Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Yes, I Will Be Watching The Super Bowl On Sunday


Along about the time that either the Steelers defense gagged it up against Jacksonville, or perhaps it was when Danny Amendola caught that TD pass from Tom Brady that secured yet another Patriots trip to the Super Bowl (and against Philadelphia, no less), anguished wailing was heard throughout Western Pennsylvania to the effect, "well, there is no way that I'm going to watch the Super Bowl now."

Well, I for one am going to be watching the Super Bowl, and here are some reasons why.
  • For all of the problems it faces, player safety being chief among them, I still like to watch football when played at its highest levels.
  • By record, the two best teams in their respective conferences are the opponents in this year's game.  In theory, at least, this should produce a competitive and compelling game.  We know that it doesn't always necessarily work out that way, but that's why you follow sports, isn't it?
  • Love them or hate them, the New England Patriots are the preeminent football team of this generation.  They have the best coach and best quarterback in the history of the League, so, if you claim to be a football fan, why wouldn't you want to watch them play, even if you just want to see if someone else can beat them (besides Eli Manning and the Giants, that is).
  • Justin Timberlake is sure to put on a terrific halftime show.
  • How can you not like the Eagles, who lost Carson Wentz, their MVP candidate quarterback to injury late in the season, and have managed to make it this far with back-up QB Nick Foles?  I hate to make the obvious and over done Philadelphia-Rocky Balboa comparison, but, hey, it's low hanging fruit.
  • The commercials.  Even if the game turns out to be a dud, everybody will still be talking about the commercials, and you don't want to be left out of the conversations in the week ahead, do you?
  • Tom Brady is playing.  My grandfather saw Honus Wagner play baseball. My dad once saw Babe Ruth play baseball.  I saw Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax play baseball and Jim Brown and Joe Greene play football.  Someday you will want to be able to tell your kids and grand kids that you saw Tom Brady play football.
  • It will be your last chance to see any meaningful football played until September.
So there you have it.  I'll be in front of the tube come Sunday at 6:30.  

Oh, and a prediction.  I went 2-0 in the Conference championship games, boosting my playoffs record to 6-4, so a winning record is assured.  Who am I picking?  How can you even doubt - the Patriots.  How can you pick against them?  They will pick up their sixth Lombardi Trophy, which will tie them with the Steelers in that department, and which will lead to mass numbers of Yinzers hurling themselves into the freezing waters of the Allegheny River come Sunday evening.

Oh, and, as always, watch, but don't bet.  

I also predict that 99% of those people who angrily and emphatically said that they will not watch the Super Bowl will end up watching it anyway.

Enjoy the game.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

And On the Pirates Front.....

Our favorite baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, are in the news once again this past week:
  • One of the Pirates NL Central rivals, the fellow small market Milwaukee Brewers, acquired outfielders Christian Yelich via trade from the Marlins and Lorenzo Cain via free agency.  Both are all-star caliber players and represent a long term payroll commitment in excess of $120 million from the Brewers.  The Brewers, who won 86 games last season, now become legitimate threats to the Cubs and Cardinals in the Central Division.  Just like the Pirates are not.
  • Pitcher Nik Turley, one of Neal Huntington's dumpster dive acquisitions this off-season, has been hit with an 80 game suspension for PED usage. I now set the Over/Under for the number of games in which Turly will ever appear from the Pirates at One-Half Game.  
  • Finally, I commend this full column that appeared in today's Post-Gazette, probably written by Joe Starkey, but we can't be sure because of the "byline strike" currently taking place among the PG's columnists and reporters.

  • However, if you don't want to read the full column, allow me to cut and paste this verbatim response from Huntington to a question about the Pirates' recent trades posed by talk show hosts on The Fan this past week.  Honest-to-God, you just can't make up bullshit like this:

“Well, the Gerrit Cole trade, our internal projection model — and my guess is most of the external projection models — really wouldn’t change that much. We add Colin Moran, a left-handed-hitting third baseman with developing power … and we add what we believe is going to be a good major league starting pitcher in (Joe) Musgrove, and we add a good reliever in Michael Feliz, who, again, his metrics and his indicators are better than his surface ERA. It reminds us of guys we’ve had a lot of success with here, that have quality stuff, but the results are less than the indicators, and then eventually the indicators catch up to the actual, because stuff plays and strikeouts play.
“So that trade, the projection models, we actually got a little bit better in some, a little bit worse in others, but it did not have a strong impact on our projected win total, which is not good enough to be in the postseason as we sit here today but on the edge …
“With only replacing Andrew, or replacing Andrew, with a reliever, potentially, that one does cost us wins in the projection model. It still leaves us on the outside looking in at the projection model of the postseason. It’s actually pretty close to where we were in ’13, ’14, ’15 and actually worse than where we were projected to be in ’16 and ’17. So what that means is we’ve added some variability with our veteran players that we’re anticipating bouncing back and our young players that we’re anticipating getting better. They’re not all going to do that, but we believe, much like like ’13, ’14 and ’15, we have some things go in our direction, we can do what the Twins and Brewers did a year ago. We can do what the Pirates did in ’13 and find ourselves in a playoff hunt and do that sooner than later.
“So it’s not really an either-or. It wasn’t, ‘We’re out of it with no chance regardless,’ and it wasn’t it eliminated our playoff odds. They stayed pretty much the same with those two trades, the second trade knocking us back a little bit, yes.”
  • Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?  As a Pirates fan, this makes me fell a LOT better about the upcoming season.  How about you?

