Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Sports Illustrated Soothsayers

When the Sports Illustrated Baseball Preview issue came out last March, I decided to tear out the page with their projected standings just to see how expert their prognostications actually were.

In the National League, they projected the following division winners and wild cards: Nationals, Cardinal, Dodgers, Pirates, Marlins.  The Nats totally imploded, and I suppose that any shot the Marlins might have had went away when Giancarlo Stanton was lost for the season.  They had both the Mets and Cubs tagged for third place in their divisions with 82 wins each.  All in all, not too bad.

In the American League, however, SI really soiled the bed.  If this morning's standings hold true come Sunday night, the AL division winners and wild cards will be the Blue Jays, Royals, Rangers, Yankees, and Astros. SI's projected division winners were the Red Sox, Indians, and Mariners.  Boston and Seattle will finish below .500, and as of this writing there is a good chance that the Indians will as well.  Their predicted wild cards were the Angels and Tigers.  As of this morning, the Angels are one-half game out of the final wild card spot.  The Tigers will finish below .500.  

Many of the AL playoff spots are still up in the air, but if the current standings hold, here is what SI projected for the five AL playoff teams:

Blue Jays - Second place in East, but not a WC
Royals - Fourth place in Central
Rangers - Fourth place in West
Yankees - Fourth place in East
Astros - Fifth place in West

Close races remain for the winner of the West and the second WC spot, with both the Angels and Twins (projected fifth place in AL Central by SI) still with a chance to catch the fading Astros.  At best, Sports Illustrated will have called only one correct AL post-season qualifier, and there is a good chance that they will be shut out entirely.   

I suppose that all this proves is that "In baseball, you don't know nothing ."  (One of the many quotes attributed to Yogi Berra which he may or may not have actually said.)

By the way, I've saved the SI predictions for the 2015 NFL season as well. Come January, we'll see how they did on that front.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Pedro Alvarez and Dick Stuart

Perhaps no Pittsburgh Pirate in my recent memory, not even Barry Bonds, has stirred so much debate, pro and con, as has Pedro Alvarez.  I am not going to discuss Pedro's future, or what should the Pirates do with him going forward, both short- and long-term.  Those are topics for another day and will no doubt be discussed in the Blog at some future point.

Instead, I am going to take another approach here.  Pedro, with his jaw-dropping power and jaw-dropping fielding prowess, has often been compared with former Pirate Dick Stuart, especially since his move from third base to first base.  A question was raised in a Facebook forum just this morning, "Is Pedro the next Dick Stuart?"

So, I decided to open up a spread sheet and make a comparison between the two.

The numbers you will see below reflect Stuart's career only during his five seasons as a Pirate.  He went on, of course, to a ten year career with five other teams, most notably, the Boston Red Sox.  Alvarez' numbers are current through yesterday's game against the Rockies.

Here you go:

Dick Stuart
Pedro Alvarez
Plate Appearances
Strike Outs
K:W Ratio
3.06 to 1
3.17 to 1
All-Star Teams

In all honesty, I don't know what to make of these.  If you look at HR and RBI, which one could argue is what the Pirates have paid these two to do, a slight edge goes to Pedro.  Other categories favor, slightly, Stuart.  OPS is clearly in Big Stu's favor.  The errors tell a very bad story for both of them, especially Pedro.

Here are a couple of other stats for you who like modern analytics.  Stuart's WAR (Wins Above Replacement player) for his entire ten year career was 7.8.  Alvarez' WAR for his six years and counting career is 5.0.

In his career, Stuart made $278,500.  Alvarez has thus far earned $14,350,000.  That ought to get the old-timers riled up.

As I said, I have a hard time drawing any conclusions here.  The rest of you all can have at it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Movie Thoughts..."Black Mass", "Psycho", "Casablanca" and the Price of Popcorn

Some movie thoughts and opinions....

Saw this movie this afternoon.

