Twenty-five years ago today, my first column ran in The Buffalo News. Mike Harrington was the first to remind me. It was Mike who saved me when I called in a panic from old Exhibition Stadium in Toronto the previous night, unable to send my story to the paper from my computer.
I saw my old column photo the other day. I had a mustache back then, and a pair of those big wire-rimmed glasses that were popular in the Seventies. My hair was bushy and long. I looked like some dissident.
Much has changed in a quarter-century, though barely a day goes by without me calling Mike for help. In a world of rapidly evolving technology, I’m the stereotypical old guy. It took me years to figure out how to put attachments on emails, or to use the camera on my phone.
That first column, on the Yankees’ Don Mattingly, seems so long ago. There was no Internet, no Twitter, no interleague play. Jimmy Griffin was still mayor. The first George Bush was in the White House.
Pilot Field was 1 year old and the hot place to be. Thurman Thomas was also in his second year in Buffalo. Jack Armstrong had just been hired to coach Niagara basketball, at 26. A week earlier, the Sabres had lost to the Bruins in the first round of the playoffs. Soon, Ted Sator would be gone as coach.
I had come from New York City, where I felt no real sense of community. Buffalo seemed the ideal size for a columnist, small enough to get your arms around but big enough to matter on the national stage. In retrospect, it was my good fortune to arrive in what seems like a golden age.
In my second year, after a season of bickering, the Bills took off on a run of four straight Super Bowls. I came in time to follow Christian Laettner, an Angola kid whose father worked one floor below me at the newspaper, as he led Duke to three straight Final Fours from 1990-92.
The Blue Jays were at their peak when I got to Buffalo. I covered both their World Series championships in 1992-93. Joe Carter’s homer landed just below my press seat in the left-field stands. Then Derek Jeter went to the Yankees, and I was there when the Yanks won four championships in five years from 1996 to 2000.
People ask me for my favorite moment. How do you pick one, when you’ve been so lucky? I could list 100 and forget 100 more. I wasn’t always there, either. I recall sitting in my apartment in North Buffalo in early September of 1989, watching Jim Kelly dive in for the winning TD in Miami.
I was there when the Bills beat the Raiders, 51-3, to reach their first Super Bowl. I was there when Scott Norwood missed the kick, when Brett Hull scored with his skate in the crease, when Frank Reich led the comeback, when the Titans beat them with the Home Run Throwback.
I was there in ’93 when Brad May scored in overtime against the Bruins, snapping the Sabres’ 10-year drought without a Stanley Cup series win. I saw Dominik Hasek make 70 saves in a 1-0 playoff win that went into a fourth overtime against the Devils; he barely seemed winded afterward.
A couple of months later, I watched O.J. Simpson in the Bronco chase on a TV in the press room at Madison Square Garden during an NBA Finals game. I remember feeling inadequate, too much a newcomer to capture the heartbreak of Bills fans as their greatest football hero unraveled before their eyes.
Well, I managed. After awhile, I settled in and things got easier. Bucky Gleason says people who despised me came to “get” me. He said people began to assume I was actually from Buffalo, which was the greatest compliment I could hope for.
I knew I was a Buffalo guy when I got nostalgic for things I’d never experienced – like games at the old Rockpile, or college basketball doubleheaders at the Aud, or family outings to Crystal Beach.
Fondest memories? I’ve covered 21 Final Fours, 11 World Series, 10 major golf championships, nine Super Bowls, eight Olympics, seven swans-a-swimming … sorry, wrong list. You get the point.
Writing columns for The News has taken me all over the world. How else would I have gotten to see the stunning, white winter in Norway, or gazed at the Alps in France, or watched people sing and dance in Beihei Park in Beijing?
I walked the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Great Wall of China. I walked the stairs with my wife at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and heard Paul McCartney sing “Hey Jude” at the Opening Ceremonies. I visited Stalin’s summer dacha in Sochi.
I saw Bonnie Blair set speedskating records; Carl Lewis win the long jump; Kerri Strug vault on a bad ankle and jump into Bela Karolyi’s arms. I was there when Usain Bolt blazed to gold in the 100 meters on a Saturday night in Beijing and when Michael Phelps won his record eighth gold medal the next morning. Both columns made the Sunday paper!
