Friday, August 26, 2016

Movie Review - "Hell or High Water"

When I saw the trailer for this movie a few weeks back, and heard Jeff Bridges talking in a West Texas accent thicker than a prime t-bone steak, I knew that this was a movie that I just had to see.  The story concerns two brothers, one an ex-con, who take to robbing a string of small town west Texas banks, but perhaps their motive is a Robin Hood-esque one.  You know, take from the rich, give to the poor.  At least that what a bunch of the poor, down on their luck ranchers and town folk who have been getting screwed by the banks for all these years think.

Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, a crusty old Texas Ranger with that aforementioned accent who is soon to retire from the force, and he's not happy about it.  The outlaw brothers are played by Ben Foster, the way over-the-top ex-con, and Chris Pine, a handsome hunk of beefcake if ever there was one, who has made his bones in all these recent Star Trek movies.  Both were quite good in it, especially Pine, but it was the sixty-six year old Bridges who was the star, the guy who makes this one worth seeing.

In some ways this movie reminded me of "Fargo" with its mood setting scenes of a desolate landscape, and a bunch of quirky characters including the wild man outlaw, and the resolute lawman who talks with a funny accent.  That's a good thing.

We liked the movie, especially the final scene of the movie between....oops, I'm not going to tell you. That might be considered a spoiler.

Two and one-half stars from The Grandstander on this one (three and one-half stars to Jeff Bridges!).

Brian Wilson and "Pet Sounds"

This much anticipated concert date finally rolled around last night and what a night it was.  An authentic musical genius, Brian Wilson, founder of The Beach Boys, performing in it's entirety, one of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time, "Pet Sounds", to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of it's release.  Throw in the accompaniment of fellow Beach Boy Al Jardine, and a terrific ten piece band, and what you got was an evening that far exceeded every expectation that I had when I walked into the Benedum last night.

Brian Wilson's story is well known.  A founder and the musical master behind The Beach Boys, Wilson withdrew from touring with the band when he had an anxiety attack when traveling on an airplane.  He then went into the studio to create the masterpiece, Pet Sounds.  No one knew it at the time that it was masterpiece.  It was only a modest, if that, commercial success when it was released, but as the years went by, it became elevated in the pantheon of rock and roll albums.  (No less than Paul McCartney has called it perhaps the greatest album of all time.)  Wilson continued to withdraw, had artistic disagreements with his band mates, became drug dependent and paranoid, fell under the influence of a Svengali-like doctor, and became pretty much of a mess.  His story did have a happy ending and was well told in the 2015 movie, "Love and Mercy", which I highly recommend.

Anyway, the concert last night was tremendous.  Can Wilson sing like he did in his Beach Boys hey-day?  No, of course he can't, what seventy-four year old singer can?  Yet his singing of the entire Pet Sounds album last night was mesmerizing.  He would sing the songs, and when it came time for the trademark Beach Boys high notes and falsettos, those portions of the song were sung by vocalist  Matt Jardine, Al's son.  These trade offs were done seamlessly, and they contributed to the magic of the performance.  It was beautiful.

The night began with a one hour set that mixed some Beach Boys standards as well as some of the "Smile" songs, and featured a number of the individual band members.  Highlights included Matt Jardine singing "Don't Worry Baby", and Wilson singing "God Only Knows", which led to a mid-set standing ovation.  

The second set was the Pet Sounds performance, which, as I have stated, was simply amazing.

(Photo courtesy of Dan Bonk)

It was the encore, featuring Wilson and Jardine, that shook the rafters of the Benedum and had the crowd on its feet the entire time.  "Good Vibrations", "Help Me, Rhonda", "Surfin' USA", "Barbara Ann", and "Fun, Fun, Fun".  I mean, how could it get much better than that?

At the risk of sounding like a total fanboy, I don't think that I can overstate what it felt like to actually see and hear Brian Wilson perform live and person.  The term "genius" is passed around too easily and too often, but I think that it is totally appropriate to use it when speaking of Brian Wilson.  He has led a tortured life, and much of that is evident in his somewhat wooden stage presence.  He shuffles when he walks, and he talks very little between songs, but when the music plays and he begins to sing, even at the age of 74, the magic is there.  I feel very fortunate that I am now able to say that "Yeah, I saw Brian Wilson."

