Week 12: How The Raiders Beat The Bears


It was getting hairy at the end of the game, but the Oakland Raiders (7-4) held on to win 25-20 at home against the Chicago Bears (7-4). Here’s how the Raiders did it:

Sea Bass:
Sebastian Janikowski tied a franchise record of hitting six field goals today.You might think there were a lot of with chip shots, but four were for 40 yards or more, and all six averaged 38.2 yards. Contributing to 19 points including an extra point, he was undoubtedly the player of the game.Janikowski and Lechler’s punts also were placed extremely well, out of the reach of the best punt returner in the game, Chicago’s David Hester. He only got two return attempts, averaging 19 yards.

Carson Palmer:
He may not have thrown a touchdown (their one touchdown was from a three-yard rush by Michael Bush after a bomb from Palmer) but Palmer kept his team in the game, not letting Chicago’s spectacular defense get to him. Being able to lead the team constantly into field goal range for Janikwoski is nothing to sneeze at. He was able to throw for 301 yards and had a respectable 57% completion rate.

Jay Cutler/Caleb Hanie:
Chicago’s solid QB Jay Cutler is out for an indefinite amount of time, so Caleb Hanie, who never started a game before had to step in. While he got better in the second half, overall his play helped the Raiders win. They could not recover from Hanie throwing three interceptions, including one in the red zone when Chicago had the opportunity to take the lead. His 254 yards and 51% completion rate isn’t dreadful, and his bomb to Knox for 81 yards was magnificent, it was just too little too late for the Bears.

The Raiders Offensive Line:
The Bears only average giving up 21 points per game, so the Raiders offensive line coming up big was important to their victory. Carson Palmer was sacked four times, but as the game went on the Raiders O-line wore out the Bears defense and Palmer got more time and better looks in the second half of the game.

The Raiders, sitting in first place, hope to parlay this victory in Miami next Sunday to play the dreadful Dolphins (3-8). The Bears, tied for an NFC wildcard slot, will be home against the Kansas City Chiefs (4-7).

The 2011 Boston Red Sox Collapse In 4 Movements


To the glee of baseball fans everywhere (that don’t live in New England) the Red Sox collapse in 2011 was one of, if not the most legendary of all time. There is not one reason, nor are there only four for the collapse. But here are in my book the four most important reasons in no particular order why they missed the playoffs.

Ego:
The 2011 Red Sox were put together just like the 2000’s-era Yankees team they despised (and beat): Big name free agents that look good on paper but can’t guarantee they’ll mesh well with their teammates. Team unity takes a hit when it’s a circus around the heart of the team (Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz). One of the big name signees, Adrian Gonzalez, saying they didn’t get in the playoffs because “God didn’t want them to” is not an acceptable answer for fans. The big name free agents looked passionless – hey I’m already paid, why dirty my uniform? Controversy erupted when it leaked that late in the season players were eating fried chicken and drinking beer in the clubhouse during close games they needed to win, showing the ego of a team that was unacceptable.

Hype:
A media blitz thanks to big name signings can’t make anyone feel comfortable. The now legendary NESN article (http://www.nesn.com/2011/01/2011-red-sox-will-challenge-1927-yankees-for-title-of-greatest-team-in-major-league-history.html) that not only surmised that the Red Sox would win 100 games but said the real question was how many over 100 (they won 90) is a great example of the media hype around this team. How can you live up toexpectations of being the greatest team of all time? This is reminiscent of this year’s Philadelphia Eagles, who were coined as NFL’s “dream team” by the media and are languishing in third place – just where the Red Sox ended up. The hype hurt Carl Crawford too, a very good player who had a horrible year in his first of 7 years for $140 million. He apologized for his play but I don’t Red Sox fans have accepted it.

Terry Francona:
I’m not writing this because I believe he’s a bad manager. On the contrary, he’s good strategically and excellent at managing a veteran clubhouse. But while his mild mannered attitude was enjoyed by the likes of David Ortiz, it didn’t mesh well with the new blood who needed to be constantly reprimanded – not Francona’s style. He managed in a vicious city and won 2 World Series with them after an 86-year draught, and it took this for him to finally find himself in over his head. He chose to not re-sign with the team after he season ended.

