Saturday, June 25, 2011

Ruminating on Bills uniforms, Boeheim's fantasy camp and Detective Columbo

I'm old school when it comes to the Buffalo Bills uniforms. I've long advocated a return to the 1960s uni's with the royal blue jerseys and the classic red, grazing buffalo on the white helmet.

But I must admit, at first glance, I like the new Bills threads, even with the return of the charging buffalo. There is a retro feel, especially with the return to the white helmets, and the color scheme of the jerseys and pants.

They're a marked improvement over the uniform changes Tom Donahoe instituted back in 2002. Maybe the Bills can hold a ceremony where they burn a jersey from that era. It would be a symbolic gesture to divorce themselves from the worst stretch in franchise history.


Kudos to CEO Russ Brandon and the Bills front office for having members of the military model the uniforms last night at the Ralph. Classy move.


The announcement that the Jets will not be staging their training camp at Cortland State this summer doesn't bode well for the Bills coming back to St. John Fisher late next month. The lockout is forcing NFL teams to stage their camps at home, and I fear that the Bills will be making a similar announcement if a new labor agreement isn't ironed out by the Fourth of July.


Jim Boeheim has come up with another creative way to raise money for his charitable foundation. This August, he's staging a three-day fantasy camp for adults 35-and-older in which participants will get to play with and be coached by SU basketball legends, including Pearl Washington, Roosevelt Bouie, Billy Owens and John Wallace. The price is steep ($5,500 per camper), but it sounds like a cool experience for those who really, really bleed orange. Thirty of the 35 openings have been filled. For more information, you can check out Boeheim's website.

Now, to make the camp even more realistic, I think Coach Jim should have a sportswriter on hand to grill the campers after practices and games. For the right price, I would be happy to play the role.


Looking forward to seeing the inaugural class of the Section V Baseball Hall of Fame honored before tomorrow's Red Wings game at Frontier Field. It's a very impressive group of inductees, featuring a number of Rochester-area ballplayers who went on to enjoy big-league success.

Among them are George "Twinkle Toes" Selkirk, who had the uneviable task of playing right field for the Yankees immediately after they got rid of a guy by the name of Babe Ruth. Selkirk wound up having a nice major-league career, but the bleacher creatures in the Bronx were brutal toward him.

Another one of tomorrow's honorees will be Johnny Antonelli, the former Jefferson High ace pitcher who won 125 games in the majors and was a five-time All-Star and a World Series champion. He's also one of the nicest and most humble men you'll ever meet.

Johnny and I have sat down for several interview sessions. We're collaborating on his autobiography, which will be published by RIT Press next spring. He has some fabulous stories of playing for the New York Giants in the 1950s, when the Big Apple featured three big-league clubs and was the capital of baseball.


It's a marvelous day for western New York hockey fans, now that the Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Americans have reconciled after a three-year separation. I think it's great that Sabres owner Terry Pegula purchased the Amerks, but let's also give credit to the man he bought the team from - Curt Styres. Styres inherited a minor-league hockey franchise heavily in debt, and lost millions of dollars attempting to revive it. Without his efforts, the team very well might have left town.


Ah, just one more thing. I was saddenned to hear of Peter Falk's death yesterday. His portrayal of Lt. Columbo, the dis-jointed, cigar-chomping detective in the rumpled trench coat was one of my all-time favorite television characters.

Falk earned his master's degree from Syracuse University in 1953 and applied to work for the CIA, but was rejected. The CIA's loss was our gain, as Falk embarked on a successful acting career that saw him earn two Oscar nominations before his immensely popular 1970s tv series.

Falk lost his eye to cancer at age 3 and early in his acting career a producer told him he would never make it because of his glass eye. Fortunately, Falk didn't listen to that negative nabob.

Falk reveled in telling the story of disputing an umpire's call during a Little League Baseball game as an 11-year-old. At one point, Falk became so infuriated that he actually removed his glass eye and said to the arbiter, "Here, maybe you can use this."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Clarence Clemons taught me about the Joy of Sax

I had the pleasure of seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform four times in the past 30 years and one of the highlights of each concert was watching The Big Man – Clarence Clemons – wail away on his saxophone.

Springsteen has a lyric from his classic song Thunder Road that says, “I’ve got this guitar and I’ve learned how to make it talk.” Well, Clemons, a gentle giant of a man at 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, made his sax talk, too, and, by doing so, took the band to another level.

