Friday, May 31, 2013

To Absent Friends: Bill Austin

The man who preceded Chuck Noll as the Steelers head coach, Bill Austin (that's him on the left above), died yesterday at the age of 84.  Austin served as Steelers coach for three seasons before he was canned, and Chuck Noll was hired.  His term at the helm was, shall we say, undistinguished.

Austin serves as an object lesson for anyone who wants to see a successful sports coach fired (Jamie Dixon? Dan Bylsma? Mike Tomlin?), because you just never know who you are going to get when you hire a replacement.

In 1966, Bill Austin had the perfect pedigree to be the Next Big Thing in NFL coaching circles.  A successful assistant coach of the dynastic Green Bay Packers, he came highly recommended to Art Rooney by no less that Vince Lombardi (that's him on the right for all you youngsters out there) himself.  When he got there, he modeled himself after Lombardi, right down to the yelling and screaming and winning-is-the-only-thing persona.  Trouble was, there was only one Vince Lombardi, and Bill Austin turned out to be  just another bad NFL head coach.  The NFL was full of them then and it still is.

Anyway, RIP Bill Austin.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Another Reason Why We Love Baseball...Pirates 5 - Tigers 3

I have just returned home from attending the Pirates 5-3 win over the Tigers with buddy, Len Martin.

If you care enough to be reading this, most likely you know what transpired.  With one out in the bottom of the seventh inning, I was contemplating how I was going to write about the absolutely dominating performance of Tigers pitcher Annibal Sanchez, and while it was too bad the Pirates lost, but that you had to tip your hat to such a dominating performance from a pitcher.  At that point he had given up two hits, had nine strike outs, no walks, and his pitch count was in the low 70's, with an ungodly  K:BB ratio, and the Tigers led 3-1.  Then....

  • Garret Jones singles
  • Russell Martin walks
  • Pedro Alvarez, who couldn't have looked more pathetic in his two previous AB's, doubles to the opposite field, scoring Jones and Martin.  Tie game.
  • Travis Snider doubles, scoring Alvarez, then advances to third on a wild pitch
  • Jordy Mercer then lays down a perfect squeeze bunt that scores Snider without a play being made on either Snider or Mercer.
In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the game had completely turned around.  What appeared to be a desultory loss, became an electrifying win for the Pirates, served with the requisite grilled cheese sammitch from Jason Grilli in the ninth.

If this were a football game, and your team was being dominated the way Sanchez was dominating the Pirates, there is no way the team turns it around and wins the game.  Another reason why we love baseball.

One final note.  In this series, the Pirates have managed to keep Miguel Cabrera in check, until the fifth inning when he launched an absolute rocket halfway up into the right field seats.  A no-doubt-about-it bomb.  Since the Bucs did manage to win this one, I have to say that it was kind of fun to see Miggy, who is having another unbelievable year, hit such a bomb.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Golfing, Falling, Pirates Winning, Neal Does Well, and a New Award

Cleaning Out the Mental In-Box, Memorial Day Edition.....

  • Had a delightful round of golf today at Moon Golf Club.  Well, the company - Dan Bonk, John Coley, and Fred Shugars - was delightful.  The golf, not so much.  I have been playing golf for 30-some years now and am approaching age 62, so I am what I am as a golfer, so I don't get angry anymore when I play poorly, but I do get disappointed when I just know that I'm capable of playing better.
  • A note to the Moon Golf Club:  I want a rematch, at which time I intend to kick your ass!
  • Hey, how about those Pittsburgh Pirates???? 31-19 after taking two of three from the Hated Brewers in Miller Park!  When things like that happen, maybe it's a sign that this is the year that the World Record Losing Streak ends. Still a lot of grass to mow, however.
  • A little over a week ago, we all looked forward to what was thought to be a soft part of the Pirates schedule, 13 games with the Brewers, Astros, and Cubs.  The Pirates came through that patch with a 10-3 record.
  • Now the team faces ten games against good teams, the Tigers, Reds, and Braves. Five games at home, five on the road.  I'll be happy with 5-5 on that stretch, and would love it if it included two of three against the Reds.
  • 10,000th Win Contest Update:  The Pirates are playing at a .620 clip that, if maintained, would bring win #39, aka, the 10,000th Win in Team History, on the 63rd game of the season.  This pace is making Don Lancaster look like Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont Stakes.  Don called for this win to take place in game #65.  No one else is even close.  It will take a losing stretch of epic proportions (kind of like what happened last August) for Don to not take this prize.  
  • Speaking of Don Lancaster, this past Tuesday he won his primary election race for Borough Council in Indiana, PA.  Go get 'em in November, Don!
  • The performance of the Pirates is being sparked in large part by the following factors: (1) the Other Worldly performance of closer Jason Grilli, who became the closer due to the Joel Hanrahan trade, (2) the also Other Worldly performance by set-up man Mark Melancon, who was obtained in the Hanrahan trade, (3) the spark plug performance by catcher and free agent signee Russell Martin, who some have stated has been the team MVP, (4) five wins by Wandy Rodriguez, (5) five wins by Jeff Locke, (6) continued outstanding performance by AJ Burnett, (7) solid performances from fifth starter Jeanmar Gomez., and (8) a 3-0 start by free agent signee Francisco Liriano.
  • What do the eight guys listed above have in common?  They all were brought here by the maneuverings of General Manager Neal Huntington.  Yes, I who have spent so much time and blog space bashing the NHR since the close of last season, now must give the GM credit where it is due.  Oh, he still drives me crazy with his line of say-nothing NHB, and there is still two-thirds of a season to be played, but so far, a "Well Done" to GM Neal for 2013.  Final grade to be delivered in October.
  • Speaking of Joel Hanrahan, there seemed to be some gloating among Pirate Chatters (the Neal Loyalists?) when he started poorly with the Red Sox, and even some "told-you-so" type comments when he had to undergo season ending surgery, which I felt was bad form.  Hanrahan served the Buccos loyally and well, especially in 2011-12, I, for one, feel bad about what has befallen him since the trade, and wish him well when he returns in 2014.
  • Do any of you out there watch "Mad Men"?  If so, do you agree that last week's episode was bizarre at best and downright awful at worst?  Let's hope that that episode was an aberration or else we could be talking shark-jumping here.
  • I mentioned earlier that I will be turning age 62 in a few months. Not sure there is a correlation here, but yesterday morning, while crossing a North Side street on my way to breakfast with some friends, I fell down.  Don't know what happened, what caused the misstep, but all of a sudden, it was "DOWN goes Frazier!"   Skinned my knee, jammed my wrist, and suffered major embarrassment, but otherwise, came out okay.  The lesson is, something like this can come out of nowhere, so, as they said at the Hill Street Station "Be careful out there."
  • Maybe that fall explains my complete inability to hit a wedge shot or make a putt today.
  • How about that nutty Sergio Garcia?  First there was his incessant whining about Tiger Woods two weeks ago at the Players Championship, followed this week by, to be kind, racially insensitive comments about Woods at a press conference in Europe.  For all of Sergio's utterances, we bestow upon him The Grandstander H.A. Citation.  Hey, Sergio, this is for you:
(Photo courtesy of Dan Bonk Enterprises)

