Friday, April 23, 2010

Too Much of Nutting: Pirates Lose, 20-0

Having lived in Pittsburgh three times in my life, including one particularly great day in the crib listening to the radio when Bill Mazeroski hit his World Series-winning home run (so I'm informed by a reliable source), I remain a fascinated outside observer of the city's major sports franchises.

I stayed up last night to see the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins' well-fought, triple-overtime defeat at the hands of the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the playoffs. Nearly losing the team to bankruptcy and relocation several times in the team's history, Pittsburgh fans have thoroughly enjoyed the Penguins' 21st Century renaissance.

I'm ruefully following the sordid train-wreck of an off-field life of Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, with his motorcycle crash, barhopping misconduct, alleged assaults and improprieties, and now, a multiple-game league suspension. But frankly, I'm more interested in the long-term trajectory of the team's fortunes. Big Ben's shoestring tackle following a turnover saved one Super Bowl opportunity for Pittsburgh, and his perfectly placed touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes won another. Never mind that Roethlisberger is a risk-taking lunatic and Holmes is now history; the "Stillers" will always be intriguing.

Then, there's yesterday.

The Pittsburgh Pirates -- home to Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, and Manny Sanguillen; winner of National League pennants and World Series championships as recently as 1979 -- have now had a losing record in 21 consecutive seasons.

Yesterday, they capped off more than two decades of sub-.500 futility with a historically awful, 20-0 drubbing at the hands of the formerly awful, recently capable Milwaukee Brewers.

The Pirates players are reportedly angry and embarrassed. The front office, manager, and coaching staff are surely embarrassed. Ultimately, however, it's all about the ownership and its commitment, or lack thereof, to providing the financial resources for on-the-field success.

For the Penguins, former NHL superstar Mario Lemieux assumed a leadership role and parlayed an ownership share borne of unpaid back salary, a willingness to partner with moneyed interests, his dogged persistence through health problems and arena issues, and his status as franchise and league icon into a consistently successful, entertaining Stanley Cup winner. Around the NFL, the Rooney family is a highly regarded class act, and its stewardship of the Steelers has brought championships and cause for celebration to Pittsburgh.

In contrast, the Pirates' ownership group, led by the Nutting family, fields a persistently losing team with the lowest player payroll in Major League Baseball while remaining profitable due to large revenue-sharing sums from wealthy teams. That's a stick in the eye to the dwindling core of traditionalist fans that, along with casual scenery-seekers, constitutes the Pirates' fan base. Losing is no disgrace, but not even trying -- in this case, an indictment of the team's cynical, miserly ownership rather than its struggling, overmatched players -- is a travesty.

Supposedly, ownership and the front office have a 5-year plan to invest in minor league talent that will blossom into major league competence. That's a formula that worked recently for the Brewers, as Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Tony Gwynn, Jr., Ryan Braun and J.J. Hardy progressed through the ranks to the major league level. Time will tell whether the Nuttings and their front men in the front office will offer a hot prospect a groundbreaking, millionaire-making contract as the Brewers did with Weeks, but the signs are not promising; at least one recent top prospect, catcher Matt Wieters, was bypassed in the 2007 amateur draft by the Pirates as too expensive to sign. He's now the starting catcher for the Baltimore Orioles. And the beat goes on.

It makes me wonder whether Bud Selig's overriding powers as MLB Commissioner, which reputedly can be invoked at will for the good of the game, can be invoked to effect a much-needed change in the ownership of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Baseball in Pittsburgh has lost its way, but the solution is simple. It's time for Commissioner Selig and his fellow owners to kick the Nuttings out of the crib. The irony is that if they do, it will be the Pirates that can grow up.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day

Every person that you've ever known who is not, at this moment, either in outer space, flying, soaring, jumping, skipping, leaping, vaulting, performing a handspring, diving, falling, or dead is, at this moment, somewhere on the Earth.

Happy Earth Day.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Cheshire Cat, With Wings

Andrew Weiland of BizTimes Milwaukee posted an article today about the post-merger rebranding of Milwaukee-based Midwest Airlines as Frontier Airlines: "Only the Cookie Remains".

