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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. ;-)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.