Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Page 2 [Print without images]

Monday, August 19, 2002
Updated: August 20, 1:09 PM ET
Wingin' it in Buffalo

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

Miles: 82 (in and around Buffalo, including a trip to Niagara Falls, where we nearly got in a fight with four very surly mascots); total miles: 2,870; hours driving: 2; hours of sleep: 14 (two nights worth); chicken wings consumed: 10; Beef on Weck sandwiches: 2 (much better than wings -- you've got to try one); facial hair: considerable stubble (I also need a haircut); miles to go: 600 (approximate) ...

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- I'm two weeks and nearly 2,900 miles into my cross-country tour of sports across Interstate 90. My stomach hungers for a meal that isn't eaten with one hand reaching into a paper sack and the other resting on the steering wheel. My body craves a day that doesn't begin at 9 a.m. in one time zone and end at 5 a.m. in another. I'm exhausted, the minute hand is sweeping past 11:30, my wakeup call is fast approaching, and I'm sitting next to a very sweaty man in yellow tights.

And you know what? I don't care about any of that, because the Famous Chicken is telling me about the night he brought Elvis Presley to his knees.

"This was 1976 or '77, when I was working for radio station KGB and doing a lot of concerts in San Diego," the Chicken says from the Buffalo Bisons clubhouse. "Elvis is doing 'Whole Lotta Shaking Going On.' Now, I couldn't go on the stage because his security people would have tackled me. So I go to an exit where I know it's well-lit and start doing my thing. Elvis sees me dancing out of the corner of his eye, and he starts laughing. He gets so hysterical that he drops down to one knee. This is when he was having some heart problems so the band thinks he's having a seizure.

"There is panic. The band doesn't know what to do so they start playing the music real softly. A doctor runs on the stage -- I think it was the guy who lost his license for writing fake prescriptions for Elvis' pills. He asks him if he's having a seizure. He says no, and points to me.

Famous Chicken
The Chicken was a rare bird among mascots.
"Finally, Elvis gets control of himself, finishes the song as best he can and says, 'Ladies and gentlemen. You won't believe this but there is a chicken dancing over there.' And the crowd is like, 'Yeah, we know. So what?' "

The Chicken laughs long and hard. And then he starts telling me about the time his Chicken routine was part of an "intellectual property" suit, followed by the time he filmed "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes," followed by the time the San Diego Chargers owner had stadium security chase him off the field ... and pretty soon it's past midnight, and we've been talking for more than an hour, and I might never get to bed.

I am so glad I stayed in Buffalo another night.

***** ***** *****

I have looked forward to visiting Buffalo ever since I met Scooter almost two decades ago, and he immediately began raving about his hometown. He has long driven me nuts by naming every athlete who ever played or lived in the city, and when I finally reached the Queen City this weekend and met his family, I found out where he gets it from. They're even more like Scooter than Scooter is.

For instance, when Scooter told his father that our next destination was Saratoga, N.Y., Joe Thomas replied as if on cue, "Saratoga. That's where Man o' War lost his last race." He couldn't think of the winning horse's name though, which drove him crazy all day. Late that night, Scooter received a call from his father. He had only one thing to say. "The horse's name was Upset."

The whole family is like this. Scooter's brother, Mike, has missed three Bills games in the past 37 years. He is a season-ticket holder to the Bisons and fondly describes running onto the field after the Bisons won the 1961 Little World Series and having manager Phil Cavaretta spike him on the ankle. He is so proud of his city that when Scooter told him we might spend part of the afternoon across the bridge in Canada, he grimaced and said, "Canada? What's in Canada?"

But that's the way true Buffalonians are. The rest of the country craps on the city, ridicules the weather and uses the Bills as a national punchline (Top Ten Things Marv Levy Said at Halftime of Super Bowl XXIII: No. 8: "We've got a long trip home after the game, so I don't want anyone wearing themselves out."). But Buffalonians are convinced it isn't just the Niagara River that flows by the city but the entire world.

They know there was a time when Buffalo was one of the country's largest cities, the true City of Light. When electricity from the Niagara powered thriving industries and the downtown was so crowded you couldn't see the sidewalk between the pedestrians. They'll show you the stately mansions along Bidwell Parkway, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed houses and the fabulous Ellicott Square building and the old post office with its buffalo head gargoyles.

