Monday, July 21, 2014

To Absent Friends - James Garner

It is old news by now, but actor James Garner died this past weekend at the age of 86.

Where do you even start with James Garner?  IMDB lists 95 acting credits for Garner.  He began in television, as a star of the series "Maverick", transitioned nicely to leading man roles in the movies, and then back again to TV with the long-running "Rockford Files".  He was likable in just about everything he did.  Have you ever heard something bad  about James Garner?

I remember watching the 1963 movie "The Great Escape" a year or so ago, and being tremendously impressed with Garner's work in it.  That movie will always be remembered for Steve McQueen and his motorcycle, but for my money, Garner was the best guy in the movie.

Marilyn and I are also partial to 1985's "Murphy's Romance" a delightful romantic comedy/drama with Sally Field, and for which Garner received his only Oscar nomination.

He hadn't been real active in these later years. I recall seeing him in a "My Fellow Americans" (1996), a comedy in which he and Jack Lemmon played a couple of former Presidents, and in 2000's "Space Cowboys" wherein he, Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, and Donald Southerland played a group of aging astronauts.  The last time I actually watched a Garner movie was when 1969's "Marlowe" aired on TCM a few months ago.  Based upon the Raymond Chandler stories, Garner played the iconic private eye, Phillip Marlowe.  The movie wasn't so hot, but Garner, not unexpectedly, rose above the material, and was fun to watch.

One of the Internet headlines I saw about Garner's death said "James Garner, Hollywood 'Good Guy', Dead at 86". That summed it up pretty nicely.

RIP James Garner.

The "Champion Golfer"

I haven't watched a whole lot of golf on TV this year because, face it, without Tiger Woods (more on him later) in the mix, and with Phil Mickelson now in his early forties, and throw in the fact that the US Open turned out to be a pretty boring cakewalk for Martin Kaymer last month, there hasn't been any compelling reason to watch every weekend.

The British Open, or excuse me, The Open Championship, was looking to be more of the same with Rory McIlroy opening up big leads through each of the first three rounds, but I tuned in yesterday morning anyway and was surprised to see that McIlroy, who started the final round with a six shot lead, had come back to the field a bit, and that after seven holes, Sergio Garcia was three back and Ricky Fowler was four back, so maybe this was going to be interesting after all.

At one point early on the back nine, Garcia had gotten to within two of McIlroy, and the tournament ended with Garcia and Fowler tied for second, two shots behind McIlroy, but in point of fact, it never really was all that close, and when all was said and done, Rory had laid a fairly methodical beat-down on both Sergio, Ricky, and the entire field.

Very impressive, and at age 25, McIlroy now finds himself only one green jacket short of a career Grand Slam.  Very impressive indeed. 

One disappointment was the weather.  I like watching the British Open when the conditions are wretched - wind, rain, sleet - but it was beautiful for all four days in Liverpool.  Oh, well, maybe next year in St. Andrews.

Oh, yeah. Tiger Woods.  He finished six over par, twenty-tree shots behind McIlroy, and only four spots from the bottom of the scoreboard.  He had major back surgery on March 31.  I,  myself, have had two major back surgeries in my life, and they take a long time from which to recover, and I am not someone who relies on his physicality in my life as does Woods, or any other professional athlete.  Anyone who expected Woods to contend at the Open this week, much less win it, was severely deluding themselves.

That said, Tiger is now 38 years old, and his body is breaking down on him.  When he is fully recovered physically, he will win again on the Tour, he may even win another Major sometime, but Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 Majors is safe. Tiger isn't going to win four or five more Majors.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Roger Angell on Being a Fan

Later this month, writer Roger Angell will be honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award that recognizes excellence in sports writing, specifically, baseball writing.

Angell has covered baseball for the New Yorker magazine for over fifty years by writing long and very literate essays on the topic several times each year.  Over the years, many of those essays have been gathered together in book form and have become huge best sellers.  If you are a baseball fan and enjoy great writing, you need to visit the library, bookstore, or Amazon and start reading Mr. Angell's works.

