Friday, July 29, 2011

A thank you for your condolences, plus musings on Hideki Irabu, the Buffalo Bills and which Brit should light the Olympic cauldron

Let me start by saying how much your words of concern and encouragement meant to me and my family following the death of my brother last week. The anecdotes from several people about Wayne’s acts of kindness were quite uplifting. We are grateful to all of you and thankful that my brother no longer is suffering.

I was saddened by the news of the apparent suicide of former Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu. Though the man billed as the Nolan Ryan of Japanese baseball never lived up to the enormous hype or $12.8-million contract he received, he did provide me and many other Rochesterians with the most exciting night of baseball we’ve ever witnessed at Frontier Field.

On June 30, 1997, Irabumania swept through town as the foreign import made one of his final minor-league starts before joining the Yankees. It was an absolutely electric evening as 13,485 fans and 150 reporters (including 60 from Japan) stuffed the ballpark. The Red Wings weren’t gracious hosts, scoring four runs off Irabu in five innings. The much ballyhooed pitcher did, however, wow the spectators with his 95 mph fastballs and left with a two-run lead that the Columbus Clippers couldn’t sustain. The Wings' come-from-behind win wound up being the catalyst for their Governors’ Cup championship run.

While Irabu would go on to have some success – he was solid during the Yankees 1998 World Series-winning season – he never lived up to his advanced billing, finishing with a 34-35 won-lost record and a 5.15 earned run average over six seasons with three different clubs. Sadly, he will be best remembered for incurring the wrath of George Steinbrenner, who bombastically labeled him “a fat toad” after he failed to cover first one night.

Although Irabu didn’t fulfill expectations, I’ll always be grateful to him for providing me and thousands of other Rochesterians with an indelible memory.

The Bills could have used Paul Posluszny, but it would have been foolish for them to have tried to match the six-year deal he received from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Poz was a decent, but not great player for Buffalo. He never became the game-changer many thought he would become when he was drafted out of Penn State. He clearly was not the second-coming of Shane Conlan.

Speaking of Nittany Lions, I can’t believe that 2009 first-round draft bust Aaron Maybin is long for the Bills roster. Two seasons have taught us that he flat-out can not play at this level. It’s time to move on.

I’m wondering who will be the first one to mistakenly call Bills free agent quarterback Tyler Thigpen Tyler “Pigpen” on the air.

With the Summer Olympics in London just a year away, speculation has begun about who will light the cauldron during the Opening Ceremonies. I’m sure it will be Queen Elizabeth, but I think it would be cool, instead, to see Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr share the honors. Many Brits have been clamoring for William and Kate. One member of the British empire who WON’T be lighting it: Rupert Murdoch.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Musings on the heat, Abbymania, Johnny Antonelli, Marcell Dareus's summer job and other topics

Any time I’m tempted to complain about this heat wave I just look at the snow shovel in my garage or the ice scraper in my car trunk and I’m reminded that it won’t be long before I’m bitching about how I’ve lost feeling in my fingers, toes and cheeks while clearing winter's white stuff from my walk and driveway.

Yesterday’s 98-degree day reminded me of my time covering the Olympics in Athens, Greece back in 2004. It was above 90 and humid every day for three weeks straight. I’ll never forget how, on the final day of competition, the poor marathoners had to run a course that was mostly uphill with the mercury topping out at 104. I was dying just walking the streets of Athens that day. I can’t imagine what it must have been like running in that oven.

I’ve been interviewing former major-league All-Star Johnny Antonelli for an autobiography I’m writing with him, and he mentioned a time in the 1950s when he pitched a complete game in Cincinnati when it was 110 degrees. In those days, you weren’t encouraged to pump the fluids and Johnny became severely dehydrated. It was so bad that they wrapped him in cold towels and he still couldn’t get his temperature down. “My eyes were about two inches back into my head and I thought I was going to die,’’ he said. “We had a flight to Pittsburgh after the game and I didn’t feel like myself again until the next day. It was scary.”

Speaking of Antonelli, the recent wave of Abbymania surrounding Rochester-born soccer star Abby Wambach reminds me a lot of the Johnnymania surrounding Antonelli back in the day. Antonelli was a big hometown hero who signed a "bonus-baby" contract with the Boston Braves two days after graduating from Jefferson High School in 1948 for the then-princely sum of $53,000.

Johnny’s career took off in 1954, when he was the top pitcher in major-league baseball while playing for the New York Giants. Following a season that saw him win 21 games and pitch the Giants to a World Series sweep of the Cleveland Indians, Antonelli returned home to a hero’s welcome, reminiscent of the one Abby just received. There was a parade along with an assembly at Jefferson during the day, and an evening banquet at the Seneca Hotel, attended by more than 1,000 people.

