Friday, March 30, 2007

Gutter: Hype above facts

About eight or nine years ago I shared an apartment with several other college students who, like me, couldn’t quite afford the luxury of expanded cable service. In fact, we had to rely on an antenna, and our antenna was so cheap that it only picked up one station. That station was WPXI, Channel 11 in Pittsburgh. This limited access to television led to watching a lot of programs that I wouldn’t ordinarily watch.

But in addition to “Game Warden,” “Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict,” and a whole assortment of teen-based Saturday morning programming, a steady diet of Channel 11 also includes (features) local news. And during this period of single-channel isolation I grew to love the often-ridiculous nature of local news broadcasts.

Since that period of my life, though, I have become financially secure to the point where I can afford a higher-tiered cable service. As such, I haven’t watched local news with any degree of frequency for the past six or seven years. But with the ongoing saga of The Parkway West Rock Thrower, I have found myself drawn back into the sensationalizing web of local news, often furiously flipping between Channel 2, Channel 4, and Channel 11 for the latest updates. And with this return, I have also been reminded of why I used to enjoy ridiculing local news broadcasts (which is remarkable, really, when you consider how little I remember from that period of my life).

Anyway, as the case of The Parkway West Rock Thrower has developed, particularly with the advent of The Copycat Rock Throwers, I have watched as the local news stations have toyed with the truth, creating leaps of logic and making assumptions that challenge rationale thought. Such an example came with the reports that a van on the Parkway East had been hit with a wrench socket. As I investigated the available reports, I found that the incident appeared to be unrelated to The Parkway West Rock Thrower (aka Jeffrey Angelo Ramous, who was arrested last Thursday) or The Copycat Rock Throwers. I came to this conclusion based on a number of circumstances, as outlined in my post on the topic, and you can follow the logic I used.

However, while it seemed clear to me that this was an unrelated incident, Channel 2 didn’t agree. In fact, the staff at KDKA, particularly anchor Keith Jones and reporter Bob Allen, appeared to be convinced of the connection in their report from yesterday, repeatedly making statements that drew direct links between the incidents on the Parkway West and the singular accident on the Parkway East. As I said yesterday, I found Allen’s reporting and KDKA’s take on the story wholly sensational and under-investigated.

Turns out I was right. See this graph from today’s Trib:

[Trooper Robin] Mungo said investigators don't believe an incident Wednesday afternoon on the Parkway East is related to the other attacks. A man from Jeannette was driving near the Greensburg Pike exit when a ratchet from a wrench smashed through his windshield about 2:30 p.m. He wasn't injured. Mungo said the tool piece either fell from or was kicked up by another vehicle.


Score one for me, but don’t think the sensationalism is over. In fact, today’s dose of sensationalism comes from our old friend, Channel 11.

Seems that around the same time a wrench socket was falling on a van on the Parkway East, someone threw a rock at a taxi cab on the Parkway West, right near the Carnegie exit, which is the same general vicinity of the attacks of The Parkway West Rock Thrower. This comes just days after a taxi cab was one of three cars hit with rocks on Saturday night on the Parkway West.

Two cabs hit. I guess that it was probably inevitable that at least one local news source would lead with the following headline:

“Are Cabs Being Targeted on Parkway West?”

Quite frankly, Channel 11, the answer is probably not. Since the arrest of The Parkway West Rock Thrower (who never tended to any specific type of vehicle), four cars have been hit. Two of those cars have been taxi cabs. That’s 50%, and I wouldn’t exactly consider it a trend.

Channel 11 followed up on those reports with some very sensational language in today’s broadcasts, such as the “Channel 11 News On Demand – Midday Update”, where Newlin Archinal uses the phrase “rocks came raining down on cabs.” Then, on the noon broadcast, Bob Bruce used the exact same wording, again stating that rocks were “raining down on cabs.”

Raining down on cabs? Really? Two cabs get hit over a five-day period and now rocks are raining down on cabs? In Wednesday’s incident, it was never confirmed what actually went through the window of Earl McKnight’s cab. In fact, McKnight thought it could have been a BB.

Never mind the fact that the projectile went through McKnight’s driver’s side window, a rarity in recent rock-throwing incidents, which have all seen rocks crash through front windshields. And the object hit McKnight’s cab while he was driving to the airport, meaning that the projectile either came from another vehicle or ground level, which would be difficult considering that the thrower/shooter would have had to be positioned at least two lanes away, if not more, and with a highway divider in between, no less. I guess the rock (or whatever it was) could have come from above, but it would take a pretty good shot to hit a side window.

Now, I know that it’s not exactly a big revelation that local news broadcasts over-hype and sensationalize on a regular basis. But in this case, with the real danger posed by The Parkway West Rock Thrower and the subsequent Copycat Rock Throwers, I think it’s important that the media stick to relevant facts. As I said yesterday: spreading fear only plays into the hands of the evil-doers.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Gutter: A new theatre of conflict?

I missed the news last night, so this story passed me by until this morning when I saw it online. Yesterday around 2:30 PM, a car on the Parkway East was hit by a wrench socket. The socket went through the windshield of the van, which was driven by Kenneth Gantt of Jeannette.

This story is available at the websites of the Post-Gazette, the Trib, and the TV stations: KDKA, WTAE, and WPXI.

The obvious first question: is this incident related to The Parkway West Rock Thrower and the subsequent copycat rock throwers? That’s certainly the first impulse that I had, and it’s not surprising that all of the news reports reference Jeffrey Angelo Ramous, aka The Parkway West Rock Thrower, who was arrested last Thursday and was scheduled for a preliminary hearing today.

With the mention of Ramous and the subsequent rock-throwers, the news outlets are making all the connections for us. For example, I just watched Keith Jones on the KDKA noon broadcast call the Parkway East incident “similar” to the Parkway West incidents.

I have to say, I’m not so sure about that.

Here’s what I’m thinking: for starters, yesterday’s incident happened at 2:30 PM, while Ramous’ attacks and the subsequent rock-throwing all took place at night, specifically between 8 PM and 3 AM. Also, as has been reported a number of times, Ramous and the subsequent rock-throwers all used bricks or large stones. And there’s also the little matter of geography: yesterday’s incident took place on the overpass near the Greensburg Pike exit off the Parkway East, while Ramous and the subsequent rock-throwers did their dastardly deeds on the Parkway West, reportedly from the Norfolk Southern Railroad trestle.

It just doesn’t seem to add up.

In fact, I can easily see how this could have happened by accident. It’s not hard to imagine a wrench socket falling out of a truck that is driving on the overpass. A few unfortunate bounces later and it’s flying through Gantt’s windshield. I think that’s a perfectly acceptable explanation for what happened, and I think that some of the news outlets agree, since the Post-Gazette, the Trib, and WPXI all stick to basic facts (a wrench socket struck a windshield, no one was hurt, police are investigating) without explicitly drawing any conclusions.

Not so for KDKA. I already mentioned that Keith Jones opened the segment on the incident by taking about Ramous and the Parkway West before proceeding to call yesterday’s accident “similar,” which is a leap of logic, since there are a fair amount of dissimilarities. In addition to that, if you read the write-up on the KDKA website and watch the video report, you’ll see that Channel 2 has already determined the nature of the accident.

For starters, Jones (here anchoring KDKA’s CW-based morning broadcast) flat-out says that “a piece of metal was thrown at a car on the Parkway East.” (Never mind that he says it happened “last week;” I’ll chalk that up to misspeaking). Bob Allen is the reporter for the story, and he repeats the assumption.

Transcribed (by me):

Kenneth Gantt of Jeannette was driving relatives to the airport when someone tossed a metal tool object through the windshield of his van.

Allen then draws a direct connection to the Parkway West incidents.

Transcribed (again, by me):

This is the latest incident since the weekend when someone threw rocks from an overpass through the windshields of two vehicles on the Parkway West between the Green Tree and Carnegie exits.

Allen goes on to claim that state police believe that the “latest incidents are the work of copycats.” Maybe the state police believe that the incidents over the weekend are the work of copycats, but I’m inclined to think that the police haven’t made that assumption about the Parkway East accident just quite yet.

In fact, Channel 4’s report, which actually appears to be the best report available, says that state police have NOT drawn the connection.

Police don’t know if the object was purposefully dropped or if it bounced out of a vehicle.

Why believe Channel 4 over Channel 2? Well, Channel 4 also got the police to identify the object as a socket “from a 5/8 inch Craftsman ratchet wrench,” while Channel 2 had to operate on the speculation of Gantt, the driver of the van:

Gantt believes the culprit threw a socket from a wrench.

So we get two pieces of information from that statement:

1. The item was a wrench socket.
2. Someone threw it.

And I’ll add a third piece of info from my own deduction:

3. Kenneth Gantt is now a police investigator.

”I don’t know what their sick mind is doing. They could obviously kill somebody like that,” [Gantt] said.

I’m not saying that this wasn’t a criminal incident, and I’m not saying that this wasn’t another rock-throwing copycat. If this turns out to be a purposeful attack, I will lead the charge in bringing the criminal to justice. I’m just saying that we need to be careful about spreading fear and creating panic if, in fact, it was just an accident.

