Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Book Review - "Born To Lose"

I can vividly remember September 11, 1969.  I was a freshman at Slippery Rock State College, as it was then known, and I turned 18 that day.  My dad left work early that day, drove up to The Rock to pick me up and take me into downtown Pittsburgh where I registered with the Selective Service for the military draft, an ominous event back in those days.  I then had a birthday dinner at home and was driven back up to SRSC and my not so luxurious dorm room in Sentinel Hall.

Anyway, this memory come to mind when I read this book by James Hollock, "Born To Lose: Stanley B. Hoss and the Crime Spree That Gripped a Nation", for as I was celebrating my 18th birthday, convicted rapist Stanley Hoss engineered an escape from the old Allegheny County Workhouse in Blawnox and set off a series of events that would end up in four murders, kidnapping, at least one more rape, and additional car thefts and armed robberies too numerous to recount.

Eight days after Hoss' prison escape, he shot and killed a Verona, PA policeman, two days after that he abducted a young Maryland woman and her two year old daughter, two weeks after that, Hoss was finally captured, and not without a fight, in Waterloo, Iowa.  The Maryland mother and daughter were not with him, and their bodies have never been found.

If you are an aficionado of "true crime" stories, then you really should read this very well researched and written book, which was published in 2011. "Born to Lose" paints an absolutely chilling portrait of the small time petty thief turned cold blooded killer, Stanley Hoss, a man who has been described as the absolutely perfect argument for the institution of the death penalty.  As one contemporary review of the book put it ""Describing him as pure evil doesn't quite do Hoss justice."

If you grew up in or currently live in the Pittsburgh area and Allegheny County, this book is especially interesting because it takes place, almost literally, right in our back yards, and many of the names will be quite familiar to you.  District Attorney Bob Duggan, FBI Special Agent Ian MacLennan, TV newsie Bill Burns, Cyril Wecht, and even current ubiquitous local attorney Edgar Snyder play a big role in this story.  Also, you will recognize the locales - Allegheny River valley towns such as Tarentum, Natrona Heights, and Oakmont, and Pittsburgh landmarks such as the old Allegheny County Jail on Ross Street, the Courthouse, and even the Common Plea Restaurant, and, of course, the Western Penitentiary on the Northside, where Hoss committed yet another despicable crime.

When I saw this book in a book store last week, I did have a vague recollection of the name of Stanley Hoss, but I had forgotten the details of his story and the complete and utter heinous nature of his crimes.  Reading this book brought back the memories of it, and it also prompted me to remember just what exactly I was doing while living in the same general area at the time of Hoss' crimes and his various trials.

If you have forgotten this story, or even if you have never heard of it in the first place, Google "Stanley Hoss" for an overview of his story, and then, if you like reading True Crime literature, get hold of a copy of this book and read it.  As I said, it is meticulously researched by author Hollock, and very well written.

Stanley Hoss died in prison in 1978, officially a suicide, but there are some who say that a complete sociopath/psychopath like Hoss would never have taken his own life.  The chilling questions that ran through my mind as I read this book were "How is that people like Stanley Hoss come to exist in this world, and just how many others like him are out there?"

Four Stars from The Grandstander.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"Get Out"

In an attempt to see as many of the Oscar nominated Best Picture movies as possible, we took ourselves out to the Cinemark last night - for a 10:00 PM showing, no less! - to see Jordan Peele's "Get Out".  This film was released in February of last year and was billed as a horror movie with a bit more heft than the usual slasher/Halloween/Friday the 13th blood-and-gore type of flick.  The movie drew critical acclaim and when the Oscar nominations were announced,  it pulled down four biggies: Picture, Actor (Daniel Kaluuya), Director (Jordan Peele) and Screenplay (Peele).

The premise:  African-American Chris Washington (Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), are going to spend the weekend at Rose's parents' (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) country home.  Chris is apprehensive because (a) he will meeting them for the first time, and (b) Rose hasn't told her family that he, Chris, is black.  Also, a weekend party has been planned with guests who all seem to have a Stepford Wives quality to them and who take a decidedly odd interest in Chris.  There are only three other black people in site, the Armitages' maid and groundskeeper, and one guest at the party, a young man with a white wife who is at east thirty years older than he, and all three of them have a certain off kilter demeanor about them.

