Buffalo fans feel the pain

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:36 AM ET

The successor to the wacky legacy of Harold Ballard is alive and well and, like Elvis, living in Buffalo, New York.

His name is Ralph Wilson.

I'm kidding. About Elvis, not Ralph, the Detroit-based businessman who is to Buffalonians what Ballard was to Maple Leafs fans: A nutty old guy who would be easy enough to ignore if he didn't own their most beloved sports team.

Wilson is 87 and a remaining AFL original. To be fair, he differs from Ballard, who died in 1990 at the age of 86, in several important ways.

He's still alive.

Unlike Ballard, who seemingly resented any successes his Leafs incurred, Wilson genuinely wants to win. He has owned some good teams, particularly the editions that made four consecutive Super Bowl appearances during the 1990s.

It's just the nutty old guy thing. And the cheapness. And the lack of a coherent plan.

Buffalo, one of the country's most livable places, is one of the saddest spots in the country.

Migration from the rust belt to the sun belt continues every day. With the people go the jobs and the schools and the hope and, after a while, a kind of crazy paranoia sets in. "What's next?" they ask.

Well, for western New York, what's next is the Buffalo Bills heading west to Los Angeles. The three scariest words to a Buffalonian: The Brooklyn Dodgers.

To western New Yorkers, disgusted with the Bills' 5-11 season, only one fate is worse than having Ralph Wilson own the team: For him to croak and have his family sell. A move to California and its inviting television market wouldn't be unpopular with the league. Bills fans are indeed right to be wary.

So far, New York State has been willing to bolster Wilson's already prodigious wealth and the Bills have stayed put. A $63-million US gift to refurbish the stadium that bears Wilson's name was the ransom for a 15-year-lease in 1999. It was a shameful extortion of a state in profound fiscal straits. Ballard, who shrunk the seats at the Gardens once he realized people would keep buying them, would have been delighted.

The Bills have had one winning season during their past six, so Wilson fired general manager Tom Donahoe.

He returned old GM Marv Levy to the job and said the two of them would work hand in hand to right the ship. He even came up with a name, "the Golden Boys." Stop me if that reminds you of Ballard and King Clancy signing autographs in the bunker at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Coach Mike Mularkey, whose salary of $1 million was one fifth that of some others, took it all in for a couple of days and then bolted.

WITHOUT A SEVERANCE

Ask yourself this: How bad would a working environment have to be to push a coach to voluntarily forgo $3 million in salary and give up one of the only 32 NFL head coaching jobs on the planet? Mularkey walked without a severance. Wilson, who once sued Wade Phillips for his salary after making him quit, no doubt would have been delighted. So, of course, would Ballard.

As a crowning touch, Bills fans couldn't even vent their feelings at the games. Security people confiscated the paper bags unhappy fans wanted to put on their heads at the season finale. No one wants to tick off Ralph.

Certainly not editors at Buffalo's only daily, the Buffalo News. Between editions, they softened a piece critical of Wilson written by columnist Jerry Sullivan.

The inference is simple enough. "Make Ralph happy. As bad as he is, we need him."

And its true. The Bills are an indispensable part of the landscape of the region.

The poor, sorry locals, they really do need Ralph Wilson ... alive and in charge.

As millions of Torontonians can attest, some times bad owners happen to good people.


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