The worst thing we can do is allow the rock-throwers to make us fear the worst every time we see an overpass. If that is their goal, then sensational stories with under-investigated reports serve the rock-throwers, not us, the law-abiding travelers.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Peak: Maybe they should give him a couple beers

Another welcome diversion from The Parkway West Rock Thrower case appeared today when I noticed an odd-sounding headline on my Hotmail home page. Quite frankly, I can honestly say that this might be the greatest story I have heard in quite some time, and it successfully distracted me from thinking about rock-throwers and evil-doers and protecting the homeland that is the Parkway West.

Therefore I present the following:




Do you know what’s happening in that photo? That is a Thai zookeeper showing a giant panda some...wait for it...wait for it...panda porn.

Seriously.

The story appears on MSNBC.com, and it’s one of international intrigue and erotica of the panda variety.

It seems that Chuang Chuang the panda, who lives at the Chiang Mai Zoo in northern Thailand, isn’t too attracted to his zoo-mandated partner, Lin Hui. With panda numbers dwindling, the Thai zookeepers are very interested in getting Chuang Chuang and Lin Hui to become intimate, but since he doesn’t seem to be up for it, the zookeepers have taken a new approach.

Actually, the approach is only new in Thailand, since Chinese zookeepers have been using panda porn to increase the captive panda population significantly for the past few years, according to a separate MSNBC.com article. As a result, 31 captive panda cubs were born in China through the first ten months of 2006, more than double the numbers for 2005 and over three times as many as were born in 2000. It’s a successful program, and one that the Chinese are now hoping will work oversees.

Our unexcitable friend Chuang Chuang is the first experiment. Thailand is renting him and Lin Hui for $250,000, so it’s time to start getting some bang for that buck, so to speak. Thus far, the porn hasn’t been working, as Chuang Chuang still appears uninterested. Apparently the idea isn’t that the porn is supposed to excite the panda, per se, but rather to act as instructional footage, something along the lines of “panda-see-panda-do.” Either way, Chuang Chuang isn’t doing.

Maybe the zookeepers just aren’t scratching him where he itches, if you know what I mean. Human males have different preferences; maybe it’s the same for pandas. Perhaps Chuang Chuang would prefer something a bit more, I don’t know, unconventional. Maybe watching two pandas isn’t his cup of tea. Maybe something like this is more up his alley:




It should be noted that this isn’t the first time that Chuang Chuang has had trouble, um, mating. Earlier this year the zookeepers had to put the big fella on a diet because he was too fat for loving. (Again, this story comes from MSNBC.com, the leader for news on panda sex.) But now he’s down to 313 pounds after weighing 331 as recently as January, which is good for Lin Hui, who checks in at a petite 253 pounds.

Still, the zookeepers are having trouble getting the pair to get wild. Personally, I don’t know what Chuang Chuang is thinking. I mean, I don’t know much about pandas, but Lin Hui looks like she’s probably a catch, don’t you think?


Gutter: Businesses wanted (full clothing required)

Well, my last six blog posts have been about The Parkway West Rock Thrower, so I decided it was time for a diversion.

A sexy diversion.


A lap-dancing diversion.

A dollar-bill-waving-at-a-dirty-G-string diversion.

And when I want that kind of diversion, I head on over to the Pittsburgh Comet. Okay, so maybe I don’t go to that blog when I want that kind of diversion. But I did go there today in search of some kind of diversion, and I found something that fit those categories I listed.

The blog post that I am particularly interested in is the reference to Eric Heyl’s column in the Trib. The column is about an apparent attempt to open a Scores gentleman’s club in Homestead. (In case you’re unsure, here’s a link to the Scores website, courtesy of the Comet.)

Anyway, the gist of it is that a developer wants to put Scores in the vacated Monongahela Trust Co. building on East Eighth Avenue. That’s the main stretch in Homestead, the one that the Hi-Level Bridge ends on. But of course, there is significant opposition in Homestead.

In fact, there is so much opposition that laws have actually been changed, not to prevent the strip club from coming to Homestead, but rather to make Homestead an altogether unappealing place for a strip club to operate.

Upon hearing of plans to open Scores last summer, borough officials tweaked the local law governing adult gyration and hyperventilation.

Distance requirements now exist between dancers and patrons, and no tipping is allowed. Because most women in such places dance for tips rather than a strenuous cardiovascular workout, the law's impact on Scores could be devastating.

Okay, I’ll be honest about two things:

1) I don’t really care if there is a Scores in Homestead or not.

2) I don’t really care if the people/government of Homestead want to prevent Scores from setting up shop.

Heyl’s column has a headline of something about “free speech” and “morality” or some such; being honest again, I don’t really care about that either. If the borough doesn’t want a strip club on the main street, that’s their prerogative. If they think it’s immoral (or perhaps just amoral), so be it. Like I said: I don’t care.

However, there are some interesting points in Heyl’s column that I think are worthy of discussion.

If the club ever opens, it would be one of the few businesses in recent memory to debut along East Eighth Avenue, the borough's main thoroughfare…

…In the eight years since the sprawling Waterfront shopping and entertainment complex opened on the site of the former U.S. Steel Homestead Works, borough officials anxiously have awaited trickle-down development.

This is what always gets me about Homestead: they really believed that the Waterfront would reinvigorate the area by increasing the sheer volume of people who visited. They were correct in the projected number of visitors to the Waterfront, but there was one major oversight.

With the Hi-Level Bridge being the primary source of access to the Waterfront, and ramps from the aforementioned bridge leading straight into the Waterfront, people could hit up the shopping center and entertainment complex without once touching Homestead. So the trickle-down effect didn’t exactly take place, and Homestead has fallen far short of the renaissance that was expected to result from the Waterfront.

What we’ve ended up with is a sprawling shopping center that, through what now appears to be almost coincidence, abuts a dilapidated former steel town. But never mind that wreck of a village, out-of-town-visitors; after you’ve finished your shopping you can get even further away from dingy borough by driving from the Waterfront directly to our city’s water park, Sandcastle. And when you’re done there, just hop back on the highway and never even soil your eyes with the vacant-building-ridden streets of Homestead.

But hey, at least those vacants aren’t home to women dancing naked for money.

…people in Homestead aren't at all irate that the borough is attempting to keep out what most financially struggling communities strive to attract: a new tax-generating business.

Count Duke's bartender Lindsay Ellis, 21, among those who prefer the old trust company building remain vacant if the only adaptive reuse for it involves women sliding down a metal pole.

"If they're trying to build up Eighth Avenue, that's not the way to do it," the Point Park University student said. "I know I don't want to have to drive past a strip club every time I go to the Waterfront."

I’m sure Lindsay would much prefer to drive past rat-infested vacant buildings. Those are not only less visually-appealing than the exteriors of strip clubs (or any maintained building), but they also provide a rent-free home to some of the less desirable elements of society.

"I think [Scores] would bring a bad element in, an element we could do without here," said Joe Ducar, owner of Duke's Upper Deck Cafe, about a block from the old trust company building. "Personally, I'd rather see something else go in there."

Even though Ducar says "bad" and I say "less desirable," I don’t think he and I are talking about the same elements.

And I can appreciate the fact that Homesteaders like Ducar and Ellis would rather see a well-meaning, community-based, public-interest company take over the vacant building. Something respectable like Duke’s Upper Deck CafĂ©, I’m sure. But it’s not like businesses are beating down the doors to get into Homestead.

As I said, this is Homestead’s decision to make. I don’t this is discrimination or a free speech issue or anything like that. It’s a matter of a borough deciding what goes on within its geographic limits, and if they don’t want a strip club, then that’s their call.

No, I’m not saying it’s wrong to keep Scores out. I’m saying it’s stupid.

Really, Homestead, be honest: what else do you have going on?

Peak: We must move forward

Well, it’s been three days without any rock-throwing attacks on the Parkway West. More specifically, it’s been three nights since the last attack, which is the proper designation since all of the rock-throwing has taken place at night.

As such, there isn’t much to report, and the major local news outlets reflect this lack of new information. But I’m not a major local news outlet, and this case is still on my mind, so I’m going to keep writing about it until something does happen.

Yesterday the gist of my post on the case was that state police are upping their surveillance of the Parkway West. I think that’s a good idea, particularly since the incidences of rock-throwing became even more dastardly with the appearance of a copycat rock-thrower several days after the arrest of The Parkway West Rock Thrower. With the emergence of copycats, Pennsylvania’s Finest know that the need to crack down on rock-throwing is an even higher priority. The rock throwers must be made to understand that the state police will not rest until it is once again safe to drive on the Parkway West.

I fear, though, that this may be a case where a true feeling of safety is never regained. Jeffrey Angelo Ramous, aka The Parkway West Rock Thrower, terrorized travelers for nearly two years before an aggressive investigation by state police brought him to justice last Thursday. But while we all breathed a sigh of relief and Pennsylvania’s Finest patted themselves on the back, new rock-throwers were plotting to carry the torch for Ramous; on Saturday night our worst fears were realized.

