Tuesday, November 29, 2016


Two weeks ago in this space I wrote of our trip earlier this month to Tennessee, and I mentioned that some aspects of that trip deserved their own write-up, one of them being our visit to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, in Memphis, TN.

When we knew last year that we would be traveling to a wedding in Nashville this November, then tacking on a few extra days to drive to Memphis and see this site was a no-brainer.  This was something that had long been on our Bucket List, and once we got there and toured the place, we can honestly say that it completely exceeded all of our expectations.

When you arrive at Graceland, what you actually arrive at  is the Graceland Visitors Center, which is across the street, the aptly named Elvis Presley Boulevard, from the house itself.  (More on the Visitors Center later.)  It is there that you pick up your tickets (we had purchased ours in advance on line), and board a tour van that drives you across the street and on to the grounds.  One does not just walk through the famous gates and up to the door of Graceland.  You are given an iPad with headphones, and that becomes your "tour guide" to the house and grounds.  Actor John Stamos narrates the video on the iPad that you are seeing which guides you throughout the place.  It is very well done.

While Graceland is a very nice home, the house is actually smaller than you might think.  The decorations that were in place in 1977 are maintained, and let's just say that Elvis' ideas of home decor may not quite agree with yours or mine.

Nice wall and ceiling coverings in the Billiard Room!

The famous Jungle Room.

And some nice portraits on display:

The second floor of the house is closed off to the public, so the Tour takes you only through the first floor.  You then go outside of the house to various additions and out buildings, and these have been turned into a true museum to Elvis.  You also see a child's swing set, circa 1970 or so, that was Lisa Marie's.  It was kind of a touching thing to see, really.

Elvis also had a racquetball court built at Graceland that included this living/seating area:

It was in this room, you are told, that Elvis, on August 16, 1977,after a morning out with friends, came into this room sat at the piano, sang a couple go songs, including "Unchained Melody", and then retired to his room to rest, and it was there that he died.  It was rather moving.

Of course, it is no longer a racquetball court, as the space is now devoted to more of a display of Elvis artifacts and memorabilia.  

The Tour concludes in the Meditation Gardens, where Elvis is buried along with his parents and grandmother.

Again, it may appear to be a bit over the top, but in context, it is a touching and respectful area.

Going into the place, Marilyn and I were expecting a very high degree of Tackiness at Graceland, and I must say that, Elvis' interior decorations aside, we did not see that.  However, when you went through  the Visitor's Center upon your return from Graceland itself, that Tacky Factor manifests itself.  No less than fourteen separate gift shops where you can buy just about anything with the image of Elvis Presley upon it.  Capitalism at work, not to mention the laws of supply and demand, and, yes, in case you are wondering, we dropped a few bucks throughout the place.

Not all of the Visitors Center was tacky, though.  One place was called the Elvis Archives, and it was showcase of the efforts of museum professionals to catalogue, archive, preserve, and display all of the "stuff" accumulated over the life and career of Elvis Presley.  That was fascinating to see.   And everyplace you go throughout the Visitor's Center is playing Elvis Presley music, and this is certainly not a bad thing.

The Visitors Center also has Elvis' two airplanes on display, which were pretty cool to walk through.

There were a lot of people at Graceland on this Thursday morning in November,  but we can't say that it was crowded, which was good for us, because it afforded us a more leisurely tour of the place.  We cannot imagine what it must be like in the Summer at the height of the vacation and tourism season.   Obviously, Graceland is one of the largest tourist attractions in the State of Tennessee and the United States, and we, Marilyn and I, cannot recommend it highly enough.  

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Adios, Fidel

TRIVIA ANSWER:  Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.

TRIVIA QUESTION: How many US Presidents were outlasted by Fidel Castro of Cuba? Okay, technically, President Obama has outlasted Castro, but you get the idea.  I was playing golf once when the subject of Fidel Castro came up (don't ask), and my buddy said, "Who was President when he took over in Cuba, Abe Lincoln?"  It only seemed that way.