I will close this post the same way that Wilson closed his show last night: with  a remarkable performance of "Love and Mercy".

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Rio Post Mortem, Pirates, Hearst, and Other Topics

Cleaning out the Mental In-Box.....

  • The Rio Olympics ended this past Sunday amidst much pomp, ceremony, and overproduction.  Marilyn and I found ourselves watching much more of the games than we anticipated ahead of time, and we enjoyed them immensely.
  • Everyone will have their own "Olympic Moments" to savor in their memories.  For me, however, the most enduring memories of these Olympics will be as follows:
  • The complete domination of the sprints by Jamaica's Usain Bolt.  In particular, I will remember his anchor leg in the 4x100 event.  When he took the baton, the sprinters from Japan and the USA were almost dead even with him, and he proceeded to leave them in the dust.  Simply amazing.
  • The dominance in the swimming pool, for the FOURTH OLYMPIAD, of Michael Phelps.
  • The dominance in the swimming pool by Katie Ladecky, and at only 19 years of age, I suspect that she will still dominate in 2020, and quite possibly 2024.
Moving away from the Olympics....
  • What do you make of the Pittsburgh Pirates?  In the month of August, they went 5-4 in a stretch against bottom feeders Atlanta, Cincinnati, and San Diego.  They then go an improbable 5-1 against the Dodgers and Giants on the West Coast, only to return home to face critical series against the Marlons and the Astros and go 1-5 and look completely impotent in doing so.  You just can't figure them out, or, as Yogi Berra once put it "In baseball, you don't know nothin'."
  • The Steelers.  They are 0-2 in the practice games, have looked awful (or so I'm told; I think I've watched a total of about a half dozen plays in the two games, total).  What I think is happening is that Mike Tomlin is using these games as a coach should use them.  To look at newer and marginal players, to avoid injuries to key players (Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, to name only two key players, have not played a down), to practice.  These are PRACTICE GAMES, people.  What a concept for a coach to follow.
  • Of course, this doesn't stop the Steelers and their 31 NFL lodge brothers from charging full boat for the tickets and making purchase of these tickets mandatory in all season ticket packages.  Shameful.
  • I have just started reading this recently released and current best seller...
  • It's hard to believe, but you pretty much have to be over fifty years old to have a first hand memory of the Patty Hearst Kidnapping and the amazing and bizarre story that followed it.  I am only about forty pages into it, but it promises to be an interesting and fascinating book.  Rest assured that The Grandstander will be providing a full review upon completion.
  • My mentioning of this book on Facebook yesterday prompted some comments along the lines of "Whatever became of Steven Weed?"  Anyone under age fifty reading this know who Steven Weed is/was?  Anyway, a Google search reveals surprisingly little about him. Google will show a successful realtor in Menlo Park, CA named Steven Weed, that is about the right age, but no indication if he is THE Steven Weed.  Perhaps Toobin's book will reveal the answer.
The Happy Couple

  • Speaking of Usain Bolt, look what has been turning up on various golf courses western Pennsylvania of late:
  • What a legacy, huh?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Book Review - "Better Dead" by Max Allan Collins

Back in March, I touted you all to the news that Max Allan Collins would be releasing a new Nate Heller novel this spring, "Better Dead".

I just finished reading this newest Heller "memoir", and I am happy to report that Collins and Heller have teamed up for another terrific story;

As in all of the past Heller chronicles, our hero gets himself involved with real historical figures and real historical crimes.  "Better Dead" takes place in 1950, and among the people that Heller encounters in this one are Senator Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Robert Kennedy, Drew Pearson, Dashiell Hammett, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Senator Estes Kefauver, Bettie Page, and Frank Olson.

The thrust of the book concerns the case of Frank Olson, a real life person with whom I was unfamiliar.  He was a scientist who worked for the CIA back in the post-WWII era in the development of biological and chemical weapons. I the course of these events, Olson was "slipped a mickey" one night at a CIA retreat that contained LSD, a relatively new and unknown drug at the time.  Olson reacted badly to the drug, and developed paranoia and mental illness.  One night, while the CIA was attempting to get treatment for him, Olson committed suicide by leaping from the 18th floor of his hotel in New York.

Or did he?  There is a lot I could write here about the Frank Olson case, but I will not do so.  No spoilers. Better you should read "Better Dead" and other resources on this case.  It is really quite fascinating.

