Friday, August 14, 2009

vince fumo is no different than holocaust victims

Don't take my word for it: His Vinceness said so himself, right here in John Baer's column in today's Philadelphia Daily News. It seems the Vince of Darkness wants a new trial. Here's the money quote from Baer's piece:
In a series of telephone and e-mail interviews this week, Fumo opened up about his feelings. Better buckle up for this:

"I always think of the Jews and others who were forced into the Nazi concentration camps for doing absolutely nothing. So many times bad things happen to good people and the only way to survive is to look forward not backward."

Like, wow.

les paul, r.i.p.

You likely won't listen to a piece of popular music without hearing Les Paul's singular influence. He invented the solid-body electric guitar, but his other innovations like multi-track recording changed everything, plain and simple. Born Lester William Polsfuss, his career stretched back to the days of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, but modern rockers from Jimmy Page to Bruce Springsteen to Slash consider themselves in his debt. As should we. Dead at 94. RIP.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

rod woodson gets his due

Rod Woodson, one of the life of kings' all-time favorite Steelers, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. And he made it -- deservedly so -- in his first year of eligibility.

The great No. 26 combined speed, strength and athleticism to such a degree that many of those who were around him in the early days of his career are still in awe of how good he was, as this late-June story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reveals.

Woodson's career brings back a few distinct memories:

1) Video footage on the news every night of him hurdling somewhere in Europe during his rookie-year holdout in 1987.

2) The fumble he forced and recovered that led to the game-winning field goal to beat the Houston Oilers on the road in overtime in the 1989 playoffs.

3) The way he'd take risks and sometimes get beat deep, which was OK because more often than not he'd also jump a route a make a play.

4) Barry Sanders making a cut and forcing Woodson to tear the ACL in his right knee on the Three Rivers Stadium concrete turf in the 1995 season opener. He would later return for Super Bowl XXX against the Cowboys -- still the only player to come back from such an injury in the same season -- only to have Michael Irvin joke that Woodson would have to cover "the human Autobahn." And, at one point, after Woodson broke up a pass intended for Irvin, he promptly stood in front of Irvin and pointed at the knee. Which was just awesome.

5) His departure after the 1996 season. Eagles fans chagrined over Brian Dawkins, I know how you feel.

6) His finally winning a ring with the Baltimore Ravens in 2000. Wait. I wish I didn't remember that.

Hats off, Rod, the first post-70s Steeler to get into the Hall. For an additional stroll down memory lane, Steel Curtain Rising has published an excellent recap of Woodson's best moments as a Steeler here.

Now, can we do something about getting Dick LeBeau's and Dermontti Dawson's busts into Canton?

Monday, August 10, 2009

the welcome honesty of (500) days of summer

"This is not a love story," the narrator warns in the early moments of (500) Days of Summer, the directorial debut of filmmaker Marc Webb that recently hit theaters. But what this is, we are reminded moments later, is "a story about love." And there's a difference. A profound one, in fact. And it's one that Hollywood typically does not wish to explore, though (500) Days does with aplomb.

"The governing commerical calculus these days," according to A.O. Scott, a film critic for The New York Times, "seems to be that dudes want smut, ladies want weddings, and a picture (like "The Hangover," say) that delivers both will make the audience happy and the studios rich."

Love stories, after all, usually work out, at least according to the standard contrivances of most romantic comedies. But in real life, stories about love often do not work, and such candor is precisely what makes (500) Days a delightfully brave departure from the norm. We learn almost right away that the "love story" we are about to see is doomed, so what we're left with is "a story about love" that proceeds to provide the process of its slow demise in all its messy, mangled, gut-wrenching glory.

And that process -- our knowing the end, but not the means -- is part of what makes 500 Days work so well. The story of Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) and Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is not told chronologically, but rather with a narrative that deftly cuts back-and-forth through various high and low points in their time together. "The structure," as Ross Douthat writes in National Review, "fits with the way failed relationships are remembered -- not as a long descent from joy to sorrow, but as a jumble of competing memories, all of them potent, none of them lost."

Webb's other gimmicks -- a silly musical scene, characters occasionally talking directly to the camera, a fantastic split-screen sequence in which the lines of "Expectation" and "Reality" are clearly demarcated -- further feed our interest even though we're well aware that the conclusion is pre-ordained. As the film plays out, the subtle clues pointing to what's "wrong" begin to pile up, even if it's not obvious that they should: Tom and Summer seem perfect together, but something's just not right, and it never will be. She's just not that into him, to invert another recent Hollywood storyline.

