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A Buffalo Bills playoff victory and other wishes for 2020

scottteaser-215x160The year was 1995. Gas cost a tad more than a buck a gallon. “Toy Story” made a boffo cinematic debut. Bill Clinton occupied the White House. A bomb set off by suburban Buffalo native Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in Oklahoma City. eBay went live for the first time. O.J. Simpson was acquitted of double-murder. The Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame opened in Cleveland. Jerry Garcia, Mickey Mantle and Jonas Salk died. And the Buffalo Bills defeated the Miami Dolphins, 37-22, in a wildcard playoff game that was significant for two reasons–it marked the last time the Bills won in the post-season and the last time Hall of Fame coach Don Shula patrolled an NFL sideline.

That game really was the last hurrah of the Bills Super Bowl era. Fueled by Thurman Thomas’ 158-yard rushing performance, Buffalo led 27-0 early in the fourth quarter at then Rich Stadium. Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino staged a furious comeback, finishing with 33 completions in 64 attempts for 422 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions, but it was too little, too late.

The next week, for all intents and purposes, the Bills’ glory years came to an ignominious end. With all-time sack leader Bruce Smith unable to play because of a 104-degree fever, an aged Buffalo team was crushed, 40-21, by the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium. The next season, Jim Kelly’s career would conclude with him being carted off the field in a wildcard loss to Jacksonville, and the year after that, Marv Levy would coach his last game, and Smith, Thomas and Andre Reed would suit up for Buffalo a final time.

So, this is the next famine the Bills need to address as they travel this road back to respectability. They need to win a playoff game this weekend. To put things into perspective, Buffalo has not won a post-season game in 23-year-old Josh Allen’s lifetime. (The Bills quarterback was born roughly five months after that victory against the Dolphins.)

In addition to a Bills playoff victory in 2020, I would like to see our local professional and college teams make the playoffs and win championships–and that includes the Buffalo Sabres, who haven’t competed in a post-season since 2011. Here are a few other things I hope happen in the world of sports in the coming year:

  • Steve Tasker earns induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Gunners who race down the field to make field-position altering tackles have been devalued in this era of diminishing kickoff returns, but they were a huge weapon in the 1980s and ‘90s, and no one was better at it than Tasker. Late Bills special teams coach Bruce DeHaven once showed me a highlight tape of Tasker making plays that determined the outcome of a dozen games. Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick said the guy they worried about most during those Bills glory years was Tasker. He was a game-changer, the best there ever was at what he did, and I think that merits a bust in Canton, Ohio.
  • A postseason appearance by the Los Angeles Angels so America can finally appreciate the greatness of Mike Trout. It’s impossible to imagine Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan or Tom Brady toiling in anonymity. Well, that’s what is happening right now with Trout. Perhaps with the addition of manager Joe Maddon and third baseman Anthony Rendon, the Angels finally will make the playoffs, and Trout will have a national television stage on which to shine.
  • The hiring of Jeff Van Gundy to coach the New York Knicks again. I sensed from talking to Van Gundy during an October visit to Nazareth College, his alma mater, that the fire to coach still burns. His work as an analyst has kept him plugged in to the NBA. He probably wouldn’t be able to replicate the success he enjoyed in his first go-around as Knicks coach, which featured six playoff appearances, including one trip to the NBA Finals, in six full seasons. But he eventually would turn them into winners. Of course, this would only work if dysfunctional owner James Dolan gave him complete control. Admittedly that’s a big if.
  • More Olympic gold medals for Simone Biles. She’s already established herself as the greatest gymnast of all-time. And she may have a chance to challenge swimmer Michael Phelps as greatest Olympian of all-time. Beyond that, she has used her celebrity to bring about positive change and become an advocate for victims of sexual abuse in sports and beyond.
  • More competitive tournaments for Tiger Woods. Yeah, I know he’s a polarizing figure, but he moves the needle, commands our interest, makes golf relevant. He doesn’t necessarily have to win any more majors. Just needs to be in the hunt on Sundays.
  • An amicable agreement between major and minor league baseball that would prevent the elimination of 40 minor league franchises, including ones in Batavia, Auburn and Binghamton. This contraction threat is a bad idea. Sure, it might save money in the short run, but will hurt in the long-run because minor-league teams in small markets introduce young people to the game and help build lifelong relationships.
  • A bounce-back by Syracuse University’s football and basketball programs. Dino Babers needs to show that his team’s 10-3 record in 2018 was not a fluke, and Jim Boeheim needs to show that he still has it after 44 years as head hoops coach.
  • A 28th World Series title by the New York Yankees. I know I’m showing my bias here, but I’ve been following the team since 1961, so old habits die hard. After paying a king’s ransom to sign pitcher Garrit Cole, there’s no room for excuses. Anything shy of a title will be considered a failure.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.        

Van Gundy’s connection to Nazareth remains strong

scottteaser-215x160His long and winding road had taken him to four colleges in four years. So when nomadic Jeff Van Gundy arrived on the Nazareth College campus in the summer of 1983 after attending Yale University, Menlo (Calif.) College and the College at Brockport in consecutive years, he wasn’t asking for much. Just a little stability, a chance to play varsity basketball and enough credit hours to earn his degree. He would wind up receiving all those things — and so much more.

“When I first showed up, I wasn’t concerned with making lifetime friends, or caring deeply about a school,’’ he said the other day from an office looking out into the gymnasium at Nazareth’s Shults Center. “I just wanted to play basketball for a year or two, graduate and get on with it. What wound up happening is that I went from that type of attitude to finding a home that I really appreciated. The seeds were planted for what’s become a lasting bond with this place.”

Through the decades, this relationship between well-known basketball coach/commentator and alma mater has grown even stronger. The lessons learned in the classroom and on the court would serve Van Gundy well as he followed in the footsteps of his father, Bill, and brother, Stan. He, too, would become a coach.

His first stop after receiving his degree in history and education in 1985 would be McQuaid Jesuit High School, where he coached the boys’ varsity basketball team. A decade later, he would reach the top of his profession when he was named head coach of the New York Knicks. Over the next 11 seasons — seven in the Big Apple and four with the Houston Rockets — he would compile a 430-318 record while guiding his teams to eight playoff appearances and one NBA Final. Since leaving the Rockets following the 2006-07 season, he has become arguably as successful in his second career as an immensely popular analyst on ESPN and ABC basketball telecasts. Fans love his insights and his quirky, self-deprecating sense of humor.

Along the way, Van Gundy has remained true to his school, making a sizeable donation six years ago to renovate the men’s and women’s basketball locker rooms at Nazareth. And, in doing so, he continued to show his humility. Rather than name the locker rooms after himself, he requested the men’s locker room be named in honor of his former Nazareth coaches — Bill Nelson, Bob Ward and Jim Emery — and that the women’s locker room be named in memory of Farrell Lynch, his late college roommate and teammate who was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the World Trade Center.

Earlier this week, Van Gundy addressed the current men’s and women’s teams, met with coaches, benefactors and school administrators, and participated in the on-campus opening of the 108,000-square foot Golisano Training Center, which was designed to promote inclusion, fitness and wellness for athletes of all abilities, including people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on here,’’ he said. “The campus is so much different from when I was here, but the spirit of the school hasn’t changed. That’s what I love about it.”

Van Gundy’s spirit hasn’t changed either. He’s still the gym rat who tagged along with his dad and brother to basketball practices back when he was knee-high to a ball rack. The Brockport High School graduate has always loved the chess-match aspects of the game — not just the X’s and O’s, but also the psychology involved in convincing a roster of disparate individuals to work together as one. Although he loves his current job, particularly the back-and-forth on-air banter between him, play-by-play announcer Mike Breen and fellow analysts Mark Jackson and Doris Burke, Van Gundy occasionally misses the excitement — and even the misery — of coaching.

“My wife gets upset when I say this, but the best five minutes in life is the first five minutes in a locker room after a great road win,’’ Van Gundy said, smiling. “She would always say, ‘What about the birth of your kids?!’ I know I’m supposed to nod and say, ‘You’re right,’ but there’s just something about pouring heart and soul into something and working together intensely on a common goal that’s indescribably rewarding. It’s really hard to find something to replicate that competition and camaraderie.”

Which begs the question, would he ever coach in the NBA again?

“You never say never,’’ said Van Gundy, who did some coaching with USA Basketball in recent years. “But the further you’re away from it, the less likely it becomes. It’s not as possible as it was 10 years ago when I was 47 instead of 57.”

His name still pops up whenever there’s an NBA vacancy, but Van Gundy seems content with his current gig, which provides a courtside view without having to deal with the agony of defeats. He’s looking forward to this season, because the number of championship contenders is deeper than it’s been in years.

“There’s a different feel because the Golden State Warriors dynasty has been broken up by free agency and injury,’’ he said. “Milwaukee and Philadelphia are really good and probably will meet in the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Western Conference is even deeper. It’s going to be intriguing to see how things turn out in Los Angeles, where you have LeBron (James) and two rejuvenated teams ready to duke it out.”

Van Gundy can’t wait to dissect things the way he has since those days three decades ago when he was a gritty, Nazareth College point guard known to his coaches as “All-Out Jeff.” He led those Golden Flyers to two Lincoln First Tournament titles and a berth in the NCAA Division III Elite Eight. And he developed a bond with his alma mater that’s only grown stronger with time.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.


A crusader is helping us remember Leo Lyons, Rochester’s NFL roots

scottteaser-215x160John Steffenhagen pulls up his sweater sleeve to reveal an enormous tattoo on the underside of his meaty left forearm. In red and black ink, we see a drawing of a leather football helmet and a ball with the word “Jeffs” written in script.

“My doctor looked at it quickly and thought it said, “Jello,” ’’ Steffenhagen says, grinning ear-to-ear. “That’s OK. I got it about six years ago to be a conversation starter, and it continues to serve its purpose. It gives me a chance to tell what I think is a pretty neat story.”

