Sep 18, 2020

The Dangers Of Zipping Up Your Pants

This is starting pitcher Zack Wheeler.  He was our big free agent acquisition over the winter, and he's had a fantastic first year in Philadelphia so far, with a record of 4-0 and an ERA under 3.  This photo shows Mr. Wheeler putting on his jersey for the first time at the press conference when it was announced that he was joining the Phillies.  Luckily for us, they didn't give him a pair of pants to try on or his season might have ended before it even began.

One week ago, it was announced that Wheeler would be missing his weekend start against the Miami Marlins because he injured his middle finger while he was putting on a pair of pants.  It's been that kind of season.

When I last wrote about the Phillies two weeks ago, the Phillies had won 9 of their last 10 games and were threatening to overtake the Braves for first place in the division.  Since that time, the Phillies lost 5 of 7 against the Marlins and have fallen to third place in the division.  To add insult to injury, rookie phenom Sixto Sanchez has been the talk of the game and has drawn comparisons to the great Pedro Martinez, including from Pedro himself.  The Phillies traded Sixto to the Marlins for J.T. Realmuto less than two years ago, and despite the fact that Realmuto is objectively the best catcher in baseball, this trade is already beginning to look like it might be one of the worst trades in franchise history.

Meanwhile, the pitching prospect that we kept has been quite disappointing, especially in comparison to Sixto.  Spencer Howard is 1-2 with a 5.92 ERA in six starts this season.  His velocity is down, and he has problems with his shoulder that have likely brought an end to his rookie season.  This is especially bad news when you consider the fact that he lost two months of the 2019 season to a shoulder injury as well.  It's beginning to look like Howard's career might look a lot more like Kyle Drabek than Aaron Nola.

Jake Arrieta has joined Spencer Howard on the IL, and is likely out for the rest of the year.  J.T. Realmuto hasn't been officially put on the IL, but he's having problems with his hip and has been benched for over a week.  Rhys Hoskins has a left UCL injury that may require Tommy John surgery over the winter.  Bryce Harper's production at the plate has completely fallen off of a cliff, and the bullpen continues to give up runs away like candy on Halloween.  In fact, our new relief pitchers have been performing even worse than the guys they were brought in to replace.  The Phillies have six losses this season in games that they were leading by 3 or more runs.  In short, things are not looking good.

The Phillies have brought in a couple of new faces for their depleted roster, signing catcher Jonathan Lucroy and Greg Bird.  With all due respect, these guys aren't going to make a big difference.  Lucroy was a two-time all star, and Bird had an impressive rookie year back in 2015, but their best days are long behind them.  Lucroy has had two defensive innings and zero plate appearances for the Red Sox in 2020, and Bird hasn't played in a major league game since April 13th of last year.

In slightly more exciting news, the Phillies have promoted 22 year old center fielder Mickey Moniak to the big leagues.  Moniak was the first overall pick in the 2016 Draft, and while his minor league career hasn't been terrible, it also hasn't been all that impressive, especially for the #1 pick in the draft.  I don't think he's a bust (at least not yet), but I also don't think he's ready for the majors.  However, with all of the injuries, the Phillies need able bodied players to get through the rest of the season.  That's the point we're at in 2020.

One of the few bright spots for the Phillies over the past couple of weeks has been rookie reliever Jojo Romero, whose performance at the big league level this season is eclipsed only by his entrance from the bullpen.  Here he is slamming a Red Bull and obliterating the can as he comes into the game.  This dude has Phillies Legend written all over him.  We can only hope that he can continue to put on his pants without hurting himself.

The other bright spot has been Alec Bohm, who has been everything we could have hoped for.  He's batting over .300 and finds ways to get on base and make things happen every day, and he's improved defensively at third base.  Recently, he's been seeing time at first base with Hoskins on the IL, but whatever side of the diamond he's on, he looks to be an impact player for years to come with the Phils.

Despite recent success of Bohm and Romero, I'm beginning to question if the Phillies rushed their rebuild and closed the window of contention before it ever really opened.  As happy as I've been with J.T. Realmuto, it's become clear that the Phillies lost that trade.  Two years of the best catcher in baseball is not worth seven years of a starting pitcher with a 100 MPH fastball and ace potential at the major league level.

While I think the Phillies have mostly done well with free agent signings over the past few years (Harper, WheelerGregorius and McCutchen), I believe they'd be in a better position to win, both in 2020 and in the future, if they hadn't made any of the trades that Matt Klentak made over the past few years.  While it's undeniable that Realmuto is a better catcher than Jorge Alfaro, the Phillies could have just signed Realmuto in free agency this winter.  As it stands, they're going to have to pay top dollar to keep him anyway.  Imagine if they could have brought him into a 2021 team with Aaron Nola, Sixto Sanchez and Zack Wheeler at the top of the rotation.  This would have allowed them to take their time with Spencer Howard and not rush him into a Major League rotation after only 30 innings pitched above Single-A ball.  Additionally, had they not given away Howie Kendrick to the Nationals for nothing, and had they not traded for Jean Segura, the Phillies would have an infield of Hoskins, Kendrick, Gregorious and Bohm, with Scott Kingery as the super utility and J.P. Crawford as a defensive replacement/pinch runner off of the bench. They'd also have Carlos Santana as the designated hitter.  That's a pretty impressive team, and it could have easily been a reality.

Somehow, the Phillies have come out of the rebuilding process with a team made up of mostly veterans, and a minor league system that is virtually empty after the promotion of Bohm, Howard and Moniak, and the disastrous trade of Connor Seabold for two of the worst relief pitchers the Phillies have had in recent memory.  If they're going to compete in the near future, they're going to have to spend a lot of money, and it's doubtful that they will with their history of being hell bent on staying under the luxury tax threshold.

It gives me no pleasure to say this, but the future I see for the Philadelphia Phillies is a team that plays slightly over .500 - just good enough to compete for a playoff spot, but not quite good enough to be a championship contender.  I also see Bryce Harper growing frustrated at his decision to sign with a team who hired a foolish general manager that squandered the Phillies rebuild, and an ownership group that's not willing to spend what it takes to contend.  I try to be an optimistic fan and to look for the positives, and there definitely are a few reasons to be encouraged, but the big picture isn't looking too good for the Fightin Phils.  I hope that I'm wrong.

