Friday, May 28, 2010

Frequent Spins (2010.4)

This is going to be a pretty brief Frequent Spins in terms of the number of words written here. The reason is that I don't have a lot of free time lately, and I want to get in a quick post, but also because these albums pretty much speak for themselves, with this short list ranking as possibly the strongest since I began doing this regular feature.

The Apples in Stereo - Travellers in Space and Time
A little reminiscent of E.L.O.'s Time, the latest from these Elephant Six Collective veterans just might be as good as 2007's New Magnetic Wonder.

Band of Horses - Infinite Arms
At first I thought this one was not as good as their masterpiece, Cease to Begin, and I was probably right. But, as the weather begins to take a turn for the better, I've discovered that it's kind of a summery album. So, if it doesn't instantly grab you, pick up a four-pack of Allagash White and give it a few more spins.

The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever
Craig Finn and company have always been about great lyrics that tell great stories about a crowd much younger than the band members themselves. On their latest, the subject matter seems to be growing up, with a major theme here being whether to settle or not, particularly on "Soft in the Center," "The Weekenders" and "Hurricane J."

The National - High Violet
Their performance of "Afraid of Everyone" on Letterman, with Sufjan Stevens guesting on backing vocals, was quite impressive. But, there are many other highlights on this record, including "Bloodbuzz Ohio," "Lemonworld," and pretty much the entire second half of the album.

The New Pornographers - Together
This band just keeps cranking out great indie pop tunes. As usual, the highlights are the songs that most effectively intertwine A.C. Newman's pop sensibilities with Neko Case's vocal twang, such as "Crash Years" and "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk," but my absolute favorite on this one is "A Bite Out of My Bed."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Twisted Road to Worcester

It seems that, whenever KJ and I travel to and from Worcester, our GPS takes us on the most circuitous routes. Worcester trips are fairly uncommon for us, of course, but Friday night our paths met up with Neil Young's Twisted Road Tour at The Hanover Theater for the Performing Arts, a somewhat recently renovated venue in Massachusetts' second-largest city.

On Twitter, a fellow beer geek recently lauded one of her friends as a master of pairing beer and music, a description said friend is yet to truly live up to, in my opinion. But, the suggestion got me thinking about this concept. Are there certain beers that would go better with certain bands?

I suppose a Belgian white or a hefeweizen would go great with a summery sounding album, and maybe a porter or a stout would go well with music that could be described as dark. Also, quite possibly beer that goes well with certain types of food could be paired with a band whose style is indigenous to the area known for that particular cuisine. So, I can see how this could work. Nevertheless, it's an angle I might be exploring in the future.

Neil Young's varied catalog would make such an exercise almost impossible, though, but since this was our night out to celebrate my recent birthday, KJ surprised me by taking me to a great place called the Armsby Abbey. Specializing in Belgian imports, this small tavern had such a diverse selection of drafts that I only recognized about one-third of the menu, one of which was the 20% ABV Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA.

I wasn't feeling up to the task of drinking a beer three times the alcohol content of what I'm used to, so I opted for one that was only twice as strong. The 13.6% Dark Horse Double Crooked Tree IPA was the closest thing on the Abbey's menu to something that sounded appropriate to consume prior to a Neil Young show. Obviously an Imperial IPA, it was good, although the alcohol seemed to sneak up on me like hard liquor, but it wasn't the best beer we tried that night.

KJ's first—and only, since she was driving—beer of the night, a Mikkeller 1000 IBU, was the best selection of all. A 9.6% Imperial IPA produced by a small brewery in Denmark, this creation has that wonderful grapefruity hops aroma and flavor that I recently discovered is my absolute favorite characteristic of the best beers of this style. Just as importantly, of course, it's very well balanced, and the fact that it's brewed by two guys—Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and Kristian Klarup Keller—who, just five years ago, were home brewers working out of their kitchen, only added to its appeal.

Legendary Scottish folkster Bert Jansch opened the show. I honestly thought he looked younger than Neil from my seat in the balcony, but it turns out he's 66, two years Young's senior. Despite his advancing years, there is no doubt he can still play the hell out of an acoustic guitar. Not being very familiar with his material, I thought his set was good, but of course, I was eagerly anticipating the headliner.

Friday was the seventh time I've seen Neil live, but this was the first occasion it was an entirely solo show. His set started out really strong, with acoustic versions of "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)," "Tell Me Why," and "Helpless" to kick things off, but that momentum quickly subsided when the next three songs were his less-than-inspiring new material.

I'm not generally one to complain about an artist playing the new stuff that I haven't heard yet, but—and it pains me to say this—Neil's songwriting abilities are clearly fading. I have friends—much tougher critics than I—who think that Greendale and Sleeps With Angels are his only worthwhile albums of the past 20 years—since Ragged Glory, that is.

