Thursday, December 16, 2010

R.I.P. Rapid Robert Feller

Like the rest of the baseball world, I was saddened by the news of Bob Feller’s passing yesterday at age 92. He truly was an American original, a one-of-a-kind character.

An Iowa farm boy blessed with a blazing fastball that made him a Hall of Fame pitcher, Feller also was a hero in a field much more significant. The day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Rapid Robert became the first major league baseball player to enlist in the military. He spent four years in the Navy and earned several combat medals and commendations as a gun captain on the USS Alabama.

He was just 23 when he joined the Navy, about to enter the prime of his baseball career. Conservatively, the war years cost Feller at least 80 wins, but when I asked him about this in an interview in the early 1990s, the always opinionated pitcher quickly stopped me and reminded me how lucky he was to have returned from the war safe and sound. “There are thousands of young men who never came back,’’ he said. “They are the true heroes.”

He threw three no-hitters and won 20 games seven times, but when I inquired about his greatest victory, he replied without hesitation: “Beating Germany and Japan in World War II. None of the 261 games I won in baseball would have mattered without that one.”

Rapid Robert provided me with one of my favorite baseball-playing moments back in the summer of '77 (that's 1977, not 1877 for all you smart alecks out there. ;-)

I was a 22-year-old sportswriter covering the Mets' Class A, New York-Penn League affiliate in Little Falls, N.Y. for the Little Falls Evening Times, and Feller came to town to sign autographs at the ballpark.

Before the game, he took the mound, resplendent in his old Cleveland Indians uniform, and threw four pitches apiece to a handful of local 'celebrities.' I put that word in single quotes because yours truly was one of the designated celebs.

As a sold-out crowd of 3,000 looked on, I dug in. Feller went into his trademark, high-kicking windup and delivered a batting practice offering straight down the pike. I was so excited to be batting against one of the most dominant pitchers of all-time that I almost cork-screwed myself into the ground while fouling the pitch off my right foot.

The crowd roared with laughter.

"Now, we see why you write about sports rather than play them,'' bellowed one of the leather-lunged spectators, who sounded as if he had already imbibed a few too many Utica Clubs.

I turned as red as a St. Louis Cardinal.

Feller's second serving was every bit as good, and I lined a base hit to right field.

I stroked the third pitch to center and the final offering to left.

Three hits in four at-bats vs. the immortal Bob Feller.

I could now tell my children and grandchildren, and anyone else who would listen that I once had my way with a Hall-of-Fame hurler; that I owned Bob Feller. Well, sort of.

Years later, before interviewing him at an oldtimer's game in Buffalo, I mentioned that night in Little Falls to him.

Feller grew defensive.

"Geez,'' he said. "I was 58 at the time and I wasn't throwing hard because I didn't want to embarrass anyone.''

I told him I understood that and that I didn't bring it up to be disrespectful. I just wanted to thank him for taking it easy on me and giving me the thrill of a lifetime.

I wasn't bothered by his response. In a way, it was kind of cool, hearing that kind of fire from a guy in his 60s.

And I thought it was even cooler when I read that he had taken the mound as a 90-year-old a few years ago at the Hall of Fame game at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown.

Once a competitor, always a competitor.

That’s how I’ll remember Bob Feller.

A FINAL ROUND OF BOOK SIGNINGS

If you still haven't figured out what to get that sports fan in your life, may I suggest an autographed copy of one of the 13 books I've published. Here's my upcoming schedule:

* Friday, Dec. 17, 6-8 p.m. - Henrietta Borders (across from Marketplace Mall)

* Saturday, Dec. 18, 2-4 p.m. - Pittsford Barnes & Noble.

* Saturday, Dec. 18, 6-8 p.m. - Eastview Mall, The Bills Team Store, with special appearances by the Buffalo Jills and mascot Billy Buffalo.

On another positive note, we've received confirmation that Wegmans will be selling my latest release, Jewel of the Sports World: The Hickok Belt Award Story.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Today's menu: Syracuse hoops revival, Derek Jeter's anger, John Lennon's passing

After eight lackluster performances in which the Syracuse Orange men barely survived the likes of basketball powerhouses Detroit and William & Mary and looked like the most suspect ranked-team in the land, they finally snapped out of it, crushing a very, very good Michigan State squad, 72-58, at their home-away-from Dome, Madison Square Garden. SU still has many flaws it must work on (perimeter shooting is concern No. 1), but this game showed that the Cuse is very talented and very tenacious on defense. (For more on Orange hoops, please check out my weekly Syracuse basketball column at Channel 8’s website: www.rochesterhomepage.net )

***

Derek Jeter said he was angry at being portrayed as greedy. Sorry, Derek but, with nearly 10 percent of the country unemployed and many others worried about joining those the ranks of the jobless, few people are going to feel your pain. Especially after the Yankees just rewarded you with a three-year extension for $51 million despite the fact that your work performance declined dramatically this past week. Take a moment to study your Yankees history, and you'll learn how shabbily they treated Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle during contract negotiations after seasons far superior to yours. Just be grateful and keep your trap shut.

***

I see where Sylvester Stallone is going to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota next summer for his portrayals of the fictional, rags-to-riches boxer, Rocky Balboa. Does that mean Robert Redford and Kevin Costner will soon be eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame?

***

It’s hard to fathom that John Lennon’s been gone for 30 years. Seems like only yesterday, I was watching Monday Night Football when, in a truly surreal moment, Howard Cosell told us that the famous Beatle had been gunned down outside his New York City apartment. Mark David Chapman may have killed this genius, but, thankfully, Lennon’s music lives on. Sadly, though, Chapman did rob us of even more brilliant music by Lennon and the cataclysmic Beatles reunion that eventually would have taken place.

***

Speaking of Monday Night Football, I was saddened by the passing of Don Meredith the other day. Football broadcasts were never as entertaining as they were in the 1970s and ‘80s with Frank Gifford, Cosell and Dandy Don in the ABC booth. Meredith, of course, was famous for singing Willie Nelson’s “Turn Out the Lights, The Party’s Over” during the final quarters of routs and he was especially good at putting the megalomaniacal Cosell in his place. I’ll never forget watching the waning moments of a Monday night game when the camera zoomed in on a drunken fan who had passed out in the empty seats of the upper deck of a stadium during a lopsided contest. At the last second, the drunk regained consciousness and upon seeing the camera, stuck out his middle finger. Without missing a beat, Dandy Don told the viewers who had bothered to stick with the telecast: “Folks, he’s just telling us we are No. 1.”

***

Some personal business: My condolences to longtime friend and colleague Frank Bilovsky, who recently lost his mom a month shy of her 100th birthday. Imagine all the extraordinary events and changes she witnessed in her lifetime. On a happier note, my congratulations to my niece, Laura O’Brien, who just got engaged to Donnie Smith, a former Rochester Americans player and all-around good guy, and to my longtime friend Matt Michael, who was engaged during Thanksgiving. To Laura & Donnie and Matt and robin, may your marriages be filled with incredible happiness and love.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Author looks forward to busy signing season


‘Tis the season to . . . do booksignings.

If you are looking for that perfect holiday book for that sports lover, please consider one of the 13 books I’ve published, including my three most recent offerings – Buffalo Bills Football Vault, Jewel of the Sports World: The Story of the Hickok Belt or Silver Seasons: The Story of the Rochester Red Wings.I have a bunch of signings scheduled, so please stop by at one of the following establishments if you are out and about and say ‘Hi.”:

Saturday, Dec. 4 – Greece Barnes & Noble, 2-4 p.m.

Friday, Dec. 10 – Victor Borders, 6-8 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 11 – Webster Barnes & Noble, 2-4 p.m.

Sunday, Dec. 12 – Bills Store, Ralph Wilson Stadium, 10-noon

Tuesday, Dec. 14 – Bills Store, Ralph Wilson Stadium, 6-7 p.m.

Friday, Dec. 17 – Henrietta Borders, 6-8 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 18 – Pittsford Barnes & Noble, 2-4 p.m.

Saturday, Dec. 18 – Bills Store, Eastview Mall, 6-8 p.m.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Opining on SU in the Bronx, Boeheim's deserved crankiness and the passing of two sports figures

As hoped for in this cyberspace recently, the Syracuse University football team will be going bowling in the Bronx. The Orange men officially accepted the invitation to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at the new Yankee Stadium on Dec. 30 at 3:30 p.m. This will be a homecoming for coach Doug Marrone, who went to Herbert H. Lehman High School about 10 minutes from the old Yankee Stadium. And it’s even more meaningful because Marrone grew up a rabid Yankees fan – a family tradition begun by his grandfather who worked as an usher at The House That Ruth Built.

This is a good next step for the program that overachieved in going 7-5 this season. It will help SU reestablish its recruiting foothold in New York City, Long Island and New Jersey. And it will afford the thousands of Syracuse alumni in the metropolitan area an opportunity to see their alma mater play in the Big Apple. The Orange men clearly aren’t ready for a BCS bowl, which they were in the running for up until two weeks ago. They’ll have a much better shot against their likely opponent, Kansas State.

***
Everybody in the Big East sounds giddy about landing current college football powerhouse, TCU, but don’t look for any cartwheels from me. Yes, I understand that it’s all about money and protecting yourself against the carnivorous, money-grubbing conferences that are raiding one another. But it makes no sense geographically, just like it made no sense for Boston College to join the ACC. The Big Ten, which really was the Big Eleven, is now the Big Twelve, with the addition of Nebraska. And the Big East is now the Really Big East, adding a 17th school for basketball. Where does the lunacy end in the avaricious world of big-time college sports?

***
I’m sure God is happy to know that Stevie Johnson wasn’t really mad at him.

***
My Bills pick this week (I’m 8-3 for the season): Vikings 23, Bills 20. And Stevie will catch a touchdown pass.

***
I don’t recall ever seeing Jim Boeheim this cranky about one of his teams this early in the season. As Mike Waters, the superb basketball beat reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard, wrote in his lead after SU’s victory against Cornell the other night: “Unbeaten and Unhappy.” But given the inconsistency of every Orange man but Rick Jackson, who’s been averaging a double-double so far, I can’t say as I blame Boeheim. They better play two halves of good basketball in upcoming games against North Carolina State and Michigan State or they won’t be unbeaten any more.

