I'm old enough to remember the days of manual typewriters, carbon paper, glue pots and air tubes in the floor to send stories to the composing room. As if it was part of an old movie reel, and not the real-life 1980s. Things are so different now that I spent part of Wednesday night live streaming a mascot race over my phone. Talk about two ends of a journalistic spectrum.
Seems like yesterday but it really isn't. Friday marked the 30th anniversary of my first day as a full-time staffer at The Buffalo News. I had been a two-time summer intern but things got really real on Sept. 1, 1987. High schools were the gig back then, and the first story was about the decision by Lackawanna coaching legend Bill Bilowus to retire from the basketball program.
The best story of that first year was a slam dunk: Following a team to a perfect season is a pretty rare thing to cover and doing it that winter was particularly lucky. Folks in Niagara Falls still rhapsodize over the 27-0 mark rung up by LaSalle's state championship boys basketball team in the 1987-88 season, with incredible postseason wins cementing a legacy for a school that no longer exists.
Those were the days of covering football games on the sideline in the rain with a baggy covering your notebook (be sure to write in pencil). Of working the muddy sideline on Thanksgiving Day in All-High Stadium. They were the days of knowing which back door to bang on to get admitted to some of those classic Yale Cup basketball games. And of being at the 10,000 meters at 7 a.m. on Thursday to write about the first medal awarded every year in the Empire State Games.
Hard to imagine what those five years would turn into. Namely, trips to 33 states and five provinces. Too many champagne showers to count, notably from the postgame chaos of 18 World Series, three Bisons league championships and several other American League postseason matchups. There have been Final Fours, Stanley Cups, a World Cup (of hockey) and more NCAA and conference tournaments than I can count.
The ride is far from over. Another Sabres training camp beckons later this month. But I never stop thinking about some of the moments already in the past
The 2001 World Series: It meant more to the country than any sporting event in our lifetime. Biggest regret: I have no pictures of President Bush's thumbs-up from the mound or his first pitch. In the pre-iPhone/social media days, if you whipped out a camera in the press box, you actually risked having your credential pulled. Not taking that chance. I spent the ninth inning of Game Seven watching Arizona's comeback standing on top of an abandoned beer vendor's case at the top of the 100 level, having taken up position to make the quick trip to the Yankees' clubhouse celebration. Whoops.
2004 ALCS/World Series: Every pitch of the Red Sox mind-boggling comeback against the Yankees and their Series sweep of the Cardinals reeked of history in the making. Fans with Red Sox gear poured into the lower level of St. Louis' Busch Stadium for the ninth inning of Game Four as I took an empty seat down low to watch the historic finish. Nice gesture by the ushers to let people move down, I thought. Turns out it was much more: Scores of Boston fans were outside the gates and St. Louis officials, understanding the moment, actually let them in to see it live.
1995 NIT/1996 MAAC Tournament: The best run for Canisius basketball in the last 70 years. The Griffs beat teams from 10 conferences and knocked off six NCAA schools on the road during the 1994-95 season -- including a second-half comeback from 20 points down to stun Bob Huggins and No. 13 Cincinnati before getting all the way to the Final Four of the NIT. Then they finally broke their 39-year NCAA drought the next year and getting whomped by Utah was actually a footnote to the journey. John Beilein is a household name now that he's at Michigan. We knew him when no one else did.
2005 MAAC Tournament: Niagara's 35-year quest to get back to the NCAAs had been filled with heartbreak. But the Purple Eagles finally got there with a pounding of Rider and the support of a roaring crowd in downtown Buffalo. Coach Joe Mihalich celebrated with his cancer-stricken mother and stood on the court stunned a few minutes after it ended. Many practice days in the empty Gallagher Center the previous six years, Mihalich had told me he had pictured the moment. And now it was here. "It's surreal," Mihalich said that night. "Just surreal. Those are our guys cutting down the nets."
St. Bonaventure-Kentucky, 2000: A double-overtime thriller in Cleveland marked the Bonnies' first NCAA Tournament game in 22 years. Losing is disappointing but how disappointing can a game be that will never be forgotten by anyone who was there?
George Mason's run, 2006: The unheralded school from Fairfax, Va., struck a blow for unknowns everywhere by beating mighty UConn to get to the Final Four. It was a precursor to Butler's success and should give the UB's of the world hope.
2016 World Series Game Seven: What if the rain never stopped after the ninth inning? Would Cubs fans have had to wait one more day to play one inning? And how many would have been in the stands? Or would we have played at 3 or 4 a.m. to decide it? And did Bill Murray really really need to be in the postgame clubhouse doing "interviews" for Fox?
2008 Winter Classic: The weather made the event iconic for the NHL, even as ice conditions hampered play. When Sidney Crosby skated to center ice, my tongue-in-cheek thought in the press box couldn't have been just mine: "NBC fix is in."
Bisons titles: No, it's not a Stanley Cup or a Super Bowl. But the only real pro titles won around here in the last half-century were by the Bandits and the Herd (1997, 1998, 2004). We're a few days away from the 20th anniversary of the 1997 clincher in Iowa, Buffalo's first baseball title in 36 years and an emotional watershed for the Rich family and their entire front office.