Yesterday morning when we heard the news that Fidel Castro had gone to that big sugar cane field in the sky, Marilyn said to me "You're surely not going to do an 'Absent Friend' write up on Castro, are you?"  Well, in no way can we consider Castro a Friend, but how can you not recognize the passing of one of the towering figures of the latter half of the twentieth century?  

He triggered one of the seminal events of the last century, the Cuban Missile Crisis.  His legacy still plays a major role in American politics and, most definitely in the state of Florida. In a far less important sense, his policies had a huge effect on Major League Baseball, and the Olympic Games, and his revolution played a key role in "The Godfather Part II". 

Can't say that he will be missed.

If only the Washington Senators would have offered him a contract (probably an apocryphal story) way back when, who knows what might have happened.


In a Facebook post today, friend Dave Finoli posted that "One of the true joys of attending a sporting event is that you just never know what you might see when you do."  Never has that statement been more true than in reference to yesterday's Pitt -Syracuse football game, won by Pitt by a score of - and you are reading this correctly - 76-61.

So much went on in this game and at such a dizzying pace, that you really can't even remember all of the dazzling plays that unfolded before you on the Heinz Field gridiron yesterday.  Just some highlights.....

  • 1,312 yards of total offense between both teams
  • Twenty touchdowns
  • Seven touchdown plays of 35 yards or more
  • A Pitt DB scoring a TD on a thirty yard interception return.  It was the one and only significant defensive play of the entire game by either team.
  • A WR for Syracuse catching five TD passes.
  • Syracuse's back-up quarterback passed for 440 yards, threw five TD passes and scored two other TD's rushing.
  • Kicker Chris Blewitt set a Pitt record by making ten PAT's in the game.  I am guessing that that is a record that will stand for a long, long time.
  • On two consecutive offensive plays in the second quarter, Pitt scored on sweeps running around right end.  One went for 66 yards, the other for 77 yards.
  • Early in the third quarter, Pitt established a 28 point lead.  They never lost that lead, but Syracuse kept coming back and scoring.  The game was in doubt pretty much until the last minute and half, when the Orange failed, for the third time in the game, to recover an onside kick.
  • Pitt, a twenty-four point favorite, scored 76 points and failed to cover the spread.
Purists will no doubt rail about the complete and total crumminess of the defenses of both teams, and they would be correct, but, what the hell, that was one wildly entertaining football game yesterday.

A little piece of advice when you watch whatever Bowl Game Pitt ends up playing:  Do not leave the TV set unless the game is in a commercial break, because you just never know  what that Panther Offense might generate, or what the Pitt Defense might allow, if you turn your head for even a moment.

Thanks to Pat Narduzzi, James Conner, Nate Peterman, Quadree Henderson and the entire Pitt Panther team for giving us an exciting and entertaining season.  I was not shortchanged by a single penny of any of the money spent for my season tickets in 2016.


Friday, November 25, 2016

Catching Up On Absent Friends

The Absent Friends are coming fast and furious of late, so several folks will be sharing this post today.

Earlier this week the baseball world lost Ralph Branca (1926-2016) at the age of 90.  Branca had a twelve year career in the motor leagues, most spent with the Brooklyn Dodgers, rolled up a record of 88-68 with a 3.79 ERA.  His best year was in 1947 when he was 21-12 with a 2.67 ERA, and he played in two World Series. None of that, though is how Branca has been and always will be remembered.  Do I really have to tell you WHY he is immortal?  In Game Three of the 1951 tie-breaker playoff to determine the National League pennant winner, it was Branca who served up the bottom of the ninth home run to the Giants' Bobby Thomson.  It was "the shot heard 'round the world", and remains to this day, (sorry Pirates fans) the single most famous home run in baseball history.

Branca didn't take it well, but he came to accept his moment of infamy, and in later years, he joined with Thomson in peddling his autograph, so he did cash in on it to some degree.

That's Branca on the right making the long trek to the Polo Grounds club house as the Giants celebrate.