To Absent Friends - Mort Walker

The Grandstander, a faithful reader of the daily comic strips, or "the funnies", today notes the passing of Mort Walker at the age of 94.


Mort Walker with his famous creation
1923-2018

Walker, as the photo above indicates, is the creator of the coming strip "Beetle Bailey", a daily strip that has been running in newspapers around the world continuously since 1950.  According to his obituary, the strip's gag-a-day format was a marked departure from the serial-style strips that dominated the comics pages at the time.  Amazingly, Walker continued, with some assistance, to pen the artwork and write the gags for all 68 years of its run.  The strip, along with another of his creations "Hi and Lois", will continue to run and be authored by two of Walker's sons.

In 1942, Walker, who always aspired to be a cartoonist, was drafted into the US Army and served in Italy during World War II.  "Little did I realize," Walker later said, "that I was about to get almost four years of free research."  This paragraph from his obituary in the Washington Post goes on to tell this story:

He eventually found himself in charge of 10,000 German prisoners in a POW camp in Italy. At the end of the war, he helped oversee the destruction of binoculars and watches from an ordnance depot in Naples. His job was to make sure nobody stole anything before it was destroyed. “I began to realize,” he wrote in the memoir, “that army humor writes itself.”

RIP Mort Walker.





Friday, January 26, 2018

We See "Wicked"

"Wicked" opened on Broadway in 2003 and is still, almost a  full fifteen years later, packing the house in New York.  It has been staged in over a dozen countries, and it tours the USA endlessly.  It is currently enjoying its fourth visit to Pittsburgh as part of the Broadway Series, and last night Marilyn and I saw this show for the very first time.

It seems that almost everyone we know who is of a mind to attend such shows has seen "Wicked" at least once, and many have seen it several times.  When it was announced that it would be playing here again, we purchased tickets, bought the Original Cast Recording to familiarize ourselves with the music, and waited for January 25 to roll around.  Oh, and it was obvious, that those in the audience who were like us, seeing it for the first time, were probably in the minority.

So, how did we like it?

Simple answer - we loved it!  It is the back story to "The Wizard of Oz", the classic book and movie with which everyone is familiar.  How did Elphaba become the Wicked Witch of the West?  How did Galinda become Glinda, the Good Witch?  Did you know that the Wicked Witch had a sister named Nessarose (I did not), and whatever became of her?  And just how is it that Elphaba has green skin?  And just how does Dorothy and her little dog become a part of this whole narrative?


All of these questions are answered in a simply spectacular production that features amazing performances by the actresses playing Elphaba and Glinda.  These roles were created on Broadway back in 2003 by Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, respectively.  Menzel won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, one of three Tonys that the original show won (it had ten Tony nominations back in 2004).  The leads in this production are Mary Kate Morrissey as Elphaba and Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda.  While their names may not be familiar to you, when you read their biographies in the Playbill, you see that both of them, along with everyone else in the cast, have theatrical credits a mile long.  The talent level of these folks is simply amazing.

There are great songs throughout the show, but we especially liked "The Wizard and I" and "I'm Not That Girl", sung by Elphaba, the popular "Popular" sung by Glinda,  the spectacular "Defying Gravity" that closes the first act, and the fabulous eleven o'clock number, "For Good" sung by both Elphaba and Glinda.

Just a terrific show, and we certainly understand why people keep going back to see it ("I want to see this again." - Marilyn Sproule).  It was interesting, though, to see what the almighty critics had to say about "Wicked" when it first opened.  In doing some research before writing this post, I stumbled across this article from the Daily Beast written in 2013 to mark the show's tenth Broadway anniversary:

What did critics think of the Broadway blockbuster Wicked when it opened in 2003?

An “overproduced, overblown, confusingly dark and laboriously ambitious jumble,” ruled Newsday. “The show’s twenty-two songs were written by Stephen Schwartz, and not one of them is memorable,” wrote The New Yorker. Perhaps The New York Times carried the most damning review: “Wicked does not, alas, speak hopefully for the future of the Broadway musical.”

Oh, well, what did they know back in 2003?  Nothing that those high and mighty New York critics said could have stopped "Wicked" from becoming so popular....lar.

Anyway, following a year where we saw great shows - "In The Heights", "Beautiful", and, of course, "Hamilton", we got our theatrical year of 2018 off to a great start with "Wicked".  Can't wait to see it again someday.

Four Stars from The Grandstander.

From the first balcony of the Bendedum
just before curtain time.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Critical Commentary - "Jumanji, Welcome To the Jungle"

It is that time of the year when Hollywood is showcasing all of it's serious, awards worthy movies, and we have been doing our part to see those movies.  You know, "Darkest Hour", "The Post", "I, Tonya".  We've been trying to see them all, and they are great movies, but it has been interesting to note that for at least the last three weeks none of those films have led the pack in box office receipts.  Nope, that movie, the one that people are actually paying money to go see has been this one....


So, we decided to forgo serious and important movies, and take this one in yesterday.  Let me tell you, this movie will never win any awards, and, yes, it was silly, but it was also funny, charming, and entertaining.  Isn't that what it's supposed to be all about?

It's all about a bunch of misfit high school kids who somehow get transported into a video game (told you it was silly) and are transformed into the bodies of Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black (who has to act like a teen aged girl), and Karen Gillan, with whom I was not familiar, but was totally charming.  It also featured an interesting cameo by an unbilled actor at the end.  I won't spoil it for you.  