That is the thrust of the second half of the book, and Collins wraps things up nicely in the final chapter with a sort of "whatever became of..." segment about what happened to everyone, how each of the strands of the story worked out, and how Collins' alternate theories of  history actually could have been true.  Even the names of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield pop up in here.

I don't know how many, if any, more Heller stories Collins has left in him, but I sure hope that there will be more.  "Better Dead" proves that Collins has not lost a thing off of his metaphorical fast ball when it comes to the Memoirs of PI Nathan Heller.

Oh, I mentioned Bettie Page.  Yes, Collins always seems to include a real life pretty dame in these stories, and yes, as with all of the others, Miss Page and Nate become an "item" in this one.

Yep, that is the famous 1950's pin-up model Bettie Page above in one of her, ahem, more inhibited poses.  Why am I including it in this post?  Well, why not!!

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The H.A. Citations - Olympics Edition

It has been some time since The Grandstander has bestowed a not-so-coveted H.A. Citation, but the soon to be completed Rio Olympics has given me ample opportunity to bestow these things left and right, so let's do it with an Olympic theme, shall we.  In case any readers may not know what "H.A." stands for this glance at the Citation should clear up all doubts...

(Photo courtesy of Dan Bonk Enterprises)

Okay, ready?  Here we go....

H.A. Citation Honorable Mention

This Honorable Mention goes out to Patrick Hickey, a 71 year old Irishman who is a member of that wonderful group of folks, the International Olympic Committee.  Mr. Hickey was arrested this past Wednesday at the IOC hotel in Rio and is facing , according to the Associated Press "charges of conspiracy, ticket scalping, and ambush marketing after allegations by Brazilian authorities that he was part of a plot to make $3 million by illegally selling Rio Games tickets above face value."  Upon his arrest, Hickey complained of chest pains and was taken to the hospital, but he has since been cleared, health-wise, and now stands before the bar of Brazilian justice.  

For helping to maintain the high (low?) standards of corruption, graft, and bribery that has characterized the true spirit of the IOC for lo these many years, this one's for you, Patrick!

Bronze Medal

This one goes out to Katinka Hosszu's Husband/Coach.  As the lovely and talented Hungarian swimmer was winning medal after medal in the Olympic swimming pool, the television viewers were treated to shot-after-sideline-shot of this guy behaving in a manner that would even embarrass SEC football coaches.  The guy was a complete and total jackass from the top if his top-knotted head down to his green t-shirt that he never appeared to change.  Why did NBC subject us to this guy?  By the way, his name is Shane Tusup, but who really cares?

Silver Medal

This one goes to the goalkeeper of the US Women's soccer team, Hope Solo, for her incredibly crass and unsportsmanlike comments against the Swedish team after the Swedes defeated and eliminated from the tournament the heavily favored American team.  You will recall that Solo called the Swedish team "cowards" for employing tactics that would help to neutralize the more talented USA squad, and defeat them, which they did.  That is called smart, not cowardly, play.  "The better team didn't win tonight", Solo groused.  Probably true, but that happens a lot in sports when smart coaches come up with a smart game plan that smart, albeit less talented, players can execute.  Combine this with Solo's  history of DUI incidents and domestic violence charges (with she being the perpetrator), and one can only hope that this is the last time we see Hope Solo on a big stage again, but I wouldn't worry about her.  There's always the WWE or MMA.

Gold Medal

To be honest with you, I thought that Hope Solo had the Gold Medal H.A. all sewed up, but you have to wait things out, as swimmer Ryan Lochte proved so well early in the second week of the Games.  Claiming that he and three fellow American swimmers were robbed at gunpoint by robbers impersonating Brazilian police, the story had a bit of a fishy ring to it from the start, and those suspicions have all been proven to be accurate.

So, why does Lochte secure the Gold? Well....
  1. The alleged incident occurred at 4:00 AM.  Nothing good ever happens after midnight.
  2. Lochte admitted he was drunk.  Drunk at the age of 32 while out partying with three guys ten years younger than he is.  To steal a great movie line, but "drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son."
  3. Lochte then flies out of Brazil to home leaving his three fellow partiers holding the bag and answering questions from the cops.
  4. Several days after the fact, Lochte tweets out one of those great "Athlete Apologies", no doubt written by his agent or lawyer that had all the sincerity of a, well, an entitled athlete's apology that was written by his agent.
So there you have it.  I realize that there is still one more day of competition in Rio, but I am going to risk that no one will do anything to topple these three from the H.A. Podium.