The dinner featured all of Rochester's movers-and-shakers, including Frank Gannett, the founder of the newspaper empire. In addition to the key to the city, Johnny was given a brand-new car. Both the Democrat & Chronicle and Times-Union devoted several pages to coverage of the event. It was a big, big celebration, befitting a young man who had become a national sports figure.
By the way, Antonelli’s autobiography will be published by RIT Press next April. They also published my book about the prestigious Hickok Belt Award last fall. Great people to work with. They do high-quality work.

I’m not surprised that the magicJack has named Wambach as player-coach for the rest of the season. The way Abby carried herself throughout the World Cup and inspired her teammates had me thinking that coaching would be in her future. I definitely can see her coaching the U.S. national team some day.

Wambach, who has mastered the art of scoring goals with her noggin, gives new meaning to the term "head coach."

I think it’s cool that Bills top draft pick, Marcell Dareus, has spent the lockout working in the landscaping business of the family that looked after him and his siblings a few years ago when his mom became ill. There’s nothing like mowing and weed-whacking to keep one grounded.

I'm pleased to see that this tentative collective bargaining agreement addresses the needs of NFL players from the distant past who have fallen upon hard times. For too long, the league and the players association have not taken care of these pioneers who helped make the NFL into a $9 billion dollar industry, and that’s deplorable.

Every sports fan should, at least once in his or her life, experience induction weekend at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. There are tons of activities planned tomorrow and Sunday at the cradle of the sport’s soul, including, of course, the enshrinement of new members Bert Blyleven, Robbie Alomar and Pat Gillick Sunday afternoon.

Saturday’s events include a 2 p.m. talk and signing by Rochester author and friend, Curt Smith, in the Hall’s Bullpen Theater. Curt’s latest book is: A Talk in the Park: Nine Decades of Tales from the Broadcast Booth.

Loved the line from Paul McCartney during his concert at Yankee Stadium last weekend: "Who is this Derek Jeter? I heard he has more hits than me."

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bills fans hope their team takes a huge plummet in these standings

Bills fans can take heart. It could be worse. They could be fans of the Washington Nationals or Detroit Lions or Chicago Cubs. According to On Numbers, a group that measures fan loyalty and lunacy, those franchises rank as the three most difficult teams to root for in all of sports.

That’s not to say Bills followers have it easy. Buffalo’s football franchise ranks 10th on the list that includes the 122 professional sports teams in North America (MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL.) The Bills “earned” their spot based largely on the past 11 seasons, which have seen them post just one winning record and zero playoff appearances. The fact Buffalo has never won a Super Bowl also factors into the equation.

I guess if you pledge your allegiance to one of these underachieving clubs you could wear this like a badge of honor. You could argue that anyone can root for a perennial winner, but that it takes true character to pull for a team stuck eye-deep in mediocrity season after painful season. So a case can be made that fans of these clubs are vastly more loyal than say the fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, New England Patriots, San Antonio Spurs, Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Yankees, who can be found at the bottom of the rankings.

Either that, or they are masochists or in a serious state of denial.

By the way, the Sabres can be found near the middle of the pack at 59th. Of course, Buffalo’s hockey fans have had many more reasons in the past decade to feel happier than their football brethren. And that chasm likely has widened in the past several months, thanks to the arrival of deep-pocketed new Sabres owner Terry Pegula.


Speaking of fans whose patience has been severely tested but now see signs of hope, how about those Pittsburgh Pirates? The Bucs haven’t experienced a winning season since 1992 – the longest drought in the history of North American sports. But today – and, no, folks, this is not a misprint – they find themselves in first place in the National League Central. Keep playing like that and they will be relinquishing their No. 7 spot when On Numbers produces its next list a year from now.

Fifteen years ago tonight I was in Atlanta’s Olympic stadium (now the Braves ballpark) watching Muhammad Ali stun the world by lighting the cauldron. There had been heavy speculation that famous Georgians Jimmy Carter or Hank Aaron would ignite the big flame. But the Olympic organizers did a masterful job keeping the identity of the cauldron lighter a secret. I remember the 80,000-seat stadium trembling with applause when Ali was shown on the big screen. It truly was an indelible moment.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Cano gives his dad - and all dads - a special gift

I’m sure I wasn’t the only dad feeling a little misty-eyed watching Jose Cano pitch to his son, Robinson, in the MLB Home Run Derby last night. I couldn’t help but think back to simpler times in my life, grabbing a bucket of balls and tossing batting practice to my son, Christopher, for hours on empty diamonds. Those were incredible bonding moments that I’ll always treasure.

