Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Pirates Are On TV Today!


It has occurred to me that The Grandstander has been somewhat silent on the subject of the Pirates this off season, an off season in which the Pirates, I believe, did fairly well for themselves.  Well, as the headline mentions, the Bucs' opening Grapefruit League game this afternoon against the Blue Jays will be televised on the MLB Network today, so I suppose it's time to throw out the first (blog) pitch of the season.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing to watch this spring training will be the development and deployment of this guy, Korean League hot shot Jung Ho Kang.


You know the story.  The Pirates posted $5 million dollars to the Korean Baseball League just to have the rights to try to sign Kang, and then signed him to a multi-year contract that will pay him another $5 million.  (The very idea of the Pirates doing a deal such as this would have been positively unimaginable four or five years ago.  Kang may or may not work out for the Pirates, but the team should be applauded for this outside-the-box approach in securing talent for the major league team.)  Kang was short stop in Korea and that is where he will begin as a Pirate, but the team also indicated that they will try him out at first, second, and third base during the spring.

This raises the following questions:

  • What happens to Jordy Mercer?  I can't imagine Mercer losing the SS job, but if he starts out in 2015 like he did in 2014, when he was hitting below .200 one month into the season....
  • Was the 2014 performance of Josh Harrison an aberration or the real deal?  That is one of the big questions going into this season in my mind, and it seems, the team's as well.  If Harrison continues this year as he did last year, great, but if not, the team needs a Plan B, and it obviously isn't Pedro Alvarez at third.  Which leads us to perhaps the biggest question of the 2015 season....
  • Pedro Alvarez at first base.  Can he adapt to the new position?  I don't think that that will be the issue.  I'm not saying that playing first base in the major leagues is easy, but let's face it, we've all seen a lot of butchers playing the position over the years.  The question is, will Pedro return to hitting 30+ home runs and driving in 100+ runs this season.  If he can do that, you won't be seeing Jung Ho Kang or any one else with a first baseman's mitt any time soon.
  • The signing of Kang also makes it clear that the Pirates do not expect to have Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez after they reach free agent eligibility.  That is a topic that deserves an entirely separate Grandstander post some other day.
  • And, of course, the biggest question of all:  Will the ability that Kang showed in the Korean League (40 HR power, which the Pirates are not expecting) translate to being a solid Major League ball player? As I said, it will be one of the more intriguing stories of spring training and on into the season.
Gone from the team this year are Ike Davis, Gaby Sanchez, and Travis Snyder.  New to the team are free agent signees Corey Hart and Sean Rodriguez.  Hart will be called upon to spell Alvarez at 1B, and Rodriguez will be an spare infielder and pinch hitter.  I believe that these are solid additions to the team.  Remember, these guys are being signed as bench players.  Five years ago, they would have been signed as starters.  How far this team has come.

I believe that Snyder will be missed as the fourth outfielder and a pinch hitter.  The outfield of Marte-McCutchen-Polanco is set and could be one of the best in all of MLB, so crying about who will be the fourth outfielder is yet another sign of how far the team has come.  That role will be up for grabs and among those competing for it will be Jose Tabata and Andrew Lambo.  It could be the last time around for each of these guys as far as being Pirates is concerned.

Also missing this year is catcher Russell Martin, and no doubt about it, this is a loss that will be difficult to fill.  The team is banking on newly acquired Francisco Cervelli staying healthy for 130-140 games this years, something that Cervelli has never been able to do in his career.  There are few questions about the Pirates everyday line-up, but there is no denying that there is a Big Question behind the dish for them.

The biggest question about the Pirates pitching is which one of the six starters -  Cole, Liriano, Burnett, Morton, Locke, and Worley - will not make the five man rotation.  Nice problem to have.

Lots of reasons to be optimistic about the 2015 Pirates, and it all begins this afternoon against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Let's Go Bucs!

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Reviews: "The Girl On The Train" and "Motive"

In addition to watching a lot of television of late, the cold and snow has also been conducive to reading.  Need to curl up for a few hours with a good book?  Try these....

If you check out the best seller list in the Sunday paper every week, you will have seen this novel, "The Girl On The Train", sitting at Number One for the past several weeks.

The book begins with the first person account of Rachel Watson, the girl on the train, as she rides her commuter train into London one summer morning.  Each morning Rachel's train stops along the back yards of several houses that run alongside the tracks, and Rachel fantasizes about the residents that she sees each morning in two particular houses.  Harmless daydreaming?  Maybe for most people, but not for long for Rachel.

We also soon learn that Rachel drinks. Heavily, and this creates some problems for her.  We also soon meet two of the women who live in those houses, Megan and Anna, who tell their first person stories in alternating chapters.