Personally, I think the '90s and '00s have produced a lot of good, even great, Neil Young material in addition to those two. But, his last album—Fork in the Road—is easily his worst since the debacle that was Are You Passionate?, and my initial impression of his forthcoming material doesn't provide me with a lot of optimism.

The fact that he played his new material wasn't really my issue. However, the fact that the show was almost entirely new material and greatest hits was a bit disappointing. I guess I was hoping for a set list that included a few more "deep cuts," like his show at the Orpheum Theater that I attended back in December of 2007.

But, when it comes to concerts, you rarely get what you expect, and overall, this was still a pretty good show. The sound was excellent, and Young's somewhat unorthodox rendering of the classic "Cortez the Killer," which surprisingly didn't seem instantly recognizable to most of the crowd, was the true highlight of the performance. But, I don't think it's setting the bar too high, given that he's my favorite artist, to say I expect better than pretty good from Neil Young.

Let's hope it was just that I chose to pair the wrong beer with this style of music.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Ode to Ron Guidry (1978)

This is part 6 in the From Hank to Hideki series, chronicling the 40 most memorable sports moments of my lifetime.

Previous: The Boston Massacre (1978)

For a few weeks during sixth grade, my English class's focus was on poetry. Besides memorizing and reciting "Casey at the Bat" to a standing ovation from the class, I wrote an ode to my newest favorite baseball player.

If you'd asked me back then who my favorite Yankee was, I would have been hard pressed to decide between Thurman Munson, Willie Randolph, Graig Nettles and Ron Guidry. But, Guidry was the emerging star, and judging by the fact that I had a hand-made "Louisiana Lightning" t-shirt, I would say Gator got the nod. Oh yeah, and that's not to mention this poem:

Ode to Ron Guidry

I'm not sure what to make of the pseudonym I was using back then, but I assure you I wrote this poem on the morning of October 13, 1978. How do I know exactly what day it was? Well, that was the day that Guidry was to take the mound, for my beloved Yankees, in Game 3 of the World Series. With his team already in a 2-0 hole, I was one of a countless number of fans praying that he would do what he had done 15 times during the regular season: pitch the team to victory following a loss.

Yes, you read that right. Ron Guidry posted 15 wins following Yankees losses during the 1978 season, yet he lost out on the MVP award to a player whose team coughed up a 14-game lead in the span of 51 days. Throw in the fact that he was 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 248 strikeouts, and I'll need someone to convince me that there has ever been a starting pitcher more deserving of an MVP than Guidry was in '78.

I guess I should explain this Joe Cronin Award thing. When I learned that Guidry had been named co-winner of the award with Jim Rice of the Red Sox, I thought it brought a little more prestige than it turns out it does. Awarded for "distinguished achievement," I believe it was an American League-only award given out from 1973 to roughly 1993. But, that's all I know about it. There's a scarcity of information on the web, and although I did email the Baseball Hall of Fame Library, I'm not going to wait to hear back before I post this.

Guidry did beat the Dodgers that night, but it was another one of my favorite players who was the game's hero. Guidry pitched a complete game, and allowed only one run, but gave up eight hits and walked an additional seven batters. Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles' defense saved probably two runs in each of the 3rd and 5th innings, with several of his patented diving plays on hard-hit lined drives and ground balls. The Yankees won the game 5-1, the first of four consecutive victories that brought them their second consecutive World Series championship.

I was definitely spoiled by my baseball team's success, but this may have made the failures of the team I followed in my second favorite sport hurt even more. The torment of being a young Giants fan had yet to reach its pinnacle, but that moment was coming sooner rather than later.

Update (5/26/10): I received a very quick response from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. They sent me a press release from 1999, after Wade Boggs was named that year's recipient, which listed the past winners of the award. It appears the Joe Cronin Award for "significant achievement" hasn't been given out since.

Next: Miracle at the Meadowlands (1978)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Boston Massacre (1978)

This is part 5 in the From Hank to Hideki series, chronicling the 40 most memorable sports moments of my lifetime.

Previous: The Tear-Stained Quarter (1978)

On July 19, 1978, the Yankees trailed the Red Sox by 14 games for the AL East lead. It wasn't so much that the Yanks were having a horrible year—they were 48-42 (.533)—but the Sox were 62-28 (.689). Over the next month and a half, New York went 34-14 (.708), while Boston played .500 ball (24-24), setting up a September 7-10 four-game showdown at Fenway.

What happened next is what's commonly referred to as "The Boston Massacre." The Yankees beat the Red Sox 15-3, 13-2, 7-0 and 7-4 to pull into a tie for first place. What I've always found interesting is, when shows like ESPN Classic have used images to recount this series, they've commonly shown the manual scoreboard operator at Fenway posting the Yankees' 17th hit in the final game of the series. Despite the fact that they outhit the Red Sox 18-5 in that game, the final score didn't do justice to the Boston Massacre moniker.

The following weekend, the Yanks won the first two games of a three-game set to take a 3 1/2 game lead over the Sox. So, what a lot of people don't remember is it was the Red Sox who went 12-2 to overcome that deficit over the last two weeks of the season. The Yankees didn't exactly roll over and play dead, but 9-6 wasn't quite good enough.

I recall the final day of that season, playing Strat-O-Matic Football with my next door neighbor Brian and watching the Yankees lose 9-2 to Cleveland, while Luis Tiant was pitching a two-hit shutout over Toronto to force the most famous one-game playoff in baseball history.

The October 2, 1978 game began at 2:30 in the afternoon, and the Yankees trailed 1-0 when this particular 6th-grader returned home and immediately tuned in to the game. The Sox added another run in the 6th, and it wasn't looking good as my team trailed 2-0 going into the final three innings.

What happened next, of course, is history. In the top of the 7th, Chris Chambliss and Roy White added the Yanks' third and fourth hits of the game. But, their at bats were sandwiched between flyouts by Graig Nettles and Jim Spencer, the latter pinch-hitting for Brian Doyle, who was playing in place of the injured Willie Randolph.

Having used up their best longball threat off the bench, and not in a position to pinch hit for both of their middle infielders, Yankees manager Bob Lemon was forced to allow ninth-place hitter Bucky Dent to bat. Dent batted .243 with an anemic .603 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) that season. I'm not sure where the latter statistic ranked him league-wide, but in recent years, that number would have placed at or near the bottom of all regular position players.

I probably wasn't the only fan watching who wanted Lemon to figure out some way to give us a little more firepower at the plate than Dent. Then, when Bucky meekly fouled a pitch off his left instep, optimism wasn't riding high. According to legend, on-deck batter Mickey Rivers had the bat boy take Dent one of his bats after the one he was using was broken in the process.

One pitch later, I can still replay in my mind the understated call of Yankees broadcaster and future National League President Bill White: "Deep to left! Yastrzemski...will not get it, it's a home run!" It was as if even he didn't believe it until the ball had barely cleared the Green Monster. I know my reaction wasn't understated, as this is my earliest memory of the type of overly exuberant reaction that only a real sports fan can understand.

The Yankees added another run that inning, and one more in the 8th, to lead 5-2. Hall of Fame closer Goose Gossage was already on for a 2+ inning save. He gave up two runs in the process, but was able to get Carl Yastrzemski to pop out to Nettles at third to seal the victory, and complete the greatest regular season comeback in American League history.

Next: Ode to Ron Guidry (1978)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Band of Horses @ Newbury Comics

The record shop in-store appearance is a great concept, at least in theory. Sometimes, it's a great concept in practice as well, like when Paul Westerberg played the Virgin Megastore on Newbury Street and Massachusetts Avenue, back when he was supporting Stereo in 2002. That intimate acoustic affair, which lasted just over an hour and included a great selection of solo and Replacements material, as well as a couple of covers, set the bar high for in-store performances for me.

I certainly don't expect anything to ever match that show, so this afternoon's Band of Horses outing at the flagship location of Newbury Comics was far from a disappointment. After all, it's really a great idea to offer a chance for fans to witness a 30-40 minute set from a band in exchange for paying a bargain price of $7.99 for their CD. It's especially ingenious to offer such a deal when the band's indie rock following doesn't want, or can't afford, to pay to see them open for Pearl Jam on a tour that stops at Boston's TD Garden tomorrow night.

Their set consisted of four tracks from their new album, Infinite Arms, two from 2007's Cease to Begin, and a couple of well chosen covers: The Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait," which had younger fans scrambling to identify it; and Gram Parsons' "A Song for You," which apparently bored said younger fans enough to talk through it. The latter situation, of course, is something you'd better be prepared to endure if you plan to go to any show in this town.

Of course, the drawback to such shows is that record stores are not music venues, and it's not the acoustics that I'm complaining about here. It's just that 175 people crowding down two aisles separated by CD racks doesn't really allow for very many people to have a good view of the performers. Still, this show was worth the investment of a couple hours of time on a late Sunday afternoon, and this type of event is further evidence of how this regional independent record store chain is remaining vital while most of its counterparts have failed.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Tear-Stained Quarter (1978)

This is part 4 in the From Hank to Hideki series, chronicling the 40 most memorable sports moments of my lifetime.

Previous: Mr. October (1977)

I've previously written about my fascination with the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers, but the first team other than one of my own that captured my interest was the 1977 Denver Broncos. Not surprisingly, it was their "Orange Crush" defense that really caught my attention, which included five Pro Bowlers—defensive end Lyle Alzado, linebackers Randy Gradishar and Tom Jackson, and defensive backs Bill Thompson and Louis Wright.

For some reason, though, my favorite player was explosive punt returner Rick Upchurch, who led the league in 1976 with 4 TDs and 13.7 yards per return. His 1977 wasn't quite as spectacular, but he still led the NFL in return yards while averaging 12.8 yards a pop. Whether true or not, I always felt that Upchurch was overshadowed by Billy "White Shoes" Johnson. He certainly didn't have as great of a nickname. Incidentally, both players rank in the top ten all-time in punt return yards and touchdowns, while neither is in the top ten in number of punt returns.

The fact that I developed an interest in the Broncos in 1977 probably points more to my frustration with the Giants than to some early interest in Cinderella stories. I had become a fan while they were in the midst of an 18-year drought of not making the playoffs. They had gone 3-11 in 1976, didn't show many signs of impending improvement, and frankly, I was spoiled by the Yankees' recent success.

As had become a tradition in recent years, our family visited my Uncle Joe and Aunt Kay on New Year's Day of 1978. Uncle Joe and Aunt Kay weren't really my aunt and uncle, but they were like my dad's family, since he didn't really have much of a real family. His father had abandoned he and his mother when he was just a little boy, and his mother wasn't really up for the role of raising him on her own, so he ended up being passed around from family to family during his childhood. As a result, I had three grandmothers as a child, with the longest surviving being my dad's godmother, with whom he lived for six of his childhood years.

Uncle Joe was about 10 years older than my father, and he had taken him under his wing during his young adult years. Dad worked at Uncle Joe's service station and rented an apartment in Joe and Kay's house for some time. Needless to say, Joe was like the older brother that my father—who was an only child—never had, so the fact that my sister and I called him Uncle Joe was for much greater reason than that he didn't want to be referred to as Mister.

On New Year's Day 1978, the Broncos defeated the defending Super Bowl Champion Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship, while the Dallas Cowboys earned the trip to their fourth Super Bowl by dominating the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC title game. The year before, Uncle Joe and I had begun a practice of betting a quarter on the Super Bowl. Of course, he let me pick my team, and I did so based not on who I thought would win, but who I wanted to root for.

I chose correctly for Super Bowl XI, picking Oakland over Minnesota, but this year I was picking the overwhelming underdog. I had faith, however. After all, I was 10 years old.

As you probably know, Dallas defeated Denver rather handily, 27-10. But, I wasn't convinced that the superior team had won. So, when I mailed Uncle Joe the quarter I owed him, accompanying it was a note outlining all the "what-ifs" that, had they happened differently, would have resulted in a completely different outcome.

Uncle Joe sent the quarter back, with his own note explaining why he couldn't accept my "tear-stained quarter." I was upset, because I had lost the bet fair and square. I may have been making excuses for why my team had lost, but in no way was I trying to renege on the bet.

Uncle Joe died a few years ago. Sitting in the funeral home, waiting for my turn to pay my last respects, an idea popped into my head. I reached into my pocket and found not just any coin, but a 1977 quarter. That tear-stained quarter will spend eternity in the breast pocket of the suit Uncle Joe was laid to rest in.

Next: The Boston Massacre (1978)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mr. October (1977)

This is part 3 in the From Hank to Hideki series, chronicling the 40 most memorable sports moments of my lifetime.

Previous: The Revolutionary War (1977)

Reggie Jackson signed with the Yankees as a free agent in the off-season between 1976 and 1977. I'm sure I don't need to tell you about the controversy that followed him to New York, so I'll try to be brief.

Jackson had a huge ego. Was he even more of a lightning-rod for controversy than Alex Rodriguez? Maybe, but this was over 30 years ago, when these things were viewed a little differently. Reggie was also like Muhammed Ali, in that he was charismatic with his arrogance, so most people either loved him or hated him. Unfortunately, I don't think the same can be said for Rodriguez.

There was a time, however, that Jackson's teammates and his manager, Billy Martin, were in the camp that hated him, but this would all become a moot point following Game Six of the 1977 World Series. It's worth noting here, of course, that being hated by Martin was not a difficult feat to accomplish.

Reggie alienated his teammates by referring to himself as "the straw that stirs the drink," in an interview with a New York reporter. Whether or not this statement was surrounded by somewhat derogatory comments about Yankees captain Thurman Munson, or that it was completely taken out of context, were subject to debate. Regardless, in Game Six of the 1977 World Series, the man who had a candy bar named after him lived up to and exceeded all expectations.

Reggie bar image courtesy of JasonLiebig's photostream

Sarcastically nicknamed "Mr. October" by none other than Munson himself, Jackson entered Game Six already enjoying a fine series—6-for-17 (.353), 2 HR, 3 RBI and 6 runs scored—and the Yankees led the Dodgers three-games-to-two. But, on the night of October 18, 1977, he would legitimately earn the moniker that he is still known for today.

