Pittsburgh Sports Report
October 2005

Media Savvy
Domino Effect
By Alby Oxenreiter

I ran into an old friend last summer, an acquaintance who takes me back 40 years to the first grade at Saint Bernard School in Mount Lebanon.  I make my living in sports, so the intrigue is genuine when I find an old classmate who does the same.  Chuck Domino is a born and bred Pittsburgher.

These days, however, he makes his home in Reading, Pennsylvania, where he embraces his role as “Mister Baseball” in what the locals call “Baseballtown.”  Domino is about to enter his 25th season in minor league baseball; he has been the general manager of the double-A Reading Phillies for 19 years.

It all began in Oklahoma City in the early 1980s.  Domino was hired as an intern for the Texas Rangers triple-A affiliate.  His days as an intern would be short-lived and Domino would soon be ready for his first full time front office job. He moved to the Northwest League to become the concessions manager for the Kansas City Royals rookie league team.  In 1985, after his boss told him he was ready to run his own team, Domino picked up and moved again, this time to Pocatello, Idaho, where he was hired as the general manager of the rookie league team for the Oakland A’s.  A year later, he moved northeast to become GM of the rookie league Idaho Falls Braves. It’s a town with a slogan, “Where Great Adventures Begin,” but Domino’s adventure was already energized and the reviews came fast and furious.

In his first year, Domino was named Executive of the Year in the Pioneer League, and he still remembers that summer night in 1987 when a bench clearing brawl brought out the best – and worst – of the Idaho Falls fanatics. After pulling players from the scrum at second base, Domino found a pile of bikers, who had come in from the right field bleachers to join the fray.  They refused to leave the game, proud that they had come to the rescue for the hometown team.

Idaho Falls was indeed an adventure, but Domino seized an opportunity to return to the east and landed his dream job when he was hired as GM of the double-A Reading Phillies in the Eastern League – a position that came with huge responsibility. Domino had final say over marketing, ticket sales, concessions and stadium operations.  His plate was full, but Domino found immediate success. Between 1988 and 1997, he was named Eastern League Executive of the Year three times.  The Sporting News also picked Domino as its Class AA Executive of the Year, and Baseball America named him the “General Manager You Would Want To Run Your Franchise.”  In 2003, Baseball America draped Domino with another honor, this time Minor League Baseball Executive of the Year.

Domino’s reputation was spreading, and attendance in Reading was booming.  In 2005, the Reading Phils became the first Eastern League team to draw better than 450,000 fans in six consecutive seasons.  And the crowds weren’t coming by coincidence.  Domino was winning them over with fun, family-oriented entertainment that included creative bits between innings.  The Crazy Hot Dog Guy is a favorite at Reading’s FirstEnergy Stadium, where a swimming pool and hot tub highlight a party deck in the right field corner. Reading home games also feature the Sumo High Jump, and a stunt called the Basketball Bungee Contest, where two contestants connected by a rubber cord pull each other in opposite directions while trying to shoot baskets.  Best of all might be the Fifth Inning Drag, where the Reading grounds crew, dressed to kill with white coveralls and wigs, “drag” the infield.  It’s a winning formula.  Altoona Curve general manager Todd Parnell, who was Domino’s assistant in Reading for seven years, is trying to create a similar atmosphere with the Pirates double-A affiliate.  Parnell knows a good thing when he sees it and he calls Domino a “visionary.”

Domino keeps close tabs on Pittsburgh.  He and his brother share season tickets for the Steelers, and he still makes the drive for football weekends. But after the football diversion, it’s back to Reading and back to baseball.

Domino insists he has no desire to take his act elsewhere.  He’s found a niche in Reading, and says minor league baseball gives him the freedom to do the things he wants to do.  Not even the big leagues can offer that.  After almost 20 years at the helm, it’s more obvious than ever – the game of Domino can be fun and profitable.  The man in charge is a major deal, especially in the minors.

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Pittsburgh Sports Report
June 2005

Media Savvy
Buried Treasure
By Alby Oxenreiter

This is a story about a baseball bat, and characters named Briercheck, Bartirome, Hallahan, Hebner, and most notably, Honus.  It’s a tale that started in the late 19th century, only to be wrestled back to life in the early part of the 21st.

For almost 30 years, a bat collected dust beneath a basement stairwell, under a pile of junk.  There it was – covered up like a buried treasure, waiting to be rediscovered.  It could very well be one of baseball’s earliest artifacts; it is at the very least one of its rarest.  It’s made of wood that’s been darkened by time. It’s just over 36 inches long and weighs just under 41 ounces.

It’s a bat.  But not any bat.  It appears to have belonged to an American icon known as “The Flying Dutchman,” and it’s a find that could send collectors, curators and curious bystanders into a tailspin.  The bat is the story, but the way it found its way to a house just outside of Pittsburgh is just as interesting.

Honus Wagner is baseball royalty.  It’s been 88 years since he last played and 50 years since he died, but Wagner remains one of baseball’s immortals.  He played 18 seasons in Pittsburgh, 21 overall, and retired with more hits, runs, RBI, doubles, triples, steals and games played than any other National League player.  Wagner was a seven-time batting champ and the second member of baseball’s 3000-hit club.  He was baseball’s first superstar and one of the five original members of the Hall of Fame.

