Friday, June 29, 2018

Sports Illustrated - The "Where Are They Now" Issue

Like much of print media, Sports Illustrated ain't what it used to be, but once in awhile the magazine can still grab your attention, and the current issue, its annual "Where Are They Now" issue, is one of them.

(As an aside, the fact that SI has to resort to such tropes as where-are-they-now features, tells you all you need to know about the state of the magazine, but what the heck.)

This particular issue features four stories that captured my attention, and that I would highly recommend to you.

The first was the cover story on Sammy Sosa, and would you have even recognized him if his name wasn't plastered on the cover along with that picture?

The second is on tennis great Martina Navratilova.

The third is on former football star turned sportscaster turned celebrity pal, Ahmad Rashad.

And the fourth is on Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench, and this is my favorite story in the issue.  Despite how he tortured the Pirates throughout his career, I have always liked Bench and consider him to the the best catcher that I have ever seen.  He is now 70 years old and is a single father of two young sons (a sixth grader and a third grader) living in Florida.  Despite his rocky marital history (married and divorced four times), he seems to be a remarkably happy and settled individual, happy and at ease with his past and the life he currently leads.

A couple of great quotes from him....
  • On where he finds himself in life:  "The great thing about it is, I knew I had a life.  You feel bad, some of these guys, they walk away, and they didn't save a dime."
  • On why he never became a manager, even though many thought he would be perfect for such a role: "I don't want to deal with incompetence. I played on a team that was the level of what it was. Really, its hard for me to accept people who don't make an effort, are not professional. The great thing in my life is, I don't have to deal with them."
  • And a reflection on his career and his life today: "If what you did yesterday is big to you now, then you haven't done much lately."

There's more, and it's a great story, and a great issue.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The SABR Convention

The 48th Annual Convention of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) was held in Pittsburgh this past week, and I had the pleasure of attending this event on Friday and Saturday.  This is the second time I have attended one of these (the other time being in Cincinnati in the early 2000's).  

As a member of the SABR's Pittsburgh chapter, I also spent some of my time working at this one.  My job, if you could call it that, was to serve as a monitor at five different research presentations.  This consists of introducing the speaker, making sure they stick to the time limits, signaling when they had ten, five, and three minutes left, cutting off the Q&A, and getting the room cleared for the next presentation.

Of the five I monitored, the most fun ones were from Paul Ember of Philadelphia, who spoke of three baseball related pieces of art done by Andy Warhol, and Joseph L. Price, a college professor from California who spoke of his travels across the country singing the National Anthem at over 100 professional ball parks.  Very entertaining.

The best part of the convention, however, was not so much the presentations or exhibits, but just getting the chance to meet people and talk with them.  I talked with people from Illinois, California, Wisconsin, New York, Nova Scotia, and Texas and just had a great time shooting the breeze.  I also got to meet some people who previously had been merely names in articles and books - John Thorn, Lee Lowenfish, David Smith, and Mark Armour.  Also, got to meet and spend time with long-time Facebook buddy Al Blumkin from Brooklyn, a terrific guy.

I attended four different panels.  One was a Media panel that featured Lanny Frattare, Steve Blass, Joe Block, and Greg Brown.

Another was held at PNC Park and included talks from Clint Hurdle, Neal Huntington, and Dan Fox.

A Pirates Player Panel about the 1979 World Series champs was monitored by Block and featured John Candelaria and Grant Jackson, and drew an SRO crowd.

The fourth and last panel that I attended was "Branch Rickey: The Pirates Years" and was chaired by Mr. Lowenfish, who has written a acclaimed biography of Rickey.  This panel was to include former Pirate great Dick Groat.  The bad news was that Groat fell ill and was unable to attend.  The even more bad news was that he was replaced by another ex-Pirate of that era whom I am choosing not to name here.  I will just say that the choice made to be Groat's replacement was "unfortunate" and leave it at that.  On the other hand, this was new stuff to probably over ninety percent of the audience, so maybe the crowd loved it.