***
Speaking of SU hoops, please check out my column about my picks for an all-time Orange team at Channel 8’s web site, www.rochesterhomepage.net.

***
I’m saddened by the recent passing of my friend Dave Martens, the long-time Fairport High School athletic director. He was a true giant in his field, initiating several national programs, including his efforts to combat teenage alcohol and drug abuse. Dave liked to come across as gruff, but he was more Teddy Bear than grizzly, and he had a great, dry sense of humor.

***
I also was saddened by the death of Jim Kelley, a legendary hockey writer who spent most of his distinguished career with The Buffalo News. I’ll never forget Jim’s booming voice and laugh, his silver Kenny Rogers beard and hair, and, most of all, his kindness to fellow journalists, yours truly included. I got to know Jim back in 1991, when he spent a season covering the Bills. Great guy and great reporter.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Opining on Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jeter and Syracuse football & hoops


I like what I’m seeing from Ryan Fitzpatrick, but I still would like to let these final six games play out before I make any decisions about his future and whether I should take a quarterback in next April’s draft. Should Fitz engineer an upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at the Ralph, his stock clearly will take another huge jump. Let’s say the Bills win Sunday and wind up with six wins. I would consider going with Fitz as my starter the next few seasons and look at drafting a legitimate pass-rusher.
***
I’m the type of person who would rather root for my team instead of against someone else’s, but I must admit I’m enjoying the struggles of MeBron James and the Miami Frigid. The best team money couldn’t buy has lost three straight and is now 8-6. Project that over 82 games, and you get a 44-38 record, which would be a three-game decline from Miami’s record last year with the alleged King.
***
I said all along I would be satisfied to see the Syracuse football team play in the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl Game at the new Yankee Stadium on Dec. 30, and it appears it might play out that way. We’ll know more once the Big East teams finish their league schedules this weekend. This would give Doug Marrone an even stronger foothold in the New Jersey and Long Island recruiting hotbeds. A game there clearly would have special meaning for the Bron-born Marrone, whose grandfather was an usher at the House That Ruth Built.
***
I still believe this Syracuse basketball team will be very good, but they aren’t that good right now, despite a 4-0 record and a much-too-high No. 9 ranking in the national polls. They’re playing extremely uptight and shooting way too many bricks. As I wrote in my column for Channel 8 (www.rochesterhomepage.net), this weekend’s road trip might do them good.
***
As someone who’s covered his share of contract negotiations I’ve never liked it when it’s conducted in the media. Sadly, that’s the approach Derek Jeter’s agent decided to take and, with Brian Cashman firing back that Jeets is free to test the market, things have gotten ugly. I love the Yankees shortstop – he’s been a great clutch performer and a credit to the game – but his massive ego is getting in the way. The ridiculous long-term contract George Steinbrenner gave A-Rod is definitely coming into play here. Jeter wants something in the same ballpark and that has put the Bronx Bombers in a tough spot.
***
You can check out my lovely wife, Beth, in the latest issue of Rochester Woman Magazine. It deals with local morning radio and television show hosts. I know I’m biased, but I think the issue would have been better had my bride been included on the cover as she was in the past.
***
Tis the season to . . . sign books.
I have eight signings scheduled for this holiday season, so if you are looking for some great stocking gifts come on by and grab one of several sports books I have available.
Here’s my sked:
Saturday, November 26 – LiftBridge Book Store, Brockport, 2-4
Sunday, November 27 – Ralph Wilson Field House, 10-noon (before Steelers game)
Saturday, December 4 – Greece Barnes & Noble, 2-4
Saturday, December 11 – Webster Barnes & Noble, 2-4
Sunday, December 12 – Ralph Wilson Field House, 10-noon (before Browns game)
Tuesday, December 14 – Ralph Wilson Stadium gift shop, Orchard Park, 6-7
Saturday, December 18 – Pittsford Barnes & Noble, 2-4
Saturday, December 18 – Bills Store, Eastview Mall, 6-8

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Opining on Jeter, T.O. and 'Cuse hoops

The public posturing between the Yankees and Derek Jeter over his contract extension has heated up. But don’t worry. A deal will get done because this guy is the face of the Bronx Bombers – a modern-day Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio – and Hal and Hank Steinbrenner and crew wouldn’t want to face the public backlash that would ensue if they ushered him out of the Big Apple.
Still, it’s interesting to hear that Jetes reportedly turned down a three-year, $63-million offer because he wants a four-, five-, even six-year deal. There’s one opponent that no athlete can ever defeat, and that’s Father Time. And if last year’s dramatic dropoff in batting average (44 points below his career average) and fielding range (forget the Gold Glove; that’s an award based more on politics than fact) is any indication, the 37-year-old shortstop has begun the inevitable decline faced by most ballplayers his age. (Particularly ones who don’t use performance-enhancing drugs.)
I know Jeter is an incredibly prideful guy – it’s part of what has made him great for so long – but he can’t possibly think he will be able to continue playing shortstop for three more seasons without hurting his team. And I can’t see him hanging on the way Mantle did, and watch his career batting average plummet.
The other signing dilemma facing the Steinbrenner boys involves the other legend of the most recent Yankee dynasty – Mariano Rivera. Mo will be 42 next season, and he, too, began to show signs of mortality this year. I think the Yankees should structure contracts where both of these legends are given salary thank you’s for all they’ve done for the franchise – kind of like an Academy Award for lifetime achievement, if you will.
It would be terrible to see either end his career in anything but Yankee pinstripes. And I really don’t believe that’s going to happen – but this is a new regime. And the Steinbrenner boys, unlike their dad, can be penny-pinchers.

***

Terrell Owens clearly is having a very good season for the Cincinnati Bengals, with 59 receptions for 834 yards and 7 TDs.
But despite the gaudy stats, the Bengals have been major underachievers teams with a 2-7 record. Some Bills fans still think Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey should have re-signed T.O.
I disagree.
Had the 36-year-old returned to Buffalo, it would have retarded the growth of Stevie Johnson, a 24-year-old who has emerged quite nicely as the Bills No. 2 target with 44 receptions, 591 yards and 6 TDs. Yes, T.O. would have been entertaining, but the Bills needed to clean house and start rebuilding this leaky ship with young players who will be here for years to come.

***

I'm 7-2 in my Bills predictions this season. That said, I like the Bengals to win this week, 27-20 with Owens scoring at least once.

***

The biggest disappointment for the Syracuse basketball team so far has been the play of Kris Joseph. He emerged as the Sixth Man of the Year last season, and expectations were great for him to fill the sizeable role left by Wesley Johnson. I think Joseph is just pressing too much and will be fine once he learns to relax. For a more thorough take on the Orangemen, please check out my weekly ‘Cuse basketball column at www.rochesterhomepage.net

Friday, November 12, 2010

Pontificating on the NFL blackout rule, "MeBron" James and Syracuse hoops, among other things

I’ve written this before and I’ll write it again, I don’t like the NFL blackout rule. We New York State taxpayers shelled out more than $70 mil to renovate Ralph Wilson Stadium through the years – can you say corporate welfare – and just because the Bills only sold 60,000 tickets for this week’s home game against the Detroit Lions instead of 70,000, the game is not going to be shown on local television. It’s time for some ambitious politician to stick up for the taxpayers and make Congress take a hard look at this rule.
***
Hey, did you hear the big news? Brett Favre announced that he is retiring after this season. What’s that? Oh, yeah, you’re right. He’s already done this about eight or nine times in the past three years.
***
I love the new nickname for LeBron James. Critics are now calling him “MeBron.”
***
Those folks in MeBron’s home state of Ohio got to be loving the Miami Heat’s 5-4 start. And, not surprisingly, MeBron has started questioning his coach’s strategy of playing him and Dwayne Wade too long. This keeps up and the Heat will become a bigger soap opera than the Minnesota Vikings.
***
Syracuse University basketball opens tonight in the Dome against Northern Iowa, which, like the Orange, was a Sweet 16 participate last season. I think this team is going to be tremendously good and entertaining. I’m really looking forward to center Fab Melo swatting away shots in the back line of that 2-3 zone.

Thanks to WROC-TV sports director John Kucko for asking me to write a weekly column on SU hoops to go along with my one on the Bills. You can check both out at www.rochesterhomepage.net
***
I was disappointed the Orange football team didn’t secure a bowl berth last week and if they don’t take care of business this week on the road at Rutgers, things could get dicey because their remaining two opponents – Connecticut and Boston College – have been playing better as of late.
***
I think it’s great news that RIT is going to build a new 4,000-6,000-seat hockey arena on campus. That’s the perfect size to maintain the great atmosphere they’ve had at Ritter Arena, which can hold about 2,100.
***
I read where Shawne Merriman has mentored Aaron Maybin in the past. Now, that Shawne hurt himself about 30 minutes into his first Bills practice, he’ll have the opportunity to spend even more time with the former first-round draft pick on Buffalo’s inactive list.
***
I know I shouldn’t do this after being burned twice already, but I’m going to pick the Bills to end their winless streak against the Lions in what is being hyped as “the Futility Bowl.” Buffalo 23, Detroit 16.
***
I’ve long maintained that baseball’s Gold Glove Awards are the most meaningless in sports, only slightly more politicized and irrelevant than making the NFL Pro Bowl. And that was underscored again this week when Derek Jeter – whom I respect tremendously – was awarded another Gold Glove for his play at shortstop. He’s certainly not the best fielding shortstop in the American League and he might not even be the best fielding shortstop on his own team.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Here's a change: Syracuse football team must guard against overconfidence

I’ll be heading to the Carrier Dome Saturday to see if Syracuse can end its six-year bowl drought with a victory against Louisville. The situation is clear cut: Win and you’re in.