If there is one evil-doer and he is brought to justice, a feeling of safety and security can develop. But when more evil-doers emerge and strike, we are reminded that safety and security are illusions, and we realize that we are never truly safe or secure.

No one who is familiar with this story will ever be able to drive under the Norfolk Southern Railroad trestle on the Parkway West at night without wondering if their evening travels will be ruined by a rock raining down from above. In a way, Ramous and the subsequent rock throwers broke more than just windshields when they did their acts: with every rock they threw, with every window they cracked, Ramous and the subsequent rock throwers shattered the confidence of safety that travelers should be able to expect when they drive the highways of this city, this county, this commonwealth, and this nation.

The Parkway West Rock Thrower, and The Copycat Rock Thrower(s), took all of that away with the toss of a rock.

But we cannot bleat like sheep and stray from the Parkway. In this time of terror and fear, we cannot allow the evil-doers to force us onto time-consuming and poorly-maintained side roads. We must rise above the fear that the rock-throwers have caused and fight back in the only way that law-abiding citizen-travelers can: by continuing to drive on the Parkway West.

It will take courage, and it will take perseverance, and some of us may fall victim to the evil-doers/rock-throwers. But we cannot be dissuaded from driving on the Parkway West. In the end, continuing to drive on the Parkway West may well be the only recourse we have against the rock-throwers. We must remain ever vigilant and always aware of the dangers that lurk, but we cannot allow The Parkway Rock Throwers to control our lives.

And at this time of our darkest hour, when we are in the grasp of unseen and unknown assailants, I think we can all take guidance in the words of Anne Frank:

The best remedy for those who are afraid…is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature, and God.

For those of us in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, we cannot allow The Parkway Rock Throwers to take away that place where we can be alone with the heavens, nature, and God:

The Parkway West.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Peak: State police look to amp up Parkway West surveillance

I guess since nobody threw any rocks last night or Sunday night, the mysterious case of The Parkway West Rock Thrower and The Copycat Rock Thrower isn’t much of a news story anymore. None of the TV stations’ websites have anything new or updated, save for a few recycled quotes repackaged as a fresh report. And the Post-Gazette didn’t see fit to devote any space in today’s paper to one of the most heinous travel-related serial crimes in recent Western Pennsylvania history.

The Trib provides the most extensive report. Most of it is repeat information (like the TV sites) but in the end the gist is this:

State police are increasing their surveillance of the crime scenes along the Parkway West.

Not surprisingly, the cops aren’t talking about what exactly the extra patrols will include, but they did give us some idea of the tactics that will be employed.

The plan could involve helicopter surveillance and positioning troopers in the woods near the area where someone late Saturday and early Sunday heaved softball-sized rocks at vehicles traveling between the Green Tree and Carnegie exits, police said.

State police said they don't want to give away details that could help the culprits. The latest attacks came just days after police arrested a suspect in similar incidents.


We already know that the investigation which led to the arrest of The Parkway West Rock Thrower was “aggressive” and included night vision cameras as well as troopers hiding in the woods. The result of those tactics resulted in Jeffrey Angelo Ramous, aka The Parkway West Rock Thrower, being arrested last Thursday. Now that The Copycat Rock Thrower has emerged, we can only assume that the state police, presumably under the direction of super-cop Captain Sheldon Epstein, will pursue equally aggressive surveillance methods.

Of course, this investigation could get a bit more complicated, as a driver who was struck by a rock on Saturday night has hypothesized that the projectile came from am moving vehicle rather than the Norfolk Southern Railroad trestle that overlooks 279-South between the Green Tree and Carnegie exits, which was the preferred launch pad of The Parkway West Rock Thrower. This may require Pennsylvania’s Finest to really ramp up the efforts, although they aren’t completely abandoning the “stationary rock thrower” theory.

Authorities used at least one police dog to search the woods near the parkway during the weekend but have no leads or suspects, Carnegie police Chief Jeff Harbin said.


While on-the-ground surveillance is a very steady approach to capturing The Copycat Rock Thrower, I fear that more attack may occur before this criminal is brought to justice. As such, the state police may need to employ more “unconventional” tactics. I’ve got an idea on what they might be able to try, but I’m still formulating it.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Gutter: More rocks thrown, more intrigue sown

When I first posted yesterday about The Copycat Rock Thrower, the details were sketchy but terrifying: three days after the arrest of Jeffrey Angelo Ramous, aka The Parkway West Rock Thrower, someone took up Ramous’ cause, throwing rocks at cars traveling on the Parkway West Saturday night. I based yesterday’s post on the report that appeared on the Channel 2 website in the morning, but most of the details were similar to other reports.

Since yesterday morning, though, more details have emerged about The Copycat Rock Thrower, and Saturday night’s crime has grown more worrisome with each new piece of evidence.

But with the emergence of new details, some of the old information regarding the case has become, well, false. For instance, the initial reports on The Copycat Rock Thrower indicated that two vehicles were hit Saturday night, and the story became even more exceptional when it was reported that both vehicles were hit by one rock. I took the liberty of equating this scenario with the “JFK-magic bullet” theory, but it turns out that those details weren’t exactly accurate.

Now, with the wisdom of time, various news outlets have provided us with a far clearer picture of what happened Saturday night.

A quick overview of what has happened: around 8:30 PM Saturday night, two cars were hit with rocks near the Green Tree exit on the Parkway West. The first rock hit a taxi cab, but the driver was not injured. The second rock hit a Toyota Camry; the driver of that car had cuts on his face, but his passenger was unharmed. Later that night, reportedly around 2 AM, a third car was hit. Minor injuries were reported in the third incident.

You can find the sources for this summary at the following links: Channel 2, Channel 4, Channel 11, the Post-Gazette, and the Trib.

A note on these sources: each news outlet reported on this story, but they all have varying degrees of newsworthiness. For instance, Channel 2 leads the TV pack, as The Copycat Rock Thrower headlines the station’s website, and they feature two video reports along with a write-up. The write-up appears to contain all of the facts, save for the name of the driver of the Camry. This is interesting because the Channel 2 report from Sunday morning clearly states that David and Margaret Cosnek of Coraopolis were in the Camry when it was hit (this is the only source I can find online that names those two).

The other TV stations mailed it in on the websites, as Channel 4’s worthless drivel doesn’t provide much beyond very basic information, and Channel 11 still doesn’t even list the third incident from Saturday night.

On the print side, the Post-Gazette basically follows the Channel 2 report. But the real leader in today’s reporting on The Copycat Rock Thrower is the Trib. I didn’t like the Trib on Sunday because their site was running slow; well, they’ve made up for it today by providing the most informative and thought-provoking report available on The Copycat Rock Thrower.

In addition to the basic facts, Carl Prine starts his report by throwing this wrench into the gears of the rock-throwing legend:

The latest series of rock attacks against Parkway West motorists could have come from passing vehicles or from an overpass, state police said Sunday.

Passing vehicles? This is totally new speculation, as Ramous (The Parkway West Rock Thrower, in case you forgot) was a stationary rock-thrower, usually throwing from the Norfolk Southern Railroad trestle. The possibility of a rock being thrown from a passing vehicle is a major development that could drastically alter the police investigation. Some of this speculation comes from Cosnek, the driver of the Camry (who is not identified).

[Cosnek] said the rock might have been pitched from another automobile, not from the Norfolk Southern railroad trestle or a nearby highway bridge.

If that is the case, this would be a major development in the ongoing case of rocks being thrown at cars on the Parkway West. In the original investigation, state police nabbed Ramous through extensive surveillance, using night vision cameras and troopers hiding in the woods. But if these rocks are being thrown from passing vehicles, such antiquated means of police work would be ineffective.

In fact, this case could test even the mettle of super-cop Captain Sheldon Epstein. Luckily, the Green Tree police know that they can’t take this one down alone.

"We don't have any leads right now," said Green Tree Police Department officer Bob Monaco. "The Pennsylvania State Police are the primary investigators and this is an ongoing investigation."

While Monaco and the rest of the Green Tree fuzz are deferring to Pennsylvania’s Finest, one of the local officers apparently floated this theory to the Trib.

Authorities don't know if the latest are being carried out by a person who might have teamed with Ramous during his alleged rock-throwing spree or by a copycat.

And this little tidbit adds a bit more intrigue. See, I had been referring to this case as The Copycat Rock Thrower, which I will continue to do. But if this newest rock thrower is in fact a cohort of The Parkway West Rock Thrower, then we are facing a conspiracy, perhaps even a group of anarchists (such as the type suggested in this comment) who are hell-bent on taking out the travelers who choose the Parkway West.

This would play in with the ominous statement of Ralph Iannotti who, in his initial report on the arrest of The Parkway West Rock Thrower, said that state police “know the motive for Ramous’ actions, but they are not disclosing it at this time.” Perhaps state police found evidence that Ramous was part of an activist group, American extremists who are seeking to inflict damage on the Parkway West and its traveling inhabitants.