Former pro wrestler Johnson has really found his niche as  an action movie actor ("I love The Rock" said Mrs. Grandstander as we left the theater), and he and Hart make a great team, as the two of them did in "Central Intelligence" a few years ago.  They could be this generation's Hope and Crosby or Martin and Lewis.

"Jumanji, Welcome to the Jungle" is mindless entertainment, to be sure, but it's fun, and you could even take your kids to see it with you and not be uncomfortable about it.

Two and one-half stars from The Grandstander.

Hart, Johnson, Gillan, and Black


Oscar Nominations Thoughts



Of course I have thoughts and comments on the Academy Awards nominations.....
  • Nine Best Picture nominations.  I have seen five of them ("Darkest Hour", "Dunkirk", "Lady Bird", "The Post", "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri").  Of the four I have not seen, I will make it a point to see "Get Out" and "Phantom Thread".  "Call me By Your Name" and "The Shape of Water" hold no interest for me.
  • I have seen only one of the Best Actor nominees, Gary Oldman, but that seems to be the only nominee that is going to matter this year.
  • I have seen four of the Best Actress nominees.  Based on early returns, this one would appear to be in the bag for Frances McDormand, and while I didn't care for the movie, there is no denying the performance that McDormand gave.  Her little speech to the Catholic priest was chilling.
  • If I had a vote, though, my vote for Best Actress would go to Saoirse Ronan for "Lady Bird". That the same actress who played an Irish immigrant in "Brooklyn" a few years ago can now convincingly play a 17 year old American high school student is nothing sort of remarkable.
  • Meryl Streep scores her 21st Oscar nomination.  Heard a line on a podcast the other day saying that the only person in America who has anything that comes even close to that is Tom Brady.  Good line.
  • Denzel Washington, a terrific actor, scores a Best Actor nomination for a move, "Roman J. Israel, Esq." that was in an out of theaters in about a week.  Did anyone actually SEE that movie?
  • Best Supporting Actor award, again, based on early returns, would appear to go to Sam Rockwell for "Three Billboards".  However, in my own opinion, he wasn't even the best supporting actor in his own movie.  That would go to Woody Harrelson.  Rockwell's character, an incompetent, drunken, racist cop was played so broadly as to almost be a cartoon character.
  • Do you think that Christopher Plummer's nomination was an indirect shot at the now disgraced Kevin Spacey, whom Plummer replaced in "All The Money In The World"?
  • Allison Janney will probably win the Best Supporting Actress Award although Laurie Metcalf's performance was better.  However, the fact that Holly Hunter of "The Big Sick" did not get a nomination kind of diminishes this category for me. Her performance was better than both Janney's (which, like Rockwell's part, was also almost cartoonish) or Metcalf's.
  • Interesting omissions for Best Director were Steven Speilberg ("The Post") and Martin McDonagh ("Three Billboards").
  • An interesting person to watch for on Oscar night will be Greta Gerwig.  She is nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for "Lady Bird".   She could be the beneficiary, if that is the right word, of the Times Up movement that is sweeping Hollywood currently.
  • That Original Screenplay category is an interesting to watch.  Emily V. Gordan and Kumail Nanjiani are nominated for "The Big Sick" which just might have been the best movie that I saw all last year, certainly in the top three, but it got no other love from the Academy.  Jordan Peele for "Get Out" and Gerwig were also nominated for Best Director, and this could be the way to reward either an African American (remember the #oscarssowhite controversy of a few years ago?) or a woman.  Also nominated is Martin McDonagh, who didn't get a Director nomination.  The other nominees are Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor for "The Shape of Water", a movie about a fish-man.  Like I said, an interesting category.
  • I am not making any official predictions yet, but if I had to pick one right now in a category that doesn't appear to have a shoe-in candidate, I am going to say that the Academy will recognize "Dunkirk" by awarding the Best Director award to Christopher Nolan.
I'm sure that I shall be writing more on this topic as the day of the awards draw closer, and. of course, there will be my always highly anticipated "Watch, but don't bet" predictions post.  How many times will I be able to say, "I believe I had that"?

Monday, January 22, 2018

Championship Sunday Reflections

Comments and thoughts from yesterday's games.....
  • In this space yesterday, I predicted victories for the Patriots and Eagles, so, I BELIEVE I HAD THAT!
  • True, I did predict that the Pats would "crush" the Jaguars.  That didn't happen, but, somehow, the manner in which New England did win had to be far more soul crushing to the Jags and their supporters than a 30 point blow out would have been.
  • When Jacksonville kicked a field goal to go up 20-10 early in the fourth quarter, I posted the following on Facebook (I really did; you can look it up): Jax up by 10, 14:52 to play. I’m STILL saying New England wins this.
  • Say it with me....I believe I had that.  
  • Actually, and I didn't post this, when NE scored at the end of the first half to cut the Jags lead to 14-10, I figured that Brady and Co. were going to do it again, which is why I made that post at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
  • For some perverse reason, I found myself rooting for New England in that game.  Maybe it was because of the way Jacksonville handed it to the Steelers last week, or maybe it was because it seemed that the Jags were overly chesty early in in the game, or maybe it's because you just have to admire sustained greatness over time, which is what the Belichick-Brady Patriots are, or maybe because it's because my recently discovered cousin and friend Jan Spencer lives in Maine and roots for them.  That said, I still can't stand the constant shots of Bob Kraft and his blue shirts-with-white-collars in the owner's box.
  • As bad as it was seeing the Steelers get beat by Jacksonville last week - and that was really bad - would it have been worse to see them go to Foxboro yesterday and lose to New England yet again (which you know would have been the result)?  That's your existential question for the day.
  • By the time the Eagles-Vikings game came on at 6:40 PM, I was pretty well spent, and the Eagles took all of the excitement out of that one fairly quickly.  In fact, I was amazed at the relative ease in which the Vikings were dispatched in that one.  I even switched to the SAG Awards in the fourth quarter.
  • The hand-wringing and woe-is-us talk is already starting among Steelers fans about how the Patriots may now equal the Steelers' total of six Super Bowl Championships.  Oh, the humanity!  If something like that is really that important to you, I suppose I should envy you, because you just must not have any real problems in your life.
I will end on a serious note.  Rob Gronkowski left the game in the second quarter after being concussed after taking an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit from a Jacksonville defensive back.  New England lost perhaps the best position player in the NFL for the rest of the game, and, who knows, maybe for the Super Bowl in two weeks.  Jacksonville lost 15 yards.  We have seen these kinds of hits take place week after week in NFL games.  If the NFL is serious, really serious, about player safety and trying to prevent concussions as much as possible, a 15 yard wrist slap is not enough.  The player delivering the illegal hit needs to be ejected from the game immediately.  No questions asked.  Apologists will say "but not all of those hits are deliberate", and that is no doubt true, but it shouldn't matter.  The player making the hit needs to be kicked out of the game. That is, if the NFL really means what it says about player safety.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Championship Sunday Predictions

