Monday, June 28, 2010

2010 All-Star Ballot: National League

Voters aren't doing nearly as well at selecting the National League starters as they are in the American League. Normally, Yankees fans are those who might be accused of stuffing the ballot box—and Mark Teixeira's high level of support may be an indication of this—but this year, the evidence points squarely at Phillies fans.

I have one thing to say about Phillies fans. I was recently hanging out in a Fenway-area tavern with a friend from Philadelphia who was in town for an inter-league game with the Red Sox. I was kind of impressed that a rousing "Let's Go Phillies!" chant got going in the bar at one point. Then, I realized all of the Red Sox fans had already left to go to the baseball game, while most Phillies fans remained behind to watch the end of the USA-England World Cup game.

First Base: With apologies to Adrian Gonzalez, Joey Votto and all other National League first basemen, another player would have to be clearly outplaying Albert Pujols to earn my vote. Not surprisingly, Pujols has more than twice as many votes as any other candidate.

Second Base: This was a tough call, but I gave the edge to Martin Prado over Brandon Phillips, both of whom have made only two errors and are among the top performers offensively at the position. Philadelphia's Chase Utley, who is dominating the voting, would have been given the edge for the same reason I went with Jeter, Mauer and Pujols, if not for his nine errors.

Shortstop: Offensively, it's between Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki for the nod at short, but I voted for Tulowitzki based on the fact that he's a superior defender to Ramirez. Unfortunately, Tulowitzki is injured and won't be able to play in the game anyway, which is kind of a moot point, considering he's third in the voting behind Ramirez and the Phillies' Jimmy Rollins.

Third Base: David Wright is on a tear, and deserves to be in the discussion, but I went with Scott Rolen. Of course, Placido Polanco, bolstered by a high mark in one of the most over-rated stats in the game—batting average—and by the fact that he plays for the Phillies, is leading the balloting.

Catcher: Miguel Olivo is a few at bats short of qualifying for the league lead in the average categories, but he leads all NL catchers in RBI with 34, is second in home runs with 10, is batting .295, and has thrown out 54.5% of runners attempting to steal—also first in the league. No other NL catcher belongs in this discussion, yet he doesn't even rank in the top five in the voting.

Outfield: Can someone tell me why I had to vote for Corey Hart as a write-in candidate? It seems as though he's been a mainstay in the Brewers' lineup for several years, but somehow he was left off the ballot in favor of Carlos Gomez and Jim Edmonds. He leads the National League in home runs, is second in RBI, and has a .919 OPS, so that makes him one of the three best outfielders in the league to me. My other two picks are my center fielder Colby Rasmus, and Andre Ethier, with an honorable mention to the most deserving player on the Phillies, Jayson Werth.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

2010 All-Star Ballot: American League

A few days ago, I filled out my first All-Star ballot of the year. I usually get around to completing many more than just one, but each time I do so is a completely different exercise in reviewing the stats all over again (i.e. not stuffing the ballot box with the same names multiple times). With the deadline looming in less than a week, this may be my one-and-only, so I thought I'd let you know who you should be voting for, starting with the American League.

First Base: Miguel Cabrera's having a great year, and is the closest thing baseball has to a Triple Crown candidate, but he's committed nine errors, more than twice as many as any other AL first baseman except Daric Barton. Justin Morneau's offensive numbers are only slightly less impressive than Cabrera's, and he's a capable defender, so he gets my vote. It looks like the public sentiment agrees, although there are quite a few Yankee homers still pulling for the completely undeserving Mark Teixeira.

Second Base: This was, perhaps, the easiest pick of all. Robinson Cano is clearly the class of the league at his position, and it seems most All-Star voters agree with me, as Cano has been named on almost twice as many ballots as his nearest counterpart. Besides leading AL second basemen in runs, hits, HR, RBI, batting average, OBP and slugging percentage, he has only one error and, therefore, has to be considered a Gold Glove candidate.

