Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Bad Sports Day in Pittsburgh, Part Two - The Andrew McCutchen Era Ends


Two days after trading their best pitcher, the Pirates traded their best player in this century and the Face of the Franchise,  Andrew McCutchen, to the Giants for a rookie pitcher, Kyle Crick, and a minor league outfielder, Brian Reynolds.

If you follow the Pirates, you certainly knew that this day was coming, but that doesn't soften the blow of losing the guy who was such a good player - an MVP and a five time All-Star - who was so much fun to watch play, and who just seemed to be such a good teammate and a good guy off the field (he was an MLB Roberto Clemente Award winner).  It may be silly that you put such an emotional investment in a person who plays baseball, or any other sport, for money, but that is what fans do, but Andrew McCutchen is a guy who seemed to earn that attachment from Pirates fans.  

From a pure baseball standpoint, the trade of McCutchen cam be defended (as can the trades of Gerrit Cole on Saturday and of Neil Walker in 2016).  He'll be 32 years old this year, his skills were declining, although he did hit 28 HR's in 2017, and on and on, but the theme that runs through the two trades this weekend (and the Walker trade two years ago, and other trades over the years) is money, and the Pirates unwillingness to spend it.  In a vacuum, every single trade that Neal Huntington has made, or been forced to make, can be defended from a baseball point of view, but when you look at them in their totality, the one common theme is that the Pirates just will not spend money beyond whatever their predetermined bottom line is as decreed by Bob Nutting.  It is just so unbelievably frustrating to see this happen year after year after year.

Now as for Crick and Reynolds, I hope they become stars for the Pirates, just like I hope the four guys who came from the Astros for Cole do, but here is something I know.  Twice before in his tenure, Huntington was called upon to trade one of his stars, Jason Bay in 2008 and Neil Walker in 2016, and on both occasions, he whiffed big time.  Will it happen again in these deals?  I sure hope not, but how would you bet if you were forced to?

As for the 2018 Pirates, well, how can you be optimistic, despite the b.s. being spouted by Huntington and Nutting yesterday?  In a town where the Steelers and Penguins continually give their fans winning, contending teams, the Pirates can only be seen as a bunch of penny pinching skinflints who want to win only if it can be done on the cheap, which it can't be in MLB.  The Pirates, rightly or wrongly, appear to have lost the hearts and minds of a huge portion of their fan base, and they are going to have an enormous and perhaps impossible job in winning them back in 2018.


Bad Sports Day In Pittsburgh, Part One - Steelers Lose to Jacksonville


In the pantheon of Disappointing Losses of Teams That I Follow, nothing is going to top Pirates-Braves Game 7 1992 NLCS (do I have to go into detail on that one?), but after pondering it for 24 hours, I can say that that Steelers 45-42 loss to the Jaguars on Sunday moves into the Number Two spot on my own personal list.  You all saw it, and you have all read and heard the comments over the last two days, so I won't go into a lot of detail, but here are some quick hit thoughts of my own....
  • The two fourth-and-one calls.  Are you kidding me?  Tom Brady runs a successful quarterback sneak at least once every game it seems, and 260 pound Ben Roethlisberger can't be relied upon to get less than a yard?  And if those plays were called by Todd Hailey or Mike Tomlin, why didn't Ben just change it at the line?  He has certainly earned the right to do that.
  • I have no problem with the decision to go for an onside kick when they did. I do have two other problems, though. (1) the horrible execution of said play, and (2) Mike Tomlin's reasoning  for it, which was that the Steelers had not shown an ability all day to stop the Jacksonville offense, and offense led by the immortal Blake Bortles.  Let THAT sink in on you for a minute.
  • Yes, there was the interception and the fumble which led to to Jaguars scores, but you can't put this loss at the feet of Roethlisberger and the offense.  That was an almost heroic effort by Ben, who never gave up.  And will you ever see four more beautifully executed passes and catches than those first four TD passes to Brown (twice), Bryant, and Bell?  I have always said that you are never, ever out of a game when Roethlisberger is at quarterback for you.
  • No, this loss goes to the defense, that could not stop a Jacksonville offense that is led, I once again remind you,  by Blake F. Bortles!  DC Keith Butler has got to be feeling some heat this week.
  • That defense, by the way, did not force a single turnover all day.  Against Blake Bortles. Unbelievable.
  • In his online column today, the PG's Paul Ziese states that in an era when the Steelers have had the best wide receiver, the best running back, and, at worst, the third best quarterback in the NFL, the Steelers have a 3-4 record in the playoffs.  No matter how you look at it, that is Underachieving with a capital U.  And how long will that Ben-Brown-Bell core remain intact?  2018 might be the last opportunity.
  • This loss will become even harder to take when we all watch the Patriots crush the Jaguars this Sunday in Foxboro.  And the Pats WILL crush Jacksonville on Sunday.  That is a close to a lock as you can get at this point in an NFL season.
  • Thanks to my pal Al Cotton for this next observation.  It is the common understanding that a team cannot succeed in the NFL unless they have a superstar "franchise quarterback", yet three of the final four quarterbacks in this season are Nick Foles, Case Keenum, and Blake Bortles.  Foles is a back-up playing only because of an injury to Carson Wentz, and it is a good bet that neither Keenum nor Bortles will be starting for their respective teams next year, or even be on that team next year.  Explain that one.
So, a season that had so much promise, that gave us so much excitement, ends not with a bang, but a whimper (that T.S. Eliot was an elegant sportswriter, wasn't he?). Very disappointing, but somehow, within 24 hours the Steelers North Shore neighbors, the Pirates, managed to outdo them when it came to ratcheting up the Disappointment Meter, and that topic deserves it's own separate Grandstander post, which I will begin writing as soon as I post this one.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Cole Train Leaves The Station

