Monday, October 23, 2017

Speaking of Sports....

It's been awhile since I've commented on the sporting scene, so let's play a little catch-up, shall we.....

Two weeks ago, the Steelers lost, badly so, to the Jax Jaguars, and were headed on the road to play the undefeated KayCee Chiefs.  It was looking grim, and a poor performance against the Chiefs could have sent the Steelers season in the wrong direction.  

What followed was convincing win against the Chiefs, and that was then followed with an even more convincing win over the Cincinnati Bengals.  Not coincidentally, both wins featured strong performances by this guy...

Le'Veon Bell

....who may very well be the best running back in the NFL.  Bell has shown knucklehead tendencies in the past, but it cannot be disputed just how good he is.

Both of these past two Steelers wins have also been highlighted by strong defensive performances, and now, just two weeks after that woeful game against the Jags, the team appears to be one of the strongest in the NFL.  Of concern, however, is the Steelers mystifying inability to turn First and Goal opportunities into touchdowns and settling for field goals instead.  It hasn't hurt them too much so far, but there will come a time, against a strong opponent, when I fear that that deficiency will bite them in the posterior.  Until then, though, let's enjoy the ride.

Is there anything that can cure Steelers Sluggishness more that playing against the Cincy Bengals?  Once again, the Bengals turned into the Bungles when playing the Steelers yesterday.  At no time was this more apparent than at the end of the first half.  The Steelers have the ball inside their own twenty-five yard line, under two minutes to play, and only one time out.  What happens? A Bengals penalty for having twelve men on the field gives the Steelers a crucial first down, and that was then followed up by a forty yard pass interference penalty that gave the Steelers the ball on the Bengals five yard line.  And all of that was followed by a Bengal second half where Andy Dalton and his mates redefined the term "hapless".

As I have often said, Death, Taxes, and Unbelievable Screw-ups by the Cincy Bengals.  Three absolutes in life.

Two weeks ago, I sat in Heinz Field and watched Pitt get thoroughly beaten by North Carolina State and fall to 2-4.  Really, there was nothing positive to take from that game.  Poor line play, which led to no running game and inept quarterback play.  It was discussed among my ticket group that it was possible that the Panthers might not win another game all season.

What happens?  Pitt travels to Duke and lays a beat down on the Blue Devils, a win that featured a 200+ yard rushing performance from Darrin Hall.  Go figure.

Pitt now has to go 3-2 the rest of the way to become bowl eligible.  Can they do it?  I suppose it is possible, but I give it a less than 50/50 chance unless some spark is lit at the quarterback position.  Makes you realize how good a college QB Nate Peterman was.

Anyway, bowl eligibility now becomes the Panther goal, but how good are you really going to feel about a 6-6 season?


The World Series begins tomorrow night!  Once the premier sporting event in all of America, the World Series is still a pretty big deal to me, and this year's battle between the Dodgers....

Dodgers defeat Cubs
and Astros....

Astros defeat Yankees

certainly has the possibility to be an exciting one.  

Both teams won over 100 games, and the Dodgers, save for an inexplicable 20 for so game stretch game in late August, steamrolled through the regular season and the NL Playoffs.  Likewise, the Astros blew through the AL West in the regular season, and won a thrilling LCS in seven games over the Yankees.

(Before I go on, a word about the Yankees.  They are young and they are good, and unlike Yankees teams from the George Steinbrenner/Billy Martin Era, they are hard not to like. [With the exception of Aroldis Chapman; I can't see myself ever liking him.] With guys like Judge, Bird, Sanchez, and Severino, they have the makings of a team that we shall be seeing in the post-season for years to come.  They also have a really good manager in Joe Girardi. They'll be back.)

The Astros and Dodgers.  Both teams have terrific starting pitching and terrific hitting.  Both have deep benches.  The Dodgers have an absolutely unbelievable bullpen, and that is where I give them a significant edge over the Astros.  The Astros, given the depths that the team was in earlier in the decade, and given what the City of Houston has experienced this past summer, will be the easier team for which to root, but I think that the bullpen will be the edge that will give the Dodgers the ultimate victory.

