Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Belvedere, Cooley's and Humble Rickey

This past weekend's trek to Cooperstown was my 22nd Hall of Fame Induction Weekend in the past 23 years. Continuing a longstanding tradition that began with the ceremony celebrating the careers of Billy Williams and Catfish Hunter in 1987, the latest trip was a weekend of firsts and of honoring established routines.

The most important first was that it was a rite of passage of sorts for KJ, her introduction to this unique aspect of my world. While not her first trip to Cooperstown, of course, it was her first experience with this particular custom.

The drive to New York State's Central Leatherstocking Region was fairly uneventful, except for KJ's observation that many towns in upstate New York end in the suffix -kill. First and foremost, there's my native Peekskill, as well as Poughkeepsie's neighbor, Fishkill. Add to that Catskill, Cobleskill, Plattekill, Wallkill and Wyantskill—just to name a few—and you've got yourself quite a trend. We pondered what exactly kill, in this context, means. We assumed, of course, that it has some geographic meaning, and it turned out to be much more obvious than either of us imagined. A kill is a creek, and according to Webster, it's most commonly used as a place name in the states of Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York.

Our accommodations for the weekend were another first. After returning to the same campground for more than 10 consecutive years, last year we finally decided we needed to stay somewhere new. I won't go into detail, but let's just say that the conditions at said campground had gradually been deteriorating in recent years. If you've been a regular reader of this blog for more than a year, you already know that last year's effort to find a new place to stay was mostly unsuccessful. So, we tried a new location once again, this one about 12 miles from 25 Main Street in Cooperstown, the location of the Hall of Fame.

Cottage at Belvedere Lake
KJ and I rented a cottage at the Belvedere Lake Campground in nearby Cherry Valley...or Roseboom, I'm not exactly sure which town it's in. The place was over-priced, but so is everything in and around Cooperstown this particular weekend. So, relatively speaking, it was worth every penny. It was charming, scenic and fairly quiet. It was also an easy drive into town on bucolic country roads. The only odd thing about it was that they gave us tokens to get through the gate each time we entered the campground. We gave one of these to the Williamses when we invited them out to barbecue with us on Saturday night. Then, we read the rules regarding guests, and we were supposed to pay an extra $20—five dollars for each person over 12—for the four of them to visit. We didn't.

Saturday was a day for revisiting the mini-traditions that go hand-in-hand with the larger one. Our first stop upon arriving in town was Cooley's, the local tavern that's become our afternoon hangout. A couple rounds of beers and a few dozen wings later, and we were off to the annual minor league contest played at cozy Doubleday Field. We toyed with the idea of doing our first shotski—four shots lined up on a wooden ski that need to be consumed by four people simultaneously—but never pulled the trigger. Maybe next year we will.

The minor league game was between the Oneonta Tigers and the Tri-City Valley Cats, both of the Class A New York-Penn League. For some reason, this game never seems to be particularly interesting. Maybe it's because there is so much else going on in town and we have other things on our minds. As usual, we stuck around for a few innings and then moved on, choosing to brave the crowds and attempt to do some shopping in town.

Doubleday Field
The most important tradition, of course, is setting up on the lawn of the Clark Sports Center while watching and listening to the weekend's main event, the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. This year's inductees included two candidates who didn't look like they would ever make it to Cooperstown and one player elected in his first year on the ballot.

Joe Gordon was elected posthumously by the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee, 31 years after he died of a heart attack in 1978. Gordon's daughter delivered his acceptance speech and did a nice job of honoring her father. She brought a tear to many an eye when she declared that—since her father's wish was not to be given a funeral—the family considered Cooperstown to be his final resting place.

In his speech, Jim Rice made it clear that—whether elected on the first ballot or the 15th—a Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer. His was the least interesting of the three speeches—not surprising consider his lackluster performance as a NESN analyst—although he did earn a few laughs when he admitted that he was watching "The Young and the Restless" when he received the call from Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson.

First ballot inductee Rickey Henderson delivered an uncharacteristically humble speech. He recalled an autograph seeking trip to Oakland Coliseum from his youth, when all he came away with was a pen with Reggie Jackson's name on it. Rickey also shared how much he truly misses Billy Martin, one of his first managers, and how he wished Billy could have been there on this special occasion. He ended his speech, referencing his own "I am the greatest" declaration following his breaking of Lou Brock's career stolen base mark, by saying " this moment, I am...very humbled."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Frequent Spins (2009.5)

The year seems to be starting to take a turn for the better, as this is a pretty quick turnaround since my last Frequent Spins. My original intention was that this would be a monthly feature, but it hasn't quite turned out that way, although 14 out of 19 ain't bad.