  • The "H.A. Citation" will now become a semi-regular feature of The Grandstander. 
  • And I will accept nominations for future Grandstander H.A. Citations, so let me have your suggestions.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Tony Award Predictions from Our Man on Broadway

As long time readers know, each year we turn The Grandstander over to our Official Broadway Correspondent,  Hatboro, PA's (by way of Landview Street) Big Poppy for predictions on Broadway's Annual Tony Awards, which will be presented on June 9.

Big Poppy is most definitely a man for all seasons, and his opinions on the American stage are highly valued.  He is coming off of a poor - for him -  prediction record in 2012, and is looking to rebound strong this year.  These predictions are coming a bit early this year because he and Mrs, Big P will be traveling to the Aloha State and will not be on the Mainland on the day the Awards are presented.

We will be watching and will provide a scorecard come June 10, and with that, take it away, Big Poppy.....

Hi Grandstander!  I know that you and your loyal readers have been anxiously awaiting my annual Tony Award predictions.   Yes, Big Poppy can hear you all snoring from 300 miles away.  NOT that I'm discouraged or dissuaded from trying to improve on my 6 for 10 performance in 2012.  This year, I'm picking eight winners representing only three shows: Kinky Boots, Matilda, and Pippin.  Here goes:
Revival of 
a Musical .........................  Pippin
Featured Actress, Musical ............... Andrea Martin
Featured Actor, Musical .................. Terrance Mann
Best Score .......................................... Cyndi Lauper (Kinky Boots) ... (Yes, that same Cyndi Lauper)
Best Book, Musical ........................... Harvey Fierstein (Kinky Boots) ... (could be Danny Kelly, Matilda)?
Leading Actress ................................ Patina Miller (Pippin)
Leading Actor ................................... Bertie Carvel (Matilda)   *SHOULD win ... Billy Porter (Kinky Boots)
Best Musical ...................................... Kinky Boots  (in a photo finish over Matilda)
Enjoy the show!  June 9th on CBS.  

"Romeo and Juliet" at Seneca Valley

More supporting of The Arts in area high schools.  Tonight, it was the Seneca Valley Thespians production of Billy Shakespeare's classic, "Romeo and Juliet".  The hook that got us there tonight was the inclusion in the cast of our nephew, Zach Stoner, as the "Friar".  He was brilliant, by the way.

A very nice production, and it occurred to me as I was watching that while I had to read "Romeo and Juliet" in high school, I had never actually seen a production of the play.  Have seen a million versions of West Side Story, but not the play that inspired, so I guess that I have been rounded out just a bit by finally seeing it on stage.

Congratulations to Zach and all of his cast mates on  a job well done!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Book Review: "Silken Prey" by John Sandford (No Spoilers)

I have just finished John Sandford's latest Lucas Davenport novel, "Silken Prey", and, once again, Sandford and Davenport have hit one out of the park.

The novel begins with a political dirty trick in a knock down, drag out US Senate race in Minnesota.   Child pornography has been found on the office computer of the incumbent Senator.  Is it his? Or, was it planted there by an operative of the challenger's?  And  on top of everything else, one of those political operatives seems to have turned up missing.  The Governor of Minnesota, Elmer Henderson, asks Lucas to investigate the matter and try to clean it all up before Election Day, a mere eight days away.

In conducting his investigation, Lucas discovers just what a blood sport Politics is, and realizes how his career could be on the line depending on how the whole mess turns out.

Other Sandford characters make appearances, including Virgil Flowers, and Kidd, an artist and part time computer hacker, and his wife, Lauren, who has a very interesting background herself.  Kidd is the subject of about a half dozen other Sandford novels.  I have not read any of those, but I think I am going to have to give them a whirl.  My favorite character, however, may be that of Governor Henderson.  He has some great lines of dialog in this book, and I kept picturing him  as John Slattery, the guy who plays Roger Sterling on "Mad Men".  His lines are that good!  The door is also left open so that one of these characters may appear again to bedevil Lucas in future "Prey" novels.

As I said, "Silken Prey" is another home run for John Sandford.  Read it.