And because the race for Gold and Silver was so close between Lochte and Solo, I bestow a special citation, the first ever DRHA (Dual River Horses Asses) Citation to the USA Olympic teammates, who revitalized the term "Ugly American".

(Photo courtesy of Bill Montrose)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Movie Review - "Florence Foster Jenkins"

From the time I saw the first commercial for "Florence Foster Jenkins", and looked at a trailer for it online, I knew that this was going to be a movie I wanted to see.  It looked like it would be funny, and it starred Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, and it even included Simon Helberg, the guy who plays Howard Walowitz on "The Big Bang Theory".  It was directed by Stephen Frears, the guy who made "The Queen". I mean, how could you go wrong?

Then the reviews came in, and word of month from friends, and it confirmed everything.  Streep was great, everyone said, and will probably earn her twentieth Oscar nomination from this one, but the guy who steals the movie is Helberg, and he, too, will probably score an Oscar nomination as a result of his part in this one.  Like to see Sheldon Cooper top that!

The movie takes place in 1944 in New York City.  Streep plays the title character, a wealthy patron of the arts who loves music and has a desire to sing in public.  In Carnegie Hall, no less.  Grant is her devoted husband, and Helberg plays the pianist that Grant hires to accompany his wife as she takes to the stage.  I will say that the scene when Jenkins/Streep first sings with Helberg accompanying her in a rehearsal in Jenkins' apartment is positively hilarious.  If Helberg does score that Oscar nomination, it will be because of those few minutes of the movie.  

The movie is more than that, though. It's a love story that is incredibly touching, but one with a few complicated twists and turns to it.  The scenes of New York City in 1944 are really beautiful to look at, too.  As for pure film making, there is a scene in the latter part of the movie where Streep reads a newspaper on a New York City street where the camera backs up and away that is just a terrific scene.  And Streep's final line of dialog in the movie is really great.  It hits the perfect note (no pun intended).

This movie is also based on a true story.  There really was a Florence Foster Jenkins, who really did give a performance at Carnegie Hall in 1944.  You can look it up!

As I said, Streep is terrific, but that's no surprise.  Is she ever not great in a movie?  So is Helberg, but not mentioned much in the reviews is the work of Hugh Grant.  Personal prejudice:  I really like Hugh Grant.  He can be serious, he can be funny (he is both in this movie), and he is good looking.  I have always said that there was only one Cary Grant in the movies, and he will never be duplicated, but Hugh Grant comes the closest to it of any contemporary actor.  He gives a wonderful performance in "Florence Foster Jenkins", but it is one that will probably get lost amidst the work of Streep and Helberg.

Three and one-half stars from The Grandstander for "Florence Foster Jenkins".

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ron Necciai - A Cautionary Tale

Among the (many) things that long time baseball fans gripe and complain about "baseball today" is that pitchers, and particularly young pitchers, are held to strict limits in regard to innings pitched and even to the number of pitches that they throw in any given game.

"By, God", they say, "Warren Spahn/Bob Feller/Robin Roberts/Fill In the Blank never worried about how many innings they pitched or how many pitches they threw.  They'd throw thirty or more complete games a year and they're in the Hall of Fame."

Well, yeah, they are, but I wonder that for every Bob Gibson and Bob Friend there were, how many contemporary pitchers of theirs were there that we have never heard of because their arms were shot by the time they got to Class C baseball because they were told to pitch 'til their arms fell off.  Ten, twenty, fifty?  No way to know, but that brings me to the tale of Ron Necciai.

If you are a really, really, REALLY longtime Pirates fan, you know the story.  As a nineteen year old phee-nom out of Monongahela High School in 1952, Necciai pitched back-to-back games for the Bristol Twins, the Pirates Class D affiliate in the Appalachian League, where he struck out 27 batters and threw a no-hitter, followed by a two-hitter where he stuck out 24 batters.  He was then promoted to the Carolina League, where he recorded 172 strikeouts in 126 innings pitched.  The numbers are not available to me, but God only knows how many pitches Necciai threw in those 27 and 24 strike out games.

