Monday, August 11, 2014

The PGA -- thrilling and exasperating

At the final round of golf's last major championship of the season, the PGA of America failed to act preemptively, resulting in a finish that was marred by confusion. Because of a decision not made earlier on - and another request that ought to have been denied - the ending resembled what one friend called "a four-ball scramble at a charity event."

Too bad, too, because for millions of golf fans around the world, it had been years since we had seen golf this riveting. When Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Ricky Fowler and Phil Mickelson were all tied for the lead, I was reminded of the exciting close to the 1986 U.S Open at Shinnecock, when seven players were at the top of the leaderboard before Ray Floyd separated himself from the pack. In 2009, Tom Watson, nearing the age of 60, almost won his 6th Open at Turnberry.

Since then, the majors have been less than compelling. Over the past six years, Woods has not won a major, prompting many to crow that when he's not contending, people don't watch. The final round of this year's PGA Championship showed what nonsense this is.  Even though Woods missed the cut on Friday, nobody missed him during an electrifying display of golf over the weekend.  CBS was happy too, and proved it by keeping the tournament on the air well past the time other viewers were expecting to see "60 Minutes" and "Big Brother." [In 1968, NBC infamously cut away from the closing minutes of a game between the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets for the movie, "Heidi." Oakland went on to score two touchdowns to defeat New York while furious Jets fans watched a little girl wander the Swiss Alps. No major network has dared to make this mistake again.]

CBS hit a home run (even with the weak meanderings of Nick Faldo), but the PGA blew it. As Mickelson pointed out afterwards, the PGA of America should not be in the business of running major contests. Golf's last major tournament of the summer is the only one they administer all year, so they don't get a lot of practice at it. Did anyone from the PGA take notice at what the Royal and Ancient Golf Club did at Royal Liverpool?

In last month's Open Championship, the R & A changed twosomes to threesomes to speed up the pace of play, thus avoiding the projected bad weather. After a rainstorm delay early Sunday afternoon, threesomes at the PGA would have avoided the debacle on the final hole of regulation play.

It was 8:31 p.m.   Fowler and Mickelson stood on the 18th tee, tied for second place, playing in front of the last group, the leader Rory McIlroy and Bernd Wiesberger.  Because of slow play, McIlroy and Wiesberger arrived on the 18th tee while Fowler and Mickelson were still waiting to hit.   Unknown to television viewers (who could see everything quite clearly), it was getting so dark that the players could no longer see the flight of their ball.

McIlroy asked tournament officials if he and Wiesberger could play the last hole with Mickelson and Fowler as a foursome.  The request was denied, and for good reason.  (I'll address this later.)

To Mickelson's and Fowler's credit, they allowed McIlroy and Wiesberger to hit their drives immediately after Mickelson and Fowler hit theirs.  Fowler would say later, "Typically, if it's getting dark and they are going to blow the horn, you at least get the guys off the tee and it gives them the opportunity to play."

By this Fowler meant that it gives players the opportunity to finish.   If play had been suspended on account of darkness after McIlroy hit his tee shot, then he could elect to either (a) mark his ball and finish the hole on Monday, or (b) continue playing the hole in the dark.  If play were suspended before McIlroy teed off, he would have had to come back on Monday to play the last hole.   Nobody wanted that (unless there was a tie). So, after McIlroy and Wiesberger were allowed to hit their tee shots, everyone assumed they would wait to hit their second shots after Mickelson and Fowler had finished the hole.

This is where the most thrilling major championship in a decade suddenly became a circus.

Mickelson and Fowler were playing great, only two shots back, playing a par-5 finishing hole that could be eagled in the hopes of tying the lead.  And after extending the courtesy, they both knew that McIlroy's ball was not in the best position, having narrowly missed going into a water hazard.  A lot was on the line, and both players wanted to put extra pressure on McIlroy while he stood and watched.

This time it was Wiesberger (no longer a factor, hoping to catch the next available flight home to Vienna) who got into the act, asking officials if they could hit their second shots before Mickelson and Fowler were even done playing the hole. The officials relented, making their second gaffe of the day.  This was a rapid turnaround from the PGA's earlier ruling, which after first denying McIlroy's and Wiesberger's request to play as a foursome, was now allowing them to continue playing the hole right behind Mickelson and Fowler! CBS caught Mickelson on the 18th green with an expression that conveyed equal parts exasperation and incredulity.