Shortstop: Alex Gonzalez and Derek Jeter are the only real candidates. I suppose I could go with the guy who I believe has never played in an All-Star game, but in cases like this I usually give the nod to the established star. So, Jeter it is. Not surprisingly, the voters agree.

Third Base: Surprisingly, there's no real standout here. The top three at this position, in terms of OPS—Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria, Michael Young—are also the bottom three in fielding percentage. So, maybe Alex Rodriguez should have received my vote, because he's the only other third baseman with good offensive numbers and he's playing better defense than the aforementioned three. But, I went with Longoria—who leads in the voting by almost a million ballots—in part because of his 11 for 13 stolen base numbers.

Catcher: Victor Martinez actually has slightly better numbers than Joe Mauer, but his 19% caught stealing percentage is pretty much a joke, although better than his performance last year. John Buck's having a pretty good year too, but Mauer gets the benefit of the doubt for the same reason that Jeter did. The defending AL MVP, of course, is dominating the fan voting.

Designated Hitter: Comeback Player of the Year candidate Vladmir Guerrero and David Ortiz are the class of AL DHs, but Vlad over Big Papi is a pretty easy pick. The fans agree, as Ortiz is actually third in the voting behind Guerrero and Hideki Matsui.

Outfield: When I pick outfielders for my All-Star ballot, my philosophy is that one of them should be a center fielder. I wouldn't pick a third baseman to start at shortstop, so why would I choose a corner outfielder to play one of the four most important defensive positions? Fortunately, Alex Rios would be deserving even if I wasn't using that criterion. Rounding out my outfield are two more comeback candidates, Magglio Ordonez—who did hit .310 last year, but with only 9 home runs—and Josh Hamilton. This is the only position where the voters are way off. Hamilton's third in the voting, but Ichiro Suzuki and Carl Crawford are the top two. While neither of them are terrible picks, they're nowhere nearly as worthy as Rios and Ordonez.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Us and Them: American Craft Beer Fest 2010

After volunteering at last night's session of the American Craft Beer Fest, I was checking out the #ACBF Twitter feed, and what struck me was one Tweeter's comment about the us vs. them attitude among some of his fellow beer snobs.

Of course, his point was that those of us who are used to festivals such as this being a safe haven for beer geeks better get used to the fact that our love is moving towards the mainstream. It kind of reminds me of the catch-22 that goes with the territory of being a fan of independent music. You're excited for your favorite artists—or, in this case, your favorite brewers—when they start to gain some mainstream notoriety, but then you realize it means you'll no longer be able to stand up front at their shows—or, in this case, go straight to the front of the line.

Well, as volunteers at the ACBF, KJ and I were able to cut to the front of the beer lines, but we also had jobs to do, so we weren't all about getting drunk as many of the festival goers were. Which brings me back to my original point. I was surprised to see so many folks who considered this the type of event to pursue that goal. I mean, was it possible to really get your money's worth by approaching it as an all-you-can-drink for $40 party, waiting on 10-15 minute lines for 2-oz. samples?

Judging by how the crowd's demeanor changed considerably between 6 and 9pm, many were able to get pretty good value for their money. But, as far as I could tell, most were fairly well-behaved and there were only a few ejections—including two confirmed puking incidents—out of 4000+ participants. In fact, there was even one friendly woman—I think her name was June—who insisted on having her husband take a photo of the two us.

Me and June

I didn't get to sample as many brews as I would've hoped—that probably goes with the territory of actually working the event—but there were a couple that made an impression. First, here's the list of those I tried:

  • Dark Matter (Element Brewing Co.)
  • Sir Hop-A-Lot (Franklin's Restaurant, Brewery & General Store)
  • Seventh Seal (Haverhill Brewery)
  • Gestalt (Haverhill Brewery)
  • Mojo IPA (Boulder Beer Co.)
  • Bourbon Black (Allagash Brewing Co.)
  • 2XIPA (Southern Tier Brewing Co.)
  • Hopback Amber Ale (Troegs Brewing Co.)
  • Dale's Pale Ale (Oskar Blues Brewery)
Two of those—Dale’s and Mojo—I’ve had before, but both are old standards that filled a void when I just needed a quick, convenient pour that I knew I would like. My favorites among those new to me were Franklin's Sir Hop-A-Lot and Southern Tier's 2XIPA, both American Double IPAs, otherwise known as Imperial IPAs. Big surprise there, I realize.