There are so many questions. At first, I was simply perplexed by the motives of The Parkway West Rock Thrower. Now, as the case has grown and become more mysterious, I have begun to wonder just how large the scope is. I can only hope that more details emerge and, more importantly, the authorities are able to curb these dastardly acts.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Gutter: A copycat!

Just when we thought it was over, our worst fears have been realized.

Three days after the capture of Jeffrey Angelo Ramous, aka The Parkway West Rock Thrower, a copycat has taken up Ramous’ cause: on Saturday night, someone threw a rock from an overpass near the Greentree exit.

You can take your pick of source info on this one: Channel 11, Channel 2, Channel 4, or the Post-Gazette. I assume that the Trib has it too, but their website was slow this morning and getting on my nerves, so never mind them.

As with the original story of the apprehension of The Parkway West Rock Thrower, I defer to Channel 2 on this latest incidence of rock-throwing. Paul Martino has all the info for us, and he’s a worthy substitute for Ralph Iannotti.

But this story isn’t about the reporters. It’s about The Copycat Rock Thrower.

It appears that late Saturday night, someone threw a rock; those circumstances are very similar to The Parkway West Rock Thrower. However, this new culprit seems to be a fair bit craftier, as this rock not only struck a taxi driven by Mary Pucci, of Carnegie, but then went on to hit a Toyota Camry driven by David Cosnek, of Coroapolis. It’s almost reminiscent of the “JFK-magic bullet” theory, except in this case it’s not a bullet, it's a rock, and instead of killing a president, it damaged a Camry.

Ramous was never able to accomplish a double-hit like this, and the magic rock has got local police, like Lt. Chad Rannigan of the Greentree squad, perplexed.

“This is, to my knowledge, the first time we’ve had multiple vehicles basically at the same incident,” Rannigan said. “Normally, it was just one vehicle.”

Nice try Lt. Rannigan, but this case may be a bit over your head. Hopefully the resources of super-cop Captain Sheldon Epstein will be available in catching The Copycat Rock Thrower. Epstein, as you may recall, is the state policeman who had a hand in nabbing The Parkway West Rock Thrower. Ramous was arrested on Thursday and Epstein was promoted from lieutenant to captain on Friday, leading some (me) to conclude that his work in the case of The Parkway West Rock Thrower was a career-maker for him.

Clearly, the Greentree police are going to need all the help they can get on this one.

“It’s very possible, maybe it’s a copycat,” said Rannigan, the small-town cop. “It might just be a coincidence, somebody else throwing rocks.”

It should be noted that one of The Parkway West Rock Thrower’s original victims, Jim Christy of Oakmont, feared that such a copycat would surface. In Ralph Iannotti’s original report on the arrest of The Parkway West Rock Thrower, Christy, whose car was hit by a rock last November, worried that someone else would “get the wrong idea.” Well, Jim, it looks like someone else did get the wrong idea: the wrong idea that it’s okay to throw rocks at cars on the Parkway.

Anyway, it looks like the Parkway is once again a crime scene. According to Channel 2’s Martino, police “conducted an active search on Saturday night,” but with no success. Let’s hope that The Copycat Rock Thrower is brought to justice soon and the Parkway is returned to its normal level of safety.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Peak: The continuing saga of The Parkway West Rock Thrower

Yesterday I posted about state police arresting The Parkway West Rock Thrower and the mysterious circumstances surrounding this particularly vile villain. If you haven't been following this ongoing tale of criminal intrigue, I suggest you peruse my post on the topic.

Well, while it is notable that state police took down this terrible thrower, this hurler of horror, this proverbial large stone of fear that flies in the night, it now appears that the apprehension of The Parkway West Rock Thrower is even bigger than I once thought.

Like I said yesterday, Channel 2’s Ralph Iannotti informed us that the arrest of The Parkway West Rock Thrower on Thursday was the result of "an aggressive investigation”. As it turns out, not only was this investigation aggressive, it was also career-making, since the state police have now promoted a lieutenant involved in the investigation.

That’s right: according to the Trib, “Lt. Sheldon Epstein was promoted to captain and assigned as director of the Safety Program Division in Harrisburg.” Epstein (he's the officer pictured above) had previously served as station commander at the Moon Township base and he has served with the state police since 1981. That’s a long time to spend with the state police, so I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to call The Parkway West Rock Thrower the culmination of his career. This was the big one, the case Epstein waited 26 years for.

Apparently it was a bit of a red ball, too. That’s the only way I can explain 1) the devotion of man hours to the investigation, which included night vision cameras and troopers hiding in the woods, and 2) the promotion of Epstein, which came one day after the arrest of The Parkway West Rock Thrower. (If you’re unsure about what a "red ball" is, it’s a term that originated on the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street, and it denotes a case of high priority that commands the attention of an entire police force. A red ball demands a certain amount of urgency, and the high-end of red balls demand the utmost urgency. Therefore, I would think that closing a high-priority red ball case could lead to promotion; hence Epstein’s new rank of captain.)

However, I want to make it clear that the promotion of Lt. Sheldon Epstein to captain is no accident. As reported in the Trib’s article, Epstein, a 1977 graduate of Carnegie Mellon, heightened his investigative prowess by attending the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va. He graduated from Quantico in 2001, and in the past year he put his expertise to work in the case of The Parkway West Rock Thrower.

We should all be thankful that Pennsylvania's Finest employ someone with Epstein's qualifications, so that when the good people of the Commonwealth are threatened by a dastardly villain like The Parkway West Rock Thrower, Captain Epstein and his men can be counted on to crack the case.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Peak: State police unmask The Parkway West Rock Thrower

One of the most horrifying travel dangers in recent Pennsylvania history came to an end this week when the state police arrested The Parkway West Rock Thrower. This story is available on most of the local news websites, such as Channel 11, the Post-Gazette, and the Trib, but my main source is the report on Channel 2. I couldn’t find anything on Channel 4, but they do have this handy Parkway ActionCam. I think that’s the Parkway West, so that can give you an image of the highway in question, or, as some might say it, “the scene of the crime.”

Anyway, the summary of the story is that this guy was standing on an overpass throwing rocks and bricks at cars traveling in both directions on the Parkway West, mostly between the Roslyn Farms and Greentree exits. This had been going on since 2005, so as you can imagine, drivers were quite concerned about traveling on 279-South (yes, that’s the same road as the Parkway West; I know, south and west seem to be different directions, but hey, it’s Pittsburgh. We understand it).

But now those drivers can rest easy, because Jeffrey Angelo Ramous, aka The Parkway West Rock Thrower, has been apprehended. And it took the full resources of Pennsylvania’s Finest to capture this dastardly hurler. According to Ralph Iannotti’s report on Channel 2, the state police’s “aggressive investigation” included “surveillance and night vision cameras and troopers hiding in the woods near the Parkway.” Very covert actions were taken to reign in The Parkway West Rock Thrower.

I have to digress here for a moment and tell you that I am a fan of Ralph Iannotti. Iannotti has the disposition of a middle-to-late-aged man who has been laid off from his office job of 35 years and, as a result, has had to take a job at Staples, where he finds it difficult to mask his brash indifference to the fact that you aren’t sure what type of ink cartridge your printer takes.

If you look at Iannotti’s profile on the Channel 2 website, you’ll see that his favorite TV program is “Lou Grant.” In case you’re unsure, “Lou Grant” was an Ed Asner vehicle that spun off from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” three years after that show ended. “Lou Grant” ran from 1977-1982, and this is notable because Ralph Iannotti started working as a reporter for Channel 2 in 1982. Clearly, his origins as an investigative reporter are tied to the goal of uncovering the real reason “Lou Grant” went off the air.

Anyway, the profile on the Channel 2 web page says that Iannotti is “well known for his gritty no-nonsense style and his track record of being the first to break major stories.”

Well, the case of The Parkway West Rock Thrower certainly falls into those two categories, as Iannotti turns in some fine work in his reporting.

After laying out the facts, like the real identity of The Parkway West Rock Thrower (Jeffrey Angelo Ramous) and the fact that Ramous has admitted to throwing 100 bricks and large stones, Iannotti brings us up close and personal with a real life victim of The Parkway West Rock Thrower’s dastardly actions: Jim Christy of Oakmont.

Jim Christy is your average guy, a regular joe who’s just looking to visit his son and “people down there” but hasn’t been able to take the Parkway because of The Parkway West Rock Thrower. Christy got hit by The Parkway West Thrower last November when he and his wife were driving on the Parkway and an object went through his front windshield, flew through the car, and exited through the rear window. Christy wasn’t hurt in the accident, nor was his wife, but as Iannotti ominously puts it, “he always suspected foul play.”

Yes. The foul play of The Parkway West Rock Thrower.

Now that Ramous is in handcuffs, Christy can once again drive on the Parkway West when he visits his son and “people down there.”

Iannotti then gives us the perspective of one of The Parkway West Rock Thrower’s neighbors. The neighbor isn’t identified in the video, but in Iannotti’s write-up, he outs the man as Mark Franc of Scott Township. Franc calls The Parkway West Rock Thrower, who he knew as “Jeff,” a “very good neighbor.”