Visually, the film provides a new way of looking at the urban beauty of Los Angeles that is also not what we're used to seeing on-screen. And then there's Tom and Summer, who more or less (though not entirely) fit the template for the quirky, quasi-hipster couples who have come along recently in films like Juno and Garden State: He's the skinny boy with the cool clothes, the occasional awkwardness and the creative passion he's either afraid or unwilling to take a risk for; she's got that achingly adorable look, that style and flair that never seems to cease, that awesome knack for doing something -- anything -- that brings a smile just when a smile seems to be needed most.

But in both Juno and Garden State, the love stories are a secondary concern. Juno is primarily about a teen pregnancy that's told from a female point-of-view, while Garden State -- as Douthat makes clear -- is built upon the male lead's attempts at achieving self-discovery. By contrast, in (500) Days, as Douthat writes, Tom has "been absolutely and completely destroyed by her -- and this, not his self-actualization or career awakening, is the substance of the movie and the source of its interest and appeal."

Gary Thompson of the Philadelphia Daily News writes that some critics have compared Gordon-Levitt's performance to that of a young Marlon Brando. High praise, to be sure, but Gordon-Levitt does indeed bring a genuine intensity to a role in which his character labors to understand that which seems to make no sense: He's the one who's helplessly stuck between hopeless and romantic, and he more than ably adjusts his emotions accordingly. Deschanel's Summer, by contrast, is presented as little more than an unattainable object of male affection. Other than the impact of her parents' divorce, we learn little about her apart from what she slowly begins to share with Tom, though even that amounts to very little. Some critics have chastised the film for this alleged flaw, but it in fact serves to make its point: Love is not something that can be forced, or willed into being. It's either there or it isn't, and it's often beyond the realm of reason or logic to try to justify the cold reality of that immutable truth.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

in due time, the pittsburgh pirates will pay you to come see them

This is just too much: The Pittsburgh Pirates, who just finished burning the village in order to save it trading everyone on the roster in order to -- all together now -- "rebuild" for "the future," announced today that they are extending a promotion by which there are no fees for purchasing tickets online to any home game for the remainder of the season. Which, on the face of it, ain't a bad idea. But the laugh track kicks in once you read the promotion itself, which says -- without a whiff of irony -- that the extension was made "due to popular demand." This from a team that failed to draw 12,000 fans to any of its three home games so far this week. Yep. Get 'em while you can, people. Amazing this team shares a zip code with the Steelers and Penguins.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

rupert murdoch can't be serious

Ah, gentle reader, but he is: The swashbuckling media tycoon is ready to charge for all of the online content in his vast enterprise, according to the Financial Times. Now, Murdoch's ability to run a business is renowned, even if MySpace once seemed poised to take over the world until right about the time Ol' Rupert's News Corp enterprise took it over and allowed it to get lapped by Facebook. But whatever. The idea that the newspaper industry can be saved by charging readers for content was a great idea -- back before every paper on earth began giving their content away for free. That horse left the barn a long time ago, and it ain't coming back just because Murdoch decrees that it will. The lesson of the onlinetwitterblog revolution is that people demand infomation instantly. And if they ain't getting it over here, they'll go over there. Simple as that.

Friday, July 31, 2009

there is justice in the fumo case after all

Breaking news from The Inquirer that His Vinceness must forfeit his six-figure pension as a result of his corruption conviction. His prison sentence is still a joke, but at least he'll collect no more than a single, five-figure sum for the remainder of his life for his arrogant betrayal of the public trust. Which is a win for beleaguered taxpayers. And if you haven't seen it, check out Ralph Cipriano's post-mortem on the trial in the August issue of Philadelphia magazine, which includes an in-depth interview with The Vince of Darkness, plus an inside look at how and why the jury came to conclude he was guilty. The following exchange from the trial -- plus Fumo's subsequent assessment of it -- between Our Boy and prosecutor John Pease is especially indicative of the man's breathtaking sense of entitlement:
Fumo: “Oh, I probably should have told her to go to the second floor, rather than do it in the basement, yes.”

