Friday, June 29, 2012

Opining on Syracuse basketball draftees, pitchers dominance, Yankee injuries and my friend, Rich Funke

                I thought it was classy of Dion Waiters to show up wearing an orange tie and paying homage to his alma mater after being chosen fourth overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA draft last night. “If it wasn’t for Syracuse,’’ Waiters said, “I wouldn’t be here.”

                Jim Boeheim takes a lot of criticism for his handling of players – some of it justified – but he stood his ground with the talented Waiters following Dion’s freshman season at SU and it worked out marvelously. The Orange head coach told Waiters he had two choices – accept his role off the bench or transfer. Dion’s mom told her son she didn’t raise a quitter and advised him to return to Syracuse and work things out, which he did.

                Interestingly, Waiters didn’t start a single game during his two years at SU, but wound up having a sensational sophomore season off the bench, averaging 12.6 points per game in 24 minutes per contest as the Orange men set a school record for most regular season victories and reached their first Elite Eight since their national championship season in 2003.

                I’m wondering if Waiters is the highest NBA draft pick never to have started a game in college (excluding, of course, players who were picked directly out of high school).

                I think the patience and maturity that Waiters gained this past season will bode well for his pro career. Boeheim says he’s the most NBA-ready guard he has ever coached, and there are scouts who believed Waiters not only will start immediately for the Cavs, but will challenge top overall pick Anthony Davis for rookie-of-the-year honors.

                Fab Melo, the 7-foot center from SU who was taken by the Boston Celtics with the 22nd pick overall, has a tremendous upside, and could make an immediate impact as a defender and shot-blocker. But, given all the off-the-court problems he was involved in, I wonder if he will realize his potential. The Brazilian didn’t handle his fame well and I worry about him now that he is about to have fortune added to the equation. I think he has the ability to become a good NBA player, but I don’t know if he can handle the money.

                It was nice that Kris Joseph was taken in the second round by the Celts – giving the Orange three draft picks in the same season for the first time since 1986. He’s a nice young man, but I didn’t see the skills during his SU days to make me believe he can play at this level. I think he can have a nice pro hoops career overseas.

                The trend towards pitchers dominating continues, with the San Francisco Giants staff turning in its fourth consecutive shutout last night. This, along with the three no-hitters (including two perfect games) and continuing decline in batting averages have some worried, but not me. I like it. There’s no question that the recently instituted drug tests and public humiliation associated with the use of performance enhancing drugs have been big factors in stemming the slow-pitch softball numbers put up by phonies such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Hey, I like to see offense from time to time, but the game in the late 1990s and most of the 2000s had become an offensive orgy and the numbers weren’t real.


                The recent injuries to Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia, coupled with the long-shot hopes that retread Freddy Garcia and untried hurlers will fill the void, means the Yankees won’t run away with the AL East. And if CC is out for any extended length of time, New York could have trouble earning a wildcard.
                Congratulations to my friend Rich Funke, who announced he will be retiring from the airwaves this December after more than 40 years in the television business. When I started at the Democrat and Chronicle in 1985, I was told to beware of Funke as far as scoops were concerned. The well-connected Funke helped Channel 10 become the dominant sports broadcast in this market through the 1980s and early ‘90s. He then made a successful transition from sports anchor to news anchor. Beyond that, he has given so much back to the community through his charity work. I wish him nothing but the best in retirement.

              And one final personal note: Congratulations to my friend, Matt Michael. The long-time Syracuse Post-Standard baseball writer is getting married today. I wish him and Robin the same happiness I have found with my loving bride, Beth.         

Monday, June 25, 2012

A baseball lover's dream weekend

                My 24-hour baseball marathon included a book signing with a World Series hero, a ceremonial first-pitch, two Triple-A games as a spectator, one 19th century game as a participant and a few hours as a volunteer at a baseball game for physically, mentally and emotionally challenged kids.

 It began Friday evening with Johnny Antonelli, the pitching star of the 1954 Fall Classic and a five-time National League All-Star, joining me at Frontier Field to sign copies of our new book, Johnny Antonelli: A Baseball Memoir, before the Red Wings game. John’s family was in town for this one and it was great to see the former New York and San Francisco Giants southpaw mingling with his family and fans. One of the really cool moments occurred when John’s old catcher at Jefferson High School – Gordie Scott – came through the line to get a book signed. You could just see the decades peel away as the two men reminisced about the good, old days when John was establishing himself as one of the nation’s most sought-after school boy pitchers.

Interestingly, John throws left, but signs right-handed. He has had me do the inscriptions for each stop during our recent signing tour. He tells me that I have better penmanship and I’m the writer, so it would be better if I handle that stuff. I joke with him that I’m the set-up guy and he’s the closer.

After motoring through about 100 books, we got to throw out the first pitches. I’m happy to report that I fired a strike. John, meanwhile, bounced his toss. No shame in that. The old lefty, after all, is 82 years old. I jested that he did that just so I would look good.

