Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I think linebacker Luke Kuechly would look good in a Bills uniform

With the 10th overall pick of the NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills select . . . 

Michael Floyd, wide receiver, University of Notre Dame?

 Riley Reiff, offensive tackle, University of Iowa?

 Luke Kuechly, linebacker, Boston College?

 Dre Kirkpatrick, cornerback, University of Alabama?

  So D-Day is upon us, and tomorrow night on the Radio City Music Hall stage where the Rockettes get their kicks, Commissioner Roger Goodell will reveal the latest first-round draft pick by a Bills franchise that’s had a pretty darn good off-season so far.

 The aforementioned names have appeared frequently in the mock drafts that populate the Internet like dandelions in an untreated Rochester lawn. Any of the above would address the needs of a team that finally seems serious about ending a 12-year playoff drought.

 Floyd, a 6-foot-3, 220-pounder with good speed and glue-like hands, would be the sexiest pick. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick undoubtedly would love to have a big target like Floyd to pair with Stevie Johnson, who was re-signed this spring after becoming the first receiver in Bills history to record back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. General Manager Buddy Nix has talked a lot about picking a guy who not merely would start right away, but would make plays right away, so Floyd might be that guy. Then, again, Nix also has talked about being pleased with his promising receiving corps, so maybe he’ll go in a different direction.

 Like left offensive tackle.

 The loss of Demetrius Bell to free agency has left the Bills thin at the position. But Nix has given Chris Hairston a strong vote of confidence, saying he believes Buffalo can win with him protecting Fitz’s blind side. There’s also question about how much of an upgrade Reiff would be over Hairston, the 2011 fourth-rounder who started seven games in place of the injured Bell. Reiff projects to cut his NFL teeth at right tackle before making the transition to the left side. If Southern Cal’s Matt Kalil were to slip all the way to 10th, the Bills would snatch him up immediately. But Kalil is expected to go in the top five picks.

 Cornerback is always a need, so that’s a possibility, and Nix has made no secret about his love for players from southern schools, especially Alabama. At 6-2, 185, Kirkpatrick is an unusually big corner, but has All-Pro cover skills according to several NFL scouts. He’s rated second at the position behind LSU’s Morris Claiborne, who’s expected to be gone before the Bills chose.

 Linebacker is another area of need, and with the transition to a 4-3, Kuechly would fit the Bills perfectly. He is a tackling machine who also has great cover skills, so unlike a lot of inside linebackers, you wouldn’t need to take him off the field in obvious passing situations. Plus, he’s athletic and cerebral enough to make the transition to the outside. He’d be a nice fit with Nick Barnett, Kelvin Sheppard and Kirk Morrison. I could definitely see Buffalo choosing him if he’s available because new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt might view him the way he did Zach Thomas and Ken Norton, when he was calling the defenses in Miami and Dallas. The thing is, at 6-3, 240, Kuechly is much bigger than either Thomas and Norton.

 I know the choice of Floyd would stoke the fan base the most, but I think I’d go with Keuchly if he’s there.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Revisiting my fields, rinks & courts of dreams

I’m looking forward to checking out the recently unveiled FENtennial exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park at the Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown.

Although I’ve followed the Bronx Bombers since the summer of ’61 (that’s 1961, not 1861) and although the old Yankee Stadium (pre-1974 renovations) will always be my all-time favorite sporting venue, I love the Fens. The Green Monster ranks up there with the ornate fa├žade that hung from the roof of the House That Ruth Built, the ivy that covers Wrigley Field’s brick outfield walls in Chicago and the Baltimore warehouse towering over Camden Yards as my favorite icons of sports architecture.

I always tell people making their inaugural visit to Fenway that they should enter on the first-base side and come up through those tunnels so they can experience the full impact of the Monster. From that perspective, you can appreciate how that tantalizingly close leftfield wall can play havoc with even the most skilled batters, pitchers and fielders.

The celebration of Fenway got me to thinking about how fortunate I’ve been to visit many of the truly iconic sports venues during my sportswriting career.

In addition to old Yankee Stadium and the Fens, I’ve been privileged to cover games at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, the Boston Garden, Notre Dame’s football stadium, the L.A. Coliseum, Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, Camden Yards (still the best of the retro parks), the Rose Bowl and the Carrier Dome (when there are 34,000 orange-clad crazies for a Syracuse U. basketball game.)