Sep 17, 2020

A New Classic Collection

Super Mario 3D All-Stars
Nintendo Switch (2020)
Nintendo is celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Super Mario Bros franchise by releasing a compilation of the first three 3D games of the series tomorrow.  The Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection includes three games: Super Mario 64 (originally released in 1996 for the Nintendo 64), Super Mario Sunshine (originally released in 2002 for the GameCube) and Super Mario Galaxy (originally released in 2007 for the Wii).

I remember getting the first Super Mario All-Stars in the mid-90's when I was a teenager.  It was a Super Nintendo cartridge that included a graphically enhanced version of Super Mario Bros 1, 2 and 3 from the NES, as well as a game called "Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels", which was a repackaged version of the Japanese Super Mario Bros 2 that was released only on Famicom.  If I'm remembering right, I think I traded a different game with a friend to get this cartridge, and I still have it today.  I played the hell out of that thing over the years.

The original Super Mario All-Stars was re-released on the Nintendo Wii ten years ago to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the series.  Like the new 3D All-Stars, this compilation was advertised as a limited edition game, but within a year of it's release, the company mass produced the hell out of it as a part of their Nintendo Selects line.  Unlike the original SNES cartridge, the Wii re-release was little more than a disappointing rom dump that added no additional features - not even the option to play the original NES versions of each game, or Super Mario World, which was included in later cartridge releases, which were called Super Mario All-Stars + World.

Despite the shady marketing behind the 2010 release, I pre-ordered a physical copy of the new Super Mario 3D All-StarsSuper Mario 64 was one of my favorite games when I was a teenager, and it still holds up today.  I haven't played as much Sunshine or Galaxy, but I enjoyed them too, and I'm looking forward to being able to play them all on the Switch without having to hook up three different consoles.

Sep 16, 2020

Happiness Is A Full Treat Bag

Peanuts Halloween Stickers (1989)
This sheet of stickers was recently scanned and shared by @TanookiKuribo.  I never knew Snoopy was part of the devout followers of The Great Pumpkin.

Sep 15, 2020

Farting Aliens On Crank

Visual Vacations postcard
Paul McGehee (1986)
Nature Astronomy, a peer-reviewed and respected scientific journal, have published their findings of an unusually high amount of phosphine gas in the atmosphere of Venus.  This molecule is almost exclusively associated with the metabolism of living things or as a byproduct of human technology.  For example, here on Earth, high concentrations of phosphine is found to be created by farts and meth labs.  While it's doubtful that the second planet from the sun is home to a society of flatulent Venusians tweakers, the presence of phosphine in the quantity that was discovered strongly suggests that Venus may be home to some form of life.

Add this to the ongoing list of inanity that has taken place in 2020.

Sep 14, 2020

Break Me Off A Piece Of That Pumpkin Pie

Kit Kat: Pumpkin Pie
Hershey (2020)
Even Covid can't stop the onslaught of pumpkin goodies that are destined to dominate the grocery store for the next two months.  Food companies are getting better at making pumpkin flavored products.  Ten years ago, a lot of the stuff I tried had an overwhelming cinnamon and spice flavor and didn't taste very much like pumpkin, but these Pumpkin Pie Kit Kat bars are spot on.

Sep 13, 2020

Happy Birthday, Mario

Super Mario Bros.
Famicom (1985)
The original Super Mario Bros. was released on the Famicom in Japan 35 years ago today, and it was light years ahead of any video game that had ever been available to play at home at the time.  It is arguably the most influential console game of all time, and it almost single-handedly restored American consumer confidence in video games after the crash of '83.   The first level is studied by gamers and game designers to this day for the subtle way that teaches the mechanics of the game to the player without ever feeling like a tutorial.

Sep 12, 2020

I Did It All For The Cookie

I've ordered Chinese takeout from the Yong Hao Buffet in Hazleton plenty of times in the past, but this is the first time I've been solicited for oral sex by my fortune cookie.  Apparently, this is now a requirement to be counted in the 2020 Census.

Sep 11, 2020

An Evening On The Strip

Las Vegas Strip (1985)
This shows Las Vegas Blvd. North to Freemont Street with the Spring Mountain Road intersection at the bottom of the photo.  Sammy Davis Jr. was performing during this time at the Desert Inn.

Sep 10, 2020

Trash From The Past

I was walking the dog and saw this random piece of garbage on the sidewalk, and it made me wonder if little Harvey and I stumbled through a time warp.  It's an empty wrapper from a pack of baseball cards.  The Bowman logo immediately caught my eye, and the design of the wrapper looked very familiar.  I know they still make Bowman baseball cards in 2020, but these days, they're more of a specialty sub-brand for rookies and prospects, and they definitely don't come packaged with a stick of gum.

A quick search online confirmed what I had suspected: this wrapper is from a wax pack of 1989 Bowman cards that came out when I was eight years old.  It's in pristine condition for a 31 year old package that has been discarded on the streets of West Hazleton, so I can only assume that this was a package from someone's collection or new old stock that was only recently opened.

It's not a particularly rare or valuable set.  You can find a factory sealed box of all 484 cards in the set for about $15.  There are also plenty of unopened packs and boxes that could be had from one of several hundred different sellers on eBay.  Though I've come to appreciate the '89 Bowman set more as an adult collector, I wasn't crazy about it when I was a kid.  The cards are slightly larger than a standard 2.5" x 3.75" card, so they stuck out from the rest of the cards when you put them in a box, but they're a pretty cool vintage design, and the set includes a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card.

Sep 9, 2020

A Burger King Mis-Steak

Steakhouse King
Burger King (2020)
Recently, I've been trying to avoid McDonald's and Burger King.  Part of it is because I'd like to try to lose weight, but mostly it's because I've been getting fast food hangovers the next morning.  I used to be able to eat as much of it as I wanted, but now it makes me feel sluggish and lousy.  However, I am a sucker for limited edition products.

The Steakhouse King is made from two beef patties topped with bacon, American cheese, crispy onions, mayo and steakhouse sauce on a sesame seed bun.  Something about it didn't sit well with me.  It wasn't bad, but the mixture of mayonnaise and steak sauce didn't do it for me, and the crispy onions weren't very crispy.  They just added an element of greasiness to a burger that was already pretty heavy.