Like any organization devoted to a single subject matter, SABR and its members are often categorized as a bunch of geeky, stats-obsessed nerds, and that their convention has to be a baseball equivalent of a Star Trek Convention.  Some of those stereotypes are no doubt true, I mean, you should have seen some of the outfits I saw, but all of the attendees are there because of one common trait - they love baseball and its history, and if a few of them still can't get over the fact that the Dodgers left Brooklyn, or that the game has never been the same since Babe Ruth started hitting all those home runs, what's the harm in that? As I said, I had a great time just meeting up with many of my Pittsburgh SABR friends (Jim Haller, Jim Roberts, Alan Steinberg, Ray Queen, Todd Tomasic, and Stephanie Liscio to name a few) and having random conversations with people that I had never met before.  It was fun, and who doesn't like to have fun, right?

I will make a couple of other observations about the organization just using my own "eye test".....
  • The organization's population is older.  There were not a lot of young (ie, under fifty years old) people there.  Now I realize that traveling to another city to attend a convention such as this may be easier for people who are retired, and not working, so perhaps that skews the age demographic of the convention.
  • The organization is overwhelmingly male.  When we attended the convention in Cincy years ago, my wife commented that the best thing about it was that she never had to wait in a line at the Ladies' Room.  Same thing here in Pittsburgh, although I had a sense that there were more women in attendance at SABR48 than there were at the Cincinnati convention.
  • The organization is overwhelmingly Caucasian.  There were approximately 600 people attending this convention, and I can honestly say that I did not see a single non-white face in the crowd.
Again, these are simply non-scientific observations on my part, and perhaps a more detailed breakdown of SABR's Membership data would tell a completely different story, but if my observations are correct or even in the ballpark, what does that tell you about the sustainability of an Organization over the long haul?  

On the other hand, SABR has been around for almost fifty years, so what do I know?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The US Open, Phil, and Brooks

Readers - I think there were two of you out there - have been beseeching The Grandstander for his thoughts on the recently completed US Open, specifically for his thoughts on Phil Mickelson's rules breaking fiasco in the third round.

First, The Phil Cause Celebre....

I won't recount the whole thing.  If you care at all, you know the details.  The Hall of Fame golfer, the second best and most important golfer of the still young 21st century, deliberately broke a rule, took a two stroke penalty, and caused a great deal of harrumphing among those who hold the rules of golf sacrosanct who saw Phil's transgression as equal to someone urinating on the altar at the Vatican.  My thoughts:
  • No one in sports, no one, are more self-important than the rules nerds who run the game of golf.  So, when someone of Mickelson's stature sticks his finger in their collective ears, a part of me says "Good for Phil."
  • In retrospect, however, Mickelson's actions WERE pretty egregious, and something a little stiffer than a two stroke penalty was no doubt deserved.
  • The USGA Blue Blazers, who are the lead harrumphers when it comes to the rules of golf, defecated the bed on this one - AGAIN - by saying that the two stroke penalty was sufficient.  Had some shmoe Open qualifier who was ranked 241st in the world done what Mickelson did, he would undoubtedly have been DQ'ed immediately.  By showing that there IS a double standard when a golfer of Philly Mick's stature is involved, the Blue Blazers put the lie to the very standards that they hold so sacrosanct.
  • Oh, and did you notice that three days after the conclusion of the tournament, Mickelson issued an apology for his actions.  Too late, but Phil is a guy who's dodged Insider Trading charges during the course of his life, so I guess this won't bother him all that much.
Second, the pros whine.....

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth as the pros whined and bitched about how unfair the set up at Shinnecock Hills was, particularly on Saturday.  As fate would have it, my "Facebook Memories" today showed this post from this date in 2015 following the Open at Chambers Bay in Oregon.  I reproduce it here:

Pro golfers are independent contractors and, as such, are different from most other pro athletes, especially those in team sports. They should be admired for that. However, they take a back seat to NO PRO ATHLETE, not Tom Brady, not LeBron James, not A-Rod, no one, when it comes to - to coin a phrase - primadonnaism. Don't make a noise, don't click a camera, please don't move while I take 120 seconds to line up this putt. The complaints about Chambers Bay that we are hearing are a prime example. Let's bring Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth out to Rose Ridge or Saxon and give them a dose of humility in the form of what 99% of the world's golfers have to play on all the time.

