Sunday, August 28, 2011

Some signs of life from the Bills offense

Nearly three decades of covering the NFL have taught me not to read too much into preseason performances. That said, I was encouraged by several things I witnessed from my press box perch at the Ralph last night during the Bills 35-32 overtime victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Game Three of the preseason is usually the most telling because that’s the game you usually play your starters the longest, and the contest in which you might even do some game-planning.

Chan Gailey had his first-teamers in there for an entire half and the offense, in particular, looked very sharp. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was at the top of his game, completing 11-of-12 passes for 165 yards and two scores – an 11-yarder to Marcus Easley and a 52-yard bomb to Stevie Johnson.

The pass to Easley was one of those trademark Fitz gunslinger passes, where he took a chance and zipped it in there against tight coverage. Easley made a nice grab.

The TD hook-up with Johnson was the result of Fitz recognizing one-on-one coverage before the snap and banking on Johnson beating his man. Fitz’s arm strength and accuracy aren’t his strong suits, but he lofted a perfect ball to Johnson on the fly pattern and No. 13 hauled it in for six.

Easley, playing in place of the injured Donald Jones, seized his opportunity by catching five passes for 51 yards. The second-year player from Connecticut who spent all of last season on injured reserve has emerged as the likely candidate to be the No. 2 receiver in the Bills offense.

Another positive development from the game was the overall performance of the offensive line. This much-maligned, always-in-flux unit did a decent job of protecting Fitz and opening holes for Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Gailey opened with Andy Levitre at left guard and Demetreus Bell at left tackle, though Levitre did see some time later at left tackle. Both appeared to perform well, so maybe there will be some stability there after all.

Again, I try not to get too excited about preseason contests because everything is pretty vanilla and Jacksonville was without its primary weapon, running back Maurice Jones-Drew. Still, there were some positives to be taken from this game as the Bills prep for their season opener two weeks from today in Kansas City.


I think it's a travesty that NFL teams that play in taxpayer-funded stadiums are allowed to black-out games. And when they don't show home exhibition games they take the absurdity to a new level. I wish some politician with some guts would take the NFL to task about this, but the league and its army of corporate attorneys and Washington lobbyists apparently are too powerful a foe. Once again, the fans (who just so happen to be taxpayers and consumers) get shafted. Ridiculous.

Friday, August 19, 2011

'A Talk in the Park' is a wonderful read

Late President Gerald Ford once told a reporter, “I watch a lot of baseball games on the radio.”

Now, that might sound like a malapropism of Yogi Berra-proportions, but I knew exactly what the President meant because I, too, have “watched” a lot of baseball games on the radio through the years.

The really good baseball announcers – the likes of Ernie Harwell, Mel Allen, Red Barber, Vin Scully, Curt Gowdy, Jon Miller and Bob Costas, just to name a few – have always painted exquisite word pictures that have brought the game to life for me and millions of other listeners.

The really good ones also have had the ability to make us laugh – occasionally unintentionally, with malapropisms that would make Berra and Ford (the Prez, not Whitey) approve.

In his marvelous new book, A Talk in the Park: Nine Decades of Baseball Tales from the Broadcast Booth, friend and former presidential speech writer Curt Smith has gathered scores of great stories and perspectives from baseball announcers past and present.

Here’s a sampling:

• “I was honored (to make it to Cooperstown as an announcer), but I think I should have gone in as a player. After all, anyone with ability can make the majors. To trick people year in and year out is, I think, a much greater feat. I only wish the forty-four Hall of Famers there that day agreed. A lot of them were my teammates, but won’t admit it. – Bob Uecker

• “One day the camera spotted a teenage girl. Phil (Rizzuto) said: “She reminds me of that old song, ‘A Pretty Girl is Like a Memory.’ I said, “Scooter, I think that’s Melody.” Phil: “Really? How do you know her name is Melody?” ” Bill White

• “Baseball can be wonderful, but a little parochial. Early in 2009, a Mariners backup catcher read that there was a big deal being made about an important person due to visit Seattle. The catcher said to no one in particular: ‘Hey, who’s this Dailai Lama chick?’ ” – Dave Sims