In August of that year, the now twenty year old Necciai was promoted to the Pirates (who stunk and would lose 112 games that season) where he went 1-6 with a 7.08 ERA and had 31 strike outs in 54.2 IP.  He went into the military in 1953, where he was soon released with a medical discharge.  He never pitched in the majors again, kicked around the minors for a few years, dealt with a torn rotator cuff, and was out of baseball after 1955.

The long time Bucco fans look at that 27 K's game of Necciai's and say, "Man, what if he never got injured?  Think of how great he'd have been for the Pirates."

Here's some other points that they should be asking:
  • Instead of leaving him in those games to strike out 27 and 24 batters, what if Pirates management, in the person of no less than Branch Rickey, the Old Mahatma himself, had said "Make sure that that boy never throws more that 75-80 pitches in any game"?
  • Instead of promoting him to a higher league, what if they kept him at Bristol, reduced his workload, and promoted him to a higher league in 1953 with some expanded IP limits?
  • What if they did that to make sure that Necciai was properly prepared for the big leagues when he was, say, 25 years old, in 1957, and he could have joined a staff that included Bob Friend and Vernon Law?
I wonder if Ron Necciai, still alive and 84 years of age, ever wonders the same things.

Of course, maybe Necciai never would have made it, and the medical science of the time when it came to things like torn rotator cuffs was no doubt worlds behind what it is today, but we'll never know what precise damage that heavy workload put on a 19 year old arm back in 1952, nor will we know how many other "Ron Necciais" there were that are now lost in the dust bins of baseball history, but I'll bet there were a lot more of them than there were "Warren Spahns".

The point I am trying to make, I think, is that there is a reason that the Pirates and every team is protecting assets like Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, and Chan Kuhl when they keep them in the minors for too long (according to all of us experts) or monitor their pitch counts.  We all need to remember that.

Of course, another aspect is the investment that teams have in these guys.  The Pirates invested millions of dollars in guys like Taillon and Gerrit Cole before they ever threw a professional pitch.  Rickey probably signed Necciai for a couple of thousand bucks, if that.  But that is another subject for us Old-Timers to rail about.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Ledecky's Amazing Feat

We have really enjoyed watching the Olympics throughout the first week, especially the swimming events.  The performance of 31 year old Michael Phelps in his fifth Olympics has been nothing short of remarkable, but I think that the most astonishing single performance was watching Katie Ledecky completely demolish the field in the 800 meter freestyle race.

To that end, these may well be the most memorable images of the these Olympic games for me.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Ugly American

A picture is worth a thousand words....

The Rio Olympics - Seven Days In

I have been watching a lot of the Olympics.  Not as much as my friend Fred Shugars has been watching, to be sure, but enough to ensure that I haven't been to bed before midnight all week, and it's killing me.

Anyway, here are some Kwick Komments from this part of The Grandstand.....

  • Michael Phelps.  The guy is 31 years old and in his FIFTH Olympics.  I never would have thought that what he has done in Rio would have been possible.  It is simply amazing.

  • Ryan Lochte may be one of the greatest swimmers of all time.  Wonder if he ever says to himself, "Why did MY prime have to coincide with Michael Phelps' prime?"
  • When I watch Katie Ledecky swim her events, I think of Secretariat at the Belmont Stales in 1973.  Another simply amazing athlete.

  • Staying in the pool, HUGE props go out to American Gold Medalist Simone Manuel for all kinds of reasons.  Hers was a landmark performance in a lot of ways.  Her emotions after winning and in post-swim interviews last night was one of the highlights of the Games.

  • Allison Schmitt, the great-niece of one of our Stonebrook neighbors, Barb Meyer, won a gold medal in one of the swimming relay events the other night.  This goes with four medals that she won in London in 2012.  Here's to a little reflected glory for our little neighborhood!