Wearing his heart on his sleeve and his love for Rochester’s long-gone National Football League team on his skin, Steffenhagen passionately tells the tale of the franchise that played a role in the formation of the most successful sports league in U.S. history. That he would crusade on their behalf nearly a century later is all relative because his beloved, late great-grandfather, Leo Lyons, played for, coached and owned the Jeffs, which is short for Jeffersons because the team played many of its home games at Edgerton Park, off Jefferson Avenue on the city’s west side.

Lyons believed so fervently in the future of the Jeffs and professional football that he worked two jobs and risked personal bankruptcy to keep the team afloat. Along with football icons Jim Thorpe and George Halas, he helped launch the NFL at a meeting inside a Canton, Ohio automobile showroom in 1920.

“As a young man, Leo talked about how one day pro football would become as popular as baseball,’’ says Steffenhagen, a 52-year-old postal worker who, when he’s not delivering stories about the Jeffs, makes a living delivering mail door-to-door to Webster residents. “People scoffed at such an idea back in the day, thought Leo was crazy. But look what happened? Football is now more popular than baseball. So, Leo proved to be a visionary.”

He was a man ahead of his time.

And a man who wound up getting lost in the mists of time.

Lyons has largely been forgotten, even in his hometown. And, so, too, have the Jeffersons, who folded in 1925 after just six seasons because of a lack of fan support and revenue, which contributed to a combined 0-21-2 record in their final four seasons.

“I still run into people who think I’m pulling their leg when I tell them Rochester once had an NFL team,’’ Steffenhagen says. “I admit I’m biased because he’s my grandfather, but I think it’s important that we remember Leo’s role, and how he helped lay the foundation for the NFL.”

Last week, Steffenhagen took his campaign to Canton, and made his case to Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker that the museum should do something to recognize Lyons and the other men who created the NFL. To his pleasant surprise, Steffenhagen was told that next year — in celebration of the league’s centennial — the Hall will unveil an exhibit dedicated to the NFL’s founders.

Steffenhagen also is making strides closer to home. Next Wednesday, the Strong Museum of Play will unveil an exhibit featuring artifacts from the Jeffs and Buffalo Bills — a then-and-now presentation. One of the mannequins will be adorned in a red Jeffs jersey and original, padded football pants, while another mannequin will be wearing a jersey from current Bills quarterback Josh Allen. The exhibit also will showcase a leather football helmet from Lyons’ era, as well as some old cleats and a copy of the 1920 certificate that stated the Jeffersons were a charter member of the American Professional Football Association, which would officially change its name to the National Football League two years later.

While observing the exhibit come together, Steffenhagen couldn’t help but think of his many childhood visits to his great-grandfather’s home in Pittsford. He recounted how the basement was like a mini-Pro Football Hall of Fame, its walls festooned with photographs of legends such as Thorpe, Red Grange and Vince Lombardi. There also was a trophy recognizing the Jeffersons as the 1916 New York State pro football champions.

“My mom told me that when I was baby, Leo would carry me around the room and tell me stories, and that I loved running my hands over that trophy, which is shaped like a football,’’ he said. “To show how things have come full circle for me, that trophy is one of the items that will be displayed in the Strong exhibit.”

Despite his great-grandfather’s ties to the NFL, Steffenhagen didn’t grow up a football fan. He was much more interested in auto racing, and that was understandable because his dad was a NASCAR driver who competed in modified stock car races throughout Western New York.

“It really wasn’t until the advent of the internet that I began taking more of an interest in what my grandfather had accomplished,’’ Steffenhagen said. “The more searches I conducted, the more I realized what a pioneer he was.”

And that pioneering went beyond helping the NFL take flight.

“Around 1910, the Jeffs played a game against a team featuring an African-American running back named Henry McDonald, and Leo couldn’t help but notice how poorly McDonald was treated by his teammates, even though he clearly was the best player on the field,’’ Steffenhagen says. “McDonald would score a touchdown, and his teammates would totally ignore him because of the color of his skin. After the game, Leo went up to him, and said, ‘If you play with us, I guarantee you won’t be treated that way.’ ‘’

McDonald took him up on his offer and became one of the first African Americans to play pro football. Steffenhagen recently discovered that story and many others by combing through one of Lyons’ personal journals. When the Jeffs joined the NFL, Lyons did his best to field a competitive team by signing several former college stars, including Joe Alexander, a two-time All-American at Syracuse, who later would go on to coach the New York Giants and become a doctor. Unfortunately, as historian Bob Carroll documented in a story titled, “The Town That Hated Pro Football,” Rochesterians failed to support the team because it featured few local players.

“Leo tried to tell people here that in order to compete with the best professional teams, you can’t have Joey So-and-So from East High at quarterback,’’ Steffenhagen says. “But the fans didn’t care. They wanted local players, so they stopped going to games. Leo did his best to make a go of it. He almost went broke. He couldn’t afford to pay the talented players necessary to compete, and the team went belly-up.”

In his post-Jefferson years, Lyons maintained strong ties to fellow pioneers like Halas. He was invited to the owners’ meetings and began assuming the unofficial role of league historian. He also became a driving force behind the creation of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1960. At Halas’ induction, the Chicago Bears owner paid homage to Lyons, saying the league was built on the shoulders of people like him.

Steffenhagen is doing his best to remind people of his great grandfather’s place in football history. The exhibit at Strong is a start, but he would like to see a permanent display somewhere. (I’ve been lobbying for two decades about the need for a Rochester sports museum — the old firehouse at Frontier Field makes the most sense — and Lyons and the Jeffs would merit prominent play.) A historical marker near the Egerton Park field where the Jeffs played the majority of their home games also would be appropriate.

“There’s still work to be done, but we’re getting there,’’ says Steffenhagen, who is halfway through writing a book about Lyons. “We’ve had some encouraging developments lately. We’ve got some momentum.”

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

With autumn’s arrival, Antonelli reflects on his wonderful life

scottteaser-215x160Gail Antonelli beams as she hands me an old, black-and-white newspaper photograph she recently purchased on ebay. It is from the second game of the 1954 World Series, and in it we see a bunch of men meeting at the pitcher’s mound at the old Polo Grounds on Coogan’s Bluff in upper Manhattan. The confab shows Gail’s husband, Johnny Antonelli, “mopping his feverish brow” with a towel. The New York Giants ace pitcher is surrounded by manager Leo Durocher, shortstop Alvin Dark, catcher Wes Westrum and umpires Jocko Conlan and Al Barlick.

The photo caption tells us that Antonelli yielded a home run on his first pitch of the game and was in trouble again, as the Indians loaded the bases. It also mentions that this is “sweating time” for Antonelli, but that he managed to wriggle out of the jam and pitch the Giants to a complete game, 3-1 victory.

“I still don’t know where that towel came from,’’ Johnny says, chuckling, while examining the photo. “But the caption was right. It was sweating time for me. In fact, that whole game was sweating time. I was in trouble every inning. The Indians left 14 men on base. They got something like eight hits and I walked six batters and struck out nine. I must have thrown about 200 pitches that day. But Leo stuck with me, and it all worked out fine.”

That it did. And two days later, the Jefferson High School graduate would cap his most memorable season by coming out of the bullpen to pick up the save as the underdog Giants swept the heavily favored Indians to win the World Series title. The finest born and bred Major League Baseball player from Rochester wound up tossing six shutouts and winning 21 games that season to earn pitcher-of-the-year honors from The Sporting News, a weekly newspaper regarded as the “bible of baseball.” Unlike today, Cy Young Awards weren’t presented to the top pitcher, but if they had been, Antonelli would have won in a landslide.

“That was a great year for me,’’ the 89-year-old said recently, leaning back in a comfy chair in the couple’s Pittsford townhouse. “Everything came together for me that season. It all clicked. It was magical.”

The arrival of October always conjures fond memories of that Fall Classic for Antonelli. That was the Series when centerfielder Willie Mays made “The Catch” on Vic Wertz’s titanic blast in the Polo Grounds; the Series when pinch-hitter Dusty Rhodes provided clutch hit after clutch hit. But it also was the Series when Antonelli realized the potential that prompted the Boston Braves to sign him to that “bonus baby” contract of $53,000 shortly after he graduated from Jefferson in the spring of 1948.

Antonelli would go on to win 126 games, save 21 more, toss 25 shutouts and make six National League All-Star teams during his 12-year MLB career. He is one of just 21 players who never toiled in the minors, though he will tell you that his two years pitching for United States Army teams during the Korean War was the equivalent of minor-league experience. He also is one of only two pitchers in MLB annals to have recorded a win and a save in both World Series and All-Star games. (The other is Hall of Fame reliever Bruce Sutter.)

Antonelli had the distinction of pitching for two franchises that switched cities — the Braves from Boston to Milwaukee and the Giants from New York to San Francisco. The crafty lefthander was only 31 when he retired following the 1961 season — a season in which he pitched for both the Indians and the Braves — and he clearly could have pitched several more seasons had he desired. But he had grown weary of the travel and wanted to settle back in Rochester so he could devote more time to his wife and kids and his ever-expanding businesses.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Antonelli began making plans for his post-baseball career while still in his prime. In fact, he took the $8,700 bonus he earned from winning the World Series and invested it in his first Firestone tire store. He eventually grew his business to 28 stores in Rochester and Upstate New York, employing nearly 300 people. One could argue that Antonelli became even better at pitching tires than baseballs — and that’s saying something given his diamond success. “After awhile, I became known as the ‘tire guy’ rather than the ballplayer,’’ he said, smiling. “But that was OK. I’m proud of both of my careers.”

Few have aged more gracefully than Antonelli, who still boasts a thick shock of silver hair and a mind as sharp as a new pair of baseball spikes. But this past year has been rough for him. He underwent back surgery, and that’s limited his mobility. And last October, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and underwent surgery and chemotherapy. Still, you’d never know any of it by looking at him, or talking to him.