After an odd incident involving a camera flash, and a phone call to his friend, TSA agent Rod (Lil Rel Howery, who plays a critical role and also provides some comic relief), Chris begins to suspect that something really, really bad is taking place among the Armitages and their circle of friends.

I will say no more, plot-wise.

Directer/Writer Jordan Peele is getting lots of raves for this movie, and deservedly so.  The mood is set almost immediately with the very first scene in the movie, and other techniques used throughout makes this a great movie, visually speaking.  It is also a very well written and many terrific pieces make some biting commentary on racial relations and perceptions. There are several examples of see-how-cool-I-am pieces of dialog among the Armitages and their party guests concerning Barack Obama, Jesse Owens, and Tiger Woods that make you cringe in embarrassment, but those comments take on a completely different tone as the film unwinds.  There is also a scene where Rod goes to the police to report his concerns about Chris that is funny at first blush, but that also has different layers beneath the surface.

Kaluuya was great as the initially shy, then apprehensive, then befuddled, then terrified, then forceful Chris.  There are other very good performances by Williams as Rose, and Whitford and Keener as the creepy parents. As for Jordan Peele, well, I can't wait to see what he does next as a filmmaker.

We skipped this movie when it first came out because, hey, we don't like horror movies, but the critical acclaim, awards and nominations, and the recommendations of friends whose opinions I value (that means you, Tim Baker and Billy Hepfinger!), made us want to see this, and see it in an honest to God movie theater, before Oscar night.  We are really glad that we did, and Marilyn and I haven't really stopped talking about it since we left the theater.

I don't think that "Get Out" was the best movie of 2017, but it certainly deserves its nomination, and I am glad that we saw it.

It gets Three Stars from The Grandstander.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The College Basketball Sewer

I have not been able to muster up a lot of enthusiasm for college basketball during this season, and there could be any number of reasons for that, including, but not limited to, the following:
  1. Pitt, on it's way to an 0-18 conference record, stinks.
  2. Robert Morris, with its new on campus arena under construction, has been a team without a home this season.
  3. The evolution of the sport to the elite teams becoming nothing but One-and-Done factories has, frankly, kind of turned me off on the sport.
  4. The revelations stemming from an ongoing FBI investigation of sleaziness beyond description in the sport has really turned me off to the sport.
  5. There are just SO MANY games on television on every single night, that I have become like the proverbial kid locked in the bakery overnight:  I just can't eat another eclair or donut, no matter how good they are.
(One bright spot, locally, at least, has been a positive turn of the hoops program at Duquesne under first year coach Keith Dambrot, but the other factors mentioned above have tended to overshadow what is happening on the Bluff.)

Anyway, items (3) and (4) above have produced a sort of cause and effect that, the FBI reports seem to indicate, has produced a level of corruption that has threatened to touch the most sacrosanct schools (Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan State, Arizona among others) and iconic coaches (Williams, Krzyzewski, Izzo, Calipari, Pittino, among others) that you just have to wonder, "Why am I bothering to pay any attention to these outlaws?", and I suppose that that is what has produced this ennui in me.