The Mt. Lebanon High School Percussion Concert

Our Spring 2013 Tour in support of "The Arts" at area high schools took us to Mt. Lebanon High School last night for the annual Percussion Concert.  We were there to support Ashley Hansen, daughter of our friends Roger and Denise Hansen.  This was the second year we have been to this event, and it was a bittersweet occasion because Ashley will be graduating in two weeks, and this was her final Percussion Concert.

The concert was amazing and we also got to see all of the seniors being recognized for all of their efforts over the last four years.  It was amazing - Eagle Scouts, National Honor Society members, high honors recognition, and, perhaps just as important, I saw a group of kids having more fun in one concert than I had in four years of high school (an exaggeration, to be sure, but not a large one!).  Our future is in good hands with kids like this.

Good luck, Ashley, and Well Done, and have a great four years at Penn State!

After musicals at Seneca Valley, North Allegheny, and Montour, and last night's concert at Mt.  Lebo, the only stop remaining on our tour is the Seneca Valley Film Festival in a few weeks.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

To Absent Friends: Ken Venturi

Ken Venturi passed away yesterday at the age of 82.  As a PGA touring professional, Venturi won 14 times on Tour with his most notable win being the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club in Washington DC.....,

but he may be best remembered as the main analyst on CBS golf telecasts, including The Masters, for well over thirty years, working alongside Pat Summerall and then Jim Nantz.  I liked his "Stroke Saver Tips" (presented by Top Flite) on these telecasts.  He was inducted into the World golf Hall of Fame earlier this year.

I always enjoyed Venturi's commentary, although in later years he succumbed to crotchety status with a lot of "well-this-is-the-way-Hogan-would-have-done-it" type of comments.  when I was fortunate enough to attend a Masters practice round at Augusta National in 2002, I can remember walking past a tee box late in the afternoon and saw - and heard - Venturi holding court with a bunch of other guys, and while I don't remember any specifics, I do recall that there seemed to be a lot of carping about "these young guys out here on Tour these days".

Kenny's Open victory in '64 is always, and I mean always, described as "heroic" because it was played over 36 holes  on the final day (which is how the Open was conducted in those days) in searing heat, and Venturi was told he might die if he continued playing in said heat.  This story always gets told when Venturi's name comes up for discussion, and I always wondered about all of the other guys playing in the Open that day.  Were they also in danger of dying because of the heat?  No one ever talks about them.   

There were also two other notable events in Venturi's career, both at The Masters.  In 1956, Venturi competed as an amateur and led the Tournament after three rounds, but shot an 80 on the final day and ended up finishing second.  In 1960, Venturi was competing for the Championship and playing with Arnold Palmer on the final day.  I believe it was on Augusta's famous Par 3 12th hole, Palmer received a favorable ruling over an embedded ball that enabled him to avoid a two stroke penalty.  Palmer went on the win the tournament.  Venturi finished second, and he never made a secret over the fact that he thought that he got a raw deal and that if the other golfer was anyone else except Arnold Palmer, the ruling would not have gone the way that it did.

However, if you want to learn about something really fascinating about Ken Venturi, read a book called "The Match" by Mark Frost.

In 1956, Venturi and a fellow named Harvie Ward were the two best - by a long shot - amateur golfers in the country, and they engaged in a in a best ball match play Match against pros Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson at Cypress Point in California.  The bet was for $100 per man.  How the match came about is part of the story, and the golf played during the match was amazing.  Hogan shot 63, Venturi 64, Ward 66, and Nelson 67, and the Hogan/Nelson team won the match on the 18th hole.  In settling the scores both Hogan and Nelson declined to accept the hundred bucks each from Venturi and Ward.   It is a terrific book about an absolutely amazing round of golf.

The other part of the story, and what makes the book worth reading is to learn the story of Harvie Ward, about whom I knew nothing until I read this book, and what befell him in the years following The Match.  I won't begin to try and describe it, but It is a story that is almost Shakespearian in it's scope.

RIP Ken Venturi.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Prize Winning Photo?

Surely, this picture from last night's game from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette should win some type of prize for 2013's Best Sports Photos.....

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Count is 0-2 on Pedro....

While watching the Pirates eventual 4-3 victory over the Brewers on Tuesday night, it occurred to me that there may be no surer thing in professional sports than a Pedro Alvarez strike out whenever he falls to an 0-2 count, but I wanted to know just how true that supposition actually is.  So, I went to the SABR Listserv and to Pirate Chat, and I was not disappointed.  

Before I lay it out for you, my thanks to Pirate Chatters Tim Lehrian and Mike Emeigh and to SABR guy, Dan Cichalski for doing the research.  All figures are through May 14 of this season.

Across Major League Baseball, batters who fall behind 0-2 respond with a batting average of .166, and OPS of .439, and strike out 44.4% of the time.  These figures include pitchers who come to bat in the NL.

For the Pirates as a team, including Pedro Alvarez, 0-2 batters hit .171 with an OPS of .425, and strike out 45.5% of the time.

As for Pedro, when he falls to 0-2, he has responded with a .063 BA, and he has struck out an astonishing 71.8% of the time.  For his career, Pedro has hit .100 and struck out 61.1% of the time in these 0-2 situations.

My intuitive suspicions have been confirmed: that Alvarez' performance in these situations are so far below the average major league batter as to be almost unbelievable.  Would this be one of those goofy stats for the Pirates to put on the Jumbo-tron during games?  Probably not.

I have no earthly idea what the Pirates can do or are planning to do to remedy this situation, but if someone, anyone, can figure out a way to fix this, they should probably be given the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year Award, or, at the very least, free tickets to any Monday through Thursday Pirates game.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Observations on the Baseball Standings, May 13, 2013

I spent some time studying the MLB standings this morning, and there are some interesting observations to be made.....