Now, this primarily is a sports blog, so I’m going to give you the sports connection with Clemons. The Big Man went to Maryland State College on football and music scholarships, and was good enough on the gridiron to earn tryouts with the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns as a defensive lineman. Bad knees conspired against him ever making an NFL roster, but football’s loss was music’s gain.

Those balky knees forced Clemons to concentrate on the sax rather than sacks.

And, as a result, Springsteen and rock ‘n roll were forever changed.


Happy Birthday to Henry Louis Gehrig. The luckiest man on the face of the earth would have turned 108 today.


Kind of apropos isn’t it that Rory McIlroy hails from a Northern Ireland town called Hollywood because the story of a 22-year-old from a humble working-class family winning the U.S. Open golf championship in record-setting fashion has all the makings of story that one day could make it to the silver screen.


I’m one of those people who definitely believe that interleague play has run its course, but I must admit it was kind of cool seeing the Yankees play the Cubs at Wrigley Field.


And speaking of Wrigley, it’s one of the few sports venues that I haven’t crossed off my bucket list. Beth and I both love the city of Chicago, so I think I can convince her to make a trip to the Second City and sit in the bleachers – as long as I lather on the sunscreen and keep my shirt on.


Thanks to Amy and Chris for making their dad feel special yesterday.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Remembering a Dad's Love

I lost my dad 41 years ago when I was 15.

With each passing year, my appreciation for his love and sacrifice grows deeper.

Here's a tribute to him that I penned a few years ago.

I hope you enjoy it and make sure to give your pops a hug on this day even if he is gone from this realm and is only with you in spirit.


He grew up during the Great Depression and dropped out of school in the eighth grade.

It wasn't something he wanted to do, but rather something he had to do. See, his father had just died, and, as the oldest in the family, it became his responsibility to put food on the table for his mother and his younger siblings.

So, he found work at a local service station and became an auto mechanic. The hours were long, the work was backbreaking and the money wasn't great. But he never complained about his lot in life. He just did what he had to do.

Not long after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was drafted into the Army, and fought in the European Theater.

Like many from the Greatest Generation, he rarely talked about the war. But there was a Saturday morning years later when he told his barber about how traumatized he was when he and his fellow soldiers stumbled upon a Nazi concentration camp and saw scores of dead bodies strewn about. There were tears in his eyes as he recounted the moment. You wondered how many years he had suppressed those horrible memories.

He wound up falling in love with a British woman while stationed in England. The two were married, and headed to this side of the Atlantic in those pre-airliner days aboard the Queen Mary.

They wound up having three boys, and they did their best to raise them right and teach them about the importance of hard work and the limitless possibilities of the American dream. They were flawed parents and they raised flawed kids, but their hearts were in the right place.

He wasn't much of a sports fan, but his youngest son was, so even though money was tight, the father somehow always found a way to scrape together enough nickels and dimes to buy his boy that new football or baseball glove.

He knew how much his youngest loved the Yankees, and one mid-September day he suggested to the 11-year-old that they take a Sunday drive to The House That Ruth Built.

Four hours later, they were walking into Yankee Stadium, and the greenness and vastness of the ballpark proved overwhelming. As the boy watched Mickey Mantle launch batting practice pitches into the upper deck, he couldn't help but feel as if he had died and gone to heaven. In his mind, Disney had nothing on this place.

During the next four summers, the father and son would make pilgrimages to the big ballpark in the South Bronx. And although the dad never really understood his son's fascination with the game, he loved seeing the joy it brought him.

One of their most memorable trips occurred in August of 1970 when they attended an Oldtimers' Day in which former manager Casey Stengel's jersey was retired.
As they drove north up the Major Deegan Expressway toward the Tappan Zee Bridge and the New York State Thruway, the boy gazed out the window and day-dreamed about their next father-son excursion to Yankee Stadium.

But, sadly, there would be no more shared journeys after this one because five months later the father's heart beat a final time at age 58.

Eight years would pass before the youngest son mustered enough gumption to attend another game there.

On July 4, 1998 more than three decades after the boy's first visit to the stadium he would take his daughter and son to the famous ballpark.

They didn't appear to be as enthralled as he had been, but that didn't bother him in the least. For this trip was as much about him connecting with his dad as it was about them falling in love with the place he fell in love with back in the summer of '66.