After his retirement in 1917, Wagner worked off and on as a Pirates’ coach for the better part of 40 years, finally ending his run in the early 1950’s.  As the story is told, he often used one of his old bats to hit infield practice.  After his death in 1955, his prized bat – maybe his only remaining bat, fell into the hands of John Hallahan, the Pirates’ longtime equipment manager.

When the team moved from Forbes Field to Three Rivers Stadium in 1970, the bat found a new home in the new stadium’s equipment room.  Former Pirates’ infielder Richie Hebner used to admire Wagner’s bat.  Before a game in 1973, Hebner used the bat to take some cuts at batting practice.  On the third swing, he cracked the bat in the handle.  Hallahan was furious and beside himself with disgust.  Thinking the bat was now useless, he angrily threw it into a pile.

The incident was witnessed by several other people, including trainer Tony Bartirome.  The batboy that day, Tom Briercheck, didn’t yet understand the significance of the bat he was told to throw in the garbage.  Fortunately, for him and for fans of baseball history, he didn’t follow Hallahan’s orders.

Briercheck took the bat home with approximately 50 other cracked bats and placed them under a basement stairwell at his parent’s house.

Hallahan died over a decade ago.  Hebner is now a coach for the Triple-A Durham Bulls. Bartirome is retired and living in Florida.  Briercheck, 47, is raising five children and working as a local high school umpire.

Last month, while cleaning out his parents’ house, Briercheck rediscovered his old cracked-bat collection.  Among bats belonging to Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski was an ancient-looking dark brown bat with a strong and defined wood grain, and what he thought were the initials of Pirates’ Hall of Famer Paul Waner.  Briercheck thought he was looking at a “PW” carved inside an oval where the bat brand would normally be burned. He needed more information, so he called Bartirome.

The two men hadn’t talked in 25 years, but Bartirome remembered the batboy and returned his call.  Briercheck asked if the initials “PW” were for Paul Waner.

At that moment, he could feel Bartirome’s excitement.  He could hear it in his voice.  Bartirome knew what the teenage batboy didn’t, and he understood what a 15-year-old couldn’t.  Bartirome told Briercheck he was about to become a rich man.

Bartirome explained that “PW” was actually a blended carving of “JPW” – for Johannes Peter Wagner.  110 years couldn’t erase the carving and 32 years didn’t erase Bartirome’s memory.  He had held and swung that bat many times, and he vividly recalled the bat in detail.  Bartirome is absolutely positive that the bat belonged to and was used by the great Honus Wagner.

Whether or not the bat was actually used by Wagner seems only relevant to the price tag at auction.  At the very least, Briercheck seems to have a bat that belonged to Wagner, and the carving of the initials indicates that maybe it was indeed used by him.

There will be skeptics, but Briercheck isn’t fazed.  He’s convinced he has something special and he wants to sell the bat at auction.  It’s hard to blame him.  After all, he’ll have five kids starting college in the next eight years.  If a bat belonging to Babe Ruth sold for more than one million dollars, what would be the price tag of a bat belonging to Honus Wagner?  The batboy is anxious to find out.

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Pittsburgh Sports Report
January 2005

Media Savvy
Bonds, Busts, And Big Ben
By Alby Oxenreiter

There have been many Super Bowl busts, but 2004 featured the very first Super Bowl breast.  It was Janet Jackson’s contribution to our national holiday, and the repercussions rattled for months.  But the Super Snafu was only the beginning of a memorable year. So, as we welcome 2005, let’s look back at what helped make 2004 a year to remember.

  • At Augusta, with the azaleas in ffull bloom, Phil Mickleson shed the best-player-never-to-win a major moniker and reminded us that anything is possible.
  • After suffering through their 12th consecutive losing season, the Pirates reminded us that, sometimes, everything seems impossible.
  • Jason Kendall, who caught more games than any other Pirate in history, and the final player from the Jim Leyland era, played his last season in Pittsburgh.
  • Ben Roethlisberger played his first.
  • Barry Bonds, like Pat Robertson, became a full-fledged member of the 700-club.
  • Barry Bonds, unlike Pat Robertson, found himself in a steroids scandal.
  • Jerome Bettis was reborn.  The Bus took a paycut, and then took off, finishing the year in fourth place on the all-time rushing list.
  • The Patriots won another Super Bowl, and Tom Brady earned another Super Bowl MVP.
  • The Tampa Bay Lightning reached the pinnacle, winning the Stanley Cup with such forgettable stars as Fedotenko, Lecavalier and Richards.
  • American swimmer Michael Phelps made Olympic history in Athens.
  • In Pittsburgh, Jason Bay made baseball history, becoming the first Pirate to earn Rookie of the Year honors.
  • Larry Brown brought the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to Motown as the Pistons won a championship.
  • We saw the tragic end to a sad and misguided life as former National League MVP Ken Caminiti died of a drug overdose.
  • We saw an early end to a joyful and inspiring life when Reggie White passed away.
  •  The NHL grabbed the headlines for thousands of games that weren’t played, and nobody seemed to care.
  • Tiger got married.
  • Tiger slumped.
  • Tiger earned more than $7 million worldwide.
  • After 86 years of futility, the Red Sox Nation finally had a reason to celebrate as The Curse of the Bambino came to a screeching halt.
  • Bill Cowher had his contract extended.
  • Kobe Bryant’s criminal trial ended before it began.
  • Kobe and Shaq divorced.  The Lakers dynasty disintegrated.
  •  The Steelers rebounded.
  • The Pitt Panthers landed a New Year’s Day bowl for the first time in two decades, but at the same time, bid farewell to Head Coach Walt Harris, who “resigned” to return to California and the Stanford job.
  • Dave Wannstedt came home to coach his Alma Mater, the University of Pittsburgh.

