Monday, December 31, 2012

Best Music of 2012: Part 4

For what it's worth, three artists this year see their streaks of two consecutive releases in my top ten come to an end: Sigur Rós, Band of Horses and A.C. Newman; the latter of whom being the only one of the three to make the 2012 list at all.

5. Andrew Bird - Break It Yourself
The album that turned me on to Bird was 2005's The Mysterious Production of Eggs. This is probably his best effort since that one, and it's his third record overall that lands in my top ten, with 2007's Armchair Apocrypha coming in between.

4. Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker and Yim Yames - New Multitudes
I didn't count this as one of the six artists new to my top ten, as three of these four guys have made multiple appearances: Farrar as solo artist, with Son Volt (twice), and on his collaboration with Ben Gibbard; Parker as solo artist and with Varnaline (thrice); and Yames (aka Jim James) with My Morning Jacket and Monsters of Folk (with whom Johnson also played).

3. Saint Etienne - Words and Music by Saint Etienne
When I first heard 2006's Tales from Turnpike House, I thought it was Saint Etienne's debut. Needless to say, I was surprised to find out this English band had been crafting their very own brand of danceable indie-pop—or "...the disco-llision of '60s pop, '70s dance, and '90s club," according to one reviewer—since the early '90s. So, they're actually about the same age as I am, and apparently just as nostalgic, particularly on album-opener "Over the Border," as lead singer Sarah Cracknell reminisces about falling in love with, and because of, music in her younger days and wonders aloud, "...and when I was married, and when I had kids, would Marc Bolan still be so important?"

2. The Walkmen - Heaven
2012's highest ranking American artist is no stranger to my year-end list, but this is just their second time in the top ten, and the first since 2004's Bows & Arrows. I can't really say for certain these two albums have been that much better than the three that came between, just that they've resonated with me more. Although this one is a much happier affair than any of their previous output, I still find myself most drawn to the album-closing song of yearning, "Dreamboat."

1. Mumford & Sons - Babel
I don't know how many times I've said or written this before, but it's all too often I overlook an artist's commercial breakthrough only to jump on their bandwagon an album later. I dismissed 2009's Sigh No More after just a few listens, but was drawn in when their appearance at the 2011 Grammys made me wonder if that was a mistake.

My last two #1 albums have been records that meant a lot to me lyrically, in addition to being fantastic musically. That's kind of a funny coincidence, I suppose, or maybe meaningful songs added just enough to albums like Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues to make me think it was better than The Decemberists' The King is Dead.

Babel is a great album in its own right, but I honestly had to read reviews to realize the themes surrounding these songs are so spiritual. In hindsight, I suppose that should've been pretty obvious, not that it would have made a difference anyway. It's just that Mumford & Sons' particular brand of rowdy folk-rock is what made a huge impression on me, and it wasn't aided by anything their lyrics were saying to me.

That's both a testament to how good this album is and how mildly disappointing the year in music was for me. Either that or I'm beginning to learn my own answer to Sarah Cracknell's question.

Whether this is your first time here, or your thousand-and-first...Happy New Year and thanks for reading.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Best Music of 2012: Part 3

2012 featured a lot of high-quality releases, although nothing that's a candidate for my all-time list. Honestly, these five records could have just as easily landed in the top five, but if you're going to rank them, you have to make some tough decisions.

10. Of Monsters and Men - My Head is an Animal
An Icelandic band in the top ten? And it's not Sigur Rós? That's right. This indie-pop outfit, co-fronted by the male/female duo Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson, is one of six artists making their top ten debut this year.

9. Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light
These indie-rock veterans who somehow combine VU-like minimalism with space-rocky soundscapes are one of three English bands in this year's top ten, with two more to come in the top five.

8. Dinosaur Jr. - I Bet on Sky
Since most of this band's best work pre-dates my year-end list making, it's only kind of surprising this is their first top ten entry. I should point out that, while I already called this the best of their three post-comeback albums, it's final standing just kept improving every time I listened to it.

7. Tame Impala - Lonerism
I don't know if there's ever been a year where American artists have barely made up 50% of my list. This year's breakdown: U.S. - 17, Canada - 5, England - 4, Sweden - 2, Iceland - 1, Australia - 1. Tame Impala makes it six different countries represented on this year's list. 

6. Passion Pit - Gossamer
I'm pretty sure it's quite unprecedented there are two Massachusetts bands in the top ten. (Obviously, Dinosaur Jr. is the other.) Following Manners' #10 ranking in 2009, Passion Pit is the only two-time top ten finisher featured in this post.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Best Music of 2012: Part 2

I started a little on the late side, and plan to take a long weekend to celebrate Little Chuck's second Christmas, so I'm counting them down a little faster than usual this year.

After this post, only the top ten remain. I'll be returning on December 27 to reveal those albums gradually between that date and New Year's Eve, when I'll announce #1. I know, I know. Much ado about nothing.

Anyway, if you celebrate the holiday, Merry Christmas. If you don't, Happy December 25th.

20. Stars - The North
Canadian artists tend to be the second most highly represented in my lists, and this year is no exception. Five Canadian bands and solo artists are here in total, including Kathleen Edwards (already revealed), this outfit and three listed below.

19. The Shins - Port of Morrow
The Shins win the award for most inconsistent album of the year, one that was top ten material based on its best tracks—most notably "Simple Song" and "No Way Down"—but contains some borderline unlistenable stuff as well, particularly the album closing title track.

18. Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill
When I heard this album, it made me kind of regret my decision to pass on this year's Neil and the Horse tour. There's nothing lyrically tremendous here, but in his advanced years, Young seems to be making the statement that simple and direct is the way to go. Or, perhaps, he's just become less creative. Either way, this one definitely made up for the mediocre affair that was their early 2012 release, Americana.

17. Metric - Synthetica
Since I've previously tried and failed to get into this band, I should go back and give the rest of their catalog another shot I suppose. Recommendations anyone?

16. Shearwater - Animal Joy
The album opening "Animal Life" is definitely one of my favorite songs of 2012. Obviously, the rest of the album doesn't quite maintain those lofty standards, but it's clearly this band's best to date.

15. Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan
One reviewer wrote about this album "...there are songs here that suggest the band has finally found the formula that finely balances its well-meaning musical intellectualism with actual pop songs." That pretty much sums it up.

14. Beach House - Bloom
There aren't really any killer songs here, just a beautifully cohesive set of tracks that, in the end, yield a "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" result.

13. Patterson Hood - Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance
Hood is still at his best when teaming with Mike Cooley to lead the Drive-By Truckers, but this ranks as his best solo effort, in my opinion.

12. A.C. Newman - Shut Down the Streets
The New Pornographers frontman beats out Neil Young and Metric for this year's highest ranking Canadian.

11. Craig Finn - Clear Heart Full Eyes
Of course, when it comes to storytelling, there is no one in modern music who tops the Hold Steady's lead singer. I'd probably rank this album behind every one in his main band's catalog, but that's more a testament to how great they are than anything else.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Best Music of 2012: Part 1

2012 was easily my most difficult year with regard to consuming new music. The obvious reason is it was the first year of my life that I was a parent for its entirety. Still, I managed to listen to a lot of quality new releases, and while my list is a little shorter than in past years, I feel pretty confident there's a lot of good stuff here.

I expanded this list from a top 10 to a top 50 in 2005, but it has dwindled in size ever since: to a top 40 from 2007-2008 and a top 33 from 2009-2011. This year, while I could have easily included 33 albums or more, I decided to cut it off where I felt the quality took a hit. While not as much a critical list as a nod to the music i really enjoyed in 2012, the records that just missed were solid, but not really worth recognizing, in my opinion. It turns out the cutoff was at a round number (30), but in the future, if it's 29 or 32, so be it.

30. Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur
With an honorable mention to Tift Merritt, who missed this year's list, this is my female alt-country album of the year.

29. Sharon Van Etten - Tramp
There are a lot of bands with significant contributions from women who rank much higher, but this ranks as my favorite album from a female solo artist this year.

28. Bloc Party - Four
While I certainly listen to a lot of older music from English artists, when it comes to modern stuff, not so much. This year, however, four U.K. bands—including these guys and three in the top ten—are represented on my list.

27. Damien Jurado - Maraqopa
Not exactly your average singer-songwriter, Jurado comes from a punk background and his songs, while occasionally dirge-like, sometimes find themselves meandering into brief, but meaningful, psychedelic guitar wankings kind of reminiscent of '70s British folk-rock.

26. Wild Nothing - Nocturne
This is the only album to make the list that wasn't featured in a Frequent Spins post this year. So, let's play the "name three bands they remind me of" game: Mojave 3, The Cure, Galaxie 500.

25. Sun Kil Moon - Among the Leaves
I'm no critic, and even if I were it wouldn't be my place to suggest what songs should or shouldn't have been included on an album. But, purely from a personal enjoyment standpoint, if this 74-minute album was edited down to my favorite 40 or so minutes, it might be top ten.

24. Carolina Chocolate Drops - Leaving Eden
I've been into old-timey music for longer than I've been obsessed with old-timey baseball players, but modern music heavily influenced by a 100+ year old genre isn't usually my thing. This three-piece string band, of course, is one of the exceptions.

23. Jens Lekman - I Know What Love Isn't
There's no "A Postcard to Nina" here, but this album actually lands one spot higher on my list than the album that contained that gem. However, Lekman is not even the highest ranking Swedish artist in this year's countdown.

22. Todd Snider - Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Singer-songwriter probably is less apt a description for Snider as for Jurado, but storyteller would probably fit the bill. Let's be clear, though. The stories are set to a rocking tone, and they're more than just a tad cynical as they delve into political and occasionally religious themes.

21. First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar
This Swedish duo of sisters certainly has some country influences, but considering the numerous comparisons to Fleet Foxes, indie folk is probably more like it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Baseball Bloggers Know Music

It started out rather innocently.* I noted on Twitter that several of my fellow High Heat Stats writers were folks I've bonded with to varying degrees about music. Or, rather, I said they have good taste in music, in that their tastes have considerable common ground with mine.

*OK, so it actually wasn't all that innocent, as I kind of poked fun at our "boss" in the process. But, he defended himself in the only way he knows how. He told me I was fired. Jokingly, of course. I think. Come to think of it, I haven't seen a paycheck since the incident (or before, for that matter).

In the ensuing conversation, a suggestion was made that we all collaborate on a little music-related post. I'm using the term "little" rather loosely here, because as it turns out, said post will end up in the ballpark of 3000-5000 words.

So, you can look forward to early January, when you'll get to read 25-40 words on each of the following baseball bloggers' top 25 albums of all-time. Why 25 albums and 25-40 words, you ask? Because a baseball team generally consists of 25 players, with rosters being expanded to 40 in September. Yeah, not that clever, I know.

Adam Darowski (@baseballtwit) is possibly the most "indie" of the group, although since he was a teenager in the '90s, he's probably been known to use the term "alternative" on occasion. We'll see if that's reflected in his selections, although if his baseball interests parallel his music taste at all, there will be a lot of old-timey stuff on his list. He's the creator of the brilliant Hall of Stats, and writes for High Heat Stats and Beyond the Boxscore as well.

Dave England (@juniusworth) is the brainchild of the idea, and is also our token non-east coaster. He writes for Big Game Claws, the Texas Rangers site on the network, as well as MLBDirt and Baseball: Past and Present. Dave and I share a love for alt-country and have learned that if we were playing Six Degrees of John Wetton we could be connected in just two steps. He's friends with Will Johnson and the rest of the Centro-Matic crew, who are friends and frequent collaborators with my hometown pal, Anders Parker.

Dalton Mack (@dmack1291), currently a student at Rutgers University, is the young whippersnapper of the group. He writes for High Heat Stats and hosts "DM in the PM" on Rutgers radio station 90.3: The Core. Despite his youth, Dalton and I have discussed our common reverence for Yes and Steely Dan, but I also know we share two top ten of 2012 selections in common as well.

Bryan O'Connor (@replevel) is the guy most likely to mock the others for their selections, although he's not as tough in this regard as some other friends of mine who will remain nameless. He is the man behind The Replacement Level Baseball Blog and also writes for High Heat Stats and southern Maine regional newspaper The Forecaster. His top 100 albums of each decade posts on Facebook are what opened my eyes to his pretty similar taste to mine, although I predict Dave will have the most albums in common with my list.

Oh, and you'll be hearing from me too. But, you already know me...right?

Like I said, look for this post to appear here in early January (although I might be using the word "early" loosely here as well). In the meantime, you can expect the countdown of my favorite albums of 2012 to get underway shortly.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

All-Time Teams #15: Miami Marlins

This is part of an ongoing series where I'm naming an all-time team for each of the current 30 MLB franchises, and using this as a vehicle to discuss their greatest eligible player who is not in the Hall of Fame.

I apologize for the two-month hiatus between entries in this series, know, life happens. Plus, I've had a few other things to write about in my occasional free moments in the meantime.

But, I'm pleased to finally get around to completing the most-anticipated of the all-time teams. That is, the most successful franchise in baseball history other than the terms of frequency of World Series victories.

That's right, the Marlins' two World Series in 20 years (10%) is second to the Bombers' 27 in 112 seasons (24.1%), with the Cardinals ranking third (11-of-131, 8.4%).

Franchise History
Miami Marlins (2012-)
Florida Marlins (1993-2011)

C - Charles Johnson (1994-1998, 2001-2002)
1B - Jeff Conine (1993-1997, 2003-2005)
2B - Luis Castillo (1996-2005)
SS - Hanley Ramirez (2006-2012)
3B - Miguel Cabrera (2003-2007)
LF - Cliff Floyd (1997-2002)
CF - Juan Pierre (2003-2005)
RF - Gary Sheffield (1993-1998)

Choosing Pierre over Cody Ross was a tougher decision than you'd think. Ross rates higher in terms of WAR and WAA (Wins Above Average), but a lot of that value comes from better defense (a lot of it in just one year), which I'm not certain might be over-rated. Besides, for a team that's won two World Series in 20 years, being a key member of one of those championships has to enter into it. 

The only other difficult decision was Sheffield or Giancarlo Stanton in right field. Check back in a year and Stanton will probably get promoted to starter, assuming he's still wearing a Marlins uniform at that point.

Josh Johnson (2005-2012)
Kevin Brown (1996-1997)
Dontrelle Willis (2003-2007)
Anibal Sanchez (2006-2012)
Josh Beckett (2001-2005)

Brown had two pretty phenomenal years in south Florida, but Johnson's years of service earn him the nod as staff ace. Otherwise, the choice between Beckett and A.J. Burnett for the final rotation spot was pretty easy once the 2003 World Series was factored in.

Robb Nen (1993-1997)

C - Mike Redmond (1998-2004)
1B - Derrek Lee (1998-2003)
2B - Dan Uggla (2006-2010)
SS - Edgar Renteria (1996-1998)
3B - Mike Lowell (1999-2005)
OF - Giancarlo Stanton (2010- )
OF - Cody Ross (2006-2010)

I could have gone with Ivan Rodriguez over Redmond on the basis of his one very good season in Florida, but Redmond is second to Johnson in games caught and accumulated more value than Rodriguez. Besides, I have tough time considering a guy who played only one year for the Marlins—even a team with as short a history as this—as an all-time team member.

