When I heard the Buffalo Bills playpen in Orchard Park would be named Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield Stadium, I was both bemused and disappointed. It struck me as somewhat funny that a fan base known for jumping on tables now has a stadium named after a medical insurance provider. I also wonder if subscribers of said provider are going to have to pay higher premiums as a result of the undisclosed, but certainly hefty price Highmark paid to affix its name to the place formerly known as New Era Field and Rich, Ralph Wilson and Bills Stadium.
I’m not naïve. Stadium naming rights are big business, so I’m not surprised these would be sold to a corporation for millions. Still, the idealist in me had vague hopes the joint would be named in memory of Robert Kalsu, the former Bill killed in the Vietnam War. Or Wilson, the owner who brought the team to Western New York and ensured it would stay there. Or Jim Kelly or Marv Levy, two men who played significant roles in saving pro football in our region.
The mouthful new name is sure to be shortened by fans and reporters, just as Ralph Wilson Stadium cleverly was reduced to The Ralph. Most likely, it will be called The Mark. I’m probably in the minority for even concerning myself with such things. As Del Reid, the Godfather of Bills Mafia, noted: “Win games there and I’ll call it whatever they want.”
Twenty-one retired jerseys honoring the greatest athletes in Syracuse University history hang from the Carrier Dome rafters. Sadly, none of them honors a woman. It’s high time that changes.
I’ve long advocated for Kathrine Switzer to be honored. Never mind that she never lettered at SU. Wasn’t her fault that when she went to school there in the mid-1960s there wasn’t a women’s cross country team or any women’s varsity teams for that matter. Switzer trained with the men, and on April 19, 1967, she ran a race that changed the world forever. By becoming the first woman to complete the then men’s-only Boston Marathon, Switzer debunked myths that women weren’t capable of running 26.2 miles. When she lined up at the starting line that day under the gender neutral name of “K. Switzer” she wasn’t intending on making history. She just wanted to prove to herself that she could finish a marathon.
But that would all change two miles into the race when organizer Jock Semple attempted to rip off the No. 261 bib pinned to her Syracuse sweatshirt because he didn’t want any women competing in “his” race. Fortunately, Switzer’s boyfriend at the time — an ex-football player and Olympic-caliber hammer thrower — sent Semple sprawling. Switzer raced on, but in the moments following the assault, she felt humiliated, and momentarily considered quitting.
“But the thought was only a flicker,’’ she recalled. “I knew if I quit everybody would say it was a publicity stunt. If I quit, Jock Semple and all those like him would win. My fear and humiliation turned to anger.”
So, she kept running, and completed the race. The photos of Semple accosting her were splashed in newspapers and magazines around the world the next day. (An early form of going viral.) They sparked a furor, and Switzer became a hero to women everywhere. From that moment on, she devoted her life to creating equal opportunities for female athletes, opening the doors for women to run marathons in Boston, New York and the Olympics.
I think it would be pretty cool to put her No. 261 up there, in the Dome, in a prominent spot next to the No. 44 made famous by football legends Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little, and all those men’s basketball jerseys.
Tiana Mangakahia is another Orange athlete deserving of this honor. And her qualifications go well beyond the fact she’s the all-time assist leader in SU women’s basketball history. The courage Mangakahia displayed while battling back from Stage Two breast cancer also needs to be taken into account. After eight months of chemotherapy, a double-mastectomy, reconstructive surgery and endless hours of rehab, she returned to action this season, leading the Orange with 7.5 assists, 11.4 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. The Australian native hopes to play in the WNBA and Olympics. She’ll always be beloved in Orange Nation, and having her back to see her No. 4 jersey retired would be oh, so fitting.
Don’t look now, but Aaron Judge turns 29 on April 26. And if you’re like me, you’re probably thinking: “How did that happen? I thought he was younger.”
The New York Yankees slugger is at an age when most ballplayers hit their prime, so that’s good news. But you can’t help but wonder if we’ll ever see the greatness from him we witnessed during that unforgettable rookie season four years ago, when he smashed 52 homers — many into other zip codes — while driving in 112 runs and scoring 128 times. It appeared the Yankees — and baseball — had found its new face; a worthy replacement for Derek Jeter.
The problem with Judge isn’t ability — it’s durability and availability. Since his sensational opening act, the 6-foot-7, 250-pound rightfielder has suffered a litany of injuries to his calves, obliques, wrists, shoulders and ribs that have sidelined him for 37 percent of the schedule. During the 2020 pandemic-shortened season, he appeared in only 28 of 60 games, but still smacked nine homers. Projected over a 162-game season, that would equal 50 homers. But given his durability issues, such projections are iffy. Perhaps his off-season training program, with a greater emphasis on yoga and stretching, will help him stay healthy. When he’s in the lineup, Judge is a game-changing force, a top-five player. Not only can he pulverize balls into upper decks, but his mere presence ensures more hittable pitches for his teammates. And the well-rounded Judge also saves numerous runs with his Gold Glove-caliber defense and laser arm.
We’ll soon see if Yankee fans are screaming: “All Rise! Here comes the Judge!” Or if the Judge’s chambers won’t be in session for large chunks of the docket again.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.