Alby Oxenreiter is sports director for WPGH-TV Fox 53.

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Pittsburgh Sports Report
September 2004

Media Savvy
Time Of Our Lives
By Alby Oxenreiter

It’s been suggested that watching and following sports in the new millennium just isn’t fun anymore.  As the theory goes, the sports themselves have given way to big business and the games are no longer games.  With that in mind, maybe we should all remember how it felt to be a young fan.

Kids don’t think about the negatives that have overtaken sports.  In the middle of hardcore reality, young fans still own the luxury of living in a fantasy world where star athletes rule and where sporting events supercede all else.

In June, we traveled to Boston so my son, one week shy of becoming a teenager, could see the Red Sox play at Fenway Park.  It was the dream of his young life, and seeing his eyes widen at the sight of the Green Monster refueled my own love for sports.  For a long summer afternoon, we absorbed the one-of-a-kind atmosphere of a national sports treasure.

Seven weeks after our Fenway pilgrimage, we continued our summer adventure.  The Giants came to Pittsburgh for a series against the last-place Pirates, and all three of my children were beside themselves with the thought of seeing a baseball giant, Barry Bonds.  Forget the accusations of steroids or Barry’s infamous cold personality.  For three hours in August, they sat in the left field bleachers and soaked in another national treasure, the greatest player of his day.  Love him or hate him, his legend is undeniable, and my children’s excitement reminded me why I do what I do for a living.

Later in August, we traveled to Cleveland so my 9-year-old could see his favorite player in person.  In our house, Torii Hunter came on the radar at the 2002 All-Star game, when he jumped above the outfield wall and stole a HR from Bonds.  That’s why we waited for more than two hours by the Jacobs Field dugout rail.   It was worth the wait, our son actually met his superhero – Spiderman.  He talked with Torii, took a picture with Torii and then floated in exhilaration for the entire game.  By the time he fell asleep that night, the Twins’ loss was already forgotten.  But the picture, in my son’s mind, and in the camera, would last a lifetime.

A week later, we found ourselves at Heinz Field. It was an exhibition game and very little was at stake for the Steelers.  But seeing Jerome Bettis score a touchdown made it a worthy deposit into the memory bank.  The kids also got a glimpse of the Steelers’ quarterback-of-the-future, a pre-season performance that will certainly feed the ‘I remember when – ‘ stories.  But the best moment of a memorable night was when my young fans did what young fans do…they waited for the Steelers to exit the field and begged for souvenirs.  So it was fitting when my 11-year-old daughter, decked out in her #8 jersey, gladly accepted Tommy Maddox’s wristband.  Sweaty polyester never seemed so good.

Sometime soon, when the NHL labor dispute gives way to hockey, my kids will watch Mario Lemieux.  After that, maybe some basketball, and then spring – and baseball again, when they can follow every move of Jason Kendall the same way I used to watch Richie Hebner.

Modern-day sports come with some unfortunate signs of the times – performance-enhancing drugs, serious accusations against superstars, obscenely rich athletes, Super Bowl breast-baring and labor disputes.  But these are also the days of Lemieux and Bonds, of Torii and Fenway.  Days of innocence on an endless merry-go-round of childhood fantasy, what sports are all about.

So take a break from the cynicism of the day and take stock in the present.  If you’re spending sleepless nights longing for the good old days – wake up. Whether you realize it or not, these are the good old days.

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Pittsburgh Sports Report
April 2004

Media Savvy
Intriguing…but overdone
By Alby Oxenreiter

It’s spring.  All over the country, thousands of football fanatics are in a frenzy, counting the days to the NFL’s annual off-season soiree.  Draftniks everywhere are buried in mock drafts, and the biggest and baddest of them all, Mel Kiper, is cramming for the weekend that made him famous.

The NFL Draft is less than a month away, and my curiosity is peaking… but only because I’m wondering how anyone can get excited about an event that might someday produce an impact player.  If Midnight Madness is the King of Overrated Sporting Events, as I wrote in this column last fall, then the NFL draft is making a serious run at dethroning the King. If your name isn’t Cowher or Colbert, and you plan your schedule around the draft, you need to realign your priorities.  If you’re not paid to watch or analyze the draft, but insist on doing so anyway, you need to switch your online link from ESPN to ebay, and place a bid on a life.

I’m really not a party pooper. Quite the contrary.  I think this country’s passion for football is one of the things that makes it great, and I grew up with Western Pennsylvania’s unique obsession with its team.

But the draft?  I’m just happy the snow melted.

Chris Berman’s banter with Kiper… the scramble to air video of the latest pick… complete up-to-the-second crawls across the bottom of your screen… loud graphics… louder announcers… instant analysis… instant nausea!

