Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Pirates 2014 - Looking Back

As I sit at the keyboard on this Tuesday afternoon. the Pirates are about thirty hours away from taking the field against the San Francisco Giants in the National League Wild Card Playoff game.  I am excited in knowing that I will be attending this game tomorrow night, and I  am looking forward to the occasion with excitement and anticipation.

It was fabulous season for the Pirates, almost anyway you look at it.  The Playoff berth didn't come as easy as the one last year, it seemed, due to a bad start (10-18) in April, a bad seven game losing streak in August, injuries to key players, underachievement by key players (Jason Grilli, who got traded, Pedro Alvarez, who got benched), and a first base platoon that was, to be kind, very ordinary, it still took until the 162nd game of the season to be eliminated from the Central Division Championship.

I always like to look back on what I predicted each year to see just how smart or stupid I am.  So, here are some excerpts, in red, from The Grandstander of March 30, 2014.

Concerning the ultimate bottom line, I wrote the following:

OK, so how will they do?  Last year they won 94 games, which is a lot of wins for even really good teams.  To think that they will do this again is asking a lot.  Winning less than that in 2014 is not necessarily a step backwards. So, I am going to predict that we will raise this guy....


....89 times in 2014.  Eighty-nine wins will not be enough to overtake the Cardinals in the NL Central, but it will be enough to be in the race for a Wild Card spot, so what the the hell, I'll predict that Pirates will once again nail down one of the two wild card spots in the National League. 

The Record shows that the Pirates won 88 games, finished two games behind the Cardinals, and nailed down the first Wild Card spot.

I structured that pre-season post by focusing on some "People to Watch" for the upcoming season:

Andrew McCutchen.  After a torrid spring training, and, yes, we know that spring training stats are meaningless, it is almost frightening to think that he might actually be better than he has been in the last two seasons. Not since the days of Barry Bonds, and perhaps even the days of Dave Parker, have the Pirates had a player who is in the legitimate discussion as to who is the best player in the game.

Despite a two week stint on the DL, McCutchen led the team in HR, RBI, was third in the NL in batting and led the league in OBP.  But for an other-worldly season being enjoyed by the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, McCutchen would no doubt be the odds on choice for a second consecutive MVP award.

Travis Snider.  Yes, he has been the definition of mediocre since his arrival here, but if management is to be believed, injuries played a role in that underachieving performance, and he is now said to be healthy, and he did rip it up in Florida.  If that can continue, perhaps the Pirates don't have as big a problem in RF as is believed.

Snider continued to be overlooked and many thought he would be sent to the minors at one point. He wasn't, Jose Tabata was, and when rookie Gregory Polanco came to earth after a hot start when he was first called up, Snider pretty much took over the job in right field, and it will be Snider, not Polanco, who will have to be beaten out for the starting right field job come 2015.

Russell Martin.  Other than McCutchen, this is the position player the Pirates can least afford to lose to injury.

Do I really need to add anything to that?  Martin performed so well this year, that he will no doubt be the one free agent most in demand on the open market this season.  How the Pirates respond in attempting to retain him will be one of the big stories of the hot stove season.

Gerrit Cole.  I just think that this guy to be the best pitcher to come up through the Pirates farm system since Bob Friend.  He's big, he's mean, and in the last month of 2013 he was easily the team's best pitcher.  I just can't wait to watch him pitch every fifth day.

A couple of stints on the DL limited Cole's season long performance, but down the September stretch drive, Cole was dominant and everything that everyone hoped he would be.

Neal Huntington.  I am certain that no one is more aware of the Pirates most glaring weakness, the hole at first base, than is the GM.  How NH goes about addressing that as the season wears on will be interesting to watch.  I've long been critical of Huntington, and his ability to spread the b.s. in some of his statements to the public continue to drive me nuts, but he bought himself, and his "Plan", a lot of credibility last year, and his maneuverings at the trade deadlines were textbook.  How he does around July 31 and August 31 this year if the team is in the same position will be, again, critical to the success of the team.

As always, Huntington was the center of much discussion throughout the season.  As we all know by now, NH did NOTHING at either the July 31 or August 31 trade deadlines.  No trades, and his "in the end, the best deal was no deal" was a quote that was used to torch him, but in the end, it looks like he was right.  The Pirates are in the post-season, while other teams that made splashy deals are not.  

Okay, not bad as far as crystal ball gazing goes, but what about the other side of the ledger?  Here was another on my names to watch:

A.J. Burnett, or rather the absence of A.J. Burnett.  He was at worst the number two starter on the staff, and he is being replaced by a combination of Edinson Volquez, the coming-off-of-injury Wandy Rodriguez, Jeff Locke, and Jameson Taillon, who is now nursing a tender elbow of his own. How this plays out could be the key to the Pirates season.