The discovery of Franklin's, a virtually unknown—at least to me—brewpub in Hyattsville, Maryland, adds another stop to a potential ballparks-and-brewpubs trip that KJ and I are planning, probably for next summer. Since neither of us have been to Washington's Nationals Park nor Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, a trip there is already in the works, with possible other destinations being Baltimore's Camden Yards—KJ’s never been—and a first visit for both of us to New York's Citi Field. Two of our favorite microbreweries—Victory Brewing Company and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery—are also in that neck of the woods. After tasting Sir Hop-A-Lot, a stop-off at Franklin's is now a must.

We also went home with a nice little goody bag, which included quite a few beers that neither of us have ever had. If anything is truly memorable, you'll certainly be hearing about it right here.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Good Night, Captain (1979)

This is part 8 in the From Hank to Hideki series, chronicling the 40 most memorable sports moments of my lifetime.

Previous: Miracle at the Meadowlands (1978)

I returned home from school on the afternoon of August 2, 1979 and immediately did what I would do every weekday at that time. I headed down the street to hang out with my friends. At this time of year, that would usually involve a two-on-two game of baseball—or maybe I should call it tennis ball—in the street.

On this particular day, I showed up at the home of my friend Hector, who broke the news to me that Thurman Munson had just died in a plane crash. At first, I didn't believe him for a couple of reasons. First of all, he was not a Yankees fan, and secondly, this was the type of joke that was not beneath him to tell. I may have been considered an easy target as well, I'll admit.

I went inside his house to ask his mother and turn on the television. Both sources confirmed the devastating news. This was far from the saddest news I'd ever heard—both my grandmothers died when I was nine—but, as a 12-year old not wanting to cry in front of my friend, I struggled to hold back tears.

Just prior to the 1976 season, Munson was named the first captain of the Yankees since Lou Gehrig retired in 1939. As much as Derek Jeter currently embodies the qualities that make him stand out as one who is truly worthy of the honor, so did Munson. In fact, although a few of my favorite players—Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph, Ron Guidry—also held that role, in my opinion there are only four men in history worthy of the Yankee captaincy: Gehrig, Munson, Jeter and Don Mattingly.

In considering the previous statement, I asked my dad who would have been the most likely candidate to hold such a post between the Gehrig and Munson years. His feeling was that either Yogi Berra or Phil Rizzuto would have been the top choices, but neither seemed to possess quite the leadership ability as the aforementioned four.

Until Darryl Kile died of a coronary blockage during the 2002 season, Munson remained the last active player to lose his life during the regular season, so the moving tributes paid to him in the games that followed still stand as indelible memories to me.

On August 3, in the first game following his death, the Yankees starters took the field to begin the game. All of them, except catcher Jerry Narron, that is. Following a prayer, a moment of silence, and Robert Merrill's rendition of "America the Beautiful," the Yankee Stadium crowd burst into a ten-minute standing ovation. Narron remained in the dugout for the entire time, as television cameras focused on his teammates' reactions, and his empty position—or, should I say, the spot vacated by Munson—behind home plate.

Three days later, the entire team attended Munson's funeral in Canton, Ohio, then flew back to New York to play in that night's game. Bobby Murcer, after delivering a eulogy that afternoon, drove in all five runs—including a three-run homer and walk-off two-run single in the 9th—in a 5-4 Yankees victory.