Why couldn't the PGA let all four golfers play the last hole together? Anyone familiar with the heat of competition understands why leaders bring up the rear -- so that everyone else has a chance to catch up to (and put pressure on) them.  Mickelson and Fowler were hoping to make a low number on the last hole, putting pressure on McIlroy, who would have to respond in turn.

Sure, it was getting darker by the moment, but when McIlroy was allowed to play each of his shots immediately after those of Mickelson and Fowler, everything changed, and the roles were reversed: now McIlroy was putting pressure on Mickelson and Fowler. And that was wrong.

Bravo to McIlroy - this was a great win for him. He is fast approaching the pantheon of Nicklaus and Woods. And congratulations are due to Fowler and Mickelson, each of whom played brilliantly, only to come up just short by day's end. Mickelson's chip on #18 nearly went in for an eagle, which might have forced a tie with McIlroy if he had failed to birdie the hole.  As upset as Mickelson was with how the final hole played out, he graciously said that the outcome probably would not have changed either way.

The tournament was over, but the PGA still wasn't done: the third and final faux pas came when Kerry Haigh, Chief Championships officer with the PGA of America, could not even present the Wanamaker trophy to the champion without losing the lid of the cup, expertly caught by McIlroy.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Jimi Hendrix and Charles Ives

They may never have been mentioned in the same breath, but I'm thinking now these two men may be cut from the same cloth.

In Pittsburgh, at the Woodlands Music Camp for adults with disabilities, I have been teaching music appreciation.  Last week, after playing Aaron Copland's arrangement to "Shall we Gather by the River," I played Ives's version of the song for violin and piano (from his Fourth Sonata).  Predictably, some members of the class liked it, and a healthy majority did not.  One student mentioned how listening to Ives was like hearing someone go crazy on the electric guitar. Another threw out the name Jimi Hendrix, and we were off and running.

I subsequently showed the class a clip of Hendrix at Woodstock playing the Star Spangled Banner, in which the guitarist riffed, improvised, and otherwise deconstructed the anthem to the point of obscurity. Near the end, Hendrix began wailing on Taps, played at funerals for the U.S. military. I wondered if on that August day in 1969 there were young Vietnam veterans in the audience who might have been offended.  It's one thing to dismantle our national anthem, but unraveling and dissecting Taps is another matter entirely, maybe the musical equivalent of burning the American flag.  Had Hendrix gone too far?

Whether he did or not is a matter of opinion.  But I believe Ives would have defended his right to do so.  As with Hendrix, his music was not written to offend, though it certainly isn't to everyone's taste.  During my years leading the Hartford Symphony, I programmed the music of Ives on numerous occasions, which I thought to be particularly appropriate given that the composer grew up in Connecticut and spent a lot of time in the capitol city.

A few people liked his music, more still simply endured it, waiting patiently for the Beethoven symphony that would come later on the program.  In August 1969, one wonders if more people traveled to Woodstock to hear other groups --- like Blood Sweat & Tears, or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young --- rather than Hendrix, who had been scheduled to play at the end of the festival.  By the time he took the stage, the audience had dwindled.

Hendrix probably didn't care. Ives would have understood.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Lorin Maazel, 1930-2014

I arrived in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1996, just after Lorin Maazel's final year as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The season went on without a sitting music director; his successor, Mariss Jansons, was due to start the following year.

Maazel had left his stamp on the ensemble, so every guest conductor faced a group that was well-honed and accustomed to an extremely precise technique and a very strong will.  Because many of the visiting maestri were not equipped to pick up those formidable reins, the orchestra could sometimes sound rather indifferent.

This was my first position with a world class orchestra, so I write this from the vantage point of hindsight.  Every rehearsal and concert in Heinz Hall regularly sent me into a kind of seventh heaven.  But only when the new boss arrived in February did the orchestra really snap to, playing with an alertness which I had not encountered thus far. The program itself felt like Jansons was auditioning the orchestra all over again: Roman Carnival by Berlioz, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (1919), and Mahler's Symphony no. 1.  (Imagine riding on a roller coaster for an entire week, and you get the idea.)