That’s not to say this year’s draft doesn’t come with some intrigue. Anyone with an interest in Pittsburgh sports wants to know where Larry Fitzgerald ends up or how the Steelers take advantage of the first-round.

But be honest.  After the middle part of the first round, it gets murky and very boring.  There’s nothing exciting about watching the 18th or 30th best player put on a hat and pose for the cameras.  It looks staged.  It feels hokey.

Truth be told, watching a player who doesn’t get picked provides much better drama.  There’s a certain fascination that comes with keeping tabs on a player who has to wait…and wait… and wait.  Who can forget Pitt’s Marc Spindler, frustrated and angry, waiting to be drafted from his father’s bar in Scranton?  It wasn’t Spindler’s most enjoyable afternoon, but the drama made good television.

The media deserves some blame for blowing the draft out of proportion. In the good old days, local television stations would scramble to get the first “one-on-one” interview with the Steelers’ top pick.  I remember Channel 4 trying to find a way to get to a small town in Kentucky for an “exclusive” interview with Aaron Jones.

Jones was a first-round bust.   Jamain Stephens, Huey Richardson and Troy Edwards were others.  Back when we thought it mattered, we fell all over them.

None of these players even dented the landscape of Pittsburgh sports.  Very few do.  But we keep plugging it and analyzing it.  Maybe that’s not so bad. After all, I’d rather my children and other young fans attaching themselves to the draft and football rather than some other addicting habit.

But we all need to take a step back and keep things in perspective.  Instead of disrupting your Saturday schedule later this month, go for a walk or play golf, go to your child’s game, or better yet – sleep.

With or without you, the Steelers will make their picks, and five years from now, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how they did.

Alby Oxenreiter is sports director for WPGH-TV Fox 53.

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Pittsburgh Sports Report
November 2003

Media Savvy
Midnight Madless
By Alby Oxenreiter

If you blinked, you probably missed it.  I’m here to tell you that you didn’t miss much.

Midnight Madness is nothing to write home about.  In fact, it’s nothing to write about – period.

According to college hoops lore, Midnight Madness is the brainchild of college basketball legend Lefty Driesell.  In 1971, the Maryland basketball coach invented a men’s basketball promotional event so students and fans of the Terrapins could watch Lefty’s team run its customary mile around the football field.  It stuck.

The annual event falls at midnight on the first day the NCAA approves team workouts.  In many college towns, it’s a wild way to start the season.  But in Pittsburgh , it’s at best the most overrated annual “event” on a busy sports calendar.

It might be a hot ticket in Lawrence or East Lansing, but not here.  Maybe if we lived in Durham, Raleigh or Winston-Salem, but we don’t.  I-279 is not exactly Tobacco Road.

Let’s face it, autumn weekends in Pittsburgh revolve around a lot of things, but college basketball is not one of them.  The Steelers, and everything they do or don’t do, dominate the local scene.  The Pitt football team and their star receiver’s much-deserved Heisman attention help round out page one of the sports section.  The Penguins’ 18-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury has given hockey a boost in town.  Then there was the wall-to-wall coverage of the Cubs and Red Sox, and their futile attempts to end postseason curses. We haven’t even started talking about the decline of Penn State football, and whether or not Joe Paterno should get on with his life’s work.

All of this is why, at least locally, the annual tip-off to the college basketball season came with very little attention or fanfare.  Granted, there were thousands of college students jumping on the Midnight Madness wagon and jamming into the Peterson Events Center , but the kids don’t count.  Have you ever known a college student not ready for a party?

Pittsburgh ‘s as good a college basketball town as any city its size, and you won’t find many empty seats this season at the Pete.  But compared to Lawrence, East Lansing or Tobacco Road, there are many other things to see and do in Pittsburgh .

That’s not to say that there’s any shortage of hot topics surrounding the local basketball programs.  Pitt’s new coach Jamie Dixon is, by all accounts, the perfect choice to continue the Panthers’ momentum.  Pitt returns six of its top nine players from the team bumped off by Marquette in the Sweet Sixteen eight months ago.  Julius Page, now Pitt’s senior leader and the city’s most exciting hoop star, is well worth the price of admission.

A few miles and turns down Forbes Avenue , the heat will be turned up on Duquesne’s third-year coach, Danny Nee, a true professional and a likeable guy.  Things have been bleak on the Bluff for many years, and the clock is ticking as Nee takes his turn at turning the program around.

But the two major local basketball stories can wait.  There’s a time and a place for everything, and as the leaves and the temperatures fall, fans in Pittsburgh have other sports issues to ponder.

I love college basketball: the frenzy that comes with a late-season win, the excitement of conference tournament week, Selection Sunday with fans clinging to their brackets like overdue paychecks.  There’s absolutely nothing like the first day of the NCAA tournament: sick days, office pools, upsets.  The madness is worth the wait.  Better late than never.

I’ll take March over Midnight any day of the week.

Alby Oxenreiter is sports director for WPGH-TV Fox 53.

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Pittsburgh Sports Report
June 2003

Media Savvy
Shut Up And Win
By Alby Oxenreiter

Recently, in what can only be described as a moment of monumental miscalculation, the Pirates’ Six-Million-Dollar-Man criticized his team’s low attendance and questioned the hostile reaction to his team’s poor play.