Dinosaur Jr. - Farm
The latest from Western Massachusetts' Dinosaur Jr. is even better than 2007's solid comeback effort, with the exception of the two Lou Barlow songs, of course. Actually, the Barlow songs aren't bad, but they're really nothing to get excited about. In fact, nothing that Barlow has ever written—Sebadoh material included—has satisfied that criterion, in my opinion. Several J Mascis songs do, though, even rivaling some of their best material from my two favorite Dinosaur Jr. albums, Where You Been and Green Mind.

Passion Pit - Manners
The funny thing about the evolution of my listening habits is that, ever since I started really consuming music, I grow a little tired of stuff rather quickly. This album really drives that point home for me. For what now seems to me like one fleeting moment, I thought this was a contender for album of the year, but I was so wrong. Don't take that to mean this record has completely fallen from grace, but it's hard to rate it that highly when the singer's falsetto voice borders on just plain annoying on a few of these songs, and it did wear out its welcome quicker than most. But, for the most part, this is still fun indie pop that you can (almost) dance to.

Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Phoenix's last release, 2006's It's Never Been Like That, was the band's breakthrough, or at least it was the album that exposed them to me. I thought there were a few catchy, upbeat tunes on that one, but their latest—despite the ridiculousness of its title—ups the ante a little. This one actually reminds me a bit of Of Montreal, though not nearly as adventurous, with danceable indie pop highlights including "1901," "Lasso" and "Girlfriend."

Sunset Rubdown - Dragonslayer
The third release from Spencer Krug's Wolf Parade side project is a little poppier than the first two, as it effectively straddles the line between indie noise and melodic pop, with the latter characteristic replacing the classic rock influence of prior albums. Considering how I like Krug much more than Dan Boeckner, with whom he shares songwriting duties in Wolf Parade, you would think that I'd like Sunset Rubdown better than their main band. But, it just doesn't work that way, although this album is another contender to finish pretty high on my year-end list.

Wilco - Wilco (The Album)
The title of this record appears to be an attempt at proving this band doesn't take themselves too seriously, but I'm not convinced. Still, I have to admit that I think this is their best post-Jay Bennett work, and is one that gets better with each listen. Sometimes when someone says that an album keeps growing on them it's an indication that it wasn't that good to begin with, but that's not the case here. Particularly impressive is the beautiful duet between Jeff Tweedy and Feist, "You and I."

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Down in Mazzola Town

[Note: this is a much less graphic description of the events following Saturday's Yankees-Tigers game. For a more detailed account, I encourage you to check out Lee's Steez.]

My first visit to the new Yankee Stadium with Lee Mazzola was an eventful one. We've been going to a game or two a year at the stadium since 2001. The original plan to go to a Yanks-Sox game annually in each city was hatched when I stayed at his place to run in the 2000 New York City Marathon, I believe.

The Boston part of that tradition only lasted two years, but probably saw more truly memorable moments—Mike Mussina's near-perfect game, our subsequent and unwarranted banishment from a Fenway area tavern, the unexpected premature birth of El-squared's daughter—than the games in New York. Lee has also visited Fenway two more times since, once with Mz. Mazz as my wedding gift to them, and another time when an unfortunate coincidence resulted in him wearing a green Yankees hat on the same night that the Red Sox donned their uniforms of the same color as a tribute to Red Auerbach.

Yesterday was also the first time I’ve sat in Lee’s new seats. I always liked his seats at the old stadium—in the upper deck but almost directly behind home plate, and only a few seats from the aisle—and his new seats aren't bad either. They are the second-to-last row in the stadium, a little further down the third base line, and right in the middle of a long row of seats, but considering the travesty that is the pricing structure at the new park, they’re a relative bargain. As Lee and I were talking about at the game, if he can move down to the lower part of the section for the same price next year, this would make them on par with the old ones.

A bet regarding who sings the line "Subdivisions" on the Rush song of the same name carried over from prior to the game at the Mazzola household to the sports bar afterwards. Both Mz. Mazz and I said it was Alex Lifeson, while Lee contended it was Neil Peart. We tried several different sources, but received conflicting reports. Although Lifeson sings the line in the video and in live shows, several sources say it was Toronto newscaster Mark Dailey on the original recording that appears on 1982's Signals, although Dailey claims that's an urban myth. In the end, we still don't know the answer, and I'm not sure if we ever will.

