Tuesday, July 31, 2012

It's very early Bills fans, but reasons for optimism appear justified

                Twenty-eight summers of covering NFL training camps has taught me how foolhardy it can be to jump to any conclusions. I saw many a Bills team that looked great in Fredonia or St. John Fisher that wound up looking putrid come the regular season. That said, I can’t help but be impressed with what I’ve seen so far from the new-and-improved Bills.

                Among the things that have caught my eye:

·         The unblockable defensive line. Mario Williams, the $100-million man, looks like he is going to be worth every penny the Bills invested in him. He’s a 6-foot-6, 290-pound walking solar eclipse who’s quick and nimble and strong. At the other defensive end, fleet-footed Mark Anderson has displayed a quirky, but effective array of pass-rushing moves that have befuddled his offensive linemates. In the interior of the line, Marcell Dareus appears to have taken a quantum leap from his solid rookie campaign and veteran tackle Kyle Williams looks to be healthy and back to Pro Bowl form. It’s very, very early, but if these guys stay healthy, this group has the potential to become the best defensive line in team history.

·         Ryan Fitzpatrick is throwing the ball better than ever. The mechanical work he’s done with new quarterbacks coach David Lee is already paying dividends as Fitz has been hitting the bulls-eye with great frequency. Of course, it will be interesting to see if this continues when the games begin. It’s difficult to unlearn bad habits and there’s a tendency to revert to them when the pressure’s on. But Fitz is a bright guy and this is an encouraging development.

·         Third-year receiver Marcus Easley has looked impressive. He’s big and swift and appears to be ready to fulfill the potential the Bills saw in him when they drafted him in the fourth round out of Connecticut three Aprils ago. The problem with Easley, of course, has been his health. A knee injury sidelined him for all of 2010 and a heart ailment – which he says has been remedied – put him on IR for all of last season. If this guy finally catches a break and stays on the field for a full season, look out.

·         Rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore might be ready to start right now. The Bills first-round draft pick is fearless. I’ve watched him go one-on-one against Buffalo’s top receiver Stevie Johnson numerous times in camp and he’s more than held his own. Not bad for a young guy locking horns with a veteran pass-catcher who’s the first player in franchise history to compile back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

·         Fred Jackson looks like he hasn’t missed a beat. Everybody talks about how C.J. Spiller has to get more touches – and I agree – but Chan Gailey would be foolish not to utilize Steady Freddy as much as possible. The running back, who had his MVP-caliber season cut six games short by a broken leg, appears to be as explosive as ever. Freddy is still the engine that drives this offense.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Reflecting on my Olympic experiences as the Games commence in London

As the Brits prepare to light the Olympic cauldron at tonight’s opening ceremonies in London, nostalgia sweeps over me. I long to be at the spectacle, which, I’m told, will culminate, most appropriately, with Sir Paul McCartney leading the throng in a rousing rendition of Hey Jude. (That, in itself, would be worth the price of admission. I speak from experience because I was part of Sir Paul’s “chorus of thousands” at one of his concerts in Philadelphia several years ago. It was a jolly good time.)

 I now realize how blessed I was to have covered five Olympiads for my former newspaper as well as Gannett News Service and USA Today. Despite the crass commercialism and jingoism, there is something truly special about the Games. I can’t think of any other event that brings the world together for three weeks. Too bad, we have to wait every two years to experience that spirit of unity, in which we celebrate similarities rather than differences.
              The personal connection I feel to the Olympics (I also was privileged to be a torchbearer during the relay leading up to the 2002 Salt Lake City Games) clearly is a huge reason I wish I were in London. But I think my yearning also has something to do with my late mom. She was from northern England and I know she would be bursting with pride and waving a mini-Union Jack while watching the pomp and circumstance unfold. It would have been so cool to share in the merriment of her people.
                Since I’m in a reflective mood, I thought I’d toss out a few of my more memorable moments from the Olympics I covered in Norway, Australia, Greece, China and Atlanta.

·         Michael Phelps’ record-setting eighth-goal medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing. I was indeed there in the natatorium known as the “Water Cube” chronicling the race that saw Phelps surpass Mark Spitz as the most decorated Olympic swimmer. The thing is, I almost missed this historic moment because of a bout with food poisoning. About an hour before Phelps hit the water I had to hit the head. Let’s just say that if “hurling” were a competition that day, I definitely would have medaled.

·         The Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan soap opera. I was one of 50 credentialed journalists in the rink in Hammar, Norway for the most anticipated figure skating competition in history. You know the story. Before the Olympics, Harding’s henchmen whacked Nancy on the chin with a lead pipe in hopes of preventing her from competing in the 1994 Olympics. But Kerrigan recovered quickly enough and wound up winning silver. Tonya, meanwhile, flopped badly in the opening round of this sorry spectacle that became the third most watched event in television history.