Burnett was discussed so often by so many people that you would have thought he was still on the team, and there were people, including possibly Burnett himself, who thought that the Bucs should trade to Philadelphia to bring him back at the deadline.  Burnett ended up losing 18 games in Philly.  As for those other guys, Rodriguez failed utterly and was released.  Taillon underwent Tommy John surgery and maybe we'll see him in Pittsburgh in 2016.  Locke went back to the minors, was recalled midway in the season and had some good and bad moments.  The jury is still out on him, but there are more reasons to be optimistic about him than not. Volquez stunk with a capital "S" in spring training, had an ERA over 11.00, and Huntington was being excoriated for wasting $5 million on this bum.  He ended up leading the team in wins and will be getting the ball in the Wild Card game tomorrow night, and no one is complaining about it.

No mention was made of Tony Watson or Mark Melancon, and who even saw Vance Worley, let alone John Holdzcom, when gazing into the future back in March?

Oh, and there was one name I never mentioned at all.  Josh Harrison, and he turned out to be the story of the year for the Pirates.  When he was thought of at all, it was as the "25th guy on the roster", and okay utility guy, but if he was starting for you, well, you were in a lot of trouble.  When the right field position wasn't producing, Harrison played there and hit, when Starling Marte was slumping or injured, Harrison played in left and hit, and when Pedro Alvarez' season completely unravelled, Harrison took over and became the everyday third baseman.  He made the All-Star team, challenged for the NL batting title up until the last game of the season, and he will get votes, deservedly so, for the MVP award.

So I never saw the J-Hay Express coming, but do you want to tell me that YOU did?

Now it's on to the Post-Season.  A one game playoff is a pure crap shoot, and anything can happen.  If the Pirates get past the Giants, I think they have a shot against the Nationals.  After that, well, we'll just see what happens.

However, any way you look at it, it was another terrific season.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Morning Sporting Thoughts

Some thoughts and comments on the Sports Scene on a Sunday morning....

When Pitt lost to Iowa last week after an almost dominant first half gave them a solid lead, well, you could say that that was tough loss for the Panthers.  When Pitt, a twenty point favorite, lost 21-10 yesterday to the University of Akron, and appeared listless and uninterested throughout the game, well, there is only one word for it: BAD.   As in, that was a really BAD loss for the Panthers.

The good news is that Pitt is still undefeated, 1-0, in the ACC.  No one expects them to run the table in conference play, but they had better not have any more awful performance like yesterday's over the remainder of the season.


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In the game story in today's Post-Gazette, this quote fairly jumped off the page and smacked me in the face:

"We don't play for the fans," Pitt wide receiver Manasseh Garner said. "We play for each other and for our families. That's one of the big things the coaches say, and I firmly believe that. The fans are with us when we win and sometimes they're against us when we lose, so we're definitely not playing for the fans."
Now, Garner is a kid and can be excused, I suppose, for saying something stupid, but the young man needs to learn a lesson that every college student needs to learn: Never, ever publicly criticize the paying customers.  That is bad, very bad, for business.  And if the Pitt coaches are teaching that, then perhaps THEIR bosses need to  impart the same lesson the them.
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The Pirates will play their 162nd and, maybe, final game of he regular season today and they STILL have a chance to win the NL Central Division crown.  What a season and what a month of September this has been for the Pirates.  I will be writing a more complete wrap-up on the Bucs' regular season once it officially ends, but for now, all I will say is Fabulous Job, and I can't wait for the Playoffs!
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Back to Pitt football.  
Akron brought its marching band to Heinz Field yesterday, and since Marching Bands are part and parcel to the Pageantry of College Football, it was fun to see them and hear them perform.  However, a big Bronx cheer goes out to the University of Pittsburgh for dispatching the Akron band to the upper deck of the north end-zone at Heinz Field.  It took the band the better part of a quarter to get to their seats and then get back to the field.  In a stadium that was only  - and I am being generous here - half filled, do you mean to tell me that the that University couldn't have found space for the visiting school's band in the lower bowl of Heinz Field?  I mean....

Oh and by the way, the only thing keeping me from presenting an H.A. Citation over this is the fact that I don't know exactly who gets the full blame for this rather unsportsman-like act.