Only the date and the location changes.  The guys who never had to play on a public course in their lives continue to cry whenever that can't shoot four rounds in the sixties.

Having said that, however, I also say screw the USGA people who insist that the Open be a "difficult test of golf".  I, for one, do not particularly enjoy watching the best players in the world kick it round the course shooting seven or eight over par in any given round.

Finally, the winner.....

Let's hear it for Brooks Koepka, who has won the Open for the second consecutive year, a feat that had not been accomplished in twenty-nine years.  Between Mickelson and the set up of the golf course, Koepka's considerable accomplishment seemed to be a footnote to the entire weekend, and that's a shame.

When Bob Met KJ, or Littles Meeting Littles

If you are a regular listener of the Tony Kornheiser Show Podcast, you will appreciate this story about the connective tissue of the show.  If you do not listen and are unfamiliar with the show, this story may not mean much, or even anything, to you, but it's a pretty cool story anyway.

Last night, Marilyn and I were at PNC Park to watch the Pirates play the Brewers.  It was also Robert Morris University Night, and Colonials rooters received a very cool Pirates hat in RMU colors with the school logo on the side.  Well, the game never started and we sat through a torrential - and I do mean torrential - rain delay.  To entertain the fans during the rain, the Pirates were showing the telecast of the Nationals-Orioles game on the jumbotron, and I made a note of that on a Facebook page devoted to fans of the TK Podcast.

A few minutes later, an attractive young blonde woman  wearing a Minnesota Twins windbreaker and cap walked through the row ahead of where we were sitting (it was an empty row), stopped in front of me, looked me in the eye, and said "La Cheeserie".  As listeners to the show can attest, this immediately identified her as a listener to the Kornheiser Pod, one of the legion of TK's "Loyal Littles".  But this was not just any Little.  When I returned the greeting and reached out to shake her hand, she said "I'm Kirstin Ohnstad".   Again, if you listen too the show, you know Kirstin, or KJ, as a contributor to the show, one of the many talented regulars who provide the often deprecating and always entertaining jingles to every show.  She had seen my Facebook post, looked up a picture of me, and saw that she was sitting only one section over from where Marilyn and I were sitting.

KJ and Me

Kirstin and her wife were traveling from their home in Minnesota to Washington DC for the annual "TK Jinglefest" that will be held in Washington this weekend.  Along the way, they were catching ballgames in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.  It may seem silly to you as you read this, but I can't tell you how cool it was to connect with someone in this fashion.  Marilyn and I spent a delightful hour or so chatting with Kirstin and Mandy.  They could not have been nicer.   In retrospect, the rain delay ended up being way better than the ballgame - it was eventually postponed - probably would have ended up  being.

Kornheiser often talks about the "connective tissue" that has developed among his listeners all across the country and beyond.  This was evidence of it.   It is always a pleasure to make new friends, especially in a manner such as this.

LA CHEESERIE, indeed!!!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Kwickie Commentaries

The Grandstander recommends a movie and two books for you.....

"Ocean's 8" follows a familiar formula, a caper theme along the lines of a the recent "Ocean's 11" George Clooney flicks, only this time, it's an all female cast with Sandra Bullock playing Debbie Ocean, Danny's sister, who has recently been sprung from jail and calls on a crew of other great looking dames to pull of a monumental heist.

Derivative and unoriginal?  Maybe, but also very stylish, great to look at, entertaining and just a lot of fun to watch. Bullock's crew consists of Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, and Rhianna.  Also, Anne Hathaway does a great turn as the dupe in the entire caper. 

Three Stars from The Grandstander.

Summer vacations and beach and pool time looms ahead.  Here's two great reads for you.....