• “Phil Rizzuto and I are doing the Yankees, we’re in a rain delay, and somebody calls us: Name the all-time Yankee team. We can’t choose between Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra at catcher. First base, Lou Gehrig, best guy there in baseball history. Second, Joe Gordon; Till he made Cooperstown in 2009, I’d bitch to the Hall each year. Shortstop, the Scooter. Third base, Red Rolfe. Outfield, we put Mantle in left, Joe D. in center and Roger Maris in right. Great team. We’re feeling good till the phones light up. “Hey fellas, did you forget somebody? Where the hell is Babe Ruth?” Oops. A time like that you want to curl up in a fetal position and find yourself a closet.” – Jerry Coleman

There are hundreds of more anecdotes like those in A Talk in the Park. I highly recommend the book, which is now available in stores and on the web. And, if you’d like an autographed copy, you can get one at Frontier Field before Saturday night’s Red Wings game, where Curt will be doing a signing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Jeter proving his critics wrong. Plus some thoughts on the Bills O-Line and Scoop Jardine

I admit it.

I was one of the skeptics who thought Derek Jeter was done back in June when he was hitting dribblers seemingly every other at-bat.

Well, as Tom Brokaw said after the networks kept wrongly calling the winner of the 2000 presidential race, I don’t just have egg all over my face; I have the entire omelet.

Since his return from the DL two months ago, Jeets is batting .326 and has a major-league leading 13 multiple-hit games in that span. The surge by the 37-year-old shortstop has boosted his average 25 points to .285.

I know it can’t go on forever, so I’m savoring these moments of seeing Derek Jeter playing as he did in his prime.


Bills fans better hope this benching, rotation or whatever you want to call it of right guard Andy Levitre is just a message being sent by Coach Chan Gailey and not a permanent thing. As of today’s practice, Buffalo’s offensive line is Eric Woods at center, Chad Rinehart and Kraig Urbik at guards and Demetrius Bell and Erik Pears at tackles.

Not exactly the Great Wall of China.

I was concerned about the O-line heading into the season. This shuffle just 25 days before the regular-season opener hasn’t done anything to boost my confidence in who will protect Ryan Fitzpatrick and open holes for Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.


Guard Scoop Jardine has been playing lights out for Team USA this off-season. If that trend continues this winter, Syracuse University will wind up justifying those lofty, high pre-season basketball rankings.


Yesterday marked the anniversary of the day drummer Pete Best was given his walking papers by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, opening the door for Ringo Starr to join the Beatles.


Here’s wishing a belated Happy Birthday to one of my early sports editors, Phil Spartano, who recently turned 91 years young. Phil was one of my early mentors and was instrumental in my development as a sportswriter.

And all the best to my long-time friend and former newspaper colleague Vic Carucci on his new gig – a nightly radio show devoted entirely to the Cleveland Browns. Vic was a superb football writer at the Buffalo News and for Browns fans are fortunate to be able to listen to his expertise each evening on the ESPN radio affiliate in Cleveland.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Putting the Maybin draft bust into historical perspective

So Aaron Maybin now joins the scrapheap of Bills first-round busts, a crowded, lamentable junk yard littered with the likes of Mike Williams, Walt Patulski, Al Cowlings, Perry Tuttle, J.P. Losman, Erik Flowers and John McCargo.

Taken 11th overall two years ago – the personal pick of ex-Bills head coach Dick Jauron – Maybin finishes his Buffalo career with zero sacks and zero starts in 27 games. The only surprising thing about the news of his release is that it didn’t happen sooner. Say like last season.

As far as his place in Bills lore, you can make a strong case for him being the biggest draft day bust in franchise history. Not only couldn’t he start for a 4-12 team that opened last season with eight consecutive losses, he couldn’t even dress for five of the games despite being healthy. The aforementioned draft day blunders at least started for a few seasons before being jettisoned.

When I saw Maybin for the first time at the Rochester Press-Radio Club’s Children’s Charities Dinner three years ago, I couldn’t get over how slender he was. That night Maybin actually dozed off for a minute or two at the head table. Little did we know that would be the only sack time we would witness from him.