********

The Steelers, sitting at 2-1, face a game today with the God-awful Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  This figures to be an easy win for the Steelers, but, at the same time, nothing that the Steelers have done yet has inspired the populace to start planning for Black and Gold themed Super Bowl parties.  Add to this steaming little bouillabaisse the fact that the team's already suspect defense has already been so decimated by injuries and, dare I say it, ineptitude, that they have signed ancient Brett Keisel and lured similarly ancient James Harrison out of retirement (and rumor has it that Joe Greene has started working out seriously down in Texas, just in case), well, no game can be taken for granted.  The Steelers not only need to win today, I think that they need to make a statement today in so doing.

********
On a  more serious note concerning Joe Greene, if you have not yet seen the NFL Network's documentary on Greene, you really need to do so.  Not sure when or if the Network will be rerunning it, but it is an absolutely terrific look on the Greatest Steeler of Them All.

To Absent Friends - Sally Kalson, Bob Kasperik

Melancholy Happy Trails go out today to two Absent Friends....


First, long-time Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist and reporter Sally Kalson died on Friday at the age of 63, a victim of ovarian cancer.

A liberal voice at the PG and in the community, Ms. Kalson's Sunday column was must reading, not only for what she had to say, but for her general observations about life and the world around us.  One such column from 2012, about her daughter's graduation from college, was chosen by the PG to be reprinted in her traditional Sunday spot on the Op-Ed page today in tribute to her.  Read it, please.

Not that I always agreed with her, mind you.  I vividly recall a column she wrote in about 1990 or so where she ripped Blue Cross of Western Pennsylvania over some customer service issue.  That particular column caused quite a bit of consternation among those of us who had to represent Blue Cross to its clients and the public.  She more than made up for whatever headache she gave the Blues in more recent years with her columns that excoriated UPMC Health Plan and how it has chosen to represent the public's greater interests.

Sally Kalson's voice will be missed.

*******

I first got to know Bob Kasperik as a voice on the radio with a couple of other guys who did weekly trivia shows on the old Doug Hoerth radio show.  In 2001, I met one of those guys, Jim Haller, a fellow SABR member, and in more recent years, through the magic of Facebook, I got to know Bob Kasperik, and even thought we never met face-to-face, I came to consider him a friend throughout the many "conversations" that we had on Facebook.  Bob died the past Thursday at the age of 68

You can check out his death notice in both the Post-Gazette and the Tribune Review today to learn all about all that Bob has contributed to to his schools, St. Vincent Prep and Duquesne University, about how he served his community, Derry in Westmoreland County, for over forty years as a pharmacist, and the large and loving family he leaves behind.

I am going to miss all those knowledgeable, caustic, and humorous comments that he had to make over the years about the Pirates, Steelers, and Duquesne basketball, as well as the comments on popular culture, particularly old time and current rock and roll.

I am sorry that I never actually got to meet Bob, but I am very grateful to Facebook for exposing me to such a terrific guy.

RIP Sally Kalson and Bob Kasperik.


Thursday, September 25, 2014

"The Roosevelts"


I hope that you are all watching, or have already watched, PBS latest documentary from Ken Burns, "The Roosevelts, An Intimate History".   Like much of Burns' work, this is a massive effort - a fourteen hour film broadcast over seven nights.  The show ran from September 14-20 on PBS.  With one exception, I was unable to see any of it when it actually aired, so we are relying on the DVR to watch this one.

So far, we have seen episodes One through Four, and I did cheat a bit and watched the last hour of the final episode last Saturday night.  We are hoping to wrap up seeing the entire series by the end of this week.

It is a very, very good series.  If you are into American history, and Presidential history in particular, it really is a must see event for you.  I look forward to attaching this series in full, but I will leave you with these few impressions so far:

  • The series made me realize how little I actually knew about Theodore Roosevelt.  His accomplishments as President are amazing, and he is one guy to whom the cliche "larger than life" can appropriately be applied.
  • Many of the elements that we attach to the modern notion of the Presidency began with Teddy Roosevelt.
  • The series spends a great deal of time discussing the period of FDR's life when he contracted polio.  He was between political jobs at the time, and was considered the front runner for the Democratic nomination for President in 1924.  That didn't happen, as we know, but how he dealt with his diagnosis, and his attempts at rehabilitation were covered in great depth.  His association with the mineral waters in Warm Springs, GA and his work with other polio victims were amazing to me.  Heroic, really.
The show triggered a long forgotten memory of mine.  It was 1962.  We were sitting in our living room one evening, probably watching TV, and my mother was upstairs with the radio on.  At one point she yelled down the stairs to my Dad  "Frank, Eleanor died."  No last name was needed.  After watching the series, it became so obvious to me how the single name, and the woman herself, resonated with people of my parents generation.

