Friday, March 29, 2013

The Heat Chase the '72 Lakers

One of the neat things about the Miami Heat's winning streak, just snapped at 27 two nights ago, is that it caused some people to look back upon the team that they were chasing, the 1971-72 Lakers.  It caused names such as Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Gail Goodrich to reappear in people's consciousness.  Yes, folks, there really were good basketball players BEFORE Michael Jordan.  I wonder if Mike Greenberg and Stewart Scott realize that?

It was also refreshing to know that LeBron James has a sense of basketball history.  Comments from him in recent days make it apparent that HE knows there were giants who came before him.  Refreshing to see that in a modern day athlete.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Predictions for Your 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates

A busy schedule of Church-related activities this Holy Thursday-Good Friday-Easter Sunday Weekend made me realize that if I want to get my Pirates Prediction for 2013 out there before Opening Day, I better do it now, so here goes.  I also thought that I would lead with the Pirates' current Jolly Roger logo, which is scheduled to be out into mothballs at the close of this season.

This is also being written in the shadow of the big news in Pittsburgh sports today:  the Penguins blockbuster deadline deal for Jerome Iginla.  As one contributor on Facebook put it....."The Bucs give you a future that never comes.  The Penguins give you NOW."


Oh, well, many of my thoughts, feelings, and questions concerning the Bucs going into Spring Training still stand.  I won't retype them here, but if interested, please go here:

I am optimistic about the everyday line-up.  I feel good about McCutchen, Alvarez, Walker, and the Jones/Sanchez platoon at first.  I am hopeful that Marte will blossom and be a good to very good player.  I am reasonably hopeful that Russell Martin will be enough of an improvement over last year to be considered a Plus for the team.  Barmes at short rates nothing more than a "Meh" from me.  He won't kill you in the field, but, man he needs to be more than the automatic out he was for much of last year.  Right field remains a question mark.  I hope that Travis Snider and/or Jose Tabata can emerge to be more than the mediocrity that manned that position last year.  I hope that their play will not force the Pirates to play Garrett Jones in RF.  That would upset the balance of the platoon situation at 1B, which I feel could be a strong point for the team.

OK, that brings us to the pitching staff.  For five and one-half seasons, Neal Huntington has been telling us about how pitching will be the Moses that will lead the Pirates out of the World Record Losing Streak (hereafter referred to as the WRLS, and thank you for that, Dan Bonk) Desert.  He will draft young stud pitchers that will be the backbone of championship Pirate teams.  In 2013, the Pirates pitching staff will include Jonathan Sanchez (1-9, 8.07 ERA in 2012) and Jeanmar Gomez (5-8, 5.96).  While Gomez may be nothing more than a long relief mop-up, garbage time last-guy-in-the-bullpen type, Sanchez is going to be one of the STARTING PITCHERS.  Does that tell you all you need to know about where the Pirates are headed this season?

Let's look at the starting rotation as of Opening Day:

A.J. Burnett - I feel good about him as the lead starter.  On the other hand, he is 36 years old.

Wandy Rodriguez - Another guy I feel good about.  I think that he and Burnett could provide a solid 1-2 punch in the rotation.

James McDonald - Need I say more about his Jekyll-and-Hyde 2012?  How much faith does that give you?  A question mark, at best.

Jonathan Sanchez - At the outset of Spring Training I said, "Sure, it doesn't hurt bringing warm bodies like Sanchez into camp.  It's if they end up making the team is when you might have a problem."  I may be proven wrong, but for now I'll stand by that statement.

Jeff Locke - Well, critics have been saying for years let's give the young guys a shot, so let's be open minded on young Mr. Locke, but in the Post-Gazette story this morning, Michael Sanserino wrote : "In a four-man battle for what eventually turned into two open spots in the rotation, Locke was never the most impressive player on the mound in terms of the quality of his pitches."  Talk about damning with faint praise.

Of course, the NHR tells you that waiting in the wings come late May or early June are Jeff Karstens, Francisco Liriano, and Charlie Morton.  All have shown signs at one point or another of being good pitchers, but they ain't Maddox, Glavine, and Smoltz either.

And of course, the biggest pitching elephant in the room is Gerrit Cole.  If we were looking at baseball matters only, Cole would be on the team right now. I will grant that a baseball case could be made that he does need more time to face Triple-A competition, but of course, it is about more than that.  It is about money, it is about years of control, it is about delaying free agent eligibility, and, probably more important to the Pirates, arbitration eligibility.  Yes, we all know that all other MLB teams do the same thing with their big time prospects, but not all other MLB teams have been on a twenty year losing streak.  The NH Kool-Aid drinkers standard line is, "Do you want Cole for a couple of starts in April and May of 2013, or do you want him for a full season in 2019?"   Well, if games in April and May count the same as games in August and September, then, yes, I want him here now if he is in fact one of the Pirates best pitchers.  Simple as that.

As for 2019, well, as the was said above, "The Bucs give you a future that never comes."

And by the way, the argument of having Cole for a full season in 2019 really ticks me off because it automatically assumes that the Pirates will lose Cole once he does become eligible for free agency.  What kind of message is that sending?

I haven't even mentioned the bench.  When you swing a deal in the last week of Spring Training for a 38 year old good-field-no-hit utility infielder, that kind of tells you all you need to know, doesn't it?  The team is in big trouble if someone like Walker, Alvarez, or, God forbid, McCutchen goes down for any significant length of time.

So what's the bottom line?  Given the competition in the Central Division (Reds, Cardinals, Brewers), I don't see a post season berth for the Bucs, so that begs the question, can 82 wins be achieved to end the WRLS?  When I look at the eight man line-up, I think, yes, it will end this year.  Then I look at all the question marks on the pitching staff, and I say, it's not gonna happen.  Beyond Burnett, Rodriguez, and MacDonald (and even he is a huge question mark), I don't see the guys beyond them - Sanchez, Locke, Liriano, Karstens, and Morton - getting it done.  Maybe Cole will be the savior, but will he arrive soon enough?  