It wasn’t that Maybin didn’t try. The Penn State linebacker appeared to work hard. He just didn’t have the size or the talent necessary to make it in the NFL, which is why several in the Bills front office argued vehemently against drafting him but were overruled by Jauron.

So another page is turned on why the Bills have gone 11 seasons without a playoff appearance.

Consistently poor draft picks, especially in the first few rounds, have been the biggest reason for this prolonged wallow in mediocrity.

Interestingly, despite the whiff on Maybin, the 2009 draft still might be judged as one of the better ones in recent Bills history if center Eric Wood, Jairus Byrd and guard Andy Levitre continue being productive players for several more years.

The apathy shown by the sports world to Minnesota Twins slugger Jim Thome reaching the 600 home run milestone is a reflection of just how much damage the steroid era did to our appreciation of the game’s history and record books. It’s too bad, because Thome, unlike Bonds/Sosa/McGwire, has never been accused of using the stuff. Sadly, everybody’s reputation is impugned by this mess thanks to Bud Selig and Donald Fehr, who as baseball’s commissioner and union chief, respectively, did great impersonations of ostriches.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Some finals words on the departed Lee Evans, the dramatic drop in scoring in baseball and cool names

Lee Evans’ numbers (37 receptions, 578 yards, 4 touchdowns) may have been down significantly last fall from his average the previous six seasons (57, 892, 6.5). But he was still a dynamic part of the Bills offense and had a big impact on the success Stevie Johnson enjoyed during his breakout year.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Johnson responds now that he’s the top dog and Lee’s not around to take the pressure off him.

The NFL record books are filled with receivers who were one-hit wonders.

I’m not saying that Stevie is going to fall into that category, but it’s a whole different ballgame when you are the marked man.


Evans is one of the classiest guys I’ve dealt with in my 27 years covering the Bills. Win or lose, he was there to face the music – a real honest, stand-up guy. So, I’m not surprised he would issue a statement thanking the fans and the organization for his experiences in Buffalo. The guy always takes the high road.

It was his misfortune to be with the Bills during the longest stretch of futility in franchise history. That he put up the numbers he did despite the constant flux of quarterbacks, head coaches, coordinators, teammates and offensive schemes speaks volumes. I believe fans will come to appreciate his Bills career more down the road.


I recently wrote a column for Bills Digest saying that I believed Lee will have a bounce-back season this year, and I’m sticking to that prediction. Sadly, it will be with the Baltimore Ravens and not the Bills, who got fleeced by only getting a fourth-round draft pick in exchange for Evans.


It was only preseason and they were going against a sieve-like offensive line that is sure to keep Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler running for his life all year, but I was impressed with the quickness and moves displayed by both rookie defensive lineman Marcell Dareus and veteran linebacker Shawne Merriman. If those two play anywhere close to expectations this season, the Bills defense no longer will be a pushover.


Scoring in baseball is at a 19-year low and I couldn’t be happier. The testing for performance-enhancing drugs and perhaps, more importantly, the negative reaction to the fraudulent slugging of the past two decades by fans and sportswriters apparently has helped the game regain its bearings somewhat.


Each year, (Minor League Baseball’s website) holds a best name contest. Among my favorites in this year’s competition: Shooter Hunt, Forrest Snow, Zelous Wheeler and Deik Scram. But the best name, in my opinion, is Seth Schwindenhammer. He’s a 6-foot-2, 205-pound, left-handed hitting outfielder for the Lowell (Mass.) Spinners of the New York-Penn League. Through 48 games, Schwindenhammer has been struggling somewhat to live up to his slugger’s name, batting just .215, but he does have 9 dingers and 28 RBI.


In a blog from a few weeks ago, I speculated that Queen Elizabeth probably would light the Olympic cauldron in Wemblay Stadium next summer. But, as my bride and resident Anglophile correctly pointed out, heads of state are in viewing boxes during the Opening Ceremonies. They’ve never ignited the flame. Lady Beth also astutely noticed that the queen never goes anywhere or does anything without clinging to her purse. So, it would be kind of humorous to see her up there, torch in one hand, royal pocket book in the other, trying to get that blasted flame lit.