The orchestra was largely divided into Maazel devotees and those who would not miss him, with a few who liked Jansons and Maazel in equal measure.  But in sound and aesthetic, a Maazel orchestra could not be more different from a Jansons orchestra (or for that matter one led by the great Claudio Abbado, who died earlier this year). Jansons asks players to breathe together and listen intently to one another, receiving cues not just from the podium, but also from within. Maazel, however, was always in command, always in control. His imprint on the orchestra was so strong that it took Jansons a good year to make the ensemble his own.

One member of the orchestra shared with me a rather perverse detail, which I found hard to believe: at every opportunity, Maazel cued the player at every single entrance.  Sometimes it was with a flick of the wrist, or with his face, and if he was busy with another section, a kind of backhand glance, as if to make sure the player knew he had not forgotten.  Of course, the player adored Maazel.

This was a big part of his prodigious skills as podium master -- his photographic memory.  Maazel sometimes appeared to be turning pages with his eyes as he conducted.  This is an essential difference between Maazel and most other conductors who lead without score: he saw every single note in his head as the music was playing, each individual page of score flipping before his mind's eye.  On tour for a performance of Beethoven's Fidelio at Carnegie Hall, one of the solo singers became ill, requiring a last minute replacement to fill in without the benefit of rehearsal.  This kind of thing was child's play for Maazel, who quietly mouthed the words to the substituting singer before each phrase during the entire performance.

This was just one of three traits which separated Maazel from the rest of his exalted fraternity.

His ears were legendary.  Maazel heard everything.  Having a good ear is a prerequisite to standing in front of players and telling them what to do.  But being able to hear individual players the way he did -- even string players sitting in the back who blend in with the rest of the section -- was a freakish gift very few conductors possess.  (Boulez has this, as did Lukas Foss.)  But because Maazel was also an accomplished violinist, he could hear and watch each player's hands, and thus be able to instantly know if that player was really playing his part accurately.  No wonder Maazel struck fear in the hearts of many.

Then there were those unbelievable hands.  Anything he wanted to do, he could do.  He was given to frequent whims, where he could detour at a moment's notice, and take the entire orchestra with him, without a hitch or hiccup.  This would account for the occasional uneven performance, but the command was always there.  For a rehearsal of his work, The Giving Tree, he stopped to say he would do one bar differently, and proceeded to conduct this one measure in fifteen separate beats.  With most any other conductor, there would be questions about how the bar would be divided, and in what pattern, etc. - - - never with Maazel.

He knew what to rehearse and what to leave alone.  Indeed, another player once recounted how, before a performance of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony (a very demanding and exacting work), Maazel rehearsed only three or four passages from the entire symphony, releasing the players well in advance of the closing time, deeming them ready for the concert that night.  And the performance? "It was the best Sibelius performance I've ever been a part of," the player responded.

He was a guest in Pittsburgh once during my residency, for his 75th birthday. In addition to the aforementioned work, the program included Dvorak's Symphony no. 9, and Ravel's Mother Goose Suite.  After the first play through of the Ravel, he stopped to joke that, if he ". . . were a young conductor, I would talk far too long about what I'd like you to do differently." The players laughed knowingly, but everyone understood that Maazel knew exactly what spots could be left alone, even those that were not played to his satisfaction.

I will never forget how, during a passage of the Ravel, he seemed to forget he was on the podium, looking downward, momentarily losing himself in the music . . . .  and the magic was palpable.  During my half dozen years in Pittsburgh, it may have been the most ravishing playing I ever heard from the orchestra.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Lou Gehrig's farewell speech

Today is July 4th -- a day of celebration throughout America. It also happens to be the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig's farewell address at Yankee Stadium.  He died two years later of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, now known simply as Lou Gehrig's disease. Few will remember his home run total (493) in this post-steroid era, but his 23 career grand slams and 500+ RBIs during a three year period are indicative of one thing:  the guy was clutch.

An article in today's Hartford Courant refers to Gehrig's speech as "one of the best-remembered of the 20th century," and "one of the most quoted of the 21st."   But this is only so because of the opening lines . . .

Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

 . . . and the closing:

I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.