In my Pirates preview post of April 2, 2017 (you can look it up), I ended with the following sentence:

The Los Angles Dodgers will defeat the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.

Okay, I had the AL team wrong, but I will stay with that original sentiment and call it a Dodgers win in seven games.  As always, watch but don't bet.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Opening Day of the Hot Stove League

We don't yet know who will be playing in this year's World Series, but that is not going to stop The Grandstander with making his first post of the 2017-18 Hot Stove League.

You are probably wondering what or who will be the subject of this initial missive, and if I gave you ten guesses, I'll bet that you will not guess who that subject is going to be.

Are you ready?

Max Moroff.  

Yep, you're reading that correctly.  I am going to write about Max Moroff.

Max gets his first game winning walk off hit in
a game against the Brewers in July.
I was there!!

You can go back through Grandstander posts from this past summer and find me railing against the presence of Moroff and his sub-.100 batting average as a sign of the pathetic nature of the 2017 Pirates.  In fact, Moroff finished the season with a batting average of .200, an OPS of .627, 3 home runs and 21 RBI in 120 at bats.  Pathetic, right?  However, if you slice and dice Moroff's rookie season, a positive pattern emerges, as illustrated below.



Pre All Star Break
Post All Star Break

As the season wore on, and as Moroff got more playing time and at bats, there was as steady improvement in his production, and this is even more apparent when you break it down to the periods Before and After the All-Star Break.  Three HR and 17 RBI over 72 AB is pretty significant.  By comparison, a player to whom Moroff might be compared, Adam Frazier, had 6 HR and 53 RBI in 406 AB during the entire season.  If you would project Moroff's post All-Star break numbers over 406 AB, they come out to 17 HR and 96 RBI.  (Even those HR/RBI over 120 AB, projects out to 13 HR and 88 RBI over 500 AB.)  And Moroff's post All-Star break OPS was .846 compared to Frazier's season long .743.

I know, I know - BELIEVE ME, I know - that a 120 AB season simply screams "small sample size", but in a season where the Pirates gave us lots and lots to, justifiably, bitch and moan about, maybe, just maybe there is more to Max Moroff that we first realized.  

We don't know what the Pirates are going to do this off-season, but would anyone be surprised of the Pirates front office decides that both Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer have become too expensive for the penny-pinching Pirates?  In 2017, it seemed that Adam Frazier has earned the right to take the place of Harrison at second base, and a closer look at how Moroff progressed as the season went along shows that he has certainly earned the right to be first in line among whoever Mercer's replacement might be.  No, I am not proclaiming him the to be the next Arky Vaughn, or even the next Gene Alley, Jackie Hernandez, Tim Foli, or Dale Berra, but he has earned the right to not be dismissed out of hand, as many, including Yours Truly, was doing last June and July.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Visit to Chicago

This will be, I promise, my final post about our trip last week to Chicago.  I recognize the fact that there is only so much that people want to hear about somebody else's vacation.

The main point of the trip was, of course, to see "Hamilton", but we were going to have two days to spend in this city, and we wanted to make the most of it.  Marilyn had visited Chicago many times as a business traveler years ago, but for me, this would be my first trip to the Windy City.  What to do?  We consulted with my pal and University of Chicago alum Fred Egler, and we googled "things to do in Chicago" and the results were almost exactly the same:
  • Stay at a nice hotel in The Loop.  The Kimpton Allego fit the bill nicely.  Thanks, Fred.
  • Visit The Art Institute.  Check.

  • See Millennium Park. Check.

  • Take an Architectural Boat Tour along the Chicago River. Check.

  • Visit the Navy Pier.  Check.

  • Eat at a schlocky, touristy restaurant.  Check.