Coming off back-to-back World Series victories, the Yankees' 1979 performance had come back down to earth even prior to Munson's death, although at 58-48 (.547), the season was hardly a lost cause. It may be coincidence that the team would have to wait until 1996—Jeter’s rookie season—to climb back atop the baseball world. But, then again, it might not be. Regardless, over 30 years later, Thurman is still deeply missed.

Next: The Miracle on Ice (1980)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Miracle at the Meadowlands (1978)

This is part 7 in the From Hank to Hideki series, chronicling the 40 most memorable sports moments of my lifetime.

Previous: Ode to Ron Guidry (1978)

Baseball was my first love, but among spectator sports, football definitely came next. I became a fan of the New York Football Giants in '75 or '76, but didn't start really following them until 1977, the rookie season of Joe Pisarcik. That would be his NFL rookie season, of course, because the 25-year old native of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania played in the Canadian Football League for three years prior to that.

As I've previously written about, I wasn't as spoiled by the early success of the Giants as I was the Yankees. In my first few years as a fan, I considered myself a bit of a die-hard, though, as I would watch every game to the end no matter what the outcome.

Pisarcik and Co. were 5-3 at the midway point of 1978, with two of their three losses to the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys. So, things were looking promising following a victory over the previously 6-1 Washington Redskins, until six consecutive losses nixed that. But, it was the fourth in that string of defeats that was the most painful.

I was watching in my parents' basement with Brian. Leading Philadelphia 17-6 going into the 4th quarter, it looked as though the Giants were going to end their brief skid, pull into a tie for third place in the NFC East with the Eagles at 6-6, and get their playoff hopes back on track. The Eagles managed a touchdown to pull within 17-12, but missed their second extra point of the game. Since a field goal wouldn't be enough to overcome the deficit, the Jints clearly were in control, possessing the ball inside of the two-minute warning, and only needing to execute a few plays to run out the clock.

After kneeling on the ball on second down, the Giants incredulously called a running play on third down. Where the breakdown in communication came from is still subject to dispute, but Pisarcik clearly wasn't ready for a quick snap from center and running back Larry Csonza didn't look prepared to take the handoff.

We watched in stunned disbelief as Pisarcik fumbled the attempted exchange, and Eagles cornerback Herman Edwards recovered the loose football and ran it in for the winning touchdown with 20 seconds left. I assumed the announcer would tell us that the play was coming back—that either the whistle had blown or there had been a penalty, or something. There had to be some reason that what I was witnessing wasn't really happening, but it wasn't just a bad dream, unfortunately.

I never referred to this game as "The Miracle at the Meadowlands" until I met a bunch of Eagles fans at college. The Wikipedia article on the subject says that Giants fans refer to it as "The Fumble."

There's another such distinction that I find quite interesting. I recently saw a book called Game Six at a Boston area store. The book is about Game Six of the 1975 World Series, in which Carlton Fisk wills his game-winning home run inside the left field foul pole to force a decisive 7th game. I'm pretty sure "Game Six" has an entirely different meaning to Mets fans, one Red Sox fans certainly want to forget. But, we'll get to that later.

Next: Good Night, Captain (1979)

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A Matter of Integrity

I wasn't going to bother giving my two cents on last week's baseball umpiring controversy, but since an old friend—a latecomer who's become a baseball fan in his 40s—asked me over the weekend, I thought I'd write something about it.

Even if you're not a fan, you probably heard that a missed call by umpire Jim Joyce cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game last Wednesday. In a post-game press conference, Joyce admitted that he had blown the call, he and Galarraga appear to be at peace with each other, and commissioner Bud Selig has vowed to look at expanded use of instant replay in Major League Baseball.

For the record, I'm in favor of the latter, but only if they use it to actually get calls right, unlike the one that referees blatantly failed to overturn late in Sunday night's NBA Finals Game 2. But, instant replay is not what this post is about.