When Jenn Suhr finally beat Yelena Isinbayeva to win gold in the pole vault, I was there to see it. I saw the U.S. women’s soccer team win gold in London in one of the finest games ever. I followed Tiger Woods around Torrey Pines when he beat Rocco Mediate on a bad leg in a playoff in the U.S. Open in 2008.
Pick out a favorite moment? I sat next to Ted Williams at a media event in Cooperstown one year. He was caressing a baseball in his hand as he spoke, as if the ball were his main connection with the universe. I interviewed Mickey Mantle, Warren Spahn, Lee Trevino, Nancy Lopez, Bobby Knight, Jim Brown, Dan Gable, Mia Hamm, Wayne Gretzky, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier.
Then there was Mickey Frazier, a Canisius player who told John Beilein he’d climb up on the rim if the Griffs ever won the MAAC basketball title, the way an opposing player had after beating them a year before.
So when Canisius finally won the MAAC in 1996, Frazier was true to his word. I can still see him sitting on that rim in Albany, the net around his neck, as Griffs fans, including Mayor Tony Masiello, celebrated their first NCAA berth in 39 years.
My favorite assignment (OK, next to my annual baseball quiz) was ranking the top 12 high school athletic years of the past 50 years in 1999. It was an enormous undertaking, one that allowed me to bring back to life the careers of such great local athletes as Tommy Ryan, Rob Sutton and Duke McGuire. It also taught me the tiny degrees of separation between people here.
The local memories are most vivid: Auto racing legend Art Clark in the pits at Holland; Brian Dux at his house after his accident; the girls from the Ellicottville High soccer team after the death of their captain, Kristin Hintz; former Turner/Carroll hoop star Ka’Ron Barnes showing me his acceptance letter from Cornell at his house on Martin Luther King Day.
Soon after I got here, I wrote a column making fun of the Delaware Park golf course. Rita Mayer took me to task in a letter to the editor. Fourteen years later, at age 90, she was honored for 68 years in the women’s club at Delaware. She had me over for lunch and we hugged after the interview.
As you might have heard, I took up golf. A column idea turned into a summerlong quest to break 100. I failed that first year, and people loved it. It seemed to humanize me. I still hear about that series almost every day. I would have started earlier if I had known how golf connected people.
I took over as the lead Bills columnist for the great Larry Felser in 2001; it was a great privilege and responsibility to have that voice the day after a game. They haven’t made the playoffs since. Some people tell me I provide a certain comic relief after a crushing loss.
Maybe I’m too hard on the pro teams at times. But Buffalo sports fans are intensely loyal, wherever they reside. They’re a resilient lot, hardened by disappointment. At times, I feel they’ve become resigned to a lower standard over the years. They deserve better.
Twenty-five years. I could say it makes me feel old, but it would be a lie. Covering sports keeps you young. It puts you around young people. There’s a regenerative power about sports; the seasons come and go, bringing a clean slate, a renewed sense of hope and possibility.
I’m lucky to have this job. I feel renewed with every game, every new season. I’ve lost some friends along the way. Jay Bonfatti, Tom Borrelli, Jim Kelley, Bob Summers, Allen Wilson. I think of them often, and what it would mean to them to have one more chance to cover a game.
I’ll never forget the look on Kelley’s face the last time we covered a playoff game together. He had this blissful look as we rode down the packed press elevator after a Sabres-Flyers game, being part of the action.
Borrelli and Wilson loved the local stuff, the high school games. They went to games even when it wasn’t their official beat, because they loved being close to the kids and wanted to make sure their achievements were properly recognized.
It would seem like a betrayal to become jaded about the job. But I don’t see it happening. I still look up at the lights at basketball games and feel that surge of excitement. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Final Four or a Canisius women’s game at the MAAC tourney.
There’s nothing I would rather do; in some ways it feels like I’m just getting started. The technical stuff still drives me crazy. But in a pinch, there’s always Harrington.