Friday, January 31, 2014

The Academy Awards

The Academy Award nominations have been known for several weeks now, and the ceremony will take place at the end of February.

Nine movies have been nominated for Best Picture of the year.  I have seen five of them - American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Her, and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Of the remaining four, I very much want to see Nebraska and Philomena, bit of which played on Pittsburgh area movie screens for about ten minutes earlier in the month, so unless they actually win Oscars, it looks like I'll have to wait until they are released on DVD.  I will probably not see see 12 Years a Slave.  Don't think I can watch two plus hours of man's inhumanity to man, no matter how well it is presented.  I will also probably pass on Dallas Buyer's Club, simply because Matthew McConaughey rubs me the wrong way.  Yeah, it's an irrational reason on my part, but there it is.  I may end up relenting on that one, though, because McConaughey appears to be a front runner for Best Actor and Jared Leto looks like he will be a lead pipe cinch for Best Supporting Actor.

And speaking of the Best Actor category, this year's biggest injustice is the exclusion of Tom Hanks as a nominee.  If his performance in Captain Phillips was not worth a nomination, then it somewhat taints the nominations of the others in the field.  I admit that I have only seen two of the other five nominated performances, but I still can't believe Hanks got left out.  This makes Tom Hanks the Ben Affleck of 2014.  You will recall how Affleck  was passed over for a Best Director nomination last year.  How Hanks got snubbed this year is a mystery to me.

In the Best Actress category, Cate Blanchett appears to be an early favorite for her role in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine".  I won't argue that one.  It is well deserved, but I wouldn't be upset if Amy Adams snuck in and won the Oscar, simply because I love Amy Adams.

Getting back to the Best Picture, here is how I would rank the five nominated movies that I have seen:

  1. Captain Phillips
  2. American Hustle
  3. The Wolf of Wall Street
  4. Gravity
  5. Her
Each of these movies' directors, with one exception, have been nominated for the Best Director Oscar.  The exception is Paul Greengrass of "Captain Phillips", which probably means that "Captain Phillips" will not win.  Too bad.

I will probably have more to say on the Oscars in the weeks ahead, including my much anticipated Oscar Predictions as the ceremony date approaches.

TCM's 31 Days of Oscar

The calendar turns to February 1 tomorrow, and that means that Turner Classic Movies kicks of its annual "31 Days of Oscar" programming, wherein every movie shown will be either an Academy Award winner or nominee, and you know what that means, don't you?  Plenty of DVR alerts from The Grandstander.

So here are a couple to get you started....


2:00 PM - "Stagecoach" (1939)  This John Ford western is generally considered the movie that made John Wayne a big star.

10:00 PM - "Gone With the Wind" (1939)  I'll be honest with you, I may light on this one while clicking the remote, and spend about 15 or 20 minutes watching, but that's going to be it.  I will probably never again watch this entire movie from start to finish again, but it is a movie that everyone has to see - and from start to finish - at least once.  I'll never for the life of me see why everyone went gaga over a wimp like Ashley Wilkes.  However, the scene of the camera panning away from the train yard in Atlanta is unforgettable.  One of the best scenes ever.


6:15 PM - "Twelve Angry Men" (1957)  A lone voice in a jury room, Henry Fonda, tries to convince the other eleven that maybe, just maybe, the kid on trial ISN'T guilty of murder. Tremendous cast and a terrific drama.  Fabulous, fabulous movie.

8:00 PM - "The Lost Weekend" (1945) Billy Wilder's story of an alcoholic, played by Ray Milland, won Oscars for Picture, Actor, Director, and Screenplay, and the movie holds up amazingly well almost seventy years later.

Yeah, I know that these last two movies go up smack dab against the Super Bowl, so nobody is going to watch them when they air, but this is why I call it a DVR Alert.

Also airing on Saturday night at 8:00 is a TCM original documentary called "And The Oscar Goes To..."  This is a "behind the scenes look at the Academy Awards and Oscar winning films through the eyes of Hollywood insiders." The TCM documentaries are always very well done.  It will air severla time throughout the month on TCM.

Monday, January 27, 2014

To Absent Friends - Tom Gola

Basketball Hall of Famer Tom Gola passed away yesterday at the age of 81.

Gola, whose name is not much remembered these days, was a star high school basketball player out of Philadelphia who went on to All-American status at La Salle College.  During his years at La Salle, the Explorers won 102 of 121 games, an NIT title in 1952, an NCAA title in 1954, and were NCAA runners-up in 1955.  Gola was the undisputed star of those teams.  He went on to play in the NBA (a five time all-star), had a brief but successful coaching career, dabbled in Philly politics, and ran an insurance agency and other businesses. He was a man in full.

In a city that produced many great basketball players, Gola is still consider perhaps the best to ever come out of Philadelphia.  One of those players once said of him "When I was growing up, you whispered the name Tom Gola.  He was like a saint."  The Philly-area player who said that was Wilt Chamberlain.

I became aware of the name of Tom Gola when my older brother enrolled in La Salle in 1960. Gola was gone from there by then, but still revered.  I remember my brother telling me once of sitting at a desk in a classroom and seeing "Tom Gola sat here" carved into a desk.  I can also remember saving my money when I was around 12 or 13 and finally scrapping up four bucks or so to buy a basketball and being very excited to see that it was a "Tom Gola" model ball.

