Monday, August 3, 2015

Ridin' the Rails

A few weeks ago, an article appeared in the Travel section of the Sunday Post-Gazette about the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad which makes a round trip run between Cumberland, MD and Frostburg, MD every day.  Neither one of us, believe it or not, had ever ridden on a train (the NYC subway and The T don't count), so we decided to make an overnight getaway.

We chose a Friday to make the trip because on Fridays the train is pulled by an authentic steam locomotive, so we thought that we just had to go for that.  Alas and alack, when the train pulled into the stain in Cumberland, this is what was leading the way.

Unfortunately, the steam locomotive had broken down early that morning, so we would be pulled by a diesel engine.  Disappointing, but what are you gonna do?  It was still a very fun trip to take as these pictures will attest, and it included a conductor on the train straight out of Central Casting.

 No, that's not Wilfred Brimley.  I asked.

Cumberland, Md, of course, played a key role in the history of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, and I got a picture of me with a part of that history.

And we even enjoyed some live music in downtown Cumberland after dinner on Friday night, and yes, I was surprised to see that Mama Cass is still performing.  They were quite good.

I nice little overnight adventure for us.  A very fun trip.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Book Review - "Disclaimer" by Renee Knight

My thanks to old pal, Fred Egler, for the recommendation of "Disclaimer", a thriller in the same vein as Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, and The Kind Worth Killing, all of which I have read and written about on this blog.

Catherine Ravenscroft is a successful documentary film maker who has just moved into a new home with her husband after their only son has moved out into his own apartment.  One night , Catherine starts reading a novel, she's not sure where the book actually came from, when she notices that the standard boilerplate of "any resemblance between the characters herein and any actual persons living or dead is strictly a coincidence" has been crossed out.  Then she gets a VERY uncomfortable feeling when she starts reading, because the book seems to be about her, and it is most unpleasant to her.

The story then proceeds to be told from the point of view of several different characters in addition to Catherine, and there are number of flashbacks to events that took place about twenty years prior to the present day.

I found the novel to be a bit confusing at first until I got the hang of who was telling the story at any given point in the book, and I got the timeline straight in my mind.   However, once I got over that hump, it was a pretty fast and exciting read.  As they literary snobs might put it, this is an "entertainment", and a darn good one.  Perfect for vacation time.

I was especially pleased with how it ended, in that I felt that each of the main characters got exactly what they deserved in this one.

On a scale of five stars, I give this one 3 and 1/2 stars.  Thanks, Fred!

An Invitation

I am asking all of my friends here in the Greater Pittsburgh area, at least, to please consider patronizing an art exhibit that will run from August 22 through September 18 at the Sweetwater Center for the Arts in Sewickley, PA.  The exhibit is entitled "A Journey Through Grief" and will consist of art work done by the Children and Teens who have attended sessions at the Highmark Caring Place in Warrendale.

I have seen many of the pieces that will be on display at this exhibit, and all I can tell you is that you will be amazed.  Marilyn and I will be there at the Opening Reception on August 22, and we hope that we will see many of you there as well.  If you can't make the opening, please try to find some time during the four weeks that the exhibit will be in place.

Full details are contained on the invitation below.  Thank you.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Kraft, Belichick, Brady, and All That Hot Air

It so happens that I was fortunate (?) enough to turn on my TV yesterday morning just as Patriots owner Robert "I Like White Collars On My Blue Dress Shirts" Kraft addressed the assembled media in Boston, after which Coach Belichick took to the mic.  It was classic stuff, and I am not sure that I have witnessed anything quite like it since this guy was addressing the news media on a seemingly daily basis:

"Do you know who I am?"

Well, I am not going go into a lot of detail as to what was said.  If you are interested in the topic, you've read and heard it all already, but here is my take on Kraft's scorched earth blast against Roger Goodell and the NFL.  Here in Pittsburgh, if you are old enough, you have heard tree generations of Rooneys talk about how the overall interests of the National Football League are far more important than the interests of any one individual franchise.  It seems to have been a sound way to do business and it has certainly served to make the NFL the most powerful and successful sports league in America, if not the entire world.  Kraft sure thumbed his nose at that notion in his diatribe yesterday.  If the "League Comes First" attitude of the Rooneys and Maras still exists out there among the other 31 lodge brothers that comprise NFL ownership, it would seem that Robert Kraft may find himself all alone on an island, and he may be fighting a very lonely battle out there.  Roger Goodell's father was a US Senator, and I am sure that he taught young Roger that before you do anything big, be sure that you have the votes, and I am guessing that Roger Goodell "has the votes" from among his bosses.