New York Yankees/Tampa Bay Rays:
If you just go out and win, you shouldn’t have to worry about what the other teams are doing – it will all fall into place and you’ll get into the playoffs. But the Red Sox were definitely scoreboard watching as it became apparent the Yankees and Rays were better than they were projected. The Rays went on a blazing hot streak at the end of the year and sealed Boston’s fate just minutes after their last game of the season by winning while the Red Sox lost, both winning teams coming from behind.

Combine all of this and you don’t get into the playoffs, let alone win a World Series. Now they have a new General Manager, but are stuck with these huge contracts that didn’t pay of last year. It will be interesting to see what the Red Sox do this offseason – is this a long-term problem or they can stand on top of the AL East in 2012, as they were predicted to in 2011?

Why The Gold Glove Is (Still) A Sham


The Gold Glove is one of the most prestigious awards in the MLB, yet it is the least researched of all rewards and unsurprisingly there isn’t an award given out to undeserved players more. Many times, the player who deserves it will finally win it, however not for the year they deserve it. But how long can this go on fore?

Firstly, writers who traditionally pour over stats to make their picks for MVP or the Cy Young Award do not choose it. Managers and coaches choose this one – you would think this is a good thing as no one is closer to the game than them. But many managers use too much (bad) old school mentality and look simply at errors and when watching an opponent make a few good plays against his team. Does Derek Jeter, who usually makes diving plays because of his age and lack of range deserve the GG more than a player who is able to get to the ball without theatrics because of their speed? If you have enough range (something a few sabermetric stats will inform you) you save countless singles, but probably make a few more errors because of how many times you get to the ball. Aren’t the runs saved by getting to these balls preventing hits more important?

In 2011, New York Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner was the best OF in the AL. His range was incredible with 35 Total Zone Runs and a Defensive WAR of 3.2, both top of the AL. The three winners, Alex Gordon, Jacoby Ellsbury and Nick Markakis had the following dWAR: 0.8, 0.4 -0.4, respectively. That’s right, Markakis was negative! But, he made 0 errors.  Interestingly, Markakis deserved to win it his rookie year in 2006 but more household names were chosen.

This is constant in the history of baseball. The most egregious example was Rafeal Palmeiro winning the first base Gold Glove in 1999. Why? Because he played only 28 games at first base! How did he still win it? Simple manager indifference. Managers and coaches love voting the same people every year simply because they don’t want to take the time out to review the stats – it’s easier to go with the guy who won it the last few years, and not look at the little guy who has the best stats.

The Silver Slugger is also an award determined by coaches and managers, but being an offensive category the stats are easier to eyeball on the surface so it usually goes to more deserving players than the Gold Glove.

Still, I believe this can be fixed to some degree if this award is left to the writers. The managers and coaches are more important things to do than to pick it, and it seems based on the results that they don’t care.

Grading The 2011 Oakland Raiders Through 10 Games


The Oakland Raiders (6-4) have surprised a lot of people by clawing their way to first place in the AFC West with six games left in the season. Even more surprising, is that they may have hit their stride after their starting QB Jason Campbell became injured and declared out for the season. But The Raiders have shown resiliency at almost every major position. Yes, it helps that they’re in one of the weakest divisions in the NFL, but hey, the playoffs are the playoffs!

QB:
Jason Campbell/Carson Palmer/Kyle Boller: B

Jason Campbell started the year how realistic Raider fans hoped for: Not pro-bowl status but better than before, ably leading the offense. And McFadden being maybe the best RB in the AFC helps any QB. Then he broke his collarbone. Giving up a lot for a questionable Carson Palmer, they wanted a lot, and besides that second half of the Chiefs game he shouldn’t have even been in, he’s been better than anyone expected.  With an average QB rating of 103 his last three games, he could lead the Raiders to their first division title since 2002. Of course I have to mention Kyle Boller, who brings this grade down. Playing essentially one full game, he threw 3 picks with no TDs helping him obtain a wretched QB rating of 31.