So, yes, I was pulling hard for Robbie “Don’t Ya Know” Cano to win it all, which he did with a remarkable 12 homers in the final round to edge Adrian Gonzalez. My exhortations had nothing to do with the fact I’m a long-time Yankee fan, and everything to do with the fact I’m a fan of dedicated dads, like Jose Cano. This was a special moment for baseball and for any parent who has spent time bonding in an activity with his or her kids.

There clearly have been other good sporting moments in recent days – moments that have taken our minds off the avaricious lunacy of lockouts and reminded us of why we follow these silly games in the first place.

That header goal in the waning seconds of overtime by Rochester’s own Abby Wambach vs. Brazil in the Women’s World Cup Sunday was every bit as dramatic as a game-winning shot in the NBA Finals or a walk-off World Series homer. As I discovered while covering her during the United States’ march to Olympic soccer gold in Athens in 2004, Abby is one of those rare athletes who has a flair for the dramatic. And it’s also become obvious that literally and figuratively, her head is always in the game.

And while we’re on the subject of cerebral and clutch athletes, how about Derek Jeter, who entered the 3,000 Hit Club Saturday afternoon with a home run and a five-for-five batting line, which included the game-winning hit?

Perhaps the cherry on the topping of this historic day was the decision by fan Christian Lopez not to keep the milestone ball Jeter drilled into the left-field stands. Lopez could have pocketed more than $200,000 had he put the spheroid up for auction, but instead graciously turned it over to the Yankees icon. I know many people will say he was crazy, but I believe he did the right thing.


Jeter has been a model athlete with a rare knack for doing the appropriate thing on and off the diamond. But I disagree with his decision to beg out of tonight’s All-Star game. There were reports that he was emotionally drained from his pursuit of 3,000. And I can understand that. But it would have been good for baseball had he shown up tonight and was introduced with the rest of the stars. He wouldn’t even have had to play an inning. Just soak up the adulation and savor a special moment in the twilight of your career.


PERSONAL MATTERS: Congratulations to my niece-in-law, Laura O’Brien, and her new hubby, Donnie Smith, who were married Friday in Buffalo. Yes, there is a sports connection here. Donnie played briefly for the Rochester Americans several years ago, but was forced to cut short his professional hockey career because of concussions . . . Here’s wishing a speedy recovery to my fellow Bills (Radio) Brother John DiTullio, who is recuperating after having his appendix removed Friday . . . And, lastly, please keep my friend and former newspaper colleague, Allen Wilson, in your thoughts and prayers. Many of you might remember Allen from his days covering sports for the Democrat and Chronicle and Times-Union before he left to write sports for the Buffalo News. He’s a good, kind-hearted man. Get well, my friend.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Remembering the legendary John Mackey and his remarkable wife, Sylvia

I was saddened to hear about the passing of John Mackey today at age 69. I had the opportunity to interview the former Syracuse University and Baltimore Colts legendary tight end on several occasions through the years, and always found him to be thoughtful and jovial. He had a great sense of humor and was especially helpful when I was writing features about Ernie Davis, his former SU teammate and friend who went on to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961.

Sadly, I could not interview John for the last story I wrote about him for Central New York Sports Magazine this spring. By that time, the man who revolutionized the tight end position was deep in the throes of frontal temporal dimentia and could not speak. But his heroic wife, Sylvia, spoke for him and for other old-time football players who found themselves in dire straits as a result of the concussive effects of their football careers. She is a courageous woman, and my heart goes out to her and her children on this sad day.

The magazine piece about John and Sylvia is reprinted below. I hope it gives you some insight into John's impact on the game and Sylvia's remarkable devotion to him.


The passes he catches in the spacious room at Baltimore’s Keswick Memory Care Center might not be the precise spirals John Mackey was accustomed to receiving from the legendary Johnny Unitas back in the day. But that doesn’t matter. And it also doesn’t matter that the man who began redefining the tight end position while playing for Syracuse University in the early 1960s needs a walker to get around and plays catch while seated in a chair.

The footballs flung by his wife, Sylvia, still elicit the same coast-to-coast smile and the same reflexive response they did when Mackey was running routes for the Orangemen and the Baltimore Colts. His eyes grow as big as silver dollars and his bear-paw hands pluck the ball out of the air with ease. And after making each reception, he instinctively wraps the long fingers of his right hand around the laces and passes the ball back to his college sweetheart and bride of 47 years.

“He still enjoys grabbing those footballs,’’ Sylvia says. “It’s one of the few things he hasn’t forgotten how to do.”