Here are just a few of the things that smack me in the face:
  • Louisville has been forced to vacate (a non-punishment punishment if ever there was one) a number of victories and its 2013 NCAA championship.  Rick Pittino, fired by Louisville before the season, says that the school should sue the NCAA to have all of those wins and its title restored.  Talk about a clueless jackass.
  • Pittino, by the way, was fired for the hookers-and strippers scandals of a few years back, not for any of the really big dirt that the FBI  has uncovered.
  • Of course, all of the iconic coaches are denying any wrong doing.  Even John Calipari, who never even tries to hide the fact that he recruits one-and-dones exclusively for the purpose of Kentucky reaching the Final Four every year denied any wrong doing by Wildcat student-athletes.  The fact that Calipari, who I have always liked, uses the term "student-athlete" is laughable and insulting beyond description.
  • Come to think of it, the term "student-athlete" as it applies to big time college football and basketball is laughable and insulting.
  • The sainted Mike Krzyzewski appears to be on the list of those whose programs have been touched by the FBI investigation.  Coach K, who likes to lecture coaches and players from other schools on the proper way to behave, long ago surrendered to the One-and-Done culture of the game, so I can't wait to hear how he will respond if it is shown that he has feet of clay similar to the Pittinos and Caliparis of the game.
  • Sean Miller, of Blackhawk High School and Pitt, now the HC of Arizona, also looks to be dirty in this mess.  One of the reasons that Kevin Stallings is so reviled by the Pitt basketball fan base is that he is not Sean Miller, but maybe one of the reasons that Pitt didn't hire Miller, or his brother Archie, now at Indiana, is that he, Miller, didn't want to come home because he knew that his alma mater wasn't going to be willing to pay for players as Arizona seems to be.
All of this junk casts a pall over the upcoming annual bacchanalia that is the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, aka March Madness.  How many of those 64 teams are dirty?  How many of these tournament wins will need to be vacated in the years ahead?  How many of these coaches are soon going to be fired for leading these institutions of higher learning into perdition?

And before the diehard hoops junkies out there point it out to me, yes, I know that all of this is no doubt going on in college football programs, too.

One final comment.  The apologists for the game, and you can find them all over a certain four letter network, will come back at you with a statement that goes something like this:  

"With all that is going on in the country today (school shooting massacres on an almost weekly basis, Russian meddling in our electoral process to name two), why is the FBI bothering and wasting its time on college basketball?"

Its a fair question, and the allocation of government investigative resources perhaps does need to be studied, but, the fact is that the FBI HAS conducted such an investigation, and that investigation HAS uncovered, it seems, lots and lots of hinky doings among college and university athletic programs. These things are wrong and cannot be ignored, just because you might think that the FBI should be going after Al Capone instead of John Calipari, and just maybe, the FBI is big enough to go after both of these elements.

As I said at the beginning, the whole state of affairs has left a sour taste in my mouth.

Welcome, Corey Dickerson

The Pirates were in the news this first week of Spring Training when they announced that they dove into the baseball dumpster and signed two more guys, Bryce Brentz and Michael Saunders, to compete for the left field job.  Ridicule predictably - and justifiably - followed.  However, those scoffers, myself included, need to step back and give a bit of credit to Neal Huntington for pulling the trigger on a trade that sent Daniel Hudson and minor league infielder Tristan Gray to the Tampa Bay Rays for left fielder Corey Dickerson.

The 28 year old Dickerson made the American League All-Star team last year, and is left handed hitting power hitter (27 HR in 2017), a welcome commodity in PNC Park with its short right field line.  So credit to NH for obtaining a guy who certainly appears to be a bona fide major league in-his-prime outfielder.

One possible red flag is "If this guy is so good, why did the Rays DFA him in the first place?"  Well, the answer, apparently, is money.  Dickerson is now arbitration eligible and the Rays didn't want to pay what he earned in that process.  Sound like a familiar story, Pirates fans?  Makes you wonder what the Pirates will do with him should he put up big numbers for them in 2018, but that is a worry for another day.

Another red flag show up when you look at Dickerson's numbers in 2017:

Corey Dickerson - 2017
Corey Dickerson - Pre All Star Game
Corey Dickerson - Post All Star Game
At Bats

I don't know if Dickerson was injured or played hurt during the last half of 2017, but the numbers sure tell you that something occurred that caused a drop off in his offensive production in the second half of last year.

So, the big question is, which Corey Dickerson shows up for the Bucs in 2018?  Sure hope that it's "Pre-ASG Dickerson", and that he performs that way all season.

FINAL NOTE:  With the acquisition of Dickerson, the Pirates announced today that they were releasing Michael Saunders.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Capsules of Critical Commentary...Two Books, A Play, and a Movie

I have been immersing myself in "The Arts" of late, so today's Critical Commentary will consist of Quickie Capsules of Commentary, served to you in chronological order....

