Sunday, May 31, 2015

Book Review - A Swing and a Miss for Collins and Heller

Well, you all know what a big fan I am of the Nathan Heller detective novels by Max Allan Collins.  I've written about them before - Chicago cop turned private eye Nate Heller writes his "memoirs" about all of his cases that have involved famous people from throughout the twentieth century.  Al Capone, Huey Long, Charles Lindberg, Sally Rand, John Dillinger, Bugsy Seigel, the Black Dahlia, Marilyn Monroe, and even Jack and Bobby Kennedy...Nate Heller has been involved with all of them, and all of the novels have been terrific, in my opinion.

In "Flying Blind", however, Heller details his involvement with famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart (and those of you who have read any of these stories know exactly what I mean when I talk about Nate being "involved"), and the circumstances of her disappearance while on a round-the-world flight in 1937.  While you always have to accept with a grain of salt how one guy could have touched so many famous crimes in the twentieth century, with "Flying Blind" I felt for the first time that Collins was really reaching when putting this story together.  Hey, it happens. Even Sandy Koufax pitched a bad game every once in awhile, and even a disappointing Nate Heller adventure still makes for a pretty decent yarn.

With the reading of "Flying Blind", I have finished thirteen of the fifteen Heller novels that Collins has written.  Only "Majic Man" (1999) and "Chicago Confidential" (2002) remain, and I suspect that I will knock those off sometime over the summer.  The completion of this goal will leave a bittersweet feeling: What am I going to do when there are no more Nate Heller novels left to read?

Pirate Chat Goes to Altoona

Thanks to Pirate Chat member Tom Elling, it was "Pirate Chat Night"  (it was even recognized as such in the game program!) at People Natural Gas Park in Altoona, PA last night.  A group of twenty Pirate Chatters....

gathered on a beautiful late Spring evening.....

and watched the Pirates Double-A affiliate pound out 13 runs on 17 hits and defeat the Binghampton Mets, 13-4.

We got to see Curve pitcher Jacob Creasy boost his record to 6-0, and we saw highly touted Pirate prospect Josh Bell...

collect three hits and a bases loaded walk.  When Bell finally arrives at PNC Park in 2017 or so, I will now be able to say, in the tradition of my late grandfather, Bill Madden, "I seen that kid when he was a bush leaguer!"

As with most minor league ball games, the game itself was the least of the evening.  Last night was "Star Wars Night", as witnessed by these sights:

Star Wars Night also featured Curve players wearing special uniform shirts with Jabba the Hut on them.  Thankfully, I was unable to get a close-up photo of these, because they may well have been the ugliest shirts ever worn by a professional baseball team.

And coming up in July - "Bania Mania Night" featuring the guy who played comedian Kenny Bania on "Seinfeld".  Marilyn said that on the inside of the door of the stall she used in the ladies room, there was poster of Kenny Bania!  Think about that - Kenny Bania on the INSIDE OF A STALL DOOR IN A REST ROOM.  Creepy.

All in all, it was faun evening, marred only by the fact that what should have been a two hour trip took us three and half hours.  Thanks to our friends at PENNDOT, a small section of Route 22 being resurfaced in Murrysville,  it took us one hour to traverse about a four mile stretch of that road.  We then encountered a huge back-up getting off of I-99 in Altoona, that then took us another forty minutes to go about a mile.  We missed the top of the first inning, but all was well that ended well.  

I will close with a look at the signature view from the Curve's beautiful ball park in Altoona.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Potpourri - Bucs, Ballers, and Brady

Selected Short Subjects.......

The last time I wrote of the Pirates, they had played 31 games, just short of 20% of the season.  At the conclusion of yesterday's game, they had played 43 games, or just over a quarter of the season.

With a record of 21-22, I think that the best that could be said about the Pirates season is that it is "uneven."  A weekend sweep of the Mets was encouraging, but it followed another streak wherein they lost seven of eight games.  The good news is that the pitching of Cole-Burnett-Liriano (save that one awful game against the Twins), has been stellar, and that Andrew McCutchen is heating up BIG TIME.