Kevin Young, like many people in the area, is frustrated with the fate and the future of Pittsburgh’s major league baseball team.  A short time later, when given a chance to rephrase, defend or retract his statements, Young stood by his words.  His tact was admirable but ill advised.  Young is a good person, one of the most professional, most articulate and in a general sense, classiest athletes to have played in Pittsburgh.  But he’s dead wrong to criticize his team’s fans and what he described as a ‘home field disadvantage’ at PNC Park.

Young needs to take a step back and look at the big picture.  In short, Pittsburgh’s paying customers have had enough.  For more than a decade, the fans have waited patiently—not for their team to win a championship but for their team to become competitive.  Their best recent shot may have been 1997, when they were within two games of the division lead with three weeks to go, only to be swept by the Astros, causing a late-season collapse and a finish under .500.

The team’s situation has grown considerably worse in two-and-a-half seasons at PNC Park.  This year, after an off-season of optimistic anticipation based on some very minimal upgrades, we’re witnessing the worst possible combination for attendance: bad baseball and terrible spring weather.  The Pirates don’t usually generate any fan enthusiasm until June—after the children are out of school and able to enjoy summer vacation.  And that small window of opportunity usually closes with the start of Steelers training camp.   Only winning can keep the window open.

This season more than ever, it was important, almost imperative, for the Pirates to get off and running. But for the second consecutive season, they failed to capitalize on a 5-1 start.  Now it might be too late.

The ticket buyers are sick and tired of paying for mediocrity.  PNC Park didn’t make the Pirates more competitive as was promised but instead made their predicament only more frustrating.

The performance of the team has become pathetic while past financial mistakes still haunt them.  Pat Meares earned millions from the Pirates while nursing an injury that never went away.  Jason Kendall’s contract pays him an average of ten million dollars per season.  Trading him isn’t an option because who wants to pay that kind of money for a catcher who mostly hits singles?

The Pirates have an option to pay Pokey Reese five million dollars after this season.  Say goodbye to Pokey.  What kind of money will Kris Benson ask for in his next contract?  Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders, both one-year bargains, will also be gone.  The organization’s minor league talent pool is slim.

The losing has become embarrassing and crowds at PNC are declining fast. How can you blame the fans for feeling resentment?  What would the Pirates’ average home attendance be if they didn’t give away bobbleheads or shoot off postgame fireworks?

The construction of PNC Park—with public money—was a bold step in keeping baseball in Pittsburgh. But the team has to take the next step.  As beautiful as their home might be, without a competitive team, the novelty of the new ballpark goes away quickly.  Fans are well aware that last year’s eleventh hour settlement on the collective bargaining agreement will do very little if anything to fix baseball’s labor problems.  The Pirates problems, like many teams in baseball, are very real and very difficult to fix.

The Pirates have a rich history—one of the longest and most colorful in baseball.  But history doesn’t solve modern-day problems.  The only real solution is winning, which would make everything else fall into place.  Kevin Young might be on to something—maybe the sparse home crowds HAVE created a home field disadvantage.  But when you’re paid 150 times more than the average customer, and when you’re struggling to bat your weight, you’re best to keep your mouth shut.  Sometimes, the truth hurts more than anyone knows.

Alby Oxenreiter is sports director for WPGH-TV Fox 53.

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Pittsburgh Sports Report
January 2003

Media Savvy
Sticking To My Guns
By Alby Oxenreiter

I fully intend to stand by my words.  Even to the point of looking foolish or worse, being wrong.

The Steelers, as I penned in September, will not win the Super Bowl.

In the September issue of this publication, I composed the following: “Super Bowl XXXVII is still five months away, but I’m here to tell that the Steelers won’t be there.  I like this team and its proven talent and strong personalities. They’re a group of good guys who deserve to win a championship.  But I don’t believe they will.”  And yes, I’m sticking with that argument.  I have no choice.

In many ways, the season has gone exactly as I said it would.  The good guys who deserve to win a championship have already fallen well short of expectations.  A solid post-season run would make everyone forget about what’s happened up to this point, but it remains to be seen if this team is capable of stringing together the three or four playoff victories necessary to win a Super Bowl.

The schedule, as I wrote in September, is soft.  Some teams in the Big 12 play tougher schedules.  That may actually be the only thing that saves this year’s Steelers.  After embarrassing losses to New England and Oakland, the Steelers were dangerously close to starting 0-3 and maybe even 0-4. Had it not been for a fluke, overtime thriller against the Browns, their dreams and their season would have spiraled downward.

To their credit, and thanks to that schedule, the Steelers rebounded. After a loss to New Orleans, they won on the road at Cincinnati and pulled to .500 with an impressive Monday night win over Indianapolis.  The Steelers beat Baltimore on the road, won a road game at Cleveland but blew a lead and tied Atlanta at home.  Then in Tennessee, they lost their starting quarterback and a crucial game to the Titans.

But that’s when easy schedules come in handy.  When they needed it most, the Steelers rattled off wins against the pathetic Bengals and struggling Jaguars, and even a disgraceful loss to the expansion Texans, in a game thoroughly dominated by Pittsburgh, couldn’t kill this team’s hopes.