They also know that Buffalo holds an honored place in American sports, a city where O.J. Simpson carried the ball at Rich Stadium and Roy Hobbs homered into the light towers at old War Memorial Stadium. The Juice and Wonderboy ... and that's just the start. Consider:

  • Camden Yards gets all the publicity, but the HOK architectural firm cut its teeth for the modern stadium four years earlier on the Bisons' Dunn Tire Park, a lovely little park at the edge of downtown that initiated the whole retro-stadium boom. Despite their minor-league status, the Bisons have drawn more than a million fans six times.

  • The Sabres, meanwhile, provide an ample lesson on North American sports and North America at the beginning of this century. The Sabres are owned by John Rigas, a cable TV titan who was arrested last month on charges of securities fraud and "using the company as the family's personal piggy bank." Rigas helped fund the Sabres with Adelphia stock that is now virtually worthless, and the league is searching for someone to buy the team, which plays in an arena named after the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank Corporation.

    Drew Bledsoe
    Bills fans would like to quarantine Drew Bledsoe until the regular-season opener.
  • Of course, the city's passion remains the beloved Bills, so much so that 3,000 fans showed up to welcome newly acquired quarterback Drew Bledsoe to town during a midweek rally and 16,000 fans showed up last month to watch the team unveil its new uniforms. I know this, because the Buffalo News printed it on the front page of Sunday's paper.

    Buffalo fans see Bledsoe as the man who will return them to the Super Bowl, and they are so concerned for his health that they want him quarantined and shrink-wrapped until the season starts. As Scooter and I drove around the city and Niagara Falls on Friday, we listened to talk show hosts "Coach" Chuck Dickerson and Mike Schopp bitch about Bills coach Gregg Williams' decision to play Bledsoe in that night's exhibition game with the Vikings. Hour after relentless hour, the co-hosts ranted about Williams and incited listeners to rant as well.

    "He's a jerk!" one caller shouted. "That thin jerk is a jerk! I hate that jerk!"

    "Wow," Schopp replied. "Great call."

    We heard so many complaints from so many hosts and so many fans that when we crossed back into the United States and the customs agent asked whether we had anything to declare, I almost replied, "Yeah -- Williams is an idiot for playing Bledsoe tonight."

    Perhaps the city's most important contribution to sports, though, is the chicken wing, which was created at Buffalo's Anchor Bar in 1964. The Anchor Bar owners began feeding hungry Catholic patrons the wings at midnight Fridays when the religion's ban on eating meat ended, and the appetizer now is as much a staple at nationwide sports bars as $6 micro brews.

    ***** ***** *****

    The original plan had been to spend one day in Buffalo and then hit the road, but when the Bisons offered to let Scooter and I throw out the first pitch before Saturday's game, there was no choice but to call an audible and stay.

    I threw out the first pitch at a game in Minnesota a decade ago and was so intent on showing off my velocity that I nearly fired the ball to the backstop (Jeff Reboulet made a brilliant back-handed grab to prevent my complete humiliation). That taught me that the key to a first pitch is accuracy not speed, a tip I passed on to Scooter. Having rooted for the Bisons his entire life, he was so nervous that he walked off the 60-foot distance at his sibling's house Saturday morning and practiced his moment in the Buffalo spotlight.

    Jim Caple
    Jim Caple concentrates on accuracy, not velocity, as he delivers the ceremonial first pitch for the Buffalo Bisons.
    Throwing out the ceremonial first pitch used to be an honor reserved just for presidents, but no longer. I've seen Homer Simpson, RoboCop and Mr. Piggly Wiggly perform the duty. The Mariners had four first pitches before a game this year, and the Bisons topped that by having seven first pitches Saturday. I threw the third first pitch, and Scooter threw out the fourth first pitch. I think a 9-year-old, a 7-year-old, a 10-year-old and a couple teens threw out the other pitches.

    Scooter pointed to the 9-year-old. "I think he needs to stay back more in his delivery," he said. "And did the mound seem a little low to you?"

    My pitch was a little high but over the plate. Scooter's was a strike on the outside corner. Scouts with the Rangers and Tigers offered us three-year contracts, but we're going to talk to Scott Boras before we sign anything.