When La Salle made a run into the NCAA Sweet 16 last spring, a nice by-product of that was to see that Gola's name and accomplishments were publicized once again.

RIP Tom Gola.

Catching Up - "Captain Phillips"; "One Summer - America 1927"

I have been away from the keyboard for several days (surely, you've noticed), so I need to catch you up with a couple of reviews, one movie, one book.

The movie is the "Captain Phillips" starring Tom Hanks and directed by Paul Greengrass. Finally caught up with this one on Blue-ray DVD.  Great movie about the capture of a United States merchant ship by Somali pirates, and the subsequent rescue efforts by the US Navy. Suspense and excitement galore in this one and an absolutely tremendous performance by Tom Hanks in the title role.

The film has been justifiably nominated for Best Picture of the Year by the Motion Picture Academy, and actor Barkhad Abdi, who played the captain of the Somali pirates, has received a Best Supporting Actor nomination.  Greengrass did not receive Best Director nomination, and in an unbelievable omission, Hanks did not receive a nomination for Best Actor.  You know what I have to say to that?

Seriously, I look at all the Best Actor nominees, I haven't seen all the performances, and surely they deserve their nods, but I don't know how Hanks could have been left out.

This marks the second movie this season where Hanks has put forth a terrific performance - "Saving Mr. Banks" being the other - and looking at these two movies, plus his career body of work, one has to say that Hanks is among the very best actors of his generation.  Is it too much of a reach to say that he belongs in the same breath with other "actors of their generation" such as Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, and Paul Newman?  I don't think it is.

The book I just read is Bill Bryson's "One Summer - America, 1927".

As the title suggests, Bryson - and if you've never read Bill Bryson's books, you are missing out on a very informative and entertaining writer - documents all of the momentous events that took place in America in that one Summer.  Why 1927?  Consider the following:

  • Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris, and immediately became the most famous person in the world.
  • Babe Ruth hit hit 60 home runs for what may have been the best single season baseball team ever.
  • Four international bankers met in secrecy and set in motion a chain of events that led directly to the 1929 stock market crash and the great depression.
  • Floods of wiped out much of the Mississippi River Valley.
  • Perhaps the most successful business man in America was Al Capone
  • Great store was put into a frightening plan of social engineering called eugenics (look it up; it's scary stuff). 
  • Sacco and Vanzetti were executed as the nation was set upon by the anarchist movement (domestic terrorism is nothing new).
  • A guy planted a bomb in a school house that killed over 40 children.  
  • Calvin Coolidge was President of the United States and governed with a hands off approach that is unimaginable today.  It was almost a part-time job for him.
There is lots of other stuff written about in "One Summer", but the central figure of the book is Lindbergh, and the main story line is the development of the aviation industry in America and the world during that time.  Following the first World War, the aviation industry in America was non-existent to, at best, primitive.  In fact, the United States lagged far behind many European nations.  Hard to imagine.  However, that all changed once Lindbergh made his historic flight, and followed that by flying his Spirit of St. Louis on a nationwide tour. Each stop along the way drew tens of thousands of people, Lindbergh was mobbed everywhere he went and never had a moment of privacy again.  As Bryson phrased it, "Like others before him, Lindbergh discovered that it was a lot more fun getting famous than it was being famous."

Lindbergh's fame crashed when he associated himself with a movement called America First, defended many of the leaders of Hitler's Germany, and espoused theories of race relations that were closely aligned with the extreme policies of Nazi Germany.  While he supported the United States when their entry into WW II came about, his days as an American hero were pretty much over.  The arc of Lindy's celebrity really is a fascinating tale.

Lindbergh died in 1972 and some thirty years after his death, it became know that from 1957 until he died, he had secret relationships with three women in Germany, two of them sisters, with whom he fathered seven children.  He supported those children until his death, and visited them once or twice a year, although they never knew his true identity, and his own wife and family in America never know of this double life he led.  How he managed this is a story that will probably never be known.

I highly recommend this book.  It is entertaining to read, and you really can learn a lot form reading it.  What more could you ask for in a book?

Monday, January 20, 2014

An H.A. Citation

Time for the first H.A. Citation of 2014.

For his bush league taunting of San Francisco's Michael Crabtree in the closing seconds of yesterday's NFC Championship Game, followed by his, I'm not even sure how to describe it, post-game interview with Erin Andrews, The Grandstander bestows a well-earned H.A. Citation to the Seahawks' Richard Sherman.  

(Photo courtesy of Dan Bonk Enterprises)

Broncos vs. Seahawks

Well, I spent about seven hours planted in front of the TV yesterday watching both highly anticipated NFL Conference Championship Games.  As often happens with highly anticipated match-ups, the games, especially the AFC game, did not live up to the advance hype.

In Denver, Peyton Manning and his crew pretty much dispatched the Patriots with ease.  New England never seemed to be quite in that game at all, and when they did threaten to make it interesting in the fourth quarter, any hope for suspense disappeared when that two point conversion failed.  The Evil Coach and his Golden Boy Quarterback have been vanquished, and the "Can Peyton Get One More Super Bowl Win?" story line has been established.