So here we are.  I wondered in the September issue if Jerome Bettis could stay healthy, and if the running game could “jump to the high bar that’s been set?” Bettis could not and the running game was, in many ways, abandoned. Amos Zereoue was solid as a backup, but the play calling took the Steelers to the air and away from their bread and butter.  A championship team, as the rejuvenated and recovered Tommy Maddox later told me, has to have “a balanced attack.”  A team cannot live on passing alone.

That’s especially true with an inconsistent defense, and despite a late-season rally, the Steelers defense has been up and down—more Swiss Cheese than Swiss Guard.  The defense, as suggested in our pre-season issue, would miss Earl Holmes more than anyone imagined.

On the subject of special teams, I wrote: “Can a new special teams coach really make a difference?”  Well, with a few months of hindsight, and despite a great effort by new kicker Jeff Reed, some problems remain.  Even strong teams, as I noted, “have weaknesses.”  The Steelers would have to “negotiate the curves in the road that every team faces over the course of a long season.”

Well, the curves in this season have been complicated.  The fans have suffered through another quarterback controversy, a running back debate and a new website pushing for the firing of the head coach.  To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, “Success has a thousand fathers.  Defeat is but an orphan.”  Maddox has shown signs of greatness and Stewart turned in the greatest relief job in Pittsburgh since Elroy Face.  The receivers have been, for the most part, spectacular, but the fate of this year’s Steelers remains to be seen.

Frankly, a Super Bowl run by the Steelers would make my job more interesting, but in the words of the great sports enthusiast Doris Day, “que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.” If my observations are on the mark, you read it here first.  If I’m wrong, then forget where you read it. I’ll end this rant the same way I did in September.  San Diego or bust.  And Happy Holidays.

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Pittsburgh Sports Report
September 2002

Media Savvy
No Sure Bet
By Alby Oxenreiter

If your travel agent’s phone number has already been programmed into your speed dial, then you need to listen.  If you’ve already earmarked the money in your Christmas club for airplane tickets, then stop and think.  If you’re saving vacation days for some January sunshine, then put it on hold.

Super Bowl XXXVII is still 5 months away, but I’m here to tell that the Steelers won’t be there.

I like this team and its proven talent and strong personalities.  They’re a group of good guys who deserve to win a championship. But I don’t believe they will.  And one word could change both the course of sports history and the travel plans of all those optimistic fans that like to dress in black and gold.  The word is expectations, and it just might be the speed bump that slows this team’s b-line to the big game.

When almost everyone picks a team to get to a championship or to win a championship, chances are, it won’t happen.  The Steelers best team of the seventies fell short.  It was 1976, and who would’ve possibly known that Franco and Rocky would go down at the same time.  Reggie Harrison did his best, but the Steelers lost to Oakland in the AFC Title game.  For a different reason, the same thing happened to the 1972 Pirates, maybe their best team of the decade. On their road to back-to-back October Classics, Bob Moose threw a wild pitch that derailed the Pirates into an early offseason.  The 1993 Penguins had it all, talent, confidence and Stanley Cup savvy, and that spring, they were considered the heavy favorite to make it three consecutive championships.  But David Volek…well you know how it ended.  The same way Dennis Gibson ended the run of the 1994 Steelers, and how Francisco Cabrero ended the Pirates last great run.  Simply put, if it seems too obvious, then it probably is.  And with that, let’s get back to the Steelers of 2002.

They have a talented team, a potentially soft schedule and an easy division. What seems like a recipe for a championship might actually be a disaster in the making.  Predicting One For The Thumb just seems too easy. Furthermore, it could be argued that last season’s success was a phenomenon, which is to say, a number of players simultaneously enjoyed career years.  There was also the magic of the Heinz Field inaugural season. Whatever the reason, last season was close to perfect…that is until the AFC Championship game.

Well repeating that run will be difficult.  Avoiding injuries and overcoming the injuries that inevitably occur is important.  Will Kordell Stewart and Jerome Bettis stay healthy?  And if so, will they jump to the high bar that’s been set?  If Jerome isn’t up to par, can Amos and Fu pick up the slack?  And if the running game is subpar, as it was in pre-season, can Stewart and the passing game carry the team?  Without a running game, Kordell was lost in the AFC Championship loss to New England.  So were the Steelers’ special teams.  Can a new special teams coach really make a difference? On defense, can Washington and Scott avoid giving up the big backbreaking play?  Can James Farrior and/or John Fiala make us forget about Earl Holmes?  These are all legitimate questions.

But in fairness, even strong teams have weaknesses.  Another key is negotiating the curves in the road that every team faces over the course of a long season.  Having stated my case, it’s important to remind you that nothing is ever a sure thing, most especially my prognostication.  I’m the first to admit that my crystal ball has been missing for years.  With that in mind, get ready for some football and look for me at Heinz Field.  I’ll be the one hitch hiking…San Diego or bust.

Alby Oxenreiter is sports director for WPGH-TV Fox 53.

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Pittsburgh Sports Report
October 2001

Media Savvy
Kordell’s Finest Hour
By Alby Oxenreiter

It was exactly 48 hours before what would have been the Heinz Field opener, and Kordell Stewart was consoling a woman he didn’t even know.  He didn’t know her name.  He didn’t know anything about her, except that her son had just become a casualty of war, a victim of a senseless act of terrorism.