Midwest had some great amenities in its heyday as Midwest Express: 2x2 leather seating, enough legroom for actual human persons, and real meals featuring real food on real tablecloths. With direct flights that avoided an O'Hare connection, Midwest truly was, as the slogans went, "Milwaukee's Hometown Airline" offering "The Best Care in the Air."

It was a wonderful experience. Passengers were happy cats. Clearly, it couldn't last.

One by one, the amenities disappeared as airline price competition and a moribund travel economy, post-9/11, brought cost-cutting imperatives and forced Midwest to consider consolidation. The company's Board of Directors rebuffed a takeover bid from AirTran Airways, only to sell soon thereafter to Republic Airways, which had also bought Denver-based Frontier Airlines.

Everyone seems relieved that Midwest's fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies, customarily handed out to passengers during the descent, will continue to be part of the customer experience as the fleet is repainted in Frontier's colors. Really? Was it only about the cookies, all along?

The smile may remain, but this cat's disappeared. Like Grizabella, only time will tell if she has another life left in her.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hell's Bells: Trevor Hoffman Wins One

What do you do when your legendary bullpen ace falters? If you're the Milwaukee Brewers, you win the game anyway. If you're a Brewers fan, it's not so clear.

Sunday night's Brewers-Cardinals game at Miller Park was hugely entertaining for Milwaukee baseball enthusiasts, including my Beloved Spousal Unit and I, perched in the upper deck. Baseball's full range of action was on display: impressive power hitting, alert baserunning, an incredible, diving catch in the outfield, and both expert stops and game-changing errors in the infield.

By the time the overtaxed stadium speakers struck up "Hell's Bells" at peak volume as the Brewers' closer, future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman, trotted in from the bullpen, the hometown faithful were in a partying mood.

Only, not so fast. Giving up back-to-back homers to Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday -- what other pair of the game's best sluggers would be more likely to come through in the clutch? -- Hoffman closed out merely the half-inning, not the game. He left with a a 7-7 tie, a blown save, and a deflated crowd.

There were boos as he walked off, more than a few. For Trevor Hoffman. The Trevor Hoffman. With 594 career saves, the most in the history of the game. The veteran presence on the pitching staff. The player whose theme song alone whips the crowd into a frenzy.

But also, the Trevor Hoffman who had signed a new contract for a healthy raise early in the off-season, struggled all spring training, and has yet to find his "A"-game this April. Now, two of the game's best hitters take him deep in the ninth. Never mind that the Brewers' Casey McGehee made Hoffman the game's winning pitcher with a walk-off homer moments later. The question remains: is this the beginning of the end for one of the game's superstars?

Could be. But, fellow Milwaukeeans, knock it off with the booing. We're talking about Trevor Hoffman here. Not only is he crucial to our chances, but we're lucky to have the opportunity to watch him at his craft, even in his late career. This is why we bring Rembrandts to the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Milwaukee Public Museum, Eric Clapton to Summerfest, the Bratwurst to the Sausage Race.

We're trying to encourage the Brew Crew to win a ballgame, and we're disappointed when the team falls short some nights. But please, a little appreciation and respect for the great career and continuing efforts of a consummate professional. Enough with the booing. All things considered, I'd rather not be in Philadelphia.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

You Too Can Be a Golf Announcer

With the Masters underway, My Two Innings presents Ten Essential Phrases that will help even you achieve your lifelong dream of making a living by talking adoringly about people who walk around lawns for a living while other people carry their equipment for a living:

1. "He's got the courage of a champion."
2. "Not his best effort on that one."
3. "Now, Tiger Woods."
4. "Slight break from left to right."
5. "You can tell he's been working on the range."
6. "They all look good when they go in."
7. "He's got that look in his eye."
8. "It's amazing when you think of all the great champions who have walked across that bridge."
9. "That's in the fescue."
10. "Here's Tiger."

Using only these phrases in a carefully modulated stage whisper, and with the help of a long-suffering on-course reporter who knows the game better than you ever will, you too can earn that network blazer.


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