A victory obviously would be another huge step for coach Doug Marrone, who is resuscitating this moribund program much more quickly than anyone expected. The biggest opponent for the Orange men in this game might just be themselves. At 6-2 and with four games remaining, they need just one victory. They will have to guard against overconfidence because, quite frankly, despite the great strides they’ve taken, they’re still a team that isn’t talented enough to just show up and win. The final four games are all winnable and all losable.

***

Syracuse’s surprising start – which includes impressive road wins at South Florida, West Virginia and Cincinnati – apparently is having a positive impact on recruiting. Marrone is in the running for defensive end Ishaq Williams, the top high school prospect in New York State. Now, before you snicker about the poor caliber of play in the Empire State, consider this: The prospect from New York City is rated as the seventh best defensive end in the country by Scout.com and the major schools recruiting him are Alabama, USC, Penn State and Notre Dame.

SU has an in with Williams because both of his parents are Syracuse alums. But if the Orange men were still wallowing in mediocrity, they wouldn’t even be in the conversation.

This would be, by far, the biggest recruit Marrone will have landed. Williams is scheduled to make his visit to the SU campus on Dec. 11 and make a decision in early January. Stay tuned.

***

I’m all for the Bills taking a chance on released San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman. It’s a low-risk, high-reward deal and even if he is only 75 percent the player he was a few years ago before he suffered a spate of injuries, he’ll still be an improvement over the linebackers and pass-rushers the Bills currently have.

***

Kudos to the New York Mets for reducing their ticket prices by 14 percent for the 2011 season. As noted in a column a few weeks back, I called for the Buffalo Bills to reduce their prices as a show of good faith for their fans incredible patience. I hope the Mets become trend-setters in this area. Of course, this might require the players to take pay cuts and that’s about as likely to happen as elephants flying.

***

Today’s stupidity in sports award goes to Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics. One of the NBA’s most infamous trash talkers, Garnett reportedly called Detroit’s Charlie Villanueva “a cancer patient” during Tuesday night’s game.

Villanueva suffers from alopecia universalis, a medical condition that results in hair loss. He does not have any hair on his head.

Garnett denied the allegations before last night’s game, saying in a statement: “I am aware there was a major miscommunication regarding something I said on the court last night. My comment to Charlie Villanueva was in fact: You are cancerous to your team and our league. I would never be insensitive to the brave struggle that cancer patients endure. I have lost loved ones to this deadly disease and have a family member currently undergoing treatment. I would never say anything distasteful. The game of life is bigger than the game of basketball.”

The spin doctors who wrote that statement for him should realize that even saying someone is “cancerous to your team and out league” is quite insensitive and distasteful. But it’s a distasteful comment, sadly, that many in sports make without thinking twice about it.

***

Finally, if you’d like to meet two World Series champions and two of the classiest people in Rochester sports history, head to The Webster Columbus Center (a k a The Knights of Columbus) at 70 Barrett Dr. in Webster Sunday for the monthly CollectorFest hosted by Ernest Orlando. Former champs Johnny Antonelli (pitcher, 1954 New York Giants) and Joe Altobelli (manager, 1983 Baltimore Orioles) will be signing from 1-2:30.

The show, featuring several local sports memorabilia dealers, runs from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Admission is free, while autographs are $5 apiece, with all proceeds going to The Wilmot Cancer Center.

Orlando, a Rochester elementary school teacher, has been running these monthly shows for the past decade. He does a great job.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Syracuse now Top 25 candidate, and Marrone's deserving of coach-of-the-year honors

I was optimistic that Doug Marrone would return Syracuse football to prominence. But I never expected him to resurrect the program this quickly.
With yesterday’s easy 31-7 victory against two-time defending Big East champ Cincinnati on the road, SU is now 6-2 and could crack the weekly Top 25 for the first time in a decade. The Orange men clearly deserve to be ranked, given their record, which includes four impressive road wins.
And Marrone, a former Syracuse player who spent his post-playing career preparing to land the head job at his alma mater, merits strong consideration for national coach-of-the-year honors.
Yes, I know, the Big East is extremely week this season, but the national experts knew that going in and they still didn’t predict any marked improvement by the Orange.
And don’t forget what Marrone inherited from Greg Robinson – a program in total dysfunction; a program that had posted two 10-loss seasons in four years. The first double-digit, loss seasons, we might add, in the 121-year history of SU football.
With one victory in their remaining four regular-season games, SU becomes bowl eligible. Three of the Orange men’s final four games are in the Carrier Dome and Rutgers is the only remaining opponent with a winning record (4-3). So, it’s not inconceivable that Syracuse could run the table against Louisville (4-4), Rutgers, Connecticut (4-4) and Boston College (3-5) to finish 10-2 as they did in 2001. If they do that and Pitt stumbles in a few Big East games (a distinct possibility given the Panthers history of inconsistency under coach Dave Wannstedt), SU could – I’m not making this up – play in a BCS bowl this January.
I’m not saying that Syracuse suddenly is a national football power. They’re still two solid recruiting classes away from that status. But they’ve made remarkable strides under Marrone in a short period of time.
I think it’s about time SU fans jump on the bandwagon. Fill the Dome this Saturday for the game aganst Louisville. You will be witness to the victory that will return SU to the post-season.

***
Although I think Ryan Fitztpatrick will again put up impressive numbers, I can’t see the Bills pulling one out against the Chiefs in Kansas City this afternoon. I believe Thomas Jones and the Chiefs will run roughshod against the league’s worst run defense. Call it KC 33, Buffalo 26, as the Bills drop to 0-7.
***
Happy Birthday to my older brother, Russ. I won't tell you how old he is, but it has something to do with the speed limit on the Thurway. ;-)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Surprsing Fitz scoring points with Bills

If you want to win a few water cooler bets today, ask your colleagues to name the second highest-rated quarterback in the NFL this season.

Here’s a clue: The top-rated passer is future Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning and the runner-up isn’t Tom Brady or Drew Brees or Philip Rivers or Eli Manning or Tony Romo or Donovan McNabb or Michael Vick.

Here’s another clue: The current No. 2 went to Harvard and claims that he isn’t even the best athlete in his household – those honors going to his wife, Liza, who was an All-American soccer player for the Crimson.

If you answered, “Ryan Fitzpatrick,” you deserve a huge pat on the back.

And you’re undoubtedly a die-hard Bills fan.

The man known as Fitz checks in this morning with a 102.0 rating, just 1.4 points behind the vaunted Manning. In his four starts since replacing the woeful Trent Edwards, Fitzpatrick has completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 969 yards and 11 touchdowns, and has thrown just four interceptions. He is averaging more yards per game than Brady and has more TD tosses in two fewer starts than Romo.

Although, he is win-less in those starts, Fitzpatrick has helped Buffalo score 34, 26, 14 and 30 points – meaning he has put his team in position to win three of those games. Sadly, he and the Bills have been undermined by a generous defense that has yielded 37, 36, 38 and 38 during that stretch.

At the very least, Fitz has made these 0-6 Bills entertaining. Despite possessing one of the weaker arms in the league, he hasn’t been afraid to take chances and throw downfield – a refreshing change from Edwards’ “Captain Checkdown’’ approach.

I just want to caution folks from getting too giddy. I still believe the Bills need to draft their quarterback of the future in April – “Andrew Luck, welcome to Buffalo” – but I would start Fitz until Luck is ready and would love having a situation where the 27-year-old veteran is my backup, emergency starter and mentor to the young guy.

He keeps playing like he did yesterday when he threw for 364 yards and four scores against a miserly Baltimore Ravens defense, and the Bills are sure to win a few games this season.

***
For more on the Bills, please check out my column and video report for Channel 8 and Fox at www.Rochesterhomepage.net.

***
If you aren’t doing anything tomorrow at noon, please stop by the Downtown library. I’m going to be doing a review of George Wills’ baseball book, “Men at Work” as part of the Books Sandwiched In program.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Big win means 'Cuse in good shape to go bowling

After being bowled over last week by Pitt at the Carrier Dome, some people were griping that Syracuse University football under Doug Marrone wasn’t much better than Syracuse University football had been under his predecessor, Greg Robinson.
Well, I wonder what those negative nabobs have to say the day after the Orange men manhandled 20th-ranked West Virginia, 19-14, to spoil the Mountaineers’ homecoming.
Yes, the Big East is more like the Big Least this season, but this was the marquee win, in a hostile environment, that the rebounding SU program needed.
Does this mean the Orange men have officially turned the corner? No, but it does mean that with a 5-2 record for the first time in a decade the talk of a bowl game is no longer a pipe dream. And that was the goal in year two of the Marrone reconstruction program – seven wins and a bowl invitation.
There might be some more missteps along the way, but SU clearly is moving in the right direction and, we, might add, a lot more rapidly than most expected. The West Virginia win is further proof that Marrone’s plan is working.
After a road game in Cincinnati next Saturday, the Orange returns home to host Louisville. It’s about time fickle Syracuse fans pack the Carrier Dome and start backing Doug’s rebuilding efforts. Anything less than a fullhouse on Nov. 6 would be a disgrace.

***
I'd like to see Syracuse play in the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl game at Yankee Stadium. SU has been re-establishing itself as a presence in the Big Apple and that certainly would help with recruiting. And I'm sure it would be a pretty emotional moment for Marrone, who was born and bred in the Bronx and grew up a huge Yankees fan.

***
While Syracuse makes strides, the Bills continue to slide deeper into the abyss. And there’s no reason to believe Buffalo will snap out of it today in Baltimore against a Ravens team that’s sure to be ornery a week after squandering a double-digit lead in losing to the Patriots in New England. I think Ray Lewis & Co. will beat up on the punch-less Bills, 34-9. Please check out my post-game column at www.rochesterhomepage.net and watch my analysis on FOX Channel 7 at 10 and WROC TV-8 during the 11 o’clock news.

***
Few people are more knowledgeable about baseball - and a lot of other things, for that matter - than my good friend and former colleague Frank Bilovsky. While chatting with him a few weeks ago, he told me to keep an eye on the San Francisco Giants, and he was right.