A few months ago I might have thought that Goodell would lose his job over his handling of this (and other) issues(s).  Now, I wouldn't bet against him.

The other part of that press conference was Bill Belichick being Bill Belichick.  He answered questions for about ten minutes and this was the sum and substance of it:
  • "That issue has already been addressed."
  • "We're here to start training camp and get ready for the 2015 season."
  • "Everybody will get the same number of reps in training camp.  That's what training camp is for."
He never once mentioned the name of any player, including You-Know-Who.  

I know that we are not supposed to like Bill Belichick, and I know all the reasons for it, but I have to say that I came away from that performance of his yesterday with a grudging admiration for him.  He seems to be telling us (although who really knows what he thinks) that he is a football coach, plain and simple.  He doesn't give a shit about any of these outside distractions, he really doesn't give a shit about who his players are, he just wants to get to training camp and prepare for the next game.  There is something to be said for that.

As for Brady, I think we can all agree that his punishment does not fit his crime, and that this whole thing could have been reduced or even avoided entirely with a mere slap on the wrists to those involved if all parties had reacted just a bit differently.  However, Tom Brady has shown himself to be just another spoiled "Me-First" jock with a monstrous sense of entitlement.  By God, he wasn't going to give in because "I am Tom Brady", and he has cooked his own goose because of it.  I don't really care what happens to him.  As for the destruction of his cell phone, this has become the 2015 version of Rosemary Woods' missing seventeen minutes of audio tape.

The story isn't over, as injunctions and lawsuits are sure to follow, and a lot of lawyers will get rich.  As for me, I can't make any promises, but I am not so sure how much I am going to write about this in the weeks and months ahead.  I've had my say.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Movie Review - "Good Ol' Freda"

I first heard about the documentary movie, "Good Ol' Freda", a few months back and made a mental note to make sure I saw it, but thanks to a conversation last week with friend Nick Frankhart, I got off my duff and ordered the DVD from Amazon (less than ten bucks!).

It is the story of Freda Kelly, who was a teenager working in some corporate typing pool in Liverpool back in 1962.  One day on her lunch hour, she and some co-workers went to see a local band play at the Cavern Club.  The band was, of course, The Beatles, and Freda became an immediate fan.  Shortly thereafter, she joined a Beatles Fan Club in Liverpool, and soon after that, she was hired by Brian Epstein to be the secretary for the Official Beatles Fan Club.  At the age of seventeen (yes, she was just seventeen...) she was working closely with Epstein and "the lads", who were, essentially, just four guys from the same neighborhood as she.

She held that position for close to ten years, until the band broke up, and the Fan Club was dissolved, a decision that was largely hers.  Freda had never told her story, never wrote a book, never revealed the close confidences that she shared with The Beatles, never cashed in on her proximity to the most famous rock band in history.  A few years ago, some young film makers approached her, and she agreed to be a part of this project so that her grandchildren would know of her role in this remarkable story.

In the movie, Freda tells how she got to know the Beatles and their families as well.  Remember, in 1962, each of the Beatles' parents (or the aunt who raised him in John Lennon's case) were still alive, and Starr and Harrison were still living with them.  Freda tells stories of meeting and sharing delightful times with the Starkeys and Harrisons.  I loved how she still always refers to Ringo Starr as "Richey".  (Similarly, Brian Epstein was always "Eppy" to her.)

After the band and the fan club dissolved, Freda continued to work as a secretary in various jobs over the years ("I had to make a living").  She raised two children and is now a grandmother.  She gave way most of her Beatles "stuff".  The remnants of her association with the group exists in three or four cardboard boxes in her attic.  She treasures her days with the lads to whom she was "good ol' Freda".  She was a part of their families, as one of them mentions at the closing of the film, and this movie is one that every Beatles fan should see.

Freda Then

Freda Now

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Pittsburgh Steelers "Franchise Four"

The recent promotion by Major League Baseball to name the "Franchise Four" for each team (and a word on that at the end of this post) prompted Joe Aro, a Facebook Friend of mine from the Washington DC area to name his "Franchise Four" for the Washington Redskins.  Fair enough, and it prompted me to try to list a Franchise Four for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

After putting much thought and analysis into it - maybe fifteen or twenty minutes of thinking about it - I came up with these four:

Joe Greene

I mean, really, do I have to justify this choice?  Simply put, the Greatest Steeler Ever.