In Seattle, a similar scenario seemed to be unfolding with the 49ers taking a first half lead against a Seattle team that didn't seem to be there at all.  I mean, the famous Seattle "12th Man" showed up, but where were the other eleven guys?  That changed completely in the second half with a lot of back and forth scoring, another terrific long TD run from scrimmage by Marshawn Lynch (does he do that in every game?), some interesting calls, or non-calls, by the officials, and three critical Colin Kaepernick turnovers that sealed the deal for the Seahawks.

(Random thought:  If the NFL has turned Mike Tomlin into Public Enemy #1 for standing in the white sideline stripe in Baltimore, what does that make Jim Harbaugh and his sideline antics? Seriously, that guy is completely berserk.)

And, of course, for anyone sitting on the fence as to whom to cheer in the Super Bowl, that decision was made very, very easy by the bush league antics if Seattle's Richard Sherman in the closing moments and post-game.  After making a terrific defensive play that ended the 49ers' hope to take the lead and win the game, he makes choking gestures and taunts SF receiver Michael Crabtree to the point of drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and if that wasn't bad enough, his post game interview with Erin Andrews was right out of Vince McMahon's WWE playbook.  Credit to Andrews who, in so many words, pretty much said "what is YOUR problem?"

It was interesting to see the Seattle fans on social media last night defending Sherman.  "He's a great guy"..."he has a masters degree from Stanford" (and I'm sure that Stanford University was just SO proud of him last night)...and the inevitable "but what about Greg Lloyd/Ernie Holmes/Ben Roethlisberger/name any other jerk athlete and how THEY act?"  Well, you know what, you may be right about those guys, but Sherman still came off as a bush league punk.

By the way, I went 1-1 in my predictions for the games raising my record to 7-3 for this post-season.  I think I know how I'm leaning on the Super Bowl, but I'll wait until closer to game day to make it formal.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

And Speaking of Amy Adams....

I mentioned actress Amy Adams in  a previous post, and it brought to mind a story about her, or, actually, a story about research methods now in place in the 21st century.

A few years back, I was putting together a research presentation for SABR about the 1909 World Series between the Pirates and Tigers.  I used Google Images to find pictures of long ago ballplayers like Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, and Pirates rookie pitcher Babe Adams.  And if you have used Google Images yourself, you will  not be surprised that it was possible to find many pictures of Babe Adams, but it also led me to a picture file of "a Hollywood babe, Amy Adams".  Well, I couldn't resist, and I included, not this exact picture, but one very similar to it, in my 1909 World Series power point presentation of


I am not sure that some of the more sober-sided SABR members appreciated it, but I think that most people did!

Movie Review: "Her"

So, we took in the movie, "Her", yesterday.  Set in the "future", this is a story about, well, let me turn it over to my friend Mark Matera for his description of the movie:

Very telling exposition of current and future relationship between man and machine."

Yes, it is about a lonely guy, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who falls in love with his computer's new artificially intelligent Operation System, voiced, and very sexily, I might add, by Scarlett Johansson.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am not a "sci-fi guy", and this movie, I believe falls very much in the realm of science fiction.

Very good acting by Phoenix and by Johansson, even if it is only her voice that you hear, and getting a chance to see Amy Adams is always well worth it in my book, so on that level, I'm glad I saw this movie.  On the other hand, when it comes out on DVD, I will not be rushing down to the Redbox so I can see it again.

The Conference Championships - Predictions

As I mentioned in a post the other day, in my beginning of the NFL season write-up, I predicted that the Broncos would defeat the 49'ers in the Super Bowl, and incredibly, it is still possible for this very prediction to take place.  

Now, I should just be a man of my convictions and let that stand and predict Denver and San Francisco victories in the conference championship games tomorrow.  

But I am not going to do that.  I am going to take a mulligan here and make separate predictions for this weekend.  Thus, I will be able to give myself two separate opportunities to say, "see, I got that one!"  Isn't that what all the talking heads on television do?

Seriously, after seeing the Round Two games last week (by the way, I went 4-0 in my predictions on those four games last week, boosting my record to 6-2 for this post-season, and assuring myself of a winning record), my biggest take-away was the performance of the Patriots in crushing the Colts.  Hey, I am a big fan of Peyton Manning, and I will be rooting for him tomorrow, but I just feel that the Patriots will be too much for the Broncos.  Bitch and moan about Bill Belichick all you want, but the guy gets it done.  And it helps when you have Tom Brady as your quarterback.

The 49ers-Seahawks game looks to be a good one (as does the Pats-Broncos).  Another take-away from last week is that the 49ers are a very chesty bunch and hard team to root for. On the other hand, Pete Carroll is a hard coach to root for, so I am not all that sure about for whom I am going to be cheering in this one tomorrow.  If I can recall, Seattle clobbered the 49ers at home this past season, and lost closely to them in SF. The game is in Seattle, which, by all accounts may be the stadium with the largest home field advantage in the NFL, so I am going with the Seahawks in this one.

Thus in two weeks, your super Bowl will be....


(I have always preferred the old school Pats logo!)

As always, watch, but don't bet.