***
With Cliff Lee pitching like Whitey Ford, I like the Texas Rangers to beat the Giants in seven games in the World Series.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A radical way of saying thank you to Bills fans for sticking with us

From time to time, Beth and I like to play the hypothetical game. You know, “What if you inherited a million dollars out of the blue?” or “What if you had the ability to fly?” or “What if you could meet any person in history?”
Well, yesterday my better half asked me what would be the first thing I would do if Ralph Wilson decided to give me the Buffalo Bills. And I told her I immediately would announce to the fans that I was lowering ticket prices across the board as a thank you for enduring the rotten football of the past 11 years.
I bring this up because later in the day I saw that Ralph had spoken to The Associated Press and accepted blame for the general manager and coaching carousel and lousy drafting of the past 10 years. That was commendable. But I didn’t like his response when asked what message he had for the fans. “Two words,’’ he responded. “Pain and patience. P and P.”
Bills fans who have paid their hard-earned money for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in a decade and is off to an 0-5 start this season have been more than patient. And they know all about pain.
They are smart enough to realize that there is no quick fix, that it will take a few more years, at least, to climb out of the abyss.
I think as a show of good faith, Ralph should do something unprecedented. I believe he should take a hit in the wallet and buy up the unsold tickets for the remaining home games (Detroit, Cleveland, New England) and distribute them to fans in Buffalo, Rochester and southern Ontario. The first people I’d offer the freebies to are the 13,000 who decided not to renew their season tickets this season.
I know this is radical thinking and would be quite costly. But it would ensure that those games would not be blacked out and also send a message to the fan base that we’re sorry for having subjected you to this sub-standard product and we appreciate your loyalty and hope you stick with us.
I know it’s a pipe dream. But something dramatic needs to be done.

***
Speaking of dreamers, congratulations to my friend, Tony Liccione, for reviving the Hickok Belt award, which from 1950 through 1976 was the most prestigious individual honor in professional sports We have a press conference with Mayor Robert Duffy today at City Hall to announce the return of the award to Rochester after a 29-year hiatus. (The last five years of its existence, it was presented outside of Rochester.) It also will be an opportunity for me to plug my new book, Jewel of the Sports World: The Story of the Hickok Belt Award, which will be published by RIT Press on October 25.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Opining on Billy Crystal, Doc Halladay's no-no and the Buffalo Bills


Beth and I had a chance to hobnob with Billy Crystal and Bob Costas last Friday night at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Crystal had donated a number of items from 61*, his wonderful film about the riveting home run duel between Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and the ghost of Babe Ruth in 1961, and was on hand for a talk and movie screening. Costas, a Syracuse classmate of mine, moderated a panel discussion that included Crystal, Thomas Jane ( the actor who played Mantle in the movie) and the producer and screenwriter who conceived the idea for HBO. It was a fabulous night in which I was reminded again of Crystal’s genius as a comedian and director and Costas’ brilliance as an interviewer.

One of the memorable stories told that evening was how Mantle hadn’t seen his plaque hanging in the Hall of Fame until Crystal brought him back to film a comedy skit in 1985, 11 years after Mickey’s induction. Crystal said that Mantle, haunted by feelings that he had not done everything he should have to fulfill his enormous potential, confided to the comedian that he felt he really didn’t belong in the Hall. Believe me, anybody who ever saw him play, will tell you he definitely belonged – near the front of the class. Still, it was a poignant revelation into the soul of a player who was a tortured genius.

As an aside, you’ll notice in that picture of Billy C and me, I’m holding a copy of my book, Memories of Yankee Stadium, which includes an essay I wrote about Crystal’s life-long love affair with Mantle and the Yankees. I had sent him a copy of the book two years ago when it first came out and he said he enjoyed it. We authors love those kind of endorsements. Thanks to my friend, Chris Sciria from Auburn, for snapping the shot.

***

There are few baseball dramas more compelling than the final outs of a no-hitter. I had no idea that Roy Halladay was working on one until I flipped the channel to TBS at the start of the top of the ninth last evening. I was nervous watching him work through those final hitters, and was rooting for him because even though I’m not a Phillies fan, I’m a fan of history-making events. Even Beth, who doesn’t follow baseball, was getting into it a little.

***

Interestingly, Doc Halladay’s no-hitter occurred just two days short of the anniversary of the only other post-season no-hitter – Don Larsen’s perfecto for the Yankees vs. the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 World Series. Think about that: Baseball’s playoffs now begin near the time World Series ended back in the day. If this year’s Fall Classic goes the distance, Game 7 will be played on Nov. 7. Way to go, Bud.
***

I told Beth the other day that I’m going to grow a beard and not shave it off until the Bills win a game, and she had a sarcastic two-word response: “Rip VanWinkle.”
Actually, I think I’d be able to pull out the razor Sunday because I believe these counterfeit Bills will upset the Jacksonville Jaguars in front of a two-thirds filled Ralph. Call it Buffalo 23, Jags 17, and look for a big game by running back Fred Jackson, who should have been playing all along but lost playing time during the four-game Marshawn Lynch trade audition.

***

The next best chance for a Buffalo victory will come on November 14 at home against the perennially weak Detroit Lions.
This Sunday’s game will be blacked out, and you can also expect the Lions, Browns (Dec. 12) and Patriots (Dec. 26) games won’t be televised either, as the Bills sink deeper into irrelevancy.

***

If you are going to Sunday’s game, stop by the field house, where I’ll be signing copies of my new book, Buffalo Bills Football Vault: The First 50 Seasons from 10-noon. Hey, the book takes you back in time, and isn’t the past a better place to be than the present as far as the Bills are concerned?

***

Saw the movie, Social Network, about the founding of Facebook last week. Highly recommend it. Great story, great acting. Can see why it is receiving Oscar buzz.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Opining on dysfunctional Bills, Yanks rotation, Tampa's apathy

Baffling decisions, like the one yesterday to give mediocre outside linebacker Chris Kelsay a four-year, $24-million contract extension, just add to the perception that the Bills front office hasn’t a clue. Yes, Kelsay’s been a loyal soldier and was an OK defensive end before becoming moving to linebacker in Buffalo’s new 3-4 defense this season. But the 30-year-old’s play didn’t merit any sort of extension. Throwing that kind of money at a so-so player while you’re trying to rebuild makes no sense whatsoever.
***
A 20.5-percent drop in season-ticket sales indicates that many Bills fans have gone from being angry to apathetic, and that’s not a good thing. I’d rather have fans in the seats at the Ralph showing their displeasure by booing their team than deciding not to show up at all.
Sales for this season were 43,383, a sharp drop from 55,308 last year and 56,011 the year before. Sunday’s game against the Jets should sell out and the Nov. 28 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Ralph also is sold out, but the Bills are going to have a difficult time avoiding blackouts for upcoming home games vs. Jacksonville (Oct. 10), Detroit (Nov. 14), Cleveland (Dec. 12) and New England (Dec. 26).
***
Despite the decline in attendance, Bills fans remain remarkably loyal, considering their team’s 0-3 start and 10-year playoff drought. That’s in stark contrast to Tampa, which is proving it is not a very good sports town. The Rays, who have a chance to make it back to the World Series after a one-year hiatus, were forced to give away 20,000 free tickets in order to pack its ballpark last night. And the NFL’s Bucs are off to a 2-1 start and tied for first in the NFC South, but have been blacked out twice already.
***
The Yankees rotation is a mess heading into the post-season and unless they get some solid performances out of Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte to go along with the always dependable CC Sabathia, I can see them being bounced in the first round. A.J. Burnett and Javier Vasquez are two talented pitchers who can’t seem to handle the pressure of pitching in New York. Pettitte is one of the great post-season pitchers of all-time, but he’s still very rusty after his injury and long layoff and may not be sharp enough in time.
***
Congratulations to Greece’s Brian Gionta for being named captain of the Montreal Canadiens. He is only the second American-born player to wear the “C’’ in the 101-year history of hockey’s most famous franchise. And they couldn’t have chosen a better guy for the honor.
***
Three-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador tested positive for a banned substance. Is this supposed to be news? The real shocker would be if a Tour de France champion DIDN’T test positive or wasn’t even suspected of using a banned substance or blood doping.
***
Philly fans have never been known for being classy. But I would hope that when former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb returns as a member of the Washington Redskins Sunday that he receives a rousing ovation. The guy was the best quarterback in Eagles history – a fact often forgotten by Philly fans because he didn’t bring the Lombardi Trophy to the City of Brother Love.
***
On a personal note, a Happy Birthday to my daughter, Amy, who turns 24 on Saturday. She’ll always be my little girl no matter how old she becomes.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Syracuse football is taking baby steps forward on rebuilding road

I’ll be getting my first in-person look at the Syracuse University football team Saturday when I travel to the Carrier Dome to watch the Orange men renew their long upstate rivalry with Colgate. I’m looking forward to seeing sophomore quarterback Ryan Nassib, who last week set a school record with five TD tosses against overmatched Maine. The young man from Philly has looked pretty good so far and it appears that Coach Doug Marrone might have something around which can pin his rebuilding. SU remains a work in progress – they’re still several bricks shy of a load – but I like the strides that have been made under Marrone. I also like how he gives his team history lessons about the program every week. This week he’s taught them about the historical significance of the series with Colgate, whom the Orange men haven’t played since their 11-0-1 season in 1987.
***
I also like it that the school will be honoring the 1984 team’s 17-9 upset of No. 1 Nebraska in the Dome. I had the privilege of covering that shocker and it remains one of the top 25 events I chronicled during my 37 years in the business. The week before, SU had fumbled eight times in a 19-0 loss to Rutgers and the odds-makers had established the Cornhuskers as 24-point favorites – a spot that some thought was too modest. Todd Norley threw a touchdown pass to a leaping Mike Siano and the defense, led by All-American tackle Tim Green, wound up stifling Nebraska. I’ll never forget the sight of Ben Schwartzwalder, the legendary former SU coach, in the press box after the final gun sounded. There were tears in the old man’s eyes as he watched the jubilation on the field.