Still, I will say that we have passed the "Hey, it's still early" phase of the season.  We are now in the "Hey, these guys better start picking it up" phase for the next fifty games or so.


The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have each taken 3-0 leads in their Conference Finals playoff series, so the NBA Finals are not quite set in stone yet, but I am going to go out on a limb and say that it will be a Warriors-Cavaliers Finals, and I, of one, am really, really looking forward to the dual that will be played out between Steph Curry and LeBron James in that Series.

It should be Epic!


I was going to write a lengthy piece about Tom Brady, deflated footballs, his pending suspension, and the penalties heaped upon the Patriots.  

Then I thought, "Who cares at this point, so to hell with it."

All I will say is that Brady is paying the penalty for the past sins of his employer and his coaches.  Had this happened to any other QB and team in the NFL, both the QB and the team would have received a cursory slap on the wrist and be told to be sure to never do this again.

Playing with the air pressure of the footballs is not much different than the Pirates watering down the base paths when the Reds come to town in order to slow up Billy Hamilton.

To Absent Friends - Kathy Kerestes

Kathy Kerestes

If you were a fan of the old O'Brien and Garry Radio show on WTAE Radio and 96.1 FM radio back in the day, you had to be saddened to hear the news yesterday of the death of news reporter Kathy Kerestes at the age of 61.

Fans of the show - and can you believe that it has been eighteen years since that show left the air? - will remember Miss Kerestes as the news reader and foil of hosts Larry O'Brien and John Garry.  It made for lively and entertaining radio while getting dressed in the morning and driving into work.  The obituary revealed how Miss Kerestes left WTAE after many years and became a spokesperson at Carlow University.  Several years ago, after being stricken with multiple sclerosis, she left Carlow and, along with her sister, started her own media relations company.

It was a good life for the famed "Newsette", and one that ended way too soon.

RIP Kathy Kerestes.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Movie Review: "Tomorrowland"

We kicked off the Unofficial Start of Summer today by contributing to what will undoubtedly be the big box office winner of this Memorial Day Weekend by seeing the new Disney movie, "Tomorrowland".  From what I have read, much of what this movie was all about was kept pretty much under wraps by the Disney Studios.  About all that anyone knew was that it was a science fiction feature of some sort and it starred George Clooney.  That and a positive review by the Post-Gazette's Barb Vancheri was enough to get us out to the movie theater.  

Normally, the sci-fi genre is not our particular cup of tea, but we made an exception here, and we are glad we did.  We may not have done so had it been anyone other than Clooney starring.  He was very good in it, as were his young female co-stars, Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy.  It was directed by and co-written by Brad Bird, who has two Oscars to his credit for a couple of Pixar animated movies ("The Incredibles" and Ratatouille").  I won't try to summarize the story, but I will tell you that it is quite entertaining, beautifully photographed, it does carries a Message, and it leaves you with a very positive conclusion.

Early in the movie, one young character asks the question "Why can't it just be for fun?"  "Tomorrowland" does, as I said, carry a message, but it is also a fun experience.  Good movie.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

NBA Playoffs

The NBA Conference Finals tip off tonight, so let me call it now.

East - Cavaliers over Hawks

West - Warriors over Rockets

Warriors to win it all over the Cavs in the finals.

You heard it here first, and, as always, watch but don't bet.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Tonight: "Mad Men" Concludes (No Spoilers)

This past Friday evening was spent binge watching the last three episodes of "Mad Men" in anticipation of tonight's series finale.  For the most part, this final season has been disappointing, and we have found ourselves saying things like "I'm ready for this show to be over."  However, the penultimate episode last week seemed to be setting up conclusions to the stories of Joan, Pete, Betty, and, possibly, Peggy and Roger.    Still not sure where Don is headed, and I am betting that when the show ends tonight, we STILL won't know, which will lead to endless kvetching across the Internet about such an unsatisfactory conclusion to this long-running series.  Series creator Matthew Weiner and AMC will, of course, defend this as "art", but long time fans of the show will be left with a sense of dissatisfaction.  This seems to happen more often than not when long running series are sent off with a "Grand Finale".