“I feel good,’’ he said. “I don’t feel old. My mind is good, I have all my teeth, and I still have my hair.”

He grinned for a moment, then grew serious.

“I certainly don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me,’’ he said. “We are going to continue to fight this, and, hopefully, we’ll have a few more good years.”

Next week, relatives and friends will gather at Oak Hill Country Club — where Johnny’s been a member since 1971 — to celebrate his career and life. There will be ballpark fare. His wife has even bought about 70 boxes of Cracker Jack to hand out.

Longtime club member and friend, Jerry Stahl, will conduct a conversation with Johnny about his career. And those in attendance are sure to be entertained because, as I’ve learned from interviewing Johnny on numerous occasions as well as collaborating on his memoir, he is a gifted storyteller. There’s a lot of wonderful material to cover. From a life well-lived.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.   

Unbeaten Bills would love to rewrite some history Sunday

scottteaser-215x160Philosopher George Santayana warned that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Pioneering automobile magnate Henry Ford told us that history was bunk. And singer Sam Cooke (clearly paying no heed to Santayana, but perhaps to Ford) crooned in the very first line of a catchy, 1960 hit song that he didn’t know much about history.

If Cooke were alive and living in Western New York in 2019, he undoubtedly would be made aware of the ugly history of how Tom Brady’s Bunch has lorded over its AFC East brethren for two decades. And this scourge will be front and center when the unbeaten New England Patriots visit raucous New Era Field Sunday to play the unbeaten Buffalo Bills. As the late, great Voice of the Bills, Van Miller, reminded us before every kickoff, “Fasten your seatbelts.” And for this game, he might have added, “Insert your ear plugs,” because decibel levels may reach B52-engine revving levels.

Brady and his coach Bill Belichick are reviled in these parts, long ago surpassing Miami Dolphins legend Don Shula as public enemy No. 1. And the sports hatred is well-earned, because no player in the history of team sports has dominated an opponent the way Brady has dominated the Bills. This generation’s Tom Terrific has thrown 69 touchdown passes and just 24 interceptions while compiling a 30-3 record vs. Buffalo. That win total includes 15 at New Era (and the Ralph) and is the most ever by a quarterback against an NFL team. For further context, Brady’s 8,248 passing yards against Buffalo would place him seventh on the Bills all-time passing list.

The Wizards of Odds in Las Vegas do take series’ history into account when making the line, which is another reason they’ve established the Patriots as touchdown road favorites this Sunday. (That line, though, is more a reflection of this year’s history, which has seen New England outscore its opponents, 106-17, and the 42-years-young Brady average more than 300 yards per game while tossing seven touchdown passes and no interceptions.)

Buffalo fans gladly would welcome outcomes similar to 2003 or 2011, when the Bills handed Brady his only losses in Orchard Park. The victory 16 years ago was a 31-0 beatdown in which Brady was picked off four times and finished with a putrid 22.5 passer rating, one of the worst of his Hall of Fame career. The win eight seasons ago was much more dramatic, as Buffalo again intercepted four of his passes and won a 34-31 shootout on Rian Lindell’s 28-yard field goal as time expired.

Those games may seem like ancient history, but do provide a smidgen of hope for long-suffering Bills fans. And if they’re looking for some more encouraging past-is-prologue stuff, they’ll be heartened to learn that Bills Coach Sean McDermott’s defenses have played Brady tough in their four meetings. In fact, Brady has three touchdown passes and four interceptions in those games, while posting an 80.8 passer rating, 17 points below his career average and nearly 26 points below his 2019 average. That said, the Patriots still found a way to win each of those games by an average score of 27-9.

There is no mystery to beating the ageless Brady, who clearly is playing as if he were 10 years younger. The teams that have enjoyed success against him usually have pressured up the middle and prevented him from stepping into his throws. And they’ve also hit him hard and often. The problem, though, is that you have to be able to do that with your down linemen because Brady is a master at deciphering blitzes and making you pay for coming after him with extra rushers. And he is among the NFL’s best at getting rid of the ball in a hurry. With a top-tiered safety tandem of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, the Bills are masters at disguising coverages and preventing big pass plays, so this could be an interesting cat-and-mouse game between them and Brady.

Still, for the Bills to pull off the upset, they’re going to need a dynamic performance from their offense, especially second-year quarterback Josh Allen. I’m intrigued to see what creative offensive coordinator Brian Daboll dials up this week. The former University of Rochester football player and Belichick protege needs to be bold, without being reckless. Come out in the no-huddle. Speed things up. Dictate the action. Play to win.

Clearly, the Bills can’t afford bone-headed plays like the momentum-changing interception Allen tossed against Cincinnati. By not throwing the ball away, he almost threw the game away. Do that against a Belichick team, and you’re toast. You aren’t coming back to win. Fortunately, the 23-year-old work-in-progress Allen showed his moxie when it mattered most against the winless Bengals, guiding the Bills on a game-winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, the fifth time he’s done that in just 15 NFL starts.

The great thing about this is that Buffalo still will be a strong playoff contender even if it loses to the Patriots, so why not go for it? As I wrote last week, the schedule is unfolding rather nicely. With two games remaining against the tanking Dolphins, plus single games against the New York Jets, Tennessee Titans, Big Ben-less Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos and Washington, 10, maybe even 11 wins, isn’t out of the question.

And if that happens, perhaps this will be like 1988 all over again — the year when Buffalo went 12-4 and laid the foundation for their unprecedented Super Bowl run. Now that’s the type of history Bills Mafia would love to see repeated.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

Allen has a good sense of where the Bills are

scottteaser-215x160Josh Allen is growing on me. The more I see, the more I like. On and off the football field.

Heck, he’s even giving geography lessons. I loved that playful exchange the Buffalo quarterback had with that Big Apple reporter following the Bills workmanlike victory against the Giants in the Jersey Meadowlands Sunday afternoon. The scribe was trying to develop a story angle off the fact Allen had opened the 2019 season with road wins in MetLife Stadium against the New York Jets and New York Giants, two teams that passed him over in the 2018 draft. So, the inquiring mind prefaced his question by mentioning how Allen could have wound up playing for a New York team. But before he could finish, Josh politely corrected him by saying he was playing for a New York team. In fact, the only New York-based NFL team. The Buffalo, N.Y. Bills.

The Jets and Giants are New Yorkers in name only. After all, their practice facilities are in New Jersey, and they play their games there, too, in East Rutherford. Yes, we’re splitting hairs here because MetLife Stadium is just across the river from Manhattan, and Northeastern Jersey really is a suburb of New York City. But, hey, facts are facts. And we’ve been harping on the need for Allen to be more accurate. Perhaps that is why the second-year QB good-naturedly felt compelled to be on target off the field, too. Nothing wrong with that.

Bills fans love to point out they root for New York’s only true NFL team, so Allen, who has embraced Buffalo since Day One, scored some more points with them. He further ingratiated himself by helping Buffalo start the season 2-0 on the road for the first time in franchise history. It’s still very early, but Allen has looked more precise and more poised throwing the football — continuing a trend we saw after he returned from an elbow injury late last season. Through two games, he’s completed 64 percent of his passes, and after a shaky first half in the opener when he pulled a Nathan Peterman by committing four turnovers, he’s settled into a nice groove. The resiliency he showed in the fourth-quarter comeback against the Jets was impressive, almost Jim Kelly-esque in the way he didn’t panic after a godawful start. And his progress continued in the efficient victory vs. the Giants.

We’re seeing a quarterback who is becoming more comfortable in the pocket. A quarterback who is going through his progressions, completing short and intermediate passes, and engineering long, confidence-boosting drives. A quarterback who isn’t forcing the issue as much, who’s learning sometimes it’s better to take the short gain or even throw it away. At times, Allen still utilizes his legs and arm to escape trouble and make plays that only a handful of NFL quarterbacks are capable of making. Admittedly this is a small sample size, but through two games his completion percentage is up 11.4 points from last season to 64.2, while his quarterback rating is up 13.7 points to 84.6. Up, too, are his passing yards, from 172.8 to 253.5 per game. All signs of progress.

Yes, we need to keep things in perspective. The Jets and the Giants appear destined to be among the dregs of the NFL. And if Allen had opened the season with four first-half turnovers against a good team, he likely would have dug a crater too deep to climb out of, and we probably would be having a different conversation.

The bottom line is that he did what he needed to do against two mediocre teams. And now things are unfolding rather nicely for the Bills. After going undefeated in New York, er, New Jersey, Buffalo returns home to play a Cincinnati Bengals team that got spanked by 24 points at home last Sunday. Then, the old-and-improved New England Patriots come to town. That game against their hated AFC East foes will be followed by a trip to Tennessee and consecutive home games against the hapless Miami Dolphins, the Super Bowl-contending Philadelphia Eagles and winless Washington. A 6-2 start is not out of the question, and suddenly the road-laden second half of their schedule doesn’t look as daunting, now that the Pittsburgh Steelers will be operating without injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the rest of the season.

Of course, it’s always dangerous to play out schedules on paper. As we’ve seen in Pittsburgh and New Orleans, where Saints quarterback Drew Brees will be sidelined five or six games with a broken thumb, injuries can put a halt to hope in a hurry.

As encouraging as Allen has been, he still has much work to do, and he’ll need to make even greater strides while facing stiffer competition, particularly a Patriots team that is playing defense as well as it ever has in the Bill Belichick era, and an Eagles team that has a roster talented enough to bring home another Lombardi Trophy.

After going undefeated in those Empire State vs. Garden State showdowns, Allen is trending upward. His passes and grasp of geography have been more spot-on. Sunday will provide another interesting test. The Bills are sure to be sky-high for their home opener. But neither they nor their young quarterback are good enough to be looking ahead to the following week’s showdown against Tom Brady’s bunch. The Bills need to take care of business against an inferior opponent, just as they have the past two weeks.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

Tim Green’s jersey retirement is sure to be an indelible moment

scottteaser-215x160After the starters for both teams had been introduced before that night’s NFL exhibition game at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium on Aug. 18, 1962, the public address announcer asked the 78,000 spectators to direct their attention to the home team sideline. The lights were dimmed, and a spotlight shined on a muscular, handsome young man in a tweed jacket and skinny tie.