(And consider this possibility, the Pirates are floundering at 12 games under .500 in mid-June, and Cole has a bad start in Indy.  GM Neal announces that since the Pirates do not seem like they will contend, and since Cole had a rough outing, the Pirate swill keep him in Indy for a full year for more seasoning and experience at the Triple-A level.  That way, they can now have control over him through 2020.  Does anyone think that that COULDN'T happen?)

So, my call for 2013? Seventy-nine (79) wins, same as last year and the WRLS goes to 21.  I really, REALLY hope I'm wrong, but I'm just not feeling it.  I will be more than happy to celebrate the 82nd victory, and I'll even have a glass of Neal Kool-Aid should the team contend for the post-season deep into September, but, as I say, I'm just not feeling it.

In the meantime, I can't wait for the 2019 season.  That is going to be one helluva a great Pirates team.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Evaluating Neal, the Trader

Pirate Chat / Facebook Friend John Niespodzianski posted the following from the "Battling Bucs" blog yesterday:

If you are at all interested in the topic at hand, I would recommend you read the entry.  It lists 61 trades - not draft choices, not free agent signings, but trades - made by Neal Huntington since his tenure at PNC Park began back in 2007.  John, who is a Pro-Neal Advocate, asked that people try to evaluate only these trades and make a judgement on how NH has fared in this regard during his tenure.  John and I, and others on Pirate Chat, have had some friendly, yet semi-heated discussions on the topic of GM Neal, but I promised that I would try to look at this matter with an objective an eye as possible and come to a conclusion.

Here are some of my own self-imposed rules in doing my analysis:

  1. The blog lists Evan Meek as being acquired in a trade.  I believe that he was a Rule 5 draft pick, but what the hell, for our current purposes, let's consider this a trade.
  2. I did not include any of the trades made since the end of the 2012 season.  This includes the Hanrahan to the Red Sox trade.  Too early to evaluate these in my view.
  3. Excluding those 2012-13 off-season trades, the number of deals drops from 61 to 55.
So, what are my conclusions? 

Of these 55 deals, I would classify 27 of them as inconsequential, basic nothing-for-nothing deals.  For example: Romulo Sanchez for Eric Hacker, or Luke Carlin for Adam Davis.  You get the idea.  I mean, who are these guys? Some were pretty much straight salary dumps for which the Bucs have become so famous.

This leaves 28 trades to evaluate.  By my count, these trades have brought 33 players to Pittsburgh who have played significant or semi-significant time with the Pirates.  Some of these guys were truly insignificant (Robinson Diaz, Gorkys Hernandez [more on him later].  Some had good times and then flamed out (Ross Ohlendorf), some never achieved potential (Andy La Roche), some flat out stunk  (Jeff Clement, Aki Iwamura).

Of those thirty-three players, sixteen saw and/or continue to see significant roles with the team, and of those sixteen, eleven of them are still with the team and could continue to contribute.  Those eleven players  are:

Jose Tabata, Jeff Karstens, Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton, Josh Harrison, James McDonald, Mike McKenry, A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Travis Snider, and Gaby Sanchez.

Is this the normal rate of attrition for trades pulled off by the typical major league general manager?  I don't know, and I neither have the time nor the inclination to do the research to find out (but maybe somebody out there does!!).  

As for evaluating individual trades (of the so-called significant trades), I will offer the following:

  • Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett for Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan.  Somewhat unpopular at the time, this one now looks pretty good.  Morgan is an okay outfielder and Burnett is now a decent face-one-lefty-batter reliever, and Milledge never did live up to his five-tool hype, in fact, he wasn't all that good, but Hanrahan became a two time All-Star lights out relief pitcher.  This trade could start to look even better if a couple of the guys obtained from Boston in exchange for Hanrahan turn out to be solid players at some point.
  • Octavio Dotel for James McDonald and Andrew Lambo.  Yeah, we know questions still exist about J-Mac, and who the hell knows what Lambo is up to, but I would still call this as a good one for the Pirates.
  • "Future Considerations" for Mike McKenry.  Don't know what those "future considerations" turned out to be, and The Fort is now only a back-up catcher, but every team needs one, and he's a fairly decent one.
  • Aaron Baker for Derek Lee.  This was a bold move made when the Pirates were in contention in 2011 and one that teams fighting for the post-season need to make.  Lee did get injured, so it didn't exactly work out the way the team wanted, but when he did play in 2011, he produced. Who knows what would have happened had he not gotten hurt?
  • Diego Moreno and Exicardo Cayones for A.J. Burnett.  With the way Yankees are going down this year, Moreno and Cayones may yet turn up in the Bronx and become stars, but until they do, this trade has to, so far, be considered Neal's best trade
  • Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte for Jose Tabata, Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens, and Daniel McCutchen.  Ohlendorf had a good season and flamed out. McCutchen was a fair long reliever for parts of a couple of seasons,  Karstens has been a fairly good starting pitcher but gets hurt too often.  The final net result of this deal depends on the mercurial Jose Tabata, and 2013 could be his last chance to make it with the team.  If he produces like he has shown signs of being capable, this will become a good trade for Neal.  If he doesn't, it becomes a fairly not-good-not-bad deal.
  • Nate McLouth for Jeff Locke, Gorkys Hernandez, and Charlie Morton.  This was very unpopular at the time, but Neal due to either sound baseball acumen or blind luck, seemed to sense that All-Star McLouth was something of a one hit wonder.  Morton has shown flashes of being a good pitcher, and I anxiously await his return for surgery.  The jury is still out on Locke, but he could be a starter on the team this season.  Hernandez never did much of anything for the Pirates, but they were able to trade him and receive Gaby Sanchez, and that could become the best net result of the McLouth trade. 
  • Colton Cain, Robby Grossman, and Rudy Owens for Wandy Rodriguez.  Exactly the kind of deadline deal that contenders need to make.  A lot of other moving parts went wrong with the Pirates late last year for Wandy to make a difference, but I am genuinely excited that he is a part of the Pirate rotation going into this season.
  • Brad Lincoln for Travis Snider.  You can argue that this was not the kind of deal to make at the deadline, and I would tend to agree, but Snider could turn out to be a good outfielder for the Pirates. Or, he could be the next Nate McLouth.  Time will tell.
  • Gorkys Hernandez for Gaby Sanchez and Kyle Kaminska.  If Sanchez can platoon at 1B with Garrett Jones and produce like Jones, this could turn out to be very good trade for the Bucs.
  • Jason Bay for Andy La Roche, Bryan Morris, Brandon Moss, and Craig Hansen.  Bay was the Pirates biggest chip when Huntington took over, and everyone knew that Neal would be trading him in an attempt to rebuild the team.  True, the trade looked good at the time with the team getting four promising and, in the case of La Roche,  highly touted prospects.  In hind sight, and how else are you going to evaluate such things, this trade BOMBED.  Only Morris remains with the team, and he just got sent back to the minors at age 26.  Even if he does make it to Pittsburgh it will be as a middle inning/situational reliever.  Not the results when you trade a former rookie-of-the year, all-star, and you best player.
  • Jose Bautista for Robinson Diaz.  No one complained about this one at the time, but let's call in our old friend hind sight again to see that this one was bad.  True, Bautista had more than his share of chances in Pittsburgh, but if part of a GM's and his minions' job is talent evaluation, the NHR failed big time on this one.
  • Freddy Sanchez for Tim Alderson.  Yes, Sanchez was injury prone, and, yes, room needed to be made for Neil Walker, but he was an all-star and a batting champion, and he did start and contribute to a World Series winner in 2010, and what has Tim Alderson done?
  • Tom Gorzelanny and John Grabow for Kevin Hart, Jose Ascanio, and Josh Harrison.  A starting pitcher and a pretty good relief pitcher for what has amounted to a utility infielder.
  • Jesse Chavez for Aki Iwamura.  This one could be the Signature Neal Huntington Awful Trade.  Neal will say that this is one where "we didn't give up much", but even if the Pirates only sent the Rays a half-dozen used jock straps, it was an awful deal for the team. He was hurt, he was fat and out of shape, he was over the hill, and he was paid a ton of money.  If someone, if not Neal, then someone on the scouting staff, didn't lose their job over this deal, then Bob Nutting is a true cream puff and not the heartless skinflint we all think he is.