"Twisted Prey" is the twenty-eight novel in John Sandford's series featuring Lucas Davenport.  Formerly a detective with the Minnesota state police, this is the third novel where Lucas is in his new role as US Marshall.  An old foe of Lucas' appears in the novel that features an attempted political assassination, scarier than hell para-military types, the aforementioned past foe, and all sorts of political treachery.  

You might think that after twenty-eight novels a series like this would lose its steam, but Sandford and Davenport show no signs of needing to be out to pasture.

Three and one-half stars form The Grandstander.

Peter Swanson writes stand-alone thrillers, usually with a New England setting. In "All The Beautiful Lies", a young man, Harry, who is about to graduate from college in Connecticut, is called home to the Maine coast because of the accidental death of his father.  Harry must overcome his feelings of loss, while dealing with his sexy step-mother, Alice (only thirteen years older than he!), and a mysterious and beautiful young woman who shows up at his Dad's funeral.  

The chapters of the book alternate between "Now" as Harry deals with the death of his father, including the revelation that his death might not have been accidental, and "Then" where we are told of Alice and her upbringing, including a rather skeevy relationship with HER step-father, and how she came to meet and marry Harry's father.

Thrilling and suspenseful and fast read.  I finished it in two days.

Three Stars from The Grandstander.

Mary Chapin Carpenter

This past Sunday evening, Marilyn and I toddled on down to the Byham Theater to see one of our favorites, Mary Chapin Carpenter, in concert.  Carpenter is touring to promote her latest album, "Sometimes Just The Sky".

The album includes "reworkings" of some of her past songs, plus the original title track.

This marks the third time that we have seen Mary Chapin Carpenter perform (1995 at the Palumbo Center and 2012 at the Homestead Carnegie Library).  Miss Carpenter turned sixty earlier this year, and she has aged gracefully and well.  She looked great and sounded as good as ever.  In addition to songs from the new album she included many, many of her past hits in Her one hour and forty-five minute set.  Songs like The Hard Way, Why Walk When You Can Fly, Stones in the Road, Shut Up and Kiss Me, I Feel Lucky, and this one, which is one of my personal favorites....

Well, she didn't do Saturday Night At The Twist and Shout, but you can't have everything!

She also was very personable between songs and interacted wonderfully with the audience.

The opening act featured Emily Barker, a young singer/songwriter from Australia who was very, very good.

It was wonderful evening, and if and when Miss Carpenter comes back to Pittsburgh in the next couple of years, we'll be there again.  You should be, too.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A Season Going Down the Drain?

Back on May 16, I was at PNC Park and watched the Pirates defeat the Chicago White Sox 3-0 and boost their record to 25-17.  The next day, the Bucs defeated San Diego and went to 26-17, nine games over .500.  They were in first place, one-half game ahead of the Brewers.

At the time, skeptics were saying things like, "well, sure, but they've been beating up on a bunch of bad teams" (which good teams, I remind you, are supposed  to do).  The real test, those same skeptics said, will come during an upcoming stretch when they would play 19 games over six series with the Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, and Diamondbacks.  Until then, they would play six more games against bottom feeders San Diego and Cincinnati and would surely fatten up that nine-games-over-.500 margin.  Then, if they could go 10-9 or even 9-10 or 8-11 in those six series with the Big Boys, then, well, we were going to be in for a big summer with the Pirates.

You know what happened.  In seven subsequent series, including those two against the "bottom feeder" Padres and Reds, the Pirates won exactly ONE game in each of them.  They are 8-18 since that May 17 win over the Padres, and in that 19 game stretch that was going to tell the story of the season, they went 6-13, and some of those losses were simply horrifying to behold.  They are now 33-35 and are in fourth placer, eight games out of first place.

The starting lineup often includes Gregory Polanco (.204 BA) and Sean Rodriguez (.159).  