  • First and foremost, your Pittsburgh Pirates are five games over .500 at 21-16 and in third place in the NL Central, 2.5 games behind the Reds.  If the season ended today, they'd be in the playoffs, but it is WAY too early for that kind of talk (as the past two seasons have taught us).
  • The Pirates next 13 games are against the Hated Brewers, Astros and Cubs.  These teams are collective thirty games under .500 and are a combined 7-23 in their last ten games.  Ten of those thirteen games are at home.  The Pirates may never face a softer  sequence of games during the season.
  • That said, the Cardinals and Reds are looking strong and the Pirates are going to have a tough time beating them out in the Central, although in six games against them thus far, the Pirates are 5-1.  I know, I know...small sample size.
  • How would you like to be a baseball fan in the land of the Big Spenders in SoCal?  The Dodgers are 15-21, in last place in the NL West, seven games out of first.  The Angels are 14-23, in fourth place in the AL West (thank you, Astros), and ten games out of first.
  • Think Don Mattingly and Mike Scioscia are feeling any heat out there? 
  • The Yankees lost all their good players to injury before the season, were aging rapidly, and were pretty much given up for dead before the start of the season, right?  Then how come they are 23-13 and in first place in the AL East?  And Mark Tiexiera and Curtis Granderson will be back soon.  I guess Brian Cashman may be the most under-rated GM in all of MLB.  Yankees haters should probably postpone the party plans for the time being.
  • The Red Sox, who had a very hot start are 2-8 in their last ten games, but still sit at 22-16, two games behind the Yanks.  This, of course, means that ESPN will continue to televise every single one of the forty or so games these two teams play against each other this season.
  • And here's another big spender not doing so well.  The Toronto Blue Jays, who had perhaps the splashiest off-season of any team, are 15-24, in last place, 9.5 games behind New York.
  • The sexy pick to go all the way this year was the Washington Nationals, and they are doing just okay so far: 20-17 and 1 game behind Atlanta in the NL East.  Of greater concern to Nats fans might be that I believe that they are 0-5 in their games against those same Atlanta Braves so far.
  • The Giants, the most unassuming two-of-the-last-three-World-Series-winners in memory, are chugging along, eight games over .500 and with a two game lead in the NL West.
  • The Orioles are showing that 2012 wasn't a fluke.  They are eight games over .500 and one game behind the Yankees in the AL East.
  • You think Los Angeles fans are suffering, how about those in the City of Broad Shoulders?  The Cubs and White Sox are a combined 30-42 and both are in last place in their divisions.
  • Cleveland is tied with Detroit for first place in the AL Central.  Did anyone see that coming, and is it sustainable?
  • Kansas City, a franchise almost as bad as the Pirates over the last 20 years or so, is holding its own at 18-16 and 1.5 games behind the Indians and Tigers.
Fun stuff!!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

To Absent Friends: Jack Butler

Steelers Hall of Famer Jack Butler's career ended due to an horrific knee injury at about the same time I became aware of football and the Pittsburgh Steelers, so I have no memory of him as a player.  I know that my Dad always spoke highly of him, and that was good enough for me to know that he must have been pretty damn good.

His death yesterday at the age of 85 brought to mind something that is too often forgotten, and that is that while the Steelers before 1972 were usually a pretty bad team, they often had a lot of great players, and Jack Butler was one of them.  It was nice that his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame came last year, while he was still around to enjoy it.

RIP Jack Butler.

It's DVR Alert Time!!!!

Some good movies on Turner Classic Movies in the week ahead, so get those DVR's programmed.  All times Eastern.

Monday, 10:15 PM - "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942)  A movie bio of George M. Cohan starring James Cagney.  Yeah, it's corny and overly patriotic, but worth seeing for Cagney's Oscar winning performance as Cohan.  Worth watching just to see Cagney/Cohan dance down the White House steps at the end of the movie.

Tuesday (actually Wednesday), 3:15 AM - "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" (1974)  A group of thugs hijack a New York city subway train and hold it for ransom.  Walter Matthau is the NY Transit cop who has to outwit head thug Robert Shaw.  also starring Jerry Stiller, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and Tony Roberts is great as the chief aide to the NYC Mayor.  They remade this a few years ago with John Travolta and Denzel Washington, and it wasn't nearly as good.

Friday, 8:00 PM - "Ace in the Hole" (1951)  Forty years before there was CNN, 24 hour news cycles, OJ Simpson, Jon Benet Ramsey, Lacey and Scott Peterson, and any number of other such stories, Billy Wilder wrote and directed this story of a newspaper reporter and a trumped up story concerning a mine accident.  It defined the term "media circus" before anyone knew what that was.  This was Wilder's first movie after "Sunset Boulevard" and it bombed, but it has found a following all these years later.  A notable such as Woody Allen considers it one of his favorite movies.  Humphrey Bogart won the Best Actor Oscar in 1951 for "The African Queen".  Kirk Douglas SHOULD have won it for "Ace in the Hole".

Saturday, 11:15 PM - "Murder by Death" (1976)  This is a spoof of mystery stories and movies wherein many famous fictional detectives are depicted.  I haven't seen this movie since it was released back in '76, so I don't know if will hold up, but it does have this going for it - it was written by Neil Simon, so it can't be bad, right?

Sunday, 6:15 AM - "Ten Little Indians" (1965)  No movie version of this Agatha Christie classic is as good as the book, but they're fun to watch.  This one stars Hugh O'Brien and Shirley Eaton and Wilfred Hyde-White.

It's Movie and Book Review Time!

My week with The Arts....