“Here is another member of the Cleveland Browns offense,’’ the PA announcer told the throng. “No. 45, Ernie Davis.” Davis trotted onto the field — in those dress clothes rather than helmet and pads — and a thunderous applause rocked the old stadium hard by the shores of Lake Erie as Browns fans officially welcomed the Heisman Trophy winner from Syracuse University. The rookie running back’s leukemia reportedly was in remission, and there was hope Davis might be able to join another former Orangeman, Jim Brown, in the Cleveland backfield sometime that season.

“Oh, man, what a night that was,’’ recalled John Brown, an offensive lineman who had blocked for Davis at SU and was hoping to do the same with the Browns. “You could actually feel the ground shake from that ovation. It was like a mini-earthquake. I never witnessed a more emotional outpouring for one man.”

Sadly, Davis would never play a down in the NFL. Several months later, his leukemia returned. On March 30, 1963, he penned a story for the Saturday Evening Post — a national magazine with a circulation in the millions — titled “I’m Not Unlucky.” Seven weeks after that optimistic, upbeat feature hit newsstands and mailboxes, a nation mourned the death of Ernie Davis at age 23.

This Saturday night inside the sold-out Carrier Dome, I suspect the ground will tremble again as another beloved SU athlete is recognized for all he’s done and all he continues to do while confronting the most daunting of odds. Tim Green, who as a young twentysomething helped resurrect a moribund Syracuse football program, will have his No. 72 jersey retired during halftime ceremonies at the Orange’s home game against defending national champion Clemson.

Close to 50,000 people will thank the two-time All-American defensive end and Rhodes Scholar finalist for what he achieved at SU and what he’s accomplished since. After graduating from SU, Renaissance Tim went on to have a successful eight-year NFL career with the Atlanta Falcons; author 40 books, including several New York Times bestsellers; earn a law degree from SU and become a practicing attorney; deliver critically acclaimed analysis on Fox Sports national football telecasts; contribute numerous stories and commentaries to National Public Radio and ABC News; and start a “Reading is Weightlifting for the Brain” program that’s encouraged tens of thousands of elementary and middle school students to put down their electronics and pick up books.

But the biggest reason they’ll be clapping hands, stomping feet, screaming approval and wiping away tears is for what Green is doing now — battling, with grace and dignity, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a debilitating, fatal neurological disorder, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The outpouring will be reminiscent of the love Davis received that memorable night in Cleveland and the thunderous ovation Gehrig, the former baseball slugger, was given at Yankee Stadium in 1939, when he proclaimed himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Like Davis and Gehrig, Green has not allowed his disease to dampen his optimism and gratitude. While going public with his ALS diagnosis during a heart-wrenching 60 Minutes interview last fall, Green told CBS journalist Steve Kroft: “Some people would say, you know, ‘Tim, God bless you.’ And I’d say, ‘He already has.’ ’’

Green, though, doesn’t want sympathy; he wants action. Action directed at finding a cure for ALS, which currently afflicts 30,000 Americans. He initially refused to take his story to the masses because he was fearful it would lead to a pity party. But his son Troy convinced him that by going public, he could inspire others dealing with similar challenges, and help raise awareness and research funds. He could mobilize people the way he had during his illustrious football career and with his reading initiative.

He used the 60 Minutes interview to announce the launch of his #TackleALS campaign. On the lead page of the crusade’s website, he succinctly sums up his mission with the words: “Don’t be sorry, let’s beat this!” The site also includes a video, featuring the likes of Tom Brady, former Falcon teammates Brett Favre and Deion Sanders, and former Fox football broadcast partner Joe Buck encouraging others to join the fight. To date, roughly $3.3-million has been raised, with every cent donated to the Healey Center for ALS Research at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“The response has been tremendous,’’ Troy Green said by phone the other day. “It’s come not only from family and friends, but from total strangers. And it’s funding the exploration of some encouraging new drugs that may pause the disease and eventually cure it. We are really excited about those developments. We truly believe a cure will be found, and when it does all these people who joined the #TackleALS teams will have played a role.”

Any blocker who lined up opposite Tim Green during his football days quickly learned how relentless and determined he could be. Opponents and coaches marveled that he had a motor that never quit. In ALS, Green is confronting an opponent that’s undefeated, but he remains undeterred. It may have made speaking more difficult and robbed him of the dexterity required to type, but its hasn’t stopped him from continuing to pursue his passion of writing. Using a special pair of sensor glasses that connects a laser to letters on a computer screen, Green plods along, one letter at a time. He recently completed the third in a trilogy of adolescent books he’s collaborated on with New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter. “Grand Slam” will be published in March, and will mark the sixth book Green has written since being diagnosed.

“It’s obviously a longer and more tedious process for Dad to write, but you won’t ever hear him complaining,’’ Troy said. “People tend to forget that ALS is largely a physical disease. His brain is 100 percent intact. Physically, it might be tougher for him to express himself, but mentally dad is sharper than ever. He’s still writing, still working with his law firm, still filling up his days with so many positive, productive things. The disease is far from stopping him. Heck, it’s barely slowing him down.’’

His refusal to be defined by the disease is inspiring. His fight brings perspective.

“Drawing on that old one-game-at-a-time football mantra, Dad is taking it one day at a time,’’ Troy said. “He views each day as a clean slate, a blessing. It’s amazing to watch, and it is inspirational. I see the way he goes toe-to-toe with this hideous disease every day. And it makes the little things I’m struggling with seem even smaller.”

Friends routinely check in with him, his five kids and his wife, Illyssa, who’s been a rock throughout this ordeal. And he’s received thousands of cards and letters and Facebook posts of support from total strangers, including many teachers and students who took part in his reading program and were inspired by his books, which often dealt with the importance of perseverance and kindness. The loving response is a reminder of how many people, from all walks of life, he has touched along the way.

“Tim always had this charisma; this ability to connect with people,’’ says Blaise Winter, one of Green’s teammates on SU’s famous “Four Wheel Drive” defensive line of the early 1980s. “He was a great, caring teammate — one of those people who was a unifier who brought people together. That he’s still trying to do that in the face of what he’s going through doesn’t surprise me. He always has looked out for the other guy.”

Winter will be there Saturday night. So will about 50,000 others. Yes, many will be there to see if SU can pull off a monumental upset of Clemson the way it did in the Dome two years ago. But regardless of the outcome, the enduring moment will occur at halftime. The building will be rocking like a mini-earthquake. And Tim Green will feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

A Penfield man’s journey shines bright light on Jim Thorpe’s legacy

There are still miles to go before he sleeps, but indefatigable Bob Wheeler can finally see the finish line. A 65-year-long odyssey to ensure that Jim Thorpe receives his historical due—not only as arguably the finest athlete of all-time, but as a courageous and compassionate American hero—is nearing its final stages.

Next summer, filming is scheduled to begin on a movie based on Wheeler’s superb book, “Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete.” Adapted by director/screenwriter Abraham Taylor and backed by Hollywood heavyweights such as Angelina Jolie and “Fences” producer Todd Black, “Bright Path: The Jim Thorpe Story” is tentatively scheduled to hit theaters in 2021. And when it does, generations—new and old—will learn the true story of the former Olympic gold medalist and football pioneer who overcame crushing obstacles as a Native American in an era when our government and society was hell-bent on eradicating their culture.

“Jim Thorpe’s life is in many respects a painful story because of the treatment he and other Native Americans were forced to endure in the late 19th century, early 20th century,’’ Taylor said. “But it’s also an incredibly powerful and inspiring story. And, quite frankly, it’s probably a story that couldn’t have been told without Bob’s exhaustive research and generosity of spirit. His understanding of Thorpe’s life is unparalleled. No one knows more about Thorpe than Bob does, and no one has been a greater champion of Thorpe’s legacy.”

And to think this all began in Penfield many moons ago when Wheeler’s dad gave him a book about the world’s greatest athletes and 10-year-old Bob stumbled upon Thorpe. A seed was planted, and it would germinate years later on a trip back from Yankee Stadium with his parents. As they trekked toward Rochester, Wheeler convinced them to take a detour to Jim Thorpe, Pa. They eventually found the run-down mausoleum where Thorpe was buried.

This rekindled Wheeler’s interest, and when he returned home he went to Rundel Library to learn more about his boyhood hero. His research put him in touch with Leo Lyons, one of the founders of the Rochester Jeffersons, a charter member of the National Football League, which was started by Thorpe in 1920. Lyons got to know Thorpe when the former Canton Bulldogs football star became the league’s first commissioner, and the former Jeffersons owner/coach helped Wheeler compile a list of Thorpe contemporaries to interview.

In the summer of 1966, as part of his research for a master’s degree in history at Syracuse University, Wheeler began hitch-hiking across America in search of those who knew Thorpe. He lugged his suitcase and bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder to 28 states, logging more than 12,000 miles while interviewing nearly 200 people, including President Dwight Eisenhower, who played football against Thorpe, while attending West Point; actor Burt Lancaster, who portrayed the legendary athlete in a 1951 feature film, and a 104-year-old teacher who had Thorpe as a student at the Carlisle (Pa.) Indian School.

“It was the most wondrous journey of my life,’’ said Wheeler, who will speak at Gonondagan on Sept. 7 at 2 p.m. “I joke that I left home with $200 in my pocket and returned home with $200 in my pocket. People were just incredible. When I told them what I was doing, most responded enthusiastically. Many offered meals and transportation and places to stay.”

