, which was something of a no-frills facility as these things go. It will be much tougher this time. I find it difficult to believe that a new stadium won't get built eventually, but the process is going to be complicated and perhaps a little ugly along the way.

As Van Miller used to say, fasten your seats. We've got years of a bumpy ride ahead.

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Monday, May 12, 2014

Fan Mail

I don't get much feedback on my newspaper stories from those who follow the Buffalo Bandits. But when I have, it's all been positive. My newspaper certainly goes into more depth than every other news source in town when it comes to the lacrosse team, a decision by the bosses to give the team plenty of space. (The Bandits do average 15,000 per game, after all.)

The fans notice that, and appreciate that. They seem happy that I will answer their questions when asked via social media and email. Here's one tweet that came in on Saturday:

Thanks for other local news person seems to....ever! Love your work by the way! LETS GO BANDITS!!!

Always nice to hear that, of course. Then came an unexpected email tonight.

     Far be it for me to criticize someone who makes $ 165,000 a year writing about games people play but...
     I searched the Bandits article for the crowd total. Not in the article, the notebook or the game summary.
     Notebook told me about unsung heros, play - off money, Vancouver fan average and since you must be getting paid by the word, stats from Buffalo/Rochester games from as far back as 1996, but no gate total from the game.
     It's a little thing to complain about but I am usually exposed to the four top sportswriters at the News, Jay, Mary Jo, Amy and sometimes Mark. Amy does a great job with the baseball when assigned but I'm sure any of them would be glad to help you with tips. Thanks.

He did sign his name, by the way. I wrote back to say that the attendance of Saturday's game was not on the scoresheet, as it had been for every other game. It was not announced at the game, as it was for every other game. When I checked for an update at 11:30 p.m. before my story was printed, the attendance was still not included.

Then about 24 hours after the game, I noticed that the attendance had been added to the official online scoresheet. So, I added the number to my online story, and also tweeted out the number for those interested. 

Think the guy will be satisfied? Me neither. But it leaves one obvious question.

How did he find out how much money I make at the newspaper?

(Epilogue - Our pal wrote back, saying he was just "busting my chops." It was a friendly letter. Still, don't you usually do that with someone you've actually met?)

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

After further review

On Saturday, during the Red Sox-Yankees game, a New York baserunners was clearly off the second base bag when he was tagged out. What's more, a television camera had a great view of the play, which was stopped on the video at the precise moment. The Red Sox appealed, and lost.

A day later, the Red Sox were the loser in another replay decision. That prompted John Farrell to have one of his better explosions, which led to an ejection, and led to a fine. Free speech sometimes isn't so free.

Think this is an argument against instant replay in baseball and in all sports? Think again.

Replay is here to stay, and it's just fine with me and with most fans.

When television first started broadcasting sports events, fans at home could complain about umpire calls just like the ones at the game. And they did. When instant replay began to pop up, starting with the Army-Navy football game in 1963, those same fans often were even more sure about botched calls. Granted, there weren't many of them, as the umpires and officials generally did their work well and in a professional manner. In addition, television wasn't so ever-present for a few decades after replay was introduced. Not all games were even televised, and fewer cameras meant fewer good camera angles.

But times have changed as the economics of our games have changed. Every game is on television in one form or another, and cameras are everywhere. We have gotten used to the idea that big mistakes can be made by officials, that they are obvious to everyone, and that they can be corrected. Slowly but surely, accuracy continues to go up via replay.

That's not to say there aren't problems here. Some mistakes just have to be accepted, like a quick whistle in football, because there's no way of correcting them. The system for review takes some trial and error to perfect, as the Red Sox will tell you. And it's tough to strike the right balance between how often to use the technology and when to leave it alone.

The stakes have become enormous in pro sports, and anything to make the game more fair and just is just fine with me.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2014


I only had a couple of opportunities to hear Ralph Wilson, the late owner of the Buffalo Bills, speak in person.

Usually Wilson didn't bother to fly in for news conferences back when I was covering the team at times in the 1980s. Sometimes he'd be here for a new coach or general manager, but not often. Still, I remember my reaction to those times when I stuck a microphone in his face and perhaps asked a question or two in a small group after the formal part of the session was over.

The first time more or less backed up what my preconception of him was when I saw clips of him on television. He just seemed uncomfortable in that situation. The person I thought of at the time, and it's probably unfair, was Richard Nixon. It's unfair because Nixon really was supposed to be good in those situations because it was his job as a politician. Wilson had an excuse. He was just a businessman.

But the second time, Wilson in a small group was much more friendly and engaging than I had ever seen before. I asked Vic Carucci, a writer for the Buffalo News at the time, about that, and he told me that Wilson could be quite a fine fellow with a good sense of humor in the right situation.