Food critiques aside, I can't be the only one who noticed that the sign for the Steakhouse King has a distinct 80's feel to it.  It has the pale brown coloring of an old, partially faded Polaroid, and I'm pretty sure the font is the one they used in their advertisements when I was a kid.  The coupon flyer uses the same font along with the retro Burger King logo.

Sep 8, 2020

Voo Dew II: The Mountain's Revenge

Mountain Dew Voo Dew II (2020)
Every good horror story needs a sequel.  The original Mountain Dew Voo Dew came out around this time last year, and it was pretty good.  I thought it tasted like Fruit Loops cereal mixed with a Creamsicle.  This year's recipe is even better.  It sort of reminds me of a soda version of Tropical Skittles.  We'll have to wait until 2021 to find out of Voo Dew is destined to be a horror trilogy.

Sep 7, 2020

The First Peek At A Long Journey

The Stand: Teaser Trailer
CBS All Access (2020)
The first trailer for The Stand was released to the public not long ago. I don't usually watch these because I like to go into a show or movie completely fresh, but over the past quarter century, I've come to know this story backwards and forwards and I'm anxious to see how they bring it to life this time around.

The video is only 30 seconds long, but it packs in a lot of clues for what we're about to see on December 17th.

The beginning of the trailer shows Frannie Goldsmith having the dream where she walks out of the cornfield in Hemingford Home, Nebraska.

I know this is a dream scene, so I can't say for sure if this is the way that Whoopi will look when the first group of travelers reaches Nebraska, but she has an awfully full and vibrant head of hair for a 108 year old woman.  Ruby Dee was made to look like she actually might be a centenarian (despite the fact that they made her two years younger in the original mini-series for some odd reason).  Whoppi is a phenomenal actress, so I'll go ahead and assume that god wouldn't dare ask her to lead the children of America into Colorado without her trademark dreads.

This is the first screen where I got a good look at Frannie, and I think Odessa Young is spot on.  She was written to be a pretty 20 year old college student.  My fear was that when Hollywood would try to sex her up to a ridiculous degree as they're known to do when they get their hands on a script adaptation of a novel.  However, I think they got her look just right.

This was the most revealing shot of the trailer to me.  Based on the background and the group of four in this scene, I believe that we're looking at the four brave souls who went west to take their stand against Randall Flagg in Las Vegas.  Specifically, it appears to me that they're in the Utah badlands looking up at the small mountain they have to climb to get back onto the highway.

Here's where it gets interesting: the group of four that make this journey are Stu Redman, Larry Underwood, Glen Bateman and Ralph Brentner.  Based on the publicity photos that have already come out, that appears to be Greg Kinnear as Glen on the far left and Jovan Adepo as Larry on the far right.  Standing next to Larry is our hero from Arnette, James Marsden as Stu.  However, their fourth companion in the cowboy hat doesn't look too much like an overweight, middle-aged man from Oklahoma City.

IMDB doesn't have a character named Ralph Brentner listed in the cast & crew for the 2020 mini-series; however, the Wikipedia entry for the show includes a listing for Irene Bedard playing a character named Ray Brentner.  Irene is a Native American actress who starred in a very successful independent film called Smoke Signals in the late 90's.  To repeat what I said earlier about the casting of Larry Underwood, I am not opposed to changes to a character's race, gender and/or age in a remake on the surface - as long as it's not done in a way that breaks continuity with the overall story.  For example, casting Idris Elba as Roland in The Dark Tower was ridiculous because a major plot point in the series involves his struggles with a young black woman from the 60's named Odetta Holmes (aka: Detta Walker) who mistrusts Roland in large part because he is a "honky mahfah".  Little did I know at the time that this was the least of the problems with The Dark Tower film, which was a complete train wreck that barely resembled the books at all.

Anyway, I think it's an interesting interpretation to turn Ralph Brenter from a good-hearted Okie hayseed to a middle-aged Native American woman named Ray Brentner.  In an odd way, it pays tribute to the original mini-series, which swapped the gender of radio personality Ray Flowers from male to female (played by the incredible Kathy Bates).  There's no reason that the Ralph character has to be male from a story perspective, and truth be told, the cast probably could have used a bit more diversity, as I'm sure Mr. King would agree.

Speaking of Larry Underwood, here he is with his back turned to the camera in a post-plague New York City alongside Rita Blakemoor.  I'll repeat what I said earlier - when I read the book, I always pictured Rita as being significantly older and less put together than Heather Graham, but she's a fantastic actress and I'm sure she'll rock it.

The thing that caught my eye in this part of the trailer isn't either of the actors, but the background.  This scene is meant to take place in the first days of post-Captain Trips New York City.  It should look like a post-riot wasteland, complete with burnt out buildings, smashed windows and bodies of flu victims everywhere.  From the looks of this screenshot, the city is almost pristine, apart from a small pile of garbage and one car that's double parked, neither of which would be cause for a second glance on any random day in the city.  In fact, this image of NYC looks more clean and orderly than it was the last time I was there prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.  I really hope they didn't skimp on the production costs.

I'm guessing that this scene is showing Stu Redman making his escape from the plague center in Stovington, Vermont.  I get that they're going for the atmosphere of a power outage and dim emergency lighting that's kept up by backup generators, but if I hadn't read the book, this photo would make me think that Stu was captured by a spaceship.

Here, we have Larry Underwood sitting in a room that appears to have an intravenous drip bag in the background.  That would place this scene in the final days of the Captain Trips pandemic with Larry and his mother.  It didn't occur to me until seeing this picture, but it appears they're giving Larry a goatee from the start of the series.  This contrasts with the book and the mini-series, which present Larry as a clean shaven, fresh faced rock star on the rise whose beard grows as he is shocked into maturity by a post-plague world.

Again, the background of this shot is taking up most of my attention.  If you've never read the book, try to imagine a hospital in New York City that is completely overrun.  In other words, picture what a hospital looked like in the busiest day of the Covid-19 pandemic and multiply that by 1,000, because Captain Trips has spread to the entire population, and it kills 100% of those who become infected within days.  I know you can't tell much from a single screenshot, but the room appears to be largely empty and clean as a whistle.  The hospitals in The Stand were overrun with people who are packed in like sardines and in a state of panic.  The concept of social distancing never comes up, because by the time the general public is aware of what's going on, the superflu is literally everywhere.