RB:
Darren McFadden/Michael Bush: A

McFadden was leading the league with yards per game at the beginning of the season so, naturally, he got injured and he’s still questionable. Luckily, the Raiders have someone more than qualified to fill his shoes. Since Michael Bush has been the starting RB he’s averaged over 115 years per game, plowing through defensive lines with his brute strength, a nice compliment to McFadden’s pure speed and agility. It will be interesting to see how coach Jackson uses them both together when McFadden returns.

WR/TE:
Denarius Moore/Jacoby Ford/Darrius Heyward-Bay/Kevin Boss: B+

The only thing consistent about the receiving core of the Raiders (besides their success) is their inconsistently in finding a #1 receiver. The Raiders have been known to use seven different receivers in a single game this year, showing a special versatility. TE Kevin Boss has been under used, but it’s hard to take the ball out of the hands of rookie sensation Denarius Moore, especially if that is who Palmer feels most comfortable with.

P/K:
Shane Lechler/Sebastian Janikowski: A

As it was last year, the two kickers on the Raiders are the class of their conference. Lechler leads the league in yards per punt and Janikowski has a phenomenal 88.9 field goal percentage including 5 FG for over 50 yards. A microcosm of their seasons, Lechler and Janikowski both set the NFL record for longest punt and longest field goal, respectively, in the same game this season. Both are leading their positions in Pro-Bowl voting for this year.

DB/CB/S:
Matt Giordano/Stanford Routt/Lamarr Houston/etc.: C+

The secondary has been pretty good but very inconsistent. Some games, it feels as though the opposing QB has single digit completions. Other games, especially in the second half, they seem to give up and wild passes are caught – they look dumbfounded. They’re 20th in the NFL in average passing yards given up per game. Stanford Routt, a very good player, also hurts because he is a penalty machine.

DT/LB/DE:
Richard Seymour/Tommy Kelly/Desmond Bryant/etc.: B

Oakland is sixth in all the NFL with sacks and tenth in total tackles. I would like to see less rushing yards given up, but they have been constantly putting the pressure on opposing quarterbacks and keeping the Raiders offense in striking distance of winning.

Everyone:
Penalties: F

It can’t be all sunshine and rainbows, right? The Raiders have been absolutely atrocious this season with unneeded penalties. They’ve been leading the NFL in penalties since the season started and are well on the way to breaking the 1998 Kansas City Chiefs record for most penalties in a season. This can hurt more than any injury.

The Raiders have what it takes to stay at the top of their division, and if they keep up their rushing and transfer their bullying more into “playing physical” and less into penalties this is a team that could… well probably still lose in the first round of the playoffs to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but after 7 losing seasons in a row and squeaking by at .500 last year, playoff football itself is almost Super Bowl status.

Jordan At The Bat

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After I wrote the “Today In Baseball History” from my last post, I got to thinking about Michael Jordan’s career as a minor league baseball player. If you’re not sure how it went, maybe his introductionary sentence on Wikipedia may help you: “Michael Jeffrey Jordan (born February 17, 1963) is a retired American professional basketball player and active businessman.” What, no baseball?

Laugh if you want, but I should remind you that one reason why he wanted to start playing baseball was because his murdered father always envisioned his son as a MLB player. There, do you feel a little worse about the smirks? Good.

On October 6, 1993, Jordan unexpectedly announced his NBA retirement, telling the media he had a loss of desire to play the game. More unexpected was when he told the world of his intention to play major league baseball a few months later. Being one of the most famous Chicagoans in history (by way of North Carolina) and a natural athlete, most people accepted that he inexplicably started his baseball career in AA for the White Sox organization.

By all accounts, his heart was in the right place. He respected his teammates and coaches, willing to learn like a developing younger player (or in Mike’s case, a 30 year old developing player) should. A boatload of reports indicate that he was the first at batting practice, doing the drills and acting as if he actually felt he was on the same level of those peons in AA who worked their whole lives to get there and will most likely never see a major league game. At least they can go to the grave saying they played with Air Jordan, right?
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Looking at his numbers, they’re really not as bad as you may think – at the very least better than how the average NBA star would perform. In 436 at bats he hit a gentleman’s .202 with a .285 OBP, 3 home runs, 51 RBI’s and 51 walks, not to mention a respectable 63% SB% (30 for 48). Sure, he made 11 errors in the outfield, but an acceptable 6 assists which is, after all, only 1 less than Shane Victorino’s Gold Glove season last year.

