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.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A-Rod's mark should be greeted with apathy

If I were at Yankee Stadium or some other ballpark where Alex Rodriguez hit his 600th home run, I would greet the moment with a sitting yawn instead of a standing “O.’’

And, no, I’m not a Yankee hater. Far from it. I’ve followed the team since ’61.

But I believe in the integrity of the game, first and foremost, and A-Fraud, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and their fellow steroid users are cheaters whose inflated numbers are as fake as a $3 bill. It bothered me that San Francisco Giants fans acted as if Barry Steroid did nothing wrong. I wish Yankee fans would treat this moment for what it truly is – a fraudulent act rather than a cherished milestone.

I will NOT be watching.

***

Ralph Houk, who passed away the other day at age 90, tends to get lost in Yankee lore. But he was a heck of a manager, who had the good fortune of winning two World Series and three pennants in his first three seasons as Bombers manager and the misfortune of coming back as skipper when the wheels had fallen off the dynasty by the late 1960s.

Houk also managed the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox, and is credited with laying the foundation for those excellent Bosox teams of the late 1980s. He is the 15th winningest manager in major league history who also will be remembered as the first manager to resign during George Steinbrenner’s reign, starting a domino effect that led to The Boss changing skippers as often as he changed socks.

***

It’s wonderful to see the way the Rochester and hockey community rally around former Amerk Craig Charron, who is battling stomach cancer. But I’m not surprised because this town has always been extremely generous and the hockey fraternity is much tighter than other professional sports.

The fact the organizers lined up legends such as Gilbert Perreault, Mike Eruzione, Jim Craig and Marcel Dionne, along with local NHL products Brian Gionta, Ryan Callahan and Marty Reasoner for that Aug. 1 hockey exhibition at The Sports Centre at MCC is a testament to Charron’s impact on his community and sport. Game time is 5:30. A minimum donation of $10 provides admission. Kudos to the Rochester Americans for helping make this a reality and for everything they’ve done to help Charron and his family.

P.S. I'm trying to get my early rising, sleep-deprived bride to accompany me to the game, and I think I might have a shot because she had a major-league crush on Perreault back in those Buffalo Sabres glory years of the 1970s.

***

My latest book, Buffalo Bills Football Vault: The First 50 Seasons was the fifth best-selling NFL book on Amazon.com yesterday. As I wrote on my Facebook page, not the New York Times bestseller list, but I’ll take it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

D-Wade and Michael run off at the mouth

Just in case you needed any further reason to dislike the talent-stacked Miami Heat, we offer this Nike-in-the-mouth offering from Dwayne Wade.

Speaking to reporters at a charity basketball camp he co-hosts with Alonzo Mourning the other day, Wade talked about he and superstar teammates LeBron James and Chris Bosh were going to be playing this season with a bull’s-eye on their backs. Nothing wrong there. But then Wade went on to say, “When we lose two, three games in a row and it seems like the world has crashed down, you all are going to make it seem like the World Trade Center is coming down again. But it’s not going to be nothing but a couple of basketball games.’’

He has since apologized for his insensitivity.

Perhaps he’ll engage his brain before wagging his tongue next time.

***
Speaking of running off at the mouth, did you hear how Michael Jordan dissed LeBron’s move to Miami?

His Airness said he wouldn’t have called up Larry Bird and Magic Johnson back in the day and conspired to form their own personal NBA dream team. Jordan stayed put in Chicago and won six titles, cementing his legacy as the greatest.

LeBron, who aspires to Jordan’s throne, would have done much more for his own legacy by winning one for his hometown Cavs than winning several as a carpetbagging co-star in Miami.

I wonder how King James feels about his boyhood idol now. Will he still be campaigning for the NBA to retire Jordan’s No. 23 throughout the league now that he no longer can be like Mike?

***

I found it interesting that the same people who were paying homage to the late George Steinbrenner also were ripping Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert for his Steinbrenneresque tirade after LeBron’s departure from Cleveland. Can you imagine how Steinbrenner in his prime would have reacted to a similar snubbing?