Wheeler would use material culled from his treasure trove of interviews to write his master’s thesis. And that thesis would be the basis for his definitive Thorpe biography several years later. One person who opened his heart and wallet during the cross-country trip was Eisenhower. That interview took place in Gettysburg, and it was “like listening to your grandfather tell stories.” When they finished chatting, Ike gave Wheeler a $20 bill because he didn’t like to see young people hitch-hike.

Wheeler would encounter similar kindness when he popped into Wardecker’s, a menswear store in downtown Carlisle. Haberdasher James Wardecker was more than happy to help. He immediately phoned his son, Fred, and asked him to take the next two days off from work so he could drive Wheeler around town to speak to local residents who had first-hand knowledge of Thorpe and legendary Carlisle football coach Pop Warner.

Nearly a half-century later, as he was beginning to research his Thorpe movie, Taylor visited Wardecker’s. Fred wound up regaling Taylor with stories about Thorpe, and at the end of their conversation told him: “You really should talk to Bob Wheeler.” Wardecker gave him Wheeler’s phone number. Taylor called, and knew within minutes that he needed to bring Bob aboard.

“Bob’s passion was infectious,’’ Taylor said. “You could feel the love he had for Jim and how important it was for him to get this story told on a wide scale. We wound up talking for four hours, and he invited me to spend some time at their home so we could talk further. That was really the launching point for all of this. Bob’s generous sharing of knowledge and contacts has been nothing short of extraordinary.”

Wheeler felt a kinship from the start. Here were two men bonded by a story that needed to be told. “That Abraham would walk into that same store four decades later, and Fred would graciously connect him to me was just another indication that the telling of Jim’s story was truly meant to be,” Wheeler said.

As Taylor mentioned, no one knows more about Thorpe or has been more devoted to his legacy than Wheeler. If the Penfield High School graduate had done nothing more than write the definitive biography of Thorpe, that would have been enough. But Wheeler didn’t stop there. He and his wife, Florence, wound up quitting their jobs to form the Jim Thorpe Foundation in 1982, using proceeds from the sales of his book. They struggled financially, but pushed on, as Bob made ends meet by caddying at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md.

They were a true team, and their persistence would be rewarded in 1982 when Florence stumbled upon an old Olympic rule book amid a stack of books in the Library of Congress. She discovered a legal technicality that prompted the International Olympic Committee to restore the gold medals it had stripped from Thorpe because he had violated the rules of amateurism by playing semi-pro baseball before competing in the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm, Sweden. Thorpe had died 30 years before Florence’s needle-in-the-haystack discovery, but his grown children were able to attend a ceremony in Los Angeles on Jan. 18, 1983 in which the IOC presented them with replica medals. Thorpe’s kids invited the Wheelers to attend. That same year, Bob and Florence gathered 3.5-million signatures in a petition drive that convinced the U.S. Postal Service to honor Thorpe with a stamp.

This family tradition is being carried on by the Wheelers’ son, Rob, who is working on behalf of Thorpe’s relatives to get the Native American’s remains returned from Jim Thorpe, Pa. to his Oklahoma birthplace.

“I cannot fathom a better way to honor Mr. Thorpe’s legacy than naming a town after him,’’ Rob Wheeler said in a recent speech. “The only thing the Sac and Fox Nation is seeking are his physical remains. I hope that even if Mr. Thorpe’s remains are returned, the citizens of Jim Thorpe, Pa. will continue to honor (him). Relinquishing his remains would not change anything in the town. It would still be Jim Thorpe, Pa. Today, there are 42 towns named after President Lincoln. Yet, President Lincoln’s remains reside in Springrield, Ill.”

The Wheelers hope “Bright Path” will shed light on Thorpe’s tireless efforts to help indigenous people overcome their obstacles. Thorpe’s celebrity as a transcendent sports star opened up acting opportunities for him, and he used his Hollywood connections to create job opportunities for Native Americans in numerous films, particularly Westerns. There also are scores of stories about Thorpe digging into his wallet and opening up his home to help those in need.

“There is a word from Jim’s tribe that became associated with him,’’ Wheeler said. “The word is ‘akapamata.’ It means ‘caregiver.’ And the more I read about Jim and the more people I interviewed through the years that knew him, that word fit him to a tee. Of all the things Jim was, the thing he was most of all was a caregiver.”

The same could be said of Bob Wheeler. His devotion to and care of Thorpe’s legacy has led him on a remarkable journey. A bright path, indeed.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.


Babers wants Orange football to become consistently good

scottteaser-215x160A 580-foot crane capable of hoisting 1,000 tons at a time hovers high above the Carrier Dome. It will be used to install a new, permanent, hard-shell roof at the iconic Syracuse stadium.

At ground level, another construction job continues inside the Dome as Syracuse University football coach Dino Babers attempts to build on the foundation he laid the previous two seasons. A dilapidated football program that won just 48 of 131 games before Babers’ arrival knocked off defending national champion Clemson in 2018, then posted a 10-3 record and a No. 15 ranking in the national polls last year.

The “faith without evidence” Babers asked of fans had been rewarded as the charismatic coach made believers of skeptics. Orange football fans, a notoriously apathetic lot, have spoken with their wallets this offseason to the tune of more than 7,000 new season-ticket sales as expectations soar higher than that skyscraping crane.

The reconstruction of SU football, like the reconstruction of the Dome, is far from done. Priority No. 1: Prove last season was the new normal and not a fluke.

“We don’t want to be occasionally great,’’ Babers says as he prepares for his fourth season as Orange head coach. “We want to be consistently good.”

Tommy DeVito, the new starting quarterback with the golden arm and limitless potential, goes a step further. “Last year, 10 wins, that’s going to be the standard,’’ he says. “And we hope to exceed that this year.”

And to think, before last season some wondered if Babers was just another coach full of hot air and false promises after consecutive 4-8 seasons that saw the Orange start fast only to crawl to the finish line with winless Novembers.

Pundits, as well as Babers’ peers, clearly have taken notice of the extreme makeover occurring on the hill far above Onondaga’s waters, with the Orange opening this season ranked 22nd in both the writers’ and coaches’ polls. Despite the lake-effect snow being dumped on the parade by the Las Vegas odds-makers who have put SU’s over-under win total at just 5.5, there is justifiable cause for optimism. The roster Babers has assembled is far superior to the one he inherited, and his offense, defense and special teams appear ready to operate at the breakneck speed he boldly predicted they would at his first press conference in 2016 when he painted a vivid word picture of the program’s future.

At the Aug. 31 season opener at Liberty University, SU will field a lineup featuring two first-team All-Americans (safety Andre Cisco and kicker Andre Szmyt) who dazzled as freshmen, and two All-Atlantic Coast Conference pass rushers (Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman) who had 10 sacks apiece a year ago. The running back and wide receiving corps are deep and blessed with game-changing speed. How well and quickly the offensive line and linebacking unit come together could determine the Orange’s fate. But the biggest key will be DeVito’s ability to replace Eric Dungey. No small task, considering the departed dual-threat quarterback accounted for 33 touchdowns last season and set or tied 25 school records during his collegiate career.

We saw flashes of brilliance during DeVito’s redshirt freshman season when he came off the bench to replace an injured Dungey and saved the day and the season by igniting wins against Florida State and North Carolina. We also witnessed some rough patches, particularly during his relief effort against Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium, in which he threw two interceptions in a 36-3 loss.

There are sure to be more thrilling moments, as well as growing pains, as the only consensus four-star recruit on SU’s roster tries to build on last year’s turning-point season.

Dungey was a bigger and more versatile quarterback—an elusive and punishing runner who rushed for 754 yards and 15 TDs. DeVito is more of a pro-style pocket passer, who actually is better suited to the up-tempo offense Babers prefers. He has a quicker release and is more accurate than his predecessor. He’ll be leaving the running to the backs, and that’s a good option because senior Moe Neal and Oklahoma transfer Abdul Adams both have the ability to rush for more than 1,000 yards.

It won’t take long to see if the Orange is ready to meet or exceed its lofty, new standards. After road games at Liberty and Maryland—games in which SU will be favored—it’s back to the Dome to play college football’s standard-bearer. That would be Clemson, SU’s ACC Atlantic rival and the defending national champion. The Tigers are one of those rare programs that reloads. Leading the way is Trevor Lawrence, a 6-foot-6, rocket-armed sophomore quarterback who carved up Alabama in the 2018 title game and may have been the NFL’s No. 1 pick last April had he been eligible for the draft.

The Orange probably will enter the Clemson game as three-touchdown underdogs, but the veteran SU players won’t pay any heed. They remember how they upset the Tigers on national television in the Dome two years ago. And they can’t forget how they came within an illegal man downfield penalty of knocking them off last season in Death Valley, a place Clemson rarely loses. Those two performances were good measuring sticks because in Babers’ first game against Clemson three years ago, his team was squashed, 54-0.

As if the Orange needed any other emotional boosts, the game will be played on homecoming weekend on national television with Tim Green’s number being retired and the 1959 national championship team honored. Were SU able to pull off another upset, Orange fans will depart the Dome feeling even higher than that crane.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

It’s time for Major League Baseball to play games in Cooperstown again

scottteaser-215x160I think it’s marvelous that Major League Baseball has taken its show on the road, playing regular-season games in places such as Williamsport, Pa.—the birthplace of Little League—and Dyersville, Iowa, where the classic movie “Field of Dreams” was filmed. I’ve even been onboard with the international games—though I still would prefer the season opener be played in the United States.

These games are great opportunities to showcase the sport in places that don’t get to see big-leaguers up close and personal. And they also connect baseball to its roots. (Even playing in London had a root-connecting component since baseball evolved from English games such as rounders and cricket.)