  • Female beach volleyball players high five and hug each other after every point.  Talk about slowing up the pace of play.
  • I watched the final set of a men's beach volleyball match last night between the USA and Italy, and found it to be totally and completely compelling.
  • Saw the last ten minutes of the USA-India field hockey game last night, won by the USA, 3-0.  Isn't that a sport that has historically been dominated by India in the past? (That's a serious question.)  Anyway, that USA team is now either 3-0 or 4-0 in pool play, so when did the USA become a power in field hockey?
  • I am not sure if I have ever seen ten minutes of field hockey, total, in my entire life before last night, but, hey, Let's Go USA!!!!
  • When Australia gave the USA men's basketball team a bit of a scare on Wednesday night, it produced the best quote of the Games so far.  Kyrie Irving said that the Aussies gave the USA a great game and forced them to "play with our backs to the ropes" all night.
  • I applaud the skill sets of the female gymnasts, and I am glad that they are producing a haul of medals for the good ol' US of A, but something about watching those young girls (and, yes, they are for the most part, still girls) makes me a little uneasy.  Too many stories from the past about abusive coaches (that means you, Mr. and Mrs Karolyi) makes me squeamish.
  • The maniacal husband/coach of Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu is far and away the most annoying character to emerge from these Games.  Does he ever wash that green t-shirt he's always wearing?
  • Team handball.  I never see this enough to really learn the rules and the intricacies of the game.  It seems to combine basketball, hockey, and soccer all in one sport.  It seems intriguing and looks like something that I might actually like watching, if given the opportunity to learn more about it.  It doesn't seem to be a sport that is played with any great seriousness in the USA.
  • Of the sports contested in this first week, I am glad that the scheduling was such that most of the final swimming events have been contested live and in prime time.  Those are the ones we have most enjoyed seeing.  I hope that the same will be true of some of the signature track and field events, which begin today.
That's it for now.  More to come in the week ahead.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


A medical incident that I experienced last week (I'll spare you the details; can't violate HIPAA, you know) caused me to undergo a bunch of various medical tests last week.  The good news is that all the tests results thus far have come back negative.  The even better news is that I was able to appropriate the famous Dizzy Dean headline to use on myself.

There was one big down side to this, though.  After much consideration, we decided to back out on our annual trip to the Outer Banks, which was scheduled for this week.  It is the first time since the Reagan Administration that we will have missed out on this family trip.  Really bums us out when we dwell on it, but it was the right decision and was probably for the best.  


Monday, August 8, 2016

To Absent Friends - B.E. Taylor

B.E. Taylor

The Facebook news feed this afternoon is filled with the incredibly sad news of the death of local Pittsburgh area singer and musician B.E. Taylor.  He died yesterday at the age of 65.  Taylor was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in 2007, but he continued to perform right up to the end.

Taylor had a brief fling with national prominence in the 1980's, including a Billboard #1 song, "Vitamin L".  For the most part,, however, he confined himself to recording and performing in the greater Pittsburgh and tri-state area.  He was best known for his annual Christmas shows.  Marilyn and I had the good fortune to finally see one of these shows last December at Heinz Hall ( ), and it was wonderful experience.  

This is a guy who surely will be missed on the local music and entertainment scene.

RIP B.E. Taylor.

Movie Review - "Jason Bourne"

We took in the new Jason Bourne movie that is titled, appropriately enough, "Jason Bourne".  When you go see this one, take a deep breath before the movie starts, because this is one non-stop, kick-ass, action movie folks.  The action never, and I mean, never stops.  Lots of shootings, bare knuckle fights, explosions, and car crashes.  Lots and lots of car crashes.  Lots of scenes of feet hitting brake pedals and gas pedals.  Director Paul Greengrass delivers it all!  And as for scenery, I lost track halfway through of how many cities we saw in this one....Reyjavik, Athens, Rome, London, Washington, Las Vegas, and I am sure that I have forgotten a few.

As for the plot, forget about it.  There are more McGuffins in this one that Hitchcock could have ever shaken a stick at, so don't even try, just sit back and enjoy the ride.  Matt Damon, fresh back from Mars, reprises the role of Jason Bourne and let me tell you, Damon's Bourne makes James Bond, as played by anyone, look like a complete and total namby-pamby.  This has got to be one of the toughest guys ever put on a movie screen.

A craggy faced Tommy Lee Jones plays the CIA Director.  Is he a good guy or a bad guy?

An attractive Alicia Vikander played a Deputy CIA Director.  Is she a good guy or a bad guy?

Both Jones and Vikander are Academy Award winners, and both chew on a bit of scenery as this movie plays out, but what the hell, this movie isn't supposed to be great art, it's supposed to be exciting and fun, and it surely does deliver on both counts.  And, yes, it ends  with a perfect set up for the NEXT Jason Bourne movie.