A simple game of catch is able to jog what’s left of his memory and connect him to a past largely erased by Frontal Temporal Dementia, a hideous and progressive mind-robbing disease. The 69-year-old Mackey no longer talks, no longer can feed himself, no longer remembers the name of the guy wearing the No. 88 Colts jersey in the huge photograph hanging in his room.

Like many of his contemporaries who helped build the National Football League into a multi-billion dollar enterprise and America’s most popular pastime, Mackey paid a huge price for his glory. Though the league doesn’t acknowledge a correlation between football’s concussive collisions and early onset dementia, it finally recognized four years ago the moral obligation to take care of these brain-damaged men and their families, many of whom were on the verge of bankruptcy. Thanks to the tireless efforts of courageous women such as Sylvia Mackey, the 88 Plan – in honor of John’s jersey number – was instituted, providing players with post-career dementia up to $88,000 per year for institutional care.

“I told John he has become the poster child for a solution to this problem,’’ Sylvia says. “His greatness on the football field is always going to be his biggest legacy. But this is No. 2.”
Sylvia Cole met John Mackey the first day she arrived on the SU campus during the summer of 1959. She was immediately smitten, but Mackey played hard-to-get. He only had time for football and classes for the better part of a semester.

“He didn’t ask me out on a date until after the season ended, and even then, it was more like I had to ask him out,’’ she recalls, chuckling. “He actually was going to stand me up on our first date, but Ernie Davis intervened. He told Ernie that he was thinking of not going out with me because he didn’t have anything to wear, didn’t have any money and didn’t have a car. Ernie told him, ‘You can’t do that.’ So Ernie gave him something to wear, a five-dollar bill and the keys to his car, and pushed him out the door.”

The couple saw a movie – Where the Boys Are, starring Connie Stevens – and went to a club afterward.

“We had a wonderful time,’’ she says. “John was so much fun, very outgoing. And, man, how he loved to sing and dance.”

Despite being a mountainous man at 6-foot-2 and a rock-hard 250 pounds, John was so light on his feet that Sylvia and her friends dubbed him “Twinkle Toes Mackey.”

There were dance parties where overflow crowds would pack the Mount Olympus dormitory dining hall to listen to the band, Felix and the Escorts, who would go on to become national recording artists under a new name – The Young Rascals.

“At the end of their gig, they would ask John to come up on stage and perform a solo,” Sylvia says. “My girlfriends and I would swoon because John had such a soulful voice.”

Mackey’s strength, speed and nimbleness would enable him to hit high notes of a different kind on autumn afternoons. In the early 1960s, tight ends were used more like third offensive tackles, their primary assignment calling for them to open holes for running backs. But on those rare occasions when SU coach Ben Schwartzwalder did send Mackey out for a pass, the big guy delivered like no receiver ever had in the run-oriented history of the program. In a 51-8 thumping of Colgate during his junior season in 1961, Mackey hauled in a halfback option pass from Davis, that year’s Heisman Trophy winner, and sprinted 74 yards for a touchdown. The following season against George Washington University, Mackey touched the football 10 times, going deep for 161 yards. Thanks in part to Mackey’s punishing blocks and occasional long-distance catches, the Orangemen went 20-10 and won the Liberty Bowl in his three varsity seasons.

Though his career stats – 27 receptions, 481 yards, six touchdowns – seem modest by today’s standards, NFL scouts envisioned a gifted athlete used in ways a tight end hadn’t been before. The Colts already had a dangerous wide receiver tandem in Raymond Berry and Jimmy Orr. But they believed Mackey would give Unitas a potent third target. So they chose the Orangeman in the second round of 1963 draft.

They would not regret their selection. Mackey averaged 20.7 yards per catch and scored seven touchdowns during his rookie season, earning an invitation to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. By his fourth season, he had revolutionized the position, catching 50 passes and scoring nine touchdowns – including six of 50 yards or longer. He would finish his 10-year NFL career with a 15.8-yards-per-catch average. That’s a full yard better than wide receiver Jerry Rice, widely regarded as the best receiver in football history.

Mackey also helped the Colts win Super Bowl V with a 75-yard touchdown reception. His achievements earned him induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992 and paved the way for athletic tight ends to follow in his footsteps.

Off the field, Mackey also helped revolutionize the game by negotiating free agency during his four-year term as president of the NFL Players’ Association – a position for which he was groomed by former Buffalo Bills quarterback and western New York Congressman, Jack Kemp.

