Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Eastbound & Down

The first ten minutes of last week's debut of this new HBO comedy had me thinking I had discovered my new favorite television show. Danny McBride stars as washed-up former major league relief pitcher Kenny Powers, whose slogan during his playing career was "You're f**kin' out!"

A cross between Ricky Bobby's clueless arrogance, Michael Scott's cringe-inducing awkwardness and Andrew "Dice" Clay's crudeness and vulgarity, McBride's Powers had me laughing exponentially more than this humor was worthy of. The high point to me was when Powers sat in his car listening to his memoir-style book on tape, titled You're F**kin' Out, I'm F**kin' In, on which he defends his xenophobic reputation with a rant about how he just thinks this country's better than all the others, and how that used to be considered patriotism.

But, of course, writing about comedy doesn't do it justice, so...

I have to admit that it's been over a week since the debut aired, and I've yet to watch this past Sunday's second episode, but I guess not having HBO is my excuse. Regardless, I look forward to being entertained for at least the five additional episodes that are scheduled to air. If it doesn't last beyond this, I'm pretty certain I won't be lamenting its demise like I did that of Arrested Development, but I'm sure I'll be laughing uncontrollably at least a few more times.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Tale of Two Breweries: Part 2

Three miles further down the road from Cooperstown, in a town called Milford, is the Cooperstown Brewing Company. Quite different from Ommegang in many ways, CBC has been in existence a couple years longer and their focus is on English-style ales. They also charged $3 per person for their tour/tasting, and that didn't include any complimentary food.

Our tour guide wasn't as comfortable in his role as his counterpart at Ommegang was, but I still liked his approach of continually referencing how his company's brewing process compared to the home brewer's. He did allow us to taste half of our samples prior to the tour, and the other half after, so that broke things up nicely. Admittedly, we had already consumed the alcoholic equivalent of approximately 2 1/2 beers prior to our arrival in Milford.

CBC did have one of the best rest rooms I've ever seen, and they also brew an excellent root beer, but these and their tour guide's ability to explain things in simpler terms are the only advantages they have on Ommegang. Here's how I rate their mostly mediocre offerings:

Nine Man Ale: Golden ales are definitely not my thing, but this one certainly isn't swill. On the other hand, it did absolutely nothing for me. Grade: C-

Old Slugger Pale Ale: Their flagship brew, this one is nothing to write home about either. I've had worse, though, and it is one my friends' favorites. Grade: C+

Back Yard India Pale Ale: I can't really say I've ever had an IPA I considered bad. Many, though, are overly hopped without offering enough malt balance. This brew doesn't fall into that trap, but is doesn't rise above the so-so level either. Grade: C

Pride of Milford Special Ale: This darker, somewhat complex ale was one of the highlights of our visit to CBC, other than the root beer and the rest room. Grade: B-

Benchwarmer Porter: Easily the best of the bunch, this was their only beer that I really thought was good relative to others of its style. Smooth, creamy and flavorful, this is one that I'd certainly like to try again. Grade: B

Strike Out Stout: After tasting their porter, I was optimistic to try this one, but just ended up disappointed. A stout this low in alcoholic content had better be a Guinness, which this is not. Grade: C

In the 1800s, upstate New York was the nation's leading producer of hops. Today, due to their drier summers, Oregon and Washington—particularly the Yakima Valley—are the country's primary growers of hops. I give the Cooperstown Brewing Company credit for growing their own, but in the end, it's the product that matters, and most of theirs just don't live up to my standards.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Tale of Two Breweries: Part 1

So, I'm sure most will agree that I'm a pretty lucky guy. The fact that my new lady has never been to Cooperstown came up in a conversation a week or so ago, and when the discussion quickly evolved to the idea of heading down there for our upcoming long weekend, it was almost too good to be true. The icing on the cake was that, in addition to the obvious destination, also on our agenda was a trip to the Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown's fine brewer of Belgian-style ales.

We made a reservation at a nice little B&B in the heart of town called the Landmark Inn. We arrived Saturday afternoon and stayed until Monday, visiting the National Baseball Hall of Fame for a few hours each day that we were there. In between Hall of Fame visits, we fit in a Sunday afternoon of brewery tours.