To Absent Friends: The Professor and Reuben

Fans of Classic TV Sitcoms experience a duel loss this past week - on the very same day - with the passing of actors Russell Johnson

and Dave Madden.

Johnson played The Professor on "Gilligan's Island", a pretty bad show that lasted for three seasons in the 1960's, but one that has inexplicably achieved immortality in reruns.  Johnson was a long time character actor who appeared in zillion movie and TV westerns, usually as a bad guy, and he once playing Ronald Reagan's younger brother in a movie.  When tapped for what was to be a minor part in what would no doubt be a forgettable sitcom, who knew that Johnson would be ticketed for television immortality?  I liked the line in the obit that said that Johnson, when making personal appearances over the years at nostalgia shows, said that he played a guy who was "smart enough to make a short wave radio out of coconut shells, but too dumb to fix a two foot hole in a boat".

Madden, as the picture above indicates, played Reuben Kincaid, the ever frustrated manager of the Partridge Family.  I can also recall that Madden was one of the regular cast members of Rowen and Martin's Laugh-In.

Johnson was 89, Madden was 82.

RIP Professor and Reuben.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Unrelated Topics - Baseball, Football, and Basketball

A quick shuffle through the Mental In-Box.....

  • The announcement that Clayton Kershaw signed a seven year, $215 million dollar deal with the Dodgers was stunning to me, although perhaps it should not have been.  The team has signed a local TV deal that, according to some reports, is larger than the deal that the Yankees have, and an ownership group that thinks nothing of spending tons and tons of money. Few things in sports are as fragile as a pitcher's arm, so for their sake, here's hoping Kershaw doesn't encounter Kerry Wood- or Mark Prior-like arm miseries.

  • The signing tells me one thing that is relevant for Pirates fans:  Let us enjoy and treasure Gerrit Cole for these next five years before free agency is granted to him.  If he develops they way we hope he can and if the going rate for such pitchers is now thirty million a year, well, he most likely will not retire as a Bucco.
  • How about Alex Rodriguez with his 162 game suspension, saying that he still plans on showing up for Spring Training with the Yankees?  Can you imagine what a circus THAT will be?    
  • As exciting as the NFL playoff games during Wild Card weekend were, the ones this past weekend were pretty lackluster.  The one significant take-away that I took from Round 2 was a giant WOW for the performance that the New England Patriots put on in handing the Indy Colts' heads to them.
  • Back on September 5, I made the following statement in my Steelers preview post:  As for the Super Bowl, how about the Broncos to defeat the 49'ers in a New Jersey blizzard on February 2.  And it is still possible that that could happen!!!  To be honest, I'd have given long odds back then that that prediction would still be alive going into Championship Weekend. Not sure if the blizzard is still a possibility, though.
  • I'm sure you all probably saw the comments made by Art Rooney II in his traditional post-season interview with the Pittsburgh media last week.  I can't take too much issue with most of what he said except for the comment that the Steelers "should have been in the playoffs".  Presumably he was talking about the missed calls by officials in that final game between Kansas City and San Diego.  Also presumably, he had forgotten about that 0-4 start to the season.
  • Great exchange between Kornheiser and Wilbon on PTI on Tuesday:
    • Tony: And what would the ACC be like right now without Syracuse and Pitt?
    • Wilbon: It sure ain't your grandaddy's ACC this year.
  • Remember all the talk among basketball know-it-alls saying what a tough time Pitt, Syracuse, and Notre Dame would have adjusting to the ACC?  A quarter of the way into the schedule, it sure looks like they all had that statement backwards.
  • Listening to Pitt basketball games on the radio remains high comedy.  The game against NC State a few weeks ago is a prime example.  When Pitt fell behind 17-2 at the beginning, the pissing and moaning of Hillgrove and Groat was classic, and when the Panthers turned it around in the second half to win by 15, said pissing and moaning turned into unbelievable smugness and gloating.
  • On the topic of college basketball, I watched the entire game between #1 ranked Arizona and UCLA last week.  It was a terrific game, won by Arizona despite a late charge by the Bruins, and was made all the more enjoyable, to me anyway, because of the color commentary provided by Bill Walton, who has an incredible ability to talk endlessly about almost anything.  As entertaining as he was last week, I get the feeling that if I was subjected to him more than two or three games a season, he would drive me to the point where I would want to throw a shoe at my television.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

New Coach at Penn State

The expected news became official yesterday when Penn state announced that it had hired Jame Franklin, most recently the head coach at Vanderbilt, as its new head football coach.  By all accounts, Franklin certainly seems to be the right guy - great record at Vandy, a traditional football doormat, a dynamic personality that will go over great with high school football coaches, and parents who are seeking NCAA and NFL glory for their football playing sons.

I wish him well.

However, one Franklin quote from yesterday's press conference needs to be set aside and remembered three or four years from now when the NFL or some blue chip SEC program comes calling:

"I'm a college guy," Franklin said. "We plan on being here for a very, very long time. This is my dream job."

Okay, we'll see.

By the way, that quote was lifted from Ron Cook's column today.  The same column wherein Cook took an unbelievable shot at former PSU coach, Bill O'Brien.  Cook called him a "despicable character" for bailing on his contract at Penn State who is "no better than Todd Graham."  Wow.

