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Troubled Musings on Baseball + Farewells to Carl Reiner & Johnny Mandel & More TCM Tips (updated)


I cannot say that I'm looking forward with any eagerness to the delayed opening of the MLB season on July 23 and 24. There are too many public health complications that could arise because of the still-uncontrolled coronavirus.  

 
Although travel will be mainly regional in the shortened 60-game regular season, teams will still be constantly on the road interacting with local populations that too often have disdained mask wearing and social distancing.   It may also be too much to expect the virile young players themselves to obey these rules and stick to their hotels while on the road.

 

There have already been some significant player defections. The biggest names so far who won't play at all in 2020 are Dodgers new southpaw David Price; Giants onetime All-Star catcher Buster Posey who doesn't want to put at risk his newly adopted infant twin daughters; and the Braves all-around outfielder Nick Markakis whose concern grew when he talked with his star teammate, first baseman Freddie Freeman who is already suffering with Covid-19.     

 
The quietly productive Markakis has 2355 career hits and will hurt his outside chance of reaching the magic number of 3000. Markakis was an Orioles mainstay for the first nine years of his career. But Baltimore blundered by not re-signing him after the 2014 season (sigh and double sigh. And still-active and productive Nelson Cruz too - more sighs.)   

 
Even before Freeman's affliction, Markakis was not thrilled at playing a season in empty stadiums. A gamer and a quiet leader, Nick liked playing in front of and for fans.  Perhaps he also remembered that game in 2013 when the Orioles played the White Sox in an empty Camden Yards after the riots sparked by Freddie Gray's death in police custody.  

 
As always, Houston's new manager Dusty Baker expressed some trenchant thoughts about baseball's situation during the pandemic. Interviewed during the Fourth of July weekend on WFAN's 33rd anniversary, he said he had used his time off clearing out a lot of unneeded stuff from closets and garages in his home.  

 
"We have too much," he noted.  The very charitable and socially conscious Baker, who at 71 is the oldest manager in MLB, said he donated a lot of material to garage sales and the homeless.  

 
Houston may have caught a break by the enforced idleness because the booing of the Astros in abbreviated spring training was intense.  Of course, the high tech-low comedy sign-stealing scandal occurred under previous manager A. J. Hinch and bench coach Alex Cora. 

 
Life must go on even in a pandemic.  "There is no wealth but life" remains my favorite adage courtesy of John Ruskin the British social theorist and art historian (who had no discovered connection to baseball, at least at press time).  


Here on the Upper West Side of New York City, we seem to be practicing social distancing and mask wearing very well.  The permanent closing of many restaurants and stores is very sad, but I was able this weekend to dine in the outdoors. Under Phase 3 recovery regulations,  surviving eateries are allowed to set up as many tables on sidewalks as space allows.

 
Before I close, I want to salute the memory of two nonagenarian creators who left us since I last posted: Composer-arranger Johnny Mandel, 94, and actor-comedian-writer Carl Reiner, 98.

 
I never met Carl Reiner but his role as a second banana to Sid Caesar on NBC Saturday  night's "Your Show of Shows" was a formative part of my first TV viewing in the early 1950s.  

 
Some of Reiner's bits with Caesar are etched forever in my brain.  Like his playing the title role in "The Dancing Doughboy" skit, a satire on World War I.  Poor Sid goes off to war while Carl is at home singing and dancing.  That's why you're fighting overseas, he tells Sid. So he can have fun at home.   


Or the Scrabble game where Reiner questions a strange word that Caesar has put down, and Sid challenges Carl's "MACHINE":  "What's this "MAC HINE?  That's not a word, it's a name." 

 
Reiner was truly American entertainment's Renaissance man.  He was Mel Brooks' interviewer on the hilarious "2000 Year Old Man" albums; director of TV's "Dick Van Dyke Show" and many movies; and of course father of actor-director Rob Reiner who first came to fame as Archie Bunker's son-in-law aka "Meathead". 

 
Dear reliable TCM will devote the evening and early morning hours on Th July 28 to a Reiner salute beginning with the semi-autobiographical "Enter Laughing" at 8p, followed by "All of Me" with Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin at 10p, "The Comic" at midnight, "Where's Poppa" at 2a, and "Oh God!" with George Burns at 330a.