After Wilson died last week, I mentioned those thoughts to Milt Northrop, another veteran News writer. He told me that those were precisely the two sides of Ralph Wilson in his experience.

That strikes me as one of the interesting parts of the relationship between Wilson and Western New York, which lasted more than 50 years. The owner didn't show the warm side of his personality in public very often, forcing people to either judge him on those slightly clumsy public appearances or make judgments based on what happened on the field - which, if you've been paying attention lately, hasn't been very good for most of the past half-century.

Part of the problem probably was that he didn't like strong personalities leading the football operation. There were clashes with three such people who won here - Bill Polian, Chuck Knox and Lou Saban. The Bills certainly had a great many other personalities in key positions over the years who were quite forgettable. Teams lose for a reason, as I'm fond of saying, and the Bills' record can't be defended too easily.

Still, Wilson was caught in an odd situation. He was an out-of-town owner of a business based in Buffalo, a city that had a lot of them over the years. Those businesses put the city at the mercy of people without a strong Buffalo connection, and some of them went elsewhere when they had the chance.

Those moves hurt, but it's tough to root on Sunday afternoons for a manufacturing company. A football team, however, was different. Western New York loves its Bills, and has for much of the team's history. It put the area on the map across the country. Every week of the NFL season, Buffalo was competing with New York, Chicago, Miami, Boston, etc.

To his credit, Wilson realized that he was sitting in Detroit with the passions of this area in his pocket. He certainly could have moved the team to another city at certain points over the years, or sold it to someone who would move it elsewhere. Wilson didn't - in part because he had philosophical problems with that concept, and in part because he didn't want to break so many hearts here.

And finally, when he died, everyone seemed to realize that keeping the Bills in Buffalo from 1960 to 2014 was in the first sentence of his obituary. The fans were appreciative and thankful. The demonstration of warmth toward Wilson was a little surprising in its size, considering that it was often absent in the past, but it was still nice that it happened. It was as if everyone suddenly caught on to that second part of his personality.

At the end, Wilson finally received the respect he deserved from this area. Too bad he didn't get to see it; I'd bet he would have smiled broadly.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

A self-image problem

It's almost inevitable.

A good-sized sporting event comes to Western New York, one that attracts out-of-town visitors. The sports departments gets to work, covering the various athletic aspects thoroughly. As an example, I was a small part of the team that put together The Buffalo News' coverage of the NCAA basketball games here last week, and I was quite proud of the package that was put together on a daily basis.

And what do news departments do? Run to find some tourists and ask them if they are having a good time. If they say yes, and they usually do, we pat ourselves on the back.

This all leaves me with a feeling that the area is still insecure of its image. I've seen that in people, but it has to be a little rare for towns. Well, it's about time we got a shot of confidence.

Historically, Buffalo has some reason to be nervous about the actions of outsiders. After all, non-natives have been in charge of large segments of the economy for years. The region was a manufacturing hub for decades, which often means outside interests have placed factories here. That had some obvious benefits at one time, but our economic fate was dictated by the whims of others. That means we were hit hard when some big factories closed when economic conditions, and when the St. Lawrence Seaway was built to take a huge chunk of the shipping industry away.

The area economy is still making a transition from those days, and it's painful. We also have the usual problems associated with good-sized cities in terms of poverty. But there have been some signs of hope in recent years. The most obvious comes in the relatively recent discovery that Buffalo has a nice waterfront, and we should construct facilities for people to gather there. That's only taken a half-century, but we're making progress.

Buffalo obviously isn't New York and Chicago when it comes to hosting events, but at least the area has some experience at it. The NCAA tournament is the latest example of this. It's been held here a few times in the past 14 years, and we learned some things along the way. Back in 2000, we discovered that the biggest problem for visitors was trying to find something to eat between the first day's double-headers. That's always going to be a bit of an issue when 19,000 people are let loose on the town with 90 minutes to eat, but we've continued to get better at it. Otherwise, the region seems to be following the hospitality game plan nicely.

In short, I have plenty of confidence that we can handle such events nicely, and will be doing so for the foreseeable future. I'm actually more worried about times when there isn't an NCAA tournament around - and let's specialize on the summer months for that discussion.

We have one of the greatest natural resources to generate tourism right up the road. It's called Niagara Falls. Plenty of people go there every year when the weather turns nicer (even though my personal opinion is that the Falls are very underrated in the winter if you can stand being outside long enough to look at them). How do we get those visitors to stay longer, and how do we get more such people to show up?

Those questions have haunted us for years, and we're still working on it. It's going to take some more work as well as some international cooperation. Still, the rewards could be large.

In the meantime, I've traveled enough to realize that every region has its good points and bad points, and there are always portions worth exploring. They all can be proud of something. That's why I always look down on those who make fun of other regions of the country - in journalism, it's a sign of unimaginative writing - and why I don't do it. That's especially true when talking about my own home town.