***

Had the opportunity to attend a question-and-answer luncheon recently featuring former New York and San Francisco Giants pitching great Johnny Antonelli. The always gracious and still distinquished-looking Rochesterian told some wonderful stories, including one about the time a young Brooklyn Dodgers’ left-handed pitcher forgot his glove before a game against the Giants at the Polo Grounds and had to borrow Antonelli’s. The young lefty's name? Sandy Koufax.

We Rochesterians tend to overlook just how outstanding Antonelli was. He was a six-time All-Star who led the National League in victories (21), shutouts (6) and earned run average (2.30) in 1954, the same year he contributed a win and a save in the Giants four-game sweep of the Cleveland Indians.

One of the few big-league players to never spend a day in the minors, Antonelli finished his 14-year career with a 126-110 record and a 3.34 ERA. Nearly a quarter of his victories (25) were shutouts.

John, of course, went on to make a name for himself as a successful owner of several Firestone Tire stores.

***

At that same luncheon, I ran into two friends and former newspaper colleagues – Gene Duffey and Frank Cardon from the old Times-Union. I’m happy to report that both of them are in good health, and still whacking the golf ball around with gusto.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Looking at George Steinbrenner from many perspectives

I interviewed George Steinbrenner for the first time at a managing editors’ banquet in Cooperstown in the early 1980s and I remember the Yankees owner telling a story about a painting that projected one image from afar and a completely different image up close.

When I heard the news of Steinbrenner’s passing the other day, I couldn’t help but recall that story and think of my conflicted perceptions of The Boss.

From my vantage point that night nearly three decades ago, I found a man at odds with the intimidating, bombastic figure I had viewed from afar. He was gracious, charming and – yes, opinionated – during my 15-minute, one-on-one interview with him. I returned to the newspaper office that night with an entertaining story to write and a slightly different perception.

Of course, I never had to work for the guy and from numerous conversations with people who did, I learned of a man who could be cruel and petty beyond belief. Current Miami Dolphins public relations director Harvey Greene spent a number of years in the same capacity for the Yankees, and he told me how he was fired by Steinbrenner on numerous occasions, only to be re-hired by a repentant Boss the next morning.

Being a PR guy for George meant being on call 24/7. “The phone would ring in the middle of the night, and you knew it was either Mr. Steinbrenner or a death in the family,’’ Greene recalled. “After a while, you started to root for a death in the family.’’

In the days that have followed Steinbrenner’s passing, we’ve heard numerous stories about the extreme sides of one of the most influential and notorious owners in the history of sports – the abundant kindness and crassness.

Lou Saban told me about The Boss’ legendary generosity during my numerous conversations with the two-time Bills head coach through the years. Lou had gotten to know George while the two worked in Cleveland. He wound up hiring George as an assistant football coach at Northwestern University in the early 1950s and Steinbrenner remained eternally grateful for that opportunity.

In later years, when the well-traveled Saban couldn’t find a job, Steinbrenner hired him to be a scout and then president of the Yankees. “They were just ceremonial titles George gave me, but there was nothing ceremonial about the pay – it was real and it was generous,’’ Saban told me. “I resisted the scouting job at first because I didn’t have any expertise in baseball. He told me, ‘Lou, here’s all I ask. If anybody shows up at the doorstep of your home in North Carolina who looks like a ballplayer, you give me a call.’ That was the extent of my scouting responsibilities.’’

Although I've been a Yankee fan since the great home run chase of 1961, I’ve always had mixed emotions about The Boss. I applauded the fact he revived the franchise and poured money back into the on-field product – something many sports owners don’t do. But his egomaniacal need to be the face of the franchise led to the mistreatment of many great baseball people and occasionally turned the Yankees into the laughingstock of sports. Twice, his malfeasance led to his banishment from the game.

He clearly changed the sporting landscape through his free agent signings, his formation of the YES network and his enormously fruitful sponsorship deals. Owners used to be seen, not heard. George changed all that, hoarding the headlines and becoming a cultural icon spoofed and immortalized on both Seinfeld and Saturday Night Live.