After retiring following the 1972 season with the San Diego Chargers, the personable Mackey ran a number of successful businesses. Sylvia, meanwhile, pursued a modeling and acting career that saw her walk fashion show runways in Paris and Rome and film numerous television commercials. The couple wound up having three children – John Jr., Laura and Lisa.

"We truly were living a dream life,’’ Sylvia says.

But in the years following his induction into the hall, Mackey’s behavior began to grow increasingly bizarre. He started forgetting the names of close relatives, including his sister. He grew easily agitated. His paranoia made him suspicious of others and highly protective of his possessions.

“He had this man purse that he wouldn’t let anyone touch,’’ Sylvia recalls. “I remember we were at Bobby Mitchell’s golf tournament and they wanted to take a picture of all the guys and they asked John to put the purse down for the photograph and he refused. One of the wives said, ‘Here, John, I’ll hold it for you.’ And he gave her this look like ‘Don’t you dare touch this, or I’ll kill you.’ We were never invited back to that tournament.”

As his mind became more muddled, people began taking advantage of him and he lost his businesses and his life savings, prompting Sylvia to seek employment as a flight attendant at age 57.

“We needed the money and the health insurance and I figured if I went back to work that would shame him into seeking employment, too,’’ she says. “But he just continued to sit around and hang out with his friends at this bar where they sang karaoke. One night, he badgered me into going to the tavern and watch him perform. When he finished singing, he came back to our table and told me that he was going to take the act on the road. Now, my husband had a good voice, but his voice wasn’t that good. I didn’t know what was wrong with John. I just knew this wasn’t the man I had fallen in love with.”

Mackey’s reaction to the tragedy of 9/11 proved to be the final straw. “He just sat there all day, looking at the TV,’’ Sylvia recalls. “When he asked me ‘Did the terrorists do that on purpose?’ I knew I had to get him to a doctor.”

The dementia diagnosis by a neurologist at the UCLA Medical Center was both painful and a relief.

“We finally had an explanation for the odd behavior and I realized it was something John had no control over,’’ she says. “I now had something I could begin reading up on and carry the ball from there.”

Sylvia decided it would be in John’s best interest to move from San Diego back to the more familiar surroundings of Baltimore, a place where he was still revered and where people would be able to help her look out for him. For several years, John was still sharp enough to attend football games and card shows. The Ravens honored him and several other former Baltimore Colts at halftime of one of their games a few years ago, and when Mackey received his commemorative football, he sprinted from midfield to the goal line, eliciting a lusty roar from the crowd. During the 2007 season, he returned to the Carrier Dome to have his SU football jersey retired. After his No. 88 was raised to the rafters, he headed to the sidelines, where he exchanged high-fives with hundreds of fans leaning over the railing.

“Those were great, great moments for him,’’ Sylvia says. “I’m glad he got a chance to enjoy them when he did.”

Slowly, his dementia worsened. One time the couple was going to fly to St. Louis for a card show, but John refused to remove his Super Bowl and Hall of Fame rings upon reaching the metal detectors at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Thinking the security guards were trying to steal his prized baubles, Mackey bolted through the checkpoint. It took four guards to bring him down. “I’m just so thankful they didn’t shoot him because they had no idea about his mental condition,’’ she says. “They easily could have mistaken him for being a bomb-toting terrorist.”

A few years ago, Sylvia made the difficult decision to place John into Keswick, a 24/7 facility.

She continues to be an advocate for her husband and the more than 100 former NFL players and their wives who are participating in the 88 Plan program. The dramatic upgrade in their benefits is a direct result of an impassioned, three-page letter she wrote to then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue five years ago. In it, she told him that he had been a very good commissioner, but there was one more great act he needed to perform before leaving office – and that was to take care of the pioneers like John. Tagliabue and his successor, Roger Goodell, have followed through on Sylvia’s request.

In the past year alone, she has testified before Congress and has spoken at nine seminars sponsored by the NFL and the Atlanta-based Morehouse School of Medicine.

“I don’t know where she finds the time or the energy to do everything she does,’’ says Morehouse program director Sharon Rachel. “She truly is a remarkable woman and has done an incredible job looking out not only for John but for so many other football players and their families who are dealing with these tragic circumstances.”

Sylvia’s work with United Airlines keeps her on call for 19 days a month. Every day she is home, she spends much of her time at Keswick, helping feed John, taking him for walks, poring over scrapbooks and photo albums, and, of course, playing catch.

She may not deliver a Johnny U. spiral. But that doesn’t matter. Sylvia Mackey enjoys playing quarterback because her passes elicit smiles and connect her husband to a storied past that’s largely been erased from his mind. A simple game of catch makes a painful present and an uncertain future a little easier to handle.