It is the story about Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger.  I love mob movies, and while this one is no "Goodfellas", and certainly no "Godfather", it's a pretty good one.  I was somewhat familiar with the Bulger story, but wasn't totally aware of the "deal with the devil" that the local Boston FBI office made with Bulger, nor was I aware of the prominence of Bulger's younger brother in Boston politics.  The best part of this movie is the performance of Johnny Depp.  There was a school of thought that Depp's career had descended into a series of parodies of his Capt. Jack Sparrow character, but not in this case.  He's dynamite as Whitey Bulger

One minor quibble.  I suppose that when you make a movie that takes place in Boston, everybody has to speak in over-exaggerated Boston accents (there were a few points where I wish there had been sub-titles).  It adds to the authenticity, I suppose, but sometimes it just seems so forced.


Earlier in the week we had seen the TCM/Fathom Events presentation of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" on the big screen at the Cinemark North Hills.

It was terrific experience to see this in such a setting, and it prompted my mind to wander in the following direction:  With a movie that has been parodied so many times, and is so ingrained in our culture, was there anyone in the theater that night who was seeing "Psycho" for the first time?  Similarly, is there anyone out there who is unfamiliar with what "Psycho" is about?  Could there possibly be anyone to whom viewing this movie would be a completely blank page, and if so, what would they think viewing it for the first time in 2015?  

After seeing this movie on Sunday, I went on line and searched for reviews of this movie that were given at the time of its 1960 release.  The Internet makes it possible to find such things, and they make for interesting reading with fifty-five years of hindsight.


In conjunction with its current exhibit on World War II, the Heinz History Center is offering a "World War II Film Festival" this Saturday and Sunday in its Mueller Education Center this coming weekend.  I will be working as a Volunteer on Saturday afternoon when "Casablanca" will be shown.  Talk about being able to see a Classic on the Big Screen!

If you aren't doing anything this Saturday afternoon, think about stopping by.  Not sure what my volunteer role will be, but I just might be the guy to sell you a candy bar....or offer to procure a Letter of Transit for you!


Finally, when I went to see "Black Mass" this afternoon, I thought I'd treat myself to a bag of popcorn.  A small bag.  Note that I said a SMALL bag.  The price was $6.05.  Putting aside the outrageous price for something that probably cost less than a dime for the theater to produce, I had to laugh at the cost of six dollars and FIVE cents.  As I said to the young kid at the cash register, they must just LOVE having to count out ninety-five cents in change all the time.  I mean, really, how was it determined that this commodity should cost $6.05?

It just struck me as odd.

To Absent Friends - Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra

If any sports figure can be deemed to be a truly "original" character, one who has never been, and probably never will be duplicated, it is Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra, who died yesterday in New Jersey at the age of 90.

A member of Baseball's Hall of Fame, a case can be made that Berra was and remains the greatest catcher in baseball history.  The obituary that appears in today's New York Times (and I highly recommend that you read it;  it is easy enough to seek out and find on line) makes that case, but it also tells of the Yogi Berra who was a part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944 and who was awarded a Purple Heart for his service in the War.  It also tells of his 65 year marriage to his wife Carmen. But if it is baseball stuff you want, consider these facts about his nineteen year playing career....
  • A  .285 lifetime batting average, 358 home runs and 1,430 RBI, and a career OPS of .830
  • A fifteen time All-Star
  • A three time MVP
  • Only 430 strike outs in over 8,300 plate appearances
  • A participant in 21 World Series, fourteen of them as a player, and a member of ten World Series winning teams
  • He still holds World Series records for games played (75), plate appearances, hits (71), and doubles

However, in spite of all of those accomplishments, Berra is most famous for his wacky quotes and aphorisms, some of which he actually said, that have become a part of our everyday language, and are used by people who probably have no idea who Yogi Berra actually was.  You know the most famous of them:
  • "90% of this game is mental, the other half is physical"
  • "Nobody ever goes there anymore, it's always too crowded."
  • "It gets late early out there."
  • "You can observe a lot just by watching."
and of course the most famous of all, and it really is true, in life and in baseball, 
  • "It ain't over 'til it's over."
Yet for all of Yogi's great lines, perhaps the best line of all comes not from Yogi himself, but from that Times obituary.  In referencing all those pennants and World Series, the Times simply said, "No other player has been a champion so often."  

What an epitaph.

RIP Yogi Berra.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Coaching Decisions and Overtime in Football

The Pitt Panthers traveled to Iowa, and lost for the first time this year by a score of 27-24.  It was great effort by Pitt, but in the end, the favored Hawkeyes prevailed.