Lee versus Kevin Millar was pretty close in terms of overall value, but Lee shows up in the franchise's top ten in so many counting stats (Runs, Hits, Total Bases, HR, RBI), giving him the edge. Of course, that's because he played longer with the Marlins and basically means he was less good over a longer period, but so be it.

Alex Gonzalez gets left off in favor of Renteria, and not just because of the most important hit in team history. Gonzalez's eight years in Florida land him in the top ten in a few important categories (dWAR, Runs, Hits, Total Bases, RBI), but WAR flat out despises him, mainly because it doesn't rate him as well on defense as his reputation.

A.J. Burnett (1999-2005)
Carl Pavano (2002-2004)
Brad Penny (2000-2004)
Ricky Nolasco (2006- )

Nolasco and his 93 ERA+ squeaks into the final pitching slot only because he's the team's all-time wins leader.

Jack McKeon (2003-2005, 2011)

Of course I had to choose one of the two managers who guided the Marlins to World Series victories. McKeon gets the nod over Jim Leyland because he took over a 16-22 team and directed a pretty impressive turnaround that ended with Beckett shutting down the Yankees in the season's finale. He also guided the team to two more decent seasons following their post-Series overhaul, so he gets a few bonus points for that.

Greatest Eligible non-Hall of Famer

Based on playing just two seasons for the Marlins, Charles Johnson doesn't qualify for this honor. Obviously, it's pretty slim pickings otherwise, as Johnson and Conine—newly eligible this year, but sure to drop off the ballot after one round of voting—are the only options.

Although I'm sure Conine is considered a more important player to the team's history, Charles Johnson is the easy choice here. While far from worthy of serious Hall of Fame consideration, Johnson was one of the best players in the game at his position for a few years, winning four legitimate Gold Gloves and adding decent—sometimes above average—offense.

Next Up: Milwaukee Brewers

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

50 States in 5 Years?

Ever since my first of two cross-country trips, I've been interested in tracking my quest to some day notch visits to all 50 states. That quest was going good for a while—in fact, I reached 35 something like 20 years ago—but it's been slowed in recent years as family priorities have taken over.

In late 2006, I logged states #39 and #40 (Alabama and Mississippi), then in 2008 and 2009, respectively, I added #41 (Nebraska) and #42 (Oregon). But, in the three years since, I've remained stalled at that number, with Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana still on the list to visit. (However, I did spend 2 1/2 weeks in Italy with KJ, so I'd say that offsets the fact I haven't yet made it to Oklahoma or Arkansas.) Unfortunately, none of those states are looking like potential destinations in the near future.

So, of course, like a lot of people in my situation are inclined to do, I've started thinking about living vicariously through my son. When I realized the little traveler had already been to nine states, it was pretty much a no-brainer we had to plan a trip to the closest one he'd yet to visit. The added bonus being that destination happened to be where his mom and dad got married.

Our trip to Vermont the weekend before last was LC's 10th state in his first year. Obviously, I have no expectation he'll be keeping up that pace for four more years, as the post's title suggests. In fact, since KJ and I would be taking him, that would make the living vicariously thing kind of a moot point. But, 10 states before the age of one is a pretty cool "accomplishment" in my opinion.

Our wedding locale, the Old Tavern in Grafton—now called the Grafton Inn—was the destination. This is honestly one of the few places that, when visiting, we could be content with parking the car and not going anywhere else for an entire weekend. And it's not because there's so much to do there—although the inn does have tennis courts, bike rentals, cross-country skiing, etc.—but rather that it's such an enjoyably relaxing place to stay. One that easily allows even someone like me to forget about all the everyday stresses of living in an urban area. [This makes me feel like breaking out into Neil Young's "Country Home."]

To say Grafton is a quaint little town doesn't come close to properly describing it. I've used the term quaint before in reference to touristy villages that have qualities that kind of resemble small cities.

Grafton is not like this. Those touristy villages I just described always have some semblance of commercialism, but the Windham Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that owns much of the town, is dedicated to ensuring that doesn't happen.

Grafton Public Library
Grafton Public Library

Grafton Historical Society
Grafton Historical Society

Grafton Fire Station
Grafton Fire Station

The inn kind of dominates the town, but the locals are part of the experience, especially when they come out for a music night at the Old Tavern's Phelps Barn. But, even when the inn is completely full, the town is still quiet. It might just be one of my top five places on earth, a list I honestly haven't given much thought to until now.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Carl Hubbell vs. Sandy Koufax: A Hall of Fame Inner Circle Debate

My latest for High Heat Stats, is a debate between myself and Replacement Level's Bryan O'Connor regarding the Hall of Fame "Inner Circle" merits of Carl Hubbell and Sandy Koufax. There's even a poll where you can offer your opinion on which pitcher was more inner-circle-worthy and who you think won the debate.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Frequent Spins (2012.5)

This is probably going to be the final Frequent Spins of the year. I've still got a bunch of albums I hope to spend more time with as this month progresses, and then I can start my annual ritual of ranking them in order.

Meanwhile, here's a bunch of albums I've listened to fairly regularly since the last installment:

Band of Horses - Mirage Rock
Frankly, I have to admit this one's kind of disappointing, especially considering it will surely end their brief run of two consecutive albums in my top ten.

Dinosaur Jr. - I Bet on Sky
In my opinion, the third installment in this band's resurrection of its original lineup—which began almost 20 years after the original Mascis/Barlow flap—is better than the second, which was better than the first.

Patterson Hood - Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance
I used to give my fair share of thought to the question of who is my second favorite musician to Neil Young. Names that have been part of that discussion at different times include Jay Farrar, Steve Earle, Joe Pernice and Spencer Krug. I think it's time to consider Patterson Hood a candidate for that distinction.

James Iha - Look to the Sky
I've been saying I'm the world's biggest Pernice Brothers fan for years. That might be a bit of an exaggeration. What's not is that I'm possibly the biggest fan in existence of James Iha's 1997 solo debut, Let it Come Down. 15 years later, the former Smashing Pumpkins' rhythm guitarist's follow-up is nowhere near as good as that one, but it has its moments.

Jens Lekman - I Know What Love Isn't
Simply more witty, melodic indie pop from this Swedish singer/songwriter, just with a little more cynicism this time around.

Mumford & Sons - Babel
I've been an album late jumping on the bandwagon of a lot of next-big-thing indie acts, and this band is no exception. That might at least partly explain why I don't understand all the lukewarm reviews of this one.

A.C. Newman - Shut Down the Streets
What I said earlier this year about Andrew Bird basically applies to everything A.C. Newman does as well.

Tame Impala - Lonerism
Despite the inauthenticity of the band's moniker—my first car was a '77 Impala, and it could not be tamed—they rock.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill
OK now, this is the Crazy Horse return to glory I was expecting. Well, not exactly expecting, but it's certainly along the lines of what I was hoping for. "Walk Like a Giant" fits right in as the successor to a long line of Neil Young epics. It's no "Cortez the Killer" or "Cowgirl in the Sand," but then again, what is?

Thursday, November 01, 2012

A Look at the Potential Hall of Fame Pre-Integration Era Ballot

My latest for High Heat Stats is kind of a wish list of the names I'd like to see on the upcoming Hall of Fame Veterans Committee Pre-Integration Era Ballot.