Three stars from The Grandstander for "Jason Bourne".

As an aside, the Cinemark Theaters has a new public service announcement that they play before the movies asking that all in the audience turn off their cell phones.  It is delivered by Director Oliver Stone, and it's hilarious.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Rio Olympics Begin

After months and months of stories about bribery and corruption in high levels, a city and a country being brought to near bankruptcy over their stageing, reports of poverty and of ungodly living conditions that include water pollution that might kill you, the risk of disease carrying insects, and athletic quarters where raw sewerage is running down the walls, the 2016 Olympic Games begin tonight in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Hoo-ray!

While I may not be as sour on the Olympics as Ron Cook described himself in his Post-Gazette column this morning (but to be fair, nobody can be as sour about anything as Ron Cook is about almost everything), I must admit that the magic of the Olympics has lessened for me somewhat with each passing four years, and I have come to have no illusions that the "Olympic Ideal" of Baron Pierre de Coubertin no longer exists, if it ever existed at all, in today's athletic world.

Still, I will be watching the Games themselves because they can be entertaining, compelling, and just plain fun to watch.  If that makes me a hypocrite, so be it.

These are some of the things to which I will look forward to seeing over the next 17 days:

  • Men's Basketball.  Will the USA team continue it's dominance since the introduction of professional players in the Games?  Remember this: when it gets pointed out that This Country or That Country has two NBA players, or four NBA players so watch out for them, keep in mind that the USA has TWELVE NBA players, an entire team of NBA players.
  • Women's Basketball.  This field may be more competitive from top to bottom than the men's field, so will the USA be able to bring home the Gold?
  • Women's soccer.  Can the USA continue what they did in the Women's World Cup last year?
  • Swimming.  Always fun to watch every four years in the Olympics.  Can Michael Phelps win yet another gold medal?  And will American Katie Ledecky continue her supreme dominance in this sport?
  • Track and Field.  Another sport to which I only pay attention every four years.  Couldn't  name an American T&F athlete.  Wait, yes I can...Justin Gatlin and Donovan McNab's daughter.  However, somebody will emerge as an American star and capture our imaginations over the next two weeks in this sport.
  • Usain Bolt.  Can he continue to be the Fastest Man in the World?
  • Gymnastics.  Will the young women representing the USA actually crack a smile and appear to enjoy themselves during the course of the competition.
Someone whose name we do not know today will become a Story and a Star over the course of these games.  Will it be a male or female, from a mainstream or a niche sport, from a poverty stricken third world nation, or a world super-power?  That will be the fun of watching the Olympics.

And when the Games are over, we can then begin to start counting all of the medals that will be stripped from the winners because those winners were found to be, you know, cheaters.

Citius, Altius, Fortius.

The Liriano Deal

Shortly after I posted my last article about the Pirates deadline deals the news broke about the last minute salary dump trade of Francisco Liriano to the Blue Jays for pitcher Drew Hutchison.  The Jays agree to take on the full liability if Liriano's contract for 2016 and 2017, about $17 million worth of liability, and, oh yeah, the Pirates also sent along two of their Top Ten prospects to Toronto, OF Harold Ramirez and C Reese McGuire.  This news is now four days old and I should have written of it earlier, but for some real life issues that came up and kept me way from the keyboard for a few days.

So, what do we make of this?

My friend, Fred Shugars has often taken the position that "prospects are over-valued", and that a team shouldn't hesitate to deal prospects for proven vets if it can make a difference for a team in a pennant race.  Okay, that is a valid argument that I may or may not agree with, depending on the circumstances, but is that what the Pirates did in this case?  It doesn't appear so.  The Pirates gave up, as I said, two top ten prospects for a middling pitcher (30-21, 4.92 ERA in 76 games over parts of four seasons) who they immediately sent to Indianapolis so they can maintain additional, are you ready for it, "years of control."  Yep, that phrase that has been so maddening to Pirates fans in the Huntington Era have reared their heads once again.

When you give up a starting pitcher, albeit one that has been extremely ineffective and two of your top ten prospects, in exchange for a pitcher who cannot even supplant Jeff Locke from the roster, let alone the starting rotation, then, friends, you have a trade that, while it might be good for the bottom line business of running the Pirates, it probably has not been good for the actual playing of games for the Pirates.

