Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Chet Laabs Moves to the South Shore

This past weekend, as furniture and boxes were being packed up and moved from the old place to the new, an item of sentimental value turned up, one that I didn't even know was missing. As we pulled a bookcase away from the wall, behind it we found my framed Chet Laabs baseball card. Why would someone frame the trading card of a mediocre outfielder who played in the first half of the 20th century, you ask? Well, it's a long story, but one I'm more than willing to tell.

When I was a kid, growing up in a small town about an hour and a half north of New York City, my next-door neighbor and best friend, Brian, found his father's old baseball glove in their garage. The signature on the relic was that of the aforementioned Laabs. When Brian asked his father about the player whose name was on his childhood baseball mitt, it turns out his dad knew nothing about him.

So, they asked my dad. "Chet Laabs...oh yeah, pretty good power-hitting outfielder. Played for the St. Louis Browns during the war years," was his assessment. Of course, our next-door neighbors were dumbfounded. Brian's father and his brother had actually shared this glove as kids, and the obscurity of the player they had never heard of had become a life-long running joke. From that day forward, Brian developed an unusual fascination with a player whose career was over almost two decades prior to this birth.

In today's internet age, this may never have happened. The kid in the story would have simply Googled Chet Laabs, and that probably would have been the end of a story that became legendary due to all of these factors coming together. Our era of connectivity would later contribute to this continuing saga, however.

Years later, when Brian was out of college and on his own, his parents moved to Texas. Unfortunately, the glove did not make it with them, nor did it remain behind with Brian. Somehow, it was lost in the process and gone forever as far as we were concerned.

Five or so years ago, I was struck by the urge to search for Chet Laabs memorabilia on eBay. When I found a bat inscribed with his name, I immediately contacted Brian, and we ended up purchasing the item for $50 as a surprise Christmas gift for his uncle.

I handled the eBay transaction, and the subsequent shipping of a bat that was described—probably overly optimistically—by its seller as possibly having been used by Laabs himself. To show his appreciation the following Christmas, Brian's uncle sent me the framed card, as shown in the photo here—not the greatest picture I realize, but my camera is "flash challenged," so it will have to do for now. Like I said, I didn't even realize the item was missing, although there probably were a few occasions when I wondered about it. Regardless, it was really nice to be able to bring Chet with us to our new South Shore home.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Frequent Spins (2010.6)

This one's a little overdue, as it's been almost three months since my last Frequent Spins. In fact, a few of these are no longer in heavy rotation, but they still deserve my recognition, despite the fact I've slacked off in this department of late.

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
This Montreal-based indie rock band's debut, Funeral, was all the rage, and I was ready to embrace them as the second coming of Neutral Milk Hotel...or something like that. Instead, I found the album to be a bit disappointing, but they've improved with subsequent releases, and The Suburbs, their third full-length is easily their best. It has been suggested to me that I give Funeral another chance, and after hearing the brilliance of their most recent work, it may be time to do just that.

- Tomorrow Morning
2010 appears to be the year of Mark Oliver Everett. His band has been around for a long time, dating back to 1996's alternative radio hit "Novocaine for the Soul," but this year Eels have finally appeared on my radar with not one, but two good albums. This one is much more positively themed, but nowhere near as good, in comparison to End Times, but it's been a frequent listen of mine nonetheless.

Alejandro Escovedo
- Street Songs of Love
Alejandro E. used to be a frequent inhabitant of my yearly top ten. Not anymore, but he continues to churn out good, if not great, albums, and Street Songs of Love is no exception.

Mark Olson
- Many Colored Kite
The former Jayhawks co-frontman's second proper solo album is another solid effort. Norwegian vocalist Ingunn Ringvold replaces Olson's ex-wife and former Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers sidekick, Victoria Williams, in more ways than one.

Pernice Brothers
- Goodbye, Killer
I don't buy nearly as many CDs as I used to—I mostly just purchase mp3s through my eMusic account—but I paid a few extra dollars to add this to my Joe Pernice compleatist collection. If you can imagine the Pernice Brothers covering the Scud Mountain Boys, this is kind of what this album sounds like to me. If you're a Pernice fan, that statement isn't much of a stretch. If not, you're probably scratching your head and wondering what the hell I'm talking about.