Interestingly, this larger-than-life persona said several years ago that he didn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. I disagree. I believe he had a greater impact on his sport than any owner of this generation, and for that he deserves to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

***

Congrats to friend, acclaimed baseball author and former Presidential speechwriter Curt Smith, who was the primary speaker at The Great Fenway Park Writers Series today in Boston. He and Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione discussed Curt’s latest book, Pull Up A Chair: The Vin Scully Story, the first biography of baseball’s greatest voice.

The talk continued Smith’s long relationship with the Red Sox, whom he began following as a youngster. In his book Our House, a tribute to Fenway, he called it “America’s most beloved ballpark.’’ Several years later, the team asked if it could use that slogan, which now adorns the park and Red Sox marketing. George Will and Doris Kearns Goodwin previously lectured as part of the series. In 2012, Potomac will publish Smith’s book on the 100th anniversary of Fenway.

***

My belated condolences to Max Robertson on the death of his father a week ago. Paul Robertson was a former newspaper printer, marathoner and all-around nice guy. As I told Max, a man may die, but his goodness lives on. R.I.P., Mr. Robertson. You lived an exemplary life.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A tribute to the Yankees' most elegant voice


People often have referred to actor James Earl Jones or late NFL Films narrator John Facenda as the "voice of God.'' But, for me, that distinction will always belong to longtime Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard, who passed away the other day at age 99.

Sheppard, though, was much more than a man blessed with a great set of pipes. He was an elegant and caring individual who represented the Yankees with as much grace and dignity as anyone in the franchise's illustrious history. I had the thrill of interviewing Sheppard on a couple of occasions and he treated me wonderfully. When I told him I was from Rochester, N.Y., his eyes brightenned because Rochester was home to one of Sheppard's favorite orators, the late Bishop Fulton Sheen.

Following is the essay I wrote about Sheppard for my book, "Memories of Yankee Stadium. I hope it gives you a feel for this remarkable man.



THE DEVINE VOICE

When Reggie Jackson was preparing his Baseball Hall of Fame acceptance speech during the summer of 1993, he sought the assistance of longtime Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard.

Wise move.

Who better to help Mr. October than The Voice of God himself?

Sheppard's first piece of advice to the verbose slugger was to slice his speech in half.

"I reminded Reggie that brevity is the soul of wit,'' Sheppard recalled in his distinctive, resonant tones. "Brevity, when it comes to public speaking, especially on a hot summer's day, also is a way of making friends.''

When it comes to endearing oneself to audiences, no one has done it better or longer than Bob Sheppard. The Queens native introduced his first Yankees lineup at the Stadium on April 17, 1951, and since that time has worked more than 4,500 baseball games in the House That Ruth Built.

Most New York fans probably wouldn't recognize him if they saw him on the street, but Sheppard's Q-rating among strangers surely would shoot up dramatically the minute he opened his mouth.

His sonorous, dignified voice has become as much a part of Stadium lore as the pinstripes on the Yankee uniforms and the copper fa├žade that once hung from the old ballpark's roof. He has been a constant, the man who connects generations of Stadium-goers - from Joe DiMaggio to Derek Jeter, from grandpa to grandson and granddaughter.

"I can't imagine a home Yankees game without Bob's voice booming out of the loudspeakers,'' said Goose Gossage, the legendary Yankees reliever. "I still get chills running up and down my spine when I hear him say my name. You're not officially a Yankee until he announces you that first time. And then when he does, it's like you are connected to all the great players who came before you.''

The funny thing is that this six-decade-long gig almost didn't happen. Yankee officials were impressed with the P.A. job Sheppard had done for two old All-American Football Conference teams - the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees. So, before the 1950 season, they offered him the baseball job at the Stadium, but Sheppard refused because the day games during the spring would interfere with his work as speech professor at his alma mater, St. John's University.

The baseball club approached him again before the '51 season with a compromise offer. They would find a substitute for him on the days there was a scheduling conflict.

Sheppard accepted, never anticipating that he would still be at the microphone in 2007.

"A temporary job,'' he quipped, "that has lasted a half-century.''