The Grandstander had an awful weekend last week, going 1-3 in predicting the NFL's divisional playoff games.  That brings my post season record to a mere 4-4 (5-4 if you count the CFP Championship game).  So, not going to linger too long here.....

AFC

This is easy.  The Patriots will crush, yes, I said CRUSH, the Jaguars. This will only serve to make that humiliation that the Steelers suffered at the hands of Jacksonville last week all the more galling.  Blake Bortles may never be heard from again after this afternoon.

NFC

I want to root for the Vikings today for some reason, but I just think that the Eagles, back-up QB and all, will overcome and squeak this one out.  So that's my call - Eagles.

Eagles vs. Patriots in the Super Bowl LII in two weeks.

I won't make a Super Bowl prediction as yet, but I'll bet you know which way I'm leaning.

Two Movies and a Blackout

It was an interesting 36 or so hours this past Thursday and Friday that saw us seeing two movies and experiencing one significant inconvenience.

Let's take them in chronological order.

Thursday afternoon we saw the newest from director Steven Spielberg, "The Post".

For those of you too young to remember, or who have just plain forgotten about it, vey simply stated this is the story of the top secret documents back in 1971 that were leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, the documents that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.  The Papers discussed the mishandling and misleading (a nice word for "lying") by four Presidential administrations about the conduct of the United States in the Viet Nam war, and the conduct of a fifth Administration in subverting the first amendment.

Ellsberg first leaked the papers to the Times, and the Times published them.  The Nixon Administration then enjoined the Times from continuing to publish them.  At the same time the Washington Post came into possession of the Papers, and they had to make a decision as to whether or not to publish them themselves.  This was at a critical time for the Post, which was in the process of going from a privately owned family business to a publicly traded company.  It fell upon publisher Katherine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee

The real Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham

to make the decision:  Inform the public and defend the first amendment of the Constitution, or knuckle under to a bullying  President and all of his men.  The whole issue went before the Supreme Court, who ruled in favor of the Times and the Post, and, it might be argued, the American people.

The movie is well made and suspenseful, even though you know how it is going to end.  And it gives a great feeling for how it is, or at least how it used to be, to work at a newspaper (the building would literally shake when the presses that produced the newspaper would begin to run).  We attended this movie with friend Barb Vancheri, retired Film Critic for the Post-Gazette, and she said seeing the stories being written, the editorial meetings, and the actual production of the paper made her miss her job!

Attention must be paid to the terrific performances of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in the roles of Graham and Bradlee.


Is it a surprise to anyone that they were both terrific in their roles?  A scene where Streep as Graham is talking on the phone and wrestling with the publish-or-not-publish decision is worth the price of the movie and is probably why she will get yet another Oscar nomination.  As for Hanks, he may suffer by comparison to Jason Robards, Jr. who played Bradlee in "All The President's Men", which is certainly understandable, but also unfair to him.  

The issues underlined in "The Post" are, sadly, still all too relevant in 2018, which makes this movie almost mandatory viewing for the civic minded among us, but it is also an exciting and dramatic bit of movie making.  And it also might compel one to rewatch the great "All The President's Men", never a bad thing.

Four Stars from The Grandstander.

********
"The Post" was pretty much going to be our movie going activity for the week, but along about midnight, electric power for much of McCandless and Franklin Park, about 2,500 homes, was lost.  Have any idea of just how dark  it gets when all of the various nightlights and luminescent clock dials in you home suddenly go out?  Or how cold it gets inside when it is subfreezing outside?

Well, the public utility that serves us told us that power would be restored by 1:00 PM, then it was 4:30, then it was 6:30, then it ws 8:30.  We were this close to packing up and heading to a local hotel when at 7:17 PM, we heard the fridge click on, and an instant later the lights came on and the furnace began running.  It was an unpleasant experience, but it made us grateful for how we live, and appreciative of what we have and sad knowing that there are folks out there who don't have such everyday conveniences at their disposal.

********
So what do you do when it's too cold to stay in your home.  We went out for breakfast.  We had separate lunch dates with friends, Marilyn went to the Mall, and then we decided to go to another movie.  