The leading home run hitter, Francisco Cervelli, has 9, and the leading RBI producer, Josh Bell, has 36.  By contrast, Mike Trout currently has 23 HRs and 45 RBIs.  The Pirates may not have a guy with 45 RBIs by the All-Star break, and they may not have anyone hit 23 HRs for the season.

Rookie Nick Kingham has been a bright spot in the starting rotation, and he keeps getting shuttled back and forth to Indianapolis.

Rookie Austin Meadows has been a HUGE bright spot as a hitter, yet he often sits so Polanco can still get playing time.

How much faith do you have every time Ivan Nova, Trevor Williams, or Chad Kuhl starts a game?

How much faith do you have whenever anyone in the bullpen is called upon to preserve a slim lead, or even, as has been the case in the last week, a large lead?

How much faith do you have that on any given night, the Pirates are starting their eight best players?

The Pirates have played 68 games, or 42% of the season.  It is no longer "still early", and it won't be too much longer before it will be "too late" to expect anything good top come of this season, if that point hasn't been reached already.

At the beginning of the season, I picked this team to win 73 games.  To achieve that mark, they will have to go 40-54 the rest of the way.  The way it looks now, my prediction looks pretty solid.

At our monthly breakfast last week, our pal Jim Haller mentioned that since the Pirates last World Series championship, the team has had only 10 winning seasons in the 38 seasons since then.  This prompted Dan Bonk and I to do a little research, and what we discovered is not good, although it is also not surprising.

Twenty-six teams have played in those 38 seasons (the expansionist Rays, Marlins, Rockies, and Diamondbacks are not included).  Care to hazard a guess as to which team has won the FEWEST games in those 38 seasons, and, by definition, has lost the most games in that period?  It is none other than our own Pittsburgh Pirates who have won 2,828 games, thirty-six fewer games than the next team on this dubious list, the Kansas City Royals.  NO TEAM has had fewer than the ten winning seasons that the Pirates have had.  Only two other teams (Mariners and Nats/Expos)  besides the Pirates have failed to reach the World Series in that 1980-2017 time frames.  Even each of he four expansion teams have reached the World Series at least once since their inceptions.

If you became a Pirates fan in 1980, your only awareness of this team is that it may well be the worst team in the history of your Fandom.  I mean, I knew things were bad, but I would not have guessed that they were THIS bad over the course of the last thirty-eight years.

In case you are wondering, the team that has won the most games over the last thirty-eight years has been the New York Yankees with 3,388 wins, a whopping 560, almost three and one-half seasons worth of games, more than the Buccos.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Tony Awards Post Mortem

First and foremost, kudos to Bill Montrose for going 7-3 on his annual Tony Awards predictions.  There is a reason why he is The Official Broadway Correspondent to The Grandstander.  More on his Great White Way acumen later.

We watched the entire show live from beginning to end last night, and, frankly, found it to be a bit slow and boring.  I think the main reason for that is that the performance that were featured were from shows that we currently have no interest in seeing ("Mean Girls", "Once On This Island" etc).  Let's face it, there was no "Hamilton" in this bunch of shows.

And a comment about the Bruce Springsteen performance.  I found it interesting that while his "Springsteen on Broadway" show was not nominated for a Tony, it was none the less given a "special" Tony Award, anyway.  Huh?  Sounds like CBS might have put the fix in so as to assure that they could promote a Bruce Springsteen appearance on the telecast.  I will also say that while I am a big fan of Bruce Springsteen - I have seen him perform three times and would go again in the drop of a hat to see him in concert - based on what I have heard and what I saw last night, I'm not so sure I'd want to see this B'way show of his.  Looked like it would be an exercise in self-therapy for him, and do I really need to see that? Of course, if someone wants to give me a ticket.....

Back to the Tonys.  The big winner in the musical category was "The Band's Visit".  It won ten Tonys overall, including Best Musical, Best Score, and three acting awards.

All of this was foreseen and predicted by Our Man Montrose in this space back on November 16, 2017:

While you will read that Bill "liked (but) did not love" this show, he also praised effusively the work of composer David Yazbek and Lead Actress Katrina Lenk and stated flatly: "Look for The Band's Visit to win many Tony Awards."