If it was just one screenshot, I'd probably dismiss these thoughts as minor nit picks, and perhaps that's just what they are.  Maybe they're holding back the truly shocking images of an apocalyptic plague that literally brings an end to human civilization.  However, it's a trend I've noticed in more than one image.  I suppose time will tell.

Yes!  That is the Harold Lauder from the book!  That is the young man whose insecurities, fueled by his "ledger" have driven him to madness.  I've always thought that the original mini-series makes Harold a bit too sympathetic in the beginning and not quite sympathetic enough at about three quarters of the way through the story, when he comes frustratingly close to a moment of clarity that leads him to almost abandon his senseless desire for vengeance and to find a better way.  I'm encouraged by how he will be portrayed in the new mini-series.

I don't know if it's the piano, the mustache or the lighting, but I'm getting Little Richard vibes from this picture of Nick Andros.  Seeing Henry Zaga in this light almost makes me wish he could swap roles with Jovan Adepo as Larry Underwood, because he definitely could fill the role of a rock star with this look.  However, the real story here is the eye patch.  This leads me to believe that the Nick Andros of the new mini-series will be a bit closer to the book than he was in the original mini-series.  Poor Nick is in for a rough time in Shoyo, Arkansas.

Call him the Dark Man.  Call him the Walking Dude. Call him the Man In Black who fled through the desert while The Gunslinger followed.  Call him whatever name you know him by, because it all comes out the same.  He is Randall Flagg, and he is eternal.

There's not enough in the trailer to know how Alexander Skarsgård will bring life to the most diabolical villain in the Stephen King universe.  The concern I have is that there's supposed to be a charismatic charm to the Dark Man that isn't coming across in the little bit that I've seen so far.  Randall Flagg is evil, no doubt about that, but he doesn't only inspire evil followers.  The book makes it very clear that men, women, and even children fall under his spell and make the trip to Las Vegas, and that they're not really different from the folks who make the journey to Boulder to meet Mother Abigail.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan would have been the perfect choice to play Randall Flagg.  A lot of the same elements that make Negan tick are mirrored in the Dark Man.  Watch any episode of The Walking Dead that features Negan in charge of The Saviors and you'll see what I mean.  He's violent and dangerous, but there's also a cold logic there, and a loyalty to those who are loyal to him.  Above that, he inspires loyalty from others because his lies are dipped in just enough truth to make his followers proud to be part of what he is building.

There isn't even close to enough material here to see if this will come across as strongly in the mini-series as it does in The Stand, The Dark Tower or anything other place where Flagg pops up, so we'll have to wait and see.

I'm beginning to wonder if Julie Lawry has been given a bigger role in this version of The Stand.  She's a minor character in both the book and the original mini-series.  She pops up in Kansas for a few pages while Nick and Tom make their way across the country to Hemingford Home, and then you don't see her again until almost the end of the story where her appearance is slightly more than a cameo.  She's important enough to not leave on the cutting room floor, but if you had to, it wouldn't take too much creativity to work around her absence.  The fact that her character is one of the roughly dozen or so that the producers have included in the trailer is puzzling.

If the last photo had me puzzled, this one has me flat out confused.  I have no idea who the hell this is supposed to be, but she looks pretty pissed off.  She's holding something that's either a bedazzled microphone or maybe a lever of some kind, and it appears that she's in a room with a chandelier and a giant panting on the wall.

According to IMDB, there's an actress named Fiona Dourif listed in the cast as playing The Rat Woman.  I'm really bad with faces, but this could be her.  If it is, this is both a race and gender swap from the original mini-series.  The Rat Man was played by Rick Aviles, a black Puerto Rican actor who is best known as the mugger in Ghost in which he co-starred with Whoopi Goldberg.

Speaking of Whoopi, here she is as Mother Abagail staring down a majestic looking white wolf, which I believe is either being possessed by Randall Flagg or is Flagg himself.

I think that this is going to be one hell of a series.  It's got pretty big shoes to fill to live up to the book, but this is the most interested I've been in a television series in a very long time.  I'm looking forward to seeing if they include any Dark Tower easter eggs along the way.  I'm even more interested by the fact that Stephen King has written an all new ending to the last chapter that is different from the novel.  I don't know if that new ending begins before or after the final confrontation with Randall Flagg, but either way, I can't wait to find out.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but a whimper
                                                           - T.S. Eliot

Sep 6, 2020

The Smallest Minority In Town

Mathematically, this means that West Hazleton had a total of 4.5 Hawaiians during the 2010 census.  I've lived in this borough for most of my life, and I can't say that I've ever come across any other Hawaiians in town, but who knows.  Maybe one of the houses I walk past with the dog every day is hiding the other three and a half Hawaiians... or is it three Hawaiians and a Menehune?

Unless I had a cousin living down the street that I wasn't aware of, I'm pretty sure that 0.1% is just me.  I wonder what the 2020 census will reveal.

Sep 5, 2020

Now That's A Great Value

Great Value Honey Bun
Wal-Mart (2020)
If you're trying to save a little money on your grocery order, it's not a bad idea to see if there's a generic store brand version of your favorite products.  For example, these honey buns are every bit as delicious as the name brand ones, and at 2 for $1.00, they're about half the price.

Eagle eyed shoppers who are willing to sacrifice freshness for savings can get an even better deal by looking for products with reduced stickers.  These are usually near or slightly past the best by date, and in most cases, they're just as good.  That is, of course, unless you're at the Wal-Mart in Hazleton, where honey buns that expired four days ago are "reduced" to a price that's 6 cents higher than the price on the box they came in.  The sticker says that somebody is saving 19 cents, but I'll be damned if I can figure out who.

Sep 4, 2020

Nine Out Of Ten

Alec Bohm
September 3, 2020
On August 22nd, a dejected Bryce Harper spoke to the press after the Phillies had lost their fifth game in a row and had fallen to last place.  The team had been hitting well and getting excellent starts out of most of their starting rotation, but the bullpen has been an absolute dumpster fire.  Bryce looked at the assembled media and laid down the gauntlet, saying "We have to go on a streak and win 9 out of 10.  It needs to happen."  The Phillies responded by doing exactly that - winning 9 of the past 10 games.  Even the one game they lost on August 30th was a momentum builder that saw the Phillies come back from 10-0 to score 10 runs of their own and narrowly lose to the Braves.