Today we learned of the death of Florence Henderson at the age of 82.  A Broadway musical theater actress by trade, Henderson became a television star, and will be forever remembered as Carol Brady in the 1970's sitcom, "The Brady Bunch".  The show ran from 1969 to 1974, and it will no doubt continue to run forever on the "Classic TV" cable stations.  Henderson continued to act in such shows as "Love Boat", "Fantasy Island", talk and variety shows, even "Dancing With the Stars", but she was always Mrs. Brady, and she certainly wore that well.


Ann Rule

It was while reading something else earlier this week, when I learned that true crime author Ann Rule had died in July 2015, and I completely missed i at the time.  However, in my mind, she is an Absent Friend worth noting.  If you are someone who loves to read True Crime books, you are no doubt familiar with Ann Rule.

Her breakthrough book was "The Stranger Beside Me" that was published in 1980, about serial killer Ted Bundy.  She would go on to write dozens of other such books. My own personal favorite was "And Never Let Her Go" (1999).  I also once met Ann Rule at a book signing at the Mystery Lovers Book Store in Oakmont, and she discussed her latest book and did a Q&A session afterward.

All her books are out there, folks.  Go to the library, bookstore, or Amazon if true crime is a genre that interests you.  No one did it better than Ann Rule.

RIP Ralph Branca, Florence Henderson, and Ann Rule.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

James Conner

The Pitt football game against Syracuse this coming Saturday will probably be the final regular season game for Pitt running back James Conner.  Conner is a junior with one season of eligibility remaining, but he will no doubt opt to enter the NFL draft in the Spring and begin his pursuit of a professional career.

Chances are, if you are reading this, you already know Conner's story....leading rusher for Pitt as a freshman in 2013....ACC Player of the Year in 2014....season ending injury in opening game of 2015....diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma in November, 2015.....underwent rigorous chemotherapy....returned to play by the season opener in 2016.  So far, he has gained 945 yards on the ground, 254 yards as receiver, and has scored 17 touchdowns in this season.  This past weekend he established an Atlantic Coast Conference record for career rushing TD's and total TD's, and while football in the ACC might not be what football in the Big Ten or SEC is, that league has been playing football for over seventy years, so that is one major accomplishment for Conner.

Yet the football accomplishments are not even half the story for Conner.  His story as a cancer survivor has become an inspirational one for people throughout the country.  And the best part is that James Conner seems to be a genuinely good person and nice kid.  For sure, it has been a pleasure to watch him over the course of his career and, especially, in this, his comeback year.

I pay little attention to and care even less about the Heisman Trophy Award ever since it was co-opted by ESPN and Nissan a decade or so ago.  ESPN decides before the season who the four or five candidates will be for the award and hypes them endlessly and exclusively, so who cares?  However, if the Award wants to really mean what it is supposed to mean, that it should go to a great player who, not incidentally, has great character and is truly inspirational, then James Conner should be awarded that Trophy this year.  Won't happen, but it should, but James Conner won't need a Heisman Trophy to validate what he has meant to Pitt football, and thousands of people across the country who have been inspired by his story.

(And on the subject of Awards, Conner is surely on the short list for Dapper Dan Man of the Year in Pittsburgh this year.)

We will say good-bye to Conner at Heinz field on Saturday.  It will be a bittersweet moment, to be sure.

Monday, November 21, 2016

To Absent Friends - Robert "Keith" Manherz

To most, if not all Pittsburghers, the name of Robert Keith Manherz meant nothing to me, but in reading his obituary in the Post-Gazette this morning, his work is something that is most familiar to generations of Pittsburghers.

Mr. Manherz, who died in Florida earlier this month at the age of 99, was working as an art director for the Pittsburgh Advertising Company, and it was in that position that back in 1953, he designed the large Christmas Tree that adorned the corner of the entire Joseph Horne Department Store at the corner of Penn and Liberty Avenues.

I mean, honestly, what Pittsburgh native is not familiar with this?  When you see something like this, does it even occur to you that SOMEONE had to come up with the idea and design for it?  Well, in this case, that someone was Keith Manherz.