Used to be, major league baseball teams would use the winter months to make trades and big moves to stoke up the excitement of the fans and get baseball on the minds and tongues of a fan base that is surely yearning for news, any news, about their favorite sport.  

Not the Pirates.  

No, they make their first significant move of the off-season and make the announcement (a) at about nine o'clock on a Saturday night, and (b) on the night before a Steelers playoff game.  If one were cynical, one would suspect that the Pirates were doing all that they could to NOT draw any attention to themselves as they begin to tear down the core of a team that reached the post season three straight years (2013-15), albeit a team that was not so good in 2016-17.

First, the departed.


Gerrit Cole leaves after five seasons with the Bucs and heads to the defending World Series champion Houston Astros.  He was the overall number one draft pick in 2011, and he reached the Pirates in June of 2013.  (In retrospect, that was an astonishingly short period of time given the Pirates reluctance to rush their prized prospects to the majors.)  In his first three years with the Pirates, Cole went 40-20, including an All-Star year in 2015 when he was 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA.  He had the appearance and the demeanor of a genuine top-of-the-rotation staff Ace with a capital A. There then followed an injury plagued 2016 season, followed by a 12-12, 4.26 ERA, 31 HR's allowed 2017 season, although he never missed a turn and pitched over 200 innings.

More to the point, Cole was at the point in his career where he would start making big dollars via arbitration and he was two years away from qualifying for free agency, and you know what that means to the Pirates: Time to get rid of him!  I had also heard that Cole, in his role as the Pirates MLBPA Player Representative, and an active and outspoken one at that, had irritated team management and was branded a clubhouse lawyer.  Fun Fact: the Player Rep who preceded Cole was Neal Walker.  Make of that what you will.

Anyway, late last night I saw a couple of social media comments from blind loyalists to the effect of "he was a hothead....had no self-control...gave up too many gophers...good riddance."  Admittedly, Cole was not an easy guy to like.  Mrs. Grandstander, for one, didn't care for him at all.  Me, I liked him for the reasons that my wife did not.  I liked that badass manner that he brought to the mound.  While he didn't turn into the next Tom Seaver or Don Drysdale or even Bob Friend that that Overall #1 selection might have portended, he was still the Pirates best pitcher, and it won't be all that easy to replace him.  He will not have to be the bellwether of an Astros staff that includes Cy Young winners in Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, and will you be at all surprised if Cole turns in 12-5 or 14-7 types of seasons for Houston for the next two years?  You know, like Charlie Morton did in 2017.  It wouldn't surprise me one bit.