***
Pitt’s thrashing as the hands of Miami is another indication that the Big East Conference is way down this season. And that’s good news for SU as it attempts to go 7-5 and become bowl eligible.
***
Can’t wait to watch Ken Burns’ 10th Inning next Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 on WXXI. Burns did a magnificent job documenting baseball’s history in the first nine segments back in 1994, and so much has happened to the game – much of it bad – since then. The two worst things were the strike that canceled the ’94 World Series and the steroids scandal that has ripped the game from its historical moorings. But there also have been several positives – namely the Yankees return to prominence, the Red Sox putting an end to the Curse of the Bambino, the construction of numerous retro ballparks, the influx of Latino and Asian players and inter-league play.
***
I don’t believe the Bills will upset the Patriots this Sunday in Foxboro. New England has to be angry about the way it played in last week’s loss to the Jets and I believe Tom Brady and Wes Welker could have a field day against Buffalo, which has a difficult time pressuring quarterbacks. However, I do believe new starter Ryan Fitzpatrick will give the Bills offense a little spark because he makes quicker decisions than predecessor Trent Edwards, is willing to take some risks downfield and is facing a Patriots defense that isn’t as good as Green Bay’s or Miami’s, Buffalo’s first two opponents. My prediction: Patriots 37, Bills 17.
***
It’s not too early to look ahead to the 2011 season, so if you aren’t doing anything Saturday afternoon, you can catch two top candidates for the Bills quarterback job – Stanford’s Andrew Luck vs. Notre Dame or Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett vs. top-ranked Alabama. Washington’s Jake Locker, the other potential Bills draft pick, has seen his stock plummet after a poor showing last week vs. Nebraska.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Opining on the Bills QB move, The Boss' ceremony and Torre's return to the Bronx

I give Chan Gailey credit for pulling the plug on Trent Edwards after two pathetic performances. We’ve certainly seen enough of Trent over the past four seasons to tell us that he is not the guy to revive the moribund Bills. At the very least, Ryan Fitzpatrick will attempt to get the ball down the field to Lee Evans more and make quicker decisions. The bottom line, though, is that the Bills will continue their losing ways because there just aren’t enough talented players on their roster – and that includes quarterback. I said it back in May and I’ll say it again – the QB with the best chance of leading Buffalo out of the abyss isn’t on the current roster; he’s playing college football this fall. Either Andrew Luck of Stanford, Ryan Mallett of Arkansas or Jake Locker of Washington will be wearing a Bills uniform next season. (If there is a season and not a strike, of course.)

***
Late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner clearly was deserving of a monument at the new House That The Boss Built, but did it need to be so huge that it overshadowed the ones dedicated to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle?
***
I thought the unveiling ceremony at the new Yankee Stadium last night was nicely done and I was especially happy to see Joe Torre and Don Mattingly there. It was classy of the Yankees to extend the olive branch to Torre, who ranks up there with Casey Stengel and Joe McCarthy as the best managers in team history. And it was classy of Joe and Donnie Baseball to make the cross-country trek on a Los Angeles Dodgers off-day.
***
I’m hearing all sorts of rumors about Torre becoming manager of the Mets or the Cardinals or Cubs. But how about this for a crazy scenario? Torre back to the Yankees if Joe Girardi decides to go to Chicago to skipper the team he grew up following. Sounds implausible, but stranger things have happened. And if The Boss was still running the team, I definitely could see something crazy like that occurring.
***
Torre might wind up retiring from managing for good. And if he does, I think the Yankees should retire his No. 6. That would leave only No. 2 (Derek Jeter) among the single digits not packed permanently in mothballs. Of course, at the pace the Yankees retire numbers, the next generation of players will be wearing triple-digits.
***
On a personal note, a belated Happy 30th Wedding Anniversary to Dave and Diane Smith, two of the kindest people I know.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Some advice for the Bills, Heisman trustees, Bud Selig & SU gridders

Some things I'd like to see this Sunday from the Buffalo Bills, who have been installed as double-digit underdogs against the Packers at Lambeau Field:
* A commitment to the run game. A total of just 17 carries against Miami last week isn't going to cut it. I'm still trying to figure out why Chan Gailey decided to open with three straight pass plays when he knows the strength of this team is its trio of running backs.
* Along those same lines, many more touches for Fred Jackson, especially now that he has his cast off. He carried just four times for 19 yards and caught two passes for zero yards.
* Some more downfield throws by Trent Edwards. Yes, I know he was under duress much of the afternoon because of the Dolphins penetrating pass rush and the Bills poor pass protection, but you have to take more long shots if you want to stop defenses from ganging up against the run and hit an occasional home run.
* Some takeaways by Buffalo's defense. The Bills did a good job of bottling up the Dolphins, but they didn't induce any turnovers, which was their forte last year.
* A better job of play-calling by Gailey.
* A more relaxed C.J. Spiller.
* Replacement of Edwards with either Ryan Fitzpatrick or Brian Brohm if Trent continues playing like last week.

The thing is that even if each of the aforementioned desires are answered, the Bills still probably aren't going to win against Aaron Rodgers and Co. Call it the Packers, 31-16.

***

Hate to say it, but as a nearly five-decade follower of the Yankees, I think age is finally catching up to the Bronx Bombers. Derek Jeter is struggling through the worst year of his career, as are A-Rod and Jorge Posada. The only one of the core four who's managed to out-fox Father Time is Mariano Rivera. The Yankees need Andy Pettitte back in top form in the worst way in order to stabilize their shaky rotation. At this juncture, I think the Phillies are the favorties to win the World Series. I wouldn't want to face their top three pitchers in a seven-game series.

***

I like Mike Scioscia's idea of shortening the major league baseball schedule. Either reduce it to 154 games or re-institute scheduled doubleheaders so the season doesn't begin in March and end in November. I know some purists would grumble if the sked was reduced to 154 or 144 games because of the sanctity of baseball's numbers. Well, the integrity of the numbers has been ruined by a generation of steroid usage, so who cares any more?

***

I'm glad that Reggie Bush was shamed into giving back his Heisman Trophy, but why not award the trophy to the player who finished second to him that year - Vince Young.

***

If I'm a Jets fan I'm very, very concerned about my quarterback, Mark Sanchez. I know he was going against a hellacious Ravens defense the other night, but he looked about as uncertain as Trent Edwards out there.

***

Syracuse can't afford to take its next two opponents - Maine and Colgate - lightly just because they play in a division a level below the BCS. Just ask Virginia Tech and Mississippi, who were upset by teams in the division formerly known as I-AA.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bills will upset Miami, but after that . . .

Consider me not a purveyor of gloom-and-doom, but rather a realist. Like the meteorologist who forecasts the lake effect snow storm, I’m not the reason it’s snowing. I’m just trying to prepare you for what lies ahead for the 2010 Buffalo Bills so that you won’t feel compelled to jump into the Niagara River once the losses mount and optimism fades. (In other words, please don’t shoot the messenger for what he is about to write.)

I, too, have been encouraged by the progress the Bills have shown in the offseason and during practice games. Chan Gailey appears to be the no-nonsense coach the team needed after Dick Jauron’s kid gloves’ approach. Electric running back C.J. Spiller is a star-in-the-making. Quarterback Trent Edwards appears to have some of his confidence back. And the Bills have a top echelon secondary and a talented corps of running backs to go with two guards in Eric Wood and Andy LeVitre, who could be dependable performers for years to come.

All that said, the Bills won’t be ending their decade-long playoff drought this season. Nor will they be sniffing a .500 record. There still isn’t enough talent on this roster to turn the corner. Plus, their AFC East opponents have improved and Buffalo faces a brutal, front-loaded schedule featuring four of its first six games against playoff teams from last season. I believe the Bills are looking at a 5-11 record and another last-place finish.

But I also believe that new general manager Buddy Nix and Gailey – two football lifers with successful track records – are building a legitimate foundation for the future. With another successful draft and the continued development of the existing young talent, the Bills might be ready to blossom into contenders in 2011 (if the season isn’t wiped out by a strike).

If you’re a Bills fan, you need to hope that Spiller is indeed a thriller; Edwards develops into a legitimate and durable NFL quarterback; athletic, young left offensive tackle Demetrius Bell realizes his football potential; undrafted rookie wide receiver David Nelson becomes the tall receiving threat that the departed James Hardy never became; linebacker Aaron Maybin blossoms into a feared pass rusher; the Bills make a successful conversion to the 3-4 and stop being a sieve against the run, and punter Brian Moorman and kicker Rian Lindell continue to display the consistent excellence they’ve shown for nearly a decade.

Although I don’t see the Bills being upwardly mobile in the standings this season, I do see them opening with an upset of the Dolphins Sunday. I think they will be riding the wave of emotion and confidence built over the summer and I believe Miami’s defense is vulnerable without nose tackle Jason Ferguson (suspended for violation of the NFL drug policy) and defensive end Philip Merling (out for the season with an Achilles tendon injury).

Let’s call it, Buffalo 20, Miami 16.

After that, it will be downhill, with road losses to Green Bay and New England and at home to the New York Jets. That will be followed by a win at home against Jacksonville, losses on the road to Baltimore and Kansas City, a win in Toronto vs. the Chicago Bears, a win against Detroit at the Ralph, a loss on the road to Cincinnati, a loss at home to Pittsburgh (who will have Ben Roethlisberger back at QB), a loss at Minnesota, a victory at home vs. Cleveland (let’s hope these teams put on a better show than last year’s 6-3 yawner), a loss on the road to the Dolphins, a loss at home to the Patriots and loss to the Jets.

***

Speaking of teams in the rebuilding mode, I was impressed with Syracuse University’s workmanlike 29-3 win vs. Akron last week. I know a victory against a week team like the Zips isn’t cause to run out and make bowl reservations, but when you haven’t won a season-opener in six years, you take whatever progress you can get. Quarterback Ryan Nassib looked good, passing for 229 yards and running for 58 more, but will have to do a better job of protecting the football (interception and two fumbles) this week at Washington. The defense was impressive, limiting the Zips to 166 yards and just a field goal – the lowest point total yielded by the Orange in five seasons.

The Huskies game Saturday night will give us a better measure how far SU has come. Washington features Jake Locker, a strong-armed, mobile quarterback who’s projected to be taken No. 1 in next year’s draft. Second-year SU coach Doug Marrone is a student of football history and big on tradition, but here is one tradition he hopes to discontinue Saturday: Since 1964, the Orange men are just 1-10-1 in West Coast games.