I would still like to see Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, the two surviving members of the Beatles, receive the honor. A more likely, and certainly deserving candidate, is Roger Bannister, the first man to break the four-minute barrier in the mile.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Opining on the NFL going to LA, Lee Evans trade rumors and the great Mariano Rivera

I know it doesn’t do any good to fret about things you can’t control, but I feel a little queasy each time I hear a report about Los Angeles taking steps to get another NFL franchise.

Yesterday’s news that the L.A. City Council has backed a private investor’s plan for a new downtown stadium made me wonder again about the precarious, long-term future of the Bills in Buffalo.

The NFL, of course, wants in the worst way to get at least one and possibly two teams back in the nation’s second-largest city and television market.

Oh, well. Nothing we can do about it, except enjoy the NFL while we have it in western New York.


The rumors are flying hot and heavy that teams are interested in trading for Bills wide receiver Lee Evans, the Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals being the most aggressive suitors.

I know I’m in the minority, but I believe Evans, who just turned 30, is going to have a bounce-back season after declining numbers and an ankle injury that cost him three games in 2010.

I know Stevie Johnson has emerged as Ryan Fitzpatrick’s favorite target, but I believe Evans received too little credit for Stevie’s breakout campaign that saw him catch 81 passes and score 11 touchdowns. Not only did Evans take coverage away from Johnson, he also served as an astute mentor and coach.

Now, I’m not totally opposed to dealing Evans, giving the potential of this young Bills receiving corps and the fact Buffalo isn’t going to the playoffs any time soon. I just hope Buffalo gets a good return on its investment – at least a third-round draft pick.

Regardless what happens, I wouldn’t be surprised if Evans puts up some big numbers this fall while Stevie’s numbers drop off a bit, especially if Lee winds up playing alongside Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona.


Yes, he's blown two straight saves and will turn 42 in November, but it’s way, way too early to panic about Mariano Rivera. He has failed to preserve the lead in two consecutive games, giving him five failures in 46 appearances. He isn't as dominating as he once was, but he's still pretty darn good, as his 29 saves and 2.23 earned run average attests. I believe this is just a temporary blip for the man who is just 12 saves shy of becoming only the second reliever to record 600 in a career.


I’m happy to see that the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame is considering inducting Yao Ming as a contributor next year. The 7-foot-4 center sparked a hoops revolution in his native China. While covering the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, I witnessed just how crazed the Chinese are about basketball. And much of that is due to Ming’s success there and in the NBA. As I wrote back then, "Yao’s become more popular than Mao." And that's not hyperbole.


Congratulations to Leigh Ann Carlson (Brattain) for scoring the first hole-in-one of her golfing career. Leigh Ann, who many of you will remember as an anchor for R-News (now YNN), merely is continuing a family tradition. The Cleveland resident's parents have six holes-in-one between them.


By the way, the only holes-in-one I've scored have been at miniature golf courses.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Opining about the Bills, Yankees, Tiger's ex-caddie and SU football

Some sporting thoughts as I pop the Ibuprofen after subjecting my fiftysomething, occasionally uncooperative bones and muscles to four 19th century base ball games in the span of 26 hours:

• As part of the celebration of Lucille Ball’s 100th birthday, the Jamestown Jammers donned uniforms bearing pictures of Lucy and Desi Arnez last Thursday night. Good thing the Jammers won that New York-Penn League baseball contest for their native daughter or there would have been a lot of “’splaining to do.” The Jammers scored six runs in the victory against the Tri-City ValleyCats. I wonder if the Jamestown players shouted, “Ricky, I’m home” as they crossed home plate on their way to the dugout.

• Here’s Bills coach Chan Gailey assessment of 2009 first-round draft pick Aaron Maybin: “Aaron tries hard every time he walks on the field. The key for him is being productive on the field. He has to become a consistent player against the run and a consistent pass-rusher. He has a lot of work to do. He’s not there yet. So we will see how he continues to develop.”