It's about the high level of integrity displayed by Joyce for not making an out call based on the fact that the pitcher was one out from a perfect game. His job is not to take the circumstances into consideration. It’s to make a call based on what he sees—in this case, safe or out. He was wrong, and he admitted it. It was a bad call, and it’s unfortunate that it happened under such circumstances. But, he’s human, and the rest of us should be happy that our mistakes don’t get the exposure that his did. All those folks calling for him to call that runner out simply because he should give the pitcher the benefit of the doubt in that situation simply don't have the integrity that Joyce does.

Another perfect game was lost under somewhat similar circumstances in 1972. One strike away from immortality, Chicago Cubs pitcher Milt Pappas walked San Diego Padres pinch-hitter Larry Stahl on a 3-2 pitch. Home plate umpire Bruce Froemming called the pitch a ball, and Pappas agrees with him that it was outside, but still contends that Froemming should have given him the call, and unbelievably still blames the umpire for the fact that he's only credited with a no-hitter and not a perfect game.

Pappas, of course, doesn't own a fraction of the integrity that Froemming and Joyce do, and that became clearer in the days since Galarraga's near perfect gem, when he once again used the media exposure to complain about something that happened 38 years ago. At least, judging by his in-the-moment and post-game reactions, we can be pretty certain that Galarraga's not going to take this one to the grave like it appears Pappas will. That's probably because he simply has more integrity than his older counterpart.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Beyond the Lighted Stage

The first of two Boston area screenings of the Rush documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage opened with an appearance by Donna Halper, the Dorchester native and former Cleveland radio music director who is credited with discovering Rush by playing "Working Man" on her station back in 1974. The opener for Friday's upcoming second showing will be the local Rush tribute band Lotus Land, and while that piques my curiosity, I'm glad I opted for this particular night.

She briefly told her Rush discovery story, including offering credit that's not given in the film, to Bob Roper, the A&M Canada executive who sent her the record. She also lamented the fact that Rush is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a situation that I'm sure will eventually be rectified, although surprisingly they are getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The movie itself is interesting, informative, nostalgic and occasionally hilarious. Yes, I said hilarious, and in no way do I mean to make fun of the film by saying so. Particularly funny are some of the interviews with artists influenced by Rush, such as actor/musician Jack Black, Skid Row's Sebastian Bach, The Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, Rage Against the Machine's Tim Commerford and Foo Fighters' Taylor Hawkins.

Just a few of the film's notable moments:
  • Bach laughing about how, as a 12-year old, a rock album—Rush’s 2112—influenced him to dive into Ayn Rand and other literary greats.
  • Metallica's Kirk Hammett referring to Rush as "the high priests of conceptual metal."
  • The age old demographic discussion of the gender of Rush fans. Alex Lifeson says they're 100% male, but he's obviously wrong. Approximately 15-20% of Sunday night's crowd at Arlington's Regent Theatre are proud female fans.
Of course, there are many more highlights, but I recommend you find out for yourself. The most interesting point that I came away with was the parallel between the early career paths of Rush and the band that was the subject of I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, the last movie I saw at this little theatre. On the verge of being dropped by their record label, Rush decided they were going to go out with a bang on 2112, just as Wilco refused to give in to record label pressures when they released Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

For both bands, the album on which they refused to give in became their breakthrough, and the turning point in their careers. Wilco, of course, has a long way to go to reach the distinction that this film has bestowed on Rush, of being the world's biggest cult band.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The National @ House of Blues

The National frontman Matt Berninger is an entertaining performer, to say the least. Thursday night's show at Boston's House of Blues wasn't the first time I'd seen him live, but it was the first occasion that I noticed how endearingly spastic he is.

Spastic might not be the right word, as I once used it in reference to The Hold Steady lead singer Craig Finn, someone who really fits the description. But, Berninger's onstage antics definitely indicate some type of anxiety, whether clinical or not, particularly because he doesn't seem truly comfortable except when he's actually singing.