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Monday, March 17, 2014



That's the sound of an entire state letting loose with a sigh of relief. In this case, it comes with the weekend announcement that Donald Trump has decided not to run for Governor of New York. That means we don't have to avoid listening to him from now until November.

Now, let's start with one basic fact: no one was surprised by the announcement. Mr. Trump likes the idea of people asking him to run for office, since it gets his name in the newspapers and on television. He seems to enjoy that ... a lot. But as far as actually running for office, well, that would be a lot of work.

Besides, he might lose. Come to think of it, he probably would lose a race for Governor in New York. After all, the current Governor is relatively popular in the polls, and the Democratic party has a good-sized edge in enrollment figures. Do you think Mr. Trump's ego, which by most accounts is the size of Montana, could handle a crushing rejection by the voters?

Of course not. Better to withdraw from consideration with a note that said he could win the election, but has moved on to much bigger plans. Naturally, saying that you'd win is impossible to disprove. This was what happened when there was Presidential talk about Trump; he encouraged the conversation and then headed for the sidelines.

It's easy, at the least, to admire Trump's campaign strategy. He said he would run for Governor if the state's Republican leadership handed him the nomination without opposition. When the group couldn't do that, he exited with the charge that the leaders were "totally dysfunctional."

But the approach had a flaw. All's it took was one person to not go along with the plan - one who would gather a little support from party bosses - and in theory a unanimous vote would be spoiled. That seemed inevitable, as we aren't into coronations in this country, and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino provided the necessary opposition. He may get a lot of votes as a thank you.

There is a point to be made about all this besides making fun of a billionaire, which admittedly can be good sport.

The recession of 2008 not only made billions and billions of dollars disappear from the economy, but it also scared the population. That fear has been part of the political landscape ever since. It comes up in a lot of ways. For example, small business owners have become something close to saints - even though the rate of failure always has been high, no matter what the good intentions of the proprietors were. Ever look at how many storefronts on commercial streets change in a year? I'm all for small business, big business and in-between business. We can use the jobs, and the "system" of giving tax breaks to those who ask is political pandering at its worst. (It's far better to have one fair rate for everyone.) But looking through rose-colored glasses never helped anything.

In addition, there have been a few political candidates who come from the private sector and say that it's time "to run government like a business." This is a catchy phrase, and there are times and circumstances when it is a good idea.

But there are two obvious flaws with it. One, government has functions that no business would touch. You could argue about how many of those functions there needs to be, but that's an argument for another day. We can all agree for the need on items ranging from national defense to environmental protection.

Two, business leaders are used to getting their own way within their own companies. Sometimes when they make the transition to the public sector, they find out that they just can't order everyone around by whim like they used to do. In Erie County, we found just such a man in Chris Collins, who quickly found the number of "yes, sirs" decreased over time from such people as legislators ... until voters said "no, sir" emphatically when he asked for a second term.

Trump, who no doubt makes Collins seem modest in comparison, probably would have hated that part of being governor. He's better off doing something he's good at doing most of the time - making money. The rest of us will be better off too.

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Sunday, March 02, 2014

Scratching my head again

It's been two memorable nights at the workplace this week - back-to-back, no less.

On Friday, my Twitter feed suddenly was filled at 6:30 p.m. with the news that Ryan Miller and Steve Ott were not on the ice for the Buffalo Sabres, even though they were in the original lineup for that night's game. Kremlin-watchers correctly figured out that some sort of trade had happened. Miller and Ott had been told to pack for St. Louis shortly before that.

Then on Saturday, stories about problems in the Sabres' front office started to circulate on Twitter. At first, we guessed that something might be up with team president Ted Black. Then the scuttlebutt started to spread in social media that it was Pat LaFontaine who might be in the middle of it. Sure enough, a news release was emailed to us later in the night that LaFontaine had resigned his position as president of hockey operations, and would be returning to a position with the National Hockey League.

As you could imagine, we "tore apart" a few planned pages for the sports section as the night went on. Our layout editor for the two nights has applied for combat pay.

There was only one thing that could be certain about all this: We couldn't blame Darcy Regier for any of it.

The name of the Sabres' former general manager did come up in one out of town story I saw, at least. Someone said the Miller/Ott deal was another example of the Sabres getting maximum value for their assets, following in the footsteps of trades for players like Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek. In other words, new general manager Tim Murray is following the same plan as Regier did.

The biggest drawback with this is that the Sabres aren't going to have many gate attractions on the team next season. I'm not sure who will be on the cover of the calendar, either. There aren't many players of note left who will be able to drink adult beverages in commercial establishments.

