Monday, May 25, 2009

Home of the Braves

Saturday night’s visit to Atlanta’s Turner Field not only brought my lifetime baseball stadium total to 30, including 20 current ones, but was also KJ’s third park in a week. I’m pretty sure I’ve only accomplished that feat a couple of times in my storied history of visiting ballparks, so it appears my influence is starting to rub off a little. It also happened to be her second Blue Jays road game in three days, both of them contributing to their current seven-game losing streak.

Our visit started a little dubiously, though. I planned our trip from our hotel in downtown Atlanta by suggesting we travel two stops south on the subway, and walk a few blocks to the game. When we noticed several people dressed in Braves’ gear getting off the stop before, we briefly second-guessed our decision, but still stuck to the plan. When we did get off at our stop, it didn’t take long for us to realize why it wasn’t the best of ideas. Let’s just say it’s a good thing it was still broad daylight.

As it turned out, though, taking this particular route to the game was a blessing in disguise, as I doubt we would have discovered the monument to Hank Aaron’s 715th home run that stands in the far reaches of a parking lot built on the grounds of the former Atlanta Fulton County Stadium.

Turner Field
Turner Field, patriotically known to the team’s fans as the “Home of the Braves”, was originally Olympic Stadium, built for the centennial Olympic Games in 1996. Shortly thereafter, it was converted to a baseball stadium, and re-opened as Turner Field for the 1997 season. We came in through the main entrance, Grand Entry Plaza, an open air concessions area beyond center field, which features two sit-down restaurants and numerous other food options, a huge screen television for viewing the game while visiting the concessions, and a Cartoon Network arcade for the younger fans.

My only real complaints with the stadium came early and late. Upon arrival, we walked half-way around the stadium without seeing a single sign directing us to our section. We were in the 200s, which were on the same level as the 100s, but we actually had to walk up a flight of stairs to find any signs directing us to the 200 sections. Making matters worse, when we found a “Stadium Directory” sign on the lower level, the only sections that were marked were the 100s. Now, common sense told me that we had to walk up a flight of stairs, but I still found the situation kind of annoying.

The night’s festivities began with a moving pre-game tribute to our country’s soldiers. Being that this is Memorial Day weekend, Saturday night at Turner Field was designated as Military Night. There was a procession of soldiers from a nearby troop who marched onto the field in fatigues, and several Georgia natives and Purple Heart recipients were honored as well. I don’t consider myself to be an especially patriotic person, but I have my moments, and this was one of them.

The highlight for me, though, was when they asked any veterans of the armed forces in the crowd to stand and be recognized by an ovation from the crowd. The thought crossed my mind that if my dad was there, he could stand proudly with them. Normally, I just take my hat off my head during the national anthem, but I was moved enough by the proceedings that, on this particular occasion, I placed it over my heart. Adding to the moment's significance was the fact that my 20-year old cousin's next tour of duty will be in Afghanistan, with him shipping off in just a week.

As is always the case when I visit a new locale, I sought out some local beer, and was lucky to find a vendor selling Georgia’s own SweetWater 420 Extra Pale Ale. At $7 for a 16-ouncer, the price wasn’t too bad by ballpark standards, and the beer was actually pretty good, despite the name. I remarked to KJ that it combined the hoppiness of an IPA with the malt content of a pale ale, so it was a bit on the bitter side of the ever-important hops/malt balance scale, but it still hit the spot.

My second complaint was that I arrived at the beer stand only seconds after the last out of an extremely quick 7th inning, and was told by a beady-eyed worker that they were closed, before I could even say a word. Otherwise, everyone who worked there was very friendly, although there was another issue with the concessions where it took them about five minutes to find cups when I ordered a soda following the aforementioned unsuccessful beer purchase.

The game was a pretty good one. For the second time in a week, we witnessed a contest in which both pitchers performed well, with the Braves’ Derek Lowe also contributing two hits and an RBI to a solid effort on the hill. The home team led 4-2 going into the 9th, but their heart-attack closer, Mike Gonzalez, gave up one run on two hits and two walks, while retiring just one batter, before giving way to Rafael Soriano with the bases loaded. Soriano promptly struck out pinch-hitter Kevin Millar and then got Marco Scutaro to fly out to preserve the victory.