I am not sure what kind of a grade I would assign to Neal's trading history, and,as I said earlier, I am not sure if the mix of hits, misses, and nothing-for-nothings is greater than, less than, or equal to the typical major league GM.  Frankly, I was surprised that there were as many players acquired by NH that are still in a position to make positive contributions to the team going forward, so maybe I give him a C+ or possibly a B- on his deals.   And of course, one has to take into consideration the financial constraints under which Neal operates.  If he were in Brian Cashman's position, who knows what wizardry he might be able to work.  Or, maybe not.

Also, Hunting the Trader does not exist in a vacuum.  Huntington the Drafter, Huntington the Scout/Talent Evaluator, and of course, Huntington the Guy Who Keeps Guys in the Minor Leagues Way Too Long must also be brought into the mix when you consider his overall job performance.  The assignment was evaluate Huntington the Trader, and on that score, he fares better than I thought he would.

March Madness - First Weekend Thoughts

  • Having won the prestigious Frissora Gaming Enterprises March Madness Pool (an FGE "Major") last year, I am so far down the track this year that, well, if I was a horse, I'd be headed to the Elmer's Glue Factory post haste.
  • I have never been one to watch sports events in sports bars, but I have to say that spending last Thursday and Friday afternoons at different establishments on the North Shore with friends was a fun way to go.  Already looking forward to next year.
  • The Pitt loss sure was a disappointment, and it wasn't just the fact that they lost.  They looked really bad in doing so.
  • Still, do not count me among the "Jamie Must Go" multitudes.  Good for Pitt for inking him to that long term extension right away, not that long term contracts mean anything if Dixon decides he wants to coach somewhere else (see Howland, Ben and Graham, Todd).
  • I wasn't sure how I felt when the NCAA went to four networks for coverage of the first two rounds a few years back, but I have to tell you, I now think it is terrific.
  • Showing the scores on screen of the other games being played and indicating which network it is on absolutely defines the term "viewer friendly".
  • Marv Albert remains one of my favorite announcers to listen to, but HD television does him no favors.  How many pounds of pancake makeup do you suppose are applied to Marv's mug before each game?
  • Speaking of Marv, this great quote from Facebook friend Fred Egler:  "Listening to Marv Albert and Steve Kerr broadcast a game makes you realize what a worthless windbag Dick Vitale is."  WORTHLESS WINDBAG!  I love it.
  • Has any athlete rehabilitated his image more than Charles Barkley?  If you remember Sir Charles' playing days, he was more likely to be in the news for throwing some guy through a barroom window than for anything he did on the court.  Now, there are few guys I'd rather listen to when discussing basketball.  Insightful and entertaining.
  • Speaking of commercials, how about the Applebee's one with Digger Phelps and Bobby Knight, where Phelps explodes at Knight, knocks over a chair, and ends with Knight saying "That's no way to throw a chair."  I laughed at first, but then thought, they are glorifying one of the most boorish and offensive acts of bad sportsmanship ever seen.  Knight was a great coach, but he was, first and foremost, a jerk.
  • Speaking of commercials, part 2.  I absolutely love those AT&T commercials where the guy talks to four little kids.  Everyone of those commercials, and there seems to be dozens of them, are terrific.  The kids are great and so is the guy who plays it completely straight the entire time.  Great campaign.
  • Even though Georgetown's loss to Florida Gulf Coast killed both Marilyn's and my brackets, I am glad that they are not around to possibly meet Syracuse in the final four.  I could not have taken another "this is the last time these two Big East giants will meet" story lines.  I think that they have already met for the "last time" about a half dozen times this season.
  • Speaking of Syracuse, I never had any great feelings, pro or con, about Jim Boeheim, but I am really getting tired of his constant whining about Syracuse leaving the Big East and going to the ACC "all because of football".  Shut up, Coach.  Believe it or not, YOU have a boss, and that boss has decided to switch conferences.  Like it or leave.  If he does hang it up after this season and not coach the team in the ACC, I will applaud him for having the courage of his convictions.  If he does stay on as coach, well, then you know the old joke: We already know what you are, now we're just negotiating the price.
  • The Sweet Sixteen is now made up of some of the Usual Suspects: Louisville, Duke, Ohio State, Michigan State et al.  There are also some real surprises: La Salle, Wichita State, and, most of all, Florida Gulf Coast University.  I am sure that FGSU will become everyone's sentimental choice, but I recall the words of some pundit that I heard prior to the tournament.  Early round upsets are fun and exciting, but if those schools continue to advance, it can make for a pretty bad Final Four.
  • Having been educated by the Christian Brothers in high school, and having an older brother who graduated from La Salle, the Explorers are the team that has had my rooting interest since their Play In game.  None of their wins have been easy, but they sure have been entertaining and exciting.
  • My original Final Four called for Duke, Ohio State, Georgetown, and Indiana, with Duke beating Indiana in the final.  So, I have three of four and both finalists still alive.  Too little, too late.
  • Marilyn's picks were Michigan State, New Mexico, Georgetown, and Syracuse, with Georgetown over Michigan State in the final.  Needless to say, she is NOT a fan of Harvard or FGSU.
  • If I was starting today, having watched this weekend and with just this sixteen team format, I think that I would go with Louisville, Ohio State, Kansas, and Miami, with Miami over Louisville in the final.
  • And need I remind everyone that Robert Morris takes on Providence in a second round NIT game at 7:00 tonight on ESPNews.  Go Colonials!!!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Great 2013 Hamburger Quest - Part 6

