Sunday, January 19, 2014

Been a long time

 I ran into an old friend today - a television show.

That's because I woke up much too early by accident - darn nightmares - and couldn't go back to sleep. Rather than toss and turn for another hour, I put on ESPN2 and watched "The Sports Reporters."

It's been a little tough to find the show at times in the last couple of years. "The Sports Reporters" used to be on regularly on ESPN at either 10:30 a.m. or 11 a.m. But as ESPN has gotten more and more into the pregame show business, meaning the program has expanded exponentially in length, "The Sports Reporters" has been bounced around the family of networks in terms of time slot. Its current landing area is 8:30 a.m., although apparently it is going back to 10:30 a.m. next week. Always tough to find a show when you're not sure when it's on, and tougher to watch it when it is shown before you get up.

Then again, it's not like it was in the good old days, when it was just about my favorite show. The cast certainly has evolved over the years.

For most of the early years of the show's life (it started in 1988), Dick Schaap was the host. He was really good, with a knack for prompting top-notch discussion. Schaap died in 2001 - has it really been that long? - and was replaced by John Saunders. The "new guy" came off pretty well right from the start, and still is a good host.

But the supporting cast is different, and as a result the show feels different. The program used to use some very good sports writers from around the country - mostly from the East. Not only were they obviously thrilled and animated over the chance to be on national television, but they always had something interesting to say. Bob Ryan of Boston, Mike Lupica of New York, Mitch Albom of Detroit, John Feinstein of Washington, and Bill Conlin of Philadelphia were semi-regulars, although some others of note (Tony Kornheiser, Dave Anderson, etc.) popped up as well. In that more innocent time, it was fun to actually see these relatively famous (in my world) writers on TV.

What's more, it seemed like the writers were more than happy to get into issues. There's more to sports than trying to figure out who will win today's game. They were discussions that don't come up much on network television.

In recent years, ESPN has been more anxious to promote some of its own staff members. For example, Jemele Hill and Israel Gutierrez were on with Lupica - you never know when he is on the ESPN payroll in one form or another - for today's show. I have nothing at all against them individually; in fact, they seem to follow sports closely. Granted, it's a difficult day to be interesting. We'd been hearing about Manning and Brady for a week, and at this point we're ready to move on and see the games played.

Still, the level of discussion in the last few years has often been at the level of "First Take," another ESPN2 show broadcast during the week - except quieter. I can't say I noticed anything different today. Can't say I'll be recording the program if I can't watch in real time, which I used to do.

It's a different media landscape these days, and the conversations have changed too. That doesn't mean I can't miss the good old days, does it?

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

The long way

Want to see someone go from a cliche to Alex Rodriguez in a few paragraphs? I'm just the man for the job.

Let's start with my absolute least favorite phrase in sports, one that I almost refuse to use in print whenever possible. Say your favorite team is having big problems winning. Media members ask the usual question - how are you going to get out of this mess?

The answer often comes back in this form: "We have to work harder."

I'm willing to admit that every once in a while, a lack of effort is part of the problem. Usually it's because the coaching staff has lost the attention of the team for one reason or another. The key part of the sentence is "every once in a while."

The reason players say that they need to work harder as a team is because they aren't too interested in talking about the real reason: They just aren't good enough.

And that's tough to hear. Especially when it might be true.

That's because many athletes, even professionals making huge dollars, are extremely insecure. No matter what you might think, many of them wonder if they are good enough. If they don't score goals and baskets in a couple of games, they start thinking they'll never score again and be out of the lineup and then out of the league in no time. There is a lot of pressure there.

What's more, sometime they are right. Sometimes they aren't good enough, and sometimes their teams aren't good enough. It happens every day.

That leads to all sorts of situations that keep team psychologists employed. I once heard about a hockey player who was moaning and groaning about his lot in life. He was told by a professional something along the lines of "you are 22 years old and earning about a million dollars a year in the NHL. Tell me again why you are depressed." He snapped out of it, for a while. But he didn't stay in the league for long.

You probably can understand that attitude when it comes to a fringe player. The difference between playing for the Buffalo Bisons and Toronto Blue Jays, or Rochester Americans and Buffalo Sabres, is enormous financially. No wonder some might be tempted to take some chemical help to stay in the league, or just block out an obvious answer.

But what about the stars? You'd think they should be more secure. Alas, they have more to lose.

That brings us to Alex Rodriguez. Here's someone who probably was the most naturally talented baseball player of his generation. (If you want to say "ever," I won't argue too much.) He took the major league field as a teenager and probably, in a more perfect world, would have been the one to pass Hank Aaron for the all-time home run crown - as a shortstop for most of the time, no less.

But that wasn't enough. A-Rod admitted to steroid use once before, and on Saturday saw his appeal of a similar conviction upheld even if the sentence was reduced to a year. His denials this time around have been loud, and they have been generally ignored. It's difficult to see how he could possibly play in 2014, and perhaps this episode will mark the end of his career. The Yankees seem almost anxious to let him go away.

Rodriguez won't end up in Cooperstown, but instead will be in Never-Never Land with Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens - all players who apparently decided that being great wasn't good enough.

A strong work ethic was never Alex Rodriguez's problem, and neither was talent. That's what makes his fall from grace so dramatic, and so disappointing.

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Monday, January 06, 2014

Notes from the North Pole

If you haven't heard yet, we're getting some interesting weather here in Western New York.

Yes, it's January, and that's been known to happen at this time of the year - even though we've been a little spoiled when it comes to winters in the past few years. We're in the midst of our first blizzard in 20 years, which some people in the Sun Belt might not believe.