Finally, I have to give credit and thanks to their Guest Services department. Following the game, trying to avoid a repeat of our somewhat tense pre-game experience, we were directed to a free shuttle bus that took us to the main subway station in the heart of Atlanta. Since it was only one stop from our final destination, we were able to return to our hotel without incident or worry, and another excellent night of baseball watching was in the books.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The House That George Built

Of course you know, the title is not in reference to George Herman Ruth.

New Yankee Stadium
On Sunday, I made my first visit to the new Yankee Stadium. In fact, the tickets—and an overnight trip to midtown Manhattan—were birthday gifts from the undisputed Queen of gift giving. Neil Young tickets, home brew labels, and now Yankees tickets—that's pretty close to impossible to top.

Not surprisingly, I was pretty impressed with the new digs, but as I once said, the Yankees definitely have the means to build the ultimate state of the art ballpark. Is this stadium the ultimate? At this point, I've seen so many excellent new baseball venues that I'm really not sure that it stands out as being the best place to watch a game, but it certainly measures up. One thing's for sure, though, it's absolutely majestic, possibly to the point of being extravagant, and the New York fans are paying for it—and I don't just mean those who are shelling out for the now infamous $2500 seats.

Great HallWe entered directly into what they're apparently calling the Great Hall, a 31,000 square foot corridor inside the stadium that "... serves as a boulevard to retail stores and food and beverage amenities," according to the Yankees' web site. It's also lined with large double-sided banners displaying Yankee legends of old—in black and white—on one side, and more recent stars—in color—on the other.

One of the first vendors we saw in the Great Hall was a "Retro Beer" stand, which featured $9 16-ounce cans of Schaefer, Ballantine, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Schlitz, sold by workers in old New York Highlanders uniforms. The uniforms were a nice touch—the Yanks were known as the Highlanders from 1903 to 1912—but with New York City's rich history in brewing, they could have chosen better than the Milwaukee-based Schlitz and Pabst. Also, I'm not sure if this qualifies as a relative "bargain," but, in my opinion, those beers are tough enough to swallow at a reasonable price. The best selection I could find to satisfy my beer snobbery was an $8.50 bottle of Brooklyn Lager—poured into a plastic cup, of course.

The game was exciting, but the crowd wasn't. I was wondering if it was just this particular game that the fans were much more tame—although there were a couple of obnoxious dudes sitting near us—than usual, or if it's a product of the higher ticket prices. My opinion of the crowd was seconded by my good friend Lee, so I suspect the latter is the case.

In the fans' defense, I suppose, is the fact that this was possibly the first pitchers duel in the short history of the new stadium. Both Yankees' starter A.J. Burnett and Twins' starter Kevin Slowey held their opponents scoreless through six innings. Both teams got on the board with two runs in the 7th of a game that eventually went to extra frames, with Johnny Damon's walk-off solo home run winning it in the 10th for the Yanks.

The game's most exciting play, though, came in the bottom of the 9th with the score knotted at two. Yankees speedster Brett Gardner, who came on as a pinch-runner for Nick Swisher, was on second with one out. Francisco Cervelli hit what initially looked to be a certain game-winning hit back up the middle, but Twins' left-hander Jose Mijares reached behind his back and got what appeared to be his wrist on the ball, which caromed back towards home plate.

Catcher Joe Mauer came up with the ball and started to throw to first base, in an attempt to retire Cervelli, but stopped. Gardner had apparently already decided that he had no intention of stopping at third. As he rounded the bag full steam and raced towards home, Mauer reacted quickly, and used every inch of his athletic 6'5" frame to dive in the direction of the plate and tag out Gardner just in the nick of time.

I briefly questioned Gardner's decision at the time, but quickly reconsidered and decided that his aggressiveness was worth the risk. In fact, after seeing the replay later, I'm convinced that Mauer—tall, young and athletic—is the only catcher in all of baseball who would have made this play.

Lastly, the food was very good, and there were numerous options for more than just your standard ballpark food. The popcorn smelled terrific, in fact, and the line for that was quite long, but the rest of the lines at concessions were bearable. The food, actually, was better than at the restaurant we visited the night before, but I'll get to that in a later post. All in all, it was a great first visit to the new Yankee Stadium.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Portsmouth Brewing Company

I lived in Dover, NH, a charming old mill town about a half hour from Portsmouth, for about a year back in 1996-97. In fact, that was the year that my annual top ten albums tradition—which has since grown to a top 40—was born. But, that's not relevant to what I'm writing about today.

