Monday, September 30, 2013

The Bucs, the duck & playoff baseball in Pittsburgh

I’m becoming concerned that on October 21 Americans will wake up to headlines revealing crazed Pittsburgh Pirate fans have commandeered a four-story rubber duck and are refusing to let it depart.

Yes, I fear the Duckaneers. 

Western Pennsylvania is buzzing about ducks and Bucs.

The giant rubber duck showed up last week, two days after the Pirates clinched their first playoff spot in 21 years.


Of course, it is.

Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman certainly had no idea the Pirates were going to make the playoffs when he agreed last year to showcase the 40-foot high by 30-foot wide duck on the Allegheny River. I’d be surprised if Dutch artists followed MLB standings.

But what do I know? Maybe Hofman has Andrew McCutcheon on his fantasy team. I have no idea. “Dutch Artists” would be a show-killer category for me on “Jeopardy!”

In fact, the entire sum of my knowledge about Dutch artists is that one of them got famous by constructing giant rubber ducks, pretty much guaranteeing the rest of the Dutch artists who do things like paint still life bowls of fruit are resentfully killing themselves because they didn’t dream it up first.

The giant rubber ducks are an international sensation. Hofman has since 2007 displayed similar creations in France, Australia, Japan, Brazil and five other countries. 

The one in Pittsburgh is the first to appear anywhere in the U.S.

Take that, New York, L.A. and all the rest of you smug cultural enclaves!

When it comes to cutting edge art, Pittsburgh alone can say, “Duck it!” 

It’s scheduled to be here through Oct. 20, which is after the National League Championship Series, but three days before Game 1 of the World Series.

It’s moored on the Allegheny River where it can’t help but stare straight at PNC Park, where on Tuesday evening the Pirates will play their first playoff game since 1992.

The duck and the Bucs are all everyone is talking about.

And just because it’s all coincidental doesn’t mean Pirate fans won’t begin to regard the duck as some sort of good luck charm should the Bucs go on an October tear.

The sports logic goes like this: Giant Rubber Duck arrives, Pirates win. So Giant Rubber Duck must stay until Pirates lose. 

As sports logic goes, this actually makes more sense than wearing the same underwear for 30 days straight and I know plenty of guys who’ll pull that one off, which, speaking of coincidences, is what they’ll eventually have to do with the actual underwear. 

I’ve already heard one friend suggest someone should drape a Pirate eye patch over one of the duck’s manhole cover-sized eyes.

Guaranteed, the duck will make a ton of cameos on the TBS broadcast, marquee attention that’d certainly make the Pirate Parrot green with envy. Not that anyone would notice on a neon green feathered mascot.

I look at the competing lineups in the baseball playoffs and believe Pittsburgh has just as good a shot as anyone.

This might be one of those magical years. The team has great starting pitching, solid defense and the positive kind of chemistry we can resume talking about now that Walter White is no more.

God knows the Pirates are due.

It’d be interesting to see how the local sports teams performed in other cities after the duck appeared.

I think the sports-obsessed would have already forewarned talk radio if teams had tanked when the duck showed up.

We’d have known this because there would have been armed squads of vigilantes protecting the city from the yellow-skinned intruder, much the way Rock Ridge locals did in “Blazing Saddles” when another intruder showed up in skin that locals found offensive for reasons that had nothing to do with potential sports jinxes.

That poor guy’s goose was cooked, a fate that I hope awaits the Reds and the rest of the Pirates October opponents.

I wouldn’t bet against them.

A Pirate quack attack might just do the trick.

Related . . .

Sunday, September 29, 2013

310 words on "Breaking Bad" finale

Lots of “Breaking Bad” finale chatter. Here’s my take: Walter returns to New Mexico where half his face gets blown off by Charlie Rose who then shaves his head and assumes Heisenberg’s identity.

That’s no nuttier than some of the other theories I’ve heard.

And that’s great. Story possibilities are limitless. Does Walter survive? Do he and Jesse team up? Will Todd and Lydia consummate their one-sided infatuation? Will those murderous neo-Nazis conclude they’ve made some bad life choices and volunteer to pass out fliers on behalf of the Albuquerque Rainbow Coalition?

It’s all on the table.

Vince Gilligan ought to send David Chase a case of champagne and a dozen roses in heartfelt gratitude for the forever flawed way Chase ended “The Sopranos” in 2007.

All “Breaking Bad” has to do is film an actual ending. That’s it. For a show that has reached so many dramatic heights, the finale bar is set pathetically low.

“Soprano” supporters say the ending was enigmatic and deep.

Deep, indeed. Deep doo-doo.

Why a show that had so many cops in it chose to cop out at the end is a question Chase has never really answered.

Either way, the flawed conclusion of the second most brilliant TV series ever ensures the ending of the most brilliant one will be satisfying.

The “Breaking Bad” cast, crew and creator have spent the summer swaggering through publicity stops with a justifiable swagger. This concluding run has been outstanding and cast members keep referring to the ending as “perfect” and “satisfying.”

I’m tingling in anticipation of what they’ve cooked up -- and I’m talking more than just another batch of blue meth.

So, fans, enjoy the show. Val and I can’t wait. 

Here are the links to the “Breaking Bad” stories I’ve written since we fell under Walter White’s sway just two years ago.

Related . . .

Friday, September 27, 2013

Someone stole my book! A "Use All The Crayons!" update

I’d like to use today’s blog to alert authorities of the commission of a heinous crime:

Someone stole a copy of “Use All The Crayons!

Quick! Anyone know how we can resurrect J. Edgar Hoover?

Oh, how I dreamed this day would dawn.

See for about a year I’ve toyed with the idea of filing a false police report claiming someone broke into my car to steal a box of my books.

I thought that would be dynamite publicity.

To make the story more attractive to essential tabloid reporters I was going to say the books were on the seat right next to a loaded pistol, a stack of cash, a bag of medicinal marijuana and one of those baby pandas from the Washington Zoo.

And that all the thief deemed worthy of stealing was “Use All The Crayons!”

That would make a great story, wouldn’t it?

What really happened is less compelling, but it’s still retail theft and I’m very proud.

The crime happened last Friday at the Barnes & Noble on Medina Road in Akron, Ohio, where I’d been invited to attend the Fall Local Author Exposition.

For those of you who’ve never read my blog or are casual about geographic details,     I’m not from Akron, a place I’ve been to twice, once to buy gas.

My home is in Latrobe, Pa., about 125 miles southeast of Akron.

So how did B&N management come to consider me a local Akron kid?

It’s all thanks to chutzpa. I may be too lazy to do any real work -- and hallelujah for that -- but I do have chutzpa and sometimes chutzpa helps.

A few months ago I sent about three dozen letters to store managers in locations all over Pennsylvania and Ohio asking them to stock my book.

About half of them instantly refused saying that granting my request would be in violation of company policy about stocking self-published print-on-demand books like mine. 

But I was emboldened by the reaction of the many people who were loving the book, and the fact that more than a dozen area stores were already defying company policy to find shelf space for “Crayons!”

So while sticklers and corporate suck-ups said no, soulful free-thinkers saw merit in my crafty letter and today my book is in more than 40 stores in four states.

A few were so enamored with the book they reached out to have me visit their stores to sign copies. That’s how I wound up in Akron last Friday (also, I’ll be at the Altoona B&N Oct. 12 from noon to 4 p.m.).

Crayon sales aside: the entity that prints “Crayons!” informed me last month my book surpassed key sales thresholds that meant it had automatically earned what they call STAR Program designation. That means they are right now spending nearly $3,000 on it to polish it and prepare it for national distribution.

And that’s all their money. So, finally, some savvy business types are recognizing they can make money off me by spending their money on me.

It gives me the opportunity to refine parts of the book based on reader reaction. I’ve junked about 30 lamer items and punched it up with what I hope is funnier stuff.

What does this mean for me? It could be huge. 

What’s it mean for you? It means if you’ve already bought the book, you’ll have to buy the shiny new version or risk feeling your colorfulness begin to diminish.

To paraphrase what George Patton shouted to Erwin Rommel while defeating his tank commanders across the North African deserts, “I read your book, Steve Jobs, you beautiful bastard! I read your book!”

There’s a risk for me spending an entire day driving to sign books in a city where I’m an unknown quantity.

But the store said they’d order 40 books. That’s huge. That’s 40 books I’d sign that would circulate through their system until each sold. And, guaranteed, sell they will.

Plus, one of my best buddies lives on a family apple orchard in nearby Kent. I knew I could attend the book signing, scoot over to Kent and spend a lively night drinking beer with my buddy who’d send me home with a big bag of free apples.

Understand, I’ve blogged for free for nearly five years. So that one night in Akron was looking like a gaudy windfall.

And Beckwith Orchard apples are delicious!

Ever wonder what goes on at an unknown author book signing?

It’s not like what happens with John Grisham and Stephen King.

In our case, the four congregated authors stand around and trade grim, quiet stories about what humiliated failures we’ve each become. We do this until a potential customer comes by at which point we smile brightly and try to convince the passerby that he or she ought to buy our books.

That way they could be just like us!

I sold five books. 

And I was the evening’s best seller!

I was not at all displeased. Two of the books were bought by store personnel who will now, I’m sure, become pivot point sales advocates for me.

And don’t forget the free apples!

Two writers were skunked, including a friendly woman who also wrote, like me, a self-improvement book.

She suggested we trade books.

I politely declined. As anyone can see by my “What I’m Reading . . .” sidebar, I gravitate toward history books.

I may have written a self-help book, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to read one.

Funny, it seems many potential Akron B&N customers must feel the exact same way.

But she persisted. With nothing else to do, she sat and listened to me tell stories of my colorful past for nearly an hour. She was impressed.

The experience convinced me if I could only spend an uninterrupted hour with one million potential customers I could sell one million books.

Maybe my next book signing should be at the local penitentiary.

She was insistent. She really wanted a copy of my book.

Well, all she had to do was buy one.

Understand, too, these books didn’t belong to me. These were all B&N books. She knew that, of course.

That’s why I was shocked when at the end of the night she came over, said she enjoyed meeting me, picked up a copy from the top of my stack, said goodbye . . . and just marched right out the door!

What an ethical dilemma for me.

Should I rat her out? Pay for her copy out of my own pocket? Chase her down and make a citizen’s arrest?

I did none of the above.

I just watched her blaze across the parking lot and felt a sense of deep chagrin.

I was realizing I should have accepted her offer to swap.

Not because it might have staved off this awkward lawlessness.

No, I sense I could learn a thing or two about colorful living from any woman brazen enough to steal books from her very own book signing.

Related . . .

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Popping off on champagne celebrations

My goal with this post is to write something so magnificent I’ll feel compelled to run down to the liquor store, buy a bottle of champagne and pour it on my head.

Of course, if I do, I’ll likely feel equal parts foolish, wasteful and sticky.

The Pittsburgh Pirates clinched a playoff spot Monday and celebrated by pouring several thousand dollars worth of champagne on themselves, each other and the floors of the visiting locker room at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

The Atlanta Braves had done the exact same thing in the exact same room the day before. Guaranteed you’ll see it repeated throughout the playoffs.

It’s a baseball tradition, albeit one that is becoming controversial. People say flying booze sends the wrong message.

After winning the 2010 ALCS, the Texas Rangers opted to use cases of non-alcoholic ginger ale rather than any intoxicants. This was done in deference to slugger Josh Hamilton, a recovering alcoholic who’d had several high-profile relapses.

It was a gracious gesture.

What effect it had on Hamilton and the team is unknown. The Rangers lost the best-of-seven World Series to the San Francisco Giants four games to one, breaking the hearts of Rangers fans and, I guess, at least one area ginger ale retailer.

I was touched by a contrary gesture Monday on the part of Pirate manager Clint Hurdle, who was interviewed soaked in champagne and joyfully hugging his players.

“I wanted to embrace the moment,” Hurdle said. “I wanted to be part of it all. I wanted to get wet. I wanted to be soaked. I wanted it dripping down my face. I wanted it to sting my eyes.”

What he did not want was for even a drop of it to pass his lips.

Hurdle is another recovering alcoholic.

His reaction further endears me to this big, happy man. He wouldn’t let his personal struggles interfere with what has somehow become an oddly customary celebration.

I hope the Pirates go on a great long post-season run that culminates in their first World Series victory since 1979.

If that happens, yeah, I’ll probably tie one on with Val and my friends here in the bar.

What I won’t do is pour any beer over anyone’s head when the final out is registered.

I won’t do this because I’d look stupid my beer-soaked buddies would probably punch me in the nose.

This Pirate season has been such a joy. I feel like a limb I’d lost has grown back and is once again fully functional.

So I was happy to see this appealing group of Pirates celebrating. But I admit to feeling conflicted when they started pouring champagne everyplace but inside something suitable for drinking.

My first thought was, well, ticket prices are going up next season. Someone’s going to pay for all that champagne and it won’t be cheapskate owner, Bob Nutting.

Yogi Berra is a veteran of 10 New York Yankee championship teams, some of them the best in baseball history. He said locker room celebrations from those glory years were nothing like today’s contrived revelry.

There were no plastic tarps taped up in advance; the players weren’t handed peeper-protecting goggles.

“It wasn’t as wild as today,” Berra said. “We had a couple of beers. I know our owner wouldn’t have wanted us to waste so much champagne. He was pretty cheap.”

So I guess I can look forward to feeling a little chagrined if the Pirates advance. Baseball’s champagne trains have all left the stations.

I wish I had an alternative celebration to suggest, but I’m sure stadium rules prohibit smoking cigars lit with $100 bills, and it would probably send the wrong message if the cameras were rolling when all the team hookers were escorted into the locker rooms for a more traditional baseball celebration.

Athletes must feel they need to put on a show. The networks may have a role in orchestrating it, too, because it makes good TV. If that means dumping pricey champagne on one another, so be it.

I guess we live in an age where conspicuous want and excess high-five one another while the rest of us seek some elusive balance.

And I guess I’ll drink to that.

Doesn’t seem to be much choice.

Related . . .

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

On old girlfriends & great pizza

I know this is bound to sound terrible, but my recollected affections for old girlfriends are surpassed by my feelings for great pizzas I once enjoyed.

It’s not that I’m ungrateful for girls who used to risk their reputations by being seen dating me. It’s just that I really love a good pizza.

Some studies say men like me think about sex something like a gazillion times a day.

I probably think about eating pizza just as much.

In fact, if I could detail the snowflakes of thoughts zooming around my mind right now, it’d probably go something like this:

“Sex. Sex. Sex. Pizza. Pizza. Pizza. Sex. Pizza. Sex. Pizza. Pirates. Sex. Pizza. Breaking Bad. Pizza. Sex. Sex. Pizza. Sex. Pizza.”

The history books are full of stories of masses of men and women who recklessly upended their entire lives in search of liberty, religious freedom or better opportunities.

I’ve upended mine in search of better pizzas.

It was Nashville in 1988.

First a little background.

I was blessed to have been raised in the pizza-rich land of Pittsburgh’s South Hills, a region that today is still abundant with great Mom & Pop pizza joints.

I have many fond memories of my years as a teenage Pittsburgh Press newspaper delivery boy down on Castle Shannon Blvd. Thursdays I’d deliver the afternoon paper and collect weekly payments until about 6 p.m.

Then with a pocket full of loot, I’d stop into the old Pub & Pizza, put 50-cents in the jukebox and settle in for a pizza whose distinct flavors I can still recall with perfect clarity.

Of course, there was great pizza in Athens, Ohio, in any college town, really. I used to love Angelo’s on Union Street. Big Red Tomato used to deliver a large pizza the size of a Roman chariot wheel with two toppings and two big tubs of Coke for something like $6.95, and it was delicious. I still don’t know how they did it.

To this day, whenever I hear the story of Jesus’s miracle with the loaves and the fishes, my mind goes right back to Big Red Tomato.

At Ohio University, I was surprised to learn the world was unfair. Injustice and discrimination were rife.

I remember thinking, “That South African men and women are subjected to the cruelties of minority-ruled apartheid in 1985 is an affront to humanity. Oh, well, I’m sure Pretoria has at least a few decent pizza joints so I’m sure they’ll be okay.”

How naive.

In a few short months I was to learn even metropolitan places like Nashville -- right here in America -- were pizza wastelands and I began to feel worse off than oppressed South Africans.

The South Africans at least had Nelson Mandela.

It would be about five years before Nashville even had Garth Brooks.

I stuck it out for three years before I got fed up, an admittedly odd choice of words for a man jonesing for good pizza.

Today, my life is rich with great pizza possibilities, none better than The Pond, right below my office.

I love taking one home for the family or splitting one with buddies downstairs while we’re watching the now playoff-bound Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s always good.

And I’ll forever be a pizza pilgrim. I’ll drive hours for a bite of great pizza at Bud Murphy’s in Connellsville, Campiti’s in Dormont, or the Pizza Pub in Clarion.

And there’s things I can do with great pizza my wife would never dream of letting me do with old girlfriends. For instance, you can’t keep old girlfriends in the frig overnight and eat them for breakfast the way you can pizza.

Sorry if that last remark came across as too cheesy, maybe a bit saucy. I guess I’m becoming crusty in my old age.

Saucy? Cheesy? Crusty?

Mmm . . .

What were we talking about again? I got distracted there.

Oh, yes, comparing great pizzas to old girlfriends.

I don’t feel too bad making the analogy.

I’m just being honest.

I’m sure there are many of my old girlfriends who think more charitable thoughts of chocolate cakes than they do of their dates with me.

Or maybe after reading this they’re all suddenly thinking of jerky.

Related . . .

Monday, September 23, 2013

Arnold Palmer sees me nearly ace

Accomplished athletes who’ve performed at the highest levels may disagree about which sport is the more difficult, but few dissent on this point:

One of the most challenging things to do in any sport is to hit a golf ball with anyone watching.

It’s because golf is the most self-humiliating game there’s ever been. The golf ball is stationary. It doesn’t trash talk. Pretty girls have dimples. So do golf balls.

For something that doesn’t ingest PEDs, the golf ball is incredibly difficult to hit.

Like that biological imperative adolescent boys surrender to with other kinds of balls, golf provides simultaneous shame and satisfaction.

Really, it’s something that ought to be done all alone and in the dark.

So all that means a shot I hit on Wednesday was one of the greatest shots in golf history. Mine, at least.

I stiffed a 125-yard pitching wedge to four feet of the pin with nine people watching.

And one of them was Arnold Palmer.

Now at this point I feel I must issue an apology to the 97 percent of the readers who reflexively roll their eyes when I launch into yet another Arnold Palmer story, something I do on a near monthly basis.

They think it’s shameful name-dropping at its worst. And who am I to argue?

But I believe about three percent of readers are aware of my Palmer connections and check in each and every day for the sole reason that I might mention even a glancing encounter with the man they know as The King. These 3 percenters are disappointed when I don’t include at least one Palmer mention in each post.