  • Have a drink with a famous Chicagoan.  We tried but Oprah, Barack and Michelle, Wilbon, and Bill Murray never returned our calls, and John Belushi and Ernie Banks are dead, so I guess we will have to just plan a trip back sometime.
Okay, I kid a bit, but I have to say that we really enjoyed our time in Chicago.  It's big.  I mean, really big.  It made you realize just how small a town, physically, Pittsburgh is.  We found it to be a pretty clean town as well, which was nice.  People were very friendly, although they had a tendency to tell you that "oh, you walk to there from here", and several times that turned out to be, well, not exactly true. We were struck by how the City has planted flowers along many of the streets, which added a real touch of beauty to the town.

Two things we did not do was (1) have a Chicago style hot dog, and (2) have a Chicago style deep dish pizza.  As it turns out, dining was not a priority on this trip, and we actually didn't see any places to avail ourselves of these local delicacies.  Oh, well, another reason to go back some day.

Some comments on activities we did do.

The Architectural Boat Tour.  When we told people we did this, it got some raised eyebrows, and I admit that it does sound like it could be a snoozer, but it was a really fun and interesting thing to do.  When your time in the city is limited, this 90 minute boat ride along the Chicago River gives you an opportunity to really see a lot of the town and its unique buildings.  We also had an excellent tour guide on our boat, so that made it even more interesting.  We highly recommend it.

The Art Institute.  This pops up at the top of all "Things To Do in Chicago" lists on the Google Machine, and Fred told us it was an "absolute must", so off we went.  This is an art museum that claims perhaps the largest collection of original paintings from the French Impressionists outside of France, of course.   It also features original works of many great American artists as well.  It also consists of at least four separate buildings.  It's huge.  We spent close to two hours there and barely scratched the surface.  I don't think that it would be possible to see everything that The Art Institute has to offer unless you sent a solid week there.  Here are just a few of the recognizable paintings that we saw, and remember, these are the originals, not reproductions.

Amazing stuff.  (And as a former museum docent myself, I did ascertain that you were allowed to photograph these paintings, so long as no flash was used.)

Yes, our little two-plus day trip to Chicago - the train ride, "Hamilton", and the Toddlin' Town itself - turned out to be every bit the adventure that thought it would be.  A great addition to our Memory Book.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Travelin' To Chicago

Back in June when we made the decision to go to Chicago to see "Hamilton", our friend Tim Baker, who, ironically, is an airline pilot, said, "Hey, you ought to go to Chicago by train!"  Now this was a thought that had never occurred to us, but the more we thought about it, the more we liked the idea - taking a long passenger train trip had long been on our bucket list - so we called Amtrak, and purchased our tickets   on the Capital Limited.....

....for a room in a sleeper car, that also included a private bathroom with a shower.  It would be an adventure!

Our train was to leave Pittsburgh at 11:59 PM on Tuesday, and it left right on time.  

 Boarding in Pittsburgh

Our sleeper car was roomy until the Porter folded out the bench seat into a bed.  Then things got a little tight:

Marilyn channelling her inner Eva Marie Saint.
(That makes me Cary Grant!)

When that seat you see above was converted to a bed, the space between the bed and the sink shrunk to about six inches.  The bed sleeps two (there is an upper bunk that can fold down, which we opted not to do because that would eliminate any headroom that you had).  The bed is slightly wider than a twin bed.  In all honesty, it was not the most comfortable of sleeping arrangements, and we had to figure our some tricky configurations to get into positions that made sleeping a viable option.  It was okay, but let me put it this way, you don't want to spend your honeymoon riding in one of these cars, if you get my drift.

Then there was the combination shower and lav.

Yep, the john is in the shower, but it wasn't like showering in a phone booth.  A phone booth would have been much bigger!  Still, we both managed to take a shower, although not at the same time (remember what I said above about this not being good for a honeymoon), which we considered quite an accomplishment.  (NOTE TO SELVES: We are NEVER going to move into a Tiny House.)