David McCullough's 2011 book "The Greater Journey" tells the tale of expatriate Americans - artists, writers, and medical students - who traveled to Paris in the 19th century to absorb and learn from the culture that was (and remains to this day) that city.  Did you know that Samuel F.B. Morse, before he invented the electric telegraph, was a renowned artist? I didn't, but he was.  I learned a lot about Paris, French history, and American art from reading his book.  (If you decide to read this book, keep your Google Machine handy so you can look up and view some for the many famous paintings about which McCullough writes.  It will add to your enjoyment of the book.) It is a perfect book to read if you are, say, planning on taking trip to Paris in the near future.

Four Stars.

This 1962 Tony Award winning musical is currently being presented by the Pittsburgh Public Theater.  It has been described as the funniest American musical ever written.  I was anxious to see if the humor of a fifty-six year old play would hold up, and I am happy to say that indeed it does.  A con man Roman slave, beautiful courtesans in skimpy outfits, mistaken identity, and a wild chase scene proves that some kind of humor, if presented correctly, is indeed timeless. Another winner from the PPT.

Four Stars.

The newest entry in Jonathan Kellerman's "Alex Delaware" series was released this month, and I got through it only two days.  A horribly disfigured dead body is discovered in a suburban Los Angeles home.  The body can't be identified, and the home owners have no idea why someone would deposit a corpse in their living room.  LA police Lt. Milo Sturgis calls upon his psychologist friend Alex to consult and assist in solving the mystery.  As I said, four hundred pages that will go by in a flash as the whole case is unravelled.

Four Stars.

Yes, we took ourselves out to see the first big blockbuster movie of 2018 today.  I enjoyed the movie a lot.  It's a beautifully filmed movie, beautiful scenery, well acted, has a terrific musical score, and is an exciting story when you put it into the perspective that it's a "comic book, superhero" movie.   Marilyn and I enjoyed it, but we were certainly not in the same thrall of it that many in the theater today were, folks that obviously are more into comic books than are we.  

The movie starred Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'O, Danal Gurira, Angela Bassett, and Forrest Whittaker, Daniel Kaluuya, and Sterling K. Brown, and was directed by Ryan Coogler.  Some critics have said that this will be the best movie of 2018 and said that it was "Shakespearean" in scope.  I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it is a good movie, and well worth seeing.

Three Stars.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

In The Area of Critical Commentary: "The Shape of Water"

When I first saw the trailer for "The Shape of Water" over the summer, I figured that this would be one that I was going to skip.  Just didn't have any interest in it.  Then it started getting critical raves....and Golden Globe and SAG Awards....and multiple Oscar nominations.  I still wasn't interested, and a lot of people I know said "forget it", but too many other people whose opinion I respect (ahem, that means you, Barb V.), said I really should see it. Also, a friend of Marilyn's who did like it said, "go into it thinking of it as an adult fairy tale." And, figuring that it was going to bring home a passel of Oscars next month, we both said "what the hell", so off we went on our Valentine's Day date this afternoon.

Still, I went into it prepared to not like it, and guess what?  I liked it.  We both like it quite a bit in fact.  The "adult fairly tale" advice we got was good, and I would tell anyone to go into it with that frame of mind.   And not to go all film-geeky on you, it really is a pretty movie to see.  Director Guillermo del Toro has been winning all of the pre-Oscar Best Director awards, and is the favorite to win the same award come Oscar night, and I guess that I can see why.

I won't go into the plot of the film.  If I did, you might be like I was and just say, "I pass", but I do recommend this one.  Is it the Best Picture of the year?  Not so sure about that in my mind, but it did lead the pack with thirteen Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director (del Toro), Actress (Sally Hawkins), Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), and Original Screenplay (del Toro and Vanessa Taylor), and all deserving nominees.

Also, for you fans of the old HBO series "Boardwalk Empire", two  alumni of that show have key parts in this one: Michael Shannon, whose character is similar to the one he played in "Boardwalk Empire", i.e., you don't like him, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who played Arnold Rothstein on Boardwalk.

Moral of the story: Always keep an open mind.  By doing so, I saw a movie that I rather enjoyed that I otherwise was prepared to skip.