Paul O'Neill's Final Game at Yankee Stadium

Every time a significant player participates in his final home game, I'm reminded of what was perhaps the greatest impromptu send-off by the home team's fans ever, which happened to occur 11 years ago today:

Whether you're a Paul O'Neill fan or not (and I know he has his detractors), you really can't argue that was a special moment.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Streets of Baltimore

When KJ, LC and I headed to Baltimore for a wedding last weekend, I had a few objectives in mind:
  1. Enjoy quality time with KJ's core group of friends from college, whom I've been getting to know over the last few years, despite living 3000 miles away from most of them.
  2. Get a taste of the local flavor by trying at least a few Baltimore-brewed beers. Yeah, yeah, yeah...what else is new? I know.
  3. Wear my St. Louis Browns cap whenever appropriate (not to the wedding, obviously) and take mental notes of the reactions I receive.
  4. Walk around town with the Gram and Emmylou version of "Streets of Baltimore" in my head the entire weekend, occasionally switching it out for the Jayhawks' "Baltimore Sun."

I was mostly successful:
  1. Nice wedding and all around great weekend, but you're not really interested in that part.
  2. See below.
  3. Only one stranger talked to me about baseball, and it wasn't actually in reference to the hat, although it certainly was inspired by it. A guy on the elevator in my hotel asked what the current status of the NLCS was (Cardinals 3-2, at that point), obviously not understanding the significance of the orange STL logo on the brown hat. I'm not holding this against Baltimorans, though. Most likely, since that encounter occurred in a hotel, the gentleman in question was an out-of-towner. Additionally, since we were staying in the inner harbor area, it's fairly likely most of the folks I crossed paths with weren't natives either. Still, I was a little disappointed.
  4. That one was easy.

Now about that beer. I used to think New England was the top eastern region for craft brewing, but with the emergence of breweries like Delaware's Dogfish and Pennsylvania's Victory, I've since realized the mid-Atlantic is the east coast's best answer to the Pacific Northwest.

Baltimore's scene isn't good enough to be considered the region's capital, but I was still fairly impressed. One particular brewery I'd never heard of prior to the trip dominated my weekend's consumption, but I also found the time for an afternoon stop-off at a more familiar place.

Let's discuss the latter first. The wedding was Sunday, so on Saturday morning the girls had a pedicure appointment. Which, of course, meant a few hours of boy time with me and Little Chuck exploring the city's streets.

Not surprisingly, an hour-plus of strolling around town turned into a short nap for the little guy. In fact, I first noticed he was asleep as I came upon this landmark:

Canal Street Malt House
Canal Street Malt House

Now a condo complex, the Canal Street Malt House was originally built in 1866 to store malt for the city's growing brewing industry.

Just across the street was the Heavy Seas Ale House, the brewery I was previously familiar with, having tried a few of their beers prior. Their brew pub was also a little off the beaten path and not as crowded as some of the inner harbor joints, so it seemed like a reasonable place to take my 11-month old son.

I waited a half-hour, though, because I needed to keep moving so as not to risk interrupting the nap that had just begun. Once inside, a pint of their cask-conditioned Loose Cannon Hop3 Ale seemed appropriate. When traveling, it just makes sense to drink beer you can't get elsewhere, and while this brand is distributed to my neck of the woods, the cask obviously is not.

It was a solid IPA, but not the best of the weekend, and it had the result that a good first beer usually does. It made me want a second, an urge my parental responsibilities forced me to resist.

The brewer I was introduced to on this trip was Stillwater Artisanal Ales. Similar to Massachusetts' Pretty Things, Stillwater doesn't have any of their own brewing facilities. Instead, they rent out space from and/or collaborate with other breweries for each of their offerings.

Friday night, all of KJ's friends who were in town for the weekend, including the then-future bride and groom, met up for dinner at a great little beer bar called Of Love and Regret, which happens to be co-owned by the head of Stillwater.

Their beer selection, of course, includes at least ten of Stillwater's creations on draft. The first one that jumped off the menu at me was a Belgian IPA called Why Can't IBU, my new choice for the best beer name ever.

Both KJ and I had the same initial impression of this one. It's a really nice IPA. As insipid as that sounds, I think it's meaningful. The beer doesn't knock you over with typical IPA characteristics, but it draws you in with subtle but distinctive elements: a mildly piney and citrusy aroma, crisp and dry up front, with a nice (there's that word again) hop finish.

For my second beer of that first night, I enjoyed an Existent, Stillwater's answer to your inner crisis of character. A smooth and dry dark ale, it's also nicely hopped and well balanced. 

Sunday night was the big event, and here's where I admit I finally broke my new beers resolution. At the time, I rationalized that I wasn't, but there's really no denying it.

Before I explain, let me first say I already decided my home brew would be the allowable exception. I wasn't about to brew a 5-gallon batch of my own recipe and limit myself to one 12-oz. or 22 oz. serving. So, I guess the loophole was to say the resolution only applies to commercially-brewed beer. Fair enough, right?

Well, at Sunday night's reception, the beer options were a keg of Stillwater Cellar Door—awesome choice, by the way: a session beer appropriate for both summer and fall and one that should definitely appeal to the masses—in addition to Bud Light and Natural Light. So, basically there was only one choice. If one of the lesser alternatives was National Bohemian, I may have gone for it, but instead I decided a wedding celebration was a good enough excuse to bend my rules a bit. Actually, I tried to tell myself a keg was just one big beer I was sharing with a bunch of other people, but the same would apply to a keg at a bar, so that rationalization fell flat when I reconsidered it later.

I still plan to finish out the year by drinking only beers I haven't yet consumed in 2012 (current count: 149) and to make next year's goal to drink more distinct beers than this year. But, there's no mistaking I didn't make it through the entire year without drinking the same beer twice. Oh well.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Who to Root for in the World Series?

At this time of year, fans of 28 of Major League Baseball's teams are forced to take on the rooting interest of a team other than their own. Sometimes the decision who to root for is an easy one, like when the Series involves the Yankees (everybody hates the Yankees, except Yankees fans), or the Red Sox (almost everyone hates the Red Sox, except Red Sox fans and people who don't yet realize the same reasons to hate the Yankees pretty much apply to the Red Sox. Except the having won 1/4 of all World Series thing, of course).

Other times, it's a much more difficult decision—see 1986: seriously, who in their right mind was a fan of either of those teams? I'm sure the same could be said about 2009, but not by me, of course—or simply that one is indifferent to both teams. This year is certainly closer to the latter than the former for me, so I had to go through the following exercise to decide who I would root for.

Reasons to root for the Tigers:
  • Haven't won a World Series since 1984. Not the longest drought there is, but certainly more time has passed compared to the last time the Giants won it.
  • If your team has to lose, on some level, it's a little more satisfying when they lose to the eventual champion.
  • There might be another Leaping Laird Internet phenomenon.
  • I predicted Tigers over Giants in a contest on another blog, so I could win some kind of prize.
  • The Giants' Brian Wilson is about as likable as the Beach Boys' Mike Love.
  • The American League hasn't won a World Series since 2009.

Reasons to root for the Giants:
  • My childhood best friend lives in San Jose and is a Giants convert. Considering he grew up a Yankees fan, I'm sure you'll approve.
  • Marco Scutaro is on the Giants. Have I mentioned I used to be a big Scutaro fan (and may have once even created a MySpace page for him)? That is, until he signed with the Red Sox. I could easily return to being the President of his fan club.
  • There are a few Tigers who either rub me the wrong way (Jose Valverde, Jim Leyland, Phil Coke, Miguel Cabrera) or are just genuinely unlikable (Delmon Young).
  • I'm getting a little tired of teams who didn't even win 57% of their regular season games (2011 Cardinals, 2010 Giants, 2008 Phillies, 2006 Cardinals) winning the World Series.
  • Cabrera's going to win the AL MVP and he might not even be the second most deserving candidate in the league (or the most deserving on his own team, for that matter).
  • It would be rooting for the underdog and the team that had a more championship-worthy regular season all wrapped into one.
  • Melky Cabrera's on the Giants.
  • The American League hasn't won a World Series since the Yankees in 2009.

I guess I'm leaning towards the Giants, but I won't be crushed if the Tigers win it, especially considering my prediction. So, as has been the case with the last two World Series, I'm basically playing it by ear, and ultimately pulling for an exciting series. If one team falls behind by a couple games, I'll likely root for them to come back and make things interesting. Or, perhaps something that occurs during the series will make my mind up for me.

Happy World Series everyone!

Friday, October 12, 2012

BBA Awards, Part 5: Stan Musial

In the fifth and final part of this series, I'm offering my votes for the Stan Musial Award, the BBA's equivalent of the Most Valuable Player.

I wonder if it's just a huge coincidence that the BBA's founder is a St. Louis Cardinals fan and its Most Valuable Player award is named after Stan Musial? Not that he's not kinda worthy of the honor, but I'm just curious. Quite honestly, the award should be named after Barry Bonds, who won more than twice as many MVP awards as any other player in history.

But, I digress. It definitely isn't a coincidence that, just as the Willie Mays award was no contest, so is this one. That non-coincidence, of course, can be attributed to Mike Trout, who easily was the most outstanding and, therefore, most valuable player in all of baseball.

I decided to take the high road and vote Miguel Cabrera second, even though a sabermetric argument could be made for Robinson Cano, or even that Cabrera wasn't even the most valuable player on his own team. This, of course, makes me wonder how many petty real voters would consider bumping their candidate's primary competitor down? I'm sure it never happens. Right?

Stan Musial Award - AL
  1. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
  2. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
  3. Robinson Cano, New York Yankees
  4. Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers
  5. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
  6. David Price, Tampa Bay Rays
  7. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox
  8. Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals
  9. Hiroki Kuroda, New York Yankees
  10. Josh Reddick, Oakland Athletics

In the National League, it's a much, much tougher decision. The top five guys here are basically interchangeable, but I do consider some of the old school arguments, especially when it's virtually a tossup.

I'll let you fill in the blanks as to why that means Posey and Molina rank first and second, although I do think Posey stands out just a little from the rest of the candidates.

Stan Musial Award - NL
  1. Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants
  2. Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
  3. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers
  4. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates
  5. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
  6. David Wright, New York Mets
  7. Chase Headley, San Diego Padres
  8. Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves
  9. Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
  10. R.A. Dickey, New York Mets

BBA Awards, Part 4: Walter Johnson

In part four of this series, I'm offering up my selections for the BBA's Walter Johnson Award, our group's equivalent of Major League Baseball's Cy Young Award.

I don't really have time to over-analyze these picks, so I'm just going to cut right to the chase here.

The American League award really comes down to just two guys, Detroit's Justin Verlander and Tampa Bay's David Price, and to be completely honest, it's not too difficult a decision to choose between them. For the second year in a row, Verlander was the league's best pitcher.

Walter Johnson Award - AL
  1. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
  2. David Price, Tampa Bay Rays
  3. Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox
  4. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
  5. Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

To me, the National League is a three-horse race between R.A. Dickey, Johnny Cueto and Clayton Kershaw. I will say I kind of wanted to vote for Dickey, but I honestly think the only argument that can be made against Kershaw is he only won 14 games. That's not a very good argument.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Walter Johnson Award - NL
  1. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
  2. R.A. Dickey, New York Mets
  3. Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds
  4. Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals
  5. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies

Thursday, October 11, 2012

BBA Awards, Part 3: Goose Gossage

In part three of this series, I'm presenting my choices for the BBA's Goose Gossage Award, which recognizes the season's best relief pitcher in each league.

Three relievers had historic performances in 2012, but only two of them will win these awards. Tampa Bay's Fernando Rodney's season is being compared to Dennis Eckersley's 1990. There was a point late in the year where their statistics were almost identical, with the exception being Rodney's walk rate, while impressive, was three times that of Eckersley's phenomenal 5 BB in 73 1/3 IP.

Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel struck out 50.2% of the batters he faced in 2012. The last pitcher to strike out more than half the batters he faced in a season was Francisco Rodriguez in 2002. Rodriguez faced 21 batters after a September call-up that year (striking out 13), so he doesn't really count. Besides these two, no one else has ever accomplished this feat over a season in which he pitched three or more innings. Kimbrel pitched 62 2/3 this year.

Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman gets lost in the shuffle here. He actually struck out a pretty incredible 44.2% of the batters he faced, and posted a 1.51 ERA over 71 2/3 innings.

Other relievers had good seasons, but no one else is really worth mentioning in the same breath as these guys. I have to fill out my ballot, though, so Rafael Soriano, Jim Johnson and Jonathan Papelbon get some recognition as well.

I don't necessarily believe all of these votes have to go to closers. But, that's how it turned out, mainly because there weren't any non-closers who had seasons as good as David Robertson did a year ago.

Goose Gossage Award - AL
  1. Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
  2. Rafael Soriano, New York Yankees
  3. Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Goose Gossage Award - NL
  1. Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
  2. Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds
  3. Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies 

BBA Awards, Part 2: Willie Mays

In part two of this series, I'm presenting my choices for the BBA's Willie Mays Award, our group's equivalent of the Rookie of the Year.

The American League award isn't even a contest. In fact, if it's unanimous—which it better be—I'm going to propose to BBA leadership that we change the name of this honor to the Mike Trout Award.

Texas's Yu Darvish and Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes had years that normally would place them in the discussion, but to their misfortune, they happened to debut in the same year as the second coming of...well, Willie Mays.

Willie Mays Award - AL
  1. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
  2. Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers
  3. Yoenis Cespedes, Oakland Athletics

Early in the year, all the hype surrounded a National League rookie 14 months younger than Trout. Maybe that's the reason Trout's star shone as brightly as it did, because the spotlight was elsewhere.

Despite there being no comparison between the two, the only rookie in all of baseball who clearly had a better year than Washington's Bryce Harper was Trout. Sure, you could argue Arizona's Wade Miley—who receives my second-place vote—or that Darvish and/or Cespedes was better, but Harper put together a Rookie of the Year caliber season, and he gets my vote.

Third place was up for grabs, but I chose St. Louis' 18-game winner Lance Lynn ahead of a long list of solid candidates that included Cincinnati's Todd Frazier and Zack Cozart, Milwaukee's Norichika Aoki, and Houston's Lucas Harrell.

Willie Mays Award - NL
  1. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
  2. Wade Miley, Arizona Diamondbacks
  3. Lance Lynn, St. Louis Cardinals

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

BBA Awards, Part 1: Connie Mack

It's that time of year again. As an active member of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance (BBA), I'm asked to vote on several year-end awards, so this post will get things started.

The Connie Mack Award is the BBA equivalent of Manager of the Year.

It's tough deciding what manager had the most positive impact on his team in a given year. There aren't any statistics, and there really is no way of evaluating each skipper's ability as a leader, something which is entirely too subjective for my taste anyway.

So, the only thing I really have to go on is what manager's team most exceeded expectations. To get an idea of this, I looked at ESPN's 2012 MLB Preview, in which 50 "experts" predicted who would make—and who would advance in—the playoffs.