The Portsmouth Brewing Company opened its doors in 1991, two years prior to the inception of Brown & Moran Brewing Company in Troy, NY, which is where my taste for micro-brewed beer began to develop. Prior to that, I considered it a treat when a bar had Samuel Adams on tap. I say that not to put down Sam Adams—I still think their Boston Lager is a quality selection, although I'm not a fan of most of their specialty brews—but because, having lived in Boston for the past 12 years, that particular beer is not difficult to find.

When I first visited the brewpub in the heart of downtown Portsmouth back in 1996, it was relatively young, as was my status as a "beer snob." So, when I say I was not particularly impressed with their offerings back then, I have to qualify that by saying I'm not really certain I gave them a fair shake—although I did make several visits. Also, at least 12 years have elapsed since I was last there, and they are now owned by Smuttynose Brewing, a development that I think has occurred since my New Hampshire days, although I'm not 100% sure of that.

So, when KJ and I went on a day trip to Portsmouth this past weekend, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to give this brewery a second chance. After spending a few hours wandering around one of the best small cities in New England, we stopped in for an early dinner. Since we couldn't really decide what kind of beer we were in the mood for, we opted for a sampler of approximately three ounces each of seven PBC and three Smuttynose offerings. The following were my impressions of each (listed in the order consumed):

Dirty Blonde: This is a fairly standard, light golden ale. It's definitely not my favorite style of beer, and this one did nothing to change my opinion. Grade: C-

Smuttynose Star Island Single: Smutty's newest brew, this is a very nice, lighter ale that is not lacking in body, and has a very subtle fruitiness to it. Of all the beers we had on this visit, this is the one that I would have most enjoyed drinking two or three of. Grade: B+

Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale: This is easily the weakest of the three Smuttynose offerings, a very bland, brown ale that wasn't nearly as full-bodied as advertised. Grade: D

Smuttynose Shoals Pale Ale: A very solid, English-style pale ale, with a nice flavorful body and just the right amount of hops bite. Grade: B

Bottle Rocket IPA: PBC's IPA is solid, but let's face it...IPAs to me are like pizza. Very few of them are bad, but when it comes to considering one truly exceptional, my standards are pretty high. Grade: C+

Saison de Printemps: This is their current seasonal offering, a spring farmhouse-style ale as described by our waiter. I liked the sample, but when I ordered a full glass, I found myself less enamored with it. It tasted much stronger than it turned out to be, and with no pronounced hoppiness that could have given it a little more balance. When I discovered it was only 5.5%, I wondered why they only served it as a 12-ouncer. Grade: C+

WiezenBock: As is pretty standard for the style, this one is quite lacking in balance as well. However, at 7% ABV, that's a little more understandable. Still, I was not particularly impressed. Grade: C+

Wheat Wine: This one is quite interesting, brewed in the barley wine style, but with wheat, rather than, barley malt. At 11% ABV, it is the strongest brew I've had in quite some time, although we had hoped the 21st Century Schizoid Ale would approach that level. Grade: B-

Black Cat Stout: Yesterday was Mother's Day, and my mother always taught me if you don't have something nice to say, don't say it at all. That's all I have to say about this one.

Imperial Porter: A rich and strong porter, but I don't feel that its body measures up to the increased alcohol content, making it lose some of its porterish qualities. Grade: C

I have to admit that, although I definitely have considerable knowledge about craft-brewed beer, I don't really feel as though my palette has quite what it takes to be an actual beer critic. I don't recognize subtleties in flavor as well as I would need to in order to consider myself qualified for that kind of gig. In fact, a couple of minor details in the above mini-reviews probably were actually KJ's observations. Also, I've often thought that my taste buds have minds of their own, and are actually quite moody as well.