Over the past several days, I have added three new places in my Quest for the Best Hamburger in the Greater Pittsburgh area, Valiant's Diner in Ross, TGI Friday's in McCandless, and McFadden's Pub on the North Shore.

Of these, the most disappointing by far was TGI Friday's.  Since this is part of a nationwide chain, I can visualize their hamburgers being spit out into uniform size and shaped patties by some robotic mechanism in a giant factory, being flash frozen, and shipped to their restaurants across the country.  This produced a tasteless and very disappointing hamburger.

Valiant's is a great diner on Babcock Boulevard, the kind of place that Rick Sebak would put on one of his shows.  The burgers are hand formed and grilled right in front of you as you sit at the counter.  Valiant's is probably an even better place to visit for breakfast (perhaps the subject for the 2014 Quest, although Sebak has that one pretty much covered), but the burger wasn't bad, and I saw them serving up some hot turkey and roast beef sandwiches with gravy that will probably prompt me to visit again soon.  Thanks to pal Bill Harvey for putting me on to this place.  Oh, and, Harv, in case you are wondering, I did not have my hamburger there on a Friday!

The real surprise was the burger at McFadden's. Seeing as how beer and sports on TV (I was there for March Madness on Thursday) is pretty much what this place is about, I wasn't expecting much, but the burger was really good. Fresh and tasty and cooked to order.  I highly recommend this one.

The Rankings:
  1. Tessaro's (Bloomfield)
  2. The Rochester Inn Hardwood Grill (Ross)
  3. McFadden's (North Shore)
  4. SoHo Restaurant (North Shore)
  5. Bella Ria's (West View)
  6. Valiant's (Ross)
  7. The Tilted Kilt (North Shore)
  • BZ Bar and Grill (North Shore)
  • Sunny Jim's (Emsworth)
  • TGI Friday's (McCandless)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Robert Morris 59 - Kentucky 57

"This is what college basketball still can be in a world of one-and-dones and broken conferences and coaches draped in Armani. Yes, there can exist a steamy night in a tiny gym high on a hill by the Pittsburgh airport where the little guy stands strong, the giant topples and a swarm of students clad in red spill from wooden stands and dance on the remains of a national champion."

I wish that I could take credit for that paragraph above.  It is actually the lead paragraph from Yahoo Sports' Les Carpenter on last night's positively stunning upset win by Robert Morris over the University of Kentucky in the opening round of the NIT.   If you know me, you know my bona fides where Robert Morris is concerned.   Marilyn and I are proud alums who have been attending Colonials basketball games regularly since 1990, so this is not bandwagon jumping on our part today.

Ironically, we were not able to attend last night's game due to a Caring Place commitment, but, thanks to the magic of the DVR, we froze out all information concerning the game and were then able to watch it in it's entirety when we got home.  When the game ended, it was then so much fun to go to Facebook and Twitter and see all the comments that were being made as this game unfolded and in its aftermath.

When the match-up was announced, it was, of course, thrilling to think of a storied team such as UK coming to the tiny Sewall Center for a game.  My hope was that RMU would be able to hold strong and give Kentucky a game for a half before the inevitable took place.  Never in my wildest hopes did I envision a Colonials win.   What can I say?  It was euphoric.

It is almost a shame that this tournament has to continue and more games have to be played.  I can't imagine that anything will be able to top that win over Kentucky, or that the Colonials will have any emotion left in the tank after that one.  However, I am not going to underestimate what Coach Andy Toole might be able to pull off with this team going forward.

And speaking of Andy Toole, there's the downside from this game.  I am sure that Toole was probably on the radar of larger schools as an up-and-comer young coach.  His days at RMU were probably numbered anyway, but that win last night will no doubt raise his profile higher, and some larger school will no doubt come calling soon.  That is life for a low/mid-major conference.

And a word about Kentucky Coach John Calipari, a native of Moon Township.  If you care about this stuff, you no doubt know how Calipari engineered having his Wildcats come to Moon Township for this game.  Kentucky fans probably thought it a sure win, but I'm not so sure that Calipari did.  In any event, he could not have been more gracious in his post game comments about his past connections to Robert Morris while growing up, and how he was glad that he and Kentucky were able to help a program like Robert Morris.  He acknowledged the Colonials' victory, to the point where he said that it would have been "a shame" had Kentucky's three point buzzer shot went in and Kentucky won the game.  He also gave a shout out to the late Gus Krop, the great coach of long ago who started the basketball program when it was Robert Morris Junior College.