Interpretation: Barring a miracle transformation, the much-bally-hooed linebacker from Penn State with the zero-sack total and a paltry 26 tackles in 27 NFL games won’t be a Bill this season. That means Maybin will go down in Bills lore as arguably the worst draft pick in franchise history, surpassing Mike Williams, Perry Tuttle and Walt Patulski for that dubious distinction.

I feel badly for Maybin because he does, as Gailey says, appear to work hard. I just think it’s a case where he doesn’t have the talent to play linebacker at this level.

• Speaking of Gailey, he is one of the most honest, up-front NFL coaches I’ve ever dealt with. Unlike so many of his paranoid peers, he usually tells it like it is.

• So which athletic diva do you find most annoying? A-Rod or Brett Favre?

• There are bad matchups in sports, and for the 2011 Yankees the worst matchup just happens to be against their cursed AL East rival. Boston is 11-2 in the series this season, meaning the only way the Bronx Bombers will get to the World Series is by having someone upset the Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs.

• I’m going to go out on a limb here early and predict a bounce-back season for classy Bills wideout Lee Evans. I just think teams are going to be paying a lot more attention to Stevie Johnson this fall, creating more single-coverage opportunities for Lee. Although his numbers dropped off significantly last year and he just turned 30, Evans remains a dynamic deep threat. I think he still has some good seasons left and I’m glad Buffalo didn’t deal him.

• Another Bill I’m expecting a lot more from this season is C.J. Spiller. Gailey is a very creative offensive mind. I believe he is going to find a lot more ways to get the second-year running back in space.

• It was good seeing Darryl Talley at St. John Fisher, and I hope the former Bills linebacking legend does pursue coaching because he has a great feel for the game and for people. He was a coach on the field during the Bills Super Bowl run, and played a huge role in helping Bruce Smith learn the pro game and realize his Hall-of-Fame potential.

• Syracuse University’s hopes of contending for a Big East football title in Doug Marrone’s third season as his alma mater’s head coach suffered a serious blow last week when promising wide receiver Marcus Sales was arrested for drug possession. It’s sad to see young people squander golden opportunities. Sales was finally beginning to live up to his potential during the second half of last season and had a monster game in the Pinstripe Bowl with 5 receptions for 172 yards and 3 touchdowns.

• There are few fraternities in sports more close-knit and caring than the hockey fraternity. This was underscored again yesterday when local NHLers Brian Gionta and Ryan Callahan came back to play in the Craig Charron memorial charity hockey game at the ESL Center.

• I wish someone would stuff a Big Bertha into caddie Steve Williams’ big mouth. The blow-hard continues to over-value his role in helping golfers win tournaments.

Listening to Williams you'd think Tiger Woods wouldn't have won a single major without him lugging his clubs. If I'm not mistaken, Williams didn’t pinch-swing for Tiger during that remarkable run and he did become a multi-millionaire working for Woods.

Williams’ fairway-sized ego continued to be out-of-control Sunday after he caddied for Adam Scott, who won the World Golf Championship in Akron, Ohio. Williams took another shot at Tiger when he called this the “greatest week of caddying” he’s ever experienced.

Hmmm, bigger than those 13 majors? Yeah, right, Steve.





Friday, August 5, 2011

Our pastime without TV, megadeals and egos

If you want to see base ball played for the sheer love of the game, may I suggest a trip to the Genesee Country Village & Museum this weekend in Mumford to watch the National Silver Ball Tournament. It’s the ninth time we local 19th century base ballists have staged the three-day event, which will feature vintage teams from the Northeast, Midwest and Canada.

We wear funny uniforms and don’t use gloves (yes, I know that sounds crazy; see more below). And some of our rules might be foreign to the 21st century baseball fan. But I think you’ll get a kick out of it, and I guarantee you, you’ll see players giving it their all.

There are a few games this afternoon around 4, and tomorrow there will be matches from 9 in the morning till 5 in the afternoon at the only 19th century ballpark in the country.

As a primer, I offer below, an essay I wrote in my previous life as a newspaper scribe. Hope to see you this weekend – and if you go, be sure to say “hi” to this hurler from the Flower City Base Ball Club.