So, when I say that my return to the Portsmouth Brewing Company did nothing to change my previously held opinion of the place, I don't mean to discourage you from checking it out yourself. In fact, the food was excellent. I had a pulled pork sandwich that was as good as anything I've eaten at my two most frequented BBQ establishments in Boston: Blue Ribbon and Redbone's. KJ raved about her fried haddock sandwich as well, and seconded my opinion of the pulled pork. I, of course, wouldn't go anywhere near the haddock, as those of you who really know me won't be particularly surprised to hear.

I'll summarize by saying that there are definitely enough positives about the Portsmouth Brewing Company that make it worth the visit. If nothing else, enjoy the food, choose your favorite style from among the more common brews that they serve, and take in everything that this little New England port city has to offer.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Frequent Spins (2009.3)

Art Brut - Art Brut vs. Satan
On "The Replacements," Art Brut's plea for musical sincerity, singer Eddie Argos complains, "So many bands are just putting you on. Why can't they just be the same as their songs?" This particular song, of course, is also a tribute to the band of the same name, and when he proclaims, "I can't believe I've only just discovered The Replacements," I can easily identify with the sentiment. Genuineness is pretty much what this band is about...straightforward indie rock powered by heavy bass lines and Argos' simple but occasionally clever musings about everyday urban life. In addition to The Replacements, Art Brut's third album also pays tribute to comic books, chocolate milkshakes, public transportation, Brian Eno, Zyrtec and the musical influences of one's parents. It doesn't break any new ground, but is just as fun to listen to as 2007's It's a Bit Complicated, particularly as Argos admits, "I fought the floor and the floor won" on the record's excellent closer, "Mysterious Bruises."

Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
I'm pretty sure I've written before that I'm yet to be overly impressed with any of Ms. Case's solo output, but I love the twangy element that her voice has added to the power-pop sound of The New Pornographers. Well, this environmentally influenced collection of songs may finally be the album that begins to live up to her potential, in my book. Earthy highlights include "This Tornado Loves You," "People Got a Lotta Nerve" and "Magpie to the Morning."

The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love
Simply put, this is the best album of the year, so far, although from what I understand, not all of this band's loyalists agree. Unfortunately, rating it so highly is just as much an indication that, to date, this is the worst year in music in recent memory, as it is a declaration of the greatness of this album. But, this is a great indie prog-rock opera masterpiece, one that has me motivated to witness its live performance, and the best record in this Portland, Oregon band's relatively small catalog.

The Hold Steady - A Positive Rage
The first time I saw The Hold Steady live, singer Craig Finn introduced the final encore with a speech about how much the band truly loves what they do and appreciates the support that they receive from their fans each night while on tour. It's certainly hard to capture by writing about how truly genuine his words sounded and how it punctuated a great show and really made my evening. If you've ever seen the band live, you've witnessed how much energy and enthusiasm they bring to their live shows, and you probably understand what I'm talking about. A similar speech is captured on live album A Positive Rage, and Finn also admits that it's something he does just about every night. It still sounds sincere, though, and this album—a recording of their Halloween 2008 show at the Metro in Chicago—is an excellent representation of their live act, one that you need to witness for yourself.

Justin Townes Earle - Midnight at the Movies
Justin's dad releases an album this week called Townes. But, of course, the album is not named after his son, but rather after the artist whom his son is named after, Townes Van Zant. But, while dad's recent material has been a far cry from his late 90s output, son's second full-length may be proof that genius doesn't necessarily skip a generation. Of course, that might be a little premature, but songs like the album opening title track, "What I Mean to You" and a sweet but fragile cover of The Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait," show that he may be ready to follow in his father's footsteps. As good as those songs are, though, "Mama's Eyes" is the real evidence that he may share Steve's knack for effectively mining the subject matter of his own life for material.

Say Hi - Oohs & Aahs
This one is not as strong all the way through as last year's The Wishes and the Glitch, but has a few moments that really rival the quality of that album's top 20 material. The real gem here is "Maurine," a plaintive mid-tempo ode to love lost or never realized, on which singer Eric Elbogen wishes the object of his affection well while expressing sad regret with understated lyrics such as "I guess I should've a lot of things...huh."

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Goal Post 13, NA1 11

First of all, I have no idea what NA1 is, but Monday night's opponent was the team who came in last place in the A Division last season. Each year, the first place team in the B Division moves up and the last place team in the A Division moves down. We fell into the latter category after going 10-20 in our first year in the league, and have basically been a middle-of-the-pack B team since.