Also involved in the unfolding drama are husbands and ex-husbands, an infant child, a psychiatrist, a couple of police detectives, and one of the women disappears.

Sounds confusing, but once you get into the rhythm of the novel, it moves quickly, and you find yourself involved in one pretty nifty thriller.  It is reminiscent of "Gone Girl", but the characters, most of them, anyway, are much more sympathetic.  Makes you look forward to Paula Hawkins' next book.

Marilyn and I both read this one, and we both recommend it highly.

********

Every winter also brings about the publication of a new Jonathan Kellerman novel featuring his signature character, Dr. Alex Delaware, a psychiatrist who serves as a consultant to the Los Angeles Police Department, working hand in hand with homicide detective Lt Milo Sturgis.

Like a lot of series, the Delaware stories may have slipped into "formula", but so what?  They are always tense, and they are extremely well written.  Kellerman can write dialogue better than just about any other author in this field.

"Motive" begins with Milo stumped by a particularly brutal killing of a young woman in LA.  There are few leads, and the ones that there are end up going nowhere. This is a case that seems destined for the cold case file as  "unsolved".

A few weeks later, Milo is called out on another homicide, seemingly unrelated, but there is one disturbing similarity to the one that stumped him a few weeks earlier.  Is there a serial killer on the loose?  Milo calls in Alex for assistance, and the fun - for the reader, anyway - begins.

As I say, it is always fun to read the latest adventures from a favorite author about characters that you have come to know over the years, and in "Motive", Kellerman and Delaware have come up with another good story for their fans.

Monday, February 23, 2015

"Birdman" Soars on Oscar Night

The big winner at the Academy Awards last night was, of course, "Birdman".  Winning four biggies - Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and the biggest of all, Best Picture.

We finally saw "Birdman" on Saturday night through the magic of OnDemand. It was interesting, and it certainly was different, filmed in a unique manner, and the performances by the actors were quite good, but Best Picture?  I'm not so sure.

Of course, as I mentioned in a post the other day, I had only seen two other of the Best Picture nominees, "Grand Budapest Hotel" and "The Imitation Game", so who am I to offer a judgement of the relative merits of "Birdman" compared to the other seven nominees, but here's one yardstick that I use in judging a movie: How likely am I to  watch this movie over and over again as the years roll by?  Using that standard, I can honestly say that I will probably watch "The Imitation Game" several times as we go forward, but I am not sure if I will ever go out of my way to see "Birdman" again. Once was enough.

(Interestingly enough, I made a Facebook post on Saturday night expressing these sentiments about "Birdman", and it generated a moderate number of comments, about 75% of them leaning towards my point of view, for whatever that might be worth.)

The Oscar winning director of this movie, Alejandro Inarritu, in accepting his award, said, and I am paraphrasing here, that the test of time will be the ultimate judge of what the Best Movie of 2014 really was, but for this moment in time, it's "Birdman", so congratulations to all concerned.

A note on that "test of time" notion.  The Best Pictures of 1995 and 1997 were "Forrest Gump" and "The English Patient".  In those years, two of the movies that "lost" the Oscar were "Shawshank Redemption" in 1995 and "Fargo" in 1997. Of those four movies, which two would you rather watch if given the choice today?

As for the Oscar show itself....

  • I thought Neil Patrick Harris did a good job as host.  After the opening number, the host's job is to just keep things moving and introduce the next presenters.  I thought his opening number was quite good, and he did as much as can be expected in his role as traffic cop in keeping the show moving.
  • Even thought I didn't see their performances - yet - I was glad to see Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette, and J.K Simmons take home the Oscar.
  • I am sure that Eddie Redmayne was deserving of his Best Actor Oscar, but I was sorry to see that Pittsburgh guy Michael Keaton did not get the nod.  One question to which we may never know the answer - if he had won, would Keaton have taken the gum out of his mouth that he was chewing all evening when he made his acceptance speech?
  • How awesome was Lady Gaga in that "Sound of Music" tribute?  People have long said that Lady Gaga is not a gimmick, but a serious musical talent, and she proved it last night.  Tremendous performance. 
  • And having Julie Andrews come out right after that number was terrific, perhaps the best moment of the night.
  • How about John Travolta?  He was good sport in taking a beating for his mispronunciation of Idina Menzel's name last year, but WHAT HAS HE DONE TO HIMSELF?  Another Hollywood poster boy for Plastic Surgery Gone Wrong.
  • The Neil Patrick Harris "Oscar Predictions in a Locked Briefcase" gimmick went on way too long, perhaps, but, tell me, how exactly did they do that?
I will conclude with another comment on "Birdman".  One thing I did like about it was seeing the divide that exists between Broadway and Hollywood, and the perception among actors and critics as to which is the "more important" art form.  In one scene, the New York Times critic contemptuously tells Riggan Thomson (Keaton) that "you're not an actor; you're a celebrity".  Great line, but not a new one.  In the fabulous 1982 movie "My Favorite Year" screen star Alan Swan, played by Peter O'Toole, has an anxiety attack when he realizes that he will be appearing on LIVE television. In the course of his panic he screams out, "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star."  One of the great lines in movie that as full of them.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oscar Thoughts

Regular readers may have noticed that I have been silent on this year's Academy Awards, and, in fact, I am much more detached from the ceremonies this year than in past years.  There are couple of reasons for that.  