Of course, the series could conclude with an open-enough ending so as to set up a "Mad Men" feature film to bilk fans of their money one last time.  

I could be wrong on all of this, of course.  We'll just be watching - in real time; not gonna wait to see a DVR'd recording - to see how it all ends.

I will say this, though - I am going to miss the spectacular Christina Hendricks (Joan Harris).  

And that isn't the type of picture of Miss Hendricks that you thought I would post, is it?

Friday, May 15, 2015

To Absent Friends - B.B King

What better way to say good-bye to the truly legendary blues man B.B. King than to watch and listen.

The Thrill is Gone, indeed.

RIP B.B King.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Family Reunion

Well, it wasn't really a "reunion" since prior to about two weeks ago, neither of us knew that the other existed, but last week second cousins Casey Brown and Yours Truly met for the first time over lunch in the Strip District at the Smallman Street Deli.

Casey's grandmother, Marie Madden Brown and my grandfather, Bill Madden, were brother and sister.  It was yet another cousin, Marla Madden of Boca Raton, FL, who is the granddaughter of yet another Madden sibling, Leo Madden, who did the genealogical research and who ferreted out the existence of Casey Brown and me.  Amazingly, while I was growing up in Squirrel Hill, Casey was growing up in Swissvale, not even ten miles apart.

Bill Madden was my mother's father, and, for whatever the reason, I knew very little of the background or history of the Madden branch of my own particular family tree.  So, I am grateful to Marla for finding us, and I am grateful to have had the chance to meet Casey.  We spent a delightful couple of hours together learning about our heretofore unknown shared pasts.

Kind of like something you'd see in a movie.

The Pirates - 31 Games In

I have been fairly quiet, at least on this Blog, about the State of the Pirates in 2015.  It was my intention all along to wait until about 30 games, or approximately 20% of the season was in the books.  The conclusion of a weekend series with the Cardinals allowed for the perfect demarcation point.  Thirty-one games, almost twenty percent of the season.  

So, here we go.

The team sits at 15-16, tied for third in the NL Central, and seven games behind the Cardinals.  Certainly not what we had hoped for, but not worth jumping off of the Fort Duquesne Bridge, either.  (In case you were wondering, the 2014 team was 12-19 and the 2013 team was 17-14 after thirty-one games).  Here is one thing about this first fifth of the season that does raise a red flag for me, though.  The combined record for the Pirates against the Cardinals, Reds, and Cubs stands at 6-13; they are 11-14 in the division overall,  thanks to a 5-1 record against Milwaukee.  Still early, still a small sample size, but it is a continuation of a disturbing trend from last year when the team went 22-35 against the Cardinals, Reds, and Brewers, and 36-40 in the Central Division.  Perhaps that two-of-three series win against St. Louis this weekend will signal an upward trend going forward.

As for individual performances, the starts of Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison, and Jordy Mercer have been disappointing.  Up until a week ago, all three carried batting averages below .200.  McCutchen seems to have righted the ship.  In the last seven days, he has batted .333 with an OPS of .885 to bring his numbers up to .223 and .658.  Harrison and Mercer remain at .173 / .491 and .194 / .481, and, if anything, their "last 7 days" numbers appear to the trending down.

I have no concerns, none, that McCutchen will be the MVP caliber player that we have seen over the course of his career.  We have also seen this before with Mercer.  In 2014, he was awful at the plate through mid-May, but was solid from that point forward.  The team can only hope that that happens again. As for Harrison, many people had to wonder about the breakout season he had in 2014.  Was it real, or was he a One Hit Wonder who would regress to being the utility guy he had been throughout his career?  The jury is still out on that, and I am sure that the people who made the decision to give him that big contract are rolling their rosary beads over the outcome on how this one will play out.

