Thursday, May 26, 2011

We can't help but wonder what it would be like if Clay Matthews were a Bill

Before I began my question-and-answer session with Clay Matthews at the Rochester Press-Radio Club Day of Champions dinner Tuesday night, I decided to have some fun with the Green Bay Packers All-Pro linebacker.

I told him and the audience of more than 1,100 that we were going to do a little play-acting. We were going to pretend that I was NFL commish Roger Goodell and that this was Draft Day 2009 at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The fantasy scene set, I then intoned into my wireless mic: “With the 11th pick of the 2009 draft, the Buffalo Bills choose Clay Matthews, linebacker, University of Southern California.”

Ah, what could have been.

The dinner-goers, the majority of whom were Bills fans, roared as I handed Clay a Bills baseball cap on the stage at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center. He played the good sport and held it in front of him. But he refused to put it on, saying he was quite content about the way things turned out. With good reason. Being snubbed by the Bills and 24 other teams enabled him to be chosen by the Packers, who won a Super Bowl in just his second season.

The 25-year-old with the deep football bloodlines proved to be one of the more genuine and personable headliners we’ve had at our annual dinner, which has raised well over a million dollars for local children’s charities in 62 years. I was especially impressed with the kindness Clay showed our honorary dinner chair, Conner Newcomb, an 11-year-old who’s valiantly battling cancer.

The Bills, of course, chose Aaron Maybin with the 11th pick of that draft three years ago, and he has wound up being one of the biggest busts in franchise history. I remember Maybin showing up for the Press-Radio Club dinner shortly after being drafted and actually dosing off briefly at the head table.

That was a great gesture by top Bills pick Marcell Dareus to show up at the workouts arranged by George Wilson and the other locked-out veteran players.

I guess I should have started this blog by saying how happy I was the world didn’t end Saturday as predicted. Our fearless prognosticator preacher from California is now saying that we have until the third week of October. That means you still have time to squander all of your life’s savings the way many people did after the pastor’s first prediction.

I would have liked to have seen Jeff Van Gundy get the Los Angeles Lakers job. But I knew it wasn’t going to happen because Phil Jackson and Jeff repeatedly exchanged verbal barbs when they were coaching against one another, and Jackson’s girl-friend just so happens to be the daughter of Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss.

My bride is feeling a little better knowing that ABC will be running Oprah re-runs for the next few months. It will help assuage the Oprah withdrawal symptoms she is dealing with now that the maven of TV talk shows has called it quits.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

This is the end of the world as we know it

A preacher in California says the world will end Saturday evening at 6 p.m.

I think that’s a pretty good excuse for not mowing the lawn or finishing other items on the honey-do list, don’t you?

My goodness, think of the implications this premature ending is going to have on sports.

If you like betting the ponies don’t bother with the Preakness because the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown isn’t scheduled to go off until about 6:15.

I wonder if Bud Selig will declare the World Series champion based on the team with the best record through games completed by 5:59?

And will his NFL counterpart, Roger Goodell, end the lockout just so we can all die happy knowing that there would have been a football season in 2011.

I guess this also means that MeBron James won’t ever get that elusive NBA championship ring he so covets. Geez, that would be a shame, wouldn’t it? But like MeBron told Cleveland: “Kharma’s a bitch.”

Hey, at least Bills fans will go to their graves knowing that their beloved team didn’t bolt for L.A.


I’m thrilled my prediction that new Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula would buy the Rochester Americans came true. I’m sure Pegula, whose wife is from Fairport and grew up attending Amerks games, will do everything he can to restore the franchise’s once plentiful fan base. Two suggestions: Move the Sabres training camp back to Rochester; play a Sabres exhibition and possibly a regular-season game at the Blue Cross Arena.


Was happy to see former West Virginia linebacker Darryl Talley named as one of the 2011 inductees to the College Football Hall of Fame. But he wasn’t the only former Buffalo Bill in the class. A lesser known Bill – Bill Enyart of Oregon State – also will be enshrined. Enyart, a brusing fullback, was Buffalo’s second-round pick in 1969 (O.J. was No. 1). He spent only two lackluster seasons with the Bills before being traded to the Oakland Raiders, where he was converted to a linebacker. Enyart is best known for having one of the catchiest football nicknames of all-time. He was called Earthquake Enyart for his rumbling running style at Oregon State.