For Stewart, it was a chance meeting that would change his perspective and his life.  He wasn’t supposed to be here, but then again, a hijacked plane wasn’t supposed to crash into a coal-mining region near Shanksville, in Somerset County.

So instead of cramming for the Browns like a college senior prepping for finals, Stewart took a big gulp and swallowed some real-life horror.  He and the rest of the Steelers were at Seven Springs to comfort the families of the victims of United Airlines Flight 93.  They signed autographs.  They posed for pictures.

But Stewart did much more.  He talked.  He didn’t know what to say but he couldn’t seem to stop.  He talked about life, and about how quickly it can be gone.

“I wanted her to know that I understood,” he said.

But how could he understand?  Who could possibly understand? Kordell kept talking.  And he talked from his own experiences.

The death of his mother.  The death of his sister.

Now the conversation was about pain.  The unbearable pain that never seems to go away.  The young athlete talked and the older woman listened.

“I just told her everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I really believe that.”

Football players are rough and tough athletes who make a large living by learning to shake it off.  But this time, shaking it off was not an option.  Everything around Stewart only shook him up.  How could it not?

Now the woman talked and Kordell listened.  She needed to say it and he understood.  Their meeting was over, but their conversation was not.  The new friends walked.  He helped her inside the bus.  Then they sat and talked some more.

But now it was time to leave.  All night, finding the words had been easy, but finding the words to say goodbye was not.  So instead of words, she said goodbye with a single red rose.  Stewart took the rose and with it, he took comfort in knowing that he had given her something just as meaningful.

Earlier that night, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge told the crowd that the tragedy of terrorism had revealed some of life’s real heroes…not sports stars or athletes, but rescue workers.

Well, even by Gov. Ridge’s definition, at least one athlete played the role of hero.  With kind words, understanding and sincerity, Stewart rescued a broken-hearted woman from the depths of darkness.

Now, on the trip back to Pittsburgh, he isn’t talking but his mind is racing.  In an unlikely place on this improbable night borne out of a tragedy, Kordell Stewart made a difference, and it had nothing to do with football.

He knows now more than ever that a single loss can teach a person more than a thousand wins.  The promising quarterback who waited in vain for his greatest victory enjoyed his finest hour in the gloom of another person’s greatest grief.

Alby Oxenreiter is sports director with WPGH-TV Fox 53, Pittsburgh.

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Pittsburgh Sports Report
February 2001

Media Savvy
No Respect
By Alby Oxenr
eiter
WPGH-TV Fox 53

If Michael Jordan had done it, he would already have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  If Wayne Gretzky had done it, Canada would already have declared a national holiday.  Without question, comebacks by his His Airness or The Great One would have earned huge national and international headlines, and at the very least, a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Mario Lemieux still hasn’t gotten his SI cover story, but allow me to submit an early nomination for SI’s 2001 Sportsman of the Year.

Since his comeback, Mario’s received some very nice and well-deserved attention…ESPN carried live coverage of his first five games, ESPN Classic played his old clips for an entire day, People magazine did a profile.  So did Sports Illustrated.

There have been other glowing reviews as well.  Recent articles in USA Today, the Toronto Star and the Chicago Tribune praised Lemieux’s ability to get back to the top of his game so quickly.  They all agree that Mario alone has the ability to carry his sport.

But by and large, the comeback hasn’t been greeted with the bigness of a Jordan or Gretzky.  It’s nothing new.  Throughout his career, Lemieux always had to settle for less than he should have gotten from the national media.  Maybe his comeback finally will earn him the recognition he deserves, and solidify his spot among the world’s elite athletes.

But it’s up to Sports Illustrated to help push him in that direction.  Sportsman of the Year would be a fitting title for an athlete who has risen above the rest in every way.  He is the first owner/player in the modern era of sports, an athlete who has overcome long odds and terrifying obstacles.

A successful campaign for Sportsman of the Year also would make up for what happened in 1993, when Lemieux failed to win the award despite returning from a brutal dose of radiation treatment to win the scoring title.

Lemieux’s impact on his sport is indisputable.  The sellouts, at home and on the road, are proof of that.  Fans in every NHL city are clamoring to get a glimpse of Mario’s magic.

But the consistent national adulation just isn’t there.  Lemieux’s quick return to dominance after a 44-month layoff should be enough, but to do that while continuing to serve as the Penguins Owner makes this incredible sports story bigger than all others.

Can you imagine if Gretzky had done the same?  We all know what happened when Jordan came back.  Even Michael’s pathetic stab at professional baseball landed him on SI’s cover.

Mario’s story is the stuff of novels.  Child prodigy gets drafted first by the worst team in hockey.  Child prodigy turns team around and wins back-to-back championships.  In between it all, he fights a career-threatening back injury, then a life-threatening disease.  He beats both and along the way, wins six scoring titles, three league MVP awards and the respect of players, fans, and media.

Then, while at the top of his game, he walks away from the sport, only to return as an owner after fighting for and winning the team in a battle for deferred money owed to him.  Pittsburgh’s favorite superstar was now an executive.  But Life in the big box above the ice became boring, and the player-turned-owner wanted to be a player again, if for no other reason so his children, particularly his young son, could see him play hockey.