Ra Ra Riot
- The Orchard
Easily the best band I'm aware of to come out of Syracuse, New York—although that's not saying much—Ra Ra Riot showed up on my radar when lead singer Wes Miles collaborated with Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij on the side project Discovery last year. This album doesn't blow me away, but it's a nice little orchestral pop effort from a group that has the potential to get even better.

- The Five Ghosts
The second of three Canadian bands to appear in this edition of Frequent Spins, Stars consistently straddles that fine line between entirely too wussy and beautifully elegant indie pop. A great example of their penchant for over-dramatization that—for some reason—I can't get enough of, is the album's standout track, "I Died So I Could Haunt You."

Wolf Parade
- Expo 86
Expo 86 is the Wolf Parade album that really proves that, while I'm a huge Spencer Krug fan, I could really take or leave Dan Boeckner. This one is not quite as strong throughout as its predecessors, with the Krug-penned material standing out the most, of course, particularly "What Did My Lover Say? (It Always Had to Go This Way)," which may very well be my choice for song of the year.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Due Brunos

It's been almost a month since we returned from Italy, and I'm just now writing my final post about the trip. What can I say? It's been a busy time for me and KJ, as we finalize plans to move into our new home south of the Charles River. That latter detail is quite significant, as in my 13 years in the Boston area, I've always lived, and been partial to, north of the river. Of course, that had much to do with my Cambridge snobbery, which I abandoned over five years ago anyway.

OK, back to Italy. After picking up a rental car in Florence, we headed to Tuscany, where we stayed in a fantastic agriturismo called Torraccia di Chiusi, located just outside of San Gimignano. In case you're not familiar, an agriturismo is kind of like a bed & breakfast on a farm/vineyard. For five days we toured Tuscan hillside towns, then returned each night to a fantastic five-course meal—prepared by chef Bruno—usually accompanied by a bottle of their homemade house red wine.

View from our balcony at Torraccia di Chiusi

Yes, it's true that I drank my fair share of red wine during our Italian vacation. However, the discovery of Domus Birrae in Rome wasn't our only experience with craft beer on the trip. While exploring the nearby—to San Gimignano—town of Colle di Val D'elsa, I spotted a store window sign advertising homemade beer. What we found inside were several offerings brewed by Birrificio L'Olmaia in Montepulciano. I couldn't decide between their amber—LA 9 (Birra Ambrata)—and their dark—BK (Birra Scura)—so when KJ suggested we get both, how could I say no?

Birrificio L'Olmaia BK
I enjoyed L'Olmaia's LA 9 a little more than I did the BK, although the private terrace of our Venice hotel room (pictured to the right) provided quite the setting for my consumption of the latter. The former was a nice, pleasantly malty, somewhat yeasty tasting amber. The yeasty taste reminds me of a home brew, a charming quality in a beer, in my opinion. BK tastes a lot like a typical German dark beer to me, which raises the question: are these ales or lagers? There was no way of telling based on information on the labels, but checking their web site later, BK is described as top-fermented, which means it's an ale. My guess is that the LA 9 is an ale as well.

Other than the four Italian craft beers I stumbled upon, my alcohol consumption on the trip consisted mainly of red wine. I honestly don't think it's an exaggeration to say that wine was generally cheaper than water there. I did, however, get a taste of the two most widely distributed Italian beers as well. In fact, at one point I ordered a Peroni in a restaurant, and the waiter brought me a Moretti instead. It didn't matter, as when I drank a Peroni several days later, I was unable to make a decision as to which one is better. There's really no distinguishable difference, as far as I'm concerned.

Just before we headed to Italy, I wrote that I thought baseball was what Italy does best, in terms of my blog's three major subject areas. It turned out that our time there proved me wrong, as I underestimated the Italians' abilities in the realm of craft beer. Regarding the other two subjects, it was great running into a couple serious baseball fans in Florence, but we couldn't find any endearing qualities in the Italian music scene. In fact, our experience was mostly negative, as we were forced to repeatedly listen to the Lady Gaga atrocity "Alejandro," as well as to revisit other American songs that I would just assume never have to hear again, such as Aerosmith's "Pink" and Phil Collins's "Another Day in Paradise."

But, I digress. Upon returning to the states, we adopted a three-year old orange tabby from Mid-Hudson Animal Aid's Essie Dabrusin Cat Sanctuary in Beacon, New York, which we named after the wonderful chef at Torraccia di Chiusi.