To be fair, we won't know for absolute certainty as to the quality of this trade until at least late 2017 or even 2018.  Only then will we know what kind of major league players Ramirez and McGuire - and Hutchison - turn out being.  

All in all, it has been a frustrating week to be a Pirates fan.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Pirates "Wheel-and-Deal"

Thoughts on the Pirates as the Trade Deadline passes and the calendar turns to August.

Right off the bat, that weekend in Milwaukee was a Disaster with a capital D.  No way, NONE, to put a positive spin on anything that took place up there over those three somnambulant performances. When historians look back on the 2016 Pirates, July 29-31 may well be pointed to as, to borrow a rock-and-roll metaphor, the days the music died.

Now, the trades.

  • Mark Melancon to the Nats for LHP Rivero and Hearn.  This was no surprise, and it may well end up working out for the Pirates over the long haul.  MM was gone at the end of the season as a free agent, so it makes total business sense to do this, and it may very well work out in baseball sense.  It can be argued that it makes the statement that the Pirates are giving up on the 2016 season, so that lends a sad note to the whole deal. Personally, I believe that Tony Watson will close and save games with the same degree of efficiency as Melancon did.
  • This is not to say that Melancon will not be missed.  He served the Pirates honorably and well in the time that he was here, and he seemed to be a good guy.  I wish him well.
  • Jon Niese back to the Mets for former Pirate Antonio Bastardo.  In making this deal, Neal Huntington is saying that the Pirates sure got fleeced when they sent Neil Walker to the Mets for Niese over the winter.
  • Ivan Nova (4.90 ERA in 97 IP) from the Yankees for a Player To Be Named Later.  Nova will be a free agent at the end of the season.  This has all the earmarks of a classic Nothing-for-Nothing deal. 
  • For everyone who has been saying that ANYBODY would be better than Jeff Locke and/or Jon Niese, well, we are about to find out.
What does it all mean?  Well, if it means that the Pirates are giving up, in deed, if not in word, on a serious post season run this year, that 2016 may well be the "bridge year" to which the front office has often alluded, then make it a true bridge year.  That means....
  • Install at least one more of the "young gun" pitchers as a full fledged member of the rotation.  Jameson Taillon is already in there.  The next guy should probably be Chad Kuhl once he is off the DL.
  • I'll give in that Tyler Glasnow isn't quite ready yet, so keep him in Indy, but bring him up in September and pitch him.  The season may well be over for the Pirates then, so what will be lost?  (This assumes, of course, that he is healthy and hasn't reached an innings limit.)
  • Take a really long hard look at John Jaso at first base. His numbers in both BA and OBP have been falling so precipitously as the season has progressed that he is not helping the ball club at all, particularly as a lead off batter.
  • Bring Josh Bell up and put him at first base.  The word is that he is not very good defensively at first base.  So what?  The Pirates won 98 games last year with a guy at first base who was far and away the worst defensive first baseman in all of baseball.  A gold glove at first base is way over rated if you've got a first baseman who can, you know, hit.  Where Josh Bell is concerned, the future is now.  Not with a September call up, but now.
I don't know what to make of what has happened to Andrew McCutchen this season.  His, to be kind, sub-par season has killed the team this year.  I almost hope that we learn that he played with an injury all season that affected his play, because if he's NOT hurt, then are we seeing a sudden erosion of skills that have tuned a superstar into just another guy?  I hate to think that.

Finally, it appears that Ryan Vogelsong will return to the team and get a starting assignment this week in Atlanta.  Having watched the game where Vogelsong was hit in the face with a pitch, I could not be happier that he has recovered and is healthy, because that was a truly awful and frightening thing to watch.   So his comeback so soon is a great thing to see.  However, let's be honest, Voglesong's best days are behind him, so he cannot be looked upon as the saviour who will salvage the Pirates ineffective starting rotation.

Hey, a wild card spot is still not out of the question, but it won't be easy and nothing up to this point, including the trades made this weekend, makes you overly optimistic about the team making a charge these last fifty-plus games, but you never know.   I, for one, am not going to stop watching them.  I will still stand by my pre-season prediction of 89 wins.  I also predicted no playoff spot, and, alas, I will stand by that as well.

Did you notice that I didn't include any pictures with this post? Did you really want to see pictures of Antonio Bastardo and Ivan Nova?