It was a short speech, around 300 words, and the middle portion  -- including a reference to his mother-in-law -- consists of language more suited for a chat with friends in your living room.  Among the few names Gehrig mentions are Jacob Ruppert (who bought the Yankees in 1915) and Miller Huggins (Yankees manager 1918-29), important figures in Yankees history whose names have not stood the test of time.  Even the groundskeeper gets his due.  My guess is that Gehrig wrote the first and last lines, and his wife helped him with the rest.

His 2,130 consecutive game streak (broken over fifty years later by Cal Ripken, Jr.) was a big part of who he was, showing up to play every day.  Besides his brilliance on the field, his everyman quality was a big part of his popularity, never asking for the attention demanded by his teammate, Babe Ruth (who was openly critical of Gehrig's streak).

Before the Lou Gehrig story was made into a film, memorably played by Gary Cooper in "Pride of the Yankees" (1942), Eleanor Gehrig sent Samuel Goldwyn the text of the speech, in which she claimed " . . . Lou and I worked on the night before it was delivered, and naturally, my memory would not fail me in this instance."

If you want to listen to a recording of Gehrig's speech today, you will hear just the best parts of it. Gehrig adored his wife, and so he would naturally take her advice before such an awesome occasion.  His hesitancy to take the microphone given to him by the Yankee skipper, Joe McCarthy, speaks volumes. But Gehrig knew this:  when addressing thousands of his fans, he remembered to begin well and end well.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Music in May

A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of working with 56 young musicians selected to play in the Music in May Festival Orchestra, hosted by Pacific University, in Forest Grove, Oregon.  It was 'old home week' for me, my first time at Pacific in over twenty years, when McCready Hall, in the Taylor-Meade Performing Arts Center -- first opened to great fanfare.  (And what a gem it is.) But Pacific University is also the site where my teaching and conducting career began, fresh out of Yale, nearly thirty years ago.  (For those of you who  are thinking how old I am, let me warn you that I've played basketball already four times this week, including one game where I beat my son's team!)

But I digress.

Concert day was a real thrill, in the Stoller Gymasium, the only campus venue large enough to hold over 400 musicians and all of the family and friends who came to hear them perform.  But my strongest memory will be of my rehearsals with a group of classy, eager and outstanding young citizens, all there in the service of music and good fun.

Kristin, Luke, Mack and Tyler held up the string section, and the four of them together were easily one of the finest high school bass sections I have ever worked with.   On cello there was Micah, Karla, Clair, Athena, Keegan and Nate -- les six took great delight in knowing that, of all the instruments playing the melody at the beginning of Dvorak's Eighth Symphony (including clarinets, horns and bassoons), only the violoncelli were given the direction: espressivo.   There were just four violas:  Jessenia, Charley, Summer and Lyndsey, but they held their own very well, and not once did the other string sections drown them out!   On violin there were twelve:  Jonathan, Kathleen, Hanna, Jessica, Kendra, Taylor, Alec, Teagan, Joseph and Daniel (plus Victor and Anastasia, Pacific students who were gracious enough to help us out), and they acquitted themselves admirably, particularly since no one else in the orchestra had music to play that was more difficult than what Dvorak gave them.  Tough stuff.  (Way to go, guys!)  Miss Ihas, a violist on the faculty at Pacific, helped me with the strings throughout the festival; she introduced Mascagni's Intermezzo (from Cavelleria Rusticana) to the string section, and they played it beautifully in the concert.

Let's continue with the woodwinds -- at the high end, there was Ali, who played piccolo, but also flute with her colleagues Jessika, Charlotte and Kendra.  Jessica told me later this was her first time in orchestra, but you wouldn't have known it. (Of course, this was likely true for most of the woodwinds!)  Megan and Kyle played oboe; there was a running contest to see if Kyle would ever make a mistake in rehearsal, and he finally did, but only once.  (And another thing: Kyle also played the English Horn solo beautifully in the Dvorak.) There were six clarinetists, Joshua, Joy, Ian, Luna, Tara and Nikki, all with big personalities, but none bigger than Nikki, who has dreams of being a conductor someday.  (Good luck if you do, Nikki!) Lucas was by himself on bassoon -- good thing we had him!