When my employer, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, purchased the Horne's building and converted it to an office building in the 1990's, one of the first decisions that the Higher Ups made was that they would continue to decorate the side of the building, now called Penn Avenue Place, with that famous Christmas Tree.  I was really proud of the fact that Highmark chose to continue this tradition.  Of course, now it's called the "Unity Tree" (C'mon Man!), but does anyone in in Pittsburgh call it anything but the "Horne's Tree"?

The obituary noted that Mr. Manherz was responsible for any number of large outdoor ads that appeared on the Pittsburgh landscape down through the years, yet his children quoted in the obit paint a picture of pretty humble guy who was just doing his job.  Not many people  will ever achieve such anonymous immortality that is such an ingrained part of a City's culture.

RIP Keith Manherz.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Hanging Up the Spikes

Buried deep in the sports pages earlier this week was the news that Joel Hanrahan, a baseball free agent since March of 2015, had announced that he was formally retiring from baseball.  Hanrahan pitched for parts of seven seasons in the majors, compiling a record of 22-18, 3.85 ERA, and recorded 100 saves.  He earned over $13 million in his career, but if ever a guy defines the concept of going out not with a bang but a whimper, it's Hanrahan.

The best part of his career, of course, was spent with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Acquired in a trade from Washington in June 2009, Hanrahan pitched out of the Bucs' bullpen through the 2012 season.  While with the Pirates he was a lights out relief pitcher.  He appeared in 238 games, went 10-8 with a 2.59 ERA and recorded 82 saves.  In 2010, on a genuinely terrible team that lost 105 games, Hanrahan went 4-1, 3.62 with 27 saves.   He was a two time All-Star, and he was electrifying to watch, often hitting 99 and even 100 MPH with his pitches.  The "Hammer Time" video that played on the PNC Park jumbotron when he came into a game gave you goosebumps.

He was traded to Boston after the 2012 season, and things went downhill for him soon after.  He pitched in only nine games for the Red Sox, recording four saves, before having to undergo Tommy John surgery.  He never pitched again in the major leagues.  In attempting a comeback with the Tigers in 2014, he had to have Tommy John surgery a second time, and that was pretty much all she wrote.

We are oft times critical of professional athletes.  They're too pampered, make too much money, and have too big a sense of entitlement, but they are also living in a profession that can be fragile and can end in an instant, as it pretty much did with Joel Hanrahan.  For a brief moment in time, though, no player served the Pirates in their tenure with the team as well as Hanrahan did when he was here.  

Here's wishing him a happy post-baseball life.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Football Weekend That Was

Before another football weekend begins, I need to comment on what happened last week in Pittsburgh football circles.  As we were in the midst of our Tennessee trip, access was limited, but this is what I did see.

The Pitt-Clemson game was televised on ESPN, so I was able to catch the beginning of the game before we had to leave our hotel to go to the wedding.  At that time, the score was 14-14.  After the ceremony, we were made aware that Pitt was still very much in the game, and, through the magic of cell phones and video streaming, I was able to watch Chris Blewitt kick the 48 yard field goal that enabled Pitt to upset the heavily favored, second ranked Clemson Tigers.

To call this Pitt win "stunning"  would be seriously understating it.  This was easily the Panthers biggest, most important, and most unexpected win since they beat undefeated West Virginia in 2003, a game that cost WVU a chance at the national championship.

It was totally and completely unexpected, but I need to tip the Pitt Script ball cap to our pal, Bob Middleman, aka, Bob Jeffrey, who, at our North Side Breakfast last August called for a possible upset of Clemson by Pitt in Death Valley.  We all laughed, but who's laughing now?  I only hope that Bob had a bet on it.


Then there was the Steelers-Cowboys game.  We were in Louisville that afternoon doing our "tourist thing", and then hit the road.  We checked into a motel somewhere in Ohio a little after 7:00.  I had no idea what was going on in the game, and I turned on the TV just as the two minute warning was taking place with the Steelers leading by one point.  You know what happened...I saw the Cowboys win the game....then I saw the Steelers win the game...then I saw the Cowboys win the game.

