Posted in Baseball

‘Til Next Year…

Mr_Met1960s

What is there left to say?

Enough of the blaming, the hash and re-hash of dead bats, fielding bloopers, a feeble bull pen and questionable managerial decisions.

Thank you, my Mets, for a glorious August and September, an astonishing march to the World Series and the promise of many good things to come.

So let’s fire up that hot stove, debate who should stay, who should go and who we need to make it back to October baseball.

Let’s Go Mets!

Advertisements
Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Television

Brain Bits for October’s End

Mets postseason

November looms and here we are, playing the summer game into mid-autumn. There’s something very wrong with this picture.

Don’t get me wrong—I so dearly love my Mets, and I’m thrilled they made it to the World Series. It’s “pinch me” time. Whoever would have believed back in early July that The Team That Couldn’t Score Runs would beat the Dodgers in the Division Series and go on to take four straight from the Cubs for the pennant?

But certain thoughts still nag. By the time the World Series rolled around, I was exhausted. And it wasn’t just because I had tuned into almost every regular season Mets game and was somewhat worn out emotionally by the postseason. Ever since Major League Baseball added the second wild card, thus creating three rounds of postseason playoffs, the World Series has become almost anti-climactic. With inter-league play throughout the regular season, we’ve lost some of that “Wow!” factor in seeing an American League team face off against the National League champ. I suppose you could argue that differences in team composition—traditionally, bat-heavy American League vs. the pitching and speed of the National League teams—always make for interesting match-ups, but by the time the leaves begin to fall, the novelty is gone.

The hype also bothers me. Baseball is a day-in, day-out game over a six-month regular season. It’s not an Event like Sunday (now Monday and Thursday, too) pro football, though Fox Sports dearly want it to be so. Every time I hear what I’ve come to identify as “football music” during World Series telecasts, I want to scream (And for the record, I’m a New York Giants fan as well as a Mets fan—Go Big Blue!). The graphics, the tenor of the coverage (though the extra slo-mo cameras are superb), special guest appearances by two ace cheaters masquerading as commentators—Pete Rose on the pre-game show and Alex Rodriguez, during—and worst of all, Joe Buck, Mr. Vapid, who seems to be paid by the uttered word.

The World Series is now aimed less at the die-hard fan than at newbies hopping on the bandwagon. It’s somewhat like the current state of New York’s Broadway theater district—a pricey haven for tourists. But the true beauty of the game lies in watching a team grind it out during an entire 162-game season, seeing unheralded players become heroes while others end up in the doghouse and in general, witnessing what seems to be a lifetime of successes and failures, all between April and October.

The current postseason set-up undermines the nature of what has made baseball the game it is. It seems to serve one purpose only, and that’s to line the pockets of the select few. Major League Baseball and Fox Sports, certainly, but also the manufacturers and retailers of sports attire and memorabilia. Each stage of the Mets’ trip to the World Series has been marked by the Modell’s sporting goods chain’s promotion of new team t-shirts, hoodies, caps and what-have-you in men’s, women’s and kids’ sizes, all bearing legends such as:

“We Take the East”

“New York Wants It More”

“The Pennant Rises”

“World Series!”

Enough already. As the late George Carlin observed, “Baseball is pastoral. It’s a 19th century game.”

[But I can assure you I’ll be first in line at “Gotta Go To Mo’s!” to buy my 21st century “World Series Champs” sweatshirt when the Mets win!]

Homeland Carrie and Quinn
Brunette Carrie and Quinn on the Run

“Homeland” is back in a big way.

Season 5 may prove to be its best yet. The showrunners have wisely opted for a change of locale, departing the Middle East for intrigue in Berlin, two years post-Season 4. Having left the CIA, Carrie Mathison is surprisingly settled down with her German attorney boyfriend and her daughter Franny and working as head of security for Otto Düring, industrialist, philanthropist and, I suspect, something a bit more sinister. Because it’s Carrie, events go off the rails rather early on. An assassination attempt is made, seemingly on Düring, when he visits a refugee camp in Beirut on a humanitarian mission; in short order the true target is revealed to have been Carrie, who earlier had warned her boss against making the trip. She’s frighteningly on her own; Saul Berenson, her mentor, has disowned her for leaving the CIA.