The horns were solid all weekend: Timothy Mac, Phoebus, Erin and Timothy H.  They were splendid, and were not thrown off when I gave them more music to play than they'd asked for (mostly 2nd bassoon stuff, to join in with Lucas when needed).  On trumpet were Chandler, Isaac and Aly (who conducted the orchestra the day before the concert with great feeling and sensitivity).  These three played with a noble tone uncommon for high school trumpeters -- not once did I have to admonish them for playing too loud, or too stridently. Great job, guys.

At the first rehearsal, I was a little surprised to see two tubas when we only needed one, but Samantha and Matthew (who also conducted on Friday) could not have been more well matched. On trombone we had Devon, Dawson, Jonathan and Steven (who showed up for the first rehearsal in a kilt -- a friend has been bugging me for years to get a kilt and conduct in it, so I was just a little jealous.)   Devon also played in the band, but he also joined us in the orchestra so that we had have some needed extra heft for some of the big climaxes. Jonathan, Dawson and Devon sounded great in the opening of the Dvorak, and Steven was equally fine playing the 2nd bassoon part on bass trombone -- such a nice sound they made together!  And imagine my surprise when Steven presented Schumann's Dichterliebe to me during a break in the action; when I went to the piano to begin playing the first song, "Im wundershoenen Monat Mai," Steven broke out in a beautiful tenor voice -- wow!

Which brings us to the percussion, Aaron, Brandon, Kaitlin and Libby -- poor guys only had one piece to play (Hoe-Down, from Copland's Rodeo), so one of the other percussion mentors took them aside and had them work on a piece to play on their own, which opened the concert.  But I will long remember how they reared up for their big YEEEEE --- HAWWWWW in the Copland!  (And Libby was awesome on woodblock!)  Then there was Levi, who played timpani and piano and . . . harp!  Well not harp exactly, but the harp part, for the Intermezzo.  Levi wins the versatility award (Steven might be tied for first, because in addition to his tenor voice and bass trombone playing, he also did some nifty conducting.)  Levi played an original piano composition for me, revealing a very inventive and accomplished young musician.

What a wonderful group of young people -- I expect great things from them in the future!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Esa-Pekka Salonen, new media icon

In October, I was in Los Angeles to hear Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct his Violin Concerto, written for Leila Josefewicz and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and premiered by both in 2009. Imagine my pleasant surprise when a new Apple ad featuring Salonen hit the airwaves.

My favorite writer on music, Alex Ross, writes about it here.  Enjoy!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Frank Ticheli

Tonight, the Hartt Orchestra will be performing works by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Hindemith, all of which are classics in the orchestral repertoire.  The overture to The Marriage of Figaro is one of the greatest curtain raisers of all time; the producers of the movie, "Trading Places," understood that, as they quote liberally from the overture throughout the first few minutes of the film. (Watching it recently, it certainly put me in a very good mood.)  Then there is the Scherzo to Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, which violinists, violists, cellists and bass players all over the world must learn if they are to gain successful entry into an orchestra. (Ask a string player, and he/she will tell you why.) Hindemith has fallen out of favor of late, which is too bad, because the Symphonic Metamorphosis on themes by von Weber is one of those pieces that orchestras love to play (though it isn't easy).

Then there is the final work on tonight's program:  Frank Ticheli's Radiant Voices.

You might be wondering why I would conclude a concert with the only unfamiliar work on the program?  The short answer is this:  We are celebrating Ticheli's music throughout this weekend at Hartt*, so it is appropriate to end the concert with his colorful masterwork, with the composer in attendance.  It's the polite thing to do, right?

But if you are at the concert, you will understand that being polite did not play into this decision, for nothing can come after Radiant Voices.  At a recent rehearsal, we worked on Hindemith after the Ticheli, and it felt strange, almost anticlimactic.  Point is, the Hindemith is certainly more well known, and may always be, but Radiant Voices is a much more exciting and thrilling work, and it has been deeply satisfying to see my students take to this piece so readily.

At the first play through a few weeks ago, the Hartt Orchestra played it unlike anything they've read for the first time -- like it was in their bones from the get-go.  If we'd had an audience at that first rehearsal, I'm quite certain they would have been as thrilled as I.

