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.