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On Mike Piazza, "Angels in the Outfield", Gabriel Faure, and Shirley Knight & The Solace of Baseball, Movies, and Music In A Time of Unease

The enforced isolation of sheltering in space has allowed me to taste many dishes these days from the worlds of baseball and music and movies. Here's a rundown of some highlights and recommendations for the next week or so.

 

On Fri aft Apr 24, MLBTV replayed the Mets' thrilling 3-2 victory over the Braves on Sep 21, 2001, the first game in NYC after the 9/11 bombings.  I attended the game and thrilled to the Seventh Inning Stretch rendition of "New York, New York" with Liza Minnelli singing and leading a kick line with various members of the police and fire departments and other uniformed personnel. 

 
I was way up in right field that night so could see the show much better on TV today. Liza was really hyped up to put on a great show despite problems with the PA system.

 

She always reminded people that the song was written for her, not Frank Sinatra though his version is almost always played.  In fact, for many years the Yankees only played Liza's version of "New York, New York" when the team lost.  They have stopped that indignity but now don't ever play her rendition.

 

When you watch the "All Time Games" on MLBTV, you realize how every game has turning points and chances for redemption. Earlier in the game, Mike Piazza had been unable to catch a throw at home plate from right field, allowing hustling Chipper Jones to score the first run of the game from first base.  

 

In mid-game Piazza also stranded a runner at third with two out by grounding out to third.  But he rose to the occasion in the bottom of the 8th with a game-changing two-run home run off New York-born Steve Karsay.

 

There was no over-the-top celebration of the homer by either Piazza or his teammates.  They were happy, of course, but I sensed a feeling that it was a statement of affirmation after such a jarring blow to the city delivered by the suicide bombers.

 

Hearing "New York, New York" again and watching the happy ending, I was yet swept by the bittersweet feeling that it will be a long time before we can experience the joy of watching in capacity crowds.  Not forever - we can't think that way - but it will be a long time. And wisely so until the scientists and sensible public health officials get a better grip on the problem.


So let's take some solace in watching some old baseball movies. Mark down this Tuesday April 28 at 1p when TCM shows the original "Angels in the Outfield" from 1951. It is directed crisply by Clarence Brown (1890-1987), who holds the unenviable record of the most Oscar nominations without a win at six.  

 
"Angels" stars Paul Douglas as the crusty beleaguered manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Janet Leigh plays a newspaper reporter specializing in society stories who tries to civilize him.  Keenan Wynn, 13 years before his memorable turn as Bat Guano in "Dr. Strangelove," plays a cynical sportswriter. 

  

The title comes from a little girl who roots so hard for the Pirates that she imagines angels in the outfield helping them. And whatdya know? They are real. The ever-cheery and bubbling Spring Byington plays a nun who helps facilitate the miracle. 

 
I can envision many hard-boiled sophisticated baseball fans running away from the TV before the film is even shown.  I say give it a try.  In my first seeing, I found it not as sentimental as it sounds.  

 

Even if not buying into the movie, fans can enjoy the baseball sequences filmed at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field. Look for cameo appearances by Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Ralph Kiner wearing #4, and Bing Crosby, who owned a share of the Pirates at the time.  

Sam Narron plays a rival Philadelphia coach - Narron was one of eight Narrons from a baseball family in North Carolina that played professional baseball. 

 

Paul Douglas is one of my favorite actors.  He delivers athletic portrayals naturally because he briefly played pro football in the pre-NFL days and was a sports announcer for many years.  He had also been convincing as Ray Milland's catcher in the charming "It Happens Every Spring" released in 1949 ( that film was written by Valentine Davies who the year before had created "Miracle on 34th Street" with Edmund Gwenn as Santa Claus and young Natalie Wood). 

 

On the musical front, if you tune into wqxr.org on line or 105.9 FM, this Sunday night Apr 26 at 10p, the piano music of Gabriel Faure (1845-1921) will be highlighted in David Dubal's absorbing "Reflections from the Piano" series. It is a repeat of the Wed at 10p show.

 

Faure's melodies always are inviting and many of his harmonies are haunting. Oddly, some of his gently dissonant notes somehow reminded me of the much later jazz great Thelonious Monk (1917-1982).  There will be a second Faure show on W Apr 29 at 10p, repeated on Su.

 

Remember, too, that during the daytime Th Apr 30 will be Eve Arden Day on TCM. Unfortunately, they are not showing "Anatomy of A Murder" in which she plays James Stewart's secretary.  It would have been timely since on April 29 Duke Ellington, who wrote the music for the film, would be 121.

 

They are showing films I've never seen - "Unfaithful" at 10a, "Comrade X" from the critical period of 1939-40 at 2p, and the classic "Mildred Pierce" at 345p. The last one at 6p is the so-so filming of her classic radio-TV "Our Miss Brooks". It does have the novelty feature of

direction by "Grandpa" Al Lewis of Munster fame. 

