Sunday, September 29, 2019

Review: Beyond the Xs and Os (2019)

By Mark C. Poloncarz

We're used to seeing politicians come out with a book when they run for higher office - particularly President. Such publications are usually life stories and/or policy statements. They also are often rather boring.

Mark Poloncarz twists that formula a bit with "Beyond the Xs and Os."

The current Erie County Executive, and candidate for another term, has written a book containing the play-by-play of the lease negotiations that kept the Buffalo Bills here. It was climaxed when an agreement between the county, state, and the Bills in 2013. Poloncarz no doubt discovered that it's not easy to squeeze in the writing of a book into your life, especially a life that must be pretty busy as it is.

But here that book is, six years later. What's more, it's a respectable job of telling the story about how the negotiations went - a look into a process that usually more or less stays behind closed doors.

What is striking about the talks from the perspective of 2019 is that there was a basic agreement on the situation - all sides wanted a deal done.  Poloncarz certainly didn't want to see the Bills leave town, particularly while he was County Executive. (Footnote: it's interesting to note that there are plenty of people out there who dislike sports in general and don't find the idea of subsidizing athletic teams a particularly good idea. But few politicians have the nerve to test that, since the pro-sports faction is a loud and enthusiastic one.) The state, which had seen two NFL teams move its home base to New Jersey over the years, certainly didn't want to lose the Bills. As for the team, owner Ralph Wilson had no interest in seeing the Bills move to another city as long as he was alive.

So it should be easy, right? These things are never easy. The first catch is that Wilson, who was in his 90's when the negotiations began, wasn't likely to be alive at the end of a 10- or 15-year lease. The government bodies wanted protection against the team moving in the event of Wilson's death. The problem, of course, was that an NFL franchise was worth more in another city than in Buffalo. That increased the likelihood than an outside group would want to buy the Bills with the intent of moving it to say, Los Angeles (open territory at the time) if there were no legal restrictions. Eventually, a $400 million "poison pill" was agreed upon for an early termination of the deal, which did indeed chill out of town interest.

That was the most difficult obstacle in the negotiations themselves. But the initial roadblock, according to Poloncarz, was surprising. The state had representatives sit in on the early negotiations, but contributed little. The silence of state officials finally ended when the Cuomo Administration apparently realized that time was starting to become a factor, as the TV announcers say during games. It came up with an idea for a new stadium, which went nowhere since no one else wanted a replacement structure (and its accompanying cost) at the time.

As you'd expect, drawing up a document that could fill up a five-page binder isn't easy. Poloncarz points out that sometimes you have to let lawyers go off by themselves and solve some issues with out the emotions that the lead negotiators bring to the bargaining table. But at other times, the lawyers can get too entrenched in position, and those negotiators have to step in and provide a compromising spirit on issues. Both situations took place in these talks, and it was the latter that resulted in the final completion of the deal.

Poloncarz comes off pretty well here. He appears to be smart, thorough and logical, although he doesn't provide much levity along the way. Assistant Rich Tobe might have been an even bigger hero of the negotiations. He had developed an excellent relationship with Bills' lead negotiator Jeff Littman, and that really made the process easier.

A brief aside here - one personal surprise was when it was revealed that there was some anger from the Bills about the fact that The Buffalo News didn't spend any advertising dollars with them. The Bills believed that the team was good for circulation, especially on fall Mondays. It's an interesting point, especially since the newspaper does do some work with the Bisons. It would be nice to hear the other side of the story in that one.

This is not a book that is likely to find a big audience. Football fans probably don't care about such matters as long as the games go on, and there are probably more dramatic negotiations to examine out there. Maybe that's why it hasn't turned up at some local bookstores. But "Beyond the Xs and Os" is still a look behind the curtain, and that always carries some interest. And it's a small enough book that the reader won't get bogged down. Therefore, those with an interest in sports business will find this worth their while.

Three stars

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Friday, September 20, 2019

Review: Taro Lives! (2019)

When I worked for the Sabres' public relations department about 30 years ago, I received a phone call from someone who had the same position as I did at another NHL team.