It's rare to encounter a new work (well, it's not that new -- it was premiered twenty years ago) that speaks so readily to musicians, but this piece does.  But Frank Ticheli takes enormous pride in writing music that is not just great to listen to, but is fun to play.

Thankfully, the composer has been very happy with what he's heard thus far, and all of us can hardly wait to bring it to life tonight.

* The Hartt Orchestra will perform Frank Ticheli's Radiant Voices Friday May 2, at 7:30, in Lincoln Theater.  The following evening, Saturday May 3, the Hartt Wind Ensemble and Symphony Band will perform works by Ticheli, concluding with the Greater Hartford Youth Wind Ensemble on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. in Millard Auditorium.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Derek Jeter's timing

Wallace Matthews, who covers the New York Yankees for ESPN, was asked yesterday about Derek Jeter's recent announcement that 2014 would be his last season with the team.  He replied that he didn't see it coming, believing Jeter to be one of those guys who would stay on too long.

I'm not sure I would agree with that assessment, but all day yesterday, while the sports talk guys were blathering on and on about this, not one guy stated the obvious.

Which is not to dismiss Jeter -- he is arguably one of the finest players of the past generation, even more remarkable for his off the field restraint; not once in the past twenty years was there any kind of 'story' about him in the tabloids.   Jeter is likely to have a good season, and will hopefully go out near -- if not at -- the top of his game.

The timing of his announcement, however, is perfect, given recent moves by the franchise.  For one, Robinson Cano is off to the Mariners, only because he got a better deal.  Too bad for him, as he was in position to become the next leader in the Yanks' clubhouse.

And let us not forget that Alex Rodriguez will be away all of this season.  What a relief for the team, to have a season with no distractions from this gifted narcissist.

Can you imagine how things would be for Jeter and the team in February 2015, when A-Rod returns after his one year suspension? What a horrible distraction it will be for the team, dealing with all of the overblown media nonsense.

So yes -- Jeter's timing is not only perfect, it's obvious.  He gets to have an A-Rod-free year, going from city to city, receiving encomiums everywhere he goes.  And remember all of the accolades given to Rivera at the end of last season?  That will be nothing compared to what comes to Jeter. Mariano got a rocking chair; Jeter will probably have buildings, streets and highways named in his honor.

And he richly deserves all of the attention accorded to him. He is a great player, a superb shortstop, and a really classy guy in an age when we have seen so few of them.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Ray Guy

Growing up in Oakland, California, my brothers and I watched Oakland Raiders games with a passion.  After church, we'd settle in for that week's big game.  The 1970s were a tough time to be a Raiders fan (not as bad as today, though!), because the Steelers were always kicking our butt. And you cannot imagine how disheartening the Immaculate Reception was, when Franco Harris miraculously caught a 4th down Bradshaw pass that bounced off of Jack Tatum *and/or Frenchy Fuqua and ran it in for a touchdown -- even the cameramen were fooled.

Over twenty five years later, I was with the Pittsburgh Symphony, led by Mariss Jansons, whose newest friend at the time was . . . . Franco Harris.  Harris loved the orchestra, even coming to rehearsals from time to time, sitting by himself.  I asked him about that amazing catch, and told him I was a Raiders fan, to which he responded, "yeah, someone recently played me the tape of the play-by-play call [from Raiders voice Bill King] from your perspective, and I guess it wasn't such a good day for you, huh?"   Harris is a really great guy, making it very hard for me to dislike him, much as he disrupted my brother's and father's life at the time.

It was thrilling to be a Raiders fan in the 70s, with so many ne'er-do-wells on the team, guys that no other NFL team wanted, like John Matuszak, Otis Sistrunk (from the University of Mars, they would say) and so many others.  For the Super Bowl game in New Orleans against the Philadelphia Eagles, Coach Dick Vermeil made sure his players observed curfew, while Tom Flores's Raiders were up all night, every night, in the French Quarter. (The Raiders won -- so much for needed sleep before big games.) Quarterback Ken Stabler (aka "Snake") wrote a book about all of the off-field antics, of which one player on that team recently confirmed all of the stories to be 'accurate.'

I am speaking of Ray Guy, legendary punter from Southern Miss.