 

Sorry to end on a somber note but it was an eerie coincidence that actress Shirley Knight passed away last week on April 21nd on the same night that TCM was showing "The Group," based on Mary McCarthy's incisive novel about Vassar's Class of 1933 and their first years in the real world.

 

Knight gave an outstanding performance as she always did.  I had forgotten that she had created the role on both Broadway and Hollywood of Reenie in William Inge's achingly beautiful play, "The Dark At The Top of the Stairs."  

 

She always provided a seemingly placid but deeply emotional coloration to all her roles. In some ways she  reminded me of Sissy Spacek before Sissy Spacek came on the scene.  Shirley Knight was 83 and she died at the home of her daughter Caitlin Hopkins who chairs the theatre program at Texas State U in San Marcos.  

 

That's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it (even if you have to wear a mask a lot of the time.) 

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Music and Basketball As Antidotes to the No-Baseball Blues

The darkest days of the calendar year are upon us. Daylight Saving Time is over and until December 21, days grow shorter and shorter. There are less than 100 days until pitchers and catchers report to spring training in 2016. So we try to be strong.

Yet there is so much of the MLB network one can watch. It was nice to see streamlined versions of the best post-season games – cut into two-hour segments - but after a while that grows old, too. And I have never been big on watching award shows.

Hall of Fame eligibility is another topic that doesn’t thrill me to the marrow. It seems likely Ken Griffey Jr. gets elected when the results of the balloting is announced on January 7.

I think Padres closer Trevor Hoffman has a chance but I’d wait a while longer on him. He certainly didn’t excel in his World Series appearances in 1998 and that should be at least a temporary cautionary message.

Mike Piazza needs less than 10 per cent of what he garnered last year to break past the 75% representation on all ballots to enter Cooperstown. Though he never failed a drug test (neither did Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire), the stigma of the “steroid era” still hangs over Piazza.

Here are two antidotes to the No-Baseball Blues:
1. I do have my college basketball teams to root for. Columbia is actually picked to do well in the Ivy League with the return of potent forward Alex Rosenberg from injury and stellar guard Maado Lo, who is shortlisted for both the Bob Cousy and Lou Henson awards given for outstanding backcourt play.

Both Rosenberg and Lo are seniors so it is a do-or-die year for coach Kyle Smith's team that looks deep except at the important center position.

Out in Madison, the Wisconsin Badgers will always be interesting under coach Bo Ryan who is hedging on whether this will be his last year. I hope he stays as long as
he wants.

He turns 68 next month and is a true basketball lifer – son of Chester, Pennsylvania high school coaching legend Butch Ryan, Bo worked his way patient up from the small college Division III ranks, excelling at U. of Wisconsin-Platteville.

Since his arrival in Madison in 2001 his Badger teams have never finished below 4th in the Big Ten. They are coming off two back-to-back Final Four appearances.

They avenged a 2014 loss to Kentucky last season but lost a controversial final to Duke when the refs stopped calling fouls on Duke in the second half and blew the whistle constantly on the Badgers.

Adjusting to life won’t be easy without the versatile seven-foot Frank Kaminsky, now with the Charlotte Hornets, and forward Sam Dekker, who left a year early to join the Houston Rockets.

No one realistically expects the Badgers to return to the Final Four for the third year in a row. Yet why be a sports fan if you can’t dream a little (or a lot)?

Gotta love a coach like Ryan who picked up his nickname Bo on the Chester playgrounds because he used to play the game like middleweight boxing champion Bobo Olson – all knees and elbows.

Antidote #2
“Jazz should wipe away the dust of every day life,” Art Blakey of the Jazz Messengers fame famously said. I thought of that insight after hearing Chucho Valdes and Irakere, his 9-piece band of young Cuban musicians, thrill a Town Hall audience in midtown Manhattan on Veterans Day eve.

At 74 pianist Valdes shows no signs of slowing down. A child prodigy and son of Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes, who after the Castro revolution lived the rest of his 94 years in Europe, Chucho has stayed in Cuba but has built a deserved world-wide reputation.

In his one set of almost two hours on Tuesday night, Valdes and Irakere thrilled the audience. The young Cuban horn players were passionate and excellent and the sounds of Gnawan Moroccan percussion enthralling.

Valdes of course has technique to burn but tonight it was always in the cause of compelling music-making. His rendition of Victor Young's bebop chestnut "Stella By Starlight" was astonishing. He effortlessly quoted from Matt Dennis's "I Could Happen To You" and Michel LeGrand's "You Must Believe in Spring" while never losing his sense of form.

A concluding ballad dedicated to his father was beautiful and not completed without some strains of Rachmaninov.

Before Valdes and Irakere head to Europe, they play in Boston on Nov 12, suburban Washington - the Strathmore in Bethesda MD on Nov 15, and Durham NC on Nov 16. If you have a chance don't miss them.

That's all for now in my first installment of Coping With The No-Baseball Blues.
More on my upcoming adventure hearing live classical Rachmaninov in my next installment.

In every season always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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