Like I said, that's why he is this Blog's Official Broadway Correspondent.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Catching Up - Absent Friends: Alan Bean and Bruce Kison

The Grandstander catches up with two significant deaths that occurred during his recent vacation.

Alan Bean

Like all astronauts, Alan Bean, who died on May 26 at the age of 86, was a remarkable individual. A pilot in the United States Navy and an aeronautical engineer, Bean was part of the crew of the Apollo 12 lunar mission in November, 1969, and he became the fourth man to walk on the surface of the moon.  He later was part of one of the manned missions to the Skylab spacecraft.

Upon his retirement from the astronaut corps, Bean devoted his life to art and became a painter.  Many of his works depicted astronauts and manned space missions, including many on the lunar surface.

Bean's death now leaves only four living persons to have set foot on the moon, Buzz Aldrin,  Dave Scott, Charles Duke,  and Harrison Schmitt.   Duke and Schmitt are the youngest of these four, and they will turn 83 in 2018.


Bruce Kison

During their pennant winning season of 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates brought up from the minor leagues tall, skinny, and baby-faced pitcher Bruce Kison as temporary fill in for an injured pitcher.  He was only one year older than I was at the time!  His stay in Pittsburgh was going to be temporary, but he never went back to the minor leagues after that, and went on to have a fifteen year major league career.  He died on June 1, a cancer victim, at the age of 68.

Kison spent nine of those fifteen seasons with the Pirates.  In Pittsburgh, he went 81-63 with an ERA of 3.49.  His career numbers, including six seasons with the Angels and Red Sox were 115-88, 3.66.  He will be forever remembered as being the winning pitcher in Game 4 of the 1971 World Series, the first World Series game to ever be played at night.  Trailing the Series two games to one, the Pirates fell behind 3-0 early in game three, and Pirates fans were seeing the Series quickly slipping away, when Danny Murtaugh called in Kison from the bullpen early in the game to relieve starter Luke Walker.  Kison responded with 6.1 innings of one hit, scoreless pitching and the Pirates rallied to win the game.  The rest of the Series, as they say, is history.  

Game 4 vs Baltimore, 1971
Three Rivers Stadium

Kison was also a part of the Pirates 1979 championship team, going 13-7, 3.19 that season.

Stories abounded about Kison in the wake of his death this past week about how competitive and tough he was, despite his boyish appearance.  He knew what part of the plate belonged to the pitcher, and he was never afraid to plunk a batter if he felt he was moving into that part of home plate that was his.  Not even Hall of Famers like Frank Robinson or Mike Schmidt intimidated him, as the scene from a 1977 game with the Phillies will attest.

RIP Alan Bean and Bruce Kison

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Cruisin' Down the River

I had promised that I would give you one more installment on our recent vacation, one that would revolve around the central part of our "Paris To The Heart of Normandy" trip, the river cruise along the Seine River aboard Viking Kadlin.

We admit that the commercials that Viking ran over the years on PBS' "Downton Abbey" played a big part in our choosing to make this trip.  We had also heard very good word of mouth referrals from various friends and acquaintances.  Viking made it very easy to book our cruise back in September and they handled everything....flight reservations, airport pick-up and transfers, transportation for the various excursions and tours that we chose, everything.  They also kept us well informed in the weeks leading up to our departure.  They set the service bar high throughout the booking process and in the time leading up to our departure, and they more than delivered in that area once we boarded the ship and began our vacation.

 We were greeted by the officers on the night we sailed.

"He is the Captain now."

The service throughout the entire trip was excellent.  For example, you would leave for breakfast in the morning, and by the time you got back to your stateroom, it had already been cleaned and made up.  The waitstaff, the bar service, the folks at the front desk, and the staff that organized the excursions and tours (and this included all of the local guides who took us to places like the Louvre, the Monet Foundation, the Palace of Versailles, and the D-Day beaches in Normandy...all provided by Viking) were friendly, prompt, and excellent.