The choice:


If you were around in 1994, what became known as the "Harding-Kerrigan Affair" is well known to you, but it can be shocking to think that for people under the age of thirty or so, the story told in "I, Tonya" is probably completely unknown to them.

Tonya Harding came up through a hard scrabble upbringing in Oregon to become a world class figure skater.  She competed in the 1992 Olympics, became the first woman to ever perform a triple axle in competition, became the American Champion, and on her way to competing in the 1994 Olympics, her chief competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, was knee-capped at the behest of her husband and some of the gang-that-couldn't-straight entourage that surrounded her.  Was Harding complicit in the attack?  She still says, no, but even after seeing the movie, you still don't know whether to believe her or not.

One thing you know for sure is that she was the victim of an abusive mother.  Played by Allison Janney (a sure fire Oscar nominee), this lady brings new dimensions to the term "evil stage mother" and also to the term "foul-mouthed", for that matter.  She is just an awful person, almost hard to watch, but Janney is brilliant in the role.  Harding was also victimized and abused by her husband Jeff Gillooly, played by Sebastien Stan, whose name became a verb, as in, "to Gillooly someone".  Also terrific in this movie is actor Paul Walter Hauser who plays Shawn Eckert, Gillooly's loser friend who "masterminds" the whole Kerrigan attack.

But the real star of the movie is Margot Robbie who plays Tonya Harding.

Robbie as Harding (L) and 
Harding herself (R) in competition

She plays Harding as both a victim and a victimizer.  She pulls off the skating sequences, which were brilliantly filmed, very well.  She was brilliant in this role.  Watch the changes in her eyes and her face in one scene where she applies her own make-up prior to skating.  A simply marvelous performance.

At times this movie was hard to watch, and as far as language is concerned, it is for sure hard to listen to at times, but great performances by Robbie and Janney, and a terrifically written and filmed story (directed by Craig Gillispie) make this well worth seeing.

Four stars from The Grandstander.

By the way, both Harding and Gillooly were interviewed by screenwriter Steven Rogers in preparation for this movie, so one would think that what we are seeing is authentic.  And we know for sure that Robbie and Harding were in touch with each other, at least at various red carpets in relation to the release of the movie, as evidenced below.

Harding and Robbie on the red carpet

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Bad Sports Day in Pittsburgh, Part Two - The Andrew McCutchen Era Ends


Two days after trading their best pitcher, the Pirates traded their best player in this century and the Face of the Franchise,  Andrew McCutchen, to the Giants for a rookie pitcher, Kyle Crick, and a minor league outfielder, Brian Reynolds.

If you follow the Pirates, you certainly knew that this day was coming, but that doesn't soften the blow of losing the guy who was such a good player - an MVP and a five time All-Star - who was so much fun to watch play, and who just seemed to be such a good teammate and a good guy off the field (he was an MLB Roberto Clemente Award winner).  It may be silly that you put such an emotional investment in a person who plays baseball, or any other sport, for money, but that is what fans do, but Andrew McCutchen is a guy who seemed to earn that attachment from Pirates fans.  

From a pure baseball standpoint, the trade of McCutchen cam be defended (as can the trades of Gerrit Cole on Saturday and of Neil Walker in 2016).  He'll be 32 years old this year, his skills were declining, although he did hit 28 HR's in 2017, and on and on, but the theme that runs through the two trades this weekend (and the Walker trade two years ago, and other trades over the years) is money, and the Pirates unwillingness to spend it.  In a vacuum, every single trade that Neal Huntington has made, or been forced to make, can be defended from a baseball point of view, but when you look at them in their totality, the one common theme is that the Pirates just will not spend money beyond whatever their predetermined bottom line is as decreed by Bob Nutting.  It is just so unbelievably frustrating to see this happen year after year after year.

Now as for Crick and Reynolds, I hope they become stars for the Pirates, just like I hope the four guys who came from the Astros for Cole do, but here is something I know.  Twice before in his tenure, Huntington was called upon to trade one of his stars, Jason Bay in 2008 and Neil Walker in 2016, and on both occasions, he whiffed big time.  Will it happen again in these deals?  I sure hope not, but how would you bet if you were forced to?

As for the 2018 Pirates, well, how can you be optimistic, despite the b.s. being spouted by Huntington and Nutting yesterday?  In a town where the Steelers and Penguins continually give their fans winning, contending teams, the Pirates can only be seen as a bunch of penny pinching skinflints who want to win only if it can be done on the cheap, which it can't be in MLB.  The Pirates, rightly or wrongly, appear to have lost the hearts and minds of a huge portion of their fan base, and they are going to have an enormous and perhaps impossible job in winning them back in 2018.