There were three very interesting coaching decisions made in this game by Head Coach Pat Narduzzi, or HCPN, as he is referred to in the social media chat rooms.  And while I don't usually play the game of slicing and dicing coaching/managerial decision, I am going to do it here in regard to three decisions made by the coach.


With the score tied at 17-17 in the fourth quarter, Pitt faced a fourth-down-and-inches while in Iowa territory.  It wasn't deep in Iowa territory, but Iowa territory nonetheless.  Narduzzi indicated that Pitt would go for the first down.  They lined up and it soon became apparent that what he was really doing was trying to draw Iowa offsides.  It didn't work, and Pitt then punted.  Iowa took over, and proceeded to march down field and score to go ahead 24-17.  Pitt's offense was moving the ball and had Iowa on its heels, and punting instead of going for it was huge momentum shift in the game.  Even the the color announcer on the Big Ten Network doing the game, whoever he was, said that Pitt might come to regret taking their foot off the gas at that point.

Good decision or bad decision?  My guess is that this was probably the right decision at the time, although as an underdog playing on the road, maybe, as the announcer said, Pitt should have gone for it.


With under a minute to play, Pitt scores a TD to make the score 24-23 Iowa, and elects to kick an extra point and tie the game at 24-24.  Dan Bonk, who was at the game in Iowa, and I were texting each other simultaneously, saying that Pitt should have gone for the two points and the win right then and there and not take a chance in OT.  We both used more or less the same expression:  Show some cajones, we both saidalthough we used the English version of the word.

More on this later.

Iowa then took the kickoff, marched down the field, and kicked the winning field goal as the clock ran out.  This involved the third key coaching decision....


As Iowa kicker Marshall Koehn (pronounced "Kane", and, honestly, the kid looks nothing at all like Gary Cooper), lined up for the kick and at the last instant before the snap, Narduzzi made the oh-so-predictable coach's move of calling a time out in order to "ice" the kicker.  The snap was made and Koehn went through with the kick and came up well short on the 57 yard attempt.  Koehn said later that he heard the whistle and didn't give the kick his full effort, hence, the miss.  Maybe he didn't and maybe he did, but what is indisputable is that when given a second chance to kick, he drilled it right through the uprights and won the game for Iowa.

I don't know who the first coach was to come up with this ridiculous strategy, but every coach copycats this move, and to me it is more of the coach saying "look how smart and clever I am" than it is a sound strategic move.  Perhaps there is some football sabrmetric stat that shows that this is a move that works because the kicker turns into a bundle of jangled nerves and misses the subsequent kick ___% of the time.  If that is the case, I'd like to see it.  I can't recall seeing it ever work.

(Of course, if Pitt's defense doesn't allow Iowa to march down the field in the last fifty-two seconds and get into position to kick a field goal, this is a moot point, but that is another discussion entirely.)

I posted these latter two opinions on a Pitt Facebook page last night and was ripped for being a second guesser (like the people who said that aren't), and contradictory ("if he went for two and they didn't make it, you'd be ripping him for that.").  The sentiment also was that you always play for a tie and take your chances in overtime, and that leads me to a long held thought of mine, and that is, Why is there overtime in regular season football games?  So what if a game ends in a tie? I can remember the great Myron Cope once saying that while tie games can be frustrating, in many cases, a tie can be a just result in a football game.

Turn back the clock and consider last night's game as if it were twenty or so years ago and  there was no provision for OT in a football game.  HCPN would then have been faced with this decision:  Do I kick and settle for a tie, or do I go for two to win the game against a heavily favored team in its home stadium?  It would have been a hard decision, if he went for two and made it, he'd have been a hero, and a bum of they didn't make it.  If he settled for the tie, well, at least it wouldn't have been a loss.  The point is, with overtime, no coach HAS to make this decision, and I think that the coaches like it that this particular bit of heat has been removed from their kitchens.  

For all his greatness as a coach, Ara Parseghian is, rightly or wrongly, just as often remembered for his decision to have Notre Dame "settle" for a tie against Michigan State in 1966's Game of the Century.  Conversely, Nebraska Tom Osborne is often remembered for his "heroic" decision to have his team go for two points and win the Orange Bowl, rather than settle for a tie against Miami. Only the mythical national championship was at stake in that game.  The Huskers didn't make it and lost the game, but Osborne was still lauded for his decision.