The food was amazing and delicious, and there was plenty of it.  Breakfast and lunches included buffets in addition to ordering off of a menu.  Dinners were from a menu that included local foods and French dishes.  And if that wasn't to your liking, you could also order a steak or chicken at dinner, or a hamburger or hot dog at lunch.  Lunch and dinner also included beer and wine at no additional cost.  It was amazingly generous.

Staterooms were snug, as they are on all cruise ships, I dare say, but it was comfortable and the use of all space in the room was incredibly efficient.  We never felt like we were shoehorned into the room.

The ship would sail from port to port during daylight hours so you could take advantage of relaxing on the top deck and just take in some amazing views of the Normandy countryside.

See what I mean?

Unlike traditional cruises aboard the big liners (our Disney cruise to Alaska last year, for example), this Viking River Cruise was a bit more sedate.  No swimming pool, no spa, no In-Your-Face 24/7 entertainment.  It is a relaxing experience, although, truth be told, on some days, the excursions that we took lasted a good part of the day, and left us tired out by the time the day ended.  However, as much as it seemed that we were always on the go, we did find time to relax and on the top deck, have a drink, and take in the countryside.

The riverboat is pretty big, probably about as long as a football field, but small when compared to a big ocean liner.  There were only 190 passengers aboard.  There are no children on any Viking cruise.  They are very specific about that, so you will be part of an older demographic on a Viking cruise.  That may not be for everyone, but we had no problem with it. 

And the small number of passengers creates the opportunity to meet at one time or another just about everyone on board. On our first night out, the four off us were seated at a table for six when Vince and Linda, from Pompano, FL asked to join us.  We then ate just about every meal thereafter with them, and found them to be an entertaining couple and excellent company.  We also met and had wonderful conversations with many other people....
  • Michael and Sandy from Baltimore.  He's a retired attorney and they are veterans of several other Viking tours.
  • Rebecca and Doug from Milwaukee.  He just retired from his job and this trip was their celebration.
  • Ted and Drucy from McLean, VA. Both are retired from careers at the State Department and were very, very interesting people.
  • Audrey and Allen from Dallas, TX. At the age of 42, Audrey quit her job as a dental hygienist and went to dental school full time.  She graduated at age 46 and now has her own dental practice.  What a great story!
There were others as well, but these are the ones we shall most remember.  Chances are that we shall never see any of these people again, but having all of our paths cross at this particular time and place contributed largely to making this a memorable week.  I hope that some of them are saying the same things about us.

That's us with our "cruise pals", Linda and Vince.

If you are considering such a trip, I would strongly recommend that you consider a Viking river cruise.  Viking also offers ocean cruises aboard larger ocean going ships, yet still smaller than the Carnivals, Princesses, and Disneys of the world.  A Viking Ocean cruise carries a maximum of 900 passengers, and no children.  I can tell you that while we haven't put much concrete thought into what the "next trip" is going to be, I can see that a return to Viking will be strongly considered.

We have been home for a week now, and already the memory  of this vacation continues to grow and glow within us.  It may well have been the best vacation that we have ever taken.  

Departure Day.
Well organized to the very end.

By the way, this shall be my last big installment on our French vacation.  I realize that there is only so much that anyone wants to hear about someone else's vacation, so I will spare you that going forward (although I cannot promise that there might not be small references made from time to time).  However, we are happy to talk about it with you at any time.  Really, just ask, but if you say "I want to see all of your pictures", be advised that there are over 650 of them residing on our computer (both the blessing and the curse of digital photography), so we won't inflict that upon you, but we have put together an album of printed photos that is much more manageable and less time consuming.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

"The Americans" Finale Gets It Done

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell
"Philip" and "Elizabeth"
Back in the USSR

This post will contain spoilers about the final episode of "The Americans".  You've been warned.

Regular readers know that I have been a steady watcher of the FX series "The Americans" from Day One.  Those same readers also know that I have felt that the series lost a bit off of its fastball a few years ago and went on for two and maybe even three seasons too long.  That said, in Episode 10 of Season 6, the final episode of the series, "The Americans" hit one out of the park with the bases loaded.