So the image of The Parkway West Rock Thrower becomes one of growing intrigue. By day he was Jeffrey Angelo Ramous, dishwasher and cook at Rocky’s Bar on Route 50, a fine man who was always willing to lend a hand to his neighbors. But those neighbors, the generally trusting people of Scott Township, had no idea that, under the cloak of night, the man they knew as “Jeff” became The Parkway West Rock Thrower, terrorizer of travelers, hurler of horror, the proverbial large stone of fear that flies in the night.

But there’s even more intrigue in the case of The Parkway West Rock Thrower; consider the dark statement that Iannotti makes at the end of his report:

"State police tell us they know the motive for Ramous’ actions, but they are not disclosing it at this time."

Whoa. So this is more than a dangerous prank on the part of a bored 49-year old? Seriously? There’s a deep, dark, secret motive underlying the actions of The Parkway West Rock Thrower? Now, on top of the double-life that Ramous has led since 2005, it appears that he’s a man on a mission, a man on a quest to accomplish something or make a statement about something or...or...or...

I really have no idea. What could be the motive for The Parkway West Rock Thrower? Perhaps he has a vision of eradicating air pollution by decreasing the number of travelers on the Parkway West. Perhaps he is trying to encourage drivers to abandon the highway in favor of more scenic “back roads.”

Maybe it’s more personal. Perhaps Ramous is a scorned lover or a victim of unrequited love who discovered that his true love was unfaithful to him or that she (or he) loved another man, and perhaps somehow the Parkway West figured into his discovery of this betrayal. As such, perhaps Ramous created the mysterious persona of The Parkway West Rock Thrower to take vengeance against the highway that he equates with his pain.

Whatever it is, I want to know The Parkway West Rock Thrower’s motive. Is he an activist? Or is he really an emotionally scarred man who just wants someone to love him? The possibilities are endless.

I can only hope that Ralph Iannotti’s gritty no-nonsense style will keep this story alive long enough for us to find out the true motivation for The Parkway West Rock Thrower.

Gutter: Insert your witty "Pitt lost in the Sweet Sixteen again" cliche here

Okay, let’s say the obvious:

Pitt lost in the Sweet Sixteen. Again. Fourth time in four tries. Fourth time in six years. Nevermind that they got there; it only matters that they died there. Again.

Is it out of the way? Good, because I don’t want to hear it. This isn’t a program problem. Those four losses featured two different head coaches and a dozen or two different players. It’s hard to say that a college program has a problem getting past a hurdle like the Sweet Sixteen since the personnel of the team changes over time. And at Pitt, not only have the players changed, but the coach has changed, too.

So this isn’t a problem with the program. That’s not the story. The story is how Pitt lost this game, the game played in 2007, not 2002 or 2003 or 2004. 2007.

Do we have that out of our system then? Good.

For Pitt, the Sweet Sixteen opponent in 2007 was UCLA, coached by former Pitt head man Ben Howland. The game was proceeded by piles of talk about how the game would pit Howland against his former assistant, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, and how the game would feature two teams that played very similar styles. In particular, the teams shared a common focus on playing tough, lock-down defense.

For once, the pre-game talk was on-point, as Pitt and UCLA engaged in the basketball equivalent of a 9-6 football game. The final score was 64-55, and if you’re a fan of defensive basketball (and I guess there are people like that out there), then you probably loved this game. Otherwise, you probably hated it. Actually, I take that back: if you’re a fan of watching two teams really gut it out and play very hard against each other, then you were probably really into the game, even if Pitt and UCLA didn’t score much.

And really, you have to admire the effort of both Pitt and UCLA. Both teams wanted to play tough defense and make it really difficult for the other team to score, and both teams did just that. But why, exactly, is Pitt’s season over? Why couldn’t they beat the Bruins on Thursday night?

Well, it’s quite simple. Two reasons, really.

1. Pitt made a low percentage of their high-percentage shots.
2. UCLA shot miles above their heads from the free throw line.

That’s really what it comes down to. Time and time again, Pitt had layups that were on the low end of the difficulty scale, the highest of high-percentage shots, and they bricked them. Never mind Ronald Ramon’s fine three-point shooting (4-of-7); sure, those shots helped Pitt look like it could mount a comeback, but it was the bunnies that didn’t fall that killed their chances.

Numbers don’t usually lie, and this stat certainly doesn’t: Pitt hit 20 of their 55 field goal attempts.

Earlier this week, I had a chance to speak with former Pitt player Brandin Knight. Knight is currently the Panthers’ video coordinator, and he played at Pitt when Howland was the head coach. Figuring that he would know as well as anyone, I asked him what it takes to beat a Ben Howland team. He said a couple things about sustaining pace and tempo and that sort of basketball speak. Then he summed it up succinctly:

”It all comes down to who’s making shots. That’s the main thing.”

How very prescient, Brandin.

That’s what it was: Pitt needed to make its shots. And not the tough shots, not the fadeaway jumpers from just inside the line, not the turn-around hooks, not the NBA three’s. Pitt needed to make the shots that it makes on a nightly basis, the shots that piled up 29 wins this season. This was a team that shot nearly 70% against Georgetown during the two teams’ regular season match-up in Pittsburgh. Now, on that night they got a few lucky bounces, but by and large their astronomical shooting percentage came from getting the high-percentage shots to fall.

That’s what they needed against UCLA. And that’s what they didn’t get.

Pitt was even with UCLA in rebounds. They had more assists and fewer turnovers than the Bruins. And they had more blocked shots, more offensive rebounds, and more steals.

But the shots didn't fall for the Panthers. As such, they lost. Simple as that.

And then there’s the matter of UCLA making every single free throw. Okay, not every single one, but 23 out of 26 is pretty darn close to 100% (according to ESPN, it’s 88.5%). The thing of it is, the Bruins are a team that shoots 65% from the charity stripe. They’re not a great free throw shooting team. They’re not even a good free throw shooting team. As a matter of fact, they’re widely considered to be among the worst free throw shooting teams in the nation, at least among the teams that are considered to be “good.”

But they made their free throws on Thursday night. Meanwhile, Pitt was 8-of-14 from the line. That’s a 15 point difference in free throws alone. A 15 point advantage in a 9 point game is a big difference.

And so it goes. Pitt lays an egg, and the season is over. The Panthers may be able to take something away from this game, knowing that they had a chance to top UCLA and advance to the Elite Eight.

But they didn’t make their shots, and they aren’t moving on.

It’s over.



Anyone want to talk spring football?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Gutter: Who do you think you are? Nickelback? (part 3)

I meant to post on this when it first came out, but several other things happened (namely Bob Smizik’s overwhelming excitement, Bill Peduto dropping out, and the Pirates having a good inning), so I got a bit distracted. But those digressions have passed, and now I can get back to a recurring subject on this blog:

The continuing saga of members of the Pitt men’s basketball team refusing to address the media (Part one, Part two).

Well, it happened again. See Ron Cook’s column in the 3/20/2007 issue of the Post-Gazette. Cook writes about Pitt basketball players Levance Fields (point guard, men’s team) and Marcedes Walker (center, women’s team) and the impact that those two have on their respective teams. And what’s more, Cook writes about the off-court relationship of Fields and Walker. It’s been known for some time in Pitt circles that the two are romantically involved; now Cook has outed them to the public.

But that’s not what this is about. Granted, there are probably a lot of cheap jokes to be made about this situation, but I’m going to attempt to avoid them (Raul Mondesi makes enough jokes for the both of us). What’s relevant, at least to me, is something Cook mentions about seven or ten paragraphs into the column.

It’s unfortunate, Fields refused to come out of the Pitt locker room yesterday to talk about Walker’s game, probably because his teammates were teasing him unmercifully when they found out someone wanted to talk to him about his girlfriend of more than a year.

Hey, we’re not proud of it, but it’s a guy thing.

No, no, no, Ron, don’t let Fields off the hook that easy. Fields refused to talk to the media. Period. Don’t make excuses about being embarrassed or too proud; Fields refused to talk.

Now, this may not be the same situation as when Fields refused to talk when the team was leaving for Buffalo. Maybe he really didn’t feel comfortable talking about his relationship and, quite frankly, I’m not sure it necessarily needs to be written about in One of America’s Great Newspapers. It’s rather gossipy, and even though Cook sticks mostly to basketball, the relationship angle is still the theme and focus of the column.

That being said, I don’t think it would have harmed anyone to have Fields give a couple quotes about the way Walker plays and her game (on the court, that is). Walker talks about the way Fields plays, why not have Fields do the same? I spoke with someone about this idea, and they felt that the column was based on a poorly-chosen subject (the relationship) and that it shouldn’t have been written to begin with. I’m not interested in debating the column itself. What I’m interested in is the fact that, once again, Levance Fields has flat-out told the media ‘no.’

And it wasn’t just Cook that got ‘big-timed.’ The day that Cook was conducting his interviews was Monday, the day that the men’s basketball team was leaving for San Jose, where they would face UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA Tournament. As was the case when the team was leaving for Buffalo, a number of players and coaches addressed the assembled media throng at the Petersen Events Center loading dock before boarding a bus to the airport. And, just like last week before they left for Buffalo, Fields slipped past the media.