Harmon Killebrew ranks 11th on baseball’s all-time home run list with 573. But if you remove the performance-enhancing drug era sluggers – Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome and Mark McGwire – he stands fifth. Bonds, A-Rod, Sosa and McGwire all benefitted from PEDs. To the best of our knowledge, Griffey and Thome did not. So in my book, the Killer ranks seventh.


Congratulations to my good friend, Pat Grover, who will be honored tomorrow with a prestigious Jefferson Award for her extraordinary volunteer work in our community. For the past 10 years I’ve worked with her at Rochester Press-Radio Club Children’s Charities, Inc. and her devotion to that all-volunteer organization has been truly amazing.


Speaking of extraordinary Rochesterians, I was saddened by the recent passing of Stuart Bolger. A University of Rochester graduate, Stuart was responsible for building the Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford into the nation’s third-largest living history museum. There are 89 buildings from around the state on the grounds, including George Eastman’s boyhood home. I got to know Stuart through my work as a volunteer with the 19th century base ball program. Although in his early 80s at the time, I still remember Stuart suiting up in his Rochesters uniform and sitting on the bench, rooting on the members of all the teams. Wonderful man who left a wonderful legacy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Killebrew knew how to connect with baseballs and the fans

I was saddened to hear that Harmon Killebrew, one of baseball's greatest sluggers and amabassadors, passed away earlier today of esophageal cancer.

I had the pleasure - and it truly was that - of interviewing "The Killer" twice - the first time outside the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown the morning of his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984 and again nearly two years ago before a Rochester Red Wings game at Frontier Field. The thing that struck me on both occasions was how gracious Killebrew was.

It was more like a conversation with a favorite uncle than an interview between reporter and ballplayer as Harmon asked me where I was from and how I got into journalism.

And he was the same way with fans. Sincere and genuine to the core.

In honor of the man who clubbed 40 home runs eight times during his marvelous 22-year career, I'm re-running the cyberspace column I wrote about him following his last visit to Rochester on May 26, 2009.


Although everything wound up working out marvelously for Harmon Killebrew, the Baseball Hall of Famer occasionally wonders what might have happened had he accepted that football scholarship to the University of Oregon or signed with the Boston Red Sox rather than the Washington Senators after graduating from Payette (Idaho) High School back in the spring of 1954.

Though known even back then for his long-ball hitting prowess, young Harmon knew a thing or two about going deep on the football field, too. Like current Minnesota Twins slugger Joe Mauer, Killebrew was a high school All-America quarterback. So the lure of the Ducks football scholarship wasn’t easy to turn down.

“Four years later, they went to the Rose Bowl, and I always wondered if I’d been their quarterback if they’d have still gone to the Rose Bowl,’’ Killebrew was saying the other night before signing autographs at Frontier Field.

“It’s like Yogi Berra says, ‘If you come to a fork in the road, take it.’ I took this road, but wondered what would have happened if I had gone the other way. I guess everybody goes through life like that.’’

Not that he has any complaints choosing the direction he did. After all, he wound up smashing 573 home runs without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs during his 22-years in the big leagues.

The Senators (the forerunners to the Twins) signed him on the recommendation of Idaho Senator Herman Welker. Like many Washington politicians, Welker was a huge baseball fan who attended many games in D.C. One time, in the early 1950s, Welker ran into Senators owner Clark Griffith and casually mentioned this powerful Idaho high schooler by the name of Harmon Killebrew. Griffith had his farm director Ossie Bluege check out the kid, and he wound up signing him for $53,000.

Bluege got Killebrew’s signature on the dotted line just in the nick of time because a scout from the Red Sox had caught wind of Killebrew and Boston was ready to offer him a lucractive contract, too.

“I always loved hitting in Fenway Park,’’ Killebrew said. “Imagine if I had played for the Red Sox.’’

They would have had to resurface the Green Monster from all the dents he would have pounded into it.

As it turned out, Killebrew did just fine for himself with all his Bunyonesque Blasts in Minnesota.