Anyway, to celebrate Angell being given the Spink Award, Sports Illustrated has a lengthy story about him in the week's issue.  In the story, writer Tom Verducci quotes a passage from one of Angell's essays that I think perfectly summarizes why people are sports fans. It references baseball, of course, but I think it applies to all sports.  This is taken from the New Yorker piece that Angell wrote in 1975 about that year's Reds - Red Sox World Series and makes reference to Carlton Fisk's famous 12th inning home run in the sixth game of that epic Series.

It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know the look - I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring - caring deeply and passionately, really caring - which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives.  And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or how foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naivete - the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the hap-hazardous flight of a distant ball - seems a small price to pay for such a gift.

Yeah, that's what being a fan is all about!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Book Review - "Where Nobody Knows Your Name"

Okay, baseball fans, put his one on your "Must Read" list, and do it sooner, rather than later.

John Feinstein has written about a million books about sports, all different sports, basketball, football, golf, baseball, and they are all good.  He even wrote one about professional tennis several years back that was terrific, and I could pretty much not care less about professional tennis.

Anyway, this one, as the sub-title tells you, is about "Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball". Feinstein spent the 2012 baseball season following the International League (IL) and focusing on the fortunes of nine individuals....six players, two managers, and an umpire.  

For you Pirates fans out there, one of the players he follows is former Bucco Nate McClouth.    McClouth's story is one of the more successful ones.  You may recall that the Pirates released McClouth in early May of that year.  He was unemployed for a few weeks, was able to sign a minor league deal with the Orioles, and ended up being a starter and a post-season hero for the O's that year.

Two of the pitchers he follows, Brett Tomko and Scott Elarton, were guys who had had pretty old success in the majors, but were now in their late thirties and struggling to try for "one more shot" in the big leagues.  So was 2005 World Series hero Scott Podsednik.

Along the way, Feinstein also give you what e calls "Slices of life" about other people he ran into during his year in the IL.  One of these slices is about Dean Treanor, manager of the Pirates Triple-A affiliate Indianapolis.  There is a terrific story about how Treanor was able to deliver the news to his star player that year, Starling Marte, that he was getting "the call" to  Pittsburgh.   In fact, there are several stories in the book about managers who get to tell players that they are going to the Big Club.  It is the best part of their jobs.

I found the stories of the managers really interesting.  Like the players, they, too, long for their shot at the Majors, but winning and losing are not important in running a minor league ball club.  The needs of the major league team are paramount.  For example, Matt Hague's and Jaff Decker's brief stays in Pittsburgh don't add much more than warm bodies to the Pirates for the few days they were here, but their absence in Indianapolis makes a world of difference to how Dean Treanor's Indy team fares on the field.  

Another example.  When Pawtucket won the IL championship at the end of the '12 season, 63 different players had passed through their roster that season, and of the players that were there when the IL Championship was won, only seven had been on the roster  on Opening Day.

We all think that the life of a major league ballplayer is pretty cushy, but one lesson that this book brings home, time and again, is that for every Andrew McCutchen and his multi-year, multi-millions contract, there are 50 or 100 Matt Hagues out there who are struggling to achieve their lifelong dream of a major league career, a career that most of them will never have.

If you are a baseball fan, you really need to read this book.

To Absent Friends - Red Klotz

Red Klotz passed way earlier this week at the age of 93.  

Who is Red Klotz, you might ask?  Well, Red is most famous for being the player-coach of the Washington Generals, the team that toured with and played against the Harlem Globetrotters.  The Generals, under Klotz' leadership, lost to the Globetrotters over 14,000 times.

In reading about Klotz, you find that there was more to him than that.  He was a Philadelphia high school basketball whiz in in 1939 and 1940.  He attended Villanova University, served in World War II, and had a brief, 11 game career in the NBA with the Baltimore Bullets in 1947-48.  At 5'7", he is the shortest man to ever play in an NBA playoff game.  He is the only non-Globie to be inducted into the Harlem Globetrotters "Legends Ring".