As for others, Starling Marte looks like he will have a big breakout season, Gregory Polonco is still learning, and Neal Walker is having a solid year at .287 with a .767 OPS (and his "last 7" numbers, .389 and 1.059, are off the charts)

And then there is Pedro Alvarez.  He seems to be handling the move to first base reasonably well, defensively.  His offensive numbers, however, sit at .217 with 5 HR, 14 RBI, and a.753 OPS.  Oh, and 27 K's in 92 at bats.  Alvarez has now accumulated over 2,100 at bats in the major leagues.  We can probably draw some conclusions.  He's going to hit 25-30 HR's in a season, drive in about 90 runs, hit about .235, and strike out 180 or so times.  He will make our jaws drop with some of the blasts that he will hit, and he will drive us totally nuts when he looks completely impotent at the plate swinging and missing while striking out in key situations.  Love him or hate him, what we have seen is what he is.

As far as the pitching is concerned, I will only say this: if the starting pitching continues to perform as it has over the first 31 games, I will sign up for that right now and take my chances with how the team will fare in the standings when 162 games are in the books.  Gerrit Cole has been a real ace, A.J Burnett has been a revelation, Liriano has been solid, and even the back end of the rotation, Worley and Locke have been serviceable.  The back end of the bullpen, Hughes, Watson, and Melancon (after a shaky start) are getting the job done, and there are a couple of other guys in the pen who are intriguing, particularly Arqueimedes Caminero.  I want to see more of him as the season rolls on.

And how about that guy pictured at the top of this post?  The decision to bring Jung Ho Kang north with the team caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth among some Pirates followers.  Heck, even the decision to sign him in the first place out of the Korean Baseball Organization was questioned.  Not so much today.  Granted, questions remain, but as of this morning, Kang is hitting .333 with 2 HR, 9 RBI, and .898 OPS in only 48 at bats.  He is arguably the hottest hitter on the team.  Clint Hurdle has done a great job in finding playing time for him, and he must absolutely, one would think, continue to somehow keep him in the lineup while his bat remains hot.  He has also looked quite good in the field at both 2B and 3B.

In conclusion, yeah, you wish they were doing better, but it is early.  A well placed hit in any of those three games in St. Louis last week would have meant a three game sweep for the Pirates against  the Cards, and a record of 18-13 today, and talk of ordering playoff tickets for October.  It didn't happen that way, and we will all just see how it will even out, or if it will even out, over the course of 162 games.

There is no definitive answer as to when "Hey, it's still early" turns into "Hey, these guys better start moving here" which turns into "Hey, this season is a goner".  We just have to sit back, enjoy the action day by day, and, dare I say it, take it one game at a time.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

To Absent Friends - Sid Tepper

Okay, I had never heard of Sid Tepper, either, until I read today's obituary page, and, I've got to tell you, these are the kinds of obituaries that I find absolutely fascinating.

When Sid Tepper died on April 24, he was two months short of his 97th birthday.  Mr. Tepper was a songwriter who is credited with writing over 300 songs in his career.  His songs were recorded by such diverse artists as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Dave Clark Five, Andy Williams, Ray Charles, Slim Whitman, The Ink Spots, Arthur Godfrey, and Lawrence Welk.  Elvis, alone, recorded forty-five of Tepper's songs, most of them being written for the numerous schlocky movies that Elvis made.  All of which means that Sid probably made a pretty nice living churning out these songs.

Among the songs that Tepper had written were "Red Roses for a Blue Lady", "G.I. Blues", "Nuttin' for Christmas", and "Glad All Over".

Like I say, there are people who contribute, in some small ways, to the fabric of our lives, and we have no idea who they are, until we stumble across their names in the News Obituaries.

RIP Sid Tepper, and let's send him off with one of his numbers, "The Lady Loves Me", as sung by Elvis Presley and Ann-Margaret in "Viva Las Vegas".