Looks like I missed seeing perhaps the best NFL game of the year, but, wow, what a crummy end result.

It now looks like the Steelers had been over-rated by many (and, yes, that includes The Grandstander), especially on defense.  By this coming Sunday, it will have been forty-two days since they last won a football game.  No way to dress that up.  However, in an effort to try to be positive, I point out that four of their remaining seven games are against  division foes.  Win those, maybe steal one of the other three (against Colts, Giants, Bills), and they probably win the AFC North.  

Then, who knows what might happen?  It's asking a lot, I realize, but it wouldn't be all that surprising in the NFL of 2016, and, yes, I know that them going 3-4 in these least seven games would be all that surprising either.


Remember back on September 10 when Pitt beat Penn State?   Remember how even the most die-hard PSU loyalists were questioning how James Franklin could possibly retain his job past this season?  Of course you do, but then an amazing thing happened.  Penn State somehow managed to upset unbeaten and heavily favored Ohio State, and they now own a record of 8-2, 6-1 in the Big 10, and are ranked in the Top Ten.  They need help from some other schools, but it is possible that they could be playing in the Big Ten Championship game, and if they could somehow manage to win THAT, then could they be considered for the Playoffs?  I know, I know, that's a lot of "if this" and "if that", but I doubt that there is any "fire Franklin" talk taking place in Happy Valley right now.  In fact, this turnaround could put Franklin on the short lists of some NFL teams who might be coach shopping this winter.

It's kind of incredible when you come to think of it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Stadium Politics

Earlier this week, a gentleman named Gary Rector made the following "This Date In History"-type post on Jim Haller's "Corsair Tales" Facebook group:

Nov. 14, 1956 The Pirates threaten to move the franchise from Pittsburgh unless a new municipal stadium is built to replace Forbes Field. The second division club drew 949,878 fans, the fifth best total of the eight National League teams.

This led to a number of comments along the lines of "well this is how far back corporate and municipal blackmail by sports teams went".  I also made the following comment to Mr. Rector's post:

PNC Park just completed its 16th season. Three Rivers Stadium lasted for 31 seasons, and the discontent with the place began well before then. The Braves and the Rangers have already shown us that the shelf life of "state of the art" ball parks is about twenty years. Nothing coming from 115 Federal Street in the next five years or so about this issue will surprise me. Nothing.

I could add to that that I would be even less surprised if such rumblings emanated from the Steelers' corporate offices expressing discontent with Heinz Field. In fact, such rumblings appeared three or four years ago, and that led to the construction of those 3,000 new "club level" seats at Heinz Field.

It will be interesting to see how the ownership  groups of both the Pirates and Steelers act about their respective stadiums in three or four more years when this facilities begin their third decade of operations. As I said, nothing will surprise me.

The Tennessee Waltz (With A Splash of Kentucky Bourbon)

It was at about this time last year that my friend Roger Hansen told me that his daughter Alyssa became engaged, that the wedding would take place in November of 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee, where Alyssa and Adam resided, and that we would be invited to attend.  Thus began a year long process of planning the logistics for a trip to Tennessee.  Nashville is not a quick drive, so Marilyn and I decided that we were going to make a real vacation out of it.  That we were going to do and see things (including one item that had long been on our personal Bucket List) because, honestly, when will we ever be in that part of the country again?

So it was that on Tuesday morning, after being numbers 10 and 11 to vote at our polling place, we set off on this great southern adventure.  The trip took us through five states, covered 1,744 miles, had us spending time in four different hotels, and a lot of time in the car (and, by the way, what did we do before there were in-car navigation systems? What a great invention!), but it turned out to be one tremendous trip.

In chronological order, this is what we did.  Many of these stops along the way deserve their own separate Grandstander posts, so watch for them over the course of the next few days and weeks.  Here we go....

First stop on Tuesday, the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory.

Yep, that's me next to the giant bat.