I’ve also been privileged to be at some truly spectacular stadiums in Sydney, Australia, Athens, Greece, Lillehammer Norway and Beijing, China. The “Bird’s Nest” and “Water Cube” at the 2008 Olympics in China were truly unique, but perhaps the most distinctive venue I’ve ever reported from was the ice rink the Norwegians built in a cave for the 1996 Winter Olympics. Peering up at stalactites during breaks in the action from a hockey game was very cool.

The sports historian in me often fantasizes what it would have been like to visit some of the sporting venues that are long gone. I would have loved to have taken in a Brooklyn Dodgers game at Ebbets Field or a Giants or Mets game at the Polo Grounds.

I still kick myself for not taking a trip to the compact hockey barn in Lake Placid to watch the U.S. Olympic team in 1980. (I was working in Utica and could have made the trip in just two hours.) I also lament the fact I never saw the Canadiens play a game at the old Montreal Forum.

There remain several sports venues on my bucket list. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never seen a Cubs game at Wrigley. I’ve been pushing my wife for several years to go to that Iowa cornfield where they filmed Field of Dreams. (Yes, I am a sentimental sort who shed a tear at the end of the movie, and, yes, I will bring my glove with me and play a game of catch there in homage to Shoeless Joe, his dad and mine.) I also have a desire to attend a Duke basketball game at Cameron Indoor Stadium and a Butler University game at the old fieldhouse where they filmed Hoosiers.

I have a hankering, too, to take in a Pirates game at their new ballpark, and I’m sure there are several minor-league parks that have the type of history and vista that would stoke my soul. I’d also love to see a U.S. Open tennis match at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadow.

I’m sure that there are other sites that will beckon me along the way. But I’m grateful for where I’ve been. In retrospect, I truly have been blessed to have visited so many fields and courts and rinks of dreams.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Partaking of a unique football/baseball doubleheader

I extricated myself from the solitary confinement of my home office and the drudgery of book-writing and editing yesterday to get outdoors and take in a unique spring sports doubleheader in downtown Rochester.

And I’m glad I did.

I caught part of the Syracuse University football scrimmage at Sahlen's Stadium, then took in several innings of the Red Wings home baseball opener at nearby Frontier Field.

Being outdoors on a gorgeous day among people proved good for the soul.

Twenty-eight years of covering the Bills has soured me on watching football practices. And I long ago learned that little can be discerned from such repetitive and boring endeavors. So, I can’t draw many conclusions from SU’s first open-to-the-public practice of the spring, other than that the defense appears to be way ahead of the offense and that running backs Prince-Tyson Gulley (love that name) and Jerome Smith might actually provide the Orange with a potent ground game this fall.

I understand that fourth-year Syracuse coach Doug Marrone is under mounting pressure to turn things around after last year’s debacle in which the Orange stumbled to the finish line with five consecutive losses. But not allowing your players to be interviewed by the media is a bit extreme, and not the best way for a floundering program to spark interest among a skeptical/apathetic fan base. I still think the former Syracuse offensive lineman is the right guy to turn things around, but closing practices and denying the media access rarely has been a successful formula.

On the positive side, the players spent nearly a half hour after the practice signing autographs for the several hundred fans in attendance. As the Orange struggles to become relevant again, they need to do more of this. And I hope Marrone continues to bring his team to RahChaCha for these scrimmages because it’s a good way to sell the program to a market that has provided the school with numerous standout players and season ticket-holders through the years. Kudos to dedicated SU alum Mike Vadala from Summit Federal Credit Union for setting up this trip to Rochester. It’s a good idea that can become even bigger with a little more support - and many more wins.

The Red Wings continue to do a stellar job with home openers, as evidenced by another stirring pre-game salute to our military.

I spent a little time in the press box kibitzing with former colleagues before strolling to different locations in Frontier. For as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed uprooting myself every couple of innings and watching the game from different seats. Yesterday, I viewed part of the game from the third-base seats next to the grassy knoll along the left-field foul line, then took a walk to the centerfield SRO area to catch an inning there. I immediately noticed how brutal – even with sunglasses on – the sun was in center. And it gave me a greater appreciation of why the Wings centerfielder lost sight of the baseball.

People ask me if the Wings are going to be good this year. Haven’t a clue. Minor-league baseball prospects like football scrimmages are always tough to gauge.

This much I know: If you love baseball or just love the camaraderie at a ballpark, you’ll have 108 more opportunities to experience it at Frontier during this historic summer in which the Wings and Empire State Yankees will call One Morrie Silver Way home.