I remember once reading a great story about Red Klotz.  I can't remember the exact source, but it was probably in either a Wilt Chamberlain biography or the Connie Hawkins biography.  Anyway, as the story goes, one night, either the Trotters heart wasn't in it, or the Generals just decided to play for real for a change, and, all of a sudden, for once the Globetrotters were in a competitive game with the Generals.  The Globies found themselves having to play real basketball, and, more importantly, the paying customers weren't happy because they weren't  getting what they paid to see.  Player-coach Klotz called time out and started screaming "What in the hell are you guys doing?" at his players.  He them put herself in the game (he was probably in his fifties at the time) and started heaving up 30 and 40 foot shots to allow the Globies to get back in the game and restore order in the world. 

RIP Red Klotz.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Rick Sebak's "Things That Aren't Here Anymore"

One of the small treasures of being a Pittsburgher are the various Pittsburgh history documentaries that Rick Sebak produces for WQED and Public Broadcasting.  Lucky for us, these programs run almost constantly on one of WQED's digital sub-channels. Officially, it is the "WQED Neighborhood Channel", but in our house, Verizon FiOS channel 473 is known as the "Rick Sebak Channel".

Anyway, last night what should be playing but his show from 1990, "Things That Aren't Here Anymore".  Of all of the many shows Sebak has done, this ranks among my favorites, and I have probably watched it literally dozens of times over the years.  However, it was in viewing it last night that I discovered why these shows are so special and, essentially, timeless.

The climactic clip in this particular show was a segment about Forbes Field, which, as we all know, hasn't been here since 1970.  In setting up the segment, Sebak interviews several people who were connected to Forbes Field and the Oakland neighborhood that surrounded it.  One of these people was Ruth LeVallee of Kunst's Bakery in Oakland.

Now, as I said, I have seen this episode and segment dozens of times over the years, but last night it struck a new note for me.

I had the pleasure of meeting Ruth Le Vallee this past winter when I helped make a campaign video for her grandson, Dan Le Vallee, who is currently running for United States Congress in Pennsylvania's 3rd Congressional District.  I got to know Ruth's son, and Dan's father,  Charlie Le Vallee when I worked at Blue Cross.  Charlie founded the what is now the Highmark Caring Foundation back in the mid-1980's, and it is the Caring Foundation that started the Highmark Caring Place for Grieving Children, where Marilyn and I volunteer.  In fact, I met and worked with Dan Le Vallee when he became a fellow Caring Place Volunteer.

So, it was quite exciting to see Mrs. Le Vallee in watching "Things That Aren't Here Any More" once again.  These "old" shows of Rick's have an amazing capacity to become "new" again with each viewing.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Bucs at the Break

The All-Star Break, the figurative, if not the literal, half-way point of the season is upon us.

If someone asked you on Opening Day that the Pirates would be 3.5 games out of first place at the Break, you'd have probably said, "Not perfect, but okay, I'll take it."

However, if someone had said that there would be not one, not two, but three teams in front of them at that point, that would probably have given you some cause for concern.

The Pirates now sit at 49-46, a pace that will get them 84 wins on the season.  Not going to get you into the post-season.

Against every team except Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, the Pirates are 36-20, a pace that would get you 104 wins over a 162 game season.  Terrific!!!

Against the Brewers (3-10), Cardinals (6-7), and Reds (4-9), they are 13-26, a pace that would get you 108 losses over 162 games.  Terrible!!!!

The old baseball aphorism is "break even against the good teams, beat up on the bad teams".  The Pirates are doing half of that equation, but it seems that the three teams ahead of them in the Central are just better than them.  Maybe not by much, but a .333 winning percentage says a lot.

Does that mean it's over for the Pirates?  Certainly not, but it's not going to be easy.  Andrew McCutchen is going to need help, and the starting pitching needs to improve.  It's hard to be confident in them, the pitching staff, as a whole based on the first 95 games.  And what will the front office due to bolster the team come July 31?

I believe that there are 18 games left with the Brewers, Cards, and Reds.  Is it possible that they go 12-6 in those games?  They are pretty much going to have to do that, because I am not sure that they can maintain a 104 win pace against the rest of the schedule.

Just my quick & dirty thoughts.