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A pro athlete might soon cherish the day when being called a stiff and having a beer bottle chucked at his head was considered a nightmarish fan encounter.

In light of the recent string of mailed anthrax incidents striking high-profile offices around the country, sports teams are on high alert when it comes to the stacks of fan mail they receive every day.

"You can become a target," Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rhett Warrener said Wednesday after a workout in HSBC Arena. "You make a bum play, and you got a fan who doesn't like you . . . even if they send a little powder as a joke, it's not a joke. It's scary stuff. What else can you say except it's a terrible thing going on? No one should have to live with it."

Sabres management augmented security to protect players and fans since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Any piece of mail sent to players at HSBC Arena always had been screened before being delivered. The level of scrutiny has been raised even more.

"They're monitoring it for us," Warrener said. "That kind of takes it out of our hands."

But there can be no guarantees. Center Tim Connolly, a native of Syracuse, was rendered virtually speechless when informed anthrax spores had been found in Gov. George Pataki's Manhattan office.

"It's a terrible thing," Connolly said after much thought. "I would never even think of that."

Forwards Stu Barnes and Rob Ray and goaltender Martin Biron receive the most Sabres fan mail. Biron said he will continue to handle his mail the same way. It may take time, but Biron tries to answer every request for an autograph.

"I'm going to try to keep it the same but just try to keep my eye out for something suspicious," said Biron, adding he is not fearful of a possible incident. "If something was to happen, we know we have the emergency people we can contact right away, and there'd be no problems. We just have to be careful and know what we're opening. If there's something that's a doubt in your mind, you have to get it checked right away."

Warrener just wishes the atmosphere could return to the way it used to be. But he knows that won't happen.

"I don't have boatloads of (fan mail) coming in, but it's something you worry about now," Warrener said. "There's some different people out there, and you don't know what to expect. It's a crazy time. Those things will scare you. It's something you never thought you'd have to deal with."

The Sabres and New York Rangers raised more than $215,000 for the Twin Towers Fund by auctioning the commemorative "New York" jerseys they wore Oct. 7 at Madison Square Garden. The Internet auction closed Tuesday night.

At least three Sabres - Curtis Brown ($3,432), Jay McKee ($4,261) and Warrener ($3,505) - placed the winning bids on their own sweaters, which were autographed.

"It was a great cause," McKee said. "I know a lot of guys after the game in New York had asked if they can just make a donation and take their jersey, but that wasn't the case. It was a good decision because I'm sure it raised more money than we expected to donate.

"A few of us came out with our jerseys, and the price got bumped up more than we thought. But I think it's something I'll cherish and keep for a long time."

The captains led their respective teams in highest bids. Mark Messier's jersey went for $20,010, while Barnes' fetched $5,885.

The other top Sabres were Connolly at $4,665, Biron at $4,521, Miroslav Satan at $4,361, Chris Gratton at $4,210, Maxim Afinogenov at $4,125 and Ray at $4,121.

The Rangers' Brian Leetch and Mike Richter each had their jerseys go for $15,010. Theoren Fleury's raised $9,030 and Eric Lindros' $8,030.

At 5 p.m. Tuesday, bids totaled about $138,000, meaning the final sum grew by nearly 60 percent before the auction closed a few hours later.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff did not say which defenseman would be scratched for Friday's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in HSBC Arena, but he did say Dmitri Kalinin would return from his two-game benching.

Kalinin played poorly in last Friday's 4-2 loss in Detroit and was replaced in the lineup by James Patrick, who had a goal and an assist in the interim.

When the Sabres scored two third-period goals in 1:32 to salvage a frustrating 3-3 tie with the Nashville Predators on Tuesday, it reinforced Ruff's belief that his team is more offensively skilled than in recent seasons.

"The bright spot in the game," Ruff said, "is there used to be times when you were down, 3-1, and you could pretty well turn the game off because you knew we weren't going to score enough to get back in it."


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