Starting with the American League, as it turns out, the ESPN experts weren't much help. I'm sure you're completely shocked about that.

Of the 50 prognosticators, only two of them picked a team other than the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Tigers, Rangers and Angels to qualify for the postseason, and that oddball team was the Blue Jays. So, since not a single person picked the Orioles or Athletics, this didn't offer much help in deciding between the two clear-cut best candidates for the award.

But, the team that not only exceeded pre-season expectations, but also continued to defy the notion that eventually they would be exposed as pretenders, is the Orioles. Their +7 run differential was that of a team expected to finish 82-80 rather than 93-69. This 11-win difference can probably be partially attributed to good fortune, timely hitting and strong relief pitching. But, the other factor that may or may not be relevant is shrewd management.

Yes, I'm guessing Buck Showalter had something to do with the Orioles' ability to play over their heads this year, and for that reason he edges out the Athletics' Bob Melvin for my choice as the American League's Manager of the Year.

Third place goes to Robin Ventura, for guiding the White Sox—another team nobody gave a chance to win the AL Central over the mighty Tigers—to an 85-77 season that landed them three games short of the playoffs.

Connie Mack Award - AL
  1. Buck Showalter, Baltimore Orioles
  2. Bob Melvin, Oakland Athletics
  3. Robin Ventura - Chicago White Sox

The National League was a little easier, in my opinion. Well, at least my first-place vote wasn't too difficult.

Only 15 of ESPN's 50 experts picked the Nationals to make the playoffs, and they, in fact, finished the season with the best record in all of baseball. Almost twice as many picked the Cardinals, Giants and Reds, which is a big number, considering the predictions are spread over quite a few more teams than in the American League.

That leaves the Braves among playoff teams, who were, somewhat surprisingly, only picked by 14 of the 50. So, somewhat reluctantly, I'm going with Fredi Gonzalez—whose team did bounce back a little better than the Red Sox from last year's disastrous September—as my second-place vote to the Nationals' Davey Johnson.

For third place, I'm throwing a vote to the Pirates' Clint Hurdle for leading his team to their best performance—sadly, at 79-83—since 1997.

Connie Mack Award - NL
  1. Davey Johnson, Washington Nationals
  2. Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta Braves
  3. Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh Pirates

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

High Heat Stats: Why Miguel Cabrera Deserves the AL MVP

My latest for High Heat Stats offers up a few thoughts on why Miguel Cabrera Mike Trout Miguel Cabrera deserves doesn't deserve the AL MVP.

Check it out.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Figgy, Thiggy, Michael Jack and Rags

Back in July, I wrote about the one no-hitter and two near perfect games I've seen in person and offered my opinion as to why being there for a no-hitter is much better than witnessing a milestone.

I suppose it's possible I'd think otherwise if I'd been in Atlanta for Hank Aaron's 715th home run—I'm not one of those folks who claims Barry Bonds is not the all-time home run leader, I just think Aaron's moment seemed more special—or Pete Rose's 4192nd hit (even though, in hindsight, he had broken Ty Cobb's hits record with his 4190th hit).

But, that's a moot point, so I can't possibly know for sure what it felt like to be there for those moments. But, I do know how it felt to be present for these, my personal top five baseball milestones/moments:

5. September 30, 1978: Ed Figueroa becomes the first (and only) Puerto Rican born pitcher to win 20 games in a season.

I've always thought adding this to a list of milestones is a bit of a stretch, that it only qualifies because I don't have anything better to replace it. But, thinking about it further, Figueroa is the only player from his native land to ever win 20 games in a season. And, it's not like he's from Sweden either. Puerto Rico has produced the fifth highest total of major leaguers, behind only the United States, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Canada. On the other hand, it's never really been much of a pitcher factory, as Javier Vazquez is the country's all-time wins leader.

Figueroa is tied for fifth with Juan Guzman on that list, trailing Juan Pizarro, Jaime Navarro and Joel Pineiro, in addition to Vazquez.

I was pretty young at the time, so all I really remember is we sat on the lower level, just beyond first base, and I was aware of the history—insignificant or otherwise—I was witnessing, unlike a couple of the moments that follow. Oh, and I missed CCD to go to the game, and my classmates were envious...even while they were being taught not to be. 

4. September 15, 1990: Bobby Thigpen becomes the first pitcher to save 50 games in a season.

My buddy Joe and I road-tripped to Chicago to see old Comiskey Park in its final season. Joe drove from Hartford to Syracuse to pick me up, and the next morning I drove almost the entire distance from Syracuse to Dubuque, Iowa. You see, this adventure included a little side trip to the Field of Dreams, during which Joe and I had a catch in the outfield, then wrote our names on the baseball and chucked it into the cornfield.

We also got robbed in Chicago when we naively handed a $20 bill to some street kid we thought was a parking attendant. When he literally ran to get us change, we knew we'd been had.

The interesting thing about this milestone is we knew Thigpen had 49 saves and had already broken Dave Righetti's all-time record (for what that's worth) going into the game. But, we weren't fully aware of one of the three rules of save eligibility: the one that awards a reliever a save for pitching one inning with a lead of three runs or less. I was under the impression, at the time, that the rule which requires the tying run to be in the on-deck circle applied to such a situation—meaning the lead would have to be one or two runs—but I was wrong. My recollection is Joe had it wrong too, but I really can't speak for him 22 years after the fact.

3. May 28, 1989: Mike Schmidt's final game

Two of my college pals and I embarked on a cross-country trip immediately following graduation. In hindsight, I'm disappointed to say we only hit two ballparks on that 3 1/2-week long trip: Wrigley Field, on our way out west, and Candlestick Park. We were going to hit Anaheim as well, but we never made it, although I can't remember why.

My friends were both Phillies fans, so it worked out well that we got to see them play the Giants in San Francisco.

Mike Schmidt was closing in on his 40th birthday and struggling, especially by his Hall of Fame standards, as his batting average barely hovered above .200 and he wasn't making up for it with his usual power (6 HR in 41 games).

Schmidt had a rough game that day (0-for-3 with an error in the field, his 8th on the season), but honestly my most lasting memory was of how cold Candlestick was. We had just come from seeing a game in Chicago, of course, but I was convinced they should call San Francisco the windy city.

The next day, we were watching ESPN in our motel room, which is how we learned Schmidt made the decision to hang it up after the game. No farewell tour, no final goodbye to the hometown fans. This was it. He'd played his final game, and we learned after the fact we were there to witness it.

2. April 18, 1987: Mike Schmidt's 500th homer

I went to college at Penn State. There used to be a time when people asked me if the school was in Philadelphia, but as a result of recent events, everybody pretty much now knows that it's in the middle of nowhere. The exact geographic center of Pennsylvania, in fact: 2 1/2 hours from Pittsburgh and almost four hours from the city of brotherly love.

I'm going to stereotype a bit here, but the folks I met from "the city of brotherly love" didn't generally treat their western Pennsylvania brethren like siblings. There was definitely a rivalry between natives of the state's two largest cities and I have to say folks from Philly I knew were generally more insulting and, therefore, annoying about it. I'm sure that statement won't be controversial among baseball fans who've interacted with fans from both cities.

But, I digress. The point here is I had friends who were Pirates fans and friends who were Phillies fans. So, it made sense that when we planned to road trip to a game, it was to a Phillies-Pirates game. This particular time it was my first visit to Three Rivers Stadium.

Schmidt began 1997 at 495 home runs, five short of the milestone, so when we purchased the tickets, we knew there was a chance we could witness his 500th. But, the game was the Phillies' 11th of the season, so it seemed unlikely he'd get off to that fast a start.

He hit his first and second homers of the year on April 10 and 11, in games three and four, providing us a glimmer of hope. But, he hit just one in the next six games and was sitting at 498 with just the Friday night game to play before our Saturday trip to the park.

Of course you know what's coming. It's not like there's any way I could build any suspense around this story. We woke up from our drunken haze on Saturday morning to learn Schmidt had belted #499 the night before. So, there was definitely some excitement in the air that afternoon, and as you know, Michael Jack delivered:

1. July 4, 1983: Dave Righetti's no-hitter

[The following is excerpted from the post I wrote back in July, which essentially inspired this one.]

Early summer after my high school sophomore year, my best friend and next door neighbor's dad offered to take us on the 1 1/2 hour trip from our Dutchess County, New York neighborhood to the South Bronx. My dad was also invited, but he declined, so it was just the three of us.

We had pretty mediocre seats down the left field line, but it didn't matter, of course. We were at Yankee Stadium, and pretty soon the excitement of just being there was surpassed by the suspense of a chance for what certainly seemed like, and probably was, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I don't remember if we talked about the fact a potential no-hitter was in progress. I suspect we did, as we were two teenage boys and an adult who wasn't quite fanatical enough to buy into the superstition that we could actually jinx the thing.

What I do remember is that the buildup to the game's ultimate moment was just as suspenseful and exciting as game seven of just about any World Series I've seen, and that the final out—Dave Righetti's second strikeout of Wade Boggs on the day—was surreal.

Looking back at the box score, I realized Righetti walked Jim Rice twice in three at bats. Looking further, I also noticed Tony Armas didn't provide much protection for Rice in the order. On the day, he struck out and grounded into a double play in three at bats. More importantly, he was in the midst of a frustrating first season in Boston, in which he would hit 36 homers and drive in 107 runs, but with a .218 batting average and a paltry .254 OBP.

Upon returning home, I wondered if my dad realized what he'd missed. He hadn't watched the game on television so he didn't know, but honestly didn't seem as disappointed as I expected. You see, dad grew up only a subway ride away from Yankee Stadium and, in fact, had previously witnessed one of Allie Reynolds's two no-hitters in pinstripes.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Frequent Spins (2012.4)

It's fall—well, technically not until tomorrow, but it sure feels like it—and that means it's officially new release season. Of course, in the music industry, this season comes twice a year, with the first being in the spring. [Imagine if there were two baseball seasons a year. That would be awesome.] What this also means is I've got some serious catching up to do with a lot of new albums that have piqued my interest, but here is what I've been listening to leading up to this point.

Bloc Party - Four
This band produced three really good albums in their first four years, but it's taken another four to get to this one. In the meantime, lead singer Kele Okereke released a pretty lackluster solo record, so I wasn't sure what to expect here. What I got was a harder rocking affair than their previous efforts, and one that does not disappoint, even if it might rank fourth in their discography, in my opinion

Bill Fay - Life is People
Lee Mazzola and I love to engage in various nonsensical music-related discussions—although he's better at it—like bands named after someone other than the lead singer, bands who replaced a significant member and became better in the process, etc. One that recently occurred to me thanks to this album—although I think it's actually a spinoff of one of our previous topics—is cover songs that are better than the original, with the qualification that the original is good too. Worded differently...covers that blow you away by the realization they're better than the already excellent original. Fay's rendition of Wilco's "Jesus, Etc." falls into this category for me.

Of Monsters and Men - My Head is an Animal
I read somewhere this six-piece chamber pop outfit from Iceland are being called the next Arcade Fire. I'm not sure about that, but everywhere I looked, the band kept turning up, so I figured it was a sign I needed to check out this April release, even if I was a bit behind the curve. It turned out to be a good idea.

Passion Pit - Gossamer
I loved their debut, but this is one of those bands I kind of figured would be exposed by extended playing time. You know the type; good in a platoon role, but not a legitimate full-time performer. There's no doubt more time is needed to officially make that assessment, but they've made significant progress towards proving they're no Joe Charboneau.

Stars - The North
This is more of the same from the Canadian outfit who Of Monsters and Men remind me more of than they do Arcade Fire. When I say "more of the same," I basically mean that in the best way possible.

Sun Kil Moon - Among the Leaves
Pre-LC, my commute typically consisted of a nearly 20-minute walk home from the T station in the afternoon (in the morning, there was a bus that fit nicely with my schedule). This allowed me the opportunity for a little quiet time with my music, without it having to compete with the sounds of the train, people talking (and otherwise being annoying) on the train, the conductor yelling over the loudspeaker on the train, etc. Recently, I had a day in which I didn't have to take LC to or from day care. As a result, I was able to spend that 20 minutes with this album, allowing me to further appreciate the lyrics of a couple of its better songs: "Song for Richard Collopy," an ode to Mark Kozelek's late guitar tech; and "Track Number 8," which name-checks troubled singer-songwriters who passed prematurely, including Elliot Smith, Shannon Hoon and Mark Linkous. I kind of miss that 20-minute walk, but I wouldn't have it back for anything.

Sharon Van Etten - Tramp
I've been listening to this one on and off all year, never to the extent that made it legitimately Frequent Spin-worthy, but enough in total to make it finally worthy of the distinction.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Fanfare for the Uncommon Man Stout

For those of you who haven't been able to keep up with the goings-on of AfroDan Progressive Brewers, my family's move from the very-urban to the less-urban suburbs of Boston two years ago resulted in the need to annex our operations.

Last year, we opened the first of our two new facilities, AfroDan North. It took longer than expected, but last month the Emerson, Lake & Palmer-inspired Fanfare for the Uncommon Man Stout marked the inaugural brewing effort of our AfroDan South operation.

Actually, our new brew's namesake song "Fanfare for the Common Man" is an Aaron Copeland original, but as ELP was known to do, they took the classical composition and made it their own.

There was a time when I thought ELP's version was the theme song for ABC's Wide World of Sports. But, this myth was dispelled a few years ago. It may have briefly (or occasionally) been used as the theme, but the show's primary intro music was a Charles Ira Fox number.

But, those ideas about "Fanfare for the Common Man" were apparently not completely unfounded:

This beer was influenced by a recipe of mine from 17 years ago which I called Mr. Pither's Imperial Stout. But, several factors resulted in its evolution to this particular creation bearing a different name.

First, not all of the original ingredients were available at our local home brew store. A minor change to the recipe is one thing, but a few changes makes giving this one the original name feel a little wrong to me.

Second, we've been partial to naming our beers after prog-rock songs ever since we formed this brewing partnership in late 2007. Mr. Pither's was named after the main character in the Monty Python's Flying Circus classic episode "The Cycling Tour." While that's equally nerdy as prog-rock, it still strays from our mission.

Lastly, it didn't really turn out worthy of being considered an imperial stout. Despite using enough malt and fermentable adjuncts to reach upwards of 9%, it came in at 5.6% by our calculations. We thought we had solved the mystery of projected high octane brews not quite fermenting to their potential by using super high gravity yeast, but this brew's original gravity reading was mysteriously too low to come anywhere near the ABV we were expecting. Hopefully further research will be able to reveal the reason for that shortcoming.

This past weekend was the unveiling of our latest endeavor and we're quite pleased with the results. In fact, this one might be technically our best, even if it's not necessarily our favorite. What I mean by this is we love our 21st Century Schizoid Ale, and the 2010 edition is the consensus pick as our best brew to date, but it's extremely high alcohol content makes it not so easy on certain palettes. On the other hand, a lot of people—the wife included—aren't really big fans of stout, so who knows.