Part of the Phillies recent success is due to a completely revamped bullpen.  The Phillies made three trades to bolster the bullpen by bringing in David Hale from the Yankees, Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman from the Red Sox, and David Phelps from the Brewers.  Additionally, prospect Jojo Romero has been promoted to the big leagues and is off to a fantastic start, and 2019 bullpen standout Ranger Suarez has fully recovered from Covid-19 and is back with the team.  This isn't a flawless collection of talent.  I'm pretty sure Workman is inspiring a whole new generation of alcoholics in Philadelphia with the base runners he has allowed in the 9th inning this week alone.  However, they are all capable major league relievers, and they're a hell of a lot better than what this team had in the bullpen three weeks ago.

Zack Wheeler (2020) and Fernando Valenzuela (1994)
The reason for the Phillies recent success isn't solely because of the acquisition of a few relief pitchers.  A huge portion of the credit goes to the emergence of Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler as one of the most effective top of the rotation duos in the National League.  Nola is back to his 2018 form, and Wheeler has delivered everything the Phillies hoped he would when they lured him away from the Mets last winter.  John Stolnis pointed out a fun fact in the most recent Hittin' Season podcast - Zack Wheeler is the first Phillies pitcher to allow 3 runs or fewer in his first 7 starts with the team since Fernando Valenzuela in the strike shortened 1994 season.  Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto have cooled off a bit, but Rhys Hoskins and Didi Gregorius have gotten as hot as they've ever been in their careers, and Andrew McCutchen is proving that his resurgence at the plate last season was no fluke.  The best news of all is that Alec Bohm has emerged as a legitimate Rookie Of The Year candidate and has more than lived up to the hype thus far in his short time in the majors.

Everything is going the Phillies way.  They've just swept the defending World Champion Washington Nationals and battled back from the basement to sit alone in second place, just 2.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves with 23 days left in the regular season.  Let's do this, Philadelphia!

Sep 3, 2020

Tom Terrific

Tom Seaver
One of the greatest pitchers of all time has passed away at age 75 due to complications from Covid-19Tom Seaver won 311 games in a career that spanned 20 seasons from 1967 to 1986.  He is best known as the ace of the Mets rotation, but he spent the last 9 years of his career pitching for the Reds, White Sox and Red Sox.  He retired as a 12 time All-Star with 3,640 strikeouts, 61 shutouts (including a no-hitter) and a remarkable career ERA of 2.86.

When I was growing up and learning about the game in the 80's, there were three legendary pitchers that I put on a pedestal above all others: Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver.  Seaver was a teammate of Ryan on the 1969 World Champion New York Mets.  What I didn't realize until many years later is that he came within an eyelash of being a teammate with Steve Carlton on my beloved Phillies.  Seaver was originally a first round draft pick of the Atlanta Braves in 1966, but due to a technicality, his contract with the Braves was voided by Commissioner Eckert.  This resulted in an offer to any major league clubs who were willing to match the Braves contract offer of $40,000.  Three teams did: the New York Mets, the Cleveland Indians and the Philadelphia Phillies.  One team was selected at random out of the three, and it happened to be the Mets, for whom he would go on to become the greatest pitcher in the history of the franchise.

Sep 2, 2020

The Little Sticker That Could

I am amused by the simplest things.  Take, for example, this reusable ice pack.  Over the summer, my refrigerator broke, and it was over a month until we could get a new one.  In that time, we filled the broken fridge with bags of ice from the gas station to keep the food cold until we could eat it all.

One of the things that couldn't be eaten was this ice pack that was buried in the back of the freezer.  It was one of the many things I brought over from my grandparents house after my grandmother passed away in 2012.  Why throw away a perfectly good ice pack, right?  I remember they used to throw this in the cooler when they went shopping at Sam's Club to keep the food cold on the drive home, which was at least a half hour with my grandfather's rigid obedience to the speed limit.

Though all of the times that this thing was frozen and thawed out and refrozen, the price tag somehow stayed attached.  It's got to be the strongest glue and paper on the planet.  They should print books on whatever stock they used for this label.  Apparently, my grandparents bought this from Fay's Drugstore, which used to be in Valmont Plaza in Hazleton before the store closed in the mid 90's (or maybe it turned into a Rite Aid; I can't remember which).  That means this little sticker managed to hang on for at least a quarter century, and it shows no signs of peeling off any time soon.

What can I tell you?  An easily amused person + a global pandemic = blog posts about a price tag on an old ice pack.  Be on the lookout for the announcement on my Pulitzer Prize.

Sep 1, 2020

A Game And A T-Shirt

Illusion Of Gaia
Super Nintendo (1994)
On this day in 1994, the second of the Quintet trilogy of RPG games in the 16 bit era was released in North America.  I remember that I saw Illusion Of Gaia for the first time at Toy Works in Hazleton when I was 14 years old.  At the time, I had never heard of Soul Blazer and had no idea that this game was a sequel.  It caught my eye because it was affordably priced (I think it was around $20) and it came with a free t-shirt.  This was back in the day when I could actually fit in a one-size-fits-all shirt, so for a teenager with a limited amount of money saved up for a new game, this was an easy choice.
I knew almost nothing about Illusion Of Gaia before I played it for the first time, but it didn't take me long to absolutely fall in love with it.  It's main character's name is Will, and it's an action RPG which was, and still is, my favorite video game genre.  It's got a fantastic story and is filled with puzzles that are challenging, but it never gets to a point where the game is so hard that it becomes frustrating.

The best part of the game for me is the music - especially the Inca Gold Ship.  I found this song to be so peaceful and soothing that I would keep one of my game saves at this point in the game so that I could lay back in bed and listen to it whenever I wanted.

If you enjoy The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past, this is a game that you must play.  It's not particularly rare or expensive, and there are lots of walkthroughs available if you get stuck.  Give it a shot.