Aaron Gray spoke to the media. Levon Kendall spoke to the media. Mike Cook spoke to the media. Ronald Ramon spoke to the media. Keith Benjamin spoke to the media. Jamie Dixon spoke to the media. Brandin Knight spoke to the media. But Levance Fields, the team’s starting point guard, the player who will lead the Panthers onto the court and act as their floor general when the team looks to advance past the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history, refused to speak.

So I ask again:

Who do you think you are? Nickelback?

Peak: Pirates save Tokyo! (for one inning, at least)

One of the unforeseen shortcomings of this "Peak and Gutter" gimic that I've been basing this blog on is the fact that those are subjective terms. I've also come to realize that, by and large, the application of "Peak" or "Gutter" is really quite relative to the topic I'm ruminating on. As such, this post is listed as a "Peak," but that's largely because the standards are so low for the Pittsburgh Pirates that even a modest accomplishment, such as one mildly productive inning, is a high point.

So, for a (short) time on Wednesday afternoon, the Pirates made $103 million look like a bad sushi roll when they faced Boston Red Sox “rookie” pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.

You might remember Matsuzaka as the MVP of the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Oh wait, no one watched that, so you probably don’t remember that. Okay then, you might remember Matsuzaka as the Japanese pitcher who was so coveted by major league teams that he, along with agent Scott Boras, got $51 million from the Red Sox, and that was just for the right to negotiate with Matsuzaka. After ponying up that $51 million, the Red Sox then turned around and gave Matsuzaka a 6-year $52 million contract.

So that’s a grand total of $103 million for a player who had yet to throw a single pitch in a Major League Baseball game. But the Red Sox saw Matsuzaka’s 96 mph fastball, which tops off an arsenal that includes a splitter, a changeup, a cuveball, a slider, a shooto (the so-called “reverse slider”), and the delicious-sounding gyroball; as such, Boston paid Masuzaka his money, and the man the Japanese called “The Monster” (although in the U.S. he has taken on the far more urban nickname of “Dice-K”) was headed for Fenway Park.

But before he got to Fenway Park, Dice-K had to take part in the opening rites of baseball in America, spring training. His spring was planned to consist of seven scheduled starts. The fourth start got rained out, and he took the field for his fifth scheduled start on Wednesday when the Red Sox faced the Pirates in Bradenton.

And for one glorious inning, the Pirates rolled the Dice-K.

It started with Chris Duffy. Like a true lead-off man, Duffy performed his duty of getting on base when Dice-K plunked him with the second pitch. Success: the Pirates had a man on base. Shortstop Don Kelly and catcher Ronny Paulino then each grounded out, moving Duffy to third. And just like that, the Buccos had a runner 90 feet from home plate against Dice-K. Oh yeah, this was getting good.

Next up was first baseman/personal lord and savior Adam LaRoche, and the most highly-exalted acquisition of the off-season came through in a big way, dropping a bloop single into right field, scoring Duffy and striking a blow against Dice-K. Success!

Okay, so the Pirates’ joy was short-lived, since Dice-K proceeded to end the inning by striking out Jason Bay, the first of 11 straight Pirates he retired. The streak ended in the fifth when Nate McLouth walked, but that was the only Pirate other than Duffy or LaRoche to reach base against Dice-K. The Red Sox pitcher lasted 5 2/3 innings total, striking out 7 batters, walking 1, giving up 1 hit and 1 earned run. Dice-K’s day ended with a 12-pitch duel against Kelly, who fouled off six pitches before tipping one into Jason Varitek’s glove to end the at-bat.

So, all in all, Dice-K pretty much owned the Pirates. I won’t get into how he choked up Duffy with a gyroball or how the shooto twisted Bay, but I will say this:

We’ll always have that first inning.


Also notable on Wednesday:

Former Pirate Daryle Ward made some noise when he hit a walk-off grand slam to give the Chicago Cubs an 11-7 win over Texas. You may remember Daryle Ward from a couple seasons ago when he became one-half of the first father-son tandem to ever hit for the cycle (I believe the Pirates marketing department commemorated the occasion with t-shirts that read “Ward & Son Cycle Shop,” with a motorcycle motif; very clever).

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Gutter: Why you wanna go and do that?

Bill Peduto has pulled out of the race for the Democratic mayoral nomination. As a result, my great plan of political action has gone down the toilet.

Let me explain:

Several years ago I thought I would make our nation’s two-party mandate work for me. So, despite my generally liberal/libertarian views (although those two don’t always overlap), I registered as a Republican. My line of thinking was that I would vote with that designation, but since my votes would usually tend toward Democrats, the voting statistics would show that a Republican had broken party lines and voted Democrat.

I then concluded that if I could convince many others to do the same thing, we could create a cause for concern within the GOP when they saw large numbers of their “supporters” cross party lines. That concern would then translate into panic and self-doubt; long term, the party would eventually unravel. I liked to think of this as tearing down the Republican party from the inside.

I was very proud of this plan, and I would boast of it to anyone who would listen.

But then Bill Peduto came into my life.

Well, not really. What happened was Luke Ravenstahl became the mayor of Pittsburgh and I began to develop an interest in city politics. Now, I’m not to be confused with the far-more advanced and well-read pundits at such luminary blogs as The Burgh Report or The People’s Republic of Pittsburgh, two of my favorite Pittsburgh-centric blogs, but through reading their work and the work of others, I came to form some opinions on the young mayor and his primary opposition in the Democratic primary, Bill Peduto.

I won’t go through what I like and dislike about each candidate because, quite frankly, it’s pretty meaningless now. But I found that I tended to prefer what I learned about Peduto over what I learned about Ravenstahl.

But as I was trying to learn me some Pittsburgh politics, I realized a crucial issue: with Pennsylvania's closed primary laws, I, as a registered Republican, wouldn’t be permitted to vote in the Democratic primary. I could vote in the general election, but by then the real decision would have already been made. The true vote for mayor is the Democratic primary, and my voice could not be heard because of my crusade against the Republican Party.

Then, as fate would have it, the state Department of Transportation showed up in a most pleasant way when they informed me that I needed to renew my driver’s license in February. The process of renewing one’s license in the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania includes the opportunity to register to vote, or, if one is already registered, the opportunity to update one’s voter information.

Fortune smiled upon me, and I seized the opportunity to have a say in choosing this fair city’s next mayor. With the future of Pittsburgh as my focus, I put aside my personal mission to tear down the GOP from the inside and changed my party affiliation. I walked out of the AAA Motor Garden in East Liberty that day as a man who would be a part of the local political machine. I would be a spoke in the wheels as this great city rolls forward.

On Wednesday, March 21, 2007, the wheels fell off when Peduto announced that he was withdrawing from the race. He gave some nonsense reasons about wanting to have an issues-based race and not wanting to divide the city and that "The only way to win would be to go negative.”

Whatever.

Speculation seems to circulate around Peduto bailing because 1) he’s not a good campaigner, or 2) he didn’t raise enough money, and those two could be connected.

Whatever.

The Admiral at The People’s Republic thinks Peduto could be lining up for a run as an independent candidate in November, and there’s some discussion on that blog about whether or not he missed his chance on that one. Either way, I don’t buy it, and if that is Peduto’s plan, it seems like a poor decision: there was enough negativity about Ravenstahl that Peduto probably could have won the nomination. As an independent, he would never be able to produce the resources necessary to win the general election, nor would he have the backing of the powerful Pittsburgh Democratic Machine (which I assume exists).

All I know is that Bill Peduto has torpedoed my carefully-laid plan. I guess I could change my party affiliation back to the GOP and put the plan back in action, but it took a personal invitation from the Department of Transportation to get me to switch my party in the first place, so it seems unlikely that I will do it again.

Anyway, that’s not what it’s about. At some point, I became genuinely interested in the future of this city and I developed a genuine interest in having a say in who made the decisions that would have an impact on the future of this city. Now I feel like that opportunity has been taken away because Bill Peduto, for whatever reason, has decided not to run. As mentioned in the Post-Gazette (the article I linked in the first sentence of this post), Ravenstahl and Peduto were the only candidates who filed petitions to appear on the ballot in the Democratic primary.

So that’s it. Unless some dark horse comes along and somehow beats Ravenstahl in May, it’s done. I hope my political interest in Pittsburgh doesn't go with it.

Gutter: Curb your enthusiasm, Bob

So the Pitt women’s basketball team lost to Tennessee last night. No big surprises there. Tennessee is one of the best women’s basketball programs in the country, while Pitt is, in reality, still a program on the rise.

Nevertheless, if not for the shootings at Duquesne and the Penguins’ beyond-expectations performance, the Pitt women’s team could be the sports story of the year in Pittsburgh.

Consider: three years ago, in Agnus Berenato’s first year as head coach of the women’s team, the Panthers won a whopping six games (two in the Big East). They more than doubled that number the next season, with a 13-15 record. Then, last season, the Panthers took a giant step forward, winning 22 games (the first 20-win season since 1993-94 and tying the school record for most wins in a season, a mark set in the 1980-81 season). 2005-06 culminated with the Panthers just missing the cut for the NCAA Tournament; instead, they settled for a run to the Final Four in the WNIT.