Hard to square that sentiment in the same column wherein he praised Penn State for hiring Franklin, who, it can be pointed out, bailed on his contract with Vanderbilt.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

NFL Playoff Predictions - Round 2

After going 2-2 last week, here's how I see it for this weekend:

Seahawks over Saints.  Home field advantage carries Seattle to the NFC Championship Game.

Patriots over Colts.  Going with Belichick/Brady on this one.  However, I will say that if there is an upset in the works this weekend, it will be the Colts in this game.  I'm sticking with the Pats, though.

49ers over Panthers.  SF looked pretty strong in Green Bay last week, so I am going with playoff experience in this one.

Broncos over Chargers.  Clock strikes midnight for the Chargers, and Peyton prevails.

As always, watch, but don't bet.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Movie Review: "The Wolf of Wall Street"

Took myself down to see the newest Martin Scorsese / Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration, "The Wolf of Wall Street", this afternoon.  This movie could also be titled "Goodfellas Go To Wall Street" since there are many similarities to that classic Scorsese movie, including the main character's voice narration of the movie, that same character directly addressing the movie audience at points in the show, a loud and frenetic soundtrack, and an incredible amount of profanity. Oh, and then there is the unbelievable amount of drug use, and, of course, enough sexual activity and nudity to more than justify the movie's R rating.

Definitely not one you want to attend with your parents, and not one that would be a good "first date" movie, either.

All that said, did I like the movie?  Yeah, I did, because, once again, Scorsese has painted a picture of amoral - to put the best face on it - people, better than just about anyone making movies today, and DiCaprio delivers an absolutely kick-ass performance as the title character.  Really, has he ever given a bad performance in anything?  I am guessing that there will be Oscar nominations for both of them.

However, for all of the in-your-face sensory overload that this movie delivers, the very best scene in the movie, in my mind, is a quiet one on Jordan Belfort's (DiCaprio) yacht when Kyle Chandler, as the FBI agent pursuing him, meets face to face with Belfort/DiCaprio.  Great scene.

It's a great cast that includes Jonah Hill (in a Joe Pesci-type role), Rob Reiner, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujardin, and an absolutely gorgeous young (22 years old) actress from Australia named Margot Robbie.  Oh, and famous private eye Bo Dietl, the guy from the Arby's commercials, plays, are you ready for this?, a private eye named Bo Dietl, and he's pretty good in the part! 

Just as a treat for all you Loyal Readers, he is a picture of Ms. Robbie in a scene from the movie, and if you have already seen the movie, you know that this still picture doesn't do her or the scene in question justice!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Books of 2013

I have always included a year end post in The Grandstander about the books that I read during the year, but I just never got around to doing so before this past New Year's Day.  So, before 2013 retreats too far in the rear view mirror, here are some thoughts coming from among the fifty-five books (yes, I keep track of such things) that I read in 2013.

Among my favorite authors who released new books in 2013: Jonathon Kellerman, Sue Grafton, Jeffery Deaver, John Sandford, Carl Hiaasen, and John Gresham.  None of these offerings disappointed.  

One non-fiction book from 2013 that I would recommend to anyone is this one....

Hugh Aynesworth was a young reporter for a Dallas newspaper who was in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963 when President Kennedy was shot.  He immediately went to work reporting and covering this story, and he has been doing that pretty much for the last fifty years. This book was published in connection with the 50th Anniversary of the JFK assassination.  If you lived through it, this is a great book to read, but it might be an even better book to read if you are under than age of fifty and your only knowledge of the Kennedy assassination is an Oliver Stone movie, Cyril Wecht, or a bunch of goofball conspiracy theories (none of which, by the way, have ever been proven!).

As far as fiction is concerned, and in addition to the offerings of the authors listed above, I want to touch upon the work of Max Allen Collins, a writer that I had the good fortune to "discover" in 2013.

Collins has been writing mystery and detective fiction, in one form or another (he wrote the Dick Tracy comic strip for a number of years, for example) , for over thirty years and he is incredibly prolific.  This past year, I read nine of his novels and two collections of short stories.  My favorites concern a series character of his, private investigator Nathan Heller.  The stories are told in the form of Heller's memoirs, and begin in 1930's and lead up to, most recently, the 1960's.  The hook to these stories is that they involve real historical figures like Al Capone, Elliot Ness, Frank Nitti, Sally Rand, John Dillinger, Marilyn Monroe, Hugh Hefner, Jack Ruby, and Jack and Bobby Kennedy.  In an introduction to one of the short story collections, even Collins says that one must suspend disbelief a bit to think that Nate Heller was involved in EVERY major crime investigation of the twentieth century!   I have read five novels of the Heller series, and I plan on reading more.

Collins has also written a series of historical mysteries that he calls his "disaster series". I have read three of those that have taken place on board the ship Titanic,  in London during the Blitz in WWII, and in Pearl Harbor in the days leading up to December 7, 1941.  Like the Heller stories, real historical people (Jacques Futrelle, Agatha Christie, Edgar Rice Burrougsh) are characters in these fictional novels.  As with the Heller stories, the research that Collins puts into these stories is incredible.  And even if you don't buy the premise of some of the stories (for example, Collins is big into JFK Assassination conspiracy theories), they are very entertaining reading.