Three Stars from The Grandstander.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Winter Olympics Begin

I confess to having not been overly excited about the onset of the 2018 Winter Olympics.  I mean, honestly, if pressed I could probably have named three or four American Olympians (Lindsey Vonn, Sean White, Mikaela Shiffron...that 's it, that's the list).  I knew that I would watch.  I do love watching curling once every four years, and the hockey will be interesting, even without the NHL'ers, but it just wasn't exciting me, if you know what I mean.

Then, last night we watched slopes-style snowboarding event, and saw the USA win its first Gold Medal of the Games in the person of 17 year old Red Gerard.

Take an oddball sport that is just totally compelling and fun to watch, even if you have no idea how the judges score such things, mix in a bit of red white and blue jingoism, and then see Gerard, who looks like some high school kid that buses your table at Applebee's, win that event, well, that was just damn exciting!

(By the way, if I could somehow be transported back to being a 14 year old kid, I think that I would be begging my parents to let me take up snowboarding.  That just looks like an amazingly FUN thing to do!)

I can't say that I will be glued to the TV over the next two weeks watching All Olympics All The Time, but I will certainly be tuning in  each day.  Maybe I'll turn to another channel if nothing catches my eye, but there is a good chance that something is gonna grab my attention and be a fun an exciting thing to watch.

Citius Altius Fortius.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Fly Eagles Fly!!!!!

You may wonder why it has taken five days for The Grandstander to give his thoughts, comments, and opinions on last Sunday's Super Bowl victory for the Philadelphia Eagles.  It seems that along about late Sunday night/early Monday morning, a little bit of "real life" drama kicked in for Yours Truly.  Nothing major, as it turned out, and I will invoke HIPAA privilege and spare you all the details, but rest assured that all is well and I shall be cranking out Grandstander posts well into the future.

Now, as to those thoughts, comments, and opinions....

  • Great game.  All those people who so high-mindedly decided to not watch missed one entertaining and terrific football game.
  • Was glad to see the Eagles win, even though I DIDN'T have that. I finished 6-5 in post-season predictions, 7-5 if you count the Alabama win in the CFP.
  • How about the onions on Doug Pederson  on that fourth and goal gadget play call that resulted in a touchdown pass TO quarterback Nick Foles?  Of course, coaches are only geniuses when such plays actually work.
  • My absolutely, positively favorite moment of the entire game came immediately after the critical strip-sack-fumble by Tom Brady late in the game and deep in New England territory that, effectively, sealed the deal for the Eagles.  The TV cameras, as they appear to be obligated to do, switched immediately to the NE owner's box to catch the expression on Bob Kraft's face.  It looked like he had just defecated a large cinder block.  It was priceless, and I am only sorry that I was unable to capture a picture of the TV screen at the time so as to preserve the moment forever. I know that everyone is supposed to dislike Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but the New England Patriot who chaps my ass the most is Robert Kraft.
  • The Halftime Show.  In the immediate aftermath of Justin Timberlake's performance, I said "Four Stars".  Upon further reflection, I'm going to downgrade that to Three Stars.  I like Timberlake, and he is an undoubtedly talented performer.  I loved the dancing and the choreography, but like most of these halftime shows, it is just TOO MUCH production, too many bells and whistles.  I would be lying if I told you that I could understand the words of any of the songs Timberlake was singing.  Too loud, too noisy.  Is that what it's all about?  And what does the NFL do next year to top this one? More noise, more fireworks, a couple of thousand more dancers on the field around the stage?  Where does it all end?
  • The Commercials.  Again, like the halftime shows, I feel like the day of the Mega-memorable Commercial may be past.  I really think that these people are trying too hard.  If the trend continues, I will soon be using these commercials for what God intended: breaks to go get something to eat and to use the bathroom.
  • That said, the Eli Manning - Odell Beckham, Jr celebration commercial was not just a home run, it was a BobbyThomson-BillMazeroski-JoeCarter Home Run rolled into one.  Just brilliant!  And did you notice who the sponsor of that ad was?  It was the National Football League itself that gave its full imprimatur on end zone touchdown celebrations with that commercial.  So all you cranky old guys who deplore such celebrations, brace yourself, because they are only going to become bigger, better and more wide spread come 2019.
  • One more comment on Commercials.  I counted at least five Tide detergent commercials.  Really, detergent commercials on the Super Bowl.  What is up with that?
  • I will close out this commentary with two contrasting pictures of the opposing quarterbacks.