Most football fans understand that when a team has to punt, it's bad news, because you've just gone 3-and-out, and now you must give the ball back to your opponent (if you're not in field goal range).  But when the Raiders had to punt, we used to lick our lips in anticipation, because we had Ray Guy. Even the announcers would get excited! Why?

When Guy came out to punt, the other team was very worried.  With most punters, the ball goes down the field, the punt receiver catches it, then he runs it back. With most punters back then, a punt receiver usually had time to run before the other team could get to him downfield.  But you must understand -- a Ray Guy punt was extraterrestrial.  It never came down.  It went so high in the air . . . there was one time when a camera caught the ball gracing the rim of the stadium!  His punts were majestic things of beauty.  Guy's punts brought about the advent of the phrase: hang time.  Imagine being a punt receiver, waiting for a Ray Guy punt to take forever to descend while Raiders special teams guys are ready to throttle you.  It was a no-win situation.  One year, Guy had several punts over 60 yards.  Legend had it he could throw a ball 100 yards (he recently corrected it to only 80 yards), and his status as one of the Raiders' backup quarterbacks proved it.  There was a stretch of over 600 consecutive punts without being blocked.  Such an amazing athlete he was!

Last week, Ray Guy was finally elected to the Hall of Fame.  He had to wait 22 years for the honor, probably because no one had ever been elected to the hall as a punter before.   Good thing the voters finally got it right, after so long.  Congratulations, Mr. Guy.  You richly deserve the honor!

* the 'and/or' was important then -- not so now -- as it no longer matters who last touches the ball. But in 1972, it mattered.  It REALLY mattered.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Buffalo Bills

Today, the Denver Broncos will play the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl 48.  Much is being said and written about the Broncos' formidable offense, led by quarterback Peyton Manning, going up against Seattle, which can boast the best defense in the NFL.  Four times before, the finest offense has gone up against the finest defense in the last game of the season, and in three of these games, the defense has prevailed.  That bodes well for the Seahawks.

But Manning has been special throughout this season, playing magnificently in the Broncos' victory against the Patriots in the AFC Conference Championship two weeks ago.  So the story line continues to be about Manning, and whether he will be able to match the two Super Bowl victories already owned by his younger brother, Eli.  Only Richard Williams, father of Serena and Venus, can understand what that would mean for Archie's boys.

But there will be a loser in today's game, and few will remember who that team was.  Of all the Super Bowl bridesmaids, there is one team that will always stand out above the others -- the Buffalo Bills, who made it to the big game four years in row.

I went to the first of those four games, played against the New York Giants in 1991.  We had just entered into the Gulf War, and for the first time, there were snipers waiting for all of us, circled along the top rim of the stadium. Whitney Houston sang the National Anthem, and the recording -- yours truly conducting the Florida Orchestra -- went platinum.

If Scott Norwood's 47-yard field goal in the closing seconds had been a few feet further to the left, the Bills would have won the game.  To their credit, they returned to the Super Bowl the following year . . . and then again the next year . . . . and then again the following season.   That is an extraordinary accomplishment.  A number of teams have made to to the Super Bowl in successive years, and there have been other teams that have gone winless in four of these games, namely the Minnesota Vikings.  (The Broncos have lost four times, but few will remember this, because in the twilight of John Elway's career, they won two in a row.) Still, no team can lay claim to what the Bills did in the early 1990s.

When Vince Lombardi famously said, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," he wasn't talking about Marv Levy's Gang from Upstate New York. So today, I tip my hat to the greatest team that never won the Super Bowl, the Buffalo Bills.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Peyton Manning's moment

This coming Sunday, Peyton Manning will have the biggest game of his life.  Not of his career --  his life.

This is a man who came back after a neck injury that threatened to end his career.  Luckily for him, it only suspended it for awhile.  But after this season, he will be examined once again, and if there is any cause for concern, he may retire at season's end.

He has just come off one of the finest seasons in NFL history for a quarterback:  55 touchdown passes. Many sports writers who extoll praise on this achievement are, in the end, still unimpressed.  Those who follow football do not care about the regular season.  For most of us, it's all about the post-season, that rarified world open only to those teams who peak in the winter.  And the best teams have the best quarterbacks.