Ernie Stautner

A Hall of Famer, he is here for the simple reason that people need to be aware that the Steelers existed and had great players before the 1972 season.

Jack Ham

Tough and smart, he may have been the best and most consistent defensive player of a team that was filled with Hall of Fame (and HOF caliber) defensive players.

The fourth guy has to be a quarterback, and I went back and forth between these two guys. Both were (and are) great.  One has greater stats than the other, but an argument can be made that the stats for each of them are a function of the era in which that played, but each of them, I contend, would have excelled and been great, no matter the era. In the end, only one stat separates the two - four Super Bowl rings vs. two Super Bowl rings, so here is the fourth guy.

Terry Bradshaw

It is a very narrow margin, and on any given day I could still be talked into including this guy:

Ben Roethlisberger

I ran this whole idea around at breakfast yesterday with Dan Bonk, Len Martin, Jim Haller, and Dave Finoli, and, of course, there was no unanimity.  The two names most mentioned who should be on the list were Franco Harris and Mel Blount, and I would have no argument if either of those guys, especially Harris, were in the Steelers' Franchise Four, so let's a salute them here:

Franco Harris

Mel Blount

Oh, and I mentioned that I would have a word on MLB's Franchise Four selections.  The name of Walter Johnson does not surface anywhere.  Not on the Minnesota Twins list, not on the Texas Rangers list, nor, even, and this is really stretching it, the Washington Nationals list.  That perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time cannot find his way on any of these lists calls the whole process into question, but I guess no one said that this would be anything more than a popularity contest decided by people raised in the era that says "if it wasn't on ESPN, it didn't happen."

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Trade

The unofficial second half of the season started disastrously.  A 1-5 road trip, an injury to SS Jordy Mercer, which, coupled with the earlier injury to Josh Harrison, had forced the Pirates to play bench guys like Sean Rodriguez on a regular basis, and plug Quad-A (at best) players like Brent Morel and Pedro Florimon into the starting line-up.  Pirates naysayers were heading to the Clemente Bridge to leap off because, surely, GM Neal Huntington was never going to be able to pull the trigger to make a deadline deal that would help this team.  And the first place Nationals, who swept the Pirates last month were coming to town.  Armageddon was certainly upon us.

Then, late yesterday afternoon, news came of the trade that Huntington pulled off with the Brewers to land Aramis Ramirez.  And what did he give up?   Prized prospects like Josh Bell, Alen Hanson, or Tyler Glasnow?  Nope.  Relief pitcher Yhonathan Barrios.  Now, Barrios may turn out to be a good pitcher for the Brewers someday, but in my mind, when you get an every day player, especially one with Ramirez' credentials, for a relief pitcher, and a minor league one at that, you have made a good deal.

And while he money aspects of trades don't interest me - these teams have the money - the Brewers are still going to pay half of the $6 million salary that is due Ramirez for the remainder of the season.  How did Huntington, who was in a desperate buyer's mode, manage to get the Brewers to agree to that?

Yes, Ramirez is now 37 years old, and has indicated that he will retire after this, his 18th season in the majors.  He is not the dangerous slugger he once was, but even today, after a horrid first month of the season, he has 11 HR, 42 RBI, and a .725 OPS.  Put him in the batting order behind Andrew McCutchen, and he is an improvement over every other guy who has been in this slot this season.  He will fill the gap at third to allow Jung Ho Kang to play short and cover for the injured Harrison and Mercer.  He is exactly the kind of pick up the team needed at this point in the season.  And he has now been taken from a team going nowhere and put on a team in the middle of a pennant race.  You would think, you would hope, that this will rejuvenate him and motivate him to make this final half season of his career a stellar one.  We shall see.

Finally, there is the delicious karma of Ramirez coming BACK to the Pirates in the midst of a pennant race.  No need to recount the painful circumstances of the horrendous salary dump deal in 2003 when Kevin McClatchey forced Dave Littlefield to get rid of perhaps the team's best player and brightest young star in years for a collection of used jock straps and batting practice baseballs.  (Someday, I hope Dave Littlefield will write a book and explain HIS side of that awful transaction.)  If A-Ram can manage 8-10 home runs and 30 or so RBI's over what time he has here, it will be one terrific story.

Seven days remain before the trade deadline, and reports are that the Pirates are in the hunt for another pitcher.  I have full confidence that GM Neal is working the phones diligently to pull of something that will help this team down the stretch.  He proved yesterday that he can make things like that happen.