Pitchers and catchers report next week.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

A Little of This and A Little of That.....

Time to clean out the Mental In-Box......

  • At some point last month my "Baseball Hall of Fame" license plate holder succumbed to the freezing temperatures and snapped in two.  I was not going to bother replacing it until Marilyn hit upon the brilliant idea of getting a new one that would also serve as shameless self-promotion.  So yesterday when the Equinox hit the streets, the world saw this when they looked at the back of my car:

  • Readership levels should soar, don't you think?
  • One of the hot topics on the NBA front was an incident that occurred on Thursday night at the conclusion of the Oklahoma City - Denver game in Denver.  At the conclusion of the game, a last second win for Nuggets, a no-doubt over served Nuggets fan walked onto the court and confronted OKC's Russell Westbrook.  At that point, Westbrook did this:
  • Westbrook out one hand on the guy's shoulder and lightly pushed him away.  An immediate uproar.  You can't put your hands on a fan, and Westbrook should be suspended.  Sorry, but I disagree.  Westbrook had every right to haul off an deck this dope after he walked onto the court.  If you disagree with me, I will offer you two words: Monica Seles.  If you don't understand that, go to the Google Machine and look it up.
  • At the recommendation of a couple of friends, we began watching the series "Longmire" on Netflix.  It is a modern day western about a sheriff in present day Wyoming.  Good show.  We are about two-thirds of the way through Season One.  There are six seasons.  Guess what we will be doing over the next couple of weeks.

  • Super Bowl Sunday tomorrow.  Not sure of our plan for the hours leading up to 6:30 kickoff.  Significant snow is forecast for tomorrow, so we probably won't venture out to a movie.  Maybe watch on one DVD, maybe take a nap.  Probably finish Season One of "Longmire". I know that I won't be watching any pre-game yuck fests featuring NBC talking heads and assorted ex-jocks.  That avoids pre-game burnout, and allows you to enjoy the game more.
  • Just to restate....My call is for the Patriots to win, probably by 7 points or less.  Watch, but don't bet.
  • In case you missed it, Pirates GM Neal Huntington went dumpster diving earlier this week and traded for a guy named Josh Smoker, a pitcher who had been DFA'd by the Mets.  This in the same week that fellow small market NL Central team Milwaukee went out and obtained Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain.  SMH, as the kids today might put it.
  • It was also announced that former Bucco catcher Mike McKenry will replace the retired Kent Tekulve on the Pirates pre- and post-game shows on AT&T Sportsnet.  Good for The Fort, and best wishes to him.  I only wish that the Pirates explored the possibility of maybe putting Steve Blass and Bob Walk out to pasture, but I guess we'll have to continue putting up with their tired old patter for another year.
  • Baseball news with a tangential Pirates connection was the news that pitcher Mark Appel was hanging up his cleats after having never pitched in the major leagues.  You will recall that the Pirates made Appel their number one draft pick several years ago, only to have Appel roll the dice, not sign with the team, and go back for another year of college ball.  (Think fo the cash that that saved Bob Nutting!)  It paid off for Appel for the next year he was drafted by Houston with the number one overall pick in the draft.  This just goes to show that scouting for major league baseball talent has to be the most inexact science in sport.
  • Remember last year when, after Starling Marte got dinged with that 80 game PED suspension,  the Pirates season pretty much ended because it became apparent that the team had no "fourth outfielder"  who was capable to fill in while he was out?  Now that the team has salary dumped traded Andrew McCutchen, it is now apparent that the Pirates do not even have a THIRD outfielder who can step in and make you feel comfortable that he can give you 140-150 games as a capable major league outfielder.  Who do YOU think is going to be the everyday left fielder for this outfit?
  • 2018 will mark the sixtieth season since I saw my first Pirate game, and I am right now having a hard time recalling if I ever felt less optimistic about the team going into a season.
Stay warm this weekend, folks, and enjoy the Super Bowl.