That's true again this season, as the four teams still in the playoffs all have superb leaders:  in the NFC conference championship, two young ones -- great, but still unproven; in the AFC championship, two star veterans, Manning and Tom Brady, both with Super Bowl victories to their credit.

But Brady not only has more Super Bowl victories (three, to Manning's one), he also has a sterling post-season record -- more playoff victories than any other quarterback in history. From his first playoff games in 2001, Brady was special, always finding a way to win.  Last Sunday against the Colts, he did not throw one touchdown pass, but they could not have won without him.

Manning's post-season record is not nearly as good as his record in regular season games. Many have pointed out his inability to win in cold weather, and this is somewhat unfair; most quarterbacks whose team plays in a dome do not fare well in cold weather.  (Ask New Orleans's Drew Brees, an A-list quarterback with a championship ring of his own, who has a subpar record outdoors.)  Manning spent most of his career with the Indianapolis Colts, where the weather on game days in their domed stadium is never a factor.

But forget the elements.  Manning is in Denver now, having led his team to victory last Sunday against San Diego.  He's weary of all of the naysayers who continually hound him for his record in frigid conditions, and frankly, he's got a point.  Enough already.

But his playoff record . . . . that's a problem.  He's lost more games than he's won.  Certainly, a team's defense has something to do with that.  Dan Marino's legacy - similar to the one built by Manning -- is secure. But look at his playoff record (again, more losses than wins) and look at his playoff stats --  all of those interceptions -- and they may give you pause.  I will always think of Marino as a great quarterback, even though he appeared in just one super bowl (a loss), but a good part of his record belies that status.

No one is talking much these days about Manning's brother, Eli, who, coming off one of the toughest seasons of his career, has two super bowl victories.  He may never be as highly regarded as his older brother, which is unfair.  When the heat is on, Eli can play.

And that's the biggest knock on brother Peyton.  When it's crunch time, he simply is not the same quarterback.  (For those who like to think of last Sunday's game as a big pressure game . . .  please.  Not even close.  But to the Bronco's credit, they shut out the Chargers for the first three quarters.)

The New England Patriots come to Denver on Sunday, and the Broncos will have home field advantage, which can be factor in the playoffs, when fan noise reaches higher decibel levels than in the regular season.  Just ask teams who've played road games in Seattle, where teams have committed the dreaded false start (a penalty which occurs when the visiting quarterback's signal-calling cannot be heard over the din) more than any other team .   For Tom Brady and the Patriots, this won't be a problem.  They are too well coached, and will be prepared for this.

Which brings us to the real reason why this game is so important for Manning.

If the Patriots lose Sunday, Brady's legacy will still be secure. Three championships is something only a few quarterbacks have achieved. Even if the Patriots go to the Super Bowl and lose, Brady will still be regarded among the finest quarterbacks of all time.  The same cannot be said of Manning.  For him, a Denver loss to New England would be devastating.

John Elway knows something about this.  The super bowl losses early in his career would have marred his legacy, had it not been for his resurgence at the end of his career, with two super bowl wins.  Later, as the Broncos's general manager, Elway brought Manning to Denver, believing that he had what it takes to give the Broncos their next championship.

Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova played against each other eighty times.  Navratilova was better on grass (and won more finals matches), and Evert was superior on clay -- otherwise, there head-to-head record was 37-43, with a slight edge to Navratilova.   This will be the fourteenth time that Manning and Brady have played against each other, and Manning's teams have won only four times.  But Manning does have one thing in his favor:  there have been just three playoff bouts, and the last was a victory for Manning.

In commercials, and on Saturday Night Live, Manning is a gifted actor and comedian. His retirement looks very rosy, indeed. Of all the sports figures on television today, Manning is far and away the most natural talent.  I look forward to the years ahead, when he will no doubt be a regular presence in the media.  He's a classy guy, and a real gentleman.

But for now, Manning has some unfinished business.  When these teams have met in past playoff games, the home team has won, which may be why the Broncos are favored to win.  Still, I would not want to be the oddsmakers on this game.  With two of the greatest quarterbacks in the game today going against each other, and two teams playing their best football of the year, it promises to be a great game.  I might miss the Super Bowl, but I'm not going to miss this one.