First, the announcement of the nominations came out when we were on our vacation in Hawaii last month, so I wasn't paying a whole lot of attention.

Secondly, and more to the point, I have seen very few of the nominated movies and performances this year.  I have seen only two of the Best Picture nominees, "Grand Budapest Hotel" and "The Imitation Game", only three of the ten acting nominees, Benedict Cumberbatch,  Rosamund Pike, and Kiera Knightly, and only one of the movies with a Best Director nomination, "Grand Budapest Hotel" for Wes Anderson.  Based upon what I have read, none of these nominees will take home an Oscar tomorrow.

So, going on the theory that an uninformed opinion is worse than no opinion at all, I am going to forgo my traditional Oscar Predictions this year.  Be still your hearts.

I will be watching the show tomorrow, and I will be pulling for Michael Keaton ("Pittsburgh's and Montour High School's own!") to win the Best Actor Award, and I will no doubt have some thoughts on the whole proceedings come Monday.




Some Baseball Thoughts...and One Football Thought


Spring Training camps have opened across Florida and Arizona this past week, so how about a couple of baseball thoughts and a cold and very snowy Pittsburgh morning?

Major League Baseball is very much in the news today because of procedures that will be implemented this season aimed at increasing the pace of play, which will eliminate some dead time in the course of a game, and, perhaps, shorten the average length of time it takes to play a major league game these days.  Personally, I am all for these changes, but, predictably, people who just want to take shots at whomever a sport's commissioner happens to be at any given time, and so-called Baseball Purists, are outraged.

"Baseball is the only game without a time clock.  You just can't DO this.",  seems to be a common response.

First of all, no one is suggesting this:


Baseball is still a nine inning game.  A team will still have to record 27 outs to win a ballgame.  No one is proposing four fifteen minute quarters or three thirty minute periods for baseball.  Strictly enforcing the time between innings, requiring that a pitch be delivered in a certain amount of time, and, most importantly, not allowing the batter to step out of the box after every pitch to readjust their batting gloves and protective cups, and eliminating the slow stroll by a manager while his bench coach decides if a replay challenge should be requested....these measures ARE NOT PUTTING A TIME CLOCK IN BASEBALL.

Will these measure reduce a 3 hour and twenty minute game to 2 hours and forty minutes?  Not likely, but even a three hour plus game will not SEEM that long, if there is not so much interminable dead time in game.

********

In an move that is also no doubt related to the length of time it takes to play a ball game, the Cleveland Indians have announced that their home night games (not sure if it is all night games or just the Monday through Thursday games) this season will start at 6:10 PM, instead of 7:05.  In a town where the ball park is located in the downtown business district, this will be an interesting experiment.

Recalling the days when I was working, I can say for sure that I would have stayed in town after the work day ended at 5:00 and walked across the Clemente Bridge for a 6:00 game a lot more times than I ever left work, drove back home, changed clothes, and drove back into town for a ball game.

Plus, these games will end, give or take, sometime between 9:00 and 9:30, which is a big difference than between 10:00 and 10:30 to someone whose alarm will be going off at 5:30 the next morning.

I am guessing that a lot of teams, including the Pirates, will be paying attention to this experiment in Cleveland throughput this season.

********

And now to football....

Speaking of Cleveland, is there a more dysfunctional franchise in all of professional sports than the Cleveland Browns?

Just this week, GM Larry Farmer, when he was not fessing up to illegally texting his coaching staff during games, announced that the Browns will strongly consider drafting a quarterback early, if not in the first round, of the upcoming draft. The is coming on the heels of the fiasco that was the Johnny Manziel experiment this past season, and on the heels of the news that QB Brian Hoyer, who has had a winning record as the Browns' QB, by the way, will not be re-signed by the team.  ( It should be noted that in the sixteen seasons since the Browns rejoined the NFL, they have started twenty-two [22!] different guys at QB.)

All of this is overseen by owner Jimmy Haslim, who was, briefly, a minority owner of the Steelers.  Neutral observers always will tell you that the Steelers are one of the NFL's model franchises in the operation of their team.  Either Haslim never hung around the office to see how things were done, or he wasn't paying attention when he was there, during his time with the Steelers.  He appears to be cut from the Dan Snyder Cloth, just another rich guy with a shiny toy who gets to hang out with real football players.