 
While I'm plugging TCM's great programming, set your dials this coming Saturday night July 18 for "Bogie in 1941".  Coming at us back-to-back: "Maltese Falcon" at 8p, followed by "High Sierra" at 10p.  Earlier at 2p from 1944, Dick Powell breaks permanently free from his goody-two-shoes persona in "Murder, My Sweet". 

 

If that's not enough, at midnight Eddie Muller's Noir Alley features "Three Strangers" 1946 with that memorable duo of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet plus Geraldine Fitzgerald all tied together by one winning lottery ticket. 

 

TCM program note:  After July 25-26 "The Breaking Point," John Garfield's last film, Noir Alley will be on hiatus in August, but happily will return the second weekend in September.

 
Another great loss to our culture recently was Johnny Mandel, 94, in southern California. The New York-born composer-arranger - his early schooling was at PS 6 on Upper East Side - gifted the world with many great movie melodies.

 

A partial list includes "The Shadow of Your Smile" (from "The Sandpiper" with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton); "Emily" (from the "Americanization of Emily" with James Garner and Julie Andrews); "Suicide Is Painless" (the theme from "M*A*S*H); and a particular favorite of mine, the chromatically lush "Close Enough For Love" (from "Agatha").  

 

"I Want to Live" was his early breakthrough score in the 1950s, based on the real story of the jazz-loving unfairly-convicted murderer Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward). 

 
In one of my last interviews for WBAI-Pacifica in 1991, I visited Mandel when he was staying at a hotel in New York.  For all the great acclaim he received for his writing for movies, he considered playing horns in the Count Basie band in the 1950s his greatest musical thrill.  

 
We lost another great nonagenarian movie composer last week when Ennio Morricone died at 91.

 

And finally, here's a hoist of a glass to film-maker Kevin Rafferty, who left us much too early at age 73.  His doc. about the nuclear industry, "The Atomic Cafe," is a renowned classic.  

 
I discovered his work through his enjoyable and informative documentary "Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29," about the 1968 classic football encounter between two undefeated Ivy League powerhouses.  Viewing this film might take the sting away from the recent announcement that there will be no Ivy League football in the fall of 2020. 

 

Let's hope these great creators are never forgotten.  And those younger amongst us can find inspiration for such memorable fulfillment in our work. 

 
Always remember:  Take it easy but take it!  

 

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Three Cheers for Dusty Baker & Patrick Mahomes + Farewell Phil Rizzo & A Don't Miss "La Traviata" (with corrections)

At a tumultuous time in American history, when such phrases as "the rule of law" seem so antiquated to men in power, it is nice to see that every now and then in the world of sports, good things happen to good people.  Dusty Baker's return to the managerial fold as Houston Astros manager and QB Patrick Mahomes's MVP performance in Kansas City's Super Bowl victory qualify for me as unquestionable good news items.

 
It will be most interesting to see how Baker leads the Astros after their off-season of disgrace. Both Houston GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch were suspended by commissioner Rob Manfred for a year for their roles in tolerating the sign-stealing scandal that evidently was concocted by players, led by Carlos Beltran and bench coach Alex Cora (both of whom lost their 2020 managerial jobs - Beltran with Mets, Cora with the Red Sox).

 
Astros owner Jim Crane felt that suspension was not severe enough punishment so he promptly fired both Luhnow and Hinch.  In hiring Baker as Hinch's successor, he has chosen a man who is old school in the best sense. In his 19-year MLB career as a hard-hitting solid left fielder - .278 BA, .432 .SA, 1981 H, 242 HR, 1013 RBI, and for the modern age an impressive BB-K ratio of 762-926 - Baker was never on the disabled list.

 
After establishing himself in 1972 as a four-year regular with the Atlanta Braves, Baker was traded to the Dodgers where he became a key contributor on the Dodgers 1977-78 NL champions and 1981 World Series winners.