We have had a lot of laughs over the entire thing, but the trip truly was the adventure we thought it would be.  The ride itself, the motion of the train cars as they traveled over the tracks was quite relaxing and even soothing.  The food - we had breakfast on the way to Chicago and dinner on the return trip to Pittsburgh - was quite good.  At both meals we dined with other couples, both seasoned train travelers, and had very interesting conversations.  The treatment and the service we received from Amtrak was excellent in every step of the process.  And because the train travelled at night, we were able to have two full days in Chicago while spending only one night in the city.

I will tell you that the Amtrak station in Pittsburgh is pretty dinky and not at all special, but in Chicago, well, that was something else.  We arrived into and departed from Chicago at the landmark Union Station, and it was beautiful.

It was elegant and you just sense that you are in a space that was built for another age in American history, space that has been preserved for the 21st century.  It was like something you would see in a movie, and speaking of movies, we actually entered the Station using these steps:

You may recognize them from the Kevin Costner/Sean Connery movie, "The Untouchables".  I was disappointed that we didn't see a woman with a baby carriage attempting to get down these steps, although my maneuvering a forty pound wheeled piece luggage down them probably came close to what the lady in the movie had to do.

One observation. We all know how onerous air travel has become these days with all of the security concerns, baggage examination, metal detectors and such, so the fact that there was none of that boarding the trains - NONE! - sure was convenient.  I mean you got to the station, checked your ticket, and walked onto the train.  It was nice, but at the same time somewhat disconcerting.  Shouldn't there have been some checking of what was being brought on board?  That suitcase I was lugging on board could have been filled with fifty pounds of plastic explosives and no one would have been the wiser.  Like I said, a little disconcerting when you thought about it.  In Chicago, we did notice that Union Station was patrolled by lots and lots of Chicago police, each with a dog (you can see one in one of the photos above).  Presumably, these were bomb sniffing dogs.

As I said, the train trip was every bit the adventure we thought that it was going to be.  Would we do it again?  We have asked ourselves this several times in the last few days.  I don't think that we would do it for a long cross country, multi-day trip, but we have discussed the possibility of doing it for a short term trip, possibly to New York City or Washington DC at some point in the future.  We shall see.

The Big Engine that could, and 
did, pull us to Chicago!

And I can't write about our transportation on this trip without mentioning UBER.  In all, we made five UBER rides (to and from our house and the Amtrak station in Pittsburgh, and three rides while in Chicago) on this trip and spent about $65 in doing so.  We didn't have to pay to park anywhere, didn't have to rent a car, or put several hundred miles on our own car to get there.  It was great!  It was, as friend Dan puts it, the Cat's Ass!

I have one more Post in me on this trip, and that will concern what we did while in Chicago before and after seeing "Hamilton".  That one will come in another day or two.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

We See "Hamilton"

At some point in 2016, I can't pinpoint the exact date, Marilyn and I fell under the spell of the music of Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton", almost to the point of obsession.  Talking with some people who had the good fortune to see it on Broadway, seeing the show, and seeing it sooner rather than later, became an unspoken goal of ours, and when friends described seeing the production in Chicago this Spring, we went proactive and ordered tickets.  This past Wednesday, October 11, the date finally arrived.  We were at the CIBC Theater in Chicago, with tickets in hand to see "Hamilton".

When you anticipate something for so long and with the highest of expectations, there is always the risk that when the moment finally arrives, it will never live up to those expectations, and you will experience a letdown.  So, what happened?

No letdown, and those high expectations were actually exceeded.  Far exceeded.

Having listened to the cast recording of the show, with Miranda and all the original cast members doing the singing, I wasn't sure if I would be able to accept the voices of anyone but Miranda, Leslie Odom, Jr., Chris Jackson, Daveed Diggs, Philippa Soos, or any of the others of the original cast in those parts.  That notion ended shortly after the Chicago cast members first appeared and began singing.