So Lemieux decided to jump back on, not to ride the train but to engineer it. As usual, there were skeptics, cynics, and critics, but as usual, Mario left them in the dust.

He’s a fiery competitor who returned for all the right reasons.  Is there a better choice for Sportsman of the Year? There is no other choice.

In the spring of 1993, after the battle with Hodgkin’s Disease, Lemieux and the Penguins finished the season with a flurry, and on the morning of the first playoff game,  Mario was to appear on ABC’s Good Morning America.  I was assigned to do a story on the preparations for that show.  While being made up for the hot lights of network television, Lemieux told me he had watched my sportscast the night before.  With a smile on his face, he commented that I had been tongue-twisted while describing the highlights. I nodded and asked Mario if he ever had one of those nights when nothing seemed to go right.  Without any hesitation and through that wry smile, he replied, “NO.”

He wasn’t being serious but anyone who’s ever seen him play…then or now…knows he wasn’t kidding either.

Pittsburgh knows.

Millions of fans around the world know.

And maybe by the end of 2001, Sports Illustrated will, too.

Alby Oxenreiter is sports director with WPGH-TV, Fox 53, Pittsburgh.

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Pittsburgh Sports Report
August 2000

ENOUGH ALREADY!!!
By Alby Oxenreiter, WPGH-TV

As of this writing, two rookie teammates who have never played a single down in the NFL are set to sign contracts worth a combined $61 million, with signing bonuses totaling close to $21 million and with tens of millions more in incentive money.

For Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, this looks like money well spent.  After all, Lavar Arrington and Chris Samuels appear to have everything needed to achieve NFL stardom.

But the two new millionaires also are significant examples of why the wide world of sports has gone haywire.  It could be said that Arrington and Samuels have already proved their worth because they’ve succeeded in getting someone to pay them obscene money.  Remember, if someone will pay it, you’re worth it.

But the absurd amount of cash speaks volumes about the ruinous path that’s been taken by the movers and shakers in sports.  I realize that, to some degree, I’m throwing water on the very fire that keeps me warm, but is there even one person who disagrees with my sentiments?

Bad investments sometimes lead to bad performances.  Very often, these “instant millionaire” athletes lose their incentive, and free agency creates a massive decline in both fan and player loyalty.  It can be said that the competition has lost its edge.

When was the last time you were moved by an athletic achievement?  Or the last time the outcome of a game pulled you out of your seat?

There are notable exceptions.  Last January’s Super Bowl comes to mind.  So does Mark McGwire’s 1998 home run romp and Cal Ripken’s iron-man record.  Maybe last month’s Wimbledon sister act got your attention.

But the special moments don’t occur nearly enough.  For every unforgettable firework, there are scores of duds.  The games lack the consistent drama that used to make them great.

The owners have to carry some of the blame.  They’re the ones who always have let the loot lead the way.  The owners will pay almost anything, and to foot the bill, they’ll do almost anything.

Expansion brings more teams and money, but the talent level keeps getting worse.  More games equal more money, but the seasons become unbearably long, and early season games no longer carry much importance.  The NHL schedule shouldn’t go past April but they end up playing well into June.  The NBA schedule goes even longer.  And there’s a good chance the NFL will soon add more playoff teams, making its regular season more insignificant.

Meanwhile, baseball is a mess.  The caretaker of America’s Pastime is owner-turned-commissioner Bud Selig, a man who faces the formidable task of convincing the big-market owners to share the wealth, and then getting the players to agree with the plan.

Baseball’s most recent work stoppage accomplished nothing.   The refusal to level the playing field with revenue sharing means we can look forward to the same script every year, a script that ends every October with the Braves against the Yankees.

Next season, the Pirates finally will have a ballpark of which they can be proud, but the economic chaos means they’ll have a team of which we all can be ashamed.  The Pirates are on the way to their eighth straight losing season and for the last 30 years, they’ve played at Three Rivers Stadium.  No wonder nobody shows up.

Baseball’s mid-summer classic, once a blockbuster, just turned in its lowest television ratings since 1967.  Last fall’s World Series ratings were a joke. Monday Night Football has gotten so bad it’s counting on Dennis Miller to save the show.  Fans are fed up.

There are too many teams, too many games and too many millions being thrown at too many mediocre players.  There also are too many televised events.  Despite my professional status, I consider myself an average fan, but the truth is, it’s sometimes difficult to watch the games.  Thankfully, there was a streaker during a recent baseball game in Kansas City.  Otherwise, I would’ve been forced to watch the Cubs play the Royals.

When you strip away the sugarcoating, who really wants to watch NASCAR’s Econo Lodge 200?  Tiger Woods is brilliant, but he can’t help the senior tour, or the women’s tour.  Tiger wasn’t scheduled to compete in last month’s Olympic Trials so I didn’t watch, and without Woods, the Tour De France, boxing and harness racing are all ho-hum.  But think about it, despite Tiger’s awesome dominance, the most talked-about athlete in the last 10 months is none other than John Rocker.

I don’t have the answer, but the problems are all too obvious, and many fans are fading.  But enough said.  There is a long list of games to cover.

Check the newspaper for local listings, and if you’re too busy to watch the action, then tune in at 10 o’clock.  I’ll have all the highlights.

Alby Oxenreiter is sports director with WPGH-TV, Pittsburgh.

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