For the record, the first name he announced from his loge-level perch behind homeplate that afternoon was that of Boston Red Sox centerfielder, Dom DiMaggio. Interestingly, Sheppard would say the names of eight players in the starting lineups at that 1951 home opener who would eventually be honored with plaques at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Among them would be Sheppard's all-time favorite name - Mickey Mantle.

"I loved the alliteration of that name and the emphasis you could place on the first syllable of his last name,'' he explained.

Though best known as the Stadium voice of the Yankees, Sheppard also has worked for several other teams and venues through the years. He was the P.A. announcer for the New York football Giants for 50 years - 18 at Yankee Stadium and 32 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. And he also worked games at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and at the Polo Grounds, which was located just two miles from Yankee Stadium across the Harlem River in upper Manhattan.

Long before he began announcing games, Sheppard enjoyed playing them. He was a first baseman and quarterback at St. John's and played semi-pro football for $25 a game after graduating from college.

Though he is extremely honored that he has become a part of Yankees lore, he is more gratified by the work he did as a teacher.

"I think teaching was more important in my life than public address because teaching had a greater impact on society,'' said Sheppard, who continued to work as a professor at St. John's into the 1990s. "I've heard from hundreds of students I taught. The number of ballplayers I've heard from you can count on one hand.
"I'm not into hero worship,'' continued Sheppard, who is a devout Roman Catholic and a lecter at his church on Long Island. "I usually keep my distance from players and managers. And that's as it should be. I have a job to do at the ballpark, and so do they.''

He may not have heard from many players through the years, but he can rest assured he made an impact on them. Mantle once told Sheppard he experienced goose bumps hearing the Voice of the Yankees pronounce his name. Sheppard, who delivered a stirring tribute the day Mantle died, told the Mick he had a similar reaction each time he announced the slugger's name.

Mantle was hardly alone in his reaction.

"Nobody - and I mean nobody - has ever said people's names better,'' said former Yankees third baseman Scott Brosious. "You get the feeling that when it's your time to meet St. Peter at the pearly gates, Bob Sheppard is going to be standing there next to him, introducing you.''

Sheppard's favorite Yankee Stadium moments include: Don Larsen's perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 World Series; Roger Maris' record-breaking 61st homer in 1961; Chris Chambliss' walkoff homer against the Kansas City Royals in the 1976 American League Championship Series, and Jackson's three-homers-on-three-pitches explosion in Game Six of the 1977 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Chambliss' memorable blast was preceded by a stoppage in play because fans had thrown debris onto the field. Sheppard made an announcement telling the unruly spectators to refrain from such behavior. They stopped and the game resumed. When Chambliss homered - ending the game and a 12-year Yankees' World Series drought - thousands of spectators rushed onto the field. This time, Sheppard's mic remained silent.

"The game was over, the Yankees had won, 10,000 people, as if they were shot out of a cannon, ran out on the field and I just folded my arms and let them do it,'' Sheppard recalled in a 2000 interview with USA Today. "I could never have stopped them. The Marines couldn't have stopped them. Nobody could have stopped them. It had to happen. I never saw anything like it before, and I've never seen anything like it since.''

Thursday, July 8, 2010

I have better things to do than waste my time on whose millions LeBron will accept

I’m sure they’ll get healthy (or maybe that should read “unhealthy”) ratings for tonight’s over-hyped LeBron James lovefest on ESPN. But these eyes won’t be among those glued to the tube to witness this latest example of wretched excess. Personally, I could care less what this narcissistic athlete on this self-important sports network decides. (Unless, of course, he stuns the world and opts to accept the Rochester RazorSharks offer.)

I am so tired of self-absorbed celebrities who believe the world revolves around them. Here’s a guy with remarkable talent who has yet to win a championship acting as if he’s God’s gift to the sports universe. If the choice were between King James on ESPN or a filibuster on C-Span tonight, I’d opt for the filibuster.

***

So if LeBron merits an hour-long show does that mean Kobe – owner of five NBA championship rings – would merit five hours?