I get that a lot of people don't like Calipari, and he can be criticized for much over how he has run his programs over the years, but he was a class act in bringing this game to RMU and in his post-game remarks.

Oh, and to those who have been making comments like "it's only the NIT" and "this isn't a really good Kentucky team"  and "Kentucky didn't really care about playing in a second rate tournament in a tiny gym" and similar remarks, I politely invite you to take those spoilsport comments and stick them where the sun don't shine!

Monday, March 18, 2013

More B.S. from GM Neal

The decision of the Pirates to send Gerrit Cole to the minors today was expected, and it is causing all sorts of chatter in the social media world.  I won't get into the debate as to the wisdom of not keeping one of your 10 best pitchers in order to push back his "arbitration/free agency" clock.  That's been beaten to death.  

Instead, I would rather focus on this quote from the GM Neal:

"Everybody's going to speculate why he's being sent out, and they're wrong. He's being sent out because, in our minds, he's not ready to compete and be successful at the major league level."

What frosts me about this particular bit of b.s. from Neal is that it is a complete and bold faced lie, and, as such, is yet another insult to the intelligence of the Pirates' fans.  I guess this is just another example of how smart baseball people agree with what the NHR does, if the dumb-shit Pirates fans just don't get it.

Be honest with us, Neal.  Just tell us the REAL reason Cole is going to start the season in Indianapolis.

A Pirate Chat member mentioned today that no one - politician, corporate leader, sports GM - is ever totally honest with the people, and he cited Bill Belichick as an example.  When Neal Huntington achieves the same level of success as has Bill Belichick, I will start to drink his Kool-Aid, but until then, I think I'll just remain insulted. 

To Absent Friends: Ruth Ann Steinhagen

Old baseball fans will know the name of Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who, as a 19 year old obsessed baseball fan (groupie?) lured Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus to her hotel room and shot him in the chest with a rifle.  Waitkus survived, Steinhagen was committed to a mental hospital, and the incident served as inspiration for Bernard Malamud's novel, "The Natural".  Upon her release from the institution in 1952, Waitkus declined to press charges, and the incident was pretty much forgotten, except by baseball trivia buffs.

Turns out that Steinhagen died of natural causes at the age of 83 this past December, and her death only became known in the past week or so.  She lived the past sixty years in relative obscurity, and not much was known of her life in that time, according to the obituary in today's Post-Gazette.  One can only presume that she was rehabilitated and lived a happy and purposeful life, and if that is the case, good for her.

I wonder if she still went to any ball games?

RIP Ruth Ann Steinhagen.

The 25th Man

The Bob Smizik Blog on the PG site is buzzin' today over what the final make-up of the Pirates bench will be come Opening Day.   Even I made a comment on there today!

Assuming the team will carry twelve pitchers, that means five bench players.  The locks to make it are platoon first baseman Gaby Sanchez and back-up catcher Mike McKenry.  I would add outfielder Jose Tabata, now out of options, as another lock.  So that leaves two spots to be fought over by Josh Harrison, Alex Presley, Brandon Inge, and Ivan deJesus, Jr.  

Doesn't conjure up images of the '27 Yankees, does it?  To be fair, though, these are the 24th and 25th guys on the team we're talking about, and most of the other 29 teams probably have as bleak an outlook for their 25th man as well.

My own guess is that Harrison will make it.  Clint Hurdle likes him, and he does seem to have an almost cult-like following among some Bucco fans.  I think that the team really wanted Inge to make the team, but he is currently hitting 3-for-25 in Spring Training.  I think that Presley's time has passed and he does have minor league options remaining.  deJesus has hit well in the Spring, but his previous major league trials have been, well, lousy, but he has this going for him:  he came to the team from the Red Sox in the Joel Hanrahan trade, and if he makes the team, Neal will be able to talk about how trading Hanrahan added to the major league roster.  (Speaking of the Hanrahan trade, I am sure you all noticed that power hitting first baseman/outfielder Jerry Sands was sent to the minors last week.)

So, pick two from among Presley, Inge, and deJesus, and keep telling yourself that these are the 24th and 25th men on the squad.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Fish Fry Shout Out

I have to give a huge thumbs up and shout out for the Fish Fry held every Friday at the American Serbian Club on Sarah Street (between 25th and 26th Streets) on the South Side that benefits Holy Trinity Orthodox Church.  Our friends and neighbors, George and Barbara Topich are major movers and shakers in both Holy Trinity Church and the ASC, so we have always made it a point to hit this fish fry once every Lent, but we would make it a point to go to this one even if we didn't know the the Movers and Shakers.

This fish fry has a lot going for it:

  • Terrific food and large portions
  • Holy Trinity and the ASC have been running this event for at least the last thousand years or so, so they know how to do it right
  • Games of chance:  "Chinese Auction"-type raffles available.  They do need to consider having a 50/50, though.
  • Unlike a fish fry in a church building, the Serbian Club has a bar.  So, if you feel inclined to wash down your fish sandwich with an ice cold Iron City, as The Grandstander felt yesterday, you can do so.
  • This fish fry starts at 11:30 every Friday, so you can hit it up for lunch or dinner.
There are only two more Fridays left in this Lenten season, so if you are in the South Side area on one of those days, consider hitting up the ASC for their fish fry.  You won't regret it.

Neal Speaks About Taillon

It has been awhile since I have written about some of the Wild and Wacky quotes from Pirates GM Neal Huntington, lovingly referred to as "Nealspeil", or not so lovingly as "NHB", but that doesn't mean that Neal doesn't keep churning them out.

When asked to comment on prized pitching prospect Jameson Taillon's recent start for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, this is what Neal had to say, as printed in both the Post-Gazette and Tribune Review:

“It was unnerving, as a GM, to watch a young pitcher with as high expectations as we have for Taillon pitch a make-or-break game against Team USA. But he handled himself well.”