Collins is also a disciple of the late Mickey Spillane, and he has another series of books involving a hit man named Quarry that is written in the same style as Spillane's hard boiled stories from the 1950's.  Now Spillane was never my particular cup of tea, so I probably will not be reading any other Quarry stories, but they're out there for you if that is what you are into.

One problem is that Collins is not real "mainstream" so his books are not always available at your local Barnes & Noble, but you might find them at used paperback stores, and you can definitely find them at the library and at Amazon, where they are relatively inexpensive if you buy them for your Kindle.

So, if you are looking for some entertaining reads, check out any number of the works of Max Allen Collins.  Start with the Nate Heller stories.  "True Detective" was the first of the Heller novels.  I don't think you will be disappointed.

Baseball Hall of Fame Thoughts

The announcement that came yesterday that Greg Maddux,

Tom Glavine, 

and Frank Thomas

had been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame came as no great surprise, and with no great controversy (although there was some; more on that later).  No reasonable baseball fan or student of the game could seriously argue that any of these guys should not be enshrined.  I myself have some specific memories of seeing Greg Maddux pitch in games against the Pirates, and he was an absolute artist on the mound.  He was not possessed with an overpowering fast ball (like Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson), he never led the league in strike outs, for example, but he completely dominated the era in which he pitched, winning 355 games.  That he could not carry that domination into post season play (11-14; 2-3 in the World Series) is a bit of a head scratcher, but, hey, it is such anomolies that make baseball such a fun sport to follow.

Similarly, Glavine, a 300 game winner, five time 20 game winner (as was Maddux), and Thomas, 521 HR, .301 career BA, and .974 career OPS, are more than worthy to have their plaques on the wall in Cooperstown. 

So, congratulations to all of them.

Now, for the controversy.....

Ten voters did not include Maddux on the ballot.  Not a surprise because it is the smug position of these self-important BBWA voters that they make sure that no one EVER gets in unanimously, but more significant, one guy from went public that he will never vote for Maddux, or anyone else, from the so called "Steroid Era" of major league baseball.  Never mind that Maddux had never, to my knowledge, had even hints about him concerning use of PED's.   At this point, if this guy is so principled, I would hope that he would simply have his named removed as an eligible elector, but most baseball writers would sooner sacrifice their first born child than give up receiving that HOF ballot.  

Munch more heinous, in my opinion, was Miami Herald writer and ESPN personalty Dan LeBatard simply giving his ballot to Deadspin to complete.  If you don't like the system, then resign from it, or submit an empty ballot in protest, but to give it to someone else to complete is an abrogation of this responsibility.  I would hope that LeBatard would be censured by the BBWA and that his right to vote on the HOF be rescinded.

Speaking of the Steroid Era, the number of votes for guys like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Mark McGwire continued to decline.  I have been torn by this issue, but I am coming round to the opinion, expressed by such respected writers as Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe, that we should not be judge and jury on these guys and since we may never know who did and did not use, he, Ryan, excludes no one when he votes based upon admitted or suspected PED use.  If the trend continues as it seems to be going, fifty years from now visitors will see a lot of "pretty good" players (Barry Larkin, Robby Alomar) from this era in the HOF, while the very best players of the era (Bonds, Clemens, Mike Piazza to name a few) will be excluded.   I could probably be talked out of it, but I truly think that Bonds and Clemens, and, yes, Alex Rodriguez, and some others, belong in the HOF.

By the way, Pete Rose is NOT in this category.  His crime, betting on ball games, is the one cardinal, unbreakable rule in baseball, and he broke it.  He belongs on the outside.

Also, by the way, the Hall of Fame, that is, the museum portion of the institution, to its credit, does not exclude these guys, as I have written before.  If you visit the Museum, you will see that Pete Rose is the all-time leader in hits, and that he was an integral part of one of the great teams of his generation (the Big Red Machine), and you will see that Barry Bonds is the all-time home run leader, and that Roger Clemens won over 300 games and multiple Cy Young Awards. They have not been declared non-persons and expunged from history.

Jack Morris also failed to be elected in this his final year of eligibility.  This has caused a degree of consternation among some folks.  His detractors point to a career ERA of 3.90, but to me, his 256 wins are significant.  However, I have long adopted a position that whether a guy who deserves it is not in the Hall (Morris?), or that a guy who does not deserve it (and there are many) is in, is not something that I spend a lot of time worrying about.  If the electors, be it the BBWA or the cronies on the Vet's Committee put a guy in, then good for that guy, and if a deserving guy has not yet been tapped, well, I won't lose sleep over it.

I get a kick out of a Cult that seems to have developed among a certain sector of Baseball Fandom that are fanatical over the fact that Gil Hodges is not in the Hall of Fame.  Bring up this subject on certain listservs, message boards, or certain Facebook chat pages, and your computer will blow up with people telling you what a massive injustice it is that Hodges is not in the Hall, to which people will then vigorously respond that there are good reasons why he has never been enshrined.  The irony is that Hodges' name and memory is more alive today, because he is not in the HOF, than it would be had he been elected to the Hall thirty or so years ago.