But there’s so much more going on with “Homeland” this season: hackers inadvertently breaching the CIA database and downloading key documents; one altruistic hacker looking to play Edward Snowden by giving the documents gratis to a journalist, the other wanting to get rich by offering to sell the information to the Russians; Allison Carr, the CIA’s Bureau Chief in Berlin, on the hot seat for the data breach; Saul Berenson, now head of CIA operations in Europe, directing a one-man assassination bureau on behalf of the agency with Peter Quinn as the dedicated hit man; Dar Adal, now in Saul’s old slot at the CIA, pulling strings all the way from Washington to persuade a Syrian general to overthrow President Assad; and—surprise, surprise—Carrie going off her meds once more, this time to try to figure out who’s gunning for her.

It’s quite a stew.

All of this makes for a very tasty dish indeed. It’s wonderful to have Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) back. Oh, Quinn—how do I love thee? Having been blackmailed pressed back into service by Dar Adal only to endure two years in Syria, he’s a hollow shell of himself during the first few episodes of this season, as he robotically goes about his business eliminating enemies designated by the CIA. It’s not until he draws Carrie’s name as his next target that he returns to being the Peter Quinn we knew. Severely damaged? Yes, but still devastating—in a good way.

“Homeland” has a major genius for casting, and this season is no different. Miranda Otto, a stellar Elizabeth Bishop in “Reaching for the Moon,” expertly plays Allison Carr as one part ambitious CIA lifer, one part seductress (Oh, Saul, you dog!) and one part very shady lady. Each supporting actor is better than the next: Igal Naor as General Youssef, Allan Corduner as the Israeli ambassador, Atheer Adel as Numan, the idealistic hacker, Sarah Sokolovic as the reporter, Laura Sutton (it’s a measure of how effective her performance is that you want to throttle her) and Nina Hoss as Astrid, the sarcastic German security agent, whom I hope returns.

The storytelling is as taut as it can get. The wheels never stop turning. How “Homeland” was it to reveal two major plot twists in the last 30 seconds of the most recent episode? If you didn’t fall over when Allison Carr answered Quinn’s call on the dead assassin’s cell phone (and in Russian yet), the explosion of the plane carrying the CIA’s candidate to replace Assad should have made you do so.

I can’t wait to see where we go from here.

Posted in Baseball

A Team at Last

The New Face of the Franchise?
Jacob deGrom: The New Face of the Franchise?

The Mets are back.

The pitching’s been there all season, but it hit a new high with the recent emergence of Jacob deGrom, an unheralded righty with pinpoint control. For months other young Mets pitchers like Zach Wheeler and prospect Noah Syndergaard grabbed the lion’s share of attention (not to mention Matt Harvey’s Tommy John surgery). I had never even heard of deGrom until he was brought up to start in place of the injured Dillon Gee. What a lovely surprise.

After an inconsistent beginning, deGrom is now locked in. He and Giants starter Jake Peavy treated the CitiField crowd to the unheard-of experience of a double perfect game through six innings this past Saturday night, causing the TV announcers to scramble for their record books. Although deGrom yielded the first hit, the Mets made the roof cave in for Peavy in the bottom of the 7th, eventually winning the game 4-2. Even though they got their clock cleaned the next day 9-0, courtesy of Madison Bumgarner, they’re now a team to savor.

The pieces are coming together: Lucas Duda, Daniel Murphy, Juan Lagares (what a centerfielder!), Wilmer Flores and amazingly Travis d’Arnaud, who came back from his demotion to the minors a decent hitter with pop, plus the veterans David Wright and Curtis Granderson. This on top of what should be a great pitching staff next year when Matt Harvey returns. Yes, they still need a Big Bopper in the outfield, but that will happen.

It’s fun to be a Mets fan again!

Posted in Baseball, Observations, Opera

Lose One, Win One

Still Smarter Than AGMA and Local 802
Still Smarter Than AGMA and Local 802

This may turn out to be more deadly than the “Game of Thrones” Red Wedding.

Local 802 of the Musicians Union recently authorized a strike should an agreement not be reached with the Metropolitan Opera before current contracts expire on July 31. Unlike the choristers represented by the raucous American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), which has been rattling its saber for weeks, the musicians have been quiet until now.

Given the present state of affairs, it’s time for a tutorial from this Met subscriber whose hard-earned dollars have been paying their salaries since 1987. So all you unions, welcome to Auntie Betty’s parlor. Have a seat while I try to open your eyes to reality.

Contrary to your evident expectations, you’re not going to win the public relations war. Met General Manager Peter Gelb and his board aren’t dummies, so they won’t forsake the high road to lock you out, which is something I’m sure you’d dearly love (Martyrdom has its perks, I suppose). While the Minnesota Orchestra management had to learn the hard way from this mistake, you can rest assured the Met hierarchy was watching their every move and filing the public reaction away for future reference. This, in addition to the calm of Peter Gelb’s response to every hysterical pronouncement by AGMA, consistently casts the Met in the adult role as opposed to the unions’ acting like petulant teenagers.