After walking and scoring on Chris Chambliss's 2nd inning home run, he would step to the plate in the bottom of the 4th with his team trailing 3-2. With Munson on first and nobody out, Jackson lined Dodgers starter Burt Hooton's first pitch into the right field seats to give the Yankees a 4-3 lead.

Reggie batted again in the 5th, this time facing Elias Sosa with Willie Randolph on base and the Yankees ahead 5-3. One pitch, one swing, one shot launched into deep right field. 7-3, Yanks.

Reggie completed the hat trick with a monster solo shot off of Charlie Hough, into the abyss of the black batter's background in center field, as the stadium throng chanted "Reg-gie, Reg-gie, Reg-gie!!!" and tossed his namesake candy bars on the field. Having homered on three consecutive pitches by three different pitchers, Reggie Jackson completed the greatest single game performance by a hitter in World Series history.

As I said in my previous post, I was only 10 years old at the time. As a result, I wasn't allowed to stay up late enough to witness this. So, I actually didn't see this game live, but I woke up the following morning to a handwritten note card which read, "Yankees 8, Dodgers 4. Reggie Jackson: 3 HR." It would be a thing of beauty if I still possessed this note that my dad left on my bedroom dresser, but I don't. Regardless, I can still picture it in my head, and it's still one of my most special early sports memories.

Next: The Tear-Stained Quarter (1978)

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Revolutionary War (1977)

This is part 2 in the From Hank to Hideki series, chronicling the 40 most memorable sports moments of my lifetime.

Previous: Hammerin' 715 (1974)

The Yankees and Royals met in the ALCS for three consecutive years from 1976-78. While I never heard this rivalry referred to as "The Revolutionary War," it would have been fitting. The origin of the term "Yankee" is in reference to a person native to the United States, and the only royalty that Yankees would be known to battle would be from England.

Of course, the analogy begins to fall apart when you consider the Royals didn't have control over the Yankees prior to those matchups. Also, while the Yankees won all three of those series in the '70s, the Royals enacted a bit of revenge by sweeping them in 1980. The two teams haven't met in the postseason since, although this is mainly due to the Royals lack of success. Since winning the World Series in 1985, they've gone 24 consecutive years without playing beyond game #162.

The three American League Championship Series played between New York and Kansas City during the latter half of the 1970s were all hard fought. 1976 and 1977 went the full five games and, although the Yankees won three-games-to-one in 1978, their final two victories were both one-run games in which they captured the lead for good in the 6th inning or later.

The moment from these three series that would have to be considered the most memorable by the majority of fans is Chris Chambliss's 1976 Game Five walk-off home run. After all, his solo blast did secure the Yankees' first World Series appearance in 12 years—the franchise's longest drought since their first ever World Series in 1921—and is featured on highlight reels that show Chambliss knocking over celebrating fans as he barrels his way around the bases to make it official. However, my most prominent memory was of the conclusion of the ALCS played one year later.

Whereas Game Five in 1976 was played at Yankee Stadium, to advance to a second consecutive World Series in 1977, the New Yorkers would have to win the deciding game in Kansas City. To do so, they would have to overcome a poor outing from Ron Guidry, and come from behind against a pitcher—Paul Splittorf—who had shut them down in Game One.

The Yankees trailed 2-0 after the 1st, 3-1 after the 3rd, and 3-2 going into the 9th. But, Dan Quisenberry wouldn't make his major league debut until two years later, and the Royals bullpen was without a bona fide closer. Apparently lacking complete confidence in a trio of relievers who finished 1977 with double-digit saves—Doug Bird, who had pitched part of the 8th inning; Mark Littell and Larry Gura—Royals manager Whitey Herzog handed the ball to Game Three starter and winner Dennis Leonard.

The Yankees clawed their way for three runs off Leonard, who was relieved by Gura and then Littell, on two singles, a walk, sacrifice fly and a George Brett error, to take a 5-3 lead. The Yanks did have a legitimate closer in Sparky Lyle, won won the Cy Young Award in 1977. Lyle retired Darrell Porter on a popup, but then gave up a single to Frank White. Next came the moment that is still etched in my brain.

Royals shortstop Freddie Patek was as pesky as they come, having batted .389 (7-for-18) in the '76 ALCS, and .412 (7-for-17) so far in this series. But, he would not further his reputation as a Yankee killer in this at bat, grounding into a series-ending double play.

I watched as television cameras zoomed in on a dejected Patek, sitting in the dugout with his head in his hands and an occasional tear streaming from his face. My thoughts turned from reveling in his failure to feeling somewhat sympathetic. At 10 years old, it was my first real experience with feeling the thrill of victory while empathizing with the agony of defeat.

Next: Mr. October (1977)

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Hammerin' 715 (1974)

This is part 1 in the From Hank to Hideki series, chronicling the 40 most memorable sports moments of my lifetime.

Most people who possess the long-standing love of baseball that I do—especially those who write about it—have fond and vivid memories of their first trip to a major league ballpark. It just so happens that I don't, which is not to say I have bad memories of my first game. It's just that I don't remember.

My father doesn't seem to recall either, but my best educated guess is that it was during the 1973 season, as evidenced by an artifact I dug out of my personal archives (see photo below). If it wasn't 1973, then my first game was at Shea, because the Yankees played their home games there during the 1974 and 1975 seasons, while Yankee Stadium was being renovated.

1973 Yankees Scorecard & Official Program
There are some things I do remember about those formative years, though. 1974 was the year that I became a legitimate baseball fan. That is, it was the season I became a fan of the Yankees. I know it was 1974 because that's the year baseball cards of players who'd been traded in the off-season had a thick yellow horizontal banner across the bottom of their picture with the word TRADED written across it. I remember this because I'd envisioned that my 1974 baseball card would say " the New York Yankees".

Of course, I'm not trying to say that becoming a Yankees fan is evidence of my conversion to a true baseball fan. However, prior to that I considered my favorite team to be the Pirates. Why? Because I was six years old and I wanted to be one. That's not exactly a legitimate reason to be a fan of a particular team, in my book, although one of my best friends in college was a guy from Long Island who was a fan of the New York Giants, New York Rangers, New York Knicks and Pittsburgh Pirates.

Why the Pirates? I think he said it was because he liked their uniform colors as a kid, but it could have been for the same reason as my own admission. Another theory is that he had a desire to be different, as evidenced by the fact that he was from Long Island and wasn’t a fan of the Islanders. Actually, I believe that most Long Islanders—especially at that point in time—were fans of the Mets and Jets as well, particularly because they played their games at Shea, and it was easier for them to get to Queens than the Bronx.

One more thing I remember from those days was April 8, 1974. My family was visiting my grandparents—my mother's parents—in Clearwater, Florida. It was our year to head down to Florida, as we alternated years with my mother's younger sister's family, visiting them every other Easter vacation. I believe this was our second-to-last trip down there. My grandmother died in August of 1976 and my grandfather subsequently moved back north to be closer to his son (my Uncle Carl), his three daughters (my mom and my Aunts Dolores and Louise), and his ten grandchildren.

We were watching the Braves-Dodgers game on television. Whether Florida was considered an extension of Braves' territory or it was a Monday Night Baseball broadcast, I don't know, because I'm pretty certain this was prior to TBS's superstation days. On opening day, just four days prior, Hank Aaron had belted home run number 714, tying Babe Ruth for the all-time record.

I was pretty much rooting against Aaron breaking the all-time home run mark. After all, I was a Yankees fan for the better part of a week, and didn't want anyone to overtake the immortal Babe. Actually, I had much more of a sense of who Babe Ruth was, and what his place was in baseball history, than you would expect from someone my age. This leads me to believe that I didn't just become a Yankees fan at the start of the 1974 season. More likely, the seed had already been sown during 1973, partly as a result of my first trip to Yankee Stadium, but also because I realized that rooting for the same team as my dad should far outweigh my desire be Captain Hook's sidekick.

In the fourth inning, Hammerin’ Hank drove an Al Downing offering into the bullpen in left-center field. I watched as Dodgers left-fielder Bill Buckner tried in vain to climb the wall in an attempt to keep the ball in the park. Then, a handful of fans poured onto the field, apparently to simply congratulate Aaron as he circled the bases, eventually to be greeted by his teammates—and some guy in a white trench coat and white pants—at home plate.

It’s a scene that I still recall vividly today, right down to picturing the layout of my grandparents’ living room as we watched the game. It’s a pretty special memory, and quite historically significant at that. I’d say I’m pretty lucky that it’s my first lasting baseball memory.

Next: The Revolutionary War (1977)

Saturday, May 08, 2010

From Hank to Hideki: 40 Years of Cheers, Tears and Beers

I've finally decided on the title for my Sports Fab 40 series, that is the 40 most important—to me—sports moments of my lifetime. The meaning of the title, if not already obvious, will become apparent over time, or at least with the first and last entries.

Of course, I need to give credit where it is due, so I'd like to thank Neil Young for inspiring the title, and Lee Mazzola for suggesting the sub-title. The latter is a little misleading, though, as my first sports memory doesn't quite go back 40 years, but since I've been alive for 40-plus, it basically fits the spirit of the series.

Once again, I'll explain that these are the 40 moments that are most important to me, and nothing else. Those that I witnessed in person, obviously, take on a little extra meaning, but ultimately the most important factors are how vividly I remember these moments and what they mean to me today.

I figured I'd better get started on this, over a year after introducing it, before any more memorable moments occur, thus potentially ruining the title. So, if this is the kind of thing that interests you, stay tuned.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Frequent Spins (2010.3)

Thanks mostly to the soon-to-be-defunct Lala, I've listened to well over 100 albums so far this year. But honestly, it's been pretty overwhelming. That is, after listening to a bunch of pretty good albums once, it's really hard to decide what's worthy of further listens, even though I feel like my taste is fairly mature and I generally don't have to listen to something over and over again—like I did when I was a kid—to know that I like it.

Still, I'm sure there are albums that I've dismissed prematurely. So, while I'm disappointed at the shutdown of Lala, I'm relieved in a way that I'll be forced to focus on a much smaller selection of albums that I can preview multiple times over periods of a week or more.

For this round of Frequent Spins, I'm linking to the albums on Rhapsody, where you get 25 free track previews per month, with the option to upgrade to unlimited online listening for $9.99 per month.

Black Prairie - Feast of the Hunter's Moon
I've already heard this one referred to a few times as The Decemberists' bluegrass album, although that's not entirely accurate. The band name is apt, though, as this is bluegrass that's kind of dark, not surprisingly considering three of the five members are from a band whose most radio-friendly hit from last year's The Hazards of Love was about filicide.

Drive-By Truckers - The Big To-Do
After the first few listens, I thought that I was kind of tiring of this band—the emphasis here is on "kind of." But, the more I listen, the more I realize that, despite the fact that both Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have the same voice recognition problem as Jay Farrar, this is not just the same old thing from these indie Southern rockers. Of course, there are a lot of the same familiarly great tales of working class suffering, but the songs rock harder, which makes some of the material feel a little darker—but, in a good way.

Jónsi - Go
The first solo album from the Sigur Rós frontman is just as symphonic as his main band's sound, but is a little less post-rock and a little more orchestral indie pop, a la Sufjan Stevens. Either way, it lives up to the expectations created by the Icelandic band's recent work and any comparison to the midwestern songsmith's ambitious output.

She & Him - Volume Two
It's not that I didn't like She & Him's Volume One, but it never really sucked me in. With the release of Volume Two, I made a more conscious effort to understand what the rage was all about, and it appears to have paid off. These wonderfully retro-sounding songs include "Gonna Get Along Without You Now" and the oddly titled "Over it Over Again." I'm not exactly sure whether they hearken back more to the '60s or the '70s, but I'm leaning towards the former.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Brush with Greatness II

When I wrote Brush with Greatness I in November of 2008, I didn't expect that it would be a year and a half before I would get around to the follow up. But, it took the somewhat recent incident involving comments made by Jerry Jones—while drunk at a bar—to remind me of something that was said to me by a famous person 17 years ago.

In case you missed it, Jones was caught on video by a reporter from a web site called making disparaging remarks about Bill Parcells and Tim Tebow. Some controversy ensued, including discussion about the ethics of the non-mainstream media, but it all died down pretty quickly and became a non-issue.

Anyway, I couldn't care less about anything Jerry Jones has to say, but it reminded me of my own experience from the spring of 1993.

I was living in Fort Myers, Florida—a phenomenon which lasted all of about a year—and was dining with a couple of co-workers. Future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, following his World Series heroics for the Toronto Blue Jays the prior fall, was a recent signee of the Minnesota Twins, who called the southwest Florida town their spring home.

At one point during the meal, I looked across the restaurant and noticed Winfield dining solo. Neither of my co-workers were big baseball fans, but at least one of them agreed that it was definitely him, not that I really needed that affirmation. Of course, I subsequently experienced some indecision regarding what to do. I'm not a big fan of making a huge deal out of such situations, and I also feel that I'm generally quite respectful of celebrities' privacy, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity.

But, before I continue the story of my chance encounter with Dave Winfield, let me give a little background regarding his history with the Yankees and what his career meant to me, as a fan.

Winfield came to the Yankees as one of their first big free agent signings of the '80s, following their ALCS sweep at the hands of the Royals in the first year of that decade. In 1981, his first season with the club, the Yankees reached the World Series and held a two-games-to-none lead over the Dodgers, only to subsequently lose four straight and the Series. Winfield was 1-for-22 in that Fall Classic, following a mediocre performance (9-for-33) in the two prior series during those playoffs, and would never reach the postseason with the Yankees again. For his uninspired performance in this one World Series, he would be dubbed "Mr. May," by none other than Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

I was always a Winfield defender, and to this day, I'm still a big fan of his. In today's statistics-oriented baseball climate, the experience of Alex Rodriguez could be considered evidence that judging a player by such a small sample of work, no matter how important those particular games may have been, is unfair.