At age 73, he continues to be a wonderful baseball ambassador. He and his wife, Nita, run the Harmon Killebrew Foundation. One of their main projects is building “Miracle Fields’’ for handicap baseball youth leagues throughout the country.

Killebrew still follows the game closely, and, like many of us, is saddened by the steroid scandal that has dogged baseball during this decade. He’s concerned not only about how it’s destroyed the integrity of the game’s records, but also worries about the future health of the players who used the performance enhancers and the message it sends to young athletes.

“I just hope that Manny Ramierez being suspended recently for 50 games (because of a failed drug test) sends a message to the other players that if you are using that stuff, you better stop because more than likely you are going to get caught,’’ he said.

Killebrew said the Twins organization has attempted to do things the right way when it comes to educating its players about the dangers and immorality of using performance-enhancers. He believes that the players on their roster are clean.
Not surprisingly, Killebrew is a big fan of Minnesota’s big boppers – first baseman Justin Morneau and catcher Joe Mauer.

Rochester Red Wings’ fans aren’t surprised by Morneau’s development. Or his power. Heck, anyone who saw the big-left-handed hitter park one almost to the railroad tracks beyond the right field wall at Frontier Field – a 500-foot blast – realized he was going to go deep often in the bigs.

But Mauer’s power surge this month has taken many by surprise. Including Killebrew.

“Joe liked to hit the ball all over the ballpark and not pull the ball so much, so I didn’t necessarily think he could hit a lot of home runs that way in the Metrodome,’’ Killebrew said. “But he’s been pulling it a little more this year. And if he continues to do that, with the power he does generate, he could hit a lot of home runs.’’

So far, Mauer – a two-time American League batting champion – has done so without compromising his high average.

“I think he’s capable of hitting 40 or more,’’ Killebrew said. “But will he decide to go in that direction if his average starts to suffer? It’s difficult to keep a high average if you pull the ball a lot. I know.’’

Killebrew admittedly cared more about going for the seats than for a batting title, as evidenced by his .256 batting average, among the lowest of any Hall of Fame member.

But that was OK with his fans who loved seeing him dial long distance.

There’s no question, he took the right fork in the road way back when.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Yankees showing their age

I’ve followed the Yankees for – egads! – fifty years, and this edition of the Bronx Bombers is beginning to remind me of the 1965 club. That team’s roster was filled with a core of legendary players – Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, Tony Kubek, Bobby Richardson and Elston Howard – that seemed to grow old and infirm at the same time.

As a result of the ravages of time and injury, those Yankees, who had made 12 World Series appearances in the previous 14 years, stumbled to an ignominious sixth-place finish and plummeted all the way to the basement of the 10-team American League in ’66. That decline, precipitated by a failure of management to replenish the farm system during those pre-free-agency days, took years to reverse.

Father Time is the one opponent no one can defeat, so you have to wonder if this current edition of graying Pinstripers is going to be able to squeeze another playoff berth out of a roster featuring a soon-to-be-37-year-old shortstop (Derek Jeter), a 41-year-old reliever (Mariano Rivera), a 36-year-old third baseman (A-Rod), a 39-year-old designated hitter (Jorge Posada) and four starting pitchers over the age of 33.

The age issue has been front and center all season as we’ve watched Jeter, Posada and A-Rod struggle mightily at the plate. And, now, thanks to the Yankees recent slump (a 3-7 record in the past 10 games) as well as Saturday night’s feud between Posada and GM Brian Cashman over the designated hitter’s decision to beg out of the lineup after being dropped to 9th in the batting order, the tabloids and talk shows are having a field day.

It’s sad to witness Posada’s demise because he’s been such a gamer and such an integral part of the Yankees five World Series-winning clubs during his 17 seasons in the Bronx. He’s already solidified a spot as one of the greatest catchers in team history, following in the legendary line of backstops that have included Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Ellie Howard and Thurman Munson.

But it is clear Posada has become merely a shell of his former self. Manager Joe Girardi, who was a mentor to and teammate of Posada, was right to drop the five-time All-Star and his .165 batting average to the ninth spot. And he also was right to realize that Posada no longer could cut it as a full-time catcher this season.

I understand Jorge’s frustration. And I can even understand him going into Girardi’s office before the game and saying he needed a mental health day. But you can’t then go and tell the press that you had been nursing a strained back when you haven’t sought treatment.