Dinner in Louisville was at a sports bar called the Cardinal Hall of Fame Cafe, and even though you have to be well into your sixties to have actual memories of this guy playing, I was glad to see that Johnny U. holds  prominent position on the wall at this place.

Wednesday morning, we hit the road and entered Tennessee.

We arrived in Memphis (about a six hour drive from Louisville) and then checked into the famous Hotel Peabody.

During the course of her business travels over the years, Marilyn had once stayed at the Peabody, an old-style luxury hotel, and our spending two nights there was a true indulgence on our part, but it was well worth it.  What a treat.

That afternoon, we visited two historic sites.  The first was the Sun Records recording studio,

where legendary record producer Sam Phillips discovered a young Memphis boy named Elvis Presley.  Elvis made his first recordings at Sun and signed his first recording contract there.  The place has become a museum, of sorts, to Phillips, Presley, and legendary blues, country, and rock artists such as B.B. King, Howling Wolf, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.  It is still an active recording studio and contemporary artists like Ringo Starr and U2 have recorded there.

The tour ends in the very studio where Presley made those first recordings.  Hallowed ground to be sure.  You also get a chance to pose with the "very mic that Elvis used" to  make those recordings.

Personally, I am a bit dubious that that was THE microphone, but so what?  For a few seconds, anyway, I was in the footsteps of The King.

From Sun Records, it was on to the Lorraine Motel, the site of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.

A very sobering experience.

Back to The Peabody in time to see the famous Peabody Ducks, and their march out of the lobby fountain to the elevator and their home in the Duck Palace on the roof of the hotel.

No trip to Memphis would be complete without a visit to this famous spot.

Thursday morning was that major Bucket List item to which I referred  earlier....

Yes, Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley.  A visit to Graceland is something that Marilyn and I have talked about forever, and it finally happened.  This visit will get its own Grandstander post in the days ahead, so watch for that.  I will only say here that the place exceeded all expectations that we had for it.  An awesome experience.

Okay, Friday morning it was back in the car for another three hours or so to head for Nashville.  When we arrived, we met up with our friend David Cicotello, and we then experienced a real Nashville treat, The Bluebird Cafe.

Like Graceland, the visit the The Bluebird deserves its own write-up, so that will be coming soon.  Many thanks to David for suggesting the place and putting the visit together.

Saturday morning was spent visiting The Hermitage, the home of Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States.

On the grounds, both Jackson and his wife are entombed in a small family cemetery.

This marks the fifth Presidential grave that I have visited:  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, and John Kennedy being the others.

And, of course, ex-banker Marilyn couldn't resist this cornball touristy photo op:

Saturday night, of course, was the raison d'ĂȘtre (Definition: "The most important reason or purpose for someone's or something's existence.")  for the entire trip, the wedding of Alyssa Hansen and Adam Korsvik. 

I know of few things that are happier to be a part of than a wedding, and this one was no exception.  This one was bittersweet, though, because the world lost Denise Hansen, Roger's wife and Alyssa's mom five years ago.  However, we all have faith to know that Denise was there on Saturday night and watching with all of the pride and love that any Mom has on such an occasion.

It was a terrific event.  

We got to spend some time with a bunch of old Highmark friends...

and we cleaned up pretty well ourselves for the night.

Sunday morning, it was back in the car for a three hour drive to Louisville where we visited the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs,

where The Grandstander got to pose before one of the most famous Grandstands in the world,

and where I was able to take a photo that will be popping up on both The Grandstander and my Facebook feeds in the future (regular readers will know the context of this):

The final stop on this Grand Tour was the Muhammad Ali Center. 

This is a remarkable museum and cultural center.  It features three floors of exhibit space devoted to Louisville's most famous favorite son.  Lots of video and interactive exhibits.  Terrific stuff, and a must see if you are ever in Louisville.

We broke the trip up by leaving Louisville and stopping about halfway home and staying in a hotel on Sunday night.  It made for a shorter and more relaxing trip home.  We packed a lot of stuff into six days, and it will go down as one of our most memorable trips ever.