Images you don't forget
Ground Zero, Manhattan, 2001 -- If you were in town for the World Series, you had to go. It was just over a month after 9/11. The quiet was eerie other than a few cranes and trucks. Rubble was still visible. An unforgettable smell still pierced the air.
Sugar Heaven, Boston, October 2013 -- The Boylston Street candy store is at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and was the site of the first explosion that marred the race six months earlier. The day before the World series started, I chatted with a woman working the counter who was a Massachusetts College of Art and Design student. She talked of #Bostonstrong and was more than willing to speak for a city's resilience. I warned her more media would likely be coming in the next few days as I saw a camera crew shooting from across the street. "It’s OK,” she said. “Maybe they’ll buy some candy, too.”
Mariano Rivera, August 2013 --- The retiring Yankees' closer did a farewell tour of each visiting ballpark, meeting with team employees for an hour to thank them for their contributions. The Yankees and Blue Jays' PR staff let me in the room when Rivera did Q&A with Toronto workers, laughing and joking with them -- and getting emotional when recounting how George Steinbrenner consoled him following the '01 loss in Arizona. It was riveting.
Gila River Arena, Glendale Ariz., 2017. It was a disastrous third-period collapse for the Sabres but a personal milestone of making it to every NHL rink. Will be getting whole again this year with an October trip to Vegas and a November jaunt to Detroit's new Little Caesars Arena.
Strange but true
The NHL100: There will never be more hockey legends in one place at one time than there were in January in Los Angeles as the league's top 100 players were unveiled. Interviews on the Microsoft Theater stage with Gilbert Perreault, Dominik Hasek and Pat LaFontaine were memorable. Seeing dozens of '70s and '80s legends just milling around chatting was equally as enjoyable.
2008 MLB All-Star Game: To honor the final appearance of the MidSummer Classic, baseball brought back a couple dozen Hall of Famers and made them available in a hotel ballroom on gameday for an hour. But somehow, only a handful of reporters showed up. You were chatting one-on-one with the likes of Tommy Lasorda, Goose Gossage and Wade Boggs. With just two other guys talking to Hank Aaron. And I somehow ended up alone with Tony Gwynn for a 10-minute discussion about taking his son to Monument Park prior to the 1998 World Series. Incredible stuff.
Most bizarre soap opera: Still can't decide if it was the Sabres' 2014-15 tank season or the 2003 St. Bonaventure scandal. Two of those you'll-never-cover-that-again tales.
Best side trip to stumble upon: Between games of Canisius' NIT Final Four run in 1995, there was a certain NBA matchup in Madison Square Garden. Knicks-Bulls. The night Michael Jordan went for 55 in his return to the Big Apple after two years off from baseball.
Futures at Fenway: The Bisons played an otherwise meaningless August game in Fenway Park in 2012 against Pawtucket. Most Herd staffers had not been there. Kids in the candy store at Christmas kind of fun.
#QuestforThePeg: A simple trip to Winnipeg for a Sabres game on New Year's Eve, 2013 required 29 hours of travel and an overnight to Vancouver of all places. All to see a Sabres shutout on a minus-37 degree (Fahrenheit!) day that the Winnipeg Sun said was colder than the surface of Mars. There is no way to explain what minus-37 degrees feels like so don't ask.
Bisons pitcher Brian Anderson to me after a rare bad outing in 1996: "I pitched like a bleeping bleep. And you can go ahead and put that in the paper, right with the dot-dot-dot and the 'ing'. "
* Thumbs up to the rocks in the chair of the executive sports editor. Howard Smith, Steve Jones, Lisa Wilson and Keith McShea have shepherded this ship through my career. Good luck to the next man up. Major shoes to fill.
* Always remember late colleagues. There were copy desk mavens like Lowell Keller, Bob Schreiber and Jim Peters. There was the incomparable editor and lacrosse master Tom Borrelli, who would have loved what Auston Matthews is doing for his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. The sardonic Bob Summers, a pied piper of the rail at Fort Erie. Legendary Larry Felser, a columnist we all grew up reading who was one of just nine men to cover the first 35 Super Bowls. Felser is calling me for thoughts on a column? Again, what a world.
There was hockey giant Jim Kelley, who once dictated a story over the phone to me from Los Angeles during my student days and started to spell out "Perreault" but knew he wouldn't need to when he figured out I was on top of "Sheldon Kannegiesser" too. And great friend Allen Wilson, who was in his glory at Syracuse's Final Four victory in 2003 in New Orleans. How he loved his hoops. We may have made it to Bourbon Street once that week. Or twice.
* A lone lecture: It's a tough time for journalists, given the climate of the country. Information is everywhere, but lots of it doesn't cut the standards mustard if you were trained for this field. Be discerning. Anyone can start a Web site or a podcast and announce they have little birdies chirping alleged scoops in their ears. Are they trained professionals in the field or just hobby moonlighters? You wouldn't do business with amateur doctors, lawyers, accountants or teachers. Why do it when it comes to your information?
So now it's on to Year 31, which means the start of Year 11 following the Sabres and the end of Year 25 keeping an eye on the batted ball.
Current state of mind: Drop the puck.