Our first stop, of course, was at Ommegang, rurally located just six miles south of the heart of Cooperstown. A brief and informative tour of the small brewery was followed by a tasting of six of their uniquely Belgian-style brews. The tour and the tastings, which included samplings of cheese, pretzels, horseradish-spiced pickles and Belgian chocolates, were free of charge, although I'm certain the brewery made a killing on money spent in the gift shop by the majority of the day's visitors. I know we spent about $70 on five 750-ml bottles of ale, an Ommegang t-shirt, and some tasty snacks, including the aforementioned pickles and a scrumptious horseradish cheddar spread.

Our tour guide was excellent, informing us of the history of the brewery and of what makes an ale distinctively Belgian, in addition to the brewing process itself. He also gave me a free pack of Ommegang coasters as a reward for correctly answering his question about the difference between ale and lager yeasts. The ales we tasted, and my ratings for each, are as follows:

Ommegang Witte Ale: It's probably a little unfair to evaluate this beer at this time of year, but I just didn't feel that it offered the tasty, creamy elegance of my favorite in this style—Portland, Maine's very own Allagash White. Grade: B-

Rare Vos Amber Ale: I've been lucky enough to find this tasty brew, winner of a Bronze medal in the French- and Belgian-Style Ale category at the 2008 Great American Beer Fest, on draft in Cooperstown on more than one occasion. Grade: A-

Hennepin Farmhouse Saison: This golden ale I've found on draft at a couple places in Boston, and it's deceptively strong and flavorful, considering how light in color it is. Grade: A-

Ommegang Abbey Ale: This was my absolute favorite. At 8.5% ABV, I instantly felt a warming sensation in my belly, but most importantly, I was overwhelmed with its wonderfully full-bodied flavor. Grade: A

Three Philosophers Quadrupel: I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Ommegang's strongest brew, expecting it to be much more fruity than it turned out to be. In fact, it's a blend of rich malty ale and cherry lambic, a fine combination that tastes more like a true ale and less like a wine cooler than most Belgian Krieks. Grade: B+

Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence: One of the brewery's fine seasonal ales, this an extremely flavorful stout that is a blast of Belgian-chocolately decadent goodness. Grade: B+

As I said already, we left the brewery with 3.75 liters of Ommegang's finest, which is aging in my cellar as I write this. I use the term aging loosely, though, as I doubt it will last more than two, maybe three months, even given my 40-something moderation.

In part two, I'll talk about the second stop on our mini-tour of Otsego County breweries, the Cooperstown Brewing Company in Milford, New York.

Monday, February 09, 2009

All-Lifetime Team, Part 3: Pitchers

I thought that right field was a loaded position, but the tough decisions there paled in comparison to those I had to make determining what pitchers would make my all-lifetime team. Starting pitchers were particularly difficult, as I could have made a top ten list and still left Hall of Famers off of it. Or, I could have chosen three right-handers and three left-handers, but instead I opted to just go with six starters in total.

Starting Pitcher
1. Roger Clemens
2. Greg Maddux
3. Tom Seaver
4. Randy Johnson
5. Pedro Martinez
6. Steve Carlton

As I said before, on-field performance is strictly what these selections are based on, and it's hard to argue that Clemens—with his seven Cy Young awards—is not the best starting pitcher of his generation. Maddux's career included an incredible run of seven consecutive seasons with an ERA+ of 160 (60% better than average) or higher. Seaver only accomplished that twice, but he did finish in the top five in Cy Young voting eight times. Johnson and Martinez have arguably been more dominant at their peaks than anyone here, but their injury plagued careers keep them out of the top three. Carlton beats out Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Jim Palmer, Fergie Jenkins, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina and John Smoltz for the final spot.

Relief Pitcher (pre-1988)
1. Bruce Sutter
2. Rich Gossage
3. Dan Quisenberry

Relief Pitcher (post-1988)
1. Mariano Rivera
2. Trevor Hoffman
3. Dennis Eckersley

Rivera is an easy #1, but after that I can understand why Hall of Fame voters seem to be having such a tough time figuring out how to deal with relief pitchers. I honestly didn't expect this to be such a difficult decision, so I decided to divide them into two categories: pre-1988 and post-1988. That year, of course, was Eckersley's first season as a full-time closer, which is generally considered to be the beginning of the one-inning save trend.