Anyway, arguing about such stuff with such passion is what makes being a baseball fan so much fun, I suppose.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

An Observation on Halls of Fame Electors

Sometime this afternoon, the results of the balloting for the Baseball Hall of Fame will be announced, and in a few weeks, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will also elect new members.

Coupled with these announcements will be some serious bloviating by the sportswriters who vote on these things.  It has started already with the self-important gasbag from who has already announced why he did not vote for Greg Maddux.

The Cardinals of the Catholic Church who elect a Pope do not take themselves as serious as do Buster Olney, Peter Gammons, Peter King and others of their ilk.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Book Review: "Their Life's Work"

Got my reading for 2014 off with a bang with "Their Life's Work" by Gary M. Pomerantz.  The subtitle of this book says it all: "The Brotherhood of the 1970's Pittsburgh Steelers, Then and Now."

Now, when I first became aware of this book a few months back, I thought that it would be yet another regurgitation of facts and stories of the  Super Bowl Seventies Steelers.  You know, kind of like the endless stories we've all heard a million times over the years.  However, as I read the reviews of this book in recent months, it prompted me to put this book on my Christmas wish list, and Santa Marilyn came through.

Some reviewers have likened this book to a football version of Roger Kahn's classic baseball book, "The Boys of Summer", and it is an apt analogy.  Like Kahn did with the 1950's Brooklyn Dodgers, Pomerantz tells the story of the Steelers in their glory days, and then revisits many of the players in the current day.  Pomerantz is a national writer and author. He cut his teeth as a sports writer with the Washington Post and later as a general assignment reported with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  I think what makes this book special, besides the fact that he is a gifted writer, is the fact that Pomerantz is not a local guy who covered the team in its heyday.  This makes the point that the Steelers of those years were indeed special on a national and league-wide level to the point that they are an historic team.  And he gives a perspective on such people as Art Rooney, Chuck Noll, Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and others that were new to me.  Sometimes, I think that we in Pittsburgh are so close to the Steelers of that era that we can't appreciate just what they mean on a national level.

Pomerantz does not give a game-by-game summary of all the events of those six magical seasons.  In fact, he goes into detail on only three specific games: the Immaculate Reception game in 1972, the 1974 AFC title game with the Raiders, and the first Super Bowl win against the Vikings.  Each game is covered in about half dozen pages or so, but written in a such a way that those games that are so familiar to Steelers fans will seem new and fresh to the reader.

The book concentrates on the present day lives of four Steelers: Greene, Bradshaw, Harris, and John Stallworth, but in those chapters, you will also learn about the lives of all of the other big names from those teams.  Pomerantz also does not sugarcoat the down side of life that these players experienced, specifically the trauma and tragedy that was the life and death of Mike Webster.

Lots stand out to me from reading this book, but I will just highlight two of them.  One, that Chuck Noll was and remains a towering presence in the lives of all of these players, and two, the absolute heart and soul of those Steelers was Joe Greene.  No one else was even a close second.

You don't have to be a Steelers fan to like this book. It is that good.  And if you are a Steelers fan, it is an absolute must read.

I will close with just one passage, among many, in the book that stood out to me.  It describes Joe Greene on December 20, 1981, the day he decided to retire:

In the Astrodome that day, with both teams out of the playoffs, the thirty-five year old Greene played his 181st regular season game. He became wistful as he took in the scene one last time. He realized that the game carried no real meaning other than it being his last. Greene thought, Can you imagine playing games like this your whole career? What a sad statement that would be.

Terrific book.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Pittsburgh Football in 2013 - A Final Look Back

Before we get too immersed in the NFL Playoffs and Monday's BCS title game, a final look back (and a tentative look forward) on the local scene.


If you are really interested, you can see what I had prognosticated for the 2013 Steelers back in September here:

If I say so myself, I think I was pretty perspicacious in my predictions.  However, if you don't want to read the whole post from five months ago, here is the relevant passage:

As for 2013, I see the team being anywhere from 7-9 to 9-7 and not making the Playoffs this year.  I see Baltimore winning the AFC North with the Bengals - I can't believe I'm saying this - finishing ahead of the Steelers, who will still be better than the Browns.

Well, the Steelers finished 8-8, so I was on target there.  Yeah, yeah, I know, I was way wrong about the Ravens, who failed to make the playoffs.

This is the second year in a row that the Steelers went 8-8.  In 2012, they started 7-2 and then crashed and burned , going 1-6 in the final seven games.  This year, as we all know, they started 0-4, then rallied to go 8-4 in the final twelve games.  What to make of that?  Nothing, because 8-8 is the very definition of mediocre, and, essentially, that is what the Steelers have been for the last two years.  I think it would be a mistake for anyone to think that that nice 8-4 finish means that things are okay with the Steelers going into next year.

On the positive side, the Steelers seem to be a good offensive team.  Ben Roethlisberger remains a franchise quarterback, and Le'Veon Bell came on strong after he got healthy and looks to be a Grade-A running back.  Despite everyone's constant bitching about OC Todd Haley, the Steelers problems do NOT appear to be on that side of the ball.

The Steelers defense continues to age and continued a trend from '12 of not being able to hold fourth quarter leads.  Can that ship be turned around for the 2014 season?  That is the big question in my mind as the off-season gets underway for Rooney U.