As for the return, the Pirates got four players from Houston:  third baseman Colin Moran, RHP's Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, and  minor league outfielder Jason Martin.  Hey, the Bucs need a third baseman, you can never have too much pitching, and if last year showed us anything, we know that the depth in the outfield through the system was thin.  I am not going to pretend I know anything about these guys, but the scant evaluations that I have read thus far are telling me that none of these guys were or are blue chip prospects.  Maybe one or two of them will turn out to be All-Stars, who knows?  All of them, of course, should they make the Pirates, will be making the major league minimum salary, no small consideration for our Buccos.

I do know that on two previous occasions in his tenure as GM, Neal Huntington twice traded bona fide, if not stars, then really good players, and he spit the bit on both occasions.  The first was trading Jason Bay and getting four players who turned out to be pretty much useless, and the second was trading Neil Walker for Jonathon Neise, who turned out to be less-than-useless.  So Huntington's track record when he deals a front line player is not so hot.  Maybe this deal will change that.  We'll know for sure by midway through the 2019 season.

A bigger question is what does this portend for the immediate future of the Pirates.  Most pundits agree that the team is throwing in the towel for 2018 and looking for a rebuild that will bear fruit along about 2019 or 2020.  The Pirates will never say that, but if that is the case, then look for Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison to be the next to go, if not before the season, then by the July 31 trading deadline for certain.

A final word on Gerrit Cole.  I am sorry to see him go, not only because I liked him as a pitcher, but because of what it says about the Pirates and the management of a team that will always try to do it on the cheap.   Also, I am glad that Cole is going to the American League where the possibility of seeing him stuffing the Pirates in his hip pocket while pitching against them will be minimized.

It ain't easy to be a Pirates fan.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Playoff Predictions - Round 2

Taking his 3-1 record from last week, The Grandstander makes his predictions for Round Two of the NFL Playoffs.

Falcons vs. Eagles.  The Eagles played their way to the best record in the NFL, but lost the quarterback, Carson Wentz, who got them there late in the season, which is a shame.  Still, a lot of experts are saying that the Eagles are still a real good team, and that taking the Falcons in this one is a sucker bet.  Maybe, but I thought Atlanta looks pretty good last week, and they did actually play in the Super Bowl last year, and when you compare quarterbacks, Matt Ryan comes out way ahead of Nick Foles.  The FALCONS over the Eagles in the "Birds of Prey Bowl".

Titans vs. Patriots.  Do I have to expend a lot of verbiage on this one?  The PATRIOTS to win easily  in this one.

Jaguars vs. Steelers. Yep, I remember 30-9 last October, but do you think that the Steelers will be held to only three field goals this time? I don't.  Do you think that Ben Roethlisberger will throw five interceptions, two of them for touchdowns this time.  I don't.  It might not be easy - these Steelers don't often do "easy" - but I still see a comfortable win for the STEELERS this time around.  This sets up a Steelers-Pats rematch in the championship game, just as everyone predicted back in September.  Why did they bother playing a full season?

Saints vs. Vikings.  Could be the best game of the weekend.  I admit that I don't know a lot about the Vikings, but I read and hear that their defense is formidable.  Still, when I am not well informed, I will make my pick based on the quarterbacks, so I am picking Drew Brees and the SAINTS  to win this one.

There you go...FALCONS, PATRIOTS, STEELERS, and SAINTS to win this weekend.  Enjoy, and, as always, watch but don't bet.

Friday, January 12, 2018

To Absent Friends - Young, Bailey, Van Dyke

Let us begin the roster of Absent Friends for 2018 with a trio who have passed away in these first days of the new year.....

John Young
1930-2018

Whenever one of America's pioneering astronauts passes away it is a notable event, and John Young, who left us at the age 87 last week, was certainly a true pioneer.  A US Navy pilot when selected to be a part of the Gemini Astronaut corps, he was a veteran of two Gemini, two Apollo, and two Space Shuttle flights.  Young was a part of the two man crew of the first manned Gemini flight (upon which he smuggled a corned beef sandwich - talk about having the "right stuff"!), he was the commander of the first manned flight of the space shuttle, and he is he only person to have flown to the moon twice.  As part of the Apollo 16 crew, he became one of only twelve humans to walk on the surface of the moon.  His obituary tells us of how he remained a part of the NASA astronaut program until his retirement in 2004 at the age of 74.