Aug 31, 2020

Tigers Are Filled With Orange Cream

Twinkies: Tiger Tails
Hostess (2020)
I'm a sucker for oddities, especially those that come in the form of seasonal or limited edition variations on things that are commonly available.  For example, this box of Twinkies: Tiger Tails, which is the same stale snack cake that I find disappointing every single time I've eaten them, but with an orange cream filling and a wrapper printed with tiger stripes.  And look, they even have a glittery sort of graphic on the top of the box!  Oooooh!  Aaaaah!

I bought a box, therefore I must be among the coolest cats and kittens.  It's time to update my CV.
These are like every other Twinkies ever made - not bad enough to be disgusting, but not good enough to make them enjoyable.  With every bite of a Twinkie, my brain begins shouting "hey stupid, why didn't you buy Tastykakes, or Entenmann's, or any one of a dozen other snack cakes that you know you'll enjoy!"  However, the next time they come out with a limited edition flavor, there I am happily tossing it into the shopping cart with a great big goofy grin on my face, and the cycle begins anew.

Somehow I doubt that these will find their way to eBay like the original Twinkies did when they wee briefly discontinued in 2012, but in these uncertain times, who can say for sure.

Aug 30, 2020

Baby, Can You Dig Your Remake

Owen Teague as Harold Lauder in the 2020 adaptation of The Stand (source: Robert Falconer / CBS)
The Stand
CBS All Access (2020)
I recently listened to Round Table #92 from the Dark Tower Palaver podcast.  The episode was centered around my all-time favorite novel, The Stand, and it's upcoming miniseries that will stream on CBS All Access on December 17th.

As much as I love The Stand, I've kind of pushed this project to the back of my mind.  Stephen King film adaptations have historically been hit or miss, however when they miss, they miss by a country mile.  The best example of this is when Sony Pictures attempted to cram eight novels and a short story into a single movie with their release of The Dark Tower in 2017.  They tried to call it a sequel to the books.  It wasn't.  It was a half-assed attempt to cash in on perhaps the best series of novels ever written with a poor film that, at best, contains a handful of references to its source material.  The Dark Tower movie is to The Dark Tower universe what Family Guy: Blue Harvest is to the Star Wars universe, and even that is giving it far more credit than it deserves.

This isn't the first time The Stand has been turned into a mini-series.  The first attempt aired on ABC in May, 1994, and it's surprisingly good for a King adaptation.  It over-simplifies much of the plot and its characters, and it leaves quite a bit out, but I found it to be an enjoyable 7+ hours that succeeds in capturing the spirit of the novel.

I didn't realize until listening to this podcast that they were as far along in the mini-series remake as they are.  Much of the cast has been announced, and some production photos have been published by Vanity Fair, so I'd like to take a moment to compare the actors and actresses that have been announced for the upcoming mini-series to the one that aired on ABC 26 years ago, and to the character as he or she is presented in the original novel.

James Marsden (left) and Gary Sinise (right)
Stu Redman
2020James Marsden
1994: Gary Sinise

Marsden has an impressive resume, but he's got very big cowboy boots to fill in The Stand.  Gary Sinise was absolutely perfect as Stuart Redman.  He came across naturally as "just another good old boy in a dying Texas town" who discovered his place in the world only after it ended.  My initial reaction was that he's too young for the role, but he's definitely not.  The man is 46 and he looks like he could be ten years younger than me.  That being said, I think Marsden might be a bit too GQ and polished for the role, but I'm sure people said the same thing about Rob Lowe in the original mini-series, and he was amazing.  I'm going to go ahead and set my skepticism aside when it comes to the new Stu Redman.

Odessa Young (left) and Molly Ringwald (right)
Fran Goldsmith
2020Odessa Young
1994: Molly Ringwald

It's been over 20 years since I first watched the original mini-series.  I've watched it at least a dozen times, and I'm still not sure how I feel about Molly Ringwald's performance as Frannie.  I guess I don't hate it, but I don't think she fully captured the young woman that King wrote about.

I've not seen any of the films or shows that feature Odessa Young, so I know nothing about her, but I'm pretty happy about that.  I think part of the problem with the original mini-series is that it was sometimes difficult to see past the star of the 80's Brat Pack films to fully appreciate the Fran Goldsmith of the book.  I'm interested in seeing how she is brought to life.

On a side note, I hope they find a way to include the confrontation between Frannie and her mother in the parlor.  I have a hunch it's not going to make it to screen, and I can understand why, but I think the scene does a great job of explaining Fran Goldsmith and where she came from.

Rob Lowe (left) and Henry Zaga (right)
Nick Andros
2020Henry Zaga
1994: Rob Lowe

Rob Lowe is right up there with Gary Sinise for his masterful performance as Nick Andros.  It couldn't have been easy to play a deaf mute and to capture the essence of a character whose only speaking lines come in a couple of dream sequences, but Lowe did a tremendous job.  I've only ever seen Henry Zaga in 13 Reasons Why.  He's a competent actor who seems like he'd be up to the challenge.

Bill Fagerbakke (left) and Brad William Henke (right)
Tom Cullen
2020Brad William Henke
1994Bill Fagerbakke

When I watched the original mini-series for the first time, it took me a moment to separate Bill Fagerbakke from his role as Dauber in Coach, but it didn't take long for him to melt into the role.  I think I'm going to run into the same situation with the remake as I try not to see Captain Piscatella from Orange Is The New Black.  I think that getting Tom Cullen just right may be even more challenging than the role of Nick Andros, particularly in the world today when so many are just aching for an excuse to hop on their soapbox and feign outrage, but Henke is a brilliant actor and I think he'll do a great job.

Adam Storke (left) and Jovan Adepo (right)
Larry Underwood
2020Jovan Adepo
1994Adam Storke

One of the current trends in television and filmmaking is to cast a black actor in a remake of a work that was previously played by a white actor.  It has the same effect on the general public pretty much every time: racists will express outrage while liberal-minded people will insist that the job should be given to the person with the most talent and who is best suited for the role regardless of their race.  The latter is a noble sentiment, but it's tainted with hypocrisy as these views are often expressed by the same groups who insist that all white actors step away from roles of characters that have a different ethnicity, such as Hank Azaria in The Simpsons or Scarlett Johansson in The Ghost In The Shell.