I know I am a lone voice in the wilderness on this, but I think that overtime should be eliminated in all but play-off and championship games in football.  This is especially true in an age when player safety is such a big issue.  I attended one of my nephew's peewee football games a few years ago.  The game ended in a tie, and they went into overtime to determine a winner.  In a peewee football game, is that really necessary?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

To Absent Friends - Moses Malone

Moses Malone

When news of the death of Moses Malone arrived earlier in the week, I had not planned on doing one of these post dedicated to him.  Then I started to read a bit about him, and then I  heard Tony Kornheiser speak about him on his radio podcast on Monday. Then came the  write-up on him in the new Sports Illustrated, and I thought that this guy deserves to be noted.

Malone was the first player to skip college entirely and go directly to the pros from high school.  He was drafted by and signed by the then Utah Stars of the ABA, and thus began a career that would span nine different teams, twenty-one seasons, three NBA MVP Awards, and one championship season with the Philadelphia 76'ers in 1983.  Malone's career spanned a time when I was paying little attention to pro basketball, and the media coverage of the NBA paled in comparison to what it is today, so I was unaware of what a dominant player he was.

NBA stats don't resonate as much as, say, 40 home runs or 100 RBIs in baseball, or 1,000 yards rushing in football, but Malone scored over 29,000 points and pulled down over 17,800 rebounds over those 21 seasons, averaging 20.3 and 12.3 respectively for his career.  In exactly 100 Playoffs games, Malone averaged 22.1 and 14.0.  It has been said that the fact that Malone signed with the ABA was one of the factors that forced the NBA to merge and absorb four of the ABA teams into itself.

You read about him and about just how dominant he was, well, you can only conclude that he was some kind of player.

Kornheiser told the following story.  When Malone was in high school in Petersburg, Virginia, head coach Lefty Driesell was trying desperately to recruit him to come to the University of Maryland.  He would often leave College Park and fly on single engine private planes to Petersburg to watch Malone play and try to woo him.  When people expressed concern for Driesell's safety making so many flights on such dangerous planes, Lefty's comment was "Some players are worth dying for."

RIP Moses Malone.

Book Review - "X" by Sue Grafton (No Spoilers)

Regular readers all know what a fan I am of mystery writer Sue Grafton and her "alphabet series" of novels featuring private investigator Kinsey Millhone. Simply stated, I love the series, and I downloaded the latest installment, "X", the day it first became available late last month. 

So it is with a bit of reluctance that I write this to say that this twenty-fourth installment in the adventures of Kinsey Millhone came as disappointment to me.  Unlike many novels with series characters, Grafton's books had not resorted to formula or became stale as the series went on and on.  If anything, the more recent stories in the series (and you can find them by just typing "Sue Grafton" into the search box at the upper left corner of this page), with the novels for T, U, V, and W being among the very best of the series.  Perhaps it was just me (had a lot of things going on while I was reading this one), but I had a hard time getting into this one.

In "X", Kinsey gets involved in three separate story lines, I won't even call them cases, because she was only hired and paid for one of them.  As is often the case, one of these threads takes Kinsey back over twenty years in time, and another involves a pain-in-the-rear new neighbor that seems fairly innocuous at the start. To me, it just seemed like there were too many threads in this particular story, and I had a tough time staying with it.  For all of that, however, the last seventy or so pages of the book, when the story lines were getting wrapped up, were a very entertaining read.  Two of the stories came together and were resolved more or less satisfactorily.  The third was left open, and who knows if Grafton has it in her mind to bring this one particular villain back in a future story.  Grafton/Millhone also deliver some trenchant observations about the continuum on which criminals exist and the justice system operates.

At the end of the day, I will give "X" and "C" grade, better than a lot of books out there, but not up to the higher standards of the series, but Sue Grafton and Kinsey Millhone remain among my favorite authors and fictional characters.  It is sad to think that this series will come to an end with books Y and Z, sometime before the end of this decade, as Grafton has promised.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Great Akron Road Trip of 2015

Okay, by now you all know that Pitt defeated the University of Akron on Saturday night by a score of 24-7 and extended its record to 2-0, but now I want to tell you.....THE REST OF THE STORY......