I’m hoping MLB commissioner Rob Manfred now goes a step farther and brings games back to Cooperstown, the longtime repository of baseball history and home to its soul. To commemorate the official opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and the induction of an inaugural class headlined by Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, MLB played an exhibition game at Doubleday Field 80 years ago. The ballpark in the center of town had been built on a cow pasture where decorated Civil War Colonel Abner Doubleday purportedly laid out the first baseball diamond. Great story. Just one problem: It wasn’t true. The myth of Cooperstown being the birthplace of baseball was debunked long ago. But that didn’t stop the bucolic village nestled in the foothills of the Adirondacks and Catskills from becoming the capital of our national pastime.

As part of the 1939 ceremonies, current and former players from MLB’s 16 clubs played an exhibition game at Doubleday that was captained by Honus Wagner and Eddie Collins. The next year, the owners agreed to send two teams annually to participate in a game that would put the exclamation point on Hall of Fame induction weekends. During the next 68 years, the summer exhibitions were played before packed houses of 10,000 fans as the likes of Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Cal Ripken Jr. took their turns at-bat.

Sadly, the tradition came to an end in 2008—a victim of a collective bargaining agreement and greed. I get that the baseball season is a grinding marathon and off-days are coveted, but the Hall of Fame game should never have been sacrificed. This was a great way to play ball in an intimate setting and connect modern players to the past. Doubleday currently is undergoing a major makeover. If MLB can pump money into the minor-league stadium at Williamsport and erect a makeshift park that seats 8,000 in the Iowa corn fields next to the “Field of Dreams” movie set, why can’t it devote some money into moving Doubleday’s fences back 10 to 15 feet in the centerfield power alleys? I know the Hall has tried to keep the MLB-Cooperstown connection going by staging annual “Classic” games in which each of the big-league clubs sends a former player. But it would be so much better if a Hall of Fame game became an annual part of the schedule again.

And while I’m on that subject, I’d like to see a return to big-league clubs playing exhibition games vs. their top minor-league affiliates. I know that’s not going to happen, but, hey, you can’t blame me for trying.


Remember how the Buffalo Bills briefly courted free agent wide receiver Antonio Brown several months ago? This clearly was one case where it was good not to get what you wished for.

No question Brown is a game-changing player, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer. But he also is a high-maintenance diva. This idle threat that he was going to walk away from $30 million in guaranteed money from the Oakland Raiders because the NFL wasn’t going to allow him to continue using the outdated helmet he had worn for 10 seasons couldn’t have been more absurd. The league and the players union don’t agree on much, but they have been collaborating on extensive research in hopes of making helmets safer in order to cut down on concussions. Brown’s helmet wasn’t going to pass muster, so the league was looking to protect him, not punish him.

At some point, the shenanigans and locker room toxicity of a player even as gifted as Brown, no longer is worth it. I’m sure Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is glad he doesn’t have to deal with such juvenile behavior any longer. Brown is now Jon Gruden’s headache.


Tim Tebow’s season was cut short by a severe cut on his hand. And that’s probably just as well, because, despite an amazing work ethic, the former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Florida finished his first season at the Triple-A level with a .163 batting average, four homers, 19 runs batted in and a whopping 98 strikeouts in 239 at-bats for the Syracuse Mets. Although Tebow’s stats were paltry and he just turned 32, the New York Mets insist he will be back next season.

I didn’t go apoplectic when the Mets signed him to a minor-league contract because I knew Tebow would work as hard as anyone, and I realized he would attract many non-baseball fans to minor league parks. I also realized he would do an incredible amount of charitable work behind the scenes in the communities in which he played. And that all transpired. What didn’t transpire was an ability to play an extremely difficult game that made even Michael Jordan look foolish. I saw Tebow play in person several times and he looked like a muscle-bound slugger who was totally overmatched. I actually felt badly for him at times. I wish him well in his future endeavors as a college football analyst. He gave baseball his best shot, and it didn’t work out. Time to move on.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.



Smith’s record, SU hoops legacy deserves to be remembered

scottteaser-215x160You only get one chance to make a first impression, and what an impression Syracuse University basketball made on me when I attended my first game as a wide-eyed 15-year-old at dusty, old Manley Field House on Jan. 14, 1971. That wicked cold night remains indelible all these decades later thanks to an en fuego performance by Bill Smith. Playing against an overmatched Lafayette College center who was six inches shorter, the 6-foot-11 Smith poured in 47 points. And by doing so, the former Rush-Henrietta High School All-American became the answer to a trivia question that continues to stump even diehard Orange devotees nearly a half century later: Which SU player scored the most points in a game?

When I recently mentioned to Smith I was at that game, he joked, “If I had known that, I would have gotten you season tickets.” I chuckled. Bill Smith was talented enough not to need any help from me or any other perceived good-luck charm. In fact, he was so skilled that you’ll continue to see his name splattered all over the SU record books, holding his own against other Orange legends in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage. His legacy clearly has stood the test of time, but also has been lost in time. One of the greatest players in Syracuse hoops history is somewhat of a forgotten Orangeman. And that’s a shame.

Heck, Smith also has been forgotten in his hometown, though that oversight will be partially rectified when he’s inducted into the Frontier Field Walk of Fame before the Rochester Red Wings game Sunday at Frontier Field.

Here’s how good Smith was: Good enough to average 28.5 points per game his senior year at Rush-Henrietta to earn Coach & Athlete Magazine first-team All-American honors. Good enough to receive 168 college basketball scholarship offers, making him one of the most heavily recruited athletes ever from Rochester. Good enough to average 20.7 points and 12.9 rebounds per game during a Syracuse career that also saw him become just one of three players (Dave Bing and Greg Kohls are the others) to average 20 or more points in consecutive varsity seasons for the Orange. Good enough to be drafted in the second round by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers and score 17 points in a single quarter against Basketball Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

From an early age, Smith stood head-and-shoulders above his peers. “I came out long and stayed long,’’ he joked. “From kindergarten on up, I always seemed to be at least a head taller than my classmates.” Height is an advantage, whether grabbing cookies from the top shelf of the cupboard or rebounds off the rim. So it wasn’t surprising that by the time Smith reached junior high, coaches were begging him to take up basketball.

“I was pathetic at first,’’ he recalled, laughing. “Couldn’t shoot. Couldn’t dribble. Couldn’t do anything, really. But I had a coach (Joe Drum) who spent tons of time with me, teaching me to do all those things, as well as teaching me to become ambidextrous, and I developed an affinity for the game and eventually became pretty good at it.”

By the end of his senior year, virtually every major college basketball program had offered a scholarship. “About the only coach who didn’t was UCLA’s John Wooden, but I didn’t feel slighted because he already had a pretty good big man,’’ Smith said. “Some guy by the name of Lew Alcindor, who later would change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.”

Smith eventually whittled his list to Syracuse, Louisville and Michigan, and ultimately decided on the ’Cuse because it would enable his family and Mary, the high school sweetheart who became his wife, to make the 90-minute drive to watch him play often. He would be part of the big-men-from-Rochester legacy at SU, joining the likes of Jon Cincebox, Roosevelt Bouie and John Wallace.

After dominating with the freshman team (first-year players weren’t eligible for the varsity in those days), Smith averaged 19 points and 11.6 rebounds during his sophomore season. His second varsity game was a harbinger, as he scored 41 points in a loss to Niagara.

“I thought that was pretty, darn good until I saw on the scoresheet that Calvin Murphy had 68 points for Niagara,’’ he joked. “He was only about 5-foot-9 and I tried my best whenever he drove to the basket, but he was unstoppable from just about anywhere on the court. A true magician. So clever with the ball. He gave me nightmares. I was in therapy for about four years after playing him.”

Smith has fond memories of playing in front of the rowdy fans who inhabited the “Manley Zoo” student cheering section.

“You want to talk about a home-court advantage,’’ he said. “Those people were absolutely crazy. Some of their cheers were outrageous, and often quite obscene. They usually intimidated the heck out of our opponents. We felt invincible there.”

Smith never felt more invincible than that January night in 1971 when he converted 17-of-23 field goals and 13-of-19 free throws to break, by one, the scoring record Bing had set six years earlier.

“I knew I was hot that night, but I had no idea I was closing in on Bing’s record,’’ he said. “Late in the game, we were walking back onto the floor after a timeout, and Coach (Roy) Danforth motioned for the four other guys to come back. He told them how close I was, and asked the guys to feed me the ball. That record clearly doesn’t happen without Coach doing that and without my teammates being so unselfish.”

That game would be the highlight of a senior season in which Smith averaged 22.7 points and 14.5 rebounds per game as the Orange earned a bid to the NIT, which in those days was vastly more prestigious than it is now. His heroics helped remove some of the stench from the previous season, which was cut short for Smith after he punched a referee and was suspended for the final five games. All these years later, he regrets it ever happened, but said there was more to the story than people realize. The game was played in West Virginia, and after Smith was called for a fifth foul late in the game, he voiced his displeasure to the ref. Smith said the official shocked him by smacking him in the face.

“I was stunned and then I was angry,’’ he said. “At that point, he no longer was a guy in a striped shirt, and I retaliated. Next thing you know, there were fights everywhere as people stormed onto the floor—a real donnybrook.”

After Smith was suspended, SU assistant coach Bill Vesp told him to keep his nose clean, tend to his academics in summer school, and hope that his subsequent good behavior would result in reinstatement. And that’s what happened before his senior year.

The Trail Blazers wound up selecting him 43rd overall, and the sky seemed the limit after that 17-point-outburst against Jabbar. But Smith wound up tearing several knee ligaments his rookie year, and was never the same. He called it quits in his second season, and eventually landed a long-time job with the famed wealth management firm, Smith Barney.

Smith never stopped bleeding Orange, and finally made the trek from his Oregon home to the Carrier Dome for the first time in 2008. During a timeout, he was shown on the Jumbotron and it was mentioned that he still held the all-time record for points in a game. His grown sons, who had arranged the trip, were among the 31,000 fans standing and applauding. He later attended the post-game press conference, and SU head coach Jim Boeheim, who had been an assistant coach during Smith’s SU days, acknowledged his old player.