I don’t see them beating a Huskies team that’s sure to be angry after dropping a close game at BYU last week. But if they can be competitive, I think it will be another baby step in the right direction.

***

Thanks to WROC TV-8 for adding me to their Bills coverage this season. I’m writing a weekly column for their web site - www.rochesterhomepage.net - and will be doing some on-air stuff after home games with my friend John Kucko.
Also, I’m continuing to do the Bills Brothers radio show with John DiTullio, Mike Catalana and Sal Maiorana on WHTK 1280-AM and 107.3-FM from 3-4 on Thursday afternoons.
Finally, I’ll be doing a talk and booksigning at the Barnes & Noble in Webster, Saturday from 1-3 p.m. My new book, Buffalo Bills Football Vault: The First 50 Seasons, continues to do well, ranking 11th on Amazon.com’s list of best-selling NFL books yesterday after rising as high as fourth on two previous occasions.

***

Congratulations to my good friend and 19th century base ball teammate, Max Robertson, who will be inducted into the Rochester Senior Slowpitch Softball Association Hall of Fame Saturday. Couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy. Tickets remain and can be purchased at the Diplomat Party House. Festivities begin at 6.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Altobelli clearly is no ordinary Joe


I'm really looking forward to seeing the statue of Joe Altobelli unveiled at Frontier Field before tonight's Rochester Red Wings game because no one in our city's rich 100-plus years of professional baseball has worn more hats for the organization than Alto.

He's been a player, coach, manager, general manager and broadcaster in his many years with the Wings. But the greatest role he's played is the unofficial one as baseball ambassador.

I've been covering sports for 37 years and I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a nicer or classier man than Joe Altobelli. And I believe if you asked any of my local sports media peers they'd second that emotion. In addition to spinning wonderful yarns about his extraordinary baseball life, Alto has been great, too, about teaching me things about the game that I never knew.

And as my friend and fellow author, Jim Mandelaro, will tell you, Alto has always been extremely generous in helping us promote our book, Silver Seasons - both when it was originally published back during the closing of old Silver Stadium in 1996 and this year, when we released a revised edition.

In celebration of Alto's special night, I'm re-running the feature I wrote about him in the Democrat and Chronicle about a decade ago when he celebrated his 50th season in pro ball. I hope it gives you a feel for his remarkable journey. Enjoy. And congrats to Joe on an honor well-deserved.


A LIFE-LONG PASSION FOR THE GAME

Baseball is a game of numbers, and there are many digits that come to mind with Joe Altobelli.

Like the number six, which was how many cents it cost to take the trolley from his house in East Detroit to Tiger Stadium to watch his childhood hero, Hank Greenberg, in the late 1930s, early '40s.

Or 6,000, which is how many dollars Altobelli received back in 1951 to sign with the Cleveland Indians.

Or 383, the first jersey he was issued when he reported to the Indians minor-league camp in Daytona Beach, Fla., a half-century ago.

Or 1983, the year Altobelli managed the Baltimore Orioles to their last World Series championship.

But the number that will be foremost in his thoughts when he arrives at Frontier Field today to provide color commentary for the Red Wings home opener against Scranton is 50. That's how many years Altobelli has spent in professional baseball.
"You wonder where the time goes," said the man known to Rochesterians as “Mr. Baseball. “All I know is that baseball has been very, very good to me."

It has been his life.

The 67-year-old has been a player, coach and manager in both the minors and majors. He also has served as the Red Wings general manager and consultant, and, for the past three years, the sidekick of Wings play-by-play man Joe Castellano on radio broadcasts.

"About the only thing I haven't done that I still want to do," Altobelli said, chuckling, "is work on the grounds crew at Frontier Field."

He says he wants to drive the riding mower but hasn't persuaded grounds crew chief Gene Buonomo to hand over the keys.

"Hey, there are worse jobs in the world than being on a riding mower in the outfield of a ballpark on a warm, sunny day," Altobelli said.

Should he cruise the outfield at Frontier, he'll be reminded of yet another significant number - 26: his uniform number now displayed in his honor on the outfield wall.

What can't be quantified by numbers is Altobelli's passion for the game, whose roots stretch all the way back to the Great Depression, when he played sandlot ball from sunrise to sunset in the Motor City. This son of Italian immigrants excelled at all sports - he was such a talented receiver that Michigan and Purdue offered him football scholarships. But baseball was his first love and best sport.

The New York Yankees offered him a contract the night of his high school commencement, and he had tryouts with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebetts Field and with the Tigers. He eventually accepted the Indians' offer of a $5,000 bonus and a $1,000 minor-league salary, in part, because Greenberg was the team's general manager.

Altobelli used part of his bonus to purchase a new Chevy, into which he loaded his belongings in March '51 for the two-day trip to Daytona Beach, Fla. When he arrived at the Indians' minor-league complex, he was given the triple-digit jersey, an indication of the vast number of players in camp.

"It was a little overwhelming at first," he said. "I was homesick. A lot of guys were. We all slept in barracks, and a coach would come in at 6:30 in the morning and fire off a blank gun to wake you up. You felt like you were in the military."

Altobelli survived that baseball boot camp and wound up having a sensational season for Daytona Beach, the Indians Class D team in the Florida State League. The first baseman hit safely in 37 consecutive games - a league record that still stands - and batted .341 with more than 100 runs batted in and 100 runs scored. An outstanding pitcher in high school, Altobelli persuaded his manager to let him take the mound in the regular-season finale. He pitched five innings to notch the win. Rocky Colavito, who would become an All-Star outfielder with the Indians and Tigers, picked up the save.

Altobelli progressed quickly through the minors, and, in 1955, he was promoted to the big leagues. The Indians used him primarily as a late-inning defensive replacement, but he received a rare start at first base that season and went 3-for-5 with a home run against the Tigers, in Detroit.

With only 16 major-league teams - 14 fewer than today - competition for roster spots was fierce. Altobelli was sent back down to Indianapolis after appearing in 42 games. He spent part of the 1957 season with the Indians and part of the '61 season with the Minnesota Twins. His big-league totals were mediocre: 166 games, 5 homers, 28 RBI, .210 batting average.

In 1963, the Los Angeles Dodgers loaned him to the Red Wings. Altobelli fell in love with the city and the fans fell in love with him. At the end of year, Red Wings general manager George Sisler Jr. purchased Altobelli's contract from the Dodgers for $500.

Altobelli was on the downside of his playing career, but he recalls his four seasons with the Wings as among his most enjoyable. He spent much of his time mentoring Oriole prospects such as Mike Epstein and Curt Blefary. Baltimore general manager Harry Dalton took notice, offering Altobelli a manager's job with the team's Class A affiliate in Bluefield, W.Va.

The summer of '66 was significant for another reason: Altobelli and his wife, Patsy, decided to buy a house in Gates.

"I'd been all around the country in my travels, and I never found a place where I felt more at home," he said. "A lot of baseball people settle in warm-climate places. They said you must be nuts living there with those kinds of winters. I said, "The weather may be cold, but the people are warm.' "

In 1971, he was promoted to manage the Wings, the Orioles' top farm team, and that club wound up winning the Governors' Cup and the Junior World Series.

"We had a great ballclub, but the thing people forget is that a couple of months into the season, we were a game below .500," Altobelli said. "The last two months, we sprinted to the finish line."

That team, led by future major-league all-stars Bobby Grich and Don Baylor, was recognized by Baseball America magazine as one of the best in minor-league history. One of the players on that team was Ron Shelton, a utility infielder who went on to become an Academy Award nominated screenwriter and producer. His critically acclaimed baseball comedy, Bull Durham, was inspired in part by Altobelli. Crash Davis, the journeyman catcher played by Kevin Costner, is based loosely on Altobelli.

The Wings experienced remarkable success with Alto as manager, winning two International League titles and 502 games in six seasons.

After the 1976 season, the San Francisco Giants hired him, and two years later he was named the National League Manager of the Year.

Managers are hired to be fired, and Altobelli was sent packing in 1979. He joined the Yankees organization, first as a manager at Columbus, then as a coach in New York. When Earl Weaver retired as Baltimore's manager in the autumn of '82, Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams hired Altobelli.

In his first season there, he led the Orioles to a World Series championship, helped out by the surprising pitching of Mike Boddicker, who had toiled several seasons with the Red Wings.

"Mike spent the first month of the season in Rochester and still managed to win 16 games for us in Baltimore," Altobelli said.

In his two-plus seasons at the Orioles helm, Altobelli wrote Cal Ripken's name onto the lineup card 162 times a year.

"I remember after the first season calling Cal into my office, and saying, 'Cal, I just noticed that you played every single inning of every single game this year. That's not going to happen again,' " Altobelli recalled. "At the end, of the 1984 season, I called him in and gave him the exact same speech. Little did we know this guy wasn't going to take a break for the next 10 years."

After the team's poor start in '85, Williams became impatient and released Altobelli. The firing still bothers Altobelli, but the respected baseball man landed on his feet. He spent the next several years coaching for the Yankees and the Cubs. In Chicago, Altobelli had the opportunity to work for Don Zimmer, now the right-hand man of Yankees manager Joe Torre.

"The thing you notice about Alto is that he's always calm and collected," Zimmer says. "He reminds me a lot of Joe Torre. Things might seem like they are crumbling around you, but there's Joe acting like the Rock of Gibraltar. What the Orioles did to him was ridiculous. Look what happened when they got rid of him. They went down the tubes. You aren't going to find a better baseball man or a better person than Joe Altobelli."

Altobelli always sensed that he would wind down his career in Rochester. He enjoyed his years as the team's general manager, when he played an important role in getting the new stadium built. He also groomed his successor, current GM Dan Mason.
"No way would I have been ready to take on that job at 27 years old without Alto's help and guidance," Mason said. "He taught me about baseball and he taught me about managing people. I went to school for 16 years, and Joe's been by far the best professor I've ever had. I can't thank him enough."