We have listened to the music of "Hamilton" countless times over the last year and a half, but what struck us on Wednesday night was just how much more there is to "Hamilton" when seeing it in person.  The music from the orchestra, the acting of the cast, the choreography, the costumes, the interplay between actors, not only with each other, but with the audience, well, if you think that listening to "Hamilton" is an extraordinary experience, actually seeing it performed takes that experience to an entirely different level of "extraordinary".

There are some people, I suppose, who may close themselves off from this show and it's music because it's rap music , because it's hip-hop music.  I would plead with you, DO NOT DO THAT! Listen to this music, listen to the patterns and the rapidity of the intricate rhyming schemes that Miranda wrote and that the actors perform.  Hey, this show has made 66-year old me very much appreciative of the art form that is rap and hip-hop.  It is simply amazing. 

And it's not just rap and hip-hop.  "Hamilton" gives you traditional Broadway-style showstoppers with "My Shot", "The Room Where It Happens", and "What'd I Miss?".  You like Beatles-style music? Listen to "You'll Be Back".  Girl Group songs? Listen the "The Schuyler Sisters" and "Helpless".  Love songs?  Try "Dear Theodosia".  Heartfelt ballads? "Burn" and "It's Quiet Uptown" will bring tears to your eyes.

And I am only scratching the surface with the songs named above.

At this point, I need to list the names of the talented principal cast members that we saw in Chicago, each of whom was terrific:

Miguel Cervantes....Alexander Hamilton
Gregory Treco.....Aaron Burr
Ari Afsar....Eliza Schuyler Hamilton
Jonathan Kirkland....George Washington
Chris De'Sean Lee....Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson
Wallace Smith....Hercules Mulligan/James Madison
Jose Ramos....John Laurens/Phillip Hamilton
Montego Glover....Angelica Schuyler
Aubin Wise.....Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds
Alexander Gemignani....King George III

All backed by an incredible cast of supporting actors and chorus members.

Someone asked me, who was my favorite character in "Hamilton"?  Impossible to pick, but I do want to specifically cite young Chris De'Sean Lee in the dual role of Lafayette/Jefferson, and when I say "young", I mean it.  

Lee was a junior in college when he auditioned for and won this role for the Chicago production. He is now all of 22 years old.  I am sure that he is on the way to becoming a huge star in the years ahead. His performance in "Guns and Ships", "What'd I Miss?", and "Cabinet Battle #1" were just fabulous.

As for Miguel Cervantes in the title role, how hard must it be for an actor to play a part that has already become so closely associated with one actor?  The temptation is to say, well, he's okay, but he's no Miranda, and that is just so unfair.

However, as soon as Alexander asked "Pardon me, are you Aaron Burr, sir?", you knew that Cervantes was going to be a very good Alexander Hamilton, and he was.

In talking to friend yesterday, he asked if this was the kind of show that you'd want to see more than once, to which I answered, "If I could go see it again tonight, I would", and I do hope to see "Hamilton" again in the future.  The show will begin touring next year.  It is scheduled to be in Cleveland in 2018, and in Pittsburgh in 2019.  I am hopeful to be able to see it in one or both of those cities then.  Also, sometime after 2020, "Hamilton" will be licensed to local theatrical companies and schools for production.  It is not beyond possibility that within the next five years, we will all be able to see "Hamilton" as a high school musical.  In fact, Lin-Manuel Miranda wants to see "Hamilton" mounted by high schools and colleges, and he hopes that the diversity of the casting of the roles that has made this show unique and special, will be maintained as it is performed into the future.

"Hamilton" was not the first Tony Award winning hit show from Lin-Manuel Miranda (that one was "In The Heights"), and he has been called everything from a genius to a current day Shakespeare.  I admit that I am totally in the tank for him, and I can't wait to see what he does next.  With "Hamilton", Miranda has given us a cultural gift that will surely outlive us all.  I hope that everyone reading this will some how, some way, some day get a chance to see this extraordinary show.   It is a true work of art.

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.

And to close, I found this forty-eight second promotional clip from the cast of the Chicago production.  It may give you an idea of the energy of this show: