Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Goal Post 12, Wash 'N' Dry 9

A less than inspiring performance over a team that finished at the bottom of the standings last year with a 3-25 record—although one of their victories was against us—resulted in our second win of this young season. Wash 'N' Dry looked much improved since last year, particularly in their new shirts featuring what appeared to be the old Hartford Whalers logo, but the game never really should have been as close as it was.

A lackluster offensive showing, combined with a couple of key defensive lapses, resulted in us trailing 8-7 going into the 7th inning. But, the one area that they apparently haven't improved is on the mound, as last night's pitcher struggled mightily with his control. In this league, each batter starts with a 1-1 count, so it's certainly a little easier to issue a three-pitch, rather than a four-pitch, walk. On the other hand, all it takes is one strike to place the batter in a situation where he's protecting the plate, because there is no greater indignity than striking out looking in slow-pitch softball. Believe me, it's happened, but fortunately not to me.

In fact, that's not entirely true. I did strike out looking in an intramural softball game in college, but that was over 20 years ago. It was quite embarrassing, but it was a bad call...of course. I also struck out swinging in a co-ed game about five years ago, but now in my fifth season in this particular men's league, I have yet to have to buy the team a 30-pack...the penalty for going down on strikes.

In the top of 7th, though, without any specific direction from Fax—our fearless leader—the team decided to be extremely patient at the plate. As a result, four consecutive walks to start the inning later, I "drove" in the go-ahead run with a bases-loaded walk. Our opponents then changed pitchers, but we proceeded to score three more runs, while giving up only one in the bottom of the inning, to come away with a 12-9 victory.

When I first joined this team, I considered the idea of writing a blog chronicling the team's exploits, on and off the field. This was mostly motivated by an early incident that underscored the tendency of some of my teammates to overdo it at the bar post-game. I never followed through on that, of course, and the team—although led by a small group of serious drinkers—never quite lived up to the hype.

There was some drama last night, though. We had 15 players—not including the habitually injured Fax, who did play on Friday—available at the game. So, since we can only bat 12, that meant at least six players were not going to be in the lineup for the entire game. No one really had a problem with this, but one teammate had a problem with a comment made by Fax as he removed him from the game.

Let's just say that Fax picked the wrong person to get on the bad side of. Duff, at 6'5" and 275 lbs., and looks more like a defensive lineman than a baseball player, has hit at least five home runs per season in the three years that we've played at the fence-enclosed Faxon Park. Only one other player on the team—my fellow Yankees fan, Kevin—has hit one during that time frame. Most of the time, Duff seems like the type of big man who wouldn't hurt a fly, but when Fax made an off-handed steroids remark while taking him out of the game, it apparently struck a nerve.

Duff was still fuming while hanging at the bar post-game. I mulled the idea of pulling Fax aside and pointing out his indiscretion, but Duff beat me to it. They talked—sometimes animatedly—in the corner of the bar for at least 15-20 minutes, before Kevin and I decided it was time to leave after our one beer each. I wasn't really worried that it was going to get ugly—not that there was anything I could do about it—because John, the team's second-in-command and also the godfather of at least one of Duff's children, didn't seem to be.

We jokingly said a dramatic goodbye to Fax as we left, and asked Duff if we would see him—Fax, that is—at Thursday's game. Duff still wasn't in a joking mood, although Fax was—which probably wasn't helping his case—but I'm confident that John won't be running the team on Thursday.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ladders 'Bout to Fall

Those of us who are baseball fans—is there really anyone who isn't?—know that ballplayers are quite superstitious, and many of us as fans are kind of that way too. Well, that is, we say we don't believe in superstitions, yet we follow the same routines when they seem to produce positive results for our teams.