Each time he returns to the soon-to-be extinct stadium, he feels his dad's presence. He wishes his pops had lived long enough for him to repay the favor and take him out to the ballgame.

But he's thankful for the memories they did share. And on this Father's Day, he'll be sure to reflect on the many sacrifices Andrew Pitoniak made for him, and tell his late dad how much he loves him.

Friday, June 17, 2011

For the Love of the Game

May I offer two baseball events this weekend that prove there is Joy in Mudville.

The first will be held tomorrow morning at 8 at Frontier Field. The brainchild of Brendan O’Riordan and Tony Wells, it is called the Challenger Baseball World Series and will feature close to 300 kids, ages 6-18, from the Rochester area and beyond.

Each of these kids faces physical, mental and/or emotional challenges, but you’d never know it while watching them experience the thrill of wearing uniforms and playing ball. I’ve been a volunteer for most of the 19 years it’s been staged, first at old Silver Stadium and now at Frontier. And each time I come away feeling as if I’ve received much more than I’ve given.

The event is free and open to the public, and will run until about 11:30. So please stop by and cheer on these young ballplayers. They’ll make you feel like a million dollars.

The second event in which you’ll observe the unbridled joy of sports is the Silver Base Ball Park League, which begins its 11th season at Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford, about 25 minutes southwest of Rochester, Sunday at noon.

We have a doubleheader involving our four teams and we’ll be playing games according to 1865 rules. We don’t wear gloves (yes, I know that sounds crazy) but we do wear funny-looking uniforms like the Flower City uni you see me wearing in the photo on this page. It’s a heck of a lot of fun, and you get to see a bunch of guys who – like those Challenger Baseball players – really do play for the love of the game.

There are plenty of other neat things you can do during your visit to the nation’s third-largest living history museum, which features more than 50 historic buildings and houses, including the boyhood home of Kodak founder, George Eastman.

I can’t think of a better way to spend Father’s Day than to play a little base ball, 19th century style.

If you do make it to the ballpark, please say hello and make sure you root for Flower City – we’ll be the guys in the red socks. (Believe me, wearing red isn’t always easy for a guy who’s been following the guys in the blue Yankee pinstripes since 1961.)

Finally, I’d like to give special shoutouts to Red Wings general manager Dan Mason and team organist Fred Costello.

Mase and the Wings have been kind enough to host the Challenger World Series all these years, but it appeared that this year’s event was in jeopardy after the Indianapolis-Rochester game was postponed last night because of travel problems. The cancellation meant the Wings have to play a day-night doubleheader on Saturday, starting at 1.

Rather than disappoint all those kids and their parents by canceling the World Series, Mase worked it out so that the Series would start at 8 rather than 9.

Classy move.

And congratulations to Fred, who will receive the International League’s Spirit Award in honor of his more than three decades of entertaining the fans. Fred has tickled the ivories at more than 2,500 Wings games through the years.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Some LeBron jokes, musings on Jeter and paying tribute to the Rapid Roman

In honor of MeBron James’ smug and futile quest for an NBA Championship, I offer a couple of jokes making the rounds:

Why did James skip college?
He was afraid of the Finals!

James was asked for change for a dollar, but only gave 75 cents. He didn’t have a fourth quarter.

The Peoria Chiefs, a Single-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, are going to host “LeBron James 2011 NBA Championship Replica Ring Giveaway Night.” The jewelry will resemble the one James didn’t earn against the Dallas Mavericks the other night – meaning, fans showing up to the ballpark for the joke promotion will be receiving nothing but a handful of air.

Methinks it’s not-so-good to be King these days.

The unfortunate thing about Derek Jeter’s trip to the 15-day DL is that he probably won’t get his 3,000th hit at Yankee Stadium.

But he still might do it in New York.

Jeter is scheduled to return to action on June 29 for the second of a three-game home series vs. the Milwaukee Brewers. The Yankees legend would need to get six hits in two games in order to reach the milestone in the Bronx. Possible, but not likely.

Interestingly, the Yankees will then embark on a six-game road-stand, with the first three games of the trip being played against the Mets at Citi Field. So, it will be kind of a like a home-field atmosphere with nearly as many Yankees fans as Mets fans in attendance.

I can get pretty provincial when it comes to my hometown of Rome, N.Y., so please indulge me this burst of pride.

I was thrilled to hear that Richie Evans, a 9-time national driving champion known as the Rapid Roman, will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame along with modern-stars Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip this year.