"I can't talk right now. We're having a meeting to discuss our April Fools' television broadcast," I told him.

My friend from the more straight-laced NHL team laughed and said, "Oh man, I am definitely working for the wrong team. We'd never get away with that."

Therefore, this is not going to be the place for a hard-hitting, critical review of "Taro Lives" - Paul Wieland's review of the hoaxes he pulled off over the years.

Besides, my name is on the dedication page; Wieland calls me "his favorite historian." In the pages of the book, Wieland also describes me as "a statistics hawk with a droll sense of humor and a lightning-quick wit." Who am I to argue with such a distinguished judge of talent?

I spent six years working for the Sabres with Paul, and the best part was the chance to work on the April Fools' Day gags. As mentioned in the book, I did come up with the items for the Sabres Shopping Service, such as the Benoit Hogue-ee Sandwich and Wowie Housley Cola (20 times the normal amounts of sugar and caffeine).

I remember writing the release for "Sabre Meadows" in 1987. The team had brought an old ice rink in Wheatfield for a practice facility and turned it into "Sabreland." The news release said the Sabres had decided to start construction on a 67,000-unit house development, complete with an Olympic-sized ice rink and other frills. When someone from the WBEN news department called to interview me about it, my better angels won the argument and I couldn't let him go on the air with it. So I told the guy, "Did you read the release in full? Did 67,000 seem like a lot of houses? And what day is today, anyway?" I could hear the snickering of his co-workers by the end of the call.

This book, then, was a trip down Memory Lane for me. Luckily, these were jokes that went public in many cases, and therefore everyone who was around in that era shared the fun. Therefore, the book has broader appeal than to those who once worked for Paul.

Even so, it's odd to read something of a memoir by a person who has been a friend for about 40 years. I knew some of the details of his life - growing up in Western New York, working at two newspapers and General Motors before landing with the Sabres in 1970, etc. Still, it's quite interesting to read a book like this that fills in so many gaps in his life's story - the formative years of a hoaxer.Wieland became one of the great characters in the lives of those who knew him, appreciating that he never lost his sense of outrage and whimsy while growing older. That was most obvious in the hoaxes he pulled over in various ways over the years.

The most obvious was the one mentioned in the title. The NHL Draft was dragging on and on in 1974, when the Sabres front office decided to draft a player that didn't exist. Wieland came up with Taro Tsujimoto of the Tokyo Katanas, a name that represented the spirit of a franchise that wasn't afraid to laugh at itself a bit. The joke went on for months, and even the team owners were fooled for a while. Taro's uniform still pops up at Sabre games.

The biggest splash came in 1981, when the Sabres announced that they had been declared "America's Hockey Team" by President Reagan. The elaborate release came with a Time magazine cover and a letter announcing the proclamation from Reagan. The story apparently broke two Federal laws, but were quickly forgotten once the powers that be calmed down a bit.

Eventually the hoaxes moved to television. One time Wieland capitalized on the popularity of call-in polls by having the fans decided the starting goaltender through their phone calls. We also had Mike Robitaille ask Christian Ruuttu questions in English, while Ruuttu answered in Finnish. I asked Ruuttu what he said to Robitaille, and he answered, "Things like, 'That's a good-looking sportcoat, but your hair looks ugly.' "

I remember a few of the details of these stories differently than Paul does, but that's fine. The big picture is what matters here. "Taro Lives!" captures a certain innocence in sports that started to disappear in the late 1980s. As the financial stakes increased in the world of fun and games, companies became less likely to take chances that might offend even a small percentage of their consumers. I could argue that we lost a little something along the way when that happened.

In the meantime, I guarantee you'll laugh a lot at this look back at a more innocent, and more fun age in sports.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Review: Ali (2018)

By Jonathan Eig

Go ahead. Just try to explain in a relatively few words the life and times of Muhammad Ali to someone who knows nothing about it (probably a youngster, who missed all the fuss).

It can't be done. Ali became an almost mythic figure over the years, with enough twists and turns for a dozen men. He went from national hero to national villain to beloved figure in that time - no small task.