They say, for instance, “Well, I thought his musings about ants on gum enjoyed a puckish discretion with lyrical delivery, but I don’t see why he couldn’t include a Palmer mention in that one. I mean, Palmer’s seen ants, too, hasn’t he?”

So I’m going to try and keep this short.

Even people who see Palmer frequently still tingle upon seeing Palmer, cheerful confidant of presidents and supermodels.

So there he was sitting with his wife in a golf cart on the roadside tee of the 125-yard second hole at Latrobe Country Club last Wednesday. It’s a pressure-packed shot to begin with because it’s a “beat-the-pro” hole in which you wager you can beat either one of the club’s talented assistants.

 I’d been invited to play at the club’s monthly stag event.

This happens a lot.

That’s because bona fide members know I’m near and always available for golf and giggles. So if there’s a last minute cancellation, they say, “Someone bailed and we need a warm body. Let’s call Rodell.”

Note: No one’s ever once said, “We need to win. Let’s call Rodell.”

I’m a terrible golfer. I’ve been playing for 40 years and for the last five or six years it’s been a struggle to break 100.

This is not uncommon. In fact, it’s typical. The average golfer never breaks 100.

But I don’t consider myself average.

I used to be decent. Just 10 years ago I shot an 84 at Pete Dye’s challenging Carmel Valley Ranch on the Monterrey Peninsula.

Plus, there’s all that golf writing I’ve done. I spent many years contributing features and essays to the nation’s top golf magazines. People assume, gee, I must be really good. In fact, there’s no correlation.

It’d be like assuming having sex with an adult film actress would be really hot just because she’s done a lot of porn.

I know. Bad example.

But I feel tremendous self-imposed pressure to be good. That’s what I was thinking when we began to banter with Palmer and his wife, Kit.

Banter? That I’ve got down. I asked if he had any advice on how to ace the second, a good question given that he’s aced it four times, something I was quick to remind him

“Four times?” he said. “Really? I didn’t know it was that many.”

This would be off-putting if it were anyone else. Golfers lucky enough to have had aces remember the events with the same clarity as they do the births of their children.

I’ve never had a hole-in-one, but I remember the four times I’ve come within inches.

I guess he can be forgiven for not remembering his own ace trivia because he’s had 21 of them. There’s a link below to an interesting story I wrote about them. One fact: 8 of the 15 aces occurred in September with five of those being struck between Sept. 3 through 7.

Of course, none of this was going through my head as my turn to swing arrived.

He’s observed me golf before and when he did my only swing thought was, “Just don’t crap your pants.”

Maybe I’m improving because I remember thinking, “Ace here in front of Arnold Palmer and it’ll be maybe the coolest thing that’s ever happened to you.”

I began to draw the club back.

Then right at the crucial moment -- “Honk! Honk! Honk!” 

Some jackass thought it would be cute if he or she could disrupt my swing. The nerve.

Yet I was unfazed. I struck the ball crisply and sent it sailing on a high arc right toward the flag.

“Oh, that’s going to be good,” Palmer said.

He was correct. Missed the pin by about six inches and settled two feet past the pin (and, yeah, I sunk the putt).

“Nicely done!” said Palmer with a thumb’s up. “And with that horn honking in your backswing. Great concentration!”

I got creamed by my partners, but at the end of the round all we talked about was what it was like to hit a shot with Palmer watching, and how I did the best.

I raced home later to tell Val all about it.

Before I could get started, she interrupted, “Hey, we saw you out golfing! We were pulling out of school and  Josie said, ‘There’s Daddy! Honk the horn!’ Did you hear us?”

I’m not saying I’d have left my wife and kids -- well, Josie, at least -- if their honking had destroyed my concentration and caused me to dribble an embarrassing shot in front of the great Arnold Palmer.

But I will say this:

Had that ball gone in with all those challenging elements, well, I’d today be as happy as ants on gum.

Related . . .