·         Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic cauldron at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. This was one of the best-kept secrets of all-time. I was speculating someone like former Braves home run champion Hank Aaron, but the committee fooled us all by opting for a Louisville Slugger. A thunderous roar shook the stadium when Ali – a Kentucky native and 1960 Olympic gold medalist in boxing – ignited the flame. Four years later, at the Sydney Olympics, I had the privilege of being invited to Ali’s hotel suite where the former heavyweight champion of the world entertained us with poetry, magic tricks and impish pranks.

·         Rochesterians Abby Wambach, Diann Roffe-Steinrotter & Cathy Turner winning gold medals in their respective events. Abby’s game-winning goal in the 2004 Games in Athens not only gave the U.S. the gold, but proved to be a fitting parting gift for her soccer idol, Mia Hamm, who would retire shortly after the Olympics. Diann won the downhill ski event in Lillehammer in 1994. Interestingly, she was the first skier of the day and her time held up. I also was there for Cathy’s gold in short-track speedskating in Norway. Her athleticism and feistiness were perfectly suited for the sport, which resembles roller derby on ice.

·         The opening ceremonies in Beijing. Talk about a tour du force. The world’s most populous nation does things in a big way. Eight is considered a lucky number in Chinese culture and at exactly eight minutes after eight PM on the eighth day of the eighth month of ’08 several thousand drums beat in unison inside the Olympic stadium to officially open the Beijing Games. More than 12,000 performing artists put on a spectacle that night that will be hard for the Brits or any other host nation to match.

·          Climbing the Great Wall of China, the Acropolis in Athens and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. The Great Wall snakes its way through nearly 4,000 miles of China, and the parts I traversed were in mountainous regions, so you literally had to climb the steep steps. There were places where my head literally was in the clouds. I couldn’t imagine how they managed to build this architectural marvel, which was nearly a thousand years old. I experienced the same wonderment when I walked through the Parthenon and other ancient Greek temples. The Sydney Harbor Bridge also took my breath away – but for different reasons. See, I suffer from a fear of heights, and in a moment of temporary insanity I decided to make this trek up the bridge spans to its peak, some 45 stories above the water. I turned green on several occasions, but somehow the tour guide managed to coax me up and down the bridge’s massive arches. Once back on terra firma, I told people I was glad I had done it – and vehemently vowed never to do it again.

·         Covering the 1996 Olympics with a broken leg. Two weeks before I was supposed to go to Atlanta, I broke my left leg and ankle in seven places playing softball. Not exactly good preparation for covering the Olympics. I’m a stubborn cuss, so I decided to give it a shot anyway and packed my wheelchair and crutches and flew to Atlanta. I lasted 13 days in Hotlanta before having go to the same emergency room at Emory University that gold-medal gymnast Kerri Strug went to after her memorable landing. The orthopedist said it was a good thing I had come when I did. He cut my cast off and examined my swollen leg and told me that if I had waited another day he would have had to amputate my leg.       

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Ruminations on JoePa statue, Bills stadium lease, Syracuse leaving Big East,Linsanity, etc.

                From my perspective, it’s a no-brainer: Joe must go. If I were a Penn State alum, I’d be clamoring for the school’s board of trustees to immediately remove the Joe Paterno statue from campus. Yes, I know JoePa did so many great things. Graduated, at high rates, student-athletes, who were, for the most part, truly students first, athletes second. Raised truckloads of money and awareness that helped a small agricultural school become a world-renowned research university. But the legendary football coach’s involvement in the coverup of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal is so egregious that all that other stuff becomes secondary. Jettisoning this painful reminder of a man more concerned about his reputation and his empire than the welfare of the kids abused by a monster named Sandusky will be another step in the healing process. A step that needs to be taken ASAP.