Personally, I once sat in exactly the same spot on the couch—even though I really needed to go to the bathroom—for over two hours while Mike Mussina pitched a perfect game through 6 1/3 innings of an ALCS matchup with the Red Sox. Despite this, I truly don't believe that a fan could actually jinx a pitcher's perfect game by asking, during the eighth inning, if he'd walked anyone yet...even if that fan was actually sitting next to me at the ballpark. We all know that the actions of fans can't control these outcomes. Of course, we also know that the pitcher's teammates can cause him bad luck by making any mention of what's in progress.

That being said, let me recount my experience with this past weekend's Yankees-Red Sox series. On Friday night, I had a late softball game, so I didn't see any of the Yanks-Sox action until arriving at the bar with two outs in the bottom of the 8th, as Mariano Rivera came on the get the final four outs of a game the Yankees led 4-2. On Saturday, the girlfriend and I were out taking advantage of the summer-like weather, and didn't tune in until the top of the 4th of a game in which the Yankees were lighting up Josh Beckett while A.J. Burnett was dominating, having allowed only one baserunner over the first three innings, and the Yanks were leading 6-0. I then turned on Sunday night's game with two outs in the bottom of the 4th and the score tied 1-1, as Andy Pettitte looked to be engaging in a pitchers' duel with Justin Masterson.

Well, you probably know what happened next in each of these games. Rivera blew his first save of the season Friday night, and Damaso Marte gave up a homer to Kevin Youkilis in the 11th, as the Red Sox won 5-4. Burnett, after retiring 9 of the first 10 hitters he faced on Saturday, then teamed up with the Yankees' disastrous bullpen to give up 16 runs over the final five innings of a 16-11 defeat. Pettitte apparently lost his composure in the 5th inning of Sunday's game, allowing Jacoby Ellsbury to steal home and the Red Sox to score the three quick runs that were all they would need in a 4-1 victory.

So, now I'll summarize. The before: Yankees pitchers allowed three runs—one earned—in 14 1/3 innings, for a 0.63 ERA, as they outscored the Red Sox 11-3. The after: Yankees pitchers yielded 22 earned runs over 12 innings (16.50 ERA) and were on the wrong end of a 22-5 composite score. In my defense, I didn't actually witness the Sox four-run 8th inning on Saturday, so the Yanks' team ERA was only 14.72 while I watched. On the other hand, on Saturday, I was also in the other room for both Johnny Damon's two-run homer and Robinson Cano's solo blast, so technically the only runs I saw the Yankees score were the two that came across as a result of Dustin Pedroia's error.

But, of course, I don't believe in these things that I don't understand.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Goal Post 23, Cool Cat 2

I'm going to take a stab at doing a write-up for each of my softball team's games this year, similar to what Lee does for each Yankees game he attends. Speaking of which, I turned down tickets to last night's Yanks-Sox game at Fenway to play our first game of the season. My team needed me after all, as we had exactly ten players available. Actually, I'm pretty certain we could have won short-handed, as it turned out to be a rather easy victory over one of the weaker teams in the league, Cool Cat Sportswear.

We scored four or more runs in every inning except the third, and were awarded a mercy-rule victory after just five innings. I batted leadoff and went 5-for-6, although I was the beneficiary of a very generous scoring decision for one of the hits. My recent trend of opening the season by reaching base in my first ten or more plate appearances—something I've done the past two years—ended when I grounded into a fielder's choice for our final out of the game. My personal highlight, though, was turning the pivot on a 6-4-3 double play, on which our shortstop and first baseman told me later they thought we had no chance and assumed I would just take the force out and hold the ball.

Two of our three new players were in attendance last night, and it looks like they will be significant additions to a team that went 15-13 last year, but was swept in a best-of-five semi-final series by the eventual league champions. I believe the new guys make us a little younger, but that's not saying much for a team whose average age would be right around 40 if not for last year's addition of the 21-year old son of one of our teammates.

Of course, since it was Friday night, and our sponsor is a bar, the evening ended at the Goal Post Tavern, which meant I had to watch Jason Bay's coming-out party with its South Shore brethren. I suppose it could have been worse...I could have been at Fenway. Is it just me, or is David Ortiz now no better than the fourth-most feared hitter in that lineup? That statement's not meant as much as an endorsement of the Red Sox offense—although it is pretty impressive—as it is an indictment of Big Papi's rapidly eroding skills...not that you heard that hear first.