Bad Sports Day In Pittsburgh, Part One - Steelers Lose to Jacksonville


In the pantheon of Disappointing Losses of Teams That I Follow, nothing is going to top Pirates-Braves Game 7 1992 NLCS (do I have to go into detail on that one?), but after pondering it for 24 hours, I can say that that Steelers 45-42 loss to the Jaguars on Sunday moves into the Number Two spot on my own personal list.  You all saw it, and you have all read and heard the comments over the last two days, so I won't go into a lot of detail, but here are some quick hit thoughts of my own....
  • The two fourth-and-one calls.  Are you kidding me?  Tom Brady runs a successful quarterback sneak at least once every game it seems, and 260 pound Ben Roethlisberger can't be relied upon to get less than a yard?  And if those plays were called by Todd Hailey or Mike Tomlin, why didn't Ben just change it at the line?  He has certainly earned the right to do that.
  • I have no problem with the decision to go for an onside kick when they did. I do have two other problems, though. (1) the horrible execution of said play, and (2) Mike Tomlin's reasoning  for it, which was that the Steelers had not shown an ability all day to stop the Jacksonville offense, and offense led by the immortal Blake Bortles.  Let THAT sink in on you for a minute.
  • Yes, there was the interception and the fumble which led to to Jaguars scores, but you can't put this loss at the feet of Roethlisberger and the offense.  That was an almost heroic effort by Ben, who never gave up.  And will you ever see four more beautifully executed passes and catches than those first four TD passes to Brown (twice), Bryant, and Bell?  I have always said that you are never, ever out of a game when Roethlisberger is at quarterback for you.
  • No, this loss goes to the defense, that could not stop a Jacksonville offense that is led, I once again remind you,  by Blake F. Bortles!  DC Keith Butler has got to be feeling some heat this week.
  • That defense, by the way, did not force a single turnover all day.  Against Blake Bortles. Unbelievable.
  • In his online column today, the PG's Paul Ziese states that in an era when the Steelers have had the best wide receiver, the best running back, and, at worst, the third best quarterback in the NFL, the Steelers have a 3-4 record in the playoffs.  No matter how you look at it, that is Underachieving with a capital U.  And how long will that Ben-Brown-Bell core remain intact?  2018 might be the last opportunity.
  • This loss will become even harder to take when we all watch the Patriots crush the Jaguars this Sunday in Foxboro.  And the Pats WILL crush Jacksonville on Sunday.  That is a close to a lock as you can get at this point in an NFL season.
  • Thanks to my pal Al Cotton for this next observation.  It is the common understanding that a team cannot succeed in the NFL unless they have a superstar "franchise quarterback", yet three of the final four quarterbacks in this season are Nick Foles, Case Keenum, and Blake Bortles.  Foles is a back-up playing only because of an injury to Carson Wentz, and it is a good bet that neither Keenum nor Bortles will be starting for their respective teams next year, or even be on that team next year.  Explain that one.
So, a season that had so much promise, that gave us so much excitement, ends not with a bang, but a whimper (that T.S. Eliot was an elegant sportswriter, wasn't he?). Very disappointing, but somehow, within 24 hours the Steelers North Shore neighbors, the Pirates, managed to outdo them when it came to ratcheting up the Disappointment Meter, and that topic deserves it's own separate Grandstander post, which I will begin writing as soon as I post this one.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Cole Train Leaves The Station

Used to be, major league baseball teams would use the winter months to make trades and big moves to stoke up the excitement of the fans and get baseball on the minds and tongues of a fan base that is surely yearning for news, any news, about their favorite sport.  

Not the Pirates.  

No, they make their first significant move of the off-season and make the announcement (a) at about nine o'clock on a Saturday night, and (b) on the night before a Steelers playoff game.  If one were cynical, one would suspect that the Pirates were doing all that they could to NOT draw any attention to themselves as they begin to tear down the core of a team that reached the post season three straight years (2013-15), albeit a team that was not so good in 2016-17.

First, the departed.


Gerrit Cole leaves after five seasons with the Bucs and heads to the defending World Series champion Houston Astros.  He was the overall number one draft pick in 2011, and he reached the Pirates in June of 2013.  (In retrospect, that was an astonishingly short period of time given the Pirates reluctance to rush their prized prospects to the majors.)  In his first three years with the Pirates, Cole went 40-20, including an All-Star year in 2015 when he was 19-8 with a 2.60 ERA.  He had the appearance and the demeanor of a genuine top-of-the-rotation staff Ace with a capital A. There then followed an injury plagued 2016 season, followed by a 12-12, 4.26 ERA, 31 HR's allowed 2017 season, although he never missed a turn and pitched over 200 innings.

More to the point, Cole was at the point in his career where he would start making big dollars via arbitration and he was two years away from qualifying for free agency, and you know what that means to the Pirates: Time to get rid of him!  I had also heard that Cole, in his role as the Pirates MLBPA Player Representative, and an active and outspoken one at that, had irritated team management and was branded a clubhouse lawyer.  Fun Fact: the Player Rep who preceded Cole was Neal Walker.  Make of that what you will.

Anyway, late last night I saw a couple of social media comments from blind loyalists to the effect of "he was a hothead....had no self-control...gave up too many gophers...good riddance."  Admittedly, Cole was not an easy guy to like.  Mrs. Grandstander, for one, didn't care for him at all.  Me, I liked him for the reasons that my wife did not.  I liked that badass manner that he brought to the mound.  While he didn't turn into the next Tom Seaver or Don Drysdale or even Bob Friend that that Overall #1 selection might have portended, he was still the Pirates best pitcher, and it won't be all that easy to replace him.  He will not have to be the bellwether of an Astros staff that includes Cy Young winners in Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, and will you be at all surprised if Cole turns in 12-5 or 14-7 types of seasons for Houston for the next two years?  You know, like Charlie Morton did in 2017.  It wouldn't surprise me one bit.

As for the return, the Pirates got four players from Houston:  third baseman Colin Moran, RHP's Joe Musgrove and Michael Feliz, and  minor league outfielder Jason Martin.  Hey, the Bucs need a third baseman, you can never have too much pitching, and if last year showed us anything, we know that the depth in the outfield through the system was thin.  I am not going to pretend I know anything about these guys, but the scant evaluations that I have read thus far are telling me that none of these guys were or are blue chip prospects.  Maybe one or two of them will turn out to be All-Stars, who knows?  All of them, of course, should they make the Pirates, will be making the major league minimum salary, no small consideration for our Buccos.