Young's death now leaves only five living persons to have set foot on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Dave Scott, Charles Duke (Young's Apollo 16 fellow moon walker), and Harrison Schmitt.   Duke and Schmitt are the youngest of these six, and they will turn 83 in 2018.

Bob Bailey 
1942-2018

In 1961, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Bob Bailey of Long Beach, California as a free agent for the then staggering signing bonus of $175,000.  He was one of the last of the big money "bonus babies" in the major leagues before the Entry Draft was instituted a few years later.  Bailey made his Pirates debut with a September call-up in 1962, and in 1963, at the age of 20, Bailey became the Pirates starting third baseman.  After four seasons with the Pirates, including being a part of two pretty good teams in 1965-66, Bailey was traded to the Dodgers.

He never became the super star that that huge signing bonus was supposed to have portended, he never made an all-star team, but he had a major league career that lasted 17 seasons.  In 1,931 games and over 7,000 plate appearances, he hit .257 with 189 home runs and 773 RBI (that's 16 and 65 prorated over 162 games; not great, but not bad), and a .750 OPS.  The best part of his career were seven seasons with the Expos, where he hit over twenty home runs in three different seasons.  Two facts I learned reading up on him and of which I was not aware: (1) He had the first hit ever for the Montreal Expos, and (2) he was a valuable bench guy for the 1976 Big Red Machine (.298, 6 HR, 23 RBI, .883 OPS in 69 games and 124 AB).  He was not active for the Reds in that post-season, but he did earn a World Series ring that year for his efforts.

All things considered, a pretty nice run for Bob Bailey.  He was 75 years old.

Jerry Van Dyke
1931-2018

In my mind, actor and comedian Jerry Van Dyke, who died last week at the age of 86, was known for two things.  He was the younger brother of Dick Van Dyke, and he was the star of one of the very worst television series ever conceived, "My Mother The Car".  However, in fact, he ended up with a fairly long and steady career himself.  He was a part of the long-running sitcom, "Coach", and as recently as 2015, he had a recurring role in the sitcom, "The Middle".

My friend Kate O'Connell, formerly of the North Hills, but a Californian since the 1970's, sent me this appreciation of Van Dyke from the Los Angeles Times television critic. Robert Lloyd.  I found it interesting, and perhaps you all will as well.


By the way, I am announcing today that Kate (she now goes by Katy, but she will always be Kate to Marilyn and me) has been named the Official West Coast Correspondent to The Grandstander. She has earned this position by sending me three separate articles from the Los Angeles Times on dead celebrities over the last two weeks, including the one above.  Congratulations, Kate!!

RIP John Young , Bob Bailey, Jerry Van Dyke

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Reflections On A Football Playoff Weekend

Impressions of the Playoff Weekend just completed.....

So how did The Grandstander do on his predictions for this past weekend's playoff games?
  • Falcons over Rams.  I believe I had that.
  • Jaguars over Bills.  I believe I had that.
  • Saints over Panthers.  I believe I had that.
  • Alabama over Georgia. I believe I had that
  • Chiefs over Titans. Hey, nobody's perfect!
That's a 4-1 record, and you could make it 5-1 when I made the subjective prediction that, and I quote, "the Jacksonville-Buffalo game could turn out to be one of the worst Playoff games that we will have seen in recent memory.  I mean, Tyrod Taylor vs. Blake Bortles?"

Did these guys stink up the joint, or what?

Honestly, who is going to argue about the God-awful exhibition of football that  that game was?