“That’s Billy Smith,’’ Boeheim told reporters. “He looks as good today as he did back in 1971. In fact, for a minute during today’s game, I almost called his number.”

Smith is surprised his scoring record still stands. He thought Gerry McNamara, who had 43 in an NCAA tournament game, might break it. And there’s no doubt in his mind that if Carmelo Anthony had not departed after his freshman season, he would have shattered the mark.

“I think one thing working in my favor is the balanced scoring that’s a hallmark of Jimmy’s teams,’’ Smith said. “He’s looking for several guys to score in double-figures, and that’s been a winning approach.”

So, Smith’s record endures. And 48 years later, the first impression he made on me remains indelible.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

Madden video football game headliners have been more cursed than blessed

scottteaser-215x160I’m not a big believer in sports jinxes and curses. The Chicago Cubs didn’t go more than a century without a World Series title because that odiferous billy goat and his owner were asked to leave their Wrigley Field box seats way back when. And the curse the Bambino purportedly put on the Boston Red Sox didn’t lead to that eight-decade long championship drought. Ineptitude on the diamond and in the dugout and front office were the real culprits, not slighted slugger Babe Ruth. (Though if the BoSox had retained Ruth, their history as well as the history of baseball would have unfolded much differently, and perhaps the baseball famine would have occurred in the south Bronx.)

For years, we’ve heard about the Sports Illustrated jinx, in which bad things allegedly happened to athletes, coaches, owners and teams that appeared on the magazine’s cover. Upon further review, the hex was a hoax. The reality is that the majority of sports personalities who SI featured continued to enjoy success—perhaps none more so than Michael Jordan, who was on SI’s cover 50 times. With the exception of the time he was shown swinging and missing while wearing a Birmingham White Sox baseball uniform, His Airness wound up being blessed rather than cursed by his SI appearances.

I bring this up because EA Sports is about to release its latest Madden video football game, and that’s supposedly going to be bad news for Patrick Mahomes. The NFL’s reigning most valuable player is shown on the game box cover pointing at the biceps of his powerful right arm. This should be cause for celebration for Kansas City Chiefs fans, a sign that their quarterback truly has arrived as a transcendent, superduperstar.

Alas, many Chiefs fans are afraid the man who became just the second NFL QB to accumulate at least 50 touchdown passes and 5,000 passing yards in the same season is destined to suffer a dramatic decline in performance. And they believe that way because it’s happened to so many other Madden cover subjects. That accolade is now considered a malediction. Sure, Mahomes may see a dropoff in his otherworldly stats, but if that occurs it won’t be because of Madden 20. Or will it?

A review of previous Madden cover boys (yes, I have way too much time on my hands), reveals that in 14.5 of the 21 cases the featured player or players have encountered bad luck immediately following their ascendancy to sports video game fame. In the early years, John Madden, the loud and loveable Hall of Fame football coach and television commentator for whom the game is named, adorned the cover. But in 1999, EA Sports decided it was time to feature players, and Barry Sanders, the elusive, now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t Detroit Lions running back, was chosen. Talk about poor timing. That July, Sanders abruptly quit football. It was too late to find a replacement player, though Green Bay Packers running back Dorsey Levens did appear on alternate covers for the limited number of Madden games sold abroad.

The next year, Eddie George, fresh off a 1,500-rushing-yards season with Tennessee, wound up averaging a career-low 3.4 yards per carry and set a personal high for fumbles after his Madden debut. In year three, the cover appeared to get the better of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who went from tossing 33 touchdowns to just 14 in an injury-truncated season.

A trend was unfolding, as nine of the first 10 players chosen for Madden covers wound up suffering bad tidings after receiving the supposedly good news. Mahomes and Chiefs fans can take heart that the odds for Madden cover success has improved during the past decade. In 2018, Tom Brady was featured, and although his New England Patriots lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl, Tom Terrific threw for more than 500 yards in that game, establishing a new record. Last year’s cover subject, Antonio Brown, had a tumultuous season in Pittsburgh, but still wound up with 104 receptions for 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns. I’d hardly call that cursed, though he did force his way out of the Steel City and is now playing for the Oakland Raiders.

Jinx or not, the Madden game remains immensely popular, and fans aren’t the only ones who play it and care passionately about it. NFL players play it, too, and consider the cover designation a prestigious honor. And most are keenly aware of their individual Madden ratings. In this year’s game, the highest grades (99) were awarded to just four players (Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, Bobby Wagner and DeAndre Hopkins). Interestingly, Mahomes received a 97 while Brady was given a 96. Brady doesn’t seem to be bothered that he didn’t grade out the highest. He can always respond that his grade really is a six—as in six Super Bowl rings.

Many players, though, do take umbrage with their rankings. Safety Micah Hyde is the Bills highest-rated player with an 86. Cornerback Tre’Davious White is next at 85, followed by linebacker Lorenzo Alexanader (82), running back LeSean McCoy (82) and quarterback Josh Allen (74).  White, who claims not to play many video games, recently told the NFL Network he wasn’t pleased.

“I feel like they robbed us on a lot of our guys,’’ he said. “We definitely didn’t get the credit we deserve in our ratings, but we’ll use it as extra motivation this season.”

Hey, whatever floats your boat. If you are mad at Madden and it prompts you to show the game’s creators you were short-changed, then go for it. Someday, a Bill might be selected as the game’s cover boy. That may wind up being a blessing or a curse—or both.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.


All eyes will be on Josh Allen during Bills training camp

scottteaser-215x160Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher who knew not a whit about American football, opined there is nothing permanent except change. True that. And the change at One Bills Drive has been downright dizzying since the McBeane team of Coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane replaced the not-so-dynamic duo of Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley following the 2016 season.

The Buffalo Bills roster rebuild—or should that be demolition?—has resulted in just four holdovers from the squad the current braintrust inherited from its underachieving predecessors. And that dwindling list of survivors could be down to two—Lorenzo Alexander and Jerry Hughes—if LeSean McCoy and Shaq Lawson are cut or traded before the regular season opener against the New York Jets in the Jersey swamplands on Sept. 8.

As the Bills prepared to open their 20th and, perhaps, final training camp at St. John Fisher College this week, a busload of promising newcomers offer hope for better days, perhaps even a trip to the 2019 playoffs as a wildcard entry. Center Mitch Morse, who protected NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes last season while anchoring the Kansas City Chiefs offensive line, will be a vast upgrade for a porous Bills line that could feature as many as four new starters, which would constitute an 80 percent turnover.

The receiving corps should be bolstered by two free agent acquisitions: Cole Beasley, a prolific pass catcher for the Dallas Cowboys, and John Brown, who was known for his downfield speed while with the Baltimore Ravens. McCoy enters camp listed atop the running backs depth chart, but he’s on the wrong side of 30 and is coming off his worst season – a 3.2-yards-per-carry average. The addition of veterans Frank Gore and T.J. Yeldon and rookie Devin Singletary leads me to believe McCoy’s days are numbered, but we shall see.

Defensively, Tremaine Edmunds, a 21-year-old, lanky linebacker with superstar potential, and Ed Oliver, a quick-footed rookie tackle, may help the Bills fulfill McDermott’s vision of becoming dominating and opportunistic on that side of the ball. Methinks the pass rush will be much improved with the addition of Oliver, who occasionally may line up on the edge to take advantage of his quick burst off the ball.

Of the many changes, though, the most important will be the ones made by second-year quarterback Josh Allen, who flashed enough brilliant moments during his truncated rookie season to make one think that maybe, just maybe, the Bills have discovered the franchise quarterback they’ve been desperately seeking since Jim Kelly’s retirement more than two decades ago. What I saw down the stretch, after Allen returned from an elbow injury, makes me believe this guy has a slightly better chance of becoming the next Kelly than the next Rob Johnson, J.P. Losman or EJ Manuel.

The baby-step progress he made during his rookie season was borne out by the statistics. In his first five games, Allen averaged 166 passing yards, threw a total of two touchdowns and five interceptions and rushed for 31 yards per game while scoring three touchdowns. In his last six starts, he threw eight touchdown passes and seven picks, and averaged 79 rushing yards while scoring five touchdowns. The Bills wound up winning five of their final seven games, but to keep that in perspective, the latter part of their schedule was rated the easiest in the NFL.

Allen’s physical skills are obvious. He is 6-foot-5, 237 pounds, has a bazooka for an arm and is fleet-of-foot, as evidenced by his 631 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns—both single-season franchise records for a quarterback. What Allen hasn’t been, even during his college days at Wyoming, is accurate. It’s not merely his completion percentage, which at 52.8 percent was the lowest by an NFL quarterback with at least 250 attempts in eight years. It’s also his decision-making skills and his propensity to take off and run as the first sign of duress.

Clearly, inexperience, poor technique and a suspect supporting cast worked against him. But, as mentioned, McBeane devoted the off-season to upgrade the line, receiving corps and run game, so the expectation is that Allen will make a significant leap during his sophomore season.

Working with new quarterback coach Ken Dorsey, we’re told, already has resulted in better footwork and smarter decisions. Dorsey is a former Heisman Trophy-winner who helped Carolina Panthers dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton make significant improvements. Allen appears cut from a similar cloth.

In all likelihood, he never is going to become a supremely accurate thrower, say, like a Drew Brees, who completed an NFL record 74 percent of his throws last season. Allen probably will struggle to reach the 60 percent mark. But the Bills can still succeed with him in the high 50s if he is able to improve not only on his short and intermediate throws, but also by putting his receivers in the best position to make plays. Allen has a big-arm and a big-play mentality. Nothing wrong with that. And as he showed, he can make huge plays with his legs, not only by evading pass rushers, but also by reeling off long gains. Nothing wrong with that either. But he needs to rely slightly less on the deep ball and his legs. There’s nothing wrong with settling for a five- or six-yard dump-off to keep the chains moving.