The next morning I was back at Frontier for the 20th annual Challenger Little League Baseball World Series. I’ve volunteered at about 16 of them and I always walk away from the experience uplifted. Many of these kids are in wheelchairs. A number of them are battling some pretty serious stuff. But this is their chance to get their turn at bat, so to speak, and they go at it with such gusto. Each participant – and there were a record 280 kids this year – is paired with able-bodied “buddies” or “guardian angels” who assist them, if they need it. The Challenger World Series is one of the highlights of the baseball season for me because everybody wins and nobody loses. You are reminded how the simple act of hitting a ball and taking a trip around the bases can bring a smile to one’s face – and soul. Tony Wells has been the mastermind behind this event since the beginning, and deserves a huge doff of the cap.

After finishing up at Frontier, I headed to the Genesee Country Village & Museum for two hours of vintage base ball (yes, it was two words back in the day.) We interpret the game according to 1866 rules, which means no gloves allowed. Our teams are based on actual ball clubs that played in the area around the time of the Civil War. My squad is the FC (either Flour City or Flower City) Base Ball Club, and we wound up beating our opponents, the Rochesters, 19-16, at Silver Base Ball Park, the only replica 19th century ball diamond in the country. We play virtually every Saturday or Sunday during the summer. If you get a chance, please check it out.

My whirlwind baseball weekend brought me back to Frontier Saturday night for the Wings-Charlotte Knights International League game and a bachelor’s party for my friend Matt Michael in one of the suites. More than 10,000 were on hand for the International League tilt, and as I looked at the enthusiastic throng I was reminded what a great place Frontier is and what a great job the Wings do in making it feel like a party atmosphere. I drove home that night joyfully exhausted. The weekend had been a home run.

The above photograph is courtesy of my friend Joe Territo, a fellow 19th century base ballist and professional photograph. Joe truly is an artist with a camera in his hands. The Red Wings commissioned him to shoot quite a few of their games this season and he's produced some wonderful stuff. You can check out his stuff at . Great stuff.
Mark Herzlich, the Giants linebacker who overcame a rare form of bone cancer to play in the Super Bowl, will speak at a benefit for Camp Good Days & Special Times Wednesday at the Rochester Plaza. Tickets for this inspirational speaker are $60 and can be purchased by calling 585-624-5555. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Wallenda's journey above Niagara conjures memories of a ballpark highwire act many years ago

The hype surrounding Nik Wallenda’s high-wire attempt above Niagara Falls before a national television audience tonight got me to thinking about the time I wrote about another Wallenda daredevil act in Western New York that received much less fanfare, despite being more death-defying.

I wrote a retrospective piece about it for my old newspaper, the Democrat and Chronicle , and for the history of the Red Wings that I co-wrote with Jim Mandelaro many years ago.

Of all the great performances in the Rochester ballclub’s storied history it would be tough to top – literally – the show that Nik’s grandfather, Karl Wallenda, put on the evening of May 12, 1976. A crowd of just 2,736 looked on at old Silver Stadium as the seventy-one-year-old Wallenda successfully walked a tightrope five hundred feet from the centerfield fence to the grandstand roof – 60 feet above the ground. As I wrote, the performance must have inspired the Wings because they swept a doubleheader from the Rhode Island Red Sox (now known as Pawtucket.)

I say that it was more death-defying than Nik’s attempt because the elder Wallenda did so without a safety tether like the one Nik will use tonight when he traverses the wire over the tumultuous mist of the Horseshoe Falls. (I should note that there has been speculation that Nik may unhook his tether after he begins his journey above the mighty falls. Obviously, if he’s crazy enough to do that – which would be in violation of both United States and Canadian law and his contract with ABC – his journey will become more challenging than Karl’s was at Silver.)

Several members of the acrobatic troupe that came to be known as “The Flying Wallendas” died during falls from the highwire, including Karl, who plunged to his death during an act in San Juan, Puerto Rico at age 73.


The Johnny Antonelli book tour continues Satuday night (June 16) at 7 with a talk and signing at the Pittsford Barnes & Noble. Our presentation is free and open to the public.

Next Tuesday at 1 p.m., we’ll be doing a question-and-answer session and signing at the Bullpen Theater in the Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum. I’m really looking forward to that event, as well as a tour of the museum with Johnny.

Our last signing event for now will be Friday, June 22, before the Red Wings game at Frontier Field. That starts once the gates open (around 5:45). Johnny also will throw out the ceremonial first pitch that evening.