His agent and coaches say that the strike of 1994 left a bad taste in Jordan’s mouth, prompting him to go back into basketball. Whether it was the inevitably that he could comfortably continue being the greatest basketball player in history or, best case scenario, stick it out in AA and AAA for a few years and become the prestigious 5th outfielder for the White Sox is anyone’s guess.

I suppose there’s a good fairy tale in all of this. Always dream big and you may make it half way, which is better than not shooting high at all? Eh, I’m a glass half empty kind of person. The lesson learned should be a memo to professional athletes: Don’t quit your day job. It’s much more likely you’ll end up like The Rock doing mediocre movies rather than Deion Sanders who hit .533 in the 1992 World Series.

Since a “Today in baseball history” segment spawned this, it only makes sense I conclude today’s post with a…

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Today in baseball history: March 6th
1940: Future Hall of Famer Willie Stargell is born
“Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor’s mailbox.” – Willie Stargell

1973: Larry Hisle of the Minnesota Twins becomes the first designated hitter in major league history during an exhibition game  against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Hisle hit two home runs and seven RBIs that game to the chagrin of pitchers everywhere.

2005: Suzyn Waldman becomes the first woman to be a full-time color commentator in major league history.
People call her a reactionary “homer” but I think this audio clip will prove otherwise.

NYY’s First Week of Spring Training

Things move at an expected clip offensively

The fans expect the superstars to come out of the gate in Spring Training with hits, and that’s the case with the Yankees. It’s a loosey-goosey atmosphere with many reserves/minor leaguers finding their way into games; the Yankees 13-11 loss to the Reds is not an uncommon score. Derek Jeter, A-Rod, Mark Teixeira, and Robinson Cano all are comfortably hitting over .400. With some “tenderness” in his shoulder, Posada has gone 7 for 11 which his is a relief to many Yankee fans, although he hasn’t been catching.
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The big story of course has been Gardner who has been positively shredding like Yngwie Malmsteen. Including the WBC exhibition game against the USA team (which doesn’t officially factor in for ST stats) he’s 8 for 13, which is good for a .615 average, with two homers and three stolen bases in three attempts. Unless your favorite players are Adam Dunn and Jason Giambi, a Yankee fan would have to love his speedy, hard hustling style of play. While Melky has hit a respectable .300 including a triple, so far he has to be worried about what his status in the majors will be by Opening Day. I know it has only been a week and it’s quick to judge any of the players in these two paragraphs, but hey, I’m a Yankee fan, it’s my job to be reactionary.

Things move at an expected clip on the mound

Even though CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte all haven’t been on the mound yet, a superfluity (25!) of pitchers have been getting their innings in. As for the bigger name Yankees, Wang pitched 2 scoreless, strikeoutless, and walkless innings. Hughes’ first start also was scoreless through 2, but in his start against Team USA he didn’t fare as well: 2 ER in 2.2 innings. Kennedy threw 2 scoreless with 3 K’s and 1 wild pitch while Kei Igawa pitched 3 scoreless innings to the delight of the Yankees accountant. Phil Coke continues his understated dominance from last season, pitching 4.1 scoreless innings. Joba on the other hand was only able to get through 1 inning in his February 28th start, giving up 2 runs.

Regarding the lesser known guns, the unfortunately named Eric Hacker gave up 1 run and 3 hits in his Spring Training debut and did worse on the mound against the USA Team, giving up 4 runs including a wild pitch and 2 walks without getting an out. 23 year-old Michael Dunn has pitched 3.2 scoreless innings.

The Yankees vs. Team USA
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Easily my favorite game of Spring Training so far, I was constantly amused but the crowd seemed sparse and only mildly into it. Comparable to watching the Yankees playing an All Star team, I found myself rooting for the USA Team. Still, it was nice to see the Yankees hold their ground with all their subs later in the game. Some Yankee fans may call me treasonous, but I thought Jeter looked mighty spiffy in a red cap. Oh, and was I the only one who didn’t recognize Kevin Youkilis without any facial hair?