Back in the summer when the Pitt football schedule was announced, Dan Bonk noted that the game against Akron would be played on September 12, the weather should be nice, and, hey, this might be a nice road trip to take - out and back in the same day - and take our wives with us.  When the dust settled, it was going to be a quadruple date - Sproules, Bonks, Martins, and Meisners. Hail to Pitt!

Well, as the weather forecasts were becoming more and more ominous as the week went on, a game day decision was made early Saturday morning, and the four wives decided that discretion was the better part of valor, so they opted out.  At 2:00, Dan, Len, Tom and I set out in Dan's car for Akron.  Yes, in keeping with a college football theme, 'neath a slate gray September sky, the Four Horsemen rode again.....

The further west we rode, the worse those skies became, and the more the rain continued to fall.  We arrived in Akron, parked about two hours before game time, and whiled away about an hour and a quarter enjoying one of Akron's finest just-off-campus dining establishments (Taco Bell).  We entered the Stadium, and posed for posterity, while light-to-moderate rain fell.

(Bob, Dan, Tom, and Len)

Little did we know at the time, that that was about the BEST that the weather was going to be that evening.  

We settled into our seats, 

and proceeded to take in the action on the field.

Did you ever watch a game on TV that was being played in a torrential downpour, with only a few people in the stands and say to yourself "What kind of idiots would be sitting in the stands at a game like this?"  Well, now you know.

At halftime we retreated under the stands, watched the third quarter while standing behind a camera well, only to see the rain get even worse:

At the end of the third quarter, with Pitt up 17-7, we left the Stadium and headed home, taking one last look backward.

A crazy night, but a fun one, and in the car ride back home we were already laughing about the whole night.  I can envision that with each retelling of the story, the rain will become more and more torrential, the temperatures will get lower and lower (in fact, the temps were pretty nice, which saved us from a REALLY bad evening), the winds will become hurricane force, and the entire storm will be of Biblical proportions.  By the 2018 retelling of this trip, we will have had needed an Ark to get home.

Oh, and we, or at least I, did learn one interesting factoid.  Did you know that John Heisman, the guy who invented trophies, once coached at the University of Akron? No?  Well he did, and a statue memorializing his tenure there sits just outside the main gate of the Stadium (a very nice facility, by the way).

And now you know, the REST of the story.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Are You Ready For Some Football?

Yep, it's time to kick off a new National Football League season as the Steelers travel to Foxboro tonight to kick off the 2015 season.  For the occasion, I salute our favorite team with both its current and its "old school" style logos.

I watched maybe one quarter of action of the five Steelers practice games, so I can't offer that informed an opinion, but I know that the apprehension that covered the 2014 season continues into this new season, namely, the Steelers Defense, or lack of it.  The guy who may be their best defensive player, James Harrison, will soon be able to collect Social Security, and high draft picks like Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier have spent the last two seasons not being able to get on the field and contribute.  That has to change, and, alas, the practice games have given no indication that it is about to change any time soon.

However, the Steelers still have this guy in charge,

and they still have this guy at quarterback,

so I say that we need not give up on this season before it begins.

Le'Veon Bell will be back after two games, Antonio Brown is one of the best wide outs in the game, and the line is solid (and, yes, I know that Maurkice Pouncy is hurt), so the Steelers will score a lot of points this year.  Unfortunately, they will have to because the defense is going to give up a lot of them.  I foresee lots of games with scores like 43-37 this year, and Steelers fans can only hope that they will be on the right side of most of them.

I also, and this is the fan in me asking, am hoping that what you saw in the practice games was just that - practice, and that we will be seeing something different once the games start to count.  As I say, that's the Fan in me talking.

I will also say this....if Number 7 goes down for any significant length of time, kiss a winning season and the playoffs good-bye.

So, you want a prediction, here's one:  10-6 and in the Playoffs.

If you want prediction for tonight, New England wins BIG as they begin a season long crusade to extend a huge middle finger to the NFL and the World.