The night also ended with a few bets among teammates about the upcoming season, mostly involving the aforementioned double-play trio...hardly Tinker to Evers to Chance, I must add. I'll get to those wagers later, though, as it's going to be a long season...or at least that's what my body is telling me. It's time to go take a couple Advil.

Friday, April 24, 2009

30 by 50

When I completed my ballpark trip to Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis and Cincinnati in the summer of 2004, I set a goal of increasing my number of current ballparks visited by at least one per year until I had been to them all. At that point, the total stood at 16, meaning that the goal would be to complete the entire circuit by the end of the 2018 season. Of course, what slightly complicated this were the subsequent closings of three of those stadiums in the time since. So, although I've visited five new parks in the past four years, the total has grown to only 18.

This past week, not fully considering the fact that I was creating a more difficult standard, I decided that the goal should be to make it to all 30 current major league parks by the time I turn 50. Since I'm turning 42 in less than a month, this only gives me a little more than eight years to accomplish it. Of course, that would be during the 2017 season, more than one year prior to the original goal. Since I'm not really comfortable placing too much emphasis on the concept of turning 50, I'm going to amend that a little by saying that the goal is to hit them all by the end of the 2017 season. That is, the season during which I’ll turn 50.

This means that I have to visit 12 parks, plus keep up with any new stadium openings, in the next nine seasons. Here are the current major league parks that I have yet to witness games at (listed roughly in order of difficulty, easiest to hardest):

New Yankee Stadium (New York Yankees)
Citi Field (New York Mets)
Citizens Bank Park (Philadelphia Phillies)
Nationals Park (Washington Nationals)
Turner Field (Atlanta Braves)
Tropicana Field (Tampa Bay Rays)
Dolphin Stadium (Florida Marlins)
PETCO Park (San Diego Padres)
Dodger Stadium (Los Angeles Dodgers)
Angels Stadium of Anaheim (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim)
Coors Field (Colorado Rockies)
Minute Maid Park (Houston Astros)

This sounds difficult, but I already have tentative plans to meet up with a few old college pals at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia this summer, and it’s likely that I will hit both new stadiums in New York this year as well. That would raise the total to 21, leaving nine remaining. However, Minnesota already has plans to move into their new ballpark next season, so that means there will be at least 10 to spread over eight years.

To my knowledge, none of the remaining teams still residing in older stadiums have plans to build new ones: the Red Sox and Cubs seem committed to their historic parks, and the Athletics and Royals have both spent considerable money on renovations. Of those on my yet-to-visit list, Tampa Bay, Florida and both Los Angeles venues are the only older parks, with Chavez Ravine being the only one that I'd make an effort to visit if I learned the Dodgers were planning to build a new home.

Another reason this is not an impossible task is the proximity of some of the parks to each other. All it will take are two well-planned long weekends to Florida and Southern California to check off five more. That's the reason I list Colorado and Houston as the most difficult, with the latter being a less attractive travel destination. So, it's going to be difficult, but I'm certainly going to enjoy trying.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Name That Belgian

Continuing my recent obsession with Belgian beers, yesterday AfroDan Progressive Brewers got back in the action, and our latest creation is a Belgian-style dark abbey ale. In case you're curious, the use of Cara-Munich and two different types of Belgian specialty malts, plus the addition of a pound of amber candy sugar and an ounce of coriander seeds are what makes it a distinctly Belgian style. As usual, we made it a little hoppier than the style generally calls for, a move that is a little riskier than with other brews.

In keeping with other traditions, we listened to nothing but prog-rock while brewing, and polished off a few each from our last batch of 21st Century Schizoid Ale. More specifically, on the music front, it was an all-out Rush fest, with the listening lineup progressing from Caress of Steel to Fly By Night to 2112, and later Permanent Waves.