Okay, let's parse that out a bit.  Why exactly, do you suppose, Neal was "unnerved"?  Because one of his young pitchers was actually, you know, pitching in an actual baseball game?  Or was it because Taillon was not pitching under the watchful eyes of the Pirates developmental staff?  Was it because he, Taillon, was stretched to four complete innings, when the Pirates felt he shouldn't pitch that many innings until, say, June 1?  It almost sounds like Neal's concession that "he handled himself well" came reluctantly from his lips, as if he dreads the fact that by pitching well, Taillon might force the team's hand to accelerate his pace through the minors.

Hey, call me crazy, but if I was the GM, and one of my young stud prospects performed as well as Taillon just did on such a stage, I would be ecstatic.  Not GM Neal, though.  The whole thing just "unnerved" him.

Here's an idea for Neal to ponder.  Scout, draft, and sign as many of these pitching prospects as you can, and then never let them pitch in an actual game.  That way (a) they will never risk them being injured, (b) by not accumulating any major league service time, they will never qualify for arbitration and free agency, so the Pirates will have years of control over them forever, and (c) they will always remain a vital part of the "future" to which the NHR is forever building.

By the way, and before the Neal Defenders (NHD's?) pounce, I am not suggesting that Taillon is ready for the major leagues at this point in his career.  At the very least, he is one year away from being ready for the big club.  But for God's sake, Neal, why does a strong performance by an ace prospect in a highly leveraged (as they say today) situation "unnerve" you?   

I don't get it.

North Allegheny's "Footloose"

This past Thursday evening we took in the North Allegheny High School Spring musical, "Footloose".  I will say what I always say whenever I attend something like this: few things give you better feeling for the future than attending a high school musical.  This production was no exception.

Absolutely amazing energy and talent from all of these kids on stage.  My favorite number was "Let's Hear It for the Boy" wherein the character Willard admits he doesn't know how to dance.  His buddy teaches him a few rudimentary steps, which he stumbles through at first, and then, of course, he catches on and dazzles everyone on stage and in the audience.  Predictable?  Of course, but completely entertaining and fun.

Cheers as always to the cast, orchestra and stage crew of NA kids who always make the Spring Musical such a fun thing to attend.  And while the kids deserve all the credit, I would like to give a special shout out to our fellow Caring Place volunteer, Andre Ronk.  "Miss Ronk" is an elementary school art teacher at North Allegheny, and she has been the choreographer of the NA musicals for the last, I believe, six or seven years.  She did another bang-up job working with this cast for all of the great dance numbers in "Footloose".  Way to go, Andrea!!

We have one more high school musical on our agenda - "Legally Blonde" at Montour HS next month.

Anyone, please take the time to see a high school  musical in your area.  You won't regret it. 

Welcome, William Warfield Davis

The line of progeny started by my parents, Frank and Ruth Sproule, back in 1939 was extended by one more a little after 8:00 AM today with the birth of William Warfield Davis.  The birth took place in New York City, and both Mom and baby are doing fine!

Will, as I believe he is to be known going forward, is the first child of my niece Katie and her husband Micky.  That, of course is Katie holding the young man shortly after his arrival.  He is my brother Jim and his wife Nancy's first grandchild.  By my quick count, Will is my parents fifteenth great-grandchild, and he is great-nephew/niece number twenty-three for Marilyn and me.

The name "Will Davis" certainly has a great sound to it, and I can see him as a fleet-footed corner outfielder someday, surely a high draft pick for the Pirates in the 2034 amateur draft.  

Welcome aboard, Will.  We can't wait to meet you.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Free Agency Strikes the Steelers

Two days into NFL free agency, and here is what it hath wrought for the Black 'n Gold....

  • They have lost their best wide receiver
  • They have lost their best running back (although being the Steelers "best running back" in 2012 is the definition of the saying "damning with faint praise")
  • They cut one of their best, albeit often injured, offensive linemen
  • The signed a new back up quarterback, and since he played in the WPIAL, this will go over great with the locals
  • They resigned LB Larry Foote
  • They resigned long snapper Greg Warren
What does it all mean?  I don't know, but I am sure that hundreds of hours of sports talk radio and TV and much newsprint will be expended analyzing these developments. However, I do think that one issue now becomes paramount:  Kevin Colbert and Company better draft a bunch of guys who can come in and start playing NOW to help this team.  For what it is worth, I do think that the Bruce Gradkowski signing was a good one.  Charlie Batch's game against the Ravens aside, the Steelers seriously needed to upgrade that back-up QB position.

To me, the most interesting development in free agency, and I don't pay a whole lot of attention to it, is Wes Welker leaving the Patriots and signing with Denver.  Now, this comes a surprise to me, because I think that Welker is an amazing receiver, but, and I know we don't like Bill Belichick, but if he is willing to let Welker go, then maybe he, Welker, doesn't have as much left in the tank as most of us may think.

Interestingly, Welker will not experience that great a drop off, if any, from the guy throwing passes to him, as he leaves one all-time great, Tom Brady, to now work with another, Peyton Manning.  Mike Wallace, on the other hand, will not be able to have the same experience switching from Ben Roethlisberger to Ryan Tannehill.

Habemus Papam

It was quite exciting yesterday, having CNN on all afternoon with its camera constantly focused on that Sistine Chapel chimney, and then seeing that white smoke pour out, followed by the hour or so wait for the announcement of the new Pope, Jorge Mario Borgoglio of Argentina.  In a world where we seem to know everything before it actually happens, it is somehow reassuring that there is still some mystery still among us.

God be with Pope Francis as he begins his walk in the shoes of the fisherman.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fun With the TV Clicker

Fun with the TV clicker late this afternoon and early evening.

Went back and forth between NBC and watching Tiger Woods put the finishing touches on his WGC Cadillac Championship at Doral in Miami.

This was a wire-to-wire win for Woods.  It was his second win of the season and was his 76th career PGA Tour win, which is now only six behind Sam Snead's all time record of 82.  This is a record that Tiger is sure to bag, probably sometime in 2014 by the looks of how he has been playing so far this year.

The other programming being watched was the USA's 9-4 win over Canada in the World Baseball Classic.  This win advanced the USA out of pool play and into the second round of the WBC.