We went to see "The Great Gatsby" yesterday.  Remembering the, shall we say, unique way director Baz Luhrmann did "Moulin Rouge" a few years back, I was expecting something different with this version of Gatsby, and that's what we got, at least for the first hour or so of the movie.  In that first hour, we got a full sensory overload of over the top CGI shots of New York City and of the legendary parties thrown by Jay Gatsby of West Egg.  After that, though, Luhrmann toned it down and went for more straight story telling.

Now it has been over forty years since I have read "The Great Gatsby", but I recall loving it when it was a high school assignment.  I found it interesting that a number of reviews of this movie stated that the reason none of the film versions of the Fitzgerald novel, and this is the fourth one, have been any good is because, while they tell the story, they fail to capture the elegance of Fitzgerald's writing.  That could well be, but forty years is too great a distance for me to make an informed judgement in that regard.  Perhaps I need to put it on my summer reading list.

I don't rate this a great movie.  I'd say it's worth seeing if you ever read the book, even if it was forty years ago, and Leo DiCaprio was very good in it, as he is in anything that he does.

Our neighbor lent me the above 2002 book, "When the Smoke Clears" by Post-Gazette staff photographer Steve Mellon.  In it, Mellon visits five American cities that have all fallen on hard economic times due to the decline of the industries (steel, textile manufacturing, coal, and the auto industry) that sustained their economies since the 19th century.  It is kind of a stark book, and it made me realize how lucky I was to have had a good education and good jobs throughout my 35 years in the work force.

I'm not sure if the book is in print, but it is no doubt available at your local library.  Kind of a sobering read.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Catching Up As the TV Season Winds Down

We came back from our Hilton Head vacation last week to a DVR that was almost, but not quite, 100% full, so much of our free time since then has been spent catching up on these recorded episodes of our must see TV shows.  

Here's a recap.  As usual, no spoilers.

The Americans.   I have not written about this FX series, because I discovered it almost by accident.  The show takes place in Washington DC in 1981.  It is the first year of the Reagan Administration, and the USSR, while they may not realize it, is on the verge of extinction.  It revolves around Philip and Elizabeth, a seemingly normal suburban American couple with two kids and their own small business.  However, they are really Soviet spies who have been embedded in America in order to spy for Mother Russia.  Now, I have read that there were such people (and probably still are), that the USSR - and the USA - planted such spies in normal everyday society.  I also have read that such people often led fairly mundane lives as far as the spying business goes.  Not Philip and Elizabeth, though.  They are incredibly busy spying for the motherland, and often with very violent and deadly results.  The star is Keri Russell, the sweet-young-thing star of the series "Felicity" back in the late '90s.  Well, sweet she ain't in this show.  She is ruthless, cold-blooded, and completely without conscience as she does her duty for the KGB.   Some jaw-dropping violent scenes from Ms. Russell.  Also, since FX is a cable network, the show also offers at least one steamy, albeit gratuitous, sex scene in each episode.  To that end, I nominate actress Annet Mahendru, who plays Soviet spy, Nina, as one of the, and I hate to use the word because it sounds so juvenile but I can't come up with a better one, hottest young ladies on TV.

Anyway, we like the show, which concluded it's first season this week with the requisite cliff-hanger ending.

Mad Men.  We are now four episodes into this season of Mad Men.  Don Draper has reverted to his hound dog ways, a complete and total cad, to use an old fashioned word.  This season takes place in the year 1968, a remarkable year in our history, and those events, the Martin Luther King assassination, for example, are being woven into the plot lines.  I suspect that the Robert Kennedy killing will be in an upcoming episode, perhaps as early as this week.  To me, the show is at its best when it is taking place in the SDCP offices.  Don is still the smartest guy in the room, Pete Campbell is still loathsome, Christina Hendricks is still spectacular to look at, and Roger Sterling still gets the best lines in the show.

Person of Interest.  This show is coming perilously close to jumping the shark for us.  Each week the stories involving the Machine (who built it, who is controlling it, who is trying to control it) become more convoluted and the whole thing just screams of writers making crap up as they go along.  Same for which cops are crooked and which cops are not.  Were it not for the charisma of star Jim Caviezel, I think we would have bailed on this one earlier in the season.  As it is, we will stick it out for tonight's Season Finale, and make a decision over the summer as to whether we want to resume with it in the Fall, although we probably will.

Elementary.  This reworking of the Sherlock Holmes story, which places Holmes in present day New York City and gives him a female Watson is one of our two favorite new shows of this past network TV season.  Johnny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson are very good in their roles and play off of each other well.  Season Finale is tonight, and we are definitely on board for next year.

Vegas.  This is the other show that we both really like.  The story takes place in Las Vegas in 1960 as the Mob comes in to take control of the casino business.  Dennis Quaid as the Vegas rancher reluctantly turned sheriff, and Michael Chiklis as the Mob Guy from Chicago are both really good.  The bad news is that while this show has been well received by the critics and does OK in the ratings, it seems that it is not being watched by the coveted 18-34 year old demographic, and it appears that CBS will probably cancel the show.  Too bad, because, we really like this one, but I guess our "demo" is just not what the CBS Bigdomes
want.  Season finale is tomorrow night, and I hope that someone miracle will occur to let this series see another season.

I will also mention two shows that I do not watch, but which are favorites of Marilyn's, The Good Wife and Grey's Anatomy.  Mrs. Grandstander reports that The Good Wife remains a solid show, and that while Grey's has held up over this season, if a certain event hinted at in the previews takes place in tonight's Season Finale, she may just possibly be done with this one.