I’ve never been a huge racing fan, but I fondly remember my dad taking me to watch Richie compete at various tracks in upstate New York and feeling a great sense of pride because Richie always won and always represented the Copper City well.

Evans was one of the true pioneers of the sport, but I wondered if he would ever receive his just-due nationally because pioneers tend to get forgotten and it didn't help that he was a Yankee in a sport dominated by southern bias.

And since I'm tooting my home town's horn, I'd like to mention that Betsy Ross' Old Glory first flew in battle during the Revolutionary War at Fort Stanwix; Pledge of Allegiance author Francis Bellamy is a graduate of Rome Free Academy and Basketball Hall of Famer Pat Riley is a Rome native. (We won't mention that Riley is the executive who signed MeBron to a Miami Heat contract.)

I have good vibes that common sense and decency will prevail and the NFL owners and players are going to get a new labor agreement ironed out in the next few weeks.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Opining on Rocky, Pete Rose, LeBron & the Yankees

I know a lot of purists are in a snit about actor Sylvester Stallone being inducted this weekend into the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, but I don’t have a problem with it. I believe there should be a place in such hallowed halls for people who helped promote their respective sports, and Stallone, through his series of Rocky movies, certainly did a lot more to champion boxing than a number of scallywags and reprobates already enshrined in the building just off Thruway exit 34.

In the same vein, I didn’t have an issue with Dick Vitale being inducted into the hoops hall in Springfield, Mass. Yes, I know his incessant yelling and tired nicknames during telecasts often has people scrambling to find the “mute” button on their remotes, but his enthusiasm and philanthropy and kindness away from the court contributed to college basketball’s burgeoning popularity in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Speaking of sporting hall issues, I read an interesting interview with Pete Rose recently in Sporting News magazine. As the years pass, I find myself willing to revisit the issue of Charlie Hustle’s eligibility for Cooperstown.
Clearly, his decision to gamble on games in which he managed was a mortal sin because it compromised baseball’s integrity. (We need to know the games are legit.) And Pete, who’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, hasn’t helped his cause by vehemently denying his transgressions, then coming clean only when he could make a buck off it by hawking a book.

I’m not saying I would necessarily make him eligible for the Hall, but I am softening my stance somewhat in my old age. One thing I would NOT do if I were Commissioner Bud is allow Pete to manage or coach again in the majors or minors.


I know Pete continues to pine for that opportunity, but that ship has sailed. Because of his gambling past, every move he made would be scrutinized beyond belief, and there would be allegations after each game that he was betting again.

And since we’re on the topic, I think it’s time for Shoeless Joe Jackson to become eligible for the Hall. He faced a lifetime ban and has been dead for five decades.


A very revealing stat from the NBA Finals: In the fourth quarter of the five games, Dirk Nowitzki has scored 55 points; MeBron James 11.


Wanna bet they’ll be popping champagne bottles in Cleveland as well as Dallas if the Mavericks knock off King James and the Miami Heat in one of the next two games to win the NBA championship.


I think it’s possible, but unlikely that the Yankees are going to make the playoffs this season. But if they do, it isn’t going to matter because they’ll have to face Boston and the Red Sox own them this season.


It's clearly not Brian Cashman's fault that Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain suffered injuries, but to think the Yanks were going to be able to get by with a rotation that included retreads and the unreliable A.J. Burnett was ridiculous. Cashman's judgment on pitching talent has always been suspect. The GM will be history after this season, and the Yankees will be better off without him.


Syracuse is one of seven schools on the list of Jim Kelly’s nephew, Chad. The younger Kelly is a standout quarterback at Buffalo’s St. Joe’s Prep and will be entering his senior season this fall. Ranked as a Top 100 recruit by several scouting services, Chad has whittled his choices to SU, Penn State, Florida State, Alabama, Clemson, Michigan State and Buffalo.


Tomorrow, for the third time in the past 11 years, I'll will be playing base ball - 19th century style - at historic Doubleday Field in Cooperstown. We have about 25 guys from the Silver Base Ball Park League at the Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford, taking part. It's always a thrill to play on the same diamond where Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ted Williams. Roberto Clemente and Stan Musial once played. And it's also a treat to be able to show people the way the game was played during the Civil War era. We are scheduled to play two games, starting at 1:30. Admission is free, so if you are in Cooperstown or looking for something different to do, please stop by and say hello.