Today in baseball history: March 4th

1884: National League owners agree to provide two separate team benches to minimize fraternizing among opposing players during games.
No clever commentary on this one besides a laugh.
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1886: The National League meets and adopts the stolen base. But the NL retains seven balls for a walk and rejects the American Association rule giving a batter first base on a hit by a pitch.
Apparently Al Leiter’s constant complaints that the Major League gives pitchers the short end of the stick when making new rules has been ringing true for at least 120 years.

1994: Michael Jordan comes to bat for the first time in a Chicago White Sox uniform. Playing in a spring training game, Jordan taps back to Texas Rangers pitcher Darren Oliver, who tags out the former NBA star.
I always wondered if his CWS AA team treated him like how they did in Space Jam.

3 Reviews Not In 3-D

Movie Review: Coraline


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3-D films have been a gimmick for decades, nothing more than a simple novelty. At a time in the 1950’s it was taken seriously by many directors – Alfred Hitchcock went so far as to even shoot 1954’s Dial M For Murder in 3-D, but insufficient technology and general public interest faded. In the 2000’s, when the public thinks of 3-D they recall cheesy Sci-Fialfred.jpg
films and child-like red and cyan cardboard glasses.
There has been a resurgence however, and major studios are investing much time, money and effort into 3-D, which they view as the next “big thing.” In 2008 some theaters had Bolt in 3-D, while Journey To The Center Of The Earth and My Bloody Valentine‘s main (read: only) attractions were 3-D films finally released in over 1,000 screens.

Which leads us to Coraline, a film where the 3-D is enhanced by the story and stop-motion animation and not the other way around. This isn’t mindless 3-D where things constantly jump out of the screen to scare you (well, it happens a few times) but uses subtle 3-D to successfully build on the animation. It’s a fine movie without the 3-D aspect which is a testament to the film maker’s brains being in the right place.

Coraline tells the story of a young girl by the name of, you guessed it Coraline (voice by Dakota Fanning). She just moved to a desolate area in Oregon. She’s not the nicest little girl but her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are neglectful writers, leaving Coraline to her own devices. She meets her eccentric tenants: The former actresses (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French) living on the lower level, the circus man Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane) who lives on top floor, and her the next door neighbor Wybie Lovat (Robert Bailey Jr.), always with his cat. While rummaging through the mansion, she finds a hidden door which at first glance seems to lead nowhere. At night however, opening the door creates a portal to the “other world.” The other world has the same people (curiously with buttons for eyes) but they’re all much nicer to little Coraline and everything has gone from dark and mundane to extravagant and beautiful. Of course, since every movie needs conflict, she finds out this isn’t all as it originally seemed.

With director Henry Selick’s resume that includes The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, you can assume correctly the visual style of the film: Gothic flavor but with enough color and wonder to keep children’s attention. But it’s PG for a reason, I expect that it may be too intense and nightmare inducing for children under 6.

Coraline easily has the most smooth stop-motion I’ve ever seen, I actually thought it was CGI going into the film. That’s not the only thing it has going for it: It’s unpredictable and can be easily enjoyed by all ages. Too many animated movies masquerade as “family” films when really they’re children’s movies. Films like these, and notably Pixar releases, satisfy the intelligence level of all age groups.

Some critics are already saying this will be nominated for Best Animated Film for next year’s Oscars and I wouldn’t be surprised, its combination of lushness and maturity will appeal to the cranky old Oscar voters – let’s just hope they don’t get a headache after the movie like I did.


Album Revew: Lily Allen – It’s Not Me, It’s You

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Lily Allen divides people, plain and simple. Some people think she’s a snarky firecracker who transcends genre, while others view her as nothing more than Katy Perry without the Zooey Deschanel resemblance. There are well-read arguments for both sides, but one thing Allen proves on her sophomore disc is that she can be more mature and eloquent than Perry – but only when she wants to.
The songs about sex and relationships with wildly blunt and inappropriate language that caught the eye of many people on her first album Alright, Still gets a little tiresome here. “Not Fair,” with its spaghetti western beat complete with banjo solo could be a sequel to Alright, Still‘s “Not Big.” About a guy who is great in every aspect of their relationship except for his selfishness in the bedroom, it gets a little cringe worthy: “Oh I lie here in the wet patch in the middle of the bed / I’m feeling pretty damn hard done by, I spent ages giving h**d.” Announced to be the second single, I can’t wait to see how that couplet works on radio.