The show opened with Philip (Mathew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) realizing that the jig was up and that they had to lam it out of America and get back to the USSR, and that the only way to do this was to leave their son, Henry, behind.  "He doesn't know anything, he belongs here, he's an American" says Philip, and Elizabeth, who has spent this entire season killing anything that moves and showing no interest at all in her son, shows some trace of Mother Love, something that has been sorely missing from her character for six seasons.

There then followed four critical scenes:

  1. Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige ready to take off and make one final phone call to Henry at his New England boarding school.  They have to act like it is just another call while knowing that they will most likely never see or speak to him again.  Henry pretty much brushes it off because he has to get back to a ping pong tournament being held in his dormitory. It was wrenching.
  2. Dim bulb FBI Agent Stan Beeman has finally put two and two together and confronts the fleeing Philip, Elizabeth, and Paige in an empty parking garage. He goes all by himself with no backup, talks tough with the Jennings while brandishing his gun at them and then proceeds to let Philip talk his way out of the whole thing.  "Hey, you moved in next to me" Philip tells Stan, as if to say that this is all Stan's fault.   Paige then tells Stan that HE has to now take care of Henry, and Philip drops the bomb that Stan's wife just might be, although he's not really sure, a KGB agent.  In their final conversation, the Jennings' pawn off a kid on Stan and effectively ruin his marriage.  Stan then lets them drive away.  Stan Beeman was without a doubt the dumbest and most ineffective law enforcement agent in the history of television.
  3. While traveling by train out of the USA into Canada, all passengers are being checked by Border Patrol agents with sketches of the fleeing fugitive spies.  It is an incredibly tense scene as the agents look over the passports of the disguised and separately seated Philip and Elizabeth before determining that these are not the people being sought.  There then follows a simply stunning scene when Elizabeth looks out of the now moving train window and sees Paige standing on the platform.  Keri Russell's reaction as she realizes that her daughter has abandoned her and is going to stay in America is simply brilliant.  The entire scene is played out with virtually no dialog and with U2's "With Or Without You" playing on the soundtrack.  The entire scene deserved multiple usage of the Pause/Rewind/Play button.
  4. Throughout the six seasons of this show you knew that you were watching bad people and in the interest of justice being served, you knew that Philip and Elizabeth would need to end up either dead at the hands of American law enforcement or imprisoned for life.  It didn't happen. The Jennings make it back to the Soviet Union, but forever separated from their children, and with the knowledge that the country that they have served all of their lives is soon about to be changed forever, and in fact, the USSR that they have known will soon cease to exist.  Perhaps it is a fate worse than death for them.  In the final line of spoken dialog of the series, Elizabeth simply says "We'll get used to it."
I don't always agree that long running TV series have to end with everything tied in a bow in a Grand Finale of an episode.  The final episode of "Seinfeld" was a bomb, the finale of "The Sopranos", while not a bomb, was ambiguous and unsatisfying, but I think that the creators of "The Americans" got it just right.  The Jennings do get punished for their various crimes and sins, although maybe not in the way we like.  There was no cutesie fast forward of an epilogue to tell us Whatever Became Of those who remain behind.  We'll never know what became of Paige and Henry, or, for that matter, Philip and Elizabeth.  In it's own way, this becomes a very satisfying ending to this series.

(I have my own speculation as to what happens to one of the characters.  Henry remains at his New England boarding school, continues to excel at ice hockey, earns a scholarship to a big time hockey school, and gets drafted by the Washington Capitols.  After a long and distinguished career with the Caps, the aging NHL veteran Henry Jennings becomes a friend and hockey mentor to the Caps' young rookie sensation Alexander Ovechkin.  How's that for irony?)

So "The Americans" now comes to an end.  I never missed an episode, and while maybe the series should have ended a season or two earlier, the terrific final episode made it a most satisfying series to have experienced over the years.