Brian, my oldest friend, and fellow childhood Yankees fan, was in the opposite camp than I was. He was one of those fans who would never forgive Winnie for that 1981 postseason, and would continue to criticize him for years to come. Then, in the fall of 1992, in the twilight of his career, Winfield finally reached the World Series again, as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. This time he would come through, despite not enjoying a tremendous postseason, and deliver the game-winning hit in extra innings of the Jays' series-clinching victory.

Following his clutch performance, I would immediately pick up the phone and call Brian. This was prior to the days of caller ID, but Brian knew it was me. So, he had his father answer the phone, in an obvious attempt to set me up, figuring I would launch right into some profanity-laced "I told you so" tirade. Fortunately, I didn't.

The 1993 season would mark Steinbrenner's return to baseball following a two-plus year suspension for hiring a small-time gambler to dig up dirt on Winfield, action believed to be retribution for a lawsuit filed due to Steinbrenner's failure to pay $300,000 he owed the Winfield Foundation. This, of course, was the culmination of an ongoing feud between the boss and his former star player who never successfully replaced Reggie Jackson as Steinbrenner hoped he would.

When Winnie received his check and was getting ready to sign for it, I approached. He offered me some credit for my timing, inferring that it was a somewhat inconspicuous move to ask for an autograph when he already had a pen in hand for a more obvious purpose. In reality, I approached him at that moment simply because I knew it was my last chance.

When I explained to him that I was a fan from his days in New York, while acknowledging that he might not have the fondest memories of those times, he responded: "So, you're getting ready for the fat man to return." I laughed and said thank you as he returned the piece of paper to me that I had asked him to sign.

I remember thinking that he was lucky I wasn't some reporter trying to set him up. But, that was a different time, and sports stars and other celebrities had less reason to be paranoid that any person they spoke to might be someone ready to make a story of anything controversial they said. I'm also pretty certain Winfield was well aware of how harmless I was then, and still am now. In fact, I'm quite positive there will be no ill effect as a result of me quoting him on this 17 years later.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

American Craft Beer Fest

KJ and I have volunteered to work the American Craft Beer Fest, which will be held at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston on June 18 and 19. We're working the evening session on Saturday, the 19th. This is actually the first time I've signed up to do this sort of thing. Obviously, I've attended beer festivals, but have never actually worked one.

Of course, we get free admission to the session we work, so that's part of the motivation. But, mainly I'm looking forward to meeting some fellow craft beer enthusiasts and writing about my experience. The primary reason for this post, though, is that I wanted to share the introductory emails we sent about ourselves to the BeerAdvocate folks, who run the festival. In some sense, they contain mini-bios with respect to our introduction to the kinds of beer we enjoy.

First, here's mine:

My name is Charles Simone, and my wife KJ and I are interested in volunteering for the upcoming American Craft Beer Fest, and future Beer Advocate Fests as well.

I'm an avid home brewer and have been brewing for almost 20 years. I've been a craft beer drinker since discovering a brew pub called Brown and Moran's (currently Troy Pub and Brewery) in Troy, New York in the early '90s. Prior to that, brands such as Bass Ale and Sam Adams Lager helped me realize that I considered bitterness a positive quality in beer.

I write a blog called Left Field, about baseball, music and beer. My site includes a guide to the best beer bars in and around Boston: http://left-field. guide.html. I'd love to become involved in some way in the local craft beer scene, interact with local folks with similar interests, and possibly blog about my experiences. 

I'm also a big fan of BeerAdvocate, and consider your site and magazine to be the premier source of news and other information regarding good beer. Most importantly, I respect beer.

More importantly, though, I got a real kick out of what KJ wrote:

My name is KJ, and along with my husband Charles Simone, I am interested in volunteering at the upcoming American Craft Beer Fest.

Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, I became a fan of craft beers in my early twenties. As the number of local microbreweries in Portland is similar to the number of Dunkin' Donuts locations in Boston, just about every activity included stopping for a pint of beer. Upon moving to Boston in 2001, I quickly found out that finding good beer was difficult. I became frustrated with the tap choices that rarely seemed to move beyond Coors, Bud, Miller and Guinness. Even the local options of Sam Adams and Harpoon did little to satiate my hop cravings. So, ultimately, I gave it up for several years except for trips home to Portland. I used to haul three growlers of my favorites back from each visit (until the liquid ban).

Fast forward to 2008 when I met my dear husband, home brewer, craft beer enthusiast, and avid BeerAdvocate reader. He reintroduced me to good beer, hauling me all over New England to try out his favorites along with new options. I guess you could say we fell in love over hoppy beer. :)

I am excited to be back in the beer game and am interested in meeting others who share the sophisticated palate for discerning an excellent brew. And, I love to be involved; helping others is part of my nature.