You’re not fast food workers scraping by on minimum wage. While the employment paradigm in this country has shifted drastically to part-time and contract work, you’re full-time, permanent employees, a status that many of your audience members would kill for. So how much sympathy do you think you’re going to get when real wages in this country have been virtually frozen for decades and the cost of benefits is increasingly forced on employees? Unemployment in the New York metropolitan area remains high, to the extent that millions have ceased even looking for work, or haven’t you heard? The present economic picture results in less disposable income, which in turn means fewer Met tickets sold and fewer dollars donated (Let’s not forget the investments of the Big Wallets, i.e., the moneyed elite, were also hit by the 2008 economic upheaval. I see no evidence whatsoever that you’ve acknowledged this reality, but you better do so, pronto. Otherwise you’re not serving your membership.

I remember the Met strike of 1969-70, when half a season was lost, and opera lovers went through major withdrawal. Here’s a news flash: We won’t feel that level of pain this time should there be a strike. Why? We’ve got opera on DVD, Blu-ray, YouTube and countless sites on the interwebs, not to mention HD telecasts from around the world. Of course we’ll miss the excitement of the live experience, but we sure won’t be bereft.

Think about it.

________________________________________________________

Oh happy day!

The news broke this week that Saul Katz, business partner and brother-in-law ofMr_Met1960s Fred Wilpon, owner of the Mets, may be interested in selling his share. This would either make the Wilpons minority owners or force them to sell their interest in the team. Although Katz immediately denied the rumor, Mets fans took to the internet and social media to rejoice.

If ever a franchise needed new ideas and a cash infusion, it’s the Boys of Flushing, New York. Hit hard by the Madoff scandal (the Wilpons and the Madoffs had been friends for decades), the Mets have simply been out of the running for several years in the free agent market. They’ve been forced to settle for players like Chris Young and Curtis Granderson who, while able, are not what the Mets have a crying need for—a Big Bat. A Darryl Strawberry, a Gary Carter—someone who can deliver. Consistently. And be a colorful Super Star. For years the Mets have been as bland as skim milk. This is New York, for God’s sake! Strut your stuff.

At heart the Wilpons really seem to have wanted to own the Brooklyn Dodgers, not the New York Mets. While the new CitiField honored Dodger greats from Opening Day, the Wilpons didn’t even feature a Mets museum until the ballpark’s second season, and it was only then that the team’s retired numbers appeared on the outfield fences. With this plus a very disheartening team, is it any wonder that ticket sales have been diminishing year by year?

Financially speaking, the Mets have been a bottomless pit, and I suspect that had the Wilpons not been close friends of Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, they would have been forced to undergo some stringent financial scrutiny when the true extent of Bernie Madoff’s dealings became known, and perhaps even been forced to sell the team. It’s nice to have friends in high places.

Here’s hoping a sale happens ASAP. I don’t expect a World Series champ overnight, but I would like to see some consistently competent and maybe even (dare I hope?) occasionally exciting baseball played in Queens for an entire season. It’s a start.

________________________________________________________

R.I.P. Al Feldstein, the driving force behind Mad Magazine’s success and the father (?!?) of Alfred E. Neuman, this post’s headliner. At its peak, there was nothing better than to grab the latest issue and laugh like a fool over what “the usual gang of idiots” had cooked up that month. Good times.

 

 

Posted in Baseball, Observations

Neanderthal Mouths

ImageNormally I’d save this for a “Brain Bits” post, but since the expositors are patently brainless, the temptation is just too great. The (non) controversy? The Mets’ second baseman, Daniel Murphy, exercising his rights under Major League Baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement to take paternity leave for a maximum of three (3) games for the birth of his first child.

Why the controversy? The first game he missed was Opening Day.

The brainless Neanderthals with plenty of gas and zero gray matter? New York radio’s Mike Francesa and Boomer Esiason who have variously opined that (a) Murphy should NEVER have missed Opening Day (b) flying to Florida just for the birth would have been more than enough (c) maybe Mrs. Murphy should have had a C-section before the season started so hubby wouldn’t have missed Opening Day and so on, ad nauseum.

To which I reply: “What the hell business is it of yours?”