I’ve never been a big Cashman fan, and he certainly handled the situation about as poorly as Posada did when he called a press conference during last night’s game and essentially called Posada a liar.

Can you say Bronx Zoo?

Although this makes for a good soap opera, it obscures the bigger issue. Namely that, despite having $200 million at his disposal, Cashman put together a deeply flawed team. No, he couldn’t possibly have known that a young ace like Phil Hughes would come up with a mysteriously dead arm. But Cashman’s attempts to cobble together a pitching staff featuring a soon-to-be-39-year-old Bartolo Colon and 34-year-old Freddy Garcia, and his belief that Jeter was going to bounce back and become the player he used to be was fool-hardy.

Even if the brilliantly talented Robinson Cano and Mark Teixiera and Nick Swisher snap out of their slumps and put up robust numbers – definitely possible – and even if Curtis Granderson continues his march toward a home run title I believe there are too many miles on too many odometers of too many Bronx Bombers for this club to go very far.

Father Time is catching up with this team, just like he did in 1965.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Happy Birthday, Yogi!

Roughly 11 years ago, I had the opportunity to interview that lovable baseball legend and word-smith Yogi Berra at his museum in Upper Montclair, N.J.

The man who wound up in both the Baseball Encyclopeida and Barlett’s Familiar Quotations graciously took me on a tour of his miniature Baseball Hall of Fame.

I remember stopping at the case housing the 10 World Series rings the Yogster won as a catcher with the New York Yankees.

“I have this running joke with Derek Jeter,’’ he told me. “He already has three rings in just four years, and he asks me how many more he needs to catch me. When I tell him seven, he says, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ He says he will keep plugging away because one day he wants to be like me. He calls me the ‘Liberace of Baseball’ because I have a ring for every finger.”

Jeter has since added two more pieces of World Series jewelry to his collection, but it’s doubtful the 37-year-old shortstop will ever supplant Berra as the Bronx Bombers’ Lord of the Rings.

I bring up Yogi on this fine, sunshiny, spring day because it is his 86th birthday.

In honor of this festive occasion, I offer a sampling of some of Lawrence Peter Berra’s more famous malapropisms:

• It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

• I really didn’t say everything I said.

• If you come to a fork in the road, take it.

• A nickel ain’t worth a dime any more.

• You can observe a lot by watching.

• Ninety percent of the game is half mental.

• Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.

• There’s a record that’ll stand until it’s broken.

• If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, how are you going to stop them?

• Let’s pair up in threes.

• We won even though we were overwhelming underdogs.

• You can’t think and hit at the same time.

• If I didn’t wake up, I’d still be sleeping.

• It gets late early out there.

• Kid, you ain’t in no slump. You just ain’t hitting.

• It’s deju-vu all over again.

By the way, that photo I took of Yogi is one of my favorites. He's standing in front of a photograph of Jackie Robinson stealing home against Whitey Ford in the World Series. The umpire called Jackie safe, but a half-century later, Yogi continues to insist otherwise.

Monday, May 9, 2011

I'm back after a much too long hiatus

Sorry for the absence folks, but between writing the Jim Boeheim biography, working on two other books, churning out several magazine pieces, contributing to Channel 8’s NFL draft coverage, checking things off of my bride’s mile-long, honey-do list, mowing my daughter’s lawn weekly, doing plenty of charity work and surviving an unexpected kidney stone attack, there hasn’t been a whole lot of time for blogging.

And if you ran out of oxygen just reading that sentence, imagine how I felt writing it. ;-)

So let me play a little catch-up in the world of sports and other matters:

• I thought the Bills did a good job addressing needs in the draft. I especially like the selection of Marcell Dareus. He’ll instantly make Buffalo’s run defense stouter, and, as his 11 sacks with Alabama attest, he’s an underrated pass rusher.

• Regarding the jettisoning of Tom Modrak from the Bills front office, I’m just wondering why it took so long. When Tom Donahoe was sent packing several seasons ago, why was Modrak, his top lieutenant, retained?