 
Dusty has belied the old saw that good-to-great players don't make good managers.  His previous teams - Giants, Cubs, Reds, Nats - all made the playoffs, and he now  gets a chance to earn that elusive first World Series ring.  (His 2002 Giants lost in seven games to the Angels.)

 
At 70, Baker will be the oldest manager in the big leagues, but he certainly is young at heart. Houston's new GM, James Click, was just plucked from the Tampa Bay Rays front office where he had worked not long after his graduation from Yale in 2006.

 
The Click hiring shows that the craze for "analytic" information will not diminish in Houston. Tampa Bay has been in the forefront of the movement to bring so-called "better ball" information into baseball operations. 

 

Except for adding his longtime aide former major league infielder Chris Speier, Dusty will be keeping Hinch's coaching staff including bench coach Joe Espada, who was on Joe Girardi's Yankees staff, and veteran pitching coach Brent Strom who at 71 is a year older than Dusty. 

 
Mets fans may remember that Strom broke in with them in 1972, but he never won a game for them. He was 9-15 for other MLB teams before he started on his long trek to become one of the most respected pitching coaches in the game.  

 
I don't like making predictions, but it says here that Baker will keep the Astros in contention during what should be a spirited AL West race among the refurbished California Angels under Joe Maddon - himself a very lively 66 - and the perennial bridesmaid Oakland Athletics.

 

 

As for Patrick Mahomes leading the Kansas City Chiefs to a stirring come-from-behind Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco Forty-Niners, I was delighted that this son of former major league pitcher Pat Mahomes has reached the pinnacle of the gridiron sport.  

 

Who couldn't smile at the picture of 5-year-old Patrick shagging flies with his father before the Mets' home World Series games in 2000?  Papa Pat was actually ineligible for the Series, but he had been a big part of the 1999 Mets playoff team.

 

So from an early age, young Pat knew what it was like to be around pressure-filled games. He understood early on that "pressure is a privilege" (to quote the title of one of tennis great Billie Jean King's books - BTW, Billie Jean Moffitt King's older brother Randy was a standout relief pitcher primarily for the Giants.) 

 
Throughout his high school years young Mahomes used to call himself "a baseball player playing football."  Things changed when he excelled at Texas Tech and now he is atop the football world.  Here's hoping he has a good chance at repeating in 2021.

 
But N. B. (Note Well)! In this age of free agency and unremitting celebrity, it is harder than ever to repeat as champion.

 
Before I close, I want to salute the memory of the hard-working baseball scout Phil Rizzo, who passed away late last month at the age of 90.  A Korean War veteran, Phil never made the majors as a player, but he devoted himself afterwards to finding talent for many professional teams. 

 
He was working for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001 where Mike Rizzo was scouting director when the Dbacks won the World Series over the Yankees. In what I think was as a blessing from the baseball gods, Phil Rizzo lived to see his son Mike Rizzo, GM of the Washington Nationals, win the World Series last October.

 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT:
The current Metropolitan Opera production of Guiseppe Verdi's "La Traviata" is a memorable experience.  I saw the production, directed by stage veteran Michael Mayer, on Monday night Feb. 3 with an emergency Alfredo sung by Korean tenor Won Whi Choi. 

 
After an understandably tentative first act, he grew into the role in the final two acts. The rest of the cast was superb - soprano Aleksandra Kurzak from Poland and bassist Quinn Kelsey from Hawaii. The Met Orchestra, this night led by Londoner Karel Mark Chichon, and its chorus comprise one of the great ensembles in the world.   

 
I never appreciated until last night's performance the profundity of the gripping second act. The confrontation between Alfredo's father Germont who insists that courtesan Violetta give up Alfredo to save the Germont family name brought me to tears.

 
There are six more chances to see "La Traviata" ("The Fallen Woman"):

Wed Feb 26, Sat Feb 29, Th Mar 5, W Mar 9, F Mar 13, and Th Mar 19, all at 730p except for Sat Feb 29 at 830p.   

 
Rush seats at affordable prices are sometimes available on day of performances.   The casts may change but this is an evening not to be missed. Check out metopera.org

 

That's all for now as pitchers and catchers are poised to report before Valentine's Day.

Always remember:  Take it easy but take it. 

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