The album’s two lead off tracks, “Everyone’s At It” and “The Fear” are acceptable, though not distinctive, which tackle, respectively, the prevalence of drugs and the spoiled culture of young female celebrity (“I want loads of clothes and f**kloads of diamonds / I heard people die while they’re trying to find them“). They’re polished, clean, and single ready (indeed, “The Fear” is record’s first single) but ultimately disposable.

It’s Not Me, It’s You takes a turn for the better on track 5 with the sublime “I Couldchinese.jpg Say,” starting a block through track 10 of the album’s best songs. Here is where her well written, offbeat style meets maturity to a satisfying level. “Who’d Have known,” the album’s best track, bears a White Album era Beatles piano stomp that looks at a budding relationship through a sophisticated lens. It’s followed by the dreamy “Chinese,” which paints a fully realized portrait as well as Lily ever has.

This album will appease Lily Allen fans who loved her first record, even if this is more dance oriented verses her debut’s more ska leanings. But one has to wonder if on her third album she needs to litter it with “controversial” tracks like “Not Fair” and the awful “Him” which ponders, among other things, if God is ever suicidal or tried cocaine. She’s established enough to where her mature tracks can top the charts; Lily should be able to move away from doing Eminem’s trademark of making the over the top, funny, zany song the lead single to hook the record buying public. This will set her apart from the Katy Perry’s of the pop world.

Album Revew: Franz Nicolay – Major General

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Even though Franz Nicolay is one of the most recognizable people in punk rock, for the most part he has been relegated to the side man in his most popular gigs, The Hold Steady and The World/Inferno Friendship Society. With his solo debut, Franz, who double majored at NYU in jazz performance and classical composition, tries his hand at many different genres, and he has a surprisingly high Tony Gwynn-level success rate. Franz drifts from World/Inferno-esque vaudevillian punk, jazz, folk, pub rock with a twist of gypsy influence. Interestingly, for such an eclectic album with busy instrumentation, it’s not overwhelming to the listener. Major General does have a few weak tracks, but it’s from some bloatedness, not because of Franz’s music exploration.
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Franz doesn’t pull any punches as he starts the album off with its best track, “Jeff Penalty.” As you may have deduced it deals with Jeff Penalty’s stint as singer for the currently comical-in-their-very-existence Dead Kennedys. Through ringing, punk rock gutiars he wails “I’m sorry Jeff what’s-his-name if we didn’t take you serious / but the punks all still sang along when you got to the chorus.

Franz has a booming voice, sounding like Jack Terricloth with a bigger frame. Non-coincidentally, Jack Terricloth wrote the lyrics for two songs including “Dead Sailors.” Franz goes go over the top at points: “This World Is An Open Door” is a bit much vocally, it sounds like he’s trying to be weird for weirdness sake. Perhaps unexpectedly his best songs are the more contemplative restrained ones. “X-Games” hosts an acoustic guitar with a light pitter-patter of drums and is utterly beautiful, “Do We Not Live In Dreams?” has a jazzy kick that I hope to hear roll  through the credits of a Woody Allen film in the near future, and “Note On A Subway Wall” is as effective as any mournful, moonlight piano ballad I’ll hear all year.

Recorded in six days, Major General will appeal more to fans of World/Inferno than The Hold Steady, though a few songs like “Quiet Where I Lie” sound right out of the Craig Finn songbook. Truth be told we all know he is a little wilder than Finn is. Franz sits alphabetically in my iTunes between Frank Zappa and Frederic Chopin, and I’m sure if asked, he would say he is comfortable there.

*****I’m sorry if this confuses anyone, but I rate movies out of 4 stars and albums out of 5 – it’s just the way I grew up reading reviews and it stuck. I guess if enough of you (a.k.a. all 3 of my readers) find it confusing I’ll move film reviews of 5 stars to keep them both in the same ranking system.*****