Too bad for the loyal fans in Cleveland.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Some Thoughts on Television.....

So, what else do you do when it snows to beat hell and the temperatures are in single digits or sub-zero?  You watch a lot of TV, that's what......



Through the magic of the DVR, we finally finished watching the 3 and 1/2 self-congratulatory Saturday Night Live special that NBC aired this past Sunday night.  Based on the comments on Facebook while the show aired, I know that I am going to be at odds with a lot of folks, but that show could have been squeezed into ninety minutes, two hours, tops.  I have long maintained that the humor of SNL is generational.  My parents didn't "get" Chevy Chase, Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi et al, and I never quite got people like Chris Farley, Adam Sandberg and people of that ilk, but that's okay.

As for the show on Sunday, I liked the Jeopardy sketch, the Wayne's World sketch, some, not all, of the Weekend Update stuff, the tribute to those who died, including the item about Generalissimo Francisco Franco, Paul Simon, and seeing some of the original cast members.

And the jokes about not being able to read the cue cards, which EVERYBODY made, got old after the second person did it.


Last weekend we did a major Binge Watch of Seasons Four and Five of HBO's terrific "Boardwalk Empire".  What an great series that was.  The short, eight episode fifth and final season did a fantastic job of bringing the entire story full circle, and it led to an absolutely perfect conclusion.

If you like crime dramas, and haven't seen this show, then do whatever you can...buy/rent/borrow the DVD sets, go to Netflix, OnDemand, or stream in some fashion, but watch this series.


Golf Channel is now three episodes in to its current season, "Big Break, The Palm Beaches FL".  Men only contestants this time.  No one yet has stood out as a "villain" in the show, as Anthony Quesada and Mary Narcisi had in past seasons, so there is no one to really root against as yet.  The guy that I am sure that the producers want to go all the way is Chad Pfiefer, and Iraqi war vet who is an amputee with a leg prosthesis.  In truth, Chad is not as good a golfer as most of the others, so I can't see him hanging in there for too long, but he has already been to two elimination challenges and sent three other contestants packing, so who knows?

From a local perspective, one of the contestants if Robert Rohanna of Waynesburg, PA.

If you've read the agate type in the Pittsburgh sports pages over the years, you know his name.  A local professional who represents Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, he has kicked around the mini-tours, and he seems to be a likable guy. Also, he is seen in some clips on the show wearing an Andrew McCutchen tee shirt.  So, Let's Go Robert!


CBS has decided to do a reboot of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple".  As TV critic Rob Owen stated in the PG yesterday, Why?  The show premiered last night following "The Big Bang Theory", which should have given it a large audience, and it wasn't awful, but, again, why?  Why follow what was a classic TV series, which was based on a classic movie, which was based on the classic Simon play?  This one stars Matthew Perry of "Friends" as Oscar, and some guy named Thomas Lennon as Felix.  Perry is okay as Oscar, but Lennon's portrayal of Felix is so over the top that it is going to be hard to take on a regular basis, I think.

At least two of the lines in last night's episode were direct lifts from the original Simon play.  So give Perry, who had the writing credit for this episode, some props for sticking with the original.


Watched an episode of "Fantasy Island" on wine of those "classic TV only" cable stations on Wednesday night.  Hey, I told you we were getting desperate.  Anyway, this show was circa 1978, and it hit the perfect trifecta of TV Awfulness: bad acting, bad writing, bad editing.  Can't believe that was regular television viewing for us back in Seventies.  Makes you realize that television has indeed improved over the years, despite some of the dreck that still populates it.


Finally, and I know I'm a bit late on this one, but I guess that I must comment on Brian Williams.  You all know the story, so I won't restate it again, but when the news of his false heroics emerged, I knew at the time that this would not end well for him.  I feel bad, because, I liked Brian Williams at the NBC anchor desk.  The fact that he continued to repeat this story, and even embellish it over the course of ten years is what is so befuddling to me.  I am surprised, actually, that it took this long for this particular shoe to drop.

Williams is currently on a six month suspension form NBC.  I am sure that we will see him again on television, but not at a network anchor desk, and probably not on NBC.

Hubris strikes down another icon.  It is a story as old as time.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

To Absent Friends - Lesley Gore




Lesley Gore
1946-2015


Recording star Lesley Gore died of cancer yesterday at the way too young age of 68.

Miss Gore was a popular singer of the 1960's with hits such as "It's My Party", "Judy's Turn to Cry", and "Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows", and "You Don't Own Me."  "It's My Party" was a Number One hit when Lesley Gore was only 16 years old and a junior in high school.

Here is Ms. Gore performing her most famous hit:


RIP Lesley Gore.