All beer snobbery is out the window when I go to a Yankees game with Mazz, but my decision to switch to Guinness for my third and fourth beers—one for which I have to credit Lee's influence—turned out to be a wise move. I have to admit that I didn't think I was in the mood to drink Guinness on such a hot day, but it hit the spot so much better than Bud Light did.

The game itself was a good one. In fact, it was the second pitchers' duel I've witnessed in just as many games at a park that already is developing a reputation for being a hitters' haven. C.C. Sabathia labored somewhat, throwing 116 pitches in seven innings, but managed to escape every threat without giving up a run. Justin Verlander matched him zero-for-zero until giving up two runs in the bottom of the 7th, on an Alex Rodriguez home run and a Melky Cabrera infield single that scored Robinson Cano. With Phil Hughes unavailable after his two-inning, six-strikeout performance on Friday night, Alfredo Aceves gave up a solo homer to Marcus Thames in the 8th. But, that was all the offense the Tigers could muster as Mariano Rivera closed out the 9th of a 2-1 Yankees victory.

Of course, it was the post-game that was the most memorable part of the day, as Lee had a minor medical emergency. I say minor because it wasn't a life-or-death situation, but judging by his description of the pain and discomfort he experienced, I hardly think he considered it minor. But, as I already said, I'll let you read what Lee has to say about that.

While Mz. Mazz left with Lee for a late-night rendezvous with his dedicated physician—who I must say deserves no less than to be considered a credit to his profession—I stayed behind with Lee Jr. I was, of course, a little nervous about taking care of the little guy, but far from as concerned as I was for his dad. Amazingly enough, Lee seemed like a new man when he and Mz. Mazz returned in less than two hours, and LJ was fast asleep in his crib.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Red Sector Ale

After a long fermentation process—that included the addition of champagne yeast two weeks after the initial pitching of Belgian Ale yeast—we recently tasted our latest home brew for the first time. In case your memory needs refreshing, we brewed a Belgian-style dark abbey ale back in April.

We labored considerably over the naming decision, and eventually settled on a name that only satisfies one of the two major criteria we were originally looking for. While Red Sector Ale doesn't really describe the style, it certainly doesn't fall short with respect to our other criterion.

We're pretty pleased with the result, a dark malty ale with hints of coriander, weighing in—so to speak—at about 7.5% ABV (alcohol-by-volume). That's fairly representative of the style, and turned out to be a pleasant surprise, as we thought it was going to fall short of the alcoholic content we were aiming for. The reason for that is the original specific gravity—essentially a measure of its density compared to water, and also an indicator of fermentation potential—was a little low. But it fermented out considerably, with its final gravity also being lower than expected. Measuring its alcoholic content is simply a matter of subtracting the final gravity from the original gravity and applying a formula that converts the result to ABV, so the wider the gap between the former and the latter, the stronger the ale.

Red Sector Ale labelWhat I'm most pleased with, though, are the labels I ordered and received in the mail this week. As you can see from the photo, I went all-out in the hokeyness department. If you don't understand the references, you'll have to do a little internet research. I'm sure it won't be too difficult, but if you need a hint or two, I'll be happy to oblige. In fact, I'll offer one right now. It has nothing to do with Ernest Hemingway.

In case you're interested, here is the recipe:

10 oz. Cara-Munich malt (steeped for 20 mins.)
4 oz. Belgian Special B malt (steeped 20 mins.)
4 oz. Belgian Aromatic malt (steeped 20 mins.)
9.9 lbs. light malt extract (boiled for 75 mins.)
0.5 oz. Magnum hops - 14.4% alpha (boiled 75 mins.)
0.5 oz. Sterling hops - 6% alpha (boiled 75 mins.)
1 lb. amber candy sugar (boiled 75 mins.)
0.25 oz. Sterling hops - 6% alpha (boiled 15 mins.)
0.5 tsp. Irish moss (boiled 15 mins.)
1 oz. coriander seeds (boiled 10 mins.)
0.25 oz. Sterling hops - 6% alpha (boiled 5 mins.)
1.5 oz. Trappist Ale yeast
5 oz. dry champagne yeast

As I said, we're also pleased with how it tastes, but we'll need a few more opinions before knowing for certain if it truly is a hit.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Real McCoy

I've written a lot about the increasing number of major league stadiums I've visited, but I've also been to my fair share of minor league games and parks as well. It just occurred to me, though, that other than a few Syracuse Chiefs (AAA) games when I lived there from 1989 to 1992, one Pawtucket Red Sox (AAA) game circa 1997, and two or three Eastern League (AA) games, the vast majority of these have been at the Single A level. Last night's trip to Pawtucket's McCoy Stadium was proof to me that, while games at the lower levels can be entertaining, there is a wide chasm in the level of competition when compared to the upper levels of the minor leagues.