But, this is just an observation, as it didn't affect his performance and seemed to wear off as the night progressed. Of course, that was mainly due to the effects of the alcohol—wine or champagne, perhaps—that he was pouring into a cup from a bottle located in front of the drum kit. Witty banter definitely flowed more freely during the second half of the show, and Berninger didn't seem at all uncomfortable when he took his microphone into the crowd on more than one occasion.

Once again, none of this detracted from what was easily the best concert of my 2010 to date. The National are further establishing themselves, in my mind, as the best indie band to come out of Ohio since...oh, screw Guided by Voices (aka Blighted by Noises)...The National are the best band from Ohio, period.

As the opening act, The Antlers were much better than I expected, and definitely better than on record. I bought Hospice on eMusic last year, thinking it had serious potential after multiple sample track previews, but I just never got into it. I might have to give one more last chance.

Thursday's show was also the first time I sat in the House of Blues' stadium seating, and I couldn't have been more pleased. I don't think I've ever had a more comfortable seat for a concert in my life, and HOB's idea of stadium seating is comparable to that experienced in newer movie theaters. That is, each row sits considerably higher than the one below, so no matter how tall the person in front of you, you're pretty much assured of an unobstructed view.

Rounding out my reasons for being more than content with the night's entertainment was the fact that the seven band members beyond Berninger—two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, trumpet and trombone—displayed a high level of on-stage energy that seemingly wasn't aided by liquid courage. Their generous two-hour set of tunes—culled mostly from their latest, High Violet, and 2007's Boxer, with a few well-chosen older selections sprinkled in as well—left no doubt that, despite a reputation for writing sad-sack songs, this is a serious—and by that I mean seriously great—rock band.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Baseball the Yawkey Way

This past Sunday, I visited Fenway Park for the first time in two or three years. I honestly can't remember for sure if the last time I'd been there was 2007 or 2008. But, I know I didn't make it last season, as this past weekend was the first game I saw there with my beloved KJ.

Having lived in Boston for 13 years now, Fenway is second on the list of parks I've visited most frequently, trailing only the old Yankee Stadium. The only other major league park I've been to more than five times is Shea.

An exciting souvenir
Our friends from Idaho were in town, and they have a connection to one of the trainers from the visiting Kansas City Royals, so the highlight of the day was the autographed baseball their nine-year old daughter was given by Zack Greinke. A similar ball recently sold for over $60 on my former favorite non-Yankee Darin Erstad's eBay site, the proceeds of which are donated to the Child Abuse Prevention Center.

The Red Sox owners have been committed to maintaining Fenway, and have made quite a few significant improvements over the years, including adding seats above the famed Green Monster and creating an outdoor vendor-lined area on Yawkey Way similar to the Eutaw Street experience at Camden Yards. But, most of the seats are still as uncomfortable as they were when the park opened almost 100 years ago, and their idea of premium beer is an Irish Pub stand serving 12-oz. cups of Guinness, Smithwick's and Harp for $8.25.

One major improvement I noticed is in the bathroom facilities. I used the brand new urinals in the rest room behind home plate a few times—not because I drank a lot, but because I'm a man in his 40s—and I never had to wait in line. Plus, the area wasn't nearly as cramped as I remember from my past Fenway Park men's room experiences.

The game wasn't tremendously exciting, as is usually the case when a pitcher of Jon Lester's caliber faces one of the worst teams in the league, and the Red Sox won in what wasn't much of a contest. As a result, the crowd wasn't very intense, but our guests still got to experience the Boston sports mentality over the weekend, particularly on one occasion when a middle-aged man asked our friends' daughter what teams she rooted for in Idaho. She really didn't have an answer, although the Jacoby Ellsbury t-shirt that KJ gave her as a present last year seems to have converted her.

But, my point is, it's a foreign concept to folks in this area that people from elsewhere, especially those who live several hundred miles from the nearest professional sports team—minor leagues not withstanding—are not as rabid about sports as Beantowners are.