You can make all the fun you want about a win over a MAC team in a minor league bowl game, but the Panthers victory over Bowling Green in the Pizza Pizza Bowl, was impressive and, I think, important to the team as they closed out a season that sent somewhat mixed messages.  (In addition to that, it was an entertaining and fun game to watch!)  The fact of the matter is that Pitt did NOT win those minor league bowl games the prior two seasons, so that alone makes the Pizza Pizza win a good one.

As the guys in the ticket group I am in watched Pitt throughout the season, we kept wondering just what kind of team they were.  Well, they finished 7-6, won a game or two we didn't expect (Notre Dame) and lost some they should have won (Navy, North Carolina).  As my expert on all things Pitt (Dan Bonk) said prior to the season, "if they win seven games, that would be a good season for them." So, there you are.

I keep thinking that 19 freshman received significant playing time for Pitt this year, and I'll be optimistic and say that that augers well for the future.

I will say that Pitt fans had better enjoy and appreciate Tyler Boyd in 2014, as I am sure that he will be gone to the NFL as soon as rules allow him to opt for the NFL draft.  He is a remarkable football player.


I have decided not to comment in this forum on what has gone on there this past week.  Still too touchy and emotional an issue, and I'm just going to let it lay there.  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

NFL Playoff Predictions

As I have done in previous years, I shall predict the NFL Playoff contests, week by week.

Here you go:

Colts over Chiefs.  Have the Chiefs actually beaten a good team all season?

Eagles over Saints.  N.O. can't get it done outside in cold weather.

Packers over 49ers.  Aaron Rogers is back. Need I say more?

Chargers over Bengals.  All logic says that the Bengals will win this one, but when all is said and done, they are the Cincinnati Bengals.  If ever there was a game that BOTH teams could lose, however, this on is it.

As always, watch, but don't bet!

To Absent Friends: Phil Everly

The first Absent Friend of 2014 is Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers singing duo, one of the great rock & roll acts of the late 1950's and early 1960's.  Phil passed away yesterday at the age of 74.

In 2004, when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel reunited for their Old Friends Tour, they included The Everly Brothers as a part of their concert program, and in his introduction of them to the audience, Paul Simon cited them as their heroes and a "major influence" on the young Simon and Garfunkel.  Pretty strong praise, and acts such as The Beatles and the Beach Boys also include the Everly Brothers as major influences on their music as well.

Marilyn and I consider us very fortunate to be at the Civic Arena in June, 2004 to see The Everly Brothers performing with Simon and Garfunkel during that tour.

The Brothers hits are many (and they are great) - Cathy's Clown, Wake Up Little Susie, Bye Bye Love, All I Have to Do Is Dream, Cryin' In the Rain, and I could go on and on.  In fact, they still hold the record for most Billboard Top 100 singles charted by a singing duo.  Here is one of my favorites, performed by the Brothers in 1983:

Listen to The Everly Brothers today.  They are easy enough to find in iTunes and YouTube.   You won't regret it.

RIP Phil Everly.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Something to Look Forward To in 2014

In February, the Winter Olympics will take place in Sochi, Russia.  You know what that means, don't you?


I can't wait!

Movie Review: "Saving Mr. Banks" and Other Thoughts

The first Grandstander post of 2014 actually should have been written last night, but what the heck.  

Marilyn and I fulfilled our New Year's Eve tradition of attending a movie and dining on Kentucky Fried Chicken afterwards.  You just can't top some traditions!  This custom was started, by the way, back on New Year's Eve, 1990 when we both got home from work early, and decided to take in a movie, "Home Alone".  Since then, that has been the drill.  Wish I could remember what each of those 24 movies has been.  I know that they included such flicks as "Titanic", "Silver Linings Playbook", and "True Grit".  I know that there have been more memorable ones among the list, but I'm drawing a blank for now.

Anyway, last night's offering was "Saving Mr. Banks", the story of the difficult road traveled by Walt Disney and his movie studio in dealing with author P.L. Travers as they were trying to make the classic movie "Mary Poppins".  While I had read the reviews and had an idea what it was about, I didn't expect the emotional wallop that this movie would deliver.  Very good to excellent movie, and Tom Hanks as Disney and Emma Thompson as Travers were, as always, terrific in their roles. How great is Tom Hanks? Surely one of the best actors of his generation.  And for good measure, throw in Paul Giamatti, also one of the greats of his generation, in a wonderful supporting role.

I suppose that now I will have to see "Mary Poppins", which, believe it or not, I have never seen.

While New Year's Eve has passed, if you are looking for a movie with a New Year's Eve theme, it's still not too late to watch one of the following (see, I told you this post should have been written yesterday)......

  • "Ocean's Eleven", the original one with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and the rest of the Rat Pack.  The gang plans a heist of five Las Vegas casinos on New Year's Eve.
  • "Radio Days".  Woody Allen's terrific memoir of old time radio and growing up in Brooklyn concludes with a New Year's Eve scene.
  • "Sunset Boulevard", Billy Wilder's great movie about Hollywood contains a pivotal scene involving a New Year's Eve party planned by Norma Desmond.
Of course, these are all great movies to see, no matter what time of the year you might watch them.

Have a great 2014, everyone, and start it off by seeing "Saving Mr. Banks".