By Budd Bailey
Ever hear the story about how opposites attract?
It certainly fits the story about my relationship with Miguel Rodriguez at The Buffalo News. We did not have much in common in some areas, but we worked together successfully for almost two decades. Congress should be so fortunate.
Unfortunately, our relationship came to an end on Monday, when he died at the age of 47. You certainly can go elsewhere on the Internet to find tributes to Miguel, and discover how much he did and how his work was appreciated by his readers – particularly in the high school sports community. I hope he realized that. As for me, I want to tell you some stories about him that are more personal in nature.
I didn’t know him when he worked at the Niagara Gazette before he started part-time work at The News in 2003. (He was hired full-time in 2010.) Miguel was something of a handyman at the start, doing stories when needed and editing at night at other times. He was good at both jobs. In the office, Miggy would talk his way through an editing shift – commenting on the news and his coworkers. He developed a few catch-phrases along the way that kept us entertained. You never wanted to hear Miguel say, “I boo you!” On the other hand, he had one show-stopping verbal trick that would always get a collective laugh: Jason Pominville’s name being pronounced by a parrot.
As it turned out, Miguel caught a break when an opening popped up covering high schools. He was assigned to that job, and threw himself into it. Remember, there are an infinite amount of stories that conceivably could come out of high school sports in a given season of the year. He didn’t write all of them, but he did as many as humanly possible. I don’t think anyone at The News worked harder than he did. Miggy wanted to see the kids get a little reward for their actions.
Sometimes he even worked too hard, at least by the standards of those of the rest of the sports department. Reporters usually send in their stories before the first deadline of the night, so they can be edited and essentially forgotten for the rest of the night. When Miguel did a story, though, he frequently called back late at night to change a bit of information or add better phrasing in that story. The editors used to joke about that – after all, they wanted to go home as soon as possible. But deep down they admired the fact that Miguel would take the extra time to try to improve his stories.
A partnership is formed
Then in 2015, another high school reporter left, and The News was at the point where hiring someone new for the job wasn’t going to happen. Since copy editing was going out of style, pardon the pun, I was picked for the position. I was happy running the copy desk much of the time, and wasn’t enthusiastic about the switch. But it wasn’t up to me. Soon after that, I called Miggy into the library and told him emphatically, “We are going to make this work.” He agreed, we shook hands, and we went about the business of doing so. Soon he went from “Miguel” to “Partner” for me.
My first assignment was to write up some of the preseason high school football preview boxes that have been a staple of newspapers forever. I barely knew some of the nicknames of the teams, but Miguel gave me a tip on how to rank them in divisions. “Look at last year’s record, look at the returning starters, and rank the teams from there. That’s all.” You’d be amazed at how well I did; I know I was.
We split the job of covering schools rather easily. I wrote some feature articles and kept the trains running on time in terms of polls, box scores, clippings, etc. Miguel covered the week’s biggest games, and he wrote a regular column and any breaking stories that might pop up, which included recruiting. As a proud Canisius graduate (he played goalie for the hockey team), he may have leaned a bit to the Catholic schools in coverage. As a proud Clarence graduate, I tried to provide a counter-weight for the public schools.
I can’t say I matched Miguel’s work ethic during those years. But I will say that I took over the job in August, and when I looked up in November I realized I had three completely free days off during that time. There was always something that had to be done. How did he do it, year after year?
There’s one moment in particular I remember that was very funny to both of us. Several players for a particular team had been suspended late in the season, and no one connected with the team or school would say what happened. Then I had the proverbial source fill me in. The next time I saw Miguel, I said, “I found out what happened to that suspended team.” It was a wonderful example of high school students acting like high school students; I am leaving out the details to protect the guilty. When I finished, there was a bit of a pause – followed by an explosion of laughter that would have made a volcano proud. I always liked it when that deep, loud sound emerged from his abdomen.
Along the way, I picked up some information that was a key piece of the puzzle about Miguel. He asked me to check out a form he had completed in an attempt to avoid jury duty. It revealed that he had a sister who had some severe disabilities, and his caregiving responsibilities prevented him from serving the public in that way. Guys from the circus couldn’t pull off that sort of juggling act, but Miggy did it for years. No wonder he stopped at Wegmans every morning for what he called overpriced coffee.
After two years, I decided it was time to retire from The News, but I figured I could still provide a little help to the overworked Miguel. I said I would be available every so often to return to the schoolyards for duty when my schedule permitted. When the phone rang, Miguel usually would go through a couple of potential assignments for me at playoff time. He’d provide some good background information about an upcoming game. I also received a bonus in the call: food reviews. “Make sure you check out the roast beef at the Orchard Park football concession stand,” he said one time.
Now comes the difficult part. We all cared enough about Miggy to worry about his health. He sometimes would fall asleep at his desk, and after each late night shift we hoped he’d make it home without getting drowsy while driving. Burning both ends of the candle – at home and at work – takes a toll over time.
Then last summer, I was working a summer all-star high school football game on television at Williamsville South, and saw him before the game. We talked about life in general, and naturally Covid-19 came up. I asked if he had been vaccinated yet, and he replied, “I’m not going to be a damn guinea pig.” I tried to point out that thousands and thousands had gotten a vaccine shot to improve their odds of not falling ill, but he wouldn’t hear it. The conversation left me sad and angry at the same time.
In the weeks that followed, Covid-19 began raging again and my thoughts went to Miguel. Sure enough, I heard shortly before Christmas that he was in the hospital and on a ventilator because of the virus. The family later confirmed that he had not been vaccinated. Miggy fought hard for more than a month, but succumbed on Monday.
It all was quite a ride, and I’m sorry it had to finish this way. His heroic story deserved a happier ending. I’ll think of MIguel often in the years ahead – particularly when someone says “Pominville.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)