    Buffalo built the Bisons' stadium in an attempt to lure a major-league team here, only to give up after the most recent expansion. It's probably for the best. The players union set a strike date Friday (Aug. 30 -- Ted Williams' birthday) but, like my visit to Minnesota townball, Saturday's Bisons game provided a refreshing reminder that the game is so much more than the big leagues.

    Saturday's announced Bisons crowd of 13,302 was larger than two big-league teams drew, and the game was a superb example of minor-league baseball's enduring appeal. The Chicken delighted the fans, and the Bisons gave a terrific display of baseball on a clear, warm summer evening. Center fielder Jody Gerut opened the game with a spectacular diving catch, and catcher Josh Bard and left fielder Chris Magruder hit back-to-back home runs. Naturally, the theme from "The Natural" played for both homers, and the Chicken responded to Magruder's home run by waving a banner reading, "Greed is good."

    Interestingly, Magruder played left field for Cleveland when I started this trip two weeks ago with an Indians-Mariners game at Safeco Field at the western edge of I-90. Cleveland sent him down to AAA Buffalo two days later, and we caught up to each other again in another I-90 city. When I explained the concept of my trip to him, Magruder replied, "That's too weird. I'm practically living on I-90."

    Magruder is from Yakima in Eastern Washington, and he attended the University of Washington, so he had a small army of family and friends watching that series in Seattle. "The guys I played with live out their careers through me."

    They might live vicariously through Magruder, but they most certainly don't live his life.

    Since finishing at Washington four years ago, he has played for three organizations in 11 cities, changing residences no less than 15 times. He and his wife, Rachael, have an apartment in Buffalo, another in Cleveland and a storage locker with most of their possessions in Phoenix. Their dog is staying with Rachael's mother.

    "I haven't had an address since I can't remember," he said. "I just have everything sent to Yakima. I'll get to it eventually, and if it's important, I'll get to it sooner."

    Chris Magruder
    Have glove, will travel: Chris Magruder has been a baseball nomad this season.
    Just this year, he drove from Phoenix to Port Charlotte, Fla., for spring training with Texas and then to Oklahoma City to begin the season with the Rangers' Triple A affiliate. Along the way, the Rangers traded him to Cleveland, and the Indians assigned him to Buffalo. He and Rachael rented an apartment there for about six weeks when he received a callup to Cleveland, about three hours away on I-90.

    "Every so often my wife would drive back to Buffalo and get some stuff out of the apartment, and she started filling up our apartment in Cleveland," Magruder said. "The place had just started getting into shape when they sent me down."

    It's a tough life.

    Ted Giannoulas knows. This is the Chicken's 29th season, and Giannoulas says it might be his last inside the feathers. He has played virtually every sports arena in the country, spending up to 250 nights a year on the road, wearing a costume so hot and sweaty he says, "it's like wearing a rain forest."

    When Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig's record playing streak of 2,130 games, Giannoulas figured his streak was 2,078 consecutive performances. "And remember, mine are all one-night stands. Cal had two-week homestands and four-day series in one city. I was traveling every night."

    What started as a San Diego radio promotion paying $2 an hour has grown into an internationally known act that requires a Madden-like touring bus and a full-time crew of five on the road (the crew sells Chicken beanie babies for $5 during games). Giannoulas loves to perform the act, but he's 49 and getting a little tired. He cut his schedule from 250 to roughly 150 games this year and is considering hanging up his beak for a possible film or TV gig.

    If he does, there will be no replacement, no Chicken Run II.

    "It would be like the Babe's No. 3 or Gretzky's No. 99 -- that will be it, no one else will wear the suit," he says. "Not that I'm in their category, but I'm not a department store Santa, either."

    It was past midnight as he said this and everyone had left the stadium except the Chicken and his road crew. After showering, Giannoulas would return to the hotel for a couple of hours sleep, then board the Chicken mobile for a seven-hour drive to New Britain, Conn., where he would perform the next afternoon.

    And as the Chicken-mobile pulled away from this great city that made chicken wings an indispensable part of sports, perhaps Giannoulas switched on the radio for a little road music, and if so, no doubt instead heard the Coach, still bitching about Williams' decision to play Bledsoe.

    Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at cuffscaple@hotmail.com.