Great series.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Movie Review - "This Is Where I Leave You"

As I mentioned in the preceding post, we made our way to the new Cinemark Movie theater Complex in McCandless this afternoon and took in the movie "This Is Where I Leave You".  The movie is based on novel by Jonathan Topper, and is about a family who is called together by their mother to sit shiva for their recently deceased father.

I had read this book back in 2012, and, well, you never know how a book will translate to the big screen, but we both really enjoyed this story about this somewhat dysfunctional family drawn together under such  circumstances.

The movie stars Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, and Jane Fonda.  Each of them, as well as the rest of the cast are very good in this movie.  This is a terrific family story - funny, sad, touching, and sentimental.  

Well worth seeing.

And for what it is worth, this is what I wrote about the Topper novel back in 2012:

http://grandstander.blogspot.com/2012/08/book-review-this-is-where-i-leave-you.html



FINALLY - A New Movie Theater in the North Hills

You don't have to know me all that well to know that one of the hot button topics upon which I have kvetched for years has been the lack of a decent movie theater in the North Hills suburbs of Pittsburgh.  All that we movie going denizens of the North Hills have had available to us is the dumpy Rave Cinemas on McKnight Road which opened sometime during the Carter Administration.  Since that time, state-of-the-art movie theaters have opened all over Allegheny County - you know, digital projection, HD screens, surround-sound, cup holders in the seats - but to enjoy those amenities, North Hills residents needed to get in the car and drive 30-40 minutes to the Cinemark in Robinson Township, or even - gasp!! -  drive all the way to the SOUTH HILLS to see a movie in 21st century comfort.

Well, all that changed this weekend with the appearance elf this bad boy on the North Hill landscape:


Yes, Cinemark has finally opened it's newest movie palace in the new McCandless Crossing  retail/residential development.  Twelve separate theaters with digital projection, stadium seating, and all the other amenities that movie goers in the second decade of the 21st century have come to expect.

Mrs. Grandstander and I toddled on out there this afternoon for our first look at this long-awaited venue.  It is not as big as the Cinemark Multi-plex in Robinson, but it has all that that place has going for it.  It is going to be really nice to be able to attend movies in comfort and style and only have to drive about ten minutes to get there.

One thing that this venue has that the Cinemark in Robinson does not have is a bar.  Yeah, you read that correctly, a bar.  Honestly now, is it really necessary to be able to serve beer, wine, and cocktails in a movie theater?   Here's hoping that the movie going experience doesn't descend to the level of going to a Steelers game or an evening on Carson Street.  Still, since most of the movies we attend are on weekday afternoons, I'm figuring we won't be the ones who will be dealing with that particular problem.  I should note that today, when we arrived for a 1:15 matinee, there were indeed people lined up at the bar.  

The only other nit that I will pick here is that the parking seems to be a bit tight in the McCandless Crossing parking lot, and that this problem figures to be exacerbated once more and more of the development's stores and restaurants are completed and opened for business.

All in all, though, welcome to the North Hills, Cinemark!  Your arrival is long overdue!

Friday, September 19, 2014

To Absent Friends - Anna Mae Gorman Lindberg


The Post-Gazette reports today the obituary of one Anna Mae Gorman Lindberg this past week at the age of 98.  Who is Anna Mae Gorman Lindberg you may ask, and it is a question that not many would low off the top of their heads, but I have an interesting, if somewhat tenuous, family tie to Mrs. Lindberg.

As a 16 year old girl from Munhall, PA, Anna Mae Gorman and another Munhall teenager, Lenore Kite, were members of the 1932 USA Olympic swimming team.  Both of these young ladies learned to swim and trained at the swimming pool that was - and still is - located inside the Carnegie Library in Homestead.  

The family tie? Well, another young teen-aged girl who swam with Miss Gorman and Miss Kite was one Miss Ruth Madden, also of Munhall, PA.  Yes, the same Ruth Madden who married "city man" Frank Sproule in 1938, and became the mother of five children, including, in 1951, The Grandstander himself!  All my life I heard stories from my Mom and Dad about how she, my mother, learned to swim alongside these two Munhall Olympians.

Anna Mae Gorman, Lenore Kite, and others from that Homestead Carnegie Library swimming pool are immortalized with an exhibit in the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center.  Alas, Ruthie Madden is not included in the exhibit, as she never got much beyond being a recreational swimmer, but whenever I conduct a tour through the Sports Museum and see the pictures of Miss Gorman and Miss Kite, I do get a particular sense of pride, knowing that there are only two degrees of separation between these Olympians and me.

RIP Anna Mae Gorman Lindberg.