So, now we're looking for a name for our latest brew, and we could use your help. The perfect name would describe the style as well as incorporate something Rush-related. A few examples of monikers that would be easier to consider, if we hadn't set the bar so high with 21st Century Schizoid Ale, are Syrinx Abbey Ale, A Passage to Brugge Dubbel and By-Tor Belgian-Style Ale.

On a final note, here's a little trivia I learned while researching Belgian music: the saxophone was invented by the Belgian-born Adolphe Sax; and, of course, other than Adolphe, the most notable Belgian musician would have to be jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The New NESN Guy

I didn't think it was possible to be more annoying than Tom Caron, but this new NESN guy—Cole Wright—makes me realize that Caron is only annoying, but at least he has a bit of a clue. In the first three minutes of my first time listening to his post-game Red Sox wrap, he has made the following ridiculous statements:
  • Called it "heads-up baserunning" that Jacoby Ellsbury tagged and scored from third on a 400-foot flyout to center field by David Ortiz. Yeah, that's about as heads up as advancing to first base on a walk.
  • Referred to Canadian Jason Bay as being from where they call bacon ham. Uh...Cole, I think it's the other way around.
  • Made some wisecrack about Jered Weaver making his brother proud, after he thoroughly dominated the Sox tonight. I've got news for you can make fun of Jeff all you want, but Jered's noggin is a far cry from his elder brother's two-cent head.
Well, I just learned that, thankfully—I guess—he hasn't replaced Caron, he's just the new NESN Sports Desk guy, which means his is kind of the post-post-game wrap. However, this is the first—and, hopefully, last—time I make it this far into the Sox post-game show. Caron and his sidekick with the haircut that belongs in my high school yearbook are about all I can take of this crew that rivals John Sterling in terms of yahooism.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Ballpark at Arlington

The official name of the Texas Rangers’ home park is Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Honestly, I could swear they used to call it The Ballpark at Arlington, but it could be that I’m confusing it with Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Nevertheless, last night it became the 28th major league stadium I’ve visited, and the 18th among the current 30. That 18 is down from the 19 I had checked off following my August trip to Milwaukee, Minnesota, Kansas City and St. Louis. Of course, the reason for this is that both New York teams have new stadiums this year. In fact, since the Mets and the Yankees have yet to play regular season games in their new homes, it could be argued that the count still stands at 20.

But, that’s a moot point. The Mets and Yankees will play their home openers April 13th and 16th, respectively, and I’ll have ample opportunity to visit at least one, if not both, of these new parks this year. But, this post is about last night’s enjoyable visit to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, where Texas was hosting the Cleveland Indians.

I arrived at the park about two hours before the game’s scheduled 7:05 start time, so that I could take in all that this modern baseball venue has to offer. It was 83 degrees and sunny, by far the nicest weather I’ve experienced since probably last September. The temperature held pretty well throughout, dropping to only 73 by the completion of the game at approximately 10:20. Unfortunately, the attendance was a pretty unimpressive 22,829, especially considering how pleasant the weather was and the fact that this was their second game—and first night game—of the season.

I seem to have a thing for happening upon dollar hot dog nights, as Rangers Ballpark had a similar special as the one at Minnesota last summer. However, where Minnesota asked that each customer limit themselves to two $1 dogs, and the special was only good for the first couple thousand sold, Texas only had a limit of five per customer per trip to the concession stands…as if we needed any more evidence that the Lone Star State is all about being bigger and “better” than everywhere else. Believe it or not, someone actually told me that they built the state capitol in Austin to be exactly one square foot larger than the U.S. Capitol building in Washington DC.

I took full advantage of this bargain and ate five hot dogs, three prior to the game and two more about half-way through. These dollar hot dog nights are pretty much the only times I eat hot dogs at the ballpark, as I simply refuse to pay four dollars or more for an item that it takes five of to fill me up. Beer, on the other hand, is an item that I’m generally willing to overpay for. After all, if I would have to pay $4.50 for a soda or a bottled water, why not pay a few more dollars to alter the state of my mind a little? I wasn’t expecting much, however, considering this was Texas—not exactly the nation’s capitol of craft brewing.