When I told one of my son's Little League baseball teammates that I play in a 19th century league where they don't use gloves, he looked at me as if I had three eyes. He wondered if I also played football without a helmet and drove my car blind-folded.

"You mean you catch the ball with your bare hands?" he asked. "Geez, that must hurt like hell."

At times, it does.

Jammed and broken fingers occasionally are the price we pay to transport ourselves and visitors to the Genesee Country Village & Museum back in time. But any vintage baseballist worth his salt will tell you that the price is right. We are having too good a time to be stopped by minor inconveniences such as bruised hands or bloody knees.

In many respects, we are like those folks who reenact Civil War skirmishes. We enjoy interpreting history. We believe the past helps us understand the present and the future.

Plus, we are hams. The thespian and the little kid in us often comes out during these matches. The diamond is our stage and our playpen. This is one of those places where men will be boys.

There are some obvious differences between us and our Civil War brethren. For starters, we interpret the 1800s on a ballfield rather than a battlefield. We wield double-knobbed, bottle-shaped bats rather than rifles with bayonets. And the ball, while capable of hurting you, isn't nearly as hard as a bullet or a modern-day hardball. It is made of a leather cover wrapped around yarn and an India rubber core. (For that, we are thankful.)

We all go by nicknames. Yours truly is "Scribe," after what I do for a living. We have a University of Rochester med student known as "Doc," a quick-footed leprechaun of an outfielder known as "Irish," a wily hurler we call "Perfessor," and a long-ball stroking first baseman known as "Country Mile."

In character, we often resort to language that sounds foreign to the 21st century fan. When we want a teammate to hustle, we implore that he show a little ginger. Our bats are willows, our ball an apple, pill, horsehide or onion. The catcher is a behind, infielders are basetenders, and outfielders scouts. A daisy cutter is a well-hit grounder, while a dew drop is a slow pitch. Batters are strikers and fans are cranks.

The rules sound foreign, too. Pitches are delivered underhand with a locked elbow - slow-pitch softball style without the arc. A striker can ask the umpire to tell the hurler exactly where to place the pitch. Foul balls don't count as strikes, but if you catch one on the first bounce, the striker is out. The one-bounce rule also is in effect for fair balls.

Hitters are required to bat flat-footed. There is no striding into the ball, meaning your power must be generated by your arms and torso. (Our game is a chiropractor's dream.)

The umpire has final say in all matters, though on occasion he'll seek the help of the fans or the tallykeeper.

Matches are truly social events. There are pre-game parades through the village, featuring military bands and horse-drawn wagons. Players court single women at the park (that hasn't changed) and reporters (that has). Positive publicity occasionally can be garnered by bribing a base ball scribe with a bottle of his favorite whiskey. (Sportswriters clearly had lower standards in those days.)

Playing surfaces are rocky and uneven. True hops are the exception rather than the rule, even at lush, green Silver Base Ball Park, the only 19th century replica diamond in the United States.

Our uniforms are somewhat odd looking. We wear wool-blend long-sleeve jerseys with bow ties and caps that remind you of a railroad conductor. Metal spikes aren't allowed. Neither are Nike swooshes or adidas stripes.

The emphasis is on hitting 'em where they ain't rather than over the fence. Sorry, Mr. Bonds, but home runs are looked down upon. Singles hitters are the rage in vintage base ball, particularly those who can direct the ball to the opposite field. There is no stealing or leading off, and bunting is frowned upon, though some attempt to cloud the issue with what is known as a slow hit.

The game we interpret stresses sportsmanship and gentlemanly behavior. Players blurting profanity are usually hit with a fine by the umpire.

We interpret a purely amateur game. We are a century removed from the era of whiny millionaires. When we say we play for the love of the game, our words are as solid as one of our northern white ash willows.

Although I've competed in the 19th century game for three years, I'm still learning that I have to unlearn so many 20th and 21st century rules. This is not your father's game. Or your grandfather's game, for that matter.

But it is a lot of fun. An opportunity to take ourselves and others back, back, back in time.

For additional information, go to

P.S. That photo is of the Excelsiors team that won the Silver Ball championship seven years ago. The Excelsiors are now the Flower City BBC.