• One last positive Bills item: I think Buddy Nix’s luring of Doug Whaley away from the Pittsburgh Steelers 15 months ago may wind up being the general manager’s best free agent signing ever. Whaley was known for his ability to discover great defensive talent in the draft (Troy Polamulu, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons are just some of his finds.) And Whaley also did a superb job of scouting and game-planing upcoming opponents. The 38-year-old was part of seven playoff teams and two Super Bowl championships during his 12 seasons in the Steel City, and is the heir apparent to the Bills GM position when the 70-year-old Nix retires.

• A recent reader poll in The Buffalo News asked who should be the next person to go up on the Ralph Wilson Stadium Wall of Fame. Linebacker Cornelius Bennett topped the voting with 28 percent, followed by coach Lou Saban (24 percent) and running back Cookie Gilchrist (17 percent). Sadly, Wilson still holds a grudge against Saban, who quit on him twice, and Gilchrist isn’t eligible because he only played three seasons with the Bills and the rules stipulate you need to play at least five. As someone who has studied the team’s history thoroughly and written five books about the Bills, I think it’s a glaring omission not to have both Saban and Gilchrist on the Wall, given the impact each had on the franchise.

• The last two games of Phil Jackson’s illustrious NBA coaching career reminded me of an aged Willie Mays stumbling after a fly ball in a New York Mets uniform near the end of his career. Jackson’s Los Angeles Lakers didn’t even show up in Game 3, then compounded matters by resorting to thug-ball in Sunday’s loss to Dallas.

• So after Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers threw the second no-hitter of his career the other day, a sportswriter suggested that he has a shot at Nolan Ryan’s major-league record of seven no-no’s. Really?

* Kudos to Syracuse athletics director Daryl Gross for hiring former Orange football great Floyd Little to help with fund-raising and other matters. Floyd remains one of the classiest and most accomplished athletes ever to come out of Syracuse. In addition to his Pro Football Hall of Fame career with the Denver Broncos, Little earned a law degree and became immensely successful in the automobile business. At one point, he owned several dealerships in the Los Angeles and Seattle areas.
• Everybody talks about Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. But I believe Johnny Unitas’ record of throwing a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games is even more impressive.

• I think it’s pretty cool that my alma mater, Syracuse, has a basketball coaching staff filled with alums. There’s, of course, Jim Boeheim (1966), at head coach; Bernie Fine (’67) at assistant head coach; Mike Hopkins (’93) as the lead assistant and newly hired Adrian Autry (’94) as the third assistant. And don’t forget Gerry McNamara (’06), who’s a graduate assistant. SU is the only Division I school in the country with an all-alumni staff.

• Belated 90th birthday wishes to my friend and newspaper pioneer Jean Giambrone. She’s a remarkable lady who was among the first female sportswriters in America. And she did it for 41 years at the old Rochester Times-Union.

• One of the great things about being involved with the Rochester Press-Radio Club Children’s Charities group is the opportunity to give money away to deserving organizations and take part in their special events. We had just such an occasion the other day at the School of the Holy Childhood in Henrietta. The best part of the morning was seeing the excitement on the kids’ faces when they came up to receive their awards and the hugs they gave us after the assembly.

* I liked the idea of a commemorative bobble-head chosen by Rochester Red Wings fans to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Frontier Field. But if I had my choice, I would have led a write-in campaign for Zippy Chippy, the lovable thoroughbred loser who wound up winning two of the Man vs. Beast races at Frontier. It still remains one of the best minor-league baseball promotions.

• Still can’t believe that both my children are now over 21. The years really do zip by like a Nolan Ryan fastball.

• Speaking of flying time, I’m going to play in a Tuesday morning softball league for guys 55 and older. Better stock up on the Ibuprofen.

• Finally, my bride and I had the pleasure of attending the local New York State Athletic Administrators Association luncheon today. It was good catching up with Werner Kleeman, Jim Zumbo and Dennis Fries – each of whom has had profound influences on the lives of student-athletes in our area. And I was especially thrilled to see my good friend, Dr. Cynthia Devore, receive the Distinguished Service Award. It would take me several blogs to extol the virtues of her work on behalf of students, coaches and administrators in our area and beyond. Suffice it to say, her impact has been every bit as great if not greater than that of any coach or AD in our region. Congrats, my friend, on a job well-done.