Both of these morons who unbelievably are paid seven figures and more to bloviate in this mode just demonstrated how ugly ugly can get. First of all, the Mets had no problem with Murphy’s absence—they have the quaint notion that contracts should be honored. And truth be told, will Murphy’s two-game absence prevent this stellar (ha!) team from winning the pennant? As a lifelong Mets fan, I can tell you that the answer to that one is a resounding NO.

Frankly I think more of Daniel Murphy for wanting to be with his wife at this time. He’ll have many more Opening Days, but the birth of a first child only happens once. It’s shameful that he has to put up with self-styled critics whose knuckles drag the ground as they walk. You have to wonder about the kind of men they truly are.

A bouquet to the Murphys and kudos to the Mets for sticking up for their player. Francesa and Esiason owe them all an apology.

Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Movie Reviews, Observations

Brain Bits for Late August

While the weather is spectacular and the sunlight has already turned that lovely golden color marking late summer, I’m all a-whimper watching the Mets get decimated by the Detroit Tigers. It’s like the mini-spacemen encountering Agnes Moorhead in that classic “Twilight Zone” episode—“They’re an incredible race of giants!” What a line-up, and with pitching to burn. I’d love to see Detroit cop it all in the post-season.

___________________________________________________

Beats Me, Too
Beats me, too

And while we’re on the subject of baseball, I don’t know how much Ryan Braun pays his attorneys and public relations people, but the mea culpa that was cranked out this week on his behalf sure says he isn’t getting value for his money.

Braun’s lengthy statement begs so many questions, it’s hard to know where to begin. If he took PEDs simply to recover from an injury, why didn’t he just man up, admit what he did and take a 50-game suspension two years ago? Instead, with manufactured outrage, he acted like a man with something major to hide, i.e,, long-term PED use. So he gambled that the specimen collector’s failure to return the sample in timely fashion would resonate with the arbitrator, and evidently hoped that once he beat the rap, everything would just go away. That’s either the magical thinking of a six year-old, or the game plan of an ace manipulator. Or acting like Richard Nixon.

And this section of his statement stuck out like a sore thumb: “I sincerely apologize to everybody involved in the arbitration process, including the collector, Dino Laurenzi, Jr.” Son, if you really want to make amends, why didn’t that read: “….especially the collector, Dino Laurenzi, Jr.” Given Braun’s past remarks about Laurenzi and his more recent accusations that the collector was both anti-Semitic and a Cubs fan, he should have done far more for the man whose reputation he so cynically impugned.

What a guy.

_____________________________________________________

“The crew is on instruments!”

HBO is showing “Airplane!” this month, which is not only cause for celebration but an excellent excuse to pop a beer, flake out in front of the tube and howl like a banshee.  For a comedy released in 1980, it holds up spectacularly—only one or two topical references (to Gerald Ford and a particular coffee commercial) may be lost on younger viewers.

But what a great, hysterical riot it still is. Even the sight of “Zero Hour,”its source material, on Turner Classic Movies, is enough to induce a major case of the giggles (This 1957 drama starring Dana Andrews, who plays a pilot named—yes—Ted Stryker, is so bad it’s already a parody).  “Airplane!” just never stops:

“Don’t call me Shirley!”

“Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?”

“Stewardess, I speak Jive”

“Auntie Em, it’s a twister!”

Not to mention the battling Girls Scouts, the X-rated seat-back signs, and what happens to the kid’s IV during the communal sing-along (best faces of all time). But I have to say the following is my favorite bit. It’s the departing slap from Leslie Nielsen that just seals the deal:

________________________________________________________

01N/07/ARVE/G2594/068

For people of my generation and older, the passing of Julie Harris is particularly poignant. Although she gave wonderful performances in now-classic films like “East of Eden” and “The Haunting,” for us her name was synonymous with “theater.”

I would have loved to have seen her on stage during the 1950’s, when she starred in “The Member of the Wedding.” “I am a Camera,” “The Lark,” and “The Country Wife,” among others. Fortunately some of her best work appeared on television—“Little Moon of Alban,” “A Doll’s House,” “The Belle of Amherst.” Her unique voice, which served her so well, made her perfectly cast as Mary Chestnut, one of the narrators in Ken Burns’ documentary series “The Civil War.”

I only saw her on stage once, in the comedy “Forty Carats,” when I was a teenager. The wonderful Murray Hamilton played her ex-husband, and even though this was the epitome of lightweight comedy, these two pros gave a virtual seminar on stage craft. Her comic timing and his ability to get the best out of a thrown away line turned a really brainless play into a memorable event.