Admittedly, it's cold everywhere in the eastern two-thirds of the country. Supposedly it is in single digits in Tennesee, close to freezing in Florida. As for Fargo, where it was 99 degrees when we were visiting there in August, it is 120 degrees colder than that now. Yikes.

Out-of-towners, though, might not understand it when I say that I have almost as much anxiety before the storm as I have when it arrives. That's because no one can predict exactly what might happen. When Indianapolis had a foot of snow arrive on Sunday, the front came through, did its business and moved on. Simple, at least from this viewpoint.

Here we have something called lake effect snow. Oversimplified version - cold air passes over the open waters of Lake Erie, picks up moisture, and then dumps it in a band on land. There are only two places on earth where this happens - the Great Lakes and the Caspian Sea. No word on how the snow plowing business there is right now. It's pretty good here. Someone once said lake effect snow was like turning on the water to go through a hose without grabbing the end. It starts spraying everywhere in no particular pattern.

We've known for a couple of days that bad weather was coming. Weather experts have been talking about historic conditions with wind chills that would feel at home on Mars. Since Lake Erie hasn't frozen yet, lake effect snow was to be expected here.

But where?

That's where the anxiety comes in. I've only had to sleep at the office once in the 19 years I've worked at the News. There was gridlock on the roads one day, so I threw my car in a parking lot, walked to the office, put out the morning paper, slept on the library floor, got up at 7 a.m., put out the afternoon paper, and got a ride back to my car. Trust me, it wasn't a romantic moment.

While watching the forecasts of more than three feet of snow in spots with 60 mph gusts and sub-zero temperatures, the question came to mind: will I be back sleeping on the library floor at work Monday night? And there was no answer. As weatherman Don Paul explained, it only takes a five-degree shift in the wind direction to turn the snow band from going right over my house to a few miles south and completely out of my way. In other words, there's a five-degree difference between chaos and normal.

I watched the local newscasts and the Weather Channel today (I'm still getting used to them naming winter storms), and left early for work. I was doing fine until I could see my place of employment, when a giant traffic jam developed because of the closing of the Skyway - a main waterfront path to the Southtowns, and one that frequently closes in bad weather. It took about 20 minutes to make those final two blocks. But I made it, and you'll have a newspaper tomorrow - provided a truck can get out of the building and get it to you.

The snow bands supposedly are now south of the city, and will stay that way for several hours at least. I'm kind of hoping that the lake effect snow will head for ski country and stay that way, where it is welcomed. That's in part because my snowblower is a little cranky, and I'm not anxious to shovel by hand in frigid temperatures and high winds. Then again, who am I kidding? I don't want to go outside at all if I can help it.

On the other hand, if I make it through Tuesday, I'll have two days at home. And it's supposed to start to warm up a little by then, which would be nice.

But that's a big if. Let me get through tonight and Tuesday, and we'll celebrate Wednesday when it gets here.

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Thursday, January 02, 2014

Love that chicken

For the last few weeks, the lines around the commercial establishment have been enormous. Tempers have grown short as people have become frantic to make a purchase in time. Others say the wait is just not worth it and vow to try at a later time.

Sounds like Christmas at the mall. Instead, the star of the story is a Popeye's Chicken store.

Buffalo got its fried chicken franchise store back in December, and the reaction has been close to unprecedented. It has caused traffic jams along Elmwood Ave. Indeed, the police have been called in a couple of times to settle disputes about people cutting in line.

It's brought back memories of the great Krispy Kreme fad some years ago. A store opened up in Niagara Falls Blvd., back when the donuts had something of a mythical reputation. It was the same story in the opening weeks - you had to go at an odd time to buy a dozen, or risk getting in a traffic accident in the small parking lot.

Thus encouraged, more stores were opened, the market became flooded, the novelty wore off, the parent company made some mistakes ... and the stores were closed relatively soon after that. You can still find some Krispy Kremes around town, but not the just-made versions that were so, so good.

Popeye's actually has been in Western New York before, despite what you might have heard on some news outlets. A store opened up about 20 years ago, and we were regular patrons. Delicious. Then, one day we went there for dinner ... and the lights were off and there was nobody home.

What happened? A friend filled me in. He was having lunch there around 2 p.m. on weekday. All of a sudden, some official-looking types barged into the restaurant and started taping notices about the store's closure on the doors. Something about tax evasion. Oops. All patrons were ordered out immediately. My pal took his meal outside on the pleasant afternoon, and finished his lunch while sitting on one of those bumpers in the parking lot that prevent cars from rolling on to sidewalks.

Since then, we've been forced to eat Popeye's while on vacation. For a while, a Thruway rest stop near Batavia had a Popeye's, although it was tough to justify the trip and toll just for that. There was a Popeye's down the road by my late mother's for a while, but that closed on us. We once excitedly had a Popeye's dinner in the Las Vegas airport, a much better bet than the slot machines.

It was welcome news in the late summer, then, that a Popeye's would be built only a couple of miles from my house. Still, I heard about the lines and traffic jams involved before I heard about the actual opening.

Last week, we were eating lunch at a Wendy's down the street from Popeye's. The woman behind us in line said she had gone to Popeye's to pick up some lunch, but couldn't wait the necessary time and gave up. Her exit line was a good one: "Tomorrow, the store opens at 11 in the morning, so I'll be there at 10 to make sure I get some for lunch."

And then today, with inches of snow on the ground and more on the air, with the temperature in single digits - several cars were still in line at 1 p.m. to order their chicken.

One of these days, sanity will be restored to the chicken workplace, and I'll be able to order a favorite treat for a meal. Hope it's soon.

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