There were four home runs hit in last night's game, three by the opposing Syracuse Chiefs and one by the PawSox. By contrast, the Hudson Valley Renegades have hit a total of six homers in their 22 games so far this season. The mere existence of more home runs is not necessarily the reason that the competition is better, but the fact that the hitters' skills have developed to the point where they can hit the ball out of the park is. There are a few potential reasons for this. It could be that it takes some time to get used to driving the ball with wooden bats, that the younger players' bodies are still developing, or that the superior coaching and weight training programs in professional baseball are to credit. In truth, it's probably a combination of factors, but the bottom line is it makes for a much more interesting game when it doesn't take three or more baserunners to score one run.

I have to give credit to the PawSox for not gouging for extras in their pricing. We paid $24 to purchase two tickets online before heading down, which was $10 per ticket plus a reasonable $4 service fee. They also offer limited free parking on a first-come, first-served basis. We didn't make it in time for that, but their regular parking cost only $2 per car. When I purchased my $7 ticket for the Lowell game a couple weeks ago, they tacked on $6.56 in fees and it cost $5 to park. So, in total we spent $26 for two to attend a AAA game and see the likes of Pawtucket's Jed Lowrie and Syracuse's Elijah Dukes and Corey Patterson, while the Lowell game was nowhere near the bargain, and included no notable players.

McCoy Stadium
In addition to the three players just mentioned, Pete Orr—of World Baseball Classic Team Canada fame—was also part of the action as the starting shortstop for Syracuse. Knuckleballer Charlie Zink was on the mound for Pawtucket, but he hardly looked like the second coming of Tim Wakefield. The knuckler wasn't dancing for him early, as he gave up eight runs on seven hits—including three home runs—and three walks in the first three innings, but remained in the game to throw three shutout innings thereafter. That allowed his team to rally from an early 7-0 deficit, although they still wound up on the losing end of an 8-7 final score.

One final observation from me is that, at the higher levels of the minor leagues, there aren't all the gimmicky promotions and silly games between innings. There are also fewer sound effects and much less nonsense from the public address announcer in general. This, of course, gave this game a much more professional feel than those at Lowell and Hudson Valley. Frankly, games at those places come off as a bit amateurish, in my opinion. KJ was a little traumatized by the fact that the PawSox, as the home team, resided in the third base dugout, but I think she'll get over that.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Winter Hill Root Brew

In a somewhat surprising move, I recently took my first stab at non-alcoholic brewing. About three weekends ago, KJ and I made a trip to the local home brew store with the intention of attempting to make root beer. This was her idea, so she basically took the lead with most everything, but I was totally on board with the concept. She did most of the research and developed the recipe, borrowing ideas from other concoctions of course, while I lent my relative expertise in the areas of sanitation procedures and determining the ideal temperature for the pitching of the yeast.

As it turns out, root beer takes considerably less time to make than alcoholic beer, mostly owing to the fact that it doesn't have to ferment. The yeast is added for the sole purpose of carbonation, although the combination of yeast and sugar must mean there's at least a little fermentation. Needless to say, the wheels are now spinning inside my head.

We recently tasted our finished product—which we're naming Winter Hill Root Brew after the Somerville neighborhood in which it was made—for the first time, and it was pretty good. Judging by the smells that were emanating from my place during the time since we brewed it, I thought it was going to be much sweeter than it turned out, so we'll have to make some adjustments the next time around. Overall, though, we're fairly pleased with the results.

There is still an update pending on my latest alcoholic brew, for which my brewing partner and I labored over the naming process before finally settling on a moniker. I'm going to save that for a subsequent post, though, as I recently ordered labels and am excited to see how they turn out. I'll include a photo with that update.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Coke-Aceves Redux

Last year, I was pretty high on two pitchers who made their major league debuts for the Yankees in 2008. In fact, I wrote five posts tracking the progress of Phil Coke and Alfredo Aceves during the final month of the season, because that was basically all there was to get excited about. Following their strong debuts, I had high hopes for both of them, especially Coke.

This year didn't start out quite the way I envisioned. Coke gave up more runs on opening day—two in 1 2/3 IP—than he did in the 14 2/3 innings he pitched last year. Whatever chance Aceves had to begin the year in the rotation all but vanished when the Yankees signed free agents C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Instead, he started the season at AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and spent the entire first month there.