As usual, the douchebags who take these issues to the extreme have the loudest and most obnoxious voices in the discussion, so they shout down anyone in the middle who express a reasonable, adult opinion on the matter.  Therefore, if you don't enthusiastically agree that the world has gone to hell because black actors are portraying characters who have traditionally been white, you're called a libtard snowflake by one group of douchebags.  If you don't fall in line with the opinion that any actor can play any role, except for white people who must only accept roles for white characters, you're called a racist Nazi by another group of douchebags.  Naturally, both groups of douchebags are completely unaware of how asinine they are because they're obsessed with coming up with a zinger (which the little kiddos now call a "clapback") to "own" people who don't conform entirely to their world view.  This is mostly done as a public performance for the purpose of receiving positive reinforcement from their fellow douchebags ("say it louder for the people in the back").  The more I deal with people, the more I almost wish Captain Trips was real.  Anyway, at the risk of offending anyone in a world where we have all become Big Brother to each other, I will offer my opinion on this casting.

I absolutely love the way that Adam Storke brought the character to life in 1994, particularly when he takes a break from his trip across the country to play Eve Of Destruction for a traffic jam of the dead outside of Des Moines.  He played the role with a pitch perfect attitude to the source material, and his progression from a self-centered musician who "ain't no nice guy" to a family man who is willing to lay down his life to stand against evil is captured beautifully by Storke's performance.  These are big shoes to fill.

While I was critical of the casting of Idris Elba as Roland Deschain, I don't feel the same way about the casting of Jovan Adepo as Larry Underwood.  Unlike the lead role in The Dark Tower, there is no reason in the story for Larry to be a white guy.  Adepo is the right age for the character, and although I'm unfamiliar with his work, he has a look that I can definitely see as a musician from New York City who has the bad luck to have his big break coincide with the end of the world.

Laura San Giacomo (left) and Amber Heard (right)
Nadine Cross
2020Amber Heard
1994Laura San Giacomo

This may be the most appropriate casting in the whole project.  I don't remember seeing her performance in any movies or television shows that I've seen, but I can absolutely buy her in the role of the twisted, manipulative and evil Nadine Cross.

I wasn't a huge fan of how the Nadine was presented in the 1994 mini-series.  A large part of that is due to the fact that they omitted the Rita Blakemoor character and shoehorned her story into that of Nadine.  This also eliminated the relationship that Nadine had with "Joe", both on the road and in Boulder, so the end result was that Laura San Giacomo was playing a bastardized version of Rita and Nadine that didn't do justice to either one.  Her performance is all over the place, and I don't feel that it connected strongly to the motivations or story arc of the Nadine Cross character.  I know nothing of Amber Heard's work, but if she's half as good of an actress as she was in her Oscar-worthy performance of playing the victim to Johnny Depp, I'm intrigued.

Corin Nemec (left) and Owen Teague (right)
Harold Lauder
2020Owen Teague
1994Corin Nemec

Although I like Corin's performance in the original mini-series, I'm not crazy about how he was written at the start of the story.  The Harold Lauder in the first episode of the 1994 series is a socially awkward nerd who borders on being lovable.  In contrast, the novel presents him as highly intelligent, but absolutely obnoxious and not the least bit lovable.  When viewed through the lens of modern psychology, Harold comes across as a highly functioning autistic who recognizes that people don't like him without understanding why.  This causes him to become bitter and mistrustful of people while, at the same time, crafting an artificial persona to make it through the day, such as when he spends hours staring into a mirror to practice smiling.  As an autistic, I can definitely relate to this.

The original mini-series also short changes the crossroads that Harold comes to after he and his group settle down in Boulder.  In the novel, Harold gets so good at faking his way through the social landscape that he actually becomes respected and well-liked.  Stu even begins to warm up to him.  Eventually, Harold begins to question his desire for vengeance and seems on the cusp of leaving the negativity that plagued his mind in the past, until Randall Flagg and Nadine Cross nudge him back down a road that will damn him.  If not for their influence, I think "Hawk" would have eventually found himself in this new world, much in the same way that Larry Underwood did.

All of this nuance is lost in the original mini-series.  Harold goes from a nerdy, lovesick puppy to a murderous psychopath with very little exploration of his character.  I'm not at all familiar with Owen Teague's work, but I'm hoping that the remake of the mini-series can finally do justice to Harold Lauder on the screen.

Whoppi Goldberg (left) and Ruby Dee (right)
Mother Abagail
2020: Whoopi Goldberg
1994: Ruby Dee

The iconic Ruby Dee infused Mother Abagail with heart.  If you ever listen to the director's commentary track from the original mini-series, it will be clear to you that she loved playing this role and she put all of herself into the character.  I can think of no better actress for the late Ms. Dee to pass the baton to than the incomparable Whoopi Goldberg.  I have thoroughly enjoyed everything I have ever seen Ms. Goldberg in, and I can't wait to see the energy she brings to the 108 year old from Hemingford Home, Nebraska who still bakes her own biscuits.

Ray Walston (left) and Greg Kinnear (right)
Glen Bateman
2020Greg Kinnear
1994Ray Walston

The old bald-headed sociologist is probably my favorite character in The Stand overall.  I know many readers might disagree with me, but I feel as if Glen Bateman is the old man that Harold Lauder could have grown to become if he could have charted that blue and lonely section of hell and come out the other side.  Glen came out the other side as a distant loner with a dim view of the human race, which is summarized nicely in a conversation he has with Stu:
 “Shall I tell you what sociology teaches us about the human race?  I’ll give it to you in a nutshell.  Show me a man or woman alone and I’ll show you a saint.  Give me two and they’ll fall in love.  Give me three and they’ll invent the charming thing we call “society”.  Give me four and they’ll build a pyramid.  Give me five and they’ll make one an outcast.  Give me six and they’ll reinvent prejudice.  Give me seven and in seven years they’ll reinvent warfare.  Man may have been made in the image of God, but human society was made in the image of His opposite number, and is always trying to get back home.”
Ray Walston is probably best known as the titular character from My Favorite Martian, and he was perfect as Glen Bateman.  He was 79 years old when the original mini-series was filmed.  This time around, the've decided to go with 57 year old Greg Kinnear.  Kinnear is only 11 years older than James Marsden.  Unless they're planning to use makeup or CGI to age him up, I feel like this casting choice might alter the relationship between Glen and Stu.