So, as camp commences, all eyes—and camera phones—will be scrutinizing Allen. Throws—good and bad—will go viral. Every play will be dissected and analyzed to death. The truth is we won’t be able to accurately assess the changes in him until the permanent games begin in September.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

Mussina’s ability to out-think hitters made him a Hall-of-Famer

scottteaser-215x160A few hours before scheduled starts, Mike Mussina could be found in the clubhouse, pen rather than baseball in hand, calming his nerves and sharpening his mind by solving New York Times crossword puzzles. That the former Rochester Red Wings pitching ace would attempt to figure out “27 across” before concentrating on “27 (batters) down” didn’t surprise anyone who knew him. “Moose” lived for cerebral challenges.

During 18 big-league seasons—split almost equally between the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees—the Stanford-educated Mussina relied as much on his brain as his right arm. Employing a repertoire of six different pitches, each delivered with surgical precision, he earned a ticket to Cooperstown by making befuddled hitters feel as if they were trying to solve a Times crossword puzzle during their at-bats.

Sunday afternoon, Mussina will become the 26th Red Wing and 28th person with Rochester ties to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. And although he wasn’t in the Flower City long, he was there long enough to win a Governors’ Cup and International League Pitcher of the Year honors.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience: the coaches who helped me, and my teammates, and the places we got to go and the things we got to do,’’ he recalled recently on a conference call. “To win the Governor’s Cup (in 1990) and go out and make another run at it my second year … all those guys (played a role) in my development, and were a part of it, taught me things. I appreciated everything the (Orioles) organization did for me.”

Baltimore scouts had their eyes on Mussina long before he headed off to Palo Alto, Calif., where he helped Stanford win a College World Series and earned a degree in economics in just three years. A native of Williamsport, Pa., the birthplace of Little League Baseball, Mussina first caught their attention during his junior and senior years at Montoursville Area High School, where he compiled a 24-4 record and a 0.87 earned run average, while twice winning state player-of-the-year honors. The Orioles were so impressed, they drafted him in the 11th round, but Mussina was dead set on not only attending college, but also securing a degree. Undeterred, the Orioles tried again three years later, this time drafting him in the first round. With diploma in hand a year early, Mussina accepted their offer.

His rise through Baltimore’s farm system was meteoric. After going 3-1 with a 1.49 earn run average in seven starts with the O’s Double-A team in Hagerstown, Md., Mussina was promoted to Rochester, where he was thrust into the rotation of an International League team in the latter stages of a torrid pennant race. Mussina pitched 13 1/3 innings and, although he didn’t record any decisions, he put his team in position to win the few times he took the mound, as evidenced by his miserly 1.35 ERA. Wings Manager Greg Biagini and pitching coach Dick Bosman were so impressed with the 21-year-old’s poise that they started him in two games during the Governor’s Cup playoffs. Again, he wasn’t involved in any decisions, but helped set up victories, and the Wings took home the Cup.

You would think a guy who won 270 major league games and pitched in two World Series wouldn’t think much of a minor league championship, but you’d be wrong.

“When you play an entire season at whatever level you’re playing at and you have a chance to win the championship, that’s a big deal,’’ he said. “When (the Red Wings) season started, I was still in college. Then, you become part of a team that’s trying to accomplish something that doesn’t happen every year. So, to be involved in that was a great experience right at the beginning of my professional career.”

Mussina returned to Rochester in 1991, and, working with Bosman, built on the promise of the previous season, going 10-4 with a 2.87 ERA. By the end of July, Baltimore’s brass had seen enough and promoted him to the big leagues. He lost a 1-0 decision to the Chicago White Sox in his MLB debut—his only mistake, resulting in a Frank Thomas home run—and would go 4-5 with a respectable 2.87 ERA. The next year, he won 18 games and was on his way.

He’ll share the stage Sunday with baseball’s all-time closer Mariano Rivera. And that is fitting because for eight years, Moose and Mo collaborated on numerous Yankee victories. In fact, the opportunity to team with Rivera was a factor in Mussina’s decision to leave Baltimore for the Bronx Bombers when he became a free agent following the 2000 season.

“You knew when you went out there that if you can get this game deep enough, Mo was going to be back there to finish it up for us,’’ he said. “It was awesome having him on the same staff. I know he saved a bunch of games for me, and I know I set up a bunch of games for him, so we kind of helped each other to get here.”

Like Rivera, Mussina was a model of consistency. He recorded at least 11 wins in 17 of his 18 seasons, had 17 wins twice, 18 wins three times and 19 wins twice. His only 20-win season came in his final year, when he achieved that milestone as a 39-year-old with the Yankees. He appeared to have plenty left in the tank, and he might have been able to reach 300 wins had he played another two seasons. But Mussina believed retiring at the top of his game was the rational thing to do.

Without the magical 300 on his resume, he was forced to wait six years before receiving the requisite 75 percent of the baseball writers’ votes. No big deal. He got there. And maybe crossword puzzle aficionado Mussina one day will discover he is the answer to a seven-letter word for 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee.

Best-selling author and nationally honored Rochester Business Journal sports columnist Scott Pitoniak was part of the 2013 Red Wings Hall of Fame Induction Class that featured the enshrinement of Mike Mussina.

Like hoops, golf has been a life-long love for Boeheim

scottteaser-215x160Next Tuesday afternoon, Jim Boeheim will participate in a Celebrity Golf Scramble at the Danielle Downey Credit Union Classic at Brook Lea Country Club. It will be a good time for the second-winningest coach in the history of men’s college basketball to kick back and enjoy drives down the fairway instead of to the basket.

Golf has been a passion since his father—James Arthur Boeheim Sr.—cut down a set of clubs for him when he was about four or five years old. It wouldn’t be long before young Jimmy became obsessed with the game, whiling away many a summer day at Sodus Heights Country Club, a little nine-hole course north of Boeheim’s hometown of Lyons, about 40 miles east of Rochester.

“Jim and I lived there some summers,’’ Tony Santelli told me a few years ago when I was writing a biography about Boeheim. “We’d drive up there with Lee Boice, who was the Lyons High School golf coach and a teaching pro. We’d put the flags out and do a few other chores for Lee, then play until it was dark and drive back home with him. There was one time, Jimmy and I played the course nine times in a single day. That’s how crazed we were.”

Jim’s dad was equally crazed about the sport, and became one of the driving forces behind the building of Wayne Hills Country Club, an 18-hole layout on the outskirts of Lyons. Father and son would play often, and during those familial rounds, golf balls weren’t the only things taking flight. Legend has it that Senior and Junior never finished a round of golf together—the good walk often spoiled by angry words and flung clubs.

“My dad always tried to beat me and I always tried to beat him, so it could get a little crazy at times,’’ the Hall of Fame hoops coach once told me. “It got so that when people on the course heard the Boeheims were playing, they headed for cover.’’

Their matches gave a whole new meaning to the errant shot warning of “fore!” In retrospect, the fiery nature that has enabled the younger Boeheim to guide the Orange hoopsters to a national championship, five Final Fours and 1,047 wins was partly forged on the golf course.

“Jim wasn’t a natural by any means, but he was a fierce, fierce competitor,’’ said Boice, Boeheim’s high school golf coach. “And he had a great focus on the course. He always would be looking for an edge.”

Boeheim would shuffle off to Syracuse in the summer of 1962 with designs on playing basketball. And the gangly, bespectacled teenager would fulfill that dream, earning a scholarship after a strong showing with the freshman team. (First-year students weren’t eligible to play varsity sports back then.) Teaming with backcourt mate and roommate Dave Bing, Boeheim would ignite a basketball renaissance at SU, which only two years before the duo’s arrival had lost a then-record 27 consecutive games. Bing was the superstar, averaging 28 points and 10 rebounds his senior year to earn consensus All-American honors. But Boeheim had his moments, too, contributing 14.6 points-per-game during the 1965-66 season as Syracuse led the nation in scoring (99 ppg) and reached the Elite Eight, where it lost to Duke.

Boeheim also played varsity golf for the Orange, going 4-1 and 2-5-1 in two seasons of match play as the No. 2 player behind Barry Buchsbaum in SU’s five-man rotation. He and Buchsbaum consistently shot in the mid-to-upper 70s for a team that went 7-3 and 5-3 against a schedule that included Colgate, Cornell, Army, Penn State, Yale and Penn.

“Jim was just like he is on the basketball sidelines,’’ Buchsbaum told me. “The only difference was that he would be swearing at himself instead of the referees, because golf is an individual sport. He’d miss a shot and start cursing at himself. He was very hard on himself. But he was a lot of fun to play with and a great teammate.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree, Boeheim pursued his master’s at his alma mater. He worked as a graduate assistant coach with the basketball team, and also picked up some extra money as the head varsity golf coach—a position he held until the program was disbanded in 1973. “As far as the press knows, we were undefeated every year because I never called in our scores when we lost,’’ he joked.

In reality, the Orangemen went 18-13-1 in dual matches he oversaw, according to research by SU’s Sports Information Department. “The pay was lousy, but the perks were great,’’ said Boeheim, who won the National College Basketball Coaches Invitational in 1988 and ’89 and is enshrined with the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and President Eisenhower at Oak Hill Country Club’s Hill of Fame. “Coaches got to play a round every time their team did, and you didn’t have a bunch of reporters around you afterward, hounding you about why you did this and why you did that. Plus, you didn’t have to deal with referees.”

He won’t have to deal with any of those stresses next Tuesday either. The charity scramble will serve as a prelude to the fifth Downey Classic, which tees off two days later and will feature the top players on the Symetra Tour, the springboard to the LPGA. Boeheim will be paired with Kelly Whaley, a North Carolina standout whose mom Suzy Whaley hails from Syracuse and is the first female president of the PGA of America. Other celebs include legendary Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, Greece native and former National Hockey League star Brian Gionta and local musician Elvio Fernandes, who has been a keyboardist, guitar player and vocalist for the Grammy Award-winning rock band Daughtry since 2011.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.