***

I’ve always admired people who don’t forget their roots when they hit the big-time, so if LeBron had any integrity he’d stay with his hometown team and try to win a championship for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

***

Methinks this whole idea of joining superstars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami could blow up in King James’ face. There may not be enough basketballs to satisfy those three massive egos.

***

It has been a good week for this full-time author. Yesterday, my buddy John Kucko from our CBS and FOX television affiliate here in Rah-Cha-Cha was kind enough to air a feature about my new book: Buffalo Bills Football Vault: The First 50 Seasons. (You can view a truncated version of John's report at http://rochesterhomepage.net/fulltext/?nxd_id=190565 .)

And tomorrow, long-time friend and colleague Jim Mandelaro and I will give a lecture and sign copies of Silver Seasons and a New Frontier: The Story of the Rochester Red Wings at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. With the assistance of Jim’s wife, Kerri, and her friend, Ellen, we’ve put together a pretty spiffy slide presentation with a bunch of great photographs from the book. Should be a blast.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Opining on the World Cup, LeBron, Strasburg and Dottie Pepper-pot

A little of this and a little of that in the world of sports as we prepare to fire up the grill and the sparklers:

• When two members of Congress devoted pulpit time a few weeks ago to gush about the previous night’s exploits of Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg, some groused that our elected officials should devote their time to more salient matters. Well, folks, it could be worse. We could be France, where legislators are grilling that country’s soccer officials about the Frenchmen’s poor World Cup showing. Or Nigeria, where its president recently fired the entire World Cup roster. Hey, at least the guy didn't order their execution.
• Dottie Pepper’s critical column about Rochester not deserving to host the LPGA championship landed in the rough. She is right that the final rounds of a major should be aired on a network with greater reach than The Golf Channel. But holding it in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles isn’t going to make that happen. What’s hurting women’s golf right now is the lack of an uber successful and charismatic American star. Take, for example, the draw of a Tiger Woods on the men’s tour. It doesn’t matter if a tournament is being held in Rah-Cha-Cha or East Podunk, if Tiger is in contention people are going to tune in. The LPGA could really use a Nancy Lopez in her prime. Great player, great ambassador.
• Ah, it’s great to be King. With NBA free agency officially begun, LeBron James is going to be courted like no other athlete in the history of sports. Personally, I would like to see him stay with Cleveland. But I can’t see that happening. I still think the allure of the New York teams is going to be difficult to ignore. Not that his legend needs any more inflating, but if King James were to go to the Knicks and lead that dysfunctional franchise to its first title since 1973, the Big Apple-hype machine would be out-of-control.
• Speaking of government interference in sports, isn’t it interesting how Mayor Bloomberg is part of that LeBron recruiting video? Then, again, maybe it’s justified. After all, one economist puts King James’ impact at close to $2.7 billion.
• Strasburg gave up three runs the other night in a loss to the Atlanta Braves. But he easily could have left the game without surrendering a single tally had his shortstop not muffed a routine double-play grounder. It is going to be interesting to see how Strasburg handles the stress of playing with a weak supporting cast. I do believe the Nationals are a franchise moving in the right direction, but they are still a young club a few years away from serious contention. There could be a lot of one-run defeats in Strasburg’s immediate future, and that can get to a pitcher, especially a young one.
• I was happy to read that the Red Wings are going to sign a two- rather than a four-year agreement with the Minnesota Twins. I still believe it’s a good paring, given the Twins reliance on scouting and player development. But Rochester’s Triple-A club doesn’t need to sell itself short, the way it did during the final years of its long-term marriage to the Baltimore Orioles. The Twins need to do a better job of not leaving the Wings in situations where their roster is lacking. Adding a few more experienced Triple-A players to go along with the prospects would be a show of loyal support on the part of the parent club.
• I saw where there’s a new book coming out that claims Lenny Dykstra used steroids during his MLB playing career. And in other shocking news, the sun reportedly rose in the East this morning.
• As a long-time fan of Eastern football, I was happy to see the renewal of the Penn State-Syracuse football series beginning in a few years. I would like to see it become an annual affair again instead of a once-every-four-years deal. And I wish the games were played on campus rather than at the New Meadowlands.