Friday, October 26, 2012

Streets of Baltimore

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canal Street Malt House
Canal Street Malt House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Who to Root for in the World Series?

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

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

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

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

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

Happy World Series everyone!

Friday, October 12, 2012

BBA Awards, Part 5: Stan Musial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBA Awards, Part 4: Walter Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

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

Thursday, October 11, 2012

BBA Awards, Part 3: Goose Gossage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBA Awards, Part 2: Willie Mays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

BBA Awards, Part 1: Connie Mack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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