It takes a top-notch writer and reporter to try to point out the highs and lows and inconsistencies in this complicated life. Luckily, Jonathan Eig is up to the job

Eig, whose biography of Lou Gehrig brought him a ton of acclaim, was frequently told by Ali associate Gene Kilroy, "You've got a big responsibility here. Don't screw it up." He didn't. We're unlikely to see a better account of this man's life than in "Ali: A Life."

Eig starts the review of the boxing champion's life in Louisville, a city right on the edge of the South and North if you consider the Ohio River the line. Louisville wasn't Alabama, but it still could be a tough place for a young African American to grow up in the 1950s. The then-named Cassius Clay appeared to be on a track to nowhere as a kid until he took up boxing - and was really, really good at it. Schoolwork didn't interested him, but even in high school it was obvious that young Mr. Clay was going places. The principal of that high school convinced the rest of the administration that he didn't want to be the person that didn't give Clay a diploma, since history wouldn't be kind to that person. It's the type of anecdote that really hooks the reader.

Clay went on to become Olympic champion in 1960, then rose up the pro heavyweight ranks as someone who was impossibly fast and fit for a man his size and impossibly handsome. Virtually no one thought Clay could beat Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champ at the time of 1964 and a thug with mob connections who was considered something like "the bogeyman of his time." Then came the week that everything changed. Clay beat Liston when the champ chose to sit on his stool rather than come out and fight. Hours later, Clay announced an association with the Nation of Islam  and said he wanted to go by the name of Muhammad Ali from that point on.

Eig smartly points out that for a young man from the South, Christianity hadn't offered a great deal to Ali. There were still places in his own country he couldn't visit. The catch was that Islam wasn't well understood in the United States, particular this part of it which talked about complete segregation of the races. Mr. Ali was an even better fighter than Mr. Clay, and he taught us a few lessons along the way. One was that "You should call me the name I choose to use." Another was "I don't have to be what you want me to be." Eig quotes several sportswriters who didn't agree with that last statement, as they thought their sports heroes had to act in a specific way. They look really silly today.

This all came to a head when Ali was drafted, and refused induction. "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong" eventually became his best-known quote, as it spoke to many who wanted to end America's involvement in Vietnam. The nation's boxing authorities, which may be a contradiction in terms, raced to strip Ali of his license and thus his livelihood. So much for innocent until proven guilty. For three-plus years, Ali was out of boxing. He finally found a back door to fight again. Then he won his case at the Supreme Court - not on principles, strictly speaking, but more on a technicality just to get the matter out of the way. Thus freed in a figurative sense, Ali took part in some classic bouts.

Eig had experts watch the films of Ali's matches, and them apply modern statistical methods to them. Therefore we know now that the early Ali hardly could be touched by another fighter, let alone hurt. But the later version had lost that skill, and dropped him a few ranks. He found out the hard way that he could take a punch, and he took a lot of them in bouts against Joe Frazier and George Foreman. And Ali went on far too long, when evidence of brain injuries were become more apparent by the week. But, as someone said, it's hard to turn down easy money, and few could go through money faster than Ali. If he wasn't spending lavishly or handing it out to ex-wives and child support, he was signing up for every get-rich-quick scheme in sight. Ali finally retired in 1981, and was essentially silenced by Parkinson's Syndrome some years later.

If you didn't live through all of this, the material will be new and interesting. But Eig apparently talked to as many people as possible along the way, and it is striking just how honest they all were. Let's just say Ali had an odd way of preparing for his first fight with Ken Norton, which resulted in a stunning loss. But there are good memories too - tales of Ali going well out of his way to help the poor and helpless, or brightening the lives of all who encountered him - and there must have been millions. He even went on diplomatic missions for the country that had tried to arrest a couple of decades before.

It might be worth noting that there are plenty of books on Ali in the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky, but this isn't one of them. Maybe it didn't fit the idealized picture that, to at least some extent, the Center tries to paint. (Note: It's still a wonderful museum, and doesn't completely shy away from controversy.) Still, this is as full a biography as we probably will ever see on Ali, and it's absolutely worth your time.

Five stars

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