A true artist. May she rest in peace.

Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for the Start of Summer

June 23rd. Two days after the equinox. Not only did the Big Moon show up, the Mets (!?!) are now playing decent baseball. Matt Harvey’s superior success, the arrival of Eric Young, Jr., Omar Quintanilla, and Juan Lagares, the special guest appearances of Zack Wheeler are all adding up to a team that not only I’m no longer embarrassed to watch—they’re great to see even when they lose. Yet another miracle of summer, the best part of the year.

_________________________________________________________________

I’m a Metropolitan Opera subscriber, yet I have to say that the most intense operatic performance I heard this season was not at that house but across the plaza at Avery Fisher Hall. Conductor Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic presented a concert version of Luigi Dallapicolla’s “Il Prigioniero” earlier this month, and I don’t think I breathed during the 50-minute duration of the work. Gerald Finley as the prisoner, Patricia Racette as his mother and Peter Hoare as the jailer were nothing short of superb, as were Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic. Bravissimi!

Gerald Finley and Alan Gilbert:
Gerald Finley and the New York Philharmonic: “Il Prigioniero”

Speaking of opera, it’s always an interesting proposition to consider how a particular production either honors a composer’s intentions or scrapes across the grain. A few weeks ago I experienced Willy Decker’s famous “red dress” version of “La Traviata” at the Met with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I enjoyed how he pared the opera down to its essence, yet I really questioned some of his choices. Dressing the chorus and supporting characters in black suits and ties? (Flora, Gastone, et al, sorry we somehow lost you in the crowd). Ditto taking the sole intermission after the first act (While “La Traviata” is among my top ten favorite operas, sitting through the rest of the work without a break made for an unnecessarily long evening). And having Violetta dying in a bleacher seat was ridiculous—the least Decker could have done was given that poor girl a divan.

Nevertheless, there were some arresting moments, especially the beginning of the final act when Violetta sees her fickle friends create another Girl of the Moment by clothing her in that red dress. Diana Damrau was quite good in the role, delivering perhaps the most eerie “È strano” imaginable at the conclusion of the opera. Placido Domingo continues his vanity tour as a baritone, and I wish to God he’d quit and leave these roles to singers who can really do them justice.

__________________________________________________________

Many months ago I made sure to get a ticket to the Met’s revival of “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” since only three performances were scheduled. What a marvel John Dexter’s production is—how spare, yet how it complements both the story as well as the music. This is one production both critics and audiences agree should not be replaced.

__________________________________________________________

James GandolfiniThere’s a particular type of sadness most of us feel when a talented actor dies, especially at a young age. No matter how accomplished he or she may be, or how honored in terms of Oscars or Golden Globes bestowed, there’s that sense of deprivation, of missing out on what might have been. This was especially true with the passing of Natasha Richardson several years ago. But with the untimely death of James Gandolfini, there’s more—we mourn not only what might have been, but what iconically was.

As the inimitable Tony Soprano, he had us from the get-go. Is there anyone who wasn’t charmed in the pilot of the show when Tony, noticing his shrink’s Italian surname on her diploma, smiled: “Melfi. What part of the boot you from, hon?” It was Gandolfini’s skill at his craft and his range as an actor that ultimately realized a character and a television show that clearly delineated the “before” and “after” in terms of adult drama. While he made Tony charming, he also with equal skill made him petty, ruthless, murderous, compassionate and confused—sometimes simultaneously.

Since Gandolfini’s death many lists of “Tony Soprano’s Best Moments” have appeared, but I couldn’t come up with a run-down like that no matter how I tried. Where do you start? Even more difficult, where do you end? His amusement at Silvio’s continual state of melt-down during the Big Game with Frank Sinatra, Jr.? His hammer and tongs confrontation with Carmela that ended in their separation (an advanced seminar in acting expertly taught by Gandolfini and Edie Falco and perhaps the most uncomfortable hour of drama ever televised)? His epic battles with Richie Aprile and Ralph Cifaretto, not to mention the way things ended with the latter (Pie-Oh-My indeed)? The horrific moment when he murdered Christopher? When “The Sopranos” aired, every episode was a showcase for both actor and character, to our delight and astonishment.

Gandolfini was set to star in a new HBO mini-series, “Criminal Justice,” in which he would have played a somewhat down-at-the-heels defense attorney. It would have been a good role for him and most likely would have demonstrated once and for all that he had more than Tony Soprano in his repertoire. But sadly, we’re left again with “might have been.”

Thank you, Mr. Gandolfini, and rest in peace.