I do know that on two previous occasions in his tenure as GM, Neal Huntington twice traded bona fide, if not stars, then really good players, and he spit the bit on both occasions.  The first was trading Jason Bay and getting four players who turned out to be pretty much useless, and the second was trading Neil Walker for Jonathon Neise, who turned out to be less-than-useless.  So Huntington's track record when he deals a front line player is not so hot.  Maybe this deal will change that.  We'll know for sure by midway through the 2019 season.

A bigger question is what does this portend for the immediate future of the Pirates.  Most pundits agree that the team is throwing in the towel for 2018 and looking for a rebuild that will bear fruit along about 2019 or 2020.  The Pirates will never say that, but if that is the case, then look for Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison to be the next to go, if not before the season, then by the July 31 trading deadline for certain.

A final word on Gerrit Cole.  I am sorry to see him go, not only because I liked him as a pitcher, but because of what it says about the Pirates and the management of a team that will always try to do it on the cheap.   Also, I am glad that Cole is going to the American League where the possibility of seeing him stuffing the Pirates in his hip pocket while pitching against them will be minimized.

It ain't easy to be a Pirates fan.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Playoff Predictions - Round 2

Taking his 3-1 record from last week, The Grandstander makes his predictions for Round Two of the NFL Playoffs.

Falcons vs. Eagles.  The Eagles played their way to the best record in the NFL, but lost the quarterback, Carson Wentz, who got them there late in the season, which is a shame.  Still, a lot of experts are saying that the Eagles are still a real good team, and that taking the Falcons in this one is a sucker bet.  Maybe, but I thought Atlanta looks pretty good last week, and they did actually play in the Super Bowl last year, and when you compare quarterbacks, Matt Ryan comes out way ahead of Nick Foles.  The FALCONS over the Eagles in the "Birds of Prey Bowl".

Titans vs. Patriots.  Do I have to expend a lot of verbiage on this one?  The PATRIOTS to win easily  in this one.

Jaguars vs. Steelers. Yep, I remember 30-9 last October, but do you think that the Steelers will be held to only three field goals this time? I don't.  Do you think that Ben Roethlisberger will throw five interceptions, two of them for touchdowns this time.  I don't.  It might not be easy - these Steelers don't often do "easy" - but I still see a comfortable win for the STEELERS this time around.  This sets up a Steelers-Pats rematch in the championship game, just as everyone predicted back in September.  Why did they bother playing a full season?

Saints vs. Vikings.  Could be the best game of the weekend.  I admit that I don't know a lot about the Vikings, but I read and hear that their defense is formidable.  Still, when I am not well informed, I will make my pick based on the quarterbacks, so I am picking Drew Brees and the SAINTS  to win this one.

There you go...FALCONS, PATRIOTS, STEELERS, and SAINTS to win this weekend.  Enjoy, and, as always, watch but don't bet.

Friday, January 12, 2018

To Absent Friends - Young, Bailey, Van Dyke

Let us begin the roster of Absent Friends for 2018 with a trio who have passed away in these first days of the new year.....

John Young
1930-2018

Whenever one of America's pioneering astronauts passes away it is a notable event, and John Young, who left us at the age 87 last week, was certainly a true pioneer.  A US Navy pilot when selected to be a part of the Gemini Astronaut corps, he was a veteran of two Gemini, two Apollo, and two Space Shuttle flights.  Young was a part of the two man crew of the first manned Gemini flight (upon which he smuggled a corned beef sandwich - talk about having the "right stuff"!), he was the commander of the first manned flight of the space shuttle, and he is he only person to have flown to the moon twice.  As part of the Apollo 16 crew, he became one of only twelve humans to walk on the surface of the moon.  His obituary tells us of how he remained a part of the NASA astronaut program until his retirement in 2004 at the age of 74.

Young's death now leaves only five living persons to have set foot on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Dave Scott, Charles Duke (Young's Apollo 16 fellow moon walker), and Harrison Schmitt.   Duke and Schmitt are the youngest of these six, and they will turn 83 in 2018.

Bob Bailey 
1942-2018

In 1961, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Bob Bailey of Long Beach, California as a free agent for the then staggering signing bonus of $175,000.  He was one of the last of the big money "bonus babies" in the major leagues before the Entry Draft was instituted a few years later.  Bailey made his Pirates debut with a September call-up in 1962, and in 1963, at the age of 20, Bailey became the Pirates starting third baseman.  After four seasons with the Pirates, including being a part of two pretty good teams in 1965-66, Bailey was traded to the Dodgers.

He never became the super star that that huge signing bonus was supposed to have portended, he never made an all-star team, but he had a major league career that lasted 17 seasons.  In 1,931 games and over 7,000 plate appearances, he hit .257 with 189 home runs and 773 RBI (that's 16 and 65 prorated over 162 games; not great, but not bad), and a .750 OPS.  The best part of his career were seven seasons with the Expos, where he hit over twenty home runs in three different seasons.  Two facts I learned reading up on him and of which I was not aware: (1) He had the first hit ever for the Montreal Expos, and (2) he was a valuable bench guy for the 1976 Big Red Machine (.298, 6 HR, 23 RBI, .883 OPS in 69 games and 124 AB).  He was not active for the Reds in that post-season, but he did earn a World Series ring that year for his efforts.

All things considered, a pretty nice run for Bob Bailey.  He was 75 years old.