Other thoughts....
  • The Chiefs have now lost six consecutive Playoff games at home.  That really has to mess with your mind if you are a Chiefs fan.  No doubt that Andy Reid is a terrific coach, but the inability to win in the playoffs is...troubling.
  • I was anxious to see the Rams play.  You know, young up and coming team with a potential superstar QB playing in his second year, and a young up-and-coming head coach.   They fell to the Saints, and much of that can probably be traced to playoff inexperience on their part.  I couldn't help but be reminded of the 1972-73 version of the Noll/Bradshaw Steelers, who made the playoffs, but didn't go all the way until there third year in the post-season.
  • I am not sure what else can be said about that steaming heap of a road apple that the Jags-Bills treated the world to on Sunday.  You can say, "hey, it was two great defenses out there, what did you expect?", but, are you kidding me?  I mean, how in God's name did the Bills manage to win nine games with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback?
  • NFL teams all have a starting quarterback, a backup QB, and a third QB who dresses but is inactive on game days.  That's 96 quarterbacks in the employ of NFL teams.  Theoretically, at least, Taylor and Bortles, are among the best thirty-two of those, which means that, again, theoretically, there are sixty-four quarterbacks cashing NFL paychecks that are not as good as they are.  If that isn't Exhibit A in Colin Kaepernick's collusion suit against the NFL, it should be.
  • I have a personal friend who is an NFL game official, so I generally recuse myself from making comments about the zebras.  I know how hard my buddy works, and I know how much he knows about the rules, and I can only assume that all the other refs are the same.  That said, there were some real gaffes on display this past weekend (for the record, my friend did not officiate any of the four NFL wild card games).  And it really should not be that hard to determine what is or is not a catch.  And how about some consistency?  Not to beat a dead horse, but if Jesse James' touchdown against New England last month was NOT a catch, then the interception that ended the Jacksonville game should not have been allowed to stand.
Then there was last night's Alabama-Georgia CFP Championship Game, won by Alabama 26-23 in overtime.  For the first half of that game, the teams seemed to be trying be at least as boring as the Bills and Jags were the day before.  If you gave up and went to bed at halftime, no one would have blamed you.   

Then there was that second half!  Alabama,after trailing the entire game, ties it late in the fourth quarter, then misses a chip shot FG that would have won it, then wins it in overtime.  The only time they led in the game was when they scored on the final play of the game, a 41 yard touchdown pass.  The offensive player of the game, deservedly so, was Alabama quarterback Tuo Tagovalioa, 

Tuo

but the real credit for this win goes to, not surprisingly, Alabama Coach Nick Saban, who had the onions to yank his ineffective starting quarterback, the kid who led 'Bama to a 13-1 record all season, at halftime and replace him with the freshman Tagovalioa.  How many other coaches would have done that?  There is a reason why Saban is the best college football coach in the last forty or so years, or at least since Bear Bryant hung up his whistle.

Did I mention that Tagovalioa was a freshman?  You might have missed ESPN announcers Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstriet mention that fact. (Imagine a giant sarcasm emoji here.)   And please, please, PLEASE let's rid ourselves of the phrase "true freshman".  This is one that Herbstreit continually beats to death game after game, season after season.  He's one of the better analysts on the job these days, but this particular annoying habit of his makes me want to throw a shoe at the TV every time I hear him.

One final observation.  Alabama defensive player Number 48 (I'm not going to bother looking up his name) got hit with an unsportsmanlike like conduct penalty for throwing a punch at a Georgia player, got into a fight with one of his own coaches on the sideline, and got away with questionable tackle late in the game that probably should have gotten him a second penalty and ejection from the game.  I am figuring that this kid is right now at the very top of the Cincy Bengals draft board.  He'll fit in perfectly down there.






Sunday, January 7, 2018

Predictions

Not having the time yesterday to do a regular Grandstander post, I went to Facebook yesterday afternoon with Quickie Predictions for the NFL Wildcard Weekend Playoff Games.  Here is what I had:
  • Chiefs over Titans
  • Falcons over Rams
  • Jaguars over Bills
  • Saints over Panthers
(See, I could have changed that Kansas City prediction when writing this post, but I'm an honest guy.)

I will offer one other NFL prediction, and that is that the Jacksonville-Buffalo game could turn out to be one of the worst Playoff games that we will have seen in recent memory.  I mean, Tyrod Taylor vs. Blake Bortles?  Wow.

I will also offer a Bonus Prediction, this one on the CFP Championship game tomorrow night between Alabama and Georgia, and I base my prediction on one startling fact.  Whenever Nick Saban has gone up against a team that is coached by one of his former assistants (Georgia's Kirby Smart, in this case), Saban's teams have managed to squeak by with a record of 11-0.  

You just can't go against against a track record like that.  

Alabama over Georgia tomorrow night.

As always, watch, but don't bet!