Nothing like a little jingoism to infuse some life and interest into the WBC.  I believe that the USA will play either Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic in the first round of a single elimination bracket-style tournament.  Single elimination is a tough way to go, and this is especially true in baseball.  Makes it a real crap shoot, but at least there is now some rooting interest in this event.

The other exciting news from this game is that Jameson Taillon was the starting pitcher for Team Canada and pitched four innings, struck out three, and gave up two runs, only one earned.  Those were real big league players he was pitching against for the USA, so that was indeed good news. 

A Sunday Morning Sports Brunch

A Sunday morning look at the wide, wide, world of sports.....

The NCAA tournament hopes for the Robert Morris University Colonials came crashing down at the Sewall Center yesterday with a 69-60 loss to Mount St. Mary's, and believe me, the nine point spread doesn't reflect the totality of the Mount's win.  RMU took a lead early and the Mount tied the game at 15.  Then the Mount took the lead and never again lost it.  Late in the second half, their lead went to over twenty points.   A too-little-too-late Colonial surge in the final minutes made the final score look closer than the game actually was.  Actually, from the very beginning, this game just didn't feel right for Robert Morris.  Poor Shooting + Tenacious MtSM defense = A Bad Day for the Colonials.

On the bright side, as regular season Conference Champion, the Colonials do get an automatic bid to the NIT, so they got that going for them, which is nice.


The Pirates seem to be pretty much under the radar this Spring Training, and maybe that's a good thing.  If there are low expectations, then there's no where to go but up, right?

In taking a look at the averages in this morning's paper, however, let's ignore the fact that Jerry Sands, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez are all hitting below .200, because Spring Training stats are meaningless, and instead look at the stats of Starling Marte and Jose Tabata, because good  Spring training stats offer Hope, right?

Marte is following up a torrid winter League campaign and is hitting .421 (8-for-19) this spring.  Tabata is hitting .333 (6-for-18) with four doubles, a home run, and five RBIs.  Both of these lines are encouraging, but the more intriguing story to me is Tabata.

After a disappointing season that saw him injured and sent back to the minors in 2012, he seems to be a forgotten guy, one who will be, at best, the fourth outfielder for the Pirates.  He is still, however, only 24 years old, and maybe being out of the spotlight has removed some pressure, or maybe he just gets it that this could be his last chance to make it with the Pirates, but what if this hot Grapefruit start isn't just another spring training flash in the pan?  What if this is the year that he breaks out and becomes the player that everyone hoped he would be?  How great would that be?


The biggest sports story in the city today however involves, you guessed it, the Steelers, and their releasing of James Harrison.  He's 35 years old, he's been injured, and he was making too much money.  He was also, probably, still the team's best linebacker, but that third factor - "making too much money" - is what spelled the end for Harrison as a Steeler.   As all NFL teams do, they decided that it was time to reduce that contractual obligation, but Harrison balked, so bye-bye, James.

A one time Defensive Player of the Year, and the author of one of the greatest plays in Team and Super Bowl history, that 100 yard interception return for a touchdown, Harrison was also, how can I say this, a thug on the field, a guy with numerous illegal hits, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines to his dubious credit.  There are lots of guys in all sports who you like when they play for "your team" but you dislike intensely when that play for the "other team."  Steelers fans will realize this the first time Harrison, playing for another team, goes helmet-to helmet  with Ben Roethlisberger or Antonio Brown.

The Pitt Panther hoopsters begin the Big East tournament this week in New York against much nostalgic weeping (literal and figurative) because this will be the end  Pitt's association with the Big East Conference.  Hey, it was great run, but please let's stop with the gnashing of teeth over this.  Last I looked, the conference to which they are headed has a pretty good reputation as a basketball conference, doesn't it?  I would think that games against Duke, North Carolina, NC State, and Wake Forest will soon be the equal of games against Georgetown, Connecticut, and Villanova.  Plus, Pitt will still play Syracuse, so we'll still have Jim Boeheim to  kick around.

Of course, the "Big East" will survive as a basketball-only conference consisting  of, for now at least, the seven Catholic universities in the conference, and this, Ironically, is what the Big East started out as in the first place way back when.  I heard sportswriter Bob Ryan on the radio the other day saying that he absolutely loves this, and that the fact that this is occurring at all is the extension of a huge middle finger by college basketball to the "Football Is Everything" culture of college athletics.  Great line.


I have been trying to watch the World Baseball Classic, but it's hard to get into.  Maybe if the USA advances that will make it pick up the interest quotient.  On the other hand, it seems that the WBC may best be remembered for that Pier Six brawl between Canada and Mexico yesterday.  If that is the case, perhaps the concept needs to be re-thought.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Different Friday Night Experience

We departed from our usual Friday Lenten routine and did not hit a Parish Fish Fry.  To describe our evening as "eclectic" would be putting it mildly.  

Want to guess what we did?  Go ahead, take a shot.  

Give up?  OK, here it is.

We piled in with neighbors and friends, Tom Frankart, and Mark and Barbara Matera and headed down to Howard's Tavern in West View for dinner.  Howard's is "neighborhood bar and grill" in the truest sense of the term.  It is owned by fellow St. John Neumann Parishioners, the Nicotra Family, and their fish sandwich has been voted "Best Fish Sandwich in the North Hills" by the readers of The Pennysaver, and it lived up to the billing.  Very tasty.

Then, we rode a few blocks down Perry Highway to the Benedictine Convent for Friday Stations of the Cross.  Very good  for the soul.

Then, it was a drive into downtown Pittsburgh for drinks and some jazz music at Andys, the lobby bar at the Fairmont Hotel.   Very relaxing and fun.

There you have it...a neighborhood beer and sandwich bar, a convent, and an upscale hotel...all in one evening.  Tell me that YOU did anything even remotely comparable.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Beatles' Lesser Hits

It has long been a contention of mine that a sampling of any set of recordings made by The Beatles would make great listening.  It's easy to come up with a list of The Beatles' greatest songs, well, maybe not that easy since there were so many of them, but I had the idea of putting together a playlist of some of their lesser known, or at least, lesser played, songs, and calling it "The Beatles' Lesser Hits".