When the Sabres realized that their planned nucleus wasn't going to be nearly good enough to get the job done, they opted for a complete rebuild. The question that will haunt the near-term future of the team is - was that completely necessary? Is the team now unneccesarily bad because of a lack of good NHL veterans in an effort to reach better days? Time will decide that one, but pretty obviously, once the course had been set there was no turning back. That's why trading Miller made sense, no matter that he had become the face of the franchise.

However ... if you are looking for a logical explanation for events surrounding LaFontaine's departure, look elsewhere. I got nothing. News columnist Bucky Gleason was right on target Sunday morning when he said there are only unanswered questions by the somewhat mysterious resignation. Statements in the news conference on Sunday only added to the lack of clarity. You can play all sorts of word games in these situations without telling what happened; heck, I used to do that for a living.

The initial restructuring of the team was always a little odd. LaFontaine and Black both had the title of president, leaving open the question of what happened when they disagreed on something. Black is said to be something less than a beloved boss around the office. We don't know much about LaFontaine's management style, but we do know that he quit a position after a brief stay with the Islanders over a dispute with ownership.

Plus, we've had a top executive immediately hire a new coach, take his time to hire a new general manager, and then leave. What could Murray be thinking about now, especially with the news that a replacement for LaFontaine isn't coming? Heck, he just got a promotion out of all of this.

And then there's Nolan, who apparently was about set to sign a long-term contract with the team. Now his friend and his boss - same guy - are gone. Is he having 1997 flashbacks? And just to add to the story, Nolan certainly knows this is his last shot at an NHL coaching job. Fold now, fold forever - as we say at the poker table.

There's more intrigue to come here in the coming weeks, and probably more head-scratching to come. But I'll throw in my usual point about professional sports teams. They usually lose for a reason, and that reason isn't so obvious from the outside. But there are a great many players in the story at the First Niagara Center, and it would be nice to see them row in the same direction and at the same time. It sure doesn't sound like that's been happening lately.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014


As a journalist, I realize that I'm supposed to support the free release of information at all times. I think it comes with the job description.

But what happens when I become the gatekeeper, instead of the writer? It suddenly puts everything in a different light.

This is the odd situation that has popped up in the last week or two, regarding one of my other blogs, the Sports Book Review Center. It's prompted a new situation for me, one which deserves a little thought and discussion.

I recently reviewed the book, "Whatever It Takes," by Daniel Kelly. The review is here. He sent an e-copy directly to our newspaper, billing it as the story of how someone overcame long odds to work in the National Football League. That is true. He was hired back in 1998 in personnel by the New York Jets, despite never having played the game at virtually any level. That fulfilled a lifelong dream; good for him, as Peggy Noonan would write.

The catches to the story, though, were many. He lasted two years as a full-timer and two years as a part-timer before losing his job. While I was expecting/hoping for stories about Jets coaches and players, there aren't many to be found. By the sound of it, Kelly admits he wasn't a model employee. Sadly, most of the second half of the book was about the major health problems of his young child - a difficult tale to read, but one that obviously had very little to do with football. Along the way and only an issue in the context of this commentary, Kelly became a devout Christian.

While the book review site gets plenty of hits - I'm closing in on 50,000 in the second version of the blog - comments are few and far between. Shortly after publishing this review, I received a comment.

"This an outstanding book, If you are in need of hope were there is no hope, and if you have ever had a dream that no matter who or what told you that you coulndt achieve it, then this book is for you. Daniel really sheds light on why you should not only never give up on your dreams but that when you begion to dream the same vision God has for your life then anything is possible. I highly reccomend reading this book, buy one for you and buy one for a friend, Every great success story starts with someone who was told they cant! Daniel shares why You can do all thing through Christ who strengthens you! "

I did publish this comment, but did a little editing to the original review. I wanted to make clear that I thought Kelly had his chance to fulfill a dream, and didn't take advantage of it. That's not a happy ending, even though it's easy to root for someone who had overcome some long odds just to get that far. That's why I read it in the first place. The religious and philosophical arguments involved here are better left unsaid, since no one will convince those on the other side of their validity.

But then another comment came in, making essentially the same point. That was followed by two more comments in the same way, more or less. So ... does anyone want to read four comments saying the same thing?

Perhaps not. That's why I deleted the other three. (I moderate all comments, mostly because of spam.) In our newspaper's letters page, we would not print four of the same comments - perhaps orchestrated - together on one page. But, I still feel a little guilty about that. I like promoting the exchange of ideas, and I've never deleted a rational comment before. And, our newspaper has to approve comments before publication, just to make sure that that vile, anonymous comments aren't listed - but rational ones always go thorugh. So it's a little odd to play censor, and a little confusing. Did I do the right thing? I'm not sure.

By the way, I can't wait to see if I'll publish comments that might come in reaction to this blog entry.

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