Pease: “Because it’s a violation of state law for you to have your employee using state facilities, state equipment, to work on campaigns, correct?”

Fumo: “It is, it is. It’s also a violation to spit on the sidewalk, although I don’t know that it’s enforced.”

“That was a little flippant,” Fumo now concedes.

Ya think?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

pennsylvania: where the rich and powerful can commit fraud with virtual impunity

Let's begin with this: Yesterday's sentencing of former state senator Vince Fumo was not all that surprising. His Vinceness got 55 months (!) despite being convicted of all 137 counts (!) of fraud by a jury back in March. The trial, which had lasted for months, was riveting. But federal judge Ronald L. Buckwalter, after hearing from so many "character" witnesses, decided The Vince of Darkness deserved far less than the 11-to-14-year guideline he had previously outlined. Many of us had been delighted by The Vince's conviction and likely possible lengthy prison sentence, hoping that it would send a message that public officials -- especially those scumbags in Harrisburg -- would think twice about betraying the public trust. As if. Not that we shouldn't have seen it coming, mind you. After all, according to Will Bunch's Attytood blog at
[I]n one of those only-in-Philly political moments, Fumo was actually facing felony charges for putting "ghost employees" on the state payroll in 1978, the same year he was elected a senator. A jury of his "peers" -- i.e., regular schlubs like you and me -- voted unanimously to find Fumo guilty. But a federal judge -- one of his real peers -- threw the conviction out. Talk about foreshadowing!
The entire charade is an outrage, people. And given that Harrisburg can't get a budget together (more on that in the near future), and that one longtime state senator has breathtakenly (and remorselessly) charged taxpayers to rent an office building in a business owned by him and his wife, it's all the more discouraging. Where, to borrow a tired and empty campaign cliche, is the change we can believe in? Then again, what do we expect when we'd rather have blanket coverage of Michael Jackson's death? Fact is, we deserve this, until we prove otherwise.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

does this mean the ayatollahs in iran are michigan fans?

Sure looks like it, at least according to this photo, which we found today on Deadspin. It's been a while. But we're back. the life of kings is back.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

"pitt basketball" and "jinx" is redundant anyway

On one hand, this is way cool: DeJuan Blair, he of the monster smile and monster game, gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated's College Basketball Preview issue. On the other hand, there's the notorious SI cover jinx, which posits that any subject gracing the cover of said magazine is doomed to endure some awful misfortune in the near future. But, really, if, like the life of kings, you're a Pitt fan, anytime before March is generally as good as it gets: A top 10 preseason ranking (SI has them No. 7 -- one of four Big East Conference teams in the Top 7), some big wins, perhaps another conference tournament title at Madison Square Garden, and then ... flop. A guaranteed early-out in the NCAA tournament. Pitt fans are accustomed to disappointment, you see. We're immune to jinxes, because the team we root for is an automatic letdown. They're guaranteed. It may even be somewhere in the academic curriculum, in fact. So let us now bask in the glory of having D-Blair on the cover, and let us crow about how good we think they're gonna be. Because deep down, we're already prepared for what's coming.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

the life of kings returns to campus

Come to La Salle University for Homecoming this Saturday and getcha learn on.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"my friends," lanny frattare is retiring

Baseball, with its pauses, its gentle rhythms, its sudden bursts of excitement, seems almost meant to be listened to, as opposed to watched on television. And so it is that people who love baseball also develop a certain connection with the people who broadcast their favorite team's games on the radio. And while Phillies fans are certainly spoiled to have the whiskey-and-cigarettes-cured voice of Harry Kalas talking to them every night, there can be no doubting that Pirates fans of a certain age (ahem) have a great affection for Lanny Frattare, who announced his retirement today after 33 seasons behind the mic. Was Frattare the greatest? Hardly. Was he a bit of a homer? Sure. But so what? His voice will always be the sound I associate with the summertime of my childhood. Years ago, before most of the games were broadcast on television, my dad would always have the Pirates on the radio: in the kitchen, in the car, on the little transistor he would sometimes use with one of those ancient white ear-plug thingys. And more often than not, it was Frattare doing the talking, beginning each broadcast with his trademark, "My friends..." before punctuating the conclusion of every Pirates victory with "And there was nooooooo doubt about it." OK, so that latter call was derivative of Bob Prince's "We had 'em all the way," but Frattare had the unenviable task of replacing the beloved Gunner -- and he still managed to last three decades in doing it, more than anyone else in the franchise's history. Unlike many broadcasters who came on in more recent times, Frattare was measured and even-keeled, reserving his true enthusiasm for moments that genuinely deserved it -- something that, sadly, has happened less often than not in the team's current 16-season drought of losing. I guess I liked Frattare's low-key approach precisely because it was so unremarkable: I'd often forget about him in recent years until I'd be driving back to Pittsburgh before putting on the radio to simply check the score. But then I'd hear him, and suddenly I'd be transported back to a hot summer night in the backyard, complete with lightning bugs and crickets and the smell of tomatoes ripening in the garden as Frattare's voice slieced through the stillness with a careful narration of what came next. He will be missed.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

the record-tying suckitude of the pittsburgh pirates

They didn't let us down. Well, they couldn't, really, not with how God-awful they've been for so long. And not after their latest chapter of selling off veteran talent for marginal at best potential prospects this summer. But the Pittsburgh Pirates have done it: With Sunday's 11-6 loss to the Giants in San Francisco, they've officially clinched their 16th consecutive losing season, a mark of futility that ties the North American professional sports record. No easy task, to be sure. Cue the head-shaking reminisciences, and cue the usual taunts from the national media, complete with the falsehood that this streak began because the Pirates had chosen to keep Andy Van Slyke and not Barry Bonds way back when -- ignorant hindsight that ignores the fact that Bonds had wanted nothing to do with the Buccos after 1992. But whatever. We're stuck with them, and given the current state of affairs, there's really no telling how much longer such suckitude will go on. Heck, the one positive we had -- this summer's drafting and eventual signing of can't-miss third-base prospect Pedro Alvarez -- has since been taken from us, too, with no definitive end in sight. So there you have it. Pour yourself an Imp & an Iron, Pirates fans. Because they didn't let us down, even though that's all they've been doing for 16 consecutive seasons of sorry baseball. And counting.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

g.w. miller on the evolution of journalism

Interesting piece by Temple professor G.W. Miller III in the current Philadelphia Weekly about the future of journalism -- print, broadcast and online. Trust me: It's the kind of work you do because you love it. But it's the Wild, Wild West out there right now, and we'll have to see what happens...

Saturday, August 30, 2008

the life of kings broadcasting division

From the Department of Self-Promotion: I did play-by-play for a high school football game up in Bucks County last night for the web site of WPVI Channel 6, the local ABC affiliate here in Philly. The broadcast is archived at, and you can access it by clicking here. I was a last-minute choice and had zero time to prepare, but I was also on my own and doing this for the first time, so it's probably pretty bad. By the end of the game, when the action got good, I think I did OK. Or not. If you're in for a good laugh, check it out.

And yes, Pirates fans, I'll be weighing in on the sudden, dramatic turn in the Pedro Alvarez-Scott Boras situation before the weekend is out. Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

thoughts on smoking in bars

Love the above ad that Triumph Brewing Co. in New Hope circulated to promote last night, the final one in which smokers were permitted to light up inside the joint. A few too-serious types didn't find the ad that appealing, of course, especially the bit about kids. But whatever. You can read what I wrote about the whole deal in today's Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times here.

Bottom line: I'm a non-smoker, but I've never supported laws outlawing smoking in bars and restaurants, simply because there's nothing to stop a bar or restaurant from going smoke-free on its own. In other words, let the market decide. Besides, by all indications, many people will no longer patronize a bar that allows smoking, so the laws are quickly becoming superfluous. That said, if I wished to cater to smokers, why can't I? As for the puritans who justify their smoke-free stance in the name of public health, why are some private clubs and other places that don't serve a lot of food exempt from the law, according to the bottom of this Philadelphia Inquirer report? Are employees and patrons of those places somehow less affected by smoke? Talk amongst yourselves, people.

Friday, August 22, 2008

the terrible towel is everywhere...

...including the Beijing Olympics, as indicated by the upper right corner of this photo of the women's beach volleyball medal ceremony. Beeker Buffoonery has the original screen capture from, but here's the photo anyway:

It's a Steeler Planet, people. Myron Cope would be proud, no doubt.

Monday, August 18, 2008

enjoy the olympics, even as they're held in a slave state

It was impossible not to have watched Michael Phelps, if only to marvel at the utter dominance he displayed in the pool. It's cool, too, that professional ballers like Kobe & LeBron actually seem happy to be competing in Beijing, and that they're genuinely interested in, you know, winning. But let's not overlook the absurdity of staging the Olympics in a place like China. Let's not forget that the Olympic ideal of one-worldism is at best just that: an ideal. At its worst, it's a dog-and-pony show that places the smiley face of moral equivalance on free nations and slave states alike, thereby providing dictators and tyrants with an international stamp of approval. When you read stuff like what's being done to protesters in and around Beijing, when you learn that actually questioning public officials in China is a foreign concept, even for foreign journalists -- and remember, this is only what we know, what's in full view for those visiting to observe -- you're left hoping that maybe some of this information will get to and inspire those who know in their hearts they deserve better as human beings.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

a new gizmothingamajiggy for your browsing pleasure

My technological mastery (cough cough) continues: If you look to the left, you'll see I've added a search feature that will allow you to Google this site to find something that's been posted in the past, if that sort of thing is your bag and all. Pretty fancy, huh?

pirates sign alvarez, get to keep me as a fan

They did it. I had my doubts, and it literally couldn't have taken even a minute longer, but the Pirates signed first-round draft pick Pedro Alvarez just before the midnight deadline last night. This is important, for several reasons, as I stated in an earlier dispatch. So let's give credit where credit is due to general manager Neal Huntington, who has touted building this team from the bottom-up (i.e., scouting & development) as his preferred method of rescuing this franchise: Alvarez is the precisely the sort of player the Pirates need to really kick-start things after years of posturing and giving fans little more than fireworks nights and bobblehead giveaways. But let's also breathe a sigh of relief, since I openly stated I would give up on the Buccos had they been unable to get Alvarez signed. I honestly didn't want to have to do that, to tell the truth. But whatever. They did it, and I'm still with them, which I'm proud to be saying this morning. Beat 'em Bucs, but let's start to see some results now, K?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

while buddy guy's guitar (not-so) gently weeps

You're looking at a grainy cell phone photo of the one and only bluesman Buddy Guy cryin' and wailin' his way through a set at the Mann Music Center in Philly this evening. My cousin, Jack McDaniel, was there to take in the awesome from five feet away, and he sent this along just a few minutes ago. Buddy was making his way through the crowd, much he like he did when my brothers and I saw him from the front row as he rocked some tent along the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh about 100 years ago. Damn right.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

MUST READ: charlie leduff, writer, goes to china with robert frank, photographer

MUST READ is a new, occasional feature here at the life of kings. With it, I will pass along something of particular interest for you to read and absorb, something that might make you laugh, cry, quiver, or just plain stop and think. The topic might concern sports, politics, art, movies, music, religion, culture, the stuff of living and dying. But the topic, I hope, will prove to be less important than the way in which it is conveyed, and the way in which you receive and interpret it. I hope you dig it, and I think you will. Enjoy.

Charlie LeDuff is a fantastic writer who has a knack for capturing the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. In 2004, he wrote a front-page story about a desert encampment of elderly drifters for The New York Times that remains a life of kings favorite for its detailed description of "a broken-down place of limited possibilities" for those who have "inherited the burden of living." LeDuff has also published a pair of books, one of which is Work and Other Sins: Life in New York City and Thereabouts, which is mostly a compilation of the "Bending Elbows" column he had written for The Times in the period before and after 9/11, plus numerous other short columns about the "fantastic nobodies" that populate New York City's streets and barrooms.

Not too long ago, LeDuff accompanied photographer Robert Frank, whom he describes as "the last human being to find anything new behind a viewfinder," to China, and he wrote about the trip for Vanity Fair. Frank's landmark book of black and white photographs, The Americans, turns 50 this year. As the 1950s gave way to the '60s, the book was considered groundbreaking for having foretold the social struggles that were to come -- a visual representation of what Jack Kerouac, in Desolation Angels, describes as "this modern America of crew cuts and sullen faces in Pontiacs." Frank commissioned Kerouac to write the book's introduction, and while LeDuff includes Kerouac's best quotes, it's worth noting that Kerouac also writes that the book captures "[t]hat crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and the music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral." Or, as LeDuff writes:
The book became great for what it did in its time. Before Frank, the visual orientation of photographs had been straight, horizontal, vertical. The subject of the picture was always obvious. You knew what the picture was about and what it meant to say. Frank, the shadowy little man, came along and changed the angles, made graininess a virtue, obscure lighting a benefit. His pictures were messy; you weren’t sure what to feel, who or what to focus on. Perhaps more important, Frank intellectually changed photography — that is, what a photographer was supposed to look at. If Ansel Adams chose to capture the mightiness of nature, how could you argue with that? Where’s the fault in stone and sky and snow? There is no fault. And therein lies its fault. Frank snatched photography from the landscapists and the fashion portraitists and concentrated his lens on battered transvestites, women in housedresses, and sunken mouths. Life is not boulders and snow and perfume and chiffon. Life is difficult and sad and ephemeral. Life is flesh, not stone.
The Vanity Fair piece is LeDuff at his finest: getting to the center of his subject, even as difficult as it might be to understand him. Frank, to put it simply, epitomizes the mad genius of the artist: the selfishness, the limitlessness of his personal life, the willingness to sacrifice almost anything for the sake of his art:
Frank said he used to stare in on [Willem] de Kooning from his apartment on East Third Street, admiring not the work so much as the artist. “The abstraction, not with the brush but with the mind,” he said. “The simple self-centered intellectual life. He had a stove and a refrigerator and an easel and he would be in his underwear studying that canvas. This appealed very much to me. He made me think to take risks in life. That, for artistic freedom, you had to fight and suffer for people to accept it.”
There's so much more: from Frank's thoughts on digital photography and art school to his reminisciences (or what's left of them) of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to working with the Rolling Stones during the manic sessions that created the epic album Exile on Main St. But LeDuff gets to the heart of the matter after relaying what happened to Frank's children, whom the old man ackowledges he more or less ignored:
That, we both agreed, is the fantastic and fatal blessing of the American life. One can choose to be whatever one wants in America without the constraints of societal mores. One can live in Switzerland or China, but one must behave and believe as a Swiss or Chinese man is expected to. In America you might throw away those old structures and live however you choose. But if you do not replace the old structure with a new one, this freedom will explode in your face like a car battery. “So much guilt,” Frank said, rubbing his palms on his trousers. After a silence, he gave me this: “You can capture life, but you can’t control it.”
The entirety of LeDuff's essay for Vanity Fair can be read here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

why i'm pessimistic about the pittsburgh steelers

I'm breaking my own rule by thinking and talking about football before Labor Day, but an item about the Steelers' negotiations with free-agents-to-be in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette caught my eye and deserves comment. Here's the money quote from Ed Bouchette's story:
If the team has issues with its offensive line now, next season could be disastrous because [Marvel] Smith and new left guard Chris Kemoeatu will become unrestricted free agents if they remain unsigned. So, too, will Max Starks and Trai Essex, their top two backup tackles. Starting right tackle Willie Colon will become a restricted free agent. It's likely that Smith won't return if he's not signed to an extension over the next month.
The Steelers have a month to talk about extending current contracts because their rule is not to renegotiate deals once the season begins. OK, fine. But clearly, there'a a problem here. Remember, the offensive line allowed their franchise quarterback to be sacked 47 times last season, plus six more times in a playoff loss to Jacksonville. That franchise quarterback was then signed to an eight-year, $102 million extension, which is good. But how are they going to protect him? For better or for worse, they let Alan Faneca, arguably the best guard they ever had, leave in free agency -- a move I was OK with, considering how much Faneca wound up getting from the Noo Yawk Jets. But in the draft, the Steelers didn't pick on offensive lineman until the fourth round, leaving them essentially to scramble with what they had, plus the addition of free agent center Justin Hartwig, who battled injuries last year with the Carolina Panthers. And now, they seem to be in no real hurry to keep anyone else, particularly tackle Marvel Smith, who should be fully recovered from the back troubles that plagued him last year. Look, I like that they picked some sure-fire skill guys in the first two rounds in Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed. But considering the Murderers' Row that is their 2008 schedule, and considering the obvious holes they had (and still seem to have) up front, is there any reason to expect that this will be a playoff team? And why, after all the years of attention that was paid to molding a first-rate, smash-mouth O-line, does this team now no longer make the guys up front a priority?

OK, that's enough. Back to summertime, though I will be weighing in on the Steelers' ownership dispute/situation in the coming days. You know you can't wait.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

aleksandr solzhenitsyn, r.i.p.

Any guy who gave the finger to communism and to the old Soviet Union was my kinda guy. And no one, arguably, was more bold about it than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He certainly looked the part, with that stern Russian face, that dour countenance, that long beard, but he had also lived it: Solzhenitsyn experienced first-hand the barbaric prison camps, having been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for simply writing to a friend that the megalomanical monster Joseph Stalin was "the man with the mustache." Upon being sent to what The New York Times called in its obit of him "a desolate penal camp in Kazakhstan called Ekibastuz," this is what Solzhenitsyn was up against:
At Ekibastuz, any writing would be seized as contraband. So he devised a method that enabled him to retain even long sections of prose. After seeing Lithuanian Catholic prisoners fashion rosaries out of beads made from chewed bread, he asked them to make a similar chain for him, but with more beads. In his hands, each bead came to represent a passage that he would repeat to himself until he could say it without hesitation. Only then would he move on to the next bead. He later wrote that by the end of his prison term, he had committed to memory 12,000 lines in this way.

His witness, among others, was the harrowing and frightening Gulag Archipelago, a book, at the risk of sounding pretentious, I'm honestly proud to admit I've read. Solzhenitsyn's willingness to tell the truth -- "It is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!" he said -- not only exposed the fraud that was the so-called "worker's paradise," but the totalitarian grip to which it subjected millions of people the world over for much of the 20th century. Christopher Hitchens, in his awesome-if-qualified tribute at Slate, writes:
[H]e kept on writing. The Communist Party's goons could have torn it up or confiscated or burned it -- as they did sometimes -- but he continued putting it down on paper and keeping a bottom drawer filled for posterity. This is a kind of fortitude for which we do not have any facile name. The simplest way of phrasing it is to say that Solzhenitsyn lived "as if." Barely deigning to notice the sniggering, pick-nose bullies who followed him and harassed him, he carried on "as if" he were a free citizen, "as if" he had the right to study his own country's history, "as if" there were such a thing as human dignity.
David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, called him "the dominant writer of the 20th century" because of "the effect he has had on history." Born the year after the Russian Revolution, Solzhenitsyn outlived the Red Menace by nearly 17 years before dying late Sunday night at the age of 89. R.I.P.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

here we go again: the pirates are sellers at the trade deadline

Once again, the Pirates have unloaded one of their top veteran players in a midseason trade with a contender. This time, they shipped leftfielder Jason Bay, easily the team's best, most visible player this decade, to the Boston Red Sawx. Much of this is not surprising, of course: The Buccos' new management has said from the start that it will try to build from the bottom -- that drafting, scouting and development within its farm system will be paramount to the big club's success. Of course, when you've been hearing that same sort of dribble drivel for as long as Pirates fans have, it has a tendency to go in one ear and out the other. We are, it seems, in Year 16 of an endless 5-Year Plan. But there does seem to be something a bit bolder and forward-thinking about the moves new GM Neal Huntington has made to shore up the shamefully barren system he inherited last fall. The analysis from Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke? is cautiously optimistic, concluding as it does with the following dose of reality: "[T]he reason we've been rebuilding for fifteen years is that nobody's actually managed to do it right. Huntington's still got a long ways to go and a tough job ahead of him, but this trade is exactly what he needs to be doing." We shall see.

That said, I want to go on record with this: If the franchise is unable to sign top pick Pedro Alvarez by the Aug. 15 deadline, I hereby renounce them. They will no longer deserve my attention, or my heart. I'm serious about this. The Pirates have been woefully mismanaged for close to two decades now. As stated above, the new regime wants to develop talent in order to win, and I'm fine with that; they deserve a chance to right all the wrongs that were done before they took over. After years of drafting players they knew they could sign, the Pirates did the right thing and got the one they so obviously needed by picking Alvarez. But if they still can't buck up just to get him to report, then there will truly be no hope. There will truly be no need for them to exist as a Major League team. And there will truly be no reason for me to waste my time and energy caring about what they do. Yes, gentle reader, it's come to this: The Pittsburgh Pirates are on the clock with my heart.