Thursday, May 23, 2013

ERA+ Shows True Value of Pitchers

Thanks to my status as a contributor at High Heat Stats, I was lucky enough to get to write this short article for USA Today Sports Weekly, which also appears in the May 22-28 print issue.

Of course, like many baseball fans of a certain age, I subscribed to this publication for quite some time, especially when it was called USA Today Baseball Weekly from 1991-2002. Needless to say, I'm pretty pleased to see my byline in a magazine I've long been a fan of.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Tear-Stained Quarter

Since it's been over two weeks since my last post, I was looking for something I could re-post from several years ago. Originally, my intention was to find a post from a previous May 17, but in the process of looking for one, I came across this nostalgic story, which originally ran on May 13, 2010.

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 Upchurch was overshadowed by Billy "White Shoes" Johnson. He certainly didn't have as great 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 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 Big Blue 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 tradition, 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 basically my dad's family, since he didn't have much of a real family. His father had abandoned he and his mother when he was just a little boy, and my grandmother wasn't really up for the role of raising him on her own, so Dad ended up being passed around from family to family during his childhood. As a result, I had three grandmothers, 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 my father—who was an only child—never had, so the fact my sister and I called him Uncle Joe was for much greater reason than because 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 usually did so with my heart and not my head.

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 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, of course, 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 wager.

Uncle Joe died several 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.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Boston Beer Weekend

On Friday, in an effort to do my small part to support the city of Boston, I declared it Boston Beer Weekend. That is, I decided to only drink beers brewed in and around Boston for the entire weekend.

Of course, I was well aware I could make little difference on my own. At least not anymore. Those folks who organized the Last Half Mile Bar Crawl—while supporting Boston breweries was hardly their point—probably consumed more Sam Adams and Harpoon IPA in their first 15 minutes than the quantity of beer I put down the entire weekend.

But, it's the thought that counts. Right? I suppose it's possible (i.e. doubtful) others followed my lead, but that didn't matter to me. The point is I made an effort.

Of course, there are only three breweries within the actual city limits of Boston and two of them are Samuel Adams and Harpoon. So, I knew right from the start I was going to have to stretch my definition of what constitutes the Boston area a bit.

I kicked off my efforts on Friday with a 25-ounce bottle of Oasis IPA, from Everett's Night Shift Brewing. A Belgian IPA brewed with coriander and cardamom, as well as Cascade hops, it was the combination of coriander and Cascade that intrigued me. Although the spices really dominated this one, and there was minimal evidence of the glorious citrusy nature of my favorite type of hops, both KJ and I really enjoyed it. I gave it 4 stars (out of 5) on untappd, although I still think the idea has 4.5-5 star potential.

On Saturday night, I headed to the Red Sox-Astros game at Fenway with my pal DJ, whom I hadn't seen in about two years. Somewhat coincidentally, that was almost as long as the time since my last major league game.

DJ and I met up at Kenmore Square's Lower Depths prior to the game. I got started with a 14-ounce draft of Slumbrew's Rising Sun. Untappd characterizes it as a dampfbier, a Bavarian style I'll admit I've never heard of. Literally translated as "steam beer," the style is quite similar to the California common, to my knowledge the only indigenous American beer style in existence. The main difference between the two styles being the German version is brewed with ale yeast fermented at warm temperatures, while the American version—which would be called steam beer if Anchor Brewing Company hadn't trademarked their flagship brand, Anchor Steam years ago—is fermented with lager yeast at room temperature.

Rising Sun was solid (3.5 stars), although a little on the sweet (but not cloying) side, and my taste leans more towards better balanced brews. Still, I'd call it a fine alternative to wheats and Belgian whites as spring attempts to transition to summer. My next choice, however, was a bit disappointing.

On cask, they had Ipswich IPA dry hopped with Zythos. I've had plenty of Ipswich IPA and have always been a fan of the brewery, so the prospect of a slight variation, and on cask no less, intrigued me. What I got was nothing like what I expected. Up front, it tastes like hard liquor and there's very little evidence of hops in the after-taste. In hindsight, I probably should have asked if I was served the wrong beer, but it was the only one they had on cask and I saw my server pour it. I rated it 2.5 stars, but probably would've gone lower if it didn't grow on me a little by the bottom of the pint.

I stopped after those two, which means I didn't "take advantage" of any of Fenway's newish $9 craft offerings. Fenway probably has a better selection than Yankee Stadium—at least they don't have a stand called a "beer mixology destination"—but both are among the worst in all of MLB.

The game was interesting enough considering the Astros were involved. Here are a few highlights and observations from my perspective:
  • I recognized only four players in Houston's starting lineup: Jose Altuve, Brandon Laird, Chris Carter, Ronnie Cedeno. Both Carlos Pena and Rick Ankiel came off the bench to pinch hit, though.
  • I could swear Stephen Drew's walk-up song was the musical intro to Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road." Later I figured it was probably either a cover of the song or a total ripoff.
  • The Astros are so bad that, although they trailed by only a 5-2 margin in the 7th, I was convinced they had no chance of winning.
  • Daniel Bard made an 8th inning appearance, walking two batters on 9 or 10 pitches and was subsequently pulled.

Finally, during the game DJ asked for my top-five all-time Astros. I couldn't exactly rank them from memory, although the names I rattled off included the first four below, as well as Jose Cruz and Jim Wynn, and a requisite mention of Nolan Ryan and Joe Morgan:

  1. Jeff Bagwell
  2. Craig Biggio
  3. Roy Oswalt
  4. Cesar Cedeno
  5. Lance Berkman
Other suggestions I received when I shared this list on Twitter: Derek Bell and Ken Caminiti. I'm assuming those folks weren't serious.