Jamey Sheridan (left) and Alexander Skarsgård (right)
Randall Flagg
2020Alexander Skarsgård
1994Jamey Sheridan

The casting of The Dark Man is interesting to say the least.  Alexander Skarsgård is the older brother of Bill Skarsgård, who plays the iconic Pennywise in the film remake of Stephen King's It.  He looks a bit like Bryce Harper in the production photo, which has given me the visual of Randall Flagg bowing to the fans in right field at Citizens Bank Park.

When I first saw the mini-series, I liked Jamey Sheridan as Flagg.  I thought the special effects to turn his face into a demon were a bit silly and unnecessary, but he was unnerving and made me feel like this is someone I'd want to be friends with, not because I'd enjoy their company, but because I'd be afraid not to be.  However, as I worked through The Dark Tower series and realized that Flagg is just one of the many forms that The Man In Black has taken over the centuries, Sheridan doesn't seem right.

I was hoping for Jeffrey Dean Morgan, but if Alexander Skarsgård is half as creepy as his little brother in the clown makeup, he'll make a great Randall Flagg.

Miguel Ferrer (left) and Nat Wolff (right)
Lloyd Henreid
2020Nat Wolff
1994Miguel Ferrer

I'm not sure how to feel about this casting.  On one hand, the novel describes Lloyd Henreid as "the unrepentant baby-faced killer" when his murder spree in the pre-pandemic world generates headlines in the newspaper.  On the other hand, Miguel Ferrer delivered what was probably my favorite performance in the original mini-series when he was in his late 30's.  He was masterful, and for that reason, I have a hard time separating Ferrer from Lloyd when I read the book, even though the actor might have been older than the character was in the source material.

My knee jerk reaction to seeing that Nat Wolff cast as Lloyd was "Oh, come on!  Why do they always cast young, fresh-faced kids in roles meant for characters in their 30's and 40's", but I don't want to be unfair to the actor.  He's not too much younger than the character as it was originally written, and he very well might do a tremendous job and bring more of the source material to the screen.

Katherine McNamara (left) and Shawnee Smith (right)
Julie Lawry
2020Katherine McNamara
1994Shawnee Smith

Julie is first introduced to readers of The Stand as a 17 year old girl, but we very quickly learn that this might not be the case.  Stephen King clarifies the characters age by saying "She wasn't seventeen, or fourteen, or twenty-one. She was any age you wanted her to be... as long as you wanted her more than she wanted you".  In some ways, I find her to be the most realistic villain of any King novel.  Shawnee Smith did a great job in bringing madness and a smiling hostility to the character.  I still haven't gotten around to watching Arrow so I'm not very familiar with Ms. McNamara's work, but when I looked up a photo of her and found this one of her smirking, I was immediately on board with her in the role of Julie Lawry.

Jovan Adepo (left) and Heather Graham (right)
Rita Blakemoor
2020Heather Graham
1994: not included

Rita was cut out of the 1994 mini-series altogether.  They instead tried to fold aspects of her character into Nadine Cross.  I think that decision hindered Larry and Nadine, so I'm happy to see that Rita will be in the new mini-series.  King wrote her as an older, over-privileged widow who latches on to Larry.  My reaction to Rita is one of the reasons why I relate to the less desirable traits of Larry.  If I'm being completely honest with myself, Rita would have irritated me to the point where I would have bailed on her at the Lincoln Tunnel, if not sooner.  I know that's not the reaction King was going for, but what can I say?  I guess I ain't no nice guy, as the dental hygienist would no doubt have said if she met me - right after nailing me in the head with a spatula.

Heather Graham is an interesting casting choice.  When I was a teenager, she was Rollergirl in one of my favorite films, Boogie Nights.  I'm not sure if she's going to play Rita the way that King wrote her.  The production photo sure doesn't look like the Rita from the novel.  I pictured her to be more like Blanche Devereaux from The Golden Girls, but with the helpless, needy characteristics of Bill Dauterive from King Of The Hill.  You can't tell much from a single production photo, but I don't get those vibes from Graham as Rita.

Marilyn Manson - Photo source:  Christine Chew / UPI
2020: Marilyn Manson

The shock rock star has been cast for The Stand, but there was no announcement of what role he is playing.  Rumor has it that he will be playing Donald Merwin Elbert, better known to Stephen King fans as The Trashcan Man.

The Trashcan Man is one of my favorite characters in any Stephen King novel.  I've long felt that he's also one of the most misunderstood characters in the King universe.  Trashy is not an evil guy.  He was shaped into what he became by the world around him.  Whereas Tom Cullen was nurtured and cared for, Donald Elbert grew in a world of rejection and abuse.  Imagine a version of The Stand where he ignores The Dark Man, who preys on his weaknesses to draw him to Las Vegas - a world where he instead goes to Boulder to make a life in the Free Zone.  Would he have been welcomed, or would it have been Terre Haute all over again?

I see Trashy as an instrument of God much in the same way that Tom Cullen is.  He took a different path than Stu, Larry, Glen, Ralph and the "scouts" that were sent ahead of them.  However, he was put in the time and place that he needed to be to make his stand against The Dark Man.  Like Tom Cullen, he isn't fully conscious of his role, but if he wasn't there to play it, Randall Flagg's empire would have continued.  Gan works in mysterious ways.

It makes perfect sense for Manson to play The Trashcan Man, but something here seems fishy.  I think we're meant to believe that he's playing Trashy, but I have to wonder why Manson is the only known cast member whose role in the series hasn't been announced.  The production team has gone out of their way to announce most of the other major roles, as well as to release photos from the set, but there's been no photos of The Trashcan Man.  It makes me wonder if they're planning to shock us with Manson playing General Starkey, or the President of the United States, or some other straight-laced face of the system that allowed Captain Trips to come into being.  They could also be planning to spring him on us as one of Trashy's companions in the desert, if you can believe that happy crappy.  Wherever he is, I look forward to seeing Manson as a part of The Stand.

I'm so ready for this.  The Stand is my favorite work of fiction of all time, in any medium.  I've read the book, listened to the audiobook and watched the 1994 mini-series countless times since I first discovered it as a teenager.  I'm keeping an open mind that the people behind this new mini-series will learn from the mistakes of The Dark Tower film and deliver something worthy of this fantastic story.