Like I said, Rivera would be #1 on the list even if I hadn't split the group in half. I used to think that some could make an argument for Eckersley as the best of the post-1988 bunch. But, then I took a closer look and realized that, as great as he was in his prime, that prime was very short-lived. He makes the list, but I chose Hoffman's consistency over Eck's dominant prime. Surprisingly overlooked in discussions of the best active closers is Billy Wagner, whose career ERA+ of 180 is second only to Rivera. Lastly, Lee Smith probably doesn't quite get the respect he deserves, but in my opinion, he's still not a Hall of Famer.

The most unsung closer of the pre-1988 era is Quisenberry, and I really believe he deserved much more Hall of Fame consideration than the 3.8% of the vote he received in his first, and only, year on the ballot. His career percentage of save opportunities converted (81.6) is better than Sutter (74.8), Gossage (73.5) and Rollie Fingers (75.8); and his ERA+ (146) outshines that Hall of Fame trio as well: Sutter (136), Gossage (126), Fingers (119). All four of them averaged over an inning and a half per relief appearance, so they're on a pretty level playing field when it comes to comparing their saves percentages. Incidentally, the post-1988 crew have much better success rates, but they all average about a half inning less per outing. I intend no disrespect to Fingers by bumping him from the list in favor of Quisenberry, because it could have been any of them. If he was a little closer to 300 career saves, I'd have no reservations ranking Quiz #1.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Frequent Spins (2009.1)

In my first Frequent Spins entry of the new year are four very good January releases, all of which predictably lived up to their eagerly anticipated status in my book.

A.C. Newman - Get Guilty
Newman's second solo effort comes five years removed from his first. Of course, that's not to say he hasn't been keeping busy in the meantime with his main gig, The New Pornographers. This one doesn't stray too far from the Vancouver supergroup's familiar indie power pop territory. Even still, it measures up well to that previous output. After all, Newman without The New Pornographers is simply trading the downside of Neko Case's absence for the upside of the lack of Dan Bejar's presence. This album also earns bonus points by making me recall some of my favorites, albeit unintentionally. In the refrain of "The Heartbreak Rides", he may be singing "Yo-ho", but I can't help but hear "E-L-O"; and "The Palace at 4AM" got me to wondering when Jay Bennett & Edward Burch are planning to release the proper followup to Bennett's best post-Wilco work.

Andrew Bird - Noble Beast
Bird seems to have a penchant for creating albums in which the whole is equal to greater than the sum of its parts. Synergy, or some made up derivation of it, would also be an appropriate name for one of his songs, given his inclination towards non-sensical lyrical content. My point is that there rarely is that one song that just blows you away. In fact, it's often difficult to choose from numerous very good, but not great, songs for inclusion on year-end compilations. His latest seems to continue that trend of consistency. It will take a few more listens for me to decide where it fits in with his recent work, but my guess is that they'll all reside in approximately the same neighborhood.

Antony and The Johnsons - The Crying Light
When I saw Antony live a few years ago, I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't a 6'5" transgendered male with pale white skin who was moderately effeminate but, most of all, extremely charismatic. Well, some of those characteristics I was well aware of, but I suppose it was his stature and confidence that surprised me a little. The Crying Light is a strong followup to the magnificent I Am a Bird Now, which addresses more conventional subject matter (i.e. doesn't touch upon his feelings of being a woman trapped in a man's body) than its predecessor, but continues his knack for crafting songs that are beautifully melancholic.

Mark Olson & Gary Louris - Ready for the Flood
It's hard to believe that Olson and Louris haven't recorded an album together since 1995's Tomorrow the Green Grass, although they did tour together as a duo a few years ago. When Olson left alt-country pioneers The Jayhawks almost 15 years ago, I thought they would never be the same. I was right, but not in the way that I thought. The band's sound would change from the splendid country-rock of Green Grass and its predecessor, Hollywood Town Hall, but Louris would prove to be a more than capable frontman on their subsequent releases. This album is hardly a return to the glory days, but it's still a little better than each of their recent solo albums, both of which were respectable efforts.