Jerry Van Dyke
1931-2018

In my mind, actor and comedian Jerry Van Dyke, who died last week at the age of 86, was known for two things.  He was the younger brother of Dick Van Dyke, and he was the star of one of the very worst television series ever conceived, "My Mother The Car".  However, in fact, he ended up with a fairly long and steady career himself.  He was a part of the long-running sitcom, "Coach", and as recently as 2015, he had a recurring role in the sitcom, "The Middle".

My friend Kate O'Connell, formerly of the North Hills, but a Californian since the 1970's, sent me this appreciation of Van Dyke from the Los Angeles Times television critic. Robert Lloyd.  I found it interesting, and perhaps you all will as well.


By the way, I am announcing today that Kate (she now goes by Katy, but she will always be Kate to Marilyn and me) has been named the Official West Coast Correspondent to The Grandstander. She has earned this position by sending me three separate articles from the Los Angeles Times on dead celebrities over the last two weeks, including the one above.  Congratulations, Kate!!

RIP John Young , Bob Bailey, Jerry Van Dyke

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Reflections On A Football Playoff Weekend

Impressions of the Playoff Weekend just completed.....

So how did The Grandstander do on his predictions for this past weekend's playoff games?
  • Falcons over Rams.  I believe I had that.
  • Jaguars over Bills.  I believe I had that.
  • Saints over Panthers.  I believe I had that.
  • Alabama over Georgia. I believe I had that
  • Chiefs over Titans. Hey, nobody's perfect!
That's a 4-1 record, and you could make it 5-1 when I made the subjective prediction that, and I quote, "the Jacksonville-Buffalo game could turn out to be one of the worst Playoff games that we will have seen in recent memory.  I mean, Tyrod Taylor vs. Blake Bortles?"

Did these guys stink up the joint, or what?

Honestly, who is going to argue about the God-awful exhibition of football that  that game was?

Other thoughts....
  • The Chiefs have now lost six consecutive Playoff games at home.  That really has to mess with your mind if you are a Chiefs fan.  No doubt that Andy Reid is a terrific coach, but the inability to win in the playoffs is...troubling.
  • I was anxious to see the Rams play.  You know, young up and coming team with a potential superstar QB playing in his second year, and a young up-and-coming head coach.   They fell to the Saints, and much of that can probably be traced to playoff inexperience on their part.  I couldn't help but be reminded of the 1972-73 version of the Noll/Bradshaw Steelers, who made the playoffs, but didn't go all the way until there third year in the post-season.
  • I am not sure what else can be said about that steaming heap of a road apple that the Jags-Bills treated the world to on Sunday.  You can say, "hey, it was two great defenses out there, what did you expect?", but, are you kidding me?  I mean, how in God's name did the Bills manage to win nine games with Tyrod Taylor at quarterback?
  • NFL teams all have a starting quarterback, a backup QB, and a third QB who dresses but is inactive on game days.  That's 96 quarterbacks in the employ of NFL teams.  Theoretically, at least, Taylor and Bortles, are among the best thirty-two of those, which means that, again, theoretically, there are sixty-four quarterbacks cashing NFL paychecks that are not as good as they are.  If that isn't Exhibit A in Colin Kaepernick's collusion suit against the NFL, it should be.
  • I have a personal friend who is an NFL game official, so I generally recuse myself from making comments about the zebras.  I know how hard my buddy works, and I know how much he knows about the rules, and I can only assume that all the other refs are the same.  That said, there were some real gaffes on display this past weekend (for the record, my friend did not officiate any of the four NFL wild card games).  And it really should not be that hard to determine what is or is not a catch.  And how about some consistency?  Not to beat a dead horse, but if Jesse James' touchdown against New England last month was NOT a catch, then the interception that ended the Jacksonville game should not have been allowed to stand.
Then there was last night's Alabama-Georgia CFP Championship Game, won by Alabama 26-23 in overtime.  For the first half of that game, the teams seemed to be trying be at least as boring as the Bills and Jags were the day before.  If you gave up and went to bed at halftime, no one would have blamed you.   

Then there was that second half!  Alabama,after trailing the entire game, ties it late in the fourth quarter, then misses a chip shot FG that would have won it, then wins it in overtime.  The only time they led in the game was when they scored on the final play of the game, a 41 yard touchdown pass.  The offensive player of the game, deservedly so, was Alabama quarterback Tuo Tagovalioa, 

Tuo

but the real credit for this win goes to, not surprisingly, Alabama Coach Nick Saban, who had the onions to yank his ineffective starting quarterback, the kid who led 'Bama to a 13-1 record all season, at halftime and replace him with the freshman Tagovalioa.  How many other coaches would have done that?  There is a reason why Saban is the best college football coach in the last forty or so years, or at least since Bear Bryant hung up his whistle.

Did I mention that Tagovalioa was a freshman?  You might have missed ESPN announcers Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstriet mention that fact. (Imagine a giant sarcasm emoji here.)   And please, please, PLEASE let's rid ourselves of the phrase "true freshman".  This is one that Herbstreit continually beats to death game after game, season after season.  He's one of the better analysts on the job these days, but this particular annoying habit of his makes me want to throw a shoe at the TV every time I hear him.

One final observation.  Alabama defensive player Number 48 (I'm not going to bother looking up his name) got hit with an unsportsmanlike like conduct penalty for throwing a punch at a Georgia player, got into a fight with one of his own coaches on the sideline, and got away with questionable tackle late in the game that probably should have gotten him a second penalty and ejection from the game.  I am figuring that this kid is right now at the very top of the Cincy Bengals draft board.  He'll fit in perfectly down there.