Anyway, we look forward to maybe sharing a Fanfare for the Uncommon Man Stout with some of you in the near future. If you're not one of those beer drinkers who hold certain prejudices against dark beers, I'm sure you won't be disappointed. You might not appreciate having to listen to a steady stream of Emerson, Lake & Palmer in the process—just like stouts, they're not for everyone either, I realize—but sometimes we have to make sacrifices in life.

Finally, here's the recipe for a five-gallon batch:

1/2 lb. roasted barley (steeped 20 mins.)
1/2 lb. chocolate malt (steeped 20 mins.)
1/2 lb. Belgian de-bittered black malt (steeped 20 mins.)
9.9 lbs. amber malt extract (boiled 75 mins.)
1 lb. dark brown sugar (boiled 75 mins.)
3 oz. Chinook hops - 13% alpha (boiled 75 mins.)
1 oz. Warrior hops - 13.7% alpha (boiled 75 mins.)
3 tsp. pure vanilla extract (boiled 30 mins.)
1.6 oz. Cascade hops (boiled 10 mins.)
1 1/2 oz. WLP099 (super high gravity ale yeast)

    Thursday, September 13, 2012

    All-Time Teams #13: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

    This is part of an ongoing series where I'm naming an all-time team for each of the current 30 MLB franchises. 

    Franchise History

    Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (2005- )
    Anaheim Angels (1997-2004)
    California Angels (1965-1996)
    Los Angeles Angels (1961-1964)

    An asterisk (*) denotes a Hall of Famer.

    Statistics referenced for each player are plate appearances (for hitters), innings pitched (for pitchers), Baseball-Reference WAR and Wins Above Average (WAA), OPS+ (for hitters) and ERA+ (for pitchers).


    C - Brian Downing (1978-1990, 6912 PA, 35.3 WAR, 15.8 WAA, 126 OPS+)
    He only caught for two-plus seasons with the Angels, but I had to find a place in the starting lineup for the player who ranks third in team history in position player WAR and among the top five in numerous offensive categories (including OBP, runs, hits, total bases, home runs, RBI, and OPS+).

    1B - Darin Erstad (1996-2006, 5789 PA, 30.4 WAR, 12.9 WAA, 96 OPS+)
    Erstad just as easily could have been the center fielder, but I opted for him here, because I liked this team's other center field option better than its remaining first base options.

    2B - Bobby Grich (1977-1986, 4876 PA, 32.9 WAR, 19.1 WAA, 124 OPS+)
    The greatest player who should be wearing an Angels cap on a Hall of Fame plaque, in my opinion, and certainly that of a lot of other folks. Grich ranks 7th among eligible non-Hall of Famers in wWAR. [He's actually 6th--not counting Pete Rose and Joe Jackson--on the list this link directs to, but I believe he's now 7th based on the as-yet-unpublished newest calculation of wWAR.]

    SS - Jim Fregosi (1961-1971, 5945 PA, 43.3 WAR, 26.5 WAA, 116 OPS+)
    Maybe somewhat surprisingly, Fregosi is the Angels' all-time leader in position player WAR.

    3B - Troy Glaus (1998-2004, 3479 PA, 20.8 WAR, 10.3 WAA, 120 OPS+)
    The 2002 World Series MVP earns the nod at the hot corner.

    LF - Garret Anderson (1994-2008, 8480 PA, 23.7 WAR, -1.7 WAA, 105 OPS+)
    The advanced metrics don't think as highly of the Angels' all-time leader in numerous categories (including runs, hits, total bases and RBI) as he was regarded when he was hitting 3rd, 4th and 5th in the team's lineup all those years, but he's still good enough to earn a starting job.

    CF - Jim Edmonds (1993-1999, 2951 PA, 19.1 WAR, 10.3 WAA, 119 OPS+)
    Edmonds was better in St. Louis than Anaheim, but he still played well enough for the Angels to make the starting nine.

    RF - Tim Salmon (1992-2004, 2006; 7039 PA, 37.1 WAR, 16.1 WAA, 128 OPS+)
    The team's career home runs leader is also the longest tenured career Angel on this team.

    DH - Vladimir Guerrero (2004-2009, 3606 PA, 20.9 WAR, 10.0 WAA, 141 OPS+)
    Since almost 80% of the team's existence has been in the DH era, this lineup needs a DH, and the Angels' all-time leader in OPS+ is the perfect candidate for the job.


    Chuck Finley (1986-1999, 2675 IP, 48.7 WAR, 27.1 WAA, 118 ERA+)
    The underrated Finley is the team's career leader in pitching WAR and wins, and earns the spot as the ace of the rotation.

    Nolan Ryan* (1972-1979, 2181 IP, 37.6 WAR, 20.3 WAA, 115 ERA+)
    No offense to Texas, but Ryan should be wearing an Angels cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.

    Frank Tanana (1973-1980, 1615 IP, 32.5 WAR, 19.7 WAA, 118 ERA+)
    I had Frank Tanana's autograph as a kid, but that didn't influence my decision. He seriously deserves to be here.

    Jered Weaver (2006- , 1292 IP, 27.2 WAR, 16.5 WAA, 128 ERA+)
    The only active Angel among the starters on this team is under contract until 2016, so if he keeps it up, we could eventually see him at or near the top of this rotation.

    Mark Langston (1990-1997, 1445 IP, 24.4 WAR, 12.6 WAA, 109 ERA+)
    Langston still carries around the dubious distinction of being the key piece the Expos got in return when they traded a young Randy Johnson, but he had a nice career otherwise.


    Francisco Rodriguez
    (2002-2008, 452 IP, 15.5 WAR, 8.9 WAA, 189 ERA+)
    I'll wonder aloud if Percival would be the popular pick among Angels fans, but I can't help but favor K-Rod's 189 to 157 ERA+ advantage as the deciding factor, considering the two are virtually equal based on the value metrics.


    C - Bob Boone (1982-1988, 3391 PA, 10.8 WAR, 1.2 WAA, 71 OPS+)
    1B - Rod Carew* (1979-1985, 3570 PA, 16.2 WAR, 6.2 WAA, 119 OPS+)
    IF/OF - Chone Figgins (2002-2009, 4075 PA, 20.8 WAR, 8.5 WAA, 99 OPS+)
    3B - Doug DeCinces (1982-1987, 3268 PA, 17.5 WAR, 8.5 WAA, 117 OPS+)
    OF - Torii Hunter (2008- , 2913 PA, 18.7 WAR, 9.8 WAA, 121 OPS+)

    I'm sure there are some who would have Boone and Carew as starters. But, I prefer Downing's offense to Boone's defense, and Carew provides a good example of my all-time team philosophy of not letting a player's entire career overshadow his performance with the team in question. Figgins' inclusion might seem a bit surprising at first, but his Angels years were quite good and his versatility was invaluable.


    John Lackey
    (2002-2009, 1501 IP, 22.9 WAR, 10.5 WAA, 116 ERA+)
    Troy Percival (1995-2004, 587 IP, 16.2 WAR, 8.2 WAA, 157 ERA+)
    Dean Chance (1961-1966, 1237 IP, 19.1 WAR, 10.3 WAA, 122 ERA+)
    Jarrod Washburn (1998-2005, 1153 IP, 18.7 WAR, 9.2 WAA, 114 ERA+)
    Scot Shields (2001-2010, 697 IP, 11.4 WAR, 5.5 WAA, 139 ERA+)


    Mike Scioscia
    (2000- , 1143-943 W-L, 1 WS)
    Scioscia's teams haven't had much postseason success, other than winning the 2002 World Series, but he could be building himself a nice Hall of Fame case.

    Next Up: Los Angeles Dodgers