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Bob Rich's love of sports, in his own words

Bob Rich is a Buffalo guy who writes in longhand on legal pads stories about fishing, swimming, the Knox brothers, a baseball team named the New York Giants and a dog he calls Babe.

A writer, he said, he is not, but oh, the behind-the-scenes tales he can tell.

"I was a little outspoken," Rich admitted, about the collection of sports stories in his new book, "The Right Angle: Tales from a Sporting Life." "I said some things that may not sit well with some people. But hey, I'm 70 years old now and I have a right to tell my own story."

In the book, Rich recounts:

*the thrill of victory in pursuing a National Hockey League franchise for Buffalo

*the agony of defeat in pursuing a Major League Baseball franchise

*and a battle with Ralph Wilson over the naming of the football stadium

"A lot of people forgot that Mr. Wilson and I really weren't that close over the naming of the [Orchard Park] stadium," Rich recalled. "That was an issue, and the whole thing with the Rigases [who owned the Buffalo Sabres] was really distasteful. Some people have asked why do I want to dredge that up?"

"Distasteful" is about as strong a word as you will get from Rich in an interview. The Rich Products chairman, who marked his 70th birthday in January by sponsoring a semipro soccer club in England, looked forward with azure blue eyes that match his button-down shirt. The global sportsman has mellowed -- slightly.

"I don't have a bucket list that includes anything like mountain climbing or sky diving," he said. "I'm doing some things that are more sedentary these days. I'm filling the void of sports with grandchildren [he has eight] and the soccer team."

Not to mention writing books, though he said that this third effort took him out of his comfort zone. Containing names familiar to local sports fans -- Chris Berman, Gary Bettman, Dirty Al Gallagher, John Rigas, Butchy "The Butcher" Palmer -- the 341-page book explains some events that Buffalonians have been wondering about for years, including the ill-fated bid for big league baseball that ran Rich and his wife, Mindy, ragged from late 1982 to 1991.

"A lot of people said we quit," said Rich, recounting a bittersweet saga that took the Riches across the country to meet personally with each team owner. "I don't think they realized what we did in nine years to try and get a team. We were this far away from getting the San Francisco Giants to move back to New York and become the New York Giants in Buffalo.

"We were also very close to purchasing Montreal," Rich added. "We made an offer and it ended up like homer meets homer. [Owner] Charles Bronfman was as much a Montreal homer as I was a Buffalo homer. He told me candidly my offer was fair but he could not take the team from Montreal." (The Expos eventually became the Washington Nationals in 2005.)

Rich's initial offer of $90 million in cash to purchase the Montreal Expos was sent via registered mail. After the rejection, he continued to pitch each owner, to no avail.

Working for Rich at the time was Michael Billoni, marketing director of the Buffalo Bisons. Called the P.T. Barnum of Bison promotions, Billoni to this day believes the efforts of the Rich family were genuine.

"They weren't falsely leading people," said Billoni. "The price of the game got so out of hand [Buffalo] would never have been able to afford major league baseball."

Vivid is the memory Rich has of returning to his office after making the announcement the city had lost the "expansion derby" to Miami and Denver.

"I found a stack of mail," he recalled. "One after another, people were saying they were so happy with the Bisons. They could bring their families to the games. That was one of the more memorable days of my life, because it was just how families band together when someone gets hurt. They were all together behind us. I'll never forget that. That's part of Buffalo."

The Rich family effort to name the new football stadium years earlier left less of a sting, but from the onset it was clear they faced an uphill battle to call the Orchard Park arena Coffee Rich Park even if they were willing to pay $1 million over 10 years. Soon after the press conference announcing the deal, the national headlines were hilarious.

"From Chicago," Rich wrote: "Future Headlines: Bills Creamed at Coffee Rich. From Philadelphia: Coffee Rich Park doesn't sound that bad; it could have been Preparation H Stadium."

Bills owner Ralph Wilson -- who initially agreed to the name, according to Rich -- changed his mind and issued a release calling the suggested name an example of "crass commercialism." The outcome -- Rich Stadium at $1.5 million over 25 years -- was acceptable for both sides.

Far more harmonious was Rich's relationship with Seymour and Northrup Knox, founding owners of the Buffalo Sabres and his mentors. Rich was 28 and married with three children when he was asked to serve on the Sabres board of directors in 1969. Rich, who defined his role as a "silent partner," was more than willing to help his city climb into the national sporting spotlight.

Rich's connection with the hockey team would forge many enduring friendships, including one with Larry Quinn, former Sabres managing partner and former vice chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.

"Larry Quinn's a guy who I feel I mentored in some ways, and Larry's been a controversial guy," Rich said. "Since the days that Norty and Seymour got sick, and Larry was president of the Sabres, we've had a relationship that really goes all the way back to his coming out of Notre Dame and starting here working for Mayor [James] Griffin. He's controversial and I think one of the most talented guys in the city."

Rich's recent sponsorship of the down-on-its-luck Bedlington Terriers soccer team in England as well as Rich's penchant for collecting Runyonesque friends is "classic Bob," according to Quinn.

"He will encounter people in completely strange places and accept them and adopt their mission as his," said Quinn.

"Bob was the conduit to [NHL Commissioner Gary] Bettman during the dark period when they had chosen someone else," Quinn said during a telephone interview. "But Bob kept him informed and involved and made sure we were ready to take it on when the other group was not able to."

Rich, who is at home with all sports, insisted he is more introspective than outgoing, and that if given a day off he would opt for solitude rather than crowds.

"All I ever wanted to do was run a business here in Buffalo, be a success in my hometown," he said. "My father set a standard, and I wanted to be better than he was. I wanted to surpass his goals with goals of my own."

Bob Rich will be signing his book at 6:30 p.m. July 22 at Coca-Cola Field, and at 7 p.m. July 26 at Talking Leaves, 951 Elmwood Ave. All proceeds from the book benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of Buffalo.

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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"The Right Angle: Tales From a Sporting Life"

By Bob Rich

Prometheus Books

341 pages $27

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