The Deadline Deals

More than a month has passed since the July 31 trade deadline in Major League Baseball.  Neal Huntington was criticized in some quarters for not giving up some of his prized prospects in order to obtain such big name and expensive players like Cole Hamels or David Price.  Instead, the critics said, the Pirates clung to their penny-pinching, dumpster-diving ways.

So how have the five players that Huntington procured done?  Here are the numbers, through the games of September 9:

At Bats

Aramis Ramirez

Michael Morse

Joe Blanton
J.A. Happ
Joakim Soria

For comparison purposes, the three biggest name pitchers that were moved at the deadline have performed as follows:

David Price 5-1, 2.15 ERA
Johnny Cueto  2-5, 4.86 ERA
Cole Hamels 3-1, 4.07

Yeah, it would be nice to have David Price in a Pirates uniform, but Happ has done just as well, and at a much cheaper price.

As far as Ramirez is concerned, I wrote the following in The Grandstander last July when the trade was made:

Finally, there is the delicious karma of Ramirez coming BACK to the Pirates in the midst of a pennant race.  No need to recount the painful circumstances of the horrendous salary dump deal in 2003 when Kevin McClatchey forced Dave Littlefield to get rid of perhaps the team's best player and brightest young star in years for a collection of used jock straps and batting practice baseballs.  (Someday, I hope Dave Littlefield will write a book and explain HIS side of that awful transaction.)  If A-Ram can manage 8-10 home runs and 30 or so RBI's over what time he has here, it will be one terrific story.

Looks like Ramirez is going to come in right on those numbers, or damn close to it.

So, what do you think?  I'd say that considering what was given up for these players, Huntington gets an A grade for his deadline deals.  

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Spygate, Deflategate, The Patriots, and Roger Goodell

Yes, like you, I am tired of all of the topics mentioned in the title of this post.  That said, I cannot recommend highly enough hat you read the following article from ESPN's "Outside the Lines" investigative team.


It is an extremely lengthy article by reporters Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham, but it lays out in such detail the Patriots' history of cheating under Bill Belichick that it really prompts one to question the integrity of many of the games that they have played in the last 15 years.  Until I read this article, I was among those who felt that the taping of the other teams' signals and the whining of teams defeated by the Pats over the years, and, yes, that includes our own Pittsburgh Steelers, were nothing but the the attempted justifications of poor losers.  I don't feel quite that strongly now.

More disturbing was the actions of the National Football League and Roger Goodell and his minions during this period.  They have given new definitions to the word "arrogance".  As recently as July 30 I wrote in this blog that I would not bet against Goodell retaining his job over all of the deflategate nonsense.  After reading this article, I honestly don't see how he can keep it, or how the thirty-two NFL owners could justify retaining him as Commissioner.  His dealings with United States Senator Arlen Specter when the NFL was being threatened with a Congressional investigation were reprehensible.

And, of course, it goes back to the Patriots.  The article concludes with a description of a party that owner Robert Kraft held at his estate this summer when the he brought in all of his players and coaches to distribute their Super Bowl rings and divide the spoils of yet another NFL Championship.  It brought to mind these images of another meeting back in 1959:

It didn't end well for those guys either.

To Absent Friends - Judy Carne

Judy Carne

Few television shows in my lifetime took the country by storm as quickly and as totally as did "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" in 1967.  If you were around then, you will remember that one of the breakout stars of the ensemble comedy troop was the pretty British actress Judy Carne, much better know as the "Sock-It-To-Me" girl, who would regularly get doused with buckets of water whenever she uttered that catch phrase.

Judy Carne died yesterday of pneumonia at the age of 76.  She left the cast of Laugh-In after only two seasons, and her life was not all that great after that.  She fought a long battle with drug addiction.  IMDB lists only 36 acting credits for her, the last coming in 1993 in a movie called "What About Me" where she played a "woman of the streets".  Before "Laugh-In" came along, she starred in a short-lived TV series called "Love on a Rooftop" and had a brief, tempestuous marriage to Burt Reynolds, well before he hit the big time.  

She will always be remembered by those of a certain age as the perky, pretty sock-it-to-me girl on one of television's great shows of the 1960's.  I hope that that was worth something to her in her life.

RIP Judy Carne.