And on the lighter side, I see where ABC is bring back Wipeout for the summer.  Now that, my friends, is quality television!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Joe Greene

Joe Greene announced yesterday that he was retiring from his front office/scouting/personnel position with the Steelers that he has held for the past nine years.  Greene also served as an assistant coach under Chuck Noll for five seasons, but, of course, Greene was a defensive tackle for the Steelers for 13 seasons, from 1969 through 1981.  A four time super Bowl champion and a ten time All-Pro, Greene was, simply put, and this deserves the capital letters and bolding, The Greatest Steeler of Them All.

No arguments on that point, please.

Much like historical time is distinguished as "BC" and "AD", Steelers history can be defined as  BJG (Before Joe Greene) and AJG (After Joe Greene).  BJG, the Steelers were league doormats for almost forty years.  That all changed when Chuck Noll was named head coach after the 1968 season.  Noll's first act as Head Coach?  Drafting Joe Greene with the Steelers  #1 pick (#4 overall).  Everything, and I mean everything, was different for the Steelers after that point.

I hope that Mean Joe has a long, happy, and healthy retirement.  The Steelers have not, and never will, see his like again.

The 2013 Pirates, 20% In

The Pirates have now played 31 games, one game short of the 20% mark of the season.  Time to take my first critical look at the team for the season.


  • The team stands at 17-14, three games out of first place and in a virtual tie for second place in the NL Central.  Given the schedule they faced in the first month of the season, they are much better, record-wise, than I anticipated.
  • Starling Marte: .325, 5 HR, 16 RBI, .918 OPS.  Need I say more?
  • Russell Martin.  After a slow start, he is hitting .272, 6 HR (leads the team), 11 RBI, and .905 OPS.
  • Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez, and Garrett Jones all hitting well.
  • Andrew McCutchen, despite a horrible slump on the last road trip, still leads the team in RBI with 17.  You know he will perform.
  • The bullpen 8th/9th inning tandem of Mark Meloncon and Jason Grilli has been other worldly.
  • A.J. Burnett, a true ace and leads the league in strike outs.
  • Jeff Locke has shown glimpses of being a good starting pitcher.
  • Pedro Alvarez hitting .178 with 35 K's in 101 AB, and a .563 OPS.  Yes, there are those 5 HR and 13 RBI, but when he does not hit a home run, and they are his only extra base hits thus far, he's pretty much the same hitter as Clint Barmes.  Seeing him absolutely crush a home run, makes the rest of his performance all the more frustrating.
  • Speaking of Clint Barmes: .192, 1 HR, 4 RBI, .497 OPS and 21 K  and only 4 BB in 78 AB.  Positively unacceptable.  And while people rave about his defensive prowess, sorry, but I don't see it.  The seamhead SABRmetrics guys may say differently, but when I watch him, he seems, at best, pretty ordinary to me.
  • James McDonald.  Never know which JMac will show up, and more often that not, it's been the Second Half JMac from 2012 that we've seen so far.
  • Jonathan Sanchez was a complete and absolute disaster as a starting pitcher.  He was glaringly bad (yes he was, Clint).  At least the team ended this experiment before the calendar turned to May.
  • The anticipated help from injured pitchers is not looking good.  Charlie Morton had a setback in his rehab and who knows what's wrong Jeff Karstens.  Francisco Liriano is set to join the rotation this coming weekend.  Need you be reminded that Liriano has been an ordinary-to-bad pitcher pretty much since 2010?  We must, however, keep an open mind on him.
  • Utility infielder John McDonald.  Why did Neal trade for this guy, and why is he still on the team?
  • Gerritt Cole, Indianapolis (AAA) -  6 G, 29.1 IP, 2-1, 2.45 ERA, 21 K, 17 BB, 1.30 WHIP
  • Jameson Taillon, Altoona (AA) - 6 G, 35.2 IP, 2-3, 3.03 ERA, 36 K, 12 BB, 1.18 WHIP
  • Alen Hanson, SS, Bradenton (High A) - 114 AB, .237, 0 HR, 13 RBI, 24 K, 11 BB, .617 OPS
  • Gregory Polanco, OF, Bradenton - 111 AB, .324, 4 HR, 18 RBI, 17 K, 12 BB, .907 OPS
  • Josh Bell, OF, West Virginia (Low A) - 113 AB, .274, 4 HR, 30 RBI, 30 K, 10 BB, .815 OPS
  • Luis Heredia, P - Will pitch for short season Jamestown Jammers when their season begins in June.
  • These are the Top Six prospects in the organization.  Cole is 22 years old, Taillon and Polanco are 21, Hanson and Bell are 20, and Heredia is 18.
  • As I said, the team is in a better position, Wins-and-Losses-wise, than I thought they would be at this point, so that's a good thing.
  • Starting pitchers, with the exception of Burnett, have not shown the ability to go deep into games.  If this trend continues, that will tax a bullpen that has been very good so far, especially the back end of that pen.  Need I remind you that Jason Grilli is 36 years old?
  • We all anticipate the arrival of Gerritt Cole sometime around Father's Day.  Will that be enough?
  • In other words, as I have said in both my Spring Training and Season Preview posts, where this team goes all depends on its starting pitching, and it has to pick up and be better than it has for the team to sustain its current +.500 status and end the WRLS*, let alone compete for a post-season berth.
* In case you forgot, "WRLS" stands for World Record Losing Streak.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Say Hey, Say Willie....Happy Birthday

Happy 82nd Birthday today to the guy who I consider to be the greatest baseball player that I have seen in my lifetime, Willie Mays.   To me, this is the guy to whom all outfielders, especially center fielders, should be compared.  The term "five tool player" was invented with Willie Mays in mind.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Penguins Bandwagon Has Arrived

As my friends and regular readers, who may or may not be my friends, know, I am not a "hockey guy", and there are a number of reasons for that for which I will not bore you.  However, the Stanley Cup Playoffs have begun, following a shortened regular season in which the Pittsburgh Penguins gave a pretty fair impersonation of the 1927 Yankees, so I am jumping on the Penguins Playoffs Bandwagon, and here I shall stay until Lord Stanley's oversized beer mug is waltzed around the Consol Energy Center ice.