And Altobelli can't thank the Wings enough for the opportunity to keep coming to the ballpark.

A half century later, there's no place he would rather be.

ALTO’S TRAVELS
Player
1951 - Daytona Beach, Fla.
1952-53 - Reading, Pa.
1954 - Indianapolis
1955 - Cleveland, Indianapolis
1956 - Indianapolis
1957 - Cleveland, Indianapolis
1958 - Indianapolis
1959 - Toronto
1960 - Montreal
1961 - Syracuse, Minnesota
1962 - Omaha, Neb.
1963-66 - Rochester
Manager
1966-67 - Bluefield, W.Va.
1968 - Stockton, Calif.
1969-70 - Dallas-Fort Worth
1971-76 - Rochester
1977-79 - San Francisco
1980 - Columbus, Ohio
1983-85 - Baltimore
Coach
1981-82 - New York Yankees
1986-87 - New York Yankees
1988-91 - Chicago Cubs
General Manager/Consultant
1992-97 - Rochester
Broadcaster1998-2008 - Rochester

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Edwards making strides; C.J.'s looking like O.J.

I like the way Trent Edwards has been playing the past two exhibition games. He seems more confident, more decisive. There’s no question that new Bills coach Chan Gailey has had a positive impact on him. That said, it would be foolhardy to rush to judgment and say Edwards has turned the corner and is ready to become the quarterback the Bills have been looking for since Jim Kelly retired 13 years ago. It’s difficult to assess the exhibition game performances of quarterbacks because the defenses they face tend to be quite vanilla and personnel is being shuffled in and out. And the other factor with Trent is his durability. Still, these appear to be steps in the right direction.
***
Here’s one assessment I’m not afraid to make based on preseason observations: C.J. Spiller is the real deal. He clearly has the speed and instincts to become a dynamic playmaker right away for this team. He might be the most electrifying running back the Bills have had since O.J. in the 1970s.
***
Speaking of electrifying performers, it’s great to see the Bills finally getting the ball into the hands of Roscoe Parrish. Gailey clearly has figured out something that his predecessors couldn’t. Roscoe in the slot creates mismatches because the guy’s too quick and shifty to cover. Look for a big year from him if the 5-foot-9, 175-pounder can stay in one piece.
***
Rookie wide receiver David Nelson continues to show a knack for getting open. Not only has he apparently secured a roster spot, but he could be pushing for that No. 2 wideout spot, behind Lee Evans, if he keeps progressing at this pace. While Nelson’s stock continues to rise, James Hardy’s continues to plummet. He had one nice catch, but also some costly drops. I wouldn’t be shocked if he doesn’t survive the cuts over the next eight days.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Opining on Strasburg, an 18-game NFL sked and advice from Pete Rose

Spraying opinions to all fields . . .
• I was saddened to hear that Stephen Strasburg’s arm injury apparently is serious enough to warrant Tommy John surgery. This is a terrible blow for him and for baseball. The Washington Nationals pitching phenom had captivated even casual fans with his 100 mph heater, nasty curveball and fearlessness on the mound. Those of us privileged to have watched him pitch at Frontier Field in Rochester a few months back could tell that the kid was something special. Many pitchers have made successful comebacks from this type of elbow injury, but few have been as good as they were before their setbacks. Let’s hope this young man is one of the few who comes back even stronger.
• Speaking of injuries, I think the proposal to expand the NFL regular season to 18 games will wind up hurting the sport by shortening the careers of numerous players. As it is, few players – particularly at the star positions of quarterback and running back – make it through an entire season healthy. And given the size and speed of the modern athlete injuries are sure to mount with the addition of two more games-worth of car-like collisions. Hey, I, too, hate having to endure four- to five-exhibition games each summer, but this isn’t the solution. I say cut the preseason to two or three games and keep a 16-game slate. The human body wasn’t designed to play 18 regular-season NFL games, plus playoffs.
• Got a kick out of Pete Rose saying that Roger Clemens would have received more lenient treatment had he just fessed up in the beginning. Yeah, Pete, just like you did with your situation, right? If I recall correctly, you vehemently denied you bet on baseball for years, and only came clean so you could sell more copies of your book.
• So how is it that Clemens is indicted for perjury, but Rafael Palmiero isn’t? If I’m not mistaken, didn’t Raf test positive for performance-enhancing drugs after pointing his finger in defiance at that Congressional hearing?
• And, while we’re on the subject of cheaters, have you heard how Sammy Sosa is upset that the Chicago Cubs haven’t retired his number? Ah, Sammy, I think they’ll put your jersey in mothballs on the same day you get inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Which will be the day after never.
• I believe Carmelo Anthony would look pretty spiffy in a New York Knicks uniform.
• I could be wrong, but I think Chan Gailey has more important issues to worry about than some knucklehead twentysomethings heckling his quarterback at Bills training camp.
* Just when we New Yorkers think our state government can't be any more dysfunctional, we learn about a law on the books where there's a tax on sliced bagels.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A bonding experience at the new Yankee Stadium


I greeted my son’s request to attend a game at the new Yankee Stadium with mixed emotions. Don’t get me wrong. I always enjoy going to ballgames with him because it’s an experience we’ve shared since he was a wee lad. And I knew the drive to and from New York would be a good bonding opportunity for father and son before he returned to the University at Buffalo this week for his junior year.

But I also knew that it meant I would have to see the old ballpark – the one where both he and I had witnessed our first major-league games – reduced to rubble.

A few weeks ago, I had attended a lecture by documentarian Ken Burns about sacred places. Well, for me the original Yankee Stadium was a sacred place, not merely because this was where the Babe, Joe D, Mickey and Jeter had performed their baseball heroics. But also because this was the place where I had spent memorable moments with my dad and later my son and daughter.

Pulling off the Major Deegan onto 161st Street last Thursday morning, I saw the blue, wooden construction boards surrounding the demolition site where the ballpark of my youth had once stood. After we parked, Chris and I walked around and were able to peek in at various spots and see bulldozers leveling ground and cranes loading huge chunks of concrete onto dump trucks. The sights and sounds of the heavy equipment were unnerving to me, but most fans heading across the street to the The House That George and The Taxpayers Built seemed oblivious. A painful reminder to this aging baby boomer that time marches on.

It still, though, bothers me that at least a section of the most famous ballpark in the world wasn’t retained as a historical landmark. Yes, it’s nice that they are going to build two youth baseball diamonds in a park-like setting on the old grounds, but why couldn’t they have preserved a small section of the bleachers and Gate 2 as a reminder that there used to be a ballpark here? I suppose they’ll erect a plaque denoting the old place, but there should have been a much bigger reminder of what a historical landmark the old Stadium was.

I had closed the old place and opened the new one, and I must grudgingly admit that the architects did a wonderful job of being true to the original Yankee Stadium design while building the new one. The outside walls and the return of the fa├žade around the roof of the upper deck are nice, nostalgic touches, harkening back to the Stadium before the mid-1970 renovations. Nice, too, are the enromous pictures of legendary Yankee players in the massive Great Hall, which greets you as you enter the park. Another wonderful feature is the museum, which features World Series trophies, bats from Ruth, DiMag and The Mick, and Thurman Munson’s old locker, which was brought over from the old place.

As expected, the new park boasts all the modern conveniences – diverse concessions, palatial luxury suites, wide concourses and clean bathrooms. But progress comes with a steep price. Tickets for ordinary seats at the new stadium are ridiculously high – I mean, 90 freaking dollars to sit several rows up behind the leftfield wall is absurd. As is $9 a beer. No wonder the Yankees have only sold out three or four times this season, despite a seating capacity of about 50,000 – roughly 8,000 fewer seats than the old place.

Despite the exorbitant prices, father and son managed to have a great time. The Yankees rallied for 9 runs in the sixth as Derek Jeter tripled and Robbie Cano homered to beat the visiting Detroit Tigers handily. The experience cost an arm and a leg, but the bonding experience was once again priceless.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Ken Burns, Batavia's baseball future and the Bills exhibition opener


I've always been in awe of Ken Burns' work because the famed documentarian has a way of putting a human face on history.

I was reminded of his brilliance the other night when Beth and I heard him speak at the Chautauqua Institution, an idyllic setting in the Southern Tier. Burns showed excerpts from his documentaries on the Civil War and World War II, then spoke passionately about battlefields as sacred places.

Those who will see him and writer Geoffrey Ward tonight at the George Eastman House in Rochester are in for a real treat.

And I can't wait to see Burns' addendum to his critically acclaimed documentary series about baseball next month. I'm particularly interested to see how he will treat the impact of performance-enhancing drugs on the game.

***

I was saddenned to hear that the Red Wings are severing ties with the Batavia Muckdogs of the New York-Penn League. But I understand the reasons. Rochester's minor-league ballclub had given its all in attempting to revive and save professional baseball in that tired Genesee County city, but the community and corporate support just wasn't there.

Sadly, this is probably the death knell for professional baseball in Batavia. And, on a personal level, that pains me because I always loved the fact that pro ball was still being played in small communities like Batavia.

I began my journalism career covering NY-P baseball in Little Falls way back in 1977, riding the Mets team bus across the state to places such as Newark, Oneonta, Niagara Falls and Jamestown. There is something more intimate - not to mention much more affordable - about the game at that low rung of the pro ladder. But things change. Little Falls, Utica, Oneonta, Newark, Niagara Falls no longer have teams. And, I'm afraid, Batavia will soon be joining that list of the dearly departed.

***

It's sure going to be strange tonight seeing Donovan McNabb wearing that Washington Redskins uniform after more than a decade in Philadelphia Eagles' garb.

***

I don't know how much we'll really learn about the Bills from tonight's preseason opener because three of their projected starters along the offensive line won't be playing. I'll still be keeping an eye on Trent Edwards to see if he's more decisive than the QB who completely lost his confidence last season. I'm also interested to see how new coach Chan Gailey utilizes Roscoe Parrish and rookie running back C.J. Spiller. Defensively, keep an eye on Aaron Maybin. He needs to show that he can put some pressure on the quarterback.