After bypassing a number of beer vendors selling only Bud Light and other typical offerings—as well as a couple of “Beers of the World” stands that featured Heineken, Corona and Red Stripe in addition to mostly American selections—I found my way to a “Beers of Texas” stand. Again, not expecting much, I purchased a 24-oz. Texas Red for $8.50. It was nothing impressive—maybe a hair better than Killian’s Red—but, considering the weather, it kind of hit the spot. When I arrived at my seat with the amber-colored brew, a couple nearby asked me where I got it, then complained that the Rangers said they were reducing the prices of concessions this year, but apparently had reneged on this promise.

Later, I tried another craft-style offering called ZiegenBock Amber, which was a slightly better value at $7.50 for 22 ounces. A poster advertising this beer at the concession stand claimed “Only Texans get it”, but the lady who sold me the beer—after I told her I wasn’t from Texas—said she’d make an exception. I guess the advertising slogan was correct, though, as I was slightly less enamored with this one than with the Texas Red. As I found out later, ZiegenBock is an Anheuser Busch product available only in Texas.

The design of the stadium was as impressive as many of my favorite newer venues, including Camden Yards, PNC Park, Miller Park and the new Busch Stadium. The concession areas were uncongested and I never had to wait in line at the rest room, although the relatively smallish crowd certainly contributed to this. My seat was down the first base line, as I opted for a different perspective than my usual view—when you’re buying one ticket you can sit almost anywhere—from behind home plate. The seat provided a similar vantage point to that which I enjoyed in my last trip to Camden Yards about five years ago. I sat in the fifth row, basically directly behind where the ball girl sits—and I had an excellent view of the game action as well—with the seats in this section turned about 45 degrees so that they were angled to face the pitcher.

One aspect that I was less than impressed with was the Legends of the Game Museum, which required a $6 admission. My first thought was…what legends? However, it appeared that the exhibits paid tribute to more than just the home team, but considering I had recently—less than two months ago—spent three days in a row at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and it was getting pretty close to game time when I discovered the museum, I decided to pass. I learned later that the exhibits include over 100 items on loan from the Hall of Fame. So, in hindsight, I really can’t criticize the $6 price, but having been at other stadiums that have nicely done areas that celebrate their teams’ all-time greats, I’m feeling a bit put off by the required admission.

In the game itself, the Rangers once again had tremendous success against one of Cleveland’s dual aces, roughing up Fausto Carmona for six runs on seven hits and two walks in five innings, en-route to an 8-5 victory. Texas’ attack was paced by two monster home run blasts by Nelson Cruz, who could well be on his way to becoming the team’s next emerging offensive star, following last year’s breakout seasons by Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler. It’s too bad that they can’t occasionally produce such a talent from the ranks of their pitching prospects.

When Texas catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia left the game due to an injury in the 8th inning, I was reminded that, not only does he have the longest name in baseball history, but backup Taylor Teagarden is no slouch in that department himself. The two team up for possibly the strangest pair of names among the ranks of major league catching duos.

Due to my leap back into fantasy baseball this year—and the fact that I otherwise had no real rooting interest in either of these teams—I found myself pulling for Cleveland’s relievers to accomplish a different type of hold than the kind that appears in the box scores. Trailing by three runs—and twice seeing that deficit extended to four, then subsequently reduced to three again—I was desperately rooting for them to keep their team within three through eight innings. They granted me my wish, which gave me the opportunity to witness one of my fantasy relievers, Frank Francisco, vie for his (and my) first save of the season. Francisco entered the game to a song that I can best describe as Dominican electronica—a far cry from “Enter Sandman” or “Hell’s Bells”—then looked more than a little shaky in his successful effort of closing out the second victory of this young season for the home club.