Even if you don’t care about women’s basketball, any sports fan has to be able to respect that kind of turn-around. And it continued this year, as Pitt won a school record 24 games and earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the program’s history.

It seems to me that that’s the kind of story that writes itself, particularly if you’re a columnist in Pittsburgh. On top of that, it seems to me that writing a column on Tuesday night’s game would be rather easy, given that the accomplishments of the Pitt team have really been tremendous.

But apparently that’s not the case for Bob Smizik.

Let’s look at what Sir Smizik had to say on the occasion of Pitt’s first appearance in the women’s NCAA Tournament:

The predicted sellout never materialized. Neither did a hoped-for upset victory by the Pitt against powerhouse Tennessee.

Okay. So never mind that he starts by pointing out what didn’t happen in the game. Look at the way the paragraph ends.

But with the six games that took place this week in the first and second round of the NCAA tournament at the Petersen Events Center, women's college basketball took a large step forward locally and the Pitt program continued to gain respect as it attempts to climb to the elite level of the sport.

That sounds about as exciting as a brochure for a funeral home.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve always been under the impression that part of the benefit/challenge of being a columnist is that you write from a perspective. You, the writer, are part of the column and you, the writer, are what makes it work. Reporters don’t have that luxury, instead being focused on retelling events and disseminating information. The public has columnists to provide perspective; instead, Sir Smizik has given us text that would probably be too dry to appear on the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s dour website.

Sir Smizik then spends the next six paragraphs (to be fair, two of the graphs consist of one sentence each) extolling the greatness of Tennessee superstar Candace Parker. Fair enough: with 30 points, the outstanding Parker dominated Pitt and ensured the victory for Tennessee.

(I should point out that the Tribune-Review’s John Harris, who in roughly 8 months at the Trib has written just a handful of non-Steelers columns, was compelled by the Pitt-Tennessee game to devote his entire column to Parker. However, Harris did contribute a Pitt-centric piece on Saturday before the Tournament began.)

After Sir Smizik has given Parker her necessary due, he then moves onto the fact that the game did not reach Berenato’s goal of selling out the 12,500-seat Petersen Events Center.

There had been a concern that the Volunteers, whose storied success has earned them a large traveling fan base, might have a larger and/or more vocal rooting section than Pitt. It didn't come close to happening.

With help of 300 free tickets distributed to students and a reduction to $5 for the price of student tickets, a crowd 8,791 was in attendance, about 3,700 short of capacity. It was overwhelmingly in favor of Pitt and was vocal throughout the game in its support of the Panthers.

If Sir Smizik is driving at the “large step forward locally” that women’s basketball has taken, he’s got a funny way of doing it. Essentially, he’s pointing out that it took 300 free tickets and a $5 ticket price to get a less-than-capacity crowd in the door. But hey, at least they cheered for Pitt, right?

Berenato, a relentless promoter who in four years has massively upgraded what was a miserable Pitt program, several times predicted a sellout at an interview sessions a day before the game.

"I really expect a sellout as long as the media gets the word out and talks about our great game."

You got her there, don’t you Sir Smizik? Is that “Berenato…several times predicted a sellout” line an “eat your words” slap from the venerable Sir Smizik to the upstart Berenato? Is he cautioning that her mouth should not write checks that her fanbase can’t cash? Why is it necessary to throw in that jab, especially when the Pitt women’s basketball team is fresh off the highest point it has ever reached?

It seemed like wishful thinking at the time, but almost came to fruition. Berenato's attempt to put the onus on the media was uncalled for. Both the local print and electronic gave the event ample coverage, perhaps more than it deserved.

Okay, Bob, now you’re just being a dick. Honestly, I can’t see what the point of this is. Since she came to Pitt, Berenato has embraced the media at every turn. Prior to every press conference she has ever held at Pitt, Berenato has personally introduced herself to each media member in attendance. And at the conclusion of her press conferences, she announces her appreciation for the media’s attention. Berenato understands the role that the media plays in promoting a program, especially one that needs as much promotion as Pitt women’s basketball does.

And, really, why does Sir Smizik think that the event might have received more coverage than it deserved? This is the Pitt women’s basketball team making its first-ever NCAA Tournament in school history, and playing at home no less. Then throw in the fact that that two No. 1 seed, nationally-recognized teams are playing at the Petersen Events Center (Tennessee and North Carolina), and you have a pretty big deal going on.

But apparently not to Sir Smizik. In fact, while the Panthers were making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, traffic patterns in Oakland were far more notable to Sir Smizik on Tuesday night.

The crowd was late arriving because of a massive traffic jam in lower Oakland. It took some people 90 minutes to make the 1-mile drive from the Parkway exit in Oakland to the game.

Thanks for that update, Sir Smizik. What’s the weather going to be like this week?

What the event displayed more than anything is just how far the women's game has come. No sport has come further faster in the past decade in terms of improved play than women's basketball.

No, Sir Smizik, what the event displayed is how far the Pitt women’s basketball game has come. Women’s basketball has been popular for quite some time, and the power teams have been huge draws for years. At Tennessee, for example, the court at Thompson-Boling Arena is named “The Summitt,” in honor of the Volunteers’ women’s basketball coach, Pat Summitt. I know that the Post-Gazette has sent Sir Smizik to the Super Bowl even though the Steelers weren’t in it, so perhaps he considers himself a nationally-minded scribe, but the first word in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is still Pittsburgh; as such, I don’t think it would hurt to acknowledge the fact that Tuesday night’s event displayed just how far the Pitt women’s basketball program has come.

And as to his claim that “no sport has come further faster in the past decade in terms of improved play than women’s basketball,” well, that’s an impossible-to-quantify statement that reeks of columnist looking to fill space.

Parker might have been the most accomplished player on the floor but she was far from the only one.

Pitt has two excellent players in Marcedes Walker, who scored 19, and Shavonte Zellous, who scored 18.

"Zellous was a tough guard for us," Summitt said. "It seemed like she was getting more open shots than I liked. She got off 18 shots. That was the most disappointing part of our defense."

Summitt acknowledged that Pitt is on its way up.

"Tonight is going to be a wake-up call for a lot of people in terms of seeing this Pitt team against our team and seeing how they performed,'' she said.

"We'll be back," Berenato said, "bigger, stronger and faster."

Ah, a breath of fresh air: an actual mention of Pitt in this column, a piece that is perhaps mis-titled as “Panthers, Berenato gain a lot of respect.” Only with Summitt’s quote does Sir Smizik really reference any increase in respect for the Pitt women’s basketball program. And really, couldn’t that quote have been a jumping-off point for a column that actually does reflect the growing respect for Pitt as a national program? I’m sure Summitt said more than just that one sentence; why not use the esteemed Tennessee coach’s statements as evidence of how far the Pitt program has come? It’s certainly worth something when Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in college basketball history (men’s and women’s) is giving you credit, particularly if you’re a program that has come as far as Pitt has in such a short amount of time.

But Sir Smizik doesn’t go in that direction. Instead, he closes the column with this inspiring look at the future of Pitt women’s basketball.

This event, with Berenato pushing the sport, also will be back in Pittsburgh. When that happens, they won't have to give away tickets to fill up the building.

Really gets the blood flowing, doesn’t it?

I’m not saying Sir Smizik should be a cheerleader for the Pitt women’s team, just as he shouldn’t be a cheerleader for any sports team. But this occasion, this event (as he repeatedly calls it), is big enough and represents so much that is positive about sports that it should merit some noticeable excitement from one of the city’s most-respected columnists. But it comes off as the writings of a grouchy newspaperman who has been around too long to appreciate the fact that sports can still make you feel good.

I know it’s women’s basketball, and I know that the sport turns off a lot of sports fans. But it’s a story that can inspire true sports fans, and it’s a story that deserves better than a mailed-in column like the one featured in Wednesday’s edition of one of America’s Great Newspapers.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Peaks and gutters from the weekend

Some ups and downs from the recently-passed weekend…


Peak: Saturday was St. Patrick’s Day and thousands of Pittsburghers celebrated with drunken revelry.

Gutter: I made the poor decision to celebrate in the Southside, where every single one of those Pittsburghers jammed themselves into every single bar on Carson Street.



Peak: Marc-Andre Fleury had another superb shootout performance on Sunday, turning away three straight Senators. The Penguins won the shootout and the game, giving them two-straight wins over Eastern Conference foe Ottawa.

Gutter: The Pens watched as yet another regulation lead slipped away. Since the beginning of February, the Penguins have won 15 games against Eastern Conference opponents, and 11 of those have come in overtime or in a shootout. Sunday’s shootout against Ottawa especially stung, since the Pens could have taken sole possession of fourth place in the East with a clean regulation win.



Peak: The NHL likes everybody to feel good about themselves; hence, the “you-get-a-point-even-though-you-lost” system of scoring. Perhaps they will institute a birdhouse-building competition for the teams that don’t make the playoffs and everybody will get a ribbon and a merit badge, even if the Avian Housing Authority rules said domicile unfit.