Coke's struggles lasted through the season's first two months, as he ended May with a 4.79 ERA, allowing 16 hits, nine walks and five home runs in 20 2/3 innings. From June 1 on, though, he's been just as good as the brief glimpse we saw of him last year, giving up just one earned run on five hits and four walks, while striking out 16, in 15 2/3 innings. For the year, Coke has an ERA of 2.97, a WHIP of 0.94, seven holds and one save, and has held opposing batters to a .172 average. He has ably stepped into the role of the Yankees' top lefthander out of the bullpen, and has been just as effective against right-handed hitters as he's been against lefties.

Of course, as I'm wrapping up writing this, Coke has surrendered a solo homer to Joe Mauer in the bottom of the 7th of tonight's game against the Twins, cutting the Yankees' lead to 4-3.

Aceves was recalled from the minors on May 4 and has served as the utility man out of the Yanks' bullpen since. He's made 21 relief appearances, going two or more innings 12 times, and three or more on four occasions. Aceves is 5-1 with one save and three holds, and has allowed just 37 baserunners (30 hits and seven walks) while striking out 34, in 40 IP. Further proving his versatility, he gets the call tomorrow in his first start of the season, filling in for the injured Chien-Ming Wang.

Both Coke and Aceves still qualify as rookies this year, as do three other players—Brett Gardner, Ramiro Pena and Francisco Cervelli—who have earned significant playing time in the first half of the 2009 Yankees season, although only Pena is the only one to make his major league debut this year. So, while there still may be a "rookie watch," it won't be quite the same as last year's tracking of several players getting their first ever taste of major league competition.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Future Rivals?

On Wednesday night, I made my first trip to the outer suburbs of Boston to visit LeLacheur Park, home of the Lowell Spinners, the New York-Penn League Class A affiliate of the Red Sox. Despite the consistent rain that this area has been getting of late, and a torrential downpour just before game time, they managed to play a full nine innings.

The weather did seem to keep a lot of fans away though, as the stadium was only about half full, and I had actually purchased online the last remaining ticket two days before the game. How do I know it was the last seat in the house? Because their web site allows you to view available seats by section, and since there are only 20 sections in the entire place, it isn't too difficult to go through the entire stadium to find the best spot. In this case, the best spot was the only one.

As is the case with most relatively new minor league parks, LeLacheur is a cozy place to watch a game up close and personal. Nothing made this park stand out as any better or worse than Dutchess Stadium, the home of the Hudson Valley Renegades, the New York-Penn League team for which my dad is a season ticket holder. Both stadiums are simply well designed.

LeLacheur Park The Spinners' opponent was the Staten Island Yankees, which got me to thinking about what the chances are that, in the future, any of these players will be facing each other in the major leagues, as Yankees and Red Sox. Keep in mind, of course, that this is short-season A ball, four steps away from the big show. I went to the Renegades game with my dad last night, and he told me they estimate that one out of 13 of the players on the current squad will make it to the majors.

Based on my knowledge of the players who have passed through the Hudson Valley in the team's 15-year history, I think this is a conservative estimate. Even if I'm right, this most likely means that no more than three guys from each of the current rosters of Lowell and Staten Island will get to the majors. The fact that some of them may have changed organizations in the process decreases the chances even further that they'll play against each other as Yankees and Red Sox. So, I would say that maybe one day the big clubs will square off, and there will be one member of each of the current editions of these minor league teams involved.

I've written a couple of posts about the perceived bad luck that I've brought the Yankees in their recent matchups with the Red Sox. It hadn't even occurred to me that it might actually carry over to minor league games as well, but the Spinners defeated the Yankees 11-0. In fact, I left in the bottom of the 6th, with the score already 11-0, so once I was gone, the Yankees performed much better, relatively speaking.

Particularly woeful was the performance of Staten Island pitcher Sam Elam, and his manager's handling of the situation. Five walks, two wild pitches and a hit batter resulted in four runs allowed on no hits in one inning of work. Making matters even worse, in my opinion, was the fact that Yankees' manager Josh Paul—most famous as the catcher involved in the botched third strike on A.J. Pierzynski in the 2005 ALCS—didn’t even have a pitcher start warming up in the bullpen until after the fourth walk.

The most impressive performance was turned in by Spinners starting pitcher Jose Alvarez, who gave up hits to the first two Yankees he faced, then proceeded to throw six scoreless innings, allowing only one hit and a walk thereafter. Listed at 5'11" and 150 lbs., the Venezuelan hurler is probably not one of the Red Sox hottest pitching prospects due to his size, but he's now allowed only one run on 9 hits and a walk, while striking out 15, in 18 innings for Lowell.