NA1 looks as though they could be one of the contenders in the B Division this season. We got off to a quick start, leading 6-0 after three innings, but then their bats came to life, and we found ourselves trailing 11-10 after they scored two in the 4th, four in the 5th and five in the 6th.

I was back to my usual role of utility man, as I became the first player on the team this year to play both the infield and the outfield. I started in right field, as one of our primary outfielders arrived late. Fortunately, I didn't show any rust as I handled my only two chances, including a somewhat difficult fly ball hit over my head and down the line. Interestingly enough, they didn't score until after we made our defensive changes, moving me to my best position—second base—and inserting a better outfielder than I into right.

At the plate, I went 3-for-4, including hits that started three-run rallies in the 1st and 6th innings. Between my own performance and the team's, this was the most satisfying game of this young season. After squandering a six-run lead and trailing for the first time entering the 7th, we responded by scoring three runs in the top of the inning, and holding them scoreless in the bottom. It's early, but at 3-1, we currently stand tied for first place, and seem to have improved enough to be considered one of the better teams in the league.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Malachy's 15, Goal Post 10

The 11 runs they scored in the first two innings were really all our opponent would need on Thursday night to hand us our first loss of the season. But, trailing 11-0 after two innings and making a game of it is a bit of a moral victory, in that we showed—to ourselves, that is—that we weren't going to allow a rough start to completely frustrate us. Personally, I was a hard-luck 1-for-4, bringing my stats to 6-for-11 with three walks on the season.

In my discussion of our last game, I touched on the subject of strikeouts, which turned out to be a pretty significant issue in this game. After I grounded out to start the game, Ryan suffered the unfortunate indignity of striking out looking...and he knew it. In fact, he said he thought the pitch was going to be inside, and I recalled that, only a few pitches earlier, a gust of wind had blown a ball outside that looked like it was going to be in the strike zone.

The penalty for striking out looking is to buy the team a case of imported beer, which is supposed to be an upgrade over the usual 30-pack of Bud Light, but isn't necessarily in my book. I guess, if you put a gun to my head, I'd choose 24 Heinekens over 30 Buds. I'm considering looking at a strike three myself so that I can buy a case of Dogfish IPA, which isn't imported, of course, but I'm sure would qualify, although I'm not sure that it would be a huge hit.

We're going to have our work cut out for us when the weather gets better and the team starts hanging out in the parking lot after games, because Ryan's backwards K wasn't the only strikeout of the night. In fact, one teammate struck out twice, although it was swinging both times, and another fouled out to the catcher...which is considered on the same level as a strikeout. So, that's three 30-packs and one imported case that we have coming to us.

I was involved in another double play tonight, although it was more a case of good fortune than anything else. There were runners on first and second, with one out. I was playing second base—the only position I've played so far this year despite the utility role I've filled in years past—when a sinking line drive was hit towards me that I gloved, but didn't catch cleanly, just a few inches off the ground. I immediately threw the ball to our shortstop, who was covering second. The runners were really confused, as was everyone else, including the umpire. Rhino caught the throw—I believe while standing on second, a very important detail—tagged the runner who had returned to second thinking I would catch the liner, and tagged the runner coming from first, for good measure.

Like I said, everyone was confused, including me, to be completely honest. But, I pumped my fist and tried to sell it as a double play as I started to run off the field. This may or may not have worked, but the end result was that the umpire called both runners out.

Now, here's the important part of this lesson. If Rhino is standing on second base when he receives my throw, the runner from first is out, and the runner from second is no longer forced to go to third. So, if he's standing on the base when tagged, he's not out. But, if it happens the other way around—that is, if Rhino tags the runner from second, whether he's on the base or not, then tags the base—it’s a double play.

Personally, I think the umpire got this call wrong, and probably could have figured out how to get it right if he had taken a half-minute to think about what had just happened. But, even Rhino couldn't remember the sequence of events a few minutes after the play was over, so it was somewhat understandable.

I never thought of it this way, but our sponsor really has a vested interest in our success. No, I don't mean the huge trophy that would be displayed in the bar if won the championship, but the fact that the more times we go down on strikes, the less time and money we spend at the Goal Post.