Again, not an easy task, since there are so many great songs and recordings by the Fab Four.  Anyway, here is my list.  Twenty-one songs in all:

  • Hold Me Tight
  • This Boy
  • I'll Get You
  • I Call Your Name
  • No Reply
  • Rock and Roll Music
  • I'll Follow the Sun
  • I'll Be Back
  • I've Just Seen a Face
  • Roll Over Beethoven
  • Johnny B. Good
  • Memphis, Tennessee
  • It Won't Be Long
  • I'm Only Sleeping
  • Girl
  • I'm Looking through You
  • She's Leaving Home
  • Tell Me Why
  • The Night Before
  • Doctor Robert
  • Two of Us
Admit it, YOU want a CD of this for your car, don't you?

Maybe there will have to be a "Volume II" of these lesser hits.

Monday, March 4, 2013

All-Time Top Ten NCAA Tournament Players

A special edition of Sports Illustrated came in the mail today that salutes "75 Years of the NCAA Basketball Tournament".  Cool idea.  Even cooler was the centerpiece of the issue, which named the ten "greatest players" in the history of the tournament, and for your consideration, here they are:

10. Jerry West
9. Christian Laettner
8. Magic Johnson
7. Bill Bradley
6. Wilt Chamberlain
5. Larry Bird
4. Oscar Robertson
3. Bill Russell
2. Bill Walton
1. Lew Alcindor

Pretty good list and hard to find fault with either the players selected or their ranking on the list.  However, what I find to be the most interesting facet of this list is the fact that seven of the men on the list fully pre-date the ESPN Era of sports (1979 to current).  Johnson and Bird, who played from 1977 to 1979 straddled the birth of ESPN, and only one player, Laettner, can be considered a pure ESPN Era player.

Also, consider that Russell, Robertson. Chamberlain, Bradley, and West played in an era before these games were televised on national television networks (I might be wrong, but I believe I am correct on that).  It was only when the John Wooden UCLA Dynasty came to the fore, anchored by Alcindor and Walton, that these games began being telecast nationally on one of the major networks.

Being that I am at times a Grumpy Old Man, it always rankles me that many people are of a mind that "if it wasn't on ESPN, then it didn't really matter, or didn't even happen", and ESPN itself is one of the foremost dispensers of this bit of conventional wisdom.  That being the case, I salute Sports Illustrated for having the integrity to look at the complete history of the event about which they are writing.

How would such a list coming from the Mike Greenbergs, Stewart Scotts, Chris Bermans, and other sages in Bristol look?  For one thing, you can be sure that it would include Michael Jordan.  In fact, I am betting the we will see letters to the editor in SI in a few weeks demanding to know why Jordan was left off.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Fish Fries and Other Random Thoughts for a Sunday Morning

Yes, we continue to explore the various Church Fish Fries each Friday night during Lent. So far this year we have visited St. Theresa of Avila in Perrysville and St. Alexis in McCandless,  Both parishes have been at the Fish Fry game for years and years and both put on a great event.  Good fish sandwiches and both also serve a mean bowl of clam chowder.   We have three Fridays remaining between now and Good Friday, and we have two "definites" penciled in:  Howard's Tavern in West View (not a Church, true, but owned and operated by fellow St. John Neumann parishioners), and the Serbian Club on the South Side.  This one benefits our neighbors and friends, George and Barb Topich's Serbian Orthodox Church.  That leaves one upcoming Friday in the "TBD" column.

A word of warning.  Our friends Fred and Susan Shugars had a not-so-great experience by opting for take-out at St. Alexis this past Friday, so you may want to consider eating in, which is what we did.  When it comes to take-out, always remember what Joe Pesci said about going through the drive-through (or, take-out window, in this case) in "Lethal Weapon 2".


Congratulations to the Robert Morris University basketball team for their first place finish in the Northeast Conference this season.  This means home court advantage throughout the NEC Tournament.  It also means that March Madness begins this coming Wednesday night when RMU takes on St. Francis (NY) in the opening round game.  Survive and Advance.  Be there!


The Pirates now stand at 2-7 in Grapefruit League play.  So, who cares, these are exhibition games.

On the other hand, Starling Marte is now hitting .417 in grapefruit League Play.  Now THAT is something to get excited about. 

This is what is great about Spring Training.  You get to pick-and-choose what's important.

Speaking of the Pirates, their game this past Friday was televised and it was great to watch some Pirates baseball.  Catching for the Bucs that night was Lucas May.  Now, I like to think that I keep close track on my favorite ball club, but I have to tell you, I had NEVER heard of Lucas May.


The stories about the "fractured" Steelers locker room this past season that are now coming out are sort of interesting, but, to be honest, I'm not putting a lot of credence in them, nor am I paying too much attention.  However, one item that did catch my eye was the retired Hines Ward talking about too much "finger pointing" taking place among the team this year, a team, by the way, that, lest we forget, Ward was not a part of.  This is coming from the same Hines Ward who a few years back accused Ben Roethlisberger of dogging it for not playing when he had a concussion.


It's High School Musical season.  We took in Seneca Valley's production of "Annie" last Friday.  In two weeks, it'll be North Allegheny doing "Footloose", and next month it will be "Legally Blonde" at Montour.  Few things make you feel better than seeing the energy, talent, and just plain fun of these kids - cast, orchestra, and crew - putting on a show.


So Mayor Luke has decided not to seek re-election as Mayor of Pittsburgh.  In his column today, John Mehno talked about the "frat-boy sensibility" that the Boy Mayor has brought to the office, and that was certainly reinforced when you read Luke's Mayoral "timeline" in the PG the other day, and saw about Luke's Seven Springs birthday party, crashing a party to meet Tiger Woods, attending concerts at Star Lake in city vehicles, airplane rides with Mario Lemieux, appearance in the Batman movie, and you could go on and on..

Davey Lawrence, he wasn't.


A DVR Alert for tonight, Sunday:  "Annie Hall" is on TCM at 8:00 PM.  One of Woody Allen's very best.  Oscars for Best Picture, Actress (Dianne Keaton), and Director and Screenplay (Allen).  Terrific movie.