                The most haunting part of the Freeh report was how the men in power spoke about treating Sandusky “humanely” while never mentioning the “humane” treatment of the kids he had abused and was about to abuse.
                Speaking of statues, I was happy to see the Buffalo Sabres will be honoring the French Connection with a bronzed likeness outside their arena. My beautiful bride is especially pleased with this development. She grew up with a crush on the Sabres dynamic center from that 1970s line, Gilbert Perreault.
                Linsainty was indeed fun while it lasted and I know a lot of Knicks fans are sad to see Jeremy Lin go, but I don’t blame New York for not matching Houston’s ridiculous contract offer. Offering this shooting star $25 million guaranteed based on 25 games would have been true insanity.
                I hope Erie County Executive Mark Polonocarz is sincere when he says he is seeking an iron-clad lease from the Bills. The team wants county and state taxpayers to pony up the lion’s share of the $200-plus million it will take to bring Ralph Wilson Stadium up to speed. In return, he should receive legal assurance that the team won’t be bolting for L.A. or some other greener pasture in the next 10 years. Polonocarz would be wise to follow the lead of Jacksonville city officials who attached enormous escape fees to the Jaguars new lease that would make early departure cost prohibitive.
                I never thought a Yankees team that lost Mariano Rivera for the season would wind up running away with the toughest division in baseball, but that’s what’s happening. The Bronx Bombers are up 9.5 games on second-place Tampa. As Casey Stengel used to say: “Who would have thunk it?”
                Here’s hoping my adopted National League team – the Pittsburgh Pirates – continue to play well. As you know, it’s been ions since they finished above .500 and made the playoffs. They currently find themselves one-game back of Cincinnati with a 50-40 record.
                I enjoyed Reggie Jackson’s ability to rise to the occasion in big games, but I was never a fan of his larger-than-Yankee Stadium ego. He obviously got himself into trouble for popping off about the Hall-of-Fame worthiness of several players, who clearly are as deserving as Reggie was. But I do agree with his thoughts about the gaudy numbers compiled by Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds being tainted. Reggie echoed something I’ve long said – that Hank Aaron is the true all-time home run champion. I also believe that Roger Maris is the true single-season HR champ, despite being surpassed by steroid users Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire.
                 Don’t mean to sound like Super Patriot Scott here, but I do have a problem with the USOC and Ralph Lauren for having the U.S. Olympic team’s garb made in China. I think the folks who made that bone-headed decision should be out-sourced.
                I’m still a little saddened by Syracuse’s departure from the Big East, though I see the reason for the move to the ACC. The Big East clearly isn’t what it used to be and the Atlantic Coast Conference will be a good fit both athletically and academically. Still, I’ll miss the great basketball rivalries with Connecticut and Georgetown and the annual Big East tournament in the Big Apple.
                Had to laugh when I heard the acting Big East commish say the conference will be stronger than ever, once “eastern” schools such as Houston, Boise State and San Diego State join. Next thing you know they’ll be adding schools from Japan. Then, they can call themselves the Big Far East. Or perhaps the Big Farce.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Opining on the impact of the NFL's revised blackout rule on the Bills, the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates & the closing of Mickey Mantle's in NYC

             Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, deserves credit for sticking up for sports fans and taking on the NFL’s antiquated and avaricious blackout policy. But the league’s new rule that will allow games to be televised locally even if they aren’t sold out doesn’t go far enough. Under the new proposal – which individual teams can still opt out of – a game can be shown if 85 percent of the tickets have been sold 72 hours before kickoff.

 This is a slight improvement over the current 100 percent policy, but had the new plan been in effect the past two seasons, only one of the six Bills non-sellouts would have been telecast in the Buffalo-Rochester market.
    I have long railed against the NFL’s blackout policy. Congress and the FCC should not allow games to be blacked out by teams, such as the Bills, who receive sizable taxpayer money to refurbish or build new stadiums.

                Higgins called the new policy a “game-changer.” But the game won’t really change until the NFL is forced to televise every contest locally, regardless of ticket sales, as in done in other sports.

It’s time to white-out the blackout rule once and for all.


                The league’s schedule-makers certainly haven’t done the Bills any favors as far as attendance is concerned. For the second consecutive December, Buffalo will host three home games. Even during the Bills glory years in the early 1990s, late-season home games were not an easy sell.


                There are some great stories unfolding this baseball season, none better, in my opinion, than the drama in the Steel City. At the All-Star break, the Pittsburgh Pirates are sitting atop the NL Central. Thanks to the play of leading MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and pitcher A.J. Burnett, Pittsburgh has a great shot of not only snapping its North American-record losing streak of 19 consecutive seasons, but making the playoffs for the first time since 1992. Burnett’s revival obviously has many Yankee fans wondering, “Why didn’t we see these kind of pitching performances in the Bronx?” A.J. is another in a long line of players who couldn’t hack it under the Big Apple’s bright lights. He was 21-26 with a 5.20 earned run average in his two seasons in Pinstripes and is 9-2 with a 3.74 ERA this season.


                Rough week for this child of 1960s television. First, Andy Griffith leaves us, and, now, Ernest Borgnine. Borgnine was an Academy Award-winning actor, but for me, and millions of others, he’ll always be remembered for his lead role in the TV sit-com, McHale’s Navy.


                I was saddened to hear that Mickey Mantle’s Sports Bar and Restaurant has closed. I was at the Manhattan eatery on several occasions and loved the atmosphere. With all the memorabilia in its display cases, it had a museum-like feel to it. ESPN had named it the top sports bar in America and it hosted numerous major sports news conferences through the years. I even dragged my then-fiancee, Beth, there the day after I proposed to her atop the Empire State Building. She was cool with it because it was across the street from Central Park and I arranged for an afternoon carriage ride and a stop at the Park’s zoo. In its 25-years, Mantle’s became one of those secondary NYC landmarks. I’ll miss the joint.

            You won’t hear any complaints from this 19th century base ball pitcher about run support. Through four games, our Flour City Base Ball Club has averaged 25 runs per contest, including a team-record 32 two matches ago. When you interpret 1866 base ball as we do and play sans gloves you always have the feeling that you never have enough runs. But that clearly hasn’t been the feeling this season. My fellow hurlers and I are loving the prosperity. The margin for error has been quite large.