You also can listen to us talk about our book (Johnny Antonelli: A Baseball Memoir, RIT Press, $17.95) with friend and fellow author Curt Smith on WXXI (AM 1370) Saturday from 2-3 p.m. or Monday night at 11 p.m. Curt’s show also is carried on Buffalo’s PBS affiliate, WNED, Saturdays at 7 a.m.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Baseball legend Johnny Antonelli at Greece Barnes & Noble booksigning tonight

For all my Rochester west-siders, Johnny Antonelli and I will be doing a talk and signing at the Greece Barnes & Noble tonight at 7. Please stop by to hear some great stories about playing with the likes of Willie Mays and Warren Spahn and against baseball icons such as Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. And don't forget, Father's Day is fast-approaching. The book tour continues on Saturday, June 16, at 7 at the Pittsford Barnes & Noble with another question-and-answer session and signing. On Tuesday, June 19 at 1, we'll be doing a talk and signing at the Bullpen Theater at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. Can't wait for that one. And on Friday, June 22, Johnny will be signing books outside the Red Wings Gift Shop in the Frontier Field concourse before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at that night's Wings game. It's been a lot of fun spending time with Johnny. The Rochester born-and-bred pitcher who went on to become a World Series hero and five-time National League All-Star and enormously successful entrepreneur is one of the nicest, most humble people you'll ever meet. And it's been great getting to know his wife, Gail, too. She's been a great aid to me, from helping arrange the interviews to the promotion of the book.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Basketball legend Jack Twyman was a true hero and a true friend

As a newspaper columnist for more than three decades, I had the opportunity to champion numerous causes. One of my prouder moments was joining Jack Twyman’s campaign to get former basketball great Maurice Stokes inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

                I got to know Twyman, who passed away the other day, while writing a retrospective about Stokes for my old newspaper, the Democrat and Chronicle, about a decade ago. Stokes was a transformative player for the old Rochester and Cincinnati Royals whose career was tragically cut short when he became paralyzed and unable to speak after crashing his head against the hardwood while pulling down a rebound in a 1958 NBA game.

                Stokes would remain paralyzed for the rest of his life (he died at age 36 in 1970), but he regained his ability to communicate by using a special typewriter and flashing that trademark smile of his – the one with enough wattage to light up a basketball arena.

                Stokes became an inspiration to all.

                As did Twyman, his former teammate and friend.

                Twyman was a superb player who also would earn induction into the Hall of Fame. But like the man he will forever be associated with, Jack made a more powerful and meaningful impact away from the court.

                At the tender age of 24, he showed us the true meaning of friendship.

                 That’s when he became Stokes’ legal guardian and welcomed him into his family. Jack tirelessly battled for Stokes to be awarded worker’s compensation, and in order to defray the exorbitant medical and rehabilitation expenses, he also started an annual NBA charity game that was played at Kutsher’s resort in the Catskills and annually attracted the likes of megastars Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.

                “There was nothing heroic about what I did,’’ Twyman told me in a 2004 interview. “A friend was in need and I just did what any friend would have done in that situation. I became his advocate. It was Maurice who was the hero.”

                Stokes had been a player ahead of his time – a muscular 6-foot-8, 250-pound power forward who was destined for superstardom before his unfortunate accident just 202 games into his NBA career. An indication of just how good he was occurred during his pro debut at the Rochester War Memorial on Nov. 5, 1955 when scored 32 points, grabbed 20 rebounds and assisted on eight other baskets. As I wrote in a retrospective a few years ago, “It was a Magic night before anyone ever heard of Earvin Johnson; a glimpse into the future.”

                Stokes, who had been a consensus All-American at St. Francis (Pa.) College, would go on to earn NBA Rookie of the Year honors with the Royals that season. In his second year, he established a league record for rebounds in a season. In year three he hauled in 38 rebounds in a single game and earned All-Star honors for a third time.

                “The sky would have been the limit for Maurice as far as basketball was concerned,’’ Twyman told me. “In my mind, he would have been one of the five best (basketball players of all-time). He could play every position, and do it all. He could start the fast break and finish it, too. No one had seen a guy with that combination of strength and speed and size before. There were nights when he was unstoppable.”

                The more I spoke to Twyman and other basketball greats about Stokes, the more convinced I became that he belonged in the Hall of Fame. I wrote several stories and columns about this historical oversight, and Twyman used those along with testimonials from many others to make a case for his friend.

                In 2004, the committee of voters took a more indepth look at Stokes’ marvelous college career – he put tiny St. Francis on the map – and his brief but brilliant pro career – he averaged 16.4 points, 17.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game.

                I was grateful that my paper sent me to Springfield, Mass. to cover Stokes’ induction that fall. It gave me an opportunity to see Twyman again. I told him I admired his persistence and perseverance  on Stokes’ behalf. And he thanked me for helping make sure history did not forget his friend.

                I thought about that wonderful moment when I heard the news of Jack’s death at age 79 after a long battle with cancer. He truly was a Good Samaritan; a man who defined the meaning of friendship.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Johnny Antonelli Booksignings & Talks

The booksigning tour with baseball legend Johnny Antonelli continues this weekend. I will be joining the former Giants All-Star and World Series hero at the Pittsford Wegmans today from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Please stop by and meet Johnny and pick up a Father's Day gift.

Other scheduled public talks and signings:

Friday, June 8, 7 p.m. - Greece Barnes & Noble.

Saturday, June 16, 7 p.m. - Pittsford Barnes & Noble.

Tuesday, June 19, 1 p.m. - Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown.

Friday, June 22, 5:30 p.m. - Frontier Field before Red Wings game.