***

SHAMELESS PLUG DEPARTMENT: I'll be giving a talk and signing copies of my new book, Buffalo Bills Football Vault: The First 50 Seasons, at the Pittsford Barnes & Noble, Saturday night from 7-9. So please stop by. And remember, it's never too soon to stock up on those holiday gifts. ;-)

Friday, August 6, 2010

Take a trip back to 19th century "base ball'' this weekend


Yes, that goofy-looking guy in the old-style “base ball’’ card is yours truly. And I’m running it in hopes that I’ve piqued your interest enough that you’ll want to check out what the 1865 game was like this weekend at the Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford, N.Y., about 20 miles southwest of Rochester.

Four vintage base ball (yes, it was two words back then) teams from Rochester will be hosting clubs from the Northeast, Midwest and Canada. We’ll be interpreting a brand of baseball that was very similar and very different from the 2010 version when we host the 8th National Silver Ball Tournament Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The biggest difference (besides the lack of performance-enhancing drugs and multi-million dollar salaries) is that we don’t use gloves and that we truly play for nothing more than the love of the game.

Though the lemon-peel ball we use isn’t as hard as a modern baseball, it is hard enough to hurt. I can attest to that, having broken two fingers in my 10 years in the Silver Base Ball League. The bases are 90-feet apart, but the pitcher’s box (no mound in those days) is only about 45 feet from homeplate and pitches are delivered underhand.

Our uniforms, too, are different, and so is our terminology. We try to hit “daisy cutters” and pitch “dew drops” and we expect all the players to “show a little ginger,’’ which was the 19th century phrase for making sure you hustled. We express our gratitude and approval by shouting “Huzzah.’’

All of us have nicknames. Some of the monikers are based on what we do for a living, which is why I’m known as “Scribe’’ and Ryan Brecker, a real-life MD, is called “Doc.’’ Others have nicknames based on their baseball prowess. For example, Max Robertson is “Country Mile,’’ because that’s how far he hits the ball, and Todd Draper is “Dangerous’’ because he is a dangerous striker, and Jose Pagan is “All Day’’ because he can run all day long and track down every fly ball from here to the next county. Others are pegged according to their ethnicity (Andy Cardot Sr. is “Frenchy”), size (Andy Cardot Jr. is “House.’’) or hair-style (Curt Kirchmaier is “the Barber” because of his long locks.)

The four Rochester-area teams in the tournament are the Flower City Base Ball Club (that’s my squad), the Rochesters, the Live Oak and the Knickerbockers. We also feature two women’s teams who will play an exhibition game Saturday. They are called the Brooks Grove Belles and the Miss Porters Ladies BBC. The out-of-town teams are the Cleveland Blues, Flemington (N.J.) Neshanock, Meddowe (Springfield, Mass.), Kent (Grand Rapids, Mich.), Melrose Pondfielders (Melrose, Mass.), Talbot Fair Play (Talbot, Md.) and the Woodstock Actives (Woodstock, Ontario.)

In addition to the Silver Ball tournament, the museum will be hosting plenty of other events this weekend, including the Laura Ingalls Wilder Festival, commemorating “The Little House on the Prairie’’ era of American history.

So, if you are looking for a trip back in time take a trip out to Mumford this weekend. You won’t be disappointed.

(And if you take in the ballgames, please root for Flower City and that goofy hurler pictured on that old-style base ball card. ;-)

***

I was happy to see that C.J. Spiller has ended his holdout and come to terms on a contract with the Buffalo Bills. The first-round pick was in danger of becoming a non-factor if he held out much longer. I’m interested in seeing all the different ways new coach Chan Gailey plans to utilize him in the offense and on the return teams.

***
My lovely bride and radio news show co-host Beth interviewed documentarian Ken Burns this morning and talked to him about his comments about Pete Rose. Burns has an interesting take on the “Hit King,” who was banned for life for betting on games. He says Charlie Hustle should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame after he dies. I assume then, that Burns would agree with me that it is time to induct Shoeless Joe Jackson, who also was banned for gambling and who has been dead for a good half century. By the way, I didn’t know until Beth’s interview on WHAM this morning that Burns’ father and grandfather hailed from Rochester. You can listen to a podcast of the interview at www.wham1180.com.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Some quick observations from Bills training camp so far

• It’s very, very early, and 27 years of covering the NFL has taught me not to rush to judgment, but I like what I’ve seen so far from new Bills coach Chan Gailey. There has been more hitting and more spirited play in this training camp than in the ones run by his predecessor, Dick Jauron. The new guy is much more hands-on, especially on offense, which, hopefully, will result in a more confident and less confused Trent Edwards. My sense during the Jauron era was that there were too many underachieving players feeling much more comfortable than they should have. There clearly is a culture change occurring under Gailey, who is holding everyone accountable, based on their performance. There truly is a feeling among the players that nobody’s job is secure, and, hence, there’s a greater sense of urgency. The effects of this culture change might not be felt right away, but this appears to be a step in the right direction.

• Aaron Maybin is built more like a strong safety than a linebacker. He’s listed as 250 pounds on the roster sheet, but, if that’s true, then he must have been weighed while holding cinder blocks in each hand. The second-year player out of Penn State does have great quickness off the line, but he needs to develop a few more spin moves so that he doesn’t keep getting engulfed by much larger offensive linemen.

• I’ve been impressed with rookie nose tackle Torrell Troup, Buffalo’s second-round pick out of Central Florida. He is extremely quick and relentless, just like fellow nose tackle Kyle Williams. I worry, though, if the two of them are big and strong enough to tie up blockers to free up linebackers to stuff the run.

• Roscoe Parrish appears to be reborn in Gailey’s offense. Maybe the smurf-like, lightning-quick receiver has finally found a coach who knows how to get him the ball.

• One of the bothersome things about the hold-out by top-pick C.J. Spiller is that he’s missed valuable time executing the many roles Gailey had in mind for him in the Bills new diversified offense. It’s one thing doing this stuff in shorts and helmets during off-season workouts and quite another doing this in full pads at full speed in training camp. Maybin’s holdout last year resulted in a lost season for him. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself with Spiller.

***

In a totally unrelated matter, I want to wish my bride “Happy Anniversary.’’ I clearly am a blessed man to have Beth in my life.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Catching up with Stan Musial



My favorite Sports Illustrated of the year arrived in the mail yesterday – no not the swimsuit issue, the “Where-are-they-now?’’ issue.

I’ve always loved nostalgia pieces and catching up with people I’ve followed from years past. And I was happy to see that one of my all-time favorite ballplayers and people – Stan “The Man’’ Musial – on the cover.

I’ve always contended the seven-time National League batting champion and three-time MVP was perhaps the most underappreciated athlete of all-time. Part of it was because he played in a small market (St. Louis) and was overshadowed by the more charismatic stars of his era – Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.

Musial lacked their flair, both on and off the field, but there is something to be said, as the article points out, for quiet excellence.

When Stan was a young man, he played briefly with the Rochester Red Wings, hitting .326 with 10 doubles, 4 triples, 3 homers and 21 RBIs in 54 games in 1941. I had a few chances to interview Musial through the years and he always spoke fondly of Rochester, his final stop of the road to the Hall of Fame.

***

There are two other Rochester connections in this issue – one involving Olympic gold medal swimmer Ryan Lochte, who grew up here before moving away as a teenager, and one updating Jason McElwain, better known to the world as J-Mac. I realized that J-Mac, the former student manager with autism who captivated everyone by scoring 20 points in a varsity basketball game for Greece Athena High School, had been helping coach Jim Johnson in basketball. But I wasn’t aware he also was helping coach baseball at the school, too.

And while we are on the subject of J-Mac, Jim Johnson and Mike Latona, a reporter with the Catholic Courier, are working on a behind-the-scenes book about that incredible moment in time and the lessons learned. I’ve had a chance to read part of the manuscript and it is very compelling. I’ll keep you updated on when it is going to be published, etc.

***

On a sadder note, it appears that former Churchville-Chili standout Averin Collier may not be back with the Syracuse U. football team this year because of academic problems. I hate to see kids blow opportunities like this, especially when it involves a $200,000 scholarship. Hopefully, he can get things straightened out.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bills fans need to believe that this is a transition year once more

Buffalo’s catchy marketing slogan tells us that “Bills Fans Billeive.’’

In what, I ask?

They still, despite a decade-long playoff drought, obviously believe in supporting their football team, as evidenced by robust ticket sales that will ensure at least four sell-outs.

But I don’t know if even the most diehard of Bills fans believes the team will be significantly better than last year’s 6-10 club, especially given the significant off-season roster strides made by AFC East Division rivals – the Jets, Patriots and Dolphins. The playoffs seem out of the question, and even a third-place finish probably is out of reach.

I believe pragmatic Bills fans recognize this as a transition season, one, in which, hopefully, a solid foundation for the future finally will be laid – a foundation made of concrete not pie crust.

The new GM/coach combo of Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey bring a wealth of successful football experience to the mix. They have played roles in building winners in a number of places. But there is no quick fix for all that ails the Bills. There are questions at just about every position – with running back, defensive back, punter and kicker being the obvious exceptions.

So, as the team opens its 51st training camp today at St. John Fisher College, fans will be carrying many hopes. Among them:

* That a legitimate quarterback emerges from the tried-but-untrue trio of Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Brohm;

* that the conversion to a 3-4 alignment shores up a run defense that ranked near the bottom of the NFL a year ago;

* that Demetrius Bell’s technique and durability at left tackle catches up with his athleticism and potential, and that the young offensive line gels;

* that a legitimate second receiver emerges to take pressure off No. 1 target Lee Evans;

* that C.J. Spiller develops into the home run threat he was at Clemson University;

* that the Bills second-all-time leading sacker, Aaron Schobel, returns to the team with the same passion he’s always had for the game;

* that young starters Jairus Byrd, Eric Wood and Andy Levitre avoid sophomore slumps;

* that Gailey changes the culture of a team that often seemed way too comfortable, despite its mediocre records in recent years.

It highly unlikely that all of these scenarios will pan out, but if they somehow did, Bills fans would have reasons to become true Billievers.