Gutter: The ridiculousness of rewarding a team for losing. No other professional sports league in America gives you anything just for making it to overtime. Perhaps that’s because no other professional sports league operates under an antiquated system of scoring that relies on points rather than, oh, I don’t know, WINS AND LOSSES. How about the NHL adopts the seemingly obvious convention of organizing the standings by a team's actual record? With the inception of shootouts there are no longer ties, so why bother with the point system anymore?



Peak: Kevin Durant scored the 30 points I predicted he would need for Texas to win the NCAA Tournament. I picked the Longhorns to cut down the nets, and I felt confident that, if Durant put up 30 a night, they could do it. Against USC (apparently they play basketball there too), Durant scored 30 and A.J. Abrams added 20 more for good measure.

Gutter: The rest of the Longhorns scored 18 points combined. 18. One. Eight. 18. Six players not named Durant or Abrams played at least 13 minutes each, and the sum total of their contributions was 18 points. So long, 2007 NCAA bracket. It was nice to know you.



Peak: Durant now has a chance to make a lot of money in the NBA. I’d like to see him stay in college for another season, but I can’t fault an exceptional player like him for taking the money.

Gutter: I’d leave too if I had six teammates combine for 18 points. Six players = 18 points. In a Division I basketball game. Unbelievable.



Peak: Pitt advanced to the Sweet 16 after beating Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday night in overtime. It’s the Panthers first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2004, when they bowed out against Oklahoma State. Pitt hasn’t made it past the Sweet 16 in the program’s recent resurgence; this time around, they’ll face former Pitt coach Ben Howland and UCLA.

Gutter: With UCLA and Pitt playing under Howland and Jamie Dixon, this game might have a final score of 45-44. College basketball may never recover. In fact, this game might set offensive college basketball back so far that Dixon may have to go walking in the snow-covered woods of Indiana looking for Dennis Hopper, hoping that Hopper will sober up and join the coaching staff as an assistant.



Peak: The Pitt women’s team won its first round NCAA Tournament game on Sunday night, the first time the Lady Panthers have ever played in a Tournament game. It was a landmark achievement for Pitt and one that should be celebrated.

Gutter: But get all that celebrating in now, because Pitt plays Tennessee on Tuesday night. So, yeah…



Peak: On a non-sports note, the LAPD is moving forward with a plan to install video cameras in all 1,600 police cars citywide (LA Times), thus providing visual evidence of what acutally happens and improving accountability for cops and criminals, which is good for everyone.

Gutter: Perhaps a video camera in the unmarked NYPD police vehicle could have captured the reason why cops unloaded 50 shots at three guys in November (Yahoo). One particularly trigger-happy member of New York’s Finest popped a SkyBlast-esque 31 caps, asserting that the three “suspects” (a loosely-used term considering that the three guys were suspected of nothing) were talking about getting a gun from their car. The cops also said that someone was reaching for a gun. Those vagaries were cleared up, at least somewhat, when no gun was ever found at the scene. Wouldn’t mind seeing some dashboard videotape of that night. (I know this happened in November, but the cops were indicted over the weekend and surrendered on Monday.)



Peak: On a sports/police note, everyone’s favorite former linebacker Joey Porter took a full 17 days after being cut by the Steelers before he pulled a Pac-Man: on Sunday night Porter was arrested in Las Vegas for misdemeanor battery after getting into a fight with Bengals offensive tackle Levi Jones (Las Vegas Review-Journal).

Gutter: Really, there’s nothing bad about this story.



Peak: I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for ten years, but I couldn’t name one graduate of Charleroi High School. That is, I couldn’t name one graduate of Charleroi High School before today. Now, I can tell you that in the early 1970’s the halls of Charleroi High School were graced with the presence of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who has risen to a level of notoriety thus far unknown to graduates of Charleroi High School. As written in the Post-Gazette, Palfrey was arrested in Washington, D.C., last fall after operating a prostitution ring in our nation’s capital for 13 years. Palfrey’s service, which operated under the name of “Pamela Martin and Associates,” reportedly made $2 million and employed 132 prostitutes since 1993.

Gutter: Again, I’m having trouble finding anything bad in this story. If you would like to support Charleroi’s Finest, Ms. Palfrey has a website at www.deborahjeanepalfrey.com.



Tremendous…

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Gutter: Who do you think you are? Nickelback? (part 2)

So, as I was saying, an unpleasant theme has been developing on the Pitt men’s basketball team this season. No, it’s not the team’s on-again/off-again shooting. No, it’s not the team’s apparent inability to beat the best opposition. And no, it’s not the repeat losing performance in the Big East championship game.

As a matter of fact, the theme I’m referring to has nothing to do with things that happen on the court. What I’m referring to is the fact that members of the Pitt men’s basketball team have repeatedly refused to address the media throughout the season.

Okay, maybe I’m extra sensitive to this issue because I’m among the members of the local sports media who focus on covering Pitt athletics. Maybe the average person, or even the average sports fan, says, “Hey, who really cares if they talk to the media? After all, they’re only college kids: do they really need to talk to the media?”

That’s a legitimate question and, admittedly, one I’ve asked myself. Never mind the simple, media-centric answer that the members of the media have a job to do and, by refusing to talk, the players are making it difficult for those people to do their job. Never mind that. I think that the question of whether the players should have to address the media drives at a basic issue regarding all sports media:

Simply put, what’s the point?

Why does sports media exist? What is the goal, ultimately, of sports coverage? One can argue that it’s only natural for sports fans to want to learn as much and collect as much information about their favorite sports teams and, as such, sports media exists to provide that coverage and information. But I think that there is more to it with regards to college sports.

Premise: Colleges/universities have two basic functions.

1. Education/research

2. Fund-raising

And not necessarily in that order.


With that premise in mind, a cynic could extrapolate that college sports, for all of their ambitions, fall into the second category: fund-raising. Then again, perhaps it’s being pessimistic to say that only a cynic could hold that view, because I am hard-pressed to find a basic core reason for colleges to support athletic programs beyond the revenue that they produce.

Of course, revenue is a bit disingenuous, because it applies to more than just sales of tickets and merchandise. There are sponsorships, corporate collaborations, advertisement opportunities, and, last but never least in the world of college athletics, donations. And the more time I’ve spent around college athletics as a professional observer, the more apparent it has become to me that donations and cultivating donors is perhaps the highest aspiration of college administrators. Everything that’s done, on an administrative level, seems to be geared toward procuring the next large donation.

And from what I’ve seen, nowhere is this goal more prevalent than in the athletic department.

This isn’t to be disparaging, either. I understand that the purpose of increasing donations is to improve the college/university, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But for a university like Pitt, where the majority of the big-money donations probably comes from athletic supporters, the athletic department has a rather large responsibility.

Which leads us to the interaction of university athletics with the media. When you look at things from a long view, the university wants to see its sports teams portrayed favorably by the media because a positive image would seem to portend more donations. As such, athletic department officials often take many steps to maintain a positive relationship with the media in the hopes that good tidings will keep the coverage fair. In the end, this filters down to accommodating the media members as they attempt to accomplish their professional goal of covering the sports teams; part of covering the sports teams is interviewing players and coaches.

I think you can draw the conclusion here:

If the athletic department wants to project a positive image in order to maintain current donors and produce new ones, players and coaches need to be made available to the media.

There are certain stipulations, perhaps written, perhaps not, that come with being an athlete at a major university, particularly if you play a high-visibility sport like men’s basketball, and especially if you are a central figure in that high-visibility sport. One of those stipulations, like it or not, is that you act as a representative of the team and the university by dealing with the media. That’s just part of the deal.

But not for the Pitt basketball team, apparently.

Now, I’m not completely without compassion for the human condition, and I understand that there are times when an 18-22 year old might not want to speak publicly, particularly in moments of heightened distress. Take, for instance, the Pitt-Louisville game this season, when the Panthers suffered one of the worst losses of the past six years. After that game, Aaron Gray was the only player that spoke to the media, which is unacceptable considering that there was no limit to the number of players who would have been of interest following such a loss.

I get it: that loss sucked, and nobody wanted to talk about it, especially not to the media. But, as I said before, that’s just part of the deal.

Do you remember when the Pitt football team lost at Ohio University in 2005? The game was probably the worst loss that team has endured in this century, and quarterback Tyler Palko threw three interceptions, including one that was returned for the game-winning touchdown in overtime. A fierce competitor, Palko had less than no interest in talking to the media after that debacle. But he did it anyway, because he understood that it was his responsibility as a key member of the team.

And after every single game that Tyler Palko started as quarterback, he addressed the media. As a member of the media covering Pitt, I watched all of those games, and I can understand that after a lot of them Palko would have much rather gotten back on the bus and rode home in silence. But he didn’t: instead, he did his duty and spoke to the media. For all the things that bothered me about Tyler Palko (and there were a few), I respected him for always talking.

I wish I could say the same thing for Pitt’s basketball players.