What follows is The Grandstander's Official Stanley Cup Preview:


You really don't need me to give any details as to how they are going to do this do you?

I will say this, though.  They had better not get into the habit of blowing 3-1 leads against an inferior team.  That'll kill you. 

The Titanic, Jacques Futrelle, and "The Thinking Machine"

While on my vacation last week, one of the books I read was an interesting little bit of mental junk food (and I do not use that term as a negative) called "The Titanic Murders" by Max Allan Collins.  Collins is one of these incredibly prolific writers who has written hundreds of novels, short stories, screenplays, even comic books and comic strips over the course of his career, and he's still going strong.  This book was a part of what he terms his "disaster series" wherein he takes an actual historic event (Pearl Harbor, the London Blitz, the Hindenburg crash), uses actual people who were there at the time, and fashions a fictional mystery story.

This 1999 book, obviously, takes place on the ill-fated first voyage of the luxury liner, Titanic.  Collins comes up with a story about two murders that took place upon the ship during that voyage, and how the crime was solved before the ship hit the iceberg, and how the story came to light so may years later.  The "detective" who solves the crime is mystery writer Jacques Futrelle.

Now you have to be really old, or a real mystery story nerd to know the name Jacques Futrelle, but in the first decade of the twentieth century he authored a number of short stories and at least one novel featuring a character named Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, a man of such towering intellect, that he was able to solve crimes merely by using his incredible brain.  So great were his abilities in this area that he was dubbed "The Thinking Machine".   At the time, Futrelle was seen as the American rival to Arthur Conan Doyle, and Van Dusen as a rival to Sherlock Holmes.  Well, Doyle's Holmes' stories continue to be read to this day, while Futrelle and his Thinking Machine have been pretty much forgotten, but 105 years or so ago, he was pretty big stuff, and one of his Thinking Machine stories, "The Problem of Cell 13" is to this day almost always included in any "Best Mystery Stories of All Time" anthologies.

Reading "The Titanic Murders" made me do a little research, and it seems that Jacques Futrelle actually was on the Titanic, and he was one of the fifteen hundred or so lives lost on that night to remember.  It is also reported that about a half-dozen brand new Thinking Machine stories went down with the ship as well.  He was traveling with his wife who did survive that night.  Of all the famous people who died from that sinking, I had never heard that Futrelle was among them.  I also went to the Kindle store to see if any of Futrelle's works were available in digital format, and it  turns out that that indeed they are.  I was able to download a complete collection of Thinking Machine stories for $1.99.

I read a few of the stories, including the famous "Problem of Cell 13", and you can see the parallels between these and the Sherlock Holmes stories (a newspaper reporter named Hutchinson Hatch serves as Van Dusen's Watson).  Van Dusen can also be seen as the precursor to any number of fictional detectives, from Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot to Jefferey Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme.  Admittedly, Futrelle's writing style seems a bit dated, but I am not sure that he deserves to be so completely forgotten today.

As for the Max Collins novel, all the characters are real people who were on the Titanic.  You know who they were - Isadore Strauss, Benjamin Guggenheim, John Jacob Astor, Molly Brown, Captain Smith, Bruce Ismay - and, he does fashion a mystery story about two murders that maybe, possibly, could have been committed on that infamous voyage.  I thought that this would be a piece of fluff, but when you read the Epilogue and the acknowledgements that Collins writes, it is kind of an impressive piece of writing.

Like a lot of mystery stories, "The Titanic Murders" is not great literature, but it is entertaining and fun to read, and what more can you ask, especially when sitting around a swimming pool?  It can be all yours for $4.99 if you have a Kindle, or free if you visit the library.  I am sure that I might now be prompted to check out a couple Collins' other Disaster Series novels as well.

Friday, May 3, 2013

And in "Greed Is Good" News from Chicago.....

We can rail all we want about greedy athletes in professional sports, but no one, NO ONE, in sports is greedier than the owners of professional sports teams.  This was proven true yet again with the announcement by Tom Ricketts, the gajillionaire owner of the Chicago Cubs, that the Cubs needed to put in a giant modern video scoreboard in Wrigley Field in order to generate sufficient revenues that are needed in order for the Cubs to be competitive with the competition in Major League Baseball (sound familiar?).  And, if the team is not allowed to install such a board, then he, Ricketts, would have to consider moving the Cubs out of Wrigley Field.

Now, Ricketts didn't specify exactly where he would move the Cubs (Comisky Park? A new taxpayer financed stadium in the suburbs? Las Vegas?), but ballpark junkies have no doubt worked themselves into a lather over this because, let's face it, the occasional Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, or Ryne Sandberg aside, the real STAR of the Cubs franchise in my lifetime, at least, has been the ball park, not the team (whether or not this is a good thing for a franchise is an interesting discussion point for another day), so Ricketts threat to move the team somewhere else is akin to selling advertising on the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

Normally, I would take a stance foursquare against Ricketts on this, but then I read who is leading the main opposition to this new scoreboard.  Turns out that it is the owners of those buildings across the street from the outfield wall of Wrigley, the buildings that have built seating on their roofs to which they charge admission for their patrons, and none of said revenue, to my knowledge, goes to the Cubs.  If such a board is built atop the wall at the back of the left field bleachers, it would block the view of these freeloaders.

Talk about chutzpah!