Don't worry, I don't intend to turn this into a blog about my cat, but I thought I'd take this opportunity to introduce my readers to the newest member of our family, the adorable—if I do say so myself—Bruno.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Here We Go Again

For the third consecutive year, I'm writing about umpiring controversies in Major League Baseball's postseason. The playoffs are only two days old, and already there have been four calls that are being talked about, and instant replay is—once again—a hot topic.

Unfortunately, two of the four calls being discussed cannot be addressed by the expanded use of instant replay. Those calls, of course, involved the non-strike call on Lance Berkman in game two of the Yankees-Twins series and the check swing call on Michael Young in game two of the Rangers-Rays series. Now, I suppose a check swing ruling could be reviewed, but I'm going to assume this falls into the category of ball-strike calls and—rightfully so—will not be considered reviewable.

So, let's focus on the two plays that potentially could have been reversed by the use of instant replay. Those plays are the Greg Golson catch/no-catch in game one of the Yankees-Twins series, and the stolen base attempt by Buster Posey in game one of the Braves-Giants series. The former had no impact on the game's outcome, while the latter controversial call led to the only run scored in a 1-0 Giants victory, although Tim Lincecum's masterful two-hit, one-walk, 14-strikeout performance probably played a part as well.

Both plays involved situations in which the calls could have been overturned seamlessly. In the case of the no-catch ruling on the Golson play, changing the on-field ruling would have resulted in the final out of the game, so there's no problem there. In the case of the steal attempt by Posey, since he was the only runner on base at the time, ruling him out rather than safe would have had no impact on any other action.

What I'm working up to here is that not all situations are going to be as easy. There are going to be instances when overturning the ruling on the field would be much more complicated, possibly to the point of not allowing the play to be reviewable.

The best way to illustrate this is with an example. Suppose there are runners at second and third, with one out, and a sinking line drive is hit in the direction of the second baseman. The umpire rules a catch as the second baseman gloves the ball, then fires to second in an attempt to double off the runner, but the throw is wild and deflects off the shortstop's glove into left-center field. Both runners score on the play, leaving the bases empty, two outs and two runs in.

The play is reviewed and the on-field call is overturned, as replays show the second baseman actually trapped the ball. What happens next? He never would have thrown to second had the initial ruling been that he had not caught the ball in the air, so you can't allow both runners to score. But, you also can't assume that he would have thrown the runner out at first, especially considering he threw wild to second. So, there's really nothing that can be done, in this case, to correct the umpire's mistake.

This is just one example, and plays like the one I've described here might not be all that common. But, this points to the fact that some calls are not going to be reversible. Given that it's important to be able to define such situations, this also underscores that such definitions aren't always that easy. This is a catch/no-catch call just as the previous Golson example is, but one that is much more complicated.

So, while I'm in favor of the expanded use of instant replay—not just for the postseason, but during the regular season as well—it's just not as easy as many would have you believe. Far be it from me to be a Bud Selig defender, but I feel this is why Major League Baseball has been slow to continue progress in this area.

I also believe, however, that they'll figure it out. I'll continue to be working on my solution. Who knows? Maybe I'll come up with a proposal that is worthy of being sent to the commissioner's office.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Cervelli and Denorfia: Entirely Different Septembers

Just prior to leaving for Italy on September 2, I wrote my "Where Are They Now?" posts about Italian WBC players Chris Denorfia and Francisco Cervelli, giving both of them some props for their contributions to their respective playoff-contending teams this year. Well, if you believe in superstition, then I gave good luck to one while completely jinxing the other, as they experienced entirely different individual and team results from that point until the end of the season.

Denorfia went 8-for-45 (.178) in September, walking three times for a .245 OBP, with just one RBI and two runs, in 20 games. He tried to make up for it by going 5-for-11 in three October games, but overall his performance from September 2 on (.232 BA, 3 BB, 7 SO, 1 RBI, 3 R, 2 SB) did not help his team in their quest to make the playoffs. As you may recall, at the time I wrote my post about Denorfia, the Padres had the best record in the National League. After that, they lost 16 of 30, and ended up losing the NL West by two games to the Giants, and the wild card by one to the Braves.

Cervelli, on the other hand, shrugged off the slump I wrote about in my post and went 13-for-31 (.419), with 6 RBI, 8 runs, 12 walks and a .578 OBP, in 15 games after September 2. The Yankees' performance (12-16) didn't exactly mirror his, but they won enough games to qualify for the postseason.