Talk about a battle where you want both sides to lose!

Remembering Bryan Bullington

Hey, who here remembers Bryan Bullington?  Oh, you don't.  Well, back in 2002, the Pirates had the Number One overall pick in the player entry draft, and used it to select Bullington, an All-American pitcher at Ball State University. 

More on that choice in a moment, but Bullington, now pitching in Japan, found himself in the news again this week when this piece of video went viral, as the Kids Today say.  This even got a featured spot on PTI with Tony and Wilbon the other day.

Guess you better be careful when you call time when Bryan is in his wind-up.  

Getting back to Draft Day, 2002, Dave Littlefield became famous when after selecting Bullington with, I remind you again, THE NUMBER ONE PICK IN THE ENTIRE DRAFT,  he stated that the Pirates had projected Bullington as a possible #3 or #4 starter.  Turns out Bullington wasn't even that good, and that pick and that quote haunted Littlefield right up until  the day he got the paper key from the Pirates.

Just for kicks and giggles, I decided to engage in some revisionist history and see who else was selected in the first round of that 2002 Draft to get an idea of just how lousy that Bullington pick turned out to be.  Yeah, I know this isn't always fair, but this was the FIRST OVERALL PICK, which Littlefield & Co. used on Bullington when they could have selected:

B.J. Upton (2nd pick), Zack Greinke (6), Prince Fielder (7), Jeff Francis (9), Jeremy Hermida (11), Joe Saunders (12), Khalil Greene (13), Scott Kazmir (15), Nick Swisher (16), Cole Hamels (17), James Loney (19), Denard Span (20), Jeff Francoeur (23), Joe Blanton (24), or Matt Cain (25).

True, this means that there were 14 other guys selected in that first round who have never been heard from again (at least, not by me), but of those 15 guys above, each has made some significant contributions at the major league level, seven of them have made all-star teams, there is one World Series MVP, and one league MVP in there, and at least one almost sure fire Hall of Famer, if he doesn't eat himself out of baseball before he turns 35.

I have always said that there is no more inexact science that projecting which 18 or 19 year old kid will become a star major league baseball player, but in retrospect, the Pirates sure screwed the pooch back in 2002, didn't they?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Hilton Head Memories and a Grandstander Milestone

"The Grandstander" first saw the light of day on January 8, 2010 when in search of something to occupy my time in my new found retirement, I decided to start blogging.  Didn't know if I would like doing it, didn't know if anyone would read it, had no idea if it would sustain itself.  Well, as it happens, this post that you are now reading is Grandstander....

Thanks to all of my "loyal readers" out there - there must be, oh, a couple of dozen of you - for continuing to read and engage in some back and forth dialog on the topics I cover.  Thanks also to Facebook for giving one the ability to post these on my page for I do believe that Facebook is the vehicle where most of you see these posts.

I am looking forward to the next 1,000.


Knowing that this milestone was approaching, I wanted to make sure that #1,000 would not be just another rant about Neal Huntington.  I wanted it to be something special, so I was able to hold off (perhaps you've noticed my absence in recent days) and save it for a recap of our just completed vacation in Hilton Head Island.

This trip marked our sixth visit to this great place, and our first one since 2005.   Why in God's name did it take us eight years to return, is a question that we kept asking ourselves, because this really a fabulous vacation spot.  We spent seven days and six nights at the recently renovated Westin Resort on the Port Royal Plantation.  An absolutely gorgeous place that I would recommend to anyone in a heartbeat.  

The view from our room was spectacular....

...and we were able to relax everyday at this fabulous pool area....

Every morning, there were walks along the beach...

...where we saw the most unusual massive clumps of what I thought was seaweed...

...but which was actually something called Spartina Grass, a vegetation that grows in the inland marshes on the island, but ends up being uprooted and washed ashore on the ocean side.   So, I learned something new on this trip.

Unfortunately, a minor muscle pull in my back put me on the Physically Unable to Perform list, so I was not able to play golf on this visit, which was too bad, because Hilton Head is a golfer's paradise.  It is also an eater's paradise, so we hit all of our favorite eating spots, including our most favorite....

We never miss eating at Scott's.  Great location on Shelter Cove....

....there's always a singer there to entertain you, and yes, he DID sing "Margaritaville", I think it's against the law not to...

...and, oh yes, the food there is terrific.

We also hit a couple of other favorites.....

....and discovered a new place that we will definitely hit on future visits...

Not every hit was a home run, however.  We saw an ad for a place called The Bamboo Room (and there is a reason there is no picture here) that features a singing duo called "The Beagles" who specialized in singing acoustic versions of Beatles tunes, so we figured this is for us.  Well, The Beagles were not so good, and the food was, to be kind, ordinary.  Very ordinary.  Lesson learned: if you see "Surf and Turf" on a menu for $13.95, it's probably a good idea NOT to order it.  Just sayin'.

Our lunch most days consisted of ordering something at the poolside bar.  This can get to be expensive, but, what the hell, you're on vacation, right, and I confess to considering ordering a meal and eating it poolside to be luxury of the highest order.  I can tell you that were the Westin's Poolside Bar located in Pittsburgh, it's hamburgers would rate very high on The Grandstander's Burger Rankings.

I also found myself drinking a lot of beer while in Hilton Head.  Nothing like the hot sun to make a cold beer especially tasty.

I have lots of other observations that will deal with air travel, and the absolute preponderance of electronic gadgets that we saw while on our vacation, but I will stop now and save those for future posts.  

I had a boss at Highmark once who said "Some vacations are better than others, but I've never had a bad one", and this Hilton Head trip ranks very high on Marilyn's and my list of great vacations.  As always, though, it's good to be back home.